He is distracted by the empty cigarette case. The room is otherwise preserved as he remembers. The stained mattress. The sunburnt curtains. The shredded carpet, its threads snaking beneath the mouldy bedframe.
But the cigarette case. Where did that come from?
The smell is wrong too. Staler, but that’s to be expected.
Could someone else have come here before him, perhaps anticipating his arrival.
But no. There is no one left to anticipate his arrival.
The back of his hand brushes the damp wall and he shudders.
Probably should have done this during the day, he says aloud, noting with some relief that his voice did not tremble. Nobody to hear him but he likes to remember that his voice once had a sound.
The days are hotter than ever and these insular apartments make great homes for those who remain. Those who remained, he reminds himself, letting out a brief laugh that was bereft of humour. These buildings don’t warm up; they were built for functionality by people to whom aesthetics weren’t a priority. Faceless homes for enormous families.
They had almost succeeded in making it through. Almost. But the heat kept worsening. The problems had been outlined to successive governments, but decisive action had never been taken.
Be a good boy an’ keep blasting the AC, his boss told him one day in the shop, we’ll die of thirs’ if you don’ keep it runnin’.
This is what’s wrong, he told his boss, this is why it’s so damn hot. Something’s gotta give.
His boss hadn’t answered. He had just taken off his hat and scratched his head wearily before unloading what remained of the deliveries.
With trepidation he picks up the box. There is one cigarette left inside. Maybe it belonged to his Mamma, he thinks. Maybe she went back on them in the last days. They are not the brand she liked to smoke, but back then you took what you could.
He pulls a lighter from a pocket. He hates wasting any kind of fuel – who knew when he’d need it – but he feels the cigarette calling him. It is years since he last smoked, and he coughs with the first intake of stale smoke. He perseveres, fighting the nausea in his gut.
At that moment he hears something move in the room adjacent. Molly, he thinks, could she be still–. He cuts off that thought, not daring to finish it.
Slowly, he makes his way to the door. It creaks and he cringes. There is no more noise, but this does not dissuade him. What are the chances she–.
It is not her. He opens the door to the sight of a ragged rat, gnawing on the remains of a cushion. He steps toward it, all fear and hope dispelled.
The rat looks up when the man enters. For a moment, they both stare at one another. The same thought runs through both creatures’ brains.
Dinner is served.
Shane O’Neill is a writer from county Wicklow, Ireland. His fiction has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio One and his dramatic writing has been staged at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. His short stories have been published in various journals including Sonder Magazine, Literally Stories and WriteNowLit.
Cover Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
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