This is an edited version, however, I'll probably end up editing it more when I get the time.
Lucas could hear the thundering of the buildings as they fell, one after another. He could see the frightened people trying to run away from the destruction, screaming and yelling, some crying. He could taste the dust that rose from the falling buildings. He could smell the smoke from the raging fires, eating whatever was in their path with fiery jaws. He knew, in the end, there was no hope. Towns would be destroyed, forests would be gone, and very few cities would still be standing. Bombs would rain down, sickness would spread, and people would die.
"-was estimated that seventy five million people died during the course of World War II-"
Lucas dragged his attention back to the teacher. It was history class, and the teacher was rambling on about World War II. It wasn't anything that interested Lucas. He gazed out the window at the broken skyscrapers and the ash gray sky, lost in thought.
Every day for three years, he had to live with the after-effects of the war. The government was slowly trying to build itself back together, but with only one third of the world's population still alive, there wasn't much to build from. There was no widespread way of communication except for word of mouth, and without any other way to communicate, Lucas could tell the makeshift government they were building wasn't going to last long. Transportation was also diminished, since the streets in the still-standing cities were covered in rubble, and many cars had been smashed, blown-up, and who knew what else. Having a car didn't matter anymore. The only way to get around was by foot, which carried risks.
World War III wasn't only fought with bombs and soldiers. It was fought with a virus that could sweep through a population and kill or mutate every single person before any scientists could even figure out what was happening. And that was what happened. The virus was released on multiple major cities in the U.S., and just like it was designed to do, it killed. It killed millions of people in the blink of an eye. When the U.S. government finally realized what was going on, they set scientists to try and find a cure, and then they did the exact same thing, releasing a different virus on Russia and Korea. It was even more devastating. The war was neck and neck. What one side could pull off, the other side was determined to do the same with an even greater amount of destruction.
After a few years of the war, both sides were on their last legs. Lucas couldn't remember who had launched the last bomb or thrown the last punch, but all the countries around the world collapsed. The U.S. was left with only a few cities standing, a demolished government, and radiation and sickness still trapping most of the country.
That was why Lucas felt trapped. He was trapped in the city where his family had moved a couple years into the war, because they deemed it safer than living in their house that was on the outskirts of town. Lucas hadn't wanted to move. He loved their old house more than anything. There wasn't that much light pollution, which made it a good place to look at the stars, his favorite pastime. Looking back on it now, Lucas realized that if they had stayed, he still wouldn't have been able to see the stars. The sky was a permanent gray, and Lucas couldn't even remember what it looked like when it was blue. The world before the war seemed like another life, one that he wished he could get back to. But he couldn't, so he had to make do trying to keep his family alive, go to the one school in a fifty mile radius that still stood, and survive. Pushing through the hardest parts in life. The ups and down, the twists and turns. He just had to keep fighting.
Lucas could remember his mom's voice when she told them that they had to move. It was filled with worry, concern, fear. It had trembled when she mentioned the war, and Lucas could picture her hazel eyes glistening with tears that had yet to fall. Lucas could still hear his younger brother, Chaz, crystal clear. His voice was barely above a whisper when he spoke of the war, as if he knew that it could destroy their family just as well as everything else. That was true, though no one wanted to admit it. For a child so young, he was only in fourth grade when they moved, he acted like he knew exactly what was going on. Chaz was the opposite of his dad, who had steel blue eyes, cold and hard, trying to hide the truth. His dad was like a rock; unbreakable. He was determined to keep his family safe from whatever was out there, no matter what it took. Lucas's dad scared him; he didn't know what had overcome the kind, gentle-hearted person that he had once known. When they moved, Lucas had only been in eighth grade. Old enough to know what was going on, young enough to not understand the meaning.
