The evening before the night of the earth’s demise was beautiful. I found my mother watching the sunset while sitting on the long cushioned bench on our back porch. The golden sun and the light pink sky reflected off the surface of the small pond behind our house. Ducks played with each other in the water. They seemed happy and unaware of my mother’s presence. She seemed happy and unaware of mine.
I walked out onto the porch quietly. I always walk quietly.
The air was warm, but not hot. The breeze swept my hair into my eyes and I pushed it away. I looked at my mother, and she looked old. I guess I had never really considered her age before. We had celebrated her forty-seventh birthday about a month ago. We had celebrated my sixteenth just a week before that. She wasn’t old, really. But this evening she looked—well, she looked wise.
She looked peaceful.
Once my mom noticed me, she smiled warmly and waved me over to her. I sat down on the bench next to her and stared at the purpling sky. She stared at me in the way mothers stare at their sons, the way a sculptor might stare at her work. Is it finished? Does it need a final touch?
“Arthur, you look more and more like your father every day,” she said.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said.
My mother shook her head. “Okay, go ahead, be the victim. Be the poor young boy always afflicted by the absence of the father he never knew.”
“I was just kidding,” I said without joy.
She didn’t respond right away, but sighed and joined me in staring at the vanishing sun. I could sense something weighing on her mind. I wish I had been more willing to talk to her about it.
“Your life is not going to be like this forever, Arthur,” my mother said. “The world is bigger than high school, and I know it’s hard to see that now, but it is. It will be for you. You won’t always have to worry about—”
“It’s okay, Mom.”
She looked at me with deep concern in her eyes. It hurt for a moment because I knew she was blaming herself for things I had done, things that were my fault.
“It’s not okay, Arthur,” she said. “And I don’t think you think it’s okay, either. Maybe not having a father in your life has left you without certain… resources. If it has, that’s my fault, and I want you to know I’m sorry.”
“Mom,” I said in my annoyed voice. I didn’t want to have this conversation. I didn’t want to have to think about why I was awkward, or why I was different, or why every other kid I came across sniffed that difference out like a predator, pounced on it, and exposed it for everyone else to see and abuse. And I never ever again wanted to have to talk about what happened as a result of coping with that suffering, what I did. “It’s fine,” I lied. “Just let’s leave it alone.”
And she did. She left it alone.
The sun set and we went inside for the night. I sat in my room and read a book, and I don’t know what my mom spent her night doing. Everything was quiet until I got tired and fell asleep. Everything was normal until I awoke to hear my mother shouting.
“Get up!” I heard her cry. “Arthur! Get up!”
I sprung out of bed, pulled on a pair of jeans, and ran out onto the back porch. What I saw in the night sky was both the most beautiful and terrifying thing I could imagine. It looked like a thousand clouds of multicolored light were exploding in slow motion. I noticed my mother standing against the porch railing, and she looked overwhelmed.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
My mother just shook her head with her mouth hanging wide.
The colored clouds slowly grew all across the sky, blooming like a celestial fire. Immense billows of yellow, blue, green, and pink drifted and pulsed the way sand kicked up underwater does before it settles again and the water clears. Yet this wasn’t sand in the water, and the sky gave no sign of clearing.
The colored light grew more and more intense, and now a loud rumble came from the sky. I looked at my mother and the colors reflected off of her face the way a fireworks display might. We were mesmerized, petrified, and unable to explain what was happening other than to wonder if we were somehow in a dream. Though it was beyond obvious this wasn’t a dream. My body felt more awake than I can ever remember. It was as if every vein in my body was flushed with adrenaline.
Then, as we stood on the porch in the glow of the impossible, the clouds broke open, and the fires fell to earth.
“Should we run?” I shouted above the increasing barrage of sound coming from above.
“To where?” my mother asked, though I never heard her words. I merely read her lips, as the roar of the sky falling upon us was all that could be heard.
The ground shook fast and terrible, and we fell down on the wooden slats of the porch. It was like being underneath a rocket as it prepared to blast off. The world was nothing but tremor and dissonance. I yelled for my mother and tried to reach for her, but the last thing I saw was her face disappear into the blinding white light.
And I lost her.
And then there was nothing but black.
I can’t remember what came next.
• • •
“Hey, get up,” I heard someone mutter. My head hurt and my mouth was dry. I didn’t want to respond, but the voice came again with more urgency. “C’mon get up, please. We need to get away from the Nullwood. We’re way too close, and if they see you…” I could hear the fear in the voice, a girl’s voice.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Seriously, please get up,” the girl said with mounting panic. “We need to get out of here.”
