Aftermath – Chapter 9

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 9— Anna

  • You’re gonna freeze to death up here.
  • So be it. There are worse ways to go. Want a beer?

I sit next to him and take a sip. We are on the edge of the roof, looking at the horizon as if the answer was written somewhere behind the mountains. There is no moon, no stars, the only light here is an old stage spot Rick lit on a few moments ago that is still in half-power mode. There are those large shadows on the elevator shaft where our noses and chins are the ones of giants’.

  • You okay?

He snorts and puts a fake grin on his lips. We stay here for several minutes, side by side, carefully watching the horizon to make sure our gazes will not cross.

  • What about you, Anna? Where were you when it happened?

I have a quick nervous laugh. My memories from this day, this precise 16th of June, 2058, are quite fuzzy. I am pretty sure there was alcohol involved during the whole weekend and that I was with this nice FBI partner of mine.

  • Home. I’d had a long week. I was just curling up in front of the TV.

Yep, curling up all around the apartment with him. Curling up on the couch, on the kitchen table, on the bed…

  • Well, that’s nice.

I’ve finished my beer. Already? I take another one from the cooler, trying to ignore how time flies by when you’re being yourself. Rick stares at the ice in the cooler for a while.

  • How is he?
  • Better. Aiko’s taking care of him.
  • Good. That’s good.

When he looks down at his red fists, a certain dose of compassion comes to me. The look in his eyes is the one of someone who regrets blowing up, no matter how justified he was. I have trouble focusing, probably because of the beers I have had for the past hours. Loads of thoughts are zooming through my head right now. I decide to grab one in mid-flight.

  • You’re a good man, Rick. A genuinely good person.
  • Yeah, well. You should see the other guy.

We laugh nervously, strapped in accumulated tension. I do not know if this shivering comes from the stress or the cold.

  • I mean it. I don’t know many who would care about the health of such a guy.
  • He’s not that bad.

Rick’s words rumble in my head. I cannot grasp his current emotions. All my years of training are quite inefficient tonight — logic would suggest he should hold a grudge, at least be angry or sad. However he is calm, and even happy. Work, Anna, you can do this. But my tired brain twists around and fails to come up with an explanation for this.

  • I don’t understand. Why do you keep defending him?

He does not answer for a while. A deep breath, a pensive look at the dark sky and some beer, only then he talks again.

  • He’s right, you know. We only have each other now. He’s a pain in the ass, yeah, but he’s there. That’s something. Plus, truth be told, he’s not the problem.
  • What, you’re gonna pin it on you? Even for a nice man, that’s pushing it a little.

He smiles — a real wide smile, not a fake or cold one –, stands up and looks down at the desert. As he breathes in and stares at the black and quiet scorched soil, I know he is sincere, and he is absolutely right. I hear his words before he says them.

  • Sorry to point a finger, beautiful, but this is on you.

Never in my life have I leered at a beer like now. Maybe if I try hard enough, I can disappear in it, pop on the other side of the bottle’s neck and stay trapped — kind of a bad genie that cannot grant wishes but makes fears come alive. Come on, Anna, through the hoop you go. I swallow with difficulty.

  • We’ve really changed things, haven’t we? The Prof and I.
  • Yeah. This family’s growing fast with you two.

He is so calm. I barely remember the furious man that burst out before. I choke back the tears. I thought I was playing well, truth is I was in over my head since the beginning. I should never have thrown shit in the fan.

  • Is that good or bad?

Why? Why did we end up here and break everything? It seems they had a good gig going on before we came along. Maybe our rescue was random, or even a mistake, then something pushed them to keep us. Rick is looking up, lost in the dark sky. His voice is filled with passion.

