Description: Maria awakes to find herself not in her bed, but in another world, a frustratingly perplexing world.
Waking up can be a real nightmare when dreams are better than reality.
Slowly and reluctantly, a young woman is roused from her sleep by a cool, gentle breeze. She blinks her light blue eyes open, closes them, and blinks again. The brilliant, orange rays of the setting sun are blinding, so she quickly shields her eyes, rubbing her knuckles across them, wiping the sleep from the corners.
Who am I again? There is a fleeting moment of panic. Where there should be memories is a blank space. Oh, that’s right…
“Maria,” she groggily murmurs under her breath.
With the utterance of her name, recollection of the past comes flooding back. Mmm… It’s summer vacation.
With so little time on their side, Maria and some friends decided to go on a road trip together as their last hurrah before going their separate ways in college. They drove for four hours to see some magnificent white, sandy beaches and clear blue waters and are now staying at a friend's beach house. I must have fallen asleep on the hammock again.
Without opening her eyes, Maria’s face softens as she relives their adventures. Let’s see. We’ve gone snorkeling and swimming, we kayaked, we took a surfing lesson, then at night we went shopping in the city, we fine dined at lavish restaurants, and then we went… home?
I’m already home? Oh, right… I start school in a week. The resounding memory of the impending stress of starting all over again in college and the terror of taking charge of her own life suddenly replace the memories of fun and relaxation. It went by so fast.
But one thing she does look forward to is what college has in store for her romantically. Fingers crossed that love blossoms like the romances depicted, time and time again, in some of her favorite college romance novels.
For example, my roommate and I will be walking down the hall back over to a group of friends, when suddenly someone will call out my name. 'Maria, Wait up!' I’ll turn around and it will be love at first sight, even though I will have no idea who he is. Who would’ve thought this handsome stranger knew my name. And then—
With a heavy groan, Maria begrudgingly presses herself up onto her elbows, then drags her feet off the edge and onto the ground.
“Ouch,” Maria hisses in pain as sharp pain courses through her back.
Maria stretches her arms above her head and yawns, then looks down at the ground beneath her feet. Concrete? But I’m not on vacation anymore, so why would I be sleeping outside?
Maria’s eyes rest on the building across the street from her and she starts to read the sign above the entrance. Starbu— Her lids, drooping heavy with sleep, snap open violently at the realization that she isn’t just outside, she is lying out in the open on a city bench. Am I… in a city? I don’t remember coming here.
“What the f…” Maria trails off as she looks around her, overwhelmed by her bizarre circumstances.
Maria’s eyes briefly dart around the eerily empty street, then down at her figure. Leaves, grass, and some caked on dirt adorn her unruly and wrinkled clothes. Small cuts and bruises decorate her bare arms and legs, but there is no serious injury as far as she can tell. As she wipes off some of the dirt from her clothes and body, she looks down at her dirty, blistered hand and watches as it apprehensively shakes.
What happened to me? How did I get here? Just trying to imagine what might have occurred the night before makes Maria’s breathing rapid and shallow. Her pulse pounds in her temples and tears well up in her eyes.
No, I’m ok. I just need to remember what happened. Maria wipes away the one stray tear racing down her cheek, breathes out heavily through her nose, and shakes away her uneasiness. While recounting her most recent activities, Maria extends a finger respectively. I graduated high school, lazed about for two months, went on vacation with friends, came home, and then… nothing. I only had a week left before school and I don’t remember planning any other vacations.
Looking around once again Maria tries to calmly assess her surroundings. I do live in Illinois, so this is probably Chicago, right? Maybe, I’m on an impromptu trip with my family…
It’s a nice thought, but the city Maria now finds herself in has an eerie abandoned feeling to it, like a ghost town. The vast city of Chicago is normally bustling with noisy streets and alleys, but now it’s silent. Looking down the street, she takes note of the luxury boutiques, department stores, and multi-story mega malls all in one stretch. Spotted in between the bougie, retail facades lay a multitude of restaurants and hotels and of course the obligatory coffee shops on every block. Ok, so this might be the Magnificent Mile...
But the sun hasn’t even set yet, so where are all the people? There are no people aimlessly milling around and no impatient businessmen and women who have to get to the train before it leaves the station. There aren’t even the usual foreigners and tourists waiting at the crosswalks, deafeningly chatting as they go, jumping in and out of every tourist trap. The stillness that surrounds the city is palpable.
