When Joe rouses, sheet-tangled and naked beside her, Darlene is thinking about aphids.
He snorts, cracks an eye, and dozily nudges her shoulder with his chin.
“Hey.” A yawn pops his jaw. “This is nice.”
She ignores him. Her eyes track the shadows on the ceiling. Beyond the slatted blinds, silver light glimmers. What time is it? Probably too late, now, to spray the tomatoes. And the mustard greens—and what about the lettuce? She has to restock her neem oil. Ladybugs, she’s read, are natural aphid predators. She ordered carnivorous lacewings once, to fight a thrips infestation, from a website called Bug Out! Dozens of pearly larvae in white-gauze packets. The lacewings devoured the thrips and then promptly died of starvation. Did the website sell ladybugs? Darlene can’t remember.
“I could stay over,” Joe says into her neck. Breath warm and sticky. “Make us dinner.”
“You can’t,” she says, wiggling away. “I sold the fridge this week.” She pauses, remembering. “And the microwave.”
“Oh.” His voice goes up and over the vowel.
Darlene props herself on an elbow. She tries to take up as much space as possible.
“Nothing.” He rolls away and dangles one arm over the bed, pawing at his jeans. She listens to him dig through his pockets and imagines their contents: bicycle lock keys, metro pass, crinkled pack of Doublemint gum. It’s his addiction, that gum, and she loathes the smell, but it’s better than the Players he used to smoke in the backyard, barefoot and shirtless while she yelled at him from the doorway. His girlfriend, he claims, is making him quit.
Joe’s fingers peel away the rectangle of foil, fold the gum into a green wad, and pop it in his mouth. “I didn’t realize.” He clears his throat. Exhales minty freshness. “You’re living down there, now?”
Darlene sighs and tugs at his cowlick. Joe is her weed dealer: barely twenty-three and tender as a new sprout. Every Sunday, he rides up on his rusted Schwinn bike, a baggie of joints and a four-pack crammed into his Jansport backpack. Mostly she enjoys him, the way you enjoy something indulgent and forbidden, but there are times when she regrets starting the whole thing. It was spontaneous: She liked his peach-blonde moustache, his springy cowlick, and the way he always snuck furtive glances at her breasts. At fifty, Darlene is surprised that a man can still like her body, with its sags and folds. That first night, Joe grabbed her ass. Called her a fucking milf. Darlene, who had not thought of herself as a mother in years, felt a sharp, painful kick of joy.
“Not really,” Darlene says, anxious for him to leave. “I just don’t cook much.” She rolls back her shoulders, rubs her neck. The mattress, she’s decided, will be the next thing to go. Too soft. “Look, I have things to do.” She tries to sound light.
Joe pushes on, stubborn. “But you have such a nice house. Like, so much space.” He makes a sweeping motion with his arm, as if they’re overlooking an impressive vista. “I don’t understand why you’re gutting it.”
Darlene’s house, a clapboard bungalow with a vegetable garden in the back, sits on a tidy tree-lined street. Inside, the rooms are dusty and hollowed-out. The air smells like laundry forgotten in the dryer. Dimples in the carpet mark where furniture once was. Closets empty save for a handful of metal coat hangers. In the kitchen, the pantry and cabinets are vacant. A stainless-steel pot waits pointlessly on the stove. Spiders crawl under the windowsill and spin webs along the moulding. She doesn’t live here anymore—not really—but keeps the bedroom nice, for Joe. Nobody else knows about the bunker.
Darlene reaches for the baggie on the nightstand, next to their half-empty beer bottles. She shimmies out a joint and flicks her Bic lighter, the cheap spark-wheel kind you can get for a dollar. For a few minutes they pass the joint back and forth, not talking.
“It feels safe down there,” she says finally. Safe can’t be argued with; it’s a feeling beneath your skin, a warmth in your gut. Nothing you can hold or measure. Darlene knows this because she harbours fear the way some people harbour hopes and dreams. Her phobias are varied and deep-rooted: poisonous insects, killer bees, the smoke from tailpipes and cigarettes. Lyme-carrying ticks. Natural disasters. War, but more specifically, chemical warfare. And above all, illness— the invisible spread of disease. Her fears clamour inside her, more insistent and desperate every day, warning of an indistinct apocalypse that she knows will eventually reveal itself.
But the bunker soothes her. There, Darlene sleeps better than she ever did aboveground. The cot is thin and drooping. Her body almost touches the floor. She likes to imagine the comforting bulk of bricks and earth above her, the friendly roots of trees and plants coiling down into the mulch and murk.
Often, she thinks of Lev.
He would’ve hated the bunker, the stripped-down necessity of it.
When they bought the house, the basement was a pit of concrete and exposed pipes. They planned on turning it into a playroom, with toy chests and dress-up clothes and colourful foam mats. But then their son was born, perfect in every way except for his heart, which was too big, the doctors said, much too big. And when he died three days later, plugged into useless, hulking machines, Darlene couldn’t bear to get rid of the crib. The unworn baby clothes. “We can try again,” Lev had said, hopefully, though they never would. So the basement became a storage room inhabited by ghosts. A place to cry and smoke weed without Lev knowing.
Joe’s reaction to the bunker had been disappointing.
“This is some crazy shit,” he said. Shrilly, like he was being strangled. A week after their first hook-up, Darlene had guided him down the basement stairs, through the steel blast door she had installed last spring. Looking back, she doesn’t know why she trusted him with her secret. Maybe it was his age, that sweet-boy smile, or his eerie resemblance to Lev. Or maybe she just needed someone to tell, and Joe was there: stooped and shy and expectant in her doorway.
Darlene had taken great pleasure in organizing the bunker. Mismatched furniture—the few pieces she’d managed to manoeuvre down the flight of stairs— were arranged in a semicircle: a faded orange armchair, a fold-out table, an Army Surplus cot the colour of moss. And of course, the gas lanterns. The Coleman camping stove.
“You sleep down here?” Joe’s eyes were like golf balls. His feet drew concentric circles on the vinyl planks, spindly arms knotted around his ribcage. The wall-to-wall shelves were packed with canned beans, five-litre water bottles, sacks of rice and pasta. First-aid kit in the corner. Books against the wall. Oh, and her gun. She’d left it on the table, next to its open case, and Joe’s eyes kept skirting to it. A 9mm Luger, black with a silver slide, and even though she can’t imagine pointing it at a person, she likes having it there, locked in the bunker. More than anything, Darlene believes in the three Bs: beans, bullets, Band-Aids. On the Southwest Preppers forum, where she’s an active member, these are the Holy Trinity.
“Hey, um,” Joe starts. “I need to tell you something.”
The weed is making Darlene sleepy and she’s conscious of her body, how her tongue feels fuzzy and soft in her mouth. It makes her want to laugh. A giggle bubbles up in the back of her throat, then subsides.
“Sure, sure.” Darlene tries to look sober. After sex, Joe can be like a teenage girl. Always wanting to talk. Darlene sucks the butt-end of the joint and drops it, lime-like, down the neck of the bottle.
But instead he looks away, swings his long legs over the bed and stands, sighing deeply like he’s a balloon deflating. Darlene watches him, admiring his bony hips, his taut sinewy legs. He’s pale and hairless save for the blond tuft covering his balls. He reminds Darlene of a baby bird. When he yawns, his ribs unfold beneath his skin like an accordion.
“You can’t shower,” she warns.
“Oh.” He blinks. “Why not?”
Darlene begins to free herself from the sheets. “Because there’s a dead squirrel in the tub.”
“Jesus!” He blanches. “You’re still doing that?”
The squirrels—destructive, ringworm-sick vermin—are Darlene’s archnemeses. She catches them live in the morning in a steel cage baited with apple cores smeared with peanut butter, then in the evening, carries the trap into the bathroom. Among the suburban wildlife, word seems to have spread. The birds have become emboldened. Cardinals and sparrows are slowly reclaiming the yard, gathering in the shrubs, building nests under the eaves.
Joe turns away from her. He pulls his T-shirt over his head, then crouches to search for his socks. Darlene clucks her tongue. Poor, sweet bird. It isn’t the killing itself, she’s discovered, that disturbs him. It’s the method. Drowning is intimate. You need to hold the cage underwater and wait for the squirrel to stop thrashing. And boy, can they thrash. Rat poison, traps: these can be left and returned to. You don’t need to witness the moment of dying. On Southwest Preppers, some of the men like to swap hunting stories. They boast of shooting deer—hunkered in the brush, peering through a scope—as if they did something wild and brave. Inside, Darlene mocks them. She laughs at their childishness.
Joe, who seems to have forgotten his serious thing, stares at himself in the mirror above her recently emptied dresser. He runs a hand through his post-sleep hair. “I’m going to smell of you,” he complains.
“She won’t notice,” Darlene says, her voice placating. “You’re a good liar.”
“She might,” he whips back, threateningly. Joe thinks of himself as a good guy. You and me, we just happened, he often says. Liar, cheater, drug dealer—he swats these words away as if they belong to someone else. Darlene has never seen his girlfriend—Viola or Fiola, or something equally ridiculous—but imagines her as fat and doe-eyed, an Italian-Jewish prima donna. The kind of rich girl who’ll end up a dentist or neurosurgeon, peering into other people’s dark cavities for a living. Darlene chuckles to herself. With her toe, she hooks her black thong and tosses it into the laundry bin. Lev never cared about lingerie. But Joe loves it. He buys her lace panties, satin boy briefs, high-cut thongs.
“Okay, look.” Joe faces her, jeans half-zipped. “I really need to tell you something.”
