Daylight: Falling From Grace
Episode I: When the Ball Dropped
Disclaimer: Daria and all associated characters are property of MTV. The author does not claim ownership of Daria or any associated characters, and is not being compensated for his work, which is just as well.
Stacy climbed down the plastic rungs leading down into the cement chamber. She looked up at the red haired boy climbing down with her. She could hardly believe she let herself be talked into this, but after all, she was desperate. She didn’t want to die a virgin.
Upchuck had invited Stacy out to split a pie at Pizza King after their rousing success of a magic show. Somewhere in their conversation, they had gotten around to the upcoming turn of the millennium, only two weeks away. “Upchuck,” Stacy had said, “be honest: is this whole Y2K deal for real? Could the whole world be thrown into chaos just because computers can’t get the date right?”
Upchuck took a pull on his soda. “Yes and no. The dire predictions could certainly happen – banks losing data for their transactions, nuclear plant systems going haywire, all sorts of issues – but only if the systems weren’t upgraded in time. Programmers have been working on it all year and even before. The only computers with problems would be really old computers that nobody thought to upgrade. Anything life-or-death would be taken care of by now.”
Stacy took another bite. “That’s reassuring.”
“Well, at least that’s the government’s line on it. The last thing I remember the government assuring us about was Slick Willie’s ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman,’ so take it for what it’s worth. Plus, there are all sorts of dire predictions about the end of the world, and the year 2000 is a popular year for that.”
Stacy frowned at this. “Oh. I really hope it’s not coming to an end that quickly. I mean, there’s so much I haven’t done. I haven’t…um, nothing leaves this table, right?” Upchuck nodded his agreement. “I haven’t even gone to second base with a guy yet, never mind, um, that other stuff. I’d hate to die a virgin.”
Upchuck got an evil grin on his face. “Well, my dear. I can solve that little…problem for you, my little cupcake.” Stacy narrowed her eyes, and Upchuck sighed. “Actually, that’s a worry we share. I’m sure you’re not surprised that the Ruttheimer charm has left me a virgin as well.”
“I’m surprised it’s left you alive. Actually, if I knew the world was coming to an end, I might seek you out. Going out with you might be popularity suicide right now, but if that didn’t matter, you seem pretty cool to hang out with.”
“I’m not sure how to take that. I would adore being alone with you, allowing your wanton…” Upchuck shook his head. “I’m sorry; I really don’t mean to slip into that, most of the time. I would be interested in getting to know you better, but if your popularity is that important to you, then why even bother with me?”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It’s not that I really care about my popularity with most of the school, but I’d get thrown out of the Fashion Club for sure. Sandi would never speak to me again, and even if Quinn or Tiffany did, they’d have to see me in secret or risk their own popularity. I really don’t want to look for new friends now when I may need to after high school’s over anyway.”
“That makes sense, although it seems wrong for someone to break up a friendship over dating me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s Sandi for you. ‘We can’t let anything get in the way of the Fashion Club’s popularity, even if it means never having fun again.’” Both laughed at that.
“Your impression of Sandi is impeccable. I believe Mussolini himself would be proud of our Miss Griffin.” Upchuck took a bite of pizza, while Stacy tried to remember who Mussolini was. Then a light bulb seemed to go off over Upchuck’s head. “Actually, I have an idea; something to solve our problems and prepare us in case the world really does come to an end, and possibly improve your popularity if it doesn’t.”
Stacy was intrigued. “I’m listening.”
“My father owns and maintains a working nuclear fallout shelter. It’s fully functional, uses state-of-the-art technology, and even has its own bedroom and bathroom for privacy. He says he got it for safety, but I’m more inclined to believe he just wanted an excuse for building a private party room. He’ll be out of town for New Year’s Eve, so I’ll have access to the shelter all night long. In fact, I was already planning to just stay there all night and watch the ball drop in Times Square. You could join me, and get to know each other better. Then, if the world does fall apart and descend into chaos, we won’t have to die virgins. Questions? Comments?”
“Well, first off, what happens if anyone finds out?”
“They wouldn’t. For being my assistant, I’ll have hooked you up with my suave cousin, Gustav Lafollette.”
“From Midfield? He’s your cousin? He must be booked solid for the next year for dates!”
“That’s what he wants women to believe. He’s actually gotten sick of dating, and is taking a rest from the grind, so to speak. I’ll talk him into telling his friends about your upcoming date on New Year’s Eve, and then how wonderful it was afterward. I can see it now: a romantic dinner by candlelight, watching the old year come to a close on their big screen TV, and even sharing some champagne. His parents will be home, so your parents shouldn’t have a problem with that, and there’s always some in the shelter, so you can report to your friends how it tastes. At midnight, you’ll share a brief, but tender, kiss, and he’ll kiss your hand as you leave the next morning, after you spend the night in the guest bedroom; by yourself, of course. That way he has a cover for staying home, drinking beer, and playing Super Duper Plumber Cousins 5 all night, and you have a feather in your cap for your friends.”
“Wow; I’m almost jealous of the story. Now, as to what will actually happen, I’m quite a bit nervous about you leading me down into a fallout shelter to be alone with you. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but it sounds like a rapist’s dream scenario.”
“Easily enough solved. First off, have mace on you at all times. You’ll have the bedroom to sleep in and I’ll sleep in the main chamber. Now, is there a friend you can trust to keep a secret?”
Stacy thought this over. “It’d have to be Quinn. Tiffany might accidentally let it slip, and with Sandi it would be no accident.”
Upchuck smiled. “Perfect, with her mom being a lawyer, we could even draw up a legal document, should you feel the need. Using Quinn or her mother, or both, we put everything in writing, and if anything bad would happen to you, they could bring it to the police. Of course, I have no plans for that to be necessary; it would just be for your assurance.”
Stacy started putting things together. “Okay, so if I have this straight, I spend the night with you in your fallout shelter. If anything happens, we’re safe, and we don’t die virgins. If nothing happens, the night never happened, and I was with your cousin. If it turns out you’re trying to trick me, we’ll have everything in writing and you’ll be found out immediately. All that, and the only thing I have to do besides showing up is be willing to lose my virginity.”
“Only if catastrophe does strike, of course.”
“Yes, at which point I wouldn’t argue, agreement or not. Plus, I get to find out more about the real you for a night. You have a deal. I’ll tell Quinn and we’ll get this started. I don’t even have to bother finding a date for the night!”
“I would think that would be a minor inconvenience for you. You must have boys knocking down your door for a date.”
“I wish. Quinn gets a lot of dates. Sandi seems to get dates, but lately she's been guarded about that. Tiffany gets her share, but always with one of a handful of guys. As for me, I practically have to beg for a date when a major event comes around. It doesn't seem like it, and Sandi's good at helping me look more desired, but a lot of guys are either intimidated, distracted by my friends, or know not to date me if they're looking for, um, things I don't want to do.”
“I see; say no more. Their loss is my gain, at least for one night.”
“Heh, yeah. At least for one night.” Stacy did what she could to stifle the sigh that came naturally. She sipped her diet soda and thought, “Hopefully, one night isn't all I end up with.”
Stacy reached the end of the ladder. Upchuck came down after, and inserted a credit card-like object into a slot next to the door. The door opened and the computer system came to life. A soothing female voice began speaking. “Welcome, Charles Ruttheimer the Third. Please enjoy your stay in the Secure Zone 3000.”
Upchuck turned to Stacy. “The voice is dad’s idea. I tried to argue the women would be more at ease with a British butler voice, but he wanted something for when he came down on his own. He said this makes it ‘less of a tomb and more of a womb.’”
Stacy wrinkled her nose at the suggestion. “Eww! I see where you get it from.”
“I try to think of it as a blessing, while females rightly consider it a curse.”
The pair walked in, and Upchuck secured the door behind them. Stacy was amazed by the technological panel on the wall to the left. “Wow, you weren’t kidding about being state of the art.”
“That’s right. This chamber has heat and radioactivity sensors hooked to the outside, so that if a nuke does go off, we’ll be alerted right away. There’s a cable hookup each of the Big Three network feeds, not local stations, and as long as they’re broadcasting, we’ll be able to watch them. There’s even an emergency radio transmitter and receiver, which will only come on when catastrophe strikes. Everything’s deep enough and guarded enough to withstand an EMP from a nuke. To your right are the food and beverage stores, both for parties and for the period necessary to reduce radiation to safe levels. The restroom facilities are to your left, and their water supplies are safe from potential radiation contamination and will run for at least a month without replenishment. Behind you is the bedroom, where you’ll sleep tonight. I’ve already got the couch staked out for myself. Any questions?”
“Just one; how many parties have wound up here?”
“Knowing my dad, probably hundreds. It’s actually listed on the Swingers Monthly Top 500 Party Places in the World.”
“You could imagine that my early childhood was…unusual. Don’t worry. I’ve personally made sure that the linens were clean and no leftover, um, party favors were in plain sight. If you go digging in the drawers, you’re on your own.”
With that, Upchuck turned on the monitor to one of the major networks and settled into the control chair while Stacy went to lie on the couch. She hesitated.
Upchuck noticed her hesitation, and decided to lie. “And dad has a strict ‘no sex on the couch’ policy.”
Stacy lightened up and lay down on the couch. “Thanks. It’s just kinda creepy thinking about who’s…been here before. I can just imagine the puberty speech you received.”
“Oh, it was a normal speech, explaining what my body would be going through and what you ladies would be going through. It was the demonstration portions that got bizarre. I never looked at ‘Uncle’ Wayne and ‘Aunt’ Wanda the same way again.”
“Ewwww! Your aunt and uncle?”
“They weren’t actually related to me, thank God, just two of Dad’s ‘friends’.”
“Oh. Still ew, but that’s a little better.”
“It made a few things make sense, like why Wanda would be with Joe, when Wanda was fairly good looking, and Joe really wasn’t.”
“Then why would she be with…?” It dawned on Stacy, and she began to blush. “Oh my!”
“Apparently those were her first words when she saw it too.”
