I lost my city in the light of day,
Thick smoke, helicopter blades,
Heaven and earth never moved so fast,
you'll never know the fear your mama has...
The city was coming down before our very eyes.
There were about five of us running together, all keeping each other propelled forward by the backs of our jackets. I had Franchesca and Robbie’s jacket collars gripped tightly in my hands, my sweating palms making me dig my nails into the fabric out of fear that they would slip through my fingers. Nicol and Andre had their own grip on me, one hand on my shoulder and the other tugging at my backpack loop. Thank god I had thought to bring my backpack.
Dust and debris clogged our lungs and hailed on our heads as we stumbled on, trying to escape the buildings we had once called home. Screams and cries and monstrous noises of buildings falling echoed around us. I couldn’t remember when I actually started crying, I just remember my long hair sticking to my face and the taste of salt in my mouth.
We were almost safe, nearly a quarter of a mile away from the city border, when suddenly this girl ran out from an alley right and right in front of us! It was a mess of limbs and dust, each one of us scrambling to get off of each other and shouting.
“What the hell! What are you thinking?”
“Get up, get up you idiots! We have to keep going!”
“We’re gonna die!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Once someone was on their feet they kept running. I really can’t blame them for looking out for themselves. It might have been wiser of me to keep running myself. But I was the last one to scrabble back on my feet, and there knelt the girl who had tripped us, bruised, useless, and crying her eyes out . I heard a crack above us, and without looking up I knew something was coming down. Idiotic, reckless, but moved by some deep inner stirrings, I scooped the strange girl up and began to run again, seconds later hearing a huge crash behind me.
The shockwave almost sent us sprawling again, but I could see my friends at the edge of the jungle that bordered the city, and the adrenaline kept me going. I knew I couldn’t last much longer. My arms were turning to lead, clutching this girl that should have been too heavy for me to pick up so tightly. I feared my legs were going to fall off as soon as I stopped running, they were so numb.
My feet propelled me into the jungle, into the arms of my friends. I placed the girl gently on the ground in front of me, and was about to breath a sign of relief when Franchesca screamed,
I didn’t get to see what hit me before everything went dark.
Traveled so lightly ‘cause
I was a fraction out there,
Bodies in motion just
Wanna belong somewhere…
In the darkness, I was submerged in a deep, dark, liquid, suspended in a moment in time. Presently, my vision refined it’s focus, and stars came into view. They shined with the light of bright pinks, yellows, blues, and even a red star appeared here and there. I was filled with a pleasant warmth, and I even found myself wriggling my toes, moving the liquid around me with the same weight that my feet would have had in the sand. But then my vision refined even further, and what I saw filled me with dread.
Suspended with me in the liquid were hundreds of bodies, all the same colors of the stars I had just seen. My skin crawled as I noticed them floating towards me, but not of their own volition. It was as if there was a small undercurrent pushing them towards me, and I flailed out as I tried to put some distance between me and the bodies. In my flailing I pushed my head further into the liquid, and suddenly I saw visions of life, death, the universe, everything. It came to me all so quick, I panicked, and in the next moment I lost all vision, choking in the darkness.
I woke up coughing and spluttering, and with the worst headache of my life. Green blurred in and out of my vision with deeper greens, and my hands and the back of my head felt sticky and warm. Something was covering my mouth, preventing my coughs from escaping properly. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a brown blob of a figure, and once my eyes finally adjusted I could see that it was the girl I had saved. My backpack was lying open next to her, and she was clutching my roll of duct tape like a rosary. It was then that I noticed she had duct taped our mouths.
I reached up to peel the tape off my face, but the sudden movement caught her attention and she hurriedly slapped my hand down. Her face was awash with fresh tears, and with great difficulty I turned to see what she was staring at. What I saw would have made me shriek had it not been for the duct tape covering our mouths. Suddenly I was grateful for the girl’s ingenuity.
Slithering through the undergrowth in front of us was a skin-viper, a deadly type of dragon that caused earthquakes and belched fire when it needed to. I had seen it earlier when it was destroying the city. It had surfaced long enough to drag some people into the depths below it, and it was rumored that if it didn’t suck all the meat off your bones for it’s meal, it would strip you of your skin to line its den later. I found this grim rumor to be true all too soon.
I closed my eyes and fresh tears squeezed out as I tried to block out the horrible sucking, slurping sound it made. I heard some other hisses and clicks, and the brief rustle of the undergrowth as it slithered along. I was sure it had come to end us, and I held my breath, trying to lay very still and not imagine what having all your skin peeled off felt like. I lay there, tense and struggling for breath, for what seemed like an age before the girl who saved me tapped me and gently began to peel the tape from my mouth.
“He’s gone.” She whispered, but it was obvious from the look on her face she was still frightened. There was blood on the inside of the tape from where I coughed, and as I raised my hands I saw they were swollen with shrapnel and covered with blood as well. I suddenly felt very sick.
“Oh god, oh god.” I murmured, rolling myself onto my hands and knees. I crawled from the underbrush and pushed myself to stand, using a tree nearby to support my shaking legs. My stomach lurched as I looked around the little clearing that the skin-viper had just left. The entire area was littered with bodies, the bright green grass drenched with dark, drying blood. Organs and muscles could be seen still twitching and pulsating with the shock of having their skin removed so suddenly. Some bodies had been left in piles of bones, stained a wet pink where the viper’s tongue could not lap up the remaining blood. I retched at the sight, spewing what little had been left in my digestion system before the city fell. It was so terrible. And somehow, I had survived.
