In The City In The Smog
by Simon Bestwick
The boy huddled in a corner of his room, listening to the silence from below.
He’d fled there when the screaming started downstairs, nearly two hours earlier. It wasn’t unusual; it had been a weekly occurrence before the smog came, and had only grown more frequent since.
Through his window, the houses behind theirs were barely visible through a thick, yellow-brown haze. The bedroom smelt faintly of sulphur; even windows tightly fastened and sealed with tape couldn’t prevent the smog’s odour seeping through.
The neighbours never investigated when his parents fought. The boy thought he vaguely recalled his father answering the front door after one incident, although he didn’t remember if it had been the time of the black eye, the lost tooth, the cracked rib or the broken arm, only that he’d been younger and not as good at keeping out of the way. But nothing had come of it. Even at his age, no-one had ever needed to tell the boy that every house on the terrace had its own dramas, which weren’t to be discussed outside the home. He knew these things without knowing how he knew them.
His mother was usually on the receiving end of his father’s rages since she found it harder to stay out of his way: she was a bigger target than the boy, and most of what happened in the house was her responsibility (according to the boy’s father, at least.) The boy antagonised his father merely by visibly existing, but that had been easy to avoid even after the smog confined them to the house: he hid, listened out, and moved whenever his father came near.
Sometimes his mother tried to put the blame for some shortcoming on him, which the boy knew was unjust but also understood. While in many ways still a child, with a child’s understanding of the world, he was in others far older and knew a person could only bear so much before trying to shift the pain elsewhere. Anywhere. Wasn’t that what he effectively did to his mother, after all, by ensuring – as best he could – that he was never there to be a target?
Screaming; shouting; the crack of blows. Very different to the sounds that came from his parents’ bedroom on certain nights, but they followed a similar pattern: they built to a crescendo, then died away into panting, sobbing and mumbled words. But tonight, something had changed.
The screams and blows hadn’t faded but had been cut abruptly off with a hard, woody thunk. Then there had been silence, and the boy had known something was awry.
On the one hand, the silence was good; it was the noise, the shouting, that meant danger. But sooner or later it would break, and when it did the danger would be worse than ever.
The boy slipped off his shoes, and went on stockinged feet to the bedroom door, across the bare landing and downstairs. At the end of the hall, the kitchen door stood ajar. The lights were on, as they always were. Even at noon, the smog made everything dark.
The boy inched down the hall and peered through the doorway.
The first thing he saw was his mother’s legs, sprawled out on the tiled floor. He could see up her skirt and looked away. It wasn’t decent. She had one shoe on and one shoe off. Her bare foot’s toes were clenched; the sole was dirty. He saw an outflung hand; he couldn’t see her face.
The boy’s father straddled a chair, looking down at her, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows. The material was spotted and stained. His boots looked wet. His father was smoking, tapping ash onto the kitchen floor. No; not the floor. His father was tapping ash onto the boy’s mother.
Before the boy could stop himself he drew in a sharp breath and stepped backwards, realising as he did – realising too late – that the board his foot was coming down on was loose, and creaked.
There was an answering creak from the kitchen: the chair, as his father turned. The boy didn’t have to see to know that. His father was looking towards the kitchen door. His father didn’t speak. Didn’t have to. His father knew.
The boy backed slowly to the foot of the stairs, not looking away from the kitchen door. He was sure that if he did his father would get up and come looking for him, to make him still and quiet like his mother. A receptacle for ash. He knew it was absurd, but felt certain his gaze was somehow fixing his father in place; that if he maintained it, at least until he reached the stairs, he’d be safe. For now, at least.
It seemed to work. The chair creaked again, but, familiar as the boy was with all the house’s sounds, he knew his father had settled back into his former position. At least for now.
The boy crept back up to his room.
He’d almost forgotten what the view from his window had been before, or how air smelt when it wasn’t tainted with sulphur. It was getting hard to remember what it was like to be outside. There was a park nearby. Nothing ornate, but a little patch of green among the terraces and factories: grass, trees, a pond. He’d gone there, sometimes alone, sometimes with school friends, to play kickabout or tag. The air there had smelt different. Better.
