I lived in a castle made of mud. Solid enough to make you feel caged. Light barely escaped the brown warped walls. The house had so many ancestors pass away inside, that layers of its spirit fought each other seasonally. I was doomed.
I believe it was late autumn when my stomach’s emptiness corresponded with my heart. After fifty-five days in solitude, the hunger monster devoured me. Food was to be acquired. There used to be another person to handle these things during the summer.
However, the sunlight tempted her to search for buried treasure in the cityscape. She thought there were buildings, roads, and regular life beyond the mountains, past the desert plain. All things inside the dome. I located the area map before she did and destroyed it. I thought about her wandering hopelessly every night. Helped me sleep.
The gun seemed to gain ten pounds since the last time I held it. Back when I had protein and enough strength to keep my eyes open. Demon road. That was my conflict. It was a strip of concrete that resembled a face. The potholes and cracks, eyes and mouth, even teeth. To see it was to survive the trek. To get supplies. To live. I flirted with unlocking the door. Flipped the middle of the knob horizontally, then stepped back a few feet. I knew sunset would be approaching. I needed rest. I thought of Kali. My eyes closed.
A dream crawled into bed with me. Any year before this blended into an amalgam of forget-me-nots. Trauma was a thick coat that I wore at all times. In the dream memory, my father lashed at the front door with a hammer and nails and yelling and drinking. A woman covered my eyes halfway during the process. Her hand was rough and smelled of sage. All I could hear was something being dragged. When I was allowed to see again, there was a small wooden table in a room full of one hundred lit candles.
“They’re attracted to natural light,” my father tapped a dead lightbulb hovering above us. “At least until fall, when the man in the clouds will make it dark for us.”
“Then eventually, no light at all,” the woman added, stabbing on her plate what I assumed was a part of a pig not yet labeled.
I climbed the chair to get to my plate on the table. There were greens on one side, a slab of unknown meat on the other side. All of it repulsed me. I grabbed a small knife by its wooden handle. There were names carved in it, but this was before I learned to read. Prisoners weren’t allowed outside knowledge. My father shifted in his seat, wiping dribble from the corner of his mouth.
“We eat and kill with the same tools,” he swallowed. “If need be. If…”
“Let the boy live as a boy,” the woman interjected.
“Where’s Grandpa?” I asked innocently, in a voice long dead to me now.
There was a long pause sprinkled with several looks, sighs, burps, and stretching.
“He’s gone outside to find Demon Road,” the woman finally answered. “We mustn’t follow.”
“He didn’t like it here no more?” I questioned, poking at my food with the small knife.
“He didn’t want to live anymore,” my father said. “It’s hard to exist trapped inside a house for decades.”
The daylight pierced my eyes. I had crust build up in the corners from dried tears. I placed a pot of coffee on the stove and looked at all the melted candles that used to live here. I felt that way. An extinguished light inside an odd shape. He didn’t want to live anymore. So he went outside. I hadn’t showered since Kali left. I hadn’t been able to smell for three months.
Someone above must be laughing at me. The man in the clouds. I laughed back and the echo frightened me. I drank the sugarless coffee while it was piping hot and edged toward a crack in the wooden planks nailed to the wall, an ersatz window. Within those few centimeters, I watched the door to the house across from me open slowly. The creak from the hinges resembled an animal’s cry.
There were rules. A gangly adolescent stepped into the world covered head to toe, with huge goggles over his eyes. I saw knives on his belt. A hand cannon held close to his face. Rule one: The earlier the better. Father was wrong about a lot of things. It wasn’t the sunlight that attracted them. It was us.
Rule two: Travel in twos at a minimum. Another teen emerged. Same equipment, same stance, more than likely the same family. They stalked parallel to each other and traversed a small amount of space before one of them spotted it.
Rule three: If you see it. Kill it. I watched their inexperience. I watched their bullets miss. I watched them retreat. One tripped. The other abandoned his flesh and blood. At seven feet, they encountered a baby one. Thirty years old, maybe younger. Its heart was beating outside its flesh, covered in purple vines that proved difficult to penetrate. Their skin was verdant-colored, scaled, undulating. Three eyes going horizontal across an oblong skull. Two holes on each cheek that worked as nostrils. Technically, this is their home. We’re the invaders.
The gangly one ran inside his house and closed the door. The other got his leg caught in the predator’s hands. Its nails sank into his thigh, and outstretched branches traveled up inside him, escaping the top of his head in a burst that caused red to rain. The thing dropped to the ground when the attack was done. As if it exhaled its own life. Crimson colored grass began to grow over both of them. Rule four: A life for a life. Once it killed it died.
I had patches of crimson grass in my backyard that sprouted into small trees with warped twigs like a strand of DNA. At times, strange fruit blossomed from it. It was a slow process. Whenever I became moody I noticed it more. I obsessed over the size and shape. Then, I shot them from a distance with my pistol before the bloom. I watched them squirm and ooze and pulsate and cease to move. I made a game out of it.
