They told us we were special. They said that we were to be the chosen four who would repopulate the Earth and forge a new, ideal Christian world. The Apocalypse was coming, they said. You will be safe in the fallout shelter, they said.
It didn’t take the full 10 years for me to realize they were full of shit. There was no Apocalypse, and here I am, the only survivor. A shelter could save us from the outside world, but nothing could save us from ourselves.
It’s been four months since I’ve stepped back out into the open air. I’ve been interviewed a dozen times and sought out by the remaining members of the church I now realize was a cult. Everyone wants to know what happened to the other three. I know I can’t run from the past forever, so I guess it’s time I tell the real story of what went on down there.
On Christmas day, 2012, the four of us said our goodbyes to our family and friends. No one knew where we were going, or why, but they trusted our Pastor when he told them that we were graced by God.
“They cannot know about the End that draws near,” he said to us. It was snowing and we were standing in the middle of the forest with our luggage. “Your names were drawn from the secret lottery, so you alone must be the secret bearers.”
Tabitha was looking at him with wide, moist eyes. She looked like she could cry at any point. As we all hugged him goodbye, she held him the longest. Just a week before our departure, he had told us that it was his mission now, after having sent us on our secret journey, to end his own life in the name of our Lord and Savior. Thus the secret seeds of a perfect future would be sewn beneath the ground.
One by one, we descended. It was cold and dark, even after Timothy flipped the lights on and ignited the steady hum of the circuits. Several solar panels had been placed in the proximity above, for sustainable energy. We could only pray that no one would find them.
“I guess we should get down to business,” said Timothy, with a sick smile.
Around his neck was the key to the latch that was now bound from the outside. He alone, chosen for his pious zeal, was the barrier between us and the outside world, should anything go wrong. Pastor knew that Timothy would not betray the mission no matter what. For he would never doubt that the end was as near as it was inevitable.
“Who wants to be my wife in the Paradise ahead?” he said.
Tabitha and Emily shared an awkward glance. Apparently this was something that Timothy had been waiting for with relish. When no one answered, his face grew dark and contorted.
He walked up to Emily and grabbed her chin in his hand, clenching her jaw tight, “I said, who wants to be my wife?”
Still, she remained silent, averting her eyes. Suddenly I remembered all of the times I had caught him staring hungrily at her when we were in church. That was when I wondered for the first time if any of this was truly a random lottery.
“No matter,” he laughed it off, releasing her jaw. “It’s not like you have many choices.”
But even as he brushed it off, I noticed something sharp in his eyes. It was a glint of something I had never caught before, like a flicker of madness. And in that moment I glimpsed what darkness lay ahead.
When you’re underground, time means nothing. We had a clock, but even its measured ticking was oblivious to what lay outside. After a couple of months, Tabitha realized she must have missed a day or two on the calendar she was keeping. We now had no idea what date it was…and had no way of rediscovering it.
Meanwhile, Timothy had taken to strutting around like King of the Shelter. He became so overbearing that Emily and I started finding refuge in the recreation den. It had proved to be incapable of serving its purpose because the lights there would not work. There were quite a few rooms that were unlit because of poor wiring. Such is the grace of God, for in them we had refuge from His Grace, Timothy.
Emily and I started getting pretty close from all of the time we spent hiding. I think Timothy knew, because he started taking notice of me for once. When we would sit around the dinner table to eat what Tabitha had prepared for us, I could feel his glare on my skin. Still, I avoided his gaze. I didn’t care for him, and he didn’t care for me. We were simply stuck in this box, doing God’s work.
But we soon learned that he had a very different idea of God’s work than we did. We were all asleep in our rooms when I heard a cry from across the hall. It was coming from Emily’s room. I bounced out of bed and found Tabitha standing outside her door, looking pale and frightened. I knocked on the door and called out for Emily.
There was no reply. So I tried for the handle, but it was locked. It was then that I wondered if Timothy alone had the keys to everything down there. So I knocked harder and called out again.
“She’s fine,” Timothy yelled back from inside. “shut-up,” he said, but not to us. “This is God’s work.”
And he went on speaking in a low voice to Emily. We could hear her peels of helplessness, muffled by something. All I could do was fume and pace, furiously up and down the hallway, waiting for the door to reopen. But it never did. Hours went on and the voices died out, but the door never opened.
That was when I realized what God’s work meant for me. I knew not how, but I had to stop Timothy. I hoped that I would not have to kill him, but I had to do something, and soon.
