By Josh Pearce
It was almost opening ceremony, and I was on corpse duty, dragging fresh dead from the funeral home (ol’ Miss Shirley, pneumonia, rest in peace) to lay out on the road near the Payton Ranch turn-off which was, we all figured, the farthest point that could be seen from the bunker’s periscope and still be safely out of rifle range. The town cemetery hadn’t been used in more than a decade, with most residents happy to donate their bodies to the betterment of the community, and so a thicket of bones—those that hadn’t been dragged away by dogs—cut the ranch off from the rest of the world. I was wearing tattered, mud-and-blood-caked clothes two sizes too big for me; hand-me-downs and passed-arounds that everyone on corpse duty shared.
It was hard to see and breathe through the rubber Halloween mask that we hoped, from a distance, made the wearer a convincingly pustulant zombie mutant—grr, argh—but I got Miss Shirley settled in what was, I thought, a respectful enough position, given the circumstances. The dirt road was quiet, just some jaybirds scuffling in the wild blackberries. Nobody came down this way anymore unless they were on town council orders, upkeeping the freehold. The older folk were always trying to shirk their work shifts, maybe ’cause they knew they’d lay to rest here soon enough. Or maybe it was the guilt. But I liked it in the solitudinous ecosystems among the cattails, far from the maddening.
Something moved suddenly in the brambles. Not a jay, something bigger. I looked towards it, hesitated, then was still.
After a shower and clean clothes, I went looking for my friends down at the Save-Mart where they usually chilled, and found four of them dangling feet off a loading dock. Nolan was trying to get Denny to drink a jar of pickle juice. Ishtar hunched over a phone game. Harman saw me coming and said, “Hey, it’s Oh Mama,” which was what most people called me ’cause they couldn’t say my name right.
“What’s up, turkeys?” I flopped down next to them and unfolded my paperback-of-the-week.
“How was it today?” Nolan gave me a simple high-five as if he hadn’t just been sneaking kisses from me on the sly this morning in science lab.
Denny got half the jar down before it all came right back up in a splatter below our feet. I rolled away from the smell and into better light and shrugged. Didn’t want to say anything about the thing in the bushes. “Just a few more weeks and we’ll be done with it all.”
“What d’you think we’ll find in there?” Harman’s mom was a council member, so he was gonna be right up front at the ceremony.
“Balls,” Ish muttered. Maybe to him, maybe to her game.
“I hear it’s inbred cannibals who’ve gone blind from living underground for so long.” Denny was new to town—his family moved here last year—and he’d believe almost anything you told him about the bunker.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“They have electricity,” said Ish, rolling her eyes. Nearly the whole south forty of Payton Ranch was solar panels.
“I dunno. One of my uncles is on the ground-sounding teams. He says he’s heard some weird shit.” Then Denny doubled up and said, “I think I gotta go home or I’m gonna shit my pants.”
“’Kay, bye, Denny,” I said, turning a page. “Feel better.”
“It’s probably just farts, you big baby,” said Nolan.
“Later, ladies.” Denny hopped down.
Ish shut off her game, said, “I got homework.”
“We all got homework,” said Harman. “You’re just the only one who does it.”
I dog-eared and stood up. “I’ll walk with you. Bye, boys.” They were trading gaming cards and didn’t look up. “Bye, boys. Whatever, c’mon, let’s go.”
Ish was kind of a dweeb, with self-inflicted haircuts and outfits assembled from her older brother’s closet, and she was always busy on weekends with dweeb stuff like Dungeons & Dragons, and Ham Radio Club. But she was also the only person who pronounced my name correctly, and even knew its meaning. She’d once printed out a bunch of articles on interstellar objects for me to read and gave me some of her own canonical sci-fi books. She called me “Scout” when no one else was around and “Oh” otherwise, so yeah, I guess we were pretty much like best friends at that point.
“Will you be sad after the bunker’s open?” I asked.
Her nose crinkled at the thought. “Sad? Why would I be sad?” A lot of emotions around town about the upcoming day; anxiety, fear, religious rapture. But I guess not a lot of sadness for a way of life ending.
“What about your radio job? Won’t that be over?” Ish worked after school at the community college station, broadcasting fake emergency signal alerts and dramatized survivor pleas for help. The drama department really got into it. She’d won a state-level award for a bit she’d written—a series of cryptic, Chinese-military transmissions that were, she assured me, very authentic.
Ish shrugged. “It looks good on my resume, and I wasn’t going to stick around here after graduation, anyway.”
