Aftermath – Chapter 3

A short story set in a near future – Internet and our societies have fallen and the law of the jungle prevails…

This article is also available on Medium.

2063. After the Event, communities have reformed — while the majority of the population has regrouped in a handful of megacities under lockdown, the rest are scattered across the globe and fighting for their survival. This is the story of seven survivors stuck in a bunker, in the Middle East…

Chapter 3 — Rick

Saying we are a strange group would be an understatement. A washed-up actor, day-and-night-like twins, a claustrophobic astronomer and an autistic girl always nailed to her piano, all buried underground in an abandoned bunker. It almost sounds like the beginning of a joke. And to that, let’s now add an old British man and a knocked out beautiful girl. The jeep jolts on the dusty trail, bouncing us from left to right.

  • So, Professor, what were you doing in this no man’s land? Sunbathing?
  • Holidays, my son.

I cannot decide whether this pedantic tone is on purpose or if it is just an inherent quirk. Or am I just not used to people anymore?

  • I have not seen that many gas-fueled cars lately, let alone fully manual.
  • What can I say, I am a man of traditions.

The nice roaring of the engine is reassuring. I could almost close my eyes and let it take me on the road. The Englishman pulls me out of my thoughts.

  • Say… might I inquire about the… well… the piano?

I sigh and search for the best way to put it. I glance at the inside mirror; completely oblivious to the bumps, perched on the rear platform of the car, she keeps on playing this Mozart tune, long fingers running on a toothless set of white keys.

  • We call her Piano Girl, ’cause she never spoke to give a name. Music seems to be her only means of talking. It’s been a while now, but none of us managed to get a word out of Blondie.
  • Is it always Mozart?
  • What, you don’t like it? If you want another ambiance, you can always get out and walk to the closest town. It’s only sixty miles away.

Despite my best efforts, I have more and more trouble with outsiders criticizing the family. An awkward silence falls upon the jeep. There is howling wind, buzzing bees, cracky sand and moaning from the comatose woman behind us. Every turn I take, she slides along the seat – a light feather that barely weighs on the bench, a nice angel struck down on my path. I quickly focus back on the road and let a few more miles pass before clearing my throat.

  • I didn’t mean that. I’ve had a long day.
  • I understand. Accepting new members in a community can be difficult, particularly nowadays. But am I to infer all of you are this special?
  • Truth is, Professor, special is kind of an outdated concept, ain’t it?

The old man does not answer but I could swear this nod was not due to a hole in the ground. As I look at his gray hair and beard, I suddenly feel a hundred years old. Days are so much longer since the world has ended. Only seven hours have passed, and we have saved a world-renowned chemist from one of the worst gangs around, crashed a bus full of government soldiers, pulled a random woman from the wreckage pointed at by Blondie and driven the two of them to a secret bunker in the middle of nowhere. And I did all that with Mozart in the background. Of course.

As the sand clears out, we begin to see the cement blocks ahead. The British stares at the ugly building with curiosity. The thing is shapeless and it conveys such despair I am always surprised we actually stand to live in it. Shouldn’t this melancholy pour through the walls down to the basement? Shouldn’t it leak and drip from ceilings to floors during the night, until one morning we wake up in a puddle of sadness? I guess it’s still home, anyway.

I am starting to see why the others call me a downer.

The jeep stops in a yellow cloud that makes Piano Girl cough outside and abruptly interrupts the music. This unusual silence… I must have lost the habit of hearing my own thoughts. A loud noise followed by dragging sounds make me rush to the back of the car to help the young girl get off. Last time she tried to do it alone, she ended up with a bunch of bruises on her leg that have barely healed. I reach out to her as I would with a scared animal: peaceful moves and a comforting tone. Her eyes are scrutinizing me, checking to see if I am still the same person I was this morning. Eventually, she takes my hand. When I lift her up, I think of how skinny she is, how gracile, and how heavy and dangerous the instrument is. It could squash her flat in a second.

  • We’re taking care of it. Go inside and tell Adam, yeah?

She nods, sticks her eyes to the ground, walks to the secured door, quickly taps in the code and disappears like a ghost, leaving the metal panel open. I am left with a British staring at the gray cube as if it were the eighth wonder of the world and a gorgeous unconscious girl on the backseat. I force myself to look away from her, only to witness a strange show. Because there is something quite unsettling in watching one of the most brilliant minds of the century gently running his hand on a twenty-feet tall concrete wall and whispering kind words to it. Some old habits make me look behind to check that nobody is watching us. Of course, I simply see a screen of orange dust that hides everything.

  • Hey, Professor, not to interrupt… whatever you are doing, or anything, but there’s a sandstorm coming. You’d probably better get in.
  • Yes, boy, indeed.

As he walks along the building, I can still hear some “Marvelous!” or “Incredible!” over the wind. And suddenly, nothing. I close my eyes and let nature take hold of me – it has been too long since I have not slept under a starry sky. I miss them so much. I look up at the dense clouds. Not a chance I could see anything, even if night is falling, somewhere around me. In my ears, there is crackling sand, waving air, rolling rocks… an engine? I turn around quickly and take a few steps forward. No matter how hard I try, there is no way of seeing anything past the sand, and yet I could have sworn…

  • Hey, chicken arms, need a hand? Piano Girl says… wow!

Adam stops next to the car, his eyes stuck on her. A big gorilla, standing up in his stupid shirt, groaning at me like I am a dog; with his perfect actor-silhouette and his lovely actor-eyes. Gosh, I hate this man. What started off as gentle rivalry has turned into anger and resentment. Somehow, he is always around to find a way of outsmarting me, since the day we met. I come back as fast as I can and violently turn his head to the piano.

