American Fiction Coming of Age

Sibling Survival

“How do you BREATH through these things?” He screamed into the mask. The face-shield immediately fogged-up and now Aaron couldn’t see either.

He squatted down behind a small berm, where a tree had long-ago turned-up its roots. Aaron had run about a half-mile, full-on sprint, and was at the edge of a large wood. He had to risk a breach of his breathing PPE, so he lifted the mask and slid it atop his head. He realized he was hyperventilating, and why wouldn’t he?! There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in that area, and he didn’t recall track-and-field as an activity listed on today’s schedule.

‘Holy fuck, what were those people doing there?’ he thought. “There weren’t supp.., there weren’t supposed to be people.., no people.” He stuttered aloud, as he tried to catch his breath. His heart-rate began to slow a bit.

‘Why hasn’t Alex checked-in?’ Aaron thought absently, as he calmed a bit more.

Aaron snugged and pinched his doubled-up neck gaiter over his nose and beneath his chin. He was still pretty worked-up and scared, a little irritated with his sister, and sweat beaded slowly along the side of his face. Steam drifted up from the exposed parts of him, in the mid-autumn twilight. He closed his eyes, laid his head back against the tree roots, and fumbled for the map in his vest pocket. He pulled it out, folded and worn, and dropped it in the dewy grass.

“This is some bullshit!” He hoarsely whispered. Aaron had a potty-mouth, the source of almost constant scolding from his sister. He had become a philosopher of the profane over the years, believing it grounded him to life’s realities. It also felt good.

He plucked and pulled off both his gloves, flung them to the ground and picked up the map. Aaron flipped open the map, folded carefully by Alex before leaving the shelter. His sister had used highlighter to mark the area he just visited, Alex and her pink!

‘Dad was pretty sure these houses still had lots of supplies in them, Alex told him. ‘Hasn’t been anyone there in years.’ She seemed so sure.

“Well.., there’s people there now.” He muttered. ‘And if there’s people there…’ That thought left unfinished.

It was getting dark quickly now, and much cooler. Time to get back. Aaron recalled what he heard, as-well-as seen. He put the map back into his pocket, pulled down his buff and slid the full-face, air-mask back into place. The plastic shield was completely fogged, and dripping with condensation. He couldn’t see a thing.

“Son-of-a-bii..,” He spat, as he imagined Alex giving him ‘the look’. “You gotta be kidding, I don’t NEED this right now.”

His thoughts came together. Those people weren’t scavenging, they were organized, methodical, and calm. He used his gaiter to wipe-down the inside of the shield, slid it down.., ‘good-enough,’ he thought, stuffed the map back into his pocket, pulled his gloves back on, pushed himself up and moved back into the forest. It should be a straight shot back to the shelter, directly west.

He popped out of the woods 20 minutes later, a waning glow on the western horizon, and recognized nothing. “FFUUUCK,” He screamed into his mask, which promptly fogged-up again.

“Errrrgg.., nothing ABOUT this is easy,” Growled Alex, as she cranked the handle on the air circulator.

‘When daddy used to do-this, he made it look so easy,’ she thought. It was necessary to swap-out air, and since the sun had decided not to show its’ face lately, the batteries were nearly cashed. Couldn’t spend what juice they had on the air-purifier.., would much rather have a little heat, maybe light. Another ten minutes or-so, and they’d be good for another couple of days. She was almost finished with ‘the daily mech’, that’s what Aaron called it. Both her arms were sore now. The water filtration tanks had needed filling as-well, and that frustratingly-repetitive job involved a siphon, which took 20-minutes of in-and-out pumping.

“At least I’m getting arms and shoulders in today,” She said out-loud, as she continued to crank, now switching arms again. “Wax-on, wax-off,” Sniffing a little chuckle.

Next was a run-through of the security cameras. There were twelve-of-them, all either concealed high-up in trees, or disguised as rocks and rotting logs. Several were embedded directly into the hillside outside their shelter. They offered a pretty-decent, but imperfect overview outside. This chore mostly bored Alex. Glorified trail-cams.., for years. Lately though, she had been catching glimpses of small groups of people. She thought maybe they should start to monitor these more closely. She hadn’t yet told her brother.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are..,” Alex sing-songed, to a tune once sung to shy munchkins. She had been keeping her eye out to the south, fairly certain overnight visitors had used a small hollow nearby to spend the night.

“Hhmmph,” She grunted, “Nothing new today.” But could still see the edge of the days-old camp, maybe a few hundred yards to the south. She studied the rest of the cameras. She knew every inch of this landscape. When Aaron returned, she would let him know.

