The Boy

I looked across the space between the young boy and I. ‘Brown,’ was the only word that seemed to encompass the boy2not only the description of the dead grass and exposed soil, but included my mood and the general miasma of the setting. It had not rained in the past — I couldn’t remember. It felt odd that me, an avid gardener who watched the weather patterns and planted according to the moons, couldn’t remember the last rain. I’ll go look it up in my note book, later. I thought. I logged much of what I did daily in my notebooks, then filed them on a shelf, one notebook for each month. I looked at the shelves of notebooks, all lined up with each binding even with the next. Though others might have seen shelves of books, I saw a sculpture of history.

The boy was probably six, or so, and dressed in clothing appropriate for a day hike in the Kentucky woods. The summer had been hot and his cargo shorts and t-shirt were a nice combination. I smiled at the blue and white shirt that read, “Gash the Gators.” I was sure it had come from a local screen printer’s shop in support of the upcoming game against the Florida Gators. The boy’s choice of footwear, a pair of black high-top Chuck Taylors. The only thing missing was his hat, Wildcats ball cap, I decided.

A beeping began and I turned to answer its familiar call, “Time for lunch,” it said, or at least that’s what I heard. I turned from the window and walked down the stairs and quickly to the kitchen. Sliding open the pantry door, I reached to the shelf marked, “Wednesday Lunch” and pulled out the brown plastic package. I had scheduled the meals this way so I wouldn’t eat all the good stuff first and be stuck with everything I didn’t like.

Hmm, heavy today, I thought. Hamburger, bread, and pound cake,” I guessed without looking at the black print on the thick plastic.

Sitting at the table I opened the hermetically sealed bag with the pair of scissors I kept leashed to the table by an eighteen-inch length of nylon cord. I tipped the bag and watched the individual boxes and bags slide out. I picked up each item and placed it along the edge of the table in the position I had pre-designated. First, condiments and extras. Second, appetizer, then the entre was third. The package containing the side, this time pinto beans, and desert – spiced apple slices — were fourth and fifth.  Leaving the clear package of condiments, toilet paper and spork in its spot, I placed the top of the appetizer, a squishy envelop of jalapeno cheese, even with the line I had drawn across the center of the table. The familiar shudder of concern that happened when I thought the line might not exactly divide the table, caused me to clinch my jaw, then I reminded myself how I had used a yardstick to measure the table, then after finding the center, I drew the line. I sighed in relief and placed the 1/2″ x 1/2″ x 6″ block of wood I had cut against the first package then slid the second package, crackers, against the wood. I made sure the package of crackers was at the line on top and against the block on the side. “Perfect,” I said, then gently pulled the block of wood from between the two packages. Before it had cleared, however, the click of the ventilation fan kicking on causing me to flinch and move the first package out of position. I shook my head and chuckled. “It’s always something.” I gathered up the packages and placed them back in the bag, then started over, laying each item out into their groups and lining them using the drawn line and the wood block to ensure each was exactly in place.

Everything was going well and I could almost taste the hamburger then I lifted the package of pinto beans. One side of the box had been crushed leaving a wavy edge. The crinkle in the edge wouldn’t allow me to fit it flat against the wood block. “Nothing I can’t handle,” I said to the empty room. I gathered up all of the he packages again and placed them back into the thick plastic bag and began mindfully working to straighten the edge of the box. Fifteen minutes later I had it in near cherry condition and placed it into the bag with its companions. I began to dump the bag back out on the table when the timer started beeping again letting me know lunch time was over. I was hungry remembering the breakfast package I opened this morning had been particularly difficult and I had not been able to get it sorted before the breakfast timer had sounded.

For several seconds, I considered ignoring my meal protocol and continuing my lunch preparations. I figured I could get everything laid out properly this time, or within two tries at least, and it would only extend my lunch time fifteen or twenty minutes. My stomach growled in agreement, but something … something hiding in some back crevasse of my brain, triggered and I shook my head. “Nope, once I start ignoring the rules when will it end?” I walked to the trash compacter, threw the bag in and pressed the button. A whir of noise and a screech, the volume of which that had grown louder in the last month, told me the food was being properly compressed.

