Day 911. Snowing again. The smell of burning on the wind.
Sleep slid off him like an oversized garment, leaving him bare. Awakening, all colour was drained from the world. That was his life now. Why was it always brighter in his dreams? Once, sleep had been a thing to fear. He had felt content knowing that life awaited the end of each slumber, a beacon of light which extinguished nightmares. Is this life? He wasn't sure any more. Life had been joy, life had been his son, life had been her.
His life was buried beneath the snow 334 days ago. Two snow angels. He rubbed the centre of his ring finger, still unaccustomed to the emptiness there. The ring itself was in his pocket, out of sight but scarcely out of mind.
Nightmares had taken over. He could not count the number of times which he had willed himself to awaken, to ascend from this hell. Nor could he count the refusals to do so. He had had enough of living day by day. Each day was the same. Only the numbers were different, the casualties.
That burning smell. I must keep moving.
Not even the snow was pure. Discoloured by the ashen earth. God's grief for his children, descending to their world in an attempt to conceal man-made scars. The attempt was futile. The snow was too sparse, even the tears of Gods insufficient for the purpose of masking mankind's sin. He should have cried more. Or was it shame that God felt?
Rising to his feet, he rolled up the ragged old blanket before fastening it to his back with the knots he had taught his son. He was Atlas, but the world had toppled from his shoulders to shatter into a million pieces at his feet. All he could do was stare at the broken fragments which remained of his former life. In a previous life, this would have been noon. The sun's light was a haze, a pupil smothered by a cataract of dull cloud. It was at once muted by the perpetual darkness of the skies, and blinding in its trivial glory when the man-made clouds deigned to disperse. But that was rare.
How must Earth look from space? It might well be indistinguishable from the darkness of the galaxy, a few stray wisps of smoke allowing some sunlight to peer out like a nosy neighbour looking through a curtain. All of my neighbours are dead. It was not uncommon to see others on the road, yet you had to be cautious. There were, after all, the ones who wished you harm, the ones who placed themselves at the top of the food chain. The others were hiding, or wandering like he was, trying to find a purpose. Am I?
He remembered the initial sound of the bombs, the explosions which brought down buildings and their builders alike, an involuntary exodus to a land beyond the veil. They pounded now at the walls of his memory, breaking through, an insurmountable mound of debris on the lines of his train of thought. As the cacophonous barrage faded, he became aware that he was kneeling, his head held in a brace position between his legs.
The Fourth World War was a memory, but that did not mean it was distant. Some memories your mind refuses to let go. He was back on the fields then, officers shouting through earpieces, the Behemoths firing their long cannons, the AA guns their skyborne missiles, the poor bastards on the ground their wide range of guns. And then the comets, like strikes from Thor’s hammer pummelling the earth into submission. It was impossible now to tell whether all the chaos had been caused by the nukes or the comets, though they may well have fallen days apart.
The desolation had reduced him from a father, husband and soldier to a wondering wanderer, a traveller with no destination in this world. Family man to lone ranger. A crusader without a cause. Causes were something that he’d abandoned a long time ago.
Fire-blackened houses stood, skeletal, leaning lazily over towards what might have once been a road. He could only pray that this road could succeed where others had failed him. Dotted along the highway to hell were assorted vehicles, all of them abandoned. There were tanks with their cannons blown to pieces, cars missing wheels and wing-mirrors. Some of them even lacked seats; the occupants were strewn across the ground, robbed of chunks of flesh, eyes open in shocked horror. If they were still there.
A rusted wheel cover lay on the road before him. Lifting it up tentatively in his gloved hands, he raised it to the dim daylight, trying to create a golden glow. The sun did not comply. Is this the best this place has to offer? Moronic. He grimaced at his own naivety, tossed the un-golden plate to the ground with a soft thump as it plopped into the snow.
He walked past an unruly knot of black wire, twisted and warped, the ashen coat giving the impression of liquorice. His son hated liquorice. He took after his father like that.
Another tank. Sometimes the militia could be seen driving what remained of their vehicles; he supposed they must have underground bases dotted around the country, but the lesser troops such as he had been wouldn’t know about that. The upper echelons in their overcoats and medals would be sworn to secrecy, mouths sealed by the promise that their families would be safe. Sealed now by death. For even Gods and presidents could lie to their flock...
As he trudged through the layer of ash, he tried not to think about what-or whom- they had once belonged to. Hands, twisted beyond belief, reached up out of the debris, as if to grasp the stars or plead to their God. God didn't answer. He never did. Enveloped in blissful ignorance, God had abandoned his children. Or is it smug surveillance?
He avoided the corpses, which with each breeze appeared less human. He had made some of them, not even counting his days in the military. His first was when a couple of them had threatened his son. Never would he have believed his inner brutality until that moment. The field was different. The assailant had been left on the ground, face a pulp which was indistinguishable from his body. It had been snowing then, too, but he had been no angel.
He rubbed his finger again, a habit which must have appeared stupid, yet was of even more importance to him now that he no longer wore his ring. It did not dull the pang of loss. He did not want that. Would not have it. He deserved to be haunted by it forever, compensation for his failure, a moral debt he could only try his best to repay. He was about to ask God again if there was anything more he could have done, but then remembered he didn't exist anymore. Was this how Lucifer felt when he was cast down? As he stood there, he found it hard to remember if there had ever been a paradise to lose.
A helicopter was to his left, having apparently collided with a house. The three rotary blades spun in the wind, struggling against nature’s cascading white blanket. The cross they almost formed had no place in this new world. It reminded him of the church he attended until 332 days ago. The hymns would warm his heart, but nothing could warm him now. Not even the fires. He put his hand into the flames wreathed around the helicopter, watched his skin blacken like the rest of the world had. He imagined the flames dancing in her eyes as they sat around the fireplace at home. That hurts. He took his hand away.
