This was one of the original excerpts I wrote for “All Roads Converge” (previously mentioned in yesterday’s story). It is a brief glimpse into the world, and a close examination of what it does to some of its people. You get a small taste for some of the concepts that run throughout the book through the eyes of a broken mother.
Without further ado, the third and final novel teaser of my “April Challenge”:
When She Broke the Levee
by Curtis A. Deeter
Whenever my daughter used to say, “It’s okay, Mommy. Go back to sleep,” I always knew there would be trouble.
I saw it in her eyes the day she was born. Before birth, I felt it inside of me, desperate to escape, all the while knowing. Knowing there was something off about her. Knowing she would grow up and leave her mark on the world, for better or for worse. Knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop her from fulfilling her destiny.
Still, I was her mother; she needed me. I was bound by blood to keep her safe and watch over her until she could make her own way in life. I did my duty, feeling no remorse or responsibility for what happened.
It began with whispers—soft nothings in the dead of night. The first time I caught her outside our ring of flickering candlelight—our sanctuary during the midnight hours—I about had a heart attack. There she was, kneeling in the corner, speaking in tongues to the shadows on the wall. Then, listening intently as if they were speaking back.
“Anaya! What are you doing?” I said. “Get out of the darkness.”
But she continued to chant and rock until her spine twisted inward and her eyes rolled to the back of her head as if she were caught in the throes of ecstasy. I called to her, but she didn’t answer. And I lacked the courage to cross the threshold into the night to bring my baby girl back to the real world.
Quietly, she came out of her trance. Color returned to her face, wetness to her eyes. She looked at me with the innocence of a child as she crawled into the covers and snuggled close.
“Mommy?” she said. “It’s okay. Go back to sleep. I’ll protect you from all the monsters.”
I cried myself to sleep that first night because I was supposed to be the one protecting her. No mother wants to see it the other way around.
I should have realized something was wrong. Well, I did, but I should have admitted it. I should have taken her to the Overseer and told him all about her inexplicable behavior in the dark of night, but she was my little girl. What mother could turn on her own flesh and blood? No, that wasn’t an option. The only option was to make the best out of a bad situation, to hide whatever wrongs we were committing.
No one knew where the nightmares came from or where they disappeared to during the day. There was speculation, as there always is, but no one could make up their minds. The dark times of the day always carry with them a certain macabre stigma—times for evil creatures, tortured minds, and delirium—but this was something entirely different.
Had someone put something in our water supply to twist our minds when the lights went out? Was there a warlock of great power, a covetous hoarder of the arcane, who fed off our dreams and our deepest fears? Or, perhaps, there was an otherworldly force at work, using our subconscious minds against us to weaken the state of our planet before invasion. All possibilities seemed mere fantasy.
Whatever it was, it couldn’t be ignored.
I favored the latter explanation for no other reason than the vastness of the stars themselves. In the end, my conjecture hadn’t been far off.
I was barely old enough to remember the times before I had Anaya. I had been around her age, toddling my way through the early stages of life, when the nightmares started. First, they came to us in our dreams. Eventually, we could see them dance in the shadows of alleyways and basements. Always mocking. Always dragging us closer.
We moved to New Gomorrah when I was nine. Even in its foundling stages, the city was a cesspool of depravity, debauchery, and violence—a brothel on every corner, pharmacies for the tweakers, and a brutal police force worse than the marauders of the Wilds. What had once been confined to the boundaries of our imaginations ranneth over like blood in a chalice; we could no longer hide from our demons.
I remember the city being a place of torches and floodlights, slums and grotesque Gothic architecture, hunched shoulders and bleary eyes. No matter where one looked, there was the ever-looming Courthouse, its stone facade and brutal spires a testament to the resiliency of the people it claimed to serve, and the twin Towers, knives of glass piercing the clouds, fending off the darkness that shrouded our lives. As a kid, these staples of New Gomorrah were larger than life, larger than the world itself. I speculated endlessly as to the happenings within, but never found a satisfying answer.
I also remember the faces in the crowds. How they were sick-streaked, wide-eyed, and gray against the backdrop of reality. How they snapped away the moment you tried to look into their eyes. How they bared their teeth at the weak, mocked the downtrodden, and envied the young. Oh, those thousands of faces.
Mostly, I remember my first vision. They weren’t mere dreams, rather a waking unreality—an alt-world of all things that went bump in the night—where people’s deepest fears and darkest demons came to life. Mine grew more and more tolerable over time, but that first one nearly killed me. I laid feverish for nearly a month afterward, talking in my sleep and staining the bedsheets with sweat and otherwise.
