This week Writer’s Wednesday takes a slightly different form. I’ve entered a writing contest and was recently notified that I was a semi-finalist!
If you are a fan of my blog and my writing, I would ask you to please consider voting for my story, The Iris City by Autumn Brutyn. You can do this by visiting writemichigan.org –) Short Story Contest –) Teen (12-17) –) my story. To vote you have to make a Submittable account with just a few quick steps.
A new Writer’s Wednesday is in the works for the Elemental series also. Thank you for your support! (:
Revenge. The Midnight Rogue thrashed desperately in the trunk, walls of black all around. Pressing down, squeezing in, cutting off her air as efficiently as a sinner’s final wheezing breath. Chloroform dragged her down into the murky gray, into a haze of memory that swirled her back to her original self. An outer borough daughter, friend, student. A girl broken by tragedy. The darkness folded around her. The Midnight Rogue was whisked away into the past……
“Paisley!” A flash of blond hair glinted under the strobe lights and the girl bounded off after it, bumping into strangers and giggling apologies. “Paisley! Wait up!” Miranda called, voice engulfed in the din of clacking heels and throbbing bass. She felt a hand on her arm and tensed immediately, whirling against the grip. A man.
No…a boy? Not much taller than her, sporting a casual outfit, messy hair– Miranda laughed, taking in the blurry face. This wasn’t a stranger! She looped her arm through his and yelled over the pulse of the club,
“Ben! I thought you weren’t going home yet!” He stopped her, grabbing both her hands as she teetered dangerously. Bursting with a loud hiccup, Miranda wavered on her heels, eyes straining to focus on the face. Ben’s face.
Ben? I thought he wasn’t going home yet!
His thin yet athletic build glowed under the strobe. Tense shoulders. Strong shoulders. The shoulders of her best friend’s brother.
She wasn’t quite sure why she latched her hands to them, but she did. Satisfied with how she stood, in a crude slow-dance stance and wobbling on her heels, she was able to focus on his eyes.
“I was going to stay, but I thought maybe I should walk you home!” he yelled, voice barely audible as the song pounded into another deep-bass chorus. Miranda knit her brows. Now why would he do that? I have a knife at my thigh, after all. I can defend myself…
“Miranda!” The dark-haired girl swiveled her head, vision going blurry for a moment. A squeal tore the air. The girls leapt into each other’s arms in a massive bear hug.
“Paisley, I missed you!”
“I was only gone for a second–”
“A second too long!” They burst into laughter; Ben stood off to the side, watching the scene unfold with amusement and disbelief. The lights lit up their hair, clinging onto each other like an onyx gem fused with gold. Paisley Renee, Ben’s sister, slightly taller and with hair like the sun beaming down on a meadow. It was a strange contrast to the raven-black of Miranda’s. A good contrast, he thought. He strode forward.
Gently breaking them apart, he held an arm out to each girl, which they each took gratefully. Even in their stupor, they seemed to know they would need it to get out the door.
The club was alive with people. The stumbling and sweating mass whirled across the floor, breaths heavy with the stink of liquor, baking under the heat of the flashing lights.
When they finally burst through into the night air, it felt like a winter day after being cooped up inside. Miranda’s face lit up at the coolness, coming alive with the sting of the breeze against her cheeks. Some of the cloudiness dissipated then, a bright silver moon illuminating both the sidewalk and her mind in one graceful beam.
Rejuvenated, she shrugged her arm from Ben’s and gazed around. It was late, late enough that the world was asleep. Gushing night wind held a biting chill that felt prickly on her tongue. “Miranda, can you hold on a sec? Paisley has to fix her heel,” Ben called. Miranda nodded absentmindedly, hearing the words for a moment before letting them slip away under the alcohol. Ambling a few feet past the exit, she stopped in her tracks. What a beautiful song, she thought, looking up at the wall.
Scrawled in concrete were a cluster of words. Stepping closer to examine it, Miranda realized that this was not a song at all, but a poem of sorts. Glancing back at Ben and Paisley, she saw they were still there, methodically tinkering with the beige heel for no obvious reason.
Content with their closeness, Miranda began to read aloud to herself, drawing the leather jacket closer around her shoulders.
