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Grade
11

The traffic light shifted from red to green.

Elra sat on the yellow median crossed legged, watching the box sway slowly in the wind.

There was not a soul in sight, no cars as far as the eye could see, not a house, not a tree, not a blade of grass. The landscape was an ocean of black ash layered on chalky dirt, with little movement save the distant slopes of hills on the horizon.

Behind them the sun was sinking.

Cupping a small chin in the palm of an equally small hand, the girl stared at the yellow traffic light, which gazed squarely back at her through three long-lidded eyes.

The light flitted to yellow, then after a short pause to red.

It’s moving fast.”

The voice whispered through the wind and drifted past her ears, beckoning forth the suppressed memories.

It’s moving fast.”

It’ll be here soon.”

It’s moving fast.”

A small tongue slid between the lips of the tight mouth. An unexpected gust of wind tore at the strands of brown hair hanging loose around the girl’s shoulders, trying to pick her up along with the ashes and carry her away.

 It’s time to go.”

Aren’t you coming?”

It’s moving fast.”

It’s moving fast. There was the faintest trace of a smile in the eyes of the girl as the light lazily shifted back to green, ushering forward a host of invisible masses. An invisible police man stood beneath it, waving his arms, pushing invisible people forward and forward. Invisible lights blared, invisible voices shouted. Horns honked and slowly a grey cloud sank to the ground, falling like a blanket over the shoulders of a sleeping child.

The light was red. The scene melted back into the grey sky, its only source of color coming from the muffled rays of the sinking sun. They were tinted green, a bright, lime green, that shot through the smog in individual rays and hurt the eyes. Not Elra’s eyes though. Their only concern was the traffic light.

Aren’t you going to come with us?”

Don’t you need to find somewhere safe?”

“It’s moving fast.”

The winds persisted, the voices on them rising. The air formed fingers that pulled at Elra, dragging her through her past and into an unstoppable tidal wave of people that filled the streets and spilled into the hills. The sound of her racing footfalls had synchronized with those around her, creating one pounding rhythm. Adrenaline pumped through her, slamming her heart into her ribcage with such force that she feared it would break loose and abandon her. Everyone seemed to have the same idea. Voices and screams and cries for help were lifted into the chorus of explosions and things crashing to the ground, until it was all one collective sound of destruction. Through watering eyes Elra watched the ashes fall from the sky like corrupted snowflakes; sears of heat angrily lashed out at her from each side. Ever present in the background were the thundering booms that shook the ground and mocked their petty attempts of escape. Their ever growing proximity was a perpetual reminder that there would be none.

            Still they pressed forward. Body up against body. The air was hot from the fire and the panting breaths of thousands of mouths breathing in unison. The person before Elra fell and did not get up. Then the person beside. Slowly the road turned into an obstacle course of bodies. As the crowds thinned, those left shifted into a sprint. The thick air and suffocating heat slowly dissipated as they pulled out of the crumbling city. Slowly the herd slowed to a halt and looked around with wide eyes, bracing themselves for more danger. Elra had turned and looked behind her, the rest presently following suit. Behind them was nothing to be seen except for a wall of black that rolled toward them with the air of a wave breaking over the shore in slow motion. And as the first sighs of relief were heard throughout the group, the world exploded into a flash of red.

Red. The light was red. Slowly the visions faded and Elra remembered where she was. Her gaze still didn’t shift from the light, but she was aware of her surroundings. Aware of the last tip of the sun that gave one final attempt to light the world before being pulled under. Aware of the black sky, the sky that had been black ever since everything had started, the sky Elra doubted would ever be blue again.

There was one last streak of green in it, an unnaturally bright green with the air of having been placed there by the careless swipe of a painter’s brush. The traffic light blushed green in its own imitation and the final colorful flare was extinguished with the sun.

The darkness fell heavier than the ashes. Elra stared at the yellow box that did its best to penetrate the blackness. It could have been a beacon, could have been a comfort, but all Elra felt was a pit of dread slowly settling in her stomach.

The perfectly circular green eye gazed back at Elra without blinking. She engaged the light in a staring contest gladly, yet after a time the green circle seemed to grow before her eyes until her vision was filled with green, a magnificent, pulsating, bright green. Then she gave in and blinked, and the light was just a light again.

The green stayed for minutes. Something in Elra felt unsettled. The cycle was engrained in her, part of her natural rhythms, and now it had suddenly changed, as though frozen by the disappearance of the sun. Three minutes stretched into five, then into ten, and the light didn’t change.

We can live forever.

Elra remembered her vision clearing after the explosion. What had felt like the weight of the world rested on her chest.

