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The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

By RobertDavies All Rights Reserved ©

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Blurb

Watch a colourful armageddon unfold through the jaded yet childlike eyes of Silas Stanley, an escaped psychiatric patient who must remember his lost past and find his dying daughter. As the world shudders to an end around him, this overwritten cringefest of author's regret is less of a grim story of survival and more a journey to redemption.

Chapter 1

One after another the white clouds are fleeting;
Every heart this May morning in joyance is beating
Full merrily;
Yet all things must die.
The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.

- Tennyson

It all ended there, on that bright summer day. They told me there was a fire in the sky after the sun had gone down, but I didn't see it. The only thing I remember is running.

My breath burned and my muscles screamed, but somehow I kept on running. The dawn was beginning to silhouette London's horizon against a pale backlight, a panorama of buildings separated from me by the seemingly endless distance of dying and waterlogged grass that I ran across. Its verdant green had been swallowed by a slick and oily residue from the now-receded Thames floodwater, and it gave off a sickly stench that stung my nostrils as I pulled my breaths in. I ran toward a row of large and tangled trees lining the road some way ahead of me, the closest thing I could see to aim for. In the new light I saw their twisted branches reaching, stripped bare by windstorms, still holding onto a few leaves as if they were their last hope for life.

I could feel my footsteps hitting the soft ground with damp splashes as I went, my old trainers already black and soaked through with cold and dirty water, my faded blue jeans and white T-shirt spattered with it. I was grateful when the grass finally sloped uphill toward the wide road, clearing the flood's water-level and returning to a dull shade of its former green.

The ground was firmer underfoot, unsteadying my tired legs, and it met me hard when I finally fell. I collapsed helpless and lost by the deserted roadside, closing my eyes against the sudden pang of dawn sunlight shooting out from between the buildings. Tears trailed in cold and tiny streams down my cheeks, the rock-bottom of exhaustion carving me hollow. For a few moments there was only the impatient beat of blood against my eardrums and the bellows of my breath, and my whole body ached.

When I had the strength to lift my head, I looked along the road. It bordered the expanse of grass I had crossed, the bare trees I had aimed for lined up just across the other side from me, and some distance away in both directions it re-entered the shadows of the city's legions of buildings. Even from here I could see they were ruined; their silhouetted edges were jagged, and they looked empty, cracked, lined up like rows of toothless mouths.

I held on tight to the small book I had carried with me. It was still wrapped in the rough and tattered old off-white cotton pillow case, and I clutched it to my chest like a comfort, feeling a subtle strength soaking into me. Wincing against my searing and shaking legs, I forced myself to stand, powered by a sense of desperation. I knew I had to find her.

As I stumbled onto the road and followed it toward the direction of the rising sun, I raised a hand to shield my eyes against it. It was just starting to climb into the sky, forcing itself up as I had done, and its piercing flashes hit my eyes erratically from broken panes in the towering buildings far ahead. From here the whole city looked like a shell. It was abandoned of the movement needed to keep it alive, and it felt bereft even at this distance. The veins of its streets were missing the oxygen of people.

I felt like I was caught in the eerie eye of a storm as I walked. The sound of my breath gradually quietened and the heartbeat pounding in my ears began to soften, but all I heard above my footsteps were the subtle waves of a faint breeze. No traffic, no voices, no birdsong. There was nothing but drifting air, whistling through broken buildings and calling to no-one. It carried a quiet sadness, like a neglected graveyard.

My footsteps slowly regained their energy, and my breath began to return to me, until after the brief oasis of grass and trees the road was finally beginning to enter the concrete of the city. All along its length, its surface was dark with long shadows cast by glimpses of sun between the tall ruins, and I paused to take in my surroundings.

There were cracks in the walls and in the road, cars crashed and left at strange angles, and huge pieces of fallen and uprooted concrete. There were seas of shattered glass that flooded the road's entire width, and I looked up at the gaps where they had broken away and fallen.

“Hello?” I called out, my voice weak and choked at first.

I cleared my throat.

Hello?” I tried again.

My voice was deeper and more powerful this time, but it still echoed away into nothing. As silence closed back in I nervously realised that I had no idea who or what still lay in the ruins, and felt some relief when there was no reply. I ran a hand through my long and tangled hair and continued quietly along the main road.

I looked around in wonder as I went, awed by the thorough completeness of the devastation. Nothing was left intact. The damage had somehow made the city and its buildings' shapes unrecognisably alien. There was a fine layer of dust and sand over everything, and huge sections of road and pavement were coated in a soggy layer of escaped paper, the way leaves would have covered them in autumn. It was utterly lifeless, and the more I saw the deeper I felt the shock of its enormity gradually settle in my stomach, the realisation of a whole city broken beyond repair. I wondered with dread what sort of chaos had reigned here. Sometimes I saw blood or torn clothing caught in the wreckage, flying in remembrance of the violence visited on its panicking refugees, either by the disasters or by each other. It raised a panic of my own, a panic for her safety, and it fuelled my determination.

I have to find her.

As I walked I began to look into the cave-like darkness of gutted shops and through missing windows, keeping my eyes sharp for something I could use, anything at all to start searching for her. I knew that I needed supplies, that I needed to know where I was and where I was going, and that I needed a way to get there, but I could not process the jumble of thoughts coherently. My mind felt dull and frustratingly vague, and I could not tell whether it was from the exertion of running or from the years I had left behind in the place I had run from. I knew that all I needed was a starting point, but the hope of calculating and finding one seemed as easy to grab as the dark and smoky clouds that I now saw swirling and dispersing restlessly overhead.

I kept one eye on them, cautious of being caught in a sudden storm, but it wasn't until noon when the sun hung directly above me that they slowed long enough to gather and close in. They had now solidified and gained a threatening weight in their dark underbellies, sinking down to press against the city and chill its air, blocking out the sun's warmth. I hurried my pace as I carried on, reawakening the ache in my legs, but I soon felt the first spots of cold rain on my face.

The wind roused itself into sudden gusts that tugged at the knotted strands of my overgrown hair, and it threw more rain at me. I narrowed my eyes against it and hugged the buildings as I went on, finding some small shelter from the increasing rainfall, glass crunching underfoot. The drops grew heavier until they exploded into a freezing torrent, soaking my thin T-shirt in no time and stiffening my body in shock. I began to run, one hand holding the wrapped book close to me as I hunched protectively over it.