After my heaves subsided, I fell to my knees, guilt rolling over me like a wave. I could no longer control myself, as more dry heaves now mixed with sobs wracked my body. My friends, my family… the home I had known for my entire life… it was all gone.
“Why am I still alive? Why am I still here? I should have died with them.” I cried out, curling up into myself and holding my head between my knees. I wasn’t surprised to find that blood coated the back of my head from where the shrapnel hit me. As I lay there, sobbing and wishing I would die, the girl had been watching me. Once I had exhausted the ability to heave anymore, she crept over to me and gently touched my shoulder.
“Come on. We need to get moving, or else it may come back.” She said, in a tone that was all too suddenly grown up. I glared up at her for a moment, fully getting a good look at her. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen, maybe seventeen at the most. The tears from earlier had dried in dirty tracks on her face, but the courage that had replaced her fear made her look like a warrior. I grabbed my bag harshly from her in that moment, and with my remaining strength stood and rounded on her.
“Where are we going to go? We’re as good as dead anyway! There’s no city to go back to, and we know no one beyond this forest! We should’ve died with the rest of them! I should have died with my family!” I cried. I looked around helplessly at the bodies, trying to stifle the urge once more to mourn. The girl stayed calm though, even though looking back on it now a fire had ignited in her eyes.
She grabbed my hand tightly, and got right into my face to look me in the eyes.
“Look.” she growled, in a way that made me gulp back an upcoming hiccup. “My name is Ursa. I had family back there too. And I know later, I will probably feel the same way you do. But right now, we need to find somewhere safe for the night, or else there’ll be more creatures than the skin-viper coming for our flesh. So are you coming with me? Or did I save you for nothing?” I looked back at the bodies surrounding us, and thought back to the bodies surrounding me in my dream. Had they been coming to claim me? Was that really the life after death I had envisioned? But then I looked back at Ursa, the girl I had saved and who had in return saved me. Had she brought me back? What connection was tying us to each other, that we had each so narrowly escaped death?
I squeezed her hand for reassurance that I was indeed still flesh and blood, but at the same time, I couldn’t help voicing my concerns.
“I just can’t help but feel like I shouldn’t be here anymore. While I was - unconscious, I saw - something. I think it might have been the afterlife. Or even the universe. And it was coming for me, until I woke up in front of you.” Ursa bit her lip, her eyes darting back and forth. I could tell she was concerned by what I said, and I felt an urge to keep talking.
“Did you experience something similar?” She licked her lips, and said,
“Yes. I think I may have experienced something similar.” She turned away from me and started making her way through the jungle, cautiously looking around trees and stepping over branches and bodies. My curiosity replaced my sickness temporarily, and I followed her, anxious to learn more about her experience.
We picked our way carefully through the jungle, staying close to the underbrush in case we needed to duck down again. There was no sign of wildlife around us, other than the tracks that the beast had left in its wake. Careful to keep my voice down, I asked Ursa,
“When did you experience the afterlife? What was it like for you?” Ursa just sighed.
“I blacked out just before you picked me up to save me. In my dream, or I guess in my time in the afterlife, I was somewhere halfway? Halfway between the real world and the after life. I don’t think I fully realized it was anything more than a dream until you explained a similar feeling. I saw stars, and bodies in motion, and I felt so small compared to them all.” I nodded emphatically as Ursa paused to take a breath and wipe the sweat from her forehead.
“But when I woke up, I really didn’t have time to think about it. You had been knocked unconscious, and everyone was screaming and running as the skin-viper chased them. I had to drag your body into the underbrush, because I figured you had saved me, and you were the only person I could help at the moment.” I was struck again by how Ursa had chosen to save me instead of just herself. I was humbled, and a wave of gratitude rushed over me. I reached out and gently grabbed her shoulder, turning her towards me.
“You didn’t have to do that. And I do feel grateful to you. But now that the danger has passed for now, have you thought about what your experience might mean? Is there a different way I can interpret mine?” Ursa just shrugged.
“I mean, we both ended up saving each other’s lives, and we had the same near-death experience. Looking back on it now, I would take it as a sign we were meant to live, and we were meant to save each other. If I was meant to die, why would I have woken up in time to pull you into the underbrush? If you were meant to die, why didn’t you bleed out from your head wound?” I brushed the back of my head with my hand as I considered Ursa’s point of view. As we had talked, the feeling that we were somehow connected had grown stronger, and I couldn’t help feeling fond of her on top of how grateful I was to her for saving me.
“We’re all we have now.” I said finally, shouldering my backpack with a grimmer determination than I had before. I glanced back the way we came, one last time, before turning back to Ursa. “And if you’re right that we were meant to live, then you’re also right that we need to keep moving. There should be another village on the other side of this jungle somewhere.” Ursa smiled for the first time, and I gave a faint smile back. She took my hand again, and we started to pick our way through the undergrowth once more.
“By the way,” She whispered to me. “You never told me your own name.”
A pang hit my chest at the thought of my own name, realizing I would never hear the people I loved say it again, But then, Ursa was here. She was all I had left. I squeezed her hand tightly in my own, afraid to let go just as I had been afraid of losing my grip on my friends’ jackets. The feeling in my chest about my connection to Ursa grew stronger with each step, and in that moment I vowed to protect her whatever new dangers we faced, to never let go.
“My name is Desidora.”