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World Ashen - Chapter One

"Yellowstone erupts"

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I sat in my black Chevy Impala even though it was the newest model since my grandfather kept his old one in storage. Tapping the steering wheel and glancing at the clock on the dash reminded me of how late I was. My twin brother, uncle, cousin, and I followed each other from Fort Benning, but I made a detour to buy Jace’s birthday present and to have my friend’s mom wrap it for me. The wrapped autographed novel sat in the passenger seat.

Jace and I enlisted in the army a year and a half ago with our best friend, Cayler. Growing up in a military family heavily influenced our decision. Finally, we could see the rest of our family and girlfriends who lived three hours away from our base.

I sighed in relief as I pulled into the driveway alongside the other vehicles. Parking, I got out and grabbed the book from the passenger seat. Orange lights decorated the oak tree in the front yard, and fake spiderwebs littered the red, yellow, and orange leaves. Carved pumpkins sat on the railing, and plastic skulls, spiders, and Frankenstein monsters hung in the windows. I smiled, remembering how much my mother adored Halloween.

Taking a deep breath, I ran up the steps and knocked. Brown-haired Amy Reynolds opened the front door and threw her arms around me. “Hey, Jensen! You know you didn’t have to knock.”

I laughed, “Yeah, but I haven’t lived here for over a year.” The moment I walked into the house there was an explosion of footsteps, belonging to my younger siblings.

Jadance buried her face into my stomach and squeezed me hard enough to make me groan. “I know you missed me, but ouch.” I laughed. She looked up at me with her sky-blue eyes, and her bottom lip stuck out.

She was only four and a half when I left; now she was six and a half. Ash was seven; now nine. Jadance still wore her black hair in pigtails and Ash still had his done neatly.

Ash gave me a hug, which was much gentler than Jadance. “I’m glad you’re home. Jace is already here.”

Kissing his forehead, I thanked him and told them to play despite Jace and I heading home in a few hours. The two kids ran to the playroom in a fit of giggles.

Amy was nowhere in sight, so I placed Jace’s gift on the dining room table. Laughter from the kitchen piqued my interest, so I walked over to the door. I reached for the doorknob, but my girlfriend blocked the doorway.

Her blue eyes and lips smiled as the strawberry-blond bun became loose and slid down her head. “Sorry, Monsieur. No birthday boys allowed.”

I chuckled, “Oh, come on, Piper.”

She grinned, holding the doorknob behind her back. “Laura said you and Jace aren’t allowed in here.”

“Mom said so, huh? I’ll be in my room if you need me then.”

“Jace might be busy, but you can check.” She warned. “I’ll come get you when we’re ready.”

“Where’s Shaun and Ellie? I didn’t see their car in the driveway. I know Jace and Cayler came together.”

“They’re meeting Laura and Tyler at the gas station to take Danny to the hospital.”

Shaun and Ellie’s oldest son had cystic fibrosis, so it wasn’t news. “Danny’s with them? I thought he was in Britain,” I frowned. “I don’t think that was the smartest idea, but it’s not my place to say.”

Piper shrugged and pecked my lips, saying “I love you” in French.

Walking to my bedroom, I knocked and then waited for an answer. When I heard Jace ask who it was, I answered with my name and asked if he was busy.

He came to the door and opened it to a small crack. “Yeah. I’m still busy. Glad you could make it, though.”

“Thanks.” I walked to the living room and sat on the couch. Turning it on, White Collar played so I watched it even though this wasn’t the first time I had seen it.

My phone suddenly vibrating in my pocket made me jump. I pulled it out and read Mom was calling. “Hey, Mom. What's up?”

“I just got off the phone with Shaun and Ellie is going to be there soon, but Shaun’s staying with us at the hospital. Danny's in the ambulance.”

“Yeah, I know. Piper told me.” I deadpanned, pacing around the living room. “In my opinion, he should've stayed home.”

The woman sighed heavily and kept yawning. “He's sixteen and insisted on visiting us for you and Jace's birthday.”

“I get that, but our twenty-first is a bigger deal, plus he'd be eighteen himself. There's nothing I can do about it, but I don’t blame Danny for wanting to see us.”

Mom quickly said she had to go, but she loved us and hoped to be home sooner than later.

Sighing, I rubbed the back of my neck. “Love you, too. Tell him to get better soon.” With that, there was a beep on the other side as she hung up.

Jace stood behind the couch, fidgeting with a military-grade watch on his wrist so I knew he got it from Cayler or Amy. “Nice watch,” I muttered.

