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The Journey Home

A Post-Apocalyptic Short Story About Love and Loss

The man could not recall how long he had been moving. To travel now was dangerous, but it was a necessary journey — one he would make willingly.

He had created a small fire away from the road as to not warrant the attention of any other travelers that may be making their way through the dark of night, preying on and robbing the weaker wanderers. The man had a different calling, a different destination.

Laying next to the fire, wrapped tightly in a woolen blanket he had once given to his daughter, the man found himself gazing upward to the heavens. No longer did he see the glistening pictures in the sky that his father had drawn for him as a child, which he had then drawn into the mind of his own little girl. It had been months, he imagined, since he had seen the sky. The visually impenetrable remains of the Great Mistake — as he called the event — shut out the heavenly stars at night, and the sun and moon provided only dismal, diluted illumination. The skies under which the man traveled proved to perpetually vary from early evening to night.

When he was content that he was alone and safe, the man closed his eyes in need of rest for the next day’s travel and in hope that dreams would again take him back to life before his journey began.

* * *

Mornings in the desert were no longer a prelude to a scorching sun overhead. The Great Mistake had blocked the rising sun from view behind layers of elements now trapped in the sky.

The man cooked a breakfast of canned spinach (taken hungrily from an abandoned service station along the road) over the small fire he had restarted upon awaking. He cooked the spinach in a metal pot, which was one of the last remnants he carried with him from his life before. Spinach was the woman’s favorite vegetable. He savored each bite, each swallow. After he had eaten, the man scattered the hot coals of the fire and cleaned the pot. He neatly packed it, along with the woolen blanket, into the rugged, makeshift sack he carried on his journey.

A strong wind set in from the North as the man set out along the road. He soon wrapped a light scarf around his mouth and nose and used an old set of sunglasses to shield his eyes from debris invited from the southbound wind. He carried on, stopping only to, briefly and loosely, consult the small, foldout travel map he kept in his pocket.

The landscape, a barren sea of sand and rock, seemed a cruel purgatory that challenged his will with every forward step. The muscles in his legs ached beyond belief, the burning of his lungs — both a reminder of how much the world had physically changed. The once simple, involuntary act of breathing was now a task constantly sabotaged by ash and dust. The man traveled forward.

* * *

His devotion was unconditional, unfaltering. The man had loved the woman with his whole heart. And he still did, and always would.

The woman was his savior, the reason to appreciate his own life again. For so long the man carelessly moved through each day tormented and haunted by a past he could not escape or find the strength and courage to face. Her love is what lifted him out of the hell in which he had imprisoned himself. The woman made him whole perhaps for the first time in all of his years, as if he’d been reunited with a part of himself that had been mysteriously scattered away at birth, lost, only to be found again in her gentile touch, understanding gaze, her passionate kiss, and her compassionate heart. And, in the man, she recognized a twin soul and saw herself truly loved for the first time.

* * *

The man’s breathing was slowly becoming more labored as he pressed on. Nights spent in the desert were growing colder. The man tried to ration what little food and water he had left. Deep within himself he found strength to keep moving despite the cold, despite the pain. The man could hear the woman calling him home.

* * *

They had built a home together, the man and the woman. The home was unconventional, but so was the love they shared. Their love was full of the unspoken extraordinary. Every night, he would tuck the little girl into bed and softly kiss her forehead — a simple reminder that she was safe and loved.

* * *

“Red Rock Canyon,” the woman answered. She smiled, drawing a picture of the place in her mind. “It’s beautiful there.”

The man, long ago, sat next to her at a bar. They had been drinking and laughing, and he had asked her where she wanted to go, settle down, grow old. He knew of the place and had heard tales of its beauty and allure. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Maybe, someday, I’ll take you there,” he added.

Later, when they had made their home, the man placed a postcard from Red Rock Canyon on a mirror in their bedroom. The woman always knew that he would someday take them there.

* * *

When the Great Mistake happened, the man was away. He was working more than a thousand miles from the woman and the little girl. There was no possible way he could have foreseen it. There was no possible way he could have reached them in time. Only select persons of highest regard were aware of what was occurring. Millions died instantly, and the man set out for home.

* * *

“That’s Ursa Major, right there,” the man explained, pointing. He held the little girl in his arms. They looked up at the heavens.

“Even stars aren’t forever,” the little girl said, chuckling and smiling.

* * *

As he started his way home, he felt a change in his heart. Something, some voice from within, told him not to hope — not to expect their lives to be spared from the Great Mistake while countless innocent were lost. The man wanted no part of this change and he pushed it far out of his mind.

He traveled west — as far as he could — with the help of others. No public transportation. No travel by air. The Great Mistake would surely bottleneck the population of every species on the planet — an event of greater-than-biblical proportions. When the man could no longer advance home by the hands of others he set out on foot. As the rest of mankind struggled to comprehend the Great Mistake, the man could only want for one thing: to be reunited with the woman and the little girl.

When he reached home, the man was lost. He did not recognize the muted landscapes surrounding what had become his life. Destruction had eaten everything as far as the eye could see and farther than the imagination could wander. He again felt that change in his heart.

* * *

“Even stars aren’t forever,” the little girl said, chuckling and smiling.

“No. No, they’re not,” the man agreed, “but what makes them up is forever. It makes up all you see and don’t see. It makes up everything.”

“What makes up everything?”

“Time,” he said. “Time, Sweetie.”

* * *

What had endured of the house was before him. All that survived proved to be the foundation, which only showed itself sparingly.

The man took a few hours to meticulously sift through what remained of his life. He found little that had lasted. A small doll that the little girl had played with, he loaded into his pack. Also, he salvaged a small metal cooking pot in which the man would cook his last meal.

