CAN YOU BELIEVE THERE ARE ONLY FIVE DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS? ME EITHER. Today the fantastical J. Elizabeth Hill begins the Christmas apocalypse. If you don’t know her, freaking follow her on Twitter. She’s ace, and so is this…
by J. Elizabeth Hill
I look around the yard outside the door leading down to our underground shelter, then down the road that leads to our town. The sky is grey overhead, the same shade as the ground. Snow mixes with ash as both fall, robbing the world of color. No one’s sure if the volcanoes have stopped. The radios stopped working a couple of days ago, so we haven’t had any news.
That’s bad, but even at twelve, I can tell things are getting worse. There’s almost no food left and now my brother’s disappeared. I have to find him before they shut the door for the night. Once that happens, no one will open it until morning, no matter what. They won’t even check who’s knocking, because it might be the others, those we turned away because there wasn’t enough room or supplies in the shelter. Ben, one of the grown ups, was talking the other day about how many they’ve refused to let in in the past week. He said if the others organized, they’d overrun us, but there’s no sign of them doing that. He called it a small mercy.
I understand why they can’t let everyone in, but I wonder if my parents were turned away, or if they’re just gone. I hope they’re at least out there and okay, but I don’t know anymore. I haven’t seen them for so long, not since before the sirens went off.
I look around again, trying to think if there’s anywhere downstairs I didn’t look, but I don’t think so. I’m almost certain he left and if he did, I know why. Last night, one of the grown ups had mentioned it was Christmas Eve as we were collecting our small ration of beans. Liam had brightened up for a moment, but then he’d asked how Santa was going to get to us without a fireplace. The shelter has an old furnace, enough to keep us from freezing, but Liam was certain it wouldn’t work for Santa. I don’t have the heart to tell my six-year old brother there’s no such thing. I’ve overheard some of the grown ups talking about how this might be the end of the world, depending on how bad the volcanoes are and how many have gone off now. How can I take Santa away from the kid?
The snowy ash is falling again, so it’s hard to pick anything out in the yard. Then I see it, a smaller shape than the other footprints, then another one a foot or so away from it. Footprints. And they’re the right size. I swear, then look behind me at Tom and Nick. Either they didn’t hear me or they don’t care if some kid who’s a stranger to them swears.
I take a step to follow my brother’s trail, but Tom calls after me.
“You shouldn’t go off, Matthew. It’ll get dark soon. You know what that means.”
I nod to show I heard him, but I go anyway. I’m all Liam has, and I have to find him. I can’t let anything happen to him.
Walking down the road in the dim light, my eyes never stop searching. I listen for any sound that shouldn’t be there. Only I don’t really know what our town should sound like when everything’s this messed up, so I jump at every sound, even my own coughing from the ash in the air.
The end of the road comes into sight and with it the rest of the town. It’s not much, really. Dad called it a wide place in the road, but he always smiled when he said it. Mom said it was a great place to raise a family. To me, it was the most boring place on Earth. Or at least it had been before the closest volcano had gone off.
I stop where the shelter road and Atterly Road meet. Atterly’s the major road in Vernon. Practically everything in town leads to it. From where I stand, I can just see the mouth of Tomkin, our street.
I’ve lost the tracks I’m sure were Liam’s. There are too many others around here, proof that there are still people around town. What if Liam’s been taken by one of them? Would they try to use him to get in the shelter?
The crash of glass nearby interrupts my thoughts. I see a chair lying in the street in front of David’s, the local diner. Someone’s tossed it out through the now broken front window. I hide behind a large tree, peaking around the trunk. I can’t let anyone sneak up on me and I need to know what’s going on.
I see two guys come out through the busted down door of David’s, each with a large sack slung over their shoulders. Both have cloths over their mouths, but they’re coughing a anyway, worse even than the grown ups who take turns at the door of the shelter. The two men talk for a few minutes, though I can’t hear what they’re saying. I think they’re arguing though. One shoves the other, but then they go off together. Grown ups never make much sense.
I wait as long as I dare before darting out to check that the two guys are out of sight. They are, and I breathe a sigh of relief. The street is empty.
Standing there at the corner, I try to decide what to do. Where do I even begin to look for my brother? My eyes are drawn again to Tomkin. I can see Mr. Smith’s house just a bit down the street, the porch columns wrapped in broad red and green ribbons. Our house is just three away from his. It’s not that far. I should be able to make it without anyone seeing me. I know I have to try.
I move as quickly as I can down Atterly, then turn onto Tomkin. As I pass Mr. Smith’s, I smell something familiar and look up to see smoke trailing from the chimney. I don’t stop or even think of going inside, though Mr. Smith’s always been nice to us. Maybe if Liam’s not at our house, I’ll try there.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that’s where Liam’s gone. Last year, he discovered where Mom and Dad always hide our presents. He came running to me about it, as if he thought I didn’t know already. He might be after those, instead of looking for Santa.
