Reality is a harsh plane to wake to, and depending on how one experiences it, it can be true metaphorically and literally.

Metaphorically speaking, harshness comes from a planet of people who make it their goal to destroy civilization, with people of power using their money to whittle away Mother Nature's abundance at the expense of the poor and defenseless. For fifty years, these people drowned out the warnings of scientists and pagan prophets with oil drills and waste dumping, and washed the green of forests and meadows away with fires and chainsaws. These people choked the Earth of oxygen with the Great Gray Plumes from the factory chimneys that towered every city and village all over the world.

Literally speaking, harshness is finding oneself lying face down, all senses dull as the mind still drifts between the much needed darkness of unconsciousness and the unwanted, painful alertness.

But I can't sleep forever, so my body slowly comes to. My ears pick up the whoosh of wind that sounds more like the crackle of fires from when corporations would burn trees. When that sound starts pulling me out of my sleep, I lift my head from the loose, coarse dirt, turning my face away to breathe some fresh air from having my mouth and nose buried in the ground. When all I taste is salty, repugnant ash and feel it clog my throat, I scrunch my nose and cough. It was amazing how, even after living in this ash-choked world for twenty years, my body still tries to fight off the toxins floating in the air instead of taking it all in like clean oxygen, like everyone else was doing.

Then again, after seeing so many bodies collapse, too weak to move on, I guess my body is too stubborn to die like these unfortunate people.

When I regain feeling in my arms, I push myself up onto my hands and knees and hang my head. Just getting up like that exerted my weak body, causing my vision to swim. I wait until the dirt beneath me stop swirling around to lift my head once more, my eyes squinting against the sudden flash of light blaring at me. It's not until a cloud passes by and block the light until I realize that it was the horrible glare of the eclipsed Sun, shining its burning rays to illuminate the planet and remind the survivors of what it is: a dead wasteland.

Twenty years of living in this hellhole, and it still rips my heart into pieces to see the dead, spinally trees standing in this barren place that was so difference from my dream, in which I was five again, playing jump rope in the somewhat cool summer day before a blanket of dark gray smoke waved over the green, lush trees and blocked the blue sky…

As I continue to look around to find some landmark telling me where I am, something catches my eye.

It was a shapeless object, like a formless shadow among the trees. The longer I watch it, though, the more its true form appears against the orange, discolored sky. I see a long, black garment whipping along the crackling breeze, its hem in tatters and covered with dust; one sunken eye bulging out of a face hidden within the darkness of the hood, and a thick staff in the figure's firm hold, a large, crescent blade sitting atop.

Pushing myself up some more, I rest on my knees and open my mouth. "Who-" I begin to say, but my question ends up becoming another bout of coughing and heaving, where I can taste dryness crack the flesh of my inner cheeks and throat. How long has it been since I had water? The thought of the replenishing liquid reminds me why I'm here to begin with: to satisfy some petulant, stubborn hope that I may survive, that I may be lucky enough to find water for myself, to prolong my life in this place of fire and disease somehow. But the one-eyed look the hooded figure gives me crushes that hope, making it plummet into the deepest part of my mind where it can remain useless.

Slowly, the hooded figure extends his staff out at my direction, not moving an inch from where he stands.

Call my act delirious, influenced by toxic dehydration, but I begin to crawl at that being, my weak hands clawing in the hard, crunchy dirt to pull me closer and closer. I'm pathetic like a beaten mutt dragging itself through the mud to return to its abusive master's feet, but I sense an offering in that ambiguous gesture that allows me to not have to live in this destroyed, harsh world anymore, to not have to keep fighting. To take me from this wretched place with its cruel, poisonous atmosphere, and to Paradise.