Nights on Fintar were dim and hazy, the dimness inevitable, because despite the fact that the planet had two moons, they were so weak and small, that even together, they could not push light through the thin sheet of clouds covering the skies. The Haziness was a blight, induced by industry and societal decline. A permeant fog covered the planet from thousands of smoking factory chimneys, and hundreds of thousands of tired souls lazing around, sluggish with minds impaired and permanently damaged from the thick blue clouds of Shuki vines that they smoked from their pipes. The trees of the planet that were once bright pink and flourishing, had been tainted a dirty purple by years of pollution. The stone and dirt streets were bare, as grass had long since died off, and so as people walked back home at night from their various factory jobs, the younger generations still had the small spring in their step from the thought of going home after a long day’s work. But the older jaded generation, thudded their boots together in a monotonous tone of weariness and complacency.
Ailim too walked home with the group. Her head facing the ground, and her hands deep in the pockets of her uniform. Beside her, the others were doing the same, and while her steps had the small spring of the rest of her generation, hers were especially liberated, as they were fueled by anticipation for the following day, although, she made sure to keep the excitement contained, and her eyes never strayed from the stone ground. At night, Ailim, like most people, never looked up, because to look up meant to risk making eye contact with one of the people of the night. The night was still young, so many of them had not yet creeped out of their dens. But as more people reached their homes, and the group got smaller, in the pit of Ailim’s stomach, as tangible as an organ, the fear of darkness that was bred in all Fintarians, throbbed painfully. With each neighborhood they passed, individuals would allow themselves a small moment to rejoice and let out a sigh of relief as they crossed their thresholds and entered their brightly lit homes. The others would huddle closer, and trudge more determinedly.
After an hour, more, of fearful walking, the large group had been reduced to Ailim and her three neighbors, who lived the furthest from the brightly lit central district. Usually, when they left together for work in the mornings, they would at least give each other comforting smiles, and sometimes, even chat as they began their long walk to the factories. But at night, their forced silence was filled with the whisperings of the people of the night. Ailim shivered, and the whispering got denser as the moons continued to rise and the darkness deepened, allowing more voices to be added to the cacophony. Ailim felt like their lips were right behind her neck, and they may very well have been, but she would never look up to find out. Two more of her neighbors arrived at their homes, and quickly entered, shutting and bolting the doors behind them. It was just her and her cousin Jio left and they walked faster as the clouds thickened, blocking even more of the already pitiful moonlight. Suddenly, above the steady whispers of the people of the night, a loud cry rose like the rapturous sound of an animal that was descending upon its prey, while enduring the pain of being preyed upon itself. Ailim and Jio would have frozen, if they hadn’t been trained since they were children never to freeze in fear. Ailim chanted the mantra of her childhood in her head ‘Keeping moving, keep moving, keep moving until you are indoors and inside the light’, and she kept going, but her hands deep in her pocket began to shake.
She continued to speed up her pace, now almost jogging, but she didn’t seem to be getting home any faster, it felt like that was no end to the road, and Jio, who had never once beat her in a race, continued to pull ahead of her, not looking back. She continued struggling to move faster, but she only got slower, till she found it nearly impossible to place one foot in front of the other. Cold sweat began to drip from her face as she realized what was going on.
“No, no, no,” She whispered to herself, speaking for the first time that night, “No, not me.”
Ailim fought against whatever it was that was slowing her feet down, and she stared hard at them to see what was restraining her, but there was nothing. Her feet simply refused to move properly. She had heard that the people of the night attacked the mind, but she felt nothing out of place in her head, there was no fog, or external presence. She was only aware of her own panicked thoughts, and that she was now barely shuffling forward. The whispering continued, and her chest constricted. She clenched her fists, and bit down hard on her lips, causing blood to rush out. The pain loosened the force affecting her mind, and she was able to move again, but it didn’t last long. The pain quickly subsided, and she was still again. Ailim could feel their eyes on her, a collection of thick slimy gazes, that traveled all over her body, and the feeling intensified as she felt them draw nearer. Still she did not look up.
Ailim was rooted to the spot as powers that she could not understand took control of her body. She shut her eyes. She was already so close to home. So may nights she had walked the path without any incident, so many times when even if she was caught, there wouldn’t have been much at stake. But tonight, just one night before she would be off the planet, almost as if the planet knew she would soon be free, as if it couldn’t bear to let even one potential victim escape. She cursed, as the despair of her situation threatened to overwhelm. She screamed. She screamed and strained against the invisible binding that held her, and in response, the whispering grew to a loud chant. For three years, her family had been saving up to move them off the planet. For three years, they had forbidden themselves from indulging in even the smallest luxuries. They had eaten the cheapest gruel, and moved to one of the furthest districts, all to save up for a new start.
