Image ‘009’© muleleredux. Source: CC License
Authors: Ricardo Paterek Ferreira & Loïc von Wartburg
I held on to the railing of the balcony. Watching the sunrise. Fear and anger’s hot and cold hands were gripping at my heart. As the sun slowly climbed up the mountains, letting its rays flood through the gaps, the forest around me started to burn in a blaze of light. I looked down from the balcony. There was a five-meter drop. I could end this all so quickly, just drop headfirst. I grabbed the holster underneath my jacket. Or I could just take the quickest way out. It wouldn’t be so hard, would it? All those movies and video games showed that it’s just a pull of a trigger away, but what would it be like in reality? To throw away all you had left. To give up and accept defeat. I pulled out my gun, clutching it as my hands shook from the adrenaline. Click, the safety was turned off. I just needed to arm it and shoot. That’s all. But it felt so much harder than it looked. It wasn’t just a pull of a trigger! There was a safety to turn off, a barrel to load. You also had to aim at the right place! I felt convulsions ripple through my whole being like a troubled body of water. I raised the gun to my head hesitantly. Will I really be able to erase myself from this world? Like you would delete a corrupt program from a computer? I’m just a zero among the millions upon billions of ones in this universe.
I’m not quite sure how everything got so messed up. How everything I knew and loved just disappeared in a blink of an eye. I never thought I’d be able to survive what I have been through. The blood in my temples drummed in my head in perfect rhythm with my heart. It ached. It burned. I was alive. I’m not sure why I put the gun down at that very moment nor why I decided that today wasn’t the day I wanted to die, but I did all of those things. A familiar voice resonated behind me.
“Jon. I know what you were thinking of doing, but trust me, it’s not worth it.” I instantly froze, my back straightened like a soldier about to salute his leader. This voice was full of authority and strength. His voice was grave and wise, nobody could go against that voice – after all, he was the one that saved my friends and I. “I understand what you’ve been through Jonathan, and I know about Samantha.” My throat trapped my breath as I tried to breathe. How could he know?
“She’s probably… dead, Lawrence,” I said with pain. “I can’t know anymore. Ever since the bloody network went out, I can’t contact her anymore. Before we had to end our last call, she told me that They were coming and that They’d get to her one way or another.”
“I heard. You know what else she said?” I shook my head slowly, my mind was too clouded by grief and despair. “She said that she’d fight them off, that she’ll make it, one way or another. She said that –”
“That she’ll wait for me, I know!” I almost shouted, the pain of the memory was too vivid, so much so that the spasms were getting worse. I gripped the railing with all my strength. “And I promised her. Promised her! That I’d go look for her. I’m so scared. I’ve tried so many times to leave you guys, as quietly as possible. But every time I look at the road ahead. I just won’t move. I can’t. Because my instincts are telling me I won’t make it, no matter what I do or how far I get. And that Sam is already dead and that I’ve already failed her…”
His hand gently patted my shoulder. “And that’s why I’m going to make you an offer,” he said gently. I turned, looking into his brown eyes. “We will let you go, we’ll give you all that you need to get there and we’ll help you take the first steps.”
“Really?” I asked like a child that was offered to sleep with his parents after waking up from a nightmare. Lawrence nodded.
“But on one condition.” His expression suddenly shifted into a stern and paternal face.
“What is it?” I asked, slightly anxious.
“The journey in front of you is dangerous as hell. I know it’ll be hard all on your own, and you’ll have less chances of staying alive if you’re alone in the wild. So, we’re coming with you.”
I tried my best to help and reassure him. Of course, I was thinking about what I was saying, the promise I was making. I was ready to lead my friends over to Canada, but I wasn’t sure if Samantha would survive until we arrived… Jon was at the edge of a dangerous abyss. I understood the pain he was going through, who wouldn’t? The world was spiralling into madness and death, and the only person left that he loved was thousands of kilometres away from him, and what’s more, he had recently received a message that seemed like the last that he would get from her. Poor kid.
How would I act if I was in his shoes?
With the world in a crisis, my friends counted on me to help them and lead them through these uncertain times. I was probably taking this role as leader a little too seriously but I didn’t think anyone else was fit for this job. Through all the stress of keeping this group alive, I didn’t think I would have been able to stay strong if anything had happened to Nao…
Maybe if I was in Jon’s place, I would have made the same decisions?
I forced my mind back to the present.
After having made sure Jonathan wouldn’t follow through with his dark intentions, not today at least, I slowly went back to my room.
I walked down the corridor of this empty hotel, deserted during the crisis. But was now our safe haven. Isolated and well hidden, those were the things we needed to keep the Ragers at bay. The red, dusty carpet led me on. Though abandoned, this entire building was well maintained before the Fall and thankfully had not been raided, yet. Just staying here, looking at the beige wallpaper and the glossy doors, nobody would’ve realized the state of our society outside, or the very lack of it. Comfort was another advantage we had in this fortress, one advantage we could not deny. What better way to forget the present than by living like a hermit in a pseudo-paradise?
I believed that if I asked Jon, the only thing that would really reassure him, would be to have Samantha safe between his arms.
I took a quick glance at the staircase leading downstairs, to see our makeshift barricade; we set it up between the ground floor and the first floor to block any intruders trying to come in at night to slit our throats; nothing to report.
I climbed up four steps at a time on the staircase, time wasn’t a luxury I could afford. However, I made an exception to watch my sweetheart sleep as I entered the room.
It was still quite early. Of course she would be sleeping.
I prepared my equipment and clothes and planted a soft kiss on her forehead before leaving the room.
I went up the steps, four by four, time wasn’t a luxury I could afford.
I opened the metallic door leading to the roof.
The wind blew on my face, then the cold started settling into my skin, leading to goose bumps taking over my body.
But I had to stay strong, both mentally and physically. Missing a single day of training was out of the question.
I perched myself just next to the edge before beginning. The view was as beautiful as ever, with a clear sky, the vast forest below like a sea, washing up against the islands that were the mountains of the Alps. From my observation point nothing could escape my gaze. I turned back to start my training.
I hit the punching bag with full force. Right. Left. Right hook. Left uppercut. Dodge. Kick. My legs were pumping, and my arms locked up against my face in the correct defensive posture. Pivoting my body with every punch, giving it my all. Before long the skin on my hands cracked and bled as my fingerless leather gloves stretched and tightened around my knuckles.
Twenty minutes later, the metal door scraped against the roof. It was Nao.
“You woke me up, I couldn’t go back to sleep after,” she said between yawns.
The wind blew her jet-black hair from her adorable visage, still softened by sleep. Her shirt (mine more like, seeing how much it outsized her) flew in the bursts of air, clinging on to her body.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to, you know I couldn’t resist the temptation.” I paused to smile at her.
“It’s alright,” she mumbled. “Why do you keep training like this? You should take better care of yourself, stop taking this ‘role’ so seriously, it’ll only hurt you, don’t you think?”
“I talked to Jonathan this morning,” I said between punches.
“You’re not answering my question.” She crossed her arms, I stopped to look at her.
“He was…planning to kill himself. I put myself in his shoes and realized I wouldn’t be able to live on without you. So, no, I may not take care of myself right now, I’m doing this for a better future.” I heaved for air, anger and adrenaline coursing in my blood. She was surprised at the news but quickly regained her serious composure.
“Just say what’s on your mind, we both know you’re under too much pressure.”
I knew she was right, my sanity was taking a beating. Nobody could ever really stay indifferent to what was happening, and those who tried would end up paying a heavier price, just like Jon.
But how could a shattered mind like mine break even more, I asked myself naively.
We spoke as the sun rose, from the most important things down to the smallest anecdotes. We talked about Jonathan and me, about us.
I kissed him, leaving him to his exercises.
We had talked about our past lives. It was amusing to look back at our banal lives. Not too long ago our routines and projects were slowly separating us, but thanks to the Fall we finally got to spend all the time we wanted together, though not as we first imagined back at New Year’s.
