idol prize fight | week 17 #2 | 1375 words
The sounds you hear when your back is turned are the only truth. The world is a house of mirrors, and we wander it lost and dead on our feet.
Those who sleep are unlikely to survive.
We have all made that mistake, once or even twice, with some of us losing everything. I am Rosella, once a sister, a daughter, but now simply alone.
It has been two years.
Each of us thinks we know the secret to staying alive, but skill and luck often wear the same mask. What was the last thing you heard before the screams? Who disappeared while you tried to understand what you were seeing?
Those who first saw our enemies said they came from over the mountains. They looked like some kind of weather event then, where the air seemed empty and yet it shimmered like a mirage in motion.
It was eerie and beautiful, until one of those pockets of strangeness raced toward a man standing in the open. It closed over him, snatching him away into some kind of horrible nothingness.
He was there one minute and gone the next. Forever. There was nothing left to bury.
His wife still cries at night, the first to be betrayed.
We are careful, so very careful, and always watching, always listening. We take cover at night, hiding in cars and buildings whenever we can. These monsters could be anywhere. We can't really see them. We might see the wrongness that reveals them, if we are lucky. If there is light.
When it is dark, there is no hope at all.
How do they find us? We have never been sure. Do they see us? Do they hear us? Do they track our heat? Our scent?
We could protect ourselves better if we knew, but we can only guess. No one is even sure that we can hear them.
Those people who were near someone who was Taken… was there a sound? Or are they remembering the rush of blood in their ears when they saw it, the sound of their own screams? Or worse, the choked terror escaping the poor person being wrenched from this world into the void?
It is a horrible question, and no one wants to be in the position of finally knowing the truth.
We are safer in groups. Someone always watches at the front, at the back, and side to side. My group is strong and smart, fully dedicated to keeping us all alive. Each of us has lost someone. We are desperate to stop that from happening again…
It is winter now, the worst part of this After. We must build fires against the cold, but their light is dangerous. We only risk it inside curtained houses or the deep windowless cores of buildings. We have all heard rumors of Takings that happened in the glow of flames.
So many rumors… They may kill us all someday, these things we think we know.
Food has been the hardest problem since the world fell apart. We raided empty stores and houses for food and supplies, staying put until the area grew tapped out and forced us onward. Some people moved deeper into the city, but we thought the woods might be safer, with their dense cover and maze of trees. We worked our way toward them, moving faster and gathering extra food as the leaves started dying. Now, we are holed up in a house at the edge of the forest while the snow lasts. Months of hunting and preserving meat helped, and we still set snares and traps in hopes of finding more. But there is little to catch in winter.
Our food supplies are low.
I go hunting with Butch and Daniel and Alex one morning, when the snow lets up. I hate every part of this, but I never say it. No one cares—we all do what we must to stay alive.
It is risky hunting in pairs, but larger groups draw the attention of our prey. I partner with Daniel, who keeps watch over the two of us while I look for game. It is so quiet I can hear the crunch of my footsteps in the snow. I move slowly, letting the sound die off between steps.
I catch a glimpse of something in the trees ahead, a twitch of movement. I edge closer with soft, smooth steps, gun raised as I approach. There, a large patch of light brown fur. I stop, take aim and—
What was that?
I whip around just as Daniel's feet disappear into nothingness, and my breath catches. Daniel, No!
Then I run.
Oh god, oh god. I dart through the trees, zig-zagging around them as I rush back toward the house, faster, faster. I don't understand, we've been so careful—every waking minute, so goddamned careful—and Daniel was my rock. How could he—
I stumble and fall, landing face-down in the snow.
No! Coughing and spluttering, I scramble to my feet and start running again. Oh god, what if that was it? What if my whole fate came down to one stupid, clumsy moment? What if—
There. I see the house.
I run as fast as I can, flying up the stairs and through the door. Everyone is startled at first, until they notice I am empty-handed and alone.
Then they know, the way you always know, and we cry for Daniel until we are broken and exhausted and have no tears left to shed.
The next few days are rough. Daniel was a friend to everyone, and his death hits hard. We all lost a piece of ourselves along with him, and with every friend Taken before.
How long will it be until there is nothing left?
Butch and Alex killed a deer on that terrible morning, so we have enough meat to last for a while. But our firewood supplies are getting low. Three of us have to go out as a team to gather more.
This is so much harder in winter. The forest floor is covered in snow, burying any fallen wood we could gather quickly. We have to cut down what we need now, and it is slow and loud and torturous.
Javon wields the axe while Zaria and I keep watch. He chops into a tree only four or five inches thick, the most we can drag back to the house in one trip. I scan the area around us, back and forth, back and forth. Zaria stands on the other side of the tree, her back to me as she does the same.
This always takes too long—it feels like forever. Every second shifts the odds closer to getting caught. My heart is already pounding, the backs of my legs throbbing and itching with the urge to just run.
"Hurry," I whisper, even though Javon knows—we all know.
He moves to the other side of the tree, making the thinner cut. I hear the axe stick a couple of times, hear Javon's breath hitch as he pulls it out. My eyes are moving faster now, checking side-to-side in rapid sweeps as I listen for the creaking sound that comes just before a tree begins to fall. Come on, come on, come—
"Run!" Zaria shouts.
I bolt without looking. Oh god, not again! Spiky prickles race across my back as I run, sick with panic.
Javon passes me, axe gone, and I hear the crunching, scuffling sound of Zaria somewhere behind me. New snow has fallen, and it makes it so much harder to move. My feet sink into the snow with every step, and I drag them out over and over again. Why is the house so damned far away? It was right there, we hardly left it!
My heartbeat pulses up out of my throat. Hurry up! Faster!
I feel like I’m slowing down—it's such a struggle to go any quicker. Come on, Rosie, move! The house is closer, but there's still so much distance to cover. Oh god, what if I don't make it?
Faster, Rosie, faster!
Just a few yards more, I'm almost there…
Faster, don't let them get you, don't let them—
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.