Taking a closer look at the smooth grey building exteriors, Maria notices that some windows are broken, buildings are in a bit of disrepair, and bits of trash and debris are strewn about the street amidst the growing vegetation. The damage isn’t conspicuous, but detectable. Chicago, if this is Chicago, looks like it has been abandoned for quite some time.
Something’s really wrong here. Maria, in despair, sits numbly on the city bench with no strength to move. Her shaky fingers run restlessly through her now tousled hair. She bites down on her lip trying not to burst into tears. Crying isn’t going to help me now. I need to stay calm and—
The towering walls of steel and the encroaching evening are quiet enough to hear the birds sing their carefree song, ignorant of Maria’s growing anxiety. Long strands of wavy blonde hair fall across her face, as she drops her hands to her lap. She sits motionless, unaware of the time that is passing, just staring squarely down at the ground. A few tears drop onto her bare legs and the muscles of her chin begin to tremble. This can’t be real. This has to be… a dream.
“That’s it! This has to be a dream,” Maria dubiously whispers to herself. A very lucid dream…
With this somewhat pacifying thought, Maria’s troubled emotions become walled off behind a mask of coping. With a few deep breaths, she blinks away the tears and tucks the stray strands of hair behind her ear. Regardless, this dream is off to a bad start. Or maybe this is actually a post apocalyptic romance and I’m supposed to meet my future husband here.
A global pandemic has turned people into vampires, or zombies, or mutants. But I am mysteriously immune. As for my future husband, the man of my dreams, he is slowly transforming into… one of those things, but I am the cure. Inside my blood is the antidote that will change him back. However, there are forces out there that are trying to get my blood for themselves, so together he and I will run away and— Maria chuckles to herself. As if.
Then with a heavy sigh and shaking knees, she stands. She brushes some of the loose dirt off her clothes and reaches into her pockets hoping to find something of value but she finds nothing, not even a wallet. Only little flakes of lint.
“Or maybe I was kidnapped, robbed, then abandoned on a city bench,” Maria disappointedly whispers to herself. That seems a little more plausible.
There is no way to know which direction to go, so Maria stumbles forward, heading into what she believes to be downtown Chicago. She walks along the rough concrete streets that already cause her feet to ache, walking unusually slow, as her brain struggles to tell each foot to take the next step.
A gust of dry wind winds through the maze of skyscrapers as Maria travels deeper into the concrete jungle. The cold wind strokes her skin, making her shiver. It’s not called the windy city for nothing. The wind continues to sound its mighty roar, followed by a blanket of silence.
After taking a long, deep breath, Maria disrupts the overwhelming stillness, “Hello!? Is anyone here?”
Maria’s voice echoes throughout the street, but no response bounces back. Unsurprisingly though, since the street’s only inhabitants seem to be the occasional rodent and avian wildlife that wander about. Still, not a single person is in sight.
Maria looks through store windows and enters the occasional building. She even tries to use some of the working landlines, but none of them will connect through, either saying that the caller is not available or that the number is out of service.
What about the cars? Someone had to drive them here. Maria takes a few steps toward one of the nearby cars and her eyes flick over to the untinted driver’s window. Pressing her nose up against the glass, she scans the interior. The car is cluttered with fast food packaging, candy wrappers, loose clothes, and some electronics. Maybe there are keys inside.
Maria glances up and down the street and casually paces back and forth along the driver’s side of the car. It’s not really stealing if there’s nobody to miss the car… Her hand runs along the car’s exterior until it lands on the handle. She nervously exhales as she wraps her fingers beneath the cool, metal handle. Squeezing her eyes shut, she gives it a quick, forceful tug, but her fingers simply slip off. And the door remains securely closed.
“Dammit,” Maria curses in exasperation.
Maria looks down the street shoulder, a river of abandoned cars, parked nose to tail, waiting for owners that may never come. All of the unoccupied cars sit redundant on the side of the street, beckoning her to drive them away. I’ll try another. One of them has to be unlocked. Once again motivated, she weaves in between car after car, conspicuously jiggling the handles, hoping that one will open. She continues her fruitless endeavor for several minutes, until one door gives way, swinging ajar on its hinges. Her footsteps come to an abrupt halt and her grief and aggravation are momentarily suspended.
“Finally!” Maria excitedly shouts.
