In the distance were some kind of mountains, awash in the blood of an ever-setting sun. In the sky, clouds – but not too many; just enough to give the sensation of staring at a slowly-changing painting, one created by a long-since vanished artist. Laid out before all that were the plains, dusty and barren, and a gentle hot wind that blew the hair out of your face as it whisked away your breath and your voice.
This is where she took me, and where we wandered forever and a day. It was as far from the cramped, dismal apartment as I could have imagined, and yet still persisted in that aura of unhappiness – an unhappiness that her presence dispelled, at least for a while. Yes – this was an unhappy place, but it was new and different, and to me that was all that mattered.
Scratch that – she was all that mattered. I realized after a while that I wouldn’t have cared if she had taken me to snow, or the sea, or simply upstairs to her own apartment; so long as I was with her I was safe, and more importantly so long as she was with me – she was safe.
There were rocks in the plains, and there were plants – dry brush that scratched the bare earth and didn’t flower – but nothing broke that hot dry wind as it coursed over the rough ground. Sometimes the wind abated, and sometimes it blew stronger. Sometimes, in the still pause of a breath, there was no sound at all, and I could hear my blood pounding in my ears, draining through my veins; my heart beating slower and slower, and gooseflesh rose on my arms despite the blistering heat.
This was a strange place, and it was ours alone.
For a day – maybe a week – we walked on in comfortable silence, hand-in-hand, never looking back, but not really looking forward either. There was nothing to see, after you’d seen it to begin with; the mountains were always as far away as ever, and after a while one rock looked just like another.
I didn’t much mind whether we spent an eternity here in this desert, because I was with her, but eventually it came to mind that perhaps she had brought me here for a reason, and so I asked her, “What is this place?”
“It’s my home,” she answered.
“Your home? But there’s nothing here.”
“Not really my ‘home’,” she continued. “Maybe more like … my home away from home. I come here, sometimes.”
She shrugged, tugging a little on my hand as she did. “To escape.”
I was going to ask what she was escaping from, but then I thought perhaps I knew. “Is this where sleep takes you?” I asked instead.
But she shook her head. “I told you – I don’t sleep.”
“Is there anyone else here?”
“If there is, I’ve never found them.”
“So this is a lonely place, then.”
She smiled. “Not anymore.”
I think I smiled, too. “I’m glad.”
We carried on again quietly for a moment, and then I thought I saw something, a glimmer in the distance. “What’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“Do you want to find out?”
“Are you scared?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so – just … curious.”
“Then so am I.”
So we walked more in the direction of the glimmer, and soon it became a small structure: a swing set, a slide … a child’s playground. There were three swings, and in the middle one sat a small child, perhaps eight or nine years old. The child was softly humming to herself as she swung, seemingly heedless of our approach.
As we grew near, I spoke: “Hello! Who are you?”
The child looked up, calm and unstartled. “Who are you?” she asked in return.
I looked to the girl beside me, unsure.
“We’re wanderers,” she answered on my behalf. “Are you alone?”
The child nodded sagely. “I’m always alone.”
“That’s no fun,” I said. “Can we stay with you for a while?”
The child nodded. “Of course. You seem nice.”
I pointed at my companion. “She is,” I said.
The girl smiled, and we sat on the swings – one on either side of the child. I pushed myself back, and allowed myself to swing forward; it was simple, and the wind blew, and I realized it was an easy pleasure that I had forgotten to time. I swung some more.
“Where are you from?” the child asked after a time.
I shook my head. “A gloomy place. Dark, and damp. Not like here.”
“I think this is a gloomy place,” the child said. “It’s always hot, and I don’t like sweating.”
“Me neither,” I agreed. A thought occurred to me. “Where are your parents?”
“I don’t know,” the child answered. “I’ve been here for a long time.”
“Did they leave you?”
The child frowned, thinking. “I think … I think I left them,” she answered after a moment.
“Were they mean?”
The child shook her head.
“Were they kind?”
Again, she shook her head.
The girl, my companion, stopped swinging herself for a moment. “Do you … do you remember them?” she asked softly.
For a third time, the child shook her head.
The girl looked at me, and I looked at the child. “Are you scared?” I asked.
The child looked up at me. “No. It’s safe here; there’s no one around.”
“There’s us,” the girl pointed out.
The child looked to her and smiled. “But you’re not scary.”
The girl nodded. “Sometimes it’s safer alone, isn’t it?”
The child nodded back. “I can play here all day, all by myself.”
“Don’t you miss people?” I asked. “Your friends?”
The child shrugged. “I don’t remember my friends. Some were nice … I think. Others were … ”
“They weren’t so nice, were they?” the girl said.
We swung in silence then for a minute or two. I let my gaze wander off into the distance, where the sun had yet to move from its place in the sky. The clouds were scattered, but perhaps, as far away as I could see, they were gathering slightly. A little darker, a little stormier, than before. “Does it ever storm here?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” the child answered.
