Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 6–Back from the Dead

Shattered chain lying on the road.
“The chains shattered in a clinking jolt…”

Ash’s world went fuzzy. No. No, that wasn’t possible–what this man was saying was impossible. Objectively impossible. Subjectively impossible. Improbable, too, yet from the inflection in the Original’s lofty voice when he said those words, she knew they were true.

Jax’s sister was alive. Alive and there, somewhere deep in the bowels of the caravan where a girl escorted from a cage on a leash was commonplace. One of them was alive, and Ash couldn’t even fathom how. 

It was a story he had shared so many times throughout their journey, recalling details as they drifted from the ruins of place after place: remembering his sister’s eyes in the soot-stained capital, the beam that trapped his father in the backwoods of Virginia, how he strained against the crumbling pieces of house that had trapped his family. The imagery was as vivid in her mind as if she’d been there–Jax had seen the fire, the smoke, tried as hard as he could to lift the beams and rubble that trapped them in the dining room. 

At that moment, the moment when those words dropped from those moist and frothing lips, she forgot all about her designation, her future, her horror at the endless suffering, her terror at her impending fate. Jax’s countenance held a fragile spark of hope weaved with the shock. He was hopeful, and she knew it would all come crumbling down. Soon.

Her plan could ruin it all, any chance for him to see his sister, but she knew she must. She refused to kneel there silently and become that awful man’s plaything. It wasn’t right. 

Shoulders flexing, convalescing her energy, veins rushing, Ash knelt at the feet of a sociopath. Twitching. Panting. Don’t look up. Don’t move. Don’t blink. Now. 

BOOM. A resounding thud pounded the road as her face slammed to the asphalt. Cheek pinned to the ground, stinging like a flurry of hornets stabbing her skin, Ash shot her legs out to the side in a wide scissor. Snap! The chains shattered in a clinking jolt, exactly as she’d expected–the rusted-out link was even weaker than she thought. A hand rushed at her shoulder and she rolled out of the way, clamoring to her feet.

Flash of metal. Her back seared, blade slicing deep through the thin fabric, shearing off hair. Punch. Fist. Connection. Burning through her knuckles. Sharpness, a whirl of arms and feet, sneakers slapped skin and metal tore through flesh and Ash fought and fought and fought. A blur of motion. A knife clattered to the ground. She seized it, slicing at the mass of bodies crowding around her, slashing at the remains of her chains. 

The crowd thinned. The air was thick with blood and metal. She had made a dent in the tide; guards howled with their wounds, staggered back, fell to the road. They would keep coming. She didn’t have time to recover. Those people who Rita had referred to only as Them clouded Ash like mosquitos, returning in thick, overwhelming swarms the instant she batted them away. 

She caught sight of Jax, kneeling in the fray. She pushed towards him, slashing a path with her knife, ripping herself from the desperate hands. 

She reached him. He was screaming something. She couldn’t hear him, couldn’t make out the lip movements or attribute them to words. Slashing down hard, his chains shattered under the blade. Jax leapt to his feet, grabbing a man by the ear and ripping the blade from his hand. Then he paused, glittering knife still clutched in his calloused fingers. Ash thought he looked like an angel from an old scripture: a young man with golden hair, streaked in sunlight and soot, frozen in the churn of battle. 

The image seemed so familiar, so ironic that it took her a hot second to retract from the fantasy and move her limbs. He looked beautiful, so perfect, so blazing and glorious. Why was he standing there? Why wasn’t he fighting?

Ash jabbed her elbow out, sensing a presence, felt the crack of bones under her skin. Blood sprayed her brow. A quick glance, Jax was still frozen; a wild man careened towards her. Flashing metal—razor blade bared in his palm.

He lunged towards her. She tripped back, flailing for balance and a pair of arms grabbed her in a visceral grip, throwing her to the ground. Knife spun away across the highway. The world swayed above her. Black tread above her. Blank faces above her. The blue sky, clear and dulcet loomed above her and she panicked. Bucked uselessly.

The boot descended.

Her air exploded from her lungs. A beat of rest like an orchestra on a grand pause, she attempted to roll over and heard a pop, not good, and the boot descended again, hurtling into her side. Hot bursts of pain crackled through her ribs. She clawed the simmering ground. No purchase. Where was he? Where was he?! 

Ash roared and kicked up, nausea tossing her stomach through a roller coaster loop, vision like a poorly produced action movie with an unsteady camera.

  Four figures lifted her off the ground, one for each limb. Ash writhed, a demon of messy hair and snapping teeth, searching for a victim to rip into. She couldn’t reach. Couldn’t reach. Where was he?

She heard the clamp of manacles encircling her wrists. Exhausted. Pathetic. Tired beyond lifting a finger, Ash was laid yet again at the feet of the Original. The one she would serve for the rest of her foreseeable future, forever and ever until she was shelled out and hollow of fighting spirit.

“Would you still like this one to be your Wife? Or should she be staked and roasted, like the other Rebels?” 

Ash thrashed once. A plastic face against a blue sky. This wasn’t what she wanted. This shouldn’t be her last memory. She should be in school right now, climbing out the bathroom window, scaling the wall down to sneak off to the ice cream shop on the corner. 

“No. This one has a spirit to her. I believe she has a special set of skills which could be useful for more than my own pleasure.” Her eyes bugged. She wouldn’t be a Wife, so what was the use for her? And still, where was Jax? Resentment joined in with the delightful tea party in her gut, other guests being the usual: terror, fury, denial, hopelessness, regret. 

Fury because he could’ve saved her. Regret because she had set him free, and he had stood there while she was beaten and restrained. Hopelessness because Ash could have escaped without him, and she had squandered her last shot.

“Knock her unconscious. I will attend to her later.” 

A fist flew at her skull. The world went black. 

