So now she lays naked in the lead-bottomed gondola of a hot-air balloon over Mad Hat Canyon, waiting for the updraft. Her companion of the moment, a deceitful little mandroid named Silas-of-Truth, slumps barechested in the bottom of the basket across from her, picking at his fingernails with a rusty pocketknife. She wishes she could hate him, but he's just a generic Bad Boy Survivalist package, not even real enough to despise.
Flames flare above them, and the balloon bobs at the end of its tether.
"What I mostly hate is how cynical it's made me," she tells him, continuing a conversation they'd never begun.
"'sthat?" Silas mumbles.
"The Plague. It already killed me, hasn't it? If something goes wrong here, if I die, that's just a formality."
"You think too much." He reaches over to grope her breast mechanically. "Are you ready to fuck again?"
"No." She rolls away and, when he scoots along to follow her, stands. With the wicker basket pressing hard against her belly she looks down through her binoculars at the bodies piled like battlefield remnants.
"You've turned out to be a real bitch, you know that?"
On the canyon floor, men in bulky getups the color of a hazy sky are hand-to-handing bodies in a long line that runs from a convoy of trucks to the dead-strewn earth. A man in a black suit stands apart from the convoy. He has a book in his hand, and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. She watches him, wondering what it must be like for him in the face of such corruption. To stand there with the book he still believes in. If he even does.
"I just want to be pure again," she tells Silas.
She can hear the smirk in his voice even without looking at him. "That barn burned down a long time ago."
"No, I mean it." The last of the bodies are coming out of the trucks, now. The chaplain stubs out his cigarette and drops the butt into his pocket. For some reason this strikes her. He could have thrown it anywhere; the entire grave will be vaporized in the next hour. But he's carrying it away. She loves him a little for that. "I want to start over."
"Right," Silas says.
"Somewhere the Plague hasn't hit yet. An abandoned farm or something. Get my hands dirty. Make it mine. Maybe you could come with me."
"Yeah," Silas says. "Only, the problem is? I gave Benny the last of the money."
"All of it?" She looks at him sideways at that, like it's a joke he's going to laugh at. "All of it?"
"Near enough." He grunts himself into a standing position. Comes to her, puts a grimy hand on her bare shoulder. "You didn't seriously think you were going to need it anymore, did you?"
She pulls away from him. "What right did you have--"
He shrugs. "I told you I was getting us a balloon."
"You said he was giving me a deal. Because he was your friend."
Silas shrugs again. Smirks. "Sorry."
"You sold me out just to get laid?"
He eyes her bare breasts. The tender bruises she'd urged him to put there. "You didn't seem to mind an hour ago."
"An hour ago I didn't know what I wanted."
"And now you do?"
The burner flares again, the blast of heat a reminder of what's waiting for them. But this isn't the end, it's just the computer controls monitoring their height to keep them hanging above the explosion to come.
She looks down again. The trucks are pulling away. The chaplain, book in hand, is crossing himself while a uniformed man waits in an open-doored Jeep for him to finish. The blast will come soon, the rising heat bearing her away on the bodies and souls of the dead.
"I want this to matter," she says. "Some of it. Any of it."
When the bomb explodes, the fireball might be contained by the canyon walls, or the updraft might shove them into the stratosphere. The radiation might kill them, or they could bob away happy as lambs in a meadow. The not knowing is what made this seem like the right idea. Maybe, she thinks, it was her way of putting up one last prayer. If you hear me, God...
He puts his hand on her shoulder again. "You matter to me."
She looks at him. He looks away, back again.
"What? That's what you want me to say, right?"
"You're such a pig."
He pulls her around to face him. Kisses her, badly. She resists at first. And then he slips his clumsy hand between her legs. When she gasps, half in pain, his tongue worms into her mouth. It isn't elegant, but she's never been a pretty girl. Silas is willing to risk death to be with her. That's not nothing.
"Now or never," he says. "Are you ready?" He is, she can feel that against her bare skin, even through his jeans.
She could die like this, with his awkward desperate cock inside her when the world goes away. It's no fairy tale, but since the Plague she's seen a million ways to go. This would be better than most.
She thinks of the chaplain carefully tucking the cigarette butt into his pocket, so as not to defile the dead, and she she twists away, ignoring his disappointed moan. She picks up the knife he left on the gondola floor. Saws through the tether.
Whispers a prayer.
And lets the balloon bear her away.
Another Chuck Wendig challenge piece. This one was to use 10 specific words (funeral, captivate, deceit, brimstone, canyon, balloon, clay, disfigured, willow, atomic) in the story. I tried to get 'em all into the first sentence, but that proved to be too much. Once I had her up in the balloon with Silas, well, then I had to figure out why she was there. I kinda like how this one turned out. What do you think?