Two weeks have passed since the quake first hit. Our neighborhood of forty houses was brought down to ten in a matter of minutes. Then came the volcanic eruptions. Lava rocks raining from the sky torched another eight, leaving just two houses standing: The O’Connor’s house and ours. Both made of brick, it made it harder for the lava rocks to burn. Our neighbors were living on the streets, or in cars, fighting each other for food. Mother told us to barricade the doors and not to let anyone in. I didn’t understand; if they were starving then why couldn’t we help them?
“We don’t know how long we are going to be in this situation. If we share what we have, we might run out and then we’ll be the ones dying in the streets,” she explained.
Staring out of the crack in the blinds, I see Timmy; a friend of mine who lives a few houses up. He’s crying and looks hungry and alone. His parents are probably dead by now. It seems wrong to not help. I have to do something. Sneaking downstairs, I fill my bag with canned food and bottled water from the cabinet. It seems odd that we have so much still. We haven’t left the house in weeks, yet we’re feeding four mouths and never seem to run out.
Slipping out a nearby window, I crouch down behind one of the few trees in our yard still standing and whistle to get Timmy’s attention. He looks around and finally spots me. Running in my direction as fast as his little legs can carry him, a smile crosses my face as I feel a sense of elation in knowing that I might be able to ease his suffering. Walking out from behind the tree I extend my arm to hand him the bag, when a shot blasts out of nowhere. Blood splatters on my shirt and face, Timmy’s eyes roll back into his head and his legs collapse beneath him. A bellow of screams by my mother ring through the air as she bursts out of our house towards me with my father close behind.
Paralyzed with fear I stand staring at my parents running towards me when I hear two more shots ring out. My father falls instantly and I feel my chest cave with uneasy breath. Mother has also been hit and now I can see the shooter. It’s our postman, Mr. Conlin from up the street. Reloading his gun and walking at the same time, he quickly moves towards us. My mother manages to crawl to me. Throwing myself on top of her I start screaming in agony.
“Ssh! Listen, you need to protect Toby,” she squeezes me. “Take this,” she whispers, handing me a pistol.
Mr. Conlin’s gun is at his side. He reaches out his arm signaling for me to hand over the bag of food I had packed for Timmy. Mother closes her eyes and lays very still, but I can still feel her breath on my hands.
“Give me that food kid and show me to the shelter. I know your parents have one. I guess they weren’t crazy after all! Ha ha, the joke is on us!”
I don’t know what he is talking about, but I know what I have to do. I can’t let him inside. I have to protect my little brother Toby at all costs. Slowly I stand up, knees shaking, heart pounding and throw the bag of food in the air. Mr. Conlin raises his head to look as I fire my pistol. Ripping through his skull, he falls backwards, water bottles smashing on the ground around him. Looking down at my mother now, her eyes barely open, I see her arm slide out from underneath her body and she opens her hand. Inside her palm is a key.
“In the basement. There’s a door in the floor. Save yourself. Save…Toby,” she said, exhaling her last breath.
Panic sets in and I sprint inside the house in search of Toby. Luckily, he’s still sleeping and didn’t witness the recent neighborhood horror. He’s small for a seven year-old, so I just pick him up and carry him down into the basement. As I search frantically for a secret door in the floor of the basement, Toby begins to stir.
“Is the storm over? Can I go out and play yet?” he asks, rubbing his eyes.
Too overwhelmed to answer, I ignore him.
“Where are mom and dad?” he asks, tears forming.
“Mom and Dad…they went to help some of the other families. They gave us a mission to find a door in the floor. Can you help me look?” I said.
“Okay!” he says excited.
In the corner of the basement, I see part of the carpet rolled up and walk over to examine what might be underneath. Pulling it back, I see a steel door with a heavy chain through the handles and a lock. Twelve years I’ve lived in this house and played in this basement, how did I not know this was here? Opening the lock I release the chains, pull it open and descend a staircase with Toby behind me. There’s a long hallway and then another steel door. As I approach the second door, a light above me comes on, a sensor light I can only guess, and the door opens automatically. Unprepared for what is inside, I fall to my knees in pure awe.
Mr. Conlin was right. My parents did have a shelter. A very large, underground bomb shelter filled from ceiling to floor with enough food to feed hundreds of people for weeks. Or four people for a year. Or two people for even longer. My parents were preparing. They were like…doomsday preppers! There’s food, water, and clothing to the left; to the right shelves of toys, books and games. In the back there’s at least a dozen commercial generators. Instructions hang on the wall on how to use everything, when to use it, and when not to in order to survive as long as we can.
