I Remember How We Forgot

“Willy!” Roger roared, his lungs rattled his ribs as he raced up the stone steps.

Willy, barefoot and dressed only in pyjamas, had his back to him, his hand tight on the steel door handle. The young boy rotated his grip and pressure released in a hiss, accompanied by a scowl of wind from beyond. Before the small crack could open further, Willy was ripped away into Rogers arms who hurled himself against the heavy door, sealing away, once more, the threats from the wasteland outside.

“Dad!” Willy shouted over Roger’s shoulders, “Why?”

“Are you asking me “why”? Are you seriously…” Roger broke, breathless from his collision, but also by his son’s ineptitude, “So that’s what you’re always doing when we’re playing hide and seek… my God, Willy.”

“I normally hide.” Willy’s body flopped within Rogers cradle.

“In plain sight?”

“I got bored of hide and seek.” Willy sniffled back, “But I just wanted to look outside.”

“That’s a funny way of looking.” Roger snapped. He regained his composure and descended the narrow stairwell with Willy clung to him as a chimp does to their guardian.

Father and son were greeted into the bunker’s main room by a faint tingle of warmth. The box-like furnace embedded into the far wall was fed on old newspapers; Roger marvelled at how it burned akin to a Victorian oil lamp he’d read about in school books. The walls, exposed by the outer edges of light, were etched with dashes and strikes, their days were counted like prisoners. Huddled close to the fire were two figures, draped in blankets, with their backs to Roger and Willy.

“It sure isn’t Buckingham Palace in here.” Roger boomed.

The figure on the left jolted, the rag fell away and the woman underneath laughed, “It’s not exactly a Rolling Stones concert either, no need to shout! You and your loud voice.”

“What’s Buckingham Palace? What’s a Rolling Stones concert?” Willy probed.

“Oh, Willy, you don’t know the Rolling Stones?” The second figure questioned, unturned. Whisps of a flowering beard bobbed either side of a silhouette, in sync with his words.

“Don’t wind him up, Reverend,” Roger sat down on a wooden stool, barely big enough for an infant. “The only way I knew the Rolling Stones was from finding my dads records, rest in peace, in the attic, so how the hell would Willy know?”

Willy sagged onto the battered rug by the furnace, “What’s Buckingham Palace then?”

“Willy,” his mother soothed, “There’s no need to worry about that stuff now. I can barely remember myself. Could be the fumes.” Her voice dwindled to a whisper.

“But I want to know, Mum!”

“I don’t remember, Willy.”

Roger reached out and squeezed her hand, “It’s ok, Hel, let me tell him. I think I remember more, ya know, before the fumes?”

Willy nestled into Helen’s lap, waiting for his father to commence.

“Well, I think I remember how we forgot,” His father paused and rubbed his stubbled chin. “It goes something like this…

What you have to understand, Willy, is life back in 2020 was very different. We didn’t have to live in the bunkers and we were free to do what we wanted. Well, free in the sense we thought we were free. We could eat what we wanted, pop tarts, Tiramisu, corn flakes. We could drive cars where we wanted- What are those? Cars? I thought we’d told you? A car was something you would sit in, with a big motor, and it took you somewhere fast. Did you and mummy have one? One? No no, every family needed two in 2020. At least. And there was something called the internet- What was that? I don’t really know. There were these machines called computers you could have in your pockets- Machines? In your pockets? Yes. They allowed you to talk to people all over the world. But why? The world is such a big place, bigger than this bunker and you used the internet, on these machines, in your pocket to talk to them.

Is that how you and Mummy met? Yes, that’s how we met. Through our machines- In your pockets? From our pockets. Did everyone meet like that? I suppose… People didn’t need to speak to other people face to face, it was seen as… inconvenient. But you spoke to strangers instead? Were they more friendly? Was Mummy friendly? No people were worse from their pockets. Your mummy was nice, although she didn’t reply to my messages for a day or two and I started to get worried. That was very uncool of Mummy!”

Helen and Roger laughed in sync; Willy’s head whipped back and forth between them like a metronome. At their side, the Reverend shuffled, and Roger was sure he‘d detected a muffled clink.

Like a fractured dam, Helen’s mind unlodged, “It’s coming back to me now…

Me and your daddy met and it was quite a romantic time. I’d met plenty before him through my pocket machine, but he was the best. He was quite the gentleman. What’s a gentleman? Oh, I’m not even sure myself really, Willy. Must be the fumes. In those days there were so many clever people called scientists and they did important work. They made important inventions- Like what? They invented avocados savers, shoe umbrellas, all sorts but, thankfully, the gas mask. One day, one of these scientists invented a special spray. What was his name…?”

