The scowling gargoyle lay on its side like a dead animal amongst the scattered red roses. The pillar upon which it had once sat had been snapped as if were merely a stick of chalk, and stood pointing skywards in a way I found sinister. The gargoyle was shaped like a giant cat, except it had an Asiatic face with huge, curling tusks protruding over the upper lip.
I had always despised the wretched thing—it and its twin over the other side of the library entrance. They filled me with wild excitement when I was younger, but once I had grown up, I began to dislike the cold faces that never moved—the faces that always watched. They disgusted me.
I ignored the lop-sided pillar and mounted the four marble steps that lead to the library entrance. The thick wooden doors stood menacingly at the crest of the stairs. Where once they were beautifully polished, with brass trappings that winked in the sun, they were now dull and lacked dignity. I felt a twinge inside my heart; a feeling of loss.
The doors were locked from within. The handle felt dull and lifeless in my hands. I turned it this way and that, and shook the door on its hinges, but the door stood firm, not giving in to my persistence. A second twinge shuddered through my heart as I reluctantly let go of the handle and turned away.
My walk down Cherry Lane was sad. The elm trees, craggy and grey, had lost their leaves, and resembled twisted skeletons. Cars sat in the streets like discarded litter; windows pushed in, tyres strewn to ribbons. There was an atmosphere of foreboding that was breathed out by everything I passed. My heart began to feel heavier as I realised that the street was deserted. There was no one to be seen anywhere.
I turned down Brooklyn Avenue, where more dilapidated elms huddled on the roadsides. These trees appeared to be leaning away to one side, back towards Cherry Lane, almost…
…almost as if they had been pushed over from their roots!
Something clicked in my mind. The trees—the trees—it was something to do with them, and the city. I turned around and retraced my footsteps back onto Cherry Lane where the street was deserted. Down the road was the library—a huge, depressing monolith.
Suddenly, I was confused. Why was this place so quiet? Where were all of the people?
Ding… ding… ding…
The bells from somewhere over the city broke the stone silence. It was twelve o’clock.
I paused momentarily, feeling a tide of unease rising steadily up my throat. Something was trying to break its bonds in my mind—something was trying to unveil the dark shroud that kept my thoughts under lock and key.
Across the street, tossed onto its side was a child’s tricycle. It was once painted red, but now the paint had flecked and faded to a rusty orange colour. In the back was a tray made of plastic; and behind it, I caught a glimpse of something white… flapping… waving…
I crossed the road, instinctively looking to see if any cars would come, whilst cursing the action under my breath as one would curse if they made a bad draw in a game of poker. I reached the tricycle and tipped it upright. The body squeaked on rusty wheels, the front wheel turned at a crazy angle. Inside the tray was a doll, its hair was singed, the clothes and face melted, forming an unrecognisable sludge where the head, feet and hands once were. The body was made out of stuffed rags, and simply crumbled to dust in my hands.
A tear plopped silently down onto my cheek, and once more, my heart trembled.
I lifted myself from the crouching position, and stared up at the sky. The grey clouds had now darkened to black. A storm was coming. The wind picked up, became colder. Feeling exposed and hungry, I ran down the street seeking shelter. I found it in a butcher’s shop, where the glass in the front window had been smashed.
I jumped inside the window, just as a huge thunderclap boomed outside. The shop was dark and smelled of decay. The stench seemed to rip up my nostrils as if it were a knife. I retched, but couldn’t throw up.
After a short while, I grew accustomed to the smell, but the darkness seemed to intensify too quickly for my eyes to adjust. I spent my time mucking around with the light switches, but common sense told me to give up; all power had been disconnected.
Outside, forks of lightning danced amongst the steady hammering of the rain. I watched papers and other assorted items of junk float in the mini—rivers in the gutters; caught momentary snaps of the skyline where lightning bolts walked.
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a long—buried memory reached out and touched me.
The light—it had something to do with the light.
Outside, the most enormous clap of thunder rattled the earth. I covered my ears, not knowing whether I screamed or not, not caring. The building shook with the force, causing various items that I couldn’t see to crash onto the floor.
I felt primitive fear coursing through my veins.
The storm was over some time later and the sky went from grey back to blue. The clock chimed four from its holy place in the city, but something told me that time was irrelevant.
I jerked awake just after the fourth drone faded to nothing. My head hurt and my back was a raging red riot of pain. Tendons groaned as I lifted myself up.
Golden sunlight flooded into the vacant shop and I could make out the big desk and the shelves at the back of the shop. There were refrigerators like safes in the back wall, all of them bolted shut. And maybe… inside those refrigerators… was something to eat!
Without too much encouragement, my mouth watered.
I made my way towards the refrigerators, intent on satisfying the hunger that felt like a hole in my gut. Somewhere down the road would be a place where I could cook the meat. I could nearly taste the delicious hot meat now. I could smell it… hear it crackle and tear in my mouth… the feel of greasy meat in my fingers… the sweetness of it on my dry lips…
My foot struck something on the ground and I fell forward, reeling, my hands groping, catching nothing. I sprawled on my face, letting out a squeal of surprise. And then my eyes fell onto whatever it was that I tripped over…
The man was black… if it was a man. He had been on fire, and was shrivelled and wrinkled like a burnt sausage. The skin was blistered, charred, the flesh in some places was burned to the bone. The face was non-existent: no hair, eyes, lips; the teeth displayed an idiot grin through lips parted in a final grimace of pain, a grin that etched itself vividly in my mind.
Forgetting food for the present moment, I screamed like a child—loud and high pitched—and crawled towards the window. Adrenaline rushed through my veins like wildfire. I was through the window in a single bound, and was running down the street, screaming like a mad man…
…anyone who saw me would have thought I was a lunatic.
I know what happened to the city. It hit me while I ran around without a head and it hit me hard. I stopped at the park to think about it. Now, as I recall it, I think about the birds that used to sing here. Now, they don’t even come here. They can’t. It’s poison here.
This city is the victim of nuclear holocaust. The bomb was dropped thirty kilometres from where I now sit; a distance that means as much to nuclear fission as a micrometer means to a man.
I was comatose at the time, in hospital. Recovering from a car smash. I’d like to believe that they forgot to take me to the bomb shelter in the pre-holocaust panic, but I know I’m only deluding myself. The hospital was lucky to be left standing if that’s any consolation, which I doubt, considering the fact that I’ve received a super dose of radioactive fallout in my wandering. I only realised it then. The sores were only small to begin with, when I first walked around two days ago. Now they are beginning to bleed.
I saw myself in the mirror at the cosmetic’s store. I am very pale; my once brilliant blue eyes are now washy.
I’m going to die… me, the survivor of a holocaust. A survivor of something that meant absolutely nothing to me. The last day I remember is September 18, 1999. A funny thing happened today. I found a newspaper on the road…
…it was dated July 9, 2000.
I turned my face up to the sky and laughed and laughed and laughed. Somewhere, from within the deserted city, came an echo.