“One of Nine” by Phil Melchers

TWA 88 Phil Small

The morning sun shot through the cracked roof, a gilded spotlight shining over the surrounding decay. The rusted land, once an ambitious factory complex, now remained in desolate shambles, a home for only one, the princess.  It is here that she slept on a pile of spoiled work uniforms, repurposing a fire blanket for her duvet. As the rising sun peaked over her eyes, she rolled to avoid the light, grumbling as she did so. Despite this effort, she could no longer sleep. Her hunger wouldn’t allow for sleep-ins.  The princess rose from her bed, rubbing the crust from her eyes and the ash and dust from her hair. The morning seemed calm enough until disrupted by the sound of scampering from beneath a stack of nearby crates.

“Big Man?” she whispered with caution. Beside her makeshift bed was a knife, she moved her hand towards it. “Is that you?”

Brandishing her knife, she took in a breath of courage before screaming towards the stack, “You better come on out. I’m not afraid of you!”

In a sudden burst the creature sprang out from behind the pile causing it to collapse. The princess only managed to see a white blur, just enough to suggest the presence of food. With a growl in her stomach, she sprang to her feet ready to chase whatever creature had been unlucky enough to disrupt her.  However, she came to a halt when she saw a dead bird lying at the foot of her bed.  What fortune! It even looked fresh enough to eat. For the moment, whatever roused her seemed inconsequential now that she had her breakfast.

She brought the bird over to the nearby fire pit that had prior been set-up by Big Man. Thanks to Big Man’s teachings she knew exactly how to start a fire and how to prepare even the smallest of critters.  Big Man had taught the princess everything she knew about survival. However, as useful as this knowledge was, lately these lessons reminded the princess all too harshly of her missing teacher.  How many days had passed since he left without returning? No way to be sure. The princess wasn’t fond of counting.

As the princess ate, she found herself growing curious as to what exactly had come from the crates. Sitting by the hearth, she scouted the floor space until eventually coming to a pair of two shining eyes that stared at her from a distance.  The princess’s own eyes lit with delight. It was almost too perfect to believe. Across the floor from her she saw a white, yet dirtied, cat.

“Did you bring me this?” the princess said, raising the remains of the charred bird. She then politely bowed her head. “Thank you.”

The cat remained still, watching her patiently as its tail passed back and forth.

“Why’d you do it? Huh?” The princess examined her meal. “You want to be my pet. Is that why?” The princess reached out, gesturing for the cat to come closer. “I won’t try to eat you anymore. Breakfast is already served.” The princess growled as she snagged another bite.

The cat tensed up but stayed in place.

“Hey, don’t run. How about I make you my knight? Every princess needs a knight. You can be Sir George. Would you like that?” asked the princess with a tone of desperation. She stood up but Sir George dashed away. The quick cat zipped across the cracked floor of the factory’s atrium before bounding over piles of broken machinery, looking for somewhere to hide. With bare feet the princess chased after the cat, moving as nimbly as her friend, skipping between shards of broken glass and jagged bits of discarded metal. She knew of every hiding place, the game was hardly fair for the poor feline.

“Get back here, knight!” the princess gleefully shouted.

The chase lead into the old reception area before Sir George managed to slip away tunneling into the missing drawer space of a desk mostly buried by rubble. The princess peered into the dark hole but the cat managed to slip further behind the desk.  The princess huffed, crossing her arms and holding her tongue, trying her best not to curse.

Defeated for the moment, the princess’s attention diverted to the room’s metal door. Beside that door hung the princess’s own patchwork suit, made by Big Man himself out of bits of leather and cloth. Big Man’s silver armour was usually hung beside. She thought back to the last time she saw the impressive armour.  It was when Big Man was dressing himself, promising her he’d come back.

“Big Man,” she wondered to herself. “Where are you?”

Sir George meowed from behind the princess, causing her to turn. The cat’s full intent was towards the door.  “I can’t open it, you idiot! It’s locked,” exclaimed the princess, throwing her hand up.

