When the Lights Go Out Again,
All Over the World

by J. A. Tyler


When the shelter was built it had everything. Everything.

The damp cement walls were stocked with soap and potable water, canned food and Twinkies, changes of clothes, tampons, mouthwash and toothbrushes, board games and books, and dozens on dozens of light bulbs.

They also had a radio that kept them abreast of the outside world. Of course since the last radio DJ died a few years ago, the radio only broadcast static. Henry, the head of the Mackenzie household, would still listen to the static for hours on end. He didn’t believe that all of the DJs were gone. He figured at least one or two dozen of them had made it to shelters. But Henry was wrong.

The last known DJ was on air for seventy-two hours after the final explosions. He said that he wanted to report until he died, and he did just that. His last words were “Ride’em Cowboy!” No one in the Mackenzie household was sure about why he’d said it. Since then, static had dominated.

But Henry’s estimations about the death toll were so very wrong. To Henry, the dream was that when the hatch opened after ten years his family would step out into the light, healthy and good, and watch hundreds of other families do the same. They would talk about their experiences and how they made it through the event. They would rebuild their homes, their schools, and their churches. They would return to life as normal. Less front lawns and trees, otherwise no big deal.

But the Mackenzies were one of only a few families who had even built a shelter.

The government, upon learning that so many countries had access and were in the midst of building nuclear weapons, recommended that everyone build bomb shelters in their backyards or down from their basements. They posted specs on the internet and published articles in all the country’s newspapers. They even had a campaign on TV called “Shelter or Die, Your Choice.” But the people were thick-headed. I guess they’d never made it past the old duct tape and plastic and germ warfare. Or worse yet, the duck and cover.

And since the Mackenzies were one of the only families to follow instructions, they were one of the only families still alive in the world. This time the duck and cover worked.

So it may come down to Rebecca and Adam becoming Eve and Adam. Brother and sister save the human race again. Yikes.

But for the meantime Henry would sit and stare at the small radio and wait for signs of life.

And of course, none came.

Eventually, the radio went dead. It happened on a Sunday morning around eleven o’clock, Sunday by Jackie’s account, since she was in charge of time and day records. Time for church. Henry was sure that it was a sign.

Actually though, the grayish radio with its orange clock face had gone out because the batteries were dead. Henry only noticed after the clock was noiseless for over thirty minutes. But they had more batteries. They had loads of them. Static would be never-ending.

Of course never-ending here meant ten years total. They had already lived out two years in relative peace. And although most governments had reported that five years was enough, new studies had shown that disease would still exist for up to ten years. But the longer you waited the longer it took for the cancer to hit you. The Mackenzies wanted to live, damn it, so ten years it was.

To rebel against time, Henry had packed into the shelter’s various rooms a seemingly unending supply of books and learning aids. These would keep them busy and make their minds sharp. He had maps and diagrams and dictionaries and pencils and paper. He had calculators and historic journals and scientific puzzles and even an old rusted trumpet.

Rebecca and Adam had both learned Spanish and German and Latin and French.

C’est la vie.

They had both learned all about science and math and everything logical in the world.

E=mc2

And they both learned to play the old, rusty trumpet.

Prrt. Prrrrrtt. Prt.

They had both learned all of the state capitals, all of the countries in the world, all of the parts of the body, all the types of clouds and weather patterns, and every historical event up until the Big, Big Bang.

The shinbone is connected to the anklebone. Cha-cha-cha.

It had been called the Big, Big, Bang for a total of about five minutes. Just long enough for it to get stuck in the public consciousness. For the Mackenzies were now pretty much the public consciousness, and whenever they talked about “the event” they referred to it as the Big, Big, Bang.

What had happened?

Henry’s answer was this:

“A bunch of idiots run the world. Simple as that. Everybody has the technology to blow everybody else up. And some do it with loud explosions and some with poison gas and some with ear-splitting sound and some even with sexual innuendos, dammit. Anyway you slice it you’re left with deep down bomb shelters as your new ten-year home. Bunch’a idiots.”

Adam followed in his father’s footsteps: “Damn right.”

“Don’t say ‘damn’, son.”

“Sorry dad.”

At the time the Big, Big Bang occurred Jackie only had one thing to say: “Oh, my.”

Later, she elaborated: “Dammit.”

“Dear, you really shouldn’t swear in front of the kids.”

“Sorry.”

Rebecca was the only comment-less Mackenzie:

“ ______ . ”

But they made it to the shelter in time. They missed some of the details but at least they were safely underground.

And really the only detail they missed was exactly who started it. They thought it was India, but that was only in the first few minutes. Later, news reports indicted China, North Korea, and Russia. Then it was Pakistan, Iran, or Iraq. Germany, France, even England. Then it was Ireland, Spain, and Argentina. The last country named was Canada, but to most people that seemed as convincing as the rest.

In reality, it had been the United States. A test had gone wrong, but no one would admit it. And really, no one ever would. Dead people don’t talk. Problem solved.

And regardless of who had started the mess it ended with the detonation of God knows how many nuclear warheads. Enough that only the best bomb shelters would save lives. Good thing Henry had construction in his blood.

