Johnny hears the bells ringing, the booming whistle of the locomotive, and he races out of the house to the backyard, where the railroad plows right down the center and the grass and weeds have grown as tall as his hips.
“They’re here! We’re saved!” he shouts.
Sasha listens from the kitchen sink. She drops his plate into the soapy water, and using a wash rag, scrubs at the burnt goat cheese stuck to the bottom.
It’s been like this for months now. Johnny running out to greet rescue that will never come. People don’t exist anymore, at least not on this end of the tracks, not since the bomb.
She’s never even seen a train before in her life, except for pictures in books. And she regrets ever teaching him to read, because now those stories that fill the dusty bookshelves of his mother’s four by four closet-sized library flood his mind with ideas that they aren’t the only two people left in the world, that there are big cities and metropolises crowded with millions of people, that there are police departments, and fire departments, and army, and navy, and pararescue, and federal bureaus, and they are all out there desperately searching for them to bring them back to society.
Sasha was optimistic like that once. Until one day Johnny’s mother took her out onto the tracks, and they walked hours, until sundown, and there was nothing for miles, nothing but the brown overgrown grass, no sign of human life other than the rundown shack where they lived.
“Where did everyone go?” Sasha asked. She was too young to remember the bomb, but she remembered the chaos, the crime, the absence of government. She remembered watching a man stab her mother three times in the neck before stealing the worthless three dollars she’d stuffed in her bra. She remembered wandering onto Johnny and his mother’s farm delirious after going two days, three nights without food and water.
She will forever be grateful to Johnny’s mother for giving her shelter, although she knew the woman had other motives, motives she finally made clear on her deathbed when she made Sasha promise that when Johnny was old enough, she would be more than just an adoptive mother to him.
Sasha is nine years older than Johnny. When she first arrived on the farm she was fifteen and had just started her period amid all the anarchy, terrified of men and what they could do to her. When Johnny’s mother saw the blood on the back of her skirt, she must have thought of the future, of the possibility that Sasha and Johnny could be the only man and woman left, on this part of the earth at least, and that it was their responsibility to repopulate, the fate of human existence in their hands.
Sasha looks out the kitchen window. Johnny is standing on the rail platform waving his arms over his head for his imaginary train. He turns fourteen tomorrow. To her, he’s still a child, but he’s capable now, and she knows he’s curious. A few nights she’s woken up with him in her bed, his hands fumbling in his pants.
But is she ready?
She dries her hand on the apron tied around her waist. She made the old woman a promise, no matter how uncomfortable it makes her feel, Sasha owes this to her after everything she’s done to help her.
But she has to be sure that she and Johnny are the only humans left. So tomorrow she’ll take him down the train tracks, just as his mother had shown her, but this time they’ll go farther, as far as they have to. She’ll pack up enough food to last them days, weeks even. She won’t give up until she’s confident they are humanity’s only option.
It is Short Story A Day May, and today’s prompt asks us to write a Hansel and Gretel story, and while I thought I would skip out on this prompt, after reading Julie Duffy’s tips on the “Hansel and Gretel” story structure, I realize this story sounds more like Hansel and Gretel than anything I would have ever come up with if I had consciously tried to write it exactly. Don’t you love when that happens?