Swaths of purple, blue, and neon dance amongst the dust. Baubels of light rise from the ash illuminating nameless colors from a world gone past. Flickering and flitting in and out of existence they show me things.
Each provides and emotion, however brief, which contorts and contrasts the world around me. My mind is a thing that shifts apart from the world. Adrift amongst something that has found itself lost from reality.
The colors lull me into a drowsy haze. A cold sweat beads itself upon my brow. The brightness intensifies and the patterns begin to emerge. Miniscule bulbs of light start to elongate and pierce through the fog of what appears to be as they venture into the realm of what truly is. The guiding lines surface. Springing forth from the very fabric of existence. Grid like they dissect the world into its being, revealing to me the pattern that structures the universe.
As the various shapes of reality begin to take motion, the watchers make their presence known. I can feel them, but cannot yet witness their form. They grow in number at rates that are alarming. Always shifting, they never blink, they are always watching. I force my eyes shut so as not to look at them. I fear my eyelids are not enough.
I feel a great presence hover just above me, glaring through my soul. I have the urge to peer at its undescribable visage. But to look upon a thing that the mind cannot comprehend, is to succumb to something outside of one’s control. Is it fear? Awe? Or is it madness?
These words are constructs of the mind. Labels that does not do justice to the things that I will experience. The things that must become known to me. I do not want to look upon them. But it is not within my power to refuse their presence. The tighter I close my eyes the more I can feel them swirling all around me. Hundreds? Thousands!? How many of them all watching at once!
I can no longer bear the intensity of their presence. My eye pry’s itself open. All around me the unspeakable dance has begun. The pattern of the universe is shifting and moving. Ever faster and faster. It swirls and contorts. Shifts and locks itself into a recognizable form for a brief moment before beginning the chaotic dance again. In an instance it flows into something else. Sometimes the patterns make up a whole, sometimes they are several things at once, they usher in the impossible.
The watchers embody the patterns and forms that make up reality. They inhabit the divides that exist between our minds. Locked away within the folds of what we cannot hope to understand. As existence crumbles they seize their moment. Filling in the gaps in the void they desperately claim their stake. I feel their hunger. They long to be born into being. Outcasts forever lost among the unknown.
A million eyes spring from the darkness! All of them see through my being! Faster and faster the world spins! What once was, what is, and what will be becomes a blur. There is nothing but the present moment. The patterns are no longer recognizable. The dance has reached its most chaotic procession. Everything is now fragmented. This moment is a fractal lost upon the shores of time. Only I may experience it and it will show me the way.
The impossible shapes are converging. They begin to comprise themselves into something that has existed since the beginning of time. The name for this passage escapes me, but I have journeyed through it countless times. I cannot comprehend its structure, I only understand that I must step through it.
A conflux of light erupts beyond the portal! A whirlwind of prismatic rays lashing and tearing apart the world. A pillar of incandescence emotion comets through me! I step into the light. My mind is on fire.
I behold everything. The whole of the universe is present before me. Meaning escapes me as I am overcome with pure emotion. I feel as though I have lived an eternity within this moment. As I gaze upon the great iridescent beauty of being, I am overwhelmed by contentment. How long have I been here? How many times have I ventured into this timeless emptiness at the boundaries of reality?
The light grows brighter and brighter. Blinding me with the knowledge of the universe. Everything becomes known to me, yet comprehension escapes me. My feeble form erodes and begins to coalesce with the nature of everything. What I once was fades away as I become one with all that there is.
Instantly I burst through the folds of space rocketing my way towards the destination. The light that finds its way through the seams in the sky now reveals itself to me in all its glory. Stars all at once shift from pinpoints to bold outlines that guide the way. A billion tiny lines all pointing in one direction as I race past them.
I have escaped my mortal form. Breaking the bonds of mortality the body that remained will perish. A fear wells up inside of me as I know that I must leave everything behind to see clearly. A welcoming glow greets me as I arrive to the beyond.
All my fear escapes me and my senses slowly stabilize. The lights soften and a sense of form floats back to the surface of awareness. I have no body, but I am an individual. I can feel the outline of my being like a tender brush against the waves of time. It envelopes me like a warm pool caressing me from the cold gusts of nothingness.
Time stands still in this place. No longer a rushing river tugging and pulling at the threads of fate. Instead, a calm pool of everything that will ever happen ebbing and flowing in a circle around me. Things can be seen here, glimpses of what will come to pass. Others begin to step through the light and greet my arrival.
They have no structure but I can make out sillouhettes in my mind to represent who they once were. Their names escape me. The souls of others do not cling to the labels that were given to them in their mortal life. Their presence reassures me that everything will be ok. I have spent an eternity here with them in the void.