The move was scary for Lucas. He had never lived or even been near a big city before, so it was shocking to see the towering buildings that were crumbling slowly, waiting for a fly to land on them before crashing to the ground. It seemed like that was all it would take. A stray fly to land on the top, and the entire city would come falling down. It scared Lucas. He couldn't sleep for nights on end after the move. But even if the city did fall, they would have been safe in a basement that they discovered. It was musty, and reeked of dead rats and mice, but it was safe. It was there that Lucas's family stayed for almost an entire year, waiting for the worst part of the war to end. Once it did, they crept out of their haven, and discovered just how bad things had gotten.
Mutants roamed the streets. Dead bodies lay piled on every corner. Every step taken was one step taken towards an uncertain future. His mom and dad argued over whether to return to the basement and cower there for a longer amount of time. His dad didn't want to; he claimed that there was a safe place among the destruction of the city. They would find an abandoned apartment, clean it up, and live there. Things would get better, his dad said, it was only a matter of time.
Despite the fright of the city, Lucas came to enjoy it. His family did find an apartment, and it was only a few blocks away from the high school. A year passed, and news of the high school reopening circulated through the streets. By then it was less dangerous, people had been out killing the mutants and bodies had decomposed into piles of bones of street corners. So Lucas decided to go to school. By then he was a sophomore, and thankfully while they had been hiding in the basement he had been doing school work, which meant that he knew more than some of the others.
It was on one of the days when Lucas was out wandering the streets when he stumbled across another kid his age that he hadn't seen before. Lucas could remember that day crystal clear.
"Hello?" Lucas called out, creeping towards the person digging through a pile of rubble.
The person looked up, and Lucas realized it was another kid his age. The boy had ash covering parts of his face. Specifically, there was a patch of ash that created a spot around one of his eyes. Lucas couldn't help but smile at the boy standing there in tattered clothes with an uncertain look in his eyes. "Hi?"
"You look like a panda," Lucas said, trying not to laugh and appear rude.
"A panda?" The boy furrowed his eyebrows which were covered by a lock of brown hair.
"Yeah, a panda," Lucas replied.
"Ok…" the boy halfway turned back to the pile of rubble, still eyeing Lucas. "Who are you?"
"My name is Lucas," Lucas said, "I'm going to the high school here. What's your name?"
The boy didn't answer.
"Can I call you Panda?" Lucas asked, "you know, since you're not telling me your name or anything?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders. "Alright, go ahead."
There was a ringing, and it took Lucas a second to figure out what was going on. As he faded back into reality, he realized it was the bell. The school bell. He was in history class. Right.
Lucas shoved his notebook into his torn black backpack and stood up. The other kids in the room were leaving, most of them seniors, except for one student that he recognized as a junior. Lucas stood up, and his gaze landed on the window.
Through the blinds, he could see the ruined parking lot. It was covered in ash, a few crushed cars, and chunks of concrete. Past the unused parking lot was the old band field, also covered in a layer of ash and dead grass. That was what World War III had done. It had destroyed almost all the good things that remained in life.
Lucas tore his gaze away from the window and turned towards the door. He was the last one out of the barren classroom. The room almost scared him- dirt tainted walls, no friendly posters, creaky desks… it seemed abandoned. Haunted. Most of the rooms at Oak Valley High School were like that. No one had bothered to try to make them look nicer, the teachers only cared about giving the kids a decent education. Maybe the teachers had hope that the next generation would put the world back together. Unlikely, but it was hope. Something that seemed too scarce these days.
Stepping into the hallway, Lucas strode off, through the thin stream of people. If the war hadn't happened, the hallway would be more crowded. Instead of Lucas being able to have his own personal bubble, he would probably be trying to shove his way through the mass of students. But not anymore.
He walked past the green and blue lockers, some of the metal doors hanging open and falling off their hinges. People had tried to break into the school to find food and water during the war, without success. Like the classrooms, no one had bothered to try and fix it.
As Lucas strode down the hallway, he caught sight of a girl walking the opposite way. She was short, had a mass of black hair that bounced with every step, and carried a notebook clutched up against her chest. When the girl spotted him, she changed her direction to walk towards him. Lucas tried not to groan. He didn't like the girls, but they liked him.
"Hey Lucas, did you hear about the football game last night?"
