Writer's Wednesday!

WW-Elementals–Silver and Screams

Ambulance image from Parkway East hospital

Shock registered in his eyes. A smirk threatened my lips, even in the face of torture in a blood-soaked alley. Mouth twitching, I began to sneer…then I stopped. My speech had been impressive: beckoning on my gruesome fate, stating that I would never leave this alley alive, the alley where an innocent young girl named Daria died for the Artemisian agenda. A girl with the power to manipulate the sea: it was a power wasted, barely used before she was brutally kidnapped and mortally wounded. 

My name is Selene, goddess of the moon and starlight. I was one of five Elementals: myself (starlight), Talia Thorn (storm), Zara Nightlock (earth), Daria (sea), and Kenna King, embers and fire. 

We were humans with godly powers, a new race of hybrids with the combined powers to overthrow the Olympian gods and goddesses: the ones out of myth, the ones that shook the Earth, blazed through forests, and crushed ships in fits of rage and petty quarrels. We were united, if only for a few minutes. But just as soon as we’d been united, we’d been torn apart: Daria shot, Zara chasing after an illusion of her late sister, Talia and Kenna fleeing from Artemis’ mercenaries. 

It was foolish of me to smile, to take satisfaction in the fact that I was a sitting duck, waiting to die, staring down the shaft of an arrow. The man–boy?–standing above me was in no way menacing, too fragile a gaze to even seem dangerous at all, though his nocked bow said otherwise. Large green eyes and a smatter of freckles all scrunched up, nose twitching with nerves, arrow jittering left and right with his severely shaking arms. 

Something about the glint in his eyes screamed surprise, perhaps even downright terror. At me? Holding a dead body in my arms, face streaked with tears, starburst necklace torn from my throat? Arrogant of me to think that, but my lips began to quirk. I thought, for a split second, that his unwillingness to release the arrow was because of what I’d said, how he would have to defy Artemis’s orders and kill me if I were to leave Daria alone in that alley.

A second later, when I followed his gaze, all satisfaction plummeted from my chest.
Daria was alive.

Inexplicably, her eyelids snapped open and shut, blinking in the darkness of the alcove. A shuddered breath rose and fell on my lap, her bloodsoaked chest expanding with a breath of air. Daria was alive. And her eyes were the brightest gold I’d ever seen.

I’m ashamed of what I did next. But I did it anyway. Instead of feeling relief…I felt horror. I reeled back, slamming my head against the wall. I slid her off my lap frantically, with half the sense to gently place her head so it didn’t crack on the concrete. 

She sat up. Fresh and dried blood had intermingled in an artful pattern on her back, like an abstract painting that would fetch millions in a modern art museum–a painting with random splashes of grotesque brown and dripping crimson, a splattered canvas that looked like nothing that ever existed and everything in the world all at once. Her gaze fell briefly on me, golden eyes disturbingly bright, hair falling limply around her large shoulders, the shoulders of a swimmer. 

Less than a second passed, enough for me to feel uncomfortable at the fact that somewhere under that bloodsoaked suit, Daria’s heart was pulsing and thrumming with life when moments before it had been irrevocably stalled.

Wavering on her feet, Daria stood, movements wobbly and uncertain, joints audibly groaning like a reanimated corpse from a horror movie. I saw her stare flicker to the mercenary, eyes glittering, the unnatural gold so unlike her original irises that it was as though they had been touched by the angels themselves. For the red-headed boy, that one glance was enough. 

He shot.

But he didn’t shoot Daria. 

He shot me.

Daria leapt forward, careening towards me to block the arrow. Colors blurred: I barely registered the gleaming silver tip until it embedded itself in my chest, a devastating slice as flesh was torn by metal. 

All at once, events cascaded, transcending time in a fuzz of action. Daria grabbed my hand, a blur of motion. I willed my feet to move. Held my chest with one hand and her fingers in the other. My arm grasped, a thin, sticklike hand; the boy! His grip was strong but Daria tore me free, viciously dragging me from the alley. My legs felt numb. My chest throbbed. I knew what to do. I had done the same with Daria. I grasped the shaft of the arrow tight. Fletchings tickling my tensed wrist, I yanked as hard as I could.

Pain shot through me, a train hurtling off the tracks. A morbid sound: of flesh tearing open, of capillaries bursting under impact. Daria gasped as I let the arrow fall, faltering to rip cloth from my shirt. Footsteps behind us. Running steps. Boots. 

“Where are we going?” 

“Busy road, the busiest we can find. I won’t let you die because of me!” Her voice was hoarse, emotions unexpectedly raw and heartfelt. What’s wrong with her eyes? Why is she here? Where am I? My heart pounded through my ribcage. The questions all blurred together. I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight: my throat was itchy with the urge to scream. All I could manage was a gasp of agreement…we needed to find help. 

The next street we turned down was the one. Daria knew it. She glanced over her shoulder, a split second move that would only cost us time. He was right on top of us. I pressed the cloth harder to my chest, blood seeping through the fabric, sticky on my fingers. 

“No, Selene, don’t go–”

He was right behind us. No time. I pulled Daria through to the street, through to the busy thoroughfare crowded with people, when it struck me why she had paused. The people weren’t congregated on the sidewalk. They were all clustered, bees to their native hive, in the road. 

This was bad. Daria had wanted to find a small group of people, or even an individual that would quietly drive us to the nearest hospital. What we had gotten was a mob. My thoughts faded in and out, dizziness sent my mind toppling back and forth between answerless questions and impossible scenarios. The boy reached out to grab my arm, a million possible actions rolled through my head: block his grip, kick his shins, lash out with my fists, throw myself into the street and beg for help. Anyone of those would do. I prepared myself, tensing my wrists for a strike…

I screamed. Motionless, I didn’t have the sensibility to attack the mercenary, defend myself, tend to my own wounds or Daria’s mysteriously healing ones. Do I wish I wouldn’t have defaulted to the damsel-in-distress wail? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality is that I didn’t spring into action. I planted my feet. Tensed my wrists. And screamed. 

Immediately all eyes snapped to us, the droves of people prying their eyes from whatever was in the road. Looking back, I can see that I probably made the right choice; in the eyes of those people Daria and I were two helpless girls, mortally wounded, obviously aggressed by the wide-eyed boy with a bizarre hunting bow. A moment passed. I wondered what they would do, how long the hunter would wait before he struck us down under the suspicious eyes of the public, how Daria had dragged herself from the grip of death and how I could do the same. 

The people charged. Flocks of faces rushed toward me, a blur of diverse eyes and faces and freckles and not. Hands gripped my arm. I was led into the crowd. Daria disappeared in the buzz. A man’s yelp. A head of fiery red hair dropped to the ground, swarmed by fists. Shop. Blazed through the door, items crashing to the floor, a table newly cleared. Hoisted up. Beads of sweat. 

“Daria!” I thrashed against the hands. I was held firm, pinned on the table. Red first aid kit. Bandaids spilled. Aspirin clashed to the tile. Gauze pressed to my chest, pain like glass shards ripping my heart. I couldn’t see. The world started to blur. Eyes wouldn’t focus. Hair tickled my clavicle, a worker bending to examine the wound.

“Bloedgroep? Bloedgroep?” I blinked, squeezing my eyes tight. It sounded like  “blood group,” should I respond? Would human medical treatment even work on me? It was hard to tell what memories were real and what memories were shown to me in a slideshow by my mother to give the illusion that I’d always lived in Ohio. Had I ever truly been injured before my life plunged into this insanity?

The mass of people pressed gauze to my wound, dialed numbers furiously on their phones, asked me questions in Afrikaans that I had no clue how to answer. Through the cacophony of noise I heard a voice,

“Selene, what’s your blood type?” I froze. My arms fell from where they were thrashing. I knew that voice. It was a voice that had been embarrassed in the desert, torn with emotion, a voice that now sounded pleasant, with a soft British accent and a steady rhythm. Talia? 

“A-negative?” I could just barely recall my mother…well, not my mother…Melissa? Telling me that I had a rare blood type, one that didn’t really match up with my mother and father’s. No wonder. They weren’t my family at all, just some greedy farmers with a freaky desire to control something beyond themselves. How could I never have asked them about it? My blood type, my affinity for the night where they were morning people, my obviously different appearance, resembling neither one of my “parents” in any way. 

“Selene? Come back to me! Come on!” I snapped open my eyes again. They felt like they had immense weights pressing down on them, trying to drag me into unconsciousness. Above me, through a curtain of loose-hanging blond hair, Talia wriggled her fingers. 

Little droplets of water splashed on my nose. I blinked harder, the shock of cold water stinging my skin. I felt her other hand on my wrist, then I convulsed. A sharp pain stung my skin! Throwing my hips off the table, I yelped. A bolt of electricity! Did she just…shock me? A fizzling warmth climbed through my body, activating every nerve, buzzing and thrumming with power.

The fog hanging over my thoughts began to recede, alternating shocks of cold water dribbling down my nose and electricity fizzing in my veins. Alertness began to return as the jolts of energy spiked in my blood. 

“Where’s Daria?” I felt another shock, Talia’s eyes intently focused on the crowds of people unrolling gauze and conversing with authorities. I felt myself lifted off the table. Canvas under my dress. A stretcher. “Talia! Talia!!!” My throat ripped with the words.
“Shhhh…” Talia ducked close to my ear, waddling alongside the stretcher. The world swayed, a jangle of bells as we passed through the door frame, chest stubbornly throbbing from the wound. 

“Kenna’s with her, she’ll go to the same hospital as you. Try to use your power if you can…I think it helps heal you,” she paused, climbing in alongside me as I was lifted into the ambulance. After the doors shut, she hastily added, “I don’t know for sure though.” Like if my power didn’t do anything to help, she would feel guilty. As though I would feel betrayed if her advice didn’t work. 

I would’ve smirked at that. But my head pounded. My eyes stung from the harsh fluorescents. Blasts of noise seemed to blare from every orifice it could: sirens, heart monitors, voices, wheels, even the buzz of the filaments in the overhead lights. I barely grasped what Talia was talking about when she continued, 

 “But you have to try. Keep it contained, close, maybe restrict it to your fist. You already stand out enough with…” she gestured vaguely to my silver dress, wet with blood, sea spray, and vomit from rough days on the ship. “Lord knows you don’t need any of the suspicion that inevitably comes with the usual…you know, harnessing starlight, summoning beams, drawing an aura of pure silver or gold around you like an angel, the like.” I registered the words, dimly. Her shocks were wearing off, the raindrops had become calming rather than startling.

