The woman woke up to the feeling of soft, cold snow falling on her cheek. As she opened her eyes, the world around her blazed and burned a brilliant titanium white. Faint memories danced through her mind, pirouetting like the snowflakes around her as they fell out of her consciousness, melting away. She remembered a warm hand on her face, a gentle kick in her stomach, laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe. She recalled the stars at night, a voice whispering lovingly in her ear, the smell of champagne on their breath. Everything felt hazy though, like she was looking at memories in the distance through frosted glass – why couldn’t she see them clearly? As she shifted, the cold of winter setting into her bones, she began to stand up and dust the flakes off her blue shirt. Standing straight up brought at painful thump to her head and she winced, reaching up to her temple. When she withdrew her hands, she noticed her fingertips came back sticky and dark – a copper smelling ooze stuck to them.
“Blood?” her rough voice croaked out – she hadn’t realized how much her throat had ached with thirst before.
A flash suddenly filled her vision and she was seeing double. She saw the world around her, tranquil and cold, then the next moment she saw blurred shapes looming over her, muffled voices speaking erratically. Her head lulled to the side and with each shake it was like she was looking between worlds. The snow around her was replaced with white sheets, the beautiful trees became mangled metal rods, the sun in the sky became harsh blue-tinted lights. Her head throbbed in pain and she groaned as she collapsed.
“Mom?” a voice called out
She whirled her head around looking, an aching pang of familiarity gnawing in her stomach.
“Mom!” the voice was louder now, but the world around her was spinning and she couldn’t focus. Where was it coming from?
Suddenly, a hand on her shoulder snapped her back to reality. As she gazed upwards to see who was touching her shoulder, she saw the briefest flash of an angel. A beautiful creature with golden wings that stretched outwards as if to embrace the woman, the halo burning radiantly above their head was hard to look at. She reached out to shield her eyes from the vision and as quickly as it came, it had gone.
Standing over her, his arms outstretched in comfort and his brow furrowed in concern was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. His olive colored skin was dirtied, covered in black smudges and stains and ornate tattoos. His eyes were a luminous green, so fierce they looked neon against the harsh glow of the snow. The mop of thick, curly hair on top of his head was splaying out in all different directions, a halo of snow and sunshine at the crown. She snorted, no wonder she had mistaken him for an angel.
“Ma’am?” he spoke softly, the voice that was calling out to her before, “Ma’am are you alright? What are you doing out here in the open?”
The woman felt her headache start to dissipate and was grateful for the relief, finding the strength in her legs to stand up again. She gripped onto the stranger’s shoulders for support and stood tall, brushing the snow off her legs. As she dusted her hands off, she noticed the snow hadn’t melted away, but rather, smeared and blackened her palms. She looked down and noticed for the first time that she had no pants on. Instead, her bare legs were jutting out awkwardly from the bottom of a long blue paper gown and they were covered in dirt. She wiped hurriedly at her eyes with her knuckles and as the blackness faded from her vision, she truly saw the world around her.
Ash. The world around her was reduced to ash.
The trees that looked like they were slumbering for the winter were burnt and mangled, skeleton remnants of a forest. The sky was a gloomy gray and so bright it hurt to look at for too long – a thick fog surrounding them made the brightness even more intense. From the clouds a constant shower of ashes which she had mistaken for snow was falling.
A gasp caught in her throat and she stumbled backwards again, what was happening? Where was she?
“Ah! Ma’am!” the stranger yelped and reached out to grab her before she fell. “Please, be careful. Are you ok? What’s your name?”
The woman looked around wildly, dazed and confused. What happened? Why was the earth scorched around her? She became acutely aware of the smell of burnt leaves and decay all around her, a noxious fume that clung to her nostrils and assaulted her senses. Her eyes were burning, her throat was burning, her mind was racing.
“What…what’s going on?” the woman began to whimper, “Where am I? What is this?”
“You don’t remember?” The stranger asked concerned, his mouth slightly agape with confusion. “Do you remember anything? What’s your name?”
The woman, shaking and scared, suddenly became aware of the fact that she was a in an unknown place with a stranger – fear filled her body like a flood, and she started backing away trembling.
“I-I don’t…I…”, her feet were suddenly too large, her bones too heavy, her arms felt useless as terror took over her body. “P-Please…”
“Hey, hey, hey, it’s ok. It’s ok. Shhh, please. It’s ok.” The stranger put his arms up as if to say you’re not in danger but the woman, lost in a haze of confusion, trusted no one. A singular thought raced through her mind and sent a jolt of energy throughout her system – Run.