  • Somewhere over us, beyond the gas clouds, there’s a couple of constellations. Those big clusters of atoms that twinkle billions of light-years away are known across the Earth, because each of them have stories. Legends of treachery, love, fighting and all. Cassiopeia and her vanity, Draco and his treasure, Ursae and their tragic end…

I am not exactly sure what he is driving at, but I like listening to him as he talks about astronomy. A unique flame glows in these tales as he speaks. It gets colder, I start to doze off — words are losing meaning, they are just a melody swimming in the air.

  • Maybe we did need someone to send it all flying. Long chess games are boring, better to kick the board and see where the pawns fall.

Games and pawns, cards and hands… he talks like I used to, before. The long hours in Washington come back to mind, they cover my first dreams in strange sepia colors. Those were weird years, stuck behind four walls with a bunch of people that were supposed to be my friends but always wanted to backstab you… how similar is my situation now? Have I learnt my lesson well? My first instinct is now to lie, and cheat, and turn things to my advantage, no matter the consequences to the others — so, yeah, in a way, I see why they called me a good agent. But then, if the system truly made me the perfect spy, why is it I do whatever I can to go against it? Why is it I hate myself when I use these techniques?

  • Anna, you’re cold. Let’s go inside.

Yes, I am shivering. Not because of the cold, of course, but how can he know that? Besides, he was right before. Freezing here would not be that bad. At least, I would let these people live without destroying their lives. Killing the woman could kill the beast inside. I feel sick. I have spent years wondering if I should not just end it, years growing more and more angry at the thing controlling my moves, the so-called ‘great agent training’ people would give anything to have in this new world. Tonight, anger has become fury. FBI does not produce greater men and women, it breaks young disoriented teens into murderous uninhibited adults.

  • Trust me, I’ve seen worse.
  • You’re half asleep and your brain is already slowed down. You’re not thinking straight.

Rick, I have not had such a clear head in many years. Truth is, I should have stayed in Russia. Even without Mama and her warm hugs, this place would have been better than here. Snowy streets and everlasting light strings are beautiful, there was this thin woman in the bakery that always gave me bread when Mamotchka started to get ill, and her large husband who made many jokes I did not understand at the time… Remember, Anna? Mama used to say that home is wherever you build a fireplace, wherever you build walls to stop the cold from the outside. Well, I have never let so much cold in since I arrived here. Home-breaker, Anna, that is what you are. Forever and ever.

  • Anna!

How come the sky is down and the earth up over my head? And this glowing moon I picture behind the clouds, why is it dancing around in an endless loop? I am falling in the stars, eyes wide shut, zooming through dense air and scratching ashes. Cold hands hold me, they are like frozen metal straps. Somewhere in the distance, I think I hear birds… but there are no birds anymore… and this engine, in the middle of the desert? A car? Here? No, not a car… the roaring is a set of keys pressed and pushed to play Mozart… There is a face above me, a set of frown and teeth that shout something. Then, nothing.

When I wake up, I am back in the squeaking bed in the alcove. Rick is here, reading an actual book — it has been a while since I have seen one, printed and all. I guess after everything changed, we slowly started to rediscover our libraries, yet I have never been much of a bookworm myself.

  • Hubert Reeves. An astrophysicist, right? I’ve seen some of his movies.

He jumps on his sit and throws the book away to come to me. Instinctively, I try to get away. Rick stops with a smile.

  • Feeling better, I see?

I nod quickly to hide both my embarrassment and the aching pain that went through my back with this sudden move. Those automatic reactions are not really mine, I know now there is more of FBI than of me in them. Still they have taken their toll on my mind — how I would love to relearn trust and connections! It would be nice to be able to care like he does right now.

  • The Prof says medication and beer might have been a bit much.
  • Yes, that must be it.

