It’s always more dangerous at night.
She scrabbles in the blackened earth, working quickly. She doesn’t notice the smell of death anymore; her mind is focused solely on the dangers around her. Every clue is noted. Every sound is registered. There is no room for error. Not here.
A lightning flash catches her eye. She looks up, wary and breathless. What was that? She scans the horizon, squinting for movement in the shadows. But she sees only dead, frozen hills and scorched trees, and she feels alone in the creeping silence. Fine. Her imagination, then. She decides to keep digging.
The soil is gritty beneath her fingernails, and she’s briefly aware of its stench. She uncovers a buried grub and scoops it up. It’s fatty, segmented body spastic in her hands. As a child she wondered whether these grubs knew their fate. Now she just pops them in her mouth. Chews and swallows. She’s numb to the bitter, disgusting taste.
She wants to keep foraging but she’s afraid. Storm clouds, alive with thunder, boil their way across the red-scorched sky. She yearns to get back to her sanctuary. Back to safety. Away from Them.
But she’s also hungry. One grub is not enough and she knows it. She’s been getting weak lately. Slower, both physically and mentally. Hunger and fear compete in her stomach. All it will take is one false move, one mistake, and she’ll fall into their clutches. Miserable suffering. Rape. Violence. Death. Eaten alive by the reviled and unclean.
She scrabbles as she thinks, the flint soil scuffing her fingertips. The scratches. The pain. She watches Them take her parents. First her Mother. A blow to the head. Killed outright. Consumed in a mist of blood and guts and sinew. Father and I watching from the shadows. Cast-iron statues stood in silent horror.
And then Father. Her beloved father. Her protector. Her teacher. Her love. She remembers, and a solitary tear falls from her gray-blue eyes. The Earth swallows it with contempt, but she fails to notice.
Her digging reveals a shiny black beetle. She snatches at it, breaking two of its legs, and pops it into her mouth. Crunches. Crunches. Its liquid insides spew warmth and sourness into her mouth. She swallows without ceremony and winces as Father’s face swims through her mind. She imagines them raping him and eating him. She imagines him crying out in pain.
Another solitary teardrop. Perhaps she should just let Them take her too. Have it over and done with.
It’s ice cold beneath this cavernous, shit-streaked sky, and her breath is a mist of condensation. She should be shivering but she’s numb. She always is when she thinks about Father.
And then a sudden flash! She struggles blindly into the gloom, her night-vision wrecked. Some kind of meteor? Her vision returns and she traces its passage across the darkening sky. Its tail is tangerine and smoke, stretching for perhaps half a mile. The meteor head, which seems a living, pulsating thing, expands and contracts as it combusts across the sky. At one point she wonders if it might explode. Instead, it describes an elegant arc towards the horizon.
Shit. Shit! I’ve got to get moving.
She leaps up and is away. Agile footsteps carrying her home. Zigzagging from shadow to shadow; taking care on the uneven scrub. She pauses for a moment behind a wrecked concrete wall, listening for danger in the darkness, but all she can hear is the pounding of her own heart.
Her sanctuary is perhaps five minutes away. She moves quickly, but she’s never complacent. This land is treacherous and it would love to betray her. It’s caught her out several times in the past.
She arrives at the entrance to her home. It looks like an unremarkable clearing, cut into a forest of broken, dead trees. You could walk past it a million times unaware, because this entrance isn’t just a physical place. It’s more of a portal. To enter, you have to close your eyes, relax your mind, and step beyond your cascading experience of reality.
She’s sensed many such doorways, but this is the only one she’s ever dared try. She relaxes her thoughts and leaps into the infinite void.
It’s like being in a cave that is illuminated by moonlight. She feels safe here.
In that other world, of fire streaked skies, of dead trees and grubs, she is now a mere suggestion. A blade of grass moving in the breeze. A hint of shadow in the gloam. But here, this place of moonlight and safe passage, she is real. At least, her soul makes it seem real. Her experiences seem real. And her safety is real. Were it not for the need to eat, she would never leave her sanctuary. She depends on it.
But then she realises. Something is wrong. Very wrong! She stops dead, frozen and terrified. Even her heart feels reluctant to beat. Somebody is here. Somebody is in her shelter. But how? And why? She feels violated. Excited. Dismayed. Intrigued. This is change. And change is rarely good.
