Note: I began writing this as a short story. It was one of those stories that somehow took a life of its own and grew beyond what I had originally intended. Even though I normally begin writing without knowing how my stories will end or how I’ll get there, or how long it would take me, this kind of went off the rails. The journey from darkness to light, from lost to found, of overcoming fear and guilt, the story I wanted to tell, I realized, could not be told in 5000 words, at least I couldn’t. So I divided it up into parts, each part having its own contained story within it, signifying each metaphorical stage of a journey, each, on their own and in some way, short stories within a larger arching tale. Each part is about 4000-6000 words, and the epilogue, the shortest of them, is only 1500 words, and they all add up to about 22,000 words. Only Part I has been posted for now. The rest will follow in their own time.
When I was a young boy, I used to dream of the end of the world. I used to imagine the heavens opening up and a bright blinding light shining through a hole in the sky, washing everything in white. I used to think that the light would blind the sinners of this world, but those who were innocent, those who were righteous would be able to see the glory of the angels descending from heaven, riding that holy light, coming to carry us up to the heavenly halls of eternal peace. And once I was up there, clothed in satin white and a wild grass chaplet on my head, I would imagine myself looking down at the people below, blind and stumbling as they’d try to run from the scorching winds but would never be able to escape it. Down there would be people that I knew, but every week, and every imagining, the people would be different—sometimes it was that boy in school who told on me when our game got a little rough for his liking, or that girl who made a face whenever she looked at me after I once tried to talk to her, sometimes it was my mother after she refused to believe the truths I told her or even listen to me, and many it was my father after he threw my belongings at the wall or at me as he shamed, demeaned and rebuked, not to mention the swinging of the belt and the burning of the cigarettes. And when I would look down at them on the burning ground up from heaven, I would feel no sorrow. Often afterwards, when the dreams had run their course, I would feel guilty for those imaginations, but remorse never made its way to my heart.
I stopped dreaming when I was a little older, although not much wiser. Those dreams, those fantastic imaginings did not prove as effective as it once did in quieting the brewing storm in my heart, and many times, the storm threatened to blow down my walls and wreak havoc out there, and I would manage to quiet it, using up all my might. But I did not always succeed. There were times that a tempest beyond my control manifested. I was a little older, thus a little taller, and a little stronger. A trashcan was easy to decimate, a glass window was easy to break. But as months passed and colours filled my mind, and as the spaces of peace narrowed and broken things took up more room, the frequency of those uncontrollable tempests increased, and so did their hunger for destruction.
It never gave me any pleasure seeing that puny boy in my class shrink beneath the weight of my words. It never gave me any pleasure to take his pencils, never gave me any pleasure to trip him, never gave me any pleasure to bloody his lip. I never knew what I got out of it, what I even wanted out of it, but I knew that I liked the quiet and peace of the headmaster’s office as I waited, waited for either my mother or my father to stagger in, waited for the quiet and peace to end, waited for the end of my world for the day, waited for it all to begin again.
In some ways, it always felt like it was ending, or was on the verge of, but never quite crossed the threshold. The world around me would shimmer out of focus and dim. The atoms inside my body would vibrate and send tremors through my muscles and manifest on my fingers. The air around me would grow thinner and thinner or my windpipes would compress until I had to fight for every single life-sustaining molecule in the air. Moments like those always certainly felt like the world was coming to an end. If I could think, form even a single strain of thought, then maybe I would’ve wished it to keep on going until I was sure there was no going back from in, but my capacity for contemplations and desires were always one of the first things to go, and by the time darkness filled my head, blind panic would be all that was left. I don’t remember when my first self-administered bloodletting happened, but I’m sure it was in a moment like that, and it always been a means to delay the end of the world, for in my blind panic, I never thought I would like the end of the world too much if it really did come around.
