I don’t have much time.
Maybe a week, maybe a month, but sooner or later, we’re going to die.
That’s a tough thing to realize when you’re only 17 years old. Even tougher when you know your friends are going to die too, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I’ve been sitting here in my dorm room staring at this blank page for hours, trying to get my hand to stop shaking. I have to hurry. My candle’s burning down, and it’s the last one I’ve got. It’s so dark. The thick clouds of ash have blocked out the moon. It’s been 32 days since the lights went out, only 32 days since we dropped straight into hell.
Honestly, writing this all down is the last thing I want to do. I don’t know if I can face it all again. The first time was already too much. The blood on my hands took a long time to wash out, and in these shadows sometimes I think it’s still there.
But I don’t have a choice anymore. I need to warn you. We’re not going to be able to hold out for much longer, and I can’t let the truth die with us.
Sitting at my old school desk makes me think about how things used to be, back before the end of the world. It’s amazing how quickly things change. Ashwood Prep doesn’t look much like a boarding school anymore. These days, it feels more like a tomb.
So many things that used to be important are useless now. My laptop. My cellphone. They’re all just trash today. Same with our textbooks, but we’ve already burned most of those. This notebook is the last of my school supplies left. I have to make these pages count.
It was the notebook I used for my college essays. Or my failed attempts anyway. I didn’t think twice before ripping them out.
College applications. They were one of those things that seemed so awful until I learned what awful really was. It’s funny. I don’t even know if there are any colleges left anymore, but there was a time when I thought my college essays were the most important thing in the world. No one thinks about their future much these days. There’s no time while we’re fighting for our lives.
A month ago, those essays terrified me. A month ago, I was an idiot.
Why were they so scary? Those essays didn’t want to know what I was or what I did. They wanted to get at a much more inconvenient question. Who was I?
A month ago, I didn’t have any idea. But there’s nothing like crisis to make that clear. In the aftermath, when the rubble cleared, that’s where I found my story. It’s really too bad the world doesn’t have any use for college apps anymore, because this story is so awful that it’s actually pretty good.
What kind of story is it? You could say it’s got monsters and heroes if you want them, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. There’s drama, fun, love, and loss. There’s an army of great people. But really, it’s just a story about the end of our world and the beginnings of a new one.
I imagine this is going to sound insane, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Not if I’m going to tell it like it really happened. I’m hoping that by saying that, you won’t think I’m crazy too. For some reason, that’s important to me. But believe me, don’t believe me, that’s really up to you. Either way, I’ve got to try and make you understand.
Why? Well, we’ll get to that.
I guess I should tell you that my name is Chase. That’s not important except for the fact that I’m the one writing this all down, and I can’t tell the story without me in it. But I think you’ll find that this story could be written a hundred different ways by a hundred different voices. We aren’t the only ones trapped in this conspiracy. We know that now.
We’re not going to survive, not forever, but we can’t let what we know die with us. What we’ve learned is too important. The mistakes we’ve made must not be repeated. Take our story and learn from it. It’s the only way you’ll stay alive. It’s the only way you’ll see tomorrow. Our story’s been written, but yours doesn’t have to be.
To tell it from the beginning wouldn’t make much sense. To truly understand what happened, and what’s about to, I have to go back before the world started to crumble.
How far? Well, I guess you could say that humankind’s been hurtling toward this moment for hundreds of years, ever since our ambitions started to exceed our grasps. From the moment we decided that we wanted more, we’ve been stacking each and every one of our mistakes, one on top of the other. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing toppled over.
But as far as my involvement, you could say the end of the world began on a Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving. It started with a history exam.
I looked up from my desk at the clock on the wall. Plenty of time left. It was that same cheap style of clock they always have in classrooms, plastic and taunting, just loud enough so you could hear the time ticking down.
I’d finished the exam twenty minutes ago, but was stuck on the extra credit. It was a classic Ashwood Prep question, just absurd enough to almost make sense. Of course when you go to a school that would name a history class something like International Leadership in the Age of Global Conflict, I guess absurd is exactly what you should expect.
I twirled my pencil around my finger, and looked down at the blank page. There was an answer somewhere in my brain. It was probably a good one too, but I’d been crammed under that wobbly, wooden desk for an hour and half, and was ready to write just about anything down so I could escape into Thanksgiving break. At that point, I was more interested in reading the initials carved into the wood than my grade.
I scribbled out a quick answer, folded my test in half, and walked it up to the front of the classroom. Professor Stein was half-asleep, his half-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose as he pretended to read. I slid my test on top of the pile and tried to sneak away before he noticed, but Stein woke up, grabbed my test, and immediately flipped to the last page. I guess you don’t ask such a bizarre extra credit question without wanting to read the answers.
I didn’t want to stick around for the inevitable lecture, so I scooped up my backpack from under my chair and snaked my way between the desks toward the door. I glanced back at the bowed heads and wished my friends a silent good luck. Rosie’s blonde hair was tied up in a bun, skewered by three different pens. She worked her forth pen furiously across her test. That girl transformed into a warrior when her grade was on the line. Marco’s black curls shook with their own kind of struggle. I could almost hear the gears grinding in his head. We kept telling him he should have been studying. My friends were weirdos, and I loved it. I wasn’t the first person to finish, that was Dante of course, but I was still done a good half hour before the final bell.
I was so focused on escaping that I almost didn’t feel someone slip a note into my jacket pocket as I walked down the aisle of hunched shoulders. I turned around. It could have been anyone in the second row, but Professor Stein started chuckling to himself (he must have finished reading my answer), so I hurried out the door before he could stop me. Twenty seconds later, I burst through the Industrial Hall doors and went outside.
Freedom. It tasted like mountain air, and fall, and sunshine. Which wasn’t really any different from any other day at Ashwood, except now it was Thanksgiving break. And vacation was always a little sweeter.
As hard as I tried to stop it, my mind still wandered back to the test. I probably left a few points behind on the essay, but at the end of a grueling Fall Semester, my limping brain thought the extra half-hour of peace would be worth it. Of course, I’d probably feel differently once I got the grade back, but that was a problem that could wait until Monday. And that was a long six days away.
For now, I had the campus more or less to myself, at least until the bell tower tolled. There was nothing more rare than silence at boarding school, and I’d earned every minute of it. I traced along the granolith walkway from my exam room in the old stone Industrial Hall toward the Main Building and my dorm.
Tucked against the west base of the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Ashwood Prep was cut off from the rest of the world by the mountains on one side and a river on the other. The founders built the school around an old Quaker farmhouse back in 1806, about as far away from civilization as they could get.
Isolation. The admissions brochures said it bred focus. They said that it was the key to academic excellence in this chaotic age, but the truth was much more sinister.
This was my fourth and final year at Ashwood. It had seemed… off so far, but I blamed that on being a senior. Of course at Ashwood, they called us fourth years. Somehow, that was supposed to make us seem more collegial. I thought it made us sound pompous.
It was strange thinking that I’d just finished my last Fall Semester here. The same things I’d been doing since my first day on campus had recently evolved from a routine into something else, nostalgic with a twist of impatience. Dumb stuff, like the bagels in the dining hall started tasting vaguely like frustration. Or the same stairs I climbed twelve times a day between my dorm room, class, and meals suddenly seemed a little steeper. And the professors, well, the professors were more intense than ever. You’d think they’d understand the pressure we were under, but sometimes it felt like they were more stressed than we were.
Even the air seemed different this year. Up in the mountains, the November weather was usually brisk on a good day. And there weren’t that many good days. But lately the warm sun never seemed to break, and there was a suspicious lack of clouds.
Of course, we didn’t think it was suspicious. We thought it was great. It was like a perpetual summer, perfect for playing Ultimate Frisbee out on the East Lawn. No one ever complained about sun. I loosened my tie and flipped my coat over my backpack, risking a dress code violation just to feel the cool breeze.
Garnet and Navy. There were worse colors for straitjackets, and after a while you just kind of got used to the uniform. From breakfast through dinner, it was coats, ties, and slacks. The girls wore skirts and sweaters or jackets instead.
Technically, Ashwood sat on over 1,200 acres of land, but most of the buildings on campus dotted along the same half-mile stretch. Everything orbited around the Main Building. Three stories tall and a couple football fields long, the entire exterior was encased in stately brick. Knotted strands of ivy climbed up between the windows. The first floor of the building was classrooms, with the dorms on top, but the third-floor attic and the basement were strictly off limits.
