This is After The End: Foster’s Home for Heirs

When I tell people my story, it normally provokes a certain kind of reaction from them. Most of the times, it’s a sympathetic one. I don’t really mind it; I just don’t like being looked upon with pity. But what I discovered after much introspection is that though I may hate pity, I still do crave attention. I demand it, actually, in my own little ways. That’s why I felt very disconcerted when I first came to terms with my new status.

Orphan.

What that translated to was a crushing loneliness like none other I had ever known, and getting no attention at all. It was very hard at first, and I struggled with thoughts of suicide every so often. It just seemed like the easy way out of the mess I was in, and if I had found a way to go that involved no pain, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. I’m just glad my path crossed with The Heirs when it did; sooner, rather than later. At first, I thought they wouldn’t want anything to do with me, being the gaunt, shabby eleven-year-old kid that I was: why with my mop-like dusty brown hair and pale, slightly spotted skin, I didn’t look like I could be of help to anybody. But even given my condition, they still took me in and treated me as one of their own.

Who are The Heirs? They are a bunch of young teens who also lost their families before and after the trouble in Johannesburg started. They all came from the same orphanage in one of the neighborhoods in Parktown, slightly north of Johannesburg’s central business district. With them, I found a new kind of attention from a new kind of family. It was far from perfect, but I grew to accommodate for each of their idiosyncrasies and faults. We may be a tangle, but we are a beautiful tangle. And now, I don’t think of the past as much as I did before. These guys, they may all be a little crazy, and they may get on my nerves more often than not, but they are all I’ve got now, and I am content. I put behind me almost all of my Polish heritage and got my new identity from being part of them. We had a good thing going too, but it looks like it’s all going to be shaken up like a traditional brew.

Her name, is El-Niño…….okay, okay, that’s just in my head; it’s the perfect description of the effect she’s having. She’s a girl in her early twenties who tells us her name is Tshego, but some of the others have already started calling her Thread (we’re all about giving people nicknames) because she came down here dressed like there hasn’t been hell in Johannesburg for the last three years. She has a clean black leather jacket on, a clean pair of black jeans and a clean pair of sneakers (everything is just so clean, oh my gosh!), and I think I may have gotten the slightest whiff of a fragrance too. Her blemish free caramel skin, perfect lips, and funky natural hair didn’t help her cause much, though, because when we found her, she was being attacked by this egregious pretender called Mash. He must have really wanted her (if you know what I mean) because neither he nor his guys tried shooting her. Not even after she had broken free from them and started running. Anyways, we couldn’t do anything about it then, but when they followed her into Park Station, Johannesburg’s central bus and rail hub, and our element, Scrunch made sure we didn’t leave her helpless. In case you’re wondering, Scrunch is a girl, one of the four in our group. It would explain why she was so eager to do something. As fate would have it, Tshego came right to our subway home, where we used our dynamite failsafe and blocked the entrance, eliminating the threat that tailed her in the process. The only problem is in doing so; we kind of trapped ourselves in the subway tunnel.

“So how long will it take to get to Rosebank?” She asks after everyone has settled down. Rosebank is the nearest we’ll find an exit from the tunnels as all the service ports are all shut and locked.

“Wait, so we’re really going to Rosebank? Isn’t there another bank we can go to that will have something more valuable?” Rimshot says. Her nickname pretty much sums it up: she’s just wasting our time with her one-liners.

“Is there any other option to begin with?” Tshego asks. She-no, all of us know that there isn’t. But no one has a problem with going to Rosebank. No one, apart from Tshego herself, because she actually seems more concerned about the unknown variables than we are, and Traps, our leader. For him, I think it’s because he’s a little threatened by Tshego coming in. She may be rather short in stature, but she’s way older than any of us, and it would make it easier for her to impose her will. Traps wouldn’t want any of that.

“There is one other option,” Traps says. “We can use our remaining explosives to clear a way out.”

“Yeah but, what if something unexpected comes up? Mutant animals maybe?” Scrunch asks.

“We can easily find more explosives,” he replies. “With Mash and his minions gone, there is no one else left to run this place. The city ours for the taking, guys!” He’s been waiting for this day for quite some time. It’s probably where this ‘Heirs’ name he gave us came from. He always said that we would out-survive everybody, and when the time came, we would be the ones to inherit the city. We just didn’t think those dreams would be actualized so soon.

“Yo Traps, that sounds like a good idea, but think about what will happen if it doesn’t work. We’ll have to go to Rosebank anyways, short of explosives, and still with no idea of what we’re gonna find there. Let’s just go as we are, dude. Fully prepared. It’s no big. And if something comes up, we can handle it. We’ve always handled it,” Steamer says. He’s the most pragmatic one of us all, but he’s also the most fearless. Physically, he isn’t bigger than anyone else by that much, but he packs a mean, mean right hook, and lightning fast reflexes to match.

“What do you say, Spec?” Traps asks me, kind of putting me on the spot. I can’t say I’m the right-hand man, or that mine is the final say. I’m just usually the one who plans out our special operations. But in case you’re wondering, that’s not the reason for the nickname. For some reason, when I am just being open and speaking my mind, everyone else always ends up saying, “Ey, but you’re special, you!” So that’s where ‘Spec’ came from. That, and the fact that I wear glasses.