My exhausted legs gave way again further along the road's uneven surface, and I fell. Sudden sharp pains shot through my knees and the palm of the hand I had thrust out, grazing the broken shards. I looked down at the small trickles of blood, diluted and washed onto the pavement by the rain, then shakily arose and carried on.

I felt the unbearable mix of defeat and desperation battle inside me as my tired muscles screamed against going any further, and I stumbled onward toward a tall building that appeared to be made of glass and black steel. The large, thick windows lining the building's front were cracked but remained in place, and I peered in through the wide double doors. It was dark inside, but I saw the shapes of white sofas around a low table, and beyond them a long desk disappearing into darkness along the left wall. On the other side were what appeared to be tables and chairs scattered across the floor, but I could not see much else. I guessed that it was once a hotel lobby, and I pressed my shoulder up against the door and pushed as hard as my shivering body would let me, until it scraped open in its bent frame.

I stepped in and stood still, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dim light inside, listening to the roar of the rain behind me. The floor I stood on was solid, made of some kind of imitation marble, and a dark, jagged crack ran all the way from where I stood right up to the back wall, where I could just about make out rows of lift doors. A layer of sandy dust covered everything, interspersed by small islands of fallen plaster, and huge cracks spread like lightning from the high ceiling and forked across the plain-white walls. The unframed canvasses that had once hung on them were now lying face-down and fallen, lining the floor around the edges.

I smelled dampness on the air, and I turned and forced the door closed, shutting out the sound of rainfall. For a moment there was only my own anxious breathing in the stillness, and then my stomach grumbled loudly in hunger. I ventured further in, and on the rightmost wall I spotted a bar, covered in a glittering shower of glass that spilled over onto the floor in front of it. The area all around it was carpeted in deep red, its colour diluted by the pale dust, and equally-red leather chairs were strewn around the dozen or so small white round tables that lay in capsized disarray. I headed over to see if I could find any food or water.

Stepping slowly around the broken pieces of ceiling and scattered furniture, I passed a tall and toppled white shelving unit that had heaved its contents of fashionable and exotic ornaments across the floor in all directions, and now leaned like an injured soldier upon the chairs and tables behind. I carefully navigated around the vicious shards, and walked over to the glass-covered bar.

The sickly-sweet smell hit me immediately with surprising strength. I peered over and saw the floor behind the bar thick with smashed bottles that had fallen from their mounts on the wall, their contents mixed into a potent cocktail. Against the wall was a neat row of low refrigerators, lined up with their clear doors intact but hanging ajar. A jumble of bottles had avalanched their way out of each one, eager to join the mess on the floor, and with a surge of hope I spotted plastic bottles of mineral water among them. Stuffed into nearby wooden corner shelves were packets of peanuts, and my hope turned into triumph as I laughed out loud to myself. I set the still-wrapped book down on the carpet and began to carefully make my way behind the bar, crunching gingerly over the glass.

My heart raced as I moved as slowly as a stalking cat, dreading a shard suddenly spiking up through my trainers, or even losing my balance and pitching headlong into the spiteful ocean and bleeding to death, but I eventually reached the water and the peanuts without so much as slipping.

“Yes!” I cried out victoriously into empty air.

I stooped, grabbing as many bottles and packets as I could find and tossing them over the bar and onto the carpet on the other side. Then, straightening up precariously, I used one of the bottles to sweep some of the glass from the bar, and I vaulted over. Relieved to be back in safety, I grabbed as much as I could hold and took them to one of the leather seats near a small round table, dropping them all down on the dusty tabletop along with the book.

With the promise of rest now here I suddenly felt how weary my body was, and a shocked cloud of plaster dust billowed into the air as I landed heavily in the chair, making me cough. I tore open one of the plastic water bottles and gulped down its contents, feeling the cool liquid rushing down my dry throat like new life in a parched land, and I opened several packets of nuts at once. My stomach purred its approval as I ate them in great handfuls, savouring their taste, washing their salt and grease down with more water. It was the most satisfying meal I'd had in years.

Sitting back into the soft chair, I realised that I had spent so many of those years trapped in that nightmare of a building that my escape still didn't feel real. It had been far too long since I had last felt the simple pleasure of relaxing into the embrace of a good chair, and my wet clothes rubbed loudly on the leather as I sank into it.

A smile crept upon my face, fed by the satisfaction of a full belly and a slaked thirst, and the tension in my muscles seeped into the soft leather while my eyelids slowly sank in rhythm with the rain outside. I even heard myself let out a sigh of contentment, and that part of my soul that hadn't dared to rise up or float in so many years now drifted into dreams.

At first came the euphoria of simply surrendering to them, filled as they were with sunlight and sky, long grass and space and colours I had forgotten. Just for a few moments every shackle was left behind, even the inevitability of gravity, and I flew.

Then I dreamed of her, and it woke me.

My heart pounded as I sat upright in a room now swirling with darkness and panic. The muted sound of rain faded slowly back in past my breaths. I looked around me and saw only shadows. The last slivers of daylight were being pulled out of the room and down behind the horizon, and a chill crept into the air and soaked into my wet clothes, making me shiver with an aching cold.

I winced as the pain in my cut hand and my knees shot back to wake me fully, and I realised with surprise that I had slept the afternoon hours away. I stood, my still-sore muscles fighting the clinging damp of my clothes. I had to reorient myself after the freedom of my dreams, compress myself back into my heavy body, and remember the world where I lived.

I knew I would need somewhere to spend the night. The city's apparent desolation was no guarantee that I was alone. Its broken walls could have hidden any number of those who had been left behind like me. I feared what they could have become, driven deep into ruthlessness by their own desperation and hunger, and saw how they would haunt the night-shrouded ruins. I could never hope to outrun or outwit them on their own ground.

I picked up the book, still wrapped in its pillow case, and began to walk over to the long check-in desk, now just a shadow, and followed its dark shape toward the back wall. My eyes were as wide as a newborn's as I stumbled over unseen obstacles and debris, and they played tricks on me in the faded light. Shapes danced and whirled, sometimes a way off and sometimes so close that I jumped back in surprise, but I traced one hand along the desk's dusty surface to keep me earthed, grounded in the solidity of reality so that the darkness would not lure me into its abyss. Soon I felt myself hypnotised by the texture running beneath my fingers, until it became the only sense as all the others faded away. I was a giant, skimming my great hands over the earth.

It seemed to take an eternity before I reached the back wall, and finally found what I had hoped to find – the doorway to the stairs, tucked in the corner near the impassive row of metal lift doors. I smiled and pushed it open, feeling it almost as stiff as the front door, both of their thick frames having been misshapen by the movement of the building.