When Alex was finished, she shuffled over to her recliner and flung herself onto it, arms and legs sprawling, closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift. She’d reached her limit. Being organized?.., not her gig. She was tired, and lifted one, bleary-eye to look-around. The floor was barely visible. “I guess I always was a little messy.., Oooofff, I gotta clean this place up.” She groaned.

Alex was a little messy, like a tornado was a little windy. “I finished ALL my chores, what does he want from…?” She said, as she sat up, vaguely puzzled, “What time is it?” She asked the empty room, and went over her checklist for the day. ‘Air swap.., check, Water fill.., check, surveillance-cameras.., check, short-wave shout-out…’

‘OMIGOSH!’ Alex thought, with sudden horror. She was wide-awake now.

Alex jumped up and ran back to the computer, pulled-up the cameras. Her stomach tightened. It was almost dark outside and Aaron wasn’t back yet. She reached behind her and flipped on the outside lights. She completely lost track of time and forgotten to check-in with Aaron. This was bad. We always checked-in. Always. That was the rule.

Another rule was the lights were NEVER supposed to be turned-on in. It was a distress signal only. The ONLY reason they were safe was because nobody knew they were here.

Alex turned the lights off again.

Her anime-sized, blue-eyes welled-up with tears, as she paced, and raked her hands through her absurd mop of dishwater-blonde hair. She hadn’t checked-in, she knew, her brother would think something was wrong. “What would daddy do?” Her throat tightened as she whispered.

Alex fisted her hands and dug her knuckles into her eyes. ‘He’s okay, he’s just a little late.., never went in that direction.., was supposed to be safe…’ She thought, as tears now streamed down her cheeks.

Aaron was sure he read the map right, he couldn’t be too far off-course. He pulled his compass out of his pocket, found north, and took a bearing. It was the exact-reverse of the heading he used when he left for the day. They had never come this way, but could the land look this different on the opposite side of the entrance to the shelter?

“I guess so.” He said, trembling. “Okay, okay.., what would dad do?”

‘Calm down, that’s the first-thing.., that’s what dad would do,’ Aaron thought.

Keeping calm didn’t come easy for Aaron. Sometimes, he just couldn’t turn off the noise, and lately, he didn’t want to. If that happened, there was no telling where his thoughts would take him. There were things he did not want to think about. It was.., not easier to be angry, but, the clutter and chaos, punctuated by the anger and the cussing, kept him from obsessing about that day. He never wanted to go-back to that day.

He could turn the volume down a bit, and he did that now. Aaron squatted, leaned forward on his knees and took a load-off. He considered what he saw today when he was scavenging. People. More than a few people. And they looked.., well, they looked pretty settled. For the short, alarming-time he came within ear-shot, there were what sounded-like construction noises; hammering, hand-saws, lumber clattering, and the unmistakable sounds of a generator!

‘If someone was running power, in broad daylight…!’ He hoped he knew what that meant.

‘There are enough people there to help protect one-another.’ Stunned for a moment at that realization.

It was officially twilight now, and getting back inside was top priority. He scanned his surroundings, and saw what looked-to-be a depression in the tall grasses, just 50-yards to the west. Aaron kept low and shambled over to it. ‘What in the world?’ He thought.

At first, it looked-like maybe animals had bedded-down and flattened the grass, but he could now see the clear remnants of a campsite, and a rather large one. Complete with still-glowing-coals, clear remains of a campfire.

“Shit,” He breathed, as a low-line of red-lights suddenly came on and caught his eye, half-a-mile north.

His relief was overwhelming, as he deeply-exhaled and felt a wave of dizziness. He flopped onto his knees, leaned forward, pulled off his mask and let it drop into the grass. He cradled his face in both of his hands as he progressed into mild nausea. He was closer than he realized. He leaned back up and pivoted to the lights. Grimly he wondered why Alex had turned them on. Was she ok? He took a heading on his compass and the lights went off.

Alex had panicked. Had to be. He’d tease her about it first, of-course. But he held the compass steady as he stood-up, pulled his gaiter over his face, retrieved his mask and clipped it to his belt, as he trudged through the tall grass to the hillside. Aaron wouldn’t let her feel bad though, as he imagined her saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as he crushed her with a hug.

“Aaron?” Crackled a soft, timid voice over the radio.

“There is no Aaron, only Zule,” Aaron quietly replied. A favorite line of theirs, from on old movie.

“I’m sssoooo sorry,” She added, a little too loudly.

