It was the smell that woke her.
The first thing she noticed––after that awful smell––was the sunlight behind her eyelids. Her eyes shot open––Goddamnit, I’m gonna be late for work––to land on the blank screen of her alarm clock. She threw the covers off and scrambled to her feet, cursing whatever blown fuse that had killed her alarm clock and left her cell phone to apparently die as well.
After a deep yawn––Ugh. What the hell is that smell? Rotten eggs?––she padded over to her dresser pulled on her work clothes, and tied her hair back. No time for make-up. No time for breakfast. She adjusted her necklace under her shirt (a medallion of Saint Julitta of something or other, and a gift from her mother) as she groused to herself––Why do I even wear this shit, it never matches what I’m wearing. And I’m so hungry. Maybe I’ll grab an apple on the way out the door––
“Mom! I’m late for work! Can I borrow the ca––ow!” She scowled at her hand and then stared at the doorknob. Did the doorknob just burn me? What the fuck is going on?! She grabbed a sock from the ground and wrapped it around the knob to open the door.
Air so cold it burned.
She exhaled a shaky breath as she stared at the empty sockets of the body slumped against the wall in front of her. The air made her shiver, made her breath steam, made her flesh prickle, but she paid it no mind. She couldn’t look away from the figure lying propped up, clearly eviscerated as evidenced by the frozen blood pooled on the floor and smeared on the walls.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow flit through the railing on the stairs. She turned to look, but only saw the shattered bay window downstairs, along with the rest of the destroyed living room. Her feet crunched first on the ice frozen over the steps of the staircase and then the broken glass littered liberally on the hardwood
She peered up at the sky. There were no clouds, but… the sky still seemed dull, like a washed out, sickly blue. Even the sun seemed strange–like it was… angry? The sunlight reflected harshly off the windshield of the wrecked car in front of her, but all she felt was the cold. It had gotten worse once she’d stepped outside. The wind burned her eyes and nostrils with each inhale, the stench even stronger.
Another shadow danced around her vision to rest near the tree––scorched and leaf-less––planted in the yard across the street. She felt a slight warmth on her chest as she tried to focus her eyes on the faint shadow. She frowned and fiddled with the chain around her neck until she touched the medallion she had tucked under her shirt earlier. It was warm… comfortingly warm. As she pulled it free from the fabric, it glinted in the harsh sunlight.
The only warning she received was a sudden sense of absolute dread before she felt the puff of burning cold at the back of her neck and a voice began hissing into her ear.
“Ave filia mea. How nice it is to have company in the end of days.”
“What?!” She tried to turn and face the voice, but her limbs were sluggish, the cold piercing her flesh like pins and needles.
“Would you like an apple?” a shiny red fruit hovered at the edge of her vision, a saturated red that seemed to make everything even more washed out in comparison. She tightened her lips to keep her teeth from chattering and shook her head.
“It’s been twenty-one days since He gave me free reign over your world. As you can see, I may have gotten a little carried away.” She could hear the pout in its voice and bit her lip to keep from laughing hysterically.
“That’s an understatement.” She held the medallion in her hand and looked over the desolate neighborhood before closing her eyes and whispering, “Why am I here?”
“You should have been destroyed with the rest of the little mortals. I thought I was very thorough.” A pause. “Saint Julitta, patron saint of dying children and torture victims. How fitting.” She heard the voice chuckle before continuing ruefully, “These little things usually don’t work, but when they do, they work a little too well.” The chill on her skin became unbearable as the voice got closer and whispered, “you’re alive. But you’re the only one who is.”
She stood silent for a moment before falling to her knees with a choked sob––the stench of what she now recognized as sulfur tightening her throat. The cold was nigh unbearable: she could only feel the burning past her skin, past her muscles, into her bones.
“I don’t see why you’re so special,” the voice sniffed at her distress. “If it were up to me, you wouldn’t be here.”
“What good is being alive if I’m the only one!?” She laughed bitterly, the tang of her own salty tears on her tongue. One rogue tear froze mid-way down her chin.
“There are very few things that I do not know, and even fewer things I do not understand. This is one of them: He gave me free reign over this world, yet he granted your mother’s prayer to keep you alive and safe. You and I are the only beings in this corner of the universe.”
She clenched her eyes tight, trying to block out the voice’s words. With the last of her strength, she broke the chain around her neck. The silver links of the necklace gave away easily, brittle in the infernal chill. She kissed the medallion before placing it on the ground before her.
“You’d refuse the protection your mother died to give you?” the voice asked, amused confusion coloring its tone. “You’re not quite what I expected, little one. You’re not crying nearly as much as I thought you would, and you’re not screaming for whatever higher power you believe will answer your pleas.”
“I’m not afraid of you. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what’s going on––” she felt the cold air constrict her lungs and the sulfurous stench burn her throat, but she soldiered on “––but I know I’m not afraid.”
She heard the smile in the voice’s response: “I’ll make you an offer. Since you’re not afraid, and I assume you’re tired of not knowing things, I can tell you the answers to every question that has ever plagued mankind. I can give you true enlightenment. I can give you true knowledge.”
She opened her eyes and raised her gaze to the proffered claw waving in front of her face, before hesitantly taking it. There was no way she could climb to her feet by herself. As she steadied herself to keep from falling over, it took her hand and intertwined its claws with her fingers.
“HA. You thought I was going to trick you and kill you?” it snorted. “I’ve been bored for the last few weeks with no one to talk to. Not that anyone ever wants to talk to me anyway.”
She felt it shrug its shoulders before continuing nonchalantly, “Curiosity was always your kind’s greatest weakness… Or maybe that’s pride.” It laughed, “a medallion meant to protect ends up damning the wearer to an eternity at my side. Irony was always one of my favorite mortal inventions.”
It gently tugged her arm as it took a step towards the horizon. In another claw, it offered her a shiny red fruit.
“Do you still want that apple?”
She quietly nodded and reached for the apple.