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Holy F*%&

Faye Gerald has always been the model student and the flawless daughter but when a meteor hits their small town of Georgia, Faye watches as all her dreams for a perfect future go up in flames. With the path home destroyed, Faye, her boyfriend, her best friend, and a boy she shouldn’t know, journey down the mountainside to see if they can find anyone left alive. But secrets travel with them and sometimes dreams have to come to an end. 

CHAPTER 1

I was at Make Out Point when the sky began to fall. 

Now I'm standing on top of my boyfriend's car, watching my town burn. 

Five miles away, I can see iconic buildings that I grew up with dance in the fire. There were so many things about this town that I hated, and I don't know how many times I prayed to God that he would swallow it up. I never thought He'd actually do it. But I hoped I'd be in it if He ever did. 

Now I don't know if I feel relief or terror. 

"Holy fuck." My boyfriend, Lincoln, paces in the grass. He folds his hands on his head, "Are you seein' this, Faye? Oh, fuck." He keeps repeating, getting rather close to hyperventilating. 

I hate him for freaking out. That's not gonna fix anything or stop anything; all it's going to do is stress me out. But I'd rather him freak out so I can be the sane one. 

Beside him, Heather sits in a ball, hugging her knees and rocking. She didn't change out of her cheerleading uniform like I did. I wear a dress and boots with my long brunette hair hanging down. She kept her black hair in a ponytail with the red and white ribbons of our school colors mixed in. Her boyfriend, Freddy, stands behind her quietly, probably too high to grasp what's happening. He dresses in ripped jeans and a Nirvana t-shirt. 

For all I know, we are all that's left of our high school class. Two cheerleaders, a football player, and a member of the yearbook committee. It's an odd group of kids to keep alive. 

"Mommy. Daddy." Heather whimpers. 

Freddy puts a hand on her shoulder, trying to be comforting, but he doesn't say anything. He can't know for sure if they're alive, and he doesn't want to give her false hope. I despise him for not pretending. Can't boys ever be supportive?

"I'm sure they're fine, Heather," I call over to her, but she ignores me. 

Lincoln turns, looking up at me. He's a big six-foot senior dressed in his red football jersey, number 54, long jeans, and pristine white shoes. 

"We should go help."

"Help?" Freddy cackles. "What the fuck we gonna do?"

Freddy and Lincoln aren't exactly friends, but because Heather and I are both cheerleaders, they've gotten to know each other when we double-date. Freddy got Lincoln to smoke his first joint. And Lincoln taught Freddy how to throw a football. But in school, they pretend they don't know each other. They both have reputations to uphold. 

"I don't know. Something."

We turn our attention back to town. The movie theater crumbles, and bright flames shoot up into the sky. Big black clouds billow above like a halo, but this is anything but heavenly. There isn't a part of town untouched. The church I went to on Sunday is in the middle of all the fire. The grocery store I work at has disappeared. The football field that we just came from can't be seen. 

There was a game tonight, and everybody who wasn't working showed up. Over two thousand people.  

How many are dead? 

How many people did I know? Did I grow up with and talk to daily?  

Cape Mill has always been small. A town that no tourists come to visit. It can't even get on any 'best restaurant' or 'most friendliest town' list. We are full of mediocracy. Even in sports, we place third or fourth. Never first, never in the direct path of a spotlight. I guess if God was gonna destroy any place, this was as good as any. At least the world didn't lose anyone important. 

A tear drips down my cheek, and I rush to push it away. I'm not gonna freak out yet. There is too much that I don't know. Maybe my mom is safe. Maybe some of my friends that I've known since kindergarten were in the city. 

And maybe…

A twig cracks to the right of us, and we all snap our heads. The range of thoughts from such a simple thing after watching astroids smack into the planet is outrageous. Aliens are the first fear. Isn't that how movies always start?

A boy steps out of the darkness of the woods, coming into the path of the headlights. My mouth drops open when Xander stands there, smoking a cigarette. He glances toward me before he turns toward town. I struggle with staying still and instead force myself to sit, wrapping my arms around my legs. 

"What the fuck you doing here?" Lincoln approaches, "Jerking off in the woods?"

Xander blows smoke in his face. As bad boys go, Xander's the main one in our town. Full of raw potential with no desire to use it. He can draw, he aces all his math quizzes when he feels like it, and he skateboards better than Tony Hawk, but it's only on his terms when he feels like succeeding. Otherwise, the lack of motivation, the tattoos, and the dirty grunge look keep him from making any friends, and any parent wisely keeps their daughter away. 

Lincoln gets pissed and pulls back to throw a punch, but we all scream at him, and he stops himself. He shoves Xander backward instead, "What were you doing?" He asks again. 

Xander flicks his cigarette and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans, "Before it was your fuck spot, this was my smoke spot."

Freddy pulls at Lincoln's arm, "He lives up here. In a trailer."

Lincoln yanks away, pacing like a caged tiger. He keeps flicking his head to town and then back to Xander. "Your trash family gets to live while all ours are…Fuck!" He screams, but then he drops to his knees. 

Xander looks at me. He wants to say something, but I beg him not to with a shake of my head. He clenches his teeth and turns away. 

I stare at the fire. I'm trying to find my mother's car, as stupid as it seems. Even in broad daylight, it would be hard to find her, but I'm desperate. I take out my cell phone. I didn't know I was shaking. I swallow the film in my throat and press 'mom'. 

With it on speaker, I wait. 

"The call you are trying to make cannot connect. Please try again later."

Heather tells me all phones are down. I should have realized that. Electricity goes out in a snowstorm. It wouldn't survive a meteor. But yet, I find myself pressing it again. 

And again.

And again.

"Stop, Faye." Heather begs. 

My finger hesitates over send. What if this time my mom picks up? 

Xander leans his back against the car. I stare down at him. He wears a hoodie covering his head. "You're wasting the battery."

I know he's right, but it's so hard to stop. I tuck it back into my jeans, so I don't get tempted.

"Look." Lincoln stands up as he notices a firetruck's lights flick on. It's the only fire station in our town. 

Someone's alive, and it doesn't even matter who. It's a relief that we are no longer alone. 

"Let's go." He orders, darting for the driver's seat of his car. 

I move to get off. Xander holds out a hand for me. I hesitate to grab it, but the car starts beneath me, and I put my hand in his. I slide into his arms, and for a moment when I'm on my feet and our eyes connect, I almost give in. 

"Come on!" 

I yank out of his arms and pull the door open, refusing to look at him again. 

"I'm coming too." Xander moves to the back door. 

"Get your own ride," Lincoln tells him, but Xander ignores him, slipping into the back passenger seat. 

I stare ahead as I slip on my seat belt on, ignoring Lincoln's incredulous scoff. My nerves are shot, and I can barely think. I never thought I'd be in the same car as my boyfriend and the boy I cheated on him with. 

I said our town was small and old. It has stupid ideals and expectations for girls like me. Like how cheerleaders are supposed to date the quarterback. Or a small-town rich girl isn't allowed to date a poor ass kid from the ghetto. I followed the unspoken rules like all the other kids in school. But I've never fit in here. I never felt the way that they did. I knew I was different in elementary school when I found myself at the bottom of the cesspool. I knew I would have to change if I wanted to be popular. I would have to keep things about me that weren't typical in a secret hiding spot. Most of my friends didn't know I read books. Most of my friends didn't know I hated being a cheerleader. And they didn't know how I thought my boyfriend wasn't the most intelligent guy in all of Cape Mill. 

But I had a role to play. I wanted to make my mother proud. And so here I am, struggling with what I want, lost in their expectations. 

But if the world is ending, does it matter what I do?

Lincoln plays with the radio, trying to get information, but it's all blank. 

"It doesn't make any sense," I murmur as I take over, flicking through the channels. 

"The internet's out," Lincoln says. 

I look at him, and he flicks between me and the road, "what?" He asks. 

"The radio doesn't work off the internet. It works off a satellite."

He doesn't want to feel stupid, so he responds with an asinine retort. "Nobody listens to the radio anyway."

"Maybe the meteors took out a satellite," Xander theorizes. 

"The odds of that are so low, and the sky is so vast," I respond. 

"But possible."

I shake my head. I refuse to believe it, but the facts aren't on my side. If the radio is out, there is a high chance Xander's right. I keep trying anyway. It's better than doing nothing.

"Why didn't we know about it?" I wonder. "Nasa can detect asteroids thousands of miles from Earth."

Lincoln snorted, "My dad always said if the world was going, the government wouldn't say anything. Liberals would cause too much chaos." 

"Maybe it wasn't asteroids," Xander suggests. "Do you see it happen?"

I was making out with Lincoln when the meteor hit, and Lincoln looks at me with a wicked smirk. 

"We were busy." He slaps my leg, squeezing. 

I'm glad I can't see Xander's face. I stare instead at the side mirror and Freddy's car lights. The rattle of their run-down car echoes in the canyon. I keep my head out the window, hoping to see something through the trees. The cold air is the only thing familiar. Otherwise, I feel like I've been lost in the world. 

We pass by Xander's trailer. It's a small airstream that sits in the middle of the woods. 

"What's your dad say?" 

"My dad was working."

It's quiet after that. The implication that he could be dead, just like our parents, is too prevalent. 

Xander's dad is a bartender at the only full bar in town. There is always trouble. Our town is full of drunks, but functioning ones, at least. That's what my mother says. She's a cop, and most nights, she ends up there at some point because of a brawl. She blames Xander's dad for most of it, even though he's not forcing anyone to drink. 

"Shit." Lincoln curses as he leans forward. The car slows, and I'm searching for what he sees. Right on the edge of the headlights, there's something dark in the road. It's when we get closer that I realize it's a hole. A massive freaking hole. I look around for a reason and notice there are red burning areas. Pieces of the meteor must have dropped off here. 

We stop in front of it and get out of the car. The five of us staring off the edge of it. The smell of burning wood is in the air, and little patches of smoke and ash wrap around it. We can't drive. Aside from trees, we're on a mountain, and the car wouldn't make it. 

"Now what?" Heather wonders. She rubs her wet face, ready to give in. I wrap an arm around her shoulder, and she drops her head on me, sobbing. 

"Shh, it's alright." I assure her, but I know nothing's alright, and nothing will be alright again. But what the hell else am I supposed to say? 

"There's a path." Xander reveals, "Back up by my house. I've been walking it for years."

"You walk five miles to town?"

"Some of us aren't privileged with Daddy's money." 

Lincoln confronts him, shoving his shoulder, "Don't you talk to me about privilege, white boy."

"Says the mayor's son."

I grab Lincoln's arm, pulling, "Enough! We got enough shit to deal with." 

Lincoln pulls back, breaking away from me to teeter on the edge of the giant hole. 

I look to Xander, "Please." He shakes his head in disbelief that I'm blaming him, but he says nothing before digging into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes. 

I stand beside Heather, "Let's get going."

 

Chapter 2 Downhill

 

We trudge back up the road with my arm tucked in Heather's. Her misery is like a virus, and I fear it will creep into me. I know I should be scared or at least, sad, but I don't want to feel anything. I will keep trudging up this mountain to keep from slipping into despair. 

The darkness envelopes us, and I stop my movement to look up into the sky. The moon and stars are gone, but I know it isn’t supposed to rain today. There was talk about clear skies for the football game. 

I straighten my head while everyone notices the black clouds above us. “I think we should hurry.” 

Xander meets my gaze, “Let’s go to my place instead.”

Lincoln scoffs, “I ain’t going to your roach motel. We need to get to town.”

“It’s a long walk and dangerous in the dark. If it rains, we’re fucked.”

Lincoln doesn’t hear him and puts a hand on my back, “You do you, bro. Come on, Faye.”

I look over my shoulder at Xander. He hangs his head, taking an inhale of his cigarette. He gets harder to see aside from that one dot of smoldering ash. “Come with us. We need you.”

He scoffs in the dark, “You don’t need me.”

“Please.”

