We all lined up single file in two lines beside each other on the harbor dock. There was about forty of us. We were the chosen ones. Before we lined up at the dock, we were herded in by guards, there were so many of us dying inside to make the cut. As the guards counted forty heads, they shut an iron gate between the fortunate forty of us, and what was left of the half destroyed world. Hundreds of people stood behind the gate; watching. The guards told us not to look back, not to look them in the eye. But I did. Between the rusted iron rods that separated death from life, I saw a little girl. She was in her mother arms, her mother was staring off into the distance weeping, lost in thought, but the little girl was not lost at all, she stared directly at me. She stared so deep with her shaggy brown bangs half covering her iceberg eyes. I knew what she was thinking. She thought ‘why?’
‘Why had I made it to the other side of the dock and she had not?’ The little girl pleaded with life’s hunger to me, with her eyes, asking me to trade my life for hers. You could tell she had been wearing the same clothes for months, her big toes poked out of her shoes, dangling about while her mother held her; she looked about six. I wanted to trade places with her, but I’m a coward. The truth is, I am just as afraid as she is. I have seen things just as she has seen. I have ran, fought, and almost died to get here. Who are we to decide who gets to live or die? Is it by destiny or sacrifice? Either way, by living, by being on the other side of the dock, I knew I killed her. I killed that little girl. She knew it too, that is why she couldn’t take her eyes off me, nor could I take mine off hers–we both knew what we were doing. The guards told us to line up one by one at the edge of the dock to board the zodiacs that would take us to the ship. It was too dangerous for the ship to dock in the city’s harbor, so they had anchored it way out to sea past the breakers, we would leave in groups.
As the crowd started to push against me and everyone began wiggling their way into the lines as they were told, I took one last look at her and stared at death. It was beautiful and nauseating, I wanted to throw up. But what could I do? I was chosen and she was not. I was on the dock and she just happened to end up on the wrong side of the iron gate. It wasn’t my fault. Any one of these people could have offered to trade places with the girl, but the thought never occurred to them, they were so happy and anxious to escape. I guess the thought had only occurred to me. I guess I was the one that was supposed to save her. And I failed.
As we were grouped onto the large zodiacs that were to transport us to salvation, I stepped onto the wet seat of the boat and took in the salty air, it was misting out. The air stung my nose; I sat down. The engine revved and I promised myself, among these strangers, that I would not look back. I broke that promise about 100 yards out. The city grew smaller behind me and when I looked back the girl and her mother were gone, along with the rest of the hundreds of people behind that iron gate. All that was left in their place was fire and smoke with large plumes of blue and orange rising toward the sky. The guards had bombed them. We were too far away from the harbor now to hear their screams but I heard one. Hers. I lived and she died. I started crying and all the others around me wondered why. Because they knew, and secretly I knew, that death by fire bomb was probably the most humane way to go in these dire times. Thousands of people who had perished due to the event would have wished death by fire every time over the alternatives.
A moment later, cold winter seawater splashed the side of my face, it was so cold it felt like tiny knife cuts. I wiped my face off with the sleeve of my sweatshirt and looked ahead. In the distance I could see the ship. I was the happiest and the saddest I have ever been in my life. Before boarding the ship I made a promise to myself. I would fight to live. I had to. I needed to make sure that little girl didn’t die for nothing. Boarding the ship was the first step of that journey. I inhaled deeply, trying to set my mind clear, I stared at the water underneath us. We were going through a kelp bed but all I could see were her eyes in the water.