“You’ve got to wake up, Carlyle.”
He tried to turn toward her, but his forehead just ground against the hard floor.
She shook him with a furious intensity.
“Wake up now, Carlyle. Please.”
His wife’s voice calling him. Pleading with him. For how long?
He tried to swim out of a deep and dreamless state.
When he opened his eyes, he was confused at the view. His vision was spilt in two; half was consumed by his wife’s worried eyes, peering down at him, the other half a large sheet of cold gray floor. With everything he had, he tore his head up off the concrete and looked at his wife, a spatter of relief flickering across her dark blue eyes at the sight of seeing her husband up. She was deathly white, as if her skin hadn’t been exposed to sunlight for weeks. Which in fact it hadn’t. He suspected he probably looked a hell of a lot worse.
Then he noticed that she was holding something—someone.
Sweet baby Caroline.
“What… what are you doing with Caroline,” he asked drowsily, each word coming out slow and forced, as if he was just learning to speak. “Shouldn’t she be in bed?” Then he noticed the bag she had strapped around her shoulder. It was bulging, just like the baby’s eyes. “What’s going on, Meredith? Are we leaving?”
Her frown deepened. “She’s sick, I’m taking her away from here. And frankly, so are you, and everyone else.”
“Sick? I…” but Carlyle couldn’t find the words. He couldn’t string his thoughts together, and instead felt a great white fog clouding his vision, strangling his words. “Meredith, I…”
“Shhh, it’s okay. I know it’s not your fault. There’s something about this… place. This… silo. We aren’t meant to be living down here, Carlyle. It ain’t good for the soul. And it’s killing us from the inside. It’s…” and then she broke down in tears. “I’m sorry, Carlyle. I have to go.”
She put the baby down and helped him up into the bed. She tucked the covers snuggly around him and placed a glass of water on the small table.
“There,” she said, her eyes swelling with tears. “There. That should do it. You just stay here, Carlyle. I’ll come back for you. I just need to get the baby somewhere safe, and then I’ll come back for you. I’ll…”
She kissed him gently on the forehead (a few renegade tears slipping off her face and pattering on his) and then she padded off toward the door. He reached toward her dumbly, succeeding only in losing his balance and tumbling out of bed, pulling all the sheets down with him, knocking the glass of water off the table. His cheek scraped harshly against the grain and the baby started to cry. If he had been more aware he would have felt the sharp pain, and noticed the blood dripping from a gash in his cheek bone. But as it was he only sighed. A pitiful, dreary sigh like that of giving up, or losing hope. “Sweet baby Caroline,” was all he could think to say.
“You were supposed to be watching her,” he heard her whisper as she lifted him back into bed. “And I come home to find a pot of boiling water on the stove and her trying to climb up onto the counter to get to it. And you were lying on the floor.” Her voice seemed scared, and Carlyle thought that maybe she was mad at him.
In a daze he heard the stomping of her boots cross the room toward the door. “I can’t leave her with you, anymore. Not until I can figure out what’s going on here.” Now it was her turn to sigh. “Why this is happening, Carlyle?” She sucked back a sob. “Why is this happening to us?”
All he could do was moan as his thoughts became more jumbled. He wanted to get up, to hold his wife, and coddle his baby, and was confused when he couldn’t force his limbs to obey his commands. When did moving become so hard? It was like the great government shutdowns of the 2030’s, forcing furloughs of hundreds of thousands of workers. But now his body was on furlough. It had been forced into inactivity by this place. By the sickness that was consuming them. By the terrible people who had dropped the bombs in the first place.
But she was already gone.
5 days ago
“Some people think it’s the radiation. You know, from the bombs,” Larry Oldsmith said as he sidled up beside Carlyle in the cafeteria line.
Carlyle wasn’t really listening. He was watching the man in front of him receive a massive helping of mashed potatoes from the lunch attendant. Carlyle thought he could swear up and down that that man had just finished eating and had already left the cafeteria.
“Hey, man, anybody home?” Carlyle looked up and saw that he was next in line. The attendant was crossing him arms at him, frowning. Carlyle took one more glance at the mashed potato man and then held out his tray. The attendant splashed a huge dollop of gravy into his bowl and motioned for him to move along.
When Carlyle didn’t move, the attendant stomped his feel. “What is it?” he asked, staring wildly at Carlyle.
“Umm, I think you forgot the potatoes.”
The man’s eyes went wide as he glared into Carlyle’s gravy filled bowl, and then his face relaxed. A relief seemed to wash over his body. “Oh yeah,” he burst into a grin. “Guess I did.” And along came a massive hunk of lumpy mashed pomme-de-terre into Carlyle’s bowl—the silo’s finest.
Carlyle found a table while Larry finished receiving his lunch, hopefully with better luck than he’d had. He glanced over at the next table at the potato man, who was sitting alone and staring stupidly at his overflowing plate of chunky carbs. “Lost your appetite, big man?” Carlyle said cheerily.
