Cast of Wonders 343: Ten Things Sunil and I Forgot to Prepare for, When Preparing for the Apocalypse (Staff Picks 2018)
Every year in January, Cast of Wonders highlights some of our favorite episodes from the previous year. It’s a great chance for us to take a bit of a breather, and let you, our listeners, catch up on any missed back episodes with new commentary from a different member of the crew.
Today’s episode is hosted by associate editor Shawn Proctor.
Ten Things Sunil and I Forgot to Prepare for, When Preparing for the Apocalypse
by Shane Halbach
1. We didn’t prepare multiple contingencies
When Sunil and I made our plan, we always thought it would be zombies. I mean, we literally imagined nothing else. It just made sense.
Now that I think about it, there are tons of other ways the world could end: aliens from space, nuclear war, some kind of non-zombie disease, maybe nanobots or something. But even then, I wouldn’t have thought of portals to other worlds. I mean, I literally could not have imagined it.
It’s almost 4:00 and I’ve just been sitting here for like 30 minutes. From the kitchen window, I can see up and down Dogwood Street. It’s pretty sunny, so seeing is not a problem. I can see from the Tolzien’s little stupid bird fountain all the way down to the hedges at Jeff’s house.
I see a… thing. A monster. It’s so big that I can’t see above its knees, even if I put my face right up to the window and look up. It’s just walking along, maybe on Ash Street or something, shuffling through houses. I’m not even sure that it knows the houses are there.
There’s smaller ones, too, like rhinos or dinosaurs or something, bigger than an SUV. They’re walking around pissed off, like they want to hit something but they’re literally so mad they don’t even know what to hit.
This one lowers its head and sort of roars and flips over the Sanchez’s Odyssey. It’s so loud, I can’t even hear if I am I’m screaming or not. All of it is so loud: booms and crashes and roars and screams and glass breaking. I didn’t think it would be so loud.
I kind of figure that, even though it’s not zombies, the plan is all I’ve got. Mom and Dad aren’t home from work yet, and I don’t want to be home alone right now. When I find Sunil, we’ll figure out what to do.
Even if our zombie apocalypse plan isn’t a monsters-coming-out-of-portals plan, it is a plan at least.
2. We never made a meeting place
Whenever Sunil and I talked about our plan, we always figured we’d be together. That was kind of stupid because most of the time we’re at home or whatever, so why would we think we’d be together during the apocalypse?
I’m glad we have a plan. A lot of people probably haven’t even thought about what they’d do during the apocalypse, so they’ve got no reason to stop watching monsters crashing through the Sanchez’s house and stomping Mr. Sanchez into the driveway until he doesn’t look like he was ever human.
I grab my backpack and start tossing everything out. Books, notebooks, everything. Looks like I don’t have to worry about 9th grade anymore.
It’s kind of hard because my hands are shaking so badly, but I start grabbing supplies. This part is in the plan: two bottles of water and canned goods, as many as my backpack can hold. Peas, corn, and even some kidney beans. I grab the Tylenol from the medicine cabinet. I almost forget to grab the can opener — rookie mistake.
Finally, I go up to my dad’s room and get his gun. We thought we’d need the gun for zombies, so I’m not sure if we still need it, but that was supposed to be my big contribution to the plan, so I’d better bring it.
I keep the trigger lock on so it doesn’t accidentally go off, but I grab the key from on top of the shelf in the closet. Dad only keeps one box of ammo because he’s literally never fired even a single bullet.
Since we don’t have a meeting place, I’m going to go over to Sunil’s house and meet up there.
I look around the house, but I don’t see anything else from the plan. Just as I’m leaving, I leave Mom and Dad a note so they don’t worry when they come home:
Mom and Dad,
Stay here! Don’t worry, Sunil and I have a plan. Once we get everything set up, we’ll come back and get you, so you can help setting up the gardens, etc.
I open the front door. There’s a sharp smell, like how a CFL light bulb smells when it burns out. I guess the smell is what happens when one of the portals crackles to life.