Stacy laughed at that. It was so refreshing to talk to someone who cared more about the person than the clothes they wore. Or, in some cases, didn’t wear.
Stacy and Upchuck spent most of the night talking about school, friends, enemies, family stuff, and whatever happened to be showing on TV at the time. When it was five minutes to midnight, Upchuck pulled out a bottle of Champagne from a nearby holster, looking like it was made for just that purpose. It wasn’t Dom, but it was still true French Champagne and not inexpensive.
Stacy grabbed the glasses while Upchuck opened the bottle. “I almost forgot about that. Is your dad OK with this?”
“He’s aware. He trusts me not to overdo it, and not to drive afterwards. Besides, it’s one glass only for minors; house rules. Even if you want a second one, I can’t serve it unless the world goes nuts. If it does, then we have twelve bottles to go through.”
Stacy laughed at that. “Why are you taking so much time to open it?”
“Patience, my dear. One thing my father has taught me is that with champagne and women, you need to take your time. Pop the cork quickly and not only do you lose a lot of the bubbly, but what’s left will be flat. It’s much more enjoyable when you take it slow.”
Stacy shivered. “Wow, he has quite the way with words.”
Upchuck smiled. “Actually, I came up with that myself. My dad’s words were ‘if you go too fast, before you realize what’s happening it goes all over and gets everything sticky.’”
Stacy laughed. “Now that sounds like an Upchuck-ism. What should we toast to?”
Upchuck raised his now-full glass. “To the end of the world; may it not come too soon.” His eyes went wide. “I did not just say that.”
Stacy picked up on the double entendre and started laughing again. “Oh, Charles, even when you’re not trying to be, you’ve still got a little Upchuck in you.”
Upchuck waggled his eyebrows. “Would you like a little Upchuck in you? I’m sorry, I had to.”
Stacy grinned at the most recent single entendre from her freckled companion. “Not now, but I’ll let you know. To both of us, and a new, though temporarily secret, friendship!”
Upchuck raised his eyebrow and his glass. “I like the sound of that. To us!” Glasses clinked and sips were taken. “Hey, one minute left until 2000.”
Stacy took a deep breath. She’d been waiting for this moment, and knew she was right. “The moment of truth. Um, Chuck, I know you’re a virgin and all, but if I’m not mistaken, you haven’t had a date either.”
“Well, you don’t need to rub it in, but you are correct.”
“I don’t mean to rub it in. It just seems unfair. It would follow then that you’ve never been kissed.”
“Correct.” Upchuck wasn’t sure where Stacy was going on this.
Stacy continued as the clock hit 15 seconds. “The one thing I didn’t like about this whole plan was that I wouldn’t have a midnight kiss to start 2000.” She walked up close to Upchuck. “I think we can take care of that.”
With that, Stacy locked lips with Charles, and they kissed from 5 seconds to midnight until 5 seconds past.
“Wow” Charles said, after he was able to catch his breath.
Stacy grinned. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“A little rough, maybe, but that’ll get better with practice. And no, you don’t get any more practice yet.” Charles looked a bit down. “But maybe later.” Charles smiled. “You know, underneath that Upchuck character, you’re a really great guy.”
“Thanks. It’s almost too bad that the world didn’t come to an end.”
“Well, at least now we have a future to look forward to.”
Soon after, both Charles and Stacy were getting tired. Stacy retired to the bedroom, while Charles settled in on the couch. Both were reliving their midnight kiss, and fell asleep with smiles on their faces.
At exactly 8:22 am and 27 seconds, Charles and Stacy were awakened by a loud alarm and the same voice from the front door. “Warning. Warning. Temperature Sensor Fail…” The power went out, followed by the backup generator kicking on. Charles rolled off the couch and moved over to the control panel, which was rebooting. Stacy ran out of her room less than a minute later. “Charles, what was that noise?”
“That’s the temperature sensor alarm. It goes off when the temperature sensor fails, and it’s not supposed to fail at less than 100 degrees Celsius, or 212 Fahrenheit, enough to boil water. Either the sensor isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, or the surface is toast. The main power supply must have gone down, so the backup generator has kicked in. It’s protected from any electromagnetic waves.”
Stacy gasped as she realized what Charles meant. “What about radiation?”
Charles turned on the Geiger counter. “It’s climbing outside, but not high enough for a nuclear blast. I’m not willing to risk going out yet, but it couldn’t be a nuke. This has to be an error.”
“Well, find out what the networks are saying.”
Charles changed the main screen to static, then to a different static pattern, and finally a third. “All three are gone. Someone must have cut the cables.” Charles thought for a moment. “Of course, the Peeping Tom!”
Stacy bristled at this. “The what?”
Charles started turning a crank, revealing what looked like a submarine periscope. “It’s Dad’s window to the surface. Once I open it up, we’ll be able to see the surface, or at least, my house and lawn, possibly even the highway. There we go…” Charles trailed off as he looked into the viewer, and the color drained from his face. Charles walked away and collapsed into the chair, and Stacy came over to look for herself.
Where the Ruttheimer Mansion had stood was now a house-shaped inferno. The surrounding trees were burning, but those farther from the house were intact, for the moment. In the distance, a highway was visible, and the smoldering remains of a car mounted the sign post it had rammed into.
Stacy was the first to speak, angrily. “Okay, very funny; now show me the real view.”
Charles stood. “But, I…”
“Out with it, Upchuck! You planned this to show me a disaster so you could sleep with me, and afterwards you were going to tell me how it was all a hoax. Go ahead; tell me the truth.”
“I didn’t do this!”
Stacy was sounding more desperate. “Please, Charles! This can’t be real! Tell me this isn’t real! Tell me…” She collapsed into his arms, and couldn’t stop the stream of tears from her eyes any more than Charles could.
Charles sat in front of the console reading a manual, trying to figure out what could have caused what happened. Stacy reentered the room from the bedroom. Both knew that they needed some time on their own to think the events of the past few hours, and Stacy had cried herself to another couple hours of sleep. Charles couldn’t sleep even if he wanted to.
“Any news?” Stacy asked.
“Not even weather or sports. I put up the radio, and it exploded. The Tom just shows the same depressing sight, though the flames have died down. I’ve been looking through these survival guides for matching natural or artificial phenomena, and as far as I could tell, it’s got to be a Coronal Mass Ejection.”
“Basically, it’s a solar flare.”
“Oh, Ms. Barch was talking about those. Aren’t those usually small enough that we barely notice them?”
“Key word: usually. While we haven’t seen a flare of this magnitude, it’s theoretically possible, and we wouldn’t have much more than a few hours’ warning if it did. That’s assuming that word was leaked to the press about it. If the nation’s scientists were doing their duty, the president and cabinet would be safe; most of the public wouldn’t know until their electronic devices started shorting out and exploding. The reason why my house and the car were on fire, but the surrounding trees weren’t, would be something called Geomagnetically Induced Currents.”
“What are those?”
“Magnetic waves caused by the CME. They short out wiring and computer chips, causing anything with enough wiring or electronics to explode and burn. No wonder the Ruttheimer estate burned so quickly. I shudder to think what might happen to anyone with a cell phone to their ear when it hit. The only good news is that given when it hit, the damage around the Pacific Rim might be minimal.”
“At least that sounds good.”
“It sure sounds better than saying that Europe and Africa are getting the worst of it.”
“Ah, yeah. Oh Charles, what are we going to do?”
“Well, that’s the easy part. In case this is just an elaborate hoax my dad put me up to, he’d be coming back later tonight. If this is real, we’re stuck here for a while. I’m not sure how long. In either case, until conditions are safe, we sit here and live our lives. There are some books and board games in the bedroom. I can dig for them since I know where they are and where…other things are.”
“Not just yet. I’m pretty sure I won’t need something to occupy my mind for a while. However, I guess I should live up to my part of the agreement.”
Charles didn't understand. “I’m sorry?”
“If the world came to an end, neither of us…”
Charles realized what Stacy meant. “Stacy, now isn’t the right time. Neither of us is really in our right mind. Besides, we have plenty of time for that later.”
“But I want to right now. Life as I know it has come to an end. You’re the only thing that lets me hold on to my sanity.”
“I’m glad, because that’s how I feel about you, but we need to do this right. If we jump into bed right now, we could regret it, especially if it turns out my father did this.” He looked away.
Stacy noticed his body language. “Your father wouldn’t have done this, would he?”
Charles turned back to Stacy. “Never. He might wake me up with the alarm, but I’d see his face laughing on the monitor when I woke up. He’d be the only one able to monkey with the wiring here without ruining it. Nope, what you see is what you get.”
Stacy sighed. “Charles, I’m...both happy and sad to hear that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m happy to hear it because you really aren’t setting me up. It means the man I got to know at Pizza King and all last night, the man who I’ve fallen head over heels for, is the real you. I’m happy, because I want to be with you, from now on.” Stacy had moved over to Charles, and hugged him as tightly as she could manage. “I’m sad because…because…”
Charles ended the conversation by kissing her on the lips. He didn’t want to hear her next words any more than she wanted to say them.
Charles and Stacy laid on the bed, talking over the day’s events. Each had a glass of champagne, but neither looked like they’d had much more than the one. Stacy asked, “But if it’s safe to go out there, why don’t we find out what’s going on?”
“It’s not that simple. We leave here, and we may never be able to come back. The doors wouldn’t reseal after being opened, leaving it vulnerable. One of those currents comes by after we unseal the doors, and it’s kablooey! Goodbye, shelter. I have a couple packs that we can put supplies in, but we should stay here until we either figure out what’s happening, or know we have to leave. We have at least a month on water, and the generator should last at least that long. Oh, and there’s a manual release on the door should the generator conk out.”
“Good, I’d hate to be trapped down here to die. The refrigerated food won’t last long, so maybe we should eat that up first.”
“And that way we can shut down the coolers and save a bit of energy. Good thinking. We should probably save a few bottles of the bubbly. If banks get wiped out by this and currency is worthless, we’ll need some sort of barter for when we run out of food or supplies.”
“Good thinking. By the way, I meant to ask: how rich is your father anyway?”
