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An unknown illness has wiped out the vast majority of the population, leaving behind the chaos of cities without government. In the absence of rules and laws, the cities have become a wasteland ruled by roving gangs. Those who remain are left to scavenge for the basic necessities of life.This is the world in which Nea lives. After the death of Miro, Nea's friend and love, she embarks on a quest to Promise, a city in which a normal life may still be possible. Ahead of her lies a perilous journey full of danger and self-doubt, in addition to the guilt that weighs heavily upon her heart.
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„The Scarred Girl“
Promise: The Scarred Girl
Translated by Bradley Hall
Copyright ©2014 Maya Shepherd
Coverdesign: Ines Caranaubahx
Facebook: Maya Shepherd
For Sabrina Keim,
never forget E+M 4 freedom
Do you know the feeling when you know that something terrible is going to happen? But instead of freaking out, you feel empty and internally frozen simply because you know you cannot change it? You have no choice but to stand impotent and look toward the coming disaster There is a small hope that maybe things won’t be so bad.
We are all affected, regardless of whether we are young or old, fat or thin, black or white. The disease does not discriminate. It can strike anyone.
There are people dying everywhere, and with them electricity, the water supply, food production... and everything else that is required for life in the twenty-first century. All of this is due to a disease that starts as a cold and progresses to a high fever and then on to hair loss and a skin rash until there is nothing left to hope for but death.
The news became filled with new theories about the disease. The adults have no other topic of conversation anymore. No matter where you go, you meet people who have lost someone they know due to the virus. Every evening on the news statistics are displayed that show how much of the world’s population has fallen victim. At the same time, researchers will not tire of pointing out that they are working on an antidote. Of course it has the highest priority and all other research has been postponed. Anyone with even a little medical knowledge is occupied with the search for the urgently needed vaccine day and night. It is the biggest disaster in the history of mankind. Not even the Plague claimed as many victims, and yet there must be some kind of cure. The solution must be close enough to touch, because otherwise it would not explain why some people are spared.
With all the panic, many sects and new religious communities sprang up to explain why some people are spared. Everything is the will of God, who wanted to cleanse the world. But neither myself, nor my parents, are very religious. We never went to church; never spoke a blessing, so why should we start now? But I catch my mother quiet and seemingly unguarded with folded hands as she silently prays to herself more and more frequently. She has a great fear that I can see in her. Her eyes are often red and swollen from crying.
When I was twelve-years-old, my parents ceased giving me a goodnight kiss in the evening or wishing me sweet dreams. I was embarrassed and explained to them that you cannot do something like that to older children. But for four weeks, they came back to me every night. They would sit down on the edge of my bed and look at me with concern. They would tell me that I should not fear and that everything would work out somehow. That no matter what happens, life would go on for me and it would be all right again. I do not know what they feared more, the fact that I might get the plague and die in front of them or that they might die and leave me alone?
I often lie awake all night long in my bed and seriously try to imagine how the world would be without my parents, without electricity, and all the things that go with them every day. But I do not succeed.
A few days ago in our garden, I tried to start a fire with two sticks. But instead of producing sparks, I only poked my arm with one of the two sticks so that it bled. How will I ever survive in this changed world? I will not even have a light in the dark in this world without electricity.
Of course, I could team up with other survivors, but I never had many friends. I have always been more of a loner because I do not like to rely on others.
In addition to my parents, there is only one other person for whom I would do anything for unconditionally, and that’s Miro. He’s my best friend. More than that, he’s the brother I never had. With him, I share my hopes and dreams and worries and fears. Whenever I am sad, he conjures up a smile upon my face.
If the world goes down in flames, he will hold my hand and dance with me upon the ruins.
