Burn: Chapter 1: Bonfire
Not everyone knows, but I've been (*hair toss*) working on a novel! Since early 2020! While I'm only about halfway done with the first draft now, I figured I should share the first chapter. I submitted this in my application to the Royal College of Art, and I'm convinced it's what got me in. As always, I hope that you enjoy this!
Even from this far out of downtown, you could still smell The Burn. It would creep slowly up your nose, settling into your sinuses. Emilia sniffled. The highway stretched beyond the horizon, bending ever so slightly with the curve of the earth. The world washed in the grey of the overcast ash, the husks of the houses of new suburbia lined the ditches in a cul-de-sac-ed monument of the nearly forgotten. Milo took the lead, winding through the shells of long-abandoned cars. A bolt action rifle gripped tightly in his gloved hands.
The ash had settled in clumps as it glided gently to the coated earth. A corrupted snow, it forced its way down respirators, clogging air filters. In the spots where The Burn was bright, you couldn’t even breathe in buildings. The basements were the worst.
Magnus, panting, hauled Ruby, her burns still searing underneath the layers of coats. Never again did she want to take those off. She shivered. Hawzhin took up the rear, her empty sleeve pinned up and her ‘lucky hand’ white-knuckled around the grip of a pistol.
The snap of a gunshot. The Group activated: Hawzhin got on one knee — her pistol aimed, Magus dragged Ruby to the ground, and Emilia ducked behind a car with Milo.
“How far?” Emilia asked, her voice muffled by the gas mask.
“Off the highway, but still close,” Hawzhin said.
“All in favor of continuing on?” asked Milo.
Five quiet “ayes”.
The Group wound through the cars once more, picking up their feet on their march down the highway.
Milo cleared his vents every few minutes, using one hand to scrape them free of the ash, the other balancing the rifle. They were running behind, moving slower as five than three. Ruby had argued that the priority should be a car, but the heaps of discarded automobiles proved impassable regardless of vehicle — even if they had found a functioning one. The Group carried on by foot.
Emilia’s small metallic watch beeped at 4pm, give or take anywhere between ten minutes and three hours. Everyone had been walking since just before sunrise, or what they thought was sunrise. The ash was so thick it would often blot out the sun. Emilia couldn’t remember the last time she had seen it, let alone any other stars. Ruby collapsed, dragging Magnus down into a pothole. She cried out.
Hawzhin walked past the two, brushing past Ruby.
“Get her up, we need to keep moving west,” she said, her back turned.
Magnus shuffled to his knees and dragged Ruby to her feet, she winced as he scooped her up.
“We never should have left the sanctuary,” she murmured to him.
“And done what instead?” he asked. “Starved?”
The sky lightened as they moved farther out of the city, and then darkened again as night began to fall, always much earlier than anyone anticipated.
“All in favor of stopping for the night?” asked Ruby, clenching her teeth.
Four quiet “ayes”.
One louder “nay” from Hawzhin.
Trudging through the dead overgrowth of the ditches, The Group crept along the sides of houses, looking for light, for fires, and for disturbances. A suitable McMansion took the throne at the end of a cul-de-sac. Ash had settled on the windowsills and coated the pointed roofs. The sickly yellow paint looked much better after a coating of grey, Ruby decided. Magnus, Emilia, and Milo jimmied open the front door, and The Group lugged themselves inside. Peasants of the new world trespassing into a palace of the old, they made themselves comfortable on the pristine off-white carpet of the untouched living room. Respirators, coats, and packs were removed, and stashed in nooks, shelves, beside bedrolls. Everyone searched the house — nothing. Only a few bits of broken furniture.
Hawzhin smashed the glass on the old gas fireplace, placing the broken bits of table legs and pieces of a cabinet door in a pyramid. Magnus dug the bent matchbook out of his pack, shoved in some kindling, and struck a match. The fire roared to life instantaneously, as Magnus flung himself backward.
“Leftover gas in the pipes?” asked Emilia.
“Who knows,” Milo said.
“Be more careful!” Ruby scolded, as she wrapped her burnt arms around Magnus. He shrugged off her embrace.
Emilia took out a few cans. Pork and beans: “expired” a year ago. Tomato soup: presumably still good, the label was removed for peace of mind. Milo unstrapped a frying pan from the back of his pack, pouring the two inside to heat over the fire.
“Ew…” Magnus said, staring into the mixture.
“What? They’re both essentially watered-down tomato sauce, one’s just got beans in it,” Milo said, shrugging. “Think of it like chili.”
“Bastard’s chili, maybe,” Magnus said.
