Kala and I struggled around the bones of the cars that had been abandoned during The Purge. The highways were usually quiet.
Our feet slapped uncomfortably on the pavement. The soles of our shoes flapped against our feet. We walked silently, south, our long migration from the north only a few more weeks.
Lake George lay flat and lifeless on our left, to the east. The water was gray and dead now. It used to shine like deep blue glass in the sunlight and turquoise under the fog when I was young. It seemed now that even the wind refused to touch it.
I looked at Kala again, assessing her situation. She would need new shoes soon. Hers had fallen apart at the toes and her feet barely would have fit inside of them if they hadn’t opened up of their own accord.
Behind me I dragged a child’s red wagon. Somewhere off route 7 on this journey south, I found it abandoned on the side of the road. I dared to walk a few steps into the thick pine forest which had crept up to the old shoulders of the road, but not any further. I didn’t even dare to call out. I remember peering around the trees carefully, looking for some sign of a child. There was nothing, and the forests were where the changelings most liked to hide.
Each year this made our migration even more perilous than it already was.
Each summer we traveled north to Lake Mégantic, a place I had visited often with my grandparents as a child. The world’s temperatures often fluctuated from scorching to sub-zero in a matter of hours, offered little comfort wherever we roamed. But, the summers were less painful in the north, and eastern Canada was, strangely, mostly devoid of the changelings. I had noticed in the few years since their arrival that they avoided certain areas, but nothing in the landscape gave away any clues. There were no similarities.
Lakes and other large bodies of water often offered some semblance of an even temperature, for some reason regulating the area around them enough to prevent a drop or rise of a hundred degrees or more, and instead offering respite in the fluctuation of temperatures by only fifteen or twenty degrees.
This year had been different. Each year we watched the thick mists tumble down from the mountains. Jay Peak was always the first peak to rise from the flat horizon on our migration back south, and this time of year seemed to cultivate the mists as we were passing through, only to descend into the valleys after we had passed.
This year, we had lingered at Mégantic too long. As we passed by Jay Peak, Kala and Adam and I all noticed the mist was already sweeping down the northern face. Only a few extra days we had lingered, yet we found ourselves surrounded.
Last year, we had navigated down from the lake and further west along the old border between Vermont and Canada before we turned south on interstate 87. We had wandered in and out of the forests along the border, the safest place to be where prying eyes couldn’t see and prying noses couldn’t smell anything but pine sap. The old border crossings stood like broken teeth where US 89 had turned into CA 133 and US 87 turned into CA 15, extra wide stretches of road standing bare and eerily quiet, except for the broken windows that whistled with the cold north wind.
I thought that maybe it would have been good if we had taken that route this year.
It was too late now. Adam was already gone, sucked into the deep mist.
It had happened as we moved toward Mansfield in the south, the looming giant watching us with the cold eyes of its bare stone summit. The mist was rolling down into the valley where the old humble town of Jeffersonville once stood. As we walked down 108 from the old border, the mist snuck up on us, like a living creature, wrapping around the pines, tendrils creeping out between the branches. Adam screamed once, and then a faint scream followed moments later as he disappeared. At his first scream, I grabbed Kala and ran blindly forward straight down the old road.
There was ice on the road, lifting the old pavement up so it groaned and cracked. I slipped and caught myself a dozen times before we reached the flats. By the time we reached the last hill down just before town, I was running faster than I had ever thought possible. My legs ached, and we had lost everything.
It had taken us a few days to make it down to Route 7, where we eventually found the wagon. It was half filled with food and a few canteens of water. It didn't make sense that it would be left behind like this. Someone must have run, or died. There were no bodies, so the fate of these faceless strangers may have been the worst – they were taken by the changelings, twisted by their mandates, and turned from men into monsters.
As we trekked further south, we headed west on 22A until Addison, where we headed southwest on route 17. The old Champlain Bridge creaked as we crossed it. Strong northern winds gusted around us and tried to lift the bridge from its legs. I knew someday we would have to continue making the jouney west from Megantic to 87, crossing the border from Canada into New York rather than take the slower pace south through Vermont.
Someday this bridge would collapse, and if we chose to continue the route through Vermont we would have to travel further south and then east along the coast, exposed, rather than inland where the hiding places were abundant.
Vermont had been our home before The Purge. It had cradled us in an old farmhouse in Plainfield. Then, we had a son. Gideon. He died at the beginning, torn apart by the first wave of changelings who snuck in through the cracks around his window. He was ten years old and resisted. He had a stronger will than most good men.
I looked at Kala, now only five years old. Gideon would have been 17 now. We were so young when we had him, and we felt so old when we lost him.