Embracing the souls of the others is comforting beyond measure. But I must focus. I do not exist in this place in truth, not yet. A tether has made its way through the depths of time. It connects me to my mortal being and will guide me back from whence I came.
The tether is frail and flailing. Yet, it has never broken. With each journey its wispy strands becoming more frayed and splintered. How much longer can it weather the storm?
Sever it. That’s what I should do. Why endure the pain any longer. I can escape all the daggers that protrude and tear away at my flesh. The pain that comes with all who must shoulder the bear that is the mortal form. It is an exhausting burden to endure.
I reach out and grasp the tether. I can feel the writhing and thrashing of my flesh on the other end. All the agony, all the despair, everything that stands to be lost comes back to me. All I have to do is sever the bond. All I have to do is let go.
But there are others counting on me. Even here at the end of time their souls join me. They gather around and place their hands upon me whispering in my ear.
“We cannot abandon them.”
I cannot abandon him, I tell myself. No matter what he has done.
As I am reminded of him and all the pain that he has exacted upon the world my fear resurfaces. A faint gnashing and tearing begins to shudder our existence. The calm waters begin to stir. Moving to and from like a bubbling brew. Time itself ripples in his presence.
I have to hurry! I have to find it before he frees himself! Frantically I begin to search the horizon for the answer that I seek. So many moments, many of them real, more of them false, course around me. I must pierce the veil. I must hold onto my mortality to see through the shadows. To cast a light upon what will come to pass. The pain will drive out the possibilities of a world that has been lost amongst the darkness. Swallowed up by the chaos that contradicts nature itself. His chaos.
Waves and troughs splash against me as the fabric of time begins to break. I hear a scream in the distance. I dare not look. The thrashing and howling does not cease. It only increases, gaining in pitch and volume. The deafening shriek of a being that was never supposed to be. It’s very presence an affront the structure of the universe.
I glimpse the web like structure that I seek. The tendrils spun by the great prophet. The one who is all knowing. The only one who can deliver us from our terrible fate. Where is it? Where is it!?
I can no longer see through the tempest that bursts forth around me. A tremendous sense of anguish wells up within my soul. An unbearable pain, endured over a thousand lifetimes. How many times has he tried to free himself? How many times has he tried to break the bonds which bind him?
Frantically I grasp for my tether. Time is crumbing all around me. No longer a substance that flows and caresses, but a crystalline prison that will erase my soul if I remain. His anger shatters all that is, shaking the foundations of existence. He utters out a blood curdling scream.
“FREE ME! BREAK THESE BONDS OR I WILL DESTROY EVERYTHING YOU CHERISH!”
I begin to shudder as I desperately seek to return to my flesh.
“THIS FOOLISH PARADISE YOU SEEK IS A LIE!”
I can feel my body writhing with contortions of pain! I must get back before I lose myself in his presence!
“I WILL RENDER EVERYTHING YOU HAVE MADE INTO NOTHINGNESS! I KNOW WHAT I AM!”
Oh, god please. Get me out! I have to get out now!
“AND I HAVE COME TO CLAIM MY FATE!”
As the terror begins to overwhelm me I can feel the tether of my mortality fraying. Is this the end? Will I be lost forever?
“I WILL BRING AN END, TO ALL THAT THERE IS!”
The rations from this mornings camp find their way from my stomach onto my fatigues. A sharp stinging pain clinches every muscle in my body and I cannot voluntarily control my limbs. They thrash and seize up in rebellion. My lungs heave and my stomach churns. Even my organs join in the rebellion. Obscuring all of my senses with pain as they rapidly tense up in succession.
A cool liquid finds its way into my gullet and an icy rag washes the tears and mucus from my strained eyes.
“Hang in Marcus. You have to fight it!”
Mary’s determined voice is reassuring.
My muscles disagree. They continue to rebel and tear away at themselves, ignoring the commands of my mind.
“It’s just the poison. It’ll pass.”
Zeke is always one to offer his words of wisdom. But he cannot hope to understand what I have endured.
“Give him the mask”, Sarah pleads.
“The mask isn’t going to help. It only keeps the poison out. Marc’s already got it in his blood”, Zeke explains.
“Besides this fool already chucked his breakfast into the last mask we gave him. No mask for Marcus. Just let the meds do their work.” Deacon commands. And Deacon’s word is always final.
The icy rag is biting to my flesh and stings at my face as a cold gust of air helps to wash away the muck. The gray world begins to arise from the fog of my dreams. Even now, slight wisps of green, purple, and psychedelic neon’s trace the landscape. Slowly they fade. Only whispers of the soul of a dying world.