Maria lowers herself into the car, one knee leaning against the driver’s seat. She rummages around, front and back, looking for a wallet, keys, identification, anything of use. Anything! But there is nothing to be found. She slumps back in the seat, leaning her head against the headrest, gliding her hands over the wheel. Gazing straight ahead, only half-aware of the world outside, she lets out a heavy sigh. This was pointless.
In anger, she curls her hands into fists and beats against the steering wheel, fitfully honking the horn.
“I want… to go… home.” Maria yells apace with the blaring horn.
Her laboriously chest rises and falls, as she tries to calm herself. With each tense breath, she forces herself not to hyperventilate on the stagnant air, but the walls of the congested car close around her and claustrophobia sets in. Needing fresh air, she steps out of the car and slams the door behind her.
Maria pauses engrossed by the disconcerting silence of one of the country’s largest cities. Now what? She leans her back against the cold tiles of a building’s facade, now lost between the maze of high rise walls. Her hands trace along the edges of the cracked bricks as her mind reels. This isn’t turning into the dream I imagined.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Maria mutters under her breath. “Where is everyone? And why am I here?”
Maria squeezes her eyes shut in frustration as the ring of silence grows louder with each passing second. Her stomach fills with butterflies and her head buzzes with possibilities as her mind wanders lost in thought. Was there actually a pandemic? Did the rapture happen to pass on through? Did aliens come to earth and abduct everyone, except me? What the hell…
Maria’s eyes flicker up to the sky, albeit obscured by the buildings in front of her. Regardless, the windows of the skyscraper clearly reflect the panorama of the quickly setting sun. Or… is this my purgatory and I’m actually dead? Her mouth forms a rigid grimace at the disconcerting thought. How cliché…
Then without warning her stomach snarls and with it comes an undertone of pain. No, just hungry. Amidst the whirlwind of emotions, she neglected to realize how hungry she was. Hungry, thirsty, and tired.
Maria treks down the street, her shoes slapping against the pavement, as she looks for some kind of refuge. Turning a corner, she spots a tiny cafe that looks incredibly inviting, huddled amongst the huge city buildings. Its rust colored bricks glow vibrantly in the final golden rays of the day. Her stomach growls again and before she knows it her feet draw her closer and closer to the building, body and mind both on autopilot.
“I want a hot cup of coffee and a roast beef open-face sandwich,” Maria wishfully thinks aloud as her mouth salivates in eager anticipation of food.
Maria pushes the glass door open and the bell above chimes. Despite the alluring exterior, the air inside is different. This is sketchy. She takes a step beyond the threshold, and the light of the setting sun is quickly replaced by the shadows that cast the walls grey. Her footsteps echo throughout the empty building as she makes her way toward the glass-fronted counter. The closer she gets the more her senses are overwhelmed. Not by the aroma of fresh baked goods but the smell of something rotting. Please, don’t let there be a dead body somewhere in here.
Laid across the counter is an array of cold, mold covered sandwiches, snacks, and baked goods. Amidst the decomposing provisions, Maria grabs one of the packaged sandwiches. She rips off the packaging and turns it over, looking for discoloration, she then brings the cold bread to her nose and inhales, and finally, with a gentle squeeze, she crunches the bread between her fingers.
Maria’s stomach lurches in disgust. This really isn’t the time to be picky. Compared to the other assorted foods it seems the most edible and her mouth waters at the prospect. But the stale, greyish quality of the food makes it too nauseating to even consider eating.
Maria’s eyes flick around behind the counter until they land on a small basket full of chip bags. Hmm… Those will do. She reaches in for several bags and walks over to a table with spoils in hand. She pops one yellow chip at a time into her mouth, savoring the salty flavor that rolls across her tongue. Her lips curl upward in a smile as she enthusiastically crunches each chip until they’re all gone.
With her stomach now somewhat satiated, Maria walks over to the restroom before leaving. The door swings open and she jumps as the light clicks and flickers on. The lights work? They didn’t before... or did they? In between the intermittent bursts of artificial white light, she looks around the small, single person restroom. The room can be described as somewhat dilapidated and it has a musty smell, but it’s tolerable. I’ll just hover.
The toilet flushes behind Maria as she walks toward the sink. She turns the faucet handle and cool, fresh water sputters out until it becomes a steady stream. Cupping her hands, she catches the water and brings it to her lips, swallowing gulps at a time to quench her dry throat. The water works too... So, someone has to be running the utilities. Normally, the main characters don’t have such luxuries in an apocalyptic or dystopian story
“I guess, I’m just lucky,” Maria says in a sarcastic tone.