Heather chimes in, “Yeah, we don’t know the way. And I really need to find my mom.”

Her plea wins him over, and he joins us, moving ahead to take the lead. I stare at the back of his head.

I met Xander in elementary school. He came to town with his father for work. He was shy then, totally miserable after his mother passed away, and had no drive to make friends. The students treated him with a pariah, keeping their distance in case he harnessed some evil power. But I had nothing but interest in this newcomer. He and I became friends, our love for anime keeping us connected. I was made fun of for talking to him. Year after year, I'd get asked, 'Why are you friends with him?' I don't think I would have ended our friendship, even though it cost me friends of my own if Xander hadn't been the one to stop talking to me. ‘Don’t hang out with losers,' He said one day, 'or everyone will think you’re a loser.’

I tried to fight for us, but my mother decided our friendship had run it's course. 'He's a waste of space, honey. Don't waste your time with people like that. 

When I got to High school, my mother wanted me to become a cheerleader because she believed those were the type of friends I needed. So I pretended I didn’t know Xander when we passed each other in the hall. I pretended I didn’t see him sitting in the back of my class, and I acted like he wasn’t even there if he stood behind me in line. And slowly, I stopped thinking about him all together. 

Lincoln's hand slips to mine, “Not exactly the night I wanted.” 

I hold his arm close to me. “Me either.”

Tonight was the night I was going to give it up. I made Lincoln wait the last two years but now was a better time than any. I don't know what made God pick now to intervene. He was two months too late. 

I look down at my belly. Three pregnancy tests can’t be wrong as much as I want them to be. 

When I missed my first period, I didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t until I started throwing up randomly that Heather suggested the worst. She knew I cheated, but I didn’t tell her who it was with.      

I’m a terrible person. I’m lying to a person that loves me. I’m hurting a person I love. But I’m thinking of my future. 

My mother always wanted the best for me. She wanted me to never worry about money. To be able to travel. To do everything in life that she was never able to do. 

And that kind of future didn't involve Xander Lewis. 

Lincoln is a good guy. He’s a good football player, but more importantly, he will follow in his father’s footsteps. He plans to go to community college because God forbid anyone leaves this fucking town. He will take over his family business in the restaurant industry and hopefully become Mayor when he’s older. I fell in love with him because of his strength and stupid humor. It was adorable at first. But maybe it’s growing up that is the problem. If I stayed the naive fifteen-year-old when I met him, he’d be perfect, and I’d never look elsewhere for fulfillment. 

There is no family restaurant. 

There is no community college.

There is no mayor of a town that no longer exists. 

It hasn't sunk in yet that the future I planned for and sacrificed for isn't going to happen. Or maybe there's still a chance. I don't know what to hope for.  

“Let me get some things." Xander interrupts my thoughts, "Anyone need a drink? Or got to go to the bathroom?” When he looks expectantly in my direction, I take the hint and claim the bathroom. Using the flashlight on his phone, Xander lights our path toward his broken porch. There are random plants, mostly dying, a broken gnome, and an ultraviolet fly trap hanging on the tilted porch roof. I step on the carpet that’s barely visible from all the dirt. 

“Don’t judge,” Xander murmurs, and I shake my head, pretending I’m not when I totally am. 

He pushes the metal door open and holds it for me. “The bathroom’s on the left.”

I nod and step toward it, but I don’t have to go. Xander sets the phone on the small bar table to let the light expand over the trailer. I stand outside the bathroom door, looking around. There’s a bedroom to my left, and I intentionally don't look at it. On the opposite side is a living room with only a couch and a TV. The sofa looks like it’s been slept in, a blanket hangs on the backside, and the cushions sink in. It smells like smoke and a distant cologne spray. I turn to the wall to look at the picture frames. There’s one of his mother, and I zoom in on it, having never seen her. She has Xander’s smile. I touch the frame in disbelief at how much they look alike. 

Xander slaps flashlights on the counter, and I turn to watch him. He grabs his bookbag and empties all the contents onto the counter. He fills it with water bottles and granola bars. Then notices me. He puts his hands down on the counter, hanging his head, shifting uncomfortably. “You shouldn’t go. It’s dangerous. You could fall.”

“I’ll be fine.”

He shakes his head. There’s tension in his shoulders, and he struggles to talk. Xander turns and faces me. He crosses his arms, just looking at me with his brown eyes. He hasn’t shaved the stubble on his face. He grew up to be good-looking, and if he took care of himself, if he changed how he dressed and spoke, he’d be more popular than Lincoln.  

But he hates it when I say that. 

“Did you…” He cuts himself off, running a hand through his hair. 

I know what he’s asking, and my face reddens. “No.”

He clenches his teeth, sighs, and throws his head back, exposing his adam’s apple and the tribal tattoo. 

“But I’m still gonna.”

Xander straightens his head and glares at me with knit brows and a twisted mouth. “Think he won’t notice when the baby isn’t black?”

“It happens all the time.” I fight back. 

He sneers, “Always have an answer.”

“Please. You know it was a mistake.”

Xander steps toward me aggressively, and I step back, afraid. He’s brows knit in confusion at my reaction, and it throws him off. He turns around and snatches up all the flashlights and the bookbag. He grabs the door handle, pausing as he looks at me. “You’re just so good at lying you can’t even see your own bullshit.” 

He leaves the house. 

I put a hand on my mouth, suppressing anything attempting to come out. I swallow the tears, the fear, the sorrow. I know what I’m doing is right. As painful as it is, it's the better alternative. This is what my mother would want, and it’s what I want. Xander is a friend, and it sucks that I have to hurt him, but we should have never been alone together. 

With our flashlights out, we move through the woods at a slow pace. The descent isn’t horrible, but it is downhill. We use trees to help keep our balance.

Lightning flashes in the sky, and we stop our movement as we look up. The dark shadows of the trees expose with every flash of light. It’s fast, and so many it got impossible to count. We wait for thunder, but it never comes.  

“Heat lightning,” Heather suggests.

Xander replies, “There’s no such thing as heat lightning.” 

“Where’s the thunder?” I whisper, listening with intensity, but it’s quiet; not even the sound of crickets surrounds us. How can that be? 

“I think we should go back.” Xander tries again. 

Lincoln scoffs, “And sit in your metal box during a lightning storm?”

“Wow, you listened to something in science class for once.” Xander turns away from him before Lincoln can lash out. Xander throws over his shoulder, “Let’s hurry.”

I keep a hand on Lincoln’s arm, trying to calm him. He curses under his breath, helping me off a log. Lincoln and Xander have never been friends, even when we were young. Xander thought Lincoln was annoying, and Lincoln thought Xander was egotistic. Lincoln probably doesn’t like the fact that Xander’s good at sports. As I said, if he ever tried, Xander would be the only all-star in our town. He was naturally good at everything. But somewhere between middle school and high school, he became more of an introvert and refused to participate in P.E. 

Freddy and Heather are falling behind, and I lean against a tree as we wait for them. Lincoln stands in front of me, “Do you think…” He bows his head, “Do you think anyone’s alive?”

I hold his thick fingers in mine. I don’t want to think about it. What’s the point of worrying? It’s not gonna soften the blow at all. “There has to be. There were spots where the fire hadn't gotten. There’s more than us. That firetruck was proof.”

He nods his head, but I know he’s getting emotional. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want it to pull out any tears of my own. I shout back to Heather, “Let’s move!” 

“I’m trying.” She hisses, stumbling. “I hate the woods.”

Heather is the girl afraid of everything. Our classmates love pulling pranks on her, sneaking up behind her, and going ‘boo!’ She screeches every time. They leave fake snakes in her locker or plastic lizards on her chair. At least once a day, I hear her screaming. 

The sky continues to flicker. Bright light slipping through the leaves of the trees. I know it’s not normal, and it could mean something worse is coming, but I don’t let myself think about it. I step by Lincoln as Heather comes up. She takes a deep breath and sighs, taking a seat on the ground. 

Freddy calls out, “Yo, Xander, you got a joint on you?”

“My dad’s in that business, not me.”

All the teenagers know the place to get weed is Xander’s dad. He’s the only supplier in the ten-mile radius of our little town. Otherwise, people have to drive a half hour toward the city next to us to find recreational drugs. He’s been arrested a few times, but charges have always been dropped. My mother says the system is rigged but never goes further into it. It’s an added reason why she hates Xander’s dad so much. 

“I need something, man.” Freddy whines. “I can’t fucking deal with this shit. My mom could be dead. My fucking dog. It’s too much, man.”

“Shut up,” Lincoln orders. 

“I’m just saying, the city’s on fire.”

I walk away, distancing myself from any words that could inhibit me. 

Freddy is on the yearbook committee because it’s the only elective that lets him sleep. He’s failing all his classes, invested most of his time into video games, and yet somehow managed to get Heather’s attention. I haven’t figured out what she sees in him. He has zero future potential. But my mother says girls pay too much attention to their hearts and not enough attention to their brains. ‘Don’t be dumb.’ She would tell me. 

When I learned I was pregnant, my first thought was those words. ‘Don’t be dumb.’ 

I thought I hadn’t. We used a condom. I’m on birth control even though I was technically a virgin at the time. I didn’t know that condoms could break. I didn’t know that if you missed a day of your pills, you would still be fertile. Despite how hard I tried to be smart, I still failed in her eyes. 

Now, the only thing I can do is make the best out of it. Soften the blow. Getting pregnant by Lincoln would upset her, but not when I come up with a plan for success. Lincoln would go to school first for business, and we’d both work and save. When the baby turns five and starts school, I’ll go to college and become a nurse. Nothing has to change.

Except everything has changed. 

I slip on a wet patch of leaves and fall back on my hands. Xander whips around, the light shining on my face. 

“I’m fine,” I ask his unspoken question. 

He turns back around with a mutter I can’t make out. 

Lincoln slips his hands under my armpits and lifts me to my feet. I giggle as I shift out of his hold, feeling like a weightless baby. He takes this time to dust off my butt, if only to feel it. I squeal to get away. 

“I’m helping.” He claims, cackling. “There’s a little more.”

I feel my butt, and there’s nothing there. “Jerk.”   


 

Chapter 3-Don’t Think

 

There's an opening in the woods like something came through and wiped a clear path for us to see down into town. The glow is stronger, illuminating the trees and our faces while the smoke climbs high into the air and creates a shadow above us. And as we stand there, small little flakes float through the air. 

"Snow?" Lincoln wonders, holding up his hand.

One lands in my palm, and I whisper, "Ash." 

I feel like a child when a parent tells them the stove is hot. I can't believe it, not right away, until I touch it, and it burns. 

My knees give out. 

This is real, isn't it? 

It's not a dream or a prank. I keep thinking that it's not as bad as it looks. Everyone's fine. Everyone made it somehow. 

But that's not the truth, is it?

Xander kneels on the floor, glancing at me. I meet his eyes briefly and see the concern, but I shake my head. I don't want his worry. I don't want him to take care of me. 

Xander bitterly turns away, opening the front pocket of his book bag. He holds up two medical masks. "Covid was good for something." He comes up, handing it to Heather and me. "Put your shirts up over your mouth." He tells the boys. "You don't want to breathe it in."

Lincoln doesn't listen and walks beside me cocky. If anyone else had told him what to do, he'd heed the suggestion, but because it was Xander, he'd rather take the risk of smoke inhalation. The trees help keep us covered for the most part, so I don't fight it. He'll learn when he starts coughing. 

Xander stumbles ahead of us. It's harder for him to travel, with one hand holding up the shirt and the other holding the flashlight. He uses his arm to lean against tree trunks but slips more than anything. I want to help, but I don't. I stay away because I don't want to mislead him. I've already down the worst thing I can do. 

I made him hope. 

If I were to tell my mom that Xander's the father, she'd disown me. That isn't a question. She'd kick me out, and then what? I'd live with Xander? In that tin can? We'd never make it to college. We'd be a couple of fucking brokeass bums raising broke-ass babies. 

