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First Step

The After

By River JoyPublished 5 months ago Updated 5 months ago 11 min read

"The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room"


This was the final stop, the last safe house before the border. It had been years, close to five if I had been counting correctly, five years to travel just over a thousand miles, three safe houses, a bunker, then another safe house, each time I had been put in handcuffs, in a blindfold, given some sort of pill that made me tired, confused. I thought most of the travel had been underground, but I probably will never know for sure. I hadn't stepped foot in outside air for over a decade, I was four, it was for less than five minutes. I often dream about what it's going to be like when I cross.

The Rebels didn't take chances, even with allies, even with the daughter of the woman who ended the war. My mother was a hero to those Rebels that were left, she was a hero to me too. My mother sacrificed herself, ending the slaughter, like so many mothers had before her. I think it's a sacrifice mothers make for family, women make for society, that's been my experience at least. Unfortunately I don't actually think the war is ever going to really end, but my mother evened the playing field.

The glimpses of the world I did get about five years ago were bleak, most people couldn't survive in the extreme weather, in certain areas the water was so toxic the air wasn't breathable. The division amongst the population was, disheartening to say the least. The worse things got the sharper the divide. That's all the information I had, there was no news down there.

I decided to get up out of my bed, maybe say something to the man who's house I was staying in, I crept out of my room, the view out of his window was bleak from what I could glean from the hallway. If I had still retained my sense of smell I imagine what I could see would be rancid. Everything was dead.

He was an older man, neither of us had said a word since I had arrived three days ago. Just a nod and a gesture towards a sparse room windows blacked out completely. I was used to that, the window I could see from the hallway was intimidating enough. No windows in bunkers, it was going to take a minute. I thought he had kind eyes though, and I wasn't sure how much longer it was going to be until I could cross. I figured I would make an attempt, Rebels tend to be pretty quiet folks in general, conversation had been so scarce along the route that sometimes I forgot what it felt like to talk. Maybe I could have a friend.

"What's your name?" I asked him gently as he got up out of his patchwork chair and walked towards me.

He jumped, causing my to stumble backwards into the couch. I flipped over it landing hard on my back. The man ran towards the couch, his head popping up over the dark like one of those rodent type things in the desert in the nature documentary, worn, leather.

I couldn't help myself I started laughing, the absurdity of it all. Here I was at the end of the world, sprawled out on a strangers floor because both of us were too jumpy to start a conversation.

"Hal" the man said, doing his best to control the grin starting to creep on the sides of his mouth. His voice was surprising, light, almost musical. It did not match his gruff demeanor. "You alright?" he smirked as he grabbed my hand.

"Yeah, uh thanks. I'm Tam. " I stammered out, realizing that I had no idea the last time I had a conversation. The last safe house, the bunker, didn't have another soul, I was simply dropped off, locked in to an elevator and dropped in a fancy hole. I think I'm one of the lucky ones, there was a proper bathroom with a shower, a library, some old VHS tapes with a small television. I don't know exactly how long I was in that one, long enough for there to be no more bombs to drop. Long enough that it was safe to move me.

"Nice to meet you Tam. You were in a bunker last?" He asked quietly.

"How can you tell?" I responded.

"All of you have the same look in your eyes when you come here, all of you are as jumpy as I am." He laughed. "Why do you think your windows are blacked out? The first one that came to me would scream every time something moved out there it made him a risky save".

"How many of us have there been?" I asked both my suspicion and my interest peaked. I wondered how many people were still alive. The outside world, from what I could see was not hospitable.

"Since the war? Or since the ceasefire?"

This stopped me in my tracks. He'd been doing this since before the war. I've never met someone over fifty. People don't live that long anymore.


"I've been the end of the line stop for about twenty-five years now, I've lost track, a couple thousand I think. Sometimes twenty to thirty at once. Not anymore though. The only people who are left are the kids of the Rebels that wouldn't leave. So people like you." The last few words he almost whispered. I couldn't tell what was on his face, pity? Anger?

"People like me?"

"People who weren't given a choice. People who it's almost too late for"

"I had a choice" I wondered what he was getting at, what did he mean by almost too late?

"Did you?" He asked gently, coming around the couch to sit on the end. "I know who you are, who your mother was."

"My mother was an extraordinary woman."

"She was, she was a hero" he agreed, his face still unreadable. Regret? Maybe. It's been so long since I was with another human I'm barely sure of a smile let alone whatever Hal was giving me.

"So where do you fit into all of this?" I asked, a little coldly, I'm not sure what to make of my host. My mother used to tell me even the closest Rebels didn't trust each other, maybe I should be heeding her voice in the back of my head. "Go back in your room Tam, don't get close to any of your hosts."

She didn't know how long my travels were going to be though, how desperate for human contact years in a bunker can make someone. She thought she was making me strong, like her. She thought she was preparing me for a brief stay and a trip across the northern border. Where we heard it was safe.

"Me? I told you. I'm the end of the line, and you're my last visitor" he said softly, his musical voice made me want to lean back into the couch, and just listen. Until.

