Neither Dad nor Toby said a word. Not one word.
I hugged my knees to my chest. “You both think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
Toby cast a quick glance at Dad, but Dad didn’t acknowledge him.
“No, sweetheart.” Dad kept his eyes on me. “We don’t think that at all.”
“Speak for yourself,” Toby mumbled, but it was impossible for us not to hear him in our shared ten-by-ten foot underground living space.
Dad’s eyes locked on Toby, and he gave my older brother an almost--almost—unperceivable head shake.
Toby put his hands up. “Come on. You don’t buy what she’s saying, do you? It’s complete nonsense.”
I released my knees and scooted toward the edge of my cot. “Do you really think I managed to walk from our bunker to here, climbing a freakin’ mountain in the process all on my own? Not to mention that I was bleeding from most of my orifices and was pretty much delusional by the time I got here. What do you think sounds crazier?”
Toby shook his head. “You’re telling me that someone is out there right now? Someone who’d rather be on his own than be here where it’s safe, and he didn’t get sick the entire time you were with him? Just you? Just me? Everyone else to one extent or another, but not him?”
“Yes!” I tossed my hands up and slapped the thin mattress at my side. “That’s exactly what I’m saying!” I startled Callie, my sometimes sweet but often wicked kitten, when I hit the mattress, disturbing her nap. Only a moment later, she stretched her feet, turned in a circle, and fell asleep again. Oh, to be a cat.
Toby scrunched his shoulders and folded his arms across his chest. “Tess, that doesn’t even make sense.”
“Does anything nowadays make sense?” I swung my arm around, indicating our underground bunker and the fact that life as we know it no longer exists. “Cole finds this whole apocalyptic nightmare a blessing. I would really love to say I’m the badass you think I am, but I’m not. I wouldn’t be alive right now if it weren’t for him.” There was no denying that. “You guys keep telling me that there’s no way anyone could have gotten inside and left without someone seeing him, but you don’t know him like I do.” I stopped talking, catching myself in my own tangle of words. Do I really know Cole? I had no idea, but there was no way I would bring up the possibility of him being an angel or alien. The more I thought about Cole, the more that seemed like a real possibility, but Dad and Toby already thought I was messed up in the head. I refused to provide them with more ammunition to prove their case.
Dad’s gaze fell to the floor, and his arms balanced on his knees. He sat that way for an uncomfortable amount of time, wringing his hands. Toby and I looked at one another, unsure what to do.
Finally, Dad looked up. Softness eased the wrinkles that lined his forehead but couldn’t hide the tiredness that ringed his eyes. “Can you tell me again, from the beginning, how you got here? I need to hear it one more time.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve explained this a hundred times. Okay, maybe not a hundred, but what are you hoping for? That’ll I’ll say something different? That I made it all up?” Did I? I was sick. I nearly died. The toxic air messed with not only my lungs and circulatory system, but it could’ve very well screwed up my brain.
But to say Cole didn’t exist? I’d never do it.
I touched him. I kissed him. He annoyed the hell out of me. If I had to hallucinate another being, then why not Boris Kodjoe? Why hallucinate a grown man who acted like an immature child? How would that be helpful to me in an apocalyptic situation? Give me Norman Reedus, not a young Woody Harrelson.
No one could make up Cole. No one would want to.
Dad didn’t say anything. His face was drawn, contemplative.
Toby leaned against the metal frame of the bunk beds. “Yeah, you’re definitely not a badass, but I can’t believe someone would choose to stay out there if they knew there were other options.”
Toby would never understand, but I found myself explaining myself for the umpteenth time. “You don’t think he knows there are other options? He does. He doesn’t want any part of them.” I picked up my kitten, plopped her in my lap, and stroked her fur whether she wanted me to or not. “He finds the solitude of an apocalypse refreshing.”
“I wish you’d stop calling it that.” Dad’s shoulders slump forward, dispirited. “It’s a natural disaster, not an apocalypse.”
“There’s nothing natural about what’s happened!” How do they not understand this? “I don’t know what you both saw before you disappeared inside this mountain, but I was out there a long time and saw some crazy stuff that was anything but natural.” Bowling ball sized hail, tornados from hell, and sunrays that scorched my skin in a matter of seconds. Insane stuff. “This isn’t like Katrina or a California earthquake. This is way bigger than any of those things.”
“Even so, we’ll get through this.” Dad bobbed his head several times, almost as if trying to convince himself. “We will. That’s what people do. We survive, we adapt, and we persevere.”
“How?” Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I honestly wanted to know. How were we going to get through any of this? We didn’t have a home anymore. Heck, we hardly even had a state. Our city and all of the surrounding ones had pretty much fallen into a crater, and what was left had become nothing but a creepy, abandoned ghost town. Breathing the unfiltered air outside would kill us, or at least it had tried. We couldn’t drink the water—a whole lake encircled with mounds of dead animals proved that.
