Chapter 1- The Watch
The darkness is highlighted by a small fire. I feed the flames with the splintered bones of an oaken desk. To my right, some dozen feet away, there is another fire, and another, two dozen feet beyond it. There are maybe ten such fire pits, scratched into the stone beneath our twitching feet.
Sheer rock walls are anchored in the earth a body’s length apart. I sit in the middle with my friends. Or, at least, they’re people I think I know. I stop at “think” because I’m unsure how far back our history goes. Have we always been here, in Thirsting Gulch?
We call it Thirsting because the river ran dry. It’s what mother said. I can’t say for sure. Can’t even tell what day it is, or when I last saw her. You’d be surprised how much you lose when you lose the sun.
I can’t remember anything but dark.
Thirsting Gulch is here and now. That’s what I know. The only light is firelight, and the fires burn low. We’re running out of fuel.
We started with chair legs, busted tables. Wooden beams. Chess sets. Oh, anything we had, really. Once, I asked where the beads and nightstands and books, all this stuff, came from. I asked Nekum and Trivia and Ulius.
There are no answers in Thirsting Gulch.
It hurt the most when Ulius gave me a blank stare from behind his bushy, gray eyebrows. He’s the oldest of us all, could be grandfather or father to any one, and if he can’t bring up one memory of a world before this one—maybe we’ve always been here. In Thirsting Gulch. Listening to the rushing voice of nothing, and the drifting fingers of the fog patting the rock faces which wall us in.
This isn’t a prison. It’s a refuge.
The walls aren’t to keep us in. They keep others out. Back. Away. Which others? I don’t know. It’s just what mother said. Or maybe I dreamed her saying it. I don’t want to think right now. Who knows why we’re here. We only know that we are.
Trivia’s narrow face, her sharp chin, catches the dim glow as she shifts. She speaks as if she suddenly had an idea, like a spark had seared her brain. “It’s the surface. Up is closer to Hell. Down is better. At least, down isn’t the worst.” Trivia touched my cheek when she told me. “Up is closer to Hell.”
What does she mean? I’ve never mustered the nerve to push her. She’d break if I did. There’d be tears dribbling from her eyes if she weren’t so parched. So there’s only a crust, instead, where there ought to be water running freely.
We’ve run dry. Dry like the river.
No, I can’t remember the river’s name.
Maybe Trivia wouldn’t have broken if I’d shouted at her. I should have demanded answers sooner, maybe.
I sometimes see the back of my mother’s head as she shuffles into the fog. Her silvery pocketwatch. I scuttled away from the fire to snatch it.
I press the metal to my cheek when I curl up to sleep, to hold on to the memories. But I wonder, before I surrender to dreams, if she was ever real. Sometimes, I imagine none of this is. And it’s better that way.
What was a pocketwatch for? Everything had a use before Thirsting Gulch, I’m sure. If I had ever been taught what the little black arrows and symbols mean, or what to do with them, I’ve forgotten now.
Noloriom says, “The fires are enlightenment. The light safeguards us, as long as we believe.”
“Believe in what?” I say.
“Who is that?”
“Who is God? How could you ask that?” His eyes widen. His look calls me crazy.
I sigh, hugging my knees close. “Was God a friend of yours?”
The fire gives less light, less heat lately. We are running out of fuel.
“A friend of mine.” Noloriom rubs his chin. “You could say that. Maybe.”
“Don’t you remember?”
His breath is a hiss. He clicks his tongue. “The details have all slipped away, like sand through fingers.” His gaze wanders away from the firelight, scanning the dark around. “Funny, I don’t remember sand. And yet, I said the word.” When he licks his lips, the sound is like tearing paper. “I can’t remember sand, just like I can’t picture God’s face. I just know you’re supposed to believe in him.”
“Good things happen. Good things happen to you.”
A lonely wail, like a stifled shriek, comes from somewhere beyond the rings of firelight. How far? I couldn’t tell you. Far, close, what did distance matter? Our world is limited to the extent of the reach of light: not far.
Not at all far.
In Thirsting Gulch there is no sun. And so the days don’t pass. Rather, time is dragged away by the darkness, by the shifting of shadows weaving a web around us.
How many are we? Thirty, maybe fewer. I always lose track while I’m counting. My mind will wander, grasping at an image. A red balloon, an orange cat. The feeling of saltwater on my tongue. I lose count, and it’s all gone, along with the number.
