Audra Silvestre set her hand on the stack of tablet computers and looked up. Most of her students stood by the arched exit near Faye Eichmann. Audra nodded to the thin woman before looking toward the front of her cavern-turned classroom.
Oscar Renault traced patterns on his desk in the front. The algebra problem projected onto his khaki sleeve. Propping a hip against the six-foot long table, he glared at two of his classmates.
Two ninth-grade twins, Pete and Paul, covered their smiles and pretended to be absorbed in the solved equation.
Good gracious. Now what were those two up to? And why did they always make Oscar the butt of their jokes? Everyone appreciated a little humor, but she had to make sure it stayed friendly and didn’t bleed into bullying. Audra smoothed the edges of her sweater. “Yes, Oscar? Do you have a question about the problem?”
“Nope.” Oscar chewed on his bottom lip for a moment.
Pete jerked his head in Audra’s direction.
She hadn’t thought Oscar had a problem. He understood math far better than English. Her fingers drummed the tablet on top of her stack and waited. Rushing the boy wouldn’t do any good. Oscar would talk when he was ready. Her stomach growled and she set her hand over it. She hoped he’d be ready soon. She was hungry and cold MREs were not very tasty. “Oscar?”
Oscar puffed out his chest. “Is it true that one radioactive potato can feed everyone in the class because they’re so big from the radiation and they have to be hauled in a wheelbarrow and they can barely fit through the door.” His chest deflated as he talked. Finally, he wheezed to a stop.
Audra blinked. She felt her skull hum as she tried to sort through the words. A complete sentence lurked in there. Somewhere. Maybe. She mentally grabbed the repeated word. “You think the vegetables have been irradiated.”
He nodded and a lock of dark-red hair dripped over his forehead.
At least she was on the right track–now to connect the stations. “And you think irradiating the vegetables made them very large.”
Oscar nodded again. “Someone said that one potato is big enough to provide French Fries for the whole class.”
Pete and Paul stopped pretending to look at the equation and tilted their heads to the left, waiting. The rustle of fabric behind her quieted. Eyes bored into her back. Apparently, this tidbit wasn’t new. Yet, this was the first time she’d heard it.
“Is it true, Audra?” Faye’s soft voice echoed around the cavern.
Wonderful, now even the adults believed such silliness.
“No, it’s not true.” Leaving the stack, Audra inched down the aisle. She picked up the tablets on the right and left as she passed. “Where did you hear such a thing?”
“The movie. Giant ants were eating people because of the radiation.” Oscar thrust both hands in his back pockets. His jeans scooched lower to flirt with the hem of his polo shirt but didn’t bunch around his knees.
Small miracle. Audra cleared the row of computers then turned right and headed toward the front of the classroom. “That was a movie. It’s make believe, not real at all.”
She hoped. Bugs were icky enough when they flew at you. Surely, if God was in Heaven, He wouldn’t make them the size of minivans or city buses. There wasn’t a shoe big enough to squish that.
Pete shoved Oscar’s shoulder. “Told you.”
“How do you know, Miz S?” Oscar folded his arms over his chest. His bottom jaw thrust forward.
Why couldn’t the boy be as curious about dangling participles and verb tenses? Balancing the computers in one arm, Audra stopped by a footlocker bolted into the wall near the whiteboard. “How do I know it’s a movie? My Dad and I watched B-movies when I was growing up, and I remember that one.”
She also remembered breaking her brother’s ant farm while checking to make sure the critters hadn’t doubled in size overnight.
“Not that.” Oscar shook his head. “About the radiation growing the food.”
Sighing, she stood on tiptoe and reached for the buckles of the footlocker. The kid was stubborn. Fortunately, a Silvestre had obstinacy as a base pair in their DNA sequence. “Once I’d learned we’d spend the rest of our lives in a cave, I looked up everything I could on radiation and its effects. Radiation kills plants and animals, Oscar. It doesn’t give them superpowers.”
She flashed her palm at him–the universal stop sign.
His teeth clicked together.
“We’ll discuss this in science class.” She shooed him and the other two boys toward the line. “After lunch. Now go.”
