Never Too Late

"WHAM! The blast knocked me off my feet. I slammed down hard on my back, onto the floor. Winded, I lay there, stunned. What was happening?" Her childhood ended in an instant that day, dying in a blaze of white hot glory. He'd been just a bit too slow, taken just a moment too long. If only he'd been faster. If only she'd been satisfied. If only fate had been kinder. If only... If only they'd been luckier, there might have been survivors that day.

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1. Staggering

 “WHAM! The blast knocked me off my feet. I slammed down hard on my back, onto the floor. Winded, I lay there, stunned. What was happening?”

 My ears rang as, what could have been minutes, hours, or maybe days later, I dragged myself to my knees, accompanied only by an otherworldly quiet. At first I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand what I was seeing. It was like a painting, a fresco dedicated to some great tragedy.

 Everywhere around me broken stones larger than my head lay where they’d fallen, the cheap tile flooring smashed and shattered beneath, cracks spiraling out like so much chipped pottery.

 But the bodies were worse. They looked like puppets with their strings cut, like lifeless dolls left ragged and torn by years of use, finally thrown carelessly away in a heap. At least, where there were full bodies left. Pieces littered the dusty, smoky ruins. An arm here, burned beyond belief or recognition. A leg, protruding from beneath one of the fallen pieces of ceiling, the rest of the body presumably trapped beneath.

 I staggered away then - unable to see any more, unable to comprehend such pointless tragedy - pausing only once, and then only just long enough to vomit. The acid and bile almost disguised the taste of the smoke, the smell of roasting flesh. But the images that played behind my eyelids every time I blinked, the things I still saw in my periphery, there one moment and gone when I looked, spurred me onward.

 Eventually the silence was replaced by a piercing scream, and I whipped around, trying desperately to locate the origin. It almost didn’t matter anymore. After all, what music could possibly play behind such travesty?

 But I could hear. That was a good thing.

 The thoughts rang hollowly in my head and I pushed them away, determined not to let myself rejoice in something so vain or so pointless as my own survival. That, in itself, was still a mystery. How was I not dead? Everyone near where I’d been was lying now in bloody, broken heaps, and here I was, staggering and gagging and coughing and being so damn WEAK.

 Still, I continued, getting further  from the center of the blast with every step. The damage here was much less, only a few chunks of cement, a few twisted corpses. More and more now were sitting or lying there, screaming in agony as they clutched broken and scorched limbs. The few lucky enough to avoid serious injury had long since fled, no doubt.

 All but one. She ran the other way, toward the madness, flying through the debris as though her life depended on it. “Mom! MOM!” she screamed, racing toward me. No, I realized, racing past me, almost as if I didn’t exist at all.

 Stop. Wait. Don’t go there, I wanted to tell her. Some things could never be unseen, images never erased, not completely. But my words came only as a strangled gasp, my voice closed behind the teeth I’d been clenching together.

 She was almost past. A few more steps and this girl’s childhood would end, her innocence vanish in an instant. I could not let that happen, not while I had a chance to save her.

 Reaching out seemed impossibly difficult in that moment, as though something weighed down my arm. My hand moved too slowly, too slowly, too slowly. Every millimeter sent waves of nauseating agony through my body. But then, just as she brushed by me, I felt the dirty, ragged edge of the girl’s coat.

 My voice returned with a vengeance as my fingers clutched at the cloth, drawing her to a sudden, jerking halt. The shriek the ripped through me made even my own ears ring as I fell to my knees, fighting to hold down the bile that threatened to erupt from me.

 “Let me go you damn idiot! Let go of me! I have to find my mom! She’s in there somewhere and I have to find her, so YOU HAVE TO LET GO!” I held on despite her thrashing, my broken arm screaming in protest.

 “There’s no one left that way,” I whispered, voice horse and halting. I could see, though, that she already knew it, somewhere in her heart. She already knew that there was nothing left for her to search for. This agonizing fight was just her way of denying it a moment longer.

 Finally she fell beside me, tears streaming down her smoke stained cheeks, leaving muddy paths behind to mark their passage. I held her silently then, this girl I’d never seen before, as she cried and shivered and screamed.

 “I’m… sorry. You can let… go now. I promise not to run,” she coughed against my shoulder after a good long while. I relented immediately, exhaustion overriding the adrenaline still coursing through my veins. “You’re sure there’s… no one left?”

 I nodded, though she wasn’t looking for an answer, and she glanced away, back toward the desolating surrounding the bomb zone. I closed my eyes then, trying to savor the few minutes I’d give myself to rest before the police completely isolated the area. I had to get out before then. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to think fast enough to answer their questions, not like this. Not with my head full of cotton and my ears still ringing.

 “I’m Charlie,” she whispered eventually, shifting uncomfortably beside me. “And um… I’m sorry that I hurt your arm.”

 “Well, Charlie, please excuse my lack of charm. I have just been nearly blown up and am not in a very chivalrous mood.” In fact, it was closer to murderous. Why hadn’t they waited for my signal? Why had they proceeded without my knowledge? “Anyway,” I continued distractedly, “you can call me Nat.”

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