Short Story: The Best in Us

The horizon was a war-zone post-loss. That the war had never touched it mattered less with each day it crumbled further into ruin. Despite that, it had a sort of serene beauty, as if a post-card to the ages warning of man’s follies. Charles Murray could almost see the block-lettered words of caution hanging mid-air. Murray’d been there when it all went to shit. He was a kid then. In some ways, still was. Such a designation didn’t feel particularly apt given all he’d seen and done. It was even less appropriate when considering all he might yet see or do. Even at only twenty, he’d seen war waged on such grand a scale it left the world in literal tatters.

Like the skyline, the land had been subjected to more bombs and bullets than man had a right to construct. Scenery was reformed into post-apocalyptic wasteland. Location made no difference: big cities, small towns, rural homesteads, anywhere one enemy could’ve pushed another to, struck from, or trained at, became as decimated as the next or last.

They’d called World War I the “Great War,” but even the mustard-gassed trenches hadn’t seen such depravity. Murray’d half-expected the world to implode, swallow what few remained. It hadn’t yet, and as Murray knew, the war had never even be waged here. Not the war that had been waged everywhere else, anyhow.

This one was a civil war, a conflict of internal forces that had taken up arms for one reason or another. When one side failed to compromise, the other took aim and fired. Who cared which one did what? This was the end result. Now, day in and day out, Murray was forced to comb the wreckage for scraps of living.

Presently, he was forced to dig through a mound of rubble. His sharpened stick scratched at the rubble and gravel as he fondly recalled a one-time discovery: a bunker of fallout-supplies. It was one of those things constructed at the height of the cold war, then re-purposed when bombs fell again. The people living there had died from a bad air filter before realizing their peril. He remembered breaking the main-seals, still untouched from the bombs, and his chem sniffer going mad from C-O toxicity.

The main room had been an old-style parlor of countless bookshelves and a television inlaid in one wall. They even had an old computer hooked up with multiple hard-drives and an isolated data-server routed in from a separate room. They’d been well-off before things went to hell. Too bad it didn’t keep them from being asphyxiated in their sleep.

Murray still saw them sometimes when he closed his eyes: in a room just off the main one. Two men in bed. Peaceful child mere paces away. Sometimes he wished he could’ve been that child– gone as peacefully as anyone could hope to in the piss-hole of a place the world had become. After raiding the food stores, and before leaving, he’d marked the family’s room with a white X; a new-world symbol of no entry. The X was used to warn of contamination in some way, to be avoided at all costs. Sometimes though, it was used only to keep the dead undisturbed.

Sweat dripped off his brow and face. He scraped out the last of the piled gravel. The doorway was another old place– not a bomb-shelter, but an old church cellar. The kind of place people ran to during tornadoes before basements were common-place. Judging from the collapsed building above it, Murray guessed there was no access from the inside. The place had been untouched since the National Guard laid down the sand and gravel to fortify it. With any luck, there’d still be canned goods inside. Otherwise, just more bodies… it was always more bodies.

The door’s reveal all but confirmed his suspicions of the separation above and below. A few, concrete steps led down into a short, right-angle pit, a full-size, steel door at its terminus. Murray caught his breath on the rocky steps, then heaved himself to his feet. He grasped the door knob, shouldered the door. It failed to open– wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. He gathered up his remaining strength, took a step back, then hurled himself at the door.

It failed to give.

Too much had been done, too much energy expended, not to complete the task. He repeated the act. The door burst in off its hinges. He landed atop it in a plume of dust. It glinted in the beam of external light now shining in. A shotgun cocked. His reflexes engaged. He flipped, swept his legs, toppled the armed figure. Before he could stop himself, he laid his weight laterally against the shotgun on the throat of a white-haired, bearded man.

“No! Stop!” A young woman shouted.

Murray’s eyes widened. The room sharpened. He’d expected bodies. It was always bodies. Men. Women. Children. It didn’t matter. It was only ever bodies.

“You’re killing him!”

Murray was up. He cast the shotgun aside, stepped back in a hunched, defensive stance. His eyes flitted between the man, now propped on an elbow, and a young blonde with sapphire eyes. Murray took a step back, staggered by reality rushing in on him. The woman didn’t hesitate. She was instantly at the old man’s side, helping him up.

“Thank you,” she said backward at Murray. “Dad, are you alright?”

He grunted something Murray didn’t hear as she helped him to his feet. Murray took another half-step back. The old man approached, hand extended. “You look like hell, son. How long you been out there?”

Murray eased from his stance, his eyes on the man’s hand, “Since the beginning.”

The old man’s squinted, “That’d be, what, four years now?” Murray gave a small nod. “Well, that’s as long as we’ve been trapped here. If it weren’t for the hydroponics we rigged up from the well, we’d’ve been dead years ago. Guess we’re free now, with you to thank.”

Murray was hesitant, on-guard, “You have food?”

“As much as we can eat and more. All fresh vegetables,” the woman said.

“And shelter, here? Safety?”

“Mhmm,” the old man nodded.

“You can stay if you want,” the young woman added confidently.

They noticed Murray’s eyes begin to tear up.

The old man smiled, “C’mon, son, we’ll get ‘ya cleaned up, treat ‘ya to a meal. Hailey, show our guest to his room?”

She brightened with a nod, took a careful steps toward him before linking her arm in his. Moments later, they were standing before an open bedroom: a bed, dresser, night stand and filled bookcase were inside. Everything was pristine, a time-capsule of pre-war life only now unearthed. In a way, he guessed, it was– save the inexplicable women’s clothing peeking from a dresser drawer.

Hailey led him to the bed, sat him down, “We haven’t seen anyone in years.” She swept the room with a glance, “It’s not much, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

There was a momentary silence Murray had to break, “Wh-why?” Her brow furrowed. “Why do this for me?”

She shrugged, “I guess the world ending’s brought out the best in us.” He squinted at her; a sort of innocent naivete to her tone said she knew nothing of the world he’d come from. Paradoxically, her look said she knew its horrors all too well. She smiled, “Go ahead. Clean up. Lunch’ll be ready soon.”

Murray’s head swam: whatever he’d done to earn this, he must have forgotten. Then again, maybe the end of the world brought out the best in some people. Whatever the explanation, the fresh meat in his lunch was his biggest surprise.

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