SHELTERED: Chapter One

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CHAPTER ONE

IT HAD BEEN NEARLY two long years since the war started. Somehow, call it fate or dumb luck, I was still alive. Or at least as alive as a thirteenyear-old kid could be in this new parentless world of burning towns and early morning machine gun fire. Now, instead of worrying about how to talk to girls or failing geometry, I was leading a group of grimy teens and scared children to take back our country from the clutch of war.

We called ourselves The Risers. Mostly because Dad really liked Dierks Bentley and thought it was funny to blare that Riser song in my ear each morning when I wouldn’t get up for school on time–and, well, I guess I thought it did sound kind of cool. The Risers. The… Risers.The Riserrrs. See? Anyway, I’m James. The “Sheltered One,” or whatever. I’m basically the leader of our little group of mini-soldiers. But the truth is, we were just a bunch of camouflaged school kids with dirty faces and dreary eyes, who would be a few weeks into the new school year, excitedly chirping back and forth with friends we hadn’t seen all summer–if it wasn’t for the war. We’d probably be complaining about the cafeteria food, or science fair projects, or how mean Principal Butler can be. And girls… yeah, we’d definitely be talking about girls–if it wasn’t for the bombs and bullets that brought this cocky nation to its scraped and bloodied knees.

We were all hunkered down in what had become our base, the old Byesville elementary school. It had been here since the beginning of time, basically. Well, okay… maybe not ‘since the beginning of time,’ but my grandpa went to high school here, way back before Byesville had a McDonald’s or a Dollar General. It was an old, brick building with three floors of dirty desks, swirling textbook pages, and colorful ‘Congratulations!’ decorations tacked to the walls and flapping in the breeze from several broken windows. It was hard and cold and full of whispering drafts and dust bunnies that scurried the hallways. But it was sturdy, and it was home.

The orphaned kids that we took in and swore to defend sat in front of me, gazing up from the floor, listening. Looking into their dull, mixed faces from various walks of life, different homes and backgrounds, different cultures and beliefs… all different, but united as one big family, all living and feeling, and experiencing, and loving together, just innocent children… I couldn’t be prouder to be their protector. They were like my kid brothers and sisters, and weirdly… kind of like my own kids, too. They represented exactly what we were fighting for… the freedom to be together, happiness, celebrating what little life we have, and love. We wanted nothing to do with war—that one was on our leaders and parents. But war is what our country had become. And for me, for us, our duty was to protect the innocent and to bring our nation back together as one, united by the damage from the hate and the cruelty of adults. ‘There’s a bond in misery, a brotherhood that comes from suffering together,’ my father used to say. And it was easy to see, staring at these children, looking around the room at our rag-tag mixed bag of kiddos, the cool and the strong, the clumsy and uncoordinated, the smart and the… well… not as smart, we were all different—but the same.

Another end-of-the-summer evening was coming to a burning end. It was story time—just a sad attempt to hold on to a time before the death and destruction—but they loved it. It was a tradition us older kids came up with a few weeks ago, hoping to distract the children from the searing reality of the scorched world we now live in. We do it every evening before bed. Well, unless we have another mission to go on—like, gathering intel on the black-uniformed enemy that now occupies our homes, or another convoy to disrupt and destroy. Story time had become an escape from the loneliness, pain, and confusion that we carried with us ever since The Day. The day that our summer break turned into an everlasting end to homework, recess, and Mystery-Meat-Mondays. Our towns were smoldering, and our families were shattered by an attack from within. We were blindsided by the bombs and the gunfire. We never saw it coming, because we were so comfortable looking the other way.

But now, we do the best we can to see the future by looking back on the past. Each of us takes a turn to tell our stories. Some are sad, some are happy. Some are long, some are short. But they are all so important. 

Today, it was my turn, and they were all eagerly paying attention. Well, except for Zander, who was jabbing at the wall with his folding pocket knife. He was kind of a douche. But whatever. I started the story anyway.

“Dad used to say, ‘We are all given a space in life to fill, a roaring emptiness in time….’ He was so dramatic—all wide-eyed and crazy— pulling his hands apart like he was trying to grow his space larger. Then, he’d tap your chest with his thick finger, and in his most serious voice, he’d go on, ‘and it’s how you choose to fill that void, that will determine the difference in becoming a man or a legend.’” I paused for dramatic effect.