“Beware! Those pleasures of humanity
For when the time of need arises
The angels will deem them sins.
Justice will not come on drunken, senseless wings
Justice will not come when the fallen addict sings.
Protect those who are innocent
Stand with the fierce and the bold.
Trust the passage of time when you feel yourself grow old.
Those who cheat the game
And burn with pleasure’s wicked claim
Will feel the world’s pitiless wrath
Blaze over them with shame.”
Something in those words chilled her to her core. Like they were speaking just to her. Preaching to her. Looking at her, knowing her, seeingher as she stood there, euphoric from a night of dancing and drinks. Very suddenly, Miranda wanted to go home. Or home as she thought of it: an abstract idea, anyplace where she was warm and alone and felt the knot in her chest uncoil. She wanted to go home now.
Just as she began to step away, a hand clamped down on her shoulder. “Ben?” She turned to see a hulking figure towering above her. Goosebumps swept over her skin, rippling down her bare arms up the thin straps of her dress. This was not Ben, with his lean figure and boyish features. This was something scary. Threatening.
The hand shoved her back against the wall, pinning her without effort.
“Hey, sweetheart. How about we get out of here?” the man breathed. His breath was putrid, hot and stinking of alcohol as it beat down on her flushed cheeks. Miranda squealed and struggled, raking her nails down his arm. Thrashing fruitlessly against the hand that pinned her to the stone.
“I don’t want to go. Please…I’m not interested!” she begged. But he didn’t draw away. His lips curled back, revealing an array of crooked yellow teeth. The smell of spoiled liquor intensified.
Looming over her like a vulture, he pushed her left shoulder even harder to the concrete; she could feel each little imperfection in the stone digging against bone and tenderizing her skin.
With his free hand he traced a line along her collarbone where the dress neckline curved. Miranda wanted to molt out of her body. She wanted to disappear, melt back into the concrete and be one with the prophecy of the wall. Wasn’t that what she did best? Disappear?
Suddenly the pressure was gone from her shoulder. A flash of caramel eyes, golden hair, freckles. Miranda wavered, still feeling the phantom touch of meaty fingers on her collarbone.
It was a flurry of motion. One form bled into another–Ben’s light brown hair, Paisley’s olive skin, the frothing red mound of a man. Fumbling for the knife strapped to her thigh, she drew the blade and held it aloft in the moonlight. Silvery, shiny, warped from her intoxication and adrenaline.
But in the grappling brawl there was no clear target. Tears blurred her vision. The blade was useless in her inept hands, staring at a tangle of friend and foe.
At once the forms separated long enough for Miranda to raise her knife. The drunkard charged forward, fists looming, and she thrust the silver deep into his shoulder. And with a bellowing roar he struck her down.
Concrete. Dizziness lightened her head. She became a heap of white skin and black hair, crumpled uselessly on the ground. The next sounds she heard were that of defiant words, Paisley screaming.
Then the sidewalk was overflowing.
Crimson, sticky, spilling, everywhere.
Somehow she fought, somehow she moved, pulled herself forth to the broken figure on the road. It all crashed down, images and sounds whooshing through the pain.
Miranda’s fingers knotting in Paisley’s golden hair. Her throat ripping screams. Ben crying out for help, help that would never come. Light leaving bright caramel eyes. Miranda’s heart draining humanity, draining benevolence, draining mercy.
It all melted away until the only things left were solid: her best friend lying dead in her arms, the cold lump throbbing weakly in her chest, the awful words clambering up her throat. Finally she managed to say them. Softly, despairingly; completely and utterly without hope.
“Ben. It’s no use.”
His shouts choked off hoarsely. Defeated, he slumped over his sister’s unbreathing chest, heart shattering in those tawny eyes.
“Paisley’s dead,” she whispered, “she’s dead, Ben. And it’s all my fault.” He didn’t correct her. Wouldn’t have even if she was wrong.
That wasn’t his job, to console her, wipe her tears. His job was to mourn, to grieve, to wallow. His sister was dead; no one could help, and no one would even if they could. In this disgusting cesspool, what doctor would bother with an injured young girl? What passerby would pause to save a life? Not a single one.
Not a single one.
