I thought I’d seen so much Until I saw it all Used my youth as a crutch So my ignorance would not fall I never knew I never knew I never knew the world In its endless, infinite sprawl. Or So I thought... I knew everything, deep down Memories receded I’d seen life and love and truth In little moments, long retreated I never knew the dawn I never knew the night I never knew the happiness Of watching stars fade into sunlight But Now I Know… Swimming beneath the velvety black Dusk gives way to day Glimmering, burning, glistening jewels Fade in the sun’s first ray I never knew the dark I never knew the light I never knew the sunrise Until it made my follies die away And I Could See… Years are not what all men need To triumph in wisdom and relish in life For I am so young, and still I’ve seen my share of victory and strife I collected little moments I cached them in my thoughts I knew all that I needed to know An epiphany cut through me like a knife: Daybreak Dawn Twilight Night… All joy and wisdom and meaning comes from These shared experiences Of the human life
Thank you to Jennifer Brutyn for commenting on my last post! (: This is part 2 of the Elementals finale. Find the rest in the archives!
🌧️ Talia Thorn
“No, no, you don’t understand, I think she can…” I trailed off, eyes tightening at the corners, my old distress over interacting with strangers creeping in. There in front of me was a smart, assertive woman with degrees in so many areas of medicine that it made my head spin just thinking about all the years of college it took. And I was…what?
A shy girl with rain powers? A frail little London teen who could make some thunder rumble if she tried hard enough? A pathetic human sprinkler?
The IV was hooked up. Nurses began to scramble for A-negative, and I just stood there, stomach rumbling and roiling at the presence of needles and blood. I had to stop it before I risked damaging Selene’s power with human fluids. But how?
What did I have to say about her?
That she could heal herself if they got her off these pain killers?
That she didn’t need any human blood?
That it might take away the potency of her powers if she received normal fluids?
I slumped into a rigid seat, holding my head in my hands. What was there to say? The doctors insisted that Selene was rapidly losing blood; I couldn’t use my powers to heal her; Daria was somewhere in a different wing of the hospital. Zara was dead. I had seen her body myself, crumpled in the street, with an aura of absence emanating from her so unlike Daria’s that I didn’t need to feed myself false hope.
I felt a hand fall on my shoulder. I looked up, expecting the doctor or the matronly nurse with the full, dimpled cheeks. No. The eyes that met mine were a strange, otherworldly gold.
Jolting out of my seat, I wrapped my arms around Daria, the friend I’d barely known or talked to at all. I hadn’t been on the ship with her and Kenna and Selene. She’d been shot before I could talk to her on the rescue boat. We’d been fleeing from the mercenaries on land, she’d been presumed dead in the alley, and yet, her inviting embrace felt like heaven: a warm hug from a long-lost friend.
“Did they clear you?” I asked, stepping back. The wounds in her gut and her back seemed to have disappeared into thin air, the tattered swimsuit traded out for a fresh white hospital gown. Kenna stepped forward and gave me a hug too, answering for Daria,
“Yes, they cleared her. I had to do a little bit of persuading for that–you know, it isn’t everyday that a girl with suspiciously-healed mortal wounds gets let off easy.”
I laughed, taking them both in at arm’s length, for a moment wondering how in the world my life had come to this. Not so long ago was I back at my London estate, avoiding my father at all costs, toying with my mother’s earrings before school.
Now I had a strange set of friends: two of which were mortally wounded by arrows, one who had burned alive a school shooter, and one more–Zara. I couldn’t think about her too much, not then, not for a long time after.
“We have a plan, Talia. We know what needs to be done to stop all this.” Daria gestured vaguely to the world with a sweeping arc of her hands. Kenna nodded, gripping my hands in hers so tight I could feel the heat burning along her palms, scratching at her skin to be released. I was glad my power was more docile.
“What is it? What’s the plan?” I glanced at Selene, prone on the bed, deep in sleep. “I’ll do anything.”
Anything at all, I thought, staring at Kenna’s constantly shifting eyes and Daria’s calm, centered ones. These were my friends now. I would never cease to fight for them, I knew, and I was alright with that.
“Zara granted us one final gift,” Kenna said.
“We know where the gods and goddesses will congregate in their Earth-dwelling forms. Artemis and all the others. We can take them down with our combined powers.
“We need to find the crypt of Inara Nightlock. And we need to find it before midnight. It’s the only shot we have.” I nodded, sorting through the information silently, pushing away all the unanswerable questions cropping up in my head. Finally, lifting my chin, I responded.
“Let’s do it. Let’s set this world right.”
Part 3 of the finale is coming soon!
This is a continuation of the “Elementals” series. Comment which power you would like to have below for a shout-out in the next post!
“Her color is too pale. She needs a blood transfusion immediately.”
Color, I thought, I remember color. My lips curled into a droopy smile. The sedatives were acting fast, rolling me gently into sleep, sliding me deeper and deeper into the calm, dark sea. The sea, the gentle sea, the sea that reminded me of Daria, who reminded me of gold, then of yellow by comparison.
Yellow. The dopey smile dripped off my face. I’d never liked yellow like others. Never liked how it felt, so…fake. Like it was trying too hard to be cheery. An artificiality, a toxic positivity that growled at you “everything is alright,” when everything was far from it. Yellow was sickness, negative thoughts masked by a bright facade.
Toxic, jaundiced, and yet, a memory drifted to me then, a very mixed memory of my time as a human. A memory that I wasn’t sure was even real or a figment of my drowsy imagination.
“No, please, we can wait, just give her five more minutes!” A frantic voice. What were they doing there in my memory? I let the echoes drift into the oblivion, settling deeper into the recollection, welcoming the fragments of speech as they lazily wheedled their way into my mind.
A school day. My lashes grazed my cheeks again, ever so gently, feeling so downy and soft as clouds, so soft that I let my eyes rest with them. The white, beeping world was gone, giving way to the replaying of a moment in my mind. A moment the world would not long remember; a single flicker in any other person’s life, and yet, a precious instance all the same, one I would find pivotal to my life even lying there in that blank place.
That place–wherever or whenever that was, that place. Somewhere with a bed. And a blanket. And white walls. And Talia, and Kenna, and Daria, all my friends, and a nice lady with sky-blue uniform and soft brown eyes.
Yes, I would let myself rest my eyes, let my feathery lashes trail kisses on my cheeks. So I did. I rested there, then–whenever and wherever that was–and remembered an instance about color.
A school day, in autumn, when the Ohio breeze swirled and eddied and the leaves patterned a carpet on the earth, dancing in a breeze I could see but not feel. Inside, the cool wind could not tickle my nose, could only gust outside the window as I wistfully watched.
English class. My favorite class. I was Mira Casse, a student, a relatively normal girl with strange features and an even stranger set of parents. Parents no one mentioned, or was quiet about if they did. An unspoken agreement: the Casse family was not to be discussed; there was something wrong about them and their ‘daughter.’
“Okay, for this assignment, we are taking a break from our text analysis for a while,” the teacher announced, eyes wandering to the window, just like mine. I had the thought that she and I were very similar. We were both far away in our minds, both in a place beyond here, somewhere in that wide open expanse of sky and field and forest.
A few students exchanged satisfied looks. Others outright cheered, chucking their books below their desks and tittering excitedly with their friends. Wide eyed, pleased to move on from endless compare and contrast, baby birds preening and squawking for a chance to leap from the nest.
The elation faded into a softer buzz as the teacher explained we were doing some free association and connotation work with colors. She would call on a few people with the first things that come to her mind when they named the color: emotions, objects, abstract ideas like freedom and wealth.
“Blue.” The room shot up with hands, arms waving and protruding like blades of grass shooting from the dirt. Sky. Ocean. Water. Calm. Peaceful. Sad. Happy. And the responses bubbled, and tumbled, and crashed in with superficialities. The typical answers.
The entirely unsatisfying answers that everyone else seemed to accept as their own personal truth–as though thinking that blue meant happiness was a personality trait. Something that made them special.
I returned my gaze to the window, thinking, wondering what blue really meant. Yearning, I decided. It was yearning, a soft yonder blue in the distance, painting the sky with hope. The promise of something greater beyond the horizon.
