“Look, my love. What do you see?”
I blinked several times to get my bleary eyes to adjust. I forced my body to shed its tiredness as I dredged my mind from fatigue’s deep embrace.
Gray coated every surface. Frail blades of grass—warped and twisted—crunched underfoot as Mother and I walked on, stirring up forgotten flakes of ash with each step. The sickened dirt stretched for miles in every direction. Only crumbling headstones broke the monotony of it, and even they were hueless. Color stemmed solely from our vibrant blue robes, enhanced by the white light of the dull sky.
“I see nothing, Mother,” I answered honestly at last. I peered up at her, half in awe and in fear of her response. I searched her face for the slightest crease, any tightened muscle that might’ve conveyed my wrongness. Instead, she smiled.
“Exactly.” Mother inhaled deeply, relishing what I could only assume was the fading smell of smoke. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
I didn’t think I could agree. The world around me was hollow, an odd absence craving to be filled. I didn’t find any charm in the decaying life or extinguished embers. The latter only seemed to stain my trailing robe, muddying its pristine hue with ugly soot.
Mother’s fingers flexed. Red nails sharpened. “Isn’t it?”
Fear traced my spine. I couldn’t lie to Mother. I couldn’t give her my truth either. Instead, I shifted the question to her.
“What do you find so beautiful about this place?”
Mother’s blue eyes glimmering with understanding. “Of course, my love. You are still too young to understand. You see only absence, don’t you? An emptiness that needs filling?”
“Emptiness makes people uncomfortable.” A maroon-stained hand drifted to Mother’s graying hair. “That fact has been proven time after time through my many years. People constantly seek to fill any void they come across. They cram their living areas full of furniture and knick-knacks that might’ve once offered delight but now only serve to occupy space. They’ll flood their blank minds with nonsensical media, their open stomachs with food, or their hollow hearts with fleeting infatuations. They pack their days full of meaningless tasks until they’re sated enough to sleep at night. And when they wake, the cycle repeats, rotating over and over until they die.”
Mother’s face creased. “It’s a miserable existence: constantly filling the void with useless junk and feelings. People waste precious space on cheap consumption or “pretty things.” Potential is prettier than any reality that fills it. Potential needs no host to cover it, no knick-knacks to conceal it. Potential deserves to thrive. The cycle must be broken.” Mother’s fist clenched. “Let the world breathe you miserable—”
I flinched at her harsh tone. Mother instantly took notice. Her stance loosened, and she tucked her fisted hand under an open palm.
“That’s where we are, my love.” Her words flow much softer, a clear river. “We’re at the break in the cycle—the sliver of time between old and new life. Our Coven has achieved its most arduous goal: renewal.”
My fingers drifted to a nearby headstone. The cement is rough, but cool to the touch. Though most of its engraving had fallen victim to cracks and crumble, I’m able to make out three letters: E.N.D. I found them oddly fitting.
“So this is the end of the cycle?”
“And the cusp of the beginning.”
“Does all of Earth look like this?”
Mother smiled. “Our machines have sown the seeds of potential into every inch of this planet’s surface.”
“For the Coven to choose how to fill the absence?”
Mother’s easy expression twisted in an instant. Her claws thickened. “Have you learned nothing, child? Do you think us gods stranded on a mortal plane? Are we no better than the villains we so ardently destroyed?!”
Mother raised a hand, arm winding back. I staggered back out of range. My feet caught on the hem of my robe and before I could catch myself, my back slammed into the colorless Earth.
A cloud of ash rose around me. Whether it was to conceal or suffocate me, I couldn’t tell. I held my breath.
With a shaky sigh, the red bled from Mother’s vision. The glimmer of crystal knowledge returned to her eyes. She lowered her arm.
“We are not gods.” Her voice was low and as rich as the honey coating her words. “We are officiants guiding the Earth to the path it chooses.”
I nodded slowly. “Yes, Mother.”
She motioned for me to stand before facing the other direction. I pushed off my hands to get to my feet.
My fingers snagged on an unfamiliar texture.
I shot a glance at Mother. She’d resumed her spiel, inspiring words drifting through the stale air. I dared a peek at the source.
Green slipped through my fingertips.
It was a sickly green, most faded and withered, but it was life nonetheless. A single leaf, no bigger than a coin, blessed a thin stem.
I cupped my hand around the sprout. Warmth leaked into my palm, traveling up into the rest of my body. An intense feeling gripped my heart, brimming with an odd sense of purpose, fiercer than any resolve I’d felt before.
I must protect this.
“Don’t dawdle, darling. C’mon now.”
Mother’s voice sent a tremor through my body. With several quick blinks, I memorized the plant’s position before jumping to my feet. I trailed after Mother, ash whirling in our wake.
