When the missiles soared across the oceans and detonated, nobody was prepared, least of all Anthony Ross or his son Shafer. Anthony’s wife Marsha had recently died of breast cancer and both he and Shafer were still devastated. Even though Anthony forced his son to return to school a couple weeks after Marsha’s funeral, Shafer no longer played flag football at recess, nor was he king of the jungle gym. However, none of that mattered once the countries with nuclear arsenals decided to destroy each other.
Theories abounded, yet no one really knew who pressed the doomsday button first. Some thought it was Russia, provoked by the outing of a high-level spy. Others figured it was India, incensed over the handling of a diplomatic matter. In reality, everyone played a part in ending the world as humans knew it. After the first country launched their nuclear missiles, so did all the others, staring a chain-reaction that ended up killing 99% of the global population. Bright white fireballs exploded in most major cities. Blast waves flattened everything and ignited fires which took weeks to burn out. The smoke from those fires effectively blocked all sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface, creating a nuclear winter. Temperatures dropped, plunging the planet into another Ice Age. All that was nothing compared to the fallout, though.
Millions died from radiation poisoning in the months following that fateful evening survivors nicknamed Annihilation Day. Plants and animals were no longer safe to eat. Consequently, things quickly devolved. If a person wanted something another had, he or she simply robbed or murdered their neighbor. Those who remained learned to either become good at hiding, great at scavenging, a murdering psychopath, or dead.
Fortunately, Anthony Ross had been an Army Ranger before he was honorably discharged and took a job as a salesman for a company who sold home security systems. His good looks, disarming smile, and wavy black hair had served him well in that capacity. And because of Anthony’s training, after Annihilation Day, he was able to protect Shafer in a way few fathers could. He’d always kept a month’s supply of canned goods and water in the basement, just in case, and with rationing, that supply turned into three months of lean living.
There was little to do after the radios stopped broadcasting. Nevertheless, at least Anthony and Shafer didn’t have to venture outside. Gunshots woke them constantly, but they were never overrun because they’d barricaded themselves in their basement and kept quiet. It was dark most of the time, so they lit candles. Anthony would read his son novels to pass the days. Shafer’s favorite was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Sure he’d outgrown it years ago (what seven-year-old still likes stories for babies?), yet now it gave him some semblance of comfort in a topsy-turvy world. Shafer secretly wished he could meet the Wizard. He knew just what he’d ask for. Not for the world to return to normal. No, he’d ask for his mother to still be alive. Anthony shed quite a few tears when Shafer revealed this late one night. However, there was nothing he could do except keep his skinny, copper-haired son safe. That was the only thing which mattered anymore. Therefore, Anthony and Shafer stayed in their makeshift fallout shelter with all the room’s vents sealed by rolled-up towels to keep the radiation at bay. It was a lonely existence, but at least they had each other. Then came the day they ran out of food.
Anthony and Shafer’s stomachs woke them early that fateful morning. The evening before, they’d split a quarter can of SpaghettiOs, as they had for the last four days, because they were trying to prolong the inevitable. Anthony didn’t want to go outside and scavenge, let alone take his son with him. However, leaving Shafer alone in the basement was also a gamble. The gunshots outside were few and far between nowadays, yet Anthony had seen firsthand what desperation will do to people when he fought over in Iraq. What if someone saw him exiting his home and came inside to pillage? Anthony debated this quandary for days. In the end, he decided he could protect his son best if Shafer came along with him while he explored the new world. With that settled, he moved on to other matters.
Anthony had stored gas masks in his basement, along with heavy leather jackets, sweatshirts, and several pairs of jeans. Plus, he had piles of old newspapers which could be stuffed between layers of clothing for additional insulation. All in all, he figured he and Shafer stood a pretty good chance of surviving when they ventured outside. So he dressed Shafer in four layers of jeans with newspaper stuffed between each pair. Then he put three sweatshirts and a leather coat on him. After that, he dressed in a similar manner. To complete their ensemble, they donned gas masks and empty backpacks. Not wanting to be taken by surprise, Anthony retrieved his revolver and a 9mm handgun from an armoire drawer. He crammed extra magazines and as many .357 bullets as he could carry into his pockets. Feeling a tad safer now that he was armed, he and Shafer removed the towels from the door cracks and set off up the stairs to see what awaited them outside.
The suburban neighborhood where Anthony and Shafer lived was named Weddington. It was located sixteen miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina, but still didn’t escape the carnage of Annihilation Day. As Anthony and Shafer descended their home’s front steps, they realized their idyllic little neighborhood was no longer straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The neighborhood’s two-story dwellings still stood, but they were covered in soot and bullet holes. Broken windows abounded. Shutters hung off their hinges. Across the street, Anthony thought he noticed something upstairs in the Schubert’s house. Not wanting to get caught off guard, he drew the revolver from his waistline, held it at his side, and put his hand on Shafer’s shoulder. Shafer looked up.
“I saw it, too, Daddy.”
“Let’s just keep movin’. It’s probably nothin’.”
