She sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of the small shack. Dressed in torn rags that were the gray-brown color of dirt and dust. Her hazel eyes shone bright peering out from her dirty face. Her long matted hair, light brown when clean, now the same gray-brown tint of her clothes. In front of her, on the floor was a small, empty bowl. She stared at it, motionless, willing it to be filled with food, but there would be none today.
The shack was a small one room hovel. There were blankets spread out on one side for a makeshift bed. Light shown through a lone window behind her casting her shadow over the bowl. Daylight could be seen through the spacing between the boards that made up the walls. The wind rattled the door, setting it to a perpetual tapping. It was little more than a piece of metal roofing tied to the frame and looked as if it might blow away with a strong gust.
Her name was Ad’drea, once she lived with her mother and father, but they had been taken a year ago, or was it longer. The time had blurred the way it does when time doesn’t matter, when your life depends on nothing less. She had been alone since and that too blurred time. Passing the days hidden from those that would take her too, trying to find food, water, some respite. Time was nothing. She moved through it as through air, the molecules inconsequential compared to the light cutting through them. Light that might report her presence. Light that might betray her to those who must not find her.
Life wasn’t always like this. Once Ad’drea lived in a vibrant village where everyone looked after each other. Her life seemed full of possibilities then, but that was so long ago, if it ever was at all. And there was time again, blurring the very reality of her life. That time, long ago, that fantastical time filled with hope and promise, it didn’t matter. It had blown away on the gust of wind that brought the darkness, the darkness that lived in the light. Now. Now was the only time that mattered and now there was only the constant search for food and the fear of being taken.
As the last of the daylight slipped away, the room began to darken. Slowly, Ad’drea stood up and moved towards the blankets. She had nothing to light the room with and there was always the fear that any light might draw them. She covered herself with the blankets and stared up at the ceiling. Her eyes adjusted with the fading light that dimmed across her face catching in her tears and shining like dying stars.
How had everything gone so wrong? What was the point of continuing to struggle? She thought she would probably kill herself in the morning, but this was just all part of the routine. Every night she drifted off to sleep with that hopeful fantasy and every morning she awoke without the strength to go through with it.
The landscape was mostly barren. The occasional scrub bush dotted the view. Dust swirled in the constant breeze. Little eddies made small tornadoes that appeared and vanished in an instant. What once had been a lush forest was now a wasteland. This was the world that Ad’drea woke to every morning. She knew the lay of the land and were essentials like water could be found, most of the time, but it was never a certainty. She knew enough about math to know it was not on her side, if things aligned in the worst way…but, no, she could not think like that.
Still, the thoughts came, and it all came back to time. It was only a matter of time before she chanced upon them, the darkness in the light. It was only a matter of time before she journeyed to the water and the water wasn’t there. Then she’d have to go further and further still. She didn’t know how far she’d have to go then, but each step away diminished her chances of returning. Alone in this world it was only a matter of time before her luck ran out. But then, even with others, there was nothing she could really hope for. No others from her village survived, her parents hadn’t survived, what good would others do, besides provide someone to mourn for, or someone to mourn for her?
She forced her mind away from the thoughts. They were the work of the darkness, she knew. Instead she focused on the tasks at had. Time was never a friend, it was a trap that consumed her past and future. It was a distraction that exposed her. It brought the darkness down upon her. Her only hope was to be sharp in the present, focused on food and water and remaining unnoticed.
She left her shack with a small bag to harvest food and two ancient containers for water. She never found that much, but it kept her spirit up to hope she might. The food she harvested were insects, the only things left that were edible. These too were becoming more difficult to find and subsequently, the bag was always a little lighter after each forage.
The last time she left she headed east and found less than a days supply. As a result she stared at an empty bowl and cried herself to sleep. It was the hunger pains as much as it was futility of her struggle, yet still she struggled.
This time she planned on going west. The water was farther that way, but the bugs always seemed more plentiful. It was the scrub brush that still thrived there. It provided the only shelter from the sun that had baked away all other life. Poisonous, thick scrub with needles for thorns, one prick resulted in an itchy rash that only got worse when scratched. All of that was the least of her concern though. The abundance of life meant there would be an abundance of them.
West wasn’t her first choice to be sure, it wasn’t even her choice at all. Yesterday had proved out that east had become as barren as north and south. West wasn’t a choice, it was her only option. An option that hinted at the obvious reality she tried so hard to ignore. She couldn’t say here any longer. She was being flushed out of the only place she knew, the only place she associated, however irrationally, with safety. She gathered her things and headed west.
The going was slow, as she knew it would be. Her ears were tuned, listening for the familiar sound of their approach. When they first came to the village, no one knew that darkness or light made a sound. No one knew what to listen for. She survived because she learned. Whatever they were, shadows in the sunlight, they weren’t silent. Far from it really. The noise they made was always just on the edge of hearing, but once it was heard it couldn’t be forgotten. Like a raspy high pitched screaming from a distant room. Like sand pressed firm and scraping against glass or nails down a chalkboard, barely close enough to hear. It was far even when they were near, as though it never grew louder or softer, it just was.
Ad’drea had trained herself to listen for it, to run from it, to hide if possible. She had learned that they didn’t chase their prey, if that’s what she was to them. They were more like roaming Venus flytraps. They sought to trap those they took and all that required was the slightest contact with them. She wasn’t sure they could see, at least not in the way she thought of seeing, but something drew them, guided them, to life.
She was almost at to the water and thought herself lucky. The rags she wore were thick enough to keep the needles from her skin, she had draped a blanket around her like a cloak for an added layer of protection, and her insect bag was nearly full. Best of all she heard nothing.
