I was two years old when the blast hit Nibel. My parents taught at a small school on the outskirts there, the place where they fell in love.
At the time my father was an assistant head teacher there; he had the same beard and thick glasses that he wears now. My mother was younger; she started working there as a temp but ended up staying for five years. After a year they were married and living in a small townhouse, where I was born.
As one so young, I don’t remember much of Nibel. My younger sister, who was born after the attack, knows even less. I’m told it was just like any other small town or city – in fact, it was a city as technically Nibel Cathedral cast a dark shadow over most of the houses there. I think I remember the Cathedral, but I can’t be sure. Only large fragments remain there after the blast that killed the light. That was seven years ago.
On the road to Nibel, I sit in the back of the car looking out the windows as I do on every car journey. But this journey feels different. I cast glances to my parents, who are travelling in the MPV with their friends the Mulhollands and their daughter, Jenny. No-one is talking.
My sister, Luna, is also with us although she’s only six years old and doesn’t really understand much yet. Her golden honey hair shines bright in the sunshine that reflects through the car window.
Nibel isn’t far, but it feels like we’ve travelled miles. The villages we’ve passed have looked older and smaller as we drive further down the road. It’s the only road into Nibel now; the others were blocked off for good.
I look again to my mother. Her name is Aurel. Her hair is tied back in golden honey curls (like Luna’s) and pinned to the back of her head. Some curls have escaped, come loose, as they always do, and hang prettily at the side of her face. Her skin is smooth and pale, her eyes icy blue. She’s looking down, deep in thought and I wonder if she is scared.
“Robin, look,” I hear my father say.
My father, Neil, is staring straight ahead as he drives along the small, bumpy road. I look straight ahead too, and I see the mass of darkness ahead of me. We’ve come to Nibel.
But we’re not really going into the dead city. The remains of the school that once was sit on the outskirts overlooking Nibel. That is what we have come to see.
The sky is dark here. Big grey clouds hover overhead and I recall my mother telling me that it has been like this in Nibel ever since the blast that killed the light. It makes me feel uneasy, as if the gods are angry at us.
It’s the first time Neil and Aurel have returned to such a place; Aurel squeezes Neil’s hand as they step from the MPV and over the rubble. There is a lot of rubble, and most of the school is not intact.
We’re all given hats to wear, as it’s dangerous inside the school.
“My God...” Aurel says. “I never imagined coming back here... and I never pictured it to be like this.”
I take her hand and she gives me a small smile. Luna is walking behind with the Mulholland girl, Jenny.
“Why are we back here, mum?” I ask her.
“To show you,” she replied. “It’s important that you learn what once was.”
We’re inside what remains of the building now. The bare stone walls look exposed and the air feels cold and thick. I stumble on a brick, but do not fall.
“Be careful, Robin,” my mother says in a quieter voice than usual.
The adults all talk in hush whispers, as if they are too scared to talk out loud. We’re walking down what used to be a corridor, and pieces of dust and debris hang from the ceiling like spider webs. But I wouldn’t want to imagine the kind of spider that would choose to live here and the thought makes me shiver.
There is no breeze in Nibel, but I feel a cold air brush past me a few times inside the school. I later tell my father, who in return replies that such a feeling is impossible. But something in his eyes tells me he felt it too.
“Oh...Neil, look,” Aurel’s voice sounds weak.
I follow my father into the room where she is standing, her delicate frame wrapped warm in a pink jumper and long skirt is caught perfectly by the dark light that possesses the room.
The screen window was Aurel’s idea. Of course it was still there; such a window of that size had needed to be strong for practical reasons if nothing else. It was placed in her classroom six months before the blast and overlooked the whole city of Nibel.
Every morning she would stand in front of that window, smiling down on the pupils in the playground and watching the day begin. The screen window overlooked the whole of the city of Nibel; now, the dead city.
Aurel was crying, although softly, as she didn’t want me or Luna to know.
