I was sitting in class. Math class. My teacher had just finished writing down the problem of the day. The smartest kid was the first to raise his hand. I sat in the back with my head down, drifting in and out of contentiousness. Then the siren went off. It was louder and shriller then any fire horn I had ever heard. I can remember the fear on my teachers face. The dread. He panicked and motioned for us all to get down. The outside turned an amber color of flames, and the sun grew larger and then snuffed out.
Some of us carried weapons: a gun, a knife, a bow, maybe all of the above. Others carried trinkets, things to help us remember. Some carried rations: food, water. Some of us carried survival equipment: bandages, surgical tools. Some others carried only the clothes on their back. And still others carried shelter: tents, lean too equipment, a blanket (in the worst cases). But everyone carried ghosts.
Ghosts had no physical weight, but the mental weight war nearly unbearable. Ghosts where almost always a family member, almost always nuclear. Every once and again a ghost would be a friend. Ghosts where the men and women you loved who died to save us. Ghosts were and would always be with you. You could lighten the weight, but they’d always be there. A backpack where you had none, papers and books, slowing you down, hanging from your shoulders. Ghosts were a reminder, haunting you, never ceasing, a restless spirit.
Ghosts were tethered to something physical you carried. Most of us who survived carried dog tags, from the early days of containment. That was where the ghosts were. In the dog tags. Other ghosts were in a sentimental family air loom, or maybe a present given to you by a loved one you carried.
The worst ghosts hung over those of us who fought. The civilians only carried the ghosts of those they lost. But the soldiers, they carried the ghosts of those they killed.
These were the worst ghosts because they haunted you in your dreams. I remember one night, after I had gone to bed, everyone had gone to bed. I woke to an open sky. I was outside, it was cold. I felt nothing: no pain from my injuries, no longing, no hopelessness, nothing. Something moved in the dark. The sands of the desert around me rose and fell in dust to conceal it. I knew what it was. It was my ghost. I could see his shadow. He was tall and dark. He changed shape to be concealed in his surroundings. He flowed from place to place with great inhuman ease. He drew closer and I could feel the cold closing in around me. The sands rose again and even his shadow disappeared. The sky turned an amber color, it was so clear where the sands broke one could see the other end of our milky way. The amber tinted it and the pale white shined even brighter. The sands had created a warmth that made me feel as if it were 11 years ago, and I was home. Then a shadow emerged from the sand and near behind it a dark, flowing, lifeless shape. It was my burden, my lead weight, my ghost. He reached out to me moaning as though I had just shot him all over again. He began bleeding onto my chest and legs and when I reached out to touch him I felt a sudden jolt of reality push me from my dream. I woke up in my tent, sweating. The men I had learned to call friends around me, starring. My knife was in my hand and from the looks I got I was about to use it. Reality weighed down on me, as did my ghost, and the lightness I felt was gone but all the pain of what was happening around me, past, present, and future still consumed me.
My ghost’s name was Lucius. He was a tall bearded man of 28. He wore a green military jacket and raggedy jeans. He wore silver aviators and a torn brown mesh hat. And perhaps most importantly he carried: a bowing knife, a military issue M16 with and ACOG sight and laser optics, and the ghost of his dead brother. He was a solider fighting for the Houston Militia. I stumbled onto his path six years ago in May of 2020. His friend, or rather comrades wanted to shoot me. They should have. But Lucius, the commanding officer, took me in. He showed me better hunting tactics and skills he had learned as a survivors recruit in the militia. He told me stories of how he rose through the ranks and of how he lead platoons into the heart of darkness and returned unscathed.
One night sitting by the fire Lucius was telling me the story of how he and his ranger buddies took control of Dallas from the savages. The men driven mad by the darkness. He recalled how he turned several of the graceless monsters back into what they once were. Telling this story with the flames and sparks rising and falling lighting up in front of him he seemed like a guardian angel. Or (in light of the story) a fallen angel, providing light to the race of uncivilized humans as Prometheus had. And now looking back, he was Prometheus bound to that mountain top, being torn apart by Zeus's eagle each day only to be once again reborn and relive the pain. As Lucius continued with the story I contemplated his parallelism to Lucifer, to Prometheus, to Atlas. And then he shouted in pain. An intense agony had over come him and he fell to the ground crippled. His hands pooled with blood and I dove over. His men shot to there feet and ran into the woods leaving only me and Lucius behind.
God only knows what happened to those 5 men. I surely don't. They never returned and because I had no expertise I could do nothing to help Lucius. In hind site that's not really true, he was my friend and when he asked me to end his misery I did. Lucius's ghost (as far as I know) died with him and now I bare Lucius as my backpack. Because I killed him. That was... is my punishment.
It was not until a year later that Lucius helped me. I didn't understand why, I killed him after all. Maybe I did understand and at the time I was just lost. Nevertheless, it was a cold night. The Northern lights, the stars, the moon, were no more and the only visible things were the trees dancing in the cold wind. The amber leaves shook off and fall began to pile onto me like a weight. I didn't know it but that night death was coming for me. I had failed for the 7th time starting a fire when the trees whispered to me and for some odd reason I collapsed. The losses I had taken over the years pierced me in a hot metallic pain. I had felt nothing worse then I blacked out. I woke up to my ghost above me. “Stop, don't” Lucius was saying. I realized my knife was upon my wrist. Lucius raised his line of site to behind me, and I heard twigs crack. I spun around and plunged my knife into the cold body of death. It was some poor scavenger. Although he was going to kill me, and I was alive, I couldn't help feeling morbid in that moment. Blood spilled on to my coat, staining my hands. The mans scythe dropped with a clang and almost instinctively my voice met the tone. “Thank you” I whispered. And Lucius was gone.
A massive solar flair they called it when the seemingly perpetual light of our sun gave into darkness, and after it, one by one every light around the world went out. Although our government was prepared for it few survived. Those of us who did found shelter, sought it out in the ruins of crumbling governments. But once those government all but fell we sought shelter somewhere else, with each other. We banded together and formed militias to protect ourselves against those driven mad by the darkness. Some split from the militias as they had, in their own way, been driven to madness by those they had lost. Those who split carried only the essentials. Except for their ghosts. Their ghosts were comfort and fear, a pleasant reminder and a cold dark warning. Ghost were there to protect us. Mine was. Although they're not real only a figment of our sane concuss mind I like to believe even though I killed Lucius he still watches over me as he did when he first saved me from my inevitable fate. He told me “Jack you're all right. And one day Conner you'll save me and then I'll return the favor”. I like to think he has. And I am forever in debt.