Miranda glanced up at the words on the wall, those which she had mistaken for a song–they were splattered with fresh blood now–and back to the most exuberant bundle of starlight and sunshine, newly dead. Skin still warm, eyes dark as twilight. Dim as dismal rain after a long, blissful summer.
Ben’s job may have been to grieve. But hers wasn’t.
Her job wasn’t to mourn, or cry, or say goodbye.
Her job was to hunt down the man who clobbered sweet Paisley Renee to death without a second thought. She would meld with the darkness. Blend into shadow. Become vengeance incarnate…and then, only then, could she do what needed to be done.
Screams. Deep, throaty, bellowing groans in discord with the silence of the graves. That was what the goddess wished to hear as she approached the crypt. This spark in her deadened soul, this wisp of something…an emotion? An impulse?
A fire in the eyes of the devil.
A bitterness on the tongue of a critic.
A harsh word on the ears of the deaf.
What would someone call that? Not a feeling, the goddess decided. She was not wistful for the sound of screams, not hopeful. She was inconvenienced. Inconvenienced by an impulse–the hard metal heart rotting in her chest was incapable of the experience “hope.” So, perhaps, Artemis was experiencing distraction. Irritation.
Niggling at her gut, the annoyance disguised as hope for her Huntsman collected her soul together again. As a goddess, it was simple to fracture herself into various forms and disperse them throughout the Earth and heavens at the drop of a hat. But it required the lack of emotion–no, distractions, she reminded herself–that she could not currently obtain.
It was a cosmic lift from her mind: the weight of all the monitored realities condensing into one form, a merging rather like mixing the ingredients of a pastry; after all, it is easier to carry a single cake than all the flour, eggs, and milk that went into it.
Whole again, the goddess moved with renewed vigor, cautious to monitor her speed lest she overshoot the crypt by a mile at sonic pace. It felt awkward to run again; she hadn’t truly run at a human speed since she ruled the Hunters of Artemis, back when tracking down boar and overconfident cougars was the task of all tasks.
Finally at the cusp of the leering concrete structure, she took a moment to examine it with cold, calculating eyes leering in the anxious light. It was a beautiful tomb: carved with the intricacies and care of craftsmen from a time before. A time of refined workmanship and gentle, deliberate chiselings and chips.
Not like today. Cheap plastic. Mass produced goods. Hasty assembly lines–the festering mortal laxity disgusted her. She was born from the cosmos into a world of art. Beauty. Grace. And–consequently–meticulous hours of work behind each vase and script.
But craftsmanship passed with the years and without note, of little matter to an immortal and even less to a human. The true reason why she trudged through this graveyard was infinitely greater than the tomb.
What lay within. Who lay within: the cause of this annoying distraction of hope. Because despite herself, a shrapnel shred of her iron heart held fondness for him.
Orion. Orion, who once upon a millenia she had loved against her will and against her better judgement. Orion, who was destined to be a mortal, who’s scorpion sting should have seeped toxicity through his arteries and stolen his breath. Orion–for which the goddess had rewritten the stars themself.
She allowed this annoyance to broil in the silence, regarding the stone with daggers in her eyes and shoulders defiantly broadened, despising the silence. Her name did not reverberate from within. No prayers echoed dimly through the crack in the door. This wasn’t good…not at all. There should be screams; that fact, and that fact alone, decided it.
The goddess charged violently at the door, lashing a bolt of crisp white light crackling towards the cement. From the silence the burst of power rattled the air into a frenzied hum. Her gossamer hair lifted and spiked from its sheen, frazzled by the static and the door exploded at once.
Shards of stone and rock thrashed violently against her skin, assaulting the paleness and careening off like a pebble on a bulletproof window. The atmosphere thrummed with the blast as a cloud of suffocating dust billowed from the decimated crypt.
Unmarked, clothes artfully disheveled and hair frizzed, Artemis stumbled forward through the clouds of soot and sucked in a breath. Panic overtook her glass eyes: the rubble was immense. Cradling her thin hands close to her chest, an unexpected regret fizzled through her fingertips in the place of the power she had come to know. Tightness seized her chest. Too much. Too much, I used too much, what if…?