It wasn’t until she reached the water that she realized it was another cruel joke. The water was gone. The spot she knew so well and had relied on for so long was bone dry. She kicked at the hard packed earth and little more than a small cloud of dust stirred. Then she fell hard on her ass as if all the strength in her legs gave out at once. She knew the food would sustain her for at least a couple of days, but without water after two she was dead. She wanted to scream and cry, but held back. The former would draw them and the latter was a waste of what precious little water her body had left.
Instead she sat there looking out at the waste before her. Sitting up, her head was just higher than the tallest scrub and for a moment the thought of how awful it would be to be pricked by one of the needles that were only inches from her face.
It was midday now, the trips west always took the better part of the day and this one took even longer in her weaker, hungry state. Time, she mused in her mind, it’s come to consume my present as much as my past and future, but she knew it wasn’t time’s fault. She really blamed the light. While they were dangerous in the light, in the darkness they were fatal. Both her parents had been taken in at night, not because they couldn’t hear them, but because the darkness was the perfect camouflage. In the bright sun you could at least see something, some tiny discoloration, some tint that had no right to be tinted, some darkness in the light, but it the darkness, all you heard was the faint constant shriek. A noise that meant that they could be a hundred feet away or two feet way. A sound that didn’t tell you if they were in front of you or behind. She sat there thinking about the absence of choices and wondered if this was the end.
She knew she couldn’t go back, the trip would take her to the edge of light with no more water than she started with. Going forward might lead to water, but no shelter she knew of and even then, which way? Every way but east was an unknown, but the unknown was her only option. Staying here was as good as going back for all the water it got her, so for the moment she just stared off, listening, always listening, but at the same time taking in the wasteland and its boring desolation.
When she rose, she did so slowly. She had eaten, because the hunger pains in her stomach were getting worse, but the sudden rich food only caused cramping that made her midsection feel like it was tearing apart as she straightened. She staggered at first, before her muscles began to free up and allow more careful walking. West. West was the best choice because it was no choice at all. It was the decision she made that morning due to a lack of options and it was the direction she continued now.
Ad’drea couldn’t say how long she had been walking when she first heard them. The sun was much lower in the sky before her, but that meant nothing. When the sound came, very little meant anything at all. She looked around frantic, eyes scanning for any hint of unusual darkness. She didn’t see them, couldn’t see them, yet. When the sound came, the only thing to do was stand frozen in place. Those running in a panic could never see the subtle shift in light that betrayed their presence. So she stood, waiting for the sound to go or the shadow in the sunlight to appear.
When she saw it, she began to move away. The shade seemed to dance this way and that, as if chasing an unseen butterfly, grasping after it with erratic movement that seemed to ebb and flow. Once she moved far enough off she turned around to run, but suddenly there was another ten feet from her. She backed away from it, glancing behind her as she did to see where the first had gone. It was still dancing this way and that, never moving directly towards her, but never away either. This second one was moving more calmly. It headed straight towards her, but slowly, slower than she stumbled backwards, but fast enough that she couldn’t stop without being overtaken. She tried to change direction, she went left to escape the path of the second and deflect from the first. It seemed to work. The second shade headed past her, towards the first and she took just a moment to observe what would happened if the two contacted each other.
Before her eyes she watched as the second shade reached the first. They merged, seeming to hold each other for just a moment, and then they separated again. Having seen more than enough she turned away and fled again.
Ad’drea had only gotten fifty feet before she saw more of them. Her eyes grew wide as she took in the sight. The breath went out of her in a gust and she felt the tears start. Before her there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. In the faltering light of what was late afternoon, the congregation of shades seemed to dim the world to total darkness. There were so many of them now, so close, she could feel them. She didn’t need to turn to know they were behind her now, cutting off any escape. She didn’t need to listen to hear their distinctive shrieking sound, all of them sang in chorus. Ad’drea fell to the ground for a second time, her face buried in her hands as she cried in heavy sobs.
It was cold when the shade touched her, like ice that froze her very soul. She felt nothing after that, saw nothing, heard nothing. All there was, was darkness, silence, cold. For a moment. Then things started to change. The world seemed to return, although blurry, like seen from the inside of a bubble surrounded by water. Oh sweet water, her thirst still pressed its deep yearning on her mind, and something about that told her she was still alive.
She watched as the world she knew, the wasteland, began to change. It was slow at first, then faster, then faster still. Everything seemed to be moving in reverse, although it could have been blazing forward, time again was irrelevant, but it seemed like it was somehow relinquishing her past, or future.
She watched as the barren lands were retaken by life. The scrub brush grew more vibrant and other other shrubs grew up around it. Unseen seeds sprouted saplings that turned to poles turned to trees in just moments. The sun that shone down baking the hardpan, was suddenly covered by a thick canopy of leaves. The world that was so silent, but for their shrieking sound, now came alive with the sound of birds and insects, frogs and squirrels. She marveled at the life, at the wonder, and knew she must be dreaming or dead, but she watched, greedily at the evolution before her.
It wasn’t long before the transmutation from scorched earth to lush paradise was beginning to slow and it was then that she saw the first signs of humanity. More tears filled her eyes when she recognized their faces, faces long dead and buried in the recesses of her mind.
Finally time surrendered to its normal progression and the bubble that seemed to separate her from the world disappeared. She took her first steps into the village that had sprung up before her, a village that she remembered so clearly now, but couldn’t say how long it’d been gone. Looking out at the people, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, a realization finally started to dawn.
“Ad’drea?” A familiar voice asked from behind.
She turned, the stunned look on her face melting into an uncontrollable smile, the tears now streaming down her face were accentuated by the clean skin left in their wake contrasted with the ever present dirt of a world now gone.
“Mom!” She cried as they embraced, and somewhere in some burnt desolate wasteland, two shades merged as one twirling around for a moment before stopping just to marvel at one another.