Contest #25 shortlist ⭐️

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Jan 22, 2020

Science Fiction Teens & Young Adult Speculative

The ground isn’t burned beneath your feet. It makes sense that it wouldn’t be—the bombs never came here—but the grass under your toes is deceptive. You sigh, and put your shoes back on. You’ll never admit it, but your mom is right. There’s too much broken glass left over from the riots.

Nobody thought it would come here—there hadn’t been a war on American soil since… well, the Civil War, you suppose. Nobody was expecting it, at least. And in true American fashion, the backlash caused uproar throughout the city. More people had been killed by the riots than the bombs, although nobody quite knows if the riots were instigated by citizens or by the European Alliance. In some history book, or on some AP exam, you’re sure, it will be debated someday. But not here, on Eighth street.

It’s only been a week since everything snapped. It’s hard to believe, and even harder to mourn for your cousins, who had lived in Washington DC, and had been killed when the first bombs fell. If it had been at any other time, you’re sure you would have been devastated, and in some respects you are. But it’s not the news report you can’t get out of your head but the hushed voice your father used as your family crouched in the gym of your old elementary school, whispering prayers you didn’t know he remembered, hoping that your city wouldn’t be next. It probably won’t, you know. You hope, anyway. There’s nothing important here, you console yourself, trying very hard not to remember what happened to Springfield, Missouri just a few hours after. Springfield’s not that far away from here.

The riots stopped a few days ago, but the streets are still quiet. Most of the people that live here have fled to the countryside by now, if they can, and most of the people that live in the state capital have fled here, escaping the fire. The riots were worse in the capital. Your mother wanted to go to your grandparents’ house, but then European Alliance soldiers appeared in the neighboring suburb and she decided it was safer to stay put. They kicked you and your family out of the elementary school though, when the people from the state capital came, and you went home. Your house had stayed pretty much the same except your brother’s betta fish died. Everything had remained, right where you left it. Your bed was still unmade.

It feels too normal for a war. Too calm. Some building windows are smashed, some streets littered with abandoned cars, but for the most part, life is normal. Your friend, Cal, went back to work today, which feels insane. He fixes bikes, though, so at least it’s a useful skill if everything hits the fan. You’re not going to work, although you suppose your part-time job at the coffee shop wouldn’t be any less safe than staying at home—your family doesn’t even have a basement. If the Alliance came, it wouldn’t matter where you were.

Standing in the middle of the street though, you have to admit, is probably the most unsafe thing you could do. But what else were you supposed to do? Stay huddled in your living room, waiting for something to happen? You couldn’t take it anymore.

At least here, the air is easier. And it doesn’t smell like smoke anymore, which is… good. Is this what war is supposed to be like? In the books and movies its more… active. More panicked. The panic, at least for now, has ebbed away, following people back into their homes, off the streets. You’re worried, of course. But there’s just so much… down time. You haven’t been able to talk to anyone who’s actually been a warzone before—your relatives, around during the Vietnam and Korean war, mostly, lived here, so they don’t know what it’s like to have their home threatened like this. So you don’t really know if the way you’re feeling is right. You should probably be more… freaked out, right? Nobody ever thought real, actual war would come here, so you suppose part of your incredulousness probably comes from the fact that nobody ever prepared you for what this would be like.

It may have been wise, you reason, to come up with a plan of where to go. You told your mother you were just walking around the block; that was an hour or so ago, so you’d better have a good reason for being gone so long. None of the shops are open—Cal’s the only person you know who’s gone back to work, even though it’s been two days. Most of them have been looted. Your younger sister was scolded when she went out with her friends the night you moved back to your house, but everyone in your household was thankful when she brought back food before all the riots really kicked up and it wasn’t safe to leave the house. You have a sneaking suspicion that she left to join the riots too, but it wasn’t worth brining up to your parents, who probably already knew. That was probably why they’d let you go on a walk in the first place.

If there is nothing to eat and nothing to do, you might as well enjoy the sunlight. It feels wrong that it’s so sunny, but at least the heat keeps you warm enough, as you walk the deserted streets. Two more cities were bombed yesterday, you know in your heart, cities just like this one. But it doesn’t feel real.

You’re about to turn back home when a small shop, relatively undamaged aside from a broken window, catches your eye—it’s new. Based on the sign hung on the cracked open door, it had just been opened when the first bombs dropped. It’s a bookstore; you make a mental note to tell your brother about it. Nobody’s home, it appears—you’re able to open the door and peer inside with no problem. Your heart falls a little upon seeing the sorry state it’s in; the place has been ransacked, and although it appears untouched by fire, very few books remain.