At her feet stand twelve stone steps, leading down. No matter where she stands in her sanctuary, these steps are there if she so chooses. An image then flashes across her mind. The face of a man. Not Father, dear beloved Father, but somebody else. Somebody younger. Somebody new. Anxiety bites at her stomach and she wants to run away.
Be brave! This is your home. She wants to hesitate, but instead she starts down the stairs. Silent, barely capable of breathing, almost like she’s floating, or sinking, drifting deeper and deeper into her sanctuary with each step. Be brave, she reminds herself. Besides, where else could be safer? There can be no raping or killing here. No eating of flesh. Everything here is just a projection. Just energy and nothing more.
She arrives at the bottom of the stairs and stands by the door to her private room. She can sense his presence inside. She pushes the door open and peers into the cave-like room beyond. An expression of his body lies on the floor. Naked. Bruised. Bloodied and twisted. He’s calling for help, his voice barely audible. She pads towards him, across the cold, stone-hewed floor, like a cat inspecting a dead bird.
Except he is not dead. He groans and whispers for water. In this place, a place made entirely of thought, there is no water. But she sits beside him and imagines offering him water to sip. She imagines mopping his brow. She imagines cooling the heat of his broken body; easing the pain as he dances between life and death.
She lies on the floor beside him. Tentative. Cautious. She’s afraid to trust him, but in her heart she knows he is good. She watches him rest until, eventually, he opens his eyes. They’re deep green, like pools of water in the desert, alive with energy and movement and change. She feels herself flowing into him. A river running into the sea.
She wakes on a beach, momentarily confused. The sand is cool and wet beneath her, and she hears the ocean washing against the shore; a rolling, pink noise that soothes and relaxes. She stretches and gazes towards the sky, transfixed by its cobalts and azures; its admirals and ceruleans. Where on Earth is this place?
And then there is the sun’s warmth against her skin. How is that even possible? She contrasts it against the cool sand beneath her, as if to test whether such warmth could be real. It makes her want to stretch and laze around. She imagines falling into the sky, through white, wispy cloud, and into whatever depths lie beyond.
Sudden alarm pricks at her. She’s not alone! She jumps up, spins around, and sees him. She’s relieved – for a moment she thought she was in danger. He’s gathering driftwood; it clatters as he piles it into a bonfire. He looks at her, smiles, and she realises they are both naked.
Still, she feels calm and relaxed. She sits near his unlit fire and inspects her sand-covered feet, amused by the shape of her toes. She finds herself laughing like the girl she used to be. Here, in this bright and sunny place she feels even more safe than in her sanctuary. Never had she imagined that possible. It’s like a dream from a long time ago.
He’s still busy with the fire and she steals glances at his body when he’s not looking. He’s dark and handsome, glistening with sweat, and deliberate in his movement. He smiles at her with his eyes and her insides melt. She feels content to rest and be still.
He wanders to a scrubby verge at the end of the beach and returns with clumps of dry grass. She watches, fascinated, as he strikes two flints together, repeatedly, methodically, until he eventually creates a spark. The dry grass becomes at first a smoking ball, and then a true-lit flame. He breathes life into the fire – while shielding it from the breeze – and encourages it along the bone dry driftwood.
They sit together in the falling dusk. The cobalt sky darkening towards navy; the roaring apricot flames dancing upward. It’s cooler now and she draws her body closer to him, enjoying the feel of his naked skin. She looks into his eyes, running her fingers across his chest, and then they kiss. Slowly at first, and then passionate and urgent and lustful.
He gently, firmly, pushes her onto her back, and she wraps her arms around him. Their kiss continues, tongues meeting in her mouth, and she forgets about the sand and the sky. Only the fire remains; its crackling heat a warming comfort. He lies on top of her. His hand stroking her body for the first time. His kisses move to her neck and earlobe, and she arches her back with pleasure.
He’s hard now. And she is wet. Yearning. But also anxious and afraid. All she knows of this is violence; of the death of her mother and her father. She wants to stop, but also to continue. To open her legs and let him touch her. For him to push himself inside of her. Gently at first, and then more forceful with each stroke. She kisses him deeply, her arms still wrapped around his neck, and she opens herself up to him.
He slides himself into her. Their bodies entwined, rhythmically pressing together. She drinks up the sensations; getting hotter and wetter. He becomes harder and more forceful. Their kisses more urgent and their rhythm quickening. She gasps at the white hot energy gathering between her legs. Volatile. Pulsing with each stroke. She wonders if she is about to explode and forgets to breathe.