As I thought this, a girl poked her fingers up and said, matter-of-fact,
“Blue is bubbles!”
I sunk lower into my seat, frowning.
“Green.” Earth, eco-friendly, gentle, leaves, nature, envy, and I sunk even lower, frown deepening. Analyzing the yellowing grass beyond the glass, a great discomfort gripped my stomach as I felt something new grappling inside my body, twisting me all up inside, yanking at my core and tearing my being.
Because I knew what green meant.
Green was wistfulness, nostalgia, a warm, inviting tug that leads you to the meadow or the pasture or the forest. A reminder of a simpler time, an instinctual time when your heart knew the way through the winding path of life and guided you onward without hesitation. Purity. Instinct. Life. Nostalgia.
Yellow was even worse–happiness, sun, beach, I tightened my fists–red about the same, purple made my eyes squeeze shut and when it came to brown I finally raised my hand. Maybe I couldn’t explain the other colors, but I could explain brown, black, deep, dark shades. They seemed to me to be the most simple: pure and natural as tilled earth underfoot.
“Yes, Mira?” The teacher called. I drew in a deep breath, rethinking if I should answer at all, when I finally decided I had to. No one else could do this shade justice; no one in the school or the class or the world.
“Brown is humanity. Brown is the rich, dark earth that coddled our crops, the pools of honey that gifted us sweetness, the decadent truffles we extracted from our simple ingredients and harnessed into a unique experience of texture and flavor.
Brown was when Prometheus granted us fire and lit the sepia kindling with flame, brown was when we smeared umber mud across our brows to protect us from mosquitos, brown were the feathers and fur of our game, brown was the mahogany that we built into thrones and homes and settlements. Brown is the reason we survived and the ways we thrived. It isn’t just a color. Not to me.”
The room was silent. Every set of eyes was staring at me in awe or disgust or confusion. But the teacher removed her gaze from the world outside the window and beamed at me, eyes sparkling with approval that loosened the knot in my core.
“Brown is humanity,” she echoed. And with the kindness of her voice brimming over into the silent room, I recognized the twisting that had yanked my gut into knots. It was difference. Difference from the rest of my class, my grade, all of humanity.
I realized, for the first time in my life, that perhaps I was not a normal school girl, couldn’t be a normal school girl. I was something more. And my gut knew it, my brain knew it, my heart knew it. I was something more. Something…other.
“We have to start the supplementation immediately, ma’am, we can’t wait any longer!” I startled from my memory, the fragments falling away but the tone of the reflection remaining. A mixed tone. Prideful. Bitter. Uncomfortable. Freeing. Overwhelming, and I…supplementation? Curiosity stirred within me, a feeling I wasn’t sure I could act upon. I was so, so tired, bone-tired, Atlas-with-the-sky-on-his-shoulders tired.
“Please, she can heal herself, just don’t give her any blood! It might hurt her!” Talia. I knew that voice. I had to come back, had to know what they were doing to me. A dull ache re-formed in my chest and I remembered the arrow, where I had ripped it from my skin. What were they trying to do to me? What was happening?
I tried to force my eyes open, but they were weighed down like a branch bending under snowfall. A prickle in my forearm–an IV. What was Talia fighting? What were the doctors trying…
“I can assure you, this will not hurt her…”
The weight of sleep washed over me like a tidal wave, and I struggled for a moment, hearing Talia groan with exasperation. For a moment, I hung, suspended between the waking world and the unconscious one.
Sleep overcame me at once and I drifted away into the deep, dark sea.
Part 2 of the Elementals series finale is coming soon!
What is the meaning of life? I don’t know. Maybe happiness Love Success Charity Giving and taking Making something new Watching ideas grow Take shape Transcend space and time and your own life... I don’t know: I’m much too young, aren’t I? Why are we here? I don’t know. Maybe for a purpose Because life Evolved us into being A higher power A special role A calling A perfect passion designed for us Another worker bee in a Grand colony Just to be and live and exist.... I don’t know: I’m much too inexperienced, aren’t I? Who are you to give advice? I don’t know. Maybe just a girl Behind a computer Typing the thoughts in her brain Building worlds and characters into existence Right there On a little webpage With a blinking cursor Scrambling for inspiration Wracking my brain Make haste and write and build… I don’t know: I’m much too inarticulate, aren’t I? What do these questions have in common? I don’t know. Maybe they’re special Because everyone In the whole wide world Has a different answer to each A passion A calling A reason to be, Live and work and breathe… I don’t know: I’m much too young for this, aren’t I? What is the meaning of life? Maybe mine is To be happy To be a writer To make haste To create To love and to hate To exist in this cacophony and wait and simply be… I think so. Why are we here? Maybe I am here To be an archaeologist A microbiologist An author A soldier A researcher Historian Zoologist Astronomer To find my passion and explore the world and be fearless… I think so. Who am I to give advice? … I do know: I am just a girl. A speck in the infinite river of time One bright star in a never-ending sky An author A poet A musician I give my two cents on life and live and laugh, because... I do know something. I know myself. I’m a girl A speck A star in a beautiful, gem-studded sky I’m unique and wonderful and meant for great things... I know so.
You sit with your head in your hands, staring down at your phone screen. Mortified. Did you really post that? Stupid, stupid, stupid: a post ranting about a new policy in your town, littered with swears. No–that’s not me, I wouldn’t. You think, but as you stare at the responses piling on top of each other and the dislikes rolling in, you know that you did.
You did this. But you aren’t entirely sure if you knew any better. There was no conscious thought to type it, really, just fragments of motion. Clicking the remote to the news channel. Rising anger, outrage about this new code that barely affected you. Fingers flying through your phone lock screen, to the nearest social media app, slamming down the keys. And just like that, your future was in jeopardy.
An apology post did nothing, you were sure, similarly, deleting the post did nothing. It had been screenshotted. Reacted to. Ejected out into the deep, infinite web of sharing and people and private information. You gaped at the sheer number of people responding to the post, clenching your fists in frustration, anger, self-pity.
What was done was done. But honestly, truly: did you know any better?
The honest answer? Probably not. Nowadays, there is an entirely new threat to your future and the future of all your peers. And it comes in the form of the internet.
A seemingly perfect superhighway of information and opinions and change, a resource and a danger, a temptation that has taken over much of society. With all this power–to speak your mind at any time, on any platform, in front of millions of people–how can you protect yourself from leaving a negative digital trace?
It’s not something you probably learned in school. Not something that can be very easily answered from an adult to a child or even in an article: it’s so subjective.
But there are some common things you need to know to keep yourself and your digital footprint clean and positive when it comes to online posting.
#1– Realize that NOTHING you send or post on your phone is private
When I mean nothing…I mean nothing nothing. Even on a private chat, photos and words and videos that you send can be screenshotted, shared, and sent to other people. All your data is logged and recorded, sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect and shared with people way beyond who you would imagine.
This means all your:
- Social media posts.
- Pins on Pinterest.
- Texts and sent photos.
- Youtube or other videos.
- Reviews of books, products, movies.
And so much more, all of which can be distributed around the entire web in mere seconds, not just to your circle of friends. Embarrassment will likely be the least of your problems if an inappropriate, racist, sexist, discriminatory, private or otherwise piece of content is sent (or even just sitting on your phone!) Content like this might be seen by:
- College admissions professionals.
- Future employers.
- Government or law officials.
- Dangerous individuals.
- “Haters” or rivals.
#2– Negative or controversial content can ruin your dreams.
Believe it or not, many college admissions and future employers will look you up. If they don’t like what they see on your accounts, you will probably get turned down from a future opportunity or booted out of a position you already have.
Even an offhand post of a private chat can get leaked. For example, if you had a bad work day and you text your friend,
You could get fired!
But wait. Hold up! Isn’t this friend trustworthy? Did you even mean what you sent? Maybe not, but either way, this could get you fired in a heartbeat. If your employer/college admissions official recognizes that your message–whatever form it may take–doesn’t align with their brand, it can douse a chance for you to follow your dreams.
#3– You are most likely posting/sending this reactively.
Not all negative posts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other platform had malice intentions. Think about it: have you ever sent a text or an email to someone before you even processed their message?