My twin brother chuckled and shook his head. “Don’t worry, Cayler got you something, too. We’ll open gifts once Mom and Dad get back.”

“You know they’re taking Danny to the hospital, right?”

“Yeah, they left when I got home, so it might be awhile.” Jace squeezed my shoulder before walking to the bathroom.

I unmuted the TV and went back to watching White Collar, but it was short-lived as my phone, a few in the kitchen, and the TV in front of me went off simultaneously. Immediately, the other adults ran into the living room. The five of us stared at the TV intently. I knew why; the TV showed an EAS broadcast saying Yellowstone erupted.

Cayler, Jace, and I glanced at each other in horror. Seconds later, my brother and I rushed to Jadance and Ash and said gently, but sternly to sit in the car and wait. Amy and Cayler ran down to the basement and returned with several packs of masks. Piper got bottled water and food with the help of Amy. Jace and I got go-bags from our closet.

I ran a hand through my hair and exhaled, realizing I had been holding my breath. Placing the green military duffle bag on the bed, I unzipped it. Taking out my M17 and M18 pistols, I put them on the mattress. My thumb traced the engraved letters W.H.R. on the handle.

October 30, 2018

“You’re crazy. Why would you join a private military contractor group? That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done! If they don’t like you, they’ll kill you!”

“Pay attention to who you’re talking to, Cayler,” I unfolded the paper and shoved it into his hands. “It’s signed Jason Michaels, not Jensen.”

Cayler opened his mouth, but an explosion interrupted him. We ran toward the source and saw Wyatt Reynolds, Cayler’s cousin, underneath the rubble.

Still stroking the engraved letters, I told myself Wyatt was okay. He gave it to me exactly one year ago for my eighteenth birthday, which Wyatt got the day before his father died twenty-two years previously during a train wreck. Ethan had now been dead for twenty-three years. Even though I never met him, I remembered Rachel, Wyatt’s mother, saying her son looked almost identical to Ethan, which always brought her peace. Sadly, she died fourteen years after Ethan from breast cancer.

“Earth to Jensen,” Jace waved his hand in front of my face. “We need to get going. You’re wasting time just sitting there.” He had a point, so I zipped up my duffle bag, slinging it over my shoulder.

Even before the ashfall reached us, I knew it was dangerous since the EAS probably caused a panic. “You’ve got the masks, right?”

Jace nodded, holding up the masks. “They’re right here, dude.” He threw one onto my lap.

I thanked him and placed it in my back pocket. “We need to make sure Jadance wears hers.” Despite Ash only being seven, he understood the importance of the situation.

The two of us ran back into the living room. Tears slipped down Piper and Amy’s cheeks and small whimpers escaped their mouths. They still aided us nonetheless.

When we were finally as prepared as we could get, my brother, our girlfriends, and our best friend all got into the car and sped to the library.

Piper sighed, “At least most of this doesn’t affect us since we’re in Georgia. The only things that should be famine, ash and the temperature drop.”

I nodded, trying to stay positive, but thoughts about my family being out in the ashfall didn’t ease my mind. Piper squeezed my hand tightly for a moment then let go. At least, the six of us were together.

“What are we doing at the library?” Jace asked as we pulled into the library parking lot.

Rolling my eyes, I responded in a tone like I was explaining something to Jadance, “Libraries have books.”

Jace glared at me, “I know that, I’m not stupid.”

“I never said you were, and there’s also the garden.” We got out and helped Jadance out.

He stayed silent, “Why does the garden matter? It’s at the end of the year. Nothing’s really growing now.”

I muttered, “Again, stupid.” Then I spoke up. “Remember the garden Mom had shortly before Ash was born? She grew a lot of things in November.”

“Well, the library just has herbs.”

“Herbs are useful.”

Running my hand through my hair, I took a deep breath. “Jace and Piper, take the kids to the garden. Amy and Cayler, you two can start moving our stuff inside and I’ll see if I can get some information.”

I went inside and rushed to the front desk where a girl around nineteen sat, reading a book. I didn’t recognize her, but it was evident she knew me. “Hey, Jensen.”

I hesitated, “hey…”

The girl giggled, “Desi, Desi Porter.” She moved her hand on top of mine and touched it softly, making me feel uncomfortable.

“I remember you,” I whispered when I heard her name. “You’re Steven Porter’s daughter and Piper’s best friend from high school, right?”

Desi stared at me, then remembered her father had been one of my generals while I was overseas. “Yeah, is Piper here?”

“She’s in the garden, but I need your help. I’m assuming you heard about Yellowstone?” 

