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Authors: Joshua Johnson

29:16:04:59

BOOK: 29:16:04:59
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29:16:04:59

Prologue

 

             

I am awake, but my life means nothing.

I am lost. I thought hard trying to remember something, anything, but nothing registered. Looking around it was it was positively desolate. I stood on some bare, stricken road in the middle of nowhere. Sweltering lines of heat rose from the asphalt, twisting mirages beyond line of sight.

As I turned, my vision registered an object, a person! The first stranger popped into view, followed by droves of others. There were maybe twenty in all. Most seemed as lost as I was moments ago, all still caught in whatever had happened, detached from life with blank expressions caught in some terror off in the distance.

              The man closest to me was of medium build with bushy eyebrows and a hatefully dissatisfied look of despair traced in his frozen facial features. I opened my mouth to ask him a couple questions. Nothing too complex; my mind just couldn’t work like that.

“Where are we? What happened?” I asked.

The man with the disjointed expression stared dumbfounded. The questions struck him as perplexing, a complete conundrum. Something jingled around in his skull, and he was only able to drool as an answer. I moved on, trying to find someone lucid enough to respond.

              But no one was conscious yet. They all just stood there, absolutely still, gazing off into space like empty husks. I kept catching glances from them as I passed, or at least thought I did. I hoped someone would have a few responses, but these people were no help.

Instinct set in, as if I had done it before, and I reached into my front left pocket and pulled out something. It was called a wallet, or what my brain itemized as such. Flipping through the creased leather, I extracted a driver’s license. Some numbers that didn’t ring a bell were written on the top of the plastic, while others spelled ‘ISS’ and ‘EXP’ were on there as well. It didn’t make a lick of sense, though one detail was hauntingly familiar: the name, Jackson Aims.

A trigger pulled and a shot rang between my ears. This was my name. This was the only piece of information that felt like it fit. Even looking over the picture of myself, or what I could only assume it to be, felt oddly disconnected and unfamiliar.

Placing the license back into the wallet, I rummaged through the rest of the leather pouch. There were just some other pieces of plastic with numbers scribed on them, a few photos of people I didn’t know, and a few dollars . Nothing to help me figure out this infuriating moment in time. Flustered, I returned the bi-fold to the pocket while my mind continued to race with a million needs.

              “Hello?” a tiny, shrill voice came calling from over my shoulder.  When I turned, there was a girl, just a small thing. She was filthy, beaten and broken. Her tear-soaked eyes emitted a silent plea for help. I wanted to help, but fear for this bizarre new world I was flung into made me cautious. Still, perhaps this girl knew what had happened.

I guardedly approached her.

              “Girl,” I blurted out. The words were hard to find in the moment as I struggled with the details. I bent down to a kneeling position so I could look at her directly. “It will be okay. You’re not hurt, are you?”

              She shook her head.

              “Do you know where we are?”

              She just looked down at the ground, telling me what I already knew. I cursed and stepped back. Of course she didn’t know.
Just what the hell was going on?  Where am I?

That was when she started crying. Not loudly, though, just a soft whimper, as if she was trying to hide it. When I looked back I saw her lip quivering, eyes misting over. Poor thing.
How could I be so greedy?
Reaching back, I took her by the hand and she didn’t resist.

              “Shhhh now, everything will be fine,” I said, partly talking myself down as I tried to gain some control of my emotions. “My name is Jackson. Do you remember yours?” We had to start somewhere. I stared into her eyes, her left eye was slightly darker blue than the other.

              “Olivia,” she said, as if she was saying it for the first time.  “Olivia Martin.” Her eyes watered more.

              I wiped the tears away. Her little body shook with strain and tension. It was hard to watch someone in such a way. To have to fight that natural instinct to shy away from people we don’t know, asking things of us we don’t trust to give them. I was sure that’s what she felt because I felt it too.

              “Well, Olivia, how old are you?” I didn’t understand why I asked it, maybe to keep the conversation going or to activate her own memory. She was, after all, the only one that wasn’t mesmerized like all the others, staring off into emptiness. I looked around and saw that not one of the others showed signs of coming out of their stupor. It was so vivid and utterly terrifying, watching these people, their bodies alive yet lifeless.

              “Eleven,” Olivia answered.

              Olivia surprised me again. Finally we were getting somewhere, albeit with simple questions, but they were small victories. I smiled, wanting to laugh even though I had to blink away the tears of being so lost.

              “How old are you?” Olivia asked and gave me the recognition of a delicate smile.

              The question brought on a trembling wave that assaulted each one of my senses. A rapid buzzing filtered into my ears and a burning continued down my skin. My brain fell into full overdrive trying to search for an answer. It was right there too, right on the tip of my tongue.