The cat remained unfazed, the princess’s words passing over his twitching ears. Sir George meowed again.

“I told you, it’s locked!” The princess pushed the door’s handle to demonstrate. To her surprise it opened and she was greeted with a whirlwind of dirt from the outside world that forced her to shield her eyes.  She quickly closed the door before coughing out a cloud of dust. Sir George stepped closer, meowing once again. “Why wasn’t it locked?” the princess mumbled out loud.  “Big Man wouldn’t forget to lock it, would he?”

The insistent cat continued to yowl louder and louder.

“I can’t go outside. Big Man told me to stay.”  The princess shifted her eyes. “Unless, you could help find him. By scent, or something, right?” Crazier things have happened, the princess thought. Without a moment’s delay, she scouted the scene for something that would have his scent. She spotted a dirtied shirt of his discarded over a chair. She presented it to Sir George who hesitantly sniffed at it before sharply turning his head as though he were offended.  “Oh, come on. You’re my knight and knights have to be brave. Just stay by my side, okay?” ordered the princess, waving her finger at the cat.

The princess changed into her protective gear, placing her knife in a sheath before grabbing her goggles and tossing her hood over her tangled hair. Once adorned in her tailored suit, she carefully pried open the door. The whirlwind had passed, leaving the air comparably calm in its wake. She looked towards the far horizon, where she could see the remains of the once abundant city centre. Phantom images of shining cars, bustling cafes, and the faces of people locked within their daily commute became painfully fresh in her mind’s eye. The attacks had destroyed so much, leaving behind only the desolate skeleton of the once shining capital.  The princess took a single bold step outside. She was now officially disobeying the words of Big Man.  Something she had never done before.

“Well come on then!” she said, turning back to the cat.

Sir George crept forward, flicking his paw in the air before setting it down. He then twitched his nose and ears before freezing. The princess rolled her eyes, moving in to scoop him up. Sir George dashed to avoid her, sprinting forward, this time disappearing into the rubble and debris spread over the extended road.

“Don’t go,” she whimpered towards the cat. “I don’t have anyone else! You hear me?” No response. Her knight was too far gone. The princess stifled back her tears. Crying would only disappoint Big Man. She could not however, hold back her frustration. “Well, screw you! I should have eaten you when I had the chance,” she screamed, her voice echoing over the wasteland.

Alone once more the princess considered her options.  Taking a deep breath, she decided to continue looking for Big Man.  She had already gone this far and she felt prepared enough to go further. She loved Big Man. She’d do anything to see him again. She began her trek down the long road towards the city.

Exploring the remains of the devastated city alone was an exhausting occupation. Climbing over piles of broken concrete, the princess decided to stick to an elevated path in hopes of finding some semblance of a vantage point. Eventually she managed to scale to the upper floor of a ruined office building. Though most of the floor had collapsed, a portion of one wall remained. Embedded within that wall was a window that crookedly overlooked the ruins. Leaning on the window sill, she observed a string of documents caught in a twisting wind. During this pause, the princess couldn’t help but wonder how alone she really was.  With Big Man missing, it occurred to her that she very well may be the last human among the rust.  She just had to find Big Man.

From this look-out, the princess spied Sir George faraway as he shifted across the rubble.  His movement made him appear like a lone snowflake caught in a breeze, bouncing over shattered computers, broken desks, and office chairs. Sir George was carefully scouring the wastes, sniffing every crevice while pawing at the stray bits of paper spilled over from the offices so many floors higher. The princess descended from her vantage point, remaining low as she began the long crawl towards Sir George.

Only when the cat paused to clean himself did the princess finally get a chance to strike. Creeping stealthily towards him, the princess leapt into a bounding dive, managing only to catch Sir George by his hind legs.  Sir George struggled, hissing in protest as he threw his claws forward with futility.  The princess pulled him in, and with a low, warning growl, Sir George leered at the princess, his ears behind his head.

