Maddy could write in the very heart of hell.
The walls around her trembled, shaking the plaster loose, bricks and mortar cascading about her hunched body, sat squat in the corner of the room, three stories up with nothing to protect her but the notepad and pen she held upon her knees. She scribbled furiously, her mind racing with fear, but focused on the job at hand; telling the story. Whatever happened, these events needed to be shared with the world and she was the only one who could do it. She knew this, not because of any false sense of nobility or fate, but because she was the only one stupid enough, the only one experienced enough to get into the war zone and pull back the curtain. She considered herself to be the last of a dying breed; an expeditionary of truth in a youtube world of rumour and speculation. Madeline knew that people needed to speak the truth, even when others didn’t want to listen.
In the opposite corner lay Harrigan, hands over his head, squirming on the floor his throat emitting an irrepressible yelp every time one of the shells exploded. Harrigan was a photographer, terrified half to death and the most devoted friend Madeline had ever known. He had not wanted to head to ground zero, but Madeline had given him that look of hers and, as usual, he folded instantly. They had met eight years previous on a drunken night in Thailand during the coup, had left with matching hangovers and didn’t meet again until five years later propping up the bar at the Dubai International Airport. Harrigan had just finished an assignment; Madeline was getting drunk and from then on they had chased the truth into the darkest corners of the world.
Still, Maddy had to admit that when she gave Harrigan the look that time, she herself had a sick feeling in her stomach. Syria had always been reporting on the edge of a razor blade, but since the reports had begun flying about regarding soldiers shooting press, the world’s media had turned its gaze away. Madeline saw a gap, as always and took it, convincing one of the young Free Syria troops to smuggle her into the war zone through a series of tunnels and pipes, each more bloodied and harrowing than the last, the whole time her heart beating louder in her ears than it ever had before. Harrigan had followed her the whole way, her constant questioning of his certainty in committing to such a reckless act met with his usual reply of “you bring the story to the literate, I bring it to the rest.”
Still, as much as she was wishing that he had turned back, she was glad Harrigan was there, squirming, squealing and useless as he was.
“Um, Harrigan?” Maddy yelled over the explosions and gunfire from the street below, her eyes never leaving the page; her pen never stopping it’s wild scribbling. “I don’t think anybody’s going to buy photos of the floorboards, even if they are Syrian.”
“I… I think I’ve shat myself.” Harrigan squealed back, “Perhaps you could write about that… you bitch!”
Madeline laughed to herself, a loud, raucous laugh broken by years of cigarettes, drink and adrenaline.
“Ah, it’s just like Kunduz all over again.” She bellowed, her mind racing, her heart beating, pushing her pen on as a secret, hidden part of herself denied the fear that coursed through her every cell as she waited for the inevitable to come.
In the rooms all around them, civilians huddled under any stray furniture that remained or crawled beneath the rubble that remained from the removal of the top four stories of the building a few hours earlier. Those unable to find a shelter held in close to loved ones, strangers, anything that might brace them from the onslaught about them. As the bombing approached its second hour, Madeline realized she had found herself within an extermination, not a measured military attack, the government forces seeking to eradicate the area from the map. She threw her notepad into her embarrassingly expensive bag and pulled herself to her feet.
“Come on, Harrigan.” She yelled in a clipped tone, looking from the corner of the window to the world outside, “Time to go.”
“Bar’s open?” Harrigan asked, grabbing his gear and crawling toward the centre of the room.
“Bar’s open.” Maddy replied, breathlessly, overwhelmed and terrified by the destruction she witnessed outside.
She fell back onto her knees and crawled frantically alongside Harrigan, out of the room and into the hallway beyond. At the end the stairs that led down to the lower floors still stood firm and if they could get to the back alley behind the building, Maddy and Harrigan could follow its labyrinth alleyways to the rendezvous point and radio for pick up. All they had to do was reach the stairs through the dust clouds and fallen beams from above. Bodies littered the floor, their bloodied forms encased in dust, preserving their still or horrified expressions, their twisted dead bodies almost on display, caked as they were in fine sheaths of white, surreal and brutal in their beauty.
Then there were the screams.
A part of life over the past few weeks of occupation, Madeline was startled to hear such noise emanating from down the hall behind them. Instinct propelling her, she began to crawl back toward the doorway, the room beyond holding the cause of such terrifying sound.
“What the f#@k are you doing, Maddy?” Harrigan screamed, “We’re playing cards with death, here?!”
Madeline was deaf to his pleas now. She had heard a myriad of terror in her time reporting, but never anything like this. The screams coming from the doorway ahead were filled with something else; pure terror; absolute and complete horror and the journalist in her; the seeker of truth had to know what could cause such a thing.
Had she known how far into hell the truth would take her, she perhaps would have reconsidered.