Siblings Josh and Claire were out with a detail of locals trying to replant the Selkirk area following the previous summer’s fire when the ash hit. They had seen a lot of ash, but not like this. This was a wall two miles high that swept through and buried everything. Everything.
Some said it had to be the result of a volcanic eruption. As far as anyone can tell, the two-score people who have made their way to the valley are the last people left alive in the world. Everyone is trying to survive, but Josh is determined to thrive.
With Claire by his side, he begins to rally the people to not just claim a life in the ash, but to build a new community. With death all around them, and continuing to come their way, Josh begins to wonder if he can keep everyone going long enough to build something new. Even if he can keep their hopes up, how long can they push back against the ash?
From the ash arises a new town, a new way of life, and hope.
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You can only live in panic so long. Eventually, you have a nervous breakdown or you wear out. Claire and I just wore out. It had been about six o’clock in the evening when the wall of ash descended on us and minute after minute, then hour after hour, of sitting in a darkened pick-up truck, clinging to your sibling for dear life, while outside the wind moans and nothing is visible takes its toll. Throw in that we were already tired from an afternoon of work and, somewhere in there, we fell asleep. Or my brain shut off, which was a lot like sleep.
I remember having the momentary thought that I probably wouldn’t wake up. I pictured the ash covering the truck until every crack was full and the air was used up. I fell asleep picturing our parents crying one day as they got word from the Forestry Service or someone like that, saying that a pick-up with the remains of their two youngest was found buried under a mountain of ash. I look back now and am a little surprised that I fell asleep under those conditions, but at the time there just wasn’t anything else to do.
“Josh,” a voice whispered in my ear. I hoped it was my mother, waking me up in my own bed, the events of the day before just a dream.
“Josh,” repeated Claire, a little more loudly. “I can see.”
“Hmm?” I asked, trying to wake up and realizing just how uncomfortable sleeping upright in a pick-up truck can be. I finally got my eyes to open and realized Claire was right: we could see, if dimly.
The wind was still blowing a hefty breeze, but the cloud of ash had dispersed enough that we could actually see a little of what was outside. It was a weird light, though, and it took me a few more moments before I realized that what I could see was because the moon had broken through a gap in the clouds—whether clouds of water vapor or of ash I couldn’t tell at that moment in time.
As my brain came into focus with my eyes, I realized that part of why we could see—even by the light of a not-full moon—was because the moonlight was reflecting off the light-gray coat of ash that covered everything. It wasn’t quite like moonlight on snow, but it was a little brighter than if it had just been shining on the dirt. “Wonder what time it is?” I mumbled.
“Middle of the night, looks like,” Claire responded. “We must have slept several hours.”
“I’m just glad to wake up,” I told her. She cast me a strange look, but didn’t ask me to explain.
“Think we can drive home now?”
“Maybe. I can see the road, anyway. Wonder if we ought to check and see if everyone made it to safety, though?”
Claire looked like she was about to say something in response to that, then pursed her lips and nodded, saying, “You’re right.” She pulled a flashlight out of the glove box and checked to make sure it worked. She started to reach for the door, then gave me an ironic smile as she gestured with the flashlight, “Why didn’t we remember this earlier?”
“Just geniuses, I guess,” I replied with a shrug.
The wind was blowing, yet not really high like it had been when I had gone after the bottled water. Still, as soon as we were outside and next to each other, Claire took my hand as she swept the area with the flashlight in her other hand. If memory served, the last time she had held my hand for anything other than a family prayer was when we were both pre-school age and Mom had made us hold hands while we crossed the street. It was a strange sensation and not particularly comforting to me, but maybe it was to her. Just as I thought that, she gave my hand a reassuring squeeze, then let go.
The ash beneath our feet stirred up with each step, making us cough even though the makeshift bandanas were still in place, and then making us go slower so as not to stir so much up. It wasn’t deep—perhaps no more than a half-inch to an inch in most places—but it was pervasive. The wind kept ash in the air, but another glance up at the moon showed me that we were in a sort of trough where “new ash” (like new snow) didn’t seem to be falling. The ash in the air seemed to have just been stirred up from the ground or been blown off the ridge that hung above us to the west. To the north and south, on either side of the gash in the sky, it looked like the ash still roiled.
We walked nervously over to where the flashlight showed us a lump under the ash. Claire held back a step but curiosity forced me to close the distance and kneel down, even though the shape beneath the ash was pretty clear. I reached out gingerly and brushed the ash away, hoping I would startle whoever it was awake.
The body was cold beneath the ash.
“Can you tell who it is?” Claire asked, coming a half-step closer.
“Annie Meyers,” I replied, then wishing I had a way to cover her face back up with a blanket, or the ash. A muffled sob escaped Claire’s lips.
“If we had … “ Claire mumbled.
“Yeah. If we had known, and if we could have found her, and if we could have brought her into the truck—“
“You don’t care that she’s—she’s dead?”
“Of course I care. And I will spend the rest of my life telling myself I should have seen her and picked her up but I’ll also spend my life knowing there’s nothing I can do to change the past.”
“Why are you so cold?”
I stood up and responded angrily, “Cold? Claire, look around you. There are at least three other lumps in the ash about the same size as this one was. I’m not cold, I’m … I’m scared to death!” I was a little surprised at my ability to say it out loud, but once having said it, I knew it was true.
She came over and, putting an arm around me, offered, “Maybe someone else made it to a vehicle.” I nodded and we began to gently step towards the nearest vehicle, an old van owned by Mister Glass.
I pounded on the side of the van and was both startled and relieved to hear a response. The side door of the van slid open and Mister Glass stuck his ash-covered and bespectacled face out into the wind. “Josh? And Claire. How have you survived this long?”
“We were in our truck,” I replied. Claire shined the light into van as I asked, “Did anyone else make it through with you?”
“There are five of us,” Mister Glass replied, stepping outside and looking up in apparent surprise at the moon. “I think the others are asleep, but I haven’t slept a wink. Anyone else make it?”
“We don’t know, yet. We know that, um, Mrs. Meyers didn’t.”
Mister Glass swore lowly, then said, “I got a couple lights. Let’s see if we can find anyone else.”
Howard Glass was a semi-retired electrician from Kansas who had come to the mountains with his wife a decade before. She had died of cancer a couple years after they arrived. He always talked about going back to Kansas, but he also talked about how much he loved the mountains. When he lost his house to one of the fires, we all figured that would be his signal to head back to the flatlands. Instead, he had lived in a trailer while rebuilding and spent many weekends helping with one of the valley’s replanting projects. He still spoke fondly of Kansas, but never mentioned going back there anymore.
Mister Glass picked up one flashlight from the floor of the van, gave his other to Aunt Jenny, and then we began to walk to the other vehicles that had been parked along the road. We spread out a little, but stayed within sight of each other’s lights. Personally, I kept a hand on Claire’s shoulder, telling myself it was for her comfort and safety but knowing it was mostly for my own peace of mind.
The other lumps were just that: lumps, which was an extreme relief. It seemed that everyone from our work party except Annie Meyers had made it into a vehicle. While some people were still having trouble breathing, they were all still alive. As word went around, people began to point fingers in regards to Annie Meyers. Why hadn’t anyone helped her to a car? Why hadn’t anyone looked for her?
“Wait,” Claire interrupted. “How did Annie get here?” Several people grumbled in reply, but Claire stood firm and asked, “All of the rest of us scrambled for the vehicle we came in, right? Who did Annie ride with to get here?”
At varying speeds, we all came to the idea that Claire’s question was a good one. We didn’t immediately have an answer until someone declared, “The Roxons!” As several people, me included, said something interrogative as to what the speaker meant, he (Freddy Wilson) said, “The Roxons were working with us earlier today. Were they still here when the storm hit or had they already left?”
Everyone spoke but no one could remember when the Roxon brothers left, whether Annie might have come with them, or whether she was friendly enough to have ridden with them in the first place. A couple people said they thought they had heard a car moving along the dirt road in the early moments of the storm, but they weren’t for certain and other people were sure they hadn’t heard a vehicle. Someone said, loudly, that it would be just like the Roxon brothers to run off and leave poor Annie to die as they took care of their own skin. Others argued that the Roxons wouldn’t have done that. I stayed silent, remembering how my own moment of selfish panic had only been thwarted by the happy accident of my sister beating me to the truck. I said a prayer of thanks in my mind that I had found her, for if I hadn’t, she might have suffered Annie Meyers’ fate.
