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Richard O'Driscoll, huddled in the corner of the concrete bunker, was trying his hardest to keep warm. He watched as the corners of yet another magazine page curled into a ball of
carbon and smoke. The ink burned away from the president’s portrait as the page warped and faded away. O'Driscollll fed the flame with a second page from the magazine and tightened his hold on the coat wrapped around his shoulders.
The fire’s light illuminated the walls of the bomb shelter and palled prematurely in the gloom of the cavernous cell. A bulb flickered, and the graffiti murals of the far wall were briefly visible. Adrenaline flooded through him, and he threw off his covering. Was this it? Was this his redemption? He stood in his place waiting. But the lights, his only hopes of survival and escape, remained extinguished.
Disappointed, he lifted his coat and returned it to his shoulders. I’m up, O'Driscollll thought, might as well grab a bite. ‘Nd maybe check out that circuit box. But he sighed knowing well enough that the electricity was out and would remain that way. He shuffled over to one of the many refuse heaps littering the bomb shelter. Upon reaching it, Richard, whose hunger had been piqued by just the thought of a meal, began to sort through the pile. Amongst the muddle were trinkets that once had value to him, but now, because they could not feed him they were discarded.
At last he came to what he was searching for, a pale white box, large with tattered corners. He undid the lock and threw it off to the side. Its purpose had been served. No longer would thieves try to steal its contents. Joe Harris was dead.
O'Driscollll lifted the lid and took stock of what he found. He had enough for a week, another week if he rationed it. But these calculations were based on his intake prior to the power outage. Now in the cold he would need twice that or more to keep his body temperature up.
He lifted the box and hefted it back to the fire. But before he reached it, a ladder came into his view. Looking up, he saw the dark grey seal on the peak of the concrete chamber. Meh, he thought, I’ll check that too. He pressed a small red button on one side of the ladder. Nothing happened. Until electricity was restored he would be trapped here indefinitely, perhaps until he died and was mummified by the parched, stale air of the bomb shelter.
A cry filled the silent chamber. Startled, the lone man gave a cry of his own. The sudden noise carried through the room and echoed for a long time, as if this empty tomb now
resonated with life.
Richard held still, attempting to attain the source of the unexpected yelp, but he could not distinguish anything in the darkness. The cry was one of pain not death. Richard had heard many a time as all the otherd died about him in this place and before it. Yes he recognized it.
Without medical aid its owner would soon be dead, and Richard wasn’t about to administer it. His own survival was primary. O'Driscollll was surprised. He had thought that all his neighbors had perished when the food had gone. That was two months ago, and survival without food or water, O'Driscollll deemed was impossible. Somehow, this stranger had gone unnoticed over that long of a time, but it happened.
He gave a sudden shiver. The chill was going to get him long before starvation. God, it was cold. Sure he’d been through far colder times, but back then he’d had weight. Now he was a brittle 75 pounds at most and quite vulnerable to the cold. He returned to the fire and warmth slowly returned, but not fully. His extremities still were icy and lacked color, but he was used to it. In fact the cold only bothered him when he could feel it in his ribs, and that happened often down here.
Richard stared blankly into the fire. As he was lost in his thoughts, a voice came. Instantly Richard was on his feet, fists clenched, ready to kill anything that might accost him,
but nothing appeared in the darkness.
But when the voice came again, it was his friend's. "Ralph, let me ask you something."
Surprised as he was, Richard replied, "Yeah Joe?"
"Nah, forget it Rick," was the reply. The voice was metallic and unreal. O'Driscoll was
mystified, how was old Joe talking to him? He'd seen the medics, in their stark white suits and closed masks carry him away, an identically white cloth covering his lifeless body.
"Wait!" O'Driscoll stuttered.
"Remember when the two of us were up in the Sierra Nevadas? On that vacation?" came Joe's tinman voice from Richard's feet. O'Driscoll looked down to see nothing more than few cans of beans.
"Yeah, the camping trip where we left our wives behind?" Then Richard found it, a mechanical chrome mockingbird, which had lost its luster over the years. A mangled wing was
plastered to the bird’s side. The bird could imitate people, recall conversations from the distant past, and repeat them. This particular dialogue had occurred when his 2037 Chevy wouldn’t start at a friend’s barbeque. Richard remembered that hot sweaty summer evening particularly well. It had been exactly one week after his wife, Cath, had left him and twenty six years after that trip into the mountains.
The mockingbird gave an eerie laugh, “When your ol’ Ford got caught in a snow bank? You remember that?”
