She felt cold, chilled to the bone, though the night was balmy. She huddled in the shelter of a rhododendron bush, night insects fluttering around her. Her clothes were filthy. At one time, she might have cared, but now, it was just one more small tragedy, unimportant, unnoticed. The fear was real, though, and it froze her. She could not have moved if she tried. Her stomach was ice and it hurt to breathe.
She could not have said what, exactly, so paralyzed her. It was waiting out there, though, she knew. She did not know what it was. She did not know what it would do if it found her. She only knew it must not find her, or something terrible would happen.
Her home was a memory. She had left several days ago, days that felt like weeks, running with nameless terror. She had not eaten, but her stomach hurt too much for her to care. She wore the thin shirt and loose pants she had been wearing when she got up that morning, several days ago, and realized that she had to leave. It had rained twice since then, and she had sheltered in doorways and bus shelters until being told to move along, once by a kindly police officer, once by an angry shopkeeper who threatened to throw a heavy can of beans at her. More small tragedies.
Huddled in the rhododendron, she could see the world moving around her. The rhododendron bush was in a park near a college on a busy street lined with cafes and bars, and little shops full of small bohemian wonders. Musicians stopped on the street, opened their cases, and played for the passersby, hoping for bits of coin. The street teemed with young, well-dressed people going to clubs, and young, scruffy people pontificating to their fellows in the cafes, and older, scruffier people, sitting on street corners, much like the musicians, but with no music to their souls. It must be a weekend. She had lost track of the days.
She wondered at how they could all be so calm, going about their business, playing in the night. Didn’t they know the peril that stalked her? Couldn’t they feel the danger in the air?
But no, she knew they couldn’t. It was her danger, and hers alone. It would eat the whole world, she knew, if it caught her, but if she didn’t exist, it wouldn’t either.
That realization brought the barest shadow of a thought to her mind, but she reeled away from it, more terrified of that thought than of the thing itself. If she didn’t exist, neither would it. It was tied to her, hers and hers alone. There was something there, but she could not grasp it, and she sweated in cold panic at the thought of even trying.
The thought gasped and drowned as a new realization hit her: it was in the rhododendrons. It had insinuated itself in the broad leaves and festive flowers, the whiplike branches, and was seeping its way through the molecules of the bush and the air and almost touching her bare arms.
She shrieked and lurched out of the bush, eyes wild. She stumbled as she tried to run backward, staring at the bush, pointing, yelling in wordless fear.
She was dimly aware of people around her, who had, until that moment, been wandering obliviously through their own lives. Several cried out, startled at her sudden appearance. Several looked askance at her and edged away, even crossing the street to put as much distance between her and themselves as possible. Others, though, moved closer uncertainly, saying things like, “Are you alright? How can we help?”
Still, though, they were like shadows to her. All that was real was the rhododendron bush and the menace within it. She howled, pointing. These people needed to move away. It would get them. The bush was the single most dangerous thing in the world, and none of these people seemed to realize it. She tried to tell them that, but the words wouldn’t come, at least not in any language these people could understand. Everything she was saying was very clear in her mind, but no one could understand her.
More people were gathering now, as she staggered and stumbled away from the rhododendron. They closed in on all sides. And she realized that any warning she gave would be too late. Just as it had seeped its way into the rhododendron, so it had seeped into all the people, too. They pressed around her, hands reaching out, saying meaningless words.
“It’s all right! Let me help you.”
“Calm down! No one is going to hurt you.”
“Someone call an ambulance!”
She shrank from them, edging backwards. She was still shouting in fear. Her stomach ached as though stabbed, and her breath wheezed. It was coming at her, and would eat her. It was coming closer, and closer, roaring in her ears. She staggered off the edge of the curb, and managed to turn and run.
One of the people yelled, “Stop her!”
And someone yelled, “Look out!”
Something screeched, and thudded. It was in the sound. The roaring had taken on the noise of tires squealing, and the feel of flying through the air. She did not wonder at this. It was clever, and could change its form at will.
She was aware of pain, vaguely, hammering in her head and her side, but it didn’t matter. Just another small tragedy. She was somehow lying on the ground, looking up at the stars. And it was in the stars. She tried to get up and run, to roll away, to shrink into the ground, but she couldn’t move. It reached down from the stars, blotting out the edges of her vision. The roaring in her ears rose to drown all other noise, every other noise she had ever heard.
The stars were going out. It had eaten them. It had eaten her.