The War is Over ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Most of the people I used to know have gone away; where they have gone I don’t know. I’d like to think that some of them have found the paradise they were looking for. I stay in my little flat, even though the building is all but deserted. I have to walk up and down the six flights every time I go out or come back since the elevators have long ago stopped working. I guess the bright side, if there is one, is I don’t have to pay rent anymore because there’s nobody to collect it and money doesn’t mean anything anyway.
I lie on my bed at night and, though the building is eerily quiet, I hear sounds from far off: screams, gunshots and a wailing that might be human or maybe animal. Sometimes when I go to the window and look off into the distance, I see fires burning. Roving gangs set fires because they can and there’s nobody to stop them and nobody to put the fires out. There isn’t anything about this world that isn’t frightening. That’s why I’ll be glad to be out of it soon.
My little stores of food and water are dwindling. I take only a sip of water now and then when I can’t go without it any longer. And when it comes to food, you can get by on a surprisingly small amount when you have to. I seem to have lost any hunger, which is altogether a good thing. I have dizzy spells and blackouts, which I figure must be from poor nutrition, but it isn’t so bad. I know I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I have no way of knowing how much. Of the many ways in which I might die when my time comes, death by starvation and thirst hold no appeal for me because they are too slow. I can always jump out the window into the courtyard; a quick way, if not very aesthetic.
And then there’s my Cure for All Ills. These little capsules, one per person, were handed out to anybody who wanted them as soon as the war was lost (and lost by all sides). You just put the capsule in the back of your mouth and bite down. Death is supposed to be painless and instantaneous. This is a little trick, I’ve been told, we learned from the Nazis. I’ll take the Cure for All Ills only when the end is upon me and I fully recognize it as the end, after I’ve exhausted all the avenues for living one more hour or one more minute. Though I long for the comfort of death, I believe that I owe it to myself to stay alive as long as I can. Who knows what the next minute—or the minute after that—will bring. It doesn’t hurt to believe that something still might happen.
At night when I can’t sleep and feel sick, I entertain myself with thoughts of taking the Cure for All Ills on my bed and being transported to heaven or to a beautiful place that seems like heaven but might also be hell. I know as soon as I pass over into this place that it is where I have always longed to be. As far as my body is concerned, I can see it, in thirty years or fifty, a pile of corruption and bones among the bedclothes. It will lie undisturbed for centuries until the building crumbles to dust. And then, in three thousand years, or ten thousand, a future race of archaeologists will discover my remains and speculate about how I met my end. I’ll be put on display in a museum as an example of a lost and mysterious race of men about whom nothing is known except that they all seemed to have died about the same time.
Early in the morning there’s a knock at my door that startles me awake. I sit up in bed and don’t make a sound. There’s a second knock and I know that somebody is standing there in the hallway, listening and waiting. I want to know who it is, but I don’t dare open the door. They will kill me for the little bit of food and water I have left. Maybe kill me for nothing other than the pleasure of killing me. That’s the way the world is now. You don’t open the door unless you’re ready to defend what you have.
Whoever is doing the knocking soon leaves. I gasp with relief as I hear the receding footsteps and then the squeak of the door leading to the stairs. After a minute I feel close to tears with disappointment because now I’ll never know who it was or what they would have said to me if I had opened the door. It might have been good news; not very likely but still possible. I’m thinking it might have been my brother or my sister or somebody in my family until I remember that they all died in the war.
For the rest of the day I’m sick. After I take a sip of water, I vomit it up. I think the end can’t be too far away and I’m glad. I check and make sure my Cure for All Ills is safe in its little box in the drawer beside the bed. I’m comforted to know it’s still there, but I might not need it after all.
I sleep and wake and then sleep again. I can’t tell the waking from the sleeping. I think I hear voices and that somebody is standing beside my bed. I have to struggle to get up to make sure the door is still bolted. More than once I think my mother is here, trying to wake me up to give me some bad news, but she is no more real than the music I hear or the people I see off in the distance.
In the evening I feel better. I sit up in bed and eat a little and then I sleep peacefully for the rest of the night without any disturbing dreams.
The next day and the day after that it rains. I collect as much water as I can in pans on my little balcony. There’s nothing better than water coming down when you believe you’re about to die of thirst. I drink my fill of the metallic-tasting rain water and then, wrapped in a blanket, I sit in the window and watch the rain come down, remembering the warm fires at home and the hot food my mother prepared for me every day of my life.
When the rain stops the sun is shining. I realize I haven’t been out of my flat or seen another person in about six weeks, so I venture down the stairs and out into the courtyard. I find a place to sit in the sun and lean back and close my eyes. In a few minutes, a man I knew before the war named Jess Guttmann comes quietly from out of nowhere and sits beside me.
“You still here?” he asks.
“No place to go,” I say. “No family.”
“You look terrible.”
“Thank you,” I say. “So do you.”
“You just going to wait here for the end?” he asks.
“It can’t be too far off, now.”
“They say the cloud is closer than we think.”
“They’ve been saying that for months now.”
“My daughter died last week,” Jess Guttmann says. “She was twelve.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“She’s one of the lucky ones. She’s out of it now.”
“Soon the rest of your family can join her,” I say.
“I have my Cure for All Ills,” he says, “but I’ve just been putting off taking it. I’m not going to be able to put it off much longer, though. It’s October now and winter will be here soon. I’m not going to wait around for that.”
“Same here. I might go tonight. Or tomorrow. Who knows?”
“Do you think the Cure for All Ills works?” he asks.
“I haven’t heard anybody say it doesn’t.”
“We keep hearing rumors about some caves a hundred miles west of here that people are going to to escape the cloud,” he says.
“How many people do you think have heard that rumor? There’s going to be a lot of disappointed people.”
“You never know,” he says. “There might be a chance.”
“I don’t think so,” I say, and when I look at his face I know it isn’t what he wants to hear.
We wish each other luck and shake hands. He disappears around the corner, and I know he’s the last person I will ever see.
Two nights later I’m asleep when the building begins to shake, gently at first and then violently. Pieces of the ceiling begin to rain down on my head. I leap out of bed and fumble for my shoes but I can’t find them in the dark. My one thought is to get out of the building as fast as I can before I’m buried alive. I can’t imagine anything worse.
I grope my way in the dark to the stairs, in my bare feet, and down the six flights. The stairs are bucking and crumbling as I step on them so that I have to hang onto the rail to keep from falling. Finally I come to the door on the ground floor that will take me outside.
I think the building is surely going to come down, so I run as fast as I can to put distance between it and myself. I get maybe thirty yards away when something strikes me from behind. I don’t feel pain, but the breath is knocked out of my body and I fall forward.
There’s a tremendous roar that deafens me and then gradually subsides. Lying facedown on the ground, I have the sensation of being pulled to my feet and then lifted gently upward into the sky. Up, up, upward until I become a part of something that’s there but I don’t know yet what it is. I don’t understand what’s happening to me, but I’m no longer afraid. The one thing I do know is that, at last, my time has come. No more war for me.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp