Live Another Day - Short Story
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
© 2020, Jori Hanna
“The silence is what gets to you out there,” Geof said, taking the bandanna from his face and dropping his backpack on the dirt floor of the bunker. Eight hours ago I had watched my next door neighbor’s hulking frame squeeze out the sliding door, leaving the rest of us in the quiet dark.
We weren’t supposed to go out there alone, but . . . He risked it. He always risked it, no matter how much Mauve told him “Don’t be an idiot” and “What happens to us if you die? Huh?”
None of us were really sure where Mauve came from or how she’d found our bunker, but she was eighty years old and spry as a spring chicken. She’d determined she was staying and that was the end of that discussion. She insisted on cooking for us, not that there was much left to cook besides baked beans and rats—all of the production companies had gone out of business long ago. The farmers went underground and the crops died soon after. So the disgusting, goopy remnants of canned refried beans and the occasional captured rat was what we ate. It wasn’t so bad when you considered that the alternative was digging for worms and boiling them in a pot for worm soup.
Sometimes I wondered why we still fought to survive.
Eating rats. And worms. What was the point?
But when I looked across the small fire at my sister Annabell, I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her die. Especially not from what killed the rest of the world and sent us to ground. That horrible, aching sickness . . . It was a tricky one. No worse than the flu, they’d said.
Everything had started so simple. And then it hadn’t gotten better. And then it had continued to worsen. More people died. “Distance yourself” became the only thing they said. “Distance yourself and wash your hands.” As if being isolated would cause the disease to die. It hadn’t.
People couldn’t go to work. How do you give a factory worker extended sick leave? How do you pay them for two weeks which turned into two months, which turned into a year of quarantines?
You can’t. The factory, inevitably, goes under. Hundreds of people out of work. No goods to sell and no one to buy because everyone is running scared, never leaving their house and not using cash. What good are the numbers on a screen when the banks have no tellers?
The great equalizer. The disease. The apocalypse.
Money won’t buy you crap because no one is out making anything to buy.
There’s no more food. Eventually, there were riots. And thefts. And no one could stop it because if you so much as coughed on someone all bets were off. A sneeze here lead to a clubbing there and the world fell to pieces.
So here I sit, with my sister and my neighbors in a bunker we found when we did the only smart thing a Coloradan could do—run for the hills.
Why run for the hills? Aren’t the mountains more dangerous than staying in the city?
Sure, I guess. But there’s game up there, past the foothills where we are now. Sure, none of us know how to hunt, but we can try. And anyway. I’d rather die from a bear attack than from a hungry human any day.
“What’s the news, Geof?” Mauve asked, settling herself a little closer to the fire. We all smelled like smoke now. It was the only constant. We couldn’t let it out of the bunker in case it gave away our position. But we couldn’t put the fire out, because it was our warmth and our food source, and starting a fire is a lot harder than keeping one going, especially with no more matches or lighters or electricity. So we learned how to breathe and choke in the same action.
“The store is empty. Someone came and cleared us out. They found it and got lucky.” He looked at the can of beans in Annabell’s hands. “That’s the last of it.”
“Well,” Mauve said, smacking her brittle hands onto her knobby knees, “then it’s time to move on. Farther into the mountains, right?”
“Do you really think it’s worth it?” Annie asked, hesitating in her want for food only momentarily. She was still a young girl, still growing. Hungrier than the rest of us, except maybe Geof.
“Anna, love, it’s move on and maybe not die there or wait for starvation to come here to take us now,” Mauve said. “I, for one, would rather die by mountain lion than by starvation any day.”
Annabell swallowed and nodded. “Okay. When do we leave?”
“Well, the sun just went down and there’s no use traveling at night. We don’t need that risk. And anyway, we still have shelter here while it lasts,” Geof said. “You gonna finish those beans?”
Annie passed them over to him, her fingers trembling. She quickly pulled her hand back to her side, but she was scared. I could see it in her eyes.
Later that night, when Geof and Mauve were making a chorus of snores to keep the animals out, I felt a small touch on my shoulder.
I shifted to see Annabell sitting in front of me, her cheeks damp and her eyes puffy.
“Oh Annie . . . Come here,” I said softly and extended my arms to her. She crawled closer and settled in under my sleeping bag cover with me. “We’re going to be okay,” I said softly.
