Three kids try to find sanctuary in a post-holocaust world.
| I feel the need to explain a bit about the story.
In 1969, a British rock band called the Who made music history by recording the very first rock opera. The storyline told the tale of a blind and deaf pinball whiz kid named Tommy. The Who tried to follow up the success of “Tommy” with another opera entitled “Lighthouse”, but the project was mostly scrapped. The song “Baba O’Riley”, sung from the point of view of a Scottish farmer taking his wife Sally and kids to London, was one of the songs already recorded for the album, and released on another.
It is a song I grew up listening to, since I didn’t learn until age five that 1987 had in fact passed and all I’d heard to that point was church music and rock. I was listening to it last year, when suddenly I was struck with an idea so clear and so strange that I was floored by the sheer lucidity of it: a world where nuclear war had ravaged the adult population to extinction, and three kids arose like beacons of reason in the dark chaos and began an odyssey to the last sane place on Earth.
Dedicated to Justin Zarantonello
“Out here in the Fields,
I fight for my meals.
I put my back into my livin’.
I don’t need to fight
To prove I’m right
I don’t need to be forgiven.
Don’t raise your eye…
It’s only Teenage Wasteland…”
It’s been a long time since the Grown Ones started the War. No one remembers why. There are a few who say it started because of the strange Black Blood that comes from the ground. Others say the Terror Ones caused the war by bringing down the Great Towers of the City of Gew Nork, or that it began with the invasion of Eye Rack.
But, like I said, no one really remembers. Not many of us were alive. Those of us who were lost everyone close to them.
But the ones who did die in the War were the lucky ones.
After the Grown Ones started the War, they sent the Mushroom Destroyers. Cities vanished, riots broke out, more and more people got sick and died.
Then the Great Ghost waved his hand over the land. The Grown Ones disappeared. No one saw them again.
We live in the Fields, now. When one of us gets too old, the kids around them ignore them or throw things at them until they go, probably towards Taxerkeena, the last city in all the land.
Until we go to the City, we fight for every meal, every shelter, every little possession. I hate it.
I can’t wait to go back to the City.
Baba put the book down. It was amazing that he could still write. Many that watched him walk away from Taxerkeena’s walls said that the shock of the world beyond was so great he would be driven to the point of madness within the first year or two. Yet here he was, perfectly healthy, sane, even capable of literacy.
Thinking back, he was unclear on the specific details of the City. He could only recall vague images of the tall buildings, wide black streets, the wall that kept surrounding tribes and drifters out for good rising high above his small head.
They were all memories, now. The policy of kids in the City was to throw any babies they have outside the wall. Somehow, the babies vanished.
Baba wasn’t thrown out immediately. But no one found out about him until he was almost five. Until then, he’d been cared for by an older girl (old enough anyway to have walked into the City legitimately) who seemed to be attached to him for a reason he could never figure out. She cried when he was found, and as they tossed him over the wall, into the pure hell that lie outside, she screamed with futile protests until someone knocked her in the head with force enough to black out a bull.
The City itself, while unfair, represented a more secure environment. Throwing the babies out seemed a logical explanation, since the world had deteriorated so much under the rule of younger kids. Inside its walls was some of the safety, stability, and comfort of the world before the War, and the kids within wanted to keep it that way. Without were the pain, misery, and insanity that resided in the world of children.
Baba looked around at his measly world. The Fields were a melancholy wasteland of mud and grass. Small rodents and animals lived where the grass was high. A few of the younger kids had dogs that followed them around.
This wasn’t like the Canyons and Mountains to the west, or the Ruins to the east. Baba knew of these places. They were full of the Tribes and Gangs. They had their own privative societies, and the Tribe Wars often swept through the puny settlements like wildfire, but at least it wasn’t like the Fields. The Fields were a place where the kids killed over insignificant things.
He’d once seen a young boy, about seven or eight, killed over a stick. Baba still woke up crying from nightmares where he relived that horrible day. The poor kid was rather small, with blonde hair and cheerful brown eyes. His name was Felix. Baba found him after he’d wandered from Juji, the most illustrious of the City’s outcasts. He was bright, intelligent, even funny in a way that was entirely his own. These and others were the reasons why Baba attached himself to Felix. Any bad thing that happened to him, and they happened quite often, Baba saw as a failure on his part.
Baba hadn’t been able to warn him about the Apple Tree yet. But by the time Baba realized this it was too late. Before he could stop him Felix had wandered into the shade under the Tree and picked up a small twig from the ground.
