One of the first things people long for when they experience a crisis is a normal day: a cup of coffee, a hot shower, a moment to feed the pets and throw in a load of laundry. The blissfulness of the mundane we allow to wash over us each day but that we never choose to luxuriate in.
Anna had coffee waiting before her this morning, but it sat untouched, the steam having finally given up its quest to draw attention and dissipating one final time into the air. Her husband, Ryan, had long since tossed his into the sink. Anna can hear his stomach rumble, but Ryan pays it no mind.
He moves from the bent position he’s held for the past several minutes, stretching back and kicking his legs out in front of him. It’s a way to relieve a tad of the nervous energy. Anna knows because she’s shifted a countless number of times, but the anxiety always comes back, fluttering like a flock of birds, taking up residence again in her heart.
Her anxiety forces the words out more loudly than she intends. “How can they expect us to decide between our two children? One lives. One dies.”
Ryan grimaces. “It’s impossible. It’s too much to ask.”
“Maybe we should have decided a couple of months ago. Other families did that.”
“I don’t know how that would have made it any easier.”
“Whichever one we choose will be Underground by this time tomorrow. That’s the only way to ensure they’ll make it in time. Before it hits.”
“We have to submit one of their names on the form by midnight. If not, neither one goes.”
Ryan reaches for Anna’s hands and reminds her of the obvious. “We have to decide.”
Anna feels his warmth seep into her clammy palms. “What about people like the Clevinsons? Benjamin just turned eighteen. He’s not considered a child anymore. They have no options.” She moves a piece of her hair back from her face.
Ryan squeezes the hand he still holds. “My Anna. Always worrying about someone else.”
“But how are they getting through this time? Their family will be wiped out completely. I watched them out the window today, spending the afternoon boarding up their house. Every few minutes, one of them would stop to hug the other. At least we have the chance to save. . .”
Ryan rises, and his chair scrapes against the floor. It is the loudest sound of the morning. “Why didn’t they think ahead? Build more shelters when they first found out? Then we wouldn’t be in this position.”
“They said they did all they could with the time they had.”
Ryan’s eyes flare. “All they could? And they only built enough to house one child from each family?”
Anna wants to share in Ryan’s incredulity, but it’s useless. It’s futile. She clings to her high road. “They don’t know how long they’ll have to stay there. There has to be enough food, medical care, space to grow. What if it takes years? Can you imagine running out of food underground?”
Ryan sniffs. “You sound as if you’re on their side.”
“There are no sides, Ryan. Just people trying to do their best. Remember the pandemic years ago, when we were kids? How nasty it got? All the blame? I remember my mother saying, ‘Everyone is just trying to do their best.’ My whole life, I’ve believed that. And I choose to believe it now.”
Ryan accepts his defeat. “You’re right. You’re always right.”
“I will miss growing old with you, though. Well, older. We’ll never have the chance to go completely gray.”
“It’s possible it won’t be as bad as they think. Maybe we’ll still be together. And we could always try what we’ve talked about. I think there might be some who are willing to take a bribe. We could choose one child and then try to buy the other’s way in.”
Anna nods. She has thought of this herself since the beginning. “We could. But how do we make the first decision?”
“I can’t think of any way to begin but to simply list the facts. Then maybe we’ll see an answer we can both agree on.”
Anna sits up straighter and summons her utmost objectivity. “Finn is older. He’s had some life experiences. Lury’s life is just beginning.”
“True. But those facts don’t really advocate for one over the other.”
“It could go either way. Finn has much to contribute now; we already know Lury is exceptionally bright. Who knows where she might end up?”
“Out of the two, Finn has more of a chance to survive not going Under. If we’re simply talking about brute strength. But that same strength would also be helpful in the rebuilding afterward.”
Ryan pauses, and his next words emerge slowly. “We could just completely leave this up to chance, you know.”
“That’s what the Edlebrocks are doing.”
Ryan leans back and taps his fingers on the table. “Really? Sarah told you that?”
“The kids actually decided that was the best way.”
“But they’re both older. That’s fair for them to decide. We can’t ask Lury if she wants to wager her life on a coin toss when she’s five years old even if Finn agrees to it.”
“There is the fact that Lury won’t really know what’s happening either way.” Anna wipes a tear away. “She won’t know any fear. We can just hold her when it happens. Couldn’t we just keep everything from her?”
Ryan sighs. He has wanted to protect Anna from this bit of news. “She knows something is happening.”
Anna’s heart trembles. “What?”
Ryan studies the top of the worn table. “I didn’t want to tell you. There’s been talk at school.”
Anna drops her head into her hands. “What am I saying? Of course she would have heard. I should have kept her at home this last month.”
Ryan shakes his head. “That would have caused her to miss whatever little bit of normal life we’ve had left. She played with her friends, finished learning the alphabet, fell in love with Lenton Mulder.” He chuckles his first mirth of the morning.
