There is nothing where nothing seeks to thrive. Not in the wisps of air that lap against my skin, or the ripples of water that coast along my body. I am without a thousand doubts and among my thousand fears. Lost.
There is nothing here.
The air comes rushing back into my lungs like knives - thousands of them, all tiny and infinite, poking holes into the porous walls of my chest. The sound that squeaks out of me is one quarter pain and three quarters shock. I should be dead. Dead dead dead. But I can feel my arms, tensing, and my fingers grasping the same way I am gulping in air that tastes of water and trees. Damp. The sound that rushes through my ears is one moment cacophonous and the next only the noise of my pounding - and working - heart, and my gasping.
I expect to take longer to sit up, but soon I am scrambling over onto my hands and knees and blinking into a world where the light is dim and the horizon limitless. I am still struggling for my breath, though everything else seems to be working just fine. It takes a few moments to collect myself into a state of calm, and then another few to understand what I am seeing.
Or, rather, what I am not.
The world stretches out all around me, grey and dull. No trees or plants or buildings. No people. Just grey nothing. A perfect 360 degree turn of emptiness. The ground looks like ash and feels like mud, sliding up between my toes, covering my skin in a thick mask of sludge. It dries quickly and cracks, flaking off to be replaced again by the wet substance. I am covered in grey dust staining my skin even when I have brushed it off.
I try not to think about it.
To think about how alone I am.
I turn my head, searching. I am not sure if I can see to the end's of this Earth, or if the grey in front of me is a shroud of mist, and I am in fact seeing only a few feet ahead. Either way, it seems pointless to stay here. When I take a step, the mud sucks away from my feet noisily. It rises only to my ankles in this patch, but as I walk, squelching through, it starts to get deeper and soon I am standing up to my knees in the ash-colored mud.
I twist my body around, trying to discern the places that are safe to walk. But it is monotonous.
It takes too long to turn myself back around and reach higher ground again. The sludge slides off me in great sheets, and what is left dries almost as soon as the stagnant air touches it. I watch the powder drift in flurries back to the earth when I dust it off me.
My calves are the color of ash. I blend into the landscape, the only things differentiating me from it are the shadows of my clothes. The observation makes something startle out of sleep in the back of my head, rearing its head to look again at this empty land. At the mud around my feet where, inconceivably, there is no shadow. I am not stretched out on the floor, all darker greys and incomplete silhouettes. There is no sun here.
It shouldn't surprise me, but it is enough to make me appreciate the severity of my situation. The alienness of the world expanding out, endless, in all directions. A fathomless depth that I could, in theory, traverse until I withered away and died.
I almost let it consume me.
The allure of sinking into the mud and letting it swallow me up until there is nothing - not even the texture of fabric and skin - to pull me apart from it is growing steadily better and better. I look at my ankles. At the mud that has congealed around them and eaten up my feet already. My toes, when I wriggle them, move the surface, pressing up but never breaking for air.
It is hypnotizing and strange, like seeing the ground breathe. I can feel my feet working, but I cannot see them. All I see is the surface rising, unbroken, and falling again. Again. Again. Again. Again-
"Reluctant, aren't you?"
My muscles contract nearly painfully as I tense, my shoulders rolling forward as if to protect me against a sharp wind. Fear rolls through my chest. It is harder to breathe.
I look anyway.
He is as coated in the ash as I am, and just as unwanted. But my eyes drink him in, thirsty for something other than this desolate wasteland.
"Where am I?"
When he walks, it is like he is wading through water. The mud breaks and ripples out, suddenly more liquid than solid. I watch with a dazed sort of comprehension and a foggy inability to understand. Nothing is making sense, but it should. I am feeling sluggish. When he is two meters away from me, standing in what I am sure is the place I sank down to my knees, he pauses. The mud rises only to the tops of his feet, and laps across them slowly. The color remains a permanent stain of grey dust, but he is clearly having an easier time in this place than I am.
"Somewhere in between."
He is assessing me slowly, eyes sinking to my knees and the place where I disappear into the mud, rising to the smears across my face and the grey of my hair from when I lay in the sludge.
"In between," I repeat, because I am not sure what else I am supposed to say. I am too calm for a situation that should feel far more desperate. When I agreed to go with him, I did not expect to be trapped in this place.
He wades closer, narrowing the distance between us to a meter.
"I suspect your transition was not as smooth as I promised it would be."
My mind flashes, struggling to keep up. Transition. Transition? Where was I before, then? I imagine a place with color, but it is vague and difficult to see. There is nothing else but grey. His hands close into fists at his sides. He looks frustrated.
"You shouldn't be here, Celia. This isn't a place you can stay."
I look down. Just to see that I still have hands like his and legs like his. A body. My clothes are coated in a fine layer of grey, but the color beneath comes out all the same. Muted, but there.
I remember a living room full of people.
When I look up he seems to be holding everything steady. Every inch of him is still, like time has frozen too. Not that it is easy to tell if time exists here.
I blink at him.
His lips turn white when he presses them into a thin line, angry.
