I can feel the Reaper’s scythe dangling above my head, ready to fall. This is the moment I’ve been dreading,- the moment I’ve prayed to be capable of eluding. It’s still so cold, though. Even swaddled in every scrap of clothing I own, my fingertips are numb to the core.
I’m not reaching for the darkness; it’s grabbing me.
Now that I’m standing on death’s doorstep, waiting for it to take me into the dark abyss of whatever life there is after this, I’d almost rather there weren’t one, because I’m so tired.
Maybe it’s the death, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never died before.
I always imagined that I’d take my final breath with, if nothing else, a sense of peace.
I’m restless, though. It’s a stirring deep down inside of me that’s hard to explain without telling you everything. So I will, and maybe the stirring will cease. Maybe then I can leave here knowing that, one day, someone will know I made it.
The room smells of death. My mind is flickering in and out of full consciousness, and I swear it’s the smell. After a year of walking through streets of charred bodies, you would think I’d be accustomed to the awfulness of it all, but I’m not. Even as I write, more tears flow down my sunken cheeks and onto this filthy paper.
Across the room lies a body, freshly dead. Too fresh to stink. I would know. I pulled him in here, and held his hand, watching helplessly on as the light left his eyes...
Try as I might, it’s almost impossible to keep my eyes off of his still frame. I keep expecting him to jump up and wrap his arms around us-my other friend and I- and assure us that it’ll be okay, as always. But it’s not okay, because people don’t jump up from bullets.
And my other friend, well she’s leaned up against me. She hasn’t gone cold yet, but I don’t think it will be long now…She’s barely breathing. I can’t hear her heartbeat through her chest anymore, it’s so distant. She hasn’t uttered a word since we got here.
Maybe she’ll only sleep, but who knows, maybe she’ll cross the threshold into the realm of the unknown.
I don't have the strength to hope for things now. I can only wait and see what hand time will deal us.
Don’t think I’m done now, because I’m just getting started. The sun has set, and the night is mine to tell you all the things my friends never could.
I wasn’t born into a post-apocalyptic era, but I was too young to remember any life before the forsaken desert I grew up in. It was a place of miserable, eternal drought, where all the terrain was dust and the people who lived around me did nothing but talk and dream about the coast.
“There’s water there.” My mother used to tell me during the nights, when I asked why the grown folk whispered so longingly of it.
“But we have water here.” I argued.
“Yes, but there’s more there. More than you could imagine.”
“How much, momma?”
“As much as there is dust here.” she sighed.
“That’s a lot, a lot of water,” I would say, drifting off to sleep, mesmerized.
My mother would laugh. “Yes, Celia, that is a lot, a lot of water…”
And so we all grew up talking and dreaming about the coast, even those of us who’d never seen it before. All the children my age. We were raised to believe there was better out there, but with no proof behind the stories, many of us were non-believers who turned into scornful skeptics and pessimists.
I, however, was convinced that there was a coast. A coast with colors, and drops falling from the sky, and more water than I could ever imagine. Just like my mother had described it.
My mother died when I was fourteen. It wasn’t uncommon to die at her age -she was thirty-one-, but it still hit me harder than I thought it would.
“We’ll make it to the coast together,” my mother instilled the false hopes deep within me from a young age.
I was spited that she’d died before following through with her commitment.
But now, sitting here, unable to feel anything, even the pen in my trembling hand, it seems stupid to have hated my mother for that.
How could she have stopped death? I think now…
I’ll apologize to her when I see her again, up in that mysterious Heaven she always talked about.
I used to think that was stupid, too, that there could be any place up past the sky, with golden arches and roads of marble and a big, luxurious home for every person that ever lived.
“How many people have ever lived, momma?” I asked her once.
“More than there are drops in the sea.” she soothed.
Now I know that not that many people have lived before me, but to a four year old, my mother got her point across.
A lot. A lot of people have lived before me. A lot of people have died.
“You can’t leave by yourself!” he argued, standing in the darkest corner of my bare room, hands behind his back.
“Then feel free to come with me,” I said, hastily tossing things into my tattered bag.
He sighed, “At least wait until the sun comes up so you know which way you’re going.”
“I know which way I’m going,” I said, spinning around to look him dead in the eyes. “East.”
“Oh my God, Celia, will you just listen to me for one second!”