Ten savage children dropped out of the Tree and tore him apart with their teeth. Baba watched helplessly. When the kids ascended the Tree again, all that remained of Felix was bone fragments and a few strands of blonde hair.
Baba rose from his spot near the dried creek bed. He wore old blue jeans, riddled in holes and rips and held up by a ragged brown belt, ancient-looking black shoes with a star on the side, and a blue t-shirt that was in about the same shape as his jeans. An old scar in his side, shaped like a crude pictograph from a forgotten civilization, peeked out through a gaping triangular hole in the blue cloth.
Baba scanned the horizon. His inquisitive green eyes flashed with intelligence, suspicion, and a sort of kind light underneath his unhappy appearance. His dirty auburn hair wafted slowly in the breeze. His skin was brown from the dirt and seemingly-eternal tan that resulted from spending all his time in the sun.
No kids hung out at the old creek bed. Snakes crawled through it like it was a highway. Kids hung out mostly scattered through the fields. Only the most savage lived in the Apple Tree on the banks of the Woods River. A handful of kids lived along the old road that led south. They jumped out whenever some poor, unsuspecting fellow came strolling along. There was no guarantee how the injured party was going to be after the attack.
Out in the Fields, these and many like them were the closest you would come to any sort of organized group. And even then kids treated each other like animals.
Baba started walking to the Woods. It was time for washing.
Sally walked through the Woods silently. Her faded red dress billowed around her. Her black hair gleamed dully in the streaks of light that came through the trees.
She too had lived in the Fields far too long. She was born in the Canyons to the far west. Wherever she went kids judged her by the light brown color of her skin. Once a kid had tried to hit her eye with a rock because the colored part was black.
Sally liked the Woods. No kids lived there. They stayed away for superstitious reasons. Deep inside was a place where gray stones stuck out of the ground, each one covered in strange symbols. Two structures of red stone stood in the middle, long ago broken into. Five skeletons lay strewn by the doors to the buildings.
The silence in the Woods reminded her of the Canyons for some odd reason. It was a tranquil place, full of peace, much unlike the Fields just outside.
The trees suddenly stopped at the banks of Woods River. She let out a small sound when she saw what was in the water.
A boy about her age was sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, wearing only blue jeans and black shoes. He appeared to be washing a blue cloth. His reddish hair was so dirty it looked dark brown in some places. Wet splotches on his skin gleamed several shades lighter that the rest of him.
Sally guessed that the feral boy’s hearing was rather acute, from the way his head snapped up. He grabbed a heavy rock with one powerful hand and raised it above him in defense. Sally jumped involuntarily.
The boy and Sally locked eyes for Ghost knows how long. When Sally spoke, the boy lowered his weapon.
“Who are you?” Sally asked nervously. “What are you doing here?”
He didn’t answer. He just kept staring. Sally was about to run the other way when he said, “My name’s Baba O’Riley. I’m washing my clothes. Who are you?”
“Sally Daltrey. I live here.”
Baba nodded slowly. “I won’t hurt you. Unless you try to hurt me.”
Sally stepped into the water and sat on a rock nearby. “You don’t have to worry about me. I don’t bite. Or stab. Or scratch-”
“I get it.” Baba replied. He resumed his chore.
“Why do you come here to wash your clothes?” Sally asked, wading out into the water. “The river goes out into the Fields.”
“I don’t want them stolen. You can only get clothes when you kill somebody on the road for them. And nobody even comes along very often even if I wanted to.”
Sally shrugged. “I wouldn’t know about that. I make my clothes.”
Baba seemed intrigued at this concept, but instead asked, “Why do you live here?” Baba asked.
“It’s peaceful. The kids Out There try to kill me ‘cause I’m dark-skinned.”
Baba shook his head in disgust. “Where are you from?”
“A huge canyon in the west. It’s at least a mile deep. The kids there called it the Grand Canyon.”
“Why did you leave?”
“There was a boy there. He was my best friend. One day a kid killed him over some beans.”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t stay there anymore. I went east trying to find a new place.”
“Then why, in Ghost’s name, did you stop here?”
Sally shrugged. “I guess I was tired of running. And the kids on the road are crazy.”
“Where are you from?” she asked.
Sally’s jaw dropped. “The Last City? Really?”
Baba nodded. “Lived there for the first five years of my life. Got thrown out for being too young.”
“Jeez! That’s horrible!”
“Not as bad as the way kids act in the Fields. That’s why I want to go back.”
