Submitted by Coline Harmon to Contest #9 in response to: Write a story about someone whose lifestyle has changed and is learning to adjust to new circumstances.... view prompt

The wind whistled through the many cracks in the walls of the flimsy cabin, bringing a chill that the fire in the hearth could not keep out. Grandfather knelt down and pulled a scrapbook from the box he kept under his cot. He sat on the cot with his back to the wall and held the scrapbook in his withered blue veined hands. The cabin door opened, flooding the single room with frigid air. His grandson Alaric walked in with a load of freshly chopped wood in his arms and kicked the door shut behind him. "Put those down and drag the chair over, I want to show you something." grandfather says.

Alaric frowns at him but he does what is requested. He throws a few new pieces of wood on the fire and puts the rest into the rusty metal box next to the fireplace. The chair scrapes along the wooden floor as Alaric drags it from in front of the rough stone fireplace to his grandfather's cot in the corner. He flops into the chair and sticks his long legs out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. He crosses his arms across his chest with his profile towards his grandfather.

His grandfather looks at him for a moment. Alaric is only fifteen but he is already as big as a full grown man--over six feet tall. He has his long hair tied back with a leather cord and his beard has filled out in the past year. Alaric doesn't talk much, so his grandfather is not expecting conversation from him. "I'm dying, I can feel it. This cough gets worse all the time." Grandfather says, his voice raspy. Alaric turns his bright blue gaze to him; his grandfather sees something flicker briefly in his normally unemotional eyes. Compassion perhaps?

"I'm glad it was your father's turn to go hunting this time. I have been wanting to show this to you. I have been collecting journal entries, newspaper clippings and anything I could find that survived the bombings. I'm sorry we never taught you to read, else you could read this stuff yourself. We didn't see a need to teach to read, I guess." Alaric looks at the scrapbook as his grandfather begins reading from the singed and tattered pages of a journal.

An alarm went off, along with an electronic recording in a woman's voice "Warning! Warning! Incoming nuclear warheads detected. Four minutes to first impact. Proceed to bunker. Auto launch sequence commencing. Intercept missile launch commencing in two minutes. Proceed to nearest bunker." The message continued, on a loop with twenty seconds of silence between each repetition. People panicked and started running toward the underground bunkers.

"Get General Tsarov on the phone!" The shift officer in charge shouted. His lieutenant scrambled for the phone and quickly dialed. He yelled into it "America has attacked! There are nuclear warheads inbound!"

Sweat poured off the lieutenant's face as he glanced at a bank of monitors, each giant screen showing a different portion of the skies over Russia. No missiles had appeared yet. The alert continued to sound "Three minutes to impact! Proceed to nearest bunker! Intercept missiles launching! Proceed to nearest bunker!"

Grandfather set the pages aside and turned to the next set of pages which were written in different handwriting. "These appear to be written by General Tsarov" grandfather said in a raspy voice

When the call came that we were under attack, I knew there would not be time to get to the launch facility. A second call came from the same lieutenant. This time the message was that the computers had malfunctioned, detecting incoming nukes where there were none. The worse news was that the same computers had already launched a counter-strike. I looked at my watch; three minutes left until the first missile hit New York City. I called the American General. In the background I heard him say . "No! I don't care what he has to say!" Then there was only a dial tone. I am overcome with despair. There is nothing that can be done now.

"That is the end of that entry. I don't know if this General Tsarov survived, but probably not. These are the journal entries of the dead." Grandfather said and he pulled shredded bits of several news articles from the scrapbook

New York City

The streets were crowded as usual as people went about their typical routines. A loud roar in the sky above New York caused people to look up. They saw the missile streaking toward earth. People became a panicked herd of mindless animals and began to run. There was nowhere to run to. Radiation spread from the sites of impact, firestorms erupted filling the air with soot and blotting out the sun. The earth's temperature dropped rapidly.

India and other countries with nuclear weapons quickly launched them, fearing their enemies would get the drop on them.

The old man closed the scrapbook. "It happened eighteen years ago, three years before you were born" he said to his grandson Alaric.

"I spent a lot of that time collecting news reports, journal entries, anything I could find that survived and contained a record of that awful time. Collecting this stuff gave me a purpose. I'm dying..I can feel it."

The old man broke into another fit of coughing, spitting blood into his handkerchief. Alaric noticed it was more blood than usual. When his coughing fit ended, his grandfather continued speaking.

"I've done some stuff I ain't proud of. I stood by and did nothing while other people did bad stuff. A lot of this you know, but there is more." More coughing interrupted him. "Get me some water so I can finish reading you the rest of this."

Alaric got up from his chair next to his grandfather's cot and went to the table and broke the thin sheet of ice that had formed on the top of the water in the metal pitcher, then he poured some in the tin cup next to it.

