New Fiction From Women Writers

Laura Bork

May 2003

Where You Still Are

     It wasn't always like this, this city. There was a library built of brick and glass and filled with books and tables, and it smelled of crisp paper and wooden pencils and of knowledge. There was a bridge that spanned a still river—a river that curved to the south, and to the east it met a vast cold lake full of sturgeon and rainbow trout, yellow-suited swimmers and lifeguards in row boats, and pilings tinted green with algae and worn thin from waves. There were buses that roamed up and down the same streets day after day, their destinations known, relied upon. And the buses were filled with people: people full of life, respect, happiness, melancholy, fear and anxiety, love and sentiment. People who counted on each other and people who stayed away from each other and people who loved each other. And there were children in museums, old ladies in swimming pools and department stores, sisters in tattoo parlors and uncles in court and nephews behind bars. But there were people and there were buildings and streets upon which to walk and faces upon which to dwell. Now it is empty. All that is left are its bones.
     We lived here until the end, you and I, kept in the house, trapped under two stories of rubble and dust. We could feel the heat through the stones, through the brick. Heat like nothing else, a smell like death. It was us, that smell. I didn't want to believe it, but looking at your body, bent and red, your flesh looked painful, you looked painful in it. I held you as long as I could endure but you seemed to be burning up from the inside and my palms hurt from touching your skin. The earth seemed to be burning from the inside, too: pulses of heat through the ground we sat upon, like we were sitting on lit coals. I felt I would melt — I may have, I'm still not quite sure.
     We could hear the screams of the neighbor children and their babysitter, all screaming for their parents. So young. So scared. They were always scared. I used to see them on their way to school: eyes darting, legs walking too quickly, bodies lurching to follow behind. The streets were not safe; they hadn't been for years. Years upon years. I remember being scared on my way to school, on those same streets of my own childhood. But I was never as scared as those children. We had darkness and shadows, but there was no hidden Bad lurking behind fences and short walls. We could walk with our heads down and not be afraid of running into evil. But these children had bullets spraying glass from the inside out, spilling it onto the sidewalk; they saw bodies on every corner, in every doorway—dead or alive they slumped there like corpses, bloated, maimed, full of drugs and disease and death. The children cried every morning on their way to school and every afternoon on their way home. And I would imagine that most days they cried in between. But I could not be sure, so most days I cried for them myself.
     We listened to the children screaming next door until the screaming stopped. Then there was whispering, clenched sobs, faces against chests, and then there was sleep—I prayed it was sleep.
     Do you remember what you said to me when it started? You told me to come to the window — see how the sunset made the city look as if it were burning. So we watched the surreality of the city on fire until we realized that the sky was lit by holocaust, not by sun or prism or refracted rays of natural light. It was lit by man in his purest form: war.
     The voices on the radio were calm, at first—detached. They told us to get into the basement and stay calm. Grab the children and close the doors and keep the shades drawn and hopefully we would survive. But we could already feel the heat, and after not long the voices on the radio got hysterical, and after not much longer the voices on the radio stopped.      So we climbed down to the basement—having no children, no one to save but ourselves—and into the crawl space, the deepest, darkest, dankest possible spot. Now, though, I don't think that it mattered much. How deep we went, how much deeper we could have gone. We would have burned no matter what. The heat was everywhere and we could hear the city falling apart, falling down. It became a constant, steady crashing. A high-pitched screeching like boiling water moving through a radiator's pipes. The sound of metal liquefying and bending in and down onto itself.
     And I guess we should have known what would happen. Meddling with other peoples' affairs and pushing off our own, ignoring the battleground that our State, our Union, had become. We had our own destruction, here. There: those battles were never ours, and now they're ours forever.
     We used to discuss things, you and I, over a glass of beer and dinner, the night pressing just outside the window. We were intellectual, or I thought we were. Fighting our own battle of wit for the rest of the country—the world—picking up the slack. We talked of nuclear arms and peace treaties and solutions and I felt intelligent and well read and powerful in my own living room. But none of that matters. How intelligent am I, now? Watching what remains of my street, my neighborhood, melting into a pool while my own skin prickles with numb pain. I am scared to look down at myself. I feel naked and am sure that my clothing has melted to my own body, or torn off or burnt into ash around me.
     I left you in the basement. I watched you, the earth still bubbling around you. You had stopped breathing hours ago, and I closed your eyes and laid your hand on your chest. I cried. I think I cried.
     There is no one alive that I can tell, and I don't know how much longer I will live today. It is a miracle that I have survived. There is no sun; there is no sky. The city is gone and replaced with a void. Not even smoke. A nothing. The sidewalks have curled and broken, empty of life, empty of crime, empty of everything but hot, bitter air and me. I fear sitting down; I will be forced to see what remains of my legs stretched before me. It is hot under my eyelids and I stop blinking, rather to look at the darkness that has become my world than to feel my own flesh burning my eyes. The crashing noise has stopped and there is only the occasional moan or panting to keep me company. But none of that lasts for long. There is more silence now than I have ever heard.
     You used to tell me that we would be safe, in our house, with each other. The crime on the street that the neighbor children ran from, the soldiers in the buildings where we worked, the weapon I had to keep on my lap when we drove anywhere in the car: the grocery store, the library, your mother's house. But the house was safe. With our bars on the windows and our steel front door and you.
     So I turn, finally, not to sit or watch the burning street or listen to the humming silence, but to climb back into the rubble that our house has become, where you still are, waiting for me. And I will hold you again and feel my hot skin against yours and I will close my eyes.

Laura Bork is a writer and student in Chicago, Illinois. Her fiction and nonfiction have also appeared in Fiction Funhouse, an on-line literary journal.

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