Lucas stopped and looked down the hallway longingly. Why did Tracy have to stop him…?
The games weren't actually games against other teams, they were scrimmages. There wasn't another school for miles. In fact, Oak Valley was one of the few high schools that existed.
Without waiting for a reply, the girl continued, "Mark's team won, but Alex's team just gave up without a fight! It was so weird. I haven't had a chance to talk to Alex, but I'm planning on it at lunch."
"Ok, good idea," Lucas said, stepping back. "I need to go."
Before Tracy could say anything else, Lucas darted away, trying to get away from her. With any luck, she wouldn't follow. Risking a glance over his shoulder, he found that he was right. She had started back down the hallway, disappearing into a small cluster of people.
Lucas sighed, relieved. Looking up, he realized he had almost reached the commons. Hanging on the wall above the archway was a torn paper banner, reading, "Go Owls! Beat the Gators!" The words were written in blue and green marker, with some of the words smeared from water. The top right corner was loose, flapping in a draft. He wondered why no one had bothered to take it down.
When Lucas returned his gaze to where he was going, he spotted a boy leaning against the lockers up ahead. He instantly recognized the overgrown crew cut hair and shabby dark red jacket.
The boy looked up, his mouth a thin line and eyes seeming far and distant.
"Hey, are you ok?" Lucas asked once he reached his friend.
Panda just shook his head, returning his gaze to the floor.
"Hey, come on, I know something is wrong."
With a sigh, Panda looked up, his cold blue eyes focusing on something behind Lucas. "It's nothing, I'm fine."
"Really?" Lucas arched one eyebrow. "You can't lie to me."
Panda looked at Lucas. "Ok, I'm just having a hard time at…" he swallowed, "home."
After Lucas met Panda, whose real name was Eric but didn't like being called that, Lucas helped Panda find a place to stay. His parents had died during World War III, leaving him an orphan to roam the streets. Thankfully, Lucas helped him find an empty apartment only a couple of blocks away from the school. From there, Panda had moved some furniture, redecorated as much as he could, and called it his home. Lucas admired what his friend had done- living on his own in a dangerous world, with mainly mutants as a concern- that took some guts.
Instead of deciding to press him on it in the hallway, Lucas said, "let's go to the Commons and talk."
Leading the way, they continued to the commons. It was a spacious area that had some plastic benches and trash cans. Only a few people passed through, since most of the classrooms were on the other side of the building. Lucas guided them to one of the hunter green benches pressed up against the brick wall. He dropped his backpack on the floor with a thud, and sat down, Panda following suite.
"So what's wrong at home?" Lucas asked.
Panda looked down at his hands that were twisting in his lap. "I don't have a home anymore. I couldn't help it. There was a mutant and I ran. I can't go back."
Lucas could feel his eyes widen. A mutant! Those things were menacing, and Lucas had only seen one from a block away. That had scared him bad enough. "Did it come into your apartment?"
Panda nodded gravely. "It practically bashed the door in. I don't remember much, I was so scared… but I made it out of there and now I don't have a place to stay."
Considering the thought, Lucas suggested, "you could stay at my place."
"No," Panda said without hesitation. "I can't put that burden on your family."
"But-" he said, protesting as Panda rose to his feet, "Chaz loves it when you come over! Can't you just stay a few nights until we find you a new place?"
Swinging his backpack onto his shoulders, Panda grunted and started striding away, towards the door to the outside world.
"Wait!" Lucas jumped up and followed his friend, grabbing the boy by his skinny shoulder.
Panda looked back at Lucas, a distant look in his eyes again. "No. I can take care of myself. I'll find someplace to stay." Panda broke free from Lucas's grip, continuing on his way.
"Panda… I can't let you roam the streets! We're seniors, we get to graduate in a few months! Can't you just stay with me for a few days so you don't have to worry getting to school and doing homework? Please?"
Panda stopped dead in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder and spoke, his voice grave. "What does graduating mean anymore? The world is in ruins. A diploma won't get you anywhere." With that, he continued out the door, ditching school.
