A Seedling in the Dark – Eleanor R. Wood

A Seedling in the Dark – Eleanor R. Wood

September 2021

He pined for the sky first. It was a constant he had always taken for granted, even when stargazing on crisp winter nights with his dad. But he soon missed the ground more. The cool scent of earth, the lush green of grass and clover that concealed an entire world of wonders. He’d spent countless hours on his belly in the meadow, watching beetles and ants and grasshoppers going about their lives in their towering forest home. Spindly harvest spiders, ladybirds, and snails. He missed them all with a terrible yearning. The toads would be spawning in the pond about now, long threads of jellied beads left in the wake of their orgies, to be collected and grown into tadpoles on windowsill jars.

He wondered if he would ever see a tadpole again.

“When can I go outside?” he’d asked his mum on the third day.

She had taken his hand and looked into his eyes.

“Darling, we can’t go outside. Not for a long, long time.”

“But why? There haven’t been any explosions for days!”

“We’ve been through this, Jeremy. The explosions have filled the air with germs. It will be too dangerous for years. We’re safe down here. But we have to stay here until it’s safe up there.”

“But what about all the animals? Won’t the germs make them poorly?”

“I don’t know, love. But nature always finds a way, you know that.”

She hadn’t answered any more of his questions, and he’d sat on the sofa in the tiny living area thinking about them on his own while she warmed tinned pasta for dinner.

As the long days crawled past, he began to realise how caged bears felt at the zoo. All their pacing, with no trees to rub against or leaf mould to dig through for grubs. He wanted dead leaves under his feet, and trees to look for birds’ nests in, and badger setts to wait outside until it got dark and they woke up and nosed their way into the world.

He’d tried to pretend he was a badger and the bunker was his sett, but it was no good. Setts had tunnels that led to fresh air and forest and sky. The bunker had a door that led to a metal ladder that led to another door, sealed and bolted and windowless. He wasn’t even allowed outside the first door, never mind that one.

“Why don’t you play a board game with Charlotte?” Dad interrupted his misery.

“I’m fed up with board games.” It had been weeks. They’d played every game in the bunker half a dozen times.

“Don’t be daft — you love them. Come on, I’ll play too. What d’you fancy?”

“I don’t care.” He knew he was sulking, but he didn’t care about that either.

“All right, we’ll let Charlotte choose.” He called her in from the bedroom Jeremy and Charlotte shared. It had barely enough room for two beds and David’s cage.

Charlotte chose Hungry Hungry Hippos, which was stupid and noisy and nothing like real hippos. Jeremy played anyway, because there was nothing else to do and he kept imagining the toads trying to spawn but dying from the germs instead, and it made him feel like the whole world was ending and nothing would ever be alive and free again. He and his hippo gobbled up dozens of plastic marbles until Mum said it was time to get ready for bed.

He put fresh water in David’s bowl and covered his cage with its night-time cloth. The cockatiel chirped at him and settled down. To David, the world was exactly the same as always, only with a different view. Jeremy envied him.

They did school around the dining table every day. Sometimes David was allowed to perch on Jeremy’s shoulder. Charlotte was learning her numbers and letters. Jeremy was learning about volcanoes. There was a chapter on fossils coming up and he couldn’t wait to get to that.

“If all the animals die, will they turn into fossils?” he asked Dad.

“I expect some of them will, but it takes an awfully long time.”

“I know. Hundreds of thousands of years.” But still, the idea of a paleontologist in the future finding fossilised mice and stoats and blackbirds made him feel a little better about their probable deaths. Maybe they’d draw impressions of blackbirds with scarlet plumage or mice with long fur.

It had been three months since they’d all been bundled down the metal stairs. Three months since Dad sealed the top door with a hiss. Three months since Jeremy had seen a beetle or a spider at the centre of her intricate web. But at least he’d seen a living bird every day. He’d had David to feed, and clean out, and draw in intricate coloured-pencil lines. And now even that was gone. Jeremy had found him on the bottom of his cage, cold and stiff. He’d been off his seed for a few days, but there was no vet down here in the ground and all they could do was keep him warm and hope he perked up.