“No,” she breathed, eyes roving the debris, the annoyance of hope rearing strong in her gut. Shiny, platinum hair. Strong hands. Cloth. An arrowhead. Something, anything, to show her she hadn’t…but what if…
What if I killed him? What if he was suffering? What if my flicker of effort crushed him, what if? What if Orion is dead? It shouldn’t matter to her. Another feeble-minded mercenary, blindly following orders on the chance that Artemis will show them love…wasn’t that all he was?
The goddess, clutching her arms against her heart, scrambled to comb the rubble. She flung aside rocks with the frenzy of a starving hyena stumbling upon a fresh kill. Minutes screamed by and thousands of shards spiked the earth where she had thrust them from the debris. No sign of him. Drawing back in fright, the goddess examined her work in terror.
“What am I doing?!” she sobbed to the hazy clouds of ash, to the sky, to the unhearing wind. Dread pooled in her gut.The sky was darkening. Pressure squeezed her brain. Shivers trembled down her spine: what is happening to me?
Artemis had no time to ponder the question when her vision scattered in a crack of light. Lightning burst from the sky, forking a fiery tongue down directly into her aching chest and bursting her conscious thought into shrapnel. Thunder rumbled in the sky, a crescendo like a bowling ball hurtling down the lane. They stepped forward, emerging from the haze like phantoms floating on the fog.
Four girls wrapped in glittering light, angels gliding through the dim cemetery with elegant strides like a young queen at her coronation. Another burst of lighting struck the goddess. She fell back, back arching with the electricity, fighting to condense her being back into this moment. A girl rose her hand and flame emerged, climbing the silk strands of Artemis’ hair and licking down her simple, threadbare clothes. Rain came pounding in then, icy cold and blistering heat ravaging her skin in a torrent, the charge still buzzing along her body.
The Elements overpowered her one by one, pummeling her figure with bolts of energy and wind and gasps of fire so sweltering her skin burned red. Moon dust choking her lungs, stuffing the delicate trachea full of toxicity and smoke. Lightning sizzling her arms. Fire drowning her eyes. Sea spray whipping down on her head like gravel lashed from a truck tire.
Artemis clawed at the earth, reaching for a stone to throw, something to cease this pain, a pain like she’d never felt in all her existence.
Instead, her groping hand found skin. Skin.
The world came back into focus. All the fragmented particles of her essence raced back together in a surge, solidifying in a burst of raw emotion so intense she rocked on her side and screamed. The barrage stopped at once. The four girls were thrown back like rag dolls in the path of a tormenting toddler, thrust on stone mausoleums, bones cracking against graves.
All the millennia of her life suddenly focused, each minuscule moment notable or worthless jamming themselves into her mind, and suddenly Artemis felt like a human. Frazzled, lying in a pile of rubble and soot, desperately clinging to the hand of her long lost love.
Orion. A romantic love, perhaps, or a friendly one, or maybe not love at all so much as a mutual liking…but whatever they had, she suddenly could think of no happier moment in all her life as when she felt her fingers on his.
Paying no attention to the moaning Elementals behind her, she sat up and drew the warm skin of his hand against her face, gently cradling it against her cheek. A pulse fluttered weakly through the veins there, throbbing in time with her flooded head. All the memories, all the years flurried through her brain, a great burst of humanity ravaging her soul. And there was a soul. She felt it now, festering inside her, thrumming and glowing as bright as Selene’s moon.
Dusting the debris from his body, Artemis pulled him close, golden hair splayed across her lap like a sunburst. Willing a morsel of her mind to focus, the power burst eagerly to her fingers and streamed into his broken body, knitting tissues and mending bones. The years of hunting experience coalesced into a healing energy, one she wasn’t sure she had ever used–not on the dying leper during the plagues or the wounded huntress she had taught since youth. Never would she have thought to try. Never, except for him.
When she was certain Orion had healed, she delicately lowered his head onto the stone, brushing the ash from his lids. Turning her head to face the four powerful girls, she was met with a pair of beseeching midnight eyes.
“Selene,” she whispered. The teen girl stood not far from the goddess, legs twisted at disturbing angles and fingers trembling.
