Paint covers the walls in a world filled only with children.
I was just a little girl, eight I think, when ‘the Nightmare’ happened. That was eight years ago, at my best guess. Not many bother to keep track of the passage of time; I am one of the few and I count myself among the lucky few who can read and write. Most don't see the merit of it, but then, they don't understand how reading can help you survive. Reading teaches you to lie.
The morning of the Nightmare, we all woke to find our parents' bodies. I had come downstairs, as I did every morning, and walked into the kitchen to find them. My mum was crumpled in a pile, my dad hunched forward in a chair at the table. I’ll never forget my mother’s eyes, so empty and lifeless, wiped of any colour like a heavy snow in late autumn. There was no pain on their faces they were just plain and simply dead. It was as if it they had died in an instant and at the same exact moment. I had sat weeping, crouched, a shaking shadow in the corner of the kitchen, my mother’s blank stare from across the room piercing through me whenever I looked up. I was there for what seemed like hours, but it must have been less – this cruel world would surely not have allowed me that much time to grieve.
Eventually, I wandered out onto the street, the only proper street in my village in Cambridgeshire, to the only place I knew where to go, to my best friend’s house, to Crystal’s house. A few years before, I had been upset with my parents over something childish. I had burst out the front door of our house at a full run. Ignoring the shouts from my father behind me, my feet had instinctively taken me to that door and, even though her parents had secretly phoned mine to let them know I was alright, they had also made me feel safe. I craved the safety of that day. I knocked on the large, red door. I knocked again, feeling the tears creeping up behind my eyes once more. Impatiently I swung the door open, hearing the familiar creek and walked into the living room. Crystal’s parents were dead, the same way mine were, the same way I learnt that all the adults were. The television was on, showing two lifeless news anchors hunched like dolls over their desks.
I’m not sure what I did after that. I remember shouting for Crystal, searching madly through the house, even in places too small for her to hide, cabinets and desk drawers. My mind was almost numb with the idea that everyone else in the world was dead; my parents, my friends. After searching the house it didn’t take long for me to head back outside. I just walked. My feet had nowhere else to go. Any safe place was gone. The world was a haze I could only see through tears, it seemed dark and unreal. My memory tells me I must have blacked out, but I must not have. I eventually found myself in the church and discovered that I was not the only survivor after all.
My heart seemed to skip a beat, like it was trying to restart itself as if it had almost given up on living. She was older than me – she must have been at least 10, though I am still uncertain of her age – tall, slender, and brunette. Her ragged clothes gave the impression that she had been living on the streets of a city for quite some time. She stood in the centre of the room, between the pews and stared at me.
“He-hello?” I croaked. My voice was painfully raw from crying.
The stranger’s eyes flicked nervously back and forth. She seemed unsure of whether or not I was speaking to her. She started walking toward me, a smile crossing her face. It wasn’t the sort of smile that you would expect to see on someone who’s just found out they were not the last person left alive. She seemed to move more quickly than was possible, crossing the room in only a few steps, but perhaps it was only because of the trauma I’d just been through.
The pain hit me before the realisation of what happened. I couldn’t breathe. I collapsed to the floor, gasping and holding my stomach where she had punched me.
“Wh--“ She punched me again. And again.
I closed my eyes and tried to understand what was happening. The pain of being hit and the emotional shock made it hard to think.
For the first few days, while the world was running out of brightly-coloured paint, as the other survivors – children were the only ones who survived – were filling the blank canvasses of the walls of their villages, towns, and cities, I was being beaten, senselessly and severely. She had still not told me her name, not even spoken a word, in those days she kept me locked in a shed. I still don't know if it was a shed which had belonged to her parents, or if she had even had parents before there were no more parents, before the nightmare had begun.
The days passed and she never fed me, never gave me water. My tormentor seemed to have forgotten about me. My vision began to become blurred as my body stopped being able to keep my eyes wet. Without natural lubrication blinking was like running sandpaper over my retinas. I think I must have stopped blinking altogether, though perhaps I kept my eyes closed and my half-delirious mind came up with the rest on its own.
All that existed for me was the pain of bruises my captor had given me and what I now expect had been a broken rib from being kicked as I lay on the ground trying to protect my head with my hands. My days were filled with watching the colours of lawn instruments as the sun played on them through small cracks in the walls of the shed. My nights were filled with the maddening feeling of expectation, waiting for those seemingly otherworldly lights to return. Every day, as my life faded from me, so too did the colours fade from my vision, just as I am told the paint outside in the world faded from the bright colours the children preferred to the more grown-up beiges and off-whites. The world was not prepared for such a high demand on the neon and pastel paints the children preferred.