And year one had gone off okay. It wasn’t a twenty-first birthday party or anything, but it was alright. They had entertainment and food and shelter. They were only missing friends, open space, fresh air, and natural light.

But they each had a room to themselves, and they had stocked their rooms with the items they loved.

Adam brought along his CD collection, and with the supply of batteries available, he was set for twenty years if need be.

Rebecca brought along her doll collection. It was thirty-strong and piled on top of her bed. Cuddling with that group could give her twenty-years too, hands down.

Jackie brought along her favorite book, a dog-eared copy of the nearly insurmountable Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell would be proud.

And Henry, well his only luxury item had been that practical gray and orange radio. And even though it broadcast only static, he still loved it and it still consumed more than a third of his waking day.

And like a lot of problems, this one started on New Year’s Eve. Year two, day one, to be exact.

It was a time when you think about where you’ve been and what you’ve done and, unfortunately, the family was at odds for optimism.

The problem stirred most obviously in Adam. He had turned teenager during the first year and now here he was.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

So with Adam’s angst and Jackie’s depression and Rebecca’s stir-craziness and Henry’s desire to cover it all up with capitol quizzes and late night static sessions, something was bound to give.

Once the belt goes, the whole engine’s screwed.

Welcome to life.

By the end of “First Hell-Hole New Year’s,” Adam and Henry were squarely locked in a fistfight that had destroyed half of the battery shelves and a good six-dozen Twinkies. And the scuffle roamed over the entire shelter. Room to room. Excitable. Jackie screamed and Rebecca gasped in queer harmonies.

Thump. Gasp. Sigh. Creak. Crack. Shatter. Twinkle. Silence. Silence. Silence.

That was the end of the fight, in a nutshell.

The most painful consequence: only one light bulb was left intact in the cubbies that had, seconds before, held so many.

Still, each room had its own lamp and its own still working light bulb.

Everyone could depend on at least a year or two of light, even running the lamps constantly.

Still.

So all of the sudden, the last light bulb in the Mackenzie home became the most precious possession. Forget about the CDs and the stuffed animals and the radio and Gone With the Wind.

Screw Margaret Mitchell.

Henry wanted to take the light bulb and lock it up somewhere tight. But Jackie didn’t want him to have the key. Better yet, she didn’t want him to have the light bulb.

Rebecca suggested that they put it back in the now empty cubby and whoever’s light burned out first would get the replacement. But to be honest, nobody liked that idea. After all, sitting in the pitch-black darkness of a windowless cement cave is only fun for about the first few hours.

Then, one Friday morning, the light bulb disappeared. Henry wanted to take stock of the storage items and he started with the light bulbs. There weren’t any there. The house was ransacked and no one found anything.

So they ransacked it again, only better this time, and they found a hollowed-out hole on the underside of Adam’s mattress. Inside it was the light bulb. As a punishment, Henry took all of the half-used light bulbs from Adam’s room and made him sit in the dark for the rest of the day.

Two weeks later, the light bulb was gone again. This time they found it inside the pink elephant of Rebecca’s collection. She was given the same punishment as Adam.

And Jackie would have stolen the light bulb next, but at this point Henry was keeping twenty-four hour watch over it. And don’t be mistaken; a twenty-four hour watch all by yourself is quite a task.

Henry lasted about three days.

And when he blacked out Jackie and the kids took turns holding the light bulb and wondering when their current ones would burn out. They noticed that this last one was a soft white. Oh boy.

When Henry came to they tried to give him the same punishment that Adam and Rebecca had received, but it was like trying to stuff a twelve hundred pound gorilla into a suitcase; Henry wouldn’t have it.

But the light bulb, no one knew what to do.

They talked as a family about the dilemma. It was the first family meeting in nearly six-months, and it sounded like the off-duty meeting of sailors. Rebecca said the s-word countless times and Jackie even used the a-word. Henry and Adam used the s-word and the a-word too, but sprinkled liberally with some other inexplicable nonsense.

In short, they talked about breaking it, just to be done with the whole thing.

They thought better of that idea almost instantly, and swore at themselves for thinking of it.

They talked about taking turns or making a schedule, but schedules were haywire anymore. Sometimes they ate only one meal a day, sometimes seven; they slept two hours, or nine hours, or thirteen hours, or fourteen hours; Adam was now addicted to his CDs, listening for days on end without meal or bathroom break; Rebecca weighed forty pounds and looked like a miniaturized female Gandhi; Jackie and Henry hadn’t had sex since the beginning of this thing, and in the meantime both had completely shaved their heads and referred to each other as “him” and “her.”

It was out of control.

And since they had reached zero conclusions after sixteen hours of deliberation, they decided to do the only thing that sounded reasonable.

They played hot potato.

The one holding the light bulb when the radio made a real, non-static sound would be the bulb’s new owner.

But of course, static prevailed.

And by the time they realized they had become living cat boxes, drooling babies, and that the radio was never going to utter anything but waves of crunching, the filament of the light bulb was happy rolling around in newfound freedom.

So there was nothing left now except to clean up, bathe, throw away the useless bulb, and wait for the lights to go out.

It’s like a game of musical chairs with no prize and no winner.

Gimme, gimme, gimme.

Win, win, win.

No end in sight.


Copyright © 2006 by J. A. Tyler

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