Maria looks at herself in the mirror, but the mirror is grimy and shattered and she can barely see her reflection between the cracks and splotches. Swiping her wet hand across the dirty surface only manages to smudge it and she nearly cuts her hand on one of the exposed shards.
“This must be a metaphor...” Maria grumbles to herself.
Maria lightly taps her cheeks to keep herself awake and alert, then turns to exit the restroom. As she walks back out into the cafe, she finds that the copper hues of the setting sun have given way to a dusty purple skyline and the street lights are flickering on. More time has passed than she realized.
“Seriously? What have I been doing this entire time?” Maria huffs in frustration.
As the remaining natural light dwindles away Maria grows paranoid while trekking deeper into the concrete jungle in search of refuge. Walking beneath the light of an overhead street light, her attention is drawn to a briskly walking figure out of the corner of her eye. She nearly jumps out of her skin and abruptly stops mid-stride. But it is just her reflection in a store window.
Geez. I got scared by my own reflection. Maria sighs in relief and leans in close to inspect the welcome distraction. She looks deep into her bloodshot eyes defined by heavy bags just beneath. And her once stunning golden waves now vaguely resemble a birds nest. Although, it is pretty frightening.
“I look like a zombie” Maria scoffs, as she caresses the side of her face.
Long loose hair was once Maria’s pride and joy, falling in mesmerizing waves, but now they are just a bother. She sullenly pulls her hair back in sweeping motions, revealing a bruise just above her right temple. She reaches up and touches the swollen bump atop her head. I guess that explains the memory loss.
Maria’s eyes dance across her reflection, in hopes that she will be further enlightened, but suddenly her focus centers inside the building. And just for a moment, she sees an odd looking creature staring back at her.
“Wh—!” Maria shouts as she takes a few involuntary steps back.
Maria’s eyes fling so wide each iris is a perfect orb and her face washes blank with confusion. She blinks her eyes in rapid succession and with a nervous chuckle, she reassures herself that it was only an animal. A human shaped animal...
But just to be sure, Maria looks again. She presses her hands up against the window, forming a binocular shape around her eyes. Slowly moving left to right her eyes scan the room, but the silhouetted figure is gone.
“I’m seeing things,” Maria sighs as a relieved sigh slowly escapes her lips.
Maria wipes the glossy shine of sweat off her forehead, as her brain works to explain what had just happened. I’m just tired, that’s all. I need to find a nice hotel with a soft bed, and after a night’s rest, everything will be better. She steels herself to keep moving, but her hair is now standing on end.
Maria’s emotional state starts to spiral even more as the once purple sky transforms into a vast expanse of jet-black. The long shadows of the evening have since dissolved into the darkness of night, and her imagination now runs rampant. Hiding in the shadows that lurk just beyond her range of vision, in every corner inside this concrete labyrinth, are huge and grotesque beasts with matted hair, gaping mouths full of teeth, and huge twisting horns protruding upward into the midnight sky. This is it. I’m going to die here, like a horror story cliche.
Maria comes to an abrupt standstill as clatters and clangs followed by a rush of footfalls resound from the alleyway. The cryptic noises engulf her, rendering any logical thought impossible. She stares into the depths of the seemingly endless alleyway, eyes wide open, waiting for the monster creeping under the blanket of nightfall to pounce. But as several breathless moments pass, her eyes slowly adjust to the darkness. And what was once the daunting silhouette of a beast now resolves itself in the form of a rat foraging for food amongst the debris. She sighs in relief and lightly chuckles at the absurdity of her imagination. How sad, Maria. Would you please get it together already?
Suddenly a flicker of light, hanging low to the ground, suddenly rips Maria’s attention away from the rat. Behind the alleyway garbage cans are two reflective eyes, watching her from the obscurity of twilight. The animal’s physique is hardly discernible in the shadowy gloom, but even in the cover of darkness, she can see that the skulking animal is disfigured in appearance. It does not look like the rat before her, nor a cat, nor a dog.
Then, with one tentative step, the animal creeps out into the dim, fading light of the street lamp. A thin and gaunt figure with a small lumpy bald head and greying skin reveals itself. What fur is there is wiry and thin, providing no protection from the elements at all. But most importantly, the gangly frame of this “animal” is proportionately human in nature. Especially the face. A Gollum reject if you will.
