I awoke to the day I died, which was more than I expected. Pungent blades of grass tickled my cheek. I inhaled its moist earthiness, but feared it would disappear and I would be back in the hell I had left behind—along with my life.
Steeled for disappointment, I rolled onto my back, but my eyes were met by blue sky. A small bird flew overhead, followed by another and then another. I sat up. There shouldn’t be birds. Not anymore. Had I truly found my way to heaven? Not only were there grass and clouds and birds, but tree leaves rippled in the breeze and wildflowers speckled the meadow in which I laid.
I had to be dead for I knew no place like this existed anymore. Not where I came from. Not where dust choked the atmosphere on the best of days and dimmed the sun even at midday. Not where we eked out a miserable existence trying to nurture what could not grow without water or light or insects.
This had to be heaven though I doubted my worthiness. Perhaps my last act had delivered me here. The dark cloud had rushed toward me behind a percussion of wind. I knew it would mean my death for there was nowhere to go. I had trapped myself outside the bunker to manually seal it, the remote locking mechanism fouled by the constant dust. I knew the price. My life was the only thing I had left to lose, unlike those huddled inside.
And yet I was alive and unhurt. If the bunker or the scorched earth ever existed here, both were now gone, hidden perhaps by the life around me.
Wood snapped with ominous volume from the nearest stand of trees. A flock of the birds erupted into the sky and a lone deer bolted into the clearing soon after. My inner voice screamed at me to flee from anything that would approach with such disregard. I resisted until a motley group of animals burst through the tree line. They were larger than any animal should be, and their eyes held an eerie, cruel intelligence that told me their intentions were no more admirable than those who had killed me the first time. I ran.
I managed to stay ahead of them, but just. I dodged and darted between trees, not unlike the deer, and with the same urgency. The same fear. A downward slope sped my feet until it leveled out at a wide river. My frayed skirt floated on the water’s surface as I waded in. The river was too swift for me to cross or swim, but I desperately hoped my pursuers would fear it for the same reason. I was wrong. They stepped into the water, forcing me deeper into the grip of the current where something slid against my leg. It occurred to me then that, unlike the dead rivers I knew, this one might be home to creatures far more dangerous than the animals. I prayed the river would take me first.
Instead, the lengthy, undulating body of a serpent surged toward the animals. They fled as if water had turned caustic. The serpent’s bone-pale body coiled back on itself in the shallows as it raised its horned head above the water to survey the prey banished to the shore. And then it spoke.
“If you wish to live, you must come with me.”
The serpent retreated back toward me. As it did so, the animals waded into the water again.
“Hurry,” urged the serpent as it circled me in the water.
I grabbed the horns on either side of its head and dragged myself onto its ridged back, my legs hugging its sides as it surged forward with the river current. The animals were not so easily deterred. They raced along the shoreline, but the serpent easily out-paced them. The land soon fell away as the river emptied into a broad bay.
“You need to take a deep breath and hold on tightly,” said the serpent, looking back at me. “Can you do that?”