The man looked up, and Carlyle was taken aback at how distant he seemed, how vacant his eyes. “What?” he said, and then snapped back to focus. “Oh yes. I mean, no. I just can’t seem to take another bite. I feel so full. But I haven’t even touched it. I don’t think—”
Larry sat down heavily beside him, and Carlyle turned away from the man, letting him get back to his staring contest with the mashed potatoes.
“So,” Larry said, digging a spoon into his meal, “what do you think about my radiation idea? Think that’s what’s causing everyone to go a bit haywire? It’s turning into a looney bin down here.”
Carlyle shook his head. “This place was designed to store nuclear waste. We couldn’t possibly have found a better spot to hole up for a few years. We’ve got everything we need, man.” He pulled at his yellow coveralls which marked him an an employee of Supply. As if this gave him the final say on the matter. “We’re good, Larry. It’s not the radiation.”
Larry nodded slowly. “Okay, so what then? Lack of sunlight? Improper vitamin intake? Shortage of O2?”
Carlyle waved him off. “It’s grief,” he said simply. “People are just now coming to grips with how much we’ve all lost. And not only our friends and family who are dead, but everyoneweveeverknown. And think of all the places you’ve dreamt of visiting. That’s all gone. The world is gone, Larry. It’s going to take folks some time to get used to that.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying, but trust me, grief doesn’t make people act like that.” He pointed at the potato man, who now had his hands deep into his mash and was forming it into one great globulous ball. He had a look of sick fascination on his face, as if he were a child, holding his mother’s hand as he walked through a dinosaur exhibit for the very first time.
“I’m telling you,” Larry continued. “There’s something else going on here. And everyone who has the power to do something about it is getting sick too. I’ve heard the mayor they appointed up there is raving mad. It seems to be worse in other parts of the silo, especially around the 30’s, but it’s getting bad down here too.” Larry suddenly stopped talking and he let out a breath. He clapped a hand on Carlyle’s shoulder, which nearly made Carlyle drop his spoon. “How are you feeling, man? You doin alright?”
Carlyle started to nod, but then realized he hadn’t really stopped to ask himself that in a while. How was he doing? He thought of the lucky chance it had been that he run for the local government that year, and how he had been invited down to the big ol’ convention and how proud he’d felt, just a few weeks before. He and his family were off to a good start, and damned if he was going to let a little nuclear holocaust to put an end to all that.
His nodding turned more confident. “Yeah, Larry, I am. I’m feeling pretty damn good right about now.” And he meant it.
“And Meredith and the baby?”
Carlyle smiled thinking about them. The two loves of his life. “I think they’ll be just fine.” Though now his vision wasn’t as crisp, and a dark cloud hung over the room when he thought about his girls. Would they be okay? Will any of us be okay?
Yes, yes. We will be.
“Pardon? Did you say something?” Larry frowned at him.
“No. It’s just that. We’re all gonna be fine.”
Larry nodded. “Alright, Buster,” and then he gathered his dishes and stood to leave. “Just be careful, okay? And let me know if you have any other ideas about this. I mean… if you ever wanna talk.”
“Thanks Larry. I appreciate it.” And he really did. It felt good to have a friend in this place. Since they’d all been shuffled down here on Day One, Larry had been the first to really try to get to know him and his family. A friendly face among the strangers. Somehow he made Carlyle feel a little more at home, even though their home was the biggest stranger of all.
After Larry left, Carlyle let out a breath which turned into a chuckle. He took another bite but then broke into a laughing fit, spraying a mouthful of bits across the table. “My god, we’re eighty floors down in the earth!” He was struggling to contain his laughter even as tears found their way to the surface and broke free from their previous glandular dwellings. They came from deep within his body and were destined to fall deep into the maw of this limitless ground. Those tears never had anywhere to go but down. Down onto Carlyle’s half empty plate, adding a little extra salt to his remaining potatoes; down onto the washed-out gray concrete floor which was still slick with fresh cement; and down onto his pant-leg after he’d brushed them away from a swollen cheek, his gruff hand depositing streaks of gravy to replace the lost water. In turn, he wiped the gravy away with the sleeve of his crisp, yellow coveralls—the color of sunshine tinged with mud.
When he finished eating he looked over at the potato man, who was sleeping soundly in his chair, using the puffy mashed ball he’d created as a rather comfortable-looking pillow.
No one else in the room seemed to notice his gentle snores.
Meredith clutched baby Caroline in her arms and headed up the stairs. The power had been out for two days, nothing but emergency lights casting devilish green light over the cold metal railings and grated landings. The stairwell was mostly silent. Last night she had heard a blood-curdling scream echo down the central shaft of the silo, and she had pulled Caroline closer to her as they slept in one of the storage closets. She still had no idea what was happening to everyone, she only knew that for some reason, she herself didn’t seem to be affected by it. She sometimes felt lightheaded, or dizzy, but that was the most of her physical discomfort. Nothing like the people she’d seen on her way up from her apartments on 85.
