Pierre’s feet hurt terribly. They had been walking for over 12 hours now.
- “Quick and quiet” his mother whispered regularly. “Hold my hand and don’t let it go no matter what. I don’t want you to leave my side.“
Her voice sounded harsh as she kept on accelerating her pace and tightening her grip around his hand. He was already 11 years old but he still felt very much like a child inside and his mother’s authoritative ways scared him a little.
They had left the whereabouts of Arlon early in the morning. His father had passed away a few days ago and his mother had decided that it was no longer safe for them to stay in the house. There was no more government. Belgium’s administration had collapsed just like the ones of all the other EU countries and mayhem had settled across the land.
The forest that surrounded their property used to be a quiet and peaceful place. It was now infested with strange animals that scratched at their windows and front door in the dead of night. One evening, as they were searching through their garden shed for some tools that might come in handy, they had seen three men breaking into the house of Mr Jansen, their neighbour. The place had already been ransacked several times during the last two months following Mr Jansen’s death at the beginning of the summer. The new intruders probably didn’t find much inside but they nevertheless tore down the place with such violence that it could be heard from a distance. As the night came down on the forest, the now familiar distorted animal cries rose from the trees around them, seemingly disturbed by the noise the men were making.
- “Don’t make a sound, let’s hurry back inside” his mother whispered.
They ran up the few meters of dry lawn that separated them from their front door when a frightened cry reached out from inside Mr Jansen’s plundered house. Without looking back, Pierre went straight inside and up to his bedroom. He bundled himself in a blanket and set camp by the window, holding a kitchen knife and keeping guard in case the beasts would come to get him too. But the night left place to a bright summer morning and nothing had shown up. As he was drowsing off in the morning light, his mother barged into his room, holding two very full backpacks.
- “Put on your walking shoes, were not staying here another night. Let’s go to Brussels, maybe we can find some help over there…“
Leaving the house and especially his father’s grave in the garden was hard. Many memories came to Pierre’s mind while they slowly walked out of their street. They passed in front of Mr Jansen’s house and saw that his front porch was now stained with long and dark streaks of what appeared to be blood.
Their car had only been able to take them until Namur. After that the motorway going to Brussels was in such a bad state that they had to continue on foot. It was a long and strenuous walk under a burning hot August sun. They walked into Brussels via the motorway entrance known as “Delta”. Pierre remembered this place from the many times they drove through it to go and visit his uncle Nick who lived in the area. How different it all looked now he thought. Cars were abandoned here and there and a bus lay on its side in the middle of the street, its yellow metal bodywork shinning in the evening sunset. Not a sound could be heard. His mother looked around.
- “We need to find a place for the night. Let’s go into the University Park that’s in front of us. We might find an abandoned class room or something…“
They walked towards the park but, before entering it, they first decided to check out the shop of the petrol station on their right. Everything had unfortunately been wiped clean except for a few coke cans that lay at the bottom of a broken fridge.
- “Put them in my bag, at least we’ll have some energy with the sugar…“
- “Mum can I finish my bottle of water?” Pierre asked as he picked up the cans.
- “Wait! Let me first see if the outside tap is working.” She dropped her bag to the floor and went out to check the small metal tap on the wall by the door. A few seconds later she was already back. “No, dried out too. Just take a few sips; we only have two bottles left.“
With the coke bottles in her bag and a few crushed chewing-gum packs in Pierre’s pockets, they went back outside and made their way until the entrance of the park within which the university was built. Once inside, they walked for a while in total silence until they reached an ugly greyish building that was all lit up on its last floor. From where they were standing behind a tree, they could see a group of people, probably a gang, laughing and speaking loud over some kind of noisy music. Through one of the windows, two men and a woman could be seen eating at a table. The front door opened abruptly and a man, appearing very drunk, stumbled out to relieve himself against the building’s wall. His left hand held a leash at the end of which a small and scared little ginger dog trembled. It looked like a fox.
It was obvious that he was bad news but what really scared Pierre was the feeling that something else was watching them from the trees.
- “Let’s get out of here mum…“
- “Yes…” she answered at once.
They retraced their steps back to the entrance of the park. As they hurried out, the same distorted animal cries they’d heard in their forest back home rose from all around them. As they reached the road, Pierre’s mother paused.
- “I’m sure most of the houses will be occupied by gangs. And we can’t stay in parks…it seems these night creatures are also in town.“
- “Maybe we could go back to the bus and hide in it for the night?“
- “With that gang so near? Out of the question, they’d find us and kill us in our sleep.“
- “We can’t stay out on the street all night, these…things…are going to get us” Pierre whined.
- “Keep quiet! Let me think.” …Pierre scowled at the hard tone of her voice.
From where they were standing they could hear the cries of one of these strange animals reaching up to them. In a distance a branch cracked, as if it was coming towards them, through the park.
- “Mum…I’m scared.“
- “Calm down. If I remember well, there is a cemetery around here.“
- “A cemetery? What do you want to do in a cemetery?“
- “We can go and hide over there for the night. There’s nothing to steal, only dead persons so there shouldn’t be any gangs visiting the place. We’ll be safer there than in a deserted house. And with all the tomb stones, there won’t be many trees to hide in…you know… for these creatures.“
- Pierre moaned: “Mum please don’t make me…“
- “Beggars can’t be choosers, come on. I think it’s on the left, over the bridge.“
Pierre followed her reluctantly. After a short 15 minutes’ walk, they finally reached the entrance gate of the cemetery. The city was now totally immersed into darkness and a cold moon had made its way into the night sky. Only the distant cries of the creatures broke the silence from time to time. As expected, the cemetery was deserted and had little vegetation in it. The place had a surrealistic feel to it with every tombstone bathed in the moon light. They found a mausoleum with a stone angel on top of it, its slender arms reaching out for the sky. Around it, long grey wings draped the monument’s roof, joining together over its entrance.
- “We’ll be safe here, follow me.“
She walked inside the vault, pulling Pierre’s hand as he resisted for a moment.
- “The alternative to this is much worse, believe me.” she said sharply.
A distant cry tore again the silence, pushing Pierre forward into the coolness and dampness of the stone room. He could barely make out his surroundings but thought to himself that it was better off like this. He preferred to wait for the sun to see what kind of skeletons lay in this closet.
They must have slept the whole night as when Pierre woke up, he felt very well rested. Near him his mother still slept soundlessly. Through the mausoleum’s entrance gate, the sky seemed to be still pitch dark. Curious, Pierre pushed the steel door open and took a few steps outside. The tombs still lay all around him in the moonlight but the animal cries were now stronger and reached out louder from outside the cemetery wall. He looked at his watch and his heart missed a beat. It was 11h45 in the morning. Either his watch had a problem, or …. He went back inside and woke up his mother.
- “Mum, mum what time do you have on your watch.“
- She answered in a drowsy voice as she sat up at once “I don’t know… I can’t read it in the dark. Here, take it outside.” she said as she strapped it off.
Pierre took it out and held it in the moonlight. It was the exact same time than on his.