There is always dinner, I thought. I wiped down the table, though no food had touched it, convincing myself it was a good habit to continue, one that kept hygiene at the forefront of my lifestyle and therefore sickness at bay. Discipline, tight discipline was everything, and probably the only thing keeping my mind firmly anchored to reality. I filled a water bottle up to the line I had marked on the container, dumping and re-filling it until I mated the ink and water lines, then went back to the stairs. Reaching the landing, I saw that the boy was still there, laying on the ground, his face to the sky. I bent my knees and craned my neck back so I could look up through the thick glass to see what clouds he might be looking at. What was his imagination conjuring from the air and water vapor? I saw nothing but wished I still had a child’s imagination.

A dead branch had fallen near him while I was gone, one of many that had fallen from the old dead tree over the past several weeks. I smiled imagining how he must have jumped when it had thumped on the ground a few feet away. Soon, the whole tree would topple, or perhaps a limbless trunk would stand tall for a bit longer. Several large leaves, I guessed from an Aspen, rolled across his lap, pushed on by a gust of wind. The boy never lost focus, totally lost in his own world.

I had known many children in my life, though I had no true memory of that fact, only a vague feeling that it was true. This feeling had been occurring more and more often, especially in the last month. It was like I was carrying two people in my body, one who lived in this house, maintained the systems and kept the logs, and another completely different person who had lived in another place and another time. The pretty smiling face of the same blond woman floated through my mind, as well as a little girl — a miniature version of her mother, and her slightly older athletic brother. And there were other children that this other me interacted with regularly or had. I thought he might have been a teacher because I occasionally saw him standing at a shiny white surface with a fat blue marker in hand.

I was so fully enveloped in thoughts of this other person that when I next looked up darkness was creeping The Boy Bunker1in. The boy was still there and I admired this young man, for his bravery. He would make a formidable man, one that would step into adulthood confident and demanding respect. Suddenly, the dinner alarm beeped and I nearly tripped as I sprinted down the stairs, leaving the boy. Anyway, the darkness would alert his parents and they would be along soon.

I went to the pantry and removed the Wednesday dinner bag, opened and laid out the contents like usual. I wondered, as I frequently did, at my need to handle my food in this way but I eventually relaxed into the peace that the discipline brought. Several times as I began lining up the bags and boxes I had to calm myself, knowing I needed to eat. How long had it been since I had eaten? Lunch, I guessed but wasn’t sure.

After successfully completing my meal preparations and all was heated and ready to eat, I walked to the stairs, pushed the black buttons on the electronic lock, the way the previous owner had told me, and pulled the door outward. I had to pull harder for a second because of the vacuum created by the heavy door seal, but then it was free and the heavy door swung outward. The chill air carried a smell I didn’t like but it was not because of the odor, which was a mild musky scent, like that of a wet dog. The dislike was rooted in a memory, though I couldn’t pull the memory out from its hiding place.

“Hey, kids, time for dinner,” I called down the stairs. “Jack, Clare, time to eat.” I shook my head and laughed. I had no idea what the kid’s names were, but somehow I’m sure there was a little blond Clare and ten-year-old Jack.

No sound came up the stairs. I stood there knowing I wasn’t allowed down. The children had told me that adults weren’t allowed down in the … I couldn’t remember what they called it, and felt better not thinking about it. “Okay, I’ll leave your plates up here,” I yelled. “Come get them when you’re ready.” I shut the door and listened as the hiss of air slipping passed the door until it sealed and the red light when green. Weren’t there more than just two kids down there? I thought. I seemed to have a memory of several children, all about the same age.

I ate well and soon rocked back in my chair hands on my stomach. I looked at the door, the light was still green and the kids had not come to get their plates. Then I saw there were no plates, had they retrieved them? I knew they had and smiled at their sneakiness. “Well done,” I yelled at the door.

After dinner, I cleared all the scraps, placed them in the compactor, and cleaned the table. I took my log book and walked to the steel box near the downstairs door. The old man had taught me that the box monitored air and that I should keep track of the oxygen levels, as well as the other gasses. He showed me which valves to adjust depending on what I read on the gauges. The valves increased or decreased the amount of oxygen and other trace gasses that made up what we called air. I did. I walked to what the man said was the power box, and took a few more readings, predominantly power storage. I had never seen that meter waver much since power system had been sized for this large structure and my needs were minimal. Next I went to the water monitoring panel and took readings for both amount and quality. Since it was pumped from a deep well, the quality had not been an issue.

