The Underground Cabin
At first, what bothered me most was the silence. For two days, I nattered away to Cara constantly, trying to fill the blank space. But once she was asleep, I didn’t want to talk to myself, so I sat alone in the living room, the words silent as a grave running through my mind.
Today, thank goodness, I found the little treasure trove he left for me: a stack of journals and a bunch of my favourite fountain pens. Oh, that man knew my love of the written word. And my love of music. He programmed all of my favourites on a thin memory stick labelled “Alice’s Music.” It took me a good half hour to figure out how to play it, but I managed: Joni Mitchell’s soulful voice is keeping me company while Cara sleeps.
Now what bothers me most is the claustrophobia. I never thought four rooms, counting the bathroom, could feel so small. Five counting the storage closet. Like everything else, it is neatly labelled: “Food Storage Closet: Enough Food To Fulfil The Nutritional Requirements of Ten People for 1000 Years.”
I haven’t the slightest idea why he would stock enough for ten people. There are only the three of us, and for now, only Cara and me. I still have hope that he’ll arrive any minute.
I remember when he first showed me this place; he called it our “underground cabin.” He tried to make it “fun.” Now, part of me wishes I had let him. I wish I could pretend that we were on a family vacation, and he was just outside looking for marshmallow sticks.
But this place feels foreign and creepy as a crypt. So, I keep the music going. Joni Mitchell ends, and I switch to the old John Denver songs we used to sing around the campfire.
He thought of everything, that man: my favourite music, dehydrated versions of all our favourite foods. Every room is covered in labels; every computer has a user-friendly guide taped to the screen. He even created an automated time system to mirror night and day and an alarm clock so that I could get up in the morning. He must have realized it would be hard to get up in the morning.
And he knows Cara well too. Considering how hard and how often he worked, it amazes me. All of her favourites are here: crafts, toys, movies, video games. All of her favourite books and fairytales.
I used to read to her every night, but I haven’t been able to pick up a fairytale since we got here. It just makes me feel sick. For now, I’m letting her watch Zumy Tunes videos non-stop, something she would never get to do at home. I should be reading to her. It would give her a sense of normalcy.
But nothing is normal. It would be like lying to her. In fact, I feel like I have been lying to her all her life, like I’ve been lied to all mine. Since I was a child, I’ve been told that good always wins out in the end. Good always prevails. And I believed it. For the past five years, I’ve raised my daughter to believe it. In every fairytale I’ve ever read to her, the message is the same. The good guys win.
The irony is enough to make me throw up.
I missed Joanna today. I miss John all of the time, but today I missed my friend.
I remember the day Joanna introduced us like it was yesterday, on a camping trip to Salt Spring Island with a big group of her friends. I only knew Joanna, but she brought nearly the entire Physics department with her. She couldn’t wait to introduce me to John, one of her “colleagues.” She said it would be “no pressure.” No pressure? I laughed at her—just a glorified overnight date with nowhere to escape. A friggin’ island!
By the time we arrived and set up the tents, it was already dark. There were so many people, I couldn’t remember anyone’s name. But then, Joanna linked her arm in mine and led me up to the campfire to introduce us. John offered to toast me a marshmallow. Then, after I had licked the sweetness from my fingers, we went for a walk and found a spot to sit by the water. As we watched the stars, he asked me more questions than anyone has ever asked me, and with each answer, he seemed to become more and more interested.
I’ve never thought of my life as very interesting—everyone describes me as nice, and I suppose I am nice. But that night, I felt like the most exciting, most special person in the world. He seemed to absorb every little thing I said. He even wanted to hear about each one of my grade threes. Usually people got bored if I talked about teaching, but not John. I could have waxed poetic about lunchmeat and recess and kept him on the edge of his seat.
He remembered all the things I told him too. Like how I love writing—I adore journals and handwritten letters. E-mail is so impersonal, I said to him. A few days later, just when I was beginning to worry because I hadn’t heard from him, I received a handwritten note in the mail asking me to dinner. I was hooked.
But now, it bothers me. Well, I’m more than bothered—I’ve been sick with anxiety since we arrived here, obviously. But I’m bothered specifically by the fact that he thought of everything except to leave me a letter. He tried to provide everything we could need. He explained every technicality with precise detail in neat, user-friendly booklets (never mind that I still can’t figure out how the toaster works). But he didn’t have the wherewithal to leave me a simple personal letter. An explanation. A love letter. Something. Did he not think of this? I can’t believe that he didn’t.