I was only 29 when the Purge began. Now, at 36, I found myself amazed I still lived. I was amazed that anyone was alive.
At the beginning, there was this hope that the mists would spit their victims back out. As time went on, we realized it was faulty to hold out hope. It was exhausting.
Still, in some of the friendly groups we encountered on our migrations, we found people who still hoped. One woman claimed her son had re-emerged weeks later from the mist that took him, wandering silently on the road ahead of them. They were moving south, and he was moving north, and they had no idea how he ended up so far ahead of them.
When I met the boy, about the age Gideon would have been, he seemed empty yet unaggressive. Kala was terrified of him. She was maybe three at the time, and she cried and clutched me, whispering over and over again, “momma he has no soul. It's gone. He has a big black hole right here,” pointing right at her sternum.
“Shh,” I chastised quietly.
His eyes looked like he suffered from cataracts but he wasn't blind. He didn't speak.
I fought my way back to the present. Kala walked beside me, looking ahead. I could tell she was listening to the wind. I had heard rumors in passing that the ice on Mount Washington was gone. It was bare stone. The north face of Washington had been scarred, mined for some ore the changelings needed. It supposedly hunched like a tired old man now.
Northeast of us was the Tongue Mountain range. As I turned my head to look at Five Mile Mountain, I realized there was something at the top of the mountain. A structure, like a smokestack. I stopped. Turned around. Looked at it. Stared at it.
“What momma?” Kala whispered.
I looked down at her quickly and back to the mountain. “Do you see that building?” I pointed to Five Mile Mountain.
“Yeah. What's wrong with it?”
“That tall building on top of it was never there before the changelings arrived.” I squeezed her hand.
Kala's eyes got wide. “But momma what are we going to do?” she asked, tears coming to her eyes. I shook my head at her.
“We need to get off the road and hide. I can't imagine anyone like us would build something so obvious. It's the changelings or it's the bad men.”
Kala started shaking. I knelt down in front of her. “Kala, we need to get off the road. Right now, you can't cry. You need to be strong.”
I could feel my mouth stretch into a line. She looked at me and then closed her eyes, swallowing hard. “Okay momma, I will be brave.”
I walked to the edge of the road. There was a large field about a half a mile across, with a thick forest along its furthest border. Tall white birch trees stood like the finger bones of god half buried in the wicked earth, lining the outer edge of the forest. They were like sentinels. They all stood straight.
I took off the blanket I had thrown over my shoulders and covered the wagon, hoping it would at least help it to blend in with the rest of the landscape. At least this way the red wouldn't stand out quite so badly.
“Don't run,” I whispered to Kala. “We will attract more notice if we run.”
She nodded to me.
I walked with Kala's hand held tightly in my right hand and pulled the wagon along with my left hand. I walked carefully, slowly, watching the edge of the forest carefully. I was on full alert, waiting to hear the whistling winds that so abruptly preceded a rush of changelings, or the chanting and marching of their human disciples.
We walked in silence. All of the trees that once covered this landscape with a lush canopy now stood bare, their branches clacking against each other when the wind picked up.
I smelled smoke suddenly and turned back towards Five Mile Mountain. From its top in the distance, I could see black smoke rising from the strange structure that now marred its summit.
I picked up my pace a little, slowly moving faster and faster towards the edge of the forest so that Kala wouldn't notice.
As we reached the middle of the field, I started to hear a dull thudding on the road, maybe a mile away. I stopped suddenly. “Kala, climb in the back of the wagon and cover yourself with the blanket. Don't make a noise. I'm going to run now.”
She nodded again, her eyes again threatening tears.
“Be strong for me,” I whispered.
She looked at me, fear eating away at her face as she covered herself with the blanket.
I dragged the wagon across the field, moving as fast as I could without the threat of it tipping.
As I reached the edge of the forest, I heard the thudding grow louder, now accompanied with chanting. Suddenly, the eerie whistling that always heralded the arrival of the changelings picked up from the mountains behind us. I wished I had any kind of strength left in me, but this new world left me as bare as possible with death only a few lost meals away. If I had the strength, I would lift Kala and the wagon and simply carry them into the woods.
The tall birch trees loomed above me as I crawled under the scraggly underbrush that stood around their trunks. I pulled the wagon in behind me. Behind the birch trees, bare pines stood like the dark skeletons of giants, the ground covered in a thick bed of their orange needles. The outer edge of the forest was surrounded by the dead underbrush, probably once honeysuckle bushes that would have released their fragrance across the field in the summer in the old world.
I tapped the wagon lightly three times.
I love you.
I heard three taps.
I love you too.
I tapped four times.
Come out now.