I even sound like a bitch to myself. 

But that's reality. I can't listen to my heart. It doesn't understand how money pays the bills. It doesn't want to admit that money can buy happiness. It can buy everything we need. 

A thunder rumbles, and all of us pause to listen to it better. 

"What is it?" Heather whispers.

Then the ground beneath our feet begins to shutter. 

"Earthquake!" I screech, "Hold on to a tree!" I wrap my arms around the closest tree trunk and shut my eyes. Lincoln presses his body behind me and holds on to the bark, burying his face into my neck. The trees violently sway, their branches bending like winds in a hurricane. Cracks sound around us, a dozen of them, one after another, and I'm not brave enough to open my eyes to watch. Fingers grip mine, and I know their Xander's. 

"Hold on!" He hollers. 

Heather is screaming, "Make it stop! Make it stop!" 

Please, please, please are the only words going through my mind. I don't beg God; I don't know if I believe in Him. I don't know who I'm talking to. Maybe mother nature. Maybe whoever designed this planet and left us here. But all I keep repeating is 'please.'

Something slices my arm, but I don't move. 

Twenty seconds.

Thirty seconds.

Forty seconds.

And then it abruptly stops. 

I listen only to my breathing. I feel only Lincoln's breath on my skin and Xander's fingers curled around my own. 

Is it over?

Slowly, they both slip away. I daringly open my eyes. The bark in front of me is black in the darkness; all I can see is the fire ahead of me, distant but ever-present. 

I pant, trying to bring back my thoughts and my courage. 

"Fuck." Lincoln sighs, sitting down. 

I slowly detach to look around us. Trees are cut in half, uprooted, or simply bare, like the leaves were stripped by a giant. There are areas where the ground itself opened up and created caverns. 

The path home has just been destroyed. 

I lean back against the tree. 

We almost died. 

Xander stands on a fallen tree, looking over the wreckage, trying to find a way to town, but even now, more things fall. It's dangerous, and I wonder if it's worth the risk. 

I should have taken him up on the offer to stay in his trailer. I don't want to do this anymore. I want to pretend that everything is normal. In his tiny, cozy home, I could block out all the things I hate. 

Xander turns toward us. "We should go back."  

Another rumble begins. 

"Not again." Heather moans, burying her face back into Freddy's chest as they cling to a tree. 

But it's clearly coming from behind us. We all look up the mountain to see Xander's trailer rolling down the hillside. It slams into an unbreakable tree trunk, bending in half. The door flies open, and papers scatter to the ground. The ultraviolet fly trap swings from the distorted, broken porch. 

Xander clenches his teeth, glaring as if the trailer disappointed him.  

Lincoln cackles, "Yeah, let's go back."

"Lincoln." I hiss. 

He shrugs, careless. 

Xander steps beside me, eyeing the trailer. "I hated that place." He murmurs. 

"I'm sorry."

He shakes his head, turning to me. Then his eyes fasten down to my arm, and he grabs my hand, "You're bleeding." 

I look at it, having forgotten all about it. The cut is deep, and blood has been dripping from my fingers this whole time. A small puddle is in the mud.  

"Oh, shit," Lincoln curses. He looks around for something to cover it up with, but aside from random leaves, there isn't anything. 

"It's fine," I murmur, even as the pain begins to radiate. It burns, and I don't dare to move my fingers, too afraid it will hurt. 

Xander takes a pocket knife out of his jeans and flicks it open. 

"What are you going to do with that?" Lincoln wonders. 

Xander grabs the edge of his shirt, ready to cut it, when Lincoln stops him. "Give it to me." He snatches it out of his hand and holds his own jersey. 

"Really?" Xander chastises. 

"My girlfriend, my problem." Lincoln cuts into the fabric of his shirt, ripping it all around him till it looks like a belly shirt. He holds it up, looking down, admiring his muscled stomach, "Not bad." He slaps his abs with force. 

"I'm bleeding." I remind him. 

"Oh yeah." Lincoln tosses the knife back to Xander before wrapping the long scrape of red clothe around my arm. He holds it there, searching for something to tie it with. "Give me your shoelace."

"You got to rip it." Xander orders. He comes up and takes over, ripping the hem in half and then tying it. I gasp at the sharp pain. "Sorry." He murmurs. 

"It's fine. Thank you." With Xander and Lincoln both looking at me, I shrink. Searching for an exit, I dive out between them to pay attention to Heather. She's crying into Freddy while they sit on the floor. I sit down beside her, holding my arm in my lap, whispering words of encouragement. I whisper words I keep telling myself. 

It will be alright. 

Don't worry.

Relax.

Just breathe. 

I notice Freddy's bleeding from the head, a bump surfacing. 

"It's nothing." He claims. "A branch got me." Freddy touches it and winces. 

Heather sniffs, moving her mask so she can rub her face with the back of her hand. "What are we gonna do?" 

The fire ignites the sky like a full moon. The ash continues to fall, increasing like an incoming snow storm. And the ground is racked with debris. It looks hopeless. 

Xander jumps up on top of a fallen tree trunk, one that missed us by mere feet. It looks unreal how he stands there with the fire in front of him and a mess of trees beside him, like an image from anime. If only some of us had magical powers. 

"I think we should get to a bunker." Xander determines. He looks back at us, "Anyone know of one?"

"A bunker?" Lincoln laughs, "Think the worst already happened."

Xander jumps down, approaching, "You ever heard of an Earthquake in Georgia? In case you haven't figured it out," He points to the sky, "Something wrong is going on."

Heather slips her hands over her ears. 

I snap, "You're scaring her."

"She should be scared. I'm scared. This is scary shit." 

I get to my feet, "It doesn't do any good pointing everything out."

"You mean the obvious? Yeah, let's just ignore facts. You're good at that." Xander pushes past me, heading to his broken trailer. 

I clamp my lips tight, letting him go. He thinks I'm not facing the truth, but he's the one in denial. I've been in love with Lincoln for years. Whatever happened between us was a moment of stupidity and nothing more. 

It was a mistake, and he doesn't want to admit it. 

I take a bottle of water from the bookbag and sit. I don't know what a ton of blood looks like, but I'm afraid I've lost a lot. In which case, I need water to supplement. I chug it down till it's empty. While I sit, I psyche myself up about the work ahead. I'll just have to be careful. Watch every step. A fall could hurt the baby. 

Would that be so bad?

I squeeze my eyes shut, hating myself more than I've hated anyone.

The fact is, it would solve all my problems. I could pretend to be a virgin again. I wouldn't have to miss out on school. I could eventually break up with Lincoln and maybe even go to college in another state. I could continue to be everything my mother wants me to be. 

I touch a hand on my stomach. I don't have any connection to what's growing inside me. I don't even really understand it or believe it. Yet I'm supposed to change my whole life because of it. It's not fair. I've been a good girl all my life, and my one screw-up wants to haunt me. 

I hate it. 

Tears spring to my eyes. 

I take a sharp breath, cutting off the emotion like you would a mangled leg. I can get through this. I just need to not think about it. 

Chapter 4 Aftershock

 

A twinkie lands in my lap. Xander stands beside me, his black boots strapped up with his black pants tucked into them. "You need to eat."

I hold up the twinkie, "I'm not hungry."

He backs away, leaving it with me. 

With a roll of my eyes, I hold the carb in front of me. My stomach growls, reminding me I haven't eaten since before the game. I unwrap it and stare at it. I'm a cheerleader, first and foremost. Having a body like mine comes with a price. I haven't had carbs in two weeks, and it takes every ounce of me to take a bite. The moment the cream touches my tongue, however, I devour it and search for more. 

Xander happens to be right behind me and notices. He holds out his. 

I turn away from it. 

"Take it." He orders. 

With aggravation, I snatch it and eat it too. 

Lincoln is taking the last bite of his as he approaches. "So what do we do?'

Xander slips his hands into the pockets of his hoodie, "I found a rope and an ax. But I don't know if that will help us." 

I look over my shoulder. Heather is drinking water, and Freddy is smoking a cigarette. They watch the fire hypnotically with dead expressions. They look how I don't want to feel. 

"Maybe we should split up."

"No." Xander says, "It's too dangerous. We're gonna need each other."

"I'm just saying we'd be faster–"

"If we abandoned your friends." Xander cackles, shaking his head, "Cutthroat, Faye."

I stand, brushing the leaves off my butt, "I'm not cutthroat."

Xander ignores me and calls, "Let's go." 

Lincoln does a dead jump up on a fallen tree and straightens with a roar from his gut, "I'm made for this, baby!" He flexes his arms, posing in the firelight. He jumps to the next trunk and then the one after that, bulldozing on with energy I wish I had. 

Freddy helps Heather up and then clambers after. They are slow and tired, but they continue on nonetheless. I wasn't suggesting leaving them because we're faster. I was suggesting leaving them because they aren't the most athletic, and I fear for their safety.

I'm a massive fucking hypocrite.   

Xander holds his hand out for me. 

I don't take it and latch on to a broken branch, hauling myself up that way. I stand straight, proud. Then my balance wobbles, and Xander latches onto me. He catches my eye with apparent disapproval, and I hang my head embarrassed. "Faye." He murmurs. "You don't have to do this by yourself."

I hate it when he says nice things. I want him to be an asshole. I need him to be mean to me to keep my heart buried. "You don't know anything," I whisper, brushing his hands off me. 

He disregards me, "Please be careful. This is stressful enough without worrying about you."

"Then don't worry about me."

He scoffs, his lip full of disgust. I jump down as he growls, "Wish I could. Seriously wish I could." 

Despite trying to get away from him, he sticks to me like a freaking shadow. Every move I make, he has his hands out, making sure I don't fall; it's ridiculous. I'm not made of glass. I can handle this. I rush to get away from him and prove that I don't need him. 

I trip on a branch sticking out and roll over onto a pile of branches. "Oh fuck." I cry, feeling little cuts scrap my bare arms. It wasn't a bad fall, but the look on Xander's face was enough to make me feel guilty. 

He doesn't say anything despite how badly he wants to. He slaps his hand on a tree trunk and stomps away. Lincoln jumps down beside me, "You alright?" He grabs my hand and hauls me to my feet. "Got to be careful, Faye. I don't think I could carry you back to town." He playfully lifts me with his arm under my legs, holding my back. 

I'm laughing as he pretends to do a curl. 

"You are pretty light." He leans in, and I lower my mask to give him a kiss.  

"I love how silly you are."

"I know. I'm awesome like that. But serious. Don't get hurt. It will slow us down."

"I won't." He plops me down on my feet but keeps a hold of my hand, dragging me with him wherever he goes. He finds the footholds with ease and tells me where to jump. He makes it easy. Which is why I know he's the better choice. He'd make life fun. He's the kind of guy that doesn't need answers. He just goes with it, and I need someone like that because I have to have all the fucking answers. I have to know what we are doing tomorrow, a week, a year, I'm planning, and I don't like messing up my plans.  

Xander was never part of the plan. 

The fires have expanded, and even from a distance, we can see where we're going. It's a debilitating thought that by the time we get to our home, everything will be incinerated. 

But that's not helpful. 

Heather and Freddy are falling behind again. Xander is with them, trying to lead the way to make it easier. He tied a flashlight around his neck, and it sways, throwing light in random directions. He uses his free hand to cover his mouth, protecting himself from the increasing downpour of ash. 

I hear Lincoln cough, and I snap my head toward him. He glances at me, hoping I haven't heard it. He gives a fake smile. 

"Cover your mouth," I order. 

With a roll of his eyes, he lifts his shirt and holds it with his free hand. 

The ash makes me think of Christmas, and it's always a white Christmas in Georgia.  

In the mornings, it's just my mom and me drinking coffee and handing each other a gift. I always struggle to pick something out for her because I don't even know what's good enough. I bought her a plant one year, and she called it a weed. Another year, I bought her a picture frame, and she used it as a doorstop. As I got older, her expectations increased while my level of care decreased. Now that I have a job, I just buy her gift cards, so I don't have to think about it. 

