This story is by Lucia Jakobsson and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When the moon skid between the opposite houses, Lilli placed a weightless kiss on his forehead. Her long hair passed stroking, the lock clicked and she was gone. Pertti stared the flaky ceiling for a while and gave up on sleep. A blank -13°F morning tailed him to the kitchen. The electricity was out again and he let the fire perish during the night. He stood hunchbacked in front of the window, toyed with fate – and snipers, almost spotted the miniature Lilli in the third-floor window of the Saint Mary’s Military Hospital across town. With wobbling hands, he made coffee and disturbed Reea’s sleep with the damn noisy kettle.
“Go back to sleep, honey. I’m just making coffee and listening to the news.”
She had puffy eyes. Demolition dust entered everywhere, no matter how many times he wiped the floor.
“We expect an attack any minute now! All citizens are expected to take cover…” the anchor screamed a glorious sermon and he killed the radio. Sound of barefoot feet when Reea slapped across the dust and sat by kitchen table in pajamas. The floor felt freezing to him but she didn’t seem to mind.
“You must make my hair today. Dad, you promised.”
He found no answer.
He decided to mumble a consent. To quiet her.
He fetched the last piece of baked pig skin and Reea chewed on the edge with those pearly whites. Most of her happy babble escaped his ears. The fifth birthday approaching, finish polishing the wooden toy horses. Remember the dress, he scribbled on a stained note when an explosive sound landed on top of the house and deafened the room. Flashes of light followed. Phosphorous white bleached the morning darkness, glittering window shards rained on them when pressure wave followed and the apartment door flew open. Hinges broke, wood cracked. Sweat glued the coarse shirt against his back. He grabbed her in slow-motion, dived through the hallway landing into the elevator. He needed to close eyes but fear forced them wide open, jammed a pounding heart in mid-throat while her high-pitched scream filled him. Through a narrowing tunnel he witnessed the outer wall turn white-hot. Houses around the closed yard leaned towards right, loose bricks flew sideways, timber caught fire midair. A torrent of debris cascaded behind the corner, defying laws of physics. A loud rumble divided the air. Lightning passed from heaven to earth and the floor shook. When the sky lit furious red, when the dogs of hell galloped across the sky, he squeezed Reea and she squeezed him back. Ash, dirt, remains rained down rattling. Smell of burning concrete made him gag. He vomited a tiny puddle of yellow liquid. A pause. Silence.
“Stay inside the elevator!”
He entered the apartment on all fours. Puffy clouds of ash protruded from the empty windows and he averted, held breath. He grabbed the two rucksacks always ready. Wooden window frames spitted embers on the floor. Deafening explosion still ringing in ears, he took the radio, gas masks from the kitchen table. He tucked the wedding photo inside breast pocket and entered the elevator clutching the dosimeter and iodine tablets. A half pill for her and a whole one for him. Bitter tablet stuck to the throat and he reached for a water bottle. He ransacked both rucksacks. Fuck! What a stupid bastard he was. He forgot water.
He put the mask with brand-new filters on her, tightened the straps. He lit the flashlight which dropped from his trembling hands and rolled across the elevator floor. Cheeks flushed, heart palpitated. Gravity pressed him down with a long deep exhalation. He turned the dials frantically but the radio remained unresponsive, the dosimeter stayed blank. He shook the dosimeter until breath jammed at the back of throat. The EMP pulse broke it. He didn’t know when it was safe to leave. All was lost.
Green display blinked. A flickering count steadied at forty-eight rad.
Gamma rays, alpha, beta…the slot indicating radiation type was empty. He had no courage to shake the meter again. He removed gloves and wiped dust from the display. The wedding photo pressed against his chest and he almost allowed Lilli into his head. Back up, turn away. Don’t crack now.
Reea was silent and it struck him she might be in shock.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded, eyes steady and bright.
“This is a safe place. We’ll stay here for a while.”
His voice rang rigid and shallow. He tried smiling but it came out phony. They had no hope, no hope at all. She curled into his lap, warm and comforting.
Reea slept restless and coughed. On a piece of broken mirror, he saw the reflection of himself, the haunted eyes. He swallowed the sobs not to wake her. Forty rad in the meter, no water. He blamed himself and steadied her sleeping against the shimmering elevator corner. When he entered the corridor the dosimeter count jumped and the device sounded a pitched alarm: 200, 300, 400 rad. He retreated. Fuck! They should walk out of the hot zone now, get as far as possible. He had no idea how much Reea could take and he, he was too old for this kind of shit. Dust danced in the flashlight, burned particles floated in the sub-zero air. He wrapped more clothes around Reea and tried to sleep. The image of drinking was more pressing now, heavy and urgent. Fear stopped him from entering sleep. He thought of ice cubes falling and breaking the dark surface of a Coke. A headache, he was light-headed and weak.
“Dad, I’m thirsty. My throat is sore.”
Her eyes were large and white through the plexiglass of the mask. He picked the alarm in her voice and connected the dots: dehydration. It struck him that she might die and he would be alone.
“Stay here. Don’t go out if I fall asleep. We go together. Do you understand?”
“I want something to drink.”
“I know honey, we have no water. I promise to find some when we go out.”
Frost knitted the plexiglass with flower patterns. Twenty-five rad. He took the mask off, inhaled deep, exhaled misty clouds. In a moment’s judgement, he took her mask off. They had to eat. He opened the rucksack and rationed two army survival biscuits into her tiny palm. She nibbled on it like a mouse and complained of thirst again. She blinked frequently, rubbed the eyes which were dry and irritated. He could survive three days without water, had no idea how long she could hold on. He went through the rucksacks again. No water. God, how stupid he was.
A tiny spider walked across the elevator floor with unsure legs. He didn’t have the heart to squash it. She sighed, leaned on him and the touch of the living was encouraging.
“Dad, I have to pee.”
Her tap on his shoulder, he startled awake still thinking everything was okay. He searched for a balance while blood pressure leveled and he remembered where he was.
“I’ll go check. You have to wait, five minutes, okay?”
He let the girl do her business in the hallway while he pressed ear on the locked neighbor’s door. Total absence of voices. The neighbors were loud bastards. Outside the flashlight’s domain darkness played tricks on him. Shadow moved in the corner of eye. A hundred rad in the corridor. The count descended into steady twelve rad when they sat on sleeping bags, side by side on the elevator floor.
Zero rad appeared surprisingly humble. No fanfares.
He lifted her without effort, stepped outside into the shattered street. The scenery beat him down. The city was flattened rusty brown, clouds sailed fast over the land. She was already unconscious. Not a single road led out of the city without piles of scorched cars and bodies melted into unity. People who tried to get out immediately. No landmarks left to tell the direction. Finally, a road sign. The grass beside the E12 highway was scorched yellow, wind picked up dry sand. He placed his cheek against her mouth, a faint shallow breath swept his skin.
God, one supermarket, a small kiosk. Something, please!
Corpse-like creatures appeared from the floating smoke, their skin littered with leaking blisters and fabric burned into flesh, they hobbled on skeleton feet. Some fell into ditches, couldn’t climb up anymore. They tried to grab him, the last straw. He covered her eyes, then the ears, not knowing which was more important. Three times he debated if Lilli was still alive but kept walking away. He felt Reea’s hair with parched fingers, her pair of tangled braids and the glittering pink butterfly hair clips.
He didn’t face her when the second sun exploded in the lower atmosphere, but he felt the tiny hand inside his.
Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, does it?