Many times when we are angry, jealous, sad, or emotional, these feelings can blind our judgement and cause us to respond reactively (without thinking).
If possible, step back for a moment and think about what you are about to send/post. If that’s not working for you, try moving the apps or programs that you communicate on to a new place on your phone screen or stash it in a junk folder. When you don’t have that knee-jerk physical response to click the app where it has always been, it lets you think about your action before you do something you’ll regret.
#4– Exporting some content can put you in physical danger.
Especially now, with the internet flourishing and apps becoming increasingly open for everyone to communicate, there are dangerous people on the internet. You might not think that sharing where you live or even the general area can put you in any real danger. Not true.
Online, anonymous users or people that use fake profiles could be:
- Sex offenders.
- Con Artists.
So be selective with what you share on the web. Most of all, use common sense!
How can I protect myself and make a positive presence online?
Being safe on the internet is very subjective, and there are billions of possible scenarios and things that you can say, do, and share. But from an objective view, it is smart to follow these general rules:
- Threats of any kind.
- Harsh, non-constructive reactions to others
- Cyber-bullying material.
- Things said to you in confidence (unless the content is important, which then should be sent to local authorities or helplines).
- Sexual content.
- Overly political opinions that are unprofessional or hurtful.
- Discriminatory stereotypes, cultural remarks, or comments.
- Content undermining a religion or group of people.
It might help to use certain privacy measures on social media or other apps to protect content you want to keep to yourself. Here are some ways you can do this. Use at your own risk and with the knowledge that these tactics aren’t 100% foolproof. ⬇
Use privacy settings…
- Make a board secret on Pinterest– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Y3hMoipNJc&feature=youtu.be
- Search with Private Browsing Mode (use wisely, please!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL8-gM0R4KU
- Hide some of your photos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOc9XpBjP00
- Use Facebook Privacy settings– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOhuDwCZQ2k&feature=youtu.be
Trying to stay safe, but still want to be friendly to online strangers? Not sure what information to filter out? These are the basics not to share on any unsecure network or with anyone who you don’t know and trust. ⬇
Be safe and don’t share…
- Your age.
- Your gender.
- Your address information.
- Email, phone number, or means of contact.
- Sexual content.
- Any personal details that might be used against you.
The Golden Rule
Above all else, there is one blanket statement that applies all the knowledge stated:
“Don’t post or send anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to see!”
If you wouldn’t be comfortable showing your mother, father, sister/brother, displaying it on a slideshow at work or a family gathering, or reading it aloud in front of the whole world, don’t post it.
I hope all of this information will help my readers and perhaps give them advice they’ve never heard before about using the internet. Even though my parents always stressed online safety, eight year old me didn’t think much of sharing my name and age on just about every Minecraft server in existence; something as innocent as that information can open doors for dangerous interactions, and it could have been much worse than it was.
Share this article with anyone you think would benefit from it! Children, teens, and adults included. Everyone needs some guidance navigating this new world, and I’m happy to share some of the best advice that I’ve used in my life thus far.
Ash’s world went fuzzy. No. No, that wasn’t possible–what this man was saying was impossible. Objectively impossible. Subjectively impossible. Improbable, too, yet from the inflection in the Original’s lofty voice when he said those words, she knew they were true.
Jax’s sister was alive. Alive and there, somewhere deep in the bowels of the caravan where a girl escorted from a cage on a leash was commonplace. One of them was alive, and Ash couldn’t even fathom how.
It was a story he had shared so many times throughout their journey, recalling details as they drifted from the ruins of place after place: remembering his sister’s eyes in the soot-stained capital, the beam that trapped his father in the backwoods of Virginia, how he strained against the crumbling pieces of house that had trapped his family. The imagery was as vivid in her mind as if she’d been there–Jax had seen the fire, the smoke, tried as hard as he could to lift the beams and rubble that trapped them in the dining room.
At that moment, the moment when those words dropped from those moist and frothing lips, she forgot all about her designation, her future, her horror at the endless suffering, her terror at her impending fate. Jax’s countenance held a fragile spark of hope weaved with the shock. He was hopeful, and she knew it would all come crumbling down. Soon.
Her plan could ruin it all, any chance for him to see his sister, but she knew she must. She refused to kneel there silently and become that awful man’s plaything. It wasn’t right.
Shoulders flexing, convalescing her energy, veins rushing, Ash knelt at the feet of a sociopath. Twitching. Panting. Don’t look up. Don’t move. Don’t blink. Now.
BOOM. A resounding thud pounded the road as her face slammed to the asphalt. Cheek pinned to the ground, stinging like a flurry of hornets stabbing her skin, Ash shot her legs out to the side in a wide scissor. Snap! The chains shattered in a clinking jolt, exactly as she’d expected–the rusted-out link was even weaker than she thought. A hand rushed at her shoulder and she rolled out of the way, clamoring to her feet.
Flash of metal. Her back seared, blade slicing deep through the thin fabric, shearing off hair. Punch. Fist. Connection. Burning through her knuckles. Sharpness, a whirl of arms and feet, sneakers slapped skin and metal tore through flesh and Ash fought and fought and fought. A blur of motion. A knife clattered to the ground. She seized it, slicing at the mass of bodies crowding around her, slashing at the remains of her chains.
The crowd thinned. The air was thick with blood and metal. She had made a dent in the tide; guards howled with their wounds, staggered back, fell to the road. They would keep coming. She didn’t have time to recover. Those people who Rita had referred to only as Them clouded Ash like mosquitos, returning in thick, overwhelming swarms the instant she batted them away.
She caught sight of Jax, kneeling in the fray. She pushed towards him, slashing a path with her knife, ripping herself from the desperate hands.
She reached him. He was screaming something. She couldn’t hear him, couldn’t make out the lip movements or attribute them to words. Slashing down hard, his chains shattered under the blade. Jax leapt to his feet, grabbing a man by the ear and ripping the blade from his hand. Then he paused, glittering knife still clutched in his calloused fingers. Ash thought he looked like an angel from an old scripture: a young man with golden hair, streaked in sunlight and soot, frozen in the churn of battle.
The image seemed so familiar, so ironic that it took her a hot second to retract from the fantasy and move her limbs. He looked beautiful, so perfect, so blazing and glorious. Why was he standing there? Why wasn’t he fighting?
Ash jabbed her elbow out, sensing a presence, felt the crack of bones under her skin. Blood sprayed her brow. A quick glance, Jax was still frozen; a wild man careened towards her. Flashing metal—razor blade bared in his palm.
He lunged towards her. She tripped back, flailing for balance and a pair of arms grabbed her in a visceral grip, throwing her to the ground. Knife spun away across the highway. The world swayed above her. Black tread above her. Blank faces above her. The blue sky, clear and dulcet loomed above her and she panicked. Bucked uselessly.
The boot descended.
Her air exploded from her lungs. A beat of rest like an orchestra on a grand pause, she attempted to roll over and heard a pop, not good, and the boot descended again, hurtling into her side. Hot bursts of pain crackled through her ribs. She clawed the simmering ground. No purchase. Where was he? Where was he?!
Ash roared and kicked up, nausea tossing her stomach through a roller coaster loop, vision like a poorly produced action movie with an unsteady camera.
Four figures lifted her off the ground, one for each limb. Ash writhed, a demon of messy hair and snapping teeth, searching for a victim to rip into. She couldn’t reach. Couldn’t reach. Where was he?
She heard the clamp of manacles encircling her wrists. Exhausted. Pathetic. Tired beyond lifting a finger, Ash was laid yet again at the feet of the Original. The one she would serve for the rest of her foreseeable future, forever and ever until she was shelled out and hollow of fighting spirit.
“Would you still like this one to be your Wife? Or should she be staked and roasted, like the other Rebels?”
Ash thrashed once. A plastic face against a blue sky. This wasn’t what she wanted. This shouldn’t be her last memory. She should be in school right now, climbing out the bathroom window, scaling the wall down to sneak off to the ice cream shop on the corner.
“No. This one has a spirit to her. I believe she has a special set of skills which could be useful for more than my own pleasure.” Her eyes bugged. She wouldn’t be a Wife, so what was the use for her? And still, where was Jax? Resentment joined in with the delightful tea party in her gut, other guests being the usual: terror, fury, denial, hopelessness, regret.