The trio hustled to the back of the room. When Faye led the students into the tunnel, Audra turned her attention to the footlocker and carefully organized the tablets inside. Radiation growing mutant sized food. She chuckled. What would they think of next?
“What’s so funny?”
Audra set the last computer in place and rubbed the red marks from her arm. Turning, she spied her friend Tina Tsao picking up the rest of the tablets from the desk. “Apparently last night’s movie has the children thinking we’re sowing mammoth-sized fruits and vegetables.”
“I wish.” Tina’s black ponytail wiggled down her back when she walked toward the locker. “I practically drool every time I think of eating French fries. Dinner cannot come soon enough for me.”
“I know what you mean.” Audra stepped. “I dream of the day there’ll be salads. Crisp lettuce, crunchy celery and carrots. Tomatoes with salt and fresh basil.” Saliva pooled in her mouth. Absence didn’t affect her heart so much as her tastebuds.
“You always were the salad queen.” Tina shut the locker. Metal rattled when she lashed the chains over the four sides then padlocked them together. “When the Redaction hit, you were demoted to Princess.” When she giggled, Tina’s almond-shaped brown eyes nearly disappeared. “Get it. Eddie calls you Princess.”
Audra waved her hand in the air. Yeah, she understood the reference. Unfortunately, her boyfriend Eddie called her Princess when he wanted to put distance between them. It was beginning to annoy her. “I hear they’re making cheese with the goats’ milk.”
She bit back a groan. As changes of subjects go, that one was about as subtle as a hatchet in a china shop.
Tina tucked her arm through Audra’s and tugged her toward the door. “Troubles in paradise?”
“No!” Great, screams of denial were ever so believable. They turned in to the tunnel. With every other light being out to conserve power, the rock walls pressed in on her. She focused on her breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Left foot, right foot. Soon the tunnel would widen. Soon, there’d be air to breathe. “No.”
Tina squeezed her forearm. “You should see Falcon about your claustrophobia.”
“I already have.” Many times. The shrink-in-training taught her breathing exercises but not much else. Audra eyed the bare bulb overhead before glancing at the dots of light on the ground. Her thighs twitched. Lord o’ mercy, when would this need to jump from one spot to the next leave her? She kept her pace steady but the tremors rattled through her.
“Maybe you should go more often.”
Maybe Tina should stop using up all the oxygen. Audra paused under a return. Cold air poured out of the metal grate. Her nose tingled.
“Eddie starts his new job today.” Tina glanced up and down the corridor.
Two men stood near a junction box. The older man shook his head. “Black to black. Don’t mix the colors.”
“Hey, I became an accountant so I didn’t have to do menial labor.”
Audra tuned them out.
“Yes, he starts today.” Not that he hadn’t been working on the electrolysis machines for weeks. But today, he’d be around them for ten hours. Given how frequently they went down, she didn’t like the odds that one wouldn’t blow himself up due to a stray spark sometime within the week.
Today’s power outage didn’t help.
She couldn’t lose Eddie. Not after everything they’ve been through. Her fingers curled into fists. She wouldn’t lose him. Audra clasped the quartz crystal he’d given her, slid it along the string around her neck. Not that Eddie wasn’t smart or good with his hands. Heat shimmered inside her. Very good with his hands.
But those machines were dangerous and unpredictable.
Audra stopped cold and set her hands on her hips. Surely, he was not speaking to her.
“Wait up a minute.” Footsteps pounded behind her. A moment later, one of electricians skidded to a stop in front of her. He gasped for breath and stared at her chest.
How positively rude. Now that they were safe, manners should be observed. “Sir, I would–”
He raked his broken nails down her chest and hooked her necklace.
What in the world? Audra twisted at the waist and raised her hand to block his attack. The string bit into her neck then snapped.
The man sprinted away.
Good Lord. She’d just be mugged. No way! She leapt to follow but something held her back.
“Are you nuts?” Tina held her waistband with both hands. “The necklace isn’t worth it.”
Audra batted at her friend’s hands. She could still catch the stealing jerk. “Eddie gave me that. He made it for me.”
“Then he can make you another. He wouldn’t want you to get hurt over a crystal.”
He wouldn’t want her to get hurt period. The thief disappeared into another tunnel–one that branched into three directions.
