The sirens pulse in the distance; somewhere someone has just had their life altered or ended by the sound of it. Leaving the office when dark is depressing enough in winter but having to work late in summer is a crime to humanity. I have to negotiate a few icons to see the time on my laptop, if it’s in front of me all day I will watch it struggle to rack up the hours needed for me to be free of the canteen lighting and polystyrene. “9:43” That’s it, I’m coming in late tomorrow.
The truth is if I enjoyed my life I’d probably see the odd late finish as little more than an inconvenience but I’m forty, single and scared at how bored I have become. I feel as if I’m sliding into oblivion like the suicidal are drawn to train tracks.
Where had all the wonder gone? As a young man I had such optimism, then the fear took root and sucked all the oxygen of hope from me. Death, divorce, disillusionment; it all served to make me old before my time and bitter enough to taste it.
I turn off the last of the office’s lights and cover my ears with music, Rachmaninov and his almost sickly sweet romanticism. Out of habit I attempt to flick my hair out of my face, despite having a shaved head for over ten years; no matter often I do this I am still disappointed to be reminded it’s gone.
As I step onto the pavement two faces with a look of terror rush past me, I wonder if they are somehow related to the sirens I heard earlier that have now stopped. It isn’t until I turn onto the high street that the chaos becomes apparent. Pulling the headphones from my ears it takes a few moments for my mind to adjust from the music to the under current of hysteria. A fashionably dressed young woman slams into me, knocking the headphones from my hands; she rolls with the impact not even acknowledging me. I assume their must be rioting in London again and decide to head for the underground station, there’s no way I’m getting a bus through that again.
“Dad you’re hurting me!” Cries a small child, having his arm almost yanked from its socket. “Just keep moving Chris,” he snaps, his voice sounding more fearful than his son’s. I’m knocked to the ground by a middle-aged couple, the woman turns but is pulled away by her husband, causing her to stumble over her own feet as she twists. A thankfully soft-soled shoe crushes my left hand and I yelp in pain “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I scream, as the realisation that something isn’t right here causes my bowel to quiver.
I make my way to the sanctuary of a side alley next to the bookies. It looks as if an ant’s nest has been disturbed as people run blindly in all directions.
“There’s no point in running, you don’t know whether you are escaping or running towards death.” I turn to see a man in his sixties, smoking a roll up like a builder about to give an inflated quote for a garden wall. “Away from what?” My voice sounds more like a plea than a question. “Where have you been the last few hours? The moonshine, it’s bled into the atmosphere, just a matter of time now.” I calm a little, I had expected a nuclear missile or meteor to be on its way. “Moonshine?” – “Yeah, I witnessed one in Manila, 86’. It ain’t gonna be pretty. I crawled into a ball and got lucky. It’s patchy, it can destroy all around for miles yet spare a village, it can decimate a street yet leave you untouched. You had better hope you get burnt though, I wouldn’t wish that sight on anyone.”
I’m not sure what to do with this information, what the hell is a Moonshine? Under normal circumstances I would back away slowly and avoid eye contact but the fear here is palpable, even if this man is confused as to why. “So aren’t you scared?” I ask, not really concerned with his answer. The sounds around me becomes macabre as a surreal smile spreads across his face and causes an anxiety in me attack that puts me in mind of a nightmarish acid tab I took in my teens. Dazed, I wander into the traffic of panic and feel as if I am physically hit by the fear.
Suddenly the sky begins to vibrate with a low hum, all around me is still save for a few gasps of “Moonshine.” I feel an urgent need to search for the familiar, instinctively heading towards the café I have lunch in every day; this insanity surely cannot exist amongst the rolls, wraps and Mrs Owen with her neatly ironed aprons, but my path is immediately blocked by a woman holding a screaming baby, no older than three months.
Time seems to slow and I’m fixated on this child’s face when a light, brighter than any I have ever seen, turns my vision white.
I feel no heat or pain and it takes some moments for the whiteness to begin to subside. I hear cracks, pops and the odd whimper as the not unpleasant smell of sweet flesh fills my senses.
