Bob was a little too obsessive about that bomb shelter of his, you ask me. Whenever I’d catch him in the driveway, or checking his mail, I’d call out over our shared fence and say, hey Bob, wanna come watch the fight on my big screen tonight, maybe order some tacos from El Muncho? And he’d just grin all sheepish to himself, put his hand in the air and say, sorry neighbor, gotta go down and work on my bomb shelter. That was cute and all, but then I stopped seeing him in the drive. He didn’t seem to check his mail no more. Enough time passed and I figured, hell, Bob must’ve gotten bored of waiting for the apocalypse, and just went ahead and locked himself down there.

I’d say after about, I don’t know, six weeks or so of not seeing Bob, I went on and called the local authorities. You may say six weeks is an awful long time, but then you’re probably not from around here. We don’t take too kindly to outside intervention by the state apparatus. We handle our own business. Besides, it was fully likely that Bob simply maintained a different schedule than I did. That was his right. We might’ve just missed each other. Maybe he’d even gone on some long holiday. To Florida, say, with sandy beaches and straws in coconuts. But dear Bob’s a neighbor, and neighbors look out for each other.

Before I called the local goon squad, though, I did some recon of my own. Tried looking in through all his windows, but the blinds were shut. Hopped the fence and gave his back patio’s sliding door a go, too, but a man who maintains a bomb shelter is not the type to leave his patio door unlocked. So I went ahead and jimmied it. Good lord, Bob’s living room was in a state. I mean I’m not here to criticize the way a man keeps his house, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’d been ransacked by those college kids they got one town over. Pizza boxes galore. This smell in the air, like something had died, and bad stuff had started growin’ in its place. I’d planned on going down to the basement and knocking on the shelter’s blast door, figuring Bob’d chirp back the all clear, and I’d call it a day. But that smell had me spooked. So fuck the downstairs, I said, and I went back outside and put my hands on my knees and coughed out all that air I’d just breathed in. Then I put the jimmied door back in place, hopped the fence, and called the cops from my living room.

I have to say I didn’t know too much about Bob before all this happened. We were neighbors, friends even, but I can’t recall a single time he’d interacted with the wider community. Not that I’m calling him some type of nut now. Yeah, he could be a little closed off. Who ain’t? I figured he was just a working man with a wife. Couldn’t tell you what he did for a living, but you could just tell by giving him the up and the down that he worked with his hands. Did honest labor, if you know what I mean. I’d see him through his windows (he didn’t use-to shut the blinds so much, see), and he’d be icing his shoulders, popping pills out of amber bottles. Weeping even, forgive me for saying. Life ain’t easy for no man. Then his wife split on him. Never really caught her name. And, well, who could blame a guy like Bob for turning a little inward after something like that? I’d seen ‘em fight something fierce a few times before she finally packed up and took the Chevy with her. Both of ‘em crying and what not. Sad sight. Couldn’t hear much of what they said from where I was watching, but I didn’t go interrogating the man about it. Where I’m from you nod and you wave at your neighbors. You don’t go prying into their personal hardships. When Teresa left me I sure as hell didn’t want no one to ask me about it. It’s been a few years and I still don’t like to think about it, actually. Just ain’t healthy.

The cops asked me every type of damn question, and they didn’t understand one word of my answers. Why’d you break into your neighbor’s house? Why this obsession? Please. They just ain’t from around here. The pipsqueak asking me most of the questions was 22 years of age, and born in Connecticut. I mean, those facts alone had me laughing and looking around for other faces to be laughing with me but none of ‘em were laughing because all these so-called authorities were close to 22 and from some version of Connecticut.

I kind of lose track of the what’s it, the chronology around this time of the story, seeing as I’d been laid off at the paper mill by then. I stopped leaving the house for the most part, that foray into Bob’s living room aside, so the days tended to blend into one another. But I was keeping my mind fresh by watching the news feeds — the good ones, the real ones, not that wacko stuff they subscribe to out in Connecticut. And, well, I started piecing a few things together. Not seeing like hidden messages or anything like that, but staying sharp and paying attention. As I said, I had the extra time, what with the mill cutting back. Watching them feeds, it didn’t take a college education to realize we were about two tiny numbers away from hitting some sort of apocalyptic jackpot.

I told you at the beginning that I’d held a theory that Bob was holed up in that shelter of his just waiting for such an apocalypse. Now, I didn’t intend to disturb the man on his personal property but I did want to talk about bomb-shelter-related things with him, which seemed reasonable, seeing as he clearly had the jump on all of it. Like, how much food did he have down there, really? How’d he fix the plumbing, like? Was there room for one more fellow American, in the event of an emergency? And of course I just wanted to make sure he was doing all right. Too much time alone can eat a man’s mind. So I jimmied that lock on the back patio once again, and crept in, like not sneaking around but just pinching my nose and doing my best to avoid the ecosystems evolving on all those pizza boxes.