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

Voice. His name was being called somewhere in the crowd. Young, desperate, pleading voice that cut through the battle like an arrow and his eyes roved over the swell of people and… 

Jax’s breath hitched. He stood completely still, frozen in time and she was there. Far off in the distance. The knife in his hand slipped and clinked to the ground, quickly snagged by an emaciated figure and carried away to god-knows-where. He didn’t care. The world collapsed and folded, and the same tunnel vision he had during football games clicked into place. All that he knew were a few facts built into this moment in time.

Number 1: Caroline was alive, far away in the writhing mass of chaos in the caravan.

Number 2: The people of the caravan were rioting. Everywhere he looked there was blood and blades, and if the sole goal was to capture Ash, this would have been over in seconds. Something was happening. There was unrest.

Number 3: His chains were broken. Slashed and clattered to the road. And nobody had noticed, or maybe nobody cared about one skinny bag of bones. This was his chance.

Jax was sprinting. Yelps and battle cries flooded the air around him; he cut through it all like a swimmer propelling through the water, the individual groans and screams condensing into a static held in the back of his thoughts. Background noise: how easily a cacophony became background noise when your sister’s voice rang in your ears. Your dead sister.

Corpses toppled in his path. Ragged women grabbed at his shirt, dying men on the ground yanked at his shoes, undoing the laces beyond what he could run in. Kicking the strings in front of him, Jax’s gait fell into an awkward pattern, he looked up and she wasn’t too far. Caroline. A necklace of iron clamped around her neck, a man holding her on a chain-link leash. His legs burned beneath him. She screamed and his heart failed, stomach retching acid through his throat when Caroline thrashed against the chains. Throwing one foot in front of the other, he watched as her eyes widened and–

“Jackson! Watch out!” He turned just in time to see a man barreling towards him. He leapt to the side, a great whoosh of air as the man dove to the ground. A sick crunch of bones erupted through the static and Jax realized suddenly that the man hadn’t been coming for him. He had been tackling someone, a small child with close-cropped hair. And it sounded fatal.

The burly man quickly moved on, charging after a slave with the intensity of a bull in a room of red flags. Jax didn’t look at the crushed body of the child, couldn’t bear to even if he tried; the tunnel vision was gone. Plundering forth with renewed energy, Jax reached Caroline in moments and got his first good look at her.

   The bouncy, gravity-defying pigtails perched on her head were long gone. The silky blonde hair their mother had stroked looked like dried corn husks: matted and dull against her scalp, unwashed, limp. Her legs were twigs on her body. A smear of dirt wiped across her brow. The infuriating iron collar around her neck, the one that tethered her to her keeper, a cage looming over them, casting its shadow down onto her thin figure. 

What he saw in her eyes scared him. It wasn’t an empty, glassy surface on emotions forced away. This was the stare of someone who felt everything, incapable of pushing aside her fear and despair. Gaze broken. Horrified. Haunted. 

Caroline was alive. Tethered to a guard–a guard. Argh. 

Jax faltered back when he was just steps from her, ignoring the pleading in her eyes. Why hadn’t he kept that knife? Why didn’t he pick it up? Fighting away panic, he searched the area. Finally he spotted a blade on the road in a dead man’s grip. He didn’t waste time prying it from the still-warm fingers. 

The guard growled when he approached, baring a dull-edged shiv. Jax winced inwardly but couldn’t conjure a solution to get close enough without being cut. So he did the unthinkable.

He threw the knife. It sliced through the air, embedding itself in the man’s upper chest. He bellowed, deafening roar splitting the cacophony. He toppled. Blood blossomed from the wound. Caroline gasped and ran to Jax, throwing herself against his chest; she was so thin he could feel every rib in her body through his shirt. Gently as he could manage he threw her over his back, weaving through the crowd. They were reaching the outer left edge of the caravan, riot still roaring around them under the blistering sun, and finally, finally, they broke through. 

Jax didn’t look back for a moment. He sprinted into the field, snatching on thickets, skin stinging with burs and thorns. He didn’t look back, not until he could no longer hear anything but the rush of his blood in his ears and the thump of Caroline’s sneakers on his shoulder blades. He lowered her down.

Overgrown field
“a tangle of overgrown wheat and thorns…”

“Caroline, I…” he searched her eyes for the answers to a question he couldn’t formulate. “How did…why are…you? What…why…I just don’t–” 

She took his hand, holding a finger to her lips, and he glanced around. Was there someone watching them? Was someone coming?

“Jackson, I’ll tell you everything. There’s a few things I need to say and they’re really important, so I need you to listen.” His eyes widened. Her speech was so articulate, measured–she’d called him Jackson, just like she always did. He hadn’t heard that name in a long time. It seemed like forever. He nodded mutely. If Caroline wanted to speak she would speak; whatever she had to say was five times as important as him.

“I do have a lot to say. Starting with the sun. At the house, I watched through the window as it burst and glowed red, brighter than all the stars in the sky. It scorched the Earth. The Sun’s Burn.” Jax nodded, tilting his head quizzically.

“What about it?”

Her lips quirked into a smile, freckle-sprayed nose scrunching like she knew a secret he didn’t. He rolled his eyes. 

“What about the Burn, Caroline?” 

“I predicted the expansion and scorching of the Sun.” She smoothed her hair back like she was the slyest person in the world. “I don’t need to say it, but here it is,” she paused dramatically, heaving a breath,

“I told you so.” 

Jax groaned and pulled her close. And somewhere, far off through a tangle of overgrown wheat and thorns, Ash was unconscious, surrounded by a caravan of murderers and slaves.

Writer's Wednesday!

Apocalypse 5–The Choosing

“[He was a] tiger at the zoo, throwing [his] lean body against [the] shackles….”