Fury because he could’ve saved her. Regret because she had set him free, and he had stood there while she was beaten and restrained. Hopelessness because Ash could have escaped without him, and she had squandered her last shot.
“Knock her unconscious. I will attend to her later.”
A fist flew at her skull. The world went black.
Voice. His name was being called somewhere in the crowd. Young, desperate, pleading voice that cut through the battle like an arrow and his eyes roved over the swell of people and…
Jax’s breath hitched. He stood completely still, frozen in time and she was there. Far off in the distance. The knife in his hand slipped and clinked to the ground, quickly snagged by an emaciated figure and carried away to god-knows-where. He didn’t care. The world collapsed and folded, and the same tunnel vision he had during football games clicked into place. All that he knew were a few facts built into this moment in time.
Number 1: Caroline was alive, far away in the writhing mass of chaos in the caravan.
Number 2: The people of the caravan were rioting. Everywhere he looked there was blood and blades, and if the sole goal was to capture Ash, this would have been over in seconds. Something was happening. There was unrest.
Number 3: His chains were broken. Slashed and clattered to the road. And nobody had noticed, or maybe nobody cared about one skinny bag of bones. This was his chance.
Jax was sprinting. Yelps and battle cries flooded the air around him; he cut through it all like a swimmer propelling through the water, the individual groans and screams condensing into a static held in the back of his thoughts. Background noise: how easily a cacophony became background noise when your sister’s voice rang in your ears. Your dead sister.
Corpses toppled in his path. Ragged women grabbed at his shirt, dying men on the ground yanked at his shoes, undoing the laces beyond what he could run in. Kicking the strings in front of him, Jax’s gait fell into an awkward pattern, he looked up and she wasn’t too far. Caroline. A necklace of iron clamped around her neck, a man holding her on a chain-link leash. His legs burned beneath him. She screamed and his heart failed, stomach retching acid through his throat when Caroline thrashed against the chains. Throwing one foot in front of the other, he watched as her eyes widened and–
“Jackson! Watch out!” He turned just in time to see a man barreling towards him. He leapt to the side, a great whoosh of air as the man dove to the ground. A sick crunch of bones erupted through the static and Jax realized suddenly that the man hadn’t been coming for him. He had been tackling someone, a small child with close-cropped hair. And it sounded fatal.
The burly man quickly moved on, charging after a slave with the intensity of a bull in a room of red flags. Jax didn’t look at the crushed body of the child, couldn’t bear to even if he tried; the tunnel vision was gone. Plundering forth with renewed energy, Jax reached Caroline in moments and got his first good look at her.
The bouncy, gravity-defying pigtails perched on her head were long gone. The silky blonde hair their mother had stroked looked like dried corn husks: matted and dull against her scalp, unwashed, limp. Her legs were twigs on her body. A smear of dirt wiped across her brow. The infuriating iron collar around her neck, the one that tethered her to her keeper, a cage looming over them, casting its shadow down onto her thin figure.
What he saw in her eyes scared him. It wasn’t an empty, glassy surface on emotions forced away. This was the stare of someone who felt everything, incapable of pushing aside her fear and despair. Gaze broken. Horrified. Haunted.
Caroline was alive. Tethered to a guard–a guard. Argh.
Jax faltered back when he was just steps from her, ignoring the pleading in her eyes. Why hadn’t he kept that knife? Why didn’t he pick it up? Fighting away panic, he searched the area. Finally he spotted a blade on the road in a dead man’s grip. He didn’t waste time prying it from the still-warm fingers.
The guard growled when he approached, baring a dull-edged shiv. Jax winced inwardly but couldn’t conjure a solution to get close enough without being cut. So he did the unthinkable.
He threw the knife. It sliced through the air, embedding itself in the man’s upper chest. He bellowed, deafening roar splitting the cacophony. He toppled. Blood blossomed from the wound. Caroline gasped and ran to Jax, throwing herself against his chest; she was so thin he could feel every rib in her body through his shirt. Gently as he could manage he threw her over his back, weaving through the crowd. They were reaching the outer left edge of the caravan, riot still roaring around them under the blistering sun, and finally, finally, they broke through.
Jax didn’t look back for a moment. He sprinted into the field, snatching on thickets, skin stinging with burs and thorns. He didn’t look back, not until he could no longer hear anything but the rush of his blood in his ears and the thump of Caroline’s sneakers on his shoulder blades. He lowered her down.
“Caroline, I…” he searched her eyes for the answers to a question he couldn’t formulate. “How did…why are…you? What…why…I just don’t–”
She took his hand, holding a finger to her lips, and he glanced around. Was there someone watching them? Was someone coming?
“Jackson, I’ll tell you everything. There’s a few things I need to say and they’re really important, so I need you to listen.” His eyes widened. Her speech was so articulate, measured–she’d called him Jackson, just like she always did. He hadn’t heard that name in a long time. It seemed like forever. He nodded mutely. If Caroline wanted to speak she would speak; whatever she had to say was five times as important as him.
“I do have a lot to say. Starting with the sun. At the house, I watched through the window as it burst and glowed red, brighter than all the stars in the sky. It scorched the Earth. The Sun’s Burn.” Jax nodded, tilting his head quizzically.
“What about it?”
Her lips quirked into a smile, freckle-sprayed nose scrunching like she knew a secret he didn’t. He rolled his eyes.
“What about the Burn, Caroline?”
“I predicted the expansion and scorching of the Sun.” She smoothed her hair back like she was the slyest person in the world. “I don’t need to say it, but here it is,” she paused dramatically, heaving a breath,
“I told you so.”
Jax groaned and pulled her close. And somewhere, far off through a tangle of overgrown wheat and thorns, Ash was unconscious, surrounded by a caravan of murderers and slaves.
Chains. Biting into his skin like venomous snakes. Rubbing the flesh raw. Rattling a persistent reminder that he was doomed. A caged animal. Doomed to die. A tiger at the zoo, throwing its lean body against its shackles, baking under a hot sun and the mockery of the people. Unable to run free. Unable to love and be loved. What worse fate was there?
It had taken only a moment to sink in: the reality of his existence was painful, hot shards of glass piercing his skull, a throbbing redness boiling his blood. The world was this, and only this, unorganized elements in this catastrophe of human life:
Surrounded by them. These people. Revolting. Smeared in their own feces, criss-crossed with scars, a patchwork of torture that seemed to never end. Dead eyes. Crude gazes. A disgusting distortion of human intelligence, boring into him, blind eyes that saw nothing and everything all at once. How was it that such shells of people could send such a message? Each and every bloodshot, glistening orb said the same thing: you’re going to die.
It had been an hour since Jax woke up in chains.
But as much as it hurt to wake up in chains, it was worse to watch Ash return to the world. She gasped to life. Squirming. Burning. A bundle of sweaty clothes and clinking shackles.
She used the first breath she drew for a scream.
No. Not a scream.
An earth shaking.
Blood curdling shriek.
Her eyes were wild, inspecting her arms, the backs of her hands, her palms. Roving over the pink skin. Searching. What? What was she looking for? Jax wished he didn’t know. He wished he had to ask her. He wished he could indulge himself in curiosity, a brief release from the terror. But he already knew what she was looking for.
She was looking for a brand, a crudely marked scar. She was looking for the mark of an Original’s wife, a mark that would ensnare her forever as a slave. Her skin was unmarked.
“Ash!” he whispered. She looked up from her flesh. There was no relief in her eyes that she hadn’t been marked. No glint of hope, the kind he was sure was still inside him. Just a dead-eyed certainty that her fate was decided. That she was fated for the same destiny as Vixen—Rita—but without the escape.
Jax couldn’t bear to think about it. A dread so profound, so intrusive and deep, had wormed its way into his chest. The reason was simple. Stupidly simple. No matter what became of Ash, his fate was decided because of one thing alone.
There was no use for him.
In this caravan, there was no task for him to fulfill. If what Rita had said was true–and he had no doubt it was–he would be judged as too young for labor, and too weak for captive protection. Those cold emerald eyes had no reason to lie to him. He would be cannibalized. Jax would, without a doubt, be eaten alive.