But he didn’t. He died. Jeremy had held his soft little body for hours, refusing Mum and Dad’s attempts at gently prising him away. He had cried until his throat was dry, and touched every inch of David’s soft grey feathers, the white ones on his folded wings, the bright yellow down on his head with its vivid orange cheek spots. He’d stroked David’s delicate crest, forever flattened now, and his curved seed-eater’s beak and tiny branch-gripping claws. He mourned his friend, his bird, and with him, all the other birds he would never see. He grieved for the last non-human in his life, and hated, with a ferocity he had never experienced, the people who had dropped the bombs.

When he finally relinquished David’s body to his dad’s care, he curled up on Mum’s lap and sobbed anew.

“Oh love, I’m so sorry.” She had tears in her voice too. “I know how much he meant to you.”

“How will I ever be a naturalist now, Mum?” His breath snagged on a sob. “What if I never see another animal?”

“Of course you will. One day, we’ll all climb out of here and greet the world, and you’ll see animals and birds and insects again.”

“But how?” His anger flared. “They’re all dead! Everything is dead except us! What if David was the last bird in the whole world?”

She had tried to soothe him with more words, but he barely heard her over his weeping. The scope was too great. The sadness was too immense. He wanted to walk in the woods more desperately than he had ever wanted anything in his life.

They had art class with Dad once a week. Everything in the bunker was precious, but Dad had provided enough art supplies. They had to use both sides of the paper and all their pencil shavings went into the composter, but there were plenty of watercolours, and Jeremy was painting David from memory again.

“Beautiful shadowing, Jer!” Dad peered over Jeremy’s shoulder.

“Thanks, Dad.” Jeremy admired his painting. “Do you think I could make a model of him? A lifesized one?”

“What, like a sculpture?” Jeremy heard the approval in Dad’s voice. “Now that’d be an excellent project for our next lesson.”

Jeremy smiled. “Yeah. A sculpture.”

“Fancy that, Charlotte?” Dad asked.

“Like playdough?”

“I’m sure we can get playdough in on the action.” Dad winked at her.

They spent the next week finding sculpting materials. Recycling was the bunker’s foremost rule, so anything discarded was fair game.

Jeremy’s first David sculpture was a wire coathanger frame coated in papier-mâché. It wasn’t very good; the frame was wonky and its head was out of proportion. But Jeremy curled its wire feet to the perch in David’s cage even so, covering it over at night as if it were inhabited by David’s chirpy soul.

Looking for new materials became Jeremy’s obsession. He was allowed to experiment with heating old tins into malleable form. He cut a plastic tub into interlocking shapes like a balsa model. Mum got very cross when he unravelled one of his jumpers to wind around a new wire frame. He heard them talking about it in the kitchenette one evening.

“This can’t carry on, Craig,” Mum said. “Everything we brought down here is precious. We need to repurpose all of it if we’re going to make it out of this.”

“I know that,” Dad said. “But just look at him, Heather. He hasn’t been this content since we left home. I can’t see anything more worthwhile than directing his energy.”

“We need to survive for at least five years to be sure this thing’s died out. We didn’t bring sculpture materials into our calculations.”

“We didn’t bring our nature-obsessed son into our calculations either. You’ve seen how he’s been. I’m afraid it’s going to break his spirit, being stuck down here without so much as a blade of grass. Maybe… maybe it’s time to show him.”

There was silence. “You know how I feel about that,” Mum said at last.

“We put it there for a reason.” Dad’s voice was soft.

“Yes. And that wasn’t to give our son false hope.”

Jeremy had no idea what they were talking about, and if he dared ask, they’d know he’d been listening. So he boxed up his curiosity and shelved it at the back of his mind. For now.

