*Author’s Note: “No Teddy Bears in the Wasteland” is a standalone story, set in the same universe as my other Reedsy short-stories, with overlapping characters and events.*
“You’re not giving him a knife for his birthday!”
“It’s not like it’s a chainsaw. You’re being overprotective.”
Even in the dark Keith could feel his wife’s eyes burning a hole in the side of his head, as they lay next to each other in bed. Her silence spoke volumes.
“My dad gave me the same knife when I was a kid.”
Kelly switched on the bedside lamp, so her husband could see this was no longer pillow talk.
“You were sixteen, Garry is still a child,” she said, propping herself up onto her elbow.
“Since the bombs dropped, life has got a lot shorter. Ten is the new sixteen in the Wastelands.” Kelly could see past Keith’s glib words to the fear in his voice. “The world is getting smaller. Our camp isn’t as safe as we thought it was…that cave was too close.”
“The explosion sealed that cave, and they’ve increased security now so they’ll keep us safe.” Even Kelly didn’t believe the words she spoke, and neither would the man that knew her best.
“They say Rita is going to lose her leg, and her horse took most of the blast. I bet she’s feeling safe.” Kelly lay back down, and stared up at the ceiling. “He needs to learn to be more self-reliant, we won’t be around forever, and if there’s people out there who still have guns and explosives, the Guard can’t protect us.”
They talked late into the night; the facts of their situation was terrifying, but one fact did reassure them. Whatever they had to face, they would face it together.
“Can I hold it again?”
“No! It’s not a toy Hannah.” Garry echoed the words of advice his dad had given him that morning. Just because he hadn’t stopped playing with it – flicking out the knife blade, then switching to the saw blade, and cutting things that didn’t need cutting – it didn’t mean he wasn’t taking his new responsibility seriously. He did feel a year older than he did the day before, despite it only being twenty-four hours ago. With his new found maturity he walked ahead, leaving the younger children bickering behind him.
“He’s so lucky.”
“My mum would never let me have a knife.”
“That’s because you’d end up with no fingers, and having to pick your nose with your toes.”
“Whatever – I wouldn’t lose any fingers.”
“Not going to deny picking your nose then?”
Abed walked behind the children in silence; he zoned out their chatter, and was alert to any danger. He was always the Guard for the children when they marched to the river to gather water for the camp, and had never had to use the crossbow he carried. But since the patrol had been attacked investigating that smoker, things felt different. He usually led the march alone, but today he was glad to have back up.
Flo was riding point on horseback. She had always been curt, but since Rita’s injury she was out for blood. Even the children knew to give her a wide berth.
They were almost at the river, and Abed took a moment to watch the children. He was responsible for them all and knew them well. He knew they were sponges. They showed no signs of change; in front of him the eldest two, Miranda and Kunle, led the two donkeys that carried the empty water containers, and the younger four walked between them and Flo, teasing each other as they always did. But Abed knew they all felt the rising tension in the camp.
Once they got to the water’s edge, Flo patrolled further down the river to check for any potential ambush. She found no threats, but didn’t look as pleased about it as Abed did. She positioned herself on the high ground, so anyone approaching would be seen with plenty of warning. Flo nodded down to Abed, who then had the children begin collecting the water.
The children were a well oiled machine. Miranda and Kunle took charge. The younger children ran in pairs down to the bank to fill their containers. When the first container was dragged to the donkey, the older duo lifted it onto its back, and made sure it was fastened securely. Garry and Millie were winning, with Garry taking charge of their team. In an attempt to catch up, Hannah dragged the container faster than Tom could manage. He slipped, and was helpless as he watched their container tumble back down the bank to the river.
“Be careful!” scolded Miranda, and Hannah and Tom ran back to the river’s edge with their tails between their legs. As Kunle fastened the winning team’s second container to their donkey, only Millie celebrated. As Abed recognised his own responsibilities reflected in Garry’s face, he mourned for his childhood. In the end, the Wasteland would take everything from us.
Garry mirrored Abed as he scanned the surrounding area, then walked over to his Guard.
“While we wait for them, can I cut down a branch from that tree? It has the perfect ‘V’ for a catapult.”
Still feeling guilty, Abed agreed.
“Sure, but do it quickly.”
Garry ran down to the tree and flew up it like a squirrel. Abed smiled for the first time that day, as he remembered climbing trees when he was a child; a time when he never wanted to grow up. Abed looked over to the other children; Miranda fastened the fourth water container to the second donkey, and Hannah was teasing Tom for the mud still caked on his face from his fall.
With his footing secured on a lower branch, Garry pulled out his new toy and quickly began sawing at the branch. With the small saw blade, cutting the green wood was hard work, but Garry was determined. He just needed to cut the branch below the “V”, and he could cut the rest as they marched.
