Originally published in A Thin Slice of Anxiety
The boy walked through the snow blanketing the empty road, dirtied from ash and debris floating down and around him as if the winter storm had never ceased. He followed the trail of shallow boot prints left untouched, careful to place his own feet inside each one, retracing the steps of whomever had come before. Every new print he left fit comfortably inside those of his predecessor, and the crimson spots like wax seals on a letter fell upon the compressed snow, burning through into the cracked cement, marking the evidence of the boy’s own journey separate to that of what could have been the last remaining memento of a dead man’s existence.
He likened the blood draining out from his open wound to the breadcrumbs left by the children lost in the woods; the stories his mother would read to him circling around inside his mind to stave off the intrusive awareness of gnawing pain. They would find him—someone would find him—and he would lead them to the man in the combat boots who would, in turn, lead the boy to the destination he believed must be salvation. An adult would know what to do. He believed this solely because he did not know what to do, and so this was the only answer.
The road was littered on either side with abandoned cars and the crumbling remains of buildings carved out by mortar fire or Molotov cocktails. For weeks, the television in his family’s home played instructive videos on loop of how to construct these makeshift instruments of war for citizens to defend their homes. His father and his uncles would return from the store with bottles and bottles of one hundred-proof vodka, and he’d watch them create their little bombs that they called “poor man’s grenades” as they passed around a separate bottle reserved purely for consumption. He would sit on his father’s lap in front of the television, its signal cutting off and on as the bombs trembled the walls and shook dust from the ceiling, growing louder and closer. He learned how to make one himself before he ever learned how to ride a bicycle.
After months of absorbing the erratic cacophony of war on the horizon, the silence of the empty road felt foreign and rang inside his ears as he continued on. He recognized that total quiet was now again something to become reacquainted with, as were at first the screams and the whistles of rockets and firearms. His senses operated upon a tightrope of opposing extremes.
The boot prints turned left into an alleyway up ahead, and the boy followed along, and he found himself at the back entrance of a large cathedral. In lieu of a door were three wooden planks, hastily nailed across the opening. The bottom plank had been broken in two, giving just enough leeway for a grown person to crawl through the gap. The boy turned around, the harsh wind beating into the exposed skin underneath his tattered sweater, and observed the trail of blood that led back to the skeleton of his destroyed life. He didn’t dare lift his right hand away from his side, the visceral sight of the hole too much to stomach, and too real. If he kept pressure, and didn’t look, it wasn’t real. He could wave away the events of the past few days as only a fleeting, terrible dream, if only he didn’t look at the tangible evidence they had left behind in their wake.
The inner cathedral opened up as he crawled inside and took stock of the new environment. Its towering, domed roof had collapsed in on itself, exposing the wide and sparsely decorated room to the ashen-gray sky overhead. The wind howled like a starved wolf as it passed through punctures in the walls made by flying bullets or fashioned for the barrel of a rifle to poke through from behind the stacks of sandbags piled up in a perforated ring around the building’s circumference. Bloodied bandages and empty, discarded Kalashnikov magazines littered the floor, dressed in a thin film of black debris and snowfall.
Residue of snow that still formed pieces of the man’s boot prints trailed forward, becoming less and less visible upon the floor, until disappearing at the base of something beautiful. The boy crept closer, careful now not to wipe away the remnants of the man’s path, before stopping at the object situated at the center of the room. His mother had played for years, and he would watch her, sitting cross-legged on the parlor room floor, listening to the sounds of the keys echoing inside the instrument’s reflective, black body. She would tell him about the men with funny names who had written these sounds that she played, and she told him music was all that made any sense at the end of a very long day. She told him the funny-named men were no longer alive, but that he could still hear them speak when she pressed her fingers against the ivory. Her piano was a conduit to the deceased. His mother was a mystic, performing wordless séances, communicating with men she’d never met. It was magic. There was no other way for the boy to describe it.
He stepped forward and sat upon the piano’s bench with the reverence of a priest approaching the altar, and the aged wood creaked beneath his weight. Though he had watched his mother play many times, he had never gathered the courage to learn, himself. It was a powerful magic that he felt was beyond his ability or understanding. As his hands hovered over the keys, an idea came to him that struck at the center of his chest, and a bolt of electricity erupted up through his spine, shocking his fading senses back into a state of ecstatic awareness. But before he could enact his plan, a noise like gargling water jerked the boy away from his concentration.
Propped against the corner wall like a soiled ragdoll, eclipsed from view behind a stack of sandbags, was a man. The boy shot to his feet, the piano bench screeching across the floor as he pulled away. A murder of crows flew up from their perch upon the splintered high beams, cawing and flapping, and disappeared out through the gaping ceiling. The man’s eyes were open, wide and glazed, and dark red blood dribbled from his mouth, staining his black and gray military fatigues. He grasped a pistol in his hand, held close to his chest like a rosary. His eyes followed as the boy approached, but he remained silent. The man’s chest heaved with labored breaths. His boots were large and black, and they had led the two to each other.
The flag stitched to the man’s uniform was that of the boy’s own country. It was the first of this flag the boy had seen since watching its removal from the capital city’s square on a television screen. The boy thought to speak something in their native tongue, but couldn’t find the words. He kneeled down before the man and watched the blood bubble out in spurts from between his trembling lips. Without any other response formed, the boy pulled his hand away from the wound in his side, focusing upon the man’s face, and allowed, for a moment, the blood to drip onto the floor. The man watched the drops fall, and looked at the hole in the boy’s body, and he nodded, the muscles around his jaw straining and forming a knowing grimace. Me too, the boy seemed to say, and me too, was what the man seemed to articulate back. Words wouldn’t change what had happened, and words wouldn’t change what was to come, and together, they seemed to understand this.
