3.0 Zero_Chapter 3: Campfire Stories

The morning’s events still left a bad taste in my mouth. The death and gore. The little girl caught in despair. The bandit pillaging for his wife and kid. And the fact that I had killed so many people. All of it made me sick.

But oddly enough, it wasn’t the fact that I had killed them that disturbed me. It was the fact that it had been so easy that really made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to see blood and flesh splattering everywhere, but my solution to that problem was even more disconcerting. I’d erased them like I erased the wild boar’s corpse; condemning them to oblivion…

At the snap of a finger.

I even saved the ability as a favorite called ‘Erase,’ along with a code that allowed me to teleport wherever I wanted to. I’d also gotten so used to my favorites that I could use them almost without thinking.

I couldn’t get the bald bandit out of my head. Although he had reminded me of some terrible memories, and what he did to the little girl was unforgivable, a part of me still felt guilty for what his family would go through because of his death. I’ll fulfill my promise to him at least. His family should be innocent, even if he was utterly unforgivable.

Right, he was unforgivable.

Under the light of the flickering campfire, I looked at the little girl sleeping under the blankets I’d conjured, and couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. I knew what her life would be like now. I knew the sadness and the anger. I also knew that she would move on with her life, but she’d never really recover from this. Life just isn’t the same after you see your parents get killed right in front of you.

The little boy was excited that his parents had come to see his play. He didn’t have a big acting role in the play itself, but he was the main scriptwriter, and he was proud of his story. His parents had loved it too. They praised him constantly. His father kept ruffling his hair while his mother held his hand.

They left the theater and were driving home, when they stopped at an ordinary traffic light. His father asked him how he had managed to think up such a great story, and his mother rebuked him for implying that he got it from his father’s side of the family. His father was an author who came from a long line of famous authors and playwrights. His father wasn’t very successful, but the boy was only nine, so he absolutely idolized his father and bragged about him to all his friends.

Of course, he was also proud of his mother – a small-time astronomer working in the town’s local observatory. He had won the respect of nearly every kid in his class when they had visited his mom’s workplace at the observatory and gotten to see the stars for themselves. But just as his mother was about to tease her husband about how the play was obviously inspired by their son’s love for astronomy, everyone froze.

A young man wearing a black hood stood outside his father’s window, pointing a gun at his head. The boy was confused at first because he couldn’t understand how things could change so suddenly. He looked at the hooded man and although he couldn’t see most of his face, he could see his eyes. They were cold and unfeeling, with unmistakable signs of what he would later recognize to be drug addiction.

Everything happened in a blur, so he could never remember exactly what happened. His father tried to tell the man to not be hasty. The man told his parents to give him their wallets, watches, and jewelry.

The sun continued to blaze even though a chill had crept over his heart. The passersby turned their gazes away, refusing to help. I don’t want to get involved. Things like this happen every day. I can’t be late for work. Their excuses floated out of their hidden mouths.

The man finally got impatient and snatched the wallet from his father’s hand. He looked around nervously to make sure nobody would interfere. But he didn’t have to be so worried. Nobody was going to do anything.

Not even as the man reached over to grab his mother’s purse. Not even when his father tried to grab the gun. Not even when shots of gunfire rang through the air. And not even as his parents lay dying in their seats and the hooded man ran away.

The little boy shook his dying parents, tried to hold back the blood gushing out of them, but even with hands caked in blood, he couldn’t stop the light from fading out of their eyes. In her last moments, his mother tried to say something but she choked on her own blood. All that came out was incoherent gurgling. The ambulance arrived fifteen minutes later but it was already too late.

A rustle interrupted my painful recollections. The girl didn’t get up even after she saw me sitting on the other side of the campfire. Instead, she looked up at the stars.

“…”

“Are they… is it…” She sniffled. “It’s not a nightmare is it…”

“No, it is a nightmare. Just one that really happened,” I said. No comforting bullshit or it’ll be okay kind of crap worked, because it wouldn’t be the same and you knew it. It was the first thing that came to your mind when you thought of it. How everything you did would be different without them there. There would always be an empty space in your heart and you couldn’t fill it in with anything else.

“Where are they?” she quietly said.

“Buried them back there. I can move them back to your home later if you want,” I replied.

“No, you’ve already saved my life. I’ll get some of the other villagers to carry them over.”

“…”

“It’s alright, you can say it. I did too.”

