JJ_Maxx Black Out Jenna struggled to see out the window but all she saw was blackness. Pressing her hand against the glass, she could feel the heat of the afternoon sun. She pushed the override button at the base of the window, hoping the black would fade away like she remembered. It beeped twice defiantly, remaining black. “Would you quit playin’ around with the window, Jenna,” Peter said. “We’ll get a comm from the governor if the over-ride gets lifted.” He was lying on his back in the living room, reading a comic book. He went back to ignoring her in the silent, loving way only brothers and sisters know how to do. “It’s been two weeks,” she said. “The over-ride has never lasted more than a week.” She strained her eyes at the window, hoping she could see something, anything. It was bad enough not being able to leave the house, but not being able to see outside was making her stir-crazy. Peter sighed and set the book on the end table. He turned on his side and smiled at her. It was the same smile that always seemed to be in stark contrast to her usual worried brow. At only eleven months older than her, he still tried to show he was smarter than her at every available moment. “It’s probably just a long solar storm. We’re in the summer season, ya know and they always get worse this time of year. Stop worrying.” Peter stood up and made his way to the kitchen. He yelled to her from the other room. “Jenna, pull yourself away from the window and get in here for dinner!” Jenna slowly made her way into the kitchen where Peter was setting the table. She plopped down onto one of the chairs and played with her fork. “What flavor you think we’ll get today?” She said. “Dunno, we haven’t had the chicken in a while, maybe they will send that.” He took two glasses out of the cupboard and placed them below the faucet near the sink. He pressed a button on the water console that said ‘Water: Radiation Level 1’. Eight ounces of water came out for each cup, the remaining monthly balance flashed a few times as Peter set the glasses on the table. “Yeah,” she said. “I like the chicken but knowing my luck it will be the meat medley again.” She stuck out her tongue and wrinkled her nose. Peter laughed. “Well, then I will have to save some of my meat medley for you next time!” They were both laughing when the nutrient port in the wall beeped. Peter released the hatch, pulling out the silver tube. It had a hinge on one side and a white label on the top, giving the usual list of ingredients and nutrition information. Jenna always thought it looked like a giant metal pill. “Oh look!” he said, reading the label. “…chicken! See, I knew we were due for a chicken one of these—.“ His face grew serious. He stared at the label in silence. “What’s wrong? Is it chicken or not?” Jenna said. “No, it’s…” “What?” “This can’t be right,” Peter said. “Look…” He handed Jenna the container and she read the label. She scanned down past the ingredients, it was the usual nutritional mix of proteins, fiber and vitamins and then she noticed the radiation content. It said ‘Radiation Level 4’. She looked up at Peter with a quizzical expression. “Four?” She asked. “We’ve never gotten a four…” She placed it on the table and stared at it. Sitting down, Peter opened it up. Carefully, he pulled out the two sealed packets of food and set them on the table. “Peter,” she said anxiously. “What are we going to do?” “Nothing, we are going to eat dinner. A few extra rads aren’t going to kill us. I’m sure it’s just a rough batch at the nutritional facility. Probably has to do with the solar storms, saturating some of the crops.” He began to open the packets and slice them onto the plates. Jenna just stared at them, mesmerized. “Jenna, you need to eat, now sit.” He motioned to her chair with the knife. Slowly, she sat down in her chair. “You sure it’s alright?” She pushed the food around on her plate. “Yeah, no big deal. One rad-four dinner isn’t too bad.” She reluctantly finished her dinner and Peter cleared the table. He placed the empty nutrient tube back in the port and pressed the red button. A muffled hiss evacuated the tube and he met Jenna in the living room. She was back to staring at the opaque window. She wondered if everything outside their house was the same as two weeks ago. “Peter…” She said, imagining the world on the other side. “Do you miss them? Do you miss mom and dad?” Peter stared at the floor and shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, I guess. I try not to think about it much. It’s been so long since they…” She didn’t wait for him to finish. “I know… But we were lucky, with mom and dad living as long as they did. Most of the other parents didn’t even make it to thirty. I can’t believe it’s been a year already since mom died.” She remembered Peter took it the worst. He was inconsolable until he put all his effort into being the head of the household. He forced her to continue her studies even though she wanted to drop out. She just didn’t see the point anymore. “They should’ve lived even longer,” he said. “They were allocated years of rad-zero food to try and stop the sickness, but they kept getting worse and worse.” His face flushed. “They worked for the nutritional distribution center and even the government doctors said the clean food would flush their systems, but they just…” His eyes began to water; he wiped them with his sleeve. “…they just wasted away. It doesn’t make any sense, Jenna, they should have gotten better, not worse!” He buried his face in his hands, hiding his tears. Jenna wrapped her arms around him, and they sat in silence. “I’m still here.” She whispered. The next morning they slept in late. Jenna had slept past breakfast and walked to Peters’ room. It was empty. She stumbled into the kitchen and saw him sitting at the table, holding