A short story
Granma died a month before the Big Quake, when I was ten. That was seven years ago. It’s been just me and Granpa since. He tried to tell me what really happened back then, how the quakes happened like nearly every day since the big one, but I don’t want to know. I just want to see Mom and Dad again, but they’re back in the east coast – hundreds of miles from where I live.
The earthquakes didn’t just hit our town, but towns and cities all over the world. We got no electricity or anything since then. Granpa said something about how they got the plate theory all wrong and that Asia wasn’t the largest continent anymore, but I don’t really get it. He said that before we lost connection with the rest of the world, the US was split in half – straight down the middle. He showed this new boundary to me once on my globe beach ball. He took his Sharpie and drew a thick black line down the center of Canada, through the US and even Mexico. But my beach ball popped before the line reached Mexico and air gushed out. Texas had a hole in it and Granpa threw the ball out. He said Mom and Dad live on the east side of the US and we live on the west side, so they won’t be able to come because of this new boundary.
Mom and Dad brought me over to Granpa’s all the way out in the middle of nowhere when I was ten. They said the schools here were better than the ones back in New York and that I’d learn more. But I never went to school. I just helped Granma and Granpa around the house. I think they brought me here because I was slow at learning. It doesn’t matter now anyways. The world’s turned on its head, like Granpa says, and we’re stuck in the middle of it.
Granpa says to never get caught outside ‘cause there’s no government and no police.
“People do whatever they want now,” he says. “But they’re just trying to survive, like we are.”
I think he called it Marshal Law or something. But I don’t know what Marshal’s Law is. And who’s Marshal? I thought the President’s name was Jane Chan or something, but then again we haven’t had an election since the Big Quake. I don’t ask Granpa about it because he’s too tired today. Maybe I’ll ask tomorrow, if I remember.
I know I’m not supposed to go outside, but I go when Granpa doesn’t know. I just want to see what the world is like to write about it in my journal. Granma gave me this journal as a gift when Mom and Dad brought me here before the Big Quake. I write in it every day. It’s like the pages never run out.
I walk up the hill near our house and sit under a tree. Granpa said this place used to be a desert like fifty years ago, but now it’s like a forest. The trees are taller now and no one cuts them down anymore, the sky is light blue like my old jeans, and the sun hides behind large fluffy clouds.
Then I see something I shouldn’t. Now I’m scared for my life – and for Granpa’s, too. There’s a boy walking out along the dirt road that leads into town. I think he’s about a few years older than me. Five men chase him, shoot him dead like a hundred times, and take everything he has – even his clothes.
I run back home and lock all the doors. I pray those men don’t know we live out here and come after us.
Granpa got sick last week and hasn’t gotten any better. Today he’s saying things about me. Saying how I’m just like Mom and he loves me very much. I don’t like this kind of talk. It’s all the things Granma said to me and Granpa before she left us. I pray that Granpa gets better. I don’t want to be alone.
I find Granpa checking his guns today. It’s been the sixth time this week and I feel dizzy watching him. Before the quakes, he taught me how to fire one, but Granma got mad and he never once took them out again. I never liked guns, but Granpa says we might have to use them. We gotta be our own police, he says, since there is none. I think this is what he meant by Marshal Law.
I didn’t mean to go outside today, but I’m hoping someone might have medicine for Granpa. I walk towards town when I see him. He’s tall, like Granpa. Six-three, maybe, since he stood next to the notches on one of our town’s water towers that marked off every foot on the tower’s metal legs. I think he was getting water for himself, but then I see him giving it out to a group of people. I recognize the five men that killed that boy about a month ago in the crowd and they yell at the man. The man doesn’t yell back. I’m afraid the other men might kill him. Then the yelling gets worse. Someone fires a shot. Everyone runs, but not the man. He just stands there, staring down those five men until they leave him alone.
I want to go outside today to get medicine for Granpa, but don’t. I don’t want to leave Granpa here alone. What if he calls for me and I’m not here? What if those five men come here? What if the quakes start and our house falls? What if Granpa –? No, I can’t think that. Granma would be mad at me if she knew I was thinking these things.
Granpa’s a heavy sleeper. He slept through the hurricane that brought a foot of snow three summers ago and the tornado that rained fist-sized ice stones last spring.
“An earthquake would wake him,” Granma once joked, since back then we didn’t get quakes, but everything else.
Turns out it’s true. Even the smallest tremors would get Granpa sitting up, wide-eyed when just a few seconds ago I shook his bed and he didn’t wake.
It’s late morning when I see two men walking up to our house with long rifles in their hands. They’re two of the five men that killed that boy a while back.
