The Ruined City ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
It was a Friday in wintertime. I had to stay late at my job and missed the last train. I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to walk home in the cold but I was going to try. I was alone on the dark street—only one streetlamp in ten was lit—when I heard the whirring of the night patrol transport under the wind. I ducked into an alleyway but I was spotted and before I knew what was happening two men were on me, hitting me with clubs.
“It’s after curfew!” one of the men said. “Show me your identity card!”
My hands were shaking and I began coughing uncontrollably, but I managed to get the card out and thrust it toward his face. “I was just going home,” I said. “I thought I could catch the last train but it was gone.”
“Shut up!” he said. He shone the light on the card and looked at it and then at me. “It’s not valid!” he said, pulling me to my feet. “We’re ordered to shoot on sight any revolutionaries.”
“I’m not a revolutionary,” I said.
“You’ll have to come along with us to the magistrate.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
When they shoved me into the back of the transport, I couldn’t see anything. The only thing I knew was that I was moving very fast through the city. Ten minutes later, I was pulled out and taken into a building and put into a holding cell with ten or twelve others just like me.
My turn came and I was taken into a small room and put in a chair facing a desk. Behind the desk was a man with reddish hair and a round face. He had a scar running from the side of his mouth to his ear. He grinned at me with a lopsided mouth.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” he said.
“I was on my way home. I didn’t do anything.”
“You know about the curfew laws?”
“If you are out after curfew, we must assume you are one of the enemy intent on doing us harm.”
“Then why were you out after curfew?”
“Some of the machinery broke down at work. I had to stay and fix it to keep production going.”
“You are a mechanic?”
“A factory worker.”
“A factory worker who also fixes machinery?”
“Your identity card is not valid.”
“I don’t understand. It was valid when it was checked yesterday.”
“Are you saying that someone has sabotaged your identity card without your knowing it?”
“I don’t know. Yes, anything is possible.”
“Do you know what can happen to you when you are out after curfew with an invalid identity card?”
“I was on my way home. If my identity card isn’t valid, I have no explanation.”
“Is that the only excuse you have?”
“It sounds very weak.”
“You are not with the revolutionary forces?”
“Where do you live?”
“Outer sector twenty-three.”
“What are your political views?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Did you vote for Leonhardt in the election?”
“Leonhardt received ninety-eight perfect of the vote. Are you telling me you were among the two percent who voted for the opposition?”
“No, I didn’t vote for the opposition. I didn’t vote.”
“I was in the hospital with fever.”
“You were supposed to vote. Everybody votes in this state.”
“I was out of my head.”
“Things look very bad for you. You were skulking about in the dark after curfew. You have an identity card that isn’t valid. You didn’t vote in the election.”
“I want to speak to someone.”
“Revolutionary forces are trying to take over the city and the state. That’s why we have a curfew. Anybody violating curfew is presumed to be a revolutionary and will be shot on sight. I’m surprised our men even brought you to me. They should have killed you outright.”
“I’ve done nothing!”
“So you all say.”
“You can call my employer. He’ll vouch for me. You can call my wife and son. They’ll swear I’m not a revolutionary. I spend my life working in a factory. When I’m not working, I’m at home resting up to go to work the next day. I have no time or energy to be a revolutionary.”
“I will call no one! Why should I believe anything that anybody said about you?”
“Of what am I being accused?”
“Espionage, sedition, spying, treason, plotting to overthrow the government. All of those things.”
He took a deep breath and looked into my eyes. “I hereby find you guilty,” he said.
“I’ve done nothing!”
“According to the evidence, you are an enemy of the state. You will be hanged by the neck until dead at six o’clock in the morning.”
“Don’t I have a chance to speak to someone?”
“I am that someone.”
“Don’t I get a trial?”
“You’ve just had it. I’ve examined the evidence thoroughly and have found you guilty. The judgment of the court has been rendered.”
I was removed from the room and thrown into a dark, solitary cell. All that was left for me to do was to wait to die. I was like a fly caught in a spider web.
I lay down on the filthy cot and tried to calm myself. I told myself that dying this way wasn’t such a bad thing. It would be quick and I had heard it was painless. All my problems would go away; my feet and back would no longer bother me. No, I didn’t hate it so much for myself but mostly for my wife and son and my mother and brother who lived far away. They would have a hard time learning the truth of what happened to me. They would know in their hearts, though, that I did nothing wrong and that I went to my death like a man and not a cringing coward.
I heard the steady drip of water somewhere for a couple of interminable hours and after a while I began to hear something else. A low, steady drone like the buzzing of insects that slowly grew louder. Could it be that planes were approaching the city? What did it mean?
When the bombs began to fall, I stood up and began banging on the door of the cell and calling for somebody to come and let me out. I didn’t want to be squashed like a bug if the building was blown to bits, even if it was preferable to having my neck snapped. No matter how much noise I made, though, nobody came.
The first blast that hit the building knocked me to the floor. I crawled under the cot, my only refuge. Other blasts followed and finally the walls came down around me. I was certain I was going to die, but my fear was gone. I was strangely calm. I had seen this all happen in a dream and I knew how it was going to turn out.
When the blasts stopped and I realized I wasn’t dead, I began to try to pull myself free of the rubble. My legs were pinned but not too badly injured, I felt, and, with a great amount of effort, I was able to free them. I pulled myself to a sitting position and rested for a few moments. I figured it was useless to try to dig my way to the outside, though. If I displaced a board here or a chunk of plaster there, it only made more stuff rain down on me. I was buried alive but I still believed it wasn’t as bad as hanging from the end of a rope. A slow death instead of a fast one.
Then I felt something on my face I hadn’t expected: a tiny puff of wind and the smell of the outdoors. It smelled like freedom. I began digging my way toward the smell slowly, so as not to bring everything down on my head.
After what seemed like a very long time but was probably only a few minutes, I pulled myself out a hole in the wall that was just big enough and no bigger—as if the hole was made especially for me. I didn’t stop to question it or wonder why. I only began running.
The city was in chaos. Many buildings burning or reduced to piles of debris. People screaming and running every which way. Dead bodies everywhere, some of them blown to bits. Others who weren’t dead cried out pitifully for help.
As I ran, I realized there were others running with me. I had become part of a group of running men. One of them thrust a rifle into my hands. I took it gladly, if only to have something to hold onto that seemed real.
“We got that bastard pig Leonhardt,” the man who gave me the rifle said.
“What?” I asked.
“Leonhardt is dead. They bombed the presidential palace.”
“The Northlanders. They’re in it to help us.”
“Who are the Northlanders?” I asked, but he ran on ahead and didn’t hear me.
It seemed as if we had run for miles but finally we came to a place where we could stop and look back on the burning, ruined city. There were about a dozen of us. We were all panting for air. Some of us collapsed on the ground.
“I haven’t run like that since I was twelve years old,” one man said, laughing.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“We’re taking back the state,” another said. “No more dictators! From now on we’re a democracy again.”
They thought I was one of them, so I didn’t ask any more questions that would give me away. By morning it was as if I had known them all my life. I learned to shoot the gun and became one of them. With my wife and son dead, as I was to learn later, I had nothing else to live for.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp