The Last Sign
By: Dawn DeBraal

"Move on," the guard pushed her ahead with the gun in his arms.

"But I am hungry," Talia said pitifully.

"You have the wrong eye color. You are blue. We only feed the browns. Move it. Now!" The man and woman behind her were checked and allowed to go into the feeding tent. Talia stood before the guard crying.

"Get out of here!" He turned away from her. In shame? The shortage of food hit everyone hard. The leaders needed to separate the people somehow. Since the head of the clan and his family had brown eyes, that was the determining factor. Brown-eyes live; blue-eyes are on their own.

"I can let you out of the gate," the guard mumbled, taking pity on her. He would send her out into the wilderness to forage. Maybe that was better than standing here starving to death. Talia nodded her head.

He called another guard to stand in his place and escorted Talia to the front gate, throwing a skin of water at her.

"This will last a day or two. There are other settlements, that way." He pointed east. "About two days of walking. Don't come back, or I will kill you." The gate slammed behind her.

Talia put the water skin over her shoulder and walked in the direction the guard had pointed. When she rested, she lay a forked stick with the single side showing the direction Talia needed to go after resting.

The hoot owls called while frogs chirped. Frogs! Talia followed their sound through the dark when she came to a pond. She felt around and grabbed one out of the mud, wondering how she would eat it, knowing you could eat the legs. Talia put the frog in her pocket and realized she had forgotten where she'd placed the pointing stick in her excitement. Talia immediately sat down. Without her guide, she had no idea what direction she needed to walk tomorrow. She looked up into the sky and, for the first time, saw patterns in the stars. Perhaps they were a clue to guiding her? She was never taught this knowledge. Talia would not move tonight. She needed to find the pointing stick; she regretted the amateur move following her heart and not her mind.

When the sun rose, she stood feeling for the frog. It was gone. The pond was silent. Talia needed to find her direction and continued to search for the stick. It took most of the morning, but she found it pointing which way she would walk today. Talia did not want to end up back at her village to be shot for returning. She picked up the stick and moved forward.

Talia was numb to her surroundings as she moved along. Her thoughts turned to the new camp and whether or not they would accept a blue-eyed woman? Were the rules the same? What if they didn't take her? She wished she had been born with brown eyes. While lost in thought, she did not hear or see a man approaching on a horse.

She was struck from behind with a rock. Talia fell to her knees, disoriented. What was happening? Something had hit her in the head. She was coming around when the man jumped her. Skin peeling off his face like he'd been out in the sun for days. The bald man acted like a wild animal.

"Blue eyes!" He laughed. "You are not human, but yet you look human." He pulled at his britches. Talia tried to fight him off, but her head was still spinning. Talia cried out in anger and pain when she saw the knife on the marauder's belt. She pulled it from the sheath and stabbed him in the kidney. He bucked and gasped in pain as he rolled off her. His eyes were wide in disbelief as he rolled around trying to dislodge the knife but only succeeded in ramming the knife into his body even further. Talia stood over him, watching life leave him. The man deserved what he'd gotten. But now, she had a dead man on her hands, a dead, brown-eyed man. Her deed was punishable by death.

She saw his horse tied to a branch. Her life was already over. Why not add horse thievery to her list of crimes? She kicked the man over with her foot and was repulsed to be so close to him. Closing her eyes, she pulled the knife from his back, sickened by the sucking sound it made.

She dug a grave with the intent of making the corpse disappear. She was panting by the time she hollowed out enough earth to put the ravaged man in the ground with the help of some cooking utensils in a pack tied to his horse.

The man's body flopped into the grave. A thought passed her mind. Meat. This was good meat. Fresh meat. Talia did the unthinkable. She cut off a portion of his thigh before covering him up.

The man must have been a nomad, as he had things tied to the horse to survive in the wild. She needed to get away as far as she could from the scene of the crime. The horse was docile enough. He allowed her to mount him. And then the surge of panic set in. The stick! She hadn't placed the direction stick. Talia turned around in a circle. She did not remember what was in front of her before the man attacked her. Perhaps the horse knew the way?

She dug into the horse's side with her heels, allowing him to choose the path they would take. After a few hours, she spied a creek, this spot was as good as any. She wondered if the horse knew where it was going? Talia depended on another brown-eyed creature for her life. She took everything off the horse and let it rest, he was a good mount.

