Author Note: Some of the following scenes may not be suitable for some readers. This is a work of fiction and thus any perceived viewpoints are not affiliated with Anacortes Highschool. Viewer discretion is advised.

Every step takes a lifetime. Lift one leg and then the other, up and down and forward. The resounding crunch of blackened snow underneath my disintegrating boots makes the next one even harder. This is especially true in the case of dragging around a lifeless body. The body of my brother. Well, maybe not completely lifeless, but still. He may as well be. I ditched our spare backpack when we left the road, cramming the essentials into the bigger pack, which holds my brother tight against my body. Hopefully, it’ll keep him a little warmer against the swirling storm. I would’ve kept following the cracked pavement had it not been for the dead woman, strung up on a bare icy tree, eyes frozen wide. That had been a sign, a bad sign. The suicidal ones would’ve killed themselves long ago. My guess was that she’d been a warning, a fleshy “no trespassing” sign, hung up for all to see.  

A small canyon opens up alongside us as I plow forward. Whether it was natural or ripped open by man is hard to discern through the blowing wind and grayish snow. I should rest, but there’s no shelter in sight. No trees or rocks or stumps. I would descend into the shallow crevice if it weren’t for the slow beating heart clutched to my shoulders. Too risky. 

My filter begins to clog up again, so I set my brother down on the frozen ground. Having to clean the ash and soot out of the mask has become more and more frequent the farther we go. Maybe we should turn back. Maybe it’ll only get worse. Judging by the sheer pollution in the snow, we must be close to one of the old mines or factories. That or some wildfire is burning a thousand miles away, dumping millions of tons of burnt-up forest across the wasteland. Either way, the snow is contaminated, which means I can’t melt it for water. And we have no more water. 

The biting cold tears at my face like a wild animal, clawing and shredding what’s left of my frostbitten skin. My brother’s head is buried into my back, searching for safety. I hope he’s warm. I hope he dies peacefully. I hope he dies with me. He deserved a better life, a happy existence. No child should have to cling to survival for so long; a life that didn’t want him to live. 

A faint cough lingers in the frosty mist. The small puff of air disperses within seconds, absorbed by the despair and emptiness that surrounds us. The wind has died, replaced by an angry silence that practically vibrates with hostility. The world is not done with us yet. Suffering is the only language Mother Earth speaks these days. She has been cooked and burned and boiled down into oblivion, caught in the trap we built centuries ago. Humanity was a parasite, but like all parasites, the slow death of our host would soon become our greatest downfall. The remnants of a dying species, that’s us. A final gasp of air before sinking into the ashes of what was once our mother, our home. Maybe something else will rise from our charred remains, something beautiful and bright. Maybe a new creature will grow and evolve where we once grew and evolved. Maybe they’ll find a clue or some artifact that indicates what came before. Maybe they’ll see and learn from our mistakes, striving to be better and smarter than we ever were. That, or we fried this planet for too long, burning it into a charred husk that will never again support life. The white flag of surrender flew up generations before my birth, and we just tore it up. 

The canyon vanishes behind us, leaving nothing but gray skies and scorched earth ahead. Night appears to be descending upon us, but there’s still no safe haven in sight. At night, the world will be black, but it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing to see. And so we wander on, searching and searching. I can feel the ice between my toes, gripping my body with a numbing grasp. I welcome it. The pain shooting up my legs will be more bearable now. It must be Mother Earth’s way of saying “I’m sorry”. She has nothing to be sorry for, though. My brother moans and I stop, sensing his unspoken words.

“What is it? Are you hungry?”

“Tired. Can’t sleep when you walk.”

“Oh.” I set him down as gently as I can and draw him close to me. “How’s your filter?”

“Good.”

“You can breathe ok, right? I can clean it if you want.”

“It’s ok. I can still breathe good.”

“Alright. Just let me know if it starts acting funky.”

“Ok.” I can tell he’s tired, so I take the blanket out of the pack and tuck it around him. 

“Better?” I pull my hood back so I can see his face.