My head lolled to the side; even her soft whispers had begun to grate my ears. I wanted so badly to fall asleep, drift through the yawning doorway and into the darkness. They must be feeding me a sedative through the IV…so that was what the prick was from? But I let the light flow to my limp palm. Visualizing the stars through the ceiling, beyond the clouds and daylight, beyond the atmosphere, beyond our Earth. Blazing somewhere high in the heavens, glittering, burning, yearning for my call. I was ready to receive it. But there was one thing I had to do first. One question looming in my mind.

“Talia?” She was at my side immediately.

“Yes?”

“What were all those people gathered around?” I saw something flash in her eyes. Her arms tensed, she stepped back slightly, knitting her brows. With a sigh, she gripped my hand and said,

“It was Zara. She was struck and…” she took in a deep breath, a shuddering breath, a sad breath. “She let go and I, I–Zara’s gone, Selene.” I stared at her, blankly, unable to register her words. Daria had been gone too, but the way she said it, “she let go…”

Sensing my hesitancy, Talia sighed.

“The doctors will do everything they can for you and Daria. But Zara didn’t have a chance. She’s dead, Selene. And she’s not coming back.”

Writer's Wednesday!

Writer’s Wednesday! Elementals–Afterlife

On a day like that, it was impossible to feel like everything is okay. Some people have an unfaltering belief in the positive outlook: rainbows always come after the rain–as long as you let the sun shine through.

 I used to think that way too, when I was Mira Casse, a starry-eyed teen with a passion for the sky. But there was no silver lining for the cloud that had eclipsed my life. I had been as normal as I ever could have been, a month ago. Now I was huddled in an alley, clutching the limp form of a girl I’d barely known. 

I shuddered, letting the tears spring to my eyes. I hadn’t cried in a long time, it seemed, and with every petty little heartbreak I’d endured in my high school years, the cries had felt freeing–as though the warm torrent of tears that slid down my cheeks carried all my sorrow with it, lightening the swirling storm in my heart.

This cry was different. It was a cruel, empty, shameful act of cowardice in the face of death. It was trying to hide from my grief, wake up from this enduring nightmare of the last few weeks. I cradled in my arms a lifeless prodigy that I had barely known, a sweet Italian girl without the slightest inkling of how vast her powers truly were. A heavenly embodiment of the sea with endless possibilities. Killed within the course of a few days. A wound from a ship. An arrow to the back. Daria was dead.

Zara had taken off with determination in her gaze, chasing after a young woman, screaming after her insistently and leaving us in the dust. Talia said the name was that of her long-lost sister: the one who had disappeared years ago after running away to Kommetjie… the one that had never come back. Zara was gone, too. A poor girl with a missing sister and a tortured past, condemned by her whole village for trying to help them. Knowing Artemis’s games, the “sister” Zara was chasing was nothing but an illusion to lure her away. If that was true, as I suspected it was? Zara was dead.

Curled in a dank, fetid alley, I willed death to come take away my suffering. Kenna and Talia sat on either side of me, leaning their heads on my shoulders. Kenna conjured sparks and swirling ashes in the air, tinkering with the curling threads of fire that hung suspended in her control. 

Her left knee jittered, body wrought with tension and unasked questions that I could sense on her tongue. How much longer will we rest? The mercenaries were without a doubt nearby, canvassing the area. But I was thankful she didn’t ask the question. I couldn’t imagine moving right now, taking a step forward and running away again. Running away was what had brought me here, to the stench of death congealing on the humid air, to the darkest shame of my heart: I wished I was human. 

Somewhere in me I felt Mira Casse, striding boldly down the dark hall, smelling the scent of cherry blossoms and fresh grass wafting in from the open window. A beautiful high school girl dreaming under a blanket of stars, gazing up at the brilliant Ohio sky and yearning to be a part of the vast unknown of the heavens. Human. Loving and living, heart cracking and mending, carefree and vivacious under the blazing starlight. I wanted more than this twisted, power-filled life that I was trapped in. I wanted more for all of us.

I was going to be an astronomer. Kenna could have been a firefighter or a military officer, Daria a marine biologist. Talia might have become a lead meteorologist, growing out of her shyness and lighting up the screen. Zara could’ve been an environmental biologist, studying the natural world and the Earth. Now two were dead. Three quivering in an alley, waiting on a command from some unknown force, longing for an apparition to show us the way, to drink some honeycomb elixir and let myself fade away into the stars. 

Footsteps sounded, not far away. The drum of sound grew with each passing moment, a heavy tread like a large man in boots. I could feel myself floating away, detaching from reality. Kenna’s hands grabbed me roughly, pulling on me. I cried out, blind with pain, batting away her hand. 

“Leave me! Run! I can’t leave her alone.” Clutching Daria to my chest, I stroked her hair, tears spilling over the girl that I had barely known. Kenna shook me with increased fervor, urging me with words that I couldn’t hear. The world was a haze of tears, a meaningless blur of voices and dead eyes. 

“Selene, she’s dead! We have to go!” Talia insisted, her clear, frantic voice cutting through my hysteria. More than anything, I yearned for Mira Casse. I wanted to be a human; I never wanted to run again. Let Artemis kill me. Let me drown in my sorrow and join Daria. Perhaps I’d meet my mother again, face framed with blonde locks. Braiding my hair, gazing at me with pure, human pride. My beautiful angel. One day you will be among the stars, where you belong. But we need your light on Earth, Mira. Let it glow. 

I had failed her, the mother who had never truly been my mother at all. Kenna squeezed my hand, as though in a silent goodbye. She knew better than anyone that I wouldn’t move unless she physically dragged me away. That wasn’t what I wanted, they knew. Embers and Storm, bright-eyed, able to change the world. My time was up.

As the pounding footsteps grew ever louder, the two girls slipped out of the alley, disappearing from sight. On cue, a man thundered into the dank sliver of space. Stark red hair, ghostly pale skin sprayed with freckles, a silver knife clutched threateningly in his palm. Hugging Daria close, I closed her eyes with a butterfly-soft touch and waited to die.

🌊Daria

Daria had always imagined life after death a certain way, the way that had been ingrained in her head since the moment she was born. Good souls go to heaven. Sinners go to hell. 

Heaven, a billowing landscape of pillowy white clouds, beams of golden sun streaming through the puffy wisps. Everything you’d ever loved and lost, your family you’d never gotten to meet, or the ones that had gone too soon. A childhood dog trotting energetically with a bone, youthful as a small puppy and as soft as the cotton-candy clouds themselves. The chiming of the Saint Maria Assunta church bells filling the air with warm, joyful chords. 

Hell, a fiery chasm of endless tortures. Sinners on every level uniquely punished by twisted demons. The flap of leathery winds. A stench of brimstone and diseased breath.

Instead, Daria found herself in midnight’s blank grasp. Nothingness. Empty black as far as the eye could see, neither hot nor cold, but an uncomfortable sensation of…no sensation at all. There was no tether to the outside world, nothing but the faint sound of lapping water somewhere in the blackness.

“Mom? Are you out there?” she asked the dark in her native language, hopeful phrases rolling off her tongue. Daria expected at least an echo of her words, to hear the sweet Italian syllables cascade into the air. It was as though her sound was immediately quenched, a towel thrown down onto a bass drum.

 Disappointment swelled in her unembodied conscience. Water. Just water, a soothing lap like the waves on the shore outside her Positano home. She should have known better than to hope: for a spirit-filled heaven with soaring white clouds, for her late mother’s warm touch and sweet bakery smell, for anything more out of death but an infinite oblivion. 

Out of the dark, a great sob came to her, nothing like the church bells from her seaside home. Selene, she’s dead! We have to go! 

A voice! Was it her own thought? Surely not; it was a voice like raindrops on the roof, rapid, frantic. Was that what the angels sounded like?

Daria wished she could feel something: the blissful warmth she imagined of heaven…or even the fiery cold of hell. Instead, she felt no sensation at all: no underlying feel of being. It was a sensory-deprivation chamber, a distant sound of lapping water and screams and pounding feet. Of ragged breath now, a distant voice coming from all sides then not at all.

Was she being held in the arms of her mother, awoken from a nightmare that had lasted years and years? A nightmare where she set off to work one day, still smelling like pastries from the day before? A nightmare where Daria’s mother never returned except for a motionless body in a casket, a dismal funeral on a rainy day? Or was she laying on a coroners’ table, being examined for her strange powers, poked and prodded and shocked with electrons?

All she knew was that this was the end of the line, and…somehow, she knew that she was being held. There was no sensation. No contact. Just a gut feeling. As though from an echo in a deep, dark cave, Daria could hear the sounds of sobs, gasping breath. 

Someone out in the other world was crying for her, someone she knew if only in a dream. She wished she could tell the voice that she wasn’t in pain. Memories of an arrow rose and fell, crumbling in the oblivion. Barely an inkling anymore…but the person sounded as though their heart was breaking, as though watching whatever was left of Daria hurt her soul. She wished she could tell the voice she wasn’t in pain there.

There was no suffering, no joy either: she supposed that was all she could ask of Death. Greedy of her to think that her failure to live would be rewarded by clouds and a smiling face. 

Suddenly, something called to her. She felt a tugging at her thoughts, a power, a strength–water? An invisible tether snapped into creation, an olive branch extended from her to the other side. 

They weren’t by the sea anymore; the water that called her had to be tears. Selfish. Selfish! But Daria grabbed onto them, pulling the droplets through into the nothingness. A drop of water splatted on her nose.

Wait! She was dead. Yes. Certainly. Embroiled in darkness, she was dead–so why did she feel the splat of water hitting her skin? 

A feeling! 

A sensation!

A state of being was forming in the dark. More water called. She received it, pulling it closer, hearing a vacuum suction as she dragged each tear through. Another splat, another…baffling. Baffling! But unmistakable water…

“Mamma? Mamma, mi senti?” Mom? Mom, can you hear me? The words echoed this time, the darkness accepting them rather than suffocating them. Still no response–her heart dropped with realization: the tears I am summoning are not the tears of an angel, of my mother bringing me closer to Heaven. They are the tears of a human. I’m being pulled back! 

Abruptly she stopped seeking out the water. It hovered somewhere out of reach, itching for her call. She could feel her nose now, wrinkling as the droplet slid down her cheek and slithered down her throat. 

Was this what she wanted? Each tear Daria pulled through to that side–death’s side–was strengthening her tether to the living world. Was she prepared to go back to pain, to the prick of the arrow throbbing in her back, to the metallic gush of blood through her tattered black swimsuit? 

This should be easy, she thought, wrinkling her nose, still trying to spread the state of being down to her legs, her toes, her fingertips. 

It should be an easy choice: seize the connection her power brought, spring forward into life to help that suffering voice. But–in a way–the nothingness was comfort. It was uniquely sweet in its blankness. 

She was mortally wounded in the living world–flesh torn by a wooden hull, skin pierced by an arrow. But there, floating in the black…she was nothing. No pain, but at the hefty price of no pleasure. Daria was willing to pay that price.

Just as she began to let go of the sensations of face and nose and teardrops, just as she was ready to hope for a heaven beyond this black, she heard a voice. 

Take me. Kill me if you want to, I won’t fight! I’m done running from Artemis for my choice…I’ll never be ready to live forever. But if Daria…Her face contorted, startled to hear her name in the disembodied words…if Daria, an innocent, had to die for the Huntress’ agenda, it seems right that I die too before she can torture me for her own gain. I will take every opportunity to steal her pleasure. I will relish the fact that I will die here, with Daria. So do it. Do it! Kill me. Because I will not leave this alley alive.

Daria didn’t even have to make the choice. She didn’t have to know who it was, the voice on the other side of the void. She called every single drop of water from the girl’s tears, every ounce of humidity from the living world, every essence of being from the place where she lay dead.

In a rush of light, life sprang forward to her body. She felt the thud of her heart in my chest. Her eyes snapped open, tears splashing across her skin, tangling themselves in her hair. An odor foul and bloody as death itself washed through her nostrils. 

Selene was above her, midnight hair tickling her chin, face gaunt yet strikingly gorgeous in its moondust whiteness. Daria’s side throbbed, her back throbbed, her head throbbed, and yet when she sucked in a breath, hope flooded her senses. She was alive. And she wasn’t going to let Selene die.

Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 3- Part 3- Burned Star

The nameless people invited them to stay for dinner, a hearty scramble of potatoes and mystery meat. She held Jax’s hand under the table. Everything had changed in the blink of an eye. Colliding with the rock, her neck sticky with blood–she could hardly remember the bogs now, didn’t have the slightest idea of how far she got before she collapsed.

It wasn’t a dramatic fade out like in the movies: slowly falling into the silt, a curtain of darkness drifting lazily over her eyes, the sounds of the earthquake fading away as the black settled in. No–she didn’t remember much, but she remembered it was quick. Staggering slightly behind Jax, then abruptly black, a power outage in a bustling metro.

Now she was here, wherever here was. The women had explained how Jax had hauled her in uninvited,

“Barely able to lift his eyes from you for a second! He didn’t notice us lot til’ a good five seconds after he barged in!” A woman clucked, lowering her gaze,

“Even my husband doesn’t look at me like that…all concerned and wonderfilled, like I’m an angel on Earth with a broken wing. I would be charmed, except that he mouthed off to my mute brother-in-law as he was trying to take him for new clothes.”

“Either way, the poor boy thought you were on death’s door! Rita almost worried him to death, talking about how you wouldn’t make it through the hour.” 

After that, the women were quieter. They knew just as well as she did: that much blood loss was bound to take its toll, if not now, then sometime soon. 

Jax was out cold for a while, long enough for her to try (and fail) at making conversation with Rita. Ash had never been the talkative type, but she was starved for human interaction with a girl–or really anyone other than her lovable “always-dirty-football-player” of a companion. But, apparently, Rita was not the talkative type either. And not starved for basic human-girl interaction.

She was a beautiful girl, cold as ice, with a haughty air that sent shivers down your spine. Without saying a word, Rita had already skyrocketed to the top of Ash’s list of female powerhouses. Everything about her screamed “strong,” like an untouchable goddess or a model in a magazine. 

She would have been popular back at school, Ash had thought, the kind of girl that annihilates everyone in the mile run without breaking a sweat, the kind of girl that every boy trips over themselves with desire to get, the kind of girl that dominates every single sport the school offers. Ash let the thought die away, the embarrassing memories of Rita faded and a new one coalesced. It was a vision, an imprint, a sweetness made of golden hair, burning skin, a lingering scent of pine and morning dew.

The kiss. It lingered on her lips, in her mind, the warmth of his skin swirling on her fingertips. Wow. Electricity, energizing her body and rolling across her heart like a lightning bolt striking water. Alive, charged with passion, the physical weakness dissipated for a moment. She was floating on air.

The moment was tantalizing, dangling in the back of her mind like a cat’s toy as she scooped a spoonful of potato into her mouth. But she refused to be a complacent maiden, a two-dimensional character that swoons over a boy after he saves her. 

As much as the role was sweet, it wasn’t her. With resolve, she shoved another clump of ambiguous meat into her mouth. But, a light in the swirl of emotion…

I saved him first. The thought soothed her turmoil, a morsel of triumph, as though now their kiss was “justified.” Not that hauling deadweight through a mud bog was equal to hesitantly lifting him from the ground; it wasn’t, but the sentiment made her feel better about the electricity that pulsed through her body, the mortifying way her cheeks burned as she smothered herself with mashed potatoes. It would have happened anyway. Definitely. But it helped to know this. 

Hyperaware of the closeness between them, Ash cleared her throat, licking away bitter mystery meat morsels from her teeth. 

“So…uh, not to be…” 

All eyes were pinned on her abruptly, the only sound in the room the mushy chewing of rations and crackling flames in the woodstove. Jax’s thumb was drawing circles on her palm–which, she could resentfully admit, didn’t help her train of thought. Finally the word leapt to her tongue.

“Ungrateful? But, despite, you know, not having any weapons,” she paused, certain she saw one of the men’s brows raise in suspicion, “at all. No weapons at all.” Bad amendment, unnecessary–paranoia was getting to her.

“Why did you help us? How did you know we weren’t dangerous?” The question hung on the air for a moment. All three men lifted their forks to their mouths, an eerily synchronized motion, the small children twiddled their utensils between their fingers, eyes downcast as though they had learned that it was easier to let someone else answer. From the looks on the adult’s faces, they felt the same way. 

It was Rita that finally spoke…grudgingly, as though she had places to be other than here, like a tired teacher explaining third grade math to a high school student. Like Ms. Weatherby with all of Jax’s friends…after a moment, she let the thought drop. That was no way to think of the dead.

“Easy. Not only are you twigs with tight fitting clothes, impossible to hide weapons in, you don’t bear Their mark on your neck. The way this one sauntered in–” she pointed an accusatory fork at Jax, “it was like his throat was glowing with the lack of it, almost boisterously clear.” 

“Wait, who are They?” Jax asked, unconsciously fingering his neck.

If the room had been quiet before, it was dead silent now. A young girl’s spoon clattered to the floor, a little boy practically cringing back in his seat. Rita regarded them coolly. 

“Cannibals. A traveling band of the worst parts of society.” Ash wished now that Rita would have stopped there, it might have saved her sleep and helped her in the future. But she didn’t. The kids writhed in their seats…the women shooed them away from the table wordlessly. All 5 sprang from the table, bursting through the door into the muck.

“They take women as slaves, men to pull the carts of the Originals–the first members. Young girls are held in cages or forced to clear the path ahead, young boys…” she glanced at Jax, emerald eyes glinting in the light, unfazed. 

“Slaughtered for meat. No use for them. Feral dogs trail along their path begging for scraps. They take anyone in their path, teenagers especially. As far as I can tell, they never stop travelling their nomadic quest. Suck cities dry of stored food or supplies, the Originals taking as many wives as they like, burning a star into their arm so they can be returned to them if they escape.

“And Their symbol? A brand on the neck, an exploding sun. No name for the group, just a silent agreement with the world that any survivor they find is their property. No exceptions.”

Ash exchanged a horrified look with Jax, squeezing his hand tighter; it had started to tremble. A tap on the floor told her her foot had begun to jitter. It only did that when something was wrong–very wrong.

She knew she should leave Rita’s speech at that, kindly thank the family for the meal and book it for civilization, wherever that may be. Maybe they could find guns, knives, anything to protect themselves against this gang. But something gnawed at her mind, the curiosity she had never had an affinity for rearing its ugly head. Before she could stop herself, the words spilled out.

“How do you know so much about Them?” 

Rita smiled. A hollow smile. The adults all averted their eyes, a man lightly resting his hand on his holster, a pudgy-faced woman doing a 180 in her chair. 

No one looked at the beautiful teenage girl, with a smatter of freckles across her cheeks and delicate blonde hair. And no one said a word as she lifted her sleeve to reveal an ugly black burn, a birthmark gone wrong–imprinted roughly, in the shape of a star.

***************

“Thank you so much for helping Ashley and myself. My apologies for my misunderstanding of your husband’s condition–I truly didn’t know.” The woman that had hummed at his side smiled, face barely moving her bun was so tight. She handed him their clothing, still a bit damp but entirely unspeckled by the foul-smelling mud. 

“Tell the men that I am indebted to them for my life, and if our paths do cross again, hopefully I can repay you for the meal and your troubles. The wooziness has improved as we speak.” Ash shook the woman’s outstretched hand; if she was shocked by the antiquated gesture, she didn’t show it, firmly shaking it without missing a beat. It was an outdated practice, one that hadn’t been used since the Quarantine long ago. 

With that, they left the squat concrete building, glancing back to see the kids ushered inside, the pine door slamming shut before they had a chance to wave goodbye. At least that was one practice that had survived the Quarantine and the Burn. Waving. 

Never hello, however. Only goodbye. Maybe that was symbolic of the world as it had been for the last 2 years: mournful. 

Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 3- Part 2- Storm Clouds and Smoke

Image from Photos.com
Connection to the story: “Didn’t matter. Not now. He let the thought curl up and morph, smoke twisting into the sky and evaporating in the clouds.”

Children in bunk beds. Three men wielding silver-plated pistols, pointed directly at him. Three women, draped in raggedy hoop skirts and regarding him warily, hair either up in a tight bun or falling flat and tangled around their shoulders. A beautiful girl: bright green eyes and a smattering of freckles dotting her cheeks, blonde hair tied up in a bouncy ponytail. The girl bared her teeth, the vicious smile of a vixen who spotted a baby chick, defenseless and small and ripe for slaughter.

“Leave. Now. This is our territory–no charity here,” she growled. He felt the urge to sprint away, leave Ash on their doorstep where she would be better off. Eyeing their emaciated frames and jutting ribs, he thought better. 