O'Driscollll retold the story, not forgetting a word of the event. It had been a night straight out of a Robert Frost poem. Thick blankets of snow covered the dirt road leading to
the foot of the mountain. There was not a cloud in the night sky, and every star in the heavens pierced the dense branches of the pinewood forest. It was at least a beautiful night to be stranded, but it would be cold and bitter one too.
Richard after trying to dig out vehicle and push it into a rolling start gave up, but Joe was more determined. Getting out, he quickly found the problem. When the truck had gotten
caught the engine had stalled and did not restart. The battery was dead, acid oozing out the plastic casing.
“My phone doesn’t have a signal. Let’s head back up to the campsite. See what we can’t find.” Joe had said. On their way up they encountered a cabin, and because they were cold
and in need of aid they knocked on a slightly ajar door. No answer. Joe peeked in, and a horrid smell wafted out the crack in the open door with a drone of hundreds of flies. Joe turned his head in disgust and whispered, “Rick let’s go,” but Richard simply shook his head. “C’mon!” he whispered a second time.
O'Driscollll swung the door away, exposing a ghastly scene. An old man sat crumpled in a sofa chair, facing a table. On the table was a makeshift oven, a metal plate attached to two
wires that protruded from the dead man’s torso. When Richard circled the scene, however, he saw differently; seated in the man’s lap was a small metal box, which expelled a thick cloud of acrid smoke. O'Driscollll removed the box and examined it. Richard gave a yelp of joy. The thing which he held was a car battery.
“Ha!” At this point in his story, Joe Harris had found the car battery he was looking for inside the old truck that the two had taken up into the mountains. The dead man’s battery had been expended long before.
Then the mockingbird’s blue eyes dimmed and it began to chirp a quite melody. O'Driscollll set the thing down and leaned in closer to the fire. He regretted his irreverence that day. He was a vandal in that man’s tomb. He sighed and undid the lid on a can of stew. Whose cry had that been, he thought, but he already knew, and he shoved it out of his mind.
Instead he reviewed Joe’s last hours alive. He had begged for food, but he was already dead. Weeks without food had turned him into a skeletal apparition. No amount of stew could
bring him back. Joe’s stock had run out weeks before. The power failure and Richard fearing his own starvation refused to yield a bite of food. The two friends had become distant in those last weeks but now Richard found himself saying, “Man Joe, where are you? I miss you.”
He stooped down to pluck the stew out of the flame, and the mockingbird emitted another voice. It was his wife’s, Cath’s. He pulled the can away with a stick, as Cath’s voice
spoke, “And how do you think I’ll feel when you’re gone? Will you miss me then?” The voice was alive with fire and hate.
Richard was startled, and when he did not respond his own voice spoke, “I will never miss you.”
“And Michael?” Cath asked, “No, you hate him more than me.” Spite flowed from her voice and tears from her eyes. In Richard’s mind she turned away and swept an empty cup off
the counter. Yes, there was the tinkling of a shattering glass and then his own voice. Richard tried to stop it, not wanting to hear any more.
But the voice continued, “You’re right you can take him too. He’s no son of mine; he’s an animal.” Richard shouted to keep it out and it stopped. But instead of the bird silencing,
Richard’s voice was replaced with a wail. It was his son’s, the one that O'Driscollll had heard before.
O'Driscollll clamped his hands over his ears and flung the robot away from him. But it did nothing to silence the beast. Echoes reverberated through the room, spilling a bloodcurdling
cry. It was inhuman, a monstrosity.
Reach down and tore the head from the mockingbird, and it fell silent. He dropped it and drew a long breath. The harrowing sound still fresh in his mind, he collapsed and passed When he woke he found himself in the darkened shelter on the cold concrete floor clutching the remains of the robotic mocking bird. He leaned up and clutched the back of his aching head. What had happened? He looked down at his hands, the silver mockingbird still crackling and sparking in his hand. An acrid smoke wafted to his nostrils, a smoke he’d smelled so many years ago. He was holding a dead man’s battery. He held it in his trembling hands and stumbled to the base of the ladder. He found the small red button and felt the frayed copper wires protruding from the metal box. Carefully he plucked a pair of strands from the birds neck and replaced the worn wires with them. The button crackled for a second then illuminated.
He pressed it, and the ground below him trembled and he began to rise up towards the ceiling. The sky opened up above him and for the first time in four months he saw daylight. His last sin, he knew, was survival.