I made my way down to the basement. The blast door to the shelter was open just a titch. This struck me as unusual. So I pushed myself on in. There it was. Bob’s little temple to the end of the world. Bit of a let down, to tell you the truth. Looked flash-frozen from 1982, and kinda sterile, like the inside of one of them model homes where no one’s ever lived.

Once I entered the shelter I closed the door behind me, just as a force of habit, but I did not anticipate it locking itself as I did so. Some type of magnetic seal with a digital code. You ever find yourself confined in a small, foreign space? Can’t say I recommend it. I bugged out pretty hard the first couple days, like clawing at the goddamn ceiling till it filed down my nicotine-stained nails. If you’re asking where the blasted internet was, or at least a fucking radio, well, I was screaming the same damn thing at the top of my wheezing lungs. At some point though, I guess I gave in. What else could I do?

There wasn’t nothing to do. I had lights. I had food (if you call canned tuna food). I had water. I had plumbing. I had time. Exactly how much time is hard to know. The shelter had an analog clock, and I scratched a mark on one of the walls for each day that passed, whenever I remembered to. Sometimes, I’m pretty sure, I scratched twice instead of once. Sometimes none instead of one. Your mind just gets away from you being alone like that.

Let me tell you how much time I had. Enough to become involved in what can only be described as a lengthy, bizarre, and highly sexual relationship with the woman illustrated in an explanatory diagram on page 76 of Nuclear War Survival Skills. I called her Nancy and once again I don’t much like talking about relationships once they’re over.

Look, there was one goddamn book down there. One. Nuclear War Survival Skills. Not exactly a page turner, if you know what I mean. But informative, I guess. The true enemy is terror, the book says. It says that, then goes on to describe a modern nuclear attack, what it’d look like. It’d light the sky in flashes of purple and green. Shake the earth. I mean, that’s something out of Revelation, ain’t it? Or maybe it’s like the Northern Lights, which I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing. But down in the shelter, I’d close my eyes, and I could see it all, the bombs, the colors, the Northern Lights, clear as if on TV.

I wondered: what had Bob been doing down here all those times he’d claimed to be working on the shelter? Didn’t look like he’d outfitted it with much at all. It’s clearly stated in Nuclear War Survival Skills that one should equip a shelter with a means to communicate to the outside world. But Bob hadn’t given it so much as a tin can and string. Was the isolation its own strange point? Was the bomb shelter really a meditation chamber? A self-fashioned prison? Some sort of wacko masturbation hole?

I became a zealous believer in the Gospel of Bob. Bob would return, in radiant, flowing robes, and explain everything. He’d appear, shimmering, carrying two enormous bags of El Muncho. I never really left you, he’d say. We’d have a laugh about it all and then wash down the Muncho with some cheap, foamy beer so cold it hurt your throat to drink it, hurt in a good way. We’d go upstairs and shoot the shit, maybe watch a fight on my big screen. Get along like we always meant to, but couldn’t, due to our busy personal lives. We’d go out to the backyard and stare up at the sky and appreciate its natural, if surreal, blue color.

I’ve been to church but never considered myself much of a God-fearing man. Down in the shelter, though, I had plenty of time to consider the heady stuff, the things a man shouldn’t spend too much of his time considering. The end of the world, sure. But like the end of everything, too. I mean how’s it possible for the universe to just, you know, stop one day? And like how do I fit into that scheme, as a man laid off from his job and trapped in his neighbor’s bomb shelter? I spent a good while contemplating the concept of absolute nothingness. It felt like playing ping-pong by yourself, where you got one side of the table turned up so the ball keeps on bouncing back. I can’t say it did much for my mental state, but at the same time I reckon it calmed me down, somehow.

You’re gonna roll your eyes at this one, but ghosts started paying me visits. I know what you’re
thinking, that they’re not real, and I ain’t saying they are. It coulda been the mercury-filled tuna talking for all I know. But I seen ‘em, the ghosts. Spoke with ‘em, even.

Teresa, looking so pretty, wearing her wedding dress, came and told me she used to love the light inside me but at some point the light just went out. I asked her, darling, where’d that light go? And she told me that it ain’t her job to find my light for me, which is fair enough.

My old boss from the paper mill showed up, too, all ghosty. Shaking his head, he told me he’d been laid off, too, and replaced by a microchip the size of your pinky nail. I told him I was sorry to hear that, and he said we were in the same boat now, him and I. He gave me a ghost handshake and then shimmered out.