Desi nodded, sliding her hand off mine. “Yeah, but the only thing I have to go home to is fish.”

“Fish?” I asked, leaning on the desk. “Don’t you think they’d miss you?”

She stared into my eyes, “they’re fish. Even if I could get home, I might run into some trouble.”

“Why can’t you get home?”

“My friend drives me to work since my car is in the shop.”

I scoffed, “So you’d rather die here than try to get home? That’s pathetic.”

“At least I have books,” Desi deadpanned.

“God… where can I talk to someone more sensible?” I mumbled.

Desi stared at me, making me uncomfortable again. “They all tried going home.”

“See you later.”

“Doubt it,” she replied flatly.

I growled softly, then turned on my heels, yelling to Desi. “Why don’t you come with us?”

“Come with you?”

“Yes. It would be better than wasting time reading books. I have nothing against reading, but personally, I find it stupid you’d rather die, but suit yourself.”

“And where would you go?” She ran after me, footsteps echoing throughout the library. 

“We’re headed to Piper’s place to make sure they’re still okay. Stay in here while I get the others.” The moment I stepped outside, an explosion almost sent me to the floor. Screaming for Desi to run to the basement, I carried Jadance downstairs while Amy carried Ash. The others followed with herbs and vegetables in hand.

Rushing to the computers, I snatched six pairs of headphones and a box of tissue paper nearby. A dull thumping made the booms more bearable once I stuffed tissues into my ears and wore headphones. Then, I dashed downstairs with the others.

Piper tracing my palm with her finger kept me level-headed. Jadance and Ash cried and pressed the headphones over their ears. Jace prayed in English while Piper’s were in Hebrew.

Mind-numbing boredom filled the next few hours, but I failed to fall asleep due to the ever-ending booming.

Eventually, either Ash or Jadance pulled on my hand, so I fumbled around for a nearby flashlight and turned it on. Jadance stared at me, eyes wide, squirming with her legs crossed. In a nearby corner sat a bucket, which I reluctantly told her to use. Motioning her to tap on me when she was done, I turned around to give her some privacy. It wasn’t long before she tapped me and we ran to the others, covering our heads with our hands.

December 2018

Sounds of artillery shattered the night and the dust falling from the shaking foundation around us reminded me I was no longer in the safety of my home in the States. Instead, I was in my bunker in Afghanistan, where General Chase and Colonel Porter ran in. They yelled for us to wake up and get up.

Cayler shook me awake, no longer wearing his headphones. Jace stood frozen beside him with a wide-eyed stare. I took my headphones off and tried ignoring the loud ringing. Jace stood frozen beside him with a wide stare.

“The explosions stopped a while ago. Are you okay?” Cayler asked as he offered me a hand.

I took his hand and stood up. Groaning, I rubbed my body. “I’m fine, other than the fact it felt like we were listening to heavy artillery for the past several hours.”

They both knew I was lying because they were in the army with me, which meant we had PTSD of some sort.

Jadance and Ash no longer cried, instead, they asked where our parents were. None of us knew how to answer their questions since we didn’t know either. Piper and Desi spoke to each other and I honestly wanted to stay away from the conversation even though I overheard it.

“I didn’t really think this would be the circumstance we’d see each other again,” Piper said.

Desi nodded, “Jensen told me you’re checking on your folks. Hopefully, they’ll be alright.”

My girlfriend sighed, “Just Mom and Pierre since Dad flew back to the Netherlands on a business trip. They don’t live too far away, so if something did happen…” she drifted off like she knew something did.

I knew we’d be walking for several days, but she didn't want to cause issues between the kids. “How “close” are they?” Desi interrogated her with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

Piper hesitated. “They live in Blue Ridge.”

Desi didn’t reply, but ran over to us instead, “Are we done here now? It’ll take weeks to get there!”

I shook my head, I didn’t care how much water we already had. With another person in the group, we needed more water and food, but we carried more things. Cayler and Jace both knew where I was headed. “I want you to fill up some water bottles.”

“We already have water, and even if we didn't, where would we get it from? The power’s out.” Desi deadpanned.

“Water from the bathroom.” I handed her a water bottle. “Go to the girl’s bathroom and fill it up. Use the sink. There should still be water in the tank.”

“Sure…” she slung her purse over her shoulder, took the bottle, and headed to the bathroom. I strolled over to Amy who took a few pieces of cloth and watched as she carefully dampened them as a mask for Desi. A smile spread across her face when she noticed me giving her a thumbs-up.

