Aftermath – Chapter 5

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 5— Adam

  • … recently resulted in a violent altercation in the streets of Rio. The locals ask for treatment and cures for the children, however military groups do not seem ready to yield to their demands. In other news, the latest demonstration of the Group that took place in London yesterday turned into a brutal dispute between the believers and the police. So far, thirteen people have been transferred to Charter Hospital — initial reports say eleven of those injured were demonstrators, the rest were witnesses of the scene. Finally, a bombing in Wall Street caused several…

I mute the radio with shaky hands. It may never stop. Every day, there are more deaths and tragedies. What is the point of all this? Who does it help? In the background, Piano Girl is playing again. Same old Mozart I have loved so much for so long, until she made me sick of it. But a deal is a deal, she probably waited anxiously next to the thing during the three minutes I was listening to the news.

When I was young, I regretted not being born a time of unions, banners and provoking rock songs, without guns, bombs and diseases. Then I grew up and realized this time had never existed. Now, the whole world is going to shit and we cannot do anything about it but watch. It seems like even the ones responsible are powerless — is there someone, up there, conducting this mad show? Some chaos lover that got bored and decided just the end of the world was not enough? I breathe deeply and look down at the table. Maybe this kind of desk is the reason everything is fucked up. A clean slate of metal covered in never-read half-written papers, with no classification whatsoever, not even the will to tidy this up, and in the center a ‘You’re the Greatest Showman’ mug. Could it be that we got so caught up in doing ourselves up we forgot to check for the underlying faults? As far as I remember, it has always been about looks and poses, no one cares about personality or true motivations. You just better be in the right group if you want the raise, the house and the girl. I take the mug and slowly go to what we decided to call the kitchen.

After a quick look, I knock on the wood panel that used to be the storage room door, before the upper part fell off in the middle of the night.

  • Hey, kids, did you take the… ?

The workshop is silent and dark, they are not here. I stare at the weirdly menacing shapes all around for a moment — isn’t this bunch of wires looking at me funny? — what about these wrench and hammer? I shiver and get out. Aiko has a knack for picking up desert garbage and transforming it into actually useful stuff, but those twins are creepy. Speaking of the devil, I hear them tumbling down the stairs. I take the most parental tone I can.

  • Were you on the roof again? I’m getting tired of telling you…

I look up and see Ichirō holding his sister. She is livid and quivering.

  • Shit!

I rush to them and help Aiko to the couch. She curls up with a grunt — her breathing is way faster than normal. I kind of fail keeping my calm and snap furiously at the boy.

  • I told you to stop that! Ichirō, you said you’d keep her inside.

Aiko mumbles something. I put a finger on her neck to check for a pulse and sigh as I feel the blood pumping. Ichirō stands perfectly still, he is looking down, his cheeks flushed with shame.

  • How many times do we have to tell you, kids? It’s not safe out there. Sun’s changed since… well, lots has changed. You can’t just go running around, alright? Aiko, look at me.

The girl barely lifts her head. I am not sure if her eyes really see anything. Although I try not to shout, anger deforms my voice.

  • I know, you say you need it, sun is your fuel, but for fuck’s sake, just look at yourself!

She is covered in burns and bruises, she cut her hands more times in a week than I did in my entire life, her face is black with oil and dirt, her hair is a mop of thin black and red streaks… whatever beauty she had going four months ago, when we picked them up in this shady marketplace, it is gone now. I start wondering: is she right? Does she need the sun to be able to shine herself? She talks with a little voice that is not louder than a mouse squeak.

  • Electronics are messy, I guess.
  • Girl, we have enough mess as it is. Listen to your brother, don’t go on the roof tomorrow morning. Your crisis are getting on everyone’s nerves.

Aiko’s arm suddenly jumps in the air to point at the alcove across the bunker.

  • What, and she’s allowed to do what she wants?

I look at Anna, sleeping in the small bed, and Rick, sitting next to her and reading a book. I quickly turn away and find Aiko’s eyes fixed on me, burning with rage and a little something I am not sure I completely understand. I take back the mug that rolled on the ground and decidedly walk away. The piano is still buzzing around like hell.

Every time I listen to the radio, I forget tragedies are not distant stuff. When I hear the news, I think oh, sure, we do not actually have a purpose, but to hell, the thing is we are alive, safe and sound. What a load of crap. We are not a safe and sound crew. We are a bunch of idiots, holed up in a post-Mediterranean war army bunker that is bound to run short of supply eventually. And when that day comes, who says we will not have guns, bombs and diseases? We already have mute blondie, crazy Jap girl, zombie astronomer… in the end, it’s like this child game, spot the difference. Let’s show someone a picture of a nice, calm, quiet desert horizon, and then another with our seven stupid faces glued in front. Let’s see how they react.

