Part 1: Fire
Fire. That's all I can remember. Yellow, orange, red tongues licking the beams of wood, which themselves sprouted tongues to lick upwards, in an endless and unstoppable cycle. The cracking of weakened and blackened wood and the crackle of what is now kindling fill my ears in this memory. A shriek. No a scream, of mortal peril and excruciating pain. I'm not sure if it's my own. Or even if it's just one. For all I know, everyone I've ever known is crying out for help, but I am overcome by the billowing smoke belched forth by the flaming tongues, and succumb to the heaviness in my chest. I can feel a severe, blunt pain in the side of my head.
I bolt upright, and everything goes white. Is this heaven? Has my soul literally left my body and ascended to paradise? My eyes are still blurry with tears that were spilled to combat the smoke, but my chest is light and full of crisp air, relegating the smoke to exactly what it is. A memory. Nearby, I think I see an angel. Her blurry figure is draped in white clothing, and I can see her fair skin and the blonde hair falling to her shoulders. She is singing.
Her song is distant despite her closeness. I can hear it filling my ears. I breathe deeply and slowly as she voices her lyrics. Her voice is like a chime blowing in a delicate wind. The breeze carries the sound into my ears, where it reverberates, harmonizing with my very soul. I think I smile.
But then I realize what the lyrical content of this song truly is.
The angel is calling my name. Not singing it. There is no song.
And the illusion comes crashing down. That is no angel. She is a nurse, dressed in a white uniform, holding a clipboard in her hands. I am not in heaven. I am in a hospital. There are all kinds of things attached to my arms: needles injecting painkillers and medicines, bands measuring my heart rate and blood pressure, and a paper bracelet of the lightest blue around my right wrist. The walls, floor, ceiling, and my sheets are all white.
My chest feels heavy again.
The nurse explains exactly what I fear most. I am in the hospital, being treated for smoke inhalation, minor burns, and a head injury. I have been asleep- no, comatose- for three days. I am on a small amount of morphine.
I ask the nurse about the rest of my family: my mother; my father, the gym leader; my siblings; my father's prized monsters. She looks away, sitting on the side of my bed, down at her knees. Without answering, she stands and steps out the door. This is all the answer I need.
I am not underwater, nor even near anything more substantial than the few drops in the sink nearby. I can hear them, falling from the faucet, plinking against the stainless steel surface. But I feel like I am drowning, am going to drown in my tears if I cannot hold them back.
Father, who worked so hard to build the life I had. Who never turned his back on his ideals. Who never turned a hungry child away empty-handed. Who gave much of his excess earnings away freely. I can still recall the months leading up to his Gym Leader Certification test. Every day, he left with his most trusted Pokémon- Sceptile, Tangrowth, Roserade, and Breloom- and trained himself along with them. He'd disappear into the woods for hours on end, learning to fly on the trees like Sceptile, to feel the vibrations of his opponents underground, like Tangrowth, to set traps and outsmart his enemies like Roserade, and to strike hard and fast, like Breloom.
Every day, Father would come home from his training, drenched in his own sweat, smelling of the woods, in a tattered white shirt and khaki shorts, which Mother always repaired.
Mother was just as hard a worker. When Father went out to train, it fell to her to hold the house together. She cooked, bathed my siblings, and read to them until they fell asleep. She ushered me to the bathroom to shower and went off to mend Father's worn clothing. When Father returned each day, she greeted him with open arms, undaunted by the cuts, scrapes, and sweat. She occasionally applied first-aid. She had her own Pokémon who helped out as well, though Tropius was much too large to live inside. She harvested the fruit that grew from his neck, only on special occasions allowing me to climb onto Tropius's back to grab at the sweet berries that hung there. Sometimes, on hot summer evenings, Mother would open the windows and Tropius would flap her wings, sending cool breezes through the house, carrying the scent of those berries with them.
The house always smelled like them.
The two young ones were too small to be anything other than a burden on Mother and Father, but they loved them all the same. They caused trouble, climbing into chairs and knocking things off the kitchen table, spreading a mess wherever they went. They couldn't help it, though. They were just babies at the time.
Father's exam came, and we all dressed in the nicest clothing we could afford on Father's salary. He was a construction worker, so it wasn't much. But we all dressed properly, with my siblings wearing matching denim overalls and light blue one-piece undershirts, me wearing jeans and a red and blue-striped button-up shirt, and Mother wearing an elegant yellow dress the color of the early spring sun, with pink flowers growing around the bottom.
Father aced the examination that day, receiving two nines and a ten from the judges. They were particularly impressed with his own strength, wit, and agility. Father seemed surprised, but accepted their offer of a job.
When Father became the gym leader, money from challengers came pouring in. Everyone wanted a chance at Father, who became known as the “Jungle Man”. A few defeated him, but those days were few and far-between. Eventually, the steady stream of challengers dried to a trickle, and Father made most of his money participating in exhibition matches against other renowned gym leaders, such as Falkner of Violet City in Johto, or Crasher Wake from Sinnoh. The Pokémon League held these exhibition matches once every few months, and they were a very popular attraction, earning millions at every event, though Father only received a few thousand.
It was enough, however, and soon, Mother and Father were able to save enough to plant a garden in the back yard. I can still see the Volbeat and Illumise performing their hypnotic dance from the back porch, the odd Zigzagoon here and there, even a few Shroomish every now and then. The Taillow would sing happily during the late spring and early summer days, and Father would lay on his hammock hung between two old oak trees in the yard, watching the sky change from blue to black and the tiny white pinpricks of the stars revolve through the sky.
This garden was where Father kept his Pokémon. Not in their capsules, as intended. Sceptile often dozed off in Father's hammock, swinging gently in the wind. Tangrowth would ascend a tree, wrapping its grasping vines around the trunk and branches. Roserade would tend to the flowers, fruits, and vegetables, using her poisonous powders to keep away the gnawing bugs. Breloom would pick a different tree every evening and ram its hard head against the trunk repeatedly. This was a source of amusement for me and my siblings. We would sit on the porch watching Breloom headbutt his current tree until he made himself dizzy and fell over. This always brought laughter.
But those days are over now. They are all dead. Even my siblings. Even Father, who seemed so invincible after all his training. I am the only one left.
I shut my eyes tight, hoping that this is all a dream. But I know it is not. Opening my eyes confirms this. Regardless, I do it several more times. Each attempt produces the same results.
Who, though? What kind of person would do such a thing?
The flames continue to flicker in my mind, and my lungs sting with the memory of smoke weighing them down. I lift the covers off my leg, pull back the hospital gown, and am almost overcome by an urge to vomit. My thigh and calf are covered in black, dead skin, red welts, and white blisters. I pull my hospital gown back over it and throw the covers back into place.
I clutch my head in my hands as the reality sinks in. They are gone. I was almost gone.
The nurse returns with a solemn expression on her face. In her hands is a single Poké Ball, a single red and white capsule meant to contain a Pokémon for extended periods of travel. Without a word, she drops it onto the bed beside me.
Though Father never used it, I recognize it immediately by the green “S” in the red portion just above the release button.
Almost all of us are dead.