Start over? Where were we supposed to do that, and with who—the jerks who crop dusted tens of thousands of people, killing them instead of finding a way to save them? Yeah, let’s find our government peeps and align with them. No, thank you.
Living in a bunker in the side of a mountain for the rest of our lives, as tempting as that sounded, was a no-go, too. Supplies would run out. The overwhelming knowledge that we were pretty much screwed couldn’t be denied. We couldn’t live in here forever, but we couldn’t go outside, either.
“I don’t know.” Dad’s shoulders slumped further than I thought humanly possible. I should’ve confirmed his belief instead of challenging it, because looking at him did nothing to instill hope. Not. At. All. “As long as we’re together,” he said, “we’ll find a way.”
I said no more. It was probably the best place to leave our conversation because pushing would only burden him and leave us all with a never-ending supply of questions no one could possibly answer. Crap happened and no one—well, those of us still alive—knew why. We had guesses, but that was all.
A tap on the metal door turned our attentions from one another to Richard standing at the threshold of our room. “Jon,” he addressed Dad, totally ignoring Toby and me. “Do you have a minute to talk?”
Dad nodded and slowly stood. “Everything okay?”
Only then did Richard glance our way. It didn’t take a genius to realize something serious was going on. “That’s what I need to discuss with you.”
Dad patted my knee as he passed me. “I’ll be back. We’re not through here.”
Toby waited until both men had left before stepping closer to me. “That guy scares me a little.”
Toby and I hardly agreed on anything, never had, but Richard was something we both could agree on.
“At least he didn’t stab you in the chest.” I rubbed the healing incision mark and the bandage near my ribs from where Richard shoved a tube into me. “I thought Dad was insane to build a bunker in our backyard, but this guy has pushed the crazy button a few too many times.”
“Maybe.” Toby plopped down on the thin mattress next to me and petted Callie’s head. “But his craziness did save our lives.”
It still didn’t mean it wasn’t scary as all else. Who lived their life preparing wholeheartedly for the end of the world? I mean wholeheartedly. After having met Richard, his son, and a few of their eccentric friends, Dad’s doomsdayer preparation looked like amateur play. “I knew Richard wasn’t a doctor the minute I saw him, but to know his medical knowledge came from watching large amounts of YouTube videos and reruns of Grey’s Anatomy is a bit freaky, don’t you think?”
Toby glanced at the door, all serious. “Don’t let him hear you say that.”
I shrugged. “Why? It’s the truth. Even Marco said so.” Marco—Richard’s weird son who followed me around a little too much for my liking. He’d had his own ideas as to how his dad should spend his new found lottery winnings—like paying for Marco to go on a yearlong road trip and buying him a “sweet hummer” to do it in. Instead, he had to watch his dad spend millions of dollars on an old government hangar built in the side of a mountain. I felt for him a little—just a little—because it was hard not to say something when Dad spent most of Mom’s life insurance on our own underground bunker. The world had always been filled with crazy people and now, as we faced the biggest catastrophe ever, it would be those crazies who’d rule it. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or terrified.
“Truth or not, our lives are still in his hands.” Toby slumped back against the wall and rested his hands behind his head. “We’re guests here. Don’t forget it.”
Guests? I guess we were, but were people really guests when it came to an apocalypse? Weren’t we more like survivors hunkering down than anything else? Dad could call it a natural disaster all he wanted, but unlike most natural disasters, this couldn’t be fixed. This situation had the making of Mad Max written all over it.
Someone was bound to be eaten.
“Tess?” Marco’s bulbous body took up the entire doorframe. “I’ve got something to show you.”
Great. He was relentless, always trying to get my attention in one way or another. “What is it?” I had to at least acknowledge him or he’d never leave me alone.
He shook his head and a grin spread over his lips, intensifying his double chin. “You’ll have to come with me to find out.”
Toby sat up. “I’d like to see it. Whatever it is.”
Marco shook his head. “You wouldn’t like it.”
Toby stood and squared his shoulders. “How would you know?”
“Because it’s a girl thing, something girls would like, and unless you’ve changed since this morning, I don’t think you’d be interested.”
This could go on forever. I placed Callie on the bed and shook my head at Toby. “It’s okay. I’ll go check it out and tell you all about it when I get back. Watch my cat, okay?”
He leaned near me, his back to Marco, and whispered, “You sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. He’s annoying, but he’s harmless.” I stood, brushed off my pants and turned my attention to the big guy in the door. “Okay, I’m yours. Show me what’s got you all excited.”
He smiled so big I could see down his throat. He reached out to take my hand, but that was a line I refused to cross.
