Hope Is the Thing With Feathers

Submitted for Contest #53 in response to: Write a story that begins with someone's popsicle melting.... view prompt

25 comments

Aug 07, 2020

Drama Mystery Thriller

Welcome to Echo Falls! Population: 12000 2 3


The two girls stare at the sign, albeit transfixed on different parts. Cross legged and in the middle of the road, they sit, far enough apart to tackle a rogue animal holistically, but close enough not to let each other drift away. Naila squints against the blistering sun, regarding Syre without actually regarding her, in the nonchalant attitude they had so perfectly cultivated over the past year.


“I still can’t believe you butchered that ‘E’ so badly. I mean first of all, it’s lopsided, and second of all, that navy blue is such a dull colour choice. Out of all the freebies in the store, and you picked that,” Naila grimaces, but she wasn’t disgusted, not really. She knew that if she were delegated the job instead, the sign would have probably been savaged completely. 


“Well, we’ll just wait for someone else’s opinion on it,” Syre responds equally as casually, though the edge of a sharp knife was layered in her tone. She continues staring at the sign, the rest of the letters doused in a pastel, multicoloured rainbow. It was true; the ‘E’ definitely looked like a sore thumb, but she’s just not all that focussed on it. 


“It’s been six months. There’s no one else.” Naila closes her eyes as the raspberry popsicle melts down her naked arm. It would be quite a sight to any onlooker; two girls, cross-legged on the floor, popsicles in hand, eventually finished but never eaten. There would never be onlookers though, not anymore. 


When she opens them again, Naila makes the mistake of glancing at Syre. It’s just for a moment, but it’s enough. Their eyes lock, and unspoken nostalgia flits between them like the tips of a blazing fire. Much like the sun in that moment, they internally combust with the emotions of what feels like a lifetime; fear, guilt, anger, confusion. 


Hope. 


【 You know what they say about hope. It’s a dangerous thing, especially for the survivors.】


“They are here. I can just...feel it, you know? I haven’t been able to feel much since The Evaporation, but I can feel this,” Syre’s face crumples as tears that feel like strangers prick her eyes. She hadn’t cried since then. She wouldn’t allow herself to, not in front of Naila anyway. Considering they were always together, lacrimation just wasn’t an option. 


“If they were here, we’d have found them. Or they’d have at least shown themselves! Their stupid ass doesn’t even have the decency-” Naila stops when she see’s Syre’s incredulous expression, continuing with a sigh and newfound sympathy- “Look, all I’m saying is that we’ve looked everywhere, for six months, and found no one. This is what, our seventieth day waiting around? Whoever wrote that 3 is either gone or dead. Or both, since those words have been synonymous ever since…” she veers off, knowing that what she was about to say next is tacit. The popsicles are still melting, Syre’s Strawberry almost finished while Naila’s is only at half its wit. Weird. They had unwrapped them at the same time. 


【 When everyone had floated away-been taken?-it was only inevitable for everything that usually kept the town running to leave with them. Not even three days later, and the water seeped away. The electricity burned out. The food rot. But the sun never stopped shining. It gleamed it’s aureate rays, even though it was supposed to be winter. It was supposed to be a snow-covered town with Christmas cheer that December. Instead, the town fell into oblivion, and the sun made its debut. It’s been a year, and the sun is still here.】


They didn’t eat the popsicles. Usually, it was because they didn’t need to, but today, it was the opposite. Today, they didn’t want to. Every thirty days, at the dawn of a new moon, they’d each pick one out from Sals Sumptuous Sweet Shop. Sal was a true hero. They wouldn’t have paid it much attention before The Evaporation, because who gives a fuck about tree huggers? But his installation of solar panels outsourced from New York, the only ones in the whole town, now worked in tandem with the perennial sun. It had kept his freezer working ever since, an old stock of fifty or so popsicles that would have definitely been disregarded that winter. 


Now, the popsicles were the only things that offered some respite from the scorching heat of the sun. The only thing the tepid rivers were good for now was for drinking water. The popsicles, however, were blessings, flowing onto their fingers, their arms, their torsos, their legs, like ice. They were the only things that kept them from complete heatstroke and insanity. That, and the night. 


【 The night had always been beautiful, they had both agreed on the one of The Evaporation. 

“Maybe they went to the stars?” Naila had suggested. She was more optimistic then.

