Apparently babies cry when they are born because their first breath is that shocking. I imagine this is what that feels like.
There are a thousand daggers puncturing my lungs here, and every time I inhale they sink a little further in. It almost makes it hard to breathe, except I can't stop gulping in like a fish out of water. I am aware that, once again, I am alone. Through the indistinct blur of my vision, all I see is black stretching out in front of me, fractured by tiny figures in light. I don't have the capacity to be afraid of them, though. I am too busy trying to breathe.
There are small pulses all the way down to the tips of my fingers and toes, electricity that puts me on the brink of bursting. And I am not sure what will come out when I do. What existed as bravery before has dissipated. I can't see, I can't think, and the world is tipping over on itself. I am in a nightmare that will not end. I am in a nightmare where things can hurt me. Badly.
The ground becomes more coarse until it is uncomfortable, and by then I have gained enough control over my lungs that I can sit upright and lean back into my palms. My eyes still struggle to focus, and so I shut them and try to overcome the waves of nausea that follow. My head spins. I am going to throw up.
Twisting sideways, I heave until acid burns my throat and nothing is coming out. I keep retching until plain exhaustion makes me stop. When I turn back, the miniature lights in the distance are clearer and I find that, rather than being far away, they are merely very small lights that stretch out along either side of me. A path.
I crawl to shaky feet, gripping my elbows in close, and try not to think of the world from before and its grisly occupants. The man from before is missing once more, and I feel a sliver of doubt creep beneath my skin. I could not do it without him before - how does he expect me to, now? I strain to see beyond the little lights, but it becomes obvious that there isn't much out there - or else, there is, but it is not worth shedding light on. I have to close my eyes again and hold perfectly still when the images force their way to the forefront of my thoughts. I will start imagining sounds and shapes if I do not pull myself together, soon.
With a breath that still shoots needle-like pain through my chest, I decide that my only option here is to walk. I check behind me and am almost relieved to find that the lights go in one direction only. Mostly, though, I feel a tremor of fear at the sight of the inky shadows to my back.
I walk on.
To stay preoccupied through the dark, I count the lights on either side of me, which are staggered so that I am never passing two at any one time. They flicker delicately, as though someone has captured fireflies and put them in jars, but closer inspection reveals that they are, in fact, just floating orbs of light. A glance behind me is a mistake - as soon as I pass a light, it goes out.
Forward, I tell myself.
My body feels exhausted and weak. I want desperately for a shower, a bed, and something hot to drink. There is a niggling suspicion that I will never have that again. A pang of longing shoots like fire down my middle, and I cringe. It will not do to mourn the loss of my life now. Not until I get somewhere safe.
It is hard to believe there is a place like that left.
So I walk.
I walk until the soles of my feet ache. Until I am just moving automatically, carried forward by habit and momentum. I walk until the lights start to go faster than me.
And then, I have to run.
At first, I think that perhaps I have just slowed down so badly that I have stopped moving fast enough forward, and I have passed the lights but am not close enough to the next one. But then the one in front of me goes out, and I watch in a dazed sort of horror as the one after that starts to flicker.
I don't think - I just move. Stretching one leg out in front of the other, I force them faster until I have taken up a sprint. No matter the cost, I don't want to end up in the shadows. This darkness frightens me more than the corpses I saw before. This darkness is like everything I have ever feared, and all the unknowns, coupled together in one. And it is reaching for me. Long fingers touching the back of my neck, cold and clammy in their efforts to drag me in. They urge me faster, and I can feel my body struggling to keep up with my fear.
I cannot be outrun by the light.
I cannot be left in the dark.
Inside, I scream. Frustration boils over at my inability. I am passing the places where lights shone milliseconds before, their sudden lack of existence burnt into my mind, leaving spots of half light in their wake. Fake. All of it fake. None of it good enough. I can't possibly push harder.
So I do.
I am almost tripping over my own legs, running too fast, and I know no matter how desperate I am, it is possible to go hurtling toward the gravel at my feet and not be able to get up fast enough.
The blackness is cold against my skin.
I am afraid.