I slowly opened my eyes to a vast blue blur that was painfully bright. I shaded my eyes as they adjusted, and soon realized I was sitting under a blue sky in the middle of the day.
“We need to get away from the Nullwood,” the girl repeated.
I shook my throbbing head and swallowed hard against my dry throat. In front of me was a girl in a wheelchair who wore black-rimmed glasses. Her hair was long and light brown, pushed back with a thin white headband. She stared at me with green eyes, and her lips were pursed tight. It was obvious that she was upset I was being so slow. Her arms were tensed and ready to propel her wheelchair, her hands hovering just above the top arc of each wheel.
“Quick,” the girl said and spun the wheelchair around. “Follow me.”
She started wheeling her chair away from me, but I was disoriented. My head still hurt, and my back hurt too. As I lifted my arms to stretch I realized I wasn’t wearing a shirt. In fact, I didn’t have shoes on either. I was only wearing a baggy pair of jeans. I looked behind me, wondering where my other clothes might be, and received another shock.
Stretching out before me was a forest of gnarled black trees, so thick you could barely see into it. I stood up and staggered back from the massive growth. The trees looked dead, and the forest looked out of place in contrast to the green grass and blue sky. It was as if the trees marked a border into another world, a dark world. I took a couple more steps away from the tree line and felt a chill. Had I been in that place? Is this what the girl had been calling the Nullwood?
The girl was still wheeling herself away from me, and away from the Nullwood. I gathered myself and then ran after her.
“How long were you in there?” she asked me as I approached.
“I was in there?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” she answered. “I saw you running out of the Nullwood before you collapsed onto the grass. So how long were you in there?”
“I don’t remember being in there,” I said, and suddenly felt afraid to tell the girl more. Yet I kept talking as if I had no control of my own mouth. “The last thing I remember is the sky opening.”
The girl stopped wheeling herself forward and turned to me with one thin eyebrow raised.
Immediately, I felt like an idiot who had just told a stranger about a bad dream. The sky hadn’t opened up. I realized how stupid that sounded only after it came out of my mouth.
“That can’t be the last thing you remember,” the girl said. “That happened like a month ago.”
I was shocked and speechless. Here I was, just outside a ghoulish black forest I had never seen before, sometime after an event I was ready to convince myself was a dream, and I was now being told that it wasn’t a dream, and I might have been in the woods for a month without recalling being there.
“You really don’t remember anything after the sky opened?” the girl asked after a moment of awkward silence. A bit of sympathy had entered her voice for the first time.
I simply shook my head.
The girl started wheeling herself forward again. What else could I do but follow?
“My name is Anna Leona,” she said. “If you want, I can take you to where I’m staying now. There are clothes that’ll probably fit you, plus food and water. What’s your name?”
“Arthur Kage,” I answered.
“Well, nice to meet you, Arthur who doesn’t remember anything,” she said in a brighter tone, almost as if she were amusing herself. Yet the brightness disappeared instantly as she continued. “I promise I’m not a danger to you, Arthur… but before we go any further, you should know that you can never tell anyone you came out of the Nullwood.” Anna turned to look at me again with her serious green-eyed glare, though I could see compassion behind its intensity. “Never.”
“Okay,” I said. Though I really wanted to ask why. Not saying what I wanted to say was a problem I had, as well as sometimes saying things I didn’t want to say.
We continued to move away from the Nullwood, but I turned briefly to glance back at it again. It was massive, stretching as far to the right and left horizons as I could see. It looked like something out of a Halloween nightmare. Tall barren trees, black as iron, and twisted like dead roots.
When I looked forward again, the scenery was both brighter and somehow more depressing. The grass was green and the sun shined in the clear blue sky, but life was missing. We were walking through a neighborhood, but it was a ghost town. The pavement was a ruin and every home looked like it had suffered in a terrible earthquake. A charred home on the left had half of its roof caved in. Another house on the right had walls that had fallen away, leaving it looking like a giant dollhouse. Back on my left, an abandoned car was left crashed into someone’s living room.
“What happened?” I asked, knowing full well that this is what had happened the night the sky opened.
Anna stopped and put a finger to her mouth. “Shh. Did you hear that?”
“Do you want me to be quiet, or tell you if I heard something?” I asked, even though I knew people didn’t like it when I asked questions like that.
Anna frowned at me, but then her head snapped around and she looked down the street. “Quick,” she said, now lowering her voice. “Wheel me over to that broken brown house. We need to hide inside.”
I did as she asked. I was in no position to argue.
As we reached the house, I had to lift Anna and her chair up over a jagged lip of foundation, floor, and exposed framework. I never would have described myself as strong, but Anna was light and the chair wasn’t very bulky. Once we were up onto the cracked tile floor of the house, she wheeled herself behind a large brown sofa and waved me over frantically.
