This piece is from a FictionWar contest in January. Our protagonist has survived The End of The World and is struggling to play his role in upholding the new laws of the land.
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It’s been two years since The End of The World. Someone pushed a big red button and next thing you knew, everybody else was pushing their own big red buttons. Countries that we didn’t even know had big red buttons joined in on the self-inflicted near annihilation of the human race. Then came a civil war blasting us right back to preserves and pit toilets. Nothing’s been the same since. “It was a shit world anyway,” Mike would say.
Mike’s filling a water bottle for my trip. I can see the water pouring into the bottle, but I can’t hear it over the ringing in my ears. It’s been like that for me since The End.
“Look, man, I know it’s not pleasant, but you’ve got to do it. Golden Rule and all that,” he’s saying to me.
“I know, but does it have to be me?” I’d rather be on compost duty for a week in the summer than take on my task for today.
“You know how it works; family first. Do for do, tit for tat, even stevens.”
The Golden Rule is what passes for a judicial system these days. Do unto others what they’ve done unto you, or something like that. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only thing that maintains something resembling decorum around here. Basically, if someone steals your supplies, you get to take theirs. Someone eats more than their share, everyone gets a bite out of that person’s next meal.
Some idiot named Remy takes advantage of your sister, you do the same to his. Family gets first priority at dishing out justice when relevant. Like I said, nothing’s normal anymore.
“I know you ain’t into this,” Mike says, stuffing the water bottle into my pack, “but you gotta do it. If you don’t, the whole thing falls apart. People start questioning what they can get away with. People get mad at being punished for lesser crimes. He hurt your sister, man, you gotta git him back for it. Don’t worry, he knows it’s coming.”
I don’t like it, but I know Mike’s right. The scales must be balanced. I also know that, though Mike isn’t saying it, if I don’t do my part to uphold the Rule, my sister and I will get kicked out of camp. And we just can’t go at it alone again, especially in her current mental state. Despite the conditions, we were lucky to be here. The first year after The End had been so chaotic, only people who were physically and mentally strong, and truly lucky, were able to stay alive long enough to spend the second year forming communities. Everything from meeting basic needs to setting standards of behavior was nothing but shots in the dark, attempts at normalcy often derailed by someone surprised to find themselves in power after discovering a surplus of something needed. Food. Batteries. Guns.
The trail between our camp and Remy’s is well worn; we’ve been trading with them for a while, and they invite us to their parties when their fermenting berries are ripe enough to get everyone a little loose. It was at one of these parties last night that Remy got out of hand. Now I’m hiking the same trail my sister limped home on last night alone in the dark. My tinnitus squeals louder as I think about it, picturing her pained footsteps landing on the same leaves and twigs I’m stomping through now.
I let it fuel my anger. Hurt my sister, will ya? Let’s see how you like what I do to yours. It doesn’t come naturally, but I try. Fake it ‘til you make it, as they say.
The ringing is a steady siren in my head.
When I arrive at the other camp, people see me and turn away, avoiding eye contact. They know why I’m here, and won’t interfere. No one interferes with the Rule; they can’t afford to lose the security of belonging. Remy’s nowhere in sight; probably still sleeping off his hangover.
I find his sister among a group of women skinning rabbits. Her eyes, large, brown, and sad, rise to my face, her nod nearly imperceptible before she stands, and goes to wash her hands. I wait patiently.
“This way,” she says to me on her way back, drying her hands on her threadbare clothing. I follow her into the old farmhouse they use for storage and shelter. The quiet of the house amplifies the whine in my head.
“You’re here because of what Remy did,” she says calmly, no trace of resistance in her voice.
“Yes,” I say, relieved that she understands. This can be quick and easy.
“I know what you have to do. I know you have to make it right, but can I ask you a question first?”
She’s so accommodating, I concede. “Of course.”
“Why punish me, and not Remy?”
I need a moment to process what she’s asked, and even then, I’m not sure I’m understanding her right. I twist my index fingers into, then out of, my ears. “What?”
“I didn’t hurt your sister; Remy did. He should suffer, not me.”
“And he will. He’ll know that this is his fault.” The chaos in my ears shrieks.
“But I’ll suffer, too, even though I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Take it up with your brother. He brought this on you.”
“And so will you,” I barely hear her – her voice a muffled whisper behind the siren.
“I have to,” I explain. It’s not my fault. It’s just the way things are.
I picture Remy’s face, and what he did last night.
“Yes, I do,” I say, mustering surety. I look at Remy’s sister, and remember her name. Terry. She’d been kind to me and my sister when we were still settling in with the community. She gave us some clothes, with no expectations. Now here we are. Something is wrong.
The ringing in my ears fades, then suddenly is gone. I make the connection. A perfect moment of clarity bubbles to the surface of this sewage water puddle of a reality and suddenly, I can hear again. I can see again. The Golden Rule is wrong. Of course it is. We were, we are, better than this. It had been a shit world, but we had been better people within it. This is the first thing that’s made sense since The End. For the first time in two years of confusion and survival, I am finally sure about one thing: Terry is right.
With the ringing gone, I’m hearing sounds I couldn’t hear just moments ago. Water splashing at the wash bowl, a baby crying in the distance, the sudden, deafening click of a gun cocking a foot away from my face. I return my attention to Terry, my heart racing. There’s a coldness in her eyes I hadn’t seen before. She’s right to be doing this, I know that now. In the old world, she would have been a hero. She is a hero.
“Terry, wait!” I raise my hands, “They’ll kill you for this. Golden Rule!”
“Fuck the Rule,” she says, and pulls the trigger.
Terry moves quickly around the body; there’s no time to linger on what she’d just done, or whether she’d regret it later. Remy and most of the men were still asleep. With a little bit of luck, there was still time for her and the other women to put their plan into action.