by Jacob Lawrence (Writing as Henry Jakubs)
Fires raged all around him, the smoke drifting out onto the streets, enshrouding the lone man as he blindly made his way through the ruined city. Cautiously, he stepped over rubble, downed power lines, and whatever else had found itself on the smoldering asphalt he now tread upon. The improvised head-wrap he wore, a salvaged shower curtain he had found in an apartment two blocks back, was one of the few things he had come across that had escaped the onslaught unscathed, and now it served a purpose for which it had never been intended; it protected him.
After slicing holes into the thick plastic and wetting the canvas that backed it, the man fashioned something that made the harsh journey slightly bearable. It was poorly designed, ineptly created, but he had tried his best to protect himself from the smoke that constantly surrounded him, and the poisons he could be admitting into his body with each breath. Unfortunately, there was only so much that one could prepare for. The destruction that had been unleashed upon this city, the ash that blanketed the very street he walked on, was evidence of that. The cowl did nothing to stave off the ruination of his lungs, but its presence was a comfort he could not go without.
The concrete shifted beneath his feet, almost as though it was trying to drag him down into the depths, to join so many others that had found themselves lost, entombed in the forgotten civilization that lay below the city, to rot where no one would ever find them. Just as he had held on to the past, the city did as well, yearning for what had been, even as it withered away.
Explosions sounded off in the distance. Maybe a broken gas line had finally succumbed to the fiery temptation that danced around it, or a building had collapsed upon itself, embracing the painful demise it had been fated to. While those possibilities were terrifying in and of themselves, the man had learned there were greater things to fear.
Carnage was always close behind. His very presence ensured the destruction of anything, or anyone, he had come in contact with, and the chaos that followed in his wake was an unfortunate reality, one that he could not ignore.
Heat rushed over him as steam erupted from a nearby manhole, shaking him from his reverie. He turned, mouth agape, already shouting a warning before the emptiness reminded him he was alone. The faces of the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people he had failed, some he had known for years, and others he had only met when this hellish nightmare had begun, flashed through his mind. How long had it been since he’d last heard the sound of another? Since someone had said his name? Acknowledged him, if only in passing? Although he questioned it, he knew, he could never forget the last time he had seen someone else.
Calling him a lost soul, a wayward son, destined to eternally search for what he truly desired, would be an understatement. He could accept such a label, because, inherently, he knew he was something far worse, a coward. There was a single truth that he did not want to succumb to, the possibility that there was no one else, and that he was the last of his kind. The isolation he now suffered had been forced upon him, and the devastation that surrounded him was a constant reminder of how truly frail humanity was. Escaping the truth allowed him to steel his will as he aimlessly wandered the city, searching, over and over, for something he might have missed, a clue that may have gone unnoticed, one that could lead him down the path of redemption.
As he reminisced of what had been, he stepped on something, sinking into it with an audible squelch. He froze. Stumbling back, his body swayed dangerously, balance in question, as his breathing became ragged.
He couldn’t see it, the smoke was so thick that it was a miracle he could even walk upright, but he had honed his other senses during the weeks he had spent amongst the flames. He knew the best way to determine what it was, but he was hesitant to touch it. He had seen things, atrocities committed against the people he had cared for, and those images, those deaths, haunted him every time he closed his eyes.
Shaking, his mind racing, he began to imagine what this poor soul had gone through. Even after everything that had happened, there were no bodies, no evidence that those people had ever lived. It was only the moments he remembered, the fleeting conversations, the bitter ends, that reaffirmed their existence; they allowed him to hold onto his sanity. He had no idea where the bodies had gone, why they had vanished, but here he was, with something lying before him, and he could feel that spark of hope reverberate deep within him as it flared back to life.
There was never anything left of the victims, but here, here was something he could touch, tangible proof that he had never been alone, but even as he dropped to his knees, searching, he could feel cold despair seize hold of him. There was nothing but the concrete he had walked upon so many times. Whatever it was, it was gone, vanished into the smoke and mayhem like everyone else that had come before.
Desperately, he groped about, blindly searching for what he was sure had just been there. Even the smallest clue would satisfy him, prove this wasn’t some insidious hallucination, a creation of his mind merely to alleviate the ever-growing sense of dread he felt with each passing moment. He knew it was futile, it always was. He searched the entire block, to no avail, hoping, just this once, that he’d be wrong.
Finally, he left. The ground steadily became level, and the difficult terrain fell away, progressing into a well-traveled path. How many times had he walked this same road? Dozens? Hundreds? Like always, the confusion set in, and he couldn’t remember if he had created this, or if it had been there all along, leading him on this endless journey. It didn’t matter, he continued on, experience and intuition guiding each step as he avoided anything that may have barred his way. He knew this path better than he knew himself, and still he followed it, hoping to find something else at the end, something different.
With each passing block, his paranoia grew stronger; the doubt and negative emotions that plagued him began to eat away at his resolve as he withdrew into himself. His instinct screamed as he felt the presence of others all around him, hidden from view by the very thing that had protected him for so long. His hair began to stand on end as he felt them drawing nearer. Something was wrong. There were sections of the city he didn’t dare pass through, but this route had always been safe, and yet his gut told him otherwise now.
Blindly reaching out, his fingertips brushed against the brick buildings that ran beside him, the coarse material scraping against his scarred flesh. He moved forward, waiting for the breach he knew was coming, an opening into a home he had found days ago, part of the ever-changing landscape that surrounded him. Finally, he felt the jagged edge of the portal he had been searching for, and slipped inside, dropping to a crouch as he hid himself within a place that had once been a home, for people who had once lived.
Long moments passed as he waited there, listening. Sweat beaded upon his brow as he strained his senses, but there was nothing, only the single constant he had become accustomed to, the crumbling of stone as the buildings wasted away around him. It had to be some sort of sick joke, he had felt it, the inherent knowledge that he was being pursued, and yet there was nothing. Then, just as he came to his feet, he heard it, faint but unmistakable. A cry for help echoed throughout the city.
To be continued…