Written by: Cris Derfel
A man stands propped up against the trunk of a rusted car as the sun sets in the distance. The pupils in his swollen, sunken eyes shrink as the fading crimson in the sky creeps onto his face. Though the silence is broken by the shrill call of a crow somewhere down the street, he does not flinch. He is at peace with the world, having forgiven it, at least until the sun comes up again.
He is slowly turning a knife over in his hands. It is rusted, the same shade of dirty metal as the car he is leaning on, and it is almost completely blunt: he is able to press his fleshy thumb into its tip without even so much as pricking himself. As he twirls the dirty knife between his fingers, attempting to scrape the underside of his fingernails with it, the striped pattern of his tattered clothing becomes more obscured under the fading light. His chest is exposed where a sewn-on patch had once been; he had cut it off the night before.
He suddenly stands very quickly, as if he had been waiting for a precise moment, and swiftly slips the knife into his back pocket. In its place, he pulls out a miniature wooden arm. The arm appears to have once belonged to a doll: it is coated in fading paint, and was ripped off clean at the socket, the round fixture at the end of the arm patiently waiting to be put back into place. The man looks at this incomplete doll for a moment, as if trying to remember what the whole thing looked like, then places it back in his pocket, slowly, more careful than he had been with the knife.
The first snow had fallen. Anna had just returned from school, rushing past her bewildered parents to drop off her school things, and then she was sprinting back outside to play in the snow.
The man brushes away the dust from the trunk of the car, as if preparing it for the next person. He begins walking, having no care for direction. Why should he, as the state of the entire city around him is in shambles for blocks on end. The buildings are ravaged, entire floors exposed, roofs blown off, lying inward, resting awkwardly against bare framework. Signs hang from these buildings, swaying side-to-side though there is no breeze flowing gently through the street.
On one particular sign there is the image of a book, just as faded as the stripes on the man’s clothes. He can only imagine what the block had once looked like: a coffee shop there, an office here, a bank past the corner, and here, just next to where he now stands, a book shop. Perhaps it had once been a popular local place where students would meet up, sipping the coffee they had bought from the nearby shop; maybe a couple had even had their first awkward date here, struggling to find conversation amid the myriad topics that lay hidden away in the shelves, begging to be found and opened. Maybe the man had once been to this very shop with his daughter, where she had picked out a book for the two of them to read. Maybe he had read it to her, but had forgotten over time, not out of carelessness but out of the sinister reality which dictates that the best memories are often replaced by the worst ones. Maybe this very book shop had supplied him with one of his very best memories.
As he walks past the possibly once-magnificent bookshop, he feels he can almost smell the books. This was impossible, of course, as the books had long been destroyed and the only scent that lingered on the street was the scent of smoke and ash. But the thought of what had once been was so overwhelmingly powerful brought to life the sweet smell of a freshly-bound book, one that is about to be opened for the first time. The man had once relished those moments, though he had forgotten that now, but the scent was powerful enough to make him stop in his tracks for a moment—just a moment—and think.
He kneeled to catch her in his arms, tensing himself and yet still having the wind knocked out of his lungs.
The man pushes any thoughts of his past out of his mind and continues down the street, having no apparent physical destination in mind but walking with the kind of purpose that defines determined men and women. He pats the outline of the doll’s arm, which is sticking out of his pocket, and probably would have brought it out again had he not heard some strange voices coming from the other side of the buildings.
His body tightens immediately at that familiar guttural language, one he does not need to understand to recognize instantly. Frozen in place, he gropes at his pockets once again and fishes the doll’s arm out, tightening his grip around it so that the colour drains from his knuckles. Fear has crept onto his face as darkness begins to cover the poisoned sun, and he knows he has only minutes until he will no longer be able to see his own hands.
He crosses the street, half hopping, half sprinting. The voices become louder, and he realizes that whoever they belong to stand between him and salvation. Moving with a sense of urgency more palpable now than before, he crosses the corner, where the bank would have once been, and finds himself staring at the backs of two soldiers.
One is standing with his arm outstretched, and the man notices he is pointing a pistol at a bound-and-gagged prisoner. A gunshot rings out and the figure collapses as the other soldier claps the armed one on the back. The man swiftly slips into the building which he had been looking for, directly adjacent to the bank. In fact, it was more of a house than a building but amid all the rubble the entire city looks the same.
Looking through the doorway, he sees that the officers are dragging the body onto the side of the road where countless others are lying.
He told Anna they were going on a trip, all of them together. She didn’t doubt him for one moment.
The man turns and begins looking frantically through the rubble. He is aware that the ceiling could collapse on him at any moment, and that the two soldiers outside are most likely on their way to investigate the noise.
He is no longer certain of what exactly he is looking for, as his only plan up until this point was to escape, survive, and get home. But home has been reduced to a pile of rubble, and the man bloodies his hands and breaks his fingernails as he desperately throws rocks aside in an attempt to unearth his old house. But he is too late, and the soldiers reach the house.
He told her to pack her favourite things, and she brought the book they had bought together at the store. When they took it away from her, he said it was for safekeeping, and they would get it back soon enough. When they were separated, he said that he had a special surprise waiting for her, and that she and Mama would have fun until then. She had given him her doll, so that he could take care of her while she was gone.
One of the soldiers shouts at the man, but he does not listen. He continues his frantic search, suddenly bitterly aware that what he has been looking for has been ripped away from him. The other soldier raises his pistol, steadies it, and fires.
The last few moments of light sputter out of the sky as the sun finally sets.