She had always expected grandchildren. She had expected, even as a young girl, to live deep into her twilight surrounded by chittering, smiling faces. Even before she had thought of having children or even knew what that meant, she had expected grandchildren. She had expected full tables at thanksgiving and long lists of names at Christmas.
She could always see it so vividly.
Sitting next to a man who would have looked remarkably like a potato that lay in the cupboard too long whose skin had gone loose as the inside had lessened with time. She would have borne the years with more grace and would have had tight skin that shone like a mirror as it stretched across her forehead. She had expected to buy him little sweaters that he would have worn as he sat in front of a typewriter, or sat in his favorite chair reading the paper or a book that he loved. The sweaters would have always been soft against her face when he hugged her unexpectedly in the middle of a frigid morning.
They would have gotten dogs as their children left to go about their lives. At first they would be big dogs to replace the big people in their lives. She had always wanted a pair of Danes or Irish Setters, but he would have wanted a Bulldog so they would have gotten one of each. As they got older the dogs would get smaller so they would have less to do.
She would have planted a garden with both flowers and vegetables. He would have had a tree or two that would have borne fruit. He would have brought her the bright, ripe fruit wrapped in a paper towel, as though they were precious gems wrapped in silk, and present them to her to bake into a pie or some other treat that the grandchildren would love when they arrived. They would have had a sense of when the fruit would be ripe enough for pie.
Late in the evening they would have sat in the den, he in his chair, and she in curled into the elbow of the couch with a small blanket and a dog at her feet. They would have read to each other and laughed when they were funny or awkward, or just sat in silence when they were somber orpainful.
When they would have gone to bed, in a bed that was too small for two people to sleep without touching, he would kiss her with his crinkled lips and smile before pulling the string that turned out the lamp. She would have always known he was close by, even in her dreams.
She sat thinking of all of the things she had expected as she looked down at the list of names and addresses. The snow had begun to fall outside and she heard the tired old furnace struggle to sputter to life. She still had some heating fuel left, at least she could stay warm. The list of names was not long, and all of them sat beside two dates. The page they were written on was yellowed slightly. She had had it for a few decades. The names and addresses were all faded, all but the last dates which were in fresher ink. She hadn’t remembered writing each of the names or addresses individually, but she remembered the pain of writing that last date into every one of the names. Most of them had the same date. April 7th.
They were shouting again outside, they always started shouting when the sun went down. Since the bombs had gone off and the lights had gone out, it was as though everyone lost their mind in the dark. It reminded her of those National Geographic specials about the Amazon or the Congo. The animals always lost their mind when the sun went down.
She grabbed the stack of cards, each with a glitter covered snowman wearing a scarf and mittens on the front and walked to the front door. Her mother had always taped the cards she had gotten every year to the back of her door. Showing off how many people loved her. She always got excited when the first one came and she would put it up after announcing it to everyone.
She had written all of these herself. There had been no mail for months now. Each card had a small note inside, each letter of each word carefully chosen and drawn. She carried them to the foyer and taped them each to the boards which had long held her door closed.
She had just finished fixing the last card to her door when the shouting outside suddenly sounded louder and closer than it had before. She walked to the table in the kitchen, wanting to quickly extinguish the small oil lamp before anyone saw the light through the gaps in her boarded up windows. She had almost reached it when she heard a quiet tapping at her door.
The sound froze her in place, they knew she was inside. She had not had to hide in weeks. Most of the larger groups had roamed on, having already picked the neighborhood clean. If not for the small garden she kept in her basement she would have had to move on herself.
The tapping came again, slightly louder, but still very quiet.
Her lungs burned and she realized she had not taken a breath since the first tap, and she inhaled, the air whistling between her teeth at the sudden intake. She moved to the door and placed her ear against it. She heard only the pounding of her own blood in her ears.
The shouting was growing louder, but it was not close enough to be the source of the tapping. She was afraid, her hands shaking and her heart rattling against her ribs like dice in a cup. The tapping came again and she heard a voice whispering on the other side of the door.
