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The School Bus
(Short stories from the Apocalypse Series)
The impending exams loom heavy on the horizon. The principal, in a surprise visit, personally informs your parents of the need to re-test the entire curriculum, after you spectacularly failed the first time. One moment you are sitting at your desk, staring at a book with blank pages, the next, you're standing in front of the examination hall. Your hands are shaking, your fear of failure is only superseded by a fear of trying. Somewhere in the distance, a bell rings out to symbolize the beginning of the exam period. You shudder and begin – – A vicious sound pierces your eardrums. As you stumble into consciousness, you see the panic-stricken face of your English teacher, looking down at you while she grabs you by the shoulder. “Jesus Johnny, sleep during class, but don't sleep during the fire alarm!” As your mind begins to process the new situation, you shout, “I had the weirdest dream, Miss–” “Never mind that now, this isn't a drill Johnny, none of the staff were warned about it." “Not a drill?” As Miss Landry pulls you by your shirt, you have time only to grab your schoolbag before she leads you out the door of the classroom. Your thoughts swiftly wander off to images of a pyromaniac setting the school on fire. There had been so many drills in the last few months, nobody seemed to take the alarm seriously anymore. Most of the students were almost lethargic in the way they walked out of their classrooms. You hear the principal's voice behind you. You can't quite make out what he's saying. Thermo – something to do with thermometers? Maybe the old mercury thermometers broke. You follow the other students out of the building, ordered, moving as one, almost like a school of fish. But outside it's raining. Strange – the weather man in the morning said that it would be sunny, so naturally you didn't bring your raincoat with you. Looking around, the other students seemed similarly unprepared. Stupid thermometers! We're all going to freeze out here now. This was already that time of winter when you watched weather forecasts every morning with anticipation, just on the off-chance that the school would be snowed in and inaccessible. While your mind set forth on the task of producing images of snow-slides and incapacitated school buses, a number of teachers huddled around the principal at the head of the field. They were visibly shaking – maybe they'll be cold enough to let us back in? After a few moments, the principal turned around with a megaphone and shouted “Quiet, please!” The students seemed to settle down, their little feet sinking a little in the mud of the field. “This is not a drill,” he continued, “We have been informed that there are a number of incoming thermo – ”, Miss Landry punched Principal Rogers in the shoulder and shook her head at him. The principal cleared his throat, hesitated for a moment, and then continued. “Due to a... thermometer problem, we have decided to begin evacuation to the town shelter to prevent... mercury contamination. Please would you all proceed to your regular school buses.” You knew it! Well, at least now you'll get out of the rain. “Hey Johnny, do we still even use mercury thermometers?” Sam asks you as you begin to trudge towards the buses, mud flying everywhere. “You're right, didn't the school replace them with electronic ones for safety reasons?” That thought weighed heavily on you. Not only did the school not have mercury thermometers anymore, but why would the principal refer to thermometers as 'incoming'? And why were you going to a shelter? None of it made any sense, but the feeling of unease was quickly swept away when you realized that school was essentially canceled. As you take your regular window place on the bus, you begin to doze off when you're suddenly perturbed by the driver's voice echoing through the speakers “Hurry up and settle down now! We're in a hurry here.” Why would they be in a hurry? Was a toxic mercury cloud following the children, ready to – what was it that mercury did anyway? Your thoughts were interrupted by the feeble roar of the engine as the driver set out on his route. These buses were antiques, but replacements were expensive, or so you were told. Getting ready for the journey ahead, you fish around in your bag for a juice box. Apple! Your favorite. School is canceled, and Mum gave you an apple juice box. This must be your lucky day! You settle down in to your seat and begin to sip on the straw. A cool, juicy flavor hits your taste buds, and just as you begin smiling, you turn to the window and look out towards the city. A bright, almost beautiful cloud looms in the background – shaped a little like a... a mushroom! A mushroom! A cold shudder spreads through your body as your mind recalls images from old documentaries. Your heart skips a beat, and then starts to accelerate. Thermo meant thermonuclear. Incoming because they were missiles. Shelter because of the radiation! As the red and yellow flames approach your bus, only one thought has time to flash through your mind – Are you still dreaming?