S. D. Bullard has been writing since the age of eight. While jobs and professions have come and gone, writing has remained a constant. S. D. Bullard primarily grew up in Ohio, but now resides south of the Mason Dixon line with a couple of canines and a never-ending series of words. This will be the first official publishing credit.
Out of the Opened Door
by S. D. Bullard
She slept with two knives under her pillow, but she couldn’t remember why. But then, she couldn’t really remember anything. It wasn’t that life was a question mark. It was blank. Questioning took too much energy, and she needed to conserve her energy. Though she wasn’t sure what for.
She didn’t come awake so much as become aware that she was aware. She let her eyes ease open against the heat. Dirt and ash attacked her eyeball. Something was burning. She thought it must be the world. She didn’t bother blinking against the sting, but scanned her surroundings with a quick flick, checking for danger. She wasn’t sure where it might come from.
Her scan complete, she let her gaze settle on the only other person in the area. He sat with his back against the remnants of what might once have been a building, head leaned back, eyes opened, but glazed with a weariness transcending exhaustion. She didn’t know who he was, only that he would be there.
She pushed up, her hand sliding simultaneously and automatically beneath the pillow to grasp one of the knives, the move so instinctive and fluid she had it out and unsheathed before she was fully sitting up. She ran her fingers expertly along the blade, pressing at just the right angle and with just the right force to feel the cold bite of potential without actually cutting herself. As if she’d done it a thousand times before. Perhaps she had. She slid it back into the sheath and tucked it into the tattered leather that served as a shoe, then reached for the other one. She checked its blade too, then slipped it into her belt, positioned against her lower back. Finally she tugged the pillow towards her, really just a pile of dirty rags, heaped together to cushion her head against the knives and the hard ground.
He watched her. “You slept.”
It wasn’t a question, but she nodded anyway. “Your turn.”
“No, we don’t have time. It’s getting dark. We should go.”
She stood, picking up the pillow bundle, now tied neatly together with strings that formed the rags into a kind of pack. She slung the strings over her shoulders, leaving her hands free to reach her knives.
He was already on his feet, a similar pack on his back. He had knives, too. She wasn’t sure why they needed them. He turned and started walking and she followed. They stumbled through piles of debris, bricks and mortar, plaster and wood. The hot air was so packed with particles it was hard to breathe. She chewed at it, trying to find the oxygen. They ducked through what had clearly once been a doorway and found themselves relatively outside. Mounds of structural skeletons still jutted up around them, but from a wary distance. There was no freshness to the air, but it was a bit thinner. She took several deep breaths, and looked up. There were no structures over her head now, but the air was clotted with a smoky fog that didn’t allow much visual depth. It was a dusk colored fog. So, not dark yet, but on its way.
She took advantage of the little bit of light left in the haze to study him. He was half a head taller than she was, even with his shoulders hunched. The original color of his hair was indeterminable, crusted as it was with all manner of filth. It was long and rumpled and knotted. His eyes were dark and his skin was a dusty taupe. But that was just the dirt and ash.
For a second she gave in and let herself wonder. She wondered who he was. She wondered who she was. He glanced down at her, slowing his stride to match hers. She stopped wondering and looked away from him. It was time for the question. She’d seen it in his eyes. It had to be asked, but neither of them wanted to ask it. Well, it was his turn. He accepted that. He took a breath before speaking. “Do you remember anything?”
She allowed several steps to pass. Retreated into her mind, scraping the sides and corners, seeking something, anything. If only she had an idea what it was. She shook her head. “You?”
He looked forward. “No.”
They didn’t speak again as they walked, the dark pulling the edges of invisibility in around them. Conversation without context was difficult. And silence was important. She was sure of it, just not sure why.
They had walked several hours when their surroundings changed. Despite the darkness, she could tell they were edging away from the shattered buildings. The ruins of what must once have been a town grew sparse, the rubble they’d been weaving around smoothed away into uneven ground, pockmarked with craters and clumps of stiff, dead grass. For a while they seemed to skirt the edge of the town, keeping to its fringes, but then he angled off into the open expanse of emptiness.