“Got you!” the princess exclaimed gleefully. Sir George responded with a torrent of claws that swiftly cut the air, his spine wiggling wildly in an attempt to escape. “No! You’re mine now. I won’t let you leave me.” The princess held on securely, stepping backwards until she lost her footing. She began rolling uncontrollably over piles of wreckage before smashing through a decaying wall.  Bits of dust and plaster exploded around her as she crashed into a small, dark room.

She ended up sprawled across an old carpet. There was pain, but nothing seemed broken. Sir George who had followed her during the fall, sniffed at her face before batting at her with his paw.

Catching her breath and orienting herself, she opened her dusty eyes to see him. “I’m okay.”

Sir George sharply turned away from the girl, flicking his tail as he moved to the next room, a low light pouring from it.  The princess rolled onto her chest, groaning as she stood, before following the cat.

In the next room a dust-covered window lit the scene with a weak glow. Just enough visibility to notice the bullet holes lining the wallpaper and the numerous bodies scattered around the room. These corpses were near skeletal, dead flesh clinging to bone like a shroud of grey tissue.  The princess approached the smallest corpse, the possible remains of a child, looking at it with unease.

The princess felt a chill hit her spine. “Sir George, please stay close.”

Sir George moved away from the table, distracted by the shimmering glint of something metallic concealed under a pile of dust.  The cat sniffed at the object but then turned away uninterested. Shifting to the pile, the princess examined the cat’s find. It was a rifle, the same as Big Man’s. Using her hands, the princess swept away the dust, picking up the gun. She hugged it tightly, overjoyed to have found such a fortunate clue.

“I recognize this. This looks like Big Man’s,” the princess exclaimed to the cat, throwing the gun over her shoulder.  It was heavy, but she could handle the burden.  “He might be nearby.” The princess turned to Sir George but the cat had moved elsewhere. “Sir George?”

She found him at the room’s door, scratching for an exit. The princess obliged, giving a few hard shoves until the door busted opened. They came outside, onto a balcony. The city terrain in view was close to level, two large craters marked the areas where the once tallest buildings had been. The few buildings that remained standing seem stranded in suspended decay. Amongst these tall graves were the remains of so many. Some were reaching out from rocky tombs, desperate for help. Others spread across the scene, torn asunder by the force of the blasts. There was little meat left on the dead; all the crows had flown elsewhere.

The sun had moved past its zenith. From the buildings still standing long shadows began to grow across the wreckage.  Sir George hopped onto the railing of the balcony. He started to cry out a hollow and desperate sound.  The princess attempted to console her brave knight, reaching out to touch him.  Sir George shifted away from the princess, moving to the opposite railing. The princess pulled back her hand, watching as Sir George bellowed louder and louder, as loud as he could, but the desolate scene gave no response.

“Are you looking for someone out there?” the princess wondered. Sir George fell silent, his ears falling back. The cat turned towards the princess, a fire burning within his eyes. The princess stepped back just as the cat leapt off the balcony, bouncing down the rubble like a ball dropping further from one’s reach.

“Sir George, where are you going now? Please don’t go!” The princess reached over the balcony railings but it was too late, the cat had vanished again. This time she could no longer help it. This time she had to cry.  As tears cut streaks down her dirtied face, she called to the cat, “Whatever you’re looking for is not out there you dumb animal. It’s all gone. There’s nothing left.”

The princess gasped as her own words sunk in. It was true. There was nothing left. She was a princess who ruled over nothing but the trash she lived in. She started to feel hollow inside, as though she were guilty of a crime she knew nothing about. It caused her to sob uncontrollably, the sound of her sorrow echoing unheard through the otherwise silent, crumbling metropolis. Hope washed out of her, she felt truly lonely. The day had defeated her.

