He didn't know how long he was in the cellar behind his house, hiding like a rabbit in its burrow. He wasn't proud of it—he hadn't planned on being down there for so long. It was just that every time he thought about crawling out of there, he never could seem to find the strength. It took all his efforts just to make it up the stairs so he could go outside to use the bathroom.
Most of his days were spent huddling in the dark, crying and weeping, checking every other hour near the burnt remains of his house for signs of his family, and weeping when he found none. He never thought it was possible to cry this much—he thought at some point you must reach your limit, but every time he thought he was done, something would remind him of Irene, Ray-Ray, or Chloe, and the tears would come again. Sometimes he found his hand lingering towards his gun. But he was too spent from grief to have the nerve needed to pull the trigger.
Food wasn't a problem: Irene had always worried about disasters, natural or otherwise, so their cellar was stocked to the brim with all varieties of canned food and bottled water. Trouble was he didn't have the strength to eat. Occasionally he would grab a can, open it, and slowly sup on it, but he felt no hunger, no desire for any nourishment of any kind.
But at some point, he must have reached the end of tears, at some point, the paralysis that had gripped him, had kept him in the dark, lifted, and he found himself staggering off of the cot he'd slept on and staring at himself in the mirror.
I look like death, he thought. He couldn't recognize himself any more. His beard had grown long and his clothes hung loose around his waist. "And you said, 'I'd never get back to my playing weight,'" he muttered, looking at a picture of Irene in his wallet. He would have laughed, at that moment, if he hadn't felt so much like crying. Then he heard it—the sound of footsteps above his shelter. Immediately he grabbed his gun. He didn't know if he could hold off any gangs, but he was sure as hell going to try.
He peered out of his shelter, wincing as he heard the door creak, only to see a sight he never thought he'd see again. "Chloe..." he choked.
There she was, pale as death, leaning on the arm of her roommate, Vivian. His wife had never liked Vivian and truthfully, Vivian had always worried him a little, with her wild hair and clothes, but she and Chloe got along well; they had been roommates since they were both freshman. Last time, he had seen Vivian, her hair was electric blue and she was showing some new midriff tops, the better to show off her belly ring; this time, however, Vivian was like Chloe, dressed in shapeless baggy clothes. He wondered what was with her—Vivian had always leaned towards bold clothing—but then it was obvious; they weren't dressing to make a fashion statement: they were dressing to protect themselves.
"Chloe!" he shouted, so happy to see her alive that he forgot all about hiding from the gangs.
Vivian glared at him. "I don't know who you are, but you got your turn, so lay off. I've got a gun and I'm not afraid to use it."
Ray sat his gun on the ground as a gesture of good faith and raised his hands. "It's okay. I'm her father."
Vivian turned her head and Ray began to wonder if putting his gun on the ground was such a good idea. "You are," she finally said, with a pained smile. "Geez, you look like hell."
Ray ignored her comment. "You girls eaten yet?"
"No. We used up our last rations days ago." And he knew this was the truth; both Vivian's and Chloe's eyes betrayed a certain hollowness that comes with hunger.
"Follow me." And he led them down into the cellar.
Vivian led Chloe to one of the cots, leading her by the arm as if she was a child. So far, Chloe hadn't said a word, which was new for her. What happened to his bright, vivacious girl who was always full of news to tell? God did, that's what. God had ripped everyone away and reduced his bright daughter to a shell.
He still remembered the words he had said back at the church, but he didn't think much on them. They were fine words but what good was all this moral posturing when he was up against something like this? He turned on the hot plate and heated up some Dinty Moore for Chloe and Vivian. Once it was ready, he ladled some onto some Boy Scout bowls.
Vivian swallowed her food eagerly, barely bothering to blow on the food to cool it, but Chloe sat, staring into space. Vivian licked her bowl clean and turned to Chloe. "Clo, you've got to eat." When Chloe did not move or respond, Vivian sighed and began feeding her. Judging by the bored expression with which she did all this, this was not something new for her.
When the meal was over, there was nothing left except for an awkward silence. Chloe didn't want to talk; he didn't know what to say to her anyway. Only Vivian had the courage needed to break the awkward silence. "So what's the plan now? I mean, I came this way to protect Chloe, and besides I don't have a home to go home to anymore, so I'm kind of wondering what to do now."
"You can stay with us," he said. But as he spoke, he was already calculating how much longer his food stash was going to last, now that he had two more mouths to feed. But he couldn't just turn a young girl outside alone. He started gathering his remaining canned food and water. "I think I know a place we can go for now. Can you help me with all this?"
"Sure." They started gathering armloads of cans and bottles while Chloe sat listlessly on the camp bed.
"By the way," Ray asked. "Do you really have a gun?" Another gun would help add to their protection.
Vivian shook her head. "I was bluffing and hoping like hell you wouldn't call me on it."
"I see." They forced the door to the shelter open and peered cautiously before stepping outside.
The car was where he had left it. The windows were smashed out and the sides were covered in dents but it still looked drivable. They dumped the food and water in back and ran back to the shelter.
"You get Chloe," Ray said. "I've got a few more things to take care of." The two girls climbed the stairs, leaving Ray alone in the pit that had been his home. He looked around for a moment before grabbing some more ammunition for his gun. You never know when you might need it, he thought.
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