This piece was intended for a flash fiction contest, but I didn’t finish in time for the deadline. It had a photo prompt (from which I deviated once I missed the deadline – I used a different photo below). I still like it though, so thought I would let it live here. Ashe, it seems, has a lot of story in her. Maybe one day I can tell more of it.
Ashe winces, pulls her hand out of the dirt, rolls back onto her heels. Blood. She balances in a squat between a pine and a willow where she and Jaybird spent at least a dozen consecutive summers plotting the ruin of infinite imagined civilizations before nature made a mockery of their games. Before the long-anticipated Big One split the Sierras in half and the icy water from Tahoe spilled out on either side. Before the Bay Delta levees succumbed to tidal waves. Before the state’s once-fertile plains became a vast salt lake. Before downtown San Diego transformed into the aquatic city that CNN shows in endless loops of aerial shots, waves breaking on the ninth floor windows of the building Ashe had always thought looked like a screwdriver. Atlantis in the making.
She still hears the tinny voice of the white female reporter on her car radio five months ago: nearly a quarter of the nation’s population obliterated in just under nineteen minutes. The magnitude 13 earthquake was felt on all seven continents. Ashe felt it, sitting in the library at CU-Boulder that December night, poring over her notes from Environmental Ethics.
Nineteen minutes for the whole world to change course. Nineteen minutes for Ashe to lose an entire family.
Appa. Her father.
And, presumably, Jaybird.
Ashe wipes her hands, brushing off the dirt. Blood from the cut smears across both palms and she briefly squeezes the affected finger before plunging her hands back into the peat and wrenching the culprit, a rusted tin lunch box, from the earth’s grasp. She turns it over; on one side, faded reds and blues depict the outline of Superman circumnavigating the city of Metropolis, citizens in peril beneath him.
The latch is fused and stuck with rust, but breaks off completely with a sharp tug. Ashe begins to pull the halves apart, but before the fading sunlight illumines the contents of the box, she shuts it and pulls it close to her stomach. A grey earthworm writhes in its own mucus as she stares, unblinking, at the dirt for several seconds.
The sound of footsteps rouses her. She stands and turns to face Chance, the blonde Australian she met two days ago in an Elko bar. He had been an easy play, a game of darts and a memorable night in her hotel room in exchange for transport across the border in his Jeep. They had crawled through the changed landscape of Shasta County, ignoring government signs warning against radioactive danger zones. Several of California’s decommissioned, decades-old nuclear plants had been swept away in the flood. Some of the panicked Californians making their way to safe havens in Idaho and Nevada showed evidence of exposure to high levels of radiation. The entire west coast was technically off-limits, but Ashe had been relieved to find that federal resources for enforcing the restrictions were scarce.
Chance rubs his forehead and points at the lunch box. “That it?”
Ashe nods. They stand in place for a moment, Chance staring at the lunch box, Ashe certain that he must be regretting his decision to bring her to this cabin in the middle of the fallout. She realizes he is standing in almost the exact same place where she last saw Jaybird, during Thanksgiving, two weeks before the earthquake. Jaybird, whose eyes were swollen and red. She was tired, exasperated. She was leaving.
“You gonna tell me what’s in it?” Chance asks.
Ashe looks down at the curl in Superman’s oily hair. Then she walks to the Jeep and climbs in the passenger seat. Chance, by now accustomed to her frequent changes in disposition, simply follows her to the vehicle, turns the ignition, and asks, “Where to?”
“I don’t remember,” Ashe answers, following a long silence.
“You don’t remember where you want to go?”
She looks into his sky-colored eyes, searching for the shared dolor that had won her trust so quickly when they met.
“I don’t remember what’s in the box.”