Here it is, the latest Stewart Sternberg assignment. The theme is renewal.
Sara heard a man in the line talking about fear. He had two men to either side of him and seemed to like the audience.
"Fear is like a blanket you see, it covers you, smothers you......"
Sara listened with growing contempt. She had been walking in line with the rest of the refugees for the last two days. Like most of the sad group she didn't have a blanket, or any other supplies for that matter. Her face had worn down to the bone, closely resembling the threadbare condition of her jacket.
How could anyone who had ever felt real fear compare it to a blanket? A blanket enveloped you with warmth and comfort.
Fear stripped you bare.
She had been living in a shell that used to be a home. At night she huddled in the corner of the rubble strewn bedroom and tried to stay away from the window and the yellow eyes that looked inside. It had taken less than one night before she gave up the comfort of blanket in favor of using it to cover the window. She didn't know why the creatures that scratched outside the door never came in and she wasn't about to ask.
She wanted to tell the man that she knew what fear tasted like, the coppery feel of it on her tongue and the dryness it left behind. She wanted to tell him that when he talked about naked fear, then he would know what he was talking about. But she wasn't interested enough to waste the time.
Sara didn't have any kids and she knew what a blessing that was right now. Maybe once it was a dream, but no longer. She watched mothers, and the few fathers who were still left, herd their children over the rocky terrain. She saw the fear in their eyes as they gave what little food there was to the kids, not daring to think that more would come soon.
The hills they traveled through were dark. The scouts were trying to shelter them from the sun and the eyes of wandering-- something. Scott had left months ago to fight against those who would take their home, but no one expected that things out of nightmares would materialize when before only guns and bombs had been used. Once she saw the eyes at the window, she knew better than to expect his return.
She had been pulled out of her village two days ago in what was being called a rescue if one insisted on believing it possible. There had been rumors that the one who coveted their land was sending more men and more creatures to drive them out. It didn't take much persuasion to convince the few people left to leave.
So here she was, listening to a man she'd never seen before talk about something he knew nothing about.
Then it started with a howling in the North end of the gorge, about a half mile back. The sounds were alarmingly loud for so far away and coming toward them fast. Sara wasn't a fast runner and she knew her only hope was to hide and maybe get lost in the confusion. There were more than a dozen families with twice as many kids who had the same idea and she tripped over several screaming people who were trying to herd their children toward some sort of shelter. She almost ran down a girl who couldn't have been more than two who was sitting in the middle of the road crying for her mother. Sara looked frantically around but didn't see anyone claiming the child. Without thinking she scooped her up and kept running.
By this time the howling was so loud she couldn't think. She made it to the nearest blanket of scrub she could find and ducked under it with the child. Desperate to save herself and the girl she held her hand over the girls mouth and crying in terror kept shushing the child to keep her quiet. Soon the wailing was so loud Sara didn't even bother trying to keep the girl quiet as she didn't think it would make any difference. Wind whipped at her face as the noise reached a crescendo and she thought her ears would bleed.
The noise stopped so abruptly she didn’t realize it at first.
It seemed as if it was over too fast. Too easy. Sara couldn't force herself to move, finding strange comfort and warmth in holding the child despite the violent quaking of the girl's little body.
It was the calls of desperate parents that brought her out of her spell; that and the frantic squirming of the girl.
No one claimed the child at first and Sara feared that her parents had been lost with the people they were just realizing had been taken with the noise and the wind.
The child immediately responded to her name and took off running toward her mother, without a backward glance at Sara, who was too numb to care.
It was a weirdly detached group that continued on. There were people missing but no one held any illusions that they would be found. The leaders of the group hurried them on with promises of shelter before nightfall.
Sara listened for the man whom she had heard speaking earlier but he appeared to be among the missing. That made her sad for some reason.
But then the most unexpected thing happened. The trail emptied out of the hills they had been traveling for the last two days and sloped gently down into a valley that looked so green, so alive to Sara’s tired eyes. Shouts came from the group as a large city came into view and it looked as if their strange journey was coming to an end.
There were even people waiting for their group to arrive.
Sara couldn't fathom who could possibly be waiting for the people of her village, or why. She barely spared a glance for the people grouped at the bottom of the trail when for some reason a figure holding onto a crutch caught her eye. Something in the way he stood........
The name exploded from her as she felt the blood rush to her face. She started running though her legs felt as if they might collapse.
She knew she wasn’t mistaken when she heard Scott call her name. Running full out she almost crashed directly into him until she realized he couldn’t stand on his own. But before she could fully stop, Scott threw the crutch to the side and limped into her embrace.
And for the first time in too long, Sara dared to let herself feel hope in a warm, blanketing hug.