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Shelter

shelter


Estimated reading time โ€” 11 minutes

My alarm clock awakens me at 6 a.m. as it does every morning.

I sit up with a yawn and take inventory of myself and my surroundings — as I do every morning.

The bunker where I spend my life is cement-floored with cinder block walls a bleak gray color. It is lit with a sickly pale white light from the overhead fluorescent tubes. My sleeping quarters are small and spartan like a monk’s cell in a monastery. My bed is a military-style single cot. There is a bookcase than contains paperback books that were once the favorite of my all-too-few distractions, but, having each been read numerous time, now fill me with an irrational rage whenever my eyes fall upon them. There are no surprises left in those books, I know each line-for-line, every flat character, every trite plot twist, every insipid romance and passe’ dramatic contrivance and tiresome action cliche. The monotony they offer me now drives me to madness. Someday I’ll burn these goddamn books and use the wood from the bookcase to construction something more useful – a coffin, maybe.

I stand and go to the calendar on the wall — the calendar I drew by hand, like every calendar I’ve had since the second year after I first came down here so long ago — and cross out yesterday. An endless series of X’s spanning many pages, many years. Distantly, I recall the first calendar that had adorned this cinder block wall. It had been printed and colorful. The month on display had been July and the illustration depicted a Norman Rockwell-esque family at a Fourth Of July picnic. That had been many July’s ago, back when there had still been the foolish optimism that calendars would be needed, the naive belief that there would be a tomorrow to look forward to and someone there to turn the page to next month.

I leave my bedroom. Down the narrow hallway into the bathroom. I stare into my own reflection in the mirror. I stare at the lines of aging in my face, the gray in my receding hairline. I no longer recognize my own face. It is a stranger looking back at me with the hard, cynical, war-weary eyes of a longtime survivor. I had been a young man when I left the world above, still naive and carefree and hopeful for the future, not realizing this was all the future there would ever be to hope for.

I shave the graying stubble off my coarse-skinned cheeks with my electric razor, brush my teeth (I have to be careful with my teeth because there are no longer any dentists) with the frayed and worn toothbrush I should have replaced long ago, floss, then head into the main room which serves as my office, living room and recreation area. It is by far the most spacious area in the entire bunker. The walls are plastered with yellowed newspaper articles (“Scientists struggle to find explanation for ongoing crisis…”), headlines (“400 MILLION DEAD WORLDWIDE!”), magazine covers (TIME: an oil painting of Christ with his hands raised, face heavenward, expression mournful; the caption: ‘PRAY FOR OUR SOULS.’). There is a desk on which sits my radio equipment. A couch which sits before my TV and DVD player. A table and chairs where I take my meals. The corners are cluttered with tools, spare electrical components, repair manuals, medical supplies, guns and ammunition, extra light bulbs and batteries, everything else I need down here to maintain my limited standard of life.

I cross the main room and enter my small kitchen. My jaded eyes consider the racks stocked with their stores of non-perishable food stuffs. I don’t have to ever worry about running out; even after all these years it seems I have hardly put a dent in my rations. There’s enough to last me another fifty years…provided I live that long, God help me.

I laugh hollowly at that last thought. What God? If he had even been there to begin with, he had stopped keeping score long ago, had written off the human race as a failed experiment. He had proven that when… when it had happened.

PRAY FOR OUR SOULS. Indeed.

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Even though I have plenty of food, my meals have become as tedious and unexciting as every other aspect of life in my shelter. My food is bland and nearly tasteless. Military-grade MRE’s and freeze-dried emergency stuff, mostly. I have been sustained by them for so long I no longer recall what real food once tasted like. I wistfully long for the long-forgotten scent of a fresh orange, the juicy warmth of a fresh-cooked steak — stop it, I interrupt myself harshly. Just stop. It won’t change anything.

I fill a pan with water from the sink (the water is drawn from a pump, supplied by an artesian well), tear open a bag that alleges to contain “scrambled eggs”, dump the anonymous-looking powder into the pan, and place it on my small butane-fueled stove. As I wait for it to heat, I prepare a cup of instant coffee and sip it.

When my “eggs” are finished, I pour them onto a tin plate and carry them into the other room, sitting down at my table, eating slowly and mechanically.

When what passes for breakfast is finished, I get up, and by force of habit go to my radio unit. I turn it on, listening to the endless silence emanating from the speakers. I push the Send button on the microphone and speak. “Is there anyone there? Can you hear me? Over.” I wait, listen. Repeat my transmission. There is no response. There never is. The last transmission had been eons ago — a man sobbing and whimpering incoherent words, ignoring the questions I had asked him, before his sobbing had turned to shrill, undulating shrieks of horror, carnage-wracked cries of pure terror and agony.

Silence had followed.

Unending silence.

But still, even after all this time, some part of me refuses to lose hope.

