Hatsuro stepped onto his porch. He surveyed the ashen soil, and heard a chirping bird beyond the scorched trees. A warm breeze played with the window shutters behind him. Children’s bicycles with broken handlebars littered the cracked pavement.
He turned back inside the house; dark puddles trickled across the wooden floor. He fetched a broom and mopped them up with slow swipes. He’d used old newspapers to mend the gaps in the ceiling until they became wet and soggy, but the black rain still found its way through.
Milo’s familiar yelping had been absent this morning. Hatsuro’s companion always followed on the four-kilometre hike to the centre of their abandoned village. Hatsuro stopped himself from going out to search. His health wasn’t what it used to be, and he knew Milo wouldn’t go far. Hatsuro could no longer carry much food, and his chest burned more frequently.
Many years ago the doctors told him., “Final stages from the Glare.”
People from the city never dared to visit the Exclusion Zone. Although he still breathed, his health deteriorated with each journey there. There’d be more than enough food for Milo to survive on his own if the worst happened. Behind the porch lay a dozen sacks with bird seed and numerous bags of dry dog food.
Today was a good day: his joints were kind to him when he lifted a bag. He stuffed it into his rucksack along with the dog food, grabbed his walking stick, and set off.
The sky boiled in shades of amber and scarlet, cowering beneath a risen sun. Travelling from his house at the village’s edge into the Exclusion Zone didn’t take long, and he intended to be home before sunset. Hatsuro wiped his face and exhaled. He couldn’t see Milo anywhere.
How could anyone claim the Exclusion Zone was dead when so much life still thrived? He’d seen curious foxes peer through brambles, pigeons pecking the ground, and stray pigs mudbathing.
His wife had once told him that evil spirits inhabited the countryside, turning the soil sterile and the water black. She saw their life together in the city as a blessing.
“Hatsuro, you’ll die in that house,” Mashau said. “The Glare will burn you.”
“My dear,” he replied, “our memories still live there. We’re dying, but the remembrance will nurture our souls until the final day arrives.”
“The village is dead but there’s still life in us. This city is our chance to start over, why is that not good enough?”
Hatsuro had kissed Mashau’s cupped hands, breathing in the scent of her warm skin and the lingering smell of jasmine. Living in the city was about survival—a battle against time, measuring worthiness in gathered possessions. Hatsuro craved a simple life close to nature, and that was something an urban environment couldn’t grant him.
The desperation in her voice still haunted Hatsuro on his treks to the village centre.
The Glare stole Mashau sooner than the doctors expected. Hatsuro mourned her for seven months, praying the spirits had whisked her to a happier place. He visited countless late-night sermons, asking heaven for guidance.
In the end, moving back to their house outside the city was the best decision he could’ve made.
Upon his first return to the Exclusion Zone he heard a dog’s whimpering by the wayside. Its chestnut fur lay dull and uneven over its bones. Skin showed where claws itched. The puppy sniffed Hatsuro’s fingers. The soft whiskers tickled his wrist and its cold nose left a sticky trail on his palm.
“Hello little one, are you hungry?” Hatsuro offered a bowl with dry food.
The puppy threw itself onto it and devoured the.
Hatsuro named the dog Milo.
The sun peeked through hazy clouds when a pack of dogs with wagging tails and lolling tongues greeted Hatsuro inside the abandoned village. He smiled and took off his rucksack. They swarmed around his bag, jostling for the best position, and sticking their noses inside.
“Hold on,” he told them, waving his stick. “There’s enough for everyone.”
Hatsuro opened a bag and poured out the food. He sprinkled seed inside a makeshift birds’ nest, attracting pigeons and crows to the feast.
Hatsuro passed withered skeletons of the homes many families had to evacuate. The bakery where he and Mashau used to buy bread had been reduced to spine and rubble, a breeding ground for insects and nature’s mood swings. Steel wires stuck out like crippled limbs. Broken benches and swings littered the playground, lost among the tall grass.