“Artemis.” The words were cold, doubtlessly intended to ring with strength but quaking with weakness instead. Kenna the fire girl, Daria of water, and Talia of storm gathered themselves and stood, each bloody with the impact of the cosmic blast.
Stumbling forward, each flashed each other meaningful looks, striding to Selene’s sides and linking arms with her. A row of four girls, meant to be five, full of enough power to rock the universe from its foundation.
There they stood, eyes trained on one lone goddess, the huntress, the eternal maiden. A sense of cumulation permeated the scene, a sense that every instant in their lives, as unique and different as they may be, had been building to this moment. This hour. This minute. This very instant in time.
I thought I’d seen so much
Until I saw it all
Used my youth as a crutch
So my ignorance would not fall
I never knew
I never knew
I never knew the world
In its endless, infinite sprawl.
I knew everything, deep down
I’d seen life and love and truth
In little moments, long retreated
I never knew the dawn
I never knew the night
I never knew the happiness
Of watching stars fade into sunlight
Swimming beneath the velvety black
Dusk gives way to day
Glimmering, burning, glistening jewels
Fade in the sun’s first ray
I never knew the dark
I never knew the light
I never knew the sunrise
Until it made my follies die away
Years are not what all men need
To triumph in wisdom and relish in life
For I am so young, and still
I’ve seen my share of victory and strife
I collected little moments
I cached them in my thoughts
I knew all that I needed to know
An epiphany cut through me like a knife:
All joy and wisdom and meaning comes from
These shared experiences
Of the human life
Thank you to Jennifer Brutyn for commenting on my last post! (:This is part 2 of the Elementals finale. Find the rest in the archives!
🌧️ Talia Thorn
“No, no, you don’t understand, I think she can…” I trailed off, eyes tightening at the corners, my old distress over interacting with strangers creeping in. There in front of me was a smart, assertive woman with degrees in so many areas of medicine that it made my head spin just thinking about all the years of college it took. And I was…what?
A shy girl with rain powers? A frail little London teen who could make some thunder rumble if she tried hard enough? A pathetic human sprinkler? The IV was hooked up. Nurses began to scramble for A-negative, and I just stood there, stomach rumbling and roiling at the presence of needles and blood. I had to stop it before I risked damaging Selene’s power with human fluids. But how?
What did I have to say about her?
That she could heal herself if they got her off these pain killers?
That she didn’t need any human blood?
That it might take away the potency of her powers if she received normal fluids?
I slumped into a rigid seat, holding my head in my hands. What was there to say? The doctors insisted that Selene was rapidly losing blood; I couldn’t use my powers to heal her; Daria was somewhere in a different wing of the hospital. Zara was dead. I had seen her body myself, crumpled in the street, with an aura of absence emanating from her so unlike Daria’s that I didn’t need to feed myself false hope.
I felt a hand fall on my shoulder. I looked up, expecting the doctor or the matronly nurse with the full, dimpled cheeks. No. The eyes that met mine were a strange, otherworldly gold.
Jolting out of my seat, I wrapped my arms around Daria, the friend I’d barely known or talked to at all. I hadn’t been on the ship with her and Kenna and Selene. She’d been shot before I could talk to her on the rescue boat. We’d been fleeing from the mercenaries on land, she’d been presumed dead in the alley, and yet, her inviting embrace felt like heaven: a warm hug from a long-lost friend.
“Did they clear you?” I asked, stepping back. The wounds in her gut and her back seemed to have disappeared into thin air, the tattered swimsuit traded out for a fresh white hospital gown. Kenna stepped forward and gave me a hug too, answering for Daria,
“Yes, they cleared her. I had to do a little bit of persuading for that–you know, it isn’t everyday that a girl with suspiciously-healed mortal wounds gets let off easy.”
I laughed, taking them both in at arm’s length, for a moment wondering how in the world my life had come to this. Not so long ago was I back at my London estate, avoiding my father at all costs, toying with my mother’s earrings before school.
Now I had a strange set of friends: two of which were mortally wounded by arrows, one who had burned alive a school shooter, and one more–Zara. I couldn’t think about her too much, not then, not for a long time after.
