The sky shred, raining the stars and their radiance upon the earth as a flurry of blurred light and ash. In their place, a being formed, erupting into light and consuming the surrounding darkness. Then it shrank again, frozen, infantile. It was light and dark fused as one, expanding and contracting, rising and falling.
Moving. Always moving.
The girl watched in both fascination and horror, convinced she could almost hear it breathing, but she wasn’t sure how. She was a speck of nothing, an onlooker poised at the edge of a shattered world. She felt the entity all around and inside her—always—like a shadow on the back of her eyes.
A voice ricocheted through the landscape, turning her in place. She hardly registered the molten sea ahead: colliding chunks of rock, spraying dust, mounds of malformed bodies—moving. Always moving.
“Nat? Can you hear me?”
The entity belted out a shriek and recoiled as if drawn into a vacuum. The girl spilled backward, nothing more than a trickle of light in a timeless stream. In a single breath, the catastrophic sight bled away and she found herself squinting into a mix of bright light and shadows, her eyes tight with crust.
“Her eyes are open. Can she hear us?”
“She’s been in and out like this for hours. We’re not sure yet.”
“Nat, can you squeeze my fingers?”
Fingers? Her body was foreign to her, nothing but weight holding her down, keeping her in. Caging her.
She closed and opened her eyes, rolled her head to one side and stared at her arm. Her eyes trailed a blurred path to the small hand clasping her fingers, then the girl that sat beside her—golden hair followed by cosmic blue eyes.
Not real. She blinked a few more times in an attempt to unscramble her surroundings. Not Nat, she tried to say, but all that escaped her chapped lips was a puff of air.
“She’s trying to talk!” the girl beside her said. “Can she have any water?”
A mottled shadow appeared at her side. “Ice. Just a piece.”
“Can I do it?”
“Sure, just don’t let her swallow it.”
Ice…? She blinked away the dregs of sleep in her eyes and flinched as she was readjusted into an upright position. She didn’t fight the cool press on her lips—in fact, she welcomed it.
“Nat!” The girl burst into tears and tugged her in. “You’re fucking awake, you bastard, fuck—”
“Jeez, Anya,” a deeper male voice laughed—a laugh of relief, even excitement. “Give her a sec’.”
Not Nat. The ice passed over her lower lip a second time. She tried to make sense of where she was, what she was, when she was. “Nn—”
“Oh my god,” Anya laugh-cried, squeezing her hand even harder. “Nat! You’re making noises with your mouth!” A small shriek of joy followed.
“Nn—” she tried a second time. “Not…Nat.”
“I don’t know. What did—”
“Not Nat,” she said through the melting ice. She squeezed her eyes shut a moment longer, searching for something—anything. She thought of the crumbling landscape she’d escaped, the morbid bodies, the sky that tore apart above her. “Sky.”
“Sky? Shane, what is she talking about?”
“Are you sure she’s awake?”
“She’s awake,” the third voice chimed in. “This is good. She’s talking. This is really good. Sweetie? Can you remember anything?”
Nothing, she realized as someone dabbed away the thread of water that escaped down her chin. She thought of the strange being, the lightless void. “Dark.”
“What?” Anya became more clear, her eyes sad and probing, her cheeks pale and her forehead creased.
“She said ‘dark’.” Shane, the man opposite her, leaned in closer, one of his thick eyebrow raised. His deep set eyes were warm and soft, offset by the rest of his more rugged qualities—dark, scruffy hair and a chiseled jawline.
“Keep talking to her,” the third voice said from across the room. “I’ll be back with Doctor Laine.” A door snapped shut, followed by echoing footfalls. Then it was quiet.
Quiet, she realized. Silence in wake of the nauseating sounds she’d endured for what felt like eternity, people in place of monsters. “Can see,” she said again. “Can still see them.”
“See who? Mom? Dad?”
“Baby, I don’t think she’s all the way awake yet,” Shane said.
Anya stifled a sob. “Nat!”
