A Hero’s Swan Song

           “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
           I can hear my little brother mumbling the words of a classic movie behind me as we trudge along in the snow. I grip his hand more tightly as I try to guide us through the biting wind and cold. After a moment, he continues mumbling to himself, “My big sister says I’m destined to be the hero.”
           “You sure are,” I say softly. The snow around us is brown, but I doubt my brother has even noticed it. I glance over at him. He’s lost in his own world, staring toward the ground in a daze. I stop for a moment and squint again, trying to make out any discernible objects through the wind and snow.
           But the endless sea of coiling, dead trees surrounds us. I’m starting to wonder if there are any buildings still standing this far out. I adjust our bag of possessions on my shoulder and think I can hear a moan not far from us. I stop and hold Chester still, listening through the storm.
           I hear the moan again and see a woman leaning against the twisting trunk of a charred tree. She’s covered in brown frost, and her hair is wet and plastered to her forehead. Her clothes are torn, and she convulses as the wind swirls around her. I pull Chester next to me and cover his ears, leading us around the blackened trunks of the trees, hoping she won’t see us. She reaches out towards me and wails. I don’t understand the words she slurs through her lips, but I grit my teeth and force us to trudge through the snow. I force myself not to look back.
           Time doesn’t have a lot of meaning anymore. I can remember the day the explosions rained down from the sky, covering the world in craters and demolishing the things people built. It only got worse when people started fighting each other as though the war in the sky wasn’t bad enough.
           Through the blinding snowfall, I see a building not too far from us. That should keep us safe for now. I drag my brother behind me, and as we get closer, it looks like an old, abandoned house. The paint is chipped, and one of the windows is broken. The door is slightly ajar in the frame. Etched into the wood is a bird spreading its wings, with the words underneath it: “RISE ABOVE THE DISASTER.” I haven’t seen the symbol of the war heroes since we left the city a year ago. But they’re long dead now, like so many people. I wonder if Chester’s seen it too, and if he remembers their names. I push the door open and pull him inside.
           The building hardly resembles the home it once was, warped into a broken, empty graveyard. Dishes are shattered on the floor, and the couch cushions have been torn open. I sit my brother on the floor and move a small table in front of the door to force it shut. The wind still rattles the door even with the table propped against it.
           I rub the side of my aching mouth gingerly and walk into the kitchen. I rummage through the cabinets to see if there’s any food. I sigh in disappointment. I knew we weren’t going to be lucky, but I was hoping for something more than mostly bare shelves. There is a can of tuna and stale crackers stashed towards the back, and I greedily snatch them.
           “Chester, we’ve got some tuna and crackers for dinner. Remember how much you used to love eating tuna sandwiches? This won’t quite be the same thing, but it’s close enough, right?”
           I look over and see that he’s pulled out his favorite movie from my bag. He looks around and says, “I want to watch The Princess Bride, but the TV’s messed up, see?”

           I lean over the counter and see that the TV’s screen has been shattered. Some of the glass is scattered on the floor around it. I say sternly, “Don’t get too close Chester, you’ll hurt yourself on the glass.”

           He rocks back and forth on his knees as he whines, “But how am I supposed to train to become a hero if I can’t watch Inigo Montoya be a hero too?”

           “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m sure this TV wouldn’t have worked anyways. We’ll find another one.”

           I find a knife in one of the drawers and use it to pry open the tuna can. The smell makes me gag, but my stomach growls loudly. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have touched even remotely old food. After making makeshift sandwiches with the crackers and tuna, I bring a couple over to Chester. He’s still rocking on his knees back and forth in front of the TV, staring at it longingly.
           “Here you go,” I say. “Hope they taste okay.”

           He starts taking them apart, nibbling on one of the crackers before saying, “It doesn’t have pickle relish like the way Mom made it . . .”

           “I know,” I say. “But we don’t have any of that here.”

           “I’m thirsty.”

           “Me too. I’ll try to find us some water in a little bit, okay?”

           He looks back at the TV and stops eating. I consider forcing him to eat it, but hold off until I can be sure the house will be safe for us to stay in for the night. I carefully make my way through the narrow, claustrophobic hallway and peek into the rooms that extend beyond the flaking walls.

           The first room on my right has a small bed adorned with a pink hand-stitched quilt. A layer of dust covers the pillow and quilt. The walls are pink, too, and decorated with poorly painted flowers, and small toys and stuffed animals are scattered across the carpet.