“It’s not for me,” He stepped carefully off the rug, cold enveloping his feet. Slowly, gently, Jax set Ash down on the floor. Her limp body sprawled on the concrete like a starfish, a dribble of red speckling the gray. The men were the first to move, lifting her head to examine the wound, all the while pointing a pistol directly at his forehead.

“Can I come in?” The girl he would call ‘Vixen’ looked him over like a piece of meat in a deli window, without compassion or resentment, but confusion. Looking him over for weapons, perhaps. After a second, he took the silence as an invitation. Skirting the perimeter, he stood uncertainly by Vixen, cringing under the stares of the children and women.

“I, um…I didn’t know there were others still out there,” he said conversationally, tingling at his proximity to another human other than Ash. Vixen was strikingly gorgeous, an air of cool indifference about her that made him feel like he was nothing more than a clump of molecules and a mop of dirty blond hair. 

“How did she die?”

“I…what?” She pointed at Ash, whose head was propped off the floor, gauze pressed against the bleeding wound. Sharp rock fragments littered the floor where they’d been pulled from her skin. 

“Your girlfriend. How did she die?” His face went red. Some of the small children peered from the bunks curiously, ears twitching like microphones searching for audio. The girls that were mature enough to know the conversation was juicy giggled, little boys just sat confused on the rumpled sheets.

“She’s not my girlfriend. And she won’t… she won’t–” 

“Die?” Vixen rolled her eyes, “she most certainly will. I’ve studied organs, blood, arteries, and medicine extensively. That much blood loss will kill her, unless she fights harder than a bucking bronco.” 

That penetrating gaze slid over Ash’s clothing: muddy black leggings and tattered USA tank top, little gold embellishments on the neckline, rips revealing her trim waistline scattered with scars. Like a critic that had tasted an unsatisfactory meal, Vixen added,

“I doubt she’s much of a fighter.” Jax’s fist tensed. She twirled her hair around her finger thoughtfully, staring at Ash with a condescending spark in her eyes that he immediately resented.

 “A rebellious type…lonely? All flash and no substance, maybe.” She said it casually, icily, like the crumpled girl was nothing more than a defective product.

“Or a goth, but I doubt that. You see, anyone can skip class and look like a hero, but not anyone can shoot a crossbow.” He snarled, but was afraid to raise his voice to respond. Something gave Jax the feeling that Vixen would stab him before the syllables hit the air.

“She’s more than that. As for her wound, we were camped out at the grotto beyond the mud bogs when the earthquake hit. Head slammed against a rock outcropping, I think.” 

A man stepped away from Ash, lumbering over to the two teenagers with a suspicious stare that wavered between the two of them, pausing on Vixen’s upturned lip then swaying to Jax’s muddy, tense face. He grunted once, deep in his throat, looking at Vixen in a wordless exchange. She brushed a strand of gold off her face, one more sneering scan of his figure,

“Harmless. No weapons.” Vixen made eye contact once, briefly, green eyes curious and cold as ice. A dismissive flick of the fingers. The man grunted, wordlessly grabbing Jax’s arm and dragging him to the door.

“Hey, what are you–”

Furious, the man tugged him harder: calloused, beefy hands. Jax cried out, the man threw up an empty hand, exasperated. 

“I need to be with her! Where are you taking me?” Silence. Dirt underfoot. The crunch of rocks under Jax’s scrambling sneakers.A threat lingered in the man’s jaw, but he didn’t say a word.

“Why aren’t you answering me, you freak! Dragging me off to eat me? Cut me up in a toolshed? Season me with salt, pepper, and a little of your disgusting swamp water?” Silence. They stopped, air thick with tension. 

Flames in his eyes, the man unhinged his jaw. In the place where his tongue should be, an ugly, scarred stump of moist taffy tissue flicked uselessly, saliva saturating his gaping maw. The man threw out his hand, the quick strike of a cobra, fist connecting with temple before you could bat an eye.

********

Distantly, he could hear a woman’s humming. A lovely tune, slow and melodic, something familiar but unplaceable now. Some song on the radio, he thought: something he had loved, something that he would have known the chorus to. 

Before the Burn.  Before all that was left was ruins and grief, shame at his retreat from his home. Shame that he let it burn. 

As much as he could tell himself they were all dead by the time he had left, that he had heard their screams and that there was no way to get to them, there was no way to know. When he had escaped the Burn, did he leave behind a little sister, burned but not dead, crying for help? Screaming his name into the smoke? Wondering why her chest felt tight, why her eyes watered?

Didn’t matter. Not now. He let the thought curl up and morph, smoke twisting into the sky and evaporating in the clouds. The humming was louder, was she getting nearer?

 He imagined someone pretty: a girl with rain cloud eyes and a mane of black hair cascading down her back, a girl of mystery and grace. Or maybe a silly little girl, button nose and dimples–Olive. Blonde, light smile lines on the corners of her eyes–Mom. 

He’d like to imagine it was the storm cloud girl, soft and warm, hiding under a threatening stare… he didn’t know why, exactly–he certainly didn’t know her name. 

But she was the least blurry, a clear vision in his mind. Humming a slow song as ash drifted around her, glancing down at him, a golden boy sleeping on a cloud.

Jax stirred, the melody surrounding him, floating in an ocean-like bliss, a bubble floating to the surface of consciousness. Fingers twitching. A harsh grunt. Grating. Menacing.

He jolted awake, gasping for air. The world flooded back abruptly: cold stone walls to his left, a nestle of blankets enveloping his body. Hands lightly fluffing the pillow beside him. They drew away abruptly, surprised. 

A woman he didn’t know; pudgy face, kind eyes, a tight bun that pulled her forehead tight. Disappointment fleeted across his face, a dark shadow skipping lightly over his heart. The storm cloud girl wasn’t the one who had been humming. Not Olive, his little sister, not his mother, just a stranger in a hard cement place. 

“I was wondering when you would come to. Your girlfriend is awake, but she’s lost a lot of blood. I suggest you go see her–”

“Wait! My girlfriend?” The woman nodded, bushy brows knitting. 

“She said her name was… Ashley?” It took him a moment for the memories to come back; his brain felt like an artery after eating syrup-dipped bacon–immensely clogged. Ash. Of course.  The connection was slow…no one called her Ashley at school, not even the teachers.

“Oh…uh, right. Thank you. Ms.” The woman cast him a sideways glance for his curtness; he didn’t bother to correct her on the “girlfriend thing.” That was two people now, and he had already determined it was easier not to say anything.

Jax slipped out of the bunk, peeling off the blankets in a half-hearted attempt at keeping them organized. He barely acknowledged the new clothes that he wore–a long-sleeved flannel (impractical in this heat) and stiff cargo shorts with about a million pockets–or the fact that one of the men must have changed him into it while he was unconscious. Hopefully not the mute without a tongue…already he felt drops of guilt coalescing, embarrassment heating his cheeks as he surveyed the room.

He saw her after a second, eyes nearly skipping right past her. Ash. Shriveled against a wall, hair pulled in two neat braids behind her pale face. She looked sickly, incredibly weak, each one of her muscles strained just to hold herself upright. Her face held none of the underlying softness of the storm cloud girl; the one he had stored in his memory under her name. Cheeks sallow and sunken. Gunmetal eyes weary and unfocused.

Heart pounding, knees weak, he stepped closer. They were mere inches apart. No hesitation. Wordlessly, he drew her into a hug. Gently, he felt her back lift from the wall, stable in his arms. She smelled like mud and dry leaves, like salty sea air and a soft red sunset, smelled like familiarity and comfort and relief. 

On some level he was aware of the eyes on his back, the judgement and distaste that he didn’t need to turn around to feel. Didn’t matter. Not now. He didn’t draw away, her name floating on his tongue like a prayer,

“Ash…” 

She drew back slightly, just enough so she could see his face. Each millimeter she moved was a chasm, an endless gorge. Ash looked up at him, a weak smile dancing on her lips. A second passed, nothing said. Then a fire lit in her eyes, a joke in her grin.

“I go by Ashley now.”

Jax smiled.

And he kissed her like he’d never kissed anyone before.

Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 3, Part 1- Blood Loss

Carrying her deadweight in his arms, Jax had the strangest sensation that the only hope for humanity was bleeding out in his grasp. Staggering blindly through the bog, every step was a haze of fetid, oozing silt. Tremors threw him down again and again, sprays of silt and wet sediment splattering his face, his hair. Splattering her. Her limp body. Her unmoving chest. Her throat that refused to take in a breath. Her eyes that wouldn’t open. 

Sweat dripped down his face in obnoxious beads. Tremor. Trip. Check her pulse. Tremor. Trip. Wipe mud from his eyes. Tremor. Trip. Peer ahead at the pudgy square of blocks on the horizon, hope embodied in the squat cement cube, barely a smudge against the rapidly darkening sky. 

Another rumble rocked the earth, and he clutched Ash close as he toppled backwards into the goop. More layers of burnt umber mud sloshed around him, a marshy mix of thin liquid and viscous silt; as he lifted himself from the muck, Jax was struck with deja vu thinking of Caroline’s tough pink-sparkle slime back home, played with so much it was almost unmoldable. But this wasn’t the neon goop. And he would never see Caroline’s freckled nose scrunch up in a smile, or roll his eyes at her incessant ramblings.

Oh, how he hated the glitter slime–all over the couch, his clothes, his computer–but thinking back, he would give up everything to see his little sister light up, hear her ramble about how the chemical compounds affected plasticity and scent. Jax wondered what Caroline would say about the mud. Or how the blood loss was already taking its toll on Ash as it gushed down her neck…

Can’t think about that. Won’t. The building ahead was salvation in the pain, some stability juxtaposed against the sloshing bogs and shifting sands of this wasteland: We should never have left the capital… at least there are no falling boulders. And there would have been some water that wasn’t deep in a grotto or riddled with dirt. Maybe there would be medical supplies… water reserves… gauze bandages… a towel… something, anything to save her life. 

He couldn’t be alone. Not before–with his admittedly continuous stream of girlfriends, his family, friends, football buddies–and not now…he couldn’t let her die. She was the only ally he had in the burned world. Perhaps the only person alive at all. 

Another step, another disgusting squish.

That would have made his Jenny and Olive screw up their faces and croon “ewwww!” until their faces turned red with air loss, he thought wistfully, imagining his little sisters’ scrunched noses and obnoxious giggles.

Another step, another scathing memory burned into his mind’s eye, scalding his heart in bittersweet thoughts, bathing in a vat of melted lemon candies. 