Kala lifted the blanket up slowly, her eyes peeking up over the edge of the wagon. I waved my hand for her to get out of the wagon.
I tapped six times.
I tapped seven times.
She looked at me, straight faced. She nodded again. She was angry at me. I assumed she didn't know to be careful and quiet. I assumed she didn't know what the whistling wind meant. She knew what all of those things meant. She was raised in this world.
She moved out of the wagon slowly, and started to pull the blanket off. I grabbed her arm and shook my head violently. Even under cover of the forest, they might notice the red of the wagon. I knew why she wanted it though. I could feel the temperature dropping fast.
I pulled her into my lap and zipped the oversized coat around both of us. Inside the jacket, I wrapped my arms around her. Her arms were freezing. I was afraid that her lack of nutrition was only making this worse for her. She leaned her head into my neck and sighed.
With one hand she reached up and tapped on my collarbone three times.
I love you.
I tapped back three times.
I love you too.
I leaned back carefully against an old pine. I pulled Kala along with me, her frail body light on my legs. She felt like nothing. I closed my eyes.
Gideon had been a hearty child, healthy, fit, full of energy. I often found myself comparing Kala to Gideon. They were from two entirely different worlds, so it wasn't fair to do so.
My mind reeled back suddenly to Adam. When he was sucked into the mist, I ran with Kala, full of adrenaline, my mind refusing to grieve and instead focused fully on flight. Now I felt the grief settle into my bones. I felt tears come to my eyes. I pulled in a quiet, shaky breath. Adam was gone. Unlike the son of that woman long ago, I doubted he would come back.
I thought back to that boy quickly. His eyes looked like he was blind, but he could see. He couldn't talk, but we could all tell he was listening. I wondered if he had acted as some kind of radio for the changelings, a channel for them to keep track of this group. It was the largest friendly group we had ever met and we had never passed them again. I wondered if they all still lived.
Even if Adam did come back, he would only be a shell, a living corpse walking around trying to grab information. I didn't anticipate him coming back.
In the old world, Adam was an EMT. In the new world, he kept us alive. He knew exactly what we should eat to have energy. He knew how to properly treat wounds. He kept us away from food and plants that could kill us. He knew all of this. I didn't.
Outside of the forest, I heard the marching stop. The whistling wind flickered around the field, whipping in circles. On the pavement, there was sudden movement. The tap-tap-tap of the changeling's feet moving too quickly. I felt my body stiffen as the threat loomed close. I shifted my hand to Kala's mouth. She looked up at me. I held the finger of my other hand to my lips.
The changelings had a strange way of speaking, and their communication shifted around in the wind like their whistling heralds. The first time we ever heard them, before they invaded our house, we thought that a large group of racoons were coming through the forest. In the first days, when we knew something was wrong but not what was wrong, we had seen large groups of animals running frantically through the forest. Bears and wolves trekked quickly through our yard side by side with deer and turkeys. Squirrels wove between them. Adam was hyperaware that this was a very bad sign. He often spoke out his ruminations.
When we heard them the first time, their voices were drifting on gusts of wind miles long. We shut off all of our lights and laid under the kitchen table, looking out through the crack in the curtains of the glass doors. We hoped if it were racoons we would be able to see them.
Instead we saw a mass of creatures, who almost looked like human children, running impossibly fast. They ran as a herd does, a collective hive consciousness connecting their movements. They wove in and out of each other. We watched as one climbed up on the porch and looked in through the crack. I covered Gideon's mouth when I saw it drop open. We held our breath. It looked into the dark room, and it's mouth stretched wide across its small head. Teeth like needles protruded from its black gums. Eyes without whites blended into the blackness of the night. Pale skin stretched taught over its bones.
It made me think of the legend of the Dover demon that my mother had told me as a child.
We had lain as still as we could, holding our breath, as it stared in through that crack in the curtains. It wore no clothes, was sexless. It pressed its hands against the windows. The fingers were long and slim, like sun-bleached sticks. At their tips, short claws protruded. I felt Gideon shake beside me, but he contained his fear as it looked into the house with unabashed hatred laid bare on its face.
The wind shifted, bringing their scent towards us. They smelled like rotting autumn leaves at the end of October in the old world, when the rest of the land was getting ready to freeze. They smelled like the bloated carcasses of animals they left strewn about the woods in the beginning. Adam speculated that it was meant as a scare tactic. I thought it was pure hatred for every living thing on this earth.
Kala shuddered against me, and I felt wetness across my collarbone. I looked down, and she was weeping silently without moving. She held her breath. She looked at me. In her eyes, her apology for being weak blared forth. I smoothed back her hair and rested my lips on her forehead. I had to realize eventually she was only a child. I also had to realize she was only a child in a world where we were a commodity or we were vermin.