Thankfully, we don't have to enjoy each other's presence for long. Someone usually invites us to their house because they feel bad for us. My dad walked out when I turned eight and started dating another woman from the next town. It was everyone's business, and everyone felt betrayed despite it having nothing to do with them. The 'how could he?' and the 'I'm so sorry' continue to this day. Mom never found anyone else. I don't know if it was because she didn't want it or because she was too busy with her career, but either way, it's been her and I for the past nine years. 

I rub the ash out of my eyes, finding it more difficult to see far. 

"We're gonna have to take cover," Xander says. 

"Nope." Lincoln replies. "I'm getting home."

"Me too." 

"Our visibility is shot. The floor is getting slippery. And it's only getting harder to find a way through." 

Lincoln and I don't let him change our minds. It doesn't matter if it's true. We're gonna make it even if it takes all night. We've been traveling for over two hours and aren't much further. Maybe another two or three miles. Once we get to the bottom of the mountain, it will just be a straight run. 

"Lincoln," Xander calls out, jumping to reach us. 

Lincoln stalls, squatting down to take a minute break as he waits. I keep moving because I know what Xander's doing. Ever since I got pregnant, he thinks he can dictate my life. But I've been living just fine without him, and I can continue to do so. 

Xander gets on Lincoln's tree trunk, "It's dangerous for Faye."

"She does way more dangerous stuff in cheerleading."

I yell over my shoulder, "Yeah, I do!"  

Lincoln fights for me, "What are we gonna do? The ground will be covered in ash by morning. We don't have food. We're running out of water. It's an hour tops back to town."

Once I'm far enough away, I turn back to see them standing side by side. I hate that they're so close. I don't know what Xander could whisper. He holds my secrets in the palm of his hand, but I trust him enough to keep them. Lincoln would attack, which would be a new problem to deal with. He's smart enough to know now isn't the time. 

I hope.

"Alright," Xander sighs, "My friend's house is down there." He points to a dark pile of broken and managed tree limbs. I can make out the roof. "Let's regroup. Get food, water, get something to help cover our faces."

"Alright." Lincoln agrees. "Freddy, hurry up!" 

Freddy is panting and struggling to climb over the next tree. "I hate physical shit." He grumbles. He turns and helps Heather. 

The ground begins to tremble. 

"Aftershock!" Someone yells, but my concentration is on my feet. I balance like I'm standing on top of a pyramid. I take a deep breath, focusing entirely on my center, breathing into my diaphragm. It's only a couple of seconds, ten at most, and then it stops. I drop to my knees, blowing out air. I did it, and I didn't need any help.  

A scream rips through the air, and I snap my head back. Xander and Lincoln are running across the trunk, jumping down. Heather is screaming and pointing behind the tree Freddie had been standing on. I stumble as I move, panic making me hasty. I swing my leg over, pushing through even when it hurts. I jump on the last trunk right before them and look down. 

Xander and Lincoln are trying to lift the tree, but it weighs more than a ton, and it doesn't seem to matter how hard they try. There's blood pooling out in the leaves on the ground. We are screaming for Freddy but no sound nor move is returned. 

I move to the left and jump down to be on the ground with Heather. She keeps screaming, staring at his feet that stick out. I grab her, pulling her away, holding her even as she convulses. "Shh, Heather, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Shh.." My words don't get through. 

I cling to her, desperate to make her stop. My tears are breaking through and I hate it. I'm not going to cry. Not now. Not here. I pull her back, "Enough!" I smack her and her eyes go wide as her voice shuts off. 

I step back, shocked by my own movements. "I'm sorry."

She drops to her knees. 

Xander steps toward us. I slip my eyes up to him. Disgust knits on his brows. He doesn't understand me. No one will. I'm a monster and I'm cold. I know it. I don't know how I got this way or when I stopped caring, but it's like being a robot, numb and empty. 

Xander kneels down beside her and takes her in his arms. "I'm sorry, Heather." He murmurs in her ear. "We can't help him."

She nods against his neck, otherwise unmoving.

I turn away, lest my tears get the best of me. 

There's something wrong with me. 

I sit on the ground, Freddy's feet remain unmoving and I watch them, begging for a flinch, for a sign that he's not gone. 

I have known Freddy since middle school. He was the class clown then, a boy that would do anything for a laugh, even get detention if it made someone happy. But his mother's boyfriends beat the silliness out of him. He was one of the reasons I wanted to become a nurse. So I could treat teens and recognize the signs of abuse when they'd come into the ER with broken bones from 'falling down the stairs'.  

Noticing Lincoln, I get up and move toward him. He continues to try moving the tree. All his muscles swell, and the veins in his neck pop out. He's built up a sweat in the last five minutes. He stops for a second, curses, breathes, and then tries again. "Lincoln," I whisper, coming up behind him. 

"Fuck." He curses and goes to lift it again. 

I put a hand on his shoulder. 

He drops his head against the tree. He chokes on a sob, swings around, and wraps me up in a tight hug. 

I stand there, stiff, quiet, afraid if I bend, I'll break. 

We don't have time for this.

We have to get back. 

Don't look at it. Don't think about it. 

Xander manages to get Heather to her feet, but she is slow and doesn't have the strength to pull herself over the tree. Lincoln touches the bark one more time before he moves away to help. I stare at the blood, my light shining on it. It grows while I stand there as if it's searching for me. I take a step back, afraid it could actually reach out and grab me, and there'll be nothing left of me. 

Chapter 5 Cracks

 

It takes another hour to reach the bottom. My jeans are ripped, and I'm bleeding from dozens of cuts. My arm feels numb, and the shirt that was used to wrap it is completely drenched with blood. 

But I'm still moving. I can't stop yet. 

From down here, our visibility has drastically been altered. Aside from an orange hue in the dark, we can't see. Ash is thick as a snowstorm, and we hide our faces, staring down at our soot-covered shoes as we travel through someone's backyard. 

Lincoln coughs beside me. He carries Heather bridal style in his arms as Xander leads the way, pushing away anything that's fallen in their path. Ash drenches his face, and he coughs again. 

The house of Xander's friend is untouched by the avalanche of trees. They were lucky. I climb the stairs, trying to knock off as much dirt and mud as I can, shaking my clothes as I get under the cover of their porch. As I peek into the door's window, there's no sound or movement. Not even candles, "I don't think they're home."

Xander climbs the stairs, his footprints shaping in the ash. He pounds on the door, "Mike!" After two seconds, he tries the door. It opens, and he pushes it wide. "Mike!" He shouts again. 

"He left the door open? My mom would totally freak." 

"Who locks their door?" Xander asks. 

"I do."

He steps by me, "Why isn't that a surprise?"

I try to respond, but Lincoln comes up behind me, and I move out of his way as he maneuvers Heather inside. I close the door and lock it just for validation. Lincoln sets Heather on the couch, and Xander wraps a blanket around her. 

Lincoln moves away to cough like a 60-year smoker, holding up a hand when I start to approach. 

Xander squats down beside Heather and takes off her mask. "We're okay. Why don't you lay down and rest?" She nods and curls up against the pillow. But her eyes don't close as she stares out the window. 

I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I want to help, but what can I offer? I can't be a shoulder to cry on. I don't seem to have an ounce of compassion in my body. 

Where did I go?

Xander stands up and looks at me. Can he see how helpless I feel? Can he fix me?

"Can you make us something to eat?"

I eagerly nod and move into the kitchen. I toss my gross mask on the counter and wash the muck and blood off my hands. My fingers from my left arm are unmoving, or maybe I'm too afraid to move them. I don't know if I can't feel them or if I can't feel anything in general. 

I find bread and make peanut butter and jelly, but as I open the jar with one hand, Xander can see my struggle. He comes over and takes it from me.  

I can feel his concern, but I want to ruin it, and I snap, "We're breaking and entering just so you know."

Xander scoffs, digging the knife into the peanut butter, "End of the world, and you're worried about your reputation. Again. Not surprising."

"Shut up." I snap. "Let's not be dramatic. It's not the end of the world."

I stand there, not knowing what else I can do. Lincoln has finally stopped coughing and straightens with a proud back as if he hadn't just spent the last five minutes coughing up a lung, "I'm going to the bathroom." He declares and heads down the hallway, slapping a door shut. 

Without Lincoln, in Xander's presence, I feel without a shield. "I gonna look for clothes." 

I go in the opposite direction, searching for a bedroom. I assume it's Mike's. He's got army posters on the walls and a swimsuit model above the bed. I hesitate, feeling odd about going into a stranger's bedroom. I know I'd freak out if anyone went through my stuff. His bed is messy, and I can't fall on the mattress no matter how tired I am. If I rest, I won't get back up. All his items that were on the dresser spread on the floor. There are cracks in the wall. Furniture turned over. The computer lays smashed on the ground. I shift through his drawers, scared I'm gonna find porn somewhere.  

The door closes behind me, and Xander stands there. He's quiet, unmoving as he stares at me. He took off his hoodie revealing the Korn T-shirt underneath. There are small little cuts on his hands and arms. A tear in the bottom of his shirt and smudges of ash on his face. 

"What?"

"I'm not gonna let you be with Lincoln."

"Excuse me? Let me?"

"I'm telling him." He turns, and I jump toward him, grabbing his arm and putting myself against the door.  

"No, you're not." If he tells Lincoln, my whole life will be destroyed. He doesn't understand. 

Xander grabs my jaw, holding me still. "I love you, Faye. I always have."

The words throw me off, and I snicker, pulling his hand away as I push out of his hold, "You hate me, Xander."

"I hate fake you. I hate how you pretend to be something you're not. I hate how you refuse to feel. I hate that you. But the one I know better. The one I've fallen in love with is a book nerd." My knees tremble as he smiles. With a hand out, he approaches slowly, like he's coming toward a spirited horse, "She feels more than she wants too."

"Stop."

He grabs my arms, holding me still, "You don't have to pretend with me. Or be strong for me. I can handle all of you, Faye. Even the parts you don't like."

Tears are burning my eyes again, and I hate it. I hate how he always says the right things. I hate how he digs into me like a worm. 

Xander rests his forehead against mine, "Even the parts your mother tries to smother."

I clench my eyes tight.

How can he love me but not my own mother? He can't love me. 

I push him away, "I'm gonna look in another room."

I dive into the next room and shut the door, locking it this time. I press my back against the wall with a hand over my mouth. My knees give out, and I sink to the floor. 

My mother says boys lie to get what they want. 'So don't be dumb, Faye.'

My heart pounds in my chest. I hate it. I hate that it exists, causing so much turmoil that I can't think straight. I don't want to be dealing with this. And yet, all I'm thinking about is what I've done. 

I spent years watching Xander from a distance. I always knew when he was behind in line, I felt electrocuted or poisoned. I would see him sitting in the back of the class with his hoodie over his head as he pretended to sleep. When he would pass me by in the hall, my back would stiffen as if I was trying to impress him, and he wouldn't even look at me. 

I was reading a book, a stupid romance, when the idea struck me to go to his house and tell him all that I felt. It was so unlike me, and yet, it was the first time I felt genuine excitement. I banged on his door, waiting for him to come out, but he was behind the trailer, sitting next to the fire. 

'Faye?' He whispered, 'What are you doing up here?'

Blindly, I went to him. I couldn't speak, however, and I stood before him like an idiot. Rashly, I stepped in and kissed him. He was shocked at first, and when I stepped back, I don't know if it was confusion or rejection, but I turned to run anyway. He grabbed my arm and spun me back to him, kissing me in a way that devoured me.

The amount of care he expressed that night was more than I've ever felt. 

Even as the world is ending, he's still caring. 

I don't deserve it.

I'm not a good person. I'm selfish. I'm bitchy. I'm cold. He hates that person. There is no dual side to me. There isn't anyone I'm suppressing. This is me. A heartless harlot that cheats on their sweet and funny boyfriend. 

