Nineteen

by Jason H

Nineteen.

Even before I awoke I was thinking about it.

My eyelids peeled back as the early morning sun tried in vain to penetrate the thick fog. I rolled onto my side and gazed past the clock on the wall without noticing the time. My body was aching all over from another sleepless night on my half inch thick 'mattress'. The birds that once sung at sunrise were silenced, and the buzz of civilised life was nowhere to be heard. It was a desolate morning. A lonely morning. It was just another day.

It was 7:25 when I first looked at the clock as I was eating my breakfast; one bowl of canned baked beans.

At least we all have to put up with it.

I leaned across my bed and picked up my calendar. It was the desktop type that had the day of the month written in large numbers in the middle of the page, with the month written below. Some time ago I ran a permanent marker over the word 'January' for each day, and ripped the remaining eleven months out. Now, I'm left with just 31 days. But that's all I need. Since the war, life consists of 'cycles' of 31 days.

The number eighteen is blaring at me in its thick, black font. I quickly flip the page.

Nineteen.

Today is day Nineteen.

I'm not sure of the month, or even the year, and I'm not even certain it is the nineteenth day of the month; it could be New Year's Day. But for the two thousand people living where Manly used to be, it's the nineteenth.

Since the last nineteenth, the temperature has increased, indicating that it may be September or October, but I can't be sure.

I have forgotten most things from before. I forget what my wife, Mel, and six year old daughter, Kayla, looked like, but I do remember the last time I saw them. I have forgotten my job, my friends, my life. It is as though my memory has been erased and replaced with the images of the war, as I have no recollection of events prior. I have forgotten my birthday, because it has no significance in the current society. I think it was in July, but again I can't be sure. But it doesn't matter. Dates don't matter anymore. The only thing that matters is that I know it's the nineteenth, because today is my day off. However, there is one date that I remember with extreme precision.

The Greatest War, The Western War, World War III, whichever one you want to call it, for us began on December 30 2016 sometime around sunset. It was a warm, balmy summer evening, and I had the week off work over the holiday period. Kayla and I were sitting out on the balcony overlooking Lane Cove and the Parramatta River.

She had a worried look on her face and I asked her what was wrong.

"Do you love me, daddy?"

I looked at her and smiled, "you know I do, honey."

She looked back at me with innocent and unsure eyes.

"You promise?"

"Yes. Always, and forever."

Not long after, I had woken up in the ruble that used to be my house, with the sky a burning red, and the air as thick as blood.

I later learned that a nuclear warhead had exploded near Pyrmont, destroying everything and everyone I ever loved.

I walked aimlessly for what seemed like an eternity before being taken to a 'recovery post' as they then called it.

As the days past, reports came in from around the world via morse code of more attacks. About an hour before us, New York and London were the first hit, Melbourne was hit on New Year's Eve, and Perth was obliterated by the new year. By March, thousands of weapons had been detonated, and billions of people were dead. Many people believe that China initiated the attacks, others believe Russia, but I guess we will never know. The retaliation of the USA and Britain made the destruction worse, and the number of warheads in the possession of nations like North Korea, Iran and China were severly underestimated.

Now, survivors live in a large complex in Manly, and since I moved here, the number of residents has remained steady. That's not to say that more survivors are not found, but rather the suicide rate is extremelly high. People cannot stand this new life, and it takes a lot of getting used to. It's better now, but the army still has personnel out every night to prevent that very thing. They confiscate anything remotely dangerous. On the seventh of the last cycle, a man tried to commit suicide by throwing himself on a razor blade whilst getting his head shaved. All he got was a nasty gash on his neck, and a full cycle in the infirmary under watchful guard.

Suicide is hard to police; especially when you're in your quiet and lonely rooms where they can't see you. The guards are powerless to prevent it; even some of them have become victims.

We have come to find that it is highly likely that many people are alive in small groups all around Australia, but with no source of fuel, it is almost logistically impossible to find out. A few years ago, there were plans to send a team to search, but it never eventuated. Now, we have given up, and the current society is extremelly dull.

In this life, monotony is a truly bloody reality, and work is made available to prevent people from spiralling into depression, and suicide.

Time is broken into cycles which repeat every 31 days, representing a month. But time never moves; every little thing about the 31 days is a repeat. The same work is done, the same food is served. It is like we're on one big continous loop. We have nothing to live for; no future, just repetition. I guess those that are mentally fit will survive. They see hope that no one else can. For me though, it's hard. I struggle everyday just getting out of bed. Who knows, there may be hope somehow.

