Jakov blinks. Everything’s dark and dust blurs the homes reduced to rubble. None stand, everything blown to bits, the street he whistled along lays in tatters, mortgages and valuables, sentimental or material, gone and destroyed in seconds. Families, friend, neighbours, all unaccounted for, is this all happening in his head? It’s silent, just the sound of fire crackling amongst the shattered bricks. There are no sirens, no first responders, no one to ask what happened, but whatever happened, wasn’t supposed to happen here. This is where his parents came to flee the war. The horizon parents risk drowning their children for, so they can glimpse the stability of a nation. Is he still in London?
His forehead feels wet and sticky. His face has tightened. Heat flows through him, as though his back’s on fire, and he’s missing half his t-shirt. It was new with a grey and black graphic of skyscrapers from the city he called home before the sky caught fire and the heavens opened. There was a gust of wind, and Jakov felt the bullets pierce his skin. War had come for him. Flash. Bang. Bright. Jakov blinked, but all he saw was white as bright as the sun once shone.
Jakov grips and steel beam poking through the wreckage and hauls himself to his feet. He grits his teeth. Every clench of his fists feels like flesh ripping from the bone. The steel beam dislodges and jolts before catching itself and locking back in its place amongst the wreckage. Jakov steadies himself on heavy legs. He can’t feel the shaft scolding his palms, they’re torn apart, and blood leaks through his skin. It’s thick and black with soot and dust. Everything’s black and as viscous as oil.
Jakov hurls himself over the wreckage. The drops only a metre high, but it doesn’t matter. His limp ankle feels like he flung himself from one of the skyscrapers that no longer dominates the skyline. All he can muster is a sharp breath. He pushes himself to his feet with his stronger leg, not strong, but stronger than the wilted limb.
Jakov limps, more like drags his left leg behind him. Something grinds against his teeth. His tongue feels like sandpaper. His grandmother warned him about the Medulin beaches, but he didn’t listen and found himself spitting sand and struggling to remove the gritty feel from his mouth. It’s like that, but worse. He doesn’t have enough saliva to spit. If he tries to summon enough fluid from the back of his throat, his throat tightens. He coughs. The grit scratches his tongue and seems to multiply.
Surely, help will arrive soon. Someone will send in doctors, first aiders, paramedics, soldiers, nurses, and volunteers. A glance reveals nothing lurks in the shadows. Flames consume anything that may survive. Jakov feels them getting closer. There’s a phone in his pocket, but Jakov can’t figure out if it was, once something he used to call other people. There’s no screen. Was it all a dream? People. Technology. All that remains is molten plastic and liquified steel. Jakov calls out for someone, anyone, but his voice drowns beneath the crackling flames.
Jakov looks up and retches. Figures of people. At least, shapes moulded by a human outline. They’re pure black. Like tar. Carbonised remains of people he probably knew. Before whatever happened, he’d been in the pub drinking, celebrating the end of the week. That Friday feeling. Another body. They could be the remains of the manager who smiled when Jakov walked in at quarter past five and ordered a Pravha. His friend. The new guy from work. The woman he stared at and contemplated the best way to offer to buy her a drink before a man walked in and threw his arms around her and kissed her forehead. Jakov remembers her pink lipstick. He craved cherries.
Jakov jolts backwards. One of the stone people, shudders. Its eyes have swollen, and the lower half of the face is missing. Its throats gasps for air. Jakov reaches for its hand; it’s smooth like the edge of a diamond. ‘Are you okay?’ He asks. It’s a stupid question, he knows but what else will he ask it. It. It isn’t human, but it was, it was living and breathing and following the rules of human society. Now, it’s writhing in agony gasping for the air growing more and more elusive. It could be the man who told him if he doesn’t like it, he can go home when Jakov commented on a story in the newspaper. I am home, Jakov had said. And the man screamed and shouted about the vote and how he wasn’t welcome here anymore. The woman behind the bar demanded the man left and said they’d all be better off without bigots like him. But Jakov wouldn’t wish this on anybody. Not even him.
The thing shudders no more.
Jakov steps around the thing and draws a cross against his chest with his finger. He needs to find some water. His throat his dry, and he can’t feel his lips. Grit and dirt, gravel and sand are clinging to his tongue. Jakov wants to rinse his mouth out more than he wants to drink, but he needs to drink. He knows this. He knows he won’t last much longer without water. He heads east, but he doesn’t know what way he should walk to reach somewhere safe. Is anywhere safe anymore? Has he survived the end of the world, only to die in the afterlife?
To survive, Jakov needs this and must navigate through black statues stacked on top of each other. Some aren’t fully formed and split apart by the rubble. There’s no sign of life anywhere. The only sign had stopped breathing in front of him.