He was allowed to continue making sculptures, but only with materials he was given. He made models of David until he’d perfected a cockatiel. His aluminium body was almost the right shade of grey and his head was the perfect size, painted dandelion yellow with bright orange cheeks and a soft crest of brushed yarn. His talons could be bent around a perch, or flattened to stand on a table, or tucked into Jeremy’s jumper so the bird could sit on his shoulder.

He’d been so proud.

“That is fantastic, Jer,” Dad said. “From the corner of my eye, I’d think that was really David on your shoulder.”

He wasn’t really David, though. He didn’t chirp, or turn his head on one side and whistle the way Jeremy had taught him. His body was cold metal instead of soft down, and if anything, he made Jeremy even sadder that David was gone.

He awoke one night from a dream he couldn’t remember, a dream filled with loss and grief. He was sobbing before he was fully awake. His whole body ached with it. He curled on one side and wept, wanting Mum and Dad but unable to get up and go to them. His David sculpture perched on his bedside table, silent and pretend, and he just wanted to see a real bird again, just one, flying or nesting or singing in a treetop. His head throbbed, his pillow was sodden, his body was racked with it.

And then Dad was there, gathering Jeremy in his arms, holding him tight, Mum just behind, reaching a hand to his back.

“It’s a dream, Jer, it’s just a dream, mate. You’re safe. You’re all right.” Dad rocked him in strong arms and soaked up Jeremy’s tears with his nightshirt.

“I wish it… was… a dream,” Jeremy hiccuped. “But it’s not. We’re really down here, and I can’t go outside ever again.”

Charlotte was awake now, and she was crying too. Mum went to her. She and Dad looked at each other across the cramped room.

“All right,” Mum said. “You can show him.”

“Show me… what?” Jeremy’s breath hitched as he tried to stop the flow of tears.

“Come with me,” Dad said, and took his hand.

He’d always thought it was just a cupboard, housing pipes and electrics and boring things not worth investigating. And it did have those things… but behind them, at the back, there was a ladder of metal rungs protruding from the wall.

“Up you go,” Dad said, right behind him.

He climbed, still shaky from crying. At the top of the ladder was a square platform, just big enough for two people to sit side-by-side. The ceiling was only a few feet high, so Dad had to crouch low to squash into the space.

And set into the ceiling was a skylight.

“The sky…” Jeremy craned his neck to peer up at the blackness. It was cloudy, but there was a moon.

“There it is,” Dad said, pulling Jeremy close so they could look together. The oblong of sky was small, but the spill of moonlight was enough to illuminate the space where they sat.

“Why is this here?” Jeremy asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

Dad inhaled slowly. “Well, it was supposed to be at the centre of the bunker, so we’d have some natural light. But Mum worried it might make things harder for us, being able to see out to the world when we couldn’t be in it. And I thought maybe she was right about that. So I changed the layout plan and built a cupboard around it, so it was still there without being a constant reminder of what we were missing. We didn’t tell you because… we thought it might make you sadder than you already were. But I’ve never seen anyone as sad as you were tonight, so we realised maybe it could help you feel better.”

The realisations were dawning on Jeremy. “I’ll be able to see what the weather’s like! And look at stars… and…” What if a bird flies over, was his thought, but he didn’t voice it because there might not be any birds and he didn’t want to feel sad again.

“Can I, Dad? Can I come up here sometimes?”

Dad kissed the top of his head. “Yeah. If it makes you feel better, of course you can.”

At first, he went up every morning before breakfast, to check the weather and report to his family. Charlotte came up a few times, but she soon got bored with the view.

“You can’t see anything,” she complained. “Just the sky and nothing else!”

“Don’t come up here, then,” Jeremy said, defensive of his patch of sky.

He started going up the ladder whenever he missed the outdoors. Just looking at a piece of the outside world soothed him and made him feel connected to it again. One evening, he and Dad piled blankets and pillows on the platform and stargazed, watching pieces of constellations glide in and out of view until Jeremy fell asleep. He woke up there alone the next morning, sunlight on his face.

