Rebirth, by Michael Poeltl
Rebirth, by Michael Poeltl
Description: A year into a Post-Apocalyptic existence, where friendships are tested and new enemies emerge; talk of destiny fulfilled through a child offers salvation.
Could you believe?
Rebirth, is the second in the series of the popular post-apocalyptic coming of age tale, told at the end of an age.
I can’t find my son. Anxiety overwhelms me. My heart pounds as I rush through the compound, in my panic it seems more like a maze than the place I’d called home the past eight years. Where is my son? The night comes alive as search lights expose the darkness between buildings, igniting the tight spaces a boy of eight might find himself. A sinister thought enters my head: My mortal enemy currently shares this space with us. A renewed sense of urgency overcomes me, my pace quickens.
Your Father would have so loved you. You were a blessing when you were born; you were a mystery when you were conceived and a terrible struggle while I carried you seven months in my belly.
Seven months: it’s not really long enough, but you seemed to time your arrival eerily close to the date of another’s departure.
This place is like a concentration camp you’d see on TV, when there was TV. Something from a Second World War movie. Did we live through the Third World War? Hard to say. Color is absent here: the walls are a battleship grey, the floors a polished concrete. Not ideal surroundings for a baby to grow up in, but at least you grew up.
When we arrived you were very small and still at my breast.
Somehow we had escaped a plague that ravaged much of the surviving world.
Children are very important; so many died from this plague that took the very young and very old. Most adults over sixty years old and those under the age of twelve died soon after the Apocalypse, choked to death by fall-out, while those who survived were left to suffer this final indignity some months later. A plague, a flu of some design. I have worked closely with the doctors here, and they have not been able to succinctly label the disease that had methodically killed off so many.
The base was designed to train special ops and special forces in the war against terror. It has only a skeleton crew assigned to it, though it was expecting an influx of 1000 soldiers and their families the month following the end of life as we knew it. The base is well protected, with steel walls reaching heights of 20 feet in places, outfitted with watch towers, a stockade, family housing, a mess hall, hospital and the central training and parade grounds. It even has a greenhouse.
The parade grounds are framed with civilian vehicles, RV’s, camper vans, cars and trucks of all shapes and sizes. They belong to those who fled the devastation to the south and came north. I recall the many motorcades we witnessed traveling north, right past Joel’s house, where we had hidden out. We were fourteen friends, caught in something as unfathomable as the end of the world. Teenagers, whose families had all been wiped out by one violent act against humanity. I remember talking to people as they stopped at the house. They said they were going on a feeling, going north.
The Sergeant told me that barely a year after the majority of civilians had arrived, the plague had hit the base, and hundreds were quarantined. Almost all of them died, eventually. The base lost many of their own to the mysterious plague as well. The army doctors worked day and night to suppress the disease, to stop it in its tracks. In doing so, the hospital lost over 75% of its staff.
Finally the plague had run its course. No more were dying, no more were feeling feverish or showing red spots on their necks and torsos. Those who had survived, roughly half including both the base personnel and civilians, would carry on, burn their dead and start again.
I remember asking about the water planes my friends and I had seen putting out forest fires as we drove back to town, returning from our camping trip the day after the Reaper had followed through on his promise.
“They flew out of Kingston Air force base,” explained the captain. She removed her hat as she spoke. Her short blonde hair fell around her high cheek bones. She was an attractive woman, but she’d suffered an unimaginable loss, and the lines in her face mapped that story. “It’s two days’ drive west of us. They were retrofitted to do that job, those planes. They would load up on water at Elle Lake, and run water dumps all over the area. Now, you said you were a good two hour drive south of here, Sara?”
“Yes, about that.” I replied.
“I’d say the planes would have penetrated just south of that, and then west.” She confirmed.
“We saw three or four at a time.”
“Yes, you would have. They employed thirty odd. They ran day and night for about 48 hours following the attack, and then, nothing.”
“Nothing?” My voice cracked.
“We lost contact with them.” The captain’s tone was thoughtful.
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“Fatigue. The pilots wanted to keep flying. Keep up the momentum. Best we could tell, two of the bigger planes slammed into each other and then into the control tower while attempting to land and fuel up. They wiped out everyone, and with them any chance for the other pilots to continue their work.”
“That’s so awful.”