“The stars would never be that cruel. They’re dead,” Syre had conclusively decided, with no evidential reasoning at all. She was more pessimistic then. 

“That’s just what you think.” Naila, her voice a small whisper. 

“No, that’s what I know.” And then Syre had pretended to go to sleep so Naila would stop with her disgusting hope and so that Syre could pretend to be dead too.】


Naila sweeps her legs over the sandy road, knocking over the bulky bottle of sleeping pills. For a minute, both girls stare at it, laying on it’s side, imagining that’s how they’ll look in a few hours time. Syre glances from the bottle to the sign, sighing at the absurdity of it all. Naila glances from her popsicle to Syre, contemplating on whether she should confirm what they were both thinking. 


“Haven’t seen an animal in a while,” she remarks instead, proceeding with caution. They moderately came to realize that they weren’t totally alone. A sporadic stag or beaver would dash across the roads, although they weren’t exactly reassuring. They couldn’t tell them why things suddenly changed, and Nalia knew it would take much more than small talk to take Syre’s mind off of the possibility of someone else.


“Haven’t seen a person in a while either,” comes her response, and the tendrils of something novel waft through the air between them. It had been a while since they’d said anything humorous, the density of everything lost perpetually hanging over their heads in the form of a ball of heat. Some things, though, were more buried than lost, and the joke triggered the dust to rise off the desert that was their happiness. They started laughing, quietly at first, alone, but a few minutes in and they were doubled over, the ring of their mirth embracing the subdued vastland. With cracked hands, they wiped tears from their dry faces, wondering how on earth they’d gone this long without so much as a giggle. 


【 Eventually, they realised no one was coming back, and set off on the road that would lead them out. 

“I didn’t realize how much electricity actually does for us ...like. As soon as the electricity dudes stopped working the t.v was like ‘nah.’ Rude.” Naila blabbered on as they dejectedly walked towards the Echo Falls sign.

“It’s not like the t.v was of much use anyway. The news didn’t mention The Evaporation even once. I mean, I know Echo Falls isn’t exactly on the radar, but you’d expect the media to at least mention the fact that all it’s residents pixelated into the air.” Syre’s face turned ashy as they approached closer.

“Not all.” 

“Huh?”

“Not all it’s residents. You said all. We’re still here.” Nailas face dropped, both from the impact of knowing they were the only two people who hadn’t disappeared, and the dull realisation that the turnout road on the right of Echo Falls was no longer there.  

The road stretched out ahead of them, for miles and kilometres, speckled with desert dust and secrets that now forever dwindled in the distance.】


Syre’s popsicle is almost completely melted now, and the sun is slowly but surely starting to die down. They used to sit, side by side, revelling in the beauty of the sun setting, as if they were right on the edge of the clouds. A burst of pale orange light would engulf the town, the road, the decrepit shops and the sign. It would bathe the girls in a soft glow, making it look as though they were characters in a painting, silhouetted against a sympathetic sky. Of course, the sky was far from it. It mocked them daily, with this cat and mouse game of the sun peaking over the horizon and then dipping down again. It mocked them so much that eventually they became tired of their ritual, preferring to discuss the ways to float away rather than digest the light again.


【 “Is it just because we’re the only one left?” Naila asked one evening, eyes glued to a page showcasing ways in which pills could be harmful.

“Is what just because we’re the only ones left?” Syre would rather get on with the job at hand, but Naila insisted. 

“What I mean to say is...you know. Our...uh...differences, so to speak. Like, would you have hung out with my...type...if everything was normal?” she falters at certain words, as if scared of Syre’s response.

“Are you asking me if the only reason I’m hanging out with a black girl is because she’s the only human left in this illogical situation? And if I’m racist?” Syre asked, eyebrows raised, though she wasn't that surprised.

“Yes?” Naila said with uncertainty, knowing that Syre’s parents weren’t as accepting as one should be in the 21st century.

“Well, if you’re asking that, then no. If I didn’t wanna hang out with you, even if you are the last person with me, trust me I wouldn’t. I’m not my parents,” Syre choked at the memory of her family.

“Well, white girl, I like you too,” Naila grinned. The tension faded away.

“Now listen, I never said I liked you…” but they both had smiles on their faces for the rest of the night.】


Naila’s Raspberry Ripple is a few drops away from disappearing completely, and the cold chill of the dusk air reminds her that the time has almost come. 


