Something a little bit longer for your weekend read. The beginning to a story I never finished writing, but I enjoy the concepts behind it so much that I have to share it anyway. Maybe I’ll continue some day.
The world was howling around her as she stumbled into the shadowed room, the echo of the blast still washing over her in wild, dizzying surges like the sound of a behemoth’s heartbeat. The screams, the panic, from the foyer downstairs were the cries of ants in comparison — wailing ants waiting helplessly under the shadow of an oncoming foot.
Her hand hit the bookshelf before her eyes realized she was in range, and she jammed her elbow with the force of her unsteady momentum. This wasn’t the time for dizziness, wasn’t the time for weakness or aching limbs, but her subsequent headshake to try and snap herself out of it only left her gagging back a new fit of nausea. The thrumming amped up to eleven in her ear, and she felt herself flinch in anticipation of a surging ocean wave or possibly a thirty-foot butterfly wing sweeping into her from the left.
The conservatory had been on her left. In the conservatory had been her—
No time, no time to think about it. No time to dwell. She only had… who knew how long. Seconds, if that.
The screaming ants were slowly going quiet.
Her hands more than her eyes searched the bookshelves in the shadowed room, slipping over familiar trinkets and those half-forgotten. Carefully retained, still meticulously arranged. The row of books, that shell from the store – too perfect to find on any beach, but they’d pretended anyway. The malformed duck from woodshop, the Hot Wheels car with the missing wheel. Some things her fingers skirted over the second they touched, air hissing quietly from her lips as if she’d burned at the contact, some they caught and lifted briefly, fondly, before setting them back in place.
But there was nothing here.
She gritted her teeth, spinning toward the bed—and found herself elbow deep in carpet when the floor seemed to swim up to meet her. Felt a strange dampness near her jaw, wondered vaguely if her ear was bleeding or if a stray tear had made it down to the side of her cheek. Panicked sweat? If she was still hearing that whooshing noise, that had to mean her eardrum hadn’t blown out, didn’t it?
She pushed herself up off her elbows, looked toward the bed again.
No, the nightstand would be useless. The closer something was to a person, the more likely it was to be chosen for snooping. He had always said that; she had always held by it. It was out in the open or not at all. But none of the echoes on the shelves were right. The rusted key, the glass clown… it was as if someone who had known exactly what he was looking for had come by and cleared out the space just before she’d gotten here, leaving nothing but curious gaps in the dust.
It was the absence of footsteps that alerted her to their presence: the odd, curious gaps of sound in the pattern of screams and treading feet. It was in that moment that the rushing in her ear was a blessing — that intense flood of sound being replaced by… two pair? Yes, two pairs of feet. Moving more silently than sound could account for. And they must have been close.
She gritted her teeth, surging to the right in a last, desperate attempt to locate salvation. She wouldn’t be getting what she needed but maybe, possibly, if a flight of angels had decided to flutter in and sprinkle fairy dust wishes over her shoulders, there was a chance that she would still get out of this alive.
The closet was deep and darker than the midnight-seeped room around it, a homey cave that seemed to insulate itself against the world with a cozy barrier of wool and wood. On another night, long ago, she might have tugged down some of those sweatshirts and curled in them like a nest to shut out the troubles of the world. But that was before the troubles had started coming for her.
Her fingers danced across the line of coats and sweaters. Wool, cotton, leather, cotton, buttons, zippers—there. A tough fabric, oversized, with a frayed sleeve where a teething child had once favored it as a chew-toy of choice. Army green and larger than life and the one item in the entire world that was completely, utterly safe.
The absence of footsteps stopped even as she tugged it off the rack, and she felt the pressure of not-eyes sweeping over her before she had even begun to turn.