“No...” Maria whispers to herself as her insides quiver.
Her breath hitches in her throat and fear sits heavy on her heart as she turns to walk away as fast as she can. That was not an animal. It looked… human. Maria lets out a shaky sigh.
“What was that?” Maria quietly asks of herself. A monster? A mutant? Maybe a hybrid?
After walking about half a block, lost in unnerved thought, Maria snaps back to reality finally noticing the sound of extra steps, not far behind her. She slows down to a stop, gripping her chest tightly afraid to look back. Moments pass and aside from the sound of her own noisy breath, there is nothing to be heard. Is there something there or is it just my imagination? There’s a crunch of gravel behind her. The defined, short crunch of a footstep.
Maria’s eyes drop to the gravel beneath her feet, a chill runs down her spine, and she fights the urge to scream. She is afraid of what might happen to her if another sound leaves her lips. This is how she is to remain, silent. Is that thing from the alley following me?
She can hear someone panting, but they do not speak. Or maybe it’s some creep… There comes another crunch, this time lighter and slower as if the maker of the noise is trying to be quieter. This can’t be real! This is just a nightmare, and any second now I will jolt out of bed.
Maria closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths trying to pacify her rapidly beating heart before she wakes up. Any second now…
Another, even louder, footstep echoes throughout the deserted street, the maker of the sound no longer trying to be furtive. This is bullshit! A wave of courage spontaneously washes through Maria. Her hands clench into fists and her face becomes a mask of defiance and surety. Then with a quick swivel, she twists around to face her stalker.
Maria raises her arms above her head and shouts, “Ahhh!”
What appears to be a dog rears onto its hind legs in surprise and then quickly turns to run away. It darts down an intersecting street and disappears behind a building’s edge. Wait, was that a real dog? Or— In the back of Maria’s mind, she knows that she should run away, but the temptation of curiosity is too hard to resist. She quickly pursues the dog at a distance. She looks around the quiet and derelict intersecting street, but the dog seems to have vanished like it was never there in the first place.
“Here doggie, doggie. Where did you go?” Maria cajoles.
Maria gently claps her hands and whistles in an attempt to coax the dog out, wherever it may be hiding. Soft noises emanate from inside one alleyway in particular, so she cautiously drifts closer. She hesitates at the entrance, unable to see in the darkness with no nearby street lamps to shed some light on the commotion. Correction, this is where I die like a horror story cliché.
Albeit wary that she is stepping into the unknown, Maria crosses the invisible threshold into the alleyway. As she inches further in, she finally sees a small figure rummaging through a pile of garbage. She tries to get a closer look at the animal, but as she nears, it’s pounced on by another larger animal.
In a flash of shock and dread, Maria frantically tries to back away only to trip and lose her balance. She falls back into several trash cans, landing on her rump and knocking garbage, broken glass, and rat droppings all around her. Her nose immediately wrinkles in disgust from the mess that now covers her head and shoulders and she hisses in pain through gritted teeth.
What… just happened? Maria swipes her tangled mess of hair out of her eyes, but then all of the color drains from her face. It’s as if her heart has suddenly stopped beating and all the blood has run down to her feet. Amidst the pain and danger of broken glass and vermin, her eyes land upon something far more unsettling.
Maria just stares, mouth agape, as the visage of a man stares back at her. He has a hefty, wrinkled face with a distinctive pushed-in nose and small beady, bloodshot eyes. His mouth hangs open full of drool and blood, after having dropped his present prey at the sight of Maria. And his face sits cocked at an angle on shoulders that are crooked and hunched.
With tears forming in her eyes, Maria looks beyond the human face, her gaze falling on the dog body attached to it. Dumbstruck, her mind is sent reeling, unable to comprehend or process the sight before her. Maria’s mind briefly flashes back to the animal with a human-like figure that she saw hiding behind the trash cans. What the hell are these things? How many are there?
The human-dog hybrid makes a low, gurgling moan and clicks his mandibles, immediately regaining her full attention. Her muscles fill with a tingling pressure to run, but she is frozen, drained of all hope of survival. All emotions replaced by a feeling of despair, hopelessness and most of all, fear.
