Je m’appelle Reynaud. My mother named me. She was French. Other than her, I have never met anyone else who was French. No one else in this city is French. I don’t recall ever meeting my father. I am alone in a dead city. There are no more people here. People do not live in dead cities. But I’m still here. And I’m still alive. It’s like living inside of someone else’s dream. Someone who took too much valium dans la nuit. There are apartment buildings and hydro lines and legion halls and trees and a ferris wheel. But there are no cars. There is no noise. There are no children or hot dogs.
After the evacuation 10 years ago the only ones who live here now are the boars and the wolves. And a pack of dogs who haunt the tallest building. Last weekend Ryuskla had a litter of 10 but six were born already dead, one was born with no hind legs, one was born with no face, one was born already almost full grown and he immediately ate two of the dead puppies. There’s a rumour that one was born completely healthy and playful. The only word I have to describe my life skirting around the dogs is hate. I hate the dogs. And I have reason to believe the feeling is mutual. My fear is that the overgrown puppy may try to eat me while I sleep. Living in a dead city it is the same as being buried alive. At sea. You have the lungs but not the air. We have the stores but no commerce. There is the forest but that forest is poison. I have always loved the Italian Renaissance, but have no one to share it with. The one thing I do love about dead city is that the night is blind dark. It is a night saturated with its own darkness. And when it is that dark the silence finally makes sense. The silence and the night, when taken together, are the only things that can be considered familiar about this place anymore, the one thing that is comparable before the evacuation as now. Dead quiet in the dead of night. Dead. I am dead. Zut. The only thing for me to do now is run.
I don’t know how long I’ve been out here. I’ve been running for weeks. That mole was the first thing I’ve eaten in three days. I can’t believe I didn’t see those owls lurking behind the garbage bin. Four of them. I came across that food first. Honestly, I don’t really remember—maybe I did steal it from them. That still doesn’t give them the right to be on me like this—stalking me through all these alleyways. Mon dieu, I can barely remember a time before the owls. I want to stop running more than anything I can ever remember wanting; carcass aside. I want to stop but I can’t. I can hear them coming; I can’t see them anymore, but I can still hear their owl hoots; their frenzy. I want to stop running but I won’t. This is not how I want to die. I’m not going to die over one dead, radioactive mole. Maybe I can hide somewhere. Maybe there is somewhere warm where they won’t think to find me. Maybe I can outrun them after all. I want to be alone and safe. Where can I go? Where can I go? Where is safe? There is nowhere left to go. Where will I go?
Reynaud was running and while he ran he was crying because he was so very tired and he just wanted to feel good again. He felt good when he lived with his family. Natasha was 10 and she loved Reynaud with the enormity of a 10-year-old heart, which is vast the same way the sea is complete and vast. And Reynaud loved Natasha that much too with his whole dog heart. Reynaud remembers how Natasha cried, her face pressed against the back window of the Peugeot as her father tried to wend his way out of their neighbourhood. Natasha cried and cried calling Reynaud’s name over and over until she was howling like a wolf. Reynaud ran after them, as fast, if not faster, than he was running now. He wasn’t crying then but he was crying now. That day he just felt confused, and slightly embarrassed for M. et Mme. Zygmunt, whom he felt certain were sure that he was in the backseat with Natasha, instead of gulping down exhaust fumes until he could no longer keep up. Reynaud was alone. Reynaud got left behind in a town everyone was leaving.
Reynaud’s body was lean and taut—a runner’s body. But he was tres, tres, tres fatigue. And then in a flash he remembered the old kindergarten across from the park. He knew the owls were smart, but they weren’t that smart; they would not expect him to double back. That he would run toward them. He banked right and dashed out of the alley, across the barren roadway and back behind the soap factory, running alongside the tracks. It was eerie being hunted in a deserted maze without the obstacle course of traffic and people and noise it seemed futile and doomed; desperately quiet except for Reynaud’s own panting. He knew there wasn’t much time, the vista was so flat, so charged with open space, they’d spot him soon. And the only recourse he had was to keep running. He just had to make it through those bright blue doors. The beating, beating, beating of wings carried on the wind bearing down on him, echoing all through the dead city.
I just need some water. I’d kill for un peau de l’eau.
Reynaud dragged himself from one classroom to the next, not even sure anymore what he was scanning the rooms for, confused as to what he should stay alert to, and why he even bothered coming here. There was no water here. His eyes were burning, his throat was on fire, his muscles were livid. Every room an endless repetition: piles upon piles of plaster; piles of tiny shoes; piles of dolls missing eyes, appendages, clothing; dusty piles of sepia photographs of children performing morning callisthenics; all the furniture overturned and upended. Merde. Familiar with images of tsunamis and civil wars, Reynaud saw the similar ways any disaster could leave the skeleton of a city exposed and weatherstripped. No matter the nature of the particular disaster— pestilence, flash flood, genocide, zombie attack, radioactive fallout—they all stole their visual cues and style from the tornado’s aftermath. Reynaud was irked by the predictability of this kindergarten disaster, by the pointlessness of his escape. Rather than feeling safe in hiding, Reynaud felt trapped. Reynaud was caught in a trap that he had set. C’est incroyable! The owls were, in fact, wiser than he had given them credit for.
