“Hey… brother? How long’s it been now?”
“I dunno. A month, maybe?”
“Hm… you sure? Thought it was longer.”
“Maybe we’d know, if you hadn’t broken the only clock we’ve got down here.”
“I said I was sorry…”
“Break it up, you two. Let’s not have this argument again.”
The siblings glared in each other’s direction for a moment, before the older of the two relented with a sigh, brushing aside a wayward strand of dark hair.
“Yeah, okay. Sorry, Carrot.”
The two briefly hugged it out, before returning their attention to the brown centerpiece of an otherwise drab gray room, a battered spruce table around which the four frazzled companions now met. Illuminated by the steady flickering of an old incandescent bulb, they sat in uneasy silence for several moments before the quietest among them decided to try speaking his mind.
“I’ve, uh… been thinking.”
“So we all know about the… you know… but do you think that maybe, up there on the surface, there’s-“
“Les, can’t you just let him-“
He slams his fist down on the table with a resounding “No! I already know what you meant, but Byron, there’s no way! Nobody could’ve lived through that! Yeah, you were out cold when it went down, but-“
“No! You were there, you saw what those bombs did! He’s lucky we even found his sorry ass out there, knocked face-down in the mud. We’re not talking about this.”
“No. End of discussion.”
The already-tense atmosphere became further fogged by another round of awkward silence, this one more dense than the last. Les, beginning to hyperventilate, buried his face in his hands. Though he briefly considered pushing further, Byron at least had enough sense to know when it was time to stop, and so he instead turned his attention towards flicking stray bits of dirt from his worn blue denim jeans. Carrot, the youngest of them all, glanced helplessly between the two before turning to the oldest of the group, a fellow in a battered white dress shirt, hoping he could defuse some of the tension in the air.
“Okay, look… clearly, we’re getting side-tracked. Let’s not focus on the surface, because it doesn’t matter right now. We can’t go back there. Trust me, I checked, the surface exits are both blocked from the other side. How about, for now, we instead focus on what we can do? Down here, right now?”
Tentatively, everyone began to nod, including Les.
“Right, that’d be all well and good… just one tiny little problem with that. Look around us, Darius…” he remarked with a hint of sarcasm, gesturing to their confined quarters, “what is there to do? We can’t exactly go outside and sniff the roses. We can only play so many rounds of Go Fish before we’re driven mad by the thought of fish… fish… fish… god, that damn salmon still haunts my dreams. I hate that f-“
Byron raised his hand. “Can I make a suggestion?”
“Yes! I mean, hm, yes, what is it?” quickly replied Darius, eager for the chance to avoid another hour-long rant on the subject of fish.
“Why don’t we assign each other tasks? Like, chores, I mean… yeah?”
“I’d say that’s a good proposal. All in favor?”
The idea was met by a clear consensus across the table.
“Okay, so what is everyone here good at?”
“I’m good at cleaning my room!” piped Carrot.
“Alright, you can take charge of that, then. Byron?”
“…I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? This whole thing was your idea,” Les interjected.
“I mean, I’m not really good with anything in particular, it’s just that-“
Darius held up his arms, signaling them both to fall quiet.
“Hey, hey, let’s not get heated over this. Just think it over, Byron, and we can come back to you, okay? Okay? Okay. Right then, Les? What’s your specialty?”
“Well… at home, I did all the cooking, back when Mom and Dad were…”
“Right, so you could be the resident chef?”
“Yeah, I suppose… just don’t expect gourmet cuisine. We’ve not got much on the ol’ menu, besides beans and soup. So, what’s your job then?”
“I’ll continue to scout the tunnels. I’d like to be sure we’re not missing anything.”
“Fair enough… just don’t go too far.”
All eyes then turned to Byron, with everyone else’s roles now settled.
“That just leaves you. So… any thoughts?”
“…I got nothing, sorry.”
“How is this so hard for you? It’s a simple question, are you really that-“
“You don’t need to be rude about it. He’s trying his best.”