She slipped on the slick ground as she turned but quickly found her footing again and ran as fast as her tired legs could take her. She hadn’t realized before that she was barefoot, but each pounding step seared through her, dead branches and twigs scratching at her legs and bottoms of her feet. She felt the reverberation of each step shake throughout her body, each breath was sharp and hot, her throat was exploding with fire, but she couldn’t stop.
“Mommy!” the soft voice rang out again and the edges of her vision began to blur and darken. A name blazoned across her mind, a tiny face, half obstructed by darkness but his smile gleaming brightly. “Mommy…”
It was the final thought the woman had before the world was enveloped in darkness again and she was falling.
In her dreams, the world was sterile and smelled strongly of disinfectant. The lights were too bright and harsh, she couldn’t make out the details of the figures looming over her. She heard mumbles, slices of words she understood amongst jargon, “delivery” “boy” and “take him”. The gleam off a scalpel in her mind hurt her eyes and she rocked her head back, the familiar throbbing sensation returning. She saw her arms outstretch toward the light and figures above her, heard her voice rattle “Sebastian”. She felt a pressure holding her arms and legs down and she began to thrash against it. It felt like the ground below her, once solid, began to greedily swallow her up as she was pushed down into the inky darkness. It felt like she was drowning, the water slowly filling her nose and mouth suffocating her. Maybe it was easier to let the darkness consume her, a calm warm buzzing in the pit of her stomach began to convince her to relax. She fell faster now with no end in sight.
The woman’s eyes snapped open and she jostled upright, kicking up leaves and ash all around her. Her heart was pounding, and she felt like she could taste saltwater in her mouth. She was so tired, so sore, so confused.
“Hello again” a voice to her right said calmly.
She turned to see the stranger from before, sitting next to a fire across from her. The world had gone dark around her and the wind blowing was bitter cold. She noticed she was covered in a thick, wool blanket and was grateful for a small respite in this harsh world.
“You took off so fast, you’re like a damn jack rabbit!” the man laughed. He was poking the fire with a stick and the woman realized he was cooking something. A lump of meat was cooking amidst the flames, wafting a heavenly aroma over her. The woman’s stomach began to rumble, and she realized how hungry she was. How long had it been since she last ate? Or drank? Or slept? Her entire body felt like an exposed nerve.
“I found you here a few hours ago. I followed the trail you trampled through the forest and found you collapsed on the ground. You were losing a lot of blood, what happened to you?”
The woman instinctively reached up to her temple again and was surprised to feel cloth wrapped around her head where the blood had been earlier.
“You musta knocked your head pretty hard, no wonder you were so spooked. Do you remember anything? How did you get that wound?” The man pointed at her head and the look of concern returned to his face.
“I…”, words formed in her mind but speaking felt like swallowing a thousand burning needles and the woman immediately winced and grabbed her throat.
“Woah, woah, sorry. Take it easy. Here.” The man extended a canteen towards the woman and shook it so she could hear the liquid sloshing around in there. The woman studied it hesitantly, reaching out and then withdrawing her hands. The man laughed, exasperated, and pulled the canteen back, taking a long swing. “I promise, it’s just water.”
As he outstretched the canteen again, the woman snatched it up and downed the water inside, letting the cool liquid spill down her throat, over her chin, and onto her chest. She didn’t care that the air hitting the water made her even colder, she took long, deep chugs, only stopping to catch her breath in between each gulp. The pain in her throat was less intense now and as she wiped her face with the back of her hand, she found her voice again.
“Thank you,” she started, passing the empty canteen back to the man, “I needed that.”
The man threw his head back and laughed raucously, “She speaks!”
“She speaks, she runs, she has no idea where she is.” The woman responded smartly, starting to relax a little more as the warmth of the fire ate the coldness away from her skin.
“And does she have a name?”
The woman thought for a minute, staring blankly into the fire, mesmerized by the orange flames that were licking up the fat off the meat cooking inside. What was her name? Why couldn’t she remember?
“Well, my name is Gabriel, mysterious stranger. I’m glad I found you instead of the wolves honestly.” Gabriel looked into the distance, his brows furrowing again as he tried to see into the darkness past the glow of the fire around them.
“Thank you Gabriel.” The woman found her voice again, making eye contact with the man and smiling slightly. “I’m sorry, I’m really just not sure what’s happening. I don’t remember much.”
“Well, you took quite a blow to your head from something, and like I said earlier, you were losing a lot of blood. So just rest, I’m cooking up some squirrel I found the other day and hopefully when you get some food and some rest, you’ll recall something else.”