##

It was 8:45 when I next looked at a clock; it was the one situated opposite the entrance to my room. The sun was baking the window below the clock, as its light slanted through the dirt and water that covered it, resulting in a yellow tinge produced on the wall next to my door. To my left, extended the hallway in which I now stand, but beyond me there are no more windows, and hence no more light. To my right, the hallway stretches south, seemingly towards infinity, with the floors and ceilings covered in mildew and dirt. The walls are dusty and rotten and broken every six feet to allow for a small door, so one can enter their 'homes'. Between each door, is a small light, powered by the sun, and maintained by no one. Many have been trampled on, some have been removed, and others, for some reason, just don't work.

A few women walk the halls at this time, as the men are all at work. Their overalls are a grimly brown colour, as though they're magnetically attracted to the dust that surrounds them.

Each door that I can see front on has a small piece of paper taped to its frame. I already know what it says, it's virtually the same on every door, yet I turn and face my door. Noticing the piece of paper, I read its content, before nodding in agreeance:

DAY: 19

Duties: None

I don't really understand the neccessity of the 'duties' section on the paper; I have never forgotten in the past that the nineteenth is my day off, nor will I ever forget. I guess some people just don't pay attention to the days; I wish I didn't.

The walk down the hallway is one that I never look forward to; the eerie stillness of the air combined with the claustrophobia given off by the walls and ceiling, make me feel insecure and lonely. The ceiling leaks in places on my right, and on my left, no one ventures. For escape, I must make the long journey to the double doors at the south of the building.

Now, as I get nearer to the doors, a haunting sight befalls me.

I see blood.

It lays in a puddle in the centre of the hallway. A neat circular puddle that has turned black and begun to stink. On the farthest edge, the puddle has been broken, and a long trail of the stuff leads out the double doors at the end of the hallway.

The large glass window to the right of the blood has been smashed in. Maybe someone threw themselves against the window? Hell, maybe it was an accident.

A flicker of light draws my attention to the ground, where a large triangular piece of glass mockingly stares up at me. I bend down to retrieve the item, and immediately notice its shape. A perfectly even triangle. Even the equidistant edges are smooth. The light from the broken window billows in on the glass, which refracts to form a rainbow. Its beauty is captivating and inspiring. As I roll it over my scarred hands, I also notice that it is free of any blood; unlike most of the other pieces. This piece alone could be deadly.

I place the glass to the side, and turn to observe the deserted hallway around me. Turning back, and stepping around the puddle, I can't help but think if this was another suicide; and the army's poor attempt at cleaning it up. Something that did catch my attention as I turned, however, was that the door next to the puddle was ajar. From a distance, I could still make out the writing on the door; 'Day: 18'.

Before I had a chance to move on, a muffled voice caught my attention from outside the double doors. A moment later, a large man in an army uniform bursts through, followed by two smaller men. The large man in the front locks eyes with me and approaches fast. As he gets closer, it is clear that he is going to tower over me; his broad shoulders moving forward and back with each stride that he takes. He raises his hand towards me and points his finger.

"You! Up against the wall!"

I do as instructed, and move quickly into position with my back against the wall. The large man approaches me and uses his huge arm as a barricade across my chest. There is no escape.

The other two men seem to not notice me and move immediately to the blood and glass. Both men brought with them two large bags, and begin to place the glass in the bags.

As the clean up begins, the large man, who's foul breath I can almost taste in my mouth, bellows at me.

"Spread 'em."

He begins to pat me down, searching for any weapons, no doubt that he is looking for any glass that I may have decided to keep for a rainy day.

"Shoes."

I remove my shoes, and he begins to search through them. When he was sure I had no weapons on me, he brought himself to attention, and snapped his orders.

"Carry on."

I did so, and moved along the hallway to the doors so quickly, I may have actually been running. A moment later, I was running. I was outside in the sun and the warmth and I was running. Running away from the blood and the glass. Running from the giant man. Running from the reality of my life. But as best as I could try, I couldn't escape.

##

By the time I had left the camp, the morning had given way to a warm day, with some light winds, and high cirrus clouds. Perfect weather for the beach. I had intented to go to the beach today regardless of the weather; the only place where I can relax and unwind; a haven in hell.