Anna raises her eyebrows. “Lenton? An older man?”
“Yes, a whopping 6 years old! She told me about him last night. After we finished talking about her bad dream. About fire falling from the sky. Lenton told her he’d protect her.”
Anna looks up, stifling her tears. “God bless her little heart. And his.” She looks down at her hands. “What about Lury being a girl? Left behind, with no one to protect her. We don’t even know who’s going to end up down there.”
“I’ve thought of that. I just didn’t want to say it.”
Anna looks directly at her husband. “We have to say everything now.”
Ryan takes a breath. “I’ll say it then. We both know it’s the most important thing for this world that will come.” His voice is quieter when he speaks again. “Which one has the better heart?”
Anna is silent. What mother ever has to say these words aloud about her children? “I don’t want to say.”
Ryan holds her gaze. “But you know.”
“Surely, in every family, there’s always one who could be named the purest, the most giving.”
Ryan nods. “I’m sure there is. But it’s never been as important as it is now.”
Anna hears the front door close, and she is relieved to not have to respond immediately. Her strapping, sometimes overly confident son enters the kitchen. But she notices that today, his shoulders are a bit hunched and his eyes are darker than normal, perhaps even a bit stormy.
Finn takes off his jacket, concentrating on the effort more than usual. Everything today is about delay. Every moment should be savored.
He doesn’t speak until he has folded the jacket and placed it carefully over the back of the chair. “I got home as soon as I could.” He slides his hands into his pockets. “I want to talk to both of you. I know there’s an important decision to be made.”
Ryan finds his voice first. “Finn. . .”
Finn holds his hand up, calling for silence. “Mom. Dad. It’s simple. I’m not going. I refuse to go. It should be Lury. It has to be Lury.”
Anna rises quickly and embraces Finn. She is too overcome with emotion to speak.
Ryan joins them, and although Finn has just presented an enormous gift, Ryan’s face remains serious. “That’s a big decision, Son.”
Finn doesn’t flinch. “And I’ve made it. I’ll be here with both of you when it happens. We’ll be here for each other. There’s always the possibility we’ll survive.”
Ryan’s shoulders relax a fraction of an inch. “That’s what I told your mother. We have to keep hope alive.”
Finn nods toward the computer. “Is that the form there? Pulled up on the screen?”
Ryan follows his son’s gaze. “It is.”
Anna has to swallow twice before she can speak. She keeps her hand on Finn’s arm. “We were just looking over it. We hadn’t made any final decisions.”
Finn nods. “I’ll fill it out myself.”
Anna tightens her grip on Finn’s arm. “We can’t ask you to do that.”
Finn smiles and pats Anna’s hand. “You didn’t. Let me take the burden, Mother, as you’ve always taken it for me.”
Finn gives his mother’s hand a final squeeze before he moves to the computer, discreetly turns it away from Anna and Ryan, and begins typing.
Anna and Ryan stand watching. No words pass between them. They lean into each other without being fully aware of their movements.
Finn taps the final keys. “There. All done.” He stands and shuts the laptop, giving the top a firm pat that signals closure.
He looks at Ryan. “They’re giving out extra water over at City Hall. I’m going to go stand in line. I can’t just sit here. I can look around, see if there are any other supplies that might be worth purchasing.”
Ryan shakes his head. “I’d say anything worth having is already gone, Son.”
Finn is resolute. “There’s an active black market. I know where to look.”
Anna moves the laptop off the table. She sets it down on the counter, running her hand across its smooth surface, this device that allowed her own son to type out his death sentence on a standard black and white form. How could one’s life be handed over so easily? She glances at Finn. “There’s money in my purse. In the hallway. Take some in case you see anything else we might need. Be careful, Finn.”
Finn nods and lifts his hand to signal his departure.
Ryan and Anna return to sit at the table. Ryan pops his knuckles, a habit that Anna has always despised. But now, when final moments tick away, she can only focus on the beauty of his hands, the strength. He pauses. “I didn’t expect it to be so easy.”
“I would have never thought. . .”
“Maybe it just took something like this. . .”
Anna rests her head on the palm of her hand. “There were times I thought he hated Lury. Now I feel so guilty.”
Ryan refuses to let her carry this burden. “You were justified in that thinking. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
“And now look at the beautiful thing he’s done. My heart aches for him, but I’m so proud of him at the same time.”
Ryan stands and reaches out a hand to Anna. “He’s given us a gift. We didn’t have to make the decision. Now let’s follow his lead and do all we can to prepare for tomorrow.”
Anna allows herself a moment to step closer and rest her head on Ryan’s strong shoulder. She can feel his muscles twitch and then settle. “Should I wake Lury or let her sleep?”
“Let her sleep and hopefully have some sweet dreams for just a little while longer.”
