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  • Writer's pictureNick Janicki

Hoppy Endings: Gummypocalypse

Inspired by Noon Whistle’s New England IPA

His arm stood still, holding out to me the still-steaming can of expired chili that would have to make do for our stomachs for at least another twenty-four hours. Maybe more. Because lately, I'd had a strange feeling that the end of the end was just around the corner.

“No thanks,” I said. I waved it away and put my hand to my stomach. “That was pretty filling, actually. But you go ahead . . . eat up. No use trying to save it for tomorrow, anyway.”

That was a half lie. My stomach was begging—screaming — for more. The air was rich with the collective scent of tomato sauce, ground beef, and beans, which amplified my hunger tenfold. I supposed it would’ve been enough to drive someone mad — even me, if the person sitting on the tile floor in front of me was anyone besides my son.

He sent a curious look my way, as if reading through my words to catch the lie, then sank the spoon back into the can. He was able to fish out a few more decent spoonfuls, and the contentment on his face (that was all I could ask for) was enough to kick my stomach’s screams to the curb. At least for now. They’d come back, as they always did.

This wasn’t dinner, just as the bathroom stall we were cozied up inside wasn’t home. This was survival. Life was survival. No matter the years that’d passed like this (I’d stopped counting a ways back), that realization never ceased to torment me. It was any given apocalyptic movie in the history of this godforsaken world, only such films seemed idyllic upon second thought. They tended to reveal no more than an hour and a half of suffering, and many had the tendency to actually end on a high note. Someone comes to the rescue. They find the cure. Pick an outcome.

Real life was nothing like movies.

With the can cleaned out (he’d tongued with care the inside of it when the spoon was no longer of use), I helped him into his sleeping bag, repositioned his travel pillow so that it at least wasn’t in direct contact with the base of the toilet, and killed the light on the hand-cranked lantern. The bathroom disappeared, and I settled into my own sleeping bag.

Usually, we’d both be out as quick as the lantern’s light. Surviving was exhausting. It drained you, both physically and mentally. Tonight was different for reasons beyond me. I could sense it and knew my son could, too. My eyes remained open despite the same sight greeting me with eyelids closed. We were both just lying there, surviving in the darkness.

“Curly fries,” I said. It came out as little more than a whisper, but the words seemed to echo across the cramped bathroom.

“What about curly fries, Dad?” he asked.

I’d already allowed a smile to crawl across my face, fantasizing where the conversion was headed. “If I had a magic lamp and could make one wish, I’d rub it and wish for a big basket of curly fries. Maybe a side of ketchup, too, if the genie would allow it.”

He was quiet, although I knew it meant he was thinking, considering his response. It was nothing more than a distraction, a chance to end the night without thinking about where we were and what was going on. At least for a fleeting moment. He deserved that much. I noticed how he frowned more often than smiled these days. Survived rather than lived. If I could provide a welcome distraction for even a minute at the end of any other night, I could rest easier, too.

“What about you?” I said, pushing him toward an answer.

“I guess . . .” he started, pausing again to weigh his decision one more time. “I’d wish for gummies.”

“Gummies?” I asked.

“Yes, gummies. Gummy bears.”

“That’s a good one,” I said. “A real good one. Goodnight, pal.”

“Goodnight, Dad.”

He drifted, eventually deep enough to snore. I remained awake awhile longer, thinking about his response, ‘Gummy bears.’ It was the simplicity that struck me; this wasn’t a five-star meal or a snack with ingredients that had to be sourced from different corners of the world. It was a squishy, sugar-filled gelatinous candy. Maybe it was even accessible. We hadn’t seen gummy bears anywhere to date, but then again, we weren’t really looking for them.

Night took me sometime during this reflection.

Our morning ritual was as cyclical as our bedtime’s. We sacrificed a few splashes of water, paired with some years-old sink soap, an attempt at freshening up. Teeth were priority, as always. If there was any bottled water to spare after that (usually there wasn’t), we’d give our pits and privates a quick scrub. A P&P, for short. We weren’t so fortunate this morning.

“Sorry, pal, no P&P today,” I said, putting my hand over the water bottle my son was about to pour into his cupped hand. That killed me.

