some things are better left untouched
Let’s start at the end, shall we?
What remained of the city was now more wild than man-made, nature having fairly successfully reclaimed what used to all be hers. But buildings, for the most part, still stood, though faint shadows of the proud, strong structures they once were.
Pandora stood outside of The Keep, and toed an errant piece of rubble with her shoe, waiting for the security-holo to appear. “Excuse me?” she said, in a soft voice, still timid with shame and guilt. There was a static hiss and eventually a fuzzy, flickering image of a man appeared in front of her. He scowled. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said, not hiding the bitterness in his voice.
Pandora brushed a stray piece of hair from her face and cast down her eyes. “I know,” she said so quietly she could barely hear herself. She didn’t really know why she’d come. Back to the place where it had all started. Or rather, ended. The holo continued to glare at her and then sighed. “What’s the password?”
Dora glanced up. “Does that even matter anymore?”
The security guard repeated the question. It was his job after all. Pandora squared her shoulders and tried to stand taller. She didn’t speak but instead moved her hand in an intricate pattern in front of a panel next to the door. The hologram nodded curtly, the panel beeped and Pandora heard the telltale click of the door unlocked. With the smallest of glances, she mumbled a thank you and pressed her way into the darkened chamber inside. As she moved forward, the dark was light by lights as she walked, though some were more finicky, flickering, and some stubborn ones remained out, but eventually there was enough light to see the room. It was empty, except for a tall plinth in the center of the room, on top of which stood a small, simple wooden jar, lid wide open on its hinges. There was nothing inside. Well, not anymore. All other forms of security, the other layers that were put around the vessel over the years, the decades, the centuries, had all disappeared, leaving just the original plain and understated vessel. Pandora remembered when it had the energy fields around it. Impenetrable to magic and a myriad of other forces. But not anymore. Now there was nothing to keep safe, to keep protected. To protect everyone else from. And it was all her fault.
She remembered her lessons at school, and writing things down in her messy writing on her sleek glossy pad, the letters glowing ever so slightly when the stylus touched the screen. She could picture Miss Braithwaite at the front of the room, gesturing with her mechanized arm that always made a soft noise with each movement, like a tiny puff of air. She remembered how the mechanical brass appendage glinted when the sun filtered through the window at the front of the classroom. And she could still hear Miss Braithwaite’s words, they cut through her like knives, bringing another wave of shame and guilt. “One spark started The Great Fire of London,” the teacher had said with a dramatic swinging of her arm, a hiss, like that of steam releasing, following it. “One rat, the plague”. Miss Braithwaite pointed the small white stick outwards, admonishing. All the students found it amusing that she liked to hold what she explained was called Chalk, and what students hundreds of years ago used to write with, before the invention of the slim black shiny pads and the hard stylus that wrote almost magically on its surface.
“Small things have big consequences!” Miss Braithwaite’s voice shouted and Pandora winced, as if the woman was actually there in front of her, or as if she were back in the classroom, so long ago. Back before... her gaze skidded over a giant weed with an angry red flower at the top that had started to grow up through the smooth hard stone floor. Before...
She sighed as she made her way over the small unassuming plain jar on the raised platform.
Pandora wasn’t unique. No, not at all. She was just the latest in a long line of Guardians. Dating back, well, she couldn’t remember how many years it had been – 200? Three? Since the history books of the Guardians were started, she reckoned.
She reached out tentatively to touch the container. Why was she even here? She thought to herself. And why was the jar even still here? After all, the contagion had been released, so now it was just a simple empty jar once more, not something that needed to be guarded by her, or any of the other hundreds of Pandora’s who had come before her. Her mother was a Pandora, as was her grandmother and great grandmother and on and on down through history. She had been trained her whole 23 years for doing her job. Her one job.
That’s what she keeps telling herself. That’s what she remembered reading about in history class. That that phrase used to be an in-joke back in the 21st century. People would say sarcastically, “that was your one job!”
