It can only stay quiet for a certain time. That first uncertain time, when the survivors hunker down, stay as low as they possibly can and live on scraps and dust mites. Some have planned for this and built a bunker. I guess, they’ll be slightly more comfortable. Mum and dad didn’t see the point.
‘We’ll be fine’, they kept telling my little sister who still believed in Santa. ‘Just fine.’
I live in our cellar now. That’s my world and it comes filled with my grandma’s pickles and fifty mason jars of bramble jam. There’s more. A four months’ supply of small, powder pink bottles, the disgustingly thick liquid food supplements she got given in her last days. Before the end of the world, my grandma had to get blood cancer! Rotten luck. For her sake, I wish the apocalypse had arrived six months earlier. Would have saved her a lot of pain and also spared her the yucky taste of those high calorie drinks. They did not put one ounce of fat on her. They just made her vomit taste of chemical strawberries. Not sure that’s a win.
I remember sitting in the church hall during her funeral thinking how weird it was that both grandma and her cancer got cremated together in the end, like they were companions. Friends. Why do we burn the dead like witches? I wondered what grandma smelled like, when the cancerous flesh and the medication inside her body exploded and disintegrated in the heat of the flames. Back then, I had no idea that this would happen to pretty much all of us.
Grandma used to smell of ancient limp lavender and decomposing moth balls. I hated that smell. Now, nothing smells of lavender any more and I’ve learned that you can miss what you hate.
In school we had to read a book about a nuclear war. As a warning. We thought it was stupid. Nobody would ever be that daft. Push buttons, destroy the lot for extra points. I remember Kat laughing at the cover picture. It was just heaps of nondescript ash.
‘There’s nothing left’, she said and laughed. ‘Why would anyone put up a fight for nothing?’
I didn’t get it either at the time, but my stomach did. I still remember the feeling. Like a brick in my belly, rough and sharp around the edges, cutting into me and growing. A large stone, cold, beating, thundering like a second heart and for a while after that, everything felt heavy and pointless, like our best days were already behind us. It was just before the summer holidays. I wish they hadn’t made us read that novel.
I know what I know about post-nuclear survival from a book. That’s all I’ll ever know. The internet is down. The people are down, dead or dying. Most of them. I know from the book that it’s best to stay underground for as long as you can. I’ll have provisions for a while. Pickles, jam and that strawberry goo.
My parents didn’t make it. Neither did my sister. I told her to come down to the cellar with me, but she was too scared of the cold, the dark and the damp. It’s not a great place for an eight year old girl. It’s alright, if you’re a jam jar, I guess. Grandma’s superfood comes in plastic bottles. They don’t mind either. With humans, I’m not that sure. I’ve got some weird fungus growing between my fingers and toes now. Raw bits of flesh with something white sitting on them, like the crest of a wave. My skin stings and feels wet and damp like the cellar walls. Perhaps I’m morphing into them.
I’ve got candles, I think they’re leftovers from Christmas, they’ve got little gold stars on them as though nothing has happened and I’m burning strands of my hair to entertain myself. Watch it curl up even more in the heat before it melts. Why not? I can pull whole clumps of frizz off my scalp just like that. My hair doesn’t want to stick to my head any more and I can’t blame it.
The door to the cellar still opens. Imagine that! I can go up the stairs, and then, when I reach the landing, there’s another door. It leads up, into the house but the house is gone, so it leads up to the rubble. The bodies. I like that they are still close, my mum and dad and my little sister. I have never been apart from them in my life. I can’t really tell which one’s which any more, they must have held on to each other. My family is just a ball of burnt bones now in a heap of ash, but it’s good to know that they are just a few metres away on the other side of the cellar walls. I still talk to them. There are things I need to tell them. One of those things is this:
‘I wish I’d stayed with you, in the living room. All together, huddled on the sofa. I wish I’d had the guts to die with you right there and then.’
Dad told me to stay.
‘Come here, son’, he said and reached out his arm towards me, almost begging me to join him, which confused me.
I couldn’t do it. I’m a teenager. I couldn’t bring myself to do as I was told. Mum eventually said ‘Let him go, if he wants to’. She meant well, but she looked defeated. My little sister just smiled at me as I left for the cellar with what I hoped looked like a self assured big brother sweep. I remember she wiggled the front hooves of the pink fluffy unicorn she was cuddling to wave me goodbye.
And then, I sat in the cellar. Sat and waited, like everyone else. You sit, you wait. You know, what’s coming. Not when, but soon. You think the wait is killing you. Turns out, it doesn’t. I’m still waiting.
I write this, because it can only stay quiet for a while. Today, when I checked up on mum, dad, sis and the unicorn, I could hear noises in the distance. Sooner or later someone will come, friend or foe. I’m not sure, what will be left of me by the time they get here. I want someone to know that my name is Alex and that I have a massive crush on Kat who in all likelihood is dead. Cremated like my grandma and the rest of my family.
It’s funny, how you can be fifteen and already have run out of time. And still, you sit and wait and pick a little at the scabs on your skin. I’ve nearly burned all my hair, I can do my peel next.
Britta Benson is a happiness & poetry blogging, circus skills instructing & common butterfly following German, a writer, performer & linguist thriving in Scotland, her chosen habitat since the year 2000. Read more of Britta’s work at– Britta’s Blog – Letters from Scotland and Odds & Ends.
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