The man labored upward, across the cracked concrete, and climbed over automobile remnants to the apex of the collapsing highway overpass. A dirty shemagh and safety goggles masked his face from the elements and any human semblance; his alien head swiveled like a radar dish under a wide-brimmed hat. He crept, leaning forward slightly under the sun. He checked the ground for hazards, his booted steps scraping the ancient concrete and sending tiny pebbles tumbling from small clouds of dust. The man reached the crown of the broken road and removed his facial coverings to try to get a clear look at the horizon. He exhaled through pursed lips and squinted into the sunrise, his vision rising upwards and across the wasteland, shaking slightly as it came to rest on the ruins of Philadelphia.
“My God,” he muttered. The city laid in ruins, shrouded in a veil of dust that hung over her like flies over a corpse. Most of the skyscrapers had collapsed, creating layers of rubble and bent steel. The few that remained jutted from the horizon like the rigid finger-bones of a corpse in a shallow grave …the last sign of defiance against decomposition and memorial. Debris littered the streets, and vehicles rose here and there from the rubble.
He had to sit from the shock, and his legs folded clumsily underneath him. He hadn’t been able to see the city during the previous night. There were no lights in any windows. No fires burning. Now the city was a collage of beige and bistre. Sand and soot. Gone and forgotten. All he could do was stare out at what remained and try to remember what used to be.
The Ben Franklin Bridge had collapsed into the Delaware River. Perhaps it’d been bombed, or merely fell. It didn’t seem to matter. It had suffered terribly, regardless. The towers stood rigid, and the suspenders closest to the man, in what had been Camden, still held half of the bridge above the polluted water, extending outwards roughly a mile before twisting into the sludge below. Across the moat the other tower loomed silently. The two giants quietly faced each other, standing guard over the entrance to the ruins in a somber vigil… the man couldn’t help but wonder which would win this Mexican standoff. The closest tower seemed to be reaching out towards the other one, which had accepted its fate and surrendered all hope, its suspension cables drooping over the sides. Two lovers torn apart, staring at each other… watching sadly as the other decomposed and crumbled into the sewer below. How fitting.
He regained his senses and tried to remember how it looked during his childhood. He remembered it being massive and imposing and awesome… like everything through the bright, magnifying lenses that are a child’s eyes. “Benny Franks” he mumbled. He had called it that back then. His mother would drive him across to take him to daycare on her way to work in the city. He always hated the drive but was always happy to see that skyline in the morning and always sad to leave at night. He’d stare over the side of the bridge, at the river and the docks and sunlight glazing the water’s surface… and the skyscrapers shining like steel gods over the metallic city.
But they were not so majestic anymore. Nothing was. The docks had rotted into the green water, and the skyscrapers had fallen down or stood, gutted, waiting to die.
The sun was setting when he finally summoned the strength to stand. He pulled off his glove and used the cleanest patch of it to wipe the sweat from his brow. It did little more than smear the dirt around, but he invested in trying, all the same. He wasn’t going to give up on his dignity just yet – it was too rare a trait these days. He still believed in protocol for remaining civilized, despite how he may look or smell. That’s what separated him from the raiders and highwaymen and gangs- civility. Well that and Daphné. Daphné was the antique rifle he kept slung over his shoulder. She was a fine piece of early 20th Century French engineering. Daphné was a 1936 MAS Modéle 36 bolt-action rifle. She had been his father’s before he died, and far as he knew, his father’s father’s and so on. She had become his best friend over the many years, and one of the few things he could rely on. He was deadly accurate at 400 yards, and while his old hands ached whenever he had to fire more than two shots in immediate succession, his aim remained deadly accurate. He’d just push on through the arthritis. He always pushed through the pain. You have to go with what you’re good at, and the pain seemed light compared to that suffered by the many that had ended up on the business end of Daphné’s sights over the years. Despite his sadness, he smiled at the brief reminisce and picked her up and examined her before slinging her back over his shoulder and into the strap that held her in place across his back. He coughed into his fist and pulled his hand down the front of his face and through the graying beard forming around his cracked lips. He needed to get moving, and quickly. It’d be dark soon and he’d be vulnerable out in the open. Survival first. He’d have time to miss Philly later. He was a survivor. He had resigned himself to this unfortunate fate. He was on a mission.
The man retrieved the glove up off the ground and shouldered his rucksack and various bags over his gaunt shoulders. He wrapped his face against the winds and replaced his goggles and mask, concealing his humanity behind plastic and threadbare linen… an alien nomad wandering the once-familiar wastes of his former home. Snorting back his dignity, he righted himself to a full standing position and began to trot down the other side of the highway, towards the city.
Philadelphia’s wounds opened before him as he edged closer. Like a gruesome mosaic, the intricacies of the destruction became more apparent with each cautious step. It was as if he’d suddenly found an ancient necropolis…a decrepit mausoleum hidden within winding ancient highways of stone and littered with trash-covered vehicles and the bodies of a deceased race of people. The city seemed to continue its death throes, writhing in his vision as the heat rose slowly from the baked concrete and skeletal scaffolding of the gutted buildings.
Faded billboards leered at the walking, staring man, mockingly coercing him to drink “Pepsi” and to catch the “Flyers” hockey game in person. He searched his memory for some remnant of how carbonated drinks tasted, but it was long gone. These luxuries long ago became foreign to him. From the signs and billboards he’d seen on his long journey north, he figured the past was a time of wonder. People ate their fill. They all had perfect skin and white teeth and smiled too much. They had cute pets and grandiose houses and ornate swimming pools and brand new automobiles. He was too young and naïve at the time to lend any support to this contention now. As he got closer, he noticed that the people on the billboards, with their white teeth and clean skin and smiling faces had become aged, bleached, like bones in the sun. Paint peeled from their flat faces, leaving blemishes and exposing wood beneath. Their pets and houses and shiny automobiles had succumbed to time as well and were wrinkled, faded and torn. As the paper aged and peeled from these hovering reminders, even the memories of the time before became stained with dust. He eased off his gloves and looked down at his calloused, peeling hands, spreading his fingers and turning them over, slowly. That super-race of beautiful people with their beautiful houses had long died out. Their golden-capped cities of lights and music had collapsed under the bombs that fell from the clouds.
The weathered man continued down the road and towards the bridge. His stride had become labored and his shoulders slumped beneath the weight of his packs. He lowered his eyes to the ground . . . away from the snapshots into the past that towered over the side of the highway. He looked forward to sleeping for the night, though he did not know where. He had to get out of the open. Cities were most dangerous at night, where threats danced from shadow to shadow, waiting for the next victim. He’d rather die fighting than from a gunshot or knife waiting in ambush in a dark corner. Out in the wastes a man traveled by night, because the day and open horizon rendered one naked and stranded in the unending dust. A raider could see you coming from two miles away. But in the city, the setting of the sun heralded the coming of the raiders, gangs, thieves and murderers. Their familiarity with the terrain and fear of each other or a well-armed traveler made them shun the daylight. He had to get out of the open.