A girl that can't even cry when her world is being blown apart. 

A girl that slapped her grieving friend. 

Get up, Faye.

I rub my face clear of tears. I'm wasting time. 

I look for clothes to wear. Mike's mother's shirts are a bit bigger, but they'll do for now. I find a pair of yoga pants and some boots, a little hard to put on with one hand, but I wiggle until it fits. 

In the master bathroom, pieces of tile fell off their shower wall. The glass above the sink cracked in the middle, and all their little trinkets lay on the floor. I squat and yank open the cabinet, searching for medical supplies.  

A knock on the door, "You here, Faye?" Lincoln calls.

"Hold on." 

I find an elastic bandage and some gauze. With a shaking hand, I unwrap Lincoln's jersey from my arm. I have to bite my lip, tears and groans are about to escape. My skin is split apart, and the blood oozes out dripping in rapid speed into the sink. I grab a small towel and drape it across before using my chin to keep the bandage in place as I wrap it. I have to tighten it and redo it. Lincoln knocks on the door again. 

"I'm in the restroom."

"Hurry up, I'm cold."

I'm shaking from pain and a bit of anxiousness. The wound doesn't look good. I will most definitely need stitches, but when will I be able to get them? I could try to look for a needle and thread and do it myself, but I don't know if I have the balls to do something like that.  

I unlock the door, "Hey."

Lincoln wears a towel around his waist, and his black skin glistens from the flashlight. He smiles, "You find some clothes for me?"

"You took a shower?" I blink wide, backing up to go search the closet. 

"Ash and sweat don't smell good." He comments, closing the door behind him. 

I pull out a shirt and toss it on the bed before searching through the drawl for pants. While I'm bent over, Lincoln comes up behind me and grabs my hips. I slap at his hand, laughing and pulling out a pair of sweatpants. "Would you stop?"

"Come here." He pulls me against him. I fall into him, kissing his lips. "Come on, baby, why not?"

I can't believe he's serious right now. "Why not? Because our city is on fire."

"We're both stressed. It would be nice, I promise."

"Not exactly how I want my first time."

"Oh, and the car was a better idea?"

I shift out of his hold, he's really trying, and I can't pretend to be a sweet girlfriend right now, "Not now."

Lincoln sighs and drops on the bed, "Man, I thought you wanted this as much as I do."

"I do. But I can't say I'm in the mood currently. Freddy's crushed body is still in my mind."

"Okay."

"How could you even try? Like what the fuck, Lincoln?"

"Relax, Faye, Jesus Christ."

"Then you want to make me feel guilty."

"Just forget it. We'll be virgins till we die; how about that?"

The fact that Freddie is dead and he says it like that, I can't. I leave the room, slamming the door shut, and stomp down the hallway. Xander sits at a bar with a new shirt and a grey hoodie with Fort Night on the front. He's eating peanut butter and jelly when I interrupt. "Are we ready to go?"

Wide-eyed, he nods, dropping his half-eaten sandwich. He grabs a bottle of water and another sandwich holding it out to me. 

"No, thank you."

"Eat for the baby."

I snatch it, hissing, "Shh! Holy fuck." I look back at the bedroom. 

Xander smirks, proud of himself, "Eat." He murmurs warningly. 

I take a bite, sneering at him as he goes outside. I throw the rest of it in the trash and approach Heather. She lays like she's dead, eyes wide, body motionless. I have to touch her to ease my fear. "Hey, sweetie. We're gonna go."

"I'm gonna stay here." There's no strength left in her voice. She's broken. 

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm tired."

It's nearly three in the morning. I'm exhausted and don't blame her for staying. "Okay."

Half awake, she whispers, "Can you find my parents? Tell them where I am?"

"Yeah, honey." 

It tears me in two as I walk away. Heather is my best friend, and leaving her in the state she's in feels like a betrayal, but I can't stay here. I have to figure out what's going on so I can get ahead of it. Are all my plans shot for the future? Is my mother dead? If she isn't, does anything change? Or does everything stay the same?

Am I hoping my mother's dead?

I grab a sweater hanging by the door and slip it on as I step outside. Xander is on the porch smoking a cigarette.

His words created a cavern between us, and I can't look at him. I'm pissed that he would do this now. Doesn't he realize I've got enough going on? I'm trying to create a world where a kid can grow up happy and whole with every fulfillment. I want a home for the baby that will be better than mine. I want a father that won't disappear. I want to be a mother that can encourage and support. 

But Xander would be a good father.

How can I know that? Sure, he's got good qualities, but so does Lincoln. And Lincoln has a future.  

I have to destroy what Xander feels. Somehow. I haven't been clear enough that there will be no happy ending for him and me because I'm still struggling with my decision. Not because I want to choose Xander but because it's the right thing to do. Xander's the father, and he has the right to be in his baby's life. 

But Lincoln is going to believe it's his. 

"Lincoln and I were in the bedroom."

Xander glances back at me, "So?"

"Maybe we, you know..."

He snorts and looks away, "You keep thinking I don't know you."

"What's that mean?"

"It will always be on your terms, Faye. I bet even the sky falling is somehow something you've decided."

"That's a horrible thing to say."

"And yet, not far from the truth."

"So I'm a control freak? How can you love that?"

He shakes his head, glancing back to the door, listening. He flicks his cigarette out and gets to his feet. "You can't force me to stop loving you, Faye. Believe me. I've tried for a long time."

"I'm gonna be with Lincoln and marry him."

Xander simply stands there and stares at me. He doesn't believe me. Doesn't think I'll go that far. But I'm determined. My heart isn't going to win. 

The door pulls open, and Lincoln sticks his head out, taking a bite out of the sandwich, "We leaving?" 


 

Chapter 6 Inferno

 

We walk the empty street covered in a blanket of ash. Xander found ski goggles in Mike's garage to help protect our eyes. The roads are dangerous but empty. There are potholes and cracks, downed power lines and broken houses as we go along. I haven't been in this part of town but Xander keeps knocking on doors, calling out names. 

No one answers. 

"Where the fuck is everyone?" Lincoln wonders. He has a thick jacket on with a hood. He has to be sweating, but it's better than being exposed to the ash. 

"They were at the game." I murmur, revealing a truth we don't want to think about. We know from the cliff that the school got hit. 

"Yeah, but not everyone." Xander takes off for the next house, diving into an open garage and calling, "Miss Irene?" He peeks his head in through the door. He snaps it shut, getting pissed. "She doesn't have a car, and she lives alone. She should be here." With his hands cupped around his mouth, he hollers, "Hello! Is anyone out there!"

His desperation is making me uneasy. "Would you be quiet?"

"Hello!"

"Hey!" A voice shouts back, and all of us spin around. An old black guy hangs out of his broken trailer. 

"Mr. Vargas." Xander breathes in relief. "What's happened? Where is everyone?"

"Why aren't you all in the shelter?"

"Shelter?"

"The fallout shelter on Jackson street." 

Jackson Street is in the center of town, entirely consumed by fire. 

"Can you tell us what happened?"

"You living under a rock?"

"Sure." He replies with building annoyance.

"About ten o'clock, the sirens went off. It was an hour warning, and most got to the shelter before the meteors hit. Thankfully they were small. Not like the kind that hit Philly. I've been tellin' ya'll for a month now something was comin', ain't no believe me. Now ya'll see."

"What about Philly?"

"The city's gone."

I step forward, "Gone? What do you mean gone? How do you know?"

"I got backup generators running. The radio still work. They sayin' the rock was as big as a football field. We got little bowlin balls. We lucky. No one really knows the damage yet. Can't see nothing."

Xander is incredulous, "Why didn't we know?"

"Government didn't want riots, is my guess. They didn't know exactly where it was gonna hit. Can't evacuate the whole east coast, can they?"

Lincoln turns and starts to hurry. 

"Where you goin, boy?" Mr. Vargas hollers, "You ain't go near that fire, you hear me? It will burn itself out in a couple days. Your daddy got food in that shelter. The only one to listen to me. They fine."

Xander and I jog after Lincoln. We're quiet, not knowing what to think. How can Philidelphia just be gone? How can our town be torn apart, and we're the lucky ones? 

"We should go back to Mike's," Xander murmurs. 

Lincoln curses, "Fuck that. I ain't waiting."

"What are you going to do? Fight fire?"

Lincoln spins around, "Yes! My dad probably thinks I'm dead. What if they try to get out, and the fire gets down into the shelter, and they all die?"

I shake my head, "That's a little stretch."

Lincoln turns, confronting me, "You want to be smart all the fucking time, Faye, but your mom thinks you're dead too. Don't you give a shit?"

"Y-yeah."

"Millions of people are dead-Philidelipia is gone, and you didn't even bat an eye."

I struggle with a nervous laugh, "How reliant is that information, really?"

"You know what gets me is that you haven't cried this whole fucking time. Freddie was smashed by a tree, and you just stood there. Would you cry if I died?"

My brows knit, "Where is this coming from? Why are you attacking me?"

"I'm not attacking you. I'm just wondering if there's anything in this world you care about?"

"Of course. Of course, I'd cry. Lincoln." I reach for him, but he pulls back, spinning around and taking off. 

I stand there like a stone. 

Xander steps up to me and meets my eye, but he doesn't say anything before following Lincoln. 

I don't know what they want from me. Should I break down at every mishap? Should I rely on someone else to fix everything? How long should I sit around and wait to be saved? My mother taught me that I need to take care of myself, and that's what I'm doing. Tears can't put out a fire, no matter how much you cry. 

I walk behind them, chewing the inside of my lip, fighting the stupid fucking tears they caused. I'm not gonna let them get to me now. I've fought them the whole way here, and I'm not gonna give in. They don't know what I do to keep calm. How hard it is sometimes to shove everything down inside. It wasn't fair that they'd come at me now. 

It's fine. I convince myself, You're fine. 

I'm beginning to doubt our progress, the wall of ash thickening up, reducing our length of visibility even more. It's so dark that the light from our flashlights is eaten up. I stick close to the boys, afraid I'll lose them and really be alone. 

It would be better to go back to Mike's. What can we do? 

The real question is, what can we do sitting at Mike's? 

We begin to feel the heat. It's like stepping into a warm house, yet we still can't see anything. I begin to hear crackling. I try to dust the ash from my goggles, but it smears. I lean over, rubbing my face against the inside of my shirt, and when I look up, I can't see Lincoln or Xander. 

Don't panic. They're near. I just need to catch up. 

I jog, flipping my head in all directions, searching for that one little ray of light from either of their flashlights. I don't want to call out; I don't want them to think I'm scared because I'm not. I'm just worried we've been separated. I trip on the part of the road that ripped in the Earthquake and skin my knee. I sit up, my hands covered in black powdery soot. It's an inch thick on the ground, and by the time the fires have finished burning, how much will accumulate? All the plants and flowers will be dead. Any animals that live here wouldn't be able to survive. We'll become a dead zone.  

The city I was born in would no longer be liveable. 

"Lincoln!" I get to my feet, desperate now, "Xander!" I run, stumbling as I hurry, "Xander! Lincoln!" I stop, turning in a circle, hopeless, lost, and spinning out of control.

Everything is spinning out of fucking control! 

"Hey!" Lincoln calls, running up to me. I smash into him, gripping his shirt. "You're alright, baby. Don't worry."

"I'm not worried." I bite, pulling back. "Why'd you leave me?"

"We were walking, and you disappeared. I didn't leave no one." He holds my hand, directing me back toward Xander. I keep my head bowed, refusing to show him any weakness. It's normal for someone to get a little antsy when they are separated from their group. I didn't do anything uncommon.

Through the thick sheet of soot, orange light is ahead of us. "What street are we on?"

I answer, "Georgia."

"We know everything to the left is on fire. There's no point going that way. So let's turn right."

"Go leave town?" I sneer. 

I head in the direction of the orange light just to spite him. 

