Free Fiction

I wrote this story way back in 2012, but it keeps returning to my mind. I love the characters and the world. I’ve written another story in the same world and I have a feeling there’s more still to come. I hope you enjoy it!

The Shadow
by
Linda Jordan

 

 

Mirage stood in the cool shade of the doorway looking out at the traveling marketplace set up in the canyon of tall, gray buildings. The air smelled of blood from the vendor’s meat. The scent and texture of dry dust clung to everything in this mostly deserted city.

Beyond the marketplace, she could see the rumbling Shadow which hovered at the edge of the city like a huge, low raincloud, oppressive and smothering, lightening flashing. Those left here were the last. And all of them, except the crazies, would leave within a day or so. As the Shadow advanced.

She watched a ragged guy, close to her own age, steal a dried out carrot from a vegetable seller’s discard bucket and run between the vendor’s stalls. The dirt covered man yelled at the kid, but didn’t take chase. That would have left his quality stuff open to theft.

Later in the day, the seller would probably trade the discard bucket’s contents for meat. Animal feed was hard to come by when they were on the run. Most people didn’t bother to plant anymore. They were never in one place long enough. Vegetable sellers had huge wagons, pulled by draft horses, that were planted intensively. Some grew plants in only water. There was a movement among some of the livestock growers to plant fields for the next group of nomads to harvest and hope that group would do the same. A good karma sort of thing. She couldn’t picture it going anywhere. No one really knew what happened to the land once the Shadow rolled over it. They’d never been back. And ever since the Shadow had appeared, people had become mean and stingy. Or maybe they’d always been that way and she had been too young to notice it before.

Was she any different? The last person she cared about had died four winters ago. Mom. She got the weepy eyes and there was no surviving that. The Shadow had caught up with them again and Mom made her leave town with everybody else. She had been twelve then.

A huge black panther, about six feet tall, stalked past her, its body and tail undulating like a snake. The cat took no notice of her. It had burning red eyes and its feet left behind pools of flame. Even after all these years of being chased by the Shadow, she was never sure whether the weirdness which traveled before it was real or not. It was like magic was leaking out into the world. She’d seen all sorts of bizarre creatures the closer the Shadow got. Some of them paid attention to humans and some not. She shivered as the creature passed.

The thief ran down the alley towards her and sat on a doorstep, eating the carrot as fast as he could. Like most people, he looked like he’d missed a few meals. Smoke from the cook fires seemed to follow him from the marketplace.

She slid back farther into the doorway, but knew he couldn’t see her. Even she couldn’t see herself. She had lived too close to the Shadow, the edge of things, for so long and had become invisible to those around her. No one had seen her for at least two winters. She was never sure if that curse or gift, whatever it was, had come from the Shadow or from something else. If there were others like her, she had never come across them.

She even renamed herself Mirage. Her old life was gone and she felt as if she barely existed. An observer of life around her, but not among the living. And she was fine with the way things were. The only people she wanted to see or talk to were Mom and Dad. Both dead.

Dad had gone to work the day the Shadow first appeared. He never came home. She and Mom assumed the passenger plane he flew simply dropped out of the sky. All of them had. When the Shadow came everything electronic just quit working. Even now, six years later, electronics still wouldn’t work. So many people died from the car crashes and anybody in a hospital was toast, generators wouldn’t start up. People in the north froze to death and people in the south died of heatstroke. And the earth went wild with hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and global warming run amok. Food stopped coming and diseases spread everywhere. Every bad end of the world thing people had predicted, except nuclear war, came true in just a couple years. At least those were the rumors. Because there was no TV and news had to be brought in person.

“Just like the old days,” said Mom.

Although she knew Mom hadn’t been that old.

The boy had finished his limp carrot and stood staring at her doorway.

“God, you needed that carrot more than I did,” he said.

She didn’t speak. He couldn’t possibly see her. He must be able to smell her, although she had a bath in the river last week. Even washed her clothes. And she didn’t bleed anymore. Not enough body fat.

“Why are you so skinny?” He asked, looking straight at her.

She didn’t say anything. Just stood there, mouth open.

“You’re one of those non-talkers, huh? Can’t blame ya. Not much to talk about.” He glanced at the marketplace. “Except that they’re talking about leaving day after tomorrow. Or maybe even tomorrow. Shadow’s comin’.”

She didn’t respond.

“Well, see ya around,” he said. “Name’s Jeff. Better pack yer stuff.”

Then he ran towards the park. Where she knew the apple trees were bearing fruit that tasted intensely sweet, even though the apples were small and not very juicy.

Mirage walked to the marketplace and when the vendor wasn’t looking, stole a piece of meat cooling on a rack. No one could see her, but she’d learned from experience they could see the meat move and then disappear. So, she waited until no one was looking, before she got the meat firmly in her grasp. She didn’t want to get caught and didn’t want anyone’s attention.

After she’d eaten enough for the day and grabbed some dried meat and veggies for the upcoming trip, she climbed the dark stairs in one of the empty high rises.

A sharp pain crunched through her shin as she stumbled over something left behind on the stairs when people deserted the office tower. It was metal and heavy, but not worth lighting a match to see what it was. Matches were precious.

No one else lived in the tower. She’d only been there for a lunar month and felt safer moving around from building to building. Even though she was invisible. There were a lot of pervs around and some of them caught teenagers like her, trading them for food. After they’d used them up.

She went slower up the rest of the twenty floors and went to her room in the back of the old offices. The place felt creepy, like some sort of museum she’d visited in middle school. But it was safe and had windows which let enough light in so she could see. The stale air smelled of plastics and she never had found a window that opened. She looked out the floor to ceiling windows at the view.

The Shadow shifted, a hulking black, purple, red cloud which sat just outside the city as if waiting to do battle. It looked shimmery this evening, as if it contained galaxies and nebulas. The book seller said it smelled like sulphur or rotten eggs. It stunk, that’s for sure, filling the air till a person almost choked on it. When it got close enough.