They sat in silence, listening to the crackle of the flame and the stillness of the woods around them. The woman scanned the area more, taking in more details. The trees were all bare and scorched, the ground was soft and damp, and there were no stars – just a vast gray blanket covering the sky. The man, Gabriel, had made a makeshift tent with a tarp between two trees. His backpack laid next to him, just as dirty and worn as everything else he owned. He wore a tattered brown poncho, ripped cargo pants, and thick, black boots. He had a pair of goggles dangling around his throat and a necklace that glinted in the firelight. She couldn’t quite make out the charm that was on it and when he noticed her looking at it, he quickly stuffed it under his poncho.
“What happened here?” the woman asked, as Gabriel carefully removed the cooked meat from the flames. “Was there a fire?”
Gabriel stiffened, “These lands were once beautiful,” he began, carving up the small meal to share. “The trees were tall and lush, the ground was covered in moss, and at night you could hear the insects singing.”
With that, the woman’s ears prickled with a tiny whine – she hadn’t noticed that there were no sounds of life around her. No birds calling, no insects chirping, not even any rustling. They were in a forest of death.
“One day there was a great fire. A calamity. The entire world fell into darkness and flames, everything was burned up. Nobody knows how it started, but before anyone could contain it, the flame consumed everything. It swallowed up whole towns, entire populations, and it left nothing but scorched earth and sadness in its wake.”
The woman gasped softly, why couldn’t she remember any of this? Surely something that monumental would have left a mark on her memory. As she tried harder to remember, her head began to throb again.
“All that’s left now are ghosts of the world before. Ghosts and…” he trailed off, reaching out to give her a piece of food.
“And what?” she asked, taking it and holding the warmth in her hands delicately.
“Monsters.” Gabriel looked at the woman very seriously, a pained look on his face. “A harsh world only breeds harsh things; survival is a strong instinct…it…it’s an all-consuming instinct. The fire burned all humanity away, we live in a world of ghosts and monsters now. Those of us who are trying to find a better tomorrow, trying to heal the world, are slowly being burned away too.”
Gabriel, noticing the woman watching him intently with hungry eyes, took a bite of his food to show her it was safe. The woman took a small bite too and as soon as the warm, savory meat touched her tongue, she began to relax more. She took another, larger bite, and then another until the small amount of meat she had was gone. Warmth began radiating throughout her body and she felt her muscles give an appreciative twinge for the protein.
Mommy, the small voice in her head returned with another painful throb. She looked around, scanning the trees and the darkness.
“Did you hear that?” she said absentmindedly, squinting to see past the ring of light cast by the fire. “Tell me you heard that.”
Gabriel looked around before returning his eyes to the woman in front of him, “Hear what?” he asked.
“That voice…his voice…it called me mommy…” her voice began to trail off as she stood up, much to the protest of her aching body.
“A child?” Gabriel shot up as well, hand at his hip where a large knife lay attached to his belt. “There’s a child out there? Your child?”
The woman looked at Gabriel, her eyes bright and wide with fear again.
“I’m not going to hurt them; I didn’t hurt you did I? But it’s dark, and there’s no telling what is slinking through these woods at night. If there’s a child out there, we must find them now. Where did you hear the voice? I didn’t hear anything.”
The woman touched her head and closed her eyes, she saw the white lights and blurred figures again, just for a moment. Smelled the strong chemical tang in the air. Felt his name form on her lips.
“Sebastian…” she whispered.
“Is that his name?” Gabriel asked, “Sebastian?”
When he spoke the name, visions blurred behind her eyes again. A small hand, almost impossibly small, reaching out for her. Blood, so much blood, the taste of metal on her tongue. A cry, a scream, and as quickly as they came they were gone again.
In the distance, just beyond the firelight, came the snap of a twig. And then another, and another, the sound of something advancing. Footfalls echoing in the silence, heavy and thunderous. There were many of them and they were coming quickly.
“Damn- “Gabriel hissed, he grabbed his backpack and threw it on his back quickly. He unsheathed the knife from his belt and cut the tarp down from the trees next to him, draping it over the fire and stomped out the flames. He grabbed the woman’s hand and looked at her in the gray gloom, their eyes adjusting to the darkness.
“Listen to me, this world, this place, there are a lot of bad people here. If your son is out there, we have to find him before they do, and we have to move. Now.”
Gabriel began to quickly and quietly move away from their campsite, pulling the woman’s arm so she would follow behind him. His footsteps were so silent and the world around them was so dark now it was disorienting. The woman stumbled noisily behind him, confusion and terror filling her body with adrenaline again. Gabriel stopped suddenly and the woman crashed into his back, her nose ached from the impact and her eyes began to water.