We stayed still and silent against the tree. Kala fell asleep, something I counted as a blessing but knew I would need to chastise her for later. I couldn't see through the veil of underbrush that clogged the edge of the forest, but I closed my eyes and listened.
The changelings chittered and the men who they had transformed growled back. Like animals. The changelings turned men into obedient beasts.
I heard the changelings moving, their feet barely touching the ground. As they moved from pavement to grass, the sound went from a tip-tip-tip to a sh-sh-sh. I knew they were moving towards me. I stiffened. If they noticed my trail, or the soil turned up where I crawled under the underbrush, Kala and I were doomed. There was no way to outrun them. The men would rape both of us, then kill us, and then eat us.
I didn't move. I prayed that maybe they wouldn't smell us. I thought briefly about running, but silence was more cunning than flight. We had realized awhile ago that while their senses were a thousand times stronger than our own, they relied mostly on sight. Movement was easier for them to track than smell or sound. Their smell was their second greatest sense, but it was finely tuned to the smell of human blood more than it was to anything else.
I stayed still, closed my eyes.
They were on the other side of the underbrush now, chittering and growling back and forth. I held my breath and covered Kala's mouth and nose with my hand gently. Her eyes snapped open and looked at me. I looked back at her.
I could feel her body in my lap tense, her hands crawling into tiny fists. Her eyes flared as she moved her head slowly to look in their direction. It almost seemed like her irises flashed gold for a brief moment as her rage and fear flared. I squeezed her arm with my free hand. She turned back to me. Her pupils dilated. I held a finger to my lips.
She leaned back against my chest and closed her eyes. She was listening to them too.
She tapped my collarbone in a series of short staccato taps.
We should go.
I tapped back.
She looked at me. She was terrified and angry.
We heard the group moving away, but the underbrush shook. I held her still, as she tensed again. One of the changelings had gotten tangled in the outer brush. It chittered loudly and angrily. A man grunted, his heavy body lurching across the field. The creature raged, the sounds coming out of its mouth rising to a long and painful screech. The man untangled the brush, but apparently too slowly. We heard gurgling and another scream. The sound of a heavy body dropping. The man fell to the ground, his head right at the small cleared space at the base of the underbrush. He was dead. His neck was broken and the flesh on his face was gone. There had been particular effort in removing his eyelids to be sure that he saw everything to see.
I felt the scream clawing at my throat and desperately held it in. I could see Kala doing the same and I held my hand over her mouth. My entire body was shaking. I felt the same fear and anger that she had felt.
This is what they're turning us into.
I could see the unnaturally thin legs of the changeling moving back towards the rest of the group. They always looked starving and atrophied to me; and granted, their hunger did seem to dictate their existence. They were sentient though, so their hunger served as motivation for dominance and control. We were not just a commodity; we were not just vermin; we were food.
Kala's eyes burned, and I saw them flash gold again. I peered at her. I had never noticed anything in her eyes that would make them flash like that. She did have the ring around her pupils, when they retracted, that Adam had – the gold ring. My mother used to tell Adam he carried the sun in his eyes. When the sun all but disappeared in this new world, I sometimes tried to joke that it was good he carried it in him now.
Kala looked at me. Her lips were pressed into a thin line. Her auburn hair was matted against my arm. She was furious.
We had to wait for hours as the changelings screeched at the men in their strange language. Growls and grunts returned, and the changelings response only grew louder.
The whistling wind returned in a fury, bending the white birch trees. It felt like a hurricane. It did nothing to help the rapidly dropping temperatures. Ice formed quickly on the ground around us. Frost crawled up the old jeans and over the jacket I wore. I wrapped my arms around Kala as she started to shiver.
The men marched away. When we could no longer hear their chanting and solid marching, I got up. Kala was violently shaking now with the cold, and I slapped my arms furiously as I tried to warm myself. I told her to do the same, and whipped the old brown wool blanket off the top of the wagon and wrapped it around her. I rubbed her arms, hoping the friction would quickly warm her. There was no way to make a fire now; no matter where the changelings might be, they still could be close. And if that smoke-stack building at the top of Five Mile Mountain was a lookout, they would certainly see the smoke.
“We have to move deeper into the woods,” I whispered to her.
She whimpered. “Momma, I don't think I can move,” she whispered back through her teeth as she clenched her jaw shut to keep them from chattering as she still shivered violently.
I shook my head. “You can, and you will. You will need to if you want to warm back up. Movement will keep us alive.”
I wrapped my arm around her small shoulders and held her close as we moved deeper into the pine-wood forest, the darkness of falling night closing in around us.
I woke with a start. I was sweating profusely. Kala lay beside me inside my zipped coat, the blanket carefully pulled over both of us. I sat up quickly and threw off the blanket. The temperature had risen at least fifty degrees in the night, something which I both feared and welcomed. Rapid temperature change meant that our weakened immune systems would fight colds, or worse. Adam always warned me to try and keep our own temperatures consistent by layering our clothes carefully.
I woke Kala up. Her eyes fluttered open. “What is it momma?”
“The temperature's risen. You're going to need to take off your jacket and sweater.”
She nodded, sitting up carefully. She unzipped her own meager jacket and slipped it off before pulling the thick, oversized sweater over her head. It was a man's small sweater, and she swam in it. It was wool, but it was rotting.
“Doesn't that feel better?” I asked, smiling at her. The day seemed comfortable, and now that we were deeper into the forest, I felt safer. I knew that was faulty. The changelings welcomed the forests as good hunting ground, but it also meant we had a chance to escape.
“Yes, momma.” She smiled back. She knew that smiles were rare, they were gifts.
I folded our extra clothes and the blanket neatly into the wagon.
“Kala, I'm going back to where we started.”
She looked at me quickly. “But why momma? That's where they are.” She whimpered and I shushed her.
“The man that the changelings killed, he might have things on him we can use. I need to go back and check.”
She whimpered again. “But they'll see you! You're going to leave me here? What if they find me?”
I shushed her again. “They won't see me. I will be very careful. And yes, you will stay here by yourself just in case they do see me. I want you to stay in the wagon and cover yourself with the blanket. If I am not back by nightfall, put on all your layers, and then keep moving through the forest. Remember to stay silent. If you find a group of friendlies, ask if you can join them.”
She started shaking again. “But momma,” she started.
“No, Kala. You will do as I say.”
She stomped her foot.
“No. You will stay here, you will be silent, and you will do as I say. No more arguments.”
Her eyes flashed again, as they had the day before. I ignored it. I didn't know what it was, so I ignored it.
I watched as she climbed back in the wagon, and I threw the blanket over the top of it.
“Stay still, if you can. You may have one can of food to yourself,” I whispered through the blanket.
She lifted up the blanket and looked at me. “One whole can all to myself?”
I nodded. “Just make sure it is one of these,” I said, pointing to a can of peaches and a can of oranges.
She nodded. “Okay! Thank you momma!”
Her voice rose in excitement. I shushed her violently.
“You know better,” I hissed. “You have to stay quiet.”
She nodded, her eyes moving down, afraid I would tell her the can of food was no longer hers to eat.
“I'm going now. Make sure you eat. But be quiet, and listen.”
She nodded and laid back down in the wagon, and I smoothed the blanket over it.
I walked back to slowly to where we started. I didn't realize that we had only migrated maybe a mile into the forest. As I made it back to the edge of the forest, I stopped and listened quickly. The entire army of trees stood quiet and proud around me. The silence bothered me. I had not seen birds except for vultures and a few ragged, sick seagulls in our travels. In the past few years they seem to have disappeared entirely.
I laid down on my stomach and looked out to the field, afraid that I would see the changelings waiting. I saw nothing, and heard nothing, but there was a harsh wind blowing across the empty field from the north. It was bringing another frost. I thought quickly back to Kala. I hoped that maybe the trees would block some of the wind, and keep the warmth for a bit longer, especially further in.
I moved under the brush towards the dead man, his face covered in maggots and beetles now. I looked back into the forest and took a deep breath of the heavy pine-scented air there before moving forward. I held my breath to avoid gagging.
I grabbed the straps of his pack on his shoulders and pulled him roughly towards me, stopping every now and again to listen for more changelings.
His clothes around his shoulders were completely torn to shreds, the flesh on his arms in ribbons.
On his pack, a black stained machete hung loosely from a poorly tied knot. I ripped it off quickly and shoved it behind me, kicking it back with my foot. I opened the pack slowly, Inside, a few cans of food rattled around. I pulled them from his pack and pushed them behind me as well.
At the bottom of the pack, there was a blanket that smelled like rotting meat. I pulled it out, wrinkled my nose, and shoved it behind me. It smelled like death but if I let it air out in the forest it would smell like pine in a short amount of time. Under the blanket was one last item.
It looked like a dagger of sometime, encased in leather that was clearly still taken care of. I looked at the man who lay dead on the ground. I wondered if he had truly been a slave.
It was a small dagger, which shimmered almost unnaturally. I looked at it carefully before pulling it out of the pack. It was steel, ingrained with gold veins of careful swirls.
