Embers, Excerpt #1

She sat by the remains of the campfire, poking and prodding the ashes with a stick. Swirls of bone-dry ash drifted through the air with each uncovering of a once-hot place. She had a rough night, waking twice in the tent where they slept, and her companion said she woke him up last night when she screamed his name in her sleep. She sat alone, on a log pulled beside the campfire for a bench, the cold world around her shades of orange and brown as the trees began to slumber from fall's dying breaths.

He sat beside her, his unshaven cheeks red from the cold, his breath steaming in the chill air like the hot cup of coffee her gave her. She bundled against him, still cold in a winter jacket and a fleece blanket.

"Doing better?"

She nodded, her head against his shoulder. "Cold."

He crumpled up several wads of paper and threw it onto the ashes. He piled up a couple logs on top of that. "It'll light, give it time. Look."

He pulled a cinder from the ash pile and held it against a scrap of paper. The paper turned brown and began to smoke, as if the bit of charcoal still held a tiny amount of heat. He took the paper into his gloves and began to blow smoke out of his cupped hands. When her pulled the wad out, the paper was already smoking and burning the edges away. He tucked it beneath the logs to shelter the already smoking kindling from the harsh wind.

"The embers are still hot," she said, sipping her coffee and thanking God for him. "Any kindling will start a fire."

"That's about it," he said, "you would be surprised how long an ember can last. you can wrap them in foil and take them with you. Once you get them lit, they keep their power to burn for a long, long time. You gotta be careful though to put out your fires. You leave once like this, you know, just looking all spent and used up, and you could start a forest fire."

"That is where we were," she said, sipping her coffee, letting the hot steam envelop her cold face. "Though with us it was words. The spent fires of heated exchanges left everywhere. Sides that disliked each other, then that turned to hate, and then that hate turned to violence, and from there-"

"Enough." He put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze through her parka and blanket. "What's done is done. This is not your fault and there was nothing you could have done. There comes a point where you stop worrying about them, and you take care of you. They made their world and it doesn't have to be ours. Got it?"

She nodded.

He went back to taking up the tent as she savored her last few moments in a place she wished she didn't have to leave. She knew she had to, though. There were no friends here. Nobody they knew. This could be other people's land, and they could be seen as unwanted scabs using up the scarce few resources the world had these days.

They had a lot further north to go. An impossible distance in the time before, when a road trip and a car would have already made the journey a three day affair with stops along the way, hotels and restaurants, and a long drive with music on the car stereo to pass the time.

Three days of driving was something like three weeks of travel over uncertain and possibly dangerous lands. Once safe, now every valley held uncertainty. Stay away from cities. Travel along the back roads. Don't let anyone see you. Hide from people who still have cars. Don't tell anyone anything.

"We don't want no trouble. We aren't asking for handouts."

And the most important one.

"We are just passing through."

Those were the words to use. The latter was the same words she could use to describe her life, both before and after. Word wars turned into world ones. There was a part of her that wished she could go back and warn people of what was to come, but another that knew even if she could nothing would have came of that miracle.

She would rather spend any miracles on herself right now.

She would tell them words somehow mattered. That what was not said was sometimes more important than what was. That it took more strength to be the better person, to not return the hate, and to not feed into the madness. Nobody knew better. No one knew how to shut up. Yet there were those who spread such things, the silly and stupid things she saw back then, and those things were like embers to a fire.

Waiting, holding power for when the right kindling came along.

Poof.