“But aren’t you too young? I thought they only let boys in who had facial hair.”
Baba shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’ll find a way in.”
“When are you going?”
“Soon. When it feels right.”
He stood up and reached for his belt buckle, but stopped.
“Uh…” He let out a sigh. “Boy, this is awkward…”
“What?” she asked.
“I, uh…I gotta wash my pants.”
Sally blushed furiously. “Oh!”
She jumped up and splashed back out of the river. “I, uh… I guess I’ll see you later, then?”
“Sure.” Baba replied, smiling. Sally nodded and left. She felt something flutter inside that hadn’t moved in forever.
That was the last time they talked about the City for a long time.
Two weeks passed. Baba came back into the Woods often, and Sally met him at the River. They would talk for hours before Baba remembered that he had to remove his pants so he could wash them properly. After the first few days he started coming into the Woods when he didn’t need to wash. It was a while before he realized why.
Baba was writing one day in the Creek Bed, venting all of his anger at the utter futility of the world in which he lived when one of the little kids from the Apple Tree jumped down right in front of him. His eyes were bloodshot and furious. The tendons in his neck stood out dangerously as he let out his initial roar. Leaves and dried mud stuck in his hair. He had no clothes, just various spots where his skin was stained with sap and blood. The little monster couldn’t have been older than eleven or twelve.
The boy hissed at Baba menacingly. Baba didn’t respond. He just stared the kid straight in his eyes with a blank, expressionless face. He knew that drove the Tree Climbers absolutely insane, but that didn’t mean he cared. They had, after all, killed Felix.
Still, and his mind registered this thought with odd disquiet, Tree Climbers didn’t venture this far from the Tree.
The kid screeched. Baba didn’t blink. The kid slapped the ground beside his legs. Not so much as a flinch. The boy started thrashing about, pounding his chest with his fists, running around frantically like a drunken maniac.
And yet Baba stared. Tears fell from the kid’s eyes. He slowly crawled away.
“Kid!” Baba yelled. The boy whipped around. Baba threw him a bunch of grapes from the Woods. The kid sniffed them suspiciously.
“They’re not poisoned.” Baba said emotionlessly. “Eat them.”
The kid seemed to understand him. Not in any response he gave, just the brief flash of idiotic comprehension in his eyes. He picked one of the grapes and shoved it in carefully.
A joyful smile stretched across his face. He hooted to Baba, as if in thanks, and scurried away as quickly as he came.
Baba noticed a bleeding slash on the kid’s back. He began to wonder again why the kid was on the ground. A fight, he told himself, but over what? He decided quickly that it didn’t matter.
The boy came at least twice a week after that day. Baba eventually named him.
“You’ll be Goblin, alright?” Baba said as the boy happily munched on grapes beside him. He grunted quickly before he gobbled another grape. Baba chuckled and resumed writing.
In his hurry to eat as many grapes as he could manage, Goblin bit his finger. Before he could express his anger in his own primal way, he realized all he held now was a bare twig.
Goblin nudged Baba, shoving the stem at him and whimpering. Baba debated with himself briefly, then moaned.
“Alright, but don’t do this again.”
Goblin grinned at him. Baba sighed. Sally wasn’t going to like this.
The boy crawled by his side like a monkey into the Woods, to the Vineyard where the grapes grew. Goblin contently ran along the bushes, picking and eating and laughing.
Sally popped out from behind a bush. A small scream escaped her. At this sound, Goblin hissed at her menacingly.
Baba jumped on top of Goblin before he could pounce.
“No Goblin!” he shouted over the roars and hissing. Below him the tiny beast struggled to take out her eyes. “No! Bad! She’s a nice girl! STOP IT!”
Goblin stopped struggling. Sally watched him in disgust.
“Follow me, Baba. Bring……him!” she spat. She stomped off down the path.
She led them to a clearing almost half a mile into the Woods, not far from the Place of Skulls. She had built a shelter out of the cave here. A loom was leaned against a tree. A huge tree stump in the middle of the clearing was drowning in sewing supplies.
Sally picked up a measuring tape and wrapped it around Goblin’s chest. He squealed a little.
“It’s okay.” Baba said. “She won’t hurt you.”
Goblin whimpered a little, but didn’t attack. Sally measured his shoulders next, then his waist.
Baba raised his eyebrow. He couldn’t read her intentions. When she picked up a needle and started threading it, Goblin climbed on top of Baba.
“Go give him a bath.” she said. With nothing else to say she went into the cave.
Baba shrugged. Maybe it was okay after all.
