Before the Bomb

As I study her sitting half-undressed on my cot, I realize I recognize her from before the bomb. Or I think I do.

I think I recognize people all the time, as I stare into their faces on my walk to work. And then a couple of weeks ago in the rations line, this girl runs up to me and throws her arms around my neck. She exclaims that it’s her, my cousin, Jessica.

She rambles on about how lucky she is to have found someone she knew before, while I catalog every cousin I can recall and try to decide whether or not she’s one of them. Just as I’m beginning to convince myself that she belongs to me, she starts asking me about my mother, her beloved Aunt Ruth. I shove her away, realizing that she’s the crazy one. My memory may have gaps like craters, but I remember my own mom’s name.

Not that this woman in my room now seems particularly memorable. One could only consider her tiny eyes and low cheekbones attractive by the standards of a decimated population. She acted abrasive when she first caught me looking at her on the street, but after fourteen hours of work I expect that of any person, trudging back to the dormitories carrying sore muscles and a healthy coat of dust. Then she looked me up and down and smirked, and I began to consider taking her home, just for something to do.

Now she gazes out my window at the usual haze that falls upon the city before a storm. Her elbow rests upon her knee, her hand hanging limply in the air like she’s waiting for me to place a cigarette between her fingers. I have a vague flashback of the mannerism, maybe with painted black fingernails.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“They assigned me to Housing Section 17.” She takes a sip from the cup of water I handed her when she arrived. It’d felt charming, like she was coming over for a casual drink. I’ve always liked the idea of being an entertainer. But then I felt absurd, as I emptied the plastic jug I’d waited in line to fill at the government wells.

“No, I mean where did you live before the war?”

“Nowhere that’s there anymore.” She tosses her hair over her shoulder as she turns to me. She used to have short hair, I think, maybe dyed a darker brown. I try to recreate the image in my head without any context to cradle it.

“What did you do before? Did you have a job? Were you in school?” She looks close to my age. She could have been in one of my classes or run tech for one of the shows.

“Got anything to drink?”

“What?” I blink at her. I’m suddenly out of breath.

“Do you have any leftover booze rations?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I inhale. “Plenty, in my bin.”

She slides barefoot across the concrete floor. These boxes the recovery government houses us in are gray and harsh, but they keep the air cool when smog settles upon the city. Sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night, gripping the sides of my cot so tightly my palms sting, I lower myself onto the cold stone. I peel the sweaty sheet from my body and stare at the ceiling fan, which shuts off at night with the electricity. I feel myself sinking, and I lie there, remembering, until I fall asleep. I’m sliding along the ice, wobbling, the sweet and sour taste of wine in the back of my throat. Sophia holds her hands out to me. She giggles as I crash into her. Our friends run ahead. I try to straighten back up and slip again.

“I didn’t even want to go out tonight,” I groan, burying my face in her hair. My teeth chatter. “I-I haven’t eaten anything. I’m tired. I had rehearsal all day.”

“I know, I know, just one more house.” She pulls me to eye-level, her face illuminated by the streetlights.

“You’re so pretty,” I coo, cupping her cheeks. “But I hate these stupid houses people rent. They’re all old and moldy. Promise me that when we move to the city, we won’t live anywhere built before 1990.”

“Yes, with our student teacher and debut actress salaries, we will be very picky about our living situation. No mold and no cockroaches.”

“No cockroaches! I’m not living with anything that can survive an atomic bomb.”

“Hey. Not funny.” The smile drops from her face. Her eyes dart to the ground like they always do when she’s anxious.

“Come on.” I pull her closer. “Let’s go inside.”

This place, belonging to some classmate of Sophia’s, doesn’t smell like mold, but the skunky stench of weed clogs the room where fifteen or so people sit on faded furniture. I know most of them, from the tipsy comedian who always plays the fool when our school does Shakespeare to the pothead gym coach-to-be. Others I vaguely recognize, in the way I recognize everyone from our small-town college.

Except one girl, perched on one of the couches, I’ve never seen before in any of the houses Sophia and my theater friends make the rounds to on Friday and Saturday nights. She wears a tank top and ripped jeans, despite the fact that it’s January. She’s smirking and debating with the girl next to her in the teasing way tipsy people bait each other. Her elbow sits upon her knee. Her hand hangs in the air with the fingers splayed, like she’s about to beckon someone towards her. She looks up as I walk in. Her smile evaporates. She glares at me with an intensity that makes me lose my balance all over again.

“Hello everybody,” Sophia calls out to the room as she steadies me. Her gaze settles on the new girl. Her voice drops in pitch. “Hi, Nora.”

“Got anything to drink?” Nora says, standing up. Her voice is low and raspy. She turns to the host, a Senior Chemistry Teaching major, who gestures her into the kitchen. Sophia guides me over to the couch.

