The Eve of the Last Days
Ellie faced a terrible decision.
Issue #16, Sunday 2 September 2022
The day began with a blood-red sky that lit up the interior of the cave with a ruddy glow. Waking up and finding Josh missing, Ellie got up and went to find him.
She didn’t have to go very far. There he was, sitting on a sand-dune, staring out to sea, silhouetted against the spectacular sky. Her dilemma.
She came up and sat down beside him. He was still a head shorter than her, and she put her arm around his shoulders. She could tell that he had been crying. Barely acknowledging her presence, he said thickly “I miss my Dad.”
“I miss my Mom and Dad, too,” she said softly. “And everyone else.”
It was harder on Josh right now, though. They had buried Josh’s father only about a week ago. Ellie, on the other hand, had had two or three months to reconcile herself to the loss of her parents. It was hard to be definite about the lapse of time here, Ellie thought. She had better start making some kind of calendar—scratches on the wall of the cave, perhaps, or a pile of white stones. She should probably have done it sooner. At the very least she should keep track of the changing of the seasons.
The sun began to emerge from amidst the flaming clouds. “‘Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning’” she said. A pointless remark, really, but it was something to say.
Josh shrugged off her arm in a sudden angry gesture. “Why did we get into that boat, then? There were lots of red skies before we left! We shouldn’t… We should never have gotten in that boat! We should have stayed at home!” He jumped up and stalked away from her, ashamed of his sudden tears. Ellie forgave him those tears. He had been through a lot, and he was only half her age. She was twenty-two. He was only eleven. Only eleven.
But they couldn’t have stayed at home. Not with all the chaos going on. Millions were dying, and the group had counted themselves lucky, very lucky indeed, to have bought the chance of escape on the charter boat. Trying to reach somewhere cooler, somewhere where the wars weren’t happening, somewhere beyond the reach of the fallout.
It was easy now, in retrospect, to see that their voyage had been hopeless, a fool’s quest. If they had stayed it would surely have been worse. It might have been a quicker end, though. Sometimes hope was the most treacherous of emotions.
Their hopes had been wrecked, literally, on the shore of this island.
Ellie remembered the horror only too well. It had been the middle of the night. The boat crowded with desperate people, barely enough room to move about. Everyone with their pathetic belongings clutched tightly to them. The wild winds and the huge waves. The crying and the stench of vomit. And then the sudden terrible shock as the boat struck the unseen reef, the dizzying spin Ellie experienced as she was thrown from the deck, the shock of plunging into the cold salt water, her desperate struggle to stay afloat even with the precious life-jacket her father had paid a fortune to obtain for her before they left. The screams, and the awful cracking sound as the boat broke up. Floundering in the water, spitting out gulps of brine, half-choking. And then after an eternity of desperation the blessed feel of something solid beneath her feet, stumbling up the beach to lie exhausted until the sun had come up.
So very few of them had survived. Her parents had both drowned, along with all but a handful of those who had been aboard. On the island after that awful night were Ellie, young Josh and his father Derek, and Mrs Goldberg. Mrs Goldberg hadn’t lasted long, poor old lady. And just last week Josh’s father had died of what was probably a heart attack. But he hadn’t been well for weeks before that, deprived of the half-dozen medications he was supposed to take every day. His lips had been constantly a shade of light blue for days before he died, but there was nothing that Ellie could do for him.
Josh walked back to Ellie, tears gone, though his eyes were red from rubbing.
“What do you want me to do today?” he asked sulkily. He wasn’t a bad kid, and Ellie had grown quite fond of him. But he’d been spoiled by his former life, had been one of those overweight kids who would much rather have played a football video game on his computer than dream of actually going outside and kicking a ball about. All that was gone now, of course, and on their meager diet Josh had slimmed down and was starting to become fit. Eventually his mind would catch up with that and he might even grow up into a nice young man. If only…
“Go and collect some gull eggs,” she said briskly to him.
“But the birds peck at me, I don’t like it.”