"No." Xander bites, following after me reluctantly, "Go up near the hospital. There was no way they could have evacuated the whole hospital so let's see if someone is there."

"They could have; it's not very big."

"Do you have to fight me on everything?"

"Everything is a hyperbole. I don't fight you on everything." 

Lincoln chuckles, "Least I'm not the only one."

"Only one, what?"

He snaps his head, perhaps hoping I haven't heard. He struggles to come up with something, "You just always got to be in charge, that's all. And I love that about you." He recovers. 

"If I'm not in charge of things, Lincoln, we would never do anything. We would sit at your house and play video games all night."

"No. Most definitely not all night." He winks, nudging me. 

I roll my eyes. "I'm the captain of the cheer squad. I'm the student council president. Tell me, what job can I just sit back and do nothing?"

Xander interrupts, "Now you're none of those things."

It's a punch to the gut, and I have nothing to say in return. 

It's true, isn't it? 

The plans for prom are gone, and the senior trip to the Chicago museum is gone. Our cheer competition won't happen. Everything I've done to get where I'm at doesn't seem to matter. Years of sacrifice were erased in mere moments.    

We stand in front of an inferno. The flames are so hot it's hard to breathe. We stare at Jack's Ice cream Shack. It sits on the corner of Georgia and Jackson Street. Memories of sitting on the curb after a cheer meet overcome me. It's gone. All of it.  

A tree on fire nearby falls. Sparks and cinder shoot up, joining the billowing clouds above us. I back up, struggling to breathe, and Lincoln and Xander jump away. 

"We're going to the hospital unless you have a better plan."

I shake my head, unable to speak. 

If all my plans are ruined, can I make new ones?

"Did you know about the fallout shelter?" Xander asks.

Lincoln shrugs, "Kind of. But never thought about it. Dad always had 'contingency plans.' Never really questioned it."

"He saved everyone's life. He's a hero."

Lincoln likes the thought of that, nodding his head in thanks. 

I move next to him, and he places a hand on my back. I lean into him, soaking in what little attention I can. I've been cold recently, and Lincoln may not realize he's my best friend. I can't get through the day without talking to him. He is the only one that tries to make me laugh. Otherwise, I don't know if I'd know how. It's another reason why I can't tell him what I did. I hurt him without meaning to. I didn't think about him when I went to Xander's house. I didn't think about him when I kissed Xander and held his hand, leading him inside. I know that wasn't fair, I know it wasn't right. But I was desperate to feel. 

Another excuse.

I'm a piece of shit. There's no excuse for what I did, and I can only try to make it right. Show Lincoln all the love I have, and maybe one day, when we are older and smarter, I can tell him, and he'll understand. Or he won't care because he loves me so much. 

Our coughing has increased. Small particles are getting in through the medical mask we wear and getting into our throats. Water doesn't seem to help, either. But we keep going, hoping there's an end soon. 

Then we hear it. 

Shouts.

Chapter 7 Normal

 

Voices sound in the sem-darkness, and we can see shadows through a bright light up ahead. Anxiously we speed up until we run through the ash storm, hoping we don't plummet into a rip in the earth. 

Cars scatter randomly as if they broke down in the middle of the road. Doors are left open, and ash covers the seats. People were panicked, or maybe it was the earthquake or the blast radius, but the cars were parked in the middle of the road, on the sidewalk, in the grass. The keys are still in the ignition. All the glass has shattered, and the ground is littered with it. It crunches beneath our feet. 

"Hurry up!" Someone yells.

Huge floodlights shine through the haze, illuminating the hospital up ahead, and the hum of generators covers the crackling of the fire.

"Put it over there." Another voice shouts. 

"Mom!" 

The desperation to reach her, to touch her, spurs me into an all-out sprint and I slam into her. I squeeze with all my might, tears foolishly running down my cheeks. 

"Faye?" She questions, pulling me away to hold me by the arms. She wears her police uniform though it's hard to recongize. She has on goggles and a face mask just like me. I know it's hard to tell who I am beneath all the changes but she continues to gawk as if I'm a ghost. "Is it really you? You're alive?"

I nod, tears dripping against my goggles

"How?"

"We were at Make Out Point." 

"Oh my god." She pulls me back to her, digging her hand into my hair. "I thought you were dead. Oh, god, I thought you were dead." 

My body trembles, and a sob escapes. 

Then she yanks me from her, "What were you doing up there? Faye, I've told you only desperate women go there." Tears are in her own eyes, dripping against her goggles. She sniffs and then shakes her head. "Another time. Oh, god." She lowers her head to pull her goggles away from her face to wipe her tears. "Well, you can help now. We have to protect the hospital till more help comes." She looks over my shoulder, "Who are they?"

"Ms. Gerald."

"Lincoln?" She reaches for his shoulder, and her eyes crinkle with a smile. She pulls out a walkie talking and clicks it on, "Hey Marty."

Marty is Lincoln's father's name. 

"Guess who I have."

I watch Lincoln as he approaches, stunned.

Then Marty's voice comes on, "Tell me it's my boy."

She holds the walkie-talkie to him, and Lincoln unsurely takes it, "Dad."

"My boy!" Marty cries, "Oh my god, it's my boy. Lord in Heaven, it's my boy." 

"Dad." Lincoln trembles, and he swallows the tears in his voice. "You okay?"

"Oh, I'm better now, son. I'm better now. You alright?"

Lincoln kneels on the ground, fist against the pavement, "Yeah."

"Oh, thank the Lord. I'm proud of you, son. We got to keep this line clear for emergencies. But I'll see you soon, okay? You listen to Ms. Gerald."

"I will. I love you."

"Oh, I love you, son."

He holds it up for Mom, and she puts it back on her hip. "And you?"

"Xander."

She nods, more annoyed than happy. "I haven't seen your dad. But there's a chance he's at the bar."

"How can I help?" 

Mom is hesitant, but as she looks behind her at the line of people moving about, she decides, "We are trying to hold off the fire from reaching the hospital." She walks toward the entrance while talking back, "The other towns nearby are all struggling with their own mess, so help is slow. The next hospital over is helping take people, and we are trying to load patients into the ambulances and school busses while fighting off the fire. You guys can help load people up."

The front entrance is scattered with dirt over its white floor. Nurses are running, trying to help people that are injured while at the same time moving others out. It's not a big hospital with only three doctors, but it's where I was born. Where I was brought in for tonsil surgery. And where I came when I sprained my ankle during cheerleading. To see it cracked and broken is another brick piling onto my strained back. 

With one hand, I remove my mask and goggles, shoving the hood off my head. I feel like I've just come in from spending hours in the snow. I'm exhausted and want to rest, but the chaos won't let me. Lincoln and Xander both take off their things. The outline of their eyes is like raccoons, and dirt smudges over their forehead. Their hair is charcoal grey. I can't imagine I look any better. Mom hands us some water, and we chug it down. 

She pulls down her mask and puts up her own glasses. Her face is much like my own, brown eyes, brown hair, a thin jawline, and a small nose. Everyone calls us sisters. "If you're gonna help, you got to wear N-95 masks. If the ash gets into your lungs, you're gonna need help. Keep taking as many breaks as you need. If you're coughing too much, we're gonna send you out. This bus just filled, but we got another bus coming back. So ten minutes of rest, and then we start again." 

The walkie-talkie clicks on "We got a problem."

She holds it to her mouth as she walks away, "Shoot."

I sit on the floor, and Lincoln and Xander take a seat on each side of me. We stare at the victims that take up the chairs. The patients that are waiting on the next bus. They wear scrubs and gowns, and most of them are bruised and bleeding in some way. They were here when the meteor hit while I was up on Make Out Point kissing my boyfriend in the back seat of the car. 

It sounds stupid, but how the hell was I supposed to know a meteor was coming?

A backup generator keeps the lights on, but the outside dust causes a fog here. Coughing is everywhere. 

"Faye," Xander whispers, and I turn toward him. He's looking down, and I notice the blood dripping on the floor. 

"I'm fine."

"No, you're not." He murmurs. 

"Don't say anything," I warn him. 

"It's too deep. You need stitches."

"Shut up."

Xander clenches his teeth. "You don't know when to stop, Faye."

"You don't either." I bite back. 

Lincoln leans his head over at us, "I didn't know you guys were friends."

In union, "We're not."

He cackles. "Okay."

"She's hurt." Xander exposes, and even as I give him a death glare, he keeps going. "Her arm."

Lincoln looks down and notices the puddle of blood building with each drop. "Oh, shit, Faye."

"It's okay, I'll be alright. I want to help."

"You sure?"

"Yeah." 

Lincoln nods and shrugs, which only pisses Xander off. 

"Are you kidding–" He cuts himself off, hitting his head back against the wall harder than he needed to, and shuts up. 

I rest my head on Lincoln's shoulder a way to thank him for understanding. I don't need to be taken care of. I know when I can't do anymore. I'll know when I need to get help. I'm a big girl and can handle myself. Lincoln understands that. 

Or he's too dumb to realize when you've had enough.

Shut up.

Great, I'm arguing with myself. 

My mom comes back over, and we stand up to greet her. Just my luck, she notices the red puddle on the floor, "What happened?" Mom is reaching for my arm, and though I try to take it back, she latches onto it, causing a cry to escape my lips. Blood comes away on her fingers, "You're gonna have to go."

"What?"

"You need stitches, if not surgery. Can you feel your fingers?"

I don't want to admit that I can't. "I'm fine."

"You're going."

"I can still help."

"Don't talk back right now, Faye. Get on the bus." She pushes me toward the school bus, and I stumble, fighting against her. 

"NO, I don't-"

"Faye," Lincoln cuts in. "We're fine here. Just go, get it looked at, and you can come back when you're done. I promise we won't be finished." He tries to joke, but he doesn't understand that I have no desire to get it fixed. If I lose my arm, I can't be a cheerleader anymore. 

Where the hell did that thought come from?

I stand there as Lincoln and my mom keep walking away from me.  

Xander hesitates. Tears are already in my eyes, and I'm begging him to let me stay. I need to be here to help and ensure no one gets hurt. Lincoln has too much ego to stop. And my mom has no one left but me. They're the most important people in my life. 

"I'll look out for them." 

My brows knit as he walks away. How does he know? How does he always know what I'm thinking? What I'm feeling? 

I hate getting on the bus. It wobbles with every step. Sick patients clamber in, groaning and moaning while I'm nowhere near their level, and yet I'm escaping. I feel stupid and unworthy of the seat. I think about jumping off, but I know my mother. It will not only piss her off, but she'd wait with me for the next bus and won't leave till I'm gone. 

Lincoln and Xander help carry people in. One right after another until ten minutes go by and the bus is full. There are oxygen tanks, and IVs strung up and tucked into windows. I look out the window as the bus pulls away. Xander and Lincoln both stand there. Lincoln waves, his smile blocked by his mask, but I know he is. His smile gets me through the day. 

I close my eyes and see his face. Whenever I come out of class, he waves and grins from across the hall. When he's done with football practice, he'll jog towards me with his helmet in one hand, smiling like a silly fool in love. When I answered the door to the house, he's standing there with a fresh flower and a beautiful look on his face, so excited to see me even though we had been with each all day. 

So how could I cheat on him? 

I rub a tear off my cheek. 

Because before it was Lincoln that filled my day, it was Xander. 

Riding around the block on our bikes when we were in elementary school. An experimental kiss in the woods when we were twelve. Going to the movies and our hands accidentally touching when we were thirteen. 

And then high school came, and our lives drifted apart. 

It's not an excuse. But Xander was never far out of my mind, and he still isn't. I don't know how to expel him from my system. I thought one night together would end my constant daydreaming. One night together would stop all the stupid thoughts and fantasies. I hoped that being with him would be as awful as first times go, and I'd be able to move on. 

I just didn't think it would be so meaningful. 

It wasn't sex that broke me because, personally, I could have done without it. It was the emotion he caused. The excitement. The thrill, the passion, the love, the unspoken desperation that came with every touch. It awakened something in me that I didn't want to let out. 