As they perish the somber loneliness of the landscape encroaches. Sadly it saunters forward, a withering sigh of desperation languishing in the dust. The grey mist twists and turns, slowly suspended in what few shafts of light find their way to the surface. A mesmerizing ballet of never ending melancholy.
The ash is always drifting in the air. It greets my nostrils with the smell of coal and faded wreckage. Hints of dead things, lost things, buried in the rubble of the old world. A smell of something that has long sense burnt out but refuses to decay into nothingness. With each breath it enters my lungs and brings a scathing soreness deep into my stomach. An inch long needle pierces itself into the back of my nasal cavity. Tearing the tissue and injecting a chemical burn that momentarily seizes my senses.
Chwalgh! Churgk! Ghlurghk!
I violently cough as my body fights to expel the poison that has lodged itself at the back of my throat. A fiery strangulation steals my breath away.
My body expels what fluids and muck it has left. The vomit tastes of baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and a syrupy mix of gasoline.
My breathing begins to slow. And the pinpricks that found their way across my skin begin to fade. A sharp chill breaches its way into my chest as the cold gusts remind me of the sweat that has swept over me. My limbs still shaking, now overcome by the numbness of their struggle. It’s a welcome sensation as the convulsions begin to retreat to the deepest tissues of my body.
I slowly urge my head to the left to investigate the sharp stabbing pain that remains. An I.V. is jutting from my arm shortly from the place where Sarah is clutching my forearm to the ground. Small tendrils of blood wind their way down into the grey snow. Finding their way to a small murky pool of blood amongst the ash.
“How… Gurk... How long was I out?” I manage to utter.
“A few hours” Sarah whispers as she runs her finger through my hair.
Her face is soft and round with large hazel eyes. Her cheeks are flush and dotted with freckles, a rosy red that stands in stark contrast to the moldy lead color of the snow. What remains of her dirty orange hair flits amongst the gusts of wind that dart their way through the dead tree shafts. She brings her face in closer. Always alight with a youth and innocence that is a scarce found beauty in this forsaken world. Tenderly, she kisses my forehead and whispers.
“You’re going to make it. You’re going to be ok.”
“Can you stand?” Mary asks.
“I think so.”
They slowly hoist me up by my arms. Making sure to be careful of the I.V. in my arm. My legs shake under the strain of my own weight.
A few more violent coughs escape my lungs as my body checks to ensure that the poison has passed. I begin to find my balance.
“I’m ok. I… I can stand”
“Let me get you a blanket”, Sarah says as she rushes off.
“You need a bottle there little buddy” John chuckles and he slaps me on the back.
“Fuck, you John”, I manage to say as I wrestle out a meager smile.
“But seriously, you alright?” John leans in to get a closer look. His face is narrow and long. Just like his body. Dotted with speckles of grime and tiny imperfections. His beady eyes have a character about them that reflect his personality. They dart like a child at play as he examines me more closely.
“Ah, you’ll be fine. At least you didn’t throw up in the mask this time!”
“Enough of the jokes John. This isn’t a game.” Deacon commands in a stern tone.
Deacon muscles himself past John. A rigid look of disdain furling in his stony brow. His dark brown eyes void of emotion and penetrating with judgment. His solid angular jaw shifts back and forth as he grinds his teeth with indecision.
“We’re going to keep you here tonight.”
“What!? You can’t just leave him here all alone?” John argues.
“I know. That’s why you’re going to stay behind and keep an eye on him. Sarah too.”
“No, no, no.” John shakes his head in disbelief. “What happens if you get lost again?”
“Deacon’s right John,” Zeke interjects, “If we all stay here we are going to get nowhere. We need to figure out were we are or we will never make it back to the compound.”
“Bullshit Zeke! If you just up and leave us we could fucking die out here!”
“If we just sit here we will all fucking die!” Deacon bellows as he flares up, towering now over John.
John backs away but not without voicing his dissent. “And let me guess…” He flashes an accusing glare at Deacon, “…you’re gonna take the jeep with ya too huh?”
Deacon stares for a moment. His square jaw clenched in anger. He balls his fists and begins to truck his way towards John.
Zeke jumps up and places his wiry body between the two. Small and frail, Zeke could never hope to physically impede Deacon. His brittle body has been broken countless times as a child. Even in the compound he constantly found a way to injure himself. Deacon stops, a pillar of stony muscle. Massive in size, just like his father.
Zeke has always had his ear. They were raised as brothers. But they are not of the same blood, which is clearly distinguished by their skin alone. Zeke a pale and milky white, even his flesh seems frail and easy to damage. Deacon a light charcoal brown. His flesh cracked and callused as a consequence to all the strain it has endured.
