The Things We Kept
When she was alive, Berti once asked us what we lived for. We still had the car back then, and we were all four of us in the trunk with the back seat pushed forward, piled on top of each other with our limbs in odd angles in order to fit. I had my head on her chest, and even then I noticed her heartbeat was too weak under her thin layer of flesh.
"What do you mean?" asked Giulia.
"Why do we fight to keep ourselves in this world? Every day we make the choices that keep us alive. Why do we want that?"
Jared answered first. "It's instincts. We're just like animals. Survival of the fittest. Part of being fit is being a fighter."
"That's not what I mean," she dismissed. "I don't want to know why the species wants to live; I want to know why you want to. What is it about your life that makes it valuable?"
No one answered her. We didn't like it when she asked us questions and rejected the answers we gave her. But I think I can answer that question now, not just for me but for all of us.
We live for what we brought with us from before.
"Tristen, stop! Please, just wait a few minutes! Mom will wake up on her own!" I was crying as I clung to my twin brother's squirming legs.
"There's a tsunami warning! You don't need to bring your stupid dolls!" Tristen was holding onto the doorknob like a lifeline; he was likely to knock it out of its hinges if he tried to pull it much harder.
"They're not stupid dolls! They're my babies and I'm their mommy!" I cried. "I can't leave them behind!"
"Well hurry up and get them then!" Tristen shouted as he gave the door a final tug. It hit me in the nose and forehead, so I yelped and let go. Tristen took off in a run down the hall, but I stayed in the room, holding my aching nose.
"I hate you, Tristen!" I shouted.
I stood up and looked back over our bedroom, which I'd nearly torn apart in an effort to find my favorite doll. Despairing, I overturned a couple of blankets that I'd already searched thoroughly. I had to find it quickly, before our mother made us go to the shelter. She wouldn't give me time to look for the doll.
That doll's name was Zoe. It was pretty back then. Doe eyes and glossy pink hair.
"Terry, what are you doing?" My mother's voice snapped behind me, startling me.
"I can't find Zoe!" I played up the distress in my voice, soliciting her sympathy.
"Honey, this is a tsunami warning. We have to go now."
"We have twelve hours 'til the wave gets here, the news said! It's not like it's an air raid or something!" Everyone knew the air raid procedure. No one knew the tsunami procedure.
Mother flung open my closet door and forced me into a coat and shoes. I rebelliously kicked off my flip-flops, so she got my boots. She made Tristen hold me down while she tied my laces so tight they pinched my toes.
Tristen had to hold all the emergency supply packs by himself, because my mother had to pick me up and carry me. On the way out, I saw my doll lying on the coffee table.
"Zoe!" I screeched. "Mom, let me get Zoe!"
"No," my mother said firmly. I didn't know why she didn't let me take those few seconds to get my doll, but I guess she didn't want to reward me for my bad behavior.
Tristen and I sat in the back seat. He was solemn and said nothing. I was throwing a temper-tantrum.
"This is your fault, Tristen! I hate you!"
"Terry, be quiet," Mom told me. She turned on the radio.
"No!" I kicked the back of her seat.
"Teresa, if you don't stop that right now I'm taking all your dolls and throwing them out the window!"
So I was forced to cry silent, indignant tears while I looked out the back window at the long line of tailgating cars, wondering if it was too late to open the door and jump.
The woman on the radio said that traffic was stalled on the highway. It would've been safest to leave town, but there were safe zones in the higher parts of town that could also serve as shelters. The closest one to us was the elementary school.
We parked on the school's street and joined crowds of confused people wondering where to go. A lady with a whistle told us to go to the cafeteria. Amidst the groups of people in sleeping bags, I noticed Berti, my teacher, boarding up windows.
My mother yelled at me to stay close, but I broke away from her grasp and ran to Berti. She wasn't just my teacher, but had been a neighbor for years. We met when she found me trying to make a secret hideout in the hedge by her house. She gave me cookies and a "NO PARENTS ALLOWED" sign to hang on the outside.
"Miss Alberti!" I called up to her. That was her real name.
She jumped down from the small ladder and gave me a quick side-hug. "I'm glad you're safe, hon."
"But Zoe's not safe!" I told her. "My mom – "
"I'm sorry, I can't talk right now," she cut in. "Lots to do. Why don't you go talk to Jared and Giulia over there?" She pointed to the opposite corner.
I was offended by the dismissal, but scampered off to find my two best friends. They were huddled together by Giulia's parents, who were asleep. Giulia was crying.
Jared had been staying with Giulia at the time. He did that a lot back then, because his parents went on business trips a lot.
"I'm glad you made it," Jared said when he saw me.
"Where's Tristen?" asked Giulia.
