Until now, the gears of history had ground at such a slow pace our perception of it was like a puzzle. The constantly shifting pieces created an eternally changing picture inhabited and shaped by generations. Progress made it possible for the change to arrive in the form of a flash just a millionth of a second long with a blinding light and the pain of flesh-searing fire that burned away the world I knew as if it were covered in lighter fluid.
For us, there were no blue skies. Daytime was just when the sun was shining bright enough to penetrate through the acrid black clouds that had consumed the sky and mingled with the distant glow of the burning horizon, painting the atmosphere with blood. For an indeterminate number of hours, maybe as long as a day, it was the only thing I saw. The constant screams became white noise; as I spiraled into death, my perceptions continued to dim until there was nothing left but fear and pain. Every hour the world became dimmer, and I saw everything through a dark tunnel that was narrowing to a close. I was disconnected from my body, and movement was almost impossible without overwhelming pain.
I was not the only one there. The number of dying could not be counted. They announced that we were to be “prioritized.” Some of us could be saved, but most would die, and false hope was a luxury that could no longer be afforded. These new circumstances instantly brought an end to the moral quandary of mercy killing, and overnight murder became a service provided to those beyond saving. The bombs’ fire did more than vaporize our cities-it destroyed all our preconceived notions about life and death. When I could, I would listen for the doctors whose task it was to choose life or death for those of us at their mercy. I hadn’t moved a muscle since the blast. Most of me had either gone numb or felt as if it were still burning. I knew there was a bullet for me.
A black gas mask suddenly moved into my field of vision, blocking the sky. Its giant, insect-like eyes met mine, and we stared at each other for a second, but I wasn’t sure if he knew I could see him.
“What about this one?” His voice filtered through a respirator, addressing someone I couldn’t see.
“Fuck! This guy must have burns on about 80% of his body. He’s definitely a category three, take him back with the others,” he replied casually.
And just like that, the verdict was in.
A man I didn’t know and whose face I’d never seen had condemned me to death.
My body was incapable of reaction, but there was something in the corner of my mind. The last vestige of will was crying out, driving an internal and inexpressible panic to well up inside me as I found myself facing the last few moments of my life. It was then that I felt myself being raised off the ground as they lifted me from both ends. The black mask hung in my face, and although he was looking at me, he didn’t acknowledge me. I tried to scream, but no sound escaped my lips. My head fell to the side, and I could see the rows of bodies on the ground.
Some of them moved.
Some of them pleaded for their lives.
Some of them prayed.
But most were still.
They were all teetering on the edge of a cliff, waiting for the slightest breeze to push them into the abyss. They all contributed to the layer of blood that covered the ground that had turned black with dust. Some of them were so mangled and wore flesh so charred that I forgot that I was looking at something that used to be a human. The gas mask moved away from my face as I was set down on a broken concrete surface. It was like I never moved. I was still lying on my back, staring up at the same dead sky that covered a choked sun. I heard the metallic slide of a clip being jammed into a pistol. I was paralyzed. The air froze in my lungs, and I could feel my heart stop as I waited for the gunshot. The painful anticipation was shattered with a bang that pierced my eardrums.
The gunshots continued one after another. Occasionally the silence in-between would be broken with crying, begging, or praying, but they were always quickly silenced. Fear swelled in my throat. Every shot brought them closer and added to the suffocating terror. Suddenly it stopped, and I felt myself finally exhale.
I was grateful to inhabit my burnt, painful shell just a few moments longer.
“What is it?” One asked the other. I heard heavy coughing.
“Shit, I gotta…I just gotta take a break a second.” The voice, no longer filtered through the gas mask, sounded completely human. I could hear the heavy strain as he struggled to finish the sentence like he was choking on the words.
“You okay?” The other one asked, by the sound of it still wearing his mask.
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” He replied.
The other one walked over and patted him on the back. “Go have a cigarette. I’ll finish up here.”
“Are you sure?” the soldier asked shakily.
“Yeah. Go on,” he answered.
I heard brisk footsteps. Then after a moment, I was looking back up into the monstrous black eyes of the gas mask and a gun pointing down at me. My eyes were instantly drawn into the barrel. My thoughts became screams that were growing louder and louder. I could feel my eyelids stretch back, and my body felt like it was burning as I waited for him to pull the trigger. But instead, he lowered his gun.
“Did you say something?” he asked.
“Please, please,” I finally heard my voice.
“Wow, I’m really surprised you can talk,” I ignored the comment and resumed my whispered pleading. “I’m sorry, bro,” he apologized calmly, “but I have to shoot you. It’s my job. There’s no way we can help you.” He paused for a second. “Besides, you must be in a lot of pain anyway.”
Stinging tears welled in my eyes. It was the first time I was able to cry since the blast. I felt the warm tears running down my face, and my mouth went dry as I struggled to beg for my life.
“Please don’t-I…” was all I could muster before he interrupted me angrily.
“You know what? We all got problems. My whole family’s dead, and I still had to come to work today. How fucked up is that?” He stared at me, his head perfectly still for a moment, and sighed.
“Shit! I’m sorry for blowin’ up on you; it’s not your fault. Hey, I mean, look on the bright side, this probably got you outta work, right?” He chuckled somewhat awkwardly. “Ha, you know I bet there’s some kid out there who’s just happy this got him out of a math test.” He forced a laugh that tapered off until he was completely quiet. He stayed that way for a moment.
“You know, I’ve done this so many times now….”
I lay quiet and motionless, stunned by the bizarre turn of events, as he turned my execution into some macabre therapy session and decided to let it all out. He sat down next to my head.
“You know what I get for doing this?” He asked rhetorically. “An extra bottle of water and pack of cigarettes every week.” He was quiet for a second. “Shit, man, I actually don’t know who’s the fucked one here. At least you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do now.” He paused, “That thought’s really been scaring the shit outta me. But you probably don’t want to hear my problems.”
The cocking of his pistol was the conclusion of his speech. He bent down and held the barrel just inches from my head. I was always told I would see my life flash before my eyes right before death, a moment to contemplate a lifetime. Lying in a row of bodies under a blackened sky that was bringing forth the slow end of nuclear winter, I realized the truth was that none of it had mattered. My fate had been sealed by forces far beyond me long ago, and no matter what I would have done differently, the outcome would have been more or less the same.
A moment may not seem like much, but it was the time I finally realized death was the return to normalcy. The vast majority of time has and will pass without me. My life has only been a brief interruption of oblivion, and now it was time to go back. I saw the flash from the muzzle. And before I could hear anything, there was suddenly nothing.