The Aftermath

by Kane Bochatyn

The sharp ring of the church bell jars me awake. I lift my head and rub my eyes, and for a moment I forget where I am...before a rush of images brings me back. I sit up in my crude bunk and look around, examining the decrepit and squalid shelter that surrounds me.

Looking up, I grimly stare at the holes in our ceiling. The rotted wood still standing is riddled with cracks and gaps, and as I shift my weight in my makeshift bed, I can feel the blankets (or at least, what we use as blankets) moist with water. Glancing to the window, I see dark clouds adorning the sky. "Seems it rained again last night..." I think to myself.

With a light sigh, I stand up, pull my jacket over my shoulders, and fall in line with the other orphans into the foyer.

I stare at the floor, keeping my eyes away from others. I can feel the presence of the other orphans in the corridor. Though we're all there, walking to and from the different wings of our morbid sanctuary, the room is quiet. All I hear are the shuffling of feet on the floor and breathing of the others who are misfortunate enough to share my fate. None of us say a word; we walk as death, condemned to be isolated in this rundown hell, of which we find little solace. Though we are silent, the words of our hearts are clear: we are all dying, and there's nothing that can be done.

I shuffle across the room, stepping through an empty doorway in the midst of a flood of other kids and a sweet smell begins to dance its way into my nostrils. Though the scent is pungent enough to make me gag, I grip my growling stomach, counting the moments until I can receive some pathetic sense of relief from my ravenous hunger. Throwing a quick glance around the once well-adorned mess hall, I fall into line to get my share of food with the rest. The occasional comment rings out among the clatter of silverware and the shuffling of plates, but for the most part, we all keep our silence.

Our supply has been running short lately. Weve had to cut back on rations to preserve what little food that remains in the old churchs emergency supply. Ever since we had to resort to living here, food has become harder to come by for us, some two thousand waifs left to live adult lives in bodies of children. After the explosions on the horizons ceased, it started to go downhill. The fish in the sea died en masse, the water was tainted, and what crops we tried to maintain soon wilted under the barrage of sudden climate change. They say that we have enough left for a few months, but what then? Where have we to go, and what to do when we get there? It is a question that haunts us all, and yet one that we push away so desperately. If only things were different. If only

I sit down with a weak thud on the ground. I arch my back against the stone wall before I look down at my dish. Thin soup and stale bread is all we have, but as much as we hate it, we hate the pangs of starvation even more. With a heavy sigh, I roll my eyes and dip the half-molding bread into the stew and take a small bite. Time seems to drag on as I squint at the repulsiveness of the same, dull taste. Day after day for so long, it tends to become just about as disgusting as flies on rotted meat. Hahas ironic as it is, most of us would give our souls for just one bite of that rotted meat now.

Suddenly, a kid at the other end of the hall stands up, shouting at another next to him. Something about stealing bread, I dont pay much attention anymore. I begin to eat faster as they exchange heated words; words that, had we parents to guide us, would have brought about a firm scolding and a sore backside. The other child, standing up to meet his accuser, shoved him into a small circle of younger orphans, spilling their bowls of flavored water across the floor.

So begins another fight during our breakfast. Almost every day, we have someone accusing someone else of stealing food or not filling a bowl quite as full as the one before them. Ive seen this happen too often; its a heart-wrenching scene. Young boys that were once the pride of the town end up with black eyes, a broken rib. A lot of times, someone dies. The boys screaming and attacking each other in blind rage, and the girls sitting in the corner silently crying their hearts out. On days like this, bloodshed and murder arent all to worry about throughout the day. Those same girls will end up in a similar predicament; hysteria is contagious. Another dozen kids will go to be without a distant friend or theirs to be there the next morning. But even this isnt their greatest problem; the group of riled-up boys will find their ways into the bunks of the girls, and they will take control in a more personal way, inflicting wounds that cut so deeply to their hearts that they end up dead to the sick violation of their bodies that follow throughout the night.

With the crowd growing larger and the people becoming more violent, I make a point to stand up and slip out unnoticed. Ive seen this before, and I know that I wouldnt be able to bear watching the result of our destroyed hopes and dreams culminating to what it will in that stifling room. Keeping my head low, I walk around a group of kids talking quietly between themselves and step out of the main door, or at least what's left of it; like the other parts of the church, the doorway had corroded quite some time ago. Pulling my light cloak tighter around me, I started down the street, keeping to myself.

