Aftermath – Chapter 8

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 8— Gareth

Boiling is an amazing phenomenon. The idea that a fluid could transform, become something strong enough to take up the entire space in a second is quite fascinating to me. Some parts of the Bible tell of beings of great power capable of turning one compound into another — yet you shall never read the word ‘chemist’ a single time. This might have been one of the reason I could never entirely commit to the church: up to which point can someone live by half-written rules? God has certainly made a game of not speaking straight to the believers. As if presenting it all in a convoluted way gave it more meaning.

That being said, I probably am biased on this particular matter — I believe Britain has elevated boiling water to a status of art. The cup of tea burns my hand while I quickly take it to the old couch, the leather of which squeaks with my sitting like my weight truly hurts the furniture. Aside from the fading scream of the kettle, the bunker is only filled with Mozart. Next to me, Ichirō scribbles numerous formulae that seem to have a profound signification I will never understand.

  • What are you working on?

The boy does not turn away from the paper, he does not even stop writing to answer me.

  • I am studying spreading patterns. Dispersion models. It reminds me of when I was younger.

The scientist I am vaguely recognises some equations, however I know he is way more brilliant than any mind I have encountered before. Some instinct pushes me to pat the boy on the shoulder as a proud grand-father would with his grand-son. Whether he thinks of me as a stranger or a friend, whether this hand on his shoulder is an insult or comfort, in this instant I wish to prove him someone witnesses his genius. Such youth and already such intelligence… what about when I was younger? As tea flows down my throat in a scorching wave, forgotten memories resurface. I recall the sweet evenings with my wife Dorothy, in our cottage in Sussex, with the hot tea and the whistling kettle inside, and the cold snow and the rusty car outside. I recall her beautiful smile, her magic laugh. I also recall the plans we made when we moved to Sweden, how we were going to change the world, combine our science-savvy minds to challenge the problems of the century; how cancer put an end to those projects in the most inhuman way.

I try and hijack my thoughts to prevent the tears I can feel coming. The same question I have asked everyone I have come across lately will do the trick, hopefully.

  • Where were you when this rather unique event occurred?

I gaze upon my companions who are exchanging intrigued looks. Nobody seems overly excited to speak. They remind me of this family I stayed with for a while at my arrival here, before they were taken by the local authorities. Those poor souls refused to talk about it at first, too.

  • In 2058. When the Internet and life as we knew it disappeared, where were you?

Might it be they have never talked about this? It is quite troubling, really, to imagine such a defining moment in their lives being a forbidden topic. Could it be the so-called ‘Needy’ man — what a horrid designation, and yet even I obey political correctness after a few years! — was right when he said it would offense the spirits to raise this topic?

  • We were at a fair.

I probably would not have guessed he would be the first to talk. Ichirō speaks with such scarcity it is always surprising to hear his melodic voice. In three weeks, I have only heard him four times — including the sentence he uttered a few seconds ago. As he talks, I find myself drifting on these beautiful intonations. Him telling us their story is like sailing on a calm ocean, an ocean so peaceful that part of it flows into your heart and expels some of your nightmares.

  • Mum and dad were always so busy, it had been weeks since we hadn’t spent an evening together. They asked us what we wanted to do, and we said we wanted to see the show. It was raining, it was dark, it was late. But they did not resist, they said we would go to this restaurant we liked and watch the parade in the street from the first floor. That way, we wouldn’t be under the rain, which was bad for dad’s suit. I remember I had salmon sushi — we still had those at the time.

His sister is unusually silent, absorbed by the brother’s tale. She has closed her eyes and sealed her lips. In this instant, regardless of her scratches and wounds, she resembles a sculpture of dignified Japanese empress.

  • At one point, there were dragons and fire eaters. Aiko and I were little, we got scared because we thought they were real. But mum put her arm around us and said that it was okay, it was just for show. And she was here. Dad’s hand was heavy on my head but I liked knowing that he was there, too. We were a family.

Ichirō suddenly stops. How many, like me, then realize they have not breathed for several minutes? His recollection was so powerful I do not know when the young girl stopped playing her piano. I only see now she is sitting on the stool, both hands on her thighs, listening to the boy. As I glance at the group, I realize a change is discreetly taking place in our dynamic — at which point did these bonds break between the small atoms we are to rearrange and reform? We are gradually transforming into something else, a new molecule. I could not tell when it started, I do not know when it will end, but it is in progress. Ichirō hesitates to continue; I encourage him to go on.

  • Dad got a call from the office. His heavy hand disappeared and he started yelling on the phone. Everything was back to normal. Except it wasn’t truly. After a few minutes of angry conversation, he asked for the check and pushed us out of the restaurant and into the car. We were home in a flash, that was enough of the special night.
  • He pushed you.

Aiko’s strong voice contrasts with the attitude she has had this evening. We all turn to her but her brother.

  • Dad pushed you out of the restaurant and in the car. He was fine with leaving me there.
  • Aiko!
  • It is true, brother. Don’t you remember?

Ichirō looks away and does not answer.

