“Are you coming tonight? Or are you staying behind with them?”
Anna looked up to see a couple hovering over her, holding hands. The man simply seemed impatient, his eyebrows raised as he waited for Anna’s response. The woman’s concerned gaze remained fixed on the sleeping children, piled together like puppies. Anna stood, brushing off the seat of her pants and stepping a few paces away from the children. But only a few.
“I’ll stay,” Anna responded quietly. “Someone should watch them.” Seven children, plus herself as a lookout, was a safe enough arrangement. Everyone knew that the larger your group, the safer you were. The rules of this new existence had been learned through the unrelenting wave of disappearances. If no one can see you, if no one can touch you, you simply cease to exist.
Anna returned to her spot near the children, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders. The couple moved swiftly back to the main group, with others joining them along the way. A few parents murmured their thanks to Anna as they passed the children, but most just hurried towards the campfire to join the meeting. People clasped hands or linked arms, forming a chain as if they were pushing against a strong wind or a river current - the closer the better.
This strategy had been learned through devastating trial and error. At first, it had seemed to be enough to simply stay close to each other. Most people who vanished at the beginning had gone off alone, to run an errand or to look for a loved one who hadn’t returned home. Later, it became clear that staying close wasn't enough. Disappearances happened from the ends of lines or the backs of groups, loved ones dissolving into the ether when everyone was looking in the other direction. To survive, you actually needed to be seen or touched.
Watching the group move off was like observing the spine of a dinosaur in action, each individual a connected vertebrae that kept the larger organism moving and alive. Anna wished she'd been holding her dad's hand like this months before, when he'd taken up the rear of their little family group to keep an eye on them all. The problem was that no one had an eye on him, and when she'd turned back, he was simply gone.
That is how it always happened. No bodies or bones. No sign of struggle or calls for help. Just the Shriek, and then the silence, as if the person was never really there. The Shrieks seemed to overlap during the first few days, coming one after the other in such quick succession you couldn’t catch your breath. Nowadays, they almost never occurred. People had learned. If no one can see you, do you exist? It made Anna think of the old cliche about a tree falling in the forest unheard.
Their group was holding a meeting to discuss where to travel next. Fall was approaching and food was running low. People were beginning to argue amongst themselves about rations, scouting parties, and future plans. The campfire meeting was meant to bring the group together around a decision: within a week they would either travel east, towards the more populated coast, or south in hopes of warmer weather and abundant farmland.
The fire crackled pleasantly in the distance, and the group’s shadows stretched towards her across the meadow. People put arms around each other, reached for nearby hands, gestured as they talked. But Anna preferred her post watching over the snoring bundles nearby, relishing the illusion of solitude. Once more, she counted the seven heads poking out from sleeping bags. Her time amongst the unconscious children was the only chance she had to feel truly alone. She let her mind wander back to before the first disappearances, when she could indulge in solitary pleasures. Anna imagined herself stepping out of a bubble bath, music playing in the background. She could almost believe she was wrapped in her favorite fuzzy robe instead of this dirty, worn blanket. She’d be sitting on the front porch swing with a book while her family slept inside, everyone safely tucked into their own private corners of the house. Except…
A man’s voice rose as he argued the merits of one plan or another, followed by the protestations of several other group members. They were getting nowhere, Anna could tell. In the end, it probably didn’t matter which direction they chose to travel. The important thing was that they would agree to all go together. A larger group meant safety in numbers, but also the ability to work in teams. With enough people, there could be groups of scouts and scavengers, cooks and camp-builders, and a chance to rest between tasks. There could even be a babysitter who would watch the children as an excuse to get away from all the others, she thought ruefully. Away from the constant, smothering closeness of so many other people.
Since no one could be alone, Anna was forced to do everything in the company of others. When she opened her eyes each morning, there were women on either side of her, snoring or drooling or sometimes staring straight at her as if waiting to see when she’d wake up. Cooking meals, chopping firewood, gathering supplies from surrounding buildings… all of these tasks were done in teams. Even bathing or relieving herself behind a bush required the humiliating presence of chaperones. Sometimes she could feel the physical sensation of eyes crawling over her skin, even when she had turned away for privacy. She was so weary of every moment of her life being observed. She knew she should be grateful for the watchfulness of her group, which kept her alive. But truly, her greatest fantasy of the past few months was a completely empty room, all to herself.