(Six Years Later)
A cold wind blows Nea’s face while drilling her bare toes into the wet sand. The sea water spills over her feet. It is early morning. The sun slowly rises over the horizon and bathes the world in a golden glow, dissipating the deep blue of the night. She keeps her eyes closed and inhales the salty smell and tries to memorize the sound of the sea. To her, these are as natural as the air she breathes. Since her birth, she has lived in this small seaside village. Here she not only learned to walk, but spent each of her birthdays with a campfire and grilled fish on the beach. Leaving the place of her childhood is to draw a line under her past life. Too many people have died. Too much suffering has she endured. Here there is no future and no hope. Her goal is the newly built city of Promise in the south. Nea will travel for several weeks on the road to reach it, but it’s worth it. She would take every risk and effort upon herself to be able to forget and to start over from scratch. About two years ago she learned about Promise. The only city that has electricity. The only city where she could make a life without fear. The only city that promises a better future. Of course, they do not grant just anyone access. There is a strict selection process, because it is an honor to be granted entry into Promise.
Nea is neither a high performance athlete nor a technical genius, but she learns quickly. Over the last six years, she developed a strong will to survive. She knows she can do a lot once she has seized the ambition. This ambition does not belong to the girls who are looking for a strong guy who can protect them; it belongs to those who have learned to get by alone. She had to learn it because she was alone in the world without family or friends.
Therefore, many take advantage of the power of community and hunt and survive together. Together we are stronger than alone, but the more people who come together, the more significant the strong differ from the weak. The strong take what they want, while the rest is left for the weak.
The best example of this is the Carris. They are a kind of cult that formed after the outbreak. At first she dismissed them as cranks because they worship one of their own people as a god. Supposedly he is resurrected from the dead and risen from the sea. They call him Ereb, the god of chaos. No one has ever seen him. Nea does not believe in gods, neither good nor evil.
Chaos reigns in the world, in every corner, but neither Ereb, nor anyone else, can control it.
But last year, Carris added more and more members. So much more that they now dominate an entire region. They call it Dementia. Very few people probably really believe in Ereb, the god of chaos, but joined Carris only because they are rewarded with food for their faith. It’s not necessarily a bad system. For many it is the simplest, but for Nea, freedom is more important than a roof over her head.
Every resident in Dementia is assigned a task. Most have to work the fields or defend the country. A select few are allowed to conduct the ceremonies about Ereb, so they are a kind of priest. Anyone who enters Dementia cannot go back. You either stay and become a member of Carris, or you die. But the Carris are not really smart. One can easily play to them, which is exactly what Nea intends to do, because in order to become closer to Promise, there is no way around Dementia.
Before Nea leaves, she does not need to say goodbye to anyone because even though she grew up here, she has no ties with anyone else. The only thing she would want to see again is the sea. It was her most faithful friend. In the beginning, as the mourning of her parents was still too powerful, she would spend day and night at the beach and be lulled asleep by the constant sound of the waves. At the same time, it was always her source of food. It did not take long before she learned how to light a fire. When she was younger, she tried to make a fire in the garden of her parents’ home, but continuously failed. But plight teaches one to work harder.
The sea gave her confidence when she was hopeless, and rest when she was furious. It was always there, all her life, and to leave now, is harder than anything else. But she must go out at last; she has to, in order to change her life. Before dawn, Nea leaves her camp with a sleeping bag and a backpack. In the pack is only the bare minimum of supplies. A few cans of food, two bottles of water, a thin rope, a net, two flints, a compass, a map, and a knife with which she can defend, and feed, herself with. No sentimental ballast. There is neither a photograph nor a keepsake piece of jewelry or diary of her parents. She knows that others depend on such memorabilia; she does not, for these items can be used against her. This danger cannot fall upon Nea. While it would have been so easy to pick up a souvenir from her home, she has lived until today in the city in which she was born, but has not set foot in the house for the past six years, since the disease took her parents. She has not even ventured into its vicinity. She does not want to see how it lies there now, devastated by the raids of local gangs. She wants to keep it in memory as it was when she and her parents were a happy family, when her laughter could be heard all the way into the street.
Her thoughts of happier times desperately try to keep her here, but her decision has been made. Nea draws her feet out of the water and puts on a pair of socks, and then a second pair. The holes of one pair are hidden by the other pair, so it better protects her feet from the cold; in addition, the brown army boots are a little big. They belonged to Miro.
Focused, she ties her shoelaces together. The sea is just ahead, but she is lost in thought and doesn’t look toward it. For too long thinking has stopped her from leaving. A long road lies ahead, through the forest, full of unknown dangers. She trudges up the sandy hill without even looking around again.
