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.”