The hybrid man takes a slow, calculated step forward, head lowered in the classic stalking pose. Maria gasps and pulls her legs closer to her chest, curling into the fetal position against the wall. The hybrid freezes with one foreleg raised. After a moment’s pause, the hybrid man resumes, taking one more slow step, eyes glued to his prey as he draws closer. Every step he takes rattles her bones and strikes her heart full of fear.
"This isn’t real. This isn’t happening,” Maria quietly cries between sobs.
Remaining still is certain death, and not a painless one. To the hybrid man, Maria is sure she is merely food. Just meat, blood, and bones. As if on cue, he snarls, baring large, bloody, razor sharp teeth. Teeth that will rip Maria limb from limb. Her blood will be splashed onto the walls and on the ground. And her limp, rag doll body will lay like a butchered animal in a pool of blood and waste.
It has been an hour tops since Maria awoke in this city and now her time here is coming to a bitter end. She shakily breathes in and tears fall unchecked. This… isn’t a dre—
“*****!” An intelligible voice yells from a distance.
The voice reverberates through the empty city like a thunderous clap. Maria’s eyes widen in surprise. Even the hybrid man’s ears perk up in acknowledgment of the sound, but his body remains laser focused on her. A spark of excitement runs up her spine. Was that a person?
“*****!” The intelligible voice yells again.
That’s a person! My knight in shining armor! In an instant, Maria comes back from her zombie state. Her imminent demise demands her to be brave and strong and her mind ceases its unproductive buzz. She glances around the ground beside her, trying to think her way out of this mess.
Maria’s dilated pupils scan for anything that can be used as a weapon. In this case, that weapon is a wine bottle. The bottle is little more than a dirty blunt object set amongst the trash and debris. It isn’t perfect, but given enough force behind it, it can get the job done.
Maria briefly glances at the bottle, then at the approaching hybrid. Knowing that his opportunity is slipping away, the hybrid man bursts into a rush and then a pounce.
“Stay away from me!” Maria screams in desperation, as she makes a quick lunge for the bottle and violently swings it, breaking the bottle across the hybrid man’s face.
Now roused from her stupor, Maria stumbles back onto her feet, eyes wide, legs trembling like jelly. She runs out of the alleyway, her senses overwhelmed by the open environment as they come back to life.
I’ll just get a head start now, but my future husband will appear from the shadows, having waited for the perfect moment to strike. He will be the classic storybook hero in height and build, able to pin the creep down to the ground without breaking a sweat. At first, the creep will try to move and fight back but then he will give up, utterly defeated. Letting go of the creep and getting up on his feet, my future husband will sternly shout, ‘Don’t ever touch this strong, beautiful woman again, or I will kill you!’ Then his large hand will wrap around mine, nearly engulfing it. With our fingers linked we will ru—
Maria jumps as a distant blood curdling howl emanates from the alleyway behind her. Her hair stands on end, knowing that the hybrid has recovered and is now in hot pursuit. Grabbing ahold of trash cans and debris, Maria throws them to the ground in hopes of hampering him, but the hybrid is undeterred. Despite his blended anatomy, he is an expert on all fours, accelerating toward any person foolish enough to be wandering in the city alone, at night.
“Please help! I’m being chased,” Maria bellows out between gasps of air as she desperately looks around the street for the person she heard moments before.
Maria’s breathing becomes haggard and her voice weakens as she grows tired. Her throat burns with each plea and her lungs cry out for mercy, but she can't stop. The hybrid man is on her heels. She can hear his heavy steps pounding the asphalt just behind her.
With each footfall, a jarring pain shoots through Maria’s legs as they falter and twitch, ready to give up. I can’t keep running like this. He’s going to catch up. She turns back to gauge the distance between her and the hybrid, but with one misstep, she trips and falls onto the pavement face first, stars bursting into vision.
A string of muted curses unfurls from Maria’s tongue, as pain surges through her head. With a shaky hand, she covers the wound, but a stream of blood still oozes through the spaces between her fingers. Horrified, she watches as thick droplets fall to the ground and pool. There’s so much blood. My blood.
Low, heavy breaths from behind quickly reclaim Maria’s attention. She looks back, knowing already that the hybrid man is waiting just behind her. His menacing eyes are a blazing reflective white, while the rest of his features remain indistinguishable in the dark. Why doesn’t he just kill me already? She watches as the hybrid man’s chest heaves, his stare fixated just beyond her. Her eyes follow his gaze down the street and land on a silhouetted figure just a couple blocks away.
