In the summer, the fires come.
You feel them before you see them; they form an invisible wall of pure heat. Usually, they devour the wild brush and grass that fringes my city, but this year, they poured onto us like lava, swallowing up homes, schools and hospitals, sightless, ravenous, merciless.
My apartment is on the fourteenth floor, so I saw the blaze rolling over the city lines like a flaming tsunami. I saw people, as tiny as ants, running for their lives.
I bundled my phone and laptop into my backpack, shoved clothes and food in too, and found in my frantic panic that there was only so much I could carry. Dumping my coffee beans, towels and pillows in the hall, I struggled to lock the door, until a half-dressed neighbour charged past with his toddler in his arms, yelling "leave it, woman!" and bizarrely, a snippet of the Fire Drill episode of the Office flitted across my mind. I abandoned the door and bolted down the stairs.
I tried to fight my way through the crowd to get to my parent’s apartment on the other side of the city, but the heat knocked me back. Eyes streaming, I fled, lest I melted into a lump of blood and bone on the asphalt.
When I could no longer feel the flames licking my heels and burning my back, I turned around. The fire raged on, and I knew it would soon be nothing but a smouldering heap of ash and dust. An old woman sobbed on the grass. I ran past her. There was nothing I could do for her.
Hours later, I reached the field that housed our underground bunker. Soon, the flames would be burning up this yellow grass. I opened the hatch and scrambled down the metal stairs, calling for my parents, my own voice echoing back to greet me.
The tiny concrete bunker was built for us by my father, years ago, on a remote plot of land. My mother and I taunted him at the time; what use will you have for that? We called it his “doomsday bunker” and laughed at him. He didn’t listen to us; he kept building quietly, wiping his broad, strong hands on his sun-beaten brow. He knew this day was coming. He packed it full of canned food and non-perishables, as well as the paper I am writing on now.
The bunker holds three small rooms; one with three hard, damp beds, one fitted with a wall length touch screen, and a bathroom. Wrapped in a scratchy blanket, in a huddle on the concrete floor, I am eating a can of tinned peaches with a rusty spoon. Idiot me, I forgot the charging cables for my phone and laptop; they are sitting on the floor beside me as I write this, as useless as two slabs of concrete. I have been watching the news since I arrived. I paused the screen at the list of casualties, looking for my parents amongst the names, but they were not there.
My city is gone, the well-dressed woman who reads the news tells me. I cry for my parents, because I don’t know where they are. I cry for my apartment, rented on my semi-successful influencer wage, which is lost. I cry for the singed animals that did nothing to deserve this. I cry for my things, my lovely things, many sent sent to me by brands to promote on my Instagram for a fee. I send most of the money to my parents, who need it more than I do.
I cry because I feel shallow and materialistic. I am lucky that my father had the foresight to build a place to house his family. Thousands of people have been dispersed, with nowhere to go. They must have thought “the government will help me. How can it not?” I thought that too. I don’t anymore.
I am learning as I watch the news; what can a government do with so many displaced people? It's busy reducing the damage done to the earth. Let natural selection play it’s part.
I thought it was a conspiracy, invented by corporations. And when it was clear that it was real, I thought we would have more years to fight this. But the changes came on hard and fast, much like the flames lapping up anything sinner still standing.
I thought; it will never affect me. But it has. I have lost my life, and there is nothing left in my city, nothing but rubble and flames, burnt-up homes and streets and air that’s thick with the stench of melting plastic.
Other cities have endured this already this year. Survivors sell whatever they have left to con men who pack tiny boats full of frantic people. They flee the country, rocking on the vicious waves. Many capsize, or people from other countries where it is not yet so bad come with nationalistic chants and ugly sneers, yelling they don’t want us, tipping the boats over. Worse still, they lobby their governments to restrict migrant entry, so while you may reach safer shores, you are deemed an alien and sent back to the inferno.
I want to tell them; watch out. Your time is coming.
Rather than untangle my matted mane, I have pulled out my hair extensions. They are in the corner, like a furry animal. I have taken to chatting with them.
The screen on the wall is old and slow and the internet connection is shaky, but at least it switches on. I have tried to contact my parents, but their phone lines are dead and my messages go unanswered.
It is programmed with a standard virtual reality software. Today, I picked somes cliffs by the ocean, a real place which used to exist before the sea levels swallowed them whole.
