When the train burst apart, he had already started running. He looked over his shoulder and saw thick smoke pouring into the sky, a surge of orange, hunks of metal soaring into the sky like fireworks. Cracking, collapsing and screaming. People pinned down by remnants of the train, flailing desperately like speared fish – some tore past them, but others stopped and tore at the remnants, full of reassuring words and promises.
The transport line was gone.
Along with the museums, the food shops, the prison, and the apothecary.
Even the old church was a smoking wreck of stone – but it made a good hiding place, as long as you were small.
He stepped between towering pieces of stained glass, sprinkling him with dusty light in red, blue, and gold. At the entrance to a crudely-formed tunnel he fell to his knees, pushing forward onto his elbows; they scraped against the concrete, but never against the metal shards, as he navigated his way underground, overground, and into a network of piping. The screams faded into background noise, and he could almost hear the soft humming of the church that had stood so proudly before.
Usually he kept crawling until the pipe split into two directions, and then turned left – three meters from the left turning, the pipe was blocked off by rubble, creating a small alcove. He glanced into it: a bundle of goose-feather quilts, a penmanship journal, and a candle that smelt of mince pies, all laid out neatly beside each other.
Today, he was going to turn right, and crawl beneath the sanctuary.
His memory of the church was still immaculate, so much so that he knew exactly which rooms would have been above him. As he crawled beneath what would have been the chapel, he shut his eyes; in that close space, he felt like an only child in the womb.
He continued forward, finding himself able to use his ash-covered hands instead of his elbows as the pipe widened. The metal felt brittle and cold, particularly where the wind had funneled through from the surface. He’d never used this path before – things whistled and creaked all around him, as the faint scent of burning wafted in through the cracks. He weaved beneath the ghosts of the choir and chancel, and felt the air become dense as he turned a corner. The pipe had reached a jagged end. He pulled his sleeves over his hands, clutched onto the spiked metal edge and lowered himself over it, dropping quickly to the floor.
Four walls, a ceiling, and a cold stone floor. He had stumbled upon the vault.
There was no wind to freshen the air in this space, where the smell of burning had been concentrated into a stench. The staircase leading to the trap-door had been perfectly preserved, though the entrance was likely held shut by the wreckage above. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling like samples of expensive lace, barely disturbed; even the tombs lay perfectly untouched, oblivious to the smoldering chaos far above them.
One tomb was for a Loving Mother, and the other for a Loyal Sister. Each was topped with a black-and-white photograph of their occupiers, both sporting wide grins and crinkled eyes. There were identical wreaths of what might have been holly, though now the berries were wrinkled and brown. Flowers wrapped in sparkling silver paper sat close to the tombs, littering the floor with their curled, crunchy petals.
He picked a spot between the two, dusted away the petals, and sat down. Even the silence seemed to slow down, as he curled up on the floor, and closed his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later he snored himself awake, but a quick glance at his surroundings was enough to calm his heart again. He sat up, yawned quietly, and reached into his pocket.
The hand-held mirror had been a gift, studded with colourless crystals and lined with gold. As he flicked it open, he noticed the black sludge lining his nails, the streaks of clotted dirt across his once porcelain jacket. His eyes seemed more striking than usual against the darkened, puffy skin beneath them; his other features were coated in dust, his face was unfamiliar to him. His throat felt hot, the corners of his eyes began to twitch – he swallowed hard, dug the heels of his hands into his eye-sockets, and took a deep breath of the rancid air.
Praying in the sanctuary would have allowed him to finish things. His first thought was to snap his mirror into sharp little pieces, speak to the gods in person – but he needed forgiveness first, and without the proper environment, he knew that he couldn’t get it. Maybe the gods would take pity and let him into Heaven, but his family would be waiting too.
He would just have to find another church.
He slept for a while longer, and didn’t clamber back out of the wreckage until night-time had fallen – he dragged his quilts behind him, rolled up and fastened with a rope. With the lights along the transport line shattered, the coal-black sky had finally seeped into the city; until his eyes adjusted, he could only see high-visibility jackets, struggling with the train’s remaining hostages. He tried not to think about it, patting the chunk of stone beside him like a faithful old dog, and turning his head one last time to breathe in the scent of home-made mince pies. Then he pulled the rope over his shoulder, glanced up at the shimmering stars, and began to head north along the main road.