Suddenly a siren blared and Dora could see the intermittent red flashes of warning light through the glass domed ceiling of the Guardian room that she was in. She sighed and pressed the black strap encircling her wrist. There was a brief wavering of the air in front of her which was her only notification that her shield had activated, and she was now safely ensconced in a protective invisible bubble.
She strode out of the Guardian room with as much urgency as she could muster, her head bowed, avoiding the critical gaze of the security-holo outside. She always felt safer, but at the same time slightly claustrophobic when she had her shield on. And then she sighed. It was all because of her that everyone had shields in the first place. In the distance she saw an old woman rush by with a pronounced limp, with only a face mask and clear goggles protecting her from the danger – not nearly as effective as the invisible shield around Dora, and at once she felt her face grow hot with guilt.
She saw other flashes of movement, other citizens, those that remained anyhow, of what remained of the city. She saw one man urging a small boy along in front of him. Neither were wearing face masks or goggles over their eyes, which meant they were one of the more privileged in town. They could afford the invisi-shields, though no one ever thought they needed protection before now. Because she had been their protection. But she’d failed at that.
She slowed as she came to the Great Hall, as people had begun to bottleneck at the entrance as they waited to enter. They all had to be scanned to see if any had been infected with the Contagion. It didn’t take long for the Security-holos to scan everyone, but at about 10 seconds per scan, it quickly caused people to pile up outside the doors, mushrooming out as more arrived.
She tried not to push or shove, but Dora soon found herself being inexorably moved into the people in front of her from more people appearing around and behind her and everyone slowly moving forward.
She was a few feet from the door of the Sanctuary when she heard a woman scream. It was loud, short and sharp – cut off suddenly. Pandora looked over her shoulder in the direction of the sound and saw the woman, wearing the plain dark grey sack like dress of someone in a poorer station. She wore a face mask, tied tightly around the back of her head, but she didn’t have goggles. Either she didn’t have them or they’d been knocked off.
The Sanctuary wasn’t always the Sanctuary. It only became that after…the incident. It used to be the Great Hall, where the town gathered to celebrate – celebrate births, marriages, promotions – anything good, and happy and positive. And even funerals. Pandora had been told that funerals used to be sad affairs, all that time ago. It seemed so strange to her. But she had grown up knowing only what her job offered the City. She didn’t know any different, because there hadn’t been anything different for hundreds of years.
And that used to be all there was to life in the City. It used to be a proud city, a shining city. Its buildings were constructed of a smooth stone that almost glimmered and shone with its pale peachy-whiteness, that the stonemasons worked on until it had an almost glassy finish, so when the sun shone, the city almost glowed. But now, with the Contagion released, it had fallen to ruin. Pandora was shocked at how quickly life had changed. It was as if someone had flipped a switch. From good to bad, from light to darkness. Well, not just someone. It was her. It was her that had been remiss, that had released the Contagion –not just on the city itself, but the whole county. People would come from far and wide to send their darker selves away, to lock them up so they didn’t have to face it. So they could live happier lives.
As the people closest to the woman who screamed melted away, seeming to evaporate into thin air, Pandora found herself with a clear view of the woman who lay crumpled on the ground, lying almost in a ball, her knees drawn up to her chest, hugging onto them for dear life, with tears streaming down her face. There was the low buzz of chatter, low, but with a high pitch of concern veering on anxiety. “It’s grief!” she heard a man whisper, his voice full of something close to awe. “Grief”. The word rippled through the crowd.
Taking a deep breath and a small step bravely forward Pandora moved closer to the woman. She looked normal. Well, besides the fact she was curled in the fetal position on the ground, crying and with a strange strangled sort of wail emanating from her. And then she spotted it. It was a small, dark shape that had latched onto her back. She hadn’t even noticed it at first. Grief had found her. Had attacked her. In broad daylight! From the folktales she heard growing up they would only come out at night. Not folktales, more like old-wives' tales, because of course, the contagion had never been released before. Or escaped? Pandora said. Escaped made it sound less like her fault.