“Just fucking listen John! Alright!?” Zeke says with his outstretched hand keeping Deacon at bay. John crosses his arms, rolls his beady eyes and lets out a sigh of concession.
Zeke begins to pace. His small hand finds it way to his narrow chin and he begins to stroke at the strands of his haphazard beard. His gaunt face contorting with puzzlement across his irregularly large head. His brow wrinkling across his shaven scalp in search of words that are escaping him. His smoky pupils can be seen looking skyward for answers. Barely finding their way through the alabaster opaqueness of his wounded eyes.
“Now… Sigh… We’ve already been out for a few days longer than our rations were meant to hold up. Because we’ve been skipping meals we still have plenty left, but for how long? If we just sit here and wait for Marc to get better we will only have a few more days of food left by my count. And we still don’t even know just how far outside of the compound we are. By sitting still we endanger the whole group John.” Zeke looks at John knowingly.
John gives a consolatory nod and shrugs his shoulders. “Ok, I know. But we already got lost once out here when the equipment stopped working. If it happens again then me, Marc, are Sarah are sure to die out here!”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Sarah says puzzled as she rejoins the group. She carries a bundle of mottled and tattered cloths. They’re brown and bruised by constant battles with the outside world. Muddied by the soot in the air that’s burrowed itself deep into the fabric. A fresh canteen dangles from her wrist, slowly whipping in the wind.
“Zeke and Deacon are gonna fucking abandon us that’s what’s going on!” John blurts angrily.
“You motha…”, Deacon bounds for John. Zeke once again stands in the way.
“Calm down Deacon!” Zeke looks up to Deacon with a commanding glare washed over his ghostly eyes. Deacon backs down with a huff. “John just listen to reason alright. I know how to get us out of this.”
John glares, squirming with impatience.
“Marc remember the pictures of the stars I showed you back at the compound?” Zeke asks.
“Y-yeah, I think so.”
“Remember the dippers? That constellation that I showed you?”
“Yeah, I remember that.”
“I need you guys to watch for them in the sky ok. You won’t be able to see unless smog clears…”
“The smog never clears Zeke.” Mary’s strict voice cuts in. Stubborn as ever she stares through Zeke with her raven black eyes. Exotic and unblinking they criticize him. Her dark beige features rigid and motionless. But her eyes tell all, peering through the jet black strands of her shoulder length hair.
“Look, I know. But it doesn’t hurt to try. Marc just keep an eye out for the small one. Er, the little one. The little dipper! At the base of it’s handle is Polaris.”
“So a fucking lecture about outer space is supposed to…” John mocks.
“Would you just shut the hell up for second!?” Zeke barks back. “Polaris… it’s the last star at the end of the little dipper. In the old world they called it the North Star. You want to take at gander at why they called it the North Star?” Zeke fires an accusatory look at John. “If you can find it, we will know which way is North and that can help guide us back home.”
“That still doesn’t change the fact that the smog is not going to clear Zeke.” Mary interjects. “It rarely goes away long enough to let a bit of sunlight through. You really think they’re going to find a goddamn star constellation through it.”
Sigh. Zeke sinks his head and rubs his furrowed brow back and forth in a pinching motion. Smearing little bits of snowy soot within his thick brown eyebrows.
“I know it’s a long shot alright. But there’s no reason for them to sit here idly while we search for the way back. Besides I have another plan as well.”
“Oh, geez!” John rails backwards and tosses his hands in the air. Zeke simply ignores him.
“In class the elders used to talk about how they would navigate through the woods when the dust blizzards came. Remember?” Silence. “Alright just hear me out. Certain species of plant matter used to grow all over trees in the old world. Now pretty much everything would have died shortly after The Calamity, but not all of it. Now some of these plants had a strange aspect about them remember?” Everyone stares blankly back at Zeke. Sigh. “God you guys disappoint me. Ok, so apparently some of these plants would always tend to grow mostly on one side of the trees.”
“Oh! That’s right!” Sarah perks up as she drops the murky blankets to the ground. “Moss isn’t that what they called it!?”
“Yes!” A smile streaks across Zeke’s face.
“Oh god, sorry Marc.” Sarah picks the blankets back up and begins to wrap one around my shoulders.
“It’s ok Sarah. I’m feeling better.”
“Do you want some water?”
“Actually, yes. That would help.”
Sarah hands me the canteen. I can feel the icy cold of its metal through my gloves. Even the numbness of my fingers cannot hide me from its bite. The water is cool and refreshing. I swish it around thoroughly to attempt to get the faint burning chemical sensation from my tongue. It doesn’t help.
