From above come grunts, banging, and scraping – the sounds of a scuffle. “Richard, let us in!” someone shouts frantically. “Don’t let us die!
”Petrified with fear, I crouch beside Janet on the concrete floor at the bottom of the steps, next to the dark, still forms of Mom and Sparky. Above us Dad clings to the metal rungs and tries to pull the trapdoor closed, but people on the other side are trying to pull it open.
The light’s gone on in the playroom and the shelter brightens each time the trapdoor rises a few inches, then darkens again when Dad manages to pull it down. With each flash of light I glimpse Mom on her back, one arm stretched out, one leg bent at the knee, the other propped against the wall, Sparky sprawled on top of her.
My brother begins to whimper. Janet draws him off Mom and into her arms. I can’t tell if he’s hurt, but at least he’s moving and making sounds. Unlike Mom, who lies perfectly still.
Above us the trapdoor rises enough to let in the wail of sirens. Someone shouts a curse. Dad’s teeth are gritted with exertion as he struggles to pull the door closed. I want to beg him to let the others in. But I don’t because this is something I’ve been scared about ever since he first told me about the shelter, since I realized we were the only family on the block who had one. What if there are dozens of people up there? What if more are coming? What if they all try to squeeze in until those of us at the bottom are crushed to death?
The trapdoor rises. A thin metal tube slides in and swings around as if trying to hit Dad’s arms and break his grip on the underside of the door. It’s a pole from the badminton net.
Dad’s feet are wedged into the metal rungs. Each time the door is yanked up, he’s stretched before he can pull back down. “Scott, get the rope!” he shouts.
I’m still frozen with fear. My eyes meet Janet’s. “Do what he says.”
I look up at Dad. “Where?”
“On the wall!”
We’re in a narrow corridor lined with cinder blocks. From a previous visit down here I know that the wall he’s talking about is around the corner, in the shelter itself. But the small amounts of light seeping in from above don’t reach that far. “I can’t see!” I yell.
“The light!” Dad shouts.
“On the string from the ceiling!”
I scuttle into the pitch-black shelter. Stopping in what I think should be the center of the room, I wave my arms around until I feel a string and pull. A light bulb bursts on and in the glare I see the cattycorner double-decker bunks and wooden shelves lined with food and other supplies. A coiled rope is looped over a hook jutting from the wall and I grab it. Back out in the narrow corridor, Janet is comforting Sparky, who’s staring fearfully up while Dad struggles. Mom still hasn’t moved. Something dark has pooled under her heaD.
A tennis racket slides through the gap between the trapdoor and the closet floor. They’re using it as a lever to pry the door open. Dad reaches down toward me with one hand. “Here!” He grabs the coil of rope from my hands. Now, in addition to the badminton pole and tennis racket, fingers appear along the edge of the trapdoor. First a few, then more and more, turning white around the fingernails as they pull upward.
The trapdoor starts to rise. The rope falls to the floor beside Mom as Dad tightens his grip on the underside of the door. He grits his teeth and strains to pull it down, but more hands from above are pulling up. The door goes higher and through the gap I see bare feet, pajama-clad legs, the hems of robes . . . then faces peering in — tight lips, and clenched teeth like Dad’s. The door rises another inch. Dad’s being stretched, the skin of his stomach showing between his pajama top and bottoms.
“Uhhh!” he grunts and lets go.
The trapdoor flies open and light spills in, accompanied by yelps and thuds as the people who were pulling fall backwards. The badminton pole and tennis racket tumble down on us with dull thunks. Janet and Sparky cower. Mom doesn’t react. Familiar faces crowd around the square opening above. Ronnie and his father. Mr. McGovern and Paula. . . .
They look astonished, as if they don’t know what to do now that they’ve gotten the trapdoor open. Clinging to the rungs in the wall, Dad stares up at them.
“There’s no room,” he protests, meekly.
The faces above him become determined and grim.
“Go down, Ronnie!” Mr. Shaw shouts.
“But Scott’s dad said—”
“Go!” Mr. Shaw yells.
Ronnie’s bare foot feels for the top rung. Dad reaches up and swats it away.
“He’s stopping me!” Ronnie cries.
Ronnie’s feet rise up as if he’s flying away. They’re replaced by bigger feet. Dad swipes at them, but the feet kick back. Legs in blue pajamas force Dad down the rungs.
“You’ll kill us all!” he protests.
Ronnie’s dad answers with a curse and takes another step down.
