Through the excitement of the upcoming concert Zwain took forever to fall asleep. When he did, he returned to the scorched wasteland of his home. This was normal most nights, almost like he never left.
* * *
There was a lone tree about half a mile from their orphanage. Its leaves were orange, but it was still the only tree Zwain ever saw grow leaves. He found a picture of it in a book once; it was called a Maple tree. He told his father this and his father made a sign for the orphanage that read “Maple Tree Orphanage: Where the seeds of tomorrow can grow!”
Zwain was 11 when his father opened up what eventually became the orphanage. Zwain’s mother died in childbirth and so Zwain was raised by his father, James. They hid from Ravagers and other slavers as they scavenged throughout the wasteland.
One cool autumn morning they stumbled onto a baby abandoned in a basket on the road. Quite often parents considered children to be a burdens on their survival and would abandon them in ditches to whatever creatures were lurking around.
James had enough. He was no longer content to skulk around and play victim to this world. If humanity was going to have a future, they needed the young to grow old and make more young. Only then could the wastelands once again flourish.
There was another family that seemed to share James’s ideals. Together they started up a hostel for other weary travellers. Phillip and Julie were parents to a little boy named Chris. Chris was very ill, and every town around rejected them from shelter, fearing that he would bring in a disease. Chris’s parents had enough of being shunned, and wanted to help James and his ideals about accepting people as they are.
Within months they had built a shelter, and fashioned a bunch of beds for all sorts of families. People would come and stay a few days, but none would stay any longer than that. In the wastelands it was considered suicide to plant your feet for too long. Ravagers were always wandering and the best way to avoid them was to wander on a different path.
James kept finding abandoned kids and so the hostel slowly became an orphanage. They designated a small portion of the place to remain a hostel for travellers that needed rest, but the travellers eventually stopped coming. The Maple Tree Orphanage was getting a little too well known and people thought it was a matter of time before the Ravagers would strike. They didn’t want to be there in case that happened.
Supplies were tight, but all the children had each other. They would run around and play as if there was not a care in the world. Almost two dozen screams of laughter would fill the dreary air of the wastelands. That alone was enough to justify James’s decision to build this place.
Chris even found himself getting better and stronger. He joined in the running and playing until one of the piles of scrap metal collapses on him crushing his leg beneath. James was able to save him through amputation, but Phillip and Julie were devastated at what happened.
One morning while James was fashioning a prosthetic leg for the little boy, Zwain busted in and exclaimed, “Chris is missing! I can’t find him anywhere! I wanted to go sing for him to make him feel better, but he’s gone!”
James rushed out of his lab and into the orange afternoon sun. Coming up from the trail in the wastelands were Phillip and Julie. Julie’s eyes were red and her face was wet with tears. Phillip was consoling her as best he could.
James approached them to ask what happened, but before he could get a work out, Phillip cut him off.
“Hey James? Julie and I were thinking… It… might not be best for us to stay here any longer.”
“What do you mean? Where’s Chris? I was making him a new leg.”
With tear filled eyes, Julie looked up at James and said, “While the gesture is nice… this little orphanage… It just isn’t safe for us, or the kids. Ravagers are always on the prowl, who knows how long it’ll be before they pick us apart.” Julie buried her face into his shoulder and began to weep.
“What did you do? Where is Chris?” James said with increasing intensity.
Phillip’s voice cracked in sadness and pain as he said, “We did what we should’ve done a long while ago. He’s gone, and we’re moving on to someplace safe.”
James was furious. This went against everything they built the hostel for. Everything that the orphanage currently stood for.”What!? Where is he? You left him to die in the wasteland? You monsters!”
Julie pulled herself out of her husband”s shoulder. “We are? You continue to sit on your pedestal and put our lives into the hands of chance! This place is a ticking time bomb, James. You’ve held our lives in the balance for too long. Just like the balance of that pile of.. of JUNK that you call home, we’ve decided to no longer wait for something even bigger to just crash down on top of us.”
