Short Fiction: My Father’s Last Best Memory

We had been in the bunker for two weeks, well past the time we should have all been dead. We had no idea why the world hadn’t ended by now, or if it actually had and the screams we were hearing through the windows were just extremely long death throes. We knew that nothing worked, so we couldn’t get any information where we were. The radio was dead, and so was the TV, and even if they were working there probably wasn’t anyone left reporting the news.

Our rations were holding, and would be good for ten more weeks. Mom wanted to wait it out for at least another month before we even thought about leaving. There was no telling what was out there, she reasoned. Even if everything was OK, there was no law and order to protect them. Just because the world had kept going didn’t mean society had.

That’s precisely why Dad wanted to go. Society was simply a collection of people, he said. There needed to be someone willing to help pick up the pieces and put them back together. All it took was someone willing to work towards it, and people would follow suit. Besides, there was no question that something happened two weeks ago, and he might be able to figure out what it was better than anyone.

I love my father. I wish I shared his idealism, but I don’t. Mom is right — it’s dangerous and frightening out there. The thought of him walking out the door, full of optimism and excitement, and then disappearing is too much for me to think about. I was expecting my life to be over by now, and in so many ways this is much worse. We’re alone together with our thoughts and no information. There’s just the distant noise of chaos outside.

That was, until yesterday. We heard the man before we saw him. He had been screaming for so long his voice was hoarse and raw, and he was still going as long and as loudly as he could. We could hear him somewhere in the woods around our house for an hour, and then when my mother looked out of the window she screamed for a second before covering her mouth.

He was stumbling around out there, his clothes in tatters, his skin darkened with what could have been blood, or dirt, or anything. It was hard to tell. The window only afforded a ground-level view of him, and the closer he got the less we could see.

The man’s voice was high and panicked. He had been clearly making his way to the house. He yelled and yelled and yelled for help until he was twenty feet away. Then he collapsed. He sobbed there in the dirt for a while, and then he yelled. This kept going for another hour.

Mom had turned away from the window and put her hands over her ears. It was like the man’s madness was contagious and she was trying her best not to catch it. Dad stood at the window and stared, transfixed. Then he got up and got his gear, went to the stairs leading up to the house.

“What are you doing?” Mom’s attempt to innoculate herself from the man’s hysteria hadn’t worked. “You can’t go out there!”

She was up in a flash. She crossed the room and grabbed Dad’s coat, trying to physically pull him back from the stairs. He grabbed her wrists until she let go. She broke down crying worse than I had ever seen her. Worse than even grandma’s funeral.

“I…I can’t just leave him out there,” Dad said. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help him?”

Mom didn’t say anything. She was crying too hard. Dad hugged her for a long time, and when he saw me hovering at the edge of his reach he called me over and hugged me too. I didn’t know what to say to him. I had no idea how to feel. It felt like I was waking up from a dream, like any minute I would be sitting up in my bed relieved that the past two weeks hadn’t happened.

“Take care of your mother, Lowe. She’s going to need you to be strong for her while I’m gone.” He looked at me, and I looked back. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Was he afraid? Excited? It felt like he was just thinking of us, here, now. The way he looked at me, it didn’t feel like he was about to go out into a world that wasn’t known to us any more.

“I will.” I heard myself saying it without understanding what it was I had agreed to. My voice sounded flat, automatic.

Somehow, he had removed himself from us. I was hugging Mom, who was still crying on my shoulder. My dad was a tall man with brown hair and kind eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses. He favored sweaters in earth tones and puffy jackets that made him look less skinny than he was. He wore a hat and goggles, had a backpack slung over his shoulder. It looked like he was going on a ski trip.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. When I knock on the door three times, then once more after a pause, you’ll know it’s me.” He rapped on the staircase railing three times, then hovered over it with his fist, then knocked out the last blow. “Got it?”

I nodded. If I opened my mouth I was going to cry, though I had no idea why.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and then he smiled. “I love you.”

He climbed the stairs and opened the door to the passage behind the walls of our house that lead to this bunker. He turned awkwardly in the narrow space, then shut the door softly. I heard his footsteps grow fainter. My mother sobbed louder.

That was the last time I saw him. It took us four more weeks before we got desperate enough to search for him.

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