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Ashes of a Concrete Jungle
With a hiss, the flame died in the river. He watched the match drift away, then moved to light another. He cupped the lighter with his palm, coaxing the fire to life, then gazing into the orange glow.
Hard eyes rested on the blackening husk, ignorant of the pain in his cold, callused fingers. Only till just a choking ember remained between his fingertips did Gunnar flick the coal into the water, sending up a small tendril of steam as it fizzled out. His tired and muscled figure refused to relax as the river carried away the remnants of the fire. Black oil and exhaust encrusted his stained grey hair, but the breeze insisted on blowing it across his iron, unmoving face. Obsidian eyes reflected nothing, concealing and revealing simultaneously the pain which had faded into cynical resolve.
Gunnar pulled his coat tighter, hardly moving as he did so. Even the rise and fall of his breathing was shrouded beneath its voluminous folds. The ancient coat, too big for a jacket and too small for a greatcoat, had long since ceased being standard issue. Patches and re-sewed seams decorated the outside, and years of living had worn away all of the military green. Only deep within the pockets, burned and stained by smoke and gunpowder, remained some memory of the original hue. And, though his face remained stalwartly unflinching, Gunnar wept inside.
Slowly, Gunnar’s left hand emerged from within his coat, his gentle grip almost a caress, fabric leaves and plastic petals barely held together by thin, threadbare strands. Its bloom was a promise ten years old, a spring which had lasted a decade, and a flower which had died but could never wilt.
Its twelve companions had long since faded to dust, nuclear holocaust claiming those which had escaped nature’s chosen fate. He pressed the rose to his nostrils, inhaling that sweet scent which had never been, an impossible fragrance filling his mind. The fake rose had been a promise, one which remained unbroken:
“I’ll love you till the last rose withers away…”
Footsteps crunched across the rubble behind him, and Gunnar saw who it was without turning.
“Still have that damn rose?” the newcomer asked, smiling without malice.
Gunnar didn’t reply, his dark eyes seeing past the world around him, into the ruins of this city of hope which had rejected its most desperate son. Crumbling cement and broken buildings shadowed the river, inky clouds of smoke and fog blotting out the sun. Fragments of glass lay strewn across the street, beside doomed wreckage splayed out like jungle weeds beside the river.
“Should throw the damn thing away.” The newcomer sat next to Gunnar’s hunched frame, leaning back against the blackened skeleton of forlorn debris, staring across the river into the distance.
They’d said it all before, but Gunnar played his part. “Why?”
“I can see how much it hurts,” the newcomer said, gazing with Gunnar at some fixed point on the other bank, “we all can. You can hide it all you want, but it’s destroying you. More so here than anywhere else. Don’t know why you keep it. Damn thing isn’t real, anyhow.”
Gunnar saw from the corner of his eye as the other man glanced at him, gauging his response.
“Hell if anyone can tell the difference.” Gunnar’s whisper grated like cracked gravel. “Maybe it isn’t, but it’s good enough for me. Real thing never lasts, anyway.”
The words came slowly, and the man could see by the shine in Gunnar’s eye that he had said enough. The newcomer stood, gripped his friend’s shoulder once, then turned and left. When he was safely away, however, he turned and looked back, saw Gunnar standing by the river’s edge.
Orange light flared up from Gunnar’s hand, flickering rays streaking across his face. He couldn’t say for certain, but he thought he saw a streak of silver on Gunnar’s cheek. A moment later, Gunnar held the burning rose over the river and let go.
In the shadows of a wounded city, in the ashes of a concrete jungle, with a hiss, the flame died in the river.