Chains. Biting into his skin like venomous snakes. Rubbing the flesh raw. Rattling a persistent reminder that he was doomed. A caged animal. Doomed to die. A tiger at the zoo, throwing its lean body against its shackles, baking under a hot sun and the mockery of the people. Unable to run free. Unable to love and be loved. What worse fate was there?

It had taken only a moment to sink in: the reality of his existence was painful, hot shards of glass piercing his skull, a throbbing redness boiling his blood. The world was this, and only this, unorganized elements in this catastrophe of human life:

Strangers.

Surrounded by them. These people. Revolting. Smeared in their own feces, criss-crossed with scars, a patchwork of torture that seemed to never end. Dead eyes. Crude gazes. A disgusting distortion of human intelligence, boring into him, blind eyes that saw nothing and everything all at once. How was it that such shells of people could send such a message? Each and every bloodshot, glistening orb said the same thing: you’re going to die.  

It had been an hour since Jax woke up in chains. 

But as much as it hurt to wake up in chains, it was worse to watch Ash return to the world. She gasped to life. Squirming. Burning. A bundle of sweaty clothes and clinking shackles. 

She used the first breath she drew for a scream.

No. Not a scream.

An earth shaking.

Gut wrenching.

Blood curdling shriek

Her eyes were wild, inspecting her arms, the backs of her hands, her palms. Roving over the pink skin. Searching. What? What was she looking for? Jax wished he didn’t know. He wished he had to ask her. He wished he could indulge himself in curiosity, a brief release from the terror. But he already knew what she was looking for. 

She was looking for a brand, a crudely marked scar. She was looking for the mark of an Original’s wife, a mark that would ensnare her forever as a slave. Her skin was unmarked.

“Ash!” he whispered. She looked up from her flesh. There was no relief in her eyes that she hadn’t been marked. No glint of hope, the kind he was sure was still inside him. Just a dead-eyed certainty that her fate was decided. That she was fated for the same destiny as Vixen—Rita—but without the escape.

Jax couldn’t bear to think about it. A dread so profound, so intrusive and deep, had wormed its way into his chest. The reason was simple. Stupidly simple. No matter what became of Ash, his fate was decided because of one thing alone. 

There was no use for him. 

In this caravan, there was no task for him to fulfill. If what Rita had said was true–and he had no doubt it was–he would be judged as too young for labor, and too weak for captive protection. Those cold emerald eyes had no reason to lie to him. He would be cannibalized. Jax would, without a doubt, be eaten alive.

“Ash, calm down, you’re going to get–”

“Jax!” Ash panted. His heart leapt into his throat. That sound. It was guttural. Feral. A noise he barely recognized as human, much less one of a cool, feminine voice. 

“Jax, my neck, did they mark me?” He shook his head. Had he ever seen someone so distraught? So crazed? The tightness of her face. The wrinkles on her brow. The pooling pond of insanity in her gaze, it soaked into him. A shadow giving way to the sun. He had never felt an empathy so deep as this, a hopeless kind of empathy that said “I understand. I understand, and I can’t do anything about it.”

“Ash, listen to me. Look at me!” It took a long second for her eyes to center. She was shaking now, hands tensing and releasing, nails digging into the wooden planks. He’d never seen her hair so wild; the constant jerk and rumble of the cart mussed the strands so they stuck up from her scalp at all angles.

 It would’ve been a cute look, he thought–spiky, spunky, a little punk–but paired with the puckered gashes on her brow and downcast gunmetal eyes, she looked less like a rocker and more like a severely abused porcupine. A porcupine with so much pain in her heart that it seeped into him. Hurt him. Drowned him. Her eyes focused.

“I just….I just want you to know that we’ll get through this. No matter what, because, because…” Because why? What could get them through this? They were enslaved. Grieving their families. 

“Because we’re together.” It was weak. So weak, so nonreassuring, so baseless. 

Jax scooched across the cart. Pushing aside a sleeping woman, he moved into position beside Ash. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he leaned close, whispering, 

“Rita escaped. We can too, because we’re stronger than her. We can get out of this. Together. Right?”

He expected a nod at least. Acknowledgement, maybe, something that said she’d heard his words. Maybe her spine would straighten a little. Maybe she would wince into a half-smile. Maybe she would make a joke, or a tiny jab at his gut with her elbow. A witty remark. A sob. Anything.

 She didn’t move her gaze from her lap. And she didn’t say a word.

Ash was in shock. Denial, maybe? Jax wished he’d paid more attention in psychology. Her calloused fingers ran tracks down her arms, back and forth, back and forth. He had the selfish urge to grab that hand, hold it in his. He needed her. Her affection, even a morsel. Her attention, just a glance. He wanted to intertwine their fingers so bad it physically hurt not to.

The cart pounded the road, sending him sprawling away from her; he clawed himself back. Pothole after pothole just like this. And for what?

 Why? Why, when he was shackled to a rickety cart, orphaned, fated for cannibalism, could his only concern fall to her admiration? Stupid, stupid, stupid. I dumped girls back home for being clingy! And this is what I do? Pine over her? Get irritable when she won’t hold my hand? Dumb. Shameful! 

Yet when the time slunk by, traveling down the road in chains, not once did he think of himself after that moment. He only thought of Ash. Ash: her trauma, her fingers inspecting her arms, the sickening thud of the boots on her back when they had been captured. He only thought of Ash, and how much he wished she would take his hand.

Jax could never be sure how long they sat there. Time–time that used to be so rigid, so strict–had taken an ambiguous form, like the off-brand Jello in the school cafeteria: lax, bitter, unsettlingly slippery. After forever, they stopped. 

He watched as the caravan unloaded. Car doors opened, expensive wagons cleared. Girls in cages were extracted from the enclosures, leashed up like dogs with hair twice as coarse. A cacophony. 