“Well, if he can afford this, obviously he’s fairly well off. He got in on Microsoft from its IPO, and sold it for a humongous gain.”
“You mean stocks?”
“Precisely. Mom had already left by then, so Dad was able to put the money towards the house, this bunker, and traveling the world. I mainly stayed home with the Nanny when Dad was away. Lately he’s spent more time around the house, so this New Year’s party was a surprise. I wonder what’s happening with him right now.” Charles had a far away look in his eye.
“I’m sure he’s all right. You said he was off in Arizona at a palatial estate. If he was in a penthouse suite, I’d be worried. He might even have still been up partying when it happened. Not my folks. Mom may have been up, but Dad would have still been passed out. The only reason he knew it was New Year’s were the party hats and not being kicked out at 2:30.”
“That’s the one thing I really admired about Dad growing up. He knew his limits, and he drank for the taste, for the look, and for a bit of a buzz, but he never got trashed. He told me he spent the year after his 21st birthday testing his limits, and when he figured them out, he rarely surpassed them. I’ll bet he went to bed last night on three glasses of Dom and a shot of Cognac.”
“You’re lucky. I’m sure he never came home looking for a fight because he couldn’t find one at the bar. Maybe this will teach him to stay sober. Not that he’s any better sober, just less likely to punch someone without knowing it.”
“Did he hit you?”
“A couple times. Both times he was trying to hit my mother, and missed, or so he said. He spent the next five minutes apologizing, or trying to, before either passing out, or throwing up and then passing out.”
“How terrible! I suppose that’s part of why Sandi always gets you to do what she wants.”
“Probably. She’s not like my Dad though. Dad is a brawler from way back. He was a boxer until some up-and-comer made him look silly. Mom showed me the fight when Dad was in jail for a couple days. Sandi, she’s all mental. It started off with small suggestions. I’d make a comment; she’d disagree and make me think I was wrong. By the time Quinn showed up, she could have told me the sky was green and I would have thought I was wrong for seeing it blue. Quinn took her off her game, but then she got meaner. Not as focused, because she had to attack Quinn too, but that much nastier. Quinn never really fell for the games, except for a few panic moments early on. There was the dance where Sandi convinced Quinn to be in charge of it with us as the committee. Quinn made some good suggestions, Sandi shot down each one. Sandi made one completely unusable suggestion, then used it as an excuse to abandon Quinn when it was even questioned. I wanted to stay and help, but Sandi practically forced me away. Quinn had to turn to her sister and that art chick she hangs out with.”
“I remember DJ’ing that dance. A very unusual paint scheme if I remember. Two of my cousins actually got somewhere with Daria and Jane. Then they made the mistake of telling them I was related. They bolted faster than I heard those boys did from Sandi’s party.”
“Brrr, don’t remind me. Everyone left, we got locked out in the hot tub, and then it started snowing. I think that was when I decided to start pushing Sandi. Didn’t work for a long time, but it’s starting to. I think you really pushed that along with the magic show.”
“My finest hour. Everyone figured I was goofing up again, and there I was. Misdirection. What the ears hear and the eyes see, the mind believes. The same could be said of your role as the mouse of the Fashion Club.”
“When you’ve played a part for years, it’s not hard to reprise it. You know how that is, right Upchuck?”
“Heh, yeah, I guess I do.”
Stacy sighed. Thinking about school made her think about her friends and family. “Charles, what do you think is happening out there?”
“If what I read is right, chaos. Buildings with heavy wiring would see fires, possibly explosions. Gasoline storage tanks with electronics would go up in flames. People would panic and run to banks, but even if the banks still stood, they couldn’t open the vaults with electronic locks. Even if they could get their money, how much will it be worth if the computers that keep track of it are out of commission? I’d like to think people will keep calm and help each other through this, at least for a while, but knowing the people I do, I doubt it…present company excluded of course.”
“Like I’d be any better out there.”
“No, I’m serious. Of all the people I’ve met, you’re possibly the only true optimist I’ve found. You’re kind and considerate. For you to have a bad thought about someone would take years of mental abuse, like Sandi or your father. I’m glad you’re not out there right now. Someone would take advantage of your kindness, and who knows what would happen then? You might not die a virgin, but you’d wish you had.”
“I know. That’s another reason I agreed to this. If everything hit the fan once Y2K hit, the world wouldn’t end immediately, and there are all kinds of mean men, and women, out there. I don’t want my first and last time to be a reminder of how brutal the world can be. At least, I want to remember how amazing love can be.” Stacy moved towards Charles. “Charles, I’m ready. I really wasn’t before, but now I know I am.”
Charles gazed into Stacy’s eyes. She wasn’t lying. She didn’t seem to be hiding anything. He felt ready as well. “Are you sure? At any time you want, we can stop. Just say the word.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think we’ll need to stop. Do you have protection? I certainly don’t want to get pregnant while the world is going haywire.”
“Yep, should be in this drawer here.” Charles opened a drawer, and pulled out a basket. “Dad always made sure he was prepared.”
“Judging from the rest of that drawer, he was prepared for just about anything.” Stacy had seen a few props and toys, a few of which looked fairly dangerous. “Charles, are you ready for this?”
“Stacy, I am as ready as I can be. We’ll take it slow. One thing we have while we’re down here is time to do this right. Any last words?”
“Only this and I’ve known this since we watched the ball drop yesterday: I love you, Charles Ruttheimer.”
“I love you too, Stacy Rowe.” Both lovers smiled as they fell into each others arms.
Stacy awoke, feeling heaviness on her chest. It felt like a weight was crushing her heart.
Then she looked down, and saw Charles’s hand grasping her left breast. Even asleep, he’s still Upchuck, she thought as she softly moved his hand off of her, smiling the entire time. He didn’t stir, so Stacy let her mind wander.
Charles, why did you have to be so right? What’s going on out there? Are my parents OK? Is Quinn OK? Tiffany? Sandi? Oh, Sandi, I’ve said such horrible things about you. I mean, they were true, but still, Sandi’s my friend. I don’t want anything to happen to her. Well, nothing too serious anyway. If she learned a little humility, it might help her. Even going to college, she’s built herself up so far, any little problem might break her down, for good. Wait, if this is as bad as Upchuck said, college won’t even be there anymore. Oh, this is killing me not knowing. I just want to get out and find out what is happening. What if my parents are looking for me? Quinn will know what’s happening, but if something happened to her and her mother…
She gazed at the prone figure to her left. At least I have you with me, my dear. If someone told me a year ago that I’d be here now, I’d have started crying, thinking they were trying to destroy me. Then again, after last night, I could become the biggest outcast in class, and it would be worth every blissful minute.
She returned her gaze to the ceiling. But I can’t stay here. If the radiation is safe, the fires have to be out by now, and it’d be safe to leave. We may not be able to return, but I have to know what the world is doing. Wait, Quinn was going to come by today if she hadn’t heard from me by now. When was that? Oh yes, she’d be here by noon, and right now it’s…
“Ten?” She asked nobody in particular. Charles stirred next to her. “Charles, wake up! Quinn will be here in two hours!”
Charles bolted up. “What! Oh no, find my pants! Where are my shoes? I can’t find my shirt!”
“Gah! Wait, two hours? And why would Quinn...oh, Stacy!”
Stacy rolled her eyes as Charles ogled her. At least he's paying attention now. Stacy grabbed his shoulders and directed his eyes at her face. “Listen to me! Two hours from now will be noon, and Quinn promised she’d be by the shelter at noon if she didn’t hear from me by then. We need to make a big decision now.” She waited while Charles nodded his agreement. “And I think we’ll both be better prepared to make decisions when we’re not so…distracted. Besides, after last night, you should have these memorized by sight, touch, smell, and taste.”
“We both know those sounds didn’t come from these. Well, technically.” She grinned widely, and Charles looked up at her face.
“As beautiful as they are, that smile tops them in my book.”
“Oh, be serious.”
“I am. Your body is amazing, but nothing makes me feel better than knowing I made you smile.”
“Well, everything else in contention seemed to make you smile too.”
This got Charles another smile, as well as a pillow to the face. “Get dressed, Upchuck.”
Charles sat in the captain’s chair in front of the nearly-useless console, while Stacy lay down on the couch. It was 11:00. “So you want to leave behind the only lifeboat we have in this storm?”
“If Quinn shows up, absolutely. You said it yourself: the surface radiation is elevated, but safe. The fires are out. If people are looking for me, I don’t want them thinking I’m dead when I’m not.”
“You realize that once we leave, we can’t return. If those waves are still active, this place will light up like a firecracker.”
“That’s why we prepare to leave now. If she doesn’t show up, we know that catastrophe’s struck, and we can stay here longer. If she shows up bewildered and nothing’s happened, she’ll call the cops.” She sighed. “If Quinn shows up, and the world has gone to hell, she’ll be desperate to know if I’m still alive. If I saw Quinn up there, begging for me to be alive, it would take God to stop me from reaching her.”
“She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?”
“She’s my best friend. You’re my lover, but losing her would be worse for me right now. I wouldn’t break her heart any more than I would break yours if I could help it.”
“I understand. Let’s pack up what we can.”
55 minutes later, they were packed and ready to go. Stacy packed all the clothes and food she could, as well as toiletries for both of them. Charles packed the four best bottles of champagne left, as well as contraceptives and a number of “novelties” to use as barter. “Disaster or no disaster, people are people,” he argued. He also packed the survival kit, with first aid implements and potassium iodide for radiation treatments, as well as four .22 caliber pistols and the available ammunition, into a third bag, since Quinn would be able to carry one if she arrived. Even if they didn’t need them, someone would. Stacy stared out of the Peeping Tom, hoping and praying for Quinn’s arrival.
Charles sat on the couch and thought. She’s really concerned. I can’t really blame her; if I had a friend like Quinn, I’d be worried too. She’s helped Stacy more than she realizes. Back in junior high, she was a real loner. A lot of the other girls picked on her for being so naïve. Sandi befriended her, but she just wanted someone to push around, like she tried to make Tiffany. At least Tiffany never realized what Sandi was doing. Almost a pity, because watching Sandi get frustrated with her was one of the highlights of seeing Sandi. Quinn came along, gave Sandi competition, and gave Stacy someone who actually listened when she spoke. Maybe if I’d found someone like that, I wouldn’t have kept up this sleezeball image for so long.