I turn on my portable AM/FM radio next, sweeping the dial slowly, carefully, on both bands, listening, but again, there is only silence. The last radio broadcast had been a news report. The President had committed suicide in the Oval Office. Full chaos had descended upon the world and there had been no hope left by then. Less than six months after the first few isolated incidents had been reported, civilization had crumbled like a child’s sandcastle at high-tide. The news broadcaster had said he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to remain on the air. I had switched the radio off, gone to bed, and the next morning there had been only static. Eventually, even that had stopped. Then the airwaves had been dead silent. That’s when I knew the end had finally come.

I get up and go to the wall housing my vast collection of DVDs. I select an old favorite, Caddyshack, and pop it into my player. I sit down on my couch and watch the film without really seeing it, unengaged. For a few minutes I try to fool myself, try to pretend I’m an ordinary man in an ordinary world kicking back on a Saturday afternoon watching a comedy classic in the privacy of my own home. It doesn’t work. It never does. I watch with dead eyes as Carl Spackler tries to blow up a gopher with plastic explosives. I wish I could still find it humorous, but there really isn’t anything to laugh about anymore. Watching a film I’ve seen countless times before, knowing that Bill and Chevy and all the rest are all long dead, and their deaths had been unspeakably horrific. I might as well be watching a film starring a cast of ghosts. The thought creeps me out.

Without really thinking about it, I take a creased and crinkled photograph out of my pocket and study it. The boy I had once been, smiling — when was the last time I had smiled? — with my arms around the pretty blonde girl with the heart-shaped face and the pale blue eyes and the wistful smile of her own.

Claire…

I feel a pang in some obscure corner of my heart that hasn’t yet hardened to stone. I stroke her face gently with the tip of my finger. If only you had stayed with me. If only you could be here with me now… I don’t cry, though. My tears dried up long before.

Her name had been Claire. She had been from Paris, studying abroad at my university. I had met her my sophomore year. For the next year we had been inseparable . She had been teaching me to speak French. I was going to live with her in Paris after graduation. Then…it had begun.

She had been afraid for her family and had taken the next plane back to France, just before Martial Law had been declared and all flights grounded, all transportation in and out of the country blocked off. Before the bloodshed and panic and riots in the streets. My last image of her: racing frantically down the concourse to the departure gate, ignoring my cries of protest, casting a last glance back at me, her eyes frightened, waving briefly before disappearing forever. I never saw her again. I know in my heart she died like everyone else. I only hope her death had been relatively quick and painless, that she had perhaps taken her own life when it had become obvious there was no hope left. I dread the alternative. If the degenerate elements of society that had risen up in the last few days, taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order — the rapists and looters and marauders and psychopaths — hadn’t gotten to her, well…then her end had been even worse.

I should have gone with you. We could have faced the end together.

I put away the photo and just sit there, staring blankly at the TV. Caddyshack is over and the DVD has switched back to the menu screen.

I wonder (not for the first time) if I might be the only one left anywhere now. It still seems plausible that there might be a few scattered others left, cowering underground in their own bunkers and bomb shelters, but even if there are, how can I ever hope to meet them hiding here underground myself? I wonder if after all this time it might be safe to finally leave my shelter. I briefly consider climbing up the ladder, unscrewing the heavy steel hatch and stepping outside for the first time in an eternity, basking in the warm rays of the sun, breathing in the fresh air…

I cut that tempting thought off, with the brutal swiftness of a hatchet decapitating a chicken. I don’t dare ever leave here. They move so fast, can appear so quickly, literally out of nowhere. I wouldn’t have time to retreat back underground. I know I am going to die down here.

Sometimes I wonder why the loneliness and isolation and the endless repetition of days hasn’t driven me insane. Maybe because I’ve adapted to this nightmare, become accustomed to it. They say if a man spends too much time in prison when he finally gets out he doesn’t want to leave. Because life inside prison is all he understands by that point, and the outside world is too strange and frightening. Or maybe I’m just tougher than I thought I was. Maybe I was born a natural survivor.

I laugh at that. Surviving for what? What did I hope to accomplish out of this? Why hadn’t I picked up one of those guns sitting in the corner and ended it once and for all years ago? Was I still holding out for a miracle to happen?

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I get up and reenter the kitchen, crossing to the small room that houses the generator that supplies power to the bunker. I check it to make sure it doesn’t require any maintenance. It seems to be in proper working order. A fuel line is hooked to the generator, supplying it with diesel from the underground reserve tank. Like my water supply, there is no need to worry about running out of fuel, provided I use my electricity moderately.

A sound suddenly startles me, causing my heart to jump. I know what that sound is instantly, but it is so alien, so shocking in its unexpectedness, for a moment my mind refuses to believe it’s real.

The sound of fists clanging frantically against steel, a hollow booming.

Someone is pounding on the outer hatch of the bunker.

For a moment I am frozen in inaction. Then I force myself to move, hurrying into the main room, the sound becoming louder and more distinct. I also hear something else: a voice, muffled by the thick steel but still clear.

“Is anyone in there?” Open up! Let me in!”

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I can hear the edge of shrill panic in that voice.

