It didn't come because of man's inhumanity to man. It didn't come from bombs, or plague, or even from aliens descending from outer space. In fact, no one knows what triggered it. And even if they did, there was no way to turn back time.
Only one thing was certain. One evening the sun had grown unexpectedly bigger and hotter, and heat and radiation unlike anything ever experienced washed over the Earth, bathing it in searing rays that devoured over three-quarters of the world's population.
Now the sun is smaller, and it doesn't radiate as much heat as it used to. The world is colder. Food is scarce, and people are fighting to stay alive.
Andrew Michael Tollson, aka "The Silent Wraith", was a man who roamed from settlement to outpost to city, offering his protection from scavengers and renegades. Years ago, right before the sun had exploded, when he had been a boy growing up in a small Texas town, he had felt his first crush for the little tomboy he knew as Jo. Now, as a grown man, he has finally made his way back to his boyhood home to see if Jo is still alive, or if she has been a victim of the Apocalypse. He has to know if the dreams and memories he has harbored were mere fantasies, or if the infatuation he'd felt then has grown into something else, something stronger and more tangible.
JoBeth Wythe was a member of The Triad, three leaders who protected their little settlement, and tried to recall the carefree days before the Apocalypse. All they wanted was the chance at a decent life, with enough food, some shared warmth, and a little hope for the future. She had never forgotten the pudgy little kid who had followed her around when she was growing up, the little boy she called Mikey. Every time she thought of him, it only brought back pain and a wistfulness for a past that no longer existed.
For Drew and Jo, it was only a matter of time before they would be reunited to fight together. To survive together. And to discover that the innocent kisses they had shared as children had grown into a love that would overwhelm them with desire.
Three days before Thanksgiving. They couldn’t stay long enough to have Thanksgiving together?
Drew banged a fist on his thighs in despair as tears rolled down his cheeks. They were supposed to have moved in June, right after the end of school, but for some reason or another plans got changed, and they had to leave now before winter got a good foothold, and the worst of the weather hit up north.
It was cold down in the little hollow that he and Jo referred to as "our place". It used to be the den of some wild animal, now long gone. But the tiny cave was the perfect size for the both of them, and they often snuck off with food and toys, and sometimes a book, to sit and talk and snack and read until the sun went down, and it got too dark to read by.
Sometimes they would throw rocks into the tiny creek that flowed in front. In the springtime, the creek swelled. And one year they got so much rain, it overflowed the bed, nearly threatening to engulf Mr. Morningroth’s back yard.
There were always interesting things living in the creek. All sorts of bugs and swimming creatures that fascinated them. The hollow was perfect for juvenile scientific investigation. It was also the most secluded place to go to whenever things got bad at home, not that anything really bad ever happened. Yeah, there were the occasional squabbles between their folks, but moms and dads sometimes yelled at each other. Sometimes for a good reason, and sometimes for no reason at all. But in the end it didn’t matter because you always made up, and you always got to be stronger because of it.
Which was why Drew had sought out the hollow when things got too unbearable. Like now. Right at this moment, the Mayflower moving van was sitting in the Tollson’s driveway (and halfway across the street, blocking passing traffic), while three big guys carried out boxes and furniture from Drew’s house and put them in the back of the truck. By tonight they would have everything loaded, except for the stuff his mother and father had packed in their two vehicles. Tonight they would spend the night at the local Motel 6, and hit the road bright and early tomorrow morning, heading for Maine. With luck, Drew’s father commented, they would get to their new home in time for Thanksgiving.
"Some Thanksgiving," Drew muttered softly. "What’s there to be thankful about?"
The voice came from overhead. Presently, Jo slid down the short embankment to join him. He moved over enough to let her snuggle in beside him. Once settled in, she snaked an arm around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder.
They sat that way together in silence, soaking in and memorizing every precious moment left to them. Presently Drew wiped his eyes and nose with the hem of his t-shirt. "Not fair," he muttered.
"Will you think of me?" she asked, almost hesitantly.
"Yeah. Promise. All the time." He turned to look at her, and caught of whiff of her hair. It smelled like bubble gum from the shampoo he knew she used. "Jo?"