“You let me sleep up there,” he said to Dad at breakfast.

Dad dolloped porridge for him. “I didn’t have the heart to move you.”

“Can I sleep there again tonight?”

Mum and Dad looked at each other. “I’m not sure that’s sensible,” Mum said.

“Please?”

“Yeah, can he, Mum?” Charlotte piped up. “I liked having my own room.”

Dad laughed and gave Mum a helpless shrug. Mum sighed. “All right. But if it starts making you feel upset, you come back to your bedroom. Okay?”

“Yes!” It was half agreement, half joy. He hadn’t felt upset at all since Dad had shown him the skylight.

The platform became his new bedroom. The skylight was his own private window. He would fall asleep looking at the stars and wake up amongst a shaft of sunlight or a patter of rain on the thick Perspex. He was still confined, but the outdoors was there, right there, and contentment began to nudge at the empty places in his soul.

It had been a year since they stumbled underground and closed the world off. A year of cramped space and brittle emotion. A year without the breeze on their faces or new grass between their toes. A year without a single insect or stream minnow or trill of birdsong.

Jeremy’s hours of gazing through the skylight had shown him that Earth still turned on its axis, that the Moon still accompanied them on their journey through space, that the seasons still brought rain and sun and snow that hid the sky until a thaw. He’d watched grass grow at the edges of his view, reaching tall and turning to seed and then dying back again. He’d seen leaves scutter across the skylight and frost form branching patterns and clouds of all varieties.

But he’d seen no signs of animal life.

He hoped that his view’s limited scope simply meant he was missing them as they bypassed the bunker. That he’d never been looking at the exact moment a bird flew over or an insect buzzed past. But as time went on, he had to acknowledge the germ-filled air must have harmed them. That they just weren’t there anymore. It broke his heart, but he didn’t dare share it in case his parents made him return to his bedroom.

He watched David Attenborough documentaries until he could recite the narration by heart. He learned about the nitrogen cycle and copied pictures of leaves from his tree guidebook. He fell asleep every night with his face turned to the skylight and imagined the world full of animals, happy and thriving with no people around.

And then, one morning, a snail was there.

His breath caught in his chest as he woke to find himself looking up at it sliding slowly across the skylight, oblivious to the racing heart and burgeoning joy its passage caused in the human four feet below. Its trail glistened in the morning light as its suctioned foot propelled it across Jeremy’s window to the world. He stood and pressed his face as close as possible, palms flat against the skylight, drinking in the sight of a living creature, willing it to slow down so he wouldn’t have to watch it leave. He moved with it, his nose separated by inches of Perspex. As it glided over the side of the skylight, back to dew-damp grass and whatever hollow it sought for its daily rest, Jeremy felt his heart simultaneously squeeze and lift. He hated to see it depart, but the wonder and beauty of it made him soar.

His first proof that things still lived outside the bunker. That all creatures hadn’t been killed. He leapt down the ladder and yelled his newfound truth.

“A snail! Mum, Dad, I saw a snail! Everything isn’t dead, it’s not! There was a snail on the skylight!”

Mum looked up from laying the breakfast table. Dad stopped stirring the porridge.

“That’s fantastic, love.” Mum smiled at the grin on his face.

“If animals are alive, it must be safe now!”

“Not necessarily, mate.” Dad’s tone was cautious. “It’s great news, but one snail doesn’t make it safe for us.”

“But… maybe it’s the beginning of it being safe,” Jeremy said. “If a snail’s alive, other things must be too!”

“Jeremy…” Mum put a bowl of porridge in front of him. “I’m delighted you saw a snail, but it’s not evidence that other animals are alive, or that we could be. You don’t even know it was healthy. Now eat your breakfast.”

Even the monotony of porridge couldn’t dampen his spirits. “But it looked healthy! And there can’t just be one snail. Ecosystems don’t work like that. There have to be other things living out there.”

Jeremy.” Mum raised her voice. “Eat. Your. Breakfast.”

