The fire leaps and dances, reaching for the clouded splash of stars that glitter above us. Mamma combs through my short hair with her gentle fingers, her soft breathing the only sound that reaches me in the dark. One of my sisters sleeping faces is illuminated by a spurt of flame, and I notice how peaceful she looks, her worn face smoothed by pleasant dreams, or by the fragrance of the nearby water lilies.
It happened only months ago, but it seems like years… It wasn’t gradual, not something for our great-great-grandchildren to deal with like the scientists said. It didn’t happen in a millenia, it happened in a week, in a night, in a heartbeat, the collapse of my perfect world.
It had been getting warmer for years, our pollution and garbage filling the ground and air, yellowing the sky and poisoning the oceans. They told us it would be okay, that they could fix it, the governments and the scientists. But they lied. It got worse and worse, and people died because of it, because of it we had to flee our home. We searched for uncontaminated water, or a shred of civilization, or a place where there were no violent storms. We searched in vain.
Mamma’s breath tickles my ear as she leans forward and kisses my cheek, I feel her cracked and drying lips, and I wonder when she last had anything to drink. “ Mama, “ I whisper “ Go to the pond. You need water. “
She looks at me, half of her lined and dusty face shadowed by the warm light of our fire. “I’d rather save it for you and your siblings. You’ll need it more than I will, Dune."
I turn my face from her at the sound of the name. Dune. It is crude, a product of its time. I hate it. It reminds me of swirling sand and harsh winds and the night my father left us…. Mamma says she named me Dune because she thinks it will help me be strong when the time comes. I don’t know what she means by that.
I sigh and stand up, my bare feet scraping the smooth sandstone surface of the cave floor. I take her hand and squeeze it tight in my own, and I reassure her in a whisper “ Don’t worry, Mamma, I’ll take care of everything. “
I pull my hood lower over my face and the wind picks up and whips the loose sand and dust into the air. I stoop down and my hands scuffle into the course, dry earth, trying to uproot a clump of grass. I hear my sister, Ember, as she scavenges for leaves that have not yet been disintegrated by the heat and sun. My breathing is loud in my ears as the wind drops away suddenly, leaving the desert an aching abyss again.
My hand trembles slightly as I reach up to wipe away the sweat that dampens my hair and forehead. A feeling grows in my stomach, weighing me down from the inside. I grow more and more uneasy as the desert stillness deepens, and every small sound seems magnified in the emptiness. I glance at my sister, and I realize a second too late what’s about to happen.
I scream her name as I lunge for her, but I miss and I am thrown into the impenetrable darkness, the wind howling in my ears. Bucketfuls of sand are filling my face, clogging my mouth, my ears, my nose. I stumble and I fall, hard onto the ground, sand continues to pound against me, my face and hands being cut a thousand times.
I scream for Ember another time and grit fills my mouth, and I feel the stinging tears on my cheeks as I stumble again.
The wind screeches around me, and I am barely aware of the aching of my bloodied hands, and the darkness as it clouds my mind.
I play with Ember’s dark hair, wishing that it could regain some of it’s old beauty. She chats quietly to me, forgetting that we are the only ones in our camp. She tells me about how she wishes we had less siblings, or how she wishes our dad hadn’t left us. I ask her why she doesn’t wish for the world to go back to normal. She says that she likes it just as it is as long as she has me. I smile and wrap my arms around my sister, and I kiss her on top of her head, smelling her fragrant hair and I breathe “ I love you, too Ember. “
I jerk awake with an agonized yell. My vision is blurred and the only thing I can see is the bright haze of white light, and I struggle against the strong leather straps that have tied me to the hard surface.
I scream Ember’s name over and over again, and other names, too. My mother, my father, my three little brothers, my older sister… I stop only when my throat is torn and raw. Then I fall to crying, and tears stream out of my eyes, and I weep for everything that has happened to me and my family. My hands are carefully bandaged and they shake as they curl into fists beneath the sheet that is on me.
Hours later it seems, a door opens and a man enters the blank, white room. He smells…. bad. The stench of blood and fear follows him as he walks about the bed that I am tied to. His voice is gentle, however, and he speaks reassuring words in a soft and foreign language. I close my eyes and I speak to him in a choked voice, rage boiling inside of me. “What happened to my sister? “
The doctor turns and looks at someone who is out of my stunted range of vision. I feel a trickle of liquid inside of my right arm, and my head grows heavy and dark clouds fill my head again as I hear my own echoing voice beg for my family.