It kind of looks how it’s supposed to look outside and kind of doesn’t, but I can’t put my finger on what feels different, exactly. It’s like everything is not quite in the right place, like when Mom cleans my room when I’m not home.
I don’t see any monsters at the moment, but I can’t make my foot step out of the house. Then I think about all the times I was in a difficult situation, and how much better I felt when Sunil was there, even if he didn’t say or do anything.
Once I’m out the door, moving is easy. I run and get my bike. I know there are no monsters over by the Sanchez’s, so I don’t need to look in that direction. I look straight ahead as I go by their driveway.
The thing’s legs I had seen earlier are over maybe by the park behind Sunil’s house. I can’t — I don’t want to look up any higher than its legs, and I have to go in that direction.
I am literally peddling my bike towards a six-story tall monster.
3. We forgot to account for travel time
Sunil’s house is not very far away, but every window of every house is an eye watching me, and anything could jump out from anywhere.
When I’m about halfway there, jets go by overhead. I almost don’t hear them at first because there are so many sounds that don’t belong, but some part of me is listening because I’m off my bike and running to crouch by a house before the first missiles are launching.
I thought it was loud before, but this time covering my ears doesn’t block out anything. I don’t know how long they are fighting, and now there are helicopters too even though I didn’t see them come in, because there is one spinning to the ground with fire and smoke coming out of the tail.
I can’t see the fighting directly, but when the monster roars, it makes my bones shake and my muscles tense up in my whole body until they hurt. I have to pee very, very badly.
After a long or short time, the ground stops shaking. The neighborhood is quieter than before, although maybe there is something wrong with my ears. At least nothing is moving, human or otherwise. I don’t see the big monster anymore, but I don’t know if it is dead or just driven off. It seems too big to be dead, even from missiles.
Somewhere, houses are on fire. It smells like a campfire. There’s a house across the street, pale yellow and with three window gables like mine that has bullet holes marching up the side big enough to put my fist in.
According to the plan, Sunil and I should be securing the tree house right now, building traps and fences and making a nice, secure base of operations. I definitely need Sunil for that part.
When I finally come around the corner to where Sunil’s house is, I coast slowly to a stop.
Sunil’s house isn’t there. Like, it literally is not there. The mailbox is still there, and the sign cheerily declaring “The Patels”, but where the house should be is just a long gouge through three consecutive yards.
So…Sunil’s not here. Obviously he wouldn’t stay here with his house just gone like that, so…he must have left already.
Maybe there are people crying close by and calling for help, or maybe not: my ears are still kind of muffled from the explosions. Sunil’s stuff is probably scattered around. I should find it and gather it up for him, but he’s probably following the plan, which means he’s probably waiting for me at the tree house already.
Usually when I ride my bike, my mind wanders. This time it doesn’t feel like it.
4. We didn’t think about a bathroom
5. We thought it would be fun
When I wake up, I can’t tell if I’m shivering from the cold or from the dream where Mom and Dad are driving in the Sanchez’s minivan and it gets stomped flat by a monster the size of a skyscraper. I guess I’ll have to add blankets to my supply list.
According to the plan, Sunil and I were supposed to stock up last night, but I was afraid to leave the tree house in case Sunil showed up.
I eat a whole can of peas for breakfast. I was going to only eat half, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop cramming fingerfulls in my mouth. That made me realize how little food I actually brought in my backpack. It’s not going to last very long.
Blankets, spare clothes, a spoon — there are so many things we forgot to plan for.
Sunil and I modified the tree house so that we could pull the ladder up, but I can’t do it by myself, so I’ll have to leave it down while I’m gone. I need my backpack empty for supplies, so I have to leave my cans of food unguarded.
I unlock the trigger guard on Dad’s gun and tuck it carefully in the waistband of my jeans, putting my shirt over it. Every time I move, it feels like it’s going to fall out. I move it to the back so it doesn’t accidentally blow my leg off. It’s like holding a knife by the blade; hypothetically it is safe, but any careless move and it might hurt me badly.