The Main Building was one of the few things at Ashwood that looked exactly like it did in the brochures. In the middle, the library broke out of the east side, mirrored by the dining hall jutting out from the west. I’d always imagined that from up on the mountains, the building looked like an oversized cross, or maybe a giant X.
I peered through a window at a class of first years scratching out the end of their exams. They looked like prisoners, or maybe lab rats through the glass. I hoped that I didn’t look that haunted, but then I remembered that I didn’t care. The best part about vacation was the mindlessness, but I did run my hands through my sandy brown hair just in case.
I tried to push it off of my forehead, but it fell back as soon as it left my fingers. My hair was starting to cover my ears, which was a sure sign that I needed a cut, but I’d have to wait for Lisa to get back from break. She was a third year, and she was actually pretty good. Really good if you could trade her something sweet in return. Contraband started to get scarce near the end of the semesters, but I was pretty good at making mine last. In a week, students would be bringing all sorts of things back from vacation to replenish the stocks. Or at least that’s what we thought.
Suddenly, a gaunt visage slipped into the reflection behind me. I really wished I didn’t flinch. I turned around slowly. It was Dean Barnwell.
Pale skin stretched over his bony face, and his sharp nose looked like it might rip through his skin at any moment. The rest of his lanky frame didn’t help the unfortunate association. He was wrapped in an ill-fitting cardigan, loose around the waist and short in the arms, and a thin pair of wire frame glasses sat half below his eyes.
He looked over the top of them down his nose, even though I was taller by at least a couple inches. He was almost six feet himself. Maybe he was just used to looking down on most students, but part of me assumed it was some sort of psychological ploy he used to intimidate us.
“Why aren’t you in your exam?” he asked with a chilly stare.
“I finished early.”
“Hm.” It was like he knew that I didn’t try my best, like somehow he’d been watching. Almost as if he had every single one of us under constant surveillance.
He looked me over like he was trying to decide how to punish me, but eventually just said, “Have a safe trip home.”
“Actually, I’m staying on campus this year.”
There was always a small group of students who stuck around during the brief school breaks. Some lived too far away to go home for a couple days, while others simply didn’t like it there at all. A few of us fourth years stayed behind to work on our college apps. Or at least that’s what we told our parents.
Truthfully? Boarding school could actually be a lot of fun with nobody else around. Without classes, it was kind of like camp, just with a lot more opportunities to get yourself into trouble.
Barnwell didn’t like the sound of that. “Let’s try not to get up to anything then shall we?” But he didn’t stick around for a response.
I waited until he turned the corner out of view and then I doubled back the way I came. I walked around the Main Building until I reached the north corner of the library, where a forgotten fire escape hung ten feet off the ground. It was an old rusty thing that never got used, or at least that’s what most people thought, but if you looked real close, there was fresh wear around the hinges. I barely had to jump to pull the ladder down, and after a quick glance over my shoulder, I started to climb.
The physical part was easy, but my backpack kept getting caught on the sharp metal corners. Sometimes it was hard to remember that I wasn’t the same lanky first year that showed up on campus almost four years ago. I was still as long and lean as ever, but now there were muscles where there didn’t used to be. All the hours in the gym were to get ready for basketball season, but there wasn’t a rule that said I couldn’t use my newfound strength for other things.
I kept on going past the library roof until I reached the turret. Ok, the bell tower wasn’t really a turret, but that’s what I called it. I stepped off the ladder onto the landing. The half walls gave 360 degrees of perfect views, and it was the perfect lookout. If I had a bow and arrows, I could have defended the whole school. Well, first I would have had to learn how to use it. Ashwood was a prep school, for better and for worse, but at least we weren’t snotty enough to have an archery class.
The bell tower landing was a tight fit, maybe five feet by five, and most of that was taken up by the bell. I had to give the school some credit. It was a real bell, a dusty copper bronze, not speakers that played a bell recording. Of course, it was mechanical, nobody climbed up there every hour, but it sounded authentic all the same.