“Use your stick and hit them hard. If you kill any of the birds, all the better, bring them back and we’ll roast them. Come on, Josh, you’ve done this dozens of times before. You don’t want to starve, do you?” He shook his head in answer but pouted and looked sour. A little later, before she had to prompt him yet again, he set off grudgingly to climb up the cliff toward the gull nests, wearing one of the backpacks they had rescued from the surf.
Ellie returned to the cave to check on the driftwood fire. She didn’t want it to go out, though she had no great fear that she couldn’t light a new one if she had to. On a rough shelf in the cave she had stacked a dozen cigarette-lighters they had scooped up from the waves, and their precious reserves of butane all seemed intact.
She looked around the cave, checking their supplies. Considering how many bodies had sunk beneath the sea after they struck the reef, it was stunning how many suitcases and packs had floated and come to shore. A couple of bloated bodies did reach land over the next week, and Ellie was deeply thankful she didn’t recognise either of them. She and Josh’s father had managed to drag the bodies out of sight and bury them beneath a pile of stones, a long exhausting labour but very necessary.
She had long since mentally cataloged all contents of the cave. She and Josh had enough clothing to keep them warm for the rest of their lives, if they were careful not to wear anything out unnecessarily. There were several bottles of multi-vitamins stacked in a pile, though how long their potency would last was anyone’s guess. And she smiled sardonically at the rows of useless cell-phones she had arranged on ledges. She wasn’t sure why she kept them, except for decoration.
Time to go out gathering. There were rock-pools on the shore with limpets and crabs, easy to gather if you didn’t mind the odd nip on your fingers. She had tried eating some of the seaweed, but it was nasty stuff. Nevertheless it stayed down and maybe did them some good. Plenty of iodine, anyway. The lack of vegetables was her biggest concern, and she was cautiously trying various plants around the island to discover what might be edible. A lot of this island, she supposed, would have been covered with ice at one time, but with the warming over the last few decades, areas of reasonably rich soil were being exposed, and new plants were sprouting up, probably from wind-borne seeds or bird droppings.
Bringing back her harvest, she stood looking up for a while at the cliff-face as Josh cautiously started to climb down.
She sighed. There was no hope of rescue, none at all. The world had been busy destroying itself when they left. Even if anything like civilisation still remained on the mainland, it would be centuries before it got back onto its feet. And even then, why would they come exploring up here? It would hardly be a priority.
Josh was her biggest problem. It was nice to have some sort of companionship, she supposed. In his best moments, he was quite a nice kid. But in a year or two he would reach puberty. And then he would start looking at Ellie with a different eye. He’d turn into a big man, too. His father Derek, though recently unwell from cardiac problems had obviously been a tall, beefy man in his prime. A strong man. A man whose sexual advances, if he’d been well, Ellie would have found impossible to fend off.
And in a few short years, that would be Josh, fit and well. Strong. Feeling the rush of hormones.
She had always been a practical, down-to-earth person. While others, in the old world, might imagine that she and Josh could become an unlikely sort of Adam and Eve, repopulating the world with their children, the practicalities were hopeless.
She had found a few packets of the contraceptive pill in the luggage they’d salvaged, but the sum total of their daily dosages didn’t add up to more than a year or two, and then they would be gone. Some condoms, too, but even if she could persuade Josh to use them they would be gone quickly. Without their aid, she would be almost certain to fall pregnant again and again, year after year. In a place with no medical facilities, no doctors and no midwives. Her odds of dying during childbirth or its aftermath were frighteningly high. Leaving Josh with a gaggle of babies or toddlers to look after in this desolate place. And then what? No, she simply couldn’t let that happen.
She eyed Josh as he reached the base of the cliff and started back towards her, and gave another sigh.
He was a nice enough kid, but sometime soon she was going to have to kill him.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About this story
Written in 2011, but revised since, this story was sparked by a photo prompt. The image was that of a young boy sitting on a beach staring out into a vivid sunset, similar to the illustration I’ve used here. So I started wondering about where he was, why he was there, and who might be with him.
Thanks for reading. See you next time!