It was hard to believe there was anything beyond the sand. And yet, there it was. As we stood on top of a mountain, we saw a sea of green. I think people in the past called it a forest. At least that’s what Ocie told me. I looked back. There could be no mistake – the sand wasteland was stretching farther than the eye could see. There was no end to it. Back on the other side, the green patch of forest was small and insignificant compared to the rest of the view below the horizon. The land seemed to end halfway there, with a gaping black void beyond the forest.
“That’s a pretty big hole,” I said to Ocie. She had been rummaging in her bag for some time now. She lifted up her head and took off her goggles. Her round eyes scanned through the area, tangled hair billowing in the wind.
“I told you about this, Aidan,” she murmured. Ocie was a records keeper, as I liked to call her. I had been left to die in an underground bunker, rejected by my own people as someone who could not fit into their new era, and she rescued me. Unlike the people in my bunker, she seemed to know everything about the times before the collapse. She saved me only because she wanted me saved. Ocie’s people reportedly lived beyond that precipice, deep in the darkness below the cliff. They sent out scouts to find abandoned people and take them in. I had always said I work best alone. But being stuck alone for days in the darkness, with only the bones of the slain, one even by my own hand, can change a person a lot. For me, Ocie had become a crutch of sorts. A companion I knew I could rely on, I knew I had to rely on. I wanted her to protect me and I wanted to protect her. I needed her to live, even if she didn’t need me.
“Yeah, you’re right. You told me people grew arrogant and scarred the Earth. She made it so that people of the surface would repent for their sins, and the land beneath the outer shell would be a safe haven. So the righteous ones would thrive, free of limitations, awaiting their rightful salvation.”
“I didn’t expect you to remember it word for word. I’m impressed,” she said without so much as looking at me.
“Well, I am a trained professional, you know.”
“At remembering fairy tales? Better take a look,” she pointed to a couple of irregular, mirror-like surfaces. “There’s some lakes and rivers there. Water. We need to refill our supply. That trip through the desert left me with fewer water than I expected.”
“Let’s get to it then.” The descent went pretty smoothly. The slope was gentle, which was to be expected – Ocie’s people had done escapades like this in the past numerous times.
And then we reached the ground. The forest was much more imposing up close than it looked from above. The trunks of the trees were black and thick, so tall that I had to cock my head up to see the top. The leaves covered the branches so densely that, even though it was around noon, the place was dark as night. I reached to my backpack and pulled out a bundle of glowsticks, then broke one. The greenish light didn’t do much to dissipate this darkness. These things work much better in tight hallways after all.
“Well that was pretty pointless,” Ocie muttered. “You could’ve let your eyes get used to the forest. Now you just wasted the thing, and you’ll need to wait longer to actually see anything.” She put her goggles back on. “You wait here, then. I’ll be right back, let me just grab some water. I know of a stream really close.”
“Hey, let me come, too.”
“You leave that thing behind, you’ll be all but blind for ten minutes. I don’t need you to slow me down. It’s safer this way.”
“Right. Hurry up, then.”
The trees seemed to form a tunnel in front of me, their trunks and branches twisted as if in desperate need to touch one another, effectively blocking out the sun. I gazed at the vermilion abyss, a scene so alien to my eyes, and yet so enticing. I heard something crack. I turned around – no one was there. I told myself I’d probably heard Ocie step on something in the distance. Then I heard someone humming. It was a male voice. A voice that sent shivers down my spine. A voice I knew. From deep within the abyss I saw a pair of mismatched eyes, shining ominously, becoming larger as they came closer to me. Eyes I knew. Eyes that I saw as I extinguished the lights out of them with one firm grip. Eyes that would not let go of me in my dreams. And yet I wasn’t dreaming, I was sure of that.
“Don’t come any closer,” I shouted at the eyes, but they wouldn’t listen. They were getting larger and larger, huge as basketballs, glaring at me, condemning me, wanting me dead. “No!” I shouted as I closed my eyes and covered my ears. I didn’t even notice when I started sobbing. When I opened my eyes, Ocie was with me, her arms around me. She was doing her best to soothe me. The eyes were gone, the voice was gone. Even though it was probably never really there, it was all too real for me.
I don’t think I can ever get away from that.