“Twenty-three,” I said, flushed. I felt like I was scorching hot, ready to fall over. It was so bizarre knowing so little about myself. It made me even more terrified.

              “You’re sorta… old,” Olivia said with a frown. Her slender hand still gripped mine. It tightened with every passing second. She blinked her blue eyes at me to wipe away her tears. Her blonde, dirty hair flapped in a gentle wind. For being so young, and so scared, the comment was bold enough. An unwilling smile appeared on my face.

              “Come along. Let’s see if we can find any friends, huh?” I said.

              Olivia nodded in agreement. Standing back up, I twirled around, leaving her little hand attached to mine. Together we walked the crowd, trying to find anyone who could help. But what we had to do was wait. Slowly, the others drifted back to this plane of existence, though no one remembered much of anything beyond their age and name.

When some time had passed, when every person had come back from the brink of undying, I decided that we needed to leave. There was nothing for us here, not in this barren wasteland. Since I seemed to have the most aptitude, I decided to lead the group. Not exactly what I wanted to do, but no one else was capable. So I set out with my ragtag assembly of men and women, children as well, all of them marching behind me.

We stayed in the middle of the cracked, abandoned road, twisting and weaving into the distance. It led us through an unnatural landscape, incomplete and unrecognizable. Buildings destroyed all around, nothing untouched by whatever tragedy occurred. I wanted to call out, to try and find more faces, but it felt wrong to do so. I was afraid to raise my voice in this unfamiliar land. Moreover, there wasn’t a reason to alarm the others just yet, who were still mostly useless and only able to accomplish the slow, meandering walk.

Olivia no longer needed to hold my hand, but stayed within reach. Even in her short time since coming to, she’d grown in strength and resolve. She was willing to help those who didn’t have the power to walk, aiding others with patience and kindness. The environment was what terrorized my thoughts the most. All about us were the results of some great disaster, but we hadn’t a memory of what exactly occurred. Even though my mind couldn’t comprehend any of what I was seeing, my gut told me otherwise, that eventually I would know what I was looking at. We came into a world not our own. We were in some neighborhood where homes were razed, foundations crumbled, and nothing whole. I tried not to pay attention to the background. I had more important things to deal with.

We stayed on that road for a while.  The sun was much lower in the sky when we came to the end of the line. Olivia saw it first. She ran forward, pointing off into the distance, and tried to get my attention. She had moved towards a cliff that shot straight downwards. When I came rushing to her, I saw the precipice. It rocketed downward a good hundred feet, the sheer drop making my legs wobble. But that wasn’t what the girl was pointing at.

She’d seen something far more frightening, darker than anything I could have imagined. Somehow, in that second, the air dried and boiled. The oxygen was sucked out of my lungs. When I looked up, I was gazing at a broken metropolis, with an evil darkness surrounding the heart of the city.

A menacing veil of, black clouds rotated on an invisible axis. Spikes of lightning struck rapidly through the mass while thunder shook, felt even from where I stood. And I could hear laughter, laughter secreting from the darkness.

All the world was laughing, a dark hissing, a multitude of voices raising on high that no one else could hear. I tried to cover my ears but it wouldn’t dissipate. The world started reverberating and shaking. The darkness expanded from the center of the city and started pouring outward. I watched in shocked, muted horror as it covered everything. Without warning, the shadows washed up and over concrete towers and ruined streets, covering them in some deep blackness.

“Jackson? You ok?” Olivia asked.

“I think so,” I struggled. The laughter died away, and the darkness returned to the center in a blink. Maybe I was physically capable, but I was not really ok. Whatever this was, whatever it was going to be, this was why we were here.

              In the days to come I learned about a barrier that would keep us out from the center of this city. Discovered that nobody was over the age of twenty-six, and that no one had memories of their past. We survived in a broken city touched by a disaster that left nothing unscathed. We were also disappearing, and not because of disease, murder, or other strife’s. It was something far more sinister, and if I don’t figure it all out soon then my fate is sealed.

Chapter One: Getting to Know My Nightmares

 

It’d been two years since “The Forgetting”, and only have a month left before my turning and am no closer to the truth than before. I have tried to solve our ultimate dilemma, but my fragmented memories of the past life haven’t helped.

My dreams just kept getting more vivid, more surreal, more malevolent. Sleep was impossible with those nightmares, flashes of the
barrier
and
the darkness, dreams of me leaving Olivia alone in this brutal world.

I knew I wouldn’t sleep tonight, and didn’t even try. I had the cold sweats before I laid down. My mind raced with the possibilities of the next day, but the shadows that leapt across the darkened room kept me grounded in the here and now.