I must have fallen asleep out there at some point, because I remember having a disturbing, vivid nightmare. Someone from outside had opened the hatch into our shelter and there was a rush like a waterfall. A wave of blood washed in red and frothing into the hallway, filling up all of the rooms and threatening to drown us all. I remember clawing and shoving at the others as I struggled to keep my head in the only air bubble left, desperate for life.
I heard a clicking sound and I lifted my head to see Timothy leaving the bedroom door. Remembering last night, I bull rushed him and hooked my fist right into his nose. He fell back against the wall and pulled something silver from his waistline. My rage was checked as I stood looking down the barrel of a revolver.
“Why the hell do you have a gun?” I demanded.
“For situations like this.”
Emily had come to the door now and seen us fighting. Her voice was quiet and broken as she asked me not to hurt him. I was stuck between her bruised face and the gun pointed at me. Beneath her blonde hair, purple and blue circles blossomed over her pale cheeks.
“Timothy didn’t do anything wrong last night,” she said quietly, putting one hand on his chest and the other on the gun.
She sounded like the ghost of her old self, and she moved without energy. Without looking back at me, she pushed her lips gently to his cheek and whispered something to him.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll let God decide.”
He opened the chamber and dumped five of the bullets into his hand. Spinning the chamber, he snapped it shut with a jerk of his wrist and put the barrel back to my forehead.
Click. Nothing happened.
“Next time you try something like that, every chamber will be full.”
Emily was lost to me. Over the course of several months I learned to accept this, though I never fully believed it for a second. What had he said to her that night? She was screaming, Tabitha and I both heard her muffled screams, yet she was like his lap dog now.
I sought comfort from Tabitha, but she had slowly started going off the deep end in her own sort of way. Some nights I would hear a dripping sound coming from down the hallway, in the storage room. I would take a flashlight and find her standing there, while everyone else was asleep, looking blankly up at the ceiling.
“What are you doing?” I asked one night.
She turned her head and looked through me with her owl eyes. I felt like I was invisible, yet she answered.
“This is where it is coming from.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but then I heard it. The dripping sound that had roused me from bed in the first place. It did sound as if there should have been little drops falling right in front of her, yet the beam of my flashlight revealed nothing but dry concrete. It was then that I saw for the first time that her feet were bleeding.
“How did you hurt yourself?” I asked.
I approached her and knelt down with the flashlight hoisted under my chin. Oblivious to my concern, she continued to look up into the ceiling, where nothing was dripping somewhere. She lifted her foot with complicity as I tugged at it with my hands. Under the soles of her foot were three long cuts. The wounds were green and black.
“They’re infected!” I shouted.
As I prodded her further for answers, she refused to speak to me. It was weird, even for her. She just continued looking up with a blankness in her eyes. I must have spoken too loudly because Emily’s soft voice floated in from the hallway.
“What’s that sound?”
“It’s here,” Tabitha said, eyes still glued to the ceiling. “This is where it is coming from.”
“Help me, please,” I called out to Emily. “We have to clean these wounds on her feet.”
Emily approached, and stood beside Tabitha, looking up at the ceiling too. They were both ignoring me. So I went back for the rubbing alcohol and proceeded to wash her feet where she was standing. Both of Tabitha’s feet had identical lacerations underneath. Tabitha did not wince, nor did either of the girls say a word to me. It was then that I began questioning my own sanity, and not for the last time.
Time came and went like a whisper, without the notice of anyone. I felt like it was only yesterday that Emily had become a ghostly slave to Timothy, and the next she had a small baby bump poking through her button-down shirt. I was livid.
“What are you thinking, Timothy?” I asked. “We still have nine years to go down here.”
We were all seated around the dinner table. It was the one custom that kept us from becoming strangers to each other, the one custom that still kept us grounded into remembering what we were doing down there in the first place. Even though Tabitha no longer knew how to cook. Even though we were all grimacing down to plates with dry, uncooked noodles covered in lentil beans and full-sized mushrooms. She had lost her mind completely, but we still acted like we were civilized.
“Maybe,” he said, shrugging it off. He smiled at Emily’s bruised face and she took his hand. I still did not know whether time refused to march, or if he gave Emily fresh bruises as a weekly ritual. “No one knows how long it has really been because Batshit Tabitha is in charge of the calendar.”
