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“Long ago, long before Momma and Papa were born, long before Adam and Eve were even thought into existence, there were two forces, as there have always been. One force, the light, was ruled by a fearsome warrior; a barrel of sparkling energy, known only by the name of Ray the Sun. The second and most feared of the forces, was Luna the Moon, whose wisdom and cunning were legend throughout the lands of Solar. For centuries all of Solar lived in fear of Luna, fear of what she might do with all of her power, and fear of how she came by her great beauty, even though she was made up almost completely of death, and more so destruction. In all of Solar there was only one warrior who would ever even think to overtake her, and that was Ray the Sun.
“For many a year Ray had been training, hoping that if he kept at it for long enough he would be able to amass an army as well as an increase in his strength and stability. For centuries he had no luck, it was not until the Moon was very old, and almost a dead-being herself, that Ray was able to strike a deal with her. The arrangement, it was decided, would be one that would fulfill both forces. Each force, both Ray, as well as Luna, would receive an equal number of hours where they would stand reign, out of every day Luna would be given twelve hours and a sky of night to cloak herself and her diamonds of light in. As for Ray the Sun, he was given an equal twelve hours, which he spent warding off the darkness from even the smallest corners of Solar, a task for which the system thanked him. Now, when it strikes time for the new rule, the other steps down gladly, knowing that, in just a few short hours, the sky will, once again, be their own. The End.”
There is a whine of protest from the cot opposite mine, a whine much like the ones that I would have given years ago when Papa told me the story for the first time. The corners of my mouth lift up and it almost feels foreign, the act of smiling after so long has lost its ease. I’m only able to keep it for what is possibly three-tenths of a minute before it drops back down again, back into one of only a hundred lines that have plagued my face since the Collapse. To try and summon it back now would be fruitless; one of the many things that I have learned since the Collapse; once something crawls into one of those lines, it doesn’t come back out. Nothing ever comes back out.
“Carter,” With a small cluck of my tongue I turn to the child, a little boy of five who never fails to melt my heart; a little boy who also never fails to break it. He looks like his father, now more than ever, I have to remind myself, as I always do, that they are not one and the same; that he is only five and that it is imperative that I give him love and attention. Enough so for both parents. Kasey is easier, her features are all Momma, the only thing she took from Papa are her eyes; dark blue, same as Carter’s and same as mine. With Kasey there is no trouble, just Carter.
“She can’t tell stories all night, Carter.” Kasey’s voice cuts through the silence, those seven short words being the first I have heard her say in what seems like decades. Like an attack of pinpricks I feel it, in the corners of my eyes, the burning; the mad span of pure torment before the tears leak out; before I allow them refuge on the contours of my face. A wave of salt floods my mouth, tangy, but not unfamiliar as it seeps in through the crevices left by my upturned lips. “She’s gotta go to sleep sometimes, ‘cause if she don’t she’ll die, right, Momma Evangeline?”
“Just Evangeline,” Like an earthquake the sigh comes, out of nowhere and seen by no one, what it takes is more than what I have to give; more than what I can afford to give. The smile that just seconds ago lit my face is extinguished; just one of the casualties of this silent war. “Just Evangeline, Kasey, we’ve talked about this...” I kneel down, my eyes level with hers, my tears sliding down my nose and leaving an angry array of dark spots on the threadbare blanket. “Kasey, Momma loves you… Momma loves both of you very much… but she’s sick right now… she can’t take care of you... she just, she doesn’t know how.”
She just, she doesn’t know how… I can feel the words echoing in my head; resonating through all the matter that is my body… shaking the bones that make up my shoulders enough so that they might as well be seizing. There is a flash of my sister’s face, her mouth twisted and her eyes wide; another instant and I can hear my brother; once more and my sister’s arms are around my neck; her tiny bones not quite strong enough to staunch the incessant tremors. When I throw her I am careful to assure that it is to the bed; careful to assure that she lands there safely before I run, my entire body shaking and my forehead beading with sweat, into the night.
The doorstep is just behind me, the bare earth just beneath my feet, and my shaking legs just by the flowerpot when they give out; when I fall and the contents of my stomach burn their way up my the length of my throat; spill out in front of me. Even after two processions it still craves more; like a vulture it digs, its claws scraping at the pit of my stomach; its hungry mouth finding nothing but empty air. Tears blur my vision as the smell hits me, pungent as the wind blows my way. With fervor and desperation my throat constricts, my shoulders so tight that I think they might possibly cave into themselves, air chokes me as it fights for its freedom; the only thing that my stomach has left to offer. The spasms subside only to be replaced by tears; fat globs that roll in the tracks of their predecessors, only stopping when faced with the drastic decision of clinging to skin or sliding off; a fair majority decides to cling. From there it is not long before my neck becomes coated; before the tendrils of my hair unlucky enough to venture over become enraptured in it; my legs are still weak when I stand, but they will get me to the mine if nothing else.