Every other day or so it would rain and I would position myself so that my mouth was under one of the holes in the ceiling. Water droplets would fall into my mouth. I would like to say it gave me the strength to go on, but I had lost that strength when I had found my parents in the kitchen, dead. There was no noble will to survive that drove me, only the hope of sating the pain in my throat, the unbearable dryness in my mouth. Staying alive was completely involuntary, a by-product of the signals my body sent to my brain.
Then, as mysteriously as she had disappeared, my captor returned. I don't know how long I spent in that shed, surviving on roof water run-off. I don't know why I was happy that she had come back. Perhaps I longed for company, the presence of someone else somehow proving my own existence. But whatever hope had sprung to life in my eight-year-old chest was quickly put down as my aching eyes saw that she held a stick. It was a cricket bat.
I had never really been one for sports and didn't really understand the rules of the game. It's funny the sorts of things that have time to go through your mind when you are in mortal danger. There was no doubt that this girl who stood before me had no intention to use the stick on a ball. As my mind contemplated the intricacies of cricketers, balls, and bats, my body sprang to life and I moved with a quickness I didn't realise I still had in me.
I sprang toward the door, my voice straining, trying to scream but coming out more like a whimper. It seemed like I was going to make it, the light of the world outside coming through the door almost blinded me, the boundaries of the sun’s rays blurred with the feeling of freedom, washing over me. Suddenly pain shot through me, starting at the back of my neck, tendrils of agony reaching down my spine and up into my head like tiny fingers choking the life out of me. I fell to the ground, hands reaching towards the light of the doorway. I felt as if I could grasp my escape, like a tangible rope to pull me up, if only I could reach it.
She beat me. She beat me until I felt I would die, till I felt I should be dead. She raised the bat over her head and smiled a wicked, sideways smile down at me. I was ready. I was tired of the pain, the feeling of loss that overwhelmed me when I thought of my parents, the way my tear ducts burned even though I couldn't cry. I thought I was ready to die at that moment. But my mouth opened.
"I know what happened," I croaked. Surely my eyes gave away my own surprise at what I had said, but my assailant slowly lowered her weapon, smile wavering.
At that moment, I knew what I had to do. I channeled all the courage of the characters of the books I loved to read. I became Emily from The Swiss Family Robinson, Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. I lied like Iago to Othello. I lied the most cowardly of lies; I lied to save my life.
"I know why they all died." I still couldn't believe what I was saying, but confidence was growing within me and I was sure that my face no longer betrayed me.
Then she spoke, the first words I ever heard her say, flatly, showing no emotion, not even as she stood above me like an executioner. “Why did they die?”
My mind was racing, even more quickly than my heart which beat in my chest like innervated funeral drums. What would make all the parents – all the adults – in the world die? The memory of an embarrassing argument I had had one evening with my parents surfaced in my mind. I had childishly wished my parents were dead that night before I fell asleep and dreamt that the next morning I would come downstairs and my parents would be gone. While I was dreaming, it had seemed so free and wonderful, without parents to control me I could do whatever I wanted, but upon waking I felt so terrible and lonely. I loved my parents and I didn’t want to be without them, no matter how angry at them I could be.
“I wished them away,” I said, trying to look her right in the eye. “I am a dreamer. Whatever I wish hard enough for and then dream about comes true.” It sounded ridiculous. I was angry at myself for not coming up with anything better. I looked back down at the ground, at my blood on the dirt floor of the shed, and knew I was going to die. I stared at the crimson on brown for several minutes, mentally preparing myself for the final blow and the shot of pain I knew I was about to feel. Finally, I heard her move, heard the door shut, the air catching in my lungs as the light of the sun was slowly sealed off from me.
I decided I should look up, look my killer in the face. It seemed like what the protagonists in stories would do – look death right in the eye and laugh. I raised my head, knowing I could not possibly laugh, but hoping to die still with some dignity. What I saw surprised me. The girl had walked across the room, set the cricket bat against the wall, and was taking some sort of chain from a hook. As she approached me, holding it in her hands, I made out what it was, a dog’s leash and collar. As she fastened the collar around my neck I knew my lie had somehow saved my life, but I wondered at what cost.
