We Are Alone in Nuclear Winter

by | Fiction, Issue #6, Issues

I meet Rain at the end of the tunnel. It used to be one of the tunnels you had to drive through to get to the other side of the mountain. No one travels this path anymore thanks to a new bullet train system built to go through a shorter, less infrastructurally taxing route. The entrance has already partially caved in, large enough for a human but not a car. The closer you get, the more cracked the road, as though someone had decided to pluck chunks of asphalt out of the ground and fill the gaps with earth and grass.
I am not sure why I enter nor where I hope to go. That is how I am: “vision-less, indeterminate, weak-minded,” said my ballet teacher after I quit lessons when my brain fully registered that dance was a money drain. I told her work was ramping up and I couldn’t commit the time. She thought you needed to give up everything for ballet, and I nearly did until I realized Dad was eating cabbage cores and eggshells to leave the “better” parts for me, even though they all tasted the same—Dad only knew one flavor: soy sauce.
When I enter the tunnel, a field of red flowers greets me. The paved road comes to a stop. I head toward the other end of the tunnel, a speck of brightness that grows larger as I near. I don’t look back. I’m trying to minimize my chances of chickening out. “It’s always the ones who think too much and get nostalgic for the past who end up second-guessing their intuition!” Dad would say of reality TV shows pitting candidates against each other in social experiments. “Don’t think, don’t regret, carry forth on your flowery path,” I think as I crush a narrow trail of petals as I move. I walk quickly, trying to avoid causing irreversible damage to the flowers. Not that I turn around to double-check. I glide my hand along the curved tunnel wall, breaking contact with it occasionally as I come across trees and vines leaning against the wall as support—their limbs stretching across the concrete and weaving in and out of the cracks like they’re the ones holding the structure up.
As I approach the end of the tunnel, a tall figure grows larger and larger. I wave and shout, “Hello?” The figure waves in response. When I am finally several footsteps away from the tunnel’s exit, I can make out a thin face with cloudy eyes, a near nonexistent mouth, a head mostly concealed under a loose, draping black hood.
The figure tells me he is called Rain. I consider introducing myself too, except I come up blank. Instead, I nod.
“Do you know where this tunnel leads?” I ask.
“It depends on where you want to go,” Rain says.
“Where are you trying to go?” I wonder. Rain sits down on a bed of red flowers. I stand for a moment, tempted to continue walking. Rain doesn’t seem particularly personable, and I’d rather not waste social energy on a conversation that’ll lead nowhere. Just as I take another step closer to the end, he begins to speak. I sit down next to him, crushing more petals under my weight.
“I don’t have a destination,” he muses.
I wait for Rain to elaborate but he goes quiet again. “So, what are you doing, then? Nothing?”
“Is it even possible to do nothing?” He asks. “I guess I’m waiting for the right time to leave. I’m worried this tunnel will collapse without me.”
“Why would that happen?” I look around at the trees climbing the concrete like trusses, branches overlapping with so many layers I doubt even water could slip through.
“This,” Rain gestures to the walls and the area above our heads. “Is much more susceptible than you’d expect. How do you think the plants get sunlight and water? From these far-out entrances? Barely anything can reach the center.”
“Then how do the plants survive here?”
“Since I first came, they’ve regained their color. Not sure how, though. I suspect the tunnel is alive-ish.”
“I’d imagine,” I say, staring at the ground, rubbing a flower beside me, the pollen coating my fingers with a glowing pink flush. “It’s not like anything bad would happen if all of these plants died though, right?” I poke the flowers again, watching them bend under the pressure of my hand and then spring back up after I let go.
“That doesn’t mean everything should just die,” Rain says.
“Sure, but no one else cares.”
“If someone else has to care for you to do anything, that would be a pretty soulless existence,” Rain says without a pause.
I don’t know when Dad has ever done something only he cared about. Not when his heart swelled with excess tissue, and he’d heave while stomping up and down the stairs to set cockroach bait for the warm seasons. All he needed was a septal ablation to destroy the thickened wall, kill a bit of obstructive heart. “Can too much heart be a bad thing?” he’d joke. And then I quit ballet. I told Dad I had grown out of the thrill of grand jetés—of bursting into the air, and for a moment, propelling into a spectacular flight. I told Dad the environment was too toxic: it was like we were dancing naked next to each other in our tights and leotards, able to immediately pick out who’d drunk too much water before class or ate instant ramen the night before. “The moment the spine bone behind your neck is no longer visible, you’re booted to the back of the bar,” I told Dad. He shook his head, “What is wrong with dancers these days?” I got part of my tuition back since I had quit at the beginning of the dance season and started looking into better health insurance plans. At night after Dad went to sleep, I’d tie and spray my hair into a flawless bun and tug on my tights and leotard, then I’d jump and spin in the basement, counting in eights in my head.
