Read Flicker Online

Authors: Anya Monroe

Flicker

 

 

 

books by anya monroe

for sure & certain

the dream catcher

 

Copyright @2015 by Anya Monroe

All rights reserved

This edition published by arrangement with

The Lovely Messy

 

ISBN-13:978-1507834046

ISBN-10:1507834047

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

flicker

 

anya monroe

 

 

 

 

 

for my mom, Cynthia Rose,

who poured a lifetime of love and creativity in my heart.

 

 

 

 

“There is a crack in everything.

That's how the light gets in.”


Leonard Cohen

 

 

 

 

 

chapter one

 

M
y latex-covered fingers tighten as the warmth abandons them. Mom swears she stored a bag of rice in the underground bunker, but I can’t find anything resembling food. A shiver runs down my spine while I move empty crates around. Some light would really help.

Mom’s in the house, one floor above me, and I know she’ll grow anxious the longer I take, but it’s impossible to find anything down here in the pitch dark. I rely on my memory as I determine my path; no one lets me use a flashlight. They require special batteries, too precious for my
child-like
hands.

The light that used to be rigged down here has been moved upstairs to our dome-shaped house, where we live now. Keeping one underground would be a waste, as we never come down the hatch unless we need to restock our kitchen, which I’m supposed to be doing. Mom has sent me on an impossible task. I scan my fingers across our pantry shelves but find nothing.

I rarely make my way down here, I’m glad to avoid this space. The first years of my life were spent in this bunker, in the maze of tunnels and rooms. I have no interest in returning to what Mom jokingly calls The Dark Ages, but coming here now, on a mission for rice, I wish I’d crossed the threshold more frequently. Maybe then I would know that there’s nothing left to eat.

I make my way across the bunker, desperate to get out as fast as possible, but then stop, knowing I ought to check out the other storerooms first. Otherwise, Mom will just make me come back down, to try again.

I hustle through a tunnel, towards Mark’s and Diane’s supply closet. I run my hands over the shelves that were once stuffed to the gills with every kind of vanilla-flavored soy-based protein powder you could imagine; now they’re completely empty. Misjudging the number of steps before I should turn, I trip twice as I head to Jack’s and Forest’s. No food in their supply room either, as far as my hands can tell. I understand why Mom doesn’t ask me to come down here often; it’s depressing as hell. The last room to feel out is Shelby’s and Thomas’s.  There are a few gallon jugs of what smells like vinegar, those won’t make a meal.

I place my fingers to my temples in my attempt to avoid panic
, Think, Lucy. Think
. There must to be something down here to eat. I swear I’m going to hyperventilate, there’s got to be some edible item to be found. Otherwise, that’s it, no more food.

Defeated, I turn back through the maze of connecting bunkers. I smack my shoulder against a concrete wall and trip, falling to my knees. My hands save me from a bigger blow.  With irritation I feel a tear in the thin glove on my left hand. I take it off, knowing it’s useless now. They’re just for precaution anyways, since I chose to take a walk outside this morning, another part of my ‘System-Detoxification.’

“Owww.” The childish sound that escapes my lips embarrasses me, but the fall did leave a sting. I rub my fingers against the palms of my hands. No blood. Thank God, everyone would have a panic attack upstairs if I had. I’d probably be quarantined for a week. No one wants an infection to fester. Wishing I could see the damage, I stop moving as I recognize the faint, dull green color emitting from the center of my hand. I’ve seen this before and Mom has too. When I was younger, she told me not to show anyone my hand when this happened, that some things in life are best kept in the dark.

No longer worried about my knees, I stand to my feet, knowing my opportunity with this light may leave any moment. I lean as close as I can to the shelf next to me and hold my palm to my eyes, scanning with more fervor than I had in the complete dark. Still, there’s nothing to eat.

Desperate to avoid returning empty-handed, I move fast. Passing the well that supplies our water, I head towards another shelf near the exit ladder. Looking at my hand again, it has dimmed, but in this dark cavern anything is an improvement. I move aside a five-gallon bucket and see, triumphantly, a can of beans.

I grab the can and read the label “Boston Baked Beans, Best Before 8/2020.” Suddenly the light in my hand is gone, and the room returns to black. I smile. Beans twelve years past their prime are better than nothing.

