Three years after the end of the world, Steve was idly lying on his bed wondering what to do with the rest of his day. He stared up at his slowly decaying ceiling, praying it would hold for another month or so before he had to start reinforcing it like he had in the study. Nah, that wouldn’t happen for a long time. The part of the attic hovering above his bedroom wasn’t overloaded with crap like the side that had previously lain above the study before it had caved in. He often muttered to himself about how he should probably clear that up one day, but he was often so busy not clearing it up that he just didn’t have the time.
Steve’s tummy rumbled as he rolled onto his side, trying to get a little comfier. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten; had he had breakfast, or was his last meal dinner last night? Food stocks were running short, and his crops wouldn’t be ready for weeks yet. A small frown formed on his face as his stomach let out another exasperated rumble.
His mind drifted, leading him down a path of delicious delicacies that his mouth had forgotten so many years ago. His taste buds tingled as he thought back to the small Italian restaurant he had visited on a number of occasions. He licked his lips when he his mind returned him to evenings in front of the TV with some chicken chow mein from the Chinese ten minutes drive away.
And the sweets! Every colour of the rainbow, tucked away in difficult wrapping to mess with those fat, greedy fingers that so regularly attempted to get at their sugary goodness. Steve had enjoyed sweet things all his life, and as he lay there on his side, dreaming of the years passed, he suddenly remembered it.
The secret stash.
It was something he had established around six months into the apocalypse. When out scavenging for food, he would often find cupboards still full of those sweet treasures from before the bombs fell. Their shelf life was much longer than most goods he found, so they made perfect sense to store for the coming years. But rather than rely purely on them for nutrition, a plan that would kill him faster than the bandits, he decided to stockpile every last treat he found, and only use it when necessary. Say, for example, he was having a particularly bad day and felt like walking to the nearest town unarmed and seeing how long it took them to tear him limb from limb, he would go to the secret stash, remove a tasty morsel, and feel a little bit better about himself.
It had been quite some time since Steve had felt this way, of course. He had finally settled into a nice routine that kept him occupied for most of the day, the bandits largely left him to his own devices, and during any downtime he had he could go to his other house, on what was once the main road, and read a book from the large pile he had accrued over the years. It wasn’t a perfect way to spend his time; for one thing, Steve had been more of a computer guy back in the day, but had yet to find even an old console and TV to pass the time with. But it kept him busy, and he had finally begun to feel comfortable with what, really, was a pathetic existence in a god-forsaken wasteland.
He didn’t know why, but today he felt he needed something tasty. It hadn’t been a particularly bad day or anything, but melancholy was beginning to set in, and he had spent so long thinking about delicious food that if he went downstairs and started heating up some beans that were starting to go off for the fourth meal in a row, he’d probably have to kill himself.
“Bollocks to it,” he muttered, and pushed himself up from the mattress on the floor.
As the blood rushed to his head, Steve began to sway, and his vision blurred momentarily. He leaned against the wall, trying not to fall over. This happened from time to time, particularly when hunger was setting in. The thought of his sweet reward came rushing to him, and his resolve hardened.
That is until he saw the cockroach.
As you might expect with any nuclear wasteland, the local wildlife was pretty much extinct. Over the past three years, Steve hadn’t seen a single bird fly overheard, nor any fish in the stream that gave his town it’s name (Stream). Maybe once a year he’d see a dog, shaggy haired and limping, before it was eventually clubbed to death by the bandits and dragged off for food.
But one thing he hadn’t seen much of was cockroaches. It struck him as odd, given how many times he’d heard over the years that cockroaches were the only things that could survive a nuclear war, but Steve’s interest in small observations was equally matched by his dislike of creepy crawlies, so his lack of cockroach watching didn’t bother him. And now here was one, scuttling around on his floor, right by his bed.
Steve’s first instinct was to scream like a little girl and run away, but as his legs worked their way into a sprint, his mind rapidly took over and he forced himself to calm down. He’d encountered thugs threatening him with baseball bats and machetes, promising to rip out his eyeballs and use them for ping-pong balls if he didn’t submit to their will; how could he be scared by a tiny insect thing? He steadied his breathing and closed his eyes. He was going to be OK. He was going to be OK.