“I don’t know guys. Rosebank is pretty far, hey. But Steamer raised a good point. We’ll want to use what we have wisely……..” I take a deep breath. I don’t want to disagree with Traps, but his idea simply isn’t the best one. “I guess going there is the most sensible thing to do,” I eventually say.

“It’s settled then,” Traps says; the disappointment in his voice apparent only to those with a keen ear, “Let’s get packed up and head out.”

“Not right away!” Scrunch interjects. Usually, when Traps is being a little rash, she’s the one to straighten him out. She’s always looking out for us, and basically, she’s the gel that holds us all together. She’s only a year older than the rest of us (we’re all about fourteen, by the way), but she’s the closest thing to a mother figure we’ve had. Also, the way she ties her walnut hair with the black bandannas she’s always wearing gives her a sort of elderly look. And, of course, her trademark is violet scrunchies. “Tshego is obviously tired from all the running she was doing,” Scrunch continues, “And she looks slightly wounded from the explosions. Mickey, Minnie, let’s have her eat something and get some rest, and then we’ll get a move on. Lace, try and see if you can get her patched up, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Lace replies, before going to get her kit. Apart from having a natural kind of enchanted beauty, Lace also has a magic touch with needles and fabrics and is a genius with stringing things together. She normally helps Traps with…….well with setting up traps, being equally as adept as he is, and when any one of us gets hurt, she does her best to make sure that the injury doesn’t get any worse by stitching the cuts and wounds up. As for Mickey and Minnie, what can I say? Those two practically asked for the nicknames they have. Mickey has got like a ‘V’ shaped thing with going on his hairline, Minnie has a higher than average voice pitch, and they are the only ones who found the energy for things like love in these perilous times. They are just as crazy about each other as they are about food. They complete our group, our family. A well-oiled, efficient working organism in which everyone has a vital role to play. There’s just something about Tshego though, that I can’t quite place. She’s brought this buzz in the atmosphere, with everyone being a little more vibrant than they were before. They all surround her as she tells them about how the last three years have been for her, and a little about what she was doing before it all went to hell.

“I bet if we found a fuel cell, we could get you hooked back up to your computers and stuff, right?” I hear Mickey say.

“I guess so, but my things are still on campus. As you may have seen, I didn’t quite get the chance to go back and get them,” she replies, as the conversation continues. I slowly draw away from the group and join Traps on the subway tracks, staring into the eerie darkness ahead. He is deep in thought, and I can barely make out the characteristic scars he has around his right temple. His huge afro still stands out, though, and so does the toothpick that never seems to get chewed into oblivion. We say nothing for like a minute; the low-key howling from an icy draft moving through the tunnel the only thing breaking the silence.

“What do think about her?” I eventually ask. He turns and looks at me, then looks on to the platform with everyone else gathered around her; all of them only visible by the glow-in-the-dark sticks some of them are holding.

“What’s there to think? She’s shown that she can hold her own pretty well, and we could use someone with her computer know-how eventually. Why do you ask?” I can’t tell him that I’m getting a weird vibe from her. It’s not like he’s told me how he really feels anyways, so I don’t have to feel bad about not being completely honest.

“Nah, I’m cool with her if you’re cool with her,” I say. I’ll just try to sort out my uneasiness by myself.

“Good enough. Just remember; we are family. She is still an outsider we know little about.” There’s something rather possessive in the way he says that. I know for one that if it was up to him, we would have turned a blind eye when we saw her being ambushed. It certainly wasn’t the first time our paths crossed; it’s just that she didn’t see us the other times because that’s how we roll. On one occasion, Lace, Traps and I followed her back to the Witwatersrand University sanctuary, where she had been taking refuge. We had to know as much as we could about everyone else who is left in this ghost city, which really is a very small number. But of the people who are here, we assessed all of them. And most importantly, we knew who the threats were; the last of who were taken out when the subway lobby came tumbling down.

*

The solar glow-in-the-dark sticks are pretty much all we have to light the way as we go through the tunnel toward Rosebank. Scrunch got her way like she almost always does, and we have a full night’s rest in our step. It was a pretty cold night, but bunking in one of the dormant train cars goes a long way to shield us from the elements.