She followed, but there was a hesitancy in her steps. Her feet fumbled at the ground, even though there was nothing to trip over. She slowed, aware that her body was experiencing some strange symptoms. Her breathing was even more difficult than it had been, rapid and shallow. Her heart had also increased in speed, thrumming against her ribs and chest, all the way up into her throat. Her skin felt tight, cold-hot tingles racing up her arms and down her spine. She didn’t realize she had completely stopped moving until he turned to look at her.
He waited several moments, a shadow against the background of shadows. Then he made a move that might have been a beckoning gesture. “We need to go this way.”
She didn’t argue with him, didn’t ask how he knew where they needed to go. Neither of them knew where they were going, but his sense of direction seemed instinctual. But there was another instinct warring with her now. She didn’t move.
He walked back towards her, stopping close enough she could see the outline of his features. He watched her for a few seconds.
“You remember something?”
“We’ve known about that one for a while.” He turned as though to start walking again.
She grabbed his arm. “Wait!”
“There’s something out there.”
He turned to stare in the direction he’d been leading, as though the threat might materialize in response to her words. Not seeing any immediate danger in the black expanse he looked back at her.
“I don’t know where or what. I just know it’s out there. Somewhere.” Her hand spasmed with a cramp and she realized she was gripping the knife at her back.
“I believe you. But we still need to go that way.”
She was trembling, her muscles fighting against her inexplicable knowledge that he was right. He had turned again, taken several steps.
“Don’t leave me!”
He moved back to her side. “I’m not going to leave you, but staying here won’t do us any good. If something can find us out there, it can find us here.”
She shook her head, but didn’t know what she was denying.
“Come here.” He reached out and wrapped his hand around hers, weaving their fingers together. “Now, the knives.”
She slid hers from her belt and he removed one of his.
This time when he moved, she stepped along with him. She didn’t know why, but the physical contact seemed to have a calming effect. Her heart and breathing slowed. The shivering eased off. His hand was warm and the warmth spread through her. The fear wasn’t gone. But it was no longer overpowering her.
Time was a muddle. A lot of it seemed to pass, but the darkness was still palpable when she first saw it. Some chink in the solid black of their surroundings. She tugged at his hand.
“I see it.” But he kept walking.
Sometime later, the chink had grown into a flickering orange blur.
“Fire.” He said it, but she’d already figured it out.
“This isn’t good.”
“I know.” He kept walking.
The fear was trying to choke her again. She wanted to stop. She wanted to turn and run back the way they’d come. She glanced up and was able to make out enough of his features to see the worry, the determination. She shook her hand loose of his.
He made some sort of sound, like he was going to call out to her, but caught the words and swallowed them.
She stood back up from her crouched position, both knives now in her hands, and hurried to catch up to him. She moved close enough that her shoulder pressed against his, still needing the assurance.
He glanced at her hand. “Right.” He removed his other knife, too.
They slowed as they drew close enough to make out the details, approaching with oblique caution. The fire wasn’t big, a few flames lapping at the remains of ashy fuel. Pockets of fire were not an anomaly; the world burned with regularity. But this pile had clearly been scraped together with intention. The ground swept clear of additional kindling. But that wasn’t what drew their attention.
There were three of them. They formed a sort of barrier around the fire, lying in eerily similar poses. Legs bent askew, arms flung out, eyes and mouths wide in unseeing stares and silent screams. Their bellies had been slashed open, entrails ripped from the cavities. It was impossible to know what had caused the trauma, especially when they did not know their adversary. It could have been claws, or teeth, knives or stones.