  • Even after mum held us, I was so scared of the dragon she made a crude one with her napkin to show me they were the fruit of our imagination. We were still crouching near the window, napkins in our hands, when dad took you out. She rushed after him while holding my hand and threw me in the car just in time. I didn’t understand what was happening, it all went too fast. I let the napkin fall on the sidewalk. I cried the whole way back to the house because I hadn’t had time to pick it up.

An unpleasant silence falls over us as she throws a defying look to Ichirō. Despite the boy not looking up, we all feel electricity in the air between the two of them. A light pace echoes through the bunker as Piano Girl — have I truly started calling her that? — comes near us. She watches everyone for a second before going to roost on the couch behind me. I do believe we all wonder what to think of this, however nobody ventures to ask. Adam has an exasperated sigh and opens another beer he starts to drink loudly. Our eyes oscillate between him and the young girl who examines the scene in the most peculiar manner: perched on the furniture, like a hawk, she could be a school teacher grading students on their good behaviour. Eventually, Anna clears her throat.

  • And you, Professor? Where were you on the 16th?

I cannot help but smile.

  • I was lost at the very heart of blooming roses.

Adam grizzles and takes a long sip.

  • Cliché, much? Come on, old man, did you actually live in a Woody Allen movie?
  • Now, sir, this is no way to address your elders. There is this botanical garden, in Sweden. It is a warm and comforting jungle trapped in its own glass case, as if nature had decided to hold its breath in this precise location for a time. The greenhouse in itself is a remarkable architectural achievement that has been praised and rewarded throughout the world when it was finished, in 2031, still I have always been more passionate about the treasure hidden inside.

I may be floating in my memories, it seems the others are clouded by a white fog coming over my eyes. Happy, lovely, sincere, those are the epithets I would give to these times. Eventually, I sort through this block of thoughts to put it in words.

  • I used to walk along the garden paths with my Dorothy. She liked to smell those exotic perfumes and feel the shade of the large leaves on her back, she knew the name of every plant in the greenhouse, she was always happy when I asked her about it. When she passed away, I shunned the jungle, its perfumes and its shade. However, somehow, my feet found their way back to it one year later. And the next one, too. It became our annual reunion. I would stroll between the trees and the flowers for hours with her sweet voice in my ear telling me stories of Russian maples, Chinese cress or Nigerian mahogany, until eventually it would be dark outside and I would sit under the stars. I’d imagine Dorothy laying on the grass next to me and holding my hand. This Sunday night, when all the lights went out, down the hill, I had an early glimpse of what life would become — no civilisation, no spots to see the road, no one to help you with directions. I was all alone in the night, the warm presence of Dorothy was fading. Fear got a hold of me, I started running to the greenhouse and its dim glow that suddenly felt like the last safe haven on Earth. I distinctly remember the panic inside, the human tide that stormed around me as I rushed to the gardens, so desperate for a gulp of fresh air. It is only when I was hidden in the rose garden and I finally felt protected, as if Dorothy was there again, that I started to understand what was happening.

The man shrugs and reaches out for another beer.

  • Alright, as far as life-changing moments go, I’ll admit this one’s pretty good.
  • I am happy I could entertain your adventurous mind, Mr. Verez. I take it yours will be original, then?

Adam sits back.

  • I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, Professor.

In this instant, while dizziness and emotion might deform my perception of the scene somehow, I believe he loses himself in some dreams before coming back to us, like me a few moments ago.

  • It was a hot Sunday in Venice. I was sitting at a terrace, watching people come and go, waiting for the sun to set on the lagoon. I had a few colleagues with me, we had just wrapped up a bad Hollywood B movie — the ultimate proof you’re nearing the end of your acting career. I was stuck in Italy with no friends, no family, just guys from work I barely knew who were much younger than me — and liked to remind me. In fact, I was desperately hoping for a change of pace. This evening was nothing fancy, but it was one of these rare moments when you actually experience life itself. Not what you’ve made of it, but what it is basically: flowing time to fill with activities, a frame for events. There was a mess around me, tourists running from viewpoint to viewpoint like they were so freaking late for everything, voices screaming and calling.

The man sighs and looks at his beer. Clearly, he means to find the solutions to his questions and problems in the bottle. A sad smile lightens his face.

  • The thing is when it happened, nothing changed, basically. The sun was still there, the cocktails, the guys and the passers-by too. We finished our drinks, went back to the hotel and ended the night playing strip poker or something. Sure, the hotel service was kind of overbusy, but we didn’t pay much attention to that. The next morning, I turned the TV on and we all sat on the bed, mostly hungover. The others felt as if their lives were falling apart, they started calling everyone and switching between channels like crazy.

He clears his throat with difficulty, a strange smile deforming his large chin.

  • I was calmer than I had been in years. I was given a chance to get a new start.

As he tells his story, I gradually realize why he once was a great actor. In spite of his jokes and bad temper, there is something in his voice and his eyes that strikes you — a harsh sweetness catches your heart in a second and forces you to listen. He is more than a pretty face, he has got charisma. Why then have I not seen it before? Did he act so long that all of this power has been squeezed in films and there is just a pinch left? He suddenly turns to me.