“Yeah.” He shifts a little, trying to get comfortable. I hold him close, propping his head up on the pack to use as a pillow. It’s the closest thing to a bed you could get in a cold, unrelenting hellscape. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I sleep, there are no dreams. Dreams come from thoughts, emotions, and memories. My thoughts are of survival, my emotions are dull and molested by fear; my memories are as blank as I can muster. I have seen so much yet so little. The fading images of childhood disappear one by one. Memories are what make a person who they are. They define your present state of mind as well as your aspirations for the future. My future is dead, blown to pieces by my species’ own stupidity. If I can get my brother somewhere safe, then I will have succeeded. But I know that such miracles don’t happen anymore. God must’ve given up and moved on if He ever existed at all. 

Morning arrives slowly, marked by the gradual illumination of the skies, from pitch black to light gray. I shake my brother awake, indicating that his rest is over. Yawning, he sits up, blinking as his eyes adjust to the bleak world around him. There’s no time to waste. Every single day counts. Standing, I shake the ice out of my stiff jacket hood before packing the blanket back into our pack. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah.”

I attach the backpack to my brother’s frail body, hoping the weight doesn’t break him. Hoisting him up, I feel his chest shudder. “You ok?”

“Just tired,” he replies, yawning for emphasis. I chuckle.

“Just wait ‘till we find a place for us. Then you can sleep in all you like. We’ll have that little house on the hill with the big green yard and lots of trees. Doesn’t that sound good?”

“Yeah. Won’t mommy and daddy be there?” Damn. I haven’t explained to him that our parents are dead. He still thinks they’re out there, just like I told him. He thinks he will see them again, but he won’t. I figure there’s a time and a place to tell him the truth, but that moment has not yet come. 

Instead, I simply say, “Yes. They’ll be there. Everyone will be there, remember? It’ll be our little spot. Our little paradise.” I sigh, wishing such a place existed. My brother falls silent, breathing slowly and carefully. He grips my shoulders with weak hands, holding onto me as I trudge onward. The little heartbeat keeps me going, one step after the other. I know the chances of either of us being alive within the next few weeks are slim to none, but at the very least, he deserves a little hope. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The snow stops, replaced again by a bitterly cold wind that rips through my tattered clothing. The blurry divide between the sky and the Earth shimmers with a blue-gray tint. My eyes scan the horizon for some sign of shelter or safety, but there’s nothing. The land lays out in front of us like a sheet of printer paper, blank and lonely. 

A gentle hill rises just slightly above the rest of the world, followed by another and another. Drifts of snow and ash cascade weakly down the low slopes, piling up at the foot of the hills. My boots sink into the dense powder, tugging and pulling me down. The world wants me to stop, wants me to give up. “You’ve suffered enough already,” it seems to say. But I must go on. 

The rusted carcass of an old pickup truck proves to be our first instance of good luck. Half-buried in a large ashy drift, the corroded steel sticks up among the desolate landscape like a flickering beacon, reflecting a sun-light glare that doesn’t exist. The rubber wheels have fallen away into shredded piles, the windows blown apart by years of exposure, the body so blasted it hardly resembles anything man-made. And yet there it sits, an assured reminder of what came before. 

The door comes off with an ear-piercing scream as the hinges rip away violently. Judging by the torn, but intact leather seats, the inside of the deceased vehicle appears to be relatively sheltered compared to the outside world. I check around the interior, looking for anything I can use. Opening the glove compartment, I find a small lighter and a few other trinkets, but nothing of any real value. The lighter is unusable, long since drained of any fuel or fluid. But the back of the truck is where the real hope lies. The bed is covered by sheet metal, which refuses to come cleanly as I pull and pry with the pocket knife I salvaged a few months ago. My brother stands and walks over slowly, but his weakened legs collapse under his weight. He catches himself on the door handle before falling to the ground with a soft ~poof~. He coughs and wheezes, straining for air. I come over to him and kneel down. “Don’t try to walk. Your lungs are already damaged and you’ll make them worse.” He nods, pointing to his filter.

“Clogged. I can’t get good air.” I pull the pack over and take out my cleaning tools. Cleaning filters is hard on the material, but it’s all we can do. Our last filters failed the other week, leaving this as our only option. 