The plan says I’m supposed to go to the grocery store for canned goods, but I’m tired of the plan. I’m tired and I want to go home. I want to see my Mom and Dad, and eat, and not be freezing cold.
This is not how we imagined it.
It’s only about two blocks from the tree house to my house, but one of those rhino-sized monsters is pawing around one of the houses. I think there are people inside, and it knows it. It’s getting madder and madder and smashing around with these big tusks coming out of its jaw. It looks like it’s getting ready to charge and just smash its way in through the wall. Someone inside is screaming now.
I go way around.
When I get home, I bring my bike inside. Unfortunately, there’s nobody here to complain about getting dirt on the floor.
My note is where I left it, and I can tell nobody’s been here, but I call out a few times anyway. Not too loud, though; it feels like the air is literally jello and it takes a lot of force to get any sound out. I think about the lady screaming in the house down the street and the thing going wild trying to get her, and I don’t call out anymore.
I thought the apocalypse would be using my wits, and coming up with clever solutions, and being a hero. Instead, it’s mostly shivering in a tree house, trying not to cry in case the thing bellowing in the dark is closer than it sounds.
It feels good to be in my house. Even though it smells like smoke from the houses that are still smoldering, it’s welcoming and comforting and just…normal.
Suddenly I don’t have enough energy to even make it to my bed.
I’m just on my way over to lie down on the couch, when there’s a knock on the door.
“Hey, kid!” calls a man. “Come on out. We’re going to get you out of here.”
I freeze, just staring at the door. Did I really hear that? Am I already asleep?
“Come on kid, let’s go, before one of those things shows up!”
I walk over to the door and open it slowly. I want to run, to hide, to not open the door, but while I’m trying to make up my mind, my hands and feet have already done it.
There’s a soldier there, an actual soldier, holding a machine gun and everything. In the street there is a Humvee. I’ve seen them driving on the highway, sometimes.
“Let’s go, we’ve got transport to the evac center,” says the solider.
“No, I’m waiting for my parents.”
“Your parents are at the evac center.”
Relief and hope flood through me, so much I’m dizzy for a second.
The soldier grabs my arm and pulls me out of the house, shoving me towards the Humvee.
“Let’s move, kid, we don’t have all day.”
As I stumble forward, it hits me: my parents didn’t send this guy. He doesn’t know if my parents are at the evac center.
“I want to stay,” I say. “My parents are coming home, and anyway, I have a plan.”
I can see the soldier has had it, and he’s going to throw me in the truck if he has to. Forget the plan; I know how this plays out. It’s in every movie, every story: if I go to the evac station, I will never see my parents or Sunil again.
“I’m not going!” I shout and try to run past the soldier, back into my house. He doesn’t hit me so much as push me really hard and knock me over.
“You little shit,” he says, and he looks like he decided to hit me after all.
I reach behind my back and pull out my Dad’s gun.
6. We didn’t think it would be hard to shoot people
Sunil and I figured we’d have to shoot lots of people. Zombies, of course, but also raiders, and street gangs, and whoever else wanted to get our supplies in the tree house. You could say shooting people was part of the plan.
The soldier reacts as soon as I have the gun. “Shooter!” he shouts, probably to other soldiers.
Everything is happening fast, but taking forever. The soldier is putting his hands up, but also shrugging his shoulder around, so his machine gun swings to the front. There’s probably other soldiers and they’re probably reaching for their guns too.
I can’t let him take me away from home. Shooting people is part of the plan if they’re taking our stuff. The plan is to stay here.
I don’t want to shoot him. He’s not a zombie, he’s probably not even a bad guy. He wants to help me. He’s the first living person I’ve seen in 24 hours.
I squeeze my eyes shut, point the gun, and pull the trigger.
Dad’s never fired a single bullet. Dad didn’t keep the gun loaded.
My eyes pop open to the soldier’s wide eyes. His hands are already on his gun.
