Kathy placed the smelly yellow hazmat suit over her dirty clothes. To travel above ground you had to fit throughout the small tunnel systems. Only children saw above now. She squeezed through the manhole to get through. Her job was to look for tins which might have food in them or mechanical objects that Grandma might be able to use. She didn’t know what the tins said, only Grandma did. Grandma had tried to teach her to read and write, but what was the point? I can’t eat with it, she thought to herself. She squeezed through the manhole to get through to the top. Another day another wander through the desolation.
Her grandma said these ‘cities’ used to be full of people. They found food by ‘money’ and gave precious protein to something called ‘pets’. It was hard to imagine with this scarred ground pitted with holes. Kathy picked her way through the garbage piled road and headed toward the place Grandma called a ‘dump’. Grandma had told her to follow the rats.
Getting closer to the ‘dump’ she saw other children in hazmat suits. She wouldn’t know until she got closer if she knew any of them from nearby settlements. Everyone lived in small groups and met monthly to barter goods. Trade had become less frequent ever since the sickness. The elders were dying. Why she didn’t know. All Grandma would say was that is was her time. It had started with bad headaches, hair loss and ended with vomiting blood. Kathy didn’t know any of the faces she could see through the hazmat suits.
The last time she had been up here the ‘dump’ overflowed with rats and cockroaches. This was good as if everything else failed you could eat them both. Time to start foraging. She also carried with her containers to catch rats and put cockroaches in. She placed her rat traps on the ground and waited. She grabbed the cockroaches walking by and stuffed them into a jar. Mashed up they weren’t bad.
Today was not a good day. She only found two tins to eat from, but it would be enough for both of them. There was nothing else for her to do and only Grandma to return to. Then she saw it. It was bright colours and soft to touch, but it did not move. No one else saw it so she stuffed it inside one of her pockets and waited.
She caught one mangy rat in a trap. It squeaked a bit as she picked it up. She snapped its neck. Later she would roast it over a fire to eat. She walked back down the pitted road toward the manhole she came from. She levered the lid open and climbed back down. It was getting harder to fit down the manhole. Grandma said she was starting to become ‘a young woman’. Whatever that meant.
After many twists and turns, she reached her home. She pushed aside the sackcloth that gave them privacy in their settlement. Grandma was lying on her bed. She took off her hazmat suit and put the cockroach jar on the table, with the dead rat, and the pretty thing. She ran to her Grandma’s side and hugged her.
“Not so tight, little one,” she said, coughing. “How did it go today?”
“Okay, I guess, two tins, a rat and some bugs.” With a big grin, Kathy said, “I found something…I don’t know what I found.”
She ran back to table, picked up the soft thing, and brought it back to Grandma. “What is it?” Kathy asked.
Grandma cuddled it in her hands then pulled it to her heart. Her eyes welled up with tears and bottom lip started trembling. Kathy was very worried. She had never seen Grandma like this before. She never cried. Grandma coughed up blood, spittle flying, covering the soft thing with tiny flecks. Still not looking at Kathy, Grandma said, “This is a budgerigar.” She started patting it like it was alive. “I had one as a pet as a little girl, no older you are now. Once there were millions of them flying free everywhere. “
With a confused look, Kathy said, “But was does that mean, a ‘budgerigar’? What is ‘flying’?”
With a sad look, Grandma looked at the preserved bird, bright green and yellow in colour. Grandma said “It was not always like this. It used to be a world where the ground was green with grass and trees. It was soft to touch, the sky was light blue, and it rained. The rain didn’t hurt us or the ground. It grew nice smelling things called flowers. Rats and cockroaches were not the only other living things. There were so many, including animals called birds. This budgerigar is a bird. Birds flew through the sky as you run across the ground.”
Looking more lost, Kathy said, “I still don’t understand.”
Grandma looked at Kathy, with grief in her eyes, and said “I know. We lack shared words. I can’t explain it to you. A life you can never know. It was our fault we lost it and you pay the price. I am so sorry.”
Grandma starting crying and coughing at the same time. The ‘budgerigar’ fell to the floor as Grandma’s coughing became violent. Her chest racked in agony, her breathing harsh. Kathy didn’t know what to do. Well, she did, it was nothing. It was Grandma’s time like it had been others before. She wondered when it would be her time. The room was silent now. It was time to move on and find a new home. She picked up the rare bird, put it in her pocket and walked away.