Kye CunninghamTrail of Ashes Daniel fumbled for a match. The oppressive dark eroded his already decayed confidence. Tattered robes slid off his frail frame like the soft sheet of water that cascades off the body after stepping out of a particularly refreshing shower, leaving you vulnerable to the outside world once again. His feet stepped out of the circle of cloth that had fallen seamlessly around him like a cage, a prison of his own incompetence. Still, the grinning reality that had fallen on him like the hand of God himself refused to be silenced, refused to be cast away and reveal that yes, indeed this was a dream. Leaves would have been blowing outside, if there were any left. Nuclear war tended to do that to nature. The city apartment he was in now, once dwarfed by the huge conifers that had grown in the local park, now stood alone in the barren land, the only memory of humanities’ flickering hold on this place. Faded paint peeled off cracked bricks like skin being torn from the flesh of an animal. The wind started to claw at the windows, screaming for a body to embrace in its twisting arms. The world was a corpse and people were the festering maggots within, slowly eating her innards like parasites. Maybe it was good that this had happened.Daniel’s blackened feet scraped to the bolted door, caked dirt flaking off his soles as he walked. Washing was a luxury that Daniel could seldom afford. In the first few days of The Ending when all of the toxic waste had washed into the water systems, cancers and other diseases had mutated savagely, destroying families and individuals alike. After that, nobody ever even touched the water and the ones who did often found themselves hallucinating with stomach cramps and a high fever. If they were lucky. Washing with still water, therefore, quickly stopped altogether, and the ones who were dehydrated often died as opposed to drink if they had not caught enough rainwater. Daniels steps took him out of the sanctuary of his house and onto the road outside. Daniel thought about the world, how it was before, with its choking pollution and buzzing electricity. He thought about the wars that had led up to this point, and how much more comfortable life was for people, right up until the point the bombs started to hit his neighbourhood with the reverberation of a battle drum, signalling war. Daniel’s eyes lowered, to look at the bodies that lay scattered around his house as if it was the site of a direct bomb impact. The skeletal bodies lay half decayed by the bacteria that had started to flourish now that every surface was not cleaned, sanitised or polished before anything was done on it. The bodies hadn’t been eaten. Even the animals that remained couldn’t find enough meat on the dead to make the scavenging worthwhile. Instead, they hunted each other, and the few people left clinging to survival. His existence echoed dully, like a bell that had rusted from neglect finally being decommissioned. Daniel stopped, his body cut in two by the boundary between two worlds. One world represented safety, comfort and dependence. The other represented the harsh outside, fighting for survival and taking back some modicum of control over his life. He stepped onto the dried dust of the park beyond the road and acknowledged his predicament. Sometimes he could hear the howls of lost dogs, crying out in the wilderness that they were bred to be unfamiliar with. Maybe it was men that were crying. Daniel found it more and more difficult to distinguish between the two as time passed. Sometimes, Daniel would cry out in the night to the stars, alone, desperate for some communication with anybody before he died. A coarse grunt echoed off the compact earth as Daniel began to run. Already, the scorched earth is becoming cooler and icy patches of fog drift over the landscape, enveloping ruin after ruin in their cold, fingerless grasp. Snow would come soon and Daniel knew that he had already left it too late to get through the winter unscathed. Loneliness does that to a man. Makes you not care. His feet pounded prints into the earth like a hammer into soft polystyrene, permanently leaving a trace of his passing. The first signs of winter stung his face as he sped up, the bitter cold sapping his strength and will to continue to survive. Sweat seeps out of every pore of his body as his aching lungs desperately draw in any air they can. He stopped close to a collapsed grain silo, a place where both animals and humans used to gather. This was back when it had all only just begun. Back when there were actually other human beings to talk to, instead of just the dirt and rubble of the paths Daniel travelled. Looking around, Daniel had found very little of use, the most useful item being a short coil of rope neatly hung from a peg in the wall, which, despite the survival manuals and movies from Old Earth, was rarely actually needed. The only place that Daniel had left unexplored was the garage behind the silo. When the bombs started dropping, a lot of people couldn’t cope, and emergency services were left overwhelmed with suicides and bomb victims alike. Usually, it was weeks before an ambulance even showed up, and entrance to the A&E department and hospitals was barred if you did not arrive in an ambulance. When the emergency services stopped altogether, the bodies just piled up faster, leaving families to either dispose of their dead or leave them where they died. Often, this was in a garage, having either left their car running so the fumes would kill them or by hanging themselves, both of which often resulted in gruesome deaths. Right now, Daniel just wanted to relax. The night began as Daniel finished fortifying the room he was going to be sleeping in. there were too many stories about people in the beginning, who were killed by either animals or other people that had gone Toxic, to not worry about protecting yourself while you slept. Again, the wind tormented him and the cold grasp of his own isolation crept a little closer. His body hurt. Lying down, he could feel every ridge of the stones below him, and couldn’t help but want to seep through it all like water. He wanted to fade away, with nothing around him but the darkness he had already come to accept in his life. He closed his eyes, thinking back to the wars that had led to this. He cursed the world that was. Blackness fell like a shroud around him and carried him off to oblivion, as his mind finally succumbed to fatigue. Daniel wole to the sound of a weak mewling. It seemed so unreal that Daniel felt almost detached from the world, as if he was still caught up in his dreams. For once, there was another sound to hear that wasn’t howling or fighting. His stomach churned. He might also be able to eat it. Aches seared his body as he moved again, fighting against his instinct to lie back down and sleep. Time to find the animal. 1,222 words.