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.