A set of men unlocked his chains and pulled him up. His legs felt like a TV screen when the signal goes out, all numb and static-y in a way that felt like needles driving into his toes. Jax was sure he would have fallen over immediately if not for the strong grips of his guards. 

Squinting in the sun, he looked out over the never-ending trail of horror and gasped.

It was incomparable to any parade, any gathering on the planet. A crowd so immense it was like nothing you could imagine. Miles and miles and miles of bikes and carriages and people. Young children led out of cages, whimpering, smeared in their own feces. Women with sad eyes emerging from wagons, hair mussed, too-tight chokers restricting blood flow to their faces. Emaciated men dragging themselves across the ground, screaming from the heat, scorching their bodies just to keep up. Helpless slaves gathered in carts, newly branded, sobbing under the sun’s bite. Every last person was sunburned, skin peeling, some with tumors and blackened teeth and hair falling out in clumps. 

He understood now why the people had turned away from Rita so rudely when she spoke of Them. Because they had seen it. Those men and women and children, those with pinned up or gelled hair, those kind folks who dressed in Amish-like clothes had seen this monstrosity of human nature. Maybe more of them had been in this caravan than they would like to admit. No matter your age or position in the procession, one fact was clear: this was no peaceful community with an ill-fated 3rd class. This was a death march for all.

All…except a few. They were easy to spot. Because even with this swarm of poverty and demented tortures, five men sparkled. From the moment their shoes poked from the royal wagons, Jax knew who they were. The Originals. The founders of the caravan.

Rita hadn’t attempted to describe them. Jax now knew why; it was utterly and completely overwhelming to do so. Five men dripping in diamonds. Coiffed hair, seemingly gelled, unmussed by the bumpy ride. Adorned in capes. Crowns. Rings. Necks spilling with gold chains, fingers studded so heavily with sapphires and emeralds and precious gems that they practically had the rainbow spread across each hand. Purple silks. Leather boots. Pale, unblemished skin, an aura of plasticity strong from caked on makeup. 

They were unbranded, just like the people of Jax and Ash’s cart. But the people of the carts–Jax and Ash included–were demolished. Morally. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. The Originals, however, did not look demolished. They looked smug. Smug. And free. 

Royalty, he thought as he watched them exit, servants and tired women quivering on their knees in front of them. These men are royalty. Ash glanced at Jax, fear clouding her gaze. At first he couldn’t tell exactly what she was afraid of, there was so much: the burning men, the starving, the sick, the tumored, the ugly, the slaves, the dirtied, they all coalesced in an ongoing rush of miserable people in miserable attire under a miserable sun. 

An Original made a gesture and the flurry of motion immediately stopped. Jax, against his better judgment, found himself frozen in place. He knew what this was. Easily. Ash had predicted this; he should have listened, but the thought was hard to think, a mental image that tore at his mind, itched and burned. This was the Choosing. 

He was lifted forward by the men, feet still bound, arms squeezed too tight, remarkably tight. Ash was brought forward alongside him. The sleeping woman he had moved to sit by Ash was dragged awake, muttering something low and sweet, reminiscent of a lullaby. 

Jax imagined a grand buildup. A painstakingly slow progression forth, onward to his demise, the guards building suspense and halting abruptly, his legs deadweight and swinging between them. What actually happened, however, was shockingly unceremonious.

March forth. Push aside the crowds. Silent crowds. The young, caged girls had ceased to wail. Blind stares locked on the Originals. Ash and Jax and the others in their cart were practically thrown down at the feet of one of Them. No introduction. Just a choppy line of ten or so people, the first row of many unbranded and fearful innocents. How was it possible that so many survived the Burn? How was it possible that such a dreadful caravan of Them could travel for so long without Jax knowing? Was this preventable, had they ignored the signs of other human life when they were steeped in despair?

Ash was sixth in line, Jax eighth, the old singing woman suspended between them, unable to kneel on her own.

 The first woman was judged as meat. Too elderly. Thin. Weak. Not attractive enough to be a wife–no use to the Originals. A group emerged from the crowd and lifted her away. Jax didn’t know where to. His chin was crunched to his neck like all the others. 

The second was judged a guard. Unsurprising: she was lean, yet muscular, with a body like a triathlon winner and arms like a crossfit instructor. 

Third person. A boy, about the same age as the same height. Meat. Lifted away without a scream, a hand clamped to his mouth, legs kicking in Jax’s peripherals. His heart was in his ears. Calves twitching, Jax struggled to hold his breath; if he let it loose he would scream.

Fourth. Woman. Declared a Cleaner. Jax envied her, her and her future of feces and urine and vomit. Nothing was as bad as being eaten alive by your own species. Nothing he could imagine. 

Fifth. A man. Old. Senile, maybe, probably in shock. Jax remembered the term from his Psychology Class. A lot of good this knowledge was to him now. The fact that he was in shock and overwhelmed by senility didn’t change the cold inflection of the Original’s order: meat.

Sixth. The pounding of his heart stalled. All saliva evaporated in his mouth. Dry as the chalkdust air of an old schoolhouse. His tongue suffocated him. Ash’s turn. 

The Original man’s voice was monotone, unbefitting of a royal or even a savage cannibal. A voice of a bored emperor, flat and dry as he pronounced,

“Wife. My own, to be branded immediately.” One other Original shifted, looking upset, as though Ash was the last piece of licorice in the candy jar. Jax couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Ash was right. She would be like Rita. And if she ever escaped, she would be just as cold and heartless as that vixen girl.

He didn’t hear what became of the singing woman. Didn’t care. If she was meat, she was meat, and Jax could do nothing, just as he did for Ash. Sit. Wait. Sit. Wait. Just like every other person in this rotten hell hole. 