I tried to still my thoughts and closed my eyes. Straining to remember, I wondered what my life was like before
The Forgetting
. Sometimes I fantasized about it, hoping my past was better than my present. But it always led back to this place and time, and that damn
barrier.
A barrier that surrounded me, hissing, a weird electricity burning the air. A “welcome” taunted me from the darkness that is the city’s center and begged me to come inside. I resisted initially, but soon felt like I was being pulled in against my will. I couldn’t stop it, was never able to.

My eyes snapped open.

I had tried to sleep in the living room. It was small but did the job. The rest of the house was rather spacious, but for some reason I liked this room more than the others. Most of the house was in complete disrepair. I had worked on the place for the past two years, trying to patch it up, but it resisted many of my attempts. There were giant holes in the ceiling that I did my best to plug, but they still leaked when it rained. And the smell of decay could never be washed away. But it was what Olivia liked, so we stuck it out.

The couch’s old springs coiled with a rusty
twang
as I sat up. The fabric smelled old and was torn in places, stuffing spilling out. It was never comfortable, but I couldn’t sleep anyway so there was no point in getting rid of it. Plus it would be awkward to throw someone else’s belongings away. This wasn’t really our house. There were photographs still hanging on the wall, with people we didn’t know, so we respected their space the best we could.

The floorboards moaned from below, and I knew a certain someone was up.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Olivia asked as she entered the living room.

I shook my head. I was beginning to feel the awkwardness of constantly being awake, seeing things that weren’t there, feeling as if someone was watching me. Occasionally I would get dizzy and need to sit down. Bags were growing beneath my eyes, and I was sure they’d never go away.

Olivia’s stomach growled. She tried to cover it up, but I still heard it. She hadn’t eaten that much in the past few days. She wasn’t a stubborn eater, but clearly understood our situation. We may have had ample supplies, but they wouldn’t last forever unless we committed to maintaining a certain lifestyle. I motioned towards the other room opposite this one. She shook her head, but her growling stomached betrayed her.

I marched her toward the space where all the food was kept. I, for whatever reason, could not remember the name for this room. For now, Olivia just called it the
food space
. That was another thing this house provided for us besides shelter. A basement packed with preserved sustenance was directly under our feet. Most of it was canned, some of it packaged. We’d stockpiled it, moving it from other places to here. It paid off after all the days and nights of work. We had years’ worth of food.

“So Olivia, what do you say? You daring enough for the peaches again?” It was hard to see anything yet, particularly Olivia’s reaction. There were slits in the wooden planks I had nailed over the windows, and morning was just beginning to shine through.

Olivia’s response was nothing more than a faint, horrid expression.

“Ummmmmm no?” she asked.

“No?” I asked. I reached for a flashlight I kept on a nail hanging near the basement stairwell. Olivia was afraid of the darkness, and refused to travel downstairs. I turned back around to face the girl with the question still hanging in the air, the light in hand.

She really acted much older than she should. Of all the children I saw in this city, she was the most mature by far. She was certainly more developed than most of the adults as well. That’s why I knew the comment she made wasn’t because she hated peaches, they were admittedly disgusting. Maybe they were too old? Or maybe something else. Either way, they weren’t good enough to eat anymore.

Then something lit up Olivia’s world and she asked, “Can we have some… uhhh…” she cut off mid-sentence, then blushed and twirled her hair.

“Some what?” I inquired. I already knew the answer. For as strongly will-powered she was, she just couldn’t resist the taste of chocolate. We kept several bars sealed in a small plastic container set in a dark corner. It was a very dark chocolate, almost bitter. Olivia loved it nevertheless. I had discovered them a few days back in the basement. The instant it touched my tongue, I relived a memory from before
The Forgetting
when I was just a child. It was an old memory, and jagged in places, not whole.

“You know!” She squirmed, looking up at the ceiling and only sometimes catching my sight.

I shook my head. I wasn’t going to let her off this easy, not this time.

“Ooooooooo, Jackson, come one. Please?” she begged. I still pretended not to understand. She rushed forward, more pleas escaped her lips as she pulled at my shirt and used those big blue eyes to find my soft spot. It was hard to say no to her, but I had a plan. I gave her the flashlight and stepped aside, letting her look into the darkness. She shut down instantly.

“All you have to do, Olivia, is go and find them. You can have all you want,” I said.

As brave as she was, she couldn’t get over this fear. Of course, I shared that same fear. Not of this downstairs labyrinth bathed in black, but the darkness “Downtown,” where lives were cut short.

“No.” Olivia muttered as she took a couple steps backwards.

This wasn’t a cruel tease. She had to learn this lesson for herself. If I could just get her to do this one thing, she would be better suited for life without me, a time that was rapidly approaching. She took a few more steps back, holding the flashlight out to me as she quivered. She was on the verge of tears.

“Okay, okay,” I said, taking the flashlight back. Descending the stairwell was like entering a new world, such a contrast from the land of the living and the light. It was dry and cool down there. The flashlight cut into the shadowy room, illuminating shelves with preserves and packages of dry meal. I had to step over several boxes and debris that lay in between me and my destination.

