She stands in the doorway, sniffing the night air, her chin raised as if she is looking at the sky. But her eyes are closed for she has no interest in the vast expanse of stars above her. Instead, she catches the scent and can almost hear the murmurs of the memories contained within the building.
She opens her eyes and steps across the threshold. The glass that once covered the entire front of the building is long gone, shattered and scattered to the wind. Inside the building, long rows of empty rusty metal shelves face her, a handful on one side of the room tipped onto their sides like oversized dominoes.
There was once life here, filling this space with breath and bustle, every day from morning to night. Harried mothers, bored cashiers, impatient career women, elderly widows and young girls. Purpose and emotion and sweat and laughter…
She moves to the center of the vast space and kneels on the floor. The whispers are like tiny breaths in her ears now, and her hunger is a living thing inside her. She stretches out her arms, palms open and facing the ceiling. And then she opens her mouth and inhales.
The ancient thoughts, emotions, memories, pain, and life flows into her. The flavor is weak, lacking in depth and meaning. But this was just a simple supermarket. It wasn’t anyone’s home. She has long ago emptied those places in this town. This is nearly all that’s left.
Her breath ends and the whispers cease. This building is empty now, too, devoid of its essence. As she stands, she sees the patches of rust spread outward and consume the metal shelves. The dusty floor under her feet cracks and peels, decay sweeping through the building as if it is caught in some time-lapse film over decades, perhaps centuries.
As she steps out onto the cracked concrete, the whole building groans as if it is dying—which she supposes it is—and begins to collapse inward. She walks away from the supermarket as it falls behind her, crumbling into dust. At the edge of what had once been the parking lot, she looks across the town, her eyes piercing the darkness as if it was the middle of the afternoon.
She has been here a long time, and only a few structures remain. This place won’t continue to sustain her for much longer. Once again it’s time to move on. But the night is already late, and she’ll have to take shelter soon. The sun is no friend, and she’s not ready to let herself be consumed by the blinding rays of that hated orb.
She returns to one of the last buildings, a bank. With the vault door pulled nearly shut behind her, she sits and waits for night to come again.
The concrete is broken and pitted. She wonders, not for the first time, if she’s going in the wrong direction. It has been three nights since she left the town and has seen no other signs of civilization except the road. Where did this road lead, back when the world was normal? Are there any more towns in front of her, or is she heading out into a barren wasteland?
She cannot remember the time before, when life filled this country from end to end. She does not even remember her own name. The oldest memory is her first night, crawling up from the basement of a house, the hunger screaming inside her. There was something about that first feeding, so intense she lost consciousness at its peak.
It was the very last time she slept. How many years have passed since that night? No other feeding has ever come close. Deep down, she knows it was her house, memories of her own life and family she consumed. But she cannot acknowledge that, for she knows she would go mad. So she travels on, looking for signs of people.
Two nights later she sees a faint glow on the horizon and knows it is too early for the sun to be rising. The light is steady, which means electricity. A settlement.
She almost turns away. Her eyes have not seen another living person for so long, she has trouble bringing up the memory. She knows what her presence will do to them. But she keeps walking toward the light. The hunger won’t let her turn away.
The sun rises as the town comes into view, and once more she digs herself into a shallow grave at the side of the road before its horrid rays can touch her. The wait through the day, buried in the hot sand, feels like eternity to her. But the hours pass and she feels the heat ebbing away from the surface of the ground as night comes.
Minutes later, she is free of the shallow pit and moves toward the town. The townspeople have erected a wall of wood and metal around the perimeter, and scattered floodlights illuminate the ground both inside and outside the wall.
She wonders about the wall, about the threats from which the townspeople are hiding. Does this town have enemies out there? Are they at war with another group somewhere close? She wouldn’t be surprised—humanity has never learned from its mistakes.
There are too few lights to provide complete coverage of the ground around the walls, and the metal barrier proves no obstacle to her. She is inside the town and nestled in the shadows without any of the guards around the wall noticing anything.
In the distance she can see a few moving figures around a squat, concrete building. They capture her attention—the shape and movement of their bodies, the novelty of seeing a living person—and she cannot look away. Her chest hurts, and it’s not the hunger rising in her. Perhaps it was a mistake coming here.
She considers feeding right away, but it’s more important to first find a safe place to hide during the daylight hours. She can push off the hunger for another night. Sustenance won’t be hard to come by here. She can see, however, that she won’t be able to stay for long. The effects of her feeding won’t be ignored by the inhabitants of the town.
It takes a couple of hours to find a good spot to hide, an ancient storage shed that doesn’t look as if anyone has been inside for years. A thick layer of dust covers the machine parts on the metal shelves lining the walls. She lies down in the small open space in front of the door and stares up at the ceiling.
