The whole tent shook in the wind, rattling you out of your sleep. Noticing the hint of red in the air filter at the front of the tent you murmured to yourself, “Great, looks like it’s going to be another red day.”
The gravel crunching of the unappetizing energy bar echoed through your head. The joy of finding the crate of bars in the rubble of the old supermarket had long ago faded. They were light and portable but had long ago turned stone hard. Although there were only a handful left you knew you could scrounge something from an old house or store. You quickly banished the memories of fresh food from your mind.
Taking a sip from your too light water bottle you noted that you had a greater worry than food. Good, unpolluted water was hard to find.
Pant legs and sleeves tied shut, hat, googles and mask on you ventured outside. The red balloon of the sun slowly climbed the sky. Other than a hint of brown haze on the horizon the air look clear. You knew better. At the end of the day your filter would have a red tinge. After three or four red days you’d need to replace the filter. You weren’t sure how many filters you had left. Three, possibly four, you thought.
It’s not that the thin dust would harm you right away. It was the cumulative effect. It would get into every opening and chafe where skin rubbed against skin or clothing. It would start with slight abrasions but would get worse.
The memory of little William came up unbidden. You remembered how, despite everything you tried, it progressively got worse by the day. You recalled the redness turning to a rash. Later the rash becoming open sores. Then the skin rotting and the hacking. You knew his lungs, which you couldn’t see, were like the skin you could. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for the red days to last for weeks or months. Everything quickly became contaminated, all of the water polluted. At the time you didn’t know how bad the dust could affect the body. Nobody did. It soon became obvious.
You shook your head to clear the unbearable memory.
A little later, the tent in the pack, you got going, picking out a trail towards the northeast. There was no way of knowing how long the red would last. The wind could push out the haze by afternoon or it could be a week.
At around noon you stopped and had a mouthful of precious water. You felt you should soon come across a recognizable landmark yet everything was so unfamiliar. Of course the last time you had been in the area the forests were still living. A lot had happened in the years since the Collapse.
You studied the little scrap of map. This was a rare find. They didn’t make many paper maps in the years leading up to the Collapse. By the time a map could be printed it would be out of date. An electronic version was never obsolete. After putting away the map you got up and brushed yourself off. If you were correct it should be the next day but there was still a long trail in front of you. You had to get moving again.
That night you had a dream. It was actually more of a memory, but it visited you in dream form.
Your father looked up at you from his deathbed. Despite the best of modern transportation it had taken you days to make it to this remote spot and yet you found you were almost too late. You were told he was gone but rejoiced when he opened his eyes and spoke to you one last time.
“Listen,” he said. “Always remember this little village of ours. This is your home, your safe haven. No matter what happens you must come back.”
You smiled at him. “What could happen?”
“How can you not see it, not know?” He replied. “Just remember, these are our people, your people. They know you. They’ll remember you. If something happens. Please promise me you’ll make your way back, even if you have to crawl half way around the world, promise you’ll come back.”
You promised. Relieved he shut his eyes for the last time. His breathing came easier, slowed then stopped. He was at peace.
Despite his warning you were just as surprised as everyone else when the Collapse came.
You opened your eyes after the comfortless sleep.
It was another red day.
The day proved to be much warmer, much calmer than the day before. You knew the dust would find a way into your clothes and stick to your sweat. It would accumulate. With no prospect of fresh water in which to bath it might be there for a long time. Soon it would begin to irritate the skin.
As you trudged along you thought of those early years after the Collapse. You remembered the chaos. You thought of the constant fighting and death. Visions of grand fires sweeping across cities, burning everything in their paths filled your head. You thought of the killing rains, the poison water from the sky. Those were the days of the deepest black and the brightest red, the days before the world was a monochrome grey, all grey except for the red dust.
After the early years, the black and red years, had burned themselves out you knew it was time to leave and return home. Little William’s death was the last straw. Four of you set out all of those years ago but you alone lived to see the final stage.
An impossible journey of thousands of miles and uncountable years was finally almost complete.
You stopped, stunned. A bit of color had caught your eye. There was a living tree in the dead forest. The sight gave you hope, the first hope to cross your heart since you held the lifeless Margret in your arms. Your hope had died with her, the last of your companions, yet you had moved on like an automaton, tirelessly completing your mission. With the hint of green standing out from the grey, hope had returned. Unbelievably at the very end you found hope once more.
Leaving the tree you crossed the ridge and saw the town.
One of the unquenchable fires had roared down the valley. All that was left of the village were the cellar holes and a few charred bits of wood and broken concrete.
This couldn’t be your town. Your journey couldn’t end like this. What about the green tree? Where there is life there is hope, but it proved to be a mock hope leading only to death.
Down in the valley amongst the ruins and rubble there could be no doubt. You were home.
Without warning you turned and ran. Nothing was recognizable and yet you knew were you were going. As a small child you’d run this way a thousand times before. The tears in your eyes partially blinded you, but it didn’t matter. You were finding the path by feel, not by sight.
You stopped at one of the holes in the ground, a hole that used to have a house above it. Large granite foundation stones could be seen in the ash and dust. A field stone wall ran beside the disused cellar. You knew every contour of that wall.
After all of the thousands of miles, after all of the years, for the first time you broke down and cried. On the ground, your head in your hands you shook as tears streamed down your face. You had promised him you’d come back, but he didn’t keep his promise. There was no home to which to return. There were no people. You had survived all of these years for nothing, for no one.
You’d been cheated.
You felt a hand placed on your shoulder. A voice sounded in your ear. Unbelieving you turned your head.
“Hello my friend,” I said to you. Our eyes met. I smiled. “Welcome home.”
This is an experiment. I wanted to write something in the second person “you” which is something I rarely do. I also started with the idea of writing a dystopia story, though I think this is more post apocalypse. Let me know what you think.
Drawing by Trent P McDonald