“Dad drank whiskey straight from the bottle, cleaned his rifle when it stormed, and walked out on us at 3 a.m. on a starlit Thursday morning.”

I searched the dusty classroom floor for strength. Removing my green backwards ball cap, I rubbed at the back of my short, dirty-blond hair.

“As much as I hated him, I loved him. As much as I wished him away, I wished he was here. Because he would know what to do. He would know exactly what to do. And as much as I wanted to be like him, the truth is, I wasn’t nearly as capable, daring, dangerous, or… legendary.

I had their full attention. Twenty-eight little eyes looking up at me. So full of wonder, curiosity, and sadness. I loved them like they were my own brothers and sisters—like they were my own children. A fatherly role which I found to be more overwhelming than I gave my own folks credit for.  “But that was then, and this is now, and you never know the day that you’ll wake up and have to change who you are.”

Leaning against the teacher’s desk, I tucked my face into the tips of my thumb and index finger, shaking with laughter at the drama train I just tried to drive into their precious little brains. I shook my head, smiling. 

Finally, I raised my hands and let a playful smirk spread across my lips. “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Wayyy too dramatic. Let me try this again.”  

I cleared my throat for my deep voice. “In a world where—”

“Nope! Huh-uh. Try again.” Emily adjusted the rifle slung onto her right shoulder and shook her head, playfully disgusted. A half grin spread across her lips. My sister was always quick to call me out on my BS. 

The kids giggled. One of the youngest, only six-years-old, sitting cross-legged on the dirty floor in front of me, wiped at his flushed and smeared cheek with his not-so-clean and frayed sleeve. 

“You’re funny!” he called out through his laughter. 

Indeed, I was, or am, or can be…or at least try to be.  

I looked up at my older sister. She’d be a junior this year, and I would finally join her at the high school as a freshman. I used to look forward to that, during my seventh-grade year, when she was no longer there to protect me. But now, she looks up to me. She swatted her blonde hair across her face, fighting the evening’s early September breeze flowing through what was left of Mrs. Albright’s third-grade classroom window. Her green eyes, dull and tired in the shadows, matched her digital green trousers and olive drab T-shirt. But when the dancing light from the one big candle on the chalkboard tray splashed across her gritty, but beautiful, face as she leaned against the dusty bookshelf in the back, those green eyes sparkled like the jade earrings that Mom used to wear. 

She smiled at me and nodded. I winked, just as Dad used to do while telling us one of his silly knock-knock jokes.

“Come on. Keep going.” That same smudge-faced little kid egged me on, snapping my attention back to the anxious crowd of sitting whiners and nose pickers. 

“All right… where was I? Oh, I haven’t even started yet, have I? Crap. Okay. Well, I’d better get on it then; we’re running out of daylight.” I peeked out of the splintered hole in the second-floor window of our old, brick elementary school, to see the orange evening glow fading to a purpled night. The crickets and tree frogs were already serenading us with their evening symphony. 

For a moment, I allowed my mind to drift back home to a few years ago. Back when Em and I would chase fireflies with squirt guns in the backyard while Dad poked at a campfire with a shovel and stabbed another hotdog onto his pocket-knife-whittled tree limb. Back then, I was a clueless and timid child with no care in the world, other than not leaving Dad’s eyesight as I romped through the fresh warm air in that wide space of our wood-lined backyard. How young and dumb I was, just a scared little kid. I was so afraid of anything other than what I knew—the warm and comfortable, the safe and calm—I was so afraid to try new things. I was so ignorant to the freedom I carelessly took for granted. 

And now, there I was in a landscape of rubble and bullet holes, dressed in the same camo pants and shirt I wore yesterday with a loaded pistol on my hip and Dad’s old groundhog rifle slung diagonally across my back. There I was playing father to a room full of scattered, scared, and messy kids, all staring back at me with hope. The kind of hope that only children can keep–the fearless and naïve kind of hope. And the truth is, this war has been Hell. But I’d rather face it head on than cower back inside the bunker I used to call home.

“Come on, already!” One of the 5th graders, Caden, shouted while spinning circles on Mrs. Albright’s leather chair to my right.  

I blinked back to reality.

“Right. Okay. Well… there I was, just me and my pet dragon….”

“Noooo. Tell us about The Dayyy!” The children had started to turn on me. 

