D. S. White
"Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong."
I told myself I was just going for a casual hike across the countryside. I really didnt want to think about the fact that I was now an outcast and would never be allowed to return to the safest place I knew on this planet. I tried to forget I'd ever met them before, the people who had become my loyal crew on the voyage from earth to this world. And who, for reasons I didnt fully understand, had cast me out after arriving here. I had done nothing to harm any of them, least of all Sarah.
But still, she lingered in my mind, like the sunlight in the sky. I couldnt block her out. I just couldnt forget the way she looked. I didn't know if I'd ever see her again, and at this moment, forced to fend for myself, I didn't want to think about it too much. I didn't want to fall apart so close to home. I tried to remember the things I liked the most about her, so if I never really saw her again, at least I could always recall the way she sparkled when we first met.
As I peered across the horizon, searching the landscape for a route to follow, I felt the chilly breeze of winter coming on. Instead of turning toward the dark city, I walked farther out into the countryside, following what looked like a long abandoned trail. The trail curved around the headstones of old graves, the homes of souls returned to the netherworld long ago. These were the resting places of the first human settlers on this planet. Why theyd all died before our arrival here was a mystery I couldnt care less about at the moment. I more focused on finding something to eat.
Eventually I found what I was looking for. Most everything that remained in the garden had withered, as they'd stopped planting crops a long time ago, leaving behind only seeds for the birds. I pinched off a few shriveled vegetables and threw them inside my backpack, scarcely wanting to think about how these morsels might be the last thing I ever ate.
I continued outward, away from the darkness of the city, away from everything I knew. I had little interest in returning to my ship. I was going to live on my own, where no one would ever find me again. I was going to find a hole in the mountains and disappear there forever.
A sort of magic overcame me, as often does when Im by myself. I hummed a soft tune and noticed things about this alien land Id never seen before. The air smelled cold, hinting of fresh snow falling in the mountains. Sunlight filtered through my hands, curving around my fingers, highlighting the blood and bones beneath my skin, but it failed to warm me. I saw the colors of the changing season buried deep within the texture of a fallen leaf and I pried it apart, looking for the reason why I felt older today, but gave up soon when I found no clues.
Larger than life, the mountains in the distance loomed on the horizon, an unbroken chain of snow-covered peaks. I counted seven towering giants directly in front of me, monsters waiting to devour my existence. A smaller ridge-line receded to the south, hinting the chain of mountains went on forever.
I spent most of the day walking toward them, but by evening the mountains only appeared a little closer. I looked for somewhere to sleep, with the sun going down. I came across a place where two large trees had fallen in the shape of an X and I made a bed by crawling under one of them and rolling back and forth in the tall grass growing there. Then I lay a few withered tree branches against the tree trunks to break the oncoming frigid night wind.
From my backpack I pulled out the vegetable scraps Id found in the morning and ate them raw. There was really nothing else to eat. Inside my backpack I also found a glass, which was useless because I didnt have any water.
You got any food? I asked no one in particular, looking at the empty world being sucked in by the spreading night.
No, I don't have any food, I answered myself.
In the morning I put on my backpack and started walking toward the mountains again. A little later I came to a house, a mud house, which had been made by hand out of wet earth pressed together, now hardened by the sun over a long time. The house stood by the faint remains of a road, nothing more than a wide path etched in the ground. As I went down the road, I came across more mud houses, but whenever I looked inside them, nobody was home.
Hello! I called out to see if anyone still lived in this tiny village in the wild, but only the cries of birds fleeing in panic returned to me.
The road ran across a stone bridge, merely the shadow of an arch passing over the banks of what had once been a stream. It made me realize how thirsty I was, as I peered down below. I jumped over the edge of the bridge onto the dry bed and found it rock hard. Strange shapes stuck in the dirt caught my attention and I kicked at one to see what it was. It glimmered a little in the sunlight.
