A Dying Fire
I awoke to a blaze of white light. I'd been dreaming. I thought I still was. The clock beside me was stuck at 11:11 am. The room was quaint. Simple. Two beds and a small TV. Our luggage bags lay open at the front of the bed, clothes tossed around in all manner of disorganization.
The light was so bright, even filtered through the dirty curtains that seperated the room from the balcony and the sea beyond. It was late. I could feel it. Sarah and James should have been back by now. They should have finished swimming long ago. It was late and they weren't here. It was so bright.
I rose slowly, my head swimming. For a moment, I feared I would lose my balance. Then I began to move. The curtain lay still. The air conditioning had died. I reached slowly for the balcony door, grasping its handle tightly. It was warm to the touch. Like the sun had been shining on it for many hours. But it was late.
I pulled the handle. The door slid open and I stepped outside.
The light was blinding. I held my hand up to my eyes as I waited for my sight to return. Something was floating in the air. Snow? Was it snow?
A speck landed on my forearm and I rubbed it away, leaving a gray smudge in its place. It was ash. The balcony floor was covered in ash. My bare feet were covered in it, stained by dead embers. I raised my head and glanced across the earth.
The ocean was on fire.
The world is a cold and desolate place. A dead place.
When I glanced across the burning sea I saw everything. I wish I hadn't. Maybe then I'd still find sleep at night, not be afraid to shut my eyes and let the nightmares in. That was two years ago. It haunts me still.
I'm alone under a plastic tarp. I glance at my watch, its battery still dead, its hands stuck at 11:11 am. The same time my son was born. Ironic that it was the perfect time for the world to end.
The sun doesn't shine anymore. At least not enough to escape the wall of clouds above. The rain is always falling. My skin is pale, ghostly, my body thin and frail. I run my hand over my chest, counting my ribs. My arms shake as I pile twigs together. I dig a silver lighter out of my pocket and slowly light a fire, desperatly fanning the flames. I'm cold. The lighter's almost out.
I smile as the fire grows, warming my body. I inch myself closer to the burning pire. My hands nearly touch the flames. I'm staring into the fire, bound by the dancing embers. The flames roar up and singe my hands. I draw back, cursing into the night. Tears run slowly down my face as I sob.
I sob for my family. For myself. For everyone, dead or alive.
My hands ache. I clutch them tight, burying them against my ragged clothes. The rain continues to pour. I continue to weep. The world continues to die.
It's funny that the same thing that killed us now keeps us warm and safe. Keeps us alive. I wake to the sound of thunder. The fire is almost out. I dig through the beaten shoulderbag beside me. A few dozen cans of food, a flashlight long dead, a gun with no bullets, and a couple of books. I draw a book from the bag and hold it up in the light. Fahrenheit 451. I chuckle, the dry, half hearted laugh people use to keep from sobbing, as I drop the novel into the fire.
The second book is different. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye. I pause as I hold the book over the flames, the light reflecting dully off the white cover.
"What are you reading, dad?"
"What kind of book?"
"A grown up book."
"That's no fun."
I shake myself from the trance. My hand jitters as I lower it, returning the book to the bag. My wallet comes next. I remove the pictures of my family and toss the wallet in. I watch as the leather bubbles, as my money, now no more than tattered paper, browns under the flames.
"Mom, you ready?"
"You coming, sweetie?"
"I'm too tired. I think I'm gonna take a little cat nap."
If only they'd stayed.
"You sure, dad?"
"Yeah. We'll have plenty of time to swim all this week."
If they'd only stayed with me!
"Oh. See ya!"
"I love you, John."
Maybe I could have saved them!
"I love you too."
Maybe they'd still be with me...
Someone's here. Kneeling beside me.
I open my eyes. A figure is digging through my bag. I wait, breathing slowly. The figure continues to shuffle. I leap to my feet, knocking the stranger aside. I draw the pistol from the tote bag and turn to face the thief.