She hesitated but couldn’t hold it in. “Why? Why couldn’t you come sooner,” she cried. Her voice descended into sobs. “Or later…”

Even though I could have replied that I came as soon as I could, I remembered how infuriating that excuse had been when I had heard it.

“I’m sorry.”

“…” She took a few ragged breaths and calmed down a little.

“We were going to the Fire Goddess’ shrine. We wanted her help against the bandits that kept raiding the village. She only ever listens to families so we snuck out of the village with a small group so they wouldn’t find us,” she said, playing out the events of the day more for herself than for me. “We were talking about how this would all blow over soon. Daddy was grumbling about steamed fish and mommy was laughing at him and then…”

Her voice quivered and stopped. I stoked the campfire and added more firewood.

“Stupid fish. Stupid bandits. Stupid goddess! Stupid Clare! Just stood there like a stupid block of wood! Stupid, stupid, stupid…” she cried.

I waited. Only the crackling of the fire broke the silence.

“Did you get them all?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Where are they?”

“Dead.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” I snapped my fingers.

“Did you hurt them?”

I recalled the look in Odog’s eyes and replied, “In a way.”

“…” Just the sound of the fire again.

“Hey, um?”

“Kai.”

“Kai, could you tell me a story? Daddy used to tell me stories when I was smaller. But I told him to stop because I’d grown up…” she said, choking up near the end.

I gave her a quizzical look.

Stories? Guess this really is a different world. This kid’s strong too. I didn’t want to talk to anyone for a week. But, a story for this kind of situation…

I settled down on the other side of the campfire, and joined her in gazing at the stars. Then I began telling her a story.

A little girl was dragged to the countryside by her friend. She didn’t know why the boy had called her all the way out here as he pulled her across the bridge and over the cold stream.

“Come on,” he said.

“You’ll miss it!”

“Miss what?” she replied, irritably.

“You’ll see.”

They walked across the forest trail, the boy holding her hand tightly.

“If you’re so scared of monsters, then why’d you come out here?” She snickered.

“I – I am not afraid!” he retorted. “I’m just making sure you don’t get lost!”

They crossed the forest and reached an empty plain. There were flowers all over the place, and the red sunset made the scene look even more enchanting. Like a dream.

“It’s getting dark, we’d better head back,” she said.

“No way! That’s exactly what we’re waiting for. Come on!” he said as he pulled her along again.

They came across a small green hill with a tiny sheet of grass on it. The boy led her to the top, nearly causing her to trip on her own feet.

“Here!” he said, as he fell flat on his back.

“Here?” she asked quizzically, lying down next to the boy.

“Look up there, stupid!”

She did, and her eyes grew wide open in wonder. There were millions of bright lights up in the sky. The moon hadn’t come up yet so all she could see…

Were the stars.

“Wait for it,” he teased.

A small, golden streak of light flew across the sky. Then another. And another. Soon, the whole inky black darkness was a sea of stars and golden streaks. The golden streaks lit up the sky, falling like rain. The girl’s eyes locked onto the night sky and the stars and the golden rain.

The boy looked at her and smiled, before turning his gaze back to the sky, dancing colors flashing on his eyes. Then the moon came out and the stars dimmed, but it wasn’t a full moon so she could still make out the brighter stars and golden rain. But, it made her remember something.

“I won’t be able to see this from the city then, will I?” she said.

“No, too much light in the city. That’s why we had to go so far out,” he replied.

She looked at her feet, dismayed she couldn’t see this from her home. She couldn’t sneak out every night like this, after all.

“But it’s all right. Even if we can’t see them, we know they’re there. So, if we can remember how the stars look like today, we can imagine them back home. We may not see the stars, but they can see us. And even if they can’t, we can always remember how beautiful the sky was tonight.”

We gazed at the sky while I told the story. There was no moon out tonight, nor was there a meteor shower, but the stars were incredible. I’d only ever heard stories about nighttime skies this beautiful. You couldn’t see the stars from the countryside in my world. Too much smoke spread all over the atmosphere.

“I liked the story but you got something wrong,” she said. I turned to her. “You can see the stars just fine from the city.”

I gasped.

Of course, they don’t have a lot of air or light pollution in this world!

I scolded myself for overlooking this obvious fact.

“…Kai?” she whispered.

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

I smiled. “The stars are beautiful tonight, aren’t they?”

And just as I said that, golden streaks started pouring over the night sky. Clare gasped in amazement. A sea of glowing stars and golden rain lit the sky.

I should probably add, that it wasn’t a coincidence…

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