Why would anyone carry this in the new world? It was most certainly a relic, created in the old world, something crafted for someone who collected them.
As I turned it over in my hands, I realized it was most likely crafted by a sincere artisan, made as a replica of some old blade. I felt like I had seen it before, but it didn't click. Sometime during college, maybe I had seen it in a textbook.
In small letters near the top, it spelled “Ingelrii.” I squinted at it. It was most certainly in English, but I felt like I had read this word in another language once. It was a maker’s mark.
I put it beside me and shimmied back to the things I had already thrown back there. I looked carefully at them. Quite a few cans of food. A canteen of water. A machete and a beautifully crafted dagger. A blanket that smelled of dead things.
I laid the blanket out flat. It was clearly wool. I put the cans of food carefully in the center. I strapped the machete to the back of my belt and the dagger on the front of my belt. Kala and I had never carried weapons before, but now we had something to at least fight back with. We'd no longer be condemned to die screaming with our arms over our heads.
This would also give me the opportunity to teach Kala to defend herself, something my father had taught me when I was a teenager.
I wrapped everything tightly in the blanket and moved back towards where I had come from.
I heard a noise, a faint whistling. I stopped, listened. I turned slowly. At the base of the underbrush, I could see a changeling's legs. I could hear it sniffing. It squealed, an agitated sound, and the whistling wind quickly resurrected and moved north. I waited until the whistling subsided, and I ran.
A mile is not a far distance to run, especially since I walk and run everywhere. But since I’m starving and probably sick, my legs feel like they’re going to collapse, and my head is pounding.
I made it back to the wagon. Kala was asleep, an empty can open and laying on her small chest. I shook her awake. I was furious that she had let herself fall asleep.
“Kala we have to move now.”
She looked around. “Why?”
“One changeling came back and saw that the body had moved. They’ll know we’re in here, and unless we get out, we’re likely going to get caught.”
“NOW!” I roared, my throat instantly grating. I felt like a smoker. I realized also that this was not the best time to yell, at all, but it achieved the effect I was looking for; Kala backed down.
“Okay momma,” she whispered carefully, her shoulders hunched up around her chin and her eyes carefully averted to her feet.
I threw the blanket full of food into the wagon. Kala wrinkled her nose but said nothing. I looked at her and smiled.
“I have something for you. I’ll have to teach you to use it as we go.”
I pulled the dagger off my belt and handed it to her. She grabbed the handle and pulled it out gently, laying it flat on her palm to see the design in it. Her eyes widened. “Momma, it’s so pretty.”
“Yes, Kala it is. But it’s also deadly. And that’s what it’s for. It’s to protect yourself. It’s not to admire.”
I felt my insides clench at those words. There was a day the priority of this dagger’s use would have been completely reversed.
Kala nodded. She slipped the dagger back into its sheath, and clipped it onto her own belt. I noticed the belt fraying around the top and made a mental note that we would have to keep an eye out for boots and a belt now.
I straightened the blanket over the wagon to make sure that the red didn’t show, just in case they made their way into the forest and spotted us. I kept Kala close behind me. She held onto my belt as I set a grueling pace. She kept up without complaining.
She certainly knew how to make up for her bad behavior.
We walked for hours through the forest which seemed to be in perpetual twilight. Sometimes the ground groaned under us. We didn’t know how the changelings slept or lived, so sometimes I worried that they lived below us. With what they had done to the earth, it wasn’t a surprise that it was groaning. It was alarming, however, to have it happen, or to feel it rise and throw us off balance. It was like an extremely short and violent earthquake.
I smelled smoke, and knew that somewhere the changelings had probably killed something, or their disciples were camped close. The changelings used fire to terrorize. They had some kind of power over it, like they did with the wind, which is why most people tried to avoid making one. It drew their attention quickly and often ended with death – or worse than death – even quicker.
I stopped for a moment. I could feel Kala struggling to keep up and her breath came in heavy gasps now. I held her head in my hands and forced her to look in my eyes. “Breath, Kala,” I said quietly. I breathed deeply in and let it out slowly, getting her to copy me. It was reminiscent of the meditations I had done in the old world. I sniggered. Meditation was useless here, and it was useless in the old world too, but at least it helped calm Kala’s lungs when she got out of breath.
We sat down, still in the pine forest. I wondered how far across it was. It certainly wasn’t growing – nothing was. I leaned against a tree and pulled Kala into my lap, wrapping her in my coat. We closed our eyes. I left my ears alert and let her sleep.
“Momma,” she whispered, “when we get up could you show me how to use the knife when we walk again?”
I opened my eyes and looked at her. “Yes, we can do that.” I smiled. She wanted to learn. She was willing.