"He's fine, but we're in a fight," I said gravely. I explained how he'd called my dolls stupid and that it was his fault my mother made me leave before I could find Zoe. "And I'm sneaking out of here to save Zoe no matter what," I said. "Are you guys in?"
"I'll help you save her!" Giulia said. She understood. She was the one who got me into doll collecting.
"They'll notice we're gone," Jared warned. "A tsunami warning is no time to cause trouble." Jared was always the rule-abiding one. But before he was rule-abiding, Jared was loyal, and he wouldn't have done anything to get us in trouble, nor would he have let us go by ourselves. So when Giulia and I managed to open a window that hadn't been boarded up yet, Jared hoisted Giulia up and then climbed out after us.
We had to run down the hill to my house, ignoring the odd looks we got from everyone else moving in the opposite direction. But no one chased us. We thought we were okay until we arrived at my house. Berti was there waiting for us – apparently, she'd seen us leave and took it upon herself to come after us.
I'd never seen her so angry, but she let me get my doll, if only to dissuade me from running again. She started to march us back up the hill, and as we did, alarms started to ring. Jared halted.
"Keep moving. It's for the people who haven't woken up yet," said Berti.
"No," Jared said, shaking his head slowly and pointing up at the sky. "There are planes over there. That's the air raid siren."
Most of what happened after that was a blur. But I remember crouching in Berti's basement that doubled as a bomb shelter, thinking about Tristen and my mother in the school cafeteria, and all those cars packed like sardines on the streets. Remembering that the last thing I said to Tristen was that I hated him. Squeezing my doll and crying.
Giulia got her headphones and Walkman out to block out the sound of the sirens. Apparently it didn't work, not even when she turned up the volume loud enough that I could hear it, so she started singing.
Halfway through the second song, the bombs started falling. The sound of explosions and screams made me throw up. Jared emptied a cardboard box of canned food and made me lean over it. Giulia kept singing.
"Giulia, please be quiet! I can't hear what's going on outside!" Berti said.
She stopped singing, but kept her headphones on.
"Do you think they're nuclear?" asked Jared when it was quieter. He smelled like he wet his pants, but no one said anything.
"No," said Berti.
A single scream came from outside, and then it became a chorus of screams, and then it was drowned out once again by the sound of explosions. I grabbed Berti's hand but she didn't react. Jared grabbed my hand, and looked at me like he hoped I could make him feel better. Giulia pressed her headphones into her ears.
The noise passed. The sirens went off. After a long time of nothing, Berti muttered, "The tsunami." She peeked out of the shelter to see if things were safe and beckoned for the three of us to come up.
The streetlights had gone out and there was no moon, no stars – I could barely see my hand in front of my face. The neighborhood was fine – empty, but still standing. Then we noticed the smoke coming from uphill.
Berti stared at it for a long time with a frozen face. Then finally, she motioned to her car and said tightly, "We have to go inland. The tsunami won't wait around."
"What about Tristen? And Mom and everyone else?" I asked, panicked. I knew we were in danger, but all I could think about was Tristen. I felt like if I could just see him and tell him I didn't hate him, everything would be okay.
"I'm sure they're fine," Berti said. "They'll meet us at the shelter upstate."
That was the lie that marked the beginning of the end of the world.
After loading the trunk with food and supplies from the shelter, we settled into Berti's Kia Sportage and hit the road. Berti thought we could avoid the fires by going around the hill instead of up it. By some miracle we did avoid the worst of it, but we couldn't miss the orange glow coming from above that kept growing larger.
It started to get light outside, and it started to rain. Giulia turned her Walkman back on. I watched raindrops race each other down the window. When I noticed the surroundings, my first thought was that we must have been long out of town by then, because the charred piles of rubble were like nothing I'd ever seen before. Then I realized that even if I had been there before, I wouldn't have recognized this place.
I guess that was when I knew that I knew what happened to my family. I started to cry, a kind of crying I'd never experienced. It felt like the sobs had been locked up inside me and were ripping my lungs apart to escape. Jared put his arms around me and pressed his forehead against my shoulder, the closest thing to a hug that our seatbelts would allow. "Don't cry," he said. "You'll be okay."
Giulia started to sing. I looked at her. She'd taken her headphones off – the Walkman must have run out of batteries – and she was looking out her own window. From her reflection, I saw that there were tears in her own eyes – the slow kind they showed in movies. She sang "America the Beautiful", all the verses. She sang it over and over.
She never stopped singing; not that day, not ever. That day it was "America the Beautiful", after that it was the songs we'd learned for our kindergarten musical, then nursery rhymes and Christmas songs and entire Disney soundtracks. She sang Italian music that her parents used to listen to. Berti once mentioned that most of her Italian was nonsense, but she couldn't correct it because she didn't know the songs. Giulia kept singing them the way she remembered.