“You’re thinking of leaving?” Was my whole world going to end as soon as that bunker was opened?
We were almost at the stoplight where she’d peel left, and I’d continue straight. I dragged my feet to keep from getting to it too quickly. “Almost every job in this town has something to do with keeping those people underground,” she said. “You can’t avoid it, unless you move to a big city. Stay here, and you automatically support it.”
“But isn’t that a good thing?” In my emotional tally of the town, nobody else seemed to have any confusion.
“Pass the corn.”
“Pass the corn, what?”
“Pass the corn…plate?”
I interrupted my parents. “Why do we do it?”
“Do what, honey?” Mom said, and Dad said, “I knew she was too young for this. They should at least wait until eighteen before they make kids handle dead bodies,” and Mom said, “‘They’ who? You were right there voting along with everyone from the very beginning,” so Dad said, “Well maybe I’ve changed my mind.”
“All of it. The radio plays, the websites, throwing roadkill onto their property. It was like, thirty years ago! Why are we still keeping up the ruse?”
“It wasn’t thirty–”
“Honey, the Paytons were very dangerous. Extremely insular and anti-social. Racist. They hated everyone, and had a lot of guns. Have a lot of guns, still, I would imagine.”
“Bastards breeding like jackrabbits,” Dad said, “using up all the good farmland.” Dad’s background was in agriculture.
“Now, Winston, it isn’t about the land–”
“Using it to grow dope. You notice how food prices dropped after we took over their fields?” He worked with the radiation teams, making sure not too much of it was leaking into the soil. The early days, from what I gathered, were pretty crude—slingshotting old camp-lantern thorium, smoke detector americium, and Pyrex uranium at the entrance of the bunker, where the Paytons had their dosimeters. Then the city got federal funding (and permission) to crop-dust the bunker sensors at night with pitchblende payloads. Ish called it a binding circle, to keep the monsters contained. Like I said: dweeb. Some university researchers supposedly were close to inventing an x-ray that could hit the sensors from a mile away with no risk of cross-contamination, no need to get close to the freehold, but I guess that wouldn’t soon matter much, either.
“Yeah, I get all that. But why still, after all these years?” I mashed my meal with a fork, creating mud. “Haven’t they been in time-out long enough?” Freeholders couldn’t see much of anything, just the narrow slot through the bunker periscope.
“Have to wait ’til their older generation dies off. Should be almost about that time.” Dad dismissed my concerns with his spoon. “They got exactly what they wanted: nuclear war, economic collapse, race riots, whatever—we gave it to them. Two or three faked news reports and the whole brood went running for the bunker and haven’t come back out yet.”
“You never met the Paytons—it was before you were born—and be thankful you didn’t. They were simply very nasty people.”
I didn’t want to mention the face in the blackberries because maybe it had been just an animal, and not a girl younger than me. “Okay, but what about any babies down there? How are they to blame? Isn’t there something about the sins of the father–”
“The what?” Now Dad watched me sharply. “Where’d you hear that? What kind of book have you been reading?”
“Isn’t that from the Bible, Winston?”
“I dunno,” I mumbled to my plate, “it’s just something Ish said.”
“Oh, that girl.” Mom started clearing plates. “Always with the ideas.”
“She’s an odd one,” Dad agreed, and after that I guess they had nothing else to say except Mom chiding, “No reading at the table, please.”
On my walk with Ish, I’d said, “Hey wait, if you’re leaving, then I should have something to remember you by. Stand next to the sign.” It was a local landmark, kind of a touristy thing, a roadside blowup of the freehold floor plan. Every week, the sounding team went all around the edges of Payton Ranch, using stethoscopes and ultrasound to map out the interior of freehold. Counting voices, measuring how full the storage areas were, listening for sounds of escape. Then they updated the freehold map, best that they could make of it, and put it up here for everyone to track.
Ish played along, posed—okay, super cute, love it—while I took a picture. But when she dropped her hands, and her face returned to normal, I knew something was wrong.
A sour taste in my mouth that stuck all through dinner. I tried to text Ish sorry before bed but the police radio-jammers—which the town used to restrict the signals that the freehold could pick up to only what City Council wanted them to hear—meant cell service sucked.
Corpse duty again. This time it was the small stuff, so I dumped a wheelbarrow load of squashed skunks, raccoons, cats, a dog, and other veterinary contributions in a midden heap near enough where the Paytons’ air sensors would sniff the volatile organic compounds and recommend staying indoors. One year, we put a whole moose out there. Had to do it by hand, because five mutant zombies on a pickup truck would’ve been one for the freehold logbook.