I threw my things onto my pallet and crossed my arms in a gesture of aggravation.
“I am listening, Luther. I have been listening to it since I decided to go!”
“You mean since your mother died..” he said.
“What’s your point?”
He stepped into the light that shined in through my grimy little window.
He towered above me, glaring down with all his might. Yet, somehow, I think he was still more afraid then I was.
“You’re grieving, Celia. You can’t make huge decisions like this when your mind isn’t right…”
“Oh, so now I’m crazy?” I scoffed.
He groaned. “No, that’s not my po-.. You know what? Fine,” he whispered, “Leave.”
“I’m glad you think I need your permission.” I glared.
He didn’t have a comment. He stood there, in the emptiness of my tiny, dust filled room, and stared at the filthy, dust covered floor, and he pouted.
It didn’t take two minutes for me to come back down to earth and realize the damage those few exchanged words had inflicted.
He’s just trying to look out for you, I thought, scolding myself internally for the harsh words I’d said.
“Luther, I’m-” I began, but he readily cut me off.
“I’m not doing this to hold you back from what you’re trying to accomplish. I know it was your mother’s dream. I know you’re hurting. I know you’re” he paused, “I don’t know. Looking for some way to keep her with you? And if this is the only way you can do that, I get it. But you don’t have to leave me tonight.”
This was it. His final plea for me to spend just one more night in my shell, with him, dreading the moment I’d finally have to take the first step away from the only place I’d ever known as home.
I looked at him, to the dusty tan bag on the floor, then to the door.
“If I don’t go now, I’ll never leave.” I argued, mostly to myself.
“And what’s so bad about that, again?” he asked, his voice hushed.
I looked at him.
“Never mind.” he answered my expression.
“I have to do this- I want to do this. I can’t spend my whole life here, just surviving on shade and luck. I don’t belong here.” I said, a lump forming in the back of my throat.
I thought of how life would be without Luther. My enemy, my best friend, my partner in crime, my protector. He was he only person besides my mother that ever gave a damn about whether I was happy or hurting. I started to wonder if he’d miss me, and the thought began to form that I might not make it without him. I could almost see myself, running away from here and from him, just because I was too cowardly to say goodbye.
I stopped myself short, forcing back the doubts and the tears.
You can worry about it when you’re gone, I told myself
I walked over to my best friend, the only love I’d ever known. And I looked him in the face, never once thinking that it would be the last time I’d ever see it.
“I have to go now.” I whispered.
He shook his head solemnly, accepting defeat. “Just be careful,” he said. “Please.”
I mustered up a brave smile and laughed. “I will, I promise.”
We said goodbye at the edge of town, marked by a concrete speckled dirt road.
He hugged me, for what seemed like seconds. But I’m sure it was ten minutes. It was hard to let go, but something deep down told me that I had to.
Go now, I said to myself.
“I’ll send you a postcard.” I told him and he choked back a snort.
The last thing I remember about home is him, gleaming black hair blowing in the hot desert wind, tears staining his dirty red face.
I walked backwards until he was a speck of black against the grayish-blue sky.
Then I pivoted, taking the first of many steps away from everything familiar to me.
The walking was exactly what you would expect from a trek in the desert. The only reasonable comparison would literally be that it was like taking a stroll in Hell. Or it was as close as one could get, at least.
It wasn’t like it deterred me much at all.
I lived in a town where dust covered everything, filling your lungs like a constant smoke, making your throat seer with every breath
I was accustomed to having little to no water each day and scrounging for meals under front porch steps and on the outskirts of town, where we would occasionally spot a stray coyote, emaciated and near death.
I remember the first time I went hunting, with Luther.
I had trouble looking a defenseless creature in the eyes and taking it’s life with a flick of a knife.
“Look at him, Celia. He’s dying anyways.” Luther would tell me, like we were doing the poor creature a favor by speeding up the process.
I shook my head. “Uh-uh,” I protested, “I won’t do it.”
Luther sighed. “Then you’ll starve.”
“I don’t care.”
“And the rats will have him.”
“Let them.” I said, turning my head away from the scene.
“I’m going home.” I said that night and every night after that, leaving him to his dinner.
I remember all the nights, lying on the mat next to my mother, my stomach hollow, but my clear conscience gave me the satisfaction and peace I needed to sleep.
Out there, underneath the pulsing sun, though, there was no refuge.
