Authors: Jeremy Laszlo
By Jeremy Laszlo
Children of the After series
(post-apocalyptic, Ages 10+)
The grey steel of the wall was cold against his skin, causing goose pimples to crawl down his arm as the hair upon it stood up. A chill shot up his spine, his shoulders jerking slightly as he rummaged through the open canisters upon the shelf before him. Wrappers, wrappers, and more wrappers. Nothing but empty plastic and paper. Throwing his hands up in both frustration and defeat, Jack looked across the length of the room at the long row of shelves. It was gone. All of it, except perhaps enough for one more meal. Two, if they ate even more sparingly.
Wiping his hands down his once white, sleeveless shirt, freeing them from the stale crumbs and dust, he raised them once more to brush back the thick brown hair from his eyes. He needed a haircut. He’d needed one months ago when they entered the shelter, but now he was sure he was beginning to look like a boy band wannabe. If such a thing still existed.
Passing the small digital screen on the wall, he winced. It had been installed to monitor news stations and broadcasts, though it never had more than static on the screen. Even the first day. They had listened to the static for weeks on end, until they weren’t able to sleep without it. It was odd how such a nothing could become something, here in the steel confines of their home. Shaking his head, he reached down and picked up a sweatshirt before pulling it over his head. He had no idea what to expect when they went outside. He no longer knew if there
an outside. But there was only one way to find out.
His eyes scanning the empty shelves once more, he looked past them to the only people he was certain were alive. There, on a small, twin-sized pair of bunks, were the sleeping forms of both Samantha and Will. He knew they had to leave the survival shelter. He had prolonged their stay as long as he was able, but it couldn’t sustain them any longer. The food was all but gone. The waste recycler and water purifier were on the fritz when there was power, but most of the time even that wasn’t working.
Crossing the smooth steel floor as quietly as he was able, he grinned down upon his sleeping siblings. They had fought and argued as much as any other brothers and sisters before the event, but as time passed, isolated with none but each other, they began to rely upon one another. They were the only comfort each of them had, and he was responsible for them. Shaking his head, Jack recalled how much each of them was sure their father would open the door just minutes or hours after the magnetic lock that secured it had closed. Hours turned into days, and then weeks. Their dad never returned, but then they hoped that their mom would come. Surely she was spared from whatever had happened outside? She had been in Europe on business when Dad locked them in the vault, but she never came. They had cried a lot those first months. Scared and alone, they found strength in one another, and eventually the tears stopped.
It was their dad’s final words that last day that were etched in Jack’s memory more than any other thing he could recall from all of his sixteen years. The day it happened, their dad made Jack promise he would look out for Sam and Will. He remembered his dad’s eyes, they had been red and swollen, and he was obviously scared. They were all scared.
had been scared, though Jack still didn’t know exactly what had happened in the hours prior to entering the vault that had everyone panicking. It didn’t matter now. He was responsible for taking care of both Samantha and Will, and they couldn’t stay in the security vault any longer. It wasn’t a decision he was making lightly, and if there were any other choice he would have made it. No, today he would take them out of the vault, if for no other reason than to gather supplies from their home, outside, and return.
* * * * *
Opening her sapphire eyes, Sam slowly stretched her arms over her head, restoring the dormant circulation. Sighing somewhat loudly, she then stretched out her legs while arching her back like some sort of feline, cracking her toes, before relaxing once more. Rolling to her side, she used the back of her sleeve to wipe the sleep from her eyes before blinking several times as her vision adjusted to her barely lit surroundings. Just as every day before, she was met with the disappointing reality that her situation was not just a dream, as the vacant steel walls beamed back at her from every direction. What she wouldn’t give to log onto her laptop and tweet to all of her friends. But the reality of the situation was she couldn’t, and she hated it.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the bunk, she sat up before quietly dropping down to the cold metal floor, trying not to wake Will in the bunk below. He was grumpy if he didn’t get enough sleep, and no one in their right mind wanted to be trapped in a tin can with a cranky seven year old with nothing to do.
Slipping on her once favorite Nikes, she turned to look upon his small body as his chest rose and fell slowly with rhythmic breaths.
. He was still asleep. Brushing her raven hair out of her face with her fingers, she tried to pull them through the knots but gave up the useless task before fully committing. Whatever. There was no one to impress.
Grinning, she spun to see her own look mirrored in the eyes of her brother who sat in the relative darkness, further back into the shelter. He shrugged and motioned her over with concerned eyes that looked too much like their dad’s had, the hours before the door closed. Tiptoeing across the stark metal of their prison, Sam cautiously sat upon the same bench as her older brother and looked up into his face expectantly.
“Good morning,” he whispered with a wry grin.
“Just as good as yesterday’s, I’d bet,” she replied.
“We can’t stay in here any longer,” Jack stated simply.
It was usually his way these days, at least with her. Simple, and straight to the point. At least with Will he was more playful. She missed that in him. Not that they had gotten along often before the event. Even so, she knew that none of them were the same now.
“What are we going to do?” Sam whispered, knowing he awaited a response.
“The only thing we can. I’ll open the door, and we’ll go outside.”
“What if it isn’t safe?”
“We’re out of food, Sam. The water tastes funny, when we even have water, and the toilet has been backed up for days. It’s not working anymore. We can’t stay in here. We
to go out.”