Not many people walk the roads these days. Most had died from the Calan, which is what they decided to call it. The unaffected people who were left typically tried to stay indoors, afraid of catching it themselves. The adults called it a harbinger, whatever that was, because it came shortly before the War. It seemed like an omen to prelude the future, because after the War started, everything fell apart.

I had been walking for a while, so I decide to sit down on a nearby porch. I look up at the abandoned building...before this plague came to us, I used to live here. I rest my head against the faded stone as I blankly stare into the street. I start remembering it all, and how quickly it was taken away. It seemed that the past six years just flew by as I vividly recalled how happy life was back then. I remember playing in the streets with my friends, the sun shining brightly and with it casting an optimistic atmosphere on our town. Back then, everything was fine...there was no hate, no dying, no sorrow; life was just lived to the fullest. It was perfect.

Then it started to changed...I remembered the first time that the Calan reached us. A friend down the way had gotten sick with it. People thought it wasn't anything special until he died. After that, events really began to move. His parents became sick, who spread it to their relatives and friends, who spread it to their relatives and friends in turn. There was talk of poison and attacks. The grownups told us that there were people from other countries that were trying to hurt us, and that's why we were getting sick. Some said that it was in the name of conquest, and since people were inclined to follow that line of faith, social paranoia became increasingly prominent.

Apparently, it wasn't just us who were getting sick with the Calan. Other people from other countries were getting sick too. They reacted the same way, saying the same things about us in other parts of the world, and war soon broke out. I remember the day it started too...standing at the edge of the pier, everyone in town could see the blasts from across the sea. Rumors of firefights and bombings became everyday banter. Looking back, that would have been a blessing.

It was bad at first, but it only got worse. The death toll continued to rise with each passing day, and the discharges became even more violent. A lot of families were torn apart because of it. One day, we saw something drop from the sky. It was much bigger than the other bombs we had seen before, and created an explosion a lot more destructive than anything else. I felt the heat from it and was knocked down by the blast, even though it was over two miles away. After that, those blasting explosions occurred several times a day, some close, some not so close. I, like most people, lived in terror. We all stayed inside, watching the television and listening to the radio for updates on the War. They frequently referred to it as the "Final War," because so many people were being killed so quickly and a lot of people thought that it was the end of the world. After a few days, the blasts stopped. Everyone thought it was over.

We were far from the reality of it.

After the bombings stopped, no more news came from the television and radio stations, and soon the channels stopped working. Everything was replaced by static. Over the sea came an ominous haze that hovered in our air for a long time. What we had feared from the Calan before the War was a common cold compared to what happened after. The haze started causing the sick people to get a lot Death was widespread, and people who stayed outside ended up getting sicker still. To make things worse, the sun and positive environment surrounding us left, and in its place came dark rain clouds rolling in and out all day long. What was once a happy little town on the beach was now a solemn and broken city of death.

The people panicked. Those who were still healthy ended up driving us sick people into abandoned buildings under a quarantine. They thought that it could cease to exist if we were put away like damn animals. Too bad they were wrong. Nothing could have stopped the Calan from long as there was air to breathe, people would keep getting sick.

Six years have passed now, and I'm feeling the effects of the Calan taking hold. I started showing symptoms two years ago, when I was 12. I've been coughing more recently and blood has started to come up. I wish I could say that I was almost dead, but the symptoms seem to vary. I've known kids who died years after they coughed up blood, and I've known others that died before any even showed. Sighing slightly, I shiver with the thought of our losses. In just the last six years, so many of us have died. Though few people still roam the streets, it doesn't matter whether they get sick or not. Most seem to think that we could be the only real place left after the aftermath, and decide that they want to die in a place they can call home. I've thought about leaving myself, but deep down I know it's useless; we all are going to die soon enough.

Hearing a small commotion, I shake my head and look up. A girl about my age sat up, trying to help a little boy up as well. It seemed that he was her brother, because she held onto him for dear life, as if he was the last thing that she had.

Probably because he was. Most of our parents went to war back then, and none returned. All there was left were orphan children and a couple of scattered adults left, and hardly anyone wanted - or even cared - to get to know each other or help out.

The little boy seemed limp in her arms as she held him up. She was holding a small cup to his lips, trying to shake him gently with her other arm to wake him up.

"Come on, you have to drink it," she said, her voice breaking as she continued to shake his shoulders, "Please, wake up! You have to drink this, you'll feel better."

I watch her in silence for a moment as she keeps at it, growing increasingly frantic. The child's limp body lay in her arms as blood trickled from his mouth and nose. I stand up and walk over to her, placing a hand on her shoulder, "It's too late...he's dead."