There we were, in the streets of New Gomorrah, heading towards our new haunt. We would forever reside in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment on the seventh story of a nondescript row building. The stairwell was well lit and the locks strong, but halfway up to our lodgings, the lights flickered out for only a second or two. But those seconds were more than enough to launch me into one of the most vivid, most haunting experiences of my life. Later in life, when I closed my eyes, I could see it as clearly as when it had happened.
I stand at a great precipice. Across the gap, waving from the far side of a cliff that dropped into oblivion, my family waits for me. They are all there: my cousins, my grandparents, my brother Jak—who died during childbirth—grown into a man, and my parents, among the faces of countless others: ancestors I never knew or met. In my arms, the fetus of a child I have yet to have, bloody and screaming in alien tones.
“Come,” I hear them say. “Jump across. It’s not far.”
I inch forward, peering down, down, down into the nothingness of the pit below. The screaming shifts, suddenly echoing from the depths. The blackness slowly comes into focus. A thousand, thousand crooked bodies, all mashed together in lava-like mortar, are rising towards me. They contort. They writhe. They beg me to release them from the pain they’re feeling, or to join them in their forever struggle.
But we have our own struggles, I think to myself. My thoughts echo across the chasm, their truth slamming back into me.
I cannot choose; my family or those wretched souls? It should be an easy decision, but I cannot decide.
All the while, blood and bile drips from the mass in my arms. It stings my flesh, burns holes in the dirt beneath my feet. The baby has stopped crying, stopped screaming. Instead, its pain reverberates tenfold from the pit, slipping out of the mouths of a million others.
I step back. The mass has reached the apex of the cliff. It continues to rise, like bread dough in a warm box, blocking my path to my family. Before long, it will have grown into a mountain of despair, towering far above everything else. Insurmountable.
Then, I realize I have no other choice. My child, the one I haven’t had yet, is a ball of liquid fire in my arms. I drop it, turn away from my choices, and run as fast as my wobbly legs will take me.
There is a crack in the sky letting crimson darkness in. Shadows play around the corners of the crack, blotting out the stars and creeping ever steadily towards the earth. Towards me.
Still, I run. Faster. Faster. Faster. Until I can run no further.
I drop to my knees, chest heaving, and pound my fists on the ground. There are shadow people all around me, reaching out to take me with them.
More fall to the surface like asteroids, blinking into existence the second they hit the ground. I look up to see the sky is black, void of twinkle.
A baby cries. My baby.
They turn from me, these heralds of oblivion, and stalk towards the dark hulk behind me. Despite myself, I have an overwhelming desire to fight them, to protect what I don’t even deserve to call my own.
Black tendrils sprout from the dirt, wrapping tightly around my ankles. They creep up my legs, constrict around my waist, and spread to my arms and neck. Inch by inch, they pull me down into the ground. The harder I struggle, the faster the world slips away.
As it slips away entirely, I see the shadow people scoop the baby off the ground. They are fighting for it, coveting it, holding it by its arms and legs, pulling it this way and that. I’m afraid they might snap it at its joints, but can do nothing to stop them. I am rooted too firmly in the ground and too far gone to save it. How can I save what’s not mine when I cannot even save myself?
I cry out, but the vines have wrapped around my neck, springing new branches into my mouth. My pleas come out in muffled gurgles.
The last thing I feel is that weightless feeling of falling. Falling. Falling. Falling forever in nothingness.
I awoke from this nightmare in a cold sweat, palms clammy and mouth dry. I felt my heart throbbing in my throat, could smell the fear exuding from every pore. My parents were holding me and rocking me back and forth, keeping it together after being thrust into their own frightful dream worlds. Epitomes of the parent I wished I could have been for Anaya…
After that, we kept to the light places. For as long as we could, at least.
New Gomorrah offered delicacies of the flesh and mind for every desire. Temptation awaited around every corner. Sin walked the streets in the open, not bothering to disguise itself. Music filled the alleys when back doors were opened. Gunshots rang out at all hours of the night until the Overseer’s ban on guns. Money exchanged hands for this and that, dignity lost in gutters along the road.
My mother detested those types of places. My father feigned detestation, all the while sneaking out when we were asleep to fulfill his own selfish, carnal pleasures.
