The Final Rectitude
Fireballs rain around me. Every inhalation sends smoke and poisonous gas traveling down my trachea. The tarmac below me is cracked and uneven, making it harder for me to maneuver away from the pursuing death. An entourage of armored vehicles works its way ever closer. The tank-resembling machines take down buildings like children's blocks, clearing paths of pedestrians and objects to advance. The ones that had eluded the gunfire eventually succumbed to the deadly fumes circling the air, dropping like flies, then were gruesomely steamrolled by the invaders.
I, myself, struggle with the putrid air. It burns my throat horridly, but I meddle through it, it being the only effect so far. Maybe the fumes aren't so direct where I am.
Alongside me is my best friend, Geniene. Though her physical stature is rather dainty, she's held her own for the past hour or two. I don't quite know why we're running.
I don't know what's happened to the world I knew yesterday. All I know is that our lives are in eminent danger. It seemed like millennia ago life possessed normality, despite that the apocalyptic happenings had only prolonged since this morning. I had always read of the severity of war in our filtered textbooks, used only as a tool for preventing entropy among the denizens of The United States, but years of governmental brainwashing had left everyone terrified of this new idea, of murderous intent, of terrorism and desolation. I assumed most people had already died, including our families. With no particular strategy other than mindless sprinting, I focus with adamancy on the road ahead and hardly anything else.
As we begin to run out of steam, I thoroughly scan for a suitable area to catch our breath. Most of everything is in heaps of ash, so pinpointing a quick retreat does not prove difficult. A small dumpster, discarded among other remnants of a once peaceful past, seems to suffice. I help her inside before letting myself in, closing the top over ourselves as if closing a portal to the madness outside. We huddle together, our heartbeats erratic, listening silently to all the sounds of destruction.
"What did you manage to get, Kurt?" She whispers to me.
I yank the bag I had grabbed in a haste, feeling the shape of all its containments to identify them in the dark.
"Some aspirin, a few cans of food, bottles of water, pack of smokes, and a .22."
Geniene sighs exasperatedly, whether relieved or upset by the contents.
Tension is strong; we remain silent.
The brief rest does wonders, but just as I feared, it wouldn't last. In a matter of minutes, we hear a machine approaching. Unlike the others, it seems to have no tires for treading, but rather mechanical legs. I analyze the sound of its movement, discovering its height slightly taller than the dumpster, probably piloted by a single user. Tuning in to the other commotions surrounding the dump, we find that more of these machines are stalking the landscape. Geniene and I freeze in our fear.
Now right in front of us, the strange technological noises confirm that the machine is inspecting the dumpster.
The dread before battle is unbearable.
The dumpster is knocked with great force onto its side, a series of loud ringing noises screaming at our eardrums. A stream of bullets, I realize. We fall in dependence of the gravity, and by some miracle, the bullets miss us entirely. I kick open the cover, shoving Geniene out before scurrying out myself.
"Go!" I command, slinging my rucksack over my shoulder.
Near inches of me, a red laser craters the ground. I turn expectantly, the metal beast's anatomy now clear. In its center, a bean shaped cockpit seats a pilot, hoisted by four elongated legs, spider-like in their motions. Assault weapons accessorize this monstrous creation, all aimed at me.
"Kurt!" Geniene picks up the nearest possible weapon, a metallic pipe, and tosses it to me. I brace myself, though feeling ridiculous going against something so large. I shout at Geniene to take cover. It's really extraordinary, really, how the instinct to survive can change you, because at that instant, I decided I was going to fight this weird robot and win.
The spider walker fires at me. My first thought is finding safety underneath the machine. Unceremoniously, I dash towards it, amateurishly twirling the pipe in hopes of deflecting its attacks. I yelp as one laser catches my hand, another hitting the pipe and liquifying the area of contact. Though my windbreaker is styled with a few choice holes and my hand welts painfully, I manage to slide out of the weapons' angle of fire. I latch myself onto one of its legs, holding on with a deathly grip as it vigorously shakes. Like a playground toy, I begin to climb, with steady aggravation from the pilot. I can hear his muffled screams and cursing through the green tinted glass. Using the pipe, I impale the closest laser guns, electrical sparks flying into my face. Unfortunately, my weapon becomes too impaled in the metal exoskeleton, and for the moment I am defenseless. I'm taken by surprise when the walker tilts dramatically; however, I use this to my advantage. In his temporary loss of control, I use the momentum to swing my body on top of the pod-like center. With elbow grease, I am able to pry the pipe free. There are no footholds, so I wobble clumsily as the machine regains balance. As its equilibrium stabilizes, I attack rashly and stab the pipe into the glass. I close my eyes to avoid the shards taking flight. The pilot shrieks, throwing me off with a jolt of the control column. My meeting with the ground is unforgiving.