Her eyes shot up to me, burning with desperate intensity, "No, he can't be!" Tears began to stream down her face, "He was fine just a minute ago! He can't be dead..." Her voice trailed off into a stifled sob.

With empathy, I look down at her, tears welling in my own eyes, "That's usually how it is...I'm sorry."

The girl glared at me once more, her eyes reflecting her heart. It is a look I'll never forget. As if a mirror to her soul, I can see her loss of life, loss of hope. The tragedy that has fallen on us has turned a brilliant young girl into a hollow shell. As tears continue to stream down her face, she hangs her head and weeps uncontrollably. I quickly straighten and walk away, trying to get away from her eyes that have been burned into my mind. I don't know if any amount of words could describe the pain that was evident in that girl's eyes. All of her childish hope, her innocence, was gone. She has the look of a child who has seen too much, of a girl whose heart is broken and whose mind is shattered by the loss of her brother. A true reflection of defeat, there is nothing good left in her. All that is left is pain and death.

I quickly round a corner, escaping from the scene between the morose buildings. Scoffing slightly, I wipe the tears from my eyes as I continue through the alleys. Raising my hand to my mouth to muffle a fresh bout of coughing, I see a couple of kids younger than me sit on the ground, covered in a blanket. I take no notice to them as I walk by. Turning another corner, I glance up to the blurry site of the orphanage, wiping my eyes and sniffing once more. Meandering through the scattered groups of kids, I make my way to my bed, burying my face in my head to cover the tears that continue to fight their way down my cheeks.

As the months past, I found myself constantly seeing the faces of the girl and her brother on that day. Over time, I tried to make myself forget. I often found myself lost in thought, reviewing our fate, our lives. I would wander here and there, buried deep in my memories. It seemed that for a while, they could help me escape my reality. Maybe I thought that if I kept believing it was all a dream, I could go back to the time when it was all right.

Every time that I try to go back now, it fades away. In its wake are the eyes of the little girl. They aren't eyes anymore; I can feel the pain she suffered as if it was my own. The constant wound of that tormenting misery festers at my soul, taking more every day. Another year has passed, and I still find no relief.

I wake up one morning in a daze. Though it seems a normal morning, I quickly realize that the bell hasn't rung. I can hear a loud clamor in the main hall. Jolting upright, I stifle my coughs with an arm and step out of the room.

My eyes widen at the sight before me. Blood is splattered on the walls and my peers fight each other with anything they can find, from kitchen utensils to chipped stone from the pillars. Taking in the scene, I observe that several are dead already. A small gasp escapes my mouth as I cover it. Shifting my eyes to the wall to my left, I see the body of a child a few years younger than me lying cold and still. A deep gash at his left temple gives way to dark red blood flowing openly, staining his skin and clothing. An emaciated skeleton of a boy had crawled over to the bloody corpse, and as he raised his head up to look at me, I turned my back in disgust. Across his face is the red smear of blood dripping from his jaw as he chews on a piece of arm. I shut my eyes in horror, begging for mercy as I hear him noisily biting into his carcass-shaped dinner.

Feeling a strong wave of nausea hit my stomach, I flee from the room into the kitchen. Ignoring the disarray, I step over the body of a boy whose neck had been torn open, leaving behind a pool of blood and the scent of death. I rush through the kitchen and exit the back door, where I immediately bend over and empty what little contents are left in my stomach.

I fall to the ground and rest against the outer wall of the church, feeling the tears freely streaming down my cheeks. As a new rainfall saturates my body, the frantic images rush through my head, unrelenting in their graphic arrangement. "So this is what we've come to..." I say to myself, "...after all the work we did, all the pain we endured...We end up here, alone, with nothing. No one to hold, no one to tell us it's going to be all right...We are sentenced to a death that carries with it the cruelest fate imaginable. Victims of hunger, thirst, and despair, we are all that is left and we have been isolated even to each other...there is no grief or mourning that can ameliorate our suffering. No matter how hard we have tried, the best that we can hope for is to fall victim to a merciless foe and die, alone and in pain..."

Raising my head slightly, I begin to cough. Though routine as it has become, I feel a difference this time. My chest begins to burn with pain and my coughing becomes violent and thick. As I raise a hand to my mouth, I quickly pull it back to examine the spatter of warm blood oozing into my palm. As my chest cramps further, I reel in pain, clutching my heart as my coughing dies out. My muscles relax and I slump to the side. The last sight I see is a lone child opposite of me, silently staring as I fall to the ground, my hollow eyes perpetually gazing forward. Blood seeps from my nose as my final breath escapes my lips.

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