His tent is pitched far from the hole, he once told me that he didn’t want to take any chances, if the earth had to go he wouldn’t be going with it; I think that was somewhere along the line of his exact wording, if not it. There is a light burning a chink into the darkness, emanating from the burrows of that tent. Somewhere in between those four stakes and furls of cheap canvas is a boy, one whom I intend to see before the night is out, if only I am able to stop the shaking. The words spill out before I mean them to; just thin whispers in the night as I stand before the grave of so many who once populated our town. There are tens of souls buried beneath my knees as I sink to the ground; tens of men who had wives and children and songs that they would sing when they were upset, scores of them.
With tears leaking out of my eyes and dirt etching over my dress I confess to my sins and ask for forgiveness from Papa. Throughout it all my hands are clasped and afterwards I can feel the small jolt of pain as the blood comes rushing back to the parts sanctioned off by my now twitching fingers. My head is still bent over when Peter comes, my body still slightly crumpled, and my cheeks still wet as he moves forward towards me. He has been watching for a while, that much is evident by the way the way his face creases with frown; the way his dark eyes seem to narrow as he grabs ahold of me, his manner rough as he cinches an arm with callused hands around my waist. For a moment we lock eyes, his dark enough so as to be considered black and mine blue enough so as to be considered startling. Disapproval roams free throughout the core of his, and in them I can see the reflection of a girl, one who looks very much like a girl that I once knew, while at the same time remaining very different. The girl reflected in his darkened windows is broken, her hair a mess and her skirt covered with filth, eyes downcast and face sodden with the weight of unwashed tears. Her eyes widen and then she is gone, she turns around too quickly for me to call out to her, for I know she would not turn back, not now, not after she has so deliberately reached towards escape. I don’t blame her, I wouldn’t turn back either.
“It happened again, the sickness.” The voice that escapes my lips is not my own; the words that I utter while in this dreamlike trance no more than those of a complete stranger…my tongue slurs over its intended path, taking with it all prisoners. There is a subtle tightening around my waist; a gust of hoarse breath and a slight warming sensation as it touches at the corner of my ear. He pushes me into the tent almost with malice, throwing me down on the pile of blankets he has come to regard as his bed. “I don’t mean to, Peter… you smell like beer.”
His body stiffens slightly before releasing itself in a muscle-tight shrug, grunting he hands over a chipped cup, the bottom of which seems to have met water maybe once. With unfocused eyes I watch it as he empties the belly of his flask; his hands trembling as the last of the drops leak out; submerge into the rest of the urine-colored liquid as readily as destiny. His eyes flash as he pops back the cork, stuffing it into his hoodie before sinking the blankets beside me.
“And you smell like vomit, so let’s not play that game, Angel.” His words dripping with sarcasm; his voice as frank as a brand-new toaster oven, something flickers vainly at my lips but I force it back. “I say we just cut it short this time and pronounce the winner,” Wetting his lips he produces a new bottle, flashing it at me once before gulping down at least a sixth of the capped-spirits. “You know as well as me that I never lose.”
“Well,” I contemplate, the focus of my attention diverted by the sudden swirls of pain that form; that writhe away at the walls of my stomach; leaving it bare. Leaving it to play the role of the farmhouse that all the other villagers forgot about; leaving it to be the victim of its own defenseless-defenses as the funnel of black cloud comes; picks it up and sweeps it clear out of the sky. Targets of debris fall, scraping with a perverse accuracy at the corners of my eyes, leaving them feeling raw and sore as the tears stroll out; rivers of them bathing my cheeks as though that is the answer. Curling into a tight shell, my body is on the verge of breaking as it is thrown forward; one hand flies to my stomach, pressing against it in one last desperate attempt to save it from the wreckage.
In the distance I am aware of Peter’s arm going around me; of a sudden billowing of warmth as I am pulled closer to him; the cup drops from my hands, but if the liquid spills I don’t see it. Red flags the color of blood sail, their colors flaring behind the closed lids of my eyes; in the wake of the enemy there comes a crash; a noise that has the thunderous quality of that which as a girl I’ve always associated with the smoke-wrenching bursts of cannon-fire. In Warden’s Grove we had never had much use for cannons, nor for their death launches. Papa, when I was little, would tell me stories about them, about how when he served far off in Lenderson the air was so polluted that him and the other folks could almost taste the ash when they went to breathe. Later on he talked of the death, of how the lead had been nothing more than a searing-mass of burning flame as it took to the sky. Nothing more than Lady Eustara’s pendent, in its raven-cloaked sheath it waits for me, unfamiliar faces uncurling from the grey storm of mist. The face of my father drifts into view, slowly heightening to encompass the entirety of the orb, his familiar hands, the ones scarred from years spent both battling and mining, extend themselves; waves of heat like when he used to walk beside me radiate off him.
On the earth there is a boy named Peter, and on the earth he holds a girl who was once named Evangeline. His tears rain down, staining her once beautiful face, now brought still by the cancer making nest within her. Kisses rain down her cheeks, like Sleeping Beauty her mouth is also pecked, but it is too late. In a town called Warden’s Grove, in a future of unknown date, the corpse of a girl is laid to rest; the body of the young, forever beautiful Evangeline Robyn Dawson.