Short Stories

The Dying Light

It's been years since the sun mysteriously went out, and a mother is getting desperate to save herself and her daughter.

This was a short story I wrote a while back based on a prompt that I found on Reddit. Not the best thing I’ve ever written, but there are parts of it I certainly enjoyed. I hope you like it as well.

———

Haley-Deanne was born April 14th, 2021, at 3:47 pm on a beautiful sunny spring day that would have been hard for anybody to describe as anything less than perfect. She came into the world no different than any other child does. Crying, confused, angry, sore, and bloody. She had all her toes and all her fingers. Her voice was loud and strong. Much like the day she was born, it would have been hard for anybody to say she was anything less than perfect.

Despite the perfect day, and despite the perfect baby, Haley’s mother was panicking. “Give me my baby,” she said, holding out her hands. But nobody acknowledged her. The doctor and nurses spent the first minute of the child’s life checking her over and oohing and awing about how beautiful she was.

“There’s no time! Give me my baby!” The mother yelled. Once again, nobody paid her any attention. The second minute of the young girl’s life was spent getting cleaned up by one of the nurses, who kept asking Haley if she knew how lucky she was.

The mother, whose panic kept increasing, looked over towards her husband. “Make them give me my baby! There’s no time! You know there’s no time!” But he too ignored her and was looking over the nurse’s shoulder at his newborn daughter. The third minute of Haley’s life was spent being admired by her father.

The fourth and fifth minutes of the baby’s life were spent getting another looking over by the doctor. The mother was alone, crying and screaming and begging them to hand over her daughter before it was too late. Didn’t they know what was going on? Why were they all so calm? Why was her husband not helping her?

Six minutes into Haley-Deane’s life she was placed into the arms of her father. His face seemed to be all smiles, the kind of pure emotional expression that infects others around them with joy. The nurses were crying, and the doctor left with a pat on the back for ‘ol dad. “Good job, sir, you made a great baby.” The father held the baby and rocked her, the full-faced smile never faltering for a second.

The mother was screaming by now. Screaming and bucking and doing everything she could to get free. To protect her daughter. But she was trapped. She was strapped to the bed and it didn’t matter what she did, she could never escape. The fear and misery were all that she was, and all that she knew. She only wanted her daughter to be safe, but nobody was helping her.

Her husband, the father, and the man she thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with, finally looked up at her. The smile faded. “I’m sorry,” he said, walking towards her. “I love you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. I have to go.”

“Go? No, you have to help me! You have to help protect our daughter! You can’t leave me!”

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. He placed Haley gently in her mother’s arms, kissed the mother on the forehead, turned, and walked out the door.

“Come back,” the mother screamed. “We need you!” She rocked back and forth, the joy of having her daughter undercut by the loss of her husband. What were they going to do now? How would they survive? She lay on the bed and screamed and wailed. All around her the nurses went about their business, still ignoring her completely.

Eight minutes after the birth of Haley-Deanne, the sun died.

——

The mother woke with a small cry and sat bolt upright. She quickly placed one hand on the lump that lay next to her, a habit so common she barely even registered doing it. Still there, still safe.

Her other hand, also working on pure instinct at this point, went straight to her stomach, checking on the second most important thing in her life. The gun was still there.

Everything was okay. She sat for a moment and listened, trying to decide if there were any noises going on that shouldn’t be there. Once she was satisfied that everything in her little world was as it should be, she laid back down in her bedroll. She didn’t know if she would be able to get back to sleep, but she knew she needed to try. Sleep was important, and she did her best to make sure both of them got as much of it as possible. Especially HD.

She had been a well-educated person back before the world died. She taught literature at a little community college near her home in Gardabaer, Iceland, and had enjoyed spending some of her free time watching a variety of educational YouTube videos. Over the years she dipped a toe in different fields of knowledge ranging from astronomy to zoology and had been a worthy adversary at her Tuesday night trivia games at the little dive bar near her old house. All in all, she was the last person that she would have thought would survive an apocalypse. So far so good, though.

She often dreamed about her daughter’s birth. It was always the exact same thing. Nobody listening to her, the panic, her husband leaving her, and then the darkness. The all-encompassing darkness. She felt that she understood where all the wild elements of the dream came from. The nurses ignoring her were symbolic of the people in her life ignoring her warnings of how bad the world would soon become and not getting prepared. Being strapped to the bed wasn’t hard to figure out, seeing as how she was now trapped on this cold dead planet. And, of course, her husband being ripped out of her life.