“Don’t cry, baby.” Shane stood, moving around the bed to comfort Anya and filling the white space with his height. “They said she might not talk again. She’s talking! She’s gonna be fine.”
Might not talk… What happened to me? she wondered as Anya held her hand to her cheek and cried. Her tears slid down her knuckles and arm—real. It was all real. She was real.
Sky, she remembered. It was all that felt right, the only thing she kept going back to in search of…home, she thought again with a grimace. “I’m…not Nat,” she said for the last time. “I’m Sky.”
“You’re doing fine, Sky.”
Sky scowled at Adam, her physical therapist, through gritted teeth, her arms stiff and painful, her white-knuckled hands wrapped around each pole at her side. He held onto her by a cloth belt around her waist while another therapist stabilized her wheelchair from behind. They’re helping you, she reminded herself. But she hated help. She hated needing it.
She was sweating. She was shaking. She was hurting. But they acted as though she’d won an award when she finished her steps, patting her on the arm and back and cheering for her.
“Look at you, you’ll be back to yourself in no time.”
Sky fell back into her chair with a labored breath, but said nothing. No time, she thought with a heated glance in Anya’s direction, who sat at the far end of the room in the waiting area, her legs crossed and a magazine in her lap. She met Sky’s gaze and smiled.
Sky didn’t know what it meant to be back to herself. She didn’t know who she was. What she was like. How she once interacted with the people around her. She felt alien, unsure how to communicate, worried what her facial expressions might convey. She felt increasingly out of place when she checked herself in the wall-length mirror: frail and hunched compared to those hovering around her—proud and tall. Like they had purpose.
Even the other patients seemed to bear hope in their eyes as they wobbled on thin legs with two to three people supporting them, as they swatted at balloons like kittens learning to play.
They had purpose.
Sky had nothing but a void inside.
“One more time, Sky.” Her wheelchair had been turned around again. The second physical therapist, a new one Sky hadn’t learned the name of, stood with his arms out and ready to accept her.
Sky grimaced. Standing was the hardest part.
“I can’t remember much,” Sky said again. The room was dark. She was sure they meant for it to be comforting, with her too-large love seat pushed to the wall, its cushions and pillows close to consuming her. Jade, or Doctor Williams, sat easily in the seat across from her, her auburn hair rolled up into a bun and her glasses hanging on by the end of her nose. The officer sat by herself with a wall of her own, her legs crossed and a notepad in her hands.
“Miss Orr, I just want to go over the events we know and see if you’re able to fill in any of the blanks. It might help in solving what happened.”
Sky dug her fists further into her hoodie’s pockets, her fingertips so cold she wasn’t sure if they were there anymore. It was always too cold in the office, and the coffee table with its single box of tissues did not help. “Okay,” she said.
The officer flipped to a page. Sky had just been introduced to her, and yet she couldn’t remember her name—names often flew through her skull faster than her brain could soak them up.
“Do you remember the prom?” the officer asked, pulling Sky from her stupor.
“I remember lights,” she answered. “Anya said I hated dancing but went anyway.”
“Okay,” the officer said. “Try to answer with what you can remember, as little as that may be.”
Sky drew in a heavy breath. Her cheeks tingled, warm in comparison to the rest of her. Why did they have to keep it so damn cold?
“Did you go with anyone?”
Sky shook her head. “Just Anya. And she went with Shane.” She didn’t personally remember going with anyone, but she trusted Anya when she said Sky went without a date.
“Do you remember anyone other than your sister? Anyone that might have disliked you or your family? Take as long as you need.”
Sky drew in another breath. If there was something in her shattered memories that could help explain what happened to her parents, she had to find it. She closed her eyes, gripped the insides of her pockets and visualized the strobing lights, the thudding speakers, the waves of bodies—moving, always moving.