The machine gun sounds how machine guns sound in the movies, except so much louder.
I’m rolling away and my leg is on fire and the sidewalk is making sparks and I just need to run, run, run —
7. We didn’t make an escape plan
I can only run every few steps before falling down, but I don’t stop moving. Oh God, it hurts! My leg is shot. Just keep moving. I don’t know if they’re — okay, through the place where there’s a gap between the fence and the house. Where can I go? I can’t lead them to the tree house. I can’t breathe. They’re coming. I can’t see them. Where can I go? Is this Birch Street? Why didn’t we plan for this? Oh God, my leg. I have to stop. I can’t —
8. We didn’t think about a first aid kit
I’m in some kind of ditch or window well or something. I’m a little too big, but I can’t run any more. My jeans are soaked in blood below the calf of my right leg, but I don’t want to look.
We never planned on bandages or stitches or anything beyond a stupid bottle of Tylenol. It wasn’t in our plan. Our stupid, stupid, worthless plan.
I know I’m supposed to make a bandage for my leg, but I try to tear my shirt and I can’t. I take off the whole shirt and tie it around my leg, but it hurts and I don’t even know what the point is.
I’m lying curled up in the dirt, against a house I don’t know, with my blood all over, and there’s no one to help me.
9. We forgot to prepare for being alone
It was a stupid plan, Sunil. Even if it was zombies, it was a stupid plan, and it wasn’t going to work. We thought we had it all planned out, but even if we had been together, and even if we had followed the plan exactly, it was never going to work.
Except we aren’t together. You were at home when your house…that thing, that big monster, literally obliterated your house, with you and everything in it.
And then I hear it.
Something’s up there. Not a soldier. Something huge is snuffling nearby. It grunts or growls or whatever it does, and the noise is so deep my ears almost can’t process it.
I’m shaking all over and I can’t stop. I burrow my head deeper into the window well, so I don’t have to see. Is it the same one that smeared Mr. Sanchez all over the driveway? Does it even matter?
It will find me in minutes, and there’s no way I can run on my leg.
10. We forgot we needed help
“Hey, kid!” whispers a voice above me, furiously. “Psst, hey kid! Up here!”
There’s a man leaning out of an upstairs window, and he’s lowering a rope. An honest-to-God rope.
He keeps glancing from me to something off to the right, which I assume is the monster. He looks scared, but determined, and he’s lowering the rope furiously, with both hands.
When we made the plan, we wanted to avoid everybody. Avoid contagion, avoid betrayal, live by our wits. The whole point of the plan was to separate ourselves from everybody. And if this man doesn’t help me, I’m dead.
As I wrap the rope around my hands, I realize something: you can’t make a plan for when the world ends. You can’t hole yourself up, or wall yourself off; that never works, not even in the movies.
It’s when you stop thinking that you’ve got it all figured out, when you start seeing what is instead of what you want it to be, that you realize you have options.
I don’t know who this guy is. I don’t know if Sunil’s dead or if the soldiers will be able to stop six-story high monsters or if I’ll ever see my parents again. But I do know I can’t be prepared for everything that’s going to happen next and that I can’t do it by myself.
Sometimes you have to go against the plan. Sometimes you have to accept a rope from a stranger.
About the Author
Shane Halbach lives in Chicago, where he writes software by day and avoids writing stories by night. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and The Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction, among others. He blogs at shanehalbach.com, or can be found on Twitter @shanehalbach.
About the Narrator
Kyle Akers is a voice actor from Kansas City, Missouri. He has contributed to podcasts like Pseudopod, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and NoSleepPodcast. He also produces and performs in his own improv podcast called “The Counselor.” Prior to voice acting, Kyle toured the country as a professional musician, singing and playing bass guitar for the electro-pop band Antennas Up, which enjoyed success through several national television show placements and commercials. Since then, Kyle has dabbled in long-form improv and audio production while performing weekend gigs with Kansas City cover band The Magnetics.