Bill ground his teeth together, feeling the subtle soreness in the back of his jaw. He’d developed something of a gentle seething hatred for people with perfect smiles, people who’d never had to sacrifice years worth of medical and dental insurance to keep a roof over their children’s heads – those people who could plunk down for any procedure they wanted, when they wanted, exactly how they wanted it done and didn’t have to put up with some cut-rate doc-in-a-box just out of school who didn’t know how to get someone properly numb. He’d taken his last procedure like a man, of course – too proud to show pain, but he’d never followed up on any other work after that. He’d just put up with the soreness on one side of his mouth when he chewed rather than risk being tortured again by incompetents. Of course, after today, it’d likely be impossible for him to find any dentist, let alone a good one.
Bill couldn’t help but think that these were the strangest thoughts that anyone could have running through their mind while the world was ending.
It was hotter down here than he had anticipated, even with the generator running an air conditioning unit. His son, Jacob, said that it was a lot nicer in the winter-time. He was the one who’d spent the most time down here.
When the family had gotten this place as a rental, they had not been looking for a place with a basement that had been outfitted into a fallout shelter. It had just come as a surprising bonus. The guy who’d built and owned the place originally had installed the improvements in the 1960s and no one knew or cared anymore whether it would hold up in working to its intended purpose – until now. Bill had converted one part of it to serve as a storage-cellar. The big meat-freezer was down here, happily humming away on the house-generator, which had just kicked in, laden with all of those packs of ribs, chops and chicken breasts that Fanny had found on sales that were too good to pass up on various shopping trips, as well as the lamb a neighbor gave them and some venison from Uncle Marty’s last hunting trip. The orange sherbet and multicolored ice pops were on top of the pile inside.
Jacob had turned the other part of the shelter into a game-room. He especially enjoyed playing a certain post-apocalyptic series in here, not that any of his consoles or screens were set up at the moment. At present, the young man was eyeing the poster that hung over a beat-up comfortable old couch that depicted a blond cartoon man giving a thumbs-up; a suspicious glare to counter the easygoing printed smile.
Fanny checked and re-checked the canned goods shelf.
“So, what do you want for dinner?” she asked, her apparent cheerfulness discordant.
Bill was fiddling with setting up a camp stove. It was rated to be safe to use indoors with a kind of canned heat, which there was a case of down here. They might have not been utterly prepared for the worst, but the household regularly used this place during bad storms – when there were tornado warnings and the like - and it just so happened that Bill had gotten a case of the fuel to prepare for a couple of planned camping trips this summer. Despite the safety-rating of the handy little device, Bill remained wary of it and planned to employ it for hot meals as little as possible. Even “safe” forms of gas weren’t entirely safe without open air, in his reckoning, even if used near the vent and air-scrubber.
The air filtration systems were good the last time he’d run a diagnostic on them. He wasn’t a paranoid person. The family actively used this basement as an extra room. Bill wish he had been more paranoid, as they’d be better prepared. The fact that they had what they did was pure luck. They didn’t even have a first-aid kit down here. Fanny had grabbed what bandaging and medicines they could when they’d made haste down here. They never thought they’d have to use this place as an actual shelter for more than the duration of a nor’easter and subsequent power outages, which would pass in a matter of hours to a couple of days. A long-haul wasn’t something the family had thought of, despite it having been the original owner’s thought in fortifying the basement.
“Should eat some of the meat first,” he proposed “in case we’re down here a long while and have to nix the freezer to save power.”
“Daddy, what’s gonna happen?” his youngest said from the couch. Sarah-Kate was curled up in a quilt reading a picture-book. “Will I get to go back to school? What’s gonna happen to my friends?”
“Everything’s going to be okay, sweetie,” Bill assured his little daughter. He despised himself for lying to the child. Given the circumstances, it was the only thing he knew to do. He was the rock of this family, the anchor that had always held them together. He had been told by his own father and by the culture in general that it was the duty of a man; don’t crack, don’t cry, and that deception could be a righteous path if the alternative was breaking down. In truth, it was possible that all of their friends and neighbors were alive and well, even the folks who couldn’t make a mad-dash for their cellars.
Television reports – before they had cut out – had the nearest incoming warhead on target for Philadelphia. They were out in the boonies, well away from the blast and heat zones. What they could pick up on scratchy radio reports and the WiFi before they had cut out had bespoken of “significant damage” to Pittsburg, too. It was a safe bet that New York and D.C. were gone. After all, they’d heard a report about Phoenix, Arizona – friggin’ Phoenix, the capital of a state that not even its residents thought anyone wanted!