I wonder what they would think of me now. Awful thought. Painful thought. Funny thought, because he knew Caroline would be batting her lashes, asking him if Ash was his new girlfriend and shutting his computer relentlessly until he answered. Jax stored the notion in a box, deep in his mind, filing away the bittersweet wonderings for later. Now was the only thing that mattered.

He had arrived at the crest of the slope, the ambiguous, runny-icing, slippery point where the mud reluctantly softened its grip on the countryside. Within feet of the building, now, so close he could reach out and touch if he strained hard enough. But was he too late? 

Her skin was gritty under his fingers; the pulse at the base of her throat fading as he touched his hand to her neck. Dirt speckled her closed lids like crusted-on freckles, the stifling sunlight dripping down her brow in plump drops, a stench of sweat intermingling with rancid swamp water and pore-clogging dust suspended in the stuffy air. 

The maple boards of the door bowed under their own weight–old and decrepit like an aging lumberjack, spotted and smelling faintly of sap. Jax threw open the door, timbers rattling in their frame. Readjusting his grip, he saw Ash’s pale lids flutter faintly, pupils moving rapidly in a pseudo-sleep. Her lips twitched, a croak of a voice creaking from her dirt-crusted lips, “I can’t feel my fingers…” 

“I know, I know. We’re almost there, you’re okay.” Even as he said it a shiver rattled down his spine: there was no guarantee she would make it through the day. Through the hour. She went limp again, consciousness gone as quickly as it came. Stepping inside, he scanned the room and recoiled.

Twelve sets of eyes pinned him to his place. He was a deer in headlights, staring straight down the barrels of three separate guns.

Writer's Wednesday!

Midnight Rogue 2- Vengeance… Writer’s Wednesday!

Image from Shutterstock

I’m a stalker. Officially. He scrunched up his face, fingering the tape and decisively pasting the picture on his cluttered wall. As soon as the paper left his hands, he sighed, gazing at the mess of notes that scattered his walls. Fragments of the life of a killer. An assassin. A girl. A girl. Was this really all about her? 

No. He could deny it all he wanted, but this wasn’t about the assassin girl, the vengeful, breathtakingly beautiful goddess of the night that prowled the boroughs. No. This didn’t have anything to do with her, he decided. It was about who she had killed. 

The boy took two steps back, nearly running into his disastrous desk… the one scattered with bright yellow post-it notes that seemed ironically happy. Sunshine, golden honey dribblings, sweet canary songs, autumn leaves in the park on Rachington Avenue, sugary candy yellow. Why were the words written on them all about murder? Regret? C.S.I. evidence?

Looking at the sprawl of information on his wall, fragments of bloody brutality and silver dagger slayings. Fragments of her. The assassin. The justice-bringer. 

I’m just like those stereotypical victim characters in the movies, their only use to cry their eyes out and plot half-baked revenge schemes that never work. At least I didn’t link the pictures with red yarn. The only difference between me and the “dead-family-member,” vengeful character is–

Knock knock! The boy yelped, recoiling and slamming his back against the desk. 

“Ooow… frickin…fricker…stupid…desk!” He growled, teeth tearing at his lips with each word. Hopping over to the bathroom mirror, he ran a hand hastily through his bedhead hair. It wasn’t going to get better than this. No time to gel it. No time to brush his teeth, which probably should have been done hours ago when he woke up. Praying it wasn’t her, he hopped to the door, pain still shooting through his back…

Yup. It was her. Crap.

“Hey, Ben! There’s this new show on Netflix that looked really good and I-” she paused, seeing his flustered expression and unruly gingerbread-brown hair. Mentally cursing himself for his laziness, his cheeks flushed bright red, praying she wouldn’t say those words before he could collect his thoughts–

“Euh… should I go?” 

“No, no, sorry. Please! Come in!” Okay, now too desperate. With an uncertain smile that displayed her shiny row of purple braces, she meandered in, feet moving so lightly on the floor it was as though she was gliding over the wood. 

“Switched out the dark blue?” Ben asked her, swinging the door shut as she took in his room. The girl cocked her head, eyes still roving the cluttered room. 

“What do you mean?”

“Your braces. I like the purple.” His cheeks flushed again, and he cursed under his breath. She already knows about my sister and my investigation, and now I’m making creepy observations– his thoughts immediately halted when she smiled self consciously, sitting down on his bed. She looked like an angel sitting in the depths of hell, a vision of beauty right in front of him. Sitting on his bed, inky black hair stirred by her breath, sparkling black eyes.  

“Thanks. I don’t know, I liked the dark blue but it didn’t really match my cloak–not cloak. Uh… coat. And the purple is more mysterious.” Miranda cleared her throat awkwardly, averting her eyes. Cloak? Mysterious? An inkling popped into his head, one that he shoved aside. Irrational. Stupid. But true all the same: she matched the description perfectly… dark haired girl, tall, pale skin, cloak billowing behind her, braces. But Miranda was no killer, Ben thought, shoving the notion from his mind. It was just a slip in speech. Nothing more.

“You know, your wall is getting kinda… graphic.” 

“Huh?” He paused, following her dark gaze to the smattering of pictures dotting the wall of his apartment. “Oh. I’m sorry, I should have taken it down–”

“No, no, it’s okay. But, honestly, Ben, how long will you keep going with this? Hasn’t she been avenged enough? The Midnight Rogue slaughtered him a week ago. Justice has been served, Ben! Isn’t that what you wanted?” Her eyes grew abruptly stormy. She looked away, a glimmer of something other than concern flashing in her gaze. 

“Yes. Paisley is in a better place than this awful town, these horrible outer boroughs. But I need to thank her, Midnight Rogue. I need to know her, know why she did it. Why she killed him.” He gestured vaguely to the picture, a stocky man with a gaunt face and a ravaged stomach, torn and gushing dark blood. The man that killed his sister.

Miranda stood up, muscles taut, coal eyes glittering dangerously. Plucking her bag off the bed, she whipped it over her shoulder, fingers twitching as she brushed off her black leather jacket. 

“Isn’t it enough to have justice?” Her mouth was downturned, lips curled in a pained sneer. What is she talking about? A cluster of birds twittered nervously outside the window, a cloud passing over the sun as though the whole world was holding its breath. 

“Miranda? What are you talking about? It’s just… I need to find her. I don’t know why just… feel like it’s the right thing to do. For Paisley. For me.” The room was silent, the world around them proceeding lightly, apprehensively. Clanks sounded from the other side of the wall–the resident next door cooking spaghetti, from the smell of it. 

“Can’t you ever stop? I’ve done what I can, Ben. Paisley was my best friend… you are too. But she’s gone. And she’s never coming back.” Dusting off her skinny jeans, she turned, ice in her eyes, face slack and emotionless. Ben lunged for her hand, mouth curled in a desperate frown, freckled nose crinkled in confusion. She shook off his grip easily, opening the door to leave.

“Miranda! Wait, stop!” She paused for a fraction of a second, just long enough for his heart to falter and flail in his chest. He could think of nothing to say to her—thoughts empty except for the way Miranda’s name was bitterly sweet on his tongue, the storm cloud visage of her moon dust face, how the rare smiles lit up her eyes and made her cheeks go red. 

His tongue was lead in his mouth.

“The Midnight Rogue is dangerous, Ben. An enigma: a night prowling, devastatingly heartless, brutal avenger of the innocent,” her knuckles flexed on the door, face never softening from that emotionless glaze.

“She’s cruel, Ben. Just. Fair. Vengeful… and more dangerous than you could imagine. If  I were you, I would give it up. You’ve had your vengeance.” The door shut silently. It hurt almost as much as if she would have slammed it. 

Alone again, Ben collapsed on his bed, where Miranda had been moments before: bright eyed, excited, leather jacket shiny as an oil slick in the faint light that trickled through the window.

 How quickly she came and left, barely three minutes and enough to leave his heart aching with a sour, longing grief. A grief that wasn’t so much about Paisley as it was Miranda. It was a guilty truth… but a truth all the same. 

He told himself it would be different if he knew what set her off, what flipped that switch, that it would take her off his mind. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was something more, something he was too scared—too guilty?— to admit to himself. 

***************

The Midnight Rogue had found her next victim. Opening the hatch in the abandoned apartment floor, the assassin glided silently down the stairs, feet just barely padding the stained cedar, a leopardess stalking the jungle. She didn’t bother to close the hatch. The season for drug addicts and squatters seeking refuge had long passed, the winter months over and already deep in the rainy dregs of spring. There would be no one to intrude. It was time to get ready.

In the dim light of the cellar, everything was dull and grimy, grisled with gray soot. Something about the space struck a chord with her heart—perhaps it was the chill that permeated the space like the mournful spirit of a lonely ghost adrift in the air, dancing in sorrowful harmony with the clouds of dust. Or maybe the brutally thin slits of light falling through the bars were symbolic to the bars she had put around her heart; how little of the sweet, sweet sunshine she let herself have. 

Either way, to her it was one thing, and one thing only. A place to store her daggers. Rows and rows of razor sharp blades, meticulously cleaned and not a speck of blood in sight. 

Most assassins, those for hire or not, were sloppy. Blood spatters on their knives, fingerprints everywhere, wearing their true shoe size to the crime scene. Everyone knows to wear oversized boots and stuff them with newspaper. Anyone with a brain, at least. That wasn’t the only advantage she had over “regular” killers. Reputation or not, everyone underestimates a pale teenage girl with braces. 

If only they knew the coldness in her heart: a well of pain overflowing, a pounding surf of fury relentlessly beating in her mind. Some girls solved their anger with technology, speeches and tirades, mall trips (the metropolitan ones, at least—drugs seemed more popular in the outer boroughs). Bloodlust, however, was not a trait they had. The Midnight Rogue was overflowing with it.

She sauntered over to the daggers, running a hand over their handles gently, touch soft as an angel’s wing caressing a cloud. Envisioning her next victim, she fingered through the daggers, letting her gut guide her choice. 

Something inside her was broken, she knew, thirsty for vengeance that wasn’t her own. It was easier to ease into it, down the cellar where there wasn’t anything else to trigger the bloodlust. But even with all her fractures, breaks, ruptures and seams, she could pick out the perfect dagger and let the hurt settle.

It was a cool, soft pain, a cold arctic river coursing under the icy facade. 

This was how it always happened when the switch was flipped. 

Normalcy, pushing the irrational, pounding grief into the far corner of her mind. Allowing herself a brief glimmer of happiness. 

A trigger. Blind. Hot. Heart-wrenching grief, a drowning sorrow that pulled you under. Fury. Burning. Anxious. Itching for something unreachable, intangible, impossible. Then the ice washed over and softened the burn.