It opened into nothing, a blackness so devoid of light that it might have contained the end of all things. Drawing a nervous breath, I entered slowly. I kept my arms held out in front of me, wincing with the childish terror of what I might touch. Just then, as one foot and then the other kicked into something solid, I hesitantly stepped up and smiled to myself with relief that I had found the stairs. Reaching for the handrail and finding its smooth and dusty surface to my left, I felt my slow and apprehensive way up the rest of the flight.

This was, I reasoned, a hotel, and there should be at least a few rooms left intact enough for me to spend the night and gather my energy for the journey that lay ahead. If I was going to find her I'd need all the strength and every ounce of my wits that I could muster after the years that I had let both of them atrophy.

Despite my slow pace I felt my thighs burning as I made my painful way up, step by step, and on the first landing I was pleased to see a set of double doors with a pale light showing through the small squares of glass set in their wood. They opened when I pushed, although they were predictably stiff, and I stepped out into the corridor.

Its narrow length was gently lit by an out-of-sight moon, the light reflecting off pale and rain-soaked clouds outside and shining in through the large window at the corridor's end. Under its dim illumination I tried a few of the doors, but they would not budge and remained firmly locked into place.

I returned to the stairs, reluctant to climb further but desperate for somewhere to rest. I advanced out into the corridor at each floor, but all of the rooms that I tried were either locked or jammed. With each passing storey, however, I noticed with a mixture of caution and hope that the damage was increasing, and by the fifth the corridors had yielded and left some of its doors fallen and ajar.

I pushed one of them open and stepped into a medium-sized room just in time to see, through the huge and cracked window in the opposite wall, the black clouds roll back like a tide from the perfect moon's surface. It was almost full, its pale light soaking into everything and infusing a softness that I could feel as I walked into the middle of the room, and I simply stood just to be surrounded by it. The rain drifted into silence to give up for another day and left me in a stillness so profound that I was sure time had stopped.

Through the window, under the unfurling moonlight outside, the ghostly panorama of a ruined city faded into view. I stared, frozen as still as my surroundings. Miles of crooked and defeated buildings stretched out into the night, their walls crumbled in upon themselves or else thrown outwards.

A luxurious double bed lay before me beneath the window, its white covers smoothed over as if oblivious to everything that had happened, and I stumbled over and leaned on it to gaze out. There were no landmarks that I recognised, either because I was too far from them or because they had collapsed into the same rubble as everything else. From here it looked as if the whole earth were covered in ruins. There was something hopeless and final in the devastation, and it somehow terrified me that I might become trapped in it too.

My breath began to steam the glass, and I turned away and straightened up to look around me. The carpet was soft underfoot, and the colourless light from the moon painted it a silvery-grey. My shadow was almost invisible as it stretched thin across its entire width. I looked over at the large, dark wooden wardrobe in the one corner and saw a few clothes visible through its semi-opened doors, and there was a small matching bedside cabinet nearby, fallen and lying at an angle. That and the lamp lying next to it in the small, softly shining shards of its shattered bulb were the only clues that any violence may have befallen the orderly room. There was even a pair of brown shoes lying neatly on the floor by the bed next to a backpack, as if someone might still live here.

Stepping over to the wardrobe, its doors creaked with a pleasing familiarity as I opened them and looked inside. A long black overcoat hung there, and as soon as I saw it my stomach tightened with the sudden rush of long-untapped memories. Many years ago, in a whole other lifetime, I had worn a coat just like it. It broke through like a remembered dream, but the images were vague and blurred around the edges, and the mixed burst of emotion soon settled into forgetful confusion. What on earth happened to that coat? I wondered.

Shaking my head, I continued my search through the hanging clothes but found only white shirts and a waistcoat. Looking down at the floor of the wardrobe I saw a small black suitcase, and I bent to pull it out impatiently onto the carpet. I attempted to kneel before it but had forgotten the cuts on my knees, and with a growl of pained annoyance I straightened up and tossed the suitcase on the bed instead, sitting next to it.

It was made of some kind of tough material that was rough to the touch, but the tiny padlock on its zips was thankfully unlocked, so I opened it up. Inside I found several neatly-folded sweaters, two thick pairs of dark grey jeans, and so many black socks I wondered how their owner had made them all fit inside.

Whoever he was, he was fond of dressing in monochrome. I pictured him as an old silent-film star, still black-and-white as he stepped out from behind the cameras and went home.

Looking back into the wardrobe I squinted in the faint light and saw a large, plain white shopping bag sitting upright as if hiding. I went back over and leaned in, grabbing it by its handle. It was heavy in my grasp, and I set it down on the bed, opening it with all the excitement of opening a present.

I smiled broadly as I pulled out a wide shoebox. In the moonlight I saw that it was a brand new pair of leather walking boots, still sealed. Whoever had stayed in this room before me had spent a lot of money on them, and was probably even now cursing the earthquakes for having driven him out of the city while he was away from his room and all his things.

“Thank you,” I said cheekily, reasoning that a film star could always afford to buy another pair.

Spotting the large chest of drawers against the wall at the foot of the bed, I stood and went over to it, but it was empty. Another lamp lay on its side on top, along with a small television and an unplugged iron, both of them shaken into strange angles.

Almost in the corner of that wall was another doorway that caught my eye. I walked over and found it ajar, and it scraped slightly as I pushed it further open and peered in. With no windows it was as pitch-black as the stairway had been, but I opened the door wide enough to borrow the overflow of pale light that saturated the main room.

I had found the en-suite bathroom, its white tiled floor scattered with toiletries. They were nothing more than indistinct shadows in the darkness, but they bore the shapes of deodorants, shower gels, shaving gear, and things I didn't recognise.

On a whim, I fumbled my way to the shower and turned the taps. As expected, nothing happened, but I stayed and waited, keeping an ear out just in case, listening above my own breathing until I heard the pipes shudder.

I almost jumped. There was a distant banging and a loud groaning, as if a sleeping ogre had been awakened to do my bidding, and then, to my amazement, I first heard and then saw the glistening trickle of water falling from the shower head.

I held out my hand under the increasing stream, and laughed quietly. Somehow, somewhere, piping had stayed intact from this little room all the way to one of the hot water tanks. The water was no longer hot; in fact it felt as cold as the night outside, but to me it was a miracle. Quickly, I fought my damp clothes and clambered out of them, discarding them to step under the freezing trickle, alternately laughing with joy and howling with the cold. Anyone passing by in the deserted street down below would have thought some crazed wild animal had moved into the ruins and become trapped.