Only when the sky turned pink, and the city grew darker, did the princess finally begin her journey home.  She’d just have to accept her life as it was. She tried her best to recoup, thinking that maybe Big Man would be waiting for her. Maybe Sir George would be back there too.  Maybe she just had to be a little more patient.  The princess passed through an empty park, where a single hanging chain marked the remains of a child’s swing. She shook her head. It was futile to hold onto such empty hopes.

With little energy left to climb, she decided to keep to the streets. She hobbled over piles of rubble and slipped through the unmoving traffic, all while avoiding the vacant visages of the deceased. Whenever she could see it, she kept her mind towards the night sky. With the city gone permanently dim, there was nothing holding back the stars. Sometimes she would pause to name the constellations as she saw them, just as Big Man had taught her to do. She missed him so much, that couldn’t be helped, though playing with the stars helped alleviate her sorrow. Perhaps it was the idea that Big Man was still out there, drawing the same patterns.

Suddenly a green light shined from down the road, a slow pulse that painted jagged and shifting shadows across the surrounding debris. Its source was a silver device, one that the princess recognized immediately. Back at the factory, she had seen Big Man repairing the same device.  Excitedly she ran towards it, her heart strengthened by the thought that Big Man would be close.

“Hostile spotted.” A voice called out from beyond the rubble. The voice was soon followed by a loud bang.

A sharp pain caught the princess in the stomach just moments before reaching the device. She fell to the ground, confused by the blood which began to spill onto her hands. A burning pain inflicted her as she turned onto her back. Withering in pain she looked towards the sky.  A familiar face came to look down at her.

“Big Man?” Looking up she could see a silver head covered in armour, a green shine cast onto it by the nearby glow. Only upon seeing him did the princess realize what had happened. “Please help me. It hurts.”

“You speak the language, Sarge?”

The princess’s eyes went wide with surprise. It wasn’t the voice of Big Man. This man’s voice was soft and young and he spoke a foreign language. The princess felt confused and afraid, but the pain was too great for her to try and escape.

“No. Sounds like a girl though, doesn’t it?” A second man, wearing similar armor approached the first. “Look at that gun. Bigger than she is! Good job spotting her.”

“Wonder how these rats managed to keep surviving the bombings.” A third armoured man approached.

“I just thought she said, ‘big man,’ or something, but how could that be?” said the younger man. The other two men discussed amongst themselves, ignoring the youngest member.

“If Big Man could survive, I guess they could too, you know?”

She recognized the name that they said. The princess shivered, weeping as she tried to repeat, “Big Man,” but the sound failed to penetrate through their thick armour.

The group of soldiers turned to a forth man as he approached. On his arm was a white band with a red cross. “Maybe it wasn’t Big Man who placed the beacon. Maybe she was the one to set it up. Like a trap or something?”

“I doubt it. How would she know the captain’s authority codes? I reckon she’s a scout. Must have saw the beacon and decided to check it out.”

“Like a moth to a flame then.”

“Hell, turn this thing off. We’ve attracted enough attention.”

“Let’s move out. Double time. Big Man is counting on us to find him. Huah!”

The soldiers moved out, abandoning the little girl as she struggled to catch her last breath. She felt impossibly cold, her mind grasping to make sense of her fading world.

“Big Man…” she moaned, holding her wound.

The princess closed her eyes, focusing on a memory.  She remembered the basement where Big Man had first found her. She had spent so many lonely days in that cellar calling out for her missing parents. When Big Man eventually found her, she barely had any voice left to scream with. He frightened her at first, looking like some kind of silver spaceman in his armour. He tried his best to speak her language, a stumbling attempt hindered further by his strange accent. He had told her that he meant no harm and that he was hurt, that he only needed a safe place to rest. He then clumsily took off his helmet to reveal his face. The princess thought he looked old and foreign, but his eyes seemed warm.

They spent a few days together in the cellar. She spent most of this time crying while avoiding any interaction with Big Man, despite his numerous attempts to console her. Eventually he resolved to tell her a story about a brave princess who defeated an evil dragon. The princess didn’t believe him. She was old enough to understand that dragons only existed in fairy tales.  Big Man responded with a deep chuckle, informing her that she was wrong.