“Fine.” She rubbed her neck and winced at the sore spot. She’d bruise soon.
“Besides, it’s not like he can go far. We’ll just report him to the nearest cop.” Tina grinned.
Audra rubbed the blood between her thumb and index finger. The cops had better find him before Eddie did. “What is it with you and cops?”
She sincerely hoped her friend was mourning the loss of Deputy Pecos, not looking for his surrogate.
The whites of Tina’s eyes glowed in the dim light. “Doesn’t everyone love a man in uniform? The way their pants cup their backsides.”
“Okay. Okay. I get it.”
“Yes, you do. Practically every night.”
Audra’s cheeks burned. Good gracious, was the woman implying what she thought she was?
When the tunnel forked, Tina bumped into her, steering her down the right one. “You may have to take turns canoodling in the corner with the way your mother is making eyes at Principal Dunn.”
Her mother and Principal Dunn? Audra tripped over her feet. Reaching out, she grabbed the clammy stone and found her footing. “You’re making that up.”
“Am I?” Tina dropped her arm. “Or have you been so lost in Eddie that you haven’t paid attention to what’s going on around you?”
“I would know if my mother’s affections were engaged.” Staggering out of the tunnel, Audra blinked rapidly. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the brightness of this room. Strings of lights draped across the basketball court sized area. Foil lined the concave ceiling, trapping the heat of the incandescent bulbs on one side and funneling the water seeping through the rocks into the pipes. For a moment, she pictured herself inside a baked potato.
She shook her head to clear the thoughts of food.
Months of subsisting only on Meals-Ready-to-Eat had driven her mad.
“Look.” Tina pointed across the room the outcropping of rocks. “Your mother just gave Principal Dunn her shortbread cookies.”
That was Tina’s proof of an affair? Audra laughed and adjusted her scarf to cover her neck. “My mother detests sweets. Always has.”
Some things not even an extinction level event and nuclear meltdown could change. Thankfully, she had not inherited the gene. Cookies were about the only thing that made the slab of cardboard affectionately known as meatloaf, edible. Of course, the Tabasco sauce helped. “Not a word about my necklace to my mother.”
She didn’t want to give the children something else to fear.
“I’ll get Faye to cover for us after school. Then we’ll find the police.” Tina led the way across the cavern.
Audra’s sneakers sunk into the clover and grass growing in clumps around the space. Patches of black night soil filled the spaces between the weave of green. On her right, her students sat on benches carved from the rock walls. Others lounged on the grass. The younger one climbed the bulldozer in the center. The machine had scraped off the topsoil outside and moved it inside before being consigned to playground equipment. Here and there cones of natural light sprayed over the walls. The triple layers of sealed glass kept out the radioactive rays and toxic melted snow from their tomb.
Jacqueline Silvestre lifted two beige MRE baggies from where they rested against the wall near the bench. “Your meatloaf should be good and hot now, Audra.”
“Thanks.” Audra’s stomach cramped when she accepted the packet from her mother. She shouldn’t complain. Food was food. Yet, their limited selection had her tastebuds on the verge of sliding off her tongue and marching into the wasteland outside. She dumped one small bottle of Tabasco then added Tina’s for good measure.
“Will Eddie be joining us for lunch today?” Her mother studied the speared potato on her fork.
“I don’t think so.” Audra lowered herself onto the grass and crossed her legs Indian style. She stirred the contents and selected an orange cube. “He planned to eat with Forrest.”
Tucking it inside her mouth, she felt the stuff dissolve. Just as she thought, a carrot taste was too much for the orange cube.
“Oh, yes.” Mrs. Rodriguez nodded. A red cross on her jacket identified the former school nurse as medical personnel. “He’s being quite responsible.” She jabbed her white plastic fork at Audra. “That’s good father material there.”
Her stomach returned the cube. It stuck on the back of her throat. She coughed and pounded her chest. Her eyes watered before it fell back into her gut. “Father material?”
“That’s what you’re practicing for, isn’t it, Princess?” Mrs. Rodriguez grinned at her. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll be experts in no time.”
Flames of embarrassment flickered over Audra’s body. Snickers traveled from the nurse to the principal to Blind Connie who taught preschool and her mother… Jacqueline nodded and nibbled on a piece of meatloaf. Her own mother! For the love of… “We’ve only been together for six weeks.”