“We’re going to make it,” I breathe a sigh of relief.
Suddenly a surge of pain bursts through me. Grabbing my side, I fall to my knees.
“Why are you bleeding Jenna?” asks Toby.
Soaking through my sweatshirt is blood from the bullet that must have grazed my side after it went through Timmy. Quickly I pour water on it to wash out the wound, find a first aid kit and begin placing gauze and bandages on it. While choking down painkillers and antibiotics, I hear something above us.
“Stay here and don’t make a sound,” I warn Toby. I run up the stairs and peak around the wall in the hallway.
Out of the corner of my eye I see someone sneaking around the kitchen searching for food. Holding onto my side, I realize that I still have the gun in the front pouch of my sweatshirt. Slowly I watched as the shadowy figure opens cabinets, grabbing
food and water out of them. Stepping slowly behind him I pull out the gun and point it at his head.
“Don’t move or you’re dead,” I said.
“Jenna? Is that you?” said a shaky voice.
Backing up, I lower the gun and spin the boy around. It’s Brian O’Connor. He lives in the other brick house still standing in the neighborhood.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“They killed my parents. I’m alone. I have no food. Please don’t kill me!” he pleads.
Brian O’Connor, biggest bully in school pleading for his life. He and his friends would tease me about my weight because I was heavier than the other girls. His parents were the neighborhood snobs- so much better than us ‘cause they were doctors.
“Why should I help you?” I said, gun still pointing at his head.
“Because…we’re friends,” he said hesitantly.
“Friends! What a crock! You have never been my friend. I should kill you right now!”
“Then kill me! I’m going to starve to death anyway. If you don’t shoot me someone else will. There’s nowhere to go, we won’t survive this, none of us!” he cried.
“I will survive. Toby and I are going to be just fine. Can’t say the same for you,” I laughed.
Brian slid down onto the floor and began to cry. He rocked back and forth holding his belly, hungry, tired and fed up.
“I want my mom and dad,” he cried.
Then a little voice spoke out from behind me.
“Jenna, what’s wrong with Brian?” said Toby.
“Toby go back to the shelter now, I’m busy,” I yell.
“Why do you have a gun Jenna? Why are you being mean to Brian?” he said.
“Because he’s a bully!” I scream.
“You’re a bully!” Toby screams back.
He stars crying. He’s scared and confused, I thought.
But he was right.
Lowering the gun I look at my reflection in the microwave.
“What have I become?”
“That looks bad,” said Brian pointing to my bloodied side.
“My parents have books and tools at the house. They are…they were surgeons. I…I could stitch you up,” he offers.
“We have a bomb shelter,” I shout out suddenly. “You can stay with us, it will save us all, keep us alive for at least a year until the storms stop.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied back.
“Go to your house and pack up any medical tools and books you can find then meet me back here in twenty minutes. Take this gun to protect yourself,” I said.
After handing him the gun, he holds it in his hands for a minute and instantly a horrible thought runs through my mind. Did I just seal my own fate? Can he be trusted? Will he kill me now and save himself? He puts the gun in the pocket of his coat and looks back up at me.
“See you in twenty,” he said.
Watching through the window I hold my breath as Brian sprints down the road towards his house, avoiding lava rocks, burning cars and hungry stray animals. Now feeling the effects of the painkillers, my legs give out from under me.
“We should get you in the shelter now,” said Toby.
“Not without Brian. Without him, I’ll bleed out and die,” I said.
“Mom and Dad will be home soon, they can take care of you,” said Toby.
Tears roll down my face as I realize for the first time that they are never coming back. They were dead, I had seen it, I just hadn’t accepted it yet, not until now.
“Mom and Dad are…dead,” I said.
Toby begins to cry as I rock him gently in my arms, drifting in and out of consciousness. The sound of music causes me to stir and when I open my eyes, I’m inside of the bomb shelter laying on a bed with a blanket over me. Too my right I see Brian and Toby playing a card game. Pulling up my shirt and pulling back the bandage I look at the stitches where my wound was once before. Running my fingers over the stitches I’m in awe at the precision that came out of a mere twelve year-old boy.
“You’ve been out for almost six hours. I figured you must be starving, so I made you some soup,” said Brian.
“Thank you,” I said.
To think I almost shot him. He saved my life even after I was ready to take his. This world we live in now, what had we become? We’re so violent. Maybe we deserve the wrath of the quake and the fires. Maybe we’re being sorted out, tested to see who’s worth saving.
“I’m really glad you are here,” I said to Brian.
