merry and bright
She was alive in America as the end began.
She was only a child then. Her days were spent in classrooms, where the teachers didn’t talk about the food shortages or strange sickness. Her nights were spent dancing on the lawn with her mother, the blades of yellow grass prickling the soles of her feet. The stars would roll into place to light their performance and the crickets gathered as their orchestra. When the girl’s eyes grew heavy, her mother would usher her in to bed, then wind the music box on the nightstand.
“Sing me a song, mommy,” the girl would say. Her mother would sit on the bed and whisper the tune beneath the faint din of the melody, her fingers running through the girl’s hair.
“May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white…”
They followed this routine year-round, from the January rains to the August dust storms. It wasn’t until Christmas at eight years old that the girl’s curiosity swelled into words.
“Mom?” she asked. “How can Christmas be white?”
“Well, sweetheart — ”
“Does it mean that Christmas isn’t for us?”
Her mother sat frozen a moment before answering. “Why would you think that, honey?”
The girl looked at the carpet.
“Just…the kids at school. Sometimes they say mean things — that some things aren’t for everyone, that we should go back where we came from. They say we should go home.”
“This is your home, right here,” her mother said, taking the girl in her arms as tears gathered in her eyes. “Back a long time ago,” she continued, “when it would get cold in the winter, the rain would freeze and turn to snow.”
“Snow?” The girl didn’t understand.
“Let me show you,” her mother said, taking the music box in her hands and shaking it. For the first time, the girl saw why there were tiny white bits floating in the glass ball.
“It would cover the ground and trees and make everything brighter somehow.”
“Did it hurt like the rain?” the girl asked.
“No, this was before the rain hurt. You could stand outside and let the snow fall on your face. It was soft and came down in little flakes, almost like crystal angel kisses that would brush your face and stick in your hair.”
The girl watched the white bits inside the glass ball, then closed her eyes to imagine a world made brighter. “So pretty,” she heard herself say.
“When I was your age,” her mother said. “I’d fall asleep at night and then wake up and the whole world would be covered in snow. It was everywhere you looked, covering everything, making it new.”
“And it used to snow at Christmastime?”
“It used to.”
The girl would remember the softness of her mother’s voice that night. It became a memory she’d return to often, especially after her mother died in a makeshift hospital that next November. Christmas didn’t come that year. Instead, the girl sat on a cot in a tent, surrounded by doctors who spoke in hushed tones. They all looked tired, as if sleep was a bygone luxury. The girl told the nurse she didn’t feel sick, but the nurse shushed her and pressed cold metal against her chest. Through the flaps of the tent, the girl could see men with guns in their hands and flags on their shoulders, keeping watch. Water dropped from the charcoal sky. It was unmistakable, the hissing sound the rain made as it scuttled away to hide in the dirt.
She spent Christmas at thirteen clutching a duffel bag in the back of a pickup truck. She rode with men who wore thick beards and women clutching gold necklaces. The girl hadn’t the faintest idea where they were going, but it didn’t matter. The men whispered about someplace far away, where the water was clean enough to drink and there were still green things lining the hills. Someplace out west, the girl heard whispered. It didn’t rain that Christmas, but the sun hid anyway, leaving a sickly grey sky and the smell of ash.
She spent Christmas at sixteen hiding. She was motionless. The world around her burned with an unholy heat. Smoke and chemicals scratched her nose. But she wouldn’t breathe. She didn’t want to be seen. Her arms were coiled around a lump of dried skin that had a once been a man, but the girl didn’t know his name. She didn’t hold him tight. He smelled. She didn’t breathe. She didn’t want to be seen. There were voices someplace far off. She couldn’t hear the words though. The mechanical breathing their masks made was too loud. A scream rose in the air. Then two gunshots. She almost opened her eyes, but didn’t. She didn’t want to be seen.
By the time she was nineteen, she hadn’t been a girl for a long time. She slept in a blocked subway tunnel, buried beneath a mess of concrete and steel. The days were small eternities, but there was much to do: gathering water from the broken pipelines, searching the tracks for rats and other things to eat, and avoiding the voices that came from the old train stations.
The seasons had stopped by then. There were no more clocks or calendars and no way to tell which day was Christmas. Every morning began amidst the dark of the tunnels, scouring for food and supplies. Every evening ended amidst a pile of blankets, the knife she’d made of twisted metal always within reach.
Then a stranger came.
It began on a morning when the pangs of the past rose in her gut. To cure them, she pulled the music box from the bottom of her pack. She sat on her blankets and shut her eyes, the melody drifting about her.