“Ow, what- “she began to call out when suddenly Gabriel spun around and clasped his rough around her mouth. His breathing was quick and hitched, tinged with fear like hers. She felt his hot breath on her cheek, suddenly aware of how close he was as she squirmed to get free.
“Please, stop moving. Slowly…quietly…we need to get down on the ground” he whispered in her ear, “They’re getting closer and we can’t run anymore. We need to hide”.
The woman felt terror, like white hot pinpricks on the back of her neck, take over as Gabriel pushed her gently but firmly towards the ground, one hand on her mouth and one on her shoulders. Together they went to the ground, by the base of a nearby tree and laid as flat as they could.
Gabriel grabbed the blanket that was around the woman and spread it out over top of them, covering them from the waist down. He began to pile leaves on top of them as quickly and quietly as he could, his eyes trained on a spot in the darkness beyond the trees. The woman was shaking against him, her mind racing and her vision blurring. Gabriel finally covered their heads up and leaves quietly cascaded around them. His body was warm against hers, holding her close so she wouldn’t shake, he breathed quietly “please stay still and be quiet”.
The woman tried to stay as still as possible, her breath catching in her throat. She let her senses get used to the darkness and silence under the blanket, the sound of her and Gabriel’s breathing was low, and the heat of their bodies trapped in the enclosure was creating a moisture in the air. The woman went to shift her weight underneath Gabriel when she froze – outside of where they were laying, surely only a few meters away, she heard a rustling.
A whistle cried out in the air, clear and sharp, slicing through the silence. Another called back, as if communicating. A third, in the distance very far away was carried on the wind. The noise closest to them got louder and she felt footsteps vibrate the ground beneath them.
“Damn!” A harsh, gruff voice spat. “We lost sight of them. Did you see where they went?”
“No boss,” another, nasally voice responded, “I could have sworn they went this way. It’s too dark to track them but, but I swear I heard something over here.”
There was a sound of a loud oof as a punch landed hard. “Ow! Why’d you do that?” the nasally individual winced.
“You idiot. We cannot afford to lose that woman. The bounty on her head is enough to set us up for the rest of our lives!”
In the darkness, though she couldn’t see him, the woman felt Gabriel’s head turn towards hers as if to look her in the eyes.
“We already got the boy, but the boss wants her too. He said we have to finish the job and I’m not going to be the one to tell him we let her get away.”
The woman’s heart began to race – she saw the figure of the small boy in her mind again, why couldn’t she remember his face? Her heart ached and she felt tears well up in her eyes. Gabriel squeezed her arm as if to remind her that they were not alone, and the woman stifled a sob.
“We have to get her and take her back with us” the gruff voice said, starting to walk around now, his feet mere inches from where they were.
“Back to the clinic, right? That’s where boss said he’d be waiting. Man, I really hate that place, it gives me the creeps.” The nasally voice whined, moving further away.
“Man up, the price on that broad’s head is worth a lifetime. So, you’re gonna shut up and help me keep looking.” The gruff voice seemed to be moving further away now but was still close enough that Gabriel and the woman were on guard.
“What’s she wanted for anyway?”
“She’s valuable. Boss said she holds the key to fixing everything, whatever that means.”
In the distance, another whistle called out and the two men responded back, mimicking the cry of a bird the woman couldn’t quite place. She heard them huff and start heading off away towards the sound of the whistle. After a few moments, Gabriel shifted the blanket up ever so slightly and peered out – scanning the area around them.
“I think the coast is clear…” He was still whispering, moving the blanket off them slowly. As leaves fell around them and the woman moved to get up, she felt all the pressure that was inside of her release. She began to cry uncontrollably, hot tears streaking down her face, stifling sobs in her hands.
She had no idea who she was or where she was, but the only thing she was certain of was someone had her son, and she had to do whatever it took to get him back.
“Gabriel?” the woman hiccupped between cries, “Gabriel do you…do you know what they were talking about? Where is that place?”
Gabriel, wrapping up the blanket that was around them, sighed exasperatedly. “I think…I think they mean St. John’s Clinic. But, I gotta tell you lady, that place is nasty business. It’s at least a three-day journey, if you’re lucky, across bandit country. You’ll never make it in once piece. You don’t even know who you are or where you are.”
The woman wiped her eyes furiously and stared at Gabriel. Straightening up, she made herself as tall and powerful as she could muster and spoke with conviction, “I don’t give a damn about anything else. I may not know my name, but I know I’m a mother. His mother. And I’m going to find my son. I’m going to find Sebastian.”
About the author
Miranda is an avid bookworm and free-time author who packs her days full of counseling work as an intern therapist, government work as a Parks & Recreation manager, and full time motherhood. She also recently married the love of her life.