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A plume of smoke rolled off of Mr. Blacks lips, that reached out and encased my face, nearly choking me, yet leaving me with a sudden warmth. I found myself clinging to the smell suddenly, consumed by the nostalgia that came far too quickly with it.
Father seated in his chair, legs crossed, fine leather shoes knotted tightly and kept on at all times. The morning newspaper was a wall he constantly built up around him, leaving me unable to catch a single glimpse of his face. He looked up only as he tapped his cigar ashes against the silver tray. Tap. Tap. Tap. Then he resumed, back to his paper, back to his little world that consisted of only his cigar, politics, and hockey. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, allowing another cloud of smoke to smother me. What did he look like?
“You know I’ve had a million other people asking for this job.” Mr. Black remarked, breaking me away from my thoughts. I cleared my throat.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” I replied, adding, “It’s a great opportunity.” He glanced over me like I had suddenly become an insect; like he was fearing I would soon become a threat.
“What are you, sixteen?” It was sour on his tongue.
“I’m eighteen.” He smirked at my instant retaliation, and we lapsed into a burning silence that only broke when he rid his cigar of ashes. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“You do realize this is going to be tough, don’t you?”
“Yes. Frankly, I don’t care. ” He grinned again; an odd little smirk on his wrinkled and weathered face. He ran his hand through his salt and pepper hair, and then stood abruptly. He walked slowly to the door, before throwing it open an proclaiming confidently; “You’ve got the job.”
My eyes trailed after the decrepit ceiling fan, as it spun around like a trembling ballerina. A typical Tuesday night, as if nothing life altering had happened a few hours earlier. It was always like this.
Sprawled across my mattress on the floor, staring blindly at the ceiling fan, then at nothing, all while listening to the distant drone of the radio by my side, as it blabbed on nonsense. Another coastal town had been destroyed by a storm. There had been another tornado. Los Angeles was being evacuated again.
Maybe sometime in the past this would have had people glued to their televisions for hours. There used to be fundraisers for destroyed towns, there used to be groups that helped victims, there used to be a government that cared.
I sighed heavily and turned my back to the fan and to the radio. There was an emptiness in my stomach, on my tongue, in my bones, and it only meant one thing. But there was no vodka in the house, No Jager. So the emptiness would have to stay. With that, I was led into phase two of my typical Tuesday night. I found myself slipping off and on into sleep from my stupor, escaping briefly from the insipid reality I had created around myself.
But tonight was different. The shrill scream of the telephone erupted beside me, echoing through the entire room. I laid in place, letting it screech at me. There was no one I wanted to talk to. There was a beep, silencing the screams, followed by a hesitant voice.
“Hey...uhm, it’s me.” I rolled my eyes and turned toward the phone, staring at it as if she was standing there. “I just wanted to call. I saw your name in the newspaper. You’re everywhere. It looks like you’re doing alright.” There was a long pause, a shaking breath, before she continued in a hushed voice. “We’re sisters. I just...wish you could remember that. I’m sorry for how I acted, I really am. And...I’m sure mom will come around eventually. So...call me back, please. I miss you.”
There was another pause, as if she was dying to say one more thing, but the phone hit the receiver, gently, unsurely, and she was gone. I reached over blindly, as if I was in a fog, nearly asleep. Yet I was more awake then I ever had been. My fingers fumbled numbly over the machine, and finally fell on the delete button. I pressed down hard.
There was a loud scream from the streets outside seconds later. A bone-chilling, disheartening scream I had grown to know far too well. Then came the gibberish, spilling out like poison. Sirens wailed in the distance. An ambulance, for sure. There was another scream, that faded slowly to a desperate, broken whimper.
And then there was silence. I felt relief flood my body, content with the silence. I sighed and closed my eyes again.
People were so crazy nowadays.
“What do you need?” An uptight woman peered from behind her glasses, uninterested.
“I’m the photographer for Mr. Black,” I paused, before adding, “for his trip.” She seemed to shrink down.
“Miss Josephine Delacroix?” I winced at the name. I hadn’t been Josephine since I was sixteen, and I never wanted to be again. I felt my stomach churn as the flood of memories overwhelmed me. I nodded slowly, and she began to lead me down the hallway of the government building.