Shock crosses Maria’s face and her jaw drops slightly, bottom lip trembling. I’m saved! Rooted to the spot and unable to rise to her feet, she quickly glances back at the hybrid man. His eyes flick back to her and he snarls, warning her to stay put. His head lowers close to the ground and one foot steps in front of the other, ready to pounce. Without another moment’s hesitation, the hybrid man charges. She hurries to shield herself from his impending attack by bracing her arms above her head.
“H-help!” Maria screams just as the hybrid man clamps his jaw onto her arm.
Deep wounds are ripped into the flesh of her lower left arm. The hybrid man’s jaw locks into place and he whips his head violently, left and right. Blood runs freely in thick scarlet rivers and the concrete below becomes enmeshed with raw pink flesh and spotted with blood. Pain spirals all across Maria’s body.
“Aaugh!” Maria shrieks in agony.
Maria tightens her free hand into a fist and slams it into the hybrid man’s jaw, repeatedly until he loosens his grip. His jaw slackens and she pulls her arm away. Then with a couple of ungraceful movements, she rises unsteadily to her feet, but the hybrid regains his composure and bites down onto her leg, jerking her back into his control.
“Argh!” Maria hisses through gritted teeth.
A sudden gush of pain jolts up Maria’s body. Her arms lose tension and her legs weaken as she drops to her stomach. With her one free leg, she frantically kicks the hybrid man. Then after a blunt crack, he releases her from his grip again, crimson leaking from both nostrils of his twisted nose.
“Hurry! Please!” Maria roars as she desperately drags herself away.
Unshakable, the hybrid man lunges toward Maria again, mouth wide open, ready to clamp down onto her crawling figure. But a loud pop startles Maria and from the hybrid man erupts an agonized yelp. Another pop rings out and the beast distances itself as a hooded stranger runs over to Maria’s side, gun pointed squarely in the direction of the hybrid.
“Back! Get back!” An effeminate voice bellows.
The hybrid man starts to hack up blood in between sharp gasps as he struggles to get enough air. His body twirls and jerks as he tries to steady himself, but he falls and hits the asphalt, sending a plume of dust and rock skyward. His eyes slowly blink shut and then with a pained groan, his chest falls, never to rise again.
It’s over. Maria closes her eyes in relief and draws in a lung full of the stagnant, iron filled air.
The world becomes a blur and every event from Maria’s day starts to replay in her mind as if on fast forward. Then finally the thoughts come to an abrupt stop. Her eyes feel heavier and heavier and her focus diminishes. As much as she wants to fall asleep, Maria is well aware that she isn’t out of danger just yet. A new character has emerged and she isn’t sure if they are a protagonist or antagonist. With half lidded eyes she looks over to them.
The stranger’s tense posture droops in slight relaxation, but they continue to scan the area just to be safe. Once satisfied that the danger has passed, the stranger finally takes a few steps back and wipes the sweat from their forehead. They audibly breathe in and out, each breath coming in small spurts, hot and nervous. The stranger focuses their attention on the gun that they are holding. They make sure it is still loaded and slip it into the holster latched to the waistband of their jeans, then turn their attention back to Maria.
“Hi there,” the stranger says as they take a few steps closer to Maria’s lying form.
Rubbing her tired eyes with the insides of her palms, Maria looks up at the stranger’s silhouette, illuminated by the street light behind them, and feels herself deflate like she was a balloon full of fear and anxiety that’s been lanced. You actually appeared… My hero. Her body numbs as the stranger approaches and she becomes overly conscious of her bloodstained clothes, battered body and unruly mess of hair. She can’t find her voice but tries to speak anyway.
“Um… I—” Maria’s sentence is cut short by a wave of pain shooting through her wounded leg.
Maria rolls to her side, curling into the fetal position while gently gripping her chewed up lower extremity. Without hesitation, the stranger kneels down next to Maria.
“Let me take a look,” the stranger says.
So assertive. Maria unfurls from her fetal position and sits up, allowing the stranger to get a better look. Her skin tingles in anticipation of being touched and examined. With a gentle grip, the stranger turns her leg from side to side as they look it over. From her right knee to her foot there is no more skin, only raw and weeping flesh in various shades of pink and red, but blood and dirt obscure most of the damage. The same can be said of her arm.
