Shelter by John Haggerty
John Haggerty’s “Shelter” is one of three winners of the
2020 CRAFT Elements Contest: Conflict.
There’s an air-raid shelter in the backyard. It was built in the fifties, back when such things were fashionable, back when, if your neighbors didn’t have one, you made it clear to them that at the sight of that first nuclear flash, they were totally on their own.
It never got used, of course, and when you bought the house it was pitched to you as a conversation piece—oh, and you’ll never guess what’s in the backyard, the realtor said, giving you the perky smile she saves for property features that might prove problematic.
There is a steel hatch, the faded green paint badly chipped, a little bit rusty. It’s got a padlock on it to keep the neighbor kids from killing themselves. Especially Kevin, who is just the kind of child who would end up dead in a sixty-year-old air-raid shelter and who, in your darker moments, you think might be improved by a little bit of killing. He’s a dead-eyed, slack-mouthed boy who is purported to have a collection of animal bones so extensive he couldn’t possibly have obtained them by honorable means, and who rides his bike in tight circles in front of your house for hours, giving your girlfriend Sharon—your ex-girlfriend Sharon—a major case of the heebie-jeebies, even after you’ve closed the blinds. Yes, Kevin’s just the sort of boy who would be found, neck broken, at the bottom of the entrance shaft of your air-raid shelter, and no matter how airtight your alibi, no matter how many people saw you at the auto parts convention in Cleveland for an entire day before Kevin went missing and for two more after he was found, a weird cloud of suspicion would always follow you around, and you would eventually have to move three hundred miles away, but you would still feel it, the Curse of Kevin, just in the way people would look at you when they said hi. So that’s the deal with the padlock.
Sometimes you go out there at night, more often since Sharon left. You don’t know why, but it’s always night. It’s near the back property line, concealed by some bushes. You have to know what you’re looking for.
You take the lock off and pull the hatch up. It’s heavy. The hinges give off a deep groan that makes you vow to oil those damn things once and for all, but you never do. At your feet is a dark vertical shaft of concrete, descending down into the blackness. The beam of your flashlight plays on the narrow walls. The concrete is smooth. You admire the workmanship yet again. They weren’t kidding around with their bomb shelters. It’s almost anthropological, this strange dwelling beneath your backyard. You imagine future researchers and their speculations. They were clearly of importance to the people of the time, the scientists say to one another. No doubt they had some religious significance.
On the near wall, U-shaped rungs made out of rebar protrude from the concrete. You turn off the flashlight, and you lower yourself into the hole, feeling with your feet for that first rung. The air in there is always cold, even on the hottest summer nights, and has a bitter smell you can’t quite identify. You inch your way down the shaft in complete darkness. The rungs, which are starting to show their age, are very rough on your hands.
Sharon complained about that, the one time you brought her down here. You made some mistakes there, you admit. Maybe you should have laid the groundwork a little bit better, talked to her about it first, tried to explain what it meant to you. The fact that you did it at night was definitely a bad idea. In hindsight, the daytime would clearly have been better. But that didn’t even occur to you. You can’t conceive of the shelter during the day. There is something about the shelter in the nighttime, the way the black emptiness allows anything at all to be painted on its canvas.
At the bottom it’s so quiet you can hear your breath bouncing off the walls. The moon, filtering down the shaft from above, gives a faint gray luminance, but you are familiar enough with the shelter that even in darkness you would know your surroundings. You are in a square room composed entirely of concrete, maybe twenty feet by twenty. On your right is a shelf that would have held provisions, food and water. They are long gone now and the shelves are empty. Along the opposite wall, and the wall to the left, are two pairs of bunk beds, perfect for the nuclear family.
You imagine them now, Dad, Mom, Cindy, and Brad. They sit together on the bunks, the earth trembling around them as their world combusts. Cindy, who had planned on going to college at State the next fall, looks around the small room, her eyes welling with tears. Brad, twelve, usually the trickster of the family, huddles back in the corner of the bunk, his head between his knees.
Mom and Dad exchange a look, but Dad knows what to do. “Hey everybody,” he says, “how about a game of Monopoly? Or Risk?”