I stuffed my backpack in the corner and hopped up on the east ledge. I sat down and dangled my legs over the side. There were still a couple minutes before the bell was going to chime, but I didn’t want to get caught in there when it started swinging.
I don’t know exactly why I decided to climb the bell tower, but the view of the mountains and the east lawn were both pretty great. I guess I was just bored. That wasn’t a bad thing though. I thought it was great. It was the beautiful kind of boredom that you really had to earn. Sometimes, all I wanted was to be alone just to think.
Most of the students were still imprisoned in the classrooms until the final bell, but there were a few signs of life around campus. I wasn’t the only person who finished up early. The real geniuses had been out for a while now, and were huddled over the picnic tables frantically checking and rechecking their answers from the tests. I shook my head. I wondered if you could get Stockholm Syndrome from an exam. Ashwood had its fair share of overachievers, but not everybody was that high strung. I spotted more than a couple slackers trying to avoid Barnwell to light up in the shade of the trees.
On the south side of the school, Professor Torres’ Advanced Ecology class was starting to emerge from the forest for the end of their practical examination. That class was legendary. I hated science, and couldn’t hack it even if I wanted to, but the test did sound kind of cool. Of course, maybe that was because I didn’t have to take it. Everyone had two hours to rush into the woods and collect as many edible plants as they could find. Grades were awarded on a combination of quantity, variety, and speed. Negative points were enforced if you showed up with something poisonous. There were rumors that Professor Torres made her students eat their bounties, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t true.
I liked that the exam awarded speed. I was the fastest guy on the basketball team, but that never seemed to come in handy in any of the classes that I took. Maybe the Ecology test wasn’t as fun as it sounded, because every single person who came out of the forest looked stressed out of their minds. A couple slumped in the grass while Torres evaluated their stashes.
I was more than happy just to watch in peace, but then, the ladder groaned. Someone was following me.
It wasn’t a professor. They would ride the elevator up to the attic and climb up through the trapdoor on the tower floor. I leaned over as far as I dared and saw a head of slick black hair rising toward me.
It’s funny how well you can recognize someone after living with them for a while. Their voice, their hair, their footsteps. I could tell it was Dante from three floors up.
I didn’t have to wait long before he was lunging himself onto the landing. It was less graceful than when I did it, which was funny, considering that Dante usually made things look so easy. There was a smoothness to everything he did, like nothing took any effort at all. You could see it in the relaxed confidence he wore on his face. His uniform fit like a second skin. The fact that he was a straight A student, the other captain on the basketball team with me, and professors’ darling seemed like fate.
“How’d I know I’d find you up here,” he said, not really asking. His voice was tinged with a hint of disapproval. He broke the rules just as much as I did, but he thought I did it for stupid things.
Dante and I were roommates back in our first year. We couldn’t have been more different, but that early connection never completely went away. There’s nothing quite like mutual suffering to bond two people together.
If Ashwood was in the business of manufacturing extraordinary students, Dante was their prototype. At least that’s what Ashwood would like you to think. But everyone knew the school had very little to do with creating him, the person or the persona. Me? Well, I was more of a glitch in the design.
Dante started to say something, but just then the bell tolled, and suddenly we couldn’t even hear ourselves breathe. They said you could hear the chimes from miles around, so you can imagine what it sounded like from three feet away.
But we were guys, and we were stupid, so neither one of us covered our ears. We just grit our teeth and pretended not to care. Dante had to hurry to climb up on the ledge to avoid getting whacked by the bell. He swung his feet over just in time. He was almost as tall as I was, with thickset, handsome looks. His bold Mediterranean skin looked like it was born in the sunshine. The rest of the students started spilling out into the yard and Dante’s cat quick eyes watched over them like they were ants.
Not everyone fell for Dante’s charms, but they loved him or hated him for all the same reasons. Considering we couldn’t have been any different, I actually didn’t mind him so much. Yeah, he could be a bit of a prick, but he was interesting. And for some reason, he was interested in me. I don’t think he could really get a handle on me, and that was rare for Dante. He liked controlling everything. I think he enjoyed having me around for a challenge as much as anything else. We weren’t exactly friends, and rivals sounds absurd, but there was definitely a quiet competition between us.
