I recently completed a creative writing project with some of my modern novels students built around post-apocalyptic themes and ideas. I decided to work with them and craft one of my own. Warning: some harsh violence at the end.
The sound woke Ilya from a deep, dreamless sleep. It echoed down the concrete passages that led to his room. It bounced around in his brain. His teeth hurt.
He sat up on his fraying army cot, the joints squeaking as he shifted his light frame. The floor’s chill reached his feet despite the heavy wool socks. Ilya threw his blanket across his shoulders and tottered down the hall.
Uncle Abram had gone scavenging the day before, around dawn. He had been ready for an hour or more, but waited diligently by the steel door for his chronograph’s alarm to sound. “The dark has never been our friend,” Ilya would hear him mutter. He had sat on a small stool, legs splayed out before him, the worn soles of his heavy combat boots jutting upward. His head rested on a small shelf behind the door where a guard might once have set his gun during a shift, but those guns had long ago been burned for their wood, their metal bones melted into pikes and shovels. A gas mask hung from his neck, one eye cracked but sealed with clear tape he had found in an abandoned autopark. His heavy eyes opened with the alarm and he stood, thick shoulders bearing two empty rucksacks. A sheathed machete clasped to his belt.
Ilya normally scavenged with Uncle, but the fever had come again, and he could barely stand.
It had only been a day and half since he watched Abram grin as he donned his mask, letting it rest on his wrinkled forehead. “I’ll be back in a few days, zajka. Our usual spots are drying up. But I will find what we need. Don’t worry.” His voice was low and soft. To Ilya it seemed to sometimes rise from his chest, not his throat, like the purr of a mountain lion. Uncle shifted the three red levers and spun a small wheel in the middle of the door. Several loud clunks resounded from inside. “Now, what do we do when one must go?”
“Only lock the lever on the left.”
“Right. That way I can use,” he pulled the cord around his neck and lifted the oversized key from beneath his long underwear, “this.”
“Don’t worry,” he said again, closing the door.
Ilya hadn’t worried. He’d slept most of the time, wrapping the blanket tighter and tighter. His uncle was strong. Reliable. Uncle never failed.
The hallway opened into the ticketing area for a long-abandoned station. Silver booths stood like sentries, guarding the darkness. Most of the sign on the archway was gone, but “—egarin Square” still hung there in light blue tile. Uncle had told Ilya that the station had been closed for even longer, not needed anymore. The base built above it and once staffed by uniformed men had been decommissioned. He had been a soldier then, riding the trains all day, but they had cut the dark blue guard uniform into thick strips for patches long ago.
Ilya approached the door. It was still locked. Uncle’s heavy jacket was not on its hook. The rucksacks were not laid out on the canvas tarpaulin.
When the station first closed, the men in charge sealed it off at the track with thick concrete walls and heavy brick, but fast and sloppy. The buildings at the top of the station had been demolished and paved over. When everyone started turning off the lights at night, when lions roared and cried in the sky, the station had been prepared for refugees, important people, silent and waiting. But no one came. Not until Uncle and Ilya.
An image forced its way into Ilya’s mind. Uncle sprawled before the door. The key around his neck in his bloody hand, searching for the slot, aimlessly tapping as the life leaked from his lips. “Open door, zajka. Open door for uncle…” A blank stare on his bearded face.
He rushed, sliding his socks across the floor, still weak.
Ilya placed his ear against the metal. It felt good against his skin. His fever had broken. He wasn’t frozen for the first time in days. Not yet warm, but like the smoldering coals in his chest had caught the wind.
The sound was close, but it wasn’t something tapping the door. Ilya held his breath. Listened.
No vibration. The stillness was as deep as the cold seeping through the metal. Still, the sound pierced his brain, despite the thick walls.
Ilya saw a man, perhaps his father—he no longer remembered his face, if he ever had—sitting on a short stool at the back of a car. He had backed it into a pole and dented the panel. He used a small, blunt hammer to pound it back into shape. Ping. Ping. Ping. His father smiled when Ilya complained that it made his teeth hurt.
