Edward buried Ramya in the backyard of the house, between two beech trees. There was no funeral, but a few of the residents came to give their condolences. The children clumped together around the edges of the yard, looking lost.
“What are we going to do now?” Hazel asked when they had all gone back inside the house and were sitting despondently in the living room.
“What are we going to do?” Edward repeated, forcing a smile onto his face. “We just gonna—we’re gonna keep going, right? I’m Uncle Octopus, remember? I got this.”
A few of the younger ones smiled at this. Then Meredith came over and climbed onto his lap. Cala and Lalasa followed, with Ernesto toddling behind and after a moment, all the kids—even Hazel and Portia, the older ones—were around him, crying and hugging him. Part of him wanted to fling them off and go get blackout drunk somewhere, but he restrained himself and soon he felt the tears trickling down his own cheeks.
The rest of the community responded to his plight and for a while once again, women came in from time to time to help him cook and clean. Portia, Hazel, and Sean helped as well, although never as much as Edward wanted. He had to remind himself that they were children, and children who had just lost their families and the only life they had ever known. Sometimes they would break down in tears out of nowhere, and go off by themselves for hours at a time.
As for Edward, he threw himself into work, drugging himself with exhaustion. Life soon fell into a routine: up at sunrise to make breakfast for the children, then out collecting food and supplies from abandoned houses. Back to make lunch and clean the house around noon, and then do it all again in the afternoon and evening. He fell into bed soon after sunset, too tired to even think.
The electricity had died soon after August 4, the day the missiles fell, but the water kept running in the taps. Kaine Bowlery told him that the water system was all automated and should go for months by itself. But of course at some point it would break and the water would stop. So, with the help of some of the other men in the town, they were building huge cisterns to catch rain water. It was slow, frustrating work and none of them had had experience building anything before.
Eight days after Ramya died, Edward was resting outside after lunch. The calendar said it was September 1 and the weather remained warm and deceptively cheerful. Sean came over and sat by him. They sat together in silence for a moment.
“You don’t go back to check our houses anymore,” Sean said.
“The note’s still there,” Edward said. “Your parents can find their way here. I just don’t want to waste power, now that we can’t charge the cars anymore.”
There was a moment of silence. “They’re not coming back, are they?”
“We don’t know that,” Edward said. “Roads are a mess. It could have taken weeks for your mother to find your father and it could take longer to get back here. They could be on their way back now, especially if they have to walk.”
“I just wish I knew,” Sean said.
“I wish I did too,” Edward said. The fact was that he truly did not know. None of them did. The Internet was still working somewhere, presumably, but with the electricity out in Harlow, all battery-powered devices had died within a few weeks. Two weeks before, just before his device battery had given out, England was still in chaos. It was reported that on August 4th, there had been 96 nuclear strikes on twelve different countries. The most reliable estimates were of 150 million casualties on that day alone, not to mention the hundreds of millions who would probably die in the next year or two.
There was a scream from across the yard and Edward jumped up. It was Hugo, running towards him crying, with Kaveh and Meredith running behind. Hugo stopped in front of him, holding out his arms. Edward saw they were covered with tiny blisters, as if the boy’s skin had bubbled.
“Get in the house, everyone!” he shouted. All he could think about was fallout, and cancer bombs, and Ramya throwing up her lifeblood on the upstairs carpet.
Edward examined them all and found that others kids had similar blisters and severe sunburns, although none as bad as Hugo. Meredith, Hazel, Kaveh and Lalasa were all dark-skinned, but even their skin was tender to the touch in places. Still, he felt better about fallout. “It’s just a bad sunburn,” he said. “I don’t know why, but stay out of the sun for now.”
They stayed inside for the rest of the day. Edward stayed with them, until he had to go out in the afternoon to get tampons for Portia. She had locked herself in the bathroom in embarrassment and it had taken her an hour to admit the reason. Edward was embarrassed as well, and was glad they had the talk through the bathroom door.
I can’t do this, he thought. It seemed to be a thought that came to his mind every day now. It wasn’t just buying tampons for teenage girls, it was everything. This isn’t me. I’m not Uncle Octopus, I’m Eddie Morrison, a 25-year-old illustrator. He felt like he was pretending to be something he wasn’t and that it was only a matter of time before everything came crashing down. Either he would make a mistake and one of the kids would die or he would just snap and take off, leaving them to their fate. Did he even want to? He wasn’t sure.
That night, he left the kids in the care of Portia and Hazel and went to the committee meeting. Others there had bad burns and blisters from the sun and they debated it at length.
“It can’t be radiation because we’ve been taking six pills a day and I still got it,” Gray Hassick said. “And this guy over here doesn’t have a bit.” He pointed to a black man who only went by the name Abdul.
“I think I know what it is,” Heston Bowlery said. “I think the Ra-Shield has gone down. That would explain everything.”
“That’s impossible,” someone else said. “What about the triple redundancy they went on about? They said the facilities were even hardened against nuclear attack.”
Edward had almost forgotten about the Ra-Shield. It was just a background part of normal life, like running water and electricity. 40-odd years before, the UN had built a huge, globe-spanning system of machines that helped protect against ultraviolet radiation, after the ozone layer had been dangerously depleted. He didn’t know how it worked, but if it was gone . . .
“So, if that’s the case, what do we do?” he asked. “Stay inside except at night? Bring an umbrella?”
“On top of cancer bombs and fallout, we have to worry about skin cancer too?” someone said. “Humanity is screwed.”
The committee looked around at each other dismally and Edward could feel the weight of depression settle over them all.
(to be continued)