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Life Goes On
The fire crackles in the background as I sharpen my knife. The rabbit is roasting over the fire and Mc, my loyal dog, chews on a stick at my feet. The air is quiet and almost peaceful. I can almost hear the river that runs behind the trees. I hold my knife up to the sun, checking the metal against the sun light. I set the knife by my hip and reach to pet Mc while I take a swig of water from my bottle flask.
The air is quiet, but Mc’s head shoots up in alarm and I grab my knife out of habit. I know there’s no one of threat for miles but old habits die hard. Instead of looking at the tree line or at the crumpling buildings around us, Mc’s eyes go up looking at the sky. He sees something in the distance and growls.
I laugh and tuck my knife back into its sheath on my hip. “Oh, come on, Mc,” I laugh rubbing his head. “It’s probably just a couple of birds that you’re smelling, old boy.” I rise to my feet and grab the cooked meat off the spit roast. I tear it in half and toss half of it at Mc, who doesn’t turn to eat it immediately. I shrug off his strange behavior and began eating my share of the food while I stomp out the fire, which was only big enough to cook my food in a timely manner.
When I turn back, Mc still hasn’t gotten the rabbit off the ground. His ears are down, and his posture is rigid.
“He wouldn’t act this way over some birds,” I think as I crouch down to his level to try and understand what he is seeing. I have to strain my eyes against the sunlight, but eventually I can see it too. An orange dot growing slowly larger.
“Sweet 52, that thing’s headed toward us!” I swear as I scramble backwards towards my bag. I throw open the top flap and dig through it until I find my binoculars. I know it’s not an airstrike, those haven’t happened in years, but I still have no clue what it is. Turning back towards the encroaching thing, I lift the binoculars to my face and try to get a better look at it. “52 have mercy, what is that?!” It doesn’t look like a falling bomb, but I can’t quite tell what it is. It looks dense and dark, but the details are hard to see behind the thick flames that surrounds it. One thing that I can make out about it is that small portions of it are breaking off and disintegrating as it falls.
I pull my gas mask onto my face and pull my hood over my head while I hook my binoculars onto my belt and turn back to my stuff. I don’t have much -I travel around too much to own a lot- so it only takes me a minute to mobilize. I leave my sleeping bag and water pot; it’ll take too much time to gather both of those.
“Mc, let’s go!” I say as I begin running further into town. I adjust my hood to sit lower on my head, shielding my eyes from the bright sun. We had been sitting in the parking lot of a religious building. A church, that worshipped a strange god, is what Birch told me. Mc hesitated to follow, but soon ran in front of me. Logically, I should be running away from the town to safety across the river, but I would have to cross the crumpling bridge for that. I’m not a big fan of heights, and neither is Mc, so instead I run towards one of the neighborhoods. Birch has lived in this neighborhood for as long as she can remember. She told me her family is from the surrounding area and this town, though its original name has long since been forgotten, was not badly affected by the air strikes.
“Birch!” I call out, my voice is muffled from the gas mask, but my words still ring in the air. “We’ve got an issue!”
“It’s another air strike!” Birch screeches in alarm running at me, broken book in hand. “I can see it coming! We’ve got to go!” She grabs my hand and begins running towards the road.
“Hold on, Books!” I growl, digging my heels into the ground. I’m bigger than her but not by much. “For 52s’ sake, it’s not an air strike! No one’s got any bombs left to drop!” She looks back at me with her large buggy eyes, made to look larger because of the broken glasses that she wears, the ones that were her great, great, grandmother’s.
“How can you be so sure? It looks exactly like what my books describe!” She says, dropping my hand and opening her book, flipping to a certain page.
“Look for yourself,” I say unhooking the binoculars and handing them to her before she can get to the page. “Mc! Come back here!” I call as she looks up at the sky. “I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t a bomb. Mc, you stupid mutt, stop chasing that bird! I was hoping you would have some information on it, seeing as you have all the books in the world,” I mumble the last part, not caring if she heard.
She lowers the binoculars and looks from the orange circle in the sky and at me. She squints her eyes, and I can tell she is thinking.
“It’s an asteroid,” she says finally. “Hello, McDonald,” she says happily. She gives me the binoculars back as she sits on the ground to pet Mc. She always calls him McDonald I don’t have the heart to tell her that his name is just Mc. “It’ll hit somewhere around here… in about an hour.”
“Alright, is it dangerous?” I ask, readjusting the straps of my bag on my back.
“If it hits you, it will kill you,” she says bluntly. I huff a laugh. Birch was never one for sugar coating things.
“Yeah, I got that. But what will happen when it lands?” I ask.
She looks up at me confused. “Do you know what an asteroid is?”
“Well, no.” I say scratching my arm. I want to say that my parents died when I was younger so I can’t read very well, not that I have much time to read. I only carry one book and its one that I write myself that contains all the information I have gathered about the surrounding areas and their plant life and even then, the book is written in shorthand instead of proper English. But I stay quiet.