“Mr. Black, Mr. Clark, Miss Delacroix is here,” She said, as she leaned in a doorway. Mr. Black appeared beside her, and motioned me into the room warmly. My heart lept as I took a step in. A man gazed up at me over the rim of his coffee cup, his pale face engulfed in the warm steam. His eyes were a light brown, opalescent, with a tinge of orange and red. His eyes focused on me scrutinizingly, covering over every inch of my body with no expression but indifference. He set down his cup with a delicate tap, straightened the sleeves on his black jacket meticulously, and locked eyes with me yet again. Mr. Black leaned in the doorway.
“I’ll be back for a moment, I need to go calm the crowd outside. Cairo, please introduce yourself.” With that, he left. I faced the man at the table uncomfortably.
“You’re young.” He stated curtly.
“You’re blunt.” I retorted. I expected a smirk, a short laugh, but he gave me nothing, except a slight eyebrow raise of distaste.
“I just expected someone my older, more...mature.”
“I’m eighteen.” He shrugged as if it made no difference, and returned to his coffee. Mr. Black entered the room, briskly clapped his hands together, and smiled at us expectantly.
“So, your van is all packed, survival packs are in the back with everything you’ll need, and we’re all set to go now.” Cairo and I exchanged a glance, before we both stood, and filed down the hallway. I felt another twinge of anxiety, and a sickening worry, as we stumbled out the front doors into the sunlight.
“On to adventure.” Cairo muttered, as he slid sunglasses over his eyes.
Another town got washed away. Thirty thousand people dead, carried out to sea, drowned. The radio droned on with more details about it, warning about the danger in the area, urging people to evacuate. I turned off the radio. Cairo cast me a sideways glance.
“Scared?” I shook my head no, and returned to staring at the scenery out the window. He adjusted in his seat. “We don’t have to worry about those evacuations. Briarcliffs already a dead town.” I said nothing, did nothing. No one had seen the ocean in 16 years. The safety limit was 150 miles away for towns, and now, we were casting that out the window. What did the ocean even look like?
I imagined the aroma of salty air, seaweed, and freshness that was in every book I’d even laid eyes on. The sound of seagulls, the calm sound of waves lapping on the shore. But the things that had once been so peaceful and calming, were now the stem of every fear in the nation. The sound of waves lapping the shore had evolved into the sound of a waves crashing down on any city in the country, tearing it to pieces bit by bit. The sound of gulls had become the sound of sirens wailing, and people screaming with terror. The ocean wasn’t a fun place anymore, it was a deadly one.
Cairo flipped on the radio again, yanking me from my train of thought. I groaned, and glared at him, while he kept his eyes focused on the road, unwavering. I pulled his coffee from the cup holder, pressed it to my lips, and took a long sip. Cairo rubbed the top of it off, when I set it down, stern and displeased.
“There’s coffee mix in the back of the car, you know. You can get your own.”
“Oh, no, I hate coffee.” We drove in silence for a few miles after that. A sign flashed by, but this close to the ocean, it was faded and worn. 5 miles.
We were passing the suburbs now. Cairo tapped the breaks repeatedly as the road filled with more and more debris. Chairs, broken wood, old toys, cracked cement, roof tiles, branches, every item imaginable coated the road and the ground around us, which had been reduced to nothing but a cracked dust. There were no buildings, just faded foundations and frames that were covered with debris like everything else. Even the sky looked discouraged and grim overhead. Cairo swore under his breath, and mumbled something about his tires. The small city came into view in the distance, appearing as almost a relief against the disaster here.
But as we drew nearer, the facade of normality was peeled away, piece by piece. It was a town of tall stone buildings, lined endlessly down old, narrow streets. Something you’d see on a card, or in an old photography book or novel. But the stones were colorless, eaten away by the erosion of harsh winds and merciless waves. The streets were worse then outside of town. Cars were upside down, on their side, like toys a child had disposed of. Doors were missing from the buildings, and from the cars like it was an easy feat. The sides of houses, and slabs of stone and blacktop were a crumpled mess everywhere. Glass was sprinkled over every inch of space like diamonds, as it caught the light of the fleeting sun.
“Look away.” Cairo barked suddenly.
“Why?” My voice was loud with confusion and curiosity. His grip tightened on the steering wheel, and he was grinding his teeth. I looked forward again.