Why not tell him, Anna? Why stay so lonely? He is sweet and gentle; not as crazy as the actor and not as cynical as the old man, not as weird as the Piano Girl who never talks, not as shifty as Ichirō or as inhuman as his sister. He is the best you can find around here, so why not? Well, you know this is precisely why, Anna. You cannot voluntarily fuck him up. Leave him be. He has suffered enough. Right? Because it is too easy to just take advantage of the good people, he would simply be okay with it, and at first he would even be happy, for once, so maybe… Damn, my brain is hard to tame. It leaps in the room like a savage animal, — it stares at each detail to remember everything, listens to the voices of the twins discussing science to record them and memorize their intonations, checks the sobriety of Adam in a blink, evaluates the dandy pose of the old British standing a few steps away from the girl playing her piano. In the foreground, Rick is calm; he is looking at me with soft eyes, waiting for me to say something.

  • She is sad, today.

We both turn to the girl and her piano. There is this nostalgia in her fingers, this unanswered question — Mozart is whispering melancholy in our ears like dark paint splattering our souls. Rick stares at the girl and sighs.

  • She is, yes. But aren’t we all?
  • Perhaps. Do we have to be?

A moment passes. I am not sure he heard me.

  • World has ended, hasn’t it? That’s a damn good reason to be sad.
  • There were many before. And we managed.

Rick’s eyes slide back to me and he stays quiet for a second.

  • We’ve all had our share of hard times. You should be grateful for all those years of experience that prepared you for this chaos.

I am tempted to laugh and get angry, but in the end, this is quite true. Reviewing my life, I see that many of the turns I took made me a lonely, cruel, selfish person. The perfect survivor’s kit in this new era. Very gently, I crawl back to bed closer to his chair and put my arms around my knees. Take a defenceless pose, Anna, everything’s already on a silver platter.

No! What is wrong with me? Is this deranged mind of mine thinking of another trap for this poor guy? I am messed up. Worse: I am so broken the not-messed-part of me is slipping away. I stop the hand that was discreetly moving towards the edge of the bed. I must not let this other part of my brain decide for me. It would be easy, and nice, even for him, for tonight. But tomorrow, the bunker will die instantly. And I care about the bunker. Don’t I? Yes, Anna, remember, they took you in. You cannot betray them. My steamy thoughts are not as fast as they should be, but I know I have to be stronger than that.

  • You should stay away from me, Rick. I mean it.

He smiles, takes back his book and falls in his chair, his feet resting on the bed a few inches from me.

  • Yes, I should. Such a pity this bunker is too small for that.

I stare at him for a minute — I see his sweet eyes reading the same line over and over again, I see his feet too still for it to be a comfortable position, I see his left ring finger with a lighter band where he wore his wedding ring until a few weeks ago, when we arrived. It is already too late. Shit, Anna, stop thinking you have any control over it! Every time you do, it fails and hurts people.

Alright, then.

Time to stop the bullshit, time to clean the slate. Next on the to-do list is talking to Adam and taking care of his obvious problem — Aiko and her brother will be much more work.

  • How’s the nose?

His hand slowly rises from the beer to his face, runs on his nose and mouth for a second, then falls back down on the armchair.

  • Okay, I guess. What about you? Rick says you had another episode up there.
  • Nothing serious.

Adam mumbles something and keeps focusing on an invisible fire that would illuminate this parody of living room furniture in a reassuring orange gleam. With the neon lights flickering over him, his face is cut out off of the bunker, unique, magnificent. I can easily see why he made so many films. Strangely, though, I cannot recall seeing any. Piano Girl’s melody swims in the flood of memory like a movie soundtrack. I have never heard Mozart quite like this. What sounded like melancholy this morning has turned into passion. Did she feel the wind turn?

A loud noise suddenly erupts from the storage room. The twins must be working on something. When we hear their voices fight, Adam seems to freeze in his sit. He is tensed, almost sick, and now the neon light gives him a scary livid color. Very slowly, he turns his head to the kitchen with a worried look, as if he was waiting for the whole bunker to explode.

  • You alright?
  • They’ve never fought before.

The strong man is trapped in his armchair, unable to move, stand up and check what is going on. I cannot take my eyes off of the hole in the wall either, I feel something is breaking down in the bunker — this is just the first sign.

