Seventeen-year-old Tara loved watching the sunset. Too bad this might be her last one. She sat against the rough brick wall of a tall building, near the edge of the city, looking into the sky above the interstate highway. He’s dead. She blinked away the tears that blurred her vision. The sparse clouds were like pink cotton candy in the ever-darkening sky, the last rays of the sun providing a dying warmth, like a final embrace. So far she had managed to elude those who came out after dark. But now she was alone. Billy had killed himself today while she slept – abandoning her. Tara tried not to hate him. The situation looked hopeless all right. And she was so tired. Tara wondered, briefly, about giving up, too. But that would be wrong. She didn’t want this to be the last time she saw the light. Tara pushed herself up to a standing position against the rough bricks. Her ankle hurt a little but, at least, she wasn’t injured badly. Soon it would be time to run.
It was ironic. She had to live like them, sleeping during the day and awake at night. But if she slept outside under the light of the sun, she was perfectly safe. Light was safety. It was during the night that she had to be alert – to make sure they didn’t catch her, didn’t touch her. These weren’t brain-eating zombies, like in the silly horror flicks of days past. This sickness spread through physical contact alone; no bite was necessary to spread the disease. But they did become aggressive.
Tara limped away from the buildings, out onto the exit that led to the interstate. Her foot was just a little stiff. She’d still be able to run. Tara had discovered the wide-open roads were the safest places to be. The ones who came out after dark seemed to have an aversion to open spaces.
She was almost to the interstate now, leaving the buildings behind. Military personnel had cleared the highways of all derelict cars several weeks ago. She and Billy had waved at them for help but the armored vehicles had fired warning shots in their direction. Tara had cried in frustration. They hadn’t seen anyone on the road since then. No one drove anymore. Where was there to go? Or maybe there was no one left who knew how. The disease left people unable to speak or to recognize anyone they had known. Both their gross and fine motor control deteriorated. They were able to function only at the most basic level, like animals. Billy didn’t want that so he had chosen death instead. Tara blinked back tears and tried to stop thinking about finding his lifeless body that afternoon. She had to clear her head to stay alert. Tara scanned about her in all directions as she walked. They weren’t out yet.
First there had been bombings in some of the large cities and then came the sickness. At first, officials had called it a contamination. Tara didn’t know what officials called it now, if there were any officials left to call it anything. She and Billy just called it the darkness. Every night she ran from it. And every night the darkness got a little closer. Tonight, she would run alone.
She continued down the ramp at a brisk walk. When she reached the interstate, she slowed to a stroll. The eight-lane highway gave Tara a good view of her surroundings. They wouldn’t be able to sneak up on her here, especially if she kept moving. And it’s not like they were quiet. She would run when the time came for it.
The chill of night slowly settled in around her. Tara zipped up her thin jacket. A full moon rose. She breathed a prayer of thanks. Tara welcomed any light at all.
Then, in the distance, she saw an underpass on the interstate. Tara glanced behind her through the darkness. She didn’t see anyone following. But they probably were. She and Billy had run into trouble in underpasses before. But she couldn’t turn around. She would have to take the exit off the interstate and then the exit back on to avoid having to go through the underpass. That way, she would go over it instead. But it would not be without risk. Even now, they might see her. They might be waiting for her to draw near so they could rush at her. Tara saw no other possible course of action. She started to jog. The faster she got this underpass far behind her, the better.
The ominous gaping blackness of the underpass yawned before her as she took the turnoff ramp to her right. No one came out. Good. Maybe they hadn’t noticed her or maybe there wasn’t anyone down there. Tara was halfway up the exit road when she heard them. Her jog became a sprint as fear surged though her body. She hazarded a look behind her. They were coming. Dozens of them spilled out from the underpass and followed her up road. They moved at a pace somewhere between a shuffle and a run. She put distance between herself and the mob as she crested the incline and began down the other side. Tara prayed none of them would have the sense to try to head her off. The entry ramp before her appeared clear. Tara gave it everything she had, sprinting back down onto the interstate. As she reached the highway, the horde just crested the hill. Then she saw more of them coming at her from the underpass. They were only several car lengths away. Tara didn’t look back anymore but focused on her breathing and her stride. She would outrun them now if she didn’t fall. I just have to keep going. Her gasping breath was loud in her ears, blocking out the sounds of those who pursued her.
When she could run no more, Tara slowed to a walk, clutching her cramping side and looking behind her. The underpass was far in the distance now. There was no pursuit. As she walked on, the cramp abated and slowly her breathing returned to normal.