Abruptly, I remember the surveillance camera rigged outside the hatch. Hooked to the TV. I go and switch it on, changing it to the proper channel. It’s been so long since I last checked the feed, I wonder if the camera even still functions.

The camera still works, although the image is broken by infrequent ripples of distortion, and I see who is outside my refuge.

A girl, her clothes filthy and tattered, hair matted and unwashed. She is dreadfully thin. She looks to be in her early twenties and I realize she must have been born sometime after this nightmare began, born into this hellish reality of brute survival and struggle and unending terror, the world that once was not even a distant memory to her. I feel a twinge of pity for her.

She pounds at the hatch, tries to force it open, to no avail — this bunker had been designed to withstand a nuclear blast head-on. She keeps casting fearful glances behind her, and I know she’s being hunted.

“Open up!” she screams again in desperation. “Let me in! Hurry!”

And then, I see what she has been seeking to escape. It appears ten feet behind her, literally materializing out of thin air (I still don’t know if they’re actually teleporting themselves across space or phasing through some dimensional barrier or if it’s just some kind of invisibility screen they use to sneak up on their prey; no one ever learned much about them, there hadn’t been enough time, and as far as I know, none of the scientists ever captured a specimen for controlled study).

I look at it, feeling a stirring of the old fear I thought I had forgotten long ago. It had been so long since I had seen one I had forgotten how grotesque they were.

It was at least eight feet tall and terribly gaunt, its arms unnaturally long, its spindly fingers ending in talons. Vaguely humanoid in appearance, its naked, mottled skin was a dead gray color, the black lines of veins clearly outlined like roads on a map. Its features drawn tight and skeletal over its elongated skull. Its eyes were empty black sockets, its mouth a wide black maw lined with jagged, pointy teeth.

It began to approach the girl, who was unaware of its presence, unaware of the danger behind her.

As a younger, more idealistic man, I know I wouldn’t have hesitated to climb the ladder and open the hatch, admitting her to the safety of my shelter. I perhaps would have welcomed her companionship, the presence of a female ally. Perhaps we would have even become lovers and repopulated the vacant world, Adam and Eve, a warm lighted union against the cold crushing starkness of existence.

But that young man and his romantic notions are long dead. I’m old now, and I’ve become territorial to my space. I don’t want an intruder in my private realm. Besides, I’m not sure if the food and fuel supplies could hold out between the two of us. Perhaps it’s better that it ends here for her, no matter how hideous it will be. What exactly does she want to go on living for anyway?

When the creature is five feet away from her, something alerts her to it and she spins and sees it, reacting with a scream. She turns back and begins to pound with wild urgency as it closes in.

I hear her terrified shrieks. “Help me! For God’s sake! Help! Don’t let it–“

I switch the channel so I don’t have to watch what comes next.

“Get away from me! Don’t touch me! Don’t–!”

Her words end in a long, blood-curdling scream that trails off to a groan…then silence.

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Faintly, I can hear it begin to feed.

I feel sick, but it passes quickly.

I wishfully consider that this could just be some extraordinarily long, elaborate nightmare, and one day I’ll wake up the young man I was in the lighted world of fresh air, the world sane and stable (or as sane and stable as it had ever been under the best of circumstances) as it had been before…

I shake the thought away. Such daydreams are a luxury I cannot afford. I’ve always been a realist.

I remember when it had all started. The first reports had come from a small town in Southwest Texas near the Mexican border. Bell, that had been the name of the town. Bell, Texas. Funny to think how the end of the world had begun in some nowhere little burg no one had ever heard of before. Reports no one had really paid much attention to at first, because it didn’t seem real. Murders being committed by strange creatures that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

No one had paid attention until the first few scattered incidents in other places. Buenos Aires. Rome. Istanbul. Cape Town. San Diego, California. Brest, France. Arklow, Ireland. Perth, Australia. Then everywhere else.

Then people had begun to pay attention. But it had already been too late, had been perhaps from the start.

They appeared out of nowhere, killed and ate, then found someone else and killed and ate some more. As far as I know no one had ever discovered a way to kill them. Our weapons had had no effect. The Army and National Guard had been powerless. No one ever knew what they were (Aliens? Demons from hell itself? Extradimensional beings? Did it even matter?) or where they had come from or why they were here now.

And they’ll probably never leave. Not until we’re all dead and their food supply is exhausted.

No barricades had worked against them. No matter how secure your location, the things could just appear inside whenever they pleased.

The one thing the government had discovered about them was that, for whatever reason, they never appeared underground.

I look at my watch. It’s going on 5 p.m. I get up and unenthusiastically set about preparing my dinner. Pot roast, the bag claims. It looks more like dehydrated dog food to me, and probably won’t taste much better. I shrug inwardly, resigned. That’s life.

What I did might seem heartless to you — assuming there’s any of you left to read this — but that’s just the way things are now in this brave new world. Only the strong survive. There’s no room left for compassion or mercy.

I’m practical. I’m pragmatic.

Most of all, I’m a survivor.

Credit: CarlB1961

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