It’s surprising, the things you miss after the world has ended. I thought I had a lot of pictures: Pictures of all those Christmases spent with my father. Pictures of holidays at Uncle David’s caravan in Wales. Pictures of people I’ve known and places I’ve been. But they’re all gone now. They were all stored digitally online. I kept my laptop for a long time, thinking that perhaps we would find a generator on one of the salvage runs. I suppose now that that was childish of me. Even if I could have got my laptop to turn on, I doubt Facebook would still be up and running.
One particularly hot day, I had sat with my head leant against Sarah’s shoulder, the heat made me dozy and I could feel sleep beckoning to me even as I fought against its pull.
“What’s on your mind?” Sarah asked intuitively, without moving her head.
“Nathan hasn’t come back yet from his salvage run at the high school. I told him not to go. We’ve already searched it three times and it isn’t safe.” The high school had taken a hit from a shell, and half of the first floor had fallen through to the ground floor. What was left of the first floor was still crumbling. It had been almost two years since the school was hit, but every now and again another large chunk of it would just collapse in on itself. The image of Nathan buried beneath a pile of rubble was burning in the back of my mind. I couldn’t shake it no matter how hard I tried.
“Nathan will be alright.” Sarah soothed, “He knows what he’s doing. We will have to leave here soon. I think we’ve all but depleted everything salvageable.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
“There’s nothing left here for us, Hannah. Just bad memories and rubble.”
“They weren’t all bad…”
The sight of Nathan coming around the corner interrupted my protest. I jumped up and ran over to him, both elated by is return and excited to see what he had brought. My joy was cut short when I saw the look on his face. He shook his head. His run had clearly been unsuccessful.
“It doesn’t matter,” I tried to reassure him, “We have enough food for a few days yet. We can search the shopping centre again tomorrow.”
“The shopping centre is empty. We’ve raided it at least ten times. If you need another quilt or a new computer console then go for it.” He spoke in a mixture of anger and defeat. “I’m sorry” He softened, “I did manage to get you one thing.” He shrugged his rucksack off his shoulders, unzipped the front pocket, and took out a small piece of glossy paper. He handed it to me without making eye contact.
I turned the paper over and saw a young boy smiling back at me. Two brown eyes shone out from under a mess of sandy blonde hair. He was beaming a toothy grin and the world behind him was a blur of colour and lights. I felt my eyes begin to well up.
“Sarah,” I croaked, weakly. I cleared my throat and returned to my friend’s side. “Sarah, look.” I handed her the photograph. She only glanced at it before looking up at Nathan.
“Where did you find it?” She asked, with perfect composure, her brown eyes betraying her only slightly. In that moment I wondered how it had come to be that Sarah never cried anymore.
“It was in the cabinet in one of the offices.” Nathan replied slowly, his tone was almost apologetic. “I think it’s from the summer when our class went to the fair. We must’ve ridden the teacups at least 8 times. He spun them so fast!” He laughed a little, but the sorrow in his eyes was palpable.
My mind was being pulled back into the summers we had spent as children, playing in the old field that our houses backed onto, jumping into the canal to cool off, despite how many times our parents told us that it wasn’t safe. My head was filled with the laughter of the five of us – myself, Nathan, Sarah and her younger brothers, Mathew and Michael. We thought life could be like that forever, a seemingly endless blur of sunshine and laughter.
But it couldn’t.
A dark cloud hung over those memories. One day, while playing down at the canal, Mathew had jumped in and he didn’t come back up. I could still hear Sarah’s screams. I could still feel my breath burning in my chest as I ran as fast as I could through the field to fetch their father. I ran twice as fast back through the field again, with their father running behind me, to show him the spot where Mathew had jumped in. When we returned we found Mathew sprawled on the bank with Sarah hovering over him, her tears falling down onto his already wet skin.
Their father fell to the ground beside them and began pumping Mathew’s chest and trying to administer CPR. After a few minutes Mathew began coughing and spluttering up mouthfuls of putrid canal water. For a moment, at least, I could breathe too. Then Sarah’s father looked up at her and asked, “Where’s Michael?”
Michael was thirteen years old when he drowned, saving his younger brother’s life. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t think of him. But, over time, memories fade and become distorted. I had almost forgotten his face. Now, I saw that face staring up at me from that precious scrap of glossy paper. All those memories came flooding back to me. Of course they weren’t all bad, but they were all edged with pain now.
Sarah held my hand in hers and I cried. “Do you ever wish you could stay inside of a memory forever?” I asked her, feeling the tiredness I had been fighting against earlier washing over me in waves. “If I fall asleep will you stay with me?” I was half asleep and half my mind was in the memory. I squeezed Sarah’s hand even tighter and held out my other hand for Michael, but he never took it.