“Sit still. I’ll be quick,” The whir and buzz of the air suction tool have come to represent both relief and desperation. After a few minutes, I clip the filter back into his mask. “How’s that?”

“Better,” he replies. “Thank you.” I smile, making sure to crinkle the corners of my eyes so he knows. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It takes several hours before the metal covering finally comes loose. By this point, the skies have darkened considerably to a twilight haze. The scraping noise of metal against metal gives me a splitting headache, but I hope the reward for my efforts is worth it. Prying the metal apart, I get a glimpse of something fluttering under the covering. Something shiny too, metallic. I eagerly shred the rest of the cover off, kicking and assaulting it like a lion attacking its prey. After getting a good look at what lies underneath, I don’t know whether to jump for joy or throw up. The fluttering material is a giant blue tarp, which elicits a twitch of excitement. Our own portable shelter was something I’d wished for the minute we left the “safe zone”. The bounty didn’t stop there. Three huge jugs full of crystal clear water lay in the corner of the truck bed, untouched by filth and grime. The shiny material had been an open box, partially filled by canned objects. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to find out what they were. It was all too much. The water, the food, the tarp, all of it. It felt like some stupid dream where everything turns out alright in the end. The only touch of reality within this godsend was the decomposing body right in the middle of it. Even through my filter, the stench was unmistakable. The image didn’t make any sense to me, either. Food, water, shelter, and warmth, yet the person had died anyway. With everything they had going for them, how the hell were they dead?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dragging the half-rotted corpse out of the truck proved to be easier than I had anticipated. I guess these endless days of carrying my brother along with all of our stuff had brought me strength rather than stripping it from me. I couldn’t tell whether the person had been a male or female. Their face was mangled with time, eyes sunken so deep, the holes were big enough to stick several of my fingers in. A sick mental picture of me holding their head like a bowling ball flickers across my consciousness, but I blink it away. Their clothes had been protected from the elements thanks to the truck bed, but something about stripping the corpse of its garments seemed too barbaric, even for me. But the boots are too pristine to ignore. Feeling the gaze of my brother piercing my soul, I turn and look at him, locking eyes. I can see the fear in his face, but behind it is understanding. He knows what I must do. Thankfully, the body has socks on, so taking the shoes is less disgusting than it could’ve been. Peeling the practically useless hiking boots off my feet, I compare the sizes. The last time I measured my feet, which was at least a year ago, I had been a size 11. The corpse’s boots were at least size 12, but fit me perfectly. It’s easy to forget I’m still a growing child, especially when I’ve all but forgotten my own age. 15 years old, give or take a couple months. After reaping the body of any other useful items, I drag it about hundred yards away from our little camp before unceremoniously dropping it in the middle of a snowy ash drift. A proper burial would take time, and I was too tired to care. 

Within the pocket of the corpse had been a bible, along with a box of matches, a key (to what I don’t know), and a few bullets. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find any guns, so the bullets seemed a bit random. What I did find was some spare firewood (which was hidden under the truck seats). The truck’s seats could also be used for burning. After setting up the tarp on the truck to represent something of a sideways tent, I bring out the food and water. Immediately after seeing the cans, my brother smiles.

“What’s for dinner, good sir?” he asks in a formal tone. I laugh, understanding the humor behind his words. We’ve been waiting to use that question for a long time. 

“I was thinking we go light this evening and follow up with a hearty breakfast,” I say in the most polite and posh voice I can muster. My brother giggles. 

“Very good, sir. Very good indeed,” that one makes us both laugh as I break open a can of fruit salad with my pocket knife. The smell of processed peaches and pineapple only intensifies the delight, until I realize we have nothing to eat with. Looking at the can, a grin creeps onto my face.

“You remember how mom and dad always told us to eat with a fork and knife?” I ask innocently. I spot a small smile on my brother’s face too. 

“They were always yelling at us for eating with our hands,” he sees where this is going. I look around in an exaggerated manner before putting my hands in the air, pretending to give up. 

“I don’t see any spoons or forks or knives. Whatever are we going to do?” Practically shivering with excitement, I see his hands shoot out and form a cup. I laugh. “Well that isn’t very proper, now is it?” The posh tone has gone full-on British, making my brother laugh even harder. A little too hard. 

