I woke up to a bright new world.
I was alone in some kind of a den. I tried to lift my head, but quickly gave up. The pressure emitting from the back of my neck was crippling. I could feel my body quiver every time I attempted to sit up. After the fifth attempt, I collapsed panting. My lungs struggled to pump air into my body causing the air escaping my lips to sound like a rasp or as if I was wheezing. It would take several days before my lungs managed to pump the remaining liquid I had swallowed out and away from the alveoli sacs. Until then, I’d just have to deal with the random gasping spells and dizziness. I lied there examining my surroundings. It was about all I could manage for the moment. Roxx was nowhere to be seen.All alone in an alien world.
My left hand was bandaged around the wrist, and looking down, my ankle was wrapped in a stint. I was wearing a new shirt, but my pants were the same. Although my head was still aching, I had to admit I did feel better.
I shifted to the side, taking my time not to move too quickly. I was, in fact, in some kind of a circular inlet. Three different tunnel entrances morphed into this one inlet. From my sideways vantage point, I’d estimate the room to be about twenty feet in diameter with a long curved ceiling no less than fifteen feet high. Smack dab in the middle hung a twenty-prong chandelier with half of its prongs missing or bent. The candles nestled in the grooves illuminated the room with their soothing warm light. The rustic chandelier was tied off to the side, a coil of rope knotted in one of the ceiling loops and tied off to the corner of the wall nearby. All ten dancing figurines were the most beautiful things I have seen since my second birth. The way their light reflected along the golden beams of the chandelier, crisscrossed through time and space along the ceiling and walls. Even the stalagmites were magnificent in this otherworldly realm reaching their hands toward the ceiling in a last attempt to rise. Hundreds of candles added their light to the symphony sweeping up my mysterious enclosure in an array of sparkling white bliss. Other than the beauty in the light, there wasn’t much else in terms of materialistic things except for another cot, a few dilapidated looking stools that looked as though they were on their last life, and some books. And several large cylinder barrels lined against the walls stacked three high. If I had to guess, I’d say there were at least fifty of them. They looked as though they continued out into one of the far tunnels and disappeared from view in the shadows beyond. They all had a radioactive symbol etched in the center in bright red and yellow.Hmm. That can’t be good.
I had this eerie feeling as though I was intruding onto someone else’s pad. There were evident signs of a human’s presence. The way the stools were positioned, the cot in the corner that still had a blanket lain across it, the one I was currently succumbed to, the barrels, the books, and THE candles. Whoever it was, they definitely had a thing for candles. But from the looks of things, that person was long gone by now. Spider webs crisscrossed all along the walls, the ceiling, and along every smooth, rugged, round, or flat surface in the vicinity. If there was one living creature that could survive a nuclear fallout, it was the creepy crawlers.I firmly believe that insects are basically immune to death. I mean, how else could cockroaches manifest into existence from the pit of a radiation pool? It boggles my mind!
Maybe if I ever won the Stack Lottery and was lifted up into Proc 1, I’d find out. I’d do the research and pick the minds of the brilliant onboard then I’d have my answer. I’d invariably unlock the mystery of the universe, and in the process, stumble upon the cure for mortality--all through cockroaches. You see, it is my firm belief that cockroaches are descendants from a greater being. Sent here on earth to watch over us.And stop our hearts in the process every time one flies across our face or crawls along the floor. I’ve only heard stories of these invincible beings, but I’ve never actually seen one.They’re the only immortal creatures on the planet that I know of.You’re not buying it? Maybe that’s a bit over the top.
With how shaggy and frayed the cobwebs were, I’d say the spiders hightailed it out of here too years ago. Maybe we weren’t the only ones the nukes and solar radiation killed off. I guess everyone was fighting to survive.
I’m not sure when it happened but I dozed off. When I awoke, only a few candles were still lit. The rest had burned through the wick. Fearing being left stranded in the dark, I had to do something. I shimmied my body to the edge of the cot with my legs hanging over. The plan was to swing my legs down while pushing myself up with my good arm. If I timed it right, I’d use my momentum to lift me to a sitting position without exhausting too much energy. And then, well I didn’t know what I’d do then, but I’d figure it out.One step at a time.
The knot in my head throbbed with every movement but I gritted my teeth and pushed through. I managed to position my side on the edge and readied my legs for the maneuver. I gave myself a three second countdown for initiation.And a chance to work up the courage to inflict sever traumatic pain onto my body. I must be insane.
I threw my legs down and pushed up as hard as I could with my spare arm. Just as I had planned my body went rocking up nicely. What I hadn’t accounted for was stopping my momentum. My body kept on going with no way to stop my rotation. Down I went with a loud painful plop right off the cot and smack dab on my face.
There are no words for the pain I felt in that moment. I’m pretty sure an array of expletives spewed from my squished lips and the dirt floor they were firmly connected with and echoed down the tunnels. I felt my heart lurch suddenly.
“What are you doing on the ground?”
Somewhere in all this silly madness, Roxx had returned. I couldn’t help but wonder how long he had been watching my escapade. He probably stood in the shadows of one of the tunnels holding his laughter in. I must have looked like a flailing fish out of water.I promise I’m not always this pathetic.
“Uh, you know. Just lying around,” I said through pinched lips.
“Interesting choice of surface,” he said. “How’s it taste?”
I rolled over onto my back and glared up at him.
“Kind of dirty,” I said, spitting out the remaining evidence of my failed acrobatic trick.