The man reached out a hand, and the boy took it with his own, enveloped by its size, the skin scabbed and calloused. His armored chest began to convulse, and shallow breaths squeezed out through the blood in little puffs. The man’s grip weakened, and the boy held tighter, as if attempting to transfer any of his remaining strength into the dying man’s body. He could see the life in his eyes leaving. It twinkled and drained into the refracting sunlight captured within the tears sliding down the man’s cheek. I have a plan, the boy wanted to say. We will both be fine because I have a plan.
As his hand slipped away from the boy’s grasp and fell upon the floor, and his tears containing the final light of life dropped from the man’s face, a distant rumbling like miles of thunder struck the world outside. The boy listened but didn’t get up, didn’t look away, for he knew what made those sounds, but he didn’t know what it was like to watch a person leave the earth. It was like watching the shadow of a sunset washing over a green field, a dark but transparent veil blanketing something that still retained its beauty.
The sounds of the mechanical storm came closer with each passing moment, and the walls shook after each concussive blast, and birds flew across the collapsed ceiling overhead. The boy stood and approached the piano. The inescapable feeling that he was meddling with something otherworldly paralyzed the boy as he sat down before the instrument. It dwarfed him in size and he was reminded of his feet fitting within the man’s boot prints in the snow.
Another thunderous explosion released the boy from his stupor, and he held his hands over the keys, letting the blood flow freely from his side. It was warm on his skin, and prickled as it ran down his pant leg and onto the floor. His consciousness was becoming muddled, and thoughts ripped loose from his mind, disappearing somewhere behind his blurring vision. The thunder grew and widened beyond the walls of the cathedral, building in volume and intensity like the crescendo of an orchestral piece. For the first moment in his short life, the boy understood time to be a finite mechanism, and he had to make his performance before the inevitable end of his tenuous relationship with its existence. He pressed down on the keys with all of his fingers at once, and a harsh, booming clang not unlike the sound of the approaching storm rang out and echoed across the open room. With everything left in his ability, the boy tried to picture his mother, and her piano, and the sounds she created to talk to the funny-named men. He spread his fingers wider, and pressed down on different keys at separate times from one another. The piano cried out, a pained, melancholic noise, the notes yelping and hopping inside the instrument’s body, and again the boy tried, placing the image of his mother at the center of his mind. Can you hear me? he thought. Help me find you. Please. Please. Please find me.
The storm struck over and over, the weight of its onslaught now so close it vibrated inside the boy’s chest. Blood dripped from the piano bench like a metronome, like a ticking clock slowly reaching midnight. His eyelids grew heavy, and the ends of his fingers tingled and numbed against the cold, ivory keys. This must be it, he thought. The magic. It’s happening. He turned to the man’s body slumped against the corner wall, his black boots jutting out, their dirtied soles facing his direction, the steel tips pointing up to the exposed sky. Don’t worry. She’s coming. She’ll take us both. Just hold on for a few more moments.
Spots formed before his eyes, expanding out and melding together into a bright light, and the ground vibrated beneath his feet. The boy looked up into the gray sky as he played, into the calm eye of the storm, and saw the clouds dissolve around the light that burned and pulsed in rhythm with the notes that communicated in a language he’d never spoken. Through the foreign instrument the boy talked in tongues, an ancient incantation, like Noah parting the Red Sea. The arms of the angels reached out through the light, grasping at the air as the marching apocalypse turned the world to blood and filled the boy’s mouth with the acrid taste of burnt flesh.
The great light grew and grew, becoming a tangible force overhead, blinding in its strength, and still the boy played the keys, as the skin on his arms sloughed and melted away beneath the doorway he’d opened. The cathedral walls cracked and fell, and the light poured in like water from a crumbling dam, erupting across every nerve ending, the fire he’d summoned coming to life upon and around him, lifting the boy away from the piano, away from the earth, and into the light of his creation.
In the moment of frozen time, airborne, the angels with their hands out to save him, the boy gazed down at the last tick of the broken clock and saw the man beside him, separated from its failing mechanics, floating forward, leading him towards their saviors’ grasps. The cathedral floor had disappeared into a lake of flames, the piano engulfed, and the boy looked away, and with the last spark of light stopped within his chest, he extended his arm alongside the man, and felt the touch of the angel’s hand. She pulled him into the ethereal plane, and her warmth radiated into his mind, the pain of the earth below ripped out from his being as the final spark ejected from his body. It floated away into the glow of beyond, the final piece of the door, and exploded into a kaleidoscope of images projected across the swirling light that absorbed him.
The images played out for the boy the entirety of his life in fast-forward, every second that led to the angel’s hand in his, until time had caught up with its very last tick, and like a massive screen in a movie theater, the images conjoined into the present moment, and all that existed was the infinite presence of the angel above, pulling him closer into the light’s embrace. Upon the screen her face was finally made clear, and the boy smiled as the world below sunk into the depths of mankind’s hellfire, and reached its end.
“You came,” he said.
JACK MOODY is the author of the novel Crooked Smile, the short story collection Dancing to Broken Records, and the novella The Monotony of Everlasting. He is a contributor to the literary newspaper The Bel Esprit Project and Return magazine. His stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Maudlin House, Scatter of Ashes, Punk Noir Magazine, Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and many others. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @jack_is_moody.