When he opened his eyes, the cockroach had disappeared. Panic set in yet again. The cockroach was now working its way through the house. What if it hid in one of his cupboards, anticipating his need to cook some beans? What if it nested in the rubble of the study, waiting for the day he finally decided to clear it up? Oh God, what if it found his secret stash and decided to chew it’s way through the sugary goodness? Steve couldn’t bear the thought.
Stupidly, Steve slapped himself hard across the face in some vain attempt to snap himself out of it. All it did was cause his cheek to burn red and have his mouth emit of stream of curses. Life was not like a movie, and slaps across the face did not help in any way. He sighed, began to breathe normally, and sat down on his bed.
Hunting cockroaches has never been a bit pastime in the history of the world, so there aren’t many tactics one can employ when choosing to do so. Regardless, Steve decided to use his limited skills as a forager to try and hunt down the critter. His sensible mind told him that he was wasting his time, but his irrationality took control and began to spout out nonsense. Perhaps he just needed to wait for the cockroach to come to him, rather than waste time chasing it down. Perhaps he could bait it – but what did cockroaches eat? Instinctively Steve got up to check his computer, but his eye caught sight of the crumbling houses outside his window and he managed to remember that the Internet was long gone.
He settled on thinking like a cockroach. If I were a cockroach, his brain postulated, where would I go? Steve closed his eyes and pictured himself scuttling around the house, looking for a damp, cool place to hide, before realising he was imagining himself as a woodlouse. He shook his head and started again. Cockroach. Cockroach. An old comedy sketch jumped into his mind. A trip to the zoo where an otter bit his friend followed. Then a bad pun involving otters. Steve sighed heavily. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.
Slowly, he rose from the bed and surveyed the room. The cockroach had not returned while Steve had been having his little freak out session. Steve closed his eyes, breathed in heavily, and reached for his weapon. It was a large wooden key, forged in the shape of a weapon from a video game that was made what felt like eons ago. He called the key Sakura, and spoke to it softly when he was scared, bored, or lonely.
“It’s just a cockroach, right Sakura?” he ventured. “It’s not like it can kill me.”
Sakura said nothing to ease his fears, and Steve suddenly felt a little stupid for talking to an inanimate object. He shook it off and ventured out of his bedroom, holding Sakura in an attacking stance. The cockroach could be anywhere, he figured, and as such he should be ready at all times to ward off any evil irradiated cockroach attacks it might have up it’s sleeve, like spitting toxic waste or something. The thought of having toxic waste all over his face filled Steve with dread, so he tried to think about the sweets again.
As he took each slow, measured step down his staircase, Steve cast his mind over the colourful assortment of wrappers that awaited him. The pinks and reds, greens and blues, all little rays of happiness in his grey, dismal life. The whole world had been coated in dust and dirt, and with no one around to clear it up, or at least no one who had any vested interest in doing so, the dirt had piled and piled. Steve kept his house as clean as he could, save for the study (I really need to get that sorted, he thought to himself), but even a Flash duster couldn’t sweep up years of accumulated debris. Sometimes he considered running a vacuum over the place, but then he realised that it’d just waste energy he needed for important stuff, like the lights.
He reached the living room and gave it a quick once over. Two very faded leather sofas and a crumbling bookcase greeted him. Large patio doors remained hidden behind equally large curtains; the stone garden that awaited him outside was too depressing to bear most days. Today, he brushed the curtains aside with his trusty wooden replica toy, to see if his creepy little nemesis had scuttled behind there. It had not.
Panic turned to anger as Steve realised he was wasting precious time he could have been using writing a letter to his local MP. A rather pointless pastime given that his local MP was quite probably part of the dust that had covered the ground now, but Steve had found that writing the letters gave him a more sane forum with which to rant, rather than sitting yelling at his giant wooden key with a stupid Japanese name. The letters were not a routine thing, written only when Steve felt he had something that Jake Berry MP would actually care to listen to, but he had realised just now that he hadn’t written to him about the construction of two large elephants on either side of his small town/hamlet/thing that Steve felt would aid his mission of being left the hell alone.