Mankind will prevail no matter what the disaster. We have created the indestructible human.

She had shoved aside the rock and rubble, startled by her own strength. Pulling herself out of the pile of debris, she had stared around her.

Of course, we can’t make 15 billion invincible humans. Resources and moral obligations wouldn’t agree with that.

Red, red everywhere. Red on the road, red on the rocks, red on the lumps of ash that had once been trees. Elra shut her eyes, not allowing herself to look at the sources of all the red.

The scientist smiled at the camera and adjusted his suit jacket. But rest assured. Should destruction come, two will remain to rise above the calamity and continue our race.

Elra had shouted and screamed. The only response was the echo of her own hoarse voice, and that in and of itself was distant and muted. She had taken off at a sprint. The hills around her were leveled, the valleys where cities had stood were black plateaus of ash.

We won’t know who they are until the day comes, the man had continued with the same happy smile. But when the day does come, two ordinary people will rise from the ashes and save us all.

Elra remembered standing in her kitchen as the public service announcement came to a close. She had turned to her mother with a thoughtful frown.

“I’d feel bad for whoever those two are.”

Her mother’s amused smile had sent warmth tingling through Elra. “You may be the only one not wishing it to be yourself.”

Elra had run on without stopping. Her legs seemed to have gained unnatural strength and the blazing heat and thick rain of ashes seemed to have no effect on her.

This is it, the scientist had told them with an uncharacteristic note of seriousness, just before leaving the screen. This is the final step for mankind. Through these individuals, humans can finally be one with technology and remain forever, unrivaled and unchanging. It is finally our turn to determine the cycles of life. And we chose to live.

There was no life. No green, not a plant peeping from the ground or animal chirping through the rubble. Her eyes had blurred with tears as she ran until she didn’t know where she was going anymore.

Then she had seen the traffic light.

It was still green. Elra resurfaced from her memories with a tiny shudder. The light was green, it had been green for maybe half an hour now. It was wrong. A pulse of anxiety began to throb in her head. The cycle couldn’t just end like that. The green couldn’t just last forever, the cars couldn’t just move beneath it in a stream that never ended. That single shade of green couldn’t pierce the sky for all eternity without ever changing.

In the distance there was a noise, like that of footfalls approaching. The sound hardly reached Elra’s ears. Her gaze was riveted on the light, her muscles tense and her jaw clenched.

The footfalls grew nearer.

“Come on,” Elra muttered under her breath. “Come on.”

“Hello?”

The voice failed to penetrate Elra’s whirling thoughts.

“Change already!” she shouted at the light, getting to her feet. “Change!” Her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands.

“Hey.” The voice belonged to a male, of age similar to her. “Are you...”

“It’s not changing.”

“My name’s Zack.” The boy offered a hand which was ignored by Elra, whose gaze was still riveted on the light. “I assume that you’re the other... the one...” his voice died on his lips. “What are you staring at?”

“The light isn’t changing.” Elra’s voice had dropped to a horrified whisper.

Zack seemed to notice the swinging box for the first time.

“That's weird,” he frowned. “I mean, it must have its own power grid or something, because there's nothing else working anywhere...” Zack's brow puckered and he tapped the side of his head in confusion. “Weird.”

“The cycle stopped.” There was a trembling in Elra's voice. “The cycle can't just stop.”

Zack looked at the light for a moment, biting his lip.

“Hey,” he said in decidedly cheerful voice. “At least it stopped on green! We can take it as a symbol... green for life and a new beginning—that's what we are, isn't it?”

“Green for death.” Elra muttered. “We're as unnatural as it is.”

“Hey,” Zack's voice softened. “Don't worry-”

“It's a fake green.” A hint of anger entered Elra's voice. It grew as she continued. “A fake, unnatural green. It can't replace the green that was here before.”

“Don't worry about it,” Zack soothed, stepping in front of her. “Just look at me, okay? The light doesn't matter. What's your name? You still haven't told me.” He touched her arms and the girl jolted slightly, her eyes still trained on the light. “Just forget about the green. Look at me.”

Elra turned her eyes to him, and as she did, the light before her faded, the green dissolving into the black of night.

The darkness pressed harder upon the two, but as the traffic light dimmed, another light grew. Elra's eyes glowed, the intensity mounting until they were two fluorescent bulbs of piercing lime green. Zack stepped back in alarm, his hand leaving Elra.

Just as swiftly, the green dimmed. As the lights went out in her eyes, her body went slack and she fell to the ground.

For a moment there was silence, then from the palm of one hand a slender battery rolled smoking onto the ground.