I ignored the door labeled, “Command and Control,” knowing that the room was full of non-functioning consoles and panels used when this place had been a missile silo. I stepped into the communications room and turned on the radio, picked up the mic, pressed the button and spoke. “Come in, come in, one, two, three. Hello?” Hanging up the mic I stood and listened for a few minutes before turning it off. No one had ever replied but it didn’t bother me, what did I care about people talking on a radio. I was content with my family. I shook my head again remembering I didn’t have a family, it was the other man that had the family. He had a wife, Sherri, and two kids, Clare and Jack. The kids went to the same Elementary School in which the man taught. Clare was doing well, as was Jack, when he wasn’t distracted by basketball. It seemed he was always outside shooting his ball at the hoop over the garage. Sometimes the man would come home and shoot hoops with him and I envied the man for his wife and family.

When I finished my chores, I went back up the stairs. It was completely dark, and the back light from the kitchen below made it hard to see outside. Placing my hands against the glass, and using them to cover my eyes, I looked out into the darkness. I thought for a second I saw the boy, still laying where I had last seen him, but I knew his parents were good parents and wouldn’t leave the little boy they loved outside in the dark. I stared, willing the boy’s outline to take shape and found if I stared long enough, I could almost … but no he was gone. By now he was back in his parent’s ranch style in Wilmore, north of her but a few minutes south of Lexington. He had eaten dinner, taken his bath and put on the Kentucky Wildcats pajamas he loved. His mother was probably tucking him into bed and his father would get up from grading papers and kiss him good night. I wiped at my wet cheeks. “I should have been a fiction writer,” I said aloud. “That’s good stuff. Almost made myself cry.”

I descended the stairs and entered the reading room. My worn copy of, Pet Haven, hemorrhaged pages when I picked it up. There were other books, the old man had a pretty comprehensive library of both ‘how-to’ and novels, but there was something about the way the father in this story interacted with his kid that I really liked. It reminded me of the other man hiding in my brain.

An hour after I had begun reading, I awoke to the call of my bed. Like the protocol I had for eating, I had one for sleeping. First I used the bathroom, then took a three-minute shower, then trimmed my beard. I cleaned the trimmings up with a broom and dust pan followed by a bucket of hot water with a little bleach added. I scrubbed the area of floor where the hair had lay. After exactly five minutes of scrubbing  I took another shower to ensure any hair clinging to my skin was washed into the drain and the bleach was removed. I wore only a pair of shorts to bed, and I didn’t shut the door for fear the children would need something during the night and I wouldn’t be able to hear them. “What children?” I asked myself. When I didn’t answer myself, I closed my eyes again, and drifted off.

I slept an anxious sleep, one filled with dreams, both good and bad. I knew them all because they re-occurred each night. The nightmare I most dreaded always came towards morning. The man, a teacher at a small private school, drove the school bus containing his class of five girls and three boys, including the man’s son, Jack. Initially, the bus ride felt like a field trip to the country, then suddenly there was a sense of urgency and dark clouds boiled up from the horizon. The mood changed and now he was taking the kids to safety, away from … a way from … away from something horrible. The man turned the bus onto an old country road, drove up it half a mile then turned into a wooded lot and drove up the pothole filled road several hundred feet where he found the old man waiting.

A bright light flashed to the north and was soon followed by a rumbling in the ground. Several of the children who had been looking out the window, screamed and covered their eyes. The man looked at his son and verified he was okay. The boy smiled at him the man nodded to the boy. “Everything is going to be all right, son.” The bus stopped and the old man waved the kids out the bus door and down a wide set of concrete stairs. Most of them went with little resistance, he even watched his son’s Wildcats ball cap disappear down the stairs.

Jayne Thompson jumped from the bus and ran to the edge of the woods. He had replayed this in his mind many times and couldn’t come up with any rational reason she would do this. She considered his son, Jack, her boyfriend in that sweet way children did and should have followed him down the stairs. The man caught up with her and grabbed her jacket just as the old man came back up from below and yelled that he had to seal the door. The man pulled Jayne, screaming down into the concrete stairwell. There was no time to listen to her tantrum, as it was the old man nearly knocked him over trying to get to the door to lock and seal it. Easing his hold on her collar, Jayne used the opportunity to struggle free and run down the stairs. The old man shut the door and pushed a code into the electronic lock just as the whole building shook and threw them both down the stairs.

I snapped out of my sleep and sat up, thinking I had heard someone. Clare use to come to my room when she was frightened, then I remembered, Clare was ‘his’ daughter. I never had a daughter or a son and that was okay. “When they die it breaks your heart.” I mumbled. But kids weren’t supposed to die, not before their parents. I realized I was crying but I didn’t know why. I had nothing to cry about. It was the damn dream that had gotten me all mixed up.

