(Content warning: This story has some intense themes and depictions of violence, please don’t read it if that might upset you -Max)
*Michelle was a university student and activist before the war. She stayed with us one night about six months ago. She spent most of that night at the bar talking and drinking with me. This is her story, quoted verbatim:*
I just didn’t understand how they didn’t see the warning signs. They were everywhere, it was so obvious.
It started with this weird hypocritical propaganda, It was slow at first but eventually it was everywhere. The government would do something outrageous like single out a group in society and tell everyone they were responsible for all the crime in the area, and the media would jump all over it, but when the same politicians started stealing public money and funneling it into fake companies. No one mentioned that! The media sure as Hell didn’t.
It was like a ratchet, any time any minority group slipped up in anyway, like some immigrant kid shoplifted from a store or something, then the government would make these laws prohibiting them from speaking again, and then those laws would become the new bench mark, the new baseline of freedom. All the national security nonsense, all the invasive laws, they told us they were there to keep us safe, but when the ‘danger’ past, the laws were never rescinded. Yeah, it was like a ratchet, it just twisted those laws firmer, but it never eased off.
They were so obviously corrupt too, anyone who spent half a day investigating them would have seen that. But no one did. We watched as all our media was privatised and then sold to the same media oligarch who just so happened to also be the biggest donor to all the political parties. I mean!
At first, we thought the media was just becoming complacent. But it was much worse than that. They were directly involved. So of course, there was no investigation. Why would they investigate the people who pay their cheques?
There were a few honest journalists left of course, but they got drowned out under the sheer volume and capacity of those in power. And we found the honest Journalist were always getting bans from social media because they ‘broke the terms and conditions of use’
But then it started to change, what used to be suggestive terms about minorities turned into direct accusations against them, they weren’t dog-whistles or winks anymore, it was overt hard-line propaganda. The media and the politicians seemed to be fully coordinated. They used words like vermin, and rats, and invasion, and infestation, then of course, they started saying extermination. They just fed off each other. The media would quote politicians to make their position seem reputable and the politicians would quote the journalists to sound reputable, it was just a circle of hate speech and propaganda, no one ever really saying anything, just lies and accusations and scapegoating.
This went on for years, it was so gradual then by the time we had concentration camps and started filling them up, we had all become numb to it, the average person on the street was so normalised to it, that to oppose any of this made you a de-facto enemy of the government, even to your friends and neighbours, the conditioning was that deep, and by that point, they weren’t too picky about who got sent to the camps.
We used to read about all the fascism in the 1930’s and wonder how they people ever let their governments get that out of control. I always believed it was oppression that made it possible, but that’s not true at all. Fascism happens because most people can just live their lives around it, and by the time it comes for you, it is too powerful to resist.
By the time they started justifying the war, honestly by that point, it didn’t matter. They could have said anything, and the people would have agreed with it, half of the people so brainwashed they would go along with anything and the other half just trying to keep their head down and ride out the storm.
That’s what I did. I was a very vocal activist once, I had been opposing every evil thing that government did, but I realised then that we had already lost, so I started being quiet too. But I was so angry inside. I still get angry whenever I think back on it. We had been telling people for years to wake up, but they just wouldn’t.
I still think about that a lot. I wonder why everyone was so complacent at the start. I guess, unless something is happening to you it truly is easy to ignore, especially if it is something awful.
Or maybe there is just something relieving when you stop caring about anyone but yourself. I mean I get that, at some level. It must be wonderful to not care about other people.
I don’t know, doesn’t matter anymore, right?
But I do remember hating them, hating everyone, they wanted to be blind to the horror around them. The camps were offshore so they were easy to ignore, and that government had had so many scandals and gaffes, and pointless exaggerated non-existent triumphs, not to mention the propaganda was endless, I think even the people who truly bought into it all had switched off at some point.
So by the time they were talking about nuclear war, I think most of us wrote it off as sensationalist bullshit like always, Or maybe we were just too exhausted to care anymore.
It’s kind of funny though, when the war started, a part of me was glad, I wanted all these warmongers to fuck off and die, I hoped the bombs landed on their homes, I hoped their whole lives would be destroyed.
Well… I got my wish, right?
It still kind of shocks me how nonchalant it all happened. Yeah, nonchalant is the right word. It’s like we just bumbled our way into annihilation. I always thought there would be some big dramatic build up, or it would be this big culminative event. But it was neither, it was nothing really. I was just at home streaming some show and then it felt like a flood light was coming through my window.
I was lying down on the couch when it happened, but my legs were hanging over the edge. And then that blinding flash bulb light blinked for a second, and then that light disappeared, and everything was black and the exposed skin between my pants and socks just… melted.
I couldn’t even describe to you what emotion I was feeling then. Somewhere between panic, and numbness. It was impossible to focus on anything; it was just brain overload. I remember my first coherent thought after though. I thought I was horrifically injured, and had it been a normal day, everyone else probably would have too.