The old man took several sips of water, it eased the cough and the raspy quality of his voice.

"I want you to know the whole story, so you can do better than we did--not just your parents and me--I mean all of us-- all of humanity. We messed up. Your generation has a chance to start over." Grandfather took another drink.

"You only know the world as it is now--that is why we call your generation the Winterborns, not just because of the endless winter of the past eighteen years, but because your generation is as cold, and lacking compassion as the winter itself." Grandfather held up his hand when it looked like Alaric would say something. "I know it's not your fault."

Grandfather drained the cup and opened the scrapbook again. "There are more entries here--this one is another journal entry. I don't know who wrote this one."

Spring and Summer have fled and hid themselves. Death has walked everywhere since the dark days began and has taken on many forms--the frozen wasteland that Earth quickly became; mutated animals fighting for a share of scarce resources, and former friends and neighbors who have resorted to cannibalism

Grandfather stopped reading and turned his face to the wall with an expression of disgust. "People started eating anyone who was weak, disabled, anyone who couldn't fight back. It was awful--and I was part of it."

He was quiet for a moment--seemingly lost in memories. The only sounds were the wind screaming outside and creeping through the walls, making the fire flicker and snap. Grandfather started coughing again and Alaric brought him some more water. He took a sip and continued his dire reminiscing.

"Many babies were born with deformities--they were either eaten or cast outdoors and left to die in order to conserve resources for the healthier members of the family. Those babies never would have survived, they needed too much care. That doesn't make it right though. You had brothers and a sister."

The old man fixed his bright blue eyes on him, eyes that Alaric and his father had inherited. "Fortunately you have always been healthy. I'm telling you this so you can do better than we did."

Another violent coughing fit rocks the old man's frail frame, lasting for several minutes. Alaric just stared at him with no emotion in his eyes. There was a time when a grandson would have grieved and had compassion to see a grandfather approaching death. Such feelings are a thing of the past. Now there is no room for compassion on the weak and the sick.

Alaric tapped his fingers on his leg and sighed, waiting for the fit to pass. 'Get to the point, if you have one.' he thought but was respectful enough not to say it out loud.

The coughing fit didn't pass. His grandfather started to seize up and it became clear that he couldn't breathe. Finally moved by some small stirring of familial compassion, Alaric tries to help him by shaking him, thumping his back and pounding his chest, to no avail.

His grandfather lost consciousness as foam began to form at his mouth. Then nothing. No coughing. No breath. Alaric knew his grandfather was dead.

The hours passed. The fire burned lower and lower. Alaric glanced repeatedly at the wooden door of the flimsy cabin, waiting for his father to come home from his hunting trip, but the door didn't open and his father did not return. The cold seeped into his bones as the fire in the hearth slowly goes out. Those who don't make it indoors before dark usually don't make it at all. It would take a miracle and they don't exist anymore. Alaric is alone now.

He stood up and went to his cot and pulled the fur over him. He shivered under it for a few moments until it trapped enough of his body heat to warm him. He felt more guilt than grief--knowing his grandfather's death should sadden him more than it did. He also feels relief that he won't have to care for the old man anymore--which brought more guilt for feeling that way.

'I will go out tomorrow to search for Father, as hopeless as that may be' he thought before falling into a shallow restless sleep.

Blindingly bright light woke him several hours later. It hurt his eyes and he turned away from it. Finally his vision adjusted a little, but it was still painful. He slid out from under the fur, noting that the air is not as cold as it should be. There should be a thin sheet of ice covering everything, but there is not.

It was a long time before he could see. He crept over to the window, his eyes still stinging and watering. There were colors in the sky, he had seen them in a picture once. In the Time Before, they called it "sunrise." His grandfather told him about it once.

'What is happening?' he whispered--feeling fear, which he despised. Fear makes you powerless. He glared around the cabin, eyes falling on the still form of his grandfather in the bed. "you can do better than we did." His grandfather's word's come back to him.

Alaric knew what the old man meant. All of surviving humanity had a choice now, to continue being selfish and destructive and ultimately destroy themselves completely. He turned back again to the bright light pouring through the window.

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4 likes 2 comments

20:04 Oct 10, 2019

Well done, Coline. A powerful story containing so much in so few words. You did a great job of putting the reader in that wintery place and the empathy lost in the nuclear fallout. One thing that kept pulling me out of the story, which would be an easy fix, is the tense dropped out of present tense on occasion. If you can make that consistent I think this is a strong short story. Best of luck, and feel free to critique any of my stories, too!


15:49 Oct 12, 2019

Thank you! I am glad you liked the story. This was one I had already written, but I kinda rushed to finish it for the contest. Yes, I do tend to switch from past to present tense without meaning to. I thought I corrected all of them but I must have missed a few.


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