“Yeah!” Brad responds. Mom tousles his hair as Cindy gets out the game.
The demigods of nuclear war careen and crash above their heads, but the family, bathed in the pale glow of the battery-operated fluorescent lights, beam at each other with affection as they put the game pieces in place. It feels safe and warm, even as just an idea in your mind.
Sharon came home in a weird mood the night you took her down here. Excited but in a jumpy kind of way. Maybe excited isn’t the word. Nervous. She was nervous. You didn’t make a big deal about it, because she didn’t like to talk about things until she was good and ready. She was similar to you in that way, and it’s one of the things you liked about her from the very start. Independent, was how you thought of it. You’d both been hurt by the world, reluctant to let it happen again. There were some walls there, even after two and a half years. Anyway, there was no use trying to pry things out of her.
Leftover Chinese for dinner, not the most romantic thing, and she was fidgety the whole way through. You should have known. But the idea of telling her about the shelter had been growing in you for days, like a kind of compulsion, and it blinded you to the signs.
“I’ve got something,” you said. “Something I want to show you.”
Her chopsticks paused halfway to her mouth, chow mein noodles dangling.
“I have something too,” she said. “Something we have to talk about.”
“Me first,” you said.
She put the food back on her plate and stared at the wall above your head for a few seconds. “Okay,” she said. “You can go first.”
Now, Sharon is long gone and here you are, alone in the dark again. You hear some vivid and unmistakable sounds. First, there is the moan of rusty hinges, the hinges that you keep intending to oil but haven’t. It is the sound of the shelter hatch closing. Next comes a metallic clatter, the noise that a padlock might make on being jammed shut.
It is pitch dark in the shelter. The gleam of moonlight that gave a dim glow to things is gone. You know roughly where you are—you’re down here a lot. You feel your way back to the entrance shaft. The concrete is cold and only slightly rough to your hands. You climb up the ladder, slowing at the top so you don’t hit your head. You lean back against the wall of the shaft and push experimentally on the hatch. There’s a little bit of give, enough play in the padlock to open up a tiny sliver of night.
“Kevin?” It couldn’t be anyone but Kevin, you realize.
“It’s not Kevin,” Kevin says.
“Kevin, let me out,” you say.
There is a long pause. “No key,” he says.
You have the key with you, of course. You used it to unlock the padlock. You think about your options. You could slip the key through the crack, but you’re not sure what Kevin would do with it. Given what you know about him, it seems much safer to hold onto it.
“Go get your dad,” you say. You don’t know Kevin’s father. You have only a vague notion of him—a hulking guy with a bushy beard and a beer belly hanging off him like a clingy child. He works at the big-box hardware store. You’ve always thought the orange vest he wears as he leaves for work looks like some sort of hazmat warning. It’s not a promising vision, but he still seems better than Kevin.
“I can’t,” Kevin says.
“Why not?” Your shoulder is starting to burn from holding the hatch open. You switch arms.
“I’ll get in trouble,” he says.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” you say.
“My dad says I’m a fuckup, and that one more fuckup will be one fuckup too many.”
“Tell him it was an accident. That’s what it was, right? An accident.”
“An accident is a kind of fuckup.”
Your temper suddenly flares. “Kevin, goddammit—” but the anger is immediately replaced by a fear that you will scare him off. You imagine your despair at hearing his retreating footsteps, the long descent into the shelter to rest and consider your options. You take a breath. “An accident isn’t the same thing as a fuckup.” You hope your voice sounds friendly. “I’ll tell your dad that.”
Kevin is silent for a few moments. “He hits me. With his fist. No open-hand shit.” He makes a little grunting noise, as if reenacting the event. “It’s not for pussies.”
You can’t think of anything to say to that.
“I’m not a pussy.”
“I know that, Kevin.”
You close your eyes. You imagine the scene down in the shelter. One week in, Dad has stopped shaving. He has begun to imagine the shelter is breaking down, and so he roams restlessly along the walls, looking for cracks. Mom hasn’t been out of bed in three days. She lies flat on her back, the covers pulled over her head. She looks like a shrouded sarcophagus.