“Ash, calm down, you’re going to get–”
“Jax!” Ash panted. His heart leapt into his throat. That sound. It was guttural. Feral. A noise he barely recognized as human, much less one of a cool, feminine voice.
“Jax, my neck, did they mark me?” He shook his head. Had he ever seen someone so distraught? So crazed? The tightness of her face. The wrinkles on her brow. The pooling pond of insanity in her gaze, it soaked into him. A shadow giving way to the sun. He had never felt an empathy so deep as this, a hopeless kind of empathy that said “I understand. I understand, and I can’t do anything about it.”
“Ash, listen to me. Look at me!” It took a long second for her eyes to center. She was shaking now, hands tensing and releasing, nails digging into the wooden planks. He’d never seen her hair so wild; the constant jerk and rumble of the cart mussed the strands so they stuck up from her scalp at all angles.
It would’ve been a cute look, he thought–spiky, spunky, a little punk–but paired with the puckered gashes on her brow and downcast gunmetal eyes, she looked less like a rocker and more like a severely abused porcupine. A porcupine with so much pain in her heart that it seeped into him. Hurt him. Drowned him. Her eyes focused.
“I just….I just want you to know that we’ll get through this. No matter what, because, because…” Because why? What could get them through this? They were enslaved. Grieving their families.
“Because we’re together.” It was weak. So weak, so nonreassuring, so baseless.
Jax scooched across the cart. Pushing aside a sleeping woman, he moved into position beside Ash. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he leaned close, whispering,
“Rita escaped. We can too, because we’re stronger than her. We can get out of this. Together. Right?”
He expected a nod at least. Acknowledgement, maybe, something that said she’d heard his words. Maybe her spine would straighten a little. Maybe she would wince into a half-smile. Maybe she would make a joke, or a tiny jab at his gut with her elbow. A witty remark. A sob. Anything.
She didn’t move her gaze from her lap. And she didn’t say a word.
Ash was in shock. Denial, maybe? Jax wished he’d paid more attention in psychology. Her calloused fingers ran tracks down her arms, back and forth, back and forth. He had the selfish urge to grab that hand, hold it in his. He needed her. Her affection, even a morsel. Her attention, just a glance. He wanted to intertwine their fingers so bad it physically hurt not to.
The cart pounded the road, sending him sprawling away from her; he clawed himself back. Pothole after pothole just like this. And for what?
Why? Why, when he was shackled to a rickety cart, orphaned, fated for cannibalism, could his only concern fall to her admiration? Stupid, stupid, stupid. I dumped girls back home for being clingy! And this is what I do? Pine over her? Get irritable when she won’t hold my hand? Dumb. Shameful!
Yet when the time slunk by, traveling down the road in chains, not once did he think of himself after that moment. He only thought of Ash. Ash: her trauma, her fingers inspecting her arms, the sickening thud of the boots on her back when they had been captured. He only thought of Ash, and how much he wished she would take his hand.
Jax could never be sure how long they sat there. Time–time that used to be so rigid, so strict–had taken an ambiguous form, like the off-brand Jello in the school cafeteria: lax, bitter, unsettlingly slippery. After forever, they stopped.
He watched as the caravan unloaded. Car doors opened, expensive wagons cleared. Girls in cages were extracted from the enclosures, leashed up like dogs with hair twice as coarse. A cacophony.
A set of men unlocked his chains and pulled him up. His legs felt like a TV screen when the signal goes out, all numb and static-y in a way that felt like needles driving into his toes. Jax was sure he would have fallen over immediately if not for the strong grips of his guards.
Squinting in the sun, he looked out over the never-ending trail of horror and gasped.
It was incomparable to any parade, any gathering on the planet. A crowd so immense it was like nothing you could imagine. Miles and miles and miles of bikes and carriages and people. Young children led out of cages, whimpering, smeared in their own feces. Women with sad eyes emerging from wagons, hair mussed, too-tight chokers restricting blood flow to their faces. Emaciated men dragging themselves across the ground, screaming from the heat, scorching their bodies just to keep up. Helpless slaves gathered in carts, newly branded, sobbing under the sun’s bite. Every last person was sunburned, skin peeling, some with tumors and blackened teeth and hair falling out in clumps.
He understood now why the people had turned away from Rita so rudely when she spoke of Them. Because they had seen it. Those men and women and children, those with pinned up or gelled hair, those kind folks who dressed in Amish-like clothes had seen this monstrosity of human nature. Maybe more of them had been in this caravan than they would like to admit. No matter your age or position in the procession, one fact was clear: this was no peaceful community with an ill-fated 3rd class. This was a death march for all.
All…except a few. They were easy to spot. Because even with this swarm of poverty and demented tortures, five men sparkled. From the moment their shoes poked from the royal wagons, Jax knew who they were. The Originals. The founders of the caravan.
Rita hadn’t attempted to describe them. Jax now knew why; it was utterly and completely overwhelming to do so. Five men dripping in diamonds. Coiffed hair, seemingly gelled, unmussed by the bumpy ride. Adorned in capes. Crowns. Rings. Necks spilling with gold chains, fingers studded so heavily with sapphires and emeralds and precious gems that they practically had the rainbow spread across each hand. Purple silks. Leather boots. Pale, unblemished skin, an aura of plasticity strong from caked on makeup.
They were unbranded, just like the people of Jax and Ash’s cart. But the people of the carts–Jax and Ash included–were demolished. Morally. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. The Originals, however, did not look demolished. They looked smug. Smug. And free.
Royalty, he thought as he watched them exit, servants and tired women quivering on their knees in front of them. These men are royalty. Ash glanced at Jax, fear clouding her gaze. At first he couldn’t tell exactly what she was afraid of, there was so much: the burning men, the starving, the sick, the tumored, the ugly, the slaves, the dirtied, they all coalesced in an ongoing rush of miserable people in miserable attire under a miserable sun.
An Original made a gesture and the flurry of motion immediately stopped. Jax, against his better judgment, found himself frozen in place. He knew what this was. Easily. Ash had predicted this; he should have listened, but the thought was hard to think, a mental image that tore at his mind, itched and burned. This was the Choosing.
He was lifted forward by the men, feet still bound, arms squeezed too tight, remarkably tight. Ash was brought forward alongside him. The sleeping woman he had moved to sit by Ash was dragged awake, muttering something low and sweet, reminiscent of a lullaby.
Jax imagined a grand buildup. A painstakingly slow progression forth, onward to his demise, the guards building suspense and halting abruptly, his legs deadweight and swinging between them. What actually happened, however, was shockingly unceremonious.
March forth. Push aside the crowds. Silent crowds. The young, caged girls had ceased to wail. Blind stares locked on the Originals. Ash and Jax and the others in their cart were practically thrown down at the feet of one of Them. No introduction. Just a choppy line of ten or so people, the first row of many unbranded and fearful innocents. How was it possible that so many survived the Burn? How was it possible that such a dreadful caravan of Them could travel for so long without Jax knowing? Was this preventable, had they ignored the signs of other human life when they were steeped in despair?
Ash was sixth in line, Jax eighth, the old singing woman suspended between them, unable to kneel on her own.
The first woman was judged as meat. Too elderly. Thin. Weak. Not attractive enough to be a wife–no use to the Originals. A group emerged from the crowd and lifted her away. Jax didn’t know where to. His chin was crunched to his neck like all the others.
The second was judged a guard. Unsurprising: she was lean, yet muscular, with a body like a triathlon winner and arms like a crossfit instructor.
Third person. A boy, about the same age as the same height. Meat. Lifted away without a scream, a hand clamped to his mouth, legs kicking in Jax’s peripherals. His heart was in his ears. Calves twitching, Jax struggled to hold his breath; if he let it loose he would scream.
Fourth. Woman. Declared a Cleaner. Jax envied her, her and her future of feces and urine and vomit. Nothing was as bad as being eaten alive by your own species. Nothing he could imagine.
Fifth. A man. Old. Senile, maybe, probably in shock. Jax remembered the term from his Psychology Class. A lot of good this knowledge was to him now. The fact that he was in shock and overwhelmed by senility didn’t change the cold inflection of the Original’s order: meat.
Sixth. The pounding of his heart stalled. All saliva evaporated in his mouth. Dry as the chalkdust air of an old schoolhouse. His tongue suffocated him. Ash’s turn.