Yet, ‘one day before all their efforts paid off…’ she thought, then shook her head vigorously, despite her restrained mobility. She shook her head madly, until any thoughts of giving up were swept from her mind. She screamed louder, gained a bit of control over her feet, and took a step forward. The insane chanting increased and drowned her mind with images of purple shadows and blue smoke swirling and intertwining in the twisted rhythm of the monsters. Ailim griped her head and pulled at her hair removing it in chucks. With each sharp burst of pain, and clump of hair falling to the floor, she took one more step. Now she could feel them on her, touching her pulling her, try to force her to give into the trance, but she fought them. She would not fall, not when she was so close.
She knew that for as long as Fintar had existed, the people of the night had existed with it, evolving and growing as the people did. At first, they had only been thieves of trinkets and forgotten things, but with each new factory built, and each new layer of fog covering Fintar’s moons, their deeds became more sinister. People soon come to accept their ‘taking’ as the norm on Fintar.
‘When you are chosen, go silently’ was the whispered plea printed on Fintar’s coins and engraved in the people’s hearts. ‘When you are chosen, go silently,’ Ailim thought as she ripped out another chunk of her hair and screamed as she took one more step forward. She continued, blindly moving forward with pain. She pulled and pulled until finally she had no more hair to pull out. She could feel her limbs freezing up again, and in desperation, she gripped a finger with one hand and began to twist it backwards, the bones bent, and were about to give, when suddenly everything was silent and still.
She felt a solid weight drop on her shoulder, and although her eyes were still tightly shut, the heavy, haggard breathing was unmistakably that of a person’s. She stood motionless, her hand still tightly gripping and twisting the finger, but she bent it no further. Her breathing calmed, and her heart stopped pounding in her ears, then slowly she opened her eyes, and looked up to meet a familiar pair of yellow irises. Her father gripped her shoulder tightly, and next to him her mother stood shaking. They were both crying and pale with fright. She silently took the image of them in, comparing it to what she knew in her memories.
“Are you real?” she asked, tasting the blood of her torn up throat, as she spoke in a voice so raw and hoarse that the words were barley understandable.
“I am real,” her father said, hugging her tightly. “I am real.”
She could feel his heartbeat pounding furiously, and he was drenched in so much sweat that his clothes were dripping from it. Still Ailim didn’t not fully believe that they were her parents, until she was engulfed in a scent that was uniquely her father’s; a combination of dust and sugary sweats. An unmistakable scent the she’d know as long as she’d lived.
“She is so cold,” her mother said taking her hand. She looked at the trail of hair that led to them, the patches remaining on her daughter’s head, and struggled to keep from screaming in fury and pain from her powerlessness and inability to protect her daughter. “Let us go quickly before they decide to take us all,” she said.
They huddle close together with Ailim between them, and ran home, keeping their heads down. Ailim was surprised by how quickly they reached the house. It took only a minute. The whole time, she was only a few steps from home, yet she felt like she had suffered for an eternity to move a single foot forward. Once they were safely inside the house, all the adrenalin and desperation that had kept her going burnt out, and she became unresponsive in her parent’s arms, as they laid her on the chair and covered her in blankets. They didn’t ask any questions about what it was like or if she was okay. Her mother just held her hand, and feed her warm tea, while her father rubbed her feet.
“You are so strong,” her mother whispered over and over again.
Finally, after a few hours, and after the warmth and light had soaked into her body, Ailim spoke. “They could have taken you too,” she said, cautiously sitting up and looking at her mother then at her father who moved to take her other hand.
“Then we will have all gone together,” her mother said resolutely.
“That’s madness,” Ailim said, but smiled softly. She than raised a hand to stroke her now bald head. While she had been lying down, her father had cleaned up few remaining strands of her hair.
“It will grow back,” he said, looking down to hide his tears.
She squeezed his hand. “I know,” she said, then she looked into her mother’s eyes, and she knew that despite the fact that she was now bald, or that she might suffer from nightmares and trauma for the rest of her life, the intense look in her mother’s eyes were mirrored in hers. It was not a look of sadness or pain, but one of furious victory.
“I survived,” she said emboldened, and her mother gripped her hand tighter. “I fought them and survived,’ she said, then rubbed her head again. “My hair will grow back. It will grow back long and clean, and it will never be stained by Fintar’s foul air again.”
Her mother nodded, and though he could not stop his tears, her father smiled broadly. “we’ve won,” he said.