by Josh Dale
Summer 2043, unknown location. Last marker: 100 miles west of Reno, Nevada:
Am I trapped in a polyethylene dream? Or is this fragmented reality, truly, really? It’s hard to discern these days because there is no such thing as a dystopia, only normalcy. I am the consequence. This desert, my grave. When will it stop? I’m coughing blood now. The shrub is nearly dead. It’s gone, all gone. Denver is destroyed. Please—
Winter 2039, occupied in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO:
My dear reader, whoever that may be. This journal was once filled with pages from my youth, held delicately to my eyes only. However, those years, that innocence, is lost. Now, this is the final hope to reverse the sins of our past and to learn from them. I, Katya Burke, daughter of Lance Burke the Messiah, have documented roughly seven years of detailed accounts of the fallout, travelers from the east, and aspirations for the future. Those documents are locked in a lead-lined safe at the abandoned warehouse ten miles outside of Kansas City, Missouri. It is where my father first discovered the shrub. Look for the blast door next to a boulder. The passcode is 6-25-32, the day of The Flash. These documents must be acquired before our race reconvenes in California. It must be taught to all the future generations. It is not folklore, but our history. Nothing beyond matters anymore. We shall be doomed without it.
If I am to die or unable to continue on my trek, please, take this and the seeds with you. Guard them with your life. Do not put the seeds anywhere on your stomach, for they are safer from gunfire. Do not cultivate them, no matter how tempting. I will have two dwarven plants with me and my company so we can survive. Their lifespan is engineered to last us the entire journey, but one can only assume for error. In the next few pages, I will summarize my accounts and a brief history of what I remember from The Flash onward. Adults, this is our shared present. Youths, this is our catastrophic past. I beseech you to make haste by any vehicle you can. Save your weary bones for paradise, my friends, for we are destined to arrive.
After The Flash, the sunlight turned a hazy green—if visible at all—and the plants became exhausted within the seared, arid earth. Insects are extinct, all of them. I am uncertain of the disposition of the fish, for I live deep in the heart of the mainland, yet wanderers from the coast claim it to be inhabitable—the ocean is but orange and still. Wildlife has become scarce, potable water even scarcer. Any living animal is fair game, but one must be able to inspect them thoroughly. If their eyes are purple and their fur is patchy, you ignore them—hell, run away from them. The tiniest of bites could spread the condition rapidly through the blood, which consequentially eliminated the fowl, bovine, and suidae. We are left with the non-perishables now. One plays a dangerous chance with the rabbits and squirrels, for I've seen plenty wither away from digesting the radioactive meat—a likewise situation with the sitting water, however, there are trace, unaffected springs deep underground. Those are normally inaccessible to most, for even if you step on the grounds, an anonymous bullet whistles deeply into your skull.
Rogue militias roam the towns scavenging for food, supplies, and able-bodied men to join their ranks. They leave the dead and injured as they are, for the rancid atmospheric concoction quickly infiltrates open wounds and produces horrific gangrene. It overtakes the body fully within three days. They burn the buildings, though. I assume it is a tactic to leave us wanderers out in the open—to pillage whatever supplies we may be carrying. But for the sake of our safety, whenever we passed through town intact, we kept on moving. A lone ember's intensity is magnified significantly, so much so, that pure steel becomes melted within an hour. If it's not the smell of corpses that will asphyxiate you, the sulfur will.
You would think the world governments would’ve done something—to collaborate and assist their fellow man. Well, there are some safe havens. These pastures of life still remain, as if they were manufactured purposely with the most advanced bioengineering money could buy. That’s where they fled—the elitists—who, in a preceding attempt to save the human race through untruthful political gatherings, abandoned all of us a day after the catastrophe. The televisions stopped streaming, radios ceased, federal buildings shut down. For the aforementioned us, well, we were given no sense of hope or reprisal. We were the damned.
The nation has since dubbed a new epoch: The Second Life. To put this in perspective, there is now a generation of children that do not know what a leafed tree or a cow is; that have not seen the sun and blue sky as it has been prior. Throughout the years, we, as a collective, achieved the homeostasis that we desperately strived for. Our habitats were found within the forest to the east, sans shrubbery and canopy. An unmarked spring was discovered that was previously untouched by the militias but was discovered by one of our own geographers—at least that’s who she claimed to be in The First Life. The logs of dead trees were simple to whittle down and provided sturdy protection from the violent gusts that circulate in and around the forests. We established a microcosm by the spring—a community of dependents in which we were able to dig up and extract a simple irrigation system. We birthed our children, taught them survival skills, and instilled values that we once held dear through literature—whatever quantities that weren't burnt.