My eyes adjusted to the scarce light, and I found a small bar of soap still in its cradle on the small ledge in the shower cubicle. I lathered my whole body with it and scrubbed myself with the soft white flannel that had hung next to it, the soap burning inside the grazes on my hand and both knees, cleaning them with fire. I soaked my long and bedraggled hair, combing it hurriedly through with my fingers, painfully straightening out its knots, rushing as if each drop of water were the last.

Once I had washed away the last of the soap I stepped hurriedly out onto the smooth floor, feeling plaster dust under my wet feet, and grabbed all the towels I could find to wrap my achingly frozen and shivering body in them.

Standing half-naked in the doorway, I heard the pipes protesting once more, and I turned back to the shower just as the great ogre gave out and died. The spatter of the water's trickle retreated into the drip-drip of my soaking body, and the miracle was over.

I walked out onto the bedroom's soft carpet with my armful of towels, teeth chattering, and wrapped every part of myself in them until I felt as dry and cool as the moon that was still hanging outside. Then, with deep satisfaction, I went over to the bed and tore off the duvet. Landing clumsily on the sheets, still mummified in towels, the bed's fresh comfort surrounded me, and my body's warmth gradually returned as exhaustion pulled my eyelids closed.

Slowly I sank, illuminating the mysterious depths of sleep with the light of my bright dreams, until I felt I had lived a whole other life down there and loved all the same people all over again. Then, just like when I had dreamed before, I saw her in the distance, and as I reached for her the sudden power she roused in me woke me.

“Lucy?” I called out aloud into the room, sitting up in the bed, and then I sat silently as the real world abruptly replaced the dream around my pounding heart.

The sunlight was at first unbearably bright, unapologetically streaming into the room and aching inside my eyes. Outside the window, I saw last night's rain clouds skimming over as if shooed away by something more mighty. They cast fleeting shadows across my bed, and as I sat and watched, the looming greatness of a storm moved with slow purpose across the sun.

Beneath them, the city was lit up in patches of sunlight and cloud-shadows, and the insistent daylight only uncovered more ruin. In every direction from here until the hazy distance roofs lay open to the sky and glass glimmered like distant diamonds hidden in the wreckage. They cast an uneven shade upon the cluttered street below them, their walls hunched over and slowly succumbing to gravity. I sat and stared, paralysed, until I heard the thunder rolling in.

At first it was distant and harmless, then suddenly immediate and with such terrifying sharpness that I jumped, startled. It was deafening, vibrating through everything. I sat up on the edge of the bed and looked around me as the peculiar daytime darkness set by the clouds was illuminated in a split-second by a lightning flash. Another crash of thunder, and I felt the air become electric with a sense of urgency. A violent rain was unleashed against the window next to me, and I stood and let the now-loose towels fall from my body as I rushed to gather clothing.

I put on a pair of the thick grey jeans and several pairs of socks from the suitcase, then opened the box for the walking boots, tearing off the tags and labels to pull them onto my feet. They were slightly too big, but were padded into the right shape with the extra socks. As the thunder roared I threw on a white T-shirt, a white formal shirt, the black waistcoat from the wardrobe, two grey sweaters, and the long overcoat. Everything except the overcoat was just a little too short and hung wide from my tall, slim frame, but they would keep me warm. Afterwards, I went into the bathroom for the soap and the flannel I had used last night, and in the daylight that flooded in through the open door I saw a mirror hanging above the wash basin by the shower.

I paused for a moment, then went over, and I felt a slow and sinking shock as I caught sight of my reflection. Dark eyes stared back at me, recessed above gaunt cheekbones, and my pale skin was covered in a faint white lattice of faded scars. My equally-dark hair was just as wild as always, but I now spotted streaks of grey which had also spread to the thickening layer of facial hair that was beginning to grow. I peered closer, slowly reaching up to touch the skin of my own face as if it were someone else's, feeling the raised welts of my scars like the seams of old memories. They woke something inside, and I frowned and tried to remember, but another flash of lightning lashed out with a peal of thunder so powerful I snapped back into the present, alarmed.

I shook my head and grabbed the soap and flannel, and rushed out. Opening the backpack by the bed, I found it empty, and dropped them inside. Picking up the book from where I had left it on the floor, I carefully unwrapped the tattered pillowcase that surrounded it and stared down at its brown cover, tenderly running my fingers over its canvas texture. It was more precious to me than my own life, and it softened my impatient heart just to hold it. I took the pillow from the bed and pulled off its pristine white cotton case, and lovingly re-wrapped the book in it before placing that too in the backpack.

Still not feeling fully awake, I collapsed down and sat on the side of the bed for a moment, pressing my hands into my face just to make sure this was real. The night had been so dark that this could still have been another current of dreams on the way back up through the ocean of sleep. I inspected the red and throbbing cuts on my left hand. They looked as sore as they felt. I screwed my eyes shut, feeling the pressure push swirls and patterns into my vision, and drew a deep breath.

Just then another rumble sounded through the floor, loudly rattling every loose thing in the building. I heard a window in a nearby room shatter with a loud crack, and my eyes snapped open as I realised that this was no longer just thunder. Everything began to move. A disoriented panic gripped me as the floor and walls seemed suddenly less solid. I tried to stand but was thrown immediately down to the floor, the thick carpet cushioning the bruising impact. I watched the wardrobe swing one way and then the other, and jumped in surprise as the chest of drawers hurled everything placed on top clattering loudly to the carpet. I cursed myself for staying so many storeys up, and prayed that the already-weakened building would hold.

I reached out and grabbed the backpack, still sitting obediently next to the pair of shoes. They were shining a marbled brown in the daylight, and their neatness looked ludicrous in the context of such chaos. I got up onto all-fours and tried once again to stand, staggering over to the door and wrestling with it until it suddenly opened, sending me lurching backwards and almost falling to the floor again. I righted myself and launched through it, half-running and half-falling, fuelled by mindless survival. As I stumbled through the moving corridor I heard a deep and deafening roar behind me and, still running, I looked behind to see a huge piece of the ceiling falling in. I felt dust and small pieces of plaster billowing past and falling onto me. The building was collapsing.