Stacy stared out the viewer, praying that her friend was OK. Come on Quinn, she thought, show up. Life’s a lot better with Charles than without him, but without you, I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s not that I don’t trust him, but I don’t know him. I want someone who won’t fall apart when everything goes down, and he’s been easy to back down before. I almost wish Sandi was coming, because she would be strong enough. Maybe she’d be too strong. Well, maybe they’re both OK. They have to be. Tiffany too. Everyone will be OK. I know it. She sighed. Then why don’t I believe it? I just know bad things have happened. I have to know how bad things are, or else…was that a flash of pink?
Stacy’s view out of the Peeping Tom showed a familiar red-haired girl walking into view, wearing her usual pink top, which was uncharacteristically torn. Her hand seemed to be bandaged, and she limped a bit, which emphasized the tears in the knees of her jeans. She seemed to be yelling, but no sound was heard. “QUINN!” Stacy shouted, jostling Charles out of his thoughts. “She’s alive! She looks like she needs help. Charles, we have to go now. Wait, she’s collapsed. She’s crying. She must not know I’m here! Is there any way we can let her know we’re here?”
Charles shouldered the heavier backpack. “Anything electronic would be destroyed, like the radio. The only thing that can come out unscathed is the Peeping Tom. Wait, that’s it! Step away from the viewer, Stacy. She should notice this.”
With that, Charles started cranking the Tom back in, then back out. After a couple times, he left it up, and looked out. Quinn was right up next to the viewer, still crying, but with a smile on her face. “She noticed it! Quickly, put on your coat and grab your bag. I don’t want to be down here any longer than we have to be once the door’s open.”
Quickly the pair got on everything they could. As Charles grabbed the extra pack, Stacy took one last look at their chamber. It had meant so much to her, and yet she was ready to leave it behind. Well, most of it. She wished she could take the bed with her, but she was satisfied taking one of the pillowcases as a reminder. She looked at Charles, who looked at her. They both nodded, and Charles opened the door and powered down the system. Stacy climbed first, as she carried fewer burdens and was faster. “That and I can enjoy the view” thought Charles. “Wow, for once, that didn’t sound creepy. I could get used to this whole relationship thing.”
The climb went without incident, and Stacy reached the top first. Quinn was still staring at the Peeping Tom, so she didn’t notice Stacy emerge from the covered entrance. Stacy walked up to five feet behind her and dropped her pack on the ground. Hearing the pack drop brought Quinn out of her state, and she turned around to see what she had been praying to see for the last two days. Neither could say a word, but all the communication they needed was in their faces and the hug they immediately fell into.
Quinn was the first to speak. “Oh Stacy, thank God you’re all right. This whole town, everybody, I can’t…” She trailed off into tears.
“It’s okay, Quinn. We’re all right now. We’re in this together. We…” Stacy’s tears were just as inevitable.
Charles walked out of the entrance, and saw the two in tears, crying into each others’ shoulders. He knew to stay back and let them both get everything out. Finally, Quinn broke the embrace after seeing Charles over her shoulder, and rushed over to hug him as well. “Upchuck, thank you for saving Stacy!”
“All in a day’s work for a Ruttheimer. Save the girl; get the treasure; say a bunch of silly one-liners.” Quinn and Stacy both laughed weakly at that.
Stacy’s smile quickly faded. Quinn was devastated by something. “Quinn, what’s happening? We’ve been trapped underground, and all that we know is that Charles’ mansion burned down.”
Quinn frowned. “Nobody’s entirely sure what happened. Early yesterday morning, something happened, and all of the electronics started shorting out, catching fire, and even exploding. I crashed at Jane’s place the night before. I’d gone to some stupid party, got drunk before I realized it, and got someone to drop me off at her house. If I went home, I’d get yelled at, and if I didn’t go somewhere safe, they’d yell even more. I was sleeping when it happened. I heard a pop, and woke up to see the light fixture broken and sparking. I slept in my clothes, thank God, and ran out of the room. Things all over the house were sparking and catching fire. I woke up Jane just before her computer self-destructed, and both of us got out in time. The house pretty much collapsed a couple minutes later. We saw that was happening all down the street. Both of us thought of Daria, and we rushed to my house.” Quinn was tearing up again. “We got there…our house was on fire too. Dad and Mom were in the kitchen. Dad must have been cooking, and Mom had her phone to her ear. Daria, though…she must have tried to make it out. She was right in front of the front door. A wooden beam…”
Stacy held her again. “Quinn, they’re all gone?”
Quinn burst out crying. “Yes, they’re gone! And I should have been with them! I could have saved them! If I hadn’t gotten drunk…”
Stacy calmed Quinn down. “Please Quinn; you can’t beat yourself up like that. You didn’t know this would happen. You couldn’t stop it from happening. You couldn’t save them. If you had been there, you’d be just as dead, and then who would I turn to? Please, I need you with me.”
Quinn calmed down. “Thank you, Stacy. I’m not too sure about a lot of the rest. I went with Jane to where her brother and his band were playing that night. Their drummer was the only one to survive. Jane was devastated losing her brother; worse than I was. Then again, she lost her family and her best friend in less than a day. I haven’t seen Tiffany or Sandi or any of the J’s or anyone else from school since…you know. I started thinking about where everyone was, and then I remembered today about our promise to meet here if we didn’t see each other by now, just in case.”
“I’m so glad. We might still be down there waiting for some reason to leave if you hadn’t…” Stacy’s remarks were cut off by explosions coming from the area of the shelter entrance.
“Oh no, everyone run that way! Grab the packs!” Charles handed Quinn the lighter pack, then grabbed his own and guided all three away from the shelter. When they were behind a cliff, he stopped them and turned towards the shelter. Clouds of smoke and fire rose out of the entrance. The area overall remained intact, but Charles knew the shelter was destroyed beyond repair.
“What was that?” Quinn asked.
Charles answered. “Well, the Ruttheimer fallout shelter was technologically state of the art. That meant a lot of computers, which I’m sure just felt one of the Geomagnetically Induced Currents.”
“They’re what caused all the electronics and electrical wiring to short out and catch fire. There’s more computers and wiring down there than in all of Lawndale High. Well, there was, anyway.”
Quinn was alarmed. “My God, you could have been killed down there!”
Stacy assured Quinn. “As long as the room was sealed, we were safe. After the room was unsealed, that’s another story.”
“You risked your lives to meet me up here. Thank you.”
“Quinn, as long as you’re alive, I wouldn’t leave you alone. You’re my best friend. Forget about those lists I made of who was which best friend; I was going through a weird time back then. Right now, I’m with the two people I care about most, except for my parents. Could we head there next?”
Quinn bypassed thinking about the “two people” part of that for now. “Absolutely, Stacy. We’ll have to walk, since all the cars are either shut down or destroyed. You, um, have any protection?”
Charles reached into his bag. “Certainly, but this hardly seems the time or place.”
Stacy grinned. “Upchuck, she meant weapons, silly.”
Charles blushed. “I knew that, really.”
Quinn rolled her eyes. “The more things change, the more things stay the same. I can’t believe you two shared that bunker together.” Stacy and Charles looked at each other and smiled, while Quinn thought for a moment. “Wait, what exactly happened down in that bunker?”
Charles averted his eyes, while Stacy said, “Oh, we just…talked and…got to know each other better.”
Quinn’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates, almost wider than her smile. “You didn’t!” Stacy blushed in response. “Stacy!”
“We made a deal.” Charles piped up.
“Oh Stacy, I’m so happy for you!” Quinn hugged Stacy again. “If you went through with it with Upchuck, it must mean you really love him.” Quinn turned to Charles with a serious, but not too serious expression. “Or he got you really drunk, and if you did, I’ll kill you, Upchuck.”
Charles fidgeted, while Stacy let him off the hook. “We had a bit of champagne, but I was sober enough to make the decision with a clear head. At least, the first couple times I was. After that was another matter.”
Quinn couldn’t believe it. “Just how many times are we talking about?”
Stacy’s smile couldn’t be wider. “I’m not certain; it’s hard to tell when one ended and another began.”
Charles decided to speak up. “Ladies, as much as I love listening to someone other than myself exaggerate my skills in the boudoir, we should cover as much ground as possible before dark. I have a small flashlight that should still work, but we can’t count on any other night lighting but the stars and fires. Here, Stacy, and for you, Quinn.” He handed each one of them a pistol and holster, which clipped into the belt loops on their jeans. “They’re fully loaded, and extra rounds are in Quinn’s pack. Hopefully we shouldn’t need them, but at least we’re prepared.”
Quinn clipped on the holster. “Thanks. Without Jane here, I’ve been worried about being defenseless. Now let’s meet Jane back at the Zon, or what’s left of it, and we’ll move on from there. That drummer and the club owner are there with Jane right now, and I don’t know how much protection either one will be if this chaos keeps up.”
The three started the trek back to the Zon, unsure what they’d find. Quinn thought about her friend, and about the boy now holding her hand. Upchuck could be a lot of things, but he was always a gentleman, or tried to be, anyway. At least Stacy had a shoulder to cry on when bad news arose. All Quinn had at the time was Jane, and in her state, Quinn had to be the shoulder to cry on.
Quinn, Stacy, and Charles reached the tent just outside the charred remains of the Zon. Max saw Quinn coming with two guests and waved to them. Quinn waved back, and spoke when they got in talking range. “Max, they were there after all! This is Stacy and Charles, also known as Upchuck.”
Max shook hands with both of them. “Pleasure to meet you, but then it’s a pleasure to meet just about anyone friendly right now. Janey’s inside right now. She could use some familiar faces.”
Quinn peeked into the tent at her sister’s best friend. “Hi Jane!”
Jane looked up and crawled out of the two-person tent. “Yo,” she said, without any enthusiasm. “Any luck?”