“I’m good.” I stepped next to him. “Show me the way.”
His face fell a little, dejected, but I refused to hold that sweaty hand of his. I might be the only female in the place, but that didn’t mean I needed coddling or that I was anyone’s plaything. Either respect me, or respect my boot connecting with your groin.
“I don’t know what it means, yet.” His steps echoed along the corridor as we walked. “But it has to mean something good.”
Hmmm… that piqued my interest. Something good for a change would be welcomed.
“I’m not supposed to show you this. Not yet anyway, because it’s too soon to know anything for sure, but when I saw it, I thought of you.”
He was always doing that—thinking of me. It was more annoying than anything. When he found an extra chocolate pudding MRE—meals ready to eat—he thought of me. He had an extra pocketknife and thought of me. Fresh socks—me.
It should be sweet, and maybe I was looking at it the wrong way, but the last thing I needed in an apocalypse was an unwanted admirer. Still, I tried to be kind to him which, when I thought about it, probably only encouraged him more. I couldn’t win.
He stopped in front of a closed door, but before he opened it, he placed his hand on my shoulder. “This is big, but I don’t want to get your hopes up too soon, okay?”
I shrugged. Unless he could show me a giant time machine that could go back and fix this mess, I doubted anything would get my hopes up.
He turned the knob and waited for me to go first.
Heck no. Richard had rules, and entering rooms without permission happened to be one of them. “What’s in there?”
“Just the surveillance room. We have to know what’s going on outside, right? We have to be prepared.”
I didn’t move. “You mean cameras?”
It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Medical supplies, radio equipment, generators, food, water—Richard had thought of everything. Of course he’d be watching things from the safety of his hole in the ground.
“Should we be going in there?” I glanced around. If the lunatic had cameras looking outside, surely he had them pointed at us right now. His goons—I mean, friends—should be pouncing on us at any minute, stopping us.
“You’re with me. You’re fine. Besides, it isn’t like you weren’t going to see this anyway. I’m just showing it to you sooner. You’re the first.” He waved his arm to the side, giving me access to go inside once more.
There was no way we weren’t getting into trouble for this, but curiosity drew me into the room. Blame living underground with literally nothing to do for my disobedience. A person could only play cards with their brother so many times before they caused some sort of trouble just to break up the tedium.
Several black and white monitors bolted to the walls ran choppy video feed, showing the outside world from various directions. The monitors and computer equipment had to be from the nineties—I’d swear I’d seen them in a museum somewhere. Squiggle lines disrupted the picture, distorting it every few seconds, but for an underground setup, it worked quite well.
Trees swayed with the wind, but otherwise everything on the screens appeared dull and completely uninteresting. Very boring television for sure.
“Well, it’s good to know we still have trees.” Not that I was against trees or anything, but if I was going to disobey rules, I’d hoped it would’ve been for a much better reason. When Marco did things like his, it made me question his IQ. No one knew for certain if he was an idiot savant or just an idiot.
“No.” He waved me off, leaned over one of the large computers, and pressed a couple of keys on the keyboard.
“That’s the live feed. I want to show you what we recorded this morning.”
Once again, curiosity kept me from leaving.
The swaying trees disappeared from one of the screens, and while the others continued to record the outside world in real time, the third computer faded to black. It crackled a little, but after a few more button pushes, the screen filled with similar scene—like the one from a few minutes before. The only difference was the placement of the sun and the shadows it cast.
I looked at him, unsure of what I was supposed to be seeing. So far, it turned out to be nothing.
“Give it a second,” he said. “Patience, impatient one.”
Oh, if only he knew how patient I felt!
After several more minutes passed without anything happening, I shook my head and started to leave. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’ve had—“
“There!” He tapped the screen with his sausage link of a finger. “Right there!”
I stood frozen, my eyes glued on the screen. Trees swayed as they always had, but the movement on the lower left side of the screen held me fascinated.
At any other time, it wouldn’t have mattered as much as it did in that moment. Oh, we would’ve been captivated by the sereneness of it, of course, but it wouldn’t have been anything more than a chance encounter, something to be enjoyed but not necessarily unexpected.
But this… this was definitely unexpected.
There had been no singing birds, no crickets chirping, no dogs barking when I had stepped outside my dad’s bunker a few months before. The meteors had affected all of life, and in their wake had left nothing but a soul crushing silence.
“Is that…” I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The words wouldn’t come.
A doe grazed on the tall grass as if all was right in the world. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Marco nodded, and his smile couldn’t have grown any larger than it did in that moment. “Sure is. The first animal we’ve seen in months.”
I stepped closer to the monitor, and when the deer disappeared from view, I had him rewind it and show me again. “What do you think this means?”
He stepped near my side, his shoulder brushing up against mine. “I think it means we’re finally going outside.”