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Towers and Nails, Parchment and Ink
The flames rolled in two days after the paper was signed by men who looked down on us from glass balconies. These were the cowardly men who looked down on the poor and the weak as ants ready to be burned alive. I didn't hear the sounds of the jets until the orange that filled my vision dulled to a low blood red glow. My parents peeked through the shutters of our house, and saw the smoke rise with the souls of those whose lives were ended in an instant too soon; the limbs landed among the rubble and refugees. I remember on that day the radio blared with angry congressman spitting out long versions of four letter words, waving wooden toy hammers and pens as if they themselves were on the battlefields they would soon condemn my father and mother to. The draft came soon after, with men in ragged green uniforms knocking on doors, alerting families personally that they would be sent away from home to die for the "greater good". My mother called them the puppeteer's playthings, and I couldn't help but notice that when they came to our door they seemed more robotic than human, each word spoken as if an old recording were dusted off once more. They didn't even look my father in the eye when they sentenced him to die.
My parents packed my bags before they packed theirs. They examined every article and every memory I would bring with me as I prepared for my migration. My father used to tell me stories about his experience as a child during the third war, how he could only watch from a bombed tower the lives of those who cared not for the dead beneath their very feet clinging to each vital breath. He told me many tales of children swallowed up whole by the dead cities, dust and darkness covering the faces of those who should have been brought into the light, and how to a child the ashes of war always blot out the light of hope. I brought two pictures of us on a beach far away from conflict, two Swiss army knives -- one from my mother and one from my father -- and whatever was left from two week's worth of food rationing. I don't remember if I cried or if they did, if this was a ritual they practiced while I was asleep or if letting go of the ones you love comes naturally as you get older. Regardless, when they closed the door behind me I heard the creaking of the old wood beneath my parent's feet, a long sigh and then silence.
I walked up the road leading from my parent's house to the center of the city. Everywhere I looked I could see rats getting ready for another feast, for another day of war's spoils. And everywhere I looked, I saw the reaper, examining the dead, getting their measurements, scrawling their stories down on the ancient papyrus my father used to tell me it carried.
Soon after I crossed the street I came across a family hung from a nearby tree. Their heads each had messages nailed between the eyes. It was a family of three, hung in order of height; the littlest one's feet were barely an inch off the ground. Their heads were all sunken in, bloody and above all else, lifeless. The mother's head was stomped so hard it had almost completely caved in on the right side of her skull.
I read the message on the child first: it complained about how this child had it coming from day one because he always got into trouble, how he was always disrespectful and rude, and how he disrespected the elders and officers. They sentenced him to death for acting out their darkest thoughts of rebellion, and so he became a martyr, dying so their darkest secrets could continue festering.
The messages nailed to the parent's heads were the same in criticism: they refused to join the military and die a heroes death. My parents and I would probably met the same fate had we not accepted death a long time ago at our own paces. For father it was the war, for mother it was the sickness, and for me it was the loss of a brother I would never meet or touch.
I watched their bodies sway for a while, they looked as if they were about to fall at any moment. The ropes tied around their necks seemed to be only moments away from uncoiling and dropping them to a floor that must have seemed an eternity too far away when living. Leaving the area, all I could think about was my preference for how I wanted my own life to end. I never gave it much thought beforehand, but I assumed I'd simply find death along the way -- hopefully not at the end of a rope or snuffed out by a bomb. I want my death to have a universal meaning.
A little ways after leaving the tree with its new wind chimes, I realized there was a building nearby with a good vantage point of the city. It was the tower made of cobblestone and dead workers. My father used to scare me and say my grandparents were buried somewhere in the structure. One of the ten bricks saved by this burial, all family heirlooms, was stowed away in my bag and wrapped in stale plastic I could have torn in half with ease. I used this brick to smash the only window not boarded or seemingly stolen by vandals, cutting my hand slightly in the process.
I was halfway through bandaging the wound when I heard him rustling above me.
I knew he heard me, the onetime there was no explosion was of course the onetime I decided to smash a damn window. The only thing that mattered was if he was scared or if he was waiting for me to make the first move. I finished bandaging my hand and grabbed the brick, making sure not to disturb the glass strewn around the area I was sitting. I knew I couldn't risk making a sound as to alert him, for all he could know I was just a brick thrown by a stupid kid, so I still had the element of surprise. I spied a stair case nearby and inched my way towards it, stopping every other second, waiting for the aching wood beneath my feet to stop groaning and creaking.
I was halfway up the stairs when he jumped on me.
He landed feet first on my shoulders, hitting with such force that to my brain it seemed like two clips were poorly spliced together, first stair case, then sudden black. My head hit the floor, and my nose barely made it out without being broken. I was almost down for the count, I was spitting up blood for some reason, and trying to turn led to a sharp pain in my ribs, which I concluded were broken and damn near useless at this point. The man who had jumped on me accidentally hit his head on the brick I was holding -- I don't know how he managed that -- and was barely staggering back and forth by the time I managed to sit on the stair case. He pulled a nearby chair out from under a table and smashed it against the floor until he had a crude club formed from one of the legs. I could only watch as he dragged that piece of wood towards me menacingly, the humanity in his eyes all but evaporated with the sweat running down his face.
I begged him to stop, I told him I was sorry, that I'd leave. Damn I would have promised him that the war would end tomorrow if it meant him not coming any closer with that chair leg. But much to my heads dismay, he brought that thing down with such force that I didn't even feel it hit me, I just blacked out mid swing.