I hurry up the ladder, pull the air-locked hatch open, and once again I can see. Sunlight streams through the circular windows in the kitchen and I’m relieved to be out of the bunker. Being there gives me the heebie-jeebies, a reminder of a long ago life, that for me was the beginning, but for everyone else I live with, a strange in-between. A place that holds painful memories of what they lost when they entered the bunkers of their own handiwork. What they lost the day the lights went out and the world’s power grid came down.

Mom has her back to me, as she stands at the kitchen counter. She slams shut the drawer where we keep our vitamins, then turns around, hope written on her face. I seal the hatch behind me, careful to keep the can from her view. Looking down at my hands and knees I assess the damage. Thankfully my pants haven’t torn through.

“Did you get the rice, Lucy?” Mom asks, with a hint of sadness in her eyes, a vulnerability in her I rarely see. She waits for my answer on the non-existent grain.

“Couldn’t find any.” I say the last part in a near whisper, “I just don’t think it was because it’s dark down there.”

“I figured as much, I just hoped it wasn’t true.” She glances at the empty doorway before she continues. “That’s why I wanted you to go down there, to look around for yourself, before you hear the adults talk about the shortage tonight at dinner.”

“It’s not a shortage, Mom. There’s nothing. You knew?” My heart beats loud in my chest. I always assumed Forest would have come back with an answer before things became so destitute. Though the rations had become noticeably smaller, I never imagined it was this bad.

“Lucy, it was bound to happen at some point. You’re a bright girl, this can’t be a shock, can it?”

But it is, and stupid or not, I always assumed the people in charge … meaning my parents and the other adults I consider my family … would find a solution before we starved to death. Mom’s brows furrow as she looks in the basket on the counter. Her auburn hair is twisted in a braid, flecked with strands of white that reveal more about the stress of our environment than her age.

“We have about eight carrots from the green house, but that’s it. The rest of the seeds never took.”

“Well, I found you something,” I say with a smile, as I hold the can behind my back. This can is the only way to reverse her sadness, for a moment at least. “Ta-da!” I pull the beans out and Mom grabs the 32 oz. can from my hands.

“Baked Beans! I haven’t had these in years. You found these down there?” Tears spring to her eyes; Mom gets nostalgic when it comes to canned goods. Most of the food we eat is rice, beans, and protein shakes made with powdered milk. Beans in a sugary coating is a luxury we never get. Not anymore at least.

“They were behind a bucket. Lucky find, right?”

Mom turns the can to read the label as she wipes her tears away, holding the can closer so her declining eyesight can read the words more clearly. I know the numbers will bother her, but not because it’s past date, everything we eat these days is, but because the numbers remind her of before the blackout.

“Mom, they’re just twelve years expired. No biggie. I mean, if we’ve survived this long….” I stop and my sentence peters out. Survival is hard and with no more rice, I know what she thinks, what she fears.

“How did you find these down there, Lucy, behind a bucket no less? I know how dark it is.”

“It happened again….” I look at my left hand, not wanting to make eye contact with the person who knows me best. The person who I still don’t think knows me at all.

“Did you do something, to make it work?”

“No, of course not … should we tell Dad? Or Forest? Maybe they know something that can explain it, this hasn’t happened in years.”

“No,” Mom says with hushed fierceness to her voice. “Do not say a word. Not to them.”

Mom and Dad don’t see eye to eye. Dad’s too busy to listen to me, an inexperienced child, anyways. Only Mom takes the times to hear and see. 

“To
them
? They are our family.”

“I understand, but the timing isn’t right.”

“Okay. I just….”

“You just nothing, Lucy. Can you please go let everyone know it’s dinnertime? I’ll just dish these beans into the bowls real quick, okay?” She pulls out the dulled can opener from the drawer.

“Sure, Mom.” I lean over and kiss her cheek. My life has been told to me in half-truths, this is nothing new. The only difference is, it isn’t enough for me anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

chapter two

 

W
alking out of the kitchen towards the study, I stuff my torn latex gloves in the pocket of my jeans, evidence of a fall I want to keep secret. I step into the room that sounds as it always does. Quiet. This room, lined floor-to-ceiling with books I’ve read over and over, has been the backdrop for my life.

“Sorry to interrupt, but it is dinnertime,” I whisper. I know how concentrated everyone becomes when they are absorbed in their work.

“You aren’t interrupting,” says Diane as she looks me up and down from the desk where she’s been reading. “But didn’t you have a walk this afternoon? Where are your gloves?” She stands and crosses her arms with a disapproving glare zoomed in on my bare hands.