“Seriously, just look away.” It was too late. The sight of the dull, tarnished white had caught my eye, and it only took an instant before I noticed twenty more, and it clicked. Corpses. Everywhere. Thrown carelessly in positions that were contorted all wrong, on staircases, out windows, in cars, in the street, like they were trash. I doubled over, forced my head into my hands, and closed my eyes.
Cairo turned the radio up louder, so loud my heart throbbed, as we crept closer and closer to the bodies that had gotten in our path.
“We’re settling here for the night.” Cairo declared, motioning to an almost empty alleyway. The stench of the air around us was unbearable.
“Where do we have to take pictures tomorrow?” I asked crudely. He sighed and rubbed his tired eyes.
“The ocean, the streets, an old library that’s famous for something, and a fairground.” He paused, “If they’re even still here.”
“Why don’t we go to one of those places and sleep tonight? I’ll take the pictures there first thing in the morning and you can work on your article, we’ll get more done faster that way.”
“No, we’re staying here tonight.” It was final, a demand, a decision, that apparently I had no say in.
“That makes no sense.” He shrugged, opened the back of the van, and began pulling out various bags. I stormed after him.
“We’re staying here.” Cairo muttered, without me saying a word.
“You can stay here, but I’m definitely not.”
“Yes, you are.” I found myself reaching angrily for a survival pack, before shoving past him, and heading in the other direction. I got a few steps in before he even uttered a word.
“You don’t even know where the hell you’re going.” I didn’t bother turning around. There was a ferris wheel towering behind a row of buildings in the distance, and that’s all the direction I needed. I never had needed direction a single day in my life, and I certainly didn’t need it from him. He called something to me again. Probably the name that I hadn’t answered to in years, maybe a swear or two that probably fit me better. I kept walking, because in a few minutes, he would follow.
The moon left only a dark silhouette of the past in the fairground before me. Tall rides cast an eerie feeling that encircled the entire area. I shuddered, distantly horrified by the destroyed, forgotten booths lined side by side.
In my entire eighteen years, I had never seen anything this desolate. It was a sorrowful, disheartening reminder of a past that was untouchable. The paintings that were once cheerful, colorful pictures that covered almost every inch of the park had been destroyed by age; left as a dark slew of colors that blurred into nothing but an ominous mirage as you passed it. Cobwebs swayed in the chilled breeze that rolled through the park.
Most of the rides were broken, rusted apart by the waves that had washed over them all those years ago, or fallen to bits from having no maintenance. The ferris wheel, however, was the only ride that was relatively intact. It stood crooked and feeble, on the edge of toppling over. I snapped a picture as the moon peered through the dark clouds, and triangles in it’s frame. Muted footsteps came from behind me.
“Are you crazy?” I turned to him. Soft rain began to fall from the sky, an icy chill that made me cringe. I pulled up my hood to shield my dark hard, but Cairo didn’t both to do the same.
“No. I just made a decision.”
“A bad decision. You shouldn’t be alone out here, it was stupid and reckless to storm off like that. You’re acting like a teenager!” I could have laughed at the irony at that, but instead, I took a step towards him.
“You were acting like my boss. You’re not my boss, Cairo, you’re my partner. So you better get rid of that ego of yours and start treating me like an equal. Because frankly, you’ve been a jerk this entire trip, and I can’t stand how arrogant you are. You’re a writer, Great! Now let me give my opinion, and stop acting like I don’t know anything.”
“I have an ego?!” He scoffed, his eyes livid with frustration and anger, “You’re the one who thinks you’re all big and bad because you got a job snapping pictures for a government company. Well guess what? You’re not, Josephine! You’re just a little kid with too much confidence and no experience in any aspect of life!” He stopped, took a quivering breath, and stepped towards me, getting more vicious with every word he uttered. “Wait until you get in the real world. Just wait until then, and then you can tell me how strong you are. Because after this little trip, you’re going to run home to mommy and daddy and crawl into bed, thanking God that you’re not dead!”
That did it. The little meter in my brain shot over at the mention of parents. I slapped him, hard, clear across the face. He stared at me in a stunned, disgusted silence, and pressed his hand lightly to his cheek, as if he was checking to make sure it was still there.