You think for a few seconds. “Your dad probably has some bolt cutters. You could borrow them. Just for a minute. Nobody has to know. It would be easy to cut through the lock with those.”
“You watch TV,” Kevin says. It is a statement, not a question.
“TV is stupid.”
“Is that what this is about?” You are disoriented by the direction the conversation has taken, and it somehow makes the situation seem far more serious. For the first time, the thought occurs to you that this might be more than just a spur-of-the-moment prank.
“All those shows. They’re stupid,” he says. “You’re stupid for watching them.”
“Okay,” you say. “So you don’t watch them?”
“I do. But I’m smart about it. TV. I’m smart.” Kevin’s voice is coming from farther away. You are again seized by the fear he will walk off altogether and leave you, but you can’t think of anything to say that will keep him with you. Your stance is becoming very uncomfortable. The concrete is cold and increasingly abrasive against your back. The ladder rungs press into the arches of your feet, making them throb. You let the hatch drop, and then open it again with your other arm.
“Kevin?” you call. “Are you still there?”
“You know those family shows?”
You are ecstatic to hear Kevin’s voice, even though it seems more distant than before. It sounds like he has moved away from the hatch.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” you say.
“Yes you do,” Kevin says. “You’re lying. The shows where, like, everybody is happy. Families. The families are happy.” He is closer now but sounds more agitated.
“Sure,” you say. “I know those shows.”
“See, you probably believe them. Do you believe there are families like that? Where they’re all happy and they love each other?”
You’re not sure how to answer this. “I don’t know, Kevin. They’re just shows.”
“See? That’s what makes you stupid. They’re not just shows. They’re lies. Do you know anybody like that? Anybody?”
Kevin’s voice is again coming from some distance away. It occurs to you he is pacing back and forth. “In those shows,” he says, “nobody hits anybody else. That’s just stupid. And then there are all those people laughing. Like you never see them, but they’re always laughing. That’s fake. Did you know that?”
“See? Yeah, it’s all fake. It’s called canned laughter. You’re stupid for not knowing that. You fell for laughter that comes out of a can. Because you’re stupid.” His footsteps move away, and then closer. “What happened to your girlfriend?”
“Yeah. What happened to her? What did you do to her?”
You struggle to come up with words to describe what happened between you and Sharon.
“She was nice,” Kevin says. “I liked her.”
“You knew her?”
“She ran into me with her car.”
“I was riding my bike and she was backing out of your driveway. She was super upset.”
“Sharon hit you with her car.” You have never heard of this incident. It must have happened toward the end of things, when the two of you weren’t talking much. Or maybe not. Since she left you’ve learned a number of things about Sharon that she didn’t think necessary to tell you.
“She got out, and she was pretty upset. And she helped me up, and she checked to make sure I hadn’t broken any bones and then she gave me a hug and said that now we had a secret. Just the two of us. She smelled nice, and she was pretty. Where did she go?”
Sharon was surprised by the shelter, that night you brought her out here. “This has been here the whole time?” she asked, staring at the hatch. You waited for her at the bottom of the ladder. You’d brought a candle with you instead of the flashlight. It seemed appropriate at the time. The flame flickered as she moved past you.
She walked around the edge of the room, trailing her fingertips along the wall. Then she turned to face you, and for a moment you thought she understood. And now you understand, too. The pull this place has on you. The reason you come down here. The shelter, the idea of it. How two people, two private people who had somehow found each other, how they could be like this to each other. Shelter. You had two padlock keys, the one you used and a spare. A couple of days before, when you decided to tell her about it, you strung the spare on a piece of ribbon. “The key to my heart,” you said, holding it out to her.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
“Okay,” you said. The key dangled between you. “We can come down here another time.”
“I mean, I’m leaving. For good. Tony and I…”
Tony was a partner at the advertising agency where she worked. Slick. Confident. She used to make fun of him, his ridiculous ad jargon, the oppressive amount of product in his hair.