He’d been to the park once since the smog came, fleeing one of his parents’ fights. In the past, he’d got out of the house whenever they happened, partly to get completely out of the way of his father’s wrath and partly so as not to hear. He’d learned from experience that he couldn’t protect his mother from a beating; if anything, he’d only provoke his father to give her a worse one and receive one himself for his pains. Better just to run.
But he’d learned that day that running was no longer an option. The air had smelled like matches and stung his eyes like smoke. When he’d breathed, it burned. He’d pressed on anyway to the park, but the grass was brown and dead, the trees bare, and pale-bellied shapes, flabby with decay, had floated in the pond.
By then, he’d been dizzy and sick, coughing and choking as he tried to stumble home. The park had distorted around him: the dead trees had loomed higher and spread their branches, till they resembled huge decaying birds. Smelt like them too, even worse than the smog, until he’d vomited.
The birds had circled him, their eyes like polished stones. Other trees had risen, tall and pointed overhead, until he’d seen they weren’t trees at all, but narrow houses with high, pointed roofs. The park’s straight asphalt paths became cobbled and began to coil and wind and fork until – between them, the sickness and smog – the boy had lost his bearings. If he’d been younger, he might have cried, but he was old enough to know by then that tears bought you nothing. He’d called for help instead, though it caused an agonising coughing fit, and staggered on in the hope of finding aid. Thankfully, he’d been heard. A neighbour, a handkerchief tied across his face, had found the boy in time and brought him home. They might ignore the domestic dramas played out next door, but a call for help outside was different.
He’d been sick for days, even causing a brief truce between his parents. Although that wasn’t fair: it implied his mother had had any say as to when and if hostilities commenced or ceased, and she’d had none. Still, his father had felt the need to make an effort of sorts, and for a short while, the house had been more peaceful. Though not for long.
He’d thought of going back to the park after the second or third fight, but couldn’t bring himself to repeat the experience. It wasn’t just the sickness and coughing he was afraid of, but the things he’d seen. The doctor had told him things like that had happened to a few people who’d been caught in the smog. Hallucinations, they were called. The boy had wondered if everyone saw exactly the same thing, but didn’t ask – partly because his throat and lungs had still burned and made talking painful, partly because he’d feared the answer.
He’d dreamt, for nearly a fortnight afterwards, of fleeing down cobbled, yard-wide streets of narrow houses from creatures like huge rotting birds. The dreams had been more vivid, more real, than any he’d had before, and he’d wake from them to lie in the dark, afraid to move, watching every shadow in his room in case it moved. That, far more than fear of any physical sickness, stopped him leaving the house again.
So the violence had continued.
And now – he understood at last, and accepted it – his mother was dead.
The wireless kept saying it’d be over soon. The smog would disperse. Things would return to normal. The way they’d been before. But they hadn’t, and now never could.
His mother was dead.
His father knew he had seen.
Shortly after the boy had crept back to his room, the silence in the house came to an end.
Music drifted up the stairs. The wireless. Jazz. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard jazz in the house: his father detested it, and since they’d become confined to their home his father’s tastes had dictated their listening. His mother had played it only once when his father had drunk too much and she’d known he’d sleep for hours. And even then, only very quietly.
But not only was his father playing it now, the boy could hear the music getting louder and louder until it grew fuzzy and distorted. Somehow that detail frightened him most of all.
Minutes passed. The boy thought he smelt cigarette smoke, drifting up the stairs. He imagined his father sitting in the kitchen, the music deafeningly loud, looking down at his mother’s body as he smoked.
A dull rhythmic thumping grew steadily louder as it came up the stairs. As it approached the landing, the boy heard his father grunt as he dragged something large and heavy after him.
His father laboured across the landing with his burden. The boy heard the bathroom door kicked wide. More grunting, a dragging sound. Then more grunts of effort and a dull clanging thud as something landed in the bathtub.
Huddled in his corner, the boy heard footsteps creak across the landing and halt outside his door. And his father’s ragged breathing.
The bedroom door – which the boy realised he hadn’t closed but left ajar from habit since closed doors were one of his father’s pet hates – inched further open.
His father’s shadow on the floorboards. A stain, like blood.
Then it retreated; his father’s footsteps went back downstairs.
Over the music, the boy heard a rattle and clatter from below. The cupboard under the stairs, where his father kept his tools. Hammer; hatchet; hacksaw.