Her gaze fell on the dagger. She smiled, less out of true emotion than the knowledge that justice would be served soon enough. It was a silver blade, serrated, jagged as a shard of glass. Crude, glittering, bronze etchings spiraling up and down the black handle. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she crouched to pick it up, turning it over in her long, piano-player’s fingers. Holding it up to the thin streak of sunlight, she marveled at how dazzling the silver was in the light; lethal and imperfectly perfect.

Sheathing her knife and grabbing her dark purple cloak, she fastened the silky fabric neatly around her shoulders. Of course, she would wait for night to fall when visibility was limited and some rogue passerby wouldn’t have much to report. The people already knew too much–and vengeance was far from complete.

Tonight the streets would run red with blood, for the second time that week.

Writer's Wednesday!

Midnight Rogue- A Writer’s Wednesday Story

Prologue

As the long-coated man slunk down the fetid alley, he had the strangest instinct that tonight was destined for misery. The creeping ivy that crawled down the crumbling brick reached out like clawed hands, the air was silent as the Welsh countryside, and the usual cat-droppings-and-perfume aroma was gone without a trace. Most nights, he would have supposed that to be a good thing, that that awful German woman who carried that stench was gone and he wouldn’t be scolded for his soft footsteps on the trash-littered cement. 

But tonight, with a bitter chill nipping at his skin and an icy wind breezing down the narrow corridor, the man bit his lip, subconsciously picking up his steps… perfectly in time with the dry rustle of leaves on the night wind. Tonight, the absence of the usual–the cacophony of German screaming, the distinct litter box and perfume odor, the gamblers speeding recklessly down city streets, revving the engines on their off-brand sports cars– felt not like a blessing, but rather like he was all alone in the world. 

The muffled, cottony hum of the distant City Central meant nothing to him. Or the ribbon of lights weaving its way across the black horizon. Those people were nothing to him. Nothing real, anyways. Just a far off dream, what the world thought about when they thought of our city. The world knew nothing of the outer boroughs at midnight. The world knows nothing, he thought. Nothing at all.

Unlocking the door to his apartment, the man stepped inside, wincing at the creak of his shoes on the floorboard. Madame Heleen isn’t home… there is not a single need to be quiet. But he did. Pushing the door shut with as little movement as possible, the man tentatively hung his coat on the rack. But the dark trench coat on the rack cast an eerie shadow in the stale light of the moon, that of a slender, dark figure inching up from behind… in a surge of panic, the man snatched the coat from the rack and flung himself into bed. The shadow was just that of a coat rack now, spindly wooden arms stretched out invitingly like an guilty mother beckoning back a scorned child. 

Cursing softly, the man stretched, yawning and squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened his eyes he fell back with a scream. 

A figure stood silhouetted in the doorway. Tall. Slender. Outlined in pale silver-yellow moonlight. And a thousand times more frightening than a trench coat on a rack. Gasping, he jolted out of bed, pinning himself against the wall.
“Who are you?!” He shouted, heart slamming against his ribs because he knew better than to ask. He knew exactly who she was, if the stories were true. Distinctively female. Deep purple cloak with silk threads that glimmered in the moonlight like the rushing waters of a mountain river. Hood resting barely on the top of her head; he had heard it was a way to show everyone that she didn’t need her face obscured by a mask or hood. He had never believed it. Now–mouth agape, mind pinwheeling, shivering with fear–there was no doubt in his mind that the rumors were true.

As though seeing right into his mind, she inched forward, chin tilted down at precisely the right angle that a shadow concealed her face.
“You know the answer to that question. And don’t bother to ask me the next one. I’ve tired of it, so let me just say it… why are you here?” The man expected her to chuckle condescendingly at him, like a villain in the movies, but she didn’t make a sound. A freezing breeze gusted through the open door. It took everything in his power to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering. Without preamble, she inched a step closer to him, shutting the door with an effortless silence he would kill for and continuing on.

“But… alas, you know that, too. Murder.” He quivered in place, opening his mouth to protest–”Ah ah ah!” She tittered, feet edging ever closer with each syllable she spoke. His mind flashed back to every sin he’d ever committed. Too many to count, he was sure. Drunken brawls, black market business dealings, dabblings in drugs of every kind–trying to find bliss, to no avail. All he managed to get himself was two ODs, empty pockets, and nasty shiners that kept him from getting a respectable job. His sins were many, and he had a lot of company in that, at least. Everyone in the outer boroughs was hell-bound. There was no way around that.

But… murder? Did he ever commit murder? Drunken nights flashed in his eyes, hazy blurs, eternally dark alleys after dusk when all he could see was the glint of a person’s shining hair in the moonlight. In the perfect world, nobody would have to question whether they had slaughtered an innocent person. But this was not the glistening utopia of the City Central. In the sinful, disgusting outer boroughs, there was no way of knowing.

“I’ve never murdered anyone…” he said, unable to hide the slight rise in his voice at the end of the phrase that made it a question. Coal black eyes glinting as bright as the dagger she withdrew from her cloak, the vigilante girl stared into his soul. 

“Shame,” she cocked her head, mimicking deep thought, “that you’ll never truly feel the guilt of that night.” Stepping a hair closer, her face was illuminated by the silvery yellow moonlight. Black, oil slick hair hung around her cheeks in effortless waves, a stark contrast to the colorless pallor of her skin. She was the vision of an assassin, a lethal goddess of the night: mouth drawn up in an almost smirk, crow-like eyes glittering dangerously, a rigid tension humming in her every muscle. 

“Please… I’ll call the police! I will!” he shouted. There was no thought dominating his mind, only a raw fear that rendered him utterly helpless. His bluff was just that… a bluff. He couldn’t afford the luxury of a cell phone, almost no one could in this neighborhood.

 He should have heeded the warning. Stayed indoors with as much food as he could afford. Boarded up his doors, nailed plywood to his windows till not a single sliver of sun shone through. That’s what all the sinners should do. The man thought, quaking under the intensity of her glare. That’s what I should have done a long, long time ago… back when I first heard the rumors. The rumors of a vigilante prowling the outer boroughs, dealing justice to all the sinners. 

Sensing his tumultuous thoughts, the girl grinned, showing off an array of teeth that made him recoil. Metallic purple bands stretched over silver brackets, shimmering in the pale light. The braces on her teeth were not something you expected from a villainous assassin or a novel-protagonist crime fighter. They were an anomaly. An unexpected reminder that the girl–standing before him with the malice of a crouching leopardess–was just a teenager. 

“You have no idea…” she purred, fingering the serrated blade of the dagger, “how brutally you killed her. Paisley Renee, seventeen. Murdered when you staggered out of a nightclub, drunk and higher than the night sky, and beat her to death on the concrete for having the courage to push away your inappropriate advances on her friend.” 

His heart stalled. Screams bounced in his mind like marbles crashing onto a tile floor, fragments of half-formed drunken memories swirling elusively in the depths of thought. There was no way for him to truly know whether he had done it during a blackout—but why, then, did the name make his skin prickle with goosebumps?

Paisley Renee. Visions of innocent caramel eyes flashed in his mind. Eyes that were protective. Eyes that were sweet. Eyes that reflected a towering man, face flushed red from heavy drinking, frothing at the mouth he was so intoxicated. 

I murdered someone. The thought was a slap to the face. Recoiling against the wall, he wished for a quick, painless end to it all. A confused wave of guilt washed over him. 

The outer boroughs were still. The air was abruptly cold, the fetid smell dimmed slightly, the jaundiced moon beaming a spotlight on the standoff. 

With one more step, she was close enough to him that the man could feel her calm breaths stirring his mussed hair. The girl gripped her dagger with renewed intensity, poised to strike. Resolute, holding his breath in the grim silence, he begged the clock not to chime. It was edging towards dusk. And everyone knew what happened at dusk. Heart pounding, skin tingling, eyes dilated in panic, the man squeezed his eyes tight and waited to die.

“What time is it?” she insisted suddenly, gripping his throat in her bony fingers.

“What time is it?!”  He quivered, shuddering with terror, limbs like concrete and insides turned to jelly. His throat was constricting. Air rushed from his windpipe, the slim, feminine fingers crushing into his vocal cords.

“What time is it?” She bellowed, trembling with fury. Soulless black eyes and a dastardly grin barely visible. He shook violently, tears pooling in his eyes, praying to anything holy that that clock would not chime. 5 more minutes, 3, 2, he didn’t care. He wasn’t ready to die. 

Face red as the crumbling brick in the alley, eyes bulging. Her victim was ready to go. But not yet. The clock hadn’t chimed yet. She always waited until midnight. Midnight was a time of isolation, death, reckoning. The perfect time.

 Pressed into the corner as far as he could go, mind whirling with his sins, he prepared to die. 5 more minutes… the man bargained desperately to the lord up above. He should have known that there was no god in the outer boroughs, only demons lurking around every corner… because at just that moment, his worst nightmare came true.

 The clock chimed, and he felt his body go slack with fear as each hour rang out in the dark room. 

1. 2. The girl hissed at him with a raw anger like a mother cougar defending her cubs, bearing her metal-clad teeth.  

5. 6. “For justice.” The girl whispered, counting the chimes with a cruel grin. 

7. 8. “For the people.” His whole body shivered relentlessly, tensing, prepared to feel the serrated blade. 

10. 11. He raised my hands instinctively.

 12. “Midnight.” She whispered. A surge of heat rushed through his body as the dagger plunged into his gut. He toppled, feeling the yank on his stomach as the blood-slicked knife was pulled from his intestine. The world darkened. Each nerve was on fire. He saw her turn off the weak lamp and quietly close the door, gone as quickly as she came. The Midnight Rogue had taken another victim. 

Writer's Wednesday!

Writer’s Block. A Writer’s Wednesday Poem

Blank sheet.

Cursor blinking furiously against the white.

I’ve been at this all night. 

Blank sheet.

The unfilled space is ominously bright.

Not enough ideas to start this out right!

Blank sheet. 

Tick… tock… tick… tock.

Deadline drawing nearer:

Thoughts aren’t any clearer.

Tick… tock… tick… tock.

A bell chimes the hour, I’m weak in the knees. 

I stare at nothingness, slamming the keys.

Tick tock!

The clock insists, but I’m trapped in writer’s block.

No words.

I can’t seem to think. 

Every word or phrase I’ve ever heard, entirely down the sink.

No words.

Blinking black line.

Begging for some words to write, I have to decline.

No words.

Write it down!

The sheet insists, but my brain is out of town.

Can’t write!

Time is marching on,

Grades and fans will be up and gone.