There’s a point between a laugh and a cough where you can still have fun. Once the line has been crossed, the joke is dead. It was when I saw the blood that I knew. Dropping the can at my feet, I take my brother’s arms and pull him close to me, holding him as gently as I can. “It’s ok, it’s ok,” I say over and over, but the blood is replaced by tears. And now he’s crying. Crying from pain, sadness, and frustration all at once. He rocks back and forth, coughing and hacking and crying. For a brief moment, a flash of terror grasps my heart. He can’t die, he can’t die. No, no, no. He’s all I have. He’s everything. He’s the only thing I have left, please God, please. Don’t do it, please don’t take him away. Why are you doing this to him? 

I hold him for what feels like hours, letting the coughs and sobs drip away into hiccups and wheezes. When he finally does say something, the voice comes raspy and hoarse. “I’m sorry,” was all he could muster. The crushing feeling in my chest threatens to invade my soul.

“Sorry for what? You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault,” I brush the long tangled hair out of his eyes. He chokes and coughs quietly, whimpering in pain like a dying puppy. 

“I ruined it. I ruined it for us. We were gonna have fun and I ruined it,” the agony in his tone only makes the words sadder. I sit up, leaning him up against the truck before retrieving the fruit salad I had dropped. Luckily, not much had spilled. I waddle back over and hold the can out to him.

“You first.” Even as his eyes gaze upon the mouthwatering feast, the joy fails to return. 

“Jasper?”

“Yeah?”

“Am I gonna die soon?” The question stabs me in the gut, the words etching themselves deep into my flesh. His pleading expression breaks through my skin, burning and incinerating any hope or happiness that remains within me.

“No, you aren’t going to die.”

“But I’m sick.”

“You’ll get better.” 

“No, I won’t. You know I won’t. We don’t have any medicine. When we get sick, medicine makes us better. But we don’t have any. So I’m not going to get better. I’m going to die.” The onslaught of tears push against my eyelids as I try to blink them back. He’s right of course, he always is. Funny to think that an 8-year-old kid has a better grasp on things than his 15-year-old brother. 

The wind outside has picked up a little, the tarp fluttering in the otherwise silent darkness. The words I must speak are caught in the trap that is the bottom of my throat, trying to escape, but knowing the consequences of their doing so. I hold my hand out and my brother takes it. His warm skin melts into my hands as I stare off into space.

“You aren’t going to die.”

“But-”

“No,” I cut him off. “I’m going to find medicine. I’m going to make you better. I swear to God, I’m going to fix this.” The words are coarse and firm, confident. 

“But you searched the truck. How are you going to find medicine for me?” 

“I’ll do whatever I have to. I’ll walk a thousand miles to find it, and I’ll walk a thousand miles back. But you can’t come with me, ok? You’re safer here,” the declaration stings, the truth as painful as ever. 

“You can’t leave me here. I’m gonna die if you aren’t here,” the fear in his voice crushes me, but I have to do this.

“We have shelter here. We have water, food, and fire. If you come with me into the wasteland, we might never find this sanctuary again. This, right here, is the closest thing to a home we’re ever going to have,” I try to explain as best I can. I hope he understands.

“But what about the little house on the hill? What about mommy and daddy?” Truth over lies. Is this it? Is this the moment I tell him? Right before I leave him, possibly for a long time?

“The only way we can ever get there is if we survive. We have to survive,” that’s it. Lies. Lies upon lies. It’ll end soon. It’ll stop. One day, the truth will have to come. But not now. 

“What if you find medicine, but you can’t come back. What if you get lost? What if you never come back?” I can hear the sobs returning, the coughs lingering just slightly behind. 

“I’ll–” The response is cut off by realization. How will I get back to him? What if I die out there? I can’t leave him alone. And so I’m caught in a trap of my own creation. If I leave him here, there’s a chance we both die alone, separated by a world of lost hope and forgotten dreams. If I take him with me, we’ll probably both die within a few days. But we’ll be together ‘till the end. A final “screw you” to this miserable dystopia. A worthy send-off to an unworthy existence. What a thought. But no, this isn’t some fantasy novel. The prospect of death lingers so very close. It breathes down my neck, whispering dark realities into my ear.