When Desi returned, she handed the bottle of water to me. I thanked her gently and set it in my bag. Judging by the fresh tears on her face, the reality of the new world suddenly hit her. “Are you okay?” Piper questioned, running over to her friend and hugging her.

Desi didn’t say anything, but whimpered, on the verge of tears. Piper told us to continue without them so they could be alone. I took Jadance’s hand, and Jace took Ash’s. One by one, we climbed back upstairs.

“Actually, Ash, Jadance, can you hang out with Amy and Cayler for a second? Jensen and I need to talk.” Jace accompanied me and we fell behind, so our conversation would be more private. “Out of all those people, you had to choose her? Don’t you know who she is?”

I sighed. 

“Yeah, but we don’t know if he’s still alive, and if he is, he’d definitely kill us if something were to happen to his daughter!” I hissed. “She told me everyone else went home. Desi’s also Piper’s friend. I didn’t want to see her die when I could’ve helped.”

“But she’s not that smart. I’m sure you’ve noticed that already. She might have killed us.” Then he muttered under his breath, “Like her dad.”

I ignored his statement. “Everyone makes dumb decisions. I know about your plan to join Skull’s Omega.”

“Enough.” Jace snapped. “We’ve been through this already.”

“You’re still an idiot,” I sped up, seizing Jadance’s hand as no one else spoke.

Piper and Desi followed us upstairs. Clearing my throat, I tapped Desi’s shoulder. “You got a mask or a cloth? You’ll need it when we go outside.”

Desi shook her head, “I don’t see how. This is where I was when Yellowstone erupted.”

Walking over to Amy, I tapped her shoulder. “Can you hand me a piece of cloth for Desi?”

Amy nodded, handing Desi a dampened cloth and tied it around her mouth, “there.”

“Thanks,” Desi sighed in relief. We nodded as if to say, “You’re welcome”.

Jadance and Ash whined that they were tired, so I turned to Piper, “There’s a diner nearby. My best friend Morgan works there. I promise we’ll be there soon. It’ll be about ten more minutes of walking.”

Ten minutes later, a peaceful family diner came into view. The ash blocked the sun, so I didn’t know whether the sign said open or closed. Piper knocked, but the door creaked open. Piper and I exchanged glances as I reached for my M17. I peered down at the sight as I entered the dim building.

A man ahead of us started coughing but covered his mouth. I saw his shadow, but the lack of light from the candles made it difficult for me to determine if he had a knife or a gun, whatever it was, the wielder shook. “Who's there? Put your weapon on the ground!” I called out after seeing Cayler and Jace behind me, guns also drawn. Jace blocked the doorway to prevent the others from entering.

The man lowered his weapon to the ground. “Jensen? Is that you?”

“Yeah, Nate? I thought only Jace, Cayler, General and Corporal Michaels, and I were just sent stateside.”

The guy sounded afraid despite his laughter. “Of course, I was.”

I waited a few seconds, and after his silhouette didn’t budge, I cocked my pistol. “What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for water and food. But—” The man paused, I wondered why, but then I realized another man stood behind him. “Private Michaels, is that you?” Our eyes met, but I wasn't sure if he was referring to Jace or me. “It’s a pleasure seeing the both of you, you too, Private Reynolds,” a gruff voice said. Shivers ran down my spine as I realized who held the other man hostage.

Even though they were outnumbered, I lifted my hands above my head and stepped closer. “You? I didn’t know—”

“Wait, you know these guys?” Desi, who had somehow entered herself, shrieked.

The guy cackled, “Of course, we were in the army together.”

“Then why do you sound like you want to kill him?”

I growled through a clenched jaw. “Porter, this isn’t necessary.” I heard both Jace and Cayler's breathing quicken.

“Put your hands behind your head!” Jace yelled as he cocked his pistol, moving to aim better.

Porter smiled. “Just the guy I was looking for. Where’s Staff Sergeant Reynolds? Nevermind that. Let’s calm down and talk about this.” We still stood a suitable distance apart but moved a bit closer to each other. Cayler had his gun at his side and his finger on the trigger.

“What do you want from me, anyway? Recruiting me won’t do anything. Even if you did, I won’t have any reason to use the money now. Recruiting Nate was useless anyway.”

Despite having a gun to his head, Nate fell to the floor, sobbing. “I-I just joined for the money. You understand, right?! I gave her a few more months by paying for her treatment thanks to their salary.”

“I know, but Hester was a dead girl walking.” Jace comforted him.

Piper, Amy, and my younger siblings stood by the wall. I caught Jace’s gaze and gave him a slight nod. Cayler nodded as well, so Jace squeezed the trigger. Porter instantly dropped to the ground, dead. Desi screamed in horror as her father now lay dead on the diner floor.