In the silence of her rest, the whispers drift in from all directions. These memories are fresh, the emotions raw and vibrant. Her hunger stirs and she realizes she may not be able to wait for another night. But it is too dangerous for her to go back out—she’ll need time to find a place to consume where there will be no witnesses.
She covers her ears with the palms of her hands and squeezes her eyes shut. She can still hear the whispers, can feel them like the soft caress of a light breeze on her skin. Without thinking, she withdraws into herself, tries to pull away from the sensations harder and harder until everything goes dark.
An instant later she is sitting up and looking around wildly. The door to the shed is open and someone stands there, watching her. Her urge is to lunge at the intruder with claws and teeth but she manages to hold back long enough to recognize the stranger as a young person, a child.
She glances through the open door to see the night sky. It is just after dusk. What felt like an instant to her was an entire day. Did she…sleep? No, that’s impossible.
“I don’t know you,” the child says, and she realizes it is a female. Something about the girl stirs something in her mind, in that endless pit where her memories descend and fade into darkness.
“What’s your name?” the girl asks.
She opens her mouth and for a moment cannot remember speech, how it works, what the words mean. Then she realizes she must take a breath first.
“I…” she says, her voice croaking like a rusty hinge.
“I’m Early,” says the girl. “My dad owns this shed.”
“Ear…Early,” she repeats, her own voice sounding alien to her ears. She understands that is the girl’s name. When was the last time she actually spoke to another being? Her mind doesn’t cough up an answer.
The girl smiles at her.
“You’re not supposed to be here, are you? The Mayor hasn’t let anyone new into the town for almost a year. My daddy says the Mayor is worried about food. We don’t have that much.”
The girl pauses and looks around the shed, her eyes moving over the shelves one by one.
“Can you tell me your name? I won’t tell anybody else about you if you don’t want. But you won’t be able to stay here much longer. My daddy plans to pull out all this stuff and do something with it.”
“I…I’m…” and she realizes she doesn’t have a name. Once, perhaps, she had one, but it’s been gone for a very long time. And she knows she doesn’t want to remember it—it might shine a light into that pit and she desperately needs to keep it cloaked in darkness.
Early watches her face closely, and then steps forward and touches her arm.
“You don’t know your name?” asks Early. When she nods, Early takes her hand. “It’s okay, that happens to lots of people. I can give you a name if you like.”
She stares at the girl’s eyes and feels as if she dances on a precipice. So much has been lost to her, but she begins to see that maybe it isn’t lost. Maybe it’s just hidden somewhere inside her. But she knows it’s all too dangerous to find and uncover. That pit will swallow her whole if she remembers, and her thoughts echo across the chasm at her feet.
“You seem sad,” Early says. “I can call you ‘Sadly.’ Some people wouldn’t like that name, but I think it’s nice.”
Sadly. That pressure in her chest is back and underneath it the hunger is growing within her.
“I…I have to go,” she manages to say, stringing the words together as if she knows how to speak, as if she hasn’t swallowed all her words for years.
“Go where? I can tell you where everything is, but I can’t go with you. I have to get back to my dad. And you need to be careful. If they see you, they’ll probably throw you out.”
She pulls her hand away from Early’s grip and carefully steps around the girl. There’s no one else around, and she thinks that maybe she can’t let this girl go, can’t risk Early telling her father, telling anyone, about the intruder in the town. Maybe now she has to consume more than just memories. Maybe she’ll destroy more than just old buildings.
Perhaps she is a scourge, a plague, who will wipe out the remaining pockets of civilization one by one. There’s so very little left of the world as it was, and maybe her whole reason for being is to wipe away the last vestiges, to leave the world bare and desolate. This girl, Early, could be just the beginning.
But the thought of harming this child sends waves of movement through the dark pit in her mind and she retreats, unable to face what lies there.
“If you need food, Sadly, I can give you some.”
She looks into the girl’s eyes, wondering why Early hasn’t alerted the others, the adults in this town.
“Why…help?” she manages to ask.
Early looks up at her, the girl’s face wrinkled up—perhaps in thought or confusion—and then she shrugs.
“We need to share,” she says. “My dad tries to hide it, but I can tell things are getting worse here. I don’t like that they keep anyone else from coming to live here with us. We have to work together, or we won’t be able to fix the world.”
Early kneels down and draws a crude map of the town in the dirt with one finger. “This is where I live with my dad. It’s not far. I’ll put some food outside for you. Just watch the door and I’ll slip out once my dad’s asleep.”
She nods at Early, and the girl smiles and runs off without another word. She stands there and watches the girl leave and then scans her surroundings, noticing a few townspeople moving along the streets. They cannot see her, here in the shadows, but she knows exactly where they are.