‘Help,’ the fire cackles.
Jakov stops and stares around. The fire shrieks again.
He edges towards the flames.
‘Help me,’ the voice separates from the crackling and squeaks. ‘Help me, please.’
‘Hello,’ Jakov calls, trying to run towards the wreckage as the flames encroach upon the dirt heap, threatening to engulf the voice inside. ‘Can you hear me.’
‘Help me. I can’t breathe.’
Jakov looks around and reaches for a beam far enough from the flames. He pokes the wreckage and begins pulling debris from the mountain.
‘I can’t breathe. Help me.’
‘I’m trying,’ Jakov calls, he tries pulling more of the rubble away, but the more falls over the gaps he creates. The flames are rising.
The voice squeals. And sobs. ‘It’s hot. Help me, please.’
‘I’m trying.’ There’s no other way. Jakov rips at the wreckage, pulling away scalding bits of metal and brick and stone. He can’t feel the heat. He feels superhuman. But his hands are numb.
‘Please. Help. Me.’ The cries weaken.
‘Stay with me,’ Jakov calls out. ‘I’ll get you out of there, just stay with me.’
Nothing. Jakov rips at the rubble as fast as he can. Heat surrounds him, and the mountain’s alive with fire. It spits at him. The voice has gone. Jakov breaths deep and digs in for one last push. He knows this is his last chance. If he can’t get to the voice beneath the rubble, the fire will consume them both.
A face, black with ash, pokes through the wreck. Jakov pokes his cheek; it’s flabby. The eyelids flutter. Jakov digs more and frees the chest. It rises slowly. He’s breathing. Jakov knows he could do damage to the child if he moves him, but it’s better than the alternative. Jakov leans him and drags him from the wreckage. The child slips through the gaps. It’s easy, but Jakov collapse in the clearing. Weak and exhausted. The kid’s chest moves, but he doesn’t open his eyes. Neither of them has the energy to live.
Jakov eyes float around the ruins. The child lay quiet and limp next to him. Jakov nudges him, and shoves him, and stares at the black sky. He doesn’t know why he saved the kid; he wasted the last of his energy on the lifeless body next to him. It was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? Does saving a dead child make him a hero? What was it worth? Jakov’s alone again. And frailer. The child’s cough is weak.
Jakov jolts forward. ‘Easy,’ he says.
‘Mummy,’ the boy says.
‘No,’ Jakov speaks softly. ‘I’m Jakov. What’s your name?’
‘Where’s my mum?’
‘I don’t know,’ Jakov says. ‘But we’ll find her. What’s your name?’
‘Hi, Tyler,’ Jakov says and forces a smile. ‘How old are you?’
‘Nine,’ the boy says. ‘Where are we? I want to go home.’
‘I know,’ Jakov says. ‘But right now, you need to be brave for me until we find someone to help us. Can you do that for me?’
Tyler nods. Jakov’s voice is hoarse and tiring, but Jakov manages to soften his tone to comfort the little boy.
Hey. Jakov tries to call, but his throat is too dry to scream. In the distance, someone limps with their back hunched over, almost dragging their arms across the floor. ‘Tyler, can you walk?’
Tyler nods again. And they scramble to their feet. Jakov stretches his hand out, and Tyler grips it softly. Its cut and charred and Jakov can’t feel the boy holding the tips of his fingers.
The pair limp towards the distant straggler. It’s the first living being, Jakov has seen in the open. Help must be near. There’s safety in numbers. At least he’ll have someone to half the responsibility with, or someone to help look after the boy should Jakov succumb to his injuries or dehydration. He never considered himself the paternal type, but Tyler, that’s a reason to fight. He stands no chance of survival if Jakov gives up.
‘I’m thirsty,’ the boy says.
‘I know, I know.’
‘I need water,’ the boy says again.
‘I know, I know. We’ll find some soon.’
How long must he lie? They walk, Jakov still lugging his leg behind him. This is their new reality. Life before now was so long ago — a different world in a different time.
‘Keep heading east if you can,’ a distorted voice calls in the distance — a human voice.
‘Help. Help. Help.’ Jakov says, but it’s a whisper. He scrambles towards the voice.
Jakov clambers towards the voice. Tyler crawls behind him.
They turn around of mound of rubble into an open path with people crawling and limping hunched over. Skin hangs from arms. Dried blood and black soot stain mangled faces. People unrecognisable. Bright yellow jackets kneel beside those who can’t walk. Two men in white bodysuits and a gas mask carry a stretcher with a screaming head attached to a torso. There are no legs.
‘Tyler, close your eyes.’
‘Close your eyes, and when I tell you to open them again.’