           I try to imagine the person who inhabited this room on the day the disaster happened. I picture her with pigtails and freckles. In a lot of ways, she looks like me. I bet she made her bed with careful precision. Dusted the trinkets on the dresser. They’re knocked over now, but I’d like to think that she took great care of her things.

           And on the day of the disaster, she was probably sitting on that maroon carpet, playing with her toys without a single care. Imagining fantastical worlds full of color and life, with stories of brave knights and wicked villains plotting to rule over the kingdom. Her stories were probably similar to mine too, whimsical and happy. Very unlike what the world would become within the next few moments. As the destruction rained down, she ran and left behind these material things that once held value. But instead of imagining her leaving everything she loved behind, I see myself. I close my eyes and try not to remember the chaos of those moments.

           I carefully make my way across the room and towards the closet. I shiver from the cold of the outside as it seeps into the house. There isn’t much left—a couple smaller sweaters hang loosely on their hangers while a few others are crumpled on the floor in the corner. I pick out each one and inspect them closely. The moths have gotten to them, but they’re more or less clean. They’re certainly in better shape than our ripped clothes. I go to the bed and shake the dust from the quilt before folding it up to carry.

           I close the door behind me as I leave the room, but I can tell by the way the latch doesn’t click that it won’t close all the way. Another sleepless night. I sigh, my mind beginning to reel from paranoia already.

           I don’t find much else in the other rooms besides a large, torn pair of jeans and a lightweight jacket. I close those doors behind me as well, and luckily for me the latches aren’t broken. I feel somewhat better and walk back to the living room.

           Chester is still sitting on the floor with the movie on his lap. He’s managed to finish eating his crackers. His face lights up as he sees me. “What did you find?”

           “Some old clothes and a blanket,” I reply and drape them over the armrest of the couch. “You can pick which one you want to wear.”
           “Good!” He says and points at the black one. “A hero can’t wear pink. That would look stupid.”
           “Hey,” I say defensively. “What’s wrong with wearing pink?”
           “Everybody knows boys can’t wear pink,” he says, but his eyes wander as if he’s confused by my question.
           “Well, who told you that?”
           He shrugs, “I don’t know. Mom and Dad never got me pink clothes before…”
           “Heroes can wear any color they want,” I say firmly.
           He glances at me. “Okay. I’m sorry, Millie.”
           “Cheer up. Here.” I toss him the pink sweater. “It’ll keep you warm.”
           He inspects it for a moment before forcing it on. He stretches the sleeves to cover his arms and says, “It’s not so bad I guess.”
           “You look like a true hero,” I say.

           He giggles at my compliment and smiles broadly. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this side of him. His dimpled cheeks and arched lips. We used to joke that his smile was so happy that he couldn’t control the way his face moved. Chester’s teeth used to be straight and white, but now they’re more crooked and yellow. Even his smile is warped.
           I make my way back to the kitchen. I turn the faucet on the sink, but I’m not surprised when nothing comes out. I find the bathroom in the back of the kitchen and lift up the toilet lid. It has some water, but not much. I go back to the kitchen and try to find a cup. There’s a plastic one in the sink. It’s covered in a layer of grease and dust. I wipe it off as best I can and fish out the water from the toilet.

           By the time I finish, the cup is barely full. I get a pot from the kitchen sink and pour the water into it. I place it on the wood burning stove and sift through the drawers to find matches. I find a small box with a few left. I use one to light the wood in the stove and pocket the rest. After the water boils I pour it back into the cup. I plug my nose and take a sip. I bring the cup over to Chester, “Hey, the water’s not half bad this time.”

           He takes the cup but hesitates to drink it. I get the clothes from the couch and throw him the jeans.

           “Put these on. They should make you feel better.”

           He obeys and slips them over his clothes. As the jeans start sagging past his hips, he whines, “They’re too big, Millie.”

           “I know,” I say. “But they’re all I could find.”

           “Okay,” he pouts. I put on the jacket and force the zipper up to my chin. It’s way too tight for me, and it honestly doesn’t make me feel any warmer, but I don’t bother trying to take it off now. I walk over to the fireplace. There’s a small log buried under the ash. I brush off the ash and light it with a match. The small flame flickers slowly.

           I unfold the quilt and sit next to Chester. I feel him shiver when he huddles next to me and I wrap the quilt around us. We sink into the familiar silence as the night closes in. The wind swirls outside and rustles the shutters. The cold bears over us like weights. I picture myself standing on our lawn, trying to remember the warmth of the sun and the grass tickling my feet. My heart sinks when I shiver instead. My body feels numb and lifeless. Our survival doesn’t feel impressive anymore, only lucky in a world of ice and decay.