When I dare to look at them again, Ichirō has given his sister the old alarm clock that was hidden in the sacks of rice. I saw him skillfully remove a few components last night, after Aiko freaked and calmed down by reassembling the thing to perfection, so that it would be ready to tick wrong this morning. I am always fascinated by this invisible bond that ties the two: I have rarely seen two beings so different and so similar at the same time. She is all about craziness and emotions, he is calm and reasonable, but they both need each other to survive. She has got her head deep in everyday-life mechanisms, he is always in the clouds and preoccupied by non-utilitarian things. The question I have not successfully answered yet, however, is: underneath the polished conversations and fake smiles, which one is the most shitty-scary?

If I were to take a look outside, I would see the black sky with no stars Rick complains about. But I do not like temperature when it drops below zero — maybe my Spanish genes have their own rules. Standing here, next to the kitchen table buried under cans and bottles, I see — no, I smell! — how sad our lives are. An unusual silence has fallen over us — blondie will sleep for another two or three hours, Mozart has stopped barking at us for now. Oh, tomorrow, when it starts again and people rise and shine, I will put on my happy drinking face and get some energy in the bunker, yes. For now, I just think Rick is right about the sadness, the gray, the apathy. There is no point in living without any goal. I have seen him a few times at the edge of the roof, looking down at the thirty-feet fall with envy, every time I held my breath, praying for him to turn back, and every time I saw him walk back to the elevator, before running to his footsteps and tooking his place. I took his thoughts. My mind kept crawling around one idea: free, at last. No more octagonal dirty rooms, no more sand in your shoes and rust in your hair, no more Mozart banging in your head. No more fear of military raids, no more scary rounds at the market with sweaty hoods. But no more Rick? In the last few days, with this new woman around, he has already become something else. He is drifting away from us. From me.

  • You look like crap.
  • Thanks, chicken arms.

If only I could stop with the act! No, that is my best defense for now. My head rolls around and I quickly take a step away towards the armchair. Rick follows me and falls onto the couch.

  • Are you okay?
  • What do you mean?

I hardly breathe, eventually remember to swallow. What the hell is he talking about? He cannot know…

  • Since she’s arrived, you seem… different.

Alright, this can be handy. I will simply keep on playing the Don Juan, redirect the conversation. No need to panic. Besides… she did change something in the group. She and the Prof, they messed things up bad. Aiko is weirder everyday, Ichirō spends even more time sitting in front of a wall with a chalk in his hand, Piano Girl plays more heavily on the keys…

  • I’m worried something has started. A new chapter, with new characters and a new plot.
  • That could be a good thing.

I snort. Rick can be so naive. It is quite charming.

  • New characters mean bye-bye to the old ones, chicken head. Something’s off with these two. I don’t even understand how they came to join us.
  • I told you. Piano Girl lead the way.
  • Yeah, sure. Like Mozart asked you to rescue a woman from a fire. Tell me, Rickie, would you have saved her if she weren’t so hot?

I cannot help it, I am angry and bitter. He throws me a strange look and finishes his beer before answering.

  • You’re sick, man. Definitely sick.
  • I’m a realist, that’s all. Whoever she is, the only thing that kept her alive this long is her pretty face and her butt.

He stands up suddenly and slams the bottle on the table. Somewhere across the bunker, we hear some grunts. I see his burning eyes focused on me, filled with disappointment. At least, I can still act convincingly enough for him to believe I am a jerk.

  • Someday, you’re gonna get hurt, Adam. Nothing is more annoying than a happy sad clown.

As he walks away, I close my eyes and try to calm my thoughts. He is right. This game is getting dangerous, especially with these new players. Kenner is no choirboy and despite what I told him, I know there is more to this girl than just a cute body — she did survive a bus explosion, after all. And Piano Girl chose them.

But why?

What the hell is Blondie playing at?

I have heard lots of stories about this Prof. Some say he single-handedly cured a form of cancer, others that he developed biochemical weapons for both the U.S. and Russia… In the end, those rumors all cancel out, except for one thing: beneath all his British manners and his tweed jackets, Gareth Kenner is a terribly brilliant chemist whose motivations are quite shifty. How he came to join us, I do not really know.

