Sparks and stars. Pink flares and fireworks. Is this a dream? Lights moved between the stars, and then violent pink fireworks roared demonically overhead for what felt like hours. They sounded like the screams of big animals, behemoths – like elephants. And when he opened his eyes there was just the comforting crackle of burning wood, the hiss of wet wood on flame, and the warm blanket of smoke. His head ached, and his body burned, but he felt if he moved he might awaken himself into a more acute awareness, and he wanted to sink deeper into the soft passing away of existence. No, rather slumber than having to face the world and all its pain (including his own). So he courted sleep, and he was not far from it. He drifted on that periphery of consciousness, like a child skipping on the edge of a cliff.
There was no day or night, just oblivion, and inexplicable lights. Pain came in waves, the sleep drug grew stronger, deadening each successive wave.
Perhaps they were helicopters, or satellites, or missiles at various times of the day.
…perhaps they were drawings or some television program…
…perhaps it was something from a radio…
…or words of the passenger next to him…
…is that you, God…calling me…
…but I don’t believe in you…any more…
But the sky was alive with lights, and the curtains of smoke only made the illusions more mystifying. When at last his eyelids opened and dark pieces of chocolaty Earth fell from his lashes, onto his nose, he thought he was looking at an eclipse. Had God turned the day to night? His fingers twitched in the mud. Instead of an elaborate eclipse, it was thick smoke still pushing itself hard against the sun. It was also sweeping over him, urging him to cough and stinging his eyes. It was this squeeze on his lungs that drove him from the comfort of a sleep that would have undoubtedly become a permanent state if he had been able to remain there.
He knew himself to be incredibly weak. It took a great deal of strength to merely turn his body, to lift a hand to shield his mouth. His body screamed as blood that had not circulated for hours, now drove sharp pins and needles into incisions and scalded flesh. Around him was the ash of burnt bark. He climbed over fire hardened mud, emerging slowly out of his shallow grave. Hugh’s hands broke the soft ash that had once been powerful and muscular tree trunks.
From the top of the grave he saw the smoking landscape sweeping around him. Yellow flowers of flame were dancing with delight on a dry branch that had somehow been spared by the first firestorm. Lightning cracked, he hobbled in a pathetic attempt at a reaction. He realized that pregnant black cloud columns still remained, hovering behind the long gone typhoon like governors meant to maintain the status quo.
He coughed, and felt his ribs stab with pain. Blood began to ooze from the side of his head once more, and from a coin sized hole under his ribcage.
His throat felt dry. His nose was filled with snot.
He stumbled with the smoke; sometimes singeing the soles of his feet on a glowing coal. After two hours of moving slowly with the curtains he found the curtains opening to a yellow sea. It had a petroleum glow about it. The gray drapes allowed sick veils of golden sun to filter through. The beach smelled of rotten fish. Their silver bodies lay everywhere. The white beach sand was all black; covered now by what seemed like thick layers of waterlogged sawdust, wood pellets, bark and small branches. Here and there a solitary tree. Here and there a dead body. Sometimes an arm. Sometimes a chair. Here and there dead birds, a goat, a car tire.
He walked along the beach for a long time before he realized what he was doing. He just wanted to find another survivor. He noticed a few birds, seagulls, feasting on the dead fish. He saw an octopus scavenging in the shallow water; it bulged, swapped colors and skulked away when it sensed him.
He did not see any other person.
Silky blonde hair on one side of his head had turned into a burnt crust of hardened blood. It was banging painfully against his head while he walked, so he held a hand to hold it in place.
He realized the shirt had been torn and burnt off his back, that he’d lost his shoes and his watch. In his pocket he still had his iPod and a credit card, but that was all.
He stood for a long time in one place, and finally, registering the seagulls again, knelt unsteadily and fingered the water at his ankles for a fish. The waves heaved the silver bodies about. He glanced at the fish in his hand. It showed no signs of physical injury. He made small grimace, bit into its side, and was surprised at how rough it was, and filled with bones. He ate two small fingers of flesh, then picked up another fish. This one was rotten. He tossed it aside, and gasped. He was suffering an emotional attack, and shock. He struggled to breathe. Pinched his eyes shut. Opened them, rubbed them, opened them again, pinched them shut again.
Could this be real?
More than four hours later, he was standing exhausted from the walk, in Puerto Princesa, or what was left of it. He’d walked by the airport, one of the few buildings left standing, except that it had been destroyed by a terrible fire. A Boeing had been thrown across the runway and speared its wing into the building before exploding.
The rest of the town had been leveled, with barely an erect wall in sight. He thought he was near Mendoza Park (except place names didn’t seem to matter any more). He encountered a few small children here. These followed him for a while, until they saw the gaping wound under his ribs and realized he was far worse off than they were.
He spent some time scratching between building debris, and finally found what he was looking for. He pulled out a scissors, and sliced off the painful wad of black gluey hair. He tried to cut the rest as well, but lifting his arm hurt too much. He was about to toss the scissors away, then thought better of it and stuffed the scissor into his back pocket.
He found some shoes in the debris, and a pile of Nike shirts. The shoes were too big, but he couldn’t find anything else worth wearing. Then a shirt. He didn’t care about colors, he pulled the first one he could find out from under some bricks and metal poles.
‘Just do it’, it said in unusually small and modest letters on the back.
“Do what?” he murmured to himself. He was about to step away when his eye could the strap of a daypack. He pulled it, but it was broken. He searched for another one, but it was even more damaged.
He found a shattered ATM and fished into the broken metal canister under the faceplate. He stuffed some money into a plastic bag lying nearby. Dead bodies everywhere. Some of these people had survived, they must have, but there had been no one to rescue them. Why had the government not sent a team to rescue them? Did they have better things to do?
It was warm even as it rained. He opened his mouth and licked his lips and chin. He found tins and broken fruit from demolished roadside stalls. He opened a can of coke, and put two more in his bag. A few steps further he found bottles of water, picked one up and threw out the one coke can. For some reason he stayed close to the road. It felt as though it might take him somewhere, anywhere, as long as he could move beyond all this.
Under his eyes it was wet and cool. He pawed his cheeks a little while he walked. He didn’t understand. His fingertips were wet, and not with blood, with water. Through his fatigue he imagined that it was raining again, except for once it wasn’t. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. Not tears of sadness, tears of strain, but in his mind, he was walking in salty rain.