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.