The Wastelanders is a story about three siblings who discover that the adults in their lives have been lying about the nature of the world around them.
When I was a kid, I could move things with my mind. I felt the whole world around me – every object and person and animal, every leaf blade and even the clouds in the sky – like a blanket and when I focused on one subject, I could make it twitch or roll. Well, it wasn’t much, just slight movements, but I did what any kid would do: I showed my siblings. My older brother Jace lay slumped over his desk, eye half-closed, as the teacher demonstrated something in front of the class. He could use a distraction. Our younger sister, Shona, in contrast was listening diligently to whatever was happening on the board. She seemed unbothered by the armed soldiers who stood near the teacher’s desk.
I focused as hard as I could on the pencil on Jace’s desk. I could feel it like a warm thread amid all the other objects in the room. I reached out with my mind and twitched it until it clattered on the floor. Jace immediately perked up, glanced around.
“Jason!” the teacher howled. “What are you doing?”
“Just picking up my pencil, sir.”
“I better not see you fidgeting anymore, young man. Do you want to go to the red room again?”
“Then stay still and pay attention!”
Shona turned from her spot near the teacher to glare at me and Jace. Class continued and Jace fell asleep until the teacher snapped his desk with a laser whip.
After class, we walked home through the Grey Grounds, the ghost town that used to be a site of great industry. Moss-covered wreckage loomed over us: dead sky platforms, rusted train cars. Dangerous creatures were said to infest the Grey Grounds. But it was the fastest way home.
“Veris, did you make my pencil fall during class?” Jace said.
I giggled. “Yes!”
“You almost got me in trouble!” he said, then, after a pause: “How did you do it?”
“Look!” I looked around for something small enough for me to move. My gaze alighted on a crumpled antenna. I closed my eyes and felt for the antenna. The light, metallic presence tangled with the ponderous heft of the other items. With a flick, I sent the antenna rolling down a metal junk pile.
“Wow, how did you do that?” said Shona.
“I don’t know. I can just feel everything around me. If I concentrate real hard, I can move stuff without touching it at all!”
“Hey, I can do that too,” said Jace. “Sometimes.”
“You can move things too?” said Shona.
“No, but I feel them. Only animals and people though. I can hear their thoughts if I concentrate.”
“How come I can’t do that?” said Shona.
“Maybe it’s because you’re the youngest,” I said. “Maybe you’ll get a power too when you get older.”
As we walked the rest of the way home, Jace and I tested our powers. I thought of something, tried to make it as vivid and colorful as possible, and he would guess what it was. I held the school’s disgusting lunch in my head: soggy rehydrated noodles swimming in blood broth.
“Um,” said Jace, brow knit together, “is it trash?”
I laughed. “Close. Today’s lunch!”
We both laughed at that, but Shona seemed more and more disappointed the more we practiced.
“What’s wrong, sister?” said Jace.
“I want a power too! It’s not fair!” She darted away.
Our home was finally in sight. Panic suddenly descended upon me. “Shona!” I called, but she wouldn’t come back.
“What if our parents find out?” I said.
“We can’t let Shona tell them,” Jace said.
We darted toward the encampment where our family stayed. Jace tripped over a half-buried hunk of metal and I struggled to help him up. When we got to the tree, Father and Shona were standing together waiting for us.
“Shona tells me you two have some sort of new power?” he said. His tone was modulated, amiable, but his body language said differently. He was tense. Angry. Or afraid.
Jace looked at her, then back at Father. “It was just a joke. Class was boring so we had to do something to keep from falling asleep, right, sib?” When I didn’t say anything, he elbowed me. “Right, Veris?”
“Yeah. Shona just go so jealous. It was just a joke.”
Father looked down at Shona. “Don’t tell stories, girl. Someone could get hurt.” He ducked back inside without another word.
That evening as we sat down for a communal meal that made the school’s lunch seem gourmet, our Mother Seraphin said, “So, Jace. Mag says you and your sister Veris have some kind of,” she laughed nervously, “what did you call it, Mag? Some kind of power?”
Mag was our father’s name. He grunted, said nothing.
“We were just joking around,” said Jace. “Trying to scare Shona.”
Mother Seraphin was visibly relieved. “That’s good. I mean, you shouldn’t scare her – she’s only six, after all. You’re so much older than her. Be nice, okay? I just mean it’s good that you don’t have any powers.”
Mother Liyen gave Seraphin a strange look. Something besides the stench of dinner made me lose my appetite. I tried hard to send Jace a message: What’s going on? What are they keeping from us?
His voice came unbidden to my mind. Just stay calm.
“You kids walk home through the Grey Grounds, don’t you?” said Father.
“Er, yes sir,” said Jace.
“Enough from you, boy. I want to hear what Veris has to say.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “We walk home through the Grey Grounds. It’s the shortest path.”
“What do you think, Liyen?” he said.
“I don’t want my son going through the Grey Grounds,” she said. “Or any of you. Evil creatures live there.”
“Don’t go down there, okay?” said Father.
“Yes, sir,” Jace and I said.
Night descended. I shared a small room deep in the roots of the tree with Jace and Shona. The earthen walls were carved by worms and gophers.
After Shona fell asleep, Jace said, “They’re hiding something.”
“Yeah, but what?”
“Only one way to know: we go to the Grey Grounds.”
“No way! You heard Father. We can’t go.”
“I want to know the truth.”
“But…the creatures in the Grey Grounds killed your father,” I said.
“That’s what Liyen says.”
“…You don’t believe her?”
“How many times have we walked through the Grey Grounds? We played on the old equipment and even brought pieces home. We saw wolves and giant roaches and ravens. But you know what we never saw? Deadly creatures. They are lying.”
“Well, they must have a good reason. I don’t want to make Father angry.”