Anna shook herself back to the moment, surprised to see fireflies blinking on and off throughout the field. But she wasn’t the only one who had noticed them. One of the children had woken up and was toddling away from the others, chasing delightedly after the illusive pinpoints of light. The boy was already yards away when Anna realized the danger. She shucked the blanket from her shoulders and leapt to her feet in one swift movement, racing towards him. Thinking she was playing a game, the boy giggled and ran farther away, eager to be chased.
For just a second, Anna swung her eyes back towards the other children to gauge how far they’d moved from the group. Still within sight, but too far for comfort, she had no choice but to follow the little boy. He seemed to be heading for a stand of trees at the edge of the clearing. She slowed her pace in hopes that the boy would match her, but he continued to run ahead. Pushing past the lump in her throat, Anna shouted after him, “Come back! Please come back!” But he was still heading for the trees, unwilling to end his adventure.
She couldn’t go back for help without losing sight of the boy. But was one person’s watchfulness enough to save him? She stumbled on, closing the distance between them, while yelling over her shoulder to alert the others. The panic was instantaneous. Children sat up, rubbing their eyes and whimpering. Adults knocked over plates and cups as they scrambled to their feet and raced toward her. As she slipped into the stand of trees after the boy, the last thing Anna saw was a line of bodies snaking hand in hand across the clearing, their figures rendered as shadow puppets by the firelight behind them.
Turning again, she could barely make out the shape of the boy among the trees. She ran towards him, tripping over brambles and fallen branches, reaching out her hands. She hadn’t heard the Shriek. She could still reach him. As she approached, her toe caught on some tangled vines and she flew towards him. Her hands grasped outwards, clawing the air in an attempt to catch his arm or shirt, but coming up short. Instinctively, she had looked down to catch herself from falling, and a moan rose in her throat. She’d lost sight of him. Anna drew herself up and swept her hair from her eyes, only to see empty forest in front of her.
“You fell, miss! Are you okay?”
Anna didn’t know how to answer the boy. Joy and anger, relief and terror, all came spilling out of her as she hugged the boy and wept.
“I’ve got you. I see you,” she kept repeating as he squirmed under her grip. Anna wasn’t sure how long she squeezed him before he managed to wiggle away. Perhaps a minute, perhaps ten. Exhaustion crept over her. She wanted to lay down right amongst the trees and sleep, but she knew they needed more eyes.
“We’ve got to go back to the group. We can’t be alone.” She grabbed the boy’s hand and started tugging him in the direction they’d come.
In the dark, she wasn’t entirely sure where she was going, but she could hear people calling their names. Doing her best to hone in on the panicked voices, she led the boy on, winding between trees and stepping carefully over rocks and branches. The inky darkness seemed molasses-thick around them, as if everything had been coated in black. With her free hand, she felt their way ahead as they pushed on. She didn’t think they had run this far, but there was no way to make out which direction to walk.
They wandered off course, changing directions repeatedly to match the voices of those searching for them. The boy began to whimper and drag his feet. Finally, Anna saw some moonlight filtering through the trees to the right. She and the boy began to run towards the clearing, calling out to the group. Anna could hear the boy’s mother choking on her tears as she screamed his name. She sounded so close. In desperation, Anna thrust her hand forward, reaching through the trees.
This time, her hand grazed not tree bark or empty air, but human flesh. “We’re here,” Anna cried, groping for the hand. “Can you see us?” She found the hand that was reaching toward her and gripped it tightly.
“We see you! We see you!” The voices surrounded them first. They were pulled back into the clearing, led by the chain of people into the moonlight, and then they were surrounded by arms and by eyes. Anna could feel the watchfulness of dozens of eyes, granting her protection with their gaze. She pushed the boy towards his parents and took a few steps back.
As the group cocooned around the rescued child, Anna felt herself drawn towards the stillness of the trees behind her. She realized no one was looking at her anymore. She slipped her arm out of the crooked elbow she’d connected with. She hadn’t been afraid for herself in the woods, only for the boy. For herself, she wished for the peace of life unobserved. If no one was watching, what was the worst that could happen? She slipped behind a tree and breathed deeply, ready to find out.