It takes my scattered brain a second to process the grotesque damage I had created, blood painting the cockpit window, while my pipe distends cleanly through the roof of the walker and beyond. I could feel the rumble of the earth as the spider walker crashed, but my interest was elsewhere. I called for Geniene, who had been hiding behind the trash dump, and we were aimlessly running once more.
The current surroundings are crawling with spider walkers, probing wrecked cars and building windows predatorily. I take Geniene back the other way, praying for a less disruptive path. We step over countless corpses, stealing the occasional supply pack from their rigid hands. Using the sun, we discover the army of invaders is advancing east, so we try a random route in the northeast direction in hopes of slipping past the forces. However, this is a flawed plan, since we have no idea how large the invasion is, but no other strategy comes to mind.
For the longest time, we run without interference, but with horror, I recognize the footstep of a spider walker closing in. In panic, I nearly drag her behind me in a frantic sprint. The image of a walker pops over a hill of rubble, gunfire spraying from its side weapons. I push on, determined to somehow outrun it, despite the fact more conflict begins to form in my vision ahead.
"Kurt, up ahead, that building-" Geniene warns me with a raspy voice, pointing to a crumbling superstructure.
Unfortunately, her warning drowns in the surrounding chaos. Suddenly, our intended path transforms before us. Just as Geniene had forewarned, a nearby building was collapsing from its own weight it could no longer support. With the roaring sound of a freight train, a storm of metal and concrete explodes towards us. Completely evading it is not possible. Instead, we crouch like whimpering puppies underneath the only visible refuge, nothing more than a flimsy bench. We hardly have the time to tuck our legs under before our bench is demolished with absolutely no resistance, and I protectively shield Geniene best I can, wincing as the debris hits my exposed back.
At some point, she was ripped away from my hold, and we became alone for the remainder of the catastrophic explosion. When the loud confusion became deathly silence, I finally had the strength to open my eyes to my new world. The universe seemed not to be entirely against us. We were cocooned in a suffocating prison of metallic beams, alive. Nevertheless, I was immobilized by the heaviness of the miscellaneous wreckage lying on top of me.
Geniene had ended up a few inches farther from me, tossed ungraciously but not constricted with debris as I. Somewhat relieved, I tighten into an awkward position, frozen by shock and my searing discomfort. I expect myself able to move, but the intensity of my wound brings tears to my eyes. Our vision is now dominated with unsettled dust, so I can't see if she's badly injured, though the chance of that plagues me. I only feel the faint trembling of her hand against my side as she outstretches it to me, so I can at least conclude she's alive.
There are no overt possibilities of escaping, though sunlight tantalizingly streams through the wreckage. I spit the dirt and blood out of my mouth, wiping away the moisture from my eyes embarrassingly just as my Geniene's face comes into a decent view.
"You okay?" I ask.
Her response is a cough and a little vomit. She appears mentally shaken, but otherwise only bruised and scraped. She crawls to meet my gaze, plopping herself next to me, clinging to my stray arm nervously. Exhausted, I exhale heavily, resting myself on her chest while I gather my composure.
"It was the Russians."
I struggle to maintain a sense of coherence. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe...maybe it was the North Koreans."
Her fascination with such a trivial matter confirms that she suffered no lasting damage. However, she must have sensed my outcome was not as lucky, because she swiftly switched concerns.
"How bad were you hurt?" Geniene's green eyes stand out like emerald's in the barren scene, watery and shaky as she looks to me for a nonchalant answer proving a decent prognosis.
"Hell if I know. But I can move, so we're good." To confirm this, I attempt to reposition some of the toppled rubble off me, hissing in pain when I tolerate all I can. The movement of my limbs is possible but draining, my battered insides moving around awkwardly inside like a bag of grounded stones.
"Stop. Just stop it." She breathlessly orders me.
The desperation in her tone silences me and my attempts, and due to such inactivity, along with my condition, sleep seems the only remote relief. Passage of time is nonexistent here. All that is within my strength is shivering, feeling utterly pathetic as Geniene has no choice other than watching me deteriorate, the true epitome of pathetic. Strangely enough, drowsiness comes to me easier than expected, and slumber becomes inevitable.
I awaken several times, at first scared that I had died and left Geniene alone, then it coming to my mind that the sunlight had retreated for the night, leaving our claustrophobic prison swallowed in pitch black. I could hear her grunts as she tried moving the stones, doubting her strength against even my weakened condition.
"Damn rocks! Fucking...stupid...rocks..."
Her soft cries were the only thing keeping me wide awake in my delusional pain. Many times I found myself wishing to wrap my arms around her, quiet her fears and close her eyes to the grimness of the situation. But of course I was paralyzed. I realize I had always been paralyzed. Our childhood had consisted of awkward moments we always passed off, and it hurts me to think of how restrained our relationship had become. It seemed I was always paralyzed with doubt, that this was the way it was to be, not a dynamic change of emotion such as love. But would it be such a dramatic emphasis? Perhaps love was not an exasperating change. I curse to myself as I lay helpless with this new revelation, only dreaming of having quieted her fears those many times before, with no doubt at all. I wish I had realized sooner that friendship was love, and there would be no escaping it.