  • Let’s get it downstairs, or we will never hear the end of it. I bet she’s already pacing around in front of the door?
  • Yeah, yeah…

He does not even look at me, entirely focused on the woman.

  • Man, we need to move.
  • Sure. Let’s. Absolutely.

It seems that looking away causes him aching pain, seeing how he grimaces. As he prepares the ramp for the piano, I cannot help but watch his well-shaped muscles and tanned arms, and compare them to my own: I always considered those two white cylinders more of a burden than actual tools. They are like bones with some uncertain strokes where there should be tendons. Heavy, slow and exhausting. Adam’s hands are strong, mine are just roughly carved. How come, of all the remnants, of all the survivors, I had to get stuck with Apollo after world’s end? It seems unfair, a punishment even. What am I being sentenced for? He is like my personal confidence blow: one pill every morning, and you will never feel useful again.

  • Now, darling, I’m all for showing up when there are ladies, but since she’s out and you’re the only one around, I’d rather you actually help me with the noise maker?

I instantly resurface from my thoughts and realize he has already brought the piano to the ground. Is it possible complaining about doing nothing takes up so much time you finally actually become useless? I hurry up to him and lean against the instrument; it begins to move very slowly towards the freight elevator. This thing is old and broken. It will die one day, probably with us in it. As I push it a few feet further, Adam opens the rusty grate and holds the broken door. We manage to get the piano in the small cab and I squeeze in.

  • Well then, you take care of Piano Girl, I’ll deal with her.

Before I can say anything, he sends me downstairs with the push of a button and I find myself alone in the shaft, surrounded by Adam’s mocking voice. I punch the elevator wall reflexively. The only result is a loud noise, sharp pain that shakes from my fist to my shoulder like noisy ripples, and me shouting. When I hold my hand against my chest to try and hide the blood, I cannot take my eyes off the dent in the metal. I remember multiple Ricks, furious, punching the wall at this precise point. But seeing it with my own eyes, having a visual mark of my despair, is creepy.

Ding. This sound will forever remain inadequate. It belongs to an old life, one with colors, and voices, and everyday things, like Sundays or Superbowls. One when there were days, weeks and years, when I could spend entire evenings walking around New-York without seeing the same face twice. One when I did not punch elevator walls. I push the piano out of the cab with effort. A light blue dress is flying around me as I clumsily drive the thing away from the lift. The minute I let go of the instrument, her fingers start running on it again. Mozart explodes in my ears in a giant burst of uncontrollable emotions. I have already heard it thousands of times, yet this piece still has power over me. Although my back is sore, I bend to take the piano stool and bring it to her. She sits. Not a word, obviously, but there is a small lightening of the left hand notes, Piano Girl’s little thanks; over the years, I have learned to read the most insignificant sign and I believe I am the only one in this family to truly listen to her, and not to Mozart. The German composer may have written dots on a paper, but the way she plays it is her own. Today, there is sadness in the arpeggios and melancholy in the transitions.

  • Hey, Piano Girl…

Adam’s barking echoes behind us. Her right hand suddenly freezes in the air and a long, grave melody rises as she listens to him. He may not know it, but I can feel in this change a cold anger far greater than mine.

  • … what did we say about playing inside?

Her eyes light up with flames but stay locked on the keys for a second. She takes a deep breath and takes her hand off of the piano. An instant passes where she is struggling with herself. I feel bad, incapable of helping her. The one and only time I tried patting her on the shoulder, I feared she would decide to talk just so she could shoot me down in flames. She stands up brusquely and takes a piece of clothing from inside the instrument, then wraps it around the strings with quivering hands. I turn away, filled with guilt, as if her hurting this much was my fault. She staggers back to the stool, and sighs before resuming playing. Deafened sound, I can barely hear it while I am only two steps away. Indifferent to all that, Adam is laying down the comatose woman on the sunken couch as carefully as if she were made of porcelain.

  • It is truly amazing, son.

I jump when the British voice springs in my right ear. The old man is still at the doorstep, examining everything from the distance. What could he possibly see that is so amazing? Opposite us, there are broken shelves with piles of tin cans, sacks of rice with holes in them and empty bottles of various sizes stacked against a dirty wall – the large stain appeared a few weeks after we moved in, on a rainy night when we thought thunder and lightning were going to finish us. Next to the garbage, the hole in the wall leading to the back storeroom where some noise suggests the twins are working hard. On the right, the small alcoves we decided to call bedrooms are just large enough to put some hammocks, stretchers and sagging small beds. Some old covers are stacked in a corner, crumbling underneath the weight of fluff and lint. Then, there is Piano Girl and her muted ‘noise maker’, as Adam says. The – displeasing – thought of him automatically turns my head to the left. He sank into one of the two big vintage armchairs and is now half asleep with a beer in his hand, his head on his hand, lost in the contemplation of the woman. I go back to Piano Girl’s dancing fingers with a grin.

  • What is? What’s amazing?

The old man stares at me like I am an idiot. He has a slight movement of the chin.

  • This. All of this.
  • Hmm. I guess I just don’t see it anymore.

As I stand here beside him, I hope to see what he sees. However the amazingness of our sloughy bunker does not really jump out at me. Not for lack of trying, but I cannot ignore the frigid neon lights flickering over us or the smell of a long overdue spring cleaning. I turn to him when he suddenly grabs my elbow; there is passion in his eyes, and his voice trembles with emotion:

  • You are alive. Isn’t that wonderful?

He leaves me quite stunned on the spot, and walks towards Piano Girl. I open my mouth and close it several times, at a loss for words. I feel like he talked too much or too little.

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