The Last Strawberry of Summer | McKenzie Richardson

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"It's just a hot spell," Gerald had told me when the days first turned dry and scorching. He had also said, "We will not surrender," the day before the army invaded.

But when I heard the rhythmic marching of the oncoming soldier's feet, my heart beat faster than their steps. When I saw them descend on the city like a wave of death, I choked on the wave of my own fear.

And when a soldier burst through the door of the building where Gerald and I were stationed, gun raised, ready to fire, I ran; I ran and never looked back.

I hid for two days in an abandoned shed, until my tongue became shriveled and hard inside my mouth, and I was forced to search for water.

When a fellow rebel saw me in the street, he rejoiced. "I thought we'd found all the survivors."

We drove back to the stronghold where others were conjugated. Upon our arrival, an old woman pressed a plump, red strawberry into our hands. "A reward for your bravery." The man ate his thankfully. I held onto mine.

The redness of it dazzled my eyes as bile rose in my throat. It matched the blood that had washed over our city, all in the name of freedom.

After a brief rest, we were sent out again to scavenge for guns. Guns from the dead, ours and theirs.

I made my way back to the building where Gerald and I had waited. Ignoring the bullet holes in the walls and what they meant, I entered, still holding that bright red berry that I could not eat.

There was the gun I had left behind.

Right next to Gerald's body.

My heart tightened in my chest; my throat constricted.

Those two days I spent in hiding, I thought of Gerald. I hoped and prayed that he'd made it out. But deep down inside, I knew I had left him to die.

It was impossible to ignore the sound of gunshots that had filled my head as I ran away. Or the face missing among those who remained.

I looked down at his mangled form, his bullet-ridden chest, his left cheek smashed to pieces by the butt of a rifle. I looked down at the ugliness of violence, of human hatred, guilt churning my empty stomach.

I knelt beside his body, reaching out my berry-stained hand.

It was amazing how beautiful the fruit was, its resilience against the drought. Against all possible odds, it had overcome and thrived.  It had battled the heatwave and won.

I pulled the gun from Gerald's stiff fingers, replacing it with the berry.

"For your bravery." My voice cracked, my words inadequate even to my own ears.

Picking up the guns, Gerald's words rang in my ears. Sweat ran down my back in the summer heat.

"It's just a hot spell," Gerald had said. "We will not surrender."

I ran back to our rebellion. I ran and I never looked back.

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