This story is by Celia Tsang and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The stark nakedness of winter lay bare as the chilly wind slithered its way through every crick and crack – the occasional flutter of rotting leaves signalling its eerie presence. Silence stretched over the park as an ancient essence of veiled wariness lingered heavily on those who bothered to venture through the stubborn layers of moss and weeds that had gradually gathered up over time.
There was a distinct feeling.
Perhaps it was nostalgia or just exhaustion wreaking its havoc. An almost resigned look flashed across dark obsidian orbs, still sharp and alert even after all these years. An old man hobbled over to a lone bench, seemingly out of place despite the drably appearance.
His fingers fumbled around, more out of old age than the cold, before he produced a simple cup of tea from his meagre belongings. There was a slight pause in his movements. A simple jerk of his thumb and a slight shake of his head before he took a deep sip.
It scalded his tongue badly. Yet the old man made no expression to acknowledge the burning liquid slipping down his throat apart from the slight crease between his brows that was barely distinguishable from the mass of wrinkles adorning his once youthful features.
It really did burn, he idly thought. The pain was ignored as he took another sip of the too-hot tea.
A discreet scan of his surroundings only served to summon waves of memories. The images crashed down with the weight of a thousand-ton hammer. Blunt and unwelcome.
A gurgled sound managed to escape from his throat. A low whine from his barely used voice box. His fingers idly tapped the tapered edge of the wooden bench, instinctively slipping into a familiar oddly patterned rhythm. He felt, rather than saw the flashes of colours before him. Of brown, black, of yellow, green and lots of blue, and of red. He had always found it to be a rich colour…a hauntingly rich colour.
The wearied weeping willow still stood where it used to. Though, its trunk seemed even more hunched than what he could recall. It was the only form of remote life left in this ill-abandoned area.
He can almost make out the faint outlines of those familiar figures, the same patched up clothing, the dry straw-like hair, and the bright, bright eyes. Alive.
How long had it been? How long had it been since-
He and his friends had never been perfect. Far from it in fact. There was the forever present gnawing of hunger and the biting cold that could never be shielded by the thin scraps of fabric, but they were all alive. Still together and breathing. It wasn’t quite happiness.
But that was okay.
Feeling the bile threatening to rise, the old man hastily took another gulp of the tea that had been idly swishing about. It was still much too hot. A slight grimace fleeted across his features as the scalding liquid entered his system. He stretched his limbs, his bones groaning from the hunched posture that he had been subconsciously channelling. It wouldn’t do now to slip back into that meek personality after all these years. It simply would not do.
The wind was still as harsh and unforgiving as it had been back in his childhood days. Their country was one forever plagued by the never-ending cold. Food was always scarce. Stragglers were common. It was the perfect place. Perfect with all its desperate citizens willing to take a bet.
His group was only one of many. The one with all the orphans and limbless ones that no other wanted. He had been the smallest then – the younger ones never made it past that winter.
His orbs took on a strange shine as painfully buried memories continued to surface. Yet the old man’s attempts of suppression and forgetting were only half-hearted at best.
He acted as the eyes and ears of the group. It was one of the reasons why no one complained when he was given a share of what little food they had. He survived, other didn’t. It was as simple as that, for they were all just meagre ants in the face of mother nature’s cruellest tantrums.
When he heard about it for the first time, he had been hooked immediately. Blindingly searching for more on the supposed “way out”. At first it was just a couple hushed whispers from the drunks at the bar. Then a few rumours here and there. It soon started popping up in the conversations of those that he could only silently stalk from the shadows.
So he brought back the news. Told them about the ‘cure’, the way to escape the hunger and cold.
They believed him. He believed himself. How he wishes they hadn’t.
(Oh, how gullible he had been back then, bounding back with bright hopeful eyes on the basis of whispered rumours.
Oh, how naïve they had all been.
And oh, how painful it is, to sin with every breath you take.)
The old man’s eyes are closed, in half-acceptance as he desperately reaches for his cup of tea to ease the sudden scratchiness in his mouth. The liquid ruthlessly scorches his throat. His furrowed features smooth back into a blank mask of feigned peacefulness. The old man sits, back straight and head held high, but the free raze of the proud wolf has long since dwindled down to a lonely howl.
Black orbs gaze into hazy memories, the images perhaps even idealised by the undetectable touches of time. The old man throws his head back in a wild motion, the scars on his neck rippling at the sudden movement. His hand moves forward to shield his eyes from the burning sun. Black eyes peek out from between his fingers, heavy and contemplative. Deep wreathing breaths grip his frail heart with a tight leash. The times have changed, but here he is again, a simple relic left behind, lost from once happier times.
The group had been sceptical. Charging ahead with that wild whim of childish confidence, he changed their minds.
He just wanted people to stop dying.
Going around, persuading people, urging them to take the risk. He had always had a way with words. One of the few talents that allowed him to come by the ‘cure’ in the first place. He was just so, so scared of being hungry.
“Those that gather more people to take the cure will be rewarded with more food.”
Fear makes people do strange things. Awful things. But regret, it’s a rather pointless feeling, is it not?
The cure came with the offer of warmth and food. They took it. The whole group. The result of all his efforts.
Lined up like the helpless lambs they were, the truth of the cure emerged from the depths. Their country was small, a tiny spot on the edges of the map. It was a country filled with starving people, isolated from the rest of the world by the endless mountain ranges.
Outsiders. What a strange word. Everyone was clueless.
What a strange world it was too. Experimenting. To have your whole being completely and utterly changed.
(It’s nice to not feel hunger, right?
Even if it means that you’re no longer human at the core.
It’s hard to describe.
When all of a sudden, you’re just not…you, anymore.)
The old man takes another sip of the tea. His hands grasp the cup with tense white knuckles. The liquid surges through his system with an unforgettable vengeance.
When you’re pitted against the whole world, it’s a difficult time to endure. Quite hard to survive when you’re hunted down by what seems like everyone else.
The ‘cured’ ones. The cursed ones, The monsters.
There are so many “if only they hadn’t”- but he’s the only one left now. There’s no group to go back to.
He’s a tired old man. A penitent person hanging on to livelihood, with the lasts of his grasps.
There’s a cure now, a cure for the cure.
He wonders if it’s worth it, to willingly offer yourself up as a sacrifice for a second time. There’s no one he knows who’s still alive to enjoy the products of his meagre efforts. It’s been years, years in the dark. The brash little boy is now a tired old man.
It’s not enough. But there’s really nothing- he’s just so tired.
The winter wind howls. The scattered leaves disperse. The wind slithers about – cautious of the orange embers that burn in the sinking sun. The park is alight. Mosses and weeds are engulfed by the embers of a raging fire.
There is an old abandoned park. Somewhere far away from the rapidly expanding city. And in this park, there is an old man, calmly sitting on a wooden bench with nothing, but a cup of tea in hand. Unflinching in the face of scalding heat.