Township

by Mark Murphy

Where the smoke rose up into the dark sky lay the township, a ramshackle collection of huts and fences dotted with listless vegetation and failed attempts at agriculture. The wind whipped the ashes and embers into a frenzy which followed no logical pattern. The orange glow of the smouldering fires the only light.

On the porch of the town hall stood a man not much older than thirty smoking a cigarette he'd found laying in the dirt. He coughed harshly and occasionally spat blood at the dying fig tree nearby while he watched her walk around the village, calling out to people who were still there but could no longer hear her.

After a few minutes of watching her he turned and stepped over the threshold and into the mayor's office to check the radio again while the wind picked up speed outside and the crackle and pop of the burning timbre sounded all around him. The building gave an odd groan, a dinosaur on the verge of extinction, and he turned the SQUELCH knob just as a window upstairs shattered.

There was nothing but static on all the frequencies as he dialled back and forth across the waveband. He sighed and finished his cigarette and turned off the radio before leaving the town hall for good.

She was somewhere towards the southern end of the township; her voice carried high and near-hysterical even across the roar of the rejuvenated fires and the growing shriek of the wind. He thought of her voice, calling out all those dead names, echoing around the silent streets and through the silent bedrooms long-since deserted and shivered involuntarily. He didn't like the idea that something might hear her calling and decide to respond.

He coughed again, his eyes watering now from the thick black smoke, his skin stained a dirty grey from the layers of ash settling on it despite the wind. He stepped off the porch and started after her calls, but a mellow gleam coming from the road caught his eye and he stopped and stooped to see what it was. A .32 pistol. Maybe new, maybe not, but dulled by the weather and the fires. He picked it up and inspected the chambers and seeing them to be clean he stuck the gun in his jacket pocket.

Across the way Ben Ferrelli's house collapsed in on itself and sent huge flames billowing up into the sky. Embers lighted on his jacket and he slapped at them absently, trying to hear her voice. It came again, a little closer this time, and he called her name in return. They couldn't lose their heads; that would not be prudent.

He rounded a corner and saw her kneeling by the makeshift playground next to the town doctor's office. He crossed the street and knelt beside her and waited for her to say something.

No-one's here, she said.

He didn't say anything, but kept looking at the body laying in front of them. All he could make out were the lank curls and dirty clothes in the fading light.

They all went. They all of them went away.

Maybe some of them got out. Maybe not everyone listened.

Maybe.

He scanned the street and picked out perhaps three or four more dead bodies. Chained to the wrought iron gate of the little chapel was a cat frozen in it's death agonies. He sighed.

It'll be getting light soon. If we're going to do something we better do it before they get here.

Did you try the radio?

Yeah.

Did you try it?

Yeah, I said.

He reached out to turn the girl's head towards him but he couldn't bring himself to do it and so he looked questioningly at her instead as she knelt beside him. After a while she spoke.

It's Anna. Was Anna.

Jesus.

We need to do something.

We'll leave if you want.

Yeah, that sounds good.

So they stood and crossed the playground and walked into the woods. They came to a burbling stream untouched by fire or death and tiptoed across the stepping stones placed in the stream months ago. They followed a winding forest trail up through the trees, pausing every now and then to listen to the dull thumps and coughs of exploding pine as the fire reached the outer edge of the forest and began to consume it. Already smoke began to curl between the branches of the trees they passed beneath. Somewhere they heard the panicked squawk of a bird as it took flight to escape the flames.

They came out on the edge of a precipice looking over the jungle below them. For a moment they stood without saying anything and finally sat on the very edge of a segment of rock jutting out from the hill, their legs dangling over it and the tips of exotic trees some two hundred feet below them. All around came the sound of small frantic animals trying to outrun the fire as it ate into the hillside.

He pulled the gun from his pocket and inspected it carefully. He picked dirt from behind the trigger and checked the ammunition and barrel. As a test he fired a single shot into the air and then put it to one side. He wanted to put an arm around her, to try and comfort her, but he knew anything he did from this point onwards would be empty and pointless, and she knew this too.

The promises had been broken and the spaces had been overcrowded, but even until the end it seemed it would all work itself out. If the string you're holding breaks and you already threw away the spare, there's not much to hold onto besides the hope that hope will arise.

She sipped at the canteen she held in one trembling hand and offered it to him. He shook his head. He wanted his mind to be clear for this. He wanted to know how they'd gotten from where they'd been to where they were.

She lay back on the rock and stretched out, looking into the endless expanse of space and time looking down on them and found no solace. The stars were cold and cruel tonight and the moon was so far away and indifferent.

Poison for the most part, but he didn't doubt that some of it had been bullets and more still had been fire. Fire was considered the best way to expiate the evil, a purging, glorious rush of white heat and beautiful agony. He didn't want that.

Closer now came the sound of the flames greedily swallowing the life behind them. Maybe someday there'd be an investigation and a hundred magazine columns and a thousand books, but for now they were the only ones who knew what had happened here.

He picked up the gun and checked it one last time. She watched him silently and in the light she looked like the Madonna he'd imagined all those years ago during the first of the sermons. White and beautiful and untouchable. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes and he put the muzzle to her temple. She groped for his hand and he took it and kissed it. He pulled the trigger and watched her legs spasm mindlessly as all the things she knew and loved up to this moment were blown out of her head and over the precipice to splash down into the jungle below them.

He put the gun to his own head and waited to see if the gods or fate or providence would intervene. He gave the gods thirty seconds to melt the gun or empty the chambers or break his arm but of course they didn't and so he pulled the trigger a third time.

Where the smoke rose up into the dark sky lay the township, now an inferno which would soon burn itself out and become the subject of a bidding war between the jungle and the corporations.

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