Her eyes light up. She loves talking about the random things she has stored away in her brain.
“Asteroids are space rocks that fly through space and sometimes they enter a planets gravitational pull. When it hits it’ll leave a crater, but it’s not radioactive,” she tells me as she climbs to her feet. “I read a story about a space rock that landed in a farm, and it began to affect the family that owned the farm, but it wasn’t based in truth. Just something that the author made up because he was afraid of space and the things in it.” Birch brushes off her pants and gives Mc one last pet.
I nod along and pretend that I understood half of what she said.
“I wouldn’t stand in a building or near anything that has more than two levels. If that asteroid hits the building, I bet it will completely destroy anything in or around it.” She turns and begins walking towards her house, or at least her main house.
“Where are you going?” I call starting to walk after her.
“Inside! I’m going to grab as many books as I can carry and sit outside until it hits!” She calls over her shoulder as she walks up the wooden steps of the house. The windows are boarded, and the glass is shattered but the house is still standing so it is shelter enough for those of us still kicking around this town.
“Well, what am I supposed to do until then?!” I shout, hoping she can hear me in the house.
“I don’t know! Do whatever it is you do, Mask!” She yells, calling me by my nickname. I don’t tell people my real name, so most people just call me mask because of the gas mask I am always wearing. The mask was my father’s, and he gave it to me before he died. The cloak was my mother’s.
I groan. I tighten my cloak and glare at the peeling paint of the house. She’s right, I don’t tell her enough about myself for her to have any idea of what I would do in this situation, but I still want input. Readjusting I turn and walk to one of the only surviving buildings, Birch calls it a “high school”. Birch advised against going into tall buildings but it’s the only thing I can think of.
I walk down the desolate streets, my footsteps echoing against the abandoned buildings. Out of habit I pull my bat out of my bag and walk with it by my side. This area is safe, Birch is the only one here if you don’t count the skeletons and animals, but I can never be too safe. Mc trots happily ahead of me, stopping to sniff random bushes or cracks along the road. I dig for my flask in my bag’s side pocket and pull it out. It’s nearly empty so I will have to refill when I get back to the church. I drink down a good portion of it before pouring some into a wooden “travel” bowl and set it down for Mc to come drink.
He laps it down happily, tail wagging high. I scratch his dark gold fur and wipe off some of the dirt from his head. If I had the time to bath him, his fur would be a bright gold color with some white streaks, but the dirt makes him nearly brown in color.
It takes us about ten minutes to reach the high school. The building is made of mostly brick so the bones of it still stand. The furniture has been gutted and the windows were broken and boarded up. I walk to the doors, eyeing the building suspiciously, and they are barely hanging onto their hinges. They are rusted and the flaking green paint is nearly gone. I use the end of the bat to pull it open, and peer inside. Dust covers everything. Papers and glass are scattered around the floors.
I walk through the silent halls. I can almost hear the ghost of laughter or monotone teachers talking to a half a sleep class. Birch tells me that most teenagers hated school, but I can’t imagine it could be any worse than survival of the fittest. I briefly consider going up the stairs but one look at them and I think better of it.
I’ve only come in here once with Birch. We were raiding the library and classrooms trying to find new books for Birch to collect. I still look for books, but right now I am just trying to find something to distract me from the looming anxiety of something about to strike the ground near us.
I wander around the ground floor for about thirty minutes, but I get too anxious to stay. I want to see the sky; I want to see how close it is.
“An hour,” I remind myself. “Birch said we have an hour.”
I quickly walk to the entrance, Mc on my heels. He never liked enclosed spaces very much, and neither do I. I push open the door and look around the parking lot, almost expecting to see an impact crater. I know it is a foolish notion, but part of me wishes this was all over with so the pit of anxiety in my stomach would leave. Mc darts around me and into the open space. He chases away some birds, but he knows better than to bark. I put my bat back into my bag and jog after Mc.
“Come back here, buddy,” I call lowly. Mc, the ever-obedient mutt that he is, pretends not to hear me as he chases off the last of the birds. He turns to look at me. I smile dully and motion for him to come back. He returns, his tail wagging fast enough to make noise as it cuts through air, and leans against my legs, nosing my hands for pets. I scratch his head as I scan the skies. It should be hitting in twenty minutes.
Mc, sensing my anxiety whines and pulls my attention away from the sky and back to him. I love on him more but then I feel a slight shift in temperature. I doubt anyone else would’ve felt it, but I did. My eyes shoot up and I look around.
My eyes land on it, a quickly falling orange and red rock that is coming towards us.
“52 have mercy!” I yelp and I grab Mc and stumble backwards.
Mc turns and growls at it, but his tail is tucked. He is terrified of it.
“Mc, come on, boy! We’ve got to move!” I say, pulling at the cloth around his neck. Mc is anchored into place, no matter how much I pull he won’t move. I have a choice; I can either move and leave my dog, or I can stay with him and wait it out.