Just then, as suddenly as it had started, the shaking stopped. I found myself disoriented for a few seconds as my surroundings resolved and became solid once more, like stepping from a boat back onto firm ground, and I faltered and nearly fell. I found the door to the stairway and forced it open, now even more jammed than before, and I ran down each flight of steps, leaping over lumps of plaster gauged out of huge cracks in the walls, hearing crashes sounding intermittently from the other storeys as I passed them. The distant hammering of rain grew nearer as I went, and when I reached the ground floor, I burst out into the lobby and ran over the cracked marble flooring to the front windows.

Many of them were now missing and shattered all over the pavement, and I stopped and stood in their empty frames, watching the rain and thunder roll past overhead and turn the rubble-strewn road into a torrent. The rain slowed in its intensity as it passed, and then reduced to almost nothing, ending as quickly as the earthquake. Breathlessly I smelled the fresh storm-scoured air that drifted past me into the building, and felt its energy spark new life into my dormant cells, its power subtle but unstoppable. Now that the city had been abandoned, it seemed that nature had moved its fierce soldiers in to reclaim its land.

I turned and went back to the bar, filling my backpack with the bottled water and packets of peanuts that I had thrown over it before, then I looked for and found the nearby entrance to the kitchens. It was a set of plain black double doors near the bar, and to my surprise they opened easily. Inside was a large, unlit room with its walls and floor tiled in white. Around the edges were heavy-duty stainless steel stoves and sinks and other things I did not recognise, while sat squarely in the middle was a matching steel worktop, and all of it was in complete disarray. Smashed bottles, puddles of oil and scattered cooking implements littered the floor along with various pots and pans, and every surface was now home to a hundred different kinds of sharpened knife.

I spotted a small fire extinguisher on the wall just inside and used it to prop the door open, letting in some light to guide my nerve-wracking way around the mess and the blades.

The smell of spoiled food was unpleasant but not unbearable, and I tried all of the steel doors and hatches along the way before I found the large refrigerators in the corner opposite the entrance. I found slices of ham and chunks of cooked lamb inside, kept cool simply by the lack of heat in here, and I tasted them. They were tender and still fairly fresh, so I ate a few, relishing their flavour, hoping they would fuel me for a while. I wrapped the rest in a nearby tea-towel and shoved them into my backpack. Several loaves of bread were also waiting patiently in the fridge, still sealed in their packets, and I took one of them for my backpack too.

With that I turned to leave, and on my way out I spied a small but vicious-looking serrated knife on the counter top. Not knowing who or what may be lying in wait for me out there, I took it, wrapped it in another tea-towel, and stuffed it into the inside pocket of my coat. I hoped I would never have to use it against another person.

Walking out through the doors I hurried past the debris of the bar and out through the gaping front windows, over the unsteady mountain of crunching glass, and onto the street. Only then did I stop to look up at the sky between the buildings towering above me. There were patches of pure blue now parting the restless clouds, making way for the morning sun once again, and as I stepped out of the shadows its rays exploded out in warmth across my face and painted the broken city golden. Seeing its light upon the ruins, I felt laughter once more well up inside me as I breathed deeply and set off.

There was a determined sense of adventure rising inside me as I walked. My mind began to race as my footsteps echoed through the damp and cracked streets and hollow buildings. Old neural pathways fired back into life as if waking from slumber, and I began to plan. I was clean and clothed. I had food and water. My needs were met. The next step was to find out exactly where I was, and then where I had to go. The rest I could work out afterwards.

Lucy must be waiting for me, I thought to myself, otherwise why would she call for me in my dreams?

I walked and walked. Sometimes I saw crows fly overhead and perch high above me, or land on the rubble in the road nearby only to fly away upon seeing me, and I would pause and smile in delight at them. It filled me with hope to see fellow signs of life, but it seemed they were all that was left. Apart from the gentle mist of rainwater being lifted by the warmth, and the sound of it dripping from the buildings, there was no other sound or movement.

The sun slowly rose high to beat down on me until the streets were like a desert between the cool shadows, and just then I saw a mirage of washed-out colour spilled out across the road ahead of me. In the heat-hazed distance it looked like a swirling flood that had to be forded, but as I drew closer I saw that a large book shop had blown its windows and thrown out thousands of books like a flock of downed birds. The storms had soaked and hammered many of their flightless pages back into pulp, but others lay fluttering in a quiet, uneasy wind.

I stopped next to them and stood, looking into the cavernous mouth of the store, its shadow darkened by the sun behind it. I knew that somewhere inside there had to be a map. I would find it and look for street names and piece everything together.

Glancing down at my fresh pair of walking boots, I began to tread across the soft and uncertain tide of books. The colourful surface hid hazardous shards of jagged glass that emerged with the displacement of each careful footstep, until I passed through from the bright outside into the shadowy inside.

I stood and waited, the darkness gradually parting like heavy curtains as my eyes adjusted. I heard water dripping from the shelves hanging haphazardly from the storm-battered walls, while all around me there were shelving units lying at crazed angles across the floor. Their contents were splayed out everywhere, carrying the white squares of fallen ceiling tiles as stepping stones, and the carpet was barely visible beneath the mess.

Carefully walking over the squelching mâché of soaked paper I ventured further into the store, and eventually I reached the back and stood on a small island of untouched dry carpet. I turned and looked around me, the air thick with the smell of acrid damp. It would take a while to find anything intact, but I knew this was my best chance so far, and with a deep breath I began my search.

I spent almost an hour heaving metal shelves aside and gingerly picking through the wild assortment of goods that had collected in corners and against walls, nursing my grazed hand every time I caught it. At the end of it I had found many things, including an inflatable globe, a large pile of pristine foreign-language dictionaries, and a model kit which built a dinosaur. None of them were of any use to me, but I still felt sad at throwing those few survivors back into the wreckage to perish. However I had also found several maps and a road atlas, and a packet of multi-coloured pens, and armed with these inside my increasingly-heavy backpack, I marched back out of the store.

My eyes hurt in the blinding sun, my brand-new boots were already darkened with dirt, and my brow was furrowed with worried regret at leaving the globe and the dinosaur behind.

Now that I had maps I needed transport. With every car I passed, I peered inside or opened the driver's door, checking for keys, becoming increasingly intent on finding one as my legs ached and my feet grew too hot, but there was nothing. The cars abandoned intact had no keys, and those that had keys were crashed and folded around bent lamp-posts or crumpled into walls.

As I continued my tour of the city I realised its devastation was growing to become normal to me, just as normal as the neatness and clean windows of buildings would have been before the earthquakes started. It would have shocked me more now to see something still undamaged, and I began to pray that I would, but so far there was nothing. There were no lucky escapes. Everything had an equal sentence to the earth's anger, and no-one had been reprieved.

