Sidewalks

Fallout Themed Short Story Written By Christian J. Ashliman

Sirens pierced the crisp, frigid air like the edge of a knife, spurring the surrounding birds from their nesting spots and jolting awake the world to a fresh, cloudless morning. Theo’s eyes darted open and he winced at the intense high-pitched sound. Another drill? That’s the third one this month and a lot of good they do anyways. Theo shook his head and wiped his face with his hand, letting out a sigh. It doesn’t matter anyways, none of it does. If, no, when the bombs drop, no cave will save you. No tomb, no shelter, no nook, no cranny, and most definitely no vault is gonna save you. 

He tilted his head to the side, and let out a sort of light chuckle at the idea of it. The false belief people had convinced themselves of. Their need to survive, to prosper, to continue with their “standard of living”. Their coveted items, their false idols, and most importantly, their warped ideals. It’ll all be gone soon enough. What has caused people to let themselves be so controlled? Enslaved to the practices and teachings of these political leaders to the point where they have put themselves into a situation they deserve. How blind have people become to the things that matter most in life? Where were the days of simplicity, peace and love? Where neighbors treated one another like brothers and strangers didn’t seem so… strange. Theo finished tying his beaten, torn-up shoe, and ran his fingers down the outside of the sneaker, over several holes that revealed soiled brown socks beneath. Stretching his legs, he stepped out onto the sidewalk with a subtle grunt, and began meandering his way into town. The warmth washed over Theo like a soft blanket, and he peered upwards toward to taller buildings of the city, looking beyond into the deep blue sky. All of this, all of it, how could it keep churning? How did the people find the purpose to return to their coffee shop jobs and their cubicle fortresses? What was the point? How could they maintain two core beliefs that were so contradictory to one another? Showing up for work on time, making the paycheck, feeding the wife and kids, taking the dog on a walk, hell, even going to the church on Sundays. All the while, predicting and believing in a future where all of that is obliterated. He kicked a pebble off the path and raised his eyebrows at the conundrum he had just mentally stumbled upon. The sirens racked the air once again, causing Theo to jump slightly at the sudden noise.

Up ahead, he could see a small group of people gathering around the outside of a television store, staring in through the glass. As he approached, he heard a woman in the crowd let out a gasp, while several others hung their jaws open in horror. Standing behind a shorter, fatter man, Theo gazed upon one of the fuzzy screens beyond the glass pane. The time in the corner of the screen displayed 9:32AM. “Confirmation… ,“ the reporters voice broke as he trailed off, clearing his throat, “Yes, that’s confirmation of multiple launches. Destination is yet unknown.” The reporter leaned off to the right side of the screen, reappearing with a tissue, wiping his eyes. “Destination is thought to be in or around the state of New York, as well as the D.C. metropolitan area.” At this news, the people of the crowd gathered around the window began screaming, shrieking, and running in every direction with a panic unlike Theo had ever seen. Leaping to the side with a quick dodge of the surprisingly agile fat man, he leaned against the glass in an attempt to hear the reporter further. With the shouts and wails of the now packed street behind him, Theo was only able to make out, “Seek shelter with Vault-Tec.” Even up until the end, he scoffed, they peddle their bullshit. Theo stepped back from the shop, and observed as several men crashed in the front window of a jewelry store across the street and climbed in, ignoring the blaring alarm that began sounding. Further down the block, he could see two women brawling each other over what seemed to be a case of food, ignoring their screaming children behind them, each one trying to pry the fingers of the other off the cardboard casing. It never ends. The consumerism, the blindness, and the neglect. If it doesn’t take the end of the world to cause some form of enlightenment among these people, then I don’t think what it takes is really out there.

Theo turned back towards the outskirts of town, and began slowly pacing himself down the road. He found himself more at peace than he had felt in years. What is it about me that causes the opposite reaction in the face of the future? Why do I feel this peace? He soured, and lamented at the revealing perspective of which he was viewing himself. There has to be something wrong with me. I don’t deserve this peace. People don’t walk through life awaiting their death with a party hat and a bouquet of balloons. They despise it’s thought. They torment themselves with the idea of their eventual death. They put themselves through pain, misery, and agony when their loved ones die. So why, then, do I feel this way now? Why do I walk towards my demise with a smile on my face and this newfound peace in my heart? Something must be wrong with me.

He rounded the bend leading to the massive freeway that funneled cars out of town. The sun was still hanging lower in the sky, and as he emerged around the edge of the giant Salisbury Steak corporate building, the light bathed Theo in it’s glow. It was a new day, a bright day, a good day for the last day on earth. A light breeze blew off of the ocean on the other side of the freeway, hosting an airy salty smell along with it. For a time, Theo did not pay any notice to the hustle of those around him. The cars, the horns, the screaming; all of it was in the background. He was a man with nowhere to go, no one to care for, no time card to punch, and no life, he thought, worth living. It was these seemingly bitter realizations that brought about his intense feelings of reconciliation. If he couldn’t go down any further, then it was here, at the end of the world, that he would finally be able to find accord with himself. He wasn’t always forced to sleep in the streets, there were times that were better, times that Theo had a place to call home, a loving wife to cook him dinner, and two loving kids that enlivened his day. Theo wouldn’t have called them simpler times; he still had his fair share of problems, they were just better problems. Dealing with his spontaneous alcoholism and anger issues was no petty bump in the road. Paired with his work injury at the Nuka-Cola bottling plant that left him with a faulty shoulder and three missing fingers on his right hand, times were definitely not simpler then. At the end of every day, Theo always had a wife and children waiting to adore him when he set foot inside that front door. They made it all worth it. Until the day all of that, the house, the car, the family, the job, all of it, was gone.

Theo snapped to. He was standing near a cement road block that had been shoved to the side near a guard rail overlooking the ocean. The waves sloshed back and forth against a thin line of sand fifteen feet out from the road. Looking out over the cityscape beyond the harbor, all that could be heard was the cries, crashes, and dread of the ensuing future. Theo glanced down at his old, scratched, hand-me-down watch which read 9:39AM. Rubbing off the lens with his matted sleeve, he hopped over the guard rail and sauntered down towards the sand line. I’ve spent every day thinking about how things could have been different. How things could have gone any other way for a better outcome. No matter how many times I add it up in my head, you’re all gone in the end. All three of you. Theo crouched down and set himself in the warmth of the sand, popping off his crusted out shoes, and pulling off his damp socks, tossing them aside. He dug his hand into the sand and lifted it back up, watching with glazed eyes as the particles tumbled through his fingers and back onto the beach. The restless pain, and the fear I have from that night will never leave me; but I can’t change what happened. Not now. A feeling of tranquility flooded over Theo, as he was brought back to the present of his situation. The bombs were falling, the world was ending, and here he was reminiscing about his past regrets. I have made it this far, haven’t I? Whats a few more minutes? Theo had become skilled at the art of talking his way through his emotional gymnastics. This wasn’t the result of a gifted talent, but rather, the practice of talking himself out of suicide on so many occasions. Waking up on the fourth morning of trying to literally drink himself to death, Theo decided then and there that, clearly, this wasn’t working, so he had better figure out how to confront his demons, rather than kneel to them. While he wasn’t always successful, in any manner, it was his effort that seemed to keep him chugging along.

Theo threw his head back and cackled at his past self. His memories of him five, ten years ago seemed warped, and conflicted. The choices he made, the people he surrounded himself with, all of it seemed so distant and foreign, like it was in another lifetime. The sirens sliced the air for a third time that morning, echoing off the water and drowning out into the ocean. Theo eyed his watch, reading 9:41AM. Something is wrong with me. The thought was nagging at the back of his mind still. How can that be? How can something be wrong with me? I have taken everything, and I lived through it all. If this is rock bottom, as they call it, then it doesn’t seem like such a bad place. A smile crept across Theo’s face, and he shifted his perspective.

Theo leaned back on the hot sand, and gazed up into the sky just as a small object could be seen soaring out of the clouds, leaving a thick white contrail in its wake. He immediately sat back up and jumped to his feet, using his good hand to block the sun as he peered up into the firmament. “The end of the world.” he muttered under his breath, with his jaw gaping in awe. The bomb contacted the surface near the center of the city across the bay and another glance at the watch read 9:42AM. The clouds rose and a colossal shock wave emitted out from the detonation site, and Theo was happy. Not for all of the death that had just occurred, and had yet to occur, but because he felt acceptance. Not from others, but from himself. He felt as though he had lifted a great weight off his chest, and while it may have taken the end of the world, maybe it was worth it.

The shock wave threw Theo back into the sand, pinning him there with unimaginable force. He let out a yell, only for it to be drowned out by the extreme gale that encapsulated him. He felt his skin start to roast and boil, and he grew weaker, laying his head down into the sand. In one last effort, he turned himself to view the immense cloud of destruction before him. Damn does New York look good in a mushroom cloud.

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