They had discussed having children, but the Glare turned Mashau barren. He didn’t regret their decision not to adopt, but a longing hounded him in times of loneliness. Like so many others who evacuated to the city, his life had been fraught with frailty. It wouldn’t be fair to the child if it had to grow up without loving parents. Hatsuro sighed and continued on his way.
Distant whimpering pulled Hatsuro out of his thoughts. He rounded a corner and froze. An Akita lay half-concealed behind a heap of cartons, howling and unable to get up. Milo paced close by and stared at Hatsuro with pleading eyes.
Hatsuro rushed to the Akita and stroked its mottled fur. With a gentle hand he noted each irregularity on her pregnant belly. He couldn’t see blood or broken limbs.
The Akita licked his hand.
“Have you been spending time with Milo?” Hatsuro glanced at his old friend and smiled. “We need to bring you to safety.”
Their puppies would stand no chance against the Glare. He had to move the Akita somewhere safe. But where? Exposed to nature’s impulses, the village had transformed into a shattered jigsaw puzzle. Carrying her home seemed mad.
He had to make a decision. Hatsuro closed his eyes and silently asked the spirits to grant him strength.
“You’re coming home with us, Missy.” Hatsuro’s chest burned from the strain of heaving the dog. He placed her gently on a carton. His throat thickened. Above him, a rumble pierced the air and dark clouds covered the sun. The damp smell before a storm engulfed him. He knew.
He took out rope from his rucksack and tied it to the carton’s front, using his stick to pull the makeshift sledge. “Time is never on our side.”
Milo barked in reply and wagged his tail, prancing in a circle.
The desolate road to the house stretched between rustic fields and moss-covered tombstones. Hatsuro had known some of the people resting there, but they’d become a gallery of hazy memories. His head throbbed from pulling the dog. Missy twitched and scratched the carton with her paws.
Heavy thunder cracked the sky, whipping the fields into dust cones.
A raindrop tickled his cheek. Then another. “Just a little further, Missy,” said Hatsuro. “We’re not letting rain stop us.”
Gales threw debris across the road. Hatsuro’s shoulders quivered, begging him to rest. He couldn’t. Not yet.
Heavy rain appeared in the wind’s wake, tearing through the ground. Hatsuro had to stop.
A memory fluttered before him, a scene from a happier past. Mashau had rushed out from the hairdresser’s in a cream summer dress. “What do you think?”
He should’ve told her how beautiful she looked; he should’ve said how wonderful their remaining days together would be—the day before the scorching. Instead, he’d been annoyed with how long it had taken her to get ready. Instead, he’d been annoyed they didn’t make it to the bakery before it closed. Instead, he’d been silent.
Do you still love me? echoed Mashau’s memory in the wind.
“Of course I do,” Hatsuro whispered.
Then I’ll move back with you.
The torrent glued Hatsuro’s shirt to his lean frame. Dirt loosened into orange mud. Bursts of pain radiated through his chest, choking him with coughs. He slipped, and the ringing in his ears increased with every arduous step.
Through his rain-soaked vision his home appeared in the distance. Hatsuro’s feet refused to move further. He kneeled and glanced behind him. Milo nudged the whimpering Akita.
“I’m sorry, Missy.” Hatsuro wiped his face and scowled at the rain. “I can’t go on,” Hatsuro said to Milo. “I have no strength left.”
Milo bit into Hatsuro’s shirt collar, refusing to let go.
“You always were a good friend,” Hatsuro muttered, heaving himself up with the stick. He mustered the last drops of energy and pulled the muddy sledge to his porch.
Hatsuro stumbled into his house and placed the Akita on his couch. Milo jumped up beside her. Missy had stopped whimpering. Instead, she licked Hatsuro’s hand as he removed his wet garments.
He spotted Mashau’s faded photograph in the corner—her jasmine perfume drifting into his memory, like a boat finding harbour.
—Daniel is a Swedish teacher living in London with his wife and two children. He plays the guitar and changes diapers in his spare time. You may find him on Twitter @lindhoffen.