A low growl rumbled through the evening. She turned around, but it was just the yellow dirt that greeted her.
She moved faster.
Her body felt robotic, moving of its own accord. Her mind kept playing the same scene over and over.
The fear was now a dull throb in her chest, but it would never go away. She wanted to cry, but there was nothing left inside her. She had cried all morning. If her mother hadn’t sent her out on an errand that morning, she would be like her mother right now. She’d be like her father. She’d come home to people lying all over, liquids and solids flowing freely from the bodies. She didn’t know what had happened, but the entire village reeked of sickness. The image of her parents lying in their own filth was one she couldn’t erase.
The footsteps got louder.
The reverie retreated to the background as the eleven year-old pushed refocused on the goal in front of her: get to the village. She fell, the skin on her sun-baked hands cracking as it scraped against the tiny rocks of the road. She stifled the cry of pain that sprang to her lips and scrambled back to her feet. Agony shot through her ankle and she knew she had twisted it. The road was spotted red where she had fallen. She shook her hands as though to wave away the pain. She looked behind her.
Empty, just as before.
She squinted and her heart skipped a beat.
There, among the darkening landscape, a pair of eyes.
The village was closer, but still a good half mile away. She did her best to ignore the pain in her ankle, but the first step brought her back to her knees. She started crawling as fast as she could.
She dragged air through her ragged lungs and ended up inhaling some of the dust. She was horrified to see flecks of blood dot the ground when she coughed.
It’s happening to me too, she thought.
She had to get to the village and see a healer. She had to tell him what happened. He’d know what to do. She kept her eyes on the village in front of her and kept moving. It was just thirty paces away.
A paw slammed down to the ground next to her head. She squeaked and tried to get away from it, but the mountain lion leapt in front of her and lowered her muzzle to sniff at the girls face. The lion let out a roar.
The girl sprang to her feet, adrenaline and terror overtaking the pain. She ran back away from the lion, but the big cat moved like lightning and the two found themselves face to face again. The girl raced toward the village once more, the mountain lion keeping pace with her. She shrieked as she ran.
“Please! Let me in! Please!”
Inside, a woman ran to the gates to allow the girl to enter. One of the village elders stopped her. “She’ll be killed!” she protested.
“It is as it must be,” said the elder. He turned to the shaman. “The spirit is strong?”
The shaman was sweating, but he nodded. “The mountain lion will destroy her.”
The girl reached the gate and hammered on it with her fists, screaming for help. “Please!” The mountain lion roared behind her. She whirled, her back against the gate, her eyes wide. The lion roared again, drowning out her screams.
The healer turned to the village elders. “Is this truly necessary? I could examine…”
“And if you cannot cure the illness, we will all die,” the elder cut him off.
“She’s just a little girl!”
The elder spoke in a soft voice, “She is not. She is walking disease and the disease is strong, but our spirits are stronger. The spirit of the lion protects us. We must stop the spread of the sickness. She is the last of her village. The world will survive because of us.”
The sounds outside the village died away as the sun dipped below the horizon. The healer shivered. The woman sobbed. The elder stood, grim-faced, but confident.
The shaman spoke. “It is done.”
The elder commanded that the gate be opened. Two strong men ran to do his bidding. The woman turned away, afraid of what she might see, but there was nothing.
Only the wind blowing over the yellow sand, covering up a paw print surrounded by tiny red specks. There was an especially strong gust of wind and even that was gone.
The village was safe.