His neck hurt. The woman was lifted away.

Jax’s turn for the Choosing.

Distraught, he turned his face heavenward. The plastic face of the Original stared down at him. Lips too bright. Hair too shiny. Eyes too large. And proclaimed, monotone as ever,

“I know you.”

“What?” The response leapt from his lips before he could restrain it. Jax winced, hair catching the sun as he bowed his head again.

“I know you, child. I know a little girl–exactly like you, with the same features. A little girl from the cages.” A grin played on his cheeks. Jax glanced up to see him smile at the crowd. Dread settled on him like a blanket.

“Ladies and gentlemen of this empire, rejoice. We have found a sibling pair, for the first time in the history of the Burn! I know this boy.” He clicked his tongue, smacking his too-red lips.

“I know this boy because I imprisoned his sister.”

Burned, post apocalyptic city skyline.
Writer's Wednesday!

WW–Apocalypse 4–Crossroads

Exit of off an interstate

Do you ever have a thought that slams into you like an oncoming train? One that is so unexpected, conjured out of the blue and hurled at your face so fast, it literally knocked the breath from your chest? Now imagine that idea embodying a whole day. Overwhelming. Tiring. Distress-filled. Painful, in a remarkably silent way. 

That was what each and every day on the road was like for Ash. A thought that pummels you to the ground, a thought that you can’t bear to think any longer, but have to face over and over and over again.

They had been on the road for an eternity. Maybe to a post-Burn Ash, she would easily dismiss this as a “week” or “a couple of days.” But who had a need for time anymore? 

After the first Quarantine phases hit, the concept had already begun to slip, one day spiraling into the next without remark, without events to attend or friends to greet.

Then the Burn ravaged the world. Ash and Jax found each other soon after, both cowards, both new orphans that had abandoned their families. Did it matter that their family members never had a chance to get out? Seek shelter? Was it still wrong that they had left? Ash wasn’t sure. She wasn’t sure that it mattered anymore.

Whatever happened before, now they were all alone. Roaming the land. The beaten down land. The land made up of dust and rubble. Lonely skies. Desolate cities. 

And all of it, all of it, hungry. That was it. Everything was hungry for life and energy: the fields hungered for youthful blooms, the river for a salmon, the sapling for a drop of rain. 

Which was how Ash came to decide that time no longer mattered. Because something bigger had taken its place. Hunger. It had planted its roots deep in the freshly roiled earth. The world was hunger, her body was hunger, her mind was hunger. A pit in her stomach that wouldn’t go away. A longing for the family which she couldn’t even mourn, she–

“Hey? You okay? Need to stop?” Jax’s voice broke through her stupor. Ash groaned. Just let me be depressed in peace! 

“No, no…I’m good.” Lie. What else could she say? That she winced with the strain on her stomach, that just drawing breath to her lips sent a bellowing ache through each capillary and nerve in her stomach? Yet another glorious way to remind her of their lack of food. Should she tell him that her thoughts were faltering even seconds after he spoke? Lingering on a million different impossibilities: what if we had asked for food to go? Stole the rations? Ate the people? 

Her brain screamed too far!, but Ash could have sworn her stomach rumbled in agreement. Back at the cement safe house, there had been everything she could ever want. A bed. Nasty mystery meat. A judgy teenage girl. A short but sweet kiss from her maybe-boyfriend-apocalypse-ally. Everything

And yet, she still had the strangest sensation that she hadn’t savored it like she should have. Like she should have absorbed the moments better, inhaled the perfection of that time through every dirt-clogged pore on her skin. Ash just couldn’t bring herself to be happy. Not yet. Not when the faces of her family were fresh on her mind.

Miserable, she put one foot in front of the other and trudged on. The road was long and never ending, each new city just as empty as the one before, save for a few bottles of sunblock and an obnoxious pink beret (who even wore those anymore?!). But the sunscreen was vital for their badly burned skin, even if the SPF 30 lasted less than an hour per application. Not like the shoddy tourist store could have anticipated a full-blown apocalypse and magnification of the sun combo.

“Left or right?” She looked up, dazed.

“What?” He pointed to the intersection ahead. One road led straight on, and the other? The other, pothole-pocked road filtered off into a town–Brucksville, advertising one KFC, a McDonalds, and a Holiday Inn. Impressive. 

“Brucksville.” She stated, thoughts already slipping into a delightful tornado of what-ifs and should-I-feel-guilty-fors. Content to let herself spiral, Ash began to fall into a rhythm.

“Wait! Uh, wait. Ash, I want to tell you something before you…” he stopped, unsure how to phrase his next words. She dragged her gaze to him. There was something entrancing about the way that the light hit his hair off the road sign, like an ancient Aztec mirror trick: reflecting the harsh white light back as soft gold. It made the cowlicks and flyaways shine, little strands of honey against a background of smog and decay. A little shiver passed through her, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, eyes dilating. All of the sudden, she felt much more alert.

“Before I…slip into my funk?” He smiled shyly…a good look on him. Passivity in a boy she used to think was a brainless jock. Timidity from a varsity athlete. It was unique. Entrancing, even. Compelling enough that she couldn’t let her tired eyes relax to the ground or the sky. 

“Yeah, I guess, a funk,” he admitted. Ash knew he was being generous with his phrasing. She had been in a stupor ever since they left that house: uncharacteristically quiet, jumpy at some times and spaced-out at others. 

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad I’m doing this with you. And I know we don’t want to talk about this now, because,” he gestured vaguely to everything. “Of all this. But we have to at some point. Back at that building, with the people–”

“I remember.” Impossible to tell with the severe sunburn, but Ash’s face would have been bright red, she was sure. In a way, that was a pretty good mechanism for her poker face…however, it was not such a good mechanism for her comfort. It stung like a thousand individual bee stings. 

