Preppers is a three-part short story by Rebecca Zornow. Each part is a five-minute read.
You can read part one here: Prepper in Demand // Short Story
and part two here: Preppers Exposed // Short Story
The pile of trash grew bigger each week. Flimsy plastic wrappers and empty cardboard boxes blew with the wind. Heavier junk lay where it was discarded. There was a noticeable absence of wood. Anything—broken furniture, dusty planks, cracked cutting boards—was already burned or sitting in a burn pile. Wood was too valuable to throw away. There were few organic materials to decay because everyone used even the most rotten of peels. The winter cold kept the smell down.
The small dump wasn’t the problem. The problem came when families in the neighborhood started using it as a sewer too. First it was just a place for men to urinate. Then kids began dumping buckets of dish water and human waste on the pile. It congealed and froze and wasn’t much to look at until the first layer of snow settled and one could almost forget that it was there. A warm December day brought a light thaw and the mess turned brown and soupy before freezing again. There hadn’t been a fresh powdering since.
The garbage pile was a slight, purposefully there instead of in front of someone else’s house. There were few bigger slights than shit on your doorstep.
Frederic let his curtain drop and he settled back onto his bed. He wore his warmest clothes because his family was out of firewood again. His sheets were musty and stale; there wasn’t water for washing and it was too cold besides. His mother suggested they all sleep in the same bed or at least the same room to build up body heat, but all she received in response were glares. Better cold than too close.
Frederic’s mind wandered. He wished he could sleep, but that was one of his primary activities these days. So much so that he was never tired.
Last week he swapped books with Keith who lived four houses down on the corner. Keith was one of the few in the area who still talked to him and they were both dying for something new to read. Frederic shared his copy of Hatchet and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, embarrassed because he hadn’t bought any new books since he was a little kid. Keith gave him a stack of comics and made Frederic promise not to burn them.
The comics were good, but quick to read. Frederic was already on his third read through.
In the background, Frederic heard his mother moving around downstairs. Probably counting their food supplies again. Three days. As lean as they were eating, they still only had three days of food left. Their family should have have four and a half years of food. The fact that the supply his parents prepped for emergencies was now either eaten, given away, confiscated, or ruined dominated the atmosphere within the house.
Even their firewood was taken by the neighborhood patrol. Both the large cache in the garage and the smaller pile of twigs under the tarp that Frederic’s father collected over the last few months.
Frederic’s family proved themselves unworthy of the resources.
“Frederic. Wendy. Come down here,” his mother called softly.
Frederic hauled himself out of bed and let Wendy go down the stairs first when they met at the landing. When the power originally went down from the EMP attack, Wendy was a scattered mess. Now, out of the four family members, she seemed to be doing the best since the confiscation of supplies. She seemed well, or at least complacent with their lot.
A thought stuck Frederic. Was she hiding food? Was that why looked so much better and livelier than the rest of the family?
The living room was dim. Frederic’s father taped cardboard over the broken windows that the neighborhood patrol broke through. A ¼ inch of cardboard drew the definition between living inside and living outside. Each time Frederick entered the room, he prepared himself to see the cardboard gone, stolen, to start a fire in someone else’s house.
“Kids,” Tara’s mother turned to them, holding a small slip of paper in her hand, “The food we have, that’s all that’s left.” Her voice was dead.
Frederic darted a glance at his father. Martin’s skin was ashen grey and he was too skinny, even skinnier than in the photos of him as a teenager in the photo album. He sat on the couch with a foot up on a pillow.
“What do you mean, that’s all?” Wendy questioned. “When the patrol dropped off last week’s supplies, they said they were certain there was at least one more week.”
Tara sighed. “This note was in our mailbox.”
“Those cowards were probably too scared to knock on our door,” Martin said.
Frederic briskly crossed the room and took the note from his mother’s hands. His eyes skimmed rapidly, not even taking in full sentences.
It was true. The last distribution was all that there would ever be. Someone, it was unclear from the note who, stole the rest of the canned food and dried beans.
Frederic handed the note to Wendy, but his mind was weeks and months ahead. Three days. All the food there would ever be. They couldn’t go to a store a buy more. The piles that his parents hid away in the basement were gone. Now, even the neighborhood supply was gone.
Was that really it? Even if Frederic survived through the next few months of winter by scavenging, was that really the last of the processed and packaged food he would ever eat? Frederic tried to imagine eating dandelion greens and dried jerky to the end of his days.
Wendy put the note down on the coffee table. “Dad, what happened to your leg?” she asked.
Martin grunted and looked away. “Lost my balance and fell on some ice. I’ll be fine.”
“Maybe…you should put some ice on that.” Frederic gave a weak smile.
A snort came from Frederic’s side and Tara covered her mouth as if laughing was what was going to do them all in. Her face quickly crumbled.