Before the world went mad, we had both studied in different universities. Lawrence was in Switzerland and I in South Korea. We would only see each other during the holidays, only twice a year. It was frustrating and even unbearable, but we never stopped loving each other from the first time we met. Not one day passed without us sending each other a text or making a call despite the distance and all the disadvantages it brought along.
I left my home to study art, I had to leave and make my dreams come true no matter what. Of course, it hurt Law so badly that he even planned to come with me. I forbade him to do so, he needed to finish his studies just as I needed to begin mine.
Despite all that, only one thing had changed, a promise he had made.
I looked back at him as he kicked the punching bag.
Or maybe, two things had changed, the way he looked at me… He was self-assured and almost casual.
I went downstairs to rinse my face in the sink.
I didn’t have any daily task today, there wasn’t much you could do anyway, most of the other guys were probably up already working.
I took my shower.
It was amazing. Even with our collapsed society, production of electricity at an end and the loss of so many luxurious commodities we once had, I could still take a shower. This hotel was probably one of the only locations in the world that was truly secure. Matthew and Lawrence had explained it all to me in detail, the hows and the whys of the infrastructure of this building, but I had never really paid attention.
As I thought of all those things, an obvious question suddenly sprouted in my mind: how have I changed since the Fall? Law had physically and mentally hardened; Jonathan had closed in on himself more than ever and the imminent danger of Samantha’s life had put him in a deep and profound torment; and Kenny? He hadn’t changed one bit. Maybe it was normal not to change?
The water became cold, pulling me away from my pensive state.
Breakfast would soon be served and I wasn’t even close to being ready. I would have to dry my hair another moment, it wasn’t a big deal, not as big as surviving. I threw on some clothes lying around in our messy room and headed towards the dining room.
The dining room was spacious, able to hold at least fifty people before the Fall, and dwarfed our group of fourteen. The round table that we used in the middle of the hall wasn’t fully occupied, only a handful had come for breakfast, Law and Jon were often the first to be there, but not today it seemed. Kenny, who had been named head chef by a majority in our group, pushed a long service trolley full of bread. Fruit, jam and butter in small plastic containers and other small treats were also placed on the table to spice up the otherwise, stale bread. I sat down between two empty seats. Kenny took his place to my left.
“Guys, we won’t have enough food to sustain ourselves soon, we’re going to have to find a way to restock, by either hunting or fishing. Something along those lines.” Kenny always had a way of announcing these kinds of things casually, but it didn’t help with the rising panic.
“What do you mean we won’t have enough food soon?” Hugo asked dumbly.
“Not enough to fill up your fat ass.” Kenny also had a way of being blunt and honest. If it hurt others, he didn’t care.
Hugo was about to retort when Law arrived and interrupted them. “Alright Kenny, cool it. How much do we have left?”
“I’m not quite sure, but if we keep eating the way we do, at this rate, we’ll only have enough for around a week, maybe ten days if we ration it strictly.”
“Add hunting and fishing to our daily tasks,” commanded Lawrence coolly.
“Why don’t we just go to town? Raid?” Nicolas’ high-pitched voice cut in. The idea of going out to hunt for animals didn’t please me, I was against animal cruelty. However, Nicolas’ idea, though extremely dangerous, caught on with the rest of the group.
Lawrence sat down, his eyes stared at something in the distance that no one else could see but him, he stroked his stubbled chin, thinking. “I don’t see anything that could be more dangerous than going back to society.”
Kenny, who seemed entirely prepared to put himself in danger, got up and called for a vote. At first, everybody froze into place, until Nicolas joined him and soon enough the majority of the group raised their hands. Even if Jon and some other members had been here, it wouldn’t have changed the result. We were going back Outside.
Law stood up to give orders. “Fine… Fine… You are all absolutely crazy, but it’s your choice and our responsibility, so I’m leading this expedition. I need a volunteer to replace me for the management of our electricity. Matthew, for example.”
Law always preferred to do everything himself.
“You can’t leave the hotel, Lawrence, without mentioning the maintenance you do every day. Who is going to plan and research our next move? We’re not going to be able to stay here the rest of our lives… And don’t forget, you and Alex were planning to set up and test the solar panels on the roof,” I said matter-of-factly. Whether he was a mortal man or a god in his own world, I would always have the last word. So I volunteered to lead the raid while he would stay at home. He tried to dissuade me but the only thing he could order me to do was to have Matthew come along.
The clock showed 9 AM. It was time to go out. Me and my friends against the world, what a great life, I thought. This apocalypse (whatever kind of apocalypse this was) was a miracle, a kid’s dream. That’s what this all was, right? A dream. None of us, not even Alex, could’ve imagined that our reality could be changed so rapidly. With shitty family responsibilities and life-threateningly boring schoolwork out of the way, I could focus on the most important thing about this life: fun. Fun with friends. Fun with the world. Fun with Life, with a big capital ‘L’. With electricity now a rare and even precious commodity, video games were out of the picture. Forever? A squeaky and panicky voice cut into my train of thoughts. But that didn’t matter, my friends and I still played board games – when we weren’t planning for our survival that is.
However, the moment Kenny mentioned the imminent danger of running out of supplies, a hurtling sense of urgency and reality smacked me right in the face like a TGV heading straight for Paris. We’re running out of food. What could be any worse than that, other than dying? I mean, we still had around a week’s supply of food and another three weeks (theoretically) of surviving on nothing but our own fat. So why worry? A sly but very persuasive voice said. We can still have fun while we survive…
I shook my head in frustration. Too much noise. Charles and Daniel were carrying on a debate that had comically started before society collapsed. They were arguing over whether Charles would be able to shoot a fat duck with a precision rifle better than Daniel shooting a small duck with a shotgun. This was of course only one of the many subjects they usually fought about, but they still stuck together. This love-hate friendship had lasted since the beginnings of this group and, for me, it would last all the way until death separated them.
Lawrence sat at the northern end, with Nao at his right. The left seat was empty. Where’s Jon? It was especially strange of him not to be there. Though he had often been silent these past days, he would always be here to eat. Something was not right. I looked closely at Law’s face. It was drawn in a contemplative stare, like a father watching his children. This was a very natural thing coming from him, but something hid beneath the surface. My inexperience in terms of reading facial expressions cut me short in my observations but I knew – felt would be a better way of putting it – that he looked graver. More animal-like. As if he was a wolf prepared to protect his cubs no matter the cost. He glanced at his watch and got up.
Silence. Everyone looked at him. Watching. Waiting. I felt my heart being crushed between my lungs and my ribs, but there was also a sense of security. The word for this feeling was at the tip of my tongue, dancing as I reached for it. Power. This is what power is, fear, obedience, strength, my thoughts said. Just say the word and the world will bend to your will. Law’s voice crushed the stillness of the room.
“All right. Guys, it’s four past nine, we’re running a little late on schedule. Tidy up the table. Get your gear and be ready in fifteen minutes. I want to see the scavenging team ready at nine twenty, no later,” he said. His voice had been an octave lower than how he usually talked. If this was meant to take on an authoritative tone, it worked only partially. Some took it seriously like Nao, Liam, Thomas, Hugo, and Jon had he been here. The others smiled, trying to stifle a laugh or a giggle, but Law’s eyes burned with a reproaching fury which immediately ended the childish reactions. Everyone got up. Fun’s over, time for work.
We finished our breakfast quickly and tidied up the table.
I headed upstairs to the second floor and turned left. Room 318. I had to inform Jonathan of our plan for today. But, before I opened the door, I heard a strange metallic slide and clicking, it sounded like a printer. Sssk-sssk-sssk…
I pushed forward against the door slowly, my attempt at being discreet failing quickly as the door creaked. A dark, almost monotone voice growled from beyond.
“Ever heard of knocking?” Jonathan said. He was sitting cross-legged at the end of the short suite’s hallway, his back towards me and a gun pointed from above his shoulder to the door. I laughed nervously.
