This story is by Erick Morin and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Reality is imposing—better when one can feel it and breathe it in. Darkness covers the trees, and unfamiliar sounds light their senses. The air is fresh, a pine smell. Or is it oak? Exotic aromas—nothing like what they are used to smelling: stagnant air, vented air. Pure oxygen flows through their lungs, expanding their chests as they run through trees and shrubs. Their feet sink into the sod, and their worn shoes leave an imprint—a trace of their existence. The sky is illuminated by thousands of bright dots, a collage of forms and shapes. Everything around them is familiar but new. No more having to look at pictures of distant lands, pictures of fairy tales. Everything they have read or imagined about the outside world is inferior to the spectacle they find themselves in. Here there are no fantasies, no lies, only freedom and truth.
Their legs start to ache, and they slow down. The boy stops first, gasping for air. The girl stops a few paces ahead, dragging her lungs. This world isn’t what they thought it would be. What of all the danger and destruction? All they’ve encountered thus far has shattered their perception of what reality is, of what it means to be living. The forest they’re running through, the magnificent sky, the multitude of smells, the sounds of whispering winds, all unreal. For the past twelve years, up until this moment, they’ve prepared to live in a world inhabited by horror.
A buried memory of a map surfaces in their mind, pushing them east. As they traverse this unfamiliar land, intrusive thoughts ignite their brain like stalking shadows waiting to lunge. What if we shouldn’t have left? What if everything we’ve prepared for is out here waiting for us? They give each other a stare and toss the thoughts aside. They have to keep pushing forward, this they know. The forest is thick, a mural of dark green shades. They keep running, the green becoming a blur, a mixture of the unknown.
Sounds of rushing water floods their ears. Curiosity drives them towards the source of the cacophony of waves. They reach the cause and find land torn apart separated by surging waters—a vein of Mother Earth. Their eyes glisten in the water, and they reach out to feel the life-blood of the world.
A pause. Fear paralyzes their mind. What if this liquid is dangerous? What if there is some mystical beast living in this aqueous material? A splash. Droplets spray onto their faces, and the panic rises, then falls. Water. It’s just water.
Laughter breaks through the sound of the river, and the girl reaches into her backpack and pulls out a small tube along with colored strips. She scoops some water inside the tube and is given the signal. They cup their hands and bring the cold water to their lips. The taste is magical, endowing them with the nourishment to keep going. They take out a canteen from their packs and fill them, taking small sips to catch the falling water as they cover the containers. Following the flow of the river, they continue their journey.
As they walk, another deluge of doubts sink in. Should we have left? What if the river takes us back? They look at each other and can tell a similar thought is sitting at the edge of their tongue. They should have brought the map, but there was no time.
The choice to leave wasn’t easy; escape was the only option. Choices are jagged branches twisting towards different realities. The reality of their situation was defined by someone else’s decision, and they were no longer going to live in that perceived reality of lies. They spent their childhood preparing for the possibility of the world outside their haven being aberrant, but they didn’t plan on the beauty and peacefulness—on the magnificent scenery surrounding them. The thought of lying down on the soft ground and closing their eyes crosses their minds. Perhaps, they can build a life here.
A silent wish.
They keep moving.
Time is something they can’t quantify, but they know it exists. Passing events interconnected by relationships to other occurrences. As they continue walking along the edge of the river, they wonder how long they’ve been gone for. The river twists and turns, moving their bodies to the next event, to the next choice. The winding waterway arrives at a large stone structure, which marks the edge of a cliff; falling water makes a thunderous sound ahead of them.
The girl holds her hand out to the boy, signaling for him to stop. She moves slowly towards the structure, looking in all directions. The darkness covers her line of sight; each step forward might result in a plunge into the abyss. She is aware they have a flashlight, but they made the pact to conserve the battery. Only in exceptional circumstances are they to use it, and the Moon will make its appearance again, this they know. She makes her way to the base of the structure and looks down. She waves her hand to the boy, and he starts to advance.
A crackle in the brush ignites their awareness. They both turn their heads in the direction of the noise, and swiftly the boy stops and lays his body flat on the ground—to be one with the dirt. The girl crouches down, knees locked and ready.
Eyes form in the darkness, glowing in their direction. The boy takes out the flashlight from his backpack. If the creature moves towards the girl, he will shine his light to catch its attention; better him than her. Time moves slow, a snail slithering to its next destination. The glowing eyes advance. A shape begins to form: a long snout, horns, a large body, four thin legs, a short tail, a monster in the dark.
The boy rises to his knees.
The beast looks in his direction. A click echoes as the boy flicks on the flashlight, whether it was reflex or fear didn’t matter.
In the beam of light, stood the most majestic being they have ever seen. Bashful eyes, a golden-brown body, a creature they had studied in books—a white-tailed deer. With a grunt, the deer stomps and dashes back into the trees. It moves as if it were the wind itself. A sigh of relief can be felt throughout the air. The boy moves his flashlight over to the girl. She waves back to him, a smile on her face. The demons that were supposed to be ravaging through the lands are nowhere to be seen—only angels and Eden. The boy turns off the flashlight.
The roaring water below the girl brings her back to reality. She moves her body away from the edge, but a force holds her foot back, causing her to lose her balance. The undergrowth is as thick as the darkness, and before she can regain any composure, gravity acts upon her. She falls backward.
A hand grabs her arm. The boy grips her as fiercely as he can, but she feels the sweat on his arm. Her grip loosens, and she starts to slip. On an impulse, she swings her feet to the side of the cliff and pushes up as the boy pulls. Their bodies catapult backward, as she is hauled over away from the edge. They land near the stone structure.
Stars glitter the sky, and the clouds dissipate, revealing the Moon. Their hearts beat fast, music disrupting the silence of the night. They take in the radiance as they lie on the ground, contemplating their future. We are free. The girl swears she saw a star move, and the boy assures her it must be a meteor. Maybe, the meteor that was supposed to fall to Earth and destroy everything.
In an instant, flashing lights scatter across the sky—as if fate heard them. Bright colors. A booming sound can be heard off in the distance. Is it the tanks? Is it the bombs? They rise to their feet and run. They make it through the clearing, and there is another flash of colors in the sky, lighting the rolling hills and open fields in front of them. Across the landscape, they can see a glowing aura protecting a cluster of buildings. Civilization. Another boom shakes the sky.
The lights and buildings are alluring, but so is nature. Out here, they are free and no longer tied to a fabled reality. The choices they must make are now theirs, and whatever they choose, they will bear the responsibility. Time doesn’t stand still; it moves from one event to the next, pushing forward until each event eventually breaks down. The end of the world hasn’t happened yet. For now, they will enjoy this newfound liberty. They will go forth until they can go no further.