In my worst dreams, I am always being chased.
Usually, it is by a predator – a bear or a wolf or a jaguar. It foams at the mouth, snarling, but the sound it makes is more like a distorted version of my name. I am running through a savannah or down a mountainside or over the prairies at night, gasping for air. Even with every step I take at full tilt, it draws closer, and it never ends – for as long as I am asleep, I am running.
Now, I wish this were a dream.
I tear through the forest, underbrush snagging on my pant legs and tearing off the hems. The spindly hands of the trees reach out to rip holes into my t-shirt or drop blood-red leaves onto my head, like bad omens in my hair. The sky is fractured by the waving branches, a blue moon illuminating the hollow air around me in shades of indigo and deep azure.
Behind me, she comes like a predator. She makes no sound, but I can feel her presence like a fog swallowing me whole.
My breaths come in short, heaving gasps. I try to run faster but the forest thwarts me with every frantic stride I take. All around me are sword-sharp trees and needle-like bushes and no sign of another human who could see my desperate race and save me. There is no way out, and she draws ever closer.
I will not let her take control of me, I tell myself as sweat pours down my face and into my open mouth, my breath sawing out of my lungs. I will not let her break me.
Of course, it’s a lost cause, and I know it better than anyone, even as I say the words to myself. Because she has caught me every time, and every time I have fallen to her will.
I am hers, I have never been anything else.
Now, though I’m running as fast as I can, her hand catches my shoulder, dragging me to a stop. The air hums around us, and something like tears or maybe more like lonely stars shimmer on my eyelids. My body begins to tremble. Her nails turn to claws, embedded in my skin. I can smell her rancid breath when she leans forward to speak in my ear, but her voice is comforting, and perhaps that’s the worst part of all.
“Running from me?” She croons. “Aren’t I your only friend, darling? Aren’t I all you have?”
I scream as her claws dig so deep into my shoulder that black blood drips down my shirt, staining it the colour of the oppressive night sky. I drop to my knees, and she comes with me.
“You will learn to live with me,” she says. “I will not give you any other choice.”
With claws in my heart, she pushes me into the ground, and worms fill my mouth.
I emerge on the other side gasping, graveyard dirt sticking to every pore of my skin, and the first thing I notice is the sound. The silence, hanging heavy in the air. My ears buzz with it.
I look around at a world carved from marble – rolling white hills against a pale sky and a bleached sun hanging high above. Trees dot the landscape, as bare as bone, rising out of the skin of the earth. Here and there, I spot glimpses of darkness – the shadows from the trees painting the ground grey or the sight of a black leaf, rolling aimlessly on the breeze.
I walk forward, my steps soundless. In the distance, I see a town rise up, beckoning me forward, and something in me aches for someone to hold onto, to hear my voice, to tell me all is well and I am well, that the world will not be this stark forever. My own skin and clothes keep their colour, and I long for the rainbow of people in a monochromatic world.
Hours and days, months and years, decades and centuries seem to pass as I walk towards the town, and I can feel my body age with every step. My bones ache and my joints creak, a new language my body has created to express its discomfort. I can feel it in my mind, as well – can feel something weigh heavy in my skull, like an anchor dropped through my brain. I think my hair should be grey like a storm cloud, and maybe that would be fitting, but when I pull a strand forward, I find it remains as brown as the earth still clinging to me.
Now I am centuries old when I reach the town, and yet I have not aged a day. I step on the street, and my lips form a word – Hello?
The sound does not come. The silence roars in my ears. I open my mouth to speak, to scream, but it’s like hands are closing around my throat and I cannot utter a sound. I am silenced by invisible chains, and I think, Oh, this is what it feels like to be no one at all.
Still, my lips will not stop. They form word after word as I drop to my knees. Where is everyone? Why am I all alone in this place?
Oh, God, do I even exist?
Tears leak out of my eyes and onto the white cobblestone of the street, and at least this, I think, is something – clear water that runs down my face and pools on the road, reflecting snippets of myself up at me, and in this black-and-white place at least I have her – those blue eyes and brown hair and a face I recognize. I remember colour, even if the rest of the world has forgotten.
In the mirror of my tears, I see something hovering over my shoulder, a dark figure coming in and out of focus in the water. I spin around, and I see her.
Though her hood is pulled low to obscure her face, I recognize her; I would know her by presence alone. She’s followed me through every world, and every life. She is as familiar to me as my own face. Something builds inside me, like a scream that cannot be released.
Still, I am drawn to her. How could I not be? She is a rainbow in a colourless world. She is a person in a place void of life.
She is all I have.
A cruel smile tilts her lips, and under her hood all I can see is her eyes, flashing. She reaches out and takes my hand.
There were people here, she says in my head, and I recoil at her voice, but she holds fast to my arm. They left when they saw you coming. How does it feel, to be deserted?
