Nuclear Winter

My little sister Yumi wouldn’t tear her eyes away from the decimated supermarket across the street. We were hidden behind a broken red brick wall with a human shadow burned onto the front. Our eyes were rimmed in black mud and our straight, black hair was slicked back and tied tight behind our faces. We wore clothes of rags and mangy fur, tied with plastic and belts to keep us warm. Around my shoulders was a small pack, usually filled with food but it had run dry two days earlier. Yumi didn’t carry a pack, because she was burdened with the quiver full of makeshift arrows and the bow on her shoulder.

The dilapidated ruin hadn’t changed in the two hours or so we had laid in wait. But we needed to wait for darkness to get any closer. The empty street was too open, and the sky overhead too bright for us to risk making a crossing yet.

Something shifted in the shadows to the lee of the building. I gripped Yumi’s shoulder and nodded in the direction of the movement. She slowly plucked an arrow from her quiver – hand carved with a feather of cut plastic – and unshouldered her bow, leaning back to aim into the shadows.

I squinted against the glare, the mud around my eyes reducing it only a little, and made out a shoulder and arm. It raised, aiming a glinting revolver our way. I drew a breath, but before I could do anything more, Yumi had stretched out her bow’s gut string and fired her deadly weapon into the shadow.

The hidden figure grunted and vanished from sight, their gun falling to the ground in a glittering tumble of steel and plastic. As it hit the barren tarmac, it fired, a bullet ricocheting from the wall into the road between us. And then silence.

I swallowed, as always in awe of Yumi’s prowess, even without Skadi beside us. “Are they dead?” I whispered, my words lost beyond her ears.

She remained silent, still watching, but now her eyes darted from the sky to the ground, behind and beyond us and the storefront that had been the sole focus of our attention for the past two hours. She was skittish. Fearful.

I held her hand, steadied her and nodded. “Look at me.”

Yumi tried, but her eyes kept shifting around, seeking imaginary approaching danger.

“Breathe with me,” I said. “One, two, three.” Satisfied she was at least breathing in time with me, I touched her shoulders. “If they had a guardian, we would know by now.” I nodded until Yumi was nodding along with me. “We would already be dead.” Not words we would have found comforting three years earlier, when we had lived close to Bondi beach with our parents and our older brother and the biggest concern in my life was what to do on the weekend. But words that now calmed and reset panic. Promised that the life we now held in our lungs was not going to be snatched away this time.

“We would already be dead,” Yumi muttered, pulling away. “Think they’re alone?”

“Most people are.”

Yumi nodded and slung her bow over her shoulder. She took a deep breath and stood, her figure casting new shadows behind us, illuminating our hiding position. She was still counting under her breath, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three … 

I tried to remember whether I had looked like her when I was her age but couldn’t. Going to school, social media, friends, everything back then seemed like a surreal dream in the new wasteland of our lives. I cleared the haze of memories from my head and held Yumi’s hand, standing beside her. The counting stopped. Wherever we went now, we went together. We only had one sibling left and we wouldn’t lose this one too.

Behind us, an icy wind chilled our hair and frostbit our clothing, curling around our bodies like tendrils of sentient smoke. Goosebumps broke out on the little skin that was exposed and the sound of heavy footfalls landing on the earth thumped in our ears. Yumi’s grip on my hand loosened as we turned to face the presence we owed our lives to.

Skadi was too tall to be human. Her angular features matched her taught, toned musculature. Her hair was black as darkness, her skin translucent blue and she stood before us as always, naked and terrifying. She knelt on one leg and leaned down to speak to us, one breast crushed against one knee and the other hanging below. Her eyes were pale, almost white in the glare of our perpetual winter.

She favoured me with a glance, but her gaze was all for Yumi. “You are an accomplished hunter,” she said. “I’m proud of you.” Skadi smiled. “The woman you shot was alone,” she shook her head. “Alone in this world, how could a human have survived so long?”

“We aren’t useless you know,” I said. “Yumi hit that person on her own, without your help.”