To show solidarity, I lit a candle and displayed it so my neighbor could see it. He didn’t respond with a candle of his own. He wanted to be left alone in the darkness for a while. I kept the flame alive as long as I could. A poor man’s vigil.
Another day passed and I made no progress. The shadows in my room were growing taller than me, thriving off paranoia. Life was supposed to be different, they said. A new world, they preached. And as I lay sermonized, I realized the choice was never mine to make. A casualty of past decisions. Sins of the father, and his father and his father . . . Like everyone. I promised myself I’d venture out on day three.
Day three. Daybreak. The air tasted metallic, and my left eye twitched uncontrollably. Old proverbs from my mother ran through my head unencumbered. I knew the way but never went. Fantasized about it in early childhood. At the end of Demon Road was a dome run by humans. Agriculture and a barter system inside. Enough to sustain for a few months. Rumors of a city made of gold behind it. Fables galore. A door opened. Not my own. I closed mine behind me.
The gangly child reappeared. Through the goggles he wore that were stained with regret, I could tell his eyes were sharp. Prepared for round two. Our acknowledgment was a mutual raising of firearms. A part of me died when I stepped off my porch. Together we stalked parallel. Just like before.
Rule five: If one doesn’t make the journey, bring back rations for the fallen’s family. I spoke through the gray mask covering my mouth.
“I am Malachi of the Ruin family. Last standing,” my voice broke several times throughout the introduction. I hadn’t talked in some time. Even when Kali was around, we would go silent for weeks.
“I am Kira of the Settler family,” he looked above me as if the sky would provide him answers. “Last standing.”
“I have lost my map,” I said the words sluggishly in my lie. “But I remember the way to Elysian.”
Kira opened his duffle bag and took out a tattered map. “In case we get lost.”
Carefully we began traversing the rain shadow desert. The land was forced into this hazardous terrain because mountain ranges blocked all plant-growing and rainy weather. Any type of vegetation came from the death of . . .
“So, what did your family call ‘em?” Kira asked, slowing down his pace due to the uneven topography.
We passed a stretch of ocotillos in silence. Nearby was a palo verde tree with bright yellow leaves and green stems. The similarities of the atmosphere were the main attraction to this planet. So close to home. So much longer to thrive. I studied it for strange fruit. None on any branch. Though the sight was beautiful, it was beginning to bother us. The infinite stretch of purple sand and high dunes. The two suns hovering above contributing to the aridity. I could see Kira shifting his head to talk, then killing his sentence, focusing on the path.
“You migrated here about seventy years ago? I remember stories of ‘The man on the roof.’” I asked, searching for some truth from my father’s stories.
“My granduncle. One of the first exiled families. Shot down five . . . natives while standing on the roof.”
“Story goes that the roof caved in.”
Kira cracked his knuckles. “It did. One got inside. Never came out. That patch of red grass won’t leave either. The names of the fallen are carved into it.” Kira stared ahead briefly, then continued. “Running out of space.”
“Because of yesterday?”
“Brother or father?”
We stopped forty-five minutes into the trek to sip water. Never shared, we each had our own. No one was sure if a person could be infected. Still no natives in sight. An orange prickly pear cactus bloomed before our eyes, giving us a heavy dose of PTSD.
“They’re supposed to be on the other side of the mountain range. Breeding season. We can sneak by,” Kira said as he put the cap on his waterskin. “We ran into a stray. Probably a child.”
“You trust the seasons?” I said disrespectfully. “Misinformation. They want us dead. Whether they get us. Or we get each other. Starve to death. Any means. The forgotten people, way off in the desert. A creative type of hell.”
“They want us to pay for what our families did.”
“That’s an antiquated way of thinking. What do I have to do with my family?”
“I couldn’t disagree more.”
“If a thief has ten children. Odds are . . .”
“That one of them will be a merchant.”
“We think differently,” Kira took out his hand cannon to check the clip, then put it back in the holster. “Regardless, same goal.” He nodded at me.
“When’s your sentence over?” I smirked as I said it, but he couldn’t see my grin behind the mask.
Kira put his head down. “Ten years from today.”
“At least you know. Must be nice.”
I began noticing the distance from my home. Heading back would run into the beginning of nightfall. Plus, midday was in full force, where, in the vanishing point, mirages were common. I watched one form off the flat rock surface we reached. A woman twenty feet tall in a multicolored shawl. Her hair defied gravity. Her hands were inviting me.
I was certain Kali made it this far. She was capable of staying in Elysian. Her family’s sins were forgiven. That’s why she abandoned me. Over a year ago I discovered her when I was shooting at the trees in my backyard. Nearly scalped her. A half-naked emancipated woman beneath a nest of unkempt black hair. I never asked about her home. We didn’t speak until after our teeth clenched the first time we kissed.