The children outside had run out of paint. But there was a new medium, a bright colour which came easily under the right circumstances, a red which could stain the walls as well as any paint. Some people believe that the art of a time period says a lot about the society and culture that produces it. When the paint ran out, the children used blood.
I was a pet. I existed only to serve my master. I had forgotten my own name, but my owner, Imogen, the girl who had locked me in the shed, had made quite a name for herself, using me, using my ability to lie.
We had travelled by boat, first to what had been mainland Europe and then across the Atlantic. She had garnered followers, created a new religion, a cult which believed in my ability as “the dreamer.” They worshipped and feared me as the one who brought about “the Nightmare.” But mostly they worshipped and feared her as the one who tamed and controlled me. She no longer beat me, I was her prize possession. I had other scars now. Tattoos of whatever symbols Imogen decided would make others fear and respect me – her – more, ankhs, crosses, dragons, and designs which were completely new.
Imogen had begun to speak more, when she had a reason to. She was a charismatic leader, a religious icon. It didn’t take long before news of us would reach our destination before we would. Everywhere we went, people knew who we were. Some looked at me like a monster, with fear in their eyes. Others, like Imogen, looked at me like a weapon, to be used to control and manipulate others. Eventually, some looked at me with something else in mind. Imogen used that as well, trading time alone with me for things that she wanted.
I began to lose myself. Going from being abused to being coveted was a shock to my system. I began to allow myself to occasionally come outside of the little room in the back of my mind which I had been hiding in. I would retreat back inside of myself if I saw pain coming, but I started permitting myself to feel emotions again.
There were those who did not believe, of course. Sometimes Imogen would force me to convert non-believers and I would fall back on the only power I had, the power of knowledge and the power of lies. I would pretend to commune with dead parents and, as long as I was observant enough about the person and spoke vaguely when necessary, it usually worked. And when it didn’t, Imogen enjoyed using force.
My captor eventually opened up to me. She even told me about her childhood. She was a runaway, long before the Nightmare. Around the age of five she and her mother had been waiting for a train in the London Underground. As the train going the wrong direction pulled up, Imogen had felt a strong pull. She waited until the final tone sounded, let go of her mother’s hand, jumped through the closing doors, and turned just in time to see the look of panic on her mother’s face. She didn’t know why she did it, she just knew it needed to be done. She hadn’t seen her parents since, and spent the time living on the streets of London until she ultimately stowed away on the train to Cambridge. I discovered a softer part of her and began even to feel sorry for her and even love her in a perverse sort of way.
For the most part, we wandered aimlessly through the Americas, spending time in villages and towns and then moving on, at the whim of Imogen. After a few years, we started hearing rumours that there was some great evil on the rise, another dreamer who dreamt up monsters. The rumours changed – sometimes it was a single monster, sometimes many; sometimes hundreds were killed, sometimes thousands, but always the rumours pointed north. Imogen was instantly interested, seeing this person as a rival for power, an enemy she would have to defeat. I must admit, I was interested as well, I had been lying for so long and I had become unsure whether my powers as “the dreamer” were actual or fictional. I felt as if I were the most powerful person in the world, even treated the way I was, a glorified pet to a twisted woman.
After a few months of travelling, we pinpointed the origin of the rumours we had been hearing: Chicago.
Chicago was a maze of mad murals depicting scenes which bled one into the next – or sometimes one over the next – of whatever horrific or fantastical fancy the artist had taken to. The city stretched out before me like so many others had, all different yet all the same; London, Paris, New York, and every city in between – I had been to them all. I had been taken to them all.
Imogen pulled on my leash. Reflexively, I began to follow her down the twisting, empty roads. The city seemed deserted, as if no one had been there in a hundred years. Cars were strewn haphazardly throughout, as painted as the walls but otherwise seeming to be exactly as they had been since the Nightmare. As the sun began to set, the city seemed to be waiting for something. A tense silence filled the air and sent a shiver up and down my spine.
The shiver drew the attention of Imogen. She looked back at me and then, seeing the unease on my face, grinned in her wild way. “What’s wrong, pet? Got a bad feeling?” I shook my head and she grinned even wider.
We spent the night in an alleyway. Imogen killed a cat and started a fire to cook it. I hated eating cats, but sometimes there was no choice. It wasn’t just the fact that I used to adore them as pets, although that was part of it. Cats are stringy, gristly creatures with very little meat, hardly worth the effort. But I was hungry after walking all day, so I closed my eyes and pretended it was chicken. I didn’t mind eating chickens. When I was younger I had gone on a school field trip to a farm and witnessed the terrible way that chickens behaved with each other. I didn’t really understand at the time what they were doing to each other; I only saw how mean they were about it. The only creature as cruel as a male chicken to a female chicken must be humans.
