Read Part 1 in Issue 8
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Winter had been a burden on everyone, as was usual, but this year things were different. I had been living at the settlement for fifteen years – having arrived not too long after the initial outbreak of the plague – and this winter was far colder than any I had experienced before. Rationing was becoming increasingly steep: most of the time I went hungry, and it did not help that I had to work harder than ever thanks to all the snow and the cold. I had a hard time sleeping, too. But the lack of food and heat was not the only thing that made this winter different from those preceding it. This winter was to change my life. And it all began with the night of the fire.
At the start of the season, I had the job of working on the allotments. I had to harvest crops and vegetables to be stored for the approaching winter month. The work was tough. After that, despite the days shortening with late sunrises and early sunsets, my days felt like they were becoming longer. More work with less light and warmth to do it in. The older generations of the community kept insisting the need for each and every one of us to do all we can to help out. They spoke about how grateful we all must remember to be to have the privilege of living within the safe comfort of the settlement, within a safe community, when everything outside its walls had fallen to pieces. Sure, I was grateful for what I had and I understood why I had to work so hard, but this did not stop the time from dragging on, especially when the snow started falling, making work of any kind a complete nightmare. And then came the night of the fire.
I remember that night well. I had been out walking along the snow-covered pathways of the settlement having not been able to sleep when I stumbled upon something strange. There was a sharp orange glow illuminating the darkness up ahead, reaching like broad arms around the side of one of the houses. It soon dawned on me that something was not right. At once I began to hurry toward the unknown source of the light. As I approached, the sounds and colours of the night before me were building up in a terrifying combination of light and beastly groans. Turning a corner around the back of a building that had blocked my line of sight, I was met with a terrifying sight.
When I look back on this night now, my memories of what followed come to me in a short string of hazy events. The fire – a horde of angry flames relentlessly biting into that small, slanted house at the edge of the settlement. The fire was a ravenous predator; the house its prey. The sounds – first the incessant roar, like that of some great beast, and then the screams. One moment I had been standing alone, and suddenly there were people everywhere. A frenzy of shouts and useless, flailing buckets of water. Panic. And then the body. The frail old man who had lived inside, pulled from the crumbling building limp and blackened. The smoke had choked the life out of him. Old Adams. That is what we used to call him.
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To be continued in Issue 10
Original image by Lizzie Wood