The wind blows toward her, as if to push her back. Nea wanders through the tall reeds, continuing straight until she can see the forest. Before the forest is a meadow. The forest is silent and deserted, but already there is not enough light to take away its terror. The tall grass is still wet with dew, and again she is grateful for her moisture-repellent coat and solid boots.
She leaves the dewy grass behind and enters the forest. The soft forest floor is strewn with needles and is covered with moss. From close up, the forest no longer looks scary, actually, it is quite the opposite. Through the treetops, the light of the now rising sun radiates and envelopes everything in a magical glow. Individual beams of light dance around between the trees. The songs of birds and the gentle rustle of leaves can be heard. All of this reminds Nea of a book from childhood that her father often read to her. It was about a fairy that fell in love with a human boy. In her imagination, she is in the forest in which the fairy lived in a tree hole, next to Mr. Squirrel. The fairy would drink the dew of leaves for breakfast and eat juicy red berries for lunch and a few nuts in the evening for dinner. The fairy sang with the birds, their songs racing through the forest, bathed in pools, and would lie down on a bed of soft green moss. It was so careless and carefree. This silly story gives Nea a bit of courage for her trip.
It has become evening. The sun sends its last rays over the world and then the moon appears. An eternal cycle. The rays that this morning shone through the trees and appeared to transform the forest into a fairytale land now ensure that the trees cast long dark shadows. The light is, in fact, still golden, and one might assume that it is pleasantly warm in the spots where the sun shines through to the forest floor, as though it were a heated room, but the reality is different. It is bitterly cold, even if there is hardly any wind blowing.
It smells like snow. On the open field, it would still be bright for a long time, but here in the forest, where the trees catch the light, it will soon be so dark that you could barely see your own hand in front of your eyes.
For Nea, this means she should quickly seek food and shelter for the night. All day she ran through the forest. Her only guide is the compass and a map that she had been given by a traveler. She remembers how he came to the little village by the sea and paid for a warm place by the fireplace in the town hall with stories about his travels. Apparently he had even been to Promise, where he had seen a movie on a cinema screen, just like in ancient times.
Nea found it difficult to believe him, because why would someone voluntarily leave Promise once they were given access? Usually, she took no pleasure in unnecessary conversations, but what the traveler had to say did interest her, so she asked him why he had not stayed in Promise. He laughed and replied that to him, his own freedom was too important. He wanted to decide for himself about how to live his life and did not want or need anyone to dictate to him about what he should do. Even then, Nea thought this was a stupid excuse and is still convinced that he was just not good enough to be allowed to stay in Promise. As important as her own freedom is, Nea knows that a life without rules does not work in a community. This has always been so, and will probably remain so forever. The key is how the rules are set out: Democratically in joint elections, or dictatorial where an individual takes control of everything and lines his pockets. Probably the traveler never received admission to Promise and just admired the canvas from the city gates. Of course, Nea never told him this to his face. He seemed to have been quite nice, because he gave her a map, in which he had drawn in all the areas he knew. The old town names and new lines and new names were drawn upon it. He had marked the Carris territory red. At almost the other end of the map, in bright green, is the border of Promise, the city of promise.
Traveling alone through the paths and distances on the map, it seems impossible to Nea to say exactly how many days or week she will be on the road until she reaches Dementia and eventually Promise. She will only recognize Dementia by the red robes the Carris wear. Until then, even if she treats herself to a little rest, she must always be on guard, because this forest is a no man’s land and you never know who or what could be a threat. Once she finds herself in Dementia, she knows the Carris will take her as a prisoner as soon as she is discovered without a habit. Yet, even here in the woods, there are dangers. It could be wild animals or even other travelers trying to steal her property. She could accidentally find herself in a hunter’s trap or randomly meet up with one of the lunatics who do not threaten or kill because they are hungry or want to steal, but simply want to see someone suffer, because to them the hurt and pain of others has become their lifeblood. Nea cannot blame them; they are just as much a victim of the new world as everyone else. But nevertheless, in such cases of life and death, the person who draws their weapon first and stabs or strikes saves his own life and lives another day.
