Sometimes I wondered what the cool night air would feel like on my skin. Would it be moist like the feel of breath on your hand— as if the very night was doing the exhaling? Would it be dry and crackle with static electricity like the filtered stuff in our home? Through my headpiece, I could hear the song of night creatures calling for their mates. On nights like tonight— when the moon shone bright as some artificial sun and that same breeze fluttered at my jumpsuit—it seemed hardest to believe that this world was so toxic that even exposing a finger to its harsh environs would be enough to kill me. But as mother and the books had taught me, radiation was invisible.
Mother and I used to make these night time scavenge runs together. I remembered being so small that it seemed my helmet weighed a ton as we explored this world like aliens visiting some foreign planet. I remember, back when I was little, hoping that there was something we would find… some elusive thing… that would make it safe to move above again. To feel just once the sun on my skin.
Not that I wasn’t happy with Mother. She protected me, taught me how to survive and told me stories…
Well, before she got sicker.
Not wanting to linger on thoughts of mothers illness and realizing that Above wasn’t the best place for my thoughts to wander, I trudged forward. Mom had made sure I understood the barriers long ago. No farther than the broken down shack to the west. No farther than the river to the south. Never pass the caves to the north and again the river snaked around forming a natural barrier to the east.
Tonight, though, was going to be different. Something had to be done. I knew the shack that held our outside storage would have supplies. We were careful, only taking and decontaminating what we needed now and locking what was left against any monsters that may have survived The End. But careful or not, Mother had been sicker. I had to find more of her little pink pills. Without them…
I didn’t want to think of what would happen without them.
Mother didn’t know that the supply that she had so carefully created before The End had diminished to nearly nothing over the years. She had been too ill to come Above for so long… And as she had so long ago created our stash to protect us, now I was left to wander into the Open… the Deadzone… to see if I could find more of her pills.
My heart raced as I came to the shack. My hands, already sweaty from the plastic I wore to protect myself, shook inside my gloves. I tried to regulate my breathing, keeping it steady so that I didn’t waste my precious air supply but it was hard with my heart thudding so loudly that it nearly drowned out the cricket song.
All my life I had been taught that crossing the barrier was throwing the dice of fate. Within this area, we were safe.
Outside was death and sickness.
Knowing I had no choice and having planned this for more than a month, I slowly put one foot in front of another, into the unsecure zone.
I am not sure what I expected. The world looked no different here, outside my usual area of roaming. The crickets still chirped, quieter where I made my rustling progress and disturbed their questing cries. The moon still shone down on me, kissing the grass and trees with its pearly glow. A wild feeling of rebellion surged in me and for a moment, just a moment, I wondered what would happen if I took off my mask and just kept walking, leaving all the worries about our life behind me.
It was a suicidal thought, though, so I quickly discarded it. Only a complete moron would dare move around Above without protective gear.
The grass was shorter here. I could see what looked like another building now in the darkness. I didn’t dare light a glow stick, afraid of what the light would attract. I had a choice: stick to the thin coverage of trees or try to go to the house.
I decided to head for the house. Moving onto the stretch of short grass that seemed to carpet the area around the house, I hoped that the night and the darkness of my garb would protect me.
The one problem with my helmet was the way that it cut off my peripheral vision. If it hadn’t, I might have seen him before he saw me. Things may all have turned out much differently.
But due to the helmet disturbing that oh-so-important little bit of vision, what alerted me to his presence was the fact that he gasped.
That soft sucking in of air had me spinning, nearly dropping the stick I had collected as protection against any radiation sick animals that I might encounter.
I knew it was a boy. I knew he probably wasn’t much older than me. I mean, I had books and all. I had never seen a boy, though. Actually, we had kind of thought we were the only humans to survive the End. But his dark hair and smooth skin were human. He didn’t look sick. That was the first real impression I got.
Before he and I screamed almost in unison.
Spinning on my heel, I decided to run for it. Given the choice of fighting or flight, it turns out I have a much stronger flight reflex.
His voice cut through the night. It was deeper than either Mothers voice or my own. It seemed to crackle over my skin, awakening something that made my hairs stand on end beneath my plastic sleeves. I would like to say that I stopped to see what he had to say but, really, what froze me in my tracks was the very alien sound of a male voice.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. What are you doing in my backyard? And what are you wearing? Is that some kind of space suit or what? I mean, you are like a month early for Halloween and… Seriously, what are you doing?”
I had to turn and look at him. He just didn’t sound sick. Shouldn’t he be at least deformed? But his skin, even in darkness, looked darker than my own and the flesh revealed by his short sleeved top was all flawless in the moonlight.
His eyes, caught by the glow of that same bright orb, looked black in the night. I wondered what color they were. What color was his hair? Most importantly, how was he alive and not in protective gear?
Saving the supposition and questions for my mother, I decided that answering him was not in my best interest. Running, however, was.
Again taking flight, I hadn’t made it far when something hit me from behind. The contact, as well as my own momentum, had me airborne for a moment before the ground rose up to meet me, sucking the air from my lungs in a whoosh.
And for the first time, I felt it. The impact had shaken off one of my gloves. My hand was exposed to the air. I could feel the grass under my finger tips, moist and oddly cold.
My eyes stared at my own hand, lying so innocently in the dark grass, and I realized I was dead. It would kill me. It was only a matter of time.
Rolling, I looked at the attacker who had tackled me and caused what would soon kill me. Glaring up at him, I saw the boy was winded from chasing me. He looked down into my helmet, sheer shock etched in every plane of his face.
“You are a girl.” The words were uttered with a hushed reverence that stole my breath in a way I didn’t want to think too hard about.
Using his shock as a distraction, I rolled him off me and again set off for the trees. Running so hard and fast that my lungs burned and I could feel the jarring force of every fall of my feet, I made it back to the safe zone. Leaning on the wall of the shack, I paused to try to get air into lungs that seemed to be cramping in panic.
I was going to die.
Looking at my hand again as if it had betrayed me, I heard a rustling in the underbrush.
Had he followed me?
Not willing to risk capture by some radiation sick boy, I plunged to our secret entrance. I flung myself into the decontamination chamber and locked the airlock behind me.
Flicking buttons to start the shower system, I waited for the light to blink, registering that it was safe to rip off the plastic suit.
I was dead anyway.
When the light blinked, I shredded the suit from my skin. Adjusting my shorts and tee shirt, I finally took a moment to look at my hand. It seemed fine. But radiation was invisible.
The words ran a terrible loop in my head. I was going to die. I was going to die. I was going to die.
And as I reentered our home to the soft sound of mother’s snores, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t tell her.