It's a woman.
She lies on her back, her arms raised up in defense. Her hair is matted with dried mud, hiding the ravishing blonde beneath it. Her clothes are like mine, burned and torn. There's a rustle from behind. I turn swiftly.
A young child stands beside a burned tree.
"Don't," the woman whispers.
I face her.
"Don't hurt him. Please."
I stand and hold out my hand. The woman stares suspiciously at my outstretched arm.
"I won't hurt you."
"I've been told that before."
The left side of her face is stained purple, bloated from bruising. Red lashes mark her neck.
Her eyes are blue. The color of the sea. She slowly grasps my hand. The child rushes to his mother's side. His eyes are wide and shining, his hair blonde like his mother's. His legs shake as he clutches his mother's hand.
"Mister, do you have any food?" he asks.
"Yes. A little. But it's enough."
"I haven't seen him sleep this well in a long time."
The woman sets down her empty tin of corn and hands the spoon back to me. I pop a bottle open and wash the silverware off. Then I toss them back inside the sidepocket of the carry on bag.
"You shouldn't waste water. We don't have much around here," the woman says.
Overhead the rain continues to fall.
I begin to laugh. She joins me. It feels good to laugh. Like a cool drink after hiking across the Sahara. It feels good.
"Where are you heading?" I ask.
"To the sea."
"There's nothing there."
"Not here. But there have been rumors."
"Yes. Rumors about London." she replies.
I raise my brow.
"That people in London managed to control the spread of the fires in some areas."
"Do you really believe that?"
"I have to. For my son. I have to."
"My name is John," I say.
"You're insane for believing, Ann."
She smiles back.
"You're crazy for not."
"What is your son's name?" I ask.
"Adam. His name is Adam."
I watch the fire as it flickers before me, dancing in the night. The child sleeps.
"What happened to you, John?"
"I lost faith."
"Faith can be regained. Come with us."
"No," I whisper.
Ann touches my shoulder. I pull away.
"There is no hope, Ann."
"There's always hope."
"Everyone is dead. Everyone we ever knew. Everyone we ever loved. What's left to hope for? Why do we want to live?" I ask.
"It's in our nature to survive."
"Well God had different plans."
I begin to dig through my bag. The fire is fading. I pull he copy of The Catcher in the Rye from my bag.
"I read that in high school," Ann says.
"So did I."
I thumb slowly through the pages.
"Do you realize this might be the last copy of this book left?" I ask.
"I can't burn it. I can't."
"But you say all is lost."
I sigh, watching the dying flames. I reach down and pull the worn shoes from my feet. I remove both socks and toss them into the fire. Ann stares at me as I lace my shoes back up. I meet her gaze.
"I'll just have to tie them tighter."
Ann laughs. I watch her as she meets my eyes and falls silent. She leans forward and kisses my lips. I turn away.
"I'm sorry," she says.
I lie back and close my eyes, my back turned to Ann and her son.
"Take it," I whisper.
"It's too much."
"Take the bag."
The tote bag dangles in my outstretched hand.
"How will you survive? You won't have enough food."
"I'll find a way. If not, then I won't."
Ann shakes as she holds the bag to her chest.
"Come with us. Please, John."
"There's rumors that London's safe, Ann. You still have faith."
"Go," I say, placing my hand upon her arm.
She slings the bag over her shoulder and turns away. She begins to make her way down the road.
There are no roads. Only mishapen puddles of tar. Not even the roads are left. But she has hope. She walks. Adam stands before me. He stares up at me with his wide eyes. He speaks.
"Bye, Mister. Thanks for the food."
Then he turns and hurries to his mother's side. I watch until they dissapear beyond the horizon.
"What would you do if I died?"
"You're not going to die, Sarah."
"I know. But what would you do?"
"What could I do? I'd be shattered. Broken into pieces."
"But could you go on? For James' sake?"
"Could I go on?"
