Pale Skies

Jared Smith cut the engine and began to unwrap the bandana covering his mouth. He found his hands shaking and fingers fumbling as he tried to undo the knot. He knew it was shock. He knew it was adrenaline. He still couldn’t process what he saw at the grocery store, what he did. The blood…the screams….he realized his hands had stopped moving and he swore at himself angrily and managed to get off the dust caked covering.

It had been about a month since the meteor hit. Each day it was getting worse and worse. The sky was not longer blue but and dusty, almost murky milk-white. Dust, debris, Jared didn’t really give a fuck what it was called. He just knew it meant one thing; doom. The earth was dying, the ship was sinking, and what was humanity’s response? Some nuke fireworks, bathing each other in manmade fire instead of suffocating as the sun’s was blocked out. Civilization already ended elsewhere in the world and now it was starting to end here.

Before he knew it, Jared was sitting, feet out of the car, door open and vomiting in his parent’s driveway. He remembered the smell. The smell of a disemboweled man dead in between the aisles that had pickles and Uncle Ben’s rice. The crazed look in the man who gutted him, who looked at Jared and bared his teeth in a feral challenge, bloodied hunting knife clutched in a white knuckled fist.

Who knows why he snapped? More and more people were going out in blazes of glory instead of waiting for slow death of starvation promised to take place in a world getting gloomier by the day. Jared didn’t care, all he saw was the man’s rage, his anger, his fear at knowing he, and all he loved was already dead.

Suddenly, he let out a howl and charged at Jared. He made it two steps before two bullets thumped into his chest, knocking him backwards. The .38 smoked in Jared’s hand, a surprised look in his eyes as he comprehended what happened.

The man gurgled on the floor, eyes rolling as sucking wounds pumped blood over his shirt, down his sides, and pooling on either side of him in the aisle. A woman screamed somewhere behind Jared as he ran, groceries forgotten, fear blinding him, as he bolted out of the store and to his car and his escape.

Would the police be coming? No. Police? Sure, some of them were at their posts, putting on a brave face but so many people needed help the odds of them coming and doing anything were nil. No, there would be no justice system to punish Jared, just his own consciousness knowing that in mankind’s final hours he helped put out the light instead of holding on to the flame for just a little longer.

He still felt sick as he stood up and shut the car door behind him. He had managed to make it to a store that hadn’t found out the world had ended yet and got some supplies. He made his way to his parents front door and knocked their code. He heard locks slide and snap away and then the door’s familiar creak as his father opened it. He wouldn’t tell them. He couldn’t tell them. Not now. Not when oblivion and eternal ignorance were so close.

“Jared…Jared are you all right? You look sick”, his father asked, concerned. He was shorter than Jared but had the same square, barrel chested build. “Did anything happen out there? The TV just went off air, final broadcast and all that.”

“Yeah Dad, I’m fine. Just, lot of people hurting out there you know. There’s some bad stuff going on and its only going to get worse.”

“Jared, honey are you ok?!” Jared’s mother exclaims as she runs up to him. She reaches up and cradles his face in her hands. Jared looks into his mother’s eyes and can tell she’s been crying. But, he sees something else in her eyes, a deeper sadness, her concentration as she seems to be studying his face almost…memorizing it.

A cold horror grips Jared as he studies his mother’s gaze. “Yeah…yeah Mom I’m fine. Mom, are you ok?”, Jared reaches up and gently puts his mother’s hands down. Tears well up in her eyes as she turns away, unable to speak. “Dad? Dad what’s going on?”

Deep down, Jared already knows the answer. He knows that the government issued suicide pacts for those who didn’t want to face whatever was coming. He knew the days were only going to get harder and harder going forward. That to survive, whoever was going to be the last, was going to have to become more animal than whatever man had pretended to be. And…and he knew neither his Mom or his Dad would, or could, do that.

“Jared”, his father began, voice nearly breaking, “we love you so much. You and your sisters.”

Jared’s throat closes, a rock hard lump forming.

“I know…I know. Rebecca is gone but Mom and I, well, we just can’t think of her like that.” Jared looks into his father’s eyes and sees a sorrow so deep that it breaks him. He can feel tears welling up.  “Don’t want to”, his father continues, “I just can’t confront not seeing my baby Becca again and I’m not going to watch my other two”, his voice builds in anger, in impotent rage, “beautiful children perish”. There is a moment where his father looks defiant, but only for an instant, before the unescapable melancholy settles back over him like a shroud.

