Zoe held fast to her mother and felt the weight of her in the burn of every muscle in her body. Her back and shoulders were on fire from strain, and her legs trembled and shook with fatigue.
Her mother whispered to her in a hoarse, steady voice, “Two miles Zoe – two miles”, and made her promise not to stop moving until they reached the walls of Vega.
Zoe knew what was coming. Her initial relief at finding her mother alive had worn off, and now descended into the frantic realization that perhaps she would not survive the journey. Her mind reeled with the thought, and she had no idea what she and Jasper would do once she was gone.
As Miriam leaned heavily into her, she could feel the life seeping from her body and mind. Blood flowed from her mother’s wounds and saturated not only her side, but the road as they stumbled along. For each step they took, she could hear her mother’s ragged breathing and the whistle deep down in her chest – that signaled her lungs were filling up with fluid.
When she felt her mom begin to sag to the earth – she hitched her up by the arm and waist, and leaned her further into her side, and kept going.
Zoe closed her eyes, and prayed very, very hard as sweat trickled down the sides of her face, down her back and under her arms. Maybe if she could get mom to Vega – they would have someone there who could save her – keep her from dying; and not leave her.
She looked back to be sure Jasper still followed close. He hadn’t spoken a word for hours now, and his eyes stayed glued to the asphalt. He carried on his shoulders the pouches, and book bags of their dead families – with the last of the food; water and memories of Indian Springs. His face was blank – with no expression to speak of – his tears all dried up like the road they traveled on.
They had passed by Granddad a mile back and Miriam had squeezed her daughter’s shoulder to have them move on – to not stop and say good bye. She didn’t want to see him desecrated, bloody – disemboweled – dead.
So she had closed her eyes, and let her child lead her away; and thought on how her Dad had saved Zoe and Jasper’s life – and had given her these few hours more to see her girl to safety.
Slowly they moved along the road in a synchronized shuffle where she lost all sense of time and reason. Fear of roaming eight balls, no longer a thought on her mind. So when she felt Zoe come to a stop – she gradually opened her eyes to harsh sunlight; abandoned cars; trash and debris blowing across their path.
Before her the red and blue sign welcoming them to fabulous Las Vegas had her trembling in relief.
Beyond that, she could see the white walls of protection rising up to meet the sky. A block ahead – the faded golden arches of McDonald’ appeared, and she pointed to the small establishment, and let Zoe drag her there; her feet unable to cooperate and help, as Jasper lumbered tiredly behind them.
When they reached the McDonald’s and entered – the reprieve from the sun had them collapsing to the floor. Inside were ghosts of the past Zoe and Jasper didn’t begin to understand. A counter – cash registers – tattered signs that showed smiling faces of people eating a Big Mac burger and sipping drinks from a cup was foreign and held no meaning to them.
Zoe looked down at her mother exhausted beyond anything she had ever experienced. In this place, the air was stagnant, and the heat more stifling – but at least the sun was absent, and did not beat down on them, and burn their skin.
She rubbed her shoulders and could feel the tight knots about her neck and the heavy weariness in her arms.
She could sense her mom staring up at her and so reached down and pulled her head into her lap to cushion her from the hard floor. Miriam groaned and held on to her daughter’s arm – the pain of her injuries no longer a factor. She had lost all feeling hours ago, and was now only numb – close to death she was sure.
Now it was time to tell her – to talk to her; leave her something to hold onto – to keep her going. But when she opened her mouth – she coughed and blood erupted from her throat making her gag.
Zoe startled as her mother coughed up blood that splattered over her lips, and down her chin. She wanted to run, leave here and go screaming into the deserted street. Only Jasper’s wide eyes and distraught look kept her rooted to the floor.
So instead of running, she gathered herself; clutched at her mom, wiped the blood away with the sleeve of her shirt and then kissed her forehead. The time for being afraid was over. She decided in that moment – she wasn’t a little girl anymore. She had to take care of Jasper, the way her mom had taken care of her.
Miriam’s eyes pierced hers, and she knew then that her mother would not make it inside the walls of Vega. They were blocks away now, and she wouldn’t make it.