More than anything, I can’t believe—can’t accept—that he didn’t answer the one question that keeps running through my mind. I imagine how I would ask him, the way my voice would sound. I would yell at him. I would reach out to him, grip his shoulders, shake him, and demand: What do you expect me to do here without you?
The controls are still a bit of a mystery to me, but I am learning, slowly. I can tell that he tried to make it easy, that he was thinking of me when he placed easy-to-read labels on the little computer graph that looks like a digital thermometer: Safe Level of Radiation, Elevated Level of Radiation, Harmful Level of Radiation, Lethal Level of Radiation.
I gather from his handwritten explanation of the device that we are not supposed to go to the surface until the thermometer-thing is down to the “elevated level” or the “safe level.” The screen to the left of it says in clear computer letters: “Predicted dissipation—384 years.”
I’m trying really hard not to despair.
Cara has been resilient. The adaptability of children never ceases to amaze me. Despite our reckless departure—the way I dashed from my classroom to hers, pulled her from art class, then drove for four straight hours at a breakneck speed while desperately trying to reach John by cell phone —within a few hours of our arrival, Cara was neatly colouring with fresh new pencil crayons from her underground craft drawer. I heated up two dehydrated packs of chicken noodle soup for dinner, my hands shaking the whole time.
A full day passed before she asked the question I was dreading. “Mommy? Where’s Daddy?”
What could I tell her? I don’t know, my sweet little girl. I don’t know, because on the phone all he said was, “Go now. You have to take Cara, and you have to go right now,” and when I tried to ask questions he said, over and over again, “Promise me you will go by hanging up the phone. Promise me you will go right now by hanging up the phone. Go right now.” And so I hung up. And then I ran.
I couldn’t tell her the truth, but I couldn’t bear to lie to her. So, I just said what I last knew was true, “He’s still at work, my little ‘squito.”
Cara was satisfied. She was used to hearing this answer. Her next question surprised me.
“Mommy?” Cara asked. “Are we on holidays?”
Oh, I wanted to tell her yes. John would be so proud of her for making the connection that I could never make. His little ‘squito. He had made her a campsite—a cabin—where the mosquitoes wouldn’t bother her, where she wouldn’t have to wave her hands at the darkness saying, “Too many ‘squitos, Daddy, too many ‘squitos.” He would pick her up, hold her tight, and say, “No ‘squitos for my little ‘squito.”
I smiled at her, and told her another half-truth: “Your daddy likes to think of this place as our holiday home.”
Or, at least, he tried to make me think that he did. Foolish, brilliant man. I remember the first time he brought me here. He was so excited. He arranged the sitter and everything and kept it a surprise until we pulled up. He really should have prepared me better. After a four-hour drive I was expecting something pretty wonderful.
When we got out of the car, he looked at me with bright eyes and opened his hands as if to say, here it is. I looked around. We were in the mountains, in a grassy clearing, surrounded on all edges by beautiful, old growth pine. It was lovely, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to be excited about. I asked him if he was thinking about buying the lot.
“We already own it,” he announced with a sly smile, and motioned for me to follow him. “I inherited it from my dad before we married.” I was a bit startled by this news, but before I could ask questions, he walked to the centre of the clearing, and pointed to a round metal hatch. He told me that he needed to show me how to open it, and slid open a small metal panel on the side to reveal a digital key pad. “The code is Cara’s birthday,” he said, and punched in 1107. The metal hatch lifted all on its own.
By that time, I was pretty freaked out, and started asking him to tell me what this was all about. He tried to calm me down, and finally convinced me to follow him—down the rabbit hole, as it were.
I remember it being darker. I think the walls showed more concrete, but he must have had them carpeted later. There were no plants. Other than that, it hasn’t changed much: living room with the dominating grey couch, control room/kitchen, minuscule bedroom followed by an even more minuscule bathroom. The ceilings were so low—are so low. I still feel like I can’t breathe. He started explaining that it was his father’s, who inherited it from a grandparent who built it during the Cold War. In the past six months, he’d totally renovated it as a surprise for us.
“So, it’s a bomb shelter?” I finally asked him.