Before I knew it, sitting there with my eyes closed, I had drifted off.
There was a sound. I was sure of it.
I shifted slightly, feeling Imogen’s grip on me tighten in her sleep. I had tried to run away one night while she was sleeping, early on, before I had resigned myself to a life of subservience. I had tasted freedom for only about 40 seconds, my last taste of it. She had woken up as soon as I had gotten my leash free of her hand, but I ran anyway, and paid dearly for it. As soon as she inevitably caught up to me she beat me, as hard as she ever had in that shed of my youth. I thought she was going to beat me to death. But she was forever in control of herself, even at her most violent, her strikes were precise and her mind clear. She was angry, but always in command of it, never letting it take over.
Since then, she had slept with an arm around me, hand grasping my waist or arm. At first I hated it, but I came to appreciate it, even find comfort in it. In some strange way, it made me feel safe. As bad as Imogen was, I had seen plenty of other people in worse off situations since the Nightmare, and I knew that in every case when someone threatened Imogen or myself, she came out on top.
There was another sound. A shriek in the distance. A girl or perhaps a young boy. More than likely a girl.
I pushed against Imogen. “Someone’s out there,” I whispered.
She sat up, one hand on the knife she carried, the other pulling the owner’s end of my leash up onto her wrist and tightening it. The shouts came again, closer. She stood and pulled me to my feet. It must have been morning, very early. The sky was lit up in that eerie pre-sunrise way. Imogen looked like a statue as she stood, silhouetted against the indistinct light. It made me think of a Rodin statue I had seen once when my parents took me on holiday to Paris.
Suddenly she cocked her head to the side. There were footfalls, loud on the pavement, coming down the alley. The uneven beat made me think the person running was limping. Imogen pulled me into hiding behind a large dumpster and we watched as a girl, no older than me, ran past us. I spotted the crimson liquid on one of her bare legs. I wanted to help her, stop whatever it was that was chasing her, but I knew if I made a sound it might bring whatever was chasing her down upon us.
Suddenly a creature jumped from outside of my view, landing on the running girl. Imogen was there in a flash, slashing with her knife. The thing looked vaguely like a dog but in the dim light I could not tell. It let out a yelp as Imogen’s hacks struck home and then it was gone, down the alley and out into the street.
The girl on the ground struggled to her feet. She was tall for her age, taller than me and definitely a few years younger. Her blonde hair was mussed up, hanging down in front of her eyes, but I could still see the fear in her eyes as she noticed the chain leading from my neck to Imogen’s hand. She darted away from us, as fast as she had run from the creature, still favouring one leg.
Imogen pulled me along and we ran after her. We would have to follow her to wherever she lived, try and find whatever semblance of civilisation still remained in Chicago. I would have to figure out where these “monsters” were coming from and stop them while maintaining that I had supernatural powers, lying convincingly to everyone, including Imogen.
We spent the day in a run-down old building, Imogen telling our story as she knew it. The boy who appeared to be the leader of this group was older than me but not as old as Imogen and I could see the awe in his eyes. The group of 26 survivors seemed to be filled with hope, which came as a surprise to them. They eagerly told us what they knew about recent events.
It seemed that one of their group, Brian he was called, had begun going out at night. Several of them said he was sleep walking. Then after about a week of this, he didn’t come back. After a couple of days, he was seen at a distance by some of the hunters, running through a park with a group of creatures. A few days after that was when the attacks started. People in the villages began being killed, usually at night, the bodies were found with bite marks everywhere, some of them were torn to bits. Eventually, the people that survived in the city were so few that they began to consolidate into one group.
“The people in this building,” the leader said, “are the only surviving people in the city of Chicago. And that’s not all. Recently the attacks have been happening more frequently. Our hunting parties are attacked whenever they go out. Anyone who ventures outside this building becomes a target. We’re afraid that Brian will begin finding ways inside and start killing us in our home.”
The building’s occupants gave us warm food and cold water, which was a welcome change from what we could find on our journey and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking with people, trying to learn as much about Brian as we could but no one seemed to know much about him. We did find out that meat was being stolen on a regular basis, however it had started when the group had started accepting stragglers from other groups who were not large enough to continue living on their own, so it was believed that one of these newcomers was the thief.