He again rubbed his finger, the empty space which had formerly been filled by that circle of his life. And what is left when life is taken away? There were times when death seemed appealing, a welcome release. But most of the time, he felt like he was dead already. I just got sent the wrong way.
Tremors would still run through the earth, delivering desolation without discrimination. Just as tremors still ran through him now. A gentle push sent the door of the house to the ground, an ugly dust cloud belching up as particles of the door rose up before fluttering with false beauty back to their resting place, an imperfect impression of snow. Snow. Snow angels were unearthed as the snow in his memory melted from the heat of his emotions, eyes open wide, vivid with accusation. Closing his own eyes could not banish them. They were a burn-in imprinted on the backs of his eyelids. Burn-in? He could barely remember the last time he watched a television.
Well, he could remember the faces. The President deciding that it was time to release the nukes after a trivial disagreement, standing at the podium before the rest of the world via a television screen. The state senators and congressmen in the crowd, divided as ever, some of them sacrificing their opinion to spend more time on their pads. Many of them would probably have escaped the chaos, would be hidden in some presidential bunker somewhere, or would have used airships or Arks to retreat to someplace where they could live with their warped collective conscience for the rest of their days, as he would. At least they can divide the responsibility. He had no bunker, no refuge. Not that shelter helps much anyway. Whoever had lived here had discovered that fact well enough. The house looked like a bomb had... Never mind.
He stepped warily into the building, snow descending on him through the gaping wound in the decrepit roof. A left turn took him into the living room. Television. He pressed the remote control, and he was with his wife again, their newborn son. Peppa Pig was oinking away on the screen, her family laughing, just as they once had. The years went by in a second. His son was seven, reading fairy tales and myths and the Bible in the big armchair. Then he was gone, along with his mother, the last memories he had of them being cowering and screaming as he failed to save them from the fallen beings which once had been men...
The remote was aimed at God, but it went through the shattered screen of the television, spewing out its long-dead batteries as it broke to pieces against a wall. He went for the stairs, wanting to believe that they would take him up to heaven to see his angels. And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our soul…
His soul had withered every day since their absence, and shadows had engulfed him. And he still couldn’t find the woman buying a stairway to heaven. If it was any consolation, his spirit was always crying for leaving. But it wasn’t. Each step whispered like a futile prayer, and it did not take too many unanswered pleas to the heavens before he reached the top.
It was no utopia, no Olympus. Any god would do, but he had heard those who said they were all one and the same. There was no pearly gate. He would have opened the door, had there been one there; all that remained was a single hinge, like a hand reaching out to grasp a non-existent reality.
The first bed was too hard, its mattress rotted and torn by what looked like knife slashes. Or bears.
The next room had been similarly scavenged. People were like that these days. They had to be, to survive. And to die. This bed was too large for his taste, too soft, too obviously empty. He left the room and entered a third.
A child’s room. This bed was just right. There were no bears to give him a fright if he went to sleep; animals had been the first food source. They had to feast on dog at first, all the while concealing it from his son. He had never been a dog person, so that was easy. But what came after…
Hellboy watched him from his A3 prison on the wall, face possessed by a perpetual scowl. This is his world. It smelt like Hell too. Like death. He stepped over to the closet, opening the door. One glance was all he needed. He quickly left the room and found himself retching on the staircase. Slowly, he rose from the porridge-like puddle he had created. A messy painting. Almost as messy as this world. Wiping the splashback of liquid disgust from his face with a grotty old sleeve, his thoughts returned to his angels, what he would have done—had done—to men who did such things to them.
He remembered the man who was eating their flesh. ‘It’s d-d-dog,’ he whimpered, ‘Y-y-you can have it.’ It wasn’t dog. The zombie had kept talking. ‘Y-y-you can have it if y-y-you want. Y-y-you and y-your family.’ A gunshot had ended the thing’s moaning.
Back downstairs, he opened the kitchen drawers and cupboards—those which were still left. Most of the doors had been taken, perhaps to use as pillows, perhaps to use as shields, perhaps just because they could be. Canned oysters. He rotated the can in his hand, lifted the slightly-open lid. A rancid stench hit his nostrils like a nuke. The world is your oyster. His father used to tell him that. He continued turning the can in his hand, tried to decide whether his father knew him from God and an oyster from an ashtray.
Time to leave. There was nothing more for him here. He stepped over the face-down door and back onto the road. Evening. The sky’s blindness had intensified, yet the snow still fell. Snow angels. He rubbed his finger again as he watched the snow form another shroud for his dead. Death. It kept returning to his mind. The fact that he lived when so many others had died made it feel as if he had cheated fate, and was standing back at death’s door, unsure of whether to knock.
Voices tore through his thoughts.
‘Stop right there!’ Two figures stood a little further down the former road, one of them clutching a gun. The other held what appeared to be a baseball bat studded with nails.
‘Are you ready to meet your fucking maker?’ said Thing One.
He was. He had a few things to say to his maker. He patted the pistol by his side.
The two Things were advancing on him.
He drew the pistol, held it firmly before his person as a warning. Said not a word.
‘Put the gun down, or we’ll blow your fucking brains out.’ Thing One again. Thing Two was rather quiet. The pistol stayed where it was.
‘Are you fucking deaf?’
He fucking wasn’t. But he didn’t fucking move. He stared at the snow on the ground intently.
Another explosion went through his mind. He saw white. And then, at last, he heard the angels.