I jump awake, the echoes of screams in my nightmares reverberating through my gas mask. My whole body aches from last night’s struggle and I reflexively stifle a groan as I reach to the passenger seat of the car to pat my prize with blood stained gloves. Oxygen tanks. Food. Or at least what passes for food these days. It’s all still there. I wonder if there are any bandits left for me to worry about.
I lean the driver’s seat up and open the door, cringing at the squeak of its hinges and whipping my head from left to right to survey my surroundings for anyone who might have heard. There aren’t even birds left to stir from the trees. It’s impossible to tell what time it is now that an ever burning flame has replaced the sunrise.
I spread the tarp over the car, carefully checking each seam for any snags or tears and then hook up the oxygen tank and open the valve. The car is now it’s own habitable planet, complete with an atmosphere and breathable air. I remove the gas mask and return to the driver’s seat.
With a dirty rag, I wipe the brain matter from the metal box containing a breakfast that used to belong to someone else – if anything can actually still belong to anyone now that this has happened. More squeaky hinges as I swing open the lid to reveal snack cakes, dried fruit, and the greatest prize of all: jerky. What animal provided the meat, I can’t be be sure and I certainly don’t care. Meat of any kind is the greatest of luxuries in a world where air is highly flammable and cooking is the most painful of suicides.
I do my best to fully indulge the moment, focusing on the taste of the jerky as I chew it excessively, trying to relish every second. But being carefree is a death sentence, and soon my mind fixates on my new problem: I can’t haul the entire cache of food and oxygen that I came upon last night with me. I’ll have to store it somewhere safe.
Just like that, the simple joy of a moment spent eating dried meat blurs into the past. I feel like I’ve time warped ahead, hours, maybe even days. I’m trudging along with only the essentials, trying to recall any continuity to piece together the present and that fleeting happiness back in the oxygen tent. It’s a distraction that I can’t afford, as I keep snapping back to the present and finding the face plate of my gas mask clouded with ash, or human remains, or some mixture of both. I wipe it clean and stop to reorient myself, doing my best to remember the path that I will take back to my supplies at the car.
That’s when I see it.
Defying all of the new laws of nature, I see a rectangle of lightbulbs illuminating in a choreography – chasing each other around a picture of three dancing pigs wearing sunglasses, the letters “B-B-Q” beneath their hooves. I try to rationalize the sign’s existence: Maybe the bulbs are fully sealed and contain clean air that won’t ignite the moment the filament starts to heat up. But where is the electricity coming from? How is it possible that not a single flicker of static shock escapes and sets off another catastrophic ignition?
I’m drifting towards it when I notice the shack-like building that the sign belongs to: A barbecue restaurant. It’s the kind of place that would have been picked over right at the start of all of this; the kind of place that nobody even bothers to hope might be useful; the kind of place that would make a perfect hiding spot for my newfound supplies. With clumsy, gloved fingers, I draw my knife as I reach for the door and turn the knob slowly, every sore muscle in my body throbbing with adrenaline.
“That’s quite the git-up you’re wearin’” a heavy southern-drawl greets me and I surprise myself. After everything that’s happened, my reflex is usually to strike first and ask questions later, but instead both my jaw and the knife drop as I take in my new surroundings.
The knife lightly clangs as it hits the ground, but the woman in front of me’s gaze doesn’t stray from my gas mask. She isn’t wearing one, or any protective coverings over her skin. Instead, she’s garbed in the uniform of a waitress at a barbecue restaurant.
Over her shoulder, I hear voices, actual human voices. They’re chattering, the sum of their tones jovial and fantastically unperturbed by the world outside of the restaurant; the world that I’ve come from.
“You gonna take that thing off or continue with your prank?” She’s got her hand on her hip and is tapping one foot, waiting. It’s stereotypically motherly. It reminds me of my wife and our son.
I take off the mask off gingerly to keep the straps from becoming tangled with my unkempt beard. In the process, I’m transfixed by my pristine surroundings: Walls still perfectly in tact – never scorched by flame. Furniture dustless and unmarred by the persistent flurry of immolated humans. A floor beneath my feet with no hint of bloody puddles in its past.