"You're talking out loud, Celia. This place is pulling your seams of reality apart." He finishes closing off the distance. I can touch him if I just lifted my hand. "Yes. Do it. I am real." I look at the collar of his jacket, at the grey ash that has settled there. I hope it doesn't ruin it. "Celia." I look back down at my hands and lift my fingers so they hover by my waist. I curl and uncurl them, watching them ripple from hand to hand. The air feels heavier the more I move.
"This place is warping you. You need to finish the crossing. Do you hear me, Celia?"
The funny thing is, I almost can't. I don't know when it happened. But I can see his lips moving and his irritation growing, but it is as though he is talking at me from behind a pane of glass, growing thicker with every word until all I hear are the vast rumbles of basic speech and no words. Just noise. It is like music. I can feel myself smiling and drifting along with it. I lift my hand, pushing it up through the weight of the air.
I remember a room full of people.
It is too hard to stay standing. I scan the ground for a place to sit down, hoping for an outcropping of solid ground in the landscape. The world has transformed - where before there was flat nothing and endless grey, I see now the paler patches where the mud has fallen away and does not rise high enough to cover the earth. When I walk, the mud moves away from my feet like water and it is easy to reach the closest piece of solidity. I settle down.
He follows after, his mouth moving with more bredth. Is he shouting? I frown at him. He doesn't need to shout at me, it won't help. I can't hear him anyway. The bass of his voice shifts, and I sigh again. It is lovely. Like the memory of a beautiful song, soothing as a lullaby. When I shut my eyes and focus my attention on it, I feel the pull of the earth beneath me rise a little higher around my legs and wrists. It feels like a blanket, warm and gentle. Coaxing me closer toward it.
I want to lie down because it wants me to lie down.
I want to settle down into its benevolent depths.
The music disappears, wrenching me out of the warmth. The mud feels cold and slick, and there are hard lumps chafing up against me. My fingers squeeze into fists, and I can feel my clothes clinging to me wetly where the sludge has risen nearly to my shoulders.
I shriek, breathing in a layer of dust. It catches at the back of my throat.
I open my eyes.
The world I closed them to is not the same. Here is the stuff of nightmares and panic. A grim place of death. Skeletons in mud, corpses slowly decaying. Like peeling away the oily coating, it is suddenly obvious what the grey dust is and what bumps against me. The horror only grows when I see myself nearly buried. The ashes are against my throat.
I scream again and start pushing upward, but the mud is thick and heavy. I am encased in a tomb of human ashes, and what is left of the people who have lingered here too long before me seem to draw in closer, skeletal and half-rotten fingers curling toward me. Every time I shriek, I can taste the ashes on my tongue. I feel ill. Terrified.
I can see him, though, standing a mere meter from me, watching.
I am real.
He looks brighter, larger, more significant. Angrier, too.
I wrench one arm up as far as it will go and feel sapped of energy. I can feel the ashes eating to my skin, consuming me. I will degrade here and become no more than bones and ashes. I will claw at others who come.
I drag my other arm up, shoving a bone out of the way and clawing my way to the surface. It is thick enough to use to drag more of my body out, but not enough. My wrists sink in before my shoulders have barely cleared the sludge. I rip them out and try again. It goes on and on, my voice a endless torrent of panicked noises. Shrieking and screaming and sobbing. Help me help me help me.
When I am only waist deep, unable to feel anything solid beneath me, I lay flat against the surface, sinking only a little, and stretch out for him.
His expression flashes, and his lips part. He is saying something, but I can still only hear the bass rumble of it. I fight the urge to let it carry me back to that sleepy hollow in my head, unaware and compliant. I focus on my fear, on the taste of human ashes filling my mouth. I am crying. Shaking. Clawing for freedom.
Digging my fingers into the mud, I drag myself a few more inches out.
Help me help me help me.
He crouches, the mud still watery around his ankles, and I see him extend a hand toward me. A skull bobs restlessly against his foot, but he doesn't seem to notice.
I focus on his hand. His fingers. The distance between his and mine.
I have to reach him.
Stretching as far as humanly possible, I feel the mud give a little more beneath my torso and fumble to regain leverage. When I look back up, there is a half-decayed hand curled over his shoe. I scream. Try to tell him. Reach harder.
Our fingertips brush.
Something like electricity bursts through me. It is enough to pull the rest of my legs free and grip his hand. He pulls, leaning backward, and I slide through the wet ashes until I can pull myself to my feet in front of him. I see him reach for something in his pocket, but am too busy shoving the bones off me, screaming. When I turn back, something silver flashes through the air. He drags me one-armed against him.
There is sharp and sudden pain in my back.
I stare wide-eyed at him as he pulls the knife out and holds it to his own chest. I open my mouth to speak, to say something. What comes out is blood, spilling from my lips. I watch it drip into the mud. He holds me tighter. I see his jaw lock.
The knife disappears into the folds of his clothes, and he jerks, hunching over me. His head on my shoulder. Mouth at my ear. He smells of the ashes and feels a thousand times heavier than the mud. I do not know how to stay upright with him leaning so heavily into me. Dying.
We are both dying.
Spots dance in front of my eyes, marauding around in a trifecta of colors. The collar of his jacket sweeps against my lips. The grey blurs. The skeletons drifting toward us fall away. I can see only a dim, grey point in the distance.
It is gone before I can stop it. I am gone. I am falling.
Again. Again. Again. Again. Again.