“We don’t have to rehash it quite yet. I just wanted to say that…that it wouldn’t have happened with anyone else. If it was any other girl at school, or in the world, that I had found, I’m confident it wouldn’t be the same.” He paused. Ash was silent, unable to rip her eyes away.

“Back at the capital you said you didn’t want an ‘Adam and Eve’ fairytale romance, an illusion fabricated from circumstance alone. I didn’t know what to say at the time…and then we…you know. But now I know that what I feel isn’t just because we found each other on a whim, or because we don’t have anyone else.” Her face burned. The ache in her gut dimmed, something growing there, a warmth. Finally, he added,

“I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.”

Lie. They both knew the last sentence wasn’t true for either of them…no matter what, they would rather have family here. Not even here, necessarily. Family alive. But Ash understood. The idea still rang true. 

“Even Rita? That judgemental blonde one with daggers for eyes?” She asked. He smiled.

“Even Rita.” Officially broken from her demented train of thought, she intertwined her fingers in his; he started to pull her close. A glimmer of happiness danced on her heart. Then she pulled away so fast he staggered back.

“Ash? What is it?” The hurt in his voice was unmistakable; she shook her head. “Was it something I said? I didn’t mean to–” 

“No!” She sighed, words evading her tongue. 

“Don’t you hear it? That noise? Like…like–” her fingers jumped to her scalp. Why couldn’t she think of it? That sound! Like thunder, like the rumble of the wildebeest hooves in the Lion King, like sleet on a driveway, thick, roaring….

Jax looked at her helplessly, face blank. He was straining to hear anything but the rush of his own blood in his ears. Ash tugged a hair from her head, pain shooting through her scalp in a refreshing jolt. It exploded off her tongue.

“Like a motorcycle!” The instant she said it, her eyes widened. Realization dawned on Jax’s face, a look that held the nightmares of many nights and the worries of a thousand hours.  Their feet scrambled of their own accord, flying down the road. They had to leave. Immediately.

Cracks and pops of their joints and their panting breaths muffled the noise, but now even Jax was aware of it. Her breath came in gasps. Their sneakers slapped the road.

The noise surrounded them, closer with each second, the source not yet visible but approaching fast. The sound of nightmares come to life. A rumble of hundreds of cars. Motorcycles. Feet. Wagons and carts and murmuring voices. Crying. Trampling. Rocks underfoot. Silks shuffling, children moaning, snapping belts. Them

Ash pointed to a pile of rubble, almost a football field’s length away. The closest chance they had to survival. The caravan crested the hill, swarming into the street. First the cars and motorcycles, idling into the intersection, then the wagons. 

Not just wagons. Grand wagons, straight out of the era of French royalty: adorned with lavender silk curtains and gold filigree, plush duvets visible through sparkling windows. An outpouring of motion. The leading vehicles halted at the intersection. 

Hearts beating through their ribs, they sprinted as fast as they could, sweat blurring their vision. The rubble seemed even further away, each yard they ran becoming longer and rockier, potholes twisting their ankles. Ash pushed on blindly, drowning in the motion. Jax was only a few paces ahead of her. She looked back for a moment and–

Eye contact. Crap. A young girl stood on the road, stopped at the intersection with the rest of the walkers. Bare feet. Matted blonde curls. A blank gaze. Weary eyes that were staring right at her. Ash pleaded with her silently. Please, please, don’t say anything. Don’t turn around. Don’t tell that woman next to you, don’t move your scalded feet–

The girl twitched. Ash chanced a look at Jax, meeting his eyes as he faltered by the rubble. She tried her best to send him the message hide; he understood, reluctantly slipping behind the stones. Ash couldn’t risk going to him. At least Jax had a chance now. All she could do was stand, frozen like a statue.

Broom clutched against her chest, the girl turned to the woman next to her, hand twitching towards her arm. 

Please don’t tug her sleeve, please don’t tug her sleeve, please don’t–the girl tugged the woman’s sleeve. Ash dropped to the ground, flattening herself against the asphalt. Perhaps the woman wouldn’t see her. Perhaps the girl would be dismissed. She watched helplessly as the little girl pointed to exactly where she was laying in the road. Asphalt burned her cheeks. She pressed even lower, contracting all her muscles, sinking her scalding arms as low to the road as possible.

The woman’s eyes roved the area. Finding nothing, she turned to a man next to her, a man emaciated and marred with scabs. Without hesitation, the man began to run. Full sprint. Directly at her. 

Springing from the road like a flushed quail, Ash tore to her right. An arm flung around her neck. She screamed, biting at the flesh. Another hand gripped her wrist. Men flooded towards her, shoving her to the ground. Kicks pummeled her ribs, her back, boots stomping on her shoulders. Flailing, the road burning her skin, she shrieked in pain. Dirt flung in her eyes. The world swum with her tears; she cried out, blinking furiously. 

A pink-faced figure rushed onto the scene, throwing punches at the men. Masculine. He had honey-strand hair, a strong jawline, distinctively muscular build. Dread pooled in her stomach. No….

“Jax, leave…Jax!” Men gripped his arms, hauling him towards the caravan, his feet spinning and kicking. Ash sobbed. Cracks sounded from her shoulders, but she could no longer feel the blows. Kicks and stomps rained down on her, each impact potentially fatal, yet all she felt was a deep-seeded dread. 

There was nothing she could have done in the moment…but maybe, just maybe, if she hadn’t been so occupied with Jax, she would have heard them sooner. The thought was numbing in combination with the static in her limbs. She wasn’t sure how long she laid there, face burning against the dusty road.

Finally, when the men seemed certain she was incapacitated, they tossed her over bony shoulders. In the fuzz, Ash thought she heard some of them laughing. 