“Just for the record, I never thought you were fat. I always thought you were, um…are…beautiful.”
Jogging along the auto-track that runs where the sidewalks used to be years ago, my eyes are quickly drawn to an object half-buried in the ground below. Jumping off the track, I almost twist my ankle. The ground is dusty, dry and grassless. I backtrack to find the object I spotted. This part of town hasn’t been kept up in years; it’s intriguing to find anything here at all.
Pulling on the dark black object protruding from the ground, almost falling over, I use my fingers to burrow the dirt surrounding it, setting it free. It’s a gun. It has been many years since I have seen a weapon. They were all banned over thirty years ago by the Women’s Republic of States. Not even our police women are issued them anymore. They weren’t necessary as there is rarely an event that would cause a need for such a violent invention.
Still, this gun looks in good condition. There’s powder on the handle and three bullets in the chamber. I examine it carefully; recalling my days at the academy training with them before they became outlawed. My nose picks up a smoky scent suggesting that the firing of this weapon occurred recently.
A rustling in the bushes a few hundred feet away catches my attention. Someone is watching me. Instinctually, I pull the gun into my chest, closing the bullet-filled chamber and ready it. Whatever is preying on me is moving in fast. I spin around aiming the weapon in their direction but there is nothing there. Suddenly I feel the gun being ripped out of my hands, my body pushed gently against a tree and my hands tied behind it.
Helpless and unable to see my captor, I wrestle to tap the emergency help button that’s latched onto my ankle in hopes to send out a signal to a local authority, but I am pushed to my knees and my ankles separated.
“Who are you? Show yourself?” I scream.
Suddenly, three men appear in front of me out of thin air.
“My apologies Alexis, but we had to take precautions to ensure you didn’t run away or alert the authorities. My name is Crandos and these are my brothers. We come from the planet Aconia,” said Crandos.
“I’ve never heard of it. What are you doing on Earth and what do you want with me?”
“We’ve come here because we need your help,” said Crandos.
“How can I help you?” I ask.
“Our world is under attack by an army of vigilantes who want to take over our planet. We managed to capture all of them but one. His name is Joffer and he’s a very dangerous man. We followed him throughout the galaxy and found him here on Earth.” He said.
We’ve been trying desperately to seek audience with you. There’s nowhere on your world where there is privacy anymore except out here. We knew we’d find you here on your daily jog,” said Crandos.
“So you’ve been stalking me?” I ask.
“Seeking a private meeting with you,” he corrected.
“Then why am I tied to a tree?” I ask.
They untie me and sit themselves down on some nearby tree stumps.
“We need you to find this man and seduce him.”
“We scanned our database and you are an exact match based on his tastes; his perfect woman to be blunt. You’ll get his attention,” he said.
“Then what?” I ask.
“Once you gain his trust, his defenses will be down and then you can kill him,” he said.
“Kill him? That seems extreme. What do you have that he wants so badly?”
“We have an unlimited amount of natural resources that other planets are running out of, including Earth and he wants them,” said Crandos.
Sitting myself down on the ground, I quickly grab the nearby gun, aim it and shoot all three of them point-blank in the head.
“All clear Joffer,” I said.
“See baby, I told you we were meant to be. Even the Aconias think so,” said Joffer.
“You’re such a romantic,” I said.
“Now lets go find us some oil, shall we?” said Joffer.
I was only nine years old when she left me. Her frail body lay lifeless on the hospital bed, eyes still open as the last hint of breath escaped her pale lips. With heads hung low, my family stood over her, crying and mourning her loss. But, I couldn’t put my head down; I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
Suddenly, I saw her mouth slowly open and a faint light pour out. It became brighter and brighter as it circled above her almost blinding me. Frozen in my steps I stood, unable to speak and desperately hoping someone else would look up, but nobody did. They didn’t see it. It made a straight line up to the ceiling, a tumble of brilliant orange fog that spilled in the air above her then slipped out a nearby window. My knees finally unlocked and I ran to the window, pressing my face against it, hoping to follow the light, to see where my mother was going next.
Someone grabbed me from behind to try and console me, or perhaps they thought I was being rude running around and looking out the window at such a time, but I couldn’t help it. That was my mother’s essence and I didn’t want to lose it.
“Wait for me!” I screamed out the window, as the light lingered on a nearby tree branch in the park of the hospital grounds.
“Brandon honey, it will be alright,” said my Aunt Susan.
I turned back around to a room full of tear-filled faces staring at me, reaching out their arms. I looked back out the window at the essence hanging off the branch, getting ready to move on, impatiently waiting for me to make up my mind.
