The alarm was ringing.
Dakota didn’t want to move. The covers were pulled up tight to her chin. Her mattress beneath her was soft, practically cradling her. Her hair was splayed across the pillows, a disheveled tangle from the night’s sleep. She knew if she opened her eyes and stepped out of the bed, the perfect peace of the morning would be replaced with the hectic bustle of the day. Content to let the alarm continue it’s clamor, Dakota shifted slightly, trying to capture another few moments of bliss.
“Kota, if you don’t get out of bed, you’ll be late,” she heard her mother calling from downstairs.
Slowly opening her eyes, reluctant to let the light of day filter through her eyelashes, Dakota resigned herself to finally getting out of bed. She could smell bacon cooking in the kitchen, mingling with the aromas of coffee and toaster waffles. Sitting up, she shifted to let her bare feet drop to the floor. The wood grain beneath her toes was cold, and she let a sharp gasp slip at the instant temperature shock. She grabbed a robe from her closet, slipping it on over her t-shirt and shorts, turning towards her bedroom door, her movements slow and languid.
A sharp rap on the door brought another involuntary gasp. “Seriously, Dakota, it’s your first day at the new job,” her father was saying. “You can’t start out on the wrong foot.”
“Be right there,” she mumbled, her voice gravely from sleep.
Dakota heard footsteps echo down the hall before their sound disappeared. The hallway had always carried an echo to it, but the stairs between floors obscured footfalls, a phenomenon that often had Dakota wishing it had been her bedroom at the top of the stairs, and not that of her younger sister, Cynthia. When Cynthia had left for college, Dakota had petitioned for the quieter room, but was rebuffed at every turn by her parents. She waited another minute, then opened the door, leaving her bedroom behind.
The hallway ahead of her loomed darkly. This isn’t right, Dakota thought, but she couldn’t place exactly why. The hallway lights had clearly burnt out, and her father hadn’t gotten around to changing them yet. That was the only thing that made sense, and she pushed the darkness out of her mind, stepping towards the stairs leading down to the main level of the house.
Her footsteps echoed around her as she walked the bare floor of the hall, passing doors on her left and right. More doors than should have been possible for such a relatively small house, but Dakota didn’t dwell on this irregularity. She must not have been paying close attention, given that her head was still addled from having just woken up. Behind her, the door to her bedroom swung closed on its hinges, resting against the door jamb with a solid thud.
The alarm was ringing.
Blinking her eyes to adjust them to the darkened hallway, Dakota saw the stairs before her, still hearing the sounds of her mother bustling about in the kitchen. The scent of breakfast hit her nose once again, causing her to salivate unconsciously. Had she eaten the night before? She couldn’t remember clearly, but knew that the hunger she felt now was real. The sound of a departing car told her that, once again, she’d missed her father completely. A dull thought echoed through her head about how she’d been missing her father a lot as of late, but she worked to silence it, focusing instead on making her way towards the food she was smelling.
Her foot hit the first stair, feeling plush carpet tickling her bare skin. She’d never understood why the stairs were carpeted, while the rest of the house had been decked out with hardwood floors, but somehow this small stretch of fabric helped her feel like she was stepping into a new world every time. On the third step down, the carpet had some bare patches worn into it, but Dakota didn’t linger as she descended.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Dakota saw muted sunlight filtering through sheer curtains. The living room was adorned with floral-printed furniture, and a stately, albeit dusty, coffee table. That table is always one of the cleanest things in the house, she thought. Once again, however, she didn’t dwell on the thought, feeling the pull of her appetite drawing her towards the kitchen and, beyond it, the breakfast nook where the family always ate.
Exiting the living room brought Dakota into a small office area, where the printer was currently spitting out pages and pages of some manuscript. Her mother was an aspiring writer, busy churning out page after page of unpublishable fiction, filled with characters and situations liberally stolen from whatever happened to be on television the night before. Dakota kept moving, letting the paper pile up, spilling onto the floor. The open door at the other end of the office was bathed in bright sunlight, and her feet kept drawing her forward.
Entering into the kitchen, Dakota felt the sun wash over her. Sitting on the counter was a plate, with crumbs left behind. There was coffee brewing, but no carafe was underneath to catch it, creating a dark spill across the kitchen floor. A pan of some meat was on the stove, long since burnt beyond recognition. The burner itself was set to high, but no flame was visible. The lack of a gas odor told Dakota that the connection to the stove had been severed, but she couldn’t tell exactly how long ago. The scents that had brought her from her bedroom initially had been replaced with a musty, stale aroma, and there was a chill in the air.
Dakota stepped around the kitchen island, moving towards the large windows at the back of the house. As she stepped in the dark spill underneath the coffee maker, a sticky residue clung to her bare feet, causing her to leave clear footprints in her wake. The windows beckoned her, and she moved slowly towards them, trying to peer through the partially closed blinds to the world beyond.
The fence that ringed the backyard was decrepit, rotting through in most places. The grass in the yard had long overgrown, and Dakota watched as a plume of smoke arose from nearby. None of this is right, she thought in a panic. This can’t be how the world is. The sky was slowly filling with smoke, blotting out the bright sun. Feeling fear grip her, Dakota moved to the back door, swinging it open, only to be assailed with a rotting smell. Her stomach fought to keep its meager contents inside, as she inched cautiously out of the house.
As her foot touched the grass outside of the house, Dakota’s eyes flew open. She looked around to see the ramshackle room she was in, felt the thin mattress beneath her body, and sat bold upright. She cursed the dream for coming to her again. The dream that had plagued her ever since the world fell apart. The dream that always carried the remembrance of the peaceful times before, and the dream that always ended with the world destroyed. The dream that threatened to overwhelm her even while driving her forward.
Dakota took a deep breath, smelling smoke in the air. She pulled her heavy boots on, lacing them high before pulling the hood of her ragged sweatshirt over her hair. She slipped into her jacket, checking its pockets to make sure that all of her meager possessions were still there before she wrapped a scarf over her mouth and nose.
“I’ve still got some time before this place is overrun. Better get moving,” Dakota said to herself, pulling on her thick gloves.
The alarm was still ringing, and Dakota finally took heed.