“What day is it?” I ask, shuddering at the sound of my own voice – a sound that I haven’t heard in months.
“Tuesday,” she replies, turning her attention to sorting through menus on a lectern, the restaurant’s host stand.
This means nothing to me. “But what is the date?” I ask, my voice a bit less raspy this time.
“What year?” I ask, beginning to feel a creeping discomfort at the awkwardness of the question.
“2018, hun. Are you gonna eat here or did you just get all dressed up to play 20 questions?”
Days and dates haven’t meant anything to me in years. The last time I even pretended to still know about them was the impromptu birthday party that I tried to cobble together for my son the day before he coughed up all of his blood. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries – they’ve all burned to ash in my brain, but one date still remains concrete: October 24, 2018 – the day the air turned toxic, flammable; the day the world ended.
How is this possible?
“I got other tables with people who probably need more sweet tea, so if you want to sit down and have a lovely lunch today, it’s now or never.” She has no idea how right she is.
“Absolutely, I’m sorry. Table for one.” She glares as she beckons for me to follow her and I remember something: “Please.” Every word feels awkward in my mouth, as if my tongue is half the size that it used to be and incapable of its prior dexterity.
She takes me to a table in the center of the restaurant, surrounded by other people of all kinds. Men in business suits laughing with each other. Hardy people dressed for farm work. Unabashed in their different genders; their different races apparent, not all the same grey of ash that can never be scrubbed away from their skin.
I rest my gas mask across from me on the table and pat my side, realizing that my largest knife is on the floor just inside the entrance of the restaurant and my brain floods with fight or flight chemicals. I’ve got others, other knives just as capable though less menacing. Not to mention the knives that I can steal from the kitchen if things go awry. How is any of this possible? What will happen when I leave here?
I’m removing my gloves when the waitress enters my peripheral vision and my arm tenses, my fingers crammed into a fist. “Can I start ya with something to drink, hun?”
“Water. Just water.” She’s fixated on my hand, which is practically glowing red from how hard I’ve clinched it. “Please,” I add, remembering that my hand is horrendously burned and that it looks different from how other humans’ hands are supposed to look. “You got it, sweetie.”
The smell of slow cooked meats, of french fries, of fried okra, of mac and cheese, of so many other things that I’m astonished that I can separate one from the other – it’s all in my nose. It’s been so long since I’ve smelled much more than the gas mask and my own musk condensed inside it.
She returns with a giant plastic cup of water, almost too thick around for my withered fingers to hold and reflexively I snatch it from the table and drink every last drop of it. My brain throbs at the coldness of the drink. Nothing is cold in a world where the sky is made of fire. How is any of this possible?
I’m panting from so much time spent chugging without coming up for air. “Thirsty, huh?” she shoots me a quizzical look. “I’ll bring over a pitcher to refill you.” My mind searches for the right words, but she returns with the water pitcher and refills my cup and is walking away before I remember the proper response, so instead I just ask her to leave the pitcher and she does.
“Thank you,” I say aloud, though she is already at another table, leaning on an empty chair as she addresses the customers. Nobody looks at me. Nobody seems to notice my presence except for my waitress. Or are they just diverting their eyes, too polite to stare at the mess that is my appearance. I absentmindedly stroke my beard, promising myself to cut it off.
“Are you as hungry as you are thirsty?” she asks from over my shoulder and my gut churns with unease at the fact that she managed to sneak up on me. “Yes. Thank you.” She smiles sympathetically, “So what are you having then?”
I look down at the menu for the first time and struggle to remember how to read it. A question about my literacy is on the tip of her tongue when I decide to just call out what I see on other tables: “Brisket, okra, fries, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, black eyed peas, cornbread and pulled pork.” I say. “Please.”
She’s staring, a pained look on her face as she searches for the words to say next. “I don’t mean to sound rude, hun, but do you have money for all of that?” I do. I feel my wallet in my back pocket and I croak, “Yes.” Tears would form in my eyes if not for all of the dust that has dried out my every cell. “Alright then,” she smiles and walks away.
