This story is by Lana Jackson and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Where do you think they go?” I asked, eyes peering up to the starless night sky over our heads with wonder. Silence usually hung thick in the air. Long gone was the nocturnal serenade and soothing night calls. If it weren’t for the rolling winds that traveled over the dead earth, the stillness would have made it feel as though the world had stopped turning. I often felt as though I needed to fill the void, use my voice to give life to my dismal surroundings. My head rolled to the side against the headrest behind me, and I gazed up at my brother expectantly. “Jason?”
“The pods?” He lowered the binoculars from his face, rubbing his weary eyes.
“Yeah. Another planet maybe? A ship with other survivors?”
“Mom always thought it would be an ark. Like from the bible when Noah gathered up all the animals and saved them from the flood.”
“Do you believe that?” He didn’t look like he did. He looked like he was tired, like he had given up hope and didn’t want to entertain the fantasy of leaving the scorched, storm-ravaged earth we called home. I don’t blame him. The pods that descended from the darkened skies were like lottery tickets and even though the population had diminished significantly, the chance of reaching one in time was quite slim.
“No.” He answered, lifting the binoculars to his eyes again. Topic closed. “You should go to sleep. Can’t have you dragging ass like you did today, Vanessa.”
I sighed deeply and pushed my lumpy satchel beneath my head. Shifting in the stiff, uncomfortable passenger seat, I adjusted the oversized camouflage coat over my body. Already I felt the weight of fatigue on me, forcing my body into relaxation before I drifted to sleep.
“Vanessa! Vanessa, wake up!” A forceful shake launched me into consciousness abruptly. My vision sharpened as adrenaline rushed through my veins. Jason stared down at me, frantic and wild-eyed. “Get up. Look.” He demanded, handing over the binoculars. With a finger, he indicated east and hopped out of the Jeep. He moved to the back where he began to stuff his pack full of additional supplies.
I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, searching the sky for the source of all the excitement. “Are you serious?” It could have been mistaken for a falling star, descending rapidly toward the earth. Overwhelmed with emotion, I felt paralyzed. I simply sat where I was, the sound of my brother rummaging in the back of the car growing evermore faint as I stare in awe.
“Vanessa.” He called sharply, bringing me back to reality. “We don’t have a lot of time. The pods only touchdown for so long.”
“R-right. Thirty minutes, I know.” Pulling my bag from behind me, I stepped out of the car and adjusted the straps on my shoulders. “There were two of them?”
“Yes, we need to go now before someone else gets to them first. I think we can make it, but we have to hurry.” He pulled off his watch and tapped at the buttons on the side, then grabbed my wrist. “Keep this on. I’ve set it to go off when our time is up. Now let’s get going.”
I looked down at the watch, bulky and loose on my petite wrist. When I looked up again, all I could see was Jason’s back. “Wait, we’re not taking the Jeep?” I asked, hurrying after him, my boots crunching the dead earth beneath my heels.
“We’ll risk being followed. The engine is too loud and the headlights are too bright. We could lead someone right to the damn thing.” He said, quickening his stride. Trying to keep up with him made me feel like the annoying kid sister I was when our mother forced him to take me on adventures with his friends. I was a nuisance, and I knew it, but I was well looked after. There was always a hand to help me up when I fell, a back to carry me, or shoulder to lean on. Even now. I don’t know what I’d do without him.
We moved through empty plains and valleys, absent of the lush, verdant vegetation that once blanketed the ground. We maneuvered around pools of pungent stagnant water and dead shrubbery, heading toward the eerie woods in the distance.
“Time?” Jason asked, adjusting the rifle on his shoulder.
“Seven minutes. Are we close?”
The faintest sound of footfalls behind us caused us both to still. In the deafening silence, the rhythmic noise was amplified, seeming to come from all around us. We weren’t the only ones who saw the pods drop. I’ve heard the horror stories of the terrible things people did to get off this planet and I wondered if it was worth the risk.
“Run, Vanessa.” He whispered, pushing against my back hard to urge me along. “Go. I’m right behind you. Just keep going straight. I’ll tell you where to go, listen to my voice and don’t look back.”
I ran so fast that I felt as though I was gliding, my feet just barely touching the ground as I pumped my legs. I cut straight through the woods, dodging trees and ducking limbs that threatened to slow me down. Feet thundered against the ground behind me, and I felt panic swell within the pit of my stomach then explode with fear as a gunshot boomed. I heard it ricochet off a tree somewhere nearby, but I didn’t stop. As I swung my arms I catch sight of the timer.
“To the right!” He yelled over the stampede and gunfire behind us.
I turned and I could see the downed trees from the collision, hear the hum of the gleaming black capsule as it pulsed with energy. But there was only one. Frantically my eyes scoured the area from the second pod, so discouraged and confused that—despite my better judgement—I slowed. I whirled around to see Jason thinning the herd of desperate masses, letting off round after round of gun fire. There never was a second pod, and I realized he never intended on coming with me. My salvation was his suicide mission.
“Vanessa, go!” He implored me, and I hesitated. It was only when a bullet narrowly missed my foot that I pried my eyes away from my brother. After staggering back I began to run again, sprinting toward the pod with renewed determination. My feet felt heavier, like cinder blocks were attached to them. Tears stung the back of my eyes, making them glassy and blurring my vision. A single blink and warm tears wet my cheeks. Hands grabbed at me aggressively, pulling on the strap of my satchel and my jacket. I let go of both of them, dropping my bag and shrugging out of my coat. Another gunshot makes me flinch.
I slammed into the inside of the pod, unable to slow myself enough to enter with any sort of grace. The spongy interior absorbed my impact, but I still almost knocked the wind out of myself. The door to the pod slid shut sharply, and bodies bounced off the solid exterior. I breathed and it was as though there were shards of glass in my lungs. Dismissing the pain, I looked at the watch.
I felt buckles beneath me and with shaky hands I fumbled around for them to secure myself. The capsule came to life with blinding lights that made me squint, and illuminated the darkened woods. I could see men and women clawing at the door savagely, crying and begging for me to open the door.
I lifted my hand to wipe away the tears that ran down my cheeks profusely and caught a glimpse of deep, crimson blood. My shirt was wet with it and I lifted the material to see the hole in my side. I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I was already cold by the time the watch beeped repetitively.
The pod shuddered as it rose, hovering above the ground. From the height that it slowly ascended to, I could see Jason. He was laying on his stomach, face bloody and almost unrecognizable, but there was hope in his eyes. I pressed my hand to the cool pane. He needed to see me and know that he kept me safe, even if I wasn’t. So, when he looked up at me, I smiled. I didn’t have to feign happiness because I knew that I would see him soon.
I was always right on his heels.