Updated: Feb 8
By Sarah Jane Justice
She told me her name was Rain.
When she forced her fragile body into my reluctant arms, her eyes held the look of a girl who had run out of tears to cry. The hair that should have been kept in neat, ribboned pigtails fell in filthy clumps, matted across her trembling shoulders. I had promised myself that my own survival would be my sole concern, but I could never have sent Rain back into that world on her own. This was no longer a world for a child, if ever it had been.
My own limbs shook with pain and fatigue, but I forced myself to keep pulling Rain along by the hand. I wanted to guard her ears from the dull screams that hit us from behind, but they echoed down every street and dug into my sides with the force of an invisible knife. I tried not to picture the impact they would be having on someone as vulnerable as Rain, but the reflections I kept seeing in her eyes bludgeoned the reality of the matter deep into my skin.
The attacker had appeared suddenly, forcing his way into our community from a background no-one could identify. He provided us with no words, no name, no justification at all to explain his actions. His presence brought only fear, to the point where reason began to look like an unnecessary afterthought. Looming over anyone who stood before him, his physical features seemed to shift away from identification. No-one who had gathered the courage to look at him directly could describe anything other than his intimidating size and shape, paired with his obvious strength. Although it was clear that he wore the body of a man, I couldn’t bring myself to believe he was human. I thought of him as a creature, one who used his presence itself as a form of psychological warfare. I had never known a human being to be able to wield fear with such pointed accuracy.
We had all seen horrendous violence from the comfort of our couches. Observing the far-away aftermath of wars and bombings had led us into the false sense of assurance that we knew the look of brutality. We thought we understood it, by appearance at least. The displays that shone back at us through the protective barrier of plastic screens demonstrated the reality of pain, a sensation we would never have expected to feel through our own skin. We had seen images of the blood that spills around jagged knives. We had seen footage of the damage that could be done by hate, even when expressed through fists alone. In recorded sounds and pictures, we thought we had seen the worst our world could offer. We hadn’t seen this.
Our attacker launched himself at anyone in his path, scanning screaming crowds with calm eyes that lacked the barest hint of emotion. From my position of attempted flight, I couldn’t see any weapon other than fear, but fear alone couldn’t explain the way he ripped death through endless panicking crowds. The specific methods of his violence blurred through our vision along with any key identifying features of his face. We could see only the impact of his actions, which left us with an even higher level of vulnerability. Without being able to visualise his weapon, we lacked the hope of finding any army that could plan well enough to bat it out of his maniacal hands.
In the wake of the first attacks, superstitions spread like wildfire. Knowing that the creature towering over us could still scarcely be seen in detail, many avoided looking too closely. As if our attacker held the blinding properties of the sun we had forgotten to notice, people cowered in their masses with averted eyes. If I had any inclination towards being a hero, I would have shouted them down with the knowledge that looking away only blinded them to his movements, making them more vulnerable than before. Even if I had possessed that level of selfless bravery, I knew it was unlikely to do anything more than place myself firmly and directly in the path of danger.
Once a victim fell within the creature’s focus, any attempts at defence had so far proven useless. All it seemed to take was a hard, heavy glance from those apathetic eyes, and people were left hunched over in the grips of death. Without any sign of a physical touch, our entire community was falling helpless to a grim variety of mysterious causes. Some would fall to their knees, veins stretching to pop with the spitting boil of their own blood. Others would turn on each other as reluctant puppets, filled with a rage that couldn’t be explained coursing suddenly through them against their will. With no power to fight their own unexpected anger, they began to turn on each other, involuntarily squaring off to maim the people they loved more than life itself.
Rain had been hit with a disease.
I had seen her symptoms flooding through the bodies I was now being forced to push past in the streets. Languishing souls struck with an unidentified sickness that left them to die slowly and painfully, buried in the dirt tracks of those who still had the strength to run. It was a fate that seemed far crueller than any other. The agony of these victims was drawn out through the lingering hope that their lungs had only been hit by a temporary cold or virus. They had the ability to deny the progression of their illness, while being weighed down by the underlying knowledge that their time left on Earth was now measured by an invisible hourglass that they would never be able to read.
It is often said that there is safety in numbers, but the scene laying itself out before me was quickly punching holes in that idea. As I hid behind any crumbling suburban shield I could find, I saw the struggle of those who had stayed too loyal. Any escape attempt carried out by more than an individual or pair was visibly held back by the clumsiness of their actions. In their numbers, they became easier to spot and more convenient to trap. From the first sound of a scream that reached my ears, I had sworn to remain loyal only to my own company. My survival was my number one priority, and the slim chances I had of getting away with my life became smaller with the burden of any kind of companion. I discovered my weakness in the realisation that, despite the cold air that kept grabbing me by the ankles, my heart remained warm.
Rain must have spotted me as I jumped out of hiding to avoid the sparks of a falling power line. I spent no more than a moment wondering who had left this frightened child to fend for herself, before remembering that no possible answer to that question could hold any kind of benefit. All I needed to know was that she was alone, and she had seen me as someone who might be able to help her.