Some memories are too painful to carry, so you do your best to leave them behind. Others you just can’t bring yourself to part with. “You should just hold onto it, as a reminder of what regular life used to look like,” my wife had told me. “Plus it’s full of money, so if things ever get back to normal, you’ll be rich!” She poked fun at the little game that I used to play with my son in the early days when fear was something that we fought against using distractions. I couldn’t hide the corpses from his 7 year old eyes, so we made a game of picking their pockets, gathering their cash until it became too cumbersome to carry it all and we started leaving the $1s, $5s, and $10s behind.
After his insides burned up, I wanted to leave the wallet behind. It was too painful to carry it with me, but she insisted otherwise. “It doesn’t matter how much it hurts. Some things you just can’t let go of.” That very day, a wave of fire washed over her. I ducked beneath the rising heat,but not enough to avoid searing my back and the side of my face as I watched her reduced to ash and bones even before gravity could bring her to the ground.
I gulped down another large glass full of water, my head pounding from how cold it was. In the air conditioning, tiny beads of cold sweat were forming on my arms underneath the heavy canvas shirt that I wore for protection outside.
My food arrives. She has an extra person with her to help carry it all. “Thank you,” I say before tearing into it.
“For such a skinny guy, you sure can eat a lot!” The waitress marvels, and for just a split second, I forget that I am now a skinny guy. I used to walk confident with an athletic build before all of this; before so many meals skipped so that my wife and son could eat instead. The temporary forgetfulness only makes the place seem less real. I know I’m dreaming, but the meat feels so good in my stomach, all of the food so warm. I’m not ready to wake up yet.
I finish every last bite. The waitress is staring. “I can’t believe you ate it all.” I stifle a belch, doing my best to recall manners. “It was very nice. Thank you.”
“I’d offer you a slice of pie, but I don’t know where you’d put it.” Pie would have been wonderful, but I can’t possibly eat another bite. “Do you have…coffee?” I ask, stupidly, almost hung up on my hopefulness.
“Of course! I’ll grab you a cup. Cream and sugar?”
“Lots of both, please.” There was a time in my life, or in someone else’s life that I used to live, where I drank so much coffee that I stopped putting cream and sugar in it to limit the amount of calories. It made it much less enjoyable, but I still got the buzz of the caffeine and that was the whole point of it back then. I never slowed down enough to just enjoy the taste. If I had known that I would live to see the world end, I certainly would have done things differently.
She arrives with the coffee, a cup dark black with the slightest hints of brown around the edges, and a porcelain pitcher of cream and a plastic caddy of several different kinds of sugar. “Thank you so much.” This will be my last indulgence before I wake up.
I wonder how far back the dream reaches. Did I even find the oxygen tanks? Did I really even kill those people? Or the ones before them? Or any of the people before that?
“Here’s your check too, but don’t you rush. Life’s too short to rush a cup of coffee after such a delicious lunch!” She has no idea how right she is, and I wonder if I should tell her. I wonder how it would even work, whether this is a dream or something else, could she actually do anything to prepare for what is coming tomorrow?
I savor the coffee for what feels like an hour. The lunch crowd thins out around me. I load the little black booklet with my check full of cash, an extravagant tip as my gift to a time when money still mattered.
At the front door, I pause. What if I open this door and outside it’s October 23, 2018? Will I try and save the world? Or will I settle for one more day with my wife and son? I push the idea from my head. This same hope was a knife twisting in my heart every day until I lost them both; the same hope that I swore to abandon after she burst into flames; the same hope that nearly killed me before I left it behind, swearing to myself that I would just keep moving forward, no matter what obstacle was in front of me.
“A full belly can really change your perspective,” my wife used to tell me when I got so focused on a project that I forgot to eat and became increasingly irritable.
I never wanted to be a killer and it’s not a costume that I wear with ease. Maybe it was never meant to fit me.
I slide the gas mask over my head and zip up my jacket, flipping the collar up so that the back of my neck won’t be exposed to whatever it is in the air that burns everything it touches. Then, I push through the door and walk back into a world with a sky made of fire.