No one knew what it was. Simply that people who entered it, never came out. It engulfed all the surrounding land, taking up miles and miles of space. Perhaps it was heaven. Or a gateway to another world. But she doubted that.

It was probably just like the belly of a whale she saw in some movie when she was a kid. Except this was a land whale. Someday she might go in, just to see.

But not yet. Life was too interesting still. So many questions. Like how could that kid, Jeff, see her? Did he have some sort of seeing magic like she had invisibility magic? She never believed in magic till the Shadow came with all its strangeness. Not even when she was little.

Mirage looked down below to the street. A man in a tattered business suit walked by, carrying a half empty bottle of someone’s homemade alcohol. She knew his type, clinging to the past. Hoping things would return to normal. But they never would. With the arrival of the Shadow, the world had changed completely.

She could feel her hair getting long again, down to the shoulders. She took the scissors out of her pack and cut it as best she could. About an inch long all the way around. She felt the cropped hair. It was pretty even. It was hard to cut invisible hair. If anyone ran into her and felt her head, she hoped they’d think she was a boy. At least they wouldn’t have long hair to grab onto.

She locked the office door, grabbed one of her many books and crawled into her blankets stretched across the couch. Then read until she fell asleep and slept for as long as she could, which turned out to be the next day.

When she woke, the Shadow had begun to swallow the City.

Time to flee.

She rode perched on the hard seat of the mountain bike and balanced the heavy pack on her back. Sweat ran down her sides as she tried to keep up with the large creaking wagon in the front of the line. The wagons jingled and jangled, covering the whirr of her tires, so no one looked for the source of the sound.

No one could see the bike unless she stopped touching it. Then it would pop into visibility. So she had to be careful when and where she let go of things. Make sure no one was around. A few other people rode bikes and scooters when they were on asphalt. Anything that moved with human power or animal power, provided food could be found for the animals.

Two moves ago, she found the mountain bike. She only used it for moving, since it made enough noise to draw attention if she wasn’t careful. Sometimes she rode near the old people. Old people talked a lot or groaned or whatever. And kids too. But there weren’t as many kids as there used to be. They’d all grown up and few people had new ones.

At least they were going downhill now. It had been hard going up to the pass. She’d had to walk the bike. Now they were heading out onto the flats of Eastern Montana, down an old, vacant highway. Well, the land was sort of flat. Huge buttes stuck out of the ground, surrounding the valleys. She’d never seen buttes before, but that’s what the honey man said they were. They looked like mountains where some giant had come along and karate chopped the top half off. Pretty cool.

The heat drained all her energy and the asphalt was hot. It lay cracked where the ground had heaved too much in the winter. No more highway repairs happening these days. Grass, burrs and sagebrush grew up out of the potholes. She didn’t see how they’d find enough water here, but grass grew for the livestock which helped the animals a lot. Some of the old grain fields even reseeded themselves. Without the goats, sheep and cows, humans would be dead. They needed the protein. Vegetables they could grow, and some berries. Fruit they mostly found along the way.

The group turned right towards the southwest, hoping to make enough speed that the Shadow would pass them by and keep heading east. At least that’s what she heard someone say. They needed to find a place to dig in for the winter.

They moved through miles and miles of pungent sagebrush and grasslands. Some of the hunters shot grouse and pheasants. Those would go for a high price. Not that anyone actually used money anymore. There was a sort of bartering system set up by the leaders. She never opted in since she was invisible. But nearly everyone worked.

“Why the hell can’t that damned Shadow turn around and cross the ocean back to where it came from?” said one of the men walking alongside the wagon.

“If you ask me, I think it’s from the Russians all right. Chemical warfare or something. Except it’s got robots in it. That’s what killed all our technology.”

“I don’t know about that, but Sam heard it can cross the ocean. And it goes away from us long enough to do it. But why does it always come back?” asked the tall, hulking man as he checked to make sure the door to the greenhouse wagon was still shut tight.

“Because we’re still alive,” said the fair haired man with the squinty eyes.

She hated that one. He was one of the pervs who bothered girls. Even little girls. The adults hadn’t caught him yet, but she hoped they would soon.

Was it true what he said? That the Shadow would pursue them until it could capture them? Were they the only people left alive?

When she first started traveling with this group, they found more and more groups of people and absorbed most of them. Mostly as they traveled, they came across ghost towns or armed compounds. They stayed away from those nutcases. She didn’t know what those people did when the Shadow overran them. Tried to shoot their way out of the huge black cloud? Not a real functional solution.

She caught sight of Jeff, back with a pack of kids who looked as raggedy as he did. He tipped his hat to her. One of the kids, a tough looking girl with homemade tattoos, glanced in her direction and looked puzzled. Mirage knew the girl couldn’t see her. The girl turned back to Jeff and said something. He just looked straight ahead and smiled, but said nothing. His arm muscles rippled as he wiped the sweat off his forehead and readjusted his straw cowboy hat. The other guys his age were shirtless, showing off. Not him. She liked that about him.

That night she slept in a dry creek bed, away from the main group. She didn’t want to be too close, sometimes she saw things she didn’t want to see. Couples going at it, people stealing. Once someone tripped over her while trying to find a place to pee. She didn’t want to be too far away from the fires either. She saw a mountain lion prowling around the edges of the campsite back up in the Rockies. Luckily, it went the other way.

She snuggled into her sleeping bag and thought about Mom and Dad. Remembered a camping trip they went on. In the desert. They slept outside so they could see the stars. Dad was no good with fires, so Mom made one and everyone cooked hotdogs on a stick. Then marshmallows for dessert. Dad made up stories and they played math games. As if math could do her any good now when the Shadow blotted out half the stars in the sky.

She woke to heavy, hot, stinking breathing in her face. A pair of tall pointed ears were silhouetted against the moon. Scared and not thinking, she screamed bloody murder and the animal jumped and fled into the night.

She heard a man’s voice, “What’s going on?”

She quietly bundled all her stuff up and carried it away, along with her bike, over her shoulder. She cursed silently after knocking her shin into a piece of driftwood in the dry creek bed.

