The woods grew darker as the sun slipped behind the horizon. That was both good and bad. It meant that howling band that had been chasing me would drift off in search of easier prey. But it meant howling creatures of another kind were just starting to stir. Everything was howling and hungry these days, it seemed. There was a good chance I had sealed my fate running past the treeline, but I’d rather take my chances with wolves. They only ate your flesh.
I kept moving, in the hopes of finding something I could put my back to. An empty cave would be perfect, but a tight crop of trees might work. I had learned as a child how to move swiftly over just about any terrain, so I dodged roots and bushes with ease. A patch of slick mud nearly took me down and I slammed a shoulder into a large trunk. I’d feel that later.
A fresh howl broke out behind me, far too close for comfort, and gave my feet speed once more. I glanced over my throbbing shoulder and when I turned back, the trees had opened to a clearing. And voices! I heard someone talking! Moving too fast to skid to a halt, I braced myself for the burst of pain that came with a drop-and-roll behind a rusted out car. The voices were distant, but slowly drawing closer. I couldn’t let myself be seen. Not until I knew who they were. What they were. My gaze flicked around, frantic. This car wouldn’t hide me for long.
A neat row of houses stood a good dash away. Decrepit, yes. They’d clearly been bombed and looted, but one near the middle seemed to have survived. Most of the windows were unbroken. The front door hung by one hinge, which was a hinge more than the others. It stood at least three floors high, with what looked like an attic. There was a chance it was inhabited, but if so, no one was moving around inside.
The voices were louder. I had to go, now or never. My shoulder yelped as I pushed off the rusty beast and ran, dust kicking up behind me. There was no help for that. I could only hope the people coming this way would not notice my footprints. Checking my pace, I ducked through the door and pressed against the first wall I found. It is a skill to keep from panting when you are scared and desperate for breath. You must breathe in slowly through your nose, out gently through your mouth. Slow the heart rate and breathing. Remain silent. Listen.
Nothing. Could this place truly be abandoned? Or were the inhabitants returning home even now?
As quickly and carefully as I knew how, I ran up the stairs. All of them. I didn’t stop until I reached a solid looking door at the top. The layer of dust on the handle said it hadn’t been used in years. That was good. If anyone came after me, one glance at that knob would give me away. That was bad. Still, it was a chance I had to take if I wanted to hide, even for a night. No sane soul dared go unsheltered at night.
Dim light came through the window as I opened the door, then closed it behind me. My eyes widened in wonder. Was that a bed? A real bed? It was small, as if meant for a child, but not so small that I couldn’t rest there. A dresser. A smaller desk with a great big mirror attached and a cushioned seat nearby. Shelf after shelf graced the walls, filled with toys. It was as if the war and destruction had left this room entirely alone. As if the fallout didn’t matter, the bands of desperate people didn’t exist. As if I had stepped into a place forgotten by truth.
I sat on the bed and nearly wept. It would take a day or two, maybe more, to be sure this house wasn’t taken. But if my luck held out, I might have a new home!
A full moon rose, glowing as red as ever, but for the first time in a long time, I was not afraid. I was too intrigued. I could no longer hear the voices and there seemed to be no movement at all in the house, so I wandered the room freely, picking up various objects and turning them over in my hand. The hairbrush didn’t do much for my short tangle, but it was still fun to use. After all, I hadn’t seen one in more than a decade. A delicate beaded bracelet fell apart in my hands when I picked it up, scattering tiny bits of colour across the wood floor and into the throw rugs. I trailed my fingers over the shelves, marveling that they still hung so straight and strong.
And that’s when I saw her. A pretty little doll, the size of a newborn babe. She had a blue and white checked dress and little blue shoes. There was even lace on her white white socks. How had they stayed so clean? I was afraid to touch her and make her dirty, but her blond hair looked so soft, I couldn’t resist. I picked her up carefully and stroked that hair, playing with the curls. She was beautiful enough to move me to tears.
As I ran my fingers through the silken yellow, one caught on a plastic ring and I tried to yank my hand away. A cheerful voice filled the room, “Hello! I’m Cathy! What’s YOUR name?”
I almost dropped her. What trickery was this? Was she a spy’s tool? A radio? Was there a camera in those little eyes? I shook her. I turned her over and over, looking for proof. Nothing.
My name. What was my name? I hadn’t thought of myself by a name in a very long time. And what if I answered her? Would she respond? I nibbled my cracked lip and took a chance, “I’m… I’m Sura. It’s nice to meet you, Cathy.”
Again, nothing. No response. If she was a plant, she was a sneaky one. Or maybe whoever had set her up had long since left their post. What if she was meant to help? She might have clues about this place!
I pulled the string again.
“Please take me with you.”
I wasn’t expecting that. Not the words or the shift in tone. The cheerfulness was gone, replaced by need. The hairs on the back of my neck started to rise. In any other circumstance, I would have listened and gotten out of there. But I needed to know more before I left this potential haven.
I pulled the string again. The doll shuddered in my hands. “Run, Sura. Run NOW!”