“I hope they all burn. Here and after,” the father said. His wife nodded agreement. The young child sniffled and pulled away from the comforting. He looked around the room, his eyes somehow always glazing, never really seeing his sister’s corpse.
Her eyes hung half open. She seemed to sigh. The father said it was only trace gases escaping; it meant nothing.
“So what now?” the mother asked.
The father glanced at his wristwatch, “We wait. It’ll be about ten minutes.”
“That soon,” the boy said.
The father went over to punch the door, “Do you hear that? Ten minutes you fuckers.”
“And then what?” the mother asked.
Dragging his knuckles, enjoying the pain as he scraped, the father said, “I don’t know. This door might not protect us.”
“They all seem to think it will,” the mother said.
“They think a lot of things that aren’t true.” The father made his way to a private corner, his privacy implied by a blanket of shadow. There he drank deeply, struck up a cigarette, and glared at the corpse of his daughter, part of him wanting to blame the teenager herself. She should have moved faster, looked less vulnerable, been not so clearly the child he preferred. Glancing at his son, he wished the bullet had chosen the younger of the two. He would have shot the younger child, assuming the parents’ preference leaned towards the youngest.
“We have no food,” the mother said.
“Yes. We do.” The father glared at the son. The sister seemed to wink at the boy.
“Some bread and a pitcher of water," the mother said.
The son said, “I don’t need much.” His mother smoothed his hair, smiling at the boy. She said, “That’s not the point.”
Outside the horde paused. Those inside the vault held their breath collectively. Deep resonating thuds assaulted the door. Bolts in hinges shuddered as if anxious to pop free. The father sighed, “They’ve finally got the sense to make a ram.”
“Will they get in?” the mother asked, her hand on her son, squeezing his shoulder to slow the fear filling his face -- nine years old and already facing the end.
Two more violent quakes shook the door before the father said, “No.”
“I’m scared,” the boy said.
“You should be,” the father remarked.
“David.” The mother’s sharp tone telling the father to hold in such thoughts.
But the vodka kept him from silence, “The sky is on fire. Shit. I’m afraid. Anyone who isn’t is an idiot.”
“David.” The mother’s eyes rolled to indicate their son. But he didn't hear her, hear his name -- they'd all become cardboard cutouts: titled as archetypes tend to be but nothing detailed, substantive. He could ignore the other occupants, labeling them as little more than titled positions, but he couldn't ignore his daughter's dead eyes.
Spoiled bitch, the father thought, his contempt growing alongside grief. She had tried reasoning with the crowd, a sixteen year old against the mob, and they shot her for it. “There is no room, but…” a blast from somewhere in the sea of bodies. The writhing panic stricken surging as if the thundering pistol sounded some invitation -- the starter pistol for their entrance, a hundred people clamoring to get into a 40X25ft. space. Her body fell on top of her brother. The father pulled them both inside, the boy towed along under the weight of his sister, while the mother pushed the door shut. The crowd almost made it inside, however, the father’s shotgun proved an adequate, though temporary, rebuttal.
“Is it the Russians?” the boy asked, looking up at his mother.
“No.” The father swigged back a shot that made his head spin. The mother frowned when the boy wasn’t looking, his eyes gone back to the sister. Seeing her disapproval the father sneered, “Happy New Year. 19-55!”
“It could be a false alarm,” the mother lied. She had seen the fires on the horizon. Not the ones on the ground, but the wave coming across the sky.
The father got to his feet, stumbled, and held himself up against the wall. His bottle clinked against the brick. The determined shuddering of the door finally stopped. Some more gunfire sounded, thuds coming through the wood, but the sounds outside were dying down. He walked, using the whole wall as a support, to the daughter’s corpse. Keep thinking in general, nothing specific, this is not your girl but a girl, a daughter, a teen, the father kept telling himself. Standing over her he said, “I built this place to make my daddy shut up. He kept saying, ‘The bombs are comin’, the bombs are comin’.’ Hell, we’ve got a wooden door on this thing. That isn’t going to stop a nuclear anything. I always figured this would turn into a rec room or something, an outdoor den… when all this calmed down.” Looking towards the door he added, “I never thought we’d be in here for anything serious.”
The mother let her son slip from her fingers. She grasped at him, realizing his trajectory too late. The boy walked up beside his father, took the older man’s hand in his own, and met the man’s eyes when he looked down at his son. Getting down on one knee the father took the boy’s small soft face in his hands, held it and said, “I will never love you like I did her.”
“Shut up Marie!” The bottle shattered against the wall.
Muffled screams started to come in from outside as the vault filled with heat. We’ll cook like it's an oven, the father thought and was tempted to say aloud. I would be doing us all a favor to kill them both rather than let them fry, he considered. Shoving the boy away he said, “Go to mommy.” I should have known better, he thought, I was in the war, should’ve just dragged them all inside. But these teens today seem to think anyone can be reasoned with, provided the right words. The daughter read too much, he knew that now, too many ideas and convictions without real experience.
Blackening and crackling, the burning outside making its way in, a revolting stink coming with the smoke seeping through the door. It seemed only a matter of time. Sitting on the floor, staring into his daughter’s empty eyes, the father passed out of consciousness. The roar of the inferno the last sound he heard.
The door burned away. The snarling fire outside sucked at the air creating a wind that made the mother cling to her son. It seemed they would be pulled outside by the sucking gale coming from the fire storm. A black, charred form fell in the doorway, twitching as the flames ate away at it. The boy’s screams choked him, too big to get out his throat.
Her hair fell in her face as the winds died down. The mother still held her son tightly, but the fear was fading. Fire had washed over the land, raging horribly but not to remain. Only the scars born on its passing would stay as a sign it had ever been, a memory to always plague those who witnessed it and haunt the future with its possible return.
Her husband still unconscious on the floor, she stood once the fire quieted enough to leave the doorway empty. Getting to her feet, the mother took the boy’s hand in hers. She said, “Do as I say Max.” The boy nodded, getting to his feet, ready to follow. She smiled, a comforting lie she wished to be sincere.
She led the boy out of the vault, telling him to keep his eyes up, looking to the horizons. Outside black skeletons littered the ground. Some looked blended together, having fused to one another as they burned in each other’s arms. Others were pieces, fragments made in the conflagration. The houses all down the street still burned as did most of the trees. Grass had vanished leaving just the fire hardened soil. She looked where her garden had been and saw a smoldering pile of coals. Heat still hung in the air, but it was cooler outside the vault. To the east the fiery wave made its way across the sky -- the mother had no idea if it might circle the globe, coming back again, but she knew she preferred the world outside the vault, the tomb her husband still occupied.
Someone else must have survived, she kept the thought in mind, shuffling through the ashes: the dead, the houses shedding gray snow, the smell of burning like the new scent of the world. David was of no use to them, her and Max. It wasn’t just Anne’s death. The burning sky undid all the cracks in the man; held so loosely together after the war, the sight of the horizon shattered him. Marie saw it in his eyes. She had hoped… she would do her best to make sure Max survived. The future was all that mattered to her; the possibility… she held no illusions any longer, just the hope the fire would not return, that they could be safe somewhere... if they just kept moving.