A ways off, Mirage refolded things more neatly and put them in her backpack.

She heard the man’s voice again, “Jeff, what are you doing out here?” A torch wavered just over the bank of the stream bed.

“I had to pee and I ran into a rock.”

“Was that you screaming?”

“Yeah, it hurt like hell. Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake everybody up.”

“I was awake. I’m on guard duty.” It was pervy guy. He sounded defensive. Probably was sleeping.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

“Well, go back to bed. It’ll be a long day tomorrow.”

“It’s always a long day,” Jeff said.

The torch moved back toward camp.

She sat down near her bike. She wasn’t going back to sleep again. Still scared of that wolf or whatever.

A little while later she heart rustling bushes and a voice whispering, “Hey, are you okay?”

It was Jeff.

She whispered, “I’m okay.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m over here.”

He came, tripped over her bike and clumsily sat down next to her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I woke up and there was a wolf in my face.”

“Not a wolf,” he said.

“Uh Yeah.”

“No wolves on the plains, unless it came from the Shadow.”

“Looked like a wolf to me.”

“Must’ve been a coyote, or a dog gone wild,” he said.

“Whatever it was, it scared the hell out of me.”

“You should sleep closer to camp.”

“I can’t. Might get stepped on. Or discovered.”

“What’s so bad, about being discovered?” He asked, shifting his weight on the hard ground.

“Helloooo. Am I the only one who sees the bizarre things that come out of the Shadow? I don’t want to be mistaken for one.”

“No, we all see them. But you’re human. And the Shadow’s creatures pass through, attack or don’t and move on. You’ve been around for a couple moves, at least that’s when I first saw you.”

“Why can you see me and nobody else can?” she asked.

“I dunno. I can see lots of things that other people can’t.”

“Like what?”

“I can see ghosts of people who died. I can see the future, some of it at least. I can see the past hanging off people,” he said.

“Then how do you know I’m not a ghost or from the future or something.”

“I can tell the difference between all those. You’re just shimmery, I didn’t realize you were invisible to everyone else for a long time, until I saw other people not seeing you. But other than that you’re normal. No one could mistake you for the Shadow’s spawn.”

“I don’t feel safe around other people,” she said. People weren’t to be trusted. She’d seen what happened to girls her age who didn’t have parents to protect them.”

“Even me?” He asked, playfully bumping against her.

“I don’t know about you yet.” He seemed like one of the good guys, but she couldn’t be sure.

“Well, that’s a relief, sort of.”

She could almost feel him smiling his lazy smile in the dark.

“But really, you’d be safer from the wildlife closer to camp.”

“It’s not the wildlife that worries me the most,” she said.

“Aaah. I see. Has anyone ever bothered you?”

“No. They can’t see me, so they don’t know I exist and I intend to keep it that way.”

“I see your point. That’s why most of us without parents have banded together. Too many two legged predators. The adults try to deal with the ones they catch, but they’re not very good at catching them,” he said.

She said nothing.

“But don’t you get lonely?” he asked.

“Sometimes. Mostly I miss my mom and dad.”

“Me too. Well, my mom. Dad walked out of the house when I was a baby and never came back. My mom was riding in her carpool when the Shadow came. She was talking on the phone to me when I-5 turned into one big car crash. She never made it home.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Lightening slashed across the horizon followed by thunder. She shivered. In Seattle there had rarely been thunderstorms without rain. But out here it happened almost every night. The scent of sage hung heavy in the air and the night wasn’t going to cool off. Earlier, someone who had a thermometer said it was ninety-five degrees. She learned a lot by sneaking around and listening to people.

They sat together in silence, listening to the rumbling and looking for lightening. She could feel the heat coming off his body. He felt like someone she could be herself with. Besides the fact that she couldn’t stop looking at him. Tall and tan with soft brown eyes the color of chocolate and angular cheeks. Long brown hair that he usually tied back with leather and beads. Jeff was gorgeous, despite his ragged clothes. Why wasn’t she pretty enough that he’d find her attractive?

Eventually Jeff left and went back to his bedroll. She dozed off leaning up against a boulder, but didn’t sleep deeply again. She dreamt of a big black dog following her, stalking her.

Morning brought the reality that the Shadow had followed them over the Rockies and was as close as ever. She felt as heavy as everyone else did. Was there no escaping it?

The group hitched up, packed up and got moving in a hurry, eating what breakfast there was on the run. She ate some meat stolen from last night’s cook fires. Chewing the leathery stuff, she tried to decide if it was beef, goat or pork, but it was too overcooked to tell. It was food, at least. With her saliva, she was finally able to create enough juice to swallow it, but truly it was jerky.

After she finished eating, she got on her bike and rode far ahead of everyone, except the scouts. They had horses and ranged ahead and back, taking in everything, their horse’s hard hooves clacking on the asphalt as they crisscrossed the abandoned highway.

Mirage loved the traveling, except for the pressure of the Shadow always chasing them. Seeing all those fresh places. Every night one of the adults took anybody aside who wanted to learn things. There was a geologist who told them all about the Rockies and how they were formed. A botanist who spent two nights talking about local plants and what the Indians used them for. An astronomer talked about the night sky. And not only the kids, but lots of adults came and listened too. It was one of the best things about this mess.

She watched as the parents held their kids close and felt sadness that her parents weren’t there to hold her. No Mom to tuck her hair back behind her ears, not that she had hair that long anymore. No Dad to tickle her or tell her jokes, trying to get her to laugh. Her chest ached when she watched parents and kids sit by the fire at night. Her eyes filled with tears, not only from the smoke.

Halfway through the morning her front tire blew and she almost went end over teakettle as Mom would have said. Sharp pain shot through her ankle.

“Damn,” she said, managing to keep herself upright with the sudden stop. The handlebars gouged her in the belly, but she was still standing. Limping from pain, she wheeled the bike off the road, out of the way and into a big patch of sagebrush.

A woman was looking around for the source of the popping and the swearing. Since Mirage made no further sounds, the woman kept moving. Mirage relaxed a little and took a deep breath.

