A GATHERING OF ASHES • by Gustavo Bondoni

A lone firefighter walked through the deserted street.

He saw the playground where he’d run as a boy, and watched for a moment as the swings, faded but intact, swayed in the autumn wind.  A yellowed piece of paper blew across the street and caught in overgrown brambles by what was left of the road.

When he first woke, he thought it had all been a dream: the frantic emergency call, the smoke in the distance, the horror when they learned that the destination and the huge blaze was at the power plant, the helpless watching as other succumbed to the radiation as opposed to the flame, and then the blindness.

The firefighter had woken many times since, but never as a fireman, always as a patient.  In and out of treatment, of comas.  In his dream, he’d never walked and he’d never been free of pain.  Waking and sleeping was the same to him; his blindness made night of everything.  He’d heard great events unfold in his dream: revolution, democracy, independence, but they’d felt to him like the hallucinations of a fever dream that lasted years and decades.

And then, from the frantic sounds of panicked nurses rushing to an emergency chime which had faded to darkness, he’d  unexpectedly woken to a glorious sight: an autumn sunset over Pripyat, the place he loved most in the world.  He was standing, free of the bed and the grey hospital.  The pain was gone.

He could see.

He could see Pripyat before him, and the black hulk of Chernobyl behind, but neither was as he remembered them.  The plant had been rebuilt, some huge structure replacing the old squat buildings.  The city was deserted.

It wasn’t deserted like it was on Saturday mornings. Pripyat had the look of a place that had been empty forever. Grass, even trees grew in profusion from cracks in the pavement.  The windows on the apartment buildings were either gone or broken.

An abandoned bicycle lay in the center of the road, rusted into a bent mound, tires bleached by the sun.  There was no question of finding anyone here – humanity had gone completely.

But still the firefighter walked the overgrown streets until he came to the playground where he’d spent so many happy days.  It should have echoed with the happy cries of children, but instead, the only sound was the slight swaying of the rusted swing-chains in the wind.

He covered his face with his hand, and that was when he realized that he could see through the outline of his arm.

So the other had been the waking, the pain, the hospitals, and this was the dream.

The fireman fell to his knees and cried out to the heavens they’d taught him not to believe in.  He poured his entire spirit into one keening sound that he knew no one beyond his dream could hear, a primal cry that emptied his existence and should have carried him up to the sky with it.

But when he finished, he was still there, kneeling in a deserted, weed-choked playground.

He cursed the fact that he was unable to cry, unable to completely bury his head in his hands.

Eventually, a feeling made him lift his eyes to an amazing sight.

There were people there watching him. Thousands of people, tens of thousand, stretching as far as he could see. They were mostly Asian, but a few towards the front were European, and seemed to be half-remembered figures from the past. The entire multitude was as translucent as his arm.

A thought reached him. “We heard your call.”

“I didn’t call you,” he replied.

“You did. We heard the pain, the burning of the radiation, the years of suffering. We came to help you, to tell you that you are free now.”

It seemed the entire group spoke as one.

“This was my home,” he said.

“This is not a fit home now. You must break away from it.”

“I cannot.”

“Perhaps not now, but you will.”

And, deep inside, the firefighter knew they were right. There were better places to be.

“Will you wait with me until I am ready?”

“Yes, we will. We understand.”

And they did. And none of the living were ever aware of it, save for some in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who felt a slight breeze as the massed ghosts of their towns rushed to the Ukraine to help a single lost soul.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over a hundred published stories and four books to his credit. Every Day Fiction is one of his favorite places to get a fiction fix — and loves the interaction when one of his stories is published there.

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