by Kathryn Stein
“I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle. Here is my spout.
When I get all steamed up hear me shout, tip me over and pour me out.”
April 15th, 1955 was arguably the end—and the beginning. Broken murals in this broken city depict clouds rising above the heads of ignorant men in uniform; Eisenhower’s face on crumbling brick, iris’ and pupils black. Can he not face this world he’s destroyed, or do we demonize him? Like one man, an arguable figurehead of power, brought about annihilation. And what have we done, in the wake of our civilization? Before and after, people (if that’s what we still are) remain divided. One hundred and thirty years since those tests made nuclear weapons commonplace, and now I stand amongst animals masquerading as men.
“Simon, if you don’t put down the fuckin’ pen and help me, RAD water is all we’ll be drinkin’ til’ the next rain.”
As I helped Leighton set out plastic bottles a foot outside of our makeshift home, I couldn’t help but think the plastic is most likely just as irradiated as the water. Proof of which smeared across my cheek; a red stain under my nose signifying my DNA mutating faster than the god damned government “anti-splice” could counter. Post-translational modification of our DNA is seriously screwed up, or in other words, the ionizing radiation is damaging all our biomolecules, which, in turn, is causing some pretty serious transformations. Leighton, for example, used to have an aversion to his facemask. Now he suffers from “slough-cheek”, which luckily no one sees, because now he wears his mask.
“You know it’s all pointless right? You might as well drink the water, take off the mask, and let what comes come, because the government is goin’ to abandon us and all that’ll be left is the fuckers we used to call crazy, hold up in their bunkers they built before the big drop.”
At first I thought keeping a log would benefit the reconstruction. I’d write about what had happened, how we survived, and the people’s hopes for the new world. I now know it’s useless, but it’s become a habit. Leighton stays optimistic, but he’s always been that way, even before it all went to hell. I used to be like him. I found beauty in our destruction—the re-domination of nature over human constructs. We can now see the stars, which at first brought me peace, but now serve as millions of tiny smoldering reminders of the bomb. The animals have taken over the streets and seamlessly acquired our place. I imagine them raising their young, foraging, hunting and living in a more civilized world than I. I applaud them and their resilience, and earnestly hope that soon this world will be theirs alone, for I am the Stranger among them. I no longer weep for what we’ve lost, but find solace in the thought of a world without us in it.
Leighton and I had worked together to build a small home for us. Not that I thought a “home” was necessary anymore, but I felt an obligation to Leighton. Back before the “big-drop” he helped me pull out of my post-divorce depression; but it’s pointless now. Marriage, divorce, depression; such thoughts have no place in this world. Now, we concern ourselves with finding food and protecting our shelter because, if we aren’t careful, there’s always someone to steal it.
It was my turn to scavenge, so Leighton stayed behind to keep watch. I grabbed the antique Remington R51 I swiped off a body I came across with full on slough. Poor guy never got his hands on any government-issue anti-RAD gear, and from so much exposure, his skin had practically melted off his frame. It wasn’t safe to hold up in buildings anymore. Hospitals, homes and stores are the first place everyone goes now for supplies. If you’re unlucky, you could run across some real unsavory folk. So I made my way back down to the main road. I had about a 30 minute walk to the closest neighborhood, so with my gun clutched tight in one hand and my flashlight in the other, I made my way into town with the moon at my back.
The first house I came upon was your typical American home. Kentucky Bluegrass over grown, almost undistinguishable from the weeds and broken wood fence with peeling paint, reminiscent of the previous owner of my handgun. I first checked the mailbox. You’d be surprised how many people hide supplies there, supposing when they pass through next time they’ll have a secure source of rations—that is, if there is a next time. I picked up a roll of Ritz crackers and made my way up to the front door, which was already ajar. Gun drawn, I nudged the door fully open and quietly went inside. As I stood in a ravaged living room, I felt out of place. Pre-drop, this room would have been my ideal. Leather living room set with a once animated family portrait hung above the couch. Mother, father, three kids and a golden retriever. If I hadn’t gotten divorced, could this have been me? Pointless. Thoughts like this are what get you killed, and I had to stay alive for Leighton’s sake. I made my way through the rest of the house, finding little more than a couple cans of Campbell’s and some extra batteries for my flashlight. How long has it been since I’ve had a real, home-cooked meal? Must be going on a year and half since the “big drop”.