The bell rang, and Lucas stood in the middle of the Commons, watching his friend leave. Panda was right. What did graduating matter anymore?
Lucas could feel his eyes starting to close, and he snapped them open, trying to drag his mind into the present. Thankfully it was the last class of the day. All he wanted to do when he got home was go to sleep, but Chaz would need help with his schoolwork, and Lucas had his own homework he had to take care of.
Just as Lucas was about to glance at the clock on the wall by the classroom door, the bell rang. He gave a sigh of relief and let his pencil fall out of his grasp. It landed on the desk with a click.
Doing the same as the rest of the students in the room, Lucas shoved his notebook in his backpack, and threw his pencil in. He probably wasn't going to be able to find it tomorrow… oh well. Before he got out of his seat, he pulled his iPhone out of one of his pockets. It was useless for texting and calling, but it still worked for listening to music, so he took advantage of that. He unwound the headphones and stuck them in his ears.
As Lucas was about to rise out of his chair, something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He looked over and saw it was a piece of small torn paper sitting on the corner of the desk. That hadn't been there a minute ago… he reached out and grabbed it. Had someone left it there? Or had it randomly fallen out of someone's backpack and somehow landed on his desk? He looked at it. The front side was blank, but on the back there was scribbled writing.
Lucas let the piece of paper fall onto the desk. How could someone know? Lucas and Chaz used to go out and look at the stars when they lived at their old house before the war, before the sky clouded up. Sometimes Lucas would bring his telescope out and they would take turns looking through it, but on other nights Lucas and Chaz would sit in the front lawn and look at the stars with an unaided eye. They were stargazers, as their mom teased. But no one except for Panda knew that. And he wasn't in the same class as Lucas. How could someone know, and why did they leave the note?
Lucas decided to shrug it off for the time being. He picked up the note and shoved it in his letterman jacket pocket, and then got up and pulled his backpack on. With that, he strode out the door and down the hallway.
While he walked, he considered everything waiting for him at home. Since there wasn't a middle school in the area, Chaz had to study from some textbooks they had grabbed before the schools closed. That meant that if he needed help with a subject, which was usually math, Lucas had to help him. Lucas had to help Chaz with his schoolwork just about every day, but he didn't mind. Then there was also Lucas's own schoolwork he had to take care of and the job of finding food if they were running low. On those days he had to scour the streets for food, which was a rare occasion when he did find any that was edible. Usually he headed to the market place and traded for food. His mom worried when he went there, but she realized that was what he had to do to help keep the family stable. His dad could care less.
Lucas pushed open one of the glass doors that led outside, and he trotted down the cracked steps. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and whirled around, feeling like he was about to be attacked. He bit his lip when he realized it was only a girl whose name escaped him. Trying to be at least halfway polite, he pulled out one of his ear buds.
"Hey Lucas, what's up? Did you talk to Tracy earlier?" The girl started walking beside him, and Lucas hoped she didn't plan on staying with him for long.
"Yeah," Lucas said, just wanting to get the preppy girl away as fast as he could.
"So you heard about the football game then," she replied, looking up at him, her face covered in makeup. How and why did girls still bother to put makeup on even after World War III? Did it matter how people looked?
Lucas nodded as they walked down the sidewalk. On either side, there was a row of dead trees, their branches reaching out towards them like skeletons. It made Lucas shiver; he couldn't rid the uneasy feeling that crept up on him so easily these days. The streets covered in ash, the damaged buildings, and the destroyed cars that littered the streets like leaves on the ground during fall, it only added to the feeling. The city seemed so abandoned, even though it was better than it had been. At least some people had decided to drag most of the dead bodies out of the street. But not all.
The girl went on talking and when they reached the end of the sidewalk, Lucas decided to interrupt. "I need to get home."
She stopped talking, and the look on her face made Lucas think that she had forgotten that he was even there. Typical. Before she could say another word, Lucas stepped into the street and strode away. With his luck, she wouldn't follow.
He continued, and glanced over his shoulder. The girl had turned away and was heading down the sidewalk the opposite direction. Good.