Fallout could be carried on the wind, of course, but every bit of information that Bill had encountered on the subject told him that the stuff could die down to reasonably-safe levels in a matter of weeks, the main purpose of war-weapons being to kill large numbers of people in a shock and awe flash, not to salt the earth ahead of the conquerors. It was supposed to be different from the kind of things that happened during a catastrophic nuclear plant meltdown, and far different than the kind of scenarios presented in popular fiction. There was a distinct possibility, even a probability, that all of the folks on and around the farms out here managed to get to their cellars and basements or that the winds might not even carry harm to them. It was those city-folk who had it bad – the poor and the violent in the ghettos, the elites in their high towers, all of those people who had inspired Bill to seek property in the country, although he’d had to make significant sacrifices to obtain it.
“It’ll be alright, little sis,” Jacob told the frightened girl. He sat on the couch next to Sarah-Kate and wrapped his arms around her over the quilt. “This is just like a bad storm. It’ll blow over and everyone we know will be fine. You’ll see.”
“What about the animals?” she said with a snotty sniffle, “What about all the deer? What about the Millers’ goats? And their chickens? And all of the cats and dogs out there? Won’t they all die?”
“We don’t know, honey,” her mother answered in a soft tone. “We’ll just have to wait and see. At least you have Chewy. He’s just fine.”
Fanny received an angry cat-glare from the dark abyss beneath the couch. The fluffy brown and gray tabby had been ushered down here very much against his will and somewhat against his family’s will save for Sarah-Kate. Of all the pets the family ever had, they’d never met a more ill-tempered feline. He’d warmed to Sarah-Kate right away, but Bill had more than a few faint scars on his hand from scratches. Chewbacca’s at-will arrangement with them all consisted of “Feed me, clean my litter box and no one touches me but the little girl.” Bill would have left him outside if it wouldn’t have broken his daughter’s heart.
“Is the world ending?” the child asked. Her brother gave her a gentle squeeze to calm her.
“If it is, we’ll make it again, alright?” he said, “Any way we want it to be – a world without wars.”
“God will take care of us, honey,” Fanny assured. “Remember what you were taught in Sunday School?”
“But what if He doesn’t?”
“If the world was ending, we would have been caught up.”
“What’s the matter, love?” his wife asked, as if the conversation and the situation were utterly mundane.
Bill kept his silence on the matter of their entire civilization being destroyed. He went back to making sure the portable stove was in working order and trying to find where he’d last stashed the small cooking pots that fit on it down here. Whatever meat he was going to use for their first bunker-meal would have to be chopped up fine and be cooked in small amounts, perhaps with some canned tomatoes and potatoes from the shelf. Bill impressed himself for coming up with an idea for a hopefully edible stew on the fly – anything to get his mind off of things.
Oh, they had a jar of cocktail onions, too! Where in the world did they get those?
He took a knife from the knife-caddy he’d stored with the stove and looked for something to use as a carving-board. He took a small chunk from the lamb from the neighbor’s flock that was in the freezer and started shaving it into strips and chunks, not waiting for it to thaw. They were all getting hungry. More importantly, Bill wanted to do something with his hands right now or he would start to think.
“Do you think that’s the best thing for us to have right now?” Fanny asked.
It was true that in their part of the world, lamb was a bit of a luxury-meat, something that they’d only had stored away thanks to a neighbor.
“We. Are. Having. Lamb!” Bill shot back. Fanny jumped back as if his words had bitten her and Bill went back to his work.
He’d grown up thinking that the world was going to end any day now. In fact, he felt a certain amount of shame in hiding out in a shelter. When the family had moved in, he thought it was a funny trifle, hence why it had become a storeroom and game-room. It had a pretty solid design for weathering small disasters as they had found out, big storms and the like. Bill, like most, just never thought he’d use such a thing for its intended purpose. He might have spent most of his life thinking that the world was going to end any day now – but he didn’t think that he and his family would be there to see it.
What every church he’d ever darkened the door of taught (and he would enter no other kind) was that when the world was about to face its final judgment, the true believers would be taken in the Rapture, whole and alive to whatever dimension Heaven was in. Only the unbelievers, those found unworthy, those who rejected God would find themselves on the short end of the stick, facing divine punishments on a dying Earth. Bill was a faithful man who was sure that he was never going to die. The Signs of the Times told him this.
This was just something that the world would get through, he’d told himself. After all, storms and earthquakes, wars and rumors of war happened all around the world just as they had since the world began. Maybe not war, since that was a human thing.
Bill immediately took back the last thought upon remembering the violent ways of ants en masse. In both main creation stories that he knew – the mythic account of the Bible as well as in the scientific record, “creeping things” came before men. Bill was inclined to think in terms of creation myth when it came down to interpreting the Book of Genesis, finding a personal harmony between science and his faith. It was the other stuff that some of his neighbors thought he took too literally.
The family had their lamb as well as meals of hastily chunked beef and chicken, slap-dash cooked on the camp-stove. Days turned into a week and more and they took to the canned and dry goods only. The two empty plastic tubs that the family was using as latrines were getting full.