“But we don’t know what’s out there. It could be dangerous. What if the air is poison or something?” she asked, jumping straight to the worst case scenario.
“What choice do we have? We can stay in here and starve over the next week or two, or we can go outside.”
“But Dad said stay in as long as we can, Jack. He said
“We did, Sam. This
as long as we can, and as much as I hate it, Dad’s not here.”
“I’m not arguing. I’m just scared.”
“Me too, but we have to. How can we tell Will that there is no more food left? I can’t do it. I’m not going to. Not after everything else. We need to go find more food. Water too, if we can.”
“But we can’t just take Will out there.”
“What if Dad
out there? You know…” she trailed off, not trusting her voice further.
“Then you stay in here and keep him calm. I’ll go out after breakfast, and if it’s safe I’ll get you guys.”
Nodding, still distrustful of her vocal cords, she turned her face away from him, not wanting Jack to see the tear that threatened to slip from her eye at the thought of their father being dead outside. She waited a moment, her chin trembling slightly as she fought to calm her overwhelming feelings. It was good they were going out. They needed to. This place was making them crazy. Not knowing was eating at them. But what if outside was worse? What then?
Shaking the thoughts from her head, she tried hard not to focus on the negatives, or the ‘what ifs’. Instead, halfheartedly trying to comb out the tangles in her hair with her fingers, she turned back to Jack and began to whisper.
“So… what’s left for breakfast?”
“Your absolute favorite,” Jack replied with a smile. “Vacuum packed saltines with a spoon full of protein powder and a packet of peanut butter.”
“So guaranteed constipation, then?”
“You got it, punk. Good thing too, we don’t need you blowing up the bathroom right now with it all backed up again.”
Without hesitation she cocked her arm back and slugged him in the shoulder as hard as she was able. Though she likely hurt her own hand more than him for the supposed offence, she secretly liked it when he called her ‘punk’. It was those small moments of playfulness that still made them feel like family. Like kids. Those moments were the speck of light in an otherwise vacant world of darkness and uncertainty. She could only hope that after today, there would be more reason for such moments. Anything had to be better than the security vault.
* * * * *
Rubbing his fists into his eyes, he blinked over and over before sitting up and bounding to the floor barefoot, his feet smacking the metal below. Slipping on his puppy slippers, Will scuffed his feet across the floor in the direction of Jack and Sam’s voices. They were whispering again. They whispered a lot when they didn’t think he was listening, but he knew more than they thought. He had heard when they talked about what was happening outside. Right after their dad put them in the vault. Sam thought it was aliens, but Jack said it was probably a war. Will guessed it was probably a war with aliens. Or monsters. Monsters were a good reason to hide in the vault. He had also heard when Sam and Jack talked about their dad. They thought Dad was dead, but no way. Dad was super strong and he wasn’t afraid of nobody. Will was certain he had went to get Mom, and they would be back as soon as they could. It was probably just hard to get back with a war against alien monsters going on outside.
Plopping himself upon the bench between Jack and Sam, he grinned as their conversation ended abruptly, and both turned their attention to him. Before the vault they hardly played with him, each of them busy with their own friends, phones, and computers, but now he got
“Hey, buddy,” Jack greeted him.
“Hi, pumpkin,” said Sam.
“Hi,” he replied with a big, big smile.
“Are you hungry?” Sam asked.
“Do birds poop on cars?” Will replied, grinning again at his clever reply.
“I suppose they do,” Sam beamed. “Here ya go, kiddo.”
Will reached out his small hands and accepted the already open packs of both crackers and peanut butter. Sam had been nice and already mixed in the chocolate flavored protein powder with his peanut butter, making it almost taste like Nutella or a peanut butter cup. Almost, but not quite.
Holding the creamy mix in one hand he smashed the plastic container with his other hand, watching the dark brown concoction squeeze out between his hands to plop down upon the uppermost cracker. The crackers were huge, each made of four squares, and easily the size of a slice of bread. Taking the second cracker, he discarded the peanut butter container and squished the two crackers together, making an impromptu sandwich. Yummy. Will attacked his breakfast voraciously as both his big brother and sister watched on with odd looks upon their faces. They were up to something.
“What were you guys talking about?” Will asked through a mouth full of sticky food, watching their exchanged look of concern.
“I’m going to go outside this morning,” Jack replied, running a hand through his thick brown hair and looking more serious than ever.
“Are you going to look for Mom and Dad?” Will asked excitedly, bits of food escaping his mouth.
“No, buddy. We need to go find some food and stuff. Have a look around.”
“I can help get some food. I have candy in the pantry,” Will said, even more excited now.
“No, pal. You gotta stay here with Sam, and protect her while I go see what’s outside.”
“The house is outside, duh. We already know that,” Will replied.
“You’re right, pumpkin, but we don’t know what
is out there,” Sam chimed in.
Thinking it over, it was a moment before Will replied. “You mean like alien monsters?”
“I don’t think there will be alien monsters, but we really don’t know what happened outside. It might be dangerous or scary, so I’m going to look first, and if it is safe, then maybe you and Sam can come out too. OK?”
“OK,” Will agreed and turned his attention back to his food. Soon enough he would know if there were alien monsters, and with any luck he could eat some candy.