(Image by Imran Schah from Creative Commons)
“Looks like Costco done upchucked all over your yard.”
My eyes roll at the gravelly voice scratching its way over the chain-link fence separating our yards. Mr. Woods has been standing there, every day for the past month, chiding my family about our preparations. Sometimes he’d just hum some old gospel hymn and wait for me to look up before saying something he thought was funny.
This time, I don’t even lift my head. Not even as seven fighter jets, a daily sight nowadays, scream overhead. Can’t waste my energy on anger when I have bottled water, batteries, toilet paper, and canned goods to haul into my cellar.
“You hear what I said, young fella?”
After forty years at US Steel’s Gary Works, you’d think he’d have something better to do in retirement than badger me all summer. I walk over to the outside cellar door then lower a case of water down to my wife. Fifty more to go. “I heard you, Mr. Woods. You’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now.”
“Well, you’ve been packing that basement like them doomsday folks do on the tube. I bet you got guns down there, too, don’tcha?”
A snort escapes my nose. I smile an acknowledgment. Hands on my waist, I saunter to the fence. “Haven’t you been listening to the news? We’re at the brink of war. A full-blown world war. There’s no way anybody will survive an attack.” I raise my eyebrows and nod my head. “Unless you’re prepared.”
Mr. Woods rubs the prickly snow dotting his jaw. “You been listening to the wrong news, son. Otherwise, you’d be better prepared.”
I sweep my arm over the once-manicured lawn now covered with crates stacked three feet high or pocked by the yellowing geometric shapes their removal left behind. “What else do I need?”
He raises his index finger and I open my mouth, ready to refute anything he’s about to say. Instead, he fumbles around the collar of his shirt. Sunlight flashes against the thin, gold chain now wrapped around his hooked finger. A simple gold cross, about the length of my thumbnail, dangles near the turkey waddle vibrating under his chin.
I walked into that one.
My thumb and index finger pinch the bridge of my nose. I don’t have time for this. “Look, Mr. Woods. Think of me as Noah. We’re in the same boat, so to speak. He prepared for the end. What makes me so different? We’ve got enough in that cellar to keep five families alive for a year.” I reach over the fence and touch his bony shoulder. “You’re more than welcome to join us.”
The streaks of age around his eyes and mouth grow taut. He either doesn’t believe me or is surprised by the gesture. He nods. “Thanks, but I got someplace better to go.”
I watch him retreat into his ranch-style brick home. It was much too big for a bachelor. I’d known the man my whole life. Yet when I inherited this house from my grandpa less than a year ago, no more than a silent wave as I rushed off to work had passed between us. I’d wanted to avoid all the proselytizing.
I rejected this guilt niggling at the back of my neck. I could have invited him to help fortify my cellar. We could have gone shopping together for supplies. Could have picked his brain about his surviving a war overseas. But there’d never been time. I had, at least, always planned for him to join us in the shelter. I’d never leave an old man to fend for himself. I’d been raised better than that.
Three days later, sirens blare in the distance. The ground trembles, belching fire and debris into the air. More jets. As I herd my wife and three sons into the basement, sudden darkness pulls me to the window. An eclipse? Smoke? Twilight has descended and it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon. The street explodes into chaos. People flee their homes, scrambling, screaming. For what? This is the end, people.
And you’re not ready.
My wife urges me into the cellar, but I stand at the kitchen window, hoping the next blast doesn’t shatter it. I watch for my neighbor’s door to open. Soon, people are pointing at my house. Running to my house. I dash down the stairs and pull the heavy door to the cellar closed behind me.
Then we wait.
After two weeks, I emerge from the cellar. I find our house and the sky charred. Our roof and four walls stacked on top of each other like playing cards. The place is as flat as Kansas. I call Mr. Woods’ name over the crackle of some still-smoldering fires. Ashen survivors answer, rising from the rubble like reanimated zombies. I grab a bottle of water and rush to Mr. Woods’ house, the only structure in my field of vision left upright. I walk in and decomposition smacks my face.
“Old fool,” I mutter to the corpse still clutching the chain around its neck. “Told you we had room. I could have saved you.”
I want to bury him, but the smell drives me back outside. I raise the bottle to my lips to wash that choking stench from my throat.
“Look!” someone says. “He’s got water!”
The din grows to a roar behind me as I stumble my way back to the open cellar door.
This piece previously appeared in the March 2014 issue of Splickety Magazine