He turned the bottle upright in his grip and tilted his head up to meet me. His defeated expression was another dagger. I would’ve broken down and told him fine, he could spare a few more drops, but instead, for reasons unbeknownst to me, the look on his face flashed two words in my head. Bolded, italicized, and underlined: Gummy Bears.

As we continued preparing for the day ahead, my mind raced with the fantasy of getting him the simple snack he’d mentioned last night. I’d be a hero in his eyes. Dad, Santa Claus, a Genie, all rolled into one—and maybe more yet. This wasn't merely getting my son’s hands on a sweet treat. The longer I stared at those two words in my head, lit up like a neon sign at midnight, the more they reminded me that it’d been forever since the poor kid had had anything he wanted. All he knew was sacrifice.

With our backpacks zipped and the obligatory reminder of cautions and protocols out of the way, we exited the public bathroom we’d learned to call home. After flipping the deadbolt unlocked, I poked my head out through a cracked door. One hand on the utility knife hanging off my belt, as always. But the gym outside was as vacant and dim as we’d found it a few weeks ago (or maybe it’d been months; time ticked at an odd pace now).

‘Never the same place for too long’ was one of the rules I often beat to a dead horse. This was my own logic — a page in a working rulebook — but it’d paid off over these last few years. That must’ve made it statistically sound advice, or so I liked to believe. The ‘too long’ part of this particularly rule was vague, as we would stay in a given location anywhere from a single night to a few weeks. We had adamantly abided by that at the beginning. Not so much lately; most times, I found a way to convince myself to stay another night. As bad of a habit as that was, my body always thanked me for it.

The gym was working out well, though. There was no arguing that. It wasn’t the first gym we’d stayed at. It seemed people let their memberships expire when coming head-to-head with the end of the world. And when it came to most Resters — those who remained — there was no obvious benefit to having access to an abundance of free-weights and exercise machines. The last thing people wanted to do was burn calories for the hell of it.

At the front entrance to the gym, we masked up, ski goggles and all, and headed out into blistering sun. I could feel it baking my head (through the umbrella above us, through the cap on my head) almost immediately, so I assumed what was my go-to distraction: searching for greenery. There was always some plant life in sight wherever we ventured, fighting for survival like us, although lately there seemed to be considerably less. The Midwest had once been rather lush, I’d told my son, overflowing with life everywhere outside of any given concrete jungle. While he’d been around to see a fraction of that picturesque setting, even that hadn’t done its prime any justice. Of course, I’d stopped talking about it altogether. Because at this point, it was no better than filling his head with a fairytale.

Fortunately for the Resters, they often didn’t get to see such sad sights. They operated in the dark. The night was cooler — much cooler. They could travel without burning their body of the water they’d worked so hard to find and consume throughout the day. This was a pleasure we didn’t take advantage of. It was a necessary sacrifice, considering traveling by day reduced the risk of running into a group of them to a near zero per cent chance.

This day was like any other. Forgettable. Blending in with the others to the point that it now just seemed like one long mega-day. While the routine was the same, the location always differed. Today, we’d made our way to one of the buildings we hadn’t yet visited. It was an office building, our typical target. The second rule I belabored to my son was about searching for sustenance in corporate settings. Not water; that was much more difficult to locate, and required stocking up for weeks on end. Food was different. Thanks to the society now lost, there was food — fuel, really — out there that would remain edible for years to come. Make it a long enough timeline and that, too, would be gone, but it was a luxury we had for right now.

The irritating part of all this wasn’t the score typically being nothing more than a can of tuna (or chili, last night’s meal). What really got under my skin was the process of it all. The farming, as I’d dubbed it. It always began with the lead up, during which we’d go through all the precautionary steps in front of us, thus ensuring we wouldn’t come face-to-face with anyone else. I wouldn’t dare skip these ritualistic steps, but I could tell they were testing my son’s patience (almost as much as they were mine).

We were already in our building of choice, once home to a law firm, a paper company, and a sign and graphics print shop, when I spotted him looking more somber than usual. The entire trek had been silent, and now he was just going through the motions. He rifled through his knapsack (able to do so without making a peep) to find the empty can of chili. And even though his face was still covered and head angled downward, I could tell he was miserable. Here he was, a ten-year-old boy scavenging for any amount of food that’d keep him alive a day longer. And what’s that for? I asked myself. Just to fuel him up for similar hardship the next day?