Ilya wrapped a hand around the leftmost lever, the one he had been told never to open if Uncle was out. Once it had a red grip to cover the thick, folded steel handle, but it had been used to repair Ilya’s machete. He had been playing with the weapon while scavenging the husk of a building where they had once made pots. Uncle Abram had been ecstatic. He found a whole shelf of different sized ones for cooking. “Better than any I could ever buy,” he had said. He was binding their handles together with twine when Ilya found the foot control. It was square, pale yellow with a black footpad on top. A hole was worn through the rubber where the ball of the foot hit. Smiling, Ilya stomped it with all his might. Somewhere deep in the factory he heard a metallic clang. Uncle called out for him. Ilya heard the panic in his yawp. “Zajka?” he cried. “Zajka where are you?” It was familiar on their hunts whenever he strayed too far or hunkered down behind a shelf to look for food. Like a game.
A red cable snaked across the floor from the foot control to the machine in front of him. The sign on the front of the machine had two arrows pointing at two identical green buttons on either side. Both had started to glow. Giggling, Ilya reached for the buttons, but in one hand was his machete. The buttons sank in when pressed, and he couldn’t push with enough force. He sat the long, rusting blade on the shelf in front of him and pressed both buttons down. Reaching back with his foot, he tapped the control box. A steel piston the size of a tree trunk slammed down in front of him. Ilya’s machete shot out, the blade barely missing his ear. He fell backwards, sprawled on the floor. Tears rushed to his eyes.
Uncle stormed across the cavernous room, stopping to pick up the shattered remnants of his weapon. The handle, wooden and worn in the shape of Ilya’s small hands, had been splintered and crushed into powder. The tang was bent at a right angle. Uncle picked him up, putting the blade in its sheath, the bent part jutting into the boy’s side. “That is no way to treat a friend. This blade may save your life one day. Treasure it.” Uncle glanced over his shoulder. Ilya thought he heard shouting in the distance. “Let’s go,” Abram said, the bound-together pots clanking as he walked.
Ilya took his repaired machete from its hook next to the door, where his jacket hung. The red plastic handle was stiff and unyielding in the cold.
The door lever gave way as Ilya used his returning strength to wrench it loose. The internal mechanism screeched as steel scraped steel, then a series of loud thunks thundered around him. The door pulled away from the frame. Even cooler air rushed in, and with it came the smells of the world: wet, decay, rust. The air was tinged with electricity—something was picking, scratching at the base of Ilya’s skull.
It took a moment for Ilya’s eyes to adjust. The door from the station platform they lived on opened out directly to the abandoned track. Uncle had cobbled together some stairs from concrete blocks, careful to arrange them in such a way that they could have been normal debris, or a pile of materials left by a careless builder. Ilya put out a tentative foot, feeling for the top step.
Ping. The sound was close. Without the door muffling it, he could tell it was right below.
His eyes carved a shape from the darkness. There, sitting in the murk at the bottom of their steps, atop the ruined track, was someone else.
Ilya inhaled sharply. He hadn’t seen anyone since his uncle had thrown him over his shoulder and run through the streets, down into the dank tunnels and into their home. People had been screaming then, holding armfuls of bags and backpacks, running in every direction. The sky had gone red, he remembered, but not in the beautiful way that it did sometimes.
His hand tightened around the handle of his machete. It felt so small.
Ping. Ilya stepped closer. The stranger was striking a small metal hammer against a smooth, flat metal bar. Ilya flashed to a brightly colored toy sitting on a shelf in a yellow room, its own hammer connected the wooden base by a braided cord.
The figure didn’t move, but spoke in a small, quiet voice: “I found you.” The voice was muffled, but bright and hopeful.
Gooseflesh ran up Ilya’s back.
“They told me I wouldn’t. That the world was too big and you were hidden too well.”
Who would be looking for him? The world was empty save for bandits and gangs murdering each other for food. Uncle had told him so.
Standing, the stranger stepped closer, tugging off a gas mask. Beneath was a girl, close to Ilya’s age, with greasy, matted hair and pale skin. She was gaunt, her face marked by hollowed-out cheeks and dark rings under her large eyes. Ilya didn’t feel threatened, but he held out the machete defensively anyway.
“Stay away,” he said, without conviction. He wanted to talk to her. Deep in his chest, a yearning to interact with someone, anyone other than uncle broke loose. His hands shook.
“Never,” she said. She stepped toward him, almost at the bottom of the stairs. She still held the flat metal bar in one hand and the small hammer in the other. “You are needed, Ilya. Desperately.”
As she moved closer, her features became clearer. She looked like someone who had died days before. Thin, transparent skin hanging on sharp bone. Eyes receded in their sockets, like shriveled grapes. Ilya recoiled, but didn’t retreat. “How…how do you know me?”