Footsteps echoed in the dark.
Her hands found the knife and her arm extended into the blackness.
“We’ve got one down here,” a voice sounded. A face emerged from the shadows and she saw a man, but not the kind with a flag on his shoulder. There were no more flags. The man inched towards her, watching on the knife in her hand. She was watched on the rifle hanging at his chest.
“It’s alright,” he said to her, reaching his arms out. She waved the knife with a warning and a promise.
“Hold on there.” He drew back, hands in the air. His fingers found the strap at his neck and he placed the rifle on the ground. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
He took a step towards her. She still recoiled. There were many reasons to distrust men.
The man’s eyes were kind though. They reminded her of the way the sky used to look. His outstretched hand was an invitation she didn’t want to want to refuse.
“Where are we going?” she heard herself say.
She gathered her things and he led her back through the tunnels to a platform, where there were stairs to above. The sun didn’t shine and there wasn’t any rain. Instead, the clouds stewed a nauseous brown color. The sky was lined with hunks of metal and glass, scraping upwards. It was different than she remembered. She had been underground a long time — she didn’t know how long.
The man led her to a truck parked nearby, where other men with guns were bringing women and children. These people were chiseled from skin and bone. The men with guns loaded everyone into the back of the truck and then they drove. Most of the others slept, but the girl stayed vigilant. Her eyes leapt from one face to the next. She knew the men with guns wouldn’t hesitate. She didn’t want to hesitate either.
The truck came to a collection of burlap tents, surrounded by a fence. They passed through a guarded gate and then the truck stopped in the middle of the compound. One of the men poked her in the back with the barrel of his rifle. She was ready.
In an instant, her knife was buried in his chest and he was bleeding in the dirt. There were hands on her then and she felt herself thrown to the ground. The man beside her gasped and scratched for oxygen. Someone shouted for the doctor. His blood mixed with the dirt and then he stopped moving.
Her hands were tied and a bag was draped over her head. They made her walk a long time, a man with a gun on either side of her, gripped her shoulders.
She was deposited in a cage the size of a shipping container, but made of chain-link and barbed wire. It was occupied by a collection of people in clothes like worn wallpaper. She paced along the enclosure and watched the sky a while. Those around her were mostly silent. They merely traced the links of the fence with their fingertips. The only sound came from a boy whose sobs were tiny interludes between fits of coughing. The air was littered with ash.
As sky grew darker and darker, those around her settled down to sleep. Even the boy eventually stopped crying and fell silent. Once everything around her was still, the girl tore strips of her shirt, wrapped her hands, and climbed the fence. The metal barbs dug into her flesh, but she didn’t notice. She began to search the compound, evading the watchmen and searching through empty tents. At last, she found her bag, the music box still tucked away at the bottom. She slung the bag across her back, crept to the nearest fence, and prepared to climb.
Then came voices from behind her. She tried to move, but there was already light from a lantern washing over her shoulders.
“Well well well, whaduywe have here?” a voice sounded the dark.
“We should get her back.” This voice was familiar — the man with kind eyes.
“Wait a minute.”
The first man took hold of her and seized her bag. “And was is it you were so hot and bothered about you couldn’t leave behind?” He poured the contents on the ground. Then came the small chink of breaking glass.
The girl dropped in the dirt and felt for the shattered remains of the music box, still sprinkled with tiny white bits. And for the first time since her mother had died in the field hospital all those years ago, she felt the stinging heat of tears on her face.
The man kicked her backwards, then knelt beside her. He held her down and his breath washed over her face. She thrashed. She kicked. He was strong.
“Stop. Don’t,” the man with kind eyes protested.
The rust-filled voice looked up at him. “Then you do it.”
She expected the man with kind eyes like the sky to say no, but instead he unbuckled his belt. He was silent, as if her knew what he was doing was unspeakable, as if he was somehow still a man. But there were no men left. There are many kinds of extinction.
When they were done, they dragged her back to the cage. They tossed her in the dirt, where she laid for a long time. Maybe it was minutes, maybe it was hours. She didn’t know. There were no more clocks.
She heard the boy begin to cough again. With the strength she had left, she crawled to him and took him in her arms.
“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s going to be alright.”
She felt light from the sky on her. It was almost morning.
A melody came to her lips. She hummed at first, just as her mother had done, then shut her eyes to sifted back through the past in search of a memory.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”
A smile broke on the girl’s face. Her fingers ran through the boy’s matted hair.
“May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white…”
When she looked at the boy, his eyes were closed.