There was no home to go to, a mat to lie on, or even shelter.
There were just endless miles of reddish-brown dirt.
I wrestled with my morals.
I would tell myself that killing was wrong, and sinful, and dirty. I tried to convince myself that water could sustain me, but my stomach was not having any part in that. It would gurgle and spasm to the point of putting me on my knees.
I was used to the hunger, yes, but not the physical strain of walking for hours on end to go along with it.
It only took two days for me to realize that I was going to have to do the unthinkable and kill an animal.
And I would have to do it soon.
I threw my bag on the ground, pulling it open to reveal my meager belongings.
There wasn’t much in there not even enough to conceal the bottom of the bag.
There was a thin, tattered shirt that could be used as a tourniquet, a picture of my mother and father holding me as a newborn -the only picture I’d ever seen-, an old locket, and what I’d been looking for: my knife.
I’d seen many knives floating around my little town. Some were very shiny, and made with machinery precision. They were all different colors, shapes and sizes. Some even had names carved into their steel shells.
My knife was given to me after my mother died, by a shopkeeper she’d been friends with.
His name was Smitty, and he had a smoky gray beard that engulfed his mouth.
I only ever knew he was talking by the sound of his gruff voice.
“This belonged to your father,” he said, bending down to hand the black blade to me. Close enough for me to see a faint, magical twinkle in his gray eyes.
And that was all he said about that. I imagined that my mother had asked Smitty to guard the knife for her, and give it to me in the event that she should die.
I suppose my mother always knew that I’d go to the coast one day, with or without her, and she wanted me to have something to rely on.
I took the knife out of my bag slowly, trying not to think about what I’d be using it for.
Hunting was a much more draining process than I had originally anticipated.
Back home, animals were lured into our traps by the smell of fire and the sound of voices carried by the air, but here, there was nothing to lure a living creature.
I’d have to find a spot and wait for something to pass me if I wanted any chance of having a meal.
So I went about a half a mile off my path, near a cluster of jagged rocks.
I sandwiched myself between two of them, my dirty body nearly blending in with the surface.
I pushed my back foot against a dent in the rock behind me, to give me leverage to pounce.
Then I stood, and I waited.
It was hard keeping still when I’d been walking for so long and my mind was reeling with the uncertainties.
There was no likely chance that I’d see even a microscopic sign of life out here other than myself, and those odds bothered me.
I kept thinking of a better way to do things.
What if there’s a town just a few miles from here? I thought constantly.
What if I’m wasting what little time I have? That fear struck me the hardest, but with no way of being sure, I stood and waited.
I could always start walking again, but I might only have one shot at finding food, I reasoned.
And that one chance of food came just before the rise of another dawn.
The sky was once again void of any light source, but visibility was beginning to lift.
With clear view of the open field, I spotted something moving about ten feet away from me.
I held my breath, trying to be as silent as possible so as not to scare the creature away.
It was nibbling on something which I could only fathom was a pebble, and it’s little nose wriggled with intensity.
It’s ears looked soft, and floppy, and it’s tail was a ball of brown fur.
Suddenly, the hand holding my knife felt heavy.
I sighed, wondering if I had what it took to take a life.
The creature’s ears perked up, and it tilted it’s gaze forward, spinning to face behind itself.
I held my breath again, wondering if I had startled it.
Don’t blow this, I yelled internally.
My legs cramped, and my pulse surged, every muscle in my body strained to keep still.
I wanted to scream.
I thought the creature had sensed me when it turned back around and crouched to hop away.
GO NOW! I yelled at myself, maybe aloud, because the thing had started moving at a fast enough pace to escape.
I pushed myself forward with all my might, my blade extended, shining in the pale morning light.
I tumbled to the ground, hitting first my head, then my knees.
My fist came into something mushy and warm.
I realized what it was and got near vomiting. My bone-dry insides wouldn’t allow it, though, and I turned my head to see what I had accomplished.
To my whole and utter dismay, the creature lay there in front of me, eyes open and mouth agape…
My fist rested on a scarlet gash in it’s white belly.
My head pounded.
What have you done! I thought to myself.
I didn’t have time to dwell on my misdeeds, for moments later, a deep thudding sound echoed behind me.
I whisked around to see the shadow of a man, the blaring morning sun at his back. He stood merely feet away from me, glaring...