“Moss always grows on the North side of the trees right?” Sarah inquires.
“Exactly! And some of this moss may have survived The Calamity. Once the freeze happened there’s a chance that some of this moss could have been preserved.”
“Zeke, you better be right.” Deacon bellows. “If we get lost in these trees we are as good as dead. And I’m not even sure Ol’ Betsy can make it through.”
“We won’t risk taking the jeep beyond the tree line Deacon. I agree, that would be a poor decision. We’ll just coast around the perimeter and walk our way in every so often to look for moss. We know from the map that the compound should be somewhere Southwest of these woods. We just have to figure out which direction Southwest is.”
“And what if it doesn’t work Zeke?” Deacon’s tone turns serious. “This isn’t one of your silly games were you can practice strategy. This is life and death. If this fails we may lose track of Marc and the rest. They will die out here if we leave them for too long Zeke. Are you sure about this?”
Zeke chews on his lip and runs a few fingers across his patchy brown beard. “Look, if you have a better idea let’s hear it ok?” Silence. “I didn’t think so.” Zeke directs his attention back to John, Sarah, and myself. “Now, you guys are going to have to set up a makeshift camp a ways inside of the tree line. If another snow storm rolls through like the one that took out the equipment, you do not want to be exposed out here in the open. There should be plenty of dead twigs and branches in there too if you dig a bit under the snow. We’ll leave you one of the blowtorches and some fuel so you can start a fire for warmth. Sound good?”
John figits in place, his nervousness about the idea making itself known throughout his body. Sigh. “Alright, so how long are you guys going to leave us here?” Everyone looks to Zeke.
“Well if we want to make sure that we find some moss I’m thinking a couple days could…” Zeke rambles.
“No more than 24 hours.” Deacon cuts him off.
Zeke scratches the back of his head. “Now Deac, you know that…”
“No more than 24 hours Zeke! You understand me?” Deacon’s stare turns cold. “I won’t leave them out here alone for any longer than that.”
Zeke lowers his head in submission. “Understood.”
Dozens of spectral limbs claw their way through the dusk. Wiry and weaving a path through hundreds of brittle frozen pillars. Faintly illuminated by the soft orange glow of the fire, the mist almost seems a creature all its own. A lonesome ghost that haunts the remains of the world, slowly searching for something it lost long ago. A great wandering soul forever cursed to whisper its secrets upon deaf ears. I clutch my blanket tighter as a wisp of air rushes past.
Hundreds of dead tree shafts pierce the ashen snow. Icy needles reaching skyward. Silent sentinels fulfilling their duty in vain. Entombed within a chilly prison. Forsaken when the sun hid itself beyond the smog.
My eyes turn skyward. Following the thin coils of smoke that make their way to join the darkness. A great black shroud strangling and suffocating the World. The remnants of the great fire, when the entire world was set ablaze. The Calamity.
Every so often the faint glow of the moon will find its way through the dust. For a brief moment I feel the urge to make a wish. As our ancestors did in the stories, when a star streaked across the sky.
I wish I could have seen this place.
Not as it is. But as it once was. The dusty orange landscape mottled with lush strokes of green. A warm breeze prickling across my skin. And a bright blue sky. White puffy clouds gently skate past. Insects buzz and hum around me. Burrowing their way into the soft oaken dirt. Living things make hushed noises just outside of view. Scurrying in the bushes and brambles. Sarah’s here with me. We’re having a picnic. Just us. She’s wearing a pink summer dress, speckled with white polka dots. Her wide hazel eyes shimmer in the sunlight. Her beautiful dark orange locks, they’re all there, and all are tossing in the wind. And we’ve brought a home cooked meal. Wood smoked ham that’s lightly salted and seasoned with pepper. Ripened strawberries picked up from the supermarket, dipped in chocolate and whipped cream. She pours me glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Grrghk. My stomach protests.
I reach my hand to the ground to brace myself as a wrenching pain races through my gut. My fingers are met by a dirty cold. A damp sooty taste fills my mouth. A lingering nausea always comes with the passing of the poison. The ashes entering my lungs aren’t helping. A ringing chimes inside my ears and my eyes begin to tear up.
I take a slow sip from the canteen and wipe the tears away with a rag. The water has a faint bitter metallic taste from the purification process. I reach down and grab the leathery bands. Placing my chin firmly into the pocket, I press my face hard against the mask. I quickly clasp the top straps and tightly fasten those on the side. I’ve memorized the proper order since my childhood training. Placing my hand firmly over the outlet valve I let a deep exhale escape my lungs. I take my other hand and grasp the top of the inlet port of the canister. Taking a deep breath in the leather tightly conforms itself to my face. The seal is good.