I was blissfully unaware until a Madame found me in my late teen years. The prospect of love, of physical touch, and of endless riches had been too much to turn down. For a while, my waking hours were almost as horrifying as the nightmares, but one golden rose came out of that self-inflicted garden of thorns: Anaya.
When they found out she wasn’t affected by the darkness like the rest of us, they watched her closely. When they found out she spoke to the nightmares, even kept them at bay, they recruited her. No one else could slip between the two worlds without simultaneously slipping into madness. Their taking her was inevitable, really, but I refused to let her go without a fight.
We had a day out on the town, hitting a string of makeshift shops that traveling merchants had erected overnight and enjoying each other’s company. The merchants came from the Wilds, bringing with them baubles from other, far-away commonwealths, eccentric foods with spices that always sat rough in my stomach, and all sorts of oddities to widen the eyes of little girls like Anaya.
“Ooooo,” she would say, veering off to another tent. “Ahhh. Mommy, mommy. Look at this.”
She held out a puzzle constructed out from willow wood with metal wiring running from end to end. An iron ball nested in a cup at the tip.
“What is it?” she asked. I shrugged. I was never blessed with the same opportunities as her; I was always on the run from something or another, hiding from hunger or worse. Her wonderment melted my heart. “See, mommy? You just have to get the ball from one side to the other. It’s easy. Try it.”
So, I tried it, and failed. But I practiced in the lonely, cold nights when I missed her the most. It brought a part of her back when I needed her the most.
We rounded the block towards our apartment, Anaya skipping along and playing with her toy, oblivious to the pains of the world around her. She would look up at me, force a smile for my sake, and flutter her eyes. Seeing the twinkle in those emerald stars, I forgot about the starless sky from my first nightmare.
A man with pallid eyes and sunken cheeks shook a tin can full of coins at us. He smelled like a lifetime’s worth of misery and sour ale. I noticed him before Anaya and put myself in between them. She was too young, had already seen too much, and I still wanted to avoid the things that made her grow up too fast. It was a small gesture, but meant the world coming from the love of a mother.
She pushed by me, holding her puzzle out in front of her.
“Excuse me, mister?” she said, squatting next to him.
He gargled something incoherent, turned to face her with stained, golden eyes, and wiped the moisture from under them. “Julia?”
“No, sir. My name is Anaya. What’s yours?”
“Oh, my sweet Julia.” He reached out for her, and she gingerly took his hand in hers. “You come back to me. I always knew you would. I done told ‘em, too… I told ‘em.”
“Here,” she said, handing him her puzzle.
He reluctantly took it and said, “Thank you. Thank you, young Anaya. But this is yours. I can’t—”
“No. It’s yours now. I gave it to you. Giving it back would just be rude.” She leaned in, kissed him on the dirty cheek, and returned to my side. “Can we go home now, mommy?”
“We can, baby. We can do anything you’d like.”
“I just want to go home. I’m tired.”
So, we went home, or rather the closest place we had.
I couldn’t imagine why they would say such nasty things about my baby or why they would ever want to take her from her mother. She was sweetness anthropomorphized. She was hope in the flesh. None of the other stuff mattered. Couldn’t they leave her alone?
Back in our apartment, after a meager dinner of stale bread and salted meat, a crash sounded from the front. Light and street noise poured in, followed by a wave of indistinguishable men—about a dozen or so—drab in sand-colored trench coats and wearing plague masks. They brought the musty smell of their body odor into our home, tread our carpets with their black boots, and brought down what little furniture we had for the fun of it, shattering our lamps and kicking in our dinner table. The bulk of the intruders fanned out to the edges of the room, standing like dark shadows, watching our every move.
Their leader pulled Anaya and myself out from the back room by the napes of our necks, all the while snarling and salivating.
I squirmed, scratching at his arm and side, biting at the loose skin around his wrist. I screamed for them to let us go, threw punches at the air.
“Get out of my house,” I yelled. “Who the hell do you think you are? What’s the meaning of all this?”
He tossed us on our knees in the center of the room, slowly removed his mask, and set it gently on the corner of our shattered table. Lamplight played sinister games across his face. Dust swirled around the room in the struggle’s aftermath. Someone coughed. Someone else sneered.
Anaya didn’t flinch.
He crouched, leaning towards me. I could smell gin and tack on his breath, the stuff oozed between his reddened, sharpened teeth. With a gloved hand, he grabbed my chin and brought my face to his.
“We’ve come for your daughter. You had to have known we would.”
I held back tears. “You can’t take her. It’s too soon… you just can’t.”
