Ominous black clouds hovering over the city in early morning portended the day ahead.
See how I used that word. “portended”? That word was on the vocabulary list this week. The last vocabulary list I will ever get, by the way.
So, big whoop-dee-doo, I know the word. And I’m using it because it fits with the rest of my story, which is the story of The End of Everything We Knew.
We left the underground–that’s the subway station’s security team living quarters, to anyone who doesn’t know–early this morning, just like we do every school day. We go up and out to the surface with Dad, take the bus to school and in the afternoon, he shows up there to ride the bus back with us.
Dad calls this “Banker’s Hour Privileges”. Jake and I call it embarrassing, but what can you do? The city is full of awful people; we’re just kids, and we know that. He can’t go with us in the morning, so we have to text him as soon as we get to school.
Well… we had to.
I looked out at the city as we left the subway entrance. Low-lying black clouds hovered over the skyscrapers, and I sighed. Surely it would be raining hard before noon, and there went my plans for any practice on the soccer field before Dad met us.
Dad kissed and hugged us as he put us on the bus this morning. It’s something he has always done, and sometimes it made me feel babyish and embarrassed, but I’m happy at the same time.
Especially tonight. Jake is, too. It’s the last hug and kiss from Dad we’re ever going to get. We kissed and hugged Mom before we left, too. She works the underground, so she’s…I don’t know.
I don’t know anything.
Jake and I usually don’t sit together on the bus; we both have friends who sit with us, and so he was across the aisle from me. I was sitting in the aisle seat and my friend Monica was by the window. Jake’s friend Stan was by the other window.
When the bus stopped suddenly, Jake and I and some other kids were thrown to the floor. The windows all exploded seconds later, and the kids who were by them were…awful.
I had landed on my back, and Jake landed on top of me, knocking the breath out of me. Still, when Monica’s head rolled off the seat and bounced off Jake’s backpack, I managed an admirably loud scream.
I looked over in time to see the rest of Monica slide down the seat and onto the floor, blood spouting from the neck where her head had been attached seconds before.
I shoved Jake up and off of me, sitting up quickly to avoid being bathed in her blood. Jake was crying, his breath hitching alarmingly, and I saw that his hair was full of broken glass. I needn’t have concerned myself about blood–we were both covered in it, and God alone knew whose it might have been.
Stan still had his head, but he was as dead as Monica. We were surrounded by dead people. The few who were still alive were moaning and crying, bleeding and battered.
I pulled Jake into my arms. “Is it your asthma?” I whispered, alarmed by his breathing.
“No,” he replied. I believed him; he’s the best judge of his own symptoms. “I’m just…God! What happened?”
He’d felt the thump of Monica’s head when it bounced off him, and I thanked God or Jesus or whoever that he was still wearing his backpack when that happened. He hadn’t seen it, and I held him close to me to keep him from turning his head. He wanted to look at Stan; Monica’s head had come to a rest between the dead boy’s feet.
“I don’t know what happened,” I admitted. “But I think we need to get off the bus now.”
“Stan is gone now,” I told him gently, then quickly turned his head away when he tried to look. “No, don’t! Better not to…not to look.” I gulped, my mouth suddenly full of saliva. I knew I was in imminent danger of tossing my cookies, and I didn’t want to do that. “Monica is gone, too.”
Jake took a couple of deep breaths, blinking rapidly to fight back more tears. With a determined look on his face, he nodded at me. “Let’s go.”
We were closer to the back than the front, so we crawled and pushed our way over passengers, some living, some so far gone they might have to backtrack to get to heaven. We tried not to look, but that was impossible.
All I can say is, at least they were strangers. It was bad enough seeing Stan and Monica; I didn’t want to look at another familiar face, not under those conditions.
By the time we reached the back, a couple other surviving passengers had pushed the door open. A woman helped us get down to the ground–I swear, she was seven feet tall! Her lips had been painted in stripes of black and hot pink, and the lipstick had smeared, but her pink mascara was flawless. She hadn’t cried at all, even though she had a nasty gash in her thigh. I couldn’t stop staring at it after she set me down. The flesh had separated and gaped, showing muscle and sinew and bleeding veins–or arteries, who knows?
Up one side, and down the other, veins here, arteries there.