“Come on, Goblin. Let’s go for a swim.”
The miniature savage looked down at him quizzically.
As they approached the River, Goblin seemed to catch wind of a smell he didn’t like. As Baba removed his shirt, his eyes flashed with that dangerously feral light he had before Baba fed him grapes.
The trees stopped at the banks of the River. Goblin screamed and climbed up to the top of Baba’s head. His trills echoed through the trees.
“Oh, come on, you big baby!” Baba groaned. As he stepped out into the water, Goblin started to panic. Baba put his hands on top of him so he couldn’t jump.
They walked like this until they were in the middle of the River, where the water was to Baba’s shoulders.
“Ready, Goblin?” Baba called playfully. Goblin shrieked one last time before Baba dunked down.
Goblin started screaming underwater. Baba lifted him up before he could inhale water.
After a few minutes of frantic splashing, Goblin calmed down and let Baba wash him. He glared into the trees the whole time, as if he expected them to combust at any moment under the force of his will. If Baba had taken a few more minutes they might have.
When he took Goblin back to the cave Sally had a pair of red pants and a green shirt, both in Goblin’s size.
Goblin seemed to understand now, because he started whimpering. Sally shook her head.
“Come here, Goblin. I won’t hurt you.”
Goblin responded with a negating grunt. Baba chuckled.
“You deal with it. I’ve done my good deed for the day.”
With that, he went to lay down in the shade of a big tree. Goblin ran after him, making loud sobbing noises, though they could see no tears.
Baba sighed. “It’s alright, Goblin. It’s just clothes. They’re not going to hurt you. See? I wear them. Sally wears them.”
Goblin glared at Sally with absolute loathing before he looked back at Baba.
“Will you wear them for me?”
“I’ll let you live in the grape vineyard.” Sally replied.
Goblin’s face lit up for a second but reverted back to a confused scowl in the blink of an eye, obviously when he realized what the arrangement would entail. He nodded uneasily.
After it was done, Goblin started to cry silently. His mood changed instantaneously when they entered the vineyard. He leapt into a tree and was lost in the mass of green leaves. Every now and then they would see a few grapes disappear from the vines.
“Be careful, Goblin.” Sally warned. “If you eat them too quickly, they’ll all be gone.”
Goblin dropped suddenly from the tree above them and hugged her tightly around the waist. As soon as she released him he jumped back into the trees, hooting his thanks so loudly the birds flew out of their nests.
Baba came every day to see Goblin, wash their clothes, and to visit Sally. He went back to his creek bed an hour after sundown so he could sleep.
In this manner four weeks passed. Goblin and Sally grew close, but he didn’t seem to be truly loyal to anyone but Baba. Although he only communicated through a series of unintelligible grunts, screams, cries, etc., he adored Baba. Even the kids outside, many insane to the point of idiocy, could see this. But Goblin had no shame, and probably wouldn’t care even if he did.
There came a day, after the four weeks were over, that Baba was late. Goblin hadn’t been out of the Woods since he entered with Baba to get grapes. He was worried in much the same manner that a dog worries for his master. Goblin started the climb through the trees out of the Woods to find him.
As soon as he was out of the Woods, the old Apple Tree caught his eye. A strange longing overtook him. He ran on all fours toward the Tree.
With astonishing agility he covered the two hundred yards between him and the Apple Tree. The moment he was in the shade, the wild beasts that lived in its limbs attacked.
Since he was one of them one, he was able to dodge the most lethal attacks. One leapt at him with his teeth. Goblin knocked them out. Another tried to take out his eyes. Goblin crushed her hand. Yet another vicious creature managed to hit him in the head with a large rock.
Goblin let out a desolate groan as his eyes slowly started to droop. Then the feral monsters were upon him.
Baba sprinted into the pile head-on, screaming with so much anger that all rational thought gone save for this: Get Felix get Felix get Felix--
He kicked and clawed and gouged and punched his way through. When he grabbed Goblin’s arm, he pulled until the Tree was behind them.
Sally watched from afar, horror and desperation etched into her face as the tears dropped from her eyes.
The tribe of animals screeched at him when he left with their prize. But they dared not leave the safety of the Tree or its shade.
Baba dashed to the Woods, a half-conscious Goblin in his arms. Sally took bandages she’d made from leaves to stop the bleeding. Baba gathered the medicinal berries and herbs she’d told him about without abandon, covering his face and his arms with scratches from thorns.
