In the Dark, Continued (Week 2 winner)
Darkness thick enough to feel filled the world for as far as she could see. She knew, she remembered, that there were trees lining the rough road but she couldn’t find even hints of them when she squinted. Her only hope of orienting herself now was for a car to drive by, and that was almost as likely as the sun deciding to rise four hours early. She lifted her arm to check her watch and laughed at herself for forgetting how impossible even the simple act of checking the time was in the nowhere she’d found herself.
Keeping herself facing the same direction had become deeply important. It had been over an hour, she was almost sure, since she’d found herself in the midst of the darkness. She could feel the rocks under her feet, and she could smell the sea even if it was shrouded by the darkness. Alternating between squatting and standing was all the movement she’d allowed herself for fear of losing herself while she waited for something to happen.
She’d maintained an almost constant internal monologue, talking herself into a state of relative calm. Everything would be fine was a phrase she’d uttered too many times to count, and those were interspersed with plans for the future and regrets from the past. The past. For as little time as she’d spent out there she’d managed to revisit a remarkable number of missed opportunities. The people she hadn’t reached out to, the steps she hadn’t taken – all of them had played a part in her ending up in the pitch black situation she found herself in, and she knew it.
Without a change in the intensity of the darkness, the world around her was starting to reawaken. She could feel the subtle shift in the air, the movement of creatures she couldn’t see, and the slow increase in temperature. She waited, straining her eyes to find some hint of light coming from somewhere. The light, she told herself, had to come. She didn’t know if it would come from in front of her, behind her, or on her right or left. She hadn’t thought to track the sun before the light disappeared. Why would she have?
She bent her knees, lowering herself until her palms touched the ground. The sharpness of the gravel against the smoothness of her skin was comforting. It felt real. More real than the darkness, and that was enough to keep her looking for the missing sun. She shook her head and banished the idea that the sun, the ever-present sun, could be missing. This, she told herself, was just night. Night was real and normal, just like the gravel she felt her fingers closing around. Night happened and was inevitably followed by day, she just needed to stay calm and be patient.
The wind started to pick up and grew strong enough to lift her hair off the back of her neck. Her skirt moved, too, and she closed her eyes in thanks.
It was the crunch of tires on the road that made her heart race. The first tendrils of light were starting, just enough for her to begin to discern the presence of shadows. She turned her head towards the sound but stayed down in her crouched position, just in case. The car or truck or whatever was driving towards her was going so slow, too slow. She strained against the dark and was just able to make out the edges of the vehicle. There was slight contrast where the headlights should be but not enough to make sense. They should have been bright beacons cutting through the darkness and illuminating everything in their path. Instead, it was just a slight difference in the quality of the darkness that told her they were there. She felt her heart beat faster, harder as she tried to make sense of it all.
The shadowed vehicle stopped before it reached her. She heard a door open with a reluctant creak, heard the shift of the vehicle as someone emerged, jumped at the snap of the door as it was pushed closed. From her position close to the ground she could smell the gas fumes, the stale smoke from inside the car, and something else emanating from the disturbed gravel. The vehicle was close enough to block some of the wind and she missed the breeze. Each step the person took seemed to reverberate through her body, making the hair on the back of her neck stand up for a different reason.
Leather, denim, cigarettes, and sweat – the smells commingled in her nose as the person approached. She squinted, trying to see more than the barest of shadow where the person started and stopped. Her muscles tensed as she realized they were crouching down across from her, putting themself on her level in front of the would-be headlights. She heard their labored breathing and was thinking about who they might be when they spoke.
“My name is Xiana, and I’m here to help.”
The person’s voice was smooth and warm. She felt like their short introduction was like a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The hairs on her neck laid back down and her muscles relaxed. The sun would come or it wouldn’t. She would be ok.
“You’re here to help? To help me?” Her voice sounded painfully loud in her head. Loud and not quite right. She wondered if it had been that long since she’d spoken, and then realized that yes, it had been. How long had she been out there?
“Yes, to help you. Do you think you can stand up?”
She brushed off the question as nonsense. She’d been standing. Standing, walking, running – she was only crouched down to keep her bearings until the sun returned. “Of course.” Her voice still sounded wrong. “I’m just waiting for the sun.”
She felt the person pull back and felt their scent change. The other scents were still there but were now joined by a tangy spike of fear.
“I’m not sure what you mean. Waiting for the sun to do what?”
“Arrive. It’s too dark to stand.”
Silence fell between them and she was aware of the extra charge in the quiet. She didn’t know what the person was afraid of. Was it her, or the coming of the sun, or something else entirely. Her heart rate had slowed down once she heard Xiana’s voice but she could tell that Xiana’s had sped up once she started talking.
“How about you take my hand and let me help you stand up?”
Xiana stood up and she felt the wind about her again as a shadow of a hand appeared in front of her. Letting go of the ground didn’t feel safe but she remembered the blanket quality of Xiana’s voice and let the gravel go. She reached up to the shadow and put her hand where it seemed to stop. She felt Xiana’s hand wrap around hers and was startled by how warm it was. With Xiana’s support, she straightened her legs and let go of the gravel in her other hand.
She turned her head from side to side, expecting to be able to find the sun. How long had it been since the shadows started? Long enough that the rest of the world should have begun to come into shape. Everywhere she looked seemed to be equally shrouded in shadow with no sign of a horizon line. She turned towards the shadow that was Xiana, holding onto the warmth her hand provided.
“Let me walk you to the car. You’ll be warmer inside.”
She felt the gravel through her thin-soled shoes as she let Xiana lead her to the car. The smell of gasoline intensified as she got closer and she waited for the groan of the car door. As she lowered herself down onto the seat she became aware of a new leather scent, different from the one that clinged to Xiana. The interior of the car was leather, as were Xiana’s boots, but of a different quality.
It wasn’t until she felt Xiana climb into the driver’s seat that she felt the panic rise in her chest again. The sun should have been there. Now, inside the car, there should have been lights. All she had to orient herself were smells and sensations and the barest glimpses of shadows.
There was a pregnant pause before Xiana replied, “keep breathing and everything will be fine.”
She gripped the fabric of her skirt in one hand and the arm rest in the other as she willed her heart to calm down and her breathing to go deep. Her first instinct was to go through her grounding exercise but as that started with “five things you can see” the thought of it only brought forth more terror.
Another pause, and then she felt Xiana’s hand cover hers. Feeling the armrest beneath her hand and Xiana’s warm skin on the top helped, at least a little.