Inspired by this image:
She woke from her dream with the impression of a shock. The air vibrated, she was sure, with the echoes of a sound. Her mind was still transitioning to wakefulness, and she could not hold the memory of the sound, or even the feeling of it, down. After a few moments, after her head was clear, there was no way to tell whether the sound had been real or part of the dream.
In the dream–the same dream she had every night–she was falling from a cloudy evening sky, the ground so far below that she could only make out lights. There were so many lights, more than the stars in the clearest skies. All around her, on the edge of her vision and her perceptions, were the dark shapes of the people she used to know. Everyone who had left, who had disappeared. In her dream she felt content.
Awake, she felt only frustration. Had there been a sound? Was it her mind playing tricks? How long had it been since the silence? She had lost track. There had been a final day, bright and noisy, full of chaos and life. She kept that memory inside, kept it close, but it was something that she recalled with only the clarity of a waking dream, more impression than detail. In that memory the sound was a great chorus, it was the vivid joy and pain and fear and love and longing of her family and friends, her rivals and enemies, of everyone she knew, everyone she would ever know, and everyone she would never know. The voices blended into a harmony that rushed through her like a chilling wind, and though the details were fuzzy, she heard voice distinctly. She would fill her lungs with cold air and shout for all she was worth, to add her voice to the rest so that they could hear her, so that anyone could hear her. Each time she did, the cold hacked away at the last ember of warmth inside her, the last warmth left in the world. It was all that she felt, and also all that still hurt.
The world she lived in now was drained of life, but it was more than a mere absence. There was a lack of that essential spark, as if the universe had lost its momentum. Time lost all meaning. She was frozen in the eternal moment. Sometimes she thought that in the blink of an eye the world would lurch back into motion, and it would return to how it had been. Yet the days passed. The sun rose and fell. She was awake and she slept. She slept and she dreamed.
That final day had been the exodus of all living things, and the vacuum they left had deafened her.
The dream was all she had. They were the closest thing to hope left, a fire built against the never ending cold nights. When she was in the dream, she was where she belonged. But she was running out of fuel for the fire. The numbness was taking root in her gut, and it was beginning to spread.
Then, there was a knock. A big, booming sound that she heard with her entire body, feeling it in her chest as much as she heard it in her ears. She gasped as she felt a final piece of her break. Her body became completely numb, from the inside out.
The sound had come from somewhere else. She dressed as quickly as she could, pulling on boots and her coat with stiff fingers. It was a reflexive action. The cold was a part of her now. Her limbs were heavy, but she made them work. She lit a lamp and went outside.
The night sky was clear and the moon was so full in the sky that she might have reached out to touch it, if her arms were not so weighed down. It was so bright out that she didn’t need the lamp, but she carried it anyway, like a totem. All around, covering every flat surface, from the ground under foot to the roofs overhead, was a layer of pure white snow. She stepped out into it, and felt it crunch under her boots. She felt it, but still could not hear the sound.
She looked around, trying to find a source for the snow, but there wasn’t a single cloud in sight. She noticed that her breath was not fogging. The snow on the ground described a path through the centre of town. She began to walk.
After a while, she stopped. There was something tickling at the corner of her sight. She searched for it, but saw nothing. No movement or signs of life anywhere. She shuffled forward a few metres, and then realized what she was seeing. It was the snow itself. Every time she took a step, the snow spread out around her in a thin layer, extending like a rolling carpet. It was as if her numbness had extended beyond herself, creating an aura of winter that surrounded her. But the path was still clear. The path was leading her somewhere. She kept walking.
A while later, something else caught her eye. She could see the town’s wooden walls, and also some distance beyond them. Her snow path ran as a thin white ribbon through the main gate, continued beyond to a hill. On top of that hill was something that had never been there before. It glowed with a cold, blue light. She picked up her pace as much as her numb legs would allow.
Soon, she could make out details in what she was seeing. The glow on the hill came from a large door, a stark monolith that somehow called to her. She could also see beyond it, that there was nothing on the other side of the door. She felt a rush of indistinct emotion overtake her. She did not know what that door was, where it had come from, where it might lead to, but she knew she had to find out.
She dropped the lamp at the bottom of the hill. It hit the ground next to her foot. She heard nothing. She scrambled up the hill, pulling with her arms as much as she pushed with her legs. The feeling of rushing, of a certainty of purpose, was growing stronger, until she had reached the door itself. It was massive, towering high overhead. She wondered if she would even be able to push it open.
The girl took a step toward the door, then another. She was within arm’s reach, and then there was another knock. The door shook with the great impact. She froze in place. Was this really a good idea? Though she did not know what would be on the other side, she did know what was on this side: a desiccated husk. A limbo that had hollowed her out. Anything would be better than this emotional absolute zero. Staying meant succumbing to apathy, the inexorable inertia of the soul, and a spiralling heat death.
She struggled to make her legs move. She took the final step, and touched the door. Immediately, a feeling of vertigo hit her, as if she were on a precipice. Her legs went slack, but she locked her knees and leaned against the door, keeping on her feet. After a few deep breaths, the feeling passed. She braced her shoulder against the door and started to push.
The door would not budge.
She gritted her teeth and shoved, trying to find purchase in the compacting snow. She started to feel a bit of life returning to her joints, but the door was solid as granite. With a silent scream, she strained with everything she had left.
The door was not going to open.
A foot slipped, and she fell to the ground, slumping against the door. She sobbed without sound. That was it. She had missed her chance on that last day, when everyone had left. She was not strong enough to make it on her own. She knew in her cold heart that this door was the only way out, and she could not open it.
Her tears froze in the air and fell into the snow as tiny crystals. The moon looked down at her, another pale reminder that she would never leave this place. She would not even crawl away from this hilltop. She could sleep here, numb and cold. She could dream of falling with the ones she loved, and she would never wake up. It wouldn’t be so bad, she thought.
The knock at the door sounded again, a quick double-tap that reverberated from the hills around her. There was still something there. Still something calling to her.
The girl climbed to her feet. She lifted a hand and knocked three times.
The door began to open.