The only chance he has is here. With only one person, the food will last for months, the water too. The shelter is a blessing beyond anything else. If he follows me into the abyss, there’s a good chance we both die. I can go longer by myself and so can he. Logic is the only way we both survive. But how do I find my way back? There aren’t enough rocks or sticks to lay down a path. Besides, the next windstorm will simply cover it all up. I would use a compass if I had one that worked, but the one I found in the truck is utterly useless. Landmarks are my only way of navigation, but in a world this blank and uniform, landmarks don’t really exist. Unfortunately, it’s the best solution I have. 

“I’ll do whatever I have to. I swear, I won’t lose you, no matter what.” After a brief moment of nothing, my brother holds out his hand. I tip the can over just enough, letting a few delicious chunks of fruit slide out. After tasting it, he smiles and the seriousness of the previous discussions fades away. 

“This is the best,” he says, smiling contently. The food was indeed the best, the best I had eaten in a long time. The sweetness of the juice was simply heavenly, and it was clear another can would soon be opened. Considering what lay ahead of me, a feast was definitely in order.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The pack was full, or as full as it needed to be. A week’s worth of canned food along with a jug of water was all I needed. I figure by leaving the majority of the supplies with my brother, it’ll all but ensure his survival, giving him the best chance possible. 

The morning comes like so many others, but this one with a hint of absolute silence. No wind, no rustling or rumbling. Just quiet. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. As I step out from under the tarp, I see a figure standing a few hundred yards away, small and blurry against the brightening horizon. Warily, I wander over, keeping my guard up. As I approach, I realize it’s my brother, kneeling down over the body I had dumped the other day. 

“How did you-?” I begin to ask, but he interrupts me.

“How’d he die Jasper?” The bluntless of the question makes me uneasy. There’s something wrong with his voice, an angry fire that wasn’t there before.

“I don’t know. I just found him like that. You remember right? From the truck?” Something cracks nearby. A gunshot? No, couldn’t be.

“He was alone. Like me. You’re leaving me. I’m gonna die, just like him, alone,” The voice is stone-cold, not like a child’s. I reach out to hold him, but he whips around, revealing a decomposing face. The rotting flesh starts to peel, revealing bone and muscle underneath. A scream escapes from my shell-shocked mind as I stumble back, horrified by the sight. “I’m dead, Jasper! I’m dead! I’m dead! I’m dead!” My vision goes black, but the scream echoes. 

The nightmare ends as abruptly as it started. The morning light creeps into our little shelter, casting vague, shapeless shadows against the dark blue tarp. I spin my head around, only breathing a sigh of relief when I see my brother curled up next to me. The whir of his filter gives me all the strength I need. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the truck disappears behind me, the full weight of what lies ahead comes crashing down. It may seem stupid, leaving my dying brother in a freezing, windblown valley of ash, but it’s my only chance at keeping him alive. What is happening to him happened to my mother and father. The filters clog and they get replaced. If you don’t have a spare, you clean it. If you clean it too many times, the material comes apart and it’s useless. If you don’t have a filter, you have about 48 hours before you suffocate. Easy, simple truth. No loopholes, no solutions. When we began running out of replacements, my parents started cleaning more and more often. Even when they needed a replacement, they would shrug off the pain and keep going. They were strong, but you can’t hold up the sky forever. Eventually, the coughing turned to gurgling. Dry gasps became choking blood. I remember begging, begging for them to replace their filters, but they refused. They put everything down for us, laid out a path in which we might just survive. 

One night, I woke up to a note tucked under my jacket. It was short and straight to the point, but devastating all the same. I remember every word…

Jasper,

Your brother doesn’t know, but I recognize that look you’ve been giving us these past few weeks. Yes, we’re dying. In fact, by now, we’re probably already dead. Don’t tell Simon what happened. Keep him hopeful. Keep him safe. We know you can do this. You are everything we have, you and Simon. We love you both so much. Stay strong.

And that had been it. At daybreak, I remember searching relentlessly for them, clawing and digging at every scrap of what I thought might be clothing. The closest thing to an answer I found were two masks, complete with bloodstains and decrepit filters. One month, that’s how long their filters had lasted, just one month. 