I set my sights onward, at the shared, spacious lobby between the former workplaces. Besides being dust-ridden, it was otherwise untouched. Not a chair turned over nor a smudge on the floor to reveal a trace of a Rester. It told me there’d be a few cans of ground-up, Frankenstein meat somewhere in the building. Some instant noodles. If we were lucky, some canned veggies — Lord knew we both needed some of those for a change.

Gummy bears. The words flashed brighter than before. I felt them, in fact, tapping me on the shoulder as if to remind me of something. Only it was something that I was denying, pushing back against with subconscious strength. When I focused enough, the reminder squeezed through a little. It wasn’t the words calling my attention; it was what they’d meant to me in another life. A vision of them in a place where I didn’t care to think about. A place not far from here, but one that I couldn’t bear to go near.

But then again, there was my son. Miserable. Not living, but surviving.

From the corner of my eye, I caught him pulling out the empty can from his knapsack. I turned to him and watched as he held it up high like a piece of treasure he’d just uncovered. He swung his arm back, preparing to toss the bait out in the open in order to see if we weren’t alone here. Before he could, I landed my hand on the can. Our fingers met from opposite sides, and it reminded me how long it’d been since I’d held my son’s hand. Daggers.

“No,” I whispered, crouching beside him. I pointed toward the untouched lobby. “This place looks picture-perfect, don’t you think?”

He shrugged.

I continued: “To me, that means one of two things. First, it’s possible that a group of Resters staged this. You know, set it up to look like it’s inviting to people like us.” He shot me a puzzled look. “The more likely situation is that this place is perfect because there’s nothing to find here. No food or water, just a bunch of paper and computers and pencils. Boring stuff, you know?”

His expression changed, picking up what I was putting down. “So, we don’t throw the can?”

I smiled, lowering the can between our hands. “Exactly. Here, give me that.” He let up on the can. I took it and shoved it in a side pocket of my own pack. “I think I have another place we can farm today.” (I called what we did ‘farming,’ which in reality was scavenging for anything to keep us living and breathing. It just seemed like a more appropriate term for someone who’d under different circumstances be entering the fourth grade.)

I put my solar gear back on before helping him with his. As I repositioned the goggles over his eyes, I noticed they weren’t full of emptiness (or at least not as much). It’s not that he was happy; rather, he was curious. We’d never abandoned a farming spot once already in motion. The only exception to that had been the few times there’d been signs of Resters at a given location. Only then would we vacate the premises. On those occasions, we usually opted to go and hunker down wherever our home-base was at that time. Going hungry for a single day didn’t matter; it was a comforting thought compared to what would happen to us if ever we were to be discovered.

It was impossibly hotter outside. I checked my watch. Noon. The most brutal part of the day by far, but also the safest for that very reason. Fortunately, our new destination was only a hop and a skip away, just across the street and a building inward.

I kept my son close to my side, beneath the shade of the umbrella I held over us. My grip on him was tighter than usual, pulling him into me as if forcing a hug — some comfort of my own, perhaps. I suppose a therapist — fat chance anyone in the world was still providing such services — would say that makes sense given the place we were headed to right now. It was somewhere I’d frequented in a former life, a building I’d avoided for reasons besides the possibility of Resters hidden away inside.

We entered the parking lot and began around the first two-story building in the way of our destination. It looked like the one we’d just come from, like the one we were traveling to. Blocks of grey sameness. I peered down at my son every couple steps. His goggles were foggy, the rest of his face wrapped in his camouflage bandana. While these hid him from the cruel world, I could again tell what lay beneath those coverings. Right now, there was a faint grin on his face. Upon reflection, that was no surprise; he was familiar with our destination, too.

Our target, 1440 W. Palmer Way (the address as bland as the building), was only another couple minutes away once we passed the first building. Each second felt like an hour, though, the ball of fire in the sky beating down on the thin umbrella above us, trying to reach its intended targets. Victims, more like, not dissimilar to the ones it’d already claimed these last few years. The top of my head felt like it was being held inches above an open flame, and despite the added protection on my son’s dome (always a priority over myself), I knew he was struggling to hang tough, too.