Luna was playing with Jenny, distracted by a bright red ball my parents had given her, to keep her amused. She was too young for all this, but soon the dead city would be destroyed and we’d never see it this way again.
The view from the screen window was death. I don’t know how else to describe it. A dark grey mass of burnt out death as far as the eye could see. I didn’t want to step closer to that window.
Instead I looked around my mother’s old classroom. The blackboard that had once been so new and shiny now hung by its threads, dull and dusty and torn in one corner it looked dead also.
Small classroom chairs lay scattered across the room along with old books and pieces of debris and rubble.
But something else caught my eye; it was lying in the corner, half-hidden under a book entitled ‘The Big Cat Puss’. I moved the dust-covered book to the side and picked up an object I recognised from my own school.
Every school in Gateheim provides their students with trackers; small black objects that are worn around their necks or clipped to their pockets at all times, so that staff can keep track of them.
Each teacher was equipped with a scanner, showing the whereabouts of all pupils in his or her class. It was an older model that I held in my hand, but I recognised the trademark name of ProtectR.
I look around to make sure no eyes are on me; the Mulhollands are talking about the old curriculum with my father and my mother is continuing to stare out the screen window.
It is a simple enough device to use. Without further thought, I hold down the reset button and feel a small twinge inside me as the device comes to life in my hand. The screen is darkened and dying, but still displayed brightly enough comes the ProtectR trademark, then; ‘scanning’.
I check the back of the device; it has a dent in it the size of a piece of popcorn, and I am impressed with the robust quality of ProtectR.
I don’t expect to see anything on the screen when I turn it back around to face me. What I do see sends a wave of dread through my gut.
On the screen, now brightly displayed within a circular grid, are two names, ‘Gary’ and ‘David’.
“Mum!” I shout, stepping quickly but cautiously over the objects that cover the floor, “Mum, look! There’s kids out there!”
Aurel turns from the window, eyes now perfectly dry again. Her eyes looked questioningly at me before growing wider as they settle on the scanner.
“Robin, what are you doing with that? What do you mean there are kids out there? There’s no-one out there,” she replied, although her voice quivers slightly on ‘no-one’.
She takes the scanner from me and she is silent as she looks at the screen.
“No, this can’t be... it’s not possible,” she says, her voice hard to place. She turns to face the window again.
Two figures are also displayed next to the names. The one next to ‘Gary’ reads 0.3km and the one next to ‘David’ reads 0.5km. It is then I understand that whatever the scanner is picking up lies beyond the screen window.
My father and mother exchange a look between them that I can’t understand.
“Let’s go, it was a mistake to come back here,” Neil says, taking the scanner and dropping it to the floor.
“But there’s kids out there, we can’t leave them!” I say in protest, picking up the scanner once more.
My mother turns to me.
“There’s nothing but death out there!” She takes my hand so hard it hurts and forces me to drop the scanner. She then leads me from the room while my father gathers up Luna and we all head back to the car.
The school slowly disappears from the car window as we leave the dead city of Nibel. It is then I make the decision to find my way back there.
Three weeks later I take myself out of school early. It’s a Tuesday and the sun is shining brightly as I approach the metallic shiny blue of my bike; a birthday present from my father. I’d always wanted a bike, but my parents were too protective to let me travel anywhere on my own.
Now I was able to ride back and forth to school, just like a big boy. But I’m not going home that day – oh no, I’m going back to Nibel. Little do I know that I will never find my way home again.
It takes the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon to ride through the villages on the road to Nibel. People are scarce and I doubt in my head whether going back is the right thing to do.
Curiosity has always cinched the deal for me in the past though, and I find myself going forward, closer to the dead city. I’m not scared, or anxious; a peaceful calm has settled through my mind and it’s like being at the seaside. The dull greyness in the distance is like looking at the blue of the sea. It’s very peaceful.
The path breaks as I come to an old village. There are old stone houses and little much else, and I pull my bike onto the concrete walkway.
I need to find out which road is the road to Nibel; there’s only one that is not blocked off and I cannot remember which from the car journey.
