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The world came into focus.
I was on my side, the ground seeming to rumble beneath me, as I awoke from my slumber. I propped myself up on my right elbow as I took in my surroundings.
I was in a car – my family car specifically. We were speeding on the highway - buildings that stood atop large hills to my left and right seeming all-too-familiar. I instantly recognized the route we were taking as the one that we always took every other Saturday to our downtown Walmart.
I recognized the large building on the freshly-mowed hill to my left as the science institution that I dreamed of attending one day.
I recognized the building to my right as the hotel that stood between two intersecting roads where my aunt and uncle had stayed at when they visited us last Thanksgiving.
I even recognized the expansive mall that sat atop a large hill in the distance as the one that housed the first bookstore I had ever been to – Barnes & Nobles. The place that had introduced me to the beauty and power of words.
I recognized it all and yet…something was amiss.
I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand - trying to shake the fogginess of sleep – and was about to sit up and call to my mother, who I automatically assumed was driving the vehicle.
But, when I turned my head slightly to the left, I got a view of the drivers’ seat from the rearview mirror.
There was no one there.
I bolted in my seat and looked around frantically – I was alone. My mother and father weren’t chatting in the seats in front of me like usual. My sister wasn’t sitting next to me with that familiar faraway look in her eyes that meant she was being transported to another reality in her daydreams. There was no one else in the car but me.
I was alone.
And yet the car was still driving itself perfectly.
Before I could question it, I realized this wasn’t the only odd thing about my surroundings. It struck me then that I had woken up on the right side of the car instead of the left, where I normally sat. Other things stood out too, like the out-of-place leathery feeling of the car seat beneath me or the fact that the beige seat covers for the drivers’ and passenger seats were nowhere to be found.
I gazed out the window and picked out more strange things. Firstly, there were no other cars or trucks on the highway except the one I was in. Secondly, there were some buildings, trees or structures that were in the wrong place or weren’t even there at all – that building over there that was a camp for dogs was nowhere to be seen and that oak tree that seemed to loom over the dead was on the opposite side of the cemetery below.
There was even the waterfall that sat next to the public park – the water was traveling up instead of down.
But none of this struck me as stranger than the fact that the world outside my window was completely and utterly drained of color.
The sky was a pale tone of gray, the leaves on the trees were jet-black and the road that loomed before me was a tone of off-white. Everything else was a muddy wash of mid-tone grey.
I blinked, not daring to believe my eyes, and sat back in my seat. The world inside the mysteriously-moving vehicle retained its color – the blue bottle of spring water that jiggled hypnotically in the cup-holder next to me, the navy blue and red buttons for the radio in the front seat. Even the attire that I couldn’t remember putting on that morning – red shoes, navy-blue turtle neck and beige cargo pants – kept their pigment.
The sight of my clothing set off yet another odd thing in my mind – I couldn’t remember getting dressed that morning, or having breakfast or even getting into this car.
I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there.
A noise startled me out of my thoughts – a sudden grinding sound of metal-on-metal that disturbed the monotonous rumbling of the car. I looked out the window to my right with trepidation and stared at the rubble that seemed to engulf the hotel that I had recognized not five minutes before.
Before one could blink, the hotel was reduced to a heap of metal and cement.
It was gone.
I gasped – the noise sounding foreign. Suddenly another grinding sound came from my left. I scrambled over to the other side of the car and peered warily out of the left window.
The science institution crumbled before me – glass shattered, metal bent in odd ways, and ash seemed to engulf the entire structure until it was nothing more than an unrecognizable heap.
Again and again this happened.
The cemetery. Gone.
The public park. Gone.
The mall. Gone.
Within a span of yet another five minutes all of the buildings and structures that had triggered my memory when I had woken up – the buildings and structures that I had grown up to look up at and memorize in the uncountable trips to the supermarket – were erased from existence.
Gone before my eyes.
I felt wetness on my cheeks and realized with a jolt that I was crying. Emotions filled my chest – confusion, sadness, fear.
I couldn’t see, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe.
Then, through the thick veil of water on my eyes, I saw it. A flash of darkness on the hood of the car. Before I could register it – identify the shape of the person or thing – it had already vanished into thin air.
And in its place, ashes flaked off of the hood of the car, spreading and spreading to the rearview windows, then onto the dashboard, then to the possessed steering wheel.
Then to the passenger seat where I wept.
A scream tore out of me - my own cries for help ringing in my eyes. I shrieked and yelled and kicked and pulled my hair and screamed like I never had before.
Over and over I shouted this isn’t real! This isn’t real!
And over and over doubts filled my conscious: I’m not real. I’m not real.
Right as the disgusting mixture of ashes and blackness touched the tips of my red boots – the memory of the day my mother had bought them for me flashing before my eyes – I stood up, my head hitting the top of the still-moving car, and cried for mercy.
But it was too late; the inky darkness was crawling up my leg. I could feel its power as my calf muscles tensed and buckled and I fell awkwardly on top of the haunted dashboard. I tried to wiggle my way free, to sit up, to move.
But I was paralyzed. Not only with fear but with the darkness that was seeping through my clothing, into my chest, up the veins in my neck, into my wide-open mouth, corrupting the tears that splashed onto the unfamiliar upholstery of the passenger seat beneath me.
I screamed and begged, choking on the thick inky darkness that bubbled, sizzled and festered on my skin.
Then everything changed.
One minute I was there – a poor, confused girl sitting in an abandoned vehicle that was no longer familiar on a road to nowhere choking violently on her own insecurities and fears.
Then it was gone – I was gone. Nothing but white bliss surrounded me as one last thought bubbled up to the surface of my frazzled mind: