The last terror any American family could imagine, but this family is prepared. The question remains as to if there are situations of which the ending cannot be predicted.
The alarm screamed through the neighborhood alerting everyone within a naked mile with a high-pitched wail of the war invading our town. Within seconds, the only light we were to see with was from the 7:00 p.m. lingering sun and the candles or flashlights of those prepared for outages. Aside from that, no streetlights, houselights, or any sort of powered lights, aside from headlights, were visible. Soon, when the fuel tanks were empty and battery life was used, those would be out too.
Without pondering too much of what was going on in the world, my goal was to grab my kids and hide in our private bunker. Years before my husband died, he’d crafted a secret panel under the island in the kitchen. The kids were small and we never talked about it because the saying of “loose lips sink ships” is one I believe, and kids don’t know any better. Occasionally, I’d tiptoe down in the evening hours to ensure our provisions were up-to-date and accounted for, allowing us to live for at least a month of supplies out of site. Now, I was more grateful than I could acknowledge my spouse had planned ahead despite how often I poked fun at him for doing so. I jokingly called him “Grandma’s ninny.” Seems this would be the perfect time for an apology if he were here. Still, I mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” toward the darkening sky.
“Braxton! Annie! Where are you?” I screamed from the front porch, but nothing could be heard over the sound of the air piercing alarm. My eardrums were ringing so hard I thought they would burst if I didn’t get in the house and cover them. No sooner had I retreated than I found a pair of earmuffs. Scarcely doing more than muffling the sounds of panic surrounding the immediate area, I wrapped them around my head and clenched them with my hands.
Returning to the front door, both kids rushed past me toward their rooms. “We haven’t got time for anything else. Follow me!” I hollered as I slammed the door closed and motioned with my arm hoping they wouldn’t argue but just obey. This was a rare occasion, but apparently fear had a way of convincing them. Both of them followed me into the kitchen. I opened the door beneath the counter where a couple of shelves held a few odds and ends emergency tools, such as a screwdriver and hammer, lifting the lower shelf out by a handle. The entire section was removed in a matter of seconds revealing a narrow staircase delving into darkness.
“What is it?” my preteen son asked. I grabbed the tools, tossed them down the hole, and motioned for them to follow. Without demanding an answer, Braxton followed his younger and much braver sister into the deep, dark pits of nothingness but trust. I followed them inside, grabbing hold of the cupboard door and closing it before lowering the shelves back down on top of our opening. It was pitch black.
“Ouch!” Annie hollered from nowhere but everywhere at the same time. I grabbed the light hanging in the darkness on the wall and lit up our new temporary quarters. It wasn’t more than the size of a bedroom. On one side was a wall made of water containers stacked on top of each other. The wall adjacent to it had freeze-dried food that wouldn’t be very delectable but would help us maintain life until we got help. In the corner were three rolled up sleeping bags with a pillow for each of us.
Braxton was fumbling with something, and I grabbed him by the shirt when I saw it was his cell phone. I hesitated between each word with a matter-of-fact tone. “What are you doing?” He shrugged casually before I continued, slapping the phone from his hand where it clattered into the corner. “We’re hiding. If you call, you’ll alert others to where we are.”
“It wasn’t working,” he scoffed, “We’re out of reach of any signals. Not like it would work now anyway.” He was right. The phone did hit the concrete pretty hard.
“Good,” Annie said, falling onto one of the rolled up beds. “What’s going on, Mom?” For a nine-year-old, she was often more of a critical thinker than her brother. Unfortunately, she was also a lot easier to excite – in a bad way. I didn’t quite know how to break it to her without setting off a stick of dynamite in a phone booth.
Both of them were eying me as if I had some ancient scroll revealing all the answers to life’s most complex questions. “I don’t know. From the alarm and the fragments of information I’d gathered before the television ditched us, I’m fairly sure we’re under attack. I can’t tell if more danger is emanating from another country or within.”
Both of them remained motionless and then exchanged glances. Terror settled on Annie’s face, but Braxton spoke first. “Like an alien attack or something?”
“You mean aliens from another world?” Annie shot at him. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Duh. Are there any other kind?” He rolled his eyes. I could see she was prepared to give a long-winded response, so I silenced her with a finger pressed against my lips. This month was going to be excruciating if we spent the entire time down here. I had no way to determine whether or not surfacing would be good, so we’d just have to wait and hope for the best.
“I’ve got to pee,” Braxton announced. I showed him where the sealed bags were and the container we would keep them. I prayed that they were as durable as the company promised. One leak at the bottom and the smell alone could kill us. “Where’s the bathroom?” he added.
The month went by excruciatingly slow. For the first week and a half, we could hear bombings going off that were progressively closer before they ceased altogether. My mind played out all the scenarios I’d seen from television shows and movies trying to piece together and prepare myself for what was left. None of the scenarios was good, but eventually, we’d need to find out for ourselves.
The kids fought, as usual. But hey, they’re siblings. The three board games weren’t close to enough entertainment for us in that small space. I was certain we’d drive each other crazy or one would kill the other two. Sometimes I wondered if it would be me. Braxton, as determined as he was to play football, used the small space to do calisthenics, but the aroma of his sneakers was bad before. Although Annie and I both admired him for his obsessiveness, the smell was too much to bear and I had to insist he stop. A matter of life and death.
But as the days approached the end of the month, the pressures seemed to subside. Instead of lashing out at each other, our attention turned to unifying against whatever we’d need to overcome on the outside. We played games where we finished each other’s stories, mentally coming together with a bit more strength and support.
The fear of concentration camps, barren country, dead bodies everywhere stinking in the heat of the hot July sun fought in my mind as the most likely to take place. I wondered if there’d be insects. If there were, they’d have a feast. Rats would be awful, but live, wild beasts would be the worst. What if people still lived but mentally altered?
“Okay,” I said in an attempt to sound brave, “It’s time.” I took one long breath and exhaled, grabbing the stairs with my hands and placing my foot firmly on the step.
“Wait a minute,” Braxton interrupted me. “What if they’re all a bunch of zombies searching for brains?” I thought he was joking until I turned to tell him to shut up. That was when I saw the seriousness overcasting his face. I patted his head and headed up the stairway with him and Annie close behind.
“Wait a minute. Maybe you two should wait here,” I suggested. “I’ll come back with a safe place for us to go or the details of what to expect.”
“But what if you don’t come back?” Annie questioned.
“Then we just wait,” Braxton replied.
“Until when?” Annie argued. “Besides, there is only a couple of days left of food.”
“Okay,” I gave in, “We’ll go together. One for all and all for one, right?”
“Right!” both of them cheered a little less than convincingly.
I continued climbing the stairs to the top where the wooden shelves lay atop of the hole. I took a deep breath, placing my hand above my head onto the wooden plank and pushed. It gave away without friction. I cracked it open enough to see a golden haze as if the sun were rising to welcome us back. Golden dirt rose from the ground just past the seam I’d broken.
I gave the wooden slab a hefty shove pushing it completely clear of the opening. But before my eyes focused on a singular object, they burned so much they squeezed shut tight in pain. My throat followed suit and closed off, preventing any air from entering or exiting. “Gas,” I tried to enunciate, but my mouth moved soundlessly. A strange feeling, as if a funnel had been crammed down my throat to pour poisons in, disorienting me all at once and taking every bit of energy from my body.
My body crumbled onto my children knocking them inside the shelter. Neither of them spoke. I could sense no movement. The last thing that went through my mind was the time we’d spent together the final month. Just the three of us reconnecting. A family together at last.