While Sarah-Kate remained unaffected (Jacob was good with keeping her occupied with word games and silly stories), Bill had been reminded that there was such a thing as stress-shits. From the sounds and smells coming from the little privacy-area they’d curtained off, he, Jacob and Fanny were all having them. He knew that it wasn’t the food they were eating – just the tension they were under. His little daughter was fine because he assured her that he would take care of her and since she was small, she believed him. Most of the time.
Thinking about how he would continue to take care of her in a suddenly uncertain world had his bowels as loose as goose guts. The family was going through the water-stores too fast just to keep themselves hydrated after all of that. One thing was for certain: They wouldn’t be using those buckets to brine any turkeys in again. It had been their primary purpose during the holidays – a bird in a sealed up bucket, resting in a special chill corner of the garage, getting flavored and juicy. Now, they were for stress-shits.
There was no news on any radio frequency. They’d all had a go at it and were met with static. Even Sarah-Kate sent out a call for her friends at school. The silence was as thick as the walls of their bunker.
They dare not go outside. Not yet.
Bill sat awake, listening to the sounds of his family’s snores and shuffling in their blankets on the couch and floor after they’d blown out the candles and he’s put out the hurricane lamp. That was another thing – the sporadic sleep. The first few days down here were met with insomnia – a couple of hours of sleep at best. After those few days, he felt like he had slept for days. With the only light sources artificial, the normal rhythms were out of whack. None of them knew what time it was anymore. Even with a table-clock and his wristwatch, he didn’t know the day because the last exhaustion-sleep left him untrusting of his own mental timekeeping.
The generator had cut out and they were keeping the meat-freezer strictly closed. Fanny hoped that what ice and cold still remained in it would keep the food inside reasonably fresh until Bill figured on it being safe enough to venture outside. If all was better than they’d feared, they could have a barbeque. Yeah… they could all get together with their neighbors and celebrate weathering another storm…
Bill was jumpy, his ears attuned to every sound in here. He hoped beyond hope that perhaps he’d hear some subtle sign that a neighbor was at their basement door, knocking on the steel. He’d had dreams of Johnny Miller down the road coming to tell them that all was okay, that the reports that had driven them in here were false.
Two weeks was what he remembered as being the minimum time-limit to shelter from fallout. He could never be too sure. What world awaited them if this wasn’t all some kind of bad dream?
How were they going to live after this? Would there still be any colleges standing for Jacob to go to? Anything rebuilt for Sarah-Kate? Was the house above them still standing? Did vermin shelter in it during their absence? Would his job still be around? His co-workers? The neighbors? Their church? Any doctors? Or damned dentists?
Was their country left?
And who had shot first in the game of mutually-assured destruction?
Bill rolled a thought around in his mind over and over again. It echoed from sermons he’d heard on lazy Sundays when his pastor had been too excited and from the occasional views of those hucksters on television that he’d never send money to, no matter how much they’d begged for it or how much he believed parts of what they had to say.
“Those who are alive and remain shall be caught up in the air in the twinkling of an eye.”
That was how the End was supposed to come for those who looked to Heaven. They were supposed to be caught up to be with the Lord in the air – in the twinkling of an eye.
The air, the twinkling…
Bill bit a fingernail. That was how being vaporized by a nuclear bomb was supposed to work, wasn’t it? One’s body became suffused into the air by incredible heat, leaving a shadow on the sidewalk as the only evidence that you existed.
It was like being caught up in the air, indeed… becoming a very part of the air in an instant, in the blink of an eye.
One of the last reports he’d heard was that there were traffic jams caused by people driving into the cities, not away from them. It had puzzled him. He thought, perhaps, under panic people had tried to go back to save family members and friends. He played a finger over his lower lip. No… for at least some of those people, it had to have been a form of suicide… or simple acceptance. Some people preferred a quick death to hanging on and fighting something they were sure was an impossible situation.
Bill watched his sleeping family in the dim light of the face on the battery-powered table-clock. Fanny breathed gently on the couch, her belly beneath her quilt moving up and down gently. Sarah-Kate was curled up with her, shifting subtly in her sleep, her little blond head against Mommy’s breast. Jacob was snoring on the floor, entangled in his own clothes. The cat was awake in a corner and staring at a wall like he had found a small spider that only he could see.
What awaited them outside their small space, Bill did not know, but he did realize one thing with a stark, private terror.
“We’ve been left behind,” he whispered to himself. He dare not share his thoughts with his family.
Facing whatever awaited them beyond the basement door was sure to be more difficult, more of a tribulation than the horror that having been “caught up in the air” would have been. That was instant. Life remaining would not be. Death, when it came, would be slow and there was no guarantee that it would be a faraway thing. Even if spared a poisoned Earth, how much structure remained? There was no going back to normal.
“Left behind,” Bill repeated to himself. “Some were taken… we are among the left…”
He played his tongue over his teeth, writhing it around in the back of his mouth.
Funny, that bothersome back tooth was a little loose now.
S.E. Nordwall, 2018