“Doing all right, pal?” I said, bending my knees some to get the umbrella a little closer to him as we continued to power-walk.

He nodded once and said something I couldn’t quite catch, words muffled under the fabric over his mouth. Whatever it’d been, it was something short and mild in tone. He was calm, accepting of the situation, and that made me even more motivated to get to our destination. We carried on.

When we reached the front entrance of the building, I collapsed the umbrella and slipped off my backpack. There was a thick canopy extending from the entrance, which provided enough shade to drop the temperature some twenty-plus degrees. It was nice to say the least. Still hot as hell, but better. I grabbed the water bottle (light — always light) out from my pack and handed it to my son. He waved it off at first. I held it closer to him, insisting. This was the sole reward for anything we did these days, and it was very much needed at this moment. Especially for how much of a trooper he was being. Again, living and surviving were one and the same now, so all we had were the small wins.

While he took his time carefully pouring a few sips into his mouth, I diverted my attention to the building before us. The entryway was the same as I’d remembered, only the glass doors were coated in a few layers of dust. This was a positive sign; it meant Resters weren’t frequenting this place, if visiting it at all. The canopy above us had been sun-drained from the deep navy I could still picture in my head to what was now a light grey. The dissimilarity in appearance — the dust and the faded cloth — saved me from a rush of memories pouring back at once. It was more of a steady drip, which I appreciated. But there was surely a backup waiting to come through, time standing between the past and my mind like a dam on a river.

“We’re going inside?” my son asked. There was an elevation in his tone, which I figured was a result of memories returning for him, too. Of course, not all those memories could be good. They brought with them both joy and sorrow. A cocktail of the two for me, at least. Maybe my son would be more fortunate. He’d been far younger at the time, anyway.

I gave him a nod and started ahead toward the entrance, glancing over my shoulder every few steps to ensure he was acting as my shadow. He knew the drill by now, but it never hurt to double check (which also just so happened to be my fourteenth rule of survival). He was there, his little hands grabbing ahold of the back of my button-down.

At the dust-caked door, I extended my sleeve over my hand and rubbed away at a section of the glass until it cleared up. I had to close my eyes before looking in, giving myself a moment to prepare for the sight just beyond us. If I’d been alone, I would’ve allowed myself to be in a very different state. My eyes would’ve been watering, and my brain wouldn’t have been nearly as alert as it was now.

The inside was as smut-riddled as the open world around us; therefore, everything looked about the same color, dulled down to what almost came off as a black-and-white film (especially through the little television-screen-type peephole I’d created on the glass door). It was dirtier than the place we’d come from along with half the other places we’d farmed at as of late. Another small win, at least in appearance.

I took a knee, keeping the other one lifted. My son knew exactly what to do, climbing onto my thigh and peering through the peephole I’d created. I could’ve let him wipe away a section of the glass on his own, but somehow this made it feel like we were in this together, an authentic shared experience from the same point of view. It felt like bonding.

“Did I ever come through this way?” he asked beneath the bandana still wrapped around his nose and mouth. I gently placed my hand on it, lowering it to hear him better. And to see his face, of course. “When you brought me here, did I go through this big room? I can’t remember.”

I smiled. “Yes, you did. You have an impressive memory.”

I grabbed the door handle and pulled. It was stubborn, which made me fear someone had locked themselves inside (keeping others out as well). It eventually gave, flying open and sending a cloud of dust shooting into our faces. We both coughed, and the unintentional noise sent me into high alert, pulling my son in a little closer.

Being back here made me feel comfortable, whether I liked to admit it or not. The years without having stepped foot on the property didn’t matter. They fizzled away to make it feel like I was back in an old routine, having just gotten out of the car and now on my way into the office. This was dangerous, and largely the reason we hadn’t tried to farm this building yet. At least that was the lie I’d fed myself.

The dust had settled now. I pulled the door open again and peered inside. The same sight I’d seen through the glass greeted me, a bunch of untouched furniture covered with the side effects of time. The floor just passed the door was covered in a mix of sand and dust as well, and there wasn’t a disturbance in the mixture to be seen. No one had been here, in other words. At least not in a long time.

“You want to handle this one?” I asked, then flashed a smile. “Since I cut you off at the last place?”