“We sent a patrol to investigate, and this was their conclusion.” Her eyes met mine.
“No wonder you never came for us.” My friends and I had held onto hope of a rescue for weeks after the sighting, believing that they had seen us, and that they would come for us. But they never did.
“Even if we were made aware of your existence, it’s unlikely we would have come for you. We were undermanned ourselves and had been ordered to stay put.”
“Makes sense I guess.” But I wondered what my life would have been like had they come for us. Would Joel still be with me? Perhaps we would have succumbed like the others to the plague, like the captain’s husband and daughters had.
The world wasn’t always like this, and perhaps one day it will be better. The military houses us now. They have graciously put us up here in the hope that you will survive, have children of your own and rebuild.
That may sound like a lot to put on a child not yet eight years old, but know that you are very special, and not just in the way only a mother can know.
You would have had it so good in life. That’s what we called it before the Reaper dropped the bombs: life. We were all someone else, kids barely out of high school. The Grimm Reaper as the media had coined him, was a mad man. A man, an organization, a country, no one really knew. The threat seemed almost laughable. But he wasn’t laughing. He had demands that were never met, he had crazy ideals that required religions and governments to disappear. The things he asked were impossibilities. So he showed us just how serious he was. The initial blasts killed our families. My friends and I had been spared, having taken a camping trip that weekend, the weekend. And when we returned, our worlds were changed forever. We, fourteen of us at first and within seven months only eight, managed to stay alive, at my boyfriend’s house in the country. We felt privileged, chosen to survive, to rebuild.
More than nine years ago my life was very different. Was I lucky to have experienced life in all its normalcy, in all its abundance? I think so, I still have my memories. Though sometimes my memories seem like little more than movies, something from someone’s imagination.
The people here, the soldiers, they believe that much of the planet has fared better than our little corner. To believe is a powerful thing. It can keep you from despair, it can offer you salvation. Belief is sometimes all you have, your faith. I lost it once…
You think you know someone. Really know them. You think they’re in control of their thoughts, themselves. You give them the benefit of the doubt, believe that they will make the right choices that they’ll make you proud. Do they sense that? And when you’re trusting someone to lead you in the right direction… are those who lead more susceptible to the expectations of those who would follow? We’re not all cut out to lead. Some don’t choose to lead. It is thrust upon them and when the burden proves too much to bear, they wish it away like a dead limb, weighing heavier each day the wish is not granted.
I’ve often asked myself, in Joel’s defense, how might I have performed under the same circumstances? Would I cloak myself in a drug induced haze, would I become paranoid with power? Would I finally kill myself, knowing so many would suffer for my actions?
Is it any different than what the Reaper had done? To paraphrase Joel’s note, scribbled on stationary from his mother’s hardware store, found in his room, our room, on his childhood desk; “I know now that a single action can put in motion a series of repercussions. Should that action be positive, the repercussions are rewarding, but when that action is negative, so too are the events to follow. A single action can change you forever. Sometimes, if the deed is large enough, if the intent evil enough, the results can be disastrous.”
I heard it in my head as though he were speaking to me, whispering in my ear, and I wept. What irony is this? What sadness this implies, such a good man, tormented and turned. Could this happen to me? Time will tell. I will tell. And only then will I know.
The rains had returned. Connor was dead. Joel was holed up in his bedroom, and those of us remaining felt more victimized now than when the Reaper had unleashed his evil upon the world. The rain, a blessing to us, to the whole world, would take a backseat to our internal demons. Incapable of rejoicing in this miracle, we waited on Joel to emerge from his self-induced confinement.
“He’s in there,” I whispered to Earl as I paced just outside Joel’s bedroom door. “He’s quiet though. I’m really worried, Earl.” I picked at the skin peeling from my fingertips, the nails having been chewed to the quick long ago.
“Sara, let him be. Jesus, we’re barely an hour into Connor’s funeral. Imagine what’s going on in his head.” Earl could have been right; maybe he was just decompressing. But the look on his face, after what Gareth had done, after Connor had been shot… it was almost as devastating a sight as the execution itself.
I decided to knock on the door, lightly, so that he knew I was there. Earl shook his head in disapproval, but remained silent.