He swallowed a lump in his throat. He thought they’d be as excited as he was.

“It’s great, Jer,” Dad said. “It is. But you mustn’t let it get your hopes up.”

Jeremy looked down and ate his porridge in silence.

“I wish I could see a snail,” Charlotte said wistfully.

Dad was an engineer. Mum was a mathematician. What did they know about nature? Jeremy knew lifeforms couldn’t exist on their own. He just needed more proof, and then they’d listen to him and maybe realise there was no need to stay stuck down here. It could be his first Great Discovery: that the poisoned world wasn’t poison any more. He didn’t tell them; he knew if Mum sensed this new fixation, she’d ban him from the skylight. He couldn’t conceive of losing his only link to nature. He’d shrivel up and die like a seedling denied the sun.

So he lay under the skylight every spare moment, feigning tiredness or headaches or interest in a new book. He gave up television; why watch recordings of living things when there were real ones he might miss while his attention was on a dead screen? His snail didn’t return. He watched clouds scudding past, stared at pattering rain, witnessed the pastel reflections of a dozen sunsets, but no sign of what he longed for.

Patience was something every naturalist had to cultivate. You could sit in a bog for hours waiting for a sighting of that rare frog, or train your binoculars on a single tree for days to witness chicks fledging, or stare at a skylight for weeks to catch a glimpse of proof that nature fought on despite the worst of humanity’s follies.

When it finally came, he thought he’d imagined it. A flicker of movement, high and tiny at the periphery of his rectangle of sky. He blinked and stared. The light was fading and he’d been about to call it a day. His mind was playing tricks on him.

Again — that fluttering glimpse. And… another! Dipping back and forth, the erratic, flitting flight pattern that could never be mistaken for a bird. Jeremy felt the grin spread across his face even as tears pricked his eyes.

Bats. There were bats in the sky.

He gazed upwards and watched them dash back and forth across his foot-wide field of vision. He was laughing and crying at once, overwhelmed with joy at the sight of little mammals hunting for their supper.

As the light dissipated, he lost sight of them, but he lay there for a long time, high on relief and delight.

Hunting bats. That meant there were insects. He’d witnessed the top and bottom of the food chain. Predator and prey. An ecosystem supporting itself. Life went on outside the bunker. Animal life. Plant life. It all had to be there, thriving and well. Everything wasn’t dead.

Everything was all right out there.

He climbed down the ladder on trembling legs and ran to his family, who were huddled together watching an old movie.

“Mum… Dad,” he began, trying to curb his excitement so he could calmly present his discovery. They looked up at him.

“I just saw bats.” It gushed out of him. “Bats! Above the skylight, hunting insects!”

Dad smiled. “Wow. That’s fantastic!”

“Wonderful, love,” Mum said.

“I mean… they were hunting. That means there’re insects, which means there’s all kinds of life. They didn’t all die!”

His parents glanced at each other. “That’s really excellent news,” Dad said. “Maybe tomorrow we can all look out and see them.”

“Yeah! But…” They weren’t getting it. “It must be safe now. If they’re all right, it must be safe for us too.”

“Jeremy, we’ve been through this.” He could sense Mum trying to remain calm. “Seeing creatures outside is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean the air is safe. Biological agents last for a very long time.”

“There’s a whole ecosystem out there, Mum!” His own calm was fleeing and he was powerless to hold onto it. “I know there is! And if they’re thriving, why wouldn’t we?”

Dad stood up and put his arms around Jeremy.

Jeremy shrugged away. “You’re not listening!”

“No, you’re not listening,” Mum said. “The only way we’re going to get through this is if we all accept the facts. The bacteria might not harm animals, but they will harm us. We all want to get out of here, Jeremy. We all miss nature. But it is not safe. It won’t be for a long time. And I think…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I think it’s time to go back to your bedroom.”

Dad made a pleading gesture.

“No, Craig. Enough is enough. This isn’t doing any of us any good. No more skylight.”