You think about explaining this to Kevin, but quickly abandon the idea. “Maybe if you let me out, we could call her,” you venture. “She’d probably like that.” Your voice sounds false, even to you. But you can’t bring yourself to tell him the truth—that even though you know where Sharon went, and why, it’s unlikely she would be pleased to hear from either of you.
Luckily, Kevin’s mind seems to have already moved on. “I found a dead squirrel a while ago. Out at the canal.”
You assume that what Kevin is calling a canal is actually the drainage ditch that runs through some wasteland behind the housing development. It is usually full of murky green water and white plastic shopping bags.
“I watched it and watched it. For a couple of weeks. You know what happened?”
“Bones. It turned into bones. And that’s when I figured out something. You know what it was?”
“No Kevin, what was it?”
“Bones are what’s real. The squirrel, it was like the stupid TV shows. The ones you like. It looks furry and cute, but it’s really just bones.”
“Is that why you locked me in here, to turn me into bones?” You instantly regret the suggestion, that he might take it seriously, and are terrified of what his next words will be.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Kevin says as if he has just happened on an interesting new idea.
“Kevin, why am I in here?”
“So I started to think.” Kevin’s voice raises and lowers in volume. He is still pacing back and forth. Your back and feet are on fire. You don’t know how much longer you can stay there, but you’re afraid if you go back down into the shelter, Kevin will get bored and leave.
“I started to think the only thing real about everybody is bones. Mom says she only ever has one drink, and Dad says he’s going to get a new job, but they’re all bones inside. They can’t change that.”
Neither of you says anything for a while.
“Why did you lock me in here, Kevin?” you ask again.
Kevin’s feet make a hissing sound as he moves through the grass, closer, farther away, closer, farther away. Then you can’t hear him anymore.
Sharon didn’t take the key that night, but you slipped it into one of her boxes the day she moved out. You imagine it is in the landfill out on Quarry Road now, under piles of diapers and condoms and rotting food.
“Are you there, Kevin?”
It seems as if he has been gone a very long time. The smells of rust and old concrete mingle with the scents of grass and leaves. The silence lingers. Your future stretches before you—the burning thirst, the cold, the delirium, the welcome unconsciousness. Down in the shelter, the Monopoly board is in a charred pile in the center of the room. Mom did that, set it on fire and then went straight back to bed. Cindy takes to making pruno. It’s hard to know where she came by this skill—pruno being essentially a prison beverage—but she did. She opens up a can of peaches and pours the juice, along with some ketchup, into a big bowl she hides under her bed. When it starts to ferment there’s no escaping the smell, that tangy-sweet chemical scent of alcohol, the flowery, rotten smell of fruit overripe and spoiling. Nobody talks about it. Brad is back on the toilet, as he is almost constantly these days. He has always mumbled to himself in the bathroom, but everybody can hear it now. “Give me that big, hard cock,” he says. “Give me that big hard cock,” over and over.
Then Kevin is back, crouched by the hatch. You can feel his breath coming through the crack.
“I’m going to come live with you.”
“I’m going to live with you.” He is talking very fast now. “I’ve thought about it. Mom and Dad wouldn’t care. And I’d be right down the street anyway.” His breath is hot on your face. “I could teach you things,” he says. “Like about how to watch television.”
You are at a loss for words.
“Sharon will come back, and we’ll all be there together.”
For a moment you entertain the vision, you and Sharon and Kevin. The idea is both ridiculous and incredibly compelling. You imagine the three of you together, the blue glow of the TV illuminating you on your broken-down couch—Kevin and his bones, Sharon and her secrets, and you, the guy with the fallout shelter in his backyard. At least, you think, you would be starting with no illusions. No illusions and no walls. It would be better than what you have now.
You take the key out of your pocket and weigh it in your hand. It feels heavy as if it were made of plutonium. Without a word, you slip the key through the hatch. You imagine it there, on the grass, gleaming in the moonlight. You lower the hatch and climb back down to the bottom of the shaft, nothing to do now but wait.
JOHN HAGGERTY’s work has appeared in dozens of magazines such as Indiana Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is the winner of the 2020 NO CONTEST competition by No Contact, and the founding editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.