“Well, it doesn’t have to be,” he said, and then he launched into a sales pitch, pulling out a map of the region. “It could be our underground cabin,” he said excitedly. He showed me where we were, in the heart of the mountains, surrounded by hiking trails. There was a mountain lake not a mile’s hike away, stocked with fish and perfect for swimming. The spring that fed the lake was the same spring that brought fresh, clean water into the underground cabin.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I finally exploded, “You can’t be serious!” I said. “This place was built for war! How could you even think of bringing Cara here?”
His face fell. He was so deeply disappointed. He tried to convince me otherwise, showing me how neatly everything worked: the automatic generator, the oxygen system, the innumerable miniature kitchen appliances. But everything he showed me just disturbed me more. We started to argue.
I still remember my last words, my bottom line, that ended our fight.
“Look,” I said angrily, “I will accept that you’ve done this. That for whatever reason, you have so little faith in humanity that you thought it was necessary to renovate this monstrosity. But I will never—do you understand me?—never come here on a family vacation ever. Do you understand?”
Oh God, I was blind. Now I understand much too clearly. If only we had happy memories here, this place wouldn’t feel so much like a prison.
I can’t help thinking that I should have seen this coming. I re-play conversations with Joanna and John in my mind. I must have appeared awfully naive. Joanna was so fearful of the future she didn’t even want to have children.
I read the paper, just like they did, but I never believed things would get so terrible. The wars had been going on for a long time, but it all seemed to be happening on the other side of the world. Nowhere near us. Joanna would get mad at me for being “like an ostrich with its head in the sand.” And here I am.
I should have known that they would know better than me. I mean John is a physicist for crying out loud. And Joanna was a doctor by then, and doing research on these frightening viruses. I never asked many questions about what she did—I thought if I knew, I would be nervous having her around Cara.
I remember once when she was visiting and we were looking at pictures from a recent camping trip, Joanna said something like, “you are both so optimistic.”
I asked her what she meant, but she looked at John. “Who knows what kind of world Cara is going to face?” she said, “Or, if not Cara, then your grand-children, or your great-grandchildren?”
“Oh, the good guys always win eventually,” I said. They ignored me.
John said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about it, actually. But, Joanna, I’m pretty sure that you accept evolution like I do. Doesn’t evolution tell us that our only real goal as humans is to procreate? What more is there to life?”
That’s John’s way. He is the quintessential professor, always answering questions with more questions. But I didn’t like his cold view of the life, and I admonished him, “John, that’s so cold!”
Joanna just joked: “Well, I’ve been thinking about having some eggs frozen.”
I felt like they were talking over me. Despite John’s fascination with me when we first met, I was sure he thought that being a schoolteacher really was “simple.” He would have been at a loss with 25 grade threes under his care, but never mind, it’s not rocket science I guess!
Looking back, I think that conversation got to him. It was less than a year later that he brought me here to see what he had done with this place, to try to sell me on the idea of using a bomb shelter as a vacation home. Oh, that man.
But the real ticket, when I really should have asked more questions, was about six months ago. Oh, I don’t know what they were doing at his research facility, but whatever it was, John must have known something was wrong. It was a Thursday night, and he got home late from work. He was distracted all through supper and then afterwards, as I was putting the dishes away, and Cara was watching one of her movies in the living room, he took a plate out of my hand and set it down on the counter. He tried to sound casual, as he asked me something ridiculous like, “Do you know how many nuclear armaments there are in the world?”
I was annoyed about the plate. I wanted to get everything put away so I could get Cara to bed. I was a bit snippy with him and said, “No, actually I don’t.”
So, he told me: “Over thirty thousand, and those are the ones we know about.”
“That’s quite a lot.” I picked up a cloth to start wiping down the counter.
“And do you know how many times over we could wipe out all of humanity with those weapons?” he asked.
I was exasperated. “Why don’t you just tell me?”
“About fifty,” he said pointedly.
I threw the cloth in the sink. “Well, that seems excessive.”
“And you aren’t teaching this to your grade-threes, are you?” he asked.
“Obviously not!” I mean, what a ridiculous thing to say.
But that just got him more riled up: “Why not? Don’t you think kids have a right to know this? Their lives are in the hands of madmen.”
I tried to tease him. “Madmen like you?” His handsome face collapsed. I was exhausted, so I just told him, “My darling, we don’t teach this to kids because it would scare them needlessly. Besides, their parents would go berserk.”