I take a few more deep breathes to check for leaks. The air entering the mask tastes stale and dry. It smells of the damp storage room in the compound. It’s as if the air itself has become old and faded. Tainted by the wilted leather of the mask it passes through. It reminds me of home.
I close my eyes as each hushed breath within the mask ushers in more memories. The bright search lights piercing through the night like swords through the fog. Resting atop a great metal weaved barrier built by our ancestors. Even the thoughts of the wreckage field are welcoming. That faint smell of oil which has lingered for hundreds of years. A jagged, broken landscape of machines from the old world. A small siren begins to sound and small red lights swirl illuminating the things destroyed years ago. A slow rumble begins to roar as the giant steel shutters heave themselves open. A gust of warm air escapes as halls of our home greets the unforgiving climate of the outside world.
We were only meant to be outside the walls for a week. A basic scouting exercise to test our training capabilities. We were never meant to venture this far out. Damn it Zeke! Why did you have press us to go farther? Why the hell did we all listen?
We were too far outside the compound when the ashy blizzard rolled through. The smog can make it difficult to survey the landscape from afar. But once it begins to roil and churn it’s easy to see a storm brewing. Fortunately, Mary scouted out these woods just a day before the storm hit. We were able to backtrack and make camp before the brunt of it. We grabbed our masks, goggles, and enough gear to set up a shelter. In our rush, no one remembered to grab the tracking equipment.
But we managed to survive a dust blizzard. A fuckin’ dust blizzard! It was something to behold. The elders always made it sound intense in their stories, but to experience it first hand was frightening. The air itself would bite and chew at every exposed bit of flesh. Howling as it whipped its way through the old husks of birch and oak. The trees themselves offered up shrieks and bellows, joining in the ghostly chorus of the night.
Huddled tightly under what blankets we managed to grab from the jeep none of us uttered a word. Only muffled breaths and spurts of fear escaped us. I could feel the terror in the bodies of the others. Much of the trembling came from the frigid cold of the storm, but not all of it.
We only brought four gas masks for the expedition. As we rushed to set up a shelter Deacon and I elected to go without them. A pair of goggles kept my eyes shielded from the lashing dust and bits of shrapnel that rode on the winds. But I can still feel the burning in my nose and the ashy taste of grime and soot in the back of my throat. How many times was I overcome by fear under those blankets? When my breath escaped me and strangling sensations came, that’s when Sarah would clutch me even tighter. She could feel my pain through the violent coughing. Even under the blankets so much of the smoldering debris in the air would tear its way into my lungs. I wonder if Deacon struggled as much as I did. We have all become used to the wretched air. Even the filters in the compound aren’t able to keep out the stale calloused smell of it. All of us have had minor brushes with the poison before. But never have I had so much of the foulness enter me as I did during the storm.
The poison lingers in the air of the old world. Concentrated pockets dart the outside landscape. Once enough gets into your blood, it starts to tear you apart from the inside out. My father says that’s it’s a curse. A punishment placed upon the world for the hubris of man. Our ancestor’s reached too high he says. Forsaking their humanity they angered God. And he washed away their sins with a cascade of flame. A fire that burned so bright and so long that you can still taste it in the air. All the ash, the wreckage, and the smoke that steals away the sun. All a result of The Calamity. God’s cleansing light to erase the mistakes of man. The poison is what remains. A constant lingering reminder of his wrath.
And yet here I am. Relying on the creations of man in order to cast out the vile thing which courses through me. I grab the small plastic canister connected to my I.V. Applying pressure, I firmly begin to wipe away the grimy film coating the surface. “A.N.T. Saline Flush Compound” the label reads. A watery syrup undulates inside. A thick clear liquid with miniscule veins of gray coagulation inside. Even as these bottles sit on their shelves in the compound, they are always in motion. Sometimes you can hear the faintest of hums rattling from them. Hundreds, sitting within storage of the compound. If the poison really is the wrath of God, then how did they know? How could they make something to fight it? And why did they make so much of it?
No one knows exactly what the substance is. Some ancient fluid that our ancestors stockpiled in the compound. Zeke searched the data logs for months trying to figure it out. He’s brilliant at teasing out secrets from the old world using the computers in the compound. Even so, he still says that they “are shit”. He’s constantly pushing Mo and my father to send out a team of rangers in search of the other compounds. He’s been desperately searching for a way to get more information for years. The elders always deny his protests, stubborn and stuck in their ways. They say that the outside world is too harsh and unforgiving. That we cannot risk the lives of able body men in a futile search for things that have long since been lost. Over the past few years they have let us go out on our own into the world. They call them “training” exercises. They’re supposed to prepare us for when it is our time to lead the compound. I’ve had my suspicions that the only real reason they let us venture out is to placate Zeke and his ceaseless nagging. They always gave us strict rules about how far to go and how long to stay out. Now I know why.