When I stepped into the screen, I got a cup of coffee from the gravity-resistant trailer perched on the edge of the cliff. The cup of pixels, somehow containing the exact chemical composition of coffee, had an acrid taste, a sour slime that congealed in my throat as I choked it down. The cup, which didn’t exist in a tangible sense, melted away when I was done.
“Can anyone see me?” I called into the abyss. Strangers emerged from the fog that clouded the distance. But the speed was slow, their mouths didn’t sync up with their words, and the connection faltered and they melted away. Alone, I stood at the edge of the cliff and thought; nothing will happen if I throw myself over.
When I stepped over the edge, the ground rushed up to meet me, but as if in a dream, just before I hit the ground I awakened with a thud and found myself dumped on the cold concrete floor, clutching my chest and gasping for air.
I don’t know how many days I have spent here, but living on nothing but canned beans and fruit and not speaking to another person is messing with my mind. I question my reality; pinching myself to check that I am there. My validation has come from my online presence, people reminding me every day that I exist, that they can see me.
Who can see me now?
I am angry.
All my possessions are gone. My Instagram page, with my fourteen thousand followers, is no good to me, because my phone is dead. My parents are missing, and I must wait here, consumed by my uselessness.
I want to go outside. I want to feel cool air touch my skin. I want to see the sky.
I snapped off my fake nails, even though doing so made my fingers bleed. How could I have thought they were beautiful? I hate them now, because they don’t help me, and they remind me that everything I owned is gone. I thought every plastic piece of junk I posted on social media was beautiful. I would tilt my coffee cup to show my acrylic nails at their best, my even fake tan, my gold jewellery. I could perfectly pose the photo, filter it, on my way to building an Instagram empire. I wanted to be famous. I poured my savings into creating an online persona, waiting for brands to contact me and pay me to promote their products.
I achieved moderate success, carbon copy of others that I am.
Follow. Like. Comment. Subscribe.
Can you see me? Am I real? Please, random strangers, validate me.
Where are those random strangers now?
I write about the past, about things I don’t want to forget. When I feel myself slipping into the darkness that consumes me, I read an early passage I wrote when I arrived at the bunker.
“I wish I could have a cup of coffee with a friend, feel its heat between my hands. The comfort of knowing I’ve been in this moment a hundred thousand times over.”
The flames are dying down. I drag myself up the stairs of the bunker, to open the hatch and peek through, at the infernal scenes raging in the distance, of orange flames torching the land.
And I ask as I gaze at the hellish glory of the fast moving fire, knowing that no one can hear or see me, and no one knows where I am; was it worth it?
Though it is nearly midnight, I hear the wail of a lone fire truck as it speeds away to extinguish the last burning embers of the fire that wrecked my city. Like a viral plague, the fires have ravaged mankind and died away, for now. The black sky is clouded with smog; I can’t see the stars.
I am writing from a dimly lit motel room. After crossing charred land for hours, I checked into the first place I saw. I called hotels and shelters all day, looking for my parents, who never arrived at the bunker.
After borrowing a charger for my phone, my Instagram feed came alive with influencers posting their perfect lives. My inbox was quiet. I suppose, if you disappear for two weeks, people forget you.
From my window, I can see the smouldering remains of my scorched city in the distance, nothing but soot and cinders. Earlier, I took a photo of this view, posted it to my feed, unfiltered, and then logged out. Instead of consuming myself with the comments that would follow this change from my normal content, I left the motel, wandered streets of people who still have homes and families.
I entered a tiny, red-bricked café. It was empty, apart from an old man in orange sunglasses behind the counter. I ordered an americano and watched him as he turned to make it.
He ground the roasted beans into a fine dust, humming to himself. He strained the hot water through, and presented me with a ceramic cup of pure black liquid. I took a drop of milk, and a sprinkling of soft brown sugar. The aroma was heady as I wrapped my hands around its warmth, breathing in the powerful fumes. At the first sip, the tension in my chest melted away a little. The hot liquid caffeine hit my veins, injecting me with vigour. I thought; I have been here hundreds of times before, but this time, without a pressing need to document it, to validate it. I am present. I am real. And nothing can take that away, the raw beauty of this moment, a survivor and her cup of coffee.
I tried to pay, but he refused. Though I could not see his eyes, he must have been looking me up and down, seeing me, the bedraggled, scruffy mess I was, that I am. Clinging to my cup, like it was the most precious treasure in the world.
“You look like you need it,” he told me.
I nodded my thanks. “Nice sunglasses.”
He moved them down his nose to wink at me. “You know what they say. The future is bright.”
In more ways than one, I thought.