By Amanda Kavanagh
She sat on the floor, looking up at the hatch and couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the sky. She knew she would have to open it, there was no choice, but she couldn’t do it yet. It had been too long since she had been in a space without walls, a ceiling, concrete. They were supposed to have a year at least, before systems started failing, before they needed to replenish their supplies, but time moved differently underground. Her only option was to trust that the clocks and the electronics hadn’t added a few seconds or taken some away.
“And now look at us.”
She leaned over his body and brushed his hair back from his forehead, needing to feel something familiar. Sitting on the floor beside his laid out form, she leaned back against the wall and breathed deeply, making a mental list of what she would have to do.
“It’s sort of ridiculous isn’t it? Ending up like this.”
She realized she was speaking aloud, and the sound of her voice gave her comfort, making her feel less alone. She walked to a closet and grabbed a white sheet. It was one of only two sets, both were wearing thin.
“Lasts longer than a year, they said. Well it sure did. Water, air, hygiene, power, we had everything we needed.” Her voice trailed off as she unfolded the sheet and shook it in the air, spreading it out and letting it float down to the floor. “The instruction seminars never covered how to do this. I’m not prepared, but now it seems obvious that this could have happened.” She bent down onto her knees and started to undo his shirt buttons, noticing the shadows of bruises that had formed on his chest when she had given him CPR. She lowered her face and rested it on his chest.
“We’ve been down here for months, we might have been able to leave in a few weeks, and you choke on your breakfast.” Saying it to herself made it real.
She knew she was alone with a corpse. She had to take him outside—bury his body in the earth.
Before, it had seemed like other people, their coworkers and even some friends, didn’t take their bunker seriously. When stories of whole honey bee populations dying became more frequent, and when the amphibian populations had stopped reproducing, she and her husband understood that their time above land was limited. They made their final preparations, and waited for the end.
She had always thought the end would come from a nuclear explosion, or more likely several nuclear explosions, and he told her it would be a disease that wiped out humanity. They were both wrong. What really happened was a slow and persistent dying.
After she had removed his clothes, she folded them and placed them in his dresser. She stopped to notice his smell. She rolled him onto the sheet and started to clean him. His hair was longer than it had ever been when they were above ground. Its colour had turned a dark brown without the sun. With one hand caressing his hair, she used the other to pass a sponge gently over his forehead and cheeks, tracing his jaw line and moving down to his neck.
“Remember how, when we first came down here, we would listen for sounds from above? I always thought that someone would come banging on the hatch—that we would get out of here together.”
At times, she would get so worked up from trying to imagine what was going on, that he would have to give her a sedative just so she could sleep. The first few months were the hardest, the hope that she clung to made their fate harder to grasp. They couldn’t hear anything apart from their own noises and the sounds of the shelter; there was nothing organic around them. They lived in a synthetic world.
“I would listen to those recordings all the time when we first came down. But then I just stopped. I guess once I came to terms with the fact that we weren’t leaving, I just wanted to forget.”
She began to clip his nails. She thought of the sounds from their backyard that they recorded before coming down. She had memorized them—the distinct call of the cardinal that visited every afternoon and the haunting songs of the mourning doves that would gather in pairs to sift through the grass. They thought of things like that at the beginning, trying to preserve as much of the natural world as they could. She clasped his hands to her face before laying them gently by his sides.
“What will it look like outside? Will I be able to breathe the air? I wonder if my feet will remember how it feels to walk on the ground,” she said while moving to his feet to trim his toenails. “Or even, and I know you would say I shouldn’t get my hopes up, but maybe there will be grass.”
The sensation of walking on a surface that wasn’t dense, solid, and unforgiving was something that she hadn’t considered in a long while. But now that her ascent was imminent, her mind searched for memories of walking in the backyard; grass poking up between her toes, tickling and scratching at the same time; soil giving gently with her weight; the cool sensation of her feet sinking and the dirt rising around her heels. But, there was no way of knowing what it would be like up above, the earth could have frozen over, it could be scorched, it could be irradiated and poisoned. Or, it could be healing.
Now that he was washed and groomed, she gathered up the second of their white sheets and spread it out beside him. She kneeled down and shifted him onto his side, moving his shoulders and hips first, followed by his legs. Rolling him onto the sheet, she was able to get it underneath him and wrap it around his body. She used the clothesline that hung across the utility room ceiling to secure the sheet in place, shrouding him in white. The enormity of her loss weighed down on her.
Her grief pinned her in place. She felt like, if she just concentrated enough, she could cease to exist. The room was too big for the first time since they entered it. It felt hard and sterile—it was cold to her now. His absence was like a vice gripping and squeezing her heart, but she couldn’t stay in the bunker either. It would be torture having to live there by herself, with his presence in every corner, every inch.
“I have to go.”
An image kept coming to her mind of two police officers hoisting a deer into a wheelbarrow by the legs, its head hanging limp. There was a tow-truck with a car loaded on the flatbed, lights from the police cruisers and the truck were flashing, allowing those driving past enough light to make out the scene. She cried that night, thinking about the injustice done to the deer, thinking how much like a parasite the human race had become. Now it was time to cry over her husband. Just like the deer, she thought of how pointless it was, how unfair their future had turned out.
“What was that?” she said. “Who’s there? I can hear you knocking. I can hear it.”
She pushed away the image of the deer, its dark dead eyes looking into hers. The world was dead. It had to be. Otherwise, why had they spent months down here, maybe even years? Why had he choked?
“No, the world is empty.” She said this louder, her voice hollow in the empty room. “And if people were alive, why didn’t they come sooner?”
Sitting him up, “We have to go.”
Walking backward, she dragged him along with her towards the stairs that led to the hatch. It was difficult to pull his body up each step. She had to stop to catch her breath a few times, either from exertion or despair. The weight of her decision made her feet feel encased in lead. Every step was agony, a million years, an end to their lives together. At the top, she sat on the landing with her back to the hatch. She wiped her sweaty palms on her legs and cleared her eyes of the wetness that kept gathering and blurring her vision, then she grabbed the spindle wheel and turned it. The hydraulics made a popping sound, and the hatch released, swinging slowly outward. As she stepped out into the bright light, a breeze swept a loose strand of hair across her face.