(This is the first of a series of monthly short stories set in the universe of GONE. Going forward, those will be available to Patreon supporters at the $5 level, with the audio version available at the $10 level. As of right now I intend to keep these going even after season 1 of GONE wraps up, in part to keep my hand in until I can launch season 2.)
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Sung in Sunday school, back when there was such a thing, back when there were schools. Sundays. Sun Day. Every day of the week strikes her as funny now, but one especially above all the others, because how could it not?
Not like her sense of humor is all that complicated. Simple as everything else has become. Simplicity is a gift - and there's another one. Another one of those songs. 'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free. Not Sunday school - she leans over the wheel and chokes a laugh - but some other day, no school at all, Mom standing in front of the kitchen sink with her red hands dripping and her dirty brown hair tucked behind her ears, though all color disappears in her own silhouette as the afternoon sun washes around her and simmers her down to shadow.
Singing those little songs. Remembered now, though crackling and distorted as if through a bad radio.
As if. No, as is; she gropes for the radio’s knob, fumbles with it, cranks it all the way to the right and watches the little blue LCD indicator swell.
The radio might or might not be on. Doesn't matter. What matters is that crackle-warble that now and then almost manages to coalesce into auditory coherence before it disintegrates back into noise without any real signal. But the signal is there. She knows it is. Even a fraction of a second is infinitely better than nothing.
It means she's on the right track. It means she might not die tonight.
In the night that is everything now.
The road stretches out barely a yard in front of her, illuminated into a patchy gray blur by the flickering headlights. Driving blind, just about, but she stopped worrying about that a long time ago. What's important is to keep moving. Miles upon miles and tank after tank of siphoned gas. She doesn't know how long she's had this car - pickup truck, though she could give a shit regarding what kind. It has wheels and it moves.
It has the radio.
Through the open windows, the dark whispers. She does her best to ignore it.
She's a lot better at that than she used to be.
This little light of mine.
Again, the crackle. The warble. From out of it, the sense: something that might be music that might be quantifiable that might be anything at all, except it is something, it has to be something, and she stomps an inadvisable boot on the pedal and the truck roars over the noise.
Bitch, she hisses, a thin dry wind through her head, you better fucking stay with me. You better not check out now.
All around her could be fields. Houses. A town. Could be a damn city for all she knows. Skyscrapers looming over her, lost in the pitch black, like the submerged towers of a metropolis sunk to the bottom of an ocean trench.
She's not so stupid as to imagine those towers would be empty. There's not much light in the cab but she can see her knuckles go white.
Just get there. Just hear.
But it's easy, you see, to miss how fast you’re going when the world around you consists of a yard or so in all directions, and when you stopped looking at speedometers what feels like and may in fact be months ago. It's easy to lose it. As it happens, she's fully aware of it and why it's happening, and she's cursing herself with almost decadent lavishness. She lost her shit. She got careless. She abandoned herself to the signal as an end rather than as a means.
The turn is slight, but it surges up out of nowhere, and with it, the sign. A tasteful white plaque resting on an equally tasteful concrete platform surrounded by some kind of ferny spreading plant - and even in this moment she has the mental space to wonder again at what point the plants will start to die, if they will at all, if that part of the world is broken too.
Then a shriek is ripping out of her as the car tips sideways and up onto two wheels and smashes head-on into the sign, a vicious squealing of metal, and she's slammed forward in her seatbelt, shoulders and sternum howling with bright pain and in the second before the radio dies forever the noise disappears and there’s only the signal, the numbers, the song, and she tastes the blood running down her face and with a hot surge of satisfaction she thinks there you are.
And the darkness eats her alive.
It's not the first time. The darkness is eating her every fucking second of every fucking day.
People are adaptable. You figure that after a while, you can get used to anything. Nope. Not so. Some things you never adjust to. Some things you simply bear, and you take it second by second and you cling to every second in which your heart is still pumping and your brain hasn't melted out your goddamn ears.
She learns to count her blessings not as blessings but as lifelines.
Thing is, she doesn't actually need them. Not that way. The heart thing? That's actually not much of a concern. Her brain, sure, but she stopped worrying about her heart long since, and that's why she's not astonished at all when she finds herself crawling from the twisted metal cage, wriggling out on her belly like a worm.
Dazed, shaking from the lungs out. Forearms and belly scraped, the latter from where her shirt rucked up. She might be cut. The side of her face feels wet. No, shit, she is cut, though fuck knows where. She remembers; it's hazy but there were seconds of clear mental processing before that further dive into the black, and she remembers the taste of iron on her lips.
