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Last Teen Standing

Samara Lo is a children's book author from Sydney, Australia who focuses primarily on YA and MG fantasy. In 2020, she was awarded the Westwords Emerging Writer's Residency at Varuna House and in 2021 was the recipient of the Copyright Agency-WestWords Fellowship. Her short story "One Day" was awarded the highly-commended prize and published in the Living Stories Anthology 2021.

Three students. That's how many of us show up today. Last week there were four. Class gets smaller every time, but we still gotta come.
I don't remember being this excited back when school was all moldy demountables with creaky ceiling fans. It's the practical, hands-on learning that has me hooked.
Our teacher, Mrs. Hyde, makes every subject relevant. She still teaches us the classics like, "How long is that piece of wood?" Mathematics.
"Where was it found?" Geography.
"Is it from the strongest type of tree left?" Biology.
I study hard to make Mum proud. Top of the class, last teenager standing, and all that. I try to ace every subject. Except History. Mrs. Hyde wants us to learn from it. But in truth, no one wants to remember the before.
Sometimes Mum and I talk about that day though. The day the solar flares hit. Warm spring air perfumed with lavender. A roast in the oven, crackling with the occasional pop. Politicians with polished hair and pressed suits choking up the news.
"Stay calm. It's business as usual." Their flowery speeches could've talked Mother Teresa out of sainthood. Experts joined them behind the podiums and dazzled us with science. "The sun gets angsty all the time. Our planet's magnetic field will protect us."
The oven timer buzzed when the satellites went. No internet, fuzzy television and a phone that always got the busy signal. After the first few minutes of awkward silence, it was like learning to talk again. I didn't know Mum could be so funny. Then the power cut. Family dinner by candlelight followed by boardgames didn't sound too boring.
No one thought twice about the nuclear power plants. Turned out they needed electricity to keep their cooling pumps running.
Things turned a little uncouth for a bit after that. Mum said it happens when everyone is suspicious of everyone and all humanity is h-angry. It's the animal in us. We forget we're an evolved species. We went from clubs to tools and eventually the wheel, yet it only took one geomagnetic storm to hit reset.
At least we got to reinvent school. Every day is a field trip. Sure, the hazmat suit gets a bit stuffy, the de-radiated water tastes salty and lunch is the same old beefy liquid in a pouch, but my classroom is now the sunburnt country that some poet raved about back in Great-Great-something-something-Gran's day.
Mrs. Hyde is smiling today. The burning sun turns her hazmat suit canary yellow. It matches the chirpiness in her voice when she yells, "Surprise Physics Quiz!"
My heart races. Hands sweat. Breath fogs my vision. I hate surprises. I love quizzes.
Then she asks, "How much force is needed to knock down a mass of say... a fifty-kilogram teenager accelerating away from you?"
I grin and eye my classmates, while hefting the answer in my hand. "Depends on the club."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 21st, 2022


Author Comments

I wrote this story with a few prompt words and the theme of school. Keeping that in mind, I imagined what it would be like to go to school in a dystopian world. What kind of lessons would the students learn? What would they eat? How would they access resources? This turned into quite a morbid story, but is strangely fun and lighthearted because my protagonist enjoys being the best at what she does: surviving.

- Samara Lo
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