“Damnit, Carrot, I know… okay? It’s just… tch…”
“Okay, how about this? Byron, you can be an extra hand! If one of us needs help with something, we’ll come to you. Does that work for you?”
“Yeah… okay, I can do that.”
“Great! That gives everyone something to do. We’ve made some progress!”
With a heavy sigh, Les rose from the table, stretching out his legs.
“So, that it? If there’s nothing else to talk about, I’m gonna get on with my first job.”
Carrot and Byron, having nothing further to add to the conversation, shook their heads and remained silent.
“You need some help with that, brother?”
“No… don’t bother, I’ll do it myself.”
“I suppose this meeting’s adjourned then… so if it’s alright with you young-uns, I’m off to have a quick nap,” Darius quipped as he cracked his back.
“Wait… aren’t you 29?”
“30, actually, if the month-ish guess was right. Ciao.”
With the lazy wave of a peace sign, he shuffled off towards the adjacent sleeping space. Les lingered a moment longer, giving Darius an odd look before crossing to the kitchen on the opposite end of the shelter they now called home. The other two decided to remain seated; while Carrot watched Les’ departure, Byron just decided to stare at his hands, unsure of what to do with himself otherwise. A new air of silence began to permeate the room, marked by a different brand of awkwardness, before Byron and Carrot shifted to face each other.
“I-” spoke the two in sync.
“Sorry… go ahead.”
“No, it’s fine, you go first.”
“No… never mind.”
“Okay, what’s up?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why… why don’t I remember that day? Why… if it was really as bad as you all say… why stop to help me? You didn’t even know me… why risk it? Even after I dropped the clock, you covered for me… for someone as clumsy and dumb and stupid as-”
His downward emotional spiral was interrupted by a quick flick to the forehead.
“Hey, stop that. You’re not dumb. Clumsy, maybe, but not dumb.”
“If someone needs help, you’d want to help them, right? Everyone thinks like that, no? I know my brother does. Yes, I know he’s a jerk, but he means well… he just doesn’t know how to say it.”
“Hey, you know what? I bet he’d like some help over there. Why don’t you join him?”
“But… didn’t he say-“
“Oh, don’t mind that. That’s just brother’s way of saying he wants a minute to cool off. He’ll be fine now, go ahead. He won’t bite.”
Byron sat at the table a moment longer, turning to look over with uncertainty, before the resounding clangs of empty tin cans beckoned his attention. As she watched him leave, Carrot’s mind and amber gaze steadily turned towards the iron-plated door at the end of the hall, half-concealed by shadows. Alone, she couldn’t help but ponder the things that laid just beyond their safe spot, out there in that maze of half-explored tunnels, as well as above their heads, in the scattered ruins just above. Before she could move further, however, Darius returned on a whim from his would-be nap.
“Hey, I don’t suppose you could ask them to not make such a racket in there?”
“You could just ask them yourself.”
“Eh… you’re closer to them though. By the way… I don’t suppose you could tidy up the floor mats a little? Bit hard to sleep, when cans are getting knocked about and clothes are scattered all over the place. I’d do it myself, but we did just… Carrie?”
“Hm? Oh, sure.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, why?”
“It just seems like you’ve been distracted lately. Is something the matter? If you need someone to talk to, I’m-
“No… no, it’s fine, really. Don’t worry about me. I’ll go fix that room up now!”
With one last sideways glance to the door she rose to her feet, accidentally brushing against Darius’ arm as she left to sort some things out. A look of mixed confusion briefly flashed across his slightly-stubbled face, before he just shrugged it off and began to gaze idly across their concrete-enforced shelter. His gaze fell across the exit and glossed right past it, before turning back for a double-take. As the man moved closer to inspect the seal on the door, the fact that it rested ever-so-slightly ajar did not fall upon blind blue eyes. He thought no further on the matter, however; with nothing more than a wayward glance back, he pulled it closed once more, seeing no need to alert the others.
“Hm… I’ll have to be more careful.”