I rounded a long bend in the road, and some distance further on I spotted a camouflaged army truck. I squinted at it warily, but there was no sign of movement. Its front end appeared to be embedded in a tall office building that stood on the corner of a side-road, and I hurried my pace and went over to it.

Reaching the corner, I looked down the narrow side-road and was taken aback by a huge barricade that stood perhaps ten feet tall, stretched across the road's entire width. It was built entirely from broken or fallen pieces of the surrounding buildings' brick walls, and of huge grey chunks of concrete with their steel reinforcements rusting and twisted like a dead spider's legs. All of the windows on the nearby buildings were shattered inward, broken by whoever had built the barricade before the earthquakes could break them.

I stopped in my tracks, wondering if its builders might still be here, and if they might be dangerous. Whatever had happened, it was plain that the military had been here and had encountered resistance. I couldn’t help but think that, regardless of which side had built the barricade against the other, at least one of them would likely pose a threat to me.

I ventured forward more cautiously, and a strong smell carried briefly on the air as I neared, gone in a second but putrid enough to make me gag. I recognised the venomous scent of death, and against all better judgement and the churning in my stomach I walked on. I headed toward the shattered windows of the office building nearest to me, peering into the wide reception area, all of it collapsed inward and unrecognisable with debris and damage. As I stepped into its shadow and crunched over the tiny glass shards and brick dust, the smell grew stronger, and I turned to see several limp shapes hanging from exposed pipes in the ceiling.

My stomach wrung itself, squeezing a shot of adrenaline through my veins, and my eyes adjusted enough to see four bodies hanging in charred and blood-soaked army khakis, swinging gently in a buzzing cloud of flies. Beyond them, I saw that the long reception room actually led past the barricade, and must have been the only way in and out from behind it. The hanged soldiers were a warning.

I quietly began to withdraw when my eye caught a small dark shape on the floor beneath the nearest soldier, and I pulled both of my sweaters up over my nose and mouth, and quickly went over. Trying not to look at the swinging body, I reached out and picked up the heavy semi-automatic handgun which must have fallen from him, feeling its thick metal cold in my hand.

As I felt its substantial weight, a flood of shame began to melt into me at my revulsion toward the bodies, and I made myself look up at them.

They were lifeless and decomposed, with violence so far behind them that peace was their world now. Each of them had once been real people, and somewhere there were still films and videos and photographs of them as children, playing, held by proud parents.

I slowly stood up next to the nearest soldier and looked at his face, the head at an angle, its discoloured and bloodied flesh now dried and retreating from his teeth to reveal a grotesque grin. The nausea I had felt now welled up into sadness, and I looked down at the dull, cold metal of the gun, then turned and left.

My footsteps scraped over the glass and rubble as I walked out, and once I was satisfied that there was no-one left here, I reluctantly put the gun into the same pocket as my knife. Its weight immediately pulled my coat down unevenly on one side, and I slung my backpack over the opposite shoulder to keep it in place as I carried on.

I headed further down the main road I had been following, trying to forget what was behind me. I tried to focus all my attention into finding a working car, but no matter what I did the soldiers kept returning to hang there, behind all of my thoughts. The barricade had shaken me, and I now felt as if everything in the world must have collapsed into a dangerous and primal chaos while I was locked away.

As I walked on there were no hints left behind to reveal what had really happened. Cars were crashed into buildings, and windows and walls were shattered where either earthquakes or panic had struck them.

After another half hour of walking, my patient search paid off. A maroon-coloured saloon car sat abandoned half-on and half-off the pavement with the driver's door ajar. It had a Nissan badge, and although I had never known much about cars, this one looked relatively undamaged. The body was covered in a layer of sandy dust, spread out in wavy patterns left behind by evaporated rain, and there were minor dents and ripples in the metal, but most importantly it sported a glinting keyring hanging from the ignition.

I peered into the car's unassuming grey-and-black interior with a triumphant smile. Perfect, I thought to myself, and I opened the door and sat in the driver's seat, gratefully removing the weight of my backpack and placing it on the passenger seat. When I turned the key there was an uncertain moment of exhausted whirring during which I thought back to the water pipes groaning, then suddenly the starter motor kicked the engine into life. I smiled and closed my door, feeling as if I had once again won a small victory, and watched the fuel gauge creep up to almost halfway.

I now had maps and a car, and although I still had no idea how far I would be going, my best guess would take me back to Lucy's last known address, and this meant a long drive to the Lake District lay ahead of me. My next move would have to be finding more fuel.

I heaved a sigh and closed my eyes, steeling myself against my own exhaustion. I suddenly felt trapped in a dream, pulled inexorably through something impossible to understand. I began to wonder if there were any emergency radio broadcasts that could explain everything I had seen, and I opened my eyes and looked over the black plastic dash and its array of embedded buttons and controls, trying to identify the radio. They meant nothing to my still-scattered brain however, and try as I might I could not find it. Things had changed too much in the years since I had last driven any car.

I decided to admit defeat for now, and as I remembered the very basics of driving, I dipped the clutch and put the car clumsily into gear, slowly manoeuvring it with loud and crunching gear-changes back onto the road. It lurched erratically forward as I was barely able to feel the pedals through the thick soles of my boots, but before long I was on my way. I carefully drove around the huge pieces of debris dropped like stones into the road, and gave as wide a berth as I could to the shining expanses of shattered glass, glittering in the sun like a lake's blinding surface in summer. The sheer relief of driving after having walked for so long was enough to make the endless braking, stalling and swerving worthwhile.

The rows of buildings I drove past looked frighteningly empty with their sides caved in and windows gone, sobering reminders that most of the city had been nothing more than empty space all along. Walls and partitions had sectioned off the emptiness into neat quarters, but they had still been empty, holding nothing but air and a few humans to breathe it.

Although the ruins that remained were now lifeless and lonely, I felt that they held a new kind of freedom in their jagged edges. They were bereft not just of people but also of the civility that the people had forced upon them, and now that they stood broken and unwanted they were freed, and they welcomed me. I felt as if I could move in here and make all of these crumbling acres my own.

Before long I turned off the main road and into one of the smaller side streets, hoping to encounter fewer obstacles and perhaps find some reserves of fuel. Just past the corner a small hardware store caught my attention, and I stopped the car. Although I normally preferred to travel light I was now surrounded by the unknown, and I would need to be prepared for whatever lay ahead on the long journey to come.