“So...should we do this thing?” She coaxes more than asks, red sweetener sticking to her skin for the last time. With a forlorn look at the sign, Syre turns to Naila, a bittersweet smiling playing on her lips.


“Yeah...I think I’m finally ready. Could we just….could we just try one last time, though?” Syre doesn’t expect Naila to agree, or even understand, not after they had spent the better part of a year doing it. 


“Sure,” she replies to Syre’s surprise. Was Naila covertly more hopeful than Syre? She didn’t have time to ponder though, as Naila handed her the megaphone. They had taken it from GadgetzGalore, Naila with the brilliant idea of using it while it lasted as a searching tool rather than perusing the whole town on foot like they had been.


Syre examines the megaphone, brown and dirty from being carried around by two girls trying to hold on to the last piece of invisible string that tugged at hope. 


【 Hope is the thing with feathers.】


“IS ANYONE OUT THERE? NUMBER THREE? ANYONE? WE’RE TWO GIRLS STANDING AT THE WELCOME SIGN, WE POSE NO THREAT,” Syre’s desperate voice is amplified by the megaphone, but she knows it’s not enough to reverberate through the whole town. She nods her head at an identical megaphone perched next to Naila. Please, she begs Naila with her eyes. One more time. For me. For us. With a dejected sigh, Naila picks up the second megaphone, and synchronises the phrases they had become way too used to. 


“IS ANYONE OUT THERE? NUMBER THREE? ANYONE? WE’RE TWO GIRLS STANDING AT THE WELCOME SIGN. WE POSE NO THREAT.” But just like always, there was no response, no movement, no one else. Just the echo of their voices taunting them. 


“If you’re out there, please. Before we leave forever.” Syre adds, more to herself than anyone else.


【 Once they had accepted that there was no way in, and no way out, they fell into a dazed pattern. Wake up, walk around half naked, talk about anything but The Evaporation, sit in silence, walk around some more, drink some disgusting warm water, wait at the sign to see if the side road would miraculously reappear, more silence, the moon!, sleep, oh god fuck no not the sun again!, repeat. Popsicles once a month. A good cold feeling, some sort of welcoming conversation restored, until they started the cycle all over again the next day.

On one of the mundane days, they decided to restore the welcome sign their eyes had become so used to. The ‘E’ had started to fade, and there was something else they wanted to do, around the time Naila started to lose her ambition and Syre started to gain it.

“We should change that population number. It’s false. There’s only us here, and who knows? Maybe one day the side road will come back and someone will turn into it for whatever reason and know that even though this town is dead, we’re not. And maybe then we could go back to, you know, interacting with actual humans apart from ourselves,” Syre had suggested, and Naila, although skeptical, had agreed. They had nothing else to do, anyway.

***

A month later, after their routine trek from the river in the forest, they noticed something different. No, the side road hadn’t magically appeared, but something else had. Maybe something better.

“What the fuck? Naila...do you see that? Do you actually see that?! Three! Someone crossed out our two and put three! You know what that means, right? Oh my god, I knew it I knew it I knew it I knew the day would come….there’s someone else!”

And although Naila was still skeptical, she couldn’t help but wonder, and dare hope, about someone else in this with them.】


“It’s time.” This time it was Syre who said it. The sun had completely disappeared now, and the last drop of Naila’s popsicle stained the cement, sanctifying the occasion. With the moon as the only onlooker, Naila locked eyes with Syre, nodded in agreement, and clutched her hand around the bottle, still lying on its side. With one swift movement, she shakes it and Syre knows that there’s exactly 48 pills that come out. 24 each. 


Syre holds out a slightly shaky hand while Naila, having separated them meticulously, transfers half the pills to her. These weren’t just normal sleeping pills; they were barbiturates, the kind prescribed to people with the sole intention of abating their anxiety and insomnia. In this case, they were designed to potentially kill.


【 “I think overdosing on these is the way to go,” Naila said matter-of-factly, twisting the bottle to examine it.

“How long?” 

“It said usually about 2 hours. It’s gonna fuck our organs a shit ton, and we’ll be in pain, obviously, but it’s the fastest I could find.”

“Okay.”】


They didn't say anything as they gulped down the last of the pills; they didn’t need to. They had already discussed everything beforehand. Boding each other goodbye, when they didn’t have the privilege of saying it to their loved ones felt like cheating. So they took their pills in silence, looking at the moon with the same comfort they had in the primitive days, when they still had admiration for the celestial bodies.