She looked at their faces, one by one. She didn’t know them. She wouldn’t. She let her eyes rove back to the tragedy of their bodies. Without the basis of familiarity she had no cause to recoil. Still, some sort of subconscious instinct told her senses they should be offended at the sight. She looked away, absently noting the slick, dark puddles surrounding the bodies and the shiver it sent through her own limbs. She looked at him instead.
He was still staring, leaning forward, squinting. “They’re holding something.”
Ignoring the instincts, now, she looked back, focusing on their hands. He was right. Each had fingers curled about some roundish object, two-toned in the firelight.
“It’s food,” he said. “They were eating.”
Now that he said it, she could see the teeth marks scoring the surface of the objects. Spherical, with a dark, shiny outer coating, whitish flesh showing where they had taken bites.
She looked back at him. “No.”
“We need food.”
“It could have been the food that killed them.”
“It could have been whatever ripped out their stomachs.”
“It could have ripped out their stomachs after they were already dead. I don’t like the odds.”
He stepped forward, bent and swiped a piece of food from one of the dead hands. He held it up in front of her.
“If we don’t eat soon, we’ll be dead anyway.”
A sweet smell spiked from food, overpowering the odor of ash and blood hanging heavy around them. Hunger had been relegated to an unnoticed ache in her stomach, a strange hybrid of tightness and hollowness. Now it stabbed at her, the painful need clenching all the way up her throat, making her mouth tingle.
He moved it away from her face, slipping it into a pocket. “Get the other ones from them, and let’s look around for more.”
She slipped her knives away and hurried to relieve the corpses of their food things, trying to ignore the streaks of juice on their hands. He had found several untouched objects and collected them. She lifted one to her nose, inhaling. The sudden urge to bite it was almost overwhelming.
He grabbed her wrist.
They were close enough to the dying fire that his face was mottled with flickering orange. It wasn’t the garish blotches of gray ash and dim light that made her flinch, though. It was the expression in the shadows. He looked as if someone had pulled the skin tight over his bones, eyes so wide, thick rims of white surrounded them, lips peeled back to show grimacing teeth. She spun to look in the direction he was staring. The darkness was still too thick to make out forms or movement. But her ears caught what her eyes could not see.
Something was out there. And it was coming towards them.
She didn’t even know what happened to the food in her hands. Instinct had her knives out before she could take a breath. He had a different approach. Spinning, he grabbed her shoulders and threw her to the ground. She had enough time to curl her body to absorb the blow, enough self-control not to cry out, enough sense to stay down.
Turning back, he lunged towards one of the bodies, plunging his hands down. She thought, for one wild moment, he was grabbing the corpse. But when he stood, he grasped the edge of some kind of blanket or covering. With a violent tug, he yanked it from beneath its former owner, the mutilated carcass rolling roughly to the ground. He spun and flung the thing over her. It settled with sticky precision. The blood, still fresh enough to be wet, seeped into her clothing and clung to her skin. He scrambled under the blanket next to her, crawling on his belly. Wedged in beside her, he froze. She tried to be as still as she could, willing her muscles to relax, her breathing to slow. It wasn’t easy. Fear raked at her senses and the smell of blood clotted her nose.
For a space of time she couldn’t begin to measure, there was nothing. The only movement the shallow breaths they both took, the only noise her own heart pounding in her ears. Or possibly his heart. Maybe they’d been wrong. Maybe there was nothing there after all.
When she heard the first undeniable footstep, she was almost relieved. For a flash, the tension of waiting subsided. It was immediately followed by the fear of knowing the thing was there. And not knowing what it was.
The steps were slow and shuffling, scraping across the ground. She couldn’t tell if the gate was deliberately methodical or just the natural pace. She tried to stop shivering, tried to focus on the steps.
They were heavy and deep. And produced by more than two feet. The dragging, shambling gait made it difficult to determine if there was one being with more than two feet, or more than one bipedal creature.
