Out of the Dark - short fiction
"Out of the Dark" by Tamara Wilhite
Pink and purple, hints of orange and blood red was sprayed across the afternoon sky. I wondered sometimes what sunset would have looked like with this beautiful sky, but dared not risk being caught out near nightfall.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t be left out in the dark.
I hurried back toward the minimal shelter as the clouds began to roil. It might boil over into a storm. Someone long ago had bundled up newspaper and built a house out of it like bricks. An ecologically friendly structure, I was told by a prior resident, covered with thick adobe to protect it from the infrequent rains. There were no more true rains anymore. Sometimes acid, sometimes mud, sometimes other things I dared not worry about except to stay inside from it all. The adobe, like the Earth, provided shelter from the storms. I might have chosen a cave, for the solid rock, if there had not been so many earthquakes in the past few years.
I tried not to chafe at the hastily bundled cactus leaves and mesquite wood, with a few beans still attached. It was all I could find, so far from anything else. Far from civilization was supposed to offer protection. Suppose was always the critical word.
I closed the front door to the adobe building. Checked with a flash light to make sure someone hadn’t snuck in while I was out. Nothing human had made that journey yet, since I’d come, but a few animals had. Even they didn’t want to be outside at night. The small single room was still, no hiding places for anything bigger than a roach or a shadow.
I took the few remaining steps and put the safe in place. A real, solid gun safe. I had no massive locking doors except that one. It was big and bulky, and would slow any intruders coming in who might break in. It would also protect me if their solution was to start shooting through the door. It could even act as a hiding place, if they chose to ransack the “house” and took everything. There were no guns left, taken by prior raiders. But I kept the safe, if only to help keep me safe.
I stared at the little brick over for a while. Making cactus leaves edible required cooking as well as care not to dry it out. I even had fuel in the mesquite wood. The wood was dry as kindling from the winds, but had no obvious traces of toxic residue. I could cook, and I could do it without horrific toxic fumes. Unfortunately, cooking did put out smoke. And being so dry, there was no rain to pull the smoke from the sky or its smell from the air, a virtual smoke signal and scent trap to draw anything in. Yet hunger was just as dangerous.
I sat down on the barely a bed. A bed of springs, some still together, some not. The springs squeaked under my weight, those few left from a prior resident who had been unable to make into spears to kill some people who had buried that person in the graveyard outside. The survivor who had allowed me in had only done so for lack of choice. A plague, likely the result of cannibalism, left him too weak to deny me entry. And because of the plague, no matter how hungry I was, I did not have the choice of cannibalism.
That wasn’t a choice now. There were almost no people left. Maybe no one else. Some days, I hoped that was true, so that I could be alone. No one left to hunt or hurt me. Some days, I wished it wasn’t true, so that I wouldn’t be alone. No one to hunt for me or help me if hurt. The not knowing seemed worse than knowing, except for the times I had nightmares at every nighttime noise that a rain of bullets or spears would fall upon me before starving raving animals – whether on two feet or four.
I decided to wait until sunset and start up the fire. The leaves would be edible by midnight. I started pounding the dried out mesquite seed pods into flour. The Comanche or Apaches had eaten that as a kind of bread, I’d once read. Never tried it before. Never been hungry enough before the disaster, never found any to eat after it.
I’d read lots of survival books before the end of the world. Camping, low tech survival skills, herbal books. I never thought the end of the world would actually come. Those books I read out of curiosity and for entertainment. Old Y2K disaster books. 2012 Maya prophecy books. The Bible had once been that category, too, for me.
The fire was bubbling and crackling on the dried wood until I buried it to smother it for warmth and charcoal. The leaves were set down on the ashes. The smell would wake me for breakfast at middle of the night. The seed pods eventually became a powder. I could leave it like that, assuming nothing else ate it, and then eat it later. Food reserves! Oh, that thought was a luxury I hadn’t dreamed of for so long. To have the choice to not go outside for a day, to give in to the fear and stay hidden another day longer. To have a choice.
