Late Autumn, 1953
A remote farmstead in southern Oklahoma
“Sheiße!” The curse exploded from Gunter Buchmann’s mouth when his head banged into a beam in the low storm cellar ceiling. Rubbing yet another sore spot that was quickly swelling into a lump, he used his other hand to push aside sealed bags of dehydrated potatoes and vegetables on the shelf. Several bags dropped to the concrete floor. Gunter ignored them.
“I know it’s here,” he said. “I know der vas one left.” He moved the cartons of oatmeal and powdered milk, then the first aid supplies and extra bedding. He grabbed a pillow and threw it onto the top bunk bed. Ducking under the next ceiling beam, Gunter stuck his hand behind the canned fruits and vegetables. Nothing.
He walked the few feet over to the bunks, and sat on the bottom one. Pulling a pack of Pall Malls from his shirt pocket, he fumbled an unfiltered cigarette out of the foil and put it in his mouth, then felt in his trouser pocket for the small Ronson lighter. Still staring at the shelves laden with emergency foodstuffs, Gunter flicked the lighter, waiting for the orange sparks to ignite the lighter fluid in the wick. He cradled his free hand around the lighter to shield it from drafts and drew the lighter to the end of the cigarette.
He inhaled deeply, then looked at the dead lighter and the dead cigarette. He flicked the lighter a few more times, watching the sparks. Must be out of fluid, he thought. “Vell, dat figgers,” he spat. He spotted the matches on the shelf next to the candles, and got his cigarette lighted. Again he sat and stared at the shelves, trying to remember where he’d left the last bottle of Jim Beam. His eyes strayed to the four fifty gallon containers of water in the corner.
“Nein. Too easy for Nora to see ven ve changed da vater” he muttered. He thought back to the previous Sunday when they’d emptied the water containers, then refilled them with fresh water, adding a bit of bleach to each container to purify the water and keep the containers sanitized. The first Sunday of each month they performed this ritual. They also inspected each can, box, bag and container of food, looking for evidence of spoilage, dampness, or rodent damage. Rarely did they have to discard anything.
Sometimes they rotated the food with their own daily supplies, making sure the emergency supplies were ready in case of tornados or war.
“Ve never know vat them verdammt Russkies vill do” Gunter had said to Nora many times, who kept her eyes downcast while nodding in agreement.
Then Gunter spotted the boxes of cold cereals stacked neatly next to jars of Sunny Jim peanut butter and various homemade jams and bottles of Brer Rabbit blackstrap molasses.
“Ach!” he exclaimed as he withdrew the bottle of amber liquid from behind the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Almost dropping the bottle in his haste to unscrew the cap, Gunter raised the precious liquid and let it gurgle freely into his mouth. His nose told him something was wrong before his taste buds sent their own message to the brain.
“Pppttaaahhhh!” he sputtered, spitting the vile tasting liquid from his mouth. “Gott im Himmel! Vas ist das?” He lifted the bottle to his nose and tried to identify the odor. He knew good bourbon wouldn’t spoil, but something definitely was wrong. He recognized the smell, and searched for a word that would put a name to it.
While Gunter was spitting the faux bourbon all over the floor of the storm/bomb shelter, a soft thud behind him went unheard. As he swore at the noxious taste in his mouth and wiped his tongue on the sleeve of his wool shirt, a barely discernable sound of metal against metal also went unheeded. A final click almost penetrated his mind, but Gunter was far more concerned with what had happened to his last bottle of whiskey than with any noises.
Eyeing another bottle on a nearby shelf, Gunter unscrewed the cap and took a whiff. He thought it smelled the same, but his nose was overwhelmed from the first smell and he couldn’t be sure. He read the label on the new jar: Heinz Apple Cider Vinegar. He smelled the Jim Beam bottle again, then the vinegar. Slowly, understanding crept into his eyes, which narrowed as the veins in his forehead and neck began to swell with rage.
“I vill kill her!” He threw both bottles to the floor and spun towards the door.
Gunter noticed that the heavy steel bar used to hold the oak door closed against the might of whirling maelstroms and atomic mushrooms had somehow slid into place. He was pretty sure he hadn’t done it, but maybe he had. He certainly didn’t want her to know he kept whiskey down here. He grabbed the handle and yanked. It didn’t move. He tried again. And again. Then he kicked the door with a steel-toed work boot. It didn’t budge.
“Vat da Hell!” he exploded, and started to pound and kick at the door.
Nora Wells limped quietly across the cellar floor, her bare feet making no noise as she headed for the wooden stairs. She started up the steps, making sure to avoid number four—the squeaky one—trying to keep most of the weight off her right knee. It was still purple and swollen, and hurt to bend, even though it had been two weeks since she’d been sent crashing into the magazine rack in the living room. She knew something serious was wrong, had begged Gunter to let her see a doctor. He had refused, his eyes taking in the red and green splotches on her arms, and the swollen eye with its dark accusation ringing it.
At the top, she closed the door to the cellar and pushed in the small center button to engage the lock. She made her slow, painful way to the stove, and set the tea kettle over a burner. She stood still, almost as if paralyzed, listening intently for any noise from below. She concentrated so hard on any sound that she was startled when the kettle began to sputter and make wet, sporadic whistle noises.
Carefully Nora poured herself a cup of hot water and inserted a Lipton tea bag. She carried the cup and saucer to the dining room and set it on the table. She pulled out one of the straight-back wooden chairs and seated herself. There she sat, unmoving.
Eventually, Nora took a deep breath and reached into her apron pocket, her hand curling around the hard object held there. Straightening her back and standing, she picked up her cup and went into the living room. Slowly she approached the stuffed chair where Gunter always sat—the most comfortable chair in the house, the one with the best view of the low marshlands out the living room window, where a few Sandhill cranes came to spend the winter..
Quickly, without considering any more, she set her cup down on the end table and sat in the chair. At first, she kept her back ramrod straight. She stared straight ahead, her back not touching the chair.
He can’t get out, she thought. It’s impossible. He built that door himself, welded the nuts on the bolts that go clear through the five inches of oak planks with quarter-inch sheet steel sandwiched between them. He’d made the hinges, made them heavy and strong, not like the imported junk we get from Japan these days. He’d even made the hasp out of heavy steel plate, and so large that only an over-sized padlock would fit on it.
Grandaddy was always there to help me, she thought. And now, when I need him the most, he’s here again. She reached into her apron pocket and withdrew the key. Only a strong padlock, she repeated to herself. Like grandaddy’s beautiful padlock, with its ornate scrolling and “Best” stamped into the brass.
Slowly a smile crept onto her lips and she leaned back into the luxurious softness of the best chair in the house.