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The silence is pierced only by the ringing in my ears. Still air, bursts of heat singing the hairs on my forearms, a helmet growing hot against my scalp. The city huddles in fear, all eyes on the skies above, all prayers left unanswered, whispering in bomb shelters beneath cobblestone streets for a miracle. A bomb erupts to my left, shells flying, the earth thrown up like confetti. It falls into my eyes and I stumble. I feel it in my bones, the reverberation of heat and fire. A soldier falls to their knees, voice raw in a scream I cannot hear. My hands are slick with blood. I can’t feel the pain anymore, the fire raking my side. Is the bullet still lodged inside? If it were, it might withhold bleeding to keep me alive long enough to find help.
A look over the streets, walls torn from the charred remains of houses, shop signs still clinging to their walls. The destruction is disorganized, one house flattened in rubble, the next harboring intact windowboxes. There is a shadow here, looming over streets blocked with bodies thrown from the blast of a fallen shell.
Ringing, ringing. I can’t hear them but I know the air would be ripe with screams, with crying, with prayer for a miracle no one can answer. I push myself up - my shoulder ignites in a sharp pain.
Was I shot there too? How many bullets did I take before the enemy fell back? Before they began bombing? I can’t remember. I don’t think I want to.
My knee scrapes against the ground as I stand, the world swaying under my feet and growing black in my vision for a moment. An empty holster sways at my belt, fingers instinctively reaching to grab the hilt of a gun that isn't there. Each breath sparks pain in my chest. My head is pounding, vision blurring in and out of focus, hands slick with blood - my own? The enemy’s?
This body won't last long. I can feel it dying already, growing weaker, growing complacent. I'm not done yet, I want to scream, I have more to give this time.
One step forwards, then another. I lumber through the wreckage with my shoulders hunched, a leg dragging with each step, with my breaths short and uncertain and never able to get enough air. I scan the shattered mountains of concrete and mortar. Glass eyes, open mouths, pools of blood blackened by falling dust and extinguishing falling embers as they drift from the sky, a glowing gray snow. The ringing in my ears persist, but I begin to distinguish the distant eruptions of a bomb coordinated with the vibrations tingling my bones. Ringing, ringing, boom; a hundred more dead. I keep walking. The eyes of corpses trail me as I stumble down the road. None of them reach out for help, or rise to greet me. I am the only one left.
William. Amelia. Cal. They're all dead, aren't they? And soon I will be too, and no one will remain to remember their names.
An eruption, closer this time; I fall to the ground, hand burning as it scrapes against the earth, heart racing. A wave of heat rushes over me, followed by pinpricks of pain as the dust and rubble is scattered along the road, marking my skin where it hits. There is blood in my mouth, sharp, metallic. How many times have I died like this?
My body gives out, leaning to the side before falling limp against the earth. Gravel formed from cinders and debri cuts into my skin. I keep my eyes open, even as the weight of death presses against my lids, I keep them open to watch the sky crack open and rain fire, to see another building hurled into the sky in the distance, the destruction random and unfair and unpredictable. Up above, planes crawl through the sky to drop their cargo. I can't see them from here. I wonder, if my ears were better, if they could be heard at all, or if they have come to kill silently and avoid the blame.
A shadow passes over me. An enemy? A survivor aiming to help? They should move on. I will have another chance, but the others…
A burst of breath is hot in my ears. They are speaking to me; I can't answer, I can't hear them over the ringing. The shadow shifts, moving in front of me. A man, a stranger. I've never seen them before, have I? Something about their frown, their eyes glinting in the falling embers, seems familiar, like a face from a dream. Their lips are moving. I try to read them. Who are you? Or maybe, What are you? I can't tell. He's saying more, chapped lips too quick to focus on; my head pounds and I squeeze my eyes closed.
A hand grabs my shoulder, forcing me up. Their thumb presses into my flesh, finding the hole where the bullet pierced me. A sound escapes my mouth, I can feel the scream in my throat, but all I hear is the ringing, the raspiness…
Their lips press against my ear, breath a humid blaze against my skin. I listen. There is sound, I can hear it, fuzzy, indistinct. He says the same thing, the same words, again and again. “Find me.”
I can only open one eye - a crust has formed around the other, blood drying and sealing it closed - and look at him. His lips still as he notices my gaze, and he nods, grip loosening as he helps me lean against the ground. His touch is gentle, almost compassionate. I want to ask him who he is, how he knows. Why I need to find him and how he expects me to do so.
There is a darkness in the back of my eyes. It's coming for me again.
He stays by my side, blurred figure hovering over me, as my lungs still and my heart silenced and silence is the only sound left to hear. I feel myself draining like a pot of water. Death is always gentle, that's what they don't know, death is like falling asleep, death is relief.
One second. Two. He glances at me, closing my eyelids with two dirt-smudged fingers, and I'm gone.
And then, I am born screaming. Lungs wet and new, head spinning, eyes squinting against the brightness of the world I can never leave. My memories are draining like sand in an hourglass that won't be flipped for years, and I cling to that man’s face, the memory of this stranger, I cling to it and grieve for the life I had lived and lost and all I could never have done; and then I am a blank slate, blinking in wonder at a place eerily familiar but never seen before.