“Hope, though, Hope is still alive.”  Jared’s mother says, voice quiet, resigned, regal. “Jared, I want you to be with her. I want you two to be together until the end. I want you to be near someone who loves you, who has known you like only blood can know blood. Can you do this for us?” She asks, a smile on her face with tears in her eyes.

Jared only now realizes he has been weeping. Remembering Becca, how independent she was. A mini him, he use to say, just in girl form. Her dark, mischevious eyes, her take no shit attitude, her biting wit. Gone. In an instant. Swallowed by the cold dark Atlantic down in Florida.

Now, through tear glazed eyes, Jared looked at his mother’s face. The face he had always known, the one that use to press its knows against his and whisper love and comfort. He looked into eyes that had watched him grow up, that had disciplined him, that had taught him how to love and how to laugh and how to be kind and how to be strong. He looked and the love he saw there was more terrible than any sadness or despair he could imagine.

“Yes, Mom, yes…yes of course”, Jared stammered, fighting through rage and sadness and the cruel injustice of it all. To know love, to know human touch and then robbed of it for all eternity by random chance millenia in the making seemed so absurd it almost made him laugh.

“Good,” his mother choked out. The she shook her head in that customary way and let out a long sigh. “Now, come and give me a kiss and a hug. You’ve been a wonderful son, Jared”, tears began to well in her eyes again, “thank you. I love you.”

Jared’s mouth felt numb. He couldn’t say anything. His chest felt crushed, like cinder blocks were piled and slowly pressing him to death. He hugged his mother, gently at first. Then he felt her slipping away and embraced her hard. He felt her heartbeat with his and a fresh wave of tears cascaded down his face, his nose leaking, as he let out hard sob in her chest.

She patted him on the back and cooed gently in his ear. Jared’s mind flashed to a moment, as a toddler, when she did the same thing and the heartache of the memory made him gasp. The intake of air let him gain some composure. As he pulled away to kiss her on the cheeck, he realized she had been sobbing as well and they both let out a laugh. The last they would share.

“Jared,” his father began. His voice quiet, as it always was. “I love you and I’m very proud of you. We’ll be together soon.” Now it was Jared’s turn to be hugged hard. His father’s eyes were dry now though. His resolve was iron. His mind was at peace. Jared had always respected that the most about his father. He never seemed to be out of joint or uncomfortable with life and its eventual end. Jared didn’t think he had this in mind but he always though his father had been the most ready to face death out of any person he had ever met.

“I love you too Dad,” Jared said, his composure regained, “You are a great father. I know you always worried about that but just know I never wanted for anything and you always let us know how much you loved us.”

Jared could see his father struggling to maintain himself so he closed the gap between them and kissed him gently on the cheek to help. It did and the two shared a final look at each other. Father and son. Both happy and proud and who they were looking at and both devastated that long drives together were a thing of the past. Sharing football sundays and trading movies quotes would no longer fill their lives with joy. Watching horrible B-movies together to annoy Mom, Hope, and Becca; gone. Soon both of them would be nothing. Dust in a world now filled with it.

Jared is standing in the living room as his parents, holding hands, headed towards the master bedroom. His mind catching up to what was happening, Jared raised his hand in protest but no words came out and his parents did not turn around. They crossed the threshold and shut the door without looking back.

Jared stood, transfixed as the air in the house seemed to get sucked out. Total silence. Then he heard whispers. Hushed words of love and courage and bravery that Jared hated with every fiber in his body. Then, nothing…until two soft thuds, muffled by the closed door, reach his straining ears.

Jared wailed. He wasn’t sure for how long. He was sure how loud but he wailed until he was horse. Then the sobs wracked his body. His mother, his beautiful, lvoing, caring, cheeful mother was gone. Never to light up his life or his room or his world again. Gone, taken into the great abyss, never to walk this world or talk to her son again. His father, strong and quiet, who taught him how to play catch, how to tell a joke, how to be a man. Gone. The despair seemed so deep and so dark that Jared felt as if his body would simply shut down, hurt and cut too deeply by so much tragedy.

He sat there, slumped in the living room for hours. Remember his mother’s good night kisses as she tucked him in. Remembering his dad coaching his Pop Warner football team and how much fun they had practicing in the back yard. Bright and sunny memories blotted out by a meteor that shattered the world and his.

Then, after all this, Jared remembered Hope.

 

 

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