I’m sticking close to Tshego so that I can try and figure her out. Somehow, like Traps, I feel a little threatened by her too, but for a completely different reason. I have been the special one in the group for so long, and maybe I just want to assure myself that the position is still going to be mine. It’s pretty insecure of me, I know. It’s just that still I remember how I felt the day I woke up from like a coma or something, inside a tiny concealed compartment in my older sister Eyvon’s room, wondering, “Where am I?!” I struggled to get out, but when I did, I found that her and my dad were gone, our house was a mess, there was blood on the kitchen floor and I had no explanation for any of it. I was too scared to do anything, so I grabbed as much food as I could and remained locked up in my room for weeks until I saw one of The Heirs passing the gate when I was staring out of the window one day. It was a huge risk I took by rushing out of the yard to find out who it was, but I hadn’t seen anyone else in such a long time, it seemed like a risk worth taking. I’m lucky it was easy going Rimshot who saw me first, and she stopped the rest ahead of her to bring their attention to the person who would soon become their newest member. They had been scouring the inner city suburbs looking for food water, and supplies, but in Parktown, they found a brother. Rimshot is the one who brought the idea of adding me to the family, and eventually, everyone else bought into it. Within days of joining The Heirs, all the feelings of abandonment were consumed by the acceptance I got from them. I finally felt like I belonged, like I was part of something, and yeah, I felt special. And I knew things could never go back to the way they were before.

“So Tshego, tell me, how come you’re all alone? I mean like, what happened to your friends?” I ask her, and her countenance changes almost immediately. She takes a deep breath before she replies.

“I’ve never been one for having lots of friends, but out of the few I had, the ones who didn’t try to make it home were killed by the mutant animals,” she eventually says.

“Sorry to hear that,” I respond.

“It’s okay,” she replies, “I’m sure you haven’t had it easy either.” I definitely haven’t. None of us have. It’s big of her to not go on about her own problems, and maybe she knows everyone is at different stages of dealing with the ordeals they went through, so she doesn’t ask anyone about their past. Something I am thankful for: our sob stories always dampen the mood.

We carry on walking through the tunnel while she tells us about her first encounter with that Mash character, how she was fortunate he was a few blocks away when he saw her and so she could run and find somewhere to hide. She had to wait until after it was dark before going back to her fort just so she could be sure the coast was clear. She also speaks in passing of some Ralph guy, with whom, I pick up from the hurt in her voice, she was pretty close. Probably her boyfriend, I said to myself. He left for Midrand a month before the city became infested with mutated wild animals, and she hasn’t heard from him since.

“He’s an idiot,” I surprisingly find myself saying, not sure why anyone would leave her by herself, even given the circumstances. Mickey nods his head in agreement and holds a little tighter onto Minnie’s hand. Aren’t they just adorable? I don’t know too much of anyone’s story because no one really likes to talk about their past. Too many scars, I guess. But from what I know, Minnie is the only other member apart from me who isn’t from the home the others came from. She joined them not too long before I did, in more or less the same way. We didn’t find The Heirs, her and I. The Heirs found us.

Tshego makes a joke about finding dinosaurs in Rosebank, and even though it’s unnerving, it’s also kind of humorous. Instead of getting upset, I find myself giggling. I think, in this short space of time, she has slightly won me over too. She’s a beautiful, clever little lady, and even though she’s got street smarts, she still has a vulnerable element about her, and an infectious child-like naivety that makes her impossible to hate. Even though I’m only fourteen, I somehow feel like I need to protect her. From the darkness, from the dinosaurs, from other imaginary dangers that my mind conjures up; I just feel like she needs that.

*

After about two and a half hours of walking with breaks in between, we finally get to the Rosebank station. As we are approaching it, Traps gets ahead of the pack and orders everyone to move gingerly. There is a constant flashing coming from a light that must be connected to a solar power source. It has everyone, especially Tshego, on edge. Trouble is looming, wandering above us on the surface, and if anyone of us isn’t ready, time for mentally preparing is over. Traps hops onto the platform, followed closely behind by Scrunch, and the rest of us go up after her. No one is saying a single world as we climb the motionless escalators to the upper level; everyone trying not to make any more sound than is necessary. But when we finally emerge in the lobby, everything looks normal and I can let go of the breath I have been holding ever since the tunnels.

The coast is clear: Rosebank is no different from what we left in the central business district.

Maybe the others secretly had the same fears that I had of finding dinosaurs or something completely unexpected, but after Scrunch, Steamer, Lace and Mickey secure the perimeter, everyone can be at ease. Everyone but Rimshot.

“Okay, seen and heard. Can we go now?” She says.

“Soon enough,” Traps responds. “Let’s just-“

“Actually, let’s not. We have to go now,” she reiterates.

“Cool it, Rimshot. We will, but you know the drill.”

“I’m just saying, something smells fishy, and it’s not Mickey’s breath,” she says.

“Watch it!” Mickey replies.

“No but seriously, though, I think we should move out, like yesterday.” I’m not sure if she’s clairvoyant or just being overly cautious. Everyone seems to think it’s the later.

“Alright, alright,” Traps says. “But first, Lace, Steamer, scour the area and see if there’s anything interesting around here. Mickey, Minnie, you guys check around for grub. Spec, Rimshot and Scrunch, I want you guys to join Tshego and-”

“KRANK!”

He’s still in the middle of giving instructions when it happens. A huge mouse-rat thing the size of a soccer ball bursts out of one of the vents almost right above us and streams through the air going straight at him. With the time it’s been since we last encountered a mutated animal, one would have been easily led to believe that there weren’t any left in the city. I thought along those lines too, and I was clearly wrong. We might just have taken ourselves right into their lair.

And if that’s the case, only God can help us now.

***

Jack

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