And where an idea of escape should have been brewing in her mind, all that there was was an image. An image she had tossed and turned with at night and obsessed over during the day. A vision. A vision of her own flesh, branded with a star.


Writer's Wednesday!

Midnight Rogue 3–Dawn

When the bell had struck hours ago, she should have run. A messy murder was better than a risk like this: to be so far from home and take her time going back. He had taken too long to die. 

When the bell had struck hours ago, when her knife had plunged into his beating heart, she shouldn’t have waited for his last breath to be drawn. It was too late. Even before she left the alley, she knew this. She had gone too far, waited too long, been too careless.

The girl slunk from the hallowed place; she was alone again. Bloody morning sun rays painted her face in gold, glistening off a pallid, milky mask: the face of a killer. Beginning to perspire, little beads of pearly sweat adorning the pale canvas, her boots struck hard on the concrete as she started to run. 

Her feet were slick with the sweat, boots stuffed with paper upon paper to disguise her actual shoe size…a smart tactic. A smart tactic, but a disgusting one; her feet were swimming in greasy newspaper, toe sweat, and blood that had seeped through the fabric. 

Uncomfortable. Not an uncomfortable like wet socks after a water ride. No. Uncomfortable like the fact that her mind no longer lingered on the fresh blood on her hands. Uncomfortable that the swampy sweat bog of her boots was of a bigger concern to her than the man she just slaughtered. Oh, well. Discomfort could pass. Guilt, which she decidedly shut out, would have passed too. The girl had greater things to worry about.

She had been sloppy today. She was never sloppy–never. Gloves cleanly disposed of. Knives properly cleaned, soaked in chemicals, restored to their place. Boot prints left, yes, but in a size that was almost laughably big. Those grimy shoes had been passed around among relatives so many times the purchase was virtually untraceable. None of those were the problem. Not at all. 

Her problem was the sun. The sun, and the thousands of dirty, drug-shooting, poor saps rising with it as the outer boroughs spurred to life. Panther-like steps were abandoned. It was a race against the clock, a race against any early risers. This time, she had taken it too far, too lightly, too late. Sprinting now, her boots thudded so loud that she was more likely to wake up the people with the sound of her footsteps than the sun through the windows.

Idiot, idiot, idiot…how could you be so careless? It was at least a mile left to go; she had traveled so far through the night, hopped up on sadistic adrenaline and practically unfazed by the trip to the victim’s apartment. 

But her energy was waning fast. The Midnight Rogue persona was slipping through her sweat-slicked grasp, the addictive, psychotic energy dissolving. 

She had killed at midnight. 

Recounted their sins. She was the devil. The cruel Fates of hell. Anubis burning a sinner alive with the flames of their own wicked crimes. 

An easy dagger thrust. She was an assassin. 

Pierce the heart. She was Death. 

Watch the life bleed from their eyes, draining like thick soup through a strainer…make sure the victim is dead. She was vengeance.

The girl shifted through her roles easily now, easier than the first times. Each kill was smoother than the last; this broken shell no longer felt guilt. 

Why not? Simple: does the grim reaper feel guilt? No. Then neither would the Rogue.

She had killed at midnight. 

It was four A.M. 

The time in between had slipped through her grasp, springing through alleys and dodging the sleeping masses of homeless people, stewing in their own filth.

A dingy street flew by, she passed onto a silent avenue. Movement in her peripherals, just a flitting shadow. The girl faltered. There was a shape in the window, a heavyset figure: a silhouette wreathed in the brilliance of an old-fashioned light bulb, a set of eyes staring out into the void, a man. Did he see me? Is my cover blown? 

The girl hoped she was unrecognizable as the Rogue. As dangerous as it may be to face down the Midnight Rogue as a criminal, it was twice as dangerous to be the Rogue at the mercy of a citizen. In this lawless, disgusting place, who would falter to kill her?

 The vacant-eyed Reject on the street–some ex-politician from City Central, a broken man swaddled in urine-soaked blankets–who would turn her in for a scrap of cloth on his back? 

A criminal wandering the avenues, haunting bars and clubs, waiting for a young girl he could prey on to stagger from a bar?

Not even a mother, wreathed in cigarette smoke, puffing her lungs with toxicity to shut out her grief? Desperate to make ends meet? Living paycheck to paycheck?

Even her only friend would condemn her to hell if he knew. So why not every other sinner in the boroughs? She had no right to play reaper. No right to play God. No right to deal justice where none existed. Yet she still kept running. Somehow, inexplicably, she would not let herself die.

She knew what had to be done. There was no time to get to the bunker. No more shadows to hide in. Now was the time to be the girl she’d grown up as, the girl she was before the triggers, before the ugly monster inside her reared its head. It was time to shed the disguise.

Shrugging off her cloak, the Rogue ducked into the first alcove she saw off the street. It was dark, humid, with a dumpster that smelled disturbingly close to human feces. The boot slid easily off her foot. Sweat-soaked newspaper shook loose from its pungent prison. Remorseful, the girl stuffed the royal purple silk into the lining, cringing as the hand woven cloth was smashed into a moist boot. When she stuffed the boot back on, she was equally delighted and regret-filled by the coolness of the cloak on her foot. 

Pony tail holder: it had carved a pinkish track in her wrist. Her hair felt coarse under her greasy fingers; she quickly tied it up in an unflatteringly high ponytail. Shrugged off her jacket, loosely knotting it around her waist. 

Then, the worst problem. My dagger…the bronze etched handle was laughably visible. The sheath at her belt, so easily concealed by her cloak, was now glaringly obvious. Choking on laughter, she surveyed the sharp edge of the dagger, the designs on the sheath. Very uncharacteristic of a teenage party girl. 

Such a beautiful sheath. Shining black leather. Perfectly crafted to caress her dagger. Easy draw. And without a doubt, the most expensive thing the girl owned. 