Night turned the Earth’s scape into a true void.
Color had no claim here. The faint, yellow glow of my shrouded lantern did nothing to warm my surroundings, but I didn’t want to risk uncovering it. The Coven house was still close, and I’d figured I’d already tested my luck enough tonight.
Surprisingly, sneaking out had gone better than I’d expected. Usually, the area was heavily guarded, but no one stopped me as I slipped away.
Then again, the Coven’s guards weren’t stationed to keep people in.
I kept my deep-blue robe drawn tight around me. It was the darkest one I owned. Mother forbade us from wearing any other color.
With no moon or stars to guide me, I relied on the terrain alone to find my way. Holding the light as high as I dared, I came across the spot Mother showed me that morning.
Half-a-headstone marked the plant’s home. The same three legible letters embellished it: E.N.D.
They seemed more ironic now than fitting.
Placing my lantern in a dead patch, I knelt next to it. The light found the green before my eyes did. In darkness this deep, the sprout seemed to glow.
I smiled down at it. How the tiny specimen had survived the fires and machines the rest of the world had fallen to was beyond me. Perhaps it was its size that—
A force slammed into my side, knocking me to the ground. Hands flipped me onto my back before covering my mouth. A solid weight pressed against my chest.
My lantern provided just enough light for me to make out a face. Soot smudged the girl’s ruddy skin and matted loose tendrils of greasy hair. A black bandana hid her mouth, but I saw her eyes clearly: a burning blue.
My thoughts flew to Mother, but they faded as the girl spoke.
“Coven scum.” Her voice was piercing, wicked—a stark contrast to Mother’s honeyed tone. “Have you come to destroy the last of all that’s good?”
I wanted to cry out, hoping by some grace of God, there was a chance the guards could hear me. But the Straggler’s grip was too tight. Even as I wriggled underneath her, she held firm.
I tried to speak anyway. Perhaps it would prompt her to remove her hand. She did, only to replace it with a dagger pressed to my throat.
“No.” My voice was a hoarse whisper. “I came to defend what I discovered this morning.”
The blade dug into my skin, steel stinging my neck.
“You discovered nothing. This plant has been here longer than your despicable Coven and the devastation you’ve caused.”
“I don’t want to hurt it—”
The girl scoffed. “Oh, of course not. You just want to ‘cleanse’ it, right? Purify this imperfect life so you can build the world back from scratch.”
“No!” The word came out a gasp. Under her weight, it was becoming harder to breathe.
The girl flinched at my sudden burst. She drew back slightly but kept her blade at my throat.
“I promise,” I told her. “I swear.”
Her face remained hardened, but there was a small give in her eyes. She wanted to believe me.
The girl pulled back fully but kept her dagger aloft.
“Who are you?” I asked as I struggled to sit up.
She hesitated before adding. “And you?”
My chest tightened. I didn’t want to confess that I had no name. Mother had only ever called me ‘love’ or ‘darling.’ The other Coven members had never addressed me at all.
My eyes searched for inspiration. They landed on my robe.
Ash snorted. “How fitting.”
She turned her gaze on the slip of green. In seconds, her eyes lost focus.
“I don’t remember the last time I talked to another person. It’s been weeks, I think . . .”
I tucked my knees close to my chest and stared with her.
“You’re a Straggler, aren’t you?”
“Is that what they’re calling us?”
“Is there another term?”
Ash tilted her head. “But I’m not sure what I’m surviving for anymore. The Devastation took everything. There’s nothing left for me.”
She traced a single finger over the sprout’s leaf. “Maybe it’s for this. Maybe it’s for hope.”
“Have you seen any others like it?”
“I’ve come across two, but they’re several miles from here,” Ash answered. “I spend most of my time going back and forth between the three sprouts to make sure they stay healthy.”
Fragments of Mother’s speech sifted in my mind. People constantly seek to fill any void. They pack their days full of meaningless tasks . . .
“Why don’t you plant the three of them together?” I asked. “It might save you some time.”
Ash’s face fell. “I don’t have much time worth saving.” An odd hollowness crept into her eyes as it leaked into her gaunt face. “Besides, I don’t have the tools or nutrients to do it right. I’d end up killing what little life is left.”
A beat of silence pulsed through the air.
“What if I helped you?” The question kindled a warmth twin to the sense I’d felt that morning. “The Coven has tools and resources. I could grab them for us. We could plant the other sprouts here.”
No expression crossed Ash’s face as she thought. At last, her brow creased. “How do I know this isn’t some Coven trap?”
My mind went blank. I could offer her nothing but my word.
“You still have your dagger,” I said, “If this is some trick and I betray you, kill me. Use my corpse as nourishment for the sprouts.”
Ash made a face. “Okay then . . . sounds like you’re . . . committed.”