“Please. Please. Please. Please. Please.” the pleas sounded thick with tears and terror. She slid the small slide open on the door to be able to look outside, but saw nothing at first.
Quickly a dirty tear streaked face filled her vision. She was young and her eyes, which may have once been a bright blue, were bloodshot and wide.
“Please. Help. I need to hide. They are getting closer.” She was whispering, but the desperation was plain in her voice.
The old woman said nothing, closing the slide with a loud snap.
The voice from beyond the door rose in volume only slightly.
“Please. Please. Please. If you don’t let me in I’ll die. They’ll rape me then I’ll die. You can’t let them…” The pleas broke down into sobbing.
The old woman stood there for several long moments, listening to the voice sob and plea. She opened the slide and said only three words. “Around the back.”
She shut the slide and walked quickly through the living room and down into the basement. The UV lights she had there always kept the room a bit warmer than the rooms above. She climbed onto one of the tables against the wall, her knees and back protesting heavily under the sudden exertion, and used a hammer that she had grabbed on her way downstairs to pull up the nails that held one of the high windows closed. She had blacked them out with paint, but a person could just fit through it. Her hands shook with the strain of pulling up the nails, each one getting more and more difficult.
The voice appeared on the other side of the window.
“Please. Hurry.” The shouting was much closer now, and she pulled the last nail free with a grunt of effort.
The window was pulled open from the outside and a head appeared. Greasy blonde hair covered by a filthy beanie began to wriggle through the small opening. The old woman edged back from the window slowly, lowering herself carefully to the basement floor, the hammer still gripped tightly in her weathered hand.
The young woman was stuck, the jacket she was wearing was caught in the windows hinge, but the old woman did not move closer to help. Her world had been closed for so long, and she was suddenly not alone. There was another in her home. She could still stop it, the girl was stuck, her head was through the window. A few quick blows with the hammer and she would be safe again. The thoughts were bursting through her mind, but she was still locked in place when the jacket came free and she fell to the tabletop in a heap, unmoving.
The old woman, stood, still frozen in fear waiting for her to get up but the crumpled girl did not move. She could hear her breathing, she was not dead, but she still had not moved. The last thing that the old woman wanted to do was get closer to the other, but the window was still open. The light from the UV lamps would be bright in the darkness outside. She flipped the switch to the batteries, and the lights snapped out, bathing the room in black.
It took the old woman some time to carry the young woman up the short flight of stairs out of the basement. By the time she arranged the small figure on the couch every muscle in her frame was shuddering under the strain. It had been quite a while since she had pushed herself that hard. In the world before, in the world of bi-monthly visits to her doctor and twelve medications every morning, she had been forbidden from lifting anything heavy or even really getting her breath up, and as she collapsed into her favorite chair, a tall backed velvet upholstered monster that grasped her like a womb, she agreed with her doctors. The weariness settled in to her suddenly, and soft snores soon issued from the pink velvet surrounding the old woman.
The young woman woke slowly at first, then plunged suddenly into waking by the immediate terror of confusion. She did not recognize the room she was in. It was dim, the only light creeping through small cracks in what looked to be boards covering the windows. She was lying on a couch, a thin afghan covering her, but doing nothing to take the chill from her bones. She squinted around the room, looking for movement before sitting up. There was an brick fireplace across from her, the bricks had been painted white some time ago, black soot slowly creeping to cover the mantle. It was just the couch and two tall backed chairs that she could see. She strained her ears, listening for the sounds of anyone in the strange room with her.
She lifted her head to get a better look at her surroundings and noticed that the chair closest to her had its back to the window was deep enough that she could not see any details in the dim light. There was one thing that she noted, and its presence caught her breath in her throat. There was a single beam of light cutting sharply through the room from between the boards, it was a small shaft of light and it where it fell it only illuminated an area the size of a quarter, a quarter sized patch of light on top of a patch of thin yet heavily wrinkled skin.