This story is by D. Sterrling and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In a distant place at an unknown time…
The soft sound of wind through old dried leaves blows in the evening air. I sit atop a small wooded hill watching the sun beginning to set in the west. The sunset is beautiful, yet I know what that orange glow means. I know what comes after the beautiful skies, after the birds’ evening songs—darkness. The darkness of the unforgiving woods is something that I’ve come to greatly fear. Because, I’ve learned what lives in that darkness.
I sit in the dirt of the forest floor wearing tan pants and a white shirt; both are stained and ripped. My whole body is covered with scrapes and cuts and is coated in dirt. My slightly curled dark brown hair is greasy and unkempt. Altogether I look like a wild boy.
From behind, I hear the sound of someone stomping unsteadily toward me. I quickly get up and turn around. From behind the trees, a girl appears. She has messy dark brown hair and wears a tattered dress; she looks as wild as me. But wait, she’s limping. “What happened, Hesper? Why are you limping?” I ask worriedly as I go to her.
“I tripped and fell down a hill. It was dumb,” she says glumly. I kneel down and examine her shin; it’s a deep purple. I press on it slightly. Hesper gasps. I’m pretty sure her leg is broken but I don’t want to worry her.
“It’ll be alright,” I say.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t catch any dinner.”
“It’s okay,” I say, even though my stomach very much disagrees. All we’ve had to eat in the last few days were a couple of poorly-cooked squirrels. “I’ll build a fire and we can sleep up here,” I say, trying to console her.
I collect sticks and fallen leaves from the nearby woods and pile them together. I attempt to get a fire started with two stones, as I have the past few nights. But I have no luck. After hours of trying to light the leaves, I fall over in exasperation. I lie next to the pile of sticks and leaves feeling homesick.
For some time Hesper and I lie there in the dark listening to the nighttime sounds and praying we’re not discovered by anything lurking in the shadows. As the night sets in, a cool autumn breeze begins to blow through the woods. Cold air blows on the skin exposed by the holes in my clothes; I curl up to try to stay warm. I hear the sound of Hesper’s jaw chattering a ways next to me. Instinctually, I get up and crawl over to her. I look down at her quivering form with a questioning glance. She opens her arms to let me come nearer.
As we have the past few nights, we wrap our arms around each other and press together chest to chest to keep warm. In our current predicament, Hesper is my greatest comfort. Because, despite everything we’ve been through, her soft touch still makes me feel as though the world could be a kind place. I feel her heartbeat is rapid, but I can’t judge her for that; she must be able to feel mine as well.
“Arshad,” Hesper addresses me.
“I know that since those beasts took us from the village, you’ve been doing your best to keep us both alive. And I’m grateful for that, but this injury has made me think—maybe it’s time to face the facts. In nine days we haven’t found anything to indicate that we’re getting closer to civilization, and we’re not equipped to survive out here. It makes me afraid, but the truth is that if those monsters don’t come back for us first, we’ll die of starvation.”
“Don’t say that! I know your injury might be discouraging, but we can still make it back home if we keep going,” I say, trying to make myself believe it too.
“We can’t keep pretending! My leg is just the beginning of the inevitable. We need to admit that this is it,” says Hesper grimly. We remain in silence for a few moments. I can’t honestly argue with her.
“Okay. We can admit that this is the end. But if that’s the case, then can we be honest with each other? I don’t want to die with any secrets between us.”
“Yes, I agree. Nothing should be left unsaid,” says Hesper determinedly. Her words are quickly followed by silence, however. We both know what we want to say, but we’re too afraid. Even with death looming over me, this girl is still the most petrifying thing in the world.
“I love you, Hesper,” I let the words slip over my lips. I feel her heartbeat quicken. “I’m sorry; I know you probably don’t feel the same. But, if we’re being honest, I should tell you that I’ve loved you for a long time. That’s why, even though you’re tougher and braver than me, I’ve tried so hard to be strong. Because loving is protecting, loving is caring,” I say. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do a better job.” I feel Hesper begin to shake with sobs. She doesn’t love me too; it’s all I can think to make of her tears. “I understand if you don’t feel the same.”
“Of course I feel the same,” says Hesper through her tears. “But, I wish we could be having this conversation back home. I wish we could have had whole lives to spend together,” she says in a shaky voice. “Though, I think you deserve much better. I’m really not worth your concern. I’m not tough or brave. I’m just a stupid girl.”
“You should know that I don’t believe that. As selfish as it is, there’s no one I’d rather die with. I wish we were home too, but I’m glad we’re together. You make me feel like I might already be there.” Hesper’s sobs become steady again.
“Can I ask you to do something for me?” says Hesper sniffling.
“What is it?”
“Falling down that hill lowered the odds of me surviving. But it was my mistake, it shouldn’t affect you too. I know you want to save me, but the truth is I’m doomed with or without you. I’d rather it be without you. So, if I get in the way of your survival, you need to let me go. Can you do that?”
Her words make me feel very uneasy. They sound like the fear in my head. I don’t want to listen, but they’re so tempting. “I’ll do what’s best,” I say with a distant firmness. Her tears drying, Hesper smiles bittersweetly and snuggles up to me. She rests her head on my neck. For a long time, we lie there taking comfort in each other’s warm bodies and quick heartbeats. Soon we both fall asleep.
Our rest doesn’t last long. I’m suddenly awoken by the feeling of Hesper shaking me. I open my eyes and start to ask what the matter is, but she quickly shushes me. It seems that we moved away from each other a little while we were sleeping. Hesper is lying a few inches from me now. Her face looks pale and terrified. I hear the sound of something moving around in the bushes nearby; by the noise I can judge that it’s very large. The sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs is followed by a low growl. I recognize that growl. All at once I understand what’s going on. One of those unearthly beasts that took Hesper and me has found us. My senses flee as terror floods my mind.
I begin adjusting myself to get up. As I move, however, I look into Hesper’s eyes. They tell me to run, but they beg me to stay. As I stare at her terrified face I realize that at this moment, to keep her from dying in utter despair, she needs me to stay. Instead of climbing to my feet I slide closer to her. I take her hands and rest my head on the ground. I stare into her eyes.