Four Shots

Dining Room, Storm Shelter – 2000

Cellar Door by Michael Chan

Cellar Door by Michael Chan

At midnight I head down to the dining room for a cup of tea. My textbooks are still piled in the corner of the dining room table, my notebook open. I tighten my robe around my waist before I sit down and curl my legs up under me.

I read the same line about DNA four times before I slam the book shut and stand with my tea, pacing in front of the doors. Mother’s car isn’t in the driveway — odd, considering the hour. Pacing gives way to exhaustion, though I still feel too keyed up to sleep. Every time I started to fall asleep, I heard Uncle Al in my head.

I’m dozing off in front of my biology textbook when the sound rips me out of it — the bang that feels like it’s stopped my heart and forced the breath from my lungs. I blink rapidly. I’m almost convinced that the noise came out of my dreams when I hear a second and third gunshot in rapid succession.

My body reacts before I’ve reconciled what I’ve heard; I drop my cup of tea and rush out the doors, shivering in the freezing air as I haul the doors to the storm shelter open. It’s heavier than it looked when Uncle Al pulled the doors open that afternoon, and it slams shut behind me. I slide the metal bar in place and scurry to the back of shelter, wrapping myself in the wool blanket Catherine abandoned earlier; it smells like her, and a sob hitches in my throat. Catherine.

I’m waiting for another shot. Instead I hear his voice on the wind. “Babette!”

My stomach clenches. The storm shelter door rattles. I cover my mouth with one hand, as though maybe he won’t hear me breathing. There’s still supposed to be one more shot, if Uncle Al is to be believed. I don’t want to believe him. I stifle a cry as the door rattles again.

“Babette, I know you’re in there. Let me in. Your uncle has gone crazy!”

I hesitate. It’s more palatable than the alternative. The door rattles again, harder; the wood creaks and snaps.

“Babette! Open this door right now!”

My cheeks are wet. I want to open the door. Instead I swallow my panic and ask, “Where’s Mother? And Cat? Why didn’t you bring them?”

There’s a long silence. Then something heavy and hard slams against the storm shelter doors in hard, measured hits. My eyes fall on the shotguns behind the canned food; the ammunition is still stored on a high shelf, a holdover from when we were children.

It’s been years since father took us trapshooting, but my trembling fingers still remember how to load the gun. I brace it against my shoulder and point it to the shuddering, splintering door. It makes me think of the meteors Uncle Al had us prepare for. Maybe he knew it was this all along.

* * *

Uncle Al runs in with his arms in the air, making a wee-ooh-wee-ooh noise in approximation of an air raid siren. With his unkempt hair mussed like a white halo around his head and his eyes wide in simulated panic, he looks particularly crazy today.

I sigh and hold up the textbook in my lap. “I’m busy; I have exams next week. Can’t we pretend the Russians are coming next week?”

Without looking up from her book, Catherine says, “Its the meteors, Babette. Now we’re preparing for the meteors.”

I have to raise my voice to be heard over Uncle Al’s siren noise, which he pitches louder as he glares at us. “I thought we were preparing for the pretend meteors last Christmas. Uncle Al, can’t we skip it just this once? I promise I remember the route to the storm shelter.”

“Me too.”

Uncle Al doesn’t budge from the door. Surely that hurts his throat. I turn back to my textbook.

From the other room, Father shouts, “Humor your uncle, girls!”

Catherine sighs and slaps her book on the table as she stands. “Oh my god, Babette! The meteors are coming! Quick, we need to get to our shallow storm shelter if we want to survive.”

“Can they wait for me to get my coat?” I glance out at the snow-crusted grass, then at Uncle Al’s reddened face. “No, I suppose disaster waits for no woman’s comfort. Best to hurry then, Cat.” I hold an arm out; Catherine loops her arm through, and we head out the French doors into the lawn with Uncle Al on our heels. I shiver and pull Catherine closer. “Why don’t the meteors ever come in July?”

The storm shelter doors are just around the corner of the house, the paint peeling from the wood. I lean down to pull them open, and we descend the steps into the cellar. Uncle Al finally stops playing siren when he pulls the doors closed and latches them with a heavy metal bar.

Catherine pulls the heavy wool blankets from the corner of the shelter, revealing pallets of canned food and a small cache of shotguns behind them. The blanket is cold and scratches the back of my neck, but it’s better than nothing. I huddle down beside Catherine on the ground.

Uncle Al doesn’t even move for a blanket. He just stares at the doors.

“I want to know why we left Mother and Father to die at the mercy of the imaginary meteors,” Catherine says, pulling her blanket up over her head like a hood.

“Maybe they went to the wine cellar.”

“No, it’s not a good storm shelter. That brick wall will probably crush us all in the thick of it. Rumor has it one of the old owners hid treasure behind it, like, forever ago.” She raises her voice and adds, “Isn’t that right, Uncle Al?” When he doesn’t respond, not even a twitch of his face, she says under her breath, “I don’t know why they don’t put him in a home already.”

“They will, after the new year.” He turns and looks us over. “You’re nearly eighteen, aren’t you? I was only supposed to do this until you were eighteen.”

I exchange looks with Catherine; she tilts her head, urging me to speak. I clear my throat. “Do what, Uncle Al?”

“Protect you. That was the deal I made. I should have known it was coming due when my wits started to slip. I’ll be dead soon.”

Catherine sighs. “Super conversation skills, Uncle Al.”

I knock her with my shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

He moves in the space between blinks, sitting on the floor in front of me and grabbing my hands. I recoil, but he grabs them again and grips me too tight. “Babette. You must listen. You must remember. I begged for my life, and this is the price of it. Your father plans terrible things to retain the family fortune.”

Catherine stiffens at my side. “Stop it! You’re not being very funny.”

It gives me pause. There’s been talk about problems with Father’s income, whispered phone calls with the family banker and our parents declining social calls, but this? I would never describe Father as a man willing to do terrible things. “What are you talking about?”

He drops my hands and lifts his shirt. Over his heart there’s an old scar, circular and puckered. “I was shot. Christmas Eve, trying to steal right from under a Christmas tree.”

“How did you…”

“I did what anyone would do, bleeding to death in a snowbank. I prayed — even thieves have saints. I was a young man. I had never hurt anyone!” He lowers his shirt and wraps his arms around himself. “I made a bargain. I was granted a vision, and a delay of my death. It will happen in the darkest space of Christmas morning,” he says, leaning so close that I can smell the whiskey and bread on his breath. “There will be four shots.”

“They’re right to have him committed,” Catherine snaps. “You’re talking nonsense, Uncle Al.”

My heart feels lodged in my throat and I tighten the blanket around my shoulders. “He could never. Why — ”

The shelter doors rattle. I nearly leap out of my skin. “Aren’t you done pretending the world is ending?” Father’s voice is deep and warm with the hint of laughter. “Your mother wants you back inside. Come along, children, Aldric — supper is soon.”

Catherine stands and drops her blanket. “On our way, Father!” In a lower voice she hisses, “This is ridiculous.” She slides the metal bar out of the way and shoulders the doors open. Father laughs down at us, and reaches to help her out. The wind seems to cut right to my bones, and I hesitate, watching as Uncle Al passes Father on the stairs. It seems like they should have some animosity, for all that Uncle Al has just said.

Father clears his throat. “Coming, Babs?”

I nod as I stand. “Of course, Father.”

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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