His skin burned bright with the desire surfacing from within. The fire in his soul a damp, red sun fueling the hunger in his touch, made more intense by the pink heat of the desert outside.
I often wondered if he’d ever cool down. But even after decades, his want had never abated. Even through the trials of war which desiccated everything we knew. Years of chasing and being chased by devils. Our marriage peppered with miscarriages followed by months of devastation. Nothing ever made him see me differently. He always treated me the same. He wanted me just the same. And no matter where we were, in the frozen city where we met, the icy ridges of the mountains where he had hidden me, the stormy beaches we’d traveled looking for peace, or this dessert, cooled by the nuclear winter, he was always warm.
It was habitual for us, the way he would take me every Friday evening. Some might say such a routine is unromantic, even tedious. But when he came home, stalking me through the house like an animal before pouncing, pinning and devouring me, monotony was the furthest thing from my mind.
Collapsing onto my side on the kitchen floor, giggling as his whiskers tickled my shoulder and sighing when his arms folded around me from behind, I watched the sky burn away into an amethyst haze.
“I missed you, Mrs.”
Squirming around in his embrace, I flipped over to face him and hold his salted jaw between my hands.
“Since you’re filthy and sweating all over my clean floor, I’m not sure I can say the same.”
His fingers raked through my damp hair as he chuckled.
“That sass doesn’t make me want to clean up any faster.”
His hand wound around my golden tresses, tugging lightly to raise my eyes so that I looked into his. They were as clear and brilliant as they’d ever been. But, something new had taken residence in his stare. Something that traced cool fingers down my spine. Something that held more weight than I thought was possible in his gaze. Something that made me swallow hard against the lump of empathy growing in the pit of my stomach.
“What’s wrong, Mister?”
As a General in the Gulf Militia, Ant had carried the responsibility of thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands, for decades. The heft hardens most men. Makes them power drunk or breaks them completely. But Ant had lived through the war that broke the Earth, and stood before the council of what was left of our world’s leaders with all the heart and devotion of a little boy dreaming of being president.
There were fourteen of them left. In the famine and fury of worldwide revolution, thousands of military and government leaders had been killed or fled. The death toll after ten years of post-nuclear fighting surpassed the actual nuclear attacks. But fourteen men and women found a way to finally settle the chaos.
My Ant was one of them.
“Do you remember when we came here? You’d told me we should make our home in the center of this dead land.” I nodded, searching a reason for that memory. “You said that it didn’t matter if America was gone. And you said-.”
His eyes were wet and he choked on the recollection.
“I said the world would be our country someday and that Texas could be it’s heart.”
We’d traveled all over the continent. The bombs had turned the east and west coasts to rubble, and the fallout from the concentration of attacks in the east reached as far as the Mississippi River. The north had been plunged into a nightmarish nuclear winter that made so much of the continent uninhabitable. And what was left of the western states after the collapse of California was dismal.
But Texas had been warm. And it simply felt right.
“Yes, Mrs. And you were so very right.”
Tears slipped down the ridge of his nose as he pulled my forehead to his.
“You’re scaring me, Ant. What is wrong? What has happened?”
I pulled away, praying silently that there wasn’t more war coming.
But as he shook his head and pulled me tightly into his arms, I knew it was something worse.
I didn’t cry. I’d known my whole life that being loved by him was more than any poor frostbitten orphan could have ever dreamed. I’d known after each lost pregnancy, seen it in the disappointed eyes of all of his soldiers. I’d felt it in the furious storm of security that swaddled me each time we went out. And more than anything, I’d heard it from my own heart.
The troubles weren’t his, which was rare in this post-apocolypse. My doctors, fertility specialists, nutritionists, anyone who had seen the scans knew it was my body that could not accept pregnancy.
If there’d never been any bombs, we would have simply hired a surrogate.
But if there had never been a bomb, my family would have lived. And I wouldn’t have endured the countless rapes that destroyed my body before Ant rescued me.
Irony is the cruelest joke.
“Is there already another?”
My voice was mist leaving my lungs. I felt myself dying inside as his arms tightened further around me.
“There could never be another.”
I pushed against his chest as my mind crumpled and my heart flew. My face ached with confusion and unshed tears. I glared into his eyes willing him to somehow split into two men so that no choice ever needed to be made.
“They want me to plant my seed, yes. But I can’t-.”
He averted his eyes as he choked on the thoughts and wishes of others.
“Until death parts us. That was my vow.”
An exhausted and prickly relief washed over me. I clung to him tightly as he picked up my broken body, carrying us both to bed. He was so warm, and as I burrowed deep into that warmth, I tried to push everything down.
But I knew what I was depriving the world of. I knew the only solution was to deprive him of the choice.
We made love three more times that night. He slept fitfully as I planned and plotted. When he woke, he talked about where we could go, how we could hide. But there was no way I could keep him from the world we’d built. Rebuilt. Created from almost nothing.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a beautiful girl with tawny skin and raven hair, looking exactly like her father as she picked flowers in a sandy meadow. She had my eyes, and held my cheeks in her tiny hands.
“You won’t make it through, Momma. But I will take care of him. Don’t worry.”
Her tiny smile told me more than words ever could have. So when I awoke to the barrel of a handgun at my cheek, I simply closed my eyes again and said my last, living prayer.
I never got to meet her, his beautiful little flower. But the gunshot only killed my brain.
She was barely as big as his hand when they had to take her from my body. But she burned with the same fire as Ant, and survived with my will and determination.
And her life gave hope to a hopeless world.