“Please get down and don’t make a single sound,” she said in a whisper. “I really don’t want them to hurt you.”
I did what she said, getting down on my hands and knees. Anna stayed in her chair but slouched down so she was hidden behind the couch. There was a dusty throw blanket on the couch. She snatched it and quickly threw it over us. I held my breath, not knowing what we were hiding from, but then I heard voices out on the street.
“Dinner still two hours off,” a male voice grumbled. “I prefer six o’clock to seven. We should change it to six.”
“Doesn’t matter,” a female voice replied. “We can’t go back until the perimeter check is complete, and I’m guessing we’ve got two hours or more before we get it finished.”
The man grumbled something unintelligible, and the woman laughed.
“Did you complain this much before the Demise?” she asked.
The man didn’t answer.
Anna slowly lifted her cover just enough to peer out. I was racked with curiosity, so I parted the blanket enough to see and ducked my head just slightly around the corner of the couch. To the left, the broken wall of the house granted me an unimpeded view of the Nullwood off in the distance. Then through the open front door of the house, I could see two people walking down the street in drab clothing, both carrying long black guns at their sides.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask at that moment. Who were those people? Did Anna know them? What were they checking the perimeter for, and what were they walking the perimeter of? But most importantly, why did two innocent teenagers need to hide from them?
Then Anna sneezed.
We both ducked quickly back under the blanket. By the bit of dim light coming through the fabric, I could see Anna’s face twisted in frustration, and she was silently mouthing swears.
“Did you hear that?” the woman asked out on the street.
“Sure did,” the man answered. “Look over there. We got a couple coming out of the Nullwood.”
Anna’s eyes shot open, and she slowly peered out of the blanket again. I followed her lead and looked out the broken wall toward the Nullwood. Sure enough, there were two people coming out of the black trees, but they were far enough away that it was hard to see much detail.
“Stop where you are!” the woman yelled, as she and the man raised their guns.
They jogged out toward the people emerging from the Nullwood, and after a minute it got hard to see what was going on. I certainly couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. A moment passed as I watched, and then there was some shouting.
“Don’t watch, Arthur,” Anna whispered.
I didn’t listen to her, but I should have. Gunshots rang out, and one of the people who came out of the Nullwood fell to the ground. The other screamed. Then came more gunshots and that person fell also. I tucked myself back under the blanket and tried to calm my breathing.
They shot them. They shot the people who came out of the Nullwood.
“They’ll shoot anyone that comes out of the Nullwood,” Anna whispered as if she had heard my thoughts. Her voice was laced with shame. “We have to stay silent and under the blanket until they go away.”
There was no part of me that was ready for this. Somehow I had landed, half-naked, in a new world, and I understood none of what was happening. I couldn’t even ask the first person I met to explain it for fear that making noise might get me killed, and killed for what, I didn’t even know. All I knew was that we were lucky those people had come out of the Nullwood just as Anna had sneezed. Those people might have saved my life.
We spent a long time in silence before Anna finally moved and peered outside of the blanket. I couldn’t move with all of the thoughts racing through my mind, and waited for her to report back. More minutes passed, and then she pulled the blanket off of us. Anna sat up in her chair, and I sat on the floor with my back against the couch. I hugged my knees into my chest and stared at Anna. She must have realized I couldn’t find my voice because she started explaining.
“A lot of people died the night the sky opened,” Anna said. “Fire and rock fell down on everything. That’s why these houses are the way you see them, and it’s like this everywhere. There are not a lot of survivors. There’s no electricity. It’s like the end of the world. David has the survivors calling it the Demise.”
“David?” I asked.
“He’s the guy who sort of runs things now,” Anna said. “Most survivors live in the high school with him. I guess he used to be in the military or something. He has a lot of guns, and he’s the one who decided to kill everyone who comes out of the Nullwood.”
I just shook my head in confusion. It was too much to comprehend. I didn’t even know what I wanted to know, or what question I wanted to ask. I guess the silence got awkward because Anna kept talking.
“The Nullwood was just there the morning after the Demise. No one knows why or how it grew, but it’s massive. Scouts have traveled north and south along its border to find the end of it, and can’t. No one will go into it though.”
“So, is this still…” I was afraid to ask my question.
“This is Florida,” Anna said. “Flagler County. Is this where you’re from?”
I nodded silently, completely awestruck. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to admit this had happened to my home. It would somehow have been easier to imagine I had been transported to another world, or another place. At least then I could dream of a way to get back to where I belonged; I could dream of a way to get back to the way things used to be. But this… I couldn’t reconcile this.