Someone said something about how it must be one whale of a forest fire, to be interrupted by Danica Frowley, who said in a tone that brooked no argument, “This is volcanic” as she rubbed (apparently) ash between her fingers.
Someone objected, “We don’t have volcanoes around here!”
Danica happened to be looking at me as she said, “I didn’t say it was around here. It could have come from a hundred miles away, or a thousand. But no forest fire is going to produce this amount of ash—look at the places we’ve been working these last couple years. Somewhere, maybe Capulin down in New Mexico or Krakatoa in Hawaii or one of the Alaskan volcanoes or—somewhere, a volcano blew.”
“This came from the west,” Mister Glass pointed out. “Does that mean it was Alaska?”
“There are volcanoes all along the Pacific rim,” Danica told him. Danica Frowley was a banker from nearby Fairplay who loved to hike in the woods. In her mid-thirties and fairly attractive with her flawless dark skin and lithe frame, I had heard more than one person wonder why she had never married. I had gotten to know her a little on these weekend work parties, but not well enough to have any sort of answer for that question. I had a guess that she was married to her work, but that might have just been nothing more than a guess. “And just because we saw the ash coming from the west doesn’t mean the volcano is in that direction. Did you see how high that wall of ash was? I think it came from the west, too, but at that altitude, the winds can blow differently than—“ She shook her head and said, “That’s neither here nor there. I can’t tell you where the volcano is, but I can tell you this much ash has to be volcanic.”
Since she seemed to know what she was talking about, and as none of us had any better ideas (and agreed with her assessment that this level of ash was beyond any of the fires we had seen in past years), we all turned to her as our authority. “How bad?” Claire asked, receiving nods of agreement from many of us.
Danica thought a moment, then replied, “Depends on where this happened. If we’re right and this came from the west—probably from the Pacific Rim—if it can blow up there and hit us with ash here … then I would think we’ve got to be talking a death toll in the millions.” As we all mouthed the words—twenty-plus of us standing around her—Danica continued, “Seattle, San Francisco, if they were closer to the blast they might be leveled now. And if this set off the San Andreas … “
Aunt Jenny looked at her watch and said, “We felt that first quake at about five-fifty, our time. It was probably, what? Better part of an hour before the wall of ash hit. Then, it was almost five hours before the ash let up enough for us to get out of the vehicles. Does that tell us anything?”
Danica answered, “I have a cousin who’s a geologist. It might mean something to him. I have no idea how far or fast a wall of ash like that could travel. And if there’s a weak spot in the earth’s crust, that might not be the only volcano—others could open up or it might just be the one. Either way, I don’t think this is a good thing.”
“Well,” I said, speaking for the first time in a while and finding the nerve to do so I knew not where, “It seems to me that the thing for us to do now is try to get back to town or to our homes. See if there’s power there and if anyone’s hurt.”
Several people agreed, but someone asked, “What about Annie? Do we just leave her here?”
“Somebody help me get her into the back of my truck. I can take her at least as far as Como.”
“And then what?” Claire objected. “Put her in the barn until someone claims her?”
“It’s either that or leave her out here,” I replied. Did I mention that, as brother and sister, we were often very skilled at pushing each other’s buttons? In the past, we had just been better at keeping it off public display. Of course, we had never had one of these discussions over a dead body before, either.
Claire, in an overly-logical voice I had come to hate over the years, said, “We can either take her into town and bury her or fire up the front end loader over there and bury her now. Either way, the salient point is that she’s dead.” That last word was said with pointed irony that deserves its own special typeface.
“We’ll take her in the truck,” I pronounced somewhat imperiously. “She was Catholic. We can take her to the Catholic Church in Como. Probably people gathering there right now, trying to figure out what to do next.”
Claire clearly wanted to object, but she didn’t interfere when a couple ladies wrapped Annie Meyers in an old blanket and then myself and Freddy loaded her into the back of the pick-up truck. It suddenly registered on me that I was going to be driving around with a dead body in the back of the truck and I wasn’t crazy about the idea but I wasn’t going to tell my sister that. What I said to her was, “Come on. Sooner we can get to the church, the sooner we can get her out of the truck.”
