Last Dance for Illea
Each crank of the key wound the dolls back to life as my feeble fingers ached against their stiff, grinding gears. First Isabella, my firstborn creation, followed by Tatara, her younger sister. Their synthetic skin, dry and cracking, rippled as their appendages sprung into movement, stiff at first and then breaking free from their metallic slumber they moved with more fluidity. Their soulless eyes stared forward as antiquated legs propelled them towards the war shattered window overlooking what was left of New Victoria. What once was my home had been their coffin until now.
Echoes of horrific screams filled my memory as I pulled away the brass goggles and gas mask from my face in an attempt to rid myself of another flashback. My lungs gasped for natural air, but found something more stale yet still breathable.
The Victorian Wars ceased decades ago leaving nothing but pain and death in their wake. We hid from the battles for years, burying ourselves in hellish voids below ground to wait out the fallout, but out of our holes humanity finally emerged. Docile and weak we feared breathing open air again. We were cautious optimists stepping out from under the oppression of monarchy and her airship strewn skies. The blanketing sky was empty now; still, it was hard putting the past where it belonged.
Coming out of the visions, which threatened my sanity, I heard music. My heart fluttered slightly as my ballerinas parlayed across the dusty floor, kicking up sediment with each arabesque. Isabella leapt, spun, and landed on her toes, aided by self-equalizing gyros and custom made flat-toed shoes. The whirring of motors propelling her mechanical body around the floor accompanied the music harmoniously. Her sister danced in the background, her movements not quite as graceful as I remembered.
“Dance for me my children,” I whispered.
Feeling in the moment, I spun around as the twinkling music emanated from their bodies and I was once again caught in youthful glee, long before the murmurings of war tore our great city to the ground and took everything from me.
I had thought and dreamed of this moment for so long; and here I was, practically too old to enjoy it and my heart ached for all I had lost. The thought was troubling and I cast down my gaze towards the filthy floor. These machinations were not built for my enjoyment, but for a daughter I could hardly remember anymore. I felt empty trying to grasp a glimpse a memory of her as I stood there, half-caught in misery and the other part of me desperately clinging to a life once housed behind these four walls.
In front of me two left legs kicked out, accompanied by a clanging of metal as my dancers clashed together. The grinding of worn out gears dissolved into a painful whirring sound and then the smell of heated brass.
Panicked, I rose to pull them apart, fearing that the damage was already done and I was too late. Elderly knees buckled under the pressure of my stride as I fell face down onto the hardwood floor, the wind stricken from my lungs. My faded bowler hat rolled like a disk before resting against the wall. My prone body wracked with embarrassment and the aches of failing joints was joined by my oldest ballerina and then her sister as the gears screeched to a stop and momentum no longer supported their bodies. Near-sighted eyes looked into the face of my creation and tears flooded into them, washing away dust and relinquishing regret.
It was in that brief moment of clarity my eyes found what I had really been searching for. On the marred wall, under yellowish light was a dusty picture of a father and daughter. I hardly recognized the father, but the girl reopened old wounds with her smile and the look of her innocence. She was my daughter, Illea, and I was the father who failed her.
Long ago, as airships dropped bombardments onto New Victoria, I was scrambling for an ounce of salvation that I didn’t deserve. I had no idea if she had survived, or if she could, and like a coward I left her anyway to pursue some kind of half-life crammed into a hole in the earth. Perhaps I should have stayed buried, I thought to myself.
An exhale escaped my lips; followed by a sharp pain in my chest which branched out through my left arm. Through a wince I dared to chuckle as I knew the end was coming and finally I could put the past behind me.
I rolled over onto my back in search of relief as my soul prepared to leave this shell of humanity. It was painful silence, but I welcomed it. And then I heard footsteps; softly padded footsteps at a place where I thought I was alone.
Each step drew nearer and then they stopped. My sight, blurred through tears, struggled to look up and I saw a woman’s face. My eyes scanned her, recognizing nothing, but I noticed she was holding something.
“I recognize this hat,” she said softly, jostling it between her fingers, smoothing the half-worn felt between her delicate fingertips. “Tell me, sir, what is your name?”
“Nelium,” I gasped. It was harder to speak than I had anticipated.
Puzzled, she looked down at me, first with pity and then realization. “My father’s name was Nelium, I think. But I can’t really remember.” Her voice was tinged with sadness. If anything I deserved to hear that despair before my heart stopped beating as a reminder of what cowardice leaves behind.
“Illea,” I said, my eyes meeting hers with recognition. There was a pause as I exhaled. I could see a tear streak down her cheek, washing away soot from wherever she had been all this time. We said nothing else, just looking at one another until I drew my last breath and I was consumed by a blanket of darkness.
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