The creature, the thing, seemed to be attached to her with suckers and claws, and reminded Pandora of a crab, like the large blue ones that she sometimes saw clinging to the rocks just off shore in the choppy waters that ran alongside the land a few miles away through the tangle of the wild jungle that surrounded the City. But this thing was black. So black, so inky that it seemed to suck away all color around it – like a black hole.
And something suddenly tickled the fingers of her right hand. How could she forget? It was her weapon. The one she’d been trained to use as soon as she was able to stand and hold it. Just in case. Just in case this happened. She pulled the small cylinder from the pouch at her hip, and pressed the button near the end. The air crackled as the energy weapon powered up. You couldn’t see anything but a faint outline of white-blue and the air shimmered where the energy extended, long, thin and sword-like. She didn’t want to hurt the woman on the ground, who had grown eerily quiet, so Pandora gingerly stepped forward and poked at Grief, as if she was just poking a pile of leaves with a stick.
The thing suddenly stiffened, if a shadow could stiffen, and emitted a shrill, ear-piercing noise. Pandora was tempted to cover her ears like she saw the watchful audience do, but she couldn’t, holding her weapon.
The shadow-creature then seemed to release its grip on the woman, and instead of crawling away into the bushes that bordered all walkways in the city, it just seemed to evaporate, tendrils just drifting away on the breeze. And then it was gone. The woman was still curled in a ball, but had started to unfurl herself. Some bystanders leaned down to help her back to her feet. The woman blinked and slowly looked around. “What happened?” she asked.
A large man with a wide face and large eyes, wearing a crisp, white outfit, which highlighted him as a cleanliness worker – the people responsible for keeping the city white and sparkling. “You don’t remember?” he asked incredulously. The rest of the people in the vicinity seemed to lean forward slightly in anticipation of her answer.
The woman shook her head slowly, as if the movement would shake memory back into her. “No.”
Pandora realized the rest of the crowd had already made their way into the Sanctuary, so she followed, along with the woman, the large man and the rest of the small group of on-lookers of the incident.
The large heavy doors made a reassuring thud behind them as they closed.
Pandora oriented herself towards the front of the room, where a stage framed with heavy red velvet curtains stood, and in the middle of the stage stood the Keyholder, a small, wiry man who needed to stand on a block of wood to see over the podium. He cleared his throat. “Citizens!” he said, his voice ringing out over the large hall. His voice was steady. He was not afraid, because his fear had been banished, of course. The Citizenry stood and waited patiently. They were not afraid because fear no longer existed for anyone. The same with panic, worry, anxiety, every negative emotion, had been locked away, safe in the wooden jar. Except everything was no longer safe. Everything dark, bad, evil – Depression, Hate, Regret, Shame, Anger, Worry, Panic, Anxiety and Fear, had escaped. Grief, Pandora had already got rid of, since it had attached itself to that poor woman.
“Do not worry!” and the Keyholder paused then, a quirk of a smile on his lips, and then continued, “well, I mean….as you know we cannot worry.”
Pandora felt his gaze focus on her and she shuddered.
“But be assured we have a solution to this problem!” And then along with his gaze, his arm followed, his hand pointed straight at her. “We have our Guardian! Trained to protect us. Raised to protect us”
Dora heard a rumble of lowered voices in the crowd. “Not much of a Guardian”, she heard a voice nearby whisper as she felt all eyes in the room turn towards her. She was a small, slim girl but suddenly felt like she wanted the floor to swallow her up and disappear entirely. “She was supposed to guard the vessel,” said another. “And keep it safe,” another voice chimed in.
“She’s just a girl!” someone shouted from deep in the throng. “What can she do?”
“She released the virus on us!” someone else said.
“The demons!” a deep male voice added.