I got up and got a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table. Though I tried not to think about the dream but it crept back in like a shamed dog caught eating the Christmas ham from the table. I had been having this nightmare for several months. The same dream, over and over and over and … I slapped the table, my emotions floating close to the surface. I looked at the locked door leading to the ‘down there’ and screamed. “If Jaynie Thompson hadn’t freaked out you wouldn’t all be down there!” Then, responding to a blaming voice that drifted through the sealed door I yelled, “No, you went down there on your own. The old man didn’t mean to leave it open, I didn’t know it was a vacuum sealed storage room, and you didn’t know not to close the door. Had the old man been conscious, I would have had the code to get you out, and I would have.”

I jumped up, flinging the heavy metal chair away, imagining the echo of children crying in the space below as the air was pumped from the room and their lungs. I went to the door, first putting my ear against it, then pounding on it. “Hey, you little jerks. As soon as the old man came to, I got the code and opened the door but …” I dropped my head. “So I wrapped you each tightly in a nice clean sheet, like you were a new born, like your mother might have, and I placed you gently beside each other, orderly. Each head touching the wall, and with exactly twelve inches between you, just like quiet time at school.

Tears burned my eyes and my throat constricted. I pounded on the door again, before sliding down to sit on the floor with my back against it. “And I was so happy when I saw that Jack wasn’t there with you, Jaynie, that your stupidity had not cost me my son.” I slapped the floor several times, allowing the pain to keep me connected to reality. “But when I looked around the facility I couldn’t find him. No blue and white Wildcats shirt, no cargo pants, no ball cap, no Jack. I suddenly knew where he must be, but at the same time I knew it couldn’t be true because I’d seen him go down the stairs with the other kids.”

I remembered going back to the room below and looking at each boy until I found Jimmy Hudson with a similar blue and white shirt t-shirt and wearing Jack’s hat. He was the bully and was always taking the other kids things. Maybe he told Jack he threw his hat into the woods, it was one of the things I had seen him do before. “And you, Jaynie, I was very angry at you. You distracted me by running off, but I didn’t know you had followed him, and I didn’t listen to you when you tried to tell …” I remembered I ran up the stairs to the door and found it shut tight with the electric lock glowing green. I ran back to the old man but he was dead. I guessed brain injuries by the way he bled from his ears. And, the key code for the main exterior door was not the same as the one to the vacuum storage room.

My back was cold against the door as I talked through it. “I was glad I had been to this shelter several time before, fortunate that it was my uncles. He was the ‘wacky old man that lived in that bomb shelter outside of town.’ No one was saying that now and I was glad he had shown me how to operate the equipment and where the operator and repair manuals were. I just wished I had spent more time here. When I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, I looked out the window and saw him, not far away. He lay on his back, looking up into the debris filled sky. There was no blood, but I knew he had been blown there by the shock wave.  I punched the code in over and over then when it didn’t work I pounded on the door until my hands were bruised. I pounded and screamed but he …” Apparently, in a fit of paranoia, my uncle had changed the key code then died before telling me.

After I wrapped my uncle in a blanket and placed him in the storage room beside the children, I went back to sit with Jack, through the door, and I’ve been doing the same thing for the last two years. “Even through his changes, his loss of skin and muscle as they sloughed off and fell into the dirt,” I said to the ghosts of the long dead children. “It takes a lot longer when there are no animals or insects. And when his hair began to blow away in the wind storms that consistently roll across the dead land, I stayed. I stayed with my boy because that’s what fathers do. And after several months I learned to imagine him watching the sky and making unicorns out of clouds.”

I sat there on the cold bunker floor my emotions spent and the truth revealed so that I couldn’t deny it. Then, as I had almost every night since I being locked in, I passed out.

I awoke to the breakfast alarm and climbed stiffly to my feet. I walked to the pantry and removed the package labeled, ‘Thursday Breakfast.’ At the table I dumped the items out of the dark green plastic pouch, sorted and aligned them knowing that discipline brought me peace. After I was done I cleaned up and walked up the stairs.

From the landing, I looked across the space between the young boy and I. ‘Brown,’ was the only word that came to mind and that seemed to encompass, not only the description of the dead grass and exposed soil, but included my mood and the general miasma of the setting. It had not rained in the past … I couldn’t remember. I felt odd that me, an avid gardener who watched the weather patterns and planted according to the moons, couldn’t remember the last rain. I’ll go look it up in my note book, later. I thought.


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