He found a child’s desk upright, lay under it and closed his eyes. He lay like this for 20 minutes, forcing himself not to think any thoughts. He turned his attention inside his body. He checked in with each limb, trying to appease them all: right hind leg, left hind leg, just breathe, just breathe. Right fore leg, left fore leg, just lay still and breathe. Relax back, relax throat. Breathe in a little. Breathe one more time a bit bigger. Lungs you’ve done this before. Lungs just let in a little bit more air, just to the bottom, just fill my body. Like a balloon. A balloon that gravity cannot grasp. A balloon that just floats up and up and up. My body weightless. Just one more deep breath and my body will be weightless. Now.
His ears perked dead alert: he could hear someone else in the room breathing too. And before he could shift his weight around, he felt again how heavy and stony and rigid his muscles and tendons and bones actually were. And the complete understanding of that heaviness is what did Reynaud in. The instant reckoning that his body would never float away from this place hit him like a ton of bricks. Reynaud now knew exactly where those clichés came from and how their practicality and cynicism could keep a man jailed. Je renounce la chasse. Vous avez gagné. He could feel someone’s breath on his back, and then a hand on his neck. He was immobilized from where he was positioned under the desk, his only defence now was to whip his head around in an attempt to look his attacker in the eye, and growl as menacingly as he could muster and snap his jaws to crush what appendages might be in his way.
The hand that quickly pulled back from Reynaud’s neck was a tiny, light hand. A light, tiny hand with seven separate and distinct fingers. From what he could tell, the hand led up the fragile arm of a tiny girl. Reynaud was in complete amazement and stopped gnashing at the space between them.
“Don’t bite me. You’re a bad, bad dog. I’m six and I’m called Lhaali. Nooooo! No, no, don’t move. Just let me lie down on you. I don’t want to be cold anymore.”
And Reynaud didn’t move because he didn’t want to be cold anymore either.
He didn’t know how Lhaali had contorted herself under the desk around him, but she managed to find the exact right spot along his back that needed to be covered and warmed up. Lhaali had her arm across Reynaud’s neck, the metal leg of the desk behind her head, her legs sticking out straight behind her from under the desk. Had American comic books ever been of interest to Reynaud, it would have occurred to him that he was wearing Lhaali like a cape; as though he were in flight, flying away from this place. And though she couldn’t have been that much warmer, she fell into a sound sleep. She slept like someone who had been awake for three days. Lhaali was eaten alive by her sleep and Reynaud knew he may never sleep again; he could never let his guard down. Ever. He knew that if there was one little girl here, that meant that somewhere there were other humans, probably those who were angrier, hungrier, more frightened, more violent than this one. He knew he had to leave this place as soon as possible. He imagined those four ugly owls lurking vengefully in all corners of the room. In the dark of the kindergarten he lay panting as heavily, and feeling as spent, as if he were still out in the streets running for his life. What was he thinking? He was, in fact, still running for his life.
Reynaud didn’t mean to fall asleep. After nine hours of wakefulness, listening only to Lhaali’s breath, his eyes couldn’t help but soften. For the first time in the ten years since the evacuation Reynaud had a dream: a lighthouse sending its beacon out over a night sea. He could hear, but not see, the waves killing themselves against the cliff. One. Then another. Then another. In his dream he hated these waves for being so much like lemmings. Reynaud would have preferred never to dream again than to be forced to dream this dream even once, because he knew it to be an omen and not a dream, at all.
Days and nights are passing, though I would be at a loss as to distinguish that passage, if asked one day. I try to avoid sleep, I try not to move around too much, I have only Lhaali to keep me company. But I am completely bewildered by this little girl: I catch myself trusting her, wanting to protect her, laughing along at her jokes, but what if I can’t trust her? What if she was sent to kill me? What if I should really be protecting myself against her? What if the jokes are really at my expense? But I miss her when she leaves me, and I am relieved when she comes back to this room, to me.
Either way Reynaud was captive.
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Lhaali.”
“Why not Reynaud, it’s not like you have anything better to do.”
“While you may have a point there, mon dieu, how are you and I going to catch a wild boar? Here in the school?”
Lhaali laughed as though this were the funniest thing she’d heard in ages, “Not here inside. Out there,” and she thrust her arm almost accusingly at the blown-out window, her open palm presenting it with all seven, reaching fingers. “Outside, Reynaud, outside!”