I have two weeks….

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The hills rise higher around me as the sky reaches peak brightness, yet the temperature refuses to increase. The gray haze hanging over the valley swirls around me like a horde of vultures, ready to tear me to pieces at any given moment. With each step, my legs scream, blinding my ears. Keep going. Keep going, you coward. Don’t stop. You can’t stop if you want to live. 

The valley slopes slightly downward as the day goes on. Miles and miles of empty thoughts, no life in these mountains. The snow drifts get softer under my quaking limbs, pulling and dragging and sinking. I… can’t… move. My legs finally give out and I fall forward, collapsing into the icy grasp of the valley. No…. 

The evening light shines bleakly across the peaks, which have grown sharp and rugged. I had barely noticed the sheer enormity of the mountains earlier, but now I am trapped in their cage. Earth’s teeth, clashing down upon me, swallowing me up and spitting me out, limp and cold. 

It is as if time itself has entered an unbreakable cycle. Day goes to night and night goes to day over and over again. The nights are cold and lonely, with no one to protect or be protected. I am alone for the first time in my life. Truly, crushingly alone. 

My eyes are blind, my ears deaf, my mouth dry, my legs weak. Days of wandering, and for what? I can’t go on. Not like this. Not with the full knowledge that nothing good lies ahead. And yet, the primal instinct to find hope among hopelessness remains. Some stupid and immature part of me that’s still human, still alive. A soul, maybe? Do I have a soul? Do I even deserve to have made it this far?

Broken. It was bound to happen eventually. I’m broken. Each breath comes in raspy and each exhale is agonizing and hoarse. What sin must I have committed to render my current situation so torturous? Why must I suffer? Why must anyone suffer? What went wrong in our sad meaningless lives that led to this? Nothing I guess. Reality is truth. Humans are flawed, but I already knew that. The only thing that’s real is the ash beneath my feet and the jagged walls keeping me in. Everything else is an illusion. An illusion that I shall carry on. If I must travel to the end of the world, then I shall do so. If I must drag myself all the way back, then I shall do that too. Ha! Look at me now, no longer just a passenger. I am awake now, for the first time in my life. I am alive!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Where is he?”

“Over there, by the boulder.”

“Who is it? Did you recognize him?”

“I don’t know. Never seen him before. It was some kid.”

“A kid? How old?”

“Maybe 15. Teenager for sure.”

“Not possible. There’s nothing for miles but ash and snow. Where could he have come from?”

“You think I know? I told you, I just found him over there. He was wearing a filter and everything.”

“And is he…”

“What?”

“Well, you know… alive?”

“Didn’t check. Figured not given how long he must’ve been out here. He was covered in ash. Not a good sign.”

“But you didn’t check?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Jesus! You just left him there?! Go see if he’s breathing!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Warm light radiates around me from every corner of my peripheral vision. Soft blankets. Soft bed. What is this place? I’m not dead. That much I know. Not dead, but then, where? Voices. No, can’t be. I must be hallucinating. 

“He’s waking up,” says one of the voices. No, they’re real. Is that…

“He’s stable. Breathing is good,” says another.

“My God, what do we do with him?” So there’s three of them. 

My eyelids flutter slightly, but the light is simply too harsh for my weary pupils. My throat goes hoarse as I try to speak. 

“Where…?” The question drowns on my tongue, trapped and mangled into a faded whisper. A pair of hands pushes me down as I try to sit up.

“Don’t, we haven’t been able to clear your lungs yet,” says one of the voices. It sounds like an older woman, but my eyes have squeezed shut. My dulled mind has already been overstimulated by this new environment. Every thought, feeling, and bruising desire is suppressed by this hot stifling room. Too much. It’s too much.

The mind drifts…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jasper…

Jasper…

Jasper wake up.

We have to go. It’s time to run. They’ll be here any minute. They’re coming for us. 

I don’t want to go away. I want to be here. What about Charlotte?

Charlotte is gone, and we have to go too. They are going to catch us, Jasper. We can’t let them catch us. They will do terrible things to us. Terrible terrible things.