For some time, Nea heard the constant noise of a body of water and followed it. It gets louder and louder and soon she sees a narrow creek that winds through the forest. Since there are no cars, airplanes, or other equipment that could produce noise, the murmur of a river, or even the song of a lark can be heard for miles. This is another of the many points some people say is something positive the outbreak of the disease has caused.
The creek is not very deep, but deep enough to serve as a habitat for various types of fish. Nea does not have much time to catch a fish or fry it up and set up camp for the night. She does not hesitate; she takes her shoes off and her two pairs of stockings and slowly climbs into the icy water. In the beginning, she would twitch and shiver as she entered cold water, but now she barely flinches. The hunger drives her too much. It would be a lot easier to lure a rabbit or a weasel in a trap than to catch a fish. For this you need patience. Slowly and cautiously, Nea moves in the water. She stands still and does not make any jerky movements. She remains as calm as possible in cold water and adapts to the environment until she is a part of it and has fish swimming around her legs. Then she leans forward and approaches a stationary fish from behind. Her hands go over and under the fish. She moves her hands to the middle part of the fish and gently touches it. The fish remains calm and does not swim away. It does not recognize the approaching danger. When her hands reach the gills of the fish, she does not hesitate. She grabs. It is medium in size and wriggling in her hand, fighting for its life. She could hold it and watch its life slowly extinguish from its eyes until it lies limp in her hands. But Nea kills the fish, not out of cruelty or simply because she can, but to survive. She hits the fish’s head on a hard stone so as not to let it suffer any longer. Nea never kills for fun, not even a fish.
Now she uses a flint. These are a great advantage if the wood is damp in the forest. Nea stacks a few dry leaves and sticks on top of each other and then strikes the two flints together a few times so that a spark flies into her small stack of kindling. A gentle puff of breath is enough to turn the spark into a small fire. She takes the fish out and impales it onto a stick and hangs it above the fire. In the meantime, she fastens a trap in the bush of a tree near her small camp. If she is lucky, a small animal will be caught in it during the night, which she can then fry in the morning and take with her. The fish smells delicious, even without spices. Nea just hopes this smell will not attract any strangers because she is not willing to share, neither her fish, her time, nor anything else. She quickly pulls the fish out of the fire and extinguishes it, leaving only the soft glow of a few dimming embers. It is just bright enough to find the burned areas on the fish and pull them off with the all-purpose knife. The fish is still hot, but the meat is tender. It fills Nea’s stomach with a soothing warmth. It is a moment of calm that is rarely granted in this world. When she has finished the small meal, she throws the remains of the fish back into the creek in order to avoid attracting predators. She walks to the tree, at whose foot she has set her trap, brings her rope from the bag, and throws it over one of the lower branches and pulls it taut to test if it will support her weight. Convinced it will support her, she climbs up to it. Once again, she throws the rope to a branch a little higher up the tree. Then she climbs up to that branch, and again throws the rope a little higher up the tree to a branch she believes will support her. Again convinced it will, she climbs to it. When she is safe on this broad branch, she puts her backpack deep into her sleeping bag. She places her knife in a loop on the waistband of her pants. She gently climbs into the sleeping bag and once inside, she binds it tightly to the tree branch with the rope. When Miro first proposed to sleep in this way after the death of her parents, she had shaken her head in disbelief...
“I’m going to fall from the tree,” Nea exclaimed while laughing while she peered up the tall apple tree.
“What are you more afraid of? Falling over or falling from the tree?” Miro asked in a serious voice.
Without hesitation, he threw the end of the rope through the thickest branch and pulled it tight.
So gallantly, like a cat, he climbed the tree and grinned down on Nea from the top. “C’mon coward, I’ll help you.”
With a sigh, Nea gave in and pulled on the rope and climbed up the tree, but she was neither as fast nor as elegant as Miro. She felt more like a wet sack of potatoes. In the last few feet, Miro came to her aide. With a firm handshake, he pulled her next to him on the branch. While Miro acted as though the height did not bother him, as though he had lived his entire life in a tree, Nea had trouble just keeping her balance. Just one look to the ground was enough to make her balance become unsteadied. Desperately, she clung to Miro’s arm.