He pushes himself deep into her. Powerful, last moments and then he tenses up. Convulsing. Burying his head into her shoulder. She feels this and explodes with her own energy. Hot, wet, fizzing and intoxicating, deep into her core. It’s a moment she wants to last forever.
She wakes, disoriented and upset, and untangles herself from his arms. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Who is he? How did he find her? Why has he brought her to this place? Why give her something else to lose? Hasn’t she known enough pain already? She feels suddenly angry. Hateful even. Far better to pick through the shit-smelling landscape for grubs; at least you know what’s in store. Eat insects. Live as long as you can. And then join Mother and Father in the next world.
A solitary tear lets loose from her eye. It runs down her cheek, falls from her face, and splashes onto the cool sand below. She hadn’t asked for any of this. She screws her eyes tight and wishes it would just vanish.
The door stood ajar so she peered into the gloomy room beyond. A little girl sat sobbing on the stone floor. Her cries felt like a stiletto blade to her heart, and tears ran from both their faces. She pushed the door open, and entered.
She asked the little girl what was wrong. The girl looked up and replied that her name was Maya. Her eyes glittered with a thousand lives and her voice seemed impossibly old.
Maya beckoned for her to sit down. She did so, despite feeling afraid, and asked the girl why she was crying.
When you look inside, said Maya, into the depth of your heart, you might see me. Sometimes I am happy and playful. Sometimes I am sad. Today I am alone.
She felt angry towards the little girl. But what do you want me to do? I cannot bear the pain of loss even one more time. They remembered Mother and Father, and sat in silence for a while.
Yes, but if you are afraid to take risks, replied Maya, fear will become your whole world. Dark thoughts will become prison walls, and freedom will become a mere dream.
She looked at Maya from the side of her eye. Curious little girl, she replied. How can you know of such matters?
Maya smiled with sparkling eyes. I only tell what you already know. What would you prefer? To live in the sunshine or exist in the shadows?
She knew the little girl was right. It was a question of courage, which she had. And a question of remembering what was important, which she now understood.
She snapped out of her daydream and looked around. Here, beneath this cavernous, shit-streaked sky. Her breath a mist of condensation. She should be shivering, but instead she feels numb. Disorientated. Like she’s forgotten something.
And then a sudden flash! She struggles blindly into the gloom, her night-vision wrecked. Some kind of meteor? Her vision returns and she traces its passage across the darkening sky. Its tail, tangerine and smoke, arcing towards the distant horizon.
Shit. Shit! I’ve got to get out of here.
But she freezes. There’s an itch in her mind. A nagging doubt that just won’t leave. What have I forgotten? She imagines golden sand beside the ocean. She feels… the sun? Ridiculous, but she remembers the sun warming her skin. And a roaring fire, stark against the navy sky. And then she sees him. His face, his green eyes. Their union. In that moment she remembers everything.
She watches the meteor plummet to the distant horizon, and knows precisely what she needs to do. She no longer feels afraid. She just hopes to reach him before They do.
The night sky is miserable with mahogany and blood, and she knows she must take care. Twice she stops and lurks in the shadows, hiding from groups of Them. Their grunting and snuffling disgusts her. Their dull red eyes, like embers of hatred. And their clawing, raping hands. Perversions of all that is good. She will not allow them to win.
She makes her way up a steep, rocky outcrop, near to where the meteor fell. She crawls on her belly and peeks over a stony ridge. In the distance, she sees his body lying in a shallow, smoking crater. He’s naked. Bruised. Bloodied and twisted. She knows, somehow, that he is alive. And she knows they will be drawn to his suffering.
And then her heart sinks. They’re already here. She sees six of Them. Seven. Eight. Lolloping their way towards him. She can make out their thick black hides, wrinkled and bristling with boils, open sores, and wiry hair. Their heavy slack jaws with protruding needle teeth, curved and razor sharp. She remembers how they fed on Mother’s remains. The foam spray of blood and their triumphant desire. Gleeful to destroy something beautiful.
And they’re moving in for the kill. She screws her eyes tight and starts to cry. Unable to watch. Maya’s voice appears in her mind. The little girl says: You can defeat them. You have the power to do so. Suddenly, she understands. She has more control than she thinks.