He nodded. He took off his knapsack, removed the empty can of beans, and tossed it into the lobby with all his might. It went no more than ten feet, but that was all right; it made a heck of a thud upon landing on the tile floor (not even remotely muffled by the layer of dust on top of it). That was sufficient, so I patted him on the back and flashed a thumbs-up in front of his face.

We repositioned ourselves closer to the side of the doors (rather than in the middle of the two). It was there that we waited a few minutes — three, to be exact, timed down to the second with my digital wristwatch. While the estimation might’ve come off as random to most, it was determined based on first-hand experience. Typically, any Resters would come soaring out from the woodwork of a given building at the drop of an audible-enough pin. The other two minutes was buffer time.

As confident as we’d ever be, I yanked the door back open and walked inside. My son followed, still acting as my shadow. The scent I’d always struggled to describe — unique to this place, neither inviting nor dismissing — was still wandering through the air, only lessened from the passing of several years. I again tried to think past these nostalgia-steeped observations, now more than cognizant of the threat they posed to my alertness—and therefore our safety.

“Do you need the map, Daddy?” he asked.

I shook my head as we went onward, now in the heart of the lobby. Behind us, a trail of two different shoe prints went all the way to the front entrance. Even if we weren’t to find what’d brought us to this place to begin with, there was a bit of comfort knowing our footprints would still exist in this place, at least for another few years. The equivalent of leaving flowers on a grave (not that there’d be any to leave, even if we so desired).

My son’s exuberance had given way to some confusion, likely unsure why we were walking around a building that’d long been mentioned as off-limits. To him, perhaps this came off as an act of desperation; a sign that we were running out of places to farm around the area. While that was partly true, our presence was for another reason entirely. It was the reason that was allowing me to move forward with such confidence, despite the horrid events that had occurred the last time I was in this place. Events that he hadn’t been here to witness, but ones I’d foolishly burdened him with knowing about while I’d been at my lowest of lows.

The suppressed familiarity pressed a little harder on the lid that was keeping it down as we entered suite one-eighty. Just outside the doors was a small sign reminding me of my former company’s name: Gilded Glass. I always hated that. It was pretentious and made us seem bigger than the fifty-or-so employees that’d made up the company. Fortunately, I was able to shove this aside, too. Stupid name.

The badge scanner that’d been ripped off the wall the last time I was here was still on the floor, covered in dust like everything else. I was fortunate for it now, opening the door to the actual office without struggle. My son was still positioned tight behind me, so I scooted to the side and extended my arms toward the open doorway. He knew what this place had once meant to me, and I knew a bit of that elation had flown back into him now (even if he wasn’t showing it). To fuel this, I let him enter first.

Some visible enthusiasm did grow on his dirt-masked face. It seemed more apparent the farther we traveled into the office. To my surprise, it was in moderately better condition than the state of the lobby we’d come from. I thought about this perhaps being attributable to the high-quality glass on the office windows, able to keep out the dessert while the rest of the building — lobby included — was stuck with the cheap crap. That made me crack a smile of my own. Gilded Glass.

Our journey led us to the break room. We’d taken the long route, and that’d been intentional. As long as we were here, I’d allow my son the trip down memory lane, even if that was a blurry road from his perspective. He’d been to my work — our work — two or three times back when the world had been something else entirely. It didn’t make sense to call it home, but to him, it was the next best thing.

Because he was well aware this was where Penny and I had met.

Whatever happiness my son had let on during our trip through the office was put to shame as he stood in front of a vending machine jam-packed with a dozen or more varieties of terrible-for-you snacks. Chips. Crackers. Chocolate. And yes, my memory had served me well: there was a full row — an army — of packs of gummy bears. Likely only holding a handful each; likely stale; likely some off-brand my son had never heard of before now. But they were gummy bears nonetheless, and suddenly I felt like a father. Not one that served the role based on its most basic definition, but a real father — one willing to go to whatever lengths to do right by my child.

I turned around and grabbed one of the break room chairs. I positioned it so that the metal legs were facing away from me and held it back behind my head.

“Head over to the doorway,” I told him. The grin on my face was now full on, ear-to-ear. “You’re about to see something pretty cool.”