She’d used up her last spare tire on the way up the other side of the Rockies. She hadn’t been able to find any replacements that fit, in the last couple of towns. And she wasn’t going to carry the bike all the way to the next city in hopes of finding one.

So, she waited until everyone had passed and reluctantly lay the bike down behind some sagebrush. Her ankle and lower leg were bleeding where she scraped a long patch of skin off. She didn’t have a first aid kit; the best she could do was tear up a T-shirt and tie it around her ankle and calf. She limped back to the road, knowing that it had gotten twisted badly as well. Her choices now were to try to keep up with the others or wait to be swallowed by the Shadow.

By the time they camped that night, she felt exhausted.

Limping was much more work than walking. She hadn’t seen Jeff since earlier in the day. She was too tired to try to steal food, let alone medical supplies for her ankle. She took the torn shirt off her ankle to expose it to the air so it could heal. It was a bad scrape and still oozed a reddish, clear liquid. And the whole thing was swollen. She supposed the leaking liquid was good. Hopefully, the wound was cleaning itself.

Rolling her bedroll out in the middle of a patch of sagebrush, she collapsed onto it. It was the best cover she could find. The large boulders a ways off would be where people naturally went to hide.

The next thing she knew it was morning and the cook fires were going full strength. She felt stiff and clumsy, but got up and snuck into the camp, avoiding running into anyone. She pilfered several pieces of meat and some biscuits and retreated to her bedroll to eat. She stashed half of it in a plastic container in her pack.

Her ankle had scabbed over in the night, but as she walked, the crust broke and it began to weep again. She’d need to steal a bandage and some antibiotic cream. The asphalt was covered over with dust that kept getting kicked up in the air, so there was no sense trying to wash it if she didn’t bandage it. She still limped along behind everyone else.

That night she made her camp across a small stream from the main one. Mirage had just fallen asleep when she heard the rustling of some nearly bushes. She sat up.

A muffled, “Stop. Please.” It was a woman’s voice.

“I know you want me, bitch. The way you’ve been waving it at me.”

It was the blond perv’s voice.

“No,” said the woman.

No, it was probably a girl. He never picked women.

“And if you tell anyone, I’ll kill your little sister.”

Mirage slid gracelessly out of her bedroll. As she put weight on her sore, swollen ankle, pain shot through it. She silently moved toward the voice, staying behind the bushes. In the moonlight, she could see him on top of her, holding the girl down and undoing his pants. It was the girl who’d been walking with Jeff. She tried to get her hands free, but was too small to do much damage to Pervy.

Mirage looked around and grabbed a handful of good sized rocks. The first she slammed into his lower spine with the force of a baseball. Those few years playing ball with Dad had taught her well.

He jerked upward, yelling with pain.

She aimed the next at his head and it hit, square on.

He jumped up and said, “What the hell?”

The girl gathered her torn clothes and ran. He chased after her, but she made it across the stream and into the main camp.

Mirage kept throwing rocks at him, hitting him with each one. He finally got his pants done up and started running towards her. She ran and limped as far as she could, away from bushes or anything that would move when she touched it. Hoping he couldn’t see her, that he wasn’t like Jeff.

She stood behind a huge boulder and saw him looking around. He had no idea where she was. Her pounding heart began to slow back to normal, but her leg hurt so much she wanted to scream.

Finally, he turned and went back toward the main camp, circling off to one side. Probably hoping the girl hadn’t told anyone.

“Bastard.” She wished somehow that she could tell the adults about him. Sometimes she hated being invisible.

She waited until he’d crossed back over the stream, then gathered all her stuff up and moved camp for the rest of the night. She fell asleep crying from the pain in her leg and from not feeling safe and from being so alone.

Four days later nothing had changed, except the swelling had gone down. But her wound had gotten worse and was covered with yellow gooey stuff, even though she’d cleaned it, nuked it with antibiotics and covered it with a bandage. The skin around the scrape was red and hurt like hell. And the Shadow had come over the mountains and was rumbling downhill towards them like a tsunami in the desert.

The group had picked up their pace and she struggled to keep up, at each stop, tossing things from her pack to make it lighter. Jeff had come back to walk with her and had an arm around her waist, helping her go faster. His touch made her uncomfortable. It was so intimate. But mostly, because she felt like a wimp. She should be able to deal with all this. Should be able to fix her leg and keep up.

Finally he said, “We have to get you on one of the wagons.”

“There’s no room for me. And someone will find me.” Her ankle was so hot. It felt like it was on fire.

“What’s so bad about that?”

“So many reasons.”

“Give me three.”

“They’ll think I’m from the Shadow. I don’t trust any of them. They might kill me because I’m a freak. You know people have no patience for anyone different, especially someone who’s invisible.”

“Okay, so we won’t tell them. We’ll just get you onto a wagon.”

“There’s no room. They’re all filled with old folks who can’t walk or really young kids.”

“There’s room on top of the draft horses. Can you ride one?”

“I’m scared of horses.”

“So, you’d rather fall behind and get eaten by the Shadow?”

“If I could just get a good night’s rest, I’ll be able to keep up,” she said.

“I’ll give you one more day,” he said. “Then I’m putting you on a horse, or something.”

Towards the end of the day, Jeff carried nearly all her weight. She set up her bedroll off in the sagebrush as usual. He brought her some dinner, roasted goat meat and salad greens. Her stomach rumbled at the smell of the juicy meat. They hadn’t butchered anything in a few days.

They talked for a little while, then he left.

She lay down after eating, without using the top blankets. She felt so hot. Then fell asleep immediately and into deep dreams.

Mirage woke to feel a rough glove over her mouth and a heavy weight on her body, straddling her. Both her hands pinned above her head by one of his. She felt like a cornered wildcat, full of terror and rage.

“Don’t make a sound or I’ll kill you and fuck you afterwards,” said the deep, coarse voice. “I bet you thought that since I couldn’t see you, couldn’t find you.” He laughed. A gruff, deep laugh which made her shiver. “I’m a tracker. Plus I can smell you. And I like what I smell, girlie.”