Zoe looked to Jasper, shook her head and watched him slide further to the ground and place his head on Miriam’s lap. Her mom reached for him, and carded her fingers through his hair and sighed.
She settled on the repetitive motion and felt her daughter’s presence above her, stroking her cheek; and kissing her forehead. She shuddered in a crackling breath, and stared up into her beautiful, lovely face.
She had so wanted to tell her how much she loved her; how proud she was; what strength she possessed – that her father would be so pleased at her display of courage and fortitude.
But blood blocked her airway, and tricked from the side of her mouth. She had no strength to wipe it from her lips. The tears she had held back for so long, finally escaped and fell from the corner of her eye, and she felt Zoe brush it away with her thumb.
This was to be the last mental image her daughter would have of her. My God, what would become of Zoe, she thought. Who would she be because of this? Would this strengthen her will to live, or bring her low?
Miriam closed her eyes, and then they all waited.
Just outside the McDonald’s she could hear her James out on the street. He called her name, so she looked to the door. Dad stood there next to him, and waved her forward. Suddenly all of Indian Springs stood on Las Vegas Boulevard and beckoned to her to come home. The light out on the street was so bright, she blinked.
When she looked back to Zoe, her lips were tight and her eyes hard. “Please don’t hate me for leaving” she thought, but James was calling and the white walls of Vega were just down the street, only a block away.
She had done it. Gotten her girl here and now it was time to go.
With what strength she had left, Miriam squeezed her daughter’s hand – grabbed for Jasper’s and placed it within her daughter’s grasp.
She heard James come to the door and insist that she come. She looked his way into the light, and went.
Zoe rubbed her mother’s warm knuckles in her hand, and felt them relax over her and Jasper’s fingers. Her mother was gone. It was only them that were left.
She slipped her and Jasper’s hand free; removed her mother’s wedding band from her finger, and pulled him in close. “Let’s get moving”, she whispered in his ear.
He nodded, and together they stood, hand in hand – lifted their belongings; the last of Indian Springs and placed them across their shoulders. The papers, the pictures, the birth certificates – they were the keepers now of their past.
Zoe kissed her mother’s ring, and placed it in her pocket. She pulled Jasper by the front of his shirt, exited the heat of the ghostly establishment, left her mother behind, and moved out into the street – toward the gates of Vega.
When they reached the white towering wall – Zoe scanned it up and down, but could not make out a gate to enter, and apprehension coursed through her.
They had made it here. Everyone; mom had died to get them here. Now what?
She held onto Jasper and felt him draw close and wrap his arms around her waist. They stood this way – side by side, within each other’s embrace – unmoving, staring at the wall – until the sun began to dip and the sky took on that dusky glow to welcome the evening.
Jasper shivered; Zoe hugged his shoulders, and could not think what to do. Her mind was a blank – her body beyond tired, and her stomach rumbled with hunger. All she could do was stand; wait and keep Jasper close.
Suddenly she felt a strong breeze, looked up; and hovering above her was a man with magnificent wings – dressed all in black. Her breath quickened, and she could feel Jasper’s heartbeat pounding against her side. As his wings fluttered back and forth, the breeze picked up all around them, and her hat flew from her head – pushing her bangs back from her face.
As dust and debris swirled around them, the man with wings descended gracefully to the ground and stood before them, his eyes considering them as his wings retracted.
As he stood in their wake, Zoe stared with amazement. He was so beautiful; almost unreal – and as she reached out to touch him, he frowned and the expression marred his alabaster splendor. Zoe took in a sharp breath, and felt Jasper do the same.
Realization hit her. Here was an angel - a real live angel. Her mind seized in fright – would he strike them down? Would he turn them into eight balls – leave them beyond the wall to die?
Zoe closed her eyes – ready to see her mother and family again.
But then a strong hand landed on her shoulder, and the angel spoke in a cool, clipped tone, “Welcome to Vega.”
Zoe gazed up into his face, and as he moved away from her scrutiny, saw a portion of the wall lift away. The angel pushed her forward, and she dragged Jasper with her into the Promised City.