Aaron could now hear Alex had been crying. Yup, she panicked. He smiled. The two of them were born of high-emotion, and he secretly relished the after-party of a crisis. They would tease, and joke, and hug, and tell old stories. Alex loved to hear old stories. And Aaron loved to tell them. It made his sister feel good. He chuckled warmly under his scarf.

“Shush.., it’s ok now, I’m almost there, you should see me on camera in a few seconds,” He whispered. “I’ll be coming-in from the south.”

“Did you just shush me?!’ She hoarsely whispered back.., and, after-a-moment added, “The south?”

The realism of the fake rocks which made-up the doorway to their shelter, always amazed Aaron. They were matched perfectly to their surroundings, and completely camouflaged the entryway. Unless you happened-upon your little-sister, dashing wildly from the entrance, long-hair streaming behind her, intent upon latching herself onto you, like some affectionate symbiont. Then, of-course, the illusion of just-another innocuous hillside was blown. Even in the gloom, Aaron could see her face was flushed, and could feel the heat coming off her.

“It’s alright.., its ok,” His voice muffled as he kissed the top of her head. Aaron was a foot taller than his sister, and as he held her tight, he could see their secure hideaway, secret and unnoticed for the last six-years, was wide-open. He didn’t care.

“I’m so sorry, I forgot to check-in,” She said, sobbing, her face buried against his chest.

He gently pulled her face away, and held it in his hands. Her big eyes were rimmed with red, her cheeks soaked, and her curls clung to her face. He pushed back her hair, brushed-away some of the tears, and wiped her upper-lip. “Had a little snat there,” He said to her, and smiled softly.

Alex pushed her face back into his chest and began to cry again. “Sssoorryy,” She wailed.

They walked back inside, arms around each other, and pulled the door shut. They was safe now, and they were together. Without a word, Alex gently pulled away and headed into the bathroom. Aaron pulled off his boots, shed his vest and gear, and sat down heavily on his chair. He closed his eyes. He was numb and actually vibrating, but his head was clear. Things outside their home had changed, that was very clear. Just a few, short months-ago, they went scavenging and never saw another soul.

The weather had turned several weeks prior, so Alex and Aaron went-to-ground, literally. The inherited, double-wide shipping-container shelter, was buried in a hillside and cleverly camouflaged, had been home for the past eight-years. The neighbors built this place, but never made it inside. The pandemic, and their sketchy ‘friends’, killed them all. Dad knew it was here. After finding the carnage, we all moved in. The place was fully equipped, they could stay underground for several months at-a-time, and they often did.

Alex appeared, looking refreshed and calmer. “I’m sorry, I spaced-out again.” She really looked pitiful when she apologized. It hurt her to let her loved-ones down.

“No worries, it’s all good now.” Aaron smiled at her. She came over, snuggled into his lap, and began to pass-out. Alex could fall-asleep anywhere.

“Do you remember that day?” Aaron asked

“Yes,” She said simply.

“So you remember what he told us after we found him?” He asked.

Their father had started their scouting and scavenging trips. He was out on one the day he died. Aaron and his sister went out looking after he was hours overdue. They found him bleeding to death, a tourniquet wrapped around his broken leg, his femur breaking the skin and nicking an artery.

“He said that one day things would get better, and we would have a choice.” Alex replied.

“Yup.., but we could stay down here as long-as-we wanted, its all-set-up to last years and years.” Aaron added.

“The house is in pretty good shape, I checked the last time I went outside.” She said, and suggested, “We could take a closer look, maybe come out from underground.”

Aaron let out a deep sigh. “We could.., I’d like to think on that for a while though.., and watch.., maybe keep our secrets a bit longer, that be okay?” He looked down at her, and she tilted her head to meet his eyes, four blue pools of ineffable sadness.

“Yeah bro-ski, we need to be careful, daddy said that too.” She said softly. She was comfortable here. The house was intact. They had choices.

‘It’s stupid to make rash decisions, especially where others are involved.’ She thought. She learned that most folks weren’t good at-heart. They were out for them and theirs.

“Yup! we’ll wait and watch.., good call.” She said, still looking at him. “You hungry? I’m making spaghetti.” Alex asked.

“Yeah, I could eat.” Aaron said, and gently tickled his sister under her ribs. She squealed and jumped-up, running into the kitchen, Aaron in playful pursuit.

They could be heard chattering away; him teasing.., her chiding…, him telling stories about old times.., her giggling and remembering it differently. Neither was sure about the future, but they were facing it together, one spaghetti dinner at-a-time.

March 13, 2021 04:37

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