All her muscles ached for rest. When she could no longer see the underpass behind her, Tara sat down for a moment on the deserted highway. There was a clear view from here. She scanned in all directions. Nothing. She was alone. Tara lay down and looked up at the stars. The night was silent, save for the chirping of distant crickets. She would hear it if anyone approached. Her muscles relaxed and her breathing slowed. She looked up into the vista of blackness strewn with tiny blue diamonds. Tara’s eyes fell on the constellation of the big dipper. The North Star was somewhere around there, but she forgot which one it was. Sailors used the North Star to guide their ships by. Tara wished she had a North Star to follow. What was she guiding her life by? Love, she decided finally, that’s what would guide her life. Real love, loyal and kind, not the thing people called love but was really just selfishness. Love would be the North Star in her life. The cement beneath her back felt like a soft mattress to her weary body as her breathing slowed further and eyelids drifted closed.
Tara heard a sound nearby and jolted awake. She scrambled to her feet in a panic. It was still night. There, right in front of her was a man who had been taken by the darkness. Fear filled her with adrenaline as she faced him.
With only five feet separating them, Tara knew she couldn’t get away. He wasn’t as tall as Billy. He might have been older but it was hard to tell, his unkempt mane shrouding his features. The man snarled, saliva frothing at his mouth. The wind blew the hair from his face, revealing his unnatural eyes in the light of the full moon. Even the whites of his eyes were black. It was like that with all whom the darkness had taken. He lunged for her.
When she was a child, her father had told her never to run from an aggressive dog but to shout loudly at it instead. “Stop!” she shouted loudly. “You stop right there.”
The man faltered for a moment and looked confused. He did not lunge at her again. Perhaps they had chased her, like a pack of aggressive dogs, because she had run.
But this was no dog. Maybe she could reach him with her words. “This is not who you are. You are a man, not a wild beast. This is not who you are!” The man staggered back and then slumped to the ground. This was her chance! If she ran now, she could outrun him, she was pretty sure. The guy wasn’t even looking at her anymore. But she was through running from darkness. And something in the way his shoulder slumped called to her. He looked sad. Was a human conscience left in there?
Tara knew that love was the greatest force in the universe. She spoke to the fallen man more gently. “We can be friends. You don’t have to be alone anymore.” Tara couldn’t believe what she was saying. How could they be friends?
He writhed on the ground and slammed his fist into the pavement.
“It’s not too late,” she said softly. “You can be free of the darkness, too.”
The man moaned and reached his hand up towards her.
“Come on then. We’ll walk together. It’s almost dawn.” She took a step away and waited for him to follow.
At first, he crawled after her, dragging himself over the cement. Tara walked slowly, encouraging him to follow with kind words spoken in soft tones. She wondered if she were leading him to his death. They always hid during daylight. Perhaps the light would kill him. Billy had told her that, once, he saw some men in white spaceman-like suits tie one of them to a tree. When daylight came, it died. The thought made her sad. But to see the light would be better than to live in the clutches of darkness like this, no matter what the result. And it was his choice. He could run away if he wanted to.
The grey light of pre-dawn appeared in the sky. He did not run. No more running. Whatever his fate, she would share it. Tara reached down to help him up. His obsidian eyes stared up into her face. Then he reached out and took her hand. She was infected now, too. It took all her strength to remain upright as the man pulled on her hand, struggling to his feet. She could already feel changes starting to happen in her body and darkness began to crowd in at the edges of her vision.
They stood there looking at each other, with him still holding her hand as the sun came up over the horizon behind her. He cried out and stiffened as the light rays hit him. Screaming, the man fell backwards, pulling her down to the ground beside him. He shook violently, releasing the grip on her hand. Gently, she stroked matted hair from his face. She felt pain in her abdomen and in her eyes as the sun warmed her back.
“At least we’re not alone,” she murmured. “And it’s better to be in the light.”
The man was still, his black eyes, open to the ever-brightening sky, seeing nothing. Tara’s tears flowed down her cheeks even as her own pain diminished. The blackness faded from the whites of his eyes and his irises resolved to blue.
The man gasped and took a ragged breath. He blinked. His face turned towards her. Slowly, his blue eyes focused on her face. “The darkness…” his voice was rough from disuse. “The darkness comes out!” His hand fumbled over hers and then he clutched her fingers, relief filling his eyes with tears.
“I though you might die from the light,” said Tara, smiling gently down at him. “I thought we both might die. But the light saved us.”
“It wasn’t just the light. It was your kindness…your love that guided me. Love called me back to the light.” The man sat up, blinking away the tears, a confident determination coming over him. “Now we know that the darkness comes out, we can help them! We don’t have to be afraid.”
Tara stood and helped the man to his feet. “I like the way you think. I’m done running from the darkness.”
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