There was no room for us at the shelter upstate. We asked about our families, but everyone was looking for someone.
"What do we do?" asked Jared.
"We'll find another shelter," Berti said simply. "They'll be at that one."
The radio said our whole town was destroyed; the tsunami eventually got what the bombs hadn't. We thought they could rebuild our town and then we could go home to it, and we'd just have to survive until then. But days became weeks and weeks became months and nothing ever got better. It became an unending nightmare. And then it went from a nightmare to a lifestyle.
The initial firebombs and tsunami were just the beginning. Weeks after the tsunami, the city was hit by a deadly tornado, which slowed the relief effort in our hometown. And the bombs didn't stop. The nuclear bombs that eventually came did not hit us, but the refugees did. With the refugees came the riots – we'd lost farms to the firebombs, and those who held onto their property did not readily share their food. In the middle of the riots, there came a sickness in the city. We were lucky enough to be among the first to notice that it wasn't only people picking at the half-eaten bodies in the streets. We got out before the quarantine.
There was some debate about whether or not that was biological warfare. No one knew for sure, because by then all the experts and their equipment were dead.
We were in the city in the first place because once our initial food supply ran out, we stopped avoiding disasters and started chasing them. We looted food, and Jared looted books. He carried one at a time, and when he was finished with it, he'd drop it where he found the next one.
One winter, everyone nearly froze because there was nothing to use for kindling. The few trees in the area went fast, and people were desperate for anything flammable. That same winter, Jared showed up covered in blood and then passed out in Berti's arms. We found out he'd been taking the flashlight – the priceless flashlight with battery life in it – out at night and digging for books in the rubble. He wasn't even reading them. He buried them in the snow so they wouldn't be burned. The person who discovered this was a man whose little daughter had died of pneumonia that year.
"How could you do that, you idiot?" I asked, as I helped Berti numb his wounds with snow. "Risking our lives for books."
"Books are important," he argued. "That man blamed me for killing his daughter, but I was trying to save his daughter's generation from their ignorance. How will we ever rebuild society if we treat our lost knowledge as kindling?"
"How can we rebuild society if we all freeze this winter? I'd rather be stupid than dead!" I retorted.
"I wouldn't," Jared said.
"You already are one of those things," said Berti, "and if you don't fix that, soon you'll be both."
Berti died not long after that. It was malnutrition, we think.
Since then, I've thought a lot about the question she asked us. Now I know what we live for, and why we live for it. Jared lives for books. Giulia lives for songs. I lived for Zoe. The doll was the one thing I managed to hold on to all those years.
I've also wondered why we live for the things we live for, and I think I've managed to answer that, too. These are the things that keep us rooted. When Jared reads books, it's like he goes away. He can block out everything that's going on around him and return to the days when the books were written. When Giulia sings, she becomes innocent, oblivious to the world around her. And Zoe? Well, I stopped feel anything for Zoe a long time ago, except the overwhelming compulsion to hold onto it. I have to care about Zoe, because I chose Zoe over Tristen, and if I admit that Zoe is what it is – nothing – I have to admit that Tristen died thinking I hated him because he made me lose a piece of nothing.
I know what Berti lived for, too, and I know why she eventually gave up. She lived for the three of us, and she died when she realized we were already gone.
I say we were gone because Berti didn't see us for who we are. She thought Jared was a precocious boy who would someday use his intelligence to benefit mankind. She saw Giulia as a sweet, innocent child who would do anything to make people happy. She saw me as a confused kid with behavioral problems who cared about her family deep inside. But when we were put to the test, we weren't what she thought. Jared picked education over common sense. What looked like innocence in Giulia was just a fear of reality. My mother probably died worrying about me.
I gave Zoe away to a little girl yesterday. She was the age I was when the tsunami hit, which means that if she's ever seen a day without war, she was too little to remember it. She'd never had a doll before, and when she saw my Zoe – dirty and mangled hair, chipped paint on the face, torn clothes - her eyes lit up like mine did when I saw the doll new in a shop so many years ago.
"Take good care of your Zoe," I told her. "Hold onto it."
"Of course!" The girl beamed.
"But," I said, trying to smile, "don't forget about what's important."
She nodded again, though she didn't seem to understand what I meant. "Of course," she repeated.
I trust her. She's not like I was. She knows what's important. She must, if she can smile after growing up in a world like this.
I wasn't worth Berti's life. I wasn't the good kid she hoped I was. But maybe someday, I can be. Not soon enough to save her. But maybe, if I can find a way to make this world just a little bit kinder, it will make her sacrifice just a little bit more worth it.