Hawzhin pulled out a fogged bottle, tucked it into her armpit, and pulled the stopper out, drinking deeply. Handing it to Milo, he did the same. He passed it further down along the semicircle surrounding the fireplace.
“No, thank you,” Ruby said, putting up her hand. “I shouldn’t.”
“Bottoms up,” Magnus said, raising the bottle. Ruby ripped the bottle away from him just as it touched his lips. She scowled at him, and set it in the center of the semicircle. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall.
Emilia shrugged, taking the bottle and giving it a gulp. The stillness of the dead outside encroached on the group. Ash continued to build up on the windowsill. Hawzhin got to her feet, wobbling a little as Milo tried to help her balance, her phantom arm flailing.
“I’ve got this,” she snarled at him. She fixed her headscarf, tucking her dark hair underneath. Stepping to the large windows of the living room, she stood watching the grove behind the house. Emilia began to dig the caked dirt out from underneath her fingernails. A piece of wood broke, collapsing part of the fire. Milo dug a charred bit out of the stew with a small metal spoon.
“Soup’s on,” he said, putting on his tattered gloves, and pulling the pan off the fire.
The “stew” bubbled, baked beans floating at the top. The Group began to dig out their wide bowls and utensils from their packs. Ruby and Magnus didn’t move.
“We… we don’t have anything to eat with,” Magnus said, looking down into the stew.
Hawzhin scoffed, slumping down near her pack. The pan went around, each member sliding some of the watery mixture into their bowls.
“I’ve got an extra,” Emilia said, pulling out another spoon. “You’re going to have to share though. Just eat straight out of the pan after we dish it out.”
“Thank you,” said Ruby, taking the spoon. She tucked her dyed hair behind her left ear, revealing three diamond earrings. Each bigger than the gem on the engagement ring Emilia had stashed away at the bottom of her pack. They glittered in the fire’s light, the reflections dancing, scattering tiny rainbows to the wall. Emilia stared, wondering how Ruby’s hair was still purple when her own pink hair had grown out years ago. The pan was soon passed to the couple, and they tore into the food viciously, each wrenching the spoon out of the other’s hands every few slurps.
“How did you fall into that basement?” Milo asked Ruby, clearing his face from his unwashed dark hair.
Magnus shifted, his trimmed whiskers tinged red by the flames. His black “Thrasher” sweatshirt was barely covered in ash. His hair was still styled, albeit drooping. Ruby cocked her head.
“What are you talking about?”
“When we found Magnus, he said you had fallen into a basement and burned yourself.”
Magnus tried to subtly nudge Ruby.
“Ow! Why are you elbowing me?” she said, clutching her burns. “I never fell into that basement, we were coming out of it.”
“Coming out?” Hawzhin asked.
“Our bunker had set on fire, we were escaping when we came out into that basement.”
Magnus gazed at the ground, not lifting his eyes. Ruby leaned into him, and he wrapped his arm around her.
“A bunker?” Milo asked.
“Yeah,” Ruby said, hiding her face behind Magnus’ arm. “My parents put us in ten years ago. We were 17 then.”
“I would’ve died if Ruby hadn’t begged her dad to let me in,” Magnus finally said.
Quiet. So quiet you could hear the ash falling outside.
The fire popped softly as the embers settled. Emilia tossed another chair leg onto the fire. She nestled back onto her bedroll, pulling a coat and a rain poncho over her boney body. She stared into the fire, the light glazing over her green eyes. Ruby laid her head on Magnus’ lap, the dark red burns that ran up the right side of her face melding into the darkness. The two stared into the fire, watching the flames lap up the new kindling. Milo and Hawzhin sat studying a tattered map. The light shone through the cracks in the creases of the paper, casting lines of light on their faces. Hawzhin muttered to her brother, eyeing up Magnus and Ruby.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “You would’ve gone crazy being cooped up in a room ten years.”
Ruby sat up. “Who said it was just one room?”
Milo set the map down, adjusting his round, grimy glasses. Emilia leaned forward.
“The sanctuary was bigger than all of your houses, probably combined,” Ruby continued. “It was a multi-leveled complex. It had a gym, an indoor theatre, a treadmill promenade, quarters for the help—”
“The help?” Emilia intervened.
“Yeah. Do you think we were able to keep everything up by ourselves?” Ruby crossed her arms. Magnus shifted, unsure of what to do with his hands.
Everyone fell silent. A buildup of ash slid off the roof.
“It was sustainable, if that helps,” Magnus said.
“Was it?” Hawzhin asked, motioning to the couple with her lucky arm.