The 22 year old pipsqueak cop from Connecticut floated in and told me he had a message from the future, a message that things were changing, a new age was coming, and we all needed to do our best to communicate with each other, rather than shut each other out. I apologized to him for calling him and his colleagues pipsqueaks, and he accepted that apology, understanding that my remarks had been just the harmless needling of an old man who’s lost his relevance a little. I got to thinking if Teresa and I had ever stuck it out and had kids, one of ’em could’ve easily grown up to be like this quote unquote pipsqueak cop, and you could do far worse than that.

Nancy from page 76 came around an awful lot, too, telling me she knew all about being trapped in a very specific location, trapped even in time, like, and couldn’t we work through our issues and get back together? It was in her character to be persistent.

Despite the worrying implications this had for my mental health, it was nice to have some visitors.

Enough time went by and I got to thinking maybe the world really had ended. Ghosts now roamed the earth. All that was left of humanity was me and a few others buried alive in our respective shelters (or the shelters of our neighbors, as it were). I knew from school that man was a cave dweller for a long stretch of time back there, and maybe he was due for another such spell.

I got pretty good at the whole picturing the outside world thing. It was my number one activity. After a while, I could do more than just see the bombs and the colors and the explosions. I could picture it all, the whole world, me floating above it, like flying and looking down at the surface and finding sparse survivors in roving tribes that dotted the scorched earth, among the hollow factories and dead gadgets that we’d once used to make a society and give ourselves meaning. Surface people, I’d call down, as I soared above everyone, love each other before it’s too late, before it all happens again, before everyone else becomes peripheral, before you lock yourselves inside yourselves like I have. I’d stretch my arms wide and call down, please, find a way.

After I don’t even know how long, I started thinking, well, wait a minute now, maybe it’s not just me picturing the outside world. Maybe it just is the world, and I’m making it, like with my mind. Maybe I’d transcended physics and reality and become, you know, somewhat omnipresent, and possibly immortal. I realize how that sounds now, as the theory has numerous holes in it, but, at the time, it seemed perfectly believable.

So I decided to test it.

There was this one bedsheet down there, which had, by that point, seen far better days. I went ahead and used my pearly whites to rip that sucker into some long, thin strips. I then tied those strips together, in knots. It took me an awful long time. I mean, you know what a noose looks like, but do you know how to tie one on the first go? It was a little puzzle, an arts and crafts class, and maybe the most fun I’d had since those early days with Nancy from page 76.

I was in the middle of this twisted endeavor when I heard the blast door beep a few times and clunk open. The ghost of Bob walked into the shelter. When he saw me he drew his pistol out of its holster and pointed it at my chest and asked me who the fuck I was and what the fuck I was doing in his shelter.

Bob, I said, smiling and stretching my arms wide. Where have you been?

Fucking Mexico, he shouted. He fired a warning shot into the ceiling, then told me not to move again or he’d put one in my skull.

I dropped to my knees and put my arms in the air and I told him I was his neighbor, yeah, I was his neighbor and we didn’t know each other at all but I was hoping we could fix that because until neighbors started knowing each other for real we were all doomed.

He took a second to like inspect me kind of, seeing as I was pretty unrecognizable from my former self, what with the beard, and then he said Holy Christ is that really you, Vern? And I nodded. And he asked me what the fuck, and I took a long time to find a response for that.

Then I told him I just wanted to be part of the world again.

I guess I was crying a little at this point, but you got to understand the state I was in. I wasn’t even wearing clothes, which probably put some incorrect ideas about me into Bob’s head.

Bob told me I was a fucking lunatic and I could leave any time I wanted to.

Oh, Bob. Purveyor of spiritual truth. Yes, I’d trapped myself down there in the shelter. Of course I could leave when I wanted to. When I was ready. And that was now. I rose slowly, with my hands still in the air. Bob stepped away from the door, and I shuffled towards it. Bob nodded at me, slowly, still keeping the gun pointed at my chest. I walked through the shelter’s threshold. This was different than all the other times I’d fantasized about leaving. My legs creaked. Each step hurt. That’s what made it real, I realized. It was supposed to hurt.

Crazy motherfucker, I heard Bob say.

Crazy’s just another type of love, you ask me. Some men go bananas for model trains. Other folks collect little plastic superheroes that come wrapped in even more plastic. Me, I once had a set of binoculars I was quite particular about. Bob, well, he had his bomb shelter. I ain’t one to judge. But at least I know I’m crazy, and maybe that’s the difference.

I took one step up out the basement, then another, faster, picking up speed, up and out and through the living room, charging out the back door to the patio and into the yard with the green grass wet underneath my bare feet, my ears thumping from blood pumping but still able to hear the chirping symphony of crickets in the night — yes, it was night, this was night, night existed, and tomorrow, it’d be day, with a bright blue sky, and me under it, out in the world, amongst my fellow lunatics, all of us united with our differing, and beautiful, insanities.