Anna is packing Lury’s backpack the next morning when Ryan, freshly showered and shaved, emerges from the bedroom. Everything is final now--final night to sleep in a bed, final shower, final meal, final walk.
Ryan attempts a smile. “Where’s Lury? We’ll have to be leaving soon.”
Anna tries to pretend it’s another day where Lury is simply headed to school. She returns the smile. “She’s saying goodbye to the cats. And the dogs. The horses. Probably the rabbits, too. I told her to hurry.”
“Covering the windows in his bedroom.”
Ryan finally asks. “Do you want to walk Lury there or should I?”
Anna starts to speak, but is interrupted by the ding of the laptop, which she opened back up this morning in anticipation of possible departure messages.
“Just a minute. This might be about the departure, and I don't want to miss any instructions for Lury.”
She touches a few keys on the keyboard and skims over the message. Her hand flies to her heart. “What is this? What does this mean?”
Ryan moves to stand close to Anna, and she reads the message aloud.
“It’s a government message: Mr. and Mrs. Venterman, we received your completed form, stating your decision to send your son, Finnegan Marcus Venterman, Underground. Upon receipt of this message, please send Finnegan to City Hall, where preparations for departure are currently underway. A group of chosen adults, selected by Heads of State, will be accompanying your child to the Underground and will be available to your child whenever the need arises. We respect the inherent difficulty in making this decision and appreciate your understanding, your cooperation, and your sacrifice at this unprecedented time.”
Anna slaps her hand on the counter hard enough to bruise it, but feels no pain. “Ryan? Ryan, how did this happen?”
Finn saunters into the kitchen, but stops short when he sees his parents’ faces.
Ryan emerges from his stupor enough to deliver the news. “We’ve just received a government communication. They say you’re the one from our family going Underground.” He waits for Finn’s look of surprise.
“I was hoping to be gone before the message came through.” Finn takes a backpack off his shoulders, unzips it, and places a loaf of bread in it.
Ryan’s jaw twitches. “So you knew. How could that be, Finn?”
Finn narrows his eyes. “Do I really have to spell it out for you?”
“You put your name on the form when you filled it out last night.”
Finn drops his head, but refuses to speak.
Anna grips the back of the chair. “I can’t think about all this right now. But maybe there’s still time. We’ve still got the money. Who could we talk to about Lury? Who would take the money? Ryan?”
Anna hurries to the hallway, retrieves her purse, and places it on the table.
Finn sneers. “So quick to put that money plan into action for Lury, aren’t you mother? While you were content to let me die.”
Anna freezes, but her voice returns more quickly this time. “But you said. . .It doesn’t matter what you said.” She begins digging through her purse again.
Ryan moves toward Finn. “You self-centered. . .”
Finn’s temple pulses. “They’ll need people like me eventually, when we come back out, even if they don’t know it yet. Those of us who can make the tough decisions, who don’t let our emotions always cloud our thinking.”
Ryan’s face is white, but his eyes are as black and tempestuous as Finn has ever seen them. “You’ve sentenced your five-year-old sister to death!”
Finn’s erupts, and Ryan takes a step back. “You were going to sentence me to death! I had to save myself. From the moment this all started, I knew what your final decision would be.”
Finn looks at Anna. Surely these words have had an effect on her, but she only continues to throw items from her purse onto the table. Everything but what she is looking for. “I put the money in my purse a week ago. Where is it? Finn, how much did you take yesterday?”
There are tears in Finn’s eyes, but his smile is derisive. “The money’s gone.”
Anna pauses in her frantic search and falls into the chair beside her, her devastation complete. “Oh, Finn. How could you?”
Finn raises his head and squares his shoulders. “I had to secure certain things. It’s not as easy as it sounds, going Underground.”
Ryan hasn’t moved his gaze from Finn. “We see, Finn. Just as it’s not as easy as it sounds, picking between your two children. There was no right answer.”
There is no waver in Finn’s voice or in his gaze. “Yes, there was.”
“What was it then?”
Finn shrugs. He doesn’t understand the confusion. “You choose neither. You don’t make a choice. Unless, of course, there’s a favorite. And we all know there always has been.”
Anna grips the purse in her hands. How stupid she was not to hide more money away. The final lifeline is dissipating before her, but she can’t give up. “After, when it’s all over, when you are able to come back out, will you come here? Check to see if maybe your sister survived?”
Finn looks upward, calculating the risks in his mind and decides he can leave them this one thing, whether they deserve it or not. “There’s a cave that was only discovered a month or so ago. About ten miles from here. Close to the old Jacobson farm. There’s no guarantee, and it might already be full. You can try to make it there. Whenever it’s over, that’s where I’ll look. Coming back here would be pointless.”
Finn settles the backpack securely on his shoulders and leaves without another word or glance.
Anna and Ryan watch him go. Once the door slams, they begin to move quickly, assembling anything they think might help them, and Lury, survive.