Can’t write!

Inspiration is sparse.

How can I be a writer if I can’t write for arse?

Can’t write!

Push those keys!

The screen insists, but my ideas are on the breeze.

One word. 

My name.

Let’s turn this spark into a flame!

Two words.

The date.

At least I’m in a better state…

Writer’s block.

Write more!

The people insist, but I’m tired to my core.

Writer’s block.

The blank page stares me down.

I feel like such a clown…

Writer’s block.

Titles evade me.

Should I take a break? Would that just be lazy?

Writer’s block.

One word.

Two words.

Three, four.

The stress is mounting, I can’t take it anymore.

Five words.

Six words.

Seven, eight.

Backspace it all, too late.

Blank sheet.

Writer's Wednesday!

Throw-back Thursday! Mind Games Finale

*This is the final edition of the Mind Games Writer’s Wednesday series. Find the rest in the archives.

“No way!”

“Vivian? Really?”

“Wasn’t she caught up with the police a month ago?”

“I heard she was dating James Blackthorn and they ran off together.”

“Is she even good?”

I smirked at the astonished band kids as I strolled past them, loose ash brown hair swirling around my shoulders, silver bangle gleaming on my left wrist–the exact silver shade as my eyes. The edge of the stage was mere inches to my left as I skirted the rows of chairs full of my peers, practically walking right on the line between safety and the imminent danger of the fall. That was how I liked to live. Walking the line. It made things more interesting.

As I passed the conductor’s podium, he gave me a broad smile and gestured to the lone chair in the corner of the stage, illuminated by a beaming spotlight like the heavens opening up in a cloud-shrouded sky. 

Kids whispered loudly as I walked past. I could hear snippets of conversations, some clarinet girls gossiping as I waltzed by them with an ease unbecoming of a middle school girl. Before the torture one month before, I would have shriveled under the glares, quietly seething but lacking the guts to act on it. Now? Criticism didn’t bother me. I had always been the normal. The average. The mediocre. The girl with an impossible crush. The girl with big dreams but not quite enough talent to achieve anything beyond the ordinary. But no longer.

 I took my seat, smoothed my elegant dress and adjusted my music stand, lowering it  significantly. How tall do they think I am? I thought, smiling to myself as the band director turned to face the audience.
“The next portion of our program is something one band student has been working extremely hard on for the past two weeks. She’s truly been a rising star within our band program. This is french horn student Vivian Rose, playing her own original composition, ‘Rollercoaster.’ I have no doubt that you’ll enjoy. Vivian? Whenever you’re ready.” He stepped down from the podium, and leisurely took a seat. I nodded at him, whole body tingling with the nervous-excited feeling that sparkled across my skin. 

Fighting the urge to rush into the song, play too fast, and never stop to breathe, I fidgeted with my music when all of the sudden every musician’s worst nightmare happened. A cool draft billowed across the stage… and my music soared from my stand like a brilliant parrot taking flight! A collective gasp rolled through the audience, people scurrying to catch it. My composition. But I quickly waved them off, urging them to stop with a cool composure that could only come from a grand metamorphosis and great pain.

Moving the empty music stand aside, I closed my eyes and felt the flood of emotions that I had experienced in the last month, a surge of colors and feelings, unimaginable highs and lows, twists, pains and joys… precisely the rollercoaster that had inspired my composition. I didn’t need the music. It was inside me. Raising the mouthpiece to my lips, I played. I played soaring melodies, fast arpeggios and quick slurring scales, low, warm tones and sweet harmonies. Each time I returned to the chorus I felt a new set of emotions, relived the past, saw a new image that willed my fingers on. 

Watery hazel eyes. Panic. Flushed cheeks. Butterflies. Warm, deep brown eyes. My band director staring at me in awe as a flourish of notes poured from my French horn. Silver eyes in the mirror. Incredulous stares. A new dawn glowing in my window.

Finally my fingers hurtled down a ridge of arpeggios and my first conscious thought formulated. This is the end. I made it. Slowing to a suspenseful pace, each note was a burst of strong sound then immediately soft. With building tension, I drew in a grand breath and played a grand, high note that resounded in the air. Just as the audience drew their hands up to begin clapping, I smiled, reset my embouchure and let loose a torrent of scales descending then jumping back and descending again. Over and over and over and with my final breath in drew it to a close with a suspended note and one quick bop like the cherry on top. 

Opening my eyes, the spotlight was blinding and my eyes rang with the roar of applause. It was a cacophony of sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before, hoots and hollers and clapping. All for me. Not because I was an accessory to James, not out of pity or because I was something to gawk at with silver eyes and a confident air. Simply because I had talent. 

As I returned to my seat, I caught the eye of James, standing in the back of the auditorium with a huge grin on his face. I knew you could do it, Viv. You were miraculous. His honey-sweet voice said in my mind. 

 I sat and exchanged high-fives with my friends, smirking at the incredulous clarinet girls who were still gossiping busily like broken machines cranking out words with no end in sight. I was inspired by our journey. By you. I responded, sending the thought out into the space between us and watching his lips curl as he received it. 

So I’m your muse now? He questioned smugly. I laughed to myself, ignoring the odd looks my friends gave me. In response, I pinched my fingers together and raised it for him to see. A little bit… I said, looking down, cheeks ablaze. 

“Vivian!” Snapped back to reality by my friend tapping on my arm, I hastily got out my music from my folder. We were going into our final song. 

Sorry, I have to go. You’ll be listening? No response. I looked up to the back of the auditorium where he’d stood a moment before. Probing the thought-buzzing air, there was no sign of James’ blazing aura in the packed auditorium. Somewhere far off I heard a door slam and the tinkling sound of shattered glass hitting tile. Eyes wide with panic, I fidgeted with my silver bangle, running a nervous finger up and down the engravings. James was in danger. I could sense it. And there was nothing I could do about it.


The instant my horn was packed away and I had called my parents with an excuse, I sprinted into the back hallway. My heart thumped brokenly. No. The finger-print clogged windows that opened onto the side parking lot were shattered on the floor, glinting in alluring silver and rainbow hues: equally as treacherous as it was sparkling. Blood spatters ominously dappled the yellowing tile.

Bursting through the heavy doors, my blood ran cold as I met face-to-face with the man who haunted my nightmares. Watery, disgustingly pale hazel eyes and an impeccable suit, horrific face and pinkish skin stretched tight over a bony skull. My torturer. A demon. A manipulative psychopath. And he had my best friend in a choke-hold, butcher knife grasped in his bony fingers.

“Ah, Ms. Rose. How nice of you to join us! I heard your little performance. How lovely…” He hissed, jabbing the knife into James’ collarbone and twisting it till he shrieked in pain. I screamed, rushing forward. His father dug the blade deeper into the soft skin, the tip grating against bone. 

“Release him. Now.” I directed all my force into the words, conjuring a whipping maelstrom of power that grew with each second, feeling the icy-hot power teeming in my blood like liquid starlight coursing through my veins. The lanky man strained against the command, feet jittering across the cement as though each second disobeying was a second of strenuous willpower.

“I’m afraid that’s not–” he sliced an arc along James’ shoulder, leaving a trail of glistening blood. He howled, sheer agony in his eyes. Vivian, run. He won’t hesitate to kill me, you and everyone in his way. Please just–His father raised the blade high and thrust it down into his son’s shoulder blade, eyes lighting up as James’s body convulsed. 

“Stop! Whatever you want, please, just stop. What is it that you need so desperately that you would dare cross my path?” Fury burned in my voice. Immense satisfaction swelled within me as he flinched, hands quaking with what I could only imagine to be fear. I was beyond livid. Each and every cell in my body urged to tear the heart from the slimy, rat-faced man.

“What I want is quite simple. I want you to restore my powers or, well…” he smiled sickly. “I’ll kill my son.” He plunged the knife into the bone, making an awful grinding sound like broken brakes on a careening car. Run, Viv! Please, you have so much ahead of you. James pleaded in my head, pupils dilating as though he was speaking to me through his eyes. I have a plan. Thrash. Now. I commanded.

“PLEASE, I CAN’T! I love your son more than anything else in the world!” I conjured tears to my eyes as best as I could, letting the waterworks flow heavy as a crumbling dam. James looked at me with bewilderment. You… love me? He mouthed. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Just put up a fight already! I retorted, sobbing openly.

“Ms. Rose, if that is true, then do as I say. Restore my power core,” he said through gritted teeth, straining to restrain his wildly thrashing son: a blur of black hair and pale skin. “You can imbue me with your power–”

“I CAN’T! I don’t have the strength to save my best friend, my sun and moon and stars, the light of my life. I can’t! Please have mercy on me!” I cried, dropped to the ground like a stone and wailed like a banshee. Curled in a ball, my back arched and spasmed in uncontrollable motions. I heard the rustle of clothes and James howling like a caged beast. I discreetly reached into my dress’s hidden pocket for my phone and dialed 911, muting the operator and tucking it back into the pocket, all the while wildly kicking my legs and spasming my back. The ruse was proceeding flawlessly, for there was one thing I knew: you can always trust a man’s inherent ability to underestimate a girl.
“Do it or he’s dead. You know I will slit his throat without a second thought, Ms. Rose. In return I’ll use my power to plant affections in his heart–in your favor, of course. You of all people would know: I have a way with emotions,” he snarled, driving the blade in a wide slash across James’ back. His dapper dress shirt was soaked through with crimson blood now, the crisp winter air suffocated with the choking stench. I had to work fast. He didn’t have enough time for the operator to trace the call. 

“So you’re just going to kill us? In the tucked-away parking lot behind our own middle school? Mr. Blackthorn, I’ll try my best, I swear. Just please don’t kill him. Please.” My voice quaked and shuddered. James’ father sneered at me, knife quivering in his palm and inching away bit by bit. My commands were making a dent in his resolve. Putting on a show, I staggered forward and fell to the ground at his feet, from which perfect vantage point I could see the reflection of the red and blue lights on the snow. In a matter of moments the police had the parking lot surrounded. I watched with pride as they carted Mr. Blackthorn away, deftly stripping him of the bloody knife. 

My parents listened in awe as I gave my statement to the police, how this mentally unstable man had threatened, kidnapped and tortured us before attempting to kill his own son. He was never going to see the outside of his cell.

I rode with James in the ambulance to the hospital, grasping his warm hand. Even after all this time, I couldn’t deny the butterflies that barraged my stomach as our eyes locked: his deep brown and mine a brilliant silver. We joked and laughed even then, and I couldn’t help but think that I liked the boy he truly was–funny, sarcastic, and wickedly smart–a lot better than the pensive facade he used to hide behind. James and I had come so far from the awkward tension in the hall a month ago, just an average girl and a mysterious boy. 