“I trained her to be an exceptional hunter,” said Skadi. “And I also trained you.”

“I don’t want to be a hunter.” I repeated for what I hoped but knew would not be the last time.

“We are all hunters,” said Skadi, looking to the sky. “Or we are nothing.” Something caught her attention far away and she faded before us, the bleak surrounds visible through her flesh. She seemed about to speak but before she could, she vanished in a rain of glittering snowflakes.

Yumi’s cheeks were flushed. As usual, she was in awe of the goddess. And as usual, I was not. I grabbed her hand again and started to drag her to the store. We trudged across the bleached road and past rusted car cadavers until we were within what remained of the supermarket. Half of it was like a skeleton with concrete chunks clinging to girders like meat, and the rest was a cesspool of shadows.

The woman we had killed was a little older than me. She had long brown hair that had clumped into a big flat dread, like the kind I used to see on homeless people before the world-ending war. She was skinny, like everyone now. I picked up her dropped gun while Yumi cut her arrow out of the woman’s right eye. I rummaged in her backpack, taking out two nondescript cans and depositing them in my bag. She also had a dead phone that I left there and a photo of a beautiful man and a woman that might have been her standing on a beach with the sun over them. This I also took. Everything else was garbage. Gold rings, chains and diamonds, the woman must have thought she would be rich at the end of this. She must have thought there would be an end. I stared at her a moment. Blood dribbled from her empty eye socket.

Inside, we trudged from aisle to aisle, both lost in silent memories, scanning for anything we could eat. Yumi found a slab of concrete that had fallen in from the ceiling. Underneath, we could glimpse a stash of cans like the ones I had taken from the dead woman. Using the bow, Yumi pulled a few more out to add to our collection, then we contemplated how to move the concrete slab to not crush the remainder and retrieve them without hurting ourselves.

We were both slow reacting to the footfall that echoed around the broken monument to our past, and neither of us saw the new goddess before she raised her hands and shot streams of deathly blue ice beams straight for us.

But by the time we turned around, Skadi was there, materialised from nothing, now a true giant, only her foot and ankle were visible through the roof, but this was enough to absorb the other goddess’ attack and shield us from any more.

“Run,” boomed Skadi.

I held Yumi’s hand and we fled through a hole in the outer wall, looking back from a nearby hill only when our lungs ached and sweat filled our clothes and we couldn’t run any further. The supermarket, and the stash of food we had found, was gone. Pulverised by the battle waging above.

Skadi spun and snatched at a small blue light that darted around her, jolting her with energy and evading her every grasp. She looked angry. While Yumi was enraptured by the battle, I scanned the rest of the surrounds, looking for whoever the new goddess was protecting. A young boy was standing down the street, neck craned to watch the fight from below. I pointed him out to Yumi and she drew her bow and arrow, aiming at the base of his neck. Aiming to kill him.

I thought she should. I don’t know why I stopped her.

We approached in silence instead, Yumi on the opposite side of the road. We hid behind vehicles, rubble and petrified trees, until I could reach out and grab the boy by the throat, hold a sharpened arrow to his neck and scream out to the goddesses.

“Stop or he dies.”

The blue light tormenting Skadi vanished and reappeared before us, solidifying into a statuesque woman with long blue hair and robes undulating around her body. Her fingers and toes were the same black as her eyes. She sized us up, a sneer on her face. Light shimmered all around her.

Skadi also appeared, still towering over us, but nowhere near as tall as she had been. Her naked body was tensed for battle.

“Chione,” said Skadi. “I thought it was you.” She looked back at us, holding the boy hostage and nodded her approval. “What happened to the others?”

Chione’s face rippled with rage. “They were taken by Thanatos.”

“Why did you try to sacrifice them?” Skadi meant us.

“Charlie was hungry and they were taking all the food.”

“Is your name Charlie?” I whispered in the boy’s ear and he nodded. “Did you tell Chione to kill us?” He hesitated. I should have known it then, but I listened to his words instead.

“I was just hungry. I’m so hungry.”

We were hungry, too. “Skadi,” I said. “We can share a meal with him.”