I chuckled, smirked, and took a swig of water from my old army canteen. “Are you guys ready? Geez. I’ve been trying to tell this story for, like, ten minutes now and all you wanna do is interrupt me,” I said smirking.

They protested in unison with mundane nuh-uhs.

“Okay, here we go.” I wiggled back into a comfortable lean against the large, wooden desk. “I wasn’t always—or ever—in charge of things like I am now. I never used to have this kind of confidence.” I shot a quick peek over to Em who was grinning and nodding. “I used to be just like you… afraid to be alone and little, shy and scared.”  

“Hey! I’m not little!” The cross-legged, smudge-faced kid shouted. 

His interruption brought giggles to the room. 

“Noooo. No, not you, buddy.” I smiled, leaned down, and whispered. “I was talking about the other little kids in here.” I motioned with my eyes towards Zander’s direction, and it stretched a toothless smile down to his little face.

He bent forward and whispered back, “Ohhh. Him. Okay.” I stood up straight, observing the warm eyes fixed on me.

“You know, I didn’t like to leave my comfort zone. I didn’t like change. It was hard for me to leave my mother’s side. I needed her… and my dad… for everything.” My heart sunk at the thought of never seeing them again.  

The room fell silent. I think they were all thinking about their families. 

I cleared my throat, “It was a beautiful summer morning—other than the fact that I was woken up way too early for a twelve-year-old on summer break. Emily wasn’t there.” I looked at her and made a funny, disgusted face. She was happy to make one in return. “She had run off with her boyfriend to his father’s lake house down near the Kentucky border. I spent the night arguing with Mom to let me go to my best friend’s house. But she wasn’t having it. She said that she wanted me right there next to her, where she knew what I was doing, and that I was safe.”

Emily and I both rolled our eyes, knowing full well the overprotecting care of our beloved mother.

“The night before The Day, I went to bed mad after reading one of Dad’s letters he sent after he walked out on us a few months earlier. I fell asleep thinking about his sloppy, hard to read words: ‘Remember the bunker… and that I love you. Eyes wide and ears open, stay safe. Love Dad.’”

***

On the morning of the attack, known as The Day that changed our nation’s history, I awoke blurry-eyed and annoyed to the blaring tone of the Emergency broadcast system.

ATTENTION! ATTENTION! This is the Emergency Broadcast System! 

I jerked from a dream inspired by a recent war movie and instantly slapped my radio alarm out of habit.

Flipping my slobber-damp pillow to the other side, I settled back under the sheets and dozed off. A few seconds later, I was startled once again by that loud, familiar tone.

ATTENTION! ATTENTION! This is the Emergency Broadcast System. Take shelter–.

“Stawwwp! It’s summerrr!” I growled, and this time I slapped the alarm onto the floor, flinching when it hit. Crap. Mom’s not going to be happy.  

But the distant, automated words came back again. I sat up confused, stretched, and tried to blink away the blur from my sleepy eyes. Great. Another storm for breakfast, I thought as I tried to focus on where the sound was coming from. It was mumbling down the hall from Mom’s room.

“For the love of Justin Bieber!” I shouted, rubbing at my eyes, and dropping my feet to the cold, creaking, hardwood floor. “Mom! Why are you doing this to me? Turn that off! I’m trying to get my beauty sleep!”

Annoyed, and dragging my feet to show it, I reached down into a heap of kind of clean clothes and grabbed an old, wrinkled, football T-shirt. I rolled it over my head, and I threw on my green flat-billed cap—because I (mistakenly) thought it made me look cool. Then I stumbled to the window and crinkled down the blinds to see the warm shine of another beautiful June morning flood over the green wooded hills and cow-grazing pastures around our home. From my second-floor window, I could see the sparkle of Farmer Jed’sdust cloud (okay, Farmer Jed wasn’t his real name, but that’s what Em and I called him) from his beloved John Deere green tractor, rising over his field a few hundred yards away from the edge of our tree-lined property. It was another beautiful day not in school! 

Yes, summer was my favorite subject.

“Mom… Mom!” I snapped the blinds shut in frustration and headed heavy footed towards her room. “Moooooomm! Hey, Mom! Turn that—”

The piercing tone grew louder, hurting my ears as I neared her room down the hall. Her door was cracked open. I knocked quickly as I pushed my way in.