All I know for sure is that the number is smaller each time.
“Trivia.” I brush her wrist with my fingers.
“Aerin.” It feels good—or more than empty, at least—when she says my name.
“You’re my friend, aren’t you.”
“You sound unsure.” She smiles, hiding her teeth behind her pale hand. But I can tell she is confused by my confusion.
The blackness around us is as it has been: absolute, crushing, still.
“No, I am sure. I am.” I push my voice out, propel it with all the air in my lungs, but my sound is muffled by the oppressive dark. “I am.” I take her hand. “Why do we burn the fires?”
Trivia shakes her head.
“Please,” I say. “The fires. We’re burning everything away. The memories, too. Aren’t we?”
“There’s none of them left to burn, my love.”
“That can’t be true.”
“There was nothing before Thirsting Gulch.”
“No, no. I had a mother. I did.”
“Did you?” Trivia wrinkles her brow. Her eyes are sad, her round lips pursed.
I pull her after me. “I’ll show you.” And when we come to the heap of blankets in a nook in the rock, I stop. “You have to promise not to tell.”
“I promise,” she says.
“It’s a secret.” I stare into her eyes.
Rifling through the blankets, I search for mother’s watch. It would prove she had once been with me. That she was a real person, real in my life, once. It’s right there, I can almost hear the quiet, quizzical ticking of the thing.
I upend the blankets, hurl them aside. Standing over nothing but stone and nothing, my shoulders begin to shake. “Where is it? I know it’s—Trivia, she’s real. The pocketwatch. I took it when she left.” I am sobbing, and Trivia is holding me. I say, “It was the last piece of her.”
“Shh. She is real. Maybe she’s even out there, somewhere. But it seems unlikely.”
I raise my face from her shoulder. It hurts to cry; my tears run dry. “What do you mean?”
Trivia says, “The light keeps it away from us.”
“The madness and the fog. They’re the same thing, I think.”
I think about that. “Noloriom told me his friend God was helping us.”
“He would, wouldn’t he.”
“He’s helping. Only those who believe in him, though. Is he watching, now, do you think?”
“I don’t know who this God is. Sounds a bit selfish, picking and choosing who to lend a hand to.”
The pocketwatch is gone. But Trivia and I cling to each other for warmth by the weakening fire.
The last pile of books falls into the flames. We nudge them in, deeper. The ash doesn’t stir, because there is no wind in Thirsting Gulch.
Books are meant to be read. But if ever I was able to read, that skill has left me.
“What’s beyond the fog?” I ask Ulius.
“Death,” he answers. “Death” is to “go away and never return.”
“What’s beyond the fog?” I ask Noloriom.
“Hell. Demons,” he answers. But he can’t tell me what demons are. And “Hell” he can only describe as “A Bad Place.” That, at least, sounds familiar to me.
“What’s beyond the fog?” I ask Trivia.
“Everything else,” she answers.
“Good and bad.”
Spookers. Had a nightmare about them. Is this the first time I dreamed about Spookers?
There was once a cozy room. All the furniture was made of wood and stained a warm red. A fluffy, pink carpet cut across the heart of the space.
I was in that bed, half asleep. She perched on the edge of the bed, ready to take flight any minute. My mother, or whichever figure my imagination had replaced her with. Real or conjured, she didn’t want to be sharing with me the secret. The secret that was the Spookers. My mother. But she spoke with Noloriom’s voice and cried with Trivia’s face.
Even though in the dream her words had made sense, when I woke, I held nothing but gibberish in my mind. So I let it all slip and slide away.
Into the fog.
Nodded off in front of the fire, I guess. Trivia shakes me awake. She doesn’t want to let go of my wrist.
I push her chest. “I’m fine, now. Just bad dreams.”
She looks at me really weird, like the look you might give someone who walks on their hands instead of their feet.
“Really,” I say. “I’m fine. I have a headache, but nothing worse.”
I watch Trivia drift off. She snores.
The thing about sound in Thirsting Gulch is that it only seems to travel in. Any sounds we make are muffled by something. Maybe by the fog.
And I do hear one very particular sound. A ticking. The ticking.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Bouncing off the walls.
It could be coming from anywhere.
My headache gets worse.
Nekum stole the pocket watch. Mother’s watch. It must have been him.
“Aerin,” he says.
He is little, made littler by how he bent double over the dying flames.
