The first time he knocks, it is uncharacteristically quiet and goes unnoticed. To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have heard it even if it were louder. When I checked my wrist phone for the umpteenth time a minute ago, it was 2:43 a.m. It wasn’t that this was the largest migration till date that exhausts me. That part made sense. What I couldn’t understand was how my father maintained an infuriating air of nonchalance as he continued to send family after family to their eventual but certain death. He could no longer pretend that they’d be some version of okay. That amidst the rising temperatures and shortening life spans, they would find a good few years (it was decades a little while ago but not even the elementary schoolers believe that now). No, according to the latest reports, all they’d have is a good few weeks.
In a little over three weeks, the summer solstice would drag temperatures to yet another all-time high and life on Earth as we know it would come to an end. At least for everyone who hadn’t made it into a bunker. How does one get into a bunker, you might wonder? Well, that’s simple. All you have to do is make the soul-drenching journey to your nearest bunker, camp outside until the allotted interview day and then when it’s your turn, prove your worth to someone with a similar supercilious sense of authority as my dear father. Or sell what’s left of your soul like the poor woman on the other side of the interview room window. Through the one-way glass, she can’t see me but I can’t unhear her offering to do “anything” for my dad to grant her and her son entry into what our leaders have lovingly labelled ‘The Compound’. My dad also can’t see me but somehow he knows I’ve spent my Wednesday night staring through a window without a view. When his increasingly frantic knocks are continually absorbed into the rising tide of faces of all the rejectees, he calls out through the intercom and the wave breaks.
“Sorry, I had fallen asleep,” I lie as I join them in the interview room, keeping my eyelids at half-mast for the illusion of lethargy.
“Diana, can you show this lovely lady and her son to their quarters? They’ll be staying in block 5 in apartment 3B.” He turns to the woman, “Athena, this is my daughter. She’ll help you out.”
She offers me a kinder smile than I would have imagined possible and as we pick up her son from the bench outside, I wonder if he’ll ever know how much she sacrificed for him.
The walking time to block 5 doubles as we stop for all the usual sightseeing. The stained-glass mural in the central courtyard always garners the most awe among newcomers. The young boy reacts like every child does before they walk past the mural for the hundredth time and think that the energy spent on superficial adornment would have been more usefully directed towards enlarging the premises to accommodate more people. As we approach the plaque on the bottom left corner, I notice a tear clean a path down the desert of Athena’s face. Her eyes linger on one sentence of the community guidelines: “To make the new world better than the old”.
“There’s really no sort of pharmacy here? Do people not get sick?” she questions, already weary of the place in which she’ll spend the rest of her life.
“There’s limited medication available in the general store but just for run-of-the-mill illnesses like colds and fevers.” I answer politely. I don’t know how to tell her that most other families with chronically ill members were rejected from the get-go. That we don’t need much of a pharmacy because our leaders are obsessed with securing as untainted a genetic pool as humanly possible. So I just offer a smile. This time it isn’t returned.
“Didn’t know there was only space for the healthy and strong in the new world,” she mutters when her son runs to the fountain at the entrance of block 5.
“Maybe he won’t need any medication soon. His asthma could alleviate with the improved air quality in the Compound,” I offer. I would usually interject with a memorized fact about how our scientists have installed advanced air purifiers. How you’d never feel like you’re breathing in recycled oxygen. But it doesn’t seem appropriate.
“I think we’ll find our way from here,” Athena states as she takes back the plastic bag I was carrying that’s filled with inhalers. I hope when its contents run out, they don’t need it anymore.
The next week speeds by and I can only remember the days in terms of how much I thought about Athena and her son. My fork absentmindedly pushes the over-steamed broccoli across my plate as Athena’s words continue to churn in the pot of my thoughts. I barely look up when my friend Clara joins me with her own lunch and starts to tell me about her morning.
“Didn’t know there was only space for the healthy and strong in the new world.”
I learnt that lesson years ago. Before the bunker welcomed its first families. Back when the initial predictions of an uninhabitable planet were dismissed as conspiracy bunkum. When my father and I didn’t reside in an underground fortress but a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago with my mom and brother. For months, the conversation at the dinner table had been dominated by my dad’s latest pet project. At 7, I didn’t really know what to think of it all so in his presence, I displayed fascination and in his absence, I borrowed my brother’s word for him: doomsdayer. I think we all thought the bunker was some sort of last resort for the distant future. That my father was just being hypervigilant for the sake of his family. But the day after the third heat wave that summer fried our elderly neighbor, he instructed us to pack our bags. My mom was never the confrontational type but her voice reverberated off every surface for more than an hour. My dad tried to assure her that as a founding member, he would be able to get my brother in. But to my mom, a life spent counting every insulin vial you could stuff into your bags was no life at all. And my brother’s medication had changed thrice since he had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes two years before. What would we do if this medicine didn’t work any longer?