She ended up falling back asleep as she mused over her dream. The remainder of her sleep was uneventful, and she woke up feeling as refreshed as anybody who lived in a pitch-black cave could.

——

“Good morning,” the mother said to the pile of blankets next to her when she woke up. HD was already awake and was squirming around inside her bedroll making playful little noises. The daughter had never lacked for things to play with, considering that toys were not a very high demand during the end of the world. Because of this fact, their little cave was covered wall-to-wall with dolls and action figures for them to play with. The mother would never take anything that made a bunch of noise, though. Even this long into things it still was better to be safe than sorry.

The mother begrudgingly started pulling off the piles of blankets she slept under and got up, stretching and placing her hand once again over the gun for the reassurance it gave her. She’d been carrying it around for almost nine years now, and it seemed as much a part of her as her own hair did. She’d almost lost it once to a thief, back when they had been with a larger group, and since then it had never left her. It was either in a pocket or in her hand at all times.

She had three bullets left for it. She used to try to find more, but one thing that is in incredibly high demand during the end of times is ammunition. Finding extra bullets these days was like winning the lottery back during the Time of Light. The odds were so bad that even trying was idiotic.

She headed towards the back of the cave, walking in a halting shuffle that one instinctively got used to doing in a world with no lights. The cave sat over a runoff from one of the country’s many hot springs, which kept it barely warm enough to prevent them from freezing to death. It wasn’t hot in their home by any means, but it was certainly better than nothing. The first order of every day was inventory. She ran her hands along the makeshift shelves and racks that she had set up, counting cans and sticks and water. In a world without distractions like television and the internet, she found it easy to remember exactly how much of each that she had.

With the day’s first task done she set about to making breakfast for the two of them. She grabbed a candle and her Zippo lighter. “Watch your eyes,” she called behind her, even though HD was still messing around under her blankets and wouldn’t notice a thing. She always liked to give her a warning at least. She pulled down her own glasses and struck the lighter, producing a flash of light that was intense even with her eye protection on. The flame came to life and she at once placed it on the wick of the candle, then just as quickly killed the fire the second the wick caught. She was getting low on fluid and she was not looking forward to the day when she had to start making fires by using a couple of sticks. There had been a period when she and her husband had been forced to that, and she still had scars from the blisters.

With the candle lit, she set about deciding on breakfast. Looked like her options today were corn, Spam, or beef jerky. Considering the fact that this would be the last day the two of them would spend in this cave, she decided to splurge. Corn and Spam both, and the leftovers for lunch and dinner. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten two different foods at the same meal. A small smile crept across her face.

“HD! Have I got a surprise for you,” she called back to the giggling girl under the blankets. She set the two cans down and walked back towards the wriggling pile of blankets. Even with the little bit of light filling their home she still shuffled. She spent so much of her life walking that way that it was just how she did it now. “Watch your eyes. Ready or not, here I come!” Giggles came from the blanket as the mother reached down and pulled the covers away.

The girl beneath the covers was small. Way smaller than she should have been. Her arms and legs were both little more than skin and bones. Her little belly stuck out, as did her cheekbones. Her hair was thin, almost bald in spots, and when she stood up to give her mother a hug she was not able to stand fully erect, and instead leaned over slightly with a hunch. The end of the world had not been kind to the girl whose birth had marked the beginning of it. The young girl really had been born at the same moment the sun died. That was the only part of the dream that was true to life. The first eight minutes of her life, while the last rays of heat were racing towards the earth, was the only time her daughter had felt the warmth of their star.

The mother picked up her daughter. She was incredibly light even for the equally starved woman. She hugged her gently but lovingly, then carried her towards the back of the cave, the daughter putting on her own small but still oversized sunglasses as they got close to the candle. They spent most of the day in their little makeshift kitchen, eating more than they had in years while playing games and dolls. The mother knew that this was the last good day they would have in a while (or ever) and she had every intention of making it as wonderful as possible for HD.

She cried herself to sleep that night, both out of fear and hopelessness. Other than the jerky they were out of food. She’d checked every spot she could find around the cave and there was simply nothing left. They had to find somewhere else to go, and she didn’t know how they were going to make it. She cried herself to sleep, and once again her daughter’s birth terrorized her dreams.