A new kind of panic started building in her chest. They should be doing something. They shouldn’t be lying there, waiting for claws or teeth, knives or stones to pierce down through the blanket and disembowel them. They should at least see what they were up against. Fear without an identified source was worse than whatever she could possibly see. She needed just a glance, one quick glimpse. If she knew, she could formulate a better plan.
She didn’t think she moved. Wasn’t even aware of her muscles tensing. But he must have sensed something. Moving nothing but his hand, he grasped her fingers and squeezed. It was a reminder, a warning, and enough sense flooded back into her mind to overcome the reckless urge. She didn’t stir again.
There was no noise besides the footsteps, no voice, no words, no sound of breath. And after a length of time that stretched until she thought her nerves would break, the footsteps slowly moved away. She strained to hear them long after they had faded. She let him decide when they should move.
When he decided, he did it with violence of action. He threw the blanket off as he jumped to his feet. Still holding her hand, he dragged her up with him.
“Run!” He shoved her, in what she thought was the opposite direction the steps had gone.
She ran. The sun wasn’t up yet, but she blinked against the almost dawn light. The landscape was smeared in bluish gray, the vague illumination helping reduce the number of times they stumbled and fell as they pounded along.
By the time they decided they weren’t being chased or followed, it was fully light and her lungs were burning. She slowed, coughing and gasping and he eased to match her pace. She bent over to grab her knees, sucking at the air. Putrid though it was, it was better than the smell of blood. He gave her a minute then nudged her. When she looked up, he pointed. She glanced, nodded, and they moved toward the line of trees.
Tired as she was, she knew he must be worse. He hadn’t slept at all the day before. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as they settled just inside the trees, leaning their backs against two of the bigger trunks. He was haggard, the dark smudges under his eyes clear even through the dirt.
“Time to sleep.” His voice was rough.
He nodded. For a moment, that was his only motion. Then he rummaged through the folds of his tattered clothes.
“I dropped the food somewhere.”
She glanced down at her hands as if expecting to see the round objects in them. When they came up empty, she did a quick check for her knives. At least instinct had managed to save those.
“We’ll find more.”
“We know where to find it.”
“We still don’t know if those were safe to eat.”
“That will be true no matter what we find, and we need to eat or we’re going to starve.”
She nodded in reluctant agreement.
He leaned his head back against the tree, closing his eyes. “Let me sleep a couple hours. Then we’ll go back and find it.”
“Or, you sleep and I’ll go find it.”
“No, we’ll go together.”
“That just wastes time. If I go now, I can have the food back here and we’ll be ready to move again at night. Besides, I can test it and by the time you wake up, you’ll know for sure whether it’s safe.”
He suddenly seemed much more awake. He leaned forward in a lurch. “No. We’ll try it at the same time. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“It’s not stupid. The stupid thing is for both of us to eat it at the same time. If it’s going to kill us, it would be better if it only killed one of us.”
“Don’t talk like an idiot. We’re going to stick together. We’re going to survive together. We’ll just try a taste, and that way if it’s poisonous, we may get sick, but we shouldn’t die. But together.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Okay. Let me sleep a couple hours. Then we’ll go.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay.” He leaned back again, watching her suspiciously. “Just promise me you won’t go back by yourself after I’m asleep.”
“I won’t go back.”
“Don’t go anywhere.”
“I won’t go anywhere.”
He gave a jerky nod and pulled his pack off. She watched as he used his hands to sweep a clear spot on the ground. He had saved her several times, risking his own safety for hers. He would have a chance of surviving on his own, maybe even a better chance than with her. She doubted she would have that same chance.
He curled onto the ground, head on his bundle of rags. His breathing evened out, deepened, as soon as he was still. She thought he’d been asleep before he was completely settled.
She leaned back against the tree, eyes on his face. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the object. The sweet smell flicked at her nose as she examined the shiny skin and white inner layer. She curled her fingers around it, looking back at him.
He slept with two knives under his pillow.
Her teeth sank deep into the flesh.
She wondered who he was.
Copyright 2015 by S. D. Bullard