The object was covered in dried mud, so I spit on it and wiped it clean with my sleeve. As I did, a slight vibration passed through my hand and I almost dropped it. Then I noticed the color of the rock. It was blue. From side to side, the bottom of the stream was covered in oddly shaped cubes, just like the one I was grasping in my hand. I was standing in the middle of a bed of blue gems. When I took in how many of these powerful gems there were here, I gasped.
Yet I seemed immune to the negative effects of the blue gems. They didnt burn my skin, like they'd done to others I'd witnessed picking them up. The longer I held one, the better I felt. My hunger faded and my thirst no longer seemed to matter. My vision cleared and my thoughts made sense again. I waited for a while, to see if anything else would happen, but nothing did. Eventually I got tired of just standing there, so I tossed the gem under the bridge and climbed back up to the road.
Inside the houses I began to find people, the remains of ancient human skeletons lying in odd positions on the floor. Some of the skeletons didnt make any sense, with extra bones or twisted bones or missing limbs. In one place I found two skeletons embracing each other. And in another house, I found the remains of a girl whose dress had been ripped open. Around her neck hung a silver chain with a stone embedded in it. The stone was red, and so securely fastened to the chain that I couldnt pry it out. I picked up the girls head and tried to take the chain off her neck and her skull came loose from her spine.
Sorry, I said and laid the jaw and other pieces back where they might have belonged.
I thought I heard the sound of someone talking outside and I grabbed the chain and ran out the door. But there was nobody there. I sat down by the door to the house and thought about what it might have been like to live here. I imagined people walking around, talking, laughing, and then I thought I smelled something cooking. I saw a bird circling overhead and felt myself growing weak with hunger.
I felt a little guilty for taking the chain and stone and thought about returning it to the girl, but was too afraid to enter her house again. But the chain and stone gave me an idea. I went back to the bridge and found the blue gem that Id left there. As I held it in my hand, I felt myself come alive once more, as if the gem was a battery recharging my soul.
I found a sharp rock and hammered on the necklace until the red gem popped out. Then I put the blue gem in its place and hammered at the chain until the gem was secure. After that, I hung the chain around my neck. When I had finished, I pulled my shirt open and dropped the gem inside, close to my skin, where nobody would see it. I felt warm all over, even in the cold wind.
I thought I heard the sound of bells tinkling and I ran down the road until I came to an intersection. Here skeletons were everywhere, not just inside the houses, but also lying out in the village square. I had to step carefully to get past them and it began to freak me out. On the wind, I continued to hear odd tones, as if trumpets were being played at a funeral procession for the dead.
Who is it? What do you want? I yelled, but nobody answered me.
I ran back the way Id come, frantic now, afraid I'd die out in the middle of nowhere and nobody would ever know what had become of me. I pictured my skeleton laying here for centuries, until it was discovered by accident.
Dont leave me here! I screamed at myself.
When I realized I was talking to myself I gave up on the mountains. I turned and looked back towards the dark city, just a smudge on the horizon by now. As my desire to live in the wilderness withered into thin air, I ran past the houses until I found the trail I had followed to get here. I got a little disoriented in the tall weeds and lost the trail, but kept pushing forward with the shadow of the city directly ahead. I stopped running eventually, feeling dizzy and nauseous and dehydrated, but forced myself to continue moving forward at a steady pace.
Things were not normal on this planet. When I turned and looked back behind me, the village in the wild had disappeared completely. When I looked up at the sky, I had no idea which day it was and I even began to wonder how long Id spent alone. I thought Id been evicted from my ship yesterday, but it might have been a hundred years ago. I clutched the blue gem under my shirt and pushed it hard against my skin and the dizziness went away.
By noon I began to see signs of dwellings, old outposts long abandoned. Yet I skirted the shadow of the city when I felt its presence about to devour me, not wanting to go in there alone. It was strange, the way every place was so empty. So dark. The city was completely devoid of life. What had happened here I couldnt say.
The road curved to the south, toward the place where Id set down the ship, the same place where I'd last seen Sarah. I straightened the collar on my jacket and pulled my gloves on a little tighter. The sun was up but the day was feeling colder by the second. And then I stopped.