"Last visitor?" I said sharply "Is there no one left?" I'm not sure if he was trying to be ominous or matter of fact.

Hal became quiet, he looked down and started working on a braided bracelet I didn't notice before. He clenched his jaw tightly. "What kind of information did you get in the bunker?" He asked cautiously.

"Nothing, they left me there without a radio or an emergency contact, I read a lot, but it was all from before the war. Why?" I asked.

"What kind of books did they give you?" He spoke so quickly, almost like he thought the faster he got the question out the faster I would forget my own.

"It doesn't matter. Why did you ask about the news?" I could feel my cheeks getting hotter, his face reminds me of the Rebel that came in my room when I was just fourteen to tell me my mother had succeeded in her mission, but she hadn't made it. So I was being moved.

Hal takes a deep breath "After your mom succeeded the fighting didn't stop, which I'm sure you knew even though you didn't have the news down there. There were a final set of nukes, ones that were meant to cut the population down enough so the government could get everyone back under control"

"So they set off the nukes?"


"What could possibly be worse than nukes?"

"They left people to fend for themselves, they had what they needed. No matter what those that were in power had their safe houses."

"So it worked." the fact hit me like a ton of bricks.

"What?" Hal prodded gently.

"My mom would tell me that the rage that was started way back wasn't something that could be stuffed back in. The cat was out of the bag so to say. Before she left, that day, she told me she wasn't sure it would work but it was worth a try. She told me that the people who had pulled us all apart would always be fine. That she was fighting for those who are still reachable, that maybe fostering some sort of community would prevent further division." I said this all looking at my feet, the weight of abandonment on my shoulders.

"Your mother was a smart woman" Hal had tears in his eyes. "Yes, it worked. There are not that many people left, when you were in the bunker there was no food, hungry people are angry people, it got," Hal paused for a very long time "Ugly." He spit the last word out like it was poison.

At this he quickly stood up and started pulling what I thought were fireplace bricks, but turned out to be foam fabrications, so well painted I would have never guessed they were anything but brick. He opened a cabinet behind the bricks, to the most well stocked weapons and survival room I had ever seen. There were even radiation suits hanging from the wall. Hal was certainly full of surprises.

"Tomorrow we leave" he said solemnly.

"To cross?" I said almost begging.

"To try to." He responded. "To be honest I haven't heard from my contacts in about six months. How would you like to take some steps outside?"

"I wouldn't" I realized I had been in the relative safety of the safe houses and bunkers, and even before that only my mother would leave our home. I was afraid. The outside world was always sold to me as dangerous, poisonous, especially for me, especially for the daughter of a revolutionary.

"You might like it, and where we're going, it doesn't look like what you could see out my window. There's green, there's breathable air." It was almost as if he could read my mind.

"If you haven't heard from anyone how do you know it's still there?" Almost begging him to give me proof, proof that all this aloneness, all this mourning was for something, anything. "I don't" he said simply.

"Then how do you expect me to take that risk?"

"There's no other option."

"Can't we stay here?" I felt safe there, and Hal didn't seem like bad company.

"No. You've rested enough, there's no one coming next, it's time, tomorrow morning we will head out."

I had been thinking about this moment for years now, the time to cross. The time to move away from my grief and madness. For some reason, the only amount of outside that my body wanted was the slim view I could get from the hallway outside of Hal's bedroom. I did not want to travel, I almost wished he would blindfold me and give me a pill so I could wake up wherever we were going. There was this feeling in the pit of my stomach that we wouldn't be taking any sort of vehicle, that we'd be walking.

"Okay." I responded, immediately walking away from him towards my room with the blacked out windows. The windows that were blacked out to save my sanity, because some other poor soul was not. Sane.

Hal grabbed my hand.

"I've got you." I believed him. It might have been the first time in my life I trusted someone other than my mother. That's what the feeling was, trust. I think.

The next morning we donned the radiation suits, packed our bags with food, water, tablets to clean the water, weapons, blankets. Hal was being a little cagey on how long it was going to take to cross. He just kept saying "I'm the end of the line here Tam, we'll get there with plenty to spare."

Once everything was organized Hal swept the house one more time, grabbing a stack of letters on his night table. I looked at them, as he stuffed them quickly into his pack and could have sworn I saw my mother's handwriting, slanted and messy, she was always in a hurry.

"Is that?" I started.

"You ready kid?" Hal cut me off.


"Well, it's now or I leave ya here and like I said"

"You're the end of the line" I finished for him. I pull the suit over my ragged clothing.

Hal opened the door, I squinted in the sun, and took my first step outside in a decade.

We started walking north.

SeriesShort StoryMystery

About the Creator

River Joy

I make things with paint and words and light. I was once described as an asshole with Mr. Rodgers vibes.

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  • Shane Dobbie3 months ago

    Engrossing and left me wanting to turn to the next chapter. Well meaning critical note though - try not to use anything other the ‘X said’ after dialogue. ‘I asked’ etc is obvious from the dialogue. Likewise: ‘I replied’. These are little flags for editors etc and best hit on the head early. Keep going though. It’s good stuff

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