22 Dec Sole Survivor
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"Sole Survivor"Written by Jeffrey Ebright
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Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
He was cold. Bitterly so. It was not the unforgiving December wind creating lazy vortexes in the freshly falling snow; rather, it was the numbness that consumed both body and soul in one fatal, unseen breeze. It also did not escape him that his surroundings seemingly felt the same: bleak and deserted.
Perhaps deserted was not the proper term. Being two days before Christmas, there were many people filling the cityscape. Some gathered under building awnings for shelter; others slumped in their cars locked bumper to bumper; and still others reclined upon street benches, waiting for public transportation that would never come. Even the bodies sprawled awkwardly here and there in the street and on the sidewalk testified this city was not deserted. No birds perched in rotting trees which arched to the darkened sky, no Christmas shoppers hustled and bustled for last-minute gifts, no children warred with other children in the time-honored battle for snowball superiority. Dead.
A condemning chill raced through him with the speed of thought: I am alone.
However, it was not his first exposure to loneliness.
For the past decade, he had spent his existence secluded in the beautifully barren confines of a Canadian parcel of land in the Arctic Circle. The sub-zero temperatures were of little concern; in fact, the serrated blades of arctic wind refreshed and strengthened him. Curiously, this environment inspired his continued survival and kept him safe in an Arctic embrace. Although the prospect of longevity outweighed the void of companionship in his early years, his later years were a true test of sanity in solitude.
Occasionally, the old man would visit him, briefly dispersing the looming shade of lethal boredom. The old man’s eyes forever sparkled with an eternal hope and always, offering a jovial laugh with any story, suspending the soulless sorrow of isolation. Unfortunately, that cheer could not prevent the predator of loneliness from eagerly returning shortly after the old man departed, on his way to whatever brought him out of his happy home in the first place.
In those days without the comfort of another, he would curse the warmth of friends, trying unsuccessfully to deny he even needed companionship. Yet, deep down, he knew he would instantly return to civilization in a heartbeat. However, he knew he could not return, as the enemy would be waiting. And the enemy would not take pity on him.
His nemesis was far from omniscient, but the Beast need not be. His foe had spread its influence all about countries, cities, and suburbs like a virulent plague. In these places, no one could hide from the Beast. The enemy did have a weakness; a brief period of impotency every year. Yet, he still felt unsure as to the Beast’s machinations as those periods were not easily measured, so he played it safe against the enemy with the deadly gaze and kept to the safety of his frozen sanctuary.
He had not forgotten that terrifying first encounter. He remembered the incident with crystal-clear accuracy, burned into him like a glowing branding iron kissing virgin flesh. The morning had sleepily awakened when the enemy attacked with sadistic fury. His body had become a well of pain under the Beast’s well-honed talons, feeling as if millions of razor blades ripped into him. Every pore screamed, yet the Beast drank freely from his essence, one excruciating sip at a time. He felt the scoffing eyes of the enemy toying with him, as if to say ‘the worst is yet to come!’ He knew further hellacious torments awaited him if he did not immediately retreat. Wracked with deep pain, he fled to the outer reaches of northern Canada, a place where his nemesis did not follow. Perhaps it was the extreme temperatures or the geography; nonetheless, the enemy had, in one ironic stroke, condemned him to this frigid tundra and saved him.
But now he stood defiantly in the realm of his nemesis, fearless of retaliation. The enemy had been placed in check, and he knew it.
The crux of the conflict occurred months prior, in the deep night sky. Stars seductively winked at him as he watched the glorious beauty of the Northern Lights swaying in heaven’s inky darkness. Then he noticed a peculiar object falling from the sky. A meteorite? An old space satellite? Whatever the case, the object maintained a purposeful nature. It was then that a second, then a third, then a fourth meteorite appeared; they seemed to multiply exponentially. The meteorites gashed the serene sky as the stars retreated under the onslaught of hundreds of projectiles. Repulsed, he turned away from the aerial horde, only to find a mirror of the same on the opposite horizon. Seemingly ignorant of each other, the projectiles laced between one another. Most sped off to their destination unmolested. But, occasionally, some would cross paths issuing an eruption of brutal luminescence. It was then he realized the bright, explosive flashes were missiles. Nuclear missiles. He could not bear to watch the horror, and retreated to the confines of his igloo.