“If that’s what you want to think,” I tell Rain. I’m not about to get into a heated argument with a stranger. “I’m here to get my wish granted.”
Rain guffaws. “Everything grants wishes these days, eh?”
The wish-granting tunnel was an urban legend that no one believed. How can a tunnel grant you millions of dollars? Money has to come from somewhere, people had said, citing the forecasted recession and inflation rate. I figured it was worth a try since I was driving by anyway to select a floral arrangement with the funeral provider.
After Rain wipes his tears and calms down from his fit of laughter, he tilts his head and places his thumb on his lip, chewing his nail briefly. “Nothing grants wishes here. It’s just a tunnel. A path. Many paths, I guess. Once you leave this tunnel, there are only more tunnels.”
“I thought you didn’t leave this tunnel yet?”
“Well, no, but I guess it’s a hunch.”
“How can there be more tunnels? I clearly see light up ahead. That’s outside, isn’t it?”
“The illusion of outside,” Rain corrects me.
“Uh-huh.” I don’t know what to believe of Rain anymore. I clap my hands together to shake off the pollen and stand. Pink dusts the back of my pants, and I watch as the imprint of where I sat vanishes, the flowers standing back tall like they had never been squashed. “That’s a bit crazy,” I mumble to myself.
Rain hears me. “Not really. It’s not like they’re coming back to life out of nowhere. That’s why I’ve got to be here. To provide for them so they can stay this way.”
It doesn’t look like Rain is doing any caring to me, but I don’t reply. I take long strides to the exit. Suddenly, I feel my arm being dragged back. Rain is standing, hand gripping my sleeve.
“Are you sure you’re going?” he asks, wide-eyed.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Fine, I’ll come. It’s easy to get lost.” Rain sounds like he’s giving up his firstborn. I refrain from telling him I never asked him to come. Rain might even know the way with his questionable intuition. Intuition is better than my random guessing. I shake his hand loose and continue walking. Rain catches up to my side and grabs my hand again. I resist making a face at the sudden touch. But Rain’s hand doesn’t feel like a sweaty, clammy human hand—instead, his hand is dry and cool, like I am holding the breeze guiding ocean tides to shore. I wonder if Rain notices me squeeze his hand a bit tighter.
We step out of the tunnel.
“There might not be a way to return from where you came,” Rain says.
“You could’ve told me earlier.” But I continue holding his hand as we face mouths of tunnels surrounding us. “Where to now?”
Rain shrugs. “The only direction is forward?”
We walk into the mouth of the tunnel straight ahead of us. I shiver, goosebumps spreading across my arms. But it’s not actually cold. There’s a warm, pleasant breeze coming from who-knows-where, and yet I shiver. I’m sure Rain can feel the vibrations from my body.
“Chill,” he says.
I laugh. “Funny you say that.”
No light reaches this tunnel. I walk in pitch black, guided only by Rain’s hand, who seems to know where he’s going.
“This is what most tunnels should be like. Not everyone can have such a constant light source. There’s only one of me, after all.”
“What would it take for this tunnel to look like the previous one?”
“I don’t know. Better load balancing of resources?”
“You sound like a project manager.”
“What’s that?”
And then I explain to Rain that project managers are the carriage drivers with the whip, coercing horses to pull the carriage out of the mud. In theory, they’re also supposed to find stronger horses to help, but that’s difficult, so they make do with whipping the horses harder. He doesn’t seem to understand the metaphor.
“I’m sure no one wants to whip the horses,” Rain says.
“Who knows,” I reply. Dad always thought people were power-hungry, a hypothesis I had encountered as true at work. I complained to him a lot about upper management, and he’d soak it in like a sponge and tell me calmly, “People are like that. All you can do is prioritize what you care about.” I liked that. He never got lost in my recount of company politics or rants about unfair ballet castings. He’d nod along and tell me not to get too hung up; otherwise, I was bound for disappointment. What kind of disappointment—I didn’t know.
We continue traveling through the second tunnel in relative silence. I hear water dripping, a faint pitter-patter as though the source is far away. There’s no visible end—no illuminated light where the tunnel opens to our next stop.
“How much longer?” I eventually ask.
Rain squeezes my hand. “Almost there. Probably.”
“Is this also intuition?”
“Guess so. This is all I’ve ever known.”
“What do you mean?”
Rain stops walking for a moment, and I nearly stumble. “Well, I guess all I ever remember is being in a tunnel.”
“From the beginning of time?” I hope I don’t sound too incredulous.
“Something like that.”
“You can’t just have appeared from nowhere. That’s not how human reproduction works,” I say.
“How does it work?” Rain asks, beginning to walk again.