“What do you do when it does?” the girl asked.
I looked around at the desert plains. “Where?”
The child shrugged. “Wherever I can. I’m good at it.”
The girl looked concerned. “Does it storm often?”
The child looked up at her. “They always go away.”
I thought about this; I would have said they always come back. It was a touching perspective. I pointed to the horizon. “Is that a storm?”
But the child shook her head.
“What is it, then?” I asked.
The child didn’t answer, though, and just kept swinging.
The girl turned a little in her own swing. “If it’s not a storm, what is it?”
Still, the child just kept swinging, and started humming again.
The girl and I exchanged glances. “Is it … is it dangerous?” I asked delicately.
The child scraped her feet against the dusty ground, brought herself to a stop. She let out a sigh. “That’s not a storm, and it’s not dangerous – if you hide.”
Despite the heat, I felt a chill. “What do you mean?”
The child turned to me. “Can you keep a secret?”
I glanced over at the girl. “Can she know, too?”
The child looked between us and nodded. In a low voice, she said, “You know how I said there’s no one around? That isn’t … it isn’t quite true.”
“What is that?” I asked, false calm in my voice. “Who is that? Is it a person?”
“It’s Him,” the child answered.
“Who’s He?” the girl asked.
The child shrugged. “Him. I don’t know how to explain it. He’s not really a … a person. More of a feeling, I guess.”
I bit my lip, looking to the horizon and back at the child. “He isn’t very nice, is he?”
The child shrugged again. “You just have to hide.”
“You can’t hide from Him forever, though,” the girl said. “Can you?”
“You can see Him coming from far away; it gives you time.”
I looked again; the darkness, the storm clouds, looked closer. “He’s coming now, isn’t He?”
The child nodded. “You should probably go.”
“What about you?” the girl asked.
“Like I said; I can hide.”
I shook my head. “Come with us; we’ll protect you.”
At this, the child gave me the most somber look I’d ever seen. “That’s impossible.”
The girl stood from the swing, knelt in the dirt before the child. “Nothing is impossible; come with us, and we’ll keep you safe.”
The child stared her in the eyes; a deep, piercing gaze that even from afar tore my soul apart. “No you won’t. You should hide yourselves; He’ll get you if you don’t.”
The girl took a deep breath, and looked at me. “We can’t leave her here,” she said.
“We can’t force her to come with us,” I said back. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
The girl looked off to the horizon, where the blacking clouds were certainly closer than before. I could feel the wind cooling, getting stronger. “What should we do?”
I looked back to ask the child the same question; perhaps she could show us where to hide. But as I looked, the swing was suddenly empty: she was gone.
Confused, I darted my gaze around the plains: she was nowhere to be seen. No trace, so sign that she had ever been there. I looked to the girl, who stood, equally confused.
The swings twisted in the wind.
“I think,” I said slowly, “that we should go.”
The girl nodded. “I don’t know who He is, but I don’t think I want to find out.”
But there was something in her voice that made me question, doubt. “This is your home,” I said, “but you’ve never met that child before.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“And you’ve been here before, and you don’t know who He is.”
“What are you trying to say?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Something doesn’t feel right. It isn’t you – it isn’t the child. Maybe it’s Him, but something’s wrong. Very, very wrong.”
She took my hand again. “Do you trust me?”
I looked deep into her eyes then, and my gnawing doubt was erased; here was someone I knew, someone I could trust implicitly. Someone who would not leave me, no matter what. And if she knew something … then I trusted she would tell me if it was right.
And if it wasn’t right … then I still felt safe.
“Do you think we can find shelter before He comes?” I asked.
She pointed to the mountains, still as far away as ever. “I don’t think we’ll make it.”
I gestured behind us, to what was now an deep black encroaching storm. “Then I suppose we face Him together.”
Then she took my hand in hers. “I think,” she said, “that I would like that.”
“I think,” I replied, “that we don’t have much choice.”
And so we turned to face the storm, and despite the dark, awful cold that was settling over the dusty landscape, I smiled, because I was with her, and I knew we would keep each other safe.
Within minutes, the sky was black above us, and the clouds were descending swiftly: swirling, crimson flashes amongst the dismal gusts of wind, and a deep, guttural roar threatened to shake the very ground we stood on, cracking the waterless earth and driving sand into our eyes. As I squinted, I could make out nothing in the bleak storm, and I closed my eyes to hear a pale voice on the wind.
I know you, the voice said, and it was as much in my head as it was in my ears; as much in my heart as it was in my soul, and it was a black speech that stole away any remaining warmth, leaving me reeling in the abyssal cold.
As the dust and sand stung at my skin, I felt her grip tighten on my hand, and I sensed a trembling in her body. I grasped her tighter still, and drew her near to me so we formed one body, arms around each other against the rage of the storm.