“Perfect!” I stood. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
The next day passed faster than any I’d lived so far. Purpose propelled the time forward, turning my minutes into seconds.
I spent every moment outside of my lessons scouring the Coven house for supplies. I managed to piece together a few tools along with a jug of clean water.
Pride sparked in my chest when I saw Ash’s smile that night. Relief melted the harshness of her features, softening into a quiet beauty. I didn’t realize I was staring until she shot me a weird look.
“Sorry.” I sheepishly handed her the tools.
Ash shrugged it off.
“I was worried about the water,” she confessed. “Most of what’s left is contaminated.” Slight desperation tensed her expression as Ash eyed the jug. “Do you mind if I have some?”
I offered it to her. “Take all you need.”
She took several deep gulps.
“At least we won’t need fertilizer,” Ash said as she sat. “The Devastation’s fires took care of that for us.” She laid the other two sprouts down gently. “All we need to do is replant them, water them, and . . . pray, I guess.”
We worked together in tandem, tilling the pitiful dirt and moistening it with water. Silence filled the air, no longer stale, but shifting slightly with our movement. There was a peacefulness in the quiet, not a complete absence of sound, but a calm accented by soft noise.
“My family used to own a farm.”
Her words jarred me. Farm. I tried to piece together what that might’ve looked like, but my mind drew a blank.
“What was it like?”
Ash paused. “Almost like this, just ten times the size.” She set a sprout in one of the holes. “Well, it wasn’t a huge farm. We only grew enough to sell at our village market and keep our family fed.”
When I said nothing, she went on.
“I miss the simplicity of it. There was no great purpose, no gritty survival or desolation. There was just peace. And plants.” Ash smiled softly at her replanted sprout.
She chuckled. The sound hummed through my ears, a beautiful melody.
“I feel like my mother,” Ash confessed, “She would get so excited when the tomatoes ripened. They were always her favorite. She loved the color red as much as she loved the rest of us.”
Ash’s words stirred in my mind, dredging memories from its depths. Images echoed in my head, words rippling through one another.
“You’re meant for a great purpose, my love. You are meant for anything and everything.”
With a red-stained hand, Mother cupped my face.
“The rest of the Coven is old and spent, but you are young and fresh. You’re a smooth slate for the future to mold as it sees fit. Destiny sees no bounds. As you are now, you are limitless.
“My mother is in love with potential.” My breath hitched before I divulged. “I think that’s what she loves most about me.”
I held my breath in the silence, waiting for Ash to reply. If she’d even answer at all—
Ash lifted her gaze to meet mine. Through the smudged soot, I could make out a resolve in her expression.
“We weren’t born to be blank slates forever. Your potential is yours to fill, Blue. You chose a path, even if it limits the others you can take.”
Her words kindled a feeling in me deeper than anything I’d felt before. The warmth extended, filling out the tips of my toes and reddening my face.
I tried to find a way to express it out loud, but the feeling didn’t translate to words. When I opened my mouth to speak, all that came out was: “That’s not my name.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t given one. I made it up.”
Ash observed me for several seconds. She shrugged. “Even better. You’re already blazing your own trail.”
The next week passed the same as that night. We hid our progress, smothering the green with ash in the day, then uncovering it each night to admire the green. The sprouts were growing better than I’d dared to expect. Each of the three had begun to bloom new leaves, stretching to the blank sky.
Their presence made the area by the E.N.D. seem lighter. The headstone had brightened, glowing with pride for the life taking root below it. Ash’s face had softened, its creases fading into clearing skin. My chest expanded, fueled by the steady pulse of purpose, of hope.
But, of course, when things were brightest, they were most susceptible to darkness. Our darkness came in the form of a shadow. It fell in the way of our lantern’s light, blotting out its warmth.
With a swift kick, the glow was extinguished.
A harsh, white beam replaced it.
Ash and I stumbled back. My fingers etched along brittle grass as I lifted a hand to shield my face.
“Sorry, darling, am I interrupting?”
Mother’s voice was a blade to my heart.
Instinctually, I reached out to Ash. Our dirt-stained fingers had barely grazed one another before rough hands clamped down around our arms and shoulders. They yanked us apart, drawing us out of the light and into cloaked shadows. In the dark, our attackers were phantoms, but flapping fabric and gnarled palms manifested them into Coven members.
A series of 'oomphs' and scuffles pierced the air, and I knew Ash was fighting back. I tried to do the same, but I only managed a few weak thrashes before I was fully restrained.
Mother passed the light beam to another Coven member, who aimed it directly at me. She advanced, her steps tracing around the headstone.
“So this is where you’ve been sneaking off to every night.” Mother’s voice flowed cooler than I’d expected. She aimed a pointed glare at Ash. “Or rather, who you’ve been sneaking off with.”