“We were born together.”
Ilya’s face wrenched at the mouth. “I don’t have a sister.”
“You have millions of sisters. Brothers. And we are sick, Ilya. You can help us. You can help all of us.”
“And who are you? The ones that broke everything? Killed us all? That forced me and uncle down here? Why would I help you?”
“Uncle. Is that what he calls himself? I watched him leave. I’m too weak to fight him. We have so little left.”
“So little what?” Ilya asked, machete still held between them.
Rage surged from Ilya’s core. “Good!” he spat at the girl, hurling the words with all the force he could gather. “If you’re the ones who ended everything, I hope you freeze!” He turned, charging inside, pushing the door closed behind him.
Ping. Ping-ping-ping. Ping. Ping.
Ilya froze in place, feet rooted to ground, his hands still on the heavy door. His teeth hurt again.
“I’m sorry, Ilya. I didn’t want to do this. I just want you to understand.” The girl advanced up the steps, her hands hitting the same pattern of notes on the metal bar. “I know what your uncle has told you. That he saved you from the destruction, that your parents were killed. That he keeps you here so you can be safe.” The stranger was standing next to him. He could smell the decay on her breath as she whispered in his ear. “Lies.”
He couldn’t move. His whole body was frozen in time. Ilya willed his hands to move, the machete to hack at the girl’s pale face, but they wouldn’t.
She continued to hit the metal bar. The sound reverberated in his ears. His thoughts became a tiny scream in a hurricane. All he could hear was her voice.
“In the beginning, this is how they talked to us.” She held up the bar, still striking it. “Like Morse code, a simple language for issuing instructions. For getting our attention. They should have removed it. But they didn’t. I took care of it myself.” She turned her head to reveal a thin white scar behind her ear.
Ilya didn’t understand. Removed what?
“It’s okay, Ilya. I’m not here to hurt you. I just can’t let you get away. You’re too important.”
A voice boomed in the tunnel. “Ilya!” Uncle emerged from the shadows in a dead sprint, tossing the chock-full rucksacks aside.
The girl turned to look, then back at Ilya, panic in her eyes. “We’re sick. Fever. None of us have survived. We need to understand. We need you.”
How could he help them? Why would he ever want to? Ilya looked past her enameled eyes, a sheen of white over what might have once been green. His uncle’s eyes were wide with panic, the whites glowing in the dark, his mouth a twisted snarl.
Uncle drew his machete from his belt and raised it high.
The girl dropped her hands, letting the bar and hammer fall to the gravel below. She stood, unmoving, head bowed. Ilya felt his faculties return. His arms responded to his will, his feet unrooted from the ground below. Ilya pushed her away and she stumbled down the makeshift stairs, steadying herself at the bottom.
She looked up at him, her arm reaching out. “Others will come. Come to bring you–”
Uncle’s first strike caught the girl across the face, lodging in her cheek and nose. Blood sprayed from the wound and uncle reared back for another strike. She didn’t move, her arm still stretched toward Ilya, palm up. The second blow caught her in the neck. The blade sliced in and caught. Abram tore it free. More blood. The girl staggered now, falling to her knees. Ilya could hear her gasping and retching, red gurgling from her lips and eyes.
Uncle kept hitting her, over and over, his voice a ragged series of grunts and exhaled cries. Eventually she collapsed, parched dirt drinking the blood like rainwater, leaving only a dark spot beneath her. Ilya heard an unexpected sound with each hit of machete against the girl’s lifeless body. Something metallic. Something hard. Not bone.
Ilya stepped down the stairs and put a hand on Uncle’s shoulder. His breathing was thin, fast. After a moment, his powerful body seemed to sink in on itself. Uncle’s shoulders slouched, arms dangling in front of him, covered in blood, hair, and flesh to the bicep. He put his head back, closed his eyes. He huffed in the cold, huge clouds of warm breath in the freezing air like the smoke from a freshly-fired cannon. “Why did you open the door, zajka? Why?”
He didn’t want to, but Ilya bent down to examine the mutilated girl. Her face was gone. Pale eyes destroyed. Brown teeth chipped or crushed. But through the tenderized flesh, pulped and chopped, he could see it. Not the white of bone, but shining, smooth metal. Ilya tapped an exposed chunk.