“Hey, once this is all over, do you want to get some ice cream? Just us two?” He asked abruptly. I stared at him for a long second, searching his face for laughter, a joking grin, something to tell me he wasn’t serious. I found nothing. With a broad smile, I responded,

“What kind of ice cream?” He looked at me incredulously, as though he couldn’t believe I had asked.

“Cookie dough. Obviously.” He retorted with challenging eyes. My heart leapt into my throat, hands quaking with pure exhilaration. “So, are you in?”

“You know what?” I exhaled slowly, but there was no thought necessary.  “Absolutely.”

Writer's Wednesday!

Writer’s Wednesday! Apocalypse 2

*This is the second edition in the Apocalypse series. Find the rest in the archives!

Something like remorse fluttered on the wind that day, the whole Earth exhaling a gentle sigh of lost hope. Petrichor meandered on the faint breeze, a mere glimmer of the rains that used to bless the land. Ash and Jax knew better than to hope for rain. There hadn’t been rain since the Burn and there wouldn’t be for as long as they lived. 

“Would it be pathetic if I asked you a question when I already know the answer will be no?” Ash blurted into the stillness. Her words came in jolting gasps of air, stopping every so often to catch her breath. All he could manage was the slightest of movements to move his chin side to side. Each breath was a croaking rasp that tore their throats; each glimmer of sunlight filtering into the shady grotto seemed to suck the life out of them just like it had done to the scorched earth. 

“Before the Burn…” her head lolled to face him, swirls of her inky hair falling over her cheeks. She was too exhausted to pluck them from her sweat-streaked skin anymore. Every ounce of her waning energy was focused on surviving the sweltering heat and forming a complete sentence.
“Did you ever even think twice about me?” She asked, gunmetal eyes distant and hopeless, reflecting the white sun that clawed through the leaves. Staring out across the shaded turquoise waters of the grotto, he let his mind wander to a time that seemed a world away. 

Sitting in school, lounging at his desk and yammering with his buddies while the teacher preached to the front row know-it-alls: nerds scratching away excitedly at their papers, suck-ups smiling and nodding, smart kids asking philosophical questions. Jax wouldn’t have the slightest clue what the teacher had been teaching that day. Needless to say, he couldn’t have cared less. Jax sat in the back with his other jock friends, the cream of the crop. 

Anyone with half a brain could see it. His U.S. History class was divided perfectly into three rows with three different categories of people, with no outlier whatsoever: as clear cut as a wealthy man’s suit. The know-it-alls in the front row, who would stop at nothing to get closer to the learning (Jax’s eyes practically rolled into the back of his head every time they raised their hands); the cool jocks in the third row, including him: these were the varsity athletes, the beautiful girls, the party-kids that stayed up till dawn hosting rager after rager. And finally… Jax shuddered at his past self, recalling the exact placement he had put the second row in. 

The second row was the row for nobodies: the mediocre crowd that would never make anything of themselves. Ash sat in that row, and the truth was… he had never looked twice at her except when she was arguing with the teacher over some stupid assignment or debating why she was required to work in a group. A loner. A pretty loner, but a loner nonetheless. 

Jax let his eyes fall on her, the girl he had never thought about but now couldn’t get out of his head. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her there, blazing eyes and cautious smile, midnight hair and a sarcastic air about her that drove him wild. His pitying stare must have said it all. She turned away, wiping the beading sweat from her brow.

“I’m sorry. I was an idiot, messing around with my friends and caught up in football, rugby, lacrosse, partying… anything to shut out reality.” Ash looked at him, eyes dark as obsidian rock. She was panting still, the unimaginable heat bearing down on them both. Harsh, ultra-violet rays sliced through the gaps in the canopy. Even the waters of the shady grotto were as sweltering as a pool with a broken heater. Jax remembered his youngest sister, Caroline, how she used to ramble on and on about astronomy and the predictions of our sun’s future. 

“Caroline, shut up already! I’m trying to finish this essay for once.” She dashed across the room like a thunderbolt and slammed his computer shut, just as he yanked his hands from the keys. Whirrrrrr. He slammed his fist on the desk. That was a sound he hated even more than the worst cramp at practice. It was the sound of a computer shutting down: meaning he would have to reboot it all over again and pray to god that his essay saved as he watched the loading circle go round and round and round again. 

“Since when do you do essays? Is it your new girllllfrienndd??? Wants you to study and get good grades? Oooh-”

“Caroline! I swear to god, no. Could you just leave? I have enough already–” Caroline flopped down onto his bed, blonde pigtails bouncing precariously high on her head. Scratching at her nose carelessly, she gave him a lazy smile.

“You’re fine! As I was saying, it’s fascinating. Scientists predict that in a few years, the sun will go into its red giant stage, straying off the main sequence. LIke most stars, it’ll balloon up and be so hot it scorches the Earth super hot. Then it’ll be a white dwarf, but that’ll take a few thousand years, I suppose. Unless the process was somehow sped up by human influence, in  which case it would balloon for a week and then settle into its final white dwarf stage.”

Jax rolled his eyes at the stream of gibberish flowing from his sister’s mouth. He would kill to slap her right now, but the odds she would go crying to their mom was no short of 100%. 12 was a tattle-tale age, and Caroline was the ultimate rule-following-nerd-sister. 

“Caroline, this is nonsense. There won’t be any kind of sun-apocalypse, at least not within our lifetime. Why don’t you go to bed?” His phone buzzed in his pocket insistently, lighting up the fabric with the blue electronic glow. Now he really wanted her gone. 

She glanced at his pocket, lighting up and crying out for attention. It was probably his new cheerleader girlfriend, the one he had taken to the prom last week, Caroline thought, but each new girlfriend never seemed to last too long anyway.

“Fine. I’ll go, whatever. But that is a real thing! The sun is a star, you know!” Jax shrugged and spun his chair back to face his computer. Whirrrrr. This was going to be a long night.

Now a tear tugged at his eye as he thought of his youngest sister. He had seen her burn. He had run away to the flooded mines by the old creek as his childhood home erupted in flames. The sun raged bright red in the sky, not so far from the rapidly-drying Earth. Caroline had been right about the future, and now… now he would never see her again, blonde ponytail bobbing behind her, face alight with new ideas as she babbled about science. They were all gone. Everything but him, Ash, and the crumbling ashes of society. 

“Jax! Did you feel that?” 

“Feel what?”

Ash scrambled to her feet, moving painfully slow. Sweat drenched every inch of her body as she gazed down at Jax. It came again, a deep, rumbling growl from the Earth.

Earthquake. Her eyes flitted to the weak boy below her, the one that used to tower over everyone. The prom king, the varsity athlete, the prettiest girl on his arm. Soot-darkened blond locks, all sharp angles and a rapidly peeling arrogant facade. 

“Ash–I can’t move. Please help me up. Please.” His mouth was dry, words cracking out in bursts of air. The girl looked down at her hands, shaking inexplicably. All she had to do was reach out, help him up. There was no doubt that if they didn’t run soon, the stone spires of the grotto would crumble and smash them to bits. So why did some small part of her want to leave him here?

“Jax, I can’t do this with you. I’m sorry.” 

“Do what? Ash, we don’t need to fall in love, carry on the human race, anything like that. Please, we just need to survive. Together–” The ground bucked under her feet, throwing them into the air. Smack! Blood rushed down her neck, stones grinding against her back. Dizziness flooded her senses. The metallic stench of blood suffocated the air; the world started to spin and all the while sprays of rock clattered to the earth as the dirt heaved under her feet.

Stumbling forward, she desperately threw out a hand at the vague image of him: a flash of golden hair and wild eyes, sprawled on the dirt. Immediately she felt a warm hand grasped in hers. Leaning back with all her weight, Ash heaved him from the ground, reeling with the effort.
“Watch out!” Jax screamed. Ash staggered to the left, world a haze of falling rock and swirling dust. BAM! A boulder the size of a car smashed into rubble where she’d been standing moments before. Montana didn’t sound too bad right now, she thought absently: serene and woodsy countryside without any treacherous caves or grottos to be seen. Her inky hair was now dripping with viscous blood, thick as molasses that drips slowly from a jar like it’s hanging on for dear life. With each second she could feel the heat flowing down her neck, intensifying the unimaginable dizziness.

Gold hair streaked gray. Skin. Warmth in her hand. Insistent tug. Rock pummeling the earth over and over like a schoolyard bully pounding a kid for lunch money. Shallow breath. Vibrating earth. Guilt that she might have left him there to die. She almost willingly took a life just for her own gain, just so that she wouldn’t be slowed down, wouldn’t have another mouth to share food with. It was a hot, streaming guilt that she could barely comprehend amid the haze of action. 

Jax was practically dragging her now, staggering weakly in the noxious, muddy barrens. He pitched forward as the Earth bellowed and hitched, plummeting them both face first into sticky silt. Caked in the fetid ooze, he lifted his head through a curtain of mucky hair. 

Up ahead he saw a squat building, barely a smudge on the desolate horizon. It would knock them off course on their voyage West, but it seemed to be the only secure place for miles around. Better than stumbling through a dried up riverbed, he supposed. Reaching out his hand, he groped blindly for her hand to lead her. But there was nothing there. The Earth bucked and groaned once more, flinging him back down into the mud.

“Ash?!” He screamed, fighting against the thick pull of dirt. “Ash? I’m sorry! Let me help you! Ash?!? Ash?” Nothing in response but the quaver of the ground under his worn-out Nike sneakers. The quake threw him to the ground, loose rocks striking his limp form; the former varsity athlete could barely claw out of the silt to keep himself from suffocating. God, this would be so much easier if she had some obnoxiously bright pink hair! All he could imagine was Ash stalking away through the dense barrens, defiantly stumbling West… dark hair perfectly camouflaged with the rocks and soil. 

“Ash? Ash, where are–” he slammed to the ground, vision a blur of monotone browns and sooty grays. When he finally pried himself from the grasp of the mud, he saw her just yards away. But she wasn’t the strong woman he knew, rebellious and sarcastic. She wasn’t trudging away from him, inky black hair swishing and face drawn up with determination. What he saw was her limp form: caked in mud and soot, lying face-down in a pool of blood. What he saw was the only other person in the world right now, and she was on death’s door. In a matter of minutes, without the proper medical care (which he couldn’t give), she would die. And there was nothing he could do about it.