The cold feeling against my cheek woke me. I was lying on tile floor in a public restroom. Panic struck me. Where am I? I don’t recognize this place. How did I get here? Scrambling to my feet, my head spun. The cold against my feet made me look down and realize I had no shoes. What happened to me? I have no memory of anything. My dress doesn’t seem wrinkled, as though I slept here all night. My dress. Why am I wearing a dress? What was the occasion?
Suddenly the door to the restroom flew open. In came a woman in cocktail attire. She would have been pretty if she weren’t covered in bruises and festering sores. Yet it was me she looked upon with surprise and disgust.
“Ugh, they’re letting people like you in now?” She said through her scowl. “This place really is going downhill.”
“No, I think I’ve been kidnapped. Please, help me. Where am I?”
Pushing past me to the mirror, she scoffed. “No need to make excuses. You thought you could sneak in and we wouldn’t notice. But…” She turned and looked me over with disdain. “You’re too obvious.”
I checked my arms and legs. They seemed fine. Blemish free. Still sunkissed from the summer. What was happening? I looked back at the woman and she had a makeup kit out and was applying powder. She spied me. “I know you’re jealous, but it’s impolite to gawk.”
She moved her head to get a better angle with the brush, and I saw her reflection. Flawless. She could have been a model. Unbelievable. She was trying to ignore me. I moved closer. The wounds on her face were still obvious, but the reflection showed perfection. Was the mirror magic?
Her snarl brought me back. “Look, creep, if you don’t stop I’m calling security!”
I was taken aback. Movement from my own reflection caught my attention and I turned and gasped. I was covered in bruises and sores like her. I checked my arms and legs again, but they were still normal. I touched my face. No bumps from scabs. “What is this place?!”
“Somewhere you don’t belong.”
With that, I ran. Bursting through the door, I shouted, “Help me! I’ve been kidnapped!” Their glares burned. And I saw they, too, all were covered in bruises and festering wounds. I needed to get out of there and fast. Left, then right, I searched for the door. There, in the back. Without thought, I hurled myself toward the door, barreling over people. Their cries weren’t in pain or offense, but disgust. Just before the door I saw the mirrors. Like the woman in the restroom, they were flawless and I was the diseased one. I ran harder.
Outside, I ran until I was out of breath. Doubling over, I gasped, trying to catch my breath. My chest burned. At first I thought it was from running, but as my sense cleared I realized the air was putrid. Balmy with a stench of something, or hundreds of somethings, rotting. The sand beneath my feet was hot, and sticky. I looked and it was the strangest sand I’d ever seen. Deep red, almost purple in places. Thunder rumbled in the distance and I stood. The sky was odd. There weren’t just gray clouds, but yellow and bile green, too. Whether because of the people or the storm, I needed to keep moving.
Upon beginning my journey, I saw the city around me for the first time. The buildings had all been neglected and were in various states of decay. But no plants grew up in their place. No plant life anywhere, really. Even the mountains that surrounded the city were desolate. Not even snow. Desolate and jagged. And they stretched higher than any I’d ever seen. Then there were the mirrors. They were everywhere. I walked closer to one and saw not only myself as the diseased person, but that the buildings reflected were magnificent, like new, and the sky was clear blue. In my marveling I hadn’t noticed someone coming.
A low, gravely voice came from behind me.
“Mmm, you smell perfect.”
Spinning around, I was now on my defenses. Before me stood a man who must have been a city worker. Only, his eyes were scabbed over and his skin was a sickly yellow.
He grinned. “Yes, you’ll do just fine.”
With that he reached for me, and I bolted. Down the street filled with the red and purple sand I ran. As loud as I could I screamed, “Help me! Somebody! Help!”
He was far behind but I heard him clearly. “That won’t do you any good. They just hear squealing. They always think it’s pigs.”
A side street came into view and I took it. The bakery three doors down had its doors wide open. For the first time since arriving in this place, I smelled something wonderful. Like beef pot pie. The man was following my scent so I figured the bakery would mask it and so I ducked inside. Strangely, no one was inside. I took the opportunity and hurdled myself over the counter. I hunkered down and waited silently.
It didn’t take long before I heard the man. To my horror, he’d brought friends. My heart pounded in my ears. He barked at them to split up. One must have stayed with him because I heard him talking to someone.
“Oh, this one was sweet and tender, like a Christmas ham.”
The other person said something and he laughed. “The bakery? Nah, she’d be fool to go in there. Keep moving.”