I sat on the overturned barrow, pushed my mutant mask up enough to breathe, and opened a new book. Such a nice day, with the sunlight greening in the high branches, and I could hear the Payton creek running somewhere out of sight. I took off the half-rotted funeral jacket to let the sun warm my arms. I got lost in the book, so at first I didn’t notice the noises in the tall grass until, suddenly aware of a shadow, I looked up and gasped. Right in the middle of the footpath was either a small child or a large upright rabbit, my view of it blurred by sweat. Entirely on reflex, I tugged at the mask like it was actual sloughing flesh, lurched to my feet, and let out a pretty passable growl.
It certainly worked, in any case, because the creature vanished almost immediately back into the brush. After my heart settled, a feeling of disgust flickered through me like a candle flame. Must we always automatically act like the monsters they think we are? I hadn’t recognized the face—or even recognized it as human, some ferality in there throwing it off the far rim of the uncanny valley—but from her color, she must’ve been from the freehold. I pulled off the mask and shouted after her, “Wait, I’m sorry! Please don’t run away.” I heard movement, quick scurrying through the grass, and followed it. I saw trampled blades, but no clear footprints. How had she gotten out, past the sounding teams and cameras? “Hello? Where are you?”
Without the costume or my book, and leaving all the dead behind me, I ran full-chest, light-hearted, fleet-foot, open-throated, gulping down the honeyed air, the creek-reed pollen, some bugs, like a jet turbine, and still she kept ahead of me—she was fast. Bursting free of the overgrowth, I saw just a flash of her vanishing beneath the roots of a gnarled walnut—I think it was her—down a little burrow. I pushed aside branches and rocks. My shoulders would fit the tight squeeze. My hips…maybe less so. “Hello down there.”
Only the distant sound of clattering pebbles returned from the dark. With my phone light on, I crawled in head-first. I scooped handfuls off the walls and forced them past my legs behind me to widen the tunnel enough for my whole body. It was exhausting, and I kept getting snagged on roots and rocks. Downhill I went, covered in dirt and sweat, cotton-mouthed. My fingers brushed against either a rat’s tail or a worm. I snatched them back, afraid of teeth. Broke at least three nails, and rubbed my forearms completely raw.
The light reflected off something shiny, and I stopped. A piece of galvanized metal blocked the way, and I suddenly realized the full weight of the Earth all around me. Couldn’t go backwards, a panic-thought that made me throw up a little in my mouth, which cut off my breathing, made everything smaller and closer together, setting off the whole cycle again. I slammed my hands against the metal, accomplishing nothing. Screamed once past the raw acid burn in my throat.
Stop. The sounding team could’ve heard me, but they’d already done their shift for the week. Whole town would find my suffocated corpse on Opening Day. Any freeholder who heard me screaming would think it was a zombie attack, and come guns blazing. Only the rabbit girl was closer, and where had she gone? The thought cleared my head just enough. Deep breath. She must have gone somewhere. I ran my hand along the edge of the metal and cut my finger on a loose bit of it. Got my nails under it, and pulled. The flap came away like a hatch, creating an opening. I scraped by and tumbled out into a room. I was in the bunker.
“If the bunker’s open and nobody has to pretend anymore, then you can,” I swallowed back saying, Stay here with me, “get an honest job without leaving town.”
“You know how much of our local job market relies on deception, Scout? Once the Paytons come out, there’s gonna be a whole lot of people out of work, and I’m not going to be one of them.”
“Or,” I picked a violet and threw it at Ish. It stuck in her hair. “The Paytons come out and spend all their gold on cheeseburgers and movies and other shit they haven’t ever had.” That was another popular theory, the buried treasure, the hoard of precious metals that every survivalist had for when paper money went worthless. “I’m thinking either King Tut or Roanoke. What about you?” I coaxed. “Untold treasures, or unsolved mysteries?”
She brushed the flower out. “Wasn’t Tutankhamun’s tomb cursed?” Tutankhamun, adorable, what a geek. But yeah, probably right. “I imagine either Dr. Moreau or the end of Butch Cassidy,” she said.
I had read that book. She’d given it to me, with marginalia, a little look at the interior floor plan of her brain. Doesn’t end well. Neither does Butch Cassidy, I suppose.
Treasures or mysteries, which was it to be? Lights turned on automatically all around me. This was the famous freehold, huh? It was so quiet, and if I stretched up on my toes, I could reach the ceiling. This room was crammed with furniture like an IKEA showroom; all the clever ways to maximize your minimal space. Couches that unfolded into extra beds, lots of cabinets and floor storage space.
