Toward the Sun

by Aeryn Rudel

We walked toward the sun, orienting ourselves when it was lowest in the sky, figuring that would lead us west. We walked beside dead fields of wilted brown, cracked riverbeds that held only dust and bones, and the scorched concrete monoliths of sunbaked cities.

There were five of us when we set out from Boston, three men and two women. We each carried the weight of lost children and loved ones left drained of moisture and life in houses and apartments little more than heat-scorched tombs. Five strangers brought together by the sun grown red and massive, beginning its death throes billions of years ahead of schedule. Our star faced the end with haughty pride, and refused to give up its bright throne in the sky.

The sun shone nineteen of twenty-four hours when we started our journey. The few hours of darkness offered brief respite from the murderous glare and triple-digit temperatures. Those hours waned the further west we traveled. By the time we passed St. Louis, the sun only sank below the horizon for a scant three hours.

A faint hope the Pacific Ocean would offer sanctuary pushed us on. One of us, Dr. Ephraim Adams, a tall, strangely cheerful man who’d taught environmental science at Boston University, told us it would be simple to set up a desalination process. We’d have all the water we needed. I doubted him because I’d seen the scorched plain of the Atlantic. Maybe there was still water out there in the middle of all that desolation, a once-mighty ocean reduced to shallow puddle. Not that it mattered; the heat would bake your insides before you’d gone ten miles.

We scavenged water where we could from small reservoirs in toilet tanks or the occasional cache of water bottles, half-evaporated, warm and awful on the tongue. The water ran out in Las Vegas and reduced our number to four. A small, pretty woman named Jolene Hanson simply sat down in the middle of I-15, the heat mirage rising around her in stifling waves. She looked up at me and smiled. “That’s it, Sam. I’m done.”

No one argued with her. We understood. I looked back once after we’d left. I’ll always remember Jolene staring up at the sun, dead sunflowers beside the road nodding toward her like a line of mourners at a funeral.

The next night, Jamal Holbrook lay down with the rest of us in the fleeting, hazy darkness. The gunshot jolted us all awake. We didn’t have the strength to bury Jamal, so I took the gun from his stiff hands and we continued on.

It grew cooler in the Sierra Nevadas, and I wondered if maybe that great expanse of dark blue water would greet us when we came down from the mountains. I dared not hope, but Dr. Adams assured us the cooler temperatures meant the ocean still lapped at sandy shores, cold and vast.

We found an overturned Alhambra truck beneath an overpass in Central California that had evaded looters. The relative cool beneath the overpass had preserved two five-gallon jugs of pure water. We sat in the shade and drank our fill, reveling in something like joy or maybe just appreciation for a slight reprieve before the end. Perhaps we should have conserved the water, but if the Pacific was dry, I wanted to die with spit in my mouth rather than the dust I’d breathed for three thousand miles.

In Modesto, California, about ninety miles from the coast, our numbers fell to two. In the empty tomb-like silence of a shopping mall, Rebecca Lucas met her end. We’d been dragging our water behind us in a child’s wagon. Foolish, but we’d stopped believing there were any people left, let alone any people who would harm us. When we stopped to rest and drink, the three men who had been following us attacked.

They shot Rebecca while she sat beside the wagon, drinking from her canteen. The bullet went through her and into one of the big Alhambra jugs. It spewed water tinged pink onto the tile floor in a steady gush, and that’s all that saved us. Dr. Adams and I ran, abandoning the wagon. Our attackers were more concerned with the water spilling onto the ground than pursuing us, and we escaped.

Thirty miles from the coast, Dr. Adams started talking to himself. Ten more miles and he began to shout long strings of scientific formulae interspersed with peals of high-pitched laughter. I ignored him for as long as I could, and then, when I could take it no longer, I shot him. I shot him because I wanted quiet. I shot him because I knew he’d lied about the ocean in the west. I shot him because I wanted to die alone.

I arrived in the seaside town of Carmel exactly three hundred days from when I’d left Boston. I passed through empty streets that had once moved to the slow rhythm of crashing waves and delighted visitors with the stinging scent of brine. I heard nothing but the wind. I smelled only dust and my own rancid body odor.

When I reached the beach, it was not empty. Others had heard the myth of the Pacific and traveled west. Their bodies lay in the sand, burnt and rotting. I saw gunshot wounds in the bleached skulls of half a dozen. Others, like Jolene Hanson, had sat down and died quietly, their corpses folded around a loved one or perhaps just a surrogate stranger.

The ocean bed stretched on endlessly. A new sea of gray silt, but if I stared long enough at the heat waves rising from over it, I could see blue, hear waves, smell the salt in the air.

I saw footprints heading off into the mirage, dozens and dozens of them. I followed, walking toward the sun, always toward the sun.

Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Seattle, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, On Spec, and  Pseudopod, among others. He occasionally offers dubious advice on writing and rejection (mostly rejection) at or on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.
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