“Go away!” I cried into the wind, the words stolen from my breath almost before they left my mouth.
And then the voice only laughed; He only laughed, an awful, careless sound that told me of endless ages of black despair, and a demon that would demolish all of time itself as easily as a flower under a boot. I know you, He repeated.
“Who are you?” I cried out in return. “I’ve never heard of you!”
Oh … you know Me. You know Me well, and you always will.
I felt my companion’s grasp on me strengthen, and I knew in that moment that she was as terrified as I was.
“I’m not afraid of you!” I shouted, false reassurances to myself as much as her.
Yes you are, the voice said, but you do not know why.
“Why? Why should we be afraid? What are you, than can bring us harm? A bit of wind?”
I do not bring harm, the voice deafened us, but through Me, harm is brought upon yourselves.
I felt the bumps at my neck. “What are you?” I breathed.
“Don’t,” I heard her whisper in my ear.
“Don’t what?” I cried. “What is this thing?” I looked over at her, clung tight around me, and saw suddenly the tears draining from her eyes. “What do you know?”
“It’s Him,” she whimpered. “It’s always Him. It’s always been Him.”
“What does that mean?” I said, but got no answer. To the storm I cried, “Show yourself!”
And in a heartbeat the black sky descended upon us, blocking out the sun, blocking out the sky, blocking all sight, and in my blindness I heard the booming voice: Then look upon Me, and despair!
“I can’t see you!”
You look upon Me with your own blind eye! You look upon Me with your inner sight! You see Me in your waking hours, when the night creeps upon you and darkness takes you! See Me! See Me!
And then I thought I knew, and I thought I understood, and together she and I collapsed upon the earth as the storm raged in darkness around us, and I felt her sobs in my chest. Tears came unbidden to my own eyes, and I cried in despair: “Leave us! Leave us be! I know you now, and you’ve tormented us every single day of our lives!”
I will never leave you be; I will feed on your tears!
In a fierce move of desperation, I wiped at my eyes until they were dry, and from my knees I lifted my face to the storm. “I’ve shed every tear I ever had for You! I’ve cried until my eyes bled; and now – now, see! I have no tears left for You!”
A dismal chuckle. Then I will feed on hers.
Suddenly, I felt a great pull at her, as though some ponderous force from the storm was trying to drag her bodily from my grasp. I grabbed her as tight as I possibly could. “She’s not yours!” I gasped.
She has always been Mine. She will always be Mine.
As she was torn from me, I refused to relinquish my grasp, and felt myself hauled from the ground, dragged across the dirt, and I pulled as hard as I could, keeping her, keeping her, keeping her hand in mine.
“GO AWAY!” I cried, shouted, screamed until my voice cracked and I tasted blood in my throat. “She is Yours no more!”
And as my grasp slipped, and I felt her arm slip through mine, there was quite suddenly a tightening of her own fingers, and just as I thought all was forever lost to Him I felt her hope renewed, and in a final great heave I pulled her from the storm, collapsing down upon me, and in that moment I knew: she was free. Free of Him.
Anguish howled around us, then; anguish from the storm, agony and torment and bitter, bitter hate – and none of it touched us, and in only moments the wind was less, and the clouds were lifting, and we were left, alone in the desert, a mess of tears and blood and sweat.
I pushed myself to my knees, and crept to her side as the storm left us, and felt her misery deep in my bones. She was sobbing uncontrollably, breath catching and heaving. At first I didn’t know what to say, and then I realized there was nothing to say – nothing that needed to be said.
For many hours that followed – as the sun still refused to set – I sat by her side and held her as she wept. I said nothing and held her; I said nothing and consoled her all the same. And when her final tear was spent, I raised her face to meet mine and wiped the trails from her cheeks. “It’s done,” I said at last. “It’s over.”
“Is He gone?” she asked, hoarse and barely audible.
“He is,” I said.
I shook my head. “I doubt it; but for now. For now … I think we’re safe.”
“Safe,” she muttered. “Safe. I’m safe. With you – because of you. Why?”
I didn’t understand. “Why … why what?”
She turned her red and raw eyes to mine. “Why did you save me?”
So simple a question; so difficult an answer. I thought, and thought, and turned it over in my mind. So many reasons, so many words could explain what I felt, and what I knew, and then I knew there were none so obvious as the ones I had saved since I first knew her, since I first laid eyes on her. “I love you.”
In her look, in her expression, I watched as she took this little phrase in. The confusion; the disbelief. The distant understanding, the pain, the hurt and the joy, and the love that she had kept hidden for so long, for a lifetime – it all came to the surface, and she collapsed in my arms and wept anew.
Then we sat there, by the abandoned playground, for what seemed the rest of our lives, until finally I brushed the dust from her hair and said, “I don’t think I’m very fond of your home from home.”
She smiled tearfully. “I never was, either.”
“Shall we find another?”