The Original man’s voice was monotone, unbefitting of a royal or even a savage cannibal. A voice of a bored emperor, flat and dry as he pronounced,
“Wife. My own, to be branded immediately.” One other Original shifted, looking upset, as though Ash was the last piece of licorice in the candy jar. Jax couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Ash was right. She would be like Rita. And if she ever escaped, she would be just as cold and heartless as that vixen girl.
He didn’t hear what became of the singing woman. Didn’t care. If she was meat, she was meat, and Jax could do nothing, just as he did for Ash. Sit. Wait. Sit. Wait. Just like every other person in this rotten hell hole.
His neck hurt. The woman was lifted away.
Jax’s turn for the Choosing.
Distraught, he turned his face heavenward. The plastic face of the Original stared down at him. Lips too bright. Hair too shiny. Eyes too large. And proclaimed, monotone as ever,
“I know you.”
“What?” The response leapt from his lips before he could restrain it. Jax winced, hair catching the sun as he bowed his head again.
“I know you, child. I know a little girl–exactly like you, with the same features. A little girl from the cages.” A grin played on his cheeks. Jax glanced up to see him smile at the crowd. Dread settled on him like a blanket.
“Ladies and gentlemen of this empire, rejoice. We have found a sibling pair, for the first time in the history of the Burn! I know this boy.” He clicked his tongue, smacking his too-red lips.
“I know this boy because I imprisoned his sister.”
Do you ever have a thought that slams into you like an oncoming train? One that is so unexpected, conjured out of the blue and hurled at your face so fast, it literally knocked the breath from your chest? Now imagine that idea embodying a whole day. Overwhelming. Tiring. Distress-filled. Painful, in a remarkably silent way.
That was what each and every day on the road was like for Ash. A thought that pummels you to the ground, a thought that you can’t bear to think any longer, but have to face over and over and over again.
They had been on the road for an eternity. Maybe to a post-Burn Ash, she would easily dismiss this as a “week” or “a couple of days.” But who had a need for time anymore?
After the first Quarantine phases hit, the concept had already begun to slip, one day spiraling into the next without remark, without events to attend or friends to greet.
Then the Burn ravaged the world. Ash and Jax found each other soon after, both cowards, both new orphans that had abandoned their families. Did it matter that their family members never had a chance to get out? Seek shelter? Was it still wrong that they had left? Ash wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure that it mattered anymore.
Whatever happened before, now they were all alone. Roaming the land. The beaten down land. The land made up of dust and rubble. Lonely skies. Desolate cities.
And all of it, all of it, hungry. That was it. Everything was hungry for life and energy: the fields hungered for youthful blooms, the river for a salmon, the sapling for a drop of rain.
Which was how Ash came to decide that time no longer mattered. Because something bigger had taken its place. Hunger. It had planted its roots deep in the freshly roiled earth. The world was hunger, her body was hunger, her mind was hunger. A pit in her stomach that wouldn’t go away. A longing for the family which she couldn’t even mourn, she–
“Hey? You okay? Need to stop?” Jax’s voice broke through her stupor. Ash groaned. Just let me be depressed in peace!
“No, no…I’m good.” Lie. What else could she say? That she winced with the strain on her stomach, that just drawing breath to her lips sent a bellowing ache through each capillary and nerve in her stomach? Yet another glorious way to remind her of their lack of food. Should she tell him that her thoughts were faltering even seconds after he spoke? Lingering on a million different impossibilities: what if we had asked for food to go? Stole the rations? Ate the people?
Her brain screamed too far!, but Ash could have sworn her stomach rumbled in agreement. Back at the cement safe house, there had been everything she could ever want. A bed. Nasty mystery meat. A judgy teenage girl. A short but sweet kiss from her maybe-boyfriend-apocalypse-ally. Everything!
And yet, she still had the strangest sensation that she hadn’t savored it like she should have. Like she should have absorbed the moments better, inhaled the perfection of that time through every dirt-clogged pore on her skin. Ash just couldn’t bring herself to be happy. Not yet. Not when the faces of her family were fresh on her mind.
Miserable, she put one foot in front of the other and trudged on. The road was long and never ending, each new city just as empty as the one before, save for a few bottles of sunblock and an obnoxious pink beret (who even wore those anymore?!). But the sunscreen was vital for their badly burned skin, even if the SPF 30 lasted less than an hour per application. Not like the shoddy tourist store could have anticipated a full-blown apocalypse and magnification of the sun combo.
“Left or right?” She looked up, dazed.
“What?” He pointed to the intersection ahead. One road led straight on, and the other? The other, pothole-pocked road filtered off into a town–Brucksville, advertising one KFC, a McDonalds, and a Holiday Inn. Impressive.
“Brucksville.” She stated, thoughts already slipping into a delightful tornado of what-ifs and should-I-feel-guilty-fors. Content to let herself spiral, Ash began to fall into a rhythm.
“Wait! Uh, wait. Ash, I want to tell you something before you…” he stopped, unsure how to phrase his next words. She dragged her gaze to him. There was something entrancing about the way that the light hit his hair off the road sign, like an ancient Aztec mirror trick: reflecting the harsh white light back as soft gold. It made the cowlicks and flyaways shine, little strands of honey against a background of smog and decay. A little shiver passed through her, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, eyes dilating. All of the sudden, she felt much more alert.
“Before I…slip into my funk?” He smiled shyly…a good look on him. Passivity in a boy she used to think was a brainless jock. Timidity from a varsity athlete. It was unique. Entrancing, even. Compelling enough that she couldn’t let her tired eyes relax to the ground or the sky.
“Yeah, I guess, a funk,” he admitted. Ash knew he was being generous with his phrasing. She had been in a stupor ever since they left that house: uncharacteristically quiet, jumpy at some times and spaced-out at others.
“I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad I’m doing this with you. And I know we don’t want to talk about this now, because,” he gestured vaguely to everything. “Of all this. But we have to at some point. Back at that building, with the people–”
“I remember.” Impossible to tell with the severe sunburn, but Ash’s face would have been bright red, she was sure. In a way, that was a pretty good mechanism for her poker face…however, it was not such a good mechanism for her comfort. It stung like a thousand individual bee stings.
“We don’t have to rehash it quite yet. I just wanted to say that…that it wouldn’t have happened with anyone else. If it was any other girl at school, or in the world, that I had found, I’m confident it wouldn’t be the same.” He paused. Ash was silent, unable to rip her eyes away.
“Back at the capital you said you didn’t want an ‘Adam and Eve’ fairytale romance, an illusion fabricated from circumstance alone. I didn’t know what to say at the time…and then we…you know. But now I know that what I feel isn’t just because we found each other on a whim, or because we don’t have anyone else.” Her face burned. The ache in her gut dimmed, something growing there, a warmth. Finally, he added,
“I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.”
Lie. They both knew the last sentence wasn’t true for either of them…no matter what, they would rather have family here. Not even here, necessarily. Family alive. But Ash understood. The idea still rang true.
“Even Rita? That judgemental blonde one with daggers for eyes?” She asked. He smiled.
“Even Rita.” Officially broken from her demented train of thought, she intertwined her fingers in his; he started to pull her close. A glimmer of happiness danced on her heart. Then she pulled away so fast he staggered back.
“Ash? What is it?” The hurt in his voice was unmistakable; she shook her head. “Was it something I said? I didn’t mean to–”
“No!” She sighed, words evading her tongue.
“Don’t you hear it? That noise? Like…like–” her fingers jumped to her scalp. Why couldn’t she think of it? That sound! Like thunder, like the rumble of the wildebeest hooves in the Lion King, like sleet on a driveway, thick, roaring….
Jax looked at her helplessly, face blank. He was straining to hear anything but the rush of his own blood in his ears. Ash tugged a hair from her head, pain shooting through her scalp in a refreshing jolt. It exploded off her tongue.
“Like a motorcycle!” The instant she said it, her eyes widened. Realization dawned on Jax’s face, a look that held the nightmares of many nights and the worries of a thousand hours. Their feet scrambled of their own accord, flying down the road. They had to leave. Immediately.