But it doesn't matter. 

I have an obligation to stay with Lincoln. He's a good man, and he didn't deserve what I've done. 

When life returns to normal, I'll have to spend the rest of our lives making it up to him. 

What if our lives never go back to normal?

Chapter 8 Decision

 

I wake up when pain ignites in my arm. I'm panting and searching, but a nurse leans over me, "You're alright. You passed out from blood loss." 

"I what?" I lay on a gurney in the middle of a hallway with my arm on a table. The nurse plunged a needle into my skin to numb the area before stitching it.

"You know where you are?"

"A hospital." My other arm is prepped with an IV and fluids drip into my veins making me cold. I can’t believe I slept through so much. 

"Do you know what happened?"

A trigger blows up my memories. I was kissing Lincoln, and his hands were going up the back of my shirt. I remember praying. 'Stop me. Please stop me.' 

And then rumbling interrupted us. We got out of the car just in time to witness a streak across the sky, a shooting star smacking into our town. A bomb exploding. Then another and another. Fire erupted and consumed with velocity. There was no warning. No stopping it. 

"Meteors," I murmur. 

"Your family…"

"She's fine."

"Good. You're lucky."

I nod, numb, watching her stick a needle and thread in my arm. 

I'm lucky. I repeat, even though I don't feel fortunate at all. 

The doctor ordered an MRI but told me there was no chance of getting it done today. Rest is vital. Then randomly, he wonders, “Do you know when your last period was?”

“I’m pregnant.” 

I’ve never said the words out loud like that. It’s like hearing a gunshot, and I sit there in a daze, unsure if I should run and hide or face it. 

He seems relieved, happy now that he doesn’t have to break the news to me. “You need to be careful. You can’t go on as you were. We’ll get an ultrasound as soon as we can just to make sure everything is good. Do you know how far you are?”

“Eight weeks.”

He nods and tells the nurse, “Keep her on IV fluids till tomorrow, just to be safe.” 

I watch the hallway if only to keep myself from observing the nurse stitching my arm back up. I can feel the thread pick at my skin and the searing pain when she pulls my skin together. The ER is flooded. The nurses don't stop moving but there simply isn't enough of them to tend to everyone and there are many complaints about their wait. There’s a clock on the wall revealing I’ve been here already for an hour. The sun rose not too long ago, and it shines on the floor. It's unreal that I was getting ready for school yesterday at this time. I dressed in my cheerleading outfit and practiced a cheer in front of the mirror. It was game day, days I looked forward to because of the after-party. I brought a bag full of clothes and body wash, preparing for after the game and what I intended to do with Lincoln. We usually stick to the football field after a game and hang out on the bleachers. No one has a big enough house to fit all of us. We are in crappy Georgia and not like those rich ass Cali kids. 

Drinks are rare and definitely shared. We can go till eleven without someone calling the cops on us. 

I wish we had stayed. We'd be down in that fallout shelter with everyone else. I wouldn't have seen my first dead body, and I wouldn't be here, sitting, watching people struggle to breathe. There are patients on ventilators, and a nurse walked by saying they were running out. 

Maybe it's good that I see this. I wanted to be a nurse, and now I'm changing my mind. 

What were the three jobs my mom said I could have?

Nurse, teacher, or dentist.

I think my mom tries to keep me from getting hurt. She forbade being a cop before the words even came out of my mouth. When I asked about becoming a writer, she told me there was no future there. Too much rejection. 

She wants the best for me, and I can't hate her for that. But I wonder if she wants the best for me to show my dad that she raised me right without his help. 

I don't know where he is. I don't remember his name. Mom stopped talking about him the day he walked out. She took all his photos off the wall. I never saw her cry, and when I did, when I said I missed him, she'd go on a tangent on everything he ever did wrong. So now even my memories of him are shaded. I can't remember my first birthday, but I know he wasn't there. I don't remember learning to ride a bike, but I know it was Mom that taught me. 

I don't want to disappoint her. 

"Hey, Jenny." A nurse pops up in the hallway, "We got four inbounds, two kids, two adults. Collapsed building. Doc wants all hands." 

"Alright. I'm finished anyway." She cuts the string and gets up, "Try not to move it till I get it wrapped and get you a sling."

I sit back against the wall, letting my legs sway. I don't know how much more this hospital can take. They're the same size as ours and handling way more than capable. 

My eyes are closing. I'm beyond exhausted, and I don't know how much more I have in me. But I'm afraid to sleep. Fearful that if I do, the world will cease existing. How can I trust that there aren't any more meteors coming for us? Will I ever feel as safe as I did yesterday?

The commotion in front tells me the inbound victims are here. It's loud as the nurses scream over each other, all working together to give the best care, but they are wheeling toward me. I pull my legs up to make room. A nurse sits on top of someone giving them CPR. They roll by, and I just happen to see his face. 

Xander's dad. 

I sit up, and the next one wheel's by. 

"Mr. Cruise." My biology teacher. A town drunk. 

And then, my mouth drops when the next one turns the corner. Lincoln lies with an oxygen mask over his face, unconscious, and blood coming from his head. 

They were supposed to be safe. I jump off the gurney, but then another gurney turns the corner. 

Xander. They have an oxygen mask on him too. He's covered in soot, strapped to a backboard with a neck brace wrapped around him.  

I abandon the bed, walking behind them in a daze. 

They push other people out of the way, patients with no beds. The doors to the operating room that are supposed to be private and closed are ignored, and I stand there, watching as the nurses flitter like birds from one patient to the next. They call to each other, working in unison, but it's still not enough.  

The nurse on Xander's father gets off so someone else can hop on. Mr. Cruise is awake and fighting them, drunk with burns on his hands and arms. They restrain him, and he curses. 

"We need a ventilator." The nurse stands between Xander and Lincoln. 

Another one approaches, rolling one behind her, "It's our last one." 

"I need two."

The nurse shrugs. 

I stumble. That's it? A fucking shrug decides which one gets it? That's not right. It's not fair. They both deserve help. They both deserve life. I can't live without the other. As much as I try, I need them both in my life. Am I being selfish? 

Then fuck it; I'm selfish. 

"Please." I step forward but stop. I shouldn't interrupt. A nurse looks at me, and I can't stop myself, "Please."

"Do you know these boys?"

"Yes." 

"We're gonna do everything we can. In the meantime, it would be better for you to return to the waiting area."

I shake my head, backing away till my back hits the wall. I sink to the floor. Thankfully, the nurse moves on, leaving me alone. I watch quietly as they hook up Xander with a ventilator. I stare wide-eyed, stowing the compartment that wants to freak out and scream locked up tight. It keeps me still, and it keeps me in the room with them. 

Lincoln remains unconscious as they cut through his clothes, searching for burns. He's never looked more vulnerable. Mr. Cruise passed out and snores on the bed as the nurses dress his burns. 

I snap my eyes toward Xander's father when the nurse upon him is told to stop. The look of defeat is passed around until the doctor looks up at the clock. "Time of death: 7:40am." 

A hand presses to my mouth. 

"Who's next?"

"Eighteen, Lincoln." The nurse introduces as the doctor looks him over, touching his forehead. "Get a CT of his head. How's his oxygen level?" 

"87. We have his line at a hundred percent."

"No change?"

"Up two." 

"Burns?"

"Small ones."

"Looks pretty good for a building collapsing on him."

"This guy saved him." The nurse points to Xander. 

My chest heaves with a deep breath. 

"Head CT, Chest CT, and XRAY of his back. What's his oxygen?"

"A hundred on a hundred percent ventilator."

"Keep him asleep till we know the extent of his injuries. Any next of kin?"

She points to the white sheet covering a body, "That was it."

"We lost enough people today. Let's try not to lose father and son."

As the doctor walks away, stress fades with it. The worst is over, and they've stabilized as best they could. They wheel away Xander's father as I sit there, not knowing what else to do. 

Should I pray? 

I'm shattered in so many pieces. It's pointless trying to pick them up. I get to my feet as the nurses fade away, returning to their previous work. My legs wobble, and I grab the gurney to steady myself. I lean over Lincoln, touching his forehead. Part of it is covered in gauze. It wouldn't surprise me if Lincoln was trying to be a hero. It's one of his vices. He always tries to come to the rescue. I kiss his cheek, smiling down at him. I'm so proud to know someone like him. 

I turn around, and all the good feelings end. Tears are already in my eyes, and my lip trembles. Xander looks so young and pale compared to how I see him in my dreams. There's a tube down his throat. He has burns on his arms and legs, and they've cut off what they can and put bandages across. Any cut has been cleaned and sterilized. I sink to my knees and press my forehead against his hand. 

I sob loud and heavy. Everything I've kept in bursts like pus from a zit. My body shakes violently, to the point that it's painful. "Oh, god." I moan, curling into myself while I cling to his hand. I've fucked up so terribly that I don't know how to fix it. I don't have the answers anymore. I'm lost, and I need someone to tell me what to do. 

Exhaustion sinks me to the floor, and I hold my legs into my chest, getting the only comfort I've ever had. But it's not enough anymore, and I can't keep going on by myself. 

I need help. Do you hear me, Xander? You're right. I need you.

--

I wake from a rough hand on my shoulder. I blink, lifting my head, and find myself between the two of them. A nurse must have laid a blanket on top of me.

"Hey." I look over my shoulder, and Lincoln stares down at me with his familiar happy grin. "Thought you were dead." He jokes. 

I jump up and wrap my arms around him, cringing when he groans, "Sorry." I pull back, searching for what I did. 

Lincoln lays back with a sigh, looking up at me. 

"What happened?" I ask, desperately to figure out what happened while I was away.

"You're gonna think I'm stupid."

"No, I'm not."

"Someone's dog was stuck in a building that was on fire."

"Oh, Lincoln." I sigh and yet, not surprised in the least. 

"I got the dog out, though. The last thing I knew, Xander was running at me. Is he alright?" He looks to the left, and we both sit there and watch him breathe. 

"I don't know," I murmur. When I feel his eyes on me, I turn back to him, "What happened to Xander's dad?"

"What do you mean? What happened?"

I shake my head, "Nevermind." I don't want to bring up anything unpleasant right now. "Are you hungry? I'll see if I can find you something."

"Starving."

I go to leave, hesitating as I look back at Xander. I was hoping for change, for him to open his eyes and look at me. It could even be a look of disappointment; I wouldn't care. Just anything. But he remains still with a breathing tube forcing air into his lungs. 

Volunteers have created a buffet outside the hospital, and I enter the line, thanking everyone I pass. They want to hear details about what we saw, and I listen to everyone without a story of my own. I don't want to share it. It's too raw, too real, and I don't know if I'll make it through without breaking down again. I feel entirely drained, even too tired to cry. 

There are tents set up in the street. People pass out clothing and hygiene products. Someone sees me trying to balance all I've taken, and they end up finding a bag for me. I'm overwhelmed by the generosity. After my life was completely ripped apart, strangers could tell I couldn't handle it anymore. They were sweeping up the pieces and trying to put me back together again. 

I use the bathroom, and while there, I take a bath in the sink using a paper towel to clean what I can. My left is useless, so it's difficult doing much. I don't bother brushing my hair. It's filled with dirt and stuck in a ponytail. I change into a dress. Though it was not my style, it was better than my ash-covered clothes. 

Returning to Lincoln, I notice Xander's gone. The panic on my face is so apparent, Lincoln holds up a hand, "They just took him for an X RAY."

"They ordered that hours ago. If something was wrong–"

"Faye." Lincoln calls, "They're doing what they can."

Words catch in my mouth. I swallow and nod, knowing I need to calm down. Ranting and raving don't solve problems. Holding up a bag of food, I change the subject, "I got you a hotdog." I set the bag down in his lap, pressing the button to sit him up. As I set up the food, I feel Lincoln's stare. 

"What?" I smile, "Don't tell me you want to make out?"