“Go away!” Joel shouted. I jumped. Such pain in his voice, such … regret. Earl threw his hands up and backed away from the door. “I’d let him be for a while, Sara. He’s obviously got to work through this on his own.”
“No one should have to work through this on their own, Earl. I’m worried about him.” My eyes flew back to the door as we heard first a thumping sound coming from within, then a murmur and another shout. “Not yet!” Joel repeated. My skin crawled and goose bumps overtook me.
Earl gently placed a hand on my shoulder and rubbed. I felt more anxious at his touch than comforted. I removed his hand and wiped away a tear. He smiled narrowly at me. I‘d never been able to read Earl. He was never my type: intelligent yes, but his intensity had always frightened me. His mind was like a runaway train.
“I have to get back to Sonny; just thought I’d see what’s what up here.” He turned to leave, but I stopped him.
“Earl, you’re not planning anything are you?” The idea that we might now go to war with the flags was not something I could stomach. Not so soon after losing Connor. Couldn’t we just bury our dead and mourn for a time? Earl shrugged and smirked as though there were little else to do. “Earl….” I trailed off as he went down the hall and into Skylab.
The flags (so-called because of the ominous flag they carried, declaring themselves an autonomous nation of survivors) had been a cruel interruption into an otherwise solid foundation built on the ashes of the past. We had survived a nuclear holocaust. We had built a life for ourselves, and then the flags showed up. Led by Gareth, a man possessed by the idea of weeding secret Reaper sympathizers from surviving groups like our own and executing them to further his twisted purpose, the flags posed a threat unlike anything we’d imagined. His group consisted of nearly sixty upon his arrival at our door, but after a third party attacked our house from the devastated woods, he was left with little more than twenty. We retook control of our home and our lives by ousting the flags, ordering them away, and relieving them of their weapons and morale, or so we thought.
But they had returned, executing Connor in front of us after they’d caught us unaware. A sympathizer, they called him – Connor, before they shot him in the head. A sympathizer to the Reaper’s ideals, as if anyone would claim such madness after the hell the Grimm Reaper had unleashed on us all.
Left alone to contemplate further what scheme Earl and Sonny were planning, my eyes fell again to Joel’s bedroom door. I pushed my hands against the frame and slowly lowered my head until my forehead gently rested against the door. My cheek made contact with the cool wood. Eyes closed, I listened for movement, a sound, something that would let me in. What horrors was he experiencing in there? “Let me in,” I whispered to the door.
A moment later, Caroline came up the stairs and took my hand. I resisted, hesitant to leave my vigil at the door. Her eyes were red and swollen. The sight of her made me break down. Caroline followed in turn. I pulled her close, and we hugged. And we cried.
Caroline finally released herself from our embrace and rubbed her eyes hard. “What, what do you think he’s doing in there Sara?” she asked.
“I wish I knew. I wish he’d let me in.” My arms crossed defensively as I looked back at the door.
“Is Joel going to be alright, you think?”
“I don’t know, Caroline.” I couldn’t hide my own inability to read him anymore. God, we had grown so far apart in such a short time. It felt like a microsecond. From ‘I love you’ to a break up, separate rooms and a blow out that sent him off to who knows where, in search of who knows what! “I don’t have those answers.”
“Should we get back to the others?”
Reluctantly, I agreed. Sucking in a deep breath, I pushed my fingers through her long, somewhat greasy blonde hair, as though tidying her up for an interview. When I reached the ends I carefully patted them down on her shoulders. “Okay, let’s go see what they’re doing.” Holding hands, we walked down the hall and into the addition, where the rest of the house now gathered.
We walked into a fierce speech, told in unwavering absolutes. Phrases like ‘we must’, and ‘how could we’ and ‘how dare they’. It was an impressive rant, not unlike many of the one-sided conversations he’d mastered in the past. No one could put together an argument like Earl, and in this, he was making his stand.
“This is not how this is going to end!” He pushed on, while a captive audience of our peers stood in silence. “This isn’t an ending. This is a new beginning. Gareth and his flags cannot be allowed to just walk off into the sunset.”
“What are you proposing, Earl?” I blurted out, angry he’d gone and done exactly what I had feared. The room held a distinct sense of immediacy. It permeated the air and made it hard to breathe.
“I propose we fight, Sara!” He glared at me, the devil in his eyes.