Seconds later their voices were gone. I breathed easier, but then worried why he said I’d be fool to go in the bakery. I concentrated on my senses, opening my awareness of my surroundings. I saw my reflection in the metal cabinets in front of me and my feet were stained like the sand. I felt a presence on the other side of the counter and froze.
“They’ll be back.”
I was on my feet in a split second, ready to fight. With what, I didn’t know. But the person on the other side of the counter was a normal man. The first normal person I’d seen here so far. Even though he held an ax at the ready, something in me calmed.
“Are you the baker?”
“Yep.” The Baker’s voice was surprisingly quiet and calm. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Then why did that man say I’d be fool to come here?”
“They’d be fool. I know how to kill them.”
He put the ax down and reached his hand across the counter. I hesitated, but took it and he helped me over.
“I found if I fight back, I don’t seem so appetizing.”
“Who or what are they?”
“Those particular guys are the Harvesters.”
“Of what, dare I ask?”
The Baker picked up his ax and motioned for me to follow. Outside, he scoped to see if the coast was clear. Then we slinked along, close to the buildings.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I don’t remember.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I don’t even know anymore.”
I started to ask something else, but the Baker stopped, as did I. Two Harvesters hustled along a normal, but scrawny and scared person. He was gagged and they each clenched an arm. The Harvesters whistled cheerily. We followed, keeping our distance.
Before long we came to what looked like a below ground stadium. Windows rose up, angled inward around a circular structure. I heard the shouting of people.
The Baker led me to the side of a neighboring building and we climbed the fire escape to the top. On the roof, I surveyed the circular structure. Through the windows I saw cattle herded, crammed in. It was a pen. The Harvesters opened a door and threw their captive in. That’s when I saw that beyond the windows they were not cattle at all, but people.
“The windows are for the Superiors – the other guys. They see and hear cattle.”
A mechanical sound erupted and what I had thought was a giant circular lighting structure above the pen, began lowering. The people began to scream. The Harvesters stood at the windows and watched excitedly.
“Can the Harvesters see?”
Queasiness welled up in my stomach. I realized the circular structure was a press. I tensed, preparing for what I knew was going to happen. A sickening crunch, and then the screaming stopped. The sand around the pen grew darker purple. The blood continued seeping out toward the streets. I glanced at my feet and began shaking uncontrollably. Then I looked toward the baker.
He shook his head. “The Superiors and Harvesters used to be human, that I know. Going off of what I’ve encountered, I’d say their arrogance and hostility turned them.”
A gurgling sound came from the streets. The buildings were sinking. I looked to the Baker in alarm.
“The city has been sinking for a while,” he said, dispassionately.
“Why haven’t you left this place?”
The Baker turned to me, his face a mixture of sadness and relief. “At first I did try to leave. But the more I tried and failed, the more the Superiors got to me. Eventually they fooled me into thinking I was the one there was something wrong with. I accepted that I’d never leave.”
“But now you’re helping me.”
The Baker fished in his pocket and pulled out a shard of broken mirror and held it for me to see. “When I first woke up here, I had this on me.”
I took the shard of mirror and examined it. My reflection showed me as I normally am, the healthy me.
“I think it was to remind me of where I came from,” said the Baker. “That I could go back one day. I don’t know why I ended up here. But I do think that you are my way home.”
“This’ll be the first storm I’ve seen here,” noted the Baker. “Looks like it’ll be massive. It’ll turn the ground to quicksand –”
“– The entire city really will sink… My timing certainly is on point. Maybe I am supposed to get you home.”
“I hope. The only thing is, I’ve tried every way and failed. It’s impossible.”
Suddenly, a light breeze brushed my cheek. The first breeze I’d felt here. It was sweet, like flowers and fresh water. I closed my eyes and opened my other senses, really taking in my surroundings. I followed the direction of the breeze through sense. Opening my eyes again, I turned and pointed at the highest mountain.
“Oh,” groaned the Baker. “I never took that one. It’s the most treacherous. See the sheer cliffs? No footholds.”
I grabbed the Baker by the arm and stared him dead in the eye. “We have to leave or we’ll die with this city, and we have to take that way!”
I turned and yanked his arm to follow. The Baker hesitated, so I yanked his arm harder. Still he wouldn’t budge. He stared wide-eyed at the mountain. I felt my face grow hot with anger. Thinking quickly, I ripped the Baker’s ax out of his hand and swung it toward his face, deliberately stopping right in front of his eyes. That startled him awake.
“I’m in charge now,” I barked. “We leave now!”
The Baker nodded in respect. “Okay. We’ll take the treacherous way.”
And together, we hurried down the fire escape.