The Tunnel (1000 Words Challenge)

I thought I would take this week’s 1000-word-photo challenge as a sort of fiction-writing prompt. I haven’t been doing much creative writing since my NaNoWriMo fiasco a few months ago, so it was fun for me to write this story. This is my first try at writing a “short story” and I think this turned out better than my attempts at full-length novels. I kind of made it up as I went along and it’s kind of a change from my usual sort of thing, but it was fun to get away from the real world for a while. I was not expecting the story to go where it did, but it was a pretty fun exercise. I promise I’ll get back to feminism soon. Enjoy ❤

Blinking the sun out of my eyes, I glance behind me at the ruts my bare, tough feet have made in the sand. I can see it in the distance–a structure, but I don’t know what it is. As I wipe the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand I am all too aware of the parched dryness of my tongue, the aching of my joints. My dress, which was stirred by my movement, now floats down around my ankles. The sun beats down on my head like a drum.

“What do you think it is out there, girl?” I ask the horse at my side. She, too, is dehydrated and lethargic. Any water that she had been carrying since I found her has long since been consumed. I don’t know her name–she bounded up to me a couple of days ago with a dead man stuck in her saddle.

His body had already been blackened and shriveled by the desert sun. His cloudy and rotting eyes were rolled back in his head, and his swollen tongue lolled out of his mouth like a piece of wood. The hair fell from his head in tufts and the soles of his feet were caked in sand. He, like me, was dressed in silken rags. I searched his pockets for any identification–a wallet, keys, some remnant of who he was in the Before–but found only a photograph of a young woman. Maybe she was his daughter once, but his body was far too destroyed for me to identify any resemblance.

I paused for only a moment to close his eyes before leaving him to the monsters.

It’s been days since I’ve seen anyone besides him. I am starting to get lonely again.

“What do you think that is?” I say again to the horse. The structure appears to have arches but it’s too far away to tell. I hope to get there by the end of the night, but it’s hard to judge distance in the desert. “Can I ride you for a while?”

The horse whinnies halfheartedly as I hoist myself up onto her. For a second, black spots dance in front of my eyes. The exertion was almost too much for me.

“C’mon girl,” I murmur, but even my own voice is starting to sound weak to me. We need to find water, and soon.

A few miles back there was an old, burned out car with a whole picnic basket of food in it, but there was only one bottle of water. The liquid tasted dusty and hot. There were no personal effects in the car, no remnants from Before.

And there were no bodies. The monsters had already taken them.

In the distance, the building looms ever larger. Maybe, maybe, there will be people there. It seems only foolish to hope–setting myself up for heartbreak. But the longer I look at the building on the horizon, the more I can imagine it. The voices, the warm hands grasping me. And water, lots of it. Cool and sweet and clear. Where there are people, there is water. And where there is water, there is life. I can almost taste it.

I don’t know how long I ride for before I see them, far ahead of me, a woman and a man. The sun is starting to set. He lays facedown in the sand, his body already beginning to rot. She crawls several feet ahead of him. Almost a hundred yards away, I can hear her sobbing. But I know all too well that no tears fall from her eyes–there’s no water left to waste.

I can’t help but think that maybe, I should try to call out to her. But on the other hand, I can’t help but think maybe, just maybe, they have some water left.

So instead of helping, I watch as the woman falls.

The horse’s legs are trembling even more than my body. I dismount, blackness fringing the edges of my vision. But there it is, on the ground a foot away from the man. Perfect and pristine, still sealed. A bottle of water. Maybe he died trying to open it, and the woman, in her grief, left the world to be with him. Or maybe, they were fighting over the bottle and both succumbed to their injuries. Or maybe they both agreed to end it together, allowing themselves to be taken by dehydration in hopes of a better world on the other side.

The possibilities dance around in my head as I stumble toward the body of the man and gently lift the water bottle from his hand. The corpse is already starting to smell but I barely even notice. I sit down heavily next to the body, my dress billowing up around me. My trembling hands uncap the bottle. Water sloshes out over the side but I can’t calm my shaking fingers.

I force myself to drink the water slowly as the sky darkens to purple, and then to black. The field of stars glistens down on the bodies of the dead. The horse crouches down beside me and I drizzle a bit, just a bit, of my precious water into her mouth, but I don’t know if it’ll keep her going. She’s strong, but in the end she’ll be just another companion to leave me.

We ride well on into the night with nothing but the sounds of the monsters’ bellows to keep us company. But tonight, we don’t see any of them–we’ve left plenty of corpses in our wake to keep them satisfied. The sun is just clearing the horizon and the structure, whatever it may be, is finally within my sight when finally the horse’s knees buckle under her.

It’s slow and stiff–no romanticism to her death. I roll away from the body as she slowly, gently sinks to the ground.

I’m surprised to feel my throat closing up when the horse’s eyes close. No tears. Please, no tears. I’m too thirsty to cry.

It’s hard to force myself to stop crying. It’s even harder to force myself to start walking. The hot sun thrums down on my back. As I stumble forward, my dress catches around my ankles. I’m starting to think that maybe it’s not worth keeping my last vestige of the old world, that maybe I should just tear off the tail of the dress and be done with it. But I can’t bring myself to rip up this last little piece of myself. Even though it’s been countless weeks–months, maybe, but there’s no time in the desert–since the Before existed.

Now, there is only the After.

I’m so out of it, so exhausted, that I barely even notice the structure is so close to me until I step into its shadow. It’s a huge, looming building. Despite the holes in the walls and the fine layer of ash that coats it, it’s still hauntingly beautiful. The sweeping porticoes and massive, oaken front door speak of a different world.

My whole body pulses with excitement. I can hear voices coming from inside! This is it! I’ve finally found safety. Water. Other people.

Everything will finally be okay.

It takes all my strength to haul open the massive door, but the dried, sun-bleached wood is light and flexible. I follow the sound of voices deeper and deeper into the building, until my feet are flying underneath me. When I burst into the room, I can already imagine everything I am going to say to the people I have found.

But there is nothing there.

The voices stop all at once.

Imagined. Brought on by the dehydration or by the loneliness, and now they’re gone.

There is no one here. No one left in the After but me.

I sink to my knees and finally, finally, allow tears to fall from my eyes.

emptiness

Photo credit Cheri Lucas Rowlands

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