Free from the wreck, she rolls onto her back, coughs, feels at her head with trembling hands and gazes blankly up at the equally blank sky.
Lost the fucking radio. Shit. The truck she can live without, there's no shortage of vehicles now, but not every radio is the good kind. She has yet to determine what it is about the ones that work that's different from the ones that don't, and she probably never will. It's enough for now to know that there's a difference.
Not that it helps her find one. It's trial and error. Which means, if nothing else, a hell of tedium while she looks for another one.
She needs the signal. The signal is all she has. Without the signal, there's no direction. Without the signal, she's adrift.
Without the signal, she's lost.
Sighing, she pushes herself up to sit, wrestles back a brief wave of nausea and fumbles in the pocket of her jacket for her Swiss Army knife. Uses it to tear away a strip of her shirt from the hem, and with it she mops gingerly at the crown of her head where the cut seems to be located.
Ow. Fuck. Yeah, that's where it is.
Whatever. She scans her surroundings - what she can see of them, which isn't much, but there's something. There's always something. The fact is that this darkness doesn't quite work like normal darkness, and sometimes that's another blessing and sometimes it very much isn't. And she sees what's left of the truck—somehow tipped on its side, front end smashed in and buckled like old plastic—and she sees what she saw before, that pale sign with its mundane tag. A boring monument to a bland god.
BONE MOTOR LODGE
She feels the weird stretch as one corner of her mouth twists up into a wry, slightly bemused smile. She is slightly bemused. Bone? Somehow she gets the sense that it's not some random name, but instead the kind of name you bestow on something for a specific reason. Possibly geographical. Could be they're near a town called Bone. Sometimes towns have weird-ass names.
Hell with it. She gets groaningly to her feet, slips the knife back into her pocket, and limps into the parking lot.
She's gotten fairly competent at picking locks. She's gotten even more competent at smashing her way in. This place uses keycards and she's at a loss regarding how to work with those, so grab a nearby trash can and go to town, and a few minutes later the door of the ground-floor room she's selected is splintering inward.
The room smells like smoke, even though the sign on the door clearly instructed anyone who looked at it not to do that. She stands in the middle of the room for a few seconds, breathing, then flops down on the nearest of the two double beds, goes into her other pocket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes. Lighter.
Flick, glow, inhale. The nicotine floods into her veins and it's relief as solid and thick as any she ever got from a prescription.
She picked up the habit because why the fuck not. She'd always been curious about it and it's not like she's going to die of lung cancer. Or she would be utterly shocked.
She had dreams about it, is the weird thing. Smoking. Periodically she would be doing it in one, wake up wanting to try. She was never sure what that was about, never sure why her mind was pushing her in that direction, but she started and the dreams stopped.
Not that she'd been dreaming much anyway by then.
Smoke in the air. She watches it curl and rise and vanish. Exhaling smoke like some guys piss on stuff: making some kind of a mark. It's incredibly impermanent but it's a thing. I was here.
She drops onto her back and smokes until she dozes off.
Yeah, that's a good way to burn to death. Again, though, she's not worried. She knows better than to be so.
She does wake up with a hole burned in the sheets. Not much of one; she glances at it, kicks the sheet aside, gets up. No idea how much later it is; couldn't matter less. She's more than used to not knowing things like that. She's also used to moving while only being able to plan three or four steps in advance; sound still works, or mostly, and she's actually gotten pretty good at getting a feel for the size and scope and level of clutter in a space without seeing it at all. Outside it's more of a problem, but motels are all arranged in essentially the same way, even the mom & pop ones instead of the chains, and it's not difficult to find the vending machines.
No ice. But candy bars don't go bad, and neither do little packets of horrifically fake “snack cakes”. As far as drinks go, the soda is lukewarm, but it's perfectly drinkable.
Screw water. She'll take it with, but right now she needs the calories.
She sits down right there on the concrete of the breezeway and makes herself eat.
Has to make herself. Matter of fact, she doesn't want a lot of food these days. She forgets to eat if she doesn't remind herself. It's not good; she knows she needs it, even if she technically won't starve to death. She's dropped something like fifteen pounds since this all started, and it was fifteen pounds she didn't really have to lose. But there's no such thing as time anymore. There's nothing to mark it, so it doesn't exist. So breakfast and lunch and dinner are artifacts of a dead world. Not a great way to run a biological railroad.
Snacks, though. She can do snacks. Even if it means she eats like shit.
She eats. Then she gets up, leaves the wrappers because who cares, and heads back to the room, passing a rack of brochures for local attractions. A county fair. An amusement park. A museum of local history—this place is indeed called Bone. Things she might have been interested in, once upon a time. She always liked little oddities. She liked the things that made a place unique.