“Watch out for Mom!” I cry at Dad, who momentarily freezes when he sees her crumpled below.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shaw and Ronnie are coming down, while others crowd around the trapdoor waiting their turn. Dad hops from the bottom rung, trying not to step on Mom.
“We need to move her!” he yells at Janet as he quickly slides his hands under Mom’s shoulders. Janet grabs Mom’s ankles and together they maneuver her around the shield wall and into the shelter. Sparky runs into my arms, his heart beating as fast as a hamster’s, and I lead him toward the shelter, following Dad and Janet. My last glimpse is of Mr. Shaw helping Ronnie off the rungs while more people climb down. The nightmare is coming true. We’re going to be crushed.
You never knew what might come out of Ronnie’s mouth, but on that June afternoon with our heads filled with baseball and cheese cake, the suggestion that we could all be dead tomorrow was unexpectedly jarring.
“What you talk about?” Freak O’ Nature asked.
“Nuclear war,” I said, since that was the only thing that could result in all three of us being dead by the morning. All year long the Communist threat had been growing as the Russians spread their influence in Asia and South America and even to a little country called Cuba, which was an island somewhere south of Florida ruled by a Commie named Castro who had a scruffy beard, wore green Army uniforms, and smoked cigars.
“My dad heard the Ruskies are sending ships filled with fighter jets, bombers, and missiles to Cuba,” Ronnie said. “And if we try to stop them they’ll blow us to smithereens.”
The Russians were evil. Their chubby bald-headed leader Nikita Khrushchev had crooked teeth and an ugly gap between the front two, which showed that Russians didn’t even believe in orthodontia. And if that didn’t make him anti-American enough, there was the time he’d come to the United Nations and banged his shoe on the rostrum, which proved beyond a doubt that the Commies were unpredictable, violent, and crazy enough to blow us all up.
Clover stem squeezed between his lips, Ronnie pushed himself up to his feet and reached down, offering me his hand. “Come on, let’s eat.”
I felt my stomach tighten at the thought of the proposed criminal enterprise.
“Well?” Ronnie’s hand was still out. I grabbed it, just like always.
Freak O’ Nature scooped up the transistor radio and sprang to his feet. He was the only kid we knew who could go from sitting Indian style to standing without using his hands, this being one more piece of evidence of his general freak o’ naturedness.
We walked along the sidewalk past our neighbors’ homes, each on a quarter acre of property with a front lawn just large enough for a bunch of twelve-year-old boys to play touch football.
Ahead was Linda’s house, which differed from most of the others on our block because it had a second floor. As the three of us neared Linda’s I couldn’t help wondering how Ronnie expected to get a cheesecake out of the freezer without one of the numerous Lewandowski children, or Mrs. Lewandowski herself, catching us.
Relief washed through me when the Lewandowskis’ garage came into view. “It’s closed,” I announced, trying not to reveal how much better I felt now that I wouldn’t have to help Ronnie steal.
“Because they’re not home,” said Ronnie. “Linda told me she was going to the orthodontist this afternoon.” The Lewandowskis had a station wagon, and whenever Mrs. Lewandowski took one of her kids somewhere, all the others had to go as well. It was not unusual to see their car weaving erratically down the street, Mrs. Lewandowski steering with her left hand while reaching back to smack one misbehaving child or another with her right.
“So . . . what’re we gonna do?” I bit my lower lip.
“Go in there and get a cheesecake,” Ronnie replied as if the answer was obvious. He’d stopped at the foot of the Lewandowski’s driveway and was gazing at the house, which was the color of chocolate pudding.
My queasiness leapt up a notch; intentionally opening a garage door seemed to imply a greater degree of juvenile delinquency than merely wandering in. I reached behind my ear and took hold of a few more hairs. “You mean, open the garage door?”
“No, Scott, I’m going to walk right through it like that scientist in 4D Man.”
“Nothing can stop him,” Freak O’ Nature said in a deep ominous voice, quoting from the TV commercial currently promoting the movie. “A man in the fourth dimension is in . . . de . . . struct . . . ible.”
By now my reluctance had risen to the level of near-paralysis. “You sure about this?”
“What’s the big deal?” Ronnie asked. “The Lewandowskis are our neighbors. We share stuff all the time.”
“But we ask first,” I said.
“If they were here, I’d ask.” Ronnie took a few steps up the driveway, then stopped and looked back at us. “You guys aren’t chicken, are you?”