I pluck lazily at the strings of my ukelele while looking over at Mara. She rolls a small red ball between her hands. Even though her blindfold hides it, I can tell her eyes are following it intently. I sigh and pluck a C chord, then a D major, and another C chord. Before I know it, I’m subconsciously playing some song that I heard on the radio a lifetime ago. Soon I’m getting really into it, humming along and bopping my head along to the music. Mara turns around to look at me and smiles while tapping her finger on the ground along to the beat.
I play for around a minute before stopping abruptly. Mara looks up at me curiously. I put down my ukelele and get up from where I was sitting. I stretch and wiggle my fingers while sighing. I can’t play music for long before the flashbacks startup.
“Sorry M, that’s enough playing for today. Imma walk around a bit ok?” I tell her in a tired tone.
Mara just tilts her head in confusion before nodding slowly and going back to rolling her ball. I love that girl, but she’s literally a 10-year-old in a 14-year-olds body. I’ll never understand her, but she’s sweet and a good listener. I guess what they say about opposites attracting makes sense.
I walk away from the staircase Mara and I were sitting around and make my way over to the dining hall. Even when food isn’t being served, you can always find someone to talk to. I stroll through the doors and scan around the room. I walk over to a table where Celeste, Nainika, and Ethan are sitting. They’re talking to each other about god knows what, but it’s obvious that Celeste is the main one talking while Nainika and Ethan listen.
“Hey, guys!” I call over. They all perk their heads and look over at me. Celeste’s face lights up when she sees me and almost aggressively waves her hand at me. Her lightning-shaped earrings dance around as she bounces on her seat.
“Aniyah! Get over here right now! You can help me with something!” Celeste calls. To be honest, it feels more like a command than an invitation. That’s just the way Celeste is, she somehow gains control over almost all situations.
“Yeah ok, what’s up?” I say while sliding into a seat.
Ethan sighs wearily, poor guy. Ever since he arrived in the shelter, Celeste kinda just took him captive as her friend. Though he has to deal with her intense weirdness, I can tell Ethan cares about Celeste a lot. Not like her would ever show it, that little tsundere. And just between you and me, I’m like 99.9% certain Ethan and Celeste have crushes on each other.
“She’s been on a ramble about this thing back in COVID-19 times called ‘PopTarts’ for ages now. She insists it was the most amazing thing in the world and she wants to bake a replica of one with our help. I told her it was a dumb idea, and we don’t have nearly enough resources to make it” Ethan explains, clearly exasperated.
“I think it would be a lot of fun! We have plenty of resources! If we need more we can just go get some” Nainika adds, a sly smile creeping onto her lips. Knowing her if we actually go through with this baking thing, she'll just make sassy quips with me towards Ethan the whole time.
“Sounds fun! I’m in.” I say quickly without giving it a second thought. Plus it’s baking, how bad can it get? We keep talking about the PopTarts, and I can tell Ethan is getting more and more convinced. The plan to make a PopTart is slowly coming together and I can’t wait.
I’m sitting on the stairwell and twisting my ring on my finger. I’m deep in thought, debating if I should tell the others or not. I don’t even know if Middle Ground is real, but Omma insisted when she gave me the ring that it could locate Middle Ground. She told me to use it whenever I needed to. And when I think about it, I don’t need to get to Middle Ground. The shelter has (enough) food and water, and everyone’s (relatively) healthy and happy. But deep down I know good things don’t last forever which means I won’t be able to stay here forever.
I’m still thinking about this when I spot Mara passing below me. She’s squeezing a red ball and humming to herself. Mara, probably one of the strangest people here in the bomb shelter. She kind of just appeared one day in a bloody, battered, terrified mess. She refused to look at anyone here and kept murmuring “Happy birthday to me” to herself. And now she keeps wearing that blindfold Nainika gave her and refuses to talk like...at all.
“Hey Mara, watcha doing here?” I ask. Mara turns and “looks” up to where I’m standing. She purses her lips as if trying to guess where I am. She slowly makes her way towards the stairwell and climbs up. Once she reaches the top, she somehow manages to sit right next to me. She pulls out a small notepad and writes in it. I peer over to see what she writes.
Hello Astrid, I’m just here because Aniyah left to go walk around and I don’t really have anyone else to talk to. How are you?
Figures, Mara and Aniyah have been glued to each other for as long as I’ve seen them, though I have no idea why.
“I’m doing pretty well, just thinking about...things,” I say a bit wistfully.
What kind of things?
Mara tilts her head curiously (I’ve noticed she does that a lot). I pause, asking myself if telling Mara about Middle Ground was a good idea. She was so small and timid, but something about her seemed trustworthy. I sigh, what harm could be done?
“Mara, have you heard about a place called ‘Middle Ground’ ?” I ask. Mara nods frantically and excitedly. Of course, she has. Everyone’s heard of Middle Ground at least once. The place rumored to be safe for people from both Eastworld and Westworld.
“Right. I know you can’t see it, but I currently have a ring on. It was given to me by my Omma, or grandmother as most people say. She told me that if I used the right command, this ring could guide me to Middle Ground and other safe places. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I think it could be helpful for the people here. I mean we can’t stay in the shelter forever. We’ll run out of stuff eventually.” I continue, kind of getting lost in my thoughts as I speak.
Mara stares (at least I think she is) at me as I talk. At several points, she starts to write something down on the notepad but stops and keeps listening. When I finish, she looks at me and simply nods...almost solemnly.
I understand what you mean Astrid, but let’s try and live in the present ok? I don’t see any need for going to Middle Ground yet. Thanks for telling me though, it’s nice that you’re thinking about everyone here :)
I smile at Mara, understanding her point. Maybe she’s right and I am overthinking this. The shelter is doing fine, everyone’s safe, and the war can’t hurt us here. We’re all safe.
“Yeah you’re rig-” I’m about to say, but I’m cut off by a loud BANG as the entire shelter shakes and chunks of the roof start to fall.
Mara’s face goes absolutely pale (and by pale, I mean same color, just terrified expression). I hear screams from the dining hall and doors opening. Mara looks over at me and I can tell we’re thinking the exact same thing…
There’s been another bomb attack.
End of Part One! Thanks to everyone who filled out the form! Anyone who wasn’t in this part will probably (key word: probably) be in the next part. Lemme know what you think about this story and your characters in the comments!