The Haunting

An unnamed narrator recounts a tale of an unnamed war, of his selfishness, loss and sacrifice. Original fiction. Some themes may be unsettling, as they involve children.

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1. The Haunting

 

I can still hear the screams echoing into the night. I always will, I think. My spine tingles and my heart falters when the memory brushes across my mind, like a petal caught in an updraft; the whisper of events long past whisked away before they could take hold and bring back the sights and the smells and the fear. The never-ending fear that still to this day freezes me to the quick in my bones.

Just the memory of it is enough.

Keeping busy helps of course, keeps my mind from drifting into dangerous territory. Keeping myself immersed in new, exciting adventures with new, interesting friends. But even I cannot distract myself all the time; even I grow tired of running, of keeping my smile intact. These are the times I fall into brooding, stalking the halls of my home with a head full of darkness and a heart full of resentment.

I abhor these times, the lowest of my lows, when there is nothing to engross me away from the haunting memory of what I’d done. Of how I ran while they suffered and screamed my name, the name of a coward who left them to die while he fled for the hills. I was scared, am scared, will always be scared; a scared, scarred child running from the days of old, running from the screaming that sometimes becomes so loud it consumes me.

If I dare close my eyes during these uninhibited, untempered rages, I can see their faces. I can’t recall now what they look like smiling, these spectres from the past. In my mind, they’re always screaming, always crying, always begging. Sometimes I allow myself to dwell among these phantoms as penance, purposefully destroying my heart and soul until I can no longer stand to look at myself in the mirror.

I deserve every moment. If only I’d had more courage; enough to help them when they truly needed it.

We had been hiding for days, weeks even. Time had no meaning in that concrete jungle covered in smoke and smog and the never-ending stench of death and fear. The sun could not penetrate the blanket of oppression that smothered the city, the creeping presence that lingered and clung to wherever the soldiers had been. The five of us were the only ones left of our neighbourhood, five frightened teenagers who hadn’t the slightest idea of what we were doing or where we could go or even how long we would need to scurry around in the murky darkness like rats. I was the eldest, and therefore the leader, as reluctant as I was to be so.

We weren’t a democracy; I wasn’t elected to my position. I was forced into it because no matter how terrified I may have been, the others were twice as. Their faces looked to me for guidance, for hope, for help; for any hint that perhaps we’d all pull through, we’d all be alright. I detested their faith in me.

There was one among us, just eleven years old. My little sister. I’d sworn to always protect her and be her saviour, and she believed in me through and through. It wasn’t enough to keep me strong. I hear people today saying how if just one person believes, it should be all you need to inspire you. They’re wrong. Having one person believe in you, no matter how much that person means, only makes it worse when you realise that there’s nothing you can, could, or will do to help them.

I couldn’t. I was the leader, but I was hopeless. Useless. I forced a smile on my face because they wanted one, not because I felt the need to smile. I forced a song to leave my throat because they needed comfort, not because I wanted to sing. I forced myself to tell them over and over that I wouldn’t leave, that I’d always be there for them, because that’s what they needed to hear. Oh, how that lie destroys me inside when I recall their hopeful faces lighting up whenever I brought them food, or another blanket, or news on how much longer we’d be hiding.

Each week, we would have to move; my four followers looking to me to lead them to safety. I lied to them each time we found somewhere new to settle; “We’ll be safe here,” I’d say, each and every time, with no real conviction in my tone. We wouldn’t be safe, would never be safe, and I knew it but still allowed them to believe it. It tore me apart to see them smile and find a scrap of warmth to call home.

It was when we reached the very centre of the city, the hub; the place where all the important people used to live before they evacuated and left the rest of us to suffer- that I knew our time was coming to a very swift end. Soldiers crawled throughout the rest of the city and there was no way I could lead four people through that danger, not without losing one or two. I’d lost so much that I couldn’t put myself through that again; it was selfish, but I kept them with me because I didn’t want to be alone.

We heard the soldiers before we saw them, their boots thudding on the bitumen and echoing through the tall high-rise buildings. The five of us clung together, huddled in a ruined house in the middle of the city of dead, hanging onto the only things any of us had left- each other.

Fear trickled down our spines silence fell around us, the darkness suddenly seeming so much more frightening, pressing in on all sides as if it longed to strangle us. We perched on eggshells and razor blades, just waiting.

When the soldiers came, hope and courage fled.

So did I.

I left them to save myself.

I can still see their faces during my tormented sleep.

I can still hear the screams echoing into the night.

 

 

 

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