When Mother’s face turned to me, her expression softened.
“You didn’t really think I wouldn’t notice, child.” Mother’s look was almost pitying. “I see all, my love. Every crease in your face, every step you take, every lie you claim.”
At the last word, I flinched. Her eyes narrowed.
“Are you so immature as to be driven to explore these . . . exploits in the dead of night? I thought you were better than this.” Mother wrinkled her nose at Ash. “Better than her at least. She’s filthy.”
“At least you’re still clean,” Mother murmured. When her gaze flicked to my hands she cringed. “Mostly. What did you . . .”
Her eyes widened.
Mother whirled to the Coven member who’d spoken. He pointed a crimson-crusted hand at the base of the headstone, at our garden. It was a single splotch of green against miles and miles of gray. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how small our sprouts truly were. In my eyes, they were the world.
In an instant, Mother’s pale face contorted, reddening with rage.
“My love—” she spoke the term as an insult, spitting malice “—are you . . . growing something?”
There was no point in lying. I lifted my chin. “Yes.”
Her calm voice simmered. “You’re filling space—beautiful potential—with these scraggly weeds?”
In an instant, she spun back to me. Maroon claws latched onto my chin.
“YOU ARE NO CHILD OF MINE!”
Mother yanked me from the Coven member’s grasp. She gripped my wrists, pinning them behind my back with one hand. She kept the other on my face in a skin-twisting grasp.
Mother pitched my face forward to the dirt. She stopped a mere inch above our pitiful garden.
“Look, my love.” Her words came slow and gritted, forced through sharpened teeth. “What do you see?”
Tears welled in my eyes, blurring my vision. They fell, caressing our greatest achievement, our most damnable weakness. For a second, I feared they were too much for the plants’ leaves to hold, but our sprouts stood strong. My tears slipped down their leaves before dripping into the soil.
“I see strength,” I whispered. There was no use lying to Mother. And now, there was no use holding back. “I see life and all the glory it nearly lost to the Coven—”
“You idiot! You fool!” Mother tightened her hold on my wrists, yanking my shoulders back. “You fancy yourself some self-righteous rebel? Some valiant hero for the meek?! Your heart holds nothing but hubris. You are a scrap of prideful scum, no better than the ragtag, soot-faced peasant you call a partner.”
Mother drew a shaky breath. “You’re nothing.”
“No, they’re not.”
Ash’s voice was venom, acid dripping with truth.
The fury in her face matched Mother’s to a tee, from bulging veins to twisting folds of skin. Fires burned blue in their eyes.
I was just close enough to Ash to meet her gaze. Ash’s rage softened for only an instant before it intensified. Lips twisting, she aimed for Mother and spat.
The spit landed close to the hem of Mother’s robe. A splotch of soot stained the rich, royal blue satin.
Mother’s cry echoed with the wrath of a dying sun. Her next words were a screech.
Ash’s dagger glinted as a Coven member freed it from her waistband. In a single swipe, he sliced it through her throat.
The Coven members released Ash’s gasping form. Her hands clawed at her throat in a vain attempt to seal the wound. The motion only spewed more blood through her fingers, droplets spraying across the withered grass.
Her eyes bulged as they met mine. They searched for comfort, solace.
I could offer her none.
I held her gaze; it was the best my crumpled face could manage. I tried to think of something to say, a way to vocalize the feelings swelling inside of me, the love I harbored for her.
I only managed to mouth her name.
Ash . . .
Her trembling body collapsed with a puff of ash. When the cloud cleared, she was utterly still.
Mother’s grip forced my blurred gaze away from my friend. She turned my attention back to herself.
“You’re shedding tears for scum?” Her words fueled a fire in my chest. “She was nothing. You were meant for greatness, a model for the world to shape as it saw fit.”
I remembered Ash’s words. “I am no one’s husk to fill,” I shot back, “I make myself whoever I wish to be.”
Mother’s eyes narrowed. “You could’ve been a monarch. An innovator. A saint. Instead, you choose to fill yourself with warped weeds, a soot-stained girl, and a pathetic hope.”
“Those things are better than hate and destruction. They’re real, tangible, more so than your shoddy attempts at control and your empty hope for greatness.”
Mother’s claws dug into my skin, stinging with swelled pricks of blood.
“You wish to be scum?”
I said nothing.
“Then you shall die like one.”
In a snap, Mother’s hand released my wrists to brace the back of my head. With all her might, she jerked my head to the right.
My neck cracked.
There was a single mercy in my death: I didn’t die facing her. Mother released my twisted form, letting it collapse at the base of the crumbled headstone, where our garden flourished.
Green consumed my vision. From this angle, our sprouts looked large enough to conquer the world.
Written by Madeleine S. Cargile