She shook her head as though she could clear out the darkness, the void, the expanding and contracting thing. She wondered how long she’d been sitting there with her eyes screwed shut, sweating through her shirt despite feeling bloodless and cold. The dance, she tried again, but the nightmarish forms lurked behind, blending with whatever remnants of the night existed in her skull, forming a mouthless, inhuman face with endless portals for eyes.
An unintentional sound, a mix between a gasp and a whimper, broke her lips. “I can’t remember,” she said as her eyes sprang back open. She still saw the face somehow, wavering at the corners of her eyes. When she swept the room to look it head-on, it darted away. “I barely remember my family.”
A pen scratched in the absence of sound, grating on Sky’s ears. She felt nauseous, like she might bend at the waist and spill the contents of her gut right there on the carpet. She sucked in another breath of cold air and pressed her hands to her cheeks.
Jade finally spoke. “Sky, are you okay? Do you need a moment?”
Sky shook her head. She just wanted it to be over. It couldn’t last much longer. “I’m okay.”
“Do you remember going outside?” the officer progressed.
Sky curled her hands over her knees. She wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between going outside a building years ago and going outside the hospital days ago. Outside was outside. Dark was dark. Light was light.
“Do you remember the explosion?”
Explosion. Sky thought of the being—rising and falling, expanding and shrinking. “No.”
“Any sounds, any lights, any smells.”
“No,” Sky said again. “Nothing.”
“Your sister told us you were on the phone before you walked out. Do you have any memory of why—what made you call your parents?”
Sky shook her head.
“All right,” the officer said, followed by a sad sigh. She flipped her pad shut and turned to Jade. “Thank you Doctor Williams, and—” She faced Sky once more. “Sky, good luck with your recovery.”
Then she was out the door before Sky could dwell on how useless she really was.
“I can’t do it, Anya!” Sky’s pencil flew across the room, clattered with the wall and thudded to the carpet somewhere out of sight. She clenched her fist over the scribbled mess Anya had insisted looked like letters, ‘finally’, and worked her jaw. “I can’t fucking do it, okay? It looks like trash. I can’t even hold my hand still.”
Anya sighed. “It doesn’t look like trash. It looks like a little kid’s writing. Big difference.” She pushed off from her chair and wandered to the other end of the living room in search of the pencil, her white-blonde hair swaying behind her.
Sky’s heart sank. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, scraping her chair back.
“Just sit down.” Anya put her hands on her hips and turned to face her, her lower lip puffed out. “You’re mad. It’s okay that you’re mad, but you gotta give yourself time.” She bent down to fumble around under the coffee table. “You expect things to just—” Sky heard snapping fingers, then a thud like Anya had nailed her elbow on the table. “—happen! They don’t just happen, you have to keep trying.”
“I’ve been trying!” Sky argued, her palms aching where she slammed them down on the table. “How am I supposed to do anything if I can’t even write? Spell? How am I supposed to get a job?” Her face was on fire, her clothes stifling, her jaw tight in fury—not at Anya, but herself. “I’m fucking useless.”
Anya pushed to her feet, Sky’s pencil in one hand and the other cupped over her elbow. “You’re not useless. Don’t say that.”
Sky tucked her knees in and plucked at her loose pajama pants, her lower lip sucked between her teeth. There was nothing left inside her, nothing but a wall of fog in her head and a growing pain in her chest. She was an empty husk devoid of thought or feeling, devoid of anything.
When she looked back up, Anya tossed herself back down in her chair, her eyes hard. “You hear me? Don’t say that.”
Sky didn’t say anything. She went on chewing at her lower lip, her eyes welled up with tears. “I’m not—” She swallowed back the knot in her throat. “I’m not supposed to be here anymore,” she blurted out before Anya could interrupt. “I got lost somewhere out there,” she tried to explain, gesturing at the window as if it were responsible, “and came back when I shouldn’t ha—”
“Stop,” Anya said, her voice as hard as her eyes. “Don’t you dare say that. Don’t you dare say that you shouldn’t be here.” She jabbed Sky in the chest, and when Sky refused to meet her gaze, she tugged at her shirt. “Whatever force you think you saw out there obviously meant for you to come back and—” Sky’s heart clenched at the unexpected sob that burst from her sister. “—and I’m glad you are, no matter how stubborn you get or how many pencils you fling around. I’m glad you’re here, and that’s never gonna change, you hear me?”