“If we leave, Mommy and Daddy won’t know where to come to find us.” Her small voice almost disappeared into my chest. It took everything in me not to cry then. Of course she’d still want Mom and Dad to come back. What reason would she have to think they’re dead? Or worse?
I pushed that thought from my mind. I didn’t want to think about the ten percent of cases where people had survived the disease. I didn’t want to think of the alternative. Death was better. In this world, death always seemed better.
“Tell you what I’ll do, Annie. I’ll write Mommy a note. And when we close up here tomorrow, I’ll leave the note to tell her where we’ve gone. Just in case. Does that sound okay?”
“Do it now,” she insisted.
I pulled out a valuable piece of paper from my pocket notebook and grabbed one of the charcoal pieces from the fire. In shaky writing—I hadn’t written for a while—I wrote “WEST” and showed it to Annie.
“That’ll tell them where to look?”
“Yeah,” I said with a reassuring smile. “Now get some sleep.”
It didn’t take long then for Annie to drift off. I folded the little paper and put it by the rolled up hoodie I used as a pillow before cuddling Annie closer. I didn’t have much in this world, but there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to keep my little sister safe. She didn’t deserve the lot she’d been handed. And it was my duty to try to lighten that load.
The next morning I rolled up my sleeping bag, ignored the gnawing pain in my stomach, and stuck the note in the back pocket of my fading, stretched out jeans held up loosely by a fraying belt.
I tied my hoodie around my waist and wished for the millionth time I’d thought to grab a backpack when Annie and I had left home.
Geof was already waiting outside with Mauve. “Go on. I’ll be out soon. I just want to put the fire out,” I told Annie. She hesitated, but left my side. I dropped my sleeping bag and took the note out again, glanced at the doorway, and dropped the paper in the embers, watching it spark and burn.
No one was coming for us.
And anyway, if they did come for us, I did not want them to know where to find us. I wasn’t going to let Annie die, too.
After the note was completely burned to ash, I scattered the embers and took one last smoke-filled breath. Time to move on.
Geof held the sheet of metal we used as a door and put it in place behind me. It was as good a thing as any to call a bunker and no one else was living in it, so we’d moved in. Leaving now felt odd somehow, as if we were betraying the only thing that had been kind to us in this cruel world. Geof had his bandana on his face again. I wasn’t really sure why. Sure, you’d expect the world to be dead like all those movies had predicted it would be—no more plantlife, no more vehicles, fuel at an all time low, sand everywhere, the sun making it dangerous to walk outside so you had to cover up . . . But this was Colorado. The sun made it dangerous to be outside since forever. There was no bird song, but there was still a breeze in the trees. The higher elevation has always put us at a higher risk for life threatening diseases, like melanoma.
Somehow, in the face of this new disease . . . Even cancer didn’t seem so bad.
After all, when someone dies with cancer, they tend to stay dead.
Annie grabbed my hand and tugged on my arm. “You left the note?”
“Yeah, Annie. I left it.”
She smiled up at me, and her big brown eyes poured guilt into my soul. “Good. We can go, then.”
Geof shot me a questioning glance past his bandana, and I shook my head just slightly. If needed, I could explain later. But it wasn’t worth it right now. Right now, we all needed to move on, at whatever pace Mauve would allow us to take.
We didn’t see any other humans all morning. By the time the sun was high in the sky, we were already miles and miles from where we’d started. I did the math in my head. At a normal walking pace, my mom and I used to go two miles in about twenty minutes on the trail near our house. Now, assuming we’d been walking for hours—a safe assumption given the sun’s trajectory—I could probably walk about six miles per hour comfortably. The thing was, we weren’t going at my normal walking pace. In fact it was much more of a “take three steps, wait for Mauve” sort of pace. So assuming we were going at a four mile per hour pace, and assuming we’d walked for about six hours, well, we were probably at least 24 miles from where we’d started.
Every time we saw a building in the distance, I felt my sister tense. I felt it too—the fear of what lies behind closed doors. Maybe nothing. But maybe something. Maybe the worst kind of something.
But the thing about a building is that there is always the small chance of food where there may be people. So Geof, taking his duty like a man, left his pack with me, balled his considerable fists and went on ahead to check it out.
“No one’s home!” The call came too loud in the still air. We moved closer. “Someone definitely lives here though,” he continued. “Jess, come help me with these cans!”