Why? Why do they want to hurt us?

Because they have no choice. Everyone wants to survive. We will survive.

Where will we go?

Wherever we can. Daddy and Simon are waiting for us at the secret entrance. We’ll go together.

Why are we running away? Why do we have to run away?

I’m sorry, Jasper. I’m so sorry. I never wanted this for you. I never wanted this for you. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted… 

I wanted… 

The mind wakes…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The clear liquid drips into the vile, making the smallest of sounds. My blackened soul laughs at the irony of it all. How is it that after all this time, mile after mile, day after day of suffering, that the answer to my darkest problem falls right into my lap? If there is a God, he’s a tricky little bastard. 

“Follow the valley out of the mountains, it’ll lead you right back to your brother,” the woman spoke in a low voice. “When you find him, have him drink this in small sips in 30 second increments. This is very important. The medicine must coat his damaged throat. Once he does, he must wear a new filter for 48 hours before taking the inhaled substance,” she hands me the device introduced earlier. I stare at the dim green light emanating from the metallic tool. This is it. 

“You’ll find your way back, won’t you?” the woman places her hand on my shoulder. “We can survive here. We can live here. This can be your home.” I nod, but the words bounce off my armor of emotions. This would only be settled once I knew my brother was safe. I have one priority, one thing tethering me to this Earth. 

“Thank you…” is all I can muster. I stand, groaning as my joints pop and crack. The animalistic need to trudge on is dying now that I have what I need. But I don’t have what I need. I need Simon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The valley expands as does my hope. Every step that brings me closer to Simon brings me closer to my purpose, my one purpose. No sleep, no rest, only forward. The house has long since disappeared behind me, but now I know the way. The mountains will protect us. Mother Earth is not dead, not yet. The green tint of life and the faded rays of sunshine offer an answer. We will be together until the end. 

My backpack sags on my shoulders, but it does not drag. My soul relishes the determination, the drive to vanquish this final monster. The new boots are a bit too large for me, but the cold gray ash can’t get in anymore, so I am free of the deadly coils that threatened me before. I no longer walk in a dead man’s shoes. The whir and buzz of the new filter fills my ears with artificial music. The questions of ‘why?’ are left unanswered, but I try to block them out with the whistling wind. Why did those people help me? Why did they give me some of their precious supplies? Why did they care? And the final question bore deeper, stabbing into my heart with vicious enthusiasm. What was their reason? What kept them tied to this cold dying rock? No matter how hard I concentrated, nothing seemed to line up. Just a group of survivors making an attempt at life. Maybe they simply couldn’t see how desperately hopeless they truly were. Or maybe I’ve just grown blind to the light at the end of the tunnel. 

The food has no taste, but I don’t mind. That warm full feeling is simply too beautiful to ignore. The water is clean, just as tasteless. But it’s all perfect. So close. So close to ending this nightmare. It’ll be Simon and Jasper to the very end. Two brothers who waltzed through hell just to make it across to the other side. The wars, the fighting, the killing, the fires, the ash, the slaughter, the false promises, the fake solutions, the ultimate failure of our species…none of it matters. It never did. Just a veil to distract me from the one thing that ever made any sense: his smile. I remember the days back in the supposed “safe zone”. Ah yes, when we thought we were safe from the raging storms outside. His smile was full and lively, glinting with youthful energy. Even when they started hunting us down, when the food ran out and neighbors turned on each other, he was the only person in the whole world who could still smile. His innocence was contagious. Day after day, we wandered over the frozen corpses, and yet it only took one smile or laugh to bring me back. I thought that sweet innocent smile would die after their deaths. But they knew. Mom and dad knew and now, so do I. 

The nights are cold, the days are bleak, the stars are covered, and yet…

The mind drifts…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jasper?

Yeah?

Where did they go?

You mean mom and dad?

Yeah. Did they go away?

Yes, they did. They went somewhere far away.

Why? Why did they leave?

Because they…

Because they just couldn’t…

Did we do something wrong?

No. No we didn’t. They just had to save us a spot.

What do you mean? Save us a spot where?

There’s a little house far away from here. A little house on a big green hill. You remember that ok? There’ll be a big yard and lots of trees. And everyone will be there. Everyone will be there.