Did I really need to think about anatomy at a time like this? Was I one sick puppy, or what? And was that even right? God, I felt sick!
The man with her was easily over six feet tall himself, but he looked short standing next to her. He swung Jake to the ground, setting him on his feet carefully. Jake teetered a bit, and the man asked, “Gonna fall, son?”
“No,” Jake replied. “I’m fine. Thank you.” He put his arms around my waist, pushing his hands under my backpack to manage it. I swallowed hard, still fighting a rising gorge.
The tall woman reached up into the bus and helped an old woman out. She looked to be about a hundred, and was no bigger than a minute; not even as tall as I, and I’m pretty short for my age.
I pulled away from Jake, urgently moving toward the sidewalk, the nearby clump of bushes, but I didn’t make it. I puked in the gutter, and groaned with embarrassment.
“Better out than in,” the old woman said. Her voice was high and sweet. “Best to let it go, lass.”
“Mmm.” I nodded, but didn’t dare speak. Not yet. I hurried to the bushes and let it go. Jake followed but didn’t hover too closely.
When I turned back, I could see that a couple of kids and a middle-aged man had gotten out the front of the bus. The little girl, who might have been as old as eight, had a big gash above her eyebrow; she kept wiping blood out of her eye as the wound bled copiously.
The boy had a considerably fat lip that was oozing blood. He looked…crooked, somehow. I realized, with a start, that he was a classmate of mine.
He must have realized the same thing at the same time, because his eyes widened and he asked, “Stella? That you?”
“Yes, Paul. Are you–?” I was going to say “okay”, but it was such a stupid question that I didn’t finish it.
He barked a pained laugh. “I think I dislocated my shoulder.”
Ah. That would explain the crooked look of him.
We stood beside the bus comparing wounds, a rag tag crew of seven.
The tall woman was Dale, and her friend was Ted. She sat on the step inside the bus door while Ted tore strips from his t-shirt and bound the wound on her leg. I watched for a brief moment, but when he started pushing things together, I decided it would be best if I didn’t throw up again, and moved away.
The old woman was Grace. She found a pashmina in her bag and used it to wrap the little girl’s forehead wound. “What’s your name, honey?” she asked as she wound the cloth around and around, until she’d fashioned a bright turban.
“Julie.” The little girl was pale, but didn’t fuss. She was younger than Jake, who is ten, but as soon as her head was wrapped, she sidled over to stand with him.
The middle aged man turned out to be a teacher, Mr. Scott, who taught at the high school across from the K through 8 we attended.
An explosion rocked the ground beneath our feet, and we all found ourselves laying belly-down. “We need to get off the street,” Dale said.
“We can go to the subway,” I suggested, and we all began to hurry toward the nearest entrance. Even as we ran, we could see other people joining the trek, like-mindedly seeking shelter underground.
But when we got there, the entrance was jammed with people, and Jake and I could plainly see that the gates had been lowered and locked. We exchanged meaningful looks; we’d lived below our whole lives, and we understood the protocol. It all came down to preserving the resources for the local population.
Jake gulped. Moving close to me, he whispered, “Will they look for us?”
“How?” I countered, just as another explosion rocked the city. “If they’ve locked down, no one is coming out for anything.”
“Can we get to Dad?”
We pushed our way out of the crowd and back to the curb, and I studied what was left of the street. Cars were off the roadway facing every direction; some had overturned. Busses were stalled or wrecked. Trains were derailed.
Injured people staggered everywhere, looking like zombies on the prowl. My blood ran cold with the very thought of it–zombies!
I shook the image off and looked at the pleading face of my little brother. “We’d have to walk,” I said. “It’s far. And…and if he’s alive, he would come looking for us at the school.”
“That’s where we should go, then,” Jake said. His tone was reasonable, but his eyes were dark with fear.
Mr. Scott was nearby, and had overheard. “It’s not far,” he said. “But we should find a way to get off this street and make our way.”
“To where?” Dale asked. Our little bus group had reassembled with ease, and for some reason I found that calming.
“The school. Provided it hasn’t been overrun by…by…”
“Yeah,” Ted agreed. “By whoever.”