I left Annie with Mauve and headed in, the only other person in our group who could move quickly if it came to it. I could see what Geof meant the second I stepped inside. The stench of human feces was strong—stronger than I wanted it to be. Stronger than it had any right to be. I dropped Geof’s bag on the ground and unzipped it. He tossed me a cloth—it may have been a shirt, but I really couldn’t tell. He’d tied some parts of it together so it had a strap and a pouch. He’d made me a bag.
Together we stuffed as many cans as we could into our bags, moving as fast as we dared—we didn’t want to miss anything valuable, but we didn’t want to stick around longer than we needed to either. Once we had as much as we could reasonably carry, we headed back out into the sunshine and continued farther into the mountains, branching off toward the first stream we came across. Water was good. We couldn’t necessarily trust this water, we’d need to boil it, but having water nearby was far better than not having water nearby.
Survival 101. Find water. Find food. Find shelter. Figure out the rest later.
We had water. Now we had food. Next up, we needed shelter. And fire. And then we could figure out the rest.
I followed Geof off the road and into the trees, glancing back to make sure Mauve and Annie were with us still. Convinced we wouldn’t leave them behind, I turned my attention back to Geof, who walked with confidence deeper into the trees.
Here’s the thing about the trees in the Colorado Rockies: They’re never as thick as you want them to be. There is little to no underbrush, because the altitude only allows for so much life. And if there is thick underbrush, that’s the dangerous place to be because that’s where the predators and territorial herbivores hang out. If you’ve never seen an angry moose, count yourself lucky.
So even though we were deeper into the trees, we had no cover from the road. Not until we took a risk and walked around a boulder. Geof nodded.
“We can build a lean-to here.”
“Is it close enough to the water?” I asked.
“We can walk there pretty easily,” he said. “We’ll put the privy over there, out of the way and downhill.”
I nodded and put my makeshift bag of cans down in favor of finding suitable small branches and logs to lean up against the boulder or use for a fire. Thankfully, there were quite a few. Mauve got herself settled while Annie started collecting rocks for a fire pit, and once the pit was dug out with a shoe and circled in rocks, the two of them got to work while the sun was still up trying to use Geof’s glasses, a couple slips of my paper, some fallen pine needles, and the wood to build a fire.
It took the rest of the sunlight, but Geof and I got the shelter set up and Mauve got the fire started and the beans heated.
Once we’d all eaten, Annie and I went down to the stream and filled our cans with water, which we then brought back to the fire to boil.
I felt a little bad for whoever we'd stolen from, but this was the state of the world. My sister got to live another day.
“We should set up a watch,” Geof said. “Just in case of animals or . . .”
He didn’t need to finish.
“Yeah. Good idea," I said.
“I’ll watch first,” he said. “Jess, you watch second. Mauve, you third.”
We all nodded. Annie didn’t ask why she didn’t get a watch. None of us wanted to explain why she was too young and still needed the sleep more than we did. She was just about eight the last time I saw a calendar. I’d just turned seventeen. So much for college, right? None of that seemed to matter when the world was ending from disease.
We unrolled our sleeping bags and settled into our lean-to, hoping there wouldn’t be bad enough weather to need it.
Apparently we didn’t hope hard enough. That night, it rained so much I was certain I would never be dry again. The lean-to helped—a little. But not much. After all, we hadn’t had time to construct a full roof of any sort, and it wasn’t long before we had puddles splashing rainwater onto our faces and waking us all from whatever light sleep we’d had.
It was the kind of night you suffer through, waiting for the sun to rise again and end your misery.
When the morning light finally chased the storm clouds away, we struggled to light another fire. Everything was wet, and wet wood doesn’t want to burn. Fighting nature like that … Well, suffice it to say you’d have to be desperate or stupid. I guess we were both, because we kept trying until eventually we found dry enough wood to get anything to light.
I’d like to say I’d gotten used to the unfortunate taste of beans in the morning, but I don’t think that could ever actually happen. Nothing prepares you for the consistency. Even warmed up, the beans never taste the way you want them to. But they’re food, and they’re protein, so we ate them. Because the alternative was starvation, which didn’t sound like a good way to go.
“You know, I still remember the days of grocery stores,” Mauve said through her mouthful.
“There were buildings lined with shelves, and each shelf was stocked floor to ceiling with more food than you two have probably ever seen.”