Why can’t we go there now?

Because we have to earn our spot there, little man. We can’t just walk in with all this work left to do!

But how come mommy and daddy get to go now? It’s not fair.

Because they earned it. They took care of us and kept us safe. They did their job, and now we have to do ours.

What’s our job? When do we get to go?

We have to take care of each other. We have to keep each other warm and safe, just like they did. Then, once the time is right, we’ll go there too.

When?

Once the time is right. Once we’ve done what we have to do…

The mind wakes…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The rusty beacon pokes up among the shallow ashy valley. The corpse of the old world shines as brightly as the full moon. I’ve made it. I’ve actually done it. I win! I win!! Ha ha ha! Screw you world! My middle finger flashes up towards the hazy sky, giving it a taste of its own medicine. The pickup truck looks just as it did before. The tarp flutters in the faint breeze. 

“Simon! I did it! I’ve got the medicine! We won! We can go now! The little house on the hill! It’s real and it’s close! Really close! Simon, we won!!” I run as fast as I can towards the shelter, each step throwing me forward. “We did it, we did it, we did it!” It is as if my inner child has finally emerged and I am filled with joy and relief and jittery excitment. “We won!”

He’s sitting in the shelter, hands at his sides, eyes closed. He’s sleeping. Ha! I should wake him up. I’ll tell him all about it, and then I’ll show him the medicine. He’s going to be so happy. He’s going to give me that smile. 

“Simon, we did it!” I shout. “Wake up, wake up! I have medicine, and there’s this house, and there are people there, and there’s life! There’s grass and bushes! We can go right now! Right now, so wake up! Come on, Simon!” I shake his shoulders gently and his head bobs up and down and up and down. But he’s not waking up.

“Simon, we…” And then I stop. I stop and shut up. “Simon…” The only noise I hear is my own breathing. The whir and buzz of one filter. One filter. Oh…god. There’s nothing else. His hands are limp. I take them in mine and I stare at them. Cold. Cold

“Simon…we won.” No one hears me. I can’t even hear me. There’s just him. His hair is crusty and messy. Mine is too. His filter is filled with ash and soot. No whirring, no buzzing, no music. And there it goes. It floats away, just like that. My one purpose. My only purpose. Is. Gone. Dead. Extinguished. Slaughtered. 

My legs topple and my skull thuds against the rusted metal. His body shifts over and his heavy head comes to rest on my wilted shoulder. But I don’t cry. I can’t cry. I physically can’t cry. Becuase my only reason is dead. There’s nothing. Nothing at all. My eyes go blank, and I just hold him. I cling to his tiny frail body. I hold his little head against my chest, but he can’t feel my beating heart. He’s gone. Forever. And that’s it. But I’m still here. Just for a little while. He died all alone. I failed. The one promise I ever made. I remember. I remember the one promise I ever swore to keep. Stay with him, no matter what. To the end. No matter what. 

The house fades away. The green turns to black. Mom and dad close their eyes and sink into the earth. I failed. And as the mind drifts one final time, my brain latches onto one last thing. 

“Hey Simon. Do you remember that little poem mommy used to sing to us before bed?” His eyes meet mine in the abyss. 

“You mean the prayer?” he replies.

“Yeah. Do you remember the words?”

“Not really.”

“Do you want me to sing to you, Simon?”

“Yes please.” My brain tries to make him smile, but it’s not the same. His voice is all I can formulate. I never believed in God, but my mother did. She would pray and read from the Bible. None of it ever made sense to me. Except for this one little prayer. I remember it. I remember every word.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”

The mind dies.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two vague shadows approach the carcass. They see it and start to run. They are young, but are not children. About the same age. 25? 26? It doesn’t matter. They find the food and the water. They leap for joy at the sight of the new filters found in the older boy’s backpack. The tarp is still, for there is no wind. How rich they are! To have food and water and shelter! But then there are the bodies. The two young boys, no more than 8 and 15 years old, frozen in an embrace.

The image didn’t make any sense. Food, water, shelter, and warmth, yet the two brothers had died anyway. With everything they had going for them, how the hell were they dead?


End.

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