She turned a corner and continued up the stairs. She thought about Caryle… poor, sweet Carlyle lying in bed, sweating, feverish and delirious. What could she do to save him? Was there anything she could do? And what if her baby started to get sick? So far, she didn’t think Caroline was affected, but it was hard to tell considering she was only 6 months old.
Meredith heard a rustle in the dark. A harsh, scrapping shuffle coming from one of the side corridors.
“Who’s there?” Her voice carried lamely into the shadows. A low moan, a hollow mumble.
She reached around to her back and produced a long, black flashlight from her pack, holding the baby with one arm. She clicked on the light and nearly dropped it when she saw the man. His face was sunken, gaunt, as if he hadn’t eaten in a week. His hair was patchy on his head, bare in some places. She wondered whether it fell out due to the sickness, or if he’d pulled it out himself. His clothes were dirty, dark stains covering the front of his coveralls, which she saw used to be green. A farmer. The worst were his eyes. Large, blue eyes squinting against the light of her torch, haunted eyes with a horrible vacancy, as if this man’s soul had long since departed, fled upward toward the broken world, praying it would be better than what was going on in these forsaken depths.
Meredith approached the man carefully, clutching sweet baby Caroline against her chest. “Can…can I help you, mister?” But she knew she couldn’t help him. The same way she couldn’t help her husband. She was beginning to fear that all this was futile, that she would die down here just like the rest of them, cold and alone.
He moaned and shuffled toward Meredith, his arms outstretched like some kind of zombie. She almost let out a giggle. Darkened corridors, flickering lights, doped up zombies, a nuclear explosion—these were the stuff apocalyptic dreams were made of. But this was no dream. This was her bitter reality.
Suddenly, the man’s eyes seemed to focus for a split second, not on Meredith, but on baby Caroline.
“No, don’t you look at my baby, you freak!”
Ignoring her admonitions, he picked up his pace and half ran, half stumbled toward Meredith and her child.
“Get back!” she brandished the flashlight in front of her like a crude weapon, sending the beam of light whipping around the hallway. She backed up toward the landing, even as the man drew closer. That’s when she saw the blood on his face, lining his mouth like a drunken lipstick job. Oh my god. She flashed the light past the man down the hallway behind him and saw a crumpled form, a dark pool of liquid surrounding it.
“Get the hell away from me!” she screamed. Baby Caroline was crying now, muffled sobs getting absorbed by her jump suit. The man was only a few feet away now and she could see the pained, crazed look in his mirthless eyes. When he lunged toward her, she took a step to the side and swung the flashlight with all her might. It connected solidly with the side of his head and he stumbled past her, dazed, and crashed into the stairwell railing. He slumped over it, his head over the edge, and then Meredith watched in horror as he lifted his feet and pulled himself the rest of the way over the edge.
“No!” Meredith screamed in spite of herself. He toppled over the railing and was gone. She ran to the edge (something she would regret for the rest of her life) in time to see his body smack onto the grated landing three or four levels down with a sweet, sickening, squishy sound. Like a water balloon thrown onto jagged rocks. He seemed to explode, sending blood and guts flying in all directions and then all was quiet once again.
She sat down onto the grated floor, patting the baby quietly on the back, trying to force the terrible sight out of her mind, almost hoping Caroline’s cries would drive that sickening crunching sound from her ears. She had no idea how long she sat there. One hour? Three? But when she got up, baby Caroline was asleep, and she continued her laboured ascent up the steps.
They spent the night in the lower infirmary. There were dead bodies throughout the level. People had come here to figure out what was wrong with them, but by then, even the doctors were sick. She found a small office, placed Caroline in a corner, and dragged the body of a doctor from the room and deposited him into the hall. His face was not gaunt, his eyes were not sunken, he had no noticeable legions or abrasions on his skin. He was simply dead. That’s how she found most of the bodies. It was a rarity, she knew, for them to survive this long, and the man she had met earlier was likely one of the few surviving members of the silo. As far as she knew, she and baby Caroline were the only survivors. But the silo was a big place, and she still maintained a shred of hope that she was wrong. She found some fresh blankets, made a little nest in the corner, and quickly fell asleep, sweet baby Caroline breathing softly in her soft cave of wool.
She awoke the next morning with a kink in her neck. Well, she had no idea if it was actually morning or not, but even so, she snatched up the baby, washed in the large basin in the room, and then they took to the stairs once again. She had no idea what she was hoping to find, but it was psychologically easier going up instead of down.
A while later she heard the wails of children. As a young mother and under normal circumstances, this would have caused her supreme discomfort. But today, this brought her supreme hope. There were others.
If there were still babies alive, then that meant there was someone taking care of them. She figured the sounds were coming from somewhere in the 20’s, so with a new hope, she trudged upward through the shimmering green lights.