When the shock started to calm a bit, I knew I needed to seek help, I reached for it but my phone was already dead, as was the computer, and the lights, that’s when I noticed all the electricity was gone. It was like a blackout, but this stopped everything, even the clock on the wall. Like the world had stopped moving. I learned later that was the electro-magnetic pulse.
I made my way to the bathroom, moving somewhere between a limp and bounce to keep the pressure off my burned leg. There was practically no light at all, just the moonlight bouncing off the metal and glass buildings outside. I reached the sink and turned the water on. I splashed my face first and saw my face in the mirror. You know those times when you catch yourself in a mirror when you aren’t expecting it and you catch a glimpse of the real you?
I had never seen… fear on my face before. I splashed my face again and caught my breath. Then opened the cupboard underneath the sink and pulled out my small first aid kit which I had never raided anything more than a band-aid from before. I got the bandage out, soaked it under the tap and wrapped it around the burned part of my leg. It was really only a small area, that bit between the pant cuff and the top of my socks, I remember at the time thinking how weird that was but also kind of thankful it was so small, not that it made it hurt any less. It’s impossible to describe what having your flesh melt feels like. I think it is just one of those things you must experience to understand. Pain like that, your body breaking apart at the cellular level. I still have nightmares.
So, I was about halfway through the bandage when the fires started. Just a light orange glow reflecting from the bathroom tiles, but then it was bright enough to illuminate the whole apartment. I finished my bandage and I limped to the big glass door in my living room, I opened it and stepped onto my balcony.
The whole city seemed to be on fire, but I couldn’t even tell what was burning, everything just looked like a Dali painting or something, melted, fused, on fire. It was so surreal it took me out of my body. I was mesmerised. I don’t know how long I was in that daze, but I remember seeing a fireball shoot up from the street a few blocks away, and it took the booming sound a few seconds more to reach me. That shook me, it was so loud it shook me. I blinked and came back to my senses.
I looked down at the street below and I could see figures moving. I didn’t know where I needed to go, but I knew I had to get there. Find some help, find someone else to help? I don’t know, I just couldn’t be alone up there. That panic instinct I suppose. That gut dread feeling that just makes you want to seek other people.
As soon as I left my apartment it was pitch black again. There were no windows on my floor. So, I hugged the wall as I hobbled my way to the fire escape door. And followed the rail down, as I counted the floors to the ground. I finally managed to step outside
Once I opened that final door it was just devastation, and fire. So much fire, it felt like everything was burning or already melted.
There were people everywhere, but the streets felt silent. Everyone was stunned. The occasional call for help but mostly just people shuffling past, no one was really helping anyone else, we were all just too overwhelmed, there were bodies everywhere, some were alive, some had their legs fused to the ground, some were just ash. It was… overwhelmed. You couldn’t stop to help anyone because then you would start helping everyone and even though you knew they needed it, how could you? How could you help them all?
So I joined everyone else just shuffling down the street, Seeing all the people with melted hands and melted faces… melted any part that was exposed to that flash… well my ankle didn’t seem so bad after that.
That’s when I found my neighbour. one half of her face was burned, just one half, the half that had been facing the flash, the skin hanging down from the muscle and bone, one of her eyes was just gone. Her hand was the same. It looked like she was holding a blob of that slime kids play with, except she wasn’t holding anything, it was her skin. I watched her for a minute, it was just, I don’t even have the words for it, you just don’t ever see things like that. only the areas that were exposed to the flash. One of her feet had been crushed by bricks from a blown apart wall. She begged me to help her.
I looked at her, and she just kept begging me. Staring at me with that one eye of hers.
At first my instinct kicked in to help, to get the debris off her and find some help. But about a second later another emotion swept over me. I remember her handing out fliers during the election, telling people to vote for the government that caused our city to burn. I remember the way she used to post on social media, telling all the immigrants to go home, how she believed and supported every belligerent and hateful thing ‘they’ did. I remembered how smug she was.
Now here she was before me, trapped, injured and begged me to help her.
Do you know what I did? I spat on he, and I told her I hoped she would die slow, and as the fires reached her, she did.
And I listened to her screams until the smoke and fire destroyed her throat, and then I walked away and joined the columns of people fleeing the city.
All these years later, that’s the one image, I can never shake, that image, that one never leaves me.
That’s how angry I was, at all of them, the world, all of it.
That haunts me more than anything, I had a chance to save her, whether she was a good or bad person, who cares?
All the rest it, you know, we could argue forever about where all the blame should be, who caused it, why we grew to hate each other so much, I’m sure future generations will debate that forever.
But that woman? That one was all me.
*End of recording*
*The next day, a sober Michelle meekly told me she was heading north, I told her she was welcome to stop by the bar on her return trip, she nodded without a word, before she walked to the highway. I haven’t seen her since.*