Seated beside me, Tabitha just crunched her uncooked pasta noodles while looking around vacantly. Meanwhile, the lacerations had crawled like living things up her calves. Her legs were patterned with living sores that procreate up her creamy skin. I had become her hapless caretaker. If I didn’t treat her wounds, she would become gangrenous in no time.
“Do you know how to deliver a baby?” I asked.
He was silent. Tabitha kept crunching.
“You might as well have put that gun of God’s Justice to her head yourself,” I said. “Women die if you don’t do it right.”
“Then I guess we’ll have to do it right,” he growled, taking his gun and marching away from the table.
I looked long and hard at Emily’s pretty, bruised face. She was oblivious for several moments before returning my gaze. She smiled emptily.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
Still, she kept smiling.
“It’s dripping faster now,” Tabitha said, with a mouthful of mushroom. “Pretty soon we’ll drown.”
I remembered my dream, but shook it off instantly. There was no dripping. It was just a sign. I had long decided that it must be coming from above ground or something. It was nothing that could penetrate the shelter walls.
“I’m in love,” Emily said dreamily. “I used to be a silly girl, but he keeps me in line now. He reminds me how to behave.”
“There was nothing wrong with you before.”
“There was something wrong with all of us,” said Tabitha. “That’s why we’re down here.”
I thought about it for a moment. She was right. There was no Apocalypse. I had thought about it for a long time, and the more I thought, the less sense it made. But the only key to the outside world lay now around Timothy’s neck. We were all his prisoner. For what, nine years? No. I had made up my mind. That night I was taking God’s Justice, and I was going to free myself. I was going to free all of us.
I didn’t manage to stay awake long enough to carry out my plan. I fell asleep, and with it came the dream again. It was exactly as last time, except it went on further. I was the last one alive, drinking in the final air pocket as the blood rose higher and higher. The panic swallowed me up. I sank like a stone below, fighting for the oxygen I could not have. My lungs felt like they would burst.
Then, I woke up. Or did I? To this day I do not know. Because my eyes opened, but I was an observer, helpless to the power that had drowned me in my sleep.
The words of another hissed into my ear, from out of thin air.
“Fool. The Apocalypse wears your skin like a robe.”
I tried to push the voice out of my mind, but it filled my head like a liquid. Suddenly I was overcome with memories flashing like a slideshow projector. One image came after another.
I was holding a dinner knife with one hand, and Tabitha’s thighs with the other. I was on her bed, cutting slits into her flesh.
I was in Emily’s room. I had her by the throat, hear weak neck snapping under the weight of every blow I delivered with my free hand.
“No!” I shouted into the darkness, suddenly able to put a stop to the images.
Timothy’s lean figure was standing in the doorway, his gun arm hanging loose at his side.
“No?” he asked, mockingly.
Still, I could not move. From beyond the doorway I heard that same familiar dripping sound, echoing louder than ever. It was so loud, I could almost feel each drop banging against my forehead.
“What’s that sound?” I asked. “That constant dripping…”
“Probably more of your handy work,” Tim’s voice was acidic. “Pastor said I would have to keep you a little bit in line, but I never expected this.”
“No. I haven’t been doing anything…”
Timothy’s dark shape leapt across the room, towering over me. I felt the cold steel of the revolver as he pushed it hard into my chest, screaming.
“Then who the fuck is doing it, Patrick?!” As he screamed, he took the barrel away and sent it crashing hard against my face. I was blinded by the pain; all of the darkness of the room flashed white and sent sparks dancing across my vision. “Who keeps cutting Tabitha’s legs like that?! Who keeps giving Emily those bruises?!” I could hear tears welling in his voice now. It broke completely and he had to choke the power back into his words. “Who impregnated her?”
I was stunned. A split second before I told him the answer, I thought better, but still, I said it.
I could feel Timothy surging like a wild spirit in the dark. I could feel every muscle in his body tense up, as if to convert himself into a giant weapon. But before he could act, my arms moved for me. The voice whispered again.
“It wears your skin like a robe.”
I felt my hands latch onto the end of the revolver and twist it so hard that Timothy’s wrist snapped. It all happened before he could pull the trigger, as if something inhuman were in control of my reflexes. Before I knew it, I had the hilt in my hand, pointing the barrel down at his head and pulling the trigger. Twice.
That was the first time I smiled since I had gone down there. Something was happening. Whatever was inside of me pulled the trigger the first time. But I pulled it the second. I pulled it because of the way he had bruised Emily and because of the accusations. I had wanted to do it since the first day we went below.
I was almost back in control of my body by the time I was walking down the hallway. I did not need the gun anymore, but for some reason I kept holding onto it. My feet carried me towards the dripping sound. Something inside of me already had an inkling of what was making the sound. So when I turned the corner into the storeroom, I was not entirely surprised to find Tabitha’s body hanging from the ceiling.
She had fresh wounds up her legs and into her abdomen now. They were deeper; so deep that the blood was running in streams. Then, another flashback took me.
I was yelling for her to take the knife. I needed my hands to tie the rope. With empty eyes she made the lacerations upon herself. Just the way I showed her.
“Stop!” I yelled again, finding myself crouching down on the cold concrete.
I was scared now. Something was coming unhinged. I had no idea whose memories these were, but I knew they were not mine. Still, the dripping sound continued echoing throughout the halls. Still unsure why, I dipped a finger into the blood pooling beneath her. I stood up and traced a shape on her chest with the red liquid. It was an arrow, pointing up to the surface.
I felt a hand clasp onto my shoulder from behind. As it did, another memory seized my vision and projected the inside of Emily’s room. The door had flung open and Timothy was standing there, as always with his gun. I was naked and so was Emily. She was scared and Timothy was furious, throwing me out of her room and locking the door behind me.
“He’s here,” came a soft voice from behind.
I turned to find Emily standing before me. Her belly was flat.
She led me down the hallway, back towards her room. A soft crying wafted out into the hallway. I was stunned. How could he be born already? Timothy had just impregnated her a few months ago. Yesterday, she was barely showing.
She flicked the lights on and let me lead the way into the room. On her bed, the baby was bundled up in a light blue blanket. Suddenly conscious of the gun, I tried to drop it, but my hands would not let me.
I pulled the blanket aside and found a small, pink thing crying out from the blankets. It was no baby. It was a monstrosity. It had only one eye and one pink, pus filled socket. A third, stunted arm grew out from under the armpit of its right arm. Its skull was triangular in shape, growing out like a polygon.
“What is this?” I choked out at last.
“Yours,” Emily said sweetly.
She sat herself by the blankets and planted a firm kiss on its mishapen, demonic looking skull. The baby quieted a little, then looked directly into my eyes. The memories came again.
I was alone in a dimly lit room. Our Pastor walked out with his face hidden beneath a hood. He came and took a seat on the pew next to me. He spoke in a language I should not have understood, but in the memory I knew exactly what he was saying.
“The Apocalypse wears your skin like a robe. Go below and foster it.”
Emily and the baby were before me again. My throat was tight. I could barely breathe beneath the full weight of everything, come full circle. I couldn’t help but cry. And as I cried, the warmth of my tears seemed to mobilize my thoughts. I moved my hand with my own will at last.
I fought against the darkness that threatened to fall like a curtain inside my mind. I struggled to keep my movement and my mind. I raised the gun and took aim.
And I fired. Twice.
I knelt down and said a small prayer to God. I apologized for everything I knew I could not atone for. I knew not where I had gone, but I suddenly came into my being, alone and terrified. After giving my feeble prayer to Heaven, I raised the gun to my own head.
“No,” came the soft voice again. The voice was like a balm to the burning wound that was festering inside me. It was warm and soothing. “You may have failed this time. But you can try again.”
Still, I tried to pull the trigger, but my hand did not move. I had lost control of my body again. My arm defied me, and all I could do was fall onto the ground and cry myself to sleep.
When I woke up, I was lying on a couch that looked foreign to me. My head was groggy, but I knew I was no longer in the fallout shelter. I tried to lift my head, but a soft hand had held me in place. I opened my eyes to find the Pastor.
“You’re alive?” I asked. “You said it was your…”
“I know what I said.”
He did not sound pleased, but his eyes were soft and reassuring. He gave me a small smile and put a damp cloth to my head.
“I could feel that there was something amiss with Timothy during our last meeting,” he said. “I knew I had to stay alive to help you. I suppose I waited too long. It seems he got to you all.”
“It was my…” the words failed me as I tried to explain. I found for some reason that the truth would not roll from my tongue.
“You heroically tried to save the girls, but were unable,” he said for me. There was a stern look in his eyes. “I already told the police.”
He raised himself from the couch and disappeared from view. I turned just in time to see the back of his robes. There was a crimson arrow, pointing up, emblazoned on the back. The same symbol I had painted with my fingers on Tabitha’s body.
“No matter,” he said from another room. “There’s always tomorrow.”