Admittedly, despite the many times I’d been sent to be alone to reflect on my actions—or sought to be alone—the many times I’d been shut in to despair in my loneliness, I’d never done much deep reflections or introspections. Maybe I was too young to do so, or maybe my head had always been too busy for a moment to even begin to conceive such musings. Or, more interpretively, maybe I did not want to, because that could mean facing the truth, facing reality, facing pain. I knew there was pain, but I refused to feel it. And every denial of that pain brought in its wake more pain. The crack of a whip. The shower of spirit. Thunderous voices. Stone-cold silences. They were pain I could bear, or at least I believed I could, and with every crack and shower and thunder and silence, I believed I was getting stronger, my skin more callous, my soul harder, my eyes drier. But I did not know my heart had been growing darker as well, and twice as fast. Maybe reflections could’ve put that into perspective earlier on, but I never accepted the necessity of it. I denied it, I ignored it, until there was no more room to escape to, and the only way out is back, through all that pain once again, and if you got through all that, it would be peace forever. I convinced myself that I was strong enough to do that, to go through the pain, to go it alone, that I could take it all, that I would escape, no matter what it took. I was ready. My mind was ready. My hands were ready. I knew what it would take of me and I was prepared, but I had no idea what it would take from me. No matter how much you don’t want to, it is in those kind of moments that reflections are done to you, whether you like it or not, whether you were ready or not, and regardless of how deep or how shallow you want to be submerged, and for how long, and with no regard for what might be at the end of it, or if there was anything at the end at all. Sometimes, you fall into it, thrown, blown over by the force of nature. Sometimes the end of the world comes when you are not looking.
I was sixteen when the world that I knew ended.
I awoke one morning to find the skies burning, fire and brimstone raining down from the heavens, flames licking the winds and ash coating every surface. Everyone was gone. I checked every room of the house and every crevice, but there was no sign of my parents. But the more I looked, there seemed to be no sign of them ever being there at all. It got me to wonder for a moment, despite the hell raging outside, if there had been white light streaming down from heaven and angels descending while I was asleep. But it made no sense. Nothing made sense at all.
The moment I staggered out of the door I was immediately engulfed by waves and waves of heat that raised every hair in my body and made me pause in horror for a moment, thinking that I would be burned to cinder momentarily. But when I realized I was still alive, I ventured out, the horror remaining within me. Everything was red and black out to the farthest distance that I could see through the heat haze. There were no signs of life, no voices, no screaming, no crying. I ran up and down the streets, knocked down doors and screamed out loud, looking for anyone, someone else who might be left behind as well, someone else who might also have been abandoned. And the more I screamed and the more I cried, the water in my body left me faster and it dried me up until my lips began to crack, until my voice became a croak, and my skin began to flake. I could almost feel my hair and my eyebrows being singed by the heat. I spent the day dragging my feet aimlessly, looking for shade, hoping to find some respite from the torturous winds, but everywhere I went, it was all the same. I prayed and I prayed, but I knew there was nobody listening. Still, I prayed, and by the hour the red of the sky began to turn black and the cut of the air was blunted, my only prayer was that there be someone else like me somewhere. I did not have to ever meet this person, nor did he or she ever have to meet me, but it would comfort me if I could have the faith that there was at least someone out there like me. I muttered my prayer mindlessly as I crawled under the roof of a collapsed house to wait for the end of this nightmare, feeling completely and utterly alone.
My sleep, if you could call it that, was restless and interrupted at frequent intervals by strange sounds that I always soon realized were the crashing of houses, the cracking and snapping of trees, the falling of bricks and boulders, the breaking of glasses. Even when the silence prevailed for more than . . . minutes, hours—I couldn’t even tell anymore—I heard those sounds in my head, keeping my sleep from ever being restful. But the hardest thing of all in those moments of quiet and brief minutes of respite was to keep myself from thinking. Thoughts hurt. There was much too much to think about but too little control over them, and they could only offer pain.
Around midnight—I conjectured, based on the hours that followed until sunrise—I heard footsteps. They were light, barely perceptible, almost like the feet were barely touching the ground, and if there had been no debris it would almost be as soundless as the breeze. In the eternal hours preceding the night, I had imagined footsteps and voices and other sounds that could only come from people, and I imagined I would rush out to them, exchange stories of survival, share sorrows and pain and, maybe, hope. But as I listened, the footfalls inspired in me nothing but fear.
And then a voice called my name. The fear quickly soured into abject terror.