"You won’t forget me, will you?"
She tilted her face to meet his eyes, and once again Drew stared into those sparkling blue depths. "I’ll never forget you. You’re my bestest friend ever, even if you are a boy."
"One of these days, Jo, I’m coming back here. I’ll come back to see you."
"You better. Or else I’m going never going to forgive you."
They stared at each other for what seemed like a hundred heartbeats. Then, as if by some unspoken wish, they leaned in toward each other until their lips touched. It was a tentative, almost frightened sensation, sharing their first ever delicious feeling of warmth upon soft warmth.
Drew broke contact first to stare into Jo’s flushed face. She tasted so good, it was scarey. No wonder people did it so much on television and in the movies.
"You taste like peppermint."
"That’s ‘cause I’m sucking on one," she replied, showing him the dissolving little white disk on her tongue. "You taste good, too. Like spaghetti. Wanna kiss me again?"
But this time they forgot to make allowances for their noses, and they bumped in passing. Jo began to giggle as she rubbed the tip of hers. "I wonder if grownups bump noses."
"Naw. They have a lot more practice at it," Drew replied with a child’s wisdom. But rather than try again, they cuddled closer to watch the water run by in the creek.
Their contact was as natural to them as breathing. They shared nearly everything, did nearly everything together, except for those things which morality and common sense dictated they couldn’t. But otherwise the world had been left open for them to explore.
"Call me sometime? Let me know what Maine’s like?"
"I’ll call you every week. Promise."
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
She gave him a little dig in the ribs. Drew grinned and tried to wiggle away from her ticklish fingers. "Don’t say that," she admonished him. "Don’t ever say things like dying. I don’t want you to die."
"I won’t die if you won’t," he stated matter-of-factly, as if mentioning it made it inarguable.
He gave a loud, noisy sigh. "One of these days, when we’re bigger, I’m going to come back here and get you."
"Where will we go?" There was no doubt in her mind he would do exactly as he said. After four years together, Jo knew her friend was as good as his word.
"I dunno. Where do you want to go?"
"I wanna see the Grand Canyon."
He made a face. "Why would you wanna see an old hole in the ground? Let’s go see the ocean."
"You mean, like the beach?"
"Yeah. We could go fishing for sharks, like that guy on that pier did that one time. 'Member?"
She tightened her arms around him and rested her chin on his shoulder. Drew reached around and pulled her close enough to where they were sitting pressed thigh-to-thigh. "You know what I’d really like to do one of these days?"
"I don’t care where you take me. I don’t care where we go. I just want to be with you. Sleep in the same house, and wake up in the morning with you already there. Wouldn’t that be cool? Maybe we’d get to share a bunkbed. How neat would that be? We could talk all night long. We’d never have to wait for our moms to let us know when it was okay to come over. We’d never have to have our moms tell us it’s late, time to come in and take a bath and go to bed ‘cause it’s a school night. None of that stuff. Just you and me, and never having to be apart ever again."
"Yeah. That would be the greatest. But we’re not old enough to do that kind of stuff yet."
"No, not yet. But one of these days."
"Yeah. One of these days." He craned his neck to look at her again, and this time they didn’t hesitate to share another soft kiss. A slightly longer one, in fact. "Got another peppermint?" he asked as they pulled apart. Jo dug into her jeans pocket for the one she’d saved for him. She watched as he unwrapped it and popped the candy in his mouth.
"Drew? I won’t have another best friend like you. School is gonna be strange with you gone. I’m gonna miss you a whole bunch." She trembled a little in his arms, and he could tell she was on the verge of crying again. She seemed to be doing that a whole lot recently, ever since they had found out about Drew’s father’s transfer. Girls tended to cry a lot, he had noticed, and Jo was no different.
He gave her a squeeze. "Me, too."
More silence ensued. It would be getting dark soon. Their parting was inevitable, no matter how hard they both wished otherwise.
They shared a final kiss, the softest one yet, with mouths closed and lips pressed tightly together. Without another word, they climbed out of the hollow and walked hand in hand back to the Tollson house.
It would be the longest night of their young lives.
Until there came the Apocalypse.