Sheltered

by Joey Davidson

We’ve been stuck down here for years.

Actually, it’s been 1,181 days exactly since Maggie called home from the grocery and told us to make our way down into the shelter.

“Get out of the house and into the bunker, Roger. We’re being attacked.” I’ve heard her voice saying those words over and over since she hung up.

She’s the one that insisted on building the damn thing. Her paranoia got the best of the argument one day, and we wound up digging a massive hole in our back yard.

Then came 1962. Kennedy was dealing with the Cuban Communists as they argued over whether or not the island had missiles trained on our cities. They did. And as my wife Mags rushed to a payphone that afternoon to call us at home, the Reds must’ve gotten tired of talking.

My daughter and I made it into the bunker. Maggie did not.

Since then, for the last 1,181 days, it’s been nothing but stone silence.

Rachel was four when it happened. Mags and I didn’t think to stock the bunker with toys or books, so the only distraction she’s had has been me.

But Rachel doesn’t talk much anymore. I think the silence is what’s driven her a little mad. She just sits down here, staring. At least I have 34 years of memories to occupy my mind. Rachel has nothing but the cold floor, the solid walls and the shadow of her mother’s personality. She doesn’t remember much of Mags.

And that’s it. Over the last 1,181 days, we’ve slowly consumed our rations and fallen further into madness. We’re out of food, just about out of water and it’s absolutely time for us to move on.

I’ve been trying to talk Rachel up to the notion of breaking the seal on the bunker door and heading outside for weeks. As our stock depleted, I knew the time would soon come that we either starve to death or see what we can find to eat on the outside. She hasn’t really reacted to my proposed plans so far, but I’m convinced the little girl is terrified. Why wouldn’t she be? This shelter is all she’s known for years.

Her not talking has been fine by me. Sure, I miss my baby, but the quiet is less unsettling than the questions I’m sure she has. I’m ready for her to see the outside, no matter what’s there.

Everyone must be long gone by now. The attacks happened over three years ago, and the thought was always that once one missile was fired, the whole world would go up. It’s probably just as cold and quiet out there as it is down here.

But maybe there’s food. And maybe there’s water. And hope.

We need to move, so I stand. I walk over to the shelter door and crack the seal, simple. Rachel doesn’t budge.

I push the door open and let in a little bit of the fluorescent lights that kick on in the hatchway just outside. I call my daughter, “Rachel, let’s go.”

She doesn’t move.

I step out into the hatchway and put my hands on the ladder leading up to the surface. There’s one more seal between here and the outside world. I yell back to Rachel, “Honey, we need to go. I’m heading up the ladder here to break open the hatch to our backyard. You stay right there.”

She’s standing now, right in the doorway. She doesn’t say a word, just like she hasn’t in at least the last year or so.

I get up to the top of my climb and reach for the latch directly above me. I tug on it as hard as I can and the hatch bangs wide open. I look down to see Rachel on the ladder, maybe three rungs below me. There’s no stopping her.

The light from the sky above is pouring in. It’s so bright that I struggle to shield my face and stretch over the ledge of the hatch at once. I hear my little girl scurrying up behind me and I turn as she spills out into the grass around us.

It’s beautiful out. More beautiful than I remember. The sky is clear, blue and cloudless and the heat from the sun feels incredible. I forget the cold stone floors below at once.

“Let’s go,” I reach down to Rachel and grab her hand. I pull her up from the grass and drag her into a slow walk.

“It’s so different here,” I tell her. It is. Everything’s absolutely intact, but the house in front of me isn’t ours. In fact, it looks better than ours possibly could given the time since the bombs. The grass is well kept, the garden blooming and siding scrubbed clean.

What the hell is going on?

I notice people. No one close, but they’re all around us. In the yards that neighbor my own, I see families playing, cooking, laughing. This can’t be right.

“Come on,” I yank Rachel’s arm hard and rush us out into the street. I recognize it. This is our street. The houses all look exactly as I remember them. I hear lawnmowers, sprinklers and cars in all directions. What the fuck happened to this place? How did they fix it so fast?

I take a look back at the yard we just came from. The number on the front of the house I don’t recognize isn’t ours. It’s 144. We’re 132. So we walk, Rachel a little slower and holding me from breaking into a run.