She was about to speak, when a siren went off again, and through the skylights in the Great Hall, she could see the ominous intermittent flash of red. Flash, pause. Flash, pause. Flash, pause. The assembled group parted down the middle as each half of the room moved to the tall, slim windows that ran the length of the building on each side. There was a deep rumble and sudden violent shaking.
“Is it an earthquake?” a voice shouted out. Pandora noticed the voice held no trace of fear, more simple curiosity. Of course, why would it? That is the whole point of her existence. Of the existence of the jar. Everyone knew that.
Faces and hands were pressed up against the windows, eager to look out at whatever was causing the ground to shift underfoot ever so slightly.
That can’t be good, Pandora thought. For the first time in her life, maybe even the first time in the history of the Guardians, Pandora questioned the reasoning behind getting rid of fear, of worry, of regret – all the dark things no one wanted to feel, to face, to deal with.
And then a strip of the room fell dark. Something was blocking the light from outside. Something was COVERING the window. She could see rows of pale circles against the window surrounded by a strange sort of ephemeral darkness. Almost mirroring the pale hands pressing up against the window from the people inside.
It took Pandora a second, a split second too long, for her to register what it was on the window. She had just shifted her body forward to move, hadn’t even taken a step, her hand just resting on the end of her energy weapon, when there was a jarring sharp crack., the sound of a pane of glass cracking. She registered it in slow motion, she heard the noise, and her eyes took in a movement across the window – a line snaking its way across it and breaking off into tendrils. And just like the crack itself, the thing outside assembled itself into a tendril, a long arm, full of giant suckers like that of an octopus. The sound of the window cracking happened a brief second before the actual glass breaking. And just as out of sync, there was suddenly a large tentacle that seemed strangely unreal, as if made more of dark smoke than something tangible, reaching in through the broken window and grabbing a man around the waist, as if it was a child picking up a toy soldier. Before anyone, including her, could react, the man was lifted up and away, with barely a sound, and then there was the brightness outside now flooding in freely through the open window.
It seemed like she was cocooned by the noise made by the townspeople, they were so loud, their voices seemed to envelope her. She shook herself and bolted to the door. Grabbing the large wooden handles she pulled as hard as she could. The heavy doors seemed to move as slow as molasses, and by the time she was outside, she saw the filmy creature disappearing into the jungle and heading in the direction of the ocean. Her wrist buzzed and she looked at the device strapped there.
Anger, the word flashed at her in a bright blue.
So that creature was Anger, Pandora mused. And it was gigantic. Wow, people must have a lot of anger, before...before they figured out a way to get rid of it, and hide it away, sweep it under the carpet as they used to say. Or rather, lock it away in a special jar with a Guardian to watch over it, Pandora thought sourly.
So much larger than grief was, she mused, as she ran in the direction of the ethereal creature, towards the ocean on the other side of a narrow strip of jungle.
She tore through the thick brush of the jungle, pushing plants and leaves out of her face, and jumping over rocks and ferns on the forest floor. It seemed like a lifetime but she eventually broke free of the suffocating jungle and burst out onto a clear, pristine stretch of white sand beach, nothing for miles but sparkling blue waters, and in the distance, she could see the indistinct forms of pirate ships, hovering like vultures along the horizon, waiting for the right time to attack.
She spun around looking up one part of the beach and then the other, and she spotted it, making its way on stilt-like multitude of legs towards the far end of the city, the slums.
She put on a burst of speed, her baton in her hand. It was difficult to move quickly in the soft powdery sand, and it zapped her of energy. She had just reached the edge of the Underworld, as that part of town was known, and she saw Anger disappear up a narrow, winding street. Her foot just hit the first paved bit of ground when the sun overhead disappeared as if a cloud had blocked its rays. She looked up and saw …a heavy blanket of darkness, moving across the sky as if the Gods were pulling up a duvet over themselves. Her wrist monitor beeped and she glanced down: Depression, the letters scrolled across the smooth, glassy face, like what Dora had read signs used to be like centuries ago, advertising cars for sale, or school events, or…
She paused a moment, her jaw dropping as more words appeared, first scrolling and then flashing as if to confirm them: hate, regret, shame, worry, panic, anxiety, fear.