“How did you manage to get in that place?” Emilia asked, leaning her face in.
Silence. The chair leg crumbled into the fireplace, stirring the embers below.
“Her dad was an executive at Chevron,” Magnus said, avoiding looking at Hawzhin as she glared down at him and Ruby.
Milo’s forehead creased and his eyebrows furrowed. His teeth grinding together.
“Chevron? As in the second-largest polluter in the world?” he said.
Ruby cast her eyes away from him, curling her knees into her chest.
“Your father killed us. That company burned our planet dry, and now we’re stuck here with you?” Milo continued. “Serves you right for getting burned.”
Ruby wrapped her charred arms around herself. The tender skin seared with every small movement. She bit down hard on her lower lip.
“It’s not my fault,” she said, tears pouring out of her large brown eyes. “It’s not like I wanted this to happen. We didn’t know it was this bad. We never could’ve imagined it this bad.”
Her boyfriend sat still, his hands in his lap. Ruby sobbed, salty tears dripping down her forearms, stinging the burns. She winced, crying more.
“You are right about one thing,” Hawzhin said. “You never could’ve imagined how bad it was, and it’s even worse than you imagined.”
A wind howled, picking up ash and swirling it past the large windows in the living room. Only embers remained on the fire.
“Welcome to the New World, I suppose,” Emilia said, standing up.
“And a real warm welcome at that,” Magnus said.
“They don’t call it ‘The Burn’ for nothing,” said Milo, folding his arms.
Emilia threw another leg on the fire. Beyond the bare trees behind the house, peering over just ever so slightly, was the distant orange glow of an all-consuming fire. There it swallowed cities, the remaining people, the shabby communities propped up in crumbling skyscrapers, any reminder of what we once were.
There, it was baptizing the dilapidations of the old world in fire.
The Group made their way further West as the overcast clouds grew to a light grey. Returning to the highway, The Group carried on through the maze of ruined vehicles, dragging their feet through the thick layer of ash covering the ground.
“Why’s it so hot, The Burn?” Ruby asked, feeling her own burns against her flashy coats.
“Carbon. Chemical pollution. The lack of change. The Burn is still spreading.” Emilia said, trudging along in front of Ruby. Her pack clanging and clacking with every heavy step. “I was in New York for a few years during Collapse. Every day, a different section of the city was flooded. I remember I was stuck on the number three line, late for work, waiting for a tunnel to be pumped. We waited for six hours until we finally decided to force the doors open. We all filed neat and orderly down to the next station on our own, but the second we got to the surface, everyone instantly took part in the madness surrounding us.”
A gust of ash picked up, swirling past The Group’s ankles. They stopped near an overpass. Milo and Hawzhin unraveled the map, bickering over which way to go.
“What’s the holdup?” Magnus said, approaching Ruby and Emilia.
Ruby shrugged and leaned on him.
Setting down her pack, Emilia leaned on a rusting SUV. She sighed, relaxing her shoulders and dug out the ash clogging her mask’s filter.
“That was the funniest thing. Everyone was civil until we knew we didn’t have to be. There was rioting, looting, someone burned down Jeff Bezos’ Manhattan mansion — it was chaos, but only for a week. Suddenly, as if a switch was flipped, people organized themselves. Neighborhoods set up food stocks, small communities were formed, and people started to work together to figure this thing out. My friends and I had even set up a garden.
“But after about six months, I heard news of a massive, unstoppable wildfire spreading all along the coast. Every day, I could see The Burn spreading closer and closer to the city. The more it grew closer, the more people panicked, and everything fell apart. There were oil refinery explosions one evening, and within an hour The Burn had spread up to Union City. By the time I packed my things, the winds carried the fires over to Hell’s Kitchen, so I fled up the Hudson.”
Emilia fell silent. The eye windows of her mask began to fog up. She sniffled. “It was so hot. I remember Joce screaming as an ember sparked her coat on fire.”
“Who was Joce?” Magnus asked.
Ash began to coat The Group.
Milo and Hawzhin were still bickering over which way to go when the shot ricocheted off the busted frame of a Prius. Milo ducked for cover immediately, dropping the map. Hawzhin remained on her feet, searching for the source as another shot rang out, landing with a thwump into the layers of ash on the highway, sending up a plume. She fired three shots from her pistol towards a house overlooking the highway. Through the window, a rifle barrel poked out from behind some curtains. Emilia was crouched behind the SUV, Ruby and Magnus cowered nearby.
Another shot rang from Hawzhin’s pistol as she ducked behind the Prius with Milo.
“GET DOWN!” she screamed.
The rifle sparked. A shot soared.