He seemed to collect his thoughts for a moment then he turned me seriously, putting a hand on my arm and squeezing. “I want you to promise me something, Alice,” he said urgently. “I want you to promise me, that if I ever call you—or, if I leave you a message—and I tell you that it’s time, that you will go to our underground cabin. That you will drop whatever you are doing, and you will just take Cara, and go? Will you promise me that?”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. He was scaring me. “Why are you asking me to do this?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said, “Please, just promise me? Just promise me and really mean it when you say it.”
“Not until you tell me what is going on,” I replied, pulling away. “You can’t just make these paranoid demands of me.”
This seemed to push him over the edge. I saw his jaw set, before he turned me roughly to face him again. He gripped both my arms.
“I’m not going to argue with you about this,” he shouted. “Just promise me!”
He had never yelled at me before that moment, and had certainly never touched me like that. I crumbled. My voice shook as I cried, “Fine! Fine. I promise. I promise, if it means so much to you.”
I’ve never written about this until now. I think I didn’t want to admit that it happened. I was so frightened after, I didn’t speak to him for the rest of the night except to make a cursory request that he kiss his daughter goodnight. I spent all night telling myself that he was exaggerating and wondered if something was wrong with our marriage. Maybe we should go for counselling, I thought. I slept on the couch because I didn’t even want to speak to him to tell him to sleep on the couch. I resented him for scaring me, for inflicting his paranoia upon me like one of Joanna’s insidious viruses.
I can’t stop myself. In this underground hovel, I have become obsessed. I finally figured out how to get at the e-mail system. It’s not connected anymore, so I can’t send anything, but I can read and re-read the only three e-mails in the inbox. I beg Cara to keep watching Zumy Tunes videos, as I read. Read and think.
My darling, by the time you read this, I will be dead.
I keep reading them. At first I just cried and cried. It took me a while to figure out that the three e-mails are really only one e-mail. He must have done something so his computer would keep resending it as he typed.
My darling, by the time you read this, I will be dead. I am not going to make it in time, and you must keep the cabin completely and utterly locked. Do not
My darling, by the time you read this, I will be dead. I am not going to make it in time, and you must keep the cabin completely and utterly locked. Do not wait for me. I love
I love you. Or, I love you both. I complete his words. Every time. I read, and re-read the e-mails just so that I can imagine his voice in my head as I fill in his last words to me.
I know he would have written me a novel, a whole library if he had time. He thought of everything, that man—he would have left nothing out. Not our first date, our first kiss, not a single moment with Cara. Eventually my tears run into my thoughts and every re-written email becomes a chorus of ‘I love yous’. Because in the end, that is all there is. He would say, the end of the equation, the bottom line, love equals love.
I can’t stand it.
He must have known that I wouldn’t listen to his half-finished e-mails. I could never lock my husband out. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him, but I just can’t let go of the idea that good wins out. I had to leave the door open for the fairytale ending: the moment he would leap down, thanking me and God that I had the courage to leave the hatch open, that he knew I would but he couldn’t risk our lives in case he didn’t make it.
Even as I watched the radiation levels climb into the “harmful level” zone, I didn’t lock the hatch. But, two days ago, as I was running a bath for Cara, I heard an awful sound like metal shredding.
I ran to the instrument panel. For the first time, a large digital display was flashing in bright red letters: Automatic Lock-Down. I had to clasp my hands together to stop myself from punching random buttons in panic. Instead, I stared at the instruments and quickly understood: for the first time since our arrival, the radiation levels had crawled up to the Lethal Zone.
He thought of everything. I felt love and despair spread in equal measures across my chest. The pain of it brought me to my knees.
Cara must have heard because she got out of her bath and came into the room. “Mommy, are you okay?” she asked me.
I couldn’t even turn to look at my own daughter.
“Mommy?” she said. I heard her little feet coming closer, until she was standing bare-naked beside me, dripping wet, bits of soaps suds on her body and hair.
“Mommy?” she said again, and this time she started to cry. She knew, somehow, that things were different now.
Her own gulping sobs were enough to shake me from shock. I pulled her into my arms, picked her up, and carried her to our little bedroom. “Shhhhh, my heart,” I whispered. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
I rocked her until she slept. Then I shut myself in the bathroom, lay on the floor and cried. For the first time since we arrived, I didn’t set the alarm clock, and we both slept past noon the next day, according to the automated time system. I made her banana pancakes, and we spent all day doing crafts and watching her favourite movies. At night, we made a fake campfire, and I told her that we were in the underground cabin because a bad thing had happened in the world. I told her that Daddy wasn’t coming. I told her that we might have to stay here for a long time, because Daddy thought we were safest here.