It takes her some time to find an appropriate place to feed. The building is little more than a tin shack, but the memories and emotions here are strong. This place hasn’t stood empty for more than a week or two, and she realizes there might be enough sustenance here to last for quite a while.
I can call you ‘Sadly.’ The girl’s words come back to her, again and again. Is that who she is? She doesn’t think she should have a name, but Early has given her one and it sticks in her mind. She kneels in the dirt and thinks of the name, trying it on for size.
I am named Sadly.
What does it mean to have a name? She’s not a person, not really. She became something else, after the world ended. After her world ended. But the girl, Early, doesn’t seem to notice anything wrong.
Once again, Sadly—she tries to think of that as her name—raises her arms and lifts her palms to the ceiling of the little home. The whispers in this place echo around her, caressing her skin and causing the hunger inside her to rise up like a wave, building pressure inside her body as if she will burst forth with…what?
Opening her mouth wide, she inhales. Her eyes snap open and her fists clench as the intensity of the emotions in this small room nearly overwhelm her. She has fed only on ancient, abandoned buildings for so long that she’s forgotten what fresh memories taste like. The hunger is driven from her, and she falls to one side, dizzy, as the whispers fade away.
Sadly begins to pull herself out the door of the shack as the rust blossoms across the surface of its walls. One of the metal panels falls outward to burst into dust as it touches the ground. The corrugated tin roof, not quite fully decayed, hits the ground beside her feet with a sharp crack. She knows the noise will bring attention, but she’s having trouble pulling herself upright.
Voices, sounds of approaching feet, come from around a corner and Sadly forces herself to rise and stagger off into the shadows. She reaches the darkness just as three men walk around the corner, one of them holding some kind of weapon that Sadly vaguely recognizes as a gun. In the deep recesses of her mind, she doesn’t remember how it works, only that it destroys.
The men gather around the shack, now just a pile of dust on the ground.
“What the hell?” one of the men says aloud.
“Someone stole the metal,” comments the one with the weapon. The third pokes the toe of his boot into the dust and then kneels down and sifts it between his fingers.
“No,” this one replies. “It rusted out.”
“That can’t be the entire thing,” replies the first.
“It is.” The third man stands up and brushes off his hand. He turns and looks around, and Sadly pulls back farther into the shadows though she knows he can’t see her. There is something about his eyes, about the expression on his face.
“What the hell could cause all that metal to rust apart that fast?” the first man asks. The third man continues to look around at the darkness and then spins and marches back toward the corner from where they first emerged.
“I’ll tell you later,” he says over his shoulder as he strides off. “I need to check something first.”
Sadly remains in the darkness until the other men walk away, too.
“You didn’t eat the food,” Early says to her. The girl stands outside the shack where Sadly hid once more during the daytime.
“Why not? Weren’t you hungry?”
Sadly shakes her head.
“You don’t talk very much. That’s okay, hardly anyone ever listens to me. I have to tell you, my dad said he’s going to empty out the shed tomorrow. If he finds you here, he’ll call the Mayor, and they’ll probably throw you out of town.”
Sadly pictures the shed door opening in the full light of day. She imagines her skin catching fire, the sun’s deadly rays consuming her flesh and bones until nothing is left but dust. But that is not something she will allow. She’s considered letting the sun take her before, but she knows she cannot bring herself to do it.
“Can you do anything?” the girl asks her.
“Do what?” she asks, her voice still rough and raw from lack of use.
“Sometimes they let people stay if they can do stuff, or know stuff. My dad says they won’t be able to keep the power on for much longer, but no one here knows how to repair the stuff that creates electricity. If you knew how to do that, they’d have to let you stay.”
Sadly shakes her head slowly. There is only one thing she knows how to do.
“Do…do you know where I can hide?” Sadly asks the girl. She considers just leaving, finding somewhere else where she can be a parasite, but she’s not sure she could force herself to leave this town now.
Early looks at her and thinks. The girl’s brow wrinkles and she backs up a step. Sadly wonders if the girl is having second thoughts about helping her.
“I can’t hide you forever,” Early replies. “I just…I wanted to give you a chance. No one ever gives anyone a chance anymore. Isn’t there anything you can do that the Mayor will find useful?”
Sadly is so focused on Early’s face trying to decipher her expressions that she doesn’t hear the others approach. Her eyes snap up as the man speaks.
“Early, back away from her, quickly.”
It’s the men from last night. Now all three have guns, and the long metal tubes are pointed at Sadly’s chest. The man speaking is the one who figured out what happened to the shack last night.
Early looks back and forth between Sadly and the men, and Sadly thinks she should grab the girl and use her as protection, as a way to get free. But she can’t force herself to put the girl in harm’s way—something prevents her from moving. Some echo of the past.
