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The Land of the Nod (Short Fiction Barry Prize Winner)

The flowers and trees grow strong in song

while birds and beast dance to the rhythm

of rustling leaves on branching boughs.

The winds and waves whistle the tune

while mountains, tall and strong

add in a beat of rumbling rocks.

The land of Nod sings aloud.

“Ariani! How many times must I tell you to do something with your life instead of wallowing in those fool’s stories. If you keep reading those stories you’ll just end up as a beggar on those godforsaken streets!”

I put down the book that I had been reading and climbed out of my bed to face my aunt who was standing in the doorway of my room, a small almost closet like space bare of anything but an old, tattered bed and a stack of books. She was quite tall and thin in a way that made her resemble a burnt stick. She had to bend over to stand in the doorway that gave her the look of an angry hunchback, yet Her face remained calm despite her stern tone making her appear all the more frightening.

“Why don’t you make some use of yourself and go down to the depot and grab the food packets for tonight's dinner. It’ll give you something do other than filling your mind with that stupid garbage.”

“Yes Nana” I muttered as I squeezed past her into the small living room of our flat.

My aunt and I lived in a small apartment on the third floor of a dilapidated building that seemed to teeter on the edge of collapse. We were poor and desperate like everyone else in the dreary and sprawling expanse of the metropolis that we lived in, so our furnishings consisted of a few raggedy pieces of synthetic cloth furniture that had been found discarded on the street and an old, rusty metal table. The walls of the two-room flat were painted an unappealing shade of beige that appeared as a sickly yellow in the harsh fluorescent lighting given off by the bare lightbulbs that dangled somewhat randomly from the ceiling. The windows, of which our flat had once had many, had long ago been boarded up to keep out that sun that bathed the city in cruel light both day and night.

I grabbed the key pass to our apartment off the rusty table and put on my frayed sun poncho that had once been a lovely shade of teal before the sun rendered it a lifeless grey, a shade quite similar to the color dead skin. The rest of the building was in even worse condition than our sad little apartment. A hole in the roof of the main stairwell let in the frequent acid storms that left the old iron stairs leading down to the entrance pockmarked and rusted.

When the hole in the roof wasn’t letting in rain it was letting in the scorching red sun that had bleached the color from every object it touched. This left the stairwell a dreary shade of lifeless grey. Notches placed intermittently in the wall contained lights that had ceased to work many years ago. The railing was bent out of shape in multiple places, likely the consequence of some long-ago fight. Nobody in this city has the energy to fight anymore, they just drag on with their monotonous lives, a few with the tiny hope that someday something might change; nothing ever does.

After pulling the hood up on my poncho and making my way out into the scorching light of the staircase I picked my way down the stairs, careful to avoid the holes that had been left when steps had given way to the frequent acid rain downpours. At the bottom of the stairs I stepped over the old rusty iron doors that had once divided the vestibule from the outside city but had been ripped from their hinges and tossed aside by an explosion from some long-ago war.

The synthetic food depot was three blocks from our apartment, but the unbearable heat and stench of the city made the walk feel twice as long. The streets of the city remained empty except for the few pedestrians such as me who were unlucky enough to have an errand that required them to leave whatever shelter they had been holed up in. The streets were lined with old lamp posts that had long since been turned off as there was no need for lights at night. A few abandoned machines that I believe were known as cars lay rusted and useless littering the street, their fuel source long depleted. Direction signs for those long-gone machines stood at intervals along the street, their words faded beyond comprehension. The streets stayed clear of trash thanks to the acid storms that melted away anything insubstantial enough to be discarded by the desperate residents of the city.

The buildings that lined the street had had the color drawn out of them by the scorching rays of the sun. All the windows had been boarded up with strips of metal or bricked in to prevent the sunlight from penetrating the buildings. Metal holders where plants had once grown in abundance lay empty underneath the areas where windows had once been. Maybe those plants had grown in song just as they did in the Land of Nod wherever that place was

Every time I made this walk, I always looked to see if maybe something had changed, if a weed had miraculously grown in the shade of a building, or if a person had uncovered their windows to let in the scorching sun. I never saw anything. My observations today ceased abruptly when a dry rough voice pierced my thoughts, a voice filled with disdain and mockery, and one that I loathed.

“Looks like your aunty finally got you working, It about time that you gave up on those silly stories”

It was our neighbor Airon; he was a short man with a heavy-set body and always seemed to be out of breath. As usual he was covered head to foot in grey rags so that only his pudgy red face was visible, and he stank horribly. I was fairly sure that he hadn’t air washed in at least a week. Airon lived in the apartment above us and was always nosing his way into other people’s private lives, especially mine. Right now he stood in front of me grinning like a maniac.

“Mind your own business,” I muttered as I pushed past him. Speeding up my pace to just under a jog.

“Look who’s moody today” he shouted after me, in a voice dripping with contempt. “Looks like those stupid little folktales finally got to your tiny head”

I turned on my heel to face him once again, but he had already turned the corner and was out of sight. Aggravated with my stupid chore I hurried on my way once again, inwardly cursing Airon and this hell of a world for existing. If only the Nod existed, then there would be something to live through this nightmare for.

The rest of the way to the depot was as uneventful as I hoped it would be. Nothing but dreary, grey, windowless buildings and the few relics of a long-gone time when Earth was normal.

The synthetic food depot was nothing more than a small grey box of a building with a single iron door with the word DEPOT carved into it in all caps.

A sheet of metal supported by two precarious piles of bricks served as an awning for the entrance. The rotting shriveled body of some unfortunate soul who had gotten caught in an acid storm lay slumped against the wall next to the door. I opened the door and stepped into the artificial white light of the depot. The building was a perfect white square on the inside with five synthetic food packet dispensers on three of the walls with the fourth wall being completely blank except for the door. With nobody to clean the machines or perform maintenance, only a handful of the dispensers worked. Most of the broken ones had completely shut down. But a couple still flickered on and off, letting out half-hearted screeches and beeps if you attempted to use them.

I made quick work of punching in the ration codes and gathering the packets into the deep pockets that lined the outside of my poncho. My business with the depot done, I made my way to the door, only to have it open in my face as two women, both wrapped in grey, entered the room. Much to my disappointment, I recognized them immediately. They lived in my apartment building on the fifth floor and had a reputation as the gossip queens of the building.

“Oh, look who it is!” The one on the left cried. “How are you Ariani?”

“I’m fine” I replied in a terse voice that I hoped conveyed my displeasure with their existence. Like Airon, they had a knack for nudging their way into the private life of everyone in their near vicinity, and I loathed them as I did everyone else who lived in our apartment building.

“Has your aunt finally talked some sense into you about those children’s stories of yours?” asked the other woman in a stern voice that made it seem as if she were scolding a child.

Feeling the rage building up at the pure audacity of the women, I pushed through them not caring for the gasps of surprise and pain and slammed the door in their faces. Exhausted, I slumped down against the door and looked out at the desolate street that had become a museum of how much we had fallen as a species. It was so utterly depressing that I envied the dried corpse that sat in peace next to me. It was only then that I noticed the speck of orange peeking out from a rip in the grey shirt of the body. I pulled open the rip leaving a gaping hole in the useless garment and revealing a small flower. Its petals blossomed bright orange against the shriveled tan of the corpse that had given it life. The first non-human life that I had ever seen was given life by the death of a human. It was only then that I realized, The Land of Nod was not a place to find, I was already there, and we had destroyed it.