Naila looked like she was already dead, even though Syre knew she wasn’t. Syre herself felt only half alive, her sinuses exploding, her insides feeling as though they wanted to ravage their way outside. The thing that burned the most though was the vivid image in her brain. Encompassing all corners of her skull, was the day of The Evaporation, like it was happening right here, right now, in front of her. Like she had never blocked it out of her mind.


【 The news anchors voice floats through the room, while Syre scrolls through her phone, not really paying attention to either.】


She should have been paying attention to real life.


【 “Ughhh, Moooooom. I’m bored! Can we like, go out or some shit? We haven’t even gotten the Christmas decorations ready yet…” There’s no response, just a small gargle like sound. She should probably get up and help with breakfast, but she figured commenting on Kylie Jenner’s recent was more worth her time.

“Mom!” Syre says again, wanting her mom to stop ignoring her more than an actual response. 

Another gulping sound, and this time Syre looked up.

Her mom wasn’t ignoring her at all.

In fact, her mouth was open, but there were no words coming out. There were no words because her body from the torso down was crumbling-it was literally crumbling, upwards, like pixels, into the sky. And it was spreading, slowly, slowly, slowly...to her neck…

“WHAT THE FUCK!” Syre screamed, running upstairs to call her Dad. But the same sight met her eyes. At his desk, crumbling, floating, drifting away, like he was in a video game. Like he was evaporating.】


The memory lets go, just for a second, enough for Syre to comprehend one last thought. She looks over at Naila, but she’s lying on her side, eyelids moving rapidly. No time to agree on this, Syre decides as she clumsily grabs the thick black marker from her shorts pocket and wobbles over to the sign. 


If there truly was someone out there, she didn’t want to give them false hope. Not like they’d given her and Naila. 


Welcome to Echo Falls! Population: 12000 2 3 0

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25 comments

Doubra Akika
12:28 Aug 25, 2020

Amazing story! I loved your title so much! Everything about this was beautiful! The descriptions and the attention to detail were amazing, as well as the beginning and the end! The italics were also amazing. Please keep writing and stay safe!

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Aqsa Malik
12:58 Sep 01, 2020

Sorry for such a late response, but honestly thank you so so much! I'm glad the italics came across as adding to the story rather than taking away from it. Thank you once again <3

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Doubra Akika
13:48 Sep 01, 2020

It was my pleasure! If you get the time, would you mind checking out my recent story? I’d really love your feedback on it.

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Aqsa Malik
00:05 Sep 02, 2020

Yes, of course! I haven't actually been on Reedsy for the past two weeks, been super busy with uni applications, but that's all sorted and I'll be back to submitting and reading on here this Friday :)

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Doubra Akika
00:41 Sep 02, 2020

That’s amazing! Hope you get into your dream school!

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N. Thorne
22:14 Aug 24, 2020

Oh wow Aqsa this is absolutely amazing! You were able to build a world and plunge the reader right into it so easily. I was transfixed the whole time reading this. And the ending...sad but it fit as an option. And brilliant job with the prompt! The popsicles once a month added a sense of time and desperation to the story, really helped paint the picture of their lives.

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Aqsa Malik
12:59 Sep 01, 2020

Thank you! I'm so glad I was able to incorporate the prompt effectively throughout.

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N. Thorne
20:47 Sep 01, 2020

Yes and you did that so well. I was so impressed by this story, it’s one that stays with you and you can’t forget.

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Batool Hussain
17:28 Aug 11, 2020

This is amazing. I thought I'd read and given feedback already but never mind. Everything is so on point. You've crafted such a beautiful story from such a simple prompt. And oh, i absolutely love the opening and ending lines! Good job:)

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Aqsa Malik
18:18 Aug 11, 2020

Haha that's okay. Thank you so much Batool :D

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Aditya Pillai
07:35 Aug 08, 2020

Simply amazing. I loved this. Chills at the ending. A really great read. I would love it if you could go through my latest (it has an eerily similar take on hope)!