I had left the camp about 10 minutes ago, and I was now making my way up the large dune that separated myself and the ocean. The cool sea breeze was picking up before I reached the top, and I could hear the waves crashes on the shoreline.

Reaching the top and beginning down the other side of the dune, I glimpsed at the sea. It was calm. There were a few waves at the shore, but nothing more than five feet back. Not even a break in sight.

The wind had picked up again as I stepped past the dune onto the sand and made my way down the beach. It was strange that the sea seemed unchanged by the wind. As usual, the beach was deserted; not even the soft cry of seagulls sounded anymore.

I was standing on what used to be known as Manly beach, but bared no resemblence to what it used to look like. The south end of the beach; where most people swam, looked like it would have before humans ever made it to the beach. Large sand dunes had gathered at the base of the beach from the adverse weather in the months following the war, which blocked the devastation behind it. The tall pine trees that man ripped up from native land and planted here, stood no more. Humanity managed to destroy itself, but nothing could destroy nature. Soon, we hope, the world will return to its natural state. A time before modern humans, and before we realised what was important. The earth is having its vengeance; feeding off the stupidity of men.

They tell us we should procreate. They tell us that humanity still has a chance. But what's the point? When all we will do is try and destroy ourselves and the world in which we live?

No.

This is our punishment for our power and greed.

One day, life will return to this earth in different forms, and any humans left will have to live with not being at the top of the food chain. We will have to adapt to the new world, rather than change the world around us; something we would never of been able to do before the war.

I sit down to remove my shoes so I can feel the cool sand on my feet. In doing so, I notice a sea shell lying next to my feet. I pick it up, admiring the soft exterior, before storing it away in my overalls.

As I lay down on the beach, I stare up at the blue sky above me. I relax and spread out my legs; something I can't do in my small bed, and watch peacefully the clouds that float by. It is in this time that I begin to feel tired. Usually, I will close my eyes and listen to the ocean, but today I feel almost sleepy.

My body welcomes the calming sensation of the waves softly crashing, and before long, I am powerless to prevent myself falling asleep.

##

It was the strengthening cool sea breeze that awoke me late in the afternoon. I slowly opened my eyes and saw that the light had faded considerably since I made my way to the beach earlier in the day. Sitting up, I notice large storm clouds just off the the coast, appearing to be slowly moving north over what used to be the Sydney metro area. The breeze gathered in intensity again, and my face is constantly hit with sea spray.

Gazing at the ocean, I am greeted with a different sight than before I fell asleep. The ocean is raging; huge waves break far from the shore, and just looking at the oscillating swell is dizzying.

Time to leave.

I put on my shoes and stand up to leave, and again I am battered by more wind.

Turning and heading back towards the dunes, I notice that the sky is a tinge of orange; an unsettling colour, yet a colour that we see every time there is a storm. It is the result of the radiation in the atmosphere. Years on and there is still radiation lingering in the air; not enough to kill us, or so they tell us. As the storm cell develops, it picks up the hot surface air and carries it upwards, along with any radiation. Then, when the rain falls, so too does the radiation. It is a ghastly reminder of the past in the present.

Returning to the camp after walking quickly to beat the storm, I notice that it seems oddly deserted. A glance at the large clock located in the middle of the open courtyard explains the situation.

5.58pm.

Everyone must be in the large mess dorm eagerly awaiting their dinner. If you don't get in early, you sometimes have to wait up to an hour in the line; Canned spaghetti is hardly anything to wait in a line for, but I guess we get it only once every 31 days, and some people have taken a liking to it.

Not me.

I pass by a large demountable to my left which could hold somewhere between two and three hundred people, identified by a large 'D' near the double door entry. On my right is a smaller demountable, labelled 'F'.

When the settlement was established, we were allocated a letter. That letter would govern where we lived, where we worked, and who we would associate with. I was allocated the letter 'H'.

In front of me is the large clock, which was carefully placed in the centre of the settlement, with the living areas from it expanding outwards. Below that is an opening through which the mess dorm lies.

From here, I can clearly see the line of people forming near the entrance to the dorm. Many of the men and women have their overalls covered in dirt and grime from a full day's work, while others are wearing clean overalls. It's the only time you will see any uniqueness in the dress of the civilians.

Seeing as I have no other option, I make my way to the mess dorm and line up in silence.

No one speaks.

Not even a murmur in the distance.