142, 140, 138…

All of the houses are perfectly fine. Some of the cars have changed, the trees have grown, but the houses are exactly as I remember them.

136, 134…

Rachel is starting to perk up. She must recognize where we are a little. She was four when we left, but the three years of nothing must have made it so that she remembered her home all the better.

132.

I am looking at my house. Our cars are in the driveway. The lawn is a mess, the flowers have been taken over by tall, scraggly weeds and the porch looks as if it could crumple at any second.

But this is it, this is our place.

And there’s someone inside.

“Just hang on a second, sweetie…” I let go of Rachel’s hand and rush for the front door. It’s unlocked. I let myself in and the someone inside my house stands up from her seat.

“Roger…no…” The woman in front of me was is crying.

“Who are you? What the hell are you doing in my house!?”

Rachel’s behind me again.

“I-I’ve been so worried, Roger. You and Rachel were just…just gone. Whe-” Her sobbing picks up as her head dips and her shoulders begin to heave.

She knows my name, but…why? I’ve never seen this woman before in my life. Yet here she stands, in my living room, telling me she’s been worried about me and my daughter.

I ask her, “Lady, who are you?”

“What?” she looked up. “Roger, it’s me. It’s Mags. Whe–where have you been? I had the police looking for you and, my god, Rachel! Three years, Roger! Three fucking years!!”

She is screaming now. She is sobbing, and she is screaming. The pain is written all over her face. But, why? This woman isn’t Maggie. Not the Maggie I knew. The Maggie I knew was gentle, not…not this.

She moves towards Rachel. “No,” I tell her. “Don’t you dare come near my daughter.”

She stares at me, hard. The tears are rolling down her face fast now. She bites down on her bottom lip, scrunches up her forehead and wipes her eyes.

That’s when she lunges. She dives down at Rachel, tries to scoop her up in her arms and run. I push her before she can do it. Rachel hits the ground with a crunch, and I find myself over the strange, angry woman in an instant.

And I hit her. Again, and again, and again. She is screaming, writhing, her arms slamming against my body as I sit over her and continue to beat her. She went after my daughter, Rachel, this woman who was sitting in my house, asking about where I’ve been and pretending to be my wife.

She stops moving. I stops pounding. I hear Rachel crying.

I make my way over to my little girl and find that she hasn’t moved from where she fell. There is a good bit of blood running down her face from whatever she bounced off of on the way down. It streams into the tears on her face and deludes into a wet spot on her shirt.

Rachel turns towards the woman and watches her. She is crying still, but she seems unaffected by the mess I’d made of the liar.

I stand Rachel up, put my arm around her low shoulders and walk her down and out of our house. I’m practically dragging her by the time we get to the street. This place, this place is not my home.

That woman wasn’t Maggie.

Rachel trips and falls. I pick her up and hold her against my chest as we start walking. We have to get back to the shelter. I have to figure out what we’re going to do. These people, these strangers have picked up where we left off after the attack.

I don’t know what it is about this place, but it all seems…crazy. Backwards, maybe. I make my way back towards 144, I have to think. I have to get away from these people and away from this madness.

Rachel’s bleeding has gotten pretty bad now. I start to run.

Could the Soviets have used some kind of poison to do this? Could these people think everything is okay? Could they have been brainwashed.

It doesn’t make sense. I’m in front of 144 again, both Rachel and I are covered in blood. Most of it’s hers, but some of it came from that stranger back home.

By the time I wrestle her down the shaft and back into the shelter, she’s not moving as much as she was. I shut the door again and begin rooting through our first-aid kit.

“Rachel,” I say, “I’m sorry you had to see that. But, that woman, she wanted you. She was going to grab you, to take you away from me.”

I find the gauze, cotton and alcohol. I have to clean up these wounds before Rachel gets sick, there’s no telling what’s going on with the hospitals here.

But Rachel’s not moving either. Her bleeding has stopped, her body’s grown a little cold and she’s just lying there.

She’s dead. She’s saved me from killing her myself. This place, these people, this isn’t right. They would have taken her, they would have tortured her, they would have raped and beaten her.

That wasn’t my wife.

I stand up and walk over to the door. I press down on the latch until it clicks. It’s sealed again.

I’ll starve to death.

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