“I cannot even stand, how can you expect me to sleep here?”
“I do not expect you to, it’s your decision.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he spread the sleeping bag on the branch.
“Also, we only have one sleeping bag,” Nea pressed on.
“Since when does that bother you? On the ground you would come and sleep in my bed with me every night.” Miro teased. Even if she only saw his back, she could see his cheeky grin. Angrily she gave him a gentle push. Miro stumbled stronger than she would have expected. She seemed so sure that he would have thought something like that might happen. Suddenly he could no longer hold his balance and fell from the tree. At the last second, he managed to grab onto the branch and clung to it dearly.
“Miro, Miro, I did not expect to,” Nea screamed. She rushed to his side and helpfully held out her hands to him. “Come, I’ll help you.”
“Never do that again,“ complained Miro once he was back on the branch.
Almost from the moment he was safe again, his impish grin returned and mimicked Nea’s voice, “Miro, may I please sleep with you? I had a nightmare.”
Nea refrained from hitting him again, instead she pressed her lips together, pouting. “You’re quite right; I’ve just had a nightmare.”
“Yes, and every night you steal half of my bed. I pray every night to have my own bed for myself one night.”
At his smile, she realized that his words were in jest and were not serious.
“Admit it, without me, you’d be hopelessly lost. Without me, you could not even sleep.”
“Not at all, I admit. Without you, I would not have to listen to your conceited talk. Without you, I’d finally have peace and quiet.”
Now she has her peace and quiet. But what would she give to once more hear Miro’s arrogant voice? Furious, she shakes her head to dispel the thoughts of him. A view through the canopy in the clear starry sky is sufficient to allow herself to drift off and sink into a dreamless sleep.
Dreams often rob one of strength, since you seldom dream of beautiful things. Mostly you’re in a dream world that is not entirely dissimilar to the normal world. The only difference is a permanent fog bank lays over everything and makes the world seem crueler than it already is. In the morning, you wake, drenched in sweat, the fears of the night come through in the day. They hang like clouds on your concentration, which has become essential for survival in this world. You have to listen to every little crack of a twig and pay attention to every shadow, because there could be an ambush hidden in those shadows.
A small whimper and whine wakes Nea from her sleep. Dazed, she opens her eyes and sees that it is almost dawn. She hears the pleading whimper again and remembers the trap she set the previous night. Maybe she was lucky and caught an animal in it, an animal that is now desperately trying to escape. Carefully, she unties the rope, which kept her sleeping bag affixed to the tree. She no longer finds it difficult to move safely in the tree or make a camp in one for a night of peace. A long time ago she once lost her balance and almost fell out of a tree herself. When she is back on the ground and looks at her trap, she is more than disappointed. She had expected a raccoon or rabbit, but instead a filthy, half-starved dog is caught in her trap. With sad eyes, he looks up at her and whines pleadingly. In fact, it is a better catch than a raccoon, simply because it is larger, but the poor thing only consists of fur and bones. Never before has she killed a dog. Nea pulls her knife from her waistband and kneels down next to the dog. The dog winces briefly, but looks toward her, helpless, and waiting for her next step.
“How stupid is he,” Nea thinks to herself. If she was in the place of the dog and someone with a knife knelt before her, she would try with all her might to free herself. She would growl and gnash her teeth. But this dog is sitting there and waiting for her to give it its fate. It would be easy for Nea to slit his throat. Slowly she moves her knife toward his neck to give it a straight, fatal cut. When her hand comes close, the dog suddenly moves. He moves its head with its shaggy, light brown fur, and licks her hand holding the knife with its rough tongue. Nea looks at the dog and knows that she will longer be able to manage killing it. It’s ridiculous, because it is not worth more than a raccoon or a rabbit, but because too often she was told stories of small dogs or cats, so now she has qualms about killing one of them. As a child, she always wanted a dog. Nea slowly withdraws her hand and places the knife back into her waistband. She looks at the dog as evilly as she can in the eye.
