Note: The following is based on a dream the author had a few years ago, and while generally you should not write out your dreams and/or nightmares, the author decided to try anyways and make something coherent/cognizant/meaningful out of it. You can decide if it works. if you dare...
City of Terror
We found ourselves in this small mountain town filled with floating castles and ancient-looking buildings—museums, churches, capitols, old houses—each historic and antiquated monument floating atop its own individual mountain, like a dozen acropolises. We’d spent the morning visiting each one, gallivanting around with the other tourists. The city itself was in a large valley made up of the small hills and cobblestone streets that wound around these edifices. White snow topped the green mountains on either side of us.
The sun was bright, but you could barely feel it as the narrow valley and hills and many buildings had a tendency to slant its rays and keep the sun from penetrating totally in the street of the city. The whole town looked as if it were painted as a chiaroscuro. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. In some parts, particularly down low, the cold air and dark shadows felt as if they were emanating from the earth itself.
We were on vacation in this small, fairy-tale-like-town for, as they call it, a “Babymoon.” Particularly special for us because we’d spent several years navigating the hellscape of miscarriages and infertility treatments, with visits to doctors’ offices becoming more frequent than meals eaten out.
As evening encroached, my six-month pregnant wife and I soon found ourselves in line with all the other tourists to go to a famous ball put on by the locals. The waiting area sat atop an inclined street that led to the base of a small castle. The entire city and valley stretched out on either side of us. A 360-degree view but for the stone structure right in front of us. Pink snow topped the green mountains as dusk approached.
They said the city began as a refugee camp, some years, long ago. A different time, but the same world. These residents walked and lived in camps at first. All borders shut. Some of them lived in cages. There was no room at any inn they stopped at along the way. So, one day, they made their own way to a part of the world no one cared they’d occupy. Somewhere in between Greenland, Wyoming, and Azerbaijan. They built a city for themselves. Because no one else would. Some of them were architects after all. And doctors. And city planners. And philosophers. And lawyers. Those that were still living.
My wife and I were tired. The tiredness that hits the bottoms of your feet and lower back, exacerbated from walking around on cobblestone all day. My wife was not feeling good. She sat down next to me as we waited in line for the doors to open.
After thirty minutes or so, people began grumbling amongst themselves. It was a strange noise to hear after walking about this town all day and hearing nothing but laughter, joy, and curiosity coming from folks—both us tourists and the locals alike. That’s when I first felt that something was not quite right.
Perhaps it was because there was a man in line I didn’t like the sight of. He looked like he was concealing a weapon but it couldn’t have been, for weapons were outlawed, no, not outlawed, didn’t exist.
In fact, the more I thought about it, I realized that this entire fantastical little city existed without a single unit of police or military. There were not even jails for there were no need for them. A guide had told us this as we toured the largest castle on the tallest peak—it’s location right behind the smaller castle in front of us. It was strange for us Americans, who were so used to guns and men in uniform patrolling the streets. So used to violence and the unpredictability of men.
Night started to descend while we waited in line, and as the lights of the town flickered on, everyone’s phones started to ring and ding, one by one, with the sound of text messages and call alerts. People began picking up, unworried at first, and then more so as they realized that it was not just their phone going off, but everyone’s, and something of this nature could only be an emergency alert.
My wife stood up with one hand holding her stomach, the other on her lower back. I grabbed her left hand to help her rise. The sound was far enough away and unexpected enough that most of the looks the other tourists’ faces were ones of shock and confusion. Were they bombing the ski resort up above us for avalanches, perhaps?
We all rushed down and around the cobblestone street leading up to the castle and over to her so we could see what had caused her to scream. And that’s when we saw it as we wound around to the right of the small castle to join her: The large castle crumbling and falling off the side of the hill. Another explosion punctured the air. We all flinched. More of the castle crumbled away. Distant screams.
Then, other sounds. Closer, deeper, faster, and more shocking. Right behind us. The sound of a gun, I think. The sound of bodies suddenly flapping against the cobblestone next to us.
I grabbed my wife and we rolled down a small knoll in the street to the left. I pushed her down hard, harder than I should have for a woman carrying a child. The shots continued.
“Let’s go!” I whispered to my wife.
We got up, crouching, and began running down the street that wound itself down the hill like an ice cream cone.
“We have to get down and get out of this city,” my wife said. I nodded.
We jumped a small guardrail and I caught my wife as she jumped and then tumbled on top of me into the sweet, green grass that covered the hills in between the switchbacks of the road. Grass so green and fertile you could nearly taste it in the cream and milk at restaurants and coffee shops.
I pushed her down beside a small bush and lay flat. The trucks drove by above us, the men wearing Viking masks. We heard them stop. Doors open. More sounds.
Pop pop pop. Pop pop pop.
“Down with the imperialists!” one said. Or was it tourists?
I nodded at my wife to keep moving and she nodded back. We moved straight down the grass this time, slowly, my wife huffing, and when the road came up again below us, we paused, looked right and left for signs of anymore trucks, dashed across the road like the chipmunks and squirrels had done all day, and began moving down the next stretch of grass between the winding-ice-cream-cone of a road, always crouching. Staying low.
We had moved fast. That’s what had saved us. Despite my wife’s pregnancy and the slow walking down the hill now, those first few moves were crucial. The drop and the roll down the small knoll in the street, then around to the left. Then down the street. Now the hills.