A voice called from outside the tent. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still alive, my apocalyptic Picasso.”
Jane smiled, probably for the first time in days, as she hugged the crimson-haired boy in front of her. “Upchuck! You’re okay!” She switched to Stacy. “And Stacy! It’s so good to see you alive!”
Charles took a step back. “I didn’t expect you to be so…aggressive Miss Lane.”
Jane looked somber. “At this point, if Ms. Li walked over here, I’d be just as aggressive, and I would have watched her burn at the stake two days ago.” She cringed at her choice of words, but Quinn didn’t seem to make notice.
“I wouldn’t expect Ms. Li any time soon,” Quinn said. “I passed by the school on the way here. Her car, or what was left of it, was parked outside.”
Stacy looked confused. “I don’t remember passing by the school.”
“Do you remember the crater three blocks back?” Quinn asked.
Charles looked contemplative. “It makes sense. There were so many wires and security systems around that building that it probably made a spectacular explosion. Even this tragedy is not without a sense of irony, it seems.”
Max chipped in, “Live by the closed-circuit television, die by the closed-circuit television.”
Stu, the owner of Club Zon, had, fittingly, a pot of stew simmering over a roaring fire. He’d found a case of canned stew in his still-standing shed out back, and poured about 4 cans in for the group. All six of them ate around the campfire, thankful for the meal.
Quinn looked over at Jane while sipping a bottle of water. She looked better than she had been, but still not 100%. Then again, who would be after what she’d been through? “Jane, we’re going to check out a few places for Stacy’s family, Tiffany, and Sandi, and whoever else we might find along the way. You want to come with?”
Jane looked down. “No thank you. As much as I would love to be there to see happy reunions and such, I’ll stay here and rest some more.” She added mentally, and if I see someone else I know strewn amongst smoldering debris, I might not hang onto my sanity.
Quinn put her arm around Jane, as she’d done often over the last two days. “Don’t worry, Jane. We’ll be sure to give you a shot at any hunks we happen to find along the way.”
Jane giggled at that. “Quinn, thanks for always knowing what to say.”
If only that were true, Quinn thought.
Charles walked down the street, his new girlfriend leaning against him for support. Quinn walked ahead, willing to risk herself in case something jumped out. This walk had been a disaster. Stacy’s home was in ruins. There was nothing left to salvage, other than a teddy bear that had somehow survived with a slight black tinge. Her parents hadn’t been so lucky. Tiffany’s parents were still alive, so at least that spared them having to search another home for her body. Small comfort in such trying times. Along the way, they had found a myriad of survivors. Some aggressive, some hiding scared. Thankfully, the guns had the appropriate effect without needing to fire them.
The last stop before they had to return was Sandi’s home. Nobody had heard from her or her mother amongst the people they had met. Reaching the Griffin estate, the scene was all too familiar: charred wood, melted plastic, shattered glass. They found Linda, with the now-all-too-common cellphone melted into her skull. Sandi, however, was nowhere to be found. Only her makeup mirror, shattered into pieces, was visible to mark her presence.
“Sandi! It’s me, Stacy! Where are you?”
“Shh! You want someone to hear you and come after us?” Quinn was justifiably worried. That last bunch of thugs almost didn’t respect their weapons. Only Quinn’s even temper had warned them off.
“Sorry, Quinn. I just wanted to make sure that if she could hear us, she did.”
“Shh, both of you!” Charles whispered. “I hear something.”
Quinn and Stacy listened, and heard a whimpering voice. It almost sounded like someone saying, “Don’t let them find me like this.”
Charles moved out of the area, ostensibly to watch for hoods, but realistically in case Sandi was mad that he was going with Stacy. Quinn motioned for Stacy to stay quiet, then slowly walked to a shed still standing in the back corner of their lot. As she approached the door, she crept up until her hand was on the door, and then swung it open wide. The figure inside was disheveled, dusty, and undeniably Sandi. “Sandi! You’re alive!”
Sandi covered her face. “Don’t touch me, Morgendorffer! Just go away!”
Stacy came over. “Sandi, what are you talking about? We’re happy to see you!”
Sandi scowled; her mouth the only part of her face fully visible. “Exactly. You’ve wanted me at my worst for the last two years, and now you have me. Just leave me alone. I don’t want any of your hollow pity. I just want some peace before I die.”
Quinn started to get angry. “Sandi, you’re not going to die. We’re not going to let you, even if you let yourself. Get out of that closet.”
Quinn reached out for Sandi’s arm, which she had used to cover the side of her face. Sandi resisted, but after not eating for over a day, she didn’t have the strength to resist. Quinn and Stacy both gasped upon seeing scarred flesh on her right cheek.
Sandi stood up, defiant, once Quinn let go of her arm. “There you have it. I tried to get my mother out of the house, but she was already dead. Then I ran out of the house, but a burning piece of wood rammed into my face. I staggered out to the lawn and passed out. When I came to, I looked into my makeup mirror and saw that my face was ruined. I tried to tie up my scarf around it, but it hurt too much, and it didn’t help anyway. Now that my life is over, you can leave me to my misery.” Sandi broke down into tears, refusing Stacy’s attempts to console her.
Quinn steadied her voice. “Sandi, I know what you saw in that mirror. What you saw was worse than what anyone sees on your face now. I’ll admit, it’s startling after seeing what you looked like before, but it’s not disfiguring. With your hair down, you can barely see it. I’ve seen people today looking far worse, both living and dead. Let’s face it, Sandi; you’re lucky to have that scar tissue.”
Sandi looked up, confused. “What do you mean?”
Quinn continued. “If you hadn’t gotten it, you probably would have headed out to find people on your own, and who knows who would have found you first? Thieves, rapists, murderers; any of them would have done much worse to you than that little mark. I know that you think that scar is the end of the world, but it might just have saved you by letting us find you first.”
Sandi looked away. “I guess you’re right. I still feel like a freak with this…thing.”
Quinn brushed away Sandi’s hair to look at the scarred area. “Actually, I kinda like it. It’s almost like a birthmark, and it really accentuates your skin. Only you could make a battle scar look beautiful, Sandi.”
Sandi looked deep into Quinn’s eyes. She’d learned to tell when Quinn was making things up. This wasn’t one of those times. She held out her arms and embraced her friend. “Oh Quinn, first my broken leg, now this; I’ve treated you so badly, and yet you always forgive me and bring me back. What did I ever do to deserve you?”
Quinn couldn’t hold back her tears of joy, which kept her from saying the answer. You became my friend. I’d do anything to save my friends, especially you and Stacy. I’d save you from anything, even yourself.
Max looked up at the sky while he stirred the baked beans in the kettle before him. It was getting dark, and Quinn still hadn’t returned. A couple of the townsfolk had stopped by looking for food, shelter, or anything they could get. Stu instructed Max to give out a bowl of food if asked, but to send anyone they didn’t know on their way. “We’re not a soup kitchen, after all.” Already Max had caught a couple people trying to come back for a second bowl, and probably a third, fourth, and fifth had Max not been watching. The .45 tucked into his jeans didn’t make him feel better, but it helped convince overzealous objectors to move along.
“I’ll say it for the fifth time: Upchuck?”
Max looked off in the distance. The voice was unfamiliar, but Quinn had referred to that boy as Upchuck.
“I’ll say it for the fifth time too: get to know him, and you’ll understand.”
That was that Stacy girl Quinn found.
“Not as deeply as you do, my sweet.”
That was the boy. Trying to be James Bond, but coming off as Woody Allen.
“I don’t get it either, Sandi, but give him a chance.”
Ah, Quinn. She had brought Trent’s sister to him; Jane’s arrival and Stu’s shed full of food were the only things keeping him alive and sane right now.
“Hey folks! Supper’s on!”
“Thanks, Max! This is Sandi, my friend from the Fashion Club I told you about.”
“Hi, Sandi; I’m Max. It’s good to see anyone, never mind someone as lovely as yourself.”
Sandi squinted at the bald man in front of her. He was fairly good looking, and barely knew her, from what Quinn had said. Why would he be lying to her? “Um, hello, Max. You don’t have to spare my feelings.”
“Why would I need to spare your feelings?”
“You know; my hideous deformity.” Sandi brushed back the hair covering the scar to make sure he didn’t miss it.
“Whoa, that scar is wicked cool! It makes you look like a…like a…”
“Criminale?” Jane said from behind Max.
“Yeah! It’s totally criminale!”
Jane put her arm around Max’s neck. “Max here has never been one for tact, but the scar does look pretty cool, at least when your hair isn’t covering it up.”
“Gee, thanks.” Sandi thought about it, and decided her sarcastic comment was out of line. “Actually, thanks. So, are you two dating or something?”
“Ick, no!” Jane said. “After this long, I know better than that. He’s the drummer for Trent’s band.”
Jane got a faraway look in her eye which Sandi didn’t notice until she had started to ask. “So where…um, is the supper you mentioned?”
Max perked up. “Right over here! Cowboy Max’s rootin’ tootin’ baked beans ala can!”
Jane rolled her eyes. “And at least 57 jokes come to mind for that name.”
Sandi ignored Jane. “Baked beans? I believe those are a side dish, and only for those who are looking for a social embarrassment.”
Stacy looked at her friend. “OK, so show us where we can find a tossed salad and a fruit plate, and we’ll be happy to join you.”
Sandi looked at Stacy, then around, then down at the ground. “I’m sorry. I have to get used to this whole apocalypse thing. Being a bitch won’t get me anywhere.”
Quinn smiled. “It’s too bad. It had served you so well in the past.”
Sandi glanced at Quinn and grinned. “Gee Quinn, if that’s how you feel, maybe you should take over as bitch of the Fashion Club.”
Quinn moved her hand towards Sandi, as if she were waving her away. “Oh Sandi, don’t be silly. I could never be a better bitch than you.” This escalated the growing giggles into full-blown laughter.
Later, as the seven survivors were finishing their meager dinners around the campfire, Charles was the first one to speak up. “Ladies, gentlemen, I hate to bring the jovial mood to an end, but I feel it necessary to decide where we go from here. We have enough food and water for a couple days, assuming that scavengers don’t strike us, but after that, we may need to consider moving on.”