Cracks and pops of their joints and their panting breaths muffled the noise, but now even Jax was aware of it. Her breath came in gasps. Their sneakers slapped the road.
The noise surrounded them, closer with each second, the source not yet visible but approaching fast. The sound of nightmares come to life. A rumble of hundreds of cars. Motorcycles. Feet. Wagons and carts and murmuring voices. Crying. Trampling. Rocks underfoot. Silks shuffling, children moaning, snapping belts. Them.
Ash pointed to a pile of rubble, almost a football field’s length away. The closest chance they had to survival. The caravan crested the hill, swarming into the street. First the cars and motorcycles, idling into the intersection, then the wagons.
Not just wagons. Grand wagons, straight out of the era of French royalty: adorned with lavender silk curtains and gold filigree, plush duvets visible through sparkling windows. An outpouring of motion. The leading vehicles halted at the intersection.
Hearts beating through their ribs, they sprinted as fast as they could, sweat blurring their vision. The rubble seemed even further away, each yard they ran becoming longer and rockier, potholes twisting their ankles. Ash pushed on blindly, drowning in the motion. Jax was only a few paces ahead of her. She looked back for a moment and–
Eye contact. Crap. A young girl stood on the road, stopped at the intersection with the rest of the walkers. Bare feet. Matted blonde curls. A blank gaze. Weary eyes that were staring right at her. Ash pleaded with her silently. Please, please, don’t say anything. Don’t turn around. Don’t tell that woman next to you, don’t move your scalded feet–
The girl twitched. Ash chanced a look at Jax, meeting his eyes as he faltered by the rubble. She tried her best to send him the message hide; he understood, reluctantly slipping behind the stones. Ash couldn’t risk going to him. At least Jax had a chance now. All she could do was stand, frozen like a statue.
Broom clutched against her chest, the girl turned to the woman next to her, hand twitching towards her arm.
Please don’t tug her sleeve, please don’t tug her sleeve, please don’t–the girl tugged the woman’s sleeve. Ash dropped to the ground, flattening herself against the asphalt. Perhaps the woman wouldn’t see her. Perhaps the girl would be dismissed. She watched helplessly as the little girl pointed to exactly where she was laying in the road. Asphalt burned her cheeks. She pressed even lower, contracting all her muscles, sinking her scalding arms as low to the road as possible.
The woman’s eyes roved the area. Finding nothing, she turned to a man next to her, a man emaciated and marred with scabs. Without hesitation, the man began to run. Full sprint. Directly at her.
Springing from the road like a flushed quail, Ash tore to her right. An arm flung around her neck. She screamed, biting at the flesh. Another hand gripped her wrist. Men flooded towards her, shoving her to the ground. Kicks pummeled her ribs, her back, boots stomping on her shoulders. Flailing, the road burning her skin, she shrieked in pain. Dirt flung in her eyes. The world swum with her tears; she cried out, blinking furiously.
A pink-faced figure rushed onto the scene, throwing punches at the men. Masculine. He had honey-strand hair, a strong jawline, distinctively muscular build. Dread pooled in her stomach. No….
“Jax, leave…Jax!” Men gripped his arms, hauling him towards the caravan, his feet spinning and kicking. Ash sobbed. Cracks sounded from her shoulders, but she could no longer feel the blows. Kicks and stomps rained down on her, each impact potentially fatal, yet all she felt was a deep-seeded dread.
There was nothing she could have done in the moment…but maybe, just maybe, if she hadn’t been so occupied with Jax, she would have heard them sooner. The thought was numbing in combination with the static in her limbs. She wasn’t sure how long she laid there, face burning against the dusty road.
Finally, when the men seemed certain she was incapacitated, they tossed her over bony shoulders. In the fuzz, Ash thought she heard some of them laughing.
And where an idea of escape should have been brewing in her mind, all that there was was an image. An image she had tossed and turned with at night and obsessed over during the day. A vision. A vision of her own flesh, branded with a star.
The only infinity on this Earth is the infinity of the questions without answers.”-Autumn Brutyn
The River of Life
A poem by Autumn Brutyn
Sitting on the shore of the endless sea A question came on the wind to me A question so rhetorical, so subjective, so sweet, A question without an answer, forever incomplete Impossible to answer, and yet, it lingered on my thoughts: What can encompass life? Life, so complex, so filled with strife! A frog on the banks of a never-ending stream? One speck of dust in the golden sunbeam? No, not that, that’s not right. Because what of the endlessly multiplying people? Billions and billions, like rust spots on a steeple The infinite wisdom in a dragonfly’s eye? Each meaningless fleck of dirt in a rancid pigsty? No, not that, that’s not right. Because what of the young ones, the old, the bold? Each spirit, so unique, with hearts warm and cold… Can nothing emulate it, that tumultuous diversity? The way the Earth rumbles and shakes, all topsity-turvety? Maybe, maybe not, but one thing comes close. Because time will never cease to fly, I thought, just like the river chugging by The river, with its millions of glistening bubbles Bobbing and weaving, like children, no troubles The river, highway to the sea, comes close Because it ebbs and flows, angry before it calms, Has droughts and floods and never-ending qualms Pebbles shift and change, silt travels downstream Just like humanity, restless in their dream That river, roiling and bubbling, comes close Because... Life is imperfect Life is diverse Troubled Beautiful Never a curse Life is drowning Life is sweet Hopeful Dismal Take it from me: There never has been, and never will be, one true answer Life’s secrets are elusive, captivating, like a masked dancer But if you seek an answer, please, hear my plea: Turn to the river! The water! The path to the sea Because the river, To the sea Comes close
When the bell had struck hours ago, she should have run. A messy murder was better than a risk like this: to be so far from home and take her time going back. He had taken too long to die.
When the bell had struck hours ago, when her knife had plunged into his beating heart, she shouldn’t have waited for his last breath to be drawn. It was too late. Even before she left the alley, she knew this. She had gone too far, waited too long, been too careless.
The girl slunk from the hallowed place; she was alone again. Bloody morning sun rays painted her face in gold, glistening off a pallid, milky mask: the face of a killer. Beginning to perspire, little beads of pearly sweat adorning the pale canvas, her boots struck hard on the concrete as she started to run.
Her feet were slick with the sweat, boots stuffed with paper upon paper to disguise her actual shoe size…a smart tactic. A smart tactic, but a disgusting one; her feet were swimming in greasy newspaper, toe sweat, and blood that had seeped through the fabric.
Uncomfortable. Not an uncomfortable like wet socks after a water ride. No. Uncomfortable like the fact that her mind no longer lingered on the fresh blood on her hands. Uncomfortable that the swampy sweat bog of her boots was of a bigger concern to her than the man she just slaughtered. Oh, well. Discomfort could pass. Guilt, which she decidedly shut out, would have passed too. The girl had greater things to worry about.
She had been sloppy today. She was never sloppy–never. Gloves cleanly disposed of. Knives properly cleaned, soaked in chemicals, restored to their place. Boot prints left, yes, but in a size that was almost laughably big. Those grimy shoes had been passed around among relatives so many times the purchase was virtually untraceable. None of those were the problem. Not at all.
Her problem was the sun. The sun, and the thousands of dirty, drug-shooting, poor saps rising with it as the outer boroughs spurred to life. Panther-like steps were abandoned. It was a race against the clock, a race against any early risers. This time, she had taken it too far, too lightly, too late. Sprinting now, her boots thudded so loud that she was more likely to wake up the people with the sound of her footsteps than the sun through the windows.
Idiot, idiot, idiot…how could you be so careless? It was at least a mile left to go; she had traveled so far through the night, hopped up on sadistic adrenaline and practically unfazed by the trip to the victim’s apartment.
But her energy was waning fast. The Midnight Rogue persona was slipping through her sweat-slicked grasp, the addictive, psychotic energy dissolving.
She had killed at midnight.
Recounted their sins. She was the devil. The cruel Fates of hell. Anubis burning a sinner alive with the flames of their own wicked crimes.
An easy dagger thrust. She was an assassin.
Pierce the heart. She was Death.
Watch the life bleed from their eyes, draining like thick soup through a strainer…make sure the victim is dead. She was vengeance.