Martin adjusted on the couch. “You kids need to listen to me. We don’t have a lot of options and me laid up like this…we have a few less than I’d like.”
Frederic sat down on the lilac chair his mom brought home one summer from a flea market.
Martin continued, “I think you kids better leave.”
The statement hung in the air. Leave. You kids better leave. You kids better leave.
Tara shifted away and broke the stillness.
Wendy folded her arms, “I can’t believe this. You want us to go? Go where? No one will take us in now, that we’re outcasts,” Wendy seethed with anger. “The most hated people here, because of what you-“
The worst part to Frederic was the look on his parents’ faces. They weren’t going to deny anything or problem solve. They had talked this through without Frederic and Wendy. And they came to their decision.
Wendy shouted now, “-had to ruin everything. This isn’t fair. If we just handed over the food and shared it, everyone would be okay, but you had to go and-“
In an instant, Frederic knew he didn’t have any options. He couldn’t go to his ex-girlfriend Monica’s family. They wouldn’t take him in. Not after the way he blamed them for their own demise. Where else was he supposed to go? Where else would there be food? It was winter and could snow any day. He couldn’t backpack out and try to live off the land. The idea was laughable.
But here were his parents, suggesting he do just that.
“Why do you really want us to leave?”
“There’s nothing her for you, Wendy,” Martin said.
“But there’s nothing anywhere,” Frederic said.
“You don’t know that. Just a few days’ walk from here could be a town that was better prepared, or was able to salvage some crops even after the electricity left. I can’t go myself. And your ma’s not leaving me. So that leaves you two.”
An uneasy silence settled around the living room. Wendy stared at her parents for a long time, impassive, then left.
Frederic followed her.
Upstairs, he was surprised to see the cluttered mess in Wendy’s room. In one corner lay all things electronic. Her flip phone she fought mom so hard to get and the handheld game counsel she got one Christmas from their grandparents in Kentucky. A canvas bag lay out on Wendy’s bed with items inside. She was preparing to leave for a while.
“Wendy,” Frederic started hesitantly, “What are you doing? Are you really planning on going?”
She spoke loudly, “Of course, Freddy. Mom and dad are right. If you’re coming with, I think you should bring your compass.”
Frederic was nonplussed. Why would Wendy be so eager to bug out? She hated camping. They were more vulnerable to the elements outside the house, not to speak of other people.
Wendy looked at him meaningfully and tipped her head at the open door.
She mouthed, “Later.” When Freddy still wasn’t getting it, she hissed, “Pack a bag, dimwit. I’ll show you something later!”
“Tara, wake up.” Tara started, surprised she dozed off. “Let’s go.”
It was hard dragging herself out of bed to follow Mart. The house was cold and she was exhausted. She didn’t know why. She spent most of her time lying down under her comforter. There wasn’t much work to be done, or rather that could be done with the state of the world.
Tara already had her winter coat on, so she only paused to slide into her boots before easing the door open. Her and Mart walked quietly to the back of the garage. Martin slid some empty gasoline canisters over and lifted an inflatable but deflated Mickey Mouse Santa. Underneath was a shallow pit. They’d been digging under the cover of darkness for two nights. The watertight box wasn’t buried deep, but the ground was hard and frozen.
It was hard digging in the blackness, there wasn’t even a sliver of moon out to light their work. Tara tried to shovel quietly, but it was hard. Soon enough she was breathing heavily. Everything was a struggle these days.
This was all wrong. How had it come to this?
Mart’s shovel struck something and he fell to his knees. Tara took her gloves off and felt the cold metal. It took the better part of an hour to dig out the large container and lift it up.
“We just need to see what’s inside, know where we stand,” Martin whispered. “Then we’ll put it back for a while.”
“Will be fine. They’re young and will do better than you and me.” Martin flipped a latch on the container and felt around inside with his fingers. She could hear the rustling of stiff plastic and canned goods. Her mouth salivated. She hadn’t had a proper meal in months. Tara reached in hesitantly and felt the packaged food and water bottles.
Her heart sunk. It was much less than she remembered burying two years ago.
“Mart, it’s not very much.”
“And it will be even less divided four ways.”
Tara’s ears buzzed suddenly. She looked up and saw sparks flying in front of her eyes. This was it, she was having some kind of a fit. Something in her body was giving up and she was going to die.
“What?” Mart wheezed. “How is that possible?”
Whoops carried across the neighborhood. Dim lights broke sporadically through the darkness.
The backyard light flickered on for the first time in six months. Tara and Mart, crouched on the cold ground, raised their hands to block the brightness.
As her eyes adjusted, Tara made out two figures standing below the porch light, watching her.
Rebecca Zornow is an American blogger and writer of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and memoir.
She is the co-founder of the book blog ConquerBooks.com. You can follow her on Facebook @ConquerBooks or on Twitter and Instagram @RebeccaZornow.