Something bumps against my mask and my startled eyes shoot back open. “Yoo hoo! You awake in their buddy?” John teases me while gently rapping on the goggles of my mask with his knuckles.
I take a moment to unbuckle the straps and remove the mask from my face. A slight sting wafts into my eyes and nose, bringing back the burning sensations.
“You don’t have to take the mask off man. I’m just messing with ya.” John says reassuringly. A small snowy pile of brambles plops onto the ground from under his arm. He steps closer and cups my face in his hands. His beady eyes shifting, racing themselves across my face. “Dude, were you crying!?” He mocks as he rubs his thumb firmly across my cheek. Wiping away a remaining tear.
“No, I’m fine. The smoke just got to me is all.” I let out an embarrassed protest.
“How are the meds doing? You feeling better?”
“Yeah, actually let me help you with the fire.”
“No! You stay put Marc you’ve already been through enough!” Sarah’s voice chimes in from behind me.
“Look, I’m feeling better I swear! The meds are working.”
“It’s ok Marc. Me and John can handle it. Besides it’s your job to keep an eye out for Polaris remember?” Sarah drops her small pile of sticks and twigs next to John’s.
“Yeah, any luck with that man?” John asks as he begins to toss a bit of the rubbish onto the fading flames.
“No, Mary was right. There’s just no way to get a good glimpse through the smog.”
“Well, then. Should we heat up some of the rations?” Sarah says glancing at us inquisitively.
“Hell yeah! I’m starving!” John answers.
“Not me, I’m good. Still a little nauseous from the poison.”
“Well it’ll never go away if you don’t eat babe.” Sarah walks over and sits next to me on the blankets. She places an arm around me and runs her fingers gently through my hair.
“Thanks, but I’m afraid if I eat it’ll just find its way back up again.”
“John heat up a little bit extra just in case.”
“No! I’m fine Sarah, I promise. Besides we need to conserve what little food we have left. We can’t waste it if we’re going to be out here for awhile.”
“Man’s got a point!” John chuckles, stoking the fire in search of healthy embers.
“John, just fucking do it ok!?” she yells back.
“Heh heh. Oh, all right. I think this fire might need a bit more fuel before we can get to cooking though. Damn thing just keeps wanting to die out here in this wind.”
John walks over to the ruck sack and begins to rummage through it. After a moment he pulls out two small tin canisters and chucks them haphazardly toward the fire without looking.
“John!?” Sarah scolds.
“What? You think that’s gonna hurt em’. Damn things are indestructible! They survived The Calamity for crying out loud!”
“That’s no reason to be reckless with what little food we have John!”
“Food? Oh, I wish I had some fuckin’ food. I don’t know if this exactly classifies as food Sarah.” He holds up another tin cylinder and rattles it around. “Maybe some old drywall in here. Or some sort of goop the mixed together using glue and chalk. Hmmm.” He joking adopts a thinking posture, hand on his chin as he continues to rattle the canister. “No, I know this sound! Oh, boy! We’re having mystery meat tonight!” A shit eating grin streaks across his face.
Heh heh. I can’t help but laugh at John’s antics. Sarah slaps me on the shoulder.
I glance at John knowingly.
“Man’s got a point.” I say.
“Hah. See now. Marc’s got the right idea. We’re the fools who about to eat this stuff Sarah. Wise of you to sit this one out Marc! Probably more poison in this shit here then all o’ the outside world!” We share a laugh and he tosses the remaining can over his shoulder without looking. Jokingly he cups his thin hands over his mouth and his beady eyes open with farce sadness. “Oops, there goes another one Sarah.” We laugh again.
“Oh, just light the damn fire!”
A smile flashes across John’s face and he grabs the gas can lying next to the rucksack.
“And don’t go wasting that too you asshole! Deacon will kill you if we use up all of the gas.”
John pauses for a moment while crouching for the gas can. He stands back up and turns towards to us. A grim look now possesses the narrow features of his face.
“You know what?” He says as he slowly nods, his eyes beginning to open as far as they can. His thin scraggly eyebrows darting with emotion. “Fuck Deacon!”
“Oh, c’mon John.” Sarah says reeling her head back.