“Don’t you dare try to follow me,” she hisses at the dog. In response, however, she gets a friendly wagging tail. With a sigh, Nea frees the little dog out of the trap and is glad that the dog is not too hurt. The dog stands next to her and looks expectantly with its ears pricked up, attentive. He’s not big enough to protect her. Nea lifts her leg and stomps firmly on the ground and tries to shoo the dog away with her hands and a loud voice. “Get out!” The dog stops wagging its tail and its ears fall, but the dog does not move, so Nea just runs off.
After a few meters, she turns around, and of course, she sees the little dog directly behind her. Although he keeps a distance from her, it is clearly following her. She should have killed the dog when she had a chance; this would have been best for both of them, but now it is too late. The dog will not be happy with her; she is too selfish to care about the welfare of another. The dog will soon notice this and leave The sooner the better. At best, she will no longer notice the dog.
Nea continues with a steady view of the compass and her map. She makes sure not to turn to see if the dog is still following her, and pretty soon, she has forgotten about it.
She runs through the forest at a brisk pace all morning. It is even colder than the day before and the sky is a single gray mass. The sun is no longer able to break through the clouds, so that, even at noon, many leaves still have frozen edges. It is a clear sign that snow will soon fall. Nea can only hope that Dementia is closer than the map makes it seem.
Her hope soon feels vindicated as the forest begins to slowly thin out. But as she comes closer to the edge of the forest, she hears the loud noise of a river and soon she finds herself at a riverbank. It is not a small creek, like the one in which she had caught the fish, but a ravening, wide, and apparently, deep river. It flows down the mountain, down the valley. From the riverbank, she can peruse its course and finds that there is no bridge in sight, despite the slight mist.
Using the map, she can pinpoint her exact position. The map states clearly that the path on the other side of the river would be the shortest route, but if she tried to swim across the river and managed to make it to the other side, her hair and clothes would be completely soaked. The risk of severe hypothermia is elevated in this cold. So Nea's choices are a detour that could delay her for hours, or possible pneumonia from which she might die.
It took years before she could bring herself to actually leave her home and travel to Promise, so she should not take any unnecessary risks. Finally, she wants to arrive in Promise and not die on the way there. Therefore, she chooses the detour and hopes that the flow elsewhere will become shallow enough to be able to cross.
The good thing is the path to follow the river is all downhill, so she will move faster on the leaves and moss-covered forest floor. Although the grass on the riverbank is a bit slippery from the moisture, her boots will protect her feet and keep her footing sure.
After some time of running down the path, Nea never saw the river become shallow or came across a bridge, her stomach started rumbling and her strength begins to wane. So she stops to take a deep breath. She pulls her water bottle from her backpack and takes a big swig. The water gurgles in her empty stomach. She now thinks about the dog for the first time since the morning, if she had not become sentimental over the dog and decided not to kill it, she would now have something to eat and not have to go hungry. She won't make the same mistake again. Hesitantly, she turns around expecting to see the dog behind her, but he is not there.
There is no trace of the dog further into the distance. Apparently it knew what was best for it and went away. Nea's chance of a hot meal has dissolved into thin air. Again she tries to see the good in the situation and says that she would not have had time to cook the dog and eat it. After another long sip of water, she starts walking with hasty steps. She puts one foot in front of the other and begins to run. The riverbank is changing. To her right, steadily and wild, the river flows. To her left is the forest. It is also getting darker.
She continues to run, even though her feet hurt and long for a break. Her steps become slow and cumbersome as the sky above slowly continues to darken until Nea feels the first cold drops on her cheek. She stops her slow walk and lifts her head to the sky. It's snowing. A flake falls onto her cheek. Small, scattered flakes fall from the sky, but she knows these are only the harbingers of many more. Quickly she enters a bit deeper into the forest to have at least some protection from the snow. It is unlikely that the river leads directly to Dementia, but she has little choice but to move on.
She continues through the forest near the river. Snow falls in masses from the sky. It has become so dark that Nea cannot even see her hand in front of her eyes. The snow smothers the whole landscape. Nea has not noticed that the loud roar of the river has become weaker. It is freezing cold and she feels that her fingers and feet will fall off from the cold. Nevertheless, she continues to put one foot in front of the other. Instead of running, she is stumbling due to exhaustion. She cannot remain still; the snow would bury her soon.
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