I don’t think she understood very much, but she understood enough to cry herself to sleep again. It took all the strength I had to set the alarm clock to get up this morning.
Today, I found the vault. I know it is his answer—his answer to my question, which, as always, is just another question.
I was sorting through the safe, which is set into the wall in the bedroom, surrounded by flat sheets of metal on all sides. I smiled at what he chose to keep extra safe. Other than backup computer discs, most of the fireproof box was filled with photographs—pictures of our wedding, our honeymoon camping along the California coast, me when I was pregnant and Cara’s first birthday, her first Hallowe’en, all dressed up in the little bumblebee costume I made for her. And in every photo, I felt him, I felt his message to me: I love you. Remember our beautiful life.
I laid my favourite pictures on the floor so that I could choose the best ones to place around our blank walls. Then, as I was pulling out another photo box, I noticed a black button on the inside of the safe, with a label that said Press Me. I did.
There was a loud snapping sound, as the metal sheet on the wall beside me slid upwards. There was a gust of cold air. I felt a moment of panic, thinking I might have broken the shelter’s seal.
But seconds later, my fear turned to awe. A blue-green light came on to reveal a second safe, with a black door and a handle like a refrigerator. I carefully pulled it open. It wasn’t a fridge, but a freezer, at least three feet deep, three shelves high, filled with racks upon racks of vials.
I felt curious and frightened at the same time. The top shelf held the most vials—the racks layered two across and lining the freezer all the way to the back. Each rack held 20 vials in two rows of ten. Cautiously, I plucked a vial from its resting hole, burning my fingers on the cold of the glass. Like all of the other vials, it bore a white label with black writing:
Michael, 26, Caucasian, 5'11", Physicist.
I put the vial back and drew another, and then another.
Adam, 32, Mongoloid, 5'9", Statistician.
Eric, 21, Caucasian, 6'1", Biology student.
I removed vial after vial, realization chilling like ice down my back. Semen. And of course, his wasn’t there—he wouldn’t want to compromise the gene pool. I felt myself grasping vials, staring at them as if I was going blind, until my fingers fell to the second shelf, which held a single rack of 10 vials. I picked one up and was so startled that I dropped it:
Joanna Summers, 34, Caucasian, 5'6", Physician.
I immediately went for the vials from the bottom shelf, hoping for something less shocking. Each vial bore a neat label:
Morphine. Morphine. Morphine. Morphine. Morphine. Morphine.
I frantically put the vials back in their places and slammed the freezer door. But it wouldn’t close. The door was jammed. Exasperated, I pulled it open again to see what was blocking it. A drawer beneath the shelves had popped open. I yanked it open to find one thick white envelope sitting on top of two hardcover books.
The envelope was ice cold. I wasn’t breathing as I turned it over to reveal words in sharp blue ink: To Alice and Cara with Love. For the first time since coming here, I actually felt relieved. I will savour this, I thought, running my fingers over the edges, pressing it to my chest. I don’t know how long I sat like that, my eyes shut, his letter gripped in my fingers. Finally, still holding the letter, too shocked to rip the envelope, I turned back to the open drawer.
He had left me two more books. The first was a medical textbook, a thick volume: From Artificial Insemination to In Vitro Fertilization: A Practice Manual. The second book was shorter: Dying with Dignity: A Guide to Painless Euthanasia and Suicide.
My question: what do you expect me to do here without you? And this was his answer. I could even hear his professorial intonation: well, that depends on you, my dear. Do you want to live, or do you want to die?
I missed him and loved him and hated him so much in that moment. I wanted to scream to the depths of my lungs, but I couldn’t bear to wake Cara, so I opened my mouth wide and bit into my fist. I curled into a ball on top of our family photographs and sobbed until I couldn’t move.
I came back to awareness when I felt Cara’s small hand on my shoulder. “Mommy, are you okay?”
I drew her into my arms and inhaled the familiar scent of her sweet, brown hair. I felt his thoughts, his message to me becoming gentle in Cara’s soft presence. I could have another child. I could have two more, or three or four, except we would have little space. When Cara got older, she could have children if she wanted. Children to care for her, to love her after I’m gone. I could have grandchildren.
Or, there was an army-size supply of morphine right in front of us. The kindest way to die: immediately.
He thought of everything, that man.