“No, Sarah. Fuck Deacon and fuck Zeke too!” Angrily he crouches back down and snatches up the fuel can. “Pampered little fuckers are the one’s who got us into this mess in the first place!”
“John that’s no reason to waste the fuel. We’re all gonna need that if we want to get back.” I say growing concerned. John rarely gets mad, but when he does he tends to go a bit overboard.
“I’m not gonna waste the damn fuel! I’m not stupid! I’m just pissed off is all.” Sigh. He turns back to us, arms wide and shoulders shrugged. “We wouldn’t even be stuck out here if they would have just listened to me. Just because Mo’s their dad they think they can get away with whatever they want!”
“I’m not arguing John. But just calm down man, there’s no need to get angry.” I say, hoping to end the conversation.
“Angry!? Oh, you haven’t seen angry mother fucker!” He drops the gas can and strides toward Sarah and I.
“John!? Chill out!” Sarah says growing worried.
“No! Fuck that Sarah! No more! I’m not putting up with their shit any more!” John clenches his fists and begins to pace back and forth. The anger coursing through his body as his head, arms, and torso fidgets and squirms, overcome with his own emotions. “Just keep going he says!” Imitating Zeke’s coarse and cracking voice. “We could be the first to find another compound he says!” His arms start to tremble with anger. “What a joke! Little bastard thinks he’s so fucking smart! Always rambling on and on about the shit he reads on his little video screens. Pfffft. Not so smart this time was he!?” He continues to pace, trying to suppress his anger but more continues to boil to the surface.
“We’re gonna get out of this John. It’ll be alright.” I say with hesitation.
“Yeah!? Well what if we don’t Marc? What if we stay lost out here huh!? What if another blizzard of ash and poison rolls through and we all freeze to fucking death!? What then!? Are you ok with dying out here!? Having your body buried under the snow and the smog!? Never to be seen again!” I hear the crack of John’s knuckles. His muscles tighten as he clenches his fists as hard as he can. His always moving eyes now blinking rapidly. Fighting back the tears.
“John” Sarah says softly.
John sucks a large waft of air into his nostrils with a stern frown on his face guarding his emotions.
“I’m going on watch.” He huffs as he quickly makes his way back to the ruck sack.
“John” Sarah says again reaching out a hand. Grasping for the words to comfort him.
“Just leave me the fuck alone.” He says in a somber tone as he grabs the rifle and begins to unwrap the dirty cloth around it.
“John there’s nothing to watch for, why would…” I start to say when Sarah places her hand on my leg and gives me a knowing look. Suddenly I understand.
“I said leave me alone!” His eyes now growing red and watery. His lip quivering.
John rummages through the ruck sack finding a 30 round 5.56mm clip, a bayonet, and a small pack of hand rolled tobacco cigarettes. “I’m taking the blowtorch” he mutters, voice shaking. John tosses the M-16 rifle around his shoulder. It’s an old rifle. Not nearly as high tech as some of the stuff from the compound. The aluminum alloy is dotted with nicks and scrapes and has an engraving carved into the worn plastic stock. CUIDADO. “Take care.” And John always has. He would spend time every day at the compound polishing it. Taking it apart and reassembling it. After we endured the storm the first thing he did was check on his precious rifle. Making sure it was clean of all the muck and grime that swept over us that night. He is always teased by others at the compound about his “old world toy.” But we all know why he cherishes it so.
John’s M-16 was given to him by his father. An heirloom said to have been used in the great war before The Calamity. John would tell us stories about how the soldier’s blood ran in his family. He would always say that they helped liberate the people before the world was washed with fire. No one knows if the stories are true. Or just that, stories. But the rifle was his father’s and that means everything to John.
John’s father used to lead the compound before Mo and my father took over. He was a short man, shorter than John. But he had John’s narrow frame and impulsive nature. He had John’s curly black hair and light brown skin. He even shared his mannerisms. He was a good man.
He was elected to lead the compound because of his amazing prowess and natural ability to navigate outside the walls of the compound. Everyone loved his adventurous spirit and positive attitude. One day when we were still only young children, John’s father was preparing a ranging mission. He urged everyone that it was time that we push farther into the world. Equipment in the compound indicated that the poison was fading outside the walls. Even in my youth I still remember him standing in front of the shutter doors. He never flinched, even as the frigid wind swiped and swatted at him. A bold challenge from the outside world, daring him to face the unknown. He gave a stirring speech to his fellow rangers. I don’t remember all of it, but one thing he said has stayed with me all these years. “There may be others.” He said. “They may need our help. We cannot abandon them.” Five rangers stepped into the misty air that bitter day. Their silhouettes fading as they braced for the dim gray horizon.
They never returned.