Clutching her fragile sides, she scrambled through the wreckage towards me and attempted to beg. With muddy tears that splashed under eyes tainted with hurt, she could barely pull together any word that could describe what it was she wanted. The message in her eyes ensured no specific words were necessary to convey her desperation. I fought with all my strength to gather the scraps of selfishness I needed, digging into any depth of my soul that I could still reach. I pushed against the empathy that kept rising through my chest and told myself to run, to turn away from this girl and continue on my own. In all practical senses, Rain was already dead, but I might still have a chance. It was an internal battle that logic would never have been able to win. I was certain that no action on my part could save her, but I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t try.
She told me her name was Rain, and I was compelled to take her into my care.
With a sigh of frustration aimed at my own emotional weakness, I gripped her slippery hand in my own. Pulling Rain along behind me, I darted behind crumbling houses, towards alleyways that blocked our view of the distant flames. Her movements were hindered by the progressing decay that was already spreading through her veins, but I paced my steps to remain by her side. My actions pitched a constant battle against the voice screaming back at me from the core of my instincts. Every segment of my logical mind stood to attention and begged me to prioritise my own survival. Still, against my own strongest intentions, I couldn’t leave Rain to die on her own. If I abandoned her, she would face the end of her days drenched in cold fear, miserable and alone in a dirty street. She was already marked for death, but the least I could do for her in her last days was to provide the barest amount of comfort, if not hope.
The screams flooding through to us from the town centre created a constant wall of sound as our backdrop, but it wasn’t too long before I managed to detach from their meaning. Once I was able to dissociate enough to ignore the message the cries brought along with them, they became useful for measuring the distance between us and the attacker. I failed to fight back the relief that slipped into my heart when I noticed that backdrop losing its vocal edge. As we started nearing the town’s outer limits, the streets around became quieter and the screams more distant.
Every corner we passed revealed hidden escape attempts that mirrored the movements of Rain and myself. Through visible blood and bruises, countless pairs of frightened souls held each other and fumbled towards the outskirts of the town. Even from the hunched and hurried glances I could throw in their direction, I could see they were all dizzy with fear, struggling with all their willpower to keep moving.
I didn’t want to let myself rest, not even for a second. Staying still for any amount of time held the risk of making us both a sitting target, even if I did still have the ability to pull myself back up from a seated position. I could push past fatigue and keep forcing my aching limbs to keep carrying me, but Rain’s limited strength was visibly leaving her body with every step. I still couldn’t find it within myself to leave her, so I found a corner sheltered enough to give us the slightest chance of remaining unseen. She slumped against my side and I pulled her close into a huddle, trying to ignore the sickly colour that was beginning to spread in patches across her skin. Unwilling to make any noise I could avoid, I attempted to use my eyes to convey the silent message that everything was going to be ok. I knew there was no chance left of that, but I wanted Rain to believe it. Her barely responsive nod told me that she was trying her best, but I could see that she had already lost her capacity for belief. Forcing myself to look away from the dying child in my arms, I tried to focus on the screams.
With a lurch that hit me in the stomach like a cannonball, my ears caught a wailing cry that pierced the air out of nowhere. The distant screams had been continuing to fade, but this one had come from very nearby. One by one, similar sounds began to flood into the space around me, spreading like a heavy fog into my ears. Clutching my terrified palms into white-knuckled fists, I felt myself forget how to breathe.
The implication of defeat left me wanting to curl into a ball against the bricks that were holding me up, but I pushed past it to steady what little breath I could muster. I needed to keep fighting, and for that to be possible, I needed to see what was happening. Forcing a reluctant gasp of stale air back into my lungs, I craned my neck towards the sounds.
The pairs that I had seen locked in mutual escape plans were turning on each other, one by one. My brain fled immediately to the supernatural puppet shows I had witnessed in the town centre, but it became clear very quickly that this was something different. One half of each fleeing couple was now staring down at the other with an unnerving strength, backed with the same dead eyes I had seen in the attacker. Darting my blurred vision around the scene, I scanned the faces of every present individual. In the determination of my own escape attempt, I hadn’t realised that while I knew most of these people, the eyes that had suddenly turned so dead were set in faces I had never seen before in my life. With the rush of realisation, I noticed the stumbles I had interpreted as fatigue were starting to seem like a mechanical glitch. The unfamiliar faces that had clutched onto my neighbours for strength now looked like awkward composites, as if they had been created by drunken witnesses to mimic the suspect of a robbery. With a sickening feeling that pulled me to the ground, I started to see how many people had been tricked. There had never been only one attacker.
In an act of protective instinct, I reached out to Rain, attempting to pull her closer. When I couldn’t feel her fragile body slumped next to mine, I slowly turned my head. She was staring directly at me, her red eyes glowing with an unsettling lack of emotion. For the first time, she stood up straight, unburdened by the pain and illness that had caused me so much distress to witness.
As she saw the hit of realisation reach my eyes, it almost looked like she smiled.