Her chest rose and fell. A gentle, steady rhythm, accompanied by soft snores and the rustle of sheets as her legs moved beneath the blanket.
Golden light was beginning to seep through the blinds. It kissed her face, peaceful in sleep. For a moment, he was tempted to capture the vision. His fingers twitched for a pencil and a sheet of paper, but he stifled the impulse. He got ready for work instead, shrugged on a jacket and pressed a kiss to her temple. In her sleep, she turned into his warmth.
Outside the flat, signs of life stirred feebly, sluggishly. There were some like him, dressed in bland suits, buying coffee with baggy eyes and sallow cheeks, sleep-deprived and sombre. He joined the queue, and ordered his usual. The warming sun and hot coffee did little to lift his spirits. There was no spark of excitement for the coming day; it had been doused long ago.
He sat down at a bench in the park. He only had perhaps five minutes before he really had to head off to work. But when work was crushing, oppressive waves of dullness and uniformity, five minutes was a precious relief.
A year ago, he wouldn’t have been working at this job. A year ago, his wife hadn’t been laid off yet and he still sold his paintings. Together, they had brought in enough to purchase furniture for their new flat. They had even talked, in the night, in the quiet, of bringing a new life into the world.
Looking out at the city, he could almost think that everything was the same. The skyscrapers still stood tall and burnished, reaching up to touch pale clouds that drifted, aimless and gentle. He had painted this scene last year, and everything had looked the same then. It was hard to imagine that beyond this preserved haven was a world ravaged by war.
It was the people that cracked the illusion. They—he—moved about, faces set in dark, cheerless casts. Ghosts with dragging feet. They were a stark reminder that the city was not whole. That with every passing day and every bit of news that told of more death and more horrors, the heart of the city withered a little more.
He sighed, standing. He had lingered long enough; it was time to get a move on. The half-drunk cup of coffee was tossed into the bin, its lingering bitterness turned ugly and stale in his mouth.
The bus stop was on the other side of the park, and he set a brisk pace for himself. The wind rustled the brown-leafed trees, cold and whistling. It wrapped around his body, wriggling between the buttons of his shirt and pressing through to chill his body. It carried with it a hum of chatter, the sound of birds, a low noise like thunder—
His head tilted skywards. Greyed clouds shifted overhead, patched with gaps of blue. No lightning flashed, yet the thunderous sound grew louder—too loud. And too steady, he thought as his pulse quickened. Absent were the lulls and crescendos of true thunder; instead, there was a whine, high-pitched and angry.
The plane came and went in an instant. So quickly, that he hardly glimpsed it. The thunderous roar faded with it. Something fell from the sky. He saw it—he knew what it was—he turned—he ducked his head—
There was a frozen moment. He felt the slight tremble of the earth beneath him. There was a pond nearby, and its water rippled gently. All was quiet, even the birds. Almost peaceful.
Then he saw it. His shadow stretched long and narrow before him, though he faced the sun. Something bloomed on the ground, a bright shadow. The noise came, an ear-shattering boom, and with it, the illusion of peace was gone—people screamed, some tried to flee. But the heat came quickly. He felt it at his back, growing, searing. Impossible to outrun.
He thought of his wife, asleep and unaware. At least she would die peaceful, he thought, as a jagged, unforgiving terror cut through him.
The pond shuddered and roiled—its waters burned red and black, fire and ash, distorted and unnatural in its reflection. Then it was buried and gone, along with the nameless dead.