“I walked down to the apple tree. It’s blossoming and I brought home some branches so we could have flowers inside. They’re beautiful.” Diane looks as if she is about to pounce so I add, “Don’t worry, Mom said no.”

“Rightfully so. We have no way to decontaminate a foreign substance, it’s foolish to consider.” Diane’s eyes scold. “That isn’t what I asked you though, is it? Where are your gloves?”

I look down at my hands, itching to be free of her gaze.

“I was looking for something in the bunker and they ripped, it’s so dark down there. I forgot to replace them when I got back upstairs.”

              The others move next to Diane, standing in a half circle around me, intent to hear my explanation for breaking protocol. I have nothing left to say, so I remain silent.

              “You will thoroughly wash before dinner,” Dad instructs with clenched fists. His eyes jump from my head to my toes, inspecting other areas for contamination. “How can you not understand the risks you take with your carelessness?”

“I know and I’m sorry, I’ll clean up now.” I turn to go, but can’t help but pause to say one last thing against my better judgment. “Those flowers are so pretty, Dad. You should walk down and see what I mean.”

“Lucy, I know your mother’s allowed you to walk outside, but I just don’t believe the risk is worth the cost. Whole-body sanitization takes so much time and it’s a wasteful use of your energy. You should be using the treadmill to recharge our batteries instead of idly walking in a dangerous environment.” He speaks to the other adults as much as he does me. Lecturing themselves about their “ideals” is a favorite past time at the compound. Theses days though, their ‘ideals’ seem more like doctrine. I can’t do anything to escape their condemnation.

“Yes, sir, and again, I apologize for my thoughtlessness.” I turn away and walk to the utility sink where I scrub my skin raw to atone for my unintended mistake. My stomach rumbles, but I can’t tell if it’s from hunger or embarrassment from my public reprimand.

Dinner at our compound is quiet. Living with the same people for sixteen years, you run out of things to talk about. We take our usual spots; I’m between Mom and Diane. Dad, Forest, and Mark on the other side. That’s who’s left of the group that used to be nine.

We all survived the first five years below in the bunkers, but Thomas and Jack went out first, in search of fresh meat, believing the airborne virus would have died by then. They returned, empty handed, only to die a few days later. I hardly remember, I was such a little girl, but I know Shelby cried for days and days. She never recovered from the loss of her husband, and died within a month. Mom says it was a broken heart.

Forest took the death of his partner differently. He’s become obsessed with finding out what killed the men. He’s spent the last eleven years trying to develop a cure for the virus he says killed the last person in the world he loved.

Before the blackout, Forest was a researcher, uncovering facts was his profession. Now he spends his days attempting to unravel the truth about what happened to Jack. The rest of the compound is a hodge-podge collection of people. Friends, but not colleagues. Back in the day, pre-Lucy, they predicted there would be an apocalypse of some sort so they prepared for one.

It wasn’t the norm to do so, but they weren’t alone in their disaster-preparedness.  My compound family says pockets of people did the same, people who’d spend their weekends working on their bunkers, cashing out their retirement funds for air and water purification systems, maxing out credit cards for food storage that would last a decade or more.

Forest and the rest of the compound joined my parents’ efforts a year before the actual virus broke. “Food Prep Manager” and Dad was in charge of creating a “Battery System” for when the lights went out, which happened a week into their bunker stay. That’s why they thought we’d have such a great chance at survival. They knew what scenarios to prepare for, but for whatever “experts” they say they were, we’ve spent years rereading the same books, playing the same games, confined to our above ground home.

The early deaths on our compound changed the adults who live here. That’s why we rarely make our way outside, why we can’t eat any wild animals for food, or eat fruit from the apple trees in the valley we live in. Since none of us went out with Jack and Thomas, the adults decided the virus was still alive, and Mom has been the only one to disagree with them.

The divide in the house doesn’t matter though. Mom’s voice doesn’t stand out among the others. They believe that somehow Thomas and Jack contracted the virus when they went out, and that’s what killed them. At the time they went underground no one thought of bringing along a tool to measure air quality.

The air they breathed is the only information Forest has to go off of –– too deadly to risk breathing ourselves, so we don’t. Not many facts for a researcher, but that doesn’t matter to anyone anymore. We live in perpetual paranoia, and it grows worse every year, every week, every day.

“We have some baked beans tonight that Lucy found,” Mom says once I’ve seated myself at the table. “But that’s the last of everything.”