“We must. You know that, too. So much depends on little Anaya and her special talent. You’re a very gifted little girl, child,” he added, lifting her chin with the pointer finger of his other hand. “Don’t you want to help put things right?”
His grip tightened on my jaw. I struggled against him with all my weight, but he was too strong for me. He hissed out of the side of his mouth and let go just long enough to slap me across the cheek.
Whimpering, I said, “She’s too young. You can’t… please.”
“We have to. She’s special.”
His circle of lackeys stepped inward in unison, the sound of their boots deafening. They drew batons, grunting a war chant as they did.
“Your daughter could save the world one day. Are you willing to risk keeping her from her destiny?”
I shook my head, sniffed, and plopped down on the floor.
If I’d known how wrong he’d been, I would have fought them to the death. I would have pulled the jackknife out of my boot, plunged it into the leader’s neck, and taken Anaya out with me… I might have had time. I might have been able to stop it.
Instead, I watched like a helpless victim as our world changed forever. I knew, too. Knew it had been her. Knew the levee had broken for good—that the demons we had been working so hard to hold off would now flood over us, inundating us in a world of violence and terror that we would never wake from.
Three years later, on a brisk afternoon, I shuffled along between the Towers and the slums, hands stuffed in my pockets, ignoring the bums pushing their carts down the sidewalk and the rats scavenging the gutters for food, believing myself to be the most tragic victim of them all. A gust of wind kicked up, blowing an old, yellowed newspaper into my face. I struggled with it, glanced at the page, and tossed it aside. No news could mean anything to me now, not with my Anaya gone.
There was an extra bustle to the city. Hints of anticipation on the air, perceptible even over the stench of sick and coal steam, poured out of the faceless row houses that encompassed our lives. It seemed to me that any moment the world was going to explode in a silent orchestra of activity. I wondered what genre it would sound.
I stepped absentmindedly through the dark spaces between street lights. Once, before they had come for my precious little girl, the brief flashes of my demons might have brought me to my knees. My fellow survivors, for that is truly what we were, passed in a blur, twitching in those dark spaces, not yet having faced their darkest nights. Even a split-second’s visitation to the nightmarish places was enough to drive a person mad. But not me. I was already mad. Mad, furious, and broken.
No matter how hard I tried to shut it out, I could hear her whisper, “It’s okay, Mommy. Go back to sleep,” but I refused sleep and would continue to refuse it until I’d earned my life back. Until Anaya was safe in my arms.
I lit the lamps, waiting as they filled the front room with light, and then sat at my desk to plot my next move. They were holding her at the Tunnel Command Center, a place under the Overseer’s purview. I’d heard rumors of what went on there—the tortures, the executions, the promotions—but the official story claimed the TCC was our last line of defense. Without it, the lights would go off. Without the lights, the world would fade to black. Forever.
After the Courthouse and the Towers, the TCC was guarded the heaviest, with dozens of Sentinels posted strategically on the blocks surrounding it. I never learned the art of stealth, but I had to try. If I could only get past them… If I could only find my daughter among the thousands of others working the Tunnels.
I spent the greater part of a month observing and biding my time. I learned their patrol patterns, memorized their shift changes, and noted the times in which the laziest Sentinels were on duty. I drew a mental map of all the cover I could use to my advantage, all the spaces in between I could lose them in. The dark no longer frightened me; this living nightmare was worse than anything the dark conjured. Using the hardness created from losing my daughter to my advantage, I would wind my way through their ranks, cut them down when necessary, and free her, freeing myself in the process.
My sweet, sweet Anaya… She never even had a chance.
I slung my bag over my shoulder, taking with me—in case we were forced to flee to the Wilds right away—enough food and water for a month, an array of edged weapons, and a medic.
The building shook, knocking a cup off the counter. This was no ordinary quake, the convulsions continued, knocking drywall from the ceiling and bricks off the facade of our building. Black water oozed up into the sink. The lights flickered, as they were wont to do, and burst. The nightmares came rushing at me. I shielded my eyes, moving forward towards the door, but their presence was overwhelming and undeniable, even for me.
Then, they were gone.
Outside, throwing myself against the inertia of the world turning, I pressed on. I leaned into the fray, protecting my face with my free arm. The sky, and everything under it, was tinted a muted red, like the umbra of the sun in autumn. A world that had grown all too familiar to me—the Courthouse, the cracked walls of the buildings, the dark, foreboding alleyways—was suddenly alien and frightening. I looked behind me, feeling as if I were being followed, and the world shifted from what it once was to what it had so suddenly become. It strobed from reality to dream, dream to reality.