Every nerve in her hand rebelled at the motion. A tangible ache gripped her gut, but she knew she had to do this, no matter how much it hurt. The dagger slid easily into the soggy newspaper of her left boot. 

And the perfect dagger sheath fell to the concrete. Abandoned. Ripe for the pick of any drug-hungry Reject scouring the dumpsters. The thought made her sick.

“Hey, missy. You lost?” She jumped. A voice. So close it couldn’t be more than six feet away. She pressed down the scream that clawed at her throat. A wave of terror crashed over her: what could she do? 

Panic. Hot in her veins, on her cheeks, in her throat. Hide the dagger hilt? No time. Flirt with him? No experience. Pretend to be a party girl? Drunk? Lost? Maybe…but only because killing him would be too much of a fuss this late in the morning. 

The Rogue turned. Attempting a casual pose, she gave a dopey smile, heart pounding her ribs. A man stood at the mouth of the alcove. Beefy. Heavyset. No more than a few feet away. Threateningly close. 

“Um…who are you?” She managed, slurring her words. She tried to think of what a blackout-drunk party girl would say, how she would act. The exact way her eyelids would flutter. The drool dribbling down her lip. No time. No time! Any truly drunk City Central girl would never stop talking, never, especially if she was with a man who was even slightly interested. She was panicking. Desperate to conjure something flirty, stupid, bewildered. Yet what spilled from her lips was the most idiotic thing she could imagine.

“Rebecca? Is that you?” 

Idiot. 

Idiot! 

But wasn’t that something a drunk girl would say? She didn’t know. The Rogue had never had a drink. She was only a teen…too young. Too impulsive. Enough sense to know that alcohol would send her spiraling further than blind rage ever could.

The man screwed up his brow. It was obvious he was male–masculinity practically radiated from him, dashed with the usual arrogance and self-righteousness. He frowned, uncertain,

“Uh, no, I’m–” 

“Thank god! I left my bag at the club, do you have it? My mom would killlllll me if she knew! Kill me, Becky! Becca…Rebeccs…Rebie, some rando Reject could, like,” she hiccuped, “steal it and then I would be all like, ‘mom my bag got stolen’ and she would be like ‘your nice one?’ and I would be like ‘yes, mom, the one with all my I.D and monies in it!’” 

Fanning herself, the girl started to tear up, wavering on her feet, clutching the bricks for support. Her eyes were wild. She looked down, rifling through the crumpled papers at her feet. Dazed. As if her bag was somehow in the newspaper. 

“I’m not Rebecca. But if you want–”

“Oh! My. God.” Her lip quivered like a plucked bowstring. The jacket around her waist sagged, falling down to her knees as she trembled, clouds growing in her gaze. Perfect. Even in a fake stupor, she could appreciate her acting skills. 

“Are you alright? I can take you hom–”

A piercing shriek cut the air. She wailed like an air horn. He could have sworn her eyes crossed for a second.

“Where. Is. Gerard?! I promised him that I was going to give him my number! Oh, where is he?” The girl stamped her boot. 

“I totally forgot after I lost my bag! Oh…he’s never going to…Rebecca!” The girl whined, practically whimpering now, oblivious to the fact that the man was backing away.

“Becca…Gerard was like…” her eyes glassed over. Silence hung for a second, a strange interaction coming to a halt in a little divot, on a disgusting avenue, in a trashy borough, far away from the glittering lights of City Central. Silence.

Then she wretched. Doubled over. Gagged. Saliva splattered the ground, gruesome chunks of god-knows-what painting the concrete. Vomit. Vomit! Hot, thick, clumpy, moist vomit. The man cringed back, sprinting from the alcove and down the street. 

As soon as he was out of sight, the Rogue stood up, eyes clearing. With a decisive motion, she let her hair down, pushing the hair tie onto her wrist and shrugging the jacket back on. Always the actor, the girl, name unsaid, ungiven, strutted confidently from the steaming stew of vomit and saliva. 

Just as she shifted through her roles of justice, she transitioned from drunk-party-girl-with-a-lost-handbag-and-a-crush-on-Gerard to confident young woman returning home at dawn.

The mistakes wouldn’t go unnoticed. Unremarked. The Midnight Rogue was sure of that. Only that. She flowed through her forms fluidly as the devil changed faces. The only role switch she had to control was the shift from Midnight Rogue to guilty teenage girl. All the rest came naturally.

The girl stepped into the street, thoughts of the approaching day already clouding her mind. She was no longer the Rogue; her rage had dissipated with the night. The only signal of her crimes was the dagger in her left boot and the cloak in her right, a vague recollection of bloodthirsty rage, a memory of a scream. 

She had been invited to meet up with a friend at 8:00 A.M., which meant she would have to jog home, further matting down the beautiful cloak–

A hand encircled her throat. Cloth against her lips. She flailed her limbs. Feet lifted from the ground.  Immediately, a wall of rubbing alcohol scent smashed her nostrils, deep, pounding. Her vision blurred. She drew in a breath as her feet scrambled for purchase. The regret was instant. Nausea roared at her like a gut-punch. Chloroform. 

Breathless, dripping with sweat, the man from the alcove lifted her into a car trunk. She lost consciousness before he could even close the lid. 

Karma, she thought. The world was paying her back for her sloppiness. Karma, and arrogance, for believing she could so easily outsmart every passerby. Her mistakes were not unremarked. Justice comes at a hefty price in the outer boroughs. The Midnight Rogue would soon pay it.


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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 worse than if she would have slammed it: irrational people exit with slammed doors, but people who are right leave silently, dignified. That was the scary part…Miranda was right. He’d had justice for Paisley. What was he still seeking? What was out there that he needed so badly?

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.