By AJ Brown
"How curious," Camel said as he stared at the painting, an oil work of reds, yellows, blacks and browns, a city in flames, odd shaped stick figures jumping from abstract rooftops. It was the last picture he had ever painted. He lifted it from the hook on the wall, stared closely at an image he didn't recall putting there. With his pinky, he touched it, drew away a light gray circle on his tip.
Camel's heart sped up, his breathing became labored and he stumbled backward, his legs buckling at the edge of the couch. He plopped down, his eyes never leaving the gray stick figure.
"I must go," he whispered.
Camel's head jerked toward the doorway. The boy stood there, his spine bent, one arm sat at a crooked angle. Brilliant green eyes stared from beneath a mop of black hair.
"Ward?" Breathless, his chest hurting, Camel reached out to him. Ward faded, his words still hanging in the air
"To where I lost my art," Camel said and stood.
The car sputtered and spat, threatened to shut off, then leveled out, the engine humming. Camel gripped the wheel tight, sweat beading along his forehead.
"Are we there yet?"
Ward sat in the backseat, his crippled legs folded beneath him, staring at the canvas. He touched the wet stick figure, the smudge fading, replaced by a crooked line and a green dot in the circle that was the head.
"Not yet," Camel said. Ward glanced up, disappeared.
He never thought he would return home, to a place of destruction, to the place where Ward died. Sitting outside the city ruins, he hesitated, thought of turning back, fleeing just as he did those many years before.
"Are we there yet?"
The back seat held only the canvas and Camel's paint box, but Ward's voice was heavy in the air, urgent, almost pleading. "Shortly, son."
Camel eased along crumbling blacktops, going around charred vehicles, trying not to run over the bones of the dead. The buildings were husks. Shattered store fronts appeared as gaping maws and blackened, eyeless sockets. Camel's skin crawled with chills. He pulled along a curb, the front tire bumping it, jolting the car. In the rearview, Ward was there again, lurching forward with the car, fading before his head could hit the back of the seat.
The air was thick with ash. It stole Camel's breath as he got out the car and grabbed the canvas and his paint box. The Seth building stood tall above him, some of the windows still in place, the once gray exterior charred black in places. A rat scurried from an alley, turned and went back into the shadows.
"Are we there yet?" Ward stood beside him, his pale skin bruised, a bone jutting from beneath his shirt, possibly a rib.
Camel opened a side door, stepped inside. The stairwell was stuffy. Heat filled Camel's lungs.
"How high is it?"
"Eighteen floors," Camel said and started up the steps.
"Such a long way."
The stairwell was dark and dry. Soot and ash clung to the steps and hugged the walls. Camel used the grime covered railing to help himself along. He stopped five flights up, his heart pounding, a stitch in his side. His breaths came in labored gasps. By the eleventh floor, Camel could hardly breathe. Dust caked his lips and nostrils, stung his eyes. He coughed hard, relieving the itch in his throat for only a second before it started up again.
By the time he reached the landing on eighteen his legs were weak and shaking, the cough constant and his vision blurred. He opened the door and fell onto the roof, his cough like a donkey’s bray. Cool air wrapped around him, filled his lungs. Camel lay still for several minutes until the coughing subsided. His eyes still stung but he sat up.
Ward sat on his haunches, staring at the canvas. His hand traced the stick figures, stopped on one. Ward stood, hobbled a few feet and turned to Camel. "Are we there?"
"Yes," Camel said, out of breath. "This is where I lost my art."
Camel pushed himself to his feet, grabbed the paint box.
"This is me," Ward said and touched a small gray figure. He traced a long rectangle, its edges crooked like the boy's spine. "This is where we stand."
Camel said nothing, picked up the painting and staggered to the edge of the building. He glanced down and saw it all over again: the world burning, people jumping, the boy in his arms, his body a twisted wreck of deformed bones and useless muscles. Tears spilled down Camel's face, cutting wet lines through black ash.
Camel set the canvas on the rooftop, opened the paint box. He squeezed a glob of black onto the image, brushed over the gray image with its one green speck where the head was, covering the bent-spined stick figure.
"Why, Father?" Ward asked.
Camel's hands shook, his heart fell into his stomach as a lump formed in his throat. "I had to, son," he said. "You would have never survived this world. And if you would have--"
Camel looked at Ward, his broken son, those brilliant green eyes, then back down to the canvas. The gray figure had bled through the black, its green eye brighter than before.
"Would you do it again?"
"No," Camel said, shook his head. "No, I wouldn't."
Ward turned, stepped off the roof.
Camel screamed and lunged. Tears blurred his vision and he stood, his aching body longing for relief. His shoulders sagged. Thunder rumbled off in the distance. A storm was coming.
He shook his head, a sob hitching in his chest. "I can't."
The stick figure faded from the canvas. Camel picked it up, stared at his last painting and flung it over the edge. Broken hearted, head down, Camel walked back to the stairwell door, his art forever lost…