“You seen Parasite?”
“That movie haunts me to this day.”
“Damn, it’s really that scary?”
“In a way, yes, but not in the way you’d expect.”
“We’ll have to watch it once this is all said and done.”
“Yeah, for sure.”
The waves relentlessly pounded against the edge of the creaky, wooden dock. The ocean was getting more and more relentless as the sun etched its way lower and lower into the sky. The waning of the sun almost made it feel heavier in my pocket, its weight fluctuating and pulsating with each stride.
With each passing minute of agonizing, conversational lull, its mass grew and grew. Suddenly I found myself limping, struggling to carry its weight with just my right leg alone. Biting my lip, I maintained my stride to the best of my ability, careful not to hint at my struggle.
But Jada knew; she always knew. She looked at me with that stinging concern.
“You ok, Jack?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“You don’t seem ok.”
“Well I am, trust me.”
Another surge of growth; another wince.
“Alright guys,” she stopped, turning to face our two companions. “We really should find a place to rest for the night.”
“And get some food, right? I’m fuckin starving!” Dad smiled with excitement, bringing his wheelchair to a halt.
“I just gave you a granola bar two hours ago!” Amber clocked dad on the back of his head.
“One for me, four for you, right?” dad chuckled, poking at her admittedly large stomach.
“Bastard,” she sighed, unable to hide her smirk.
I still didn’t fully understand why Amber chose to travel with us in the first place. Sure, Dad really had no other choice but to come; after all, he couldn’t survive without me as his caretaker. Amber, on the other hand, was a fully capable woman in her 40s, not a legless veteran. She still had a whole Walmart to run, even without me as her top employee. But whether it be out of loyalty to me, a lust for adventure, or simply being a good person, she insisted on joining us until Jada was safe for good.
“Look, I know a nice hotel about a mile up ahead. I used to go there with my parents as a kid. The price is a bit steep, but they do free food for guests. What do you say we see if we can get a room?” Jada asked.
“Sounds good to me, I ain’t broke just yet!” Dad excitedly wheeled ahead of us.
In agreement, we continued our stroll.
I instinctively reached down for my left pocket, clawing for a cellphone that I knew was no longer there. It’s so easy for our brains to form routine, to take the luxuries of modern life for granted. If it were just a few years earlier, I would have been able to call ahead and make sure the hotel had a room before we trekked all the way over there. But the war had a funny way of taking things we were used to and chucking them into a dumpster fire.
The sunset had blossomed into a magnificent orgy of orange and violet. The waves crashed with increasing ferocity below, water beginning to leak up onto the dock’s surface.
“Hey Jada?” I winced over pain from my adjacent pocket.
“We’re gonna make sure you’re safe, I promise.”
A glistening, white smile slid across her ebony skin. That smile was my purpose. That smile made it all worth it.
Jada and I sat among the sisters as the sunrise leaked in through the pristine, glass windows compiling the lounge’s walls. With no watch or phone, I couldn’t really tell what time it was. But given the sun’s position on the ocean’s horizon, it was early enough for Amber and Dad to still be fast asleep in our room. For me on the other hand, sleep was a luxury that my mind simply wouldn’t allow. Jada was no stranger to this insomnia either. I think guilt kept her awake at night; I can always feel it flaring up in my pocket as the night etches deeper and deeper into inky darkness.
“So young man, what brings you to our monastery?” the oldest of the nuns asked, breaking my train of thought.
They kindly took us in so late at night, I almost forgot they hadn’t questioned our purpose before sending us off to shower and sleep. I looked at Jada, who nodded in approval. This meant I could choose between one of three pre-rehearsed cover stories. I strategically selected the one that would get us the most value out of these nuns.
“Her,” I gently patted Jada on the back.
“You see, she was separated from her parents when the war hit New York, and ended up displaced down here in the south. We’re traveling north to find her parents, which is very difficult without phones or the internet.”
“Ah my poor things! What a nasty thing that war; we tried to stay out of it to the best of our abilities,” the sister assured. “After all, the church must remain neutral in all conflicts.”
“Though we all really know who’s to blame here,” another sister chimed in.
She sat legs crossed with a smug smile, middle aged, blonde, with a reddened complexion.
“Those nasty witches! Without them, none of this nonsense would have ever begun in the first place,” a third sister, with graying, raven-black hair confirmed.
Anger bubbled inside my chest.
“I really don’t think that’s true. Witches, if you insist on calling them that, are just misunderstood, that’s all. You can’t blame them for years of our irresponsibility when they didn’t even exist yet.”
“Are you seriously defending those vile monsters?” the black-haired nun sneered.
Jada gripped my hand. It began to flare in my pocket as her nervousness grew, sending spasms of pain shooting down my leg.
The blonde sister huffed and smacked the arm of her chair, “I swear to our heavenly father, if I see one of those godforsaken degenerates, I’ll kill her myself!”
“Amen,” all the sisters chimed in in unison.
“Wow, such a beautiful morning!” Amber suddenly strolled in, wheeling a yawning Dad before her. “We should spend some time relaxing on the beach before the water gets too rowdy.”
“We were actually just about to get going, weren’t we Jack?” Jada shot up from her chair, yanking me up with her.
“But why wouldn’t we stay just a few more hours? We have all day to walk,” Amber said.
“You really gonna argue with her, Jack? She always gets what she wants,” Dad chuckled, taking a sip of coffee from an ancient-looking mug.