I’m only one house away from ours when I hear a shout back down near Atterly. I leap over the hedge that borders the Richards’ yard without turning to see who it is. My back hits the ground and for a moment, the breath is knocked out of me. I hear running feet approaching and I know I have to move. If they saw me, they also saw me jump the hedge. I roll onto my hands and knees, the cold, crusted snow biting into my palms and fingers. Crawling toward the fake well, my chest is on fire the whole way. The moment I’m behind it I draw my knees to my chest and drop my head, trying to make myself small enough that whoever it is won’t see me.
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t one of ours. Do you think they opened the door at last?”
The voice is so close that I flinch. She’s got to be standing right where I went over. I pray she won’t see the trail I probably left in the icy, ash-laced snow.
“Probably. Can’t hide in there forever,” a male voice says.
I swear silently, using words Mom would yell at me just for knowing. Two of them, and both sounded like grown ups. I can’t possibly outrun them and the light is fading at an alarming rate. Even if I find Liam at our house and he comes with me willingly, I’m not sure we can make it back in time. The idea makes my stomach clench and my heart race, but I don’t have time for it.
“You think they’ve got any more supplies than we do?”
After a pause, the woman says, “I don’t know, Brad. Maybe. I mean, it’s the emergency shelter, but they built it during World War II. And that mountain went off before the scientists thought it would, and way worse. I’m not sure the supplies in there are any good. It’s possible we’re doing better out here than they are in there.”
She’s only partly right. They’d added to the canned food and other stuff, but the new ones were long gone. Now all we had were old cans of beans and corned beef, things like that. And every third or fourth one we opened was off. The grown ups were worried about it, but I was too busy worrying about trying to take care of Liam.
“Look, I’m not keen on waiting around here. I know you’re worried about some kid wandering around, especially with that bunch that blew through here yesterday destroying stuff, but we’re going to be in danger soon too. We need to get back to the house before dark.”
Brad sounds as anxious as I feel and I will them to give in to that. I need them to go away. I can’t possibly get anywhere without them seeing me, not if they’re standing there looking for me.
“But we can’t let a kid–”
“If the kid’s hiding, we’re probably not going to find them, not before we have to get back. Even if we do, whoever it is will probably be too afraid of us to let us help. Tara, be reasonable.”
After a long silence, Tara says, “All right. We’ll stop in to check on Greg though, and while we’re there, we’ll ask him to keep an eye out for anyone coming down this street.”
I hear them walk away after a moment, but I don’t move right away. They sounded so nice, like they were really worried. Were the others at the shelter wrong about those we’d locked out? What if they wouldn’t take everything, as I’d been told?
I shake my head and concentrate on listening for them or anyone else. I can’t afford to think about anything but finding Liam and getting us back to the shelter. It takes me a while to be sure I don’t hear anything. I peek around the fake well and no one’s there. I make myself wait for another moment, then run across the Richards’ yard, trying to stay low to the ground. I hop the low wood fence and land in my front yard.
It’s the first time I’ve seen the place since we evacuated to the shelter. Dirty snow lies everywhere, grey crusting the top. Our windows are coated with the stuff to the point that I can’t see in them. Mom would be pissed if she saw this. If she’s still alive. I’m starting to doubt that, though I keep putting on a brave face for Liam when he asks about them.
On the walkway, I see what I was hoping for. Footprints, though they’re barely visible under the fresh snow. But it’s not exactly what I wanted to see. Liam’s small ones are there, but so are larger ones. I can’t tell which are older and which are newer. Did someone follow my little brother back to our house? Is Liam even still here?
I can’t go in the front door. For one thing, anyone might be watching. I don’t know who’s out there. But that’s okay. I know another way in, if it isn’t locked.
I run along the side of the house toward the back, looking everywhere for watchers as I go. Suddenly I fall to the snow, my palms stinging as I try to catch myself. My feet are tangled in something. I look back, first to see if anyone’s there and coming for me, then to see what I tripped on.
It’s a belt, one I know well. It’s his favorite after all.
I glance around but there’s no sign of Liam or any more of his clothes. I’d check for any remaining signs of what happened, but I’m sure there won’t be anything left after all the flailing I did on the way down. I grab the belt and scramble back to my feet, running for the small window beside the deck, just above the ground.
Mom was forever telling us to leave all the windows of the house locked. Every time she found one unlocked, she fixed that. And I would come along behind her every time to unlock this one. It wasn’t an act of defiance. I just liked to go out and skateboard in the park at night. It was quiet and the stupid, cool people from school weren’t around to give me a hard time. The question now was whether Mom had discovered it unlocked before she and Dad left that last time.
I slide my fingers around the frame until I find the end of the fishing line. I tug lightly and the latch moves. The window opens a little. I pry it the rest of the way open, then look in the basement. Nothing’s out of place there. Along one wall, I see the boxes of seasonal stuff Mom keeps. Kept.
Rather than think about this, I climb through the window and drop to the floor. The sound of the window closing behind me is loud in the silence, but I know from experience it’s not even loud enough to be heard in the living room above me.
