It was stupid thinking it wouldn’t end like this. What good did nukes do anyway? Kept the peace. That’s just the lie we told ourselves to justify them. It didn’t matter in the end. One of Russia’s went off and, of course, the first thing they did was accuse America of attacking. It hit the news the same day. Everyone panicked. What did you expect; no one trusted Russia. Anyway, they were right to panic. Russia fired at us, hit New York and killed millions in the blink of an eye. It only escalated from there. I know we fired back and hit Moscow. It wasn’t something people wanted, but what choice did we have at that point? The stores were chaos; people were fighting each other for a single can of old beans. Customers were trampling employees to get to the back of the store where all the food was stored. Even the old and damaged products were gone by the time I got there. No one ever thinks about the simple things when the end of the world happens. They only think about the essentials, never what they’re going to do once they have them. They don’t plan for what happens next and inevitably that’s their downfall. I didn’t want any of that though. The store was essentially empty by the time I got there. All I could find was this journal, a few packs of thirty-six pencils and a hand-held pencil sharpener.
After that, I left for my parent’s house. I didn’t want to be alone in all this, but that doesn’t matter anymore. I desperately want the world to go back to what it was like before, but that can’t happen, we can’t go back in time. So, now it’s just about what you need. Wants have no place in this world anymore, yet I can’t seem to escape them. I want to see my dad again, but that’s not very plausible anymore. I used to make fun of my dad. You know, the way most people do. My mom and I would tease him about spending such ludicrous amounts of money on a bomb shelter we’d never need to use. I don’t tease him anymore. Not that I could anyway. When we heard there was another nuke headed for Chicago dad shoved me down here and told me to wait for him to come back with my mom. I stayed by the door for hours that day, curled up in a ball as salty tears made their way down my cheeks, just waiting for it to open again.
That was last year. At least I think it was last year. There isn’t any light down here, and by down here, of course, I mean the bomb shelter my dad made. My dad was always overly preparing for things; he’d have two full containers of gas in his car just for a short trip to the store in case he ran out. It’s that kind of thinking that’s kept me alive for this long. It’s why I have food down here. Being prepared is why I’m alive instead of starving to death above ground. I think of my dad every time I eat some of the packaged goods that are with me, or at least I did. I looked for something to eat last night and for the first time I came up empty. That’s why I decided to use my last few journal pages to write this so, even if I don’t return from whatever’s out there, someone could find this and know what happened to the world and not repeat our mistakes. I’ll leave you with something you should strive to live by if you have something or someone you love. Never take it for granted, because you never know how long it will last.
I close my journal, gently running my fingers down its aged cover, and set it on my worn oak desk placing the worn stub of a pencil I have left next to it. I sigh as I massage my cramping hand, this always happens when I write. I’m always serious when I write now, and no matter what, I end up pushing down on the pencil too hard by the time I’m done.
“I need to focus on the task at hand,” I think to myself dropping my hand back to my side. Looking down at my desk, the scratches from when I didn’t use a mouse pad, still as evident as they were when I made them, jump out at me. Reminding me of what life was and I curse myself for taking that for granted. Long brown hair falls into my eyes as my hair tie comes out, bringing me back into reality. I gently push back my aged chair, running my fingers along its smoothed surface, with muffled scraping and bend down to pick it up. It’s old and barely still in one piece. I’m surprised it still holds my hair at all. Arching my back and gathering my waist length hair into one hand, I pull it back; my long jagged nails catching a few hairs. As I straighten up, I catch a glimpse of the neon yellow hazmat suit that still hangs untouched in the corner. I can still remember the day Dad bought it.
“Why did you even buy that?” I laugh.
“You never know. . . one day we might need it and you’ll be sorry then,” He scolded putting it on a hook.
“But it doesn’t even have a mask!”
“Not everyone is perfect, are they? I’ll get one then,” He shrugs at me with a smile.
The memory fades away and I find myself standing in front of the suit. He never did buy that mask. It’s just useless, loud material now. I never learned what hazmat suits were made of. It didn’t seem important at the time or really anytime. I find my gaze wandering around the room until it finally lands on the ladder in the corner. The ladder that leads up, out, and into something I’m not capable of handling now, or maybe even ever. That fact alone is enough to make my chest tighten in fear, loathing, and despair. I’m afraid of what’s up there. I want to open that large steel door and have everything be like it always was. I want all of this to be some silly dream where when I wake up my parents are waiting downstairs with breakfast ready even though I’m an adult. I hate myself for being too scared to leave, but more than anything, I’m afraid of tainting the memories I have. I want to be able to look back and still see everything as it was, not whatever wasteland is awaiting me up there. Just thinking about what could be outside makes me nervous these days. My shelter is what I’ve come to think of as a home. It is only about the size of an average classroom, although you wouldn’t know that with the amount of cardboard boxes I have sitting around. Most would think after a while this kind of living would become suffocating, but this little hole in the ground has become a safe haven for me. I take a step towards the ladder, careful not to fall over the discarded boxes of the various foods that had been keeping me alive this past year, almost losing my balance in the process. Another few steps and I am standing next to my mattress. I stand there for a minute hesitating in my next move. Debating just laying down until this all goes away or getting up and taking charge of my life. Lost in thought, I glance down and notice my bra crumpled on the pillow with my jeans tossed to the side. I quickly look down at my clothes realizing I’m still in my makeshift pajamas. I hastily pull off my maroon T-shirt and put on my bra. The underwire is starting to poke through the fabric a bit, but I have more important issues that demand my attention. I look around for a minute or two before I actually find my socks and worn sneakers. My socks and shoes somehow managed to get under a small pile of boxes, how I may never know. Putting on my old grey shoes is another matter in itself, but with another minute of concentration, I’m ready to go and I turn back towards the ladder.
