“Red” by Kimberly Maske-Mertz
For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.
1 Thessalonians 5:3
All I see is red.
As I gaze out the window at the alien landscape, my heart races as memories flash in quick succession—my hands, my blouse, and the well-worn knees of my favorite jeans, stained with crimson fingers that grasp for something I have no dispensation to bestow. They beg. No, they pray. Pray to a god that does not exist. That cannot exist.
A dozen hands reach for me, pulling. They pull me incessantly, this way and that. I don’t have the strength to fight anymore. I don’t think I ever did. My limbs feel numb. My mind, a darkened cavern of unrealized possibility. I know that there is something I should do. Something I’m supposed to do. I can feel the synapses fire in every nerve, urging me to clasp my hands together and plead for forgiveness. My muscles burn as my thoughts scatter.
Get up. You have to move. You have to scream and run and fight.
I don’t recognize the voice in my head. The heaviness of words descends upon me, squeezing something out of me that resists release. I hold on to it tightly. I swallow it down, feeling the burn in my chest like the fire of a thousand newborn stars.
And then, a paralyzing cold washes over me. I shiver as a shrill cry pierces the darkness. It surrounds me, penetrating my mind only to burst forth from within. I feel its power, too strong to harness. It consumes me as it brings me back into myself with the force of a supernova.
Let go? No. No. Nonono…I can’t let go. I won’t let go. Like a selfish child, I cling to what is mine. I staked my claim long ago, and I refuse its repossession.
Bright lights burst above, raining fire in a moonless sky.
A warm summer breeze teases the hair on my shoulder as I lounge on a blanket gazing at the stars. They form familiar patterns and I reach toward the sky, yearning to touch them. The smell of sulfur and sea envelop me as I watch green, blue, and gold cascade across the heavens. Lazy fingers graze my hand, my wrist—soft as a whisper they drift upon me. They inscribe unspoken words into my skin. My body trembles as he moves closer.
Closer, closer, closer. My heart beats in rhythmic staccato. Soft lips caress my neck, my cheek, my mouth. Our bodies entwine, connecting as one. Blood sears through my veins, setting my soul ablaze.
I burn for him.
Heat penetrates my skin as scalding water cascades over my shame, awakening my senses to the hell into which I’ve descended. I grip the wall as images flicker behind my eyelids like an old home movie. I am forced to the ground. My body becomes a shield, fiercely protective as I fight against a primal urge to survive. With everything left within me, I shove it away. The fear. The chaos. The blare of sirens that shriek through my mind. None of it exists. Nothing exists in that moment but him. Me. Us.
His ice blue gaze cuts into me like shards of glass.
His phantom voice utters, “You have to go.”
“You have to go,” he says, his eyes narrowed insistently as he places the letter on the table. “You will go.”
Excitement and fear congeal into a single, foreign emotion. He was not among the chosen, and my heart seizes with the realization of what this means. With trembling hands, I push it away—everything I had once hoped for immortalized in Times New Roman, black on white. The printed words and official Chi Rho have lost their meaning. Four months, two weeks, five days, and life has plotted a new course.
“No.” My voice, barely a whisper, seals my fate.
I will not go.
I will not leave.
“I won’t leave you.” I choke on the words, fearing their truth. My head and my heart wage war upon on another as a tiny flutter proclaims its distress, pulling me back to the present and demanding my compliance with its wishes.
“For him,” he utters as his fingers caress the swell of my abdomen. “For Elijah.”
He leans in to kiss me, the name carried upon his sweet breath as it warms my dampened cheek.
Elijah, destined to be carried unto heaven on a chariot of fire.
My eyes drift to the crisp, black uniform hanging in the hall. My call to service. My penance. My cilice.
I stare at the console, my eyes fixated on the blue lights that blink back at me. They hold no emotion and yet they stir up a deep-seated ache within my chest that will not subside. My fingers drift over cold, dead keys, generating words that hold no significance. A voice to my right utters a command. I mechanically nod my compliance as I continue the assigned task.
Initiate landing sequence 2214.
Sequence confirmed. Estimated time to landing: 15 minutes. Stand by.
Fifteen minutes. It was all the warning we had.
“You can still make it to the transport,” he says as I shove items into a duffle bag.
I ignore his words. I focus on the task at hand. He grasps my arms tightly, turning me to face him. His fingers press hard into my flesh. His eyes, menacing in their intensity, slice through my defenses.
“They’re waiting outside,” he says, his tone steeped with finality.
“I won’t go,” I say. The words have become my covenant. They voice my fear, my doubt, my love. “I won’t leave you behind.”
“This isn’t about me anymore,” he says, releasing his hold on me. He turns and paces the room. He runs his hand through his jet black hair, tussled from a restless sleep. “Elijah…”
Elijah. A sharp jab pierces my side, reminding me of the life I carry within. Like a parasite, it consumes my resolve. It claws and kicks and demands escape. Elijah—a stark reminder of a life that will never come to pass.
The earth convulses beneath our feet as glass and stone shatter around us. Sirens sound, heralding that the end has come.
The hull shudders as the vessel makes contact with the ground below. Cheers of the faithful breach the silence, tearing through my thoughts. I resent their jubilation.
Have they forgotten so soon the tribulations that have forced them here?
Have they forgotten the sacrifices they have made?
A hand rests on my shoulder. A voice softly utters praise for a job well done. I close my eyes as the chasm inside me widens. I am empty. Hollow. My purpose complete, I rise and excuse myself though no excuse seems adequate for my sins.
“Push,” she demands as a primal sound tears from within me. My body spasms, resisting my control. Sweat coats my brow. I cannot breathe.
He should be here. A son should know his father.
A single cry follows a rush of relief. I fall back. I smile. I sob. The nurse wipes my face.
The medics become silent as a cleric utters last rites. I attempt to rise as a hand falls to my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” the midwife whispers, her eyes distant and full of an emotion I cannot name.
I scream. I fight against the hands that restrain me.
Elijah. My son. My only connection to a life I abandoned.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!
“Bring him to me,” I say. “I need to hold my son.”
The nurse moves from my side. She gathers the bundle gently and lowers it to me. His body, still warm, molds perfectly in my arms. His pale, plump cheeks yearn to be pinched. His eyes remain open. I note their color, and a tear runs down my face.
He is his father’s son.
I shuffle past the remnant as they gaze through the windows to the alien world outside. Their sanctuary. A rose-red Petra, awaiting their possession.
I descend the stairs slowly. I count my steps in time with the beats of my heart. One for the love I lost. One for my son who drew in his first and last breath in unison. One for myself…for a life that no longer holds meaning.
The door slides open, and I step inside my tomb. Cold, stale air penetrates my lungs. I hold it in. I hold everything in. My hand reaches for the keypad on the wall and my steady fingers enter the code.
His eyes…their eyes…flash behind my eyelids. They are my cross to bear. A sense of calm washes over me as the door slides closed behind me. The air thins, and I expel the demons that inhabit my soul in a single, ephemeral breath.
The hatch opens.
I let go.
And all I see is red.