The girl shifted through her roles easily now, easier than the first times. Each kill was smoother than the last; this broken shell no longer felt guilt.
Why not? Simple: does the grim reaper feel guilt? No. Then neither would the Rogue.
She had killed at midnight.
It was four A.M.
The time in between had slipped through her grasp, springing through alleys and dodging the sleeping masses of homeless people, stewing in their own filth.
A dingy street flew by, she passed onto a silent avenue. Movement in her peripherals, just a flitting shadow. The girl faltered. There was a shape in the window, a heavyset figure: a silhouette wreathed in the brilliance of an old-fashioned light bulb, a set of eyes staring out into the void, a man. Did he see me? Is my cover blown?
The girl hoped she was unrecognizable as the Rogue. As dangerous as it may be to face down the Midnight Rogue as a criminal, it was twice as dangerous to be the Rogue at the mercy of a citizen. In this lawless, disgusting place, who would falter to kill her?
The vacant-eyed Reject on the street–some ex-politician from City Central, a broken man swaddled in urine-soaked blankets–who would turn her in for a scrap of cloth on his back?
A criminal wandering the avenues, haunting bars and clubs, waiting for a young girl he could prey on to stagger from a bar?
Not even a mother, wreathed in cigarette smoke, puffing her lungs with toxicity to shut out her grief? Desperate to make ends meet? Living paycheck to paycheck?
Even her only friend would condemn her to hell if he knew. So why not every other sinner in the boroughs? She had no right to play reaper. No right to play God. No right to deal justice where none existed. Yet she still kept running. Somehow, inexplicably, she would not let herself die.
She knew what had to be done. There was no time to get to the bunker. No more shadows to hide in. Now was the time to be the girl she’d grown up as, the girl she was before the triggers, before the ugly monster inside her reared its head. It was time to shed the disguise.
Shrugging off her cloak, the Rogue ducked into the first alcove she saw off the street. It was dark, humid, with a dumpster that smelled disturbingly close to human feces. The boot slid easily off her foot. Sweat-soaked newspaper shook loose from its pungent prison. Remorseful, the girl stuffed the royal purple silk into the lining, cringing as the hand woven cloth was smashed into a moist boot. When she stuffed the boot back on, she was equally delighted and regret-filled by the coolness of the cloak on her foot.
Pony tail holder: it had carved a pinkish track in her wrist. Her hair felt coarse under her greasy fingers; she quickly tied it up in an unflatteringly high ponytail. Shrugged off her jacket, loosely knotting it around her waist.
Then, the worst problem. My dagger…the bronze etched handle was laughably visible. The sheath at her belt, so easily concealed by her cloak, was now glaringly obvious. Choking on laughter, she surveyed the sharp edge of the dagger, the designs on the sheath. Very uncharacteristic of a teenage party girl.
Such a beautiful sheath. Shining black leather. Perfectly crafted to caress her dagger. Easy draw. And without a doubt, the most expensive thing the girl owned.
Every nerve in her hand rebelled at the motion. A tangible ache gripped her gut, but she knew she had to do this, no matter how much it hurt. The dagger slid easily into the soggy newspaper of her left boot.
And the perfect dagger sheath fell to the concrete. Abandoned. Ripe for the pick of any drug-hungry Reject scouring the dumpsters. The thought made her sick.
“Hey, missy. You lost?” She jumped. A voice. So close it couldn’t be more than six feet away. She pressed down the scream that clawed at her throat. A wave of terror crashed over her: what could she do?
Panic. Hot in her veins, on her cheeks, in her throat. Hide the dagger hilt? No time. Flirt with him? No experience. Pretend to be a party girl? Drunk? Lost? Maybe…but only because killing him would be too much of a fuss this late in the morning.
The Rogue turned. Attempting a casual pose, she gave a dopey smile, heart pounding her ribs. A man stood at the mouth of the alcove. Beefy. Heavyset. No more than a few feet away. Threateningly close.
“Um…who are you?” She managed, slurring her words. She tried to think of what a blackout-drunk party girl would say, how she would act. The exact way her eyelids would flutter. The drool dribbling down her lip. No time. No time! Any truly drunk City Central girl would never stop talking, never, especially if she was with a man who was even slightly interested. She was panicking. Desperate to conjure something flirty, stupid, bewildered. Yet what spilled from her lips was the most idiotic thing she could imagine.
“Rebecca? Is that you?”
But wasn’t that something a drunk girl would say? She didn’t know. The Rogue had never had a drink. She was only a teen…too young. Too impulsive. Enough sense to know that alcohol would send her spiraling further than blind rage ever could.
The man screwed up his brow. It was obvious he was male–masculinity practically radiated from him, dashed with the usual arrogance and self-righteousness. He frowned, uncertain,
“Uh, no, I’m–”
“Thank god! I left my bag at the club, do you have it? My mom would killlllll me if she knew! Kill me, Becky! Becca…Rebeccs…Rebie, some rando Reject could, like,” she hiccuped, “steal it and then I would be all like, ‘mom my bag got stolen’ and she would be like ‘your nice one?’ and I would be like ‘yes, mom, the one with all my I.D and monies in it!’”
Fanning herself, the girl started to tear up, wavering on her feet, clutching the bricks for support. Her eyes were wild. She looked down, rifling through the crumpled papers at her feet. Dazed. As if her bag was somehow in the newspaper.
“I’m not Rebecca. But if you want–”
“Oh! My. God.” Her lip quivered like a plucked bowstring. The jacket around her waist sagged, falling down to her knees as she trembled, clouds growing in her gaze. Perfect. Even in a fake stupor, she could appreciate her acting skills.
“Are you alright? I can take you hom–”
A piercing shriek cut the air. She wailed like an air horn. He could have sworn her eyes crossed for a second.
“Where. Is. Gerard?! I promised him that I was going to give him my number! Oh, where is he?” The girl stamped her boot.
“I totally forgot after I lost my bag! Oh…he’s never going to…Rebecca!” The girl whined, practically whimpering now, oblivious to the fact that the man was backing away.
“Becca…Gerard was like…” her eyes glassed over. Silence hung for a second, a strange interaction coming to a halt in a little divot, on a disgusting avenue, in a trashy borough, far away from the glittering lights of City Central. Silence.
Then she wretched. Doubled over. Gagged. Saliva splattered the ground, gruesome chunks of god-knows-what painting the concrete. Vomit. Vomit! Hot, thick, clumpy, moist vomit. The man cringed back, sprinting from the alcove and down the street.
As soon as he was out of sight, the Rogue stood up, eyes clearing. With a decisive motion, she let her hair down, pushing the hair tie onto her wrist and shrugging the jacket back on. Always the actor, the girl, name unsaid, ungiven, strutted confidently from the steaming stew of vomit and saliva.
Just as she shifted through her roles of justice, she transitioned from drunk-party-girl-with-a-lost-handbag-and-a-crush-on-Gerard to confident young woman returning home at dawn.
The mistakes wouldn’t go unnoticed. Unremarked. The Midnight Rogue was sure of that. Only that. She flowed through her forms fluidly as the devil changed faces. The only role switch she had to control was the shift from Midnight Rogue to guilty teenage girl. All the rest came naturally.
The girl stepped into the street, thoughts of the approaching day already clouding her mind. She was no longer the Rogue; her rage had dissipated with the night. The only signal of her crimes was the dagger in her left boot and the cloak in her right, a vague recollection of bloodthirsty rage, a memory of a scream.
She had been invited to meet up with a friend at 8:00 A.M., which meant she would have to jog home, further matting down the beautiful cloak–
A hand encircled her throat. Cloth against her lips. She flailed her limbs. Feet lifted from the ground. Immediately, a wall of rubbing alcohol scent smashed her nostrils, deep, pounding. Her vision blurred. She drew in a breath as her feet scrambled for purchase. The regret was instant. Nausea roared at her like a gut-punch. Chloroform.
Breathless, dripping with sweat, the man from the alcove lifted her into a car trunk. She lost consciousness before he could even close the lid.
Karma, she thought. The world was paying her back for her sloppiness. Karma, and arrogance, for believing she could so easily outsmart every passerby. Her mistakes were not unremarked. Justice comes at a hefty price in the outer boroughs. The Midnight Rogue would soon pay it.
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