“This was bound to happen anyway,” I try telling myself, “one day I’d have to leave. There is no forever.” My breathing becomes more rapid with every step I take in the direction of the ladder. By the time I get to it my chest feels as though an anvil was dropped on it from the roof of a three-story building. I slowly raise my shaking hand towards the ladder, trying to control my panicked breathing to no avail. The shining steel is ice cold to the touch, the shocking temperature making me gasp bringing me back to my senses.
“I need food and there’s some up there.” I harden my resolve and carefully climb the ladder up to the steel door that has sealed me down here for the past year. The ladder stopped at a small landing leading to the heavy door that’s kept me safe for this long, I can’t help but hesitate as I stare at this door, it looming menacingly over me.
“There’s no going back,” I say grabbing the icy handle of the door and pulling. For a second the door doesn’t budge, then in an instant I’m blinded. Hot dry air whips into the bunker pushing the heavy door into me and knocking me over. I hit the ground with a grunt. This is too much at once; dirt is getting everywhere in my hair, my eyes and my mouth, it’s so bright that I can’t even begin to open my eyes to see what light is causing orange to dance behind my lids. Without thinking I lash out, kicking at the door hoping to accomplish something. My flailing has the effect I was hoping for. I manage to kick the door and it slams shut. Coughing, I stand. Dusting off my clothes I wince as my hand runs over a bruise that’s already started forming on my arm. Now cleaner, at least I think so, I brace myself against the door. The cold of the steel chilling me as I steady my grip and slowly turn the handle and open it just a crack. Again I’m blinded by the light and snap my eyes shut almost immediately. At least this time I was able to keep the door still. Hot dry air is still coming through the door but much less forcefully this time. The wind must have died down, at least a bit.
I decide to risk getting blinded again and I open my eyes just a sliver. I’m greeted by blinding sunlight and it’s a struggle to keep my eyes open, even with the small amount they are. After what feels like ten minutes my eyes adjust to the light, so I figure opening them completely isn’t such a bad idea. A horrible sight that takes my breath away greets me.
My house is a burned heap on the ground. Singed planks of wood stick towards the sky in random places. There’s loose dirt everywhere, the dry kind of dirt that crunches underfoot and cuts you if it’s moving fast enough. As I look at my house in horror a memory comes to the forefront of my thoughts.
“Just sit still please this won’t take long.”
“You can’t make me you’re not my mom!”
“Yes I am so sit still so we can take the picture.”
“Why do you always have to be right?”
“Because that’s my job. Now smile.”
Pictures. Those little scraps of paper that hold so many memories in a single image. There could be one left, even if these sorts of things only happen in the movies it’s worth a try. I launch myself towards the house leaving the bunker behind, frantically searching for something I can salvage from the wreckage. I fall hard on my knees as I reach the singed wood that was my house and start lifting and moving boards out of my way.
“There has to be something left.” I pant as I quicken my pace, throwing planks of soot covered wood out of the way. I freeze when I see the edge of a frame.
“Don’t let this be fake please,” I think to myself as I cautiously lift the burnt planks away from the frame until I can see the whole of it. The glass is broken and the picture is singed in that cliché movie kind of way but I can’t help but smile at it. It’s my mom, dad and I, at a theme park when I was little. We’re standing in front of the castle with those little sun hats on, smiling like idiots. I don’t remember that trip very well but it’s nice just to have a picture of them. I pick up the frame and pull the picture out, careful not to cut my hand on the small shards of glass. Dropping the frame beside me I take a minute to memorize the picture. I took them for granted once, and now, knowing I won’t always have this, I need to take this time to remember it. After I’m satisfied, I fold the picture in two and tuck it safely away in my jeans pocket. Looking back at the heap of my home I gasp in surprise
“A... hand?” I stutter, unable to look away.
“Why would there be a hand?” I ask myself. The hand is reaching out as if its owner was yearning for something before they died. The skin is pale and torn, maggots wriggle in an unidentifiable wound. The fingers are long, almost skeletal now after decomposing for this long. I can’t help but feel like I’m missing something, like there’s a piece of the puzzle I’m missing. There’s a wedding ring... on the hand... it looks familiar. It clicks and I start ripping the broken planks of wood from the dilapidated husk that was my house. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to be a family. Sitting together at meals and watching TV and complaining about the stupid things people watch nowadays. I’m not supposed to be alone in this. I’m supposed to have a family.