The boy wasn’t stupid, especially when it came to his own safety. A part of him might want to believe his father would not harm his only child. But he’d done worse to the boy’s mother, and he’d once claimed to love her. In the boy’s case, there’d at best been times when his father hadn’t considered him a burden, irritant or inconvenience. Usually, when he’d barely been aware the boy existed.
Bonds of affection wouldn’t shield him; besides, he was a witness. If his father told people the boy’s mother had gone away, few people would believe she’d left the boy behind – and what if he opened his mouth and told the truth? Far more convenient for his father to say his wife had gone and taken their son: all loose ends would be neatly tied up.
There was a temptation to stay huddled in his corner and hope the problem went away, but like the belief his father wouldn’t hurt him, he knew it was false hope. The boy realised he was no longer a child; could no longer afford to be. He must consider himself an adult and act accordingly, or else, tonight, he died.
Fear threatened to paralyse him, hold him in place. But he stood and crossed the room and shut his bedroom door. No key for the lock, but there was a bolt. He drew it across.
The front and back doors were downstairs and locked; only his father had the keys. Even if the boy got past him, what then? He’d only be running out into the smog, and how long would he last in it?
The boy looked around his room. It was Spartan enough: a bed – mounted on castors, and therefore easily moved – and in another corner the desk he used for his schoolwork, together with a chair. Hard to picture any of it as an effective barricade, but it was all he had.
The boy threw the sheets off the bed, then alternately pushed and dragged it over to the door. All he could hear from below was the music; he couldn’t tell whether his father was still rooting through his toolbox, or climbing the stairs. Perhaps he was doing neither; perhaps he’d stopped to smoke another cigarette and gaze at a bloodstain, brooding again over what he’d done. Or staring at the ceiling, having heard something from above.
When the bed was about a foot from the door, the boy grabbed the edges of the frame and heaved. The mattress slid off into the gap between bed-frame and door. He pushed the frame onto its side, manoeuvring and angling it until the bed leant against the door and pinned it shut. The boy stepped back, arms outspread, in case it began to topple. But for now, at least, it stayed in place.
Still, the boy could only hear the jazz. Perhaps his father was on his way and the boy couldn’t hear him for the music, for his ragged breathing, for his thumping heart. Or perhaps his father had heard nothing. The music would drown out sound for him, too. And if he was still preparing, the boy knew how engrossed in a task the man could become: for all his drunkenness and violence, he wasn’t stupid either, or incapable. He could be methodical and thorough when the need arose. The boy remembered him staring down at his mother’s body; he’d foolishly thought it might have been conscience, or fear of the consequences, at least. But no: those things would have passed quickly, and his father’s other, colder side emerged instead. His mother was no longer a mother or wife. Not even a person. To the boy’s father, she was now only a problem to be solved.
Like the boy himself.
The room looked different without the bed. There was a dark patch on the floorboards where it had been, coated in grey dust. A couple of old brass coins. A pine cone that once must have seemed like an important souvenir of some long-forgotten day out. There’d never been any of the usual things a boy’s bedroom might have: no model aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, no pictures on the wall. It looked empty already, as if he was already gone, except for the chair and the desk.
The boy dragged the desk towards the door; its wooden legs ground and scraped across the floorboards. From downstairs, over the music and his breathing and his heart, came the dull boom of his father’s voice.
The boy froze.
His father shouted his name again. If the boy dragged the desk any further, it would be heard. If he didn’t, he had one less barrier against the man.
Then he heard his father’s footsteps coming up the stairs and knew the decision had already been made for him. He let go of the desk and ran towards the discarded bedclothes.
The doorknob rattled as he knelt beside them. As he tore them, his father shouted his name. As the boy wrapped a length of cloth around his mouth and nose, his father’s weight crashed against the door.
The boy fumbled with the window catches. They were stiff, and the tape over the joins held fast. The windows wouldn’t move.
His father threw himself against the door a second time, and then a third. The fourth time, the boy heard the wood cracking. His defences seemed so flimsy. He should have dragged the desk the rest of the way: every scrap of weight made a difference. But how much time would it have bought him, versus the time it would have taken to move?