“We have no guns! We have no ammunition! I didn’t see any wild boars when I came here.”
“That’s because they hide in the forest behind the school. And they have gigantic heads and tiny feet because of the radiation. Or sometimes they have two heads and one body. And there’s one, I think, that grew wings.”
“Yes, Reynaud, wings. Is that really so hard for you to believe?”
“Lhaali, with no guns, they’ll eat us both.”
“It would have been better if you were a bigger dog, because then I could ride on your back like you were a pony or a unicorn, and that way we could run faster than the boars, and surprise them.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Lhaali.”
“Reynaud, if you say that one more time I’m going to go by myself. You say that about every single idea I have.”
“That’s because you always want to do things that are basically deadly.”
“Wanting to jump from the roof of the school into a pile of leaves and garbage that you piled up on the asphalt?”
“Reynaud, you just wait here, I’m going to get water from the drinking fountain. We’ll lure them with a bit of water.”
As soon as he heard the word ‘water’ Reynaud had a flash of déjà vu that tightened his belly. He suddenly felt unsettled. Un peau de l’eau. Un peau de l’eau. He looked around the room and saw that he was alone, he listened for Lhaali’s footsteps, or whispering, or singing, and he heard nothing. He listened harder and the silence answered him back more aggressively. Un peau de l’eau. He remembered that day he came here, so thirsty, he had searched the whole building but hadn’t been able to find any water. How long ago that was—three days? Six days? Nine days? Ten days?
How is little Lhaali surviving and playing and scheming if we have no water? She probably has a secret cache of supplies somewhere that she hid from me. Was that why she told me to stay put?
She is taking so long to come back. That’s it, I’m going to look for her. Maybe she went downstairs into the gymnasium. Maybe she tried the fountain on the third floor. Maybe there’s a pipe somewhere on the grounds outside. It’s funny how big this kindergarten feels although everything is miniature for the children. Hundreds of children. How many children could have possibly lived in a city to warrant a school with all of these never-ending corridors? Maybe she’s already back in the classroom. It’s dark. We should not go into the forest at night. If we get attacked by any of those winged boars I’ll never be able to protect her by myself. If she really wants to do this we will have to wait until dawn. It was still light out when she left for water. How many hours ago was that? It may have been close to twilight, though, and here the night drops so quickly. But my legs are so tired, as though I’ve been circling these halls for hours. How have Lhaali and I managed to outrun those owls? Why did I even come here? Why was I running so fast? Why would I run so fast when I had no water?
Reynaud began to call out Lhaali’s name over and over, howling through the deserted hallways. Finally, he decided to go back to the classroom that he and Lhaali liked to stay in. It was the one that seemed to let in the most light during the day, and had the most toys left behind. As he approached the room he picked up a strange scent in the air and knew that someone, or something—and probably more than one—was waiting for him inside. He paused at the doorframe, where the door had long been missing from its hinges, and made himself very, very still.
They’ve probably already seen me, and are hoping that I don’t know they’re in here. Hoping that I’m delusional and that my guard is low, so when I set foot in this darkened room they’ll surprise me. They will probably come at me from all sides. They will probably be merciless. They are probably hungry. Well, I’m certainly not going to fall into their trap. I must commend their patience, though, c’est bon. I’ve been waiting here, before this betraying doorway for a long while now. And they—all of them—have managed to stay exactly as still as I have. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of killing me here in this decrepit, radioactive building. They’ll have to get me out in the open if they want me.
Reynaud broke through his watchful inertia almost explosively, desperately, vengefully, and made a break for the exit at the end of the hall. He called on everything that he was made of and sprinted out of the kindergarten and across the field and onto the road, yet again. Encore. Plus encore. He tried to tear down the road, but in truth he was barely lifting each paw off the ground. He commanded his legs to go, go, go. He was almost clear of the shadow cast by the tallest apartment building, crossing the tracks, and soon to round the bend leading to what used to be the Lhaali & Co. Soap factory. For the first time that he could recall, the air was filled with the sounds of all of the animals that occupied this dead city: howling, barking, hooting, chirping, crying, laughing, snorting, wailing. His smile widened the moment he decided to follow this road no matter where it led. He would run and run. He began to laugh his dog laugh because he noticed that at the point where the road fell off the edge of the horizon the dawn was approaching, its sky soft and shimmering right there so far off at the knife’s point of the road. And although it was so far off, it was unmistakable that the tiny pinprick of sky there was winking and smiling along with Reynaud. And that is how he knew that if he kept running he would crash straight into the sea.
Nadia Ragbar’s work has appeared in the Glass Coin, Dragnet magazine, Echolocation, Broken Pencil, and the Unpublished City anthology. She is a graduate of U of T’s M.A in the field of creative writing, and lives in Toronto.