“No! No, no, you can’t!” The lurch in Jeremy’s chest propelled him forward. “Mum, please! I won’t look for any more wildlife, I promise!”

“Enough, Jeremy! I’ve had enough. We all have.” She went to the cupboard and up the ladder. Jeremy tried to follow, but Dad held him back with a firm but gentle arm around his chest.

“I’m sorry, mate. Mum’s right. We need to be together to get through this. You can’t keep living half out there, breaking your heart and ours.”

“No, Dad…” he sobbed. “Please, I need it.”

Dad just held him tightly while Mum dragged his bedding and notebooks and David sculpture out of the cupboard and into Charlotte’s bedroom.

“Why does he have to come back in here?” his sister whined, following her mother.

“Because he does, Charlotte.”

Dad bent his head to Jeremy’s and hugged him. The tears drenched Jeremy’s face.

He stayed in bed for the first two days. He didn’t eat. He couldn’t bear the thought of being shut back in this underground box with no windows. Especially now he knew there was wildlife out there. Charlotte sulked about having him back in ‘her’ room. Mum and Dad had hushed arguments, and Jeremy knew some of them were about the skylight. When he emerged, finally, with a touch of appetite, everyone tried to pretend nothing had happened.

“Macaroni cheese for dinner!” Dad said, mixing a packet of cheese sauce. Jeremy missed real cheese.

He glanced at the cupboard. He’d had half a plan to sneak up to the skylight after Mum and Dad had gone to bed, but he’d known they wouldn’t make it that easy. The cupboard door was padlocked. He turned away and ate half a plate of macaroni before going back to bed.

Dad tried to interest him in art projects. Mum read aloud to him. Even Charlotte tried to cheer him up with board games and terrible knock-knock jokes.

But he didn’t care about any of it. Nothing mattered any more.

Anger slowly replaced his sadness, and with it came a flash of rebellion he’d never imagined. He lay awake one night and hatched a foolish plan. He knew it was foolish and he didn’t care. He just wanted to show them they couldn’t keep him from nature. The cupboard door was locked, but Jeremy knew where Dad hid his keys. The secret nook was inside a kitchen cabinet, behind tins of beans.

He’d unlock the cupboard, barricade it from the other side, return to his skylight, and there’d be nothing they could do about it. He’d even sneak a stash of food from the pantry. He knew it was an unsustainable protest, but what could they do? They’d already taken away the only thing he cared about. There weren’t any punishments worse than that.

He lay still and listened. The bunker was silent. Mum and Dad had gone to bed; Charlotte’s soft breathing told him she was asleep. He tiptoed into the kitchenette. In the dim nightlight glow, he retrieved the keys from their hidden nook, grasping them so they wouldn’t jangle. There were only a few on the keyring… there weren’t many doors in the bunker.

The padlock key was the smallest. He was on the verge of sliding it into the lock when it dawned on him what he was holding.

One of these keys opened the main door. The door which led to the ladder which led to the outside door which led to the world. He wondered why the existence of this key had never occurred to him. He knew which one it was: it was bigger than the others.

He looked at the door, ten paces away beside the kitchenette. The door he’d only been through once.

You can’t.

But he could. All he had to do was open it.

And then what?

Then he’d be able to climb up to the outside door. There was a lever to unseal it. He could go outside. Come back before anyone woke up. He could prove to them that they were wrong, that nothing would happen to them if they came out. Whatever they said, humans were animals. And animals were surviving out there. The bats and the snail were his proof. He would be theirs.

He’d made up his mind before he even realised it, before his conscience could protest again. He was at the main door, all thoughts of the skylight forgotten, and the big key slid in smoothly and turned with a soft click, as though the lock had been waiting all this time for him to open it.

He glanced over his shoulder, afraid someone had heard. But the bunker slept on. He opened the door.