  • I don’t believe in God, Professor, you know. Still that looked like someone had heard the call of an agonizing actor and decided to answer. They all left in a hurry to the airport and I sat in the room, alone. I actually spent several days in the hotel with the employees, free of charge. Everything was fucked up, there was no business anymore and they were happy to have someone to talk to. Eventually, I got out in empty, quiet, creepy streets and that was it: a new life with new rules and a new Adam. Sounds cheesy to an old priest, I guess?
  • My son, faith is complicated. I myself have a rather fuzzy point of view on the matter.

Those hesitant laughs we have right now sum up the general opinion in the group: though we may be sliding down the slope of friendliness, we are not there quite yet. Boosted by this idea, I consider the next in line, flopped in the armchair.

  • And you, Rick? You looking at stars and constellations would continue this series of stereotypical sceneries quite nicely.

His head rises a little, not enough though to show any will to actually participate in the conversation. His forced smile makes me wonder about social conventions. How come we still play the part and obey the old laws? Have our brains been so conditioned by years of education we are automatically pushed to politeness?

  • I’ll pass. Maybe another night.

Rick looks away, he is frowning and ill at ease. While Anna and I respectfully remain quiet, while the twins keep staring at invisible points at opposite corners of the room, Adam springs from the couch and staggers towards him. Although I am a few yards away, I can almost feel the weight on my shoulders when the man’s hands fall on Rick’s shoulders with a snapping sound.

  • Rickie, we’re among friends! Don’t tell me you gonna worm out? It’s fucking sharing time!

There is a magnificently controlled fury in Rick’s voice, a frigid hatred of sorts I had never heard or seen before to that degree. It balances the rudeness of Adam so perfectly I stay frozen on my seat. Perhaps this was my mistake.

  • I said I don’t want to talk about it.
  • Honey, you’re a freaking wimp, you know that?
  • Adam, that’s enough…
  • No, Anna, I’d like to know why he is such a crying bitch. Tell me, Rickie, why the fuck don’t you want to share with us? Not to brag but, right now, we’re the best you’ve got! No, actually, we’re the only thing you’ve got!

Was it the alcoholic breath in his ear or the incessant insults? Indeed, contained violence finally lashing out is quite a marvel at work.

I wish I had reacted in time.

Rick is yelling, or rather roaring — in fact this roar will probably haunt my dreams for the rest of my nights — as his fist cracks against the face. I jump out of my seat to hold him back; however this terrible slowness in my movements, is it due to old age or to doubt? Is it reasonable to hesitate to help a sinner? Rick is struggling as would a savage beast. As adrenaline runs through my bloodstream I start seeing things more clearly, I am becoming an observer who leaves its ancient body to float around the room. It contemplates Anna trying to talk some sense into Rick; it contemplates the twins pressed against each other whose special link has suddenly tied back together; it contemplates Adam laughing on the ground with his face covered in blood; it contemplates the girl on the end of the couch, perfectly still and silent, seemingly untouched by the scene, like a rose under its glass case.

  • Don’t you tell me what I am!
  • Calm down, Rickie, we’re among friends…

The man grins and I involuntarily take a step back at the sight of these teeth covered in blood. Freed by my cowardliness, Rick grabs him and throws him back in his armchair. Then, very slowly, he leans over him. I shall never forget this mechanical tone, this string of words wrapped with only disgust and no emotion.

  • You want to know, pal? Very well. Yeah, it was a fucking hot Sunday, like you said. No Venice, I’m sure, but still. The kind where you take your wife out somewhere great, and you have a good meal, and she holds your hand and calls you ‘her Rickie’, and you feel like you’ve finally done it, you’re there. You have everything. Love, family, house, car, the whole deal.

He gets closer to Adam. Despite my best efforts, my feet refuse to take me forward and I am compelled to listen and await the next punch.

  • And then you decide that, oh, it’s late, better to take the highway to get home, less traffic and all. Except your car is a fucking semi-automatic. Those models they made in the 2020s with Internet-linked driving assistant that were so new-tech, so future-design. The kind of thing that makes you proud when you’re a suburban half-baked underpaid scientist. Remember those, Adam? Remember how everyone said they were safe? Well, tell me, friend, what happens to the IOT when the I is missing?

Rick’s face is inches away from Adam’s. The latter has stopped smiling, now.

  • I’m not saying I deserved happiness. Let’s be honest, nobody can say that and actually mean it. But Adam… why not me?

I cannot take my eyes off of his neutral face covered in tears. Rivers flow over ever still rocks, a pile of well carved stones pieced together in a desperate human mask.

  • How come she died and I didn’t? How come she was thrown through the windshield, how come her bones were shattered to smithereens, and I came out of it with a bump on my forehead? In what world is that just, fair, or simply okay?

In my mind, the finger that Ricks gently taps on his chest turns into a sharped claw ready to rip Adam’s heart off. The smile he then puts on his face is so scary even Piano Girl shivers on her perch.

  • So, yes, you suckers are all that I’ve got. Trust me, I’m aware of that.

He gets back and takes the beer from the man before walking away to the lift, closing the old grate in a high-pitched creak and disappearing in a loud ding.

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