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When the fires first started, nobody had paid attention. Sure, there were reports on heightened brush fires, a couple of specials about important buildings that had burned down half a world away. The stories always ended lightly though - a little list of advice about safe campfires or something like that.
Some people called foul early, pointed to the heavens or to h*ll, to ancient evils, to scapegoats. They were the crazies. By the time the non-crazies paid any attention, the flames were licking away at the heels of… well, everywhere that broadcasted television. A few panicking stories flew out from dying cities. Then, the channels fell silent. The cartoons lasted a few days longer than the news.
When the fires first started, nobody had paid attention. Now, there was nobody left. Cropper had seen it happen through the glass screen that linked his little white cell to the big colorful world. He had seen the coasts and forests and fields burn, and the sad, almost-but-not-quite-human-anymore carcasses that were left behind for the second wave of smoke and ash and lower, creeping fires that persisted days on end, even where nothing was left to burn. The world outside turned into a bizarre satire of his imprisonment- all colors became black; all people were walled in by heat and death.
He saw it all. The panic, the riots. More died in the rush to leave Tokyo than to the fires within it, one foreign correspondent said. The news lady one channel lower said that Tokyo had gone up in less than a day, trapping most of the inhabitants under timber and steel and smoke so thick you coughed and heaved until blood poured out. None of this had mattered to Cropper. It was just a buzzing and rambling and the cause of his lowered rations of food and water, which he hadn’t missed. Most of it was dumped into the toilet after the guards left the plates, anyways. They didn’t care, the guards. At least not anymore.
Now, though. Now, it was Cropper’s truth, these fires. One day, his door was opened, and he was dragged from the white into the red. He had stumbled blindly outside with the others and, when the heat started whispering to him, he ran blindly with them too.
Cropper was alone now. He was alone when he looted shells of houses for tin cans that hadn’t burst. He was alone when a shift in the winds would tell him he was walking towards another city wiped away. He was alone the time he came across a suicide victim, still strung up on a sturdy lamppost, half flayed, cooked, and eaten by another, more fresh suicide victim. He was alone when he fell asleep on high ground, subject to wind and ash and all sorts of hellish crawling things beneath the soot, but able to see the red light of fires against the omnipresent clouds of black. He was alone when he woke up and, every morning, panicked to find the piece of paper with his picture on one side and his name on the other (he memorized his name every day, crying for reasons beyond himself as he did so). He was alone, until Lauren.
She was a bouncy young thing, all curls and smiles and friendliness descending upon him one morning as he was memorizing his name. He had told her to go away, and then that his name was Cropper. No, he didn’t remember his last name. Go away, he said, I don’t want you. She followed not far behind him the rest of that day.
That night, as darkness started to swallow the broken curves of the hills around him, he screamed into the distance that he was dangerous, a criminal. He probably killed a man, or was a rapist. To tell the truth, he didn’t remember. The next morning, he woke up to her lying beside him in sleep and said nothing as he packed up his stuff and memorized his name. I kicked her awake before he left, and Cropper wasn’t alone anymore.
That day, he and Lauren walked in silence. She followed him, and he followed her. They turned and twisted and moved without purpose over the wasted land. Each house they came across and searched was filled by their silence, each decision of direction made by some unspoken consensus between the two. That night though, the words poured out of us like blood.
Lauren started. She was all questions then (they all turned back around onto her though, Cropper was still outward and steely and good at deflecting her words away then). She had a way of tilting her head and looking at you like she was innocent and naïve, even if what she asked had cut you to the bone. I couldn’t believe she was twenty five. I couldn’t truly say, but thought that was just a year or two below my own age. I laughed at this for some reason. Cropper just sulked away. God, she was beautiful that night.
She didn’t have a family, she said. She didn’t have many friends, or any good ones, really. The way she said it told me that this was a lie, but Cropper didn’t want to say anything about it. Lauren was… I couldn’t cause her pain by making her think of whatever I was seeing behind those eyes.
So, I talked about myself. Or rather, I said what I knew and failed to answer her questions. All I could remember was the cell. I missed it, truthfully. It was there that Cropper had lived. The whiteness of it was good. Sometimes, it hurt his eyes, the sheerness of it, but it was safe. It was a world. I tried to find the right words, struggled to say what that box had meant for me. Even to this day I can’t. I must have started crying at some point, because I remember Lauren holding my head in her arms. She was apologizing. I tried to say it wasn’t her fault, but I only sobbed harder. When I woke up the next morning, my tears had caked and cracked the ash on her jacket. It was blue beneath.
I don’t know how many words we shared for the rest of our time together, but it wasn’t many. Whereas the first day with her had been distant, almost cold, now the silence between us had a warmth, a knowledge, an understanding. At first, I was curious about what in her past was hidden from me that first night, but I grew to not care. In the end, only the ash we walked over and the time we spent together mattered to me. In the end, this world replaced the cell in my memory. The walls were wider, though, and Lauren’s smile shinned brighter than the television ever had.
Over time, I grew to have hope. Hope that we would have enough to eat when we grew old. Hope that eventually we would find others, and shelter too. Hope that, when I told Lauren I loved her, she could whisper back “I love you too” and the hurt behind her eyes would fade away.
Hope that, in the end, was crushed. No, not crushed, destroyed. Mangled. Taken in by the teeth and chewed up, spit out, then smeared across the landscape forevermore.
It had started as a cough. Slight, but constant, like mine. A year of ash and debris floating in and out of your lungs will do that. That’s where it started. It ended in blood and sobbing and the slowest death I think I’ve ever seen. The final seconds ended without a final goodbye, but instead with a fitful, delirious sleep.
It ended her. It ended “I”.
And Cropper is alone once more.