“Mom?”

ATTENTION! ATTENTION! This is the Emergency Broadcast System! 

Distracted, I stood in the doorway of Mom’s rustic wood bedroom and tried to gather my wits about me (which, honestly there wasn’t much to gather). Mom’s room was a bit messier than normal. She left her nightstand light on, and a drawer and closet door was left open. There were two sets of high heels, red and black, flung in front of the mirror on her wall. Her TV was on; the volume was loud enough for her to hear it all the way in the bathroom. The TV! Finally, I acknowledged the source of the rude awakening mounted in the corner of Mom’s room. The screen was flashing “EMERGENCY ALERT” repeatedly. Taped to the screen was a large paper note.

Curious, I hurried over and yanked it from the screen.

James,

I tried to wake you before I left, but you weren’t having it. There’s breakfast in the oven. Help yourself. I got called into the newsroom. Something about the protests going on. Nothing to worry about. I should be home by dinner.

P.S. Let Keela out. Put away your dishes. Don’t leave the house! And

MOW THE LAWN!

Love you bunches dearrrr!!

Kisses.

Mom

Again, the Emergency Alert tone burst through the speakers, jolting me from my thoughts and causing me to rip a corner from the note. Irritated by what I thought was another weather alert system test, I fumbled for the remote behind me on the bed and punched down the volume button until I could once again hear the hum of Farmer Jed’s tractor.

Looking around Mom’s uncharacteristically chaotic room, I was confused, I was tired, and I was hungry…but mostly, I was confused. 

A slight breeze flapped through the open window, and the sun rays flashed against the white paper note. I blinked and pulled my head back. It was still too early for me to take in something so bright. But just as quickly, the room darkened. A shadow crept through the small upstairs window. Maybe a storm is coming. I gazed towards the window and heard the sputter of Farmer Jed’s tractor engine come to a bubbling stop. Suddenly, it was eerily quiet, numbingly still. I felt a burst of excitement, panic, worry, and fear that tingled through my coming-awake body. 

I loved when it stormed. The energy in the air, the stillness of the wild in the woods, the soft rattle of the leaves when they catch the breeze. It was poetic, the soft daggers before the storm, the rush of imagination that runs through me like the rainwater gushing through the end of the downspout. And, well, it’s sort of embarrassing, but I always pretended that the distant thunder was actually bombs exploding—that we were under attack and it was up to me to defend this house, this land. I would scamper from window to window with my green, Nerf dart gun, shooting at chairs when the lightning flashed, diving for cover behind the couch when the thunder crashed. Perhaps it was my marine father, Gunnery Sergeant Graham, rubbing off on me. After all, on many nights, I would help him clean his guns during the loudest storms of the early summers.

A soft thunder rumbled in the distance. All at once, the thrill pinged through me. The hairs stood up on my neck. My fingers tingled. My chest tightened. I was ready to react.

The yellow glow from Mom’s lamp flickered. I heard another rumble deep in the distance. The lamp dimmed beside me. What will I do if the power goes out? Probably nap. Yeah, definitely nap. Hmm, I might just nap all day. 

I tossed the note to the fluffy white comforter and tiptoed to the window like I was Delta Force reconning the enemy. At the window, I raised the blinds and peeked out, expecting to see the darkening clouds rolling across the west hills. My eyes darted across the trees, looking for the leaves to be turned over, exposing their soft belly. But they were not. I titled my head straight up. Just a few grazing clouds lazily fluffed in the bright blue sky. Then, I noticed Farmer Jed, in his usual overalls and John Deere T-shirt, standing outside of his tractor, shielding his eyes, and peering to the east horizon, to my far left. Another rumble vibrated the floorboards. I wanted to run and grab my Nerf gun. I wanted to take shelter under my bed and aim down the hall for any enemy soldiers who were brave enough to storm my home base. 

But Farmer Jed spun around in his field, frantically searching the opposite skies. Then, I felt it. The loud rocket roar of fighter jets streaking overhead. They jolted my attention towards their direction. Two F-35s flared their afterburners, roaring towards the east. I followed their hazy line across the partly cloudy sky. That’s strange. They don’t fly that low way out here.  