After the half-hour incident was over, Goblin lay sleeping in the cave. Baba sat by his side, leaning against the cave wall. Tears left two clean streaks on his face.
Every now and then Goblin would grunt or growl in his sleep. These noises were always followed or preceded by a small movement. A clawing motion, a kick of his foot, clenching his teeth.
Sally watched Baba from afar. He never took heed of her. She stared for a long time, searching her mind for what she needed to say and coming up blank no matter how hard she tried. Eventually she decided to just go for it.
“What happened?” Sally asked.
“He got homesick. But the Tree Climbers…they kicked him out for some reason a while ago. I guess they remembered that.”
“No. I mean why did you kill that little one?”
“Why did I what?”
“You kicked one of them in the head. He didn’t get back up. I know you were trying to save Goblin, but the look on your face… …why do you hate the Tree Climbers so much?”
Baba wiped his eyes quickly with the back of his hand, like a small embarrassed child.
“There was a kid I knew once. Felix. Good kid. Very good kid. Came from the City, like me. I adored that kid, almost as much as he adored me. He’d just shown up when he went to the shade under the Apple Tree. I couldn’t tell him…”
Baba started to sob quietly.
“W-when they cleared, he was j-j-just gone!”
Sally wrapped her slender arms around his shoulders. Mist from the clearing outside curled around their feet. Moonlight spilled into the opening of the cave.
“I’m outta here.” Baba whispered after a while. “I’m sick of this place…will you come with me?”
“Yeah…” Sally whispered.
They stayed like that for an age. Soon Baba was asleep. Sally placed a cover on him. Goblin groaned contently before scratching his stomach.
Sally took another cover and laid down with her head in Baba’s lap.
A cool breeze blew that night. When they woke up the next morning, they would find themselves curled up next to each other.
It took Goblin a few days to recover his spark, but as soon as he did, he went along eating grapes in the vineyard like nothing had happened.
Two days later, Baba approached Sally grimly.
“I need you to make three bags. One is for grapes, one for your things, one for water.”
“Why?” Sally asked.
“We’re leaving, remember? You said you’d go.”
Sally opened her mouth to say something, but closed it.
“I’m tired of living in this place. It’s horrible.”
“You’re sure you want to do this?”
“Of course I do! I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t serious!”
“How are you going to get in?”
“I’ll cut a few hairs from my head and stick them to my chin.”
“That may work for you, but what about Goblin?”
“What about Goblin?”
“Hair on your chin might work for you, but I think it’ll look kinda obvious that he’s not old enough. Even with hair on his chin.”
Baba made a loud retorting sound, but stopped. He hadn’t thought of it that way.
“Well…why don’t we…oh, I don’t know! We’ll think of that on the way!”
He grabbed her hands and looked into her eyes pleadingly. Any words she had for him were instantly lost in that exquisite green.
“We can’t stay here anymore. You know that. It’s too dangerous. I would rather brave the roads than stay here anymore than I have to. And you said you would go.”
His voice carried the patience of someone who’s lived through three World Wars and was watching another one brewing. Ten years in the Fields was just too long. Far too long.
He released her. Sally looked down.
“Will you come with me and Goblin?” Baba asked softly. Before she knew what she was doing, Sally nodded.
“When do we go?” she asked.
“As soon as you can get the stuff.”
Sally nodded again before she turned to go into the cave. She emerged with two large bags, one made of leather.
“Take the leather one and fill it with water. You’ll carry that since you’re stronger. Fill the other one with all the grapes and berries you can find. I’ll carry that one since we can’t trust Goblin with grapes. But my stuff will have to be carried in a separate bag, and I can’t-”
“I’ll carry it. Don’t worry.” Baba replied.
“Alright. You go get that stuff. I’ll go pack.”
They separated without saying anymore. Baba brought Goblin with him when he came back. The bags he’d filled were tied to a long tree limb, one on each end.
Sally had her bag waiting beside the stump.
Baba knelt on one knee in front of Goblin. “Wanna go for a trip?”
Goblin slowly started to back away, watching his feet. Baba chuckled and said, “No, not like that! I mean do you wanna go somewhere? Away from here?”
Goblin considered it for a moment and nodded enthusiastically. He climbed on Sally’s shoulders as she picked up her bag.
“Got everything?” Baba asked.
“Yeah.” Sally replied. “I guess we go now.”
Baba nodded. In one swift movement he lifted the branch onto his shoulders.
“Let’s get outta here!”
They didn’t look back as they went out of the Woods, through the high grass of the Fields and away forever.