“Seven.” Her mother corrected. “Plenty of time for you to be with child.”
“Mother!” Goodness! Sure the world had ended, but that was no excuse. Silvestres always did things in the proper order. Sleeping with Eddie may have changed those time-honored steps, but… really. “We’re not even married.”
“Just a formality.” Her mother batted the words away. “A baby would be a blessing after everything. And to think, my grandchild would be the first citizen of this new world. She’d be a symbol of hope and endurance–just as Silvestres have been since before this country was a country.”
Ah, that explained it. Audra loosened her grip on her fork. Too bad the notion of a Silvestre’s duty hadn’t been eradicated in the meltdown. Eddie wasn’t about duty; he was about her and what she wanted and how he made her feel.
She liked that.
She liked who he made her become.
Using the edge of her utensil, she cut off a hunk of meatloaf. “Sorry to disappoint you, Mother, but I’m on the Pill.” Thanks to Eddie’s scavenging, she had four more months of pills to go. “No babies.”
Not until she was ready.
Not until she knew Eddie wasn’t going to blow himself up in his new job.
“The Pill?” Her mother dropped her MRE. The pouch plopped over and brown gravy dripped onto the green clover. “Why would you do such a thing?”
Tina’s eyes widened in her face. The principal stirred his food. Blind Connie’s lips twitched.
Audra chucked her fork into the bag and set it between her feet. “Geez, it’s not like I robbed a bank.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady. I am your mother and will not condone such blasphemy.”
Blasphemy, over geez?
Tina coughed but Audra saw her friend’s lips curve into a smile. Traitor.
Principal Dunn pushed to his feet. “I think I’m needed outside.”
“Sit down, Howard.” Her mother shoved the principal back onto the bench.
His face flushed red and he studied his MRE pouch as if trying to figure how to climb inside.
“Audra Martha Silvestre.”
Uh-oh. She straightened. Nothing good ever followed someone’s full name.
“Relax, Jackie O.” Mrs. Rodriguez patted her mother’s hand. “Princess A here could be pregnant and not know it.”
Audra blinked. What was going on? Had they switched her birth control pills for placebos?
Her mother’s green eyes narrowed. “How is that possible?”
“We’re all on Cipro, right?” Mrs. Rodriguez opened her packet of cookies with a pop.
“Yes, of course.” Her mother nodded. Principal Dunn scooted away from her, but before he made it a foot, her mother reeled him back to her side. “It’s the only thing to keep that nasty anthrax at bay.”
“Everyone knows antibiotics diminish the efficacy of birth control pills.” Smiling, Mrs. Rodriguez popped a shortbread into her mouth.
“What!” Audra pushed off the ground. Not everyone knew that. “That’s a myth. It isn’t true.”
Why wasn’t it on the label of the stupid antibiotics? She had read the warning label on Cipro, hadn’t she?
“Do sit down, Audra.” Her mother flapped her hand toward the grass. “You’re making me dizzy.”
Audra clenched her fists. Sit down. Get pregnant. Do your duty. When did she ever just get to be herself, owe nothing to anyone but herself? “Mother–”
A hard yank pulled her to the right.
“Audra thinks we should teach radiation awareness in the classroom.” Tina’s eyebrows reached for her hairline. Pleading filled her brown eyes.
Audra flopped to the ground. Fine. She’d let it go for now. But the topic was far from closed. Right after school, she’d visit the doctor and order a pregnancy test.
“After everything those children have been through, do you think it is wise?” Her mother regally nodded her head, an acknowledgment of the ceasefire but not an end to the war. The Silvestres must not perish from Earth.
Principal Dunn stroked his clean shaven chin. “Funny you should mention that, I’ve had some questions about radiation today.”
“I think it was that movie we streamed in the canteen last night.” Audra wrapped her arms around her shins and rested her chin on her knees. What if she were pregnant? Could her egg basket have been exposed to radiation during their flight to safety? “Oscar, Pete and Paul seemed to think that we’ll have huge vegetables and ants from the radiation.”