I almost contradicted her. I, too, remembered the grocery stores. But it was something to talk about, so I let her talk, if only to fill the space. Her memory wasn’t what it once was, anyway, and in my boredom I could live with the repetitive stories, even if I could probably tell them for her at this point.
There was a shifting in the bushes nearby. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid that noise any mind. Probably just the wind or an animal.
But I didn’t feel any wind on my skin, and if it was an animal we could eat, I wanted to know.
“Shush,” I murmured, getting up slowly and leaving the fire. Geof carefully stood too, and as much as I wanted to prove I could take care of myself, I was grateful that he was coming with me. We were both thinking it: we’d stolen food. That makes people angry. And if they’re uninfected people, we’d be lucky. But there was always the off chance that one of the diseased had followed us.
That was not a risk I wanted to face alone.
I picked a damp stick off the ground, unsure if I would actually be able to use it as a weapon but glad for the security of holding onto something anyway, and glanced at Geof. He nodded and I pushed the underbrush aside, every muscle in my body tense, prepared for the worst.
A rabbit stared up at me from its spot in the grass, its nose twitching ever so slightly as it debated making a dash for it or staying perfectly still.
It ran when Annabell screamed.
I whipped around in time to see Annie scrambling to her feet and backing toward us.
“Mommy?” she asked, wet terror in her voice as she watched the woman who’d raised us ambling out of the woods.
I’d been trying to ignore the very real possibility that she wasn’t dead. But it’s hard to ignore the facts when they’re stumbling toward your sister with a hungry look in their sunken eyes.
“Annie get back,” Mauve said, struggling to her feet and picking a stick from the fire in her shaky hands. “Get out of here! All of you!”
Annie managed to get to her feet and made it to my side. I shot a look at Geof, and he shook his head.
“We have to go,” he said.
“I’ve lived my life! I’m not made for living out here in these woods, and I’ll only slow you down. Get out of here!” She swung her flaming log at the remnant of my mom—her same dark hair, patchy and falling out of her malnourished skin, her same blue eyes, if glassy and mostly unseeing. I managed to grab Annie’s hand as Geof put one of his massive palms on my shoulder.
“We have to go,” he insisted. “Come on.”
“Get!” Mauve shouted, but she wasn’t talking to us anymore. She was aiming her log at the crazed woman in front of her. I swallowed hard and stepped back toward the rabbit’s hiding place, unable to tear my eyes from the scene. Hungry and determined, I watched as my mom leapt on Mauve despite the fiery stick in her hand.
“No!” I pulled Annie closer and turned her face into my body. She didn’t need to see this. I didn’t want to see it. But I couldn’t look away as my mom—more creature than human—sunk her teeth into Mauve’s neck.
“We have to go. Now,” Geof insisted, pulling me, and by connection Annie, along through the woods. Hot tears streamed down my face, and I wasn’t sure who I was crying for. Or if I was instead crying because we didn’t have time to pack up the food we’d stolen. And if that was the case, how heartless had I become? That thought only made me cry more.
I was vaguely aware of the twigs grabbing at my arms and clothes, vaguely aware of Annie stumbling behind me, and increasingly grateful for the security of Geof’s hand in mine. I needed an older brother right now. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for everything. For Annie. At some point we splashed through the now-much-higher creek. It wasn’t until we’d slipped up the muddy bank on the other side that Geof let us stop to breathe.
He was as breathless as we were. Annie somehow found the breath to sob into my shoulder.
Be strong. For her. Don’t think about it. She needs you to be strong right now. Be strong.
“We need the food. I’m going back to get it. You two stay put unless you can’t, understand?”
I nodded numbly and watched him splash across the creek again, praying to whatever God was still on this forsaken earth that he’d come back healthy and uninfected.
It felt like hours before I saw his face again, blood spattered and bruised. But he carried his backpack and the slouch bag he’d haphazardly made for me. He’d done what he had to do. And because of that, and because of Mauve, we’d live another day.
This story, segments of this story, and ideas from this story are not to be duplicated or replicated in anyway. This content belongs to J. J. Hanna alone.
Please note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real life events is unintended by the author.
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J. J. Hanna is a writer and reader from Colorado. She loves suspense stories above all else, and is currently working on a debut novel of her own. When she's not writing, you can find her cuddling with a cat, drinking a caffeinated beverage, and watching one of her favorite shows. Go find her on social media @authorjjhanna to keep track of her most recent reads, current adventures, and to get the most up to date news on all things publishing.