It’s funny, really, how very like snowflakes ash can be. It sears my skin just like an icy nip, some tiny particles still glowing red. I stop in the middle of the street, grey houses gazing at me with cracked blank eyes, and turn my face to the scorched sky. My mouth opens out of habit, and I realise that ash doesn't taste as nice as snow.
Golden light bathed happy faces, giving them a radiance, as though they glowed from within. The group gathered round the Christmas table fought playfully over crackers, turkey, cranberry sauce. I turned to Will and nudged him with my elbow.
“Merry Christmas, eh?”
He groaned. “If you say that one more time, I’ll… do something very nasty to you.”
I grinned good-naturedly. “Oh, lighten up Wilbur.”
He flicked a piece of turkey at me.
Ash is quieter than snow, as well. Snow exhibits a sort of memory of noise, as though echoing the ghosts of past joy, sending phantom mittened children running and playing in the streets. Ash just falls, like tiny dead leaves.
I tilt my head to one side, listening intently, as though to derive sound from this blanket of silence. There’s nothing. Even the ground is still now.
I call out, but my voice echoes and fades like the ghost of a phantom child.
“Will, stop kicking me!”
“Yes you are, I can feel it! Mum, Will’s kicking me!”
Mum put her glass down with a sigh. A smile still clung to her face, a garish ribbon to impress the guests. “Will, leave your sister alone.”
“I’m not doing anyth-”
A shattering of glass sounded from the hall. I turned in time to see shards of glass still flying from the fallen chandelier.
I guess it’s about two o’clock by now. If we started Christmas lunch at eleven, then… yes. About two. Or maybe one.
My boots don’t crunch in the ash as I turn back and head towards where I’d come from- home. I think the crunching is coming from the bones.
I’m not bothering to walk on the pavement. Somehow, the street seems more fitting- like by breaking this simple rule of society, then the truth of my situation will not reveal itself.
And it’s not like any cars will ever drive again, anyway.
Mum stood first, smile slipping from her face and landing in the remains of our broken Christmas. The ringing of the shattered chandelier was already fading, but none of us, save her, were standing. Perhaps we thought if we stayed at the table then Christmas would come back.
She crossed to the window, clawing open the curtains and peering out just in time for the window to explode in her face.
A scream was wrest from my throat, a verbal jack-in-the-box of terror. The family rushed to her side as one, a wave of love, worry, and confusion.
Someone scooped her up, leaving Aunty Jean to finally remember me and Will. She shielded us from our mother with her arms. As one, we were all shepherded towards the basement, tinny cries struggling to be heard against the tsunami of noise now exploding from outside.
I welcomed the closing in of the dark basement door.
Home is gone, and in its place stands… nothing. Not even a slightly interesting hole in the ground. There’s only a heap of smouldering rubble, a small tunnel carved out of it- my escape had left its scar. I approach the smouldering heap, barely recalling the feeling of my fingers scrabbling at the bricks to make my exit.
A skeletal arm sticks straight up into the air like a white flag planted in the middle of the heap, the dying surrender that no one heard.
The basement lights still worked, and they flickered on with a faintly musical ting.
“What the Hell’s going on!?”
“What are those noises!?”
“Is she okay?”
“Is everyone here?”
Eventually the adults thought to check for me and Will. He was curled to Mum’s side like a limpet, while I had lodged myself into a small steel crate, pulling the lid down on top of me. It made me feel safer.
They flitted around like bees, and while I wasn’t entirely certain they were doing anything, the actions seemed to calm them.
Eventually someone thought to try and get the glass out of Mum’s face, but their hand slipped as another crash shook the basement. I felt it in my very bones, shaking and rattling, vibrating my stomach.
Over it, I could still heard Will’s breathed sentence as if he were standing next to me.
“They’re getting closer.”
Some things had survived. Ironic, really, that the tacky plastic santa Mum had bought survived when she didn’t. I pull it from the rubble and cradle it to my chest. I don’t realise my legs have given way until my knees thud against the scorching ground. I stay there, kneeling as though in prayer.
It’s amazing what fear can do to you. For some, it addles the brain, makes you see the monsters your imagination conjures. For my family, however, it worked like a sedative, eventually calming us down. We sat huddled in a corner, me in my crate with the lid still shut on tight, and the others kneeling in a close circle. One of my aunts was tending to Mum.
I jumped as a voice sounded from directly next to my crate.
“Can I come in?”
Will’s eyes pleaded through a tiny hole in the steel. I frowned at him.
“No. Get your own box.”
The last time I ever saw him was when he paused before going to look for a crate of his own. His eyes widened almost imperceptibly, glistening, as though he had sensed something.
Then the world was consumed by fire and noise.
The cheap plastic santa is scalding my hands. I let it drop to the ground, where it lies grinning grotesquely.
I lift myself on shaky legs, turning my face to the sky once more. It’s scorched black and red, matching the devastated earth around me. Even the tunnel I’d dug to escape from the rubble of the basement is now black with soot.
So here I now stand, all alone, with only the bodies for company. I hum a carol quietly as I stumble away from the ruins of my home and family.