Slowly, I turned and faced the crowd of relatives, mapped out a path to the door and before I could change my mind I sprinted across the room, through the door, and down the stairs. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me and it was a good thing too, because when I got to the tree, the essence had started to move along.
Across the hospital parking lot and into a nearby field she flew overhead, slowly dipping lower and lower as if she wanted to make sure I could catch up. After a few minutes we reached a creek where she lingered above the waterfall, creating a perfect rainbow that stretched overhead. We use to come here a lot before she got sick. We would swim, skip rocks and even go fishing. I never knew my father, but that didn’t stop my mom from teaching me all the things a father would teach a son. In a way, she was both, and so the loss seemed twice as hard.
She made her way to the other side, teasing me to move forward. I was always afraid to cross the creek, even in the shallow end, but as she moved along I knew I had to, or else I would lose her. Even in death, she is teaching me to be strong. Safely across the creek I continued to follow her, gasping for breath, my heart beating wildly and my eyes filling with tears at the sheer pain, love and heartache I was feeling.
When we reached the main road I realized we were outside of Tuckerman’s ice cream. She was lingering around the lamppost, causing it to shine even brighter than usual. She used to take me here every Sunday.
“What’s the best day for dessert?” she’d joke.
“Sunday!” I’d answer.
That joke never got old.
As I stared up at the glistening light of her essence, I felt anger fill my heart. I was angry that I couldn’t see her or touch her or talk to her just one more time.
“How am I going to live without you mom?” I yelled.
I felt my voice crack as the tears poured down my face. My hands trembled. Anger shot through my veins and I started bashing my fists against a nearby building.
She began moving again, down the street in the direction of our house. How can I ever step foot in that house again knowing she’s not there? Knowing that she will never be there again? I was getting tired, but she kept moving. Running on emotion, I picked up the pace and ran as fast as I could, keeping in time with her, with every street, every corner, and every driveway until we reached ours.
She lingered around the tree in the front yard. The one with the tire swing she had put up for me last summer. I slowly walked over and sat inside, wiping my face with my sleeve then wrapping my arms around the tire as if I was hugging her. Resting my head against the rope, I held on for a while, slowly swaying back and forth as if she was holding me in her arms, rocking me back to a happier time.
By now I had calmed a bit and she was making her way into the house through my bedroom window. I was hesitant at first, but I didn’t want to lose her. I carefully stepped up to the front door and with hesitation I opened it and stepped inside the hall. My legs froze. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to be here, in this house, knowing I would never see her face in it again.
My knees began to tremble and then a surge of anger ripped through my belly up into my chest and I began barreling up the stairs knocking pictures off the walls with my fists, pushing hallway furniture and plants out of my way and disregarding the sound of them smashing on the floor as I plowed by. When I got to my bedroom at first I couldn’t open the door because I was shaking so badly. I began punching and kicking it repeatedly until it finally flung open, landing me face first on the floor.
Tears soaked the beige carpet beneath me as I clenched my nails into it, screaming in pain. My heart ached and my stomach was turning. I couldn’t pick up my head; I didn’t want to look at the world. But she wouldn’t let me give up. Her light flickered off a snow globe that had landed on the floor directly in my line of vision. She had given me that snow globe just this past Christmas.
I crawled towards it, picked it up and cradled it in my palms, looking it over as if for the first time. The light circled throughout the globe and then quickly bounced up and out towards my dresser. I stood up and found myself staring back at my own reflection. My eyes were red and puffy, my nose runny, my lip was cracked and my fists were bleeding. The light surrounded the mirror.
“I can’t lose you,” was all I could say, over and over again.
Then I finally saw her. She was in the mirror, standing next to me. We had the same eyes, the same chin. The same dark hair and freckles around the nose.
She smiled and my heart lifted. We stood there, staring at each other in silence until finally she leaned over and whispered into my ear.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too, mom,” I said.
“I will always be with you, for I am in you, right here, always,” she put her hand on my heart.
I put my hand on my heart as well. I could feel her inside my heart, lighting me up as she always did. Making everything better, as she always had.
Slowly her reflection crossed over onto mine and then faded away.
She wasn’t gone. She was just inside me now, inside my heart forever, and as I live she lives, as I breathe she breathes. She is the light that guides me, and reminds me that I am never alone.
This story is dedicated to my childhood friend Theresa “Terry” P. Jones who died tragically on October 11, 2011 at the age of 37, in a fatal car crash leaving behind her young son. I dedicate this story to her and her son in hopes that he finds peace with her death.