“Why would you want to pull us all back into this now, after having lost so much!” I studied the group, panning the room while their eyes betrayed them. A perfect moment to rally the troops perhaps – to offer them a solution. On the other hand, an excellent opportunity for someone to take control, to give the group a reason, purpose. Did Earl know what he was doing? Did he see what he was becoming?
“Whoa, Earl,” Caroline broke in. She was shaken and it resonated in her voice. “What are we talking about here? Running after the flags? Hunting them down? Two wrongs don’t make a right.” She was pleading to the group now. “Right? I don’t want to fight anymore. How could any of you want to fight anymore?”
“What else is there to do?” Sonny phrased it as more of a statement than a question.
“Rebuild,” I said. “Rebuild, regroup. Jesus, anything but get into another fight!”
“What if they come back?” added Kevin. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t much like Kevin. His allegiance would fall to anyone that took the initiative to lead. He was weak.
“Listen to me, Joel is still here, okay? He’s still our leader, by vote! It’s his call whether we send people to track down the flags, not yours.” I pointed at Earl.
“I’m allowed to have an opinion aren’t I, Sara? It may not be the same country anymore, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s still free.” He glared at me.
I readdressed the group. “All I’m saying is not to get caught up in Earl’s hype. We don’t need to throw away our lives. Connor wouldn’t want to be avenged.”
“Says you!” Earl may have respected Joel’s leadership, but he would not concede the point. “Connor was a good man and a good soldier. And he went to the grave for all of us! All he needed to do was say the word and we’d have all died that day in defiance. But he knew that, and he died for us!” He sat down on a stool by the west windows, exhausted. “And it’s eating me up inside…” His words were not falling on deaf ears. Freddy, Sonny and Kevin approached Earl and stood next to him.
Seth and Sidney did not move, positioned at the east wall, guns dangling from their uncertain grips. I approached Seth and knelt beside him. We exchanged looks. He was no more ready to go to war with the flags than I was. I recognized indecision in Sidney’s face. Admittedly, a small part of me cherished the idea of going to war with the flags. I was still reeling from the events that lead to Connor’s death.
I turned to watch as Kevin stood and stared out the west windows. The forest still resembled something from a children’s Halloween picture book. Stripped bare of their leaves, the trees stood as dark silhouettes against a grey-black background. It had been raining on and off since Joel had returned from the woods, after having left us at Connor’s graveside.
It was approaching 8:30 pm when I heard a door shut. Joel was moving. I rushed out of Skylab and across the hall. His bedroom door was open and the bathroom door now closed. I pressed my ear up against the door and listened. In my peripheral vision I could see the group gathered by the addition entrance.
There was a murmuring inside the bathroom, followed by a hard thump. Something broke. I jumped back. Looking for encouragement from the others, I slowly approached the bathroom door again. They were frozen in place, unable or perhaps unwilling to move.
I pressed my ear to the door and heard Joel inside rustling around. I knocked lightly and tried to speak but nothing made it past the lump in my throat. He was ignoring me. How long would this continue? How long could I let it continue? Seth was behind me, gently pulling me away from the door. I held up a restraining hand.
“I’ll be all right,” I smiled, although I felt like I was in a dream at that moment. My head swam with emotions and memories, making me dizzy. “I need to be alone right now.” Seth nodded and released his delicate grip. I walked into Joel’s bedroom and sat on the bed. A low rumble of thunder rolled through the clouds overhead.
I wanted to pray, but felt there was no longer anyone listening. My faith had been shaken by the return of the flags, and the devastation they left in their wake. I couldn’t bring myself to pray at Connor’s funeral. Should I have felt I’d let him down by foregoing a prayer? Will his soul not rest now? Crossing my heart I bowed my head in prayer. “Amen,” I muttered aloud after completing my appeal.
As I panned the room, I felt alienated and lonely. The foreign feeling I got from this place, where I first told Joel I loved him, where we shared so much of ourselves, hurt me deeply.
I stood and walked towards his desk, where three pages of stationary rested. The top page had been filled top to bottom with Joel’s handwriting. He’d never had a very attractive script. But this scrawl was especially hectic. This writing was done in haste, by a hand that wanted to write as much as possible as fast as possible and move on.
I sat down to read.
Rebirth, by Michael Poeltl