For Want of Stars
Gillian's son Orion would turn two years old in a matter of days, and she had nothing to give him.
Their world consisted of smooth, gray concrete and five rooms like spoke points around the common room. At first the blankness of the bunker made Gillian ache to scream and pound the walls, but now, the blankness had seeped into her skin. She often found herself staring at the walls as if she could read mysteries in the divots.
She tried to ignore the ceiling and the constant absence of stars.
As a child, Gillian hadn't drawn smiley-faced suns - no, she scribbled yellow stars and black skies. As an adult, she had waved greetings to the heavens as a bedtime ritual, and awakened early to bid the constellations farewell as she pounded the pavement on her jogging route.
If she could give Orion anything, she would give him stars, and everything they meant: crisp night air, clouds, a whisper of wind, the swoop of birds - a world unscarred, peaceful.
Gillian cradled her knees and watched Orion toddle after a rainbow-striped ball. Nearby, her sister-in-law reviewed a school lesson with her two kids. Dad had the foresight to stock a library for the bunker, packed with everything from board books to the bestsellers of 1999. Orion was a kid after Gillian's own heart - the library was his favorite room. He was already starting to read letters and numbers from the bindings.
Nothing here would make a suitable birthday gift.
Such a stupid thing to fixate on, she knew. Humanity had probably obliterated itself above. Los Angeles had been hit hard; even from their bunker out in the hills, they'd felt the intense shudders of three bombs. Her brother Terry said they needed to stay underground for at least a year. Maybe longer. Let the contamination fade.
Dad had built the complex after he won a small lottery jackpot back in '92 - his Y2K paranoia project. When the end of civilization hadn't come to fruition, the place gathered dust and overflow junk from the garage. Dad died last year. She and Terry had dithered about what to do with the property.
When all the talk of imminent nuclear war started, Gillian's own paranoia kicked in. She refilled the water tanks and restocked as best she could, and now - now they were alive. Whatever that meant.
All of Orion's memories were down here. He'd been fourteen months old at Doomsday. Down here he learned to run, climb, talk, feed himself with a spoon. When he looked up, it was to a sky of fluorescent light tubes and cold grey.
Everything Orion knew about the outside - stars, trees, animals - came from books alone. It was so wrong.
"I'm going to walk around," Gillian said, and hated the words. She said them several times a day. She paced as if she could escape the labyrinth.
In the midst of an algebra lesson, her sister-in-law nodded. Orion flipped book pages and smiled to himself.
Gillian paced her usual path. The bunker was big, but after months there, it felt small. Dad had built it to host dozens of extended family members, but in the end, they'd had thirty minutes to scramble together. So it was Gillian and Orion, Terry and his family, and the Gutierrez family from the next ranch over.
She walked, looking for something new, for something she could give Orion. It was hopeless. Here, everyone shared everything. Everyone knew everything.
She stopped in the common room, where Terry and Manuel Gutierrez sat at a table, engaged in some sort of fantasy football league involving several old sports almanacs. Manuel's wife did her usual OCD thing in the pantry and checked to make sure all the expiration dates on goods faced out and were in chronological order.
Gillian wished she had the energy to laugh. She was just as obsessive, walking this path, looking around as if anything changed. Nothing here changed. Same books. Same people. Same garage junk tucked behind the stairs - ratty furniture, paint canisters, bicycle tires, Christmas stuff. Same ugly grey ceiling.
Same hatch to the outside world.
Maybe she could go outside, just for a while, and grab something for Orion - a leaf, a rock, some symbol of the old world. Would they let her back in? Would she be radioactive, poison them all? She wavered on her feet. A soundless scream ached in her throat. Her hands clenched and unclenched as if she could work the latch from here.
By the wall clock, it was past sunset. She stared at the ceiling as if she could penetrate with x-ray vision. Were stars visible? Did they cower behind a shroud of clouds and ashes?
Would she ever see the stars again?
Would Orion ever comprehend what they were? When she was just a little older than Orion, Gillian's bedroom ceiling had been adorned with constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars. She had fallen asleep each night beneath their warm green glow. If she could only give him something as simple as that.
Gillian sucked in a sharp breath. Maybe she could.
She rushed to the junk beneath the stairs. With trembling hands, she held up the paint cans to the light. White. Eggshell gloss. Hunter green. Navy blue. She pried open the lid. The paint was still wet, the can almost full. A second can of navy was full, unused. The smell was mild; Dad always bought the low odor stuff.
Navy paint. White stars. It would work.
On Orion's birthday, Gillian walked him into the common room and tugged away the blindfold he'd worn when he was carried through there the past few days. The entire space felt darker, cozier, the ceiling more present.
Orion gasped and craned his head back. "What that?"
Gillian crouched beside him, tears beading her eyelashes. It looked awful. Nothing like the real thing. But he could look up, see something.
"Stars," she whispered.