“Careful where you point that thing, Jon…” I said uneasily. “We’re going out today, we need you.” A sort of grumpy sigh escaped him, it seemed like his strange way of laughing these days. He’s probably the weakest member in this group, mentally, I thought. He’s deteriorated so drastically, I wonder what got him into this state…
This hollow shell who used to be one of my good friends took a deep breath. “Outside, huh? Scavenge? Food supply low, right? We have only a week left if I’m not mistaken…” He got up, grabbed a backpack just around the corner of the room, and took out a trench coat from the closet. I looked at him wide-eyed. He stared at me curiously, and in that moment I knew I wasn’t looking at Jonathan anymore. I was looking at the Terminator… or an Assassin from my video games… or one of those crazy killers from the movies. Something cold and calculating. Empty of feeling. That illusion was gone as soon as he smiled. “I watched you guys talk.” All I could do was nod and reply with a quiet ‘oh’. He turned me around like you would with a lost child. “Time to go bud, we’re burning daylight here.” He laughed at that last comment and I just laughed along, trying to decipher this strange comedy that only Jon could understand.
I headed to my room to pack up my gear.
9:30AM. Our scavenging team was locked and loaded. We said goodbye to Lawrence, Alex and the other brains that were working on keeping our temporary home ship-shape. We climbed up the barricade of scrap metal that we built on the day following our arrival. It had been almost a month since we had arrived here. I was accustomed to the protective woods that concealed us from the Ragers. Now we were heading Outside. Sure, it was dangerous, but it was fun, right?
Nao was leading us today. I liked her better than Law as a leader. He looked each day more and more like Jon, whereas Nao was like a mother to us all.
Our scavenging team was composed of nine people. We were spread out in a hexagon, with three people (me included) set up in a triangle within that hexagon. Apparently, Thomas had learnt this formation when he was in the army for three months. He implemented it as a way to keep all eyes and ears ready for an ambush or event coming from any side and to keep any important teammates protected.
Nao was in front of me on my right, she was part of the inner triangle. “Alright guys. We have around an hour’s walk to the nearest town. We won’t be taking any cars, it would attract far too much attention. Keep your eyes open, don’t hesitate to say anything that you think may be strange or suspicious.” She looked at everyone, Jon especially, to make sure everyone was listening. “Don’t split up in a group with less than four people. I think that’s all for now…” Everyone nodded and mumbled in agreement.
Steve (as always) made a quirky remark. “Well men, you heard the lady. If you see a Playboy magazine give it to Nao for inspection. She’ll make sure it’s worthwhile to fap to.” This was (as always) accompanied by sniggers.
“Isn’t Playboy one of those old rabbit magazines our grandpas used to get off to?” asked Thomas.
“Wow! Glad you know at least the logo of that damned thing. Keep it in mind, that commodity is as precious as food, if not, more! As I say, real boobs are temporary, pictures of them are timeless,” Dimitry said. Everyone cracked up once more, except for Nao.
“Great quote. You want that written on your tombstone?” Steve parried, and even Nao laughed this time.
We were approaching the intersection with another road, we headed south-east, down the winding road to civilization.
We walked in silence for the next hour, an unsettling anxiety slowly clouding our group. Outside, I thought. Such a mysterious and beautiful word. A poisoned gift. We passed a few more intersections, the forest was slowly receding behind us, telling us that there was no turning back now. You’re on your own now, it said, come back if you can… I shuddered at the thought.
Nao held up a clenched fist in the air. “Stop. We’re almost there.” Not everyone stopped at first, especially the guys in front of Nao. I laughed a little, thinking how disorganized we were. Jonathan, who was next to me, gave that reproachful look that felt exactly like Law’s from earlier on. “Okay. Before we go in, I want you all to be careful.” Again she looked especially at Jonathan. “Stay discreet, don’t take any risks, I want to come back with all of you alive.” Something was obviously wrong with Jon. But what? I didn’t know.
We followed the road, passing the first few chalets. Most of them were abandoned, windows were broken, doors were unhinged. However, some had their curtains pulled over, or eyes were peeping out but not daring to step out. These were the Fearful. They had known something was wrong, they had made preparations, and when the world came to a tumbling halt, they stayed inside, living off what they had left in their storage rooms. Of course, most of them had already killed themselves, or had been killed.
They were no danger to us. We entered some of the chalets, checking only the kitchens at the beginning. In here, fear reigned, it fed on us, it knew our weaknesses. Its odourless smell overflowing from every crack and corner in each house. We first stuck together, getting used again to the constant anxiety. After passing a few intersections and getting close to the first town’s centre, we decided to split up. One group heading west and the other (my group) heading east. Before we split up, we said our goodbyes. It felt almost final. Like we would never see each other again. I shivered, trying to push the thought away.
The Eastern group was composed of Steve, Thomas, Hugo and Dimitry. I felt safe with them, since they were the first guys I had got to know when I joined this group. They were hardened (like me) by this new atmosphere, this isolation, survival, a gruff voice echoed in my mind.
We spent the rest of the morning searching the buildings. From time to time we ran into a scuffle with another survivor. The loners usually ran as soon as they saw that they were outnumbered. I felt empowered during those moments. Free. I owned the world with my friends. We were able to get some canned food. They all varied in shapes, sizes and dates of consumption. Dimitry told us to take it all even if it was past it’s eat by date. As long as the can was intact and still sealed, it would be good to eat no matter what. Just looking at them put me off. Dimitry was a genius, literally. He had once gone to take an IQ test and came back saying that he was apparently a high potential. That didn’t really surprise anyone in the group. We were geeks, nerds, whatever the others called us. We were an intellectual group. Sure we were “irresponsible” teens, we had our binge-drinking parties, we messed around from time to time, but we were smart enough to survive whatever the hell we were living through at the moment.
At around 1PM we met with the other group again, in front of a fountain that served as a village centre. We took refuge from spying eyes and paranoid trigger fingers, in an abandoned chalet.
We went up to the first floor where there was a small dining room. There a heavy and old oak table stood in the middle, unharmed by the events from outside. Small chairs (six in total) surrounded the circular table. The walls were either hidden by a bookshelf or paintings. A grandfather clock stood tall and strong in one corner, its pendulum ticking away. It was a room that retained its calm and tradition of the past. Heavy nostalgia suddenly struck my heart, as if my past actually had weight to it, and it felt like the world hung on a single string attached to my heart. I was afraid it would snap. Thomas and Hugo broke that illusion and went to the basement to grab wooden planks to board up the dining room. We took all the necessary precautions to avoid getting attacked. Five people were put on guard duty. One made sure nobody came up the stairs, and the four others were spread out throughout the rest of the house to clear the rooms (in case there were any Fearful, which wasn’t the case) and to keep a watch outside. The rest of us ate our meagre lunch.
We laid all the supplies that we had found that morning on the dining room table. The Western group had found a pharmacy that still had some supplies. They took vitamins, cough syrups, bandages and a whole range of pharmaceutical goods.
“This is good, very good. Well done everyone,” commented Nao as she furrowed her brows and looked intently at the table, figuring out the next steps we had to take. “We’ll leave at two. Mix up our teams for the afternoon. We’ll meet up at First Village before sundown.” She paused and checked her watch before continuing. “That should be at around six, so everyone be there at the latest at five thirty. Other than that, congratulations again for finding this much stuff, we’re getting good at this,” she ended, smiling as she sat down on the nearest chair. First Village was the (very original) name we gave to the village that we first pass when we leave the hotel, it was a sort of reassuring name, one that held a promise or a curse. You’re leaving, you might die, it said in the morning. You have survived another day, welcome back, it said when you came back in the evening, just like the forests surrounding our base.
I sat down next to her. I checked my watch. It was 1:38PM. This calm atmosphere helped me relax as everyone drifted off to talk about everything and anything (as they always did). I suddenly noticed that Jon was standing all alone (as he usually was) in the corner opposite the grandfather clock. He leaned against the wall, staring, almost hypnotized at the old antiquity as it ticked on. I looked at Nao and realized that she was looking at him too.
Before I could stop myself I blurted out the question that had been eating me up since we had left the hotel that morning, “What’s wrong with Jon?” Nao looked at me sadly and sighed.
“Not now…,” she whispered. I looked at Jon, concerned. I looked back towards Nao. “Don’t worry, we have him under control,” she reassured me calmly. I nodded slowly. But that comment gave me all the info I needed on Jon’s intentions. Everything was so clear at that very moment. Jon cleaning his gun that morning. His frequent absence of feeling or emotion. He was broken. Depressed. My eyes widened in horror as I realized what he could do to himself.