“How long did you say it’s been?” I asked.
“Some of the survivors have been counting the days,” Anna answered, and then looked down. “I haven’t. It doesn’t really seem to matter anymore, but… I think it’s been maybe a month since the Demise.”
“How have I lost that much time?” Tears welled in my eyes, but then shame kept them from falling. I couldn’t cry in front of Anna.
“You really don’t remember being in the Nullwood at all?” Anna asked.
“No.” I couldn’t remember a thing. “Where are we now? I mean, what parts of Flagler County are Nullwood now?”
“The Nullwood starts about where Belle Terre Parkway used to be,” Anna said. “The scouts say the tree line sort of runs north and south. I’m guessing you lived west of Belle Terre.”
“So you’ve been in the Nullwood for a month,” Anna said, looking as pale as I felt.
I nodded again.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she added. “Ever.”
“Why?” I asked, tears threatening to return.
“They’ll kill you, Arthur,” Anna said.
“I know that.” I was getting angry now. “I saw that. But why? Why? There might be millions of people still alive in the Nullwood who need help.”
“Some bad things come out of the forest,” Anna said meekly. “People are scared. No one knows what to do.”
“Bad things?” I asked. My anger faded because Anna seemed genuinely afraid.
“Monsters,” she said, and I could see she felt foolish saying it that way. “Mynahs, we call them. They come out of the Nullwood at night, and they kill people. Sometimes they take people. David says that people who go into the Nullwood eventually turn into mynahs. So he thinks we should kill everything that comes out of the Nullwood… even if it’s people.”
Stupidly, it only now occurred to me that I had come out of the Nullwood, and Anna had not killed me. She had helped me. She had protected me.
“You don’t agree with David, do you?” I asked her.
Anna shook her head and paused before speaking. “My parents always used to say that when people don’t understand something, they get afraid, and then they get dangerous. We don’t understand what happened to us, but that doesn’t mean that our decisions should be made in fear. It doesn’t mean we should kill people just because we’re afraid.”
A tear fell down Anna’s cheek.
I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t. I wanted to thank her. I didn’t do that either.
“Why were you near the Nullwood?” I asked.
Anna brushed her cheek with the back of her hand, and then grabbed the wheels of her chair.
“We have to get to Esteban’s Bar before the sun goes down,” she said.
“You mean that old bar on the beach that always has a special on crab legs?”
“It’s where I stay now,” she said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
• • •
The sun had almost set and only dim light remained, but even in the twilight the familiar sound of the waves breaking against the shore and the smell of salt in the air would have let me know where I was. My mother and I had come to this beach hundreds of times over the years. I grew up here. So it was devastating to see the state it was in now.
Restaurants I had eaten at dozens of times were leveled. Even the road along the beach was missing massive chunks, like a hurricane had swept through and eroded the land. It felt like a foreign place when contrasted with my memories. I used to read books on the other side of the dunes. I used to draw sketches of the crabs that came out of their holes to try to scavenge a meal. I used to watch people play in the water with their dogs, or walk along in the wet sand, hand in hand. I used to hear the music coming from some of the patio restaurants and bars. I used to smell the fried fish.
It was all gone now, but Esteban’s still remained.
I had never been inside Esteban’s. I was too young to drink, and my mother didn’t like crab legs. She said it was a dive, and I think one time she used the adjective scummy. Honestly, all I remembered about Esteban’s was that everyone except for my mother raved about their crab legs. Well, that and the old wooden sign they had over the front awning that had the name of the bar painted in big white letters. It was pretty ugly, really, but at this moment it was something familiar and comfortable to hold onto in a world that had turned into a nightmare.
At the service entrance to Esteban’s, Anna knocked on the red metal door. She said the front doors were barricaded, and the only way Jim and Kay would know it was her was to knock four times on the back service entrance. Anna had been staying with Jim and Kay since the Demise.
The door swung open, and a big guy with wavy blonde hair and a decent tan stood in our way.
“We were wondering where you had gotten off to, Ann– whoa, whoa, whoa.” The big guy reached for something just inside the door, and then the spade end of a shovel was thrust right up under my chin. “Who are you?”
“He’s obviously with me, Jim,” Anna said in annoyance. “Would you put the shovel down and let us in?”
Jim looked me over with caution before slowly lowering the shovel. “Who is this guy?” he asked.
“His name is Arthur, and I found him on the beach to the south,” Anna said. “He must have fallen and hit his head because he doesn’t remember anything. He doesn’t even remember where his shirt and shoes are.”
That sounded prepared, I thought.
“That sounded prepared,” Jim said.
“Would you just let us in,” Anna griped. “It’s getting dark out here.”
