Winner of the 2015 LSSU High School Short Story Prize
From under the cover of the rocky hill a long expanse of shade yawns out, slowly claiming back the land from the burning light. Anxious breaths and shudders echo all around the stones as the much anticipated darkness arrives. We have finally come of age, my kin and friends and I, and we have been told to leave the Center to find our own places to settle down. If we cannot find a new home or food we can always attempt to return to the Center, where food is abundant and partners are available. If we all stayed at the Center the supplies would run out.
There are more of us out there, others who had come of age and left. Some have established homes already, and once the nourishment runs out at the Center, the Center will move to their homes. That is the goal of every soul departing from the Center tonight: to one day host it in your own home with a partner at your side, sharing in the glory.
Finally the sun’s hideous glare is absent and our swift legs take to the ground. We race away from the Center, enthusiasm in every step. No care is taken to stay together; in fact we all try to separate from each other, and as the distance between us and the Center grows, so does the distance between each of us, until I can no longer see them along side of me, nor the rocky hills of the Center. Those I held close are gone now, lost on their own paths. Instead of my friends’ restless movements, brown, grainy sand shifts endlessly around me.
Brown gives way to black as I run, and slowly the black becomes unbreakable, reflective sheets of obsidian glass. The glassy expanse does not last long and my bare feet sound louder on it than on the grains surrounding it. It is almost as though the sun scorched the land here until the sand baked black and solid and smooth. Too soon, light begins to bubble up on the horizon as I leave the valley of glass, but there is nowhere for me to hide, no cover to shelter me. At the Center there was always cover to take, behind large rocks, and in the homely caves that lined the hills. We took great care in avoiding all forms of light. But there is no shelter here.
I run a little faster. We were told in the Center that the light is safe now, but old habits are hard to break and I certainly feel a greater sense of protection in the dark. I do not want to spend the day in the exposed and flaming heat of the sky. Bright beams slice through the air and cut the ground just behind my fleeing feet.
No. I can’t let it catch me! I soar over the ground, looking ahead for something, anything that could provide me with enough cover to block out the harsh light of day. But it is too late, and sharp knives of light cover the ground, turning the world into a boiling orb of yellow. I screw my eyes shut against it. Today I will have to spend in the ocean of light, exposed to any passerby. Carefully squinting I curl up in a patch of dark sand, and close my eyes tightly against the barrage of brilliance. A cocoon of heat envelops me as I drift into an uneasy sleep.
The light buries itself in the sand, and the shadows move back into their domain. It is time for me to continue on my way. My movements are full of an unusual amount of heat, a temporary after-effect of the sun. Once again racing with the joyous shadows, I run. I run until the glass is gone and the sand changes from black to brown again, and then to an even lighter shade. I run with the wind that whips the sand around in the cool night air. For the first time since leaving I am aware of feeling truly free. My fear of the light may have been misplaced; I just survived an entire day exposed. And there is certainly nothing that can harm me here in the soft folds of night. Perhaps I will begin to run in the day as well.
Shapes begin to form in the distance. Sharp angular fingers claw at the sky with wrinkled knuckles of wreckage at their bases. I slow down to a walk once I reach them, and cautiously survey the buildings on the outskirts for signs of movement. Only the shadows are alive here, and they dance across the ground under flapping banners and sheets, celebrating my arrival.
Homes, apartments, wrecks. They rise up on either side, casting shadows from the gentle haze of spots in the night sky. The dark sands give way to the remains of cement streets with rectangular edges. Light brown sands join the dance of the shadows, pirouetting gracefully before twirling into oblivion. The lack of food and water here is obvious as every breath I take only brings in more dry, dusty air. Still I take the time to scavenge a few homes. Nothing of use can be found, so I proceed, steps light so as not to disturb the ghosts that lurk on the outside of the dwelling . The sun arrives and I slip into a building, curling up next to a pile of wreckage. It feels much safer here as the dark shelters my sleep.
Farther in there are ghosts everywhere; splashed across the outsides of buildings, they watch with mournfully vibrant colors that stand out against a world of gothic shades. Blue, yellow, green, the ghosts stain everything. Terrible silhouettes, motionless guardians of the city, defending the few gaudy remnants of their past. At first I skirt around them with uncertainty, but it is obvious that they are no more. No harm comes from padding by the light stains of the past. Their outlines mean nothing.
Food! I can smell it, just over there, in a short squatting structure. Now that I am aware of my hunger my stomach rumbles for sustenance, and the weakness in my legs that I had been ignoring becomes painfully apparent. I haven’t eaten since a few nights before I left the Center. Every inch of my body cries out for nourishment, but I know I must wait as lessons in caution refresh themselves in my mind.