“Adults are always angry and they never have good reasons for anything,” Jace insisted. “That’s why I’m leaving.”
“What? Jace, no! What will happen when Father finds out?”
“Come with me.”
“Don’t go, Jace. No one can live in the Wasteland.”
Suddenly he stabbed my mind with images of long ago. He was hunting in the glass desert of the Wastelands, slingshot tensed and ready, when he saw it: a humanoid being that skittered through the ruins, hunting mice. It shot a beam of fire from its palm, killing and cooking its prey simultaneously. When the being saw him, though, it fled in terror. He saw only a gaunt, dirty face and haunted black eyes.
“That’s a lie,” he said. Beings do live out there. And they are not dangerous.
The moment that our minds touched told me more than I think Jace meant to say. He had been out there many times since to learn more about the humanoid creatures, the beings his mother called demons.
“But Liyen said they killed your father.”
“…The adults have lied about so much, Veris. I think she’s lying about this too.”
“Jace, you can’t go. The noon day sun kills anything that’s above ground. And if that doesn’t kill you, there’s the smog storms. There’s still landmines in the ground! And what about the desert raiders?”
Jace shuddered. I thought maybe I’d convinced him. But he said, “What’s so great about staying here? No, I’m going. I can’t handle another day of school. They only keep us there so they can use us in the experiments.” He pointed to his empty left eye socket. “What else are they going to take…?”
Suddenly lost in memories, he traced the scars on his arms etched by needles and wires. I had them too, primarily on my abdomen. They didn’t use Shona as much – now I know why.
“Please stay,” I said. “What will Father and Mother Liyen do to me if they found out you left?”
“Come with me. We make a great team. We’ll be okay. A better life is out there, sib. We just gotta find it.”
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go with him. So, he left alone. And that’s why what happened to him was my fault.
I never used my power again after that, half-hoping that it would wither and die from lack of use.
Shona and I continued going to school and everyone pretended that life was normal. Our teacher droned on and on about the Before, the way the world used to be. It was unknowable and one shouldn’t ask too many questions about it. Each of the students was taken in turn to be used and poked and prodded in the experiments. Most came back.
But one day, five years after Jace vanished, I sat at the very same desk. Shona occupied the seat that was once our brother’s.
A soft knock echoed on the door. The class was underground, so our teacher climbed a short flight of earthen stairs to answer, then opened the hatch door. The class collectively held its breath. Solemnly descending, the teacher said, “Shona. You’re turn.”
“No!” I said. “Shona, don’t go. Teacher, they’ve never used her before. Take me instead!”
She gave me a brave smile. “It’s all right, Veris. They asked for me. I’ll be back.”
But she never came back. Mother Seraphin and Father were devastated. They never spoke to me again. Somehow, we all understood that it was my fault once again.
Maybe I should have joined Jace. Maybe even Shona could have come with us. I wanted so badly for all of us to be together as a family. But families didn’t stay together in the Wasteland.
The days became a blur of bad food and needles. Until one day…
The boy beside me was fidgety. I didn’t know him very well, but they took him more than anyone else. He had something in the crook of his arm, something he tried to hide from the teacher and the other students. He gathered his courage and said, “Teacher? May I please use the bathroom?”
“No! Sit down, Edro. You know that you are supposed to void before class or during designated breaks. I will not stop my teaching for you! Do you know how arrogant and self-centered that is? Do you think you are somehow better than everyone else that you should be able to take a break and go above ground whenever you damn well please?”
A soft knock interrupted the teacher’s tirade. My heart stopped as I wondered who would go next.
The teacher levelled a bony finger at the boy beside me. “Edro. You’re turn.”
But Edro clung to his desk. “No. I don’t want to go back!”
The teacher tensed. “Come now, don’t make a scene.”
“I’m not going back there!” Edro burst out of his seat. Suddenly five well-armored soldiers, faces hidden behind gasmasks, rushed down the staircase. They shoved desks and students to the floor.
Edro panicked and darted up the staircase. But the five soldiers were on him instantly. One slammed a rifle into his head. Edro screamed, “No, don’t take me!”
“Don’t let him use his hands!” one of the soldiers said. All five of them struggled to hold Edro down. Finally, one drew a saw from his belt and hacked Edro’s hand off with two jagged cuts.
A sudden bolt of adrenaline enabled Edro to momentarily throw his attackers off. His other hand was free. He aimed at the ceiling. A burst of electricity lanced from his fingertips.
A rush of heat swept through the room. A ball of light spilled across the floor and out stepped a womanoid creature. Her body glowed as if she had swallowed the sun.
“Drop her!” yelled one of the soldiers, and they fired. She laughed. Lasers so bright they were too much to look at lanced at her. But she absorbed them all into her body.
Someone else stepped out of the ball of light. A haggard young man, missing one eye.
“…Jace?” I said.
The womanoid creature flashed bombs of light at the soldiers. “Night-night, pigs!” Blinded, they fired randomly, but she caught all of their shots with her body, absorbing them. She approached one soldier. With long talons, she traced the outlines of the soldier’s mask. She kissed his face plate before releasing the lasers from her body. They tumbled down on the soldiers. Blood sprayed out of their wounds.
“Stop messing around, Brila!” said the man who looked like Jace. “Get Edro!”
“You’re the boss,” she said. “But I was just having a little fun.”
It had to be him. He looked so much older, grey hair, a single cloudy eye, but it had to be him.
Our eyes locked and I felt the weight of all those missing years bearing down upon us both like a sand dune.
But Brila grabbed his arm and the three of them vanished into the light. The teacher and the soldiers told us that we could never talk about what we just witnessed, but I wasn’t listening. The ceiling was smoldering. And etched with in it, still crackling with electricity, were the words, the wastelanders will rise.