Shadows-A short story

I wake up in the middle of the day, surprised to notice the darkness all around, the stillness overwhelming except for the settling down of the structure of the building. And then I remember the bright flash of light that turned the day into an inferno of blazing fires, burning burning everything to cinders, the heat oppressive even in the middle of the winters season!
‘I must have lost consciousness!’ I talk to my other self that lurks in my mind, ‘That,’ I tell him, ‘must have been a nuclear explosion, the one that our neighbouring country had been promising would come our way,’ I tell my other self. I step out of the huge building, passing out of it to be hit by the stench of fats cooking, and the heat sure did hit me. What I saw shocked me a great deal, cars burnt to cinders, cars piled up on each other as if deliberately piled upon each other by a particularly angry child.
I looked back planning to retreat to the safety of the building I had just left when all of a sudden the frond facade crashed with a loud crash that shook the very Earth, a boom that seemed to reverberate in the air for ever. Desperately, I look for refuge and then see the entrance of the underground shopping complex about four hundred meters on the left from where I stand. Making my mind I start walking towards the entrance. All this while I see with unseeing eyes, objects and shapes that seem to have been men women, children, but not they were now lumps, amorphous dark objects, one of them raises itself as if requesting for help towards me, but even as it reaches to its normal height, it crashes into dust, a keening sound emerging from the depths of its form. I hurry on towards the entrance of the underground shopping complex not daring to look left or right but straight ahead. But even as I walk on, I sense a number of dark objects stand up and follow me, some hobbling, some crawling, their groans and cries renting the air.
The entrance to the underground shopping complex gapes larger and larger, a huge maw towards which I am inexorably driven by the necessity of escaping from the unbearable heat, winter season turned into summer season, objects radiating heat, a tangible heat that seems to vibrate in the air, driving molecules, atoms into an agitation of anger and heat. And then I step inside, a dark cavernous space, greeted by the silence than engulfs me like a blanket. It is cooler the deeper I enter, nothing moves, I pass the silent counters, shop fronts that are open but unattended. As I move deeper into the space, the darkness presses on thicker and thicker, oppressive, yet comforting because it is cooler than the outside. It is as if I am retreating into a womb, the security of a safe space that will somehow protect me from the conflagration and the turmoil of a burnt world outside. Suddenly I have no strength left and collapse on the ground, exhausted, willing sleep to take me into its comforting arms.
I wake after some time, time has suddenly no meaning for me, and puzzling about where I am, I ask my other self, ‘What has happened, why is it so dark even though it is day?’
‘The nukes hit the city and what you see is the aftermath,’ he answers with a chuckle. It is dark because of the dust cloud of debris rising high into the atmosphere, remember it is going to be very cold once the whole area cools down!’
‘But then how come will it be cold, won’t the sun come out?’ I ask the voice in my head.
‘No, the sun will not penetrate through the dust, and we will have a winter that will last six months or so, that is when the dust settles down. By then every living thing will have died of starvation, those at least that escaped the direct impact of the blast,’ he says with a finality that brokers no argument.
Taking the advice of the voice of my other self, I enter, what I think is a clothes shop, and grab a fleece-lined jacket that fits me, it is still warm, a couple of days after the moment when the world came to a stop. Draping the jacket around my left arm I grope around looking for a shop that has quilts and blankets, and settle for a light blanket that I feel I will be able to carry easily. As soon as I get what I want, I settle down in the shop on the floor and curl myself waiting for the worst.
There are ghosts all around me, I realise when I wake up. They whisper, complain, and shout at me, but I close my ears, sometimes with my hands, and sometimes by humming a popular pop tune. I am surprised when the cold hits me, it is unbearably cold, and I snuggle into the blanket which offers me no warmth. I now wear the fleece jacket over my sweater and body warmer, but it seems ineffective against the cold that pressed on to me. It is a rather surreal experience, waking up in the dark, with no one around.The first sensation that hits me is hunger, paralysing hunger, I have not eaten for two days, and I am going crazy! I step out of the shop and proceed down the corridor, walking down a maze and lose myself. Disoriented and close to breakdown I stumble against a counter where there is still a leftover meal of two uneaten burgers and a sandwich that I dig into without any hesitation. The moment I am into the second steak-burger that tastes rather greasy and cold, the hiccups shake my whole body. I grab wildly for the fridge, and opening the door, grasp wildly for the bottles of aerated drinks that I know will be there. Thankfully, I grab hold of the familiar bottle of what is one of the most favoured drinks, twist the cap and pour the drink into my mouth. I choke as the gas hits me, but carry on drinking till I feel satiated. I polish off the second burger and then finish the sandwich, that I suspect tastes of seafood.
The days pass on and finally on the fifteenth day, I step out of the underground shopping complex into a twilight zone that seems taken straight out of a horror movie. What surprises me most is the caress of the snow-flakes drifting down. Pulling on the hood of my fleece jacket, I venture into the open, out into a silent world, covered in snow, the shapes rounded up by the snow, ethereal and amazing. As I walk on to main road, I am struck by the absolute silence that surrounds me, the stillness and the lack of movement on one of the most busy roads of the city strikes me. I walk on, taking in the strange aspect of a city in its death throes, a ghost city, shrouded in a blanket of snow, a strange landscape where whispers have replaced the loud horns of vehicles moving around, and people crossing the roads. I walk on, glancing at the snow covered street light poles, trees bowed down by the weight of snow, stripped of their leaves, and then I see them, bundles of birds, pigeons, sparrows, and crows lying piled along the roads, dogs and cats curled as if to thwart the gnawing cold. I come across people, men, women and children, some of the children still clutched in the arms of women curled around them to give them warmth, even as their lives leeched away, sucked away by the awful cold that now surrounded the city.