Had he hoped to keep the man at bay the whole night? He doubted the barrier would have bought him as much as an hour at the best of times, but in the current circumstances, he’d be lucky if he had ten minutes: the stakes for his father were now as high as they were for him.
The latches budged. The boy threw his weight against the window. The tape tore; the window gave way. The boy shoved it open and gasped: stinging air made his eyes stream. The cold acidic sulphur of it scorched his throat even through the makeshift filter on his face and made him cough.
His father bellowed his name again. The boy ignored both it and the burning air, pushed his head out into the smog and began to shout for help. He shouted that there’d been a murder, that his father had gone mad. His father began shouting too, in fear and anger: he shouted at the boy to be silent, and when he didn’t, shouted to him that he would die.
No-one answered either of them. No lights came on in the stinking yellow haze. No-one called out. The boy kept shouting, then began to scream. He’d kept his head as best he could, half-numb from shock and confusion, but all that fractured now. He screamed for help, screamed to the night beyond that his father had killed his mother and now meant to kill him too, but there was no answer. A dog might have barked somewhere, far away; nothing more.
Perhaps their house was the only one to have kept the smog at bay; perhaps it had seeped into every other building, smothered everyone else in the city. How many Army trucks had gone past, with their gas-masked drivers, bodies stacked on their flatbeds? Would he and his mother have been noticed among so many other casualties? Would anyone have even checked to see if they’d died from something other than the smog? Or cared? The wireless reported hundreds of deaths daily. Thousands. His father had believed the real figures to be far higher than the government would admit, and who was to say he was wrong? That the whole city wasn’t dead, except for the two of them? Or that, at least, there was no-one alive within earshot capable of help?
A crash. A sound of breaking wood. The bolt had torn free of the wall and the door been forced nearly a foot open. One of his father’s arms groped through the hole he’d smashed in a door panel; the other reached around the door, pushing at the mattress. The bed-frame teetered. Through the broken panel, the boy saw half his father’s face: one wild eye and a mouth wide in screaming rage.
Not even ten minutes; barely five, in fact.
Yellow smog filled the room, turning the air hazy. The boy looked down, towards the bare yard below, trying to gauge how badly a fall would hurt him. He’d be crippled at best, or dead. But perhaps death would be a mercy.
No; he refused to think like that. He couldn’t pin down the source of that refusal: neither affection for his mother, loathing for his father, nor even any particular longing for life on his part seemed an adequate explanation. But whatever the cause, he wouldn’t give in.
A drainpipe ran down the side of the house, two feet from his window. The boy wasn’t particularly athletic or strong – yet another reason his father disliked him – so the idea of trying to climb down it, smog or no smog, would never normally have occurred. But now he saw no other chance.
The door shuddered again. The iron bed-frame crashed to the floor. That was the final spur; the boy climbed onto the windowsill and stretched out through the burning air towards the drainpipe. The paint on it was cold and smooth, slick with condensation and the sweat on his palm. He wiped his hands on his trousers, then lunged and gripped the pipe, extending a leg to hook an ankle round it.
His father bellowed; the broken door lurched wide. The man was forcing his way through. The mattress toppled as well. The bed blocked his way.
The boy almost slipped and fell, but didn’t. He lunged for the pipe with his other hand; clutching it tightly, he brought his other leg over the sill. For a moment his weight threatened to pull him backwards, and the pipe creaked alarmingly.
Footsteps crashed, and his father’s face appeared at the window, congested with rage, eyes already red with smog. Coughing and retching, the man lunged for the boy but missed. And then the boy was shinning down the pipe with an ease he’d never before achieved, in school or at play.
His father shouted after him, and for an instant seemed to contemplate following him down the pipe, then shook his head and disappeared back inside. The boy heard him running back across the bedroom and storming down the stairs.
The boy kept climbing down. He must be quick, or his father would be waiting for him below, and all his efforts would have been for nothing. But he daren’t rush, or he’d fall.
His feet touched the backyard’s cobbled floor, and he stepped away from the pipe. A key turned in the back door’s lock; as it opened the boy turned, taking off across the yard.
He could barely see what was ahead of him and his lungs hurt; he’d begun to wheeze and had no idea whether his father was following or not.