Her muscles tensed more as she recognized him. The ugly, old bastard who tried to rape Jeff’s friend.

He took the hand from her mouth and pawed at her clothes, pulling at her pants, trying to tear them off. “You thought you were safe from me because I can’t see you. But I can hear you, you little bitch. You and your friend Jeff. He’s not going to get all of you.”

She lay there, still and silent, waiting. He let go of her hands. Using both of his to try to get her pants open. Mirage grasped a large, sharp rock. He bent over, still trying to undo her invisible pants, unable to tear them. She hit him in the head with the rock. Hard.

He gasped and she pushed him off sideways. She stood, ignoring the pain in her ankle and hit him again, hard, with the rock as he tried to stand.

Then she ran into the sagebrush, thankful she made a habit of sleeping in her shoes. The moon was full but not quite risen high in the sky. She could see a little, enough to keep moving. She moved to a rocky area where her tracks wouldn’t be seen. Just in case.

She kept moving and stumbled across a stream, still panicked several hours later. Or was it only minutes? She sucked up handfuls of water, sweat dripping down her. Finally, she sat in the stream, trying to cool off. Her ankle was burning with the pain, which had spread up her leg and into her hip.

Mirage watched the moon cross the sky, blotting out the stars. The water felt cooling and healing.

Should she go back? The creep wasn’t dead. She was sure of that. He’d have to explain his wounds though. He might tell people about her. Of course not that he tried to rape her, but that she attacked him. They probably wouldn’t come looking for her. The group needed to move on. But they would be on the lookout for her.

No, it wasn’t safe to go back. She needed to find a town and see if she could get supplies. In the morning. She tried not to think of the photos of Mom and Dad left behind in her pack. Or her Mom’s necklace, lying curled in a piece of fabric from the shirt she’d last worn. Mirage tried to blot out the image of Pervy touching the photos or any of her things. She shivered again. How could such an evil person exist?

When she woke, her jaw ached from the rock she’d been bent over sleeping on. It wasn’t morning yet, everything was still dark. The moon had set, but she could see stars twinkling above. The creek still swirled around her, keeping her cool. Her head didn’t feel quite so hot.

She shifted slightly and lay back on another pile of lumpy rocks, feeling the cool water wick up the back of her shirt. It would be okay. It would be hot today and the wet clothes would feel good.

Mirage woke again, to find herself sitting in the stream. It was darker than before and loud noises sounded all around her. Stomping and shuffling and the trumpeting of elephants. What the hell was going on?

She tried to stand and slipped on the algae covering the rocks. She felt warm enough, even though the water was cool. Her leg wasn’t hot anymore, nor her ankle. But the air smelled dusty, as if elephants really were kicking up dirt. The ground shook around her.

She looked up, but there were no stars to be seen, instead a purply shimmer filled the air. If she looked close, Mirage could see shapes moving around her. Sort of.

A white blur came towards her through the darkness, splashing up the stream. As it came closer, she realized how large it was. When it stood a couple of feet from her, she saw it was a bison. A white buffalo. She didn’t know much about bison, except that white ones were rare and sacred to Indians.

The animal came a little closer, stopped and lay down at her feet.

She felt confused. Where was she that such a creature existed? And would lie down next to her?

The beast turned its head and gazed at her with huge moist eyes. She could see the blueness of them, the air around her was becoming lighter, as if the buffalo glowed.

A voice in Mirage’s head said, “Get on.”

“What?”

“Get on my back. I will carry you.”

“Where?”

“To where you need to go.”

And where was that? She had nowhere to go.

Mirage tried to stand and her leg crumpled beneath her.

“You are not strong enough to walk yet.”

That much was clear. She bent over and grabbed some of the buffalo’s fur. Then pulled herself up on her best leg, toward the creature. She was able to lift her bad leg over its back and sit in front of the hump.

As soon as she set her weight down, the bison scrambled to its feet. She quickly grabbed another handful of the fur with her other hand. It was a long ways down to the ground. The buffalo ambled out of the stream and back onto dry land.

Close to the glowing buffalo, their surroundings were lit up like a porch light at night. Farther away things grew very dim and she could only make out large shapes. Mirage saw that she was in the middle of a huge migration. There were indeed elephants and horses and dogs and deer and even unicorns. Lions stalked next to giraffes and polar bears.

A clown on a unicycle wheeled by followed by an orange winged man. This was a dream. Or maybe she was dead. She should just go with it.

The parade went on for hours, she rode the buffalo along with it. Her stomach growled with hunger. When had she last eaten? She had no idea how many days might have passed while she slept in the stream, but it had to be more than one. Although she didn’t actually remember any daylight.

She only knew time passed because eventually her clothes dried. Although there was a lot of dust in the air, which made her sneeze, both she and her clothes were now filthy. And her legs and butt got sore from being in one position. Buffalo were not comfortable to ride. But there was no sign of any sun or moon, just glowing in the sky from stars and what looked like the Aurora Borealis. Greens and yellows wafted across the horizon, followed by blues, reds and purples. It was almost as glorious as the creatures surrounding her.

Abruptly the bison stopped, as did everyone around them. It lay down, sighed and began chewing. Mirage looked for a sign that she should get off, but found none. She wasn’t sure if she could anyway. Her body had formed to the buffalo and felt stuck that way.

A golden moth-like creature the size of her head, landed on her injured leg. It walked up and down, clinging to her pants with its sticklike feet.

A sharp pain punctured her ankle, then a healing warmth spread throughout her as the moth stayed for a while, then flew away.

She felt herself doing a face plant on the bison’s head, but could do nothing about it. Hands pulled her off the warm creature and lay her on the ground next to it. She snuggled up to the bison’s coarse fur and was gone.

Later, hands shook her awake. She pried open her eyes to see a blurred face. Someone wearing jeans and a T-shirt. And a straw cowboy hat. Normal clothes. It took her a while to make out the face. Jeff.