At least people are reading. There’s a message in there somewhere, that in event of apocalypse people are still reading. You’re not really sure what the message is, but there’s something there. And there are more books than you thought, you discover, carefully stepping around the mess of papers on the floor. Shame to do that to books, really. Luckily, despite being strewn about, it appears most of them aren’t destroyed.

The front few shelves, romance and young adult it seems, have gotten the worst of it—the further you go back into the store, the more complete the shelves are, until you reach the very back of the store, where there’s half a shelf of books filled with word problems. Lower on the shelf, with a few missing, are self-help books. Your grandmother loves these—she loves to learn about decluttering her home, or relaxing, or the benefits of self-meditation. It never really stuck, but by now you’re so used to seeing one or two of these books on her side table that the mere concept of a self-help book reminds you of her and you smile. You haven’t seen her since your cousins died.

The first self-help book you pick up is one about broadening your mind, and the helpful hints it gives don’t feel particularly helpful in this day and age. Pick up a new instrument? Make some bad art? You suppose learning a language would be nice—the US very suddenly became allies with China and Russia and you don’t know a lick of either of their languages. The fact that they came to your rescue, sending aid and troops to Olympia a few days after the decimation of Washington DC was unexpected but you figure it was no less unexpected than the bombs the Queen of England had been fashioning under Buckingham Palace. Who knew it was possible to use Neptunium in that way? You certainly didn’t.

Thinking about the circumstances for two long makes your stomach hurt. At least the pretty drawings in the book are still cheerful even now.

The second book on the shelf is about making money, and about how you have to have a positive mindset and really believe in yourself. You know that someday, probably, this will end and money will be important again, but eating stolen food in your house makes you doubt it. At least not for a while. That kind of self-help can’t particularly help you now. Nor can the power of self-care and meditation. Maybe it’ll calm you, you think, but it just feels better to be stressed out about it. Stressed feels protective, stress feels alert, stress feels ready. Besides, you’ve been struggling for weeks with whether or not you’re allowed to feel okay. Not being stressed all the time feels irresponsible.

You suppose the book on how to eat healthily would be helpful if it focused on stolen foods that you hoarded and rationed in your house. The world will start again soon, your father promises, choking on cereal you’ve had in the back of the cabinet for years—you keep telling him that he doesn’t have to eat stale Cheerios, you’ve bought groceries more recently, but he refuses, saying that when you’re starving later, he’d rather you still have good things to eat than bad. There’s a sort of logic to it.

So much advice and none for when Europe drops Neptunium-based bombs on major US cities and also Springfield, Missouri.

You sigh, and grab a few of what’s left of the young adult books. They’re all about terrible things happening, right? Maybe they’ll make you feel more inspired. Or more depressed and anxious. Only one way to find out, you suppose. You grab a John Green book for your brother and a book of owl facts for your sister. You’re not surprised it hasn’t been taken—it looks totally dry and boring—but it’ll make your sister happy. You hope. She hasn’t been the same—none of you had, but she’s taken it harder than most.

The self-help books seem to be calling to you, because that’s what you really need right now, isn’t it? They all promise you some sort of certainty about the future, and all you really want is to be certain of the future.

You grab a self-help book about being positive and having faith in your future. Maybe, in a few years, it’ll help.

It’s funny how quickly law-abiding citizens turn to theft; you’re barely thinking about the fact that you are technically stealing the books while you walk out with them, back towards your home. A plane flies overhead, and you can’t help but crouch, even though you know if it’s an English plane there’d be nothing you could do to stop whatever was going to happen. Maybe it’s an American plane though. Or from your allies, a friendly plane.

Not knowing makes your heart race.

You clutch the self-help book, knowing it won’t help with this panic, not now, and maybe not ever, but, for a single, irrational, ridiculous second, it’s the only hope you have for a certain future. 

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4 comments

Renee Ferrell
18:31 Jan 30, 2020

I love this unexpected "take" on the topic. I was drawn in immediately. I thought it was pretty neat to tie in the grandma. Now I really want to know which plane it was and what's going to happen next!

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Tori Routsong
07:22 Jan 31, 2020

Thank you so much!

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Pamela Saunders
22:16 Jan 27, 2020

Apart from a few spelling errors, this is brilliant. So insightful. I love how you wrote about when it feels right to be stressed not calm. And how different things make the character self-aware in various ways. The amount of detail feels just right to make the whole story believable.

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Tori Routsong
03:30 Jan 28, 2020

Thank you so much!

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