“Sorry we killed him, he just caused—”

Desi glared at me. “Shut up. Right now, there are more important things to deal with.”

“What are you—” I began, but a group of men wearing black leather jackets, reading “The Skeleton Brotherhood” on the back and sunglasses armed with guns and knives marched in. “Get up,” I hissed to a stunned Nate. I seized his hand and pulled him to his feet. Desi dove under a table.

The guys carried a drugged man in his mid-thirties. Blood covered his swollen face. At first, I thought the guy would be treated for his injuries. However, I wondered why they took him to a diner instead of a hospital.

“Hey,” I said, tapping a balding man’s shoulder as he loomed over the drugged, half-faced, bloody man. “What are you doing here? That man needs medical assistance! I don’t know if you can read that sign outside, but this is a diner, not a hospital!”

Balding smiled. “Well, I don’t know if you know this, boy, but the world is different now. There’s no “hospital” and don’t you think we’d know this is a diner? We aren’t the “get well soon” type.” He pulled a pistol from his belt and aimed it at my head.

“Woah, easy. You don’t want to do this. Tell me what you want, and I’ll leave you alone. Alright?”

“Begging for mercy, huh? What a loser,” he scoffed.

“Well, we aren’t really the “get well soon” type either." Jace droned, then shot Balding dead, who dropped the pistol, then fell to his knees and face-planted.

The other men halted for a second, and judging by their tattoo-covered arms we were messing with a prison gang. 

The four of us being in the army gave me a bit more confidence, but the gang still outnumbered us. They had knives and the other three had guns.

Jace noticed this too and asked, “What are we supposed to do? The knives won’t be a problem, but the guns…”

Nate picked up his knife off the ground without a sound. “I got this. You get the injured guy and run.” We knew they'd kill Nate, but we also knew Nate owed us his life after we saved his life just now as well as a few months ago while in the army.

Signaling Piper and Amy to grab the injured man, I hoped Desi noticed. The four of us distracted the other guys as the girls, Ash, Jadance, and the wounded man exited through the back door.

Jace and I shot at the men a few times, while Cayler carried the injured guy in his arms. I rushed out of the building. He threw his go-bag to Desi to carry the wounded man more easily. “Run!” Cayler screamed as he started fleeing the situation. Luckily, all the training in the army finally paid off.

We ran across the street to a church and threw the doors open. People muttered prayers under their breath, so evidently they weren't paying attention. Cayler gently placed the injured man on the ground. The heat from his fever reached my arm and he slipped in and out of consciousness. "Please tell Mary-Anne and Maggie I love them." Then he drew his final breath with a soft smile.

Cayler glanced at us confused. “Does anyone know someone named Mary-Anne and Maggie?” He asked as we shook our heads.

Jace then pointed out the green bag on the dead man’s back, took it off him, and placed it on the floor. Jace rummaged through it while I checked the guy’s pockets, pulling out his wallet a few seconds later. Flipping it open, I saw his credit card. “Roger Johnson,” I said. “They took his driver’s license. I’m guessing they wanted to raid his place. Credit cards and money are useless now.”

“Good point.” Jace rolled his eyes. “Dude, we can’t do anything about it.”

“We could split up,” I said.

“Do you have a death wish?” Jace cried, causing the people praying to glance at us. I smiled stupidly and apologized to them.

I sighed, “We have to wait for the morning, anyway. If the ash isn’t too thick. What are we doing with Roger’s body?”

“Chuck him outside. The ash will bury him,” Jace shrugged, “unless you have other ideas.”

Desi stared at Jace with wide eyes. “You have no respect for the dead!”

“I could just say you have no respect for the living because of who your dad was, but I didn’t and I know you do. I have respect for the dead, but there are probably thousands out there buried alive in ash right now.” He dropped to a whisper. “My parents and cousin might be among those people. Porter could’ve been, but he isn’t.” Desi fell silent. 

I turned to Ash and Jadance, who gazed at the stained glass windows. 

“Hey guys. It’s a busy day tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep, alright?” The kids nodded as Jace and I handed them sleeping bags from our backpacks. “Use these, okay? Just think of it as camping.” I tried giving them my best smile. We would be sore in the morning after sleeping on the ground, but at least the carpet underneath offered a little more comfort. Luckily, Piper had an extra one for Desi.

I laid there awhile, thinking how Porter was finally dead. However, the fact he was Desi’s father tormented me until I passed out from exhaustion.

Written by SarahEllieDean
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