Wyld FLASH December 3rd 2021
Fifteen minutes since I’ve woken up, and damp spots of sweat are already starting to appear. Vest top, linen shorts. The lightest, coolest things I own.
Absurdly paradoxical. 83 days and nights since last feeling cool. 83 days and nights of searing heat and inconceivable temperatures.
I poke a finger round the side of the homemade blackout and gently pull it back to check the street outside. Quiet. Nobody out just yet. This is my usual golden hour. Wake up, slip out, slip back in once I have what I need. It’ll begin the same way tonight. Wake up, slip out. But that’s where I plan things to be different. Slip out. Stay out.
Stepping into the gloom, I’m careful to pick my way along the path I always take. Some might consider it a risk coming the same way each time, but consistency is something I’m counting on. I know there’s not much along my route that I’m likely to stumble across which could give me away in the silence of the night. I’ve memorised every hidden rock, every broken fence, every lifeless tree.
The emptiness of the hour used to niggle at me, but I welcome the eeriness now. The electricity cut out a while back, and with it the perpetual hum and buzz of fridges, laptops, TVs and coffee machines — the white noise of our lives — vanished into nothing. At this time, the only disturbance comes from the odd cricket who hasn’t noticed the once resplendent gardens have been scorched to brittle death. Most of the animals have gone now. The smart ones fled, whereas others, mostly the domesticated, simply gave up whilst their owners flapped and floundered. They couldn’t cope. Heatstroke is a killer.
The dome is taking its time with us. It isn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last, but this one, our one, is particularly murderous. Perhaps it was bad luck; after all, our town lies directly in the path of the hot air current that’s been wreaking havoc across the northwest. But we also have — had — one of the largest oil refineries in the country barely five miles down the road, and guess where most of its employees hailed from?
I wonder whether every time the plant had belched another stinking cloud of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the fug of the once clear sky it was taken as a personal affront. Another stab in the back.
Well, the sky, the atmosphere, the earth, they were all exacting their retribution now. A promisingly warm summer had escalated into extreme heat warnings and the announcement of the heat dome. Sunstroke cases shot through the roof. The elderly and the vulnerable were early victims.
Check on your neighbours.
Stay inside and cover the windows.
Do not go out into the direct sun.
The emergency services had become overwhelmed disappointingly quickly. Help from out of town had arrived in the beginning, but they’d stopped coming back one day. The Dome was too dangerous: a seething, bubbling pot on the cusp of boiling over.
People collapsing in the street when it was barely 9 o’clock in the morning. Skin burning, peeling back on itself. Flashes of light in the already dazzling brightness, sunrays igniting hair on limp heads. A sulphurous stench mixed with copper and charcoal. It wasn’t long before the bodies could only be recovered in the dead of night when the oppressive heat abated just enough to be able to work. Even then, there were a few that couldn’t be reached. They’ve long since turned to dust.
Sweat rolls down the bridge of my nose. I’m covered in a wet film, my vest top nearly soaked through now. The last bottle of water I’ve managed to salvage digs into my back through my rucksack, a beacon of temptation. I can almost see the paper label around its neck reading DRINK ME. Not yet. Too long to go yet.
I move as quickly as I dare on the hard dirt path. Not too fast, so as to reserve enough energy for the whole journey. Not too slow, or I won’t make it in time. I’ve practised for this over and over again, going a little further each time before returning home to the basement. Living above ground is no longer feasible, and every day I thank the Gods for the subterranean level I’d had no intention of having when I’d been house hunting.
Time and night slip by thickly. I’m further out than I’ve been before, moving with greater purpose than any of the other nights. The final news report broadcast before the electricity failed had stated the heat dome extended to this line on the map. The only place I know I can possibly reach in the time allowed to me.
Once the silhouette of the refinery becomes visible to the west, I know I only have an hour or so left to go before I reach that slim, dotted line. An hour until I cross over into the next county where there is no refinery but there is Tomorrow. And the day after that. I’m not naïve; I know it won’t be the stuff of films where treacherous desert comes to a conveniently abrupt stop on the very edges of paradise. But somewhere has to mark the change from the hell that blisters and sizzles to normal, temperate life again. Cautiously, I fantasise about what nostalgia I’ll find there. Water from a tap. Air conditioning? Ice cream. Ice cubes tinkling in a tall glass of orangeade. Cold showers.
There’s a change in the air. It’s almost unbearably warm already, even though the dusky pinks of dawn are a way off yet. I succumb and pull the bottle of water from my bag, keeping pace as my mouth fills with tepid liquid. This time, there’s no need to ration it. This time, I drain it. As I close in on my destination, eager anticipation whispers in my ear, emboldening me. Trusting that I’m close, I choose to push harder and faster now. I can risk it.
The deep crack in the ground is shrouded by the shadow of night, and the tip of my trainer catches in it before I’ve even realised it’s there. I’m propelled forwards, my spurt of speed wiping away any hope of stopping myself before I fall. I hit the ground hard and the bottle flies from my hand, but the crack holds on. The pain that lances through my leg slashes viciously at the images conjured earlier. Water from a tap. Air conditioning. Showers. Cool.
Letting loose a wretched scream, I extract my foot from its trap. The entire leg is a throbbing, useless appendage of agony. I force myself to close my mind to its very existence, for this can’t be it. I’m not far. I can crawl. Crawl to the line. Go.
I dig my fingers into the dry earth, finding little traction. The gaping crack that had ensnared me is the only one I’ve come across, the only one I can see for miles. A calculated, cold-blooded ambush? My fingernails split and break away with every inch I cover.
Go. Crawl. Not far.
Violet in the sky, slowly turning to pink. Hotter. I feel every degree of it, and I can see light creeping along the horizon. Behind me, the bleak outline of the refinery I worked at for nearly twenty-two years, absent now of the stream of noxious fumes for which Mother Earth issues her counterblow. The light of day slithers and slinks ever closer to bring me, the last, to reckoning.
Skin burning, peeling back on itself. A flash in the emerging brightness. Hair igniting on limp head.
Sulphur. Copper. Charcoal.
Author Bio: Francesca Lembregts is a new and emerging writer whose stories reflect her love of all things unexpected, thought provoking and sometimes a little bit magical. She is currently working on her first novel. When not writing, she enjoys good food, good books, and good company.
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