I stop at a junction which seems familiar and see an elderly woman in a black woollen shawl walking in my direction.
“Excuse me, but I’m looking for the way to Nibel, the dead city. Show me the way to the dead city, please,” I say.
She looks at me as if I am a ghost, and suddenly I am scared of her. I try to get back on my bike but as she gets closer, she tries to grab at my arm.
“You don’t go there – nobody goes there, child!” she cries. Her voice is cracked and old and makes me want to cover my ears.
I take off down the road, somehow knowing it’s the right one.
I hear her shout after me, “There’s only death that way, boy!”
I ignore her.
Soon the school looms in front of me, and I find myself leaving the bike. I step cautiously up to the entrance to the school, the same one we crossed only three weeks before, but things feel changed.
The air is still cold and thick, and there is still no breeze in Nibel. But the dark clouds seem darker than before and hang low over the school.
I cover my mouth with my sleeve and find my way inside, without even having to think about where I’m going. There’s no sound and hasn’t been since I started down the real road to Nibel; it’s as if I’m in a sound bubble where nothing exists but the road ahead, and the school that half stands in the way of the dead city.
Soon I find myself in the classroom with the screen window. It’s the same as we left it; the same books on the floor, the blackboard hanging by threads; the small chairs cluttering the floor.
Yet the scanner now sits on the only standing table in the room.
As I approach it, it is again switched off. ProtectR program them to turn off after two minutes use, to prolong the battery life. That and its heavy duty frame means it has survived the test of time.
I hold the heavy scanner in my hands, and again find the reset button.
This time I feel a small vibration as the device comes back to life, and again I watch the ProtectR logo come up on the screen. The device tells me it’s scanning.
I walk towards the screen window and look out. There is no movement, only devastation that happened many years ago. Something at the back of my mind trickles through to my consciousness and I feel a slow confusion at the wonder of being in the classroom alone.
I look at the reading on the scanner. It is different.
The circular grid now displays ‘David’ 0.4km away on the left, and ‘Gary’ further away, 0.7km to the far right of the screen. It doesn’t make any sense, yet somehow it makes more sense than I care to realise.
There is no other option but to go beyond the screen window and follow the direction the scanner takes me.
And so I do just that.
I climb over the rubble and into the main part of the playground, listening for any sound of disturbance; there is nothing. Grey dust drifts around the air, yet there is no wind. I try not to breathe it in and fail.
I walk towards David and notice as I walk, the reading first goes to 0.3km and then 0.2km. Gary also seems to switch closer to David’s position, and now his reading says ‘0.4km’ towards the centre of the grid.
I’m confused by how this is possible, but I walk on. Then ‘David’ disappears from the screen.
Suddenly unsure of how to proceed, I stand still in the middle of the old playing field. Again I listen, but the sound bubble proves to be as strong as ever and I hear nothing.
Again I’m suddenly aware of what I am doing and feel the first surge of fear in my heart.
Suddenly Gary seems to move on the screen, to 0.2km, then 0.1km. He should be right ahead of me, but so far I see nothing.
I take a step backwards, and as I do so, more names appear on the grid. There is Samantha, and James, Kyle, and Lisa. David reappears 0.03km away and I look to my left.
For a fraction of a second I see a small boy standing there in a jumper, shirt and trousers, and then he’s gone.
And then they are all around me. Faces, bodies, children surround me in the grey dust, all staring at me with the same eyes. They move without moving, they look without looking, and I know they are all watching me.
I open my mouth to scream but instead get a mouthful of grey dust.
Nibel is my home now. The children of Nibel welcomed me, just as we’ll welcome the others when they come with their destruction crew to the city of the dead... or should that be the dead city? I cannot remember. It is all the same here.
We wait for them to come with their wrecking balls and explosives that will recreate the very moment when the city first fell to the ground and turned to dust.
They will be here soon, reading to steal the air with their hungry lungs. And until they do, we wait.