Night fell and with it a deep silence over the group. Night to them was a time of fear, a time when anything could happen. Even more so than most, these people were afraid of the dark. Candles were lit, well more than it would require to stave off the darkness, so that light shone into nearly every nook and cranny.
The group used a single floor of the building, which I guessed must have been the lobby of some corporate office at one point, one section for food and water and another for bedding and sleeping. They offered us some floor mats and Imogen accepted them graciously.
As I lay there waiting for sleep, I thought about the attack we saw earlier that day and the things that the people had told us, my brain working to find something I could use, some way to defeat the creatures. One thing that stood out in my mind was that the creatures never really ate their prey. They attacked, killed, and perhaps mutilated, but the bodies were not eaten. To me, this suggested that they must be trained by someone, since most animals would only attack to defend themselves or they were hunting.
I drifted off to sleep despite the light of the candles, and dreamt of horrible monsters in the night, more teeth and fangs than animals themselves. They would attack me and I would look around for Imogen. She was nowhere to be found. I held my hands up but they bit at me, tore at my throat. I screamed.
I awoke to hear screaming, the sounds in my mind mingling with the sounds around me. It wasn’t me screaming, it was someone nearby. I sat up but Imogen was already up and running pulling my leash. I struggled not to fall, using the force of her pulls to pull me up onto my feet. We ran toward the screaming. Half of the candles seemed to have burnt out, leaving the sleeping area in an eerie half-radiance. Our shadows were long over the trembling bodies who lay in cots and on mats on the floor.
Two creatures stood, tearing at a screaming figure. Three others were running towards the large double doors into the lobby, the guards who were meant to be watching them lay on the ground nearby. I could see in the dim light that the creatures greatly resembled dogs. They appeared to be normal dogs that had been grafted with bones, human or otherwise, to make them look more menacing.
As Imogen rushed towards the two they turned to run. It didn’t seem to me as if they were running away from us so much as leaving after accomplishing their task. As they ran off the person they had been attacking fell to the ground, blood gushing from what seemed like a hundred teeth marks.
“They did what they came for and returned to their master,” I heard Imogen say. No doubt to receive their reward, I thought.
Six people had been killed, the two who had been guarding, three others who had been sleeping, and one who appeared to have been dragged off and presumably killed, leaving the total number of survivors at 20. 22 if you counted us and 23 if you counted Brian.
We spent the next few hours trying to track the creatures back to their master but with no success. Eventually, we returned to the run-down old building to wait for night. This time Imogen had a plan. And so did I.
It was assumed that the creatures would attack again that night, so while Imogen explained how everyone should position themselves for the best defence of the area, I managed to nick a bit of dried meat and put it into a pouch.
The hours of the afternoon crept by, dragging on as the tension grew. As the sun went down the tension became almost unbearable. The stillness was broken only by the involuntary fidgeting of a few of us. Several times when I heard a noise I found myself holding my breath without realising it, having to force myself to breathe out and back in again.
Finally, after what seemed like hours – and maybe it had been, I was only aware of the darkness and the silence – we heard a noise, a scratching of claws on pavement outside. The sound sent shivers up my spine; I knew what it meant.
There were at least five of them and they tore through people in a wild frenzy. I ran forward, fearing that Imogen would hold my leash, but she released it. I had been to a birds of prey show once, when I was little, before the Nightmare. The falconer had said that the birds can see the little bits of food he put on his arm to call them back from a mile or more away. I hoped that a dog could see – or smell – meat being offered to them from a few metres. I pulled the meat from my pocket and was shocked to see all of the animals stop what they were doing to look at me.
I read once that dogs, being pack animals, must be stared down in order to assert your authority. I also read that staring a dog in the eyes can provoke them to attack you. I took my chances. I stared at each one of them, holding the bits of meat high in the air so that they would have to attack me, challenge me, to get at it. I pushed any fear I had down into my stomach, keeping it as far away from my eyes as possible. As my eyes passed over each dog they seemed to soften somehow, their stances became more relaxed, their jaws were less taut.
I am unsure whether a few minutes passed or a few hours, but at the end of it, the dogs were mine to control, as I had been Imogen’s for so long. I felt powerful, like I could do anything. I could have made them attack her, my captor, but I didn’t. I simply walked out, into the street, the dogs following me. I could have ended her life, the way she had almost ended mine for so long. But instead I simply started mine.