           “Millie?” Chester says softly.

           I’m startled that he’s still awake, “Yeah, what is it?”

           “I wish I could be a hero.”

           “I know you do.”

           “No, I mean it though. I could have a cool sword and save everyone. You, Mom, Dad, everybody.”

           I feel a knot forming in my stomach. I say quickly, “Don’t worry about it, Chester.”
           “But I do. I want to be the best, like in the stories you used to tell me. I know I can be a real hero too, not just in the stories. Like the war heroes.”
           “It’s a lot more complicated than that,” I reply. “The war heroes . . . they tried to protect people, but it didn’t always work out.”
           “Why not?” he asks.
           I sigh and rub my eyes. “I don’t really know. But I do know that they weren’t always the good guys. They were just trying to survive like we are.”
           “. . . So, even heroes can be bad?”
           “Maybe. But remember the story I used to tell you, about Sebastian the Silver Knight? He wasn’t a completely good hero, but he wasn’t evil either. He was an antihero who walked in the middle.”
           “So the war heroes were like him?”
           “Kind of, yeah.” I give him a tight squeeze and continue enthusiastically, “You know what? All this hero talk has got me thinking. You can’t be a hero alone, you’ve gotta have a strong sidekick too. Will you make me your sidekick? We could be the Duo of Justice and . . . what did you call it?”

           “The Duo of Orderly Justice and Peace of the Entire Planet,” Chester corrects me with a hint of haughtiness in his voice.

           I chuckle. “Oh, right. I always thought we needed to workshop that. It’s way too long. Not to mention that it doesn’t make a good acronym.”

           Just when I think I’ve distracted him, he starts to shake violently. I wrap my arms around him in the hopes that it will make him feel better, but he doesn’t stop.

           “Millie, I want to forget what happened.”

           “I know. I do, too.”

           “But when I want to forget something, I just remember it even more. I like remembering stuff like our hero duo name and our stories. I don’t want to forget those. But then there’s the bad stuff, and it just sits in my head and—
and . . .” His voice starts cracking, and I realize he’s crying. I lean over and wipe the tears from his cheeks.

           “Go to sleep. We’re not going to talk anymore, okay? Just . . . think about how cool Inigo the hero is, and how you can be like him too.”

           I can feel his breathing relax a little as he wipes his cheeks dry. “. . . Okay. I’ll try.” He pauses before continuing,
“Can I ask you a question?”

           “Okay.”

           “Heroes have to hurt other people to save everybody. I don’t know if I can be a good hero ‘cause I don’t like hurting other people. Do you think I can be one without doing bad things?”

           “I don’t know. Sometimes people have to get hurt in order for everyone else to be safe. It’s . . . not a bad thing if you’re protecting someone you care about. If you think of it that way, a hero can do anything.”

           “Oh. Okay. Like how Westley protects Buttercup?”

           “Exactly.”       

           “Okay. Good night, Millie.”

           “Night, Chester.” I rest my head against his and feel the exhaustion taking over.

           I yawn and try to stay awake, keeping my eyes on the windows and the front door. The house creaks and moans against the wind outside. I can’t remember the sound of frying fish or birds chirping in the trees. Sounds that were once so common, like my mom’s lulling hum or my dad’s booming laugh, escaped my memory a long time ago.

           What we hear now are the remains of a world left to ruin from its own greed. The sounds of hail and ash swirling in the sky as the wind carries them, and the creaking of wood warping from the dampness of the outside world are all that’s left. It’s my new lullaby. I wonder what Chester’s lullaby is, what he hears as the night swallows us whole into what is always a restless sleep.

           Morning isn’t discernible anymore. What little light we have is the only indicator of what we used to know as “day.” It once felt leisurely, a time to socialize, talk about our problems as if the world revolved around us. As soon as the shutters rattle and reveal a few slivers of light, I perk up. I rub my eyes tiredly and can only wonder how few hours of sleep I’ve gotten. Chester is sleeping soundly next to me. I hear him mumble in his sleep a little. I set him against the side of the couch as gently as I can, and he doesn’t stir.
           I adjust the quilt to cover him up better before I stand up and stretch. It hasn’t been more than a few seconds, and I’m already shivering from the chill that settles into my skin. I peek out the window. The brown snow makes it impossible to see more than a couple of feet past the house. Today will be a bad day for traveling. Dark, formless figures dance through the wind. I feel my breath get caught in my throat as my eyes look for things I can only imagine exist beyond the house.