My main concern was that she didn’t truly understand what killing or defending herself meant. I was concerned that she didn’t know what it felt like to take a life – even that of a changeling – and that she would suffer from the feelings that would flood her when she finally did take a life.
It wouldn’t hurt to show her how to defend herself, to cut and slash and stab enough to get away. I made a quick mental note – for each thing I showed her, I would explain the consequence. I would explain how it would make her feel – how it made me feel – and why it was the right thing to do.
I thought back to Adam. It still had only been a few weeks since he had been taken. The mists generally stayed in the far north and dissipated after they had conquered the valleys in a few days, but would sometimes creep down further south into the vast valleys and flat open ranges of New York and Long Island and New Jersey. I realized that we were in a prime location for a mist – at the base of the Tongue Range – and it could overcome us at any moment.
I cursed myself for not realizing this sooner, and cursed myself for thinking of it. We had enough danger to think of and be worried about without thinking about the mist too.
I heard the trees creaking around us and opened my eyes. I whipped my head around, trying to get a good look at what was moving them. I peeked around the trunk of the tree we were leaning against, and in the distance, far into the forest, there was a line of white mist twisting around the trees. The little tendril seemed alive, like it was looking for something.
It was looking for us.
I shook Kala awake but covered her mouth.
We have to go I mouthed to her. She nodded.
I grabbed the wagon and started moving slowly around the other trees, always keeping something between us and the mist.
I grabbed Kala’s shoulder. You run, you hide – climb into a tree I mouthed again. I was too terrified to make any sound and too terrified to risk tapping and miscommunicating my message.
Kala nodded again. She carefully laid her pack in the wagon and grabbed the wagon's handle, sprinted off deep into the forest, in the direction we had been heading. I watched her as she ran silently across the forest floor, avoiding sticks and rocks and other things that would make too much noise. She moved fluidly.
She moved like the changelings, I realized with a start.
There was no time to think of that now. I was terrified of what that meant, but then chastised myself. She must have learned those movements from years of growing up in this environment and observing them.
I continued to move slowly away from the little tendril of mist. I hoped that it couldn’t detect me. As I would stop and hide to look back at it, I realized it was most certainly sentient. It seemed to rely mostly on sight, something I noticed when I accidentally stepped on a dry, dead branch and it cracked, echoing through the forest. I froze quickly when it happened, and watched the tendril carefully. It did nothing except continue to move around trees, circling them and moving on to the next before moving forward.
I made sure I stayed out of its line of site, and ahead of it enough that it wouldn’t sneak up on me. At least that’s what I hoped.
I wondered if the mist was some kind of device of the changelings. It had only appeared when they had, but they had terra-formed Earth to their specifications, and up until now it seemed that the mists were something native to their home world.
I breathed slowly, sure to put something between me and the finger of mist. It seemed to use the very tip of the tendril to “see,” something that seemed strange to me – there was nothing there to “see” with that I noticed. I noticed that as I moved that I was slowly moving faster and faster, as the mist moved forward faster and faster. I wondered if it had caught sight of Kala and was trying to catch up with her, or if it had caught sight of me. What if it was here because it knew we were here somewhere? I shivered at the prospect.
If the mist was somehow a device of the changelings, it most certainly meant that they knew we were in here, that they realized the body they had left at the edge of the woods had been moved and picked over.
I felt the panic rise in my chest, clenching around my heart. Damnit.
I knew, even as I tried to deny it, that they knew we were here, and that they were actively looking for us. I cursed my decision to let Kala run ahead. I was terrified of what I would find – or not be able to find – as I moved forward. I felt my body shake quickly as I dispersed the fear. There was no time for this.
I heard the whistling wind and felt the trees shudder above me. They shuddered around me. I prayed that Kala was still running.
I turned to look, because I knew they were there, waiting for me.
The mist was like a wall now behind the pines behind me, one single tendril reaching out towards me. In front of the mist stood one lone changeling. I pulled my machete out of its sheath on my belt.
I could feel my hands shaking and took a deep breath.
“What do you want?” I whispered. The creature cocked its head at me while the wall of mist behind it grew taller and taller. I steadied my hands and held the machete out in front of me, moving my left foot back and steadying my stance. It looked at me and its mouth crept outwards, baring its needle teeth at me. It seemed to enjoy my poorly reigned fear.
I heard footsteps behind me and knew Kala had returned. She walked up beside me on my left. I silently cursed my daughter. We would die side by side, fighting.
I looked out of the corner of my eye. Her five year old face held the determination of a whole species. Her eyes flickered gold, flashing sporadically. She copied my stance and held the dagger in her right hand. Her left hand balled into a tiny fist.