Halfway through the branch he heard a weird noise below him that stopped him in his tracks. There was a rhythmic clatter by the roots that sounded odd. He stopped sawing and looked down, and saw six logs bound together into a square with some sort of wire.
“If the branch is too thick, leave it,” said Abed, standing at the base of the tree, with the tree’s trunk blocking the view Garry saw. Garry gracefully slid down the tree.
“There’s something down there,” Garry reached down into the tree’s roots, “Look ri-.“
“DON’T TOUCH IT!” screamed Abed, and yanked Garry back by his jacket so hard, he lifted him clear off his feet, and he landed with a thud. “What’s wrong with, the cave was only a week ago.” Then Abed slapped the back of Garry’s head, to make sure the lesson sank in, but only Garry’s pride was hurt.
Abed rested one hand on the tree trunk, and leaned over to see into the roots. He instantly recognised the framework of a fishing trap, as the fish struggling on its lines forced it to rattle against the tree’s roots.
Abed turned back to Garry who was now back on his feet.
“You’re right, it’s a fishing trap,” confirmed Abed, then he held the back of Garry’s head and brought his forehead onto his, “I’m sorry for hitting you, but you must think before you act.”
“Because it might be boobytrapped.”
“Exactly, and some mistakes we don’t get to learn from.”
Abed released Garry and smiled at him, and then tussled his hair; Garry knew he’d done well. By now the other children had gathered around the tree too, and Abed thought it would be a good teachable moment.
He looked up to Flo, and asked her with hand signals if they were safe. Her hand gesture confirmed they were ok, so Abed began.
“As we found out last week, boobytraps are hard to see even with an experienced eye, so never try this by yourself.” Abed kicked the loose dirt and leaves into the base of the tree, and watched it all harmlessly fall into the river. “One way to check for tripwires is to use something light, which will cling to them and reveal their position. Leaves will bounce back against the wire, but it looks safe this time.”
Hannah edged forward to get a better look at the tree.
“STOP. Stay where you are until I’ve checked it properly, just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.” Then Abed continued his lesson, “With a fishing trap like this, the trigger cannot be too sensitive, otherwise the fish pulling on the line would set off the explosives.”
Abed laid down at the edge of the bank, and studied the tree’s roots. The children held their breath. It only took a couple of minutes for Abed to be satisfied, and then he addressed his class again.
“If there is a trip, it will be a wire connecting the frame to a weight under the water, which will detonate when the frame is lifted out.”
The younger children were transfixed by the lesson, but Miranda and Kunle understood what would happen next, and neither stood at ease beside their donkeys. But Abed would never put anyone at risk.
“To remove any chance of detonation, I’m not going to move the trap, and simply cut the lines instead.” Now even the younger children became quiet, as the lesson stopped being merely theory. Abed looked up at Flo, who was still calmly scanning the surrounding area. “Miranda. Lead them behind that rock over there,” then with a dry smile Abed added, “just in case.”
The children watched Abed from the safety of their makeshift bunker, and just as he was about to start cutting, a shout stopped him dead.
“Abed!” called Tom, who was standing the closest to the water’s edge. “I can hear something down here.”
Abed walked over to Tom, and they both followed the sound of splashing, and found a net hidden in the reeds.
“Bring over one of those containers.” Miranda, as the obvious second in command, brought over the container. Abed filled it with two grotesquely disfigured fish that he’d scooped out of the keep net.
“Ewww,” squealed Millie.
“That one looks like Hannah,” said Tom, gleeful after finding fish-Hannah and her lumpy friend.
The younger children continued to bicker while Abed took the machete from his hip, and cut the four fishing lines, which all still had fished hooked. The older children – now including Garry – filled the two other containers, and Abed put the lines and hooks in his pocket.
Flo rode down from her vantage point once the donkeys were reloaded; now not only with water, but also three pairs of fish. The group began their march back to the camp, with all the children back in their positions, except Garry, who walked at the back with Abed, shadowing his movements.
“You did good today.”
“Thanks,” pride beamed across Garry’s face. Abed knew he couldn’t wait to tell his parents when he got home, but he was still alert and checking the same potential ambush spots that Abed was checking.
“And the next time we come down to the river, you can finish cutting your branch.”
“Okay, but I don’t want to put anyone at risk just for a new catapult.”
“That’s not your responsibility…yet.” Garry’s look of pride exploded into a full blown grin. “You’re going to make a great Guard one day. The future of the camp is in safe hands.”
Abed was afraid for Garry, and hoped the Guard recruiters would leave him alone for a few more years at least. Knives and crossbows shouldn’t be the only toys children play with.