He told her that she could live in a fairy tale if she wanted. He asked her if she wanted to play a game. He would even let her be the princess. She thought Big Man was strange for saying such silly things, but Big Man remained persistent in asking her.  In trying to remain apprehensive, she responded only with a slow nod. Big Man continued, promising that he’d keep her safe, that he’d be her most loyal knight but only if she’d stop crying.  He promised her that he’d find her a happy ending, because she was a princess, and princesses always got a happy ending. It was a knight’s duty to make sure of that.

—–

The green glow of the beacon shut off, the light of the stars returning above the princess. She wasn’t afraid to think it. She knew she was dying. Turning her head, she started to cough. She had only one dying wish. She wished for the safety of Big Man. That he may never suffer as she did. She tried her best to picture it, the rescue of Big Man, of him being sent faraway so that maybe someday he could see his loved ones again. She imagined him having kids. She imagined him telling bedtime stories to them, stories about a brave princess and the dragon she defeated. The thought warmed her.

The princess’s vision started to fade, just as a white shape emerged amongst the darkening haze before her. It approached slowly, until coming in front of her. Something soft patted her on the cheek. She struggled to focus her eyes, straining to see what was facing her. The shape gave a low meow. She tried her best to smile, to try and hide her pain. No use. Sir George could smell the fresh blood coming from her wound. Curling himself into a ball, he began to purr. The princess winced as she struggled to lift her arms, wanting to bring the cat closer. It was impossible, she had grown too weak. It didn’t matter. With Sir George purring beside her, she had no reason to ever feel alone. Her world grew dim, the approaching dark coming faster.

She thought maybe she was dreaming as she came to feel the presence of another standing over her. She thought she could see his kind face, but only in her mind’s eye. As two strong hands lifted her from the shadows, she gave a sigh of relief. It was Big Man. She had finally found him. He had finally returned.  She wanted to thank Sir George for his brave service but could no longer hear his presence. It didn’t matter; her knights had done their duty. She had her happy ending.

 

TWA Anthology Sales with Sticker-01

 


Be sure to comment on this story because you can’t vote for it because things are weird this week!

10676266_10153039383492184_1095196543774875507_nPhillip Melchers is an expat Canadian currently living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands with his partner, Johno who may or may not be an animated cartoon dog. By their powers combined, they have created the card-based adventure drinking game BaRPG (Barpg.eu). He has also co-written a novel, Future-Now, which is currently seeking a publisher. In his free time Phillip enjoys the finer tastes of Belgian beer and hunting the streets of foggy medieval towns in hopes of finding the truest of the hug ninjas. If found, please contact him immediately. Other than that he enjoys bad cinema, great books, better beer, terrible puns, and insisting that everyone sees at least one David Cronenburg film in their life.

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4 Comments

  1. There’s some really beautiful world-building going on here, though personally I would have like just a SHADE more information about exactly what was going on. I don’t need everything spelled out to me, but a few more hints would have been nice.
    The prose here is solid. The words flow well, without being too flowery or distracting.
    The character of the girl seemed a bit generic to me. There is certainly an appeal to going broad with her story, but few more details about who she was would have been welcome.
    All told I liked this story a lot. I didn’t quite love the execution of the ending, but I really dug what the author was going for. I’ve been dissatisfied by endings a lot in recent weeks here in the Arena, and while I think this one could have been done a little better at least it tied up the story that came before pretty effectively.

  2. The world building here is pretty spot-on. I have to wonder if the author plays the same games as me as there are a lot of shades of those, but things are taken into their own in a number of ways that worked well for me. There’s also something very nice about the interplay between perspectives, the isolated princess, the uncaring cat, the military with their own mission. There aren’t any bad guys here, just a bad world, and we get a sense of things continuing to turn even as the story ends.

    This was definitely a solid entry and I do wish we could have provided an actual battle for Phillip. 🙂

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