Didn't get enough of that, before. Now she has all she could want.
Except she doesn't. That's all gone. No place is unique anymore. In the dark, everything bleeds together. Everything is the same shades of gray fading to black, with the occasional bone-pale cutting through. Sitting on the hotel bed with her legs crossed and another cigarette glowing between her fingers, she gazes at nothing and she thinks about the road behind her and the road ahead, all the miles to travel before you sleep, and once more she's overtaken by the creeping wave of pointlessness that's been chasing her from the very beginning.
Advancing on her like a draining tsunami, no matter how high her ground.
She raises the cigarette to her lips, inhales, looks down her nose and watches the glow flare. Watches it flicker like bad reception on a bad TV. It's all waves, isn't it? Light. Radio. Sound of all kinds. Elegant sine crests and troughs, rising and falling with comforting irregularity. Even this cold dullness that's flowing through her now. She perceives the pattern, and for what it is, she appreciates it.
She's learned to work within patterns, and she appreciates them whenever she comes across them.
Inhale. Exhale. The faint burn in her lungs and the soothing rush of the nicotine. It's not about fire. It's about knowing that you're breathing at all, because when nothing else is keeping her on that road, when what got her on it isn't enough and neither is what she desperately hopes might be at the end, that fact can be. It can get the job done. She's here and she's breathing. She exists in the world and therefore the world exists too.
She's not gone. Therefore, neither is whatever she sees. Hears. Touches. Tastes and smells. As long as that's true, there's a chance.
Even if she has no idea how to do this.
Her legs are cramped. She sighs, unfolds them.
In front of her, the TV cuts on.
There was a time when the world operated according to certain rules—once again, those patterns. She took comfort in that, even if she didn't know it. It was reassuring. Particular things could happen and particular things couldn't. There were plenty of questions, sure, but most things were reliable.
Then the dark came. Now the rules break all the damn time, at the drop of a hat and often for no apparent reason, and she's forgotten how to be alarmed by it. Anything is simply possible. It might almost be exciting.
It is what it is.
Light can work backward, sideways, up and down. So can time. Space can move around you. The walls can whisper. The ground can roar.
Ghosts can speak.
There is a degree of reassurance in knowing that no rules can be relied upon ever again.
Her phone is in her hand.
She has no clue how it got there. She doesn't remember picking it up. She could have anytime; it's never far from her now. She knows without looking that she's thumbed on record. No video, but it's not like she ever uses that anymore. And anyway, she's looking at nothing more remarkable than black and white static, bands of light and dark rolling up and down the screen.
The light hurts like a rapid series of pokes into the corners of her eyes. She closes them and draws a hard breath.
Static crackle. Then: how's it going
“Since when do you care?”
i always care
She huffs a laugh. “You don't even know me.”
what are you talking about The way the static rolls and swirls seems like a laugh in itself. you know me. you just won't let yourself admit it. why won't you be with me
“You're a fucking lie.” She swallows. “No part of you is real. Not one single fucking part.”
Brief pause. She waits. This is an old dance now and they both know the steps so well. Then: i could be real
you don't even know what real is anymore
so what's the difference
“There's all the difference.” She drops the cigarette onto the floor and crushes it out with the heel of her boot. Last of the glow: Gone. “You're not gonna entice me into your fucking honey pot, so why not stop where you are?”
why don't you
And naturally she has no answer to that. If this is an old dance and they know the steps, this is an old fight and they know the moves.
When you hit that point, all you have is a stalemate.
She sits there in silence for what feels like a long time. The phone is loose in her fist. She can practically hear it listening, feel the subtle vibration as it writes to drive. Drive, drive. Always driving. Always listening.
“I can't stop,” she whispers.
The screen flickers. For an instant the snow is more dark than light, and there's a vaguely thoughtful quality to it. For another instant, what surges up in her is hatred like the blast of a bomb, hatred fit to rip the sky open, and it would be so easy and so fucking satisfying to whip her hand back and hurl the phone into that face made of snowy chaos, and both could break and maybe at last they would both leave her alone.
Maybe at last they would all leave her alone.
But she doesn't. Obviously. And after another moment or two, its flicker-hiss takes on a note of finality.
see you out there, then
“Yeah,” she breathes, and flicks out of the memo app. “Yeah.”
But on her way out, she does put a bullet through the TV. It helps. For about ten seconds.
Hit the road like a fucking hammer, little light. Hit the road and be simple. Be free.