“Hey guys,” I called out weakly at first to the group, only Jon took notice and watched me now, with that hard, focused look that bore into me like a drill.
“Everyone. Nicolas has something to say,” Jonathan said in an empty voice that was loud enough to get everyone’s attention. I nodded at him in thanks.
“I’m not sure everyone saw it this morning, but there was a sort of mini-mall down the mountain. It’s probably half a day’s walk from the hotel but it must be stuffed with supplies. Everybody’s too busy freaking out at the moment to think about raiding the stores. They’re still waiting on the ‘authorities’ that will come back.” I scoff at that, “Yeah right. But we know they aren’t coming any time soon, we could –”
“Suicide, Nicolas. That’s what you’re talking about bro,” says Hugo. “You seriously don’t think we’re gonna walk all the way down there just to raid that place? It’s far too costly. We’re already taking a lot of risks making our search round here. Plus, we don’t even know if that place is empty. We’re supposed to survive, man. We already went through this. We’re not going there, okay?” Everyone agreed, even Nao, saying that she didn’t want to lose me. I nodded obediently, but my mind was now in overdrive. I’m gonna show them, I thought. I’ll go there, no matter what, and I’ll bring back mountains of supplies. Everyone will praise me, I’ll be a hero among them. A Hero. I might even become a leader. I let my imagination run free, wondering about what I’d do with such power.
We set off, this time in different groups and different directions. Nao and Jonathan were in the group alongside Dimitry and Hugo. With my newfound knowledge about Jon, I feared him so much more than I ever did in the past. For someone who was internally broken, he seemed at the top of his game, physically speaking. He was the perfect model of a survivor. Strong. Aware, stable (at least, that’s what it looked like if you didn’t know him).
I sometimes envied the others. Seeing as I was the youngest one in the group, I was considered the ‘fragile’ and the most ‘vulnerable’ out of all of us. But other times I was happy I wasn’t as broken as some people were.
As we walked down an old country road, we heard leaves rustle in the harsh north wind. Jonathan suddenly stopped and held his hand up in a fist. Everyone stopped, even Nao, who was about to object when he hushed her.
“No talk,” he whispered. “We’re not alone, get into a defensive circle.”
Nao had a conflicted expression at first, but quickly gave up the argument and ordered everyone into place. We crouched into a circle, facing outwards. Jon pulled out his pistol and loosened the strap that held his titanium baseball bat. I pulled out two long kitchen knives. Everyone else had their bat or knife ready, except Hugo who had brass knuckles. He was a novice boxer, but he already had the technique and everything to get a knock-out on the first punch (if he was lucky enough to land a punch that was).
Suddenly a tall figure in a trench coat dropped from a tree on to the road. He was all clad in black. A low hat and a bandana covered his face. He stared at us before speaking.
“You have entered our territory. You have no business here. Leave, or die.” Four other figures in trench coats dropped from trees, surrounding us.
“Leave, or die,” they chanted, closing the distance, making the circle tighter. “Leave, or die.” Those three words rang in my head, I was shuddering in horror. I held on to the knives tighter.
Suddenly, Jon leaped on the leader once he was close enough, and all hell broke loose.
I could only remember snatches of the fight. Sometimes it felt like it lasted hours, when in reality it must have lasted two minutes maximum.
I charged at one of the trench coats, pointing my two knives in front of me, as my friends threw punches and swatted the intruders with their bats. The trench coat I was running towards pulled out something from under his coat. By the black metallic gleam I realized what it was. I almost stopped, primal paralysis almost stopping me to offer my body to death. I quickly rolled to the side and jumped at the man in black. A soft schlick followed as I planted one knife where his neck was, while the other scraped against his gun. The hooded trench coat froze, and a gurgling sound accompanied him as he fell down dead. A rush of adrenaline filled me as I turned around to see my friends fighting.
Two men were down on the ground, still. Another was being taken down by Hugo who was helping Nao with her opponent. As for the last trench coat, I looked around and saw him running away. That’s when I saw Jon’s violent side. He took a few paces in the direction the deserter was running, his gun cradled in both hands professionally. He stopped, aimed the gun and squeezed the trigger. An explosion rang and the trench coat was down, but Jon didn’t stop at that. He walked furiously towards the man draped in black. I realized that my group was following him. The whole team was whooping and encouraging Jon. I followed suit, not saying anything.
Once Jon was next to the trench coat, he pushed the body aside so he could see their head. And that’s when he froze in place. His gun was pointed straight at her head. He was looking right at a blonde girl. She must have been no older than Nao. Her crisp blue eyes contrasted with her pink lips. I looked at Jon’s hand, waiting for the tell-tale sign that he was going to shoot, but nothing happened. He was shaking uncontrollably.
“Please,” the girl managed to wheeze, “I don’t want to die…” She was slowly slipping away, her hand placed on her upper thigh where Jon had shot her.
Jon aimed the gun at the sky and pulled two shots off with a cry of pain. He dropped the gun and collapsed on the floor, curling up into a ball, crying. The blonde looked at us in fear, then stared at Jon as he sobbed and seemed to choke on one word repeatedly.
“Sorry… sorry… s-s-sorry…” he whispered. I looked at him, horrified. A sense of wanting to comfort him surged within me. But my thoughts were interrupted by Nao who swiftly picked up Jon’s gun and pointed it at the girl, who let out a blood-cuddling scream before she was interrupted by two more gunshots.
Jon got to his knees, holding the corpse’s hand tightly. His single word repetition developed into one simple phrase that he repeated: “I’m sorry Samantha… I’m sorry…”
Nao pulled him up and slapped away the madness from him. “That bitch wasn’t Samantha! She was trying to kill you for fuck’s sake! Get your shit together…,” she yelled at Jonathan brutally.
“Nao, we have to go. Those shots could be heard in a radius of around ten kilometres. I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys had a base nearby,” interrupted Dimitry, aiming a submachine gun towards the empty fields. I realized it was the gun the Trench Coat tried to pull out when I stabbed him.
Everyone came to their senses. We had managed to survive this scuffle, but a full fight… we were too small a group. So we ran. We ran for so long. It was made even harder by the fact that I was carrying a backpack full of cans. I coughed, spit out phlegm every so often, and heaved under the weight of death hanging above us.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in a chalet in First Village, waiting for sundown to come. Jon was lying down on a bed, curled up into a ball, sobbing, while Nao sat down next to him. I helped Dimitry and Hugo keep watch. It was tedious, but I was glad we had made it back to First Village.
Once it was 5:30 PM, we left the house and made our way to the centre of town where the Eastern group was waiting for us. Nao mentioned the ambush only briefly. She didn’t give any details about the girl or Jon’s crisis.
We walked the next hour in relative peace and calm.
When we arrived back to Home Base, we left our supplies to Kenny and took some downtime to forget (temporarily) the events of that day.
While the others vacated to boardgames and chit-chat, I secretly prepared my backpack. I had kept some cans of food hidden in my knapsack, in preparation for my little expedition. I then put my pack in the closet (just in case).
That evening, we ate in a relatively quiet atmosphere. Hugo and Dimitry went on about their heroics of the day while the others listened and made snarky remarks. Jon was at the table, but he felt so distant, eating away at the pea soup that Kenny had prepared. Law was just glad that he had Nao in his arms again, but sooner or later his role as a leader would come back to him and he would be shouting orders at us before we knew it.
Suddenly, a fact ran through my mind that hadn’t seemed important to me until now. I had killed someone. I had killed one of the trench coats by stabbing him in the neck. Did that make me worse than Jon? He ended up not shooting her, while I didn’t hesitate… Monster, a voice called out in my head. I closed my eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. I’m not a monster. I got up, heading upstairs when Lawrence stopped me.
“Where are you heading Nicolas?” He asked in his usual stern tone.
“My room. I’m not feeling well.” I laughed nervously, trying to hide the secret mission I had assigned myself. “I’m gonna sleep now. Need some energy for tomorrow.” I laughed again as he nodded and said goodnight, everyone else mumbled a goodnight.