Stacy spoke next. “Charles is right. We could scrounge around once our stores run out, but given how many people are wandering the streets these days, I don’t like our chances. We could even head out tomorrow, assuming we could pack what we have into some sort of bag.”
Stu spoke up. “Personally, I’d rather take my chances here. The looters have been mild, and if we head out, we might run into even worse areas.”
Max agreed. “If everyone’s been hit like this, we’re better off staying put, hoping they don’t know how to find Lawndale.”
Quinn disagreed. “And when they do, we’d just have to move anyway. I say we should head west. There might be some areas that aren’t as affected, like some of West Virginia. They may have been living in the Stone Age, but these days, we all are.”
Sandi wasn’t sure. “And they might be waiting for us with open arms or loaded muskets. I’m not sure what to do.”
Jane wasn’t either. “Same here. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, really.”
Charles was next. “I’ve been writing down a few lists, making sure of who’s alive, who’s not, and who’s unaccounted for amongst our friends and families. So far, we have us and the Blum-Deckler’s alive. No word yet on Kevin, Brittany, Mack, Jodie, Andrea, Joey, Jeffy, and Jeremy…”
“Jamie!” shouted about half the group.
“Sorry, nor on their families. Nothing from any of the teachers, but Ms. Li is probably gone. Jane’s parents and three oldest siblings were out of the country, Sandi’s father was in Japan, Tom and his family were out at ‘The Cove’ and my father was in Arizona, so even if they survived, we might not hear from them in a long time, if ever. The rest…well, we know the rest.” Everyone looked down at that point.
“Well,” said Quinn, breaking the silence, “I think we can all agree that we should stay another day regardless. We can arrange for a search party or two in the morning, and make our plans from there. Remember, there are enough of us that we don’t have to make a unanimous decision, but I don’t think anyone wants to be the only one to stay or go.” Everyone mumbled their agreement to that. “For now, we should plan to keep watch overnight. Jane and Max have agreed to take the first watch, through the first few hours. Max and Stacy both have watches that work, so I nominate Stacy to take the second shift with me.” Stacy nodded in agreement. “Sandi can take third shift with Chuck. Stu, you’ve been so gracious in sharing your food, the least we can do is give you today off, but feel free to help whoever’s on whenever you’re up. We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Now, everyone get some shuteye other than Jane and Max.”
Everyone nodded their agreement, and made their way to their makeshift bedrolls. Sandi took Quinn aside. “You know, maybe you should have been Fashion Club President after all.”
Quinn smiled. “And be the one to blame when my fashion forecasts failed? You can have that job.”
Jane and Max sat on the plastic pails that had passed for seats over dinner. Max held his shotgun out for anyone to see, but it was Jane’s pistol, kept at her hip, that may have been the bigger threat. Jane looked at the fire, stoking it to keep it going. Max seemed to know what was going on in her mind, and said, “Let it go.”
“Hmm?” was the reply.
“You couldn’t have done anything. Neither could I.”
Jane set down her stick. “I know, but it doesn’t make it feel better. Quinn was able to save me, at least. We ran to save her, but we were too late. Then we come here, and you were probably the only survivor here, other than Stu, and how many bands played that night and slept it off here?”
“Five bands, each 4-6 people, not counting groupies and roadies. Stu wasn’t even here when it happened. He was starting his old Jeep when everything went haywire. Mystik Spiral, The Harpies, Your Sanguine Dreams, The Virtual Velvet, Supersuspicion; all of them are gone. Meanwhile, here I am trying to figure out why I was spared from practically the entire Lawndale Music Scene.”
“You must have someone or something watching over you.”
Max chuckled at that. “Yeah, the fan.”
“I was the only one up. Having that many people in one back room led to unbearable heat, even for winter. I decided to turn up the fan, then found out it wasn’t even moving. I got so mad, I bashed it a couple of times, then kicked it right out of the window. I half followed it out, and then explosions behind me must have sent me through the rest of the way, because I woke up in the back of Stu’s Jeep hours later.”
“No wonder you’re the only one that survived. You and your insomnia.”
“You Lanes may call it insomnia, but I call it efficient sleeping.”
“And your temper.”
“Well, yeah. It’s kind of a requirement for a drummer; that or straight lunacy.”
“I wonder if you’ll ever get the chance to drum again.”
“It’ll be hard, but I’ll find something. A discarded snare and some sticks, a pair of bongos, even these plastic pails could work. Make it kind of a Stomp thing.”
“If we can find some blue paint, you could be the Blue Man Solo Project.”
Max laughed, then sighed. “I’ll only be solo for a while. I’ll meet some people. We’ll start doing some songs together. In this world, musician might be one of the few professions that can still sustain itself.”
“I’d like to hear your band when you start it up. Maybe I can find some paper and paint for your advertising.”
“I’d like that. You want to stay here with me?”
Jane sighed. “Trent’s gone; the rest of my family may never return, but they’d return here if they did. My friend’s gone, and every time I look at Quinn, I remember that. You’re the only person I really knew before that’s still here. If you’ll have me around, I’ll stay here. Just don’t get too friendly. I know better than to get involved with you.”
“Do you?” Max looked at her with his “patented rock god stare” that he knew never worked on Jane.
“Definitely, and not just because that still looks plain goofy to me. Now come on. It’s time to wake up Quinn and Stacy and get some sleep.”
Jane jostled Quinn awake, then waited until Quinn was standing up before retreating to her blanket and shirts she called a bedroll. Quinn went over to Stacy to wake her up.
“Oh Charles, isn’t five times enough? Mmmm, ok.” Stacy said, then fell back into a doze.
Quinn giggled to herself. At least I have something to tease her with now. “Come on, Stacy, wake up.”
Quinn looked around their encampment. A man in the remnants of a three-piece suit walked by, keeping his distance. He held out his hands to show he meant no harm, and Quinn waved to him as he passed. She looked to the sky after the man had passed. It was a clear night. That made visibility much better, and made it simpler to keep an eye out for trouble.
Quinn looked at her companion to her left. She was staring off at nothing in particular, with a smile on her face. “Stacy. Stacy!”
Stacy blinked several times and turned to Quinn. “Hmm?”
“You’re supposed to be looking for trouble, not thinking about Upchuck.”
“Oh, sorry. It’s been difficult not to think of him since last night.”
“I can imagine.” Quinn took a glance around to make sure nobody was coming, and nobody else was awake, then decided to pursue the question. “So, how was it?”
“How was last night?”
“Oh, it was…wow. I’ve never felt so…there just aren’t words to describe how good it felt.”
“And Upchuck was that good?”
“Well, you’ve heard how for guys, the first time isn’t the greatest?”
“The next two times more than made up for it.”
“And after that…”
“Ok, I get the picture!” Quinn laughed, and then sighed. “I wish I had a guy like that to be with.”
Stacy looked at Quinn. It may have been the campfire, but it looked like Quinn was on the verge of tears. “Quinn, you’ll find a guy like that. You’ll probably find an even better guy. Even if we can’t find the J’s, and I know we will, we’ll find some great guys out there.”
Quinn looked up. “Even if we find the J’s, I don’t know if I really want them. I don’t know if I ever wanted them. Sure, having guys willing to offer themselves up to me is nice, but why did they go after me? We had nothing in common. They liked how I looked and how popular I was, but spending a date with any of them was boring, and having all three together was chaos. It was good enough for me then, but now, it’s just not. Back then, all that mattered was getting good enough grades in school, staying popular, and looking good, and not in that order.”
“So what’s important now?”
“Now, I’m going to need someone to depend on, someone to keep me focused on what’s going on; someone strong enough to be my shoulder to cry on, but someone who can turn to me if they’re the one needing a shoulder. I guess if I’m going to be in charge of keeping the group on track, I need someone that can keep me from getting a big head about it; someone who can cut me down when I need it, then pick me back up again when I’m out of it.”
“It sounds like you need Sandi.”
Quinn shot a look at Stacy. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Doesn’t help me get a guy though.” Quinn giggled nervously.
Stacy thought about following up with that, but thought better of it. A few feet away, Sandi thought over what she had just heard. She hadn’t been able to sleep for the past half hour, and after that, she knew she’d be up the rest of the night thinking about it, even if she didn’t have the next shift.
Charles fingered his pistol, silently thanking his father for preparing both him and the shelter for such an emergency. He thought of his father at that resort he was at. He should have been fine through the chaos, but he would probably never see him again. It would take months, maybe years to get back here on foot.
To his right was Sandi, who was lost in thought. She had barely said anything to Upchuck over the hour they had been keeping watch. Finally, she spoke up. “Upchuck, thanks for saving Stacy.”
“Hmm, oh, don’t mention it.”
The silence started to return, and after a pause, Sandi continued. “I’m…sorry for how I treated you at school.”
“I deserved a lot of what I got. You didn’t treat me any worse than anyone else.”
“Or any better.”
“It’s not important now. We’re not the same people we were in school.”
“That’s what I’ve been afraid of.”
Charles turned to Sandi with a quizzical look on his face. “What do you mean?”
“At school, I’ve always been the most popular girl in the class, other than Quinn. I’ve enjoyed being at the top, and I’ve done things I’m not proud of to stay there. Eventually, though, I knew school would be over, and I’d be back to square one.”
“I’m sure you didn’t expect it to happen so soon, but that sounds about right.”
“I treated a lot of people like dirt. I shunned the outcasts as if they weren’t worthy to be alive, I played with boys as if they were just another fashion accessory, I kept other girls down to keep myself popular, and I bossed around my friends to make myself feel important.”
“And they still consider you their friend.”
Sandi looked away. “Yeah.”
“And you think they shouldn’t.”