I scream for Granpa to wake up, but he doesn’t. I shake him really hard by the shoulders and scream again when I hear the door slam open. I want to run away, but I can’t leave Granpa here with these men. I close my eyes and pray they would leave us alone.
Then I hear gunshots and the door slams open. The men come into Granpa’s room and point their guns at us. I just stand by Granpa’s bed and squeeze his hand. One of the men walks up to us and frowns at Granpa.
“He’s dead,” he says, waving his gun. “We need an extra pair o’ hands. Come wit us.”
“No.” My voice is shaky.
“I ain’t askin’.” He wants to grab me, but I run.
I run screaming out of Granpa’s room, through the side door, and out the house to the shed out back. I crawl behind a metal barrel and stay there. I hug my legs and squeeze my eyes shut. I pray that they won’t find me, but I’m shaking so hard the barrel rattles next to me.
“Check over there.” It’s one of those men.
I hear boots coming towards me.
Please don’t let them find me. Please. Please. Please.
A gun goes off. And another.
I don’t feel no pain.
I don’t think I’m dead.
I don’t move.
Something touches my arm and I scream.
“Hey, it’s okay.”
I force myself to look.
It’s him. That man from the water tower. He squats in front of me, but I can’t see his face.
“It’s okay,” he says. “They won’t hurt you anymore.”
I look around the shed. The two men lie on the ground, blood spilling under them.
“Are you hurt?”
I look back at the man and shake my head.
He holds out his right hand. “My name’s Gabe.”
I say nothing, but I stare at the gun in his left hand. It’s small and black. He sees this and pushes the gun far away from us.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I won’t hurt you. I promise.”
I nod and take his hand, and he helps me to my feet. I tell him thank you and he gives me a nod. He doesn’t look at me, but at my house. I see his face now. His eyes remind me of Granma’s honey when it sits in the sun and his light skin has tanned like Granpa’s. He has no beard, but he doesn’t have that coloring on his chins like Granpa after he shaves. Some of his black hair covers the deep creases on his forehead. I guess he’s still young, maybe twenty-something, but he could be older. I don’t know.
“Granpa,” I whisper and run back to the house.
Granpa is still in his bed.
“Granpa! Granpa, wake up!” I scream, shaking him. I call him more, but still he doesn’t wake up.
Gabe comes in and takes Granpa’s hand, his fingers around Granpa’s wrist. Then he touches Granpa’s neck. Then he puts his ear on Granpa’s chest. After a long time, he stands straight and turns to me.
He opens his mouth to speak, but I run out of the room. I already know what he’s going to say.
I go to the kitchen and take out Granpa’s backpack from one of the cabinets. It has everything Granpa said we’d need in case we had to leave. I take one of Granpa’s guns from the counter and put it in the backpack. I feel dizzy just touching the gun, but I might need it. I go to my room and take my journal and put it in the backpack, too.
I turn to leave, but I see Gabe standing near the front door. I bite my lip, so I don’t cry.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
I shrug and put on the backpack. I don’t have to tell him anything. It’s none of his business. I want to go far away from here, but I can’t get my legs to move.
“I wanna go east,” I say. I don’t know why I’m telling him, but I do. “My parents are there and they’re still alive. Granpa told me so.”
Gabe stares at me for a long minute before he nods. “I’m coming with you,” he says. “You won’t be able to survive on your own.”
I look away from him, digging my nails into my palms. I don’t want him coming with me. I don’t know who he is. But I don’t want to be alone. So I give him a nod.
“Do you want to bury your granpa first?”
I look at him. “Yes,” I say. And then I cry.
Granpa left me three days ago. And I feel guilty leaving our house behind. But Granpa told me if anything happened to him, I shouldn’t stay. I promised him I wouldn’t.
Gabe doesn’t say anything to me except when we have to rest or eat. He says if we had a car we’d get to the Boundary faster, but all the cars we saw had no gas. They just sit there on the roads like giant metal boulders.
“What’s the Boundary?” I ask.
“It’s what divides the country in half,” he says.
Then I remember the line Granpa drew on my globe beach ball.
“Have you seen the Rockies?” Gabe asks me.
“The Boundary is like the Rockies and we have to cross it to get to the other side of the country.”
I nod again. “Granpa told me the Rockies weren’t made in a few years, but the Boundary was.”
“I know,” Gabe says, looking at the sky. “There are a lot of things we thought we knew about this world that aren’t true anymore.”
I think about Mom and Dad. I haven’t seen them for so long that I’ve forgotten what they look like.
“How far is the east coast?” I ask him.
He doesn’t say anything for a long time. Then he looks at me and says, “Don’t worry. We’ll get there.”
