PHOENIX by Ellanti

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It was the worst sound she had ever heard in her life. The endless keening seemed to penetrate her ears and made it almost impossible to think, but a single word was going through her brain over and over again, driven home by the siren. Nuclear.

     It couldn’t be true. Sure, they’d had the drills at school and there was always something in the news about tensions between Russia and America, but that was far, far from anything actually happening. Why would it? Why would anybody risk such destruction? It just seemed impossibly stupid. She had never for a second believed that it might really happen.

     She felt dazed as she watched the others. David was yelling something, James had finally put a shirt on and Alex was just standing there, tears in her eyes. Was this a really awful dream? Just that morning she had been planning what to say to her parents if she was caught out. I went to a party. It’s not the end of the world. She almost laughed at that.

     ‘Sydney!’ David had grabbed her. She stared at him, unable to speak. ‘We have to seal this place, okay? Are you gonna help?’

     ‘I have to get home.’ She wasn’t sure if she’d said it or just thought it. ‘My parents are there, and my brother. I have to go.’

     ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘We can’t.’

     ‘I don’t care.’ She tried to get loose, but he tightened his grip. ‘Let me go!’

     ‘Sydney.’ He looked her right in the eyes, and she was struck by how much fear was in his gaze. ‘It’s too risky, okay?’

     She was about to reply, but the strange man in the grey uniform had appeared beside David, clutching what looked like several garbage bags. ‘Listen,’ he growled, ‘do you know how quickly radiation poisoning can kill you? We’ve got literally seconds to seal this place. The danger is highest now. You’ll be dead in a day if you go out there. Just wait, okay? If your parents are smart, they’ll be doing the same thing.’

     Sydney shook her head. She felt like she was about to collapse. David took a step back. She didn’t move.

     ‘I need masking tape,’ the man was saying. ‘Now. And someone fill the bathtub.’

     ‘Who are you?’ Sydney asked, unable to think of anything else to say.

     ‘Rob,’ he said. ‘The bathtub. Go.’

     ‘Why?’ James asked.

     Rob turned to him, looking frustrated. ‘Do you want clean water? We have to get as much as we can before the reservoirs become contaminated. Any buckets, containers; use them too. Go! Now!’

     James ran for the bathroom as Jenny appeared with masking tape. Rob snatched it off her and with David’s help started covering the windows. Sydney glanced to her side; Alex had collapsed on the couch, shaking.

     ‘Do something useful!’ Rob screamed. ‘Every window in this place has to be sealed.’

     Trying her best to push the cold terror to the back of her mind, Sydney picked up a garbage bag from where Rob had dropped them and ran for the nearest window. Outside, she could see people running for houses. The siren seemed to have receded. It was darker outside. Jenny appeared next to her with more tape and together they started sealing the window.

     It took several minutes to cover all the windows in the living room. Once finished, Rob gestured to the door. ‘Close off that too,’ he said, before turning to David. ‘Are you David Tyler?’

     ‘Yes,’ David looked confused. ‘Who are you?’

     ‘I’ll explain once we’re done,’ Rob said. ‘First though, let’s sort out the rest of the house. Come on!’

     It took two bags to cover the door, by which time James had returned from the bathroom, wide eyed. ‘I need anything that can hold water,’ he said.

     ‘Check the kitchen,’ Jenny replied. ‘Sydney, make sure all these windows are sealed tight. I’m gonna find more garbage bags.’ She vanished the same way Rob and David had. Sydney started running a hand along the tape, ensuring it was all in place. It took her a moment to realise James was still there, staring at her.

     ‘What?’ she said.

     He shook his head. ‘This is wrong,’ he said. ‘This can’t be happening. It can’t.’

     Despite her own fear, which was threatening to crawl out of her stomach and overcome her again, she tried to keep her voice calm. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘We’ll figure it all out. But look after the water first.’

     ‘Right,’ he nodded, biting his lip. ‘Yeah.’ He turned and left Sydney alone in the room with the still trembling Alex. For a moment she wondered if she should comfort her or something, but decided against it. She wasn’t good at being supportive, especially not when nobody had offered her any kind of support. Alex was on her own. Keeping herself entirely focussed on pressing down any loose bits of tape, it took Sydney only a few minutes to make sure the whole place was sealed up, by which time, Rob, Jenny and David had returned, looking out of breath.

     ‘Right,’ Rob said, crossing his arms as he perused the room. ‘Is that every window?’

     David nodded. He didn’t look able to speak.

     ‘Good. I want you to go and double check every room. Where’s the guy who was looking after the water? James?’

     ‘Here,’ James appeared just as David vanished. ‘I got two full buckets, a couple of bottles and the bathtub.’

     ‘That’s excellent,’ Rob said. ‘Obviously it’s not ideal, but it’s the best we can do. Now, food. Where’s the kitchen?’

     ‘This way.’ James led him around the corner from the living room. Sydney, not knowing what else to do, followed. The kitchen was small, with an old fashioned metal fridge, and might have been cosy if not for all the empty beer bottles.

     ‘These,’ Rob said, the moment they entered, ‘the beer bottles. Fill them all immediately.’