“Better get this sorted quick then, eh?” he muttered to Sakura. The key stayed silent, possibly pondering why this crazed middle-aged man had chosen it as his sole companion for the rest of his life. If such thoughts were being had, the strange wooden relic kept them to itself.
Steve walked into the kitchen, or what remained of it. The dining room table and chairs, along with the bookcase, had been burned almost a year ago during a particularly bad winter. The fridge freezer stood silent, it’s long generator fuelled hum abandoned before the bombs had even dropped, thanks to a dodgy fan that the repairman couldn’t fix that day. The kitchen worktops were in good condition, but the sink had been smashed in during a fit of wild rage when Steve was having a spectacularly bad day. The cupboard containing his secret stash was staring Steve right in the face.
Sadly, so was the cockroach.
As Steve had suspected, the cockroach had decided to take refuge amongst the sugary treats, although luckily it had not yet managed to prise the cupboard door open, thanks to a lack of arms and upper body strength. Regardless, Steve stood frozen to the spot, too terrified of being bitten by its (probably imaginary) large radioactive teeth that would fill him with toxic venom and agonisingly kill him over a period of several weeks. Still, he had a letter to write, and elephants to construct, and he didn’t have time to mess around with this disgusting, foul, horrible, creepy, weird, disturbing, crawly little bastard any more. He steeled himself for the incoming epic battle, and stepped forward onto the cracked tile floor.
The cockroach looked up at the cupboard, confused, a little annoyed, and really quite hungry. It had drunk some irradiated water earlier, and its insides were feeling a little funny. Its insides were always feeling funny lately. And the ground was always so dusty. Why was it so dusty all the time anyway? What happened to the long, luscious grass? Not that it ventured into the grass very often, but it looked out of holes in walls at the tall green blades on numerous occasions and had thought to itself about going for a stroll amongst them.
But for now its primary concern was this damned cupboard door. It had briefly attempted simply scurrying underneath it, but unbeknownst to it, the door had a rather large padlock attached to it so that the occupant of the house couldn’t open it willy-nilly. Now the creepy little cockroach had settled on staring at the cupboard door, not knowing what to try next. An idle thought passed its mind that perhaps its insides felt funny because it now had super powers. Perhaps it had gained the ability to shoot lasers out of its eyes?
At a loss for anything else to do, the cockroach began to focus all its attention on drawing every ounce of energy into its eyes. This is an extraordinarily difficult task, particularly if one is a cockroach, and so it did not get very far with this venture. Still, the cockroach’s mind, dazed by hunger, told itself it felt something coming, and told the cockroach’s body to concentrate harder. The mind of the beast swore it felt more energy entering the eyes, and was sure, so sure, that soon, beams of highly concentrated light would fly out and melt the doors.
Sadly for the cockroach, the only thing that ejected out if its body that instant was its entire insides, as Steve, unnoticed by the delusional cockroach, had crushed it with the sole of his shoes.
“Ewww,” he muttered to no one in particular. Sakura seemed nonplussed by the ordeal, so Steve decided to scrape off the cockroach innards with its, sometimes her, point. This took some effort, but finally his shoe was clean of creepy crawly, and Steve stood triumphantly in his kitchen, satisfied that he had grown once more as a person, and no longer feared the many legged gross thing that was now just a smear on an oversized key.
His triumph was short lived, however, when he realised he was lacking the key to open the padlock on his treasure trove of treats. And bad tidings came again when he remembered that he had no idea where the key resided any longer, having thrown it as far as he could out the back window a few weeks back when he remembered the key and its corresponding padlock had belonged to his daughter, who was now quite possibly dead. This thought brought on memories of before the war. The happy days where he didn’t have to worry about starving to death every week. The days when he hadn’t been held at knifepoint for a can of frankfurters by a deranged teenager whose house he had stumbled into. The days when… Jesus, when things made some sense.
Steve fell to the floor, weeping. He had once lived a life of moderate luxury. And now he felt like a king when he stamped on a tiny insect thing. He was starving hungry most of the time. His body was probably filled with God knows how much radiation.
And, most of all, he really, really wanted some goddamn sweets.