She hurried down a quieter street. A residential neighborhood, at least, what remained of one. Now… Were these houses abandoned? They looked so old. Smashed windows, peeling paint… Even the paint was dark and grey. Who would decide to do that?
There seemed to be no one around, so she let herself slow to a walk. There were piles of trash and rubble in one of the yards ahead, and she decided to hide among a stack of ruined furniture. She nestled down into a broken armchair, uncomfortable, but safely hidden. Maybe she should stay here for a while, but how long? How long had she been here? She couldn’t tell what time it was. The sky was so dark, even in the middle of the day. Looking up, she tried to locate the sun, but there was nothing above her but smoke. How is that possible?
A sound snapped her out of her questions. Someone was crying. Her instincts brought her out of hiding, and forced her legs to move toward the sound. Only when she began to think did she slow down. This could be another trap. She didn’t know who those shadowy things were, or what they wanted with her, but they’d chased after her every time they saw her, and it was terrifying. But she didn’t remember hearing them speak in an ordinary human way, or even make ordinary human sounds. And this sound was normal and human. It was so human and so familiar, it could have been one of her own sons. Where they here, lost in this nightmare with her?
She saw him. A boy, no more than ten, hiding behind a trash can a few houses away from her own hiding spot. He wore an orange T-shirt and blue jeans, far more colorful than anyone else she’d seen. She checked her own clothes, realizing she had no idea what she was wearing. Odd, considering how much thought she put into her outfits every morning. Hm. Long black hair. A little too dark for this strange realm, but normal in her everyday life. A pink shirt to make up for it, check. But was this a shirt she actually owned? It seemed like a combination of several of them. Still, normal enough. Practical shoes for running errands, and ill-fitting mom-jeans. Perfect. So, why was everything else so bonkers?
“Are you okay, young man?”
He jumped. “Who’s there?”
“It’s okay,” she said. His eyes were ordinary, and when they met hers, she saw the same relief on his face. Neither of them had seem anything but shadows for as long as they’d been there. Hm. How long exactly was that?
“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said. “My name’s Josephina. What’s yours?”
“Benny,” he said.
“Very good to meet you, Benny,” Josephina said. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” he said, blushing a little as he wiped away the rest of his tears. “I just think I’m lost or something. Do you know where we are?”
“I’m afraid not. I don’t remember how I got here, or how long I’ve been here, and you’re the only other human I’ve come across. I keep thinking this is some kind of dream, but if you’re sharing it, that is particularly odd.”
A ringing sound made them both jump. “It’s my phone!” Benny cried. He quickly answered it. “Hello? Hello? Mom? Mom! You have to come find me, I’m… I don’t know where, I… I’m sorry, Mom! Please come find me! Mom?” He was quiet for several moments, lowering the phone from his ear. The phone disintegrated, and the dust blew away.
“I don’t even have a phone! This has to be a dream! Why can’t I wake up! I wanna wake up!”
“Me too, honey. I’m afraid I don’t know what’s happening either, but look, Benny. Look at me. We’re in this together now. We can look after each other. I could use a strong young man beside me, and I’m sure you’ll find some use for a silly old woman. You’re not alone.”
There were shops down this street, and some of the strange figures would go inside. She followed a shadowy man into a dusty book store. Here, folks sat or stood reading books like perfect statues. The books might have some answers. She picked one up, and made her way slowly to a chair nearest the door. A quick getaway was always a safer bet.
She opened the book, and tried to keep still while staring at the pages. None of the words were clear, and the more she tried to make them out, the blurrier they became. They swirled into black and white images, herself as a younger person, reading a book on some silly but fun new age ritual. She was lighting a candle. Her mother stormed into the room, blew it out, and threw the book across the room. Both her parents now, staring at her through the pages, “wherever you are, don’t come back,” her father said. Then her mother, “You’ve got yourself in real trouble, Raven. We tried to tell you! Witchcraft can only lead to trouble! We tried to tell you! Wherever you are, don’t come back! Wherever you are, don’t come back!”
The voices may have started inside her head, but they grew louder and louder. By the time Raven looked up, everyone in the bookstore was staring at her. Their eyes were all glowing viciously. Their mouths opened in long, stretchy ovals, and they cried out in a horrifying chorus. Raven sprang to her feet and bolted for the door, the nightmare figures chasing after her, still making that awful sound. Others on the street caught on, and chased after her as well.
Someone emerged from an alley a few blocks away, glancing around as though she didn’t know what was happening. Raven thought she’d imagined it. She hadn’t seen another human face here. But as she crossed the next block, someone grabbed her arm and pulled her hard.
“No time,” she said, “Just follow me.”
There was a tiny door at the end of the street, just hidden behind a dumpster. The other girl crouched down to pull the door open, and crawled inside. “Hurry!” she said, and Raven didn’t hesitate. Such bright eyes on this girl! She hadn’t seen such light since… Hm. She couldn’t even remember.
The narrow hallways ahead of them had a low ceiling, so at first, they had to crawl. Slowly the ceiling lifted, and the girls could stand up. Inside was a comfortable living room, a kitchen, and what looked like a few bedrooms down another hall. Raven gasped at the sight of the kitchen. There was a shadowy woman standing by the stove, slowly stirring a pot of something.
“It’s okay,” the other girl said. “She never moves. Sometimes she’ll talk, but she’s not dangerous.”
Raven was still apprehensive. Beyond the creepy woman was a wide window, covering almost the entire wall. Beyond that window, all was dark, but a few shadowy faces floated in the distance.
“She’ll tell us if they can see us,” the girl said.
“Well, that’s reassuring,” Raven said.
“Trust me, you’re safer here than anywhere else. I’m Bonnie, what’s your name?”
“Raven,” she said, turning away from the window. Bonnie was a much nicer sight than those terrible faces. Her eyes were large and brown, and her thick hair a cloud of soft curls. She was dressed colorfully, and even had some sparkles of jewelry. “I don’t remember the last time I saw something actually pretty. I mean… Crap, I don’t mean to…”
“It’s okay,” Bonnie blushed. She looked even sweeter with the extra color in her cheeks. “You’re the prettiest thing I’ve seen lately too. It’s really good to meet you, Raven, though I’m sorry your stuck here like me. Do you have any idea how this happened?”
Raven was about to answer when the shadowy woman in the kitchen suddenly snapped alert. Her head turned too sharply toward them, her mouth fell open but didn’t move, and words came pouring out:
“Two more await your discovery. A child missing his parents, and a parent missing her children. Your best chance to survive is together.”
“Where are we?” Raven asked. “How did we get here? What do you best chance to survive? What kind of sick game is this?” She was shouting at that stupid, eerily still woman, who didn’t seem to have any idea she was there. Raven wanted to shake her, but was still too afraid to make contact. Before she could give the idea any more thought, Bonnie pulled her away.
“It’s no use,” she said. “She only talks when she wants too, never answers any of my questions. I guess it’s better than nothing, though, right? I mean, there are two more people out there.”
“‘A child missing his parents, and a parent missing her children,’” Raven muttered. “Ugh. Does this mean we have to go rescue them?”
“Look on the bright side,” Bonnie said. “Once we do, our chances will be even better.”
“So says the creepy lady,” Raven said to herself. But she knew they had no other choice.