“Hi.” I pat the ground beside me.
He lowers himself with care.
I don’t think we’d ever spoken before, but I can’t be sure of that. I say, “What’s beyond the fog?”
He rubs his chin. “Freedom.”
“How should I know? Anything has to be better than here, though.”
I frown. “Are you sure? How can you be sure?”
“I can’t, of course. But don’t you get the feeling that we’re trapped here? Caged, like.”
Yes, I think. I shrug, pretending I don’t believe he is hiding the truth from me.
“What’s got us caged? Why would anyone do something so awful?”
He shrugs this time. “I’m so thirsty. And hungry. Maybe we’re being watched to measure us. How long it takes a mind to break.”
“So you think there’s more than darkness, out there.”
He snarls. “I didn’t say that.”
“You meant it, though.” I clutch his shoulders. “If someone’s measuring us, they’re seeing how we behave differently. If that’s true, there’s more to it, more than this dark. There’s something other than this place. There’s more to this.”
“More to what, Aerin?”
“More to life, the world.”
Nekum says, “Whatever,” and stared into the flickering flames.
But I say, “I think you’ve got quite a few ideas for someone who claims to be ignorant and shrugs off all my questions.”
“What are you getting at?”
The headache is worse than before. I’d never had one this searing, or, if I had, I’m almost happy to have no memory of it.
I lose my patience with Nekum. I bite my lip so hard it bleeds.
Nekum stole the pocket watch. Mother’s watch. Had to have been him.
These thoughts pulsate in my splitting skull as I clamp down on his neck with my fingers.
“Why did you take it? Why did you take it?” I whisper as I squeeze.
His eyes bloodshot, he yanks at my arms, but I won’t stop. I keep asking the question. He won’t answer.
Two men who are not Noloriom or Ulius rip me off of the barely conscious Nekum.
“He stole it from me,” I hiss. Even if I had screamed, the volume would have been the same. Thirsting Gulch drinks the power from your voice.
After the men separate us, they lose interest. One of them throws another chair leg into the fire as he walks away.
The piles of kindling shrink. No one seems to notice the scarcity of the remaining debris.
No one does.
Except for me.
I sit alone—even Trivia has taken to walking up and down the length of our refuge, to exercise her legs and keep her mind blank. Blankness must be bliss. But the headache fills my brain.
I sit alone in front of the fire farthest along the line the refugees of Thirsting Gulch had formed.
Nekum comes to me. “It was attracting Spookers. So I threw it away.”
“What did you throw away?”
“The ticker.” He shakes at the knees. Weakened legs.
I might kill him, but he doesn’t give me the chance.
He says, “I hear you,” and half-runs, half-tumbles into the place beyond the reach of the ring of firelight.
Into the fog.
Thirsting Gulch, at the narrowest point I know, is as wide as the span of my outstretched arms. It gets wider in places where the fires are maintained, but not more than about ten feet.
Where Nekum entered the fog, the darkness, the gulch opened up.
What lies out there, I have no idea.
I hear the ticking. The ticking is set to drive me mad.
And the fog, it’s supposed to be madness, too. So I choose my poison and drink deep.
With nothing but my tattered clothes, I pick up a chair leg, wrap a shredded shirt around it, and put it to the fire.
This is a torch. How long will it burn?
I take my frail light into the infinite darkness, the fog that stretches to envelop all the world, real and imagined, remembered and now.
The ticking of my mother’s pocketwatch—my mother, real or imagined—is my metronome, the beat to which I set my feet.
Before the wall of fog, I reach out. Touching it, I find it is only fog.
For a few seconds, I hear Trivia calling after me, pleading with me not to go.
I step through.
Thirsting Gulch is a lot bigger than I could have dreamed.
I have the distinct feeling that the torch I carry mostly makes me a more obvious trespasser in this canyon, rather than casting any meaningful light by which I can guide myself. A great chasm opens before me, and there are pitfalls everywhere. Still I can see no sky. Only more black fog.
And there are scratchings, and hissings, and things scuttling just outside my line of sight.
And there is no turning back to the dwindling safety of the refuge. The refuge which is all I’d ever known. I can’t turn back.
I follow the ticking, unsure if it is in my head or in Thirsting Gulch—or, whatever this new place is named.
I follow the ticking.
I follow the ticking.
And I hear the ticking close by. So close. Maybe inches above my head.