The vast courtyard within the castle walls exploded with life. Commoner and noble alike were awed by the fountains of sparks that shot from brass barrels high into the evening sky. Tantalizing smells both sweet and savory drifted on the wind, along with music and laughter.
A young girl of three years wandered alone through the festival, her eyes filled with curiosity. She looked at every man and woman as if each was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen. Older children played with a ball in a clearing, but she wasn’t interested in their games. The simple pleasures of an empty apple crate were more enthralling. It could be a cart, or a fort, or a boat...
Musicians, singers and actors warmed up for the evening’s performance. Nearby, people waited patiently in line to gaze at the growing number of stars through the Royal Astrologer’s wondrous spyglass. And next to them a bard sang the history of the land—great battles fought, great deeds done.
The girl was alone, but wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t in her nature to fear such a wonderland.
She ran. Through forests, streams, and hills the girl ran till she could run no more. There was no thought behind this, only instinct and timing.
The city was dead. Lia was dead. Everyone was dead. Everyone but her.
Exhausted, she collapsed at the top of a wooded hill. For a moment, she thought she saw a man hunched over a campfire, a strange blue dome next to him. But it was just her imagination. There was no man here—only trees, dead leaves, and darkness.
Shivering, the child covered herself in leaves and slept.
The day started like any other. The sun came up, and in twelve or so hours it would go back down again. The world could end and this would still be true.
The early light of dawn filtered through brown curtains, staining the walls of the small bedroom. A woman in white briefs and a T-shirt slept on top of the brown covers, her arms and legs sprawled across the double bed like the chalk outline of a homicide victim.
The light began to drill through her eyelids. She winced and turned her head, but her brain had already started waking up. She opened her eyes. Beside her was a brown chair, a blue shirt and dark pants crumpled on the seat. A belt draped over its back.
Her brow furrowed as she tried to make sense of what she saw. The clothes seemed out of place, like a pimp at a funeral. Were they hers?
She lifted her head to scan the room. There was no sense of familiarity, none of the comfort you felt when you woke up at home.
Her heart beat faster; she wasn’t home.
It began to race when she had to admit she didn’t know where home was.
She sat up, grasping at the details of the room. A large TV sat on the dresser across from the bed. Beige carpet covered the floor. The bathroom door stood wide-open—white tiles and porcelain dimly lit by a small pane of frosted glass. No one there. The front door was shut, a notice framed on it. She got up for a closer look. No words, just a diagram of the room.
She opened the curtains and let the light pour in. Outside was a parking lot connected to a two-lane road with a police car stopped on its shoulder. Beyond that was nothing but dry grassland. Next to the parking lot was a tall sign—MOTEL—with an arrow that arced over the word and pointed down.
She went back to dress and stubbed her toe on something hard. She winced and looked at her feet.
A long pump shotgun lay on the floor next to the chair.
She jumped back as if the weapon would shoot her of its own free will. It must have fallen over, having been propped against the chair. For a moment, her fear came from recognition; part of her knew why the gun was there. As soon as she felt an answer creep forward, her mind pushed it back into the shadows. She looked to the nightstand. Next to the lamp was a black automatic pistol. She looked at the clothes on the chair again and saw a metal star glint on the blue shirt.
It was a uniform. The nametag under the five-pointed star read: T. Felice
She had no idea if that was her name.
She tried on the clothes, put on the belt, but didn’t touch the guns. The uniform fit, but the nametag in the mirror was as indecipherable backwards as it had been forward.
She was a cop? It didn’t seem to click with her. Aside from the guns and uniform, she could have been a reporter or an aristocrat and it would have made as much sense.
She looked back to the pistol on the nightstand. It was a Glock 22, which held fifteen .40 caliber rounds and was standard issue for many U.S. law enforcement agencies. The shotgun was a Mossberg 590. She was pretty sure not many rich aristocrats knew that. Maybe if they lived in Texas.
She looked at the nametag again.
Tonya? Tiffany? Tammy?
These names belonged to someone with a trust fund.
Toni? Thelma? Tash?
Those didn’t feel right, either, but Felice sounded okay. Felice it was until further notice.
She picked up the remote off the dresser and sat on the bed. She turned on the TV. Nothing. She pressed the power button again, tried to turn on the power manually, unplugged the set and tried another socket. Nothing.
Felice tried the lamp next to the TV, then the one on the nightstand, then the main room switch. No power anywhere. Great.
There was a jingling in her pocket. She fished out a brass key attached to a plastic tag twice its size. On one side, it said MOTEL. On the other, 104.
Felice went to the door. She turned the handle, and then changed her mind. She went back, picked up the Glock, put it in the holster, and propped the shotgun back against the chair.
The air was still brisk this early in the morning. She walked out into the parking lot, which was empty. There was no sign of anyone else at the motel. There was no one in the police car across the road. It was most likely hers, too.
She raised her hand to her eyes and scanned the horizon, but there was little to see aside from flat grassland. Distant mountains skirted the edge of the world, and though the sky above was clear, dark thundering clouds loomed beyond the range.
Five or ten miles past the motel sign, a small city stuck out of the grassland like a concrete island. But it was all wrong. Smoke rose from half the city in thick black plumbs, and once or twice she saw a lick of flame. Barely visible at this distance on the road was a pile up of cars that spilled off the shoulder and onto the grass. They, too, were smoking.
The day had started like any other. The sun came up, and in twelve or so hours it would go back down again. The world could end and this would still be true.