Anthony ushered Shafer down the road. The boy seemed happy enough to be outside, even if their neighborhood was now a wasteland. That made Anthony smile. Seconds later, he saw eight men and three women he didn’t recognize creep out of the wilted hedges surrounding Mrs. Rafferty’s property. Fuck. This was not good. They were covered in filth, wore no protective gear, and their faces looked so gaunt it seemed like their flesh was peeling away from their bones. No, this was not good at all. Anthony quickly hid Shafer behind him as the two closest men approached.
“Howdy, neighbor,” the first one said. He wore a dirty black Stetson hat and had a birthmark that encompassed his whole left cheek. “Looks like ya got yaself outfitted for the ’pocalypse. Good for you.”
Anthony nodded and slid his finger around his revolver’s trigger. “What we got ain’t much, but I’m hopin’ it’ll help.”
“Got any food, friend?” the second man asked. He smiled, displaying two rows of grungy black teeth. “My family and I sure are hungry.”
Anthony shook his head. “No, that’s why we ventured outside.”
“From that big white house up the street? Yeah, we saw ya.”
“Excuse me, but I don’t think we’ve met.” Anthony started forward. “My name’s Anthony R—”
The man with the birthmark held up his hand. “Don’t really care whatcha name is, friendo. We only care ’bout whatcha got. Sure you don’t got no food?”
“I already told you I didn’t.”
“Don’t get testy,” the black-toothed man said. “We just out here tryin’ to survive, same as e’ryone else.”
Anthony watched as the nine other people who were near the hedges slowly converged on their position. Suddenly, a question popped into his head. “Where’s Mrs. Rafferty?”
“Who?” the birthmarked man asked.
“Mrs. Rafferty. You’re standin’ on her property.”
“Oh, that old biddy?” The man’s birthmark seemed to grow larger when he smiled. “We ate ’er.”
“Ya deaf? We ate ’er.” The man picked his teeth. “But that was a few days ago. We sure are hungry now.”
Anthony raised his revolver. “Stay back.” He swung it at the crowd now behind the two men. “All of you.”
Shafer suddenly made his presence known. “Daddy, who are these people?”
“Stay behind me, Shafe.”
The black-toothed man grinned. “You ain’t got enough bullets for alla us, mister. Plus, look behind ya.”
“Just do it.”
Anthony glanced back at his house. He saw four women with Molotov cocktails. Each held a lighter close to the rag sticking out of her bottle.
“That’s right, mister. They gonna burn down ya home if you don’t give us what we want. So hand over dem backpacks nice and slow-like.”
Shafer quivered. “I’m scared, Daddy.”
“It’s okay, son. Just do as I say.”
“No,” the birthmarked man said. “Ya gonna do as I say, mister. Hand over dem backpacks and weapons.” He smiled at Shafer. “Ya wouldn’t want things to get ugly in front of the boy, would ya?”
Anthony hung his head. “No, we—” He suddenly raised his arm, shot the birthmarked man, his grungy-toothed partner, then the four fellows behind them. When his revolver emptied, he grabbed the 9mm from behind his back and finished off the five other miscreants. After that, he dropped to his knee. He lined up one of the women in front of his house. She went down the instant his finger pulled the trigger. The other three weren’t as compliant, though. They each threw their Molotov cocktails before Anthony splattered their brains on the sidewalk. By the time the echoes of gunfire ceased, Shafer was screaming. Anthony quickly surveyed the area for more threats. Since he didn’t see any, he wrapped his arms around his son.
“It’s okay, Shafe. Everything’s over now.”
“But you shot them, Daddy.”
“They were bad guys, Shafe. They were gonna hurt us.”
Shafer sniffled. “They were?”
“Yes. In fact, a lot of people are gonna try to hurt us out here, but I won’t let them. It’s just you and me, son. We can only count on ourselves. Understand?”
Shafer nodded, still clearly shaken up.
“Good. Now let’s go check on our home.”
Flames had engulfed most of the first floor by the time Anthony and Shafer arrived back in front of their house. Even if the water running to the neighborhood hadn’t shut off months ago, there would’ve still probably been no saving the structure. All the gear, all the supplies Anthony had spent years accumulating, were now toast thanks to a gang of cannibals. He sighed as he reloaded his weapons. “Sorry, Shafe. Looks like we need to find a new place to live.”
“You mean we’re gonna go on an adventure?”
An idea entered Anthony’s head. “Yes, son. Exactly like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We just need to follow the yellow brick road.”
“There isn’t one around here.”
“Sure there is. But to see it, we have to use our imaginations.”
Anthony stepped into the street. He tapped his toe on the asphalt. “You tellin’ me you can’t see these?”
Anthony tapped his toe on the asphalt again. “The yellow bricks in this road.”
Shafer squinted. “You know what? I think I can.”
“We just have to stay on the yellow brick road and I bet we’ll find a new home in no time.”
Shafer was grinning now. “Where does it lead?”
“It wouldn’t be much of an adventure if I spoilt the endin’, would it?”
“No, I guess not.”
Anthony put his arm around Shafer. “Then come on. Let’s see what awaits us on our magical quest.”