The disappointment in her eyes was hard to bear, but she nodded and vanished in her usual way. Chione hovered before us, communing with Charlie without speaking before she winked out of existence as well.

Charlie started a fire. He was about seven years old, so wouldn’t have had many memories from before the war. He was sinewy and nervous, fearful of any sound or shadow.

Yumi didn’t speak to either of us. She watched as we opened two cans. One contained beans and another large chunks of fish. I heated them over the fire and we took turns eating with our hands once they had cooled somewhat. I ate beans first, then some meat. Charlie did the opposite. And Yumi waited until we were done, retrieved her portions and retreated to the darkness to eat in silence.

“How did you survive?” I asked.

Charlie shrugged. His parents, I guessed. Maybe they were the ones Chione had let die.

“We used to be a larger group, too,” I said. “It’s funny how the gods came back to save us, but we just keep dying anyway.”

Charlie looked over at Yumi and smiled. The firelight caught his features and drew his lines deep and dark, transforming his face into the visage of a demon. He shifted and the illusion vanished, but discomfort played around my back and I followed his gaze to my sister.

Yumi was slumped over.

At first, I thought she was resting, and got up to drag her closer to the fire, but Charlie’s face was burned in my mind, so instead, I ran and grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her over. Her face was red and her eyes bulging. Foam cascaded from her open mouth, screams gurgling through it. I shook with terror. My mother and father flashed in my memory. My brother, who we had vowed would be a lesson to us both, lingered longer. I tried to clear her mouth, put my fingers down her throat to make her vomit. She expelled fishy beans, but her skin was inflamed and her hands were claws and her eyes were filled with hateful rage when the light behind them vanished.

Cold filled the air, seeping into my bones and heart. I knew Skadi was with me. Yumi’s face was rigid. I couldn’t look at her that way. I wanted to apologise and beg for her to return, but nothing I said would make the desolation in my heart dissipate.

It was Skadi who closed Yumi’s eyes. Who removed the bow and arrow and handed them to me like the crown of a dead queen. Who buried her in a shallow grave where she had fallen.

I didn’t want to be a hunter. My brother had been the hunter first, with my sister learning soon after. I wanted everyone to come together, protect each other.

I was covered head to toe in black mud. My clothes looked like a dead animal, were made of various dead animals. My steps were few and silent and the bow and arrow at my side, a reminder of my sister. It didn’t take me long to track Charlie down.

My pack was slung over his shoulder as he squatted and urinated by a wall, eyes out, as careful and anxious as he had been by the fire. I was close enough now. No need to confrontation or explanation. He wanted to survive. And so did I.

I drew what was now my bow and aimed at his eyeball. It was the only noise I made, stretching out the gut string, aiming just above and to the right to allow for the scant wind, and the reverberation as I released and my vengeance cut through the distance between us.

Chione flashed into corporeality as Charlie died. She was angry, but still shone with diaphanous beauty. She winked out and appeared before my eyes, hands upraised for her own revenge, but Skadi stopped her with a breathtaking materialisation and mammoth blows to the rampaging goddess’s arms. Skadi crushed Chione’s wrists and held her up like a rat in a trap. Chione screamed obscenities in English, Greek and other dead languages, but Skadi just clenched her hand and Chione popped out of existence, her last remaining charge now gone to the underworld.

I stared at the body of Charlie, so similar to that of my sister. And of my brother. I retrieved my backpack and cut my arrow from his face. Standing before the concrete wall, I was unsure on my feet. Unable to figure out what to live for any longer now that justice had been served.

But Skadi, the goddess of my mother, was with me. And as she had done for my ancestors, for hundreds of years before, Skadi guided me from the cooling body of my enemy and into the endless nuclear winter that was now my whole world, determined that I at least would survive.

[Adrik Kemp is an award-winning writer and author of speculative fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories and novels. He has short stories out in a number of publications, including Aurealis Magazine, Third Flatiron, Transmundane Press, CSFG Press, Alban Lake Publishing, and Pride Publishing.]