It takes a long time for a bell to chime twelve times, so we didn’t have much choice but to watch Thanksgiving break bloom underneath us. Relief, stress, despair, and laughter. The staid school grounds transformed into a garden of emotion. A few of the more maladjusted students were ripping open textbooks, bemoaning wrong answers. More than one person was crying, but I couldn’t blame them. We’d all been there after an exam or two. But whatever horrors they left behind in the classrooms, it was ok. They were now safe. They could escape into vacation. If I had known that I would never see any of them again, I might have gone down there and wished them good luck.
Instead, I was just looking for some quiet. In a couple minutes, the dorms would be overflowing with energy as everyone hurried to pack before the last shuttles left. Ashwood Prep was tucked away just north of nowhere, and it made getting home for breaks a bit tricky.
Parents were actively discouraged from picking up their kids on campus. Instead, a series of shuttles ran to the nearest bus, plane, and train stations. There was only one bridge across the river that cut us off from the rest of the world, and it didn’t take long before it was overstuffed with vehicles. The bleating car horns would soon be cutting through the typical serenity of the afternoon, as students and faculty alike raced away from the school.
My eyes scanned the crowd on the ground until I caught a glimpse of Taylor’s blonde hair splashing about in the sunshine as she flew from one group of friends to another. I wondered if she was staying on campus for Thanksgiving. I hoped so.
I met Taylor during the new student ice cream social in September. She was a third year transfer, and somehow I got roped into being an orientation leader. It turned out she didn’t like ice cream. So instead, I managed to find her a bag of Skittles. We sat on top of a picnic table, sharing and talking and arguing over who would get the purples. She called them purples. I called them grapes. We didn’t even notice as everyone else trickled away for dinner. It was one of those moments.
But then, school happened. It had been three months of smiles in the hallway and quick flirty run-ins here and there, but there was a strange kind of magic at Ashwood. Every time you wanted to avoid someone, they were right around the corner, but when you were actually looking for a girl, it was impossible to find her without her prying pack of third year friends around. It’s not like I had anything against packs of third year girls. I just didn’t know them that well.
To be honest, I didn’t know that much more about Taylor either. I knew she liked bran muffins and that weird generic red juice that they served for breakfast, except on those days that she had fruit instead. I knew she liked books, or liked carrying them around at least. She liked purple skittles, and giving things funny names like purple.
She made her own dresses. That might make her sound like a girly girl, but that wasn’t her at all. I still remember the flower dress she was wearing the first time that I saw her. I remember because she sat straight down in the dirt while she waited for me to start the school tour. There were benches, but she went right to the ground, in between two frightened looking first years. It was really cool. She told me she wanted to keep making dresses at school, but the professors were worried that the needles could be used as a weapons. Which was absurd for so many reasons.
She had a great shock of blonde hair, and I liked how she tied it up in a messy bun when she was thinking. She thought a lot. She was beautiful, but not in the obvious kind of way. And she didn’t have a boyfriend. Not yet.
I knew so much that added up to nothing at all. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a creeper or anything. We talked, more than that once, less than a lot. The other third years liked her for obvious reasons, and they weren’t particularly interested in sharing their friend with a fourth year. Three months into the schoolyear and Taylor was still the new girl to me. She was like a secret whispered beneath the constant roar of the school. But that wouldn’t last. Secrets never stay hidden for long at Ashwood.
I looked over at Dante and realized that he was trying to ask me a question. My ears were still ringing, long after the bells had stopped. A coy smile played across his mouth, and his voice sounded vaguely of bell chimes.
“What did you think of that extra credit?”
I laughed. We were no better than anyone down on the ground. There was no escaping school apparently, even during breaks. But I couldn’t blame Dante. It really was a bizarre question. I’d stared at it so long that I could recite it precisely from memory.
“Imagine that you became president in the wake of a nuclear attack. Which of your classmates would you choose to fill out each position on your cabinet? Explain your choices. Points will be awarded for keen analysis and creativity.”
Dante’s eyes lit up. He loved this kind of stuff. “Wouldn’t that be awesome? Washington DC gets wiped out. The White House. The Capitol. All the politicians. Everything. Morbid, sure, but here’s the fun part. I’m in charge. We are. Not everybody, of course, but the good ones. And we do it right. Forget the bullshit and the petty politics. We think and we know and we act and we just do it.”
