Leaving a smudged trail of blood on the concrete floor, Dad and Janet get Mom to a bunk. Ronnie and Mr. Shaw, in their pajamas, stumble into the shelter and look around. Mrs. Shaw, in a pink bathrobe, arrives next. From around the shield wall come shouts and cries urging each other to hurry and go down.


Dad spins to face Mr. Shaw. “We’re all going to die,” he growls, as Paula comes in with tears running down her face. “There’s already too many. There isn’t enough food or water for all of us.”


Mr. Shaw and my father stare at each other for an instant, then march back around the shield wall. Meanwhile Sparky’s still holding onto me, and I can’t stop looking at Mom, now cradled in Janet’s arms, wishing she’d move. Ronnie and Paula also stare. Mrs. Shaw pulls both of them to her.


On the other side of the shield wall, Dad and Mr. Shaw shout that there are too many people. Loud grunts and curses follow, as if there’s a fight. A man shouts, “My daughter’s in there!” In the shelter Paula cries out, “Daddy!” Her sobs grow louder and Mrs. Shaw hugs her and says it’s going to be okay. But that can’t be true. There’s a nuclear war and Mom’s lying there bleeding and too many people are already in the shelter and more are trying to get in.


The fighting and yelling grow louder. Sparky’s grip on me tightens as he pleads, “Make it stop!”


Mr. McGovern staggers around the shield wall with a long red scratch across his cheek. “Daddy!” Paula cries and breaks away from Mrs. Shaw, but before she gets to him there’s a sudden bright flash of light as if someone on the other side of the shield wall took a photograph.


A woman screams.


The bulb in the ceiling goes out.


Everything turns dark.


The sirens in the distance stop.


“What happened?” Sparky asks anxiously in the inky void.


Clang! Something on the other side of the shield wall slams shut and I hear a clank as if a bolt has been thrown.


It is pitch black in the shelter.


The momentary silence is broken by Paula’s sobs, then into the darkness come ragged breaths — Dad’s and Mr. Shaw’s. From around the shield wall come the thuds of fists drumming against the trapdoor. A muffled female voice cries hysterically, “Richard! Richard!”


It’s horrible. I cover my ears, but it doesn’t help. More thuds and voices join in. “Please!” “For the love of God!” “Don’t let us die!”


“I’m scared!” Sparky cries. In the blackness his sobs join Paula’s.


“Don’t listen,” Mrs. Shaw gasps, as if such a thing might be possible.


Despite the desperate sounds coming from the other side of the trapdoor, there is a strange stillness in the shelter.


“Scott?” Dad says somberly somewhere in the dark


. “Dad?” Ronnie says at the same time his mother says, “Steven?”


“I’m here,” Mr. Shaw answers, breathing heavily.


Loud clanks and thumps fill our ears as those left above desperately beat at the trapdoor. But it is made of quarter-inch iron plate. Nothing short of a bazooka could blast through it.


“Make it stop,” Sparky pleads.


But it doesn’t. There’s no getting away from the agonized, desperate cries of those who’ve been kept out. Stomach cramped, heart racing, I fight back tears and wish the banging and shouting would go away.


Now there’s a new, more distant sound … growing steadily louder like thunder. Then a roar, and one last horrible scream that disappears into deafening banging and crashing. In the dark below I cower over Sparky, and imagine something like a tornado above obliterating everything in its path.


It rumbles over us, followed by a few muffled thumps.


And then . . . quiet.





“Keep an eye out,” Ronnie told Freak O’ Nature, and continued up the Lewandowskis’ driveway. Feeling light-headed with worry, I followed, wondering if Ronnie felt that way, too. He had to know that stealing was wrong. Was a Sara Lee Frozen Cheesecake really worth this much anxiety?


At the garage door, I glanced back at Freak O’ Nature, hoping he would wave or otherwise indicate that someone was coming and we should abandon this unlawful endeavor. But he wasn’t even looking at us. Instead he was staring down at his radio as if watching the words come out.


Ronnie took hold of the garage door handle. The door creaked upward, revealing a shadowy interior that smelled of car oil and dry grass, and was crammed with bicycles, toy carriages, and hula hoops, as well as a lawnmower, rakes, and shovels. Without a word, he marched toward the back. The freezer was one of those horizontal models and a small cloud of chilled white vapor rose into our faces when he lifted the top. The inner walls were caked white with ice and it was filled with rectangular packages of chicken pot pies, frozen vegetables, Swanson TV dinners and, the treasure which we sought, Sara Lee frozen cheesecakes. Ronnie picked up a box, covered with a thin film of ice crystals.


And that’s when the Lewandowskis’ station wagon pulled in.