As far back as her memory stretched, she was just one of many clustered around the fire. At first, the circle had been small, but, as she grew older, it widened to include all those who brought warmth into her life.
These were not people on television or on the web or in the newspaper; they were real people. People who gave a smile or a sympathetic glance or who touched her arm in passing. Family and friends who cheered her on when she was discouraged, whispered of strange wonders, and applauded her when she was victorious. And then the world changed.
The first disappearance had stunned her. She had frantically searched in every corner, only to find that the shocking report had been true. Her uncle was no longer there, no longer in the circle.
Never, before that moment, had she foreseen a time when she would be without him. How was she to navigate? Who would ensure the wood was dry and that the fire would not singe the top of the trees? Who would lead the songs in the evening, make her laugh ‘til her face hurt, show her how to detect the stars hidden behind the tall branches, and tell the stories that made her quake?
Finally, after many long nights, she acknowledged that he was no longer there, but where had he gone? Beyond the circle, there was only dense forest with strange predators. Even he would not dare to venture into that undiscovered country. It would be fatal. An enormous winged bird might swoop down and snatch you up; a ravenous stalker might explode from the darkness and assault you.
Of course, she had never seen such creatures, but she knew the stories—chilling in their detail. She could feel her skin ripped or her bones crunched as a predator’s supper.
The first loss was the worst, without question. But the second, the third, and the fourth had also taken her breath away, sucked hope from her chest. And today, so many winters later, when she woke to see the space beside her empty, she sank into despair, sucked down with the weight of a blackness that squeezed her chest.
She was not ignorant. She had already noticed (although she had tried to ignore it) that as time passed, one by one her family, her friends, her generation had been picked off. When she gazed through the flickering firelight, or peered through the sunbeams piercing the tree branches, she had seen spaces, small mounds where once someone had sat, now empty. Piles of pine leaves, which had been gathered to make a cozy seat, now deserted. And finally today, the woman, who just yesterday had laughed with her at the sight of a frenzied squirrel hurling acorns to the ground and commiserated with her about the unsettling noises from beyond their fire, had disappeared.
She was certain that none of them had left by choice.
And this frosty morning, finally awake to her own possible future, she feared she might soon be the last one. Left alone, with no warm other to lean against, no one to sigh with, and no one to consider yesterday or tomorrow. Just her. And then what could she do?
But wait. Maybe this fate could be avoided. Maybe if now, before everyone but her had been taken, she took a chance, pulled her blanket around her shoulders, and went to the edge of the circle. Perhaps, if she gathered every fiber of her strength, straightened her hunched back, and ventured out to find another circle beyond hers, other living creatures, human or not, maybe it could still end well.
Maybe she would be back at the beginning, and he would be there and so might the others. But most important, he would be there and all the pain and holes that had been shot into her body over the years would heal. She would be a child again, hopeful and alive.
Until this moment, she had been passive, allowing things to happen, believing all would evolve, as it should, and not questioning when those in the circle were taken. Now, although she was older, less hopeful, less sturdy, less upright, she would dare go out into the forest to seek them.
Legs unstable from the night’s darkness, she stood, staggered, then straightened up and lifted her heart to the hot sun that pierced through the branches. Not glancing behind, eyes focused ahead, she moved forward, determined to pierce the circle’s rim.