My hands rested on the grinding rock and hard flat rock I used as a grinding surface. Alien thin, as if they weren’t my own. To eat both the leaves and the porridge from the ground up beans, to not be so hungry for a night, that, too was a luxury. The thoughts of temporary relief were ever so tempting. I almost did. But I put it aside and went to sleep.
It might have looked like self control to others. No, not self control, not even discipline, but fear. Fear of what was outside. Fear of what might come in when I was out. Fear of what might be outside and what I had to risk each day.
World War 3, World War 4, Russia-Ossetia-Iran-Israel war. Pick a name for it. The war had exploded across the world. Pick an instigator to blame. Nukes that rained radiation in the immediate area and subtle fall out on the rest. Nuclear terrorism from fringe idiots that saw no reason not to hold back anymore. Bioterrorists doing it to kill their enemies, or protect the animals from humans, I might have understood once. The diseases from contaminated water, lack of sanitation, all the parasites and plagues the fleas and ticks and rats all carried, all spread rapidly, too. Lots of people who ran for the hills as soon as disaster hit, spreading biowarfare strains in their spread, bringing death as they sought to flee for their lives. Pick an aftermath. It all ended up happening, in the end. Darkness fell with smoke and ash and radiation.
I stayed home when the beginning of the end came. Not because it was the best place to be, but because there was nowhere better to go. I was not really well stocked up, but chose to stay home anyway. I had tons of books of how to stock up, lists of what to have in case of whatever might come … and I’d spent so much on the antique books that I’d never actually really stocked up. A few weeks worth of supplies, maybe, but not for years at a time. Fear kept me inside when others ran for their lives. That, and a certain laziness. I’d just die at home, whether by fire or flood or famine, with the hard slap of humility in the face that my survival books lining the shelves represented.
After all that knowledge and time and money, I should have known. Should of, would of, could of. We spend all of our lives living in could, would, should. I realized during a fire fight down the hall, through my locked and blocked doors, that life was a very tenuous thing. If we always lived for what we thought should be and not for what was, we’d never really live in the real world. And living in frustration for the fantasy it wasn’t made it much less we’d make it better in the first place.
I had crouched down with the “A Year of Living Biblically” I had been reading to pass the time. I reached over to put it back, not sure it was what I wanted in my hands when I died. I grabbed a thicker book as a potential weapon. Yet the intruders never came in. My apartment door was near a maintenance shaft. People escaped down it, skipping my door altogether in their rush for safety. I stayed where I was as they sought false safety. Someone then shot a stream of bullets down the maintenance shaft before leaving. When the roar of bullets faded into a dull distant storm, I let my hands stop holding the thick book I’d taken as a weapon.
It was a Bible. I’d bought it as a companion to “A Year of Living Biblically”. Eating Manna was eating a fungus / resin in the desert. How they gathered it was a survival technique. Which bugs were safe to eat 4000 years ago might keep me alive today. That was the thought. My only thought then was how to use it to stay alive one more minute. Now I had that minute. And I had no thought of what to do with the book. I put it on the floor and collapsed into sleep of my dreams of the life before.
The smell of cooked cactus leaves woke me up from my dream. I didn’t dream abstract fantasies any more, just my better memories. It felt so strange, that my dreams of a “good life” were of hiding in my apartment, during the beginning of the end of the world. I was almost as hungry and scared then as I was now. The only difference was that then, I’d been home, a familiar place. Here was just where I was.
I ate the leaves, my eyes involuntarily glancing at the Bible by the foot of the bed. When the violence boiled over, as those driven mad by mutated bacteria hordes began to overflow into the streets, I had to leave. There was no choice when they started tearing through the wall. Well, maybe staying and getting infected, but I wouldn’t commit do it. That was suicide.
So my only choice was an escape direction. I took the fire escape. Silly me, they should have followed. Instead, they tore into the books and knick knacks on the shelf. Weird if I’d had a chance to think about it. Later I wondered if the mirrors and shiny things had their attention or if they were too stupid to identify the reflection of me running was not me.
I had grabbed the first book off the book shelf, something to remind me of how to survive, then ran. At best, it would keep me sane and alive. At worst, it was a last ditch weapon at the end of my life.
I was down the seven stories of the fire escape when a few of them tried to follow. None of them had the sense to take the stairs. Dead inside, they jumped to follow. Then they were dead on the ground beside me. I ran then, book in hand, sometimes to shield my face from the fires that started from bullets on metal of military clean up squad attempts. Attempts, because there were too few of them against too many infected. Fortunately, none of the bullets hit me. One of them did get lodged in the Bible, though.
Lots of people tried hiding in the sewers. It was underground, so theoretically it offered protection from fall out. However, the fallout brought rain as moisture condensed around the ash and fell to the ground. Into the sewers, where many had hid. And flooded, in many places. Keeping your head down was no longer a good way to hide.
Instead, I hid anywhere “up”. Sleeping on overpass signs, where at least it was off the ground. Attics, if I could find them and nothing else lived there. Cleared out of everything useful meant nothing to me, as long as there was no one there. I did end up eating lots of bugs. But I ate. As the days passed, I saw bodies of those that had not managed to eat at all, or who had been eaten by others.
I never understood why the earthquakes started. Just kept going, looking for places without others. Fortunately, I’d hidden in the city so long that most of those in the city were dead or fled. And my travel to the less traveled regions was so slow, by virtue of hiding so often, munching on locusts and grubs, that I was far behind even those fleeing the same last stand aftermath. By the time I reached the empty lands, they were mostly dead lands.
A few gangs roved here and there. I took to hiding in unused graves at the outskirts of refugee camps. It was “down”, but it wasn’t a place the living thought to look. No one was burying the dead anymore. No one scavenged the dead now that they’d already been picked over. And the shells of empty coffins provided some shelter from the life-denying rains and marauders.
And the scent of early plague dead even kept the predators away. Good, since I’d never managed more than a sharpened stick for a weapon. Threw the Bible at an aggressive crow once, but not much else.
The act of retrieving the Bible that once led me down a path away from the cemetery I was hiding in that day. That was when I saw the old and aged adobe structure. Found the last most recent resident, too. As he was dying of plague, he couldn’t stop me from coming in. And having the plague that had killed his companions – there were no more friends anymore – no one else dared to come there anymore. Threat of a horrific death … that was a good place to hide.
He’d hoped for an intruder to come in and give him a quick death. He saw me and expected me to kill him. I couldn’t. I didn’t have a weapon. A sharp rock might have done it, but I didn’t have the strength. Went out and gathered up the latest flock of locusts in my tattered jacket and sat down for lunch. He stared, dry and blood filled eyes, in utter lack of interest. He was too sick to be hungry, too exhausted to care. Not even angry that he hadn’t known or thought of that.
“Do you have anything with you?” he finally asked me. “Can’t you do something to help me?”
I held up the Bible. It was the only thing I had but the worn clothes on my back, the jacket with a few things I’d gathered and insanely thought might be useful, and good boots pulled from the dead in the graveyard. He stared at it, far too quiet for far too long. “I can accept that,” he said. He went to sleep then, exhausted from talking. Then he fell into deeper sleep and died.
When the sunlight came through the tiny chimney, I knew it was daylight. I dumped him in the grave I’d been hiding in. He was the only one in the stack of bodies within one. Later, I put dirt on it. Didn’t want anyone passing by to think his body wasn’t still in the small building.
Life was lived in the few hours of daylight marked by the chimney’s shaft of daylight and before it got too dark. Cactus still grew, or at least hadn’t died. Bugs came often. Dead trees here were so far from the grasslands that distant wildfires had not been able to cross the emptiness and burn them, too. That didn’t mean the distance wouldn’t be crossed by something just as bad or worse, just that it hadn’t happened yet.