What? All of them? Together? She didn’t have time to think as the blanket started lowering quickly towards her like a net. She flung herself forward into the streets, garnering a small amount of shelter from the buildings.
The blanket of darkness shifted, changing vaguely into a face, eyes over a nose, over a mouth that widened as if the sky itself was splitting in two. The dark energy descended, and Dora instinctively reached for her baton, and she felt the reassuring hum of it when she pressed the button, and could hear the slightly ominous crackle of energy as it snapped and fizzed and popped.
She extended it towards the darkness that was fast approaching, and, worryingly, didn't seem to be stopping or slowing. At the last moment she squeezed her eyes shut, her body tensing, waiting for whatever was going to happen - She wasn't sure exactly what but knew it wouldn't be pleasant. She braced herself, her arm thrust upwards, the baton so small and feeble against the vastness of the entity. The agony and horror of waiting was almost too much. Suddenly she felt something latch onto her shoulder and she was yanked sideways. There was a loud bang, and then nothing. Dora opened her eyes and saw she was inside the darkened front entrance of a house. She was safe. A man leaned against the heavy wooden door, and she heard the snick of a latch locking into place, that sounded loud to her ears.
It reassured her. More than the man leaning heavily against the door did. She didn’t know him from Adam, whoever Adam was, it was something her grandfather said often. “Who are you?” she asked, pushing herself up from the cold stone floor.
“A little thanks would be nice,” said the man, his voice muffled slightly by the cloth he had tied over the lower half of his face, brushing longish brown hair out of his eyes, as he gestured toward her with a general sweep of his arm, as if that was explanation enough. “For saving your life,” he added.
“Oh. Yes. Thank you,” Pandora said quietly, cautiously edging towards a tall narrow window to look outside. She pushed aside the heavy dark curtain that covered the window. The sky had darkened into a temporary night. Outside, voices floated towards them. Pandora could hear screams, mixed with voices raised in anger, and she thought she could even hear some women crying. Things she had never heard before, because everyone was stripped of these things, things that no one wanted weighed down by.
Again, she was roughly pulled back by her shoulder. “Get away from the window!” the man hissed. She did as she was told, but repeated her question from earlier. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”
The man pulled her deeper in the dimness of the entry room that they were in, which was inhabited only by a small table, and a small seating area off to the back, where some clothes hung on a rack. The man was crouching, knees slightly bent, shoulders forward as if getting ready to fight. “I’m Evander.” Out of habit Pandora stuck her hand out to shake his, but Evander shook his head and took a step back straightening ever so slightly out of his defensive posture. It was then she registered his cloth mask once again.
She dropped her hand, abashed. “Oh. Right. Yeah. Of course.” No one could touch another person’s bare skin for fear of catching any of the escaped...viruses? Entities? Energies? If they happened to be attached to someone without knowing it.
Evander glanced out the window through a crack in the curtain. From where Dora stood, it still looked dark outside, which meant that thing, or things, was still out there, waiting.
Evander slowly moved away from the windows, towards Dora, who realized she was huddling next to a small round table that had a vase with wilting flowers on it. Flowers that used to be bright red but had now dried to the color of old blood.
“Come with me,” Evander said, gently grabbing Dora’s elbow and leading her deeper into the dimness of the house, which opened up into a larger living space, though sparsely furnished.
“Where are we going?” she asked, her voice quieter than she wished it to be.
“I’m going to show you the solution to all this,” Evander said sternly.