If it was Jeff, then the buffalo must have been a dream.

Mirage sat up and saw the white bison nearby grazing and glowing in the dusky light. Jeff squatted close to her, staring.

“What are you doing here in my dream?” she asked, unable to make sense of everything.

“I came looking for you,” he said. “I saw that you’d run into the Shadow. I couldn’t leave you. Not after I figured out that Pete attacked you, not the other way around.”

“Pete?”

“You know, the perv? He’s been hassling some of the girls. That’s why they hung around with me. In hopes I’d protect them from him.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“He was in camp with a smashed up face and head. Dizzy, still bleeding and a little crazy. Something about being attacked by a monster. I hadn’t seen you, so I got my pack and went looking. I found your bedroll and pack and a huge bloody rock. Then I followed your tracks into the Shadow,” he said. “Here, by the way.”

He pulled her pack off one shoulder and handed it to her, squatting down next to her.

She felt such relief and joy at getting her pack back. Her photos of Mom and Dad. “Thanks. I can’t believe you came into the Shadow though. By choice.”

“We all think about it, you know. When and how the Shadow is going to take us. And I can’t believe I found you in this menagerie. Or that you made it this far. How’s your ankle?” he asked, standing.

She realized there was no pain in her leg or ankle. She tentatively stood on her good leg and gingerly put weight on the bad one. Then walked. Astonishingly, the bad leg worked. It felt almost normal. Mirage looked at him and smiled.

“It’s fine. Really fine.” She felt such relief at that. “This huge golden moth punctured my ankle and somehow healed me. And before that I lay in a cold stream for what seemed like days. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but somehow it killed the infection.”

She glanced over at the buffalo, sad that she’d probably lost her ride to wherever they were going. The buffalo looked at her, snorted and continued grazing.

“Are we dead?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” Jeff said. “Although I don’t exactly know if we can leave, even if we could find our way out.”

“How did you get in?”

“I didn’t know if I could just walk into the Shadow and survive. So, I just sat down in the dirt and let it wash over me. Strange sensation. Kind of like being slimed by a dry slug. It took a few minutes before I was inside. Surrounded by all these animals and weird people. It’s like there’s a whole world inside here.”

Mirage nodded in agreement. “How long has it been since that night?”

“I dunno,” he said. “I lost track of time once I got inside. I haven’t been able to see the sun. Although I spoke to this guy with the head of a black jaguar. He told me that at the center of the Shadow there’s light. ‘Perhaps it is the sun’,” he told me. But I don’t think so.”

“Wow,” she said. “I really don’t have a clue what the Shadow is.”

“Me neither, but there’s some really bizarre beings in here.”

“I haven’t seen much. Just the bison and a lot of animals. Oh, and a herd of unicorns.”

“Most of the people, the really weird ones, are way over there,” he said, pointing off to her right. “They seem to travel together.”

“But where are they going?” she asked.

“A woman with her heart beating on the outside of her chest told me that they’re searching. When I asked for what, the woman said the Shadow would know when she found it.”

“Who she, the woman or the Shadow?”

“The Shadow apparently is a she.”

“Sentient? Alive?”

He nodded.

“How can a cloud or fog or whatever it is, be a she? And alive?”

Jeff shrugged and said, “You got me.”

Her head was spinning with all the new information, most of which didn’t make any sense.

Mirage’s stomach rumbled and she asked, “I don’t suppose there’s any food left in my pack, is there?”

“Don’t know, but I’ve got sausage and biscuits in mine,” he said, pulling out food and a water bottle.

She sipped from the water bottle. When would they find water again? She ate a biscuit with sausage inside the two halves. Oregano and mustard flavors slipped through the taste of the meat and mingled with the butter of the biscuit. When she finished her stomach felt full, but her mouth wanted about four more biscuits.

“So what now?” she asked.

Jeff looked around at all the animals. “I’d say it’s time to sleep. Or maybe it’s just a short rest. But I’m guessing that since the horses are lying down, it’s sleep time. We better too, no telling when they’ll start moving again.”

He rolled out his sleeping bag and lay down on it.

Mirage shook out her bedroll, the sheet and several blankets. After lying on it, she turned to him and asked, “Why did you come after me?” She felt clumsy, hopeful and awkward, but wanted to know why he cared enough to follow her. To risk his life to follow her.

But he was already asleep.

She lay awake on her blankets for a long time, watching him sleep.

When she woke buffalo, horses and elephants were standing, shaking themselves awake. The air around her was filled with greenish-yellow dust. Mirage looked around. Jeff’s sleeping bag was there, empty. She stood, rolled up her bedding and stuffed it in her pack.

Jeff appeared through the cloud of dust and handed her his water bottle. She drank some.

“I just filled them,” he said. “There’s a clear stream over there.” He pointed towards the direction he’d just come from.

“What are we going to do for food?”

“We’ll have to go back to where the people are. They have some.”

Mirage shouldered her pack. Would the people inside the Shadow be able to see her? They had their own strange quirks, but would her own be visible to others?

She followed Jeff as he walked in the general direction of the humans. They crossed in front of, through and behind, moving herds of elk, gazelles and zebras, trying not to get trampled. The dust made her choke and cough. Some of the animals mingled together, others stayed in their own separate groups. Some stopped for a minute or two, grazing on the silver gray sagebrush or the different range grasses.

Mirage tripped over dead wood while watching the sky overhead. There was no sun, instead a lavender colored glow that looked remarkably like cloud cover. Flocks of birds caught within the Shadow kept pace with the migration.

They slowed while passing through a creek, all the animals drinking. She was glad Jeff had given her a full water bottle, they were downstream of a group of cows who muddied the water completely and she really didn’t want to drink that water.

She was used to walking or riding her bike all day fleeing the Shadow, but the air inside was hot and muggy. Tropical. It made her skin feel clammy. There was no wind here, not even a breeze. Would rain penetrate the skin of the Shadow?