A door to my right burst open, splintering at the hinges. A man ran out into the street, flailing his body like he was on fire. He fell into the road, writhed from one side to the other, and fell silent.
A window across the street shattered. A couple leapt out, screaming, their ghosts close in toe. I could hear the crack of their ankles as their feet met sidewalk. They, apparently too afraid to fret over the pain, shot to their feet and hobbled away, always checking over their own shoulders for their invisible pursuers.
The manholes in the center of the street began to vibrate. Then, in perfect timing, they shot thirty feet into the air, a stream of filth and sludge propelling them.
I ran. The screams surrounded me, never allowing me the distance to think.
Off in the distance, a building exploded. I could hear the tinkling of the glass from its windows showering the street and feel the heat of the explosion—the first of many to come.
As I turned a corner towards the TCC, I collided with a young, expectant mother, catching her before she could hit the ground.
She wrenched herself free from my grasp, set her legs in a fighting stance, and raised a drain pipe over her shoulder. Discreetly, I let one of the knives tucked in my sleeve slide out and wrapped my fingers around its handle. Then, as if coming to her senses, she relaxed and lowered her weapon.
“What’s happening?” I asked, gripping my knife tighter, but forcing myself to relax, too.
“They’re free.” She looked around frantically, her head moving in jumpy, irregular bursts.
“Who? Who? Who’s free?”
I wanted to shake her, to slap her across the face. I wanted answers, and I wanted them now.
Her pupils expanded and her cheeks began to tremble. Shaking her head, she said, “The Cloaked Man. Those that stir in the night. She’s set him free, that demon child. She’s broken the barrier between the worlds. Please, let me go. Let me be on my way. I mean you no harm.”
I stood, aghast, watching her disappear into eternal night. In that moment of silence—the last moment of silence I would likely ever have—it dawned on me that the nightmares had stopped. There was no more light, yet I saw the world for what it was. Maybe for the first time. I hadn’t been plunged into the dream world as accustomed. We were free from that madness, though, which wasn’t much of a consolation in this terrifying new world.
They had stopped being nightmares because they had become reality.
Two blocks down, between myself and the TCC, a flood of demons seethed towards me. I tried counting them all—a dozen, a hundred, a thousand—my eyes couldn’t focus on them as individuals. Instead, the mass of fangs and tentacles and fur moved as one entity, oozing and chanting as it drew closer, engulfing everything it came in contact with.
Behind them, just before I turned to run after the pregnant, young woman, I glimpsed who must have been the “Cloaked One” she mentioned. He was tall, god-like, and calm, gliding behind the monstrous mass. A lithe cat, larger than a panther with crooked horns protruding from its skull, flanked him to the right. Anaya, or rather an ethereal remnant of my sweet girl, followed to his left with her arms clasped and her head bowed in reverence. The purplish glow of twilight surrounded her.
I cried out, but knew I couldn’t linger. I’d lost her. I’d waited too long.
Above me, as I ran wildly through the streets, a fiery, crimson sun moved across the sky, blotting out the moon and the stars. I could feel its heat. I could hear the crackle of flames swimming across its surface. If it moved any closer, we would all burn up in its rays.
As I said before, my conjecture hadn’t been too far off. There had been our world, and there had been theirs. We never knew, but the barrier between them had been thinner than a strand of hair, and all it took was my daughter—Anaya, who talked to the shadows and lived in the night—to break the strand.
I could still hear her, still see her late at night, but grew too weary to dwell on the past any longer. We had too much to fight for, too much to lose.
I fought for Anaya, one day hoping to be reunited with her. In this life or the next. In the meantime, I promised myself to fight on.
For the names I heard whispered in the wind: Cato, Viktor, Juliana. For the lives that had been lost, blood that had been unnecessarily spilled. For a memory of a world that never existed, but still could.
We were forced to fight on three fronts. One, against the invasion of darkness. Two, against those like the Overseer who have ruled over us with terror and with brutality for far too long. And lastly, against our own personal demons, those that used to follow us in the dark of night but now roam the streets, free and hungry and ever present.
The darkness cannot win. Early on, I hoped to one day plunge a dagger into the breast of the Cloaked Man, to strangle his cat—Kaitanna, as she had come to be known—and to free my daughter from her own bindings. Or what was left of her, in the least.
This was why I refused to go back to sleep. To you, my daughter, I would say this: you were right about one thing. It will be okay. I will see it through to the end.