Mr. Scott led our group off the street and through a park, and that should have been easy–cutting our way through bypassed several turns and stops the bus would have made. But it wasn’t easy.
Explosions continued, for one thing. But it was weird–we could see the destruction: overturned park benches, uprooted trees, heaved areas of lawn with gaping cracks and piles of soil–but we never saw anything that looked like a bomb.
“What has happened here?” Miss Grace demanded, her sweet voice now shrill with fear. “Are there land mines?”
No one bothered to answer, because no one knew what the answer was. There were plenty of bodies, but none appeared–to me, at least–to have been blown up by some sort of bomb.
I mean–if you step on a land mine, you’d be blown to bits, right? Or at least lose a foot or leg, I imagine.
The bodies we saw were…er…complete. You know, whole. Not parts.
This is hard. Writing this down is hard. It hurts somehow, remembering what we saw today.
When we finally made it through what was left of the park–dodging humped up piles of sod, climbing over fallen trees if we couldn’t get around them, skirting bodies–hours had gone by. We were sweaty, filthy and exhausted.
Paul had been lagging behind and needed help; his dislocated shoulder made it nearly impossible to climb over the trees and debris. Dale was as strong as she was tall, and in spite of the gash in her leg, she was moving pretty well. She helped Paul get over and through, and when she needed help herself, Ted stepped up to the task.
She didn’t need help often; she’s one tough lady.
I couldn’t help but notice that the bandage on her leg was soaked with blood, though. Her face was chalky, and her makeup job was pretty much sliding off her face in a mixture of sweat and tears. Her eyes were red; that’s how I decided she’d finally cried.
And why shouldn’t she? Everyone else has certainly shed some tears today, and we’re entitled. Mostly, though? I would say we’ve been a strong group.
Mr. Scott remarked that we’d be able to deal with injuries better if we could get inside. As we came through the last few yards of the destruction that used to be a beautiful city park, we could see that our school was damaged and nearly unrecognizable.
The high school appeared virtually untouched.
We approached cautiously. At this point, we had no idea if anyone was inside, and if there were people–well…would they be our people?
Mr. Scott led us to a back entrance. It was locked, but he had the key. We slipped inside and found ourselves in the hall near the boys’ locker rooms. A little further down the hall was the door to the gym.
“The gym is the designated shelter,” Mr. Scott told us. “It’s where everyone is supposed to go in case of tornado or hurricane…”
“Or bombing,” Paul whispered.
As we made our way to the gym, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so scared. Jake was squeezing my hand so hard I thought my fingers would break, but I didn’t say anything; I would have done the same if I was holding on to anyone else.
I think we all expected the gym to be full of people; there were fewer than a dozen. There were a couple of teenagers, and some grownups.
No one spoke; I think those people had been too shocked to do anything, but Mr. Scott and Ted went to work barring the doors right away, and a couple other men joined them.
There was some quiet conversation then, but we’d seen and heard enough by then, I guess. We all huddled together; scared children actually striving to be unseen and unheard for the time being.
Jake, Paul, Julie and I all moved away from the older people and now we’re sitting between the wall and the bleachers. I had to write this all down–I felt seriously compelled to leave some record in case something happens soon.
But it’s hard. I’d like to write something hopeful or profound, but I’m just a dumb, scared kid with a lot of questions and no answers. I don’t know if Daddy will find us, or if anyone else will. I don’t know these people–what if they turn out to be…not good?
I suppose at some point someone will help Paul with his shoulder and check Julie’s head. Jake and I, by some miracle, aren’t hurt.
I suppose at some point we will have to look for food. Not yet–we all feel sick and scared. But sometime soon we will need to eat.
The power is still on, but God knows for how long. Jake is laying across my lap; I’m using him as a desk while I write and he sleeps. Paul’s head is on my shoulder, and Julie has curled herself into a ball against my side, pressed right up to the wall on one side and Jake’s legs on the other. She’s little; she fits.
I’m squashed and I should feel claustrophobic, but instead I feel insulated, so that’s fine.
I remember Dad kissing us goodbye before we got on the bus.
I remember kissing mom before we left the subway station underground.
I wonder, uselessly, if I will see them again.
I look at Jake’s sleeping face. He looks haunted, even in his sleep.
What are we supposed to do now?