Sarah was standing just up ahead. She smiled at me and waved. I hurried over to talk to her.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"What they did to you to, I had to leave. I didn't know if I could find you, but I couldn't stay there any longer."
She tried to hug me but I backed up a step. "What?" she asked.
I pulled the blue gem out of my shirt and showed it to her. "Better not touch me. I don't know if it's safe."
She nodded. She knew the blue gems were dangerous to most people. Why I was immune, she didnt ask.
"I have a map," she said.
"Let's take a look."
After choosing a route, she put the map away. We started walking. We were good traveling companions, not because we had a lot in common, but more because we didn't talk much. The way I saw it, what had happened on the ship wasn't a problem we needed to discuss.
"Odds?" I asked.
"Low," she replied.
The city grew bigger as we got closer. I couldn't see anything wrong with it from the outside. The buildings were still intact, for the most part. Some of them looked a little aged. Few windows were broken. Most of the doors were closed. It felt wrong to be walking into an empty city of this size. At the perimeter, there weren't any warning signs, nothing about toxic radiation, or the plague, nothing to say we needed to turn back now. It was just empty, and yet, arranged in an odd but orderly fashion.
When we arrived in the streets, that's when I noticed the more peculiar things. In the windows, the ones that were still intact, in just about every one of them was a skeleton. Even odder, these lifeless figures all appeared to be looking in the same direction, directly at me. I turned around and looked behind me but didn't see anything of interest to warrant those empty faces turned in my direction.
At one intersection I found a newspaper bin and after forcing it open pulled out a stack of printed pages. The paper was crisp and new, like it'd just come off the press. The date had to be 70 or more years agoI didn't exactly know today's date. I scanned the headlines on several pages and discovered nothing alarming. A politician had been charged with corruption. Still, that was no reason to have the population of an entire planet go extinct.
In one of the windows I saw a cat. It looked real enough, with fur and wet eyes, but it had to be a fake. I watched it for a while as it watched me. Or it appeared to be watching me. And then it blinked. I grabbed Sarah's arm and pointed.
"So?" she asked.
"Food," I said.
I wasn't about to eat a cat, but the cat, since it was truly alive, had to have a source of food somewhere. We needed to find out more about it.
The cat turned and jumped down from the window sill and ran to the front door. We shuffled across the street and opened the entrance to the shop. The door hadn't been locked or damaged in any way. The cat ran to my leg and began to purr. It was clearly familiar with typical human interaction. It looked up in my eyes and meowed a meow of contentment. I felt odd at that moment. The city waited silently all around us, empty; those skeletons were everywhere, in every window, with the same jaw-dropping expressions. And here was this cat, not afraid at all.
We never did find anyone alive. We didn't find much food either and eventually we had to abandon the city. Once we'd made it to the other side, the land opened up for miles upon miles. We were free. We would live another day. The crew of our ship would never follow us this far. Before getting too distant from the city, though, I turned to look back. Just like expected, in every window, an empty-eyed skull watched me. And there, in one window, was a cat. A healthy cat. And those skeletons were all attired for work, wearing suits and dresses. I couldn't forget about that for a long time.
Life wasnt easy on this planet. The only people who could help me right now had turned on me. My crew had committed mutiny. After seeing the way blue gems turn people into monsters, and then noticing the way they gave me power, nobody would come near me. They feared what they didnt understand, something they couldnt control. I had to admit, I feared myself a little as well. The changes taking place inside me, something alien growing there, giving me strength but at the same time turning me into a freak, it left me feeling confused.
I thought I saw someone in the distance waving and I started to run, but stopped before going too far. It was nothing more than a tree. Leaves scattered in the wind and the world turned. I felt older. I felt alone.
What? Sarah asked after catching up.
Nothing, I said.
Behind us, the lost city had sunk lower on the horizon. All I could think about was finding more food. But at least, I had Sarah. When I turned to look at her, she sparkled like the sun. And when I looked up ahead, where there were trees, I thought there might be fruit. We would move forward, because moving on would bring us to tomorrow, and another day was a chance at hope.
© D.S.White 2017 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 10:50 Thu 24 Aug 2017
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