“The solution?” Pandora was stunned. She had been trained to keep the jar safe her whole life, the same as generations of Guardians before her. But she had never been told there was a solution. Not that she hadn’t asked. Growing up, she’d asked her mother plenty of times. Her mother had only laughed at her and shaken her head, her long dark hair, just like Pandora’s, falling over her shoulders. “You don’t need to worry about that, dear” her mother had said kindly with a smile lingering in her voice. “There’s never been a problem so there’s no need for a solution. Our job, our calling, is simple. “Just protect the jar from ever being opened, and all will be well.”
“But-” Pandora had said, always full of questions.
“But nothing. Watch over the jar.” her mother had said firm, but kind.
“How do you know of the solution?” Pandora asked, puzzled. “My mother told me there wasn’t one.”
Evander looked over his shoulder at her as he led her up a narrow and creaky set of stairs. “Because it wasn’t your job to know. You just had one job-”
Pandora rolled her eyes with an annoyed huff. “So I've been told.”
“It was easier for you Guardians to just do your job, and not get bogged down with anything else. Your job is important enough.”
As they moved through the run-down house, Pandora glanced into open doorways that were arranged along the hallway – messy piles of blankets on the floors, where people slept. There was a simple desk and lamp in each room, and dark, thick curtains covered the windows.
“Come on,” Evander said, and Pandora jumped at his voice which was closer than she expected, having slowed down to look into each room as they passed. “That’s just where the other Collectors sleep when they aren’t working.”
“Collectors?” The word rang a bell, a fuzzy memory surfacing. Suddenly she was back there, on the day her mother died. She was sitting by her bedside, by her mother’s body, as that was all that was left, her mother had gone. And suddenly a young man appeared in a flurry of arms and legs and impatience. “I’m a Collector,” he’d said, struggling to catch his breath. He’d glanced at Pandora just briefly before moving aside so two other men could come in with a rolling stretcher. “We have to hurry,” the young one panted. “Before it’s too late. Time is of the essence.” All Pandora remembered was her nodding slowly, numbly, as her mother was whisked away out of the room. She’d thought they were just there to collect the body, to do whatever they needed to do to it before the funeral.
Evander had used a keycard on a faded door in front of them, the door moving aside with a slight whisper. Pandora stepped through with unseeing eyes, still lost in the memory of a few years ago, so it took her a moment to take in a large space that seemed eerily familiar. The room was empty except for a pedestal, similar to the one back in the The Keep, but made of wood that had faded with age, not marble. On the tall pedestal was a box – larger than the Jar that she watched over. Had. Had watched, she reminded herself with an angry pang.
“What-?” She couldn’t think of what else to say. She stood and stared, and after a moment took a few slow, cautious steps towards the container. “Is there more evil-” she’d begun.
Evander moved up beside her and shook his head. “No, just the opposite. We collect everything good, positive from a person. Happiness, love, optimism, hope, inspiration, courage, confidence, joy, peace.” He rattled off the emotions with practiced ease.
Pandora looked around the empty room and finally noticed the familiar slight waver in the air – like the shimmering in the air when it gets hot, or above the flames of a fire. “Is that-” she pointed to the empty space that wasn’t really empty.
Evander nodded. “The extraction room, yes,” he confirmed. He waved his keycard in front of a space she could just barely make out as the room locked, and the wall then materialized into something more solid.
She poked her head through the door and saw a stretcher, just like the one her mother was put on. She was shocked. In her extraction room in the keep there were large comfortable reclining chairs for the people to sit in while the process was completed.
“Oh,” she said quietly.
Evander nodded. “We can only extract the positive energies from a person after they have left us,” he said, his voice equally soft. She saw him looking at her out of the corner of her eye. “You can understand that?”
She nodded. It made sense. To remove them while someone was alive would leave them empty, like a husk. Like something alive yet dead, with nothing inside them to make them, them.
“My mother...” Pandora said but trailed off. She glanced at him and suddenly he was familiar to her. He was the young man who had rushed into her mother's room on her final day, and had said they were there to collect her.
Evander looked over at her and she thought she saw a flicker of recognition but perhaps she was mistaken. He replied with his own nod. After a moment he continued. “Time-”
“Is of the essence,” she finished, remembering his words from that fateful day, and watched a small smile appear on his face.