I went upstairs. Grabbed my backpack and left it in front of the door, I was about to put on my coat when I heard a knock on the door. My heart thumped deep inside me like a drum. I walked slowly to the door. I called out, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Law, just want a word with you.”
I opened the door. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Nao told me that you wanted us to consider going to search the mall.” I was about to agree when he stopped me, “It’s not happening. We’ve told you enough times, so drop it, okay? Don’t take any stupid risks. That’s all.” He ruffled my hair a little and smiled. “Good night buddy.”
I sighed as I closed the door. Safe. I was safe. I looked at the bag to my right. Doubt crept in my mind for a second before my determination stopped me. You’re doing this for your friends, you’re helping them, a voice reassured me.
I grabbed my coat and pack, sneaking out to the wild night where the woods would protect me.
As I reached the edge of the forest, I looked behind me as the woods faded. Goodbye, they said. Goodbye for now, goodbye forever maybe, come back if you can. Come back when you have survived the Outside…
I sat down with my bowl of soup at the table as the others were already in the middle of their poker match. Everyone looked up at me with a smile and a thank you.
It felt good to cook for these guys. Even if they didn’t often show it, just their smiles and the fact they had warm food and a bed to sleep in showed that they appreciated my efforts. I teased the guys as they played. Law sat next to me with Nao by his side. Watching. I think everyone knew by now that something was on his mind, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to tell us at the opportune moment.
As soon as I was finished, I walked downstairs to the kitchen to drop off my bowl near the sink. I turned around to find Law waiting at the entrance of the kitchen.
“Hey Law. Still hungry?” I asked with a laugh, he shook his head with a sad smile.
“I need to ask you a favour.” He sighed and looked down.
“Uh… sure. Everything okay man?” I walked towards him with my arms crossed. He scoffed at my question.
“Okay? Nothing’s okay anymore…”
“I need you to watch over Nicolas,” said Lawrence. It sounded more like a desperate plea than an order.
“You afraid he’s going to do something stupid?” I laughed again, but I stopped myself when I realized he was being serious.
“I think he’s planning to go to that bloody mall by himself.” I nodded slowly listening to his explanations. I patted his back and we walked back to the dining room.
“No problem Law. I’ll watch his room, make sure he doesn’t leave. Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna turn out okay. This is just a little setback in life.” My good friend and leader of this group smiled. I left him to rest at the lobby while I went upstairs to guard Nicolas’ door.
I grabbed a chair and sat in front. I felt like one of those lazy guards in the movies or video games. The one that always got easily fooled. I laughed quietly to myself. I’ve got this in the bag. My boredom was quickly reaching its limits, I had never been assigned a job as tedious as this. Before leaving my post, I propped the chair against Nicolas’ door handle, just in case.
I quickly ran up to my room in the corner of the 4th floor, grabbed a book and sprinted back down towards my temporary post. The chair was still where I placed it. I sighed in relief, grabbed the chair and set it next to the wall.
I opened the book, unfolding the corner of the page that I had marked. It was a hefty book that I had borrowed from Jon. He had acted really strangely when we had had to leave our hometown to come here. He had spent almost a day picking books that he wanted to take with him. His personal “library” was very impressive, full of pop culture references and classics. New and old books. Some were very adult for a kid his age, but apparently he understood those books well and had done some thorough research on them. This one was a real account of a white journalist in the 50’s who decided to do a social experiment by artificially darkening his skin and living life as an ordinary black man in the Deep South of the States, the way society was described back then for such a ‘civilized’ country was disgusting. The Fall had erased the hypocritical side of society seeing as ethics were nearly non-existent now. I plunged once again into this dysfunctional society and account of a bitter-sweet era.
I don’t know when the uproar from downstairs began but it must have been at least two hours after I took up my post in front of Nicolas’ room. From a period of silence began a sort of rumbling of voices from downstairs. I got up, surprised, listening out for gunshots or tell-tale sounds of melee combat. Nothing. Just shouts. I was two floors up from the dining room so I couldn’t make out what was being said, but I understood that our group was angry. About what, I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to know. Why was I the one that always missed out?
I had to force myself to stay put, otherwise I would have run down to see what all the commotion was about. I tried to carry on reading my book but the words on the pages just started to lose all sense as isolated shouts and cries of anger rose from below. I couldn’t leave my post. I had given my word to Lawrence. And I would stick to it. No matter what.
Seconds passed, minutes passed. They seemed to stretch and bend. Slowing down or speeding up this unmoving corridor. The shouting had stopped. Only the static whisper of my mind remained. I shivered. Even the heating seemed to have stopped as time froze. Nothing could break this still picture.
That’s when the memories started flooding in.
Ana, the Fall, the Ragers. Everything was getting clearer and clearer as my past broke through this sick reality. I dropped the book, my hands trembling as my vision went blurry. Tears blinded me. The gunshots. Our self-imposed exile. This is what a traumatized person must feel like… I got up and punched the wall behind me.
“I’ll always be with you. No matter what…” Her voice echoed in my head. Her screams. Her despair. Why did she have to die? Why did they kill her and not me!?
I picked up Jon’s book to try and clear my mind. Adrenaline still ran through my veins as my body shook in sad anger. The descriptions of the night sky in this memoir depressed me or filled me with hope for this confused man, wondering how on earth we came to be such awful creatures, but it was better than thinking of my past.
This isolating nightmare soon ended when Law came looking for me.
“Everything okay here? He didn’t try anything?” He asked a little distantly. He had obviously got into a heavy discussion with the others. Something important. Very important…
“Nope. He’s been as quiet as a hibernating bear… Or whatever else is quiet during sleep.” I laughed a little, but humour at that moment didn’t seem like the best option. “What was all that shouting downstairs?” At that question, Lawrence looked down as if embarrassed.
“Kenny… Come down, get Nicolas too. We have a serious decision to make.” My eyes widen. Sure, we made serious decisions every day, but there was something in Law’s eyes that said that this new decision was probably the biggest one we’d ever had to take. Life or death…
I got up from my chair and knocked on Nicolas’ door. I waited a few seconds. Nothing. I gave a quick glance at Law. He seemed even tenser now. I knocked again. Harder and louder. He was surely deep in sleep now. I waited for a full minute this time. Nothing.
“Move aside,” ordered Lawrence. I did as he said. “Nicolas! Open the door now or I’m kicking it down. I’m not kidding!” he yelled, banging on the door desperately. He waited a couple minutes more, knocking from time to time, his fist banging louder and louder against the thin wood. I think it was at that moment that I saw tears well up in his eyes. He growled in anger and started kicking at the door. I joined in. Oh shit, I’ve fucked up, I’ve fucked up bad. my head was echoing with self-reproach. I pulled off the Lazy Guard…
After a few minutes of kicking, we managed to make a hole in the door, Law crawled in and I followed suit.
The next words he said woke us to the terrible reality we were precipitated into. “He’s gone. Nicolas is gone…” The only clue as to where Nicolas had gone was the open window at the end of the room, curtains swaying. Waving like an accomplice to Nicolas’ mistake. You’re too late…
The children laughed, chasing after each other, as the sun beat down on all of us. They all held souvenirs of their school year, all excited, all happy. Some cried at the departure of friends, some shouted with words of hope.
“We’ll see each other soon!” they would say. I leaned against one of the buildings, shaded against the burning eyes of the Sun. I sighed tiredly. Another sleepless night… I either can’t stay up because I’ve worked too much or I can’t get enough sleep because I need to work…
I pulled out my phone to check the time. 15:12. What was she doing? She should be coming here by now, like we’ve always told her to. I grunted in frustration. As I was about to put away my phone, it vibrated. A text. From Jenny.
Hey babe, mind if I stop by your place? Need some advice with a drawing. And I’m kind of lonely… I’ve missed you!