“Early! Move away now!” barks the man, and Early bolts. Sadly watches the girl disappear around the side of a building and knows she will not see her again. Her hunger stirs, though she should still be sated from last night.
“I…won’t hurt you,” she says to the men.
“I know what you are,” the man in charge says, and his gun never wavers. “I know what you’re doing here.”
“I will leave,” she says, but the men tense up and Sadly thinks they might use the guns on her right now.
“I’m not going to let you go somewhere else and destroy another town. No one deserves that.”
Understanding comes to her. This man wants to kill her, and he’s convincing himself that he must do it. She wonders if the guns hold pieces of the sun, and she will be destroyed when they attack her. She cannot let herself be destroyed, though.
Sadly spins and tries to run, and a huge noise hits her as all three men use their guns. She feels something punch in her in the back, twice, and then she falls. The hunger comes alive within her and everything goes dark.
“She’s not human,” the man’s voice is saying as Sadly opens her eyes. She sits in a chair, her wrists bound behind her with thick cord, more wrapped around her torso tying her to the chair. Two men stand guard over her, and they call out as soon as she opens her eyes.
Sadly looks around. They are in an open area, what might once have been a small park long ago. The floodlights are bright, and a small crowd has gathered to watch. Sadly’s chest aches as she looks at them, and the hunger stirs inside her.
She feels…nauseated, something she barely remembers the name for. She hasn’t experienced such a sensation since that first night, so long ago. For the first time, she doesn’t want to consume even though she is so very hungry. But it begins to rise within her.
“She looks human to me,” a woman argues.
“We shot her twice and it barely knocked her out. She didn’t bleed. I’ve heard of these things before, from other travelers.”
The woman is short, with blond hair cropped close to her head. But the others stand back and let her speak, as if she is in charge of these people. Perhaps this is the Mayor that Early told her about.
She turns to Sadly and approaches to within a dozen paces. The guards have their guns aimed at Sadly’s head, but she knows now they cannot destroy her with such tools.
“Who are you?” the woman asks.
“Sadly,” she answers.
“How did you get past the walls?”
Sadly considers what she should tell this woman, but doesn’t remember how to lie.
“I climbed up.” Sadly looks at the man who captured her. “He is right. I’m not…one of you.”
The hunger continues to build, but there are no whispers here, no echoes of past memories or emotions. There is nothing to consume, and yet her body is reacting as if she is about to feed. The wave builds slowly until Sadly looks over at the people again. Then it surges higher, and Sadly knows she can break her bonds if she tries.
A yell sounds from someone in the crowd and Early comes running across the open space, followed by a man who must be her father.
“Stop! Don’t hurt her,” yells Early, and the sight of the girl causes the dark pit in Sadly’s mind to roil and stir again. Early is upset—Sadly recognizes the emotion on the girl’s face—and her fear and worry is enough to cause the pit to bubble and froth, erupting with echoes of the past.
Sadly screams as glimpses of before flash through her mind. All those thoughts, memories, and emotions come flooding up and overwhelm her. She sees lives beyond counting, their most intimate secrets laid bare before her. And mixed into it all, the sum of accumulated knowledge from all those people who lived, loved, hated, worried, agonized, resolved, and understood.
Understanding now comes to Sadly as the woman grabs Early and backs away, her face now a mask of fear. This town is dying, like all the others. It is not sustainable because the people here don’t have the knowledge they need to keep everything running. But Sadly has the knowledge inside.
She cannot teach them—that is beyond her. She realizes, though, that the memories upon which she has fed for so long are still inside her. She never consumed them. She merely stored them.
Perhaps it is not her purpose to destroy, after all. She is not the scourge she believed she was. And with that realization, the wave inside her peaks. Sadly opens her mouth, and exhales.
It comes out in a torrent, a rush of ideas that floods over the field, over the crowd gathered around her. The people clutch at their heads and scream, trying not to drown under the nearly overwhelming wave of emotion and memory.
As Sadly feels herself weakening, everything that she is erupts from her. And as that pit in her mind empties, the very first memories—those that were buried under all those she stored afterward—come up and she sees her own life in the time before the world ended. She sees her own daughter, so similar to Early. She sees her husband, her home, her friends, every thread that made up the fabric of her existence.
Sadly tries to hold onto those memories, but they slip out of her grasp and pass across the crowd. She feels empty, no more hunger, no more sensation. The pit is gone and there is no longer anything to keep her in this world.
She sees the Mayor slowly raise her head and look at Sadly, and understanding blossoms in the woman’s eyes. It has worked. The knowledge they need is here, the seed of a new world now residing in these people.
For the first—and the last—time since the world changed, Sadly smiles. And then the decay spreads throughout her own body, and as she turns to dust she hears Early call her name one last time.
Sadly echoes across the field as the sun begins to rise.
© 2016 Andrew J. Luther