“Yes. The emotions, the energies, the...” he stopped, searching for the right word. “People in the past sometimes called it the soul. It doesn’t last long in the body and we have to act quickly if we are to extract it and keep it safe, so that we can use it as an antidote.”
“You mean a weapon,” she said stonily.
Evander shrugged. “In a way, I guess. I never thought about it like that. I never thought we’d actually be needing it.”
Pandora could feel her face redden with shame. “Well isn’t that the reason you capture people’s essences?” she asked, as Evander turned and left the room, and she followed suit. He swiped his card again and the wall faded back into almost-nothingness hiding the extraction room and stretcher from view, and they were just with the box on the pedestal once more. “To use to stop...” she paused thinking. “To stop anything like this happening?”
Evander nodded. “Yes. Just in case,” he flicked his gaze away from her staring at the floor. “Anything like this ever happened. Like a failsafe system.”
Pandora moved toward the box and reached towards it. Her hand tingled and then burned and she yanked it back suppressing a yelp.
Evander looked at her apologetically. “Sorry, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but...”
“You don’t,” Pandora said curtly.
“We have to protect it too, just like yours,” he said with a shrug.
Evander pressed something on the cuff on his wrist, smooth and white and shiny, and Pandora could almost hear the field turn off.
Evander nodded towards the box. “Now it’s safe.” But as she moved toward it, he moved faster and picked it up, holding it protectively against him. “But-”
Pandora narrowed her eyes at him.
“We should hurry,” Evander continued, as he moved past her and rushed out of the room and down the long hall past all the bedrooms. Pandora wondered how many Collectors there were, and why there was only one of her, only one Guardian.
Pandora followed close on his heels as they ran down the stairs. “Time is of the essence, right?” she said, slightly bitter.
“Yes,” he said, as they came out into the entry hall that had the table of sad flowers. “Who knows what damage it’s doing out there.”
There was a pall over the room, a dimness that seemed to pull at you and draw you down.
He fumbled for his key card to open the door, and it fell out of the pocket of his waistcoat.
The darkness shifted outside.
Pandora leaned down and grabbed the card, waving it in front of the panel by the door. The door made a soft click and swung open.
Evander ran out into the street, the gloom of the crowded houses made even gloomier with the evil waiting above.
“What do we do?” Pandora asked at his heels as he moved down the cobbled street.
“We release it and let it do what it needs to,” Evander explained, moving further down the street.
Pandora tagged along at a jog. “Well why aren’t you?” she asked as she glanced at the roiling black darkness shifting above them and moving ever closer like a smothering blanket.
“Because we need to be out in the open,” he said curtly as if that explained everything, as he ran down the hill towards the expanse of beach that stretched out for miles at the bottom of the street.
Pandora didn’t look up but she could sense the evil gliding along, moving, following them above. It was waiting, watching, curious. As they passed houses, she saw the odd curtain twitch.
It felt like forever but they finally found themselves on the open stretch of beach.
The Evil moved quickly, like thick black storm clouds.
“Ready?” Evander said, his hand flicking the latch on the box and resting on the lid.
“As I’ll ever be,” Pandora said, eyes widening with the frightful speed that the darkness oozed towards them.
Silently Evander opened the box, and something floated up and out of it, flimsy and insubstantial, like wisps of smoke, but with all the colors of the rainbow, in soft, muted tones.
The ethereal smoke rose, twisting and flowing like water and smoke combined.
Pandora watched, holding her breath, skeptical that the filmy wisps could do much of anything. They looked like they’d just dissipate with a gust of wind.
And then the wisps began coalescing and suddenly there was a giant pearlescent dragon floating in the sky. It reared back, the wisps forming into a head and jaw, open with teeth. Large claws raked the air, swiping at the darkness, which split and tore with the dragon’s talons.