First a survey of the outside. It appears to be mostly intact, a grey roof only partially caved in, grey walls standing resiliently against the wind, and a single blue ghost on a wall, hinting at the home’s original paint color. Next comes peering inside the building, then listening, and then smelling. Nothing seems out of the ordinary, aside from the gloriously damp smell of meat. Sneaking into the house and across the floorboards I find the source of the smell. A dead rat. Such a plump rat must have come from a source of food, probably only a few days away. That bodes very well for me; I must be heading in the right direction. This rat didn’t die of starvation; the yellow pustules poking through the fur and lining the wormy tail suggest disease. Dried white foam that once leaked out over its fangs leads to the same conclusion. Its pale dead eyes stare upward and its face is frozen in a hideous snarl, and some of the pustules have burst, leaving smears of yellow puss and blood in its fur.
I tear past the fur and begin feasting on the newly rotting flesh inside. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment to be eating one of these absolutely detestable vermin. I tear out more and more of its meat. Puss and blood mar my face and stain the floorboards. Not that it matters. The world is mine for the taking, and there is absolutely nothing that could bring me down now.
Full, I crawl under a set of blankets lying on a torn-up bed and settle down for the day. The sun had begun to rise during my feast, and the rays now pierce broken windows, stabbing the wall just above me. But they’re of little concern; I know they can no longer do me any harm.
Dusk arrives and I stretch out happily under the covers. There is more rat to enjoy for breakfast. I eat another meal from the pieces left of its remains, smear the blood off my face, and then begin my trek once more. Normally there would be no hurry and I would hang out for a day or so exploring nearby for the possibility of more dead rodents, but the feeling of weakness despite my full stomach tells me that I need to drink.
Walking now, not running because I need to try to reserve my energy, I notice that there is more color in the homes the farther I walk, and the ghosts are harder to see now. In fact, I don’t think there are any more ghosts here. They must only be on the outskirts, silent sentries tasked with guarding the worst of the destruction. There are more vehicles in the streets here, and less sand. Some house windows even have intact glass. But no water.
My stomach hurts, my legs and head feel weak. I need to drink and soon. Dark clouds gather on the horizon, but they are too far away. I move longingly in their direction. Perhaps they will travel swiftly.
With a sinking feeling I watch them disperse too far away to be of immediate help to me. I can barely crawl now and another dawn is tainting the night. I don’t have the energy to hide from it, so I keep plodding on. If I stop I don’t know if I will be able to get back up and continue moving. My body is so weak and my mind feels light, as though the sun has sunk through my ears and made short work of my brain until there was nothing left but air and light.
A piercing glint of blue suddenly blinds me. Water. It has to be water. I’m almost there, just a little further and my thirst will be quenched. A slightly renewed burst of energy flows through me, pushing my dragging legs on and allowing me to crawl pitifully toward salvation. It’s a beautiful, glorious blue, the pond. It lies before me now, just a little further and I’ll be there. A frosting of liquid oil rainbows shies away from my mouth as I stick it into the puddle and take long sips.
It’s perfect. Murky on the bottom with rich brown soil, and wait… is that green tendrils on the bottom of the pond? Roots mean plants, and plants mean continuous supplies of food and water. Another gift. Taking my face out of the water, belly sloshing and full, I wobble over to the nearest structure and collapse in its comporting shade. It’s been a long, exhausting night.
Another day gone and I lap up more water before continuing up a side road, heading toward the rainclouds I spotted yesterday. Not too far along my travels I begin finding more puddles, and the smell of damp permeates the air. Water shouldn’t be a problem anymore, and upon rounding a bend I can see that food shouldn’t be either.
A few scraggly bushes line the streets with tangled bunches of roots protruding occasionally from the ground around them. Marching along I see the plants becoming greener, denser, as though the heart of this grey city has become a knot of green veins and pulsating leaves that encompass the buildings, trying to drag the homes into the earth.
I stop to eat some particularly green leaves off a bush, and drink readily from one of the many puddles around me. This would be a good place to make a home. The Center could thrive here indefinitely if it chose. The once-park near these houses has blossomed into a forest, well fed by frequent rains. I take a quick glance at the buildings around me. Most are pretty intact despite their green budding guests. I decide to explore their insides for suitable living quarters.
The first home I enter is perfect, absolutely perfect. There are hills of wreckage here and there, easily tall enough for me to hide in if need be. There are multiple dark corners and rooms to provide me with plenty of protection. As I explore their contents, a tedious set of stairs leading upwards comes into view. Flitting up the stairs, I let my curiosity get the best of me. At the top I am halted by a view of light purples and blues through a hole in the wall. The ever watchful sun is on the rise again. I must have lost track of time. Oh well, I might as well finish my inspection.
