A pair of yellow butterflies twirl around one another as if to a song only they can hear. Their wings flutter, accepting the path that the breeze carries them along. You know that although they have brains and hearts, they do not have pain receptors.
Oh to be a butterfly.
Your vision blurs. You shut your eyes. The sun is so bright that a golden spot lingers. The warmth holds your hands and kisses your cheeks. The wind tucks a stray auburn hair behind your ear.
You try not to think about Before: before you moved to the cave in the cliffside, before you knew how to smile, before the sun came out. But every so often, when you close your eyes like this, you remember what it was like when there was talking, when there was Noise.
People used to shout. They called it something. Arguing? Fighting? They did it a lot.
‘You can’t have it!’
‘It was mine before! Tell him! Tell…’
So much noise. The voices became Noise and then the Noise stopped. It all stopped. You haven’t seen or heard another person since.
You fill your lungs with air, pulling back your shoulders and expanding your stomach. Then you let it all out with a sigh and reopen your eyes. A flock of sparrows swirl and swoop in unison, silhouetted against the clear sky.
You pick a handful of daisies from the grass. On your trek back to your cave to arrange them on a shelf, you dodge and hop over jagged rocks. Although your feet are calloused from walking without shoes for so many years, the big, sharp ones can still draw blood.
‘There is a person here! Harry! Harry, there’s a person!’
You look up, dropping your daisies in surprise. Standing just a few feet away, in the opening of your cave is a boy – six or seven years old, you think – with blond curls that are matted as though they have never been brushed and wearing only a grey, oversized t-shirt.
‘Harry! Harry! A person! I found a person!’ he shrieks, cheeks flushed rosy pink.
You want to cover your ears with your hands and curl up in a ball and wait for the noise to stop, for the human to leave and the nightmare to end. You are halfway to the ground when another person’s cold fingers close around your forearm.
‘It’s okay,’ says the stranger. ‘Are you a girl or a boy?’ he asks.
You have no voice to respond. You have not spoken or been spoken to since before the Noise. You hate that you even understand him.
He releases your arm and you lower yourself to the ground. You reach for your bundle of daisies and manage to crush their petaled heads with your nails. You wish they would rise up on their green stalks and face the strangers who threaten you.
They are a solace, not an army.
‘Are you sick?’ he asks, crouching in front of you. He has blond hair like the little boy, but he is not little. Older than you, eighteen or nineteen perhaps. More than old enough to remember the noise and the banging. Old enough to bear a badly healed slash across his cheek. He is wearing a t-shirt and shorts and trainers. Even though they are worn out and filled with holes, they remind you of Before.
You scowl at his question. What does he mean, are you sick? You are alive. You lived through it all. All on your own. The sun is shining. Isn’t that enough?
‘What’s your name?’ the little boy asks, sneaking forward. His sandals crunch the stones. ‘Can you speak?’
‘What? Maybe he, or she, hasn’t spoken to anyone since the war. You were the one that said radiation makes people strange.’
The older one stares straight into your eyes, lips tilted downward and forehead creased. A lump forms in your throat. You feel the sudden urge to cry.
‘I’m Harry,’ he says eventually. ‘This is my little brother, Julien. I call him Jules.’
‘I don’t like Jules,’ the little one whines, stomping his left foot.
Harry ignores him, still looking at you. ‘Do you have a name?’
Your mouth turns dry. Once, perhaps. Now? Does it matter? You shake your head.
He picks up one of your daisies from the floor and fiddles with its crushed petals. One by one he gathers them up, then offers them back. You glance at the daisy heads. They stare back at you, waiting with baited breath in the expectant silence. You brush Harry’s arm with your little finger as a thank you before accepting them.
For the first time you see a human face light up and smile.
It is like a second sun has risen.
Deborah Rose Green is Contributing Editor for Hey Young Writer! She is also the author of Dragon Pearls (2019) and Crown My Heart (2020). You can follow her on Instagram at @authordeborahrose or visit her website, deborahrosegreen.co.uk!