Inside, the cramped little shop was just as ruined as the other buildings I had seen, and it seemed that much of its content had been looted. After scouring its fallen and twisted metal shelves I came back out with a bright and shiny shovel, a length of garden hose and a plastic funnel for siphoning petrol, a torch, and several batteries.

I knew there was probably more I could have taken if I had thought more carefully, but I also knew that too much thinking would only weigh me down with a thousand unmet eventualities. With the way my mind worked it would lead to the panic of worst-case scenarios, and end in the car creaking under their logic's unyielding weight. I would fill it to the brim with useless contingencies for the faintest of possibilities that would never, ever come to pass.

I opened the car's boot to unload my plunder, and in there was an old metal can covered in flaking red paint, with barely-decipherable writing marking it as “petroleum spirit”. It was empty as I lifted it out, but at least it would let me store any fuel that I might find. I excitedly took it with me as I closed the boot and got back into the driving seat, tossing the can onto the passenger seat alongside my backpack.

I drove onward, the smaller road strangely devoid of abandoned traffic. The next car I spotted looked new, a small silver-grey hatchback which had been driven hard into a metal lamp-post and left there, crumpled beyond salvage with its doors hanging open. The lamp-post stood defiantly at an impossible angle, and I eyed it both with wonder and suspicion as I stopped and got out.

Opening my car's boot and retrieving the hosepipe, I pulled the knife from my inside pocket, unwrapped it carefully, then cut a short length off the hose. I made sure to re-wrap the knife before replacing it in my pocket, and I went to the crashed car and looked for the fuel cap release beneath a tent-like deflated airbag. I found it beneath the dash and, hose in hand, I walked around and crouched in front of the opened cap.

Several minutes later, after a few moments of retching on burning mouthfuls of petrol, I had siphoned out enough of it to fill the metal can, and I poured its contents clumsily through the funnel and into my own car's petrol tank. I went back again and again, filling the can and pouring it into the car, until my mouth was numb and my eyes stung and the tank was finally full. I then filled the can one more time for a few spare litres, and put it back in the boot.

Soon afterwards I was driving again, coughing and wiping my watering eyes with one sleeve of the overcoat as I peered through the windscreen. I wheezed, choked and laughed all at the same time, unable to stop the sudden swells of joy I felt. I had gathered everything I would need for the journey, and all that was left was to find out exactly where I was, and where I was going. Step by step, I was carving my way through the wasteland.

Through the haze of my vision, I took mental note of any street names I could see until I eventually had enough to stop the car and pull out my maps to find them. I sat with them spread out clumsily over the passenger seat, trying to tame their tangled and crumpled pages as they unfolded like a captive bird trying to stretch its wings, and as I did so my hand drew a heavy trail over the buttons and controls in the dash.

The radio sprang into such loud and sudden life that I instinctively sprang back and hit my head against the window with a painful thud. A deafening roar of static filled the car and I panicked, wild-eyed, turning every dial I could see until the volume mercifully lowered and I could hear my own adrenaline-powered heartbeats.

The maps were forgotten for a moment as I leaned forward and peered closely at the controls, in the way that a fascinated professor might study some brand new sample beneath a microscope. Suddenly all of those mysterious buttons seemed to make a pattern that I could understand. I reached tentatively toward one of them with a childlike excitement, and pressed it with a satisfying click. I watched as orange-coloured digits appeared on the small display and counted upward, the radio dutifully scanning for any sounds of life riding the airways. I waited, eager and expectant, sure that at any moment now the noise would suddenly break into life, and I would hear the voice of another human being. I wondered if voices carried on radio waves ever howled with delight between transmission and reception, finally travelling just as fast as their older, swifter brother, light.

My excitement began to ebb as the static went on and on, its greyness spreading a path past my ears and sinking into the spike of hope I had felt. It seemed there was nothing and no-one out there, not even a faint residue of humanity waiting to be heard in some dark corner. I watched the flashing digits on the display, the scan now starting from the beginning all over again, and I turned back to the maps and set to finding where I was in the world.

I shook my head, and I narrowed my eyes, but I could not focus. I glared at the tangle of lines and colours splashed onto the paper before me almost intensely enough to burn through them, but no matter how much I tried, all I could see were those flickering digits before me. The simplest of connections between my synapses was just out of reach as the nothingness of the static soaked everything. Random signals as wild as the storms that had beaten the city now left the little radio so overwhelmed that all it could do was hiss and roar. I wondered if anything I saw on the maps meant anything anymore. Perhaps there was no life to be found anywhere, no voices left in the world. Perhaps all the scanning of all the bandwidths on the planet would still yield the same empty cry.

I thought of her, of poor Lucy, and I felt my eyes welling up as my stomach tightened with a helpless desperation. Suddenly, with a yell to drown the static, I threw the maps aside and floored the car's accelerator until the tyres screamed and juddered against the broken road. The car flew forwards, pressing me back into my seat, the wheels bouncing over cracks and thumping through potholes. The blur of buildings and rubble either side of me flashed past faster and sparser until London's captive roads began to loosen their grip, and the buildings spread themselves out to let in more air and space as they approached the city's edges. My cheeks were lined with tears that dripped onto the surface of my coat like dew, and suddenly, like sunlight bursting free from clouds, I remembered the last time I had flown so fast, and the pure weightless joy I had felt in that one, tiny moment.

I smiled as I eased off the accelerator and felt the car slowing, losing momentum. The sun was still visible between buildings, on its way back down. As I slowed to a crawl I remembered how it had blinded me back then, in that moment of flying, but despite all of its joy I forced that memory back out of my mind so that I would not think about all that had happened afterwards. Instead I wound down the window and felt how cool the air was now. For a while I let the car seep like a lazy river through the streets, then I stopped and just watched the sun.

It dipped before long between the horizon of the city's buildings and touched the earth, and as I listened to the silence in the fading light, I heard and felt my stomach begin to rumble with hunger. I put the car's heater on against the chill air drifting through the window, and unpacked the food I had taken with me. Rationing myself a small amount of bread and meat to quell the churning of my insides, I slowly ate it, and looked out at the sharp orange flashes of sun sinking over the smashed city, casting shadows to hide the shame of its ruins.

Although sparse, the food I ate made me tired, and once it was finished I turned off the ignition and listened to the evening air rustling into life, ready to play in the dark. I wound the window back up to stop its creeping cold, but left it open just a crack so that the breeze would find me and touch my face as I slept.

