Nobody ever said the end of humanity would be a picnic. I mean, what were the theories? The biblical thing with four guys on horses. The one about the sun being so hot everything melts, and all those natural disasters start happening. Then there’s my personal favorite, where we all turn into flesh-eating dead guys. But none of them are what actually happened. What actually happened was way worse.
It all started when one news caster misread her teleprompt. She skipped over a period or something, meshing two unrelated stories together. The result was mass hysteria. There was looting, murder, you name it. I remember my first thought being of my tenth grade English teacher, slapping my fingers with a ruler for not using correct punctuation. My second thought was I hope she was one of the first to go.
It was slow, the end of humanity. It started in my city, I think. With that one grammatical slip. Then it spread, like a fungus. Mushroom spores of violence planted their fungal little legs throughout every American town. With our country in total chaos, other world leaders took notice. I can’t blame any one of them. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take out the world super power that was the United States?
Long story short, we got nuked. We nuked back--Yeah, we had nukes. Who knew? Now the population of planet Earth is probably about two-hundred thousand. Seems like a lot until you realize there used to be eleven million in New York City alone.
I’m one of those survivors. Me and my neighbor, Jimmy, who now has two heads. One belonged to his dog, Bill.
Nah, I’m kidding. But half his face is melted off from radiation. I’m pretty normal. I lost my big toe to gout, but I don’t think that was related. Everyone I knew and loved is dead, except Jimmy. It’s just me and him now, and every day is a battle just to keep what we’ve got. I’ve seen knife fights break out over a rock-hard moldy cheeseburger from Mickey D’s.
There’s a banging at the door and I set my journal on the floor beside my bare mattress. I wait, holding my breath and listening. Three heavy knocks. Two lighter ones. Four quick ones. It’s Jimmy. I get up and unbolt all fifteen locks on the steel door and he tumbles in, wide-eyed and breathless.
“Dude? What happened?”
Jimmy clutches my arms. “I got it. I got the box.” He pulls a box of saltine crackers out of his coat pocket. His half-gloved hands fumble with it, till he drops it on the floor in front of us. We’re both so hungry we dive on the box like a pack of hyenas on a zebra carcass, tearing open the cardboard, ripping apart the plastic to get at the stale crackers. We both forget about the door.
They hit Jimmy first and send him sailing into the picture window where I used to sit and read comics before we burned them all to keep warm. My mind registers what’s about to happen, but my body doesn’t have time to react. They file into the apartment, a swarming mass of black and gray, and I have just enough time to utter “Wait!” before the butt of a riffle meets my head and everything goes black.
I come to in a dark room with steel chaining me to a cold, wet concrete floor. “Jimmy?” I whisper. Everything is in shades of black and grey, except the milky whiteness of my own pale skin. A window high up on the wall allows just enough light to get in that I can see someone, or some thing, is in the room with me. It’s too big to be Jimmy. Even with all his clothes and a parka, Jimmy is still about the size of a ten year-old. I wrestle with myself trying to decide if I should talk to the lump of dark clothing, or just let it be. But the need to know something eats at me.
“Hey? You know where we are?”
The lump wiggles but doesn’t speak.
My gut pinches and growls. “Um, sorry, but do you have any food?”
The lump hisses at me and I flinch back against the wall. “Okay. Jeez.” I rub the skin around my ankle where the chain has bruised it. It makes me think of that one movie where all those people got kidnapped and stuffed into a basement with nothing but a saw. A chill runs through me. I really should’ve watched better movies before they stopped making them.
I guess I probably should’ve told you what happened after we all nuked each other’s brains out, huh? You know how different people react differently to temperatures and whatever? Like, you could be cold and I could be sitting right next to you all sweaty. The same thing happened with radiation. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know the semantics. I just know that some people are normal, like yours truly. And others are like the lump of hissing laundry over there. Who knows what he looks like?
“Hey!” I shout. My voice bounces off the empty walls. “Hey! Can I get some food?” Nobody answers me. A watery drip is the only sound I hear in the darkness, aside from the heavy erratic breathing of Hissy Face.
Those guys, the ones with the guns? They’re the elite. We don’t really have a specific name for them. Some people call them the Sherriffs, but that’s not right because sheriffs are supposed to protect and serve. All they’ll serve you is a gun to the forehead. Jimmy and I had a good name for them. We called them assholes.
Nobody knows how the assholes got to be so powerful. The rest of us are starving, scrawny toothpicks, but not them. They’ve got muscle packed onto muscle. Like they eat some serious protein every morning and wash it down with a heavy dose of roids.
Hissy Face moves a little, shifting his weight. The light from the window catches in his face and reflects off his eyes like a cat’s. I catch a glimpse of a grayish colored face with black eyes and sharpened teeth. Gross.
“Help me!” I know it’s useless, but a guy’s gotta have hope, right? The chains around my ankle won’t let me go anywhere, except closer to Hissy Face. No thanks.
Why would they bring me here and where the heck is Jimmy? My stomach growls again. The assholes have gotta have something to eat. They’ve obviously been hording all the food. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a full stomach anymore.
Hissy Face moves again, this time inching a little closer to me. I inch back against the wall and slide along it until my ankle chain digs into the skin.
He comes closer still. I can’t move, but I’m sure his chain will pull him back before he can get to me. He creeps closer in the darkness, a mass of black and grey slowly rolling toward me not making any sound. I move again and my chain clanks. His doesn’t.
He’s not on a chain.
“Um. Help!” I stand up and try to wiggle free. He’s close enough now I can smell him. He smells like dead things—putrid and hot. He comes into the light and I see that he’s wearing the same black and grey uniform that the assholes wear, but he’s not quite as big and healthy as the rest of them. He’s as scrawny as me.
“Hey. Ah, I don’t have anything to eat. So, yanno.”
His head twitches and he licks his lips really fast. It reminds me of Jimmy’s iguana, before we ate it. I pin my back against the cold wet wall. Hissy Face is in my face. His breath smells like metal. I close my eyes and feel along the wall, hoping to find anything I could use to club him. His tongue, wet and stinging hot, swipes across my cheek. It makes me throw up in my mouth.
A stomach rumbles—his not mine.
Somewhere above me I hear voices and laughter—the assholes. A face comes into view in the window and I scramble for it.
The face, blurry behind the dirty window, laughs. “Nothin’ personal, kid. Captain’s gotta eat.”
Past experiences flood my mind and I keep going back to that one biology lesson in ninth grade—the food chain or whatever.
I slide down against the wall, allowing the cold of wet concrete to seep into my jeans. Hissy Face takes another long lick, then a nip at my nose.
And to think, all me and Jimmy had to eat today was a box of freaking crackers.
On Friday, Natalie will bring you something sweeter. Maybe. Hopefully. (She thinks dead birds are endearing.) Thanks for reading!
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.