My father, in The First Life, was an environmental chemist in Kansas City. When the news surfaced, the harbinger of the decaying earth, he shifted perspective within his laboratory. He would be gone for days at a time, immersing in his monitoring devices. Initially, there was a spike in carbon monoxide in the air, choking the city dwellers until the skyscrapers were but barren and hollow. He and a large collective of manufacturers salvaged all the material they could and literally locked themselves in the factory about ten miles from town. They were gone for two months. Utilizing the sophisticated filtration systems, they were able to scrub the air in the entire plant, while still generating electricity and expelling exhaust outside. The ’good’ militia guarded them as much as possible with an improvised barracks, ousting off the weary and damned with the crackle of bullets and carbon. When they reemerged, and the locks were blown off the door with explosives, they carried a plethora of gas masks, Hazmat suits, and thirty ‘bio-domes’, which were revolutionary spectacles and unseen before in the history of man. It’s surprising what man can do when money, time, and resources are no longer a factor, almost as if The First Life was saving their techniques for such a catastrophe. They reached out on CB radios to townsfolk and travelers that sought sanctuary, and all seemed well, until The Flash. Things just got worse, extremely worse.
In The Second Life, he became a hunter-gatherer, using his botany skills to clone mutated plants in his sparse laboratory. After years of strenuous labor, and the onset of pancreatic cancer, he created a new strain, dracaena oxigenico-Americana—or 'shrub' to the locals—that became our saving grace. The plant feeds off the polyethylene’s and replaces the dangerous molecules with pure nitrogen and oxygen. Once word spread, many people from all over the state came crawling to him for help. The plant quickly went underground, as private institutions sought to mass produce the plant to secure city-wide bio-domes. But then the platoons came, in their black garb, and forced them all to desist. They swooped in like ravens, with big guns pointed at the greenhouse. My father refused, by stepping out of the building, completely nude. So they shot him, and like his predecessors, he returned to dust before I could even grieve.
Summer 2041, location unknown. Last mile marker: 50 miles to Denver, CO.
The group was split up when the Humvees were spotted. A couple of runners were gunned down. Luckily, I mustered the strength to scale up this cliff. Here I am now, hundreds of miles away in the Rocky Mountains, with a handful of seeds and one of two cultivated dwarf shrubs tucked securely away in a biodome; Katya has the other, wherever she is. Oxygen is running low. I’m gazing down from a very high peak, with the wind swirling into the precipice. and I do not experience vertigo. The high is coming on again, and I can almost see the influencing haze in various shades of yellow in the distance. The remaining trees are drowning in pollution or petrified. This once majestic gorge is now a shadow, whisking away in the wind. I pull out my dirty mirror. My thinned hair drapes over my protruding shoulder bones. My eyes are deep and lifeless. I look sick. I am sick. I am—sick of this way of life, sick of this entire world. All I do is run.
Morning. I heard engines. I heard shouts. I don’t have to turn around to know that the platoon has finally caught up to us. I emerge from my shelter to the stomping of feet, the cocking of rifles. There’s Katya, nude and unafraid, with her back to another cliff. She holds a biodome close to her emaciated body. I look back, frown at my biodome. The soldier's whistle and pant like rabid dogs. They, too, are weak. They want to devour her down to the bones. They will do the same to me when they get to me. She stands, un-wavered, ready to die.
She shuffles backward, their guns perk higher towards her head. They instruct her not to move, yet she shuffles closer to the ledge. They panic, moving closer. They try to coerce her with fake smiles and maleficent hands. Some are angry, shooting bullets into the ether. She shakes her head defiantly; her hoarse, yet sharp screams reverberate like dynamite. She does not weep. The men close within twenty feet. All the while, as I am engrossed in her plight, I mumble incoherence. Mother Earth calls me by name and her speech is hypnotic.
“Miss Burke, please. Hand us the plant and you will not be harmed, I promise. We have room and food for you at the base camp. Don’t be like your father.”
Her father. She has told us about him, the Messiah. Those men—no, wolves—spared him no mercy. He was against their agenda. My body quivers. The ultimatum is set. She is but inches from peril; her legs are tense. Without warning, she twists her frail body forward toward the gorge and takes two valiant bounds. The soldiers riddle her with bullets as she careens off the cliff. The biodome shatters in the air like a blown dandelion, and so is their hope. The men rush to the edge to watch the scene they created. Those bastards now throw their hands in the air, shouting at the commander, gripping his frail neck. In the distance, I hear a dull crack. Katya is dead. Next, a single gunshot. The commander is dead. The mutiny of men disperses, kicking dust into the breeze. I wait for what seem to be hours. Silence save for the wind. I pack up my belongings and wave my arm towards Katya. She was the Last Daughter. I hope—no I dirge—that I can cultivate these plants, for they are the diminishing ray of hope. I pull the mask from the backpack, install it to the biodome, and take a few gratuitous breaths from the sanctuary. I will need it for the descent.