He chuckles and shakes his head. 

"Then what?"

Lincoln takes the hotdog, and I spread ketchup on it. 

"We've been going two years."

"You remember." I mock. 

"And I still don't feel like I know you."

I pause, confused by such a statement. I move the bag off his lap, sitting beside him, "What do you mean?"

"I never know what you're thinking."

I shrug, "You're a boy, and I'm a girl. That's not a surprise."

Lincoln cackles and takes a bite of his food. I take out a sandwich and set it on my lap. It's hard taking off the wrapping, especially when I'm so distracted. Why is he talking like this? 

"Do you love me?"

I gawk at him, "What?"

"I know we said it on Valentine's Day, but after that, we never said it again."

"Of course, I love you, Lincoln."

"But it's different."

"Different, how?"

"From the way you love him."

I feel cold water drip down my back, and I shiver as I shift uncomfortably. "Who?"

He scoffs and shakes his head, "Come on, Faye. You were crying over him."

I didn't know he was awake. 

I shake my head, instantly in denial. "I was crying because of the hell of the day I've had."

"No. One thing I know about you is you don't cry."

"Think that doesn't apply when our town gets blown up."

"I don't know. The whole time you guys were talking and whispering. Would you tell me if something was going on?"

I can't pause and think. I have to reply, or he's going to think something. But words are stuck in my throat. This is a sign, a warning right before a tornado hits. It's the moment I'll come back to again and again as the moment that I was given to come clean, live a better life, and fix what I've broken. 

And I know it. 

And I don't take it. 

"There's nothing going on."

He chews and nods, "Okay."

I stare at the floor, forcing myself to take a bite, but I'm not in this room. I'm in a bubble, and everything sounds muffled. My future has been decided. I can't back out now. 

I'm choosing Lincoln. 

“Miss Gerald?” A nurse approaches with a soft smile, “You ready for your ultrasound?

Chapter 9 Dreams Must End

 

When I return from my ultrasound, Lincoln is asleep. I’ve had a while to think about what I’m going to say, what lie I’m ready to tell but exhaustion is setting in and I don’t how much longer I can play pretend. 

I find a chair and set it between Lincoln and Xander. 

I feel like I've got bricks on my shoulders, and every day I lie, every hour it goes on, another brick is dropped upon me. I'm nearly bent in half, and my knees are trembling. I'm gonna collapse and destroy everyone around me if I don't find a way to lessen the burden. 

I keep a hold of Lincoln's hand, an anchor to keep me seated, to remind me of my choice. Xander's too close to me, in need, and I can't be there for him because Lincoln believes he and I aren't friends. I shouldn't care about him, yet, my heart is pulling me like a hook in a fish's mouth, yanking the skin till it bleeds. 

A nurse comes up to Xander. Every ounce in me wants to ask how he is, and the words almost breach my lips.

Lincoln sits up suddenly, alert "Hey, how's he doing?"

"Do you guys know of any family members?"

I respond, "His mom and dad are dead. I think he has an Uncle, but I don't know where he is." The words come out before I can stop them. I feel Lincoln look at me, but I bow my head. 

"Well, your friend is gonna need some help. He broke his back."

I snap my head up, "What?" 

Her smile confuses me, "He broke it in the best spot, though. He can fully recover. It's just gonna take some time. We gonna take him off the respirator. The scans show no damage to his lungs."

"You're waking him up?"

"Yeah. You want to come over here and hold his hand? It's scary waking up."

"Oh, I'm not a friend."

"A familiar face works too."

Lincoln nudges me, and though I'm pretending to be against it, he talks me into it. 

I desperately grab Xander's hand. It's cold and clammy, and I pull the blanket over our latched fingers to warm him up. 

She slows the medicine; it's instant: the flutter under the eyes, a soft movement of his head. He fights against his sleep, panicking about something stuck in his throat.  

"Hey." I whisper, "Xander, you're alright." A tear drips down my cheek, and I rub it on my shoulder. 

His eyelids pull back and focus on my face. He wants to talk, but when he realizes the tube is in his throat, he grabs it. The nurse intervenes, keeping his hand pinned to his side, "Xander. Hi! You were in an accident. You need to lie still for me, okay? You're safe in the hospital. I got your friends here. So don't worry." He nods and then looks at me, desperate for information. 

"You're alright," I tell him positively, smiling. 

"I'm gonna get the tube out; it's gonna feel really uncomfortable. I need you to cough. Ready?" 

With a suction in his mouth, the nurse pulls it out as he coughs. It looks terrible, but it only lasts a second. He curses and groans, "Oh, god. That's fucking gross." 

His voice is scratchy and coarse but to hear him talk takes one of the bricks off my back. I swallow hard, my lip trembling, and no matter how hard I try, another fucking tear falls. I rub away, hating it. 

Xander rests his head back, relaxing, taking a breath.  

"Faye?" His voice is hoarse, and he coughs and groans. "What happened?"

"You followed Lincoln into a burning building."

He sighs, his eyes closed, and he clenches my hand, "Ah, that dumbass."

"Hey!" Lincoln hisses, "Screw you."

A soft smile spreads on his lips, "So relieved he's okay." 

The nurse gets his attention, talking to him and asking him random questions to check his mental state. She asks what he can feel, tickling his feet and his hands. He twitches away but pants in pain. She isn't gentle when she breaks the news about his back. He stares at the ceiling, still and unresponsive, even as she continues talking. I hold his hand, and his fingernails dig into mine. 

Lincoln gets out of bed, and I swing around to catch him. He didn't realize how long he's been lying down. He holds onto my shoulder and leans over Xander. "Hey. Thanks, man."

"Guess we're even."

"How?"

Xander shakes his head. "Nevermind. Where's my dad?"

Lincoln and I are silent as we think of what to say. Thankfully the nurse comes over and changes the subject, "It's time for your sponge bath, doesn't that sound fun?"

"Oh, god."    

The nurse pushes out and pulls a sheet across. I lay Lincoln back on the bed. He moans and groans and then sighs when he rests his head on the pillow. I sit on the side, holding my arm to my chest. It's starting to hurt pretty bad. All my medications have worn off. 

"Lay down with me." Lincoln leans over, holding his arm out so I can snuggle into his side. It brings warmth back to me that I didn't know I was missing. He holds me to him, and the familiar sound of his heartbeat eases my stress and my fears. I clench his shirt and thank god that he's with me. 

"Faye." He murmurs into my hair, "I know it’s none of my business but was there a reason you needed an ultrasound?”

It’s an easy lie, “Girl problems.”

He sighs out and I feel like scratching my face off. 

“How'd you know about his family?”

My eyes snap open. 

"You said you aren't friends."

I watch the TV, hoping answers come to me. I find only the truth on my lips, and I pray it doesn't sound so bad. "In sixth grade, we did a family tree." I admit, "And I remember it because we were in the same situation. I only have my mom. And he only had his dad. I remember thinking, if he can get over it, I can too."

"Did you ever have a crush on him?"

I can't be honest, but I don't want to lie too terribly that I can't recover from it, "I never thought about it."

"I had a crush on this girl in middle school."

I lift my head, pretending to be jealous, "Oh yeah? Who?"

"She was the only black girl in my class at the time. And I would just stare at her all day long. She was sassy. Like you. And a know-it-all like you. She didn't return to school one day, and I never saw her again."

"Ahh, that's sad."

He shrugs, "No big deal. Crushes don't mean anything."

I rest my head back down. Lincoln doesn’t always understand me and sometimes I worry he’s only passed classes because he’s a football player, but he surprises me now. He does love me in his own way. 

When Lincoln falls asleep, I slip out of his arms. The nurse finished but left the sheet shut. I peek my head in, "Xander, you awake?" I whisper. 

"Yeah." 

I step behind the screen and come up beside him. He turns his head toward me but otherwise remains still. 

Did the nurse tell him about his father? 

His eyes are red and wet, but it could be from pain. 

"How are you?" Xander murmurs. 

My brows knit, tears springing instantaneously. I still matter to him even while he's going through so much. His level of care destroys my strength. I clench my lips tight, shaking my head. 

How does he always know? 

Xander holds his hand out.

I keep shaking my head, trying to fight it, deny the pain in my chest, and rebuild my walls as they slip into quicksand. 

I fall on him, burying my head into his neck. I suppress as much sound as I can but my body trembles. He grips the back of my head, holding me with his lips lying near my ear.   

"I should have never left." I choke out. 

"Some things you can't control, Faye. No matter how much you try."

"But I would have stopped him."

"Maybe. But then he'd see a hamster, and he'd be off."

A laugh bursts through my sobs, and I pull back to see his gorgeous smile. He reaches for my cheek, and I lean into his hand as he brushes the tears away. 

I analyze his face. The scruff on his jaw. The tattoo on the side of his neck. It's the same view as our night together. We lay naked in each other's arms, staring at each other. I remember thinking then I could stay in his arms for the rest of my life. 

I lean up, thoughtlessly to kiss him, but he tilts his head, and my lips rest on his cheek. I pull back, deeply ashamed. He doesn't look at me, clenching his teeth, increasing the humiliation. 

"You have to choose, Faye." 

I shake my head, "I can't. I've fucked up. I know it. He's my best friend, and you're--" A wave of misery passes through me, and I bury my face into his chest. "I don't want to hurt anyone. I can't." I groan. A hole develops in my chest, and I clench my shirt, attempting to grab and squash it. 

Minutes go by. 

The tears, like a wave, begin to recede. I sniff and force myself to sit up. I'm embarrassed by my outburst and don't look at him. I'm ridiculous. I dug myself a hole, and now I'm whining about being stuck in it. I'm a hypocrite. 

I look up hesitantly and notice a tear dripping down Xander's temple. 

"Xander--"

"Go, Faye."

"What?"

His hands lay at his sides, and he stares up at the ceiling, refusing to look at me. "I was fine. I was fine without you. Now I'm a fucking orphan, and my back's broken. Just get out, Faye."

"I want to help--"

"I don't want your help!" He snaps so violently that the bed jerks. I stand, stepping back wide-eyed and confused. "I don't want it. Just go. We're not friends. We haven't been for a long time. Just get out. Unless you want me to tell him. You want to tell him what happened, Faye?"

I shake my head, speechless otherwise. 

He said he loved me.

I step backward. 

Lincoln can't know, or I'll have no one. 

I clench my lips even as they tremble. My chest feels like it's caving in.

But what if I tell Lincoln to prove to Xander I want to be with him?   

"Get out."

I grab the sheet and swing it over me as I press a hand to my mouth. The hospital is full of patients, and they move about, lost in their own worlds, in their own pain, loss, and grief, to notice me. I feel alone, even among all of them.   

I know what I need to do. My heart isn't going to decide my future. Love is temporary; it's fleeting and ridiculously stupid. I had almost forgotten that. 

'Don't be dumb, Faye.'

I swallow the last of my tears and wipe my face clean. I'll focus on the positive and keep my mind away from the what ifs and the could haves. Because everyone has those and all they do is hinder you. 

I will give Lincoln all of me. 

Even if it's pieces. 

----

It's morning. I can hear the birds chirp outside the window. I groan as I move, sleep too heavy to knock off. An alarm goes off, pushing my exhaustion away and my alertness into full bloom. I sit up. 

I'm in my bed. 

The blankets are tossed on the floor. But I'm in my room.

My desk sits against the yellow walls, and my laptop is closed on the table. My cheer outfit hangs on my closet door, ready for today. 

I put my feet on the floor and look down at myself. I'm in cheer shorts and a crop top, my sleepwear. I can still feel the pain on my arm but as my fingers dance on the unbroken skin, goosebumps rise. 

Under my pillow, my phone keeps ringing. I find it, holding it in my hand. The picture of Lincoln and I is visible. I shut off the alarm and notice a text message in the corner. It's an unknown number, and my thumb lays on it, bringing it up. 

"Did you take the test? Is it positive?"

It was a dream. 

"Holy F—

 

The End

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