The stranger reaches for their shoulder but their hand whiffs over a vacant space. A few intelligible words are muttered under their breath before they rifle through their pockets instead. A blue handkerchief pops out of their jacket pocket and the stranger wraps it around Maria’s leg to delay the bleeding.
As the stranger ties off the ends and leans back to observe their work, Maria sheepishly bows her head. Her skin starts to prickle under the stranger’s gaze as their eyes roam across her figure. She silently inhales and exhales as her cheeks flush hot with embarrassment. Please say something, this is too embarrassing.
“Let’s see what we can do ‘bout that arm while we’re at it,” the stranger offers.
The stranger pats their pockets in search of something, but instead their hand lands on their knife and they unsheath the blade. Cutting into the jacket’s inner lining, the stranger rips off a rectangle of fabric and wraps it around Maria’s arm as well.
“Sorry, it’s the most I can do fer the moment,” the stranger apologetically whispers, “Left my backpack somewhere…”
Suddenly, the stranger brushes Maria’s hair back from her face and Maria's heart thumps so hard that it nearly leaps out of her chest.
“That’s a nasty bump ya got there. As soon as we get off the street, I’ll take a better look at yer wounds and we can get a bandage on yer head,” the stranger says matter of factly. “But fer now we hav’ta keep movin’.”
That’s it? Not quite the start of a whirlwind romance I was hoping for. The stranger stands back up and lowers their hand for Maria to grab ahold of.
“Here, lemme help ya,” the stranger offers.
Maria’s insides grow warm from excitement and her hand begins to shake in a way she can't control as she reaches up to grab ahold of the stranger’s outstretched hand. The stranger swings Maria up onto her feet as if she was nothing more than a ragdoll and places one comforting hand in the small of her back, discouraging her from falling back to the ground. Brave, resourceful, and strong. Check, check, and check.
“Where do we go?” Maira questions as she tries in vain to fix her hair and brush away the dirt on her clothes.
As the stranger glances about the street, Maria takes a brief moment to look the person over. The stranger isn’t much taller than her, if at all, and they are wearing a light brown jacket over a gray hoodie with a dirty pair of jeans and dirt stained gray tennis shoes. But unfortunately, in the nighttime darkness and covered by a hood, Maria can’t see their face. Who are you? Who is the man of my dreams? I want to know!
The stranger gestures behind them and says, “Behind us is a door leadin’ into a mall.”
Maria glances back at the mall that towers above them as a great monolith of white concrete and glass. Her eyes take in every detail. Everything is a unique combination of curves and geometric shapes. The windows stand taller than a person and wider than a semi, each housing a variety of artistically arranged artifacts on display, with their own theme and color coordination. And along the street are polished concrete paths, patios, and planters making up the glamorous surroundings leading up to the grand entrance of transparent doors.
“Let’s make our way over there,” the stranger suggests.
Slowly, taking one cautious, staggered step at a time, the two make their way back onto the sidewalk and to the building’s entrance. Maria tries to keep her eyes open but it becomes overwhelmingly difficult. The stranger grabs the mall’s door handle and pulls it open for Maria. What a gentleman.
“Why the mall?” Maria asks.
The stranger hums and haws as they enter, “It ain’t really the mall I’m interested in, rather the street on the other side. With yer injury, I figure it’s better to go through the buildin’ than walk out in the open on the streets.”
As they step deeper into the quiet mall interior, the tension of earlier fades and a calming sensation sweeps over Maria. The sound of her own heart beating and the rise and fall of her chest with each breath, lulls her into semi-consciousness. Her head becomes foggy and again her eyes drift closed. Then with one step backwards, she sways and starts to fall, no longer able to hold herself up. Alarmed, the stranger grips Maria’s waist firmly and helps lower her to the ground.
“Wh-what…” Maria whimpers as her vision fades.
“Yer alright, I got ya,” the stranger soothes, “Don’t push yourself anymore. I’ll get ya somewhere safe.”
Maria nods and leans her head against the stranger’s shoulder and buries her face into the soft hoodie fabric. The stranger’s soft chest rises and falls against Maria’s cheek and their breaths fall in unison. Maria’s fingers curl into the fabric of the stranger’s sleeve, just enough to reassure herself they were staying together in this strange place. This is heaven.
“I don’t want this to end… ” Maria whispers as her eyes slip closed and she drifts off to sleep.
Nov. 18, 2018, 10:53 p.m.
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