All around is scorched, death in its many contorted poses. Limbs are bent into unfamiliar shapes and although few are left on their feet, the mother and child are still in my path. Before I am able to grasp the mother’s health my eye is drawn again to this child, his face now blackened and twisted in pain. I hear a high-pitched hiss, reminiscent of a lobster’s shell dropped into boiling water that may be coming from his skull or mouth. The face, that awful distorted face, is the last thing I see, seared into the insides of my eyelids as the horror around me begins to fade.
My nostrils are no longer filled with the aroma of incinerated skin and hair, in fact there is no smell at all, something of a relief if a little disorientating. My forehead is wet with long hair is pasted across it. It’s only when I go to remove it I realise it’s my own, reminding me of teenage hangovers.
I open my eyes, feeling less like waking from sleep and more as if a thousand blinks have converged to create a hiccup in my consciousness. I’m facing the back cushions of my parent’s old sofa, the black and tan pattern flooding me with nostalgia. I sit up like a crushed, discarded plastic cup released from a fist, all elbows and knees unravelling.
The sun streaming through the double-glazing is what first catches my eye, in particular the red and green pattern of roses at their top. The place is still, oddly so. My immediate thought is they are all at work but where are the dogs? I walk towards the back door, missing their excited faces terribly. The pets we have in childhood are some of the deepest bonds we will ever forge. There is nothing there save for a few smudges on the glass left my wet noses and muddy paws. I open the door in search of air and step out on to the patio where weeds have spilt through the cracks; these signs of life only accentuate the feeling of death. Something to my right catches my eye, my stomach drops like aeroplane turbulence at the bizarre sight of two dog’s skeletons, entwined like a crocodile clip. I cry a bargaining “No” and make myself shudder, hoping to shake myself out of this relentless nightmare. There is no air and no movement, I feel as if I am preserved in oil and fall back towards the doorstep to stare at the sky for a moment.
Death and the past, like weeds, have a way of seeping into the present, of forcing their way into thoughts and fixating our attention on ghosts. I want to be anywhere else but here and look to the sky for anything but heaven, somewhere death does live.
It is then I see something move; a tiny cloud’s painfully slow progress, contrasted by the static tops of houses. Its movements are peculiar though; it is not carried on the wind and has no wisp like fluidity. It seems to know exactly where it wants to go and I soon realise it is heading towards me. I don’t know what its purpose is but I decide I don’t want to wait around and find out, running through the house and into the street. “Is anyone there?” I scream, looking for a twitching curtain, listening for a distant car but there is nothing. This place no longer exists yet here I am, trapped in some snow globe of my past.
A dreadful loneliness overcomes me, the kind that only solitude can inspire. A primal fear impels me to kick and scream at my neighbour’s doors, smashing windows, begging for someone to help me but with no one to hear, I do not make a sound. Fading sobs are the only echoes that follow my screams.
“The cloud.” The words that pass my lips I realise are contained within my own vacuum, “It is the only thing that exists here.” After fearing this amorphous figure I suddenly realise it is all I have and rush to my back garden again, hoping it has not been lost. In fact it has grown, or at least gotten closer. I can make out tiny flashes of red, green and white and a familiar shape that tickles a memory but will not reveal itself to me.
For several minutes I watch it begin to form, tiny jets of steam occasionally spurt in all directions, it is round but not perfectly so and I can make out depressions and shadow as it creeps towards me. It’s a face I think, possibly howling with wide eyes and a malevolent if pained expression. I close my eyes for a moment, trying desperately to remember what it reminds me of. My jaw falls in shock when it comes to me. Slowly opening my eyes I see the burnt, contorted child’s face approaching as a cold gust of wind, though not powerful, almost knocks me off my feet.
The sound of the breeze wakes me from one nightmare and places me inside a new horror, as this dreadful face hovers over me. I fall to my knees, overwhelmed by a sorrow that is profound enough to make me vomit, a clot filled red viscose haemorrhage that drops to the floor rather than spills.
By the time I look up again the cloud has engulfed me, swallowing me up like a tornado. The baby’s scream becomes louder as it envelops all, my vision is black and my ears are filled with white noise as the snow globe settles like death.
© Copyright Dean Stephenson 2014