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Aqsa Malik
18:18 Aug 11, 2020

I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And yes, of course! Will get round to it when I can :D

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Jane Andrews
13:59 Aug 13, 2020

I think this is an effective story - beautifully framed by the population billboard at beginning and end. Reading through other people's comments, I'd disagree with the one about not using present tense: present tense works really well here to create tension and immediacy as the story in the present unfolds; and the use of past tense for flashbacks then emphasises that these things happened some time earlier. Yes, there's a little inconsistency with tense at times, but generally speaking, what you've done in this story works well. i think yo...

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Aqsa Malik
14:12 Aug 13, 2020

Hey Jane! Wow, thank you for such comprehensive feedback! And thank you for noticing that, that's exactly what I was going for as I wanted, like you said, a sense of immediacy using present tense, and then to juxtapose it with flashbacks. I know I confused the tenses at time (it's still something I need to work on haha), but thanks for reassuring me about interchanging them in the first place. Thank you! I really had no idea where I was going to go with this story, I really just had the first sentence and went with it. I didn't want ...

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Jane Andrews
13:14 Aug 15, 2020

I assumed ‘recents’ was a Gen Z thing that someone ancient like me hadn’t heard of! Re backstory, I think it works perfectly the way you told it - using present tense and then dripping in bits of backstory via flashbacks. And I actually like your story much better than ‘Z For Zachariah’!

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Zainab Jagani
19:48 Aug 11, 2020

I just enjoyed reading this like the idea is nothing I have ever seen anyone attempt before. All our descriptions the cat and mouse the sun metaphors. You literally invent language concepts and styles that have never been in existence before. Their relationship is shown very well. You manage to create vivid images and emotions. The ending confused me abit but then i got that it was a memory. Suspense kept building up. tHE SIGN BOARD WAS THE PERFECT WAY TO STARt the sleeping pills megaphone such good ideas.Better than books out there always ...

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Aqsa Malik
19:19 Aug 12, 2020

Thanks! Honestly has no idea where I was going with this so I'm glad you liked the premise. And yeah, all the pasts in the bold brackets and italics are flashbacks, with the last one being a memory that was playing as if in the present. As you've noticed, I love to start and end my stories in the same way haha. I'm glad it's effective :D Love you and thank you always ❤️

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:05 Aug 10, 2020

Starting from the top, I love the title. Ever since your 'Happy Birthday/Throat Cutting' story, I've been intrigued by what you choose to name them, and this one is very powerful. I also really liked how you begin and end with the population sign, that's very clever. And then the formatting - how on earth did you do that? I didn't even know it was possible, but those bold black marks you have split the present and the flashbacks brilliantly! That allows you to have two parallel narratives running, and they both impact on each other a way...

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Aqsa Malik
18:21 Aug 11, 2020

Thank you! I know titles can be real bait-I'm guilty of using them to my full advantage haha. I love utilising that in my stories for some reason, so I'm glad you liked it! Haha, I actually just copied it from my Pinterest boards (I have this thing where I need to make half my online presence aesthetic). Just type fancy text symbols on Google and you'll be set :D I'm glad you found that the flashbacks added to the story rather than take away from it, that's really encouraging. Thank you so much!

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Deborah Angevin
11:57 Aug 08, 2020

Amazing story; well done keeping the tension throughout the story! Also, I didn't expect the ending! Would you mind checking my recent story out, "(Pink)y Promise"? Thank you :D

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Aqsa Malik
18:18 Aug 11, 2020

Thank you! And yes, I've already liked and given feedback. Well done as always!

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A. y. R
21:23 Aug 07, 2020

I love this world that you've built from just a simple promt! Your takes on the promts never fail to amaze me, and this one is no different! The tension was perfectly kept with the mystery that ran through the story, and you revealed it really well through! One thing I could improve though is avoid using present tense. It feels like reading stage directions rather than a story, and it's already quite clear that parts of it are flashbacks Also this mistake to edit: "The memory let’s go"

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Aqsa Malik
22:48 Aug 07, 2020

Thank you!! And yeah omg I was really struggling with the tense for some reason, I couldn't decide if I wanted the flash backs to be in like a present tense style or orthodox flashbacks, and I think I mixed the tenses up a lot yikes. But thank you for pointing it out, I'll edit it to fit one flow. Thanks for pointing out that mistake too!

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Tvisha Yerra
15:46 Aug 07, 2020

Wow. That. Was. Amazing.

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Aqsa Malik
22:53 Aug 07, 2020

Thanks so much, Tvisha!

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