My mind raced, trying to identify the voice, trying to make sense of the situation, trying all it could to find a way to survive because I was sure that my fatal end was here, and despite how much I wished for the end to come before, the very real possibility of that put a primal fear in my heart. The voice sounded sweet—a siren to lure me into its lethal arms; it sounded calm—to offer me a false sense of security before it would snatch me up.
I crawled backwards, intending to get far away from the source of that tempting voice before it could warp my mind. But I made a mistake. I was too clumsy, too noisy. Then I heard it approached, the footfalls heavy and hurried, far from the graceful lightness of before.
Throwing caution in the wind, I crawled away in panic, and as soon as I got out into the open, I scampered away as fast as my feet would carry me.
But I did not get far. A rock brought me tumbling down.
Covered in soot and dirt and my heart wanting to leap out of my chest and leave me behind, I scrambled to get up and keep on running, but like in horror movies, like my laces were tied together, I could take no more than two panicked steps before I fell over again and again, eating mouthfuls of dirt and crying desperate and tearless sobs.
Inevitably, the dooming footsteps caught up to me and I could feel its sinister aura wafting through the air encircling me. I was face down in the dirt, and I dared not look up lest I be bewitched.
The voice called my name again, and somehow, it tugged at me.
‘It’s okay,’ the voice said.
No matter how hard I put my hands to my ears, the sound carried through my palms effortlessly and burrowed in my brain, and no matter how hard I tried to ignore the enticement, I thought, maybe it’s not so bad, maybe I should listen to what it has to say, maybe it’s okay.
Slowly, carefully, fearfully, I turned. The first thing I saw was a hand, fingers spread, reaching out to me, waiting for me to take it, waiting to pull me to my feet—but that was what I wanted to believe, and that couldn’t be the truth. It just couldn’t. Who, what, would ever reach out to someone at the burning end of the world, offer a hand, and not have malicious aims, not want something in return?
I didn’t trust the hand. I did not move. Instead looked past the hand and tried to see the figure, the person—and I hoped it was a person, for who could know; it was the end of the world after all—the person the hand was attached to, but I could make nothing out. It was only a dark blur.
‘Take my hand, and then you will see me,’ the voice said, the words echoing in my ears. It reminded me of church bells that were used to heralding good times, but now lost and damned in this wasteland, forgotten and turning to rust, cursed to signal doom.
‘How do I know I can trust you?’ I asked through quaking voice.
‘Would you rather stay here?’ the voice asked, the hand still steady.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Call it a leap of faith.’
Hesitantly, almost expecting the hand to pull away at the last moment, or sprout claws and hook my hand into a bloody trap, I reached out. What more could I lose?
As my hand closed in, I now saw clearly that the hand reaching out to me was no darker or lighter than mine, and it was no cleaner. There was black under its fingernails, its fingertips were darkened by dirt, and the joints were cleaner than the rest of its soot-covered skin. And as I held it, it was warm, and its grip was strong. There was also a sense of comfort that flowed into me with the touch, but I did not trust it. I told myself to be wary.
The hand pulled me up and I was on my feet. My vision darkened and a sudden dizzy spell came to me. I wobbled, but the other hand grabbed my arm and steadied me.
‘Are you okay?’ it asked. The voice had lost its shadowy vagueness and I could hear for the first time instead of it ringing in my head. It was a human voice and not simply vibrations in the air. And what struck me was the familiarity of it, like I’d heard it many times before, and if it had not been for the end of the world, I would recognize it in an instant.
I squinted at the figure I was now standing in front of, no taller than me, no stouter or thinner. There was familiarity as well in that frame, but my capacity for recollection was impaired. I could tell the nose from the mouth, the eyes from the forehead, the ears from the hair, the chin from the cheeks, but somehow, I couldn’t put them all together to form a face.
‘I still can’t see you,’ I said to the figure.
‘You do see me,’ it said, ‘you just don’t understand yet.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
But it ignored me. Instead, it put its hands on its hips and looked about, as if looking for something.
I looked about as well. The night was still it its deepest hours, but the horizons in every direction glowed faintly, like fires were raging all around us just beyond jagged skylines, burning brighter every passing second, and faster with the help of the rushing winds, closing in. The thick sky overhead was still black with a gradient change as the dome stretched downward. Every passing second, the air grew brighter until it was as bright as the brightest of full moon nights.
The figure pointed to a seemingly random direction and said, ‘This way,’ and began to walk.
‘What’s that way?’ I said, staying rooted to my spot.
‘Understanding,’ it said. The lips vaguely smiled.
I had a mind to say something, something mean and spiteful, to challenge the vagueness of its words, its pseudo-philosophical countenance. Did it think it was my saviour? Did it think I trusted it? But I thought better of it for no reason that was immediately apparent to me. It simply didn’t seem worth the effort to talk, and I wanted to hope. So, I followed it, a few paces behind, so I could keep a watchful eye.
We walked in silence through crooked doorways and upturned alleyways, jumping over concrete slabs and broken tree trunks, crouching underneath collapsed roofs and broken fences. It felt like we were heading nowhere, turning left, and then right, and then right, and then left, and then right again before another right, and with the dystopian urban terrain what it was, the moving was slow, and the sensation of time was a strange one. It felt like we had been walking for hours upon hours, but the colour of the skies barely ever seemed to change a shade. I was tired. My muscles screamed. My feet hurt. Then, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t had a drop to drink since I woke up almost twenty-four hours ago, and had nothing to eat, but I felt no rumbling in my stomach. And then a parasite of a thought wormed its way into my head: I am dead.
I could not take a step farther, or I didn’t want to. What was the point?
The figure noticed I wasn’t following so it halted and turned around. ‘We can’t stop now. We have to keep going.’
‘Am I dead?’ I asked.
‘Do you want to be?’ it asked.
‘Why can’t you ever give me a proper answer?’
‘Because I’m not here to give you answer to your questions. I’m only here to help you find them.’
‘Tell me who you are,’ I said.
‘You can think of me as a guide,’ he said after a short pause.
‘A guide to what?’
‘I’ve told you. Understanding.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
‘That’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t have to. Nothing has to. At least not here.’
‘This is not real life?’ I asked, but I quickly changed my tone. ‘This is not real life.’
‘Maybe, maybe not, but that’s beside the point.’
‘What’s the point, then? What’s the point of all this? What’s the point in going on?’
‘The point is to . . .’ it said and gestured at me to finish its sentence.
‘Understand?’ I asked.
Its lips stretched into a little smile.
‘What if I don’t go on?’ I asked after a moment of thought.
The smile waned and disappeared, and its eyes looked at the horizon behind me for a brief second before its frame slowly approached me, its head hanging, weighed down by whatever thought was swirling inside it. I look at its features, and for a fleeting moment I thought I could see a semblance of a face, a familiar face, and that sent a chill through my spine that disappeared as quickly as it came. The chill wasn’t because I feared what I managed to glimpse. It was something else I could not put to words, something words could do no justice to. But it was gone like a puff of smoke in a storm.
The figure stopped before me with a solemn air around it as it took a deep breath. It looked straight at me. The eyes were a deep dark brown, its pupils were dilated, and the irises seemed to shimmer in the dim glow of the apocalypse.
‘What I can tell you, at least what I know,’ it said to me with an earnest glow in its eyes, ‘is that you cannot go back. Where you came from is a moment in time that’s gone forever. Going back is simply an impossibility. Now, you can choose to not go on. You have that choice, yes. But I do not know where that will leave you. All I know is that out there somewhere ahead of us, there may be a way for you to escape this, survive this apocalypse. I say may be because it all comes down to you.’
‘And what if I survive this?’ I asked. ‘What about beyond?’
The smile returned to its lips. ‘If you survive this, then I’m sure you can survive whatever’s out there.’
It was not always an easy thing for me to admit hope into my heart, because it always ended in utter disappointment and the hope always soured to resentment, but this time, that bright energizing feeling, that warm ember within, ignited with ease and I felt a surge of energy spreading to every part of my body. It was not as easy to believe in the authenticity of the hope, of the possibility of a realization, but I decided, for once, to not question it too much.
‘Okay,’ I said to the figure.
It raised its hand and waited for me to take it. I held it and gave it a curt shake before I let go.
‘Let’s get going,’ it said as it turned around to walk on. ‘We can’t linger.’
‘What will happen? Is something after us?’ I asked before I made a move.
‘If we linger for too long,’ it paused and turned to look at me, ‘it’ll be the same as choosing not to go on. To survive, we have to keep on moving forward.’
There was something in that collection of features, I recognized. Yes, I could see a face. It was a face of man I didn’t know. At least, I didn’t think I know. I could tell that he was much older than me, maybe in his thirties, although only a few inches taller, but it was hard to be certain. And there was a sense of intimate familiarity in the way his eyebrows were raised, the way his lips moved when he spoke, the way his skin stretched with every expression, but it was like one of those things where you have a thought just outside of your recollection. In my attempt to reach that thought, I didn’t realize I had been staring.
‘You’re beginning to understand,’ the man said with a smile.
‘I guess so,’ I said.
The smell drifting in the air changed as the hours dragged on and we dragged our feet on and on and the sky did not seem so dark as it did before. The scent of charred wood and organic matter and garbage drifted away in the slow and steady breeze that was picking up as the eastern horizon grew brighter. The gusts still carried the thick perfume of smoke and fire, but there was something else in it as well, as if hidden in the particles, a distinct and immediately recognizable aroma—petrichor. The terrain was not kind, and the fatigue from having to overcome the obstacles in our way, with the cryptic answers the man gave to my questions, were staring to have a toll on me, and the will that I had to summon that hope was starting to buckle. But that smell, reminding me of the brief moments in time when everything was okay, when nothing I did or all that was done to me mattered in the slightest, that smell, for the first time in this journey, made me want to reach the end, made me really want to survive, because an intoxicating notion, and I knew not where it came from, made its way into my mind—whatever was at the end of this journey would be the physical manifestation of the feelings that came with the smell.
The man halted suddenly and raised his hand towards me to bid me stop as well. I stopped. His head raised and his eyebrows scrunched, he turned this way and that, sniffing at the air.
‘You smell it too?’ I said, slightly alarmed by his conduct, hoping that nothing bad was coming our way, wishing the feeling I had would last a little longer.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘This is not good. We have to hurry.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘I’ll explain later. We have to run. Now!’
He broke into a sprint. The slight alarm in my veins rising to unverified panic, I chased after him. We both ran, jumping over obstacles like hurdle runners, fatigue and weariness of legs forgotten in an adrenaline-fuelled flight from the unknown.
Then I heard a rolling thunder behind me and a violent the rush of wind as I ploughed through the heavy air. The rumbling of the sky seemed to grow louder and louder, like it was after us.
‘Don’t look back!’
But the very next moment, I quickly stole a glance behind me. I couldn’t help it.
At first, I couldn’t make sense of it. It looked like any other storm cloud, although lower and heavier and darker, but there was a certain inexplicable feeling that pierced my heart as I glimpsed at it for no more than a second or two that made me want to turn and have another look.
I turned and had another look. It was glowing now in parts, like there were swirling lights within those dark plumes, lights of all colours and all shades, brightening and darkening. The temptation to gaze upon it was stronger now, and it took all I had keep my feet moving. But all I had did not last long.
Maybe it was not so bad, I thought. It was beautiful, and how could something so beautiful be bad in any way at all?
I slowed my paced down to a jog before I stopped entirely. The man, ahead of me, noticing that I had fallen behind, turned around, asked me what I was doing, told me that we needed to keep on moving, begged me not to look at it any longer, implored me to listen to his voice. But his voice had turned into a meaningless echo in the thunderous crescendo of this magnificent manifestation, and his frame was becoming nothing but a dark and blurry silhouette again.
I turned away from the blurry frame, turned around to face the glory of the apocalypse, welcome it to me, ready to be swallowed in those mesmerizing lights, to become a part of its eternal beauty.
I opened my arms. The colours rushed towards me and the winds billowed and swirled around me. I heard nothing but the apocalyptic orchestra, and I did not want to hear anything else.
I felt the sharpness of the winds and the heat of the lights, but there was pleasure in the pain. This was as good an end as any. I closed my eyes. All was black.