My mom’s solution was to wait it out a little longer. My dad’s was to take what he could and leave. So early the next morning I watched the sun rise over a lake in Minnesota from the backseat of the car my father had carried me into the previous night. Everything I could have thought of packing and more surrounded me but half my family had been left behind.
Our first week in the bunker was filled with silence and the second with the opposite. If my dad was in our apartment, I was crying or yelling and he waited it out, hoping a child’s brain would eventually forget or move on. But when the third week was shaping up for more of the same, he changed his approach. So I grew up in the hope that my family would be reunited some day and my father moved up as an object of pity. How could they not listen to a leader who had sacrificed so much - even his own family - for the Compound?
By Wednesday, the numbers outside the Compound walls have doubled. Families have been camped since the previous week and more than a few have left before being asked to leave, their spirits much too battered to withstand the hit of a ‘no’.
I sit where I have every week since the announcement of the End Day a couple of months ago. Each time the door opens, my face instinctively draws closer to the window and I hope I’ll see my mom and brother step in; they’ll take a moment of recognition before they run to my dad, he’ll take a moment of shock before he fully embraces them. When I’m really tired, I even imagine my brother doesn’t need to stab his body before every meal anymore. When I reach a summit of desperation like right now, I delude myself that the young man who just walked in is around the same age my brother should be until my dad reads the name on his file.
“Ryan Miller, high school graduate, work experience as a mechanic and mover. Tell me, Ryan, what can you bring to this community?” My father has scanned the top quarter of the page but has already identified grounds for Ryan’s rejection.
“Well, sir-” he starts confidently.
“Without a college degree, that is. You see, Ryan, we can’t just let everyone in. There’s simply not enough space. So why wouldn’t I just accept engineers who could do the work of a mechanic should the need arise in place of you? And I have. So what can you add?” The pointed emphasis serves its purpose of stunning the young man and my father towers over him like a hunter that’s got his immobile prey in the crosshairs.
“Well, sir,” he starts again, much more hesitantly this time, “I didn’t go to college because I joined the army right after graduation.” My father stares at him as though the deer shot between the eyes rose up and took flight.
“So tell me, son, would you do anything for the greater good?”
“Welcome to the Compound.”
“I just can’t understand why he let him in, Clara. I mean I’m glad, don’t get me wrong. It’s horrible each time he sends them away but why was he so wowed by his military experience? We don’t even have a police force. It’s always ‘what hurts one of us, hurts all of us’. It’s like we live in a commune and now we need law and order? I don’t get it.” I pace up and down my bedroom, clutching to my chest the grey throw Clara’s mom crocheted for me.
“I’m telling you, Dee, something fishy’s going on. Remember that group my dad formed? When I asked him about it earlier, he said they’ve combined all their ideas and he’ll be meeting the leaders sometime soon so they can get in as many people as possible before the End Day. It makes no sense that we’re sticking with one interview day a week.”
I agree with her and dream that when their reforms are presented, the leaders will realize how foolish they’ve been. And the next time I watch through the window, I’ll see family after family release tears of disbelief and the fearful breaths they held in.
My dad pokes into the doorway and greets Clara. As a smiling, floating head he doesn’t seem capable of leaving people to die.
“Dinner’s ready, love.”
Since he was given charge over the interviews, he’s always made a big deal out of Thursday dinner as he would be out of the apartment for most of the previous day.
As I lift a slice of pizza, I say, “So Clara said you’re meeting her dad soon.”
He sighs, “Tomorrow, ugh. Roberto has something “important” to waste our time with.” He puts down his slice to hold up exaggerated air quotes.
“That’s kind of unfair, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t,” he responds sternly, his fist intending to land on the table for emphasis but instead, it makes contact with the edge of his plate and the pizza stamps its toppings on his shirt before folding onto his lap. I smother my chuckle with a big bite of food as he stomps to the bathroom. The same time he flicks the tap on, his phone lights up and I can just about make out the angry message before the hologram turns off: “I want nothing to do with this and you. And before you think of getting one of your cronies to off me, I’d give a thought to all the evidence I could share with your friends in high places.”