The walls were all painted in bright colors, like in a preschool. There was a sink built into one wall, and I was pleasantly surprised that the taps still worked. I washed myself off as best as I could. A door led farther into the shelter, but before I stepped through, I pulled the piece of sheet metal away from the wall so I could have a quick escape if I needed one. Noticed claw marks all along it. Broken human fingernails.
The next room was much the same: a couch, a TV, bunk beds, compact shower, compost toilet, lots of shelving. There was no one in either of these rooms. No sound of distant footsteps or other activity. The solar panels kept everything lit and the water recycled, like in one of Ish’s books. We could launch this thing straight into space and probably be all right. What would you run out of first, if you were sealed off from the world like this? Food, water, air, or sanity?
The next room was almost a mirror image. I was going to get lost without breadcrumbs. I opened my photos and zoomed in on the one of Ish, then spent several minutes trying to figure out where I was on the billboard behind her. This place went on forever. Town council knew the rough shape of it from sounding teams, but the feel of being lost in outer space stuck with me. I was an advance scout, the first to set foot in a world that no one else had seen. I took videos with my phone. I was going to be so famous at school.
I passed row after row of bunk beds, enough to comfortably sleep fifty—if I included all the pullout couches—and storage closets with 55-gallon drums of dehydrated survival food, most which hadn’t even been opened. I even found a garden with black-wilted greens under grow-lights. I rubbed the leaves between my fingers, tasted something bitter. Looked like the Paytons had made room to bring some of their cash crop along with them.
But for all the stockpiled food, dirty laundry, crayoned kids’ drawings, and cigarette butts, the freehold was empty. Hadn’t there been a nuclear family with at least five offspring? Some pregnant barefoot daughters plus significant others, and an indeterminate extended network of cousins, half-siblings, baby daddies, great aunties, and the rest? No way all of them snuck out the way I’d come in.
“They’d better find someone down there,” Ish had said, “because last time someone rolled back an empty tomb, they invented western colonialism.”
It was so quiet, I found myself tiptoeing, opening and closing cabinets gently. The loudest noise I heard was the hiss of air in a utility room, which left a metallic taste in my mouth, and caused a moment of dizziness. What had the sounding teams been listening to all this time, if not the ghosts of air filters and DVD dialogue? The thought gave me an idea, a way for everyone to get what they wanted. I moved through gun lockers and wine storage. I taste-tested freeze-dried ice cream. Freehold was nicer than my parents’ home, and bigger even than Nolan’s. Like the dream of a palace from a lost civilization, frozen in time.
“So, you don’t see a silver lining?” I asked. “No possible good?”
“You and I, we were born into this. Into our parents’ bad choices. How can we possibly make it good? They tell us it’s for the best, but we’re trapped here just as much as the freeholders.”
“They stockpiled guns and sent death threats to our parents!” I was practically yelling at her and couldn’t stop. Oh, good one, Oh. Make your only real friend tear up right when she’s looking for any excuse to run away. “What would you have done differently?”
I could probably live here forever, just off the dehydrated meals alone. We could both live down here, once I showed Ish how peaceful it was away from everyone else. We’d have a real Home Alone…at Bernie’s setup. She could write her little dramas, and we would act them out for the sounding team, make it sound like the Paytons were alive and well, fully populated and quite content with staying where they were. The town council could keep applying for federal grants and levy taxes, the university could invent more mind-control x-rays, the local radio station could produce more scripts—“Remnants of the last nuclear states continue to use up their arsenals; all citizens are advised to shelter in place”—which would be heard only by an audience of two, me and Ish playacting our reactions to such news in our best Payton impersonations. Nobody would be exploited, and Ish would never need to go anywhere else.
But then, bouncing off all the metal surfaces, came the clatter of ninepins. Crap, I’d almost forgotten about the girl. Well, that was okay—Ish and I could teach her whatever she needed, what we wanted, everything there was about the surface. Leaving out, perhaps, the bigger lies.
I chased the echoes around a series of right angles—advertised in bunker pamphlets as “attenuating gamma radiation”—to the freehold’s two-lane bowling alley. What kind of mind did it take to witness the end of the world and say, “Know what? I could really go for a few frames right now”—some real cognitive dissonance right there.