Lucas sighed, and looked down the street. A small group of students stood clustered on the other side of the road, laughing and talking. There was a girl further away, probably heading to whatever she called home. Lucas put the ear bud back in and started towards his apartment, zoning out and listening to his music.
At last, he was home. Lucas stood in the dirt stained hallway with the wallpaper peeling off the walls, wondering how he had come to accept it. Before they moved, Lucas never would have come near a place as disgusting as this. Now, he welcomed it, as opposed to other places he had seen.
Lucas pulled out his ear buds, turned his music off, and wrapped the ear buds around his phone and stuck it back in his pocket. His mom didn't like to see him listening to his music, she thought it was disrespectful. Lucas didn't see why it mattered, but he did it to please his mom anyways. He pulled open the door with a faded silver tag that read 306 and stepped inside.
Directly inside was the living room, where there were two dingy, stained couches perpendicular to each other and a wooden coffee table in between. Opposite of the couches was a small TV that didn't even work, but no one had bothered to move it out of the way. Sitting on one of the couches was Lucas's dad, who was facing away from the door, and it looked like he was reading through a stack of papers.
On Lucas's right was the kitchen, where his mom was. She was scrubbing one of the marble countertops that stretched around the corner of the room. She always tried to keep in pristine condition, along with many other things. In the sink was a stack of plates, ones that she probably had yet to wash. At the end of the counter was the refrigerator, bare of any magnets except for one that Lucas had found while looking for food and had given to Chaz. It was a blue fish with white fins. Chaz had loved it. In the far corner of the room was the creaky wooden dinner table. It sat in the dim shadows, since the blinds on the windows were closed. His parents didn't like to see the ruined world below. At first Lucas had protested because it made the apartment dark, but now he had grown used to the little light that made its way inside the apartment.
Turning to his left, Lucas headed down a narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms. The first door on the wall to his right lead to his parent's room, and the second door lead to his room. However, he passed it, and went straight to the last door, Chaz's bedroom. The door was shut, and Lucas knocked.
"It's me," he said.
"Come in," a voice called out.
Lucas pushed open the door and was greeted by sunlight that filled the room. Chaz, unlike his parents, actually kept his window blinds open. The light highlighted the drawings taped to the walls, and the papers scattered across the floor. Chaz was sitting on his bed shoved up against the wall in the corner of the room, bent over his math book. He looked up at Lucas, his innocent brown eyes practically pleading Lucas for help.
"What's got you troubled?" Lucas asked, shrugging off his heavy backpack and dropping it on the carpet by the door. He stepped over to his brother's bed, and plopped down on the blue and black bed sheets next to his brother.
"I don't get how to make a box and whisker plot, and where the heck are the whiskers supposed to go?" Chaz moaned, throwing his pencil down.
"Chill out," Lucas said, picking up the pencil and giving it back to Chaz. Chaz didn't reach for it. "Knock it off, you'll understand it once I explain it. You catch on quick, you know that." Chaz could be moody, in fact, two out of three days he usually was in a bad mood because he needed help with his work.
Grudgingly, Chaz picked up his pencil, and listened as Lucas explained how to make box and whisker plots. When he was done, Lucas stood up and was about to leave, but Chaz spoke up.
Lucas turned back to see his brother looking at watching him, the freckles on his face standing out against his pale skin. "Yeah?" Lucas said.
"Can Panda come over sometime?"
Lucas sighed, not being able to help it. He had completely forgotten about Panda. Another problem added onto his plate, when all he actually wanted to do was sleep. But no, he probably wouldn't be able to until midnight, at least. Maybe later depending on how long it took him to do his homework.
"Is something wrong?" Chaz asked.
Lucas shook his head. "No. Yes. I don't know. I'll talk to him soon." Before Chaz could say anything, Lucas turned and left, grabbing his backpack on the way out. He slammed the door shut, and instantly regretted it. Now one of his parents would probably yell at him, or at least know that he was in a bad mood, and probably yell at him later. Just what he needed. One problem piling on top of another.