I pulled the gun from my inside pocket and placed it in the glovebox, feeling easier with it close but not pressed against me, then I pushed the seat as far back as I could, angled it as close to horizontal as it would allow, and closed my eyes.

Sleep crashed in on me like a tidal wave. My world darkened faster than the shadows outside. Once more my dreams faded into view and flew like colourful tapestries, some of them wrapping me deep in their fabric and others passing playfully by like glancing scenery. They teased me with entire worlds and suns and oceans that I would never see again, and I surrendered to their whim, floating, a suspended particle in an ocean of solitude. My dreams could at last spread out without any fear of intrusion or interference from a city normally brimmed with the dreams of others.

Once again I awoke suddenly, a sharp breath filling my lungs as if I had lay dead all night, my eyes springing open. I had heard someone hammering on the car. It was a noise too immediate and loud to have come from my dreams, but as I winced through the blinding pain of the sun's glare that had spread through the dusty windows to fill the car, I saw no-one. I fumbled with the door release, unlocking and letting myself out, then stood unsteadily in the shadows of early morning and looked around for any movements of life.

“Hello?” I called, and stood very still. I leant against the car as I peered into the shadows, but all I heard was the echo of my own voice, bouncing a lonely path outward between the walls.

With a sigh I got back into the car, and returned the seat to a sitting position so I could lean back. The cool vigour of the new air slowly permeated inside as I sat with the door open wide. I wrestled with my reluctance to wake fully, and the sharp pain of the cuts in my knees and palm throbbed with a rhythm that matched my heartbeat. I spotted the radio controls in the dash again, and I switched it on, hoping that even if there were still no hint of what might have happened, at least the static might wake me. Again the digits sprang upward through every wavelength they knew, finding nothing. I was left behind, stranded and floating in white noise. I wondered if this was it, if I belonged here, abandoned with the rest of the city.

I switched the radio off as I realised how much my joints ached. With an almighty yawn I got out and stood, and stretched the blood back into my limbs. I walked for a while, aimless, dazed and wandering after the depth of my dreams and the unreal haze of my memories, and I stopped in front of what had once been a small café. Its large windows were caved in, as was the ceiling, but beneath the glass and grey dust and jagged concrete rocks lay the recognisable scattered shapes of tables and chairs, and a counter along the right-hand wall.

Again I was reminded of the small coffee shop where I once worked, and where I had met her. I wondered if poor Lucy was missing her too, thinking of her at this exact same instant, our thoughts converging on her. Things had been simpler then, before I had lost everything.

For a brief moment, like a reflection splashing across a window, the café in front of me reassembled into the place I knew. I saw deep red walls and a dark oak-coloured wooden floor, small matching tables and chairs, and her. She sat, her mug held in both hands, with her hair the same colour as the wood, a frame for her flawless green eyes. She sat waiting in that fraction of time as if she had forever, oblivious to me standing here and looking in. Then it quickly faded back into the shards that now sprawled before me, its insides gutted by earthquakes and thunder. I felt the dark hole of what once stood in its place as a hollow pain in my stomach.

I turned around and hurried back to the car, a renewed urgency in my bones. I sat inside and closed the door, holding the wheel as if to drive but not knowing where to go. I knew that going anywhere was better than staying still, but something held me here.

I switched the radio back on, one last time, and left it scanning, then smoothed out the maps beside me and sat back, drawing in a long breath. The sound of static began to creep back into the scenery of my awareness, trying to make a permanent new home there. I screwed my eyes shut, suddenly feeling distant from the eerie silence and the radio's vacuous noise, detached, as if looking down from somewhere far away.

Suddenly I stopped and my eyes sprang open. I heard a human voice. I smiled as I turned up the volume. It was faint, the signal weak and struggling, but it was a voice, that of an older man speaking quickly but calmly in a flawlessly enunciated English accent.

“Update at oh-six hundred hours on the fifth of September, twenty thirteen,” It said. “Fragments are still falling and will be landing mostly at sea. Current safe zones will not be affected. Anyone not already evacuated please go to the nearest safe zone. A complete and updated list will follow, and will be transmitted hourly on this frequency as long as can be maintained. Safe zone locations are subject to change as earthquake activity and military operations continue. Where possible, local transmissions will also be available on eighty-eight point seven, F.M.”

There was a pause of a few moments, and then a slightly different voice took over, younger and more measured but still direct. It listed cities and towns along with their postal codes, including some overseas in nearby Europe.

“Some GPS systems have been knocked out,” warned the voice finally, “any devices that utilise these should not be relied on.”

The transmission abruptly ended, overwhelmed by the sea of static. I tuned the radio to the local frequency, but there was nothing, so I tuned it back in the hopes of more information streaming through later.

I sat back in the driver's seat, fresh questions now swirling in my mind. Fragments? I thought. Of what?

I sighed, knowing that right now answers were not the priority. There was only one safe zone listed near Lucy, and that was if she hadn't moved home to somewhere else during the haze of those lost years. I clenched my jaw, feeling all of those aimless and wandering parts of me finally begin to collect together into one determined whole, and it felt like fire.

The fog cleared, and my synapses began to spark cleanly once more. The logic returned to my thoughts. The pathways connected in my brain as surely as they did on the maps before me. I traced lines with my pen, worked out routes and contingencies, and highlighted motorways and junctions. I scrawled markings that only I would ever decipher, and all of them converged on the small town of Alvermere, in the north of the Lake District. It was hundreds of miles from here, but that did not worry me. I knew distance was never enough to separate two people, and with the fire stoked to roaring inside me, I wound my window down, started the car, and drove. The freshness of the morning poured in and soaked into me, and I felt more awake than I had felt in years.

An hour passed by quickly, and as I reached the edge of the city, the radio sprang back into life. This time there was not even the small comfort of safe zones that had been offered before, just a curt young female voice.

“Martial law is in effect,” she said. “It is imperative that all citizens follow military orders for their own protection.”

Perhaps being young and female was somehow supposed to soften the blow, but I still felt a slight panic and looked out of the windows around me, as if the mention of the army might somehow conjure them into being. To my relief there was still no sign of anyone.

A swell of hope rose within me, and I smiled. I drove on, careening and swerving around anything in my way until I reached a junction leading onto the clear expanse of the M1 motorway, outside of the city's heart. The sun shone over it like a new land, and I floored the accelerator hard and felt the wind.

I laughed out loud as I drove, the engine leaping ahead, its pistons roaring, the air flying through my open window. I burst out of the city like punching through a prison wall, and I laughed and laughed. For the first time in years I was finally free.

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