I make for the stairs and head up, skipping over all the places where they squeak and creak. At the top, I crack the door open and peer around. When I don’t see anyone, I open it all the way.
There’s dust and not much else. No one’s in sight, and I hear nothing. I don’t see any footprints in the dust here, but it’s the back end of the house, so I didn’t really expect to. As I make my way up the hall, I’m amazed at the way the floor is coated. I look back at my footprints, clearly visible. Mom would have a fit. It’s got to be the ash in the air causing this.
The front hall finally gives me some sign that my brother’s at least been here. His footprints are there, going to and from the door, but I don’t let it discourage me. All the footprints actually stop in front of the narrow glass panel beside the door and I can see smaller, grey handprints on the white curtain there.
I follow the tracks up the stairs and, to my surprise, most of them lead to our parents’ bedroom, not his. When I get to the door, I hesitate. I haven’t seen any sign of a grown up here in the house, so he’s probably alone, but what if he’s not? I know I’m letting fear take hold. I can’t afford to, not if we’re going to make it back to the shelter, but I can’t stop it.
I open the door and just about laugh with relief. There’s Liam, sitting in the middle of the bed with Dad’s box of mementos. It’s always been my little brother’s favorite thing and no matter how many times Dad tells him not to play with the stuff in that book-sized box, Liam goes straight for it every time he can. Only usually he’s got it spread everywhere, and this time he’s just holding it in his lap as he stares at me. There’s a bruise on his forehead, but he looks okay other than that. Except his eyes are wider than I’ve ever seen them. If he wasn’t smiling, I’d be more worried than I already am.
“I knew you’d come, Matty.”
Ugh. The nickname I hate the most. It took me forever to teach him not to call me that around anyone, not even Mom and Dad. Still, I’m so happy to see him I don’t really care this time. I cross to the foot of the bed.
“You can’t run off like that. We have to get back.” I try to hold off the scolding tone, but I’m failing. “What were you thinking?”
“I had to drop my letter to Santa off.”
I stare at him. “There’s no mail pick up anymore, Liam.”
“But Santa’s magic. He gets the letter the moment you drop it in the box.”
“Who told you that?”
He rolls his eyes at me. “Everyone knows it. All the kids at school were talking about it, how we shouldn’t let our parents take our letters, because they don’t need to.”
I decide not to argue with him. “Come on. We’ll talk about it when we get back to the shelter.”
“No! We can’t go now, Matty.”
Glancing at the window, I try to judge the time. It’s hard, with the windows so grimy and the sky always grey, but I’m sure the light is slipping away faster than ever. “There’s no time to argue. We have to go now. If we run, we can probably make it back in time.”
I reach for his arm, but he scoots back on the bed, all the way to the pillows.
“You’re not listening!”
Trying not to sigh or yell, I say, “Then tell me.”
“We have to wait here because Christmas isn’t over yet and Santa might still bring them.”
I can’t believe what he’s asking. He knows it’s dangerous outside the shelter. He’s been told that by everyone, yet he wants us to stay out here. “What did you ask for that’s so important?”
He looks down at the box and chews his lip, telling me I haven’t masked my irritation as much as I’d hoped to. His reply is too quiet for me to make out, even in the otherwise silent room.
“What was that, Liam?” I ask in the kindest voice I can manage while every instinct is screaming at me to just grab him and drag him back.
“Mom and Dad.”
I can only stare at him. Suddenly I wish I’d told him the truth, that Santa’s a myth. Instead, I’m stuck with this line of crap. “I don’t think he does that sort of thing.”
“But he has to. When I wrote my letter, I told him he had to bring them home, because then you’d smile again.”
His eyes are shining now in the dim light. “You never smile anymore, and you don’t play. You’re not fun. You act like everything’s fine but it’s not. You’re sad all the time and you’re getting all grown up and I hate it, Matty. I want my brother back!”
I feel like someone punched me in the gut. Have I really been like that? The more I think about all the extra stuff I’ve been doing, trying to show we can pull our weight around the shelter, the worse I feel.
“Please, we have to stay until the day’s over. There’s food in the pantry. Remember? We didn’t take it with us. We can have a dinner that’s not beans. Our Christmas feast. Please, Matty?”
I look into his eyes and sit on the edge of the bed. I don’t have the heart to tell him what I really think will happen, anymore than I can bear to tell him Santa’s not real. Besides, I want to believe with him. I want to wake up in the morning and find our parents have come home. It’s a stupid idea after so many days, but I hope for it all the same.
With a heavy sigh, I nod and Liam throws his arms around me in the most crushing hug his little body can manage. When his grip finally eases, I grab the blanket from the end of the bed and wrap it around him. Darkness is falling anyway, so it’s too late to get back tonight. “We’ll stay until morning, then go back.”
“We’ll take Mom and Dad with us.”
He grins at me and my throat closes up for a second. I pull the comforter around us. At least he’ll still have me in the morning, and I swear to myself I’ll do better at being his brother. He deserves that much, since he can’t have his Christmas wish.