           It’s a good thing we got here when we did. The house groans, but it still stands strong, a testament to the will of the people who built their lives around these wooden boxes. If only people could be just as indestructible.

           I munch on a stale cracker. It’s bland and awful like everything else. Food used to have flavor, but I can’t really remember much of it. Chester likes to reminisce about chocolate and other treats. I can picture them in my head, but the taste on my tongue is a mix of bitter tastelessness.

           Chester wakes up and stands next to me in the kitchen, pulling the quilt over his shoulders. When he’s standing next to me like this, I remember how much he’s grown in the last couple of years. He used to be shorter than the other kids at school, and he would hate going to the local carnivals because of how they would make fun of him.

           Now he’s taller, but skinny like a twig. His shoulders are bony and protrude beneath the quilt’s fabric. His cheeks are hollow and pale. His eyes are more squinted than they used to be. His dirty blonde hair has gotten darker and a lot longer, too.
           I ruffle his hair and say, “I’m gonna find some scissors and give you a haircut.”
           He recoils and grabs his head protectively. The quilt falls to the floor as he whines, “No way, Millie! Inigo has long hair! I want long hair like his. The best heroes have it!”
           “You make a good point,” I concede. “But remember Westley? His hair is shorter, and he’s a great hero too.”

           He stumbles and mutters to himself before relenting. “Okay . . . you’re right.”

           I quickly search through the drawers and try to find some scissors. I find some old ones that look like they were used for arts and crafts based on the dried glue and glitter that cover the blades. We sit on the floor as I trim his hair. After a while, he says, “Millie, my mouth hurts.”

           “That’s not good,” I reply, hoping to mask how worried I sound.  I was hoping by some miracle that the radiation wouldn’t hurt him for some time.

           “I’m sorry,” I continue. “I . . . wish there was something I could do to help.”
           “Do we have anymore medicine?” he asks.
           “No,” I sigh. “We ran out a few weeks ago.” I pause cutting his hair, and the tears blur my vision. I try to blink them away as he says kindly, “That’s okay. You told me to tell you how I feel, so I do.”

           “Is that the only reason?”

           “Well . . . no.”

           “Okay. What else?”

           “Well . . . ever since I decided to become a hero, we’ve barely seen anybody else. Everybody’s gone. How come we haven’t seen anyone? There have to be other people like us, right?”

           I nod. “Yeah, I’m sure we just haven’t seen them because we move around so much.”

           “But aren’t they moving around too? I don’t get it.” He sighs, and his shoulders sag.

           “Well, they’re probably not trying as hard as you and I are to get their happy ending,” I remind him.

           “Do you think we’ll find it?”

           “Yeah, I think so.”

           “But we have to go a long way to get there. How long is it going to take?”

           “I don’t know. But we’re not going to stop until we get there.”

           Clumps of Chester’s hair litter the carpet around us. I try to pick up the strands as best I can and throw them into the pile of ash and dust in the fireplace. I walk over to the window and peek outside again. The wind isn’t as strong as it was earlier this morning, but the house still rumbles from the force. It’s like the world’s way of saying it’s out of control and punishing us for being responsible.

           I turn to Chester and say, “Are you ready to go? I think we can travel through this wind for a bit. Fold the quilt and stuff it into the bag as best you can.”

           I walk into the kitchen and pack the remaining crackers and tuna into a small container that was still in the sink. It reeks of rotten food, but it will make transporting our meal a little easier. I take one last look into the cabinet to see if there’s any leftover food that I missed but that was just wishful thinking.
           A loud slam shakes the doorframe violently. There’s shouting from the other side. Chester yelps before slapping his hand over his mouth. I rush over to his side and snatch the scissors from the floor.

           I jerk my head to Chester. “Hide in that closet over there.” He ducks into the closet and closes the door. I try to breathe and remain calm. This isn’t our first encounter with other survivors. But just because we were all survivors of the violent war, it doesn’t mean our ideas of self-preservation won’t clash.

           I can tell that the table I moved in front of the door isn’t going to hold for much longer, and I brace myself to fight. I glance at the closet door and think I see it ajar. Before I can yell at Chester to close it, the front door bursts open and the legs of the small table break as it falls. A bearded man collapses, gasping for air as he tries to close the door behind him.