Talia emptied everything from the pack that the man had finding a bedroll on the back of his saddle and a flint. Gathering dried grasses, she struck the flint onto the pile of kindling. As the smoke turned into a flame, she fed it more brown grass and twigs. Soon she had a small blaze going and took out the chunk of the thigh she had wrapped in a cloth. Taking the knife, she'd used to kill the man, she cut off a green sapling and sharpened it, stabbing it through the meat. She draped it over the fire. She wished now she had taken the sheath, but his body repulsed her so, and now she was wrestling with the idea of eating him, but she hadn't eaten for days.

Talia replenished the water skin from the creek and then waded in washing herself. The smell of the man was yet upon her.

She waited as patiently as she could for the meal to be cooked. Talia tried not to think of what happened today but could not rid herself of the thought that she was eating her attacker. There was power in that knowledge. When the meat was cooked, she took a bite, trying to stop her stomach from revolting.

"This is life," she told her body. "Live or die." She kept the man's sustenance down. She lay by the fire and slept.

The journey continued the following day. Talia repacked the horse, again allowing the animal to find its way through the wilderness until she came to a stockade fence.

"Stop!" A guard called out. Talia did as he told her, dismounting the horse.

"I need a place to rest, can you offer me one? If not, I will continue on my way." The guard opened the gate, telling Tahlia to stay where she was. She waited patiently.

A young man came out of a hut to observe her while other men surrounded him. Talia deduced the young man must be important.

"What name do you go by?" he asked her.

"Talia."

"Talia, you have the horse of Cartel; where is he?" Talia took a deep breath before she responded.

"I found him dead, the horse not far from him. I took the horse because I am blue-eyed; my clan will no longer allow me to live among them. I allowed the horse to take me to his home."

"Ah, he died then. Hopefully, it's over. We have survived a disease that has killed many; we accept you into our clan. You may take that hut there." Talia graciously thanked the young man for the gift of a roof over her head. She tied her horse in front of the hut.

Her new home was furnished, no doubt, by someone who had died of the disease. She wondered what type of illness these people had suffered. For now, she had a home, and she had people. Talia was satisfied. The dinner bell gonged. Talia looked out of her door and saw a group of people walking toward a large hall.

"Come, woman, it is eating time." She followed the group to the dining hall. Everyone seated themselves at the long tables, talking at once. Talia was glad not to have to talk to anyone, only listen. Their stories were tragic. She put her hair over her shoulder, silently gasping when seeing a chunk of her hair came out in her hand. She quickly dropped it to the floor, looking about to see if anyone else had seen it. They were too busy talking.

"What was the illness you had in your village?" Talia asked the woman she sat next to at the table.

"It is called the flesh-eating disease. It takes over your body and drives you mad. Cartel was the last of us who had it. Since he left us, no one has come down with it."

"That sounds horrible. How do you know when you have it?"

"The first sign is the loss of hair. As soon as we find someone losing their hair, they are stoned to death. The last sign is madness as the disease enters the final stage. We will not allow the disease to take over again. Cartel offered to leave instead of being stoned. We opened the gates and let him out. As long as he was dead when you found him, there is no chance of the virus. We got the disease from eating our dead. We did not know it was against the code of man. But we were starving. Now we no longer eat meat, just plant-based meals."

Tahlia was sick. She ate the diseased man, and now she was bringing the virus back into the colony.

"I must leave. I traveled far, and I would like to rest."

"Of course," the woman agreed.

Tahlia resaddled her horse and passed through the gate into the wilderness. The guard nodded to her.

"I am looking for my people and must keep going. Thank you for your hospitality." The horse carried her along the next few days; Talia could feel her hair falling out in chunks. She could feel the skin shedding from her body, and in a short time, she became a wild creature.

Tahlia stopped at a lake. She removed the horse's bridle and saddle, setting him free. She held tight the last strands of sanity, humanity as she knelt before the lake to quench her thirst. She saw her reflection in the water, her face in shreds, just like the man who attacked her a few days ago, her head bald and sunburned. Talia cupped her hand and put it into the water to drink from it. When she bent over, her nose fell off into the water, sinking to the bottom of the lake. She screamed the screams of a wild animal.

THE END

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