“You dumb mutt!” I grumble as I drop my stuff. There’s no way I could run to Birch before that thing -what did Books call it? Aster something- hit. I put myself in front of Mc and cover both of our heads. I pull Mc’s cloth mask over his nose and tie it into place before locking the filters of my gas mask. I surround us in my cloak, trying to make sure both of us are decently covered before it happens.
I hear it before I feel it. A loud crash, as if a large tree just toppled in the forest. Then a rumble rips through the ground that shakes both of us.
I hear the school’s bones groan in protest to the motion and for a brief moment I fear that it is about to fall onto us. When everything is still again, I stand up and look around. From behind the school, I can see smoke rising.
Against my better judgement I start walking towards it. The asteroid landed in what was the football field, according to Birch. The field is now overgrown and a common grazing place for the local deer. At night, some of the people that visit this town will gather here to drink and eat together. Although that might not be possible anymore.
The crater is about 100 feet wide and sits just left of the center.
The ground is sizzling from heat, and in the center of the crater is a large rock, about 80 feet long. The dirt around it is almost swallowing the rock. The asteroid is grey in color and solid. It almost looks like the it came from the moon.
“Mask?! Are you here?!” I hear Birch yell.
“Yeah! I’m by the field!” I unlock the filters from my mask so she can hear me better. “You might wanna come see this!” I call over my shoulder. Mc paces nervously, not daring to get as close as I am standing. The ground probably burns his paws. I walk to him and untie his mask and readjust it around his neck now that the debris is settled. When Birch rounds the corner I walk back to the crater’s edge.
“What in the-?” Birch mumbles as she walks up behind me.
“Is it not supposed to look like that?” I ask, now nervous about the space rock sitting 50 feet away from me.
“No, no it looks fine. It’s just a complex crater. I was expecting a simple one,” Birch mumbles stepping closer to the edge of the crater before hissing in pain and jumping back.
“What?” I ask while looking around.
“Nothing, the ground just burnt my feet.” She rubs her foot, trying to sooth the burn.
“Why do you want to get closer?” I ask, unconsciously stepping back even though I am wearing boots.
“I just want to get a better look at it.” She tells me. I silently hand her my binoculars and as she examines the rock from afar, I notice how quiet it is. I can’t even hear the birds.
“Uh, Books?” I ask turning on my heels to look at the trees.
“Hmm?” She asks, not looking away from the rock.
“Where in 52 are all the birds?”
She lowers the binoculars and scans the trees. She then raises them and checks again.
“The impact must have spooked them off,” she says quietly, almost lost in thought.
“Please tell me it was just the birds that would’ve gotten scared off by this,” I groan, already knowing the answer.
Birch looks at me. Her face says it all.
“What am I supposed to do for hunting?” I ask, trying to keep my irritation from my voice. This isn’t her fault; I don’t need to take my anger out on her.
“I guess you’ll have to go across the river for a few months until the deer migrate back here.” I sigh and readjust my mask.
“And what are you going to do about food. I know you can’t hunt,” I ask turning away from her and look at the dumb rock.
“Well, I can just-”
“Don’t say you will just live off your garden. That will only work for the warm months. It’s almost first frost,” I growl, grabbing my cloak and pulling it tighter around me.
She is quiet for a moment before saying softly, “don’t worry about it, Mask. I’ll manage just fine without you. I did for years y’know…” We sit in silence for a few minutes. Birch hands me the binoculars and grimaces at the ground, probably thinking about the same things I am.
“Why do you say 52 so much? What does it mean?” She asks, changing the topic.
“Huh? Oh yeah, that,” I say as I look at her. “It’s just something that my parents used to say. They picked it up from a group they used to travel with. 52 is in reference to 2052, which is when-”
“The fall out happened,” Birch finishes for me.
I smile at her, “yeah. That’s when the fall out happened.”
“I guess that’s one way to use it,” she says with a smile.
I sigh. And look up at the sky. If I am going to get across the bridge and still have enough day light to set up a decent shelter, I’ll need to start moving.
“I’ll come by every week and bring you some meat. You can keep it under ground, in a bunker,” I say as I adjust my bag. The conversation ends there, we aren’t close friends, but she knows I won’t let her starve. Logically I know it’s a dumb choice, I should keep the meat for myself and Mc, but she would starve without it. Before I can think about it anymore, I turn and walk away. I need to stop by the church and grab the last of my stuff and refill my water.
Birch doesn’t say anything as I leave. Mc follows at my heels without me calling for him, and I’m thankful for that. We walk to the road before I finally look back at Birch. She is climbing into the crater.
“She’ll be fine without us, right Mc?” I ask as I scratch his head. He chuffs at me and wags his tail. “That’s what I thought.” We start down the road. We’ve left towns before; this time won’t be any different. Right?