He did as instructed, as eager to see me break through the vending machine as I was to watch him gobble down a few packs of gummy bears. I staggered my feet and sent the chair back a little farther behind my head. It was halfway in front of me — mere inches from the glass standing in the way of my son and his temporary joy — when I froze.

There’d been the sound of a door slamming against a wall. The years away from this place again dissolved; I could tell it’d come from the front door to the office, the one as open as a saloon door thanks to the bashed-to-hell scanner on the floor in front of it. The scanner destroyed by the first Resters I’d ever encountered. Not the last, but ones that’d forever changed me.

The ones that’d taken her life.

I remembered my son standing in the doorway behind me. He needed to be protected. I carefully put the chair back in its place so as not to make the faintest of noise. At the doorway, I knelt before my son, both fists held out in front of his face with thumbs sticking out and pointed toward the ground. This was the final rule I’d created, the last one I’d forced him to learn. It was one he’d never seen in action, but it was branded in his brain thanks to me.

Hands locked, we fled the break room out the doorway opposite from which we’d come. I could already hear their footsteps, at least three pairs, clicking and clacking down the hallway without a care in the world. These were the Resters to worry about, the ones that didn’t care whether they lived or died. They just scavenged, and did so at any and all costs.

Since the floors weren’t riddled with sand, dirt, and dust like the entrance of the building, I felt it safest to bunker down in the core of the office, in the place where even the most desperate — the hungriest, the thirstiest — wouldn’t bother looking. It was a sea of cubicles, in nice and orderly rows. We walked into the thick of them with knees bent, headed for the middle of what years ago would’ve been the center of boredom. An army of pencil-pushers, and this had been their home for eight-plus hours a day, five days a week.

The Resters had reached the break room. They didn’t take a chair and break the vending machine like I’d been about to. Instead, out came the bang of a gunshot, echoing across the rest of the office. The trickle of shattered glass raining onto the floor followed. The worst sound was saved for last: the scum of the earth ravaging through all the snacks that should’ve been ours.

We’d jumped into a cubicle where we were now tucked under a desk. In one hand was my utility knife; in the other, wrapped in my arm, was my son. I looked from the cubicle’s opening to him. The happiness was gone, likely vanished the moment I’d put that chair back in its place in the break room. It was heartbreaking.

We waited there, scared and holding onto each other, for another twenty minutes. That’s how long it took them to scarf down as many snacks as they could. Whatever they couldn’t stomach they shoved into a couple bags. They laughed and they cheered, not out of relief for having finally found sustenance. They did it just because they could.

I tapped my digital wristwatch upon hearing them drifting toward the front entrance. Even when all went completely silent, I waited for the full three minutes to pass. It was a rule, and rules were what would keep us alive. Only in the most stripped-bare sense of the term, but alive nonetheless.

With the coast clear, I scooted out from underneath the desk. My son did the same. I immediately set my attention on the cubicle’s exit, confirming it was indeed clear while also keeping my ears peeled for any sound that wasn’t coming from me or my son.

“Daddy,” he said.

I turned around prepared to toss him a scowl, reminding him that it was too soon to go and speak at a normal level. He knew better. But when I turned to face him, I saw he was facing (and pointing at) the desk. More specifically, he was admiring a framed photo of him, me, and Penny. It was from a trip we’d taken to Disney World when he’d been no older than three.

Everything went away — the Resters, the state of the world. Everything. In place of worry came the memories I’d been locking away since we first stepped foot into the building. They came pouring, flooding, as I observed anything and everything posted around the cubicle. A calendar, photos, worksheets, whatever. Everything was a reminder of her, and I felt a wave of calmness as I lost myself in it. I knew my son was experiencing the same.

My eyes eventually landed on the desk. Next to the mouse and keyboard was an opened pack of gummy bears. Inside, there were at least a few left. It made me remember that she’d loved gummy bears, too. It brought back memories of that final day together, mere hours before hell broke loose. I’d stopped in here just to say hi. To give her a quick kiss. And she’d been snacking on gummy bears, undoubtedly the same open pack in front of us right now.

I grabbed the pack from the desk, reached in, and pulled out two gummy bears. They were as hard as rocks, but I handed one to my son anyway. I popped the other in my mouth. He did the same, and I saw that glow return to his eyes.

For that moment, however fleeting, it felt like we were a little more than just alive.

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