Now, it's almost ironic. Nothing could escape here.
Sometime later, Geniene's attempts ceased. She collapsed beside me again with suppressed sniffling, and I followed suit into unconsciousness soon after.
My stomach contorts viciously, bolting me awake. Any consumption left inside of me exists my body, leaving me dehydrated and empty of energy. Sunlight once again slips through the rubble like an angel's beckoning, torturing us with hope of reconciliation with the forces oppressing us. It's swelteringly humid inside our metallic confinement. I see that my shirt is in a tattered heap aways from me, my body covered in perspiration.
Geniene sits stationary cross-legged at my side, inspecting a rusted kitchen knife that she had probably discovered lying around. She, too, was baking in the incubation, only her undergarments remaining. Her decency to remain clothed is unusual, as she is aware that my intentions of our relationship would never involve my perversion with such intimacy. Her bareness reveals unsightly bruising, but her health appears exceptional given the circumstances. She is happy to see my eyes flutter open, pulling something from behind her.
"Here. I found these." In her delicate hands was the bottle of medication from my rucksack. She twists the cap open nonchalantly, pouring three small pills into her palm.
"It could help." She gingerly lifts my head up, popping the pills into my mouth. My mouth is so dry, I am unable to taste much.
"I cut your shirt off. You looked overheated."
"I tried to get the rocks off your lower body."
"There's a little bit of food down here."
She seems disheartened at my inability to uphold conversation, but refuses to let on any further with that detail. I frequently doze off, so she wisely focuses her efforts on other aspects.
The day passes surprisingly easily, though it remains slow. Geniene continuously cares for me, pouring water on my roasting body, handing me rounds of aspirin for my pain, throwing in a failed attempt at comedy to lighten the mood. Once or twice, she patrols the perimeter of our enclosure, thoroughly scanning for something. As she sits down again, I see her jade eyes turn stormy as they swirl with apprehension, showcasing fake enthusiasm for me as she combs her fingers through my hair.
The sun loses its vigor, and methodically the night sweeps a refreshing chill across the landscape. Geniene opens a can of creamed corn, and we inhale it in seconds. Before she lets me sleep, she insists she check my condition and take another dosage of pills. Her hand brushes mine unknowingly, and I jerk in discomfort. She grabs it, feeling the grotesque texture of the wound.
"Why didn't you tell me about this?"
"Cause it's nothing."
"Hold...still." She pesters me, hoping to wrap my bleeding hand in a make-shift tourniquet.
Soreness and heat have made me irritable. "Ow! No, Quit it."
"Well you shouldn't have been so careless. I mean, what were you thinking? You're not invincible!"
"Oh please." I snicker. You wouldn't even be alive if it wasn't for me."
"Same here, jerk." She spits out.
I can tell I've struck a nerve. She tries not to show hurt, but I already feel guilty.
"Hey...Geniene..." I offer a sincere tone.
She sighs heavily with defeat. "I'm already over it, Kurt."
"I'm sure you are."
"You're so skilled at being arrogant." I resist the urge to smile when I hear a hint of affection in her voice.
I try to instill a less hostile vibe between us. "I bet I'm even better at kissing."
"Shut up. That's not funny! Not now." She whines.
I had always flirted with Geniene, even as far back as grade school, but the moment I spoke it, I felt the air change immediately. Her muscles tense, sensing the same electricity. I take my chances with her, something about the situation giving me the courage. My hand runs up her leg, tentative with my advances in case she rejects. She leans in, and for a brief second my heart flutters thinking of it. Her tongue flickers against my ear as she gingerly whispers, sending the hottest sensation to my cheeks. I'm glad it's too dark for her to notice.
Suddenly, she pulls back. "This isn't right, Kurt."
"We're going to die."
Throughout this whole situation, neither one of us brought it to our minds. It was a brutal hit to the hope we had composed to keep our brains stabilized over the days.
An uncomfortable silence captivates us. Finally, her nervous voice speaks.
"Why did we wait until now?"
I want to respond, but no explanation comes. "I don't know Geniene."
"After all these years...and now we're going to die. I finally understand what's going on inside that head of yours, and now it's too late."
I cry. Tears streak my filthy face as they race down my cheeks. The hilarity of the situation is equally cruel, resulted by my sporadic emotion. Stroking her face, I solemnly laugh.
"We are going to die. But we aren't yet."
Geniene wipes my tears away with her hand. She does a terrible job at concealing her own.
Our faces meet, wet with our own tears.
We embrace passionately in the dark, for that one lapse in time, we grow in life as the world decays around us.