Rick says that Piano Girl started playing louder when he went through the yellow hills, just past the car wreckage. She was throwing her hands so violently on the keyboard he hurried to her, worried she was in trouble. But the fucking thing was just a prank to get him to stop the car and see the scene below, the bunch of desert gangsters about to kill an old man. God, she can be a pain in the ass with her silence oath. Like we should always get what Mozart says! Rick is way more patient. That is nice of him. I would have thrown her overboard long ago, but he carries her around every time she wants to get out, and the piano goes up on the car in the morning, and then down on the ground at sunset. On the other hand, she seems to have a knack for finding survivors. She is the one who found the twins in their dump, a slum of wires and chalk equations, while Rick and I were walking around the market. Without them, we would probably still be eating our beans cold. So that is a good point.

  • Might I disturb you in your meditation, child?

Sneaky bastard caught me by surprise! I don’t like this pompous tone he uses with us. As if we were some lackeys who just have to obey and he has the right monologue for your situation. If he really was a priest before, he clearly learned nothing about listening to the other. He sits down heavily on the couch next to me with a big sigh.

  • Meditating isn’t my thing. I’m more of a shallow kind of guy.
  • Aah, but only the clever man knows how to play the fool!

This conversation is not just boring, it is actually useless. I would rather Rick had stayed and screamed at me. I would rather anything, actually. Kenner reminds me of an actor I used to hang out with, when I started out my career — the first contemptuous perfect son of bitch to break my heart. The Prof is even worse because he uses God as an excuse.

My vision of the Lord is not a magnificent one: to me, Jesus is a wooden statue on a cross in the corridor of a swamped villa, near Madrid. When I was a child, he was the ugly shaped thing my mother and sisters would gather around when my father got a call and left to fight a fire. Then when the hero got burnt down by a bomb, Jesus turned into a mocking piece of veneer, that laughed at me every morning as I went to deliver the paper and every night as I came back from school. Mother kept praying to him to bring us back my father but the selfish statue stood there with fake sculpted tears. After that, I learnt about crusades and wars and I saw no merciful old man. God is as crazy as his son. There is no grand plan, no approving gaze — the signs that you see are of your own making. Life sucks and it is about finding a way to cross it without exploding on the road.

So, no, I am not a fan of British priests and reverends.

  • You seem offly quiet this morning, son.
  • You’ve been here two days. Don’t pretend to know what is common or not.

Stress is still flooding my nerves. I have to calm down. The British smirks.

  • I did not mean to offend you. I sometimes speak without thinking.

No, that is as far from the truth as possible. He always thinks. That is his base move. So what was the point of this? To test me? Does he know we cannot be friends, is he taking a look at his enemy’s strength? Before I can decide anything, the man abruptly changes the subject.

  • Your jeep is an old model. A Ford 2020 if I am not mistaken. I thought they had all been destroyed to obey the Energy Convention Deal.
  • Nobody is dumb enough to destroy something valuable in the desert. We found it here shortly after our arrival. Rick says he trusts these mechanical cars more than the new ones, the whole automated electric type. I tend to agree with him.
  • Yes, you do.

This pout again! The man is a walking annoyance that is slowly scorching my skin until I burst. What is he trying to do? Make me confess? Try again, pal, I do not talk to church slaves.

  • How did you two meet? I believe you were the founding members of this… party, yes?

He seems to know a lot. Did Rick talk with him? I cannot trust the British, he should not either. I need to tell him to beware. But, right now, what would be the harm in answering? The suspicious face will not let go until I say something, anyway.

  • The harbor is a nasty place for good boys. Rick entered the wrong bar on the wrong night. Some movie lines and stunts got us out of there without too many scars and we kind of stuck together since.
  • So, you saved his life.

This, on the other hand, is not a question. This is a fact that he is compiling with the rest to analyze the group. Damn chemists, always sciencing things up. What does he see of us? A mixture of molecules colliding on the sides of their bowl, a fragile pile of atoms pushing each other until one falls of?

  • I gave him a hand.

I suddenly look away from Rick when I realize the Prof is staring at us. The man hardly hides his grin.

  • It is a shame he does not appreciate your dedication. Blind eyes weaken the brain. Weak brains fragilize relationships.

He understands too much. I do not like it. If he were to tell Rick… shit, the man is going to blackmail me any second now! I sense it, he rises, puts the cup of tea on the table, stretches, throws me a look, and… turns away?

  • Mr. Kenner, the situation is already very complicated as it is. You are smart enough to know that.
  • Indeed, child. Don’t worry.

My brain stops when he winks at me.

  • I am not one to rain on a young heart’s parade. And I certainly cannot hold you accountable for mistakes I myself made when I was your age.

I gradually regain consciousness as he walks away, a few words floating behind him.

  • Heart is the greatest foe you will ever meet, for you believe it to be your best ally. Good luck, my son.

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