“I’m supposed to have... my family,” I cry, tears freely falling from my eyes and blurring my vision. I fall to my knees, unable to keep my composure any longer. The smell is the worst part. I didn’t notice it at first, all I could smell was dirt and burned wood. But now that I can see her, the pungent smell of decaying flesh is assaulting my nostrils. I can’t just leave her ring, it was the most important ring she had. I force myself to touch her hand, quickly pulling at her ring before any maggots have time to touch me. It doesn’t come off at first and I pull harder as my gaze stays locked on the maggots that wriggle in the wound. Thankfully the ring comes loose and I quickly put it on, needing to distance myself. I look down at my knees unable to look at her for another second. It takes a minute for me to notice the drops of blood on the ground next to me, and the slow descent they’re making down my hand.
“Ah,” I say numbly as tears continue to fall from my eyes silently. The blood is a deep red that forms mesmerizing paths as it makes its way down my hand. At times it almost looks as if fire is dancing across my skin. I can’t take this. This shouldn’t have happened. This is all just a nightmare. I’ll wake up any second now. I have to. I lay on my side cradling my injured hand to my chest looking away from her before I close my eyes waiting to wake up.
I don’t know how long I was asleep, but the sun is still overhead. My hopes are crushed when I breathe in and smell the disgustingly familiar smell of decaying flesh. It takes all of my willpower to keep from sobbing. After a bit, I know that I can’t just sit here with my eyes closed forever so, if anything, I can at least open my eyes. I see the door of my bunker still ajar. It’s nothing new, that is, until I see a figure approaching the door. I freeze my eyes transfixed on the figure. I’m unable to even breathe, because even though I’ve been alone for all this time, I’m scared of what others will do. I watch as the figure disappears into my home, intruding into the only thing that makes me feel safe anymore. My mind is racing. Do I get up and run or do I stay here in hopes of staying unnoticed? Many options run through my head, but most are the type that only work in the movies. Before I can even begin to form a plan, the figure emerges from my home and looks in my direction. I do the only thing I can think of and squeeze my eyes shut. My breathing quickens as I realize the footsteps are getting closer. My heart beating faster with every crunch of dirt as the figure continues towards me. Soon there’s a shadow blocking the light from my eyes, and a soft breathing to be heard. It sounds muffled, like when you wear a mask. I hear the dirt shifting in front of me and something grabs my hand. The fear is the only thing driving me as I play dead letting this person poke and prod at my bleeding hand.
“Hmm... still bleeding,” I hear them mumble as they drop my hand. It falls to the ground with a thud and it’s difficult not to wince at the impact. Suddenly, I feel their hand on my neck and I can’t keep this up, I launch myself backwards hitting my back on a jagged piece of wood and opening my eyes. I stare with fear at the figure in front of me.
“Whoa,” they say surprised. All I can do is stare at them, my frame shaking. I was right about the mask. It’s a black gas mask that obscures their face. It’s accompanied by a grey hoodie and pants made out of some thick material I don’t recognize.
“You cut your hand there,” they say pointing, dragging me away from my thoughts. “You’ve lost a bit of blood,” they finish. I look down and see that, unlike I’d hoped, my hand hasn’t stopped bleeding. There’s a small pool of blood where I was laying and a sizable stain on my maroon shirt. I jump when I hear rustling in front of me and look up.
“Here. To stop the bleeding. It’s the only help you’re going to get from me,” they gruffly hold out a bandana and I eye it suspiciously.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” they sigh grabbing my hand and roughly wrapping it with the bandana.
“You should get some antibiotics to make sure it doesn’t get infected. Other then that you’re on your own,” they say standing up and brushing off their clothes.
“W..wait!” I stutter finally finding my voice again. They turn at my request and it takes me a second before I can speak again.
“At..at least tell me your name,” I demand meekly. They stand there for a minute debating whether to answer or not, expression obscured, before finally deciding to speak.
“Mia,” she answers walking back the way she came not bothering to look back in my direction. I stare at her as she walks. She has a grey backpack bulging with what I can only assume are supplies. There’s a small grey object sticking out of the top that threatens to fall out with every step she takes. I can’t help but stare as she gets farther and farther away. It’s not like I have anything better to do. Just as I’m about to look away I see something move in the corner of my eye. I can’t be sure but I think something fell out of her bag. Might as well check it out.
I still pictured everything as it was, the green of the grass and neighbors sitting on their porch just enjoying the sun. Now the grass is brown, covered by the crisp dirt and the neighbors are nowhere to be seen. Their chairs kicked over and broken. The sun is no longer enjoyable, it’s rays boil and bake anything they can touch. The houses are empty, or mostly empty anyway. My mind wanders as I walk, thinking of the fates these people met. I shiver at that thought and choose to direct my attention to where I’m going. The street slopes downward and it takes a bit of concentration to stay upright as I go down. There at the bottom is indeed the small grey object from Mia’s bag. Now seeing it as a whole it’s easy to identify. A sleeping bag folded neatly and tied tightly with rope. It’s more black than grey now that I can see it clearly; but it’s littered with holes suggesting it’ll be missed. Before my mind can process what’s happened, my hands are grabbing the bag and my feet are moving in the direction I last saw Mia.