I smiled, sent a quick text back and before I knew it, my little sister finally left her friends for the summer holidays and came straight to me like a docile dog. I gave her a quick hug and started on my way back home She followed suit. Even if our home was a two-minute walk from school, it felt so much longer because of my sister’s monologue. I nodded at the right moments, half-listening to her. The heat piled atop my tiredness, my satchel feeling heavier every minute. Kids ran past us as my sister followed me, still going on about what her teacher talked about (something about aquatic animals or the like, I couldn’t care less).
We arrived in front of the building and I unlocked the door, letting her pass through. I waited a few seconds, looking out towards the road.
A few moments later, Jenny came around the corner. She was wearing her casual jeans and a burgundy top, her hair cascading over her shoulder, in that way I had always loved. I greeted her with a smile, and a sweet calm fell between us. She hugged me tight as I did the same.
“It’s so good to see you…” she whispered.
“Likewise, baby… Likewise…” With that, we went up to my family’s apartment with my impatient sister waiting at the door. As soon as she saw Jenny, she became shy and mumbled a hello.
We all went in, my sister unpacking her bag and grabbing her snack; Jenny and I went to my room and we kissed each other longingly.
Moments later, our passion slowly dissipating, we cuddled, our bodies entwined as one. It felt like it was just her and I left in this mad world, and I wanted it to stay like that. Her hand slowly reached for mine, and I wrapped my fingers between hers softly.
“I love you,” she sighed. I felt her slowly falling asleep. I got up quietly.
“You said you needed some help with a drawing,” I said, until I realized she hadn’t come with any of her things, and then I saw that look in her eyes. Those sultry amber eyes. I grinned, shy at first, until our primal needs got the better of us…
The faint clicking of the locks signalled the arrival of my mother. Jenny and I were under the covers, she was snoozing, clutching at my side. I slowly pulled away, put on my shirt, my torn jeans and left my room, closing the door behind.
“Hola mi pequeño!” My mother looked up and greeted me in Spanish. I kissed her cheek. She was a lively and plump woman, always in a good mood, well, most of the time. She was a nurse over in the hospital at Nyon, a slightly bigger town next to the one we lived in. She was a Colombian who had been in medical school before meeting my Swiss father. My dad would have left his office by now, he was coming back from Lausanne, around forty-five minutes from here by train.
He worked as a manager of a call centre. He had originally wanted to become an engineer and had entered the EPFL, but he ended up giving up on his dreams for actual money and independence. He never openly displayed regret for his choice, but it seemed as if there was a tone of self-loathing every time he spoke, which, to put it simply, was a rare occasion. With his long hours and reserved personality, he spoke only when it mattered, my mother filling in the occasional awkward silence with small talk.
When it came to my future, my parents had very high expectations. And so the day I gave up looking for an apprenticeship and explained to them my dream of becoming an artist or a mangaka, they weren’t quite happy with my choice, to say the least.
As my mother droned on about her day and her banalities, Jenny came around the corner, saw my mother and said a polite hello.
And then it happened.
That split-second of silence.
The glint of disgust in my mother’s eyes. Then, she put on a jovial and warm face, but it was all wrong. Nothing real was behind that grotesque mask.
“Jenny! How kind of you to pop by! How is your family?” mum asked. I noticed Jenny looking at me, searching for support, looking for reassurance. We had both known for a while that my parents didn’t approve of her. Their boxed-in thinking was destructive not only to themselves but to everyone else in the family.
The next thirty minutes were plagued by dark clouds in the summer heat, preparing to unleash a blitzkrieg on me and Jenny. My mother and I made small talk for the first ten minutes until everyone sank into a suffocating silence. She took refuge in the kitchen while Jenny and I retreated in my bedroom.
“Your mum is fucking crazy. I don’t understand why she hates me this much…” Jenny was close to tears; my heart was breaking with hers.
It hardened my resolve into making a decision I had been considering since I turned eighteen, a little over a year ago.
I pulled my sweetheart close to me, embracing her in my arms as she broke down into tears of confusion and sadness. This has to end…
The deep whistling of my father only served to increase the dread within me and my girlfriend. I just wanted to get away from all this.
I went over to greet my father with as much nonchalance as I could muster, but it all broke away when my father stared at me with tired, angry eyes. I was about to play the innocent and ask what was wrong when he coldly told me to bring out that whore I called my girlfriend.
My hands clenched into fists and my teeth started grinding instinctively. This is the last straw. “Don’t you dare call her- “
“Just bring her here,” my mother cut in. “We want a chat with you two.”
My heart started racing with anxiety and rage as I went to my bedroom and quickly whispered to Jenny that we’d fallen into some shit with my parents. I offered her my hand as she shakily got up and grasped it.
We entered the kitchen where my parents were sitting around the table, facing us and studying us with looks of disgust and sourness. My father silently offered us to take a seat. For a full minute we sat there speechless as my parents eyed me and Jenny.
“Charles, would you mind telling us how old you are?” my father asked, breaking the silence in a way that hurt my ears and made my soul tremble.
“And what are you doing with your life? Do you have a job? Are you studying?” Of course, I had seen this question coming…
“I’m an artist.” I knew he had asked a trick question but I had no other choice but to play along for now.
He nodded slowly, a spark of amusement glittered in his eyes. “An artist, huh?” he scoffed. “I meant a real job.”
“It is a job, Dad, people get paid to draw comics.”
“Oh, so you’re getting paid.” My mother feigned surprise. I felt hot blood rushing to my head. I needed to stay cool, do my best to protect and reassure Jenny.
“Not exactly, but –”
“That’s exactly the problem we have with you Charles, you aren’t doing anything with your life, and we’ve had enough.”
“Furthermore,” my father joined in, “your mother and I have been concerned about your relationship with your… friend…” He gave a hardened glance at Jenny. I felt her hand desperately hold tighter onto mine, her knuckles must have turned white by then with all the strength she was using just to find an alternative to crying.
“What is your problem with her?” I snapped, my teeth grinding. “She never did you any wrong! You’re treating us like shit, what kind of parents –”
My dad slammed both palms on the table and rose to tower over everyone. “I am the man of this house! I won’t tolerate your insolence and laziness! Get a job, get this bitch out of our family –” Jenny was sobbing at this point “– or get the fuck out!” I realized that his veins in his neck were popping out and that he was clutching the edge of the dining table but most importantly: his breathing was close to wheezes as he scratched his chest with his free hand. Perfect…
I silently stood up and lead Jenny to my room where she helped me pack my things. I came back to the kitchen.
“This is what you want, you brought this on yourselves. Go to hell the both of you,” I declared with all the dignity I could muster.
“You ungrateful bastard!” my father barked. Suddenly, my dad’s eyes seemed to bulge out and he stopped breathing altogether. The hand that had been desperately scratching his chest as if he was trying to claw his heart out stopped and almost looked like he had found what he was looking for in his sternum. The other hand, clenched in a fist, began to slam against the table in anger and anxiety. He collapsed on the floor while my mum screamed at me, stuck between the two men she loved.
“Look what you did to him! Help him at least…” she cried. No, this had gone on for too long, they didn’t need me, I didn’t need them.
I ran out of the apartment without a word, took Jenny’s hand and left the building with my love as my father died of a heart attack.
I yelped in pain after the brief but intense shock that I received from the faulty cable, almost tilting over and falling from my ladder.
“You alright Tom?” asked one of my colleagues who was busy setting up the switch for the circuit I was also working on.
“Could you at least tell me when you turn the damned switch on?” I growled at Jacques. “You know I’m working on the same circuit as you!”
Jacques sighed and shook his head with a tired chuckle. He was my supervisor for my apprenticeship. Even if he was only three years older than me, he was more experienced than me. But with moments like these, I didn’t doubt he must have used his easy upbringing to get a job with the help of some bribes. Or he was simply a sadistic dickhead who enjoyed torturing the newbies like me.
He rubbed his stubble that invaded his cheeks and chin. “You need mama to kiss your little fingers?”
“Shut up.” I threw one of my screwdrivers at him, he burst out in laughter. I focused once more on sorting out the cables and patching up the gaping holes in the plastic of the cables.
I screamed once again in pain as the cables let out some sparks. The ladder tipped and I fell two meters down from the top and landed on my back.