By the time everyone stopped, they had fallen back far enough in the pack to find the humans, if they could be called that. Some had human bodies with deer heads topped with antlers. Mirage saw centaurs and sphinx, people with huge dog bodies and human heads. Several had tall giraffe bodies with people’s faces at the end of their long necks.

She couldn’t help but stare at all the odd beings around her. A few chattered to each other in languages she didn’t recognize. Some acknowledged her with a nod or a wave. Others completely ignored her leaving her wondering, once again, if they could even see her. She was odd as well. Was this where she belonged? What about Jeff? She saw a few other people who looked normal, but maybe they could breathe fire or think water spouts or something. What was normal these days anyway?

The migration had stopped and Mirage felt the air around her compact somehow. As if the Shadow was collapsing, maybe exhaling. Then a few minutes later the air seemed to expand and a cool breeze flowed through the area around her, chilling the sweat on her body. She shivered with the pleasant sensation.

A woman in a long red dress and using a spear as a walking stick moved towards them. She had wild, long red hair and wore a headband of twisted fabric, beads and feathers around the top of her head. Something about her set Mirage on edge and brought up a wave of rage which she had no idea existed.

“Greetings. We do not often have live humans as our guests.”

“What, you usually get dead humans as guests?” asked Mirage.

The woman looked puzzled and said, “Of course. There are many ghosts who live inside the Shadow. Perhaps more ghosts than living beings.”

“Why are we still alive?” Mirage asked.

“The Shadow does not kill people. They are either passed through or absorbed, as you have been. Most humans flee before her.”

Bullshit. The Shadow had killed her parents and millions of other people. For years.

“So, who are you?” asked Mirage.

She knew she was being rude. She didn’t like this seemingly polite woman. The more polite she was, the more anger Mirage felt.

“I am Maeve. The Shadow doesn’t know how to speak with humans, so she asked me to speak for her.”

“And what does she have to say,” sniped Mirage.

“She wishes you to know that she means your people no harm. That she is searching for her mate and needs to travel.”

“There’s more than one Shadow?”

“Since the birth of this planet, there have always been two. They lived here together for eons, watching the earth evolve and creatures bear young, live and die. Whole groups rose in dominance, failed, then disappeared. When humans began to rise, the Shadow said she could see the future and it was time to sleep. She gathered up all the deities, all the magic and otherworldly beings and took us to sleep with her, deep in the arctic tundra. Her mate followed and slept as well. When she woke, he was gone. She has been searching the earth ever since.”

What would that feel like? To have a partner for almost forever, then wake up and find them gone. Mirage felt the air around her fill with sadness and heaviness. She looked at Jeff, he scuffed dirt around with his ragged shoes, not meeting her eyes. Who was he thinking of? Of his mom who he’d lost? Or was there someone else?

She didn’t know what to say or think about all that Maeve said. The wall of anger burst.

Mirage yelled, “If she doesn’t mean us any harm, why did she disrupt all the electronics and completely destroy our world? Why is she chasing us across the bloody continent? Why are all these animals trapped in here? Why are we trapped in here? Why did she kill my parents?”

Maeve laughed. “You are not trapped here and these animals have chosen to live within her. You must go back to your people and tell them to either stay out of her way or to stay still and allow her to pass over them. They will be inside her, but if they stay in one place and let everyone move past and the Shadow pass over, they will be left behind her. It really is that simple. But it takes courage and trust.” She paused, looked Mirage in the eyes and said, “Yes, she did destroy your ‘world’ by waking up. Electronics cannot exist in the same space as magic. They are incompatible. With her awakening, and the unleashing of all those who slept with her, your way of life, which was failing because of your destruction of the planet, had to end. I am sorry that she killed your family. It was not her intention.”

“We have tried to stay out of her way. But she covers so much of the land, everyone runs away in fear of the Shadow.” She felt more and more anger at Maeve and the Shadow and the entire world. There didn’t seem to be an end to it. The rage roiled around inside of her, erupting into flames which she could almost envision streaming out from her mouth.

“She is formidable. Especially to those who are afraid to face who they are.”

“But how can I go back and tell people to stay out of her way, as if that’s really possible. They can’t even see me.”

“Because you choose to be invisible. You’ve absorbed some of the magic floating through the air. Being invisible has served you well, protecting you and yet it isolates you. That time is nearing an end. You need to be with other people. To heal your pain as well as theirs. And as time passes more magic will leak through the Shadow’s skin. Deities and otherworldly beings will choose to live in the world again. Magic will be everywhere and ever present. The world will be a very different place. You may not understand her magic, but it is not that different from your science.”

“I still don’t understand how I can tell them to stay out of her way.”

“I will leave you to think on it,” said Maeve. “You are a resourceful human. I will return when you have rested.”

She turned and walked back the direction she’d come, disappearing into the dust and behind the bodies of giants. Mirage hadn’t really noticed them and thought they were big rock formations. Until they moved.

“What the hell does she mean, leave me to think on it?”

Jeff said, “I think it has to do with magic.”

Mirage shook her head, then shrugged off her backpack, yanking her bedding out of it.

A pair of beautiful young girls walked past. One held a jug and a stack of golden cups, the other a tray with chunks of bread. They were offering the food to everyone. The stack of cups never diminished and neither did the bread or liquid.

Mirage took a cup and the girl poured a clear liquid into it. She took a piece of bread from the tray, as did Jeff.

She sat down to eat, trying to make sense of everything, but as soon as she’d eaten and drank, Mirage fell asleep.

She dreamt about the wide open plains of Montana. Walking barefoot through fields of blooming sagebrush, she came upon a group of tents and canopies in bright colors of red, blue, yellow and purple. They were swarming with people, some sort of fair. At the entrance she was given a seed and told to put it between her toes, which she did, even though she had to walk funny to keep it there.

She looked through the various tents at beautifully woven and embroidered fabrics, jewelry made of beads and stones and tables full of books. She could smell incense and roasting meat. People with strange guttural accents stood in groups talking.

She came upon a knee high, brown mole-like creature, who stood on two legs and held out its paw. It took her a while before she understood that it wanted the seed. She took it from between her toes and gave it to him.