Tyler does as he says.
‘Keep going east. If you can walk, walk. Help will be prioritised for those with serious injuries.’ A woman’s voice calls over a mega horn. She’s wearing a yellow jacket, but she doesn’t stop to talk to anyone. She waves her arms to the east and repeats herself. ‘Keep going east. If you can walk, walk. Help will be prioritised for those with serious injuries.’
The crowds with hanging skin and drooping faces, wander, silently, as sirens ring in the distance. Bodies strewn across the road, are picked up and tossed to the side. There’s nothing anyone in a yellow jacket can do for them now.
‘Help us,’ Jakov says, gripping the boy’s hand. He still has his eyes closed. They’re tight. Jakov doesn’t know what Tyler thinks, but Jakov wishes he didn’t have to see this.
‘Keep going east. If you can walk, walk. Help will be prioritised for those with serious injuries.’
‘Please,’ Jakov says. ‘We need water.’
‘Sir,’ the woman says, lowering her speaker. ‘There’s water, further along, please keep walking.’
Jakov’s too weak to argue. He slogs along with the crowd. Women cry in the distance. Jakov wonders if Tyler will see his mum again. The rubble must’ve have buried her. Tyler’s lucky he’s alive. Jakov stares down at him; he probably doesn’t know how lucky he is. Then again, how lucky is he really?
Soldiers run in formation: no uniform, but white protective clothing. The metal on their rifles shines. They weren’t caught up in whatever this what. No one stops to help him or the child. The crowd ploughs on. A few of the horde drop to the floor. Nobody stops. There are not enough paramedics here to help. Blue lights flash in the distance. Jakov watches as a soldier picks one of the fallen from the ground and drag him to the side of the road. Jakov pulls the same soldier, who spins and points his gun at him.
‘Please,’ Jakov says, throwing his hands up. ‘Help him.’ He says nodding towards Tyler.
The soldier lowers his weapon. ‘Can he breathe?’
‘Can he walk?’
‘Keep walking,’ the soldier says. ‘Assistance will be provided further along when emergency services become available.’
‘Keep going east. If you can walk, walk. Help will be prioritised for those with serious injuries.’ The distorted voice grows distant. The crowd grows and fall behind Jakov and Tyler.
‘I’m thirsty,’ the boy says.
Jakov doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing he can say, no promise he can make. Tyler will need to collapse before anyone decides to help him. Until then, they must march through the silence. The sombre walk from hell. Chaos. Fires rage. Metal clangs and smashes into each other as the rubble beneath burns. Jakov never lost hope, but the bodies are dropping. People keep walking. The lucky ones are dead. Survivors condemned.
Tyler calls out for his mother.
Jakov has nothing left to say.
Hoping is exhausting.
Soldiers sprint past and snap him out of his trance.
‘Keep going east. If you can walk, walk. Help will be prioritised for those with serious injuries.’ The voice has all but faded.
‘Daddy,’ Tyler says.
Jakov shakes his head slowly. What can he say to this child? People wander around in white protective clothing cradling bright red speakers and waving their arms in directions. He’s never seen people like this, so close to death and collapsing around them with exhaustion. People run around in a panic, normally, but this isn’t normal. Zombies limp and crawl in the direction the voice tells them to walk. What else can they do?
‘Tyler.’ The boy’s name echoes in the silence against the fire. Men in white protective clothing aim water cannons at the debris. Blue lights flash further on. A man with a torn t-shirt sprints towards them, and calls the boy’s name again.
‘Daddy,’ the boy says.
The man clutches the child and breaks into tears as he cradles the boy in his arms. The man takes the canteen from his hip and pours water over the boy’s face. Tyler licks at the droplets. He rips the flask from his father hands and guzzles the contents.
The man gently tugs at strap and snaps harder until Tyler relents.
‘Here,’ the man says holding the flask out to Jakov
Jakov guzzles on the canteen and empties the remnants on his face.
‘Thank you,’ the man says. Tears stream from his face. He pulls Tyler onto his shoulders and paces towards the flashing lights.
Jakov watches on, clutching the flask. Tyler doesn’t look back, and he falls into his fathers’ arms. Jakov lets himself fall to the floor. He watches as cannons fire at the flames. Smoke billows and evaporates. The black smoke hasn’t cleared, but there’s a sense of reality. People are walking around in protective clothing handing out fresh water. Beyond the flashing lights, the wreckage begins to turn into building.
Jakov sits there, waiting for his share of freshwater.
He tries not to think about the people trapped beneath the rubble.
Or the people still missing.
He gazes at the drifting black smoke. He knows how lucky he is, lives lay ruined beneath the debris, but hoping is exhausting.