“You know what I did, Cairo? I moved out when I was 15. I left my mom after her boyfriend slammed me against the wall, and she wouldn’t leave her fantasy land of him to see what was happening. I’ve been supporting myself for three years, so don’t stand there and tell me I’m running home to mommy and daddy! Daddy doesn’t exist. Guess what? He left too!” I was screaming. I could feel the quiver in my voice, the tinge of pain, and I could see it on his face as I lashed out. The anger pounded through every inch of my body. The tears that were forming stung my eyes, and burnt down my throat.
“You know that was my moms name too? Isn’t that just fantastic? That constant reminder every moment of my life that she hates me?.”
“Just stop, just calm down-” I swatted his hands off of me. The rain was coming down faster now, pounding against the ground, pounding on us, on our scene.
“Don’t touch me.” I hissed, stepping back like a wild animal. I felt the choking sensation of tears crash down on me at once. The sincere pain in his eyes only made it worse. I turned away from him, and stalked off. In search of solitude, of relief. I stumbled blindly into an old booth and threw the survival pack to the floor. The tears coursed down over my rain-stained cheeks as I unrolled the sleeping bag. I stripped off my wet clothes, still in lost in a comatose, distant from the world around me, and crawled desperately into the bag, searching for warmth. A part of me was waiting for him to come back. Another part of me was waiting desperately for morning, for tomorrow.
But he came first. He said nothing for awhile, he only stepped into the booth. The rain was coming down in buckets now, splashing off the counter, and into the mud floor of the booth. Cairo took out his sleeping bag, and quietly put it over me, without saying a word, before he returned to his corner of the booth. He sat on the floor, staring intently at me. We sat in silence for a long time. His auburn eyes were sheltered by dark, long lashes, and there was a look in them that concerned me.
“Are you scared?” I murmured gently, so softly I wasn’t sure he would hear. His eyes locked onto me, unwavering for the first time.
“Very.” His voice was a broken whisper. There was a noise overhead, and I found myself wondering if it was a seagull. I closed my eyes, turned my back to Cairo, and let myself drown in my own insanity
We were at the library when it happened. We were hardly exchanging words, and the fun adventure that was supposed to change my life had become something I wanted to get done as quickly as possible. The sound of rushing water made both of us freeze. It was too fast, too loud, too devastating to be anything normal. My stomach knotted with adrenaline and pure terror.
“Come here, come here now” It was hushed, urgent. I stumbled over to him, tripping over my own two feet. The floor and walls were trembling, and a sound that resembled a stampede echoed through the room. Cairo led me between the bookshelves, his eyes were wild with horror.
“Climb up. Don’t look down. Just climb.” So, I climbed. I felt nothing but a numb fear, and the sound of the rushing waves cleared my head of everything else. It all happened so fast then.
Cairo shoved me against the wall. The sound that had been a stampede was now that of shattering glass, and splitting wood. Dark water spilled in through the windows in a fury, and surged over the library floor below us, sweeping away tables, and everything else in it’s path. He coiled his arms around me, while pinning me against the wall, like he was trying to block me from the water. I felt myself trembling like a child.
“Don’t let go of me.” I muttered frantically against him. He pulled me tighter against him, to the point where I couldn’t breathe. The water was a solid roar in my ears. Cairo was whispering the lords prayer desperately under his breathe, something so uncharacteristic of him it made me feel even more miserable. It was all too close now.
. I felt ocean water for the first time. The ocean had torn the country apart, and as I felt myself torn from his arms, while he clutched violently at the air, reaching for me in pure desperation, I finally understood. I choked on the salt water that poured into my mouth, my nose, my eyes, as I clawed at the surface of the water, trying to pull myself up. I didn’t know where the current was taking me. I was blind, too afraid of the water to open my eyes.
All I could feel was the cold sensation, and the sheer power as my body thrashed in every direction possible. I gasped for breath, but I found myself slipping down. Panic spread through me like venom when the direction to the surface became a mystery.
Everything suddenly became very calm. The sound of glass and water became absolute silence, and the fear was slowly slipping away. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I laid there, content, in the swell of the ocean, and let it course over me, and clear my heads of what I had let the world become.
Something was wrapped around my wrist, yet I still felt numb. It was pulling me up, up, up...