I passed the polished-skull bowling balls in their return rack and pushed aside the bowling-pin femurs and tibias to get to the empty space behind them. As I crawled, the waxed wood under my hands and knees gave way to loose-packed dirt. The battery on my phone died, so I continued on by feel. Ish and I would have to give the little rabbit girl a name, of course. Probably something out of one of her books, like “Friday” or “Newt.”
“What would you have done differently, to protect people you love?”
“Should have just bulldozed over the entrance on day one, then!” Ish shouted back at me.
For a minute, I couldn’t speak. “That’s…murder.”
“How’s it any different from what we’re doing every day already?” That was when Ish walked away, and that was the moment the Earth disappeared beneath me.
The dirt shifted under my palms, ran loose like quicksand until it fell away completely, and I was falling through the dark. I clawed for something to hold on to, but I couldn’t gain purchase. All my fingernails were gone, torn off trying to get a grasp on things, trying to feel around the edges for the shape of the truth, find something solid to cling to.
Only, not falling, because there was no wind against my face, no gut uplift. And not darkness, either—there were bright pinpoints all around me. The Payton gold, I thought at first, and then Eyes, when they winked.
There was no going back from our decisions. Not for the freeholders, not our parents, not me or Ish. I kept struggling between the claustrophobia of dependence and the agoraphobia of abandonment before I finally saw that she was probably right—we were head-first down a hole, thinking that the bunker would give us an easy fix to all our problems, and the only thing any of us could do was dig deeper and hope for someone to reach out and take our hand before we starved.
How long was I stuck on that thought in this airless place before the pinpoint lights began to swirl around me, until finally, hovering between the fear of falling forever and the fear of being stuck in place, that balance of terrors which surpassed understanding and brought peace, I found myself floating high above a star system and saw a tumbling jumble of tunnels, tubes, and modules hanging suspended like a metal bramble in the void, starkly lit by a cold and distant light source, with sharp shadows etching its corrugated steel edges.
I drifted toward it, found that one of the brightest points was actually a harsh fluorescence coming from a round window. It got larger and larger as I came closer and pressed my face to the glass. Inside, I saw a family gathered around a table set with a great feast of rehydrated astronaut rations, a large family of many generations much removed, all reunited here in some celebration, and I thought, What was wrong with their faces? The ones at the head of the table seemed normal enough, but as the lineage continued down the miles and miles of place settings, each face seemed more melted than the one before. At the end, I looked from monster to man, and man to monster, and monster to man again, and could not tell the difference.
I could clearly hear their laughter and cheerful voices, but no matter how hard I pounded on the window or how loudly I shouted, they didn’t notice. Another figure came into the room. A person, but not a person; could have been a large animal, could have been a rabbit, or a girl with flowers in her hair.
There was one other face that kept flickering in and out of the crowd, noticeable only because of how obviously it didn’t fit in with the rest of them. It had eyes like two deep finger holes, and a gaping mouth like a thumbhole, its hair and skin pulled back tightly on a polished dome of a skull.
It was always looking at me. Why wouldn’t it tell anyone else that it saw me? And then the rabbit girl moved between us, and the face disappeared—it had only been my reflection the entire time. I screamed at it, at the realization, at the people on the inside. The rabbit twitched, looked over, came up to the window, and peered out.
She opened the porthole so that she could grab my wrist with a small, soft, furry hand, and pull me inside. It took several straining seconds to wiggle me loose from the dirt, and I tumbled forward. I was in the bunker.
It was very quiet, with only the hiss of air ventilation and the subsonic thrum of some buried machinery, maybe a generator or a water pump. “Hiya, Scout, where have you been?” the girl asked. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Your mom is worried sick.” She peeled off her inhuman face like a mask.
I clung to her. “I’m so sorry. I tried to call and tell you.” The room was surprisingly spacious with all its furniture folded away into the walls. She turned on the tap to get me a drink. The water grew into a sphere as big as a bowling ball, sticking to the end of the faucet with surface tension until she tapped it with a finger and sent the globule floating in my direction.
“Isn’t there any food left? I’m starving.”
She gave me a puzzled look. “Left from what?”
There was no sign of the feast. No sign of anyone else, or that they had just been here. “They’re all gone?” How had they snuck out without my noticing? I looked back at the wall I’d come in through. No windows, of course. What would an underground bunker need with windows? Or hatches. “How did you get in?”
“Through the front door, of course.” There was, somewhere deeper inside the bunker, the sound of thunder like ninepins. She turned her head toward the noise. “Come on, there’s something you’ve gotta see.”
And so, I went with her, and we saw. We were where we were, and far above us, the world was right where it should be.
© 2020, Josh Pearce