The first jet banked hard right. The second launched two missiles in a fiery flash of smoke. W! T! F! I thrust my head fully outside to better see the east horizon. A plush stream of thick black smoke in the distance blotted at the sun. A fire? That’s a BIG fire. Wait, that doesn’t make sense. I mean, who shoots missiles at a fire? MISSILES?! Why are they shooting missiles?! If I thought I was confused earlier, then at that moment, I was beyond confusion; I was jumbled, abashed, bewildered, discombobulated… I was a wreck!

Farmer Jed dove to the dirt, which caught my attention, and for a moment, I thought that maybe I should get a little closer to the floor myself. I cowered under the windowsill, only my eyes above the line, taking in the sights of fighter jets, missiles, a horizon of black smoke, and Farmer Jed belly crawling under his tractor. 

All at once, it dawned on me: The Emergency Alert! What did it say?! I don’t know; I thought it was just a weather alert! I half-crawled, halfscampered across the thudding floorboards to the bed and TV remote. I pounded the volume button until the automated voice drowned out the sound of whatever was making the floor under my rear end rattle. The beeping tone was already wailing. 

ATTENTION! ATTENTION! This is the Emergency Broadcast System. Take shelter immediately.

With my mouth hanging open, my wide eyes followed the large, white words scrolling up the screen.

Take shelter immediately. This is not a drill. Repeat. This is not a drill. An enemy attack is being launched against the United States. Take shelter immediately and—.

The power blinked and snapped to an end. The screen went dark. The TV fizzled to its end, leaving me sitting with my mouth-opened on the floor, leaning against my mother’s shaking bed, and holding onto a warm and slippery remote control I had once relied on so diligently for its ability to feed me with important or entertaining information. But now it was utterly useless. 

I was alone in this shadowed room, this shaded world of emptiness and nothingness–surrounded by these thin walls, this excitement, this bleak silence… this quiet before the storm. I sat there for a few moments, feeling the slight shake of the house frame every now and then. Somehow, I convinced myself that the shaking was just a coming storm, that I simply needed to grab a flashlight, a little food, and maybe my Nerf gun. Then I would be fine. Yes, fine. This whole world would be fine. Everything would be fine.

But I was yanked from my fantasy trance by a deep rolling rumble. This time, it shook the window and shelves. Well, that’s a bit extreme. I waited for someone to tell me what to do, for someone to give me direction. But I was alone. I was afraid and alone. It was just me and Keela. 

Shhhii-oot…Keela! She’s probably chewing up the couch this very moment. Crap! I’m so dead! Well…wait…let me rephrase, I’m not dead…I HOPE that I do not die… I cannot stress enough that living is currently very important to me. I am not ‘so dead;’ I am so alive! But probably still in trouble for not letting the dog out. Crap.

The buzzing of my cellphone, still plugged into the charger on my nightstand, brought me back to reality. Mom. That’s gotta be Mom! I rushed into my room, stumbled over the dirty clothes heaped on the floor and instantly heard in my head the playing of Mom’s voice scolding me for not picking up my room, again. 

I ripped the phone from the charger. “Hello? Mom?”

“James! James, listen to me—”

“Mom, what’s going on? There are jets and smoke, and—”

“James! Are you there?” Loud voices roared in the background. They sounded panicked. Then, a woman shrieked.

“Mom?! Can you hear me?”

“Bunker… Jame… get… t… ker.” I heard a lot of moving, breathing into the phone; the service wasn’t good. I didn’t know what she was trying to tell me, and I was starting to lose control.

“You’re breaking up. Mom? Can you hear me? You’re breaking up.” I looked at my phone with a deep throaty growl. One bar. I ran to the other end of the house and checked the service again. Two bars. 

“Mom?!”

“Get to… bun—.”

“I can’t understand you! Hold on!”

I rushed down the steps. Keela, our German Shepherd mix rescue, who acts more mix than Shepherd, yelped with surprise as I rounded the corner. Pillow stuffing hung from her mouth. 

“Keela! Bad dog!” She cowered under the table and hid. I shot her a look of complete disgust. “We’ll talk about this is a minute!” I scolded and ran outside the screeching screen door of our two-story, white, country home.

The air was already hot and sticky this morning. These Ohio summers were meant for the lake and freeze pops, not mowing grass and baseball.

The grass was still damp and soft as I jogged, barefooted, to the picnic table beside the gigantic oak tree over by the mower shed. Weirdly, that was the best place for service out here. 