“Jose Ortiz,” The Reverend prompted. “An American, Californian I think. The spray was called Mind Erase”

“That’s right, it was! This spray, Mind Erase, was so special because it came in a can- Like our beans? Yes like our beans. But inside weren’t beans, there was a spray that could wipe away any bad memories you ever had. Why would people do that? People were especially sad in our days. With all the cars? And the beans? And pocket machines? Yes, especially with them! So now, people started to use this miracle spray to erase their sadness, but as the months went by things started to get a bit strange. How Mummy? Oh… I can’t remember.”

Helen paused, her finger pushed against her pursed lips. The Reverend spoke up…

“Reports started appearing on the television Television? A box where we would watch people talking about the world. Oh, I see Good. And the reports said too much Mind Erase was getting out into the air and the atmosphere. People were sitting in their cars or at home for days on end, some would wake up on the side of the road having not known where they were and found out birds had been pecking on their faces! MUMMY!”

“Reverend, please!” Roger snapped, “Helen, maybe we should stop?”

“No, Daddy, please. Please, please. I’m not even scared.” Willy whimpered.

Ok. Fine. Me and your mummy went and bought our gas masks as quick as we could but not everyone was as lucky. As the shops sold more and more, there were less and less people with masks. The poor souls who were out in the air too long ended up like zombies What’s a zombie Daddy? Like an alive… dead person, but now they’re dead but.. alive. They would just stand there or wander around. And so, there wasn’t anyone to give us electricity anymore. Is that food? No, no. It’s what gives life to our pocket machines and televisions. It was a very important thing. Without it we couldn’t do anything anymore, no Britain’s got Talent, Game of Thrones or Instagram. We lost all connections with people. So, here we are Willy, you, me and Mummy, down in a bunker And the Reverend! Him too.

The room fell into quiet remembrance, of a life cut short, and of moments unlived.

Storytime was concluded for the evening.

Willy tugged his mother’s blanket and asked, “Is there any Mind Erase left? Can we go outside soon?”

“Only when we find you a mask can you can outside, ok?” Helen ruffled Willy’s hair. “And, no, it’s all gone. And anyway even if there was any left there’s nobody to use it.”

As Helen began to brush Willy’s hair, she hummed. Roger struggled to recall the lost song from the vestiges of his memory, unsure if it was concealed by potent fumes or merely the passage of time.

The Reverend leant back, ankles crossed and laced his hands behind his head, but when his foot knocked his satchel a familiar object, horrible and simple, rolled out. A clink bounced off the stone walls as a can hit the ground, it rolled once at the Reverend’s feet, a worn paper label read, “Mind Erase”.

Their wide-eyed gazes met in a shocked standoff like prey caught in a hunt.

The room remained suspended in time, each waited for another to make their move.

“Grab him!” Helen shrieked. Roger pounced towards the Reverend who swiped for the can like a bird plucks up mice. He pointed the nozzle at Roger, whose hands were flexed like bear claws.

“Stop!” The Reverend shouted, “Stop or I’ll spray.”

Veins pulsated on the Reverend’s temples and spittle had begun to coagulate at the corners of his mouth and between his teeth as he snarled.

“What do you want?” Roger raised his arms, “Just don’t spray. What do you want?”

“Your god damn beans!”

“Ok. Take the beans.” Roger pointed to the pantry opening behind the Reverend who, with the nozzle dead-aimed, backed into the unlit room. He fumbled across the shelves above him, grabbing tins at random. Anxious eyes locked on to one another, nobody dared blink.

Willy clung to his parent’s legs from behind, crying, and peaked out when brave enough.

Once his satchel was full, the Reverend returned into the light. “Guess I’ll be going. Thank you so kindly, Roger. Helen, Willy, all the best.”

The Reverend retreated up the stairs with the Mind Erase still levelled, and once out of sight, the family of three crept, huddled together, to the first step. Like a phantom summoned back into obscurity, the cadaverous form of the Reverend was engulfed by the darkness, one limb at a time.

They remained frozen, listening to the fading footsteps, until Roger, alerted by the squeal of distant hinges, darted up the stairwell. He slammed into the door that had been left ajar, and then scoured the wasteland, through the window, for any sight of the Reverend, but it was motionless outside, save for the ripples in the freshly parted fog.

He sighed, his breath blurred the faded windowpane, “Bastard took all our beans.”

* * *

Days later, Roger was jolted awake by, what sounded like, a distant voice. Careful not to wake Helen and Willy, he rose and shuffled to the stone steps. Near the top, a silhouette through the light of a Winter’s morning appeared on the curved walls.

Roger was struck silent when his gaze met that of the Reverends, through the glass. The once youthful Reverend appeared void of identity, and his lips were bloody from cracked flesh. His satchel hung at his side.

“What are you doing here?” Roger asked through gritted teeth.

The Reverend blinked as if he were lost and seeking direction. He blew on his hands as he rubbed them together.

“Please sir,” The Reverend pleaded, eyes glossed over from tears. “Would you let me in?”

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