  • They’d better be back soon. How long to the closest town?
  • Half an hour, tops. Don’t worry, Rick knows the gig.

It is time, Anna. Haven’t you heard the sweetness in his voice when he said his name? I picture the man with his book and his glasses as he jumped in the car: there was something attractive in his resolution, his dedication to the group’s survival. I do see what Adam likes in him.

  • Are you ever gonna tell him?
  • Tell him what?

Sure, I can pretend like I do not know a little longer. But all in all, what would be the point? He looks away, away from these piercing eyes. They say we FBI guys have a thing for profiling. It may be true. I squeeze a little closer and put my arm around his shoulders.

  • It’s been a long time since you’ve played yourself, am I right?

This quick laugh scratches his throat.

  • Look, Anna, I don’t know what you’re talking about, okay?
  • Right.

I lean to him and whisper a few words in his ear with as much sensuality as I possibly can.

  • Then answer me this, Adam: why aren’t you more happy to see me?

He slowly looks down at the hand I just put on his thigh, then up at me again when I take it back. He seems to be drowning in confusion, or maybe sadness — I sometimes have trouble telling the difference. I try and regain a more serious tone, almost a professional attitude, sitting on the armchair across him.

  • I’ve made a job of studying people. Imagine how easy it is to get a caricature.

The man does not find any words, not for the lack of trying. I imagine he spent years working on this character, and he played it well, to be fair. Maybe it is just that I peeked hard enough behind the curtain.

  • He doesn’t have any clue. You’ve managed that quite brilliantly. But why, Adam? Why not tell him?

He takes a deep breath.

  • Listen, doll, this… community of sorts was created by the two of us. It needs us to work together. Do you really think it will still remain the same if I talk to Rick?

I hear a long sigh in his voice.

  • We both know he doesn’t like me… this way, or much, or at all, really. It’s been a while since I haven’t been true to him so I’m pretty sure he hates me now. If I told him… well, he would think it’s a joke or a trap. Besides…

Adam turns away from me to try and hide the bitterness in his tone, without success.

  • … he’s got someone else in his crosshair right now. Someone way better than me, for sure.
  • Believe me, she ain’t.

You truly believe this, Anna, is that it? You are a mean person? I need to get my messy thoughts back in place if I want to help the man. Piece by piece, they could fall in place like a nice puzzle, with enough time — time I do not have. I have screwed up the life in this bunker already, soon it will be impossible to ease out the tensions.

My eye catches the old British guy and Ichirō whispering as they get out of the storage room. He was in there too? It is unusual to see the boy so excited about anything. What could they possibly be talking of? The professor knows some maths, I believe, but nothing even remotely interesting for the young genius. What then, chemistry? I will never understand how these things can fire someone’s imagination this much — hard science was always a big ball attached to my feet in high school. A strange shiver runs down my spine. For a while, in this smile and shiny eyes, I recognize a bit of his sister in him.

  • Where’s Aiko?

The boy turns to Adam slowly and answers in the most uninterested tone. Clearly he does not want to be disturbed.

  • Somewhere in the back. She’s working on the coffee machine I think.

The man nods in silence. He is still looking at Rick’s stuff across the room. I spot envy in his eyes, and built up frustration. Still, I cannot actually feel shame — my brain has convinced me he brought this on himself. A long minute during which the piano covers the passionate mumbling of the two science geeks over there. Then, suddenly, I kind of wake up from the sleepy headache that had caught me off guard as Adam springs up on his feet.

  • I’m gonna go check up on her.

What is this itchy feeling in my mind? Why does it keep scratching? Anna, think harder. You see something is wrong, you see this is a critical point in your life… your lives…. what is it?

  • What’s up, kid?

When he goes behind the curtain and his voice fade off, I am struck down by a weird certitude: this will be the beginning of our end. The actor has entered the stage for the final act.

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