“We have a plan, Talia. We know what needs to be done to stop all this.” Daria gestured vaguely to the world with a sweeping arc of her hands. Kenna nodded, gripping my hands in hers so tight I could feel the heat burning along her palms, scratching at her skin to be released. I was glad my power was more docile.
“What is it? What’s the plan?” I glanced at Selene, prone on the bed, deep in sleep. “I’ll do anything.”
Anything at all, I thought, staring at Kenna’s constantly shifting eyes and Daria’s calm, centered ones. These were my friends now. I would never cease to fight for them, I knew, and I was alright with that.
“Zara granted us one final gift,” Kenna said.
“We know where the gods and goddesses will congregate in their Earth-dwelling forms. Artemis and all the others. We can take them down with our combined powers.
“We need to find the crypt of Inara Nightlock. And we need to find it before midnight. It’s the only shot we have.” I nodded, sorting through the information silently, pushing away all the unanswerable questions cropping up in my head. Finally, lifting my chin, I responded.
What is the meaning of life?
I don’t know.
Giving and taking
Making something new
Watching ideas grow
and your own life...
I don’t know:
I’m much too young, aren’t I?
Why are we here?
I don’t know.
Maybe for a purpose
Evolved us into being
A higher power
A special role
A perfect passion designed for us
Another worker bee in a
Just to be
I don’t know:
I’m much too inexperienced, aren’t I?
Who are you to give advice?
I don’t know.
Maybe just a girl
Behind a computer
Typing the thoughts in her brain
Building worlds and characters into existence
On a little webpage
With a blinking cursor
Scrambling for inspiration
Wracking my brain
I don’t know:
I’m much too inarticulate, aren’t I?
What do these questions have in common?
I don’t know.
Maybe they’re special
In the whole wide world
Has a different answer to each
A reason to be,
I don’t know:
I’m much too young for this, aren’t I?
What is the meaning of life?
Maybe mine is
To be happy
To be a writer
To make haste
To love and to hate
To exist in this cacophony
and simply be…
I think so.
Why are we here?
Maybe I am here
To be an archaeologist
To find my passion
and explore the world
and be fearless…
I think so.
Who am I to give advice?
I do know:
I am just a girl.
A speck in the infinite river of time
One bright star in a never-ending sky
I give my two cents on life
and laugh, because...
I do know something.
I know myself.
I’m a girl
A star in a beautiful,
and meant for great things...
I know so.
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 jangled 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.
“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.
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 didn’t know that it mattered much 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 blossoms, 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 her gut? 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 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.
The only infinity on this Earth is the infinity of the questions without answers.”
The River of Life
A poem by Autumn Brutyn
Sitting on the shore of the endless sea
A question came on the wind to me
A question so rhetorical, so subjective, so sweet,
A question without an answer, forever incomplete
Impossible to answer, and yet, it lingered on my thoughts:
What can encompass life?
Life, so complex, so filled with strife!
A frog on the banks of a never-ending stream?
One speck of dust in the golden sunbeam?
No, not that, that’s not right.
Because what of the endlessly multiplying people?
Billions and billions, like rust spots on a steeple
The infinite wisdom in a dragonfly’s eye?
Each meaningless fleck of dirt in a rancid pigsty?
No, not that, that’s not right.
Because what of the young ones, the old, the bold?
Each spirit, so unique, with hearts warm and cold…
Can nothing emulate it, that tumultuous diversity?
The way the Earth rumbles and shakes, all topsity-turvety?
Maybe, maybe not, but one thing comes close.
Because time will never cease to fly,
I thought, just like the river chugging by
The river, with its millions of glistening bubbles
Bobbing and weaving, like children, no troubles
The river, highway to the sea, comes close
Because it ebbs and flows, angry before it calms,
Has droughts and floods and never-ending qualms
Pebbles shift and change, silt travels downstream
Just like humanity, restless in their dream
That river, roiling and bubbling, comes close
Life is imperfect
Life is diverse
Never a curse
Life is drowning
Life is sweet
Take it from me:
There never has been, and never will be, one true answer
Life’s secrets are elusive, captivating, like a masked dancer
But if you seek an answer, please, hear my plea:
Turn to the river! The water! The path to the sea
Because the river,
To the sea