Summer 2041, Boulder, CO. Approx. 5 sunrises since Katya’s death.
I found shelter in the remains of Boulder. I was hoping to regroup with some of the group, but no one has returned. I had to fend off a rabid dog, the poor creature. Luckily, I suffered no injury, but now at least I have a weapon: an improvised pipe bludgeon and spear. I found a small store partially intact. Skeletons were huddled behind the front counter. Cans of food lined the shelves. I eyed a first aid kit and sewing threads. Now was the time to recuperate and make myself stronger, like Katya. I locked myself in a walk-in cooler and ate heartily. A single window was improvised in the rear, drawing in a scant amount of dull light. There were warm jugs of water that I drank, stored in concrete cylinders. The first night I wept for Katya. I let it all out. Her leadership inspired me. Her determination exuded from her eyes. She was my first love. Oh, woe!
Jacob found me on the third night, behooved at first, but elated. He had gangrene on his foot and smelled rotten, but I gave him water and food. I told him the news of Katya, and he looked toward the floor for hours. He said Emily was captured by the soldiers. He awoke to find Carl devoid of life due to suicide, his wrists slit deeply, his cold, blue eyes staring at him. It was a blessing to have a man with me again. We depart today, with backpacks full of food and some water. The biodome gave us the strength.
Winter 2042, the sanctuary at Denver International Airport.
Snow still falls in Denver. Feet high. It piles like rust; brown. I lost Jacob days ago; the gangrene consumed him fully, along with the chill. However, I found sanctuary as Katya predicted. The mountains for roofs were dilapidated, yet looked like great, white castles in the plains. When they saw me, a warning shot grazed my arm. I fell to the ground in agony, yelling to them I had a shrub, and within minutes, I was rescued with an ATV and given fresh oxygen. Beyond the shattered remnants of a giant mustang, an enormous biodome was constructed upon the tarmac. The specifics and minutiae confuse me, but it is massive and filled with hundreds of people. I rode past the infirmary. Some people in prime physical condition. Some rotting into death. A medic flagged us down to perform quick stitching on my arm. I rode past the barracks, where soldiers were stacking canisters of non-perishable food onto baggage carts. What appeared to be fuel tanks were piled stories high within a hangar. Why so much fuel? I rode past the greenhouse with hundreds of adult shrubs growing magnificently in the artificial sun. Katya would weep with joy if she saw this.
My convoy arrived at the air traffic control tower. Armed troops took me up to the top and I met the captain of the base. He was old, weathered, and slicked-back gray hair, like the pictures of the troops during The Flash. He scoured my bones with one eye. God knows what was behind his eyepatch.
“Where are you from?”
“East. Originally, New York.”
“Do you have flash-burn?”
“Yes, on my back.”
He remained stoic, tilting his head slightly.
“How’s the shrub?”
“Surviving. It’s starting to yellow because—well I wouldn’t have made it this far without it.”
He stepped ominously close to me, his face reddened.
“Where did you find it?”
“I was with Katya Burke, the Last Daughter.”
The man’s eyebrows rose, his lone eye sparkled.
“And where is she?”
“Dead. She was shot and killed by them. So is another shrub.”
He exhaled profusely from his nose. Turning around he slammed his fist on a desk, jostling papers, pens, and a compass.
“Scouts from Kansas City told me she had the original strain. This one is not going to make it.”
I still retained the seeds within a small pocket in my jacket, one that I sewed shut in Boulder. The soldiers were not able to find when I was frisked, and I was confident they wouldn’t find it here. I was trembling, unsure if giving them to him was a good idea. Even so, I did not inspect them. The anxiety of finding the seeds crushed and crumbled made me sweat.
“Where are they?”
“Where are what?”
“The seeds! Katya Burke wasn’t a fool. She knew about California. She wouldn’t destroy them. She gave them to you, didn’t she?”
“No, I don’t recall her—”
“Search her immediately. Strip, now!”
I felt a sharp pain in my neck as a soldier gripped me. I wept as they forced their will upon me. My tattered boots, torn gloves, yellowed shirt and pants, all removed. I was, like Katya, nude before the soldiers; friends I assumed, not those betting on my head. I was cold. They were livid. My flash-burn glowed a subtle yellow. It was shaped like a tree, with roots ingrained into my back and buttocks, limbs outstretched toward my shoulders and neck. I covered my breasts and loins, but the captain demanded otherwise. I felt the dimly lit room fade into nothingness.
“Sir, please. I am sick, and nothing to hide. All I possess is this journal and the shrub.