The metal shelves that held our loot were old and falling apart. Cans were stacked on top of one another, and I recognized the labels of some from a past I couldn’t piece together. One of the cans in particular had a layer of grime covering it. Taking the canister in hand, I used my thumb to wipe clean the surface. “Kidney Beans” was printed in large, bold letters with “Javier’s Beans always taste better!” in smaller stencil below it.

Beans always tasted right, and Olivia like them well enough, so this would be our breakfast. Putting the can into my front pocket, I retraced my way back upstairs and emerged with Olivia patiently waiting. I tossed her the can. The look on her face said she was thankful that is wasn’t the rancid fruit preserves. She fished through a drawer to find the can opener.

“So what are we doing today?” Olivia asked as she displayed the can opener like it was a trophy.

I didn’t answer. My waking moments were starting to solidify into nightmares. I had trouble grasping our existence, and was constantly confused by what happened
Downtown
. It wasn’t anything I wanted to discuss with Olivia, but it was the only thing I could think about. So instead I just remained silent.

She didn’t ask again and instead hummed as she opened the can of beans. She remained pleasant, as if trying to heighten both of our moods. We ate in silence. The beans were cold and the texture had something left to be desired, but they would do.

Someone knocked on our front door.

I wasn’t expecting visitors, and we typically didn’t have any. It was early, too. It looked like the sun was only just then starting to rise on the horizon. Olivia wanted nothing else but to go and greet whomever it was. She probably yearned for attention from someone other than me. I told her to wait in her bedroom, just in case.

Our front door was riddled with bullet holes, and a single shotgun blast near the bottom made for a decent peep hole. Looking through it this time, however, didn’t reveal who was out there at first. But then a pair of eyes moved in front of the hole, staring straight at me.

“Jaccckkkssssooonnn,” a low voice rumbled.

I chuckled nervously in response.

“You going to let us in or what?” another voice interjected.

I let out a sigh of relief. These were familiar voices. I’d first met Kyle and Susan at the beginning of all this. They were part of the group I had shuffled along that broken highway. Knowing these two was a pleasant memory among a sea of terrible ones. They were holding each other’s hand when they first came to on that road, and they never let go, even though they were complete strangers. It was an awe-inspiring sight. I remembered how they struggled to recall events from before, how they comforted each other when nothing made sense. Even though the world was falling apart all around them, they maintained this unusual bond. And then there were the rings. I didn’t know what it signified, but it had to be something special.

Susan was the first to notice the lettering inside her ring. It had Kyle’s name etched in the golden metal. Kyle’s ring had Susan’s name inside it as well. It seemed that the two were meant to be together. The rings, and the hand-holding, forged a strong relationship, and they’d been inseparable ever since.

There were only a few people I could trust in this world. I was the first one. Olivia was the second, Followed by Kyle and Susan. Not only were they honest, but they were passionate and protective of Olivia. They would shelter her when I had to travel to get supplies, and possibly keep her when I used to stay Downtown overnight.

I unlocked the multiple deadbolts and latches and swung the door open. Before I could stop her, Olivia scrambled past me and ran into Susan’s arms.

“Olivia! Oh my goodness look how big you’re getting! Has he been feeding you chocolate all day and night?” Susan cried as she held and hugged the little girl.

Susan had told me she was twenty-one during
The Forgetting
. She looked younger than that, despite the harsh new life. She was petite and very skinny, but her brilliant, green eyes and curly red hair made her seem taller and stronger. I had sometimes dreamt of what our life would be like together, if she wasn’t with Kyle of course. That pretty smile crushed me every time because I knew it belonged to someone else. I could never express my feelings for her, or at least wouldn’t.

“Jacksoooonnnn!” Kyle gave me a bear hug, picking me up and off the ground. He was always excited to see us. Kyle was much larger than Susan, making them comically different in appearance when they stood together. He was well-built, with shocking, blond hair and blue eyes. He remained super protective of Susan and usually didn’t let her go out by herself. And if he had to go somewhere she would be forced along as well.

“And what can I do for you two?” I asked as I leaned over and gave Susan a hug. She always smelled the same way. I couldn’t put a finger on what exactly that smell was, but it was enchanting.

“We haven’t seen you in a few days. Thought we’d pop over and make sure everything was going good, buddy,” Kyle stated as he picked Olivia up and swung her onto his shoulder.

I leaned against the frame of the doorway and looked out into the morning light. It was becoming a fine day, and already heating up. The sky was mostly vacant of clouds, and the sun was nearly fully-formed just at the edge of the skyline. That was when the first hints of gunfire opened up from somewhere down the block.

BOOK: 29:16:04:59
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