My memories of the next instants are fuzzy. I remember hearing Jacques’ laughter and his comments on “work safety”. I also vaguely remember my calm demeanour snapping. Even through the pain and confusion I managed to overpower him and beat him up in rage. The next thing I knew I was pulled away by other colleagues who had heard the commotion. I was taken outside by one of the senior managers and he gave me the regular “What’s gotten into you?”. For some reason, the rage wouldn’t die down and I insulted my boss, quit, and went home.
I took a swig from the bottle of beer I ordered at the Qwerty, a bar for “geeks” my friends and I frequented. They all looked at me with pity and understanding.
“Hey man, don’t worry. At least he didn’t say that he was gonna press any charges against you. We’ve got your back though, just like we’ve helped out with Charles,” said Lawrence. Charles wasn’t here though he had taken some time to get his life straightened out and had found a temporary job at a pet store.
I gave an appreciative nod to Law. “Thanks, but I’ll find a job soon, my CFC is in the bag anyway, school’s almost over.” I raise my hands and hailed, “Hallelujah!” Everybody chuckled.
As the laughter died down, Alex came towards our seats, raising a newspaper above his head as he drew near and slammed it down in the middle of our table, almost spilling our beers. We yelled at his clumsiness but quickly calmed down as he spoke up. “Speaking of things going wrong, have you guys read all the news about the rise in road rage?” He laughed a little nervously. “People are going batshit crazy around the world…” Jonathan giggled. He was a heavy drinker when he wanted to be, he had already downed some seven bottles, and although he laughed and talked a little more than usual, he was just as lucid.
“Haven’t people been batshit crazy since the beginning?” I asked.
“Oh come on guys, you don’t think the governments are preparing some crazy coup against us?” Alex was leaning over, his eyes ablaze with curiosity, as if he was about to reveal to us the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Some in the group let out a sigh of pity for Alex while most just chuckled in unison.
“What? You think Big Brother’s using chem trails?” Lawrence asked after wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.
Alex smiled smugly, “Pfff, ‘chem trails’… Everybody knows that’s just a stupid myth from all those conspiracy nuts.”
Everyone around the table paused to look at him, amused by his answer.
“So… What are you then?” I asked.
“I am a realistic conspiracy researcher…”
But as regular teens we laughed it off and moved on with one of our shared hobbies, “Who’s up for some gaming downstairs?” I asked.
1, 2, 3, 4! My fingers started to fly across the fret board by their own volition. The vibrations were infectious the bass and beat thrumming in my heart as I rocked out on my Ash Diamond, the custom guitar I had received after passing my last year of college. It came right on time for our very first local tour. Our group, Dinner at Five with the Devil, was a heavy metal band. Our ambition was to bring rock back to its former glory. We blended some popular sounds from the 90’s and early 2000’s and added our modern twists.
Almost every weekend the band and I got together to work our asses off, sharing discoveries and ideas. I was the youngest one in the band, at eighteen years old, the oldest being twenty-six, but age was only a number to us and music was an eternal passion.
Contrary to what people think about guitar strings, the easiest ones to fret aren’t always the easiest to master, especially on an electric guitar that captures literally every string you touch, even the softest caress if you tweak with the sound settings enough.
As we smashed the scene in front of our concertgoers, the crowd pogoing as our lead singer, Chad, encouraged them with his metal screeches, his voice borrowing the same styles as Mudvayne and Dagoba.
The night was pumped full of adrenaline, powerful vibrations and a bunch of energy drinks. It was a blast.
My grey guitar, glittering with direct light on it, rested on my display case in my bedroom.
I went over to the kitchen. In the corner was a special area that was closed off from the rest of my mother’s flat. This was the dwelling of the great furry demon that had inhabited this corner for months! Gab the Rabbit. I petted him and filled up his water bottle and his bowl of food as quietly as possible. My mother was asleep but my sister was at my father’s.
I sighed, got up and collapsed on my bed. The adrenaline dissipating, leaving place to euphoria and exhaustion.
“Doggo! Stop running away from me like that!” said Samantha over the phone. I laughed along at the comical scene.
“Always the adventurous one, isn’t he?”
“Tell me about it… Always chasing birds off in the distance. Even if he knows they’ll get away from him before he arrives,” she giggled. Her voice was pure honey to my ears, her small accent was adorable. I loved everything about her, because that’s what that was, it had always been that between the two of us. Love, love, love…
God only knew how much I wanted to take her into my arms, cuddle her, nuzzle my face against her neck because that’s where she was the most vulnerable to tickles and then playfully wrestle to the ground as her German shepherd, Rogue, would join in. I let my mind roam as images of our future life floated around my head. I sighed, sitting on a bench.
“I wish I was there babe.” One of us had to say it, and it seemed it was my turn.
There was a pause from her, a sigh. “Me too hon. But hey, just a year and we’ll be together!” I could just picture that beautiful smile behind that sentence. I was just as excited as her for that destined day. Ever since the beginning of my second year at college, I had been saving up money to go see Samantha over in Canada. I tutored high schoolers, found some boring office jobs that paid well during the summer holidays, and now with the successful end of my second year and the summer holidays, that left me two months of sweet paradise with the girl of my dreams.
I was happy, and for me, that was no small thing. With my depression, anxiety and social awkwardness weighing on me and my family at a loss with my “abnormal behaviour”; Samantha, my friends, hobbies and infrequent meetings with my therapist were my only escapes from my internal pain.
I pulled out my acoustic guitar.
“Oh… I hear a zipper opening… is it the guitar, or your pants?” She loved teasing me, because she knew I was relatively shy about the subject, but as I got more intimate with her during the months we had talked, I played along and teased her back, realizing that she never expected me to retaliate.
“Take a guess. Wanna make a video call to find out?” I knew she was traumatized by face-to-face calls. It wasn’t because she was hiding anything, she was just as socially awkward (or maybe even more so) as I.
“I don’t have any make up on, you’ll be –”
“– traumatized, I know, I’ll add that to the tally for the same excuse you’ve been using since we’ve met,” I chuckled. “But Sam, you’ve got to admit it, I’m lucky to have met the sexiest girl in the world.”
“Oh, I bet she hasn’t noticed you though.” She cracked up in laughter, and so did I. “I’m sorry, I had to do it. No, but, seriously, you think I’m sexy…?”
“Of course, love… You drive me nuts with everything about you,” I replied dreamily.
“Awww…” She sighed sadly. Oh no… I thought, here it comes… “I have to go baby,” she finally whispered. I nodded, my shoulders slumped.
“Okay. You know I love you? And Rogue too,” I laughed gently.
“Yeah, you better, otherwise Rogue will hunt you down,” she giggled. We said our goodbyes, I played her a song on my guitar as she walked back home and we ended our call.
I packed up my guitar and started heading home. My anxiety was already picking up, my heartbeat and breathing going up a few gears, picking up speed as I approached my house. Having a panic attack in front of my family wouldn’t be a very good idea…
I pulled out my “emergency” anti-depressant. It was supposed to be taken in case I felt like I was about to have a crisis, which honestly, happened every time I came home.
The worst was yet to come though.
As I compulsively checked the letter box, knowing I had already opened it in the beginning of the afternoon, I stopped in front of the main entrance to the apartment building. I took in a deep breath, sighed and imagined Samantha next to me for support.
Everything I do, I do it for you…
I entered the building and climbed up to the apartment. But as soon as I stepped inside, my lungs seemed to tighten in a vice.
Once inside the apartment, I greeted my parents and my younger sister, Alison. It was nearly dinner time. I cleaned my hands, out of habit, and helped prepare the table with plates, glasses and cutlery.
“You haven’t prepared the table yet?” my father exclaimed incredulously. Technically, he was my stepfather, but I considered him as my dad.
I froze in place, my hand holding a plate in mid-air. Fuck.
“How many times have we already told you to prepare the table for dinner before we arrive?” I felt my muscles contract. I became a prisoner of my body, trapped by my unhealthy reactions to stress.
I struggled to answer. If I don’t answer, I’m fucked, I thought. If I answer wrong, I’m in for a long night. Basically, I’m totally fucked.