The darkness gathered itself up, growing blacker, more solid. It shifted and changed into a giant face. Two eyes, and a mouth that split the dark in two in a hideous grin.
Pandora stared, watching in awe. She wasn’t afraid. She couldn’t be, because fear had been removed from her, like everyone. It was how people lived.
The face opened its mouth wider. So wide she thought it would swallow the dragon. But miraculously, the dragon grew larger. The emotions were still coming out of the box, like a genie from a lamp.
The dragon lunged again and the black mouth opened wider. Pandora had noticed other people had joined them on the beach looking up in wonder and curiosity.
Then a high-pitched squeal filled the air and everything went white. There was a sound, a loud snap, or pop, like an electrical circuit breaking. And suddenly Pandora couldn’t see anything. Everything was bright and colorless.
“Hello? Who’s there?” she asked, an unfamiliar feeling welling up inside her chest, constricting and tight as if something was crushing her heart. She could feel her heart beating hard and fast. “Evander?!” she yelled, and she noticed something strange on her face. She put a hand up to her cheek and her fingers came away wet. She was ...crying? Pandora was confused. Why was she crying? She never had before. Not even when her mother died, because that’s how things were, after you’d had the extraction once you were born, and after you were one year old.
Slowly the whiteness began to fade, from the outside corners of her eyes, her vision returned. She realized she was lying on the ground and slowly pushed herself up, pressing hands into the cool sand. She blinked slowly, adjusting to sight once more and saw everyone else was on the ground, or in the process of getting up again.
She turned and saw Evander standing, reaching a hand down toward her. She took it gratefully and he pulled her to her feet.
“What happened?” she asked
Evander shrugged slightly. “It’s over,” he said.
Pandora looked up. No sign of the rainbow dragon or the dark face, only clear blue sky greeting her.
Pandora wiped her cheeks dry, rubbing the heels of her palms into her eyes to clear away the tears.
Evander looked at her. “You’ve been crying,” he said matter-of-factly. “How do you feel?”
She paused, thinking. “...Different.” she said hesitantly. “I feel fuller now. Full of things I’ve never felt before. Or don’t remember anyway.”
Evander nodded. “Same here”.
Pandora looked at him. “I felt scared.... I think?”
Evander nodded again. “Me too. How do you feel now?”
Pandora contemplated this, closing her eyes to try to figure out how she was feeling from the swirl of emotions going on inside her. “Better,” she said finally, opening an eye and looking at him. “I’m glad that you’re okay.”
He nodded in reply.
“And relieved. And..” she paused again thoughtfully. “Angry? I think it’s anger? I feel heat in my chest, and my muscles tensing and my jaw.”
Evander looked confused, and then shocked. “Anger? Why?”
Pandora looked down, digging the tip of a shoe into the sand and shrugged. “I don’t know...Maybe because now I know what it feels like to feel whole, and I've been feeling half empty my whole life without even realizing it?” She said the words slowly, thinking each over before she spoke it aloud. “I'm angry at the Elders for doing the extractions...”
Evander’s eyes widened. “But-” his mouth dropped open. “But, it’s tradition! That’s the way we’ve always done it. So people didn’t have to deal with the...bad stuff.”
“Yeah, I know. But maybe the bad stuff is just as important... as the good?” she said, her voice falling as she pondered it...and wondering what it all meant.
“What are you going to do now?” Evander asked as Pandora began to move slowly down the beach back towards the Sanctuary and The Keep where she grew up and spent most of her life.
“I...don’t know,” she replied. “All I know is I'll be the real me now, for once in my life, I'll be whole. The good parts, the bad parts, the broken parts. I’ll have all the pieces instead of just half the puzzle of me.”
One thing Pandora knew for certain, she would never spend another minute guarding a jar. She undid her wrist cuff, which all Guardians wore to alert them to trouble, and let it fall to the sand as they continued in silence down the stretch of beach, each wondering what life held for them in this new world, a new beginning.
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