I woke up.
The shadow was there.
Against the billowing linen curtains I had painstakingly spent two days at a thrift store hunting down, it waved, dancing in and out of the folds, basking in the square of sunlight. It was humanoid in form; but not my own.
Long, elegant fingers raised over its head in greeting. Hi there, it seemed to say.
Who are you? I asked.
Don’t you recognize my shape? I get to visit you once every year. I’ve done this more times than I can remember.
What do you mean? I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. I was having a soundless conversation with a shadow. I was dreaming - yes that was it. But the bed seemed a little too soft, and the sunlight a little too warm to convince myself.
In the 25th century, we get to visit our past selves every year. The shadow cocked its head - her head - my head.
Um. No. I shook my head. Blinked once. Twice. Swiveled my head towards the blank wall on the far side of the room, then back towards the curtains. The shadow was still there.
I see you’re a little disoriented. I know. It was pretty weird at first, but you’ll understand soon enough. The shadow seemed to twinkle. I could only stare, dumbstruck.
The shadow cocked its head. Perhaps now is not the best time to visit you. You have a long, long way to go. I’ll take my leave now, then. Till we meet again!
It tucked a sliver of shadow behind its ear and waggled its fingers again, still outstretched over its head.
Then it flew out of the square of sunlight, merging flawlessly with the shadowed curtain.
I stared at those curtains for a good half hour. The next morning, I replaced them.
Avis opened her eyes. The world was burning.
Her room vibrated with heatwaves, filling the air with waving lines. She hopped out of bed and wrenched the latch open, pushing the window with a violent creak. She could see the people from next block doing the same. Avis waved a hasty hello, then ducked back in and flopped onto her cot. Within seconds, her back grew hot. She sighed. A sunburn was coming.
If there was one thing the people of the Labyrinth feared, it was sunburns. Streaks of light that shot down from the sun and destroyed everything they touched. Avis could not remember a time when the Solar System was stable, when all the planets were perfectly aligned, when the Sun was still a life-giving star instead of the volatile fireball in its place today. The history books they had been taught with depicted a story that Avis - and all Labyrinthians - knew all too well. After the breakdown of the Solar System, the earth had cracked and fissured, and formed giant plateaus on the outermost surface; plateaus that were miles in height. As the Sun continued to ravish earth and all that the human race had built, the latter had no choice but to flee - to the one place they could think of. Soon, the plateaus became their savior. What was left of humanity fled down, down, down, making the towering blocks of land their home. Buildings were carved into the orange granite. Roads were paved from fallen chunks. Soon, trees were planted. The early settlers called it the Labyrinth - for it was like a twisted maze, connecting the fractured world together. They soon discovered, however, that living miles underground was not as peaceful as they might have hoped. The first of the burns struck. Flares of heat ravaged the earth’s surface. Continents were burnt down. Avis recalled a memory of a book she had read a lifetime ago - about a group of teenagers trapped in a maze to protect them from a world that sounded horribly like the one she currently lived in. She still wondered who its author was - and if he knew more than he was letting on at the time. As the flares rained down, the ground under their feet became unbearably hot. The early settlers realized that they had been pushed far down beneath the Earth’s outermost surface - close enough to feel the heat emanating from the core. So precautions were taken. They moved higher up into the buildings. Ventures outside were brief and hurried, paranoia haunting every step. In a few decades, they had all but abandoned setting foot on the ground.
Avis kept still on the bed, knowing that any movement would intensify the already smothering heat. She lay on her back, watching the heatwaves meander lazily around her. After a minute, she began to realize something was wrong. The room was getting hotter.
She sat up. Sunburns never lasted this long - the longest burn they’d ever experienced was only a minute long, and she was quite certain it was the worst minute of her life. Padding over to the window, she peered out. Her jaw dropped.
It was raining sun flares.
Apparently, she had been wrong.
There is a box of them, sitting under my bed, gathering dust as time trickles on. As the seasons passed, it saw less light as more knick-knacks were tossed beneath the bed - old sweaters, toys, ticket stubs, the bicycle helmet I wore the summer I fell off a mountain biking, an old teddy bear from an old flame - they blanketed both the box under my bed and my memory.
It wasn’t until thirty-odd years or so later that I found them again. I had moved on, you see, to newer, better things, newer, better people, and a newer, better life. The box came with me, carelessly shoved away into moving trucks, stacked on top of other boxes, always somewhere within my sight but nondescript enough to fail to attract my attention. I wouldn’t know for certain, but I guess my younger self didn’t care much for appearance, or perhaps she assumed I would’ve remembered the box and what it held. Curiously, or perhaps sadly, she was wrong.
It is not until I have settled down, much, much later, that my eyes fell on the old gray box, faded from black with age and dust, the lone item I had yet to take out of storage and put away. There was a slight twinge in my heart, or rather my soul, like my brain had sent a spark that jolted its memory. /I know this box. Remember? You put away a piece of your soul in there./
A cloud of dust puffs out as I lift the lid open, so thick that it resembled the clouds floating by the window, blowing in the breeze. The particles spiral up into the air, creating hazy patterns, merging with the air. It is as if I had released a cloud of melancholy upon the atmosphere. The dust swirls in the light of dusk by the window, forming shapes that I could have sworn I’d seen before, from a time long, long ago, when my younger self had been certain of me.
I continue with my motions, blowing inside the box to allow more dust to escape, sifting through the cards inside with hesitant fingers, unwilling to face the fact that I had forgotten what I had put inside. Slowly, I upend the box, letting the cards of white spill out onto the parquet. Some land face up, a square of color in the middle, while some did not. I start with the ones that did.
A square snapshot is the first to catch my eye. Turning it over, two figures covered in white sheets stare back at me through the two black holes in each ghostly face. Something flickers inside me - unease or nostalgia or perhaps melancholy at not recognizing what the picture means.
I don’t know how long I sat there, poring over those little squares of frozen time that held everything my younger self had ever loved, from the smiling faces she had known in her youth, to her favorite sweaters and songs, to the enchanting warm brown eyes that had gifted her with the teddy bear that had been tossed on top of the box so long ago.
The dust had settled on the floor long before I left the box there.