“Then why the hell did you doom Chris to his fate? Where is he? Let me go bring him back!” James’s voice continued to grow louder, drawing the attention of Zwain who came to the edge of the yard to listen in on the argument.
“We can’t, James. Julie and I would not be able to move on with our own lives knowing that he was still alive.”
“And yet you refuse the euthanize him?”
“Really?! We’re his parents. Would you kill your own son?” Phillip looked at James as if pleading to let it stop at that.
“It would be better than this passive aggressive bullshit you’re pulling here! At least be a man, at least be certain!”
At first the thought of his own father killing him shocked Zwain, but the more he though about it, the more he realized that this would only be a last resort; only if there was absolutely nothing more that could be done. The wasteland can be cruel, sometimes even more cruel to the dying than to the living. A healthy person can die instantly, and an ill person could be doomed to weeks of agony. Zwain thought about what might be happening to Chris and he slumped to the ground and began to weep.
His father continued to try and yell some sense into Chris’s parents. They saw none in anything he presented. The sky was shifting from orange to pink as the sun began setting, and finally Zwain’s father had enough. If he was going to find Chris, he had to try before nightfall.
“Then go. Just leave. Head off to the nearest village. You should be able to make it before nightfall and without your baggage of a ‘son’, I’m sure they’ll have no problem taking you in.”
“Why can’t we get our things?”
“Because you deserve the exact same treatment you’ve subjected your own son to. When people turn their backs on each other the coldness of the wasteland get a whole hell of a lot more frigid,” James said as he leaned in really close the the frightened shivering face of Phillip. “You would do well to remember that!”
Fresh tears flowing from her eyes, Julie collapsed on the ground. Phillip picked her up and carried her off into the wasteland, muttering all kinds of curses under his breath; damning James to whatever hell waited for him on the morrow.
Zwain rose up from the ground as his father stomped back to the orphanage. “When the world went to shit,” his father said, “Some ideals went right out the window with it. Not that we ever had it easy. Sometimes I wonder what kind of world we’d be living in if people weren’t so hostile to one another. There certainly would not have been a war to destroy the whole planet, leaving the living to scavenge and scrape by.”
“But I found some newspapers, and the computers were also saying is might have been aliens that came down upon us.”
“Poppycock, Zwain! You read too many of those novels. You get lost in your own imagination. Come on back to the real world, son. We’re lucky enough to not be slaves to some rich white guy, like our ancestors.”
Zwain slunk down in shame. “But father, you’re just like the heroes in those books. You stand up for your beliefs, and stand up for others who can’t do it themselves. I bet you’re even thinking about where Chris is at this moment. You’re going to go out and save him!”
James closed his eyes and breathed deep. “You’re right. It’s true. In every fiction there is a kernel of fact. I do what I can in the hopes that others learn from my example. I hope to pass that ideal on to you, son. And I’m sorry for insulting your story books, they’re pretty much all we have to entertainment.”
“That and your guitars, father. Don’t forget about the music!”
James laughed at this and said, “Hey, Zwain. I’m going to need you to prepare dinner for tonight and watch over the kids. I know of a couple of spots. I’m going to try to see if Chris might be there. I’ll try and be back before sunrise.”
“Sure thing, father. I might put on a little song for the kids, myself.”
“Alright, you go ahead and do that. Just so long as it isn’t that Lung Butter song,” said James, laughing as he jogged off into the wasteland in search of Chris. Zwain remained behind, dumbfounded at the fact that his father could read his mind. He wasn’t just any hero, he was a super hero.
* * *
The chirping of the birds woke Zwain up about an hour before his alarm went off. He reached over and deactivated the alarm before sitting up on the edge of the bed. He had almost forgotten that his father thought Lung Butter was as stupid as Tony did. Zwain shook his head, smiled and said, “The joke’s on the both of you, the kids loved that song.”