     ‘Um, sure,’ James started collecting them up as Rob went through the cupboards.

     ‘Jesus, this is sparse,’ he muttered, opening the fridge. ‘A few tins of baked beans, some packets of noodles, half a bottle of milk.’ He turned to Sydney. ‘Didn’t you go to the shops?’

     ‘David dropped the food back there,’ Sydney said. ‘When the sirens started.’

     Rob swore. ‘That was stupid. We really could have used that.’

     ‘Somehow I don’t think that was the biggest thing on his mind,’ Sydney said.

     ‘Well it should have been,’ Rob said. ‘Do you think this situation allows for slip ups?’ With that, he stalked past her back into the living room. She heard him say something to Alex, who didn’t reply.

     Sydney put out a hand, leaning against the kitchen bench. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe steadily. Come on. Get your head on straight. Surreal wasn’t a strong enough word to describe any of this.

     ‘The sirens have stopped.’

     Sydney turned and almost yelled. She did not recognise the girl staring at her. She was short and slim with black hair and wide, dark eyes. Her face was pale and she was expressionless.

     ‘Who are you?’ Sydney said.

     ‘Simone,’ the girl replied. ‘I was here last night.’

     ‘I don’t remember you.’

     ‘Okay,’ Simone looked toward the blacked out window. ‘Was it a bomb?’

     Sydney stared at her, lost for words. This girl seemed so casual, almost unconcerned by anything going on around her. ‘I,’ she swallowed, not wanting to say it out loud. ‘I think so.’

     Simone nodded, then turned and left the room. Sydney watched her go then, realising that she didn’t want to be alone at that moment, trailed after her. The others had all congregated in the living room. James had an armful of bottles of water. David and Jenny looked shaken, but alright. Alex was still crying, but sitting up now, and Rob was standing in front of the door, arms crossed. He noticed Simone, frowned, and then looked at David.

     ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘It looks like your house is going to be our fallout shelter.’    

     David nodded.

     ‘This is the situation,’ Rob continued. ‘Obviously we can’t be a hundred percent sure, but it seems pretty likely that we’ve been hit by a nuclear bomb. We have enough water to see us through a few weeks, so long as we ration it, and-‘

     ‘A few weeks?’ James said. ‘I’m not staying here a few weeks.’

     ‘If you want to live, you will.’ Rob’s voice was cold. ‘This is not ideal, but we don’t have any other choice.’

     ‘Yes we do,’ Sydney said. She didn’t feel the slightest bit brave, but Rob’s comment had brought on a feeling that might have been anger; it was hard to tell. ‘We can find our families. Which is what I intend to do.’

     ‘Sydney, we can’t.’ David looked at her pleadingly. ‘It’s just not possible.’

     ‘It is,’ she snapped. ‘You just let me go.’

     ‘I won’t be doing that,’ Rob interrupted. ‘I’m sorry, but if you step out there, you’re dead. Plus, you run the risk of contaminating all of us simply by opening the door. We have to wait until the dust has settled and the radiation has subsided.’

     ‘That could take years!’ James exclaimed.

     ‘Unlikely,’ Rob said. ‘The bomb hit Melbourne.’

     ‘How do you know?’ James asked.

     Rob glared at him. When he spoke, he sounded frustrated. ‘Because where the hell else could it have hit that was close enough to make the ground shake and turn the sky dark but far enough not to blow us away instantly? Plus, the strike happened to the west, and that’s where Melbourne is. It’s not goddamn rocket science.’           

     James looked down.

     ‘Now that that’s cleared up,’ Rob said through gritted teeth, ‘we can move on. Food is going to be the problem. When I get the chance I’ll go through and ration what we have, but it’s not gonna be fun. We’re going to be hungry for a long time. Once things are a bit better outside, we can go looking for more.’

     ‘How long will that take?’ Alex asked. Her voice was quiet and Sydney was surprised she’d even spoken.

     ‘Who knows?’ Rob said. ‘It depends.’

     ‘On what?’ David said.

     ‘On whether or not we go into a nuclear winter.’ For the first time, Rob sounded less than confident. ‘And if that happens, then I don’t know how we’re going to get by.’

     ‘I want to go home,’ Alex said.

     ‘We all do,’ Jenny walked over and sat next to her, putting an arm round her trembling shoulders. ‘But we can’t.’

     ‘If we’re going to just starve anyway, what’s the point of locking ourselves in here?’ James muttered.

     ‘Because a small chance is better than no chance,’ Rob said. ‘And that’s the end of it.’

     ‘And you’re gonna keep us in here?’ James stepped toward him with a defiant look.

     With a snarl, Rob shoved him backwards. James tripped and his water bottles went flying as he landed on his back. David ran to help him up as Rob towered over him, now red in the face. ‘Of course I will!’ he yelled. ‘I couldn’t care less if you want to go out and kill yourself, but I will not risk those of us who aren’t completely stupid. You open that door, you let the fallout in, and then what? You’ve signed our death warrants and your happy family reunion will be cut short by the fact that you won’t last twenty four hours. Is that worth it to you?’

     Nobody said anything. Sydney glanced from James to Rob; both looked furious but neither seemed about to make another move.

     At that moment, the lights went out.

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