Sandi scowled. “I didn’t deserve them to even come looking for me. I was ready to stay in my dad’s shed, die of starvation, and never see anyone ever again. I thought my life was over. When I saw this damn scar, I thought my life was over. Looking in Stacy’s mirror on the way home, it actually looked okay. If Quinn and Stacy hadn’t talked me out of it, I’d probably be passed out from hunger, preparing for death, contemplating slitting my wrists with what was left of my makeup mirror. I don’t deserve Stacy treating me kindly after pushing her into being my yes-woman. I definitely don’t deserve Quinn saving myself from myself after all the times I’ve tried to ruin her popularity and make her look bad. Yet, there they were, talking me out of starving myself to death. Why? Why should they care?”
Charles made sure Sandi was done talking, then tried to answer. “Sandi, do you really know so little about your best friends? Do you think Stacy would wish anybody dead? She confided in me some of what you had done to her, and I was mad. I promised her that the next time I saw you, I’d chew you out for what she’s gone through.” Sandi closed her eyes. “Stacy begged me not to. She said that she knew why you had said and did what you had. You weren’t trying to hurt her. You just wanted control, and this was the way you had learned to control your life. She promised to start fighting back more. If all this hadn’t happened, she’d continue asserting herself, and eventually make you see what you were doing to her. I guess the process happened without her intervention, but she still loved you, Sandi.”
“She loves everyone in the world. That’s one of the things that have always mystified me about her. You could frustrate her, you could anger her, but she still loved you, Quinn, Tiffany, her mother and father, and anyone else that came into her life, no matter what they did.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I always thought of her as naïve, but really, she’s just an optimist. She’s an innocent.”
“Well, not so innocent these days.”
“Ewww, I was trying not to think about that, Upchuck!”
“Sorry,” Charles said, with a smile on his face.
“You should be.” Sandi thought for a moment. “What about Quinn?”
“Well, I haven’t had as much time to get to know Quinn, but she seems to give as well as she gets. What were some of the times you really were mean to Quinn?”
“Well, there was the dance she had to plan on her own after I talked her into it.”
“The dance was a hit, your party flopped, and you ended up locked out of your house in the snow in your bikini.”
“Oh, yeah. There was that bellboy whose uncle owned the hotel, and I convinced her that he was a stalker.”
“Wasn’t he actually a con artist and a computer hacker to boot?”
“You’re right. On that boat, where her made-up date no-showed her, I told everyone about it after promising I wouldn’t. And then I got dumped and that spread everywhere. God, did any of my plans succeed?”
Charles thought of something, and decided to lighten the mood. “Vell Natasha, back to drawink board von Moose und Squirrel!”
Sandi laughed at that. “I haven’t watched those in years.” She made the connections. “No matter what I did, I only made her more popular and myself worse off. No wonder she was never all that mad at me. I was just her enemy.”
Charles put his arm on Sandi’s shoulder. “You’re more than that. You’re her foil. You’re her competition. You’re the reason she had to make herself better, prettier, more popular, and more intelligent. Between you and her sister, she had friends that prepared her for the real world. She could have coasted on her looks, but you kept her on her toes.”
Sandi thought about what Quinn had said when she thought she was asleep. “Maybe I am what she needs in her life. ‘Someone who can cut her down when she needs it, then pick her back up again when she’s out of it.’”
“That sounds like what I’ve been for Stacy.”
Sandi sighed. “It does, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t worry about it any more than you can help it. The important part is that you’re with us now, and our lives go on. We’re all here for each other, no matter who needs what. Together, we’ll get this figured out.”
“Or we’ll die trying.”
“Just like it was on December 31st, eh?”
Sandi realized what he meant. “Life goes on. Thanks, Up…er, Charles.”
Charles smiled. “Charles, Chuck, Upchuck, call me whatever you wish. I’ve been Upchuck for so long, it’s no longer an insult.”
“Ok, Upchuck. I never thought you’d be a decent guy underneath that cheesy Austin Powers act.”
“Well, it just goes to show that what someone looks like on the outside may not be what they look like on the inside.” Charles paused, then went for the kill. “Would you like me to…”
Sandi stopped him short. “Don’t even think about it, Upchuck.” Five seconds later, both of them burst out laughing.
After a rousing breakfast of more of the beef stew, the six teens planned out their movements. Stu would stay back with his shotgun, keeping the camp, and more importantly their shed of food, safe. It was agreed to split into teams of two: Jane and Max would go to Kevin and Mack’s houses, Stacy and Chuck would try to find Jodie and Brittany, and Quinn and Sandi would look for the three J’s. Nobody was quite sure where to find Andrea. Charles gave Jane the spare pistol from his pack, so that each group had at least one firearm. All the unnecessary things, like the champagne and extra clothes, were stored in the shed.
Quinn and Sandi had the longest walk, but all three of their targets would be in the same neighborhood. Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie had grown up together, which is probably why they all went after the same girl. On the way there, Sandi kept an eye out for anyone, friend or foe, that could help or hinder their progress, while Quinn kept her hand on the handle of her pistol. Their path was fairly devastated, even when compared to much of the surrounding area, and though they hadn’t seen anyone by the time they reached halfway, they weren’t taking any chances.
They stopped at what had been the corner of College and 51st street. There was enough daylight to rest for a while, so they took out the canteen and shared some of the water. While Quinn was taking her share, Sandi spoke. “Quinn, what do you think of me?”
Quinn swallowed what was left in her mouth. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what do you honestly think about me? I know I’ve been mean to you, but you’ve always been there for me when I needed you. It’s been bothering me since I broke my leg, and it’s gotten worse since all this started. Please tell me why.”
“Sandi, you’re my friend. I’d do anything for my friends, especially now.”
“I just don’t understand it. Why am I still your friend? I haven’t earned the right to be called your friend. I’ve earned being your mortal enemy much more than being your friend.”
Quinn smiled. “Yeah, I guess you have. I never really thought of you that way though. A rival, sure. The barbs we traded were just the tools of our trade. Runners race each other to prove who is better. Musicians jam to compare their skills. Geeks test each other’s knowledge of geeky stuff. We compete in popularity. Think about this: would you have spread pregnancy rumors about me?”
“Certainly not. That’s too low for a Fashion Club member to stoop to.”
“Would you have paid off guys I wouldn’t think of sleeping with to call me easy?”
“That would tarnish our reputation. Again, it’s beneath our Club.”
“Would you have someone beat me up or assault me to ‘teach me a lesson’?”
“I should say not. You’re my…friend.” Sandi looked like she had realized what Quinn meant.
“There you go. Don’t think I’ve enjoyed our little competition any less than you have. I needed you as much as you needed me.”
Sandi decided to bring it up. “Because I’m ‘someone who can cut you down when you needs it, then pick you back up again when you’re out of it’?”
Quinn gasped. “You heard that?”
Sandi shrugged. “I’m kind of a light sleeper when I'm not in a real bed. I mentioned it to Upchuck in passing, not mentioning that you had said it first. He said that it sounded like what he was for Stacy.”
“Oh. Sandi, are you trying to tell me something?”
Sandi sighed. “I don’t know. This has been running through my mind for a while now, and I still don’t have any answers. It’s not like I’m trying to make out with you or anything weird like that, but I really don’t want to lose you. You mean a lot to me.”
“You mean a lot to me too. I don’t want to leave you behind. Sandi, I don’t want you to freak out, but please hear me out. I love you. Maybe not in that romantic, guy down on one knee proposing, rolling around under the covers way, but I do love you, just as I love Stacy, and just as I loved Tiffany, Mom, Dad, and Daria. With this whole world falling down around me, you were one of the few things left that kept me from giving up. My family is dead. Tiffany’s dead. The J’s could be dead, or we might never find them. You and Stacy are all the reason I have to live. If I don’t have you, I don’t know how I could continue on.”
Sandi sighed. “What if I do love you; you know, in that way?”
“Do you love me in that way?”
“I don't know. Maybe, but I can't be sure.”
Quinn smiled. “Then we’ll figure it out as we go. Sandi, now that we’ve found each other, we’re not going to let each other slip away. The big one didn’t break us, losing our families didn’t break us, your little scar certainly didn’t break us; why would a little extra affection, one way or another? Besides, at this point, I’m not looking for a date, I’m looking to survive. I need you, Sandi.”
“And I need you, Quinn.”
“And we’ll make up the rest as we come to it. Now come on; we need to get moving if we want to get back in time.”
“Oh, right.” Sandi picked up her pack, while Quinn put her hand back on her gun. “It’s almost too bad neither of us were born guys.”
Quinn smirked. “Would a guy with our fashion sense be dating a woman?”
Sandi laughed. “Touché, Quinn.”
Stu was getting worried. Jane and Max still weren’t back. They had the shortest distance to go, but they were the last ones coming in. Something was wrong.
Chuck and Stacy had been the first back. They found Brittany and Kevin at her father's guest house, in a position that would have produced giggles, had they still been alive. They found remnants of Jodie’s family, but no sign of Jodie herself. Sandi and Quinn had reported back that while the three J’s and their families were alive, they had already left their neighborhood. Quinn had found an envelope (she had referred to it as a “vanilla envelope”) stuck between two bricks at what used to be Joey’s house, detailing their flight to upstate New York, where Joey’s family had a cabin stocked with preserves and far away from any technology, just like his Uncle Joe had preferred it. It had also said not to follow them, and that any non-family members would be treated as hostile. Quinn said there was also a note to her, but she declined to share it, saying only that it didn’t help the situation.
Stu addressed the group. “Friends, it’s going to be dark in a couple hours, and Jane and Max aren’t back. We need to start considering sending a search party after them if they’re not back shortly.”
Quinn spoke next. “If we’re going out there, I recommend Chuck and I go. We’re probably the easiest to pick out with our red hair, plus we’ve got the steadiest hands of those of us left.”
Charles looked off into the distance. “Well, hopefully this is them this time. I see about three or four people coming up the road ahead. Let’s make sure this isn’t them before we head out.”
Without binoculars or other optical enhancements, they had to wait until the dots in the distance became distinct. Quinn noticed first. “That’s Max! Jane must be in the middle between those two black…Mack! Jodie!”
Sure enough, walking on either side of Jane were Mack and Jodie. Jane seemed to be having trouble walking, so Quinn and Stacy rushed out to meet them. Max seemed to have a red mark on his forehead.