He has that half-angry, half-scared look he gets around her sometimes. She wishes he would leave. Arguments with Joe are circular and tedious. Every word out of his mouth, it seems, is a waste of time. And she needs to check on her garden. She needs to get back to the bunker. What Joe doesn’t know is that she prefers being underground. The air is musty and cool like the inside of a wine cellar. Last winter, she didn’t emerge for weeks because of the latest strain of flu, which the news called “highly contagious,” and finished twelve books and nine jigsaw puzzles.
“I won’t be in town for a few days,” he says. “I’m taking my girl to Sandbanks for the weekend. Meeting her parents.”
“Okay.” Darlene hates it when he says “my girl.” Emphasis on my, like he’s showing off a new bike. “If you’re getting married, I don’t care.”
How many times has Joe needled her this way, trying to make her jealous? Darlene wonders, for the hundredth time, why she hasn’t broken up with him.
“No, that’s not it. I mean, we might. We probably will, eventually.” He’s getting frantic. A flush creeps up his freckled neck.
“Then what?” She snaps her fingers, as if to call a distracted puppy. “Spit it out!”
“Darl, she’s pregnant.”
Somehow it’s the last thing Darlene expected. For a moment the room tilts and wobbles like it’s being lifted off its foundation. She grabs the bed sheet, abruptly aware of her nakedness, and knots it toga-like around her body.
On Southwest Preppers, she discovered that she’s a Doomsdayer. Not everyone on the forum is so extreme. Her online handle is Daryll96. Women, she’s noticed, are quickly corralled and picked off, so she pretends to be a rugged outdoorsman. Daryll96 has wolfhounds, plays football and forages. Darlene’s favourite threads are the apocalypse hypotheticals. If a comet’s hurtling towards earth, where can you shelter? If an A-bomb drops, how do you avoid radiation poisoning? Often the men get riled up, spouting far-right propaganda and conspiracy theories, but she doesn’t care about their politics. She wants to learn. She takes notes. Mostly, she likes how they accept her fears, solemnly, like she’s handing them something fragile and precious. They cradle every twisted what-if scenario her mind can conjure, admire its intricacies, and show her their own. Right now, she wishes Joe were more like them.
“Are you okay?” Joe is appraising her, his expression carefully blank. She remembers holding the pregnancy test in her hand. Two pink lines. How Lev had cried, literally wept, when she told him.
“Get out,” she whispers.
She shuffles past him, nearly tripping on her sheet dress, and starts grabbing his things: baseball cap, wallet, threaded Jansport backpack. His stupid Vans shoes that always track in dirt. She throws them out the door, one by one, into the hallway.
“Hey!” he shouts, hopping around. “What the fuck!”
“I said get out!”
Cheeks red, hands raised as if to ward off a blow, Joe scuttles out the door. “Stop acting crazy!” he yells.
“Take your fucking gum with you!”
She whips the Doublemint like a dart and he fumbles to catch it. Darlene has never slammed a door in her life, but she does so now, fiercely, and the sound is not a bang but a BOOM. The whoosh of air feels spectral, like a ghost passing through her.
She waits to hear the whir of spokes outside her window before getting dressed.
Down the hall, in the entryway, she gathers her outdoor things: a medical-grade mask, a pair of mud-stained gardening gloves, a pocket-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. In her clunky leather boots, she plods outside to her garden.
It’s nearly dark, the sun just a glint above the neighbouring roofs. Long shadows stretch over the zucchini and cucumbers. Kneeling, Darlene inspects the tomatoes for chew marks, searching the ground for dug-up turnips. Nothing. The squirrels are learning. Tomorrow she’ll buy neem oil. She’ll spray the goddamn aphids.
Back inside, Darlene performs her nightly ritual. She walks through the house and turns off the lights. Bolts the doors and tests their locks: front door, back door, patio door, garage. She touches the keyholes one by one. Safe, she says: a protective spell. Windows latched, curtains drawn. She checks the smoke alarm, the carbon monoxide alarm. Up the unsteady ladder, reaching for the ceiling. She runs their test cycles and waits for the green light. Safe, she chants, but her body doesn’t believe her.
Down, down. Darlene retreats to the bunker. She unfolds her favourite red blanket, swaddles herself, and collapses, exhausted, on her moss-green coat. By now, it’s night. She closes her eyes and imagines the sky, far above her, the moon a crescent thumb-smudge of white.
Her mind drifts, as it always does, to Lev. They went to Sandbanks together one summer. She was thirty-six and their baby had been dead a year. It was the summer the flu crept across the border; a flu that would tear, tornado-like, across the continent. August, muggy heat. So crowded they barely had a patch of sand to themselves. He bought her earrings shaped like conch shells and said he wanted to try again. They dug their toes into the sand, shared pistachio ice cream from a paper cup. Lev kissing her shoulder. Lev coughing into the napkin, wheezing, his other hand resting on her thigh as she dozed, lulled by the clamour of voices and music and waves.