In 17 000 words

The emptiness never goes away.

Even after three years I was haunted by visions of my past, sinking in the quicksand that was my present and dreading the uncertainty of my future. I was surrounded by people all the time but I had never felt more alone. They saw me as a heroine but all I saw when I looked in the mirror was the emptiness. How could I see anything else when the very act that labeled me heroic cost me everything and made me wish that I could have done things differently, that I could have saved him instead of the world. I laughed humorlessly at this thought. Who was I kidding? Of course he wouldn’t have let me leave the world to its fate. He would have made me sacrifice him over and over again.

The wind pushed against my short wiry frame and sprayed droplets of water from the lake onto my face, interrupting my thoughts. I turned away, craning my neck to see past the crumbling buildings that once made up the city and watched as people made their way into the dome shaped building located in the center of the city, visible from miles around because of its great height. My heart clenched every time I looked at it, a reminder of what I had lost, but now I had to join everyone else there. I was tempted to stay hidden in the darkness but I flushed out the feelings of foreboding and made my way over to the Complex.

***

“Cat! Thank goodness, I was afraid you weren’t going to show up.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world Carl,” I said forcing a smile as I took my place beside him at the tables near the front.

 “You don’t have to be here tonight. I’ll cover for you like old times and tell them you have a nasty tummy bug and can’t be more than half a meter away from a lavatory,” Carl said nudging me lightly with a slight smile on his face.

“I’m fine really,” I said with a small smile, “When is it starting?”

“Anytime now,” Carl said glancing around.

“People of Orderah,” a voice boomed over the speakers in the large room. I followed the source of the voice to the tall man who was standing on a platform upfront. Everyone went silent and turned to face Laurent Crain, our leader.

“Three years ago, our city was one of seven, fighting for freedom during the Emancipation War. Several lives were lost and six of the cities were completely destroyed while ours remained, damaged but still existent. The few survivors of the war gathered in Orderah to rebuild their lives. We had freedom at last thanks to the guardians of Orderah who fought to defend our city. Guardians, step forward,” Laurent said and I stood and went to the front along with Carl and almost thirty other men and women.

Several voices made quite a raucous applauding us. I stood next to Carl staring at the floor trying to wish away what I knew was coming next in Laurent’s speech. He held up a hand and everyone went silent again. A feeling of dread formed in my stomach and rose to my chest, suffocating me.

“We thought we were free but another danger, a danger posed by one of our own citizens, threatened the lives of what was left of humanity. Obliteration was imminent but a young, brave woman made the ultimate sacrifice that saved us all and to her we are eternally grateful. As we celebrate our third year of liberation may we also celebrate this brave woman, Catherine Thompson,” he said and people all around me erupted into a plethora of celebratory noises.

“Come up front Cat,” Laurent beckoned me to him. I went to him and forced a smile when I reached Laurent. It must have been very convincing because Laurent smiled back and gave me a one-arm embrace. I stiffened from the sudden contact but that didn’t faze him and he pulled back a few seconds later holding up my hand as if I was the last standing victor of a battle. More shouts erupted from the people of Orderah until Laurent held up his hand again and silence immediately fell upon the room.

“Because of Cat’s act of bravery, Orderah still exists. We still exist,” Laurent said then he turned to me, “For your bravery, you deserve to be a leader. Will you take the Matrimonial Oath with me and lead Orderah beside me.” Now this part of the ceremony was new. I think I stopped breathing for a minute and I stared blankly at Laurent. All around us people were cheering loudly, banging on tables, clapping their hands.

“Will you be my wife and lead Orderah beside me?” Laurent asked me. And just like that I snapped out of my trance.

I looked back and caught Carl’s eye. His expression was wild and fearful as he looked at me. I turned back to face Laurent, ready to tell him that he was crazy but the words wouldn’t come out so I turned and ran out into the darkness and I kept going until my legs felt like lead and  weighed me down. I fell to my knees and wrapped my arms around myself as the tears flooded out and the sobs racked my body. I might have cried for an hour or more but soon my body felt worn out and I drifted off into a deep sleep.

That night, the nightmares came back.

I was trudging through a field. The ground was littered with bodies and body parts all smeared in blood, some fresh, some just a pile of rapidly decomposing flesh. I scrunched up my nose to block out the smell and held on tighter to the gun in my hands as I made my way across the field, hiding in the tall grass. I sidled up to the building, peering around. There was no one in site but still I walked quietly into the building and kept my guard up. More bodies lined the floors of the building and I had to steel myself against looking at them as I made my way past them. I had memorized the directions to Adrian’s cell that I had forced out of some guards so I found him easily.

“Adrian!” I said, relief flooding me when I reached him. I shot off the lock on his cell and once it swung open I ran in and wrapped my arms around him and he hugged me back.

“Cat,” he sighed.

“It’s okay. I’m here, it’s over now. I’m going to take you home,” I said.

“I wish you hadn’t come,” he said. I released him and looked at his face in confusion. He looked worn and tired.

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because I don’t want to put you through this,” he said stepping away from me.

“What are you talking about?” I asked feeling more confused and that’s when I noticed the gun in his hand.

“Adrian?” I said starting to feel panicky.

“Declan knew you were coming to save me and he…” he trailed off, looking at me sadly.

“What did he do?” I demanded.

“There’s a bomb, in the Complex,” Adrian said.

“But that’s where everyone is!” I exclaimed, “We have to go warn them,” I said grabbing his hand so I could pull him out but he wouldn’t budge.

“Cat, stop,” he said.

“But Adrian,” I started arguing.

“I know how to stop the explosion,” he said quietly. I looked at him, eyes narrowed.

“You do?” I asked him.

“Declan told me,” he replied. Something about that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand.

“Why would he do that?”

“That doesn’t matter Cat. We have to do it.”

“Okay. How do we stop the bomb then?”

“You have to kill me,” Adrian replied. I stared at him, brow furrowed in confusion, “Declan connected the timer to my heart so as long as I have a pulse the timer to the bomb will keep counting down until time runs out then it will explode. The only way to stop it is by killing me. Once my pulse is gone, the timer will stop and everyone will be safe.” He showed me the small blinking green light reflecting through his chest. I stood there frozen staring at it until Adrian walked up to me and held my hands in his.

“Cat,” he whispered.

“No. There has to be another way to stop the timer,” I said frantically but Adrian just shook his head.

“Declan explicitly said if we tried to sever that connection, he would set the bomb off manually and we don’t have time. If I’m not dead in the next 3 minutes, that bomb will go off and millions of people will die,” he said looking over at the timer on the wall that was counting down minutes in big red numbers.

“3 minutes?” I choked out.

“I wanted to do it myself but he said the deal was that you had to do it or else he sets off the bomb,” Adrian said. The tears started flowing down my face.

“I can’t do it,” I wailed, “I can’t!”

“Yes you can. We can’t let all those people die just so you can save me. I don’t want to put you through this but we don’t have a choice,” Adrian said wiping away my tears with his thumbs. I glanced at the clock. It read one minute now. Adrian handed me the gun that was in his hand and put its barrel on his chest right on his heart. I choked out a whimper and tried to pry my hands away from the gun but he held them tightly in place.

“We don’t have time. You have to do it now,” he said firmly, bravely but I knew it was all an act to give me courage. I shut my eyes as I placed my finger tentatively on the trigger.

“Cat.” I opened my eyes and looked into his.  His bright blue eyes shone brighter with the unshed tears in them.

“10 seconds,” he said and a tear rolled out of his right eye making a streak down his cheek. My own tears flooded down my face soaking my neck.

3 seconds.

“I love you,” he whispered as I pulled the trigger. My heart plummeted as he fell back, blood gushing out of his chest.

“I love you too,” I whispered and I fell to my knees crushed by the grief consuming me.

I woke up with his name on my lips and that’s when I realized where I was. My legs had carried me to Adrian’s grave. I guess it was only natural that my feet led me there since I had been visiting his grave for almost every single waking moment of the three years since I lost him. I pressed down on the lever on the side of his headstone and a hologram of Adrian’s face appeared in front of me.

“Here lies Adrian Walker, a son of Orderah who was born in 2004 and died during the Emancipation war in 2030. A life lost fighting to save what was left of humanity. When you…” I pushed the lever up to turn off the projection. I couldn’t listen to it anymore. When the council decided to add that modification to the graves of the fallen heroes they justified it as a way of recording our history for other generations. They recorded specific messages for each of them which played back when you pulled on the lever. I thought it was a terribly cruel thing even though it gave me the chance to see his face again.

I sat and closed my eyes, trying to recall his blue eyes and his smile. I knew I couldn’t stay here reminiscing forever and I would have to face Laurent soon but even thinking of it made me sick to my stomach. I got up and wove my way through the many graves in the yard. The graveyard was on the outskirts of Orderah, far from the Complex where the council lived and where important occasions such as the Independence celebration were held. The rest of us lived in a place called the Compound that was built after the war to provide shelter. I headed over to my apartment, one of many that made up the Compound, mulling over what I would say to Laurent. He wasn’t one to take no for an answer but I couldn’t do what he was asking of me. The area was devoid of people as everyone was probably still at the Independence celebration. Apparently the parties went on for days, I wouldn’t know. I always locked myself in my room during this time so I could be alone with my grief.

When I got to my door, I noticed that it was open just a crack. I knew that I had locked up when I left earlier so this had to mean someone had gone into my room. I heard the creak of floorboards coming from inside. The intruder was still there! My hand automatically flew to my back pocket where I usually stuff my gun but I came up empty. During the war, every person above the age of sixteen had been trained in basic combat so they could defend themselves and others and the golden rule that we were taught repeatedly was never go anywhere without a gun. The war was over but we all still carried our weapons, just in case. I must have been so distracted by memories of the past that I had forgotten to arm myself earlier. I chastised myself as I looked around for something I could use as a weapon. I spotted a broken clay pot on the floor outside a door a few apartments from mine. Not ideal, but it would have to do.

Armed with the broken pot, I kicked the door open and rushed inside hoping to catch the intruder by surprise only to have the surprise turned onto me when I found Laurent sitting on my bed. He eyed the pot in my hand lazily and quirked an eyebrow at me.

“I didn’t realize you were a collector of damaged artifacts,” he said.

“It was meant to be a weapon against the intruder in my room,” I said pointedly.

“That lump of molded mud? I thought I taught you better than that,” he said, disapproval lacing his every word. I ignored him and set the pot down on the table near my door.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“I came to talk,” he said.

“And that required breaking into my room?” I said folding my arms over my chest.

“I figured since you ran away from me earlier, you wouldn’t willingly come to talk to me if I asked,” Laurent said standing up and walking over to me. He was quite intimidating up close but I feigned bravery and stared up at his face which wore a placid expression. He was only five years older than me but the difference hardly showed from looking at his face.

“Can you blame me for running,” I said.

“Other men would take offense at having their proposal rejected like that. You’re lucky I’m so forgiving,” Laurent said staring me right back in the eye, challenging me to look away from his intense stare but I stood my ground.

“You call that a proposal,” I scoffed.

“Did you want me to kneel and present you with a ring? I’m the leader of the last remaining population of the world. I don’t kneel for anyone,” he said almost angrily.

“You’ve been a leader for all of five minutes Laurent, spare me your insufferable self-righteousness. For a man of 29 years you sure act like a child,” I said irritated. I may have been out of line, talking to my leader like that but I was emotionally taxed and my tolerance was running low.

“We’re not friends Cat, I’m your superior. You can’t talk to me like that,” he said angrily. This at least was true, well partly. We had been friends once when he trained Adrian, Carl and I along with a lot more people during the war until he was elected leader.

“You’re a bully and I do not submit to bullies,” I said, “And don’t call me Cat, only my friends get to call me that.” His jaw tensed and he scowled.

“Careful,” he said in a low voice.

“Or what?” I challenged him. He took a step back but his eyes still burned into mine. He raised his hand and I flinched, shutting my eyes but instead of the sharp sting of a slap that I was expecting all I felt was the light brush of his fingers against my cheek as he pushed a lock of my hair away from my face and tucked it behind my ear. I shivered from his touch.

“There’s a thin line between bravery and foolhardiness. You’ll do well to remember not to cross it,” he said and he walked away leaving me alone in my room.

***

Remember the amazing news I said I would share with you a while back?

This is a small part of a story ‘The Perennial’ that I entered into the Writers of the future contest a couple of months ago. The complete story is approximately 17 000 words and it is my favorite story so far. I really enjoyed writing every single word of it and Alex, Dean and my mum helped me a lot through the whole process. This story was actually the reason I started blogging. Every time I got stuck or tired of writing, I’d blog about it and by the end of my post I would be un-stuck and refreshed. Some examples of the posts I wrote relating to this story are:

Sadly the story didn’t win but I did get an Honorable Mention for it which was totally amazing for me since it was my first entry and really, I had expected a reject.

The inspiration for this story came from the first line; ‘The emptiness never goes away.’ That line had been stuck in my head for a long time and the minute I wrote it down, everything else began to flow easily and my most treasured story was born. I am currently extending and editing the story in the hopes of someday putting the whole thing out into the world, so wish me luck!

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