“It’s ok,” I said at the time, watching her cower back.
“I am grateful for the food,” her voice a whisper. “Real food.”
“I don’t need this type of compensation.”
She stretched her neck, calculating if I was lying or not. Finally, she stood straight up. “I’ve been surviving from cooking bark from the trees.”
“You have fire?”
“Are you infected?”
“No, when the flame touches the bark it cries. When it stops, I eat it.”
“Assuming it’s dead.”
“What else could it be, when something ceases to cry?”
“Soundless weeping,” I hesitated, reeling in the emotional depth of what rested at the top of my brain. Naturally, I switched topics. “That’s why you were in my backyard.”
“With the size of the tree you have, we can survive for a month. Tearing it down in small pieces.”
Kali looked down and rubbed her chin.
I grabbed one of the candles off a rickety table in my living room. “I have fire.”
“Look,” Kira nudged me awake.
We’d taken small shifts where one would nap for no longer than half an hour, and then switch. The gravity of the planet put more weight on human bones, ergo, more fatigue.
“I found one,” he said excitedly.
Several joints popped when I sat up off the jagged rock that I slumbered on. I patted my person frantically, feeling relief when my index finger curved inside the trigger loop of my hand cannon. “Where?”
It didn’t take long to see. It must’ve been an older one past its lifespan. The purple vines covering its heart had withered, and crimson grass was growing over its legs. Except, it had moss—maybe some type of mutation. Its skin was transitioning into a grayish blue.
“This is a bad omen,” Kira warned.
“This is just an outlier. One left by the pack. It’s damaged.”
“Then where’s the pack?”
“Miles away,” I stretched and shook my head to fully wake. “Reproducing. Or . . . maybe in our house, eating out food,” I joked.
“We should go back.”
Though I couldn’t see his eyes because of the googles, I could smell the fear emanating from his skin.
“Going back would run into nightfall.”
“I’m going back,” Kira began to creep away from me.
“Is the Settler family a group of cowards? If a turncoat has ten sons and one daughter, odds are?”
Kira paused. “I can feel it.”
“Give me your supplies. The bag,” I raised my hand cannon to him. “Gun too.”
Alone again. The blood I licked from my busted lip tasted like copper. There was a newly formed limp in my step, but I pressed on. Rising in the distance was the top of the majestic dome. Alone, but close. During the exchange between Kira and me, most of my supplies were taken. He allowed me to keep my knife as his foot pressed against my wrist, and his gun shook in my face. Kira was still a child. A child that defeated a broken man.
Time became an enemy. Nightfall threatened to reveal itself. As I reached the cliff, I watched a medley of lights shine from Elysian. An ultraviolet rainbow in an alien sky. Oddly, a tear escaped from my eyes. The result of an old memory forgotten. I reached in my bag, grabbed the last of my materials, and prepared the descent. Firmly placed inside the rock, I double-checked my spike, connected the rope, and pushed off to get a decent start.
I tried not to look down. On the side of the mountain, shades began to form in the cracks. Each jump took more energy, more pain. My wounded foot became useless, and I pushed off with my good foot for the latter half. When I touched the ground and looked up, above me was a vast black sky with three crescent moons. One hundred yards ahead was the beginning of Demon Road. Elysian was reachable.
I limped on for about twenty minutes before I noticed a few shadows had life. They morphed. At first, a plain dark mass, now it was forming appendages, height, and distinction. Something was waking up. With the tip of my calloused thumb, I tested the sharpness of my blade. Each flick brought me back to my childhood, climbing the chair to reach my plate. What my father said about the knife. If need be.
I pretended like the horror didn’t exist. My feet painfully pressed into the concrete, arriving at Demon Road. I made it. I could hear the buzz of the electronics from the light display at the dome. I dodged the cracks and smiles and eyes below me. I could see the small shops inside. The tomato fields, prairies full of cattle, pallets of rations. I saw my mind leaving my body. A mirage at night?
I could see large black creatures climbing the sides, approaching the top. The Natives. Eventually, all I could see was the pack I told Kira not to worry about. I brought the knife to my face. Moonlight licked the side of the steel. Prey in a circle of predators. One reached out and I sliced off eight of its twelve fingers. The scream was deafening, and the knife was covered in blue blood, where blades of crimson grass began to sprout. A sharp blow knocked me to the ground. Pieces of me were being devoured in all places. I kept staring at Elysian. I imagined Kali waiting at the door. My eyes closed.
Derrick R. Lafayette is The Fictional Café’s 2021 Writer-in-Residence. He’s written four novels and over a dozen short stories, published in print and online. When he’s not working as an IT Engineer or studying chess gambits on the astral plane, he’s reading or writing profusely. You can find more of his work on Amazon.