These entries from January's challenge were selected as Honorable Mentions. Those who completed this challenge are now encouraged to share their stories in the comments section of the "January Writing Challenge."
If We Could
All I can hear are the sounds of my feet crunching through the snow and my breath, shallow and quick, pulsing in the frozen air. The wind bites, and I wrap my coat around me more. All the buttons had broken off, and I didn’t have the money to replace them.
At first, I couldn’t find him. I waited for a long time, thinking that I was just early. Then I began to look for him, thinking that maybe I’d gotten the meeting place wrong. I was about to go home when I heard a thump behind me, followed by a giggle and a snap.
“I thought you would find me!” he says. He’d been sitting in the oak tree, watching me pace back and forth.
“You know, I could’ve been warm and cozy, and instead I’m out here, wandering and looking for you.” I try to sound mad, but it’s hard with him.
“I’ve been out here too,” he argues. “I just decided not to wander.”
We begin to walk side by side amongst the trees. The path is wide and covered in snow, making it seem like it could go on forever. This used to be an old village, the path we’re walking on an old road, but it was abandoned years ago. Now we come here to get away from our own homes, to just be ourselves.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to just stay here forever?” he asks. He asks this question every time we meet here. “Or keep following this road and never look back?”
“We’d freeze,” I tell him. “Or starve, whichever comes first.”
He shakes his head. “You have no faith. I know how to make a fire, you know how to hunt. I could teach you how to climb the trees so we could escape the wind. I think we could make it.”
We have this argument every single time we wander here. He wants to leave, I can’t. There’s too much back home, too much we’d be leaving behind.
“I know, I know,” he says. “We’ve still got family back there, and an education, and the chance for a better future.” He sighs. “Sometimes, though, I think we’d have a better future out there, just trying things out on our own.”
I relent. “Maybe we would.”
“So why don’t we?” He stops, and I stop, and we face each other. “Why don’t we go out there?” he asks. “Why do we stay here and take care of people who are going to die anyway? Why stay when we could build another future out there?”
“Don’t say such things.” I keep walking, but only for a few steps because he does not follow.
“I’m serious.” He looks past me, towards the unknown. “Why don’t we escape while we still can?”
“Because it’s not safe,” I tell him. “Even if we did find some other world, we don’t know if they’re benevolent. We don’t know if they’d accept us or if they’d kill us and loot us!”
“Maybe it’s worth the risk.”
I return to him. He looks exhausted, as if the world has sucked the life right out of him. Taking his hands, I say, “Look me in the eye and tell me you would run away now if you could. Look me in the eye and tell me you could leave it all behind and not regret it.”
He squeezes my hands gently, and we lock eyes. “If I could, I would run away now and never look back.”
Could we do it? Could we survive, if we ran away?
My head tells me we couldn’t. My gut tells me we could. For the first time, my gut wins.
“Then let’s go.”
It felt as though it was so long ago that I was sitting at home peacefully by the fire as a new year rolled in. It had been only days since the beginning of a new year, but the time dragged on like every minute was stuck in a thick patch of sinking sand. Slower and slower it would get, like the seconds were submerging rather than passing. It was on New Year’s Day that Luka had emerged from the forest. He had come from the South and did not expect to find inhabitants out here.
I had been looking out the window when I saw his figure stumble amongst the trees and into the snow. Fog and distance made him hard to see, so I assumed it was some kind of animal that had strayed to the edge of the forest borders — a bear perhaps. His thick fur hood and jacket made the confusion easy. It was not until he continued towards my home — drawing closer and closer — that I recognised that he was in fact human.
Perhaps if he had continued to move forward and not strayed just slightly west into the small clearing where my house lies, I would not be in this mess. In fact, I know I would not be.
As he had drawn closer, I emerged from my front door and immediately pointed my gun at him; he threw his arms in the air as if to surrender.
“Please! Please!” he yelled.
“What do you want?” I replied. Fear coursed through my body, but I was not one to take a life without good and justified reason.
“I am going East.”
“You’re already as East as it gets!” And I truly believed so. I live in Naukan, a deserted village in the easternmost part of Russia. My late grandfather and father — who was just three at the time — hid in the forest when the area was evicted in 1958 by order of the US. A close friend of my grandfather’s left his daughter — who was 6 — with him, as his friend knew the little girl would not survive where they were going. The children were my parents. I was born in 1996, and I was raised here — only here. When Mama died of pneumonia, father fell deep into misery. He walked into the forest one day and simply never came out. Since then I have lived alone, my guard always up in case of danger. Until a gut feeling led me to trust Luka.
“My name is Dinara,” I had told him as we sat by the fire. He told me his name and before long told me his story. I did not believe him at first, but the years of isolation built up my curiosity to the point where I had to see for myself if Luka was right.
“But my father always told me, across the Bering Strait is Alaska.”
“And he was correct, that is what you would have found before 2014.”
My isolation had left me ignorant. A war beyond what our human minds could measure had broken out and had mostly wiped the globe of civilisation. Few lives remained. In fact, Luka explained that, “apart from a few corners of China and Russia, in which a rebellion is said to be in place, only the isolated and the important have survived.” Luka explained it to me, but it was hard to fathom. Maybe I had not been a part of that world, but I took comfort in the knowledge of its existence. Knowing now that it had been eradicated four years ago was difficult to wrap my head around. But Luka spoke of something that raised greater concern. A wall, inexplicably large and uncomfortably close loomed. Construction had begun long before the war and was completed at the moment it was needed the most.
“It is believed the wall goes around the borders of what used to be Alaska. Inside is 1% of what used to be the world population. That 1% were the wealthiest people in the world. They controlled too much, and they control even more now. I want to find that wall.” Perhaps I could have stayed in the safety of my home. But how safe was it really? I was tired of living the same sluggish life, and if I died chasing a wall with a man I don’t know, at least I can say I had a cause. I knew it was not enough of an excuse to go, but as we walked side by side through the forest — with trees looming above us, so tall and thick you could barely see the sky — I knew that this was what I needed to do. I was a survivor. This was to be my story.
Wandering through memories is a dangerous business. The past is deceptive, disguising itself as a calm, beckoning sea. It’s only once you start drowning in the waves of nostalgia that you realise your mistake. At the bottom of this ocean, where the light cannot reach, I hid my most suppressed memories, never intending to return for them. But these recollections had plans of their own and soon began to haunt me. Of course, he was only able to enter when I was at my most defenceless: asleep. And there we were, ambling through the snow-filled wood without a care in the world. All the tiny details of the scene rushed back to me in a flurry of emotions. The cold biting my fingertips, my beanie struggling to remain perched on my head, and him. In all of his glory, him. His hand flew around as he animatedly explained his most recent discovery. But I wasn’t listening. I was completely absorbed by the flecks of gold in his eyes, the pink tint in his cheeks, the snowflakes resting on his eyelashes, all the minutiae that no one else would notice. I wanted to warn us. I bet if we had paid attention, we would’ve heard the subtle cracks from above, giving us lifesaving extra seconds. But we didn’t. I didn’t even see the branch strike him, just his limbs protruding from odd places and the clean snow slowly being stained crimson. I woke heaving, cold beads of sweat trickling down my face. I could feel his presence in the room, a once comforting feeling now terrifying. Wandering through memories really is a dangerous business.