It was not lost to the man that the foundation of the house had survived. Their home had been strongly built on a foundation of love that would endure.

* * *

Down to the last remains of his rations, the man slowly dropped to his knees and took a few deep, quickened breaths. He was tired and his journey was almost at an end. It had easily, undoubtedly, been months since he looked upon the sturdy foundation that once supported his home. His new life was now. Regardless of length, this new life would be one that the woman had wanted and one that he had longed to share with her. The man, with much effort, struggled to his feet and stumbled forward to his destination.

* * *

The night before the man had left for work, he sat on the edge of the little girl’s bed. He had tucked her firmly under her favorite woolen blanket. She smiled at him.

“You take this one with you,” she said, sliding softly out from under the blanket, pulling it off the bed and pushing it into his arms.

“I don’t know what to say,” the man replied.

“It’s okay. I’ll sleep with mommy while you’re gone.”

He thought for a moment, smiled back at her and said, “Thanks, Sweetie. Get some sleep.”

The woman leaned against the doorway watching them bid good evening. The man noticed her, leaned down, and kissed the little girl’s head. He slowly got up and moved across the room. The woman wrapped her arms around his neck and he pulled the blanket around her shoulders.

“I love you, daddy,” said the little girl from across the room.

The man and woman stood in silence looking into the depths of each other’s eyes. They knew that this is where they needed to be and couldn’t wait until he swiftly returned.

“We both do,” whispered the woman.

* * *

The Mojave had been unforgiving even without the unbearable sun. Love had brought him to what remained of Red Rock Canyon. The woman had spun him webs of tales of her childhood spent visiting there. The place had been sacred to her.

The man made as comfortable a camp as he could. He first spread out the woolen blanket as the foundation of his new home. He then built a small fire. Emptying his sack, he placed all that he carried upon the blanket and took inventory, nodding in assurance.

In the metal pot he again cooked the woman’s favorite vegetable, exhausting the last of his water supply in the process.

* * *

“Time,” he said. “Time, Sweetie.”

“Does it end everything, too?” asked the little girl.

“It encompasses it. Everything.” The man kissed her on the cheek and held her tight. He loved the little girl as if she was his own. He explained, “Take us, for example. Right now. Right here. Starlight has reflected off our planet today, even when you and me were hanging laundry out earlier. That beam of reflected light took a snapshot of us, at that moment, together, and projected it across the cosmos.”

“Wow!” said the little girl, trying to grasp his explanation.

“And time will carry that snapshot, that moment, as far and as long as you can imagine.”

“That moment lasts forever?” the little girl questioned.

The man looked her in the eyes, his smile widened. “Forever, Sweetie. Every moment. They’re imprinted on time and can never be erased.”

The man’s explanation of time comforted the little girl. She looked back to the sky.

* * *

After enjoying the spinach, the man took a can of strawberries from the blanket. These he had also taken from the abandoned service station. Using the pull-top he opened them, releasing a smell so sweet that he could hardly believe it was real. Strawberries had also been a favorite of the woman. As the man sat there at her favorite place, eating her favorite meals, he was experiencing this moment for her. Somehow he felt that she knew this moment was happening — wherever she was. He felt that she’d always known that this moment would occur. She ate the strawberries beside him.

The day was wearing on and the man could tell by the shade of the dust-ridden sky that evening was pressing forward. He looked to what remained of the contents of the sack scattered upon the woolen blanket. The little girl’s doll. A steak knife, also recovered from the remains of his home. A bundle of kindling and newspaper with a box of matches. A fork. An empty water container along with two empty plastic water bottles. A first aid kit. A Zip-lock bag with ash in it. All of these things, these few chosen artifacts, had carried him thousands of miles to this place — with his will, and his love, and them.

The man walked to a small part of the canyon away from the fire. Closing his eyes, he conjured up clear, star-filled skies above sharp canyon walls, pushing up toward an enlarged moon set ablaze, reflecting sunlight and time toward the Earth and elsewhere.

In his hand he carried the ash-filled Zip-lock bag. He’d used the bag from the first-aid kit where it once held bandages, at his distant home — the home of his past.

While there, the man walked around the foundation that remained. Standing roughly where his bedroom had once existed, the man kneeled down and dug his palm into the ash, dust, and remains on the ground. Producing the Zip-lock bag, he then poured the remains inside. Again, he did the same, roughly, where the bedroom of the little girl had existed. They would have been asleep the night of the Great Mistake.

Now, there in the Mojave, the man opened the plastic bag. He felt a soft breeze rise up from within the canyon and heard what he thought was the little girl’s laughter riding freely upon the wind. He slowly rolled his wrist over letting the ashes tumble free of their containment and watched as they caught the breeze. In his mind he watched the ash glisten in the moonlight, etching itself into the fabric of time. They were home now, the woman and the little girl.

Laying next to the fire, wrapped tightly in the woolen blanket he had once given to his daughter, the man found himself gazing upward to the heavens. Again, he closed his eyes. He could feel the woman and the little girl, one on each side of him, laying their heads to rest upon his chest. And although the sun’s light wouldn’t penetrate the atmosphere, he could feel its rays illuminating. Inside, he knew that even though the moment could not be embedded in a beam of light, traveling forever across the universe, this moment could never be erased by time. He was finally home. Their old life would be forever; this new life was finding a way to say farewell.

With his eyes closed, the man held tight the knife as he rested by the dying firelight. Having exhausted his supplies, he would go no further. Having exhausted his heart, he held tight in his arms those specters of his loves. The dawn would awake alone.

Copyright (C) 2017 Matt Croyle. All Rights Reserved.

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