a nutritional tube in his hand. He was just staring at it. “Peter?” She said, rubbing her eyes. “Peter, what’s going on?” He looked up at her, distraught. “Six…” he said. “What?” Jenna grabbed the tube from his hand and read the label. It said ‘Radiation Level 6’. “No, this must be some kind of mistake, we can’t eat this!” She tossed it in the sink. It made a loud rattle as it settled next to some dishes. “Peter, something bad is happening out there, and you know it. Did you check the comm?” “Yeah, twice, no messages.” “What the hell?” Jenna yelled. “How can they just keep us locked in here and send us this… this… poison and not tell us what’s going on?!” “Jenna, look at me.” Peter grabbed her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Relax, we need to stay calm, okay? Everything’s going to be fine. We’ll keep this food just in case lunch is worse and it won’t kill us to skip breakfast.” He tried to put on a small smile. “Besides, we could both skip a few meals, if you know what I mean…” Jenna’s breathing slowed and she smiled at Peter, playfully smacking him in the stomach. “You’re such a dork.” They tried to talk about everyday things, like algebra and superheroes, but Jenna would occasionally stare off into space in the middle of a conversation. After an hour or so, she went to her bedroom and changed her clothes. She lingered in front of her dresser, staring at a photo taken five years ago. The whole family went on a tour of the nutritional distribution plant. Her parents looked so happy, and healthy. Peter cleared his throat from her doorway and startled her. “It’s almost time,” he said. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.” He walked down the hallway and Jenna took one more look at the picture of the four of them and walked out of the room. Peter was tapping his foot and staring at the port, occasionally glancing at the clock. It was eleven fifty-nine. Jenna leaned against the counter by the sink, biting her nails. All they could hear was the ticking of the clock. The beeping of the nutrition port broke the silence. Peter looked at her, hesitantly. He opened the port and pulled out the tube. Looking at the label, his shoulders sunk and he dropped the tube on the floor, causing it to break open. He sprung up, and walked over to Jenna, his face stern and focused. “Jenna…” His eyes were fierce. “Do you remember the injectors we used for mom to combat the rad-sickness?” Jenna stared at him. “Peter, what did it say? “It doesn’t matter,” he said loudly. “Do you remember if there were any left after mom died?” “I-I’m not sure. I think she said there were two left if we ever needed them.” She could feel tears building up behind her eyes. “Peter, please! What is going on? Tell me what it said!” Peter pushed past her and headed toward their parents room. Jenna ran across the room and picked up the tube. Her heart sank. ‘Radiation Level 9’. Rushing down the hall, she found Peter in their parents’ room. He was desperately searching through the nightstand drawers. “Peter, this is pointless, those injections are short-term and they didn’t help mom, even with all the rad-zero food they got. They still died...” “We have to try! I won’t be forced to watch you die slowly, eating rad-seven, rad-eight, hell, could even be rad-fifteen! We won’t last three months, Jenna!” He moved to the closet, digging through shoeboxes. “Peter…” She searched for the right words. “I…” The small black box in the living room began beeping. “Peter, the comm, there’s a message!” He didn’t hear her. He was now mumbling to himself and ripping out drawers, flinging clothes everywhere. Jenna ran into the living room and pushed the red button. The voice was haggard and weak, but she knew it was the governor. “Citizens, I come to you today with tragic news…” It began. “The radiation levels in the colonies has become… overwhelming. All of the crops have been irradiated and we cannot keep the nutrient food program at safe levels. I’m sure many of you have seen this already.” The governor paused, this was obviously not his usual scripted speech. She yelled down the hall. “Peter! Get in here and listen to this!” She could still hear him mumbling and swearing to himself down the hall. The message continued, “…we shall continue to send food to all residents, but understand that this will only prolong the inevitable. We are unsure how long this radiation spike in the food system will last, but our best estimate is twelve to eighteen months. At the current rate, our population will suffer massive casualties…” Jenna felt a knot in her stomach. She jumped when Peter grabbed her shoulder. “I found them!” he said, holding up a silver case. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “It’s over, these meds won’t last us a month, let alone two years.” She turned back to face the comm. The governor continued, “…So I say to you as your fellow citizen, it has been my honor to serve you and I pray you will cherish these times with your loved ones. May God bless you and your families, and God bless the colonies...” The usual anthem wasn’t played, it was just a click as the recording stopped and the room was quiet again. Peter sat on the floor and struggled with the case. It popped open. There were no syringes, no medicine, just a folded piece of white paper. Jenna sat down next to him and carefully unfolded the paper as they both read it. Jenna mouthed the last words on the paper, ‘Love, Mom and Dad’. Peter held his sister’s hand as they walked into their parents’ bedroom and opened the closet door. Hidden on the back wall was a small button. Jenna pressed it. With a whir the floor split open to reveal hundreds of perfectly preserved nutrition packages, neatly stacked and hidden away. Peter picked one up and read the label… ‘Radiation Level 0’.