The creature sucked the seed up in his snout. After a moment a beautiful and fragile, paper-like bloom of brilliant turquoise appeared from its snout. The mole gave it to her and bowed. She bowed at him in return and walked off into the prairie smelling the intoxicating rich scent of the flower mingled with the sharp smell of sagebrush.

When Mirage woke, she lay in her bedroll basking in the aftereffects of the dream. What did it mean? What was the flower, the gift? Was it her invisibility or something else? She came to no conclusion, but could still smell the flower, even though there was no earthly scent to compare it with. Somehow she felt lighter, as if the rage had burned itself out and been replaced with something else. Something hopeful.

She still hadn’t figured out any way to tell people how to stay out of the Shadow’s path. Was that the gift that all this magic swirling around would give her? She felt her muscles tense with worry.

Jeff just sat and stared at her. When she looked at him, he turned away, as if embarrassed to be caught.

“What?” she asked. “Am I growing horns out of my head?”

“Not exactly,” he said.

“Then what?” she asked, little prickles on her skin, adding to her anxiety.

“You’re growing tattoos.”

“Tattoos? How do you grow tattoos?” She looked down and realized she could actually see her hands. She hadn’t been able to see herself for two years.

Lines of blue, purple, green, gold, red and black ink swirled out from under the sleeves of her T-shirt. Spirals, paisley patterns and animals began to form on her skin, weaving in and out. They reminded her of Celtic designs, but much more fluid.

Would other people be able to see her as well? She felt a knot form around her heart as panic grabbed it.

“Oh my god!” She watched in horror as all the skin on her arms, shoulders and chest became covered with color. She looked up at Jeff. “My face too?”

He nodded and said, “It’s beautiful. The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. You were beautiful before, but now…you’re beyond stunning.” He slumped as he said it, looking down at the ground.

“You don’t seem happy about it,” she said.

“Now everyone will want to be close to you. You won’t want to hang out with me, let alone be interested in me.” He had picked a rock up and was examining it as if nothing else in the world was as important.

Her mouth dropped open and she had to make an effort to close it. She could see his sadness and that he was taking on rejection from her that she hadn’t even given out.

He had a crush on her. No one had ever had a crush on her.

She had no idea how to react. Her heart raced and her face felt like it was burning with heat. She sat in the uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, listening to the rumblings of wild beasts and the low talking of the magical beings surrounding them. And tried to breathe and get calm so she could think.

She really liked him. No one had ever been attracted to her. Even when they could see her. He was an awesome guy. Honest and kind and so gorgeous that she felt almost embarrassed for staring at him all the time. But she had no idea what to do with a boyfriend. Hell, she didn’t even know what to do with a friend.

Finally, she said, “You have to realize I’ve never had a boyfriend. It’s never been an option. Invisible girls just don’t have boyfriends. So I’m not going to promise anything, except that I’ll give it a chance. I really don’t know how. But I also don’t know anyone, except for my parents, who would have followed me into the Shadow.” She gently touched his hands, still holding the rock, and smiled at him.

He returned her smile, then looked behind her and nodded. She turned to see Maeve approaching again.

“I see you have accepted your role,” she said. “It’s time to pack your things. I’ll escort you to the edge and as we walk I’ll answer any questions you might have.”

Mirage crawled out of her blankets and rolled them up, shaking out a rattlesnake in the process. She shivered.

“She would not have harmed you. You are under the protection of the Shadow,” said Maeve.

They packed up and had their cups refilled with a brown liquid, which tasted like chocolate, and took fruit and meat from the two girls. Then she and Jeff followed Maeve to the edge of the Shadow. The air became lighter, less purple and heavy. There wove past a few animals and several types of birds swirled overhead, but saw no more people.

“I still don’t understand how I’ll know where the Shadow will go, or how to stay out of her way.”

Maeve said, “Stop walking and close your eyes.”

Mirage did.

“Breathe deeply for a minute and let your mind move inward. Into the center of yourself.”

Mirage took several deep breaths and tried to push her mind inside herself.

“Allow your thoughts and feelings to move, don’t push. Feel your body expand and contract with your inward breath and your outward breath.”

Mirage could feel the expansion and contraction. Then she could sense the center within herself. And the Shadow inside her. She could see the Shadow moving across the landscape, as if on a map. See the path she would take in search of her mate. The Shadow was continuing south east. If the group went straight south, they’d be out of her path.

She opened her eyes. “Will she find her mate?”

“Yes. He is here on earth. Searching for her, but this is a large planet and still too much human noise. People keep trying to start up noisy machines, which confuses her and makes her search more difficult.”

“Is there anything else I need to know?” Mirage asked. She felt herself filling up with magic and power, as if the Shadow was helping to prepare her for her new role.

“You must explain to people who and what the Shadow is. And that soon all the magic and otherworldly beings will be released from her to inhabit your world again. If humans fail to live with them, humans will lose and disappear. They must learn to live with those different from them. You will become a leader. They will listen to you.”

Mirage nodded, but she felt the chances of humans coexisting with others were slim. She’d been given a nearly impossible task. To try to talk to people who would look at her as if she was mad. But she felt as ready as she would ever be. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but hoped confidence would come with time. She sure didn’t have it yet. She would have to pretend it was there.

Maeve smiled at her and pointed towards a lilac colored membrane. Mirage walked through it, followed by Jeff.

She felt the thick coolness slide over her again. It felt like jello, except it was dry. Then she was outside. In the dry desert heat, surrounded by sagebrush and the dust kicked up the Shadow’s passing.

Jeff stood next to her, smiling at her as if he had all the confidence in the world that she could do what was necessary. She looked to the southwest and could see the plume of dust from the group of humans. If she and Jeff kept moving, they might catch up. The Shadow was pushing them south. The Shadow seemed to have stopped and rested for the night. She wondered if the people had.

“Let’s go,” she said, grabbing his hand.

They moved off into the grasslands together, followed by a herd of white buffalo.

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