The sun climbs over the dark orange plateaus. Gabe says we’re just outside of Texas. I don’t know why Gabe wants to help me get to Mom and Dad, but I’m grateful that he is. I don’t think I would’ve made it this far without him.
We walk to a place that looks like a gas station from one of Granpa’s books. We find a boy crying over someone’s body. I think it’s his mom. I run over to the boy and Gabe follows me.
“She’s been dead for about two weeks.” Gabe says it like how they know in Granpa’s police shows just by looking at the body. I wonder if Gabe’s a policeman.
“We can’t leave him,” I say. “He looks like he’s five.”
“We don’t have enough food for the three of us,” he says. “Unless we come across a town.”
I look around. There’s a small store, but I guess the quakes got to it since it doesn’t look like much now. Just a bunch of rocks and glass. The place where you get gas is ruined, too. The metal is twisted and the signs are gone. There’s a rusted car not far from where we stand.
Then I notice the muzzle of a shotgun sticking out of the car window.
I feel dizzy. I change my mind.
“We have to leave this place,” I tell Gabe.
He looks at me funny.
“We have to!” I say. “Now!”
Then I hear a gunshot.
“If I hear so much as a peep outta ya, I’m blowin’ yer brains out, y’hear me?”
The man in front of me is very fat and the gun he holds is long and ugly. He presses it against my head.
Tears fall down my face and I nod.
“Good work, son,” the fat man says to the little boy. “Let’s go.”
He takes all our things, even my journal. Then he and the little boy leave. I want to scream and cry and hit him all at the same time.
I look over at Gabe. He’s lying on the ground, blood everywhere. I run over to him and kneel down next to him. He’s not moving. This time I wail aloud. The sky darkens and wants to cry with me.
I look at Gabe. How does he know my name? I never told him.
He puts a hand on his right side. There’s a lot of blood. He clenches his jaws, but then looks at me.
“Did that man hurt you?” he asks. “Did he…Did he touch you?”
I wipe my eyes and shake my head. “He called me a stupid boy and told me to shut up.”
Gabe nods and closes his eyes. “You’re not stupid, Zila.”
I am stupid, I want to tell him. I don’t know many things because I didn’t go to school since I was ten.
He looks at me. “You’re a writer,” he says. “Writers are not stupid. You’re an intelligent young woman who writes, Zila. I’ve seen your journal…Your handwriting is beautiful.”
I start crying. I don’t like what he’s saying. “That man took my journal,” I tell him. “Granma gave me that journal and…and showed me how to write in script.” I cry some more and wipe my runny nose with my sleeve. “He took our stuff, Gabe. That fat man took everything we had and…” I take deep breaths to stop crying. “And I don’t want you to leave me like Granma and Granpa. I don’t want to be alone.”
He doesn’t say anything for a long time. “It’s okay,” he whispers. “Don’t cry. I…I’m not going to leave you.”
I remember when Granpa had Granma talk to us before she left. He asked her questions we knew the answer to, like what her name was and Granpa’s name and my name and who we are and where we live. I don’t know why he did this back then, but now I do. He didn’t want Granma to leave.
Gabe tells me to find things. Cloth. Wire. An iron rod. A mirror. A shard of glass. Matches. String. Knife. Whiskey. I find whatever I can and run back to him.
I watch him take out the bullet from the right side of his stomach. Then he presses a piece of cloth over the bleeding hole. He tells me to get a fire going. I do. He burns the rod I found until it glows orange and holds it over the bullet hole. Then he starts asking me questions about myself. I tell him how I used to live in New York City and how I came to live with Granma and Granpa. I tell him I can’t remember anything about my life back then.
Tears flood his eyes and he looks away from me. He pulls the rod out of hole and drops it next to him. Then he doesn’t move.
“Gabe?” I move closer to him. “Gabe! Wake up!” My eyes sting. I turn his face to me and shake his shoulder. “Tell me about yourself, Gabe. How old are you? Where are you from? Do you have any brothers and sisters? Are you a policeman?”
Gabe opens his eyes slowly. He tells me he’s a doctor and he lived in New York before the quakes. He says he came to this part of the country to see his sick mother, but she’s gone now. He says he’ll turn thirty in August and he has a younger sister in New York and wants to see her again.
Then he stops talking and looks away, like he’s falling asleep. But I can’t let him go to sleep. He won’t wake up if he does.
“Tell me about New York,” I say, shaking his arm. “What’s it like?”
He turns to me. He doesn’t say anything for a long time and I watch the tears leave his eyes.
“New York…” he whispers. “New York is gone.”