I felt goosebumps rise as the mist began to retreat. The lone changeling who had carried an air of condescending hatred before looked confused and afraid now.
A five year old girl scared it? I shook my head. There was no way a little girl could terrify something as ruthless as this creature. I thought for a moment. I never saw any reports of people fighting back against them, only fleeing. That was the only thing we had ever thought to do.
The changeling fled back away from us, moving fluidly and disappearing into the trees before the whistling wind burst out of the tops of the trees in a flurry of motion, breaking brittle branches and screaming up into the dark sky.
I shoved my machete into its sheath and grabbed Kala as I turned to run into the forest. It would come back with more. I was convinced it was only afraid because we had managed to confront it while it was alone.
I ran with Kala's hand in mine, her body struggling to keep up. When she began to slow I picked her up and straddled her across the front of my body. She still held the dagger, which pricked my chest, blood trickling down.
“Fuck,” I growled. They would certainly smell that if they came back. I slowed.
“Put it away.”
Kala nodded, carefully replacing the dagger in its humble leather sheath.
I picked up the pace again, moving her tiny body to one side as I focused on moving.
“Which way?” I asked through measured breaths.
She pointed to our left.
“Keep directing me,” I said before falling back into silence.
Kala continued pointing, her sense of direction absolute.
“Stop,” she whispered finally.
“Where is it?” I asked.
She pointed to my left. I didn't notice anything right away, until I saw the handle of the wagon sticking out from the roots of a very old tree, where the blanket hid it in the twilight of the forest.
I walked to it and set her down.
“You shouldn't have come back,” I said quietly to her. I could feel the nerves in my limbs whipping around like errant wires, adrenaline coursing through my blood.
“I know momma, but I heard the wind and knew they were coming for you. And it felt right. I felt it here,” she said pointing to her heart. It was the second time in her short life that she had alluded to the heart as the seat of emotion, as the seat of instinct. Even in a world with a complete lack of culture, barring that alone of fear, she knew eons of human emotion and instinct were held deep in the center of her chest. It seemed not even and other-world army could rip that from us.
I nodded. “I don't think anyone's ever stood up to them before,” I whispered. I thought back to the encounter.
“He was afraid,” she said, pulling the blanket off the top of the wagon and pulling it around herself. I didn't notice before, but the temperature was dropping.
“He? How do you know it was a 'he'?”
She shrugged. “I just did.”
I looked at the sky.
If you exist, god, help us.
It was the closest thing to a real, authentic prayer I had ever held up in my life.
“Well, regardless, we need to keep moving. It will be back with more, I'm positive.”
Kala looked at me and nodded.
“Momma, I think he's coming back with a lot. I did something that really scared him.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don't know, I just do. I saw him change when I stood like you.”
I shook my head. This new world was certainly unlike the old one. “Well we should go then, and get out of sight before he has a chance to bring them here.”
She nodded. “They all already know about it. They think together. Like they have one big brain that connects them somehow.”
Collective consciousness. Like birds. Adam and I had speculated on this since we had first seen them, since they seemed to move fluidly together.
“Are you sure?”
“Momma, I don't know how. I just know.”
I looked at her and nodded again.
“Okay. Well I need you to wrap yourself in that awful smelling blanket and the coats, and I'll put the brown blanket back over the wagon. I'll keep going, you can sleep.”
“But momma, you haven't slept in so long.”
I shook my head. I could feel the weakness in my bones, the lack of sleep seeping out of my very muscles. How long had it been? Three days?
I shook my head at her. “We need to keep going. We'll rest when we find a good spot to hide.”
She sighed and layered herself in sweaters and jackets, wrapping the other blanket around her. She wrinkled her nose. “It smells like death,” she said bluntly.
“I know it does.” I laughed at her expression.
She looked surprised when I laughed. I realized it was something I did even less frequently than smile.
She smiled at me.
“Was that music?” She asked me.
I was startled by her question. “No, that was laughter. I've laughed in front of you.”
She frowned, clearly trying to remember the sound. “No you haven't, momma. I've never heard that before. I like it though.”
I smiled at her again.
Above the trees, I heard the wind pick up. There was no whistling, but I distrusted its sudden appearance and frowned.
“Time to go.”
I threw the blanket over the wagon as she lay down and started to run. My muscles settled into their familiar rhythm, and the adrenaline reappeared, fueling my weak flesh and bones. I wove in and out of the trees carefully, making sure to avoid roots and keep on a clear path, one which would allow me to move quickly.
Darkness descended quickly on the forest. The temperature dropped. I could feel it wrap around my body, but I retreated into the back corners of my mind.
I retreated to my memories of the old world.