Aside from the obvious damage to the wall, this floor is in much better condition than the first. Unfortunately there is less rot, and no hills of rubble, though there are some upturned couches and chairs in one of the rooms that would make good hiding places. There are only three rooms on the top floor, one of which is smaller than the others and has no windows. Skeletal pipes jut out through well-fitting holes, but whatever flowed through them dried up long ago. Shreds of paper and cloth are settled against small absences of drywall. The ideal place to sleep. I snuggle down in the scraps and pull them in around me. An overwhelming sense of peace flows from the comfort of the dark in my new home and the assurance of food and water tomorrow.
I awake early in anticipation of searching around my new home. I flutter down the stairs, out the house, and into the setting sun. Shadows ward the light away as I explore. Here and there are puddles of water, made smaller than yesterday by the daylight. The overgrown park looks beautiful as the darkness sweeps through it, revealing nooks and crannies that I could hide in or possibly even find food in. The scent of rain is fresh on the air, indicating that another delicate downpour is to arrive soon. There’s something else on the wind too. A faint scent, one that I have not smelled in my lifetime, but with such a distinct taste that I cannot help but recognize it.
We were told they were all dead.
I immediately dart into the shadows next to my house. It’s near me, too close, too close. For a moment I’m lost in a panic, scuttling from side to side in a pitch black crevice. The sour scent of sweat and urine is tainting the air around me. The air around my house! What if it’s inside what do I do what do I do? I can’t get rid of it. They’re too large. They’re supposed to be dead!
Wait. I halt in my tracks and my senses feel heightened as I stand, tasting the scents on the breeze. Could it be? The sweet smell of disease? Is it dying? If it’s dying I could feast off of it for at least a month! I could make a grand invitation to the Center; they’d certainly be impressed. It would bring my kin from miles around! It would certainly be the surest way to get a good mate.
I walk toward it slowly, following the stench and being sure to stay hidden at all times. Better to be safe than sorry. Its vision should be limited in the dark but it’s much better not to take any chances. My old friendly shadows lend me their cloaks as I creep around mounds and crawl over piles. Finally the source of the smell is revealed and it’s just as I suspected.
It’s human, and not full grown. Out from under a dirty white wide-brimmed hat, a greasy shock of bright yellow hair drips down over its eyes. A grotesque splattering of pustules, similar to the rat’s, run down its pale but sunburnt arms. The same boils cover its disgusting toes in puss and marks, presumably burst from its attempts to travel. A shred of quilt lies at his feet, as though the human had dropped it before lying down. There’s makeshift clothing wrapped around its abdomen, covering some areas, revealing others in a patchwork of carelessness. Shudders wrack its feeble body as it struggles to inhale.
A slight shift in posture and a new whiff of its smell hits me. Its size is disappointing as it’s too skinny to feed the hundreds of occupants of the Center. No matter, I guess it’ll do just as grand as a showcase. But before I can summon the Center I must determine its strength. If it is too lively, it may try to relocate while I am fetching my kin. However, if it is weak then I may leave at my leisure. Thankfully there’s no reason to fear that other predators could eat it in my absence. We are the only beings that can survive here now. Everything else is dead or dying, leaving us and the shadows to claim the earth.
Stretching out my wings, I flit over to the human, landing near a small pile of greenery by its hand. The human must have collected this. Perhaps it is stronger than I originally thought. Suddenly its arm jerks to awareness and gingerly picks up some leaves, slowly bringing them to its face. I leap with the assistance of my wings once more and land directly on its hand. For a moment I see shining eyes through a mop of hair.
“Ugh.” With a flail of its hand and the crackle of a disused voice, the human throws me and the handful of leaves across the room. I spread my wings and land gracefully on the ground, but the leaves plummet down behind me. “Filthy, giant cockroach.” Even the human’s voice sounds sore. With a sigh of pain, it brings its limbs and collection of green in closer.
I’ll have to wait until it gets weaker.
A few shards of sunlight enter the door and illuminate its pale skin. I crawl past the human and over to the staircase, flying up it with ease. For a moment I pause at the crest of the stairs and I’m greeted by a cavalry of light, via the hole in the wall. I do not shy away. I stand strong, defiantly staring against its sinister glow and hot sweeping breaths of wind. Even the power of the light is getting weaker now, just like the human whose mournful moans and wracking coughs can be heard from anywhere in my house.
It’ll be dead soon.
Zoie Cole lives in Kingsford, Michigan. She spends a great deal of time outdoors–kayaking, fishing, four-wheeling, camping, and hiking–and the many creepy-crawlies she has come across in those pursuits helped to inspire this story. She loves creative writing and analyzing literature with a passion and begins attending university this fall.
Learn more about the LSSU High School Short Story Prize