Claire said nothing in response, but got into the cab and slammed the door.
I was relieved when the engine fired up, though I had no reason to think it wouldn’t. I turned on the headlights, but that actually reduced the visibility due to the ash still in the air. I turned off the headlights and switched on the fog lamps and that helped some. I looked in my rearview and saw several other vehicles turning on their lights. I was glad I had parked with the truck pointing down canyon as I watched people behind me do three point turns on the narrow dirt road.
“Why aren’t we moving?” Claire asked, none too happily.
“Just making sure everyone can get their wheels going,” I replied as I slipped our truck into drive.
As we moved out slowly, Claire surprised me by saying, “I’m sorry I argued back there, Josh. I just—I just—I don’t know. I just get a feeling way down in my stomach that Annie’s not the only one who died here this evening and, well, maybe if I can deny she did, maybe no one else did, either.”
“Yeah. I understand.” I looked over at my sister in the glow of the dash-lights before us and headlights behind us and asked, “You think Miss Frowley’s right? Millions dead?”
“Dear God, I hope not,” my sister replied quietly.
At the mouth of the valley, where it opened out onto the larger South Park Valley near the site of what had been the town of Peabody back in the gold rush days, there was less ash. As if the valley we had been in were a large pipe that had blown the ash away from its entrance. But then, as we passed onto the grounds where once had stood the other mining town of Hamilton, the ash started getting thicker. By the edge of Como—itself once a prominent mining town but by this time a burg with an official population of less than fifty people—the ash was six inches deep and, like snow, drifted higher in some places. I was only going about five miles an hour—at the beginning due to visibility but then because the traction was so miserable. I had driven that old truck in snow storms and on ice, but driving on that ash was the least in control I had ever felt in a vehicle. Only a mile down the road and I could already feel the ache in my shoulders from the tense way in which I gripped the wheel.
And then someone started honking their horn and flashing their lights behind us. I came to a stop, panicking for a moment as it seemed like we were just going to keep sliding indefinitely, and then got out. Mister Glass had been right behind me in that old conversion van of his and he was getting out as well. We had started out from the Selkirk with six vehicles in our caravan and now there were only five. “What happened to Miss Frowley and her bunch?” I asked, as if Mister Glass could somehow know more than I did under the circumstance. Rather than snap back pithily, he just shrugged and we started working our way down the line.
At the last car, driven by Freddy, we were told, “I just looked up and Miss Frowley wasn’t behind me. I didn’t see her go off the side or anything.” Freddy was getting out of the car as he said this and began walking back down along the road.
Mister Glass had had the presence of mind to grab one of his flashlights and began to sweep the road and the ditches to either side. We had only gone a couple hundred yards when we found Miss Frowley and the three people with her gathered around her car, the hood up. As we came up closer she said, “I tried honking, but I wasn’t sure if anyone had heard me.”
“What happened?” Freddy asked her.
“Just died on me. I can’t get it started back up.”
Freddy motioned for her to get into the car, then said, “Try again.”
The car made a chugging noise, but wouldn’t engage. Freddy opened up the air intake, took out the filter, and looked at it in the light of Glass’s flashlight. “Full of ash,” Freddy commented, banging the filter against the engine block. Putting it back in place, he motioned for Danica to start the car again. She did, and it came on, but still sounded sluggish.
“This is going to be a problem,” Freddy commented sardonically, to be punctuated by the sound of one of the cars ahead of us honking wildly. As we three set out at a run, Miss Frowley’s passengers jumped in her car and followed us.
The third car in the caravan had been driven by Wlllard Guthrie, who was now standing beside his car and peering under the hood. “Just died. Acts like it’s not getting gas.”
“It’s not getting air,” Freddy told him, and us. “And who knows? The gas line may be clogging up, too.” He looked around and said, “There’s a good chance none of us are going to make it very far this night.”
“Well, let’s go while we can,” Mister Glass said, then we could hear his van dying from where we were. At that moment, Danica pulled up even with the convoy only to have her car die again.