The dusky light barely illuminated the short passage and steep steps. But he didn’t dare leave the inner door open in case Mum or Dad got up. Later, he’d tell them he’d been outside, and they could all reunite with nature. But now was just for him. He was a few steps away from the outdoors, from fresh air and wild things, for the first time in a year and a half. He didn’t fear it. He knew he wouldn’t drop dead from bacteria. If they’d seen the bats, they’d know that too.

The cramped stairwell was pitch dark with the inner door shut. He found the railing and groped his way up. The only patch of light came from a keypad beside the top door. His heart sank. He couldn’t just pull the lever and go out.

ENTER YOUR FOUR-DIGIT CODE, the display read.

What would Dad use as a code? He thought for a moment, then keyed in his own birth year.

It bleeped its acceptance and a mechanism clunked.

Jeremy grinned. Too obvious, Dad.

His heart rate increased as he pulled the lever downwards, releasing the door’s seal with a soft hiss. He pushed it open and stepped outside.

His eyes closed in bliss at the cool night air against his skin, sweeter than anything he’d ever breathed. Tears squeezed under his eyelids and he laughed out loud as he lifted his head to the sky and spread his arms wide. Outside, I’m outside!

The relief overwhelmed him. He fell to his knees in the long grass, clutching the fronds and relishing their smooth stems against his skin and the rich scent of the soil beneath, and the ground, cool and firm and uneven and holding him up as it rooted him back to where he belonged.

When he lifted his head, it was later than he’d realised; dawn was glowing on the horizon. He stood and walked through the tall grass, leaving the bunker behind without a backward glance. The breeze caressed his skin, stirring the trees to whisper their greetings. He reached the steadfast boulder at the edge of the field. Its surface was rough and cool against his palm, and lichen tickled his fingertips. The landscape stretched away here, open and green, all the way to the distant city. He climbed the boulder and waited for the sun.

A blackbird began to sing. A thrill ran up his back at that sweet melody, the purest sound in nature. He drank in the song like a parched boy at a stream, and felt it restore him. Birds. Birds are alive. A robin joined in, and a song thrush, and the dawn chorus rose up around him like a devotion, welcoming the day, welcoming him back.

He watched the sky pale and turn to flame until the land was bathed in sun and at last he beheld what the bombs had done.

The once-ploughed fields were a sea of meadow grasses. His house, perched alongside, had been consumed by the Virginia creeper his mother had continually pruned. The lawn was a jungle, the fence was woven with ivy, and saplings grew in the driveway’s cracks. The first bees of the day began their work amongst the wildflowers, and house martins dipped and dove in the air.

Bombs had sent people into hiding, and nature had rejoiced.

Far off on the horizon, where once spires had risen and sunlight glinted on glass, there was an indistinct mass of broken things and a ring of scorched earth. Yet even amongst the burnt wreckage, he could see hints of green at this epicentre of human disaster.

His parents had been wrong. Life was thriving stronger than ever out here. His heart exploded with it.

He had no notion of time passing as he revelled in creatures living and flowers opening. And then, from behind him, Dad’s voice.

“Jeremy… what have you done?”

Disappointment, grief, despair… his father’s tone reflected nothing of the joy in Jeremy’s soul. He turned to see him walking through the grass, his pale face lined with hurt.

“Dad…” He smiled. “Look! It’s safe out here! I told you it was.”

“No, Jeremy, no, no, it’s not.” There were tears in Dad’s eyes. “There are deadly germs out here. We told you that.”

“But — look at the wildlife!”

Dad’s arms dropped at his sides. “You don’t understand, Jer. And it’s our fault. We should have explained it to you properly. Wildlife is here, yes… and it’s glorious. But humans can’t be. No one knew if the biological agent would harm other species. It’s wonderful that they don’t appear to be affected. But for people, everything out here is contaminated.”

Jeremy’s protests died in his throat. He couldn’t believe it. But Dad’s face… he looked lost. Broken. Tendrils of fear crept around Jeremy’s heart.

“Then… we have to go back inside?” he asked.

Dad clenched his jaw. “No. We can’t go back inside. We’re contaminated too now, you and me.”