Then, finally, a deep voice speaks from behind.

"Apparently they found someone out near Mildura."

I spin around and face a short, balding man with glasses. I immediately recognise him as Henderson; the man a few doors down from me. He reeks of sweat and some other foul chemical, and looks like he's been swimming in a pool of mud. His greasy forehead gleams up at me, and his small dark eyes look into mine with intensity.

"How did they find that out?" I asked sceptically.

"We received a morse code is what I've heard." He looked now at his feet. "Looks as though there's quite a number of 'em there. Talks of around fifty."

The army have been using morse code since the war to send signals out to anyone who needs help. It turns out that it has been very beneficial, with a large proportion of the people here being found some time after the attacks, thanks to morse code.

"Did they say how they're gonna get them?" I asked.

Henderson shook his head and grunted.

"Well, if it's even true, I think they're gonna just leave 'em there. No one can get there without risking their lives. I think if they can last this long on their own, they can't be much worse off than us, and that's exactly what the Lieutenant believes."

I shrugged and moved forward in the line.

Henderson continued. "They also think they found another large group of people up near Cairns."

"Really?", I turned again to face him.

His face said what my brain was thinking; only a rumour.

Every so often, someone will start a rumour about groups of survivors in remote parts of the country. Most of the time, it's not true, but the army believes it boosts morale in the camp to know that people have some hope.

I pray that a rumour will one day become a reality.

##

After dinner, I left the mess dorm and began back to my room. The storm had passed, and the raging wind and torrential rain was replaced by a cool night breeze. A quick glance at the large clock on my way back proved that I had been talking with Henderson for quite some time; it was now 8.35pm.

The area around the clock was deserted once again, as most people decide to stay indoors and talk with friends once the sun sets " I guess it just gets too lonely.

The nights are darker since the war. No distant lights to destroy our view of the universe.

No sounds.

Nothing.

I gaze upwards at the ever present sky and marvel at the number of stars. There are probably thousands more than anyone would of cared to see since the lights went off. The vast, black sky seemingly reaching into eternity exemplifies our solidarity and insignificance.

Mankind may have a chance of survival if we can accept that we are just a tiny speck of sand on an ever expanding beach called the universe. Someone once told me that 'true wisdom is knowing that we know nothing', and I couldn't agree more.

I step out of the clear night into the dimly lit hallway that is demountable 'H'. The air smells stale and thick as always. As I proceed down the hall towards my room, I make a quick stop at the spot where I am sure I saw the aftermath of a suicide.

The blood and glass is now gone, replaced by just an empty hallway, leaving no evidence. However, the window to my left now has no pane, and the night breeze whistles through onto my face.

I continue walking.

I notice the time again as I enter my room. It is now 8.50pm.

The room is quite and empty.

I make my way to my bed and sit down. In doing so, I take a large breath of the stale air, and remove my shoes before lying down.

I am exhausted, and yet I shouldn't be. I virtually did nothing today, and in fact had a sleep when I was on the beach. My head begins to spin and I have trouble focussing on the room in which I am in.

I delve into the pockets of my overalls and remove two objects, before placing them on the desk beside my bed. One of the objects is the soft sea shell that I found at the beach. The other is an object of even more beauty.

Now, as I turn my head towards this object lying on my desk, I can't take my eyes off it. Its exterior is smooth and soft and it is a symbol of perfection; even its equidistant edges are smooth.

I guess they didn't clean the whole mess up from earlier. They forgot to check the small opening in the thin timber walls. A tiny hole where a small object could be hidden. An object such as a piece of glass.

Using my right hand, I pick the object up and clench my fist, locking it inside my grasp. I remember thinking earlier that the object could be deadly. Smiling now, I gaze again up at the roof from my bed, and close my eyes.

Suddenly, an image begins to materialise before me.

It's Kayla.

She is wearing the same dress that she was wearing the last time I saw her. Only now it is torn and tattered. Her shins are covered in dirt and blood, and her hair is shrewn in a disorderly fashion. However, her face is untouched, unscathed, and unhurt.

A look of worry, fright and loneliness spreads across her face, and her eyes look directly at me.

Then she spoke to me.

"Do you love me, daddy?"

I squeeze my clutched hand tighter, and the sharp corners of the glass cut into my palm. But I can not feel the pain.

With my eyes still closed, I smile again.

"Always, and forever."

She smiled back.

THE END

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