Four bars. Awesome! I put the phone back up to my ear. “Mom. Can you hear me?”

“James!” I could hear the fear in her voice. Then, machine-gun fire over the phone. More shrieking. Heavy breathing. Panic. “Get to the bunker! I love you. Hurry, James. I love you so much! Get to the bunk—”

The phone cut out, and I heard only silence on the other end. I shook it, beat it, and held it higher in the air. Nothing. Another useless piece of technology when things go dark.

“Mom! Mom! What happened! Mom!” Frustrated and afraid, I started to bawl. The warm tears stung my eyes and tickled my nose. I wiped them with the back of my hand. I could hear the soft booms of explosions all around me in the distance. As much as I hated to admit it, I just wanted my mom. I just wanted her to wrap her caring arms around me and tell me that everything is all right… to kiss me gently on the forehead and tell me she loves me. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I needed, right then.

I jumped up on the picnic table and shouted into the phone as if the volume of my voice was the secret to fixing the cell phone service.

“What’s going on! Mom! I love you! Mom, please! I love you!” But it was no use. There was nothing. She wasn’t on the other end. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t here anymore. 

I threw the phone at the big oak tree in the yard. It shattered into pieces, and for a moment, I felt better, I felt stronger, and more in control. Having the ability to break something gives you an unrivaled power. Staring at the pieces, I felt like I showed that phone who’s boss.

Then, more jets thundered through the sky towards the east, launching screaming missiles one by one. Suddenly, tracer rounds arced through the air from one of the hilltops just a few miles away. Chaos erupted in the skies. It looked like red lasers curving up into the sun, into the path of our warplanes. Then, rocket launchers blasted smoke trails from clearings in the trees. The jets banked hard in opposite directions, but for the one on the right, it was too late. Black smoke poured from its rear half and followed the plane as it descended towards the green hills. The pilot tried to fight it for a few seconds. But it was no use. He ejected. His seat cleared the plane, his chute opened, and he floated down to the ground like that paratrooper army man I got for Christmas and tossed into the air, just to watch it rock and sway slowly back down to my outstretched hands. The pilot’s jet nosedived towards the ground, burst into flames, exploded, and peppered one of the hills with flames, setting the trees on fire.

Suddenly, I remembered that I had not used the restroom since I woke up. The urge to urinate quickly pinched me and instantly became overpowering. I couldn’t help but to water down the oak tree and useless pieces of plastic phone. 

I could hear and feel explosions rock the world around me. I stood there staring at that burning blaze puff dark smoke into the sky. I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do, and even if I did, my legs weren’t cooperating with my mind. I was frozen, watching the smoke rise into the morning sun. That’s when it hit me… the United States is under attack.

Machine-gun bursts zipped between the rumbles and booms from whatever was blowing up. The gunfire was distinct, much like the movies. The pop-pop-pop rolled through the hills. The brrrt… brrrt… brrrt of automatic gunfire thumped in my chest. It reminded me of the time Dad drove us around his marine base in a Humvee, and we could hear the distant sputter of machine-gun fire ripping through the targets out on the live-fire ranges. The excitement and wonder that filled my young imagination back then wasn’t the same feeling that bubbled in my stomach while standing there in the yard panicked and dumbfounded.

It was obvious the familiar gunfire meant something different. What… I don’t know. But I thought it was best not to stand there in the yard with my mouth hanging open like an idiot and find out. 

I rushed back inside in a screen door slamming kind of way. Keela peeled out on the slippery floor trying to rush back under the table. I chuckled at her concern for something so insignificant now. 

“Keela, come on! We gotta go!” I jumped the stairs two at a time and sprinted into my room. I knew where I was going. I knew what I needed to do. I was going to go to Dad’s bunker, and I knew that he would want me to grab some sort of supplies—I just didn’t know what. My heart was punching me in the chest as the sounds of war surrounded me. Ripping out drawers and tossing things aside, I searched my room for valuables. I reached under my bed and grabbed my Ohio State duffle bag. Setting it on top of my bed, I jammed inside of it some of my old clothes, my Baker Mayfield autographed football, pocket knife, and whatever else was in my nightstand drawer, which I dumped into the bag. 

With it slung over my shoulder, I ran down the hall thinking of anything else that I might need. Food! I have to get food! I tossed the bag down the steps and slid down the banister. Mom would have taken my phone away for a week if she saw me doing that. My phone! Crap! Why did I smash my phone?! 