Mrs. Rodriguez shoved to her feet and began collecting the utensils. “I had a few folks request sleep aids because of nightmares. This is the new boogeyman and I think knowing a bit about it might help keep the kids and adults calm.”
Tina collected the bags, pouring the uneaten bits into one. She frowned at the nearly full contents of Audra’s pouch. “I think we should teach physical self-defense in addition to mental resiliency. Especially to the girls. I could certainly have used it when…”
Tina swallowed hard.
Audra squeezed her friend’s cold hand. When they’d been pulled off the bus, had pillowcases shoved over their head and taken to a house to await their new ‘duties’. None of them had been raped, but it had been a close thing. God only knew what would have happened if Eddie and Principal Dunn hadn’t come back to rescue them. “Self-defense is a good idea and provides exercise in our limited space.”
She opened her arms, gesturing to the cavern.
Her mother smoothed her napkin over her lap. “We’re safe here, aren’t we? That won’t happen again. Not here where we all know each other.”
Audra adjusted her collar.
Principal Dunn patted her mother’s knee. “You know we’ve had folks stealing our tablets, Jackie O. Perhaps a little Thai Chi would be good for everyone.”
Whoa. Audra watched the Principal’s hand until he set it in his lap. Was there something going on with her mother and the Principal? She’d have to ask Eddie. He would know. He seemed to have a sense of these things. She raked the packets that came with the MRE’s into a pile.
“Who’s going to teach it? I have my hands full with English. Phil teaches Math and Science for the junior high and high schoolers.” She glanced around for the geologist, but didn’t see him. Probably glued to the TV watching the cabinet meeting. “Tina and Faye are teaching those classes to the elementary students. Connie, Maddy and Erin are assisting with numbers and letters plus reading for the younger kids. Mom and Principal Dunn teach history, geography, art and music. Our assistants don’t know self-defense.”
Blind Connie unfolded her red-tipped cane. “Papa Rose and Falcon should teach self-defense.”
Audra shuddered. The two big men looked as if they should be moving small mountains with their bare hands. She squelched the unkind thought. “The counselors?”
“Yes.” Connie’s white curls quivered on her pink scalp. “They’re both ex-military and know plenty of hand-to-hand combat. Plus they have children in the school, and thanks to their counseling work, they know almost all the youngsters.”
Principal Dunn caught Audra’s eye.
She shrugged. Funny how he looked to her for leadership since their exodus. “Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
He nodded. “Agreed. Now, on that subject, Doctor Spanner has approached me about putting together training modules to help raise the next generation of teachers.” He rubbed his hands together. “It’s time to look to the future and, just like the Founding Fathers, we will have a hand in shaping it.”
Audra smiled. The future. They might actually live to see it. She touched her sore neck.
Her mother tugged a repurposed paint can off the shelf and pried open the lid. “A Silvestre helped shape the United States, it’s only appropriate one help form these United Caves.”
Leave it to her mother to remind her of her duty. Audra scraped up the condiments and added them to the can before standing. Maybe they could do better this time around and build something that would last more than two hundred thirty-six years. “Perhaps, it should be United Caves, Caverns and Mines.”
“UCCM?” Tina rose to her feet. The full MRE pouches waggled in her hands. “We need a better acronym. Something catchy.”
“Catchy?” Mrs. Rodriguez snorted. “I think we’re done with contagious anything.”
Audra joined the others in chuckling. By God, humor would keep them sane no matter how bleak their future looked. “Amen to that.”
The red phone on the wall rang.
She held her breath. No, that couldn’t be about Eddie. The lights were back on. Sure there was that little tremor earlier but everything was okay, wasn’t it?
Mrs. Rodriguez crossed the cavern. “Probably for me. I’m due to take a shift in the infirmary in twenty minutes.” She lifted the phone and held it against her ear. “Hello?”
“I’m sure Eddie’s fine.” Tina set her hand over Audra’s. “The lights out was fifteen minutes ago.”
Audra nodded and met the nurse’s eyes.
“I’ll tell her.” Mrs. Rodriquez cleared her throat. “There’s been an accident. They’re prepping Infirmary two for Eddie.”
Audra swayed and reached for the necklace Eddie had given her. Her fingers closed around empty space. Infirmary Two. That’s where they took the terminal cases.