We would get out of this I thought. Whatever this was. And that’s when the top of the small mountain we were just on exploded. Tiny pieces of rock and ancient brick from the castle flew over us. We hit the ground again. Our ears ringing now. For this one was close and loud and big. We covered our heads with our frail hands. I threw myself on top of my wife. We could hear the trucks coming back down the ice-cream-cone road.
We moved down the hill and were back in the town, the city of shops and stores and restaurants and bars that spread across the base of the valley and clustered up around each acropolis. The place that earlier today had seemed so beautiful and peaceful and quiet and calm. We ran across the street, into one of those fancy touristy-yet-local restaurants that serves high-end Italian dishes alongside hand-rolled sushi. We burst in, my wife and I. Covered now in grass and rubble. Short of breath. A small trickle of blood was running down my wife’s left temple. A bruise was developing on my knee. Everyone looked up at us simultaneously. Most of them locals. Not one of them looked concerned. Did they not know? Did they not hear?
“The explosions!” I shouted. “The men, the guns! Didn’t you hear it? This place is not safe. We need to move, all of you. Now!”
They continued to stare at us in silence. The approaching steps of two men in suit jackets.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”
They threw us out.
Our goal was then to make it out of the city at all costs. We could survive in the woods, my wife and I. We could survive in the streams and rivers and fields and glaciers and whatever was beyond this town. It was where we were most comfortable, to be honest.
“There’s two of them there!” someone shouted, as we crept through the streets.
I whipped around to see four men with guns behind who had caught sight of us. I grabbed my wife and we barged through a door to the building on our left as shots hit the cobblestone street.
We entered what appeared to be the circular lobby of a bank or a governmental office. Everything was polished and white and marble. A large chandelier hung down in the center of the space. There was only one desk at the far end of the room, a concierge of sorts. My wife’s right arm was draped around me as she held her stomach and leaned heavily onto me. I held her around the waist. We walked toward the concierge who, upon seeing us, promptly picked up his phone and began dialing.
“No, wait!” I shouted. “She’s pregnant.”
The man seemed unconcerned.
“We have papers, documents! We’re travelers, American citizens. Do you see what’s going on out there?”
The man paused for a second, considering. Maybe he considered the baby. Maybe he considered us a nuisance more than anything, as less than, as not even something worth giving up.
“You can go out the back way,” he said. “You cannot stay here, but I can let you leave quietly. Where you choose to go from there is up to you.”
“Please, just don’t send us back out there,” screamed my wife. “We just need to get out of this city!”
“Fine. Follow me,” said the man. He was black and wearing at least a thousand-dollar suite.
He led us through the door behind the concierge desk and then another one. Each hallway was white, polished, and marble. He let us out into an alley. In one direction was a dead end. The other led back into one of the main streets.
“Goodbye,” he said. “And, Good luck.”
The door slammed behind him and we froze.
And that’s when we were rescued. Sort of. A young, muscular man in a hoodie sitting outside a door further down the alley. He looked at us for a second, then waved us over. We ran to him. We had no other choice.
The young man closed the wooden door behind us a with a small bang. It made both my wife and I flinch for it sounded like a gun shot.The young man, however, also seemed unconcerned. He was nearly apathetic and unapologetic as he sized us up. Contemplating what to do with us. As if we were a hindrance to his evening and not fleeing for our lives from the violence outside. He didn’t offer us tea or coffee. Neither did he even offer us a seat. Not even to my pregnant wife who was now bleeding rather profusely from somewhere on her head. All he said, was, “Follow me.”
We followed him through two rooms and down a small flight of stairs into a cellar of sorts. It smelled of wine, dates, figs, and cheese, was earthy and comforting.
“Here,” he said, opening a latch in the center of the floor to reveal a large hole.
“This slide will shoot you out of the city.”
“Yes, it’s an emergency slide. Should things ever get too bad.”
I was dumbfounded. “But … Isn’t this bad?”
“This is normal,” the man said. “On this day, you just happen to be the unlucky ones. We cannot shelter anyone here who was not born here. And sometimes the locals get a little bit tired of all the tourists.”
“So they shoot them?” my wife asked.
“But what about the buildings?” I asked.
“We like rebuilding things. It’s what makes this city so interesting. But then everyone wants to come and look at the things we’ve built. And sometimes we get tired of it. We do not have to let anyone come, after all. This is our home. A home we were forced to make on our own when no one would accept us into theirs. So we are not obligated to help anyone. No one felt obligated to help us.”
“But what about—”
“Please,” the man said. “You must go. I must return to my work. I have much to do.”
“Thank you,” my wife said, even though I did not feel like thanking this man.
“I must go,” he said. “Au revoir.”
I spun toward my wife. She nodded at me. Giving me strength. I took her hand and we jumped.
When I was young, I often assumed that every German living in 1940’s Nazi Germany was a full on Nazi. Or else a resister. But no, many of them were bakers, simply going to work each day, baking bread, watching the ash rise from the smokestacks and thinking nothing of it. They thought nothing of war. They merely went to work and did their job and didn’t ask too many questions. Like this man.
Or was it I who, in a past life, was the baker?
We landed on the soft earth some thousand feet below the city. A lake stretched out in front of us. My wife and I did not look back at the city above us but kept moving forward. The city in the valley with the hills and acropolises and the sweet, green grass. That city was probably red now. Red and yellow from fire. Beautiful City. City of Terror. City of No Samaritans.
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