My dreams never went further back than the end. I sometimes wondered if it was an adaptation to the environment I might have read somewhere. If you didn’t – couldn’t! – think about all the foods and shelters and medicines and friends from before, you couldn’t go mad thinking about it. Or I might have just been mad, after my own failed expectations and the things I couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t have done.
I ate the cactus in the near total darkness, by the shadows of the dim embers. I pulled water from the tiny inside well, the only miracle I’d been granted. Water, deep well water, thus far still clean. This is what so many had fought to the death for this tiny place. I drank deeply. A refreshing moment, something that marked the chance to live one more day.
Then came the nearly whole pot that was my only indoor plumbing. When sunlight came, it would go outside with me. I laid back down to sleep, the Bible as my pillow on the creaking spring thing. Tomorrow would be another day.
“Can’t I go out side and play?” a small, querulous voice cried. I didn’t know the age or even the gender. Someone I had never gotten to know somewhere still had a surviving child in their care. It was just a voice through a wall. I was relieved I couldn’t see them.
“No! You can’t!” came the harsh screaming reply.
“But I’m not the one who was bad -!” the child shouted back before others started yelling. “Quiet! Be quiet!”
The voices over-ran into a harsh tumult down to an angry murmur. Like angry insects ready to roar up into a storm and consume them all. Like the locusts that had come not too long thereafter.
Asking for quiet? That was such a strange concept, with the cracking of a car on fire, random gunfire, and many things breaking all about. How could anyone be quiet? That just meant not being the one screaming or crying in pain or torment or agony, hoping those hurting the person who was suffering didn’t come looking for or find you next.
Someone started singing then. I couldn’t make out words, only a vaguely familiar melody. The others angry voices grew and shifted into the melody. The last refrain, the only one they all sang together, I heard the word “Hosanna”. Then they were all, finally, quiet. For a moment, a very brief moment, there was also a silence in the fighting. A fleeting moment of peace. The only moment of peace that I’d felt during all those terrifying days or weeks between the outbreak of war and arriving here.
Did that child ever get to go outside again and play? I wondered. And though I had not known a face or name or even gender, I looked up and asked someone, anyone, to let that child have a moment in the sun, unafraid, able to be who he or she was truly meant to be.
Sunlight came, but a thin gray beam. Was it dawn, with the sky clearing? Or had I slept all night AND all day, and would have to stay inside all of the night? Fear kept me inside. The mesquite bean porridge, from water and cooked on embers, my only food reserve was gone when the darkness approached. I ate the food with the dying sunlight, having used up the last of the fuel. And having been inside all day without any view of the sun, I did not know if I had slept too long one day or if there had been changes outside the walls. I slept through that night.
The next day, I had to go outside. There were no other options. Then options came to mind. To stay inside and starve. Or break the chamber pot and cut my throat.
I’d survived this long. I’d try for another day. I took the Bible in my hand, my only weapon, just in case. Then I went outside. It couldn’t be worse than living with my fears in the dark.
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The sky had changed. Above me was still pink and orange and angry in many places, but streams of white and gray clouds billowed up from many directions. I had come out in time to come out of the dark, into the newly awakening light.
It looked as if heaven had descended to Earth. It might have been a wild fire. It might have been a seismic event, the crust reamed again and the rest of the world left to burn. It didn’t matter what had happened, only that this was the end of the end.
There was a small quake as I stood there, staring up at the brightening sky. I turned fast enough to see the building collapse. Hiding from the truth would have been the end of me. I only lived now because I had come out of the dark.
It was light, but there was smoke and haze. The Bible was solid in my hand, my only weapon, my last possession, the only thing I was certain of in the face of this insanity.
“OK, I give up now. No more hiding. I’m all yours now.”
The approaching storm front hit me, the thick roar like all the angry monsters in the world. “I’m ready now.” They were my last words as I came out of the dark and into the light.