I watched two first year girls trying to edge each other out from talking to a third year guy. It was a junior varsity display of the game that played out on campus all day, every day.
“If you don’t think there are petty politics in high school, then you haven’t been paying very close attention.”
“Maybe that’s why we’d be good at it.”
There was a crowd starting to gather outside the Main Building doors, and I wondered why they weren’t going inside. Barnwell came marching around the corner of the building from his station where he’d been waiting to count the kids off onto the shuttles. The top of his head didn’t look very pleased, and he fought his way through the crowd.
“Excuse me. Coming through. Excuse me.”
When he got to the doors, it was pretty clear what the problem was. The doors seemed to be stuck. Not locked, a key could have taken care of that. No, this was a prank. Simple, effective, and pointless unless you needed a good laugh. And I had a pretty good idea who did it. Sometimes my friends were dumber than I was.
Dante looked down on it all with a vague disdain. “When are you going to get it, man? We’re great men, meant for great things. I know you’d rather read your books and watch and analyze and sit up here on the sidelines, but that’s not you. Not really. You’ve got something rare and once you accept that, then maybe you’ll stop screwing around.”
“I’m not like you, Dante.”
“You’re right. You’re almost better, and that’s what pisses me off.”
That was odd. He almost sounded like he meant it. “So what’s my job in Dante-topia?”
“You’re my Secretary of State.” Dante saw the look on my face. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked, surprised, but laughing. He seemed pretty pleased with himself for getting me to play his little game.
“It’s all the hard work with none of the perks. Think of famous Secretaries of State. They either screwed up or went to war. In no other job would those two things be considered separate criteria. And I’m not a big fan of the travel.”
“The travel’s the best part!”
“Then you should be Secretary of State. Besides you can’t be President anyway, at least not here.”
“What do you mean?” His voice was tight, as if I just threatened him.
“Because you weren’t born in America. You’re not a natural born citizen.” He was lucky that wasn’t a question on the history exam we just took.
“Wait a minute.” Dante straightened up. “For real. I can’t ever be president?”
“I’m pretty sure.” I couldn’t understand why Dante looked so distraught. “You can be a governor, congressman, Secretary of State. You just can’t be president.”
Dante got quiet while I watched a sloppy game of rough two-hand touch play out on the lawn below. It was a couple minutes before he muttered, “God, my parents even managed to screw that up.”
That was the first time I’d ever heard Dante complain about his parents. Most Ashwood students checked their families at the door, but Dante made sure everyone knew his story. As the only son of an Italian father and an Egyptian mother, he grew up skipping back and forth across the Mediterranean before settling in Texas when his father found the black gold. That background was part of his carefully crafted mystique.
Dante knew the world, and more importantly, he knew himself. In the midst of so many kids trying to figure out those answers for themselves, that combination proved incredibly seductive. Dante had somehow skipped over the awkwardness that infected the rest of us. At times he didn’t even seem real, like he was sculpted out of some artist’s vision, so I was a little less than sympathetic. Dante’s parents put the world at his fingertips. Wealth, access, aggravatingly good looks. I didn’t even get my own room until my hurricane of older brothers left for school.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Even if you were born in Washington, DC, you’d have a better chance of growing up to be a serial killer than the president.”
“Maybe, but it’s just having that possibility. It’s like climbing a mountain, and halfway up, somebody chops the top off. Do you keep climbing? The higher you go the better the view, sure, but you still know it’s not the best.”
I didn’t have any good answer for that, so I let Dante sulk while I got a taste of the silence I was searching for when I climbed up there in the first place.
A pair of second year girls spotted us from the ground and started to wave. I brought my finger to my lips, and with a wink, urged them to keep quiet. They nodded and giggled and went on pretending like they were waving at a bird. I closed my eyes and let the sun wash over my face.
“What did you put?” Dante asked. He’d been so quiet, I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“The extra credit? I said I’d leave everything to you, my Vice President, and then go to the Library of Congress to check out a book.”
What I told Dante was only half true, but it worked in getting him to smile.
He shook his head. “Classic Chase, always causing trouble.”