“Sperm, egg, fertilization. Does that ring a bell?”
“Fertilization—like the way pollen enters a carpel?”
I don’t remember much of high school plant biology, but this sounds accurate to me. “Yes. Pretty much. So you had to come from a mom and dad too. Maybe you just don’t remember.”
“Must not have been important enough to remember,” Rain says. Another moment of silence. The balls of my feet begin to ache, and my knees feel the weight of each step magnified. Rain begins to outpace me, pulling my hand along. “We likely won’t get anywhere if you don’t have a place in mind,” he says.
“Then why are you walking so fast? That won’t change anything.”
“I’m seeing if we can outpace your thought process.”
“I’m not that stupid, you know,” I reply, glaring at the dark, unable to find Rain’s face. I begin to feel a stabbing pain in my heels with each step. The skin at the tops of my toes rubs against my shoes: a sharp sensation as though I’m sharpening knives against my calluses. My eyes water. My nose begins to run, and I sniffle the snot back in to prevent it from dripping down my lip. I wipe my face with my free hand, patting my sleeve on my cheeks until it’s wet and sticky. Then I wipe my hand on my pants before patting away the others. I try to wrench my hand free from Rain’s grasp so I can use my other dry and untouched sleeve. Rain’s grip tightens.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“What are you doing? If you let go, who knows how lost you’ll get,” Rain accuses.
“You’re right here. I can still hear your voice.” I sniffle again and swallow. “How can I get lost?”
“As soon as you lose an anchor and direction, the tunnels will guide you down different paths. They want to be traveled as extensively as possible. Makes them feel like they exist beyond this boundary.”
“What boundary?”
“The one you crossed to get through to the tunnels. What else?”
I stop pulling my arm from Rain’s grasp and rub my mouth and nose into my shoulder. Rain begins to move again when he realizes I’ve stopped trying to free myself. I take a deep breath, wiggle my toes, bend and flex my feet. With each movement, I wince and strangle Rain’s hand a bit more. My nails dig into his skin. I wonder if he’s in pain, but he remains silent. He resembles Dad a bit: quiet when I most want them to fuss. Dad would always tell me to grind and hustle since that’s what generations before him did: studied under candlelight, rubbed their hands like trying to kindle a fire to keep their fingers warm enough to write, ate bowls of fried dough dipped in soy milk for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “And look at where they are now! All with PhDs and houses in a first-world country!” Dad would exclaim. At the same time, when I sprained my ankle from ballet, he refused to let me walk down the stairs to the kitchen, and would break his steadfast rule of “no eating in your room” by bringing a tray of dishes and peeled dragon fruit, which he claimed was good for healing.
Rain walks slower. The pace is gentle enough that my chafing skin no longer creates such burning friction. I can distribute my weight over my feet more evenly and my knees no longer feel like a hammer is being swung against them. I exhale. My face and eyes dry quickly, although my eyelid fold is probably messed up from the swelling. At least it’s dark enough that Rain can’t see my puffed face.
“You can’t let go,” Rain reminds me. “Or else you’ll end up lost and alone.”
“Aw, thanks for caring,” I say, smiling from ear to ear.
“I can hear the smirk in your words.”
I blink, and suddenly, it’s bright enough to see again. I look up, and it’s like the sky has been smothered by soot. The temperature plummets, and I retreat my other hand into my sleeve.
“This wasn’t what I was wishing for,” I say.
“I told you the tunnels don’t just grant wishes.”
“But you said just earlier that we’d wind up somewhere if I made up my mind.” I wanted to go back—not home, but five years back. Maybe ten if the tunnels were generous.
“Oh, did you make up your mind?” Rain asks, a lilt in his voice as though he’s genuinely shocked.
“I did. Except now it looks like we’ve wound up in some kind of nuclear winter, and if I die because of this, I’m blaming you.”
“Oh, you won’t die. Haven’t you noticed you aren’t hungry at all? The tunnels exist beyond the physical world. Pretty convenient, no?”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I was expecting to see Dad. My house. Not this place,” I gesture wildly. “Entombed with smoke and great black clouds. I prefer the pitch black we were walking through before.”
Among the billowing clouds of ash, I can barely make out another tunnel entrance. I point toward it. “Let’s at least get out of here.”
Rain nods as I pull him along. I can hear the snapping of branches below our feet. The ground is covered with dead trees, strips of bark, twisted limbs that look starved of water. Despite the thin soles of my shoes, I don’t feel the trees stabbing through the rubber as I walk. And then run. Rain nearly matches my pace, maintaining just one step behind so that I can lead. I’m not sure when I realize Rain is the one clinging to me.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, CRAFT, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing) and Absorption (Harbor Review). Find her at https://lucyzhang.tech or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.