“Hand me the journal!”
A soldier gave him the tattered book, the very one that contained Katya’s manifesto. He flipped through the pages voraciously. He was furious.
“Those bastards! I want two units to scour these mountains for them. Capture on sight, but do not kill.”
“No seeds, sir,” a soldier said.
“Go, all of you!” he returned, screaming.
The soldiers obliged and descended the tower, leaving just the captain and I. He circled me, with his hands behind his back.
“Where did you put them?”
I said nothing.
“I am going to find these seeds, whether you like it or not.”
I scrambled for the door, but he beat me to it.
“Now, now,” his tone shifted to one of benevolence; his hand stroked my hair.
“Get the fuck away from me!”
The man grabbed me forcefully, his sex primed for seizing any dignity left. I screamed, writhed, and wished for Katya to save me. It was all over, I was going to die, until, a deafening bang rang out, shaking the tower. The fuel depot was on fire. Glass exploded all around us. I heard the whistling of an object traveling quickly. I smelled the smolders. I saw the captain’s head catch steel shrapnel. His body slumped over. Blood was everywhere. I panicked. I gathered all my belongings across the way and descended the stairs. My body sang in pain as the heat grew immensely. I ran, away from the death and carnage. I ran until I couldn't any longer. I wanted to run straight to Katya’s decaying body down the gorge, for if I was to die, I wanted to be right next to her in our failures. I collapsed a few miles from the depot, blood all over my pale body. I could feel my flash burn throbbing. I unpacked for the pristine biodome, huffed many breaths, and passed out. I was done. Katya—
Winter 2046, Sacramento, CA, approx. Thanksgiving.
I am not the owner of this journal, but I see it heavily populated. I am not the hand that grasped it from the poor soul, dead in the desert. I am, however, the one who will complete the journey.
My name is Slade Numen. I do not have flash-burn. I was born into this terrible world, yet confined to the grace that is a biodome. My parents, those of affluent backgrounds, were granted access after The Flash. Within, they were all kept safe from the fallout, extreme weather, and marauders. Within, birthed the new generation of mankind. We are studious, we are the innovators. I, personally, chose the scholar life as soon as I could read, immersing myself within the confines of the Historical and Educational Terminal. I was captivated, nonetheless by a multitude of artistic facets. I was inspired by Homer. I was ingenious with DaVinci. I was critical with Kant. I was imaginative with Wordsworth. I was macabre with Poe. I was sublime with van Gogh. Everything I needed, all that I desired, was within the texts and the images I studied, for the industrialization around me was nothing but it; encompassing my woes further into hell. I realized the systemic plights and corporate Now, cresting the year of maturation—fourteen in the Second Life—I drew upon my superiors for not guidance, but answers. I became a skeptic of the tight confines of the biodome. While other children and young adults were skipping carefree around the gardens, my wanton demeanor grew more prevalent. At the town hall meetings, I would muster the courage to debate the officials; the youngest being twice my senior. I corralled the argumentative floor with contempt. I demanded to know the long-term effects of flash-burn. I pleaded to see the night sky beyond the panoramic façade. It was all received apprehensively as if the utopia that we struggled to maintain was superfluous for the likes of an intellectual; one that was cognizant of the previous epochs, even to the day before The Flash. Most times, I was escorted from the auditorium in contempt. I’d pass by the same people every day on my workday commute; their averting gazes overruling their muted tongues. However, one evening, my validation was received.
A man—soldier nonetheless—answered my plea. He, after a stalwart debate with the council, was permitted to disclose the militias recent finding to me. It was a top-secret document, enclosed in an opaque white bag. I was told to wear gloves and a respirator upon opening, in fear of radioactive contamination—even though this statement was untrue, for any artifacts from the outside went through strenuous tests prior to being filed, so I took this as an insult to my perceived intelligence. Despite the connotation, the pages were torn and browned. However, the gloves, despite hindering dexterity, kept the pages intact. And it was a fruitful practice, too, for the words that I transcribed was those of utmost valor and determination. They were also a reminder of how we fell. I grumbled, slamming my fist on the table. The agony of these women! The ignorance of my brethren! My hands demanded revenge. My mind craved hope. I made sure they wouldn’t remain hold of this book. My comrades were already prepared. To Kansas City, we rode at dawn.
Josh Dale is a bicyclist, Bengal cat dad, open mic goer, and an MA candidate at Saint Joseph's University. His work and press have appeared in Breadcrumbs Mag, Drunk Monkeys, Huffington Post, Page & Spine, vox poetica, and others. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Thirty West Publishing House with two chapbooks and a poetry collection, Duality Lies Beneath (Thirty West 2016).