This story is one of the February Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
“What is fire?” Rhys asks himself as he holds down the lever of a flamethrower to blowtorch the guy in front of him.
“Burning of oxygen? What’s burning then?” Rhys finds himself back in the old, smelly classroom, turning the pages of a chemistry book.
“Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products,” Ms. Bailey keeps on blabbering.
Falling asleep to her boring lectures. Looking across to find Sophia trying her best to grasp onto anything interesting out of Ms. Bailey’s mouth so that she doesn’t join the snooze fest with the rest of the class. How beautiful she looks even when she had her one eye slightly open, trying not to sleep. How her cheeks being supported by her hands from bashing into the desk look so perfect even though it would make any other girl look chubby. Bet she could still tell Rhys the definition of fire. Bet she’d know how to light up this dark and unforgivable world.
The flamethrower makes a noise as its fuel nears the end. Rhys still holds the lever down for a few seconds. You can never be sure with these guys. Rhys has seen many of them still standing after smashing their head in with a baseball bat full of nails.
“You miss fried chicken or something?” she says suddenly. Rhys doesn’t see her sneaking up behind him. “At this rate, I doubt we’ll make it through winter.”
“We’ll make it. I just wanted to be sure. The guy was huge.”
“Well, let’s just hope Rockville has some kerosene.”
“Yeah. You find anything?”
“Only a squirrel.”
Rhys sighs. It’s been weeks since they had a good meal. He can’t move as well as he used to, and she’s still recovering from her wound. It’s incredible to Rhys how she still manages to get up every morning to hunt. That guy almost beheaded her when he tried to jab the knife into her neck. Rhys found her unconscious while the guy was lying dead beside her with a hole in his head.
“He have anything on him?” she says while checking the guy that Rhys burnt the hell out of.
“Just a revolver. Only had three bullets,” Rhys says, disappointed.
“That’ll have to do.”
“Let’s get going. We need to make it to Rockville before it gets dark.”
Rhys ties the flamethrower to his backpack as they start walking through the woods. Calling it the “woods” is a stretch. There’s barely any green left. Smell of burnt wood reeks everywhere. You can never get used to that smell. Patches of orange, dimmed fire beneath the dry branches and leaves can still be seen. It has been raining ashes instead of snow continuously for the last couple of days. Rockville in the distance looks like a grey ball of fire. The sky looks grey. The forest looks grey. The horizon looks grey. And hope looks bleak.
Rhys is walking faster than usual while going deep into the spiral of his own thoughts. He comes back to his senses when he finds himself standing on a pitfall of a thin pile of burnt tree branches. That pile is the only thing separating himself from the dimmed fire which is still burning away whatever dry tree branches it can get in reach of. Rhys stands still, trying to keep his balance.
“RHYS!” she screams, realizing what just happened.
“Stop!” Rhys signals her with his hand while still keeping his balance. “Don’t get near me.”
She stops. “Jump and try grabbing my hand.” She comes as close as she can to the pile and extends her arms.
Rhys tries to reach out to her when some of the branches move and fall into the fire beneath.
“I can’t reach you,” Rhys says calmly.
“Yeah, no sh*t,” she says, panicking.
“Try getting that across.” Rhys points at a long, dry branch lying behind her. She quickly picks it up and sends it across to him. He gently grabs it on one end as she holds firmly onto the other end.
“You think you can handle my weight?”
“Oh, come on. All we’ve been eating are squirrels this whole winter.” She tries not to sound frightened, but the shakiness in her voice is very apparent.
“Okay, I’m gonna try walking over to you. If the pile breaks, you must keep me up. Whatever happens, don’t let go of the branch. You ready?” Rhys explains patiently. She nods.
Rhys starts to move forward in a gentle pace. She keeps a firm grip on the branch. Midway through the pile, Rhys’s hands start shaking.
“Do you know what fire is?” Rhys says, scared.
“What?” she says, confused, while holding the branch with a firmer grip.
“What’s fire? Like what’s the definition of it?” Rhys moves an inch closer to her.
Her hands start shaking. Droplets of tears start gathering in the corner of her eyes and drop down to the cold ashes on the ground.
“Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic…” she starts saying with a trembling voice. Rhys stops and listens to her. He’s never seen her cry. He is almost at the other side. His world isn’t dark anymore.