Aftermath – Chapter 1

A short story set in a near future – Internet and our societies have fallen and the law of the jungle prevails…

This article is also available on Medium.

2063. After the Event, communities have reformed — while the majority of the population has regrouped in a handful of megacities under lockdown, the rest are scattered across the globe and fighting for their survival. This is the story of seven survivors stuck in a bunker, in the Middle East…

Chapter 1 — Gareth

There is something in each and every one of us, a primal instinct that lashes out when our world is broken into pieces and our lives are turned upside down. It is inherent to our human condition, a kind of trigger, a relief valve meant to let the steam out whenever things are too unbearable. I have seen it at work, and it is marvelous. How marvelous indeed the man who, blind to the danger, runs to the gun and grabs the burning metal. How marvelous the mother who, deaf to the screaming and the cries around her, protects her baby with her own body. How marvelous the child who climbs the fence and raises his arms in sign of hope while he runs away from the scene. How marvelous the executioner who will not give into panic and still diligently breathes, aims, shoots. And how marvelous the bullet which, oblivious to the chaos, finds its way to the child. I have lived a long life, full of surprises, but this I would never have guessed. This biological clocklike mechanism shows a long-thought brilliance. We are, beneath all our layers of dirt, and flesh, and blood, and bones, little diamonds carved from the fabric of evolution. I used to think one was precious for their soul or their identity — I was convinced I had to have a story to tell; in truth, being is already a great enough gift.

What we call civilisation, culture, are brutal tools used to bend reality to our needs. For example, grunting and panting are barbaric words to describe magnificent concepts. For when all is lost, what is it that holds a man up? He groans with pain and staggers around but refuses to kneel. How could I not be inspired by the one next to me, facing this faceless raider and his gun? As I see his life flow out of his veins and death widen his eyes, I think there is beauty in his determination, just as there is beauty in his opponent’s resolution — however, I tend to admire the former more; because his blood has left him and he should have no reason to fight anymore, because neither his soul nor his identity exist anymore, because he has stopped being, he should fall. And yet, he stands still. I see ocean blue eyes and a scratched face, I hear a whisper and a plea, and I smell, maybe for the last time, a whiff of goodness. Finally, when the bullets push him back and he hits the ground, it rumbles like thunder. A hero is down, a colossus has bled, a god has died.

Does He hear us, now? Does He listen to our prayers in our final moments? I used to have faith in His work, I believed those silent corridors in Södertälje’s church were sacred. When I was asked to say grace, I would comply with the utmost respect for Him; when I walked around the cloister and methodically erased the names of Aristotle, Copernicus or Darwin from my memory, I would proudly renounce the long hours spent in overheated laboratories with frogs and skeletons for a sign. Why, then, would He never answer?

Rattily-boom goes the boot. Clicketty-click ticks the gun. Sounds echo loudly in the desert and I find myself wondering: have I ever heard life? Or have I spent my days in a cautious blur, a filter of sorts, to avoid annoyance and noise? The wind blows, the sand dances. It hurts my throat in such a delicate manner. While the grains burn my mouth and the heat knocks me out, I only feel grateful. Thank you, whoever — whatever — you might be, for this life. People often told me I was too passive, that it would pass me by before I could catch it. I disagree. As a matter of fact, I regard having been the main character of my play a great honor. Who am I to judge the quality of an existence? I do not have anything to compare it to. May have been better, may have been worse. How could I know? I look up to the blazing circle in the big blue sky. The sun is still kicking and alive, indifferent to our petty fights on a dead planet. He has understood that he dominates us all just by shining for so long.

Click near my ear. It is nice to feel the fresh metal against my temple, soothing even. The click repeats in my memory, again and again. It was an old clock on the mantelpiece that went clock, clock, clock… with a spring that my grandmother had to take care of every morning, as if she was winding the day itself. I remember that at that time there was still grass and water in Sweden, I recall the fresh breeze and the chanting birds that have gone away just in time to escape the madness. They have flown through the scorching skies to somewhere only they know, a safe heaven without thieves, gunmen and bombs. I have always had the utmost respect for those animals and their ability to evade the mortal realm, if only for an instant. As a child, I would have given anything to see wings grow in my back and save me from my birdcage. I could lay down on the bare ground for hours, watching the swallows swoop in and out of the little square of blue I had cut out of the sky. And with this question stuck in the back of mind: what about me? When will I have my wings?