If the man had any sense, he’d save his breath. Maybe the smog had already killed him and the boy was as safe as anyone could be in all this. But it was impossible to be sure.
He needed help, but where could he find it? Every house in sight was dark. He could try knocking on doors, but what if his father was still on his trail? The boy would only advertise his presence, and there was no knowing which, if any, of the buildings were still occupied.
Come to that, where was he? The boy slowed down – if he stopped it would be harder to begin running again – and tried to examine his surroundings. It wasn’t easy. His vision blurred; he felt dizzy. It was the smog, like the time in the park. Everything looked distorted as if seen through a fish-eye lens.
The birds and narrow houses, the birds and narrow houses. The boy clenched his fists. He couldn’t let himself think of those. Having those hallucinations again would be bad enough; the nightmares that would follow would be worse still. But that was another ordeal. He had to focus on the one in hand.
He continued down the street. His shoes scuffed the cobblestones; the echoes whispered in the dank night air. He couldn’t hear his father, but his wheezing breaths and thumping heart could drown out the man’s voice and footsteps. The boy didn’t dare stop. He must keep going and hope he found a place that wasn’t empty and dead.
He still couldn’t hear anyone in pursuit. Again he allowed himself to hope that the smog had overcome his father, who was older and far less fit than him, after all.
The alley curved around, then branched out: there were narrow cobbled paths in front, behind and to either side. He had to rest; he stopped, at last, leant against a wall and listened. The horn of a riverboat; a truck engine’s growl; the rattle of a train; any of those might have told him which way to go, but there was nothing. Nor were his surroundings any help; the alleys all ran between high featureless walls.
Dull nimbuses of streetlight burned in the yellow vapour. Something moved overhead, atop the wall, but he saw nothing when he looked.
Footsteps behind him. The boy turned; a distorted but familiar shadow crept around the alley corner, across the cobbles.
Choosing a direction at random, he fled down another passage. He fought to regain his former momentum, but couldn’t. Over his ragged breaths, his pursuer’s footsteps grew louder. Stumbling, he sagged momentarily against a wall. The masonry was a seemingly random assortment of familiar red-brown rectangular bricks and grey-black oval ones, thickly mortared together.
He stumbled on. The alleys became narrower and began to fork. He took turnings at random: left, then right, then straight ahead. His father shouted his name; it echoed between the narrow walls.
The boy stopped again. His back was cold and wet and every breath scorched. The alley walls were now wholly composed of the strange oval bricks. He stood up straight and staggered on. The alley ended in a T-junction with another. The boy looked both ways along the latest passage. No other entrances branched off. He turned right.
The boy realised that this wasn’t an alley but a very narrow street. It bent and wove. There were lamps of unfamiliar design: the light from them looked strange. Windows, thin and black and arched. Doors he could barely have got through even turned sideways. If he spread his arms out fully, they’d be wider than the front of the nearest house.
The narrow house. He spun around in the yard-wide cobbled street, realising at last where he was.
Through a thin arched window shone a dim foggy light. The room inside was bare except for dry, dusty bundles of sticks and dead hair, each as tall as him. One uncurled itself and leant towards the window, tapping its long knifelike beak against the glass and studying him with black stone eyes.
Things moved among the pointed roofs. Not sticks but thin bones and the quills of denuded wings; not hair but the limp remains of feathers. Doors opened, and they emerged from houses in front, behind and to either side of him; they dropped towards him from above.
He tried to scream but choked on smog, and they surrounded him. Ragged wings brushed him – but did no harm. They made sounds he could never have described, yet understood: they were offering him a bargain.
His father’s voice came closer. The dead birds gathered, enfolded him in their wings. The air smelt of decomposition, mildew, dust, but it didn’t burn. He could breathe. Almost without realising it, he said one word: yes.
His father burst into the alleyway, a scarf across his face. Above it his eyes raged until he saw what company his son now kept.
And then the dead birds were on him.
The boy didn’t look until he remembered his mother. Even when he did look, he felt nothing. Not even joy.
In the city he’d come from, he now knew, the smog was already dispersing. His new family would keep and tend him till it returned – in days, or years – and he could guide them back to make his old world their own.
The boy only hoped – as they guided him through a narrow door – that he’d be insane, and no longer capable of understanding what he did, before that day.