“Well? Answer me!” His voice was rising with irritation, his short temperament and his authoritarian rule on this family made it practically impossible for me to live mentally healthy.
“I, uh… A-a few t-t-times,” I managed to stutter out. I started to feel my right hand strain against the weight of something. I saw the plate in my hand and realized I hadn’t set it on the table yet. I put the plate down.
“–and you’re not even listening to me!” His shouting pulled me out of my tunnelled thoughts. I felt as if my mind was drowning and that the only thing pulling me out and pushing me back down were my parents.
Give me some space to breathe! I want to listen but I can’t! was what I wanted to say, but it just came out as heavy breathing and quiet grunts.
“Yeah, we get it, stay silent because you don’t give two shits about the efforts we do for you,” said my dad. I looked to my mother for support but she stared at me indifferently from behind the kitchen counter. “You know what?” my father added, looking at my mother, “this is all because we let him stay in contact with that ‘girl’–,” he said, making air quotes with his hands, “–he met over the internet.” My mother nodded in agreement. I stood frozen in place. I had never known how to handle these kinds of situations. I kept my head down.
To my relief, my mother called my sister to come to the table. It was dinner time. I could eat some of my stress away. We mostly ate in silence; my sister made a few attempts to talk and start a conversation, but my parents were too busy figuring out what to say to me next. I ate my stew slowly at first, but my mum’s cooking was too good to resist and I finished it first.
I stood up to clear my plate and cutlery.
“Sit down Jonathan.” My heart stopped at my mother’s voice. I sat back down obediently. I had no other choice.
“You’re grounded,” she declared.
I didn’t know what to say, but apparently my surprise showed.
“Don’t give me that stupid look, you’ve brought this on yourself, now man up and take responsibility for it,” my mother said coldly.
“We’ll also block contact between you and Samuel,” my father added. He always called my girlfriend “Samuel” simply because he thought she was a catfish. To add to the madness that inhabited my parents, I had done a video call with Samantha with my parents present to prove to them she was real. They had reluctantly let me stay in contact with her at first. At that moment, sitting around the table, sweating from fear, it seemed that they wanted to get back at me for my cleverness in the past.
I felt my eyes widen in dread. I swallowed my anger. Remember your promise, I thought to myself.
They started rambling on about my faults, my short-term memory lapses, my clumsiness, my personality as a whole. Me, basically. They hated me for who I was. I took it all. Let it wash over me. The promise was losing its value as my true internal feelings were taking over. Dark fantasise of death and sin started flooding my mind. My vision was blurring. All the blood was rushing to the centre of my being. Effects of adrenaline. I tried blinking my way through my internal fog. Nothing. Nothing changed.
This isn’t real, I tried reassuring myself. I am nothing, I will wake up, just a nightmare, but the dizziness and nausea was still hitting hard, my parents were continuing the onslaught on the fragile fortress that were my heart and mind.
“You’re destroying our family!”
“Throwing away your life for stupid dreams!”
“Fallen in love with a forty-year-old man passing as a girl!”
I snapped in rage.
At first, it was just a slight trembling. In that moment, I thought I could control myself. I was on the verge of fainting. I let the anger take over.
No. You’re not a slave, not a prisoner. Fight for freedom.
I stood up suddenly and silently.
My dad stood up to force me back down.
“You want this war, you’ll get it,” I whispered to myself clearly and without a single tremor of weakness in my voice. My father heard it, his anger changed to surprise.
“What did you–”
I lashed out.
I grabbed my plate on the table and smashed it on my father. Pieces flew in the air. I then grabbed him by the shoulders and kneed him in the crotch furiously.
Guttural roars filled my throat, most of it didn’t make sense at the beginning but just before my father began to choke me to unconsciousness, one phrase had raced in my mind and mouth: “You have no right.”
I woke up on a hospital bed, my mother crying behind the door, my right arm strapped and covered in bandages. Only one thought crossed in my head, promise broken.
My promise, made as a concerned and precocious child, was to never raise a hand against my parents and to never say I hate them.
I had never hated them so much as then…
“A huge congratulations to everyone here. All of you passed, in a brilliant or mediocre way, nobody cares! We’re all one step closer to adulthood and the freedoms and obligations that the government will be willing to give us.” Lawrence raised his bottle of beer and looked towards me. “As for you Nic, well, you’ll just have to wait a little longer than us.” Law gave me a cheeky wink and gave a “cheers!” before downing his beer. Everyone did the same.
I drank my beer, the bubbly fire warming me in this cool summer evening next to Lake Geneva.
The sky above us was a beautiful gradient ranging from a dark purple over to the south among the Alps over to a mature sunflower yellow to the North behind us where the sun was setting under the Jura mountain range. We were at the bottom of the steep hill that was commonly known by the inhabitants of Gland as “The Beach”. Three weeping willows hung over the lake. We all sat on benches that were placed on the sand only seven metres from the warm water that caressed the beach.
I closed my eyes for a moment, the heat from earlier this day had drained most of my energy. A soft melody of plucked strings floated to my ears; that was Jonathan. Sounds of moist lips parting followed; that was either Law with Naomi, Kenny and his girl or Charles and Jenny.
I opened my eyes, took a deep breath and walked towards the lake, grabbing a flat, round pebble. I skimmed some stones to pass the time, otherwise I would’ve fallen asleep. That would instantly become a highlight of the night and a “Proof I’m a lightweight.”
As I prepared to skim another stone, a rock flew across the water at least thirty metres away, before disappearing under. Behind me was Hugo. He had a stupid grin on his face, “Gotcha bitch!” He laughed, so did I.
“You fucking try-hard…” I sighed. He gave a soft jab at my arm, still chuckling. “If you’re gonna punch me, do it properly, you bloody pussy.” I collapsed in laughter as he started wrestling me to the ground.
“Ha! Gaaaaay!” cried out Matthew playfully, referencing the Community scene. It took Hugo and I aback, and the rest of the group cracked up from the stupidity of that movie scene and maybe even the absurdity of life. We, as a community of “shit-posters”, were well known for our cynicism. So, another moment of fun wouldn’t have changed our view on life.
We spent our evening like we always did, beer, jokes and fun.
On our way back home, Dimitry, Steve, Hugo, Daniel and I took one of the three main streets that linked the south of Gland to the north. The town was cut down the middle by the train tracks linking Geneva to Lausanne.
A heavy atmosphere weighed on us, meaning a thunderstorm was just around the corner. Our slightly drunken group made its way through the streets, joking around and making a little noise. I tripped over a little, catching myself on a streetlamp, followed by laughter from the others. I took the time to straighten myself up. In the distance I could see Jon rushing back home, he had to be home before midnight apparently. Coming in his opposite direction was a small group of dickheads that lived in Gland. They were the Swiss equivalent to chavs. Jon was obviously not paying enough attention to them as he walked on the bridge passing over the train tracks.
He bumped into one of them by accident.
They instantly started to shove him around.
I looked to the others who were already rushing to the beginning of this unfortunate brawl.
Thankfully, Jon was lucid enough to remember we were on the same street and he retreated, dodging the adversaries’ attacks. They were too many though and it seemed that Jon’s attempt for diplomacy fell on intentionally deaf ears.
We arrived in time just as Jonathan threw a devastating right hook to a chubby guy. It was such a hard blow that we all heard some bones crunch. The chubby dude in his tracksuit was on the ground, nose bleeding. The chav’s friends stopped for a moment and seemed to re-evaluate their situation. Jonathan growled in pain as he threw himself against the others and our slightly drunken group turned into a rage-filled riot.
Heads were slammed against steel barriers, crotches were caved in by explosive knees and blood and bones were put to the test.
We were lucky to be a slightly bigger group, and given the advantage of three extra pairs of hands.
But the damage taken was substantial enough to have us really concerned about the human condition.
This was truly getting out of hand.
Was it just me or did we all think that the world was slowly going crazy? As if a switch had gone off in most people’s minds and that our inhibitions were non-existent, as though we had the right to throw a punch when someone ticked us off.
What were we becoming?
Leaving the group after our debacle and heading home, I had figured out the answer.