“We have to get going Amber, we’re on a schedule,” I gritted my teeth.
Still, she failed to pick up on my que, gazing at Jada and I with complete cluelessness. She would get it soon enough. My leg was on fire; I couldn’t keep my pain hidden any longer. A golden glow burst from my pocket, illuminating the room with a yellow tinge.
The oldest sister sprang up from her armchair with startling ferocity for a woman of her age.
“A witch!,” she pointed with a shriek.
Jada broke free from my hand, and turned to me.
The smog was unbearably thick this morning, if it was still morning that is. It was hard to tell this close to a facility. Amber, Jada, and I trudged through the jungle of mutated dunegrass, barely able to see just a few feet ahead of us. We would not have been able to make it any further if we still had to push dad around.
I found myself stopping. My pocket wasn’t any heavier than the usual, constant heft, but the weight in my chest was paralyzing.
As if reading my mind, Jada placed her arm around my shoulder.
“We have to keep moving; this is dangerous territory.”
“I know, I know.”
“I can hold it if you want me to. It’s easier for me to carry; you know that.”
“We can’t; it’s too risky to keep you together. You know that as well as I do.”
“Give it to me then; stop being so stubborn,” Amber reached out with the annoyed compassion that used to bug the hell out of me during our Walmart days. But those days were long gone; Amber wasn’t my supervisor anymore.
“NO,” I barked, immediately regretting my tone.
This took both of them aback; they gently stepped away.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just… it’s just…”
Before I could finish, I felt the warmth of Jada’s arms surround me, immediately followed by Amber’s from the other side.
“Think about how far we’ve come,” Jada said. “We can’t stop now, we have to keep moving forward.”
“It’s what your dad would have wanted,” Amber added.
I stood up, breaking off from my companions.
“You’re right; we have to keep going!” I turned to Jada, “we’ll find you somewhere safe in no time, I promise.”
The rustling pierced my ears before I could continue on.
Instinctually, I lept on top of Jada, knocking her to the ground, covering her entire body with mine. Before she even had time to ask what was going on, a small group of soldiers crashed through the brush toting massive, monstrous guns, pointing their long barrels directly at us.
“You three! Who are you? What are you doing on facility grounds?”
Amber confidently slid in front of us; her cover story ready to go.
“We’re so sorry sir. You see, I’m trying to get my niece and nephew to New York City, they got separated from their family during the war and…”
“Very funny. You know as well as I do that Manhattan is underwater.”
My heart sunk. It wasn’t our true destination, but it was our cover for so long that it almost felt true, like an artificial goal. Now even the waves had taken that from us.
“We… we didn’t know that actually. We don’t really get much news when traveling like this.”
“Can I see your identification?” another soldier stepped forward.
Suddenly my pocket spasmed, sending me shooting off of Jada. She was clearly in a panic.
“Well, well, well. Look who we have here,” the first soldier chuckled. “If it isn’t the infamous Wicked Witch of the East herself. You really think you could hide from us with that hair, that scar? You’re wanted everywhere; nowhere’s safe for you.”
My pocket strained, beginning to tear; it was the heaviest I ever felt it since I met her.
“You’re coming with us,” the second pointed his gun in our faces.
Grabbing Jada’s hand, I attempted to burst into a sprint. It was fruitless; she was ripped apart from me near-instantly.
“Jack, Amber, run! Run as far away as you can! I’ll be fine! I promise! GO!” she struggled in the arms of her captors.
My pocket burst open, sending it smashing onto the ground below.
The relief on my leg was unexplainable, but the weight on my chest was ever present. I was parylzed with fear.
“GET THAT GUY AND GET THAT THING, NOW!” the soldier holding Jada screamed.
“I’ll be fine, I promise,” Jada smiled.
The smile shattered my heart and reformed it over and over again in an agonizing loop. My only goal was to keep her safe, keep that smile safe, and I failed.
“You haven’t failed yet.”
Suddenly my adrenaline came back in full force. I hoisted it from the ground, turned to Amber, and we ran.
“I swear I’ll stay nearby; I’ll keep it close until we find a way to get you out of there! I won’t let you die! I’ll keep you safe; I promise!” I screamed as we sped past the soldiers and deeper into the grass.
It withered down to its normal size as my shouts echoed back to Jada.
The heat beat down upon me with sizzling ferocity. Wiping the globs of sweat from my unruly, greying beard, I continued to push the wheelchair across the abandoned road. Soon the heat would be too high, and the water too scarce to push on, but we’d worry about that when it comes. That’s how we made it this long after all.
Chunks of the shattered boardwalk sat submerged in blue, relentlessly bobbing in the roaring waves. The blue monsters etched closer and closer, gnawing away at the edge of the street. But the road was only so thin, and traversing the ruins of the hotel strip to our right wouldn’t be possible with Jada’s condition.
She sat contently, happily humming along with a tune only she could hear. I needed to get her water fast. But the waves were too close; I couldn’t leave her here while I explored the ruins for the narrow chance that some half-drunk bottles lay in the rubble.
It sat nearly weightless in my pocket, the smallest it had ever been. Just one wrong move and it would shatter into a million pieces. I couldn’t take any more risks if I wanted to keep her safe, if I wanted to see that smile again.
“Yeah?” she turned up
“You seen Parasite?”
“That movie haunts me to this day.”