"I could. I'd find a way."
The rain has stopped. The fire is dead. I raise my head and stare down the road. I stand quickly, my heart beating like a tribal drum.
I stuff the few cans of food I kept into my pocket. I shake my head and breath out. Then I'm off, sprinting down the burned road.
Up ahead I can hear Adam and his mother. They're screaming. I quickly make my way towards them. Adam lies in the middle of the road, balled up and weeping. Two men stand over them. One holds Ann down as she struggles against his grip. The other rummages through my bag, spilling the contents out across the road. Their hair is ragged, their teeth rotted out. Blood stains are splashed across their clothes.
"Wasn't smart of you to pull an unloaded pistol on us, honey," the man holding Ann says, his voice childish, taunting.
Ann continues to struggle.
"Where'd you get the food?"
He strikes Ann across the face. She crumbles to the ground, moaning in pain.
They haven't noticed me. I crawl slowly towards them. A metal rod lies in a ditch beside me. I snatch it up, holding it firmly in my hands as I advance.
"You gonna tell us where you got the fucking food?" the scavenger shrieks, moving his hands across Ann's breasts, "or do we need to persuade you?"
He pushes Ann down, buring his fist into her back.
"She needs to be convinced, Charlie. Cut the little runt's throat.
"No!" Ann shrieks, tears running down her face.
The second scavenger turns away from the bag and stares at the crying child. He slowly moves toward Adam, drawing a rusty switchblade from his pocket.
I leap from the ditch, the iron rod raised. The scavenger doesn't have time to react before the rod connects with the side of his face. His teeth shatter in a spray of blood as he stumbles back away from Adam. The knife drops from his hand. I strike him again. His blood stains my shirt. He falls to the ground. I hit him two more times until I'm sure he lies still, then I turn and face the other man.
His eyes are wide, his mouth agap. He release Ann who scrambles away to her son. I watch his hands as I advance, my makeshift weapon raised. He draws a blade from his shirt pocker. His hand shakes. A wet spot spreads across his tattered jeans.
"You can leave now," I whisper, "we don't have to do this."
He sprints forward. I swing for his head. The scavenger drops to the ground, dodging the rod and leaps forward, driving the knife into my stomach. I grunt as the switchblade exits and reenters. Blood trickles down my waist. I fall to my knees. The scavenger stands over me.
"You know I might not kill you. No, I might let you watch. Would that be okay?" he asks.
I spit in his face.
"That's not a nice gesture. You need to learn some manners. I can teach you to--"
The scavenger stops, his words cut off. Ann stands behind him. She holds the other switchblade. It's buried to the hilt in the man's throat. He gasps as he falls to the ground, blood jetting from his neck. He's dead.
I now realize what a great deal of pain I'm in. I drop to the ground. Ann hurries to me, clutching me in her arms. She's babbling and crying, holding her hands over my wounds. Blood pools between her finger. So much. Who knew I had so much blood?
"John. Oh God, John! Don't do this! Please don't leave us here!"
I raise my finger to her lips. She falls silent.
I see my family.
"Gather all the food up. Put it back into the bag. The pistol, the flashlight, all of it. Tahe their knives. Give one to Adam. He needs to learn to defend himself."
They're standing in the middle of the road.
"Take the book. Keep it safe. Don't burn it. No matter what."
Blood has pooled around my sides. Ann is nodding. Adam stands beside me, watching quietly.
My family is behind them. They're coming into view. The road isn't black. It's gold. Bright and beautiful.
"When Adam is old enough, read him the book."
The trees are in bloom. The sun shines high overhead.
"Mister," Adam says.
I turn my head to face the child.
"Thank you for saving our lives."
I smile. I can't breathe.
Ann is crying. She holds me close.
"You're getting blood all over yourself, Ann," I whisper.
James and Sarah stand behind her. They're smiling. My son and wife are smiling. I raise myself up to Ann and whisper weakly in her ear.