Jim stepped out of the way, and Anna wheeled herself inside Esteban’s. It was odd to see Anna regard Jim with such scorn. She had been gentle and compassionate with me. Her change in attitude was unexpected. I made to follow but Jim barred my way with one of his massive arms. He turned and stood over me, and I had to look up at him. Jim must have been at least six-foot-five.
“If you try to hurt her,” he said. “I will break you in half.”
Jim dropped his massive arm after his threat and shot me a fake smile. I wanted to say something witty and condescending to him. But I didn’t think of anything, and I probably wouldn’t have said it even if I had.
I walked past Jim into Esteban’s and followed Anna as she wheeled herself down a hallway. When I caught up to her we moved through a side door into a large room. It was the bar room, and all of the tables and chairs had been pushed up against the doors and windows as barricades. The sun was setting outside, so there was a small fire in an iron bowl sitting in the center of the room. A girl sat next to the fire, and she looked up at me as Anna and I approached. She had pretty blue eyes that stood out in the dim room, and suddenly I felt very aware that I wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“We’re taking in strays now?” she asked with a crooked smile.
“His name is Arthur,” Anna said. “Arthur, this is Kay.”
“He has amnesia,” Jim said sarcastically from behind me. He appeared out of the darkness and tossed me a white shirt. “Here. I’ll get boots for you in the morning.”
“Thanks,” I said and quickly put the white tee shirt on. It was much too big for me. I assumed it was Jim’s.
Jim sat down next to Kay and crossed his legs. He was barefoot, in red shorts and a white tank top. He looked like the stereotype of a good-looking blonde guy at the beach, sitting down next to his girl to roast marshmallows on an open fire. When he casually put his hand on Kay’s thigh and she barely reacted to his touch, I realized my guess wasn’t too far off.
“You really have amnesia?” Kay asked.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “There are things I’d certainly like to forget.”
Kay’s eyes grew wistful, and Jim put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her. Though he was very tan, his arms were pale in the firelight against Kay’s brown shoulders. She looked up at him and his tough facade melted at her gaze.
I realized everyone here must have lost quite a bit recently, and then I thought of my mother. My breath caught and I couldn’t believe myself. How was this the first time I had thought about my mother since waking up? Was I that terrible of a son? Before I could shame myself into stopping, I ended up crying in front of three strangers.
Silent minutes passed as the small fire flickered before us. Outside the wind whipped off of the ocean and against the front of Esteban’s. It howled as night fell, as if in response to my sadness.
The guilt of not looking for my mother immediately stung, and was compounded because I had been so cold to her during our last night together. Why couldn’t I just have had a real conversation with her? I never told my mother anything that would have mattered to her, at least not the way she would have wanted to hear it. She wanted to know that she had done all right by me. She wanted to know I appreciated her. In our last night together on the back porch, she was giving me another chance. Now, I might have lost my chance forever. What if I couldn’t find her again? What if she was…
I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand and then realized I wasn’t the only one crying. Jim was red in the face, and wet in the eyes, but he refused to let his tears fall. Kay leaned against him sniffling, staring into the fire, her cheeks wet. Anna’s glasses were on her lap, and she was rubbing the wetness from her eyes just like me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m worried about my mother. I don’t remember anything that happened after the sky opened. I don’t know what happened to her.”
“She was all you had?” Jim asked.
He stood up and left the light of the fire, but only briefly, returning with four rolled sleeping bags. He dropped two next to Kay, tossed one to me, and then walked over to Anna. There he held out the last rolled sleeping bag.
“Can I help?” he asked her.
“No,” Anna answered curtly. “I wish you’d stop asking me that.”
“Sorry,” Jim muttered, seeming sheepish for the first time.
He turned and walked back to Kay, and then everyone laid their sleeping bag out. It was obvious they were finished talking for the night. I was hungry and thirsty but didn’t want to talk any more. In truth, I wanted to close my eyes and be done with the day more than I wanted to eat or drink, so I followed suit and stayed silent.
I’d never prayed before, but as I lay in that sleeping bag, in a world that had almost completely been destroyed, I prayed for dreamless sleep. I prayed for a never-ending dreamless sleep so I would never have to deal with this changed world, so I would never have to think about the things I had lost, and so I would never have to figure out what came next. I prayed because, in a world that had grown so dark, I didn’t know how I would ever find a guiding light again.
Laying on my side, I stared at the flame in the center of the room. I watched as it flickered and shrank, and as I did, I slowly fell asleep.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
Everflame: Mystic Wild will be released Summer 2019. To make sure you know when follow me on social media or sign up for my newsletter.
As always, thanks for reading! – Dylan Lee Peters