It looks too large to be a lake, but this must be what the story teller was talking about. The glistening water seems to go on forever as it stretches out as far as the eye can see. I walk to the coast’s edge and breathe in the fresh air. Small waves lap at the rocky shore, but the sound they make is surprisingly strong. This is no ordinary lake. I can’t help but imagine how deep the waters go and how they must roar in a storm. I stand there admiring the grand body of water until the story teller’s warning echoes in my mind. I don’t see any threats here. It couldn’t be more peaceful.
“I’ve come this far,” I admit. “Maybe there’s something else to see.”
Almaz was a bitch, but she wasn’t a fool. If she spoke about a place, it always held some significance. I want to find out what the mystery is. The rolling waves’ sound settles some of my nerves. I try to shake the feeling of emptiness that has washed over me. I am surrounded by majestic beauty, but it hasn’t erased the fact that I don’t know where I’m going.
At dusk, I sit down on a rock and enjoy a simple meal of jerky and an apple. I have four more apples and six more rations of jerky before I run out of food. My stomach still growls after I finish. I’ll go fishing soon. My body craves a more substantial helping of meat, but I don’t want to stop and waste time right now. Cooler winds blow in from the lake and distract me from my hunger. The water glows beneath the pink sunset in a spectacular display of nature’s glory. I shake my head in awe. I have never seen a view like this before. Something in the distance catches my eye. Several things, in fact. I squint, telling myself that I’m seeing things. I stand up and walk close to the water. The haze has lifted from the horizon and there is something beyond the water. The cool waves kiss my dirty feet and I jump a foot off the sand. My shoes need a wash and so do my feet, so I let the waves roll gently over them. With a shudder, I rub my arms and stare out at the pastel horizon.
Tall structures jut out from the far land across the lake. Buildings. Bright lights shine from the tallest ones. I blink in amazement. How can this be real? I don’t understand why everyone told me that cities no longer exist when this one still stands proudly on the other side of the great lake. My gaze focuses on the tallest structure. It is similar to the one that was built across from the giant waterfalls, but much taller. Even from a great distance, its point looks sharp as a needle.
“The city lives,” I say, barely believing my own words.
I swallow past a lump forming in my throat. I wouldn’t have believed Almaz if she told me the place existed. This was her secret. All this time there’s been a thriving city beyond the wild lands.
My eyelids droop. It’s been too long since I slept. After seeing countless incredible sights, I long to escape to complacency for awhile. I take the blanket out of my pack and wrap it around my shoulders. I fall asleep sitting up facing the water. The crashing of waves draws me out of sleep the next day. I stretch and look out at the murky rough water. The waves are a few feet high. It looks like an entirely different place, yet it is perfectly beautiful. A strong part of me doesn’t want to see the city. I’ve only heard bad things about urban areas. Then again, stories often over dramatize events and people, so maybe not everything said about them is true. Cities existed for thousands of years for a reason. I eat an apple for breakfast then start jogging. I am determined to travel around the lake and reach the city’s edge before tomorrow. It is roughly seven o’ clock in the morning which gives me a few hours to move fast before the sun shines its hot rays down on the land. I wish it would cloud over once in a while, but the last several summers have been hot with little rain.
I take breaks to drink water and when the sun rises high in the sky, I wander down to the beach. The lake is calmer than before. I take off my sandals and shirt and throw my head back as the warm, soft sand massages my sore feet. I step slowly into the water, shuddering as I walk deeper into the cool, but shallow waves. I walk until I am chest-deep in the lake; I wouldn’t dare wander deeper. There’s something unnerving about being in water that has the capacity to rage like a sea. I dunk my head under then wade back to shore. Feeling refreshed, I stretch in the warm, dry air. Then I dip my shirt into the water, wring it out, and tie it around my head. The sun dries the water off my skin in minutes. I can’t help but wonder what the city people will look like, how they’ll talk, or if they’ll react strangely to me. My grandfather used to tell me stories about how odd he seemed to my grandmother since he was a farmer boy. She was what he called a “city slicker” when they first met. That was a year before the plague swept over the entire world. The riots followed soon after.
“It didn’t take long for another war to happen in this ‘safe’ new world,” I say, hearing the darkness in my own voice.
The grandsons of the people who hoped to rebuild the world repeated the same violent behaviour. I wonder if fighting and killing for power will always exist as long as people do. Is there any way to stop it? Humans are capable of love and compassion, so it’s only natural that we can also feel hate and animosity. With great empathy comes greats cruelty to mirror it. It was only a matter of time before men started fighting over land again. There will always be someone who wants more and is willing to kill for it.
A sudden flash of Almaz lying helpless at my feet interrupts my thoughts. Her eyes are bright and clear in this vision. I shake my head to get that image out of my head. I killed her for a good reason. People like her start wars. Every one of those fools back at the camp would have died for her.
I become so lost in my thoughts that I don’t stop to watch the sunset. The dark water is quiet now. There are no waves tonight. The air is warmer than the night before and seems to be hanging limp instead of moving freely. I wonder how much hotter the summers will become in another fifty years. When I am an old man, will my children’s children still be able to work and play under the sun? Or will humanity have to hide away in the shade for most of the day as the sun slowly bakes the entire planet and evaporates the lakes, rivers, and oceans? Despite the warmth surrounding my sweat-covered body, I shiver at the thought of humanity’s dark future.
My leg muscles scream at me to stop walking and take a rest, but I can’t. I think past the pain, forgetting to eat. I don’t want to stop until I get there. A part of me wonders if I was seeing things when I saw the cityscape. That happens to men who wander too long alone. Flecks of white and black stars mar my vision; I utter a groan of regret for my stupid decision as I stumble and fall to the dewy grass. Exhausted, sleep overtakes me.
“Everyday feels like a race against time and a fight against exhaustion,” I mutter the next day.
It starts to feel like I’ll never make it to that damned city. Night falls again and I feel like I am trapped in the same dream where I can’t reach the destination I want to go to. The lake fades from my vision and I forget about my hunger as I focus on moving ahead. The stars in the sky seem to fall suddenly to the ground. I stop as my heart slams against my rib cage. The world is ending. The sky is falling. Then I realize the stars are actually hovering, fixed in place. I stumble over my own feet as the world spins. I collapse, looking up at the bright lights surrounding me.
“Oh my God,” I rasp, trying to catch my breath as I take in the view of impossibly tall buildings with bright lights.
Though I sometimes imagined what they might look like, it still stuns me to be surrounded by them. Nothing can prepare a wilderness man for what he’ll feel standing at the edge of a big city for the first time in his life. High-pitched, inhuman screams shatter the previously calm atmosphere. I place my hands over my ears as a moving contraption with a flashing red light races past. I shake my head in amazement at the man-made monster I just witnessed driving by. That must be the vehicle my grandparents told me about. It’s just like how my grandpa described it, but it isn’t supposed to exist anymore. None of this should be here, yet it is. I crane my neck to stare up at the sky scrapers now surrounding me.