In the darkness I had a dream. The reaper was there. It was measuring the hung family, writing down their life stories, it looked at me and said,
"Such a shame about your parents, explosions do have a good chance and blowing people to bits. You'll see me again soon enough though, I always try to get families back together"
I woke with a start and banged my head hard against something too close to my face for comfort. It was too dark to see and when I tried to move I soon found I was bound by the clothes I was previously wearing. I didn't feel any different however -- aside from the pain in my ribs -- so I did my best to calm the first horrible thoughts that entered my head. Slowly, I felt around my prison. It didn't take long before I realized I was in a coffin, and it didn't take long for my claustrophobia to kick in either. I started kicking, banging my head against the wood, elbowing side to side, yelling for help, I knew if I was still breathing there must be air holes somewhere in this casket, so I made as much noise as possible.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard a splintering crack, and light flooded in from the window I had previously shattered. I shut my eyes as the second crack smashed open the casket, leaving me exposed and defenseless. Nervous trembling gripped my whole body, and no amount of reassurance that I was going to be all right, that the reaper wasn't going to take my damn measurements could have helped.
Silence followed for what seemed like an eternity, I knew my attacker was looking at me. I felt a sudden movement and suddenly a giant hand was around my throat, choking the air out of my lungs. My eyes bulged open and I came face to face with my captor.
He was poorly shaven and middle aged, and the whiteness in his hair reminded me for a split second of December's second snow. His hands were scratched up, his nails were long and dirty, he was wearing an unbuttoned shirt that was burnt around the edges. He looked at me with an expression that could have melted a human being, and indeed I felt myself sweating profusely after a minute of hiding from his ruthless gaze.
Out of nowhere, his other hand whipped around and smacked me right across the nose. He hadn't even aimed for my cheek. Pain shot through my head as blood gushed, it felt as if every part of my body wanted out of the obvious torture that would come next. I waited for the pain to subside before I looked at him again, this time holding his fierce gaze, breaking away only when I saw a glint near a window. There was a rusty pistol with three bullets close by, maybe twenty steps away. I had to escape, I had to get out of here, I couldn't let him finish what he was about to start. I looked him once more in the eyes and then with all the strength I could muster, I rammed a splinter of wood into his eye.
The first thought that entered my mind was how warm the blood was. The splinter cut through his eye with the ease of impaling moist clay with a finger. He let go of me soon after that and started yelling. I almost felt sorry for him -- almost. The man hunched over clasping his leaking eye, and started sobbing from what I guessed was the most excruciating pain he had ever experienced.
Before I knew it, I was crawling as fast as I could towards the pistol, towards my only hope of getting out alive. I was abruptly jerked backwards however and I felt a tug on my legs, and the man's shadow loomed overhead as menacingly as a tiger about to strike. I lowered my head in defeat, I was too far away from the pistol to have a chance of making it out alive.
His shadow started to move again, his hand started moving between my legs, I didn't have to look to know where his eyes were. I had never felt so helpless in my entire life, even when my mother caught the Friday burial sickness I still clung on to every shred of hope I could. Today, hope was blotted out by a shadow -- or so I thought. For what must have seemed as perverse luck for the poor corpses, a nearby explosion sent a hail of limbs and shrapnel through the walls on one side and out the other. The explosion was so close my teeth rattled in my mouth, and all sound was seemingly sucked out of my ears. For an eternity I thought I had died, and only after the ringing in my ears came back did I realize my situation was all but unchanged.
I had lost track of my attacker, I could only hope some of the shrapnel found its way into his head. Looking over my shoulder I saw the man in fetus position, whimpering and sniveling under the body of half a person with a nail hammered through its head. The pistol was still sitting on the table. I peered over my shoulder once more at the man and then crawled as fast as I could, my knees now scraped and bleeding, towards my one chance at survival.
The pistol felt cold in my hands, it felt and stank of death. Without hesitating, I aimed the pistol and --
I don't know if the gun was empty or jammed, but I felt so defeated after that hollow sound I almost laughed at my own bad luck. I knew the bullets were on the table, but it's owner heard my failed attempt at killing him, and started inching his way towards me once more. My hand scrambled on its own for a bullet, for a cold piece of iron so that I could fire it into his skull. I wanted to see him bleed again, I had to put him down. Jammed or not I was getting a bullet into this f***ing gun and through his head.
I looked at his face again, and the eye was now a yellowish purple, and half of it was almost fully detached from the socket, dangling by a few strands of translucent liquid.
I didn't know the first thing about loading a pistol; I pulled at it from every side and angle and every which way possible, but the damn hunk of metal wouldn't cooperate with me. It was loyal to its master for life.
He came closer with every step, and with every step I grew more frantic. I had already cheated death twice, for the reaper I knew the third time's charm was waiting to be upheld. I sat there, bound, naked, frightened, with a useless piece of metal in one hand and the means to me living another day the other. There was nothing I could do against the giant coming towards me, with the face of a wounded animal out for revenge.
Then I realized there was something I could do, the only thing left to do. I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth so hard I feared I'd break them, put the gun to my temple, and waited for the lumbering wall of flesh and anger to come closer. I listened to his angry grunts for what seemed like a life time, I knew he wanted to savor the moment before what he hoped to be his kill. The trigger felt warm now, it almost felt welcoming, and I could almost imagine the reaper beside me, measuring tape and booklet in hand.
I pulled the trigger one more time.