She takes a deep breath, slows down her thoughts, and becomes calm, relaxed and at peace. She watches the colour drain from the landscape around her, and feels the endless, intricate beat of reality slow down, as if to a mere single pulse. Time stops dead, or near enough, and They grind to a halt like hideous and misshapen statues in the dark. She seizes her moment and descends from the rocky outcrop, picking her way past their stench of shit and death. Their fractal-red eyes, dull with pain and violation. She hurries herself along to the smoking crater. They might appear as statues for now, but that won’t last forever.
She tries to lift his prone body, but he’s too heavy. She feels a rising panic. Relax, you can do this. She composes herself and focuses her determination. She takes him by the armpits and pulls at his dead weight. His legs drag uselessly and she wishes he’d wake up so they could run.
If I can just get him to the top of the outcrop… She’d sensed an entrance there, a portal to her sanctuary. It’s a risk; she’s only ever tried her own entrance before. What if this one works differently? She puts that thought out of her mind. Either way, it ends here tonight. She’d rather die than leave him to this fate.
She doubles her efforts, struggling backwards, dragging his unconscious body up the outcrop. But it’s heavy going, her arms are growing tired, and she stumbles with exhaustion. The land here is unyielding; it desires only blood and slaughter. And she’s aware that time is speeding back up, and that they are waking from their trance. They’ve started to follow her. Lolling up the outcrop. Gaining distance all the time. She smells their hatred and cruel hunger.
The closest of Them surges forward. It’s almost upon them. Hungry. Determined. Violent. She struggles on through tears of frustration. If only she could make it to the portal, at least they’d have a chance. But she has nothing left to give. She simply cannot drag him an inch further. She falls to the ground, defeated. There’s no question of leaving him. They’ll die here together. Side by side.
It won’t take long. The foul creature bares its teeth, a snarl of grey-yellow needles and black saliva. The stink of rotting flesh. Its eyes red with malice and its hide as black as tar. She’s been afraid of Them all her life. But now, at the last, her fear is no more. She closes her eyes and waits.
No! You do not have to accept this. To have found him, only to lose to this horror. You must not accept this face. There is another way…
She remembers their coming together, on that beach under the midnight sky. She remembers the energy she felt, and her true nature becomes clear in her mind. She is a child of God. Nothing less than the entirety of the Universe, and far more powerful than this dank place. Than these dank beings. Her mind feels alive with the heat of a billion suns. She is all things. Everything and nothing.
She opens her eyes and channels this truth into the creature’s hateful, lustful mind. Its red eyes suddenly glowing bright with alarm. You are nothing but hatred and filth. Begone! There is a moment of pure stillness, and then the outcrop is lost to a pure, blinding light. A thunderous crack! A sense of discontinuity. Time stands meaningless, and, when reality returns, all that remains of ‘It’ is a haze of vaporised carbon.
The others stop in their shuffling tracks. They stare amongst themselves, awash with terror.
She looks to the blood-streaked sky and screams. She remembers her beloved Mother and Father. Foraging for grubs and beetles. The endless running and hiding. She screams an endless cry that would shatter walls. They turn, scattering, shuffling, running away as quickly as they can. She is the Universe itself, and they are nothing but shadows.
Cowardly too, she observes. She blinks, just once, and each one vanishes from existence. They leave no trace in their wake.
All is silent, at least until her heaving sigh. She checks to make sure, but she already knows he didn’t make it. His chest is still. His face a peaceful, lifeless pallor. She kisses him, gently, just once, and yearns for it to revive him. But deep down she knows the truth. He is dead. They have won after all.
How could it all be in vain? How can she be expected to bear more loss? A solitary tear drops from her blue-gray eye and lands on his forehead. And, after a single, silent moment, he gasps his way back into this life. He sits up boltright, coughing and choking. Convulsions fit enough to expel death itself. And then, eventually, he rubs his face, regains his composure, and smiles at her.
Hello, he says.
Hello, she replies.
Still coughing, he staggers to his feet. She takes his hand and they make their unsteady way up the outcrop. They both sense the sanctuary portal, and they know what to do. They close their eyes, relax their minds, and leap into the infinite void.
She hears the ocean washing against the shore; a rolling, pink noise that soothes and relaxes. She gazes at the sky, transfixed by its cobalts and azures; its admirals and ceruleans. And then there’s the sun’s warmth against her skin. It makes her want to stretch and laze around. She looks up and sees him gathering firewood.
He notices she’s awake and smiles. Her insides melt, and she knows she’s found an endless love. She stretches in the sunshine, and laughs.