She had one chance at this, one. If the echo didn’t fit, wasn’t strong enough…
Somehow the voice, when it came, was even worse than the not-footsteps. It slithered up and into a brain that tried to fight its very presence; that was designed specifically to ignore its existence. Not-footsteps were easy to comprehend: they were simply a lack of something that should be there – something that either was or wasn’t – and the brain could accept one as easily as the other. This, though… there are dozens of sounds that a human mouth can make. Hundreds of syllables, uncountable words, and listening to them speak was like trying to think specifically of the words that you did not hear. Not that you simply didn’t hear, but rather those words that pointedly were not spoken. It was as though every single word hung on the edge of existence, pregnant with the possibility of coming into the world, except for those they were uttering. The ones her mind wished desperately to avoid, those were the ones being spoken.
“Here,” it didn’t say, musingly, from its place in the fire-lit doorframe. “Interesting, don’t you think, that she would choose to come here of all places. Perhaps the explosion addled her brain?”
And it smiled at the words – she distinctly sensed it not smile – as it trailed a finger teasingly over the doorframe and stepped in.
And she almost threw up again at the sight of them.
Sight was the trickiest thing of all to comprehend about them. Not being something, not doing something, was the essence of their existence. If a person could understand the mechanics of what things were and were not – truly understand, not just skate by on the intro level course of existence by cheating off scientists and philosophers smarter than them – it would be an easy enough thing to become the opposite. If you were to truly comprehend the essence of footsteps, what they were down to their smallest components, then how difficult could it be to simply rearrange those pieces to create silence in their stead? That was the essence of the Non. Words, as we’ve said, are harder to work around. There’s more meat to words, but in the end they’re still just sounds. Each vowel has an opposite, and for each sound that is, a corresponding sound that isn’t. To hear them speak is painful – deafening, almost, in its silence – but with enough practice it could be understood.
Sight, however… sight was a bit more complicated. For every single thing that a person is, there’s a corresponding image of what there isn’t. For a tall person, the opposite would be a small person. Thin would become wide and male, female. Then again, seeing something at all would equate to not seeing, and someone moving forwards would become someone moving back.
The human mind, unaccustomed to dealing with all these inconsistencies, would more often than not gaze right through these beings with a sense of confusion and dizziness, before deciding that what they weren’t quite seeing couldn’t possibly exist at all, and discount them.
She knew better, though, and was able to gaze past the spaces that her eyes tried to slide off of, swallowing back the sickness in her gut as she did. And she was able to hear the words that her ears tried not to take in. Whether they realized this yet or not she wasn’t sure; they continued to muse, absently, as though they didn’t.
“Old room,” the other replied, its silence as mild and unassuming as the hush between a mortician and his patient. “Old memories; unused.”
“But unuseful, as well. Surely she must realize.” The first shape continued to shift along the far wall, fingers dragging across the dust on the shelves in a casual echo of her earlier, panicked searching. “Coincidence, chance, serendipity only goes so far. She can hardly presume to possess an echo connecting her back to her loved ones from beyond the grave.”
And maybe it was the choice of words it was not saying, or the tone it was not using, but she was suddenly certain that they did know she was listening.
“To come up here at a time like this… maybe she wants to join them.”
A steadying breath, a swift movement, and the coat was over her shoulders. The cozy warmth, the comfortable weight of a jacket twice her size; the old, familiar cologne of sour whiskey and gunpowder. And the secure knowledge that nothing in the world would be able to touch her while she was wrapped up in these arms. She took a careful step to the right and allowed the memory to swallow her.
Back then, she’d been six years old and tumbling off the high branch in the apple tree, falling for what felt like forever. Screaming and pure terror and believing beyond any shadow of a doubt that this was going to be the end for her. Years later, looking back at that apple tree, she’d realized with a small pang of shock how very low that branch had been. She could reach up, hardly even a stretch, and dangle from it, grazing her toes across the short grass.
But at the time it had been stories up. Miles. And those arms had caught her and held her, and he’d been like Superman defying gravity and Death itself to deliver her from certain doom. In that moment she had truly believed that those arms – sour whiskey and gunpowder – would keep her safe every time she fell. And now, wrapped up in those smells and that warmth and the echo of that feeling, she felt herself believing it again.
Her back was to the window, now. The house was burning below her.
And the people who were not there leered, and the muted tread of non-footsteps began to close in.
And she smiled, took two decisive steps backward.
And fell a thousand miles toward freedom.