——

The mother woke early, knowing that she had much to do to get ready to travel. She checked the bed beside her and felt the shape of her daughter, and checked her pocket for her gun. All was in order. She thought about waking HD but decided to let her sleep for as long as possible. This would be the last relatively comfortable sleep the girl would have for a long time.

She set about getting ready, packing her dingy backpack with all the things she thought they would need. Over and over she would take everything back out and reassess what she thought they might need. Over and over she kept listening to see if her daughter was awake yet. As much as she wanted to let her daughter rest, they needed to go. They had one last meal her, and then nothing. The longer they delayed the weaker they would become.

Finally satisfied with her packing, she pulled out the beef jerky and set it out for the two of them. She’d been saving this bit of food for almost a year now. She knew it was silly, but she’d never been able to bring herself to eat it. This was the meal that they were supposed to share with her husband when he came back from his last scavenging run. His face that last day that she’d seen him, his goofy little smile as he told them to save him a piece, were all as clear to as if it had just happened yesterday. “I’ll be back in a couple days,” he’d told his wife, giving her a kiss on his way out of the cave.

After two days she got worried. For weeks afterwards, she had held out hope that he’d come back. Maybe he’d only gotten stuck somewhere and would free himself soon. Or perhaps he’d found other survivors and was busy working on international diplomacy to secure a peace deal between the two groups. Every possible scenario to explain why he didn’t come back had run through her head. After a month she started going out looking for him, convinced that he was stuck and needed help. Or at least to find his remains and not have to wonder anymore. But she never found a thing.

She shook her head and snapped out of her memory, then headed over towards the blankets. “Alright, sleepyhead, it’s time to get up. We’ve got a big day ahead of us!” She tried to sound cheerful, even though the stress and fear were eating at her insides like a group of parasitic worms.

No answer. She shook the girl gently, saying her name again softly. The tiny girl had probably just eaten too much and needed more time to recover. But there was still no answer. No movement. A new fear gripped the mother’s heart.

Slowly the terrified woman pulled the covers back from her daughter’s body. The girl wasn’t awake. And she wasn’t sleeping. The mother pulled off her gloves and touched the young girl’s bony face. It was smooth, and beautiful, and cold. “No,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry. I love you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.”

She placed the covers back over her daughter. She got shakily to her feet, shuffled back to the rear of the cave, and sat on the rock she used when she ate. Only then did she start to cry. Slowly at first, the shock still working at her and making it hard for her to think straight.

She’d always known that her daughter would not live to be old. The terrible cold and lack of food was too hard for most people, let alone a child. It was actually a miracle she’d made it this long. That fact did nothing to stop her heart from screaming with a pain that the mother never knew was possible.

She fell to the ground and shook with grief. She cried, she punched the ground, she cursed the God she’d long stopped believing in. Exhausted from her pain and sorrow, she slept.

——

When the woman finally woke up she had a brief glimmer of hope that it had all been a dream. That her daughter was safe and alive and happy beside her. That her husband had come back and they were all together. But all too quickly that dream disappeared. It was real. It was all real, and there was nothing more that she could do. She opened her eyes to look towards her daughter, to look at her shape. Past her, far down at the entrance of the cave, she saw something she thought she’d never see again.

Sunlight.

Surely not, though. She had to be making it up, or there was some other excuse for it. The sun was dead and was never coming back. There’s no way it would come back! Especially not now…

She picked herself up from the ground and started towards the cave entrance that was glowing softly. She stopped for a moment beside her daughter and placed her hand on the still figure, apologizing again for not being able to save her as tears started rolling down her face again, then stood and shuffled towards the entrance.

The sky glowed a deep red. She looked around and could make out bits and pieces of the landscape. “Fire, probably,” she mumbled to herself, trying to explain away what was surely impossible. She’d seen a forest fire before, and it had reminded her at the time of a smoky sunrise.

But there was no smoke. No sooner had she realized this before the sun peaked over the horizon. It’s rays, which had spent the last eight minutes screaming through space between the earth and the sun at unbelievable speeds, were blinding, and she had to cover her face. Slowly she let her eyes adjust and looked again. It really was back. The sun had been reborn. She didn’t even begin to try to understand it, but somehow her daughter had killed the sun, and now her death had brought it back to life. There was no denying it anymore.

For years she had prayed for the sun to come back. But now that it was here, the mother found that there was no more light left inside of her.

She felt her pocket. Still there, of course. She’d been saving the last three bullets for her family. Just in case… In the end, however, she only needed one of them.

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