Clingy grains of sand stick to my clothes and my hair. I can feel the pounds pile up slowly, burying me like some itchy burning oil. If the gentleman beside me does not wrap this up, I may very well end up a rocky statue. Sand is running down my forehead, closing in to my eyes as it mixes with sweat. I try and shake my head but I must have forgotten how to move, for nothing happens. I exhale some overheated air to push the dust away; it only results in a pathetic pout that painfully deforms my face. Another metallic click. The man shouts at me in a local tongue I do not know. After years in this wretched land, I could never get around to learning the native languages or truly getting to know the ways of these people. Quite a mistake, if I do say so myself. I raise my head with difficulty. What do I look like to inspire such pity in his eyes? The big hand offers me water in a small flask. Sure, my hands are tied; as my neck and my tongue stretch out to lap some water, I resemble an agonizing beast someone eventually rescued. This is it: I am about to die by the hand of a man I share nothing with, no attachment, not even words, and somehow he is the closest thing to a friend I have had in months.

His majestic shadow is suddenly eaten by an even bigger shade. And this voice that barks behind me — more like ancient rocks than a human sound -, a roar of puzzling sentences I cannot even begin to grasp, this voice is power and will. It is, to me, order itself. The gun pressed against my head disappears as the giant puts his huge hands on my shoulders.

  • Professor Kenner, you and I are not so different.

The exotic accent puts shiny random intonations all over the words, I like it. It adds a nice ring to the whole. However, I do not like the words themselves as much. These hands are heavy and sweaty, not comforting in any way. I would rather get back to the one with the water.

  • I suppose it depends on your criteria.

His laugh is a short avalanche that dies in his mouth after sweeping away my confidence.

  • My boys here say you can give us money. They say you got the cure to the Metal bones.
  • Well, your boys might have been presumptuous.
  • Are you calling them liars?

Although I know the reasonable answer would be a quick “no”, I do lack this spontaneity that allows most men to lie through their teeth without so much as a frown. I am, sadly, an honest person. This might have been the definitive deal breaker between He and I — for what could the Lord bring to me in those circumstances?

  • Professor, are you saying that my little brother is lying?

Clickedy-click. At that precise moment, the die is already cast. Why, then, am I not scared? Has my old-time friend, science, decided to lock up a part of my brain, analyse the situation, and conclude it is the best outcome? Or has its rival eventually responded to my prayers and blessed me with His serenity? Yes, there is this constant fatigue, this never-ending weakness that clouds my world a little more each day. Yes, I have wished it was over so I could finally rest in silence. But I was so convinced I had not given up, I hoped there was still some time left. I guess I was misinformed.

What happens in that instant is somewhat unexpected. Who, indeed, would have predicted that in the middle of the desert, on a Tuesday afternoon, between a few desolated hills, as I stared at blood and dirt surrounded by gigantic and beautiful gangsters, I would hear a piano? Sporadic notes at first, pensive scales that fill the air with melancholy. There is a softness in those running fingers unlike anything else as they rediscover Mozart. I dare not picture the hand attached to them, let alone the delicate dress, the distinguished chin or the hazelnut eyes. Green? Which one would be better? Fantasies are slippery things I am not used to anymore. As my mind drifts away, each key plunges deep in my heart to find a string to pull. Sand turns to water and the tide takes me away. Gunshots are rhythm, shouts tribal singing, and the music floods the place. My ear is stuck to the ground and awaits greedily the next note: I can feel every vibration, every harmonics, every pause. Perhaps it is a delirious dream, perhaps the last gun click was a bang? And those beats that electrify me, my heartbeats, surely. But how then explain the sand in my nostril and the annoying buzzing in my head? If I am in paradise, hopefully those are not — it would be a cruel trick for such a merciful soul, wouldn’t it? A dissonance in the music interrupts my train of thoughts. The rolling mountain falls next to me; his huge hands that grab dirt just to have something to do, his rocky voice that gurgles like a waterfall, his large shadow crushed by the heavy body… On the other side, the flask has fallen into the sand without a noise. There is nothing left of these wonderful beings, except for this requiem echoing through the valleys and the hills.

Somewhere very close, in the middle of the desert, a piano plays Mozart.

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