Sky ran her fingernails, chewed too short, over the table’s grain. She couldn’t meet Anya’s eyes, couldn’t deal with the way her cheeks puffed up and reddened, the way her tears brought out the bright blue of her eyes, a blue her own eyes seemed to have lost from the old pictures Anya shared with her. She’d lost everything: herself, her parents, her—
She glanced back up to meet Anya’s gaze, her own lower lip trembling with the threat of another unwanted outburst. She hadn’t lost her sister. And her sister didn’t want to lose her.
“I’m sorry,” Sky said again. Her finger found a swirl in the table’s grain and moved over and over it again. “I just get so mad.”
Anya’s eyes softened. “It’s okay. I’m trying too, okay? You probably have all this stuff locked up there somewhere—” She knocked on Sky’s head. “—and one day it might just pop back up and you’ll laugh about it.”
“I know you said you didn’t want to, but there’s people who can—”
“No.” Sky shook her head. “I’m sick of doctors.”
Anya’s lower lip puckered out again.
Sky smiled at it. “You look like a fish.”
Anya laughed and threw the pencil at her. “Shut up and write your name again. You’re lucky it’s only three letters now.”
A thin sliver of sunlight made its way through the half-moon window at the end of Sky’s room. It slid over her dresser, flicked up the edge of her mirror and bore a white dot on her eyes. She remained motionless where she stood before her reflection, clenching her jaw and pulling at the inside of her lower lip with her teeth. She felt outside of her body, detached from everything around her, faraway and unreal.
She furrowed her brow and focused on her own hollow gaze. Her eyes were blue, but blank, she decided with a grimace. The longer she looked on them, the more color seemed to slip away from her irises.
A sharp tapping distracted her from them, from the mirror, from her silence. “Sky,” Anya called from the other side of the door.
Sky lowered her eyes, released a puff of air and pressed her palms to the mirror. She ran her fingers over its surface, ignoring her sister and instead focusing on the perspiration forming around her hands. It reminded her she was still alive, that there was something inside her, making her body work.
“Nataaaaasha!” her sister interrupted her trance a second time, voice accompanied by another quick series of taps.
Sky glowered. “Dammit Anya, stop calling me that.” The sound of her own voice startled her. She’d almost forgotten she had one.
“Then get your ass up and eat some of these pancakes with me. I made too many.”
Sky stifled a derisive laugh. She thinks I’ve been sleeping. Sky wished she’d been sleeping. She wished she hadn’t spent most of the night tossing from side to side, gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut in an attempt to blacken her mind, to dull the sharp stab that ran the length of her spine, to silence the grating hum that took over whenever the world fell still around her. Even her bedside radio hadn’t been enough to hush the sound; it had been ravenous and unending, on the verge of deafening.
It was getting worse.
“Pancakes,” she sighed. She shoved at the mirror and turned to collect her work clothes.
“Yes,” Anya muffled through the door. “Pancakes. Hurry up before they get all cold and nasty.” She thudded down the hall.
Sky pulled her shirt on and made a face at the mirror. Pancakes, she mouthed. It was hard to envision something as ordinary as a plate of syrup-glazed pancakes after the nightmarish, mouthless form that populated her half-sleep. Too ordinary, like the wooden name tag she pinned to her shirt. None of it ever seemed real.
Maybe it isn’t. She fixed her reflection with tired, darkened eyes. They weren’t hers. They’d never been.
As though on cue, their blue thinned and vanished. Her eyes became vacant, grayscale orbs, shimmering with the threat of tears. She breathed on the glass, fogging them from view, and scribbled a small smiley-face into the condensation.
Maybe it isn’t.