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How to Build a Bunker

Story by L.M. Brown (Read author interview) July 20, 2020

Art by Paul Bilger

To survive a nuclear blast, you need to be at least 3 feet underground. Also, you need 36 inches of concrete or tightly packed dirt to shield you from the blast radius. Whether you survive or not, depends on the size of the bomb. Our bomb was 5’4″ and mother-shaped. Days after Mom left, Dad started to dig the hole. Once it was deep enough, he waterproofed the walls and floor with a thick rubber membrane like the ones used in pools. I helped roll the rubber and put rocks on the corner to keep it in place, while Rob stayed in his room. When our mother phoned to speak to us, Dad waited in the background with his arms crossed. I asked how long she was going to be away. “I don’t know,” our mother said. Rob didn’t say anything to her. He might have heard the spike of laughter in the background that sounded like a child. Dad had to ease the phone out of his hand.

Once the concrete for the base was poured and the wooden frame installed, Dad let me climb into the hole. The blue patch of sky made me think of the baby bird Rob and I once found in its nest. I think that was the day Rob took the photos our mother had left behind from the walls. Dad’s hands were speckled grey when he picked the frames and pieces of glass from the floor. I never counted more than 120 shingles on the bunker roof before I got bored. Rob refused to try. We had to drag him to Home Depot where Dad bought 250 feet of cable to run from the house to the bunker and we argued over what color paint we should use to hide the patches that our mother had left behind. The next time Mom called, it was quiet around her and I imagined she was nothing, but a voice trapped in the phone. It was Rob’s turn to ask where she was. Dad didn’t try to take the phone until Rob started to shout, “Why not, why can’t you tell us?”

Our mother was gone six months, when Dad stormed into our rooms, turned on the lights, and shouted, “Quick to the bunker.” Dad was stark and wide-eyed in his excitement. His grip on my arm stung. The bunker had a trap door and wooden steps. When I saw the yellow lights attached to the walls, I tried not to think of my mother, who loved Christmas and decoration. As well as the lights and three stools, Dad had a few cans of soup that looked like a feeble attempt at decoration more than anything else. We sat in a weary silence facing Dad. “Well what do you think?” he said. Rob shrugged. I nodded. I don’t know how long it took for him to say okay, and for all of us to retrace our steps.

The next drill was a few days later. Again, he held the trap door while we descended. But this time he had jellybeans, I can’t remember if he had them in his hands or if they were already there when we got down. Dad was tall and thin. He leaned forward as if he was afraid the roof would fall in on him. We mimicked him, so we were like a football team huddled together. “What else do we need?” Dad asked.

“A television,” Rob said. Dad laughed and said maybe, anything else. We gave him a list, while we chewed on jellybeans. Even at night, annoyed and sleepy, we could never resist the colored candy. The phone calls stopped, but for years I thought of my mother whenever I heard a phone ring. Some nights, I’d hear Dad slide the glass door and I’d watch his tall figure drift through the garden. I was sure he was going to the bunker to cry. I’d heard him once, before the roof had been put on, when there was nothing to separate him from the stars.

About the Author

L.M. Brown is the author of the novel Debris and collections Were We Awake and Treading the Uneven Road. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart prize and have been published in over a dozen literary magazines, such as The Chiron Review, Eclectica, Litro, Fiction Southeast, Toasted Cheese and more. Her novel Hinterland is forthcoming (2020). She grew up in Ireland, but now lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three daughters, dog and bearded dragon.

About the Artist

Paul Bilger’s photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly. 

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020 of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Eight — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction 2020

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