“You okay here?” She asks. I nod, my eyes struggling to focus through the smoke. An uneasy tension has settled upon my muscles, immobilizing me as Sophia smiles and strokes my hair. She disappears into the haze. My vision blurs. I lean back, tilting my head towards a cracked window, breathing in the cold air.

“I was an actress, before everything,” I explain as Nora rummages through my storage bin. It’s government issue, like the cot, so that one doesn’t toss their belongings around the room like an animal in a den. Because keeping one’s breakfast, underwear, and tampons all in one plastic container is much more civilized. She pulls out a bottle of whiskey, the half pint one receives with the rations once a week. It’s not enough booze to kill you, just enough so you don’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming because you thought you felt a tremor.

Nora guzzles the rest of her water and pours the whiskey into her cup. She holds the bottle out to me.

“I don’t drink, not since before the war, when I was an actress. I mean, I was trying to be an actress. I was a senior at this tiny artsy school in the middle of nowhere. You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s not there anymore.”

“’Course not.” She takes a swig directly off the bottle and winces. “You’re chatty.”

“Yeah, well I was an actress, so,” I shrug.

“Are you an alcoholic?”

Maybe she doesn’t recognize me. I’ve changed, especially since being assigned to the Reconstruction Teams. My once thin frame has grown solid and substantial with muscle. Dust clings to my hair even after showering, turning it from brown to gray. I have a three-inch scar across my forehead from when a piece of roof, actually an entire roof, fell on me during the later bombings. I dress in khakis, cotton t-shirts, and work boots, instead of the sweaters and dresses I used to wear. God, I miss dresses.

“No, I said I was­—”

“Yes, an actress. I know. Jesus. I’m asking if you’re an alcoholic. Is that why you don’t drink?”

“No, I’m not. I just don’t like whiskey, or vodka, or any of the hard shit they hand out.” I sit down on the cot. Rain is beginning to patter on the window above my head. I wish it opened, so I could let in the damp air. But I guess the government is worried people would jump. “I like wine. I miss wine.”

“Oh, so you’re too fancy for this.” She plops down next to me, taking another gulp.

“No. I mean the cheap kind. Boxed. White. Sweet. The wine you could drink like it was juice until you’re tipsy and it’s fun and you say or do something embarrassing. And then your girlfriend takes you home and sets you on your side and tucks you in and still loves you in the morning.”

“That’s a nice monologue.”

“Well, I said I was—” I look down at my hands. “Anyway, I don’t feel like drinking anymore.”

Nora stares down the neck of the bottle. She sighs. Her breath smells bitter.

“So, where’s your girlfriend now?”

“Not there anymore.”

We sit in silence. Outside, the rain grows heavier. I hear two people arguing on the street. At night I watch them wander, those that remain. Some of them clutch bottles. Some of them are just tired. Some are searching, gawking at the faces of everyone they pass, looking for someone important or maybe just someone familiar, someone they know they’re not going to see, but they want any reason not to go back to their empty boxes.Nora is crying. I should care. I used to cry every time I saw someone else cry. Sophia teased me for it, told me we couldn’t watch a tragic movie without her worrying I was traumatized. I used to think it made me a better actress, that mirroring.

I yank the whiskey from her grip and take a swig. The liquid burns my throat. I choke. Nora doesn’t react. I want to slap her. She keeps crying. I sit there, with my jaw clenched and my face turning hot. She heaves. I swallow another gulp.

“Hey, you alright?” The pothead leans toward me. I’m watching the fool make a move on our theater group’s leading man while I calculate how long Sophia’s been gone. My head hurts.

“I’m fine.”

“Waiting on your girlfriend?”

I frown and nod.

“How long you guys been together?”

“Two years.” The fool is floundering. He’s rambling, spilling his drink. The leading man has turned almost entirely away. “Hm.” He squints.

“What?” I sit up. The pothead slumps and sighs. I shake his shoulder. “What is it?”

I’m dehydrated. I’m paranoid. I have nothing to worry about, except the fact that I can’t breathe in this fucking house. Sophia needs to come back and take me home.

“Do you think we’re all going to die?” The pothead whispers, sinking farther into the couch. His eyes water. I’ve met him a couple of times before, sober. He’s a nice guy. Sophia thinks he’ll make a good teacher, if we all last that long. I shake my head and brush his bangs from his face.

“No, I just think you’re high.”

“But I saw it on Twitter.” His voice trembles. “And Reddit.”

“It was another false alarm.” Someone knocks over a glass and someone else laughs. I swear more people have entered the room. The temperature’s risen at least ten degrees. “The news said so.”

“But what if,” his words trail off. His head falls into my lap. I let it stay there and stroke his hair. I’m certain there are more people in here now. The host has turned up the music. She’s trying to get people to dance. I keep waiting for Sophia to emerge from the crowd. My hands are shaking. I can see the same nervous energy radiating through the other kids as they begin to sway. If it isn’t the news, then it’s something else. Their grades or their careers or their friends or their relationships. I’m struggling to decide if our generation is more strung out than any before, if we have more to carry, or if this is what 22 years old is supposed to feel like.