           “S-stay back!” My voice cracks as I hold the scissors out in front of me, trying to look menacing. The fear always manages to find its way into my voice even when I try to stand tall and be imposing. The man doesn’t seem to hear me. He struggles to get to his feet, staring at me intently. He finally stands up and hobbles towards me, shouting maniacally,
           “Please help me. I’m starving!”

           I shake my head. “We don’t have anything.”

           He catches me off guard as he slaps the scissors out of my hands and rushes towards me. He wraps his hands around my neck, “Don’t lie to me! I just need a little bit—!”

           His grip around my throat tightens. I feel the air escaping my lungs. They burn as I try to fill them but the air gets caught. My vision is becoming blurry and speckled with flashes of light. I try to claw at his hands and face. My arms feel heavy and don’t move the way I want them to. My kicks are feeble. My strength is draining. I feel my knees collapse, and I sink to the floor. The man towers over me, his eyes blazing with anger and fear. I’ve never felt so afraid. Is this how my parents felt when they died? I remember their kind smiles and gentle voices.

           As if by some miracle, the binding around my throat is released. I fall to my knees and gasp for air. My breathing drowns out everything else around me. I blink and get up to protect Chester and find him slumped against the wall, blood on his jeans and sweater. I start panicking and checking for wounds but don’t see any.

           “Chester, are you okay?! Talk to me!” I demand, but his eyes are glazed over as if he’s in his own world. “. . . Chester?”

           He doesn’t make eye contact with me as he mumbles, “I . . . didn’t mean to . . .”

           I hear wheezing coming from behind me. I turn and see the bearded man crumpled on the wooden floor, the scissors I had used to cut Chester’s hair mere minutes ago embedded in his neck. I can see his blood pooling around him and staining the carpet a bright red, and I almost gag. I force myself to turn away from the gruesome sight and hug Chester. “You saved me. There’s nothing to be sorry for. If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here now.”

           I don’t hear a response and I pull away and study his face. His emotionless gaze and unfocused eyes take me back to the day of the disaster. Chester standing over the charred bodies of our parents after the house collapsed and burned everything in its wake. He didn’t talk for a long time after that. No matter where we went, the underground bunkers or the city streets, he closed himself off to everything. He was a different person trapped in grief. I can’t lose him again to the trauma of that day. I barely saved him from it once. It can’t happen again.

           I shake him by his shoulders, “Chester, listen to me . . .”

           He stares right through me and I can feel my hands start to tremble. It feels like I can’t breathe. I’m losing him again, I can tell. I run over to the bag and fling all of our possessions out of it and pull out his favorite movie. I rush back over and desperately shove it in his face.

           “You love this movie, remember? You’re going to—you’re going to be a sword master, and slay all the villains.”

           My sobbing stops me from speaking. The wind outside begins to blow more violently, and the door creaks in its frame and slams against the wall. These stories of noble heroes and dastardly villains were Chester’s saviors from a world of darkness. They were the only way to get through all of the pain. They helped him smile again, and helped me connect with him again after days of silence. I can’t lose him again. I put my hand over my mouth to muffle my crying and calm down. I wipe my eyes dry.
           “Come on, Chester. We need to go.”
           I leave The Princess Bride in his lap as I crawl over to our bag and hastily pack our possessions again. I force my eyes to avoid the man on the floor. I sling the bag over my shoulder and grab Chester’s hand. He’s staring at the man and shaking, the movie tossed on the floor in front of him. I pull him to his feet. The wind howls through the door, blowing brown snow and ash onto the carpet.
           I hug him and say in his ear, “You did nothing wrong. I promise you. You did nothing wrong. You’re my hero.” My heart aches when he doesn’t respond or even look at me. I squeeze his hand and kneel down to pick up the movie. I place it in our bag and stand in the doorframe. I squint through the snow before I wrap my arm around his shoulders and step outside.
           The wind bites, and the wet snow clings to our clothes. I lead us around the house and back into the forest. Chester and I may never find our happy ending, the place to the far west where we’d be safe. I hate to admit it, but I’ve come to accept the reality that the world has forced on us. But my legs don’t stop, and my heart pounds. I think I hear Chester’s voice through the wind. It’s soft and sad, but it’s all I need.
            “Hello. My name is . . .”

 

Michaela El-Ters is an undergraduate working to get her BFA in Visual Communication and a

minor in English. She has a part-time internship at the Flagstaff Convention and Visitor’s Bureau

and writes blogs on her roommate’s website, Objection Network. When she isn’t busy with

school and work, she enjoys playing video games and writing stories.

 
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