It was like sleeping through a distant thunderstorm as the mechanical abominations rumbled across the atmosphere with small flashes like violent, destructive heat lightning.
When he left his igloo much later, he noticed the sky; or rather, the absence of it. In its place was a dirty gray film of sediment, thick and smothering. The nuclear bombs had tossed the waste of their destruction into the atmosphere, defying the stars to shine or even a satellite to broadcast an important Emergency Broadcasting System message down on the planet. The Earth had become a lightless coffin with an ecological nightmare as a casket lid. He guessed that what the nukes didn’t vaporize, or the radiation didn’t kill, the polluted atmosphere would handily finish off.
Weeks later, he heard a voice at his door: “Anybody home?” It was the weakened voice of the old man.
When he laid his dark eyes upon the old man, he stared with a mixture of sympathy and revulsion. Radiation had taken control of the old man’s body. Putrid facial lesions were painfully visible and large patches of now-hairless sections of his head had been replaced by wet, runny, red splotches. Thick green mucus and saliva ran unchecked from the old man’s nose and mouth, and the old man’s swollen, irradiated hands were as red and puffy as the parka he wore.
“Just thought I’d stop by for a visit.” The old man tried to chuckle, which turned into a bout of wracking, painful coughing. The light was fading fast. “Well, my boy, even though I know who’s been naughty, it doesn’t do me much good. The Earth is dying, my boy. I’m pretty wily, but,” the old man stared at the bloody holes in his fingers where nails once grew, “even I’m not immune. Matter of fact, my last pack animal passed away ’bout a half-mile from here. Poor Don, he tried, but those nukes take the fight out of you.” Tears welled and ran down the old man’s sunken cheeks.
“Please, you can’t-”
“Don’t start on me,” the old man cut in. “We all gotta go some time. Just never thought we’d all go at the same time. We’re all dead, my boy. Every plant and animal. Dead or dying. ‘Cept you.” The old man fell to the floor of the igloo, hacking blood and lung tissue. He cradled the old man as he continued to hack. “God, how I pity you. You’ll survive. I just age slow, but you…” Another series of coughs shook the old man’s frame. “So… sorry…” the old man sputtered, before a violent death rattle extinguished the remaining fire from his eyes.
Now, as he stood in the silence and gray soot of the Midwestern town that spawned him, he reflected on those who gave him life. His makers knew very little of the arcane arts; yet, caught in the throes of creativity, these youthful wizards had used base alchemy and common elements to give him life.
Was it, he thought, a magical device? My creators’ desire? Fate? Hand of God? Frankly, he did not have the reasoning capacity to properly analyze such an esoteric subject, nor did he care to dwell long on it.
The most vivid memory he had was of the day the Beast had forced him to leave. He was waving farewell to a little girl in a fluffy pink winter coat and thick white corduroy pants. He could see she was fighting the flow of tears and a heavy heart. She waved back with a mittened hand.
“Don’t you cry,” he called back to her. “I’ll be back again someday.”
Now, he had returned. Not that it mattered anymore. The little girl in the pink winter coat was surely a dead, frozen husk. Like the rest of humanity. Like the animals. Like the plants and flowers. Like every living thing on planet Earth.
Except for him.
He walked through the dirty snowfall, stopping at the town square. Amidst the dead and discarded machinery of mankind stood the town’s wilted Christmas tree, decked with bold ornaments and shimmering garland. Even though Christmas was just two days away, he did not feel celebratory. Every ounce of Christmas spirit drained from him the moment Santa Claus died in his arms somewhere within the harsh Canadian North in a desolate igloo.
The sole survivor of Earth began to weep, for he knew his nemesis, the Beast known as the Sun, would not appear again for many, many decades. That is, if he was lucky, or fate was merciful. The golem of snow once called Frosty continued walking without destination. Black tears flowed unchecked from eyes made out of coal. And his tears were cold. Bitterly so.
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