Stacy took Jodie’s place in helping Mack walk Jane. “It’s so good to see you guys! What happened?”
Jodie smirked. “Jane and Max were poking around what’s left of Mack’s place, and Mack came up with his peace to make sure they weren’t looters. Mack must have scared them, because Jane tweaked her ankle, and Max ran right into a brick wall.”
Max shrugged. “Hey, I didn’t know what they looked like. A large, athletic man comes out of nowhere with a gun drawn, and I react.”
Mack smiled. “Thank you for not saying ‘A black man’.”
“Are you kidding? Bobby from Supersuspicion would have hurt me bad for saying that.”
Jane looked at Max curiously. “Wasn’t Bobby white?”
Max smiled. “He’s whiter than I am, but he didn’t dig on racial prejudices. That’s the only reason he survived in that band…well, as long as the band did.” Max trailed off.
Mack frowned as Max added that last bit. “That’s right; they were on the bill for your New Year’s show. The music scene around here went pretty much silent that morning.”
Jane smirked. “The Day the Music Died II: Electric Boogaloo.” She looked around. “Too soon?”
Quinn smiled, sadly. “Well, you’d be the one to know.”
Jane looked depressed. “Yeah.”
Jodie, sensing the tension, spoke up. “Well, let’s get to the encampment. We’ve all got our stories to tell, and decisions to make.”
Quinn looked at Jodie curiously. “What decisions?”
Jodie looked away. “After dinner.”
The banquet was festive, and the mood was a mixture of warmth and sympathy. Most of the horror stories were shared right away, other than Mack and Jodie’s escape. It turned out that both of their families had perished on that day, and that Mack and Jodie had escaped death by mere chance, though they refused to detail their means of escape, and Jane and Max stood by their silence. By the time the food came around, yet more baked beans with some of the remaining bread and a shared bottle of Champagne the ladies convinced Charles to share for the occasion, conversation was lighter. As the last portions were meted out, Jodie and Mack agreed that the time was right to share.
Jodie stood up. “Now that everyone’s settled, I’d like to discuss why Mack and I survived, and what it means for everyone.” Everyone quieted down at that. “Mack’s house doesn’t – well, didn’t – have a basement like most do. The people who built the house during the ‘50’s had decided to make their basement a fallout shelter in case the Cold War turned hot. Because of that, his dad got a good deal on the house. Mack’s set up shop down there, and we spent the night there after watching the New Year’s celebration upstairs. So, after everything went down on that morning, we opened up the door and found that everything was on fire around us. We couldn’t make it out, so we closed the door. Before we did, Mack’s stereo and alarm clock fried. They weren’t next to anything flammable though, so we were able to put them out with a fire extinguisher. We came back out of the shelter hours later, and the whole house was gone, other than our shelter and the charred remains of the house.”
Mack sighed. “It may be small comfort, but I can see Dad in heaven right now, bragging about how his house saved his kid and came in at a good price. Anyway, the shelter’s set up for a family of five, with enough supplies to last a good two months at least. We could take up to three of you in with us, but there’s no way we could all fit, and even if we could, it would cut the supplies in half.”
Quinn stepped forward. “Given how we feel right now, this might be exactly what we need. We seem to be fairly split right now as to whether to stay or go. Personally, I was planning on heading out. I can take as many with us as would want to go, and now, even if only one wanted to stay, they’d have a place. Let’s go around the circle. Sandi?”
Sandi looked at Quinn. “You know I’m going with you.”
Stacy was next. “Me too. Charles, are you coming with us?”
Charles smiled. “Mon cherie, I would follow you into Hades, if it meant spending one more moment with you.” He kissed her hand gently after speaking, which made Stacy blush.
Jane rolled her eyes. “Before we all go into insulin shock from that, I’d like to say that I plan to stay. I couldn’t get far on my ankle right now anyway, and this place is my home. It’ll be nice having Jodie and Mack with me, and hopefully Max as well.”
Max sighed. “Everything I had is gone, except for my former bandmate’s kid sister. I’ll stay, just to have something to keep me holding on to this reality.”
Stu was last. “I’d be happy to take the last spot in the shelter. There’s nothing left here but a shed full of tools, some canned food and warm cheapo beer. I’d be happy to give you folks some for the road.”
Mack spoke up. “And we’ll give you some food as well. If you’re not already, I’m sure you’d be sick of a week worth of beef stew and baked beans.”
Quinn spoke next. “Thank you Mack, and thank you Stu. It’s not going to be easy, but with your help, I know we’ll get off on the right foot. For now, though, eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we go on a diet!”
Everyone laughed at that, and raised their cups in a toast to the future.
The night had mostly passed by the time Charles and Sandi’s shift had come up. With four sets of two, they only needed to watch for a couple more hours before everyone would be up. However, the quiet was broken by a rustling noise near the shed. Sandi nudged Charles, and motioned for him to be quiet. They made their way towards the source of the noise.
Sandi carefully crept towards the sound; hand on her hip in case she needed to draw her pistol. Charles followed behind, his pistol drawn to frighten off anyone who didn’t take no for an answer. Stacy found the brush where the noise had come from, and pushed it aside.
A stray cat darted away from the camp at full speed. Sandi and Charles wiped their brows in relief. Sandi’s relief was short-lived, as she started to gasp when she saw a man come up behind Charles. Before either one could react further, however, both were seized by rough-looking men carrying rags soaked in ether.
It was hard to pick out what the men looked like in the darkness. They had some three-day stubble, but then most men had that by now. They had some faded jeans and shirts on, but they were unable to determine any definite coloration, including skin color, in the brief moment before unconsciousness.
“Now what?” the one that had caught Chuck whispered.
“Now we thank God that little bitch didn’t see you earlier! If she had yelled out, we’d have this whole group awake and ready to take us down. Now get into the shed and keep quiet!”
“A little late for that,” said a voice behind them.
The men turned around, hands on their pistols, and saw the man behind them wielding a shotgun. They didn’t draw, so Stu decided not to fire right away. “If you value your lives, I’d suggest leaving right now. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
The two men hesitated, not sure what to do. The first man decided to chance it, and drew his pistol. Stu shot him before he could raise his gun, but the second man had enough time to draw and fire, hitting him in the chest three times. Stu staggered, but was able to fire a second shot at the man, taking him down as well.
The noise woke up everyone in the camp, and probably most people within many blocks around them. Max had looked up in time to see Stu collapse to the ground. He rushed over to him, yelling his name. The rest of the conscious survivors surrounded him while Max examined his wounds, which were grave indeed. The first two shots had punctured his lungs, and the third was now lodged in his spine. “Speak to me, Stu! Stay with me! Say something!”
Stu coughed up blood. “Max, h-how’d you like to own this b-bar? Free s-shotgun with p-p-purchase…” Stu would not say another word. Max cradled his fallen former employer in his arms, sobbing his eyes out.
When the sun rose, they agreed to bury Stu right next to the ruins of the Zon. Without materials for a proper marker, they took two intact planks from the ruin and nailed them together in the shape of a cross with a hammer and nails found in the shed. They paid their respects to the man who had taken them in and shared his remaining food with them, and paid with his life.
The two bodies of the would-be thieves were brutally beaten and thrown around until Max had worn himself out. After that, they were put out in front of the Zon’s ruins in a “suggestive” position. Even without paint, Jane had an eye for “artistic expression”.
The group was able to make it to Mack’s shelter by noon. There had been a few cases of food and some tools to bring. They decided they could come back for the beer later if they felt like it, but nobody was that enthusiastic about warm discount beer, especially after a mixed response to warm expensive champagne.
Sandi was given a backpack with their share of food, as well as shells for Stu’s shotgun. Everyone had decided they would need it, for show at least, more than the crew staying in the shelter. Canteens were filled and distributed amongst the four and Mack gave Stacy a supply of Vitamin C, reasoning that “You’re not going to find much for oranges for awhile.” Upchuck’s offer of his “marital aids” was rebuffed by Mack and Jodie, though Jane did disappear with him shortly after their discussion.
Too soon, it seemed, it was time to head out. Everyone said their goodbyes to each other, and wished each other well on their life. Jane took Quinn aside for a one-on-one talk.
“Quinn, I want you to have this.” Jane took off her watch and handed it to Quinn.
“Thanks, Jane.” Quinn noticed that Jane seemed hesitant to give up the watch. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, it’s just…Daria gave this to me last year.”
Quinn’s heart sank. “Oh. Oh, Jane, I couldn’t take this away…”
“No, I insist. I have more than enough to remind me of Daria inside my head. Looking at this watch I’ll be reminded of her more often than I care to be right now. Besides, time doesn’t mean much when you don’t see the sun or the moon.”
“Thank you Jane. Now I can remember her and think about how you’re doing at the same time. I don’t know what I could do to make up for it.”
Jane hugged Quinn tightly. “You already did. If I could sleep through Mystik Spiral practice, I would sleep through my computer exploding. You saved my life; a watch is the least I could give, and at this point, the most I could give.”
Jane and Quinn separated, and each joined their group as they readied for the departure. With one last wave goodbye, Quinn, Sandi, Stacy, and Charles left for parts unknown.
“Goodbye, Lawndale!” Stacy said as the group passed the city limits.
“Hello, adventure!” Quinn replied.
“Actually, I believe this is Centerbury,” Charles corrected.
“Obviously you’ve never spent a night in Centerbury,” Sandi retorted.
“Oh, have you been holding out on us Sandi?” Quinn asked
“Um, I, er…” Sandi fumbled, causing the rest of the group to crack up into laughter.
To Be Continued In Episode II:
The Road To Nowhere
Author's Note: This story began with the introduction of the Daylight event by The Angst Guy. I'd had an idea for some time concerning people coming down into a fallout shelter for a reason other than the end of the world (partying, getting away from a party, just relaxing), then being saved when the end of the world occurs on the surface. The story basically spiraled out (of control) from there. Chapters were posted to PPMB as they were written and proofed. Originally posted as Daylight: When The Ball Dropped.