Can’t you see I am the only one who wants you?
I pull away from her, tearing my hands through my hair. I want to tell her I don’t believe her, that I don’t want her, but here I am mute.
Here I am nothing, and no one.
Her smile contorts into a snarl, and she grabs my chin, yanking me towards her. Black gore oozes from between her teeth.
Look at what I can do to you, she snarls into my head.
I watch in silent – silenced – horror as she drags the colour and mobility from my skin, leaving me an alabaster statue, just as lifeless and bleak as the rest of the world. I open my mouth to scream but no sound comes out.
Her smile is feral.
Look at you, she says. You aren’t anybody at all. You’re not even human anymore.
I can feel tears prick my eyes but I am trapped in this form, with my head tilted back towards the stark sky and my mouth hanging open in that silent scream. My eyelids still flutter, so I squeeze them shut – the only rebellion I can make.
When I open them again, I am in a room with no doorway, its windows looking out at the planets, orbiting the sun. The rings of Saturn duplicate in the glass.
I lay down on the bed, the comforter already rustled, and stare up at the sunlight dappling the ceiling, lighting all the stucco ablaze. I ignore the girl in the corner of the room, filing her nails into points with her feet propped up on the messy desk in front of her.
“What a nice room,” she says, tilting her head back to take in the shelves on the walls, filled with a kaleidoscope of books, or the clothes strewn haphazardly on the floor, or the vinyl record spinning on the player beside her, filling the room with static. Her gaze comes back to me, lying on the twin bed.
“Do you think it’s enough room for both of us?” She asks.
I grind my teeth together, standing up to look out the window again. The sun, hugged by Mercury, blinds me.
No, I want to say emphatically. No, there’s not enough room in the universe for the both of us.
Instead, I keep my mouth shut. I watch moons tango around Jupiter, asteroids caressing the side of my room, stars twinkling in a different galaxy, and though they’re beautiful, I can’t help but wonder if they feel lonely, blazing so far away.
In the distance I can see Earth, softly rotating, and I imagine a pod of whales swimming together in the ocean, or a cacophony of bugs swarming in the jungle. I imagine tilting my head up to the sky in New York City, people jostling me from all sides, and forgetting, for a moment, what it feels like to be alone.
There has to be someone else out there for me, I tell myself. There has to be someone.
It can’t just be her.
Behind me, I can hear her rise to her feet, the long cloak she wears swishing around her ankles as she approaches, and my body tenses, but more overwhelmingly, something else weighs me down – an excruciating, undeniable exhaustion that threatens to bury me alive. I am tired of fighting her, all of my wretched life.
She stops behind me. I can see her reflection in the glass; can see as she slowly lowers the hood of her cloak.
Blue eyes streaked with black look back at me, brown hair gnarled around her head. A face I should recognize, but it’s different, somehow – with black blood pulsing in her temples and her skin fracturing along her jawline, like a desert pulling itself apart in the absence of rain.
She is the other, awful half of me.
“Come on,” she says, and her voice is like a purr. I bristle. “You don’t want to run from me anymore, do you? You know I’ll always find you, anywhere you go.”
I turn on her with my mouth contorted into a scowl. Her shadowed eyes narrow.
“I am done with this,” I snap. “I refuse to live like this any longer.”
She bares her teeth like the wild animal she is. “You can’t be rid of me.”
I grab the front of her cloak, pulling her towards me, and this time I don’t flinch when her claws dig into my skin.
“Watch me,” I say, and then I throw us through the window, the glass shattering as we fall into space, submerged in a sea of stars.
I break through the surface, heaving air into my lungs. The water is so hot it turns my skin pink. I tilt my head back, letting fingers of bathwater run through my hair and into my eyes, washing the salt from them. My phone sits on the edge of the bathtub beside me, softly playing wordless music, and finally, I let myself exhale. It feels like I’ve been holding my breath since the day I was born.
My husband walks into the bathroom, extending a flute of champagne to me. His beard has already caught glimmering sparkles of the liquor, dancing on his chin.
“What’s this for?” I ask as I take it.
He shrugs. “Just for existing,” he says.
I recline back in the tub, letting my eyelids flutter closed. I raise the flute to my lips. The bubbles that waltz across my tongue feel like a victory.
“To existing,” I say, lifting my flute, and we clink them together before tilting the rest of the champagne into our mouths, like drinking the sunlight straight.
Melissa Bezan (she/her) is a 22 year old magazine journalist who lives on the prairies in Canada with her partner, her cat, and all their plants. She fell in love with speculative fiction from a young age with the likes of Percy Jackson and Fablehaven and has had her head lost in the clouds ever since. You can find her on twitter (melissabwriting) and instagram (writingwmelissa).
photo by ANIRUDH and 7inchs (via unsplash and pexels)