Keela looked at me cautiously as I slammed open the fridge and chucked in whatever looked edible. Then to the cupboards, where I snatched up some more snacks—snacks that would have been rationed properly if Mom were home. Snacks that Em and I had to sneak down at midnight to nibble if we wanted more than one a day. But I didn’t care.

Mom wasn’t here to stop me, and these were special circumstances.  

 The walls shook and thundered. The storm was upon us. 

“Keela, let’s go!”  

I burst outside, the screen door slapping shut behind me and Keela. The day was darkening. The smoke was a gray haze hanging on the horizon. Gasping for breath, blurry-eyed from spats of tears, I was pumping pure adrenaline through my veins. Fear grabbed at my heavy legs, causing me to stumble and fall as we sprinted for the path in the back corner of our yard–the path that led to the stream which rounded the hill to where Dad had built his “just-in-case” bunker.  

I tripped and hit the ground hard, knocking whatever faith I still had right out of me. I groaned and wiped the speckled dirt from my cheeks.

Keela turned around and came back for me. How loyal. She stood there whining as I looked up at the smoky sky, wondering if I would live to see another summer day. Then she barked, licked at my chin, grabbed my bag in her teeth and yanked me towards the woods. 

“Keela! Quit! Stop! Stop it!” I pulled back, feeling the pain in my shoulder from landing awkwardly with the weight of my supplies. “Okay. Okay. I’m getting up!” I crawled to my knees and arose to my feet. I felt so heavy, so tired, weak, and thirsty.

More jets screamed across the sky, firing their rockets and guns. The explosions were closer this time. I could feel them ripple in the ground. I could smell the fires, the burning, the explosions. It smelled like that time we burned down the old shed with all of Dad’s old junk still in it. I could taste the soot as I sucked in the foul air. It was a burning smell, like gunpowder or the hazy fields after the fireworks show. A deathly smell. Ash and embers sprinkled down like snow. I held out my hand to catch a flake of ash. It fluttered in my sweaty hand, flashing shiny gray, and then sticking like black pepper in the moisture of my palm. The world was ending around me… and that was all the motivation I needed to move.

I had forced myself to my feet as Keela ran towards that familiar path we would often take for our walks to the stream. I followed her. She was mistakenly excited about the thought of another adventure through the woods. An excitement cut short by the concussions and thuds of nearby explosions. She yelped and turned back toward the house. 

“Keela, No! Come on! This way!” I yelled, causing her to stop and lower her head. 

I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her along with me. We had to make it to the bunker. It was our best shot. It was our only chance at surviving–surviving this… this invasion! 

My feet could feel the sticks, vines, and rocks as I trampled over them through the woods. Shielding my face from branches with the duffle bag, I jumped over logs and stumps. I didn’t care what I had to do; I would make it to Dad’s bunker!

Dad’s awesome bunker! The one we spent all last summer building. Mom had called him crazy. Emily and her friends made fun of him. But for me, I thought it was a dang good time and a whole lot of fun to pretend that one day we would need to retreat to this dug-out fortress in the hills and defend our heartland from whatever threat may be hunting us. 

But as the jets thundered above my head and the gunfire raged in closer, that fun had turned to fear. That pretend turned to reality. My wild imagination had turned to panic, and I cried as I rounded that last bend and saw the vine and weed indentation of that rusted iron door to Dad’s “stupid waste of money.”  

All around us boomed. The hill growled like thunder was in its belly as I yanked the camo netting from the rusty door. The handle was cold and hard. I grunted trying to dislodge it. For a moment, it was stuck. For a moment, I thought it was all for nothing. But I leaned into it and pulled with all my might. 

It swung open, I fell back, and from my knees, I peered inside of that narrow, dark hole I knew led to a bunker full of supplies, food, gadgets, four small cots, and a portable toilet that seemed too small to be comfortable. 

I tossed in my bag, shoved Keela in after it, and hopped inside to a cool, musty smell of earth and Clorox bleach. The thick and hefty door squeaked heavily on its hinges as I pulled it shut behind me. I stood in the dull light of the stairwell. This is it. I thought. This is home. 

And I descended into the gut of what would become my sanctuary, my shelter… my resurrection.