I wish I could find Sophia. I can’t feel sad for Nora. I can’t feel sad for anyone anymore. I only feel anger. Anger is what pulled me out of the rubble, into the reconstruction, or whatever this time is supposed to be. Anger steadies me as I stand on top of the scaffolding the government promises me will one day be a hospital or a school or a supermarket. They made promises before, about all I was supposed to have. At least, someone made all those promises that never ended up coming true. Maybe those promises weren’t true in the first place. I don’t quite remember now.

“Did you love her?” I ask. My fingers are beginning to ache from being clenched into fists. My nails dig into the skin. The room has grown dark as the storm clouds gather outside.

“It doesn’t matter,” she mumbles.

“Yes, it does.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Her words bounce off the concrete. She shrinks away from me. “All of that was before. It’s all gone now.”

“I’m here. It matters to me.” Now I’m crying. My head feels clogged. She doesn’t respond. I chuck the bottle across the room. It shatters against the wall.

Nora stands up. She’s hurrying to the door before I speak again.

“I keep trying to remember everything I’ve lost since the first bomb hit. I repeat what I can before I fall asleep at night; the house I grew up in with my mom and dad, the smelly old dog we had, the stupid holiday movies I used to watch with my sister, the exhaustion and excitement of opening night, the leftovers from the one Chinese restaurant in our college town. White wine. That tiny moldy apartment she and I were supposed to live in.“

She’s the end of my list. Every single time. She and everything we were supposed to have together. There’s a million things that I lost, things I’m still discovering every day. But she’s always the end. So please, just tell me.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.”

She reaches for the door. I fight to stand up. Pothead, I think his name is Nathan, watches me struggle for at least five minutes. But I’m up. I’m stumbling towards the crowd, ready to elbow through.

The room jolts, like two hands grab my face and jerk it back and forth. My legs give out. The lights flicker. My head bounces against the floor. People scream. The whole house has shaken. The world won’t stop spinning.

“Sophia!” I cry out.

She pushes her way through the panicked bodies. She runs to me, pulls me to my feet.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she says.“What happened?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” But we do. The whole room lays silent except for a soft whimpering. People grip each other, strangers and friends alike. The leading man cradles the fool, resting his chin upon the fool’s head. Nathan lies on the couch, holding himself. Sophia leads me to the stairs. I cling to her. She smells like vodka and citrus. She whispers, “Let’s go home. Let’s just go home.”

Nora stands in the doorway. Her eyes are red and puffy. She stares at Sophia, who won’t meet her gaze. I turn my face into Sophia’s neck.

“It’s okay. I’ll get you home.” She reaches for the doorknob. I stand up to watch her go. Suddenly, the room is illuminated. A crack shatters the air. The concrete shakes. The light bulb goes out. My knees hit the floor. Oh God, not again. It had been so long since the last one. I reach out and she is there. We smother each other. I bury my face in her neck. She smells like sweat, shampoo, and warmth. I feel her heart pounding.

“I thought it was over,” she whispers. “I thought it was done.”

“I keep waiting for the world to reset. If the past’s never going to come back, I just want time to be wiped clean.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She clings to my arms, fingertips pressing into the skin, like a person slipping on ice. She’d held me like that when we’d first laid down on my cot. She probably held Sophia the same way. I hold her and cry.

“Thunder,” I realize, after a moment of nothing but the rain drumming on the window. I let out a laugh, a sharp expulsion of air.  “It was just thunder.”

Slowly, Nora untangles herself from me and stands up. I let her slip away.

“I should get going,” she says, brushing the top of my hair. Her voice trembles, suddenly hopeful. “M-maybe we can see each other again, sometime?”

“Maybe.” I press all my strength into my palms and push myself off the ground. I straighten my back and face her. She looks shorter, crumbled, with her glassy eyes and tired face. I wonder how long her list is, where Sophia is on it, what she can and can’t remember of what she has lost. “If we run into each other again."

The door opens and closes. She’s gone. I’m dizzy. I inhale. I look down at the glass and amber liquid sprayed across the floor and the imprint of our bodies upon the cot. Streaks of rain wash the dust from my window. I sink back to the ground, press my cheek to the concrete. And remember.

Emma Schmidtke recently graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a bachelor's degree in English. In her fiction, she seeks to combine the universal uncertainties of new adulthood with the particular anxieties of the current social and political climate. In the future, she intends to pursue a MFA in Creative Writing, if anyone will have her. Her work has previously appeared online in Litro Magazine.

Follow Emma's work on her website and on Twitter.

Emma SchmidtkeNuclear War