I left the house and began making my way to the next when I heard the cry of an infant. Instinctively, I ran. Ten steps short of the walkway and I could hear the fast approach of people, who by the sound of it were unfriendly.
“Let’s hurry this up. Remember, we don’t got time for mercy anymore. If you even smell someone’s sweat you better draw your fucking gun. One straggler we leave alive is one more asshole we gotta worry about stabbing us in the back.”
As I hid amongst some over grown bushes that had commandeered the better part of the sidewalk, I could tell they were heading towards the house with the baby. There were four of them, three men and a woman, and I was no match for them. “Turn around and don’t look back”, I thought to myself, but my conscience held me in place. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out one can of soup. As hard as I could, I threw the can across the street, and with a pop and a splatter of French Onion, all four turned to face the noise and gave me my chance. I had six bullets, a good eye and a steady hand. Rising above the bushes, I took my aim, and the first bullet found the back of the tallest man’s head. Now fully aware, the remaining three drew their weapons.
“Simon should’ve been back by now” thought Leighton, while setting a small fire to boil his collected rainwater. Leighton knew that some day soon the government would figure out how to de-RAD us all. He knew, with all he had, that they wouldn’t be abandoned, and that the absence of the government, for the time being, was only a sign that they were working that much harder to save us.
“When the reconstruction comes, Simon and I have to be ready. I was an idiot for not wearing my gear. How can we help this city if we’re sick?” Leighton spoke to himself to ward off his anxiety. At first, right after the “big drop”, he thought like Simon did. Cynicism for the reconstruction and contempt for the government; but he found his hope. Hope is what kept them going. It was their reason for collecting rainwater, scavenging for food, and for Simon’s journal. Leighton knew that behind Simon’s disparaging words, he also held hope somewhere deep in his heart.
The remaining three were almost upon me, but I had faith in my aim. Peeking out from behind the bushes I took aim once more, and once more, the bullet found the forehead of a second man.
“They talk tough but they’re droppin’ like flies” I said aloud, mockingly. Almost in response, I felt my shoulder searing. One of their shots landed, but it made no difference. I stood up from behind my worthless bush barricade and charged the final man. The woman wasn’t expecting this and leapt back, leaving the man vulnerable. Both him and I fired, and both him and I were hit. My aim was dead on, once again, but then I could no longer feel my left arm. The woman, surrounded by her dead comrades, lost it. Screaming so shrill she rivaled nails on a chalkboard, she jumped into my chest. We hit the ground, and in her fury, she tossed aside her gun in favor of her fists. Two punches fell square to my jaw before I had enough, and I drew my gun up to her head and fired. As I lay in the street, blood spilling from the woman’s head down my neck and drenching the clothes beneath my gear, the newfound calm was broken by the infant’s cries.
“I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle. Here is my spout. When I get all steamed up hear me shout, tip me over and pour me out.”
In the house I found a mother sitting on the kitchen floor, wearing only a dirty t-shirt and jeans, swaddling an infant that couldn’t have been more than three months old. She didn’t notice and continued to softy sing.
“Are you fuckin’ crazy, lady!” Said the man covered in blood.
What rotten luck this kid had. Not only to be born after the “big drop”, but he was about to lose his mother soon, too.
Please…” was all she managed to say before fainting, baby still cradled. If I hadn’t gotten divorced, would this have been my wife? My son? The slough had already set in, but wasn’t too severe. She needed anti-RAD gear now if she was going to survive. Without another thought, I removed my gear, piece by piece with one hand, and dressed her. As I put my facemask on her she opened her eyes, and without words, I could see that familiar glimmer of gratitude and the rekindling of hope. I dropped my sack of crackers and remaining cans of soup, placed my gun with two remaining bullets next to her on the floor, and walked out from the house. The stars were abundant, and ignoring the smell of blood in the streets, I gazed upwards towards the heavens and hoped for a second chance. For that mother, her son, Leighton and humanity, I prayed that they would find hope again and someday live in a world where human’s worst enemy is not themselves.