It was after sometime that I come across her, a young woman, of twenty or so, sobbing loudly, as she sat by the roadside, expensive branded clothes marking her as one of the more affluent members of the society. Her expensive handbag is clutched in her hands. She looks up at me as I pass, and looking and her face, I am taken aback. Her once beautiful face has become a parody of what once must have been a face that launched a thousand faces. There are blisters on her face that have turned purpled-black, a yellowness covers the rest of her skin. She looks at me with an imploring glance, ‘Can you give me a drink, mister”,’ she whimpers as she tries to stand up. I give her one of my bottles of water,her hands brushing against mine, raising a shudder in me and move on not looking at her fearing lest I should see a more horrible sight. She sinks down to where she sits.
The days pass in this way, my watch still works, it is an old fashioned wind up watch that my father had given me, it records the time and days accurately and I wind it faithfully. I retreat to the underground shopping complex after each foray into the city. On each trip out of my refuge, I come across strange sights in a town that has now become a twilight zone. I see the fires that dot the town, people who have survived the blast light bonfires made up of remains of wooden furniture. Rough looking men, roasting the flesh of animals long dead, sinking their teeth into flesh long turned into carrion, people who challenge me if I draw too close to them. I flee from them fearing the fate of the long dead animals, dogs, cats, and occasionally, a horse, a donkey and an Ox. One of the days I come across a group of men assaulting a young girl, no older than fifteen or so. They beat her up and punch her up badly, and when she collapses, they fall on her forcing themselves into all her orifices. She screams as they violate her, but I am helpless. She looks at me with the helpless look of one who has lost hope, our eyes meet and then she is engulfed by the heaving mass of humanity as they smother her to death.
I flee from the scene, overwhelmed by a sense of guilt for not having helped her. Everything ends with a whimper and a gurgle that tells me that she has breathed her last! I am left to my own thoughts in a city that has come to an end, a helpless survivor, fending for his own dear life.
The voice of my another self speaks after a long period of silence, ‘You see, it all had to come to this, all that progress, all that development, all ending up in this! What you see is the result of the ultimate depravity of men in authority, people who themselves are beasts and lack the conscience of human beings. It all amounts to the concept of the survival of the fittest. Hidden deep within the psyche is a beast, chained but rearing to go. This is the ultimate reality of human life, when this beast breaks the chains of reason and rationality, this is what you get!’
‘But then,’ I respond to that voice in my head, ‘Isn’t there a bit of kindness?’ I ask that voice. ‘Are we so depraved that we indulge in such destruction?’ I continue asking that voice.
‘You see, my dear friend,’ the voice replies, ‘when things comes to a head, it is all about superiority, it is all about wining the game, and as such nothing else matters except to win the game irrespective of what the outcome might be!’
The days pass, the months pass, and the cold increases. It looks as if there will be no end to the cold that has descended over the city. We are now ten in number, four men, three women and three children. We stay inside the underground shopping complex. Our days are spent in collecting food and in defending the entrance to the shopping complex. We sleep close to each other, seeking comfort in our togetherness.
As the days pass, we are lost in our thoughts, there are men and women separated from their families, men separated from their wives, women separated from their husbands, the children fortunately are with their mothers. All of the people who are with me are professionals of the highest levels. They had been travelling in the metro from the airport and had alighted from the train before the blast. Everyone of them was a professional of the highest kind, except of course the children. The children were lucky enough to have their mothers with them. The men however had wives and children in other parts of the city.
Life has narrowed down to the need to scavenge for food, the need to keep warm, and defend the entrance to the underground shopping complex from intruders. We sleep in shifts; we have rotas for defending the entrance, scrounging for food and sleeping in groups. Fights often break out between us but these are often quelled by the times in which we live. The women turn out to be the hardiest of us all even as they comfort us men and cajole us to gather food for the day. The men seem to be the most affected of all even as they break down most often; weeping about the wives and children they have left in the other parts of the city.
Life has become a routine and we try to make the best of everything. The children strangely bind us together even as we look after them as parents. They are a source of joy and happiness in the midst of all this confusion and chaos. I miss my family, my wife and my two sons. Each one of us is lost in his or her thoughts and often we all end up weeping, wondering about how people who ordered the blast that destroyed our lives could have even have thought about launching the bombs. Is humanity so void of sensitivity, love and affection that it hardly thinks of launching weapons that bring such pain and suffering on innocent people?
The voice of my other self has fallen quiet, and I wonder if I am sane. I want to be with my family, and share a moment of gladness with them, but deep in my heart I fear whether they have survived the blast.
The days don’t end and the months drag on. The cold doesn’t relent even as we go about our lives, struggling to survive. The six months pass, and the snow flakes continue to float down. Life as we know has changed as we struggle to live, cuddling together in the coldest moments, sharing tit bits and pieces of edible food as we subsist as animals driving with a need to keep warm and feed our increasingly empty stomachs. The only thing that keeps us going on is the hope that we will one day see the rays of the sun breaking though the mantle of a dark and impenetrable leaden sky, a sky that is still covered with the debris and dust of a blast that ejected a mass of living matter into the atmosphere that has clouded our lives with despair, pain and suffering!
We wait for the dawn of day to come, we are surrounded by shadows, shadows of life that might have been, shadows of people who have passed away. The shadows cling to us refusing to go away, shadows that are ghosts of a whole city. The shadows do lengthen even as the days pass by as we struggle to survive, scrounging for food and warmth that seems harder to come by. Our own lives seem to be part of a shadow that threatens to engulf our own very lives, sanity and all.

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