“Important message come in?” my dad asks as he sits down. “I heard an alert.”
“Don’t know, didn’t look.”
I’m on my way to the Wednesday window when Clara storms up to me. She pushes my shoulder and whisper-shouts, “What the heck, Diana?! I told you not to say anything to your dad.”
“I didn’t!” I insist, even though I thought there was nothing wrong with a group of citizens raising their grievances before a non-authoritarian governing body.
“Well, my dad was supposed to meet the leaders an hour ago but he’s nowhere to be found. And my mom said he got a message from your dad and left the apartment abruptly in the morning.”
“Clara, I swear I know nothing about this. And I didn’t say a word to my dad. I’m sure your dad’s just busy and maybe he lost track of time?”
“Yeah, maybe,” she replies, entirely unconvinced.
The observation room is almost bare. It doesn’t need much - the main feature is the window that occupies most of the shared wall but with no functioning light bulb and the one rickety metal chair in the corner, it can get a little horror-movie-esque for my liking. My entrance synchronizes with the interviewee’s exit from the room on the other side of the glass. The woman’s hunch is so deep she either has spine problems that require urgent attention or was forced into that position with the shake of my dad’s head. Why was he still declining entry into the Compound? Weren’t the reforms being taken into consideration?
The next interviewee seems a promising candidate and grins as he enters, almost as though he’s certain he’ll be accepted. For a moment, I assume he’s heard of my dad’s preference for army types but then I hear, “Joaquin Molina, farmer. What brings you to the Compound, Joaquin?”
‘Oh, you know, just casually trying to avoid being stuck outside when my insides start to melt,’ I imagine he responds in his head. Out loud, he says, “My cousin brought his family here years ago and before he joined, he was always telling me that I should come too since the Compound could always do with more farmers.”
That was still true. The agriculturists had succeeded in recreating conditions in the Field Courtyard conducive to growing more plants than we thought we needed but there was always the occasional shortage that could have been avoided with more hands.
“And who is your cousin?” my father asks, though I think both he and I already know the answer to that question.
“Roberto Molina,” Joaquin beams, proud to associate with one of the first families of the Compound. My dad’s hand flies to the nape of his neck - a nervous tic I’ve taken note of since it became just the two of us. Immediately, I know Clara had good reason to worry.
The next day, I pick up my tray at the end of the cafeteria line and instead of taking a seat at the table Clara and I always eat lunch at, I head straight for the observation room. Partly because my brain has tangled into a mess of thoughts from which I wouldn’t be able to string together a cohesive set of words. And partly because I don’t know how to face Clara, knowing my dad had something to do with Roberto’s disappearance (spoiler alert: he wasn’t just busy or losing track of time).
I’m halfway through my egg salad sandwich when the door of the interview room blasts open and an agitated voice reverberates through the window, “I wasn’t asking you, Mark. I know the type of crap you’re accustomed to, you and your little army. Or did you forget that I was one of your soldiers too, before I realized I didn’t owe you anything.”
Before my dad can respond, the man continues, “Look, I’m only letting you know as a courtesy because for some unknown reason, my brain can’t convince the rest of me that there’s no debt between us. But whether you like it or not, you’ve had this coming.”
Letting out a proud chuckle, my father taunts, “You honestly think you can get rid of me so easily? Your warnings and your “evidence” don’t scare me.”
“I told you I wouldn’t have anything to do with Roberto. You should’ve followed suit - it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And if you won’t listen to us, then you’ll have to listen to your daughter.”
My dad scoffs, “My daughter? She’d never turn against me. I’m the only family she has here.”
“And remind me again why that’s the case? How do you think she’ll react when she finds out her mom and brother made it to the Compound only to be spurned by you, their own family?”
Before I can even begin to process what I’ve just heard, my wrist phone lights up with a text from Clara: “Hey, where were you? I wanted to tell you in person that the process of your dad’s impeachment has been started. There’ll be a trial next week. And I hate to put you in this position but if it isn’t going well, it’d be really helpful to have testimony from his own daughter.”
The three dots tell me she’s trying to justify what she thinks is a terrible thing to ask of me. I quickly type back:
“I’ll do it”
“It’s for the greater good”