“That’s because it’sdirt," he said, and started laughing.
“It’s not funny!” I yelled, trying myself not to laugh. It hurt to smile, but I couldn’t help it. My situation was pretty funny you had to admit.
“It’s a little bit funny,” he said. “If you could see yourself right now, you’d be thinking the same thing.”
I propped myself up on my good elbow and reached out my arm.
He reached down and took hold of my forearm and gave a good yank.
“Easy!” I chided.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot. You’re extra fragile.”
I glared at him.
“I’m not fragile, just hurt. There’s a difference,” I said.
His left eyebrow rose.
“Is there?” He made a humming sound like sayinghmmm. “I didn’t know there were different kinds of pathetic.”
I punched him in the arm for that one.
He laughed again.
“Alright, alright. I’m sorry. You’re not pathetic, either.”
“And don’t you forget it,” I added.
“Maybe just delicate?” he questioned. “Yeah, delicate like a flower.” He waved his fingers in the air as if painting the picture.
He got another wave of punches for that, too.
It was good to see him smiling again. The seriousness the last several hours since the Pavers showed up were suffocating. I had never seen Roxx so distraught or fidgety. It made me nervous.
“Think you can walk on your own?” he asked.
“You’re kidding, right?”
He raised his arms in self-defense.
“I’m just making sure. Don’t want to get punched again.” He rubbed his arm for added effect. “It hurts you know.”
“Shut up, and just give me a hand, why don’t you!”
“Yes, your highness.” Now he was just doing it on purpose.
He looped my arm around his neck, supporting most of my weight, as I waddled over to one of the stools.You know, the ones I said looked like they’d crack and split at any moment. Yeah, one of those.
As I slowly eased my weight onto the stool, I fully expected it to shatter, but it didn’t. Minus a few squeaks, it held firm.
It felt good to sit and I let out a sigh.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, walking away and back into one of the side corridors that led out of the center room.
“Famished,” I said. “Who would have thought drowning would make you so hungry.”
“Well, it’s been a day since the fall. You haven’t eaten or drank anything since. Your body is probably in withdrawal right now.”
He came back with a brown sac. He grabbed one of the other stools, plopped it next to me, and sat down. He ruffled his hands through the sac.
“In the mood for anything in particular?” he asked.
Well, let’s think. What was there to eat these days? Hmm...well we got Meal, Ready-to-Eat packs (MREs). Packages of high protein and calorie food that the military used to use for its soldiers deployed in remote areas. The Pavers brought a shipment every few weeks with more. As we speak, there’s a large stockpile of them in the infirmary just rotting away because everyone was tired of eating dehydrated, processed, and bland food. At first they were good. But no amount of hunger could ever make MREs look appealing again. I was all MRE’ed out.
“I don’t care,” I said, too tired to really bother with thinking.
“Well,” he started, “I brought you a little treat.”
He had that grin again on his face that he has when he’s up to no good.
“What did you do this time?” I asked, and rolled my eyes in exasperation.
He played a shocked face of innocence.
“Yeah, you. What kind of trouble did you get into this time?” I prided.
“You remember the man who came into my shop the other day? The one who brought the special items…”
Special items? What was he talking—Oh yeah! The contraband.
“Yeah, what about it? Did you find somewhere to stash it? The Pavers are onto something. It’s not a coincidence that they showed up moments after that guy offered you the trade,” I said. “Do you think they know?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters! They’re going to search this entire precinct to find what they’re looking for. And when they do, they’re going take you from me.”
I could feel the rage welling up inside.
“I can’t believe you’re being so nonchalant about this whole thing. If they find that guy, do you think he’ll have any problem giving you up?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it!” I was livid now. “I can’t believe you’re saying that. I already lost my parents because of them. I don’t want to lose you too. If I lost...”
He held up his hand to stop me.
My words hung loose in the air as my thoughts unraveled in a tailspin of irrational fear.It was rational to me in the moment.
“They’re not going to find anything in my shop. You have nothing to worry about. We’re safe,” he encouraged. “You’re safe.”
My body was shaking. Whether from dehydration or lack of food, or anger, I could not tell. It was all the same to me. My stomach felt sick.
“You’re—” I stopped when he held up his other hand.
“They’re not going to find anything because,” he paused for effect, waving the golden future in his hand, “because there is nothing to find,” he said.
“How did you? When did you?” I couldn’t get my words together.
“While you were resting,” he said.
“But what if someone saw you?”
He stopped me again.
“Willow Evelyn Washington.” He never said my full name. I froze immediately like a child caught in a lie.
“We are safe. You are safe. I won’t let anything happen to you. I’ll die before I let you suffer. I promise,” he said.
“But, I don’t...”
“No but’s about it. The discussion is over. Period.”
He stood up and grabbed the remaining four stalks of corn out of the brown sac.
“Now, like I said, are you hungry?”
“Definitely!” I conceded. Hunger overruled everything. My stomach twisted with a growl for confirmation.
“Good,” he said and tossed me one of the cornhusks. “Now help me shuck these!”
I caught the corn in my chest and held it in my right hand. I spun it around admiring it. I couldn’t understand how this could be real. I fully expected to wake up any second now and this all be a dream. Corn was supposed to be extinct.How was this possible?
Roxx had finished his second shucking and was reaching for a third.
“Are you just going to sit there and stare at it or what? The corn’s not going to peel itself, you know.”
I smiled, and took hold of the black husk on the top and gave a good pull.
Maybe everything would be alright after all.