Escape


 
Three days ago Nolina didn't know the sound of death. Now she would always remember the crunch of her brother's skull when dealt a blow from The Enemy's weapon. She never thought about the lament of despair. Today she heard it in her aunt's moan of terror when her gun jammed while firing upon The Enemy. It filled her father's howl as he ran to clutch his dying sister's body. And it permeated Nolina's answering wail as she witnessed the slaughter of the last of her family.
 
But there existed one noise far worse than all others encountered on the battlefield. It approached stealthily on whispering feet, its distant hum difficult to distinguish from the wind. Moving closer its musical trill changed to a high-pitched screech, building in intensity as it edged nearer and nearer, until finally it arrived with a deafening squeal so deeply piercing it felt like a drill boring holes into the cranium. It was the engines of the machines The Enemy rode into battle, and wherever they whined, death and despair shortly followed.
 
Nolina refused to give up hope. She crouched a mere hundred feet from the tunnel leading to her salvation--her people in the next village. Nothing stirred as Nolina took one last look at the neighborhood she called home. Blackened fingers reaching skyward for escape were all that survived of the buildings. Billows of smoke from countless raging fires lingered in the darkening sky, as if the spirits of the deceased still hovered. Pushing her sorrow away before it hugged her as a straitjacket, Nolina took a deep breath and burst from her hiding place. She dashed a zigzag through the maze of debris to the passageway's entry. Quickly keying in the code, Nolina lunged into the dark coolness, a rabbit safe in its burrow. She walked swiftly, using a dim light to illuminate her path, refusing to think about the recent rumors claiming The Enemy had found the passages and used them as horrific killing chambers.
 
It seemed to take hours, but Nolina knew her rapid pace would have taken only minutes to travel the mile-long distance. She forced herself to pause and relax her breathing once she spotted the exit. When her hands stopped shaking she turned the handle and pushed. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still nothing. With a giant shove Nolina threw her weight against the door and it released with a suctional exhale, like a shoe yanked from muck. The momentum carried Nolina through the opening, and she immediately collapsed in shock. The town was leveled. Nothing but scorched soil remained.
 
Through the tears blurring her vision Nolina glimpsed activity. A survivor wandered aimlessly amongst the rubble. With a cry of disbelief Nolina rushed to the man and grabbed his grubby hands. He stood motionless. Trying to break through the blank stare in his eyes Nolina squeezed gently. "Hey!" she whispered, giving him a little shake. He didn't respond. A few feet away a woman sat covered with so much dust and dirt she blended into the landscape like a chameleon. Nolina ran to her eagerly but hesitated when she saw the same distant gaze. Everywhere Nolina turned she noticed more of her people shuffling aimlessly with mannequin faces. She seemed to be the only one alive, walking among a haunted graveyard. Suddenly she clamped her hands over her ears in agony against the shriek of The Enemy's machines buzzing directly above her head. She squinted up, expecting the driver to spear his blade into her. He smiled a wicked jack-o'-lantern leer and slowly pushed forward the throttle, revving the motor.  As its penetrating scream increased, Nolina's nerves began to pulse. Soon her blood vessels joined in, keeping time in a deranged duet. Her torment intensified with each heartbeat, building unrelentingly toward its ghastly climax. With an audible snap her mind completely shut down, bringing her blessed escape.