It didn’t matter who lobbed the nukes first or where or how. All Lonnie knew was that he lived just downwind of downtown Los Angeles and a missile would zoom his way soon enough, and he’d be damned if he died in his trailer that still stank from last night’s salmon patty dinner. And he preferred not to die at all.
His wheelchair rumbled along the gravel of the trailer lot. He made it to the pavement and paused a moment to let his arms rest even as his mind raced in crazed circles. He had lived there for twenty years and had never given thought to basements or bomb shelters or nonsense like that. Hell, this was Los Angeles.
Cars raced along the side street ahead. Lonnie could well imagine the traffic jam on the freeway. Just as well he couldn’t drive. Old brick businesses lined the street. He doubted they had basements. Still, he rolled that way, looking for little windows or grates at sidewalk level, anything to indicate a shelter. Against the back of his seat, his backpack rattled and clinked. He had filled it with all the food cans and medications he could squeeze inside.
All the good it would do. He hawked up a loogie and spat it into the dry grass along the sidewalk.
The neon CERVEZA sign across the way blinked like a heartbeat. The plate glass window had been smashed in. Some young punks dashed out the door, arms heaped with booze. Bottles splattered and spilled on the cement. Lonnie recognized one of the trailer park drunks.
“You better drink fast, Joe!” he yelled. Took less than 30 minutes for a nuke to get here from Russia, at least that’s what the news used to say back in the Reagan era. God knew where these were coming from. He glanced at the sky and then away again.
He rolled past the antique store with its faded placards advertising Beanie Babies. Lonnie snorted and began to look away and then he saw the centerpiece in their window: an old school desk.
“I’ll be damned,” he whispered. He’d sat in a desk like that as a kid. The thing was built like a Cadillac. The desktop was lacquered wood with a sign atop saying, “ONE OF A KIND!” The solid metal base was shaped like a large bowl. A rusting metal beam attached the seat and the desk.
He remembered the emergency drills back when he was a kid. For earthquakes, mostly, but they practiced for nuclear attacks, too. He had been so young and stupid he actually thought his desk would save him in any disaster.
Footsteps scuffed on the pavement behind him and then something heavy crashed into the back of his wheelchair. Lonnie was thrown forward. He brought up his arms just in time to keep his head from smacking into the pavement. The world blurred, his breath driven from his lungs, his forearms screaming pain.
The feet scampered away.
“You stop! You go away!” More feet ran past. He recognized the heavy accent of the liquor store owner.
Lonnie groaned and let his cheek rest on the grainy cement, his eyes staring underneath the old blue mailbox. Two eyes stared back at him, wide and amber. A kitten. In the faint light, he could see ginger stripes.
“This is no time to be out on the streets,” he said, words slurring. “It’s dangerous.” As if to punctuate his point, gunshots rang out in sequence.
Lonnie forced himself up on his hands. His arms were skinned and raw. More gunshots, closer. He pushed himself up and fumbled for the chair behind him. The world had gone to hell before the bomb even dropped. That stupid desk in the window looked like the most appealing place for shelter right now, idiotic as it was. Insane. Crazy. His ex-wife would say it was just his style.
He headed to the door. Picking the lock took a matter of seconds; his corrupt youth came in useful sometimes. He threw the door wide and then rolled up the ramp. A slight mew came from behind him and then the kitten bounded into the dark store.
“Damn it. Where do you think you’re going?” He rolled in pursuit, arms throbbing. He tested a light switch. Nothing. He shoved aside displays to squeeze through the claustrophobic aisles. The mews continued as if the damn thing lead him onward. He found the cashier’s counter and looked behind it. Sure enough, there were several flashlights. He wedged the extras in his chair and turned on one light.
The kitten was at the back of the room, pawing at a door marked STORAGE. Lonnie swung the door out. Utter darkness. He angled the flashlight down. Stairs. Oh, God.
He sat on the floor and scooted down a step holding the back of his wheelchair, then hooked a leaden foot around a wheel to play the brake as he shut the door. He worked down, step by step. At the bottom, he grabbed the flashlight from the seat. Panning the beam, he found the kitten — and two more — congregating around an empty saucer. A stack of cat food cans and dry food bags lined the wall behind them. And to the side were desks identical to the one in the window, stacked three high. A classroom’s worth.
Lonnie laughed so hard he wheezed, a fist pressed to his chest. Something shuddered the building above. He dropped to his knees, whimpering, and crawled beneath a desk. The fit wasn’t the same as when he was a kid, but hunched there with metal at his back, there was claustrophobic coziness. He clenched his eyes shut, imagining his teacher’s heels clicking on the tiles and that pretty girl to his right. The flashback was in vain. Sobs quivered through his shoulders.
A soft bundle of purring fur pressed against his hand. Lonnie scooped the kitten near his chest and waited for the end.
© Beth Cato
Beth Cato is an associate member of the SFWA. Her previous publications include Daily Science Fiction, The Pedestal Magazine, and the Stories from the Hearth and Mountain Magic anthologies from Woodland Press.