A collective intake of breath is followed by a group sigh, as the adults look at one another, nodding their heads in agreement. As the only child here, they shield me from most conversations, most disagreements,
most everything
. They don’t want me to fret, but what happens is I’m left in the dark, to worry on my own.

“You did a fine job finding the beans, Lucy,” says Diane. “It seems you did one thing right today.” Her words slice at the place my confidence and strength intersect, leaving me silent. 

“Well, dish ‘em up, Cecily,” Forest says to Mom. Dad stretches his hand across the table and puts it over my freshly-gloved one, then smiles his gratitude. I look at Mom, confused by everyone’s reaction to the news. Isn’t this the time we all freak out?

“We have a plan so there is nothing to worry about now,” says Dad to pacify me.

“Will you tell me?” I ask, confused that I’m the only one fearful of what
no food
means.

“Enough with your questions, child.” Diane’s words are sharp and they pierce me. “All you need to know is that we have this under control.”

“Dad, is that true? Is everything going to be okay?”

“Lucy, you have to trust me.”

Trust.
I trust, I suppose, because there’s no other choice to make. The five people around the laminate dining room table are the only people I know. They are the only people I’ve ever seen; save for the handful of cowboys who’ve come around a few times throughout my life. If I hadn’t met those men or heard their stories, I would only know what I’ve read in books.

“I trust you, I do. It’s just….” I stop, not quite knowing how to formulate a sentence that matches how I feel inside. My voice has grown quiet as I’ve grown older. A once full imagination has been swallowed in loneliness. My life pales in comparison to the adults around me. They have vibrancy in their authority, in the words they say, such directedness, decidedness. They know more because they’ve lived in the world I can only dream about.

“Well, good, Lucy. We can’t have you, our unexpected child, creating a scene,” says Dad.

I watch Diane, her eyes meet Mark’s across the table, as Dad speaks. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed their unspoken longing when conversation turns to me, about what a surprise gift I was. I’m sixteen, not a fool.

I asked Mom once, after I officially became a woman, though no one in the compound acknowledges me as such, why I was the only child here. Why was she the only one who had a baby?

Below ground in the bunker was the best place to have a private conversation. She told me, but said it was best not to mention, bad blood was the term she used. I thought that was ironic given my physical state.

Sitting in the dark, on my old bunk, she explained, “Before the blackout, the women in our compound elected to be sterilized. Diane and Shelby went in, had their procedure, securing their wombs free of children forever … in light of knowing the world they lived in was no place to bring a child. When I went in for mine, that same day, the doctor informed me I was already twelve weeks pregnant with you.”

She stopped; her brows knit, the lines around her mouth more pronounced. I could tell she was deciding how much she wanted to burden me with.

“I was terrified to tell Diane and Shelby. I knew they would be upset with me, for breaking the pact we had made, but I had no choice.” Mom’s voice cracked, reliving the past always did that to her, revealing the feelings she kept buried beneath her brash exterior caused her to waver in ways I wasn’t used to.

“Lucy, when I heard your heartbeat, I knew you would be the light in my life. The days were so grim back then, and your dad and I believed the growing virus would become a worldwide epidemic. We knew our time to go below ground crept near. I knew how mad the other women would be, how your coming would put your father into a tailspin of preparation, but it didn’t matter because I was going to have you.”

I hugged Mom on my bunk, letting her cry into my shoulders, tears I realized she kept hidden from everyone else. She spent her life not only caring for me, but also trying to redeem herself to the others on the compound because she felt like she got away with having something that wasn’t meant to be hers.

Now as I watch Diane and Mark share their not-so-private glance across the dining room table my stomach rolls, guilty for being alive. My stomach growls louder, this time begging for food. As the bowls are passed around, I can’t shake the feeling of being lied to.

We each have about a half a cup of beans in our stainless steel dishes, and we eat fast, not able to restrain ourselves. We’re near licking the bottom of them within minutes. The beans taste so sweet with their high fructose corn syrup glaze. I can’t remember the last time I ate something so decadent.

Sunlight from the outside world dimly lights this one room. We spend our evenings here, after we shut down the rest of the house. Each night Forest pulls the sliding doors out of concealment with finality, closing off a portion of the house.

But this evening, before Forest begins his routine, there’s a heavy knock on the front door, stopping all of us from the embarrassment of doing the actual bowl licking we are tempted with.

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