Jeremy noticed a pair of rucksacks on the ground outside the bunker.

“We can’t go back in without putting Mum and Charlotte in danger. They mustn’t be exposed.”

“But… they can’t stay down there on their own!”

“They have to. And the two of us… we have to get moving. Our best chance is to get as far from the biological radius as possible. If we’re lucky, and if there are any doctors still alive who’ve figured out treatments, we might be okay.”

The foundation of Jeremy’s world buckled under him. “No, we can’t leave them, Dad!”

Dad pressed thumb and forefinger to his eyes to push away tears. “We don’t have a choice, mate.”

Jeremy slid down off the boulder and ran towards the door he’d been so desperate to exit. Dad caught him with one arm and reeled him in tight.

“Let me go… I need to tell Mum I’m sorry!”

“You can’t. You can’t. They have to stay safe.”

“Why did you come out, then? Why, if it’s dangerous?” He twisted to face Dad.

“For you. I came out for you, Jer.”

Jeremy felt the weight of his mistake like a mountain about to crush him.

“And now we need to go.”

Dad went to the rucksacks and shouldered one. He handed the other to Jeremy. Poking out of the top was his David sculpture. Jeremy stared at it, numb and bewildered.

Dad stopped beside the skylight. Jeremy’s window was just a strange hump in the grass from out here. Dad beckoned to him, seemingly unable to speak. Jeremy came reluctantly and looked down, into his haven… the tiny space that had instilled in him so much hope.

Mum and Charlotte’s faces looked up at him, tears in both their eyes. Mum reached a hand to the Perspex and Jeremy knelt, sobs erupting from nowhere, and pressed his face to the skylight, still inches from theirs. I love you, Mum mouthed to both of them. Charlotte clung to her, weeping.

Dad inhaled a ragged breath and tugged Jeremy’s shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got to move.”

Jeremy peeled himself away, sick with regret. Dad was already on his way to the lane beside the house, wiping his face on one sleeve. Jeremy watched him for a moment, frozen, and then took David from his rucksack. He stroked the soft crest and then placed the memento of his beloved bird in the grass beside the bunker door. To stand guard? As grave marker for his first loss? He didn’t know. But this David was of the bunker, as Jeremy was of the outdoors, and their ways had parted.

“Dad… wait!” Jeremy called as he turned away from David. Everything was happening too fast. He didn’t have time to make sense of the upheaval he’d caused.

Dad turned back to him. It hurt Jeremy to look at his face. “What? Jeremy, we need to leave. Right now.”

Jeremy fought the tears that kept trying to flood out of him. “Can’t we just… stay at the house? At least be near Mum and Charlotte?”

Dad closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath. “You know we can’t do that. And you know why.”

“But I’ve been out here for ages and I’m not ill!”

“We don’t know that.”

“But —”

No. No more ‘buts’. No more ‘maybes’. We all heard the bombs, we know how close they were, we know they brought deadly disease. We have to find help, Jeremy, if there’s any help out there to find.”

“Are you cross with me?” He didn’t mean it to come out in such a tiny, sad voice.

Dad sighed, wearier than Jeremy had ever seen him. “There wouldn’t be any point in that, would there?” He reached out his arm.

Jeremy ran to him and clutched him hard.

“Come on.” Dad’s voice was softer now. He rubbed Jeremy’s back. “The sooner we’re away, the better our chances.”

Jeremy wiped his eyes and held onto his dad’s hand like a little boy.

They left the bunker. They left the house. They began their long walk, and Jeremy knew, as his dad knew, that it might not save them. The long-rotted bodies they passed, in cars, in front gardens, were proof of the danger Jeremy had exposed them to. He squeezed his eyes shut at these confirmations of death’s brutal reign.

But despite his loss, his fear, their terrible uncertainty, Jeremy’s heart was soothed. For the hedgerows they passed were wild and teeming with life, and birds sang their summer songs of fertility and survival.

Your thoughts?

%d bloggers like this: