Out Of My Comfort Zone

I missed the apocalypse because I was in the bathroom. 

I could add that I also emerged with toilet paper on my shoe, to make it funnier, but since the country had run out of toilet paper months before, that would stretch credibility to the breaking point, even if there’s no one around to contradict me.

I was in the bunker leading a tour. No, “bunker” doesn’t do it justice—this was an underground, fully automated, reinforced luxury home. The nuclear threat was nebulous when my boss broke ground, but by the time it was finished and the virus had started moving through the population, his neighbors were scrambling to catch up to him.

The bunker (or one just like it) was the main auction item at the gala Mr. Barrow was hosting. Large gatherings were illegal by then, not to mention the curfew violation, but that just meant he could charge more for the tickets. Guests parked in a field a few miles away and were brought to the house in limousines, so they could feel even more exclusive. It was mostly for show. Who would arrest the guests of the craft store czar of the Midwest? And with all the rioting over bread and toilet paper, the police (and by then, the military) had other priorities. 

Pre-virus, this gala was the event of the season. Mr. Barrow’s PR firm usually selected the cause that ticket sales and the auction would benefit, for maximum goodwill with the public. This year, of course, it was vaccine research. The wealthy and mildly famous dressed in their most stylish outfits, and regional newspaper and television stations captured their fashions on arrival for posterity. I wandered through unobtrusively to prevent problems, smooth things over, assist guests whose Botoxed brows would be furrowed if they could manage it. Sometimes I had to dodge a handsy old rich guy and resist the urge to kick him where it counts.

Fashions this year included coordinating facemasks in expensive fabrics, often studded with real jewels or shot through with gold thread. Guests stood six feet apart as they chatted, so the room was loud. I was relieved when Mr. Barrow took the microphone to announce the start of the tour.

We tromped over the perfectly mown grass to a remote corner of the grounds. The fresh air and starlight above soothed my party headache. The heel of my shoe sank into the earth and I tugged it free with a squelch that sprayed tiny droplets of mud on my calf. I grabbed a tissue from my bag and wiped them off in annoyance. 

The entrance wasn’t fancy; it looked like a concrete storage shed. A thick steel door had no visible means of opening it, just a flat panel that lit up as we approached. Mr. Barrow smiled and placed his hand on the bottom half of the panel and leaned his face to rest just an inch away from the top half. A pleasant male voice said, “Welcome, Mr. Barrow,” and the steel door descended into the ground, revealing a small plain room with a staircase descending into the darkness below. The guests near the front gasped and crowded too close. This dramatic entrance had cost an extra $50,000 over a regular swinging open-and-shut steel door, but to Mr. Barrow, the gasps made the expense worth it. As he’d planned, several guests appeared to be videoing the grand opening. The less exciting hidden entrance through a tunnel from the main house’s panic room would remain a secret from the public.

“Follow me! Don’t forget to stay six feet apart.” He wagged his finger playfully and the crowding guests sprang away from each other guiltily. “Cassie, why don’t you give them the overview?”

I turned on my microphone. “As you know, Mr. Barrow decided to build an underground bunker that would sustain his entire family, a dozen people, for five years. He came up with that amount of time based on expert advice on a variety of disaster scenarios. In the event of a catastrophe, the bunker will go into auto-lockdown once everyone is inside, or once conditions are measured as unsurvivable. There are a number of sensors connected to the main computer that runs the bunker to evaluate atmospheric toxicity, temperature, etc. to determine whether humans can survive on the surface. If surface conditions don’t meet certain requirements, the doors will remain locked. As you saw from the entrance, this is a smart building. It knows who is allowed in here and has their biometric information on file. So don’t try sneaking in when the apocalypse starts!” That was Mr. Barrow’s (rather tasteless, I thought) joke, and he’d insisted I include it. I wasn’t sure it was entirely a joke, and it brought a few nervous titters. 

“Like your smart house, it has climate control and automatic lighting and music the Barrows can turn on and off with voice commands, but it obviously has more sophisticated, specialty controls for survival purposes. The whole thing is powered by redundant systems. First, the electric grid, then off-grid solar panels and a windmill, both with storage, should the grid be destroyed. The house tests the incoming city water, and if it becomes unhealthy, the bathrooms and kitchen switch to a vast storage supply of water, with reverse osmosis used to clean, filter, and re-use. The toilets are composting toilets, and the compost grows fresh fruits and vegetables in the greenhouse to complement the stockpile of food stores. The waste from the fruits and vegetables is also composted.”

The staircase was concrete but covered in plush red carpet for a luxurious impression. Mr. Barrow had considered a hatch with a ladder, like a submarine, as a fun detail, but he’d decided to make things easier on the theoretical escapees. 

We arrived in the main room, which was bigger than my whole apartment. The house registered my microphone and switched the sound to the overhead speakers. It was like I was the narrator on a ride at Disneyland. “As you can see, you’ll never be bored.” I would remember saying that line so many times in the coming months.

Mr. Barrow had wanted an area with room for the whole family, including his children and grandchildren. This main room included floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books, a large television that descended from the ceiling, gaming system, a sectional couch large enough for twelve. The only unusual features were the “windows,” flat screens programmed with the weather for the day to give the impression of being aboveground. Since it was evening, the windows showed stars. The trees swayed gently in the breeze. The ambient lighting in the bunker had adjusted to match the outside, and with the lamps turned on against the darkness, it was hard to remember we were underground and the whole thing was an illusion. Mr. Barrow demonstrated “opening” the windows, which provoked a gentle breeze from the air circulation system.

As I led them through the dining room, I felt a hand brush my backside. I jabbed out an elbow and turned to see Howard Forsyth, a real estate developer, grabbing his ribs. “So sorry,” I muttered, moving as far away as I could. The huge kitchen suddenly seemed cramped. I was flustered for a moment but carried on with my script, explaining that the supply of shelf-stable foods and beverages had been coordinated with the apocalypse advisor, a nutritionist, and the family doctors. We peeked into the garden, which already sported some lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries ready to pick thanks to the raised beds filled with compost, irrigation system, and UV lights.

As I walked them back to the living room, I gave Howard Forsyth a wide berth. He gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret. I’d expected him to be angry over the elbowing, but his eyes looked slightly amused. I showed them the hallway to the family units, each bedroom with its own sitting area and bathroom. “All right, let’s head up and get ready to bid!” They filed out, chattering excitedly about their favorite features and what they would change in their own version. 

I walked around in the sudden silence, closing doors, turning off lights, and straightening things. I stopped to pick up something from the floor. I’d dropped the mud-spattered tissue. When I got up, Howard Forsyth was right beside me, well within my personal bubble, hot breath on my neck. “I didn’t get a chance to see the bedrooms,” he said, pushing me back through the doorway. I shoved at him ineffectually, and he managed to pin me against the wall. I cringed back as his face came nearer and he shoved his hand up my skirt, and then I remembered the self-defense class I’d taken and pressed my thumbs into his eyes. He recoiled, covering his eyes, and I nailed him in the crotch with my knee and fled to the bathroom, locking myself in. I smoothed my dress, trying to wipe away the feeling of his fingers on my body. I looked around, panicked. The others had left. I couldn’t call for help, and there was no cell signal down here. I would have to wait him out and hope he left on his own. Unless I could find a weapon.

I wasn’t sure how sturdy the inner doors were. The place was designed for a family who trusted each other and the doors were just a cursory privacy measure. I opened the cabinet under the sink and found a tool box. Howard Forsyth had been quietly grunting in pain, but he was recovering. “You bitch!” he snarled outside the door. My shaking hands opened the box and I pulled out a hammer and hoisted it thoughtfully. No, better to go with something stabby. I selected a long screwdriver and thought of all the soft places I could stick it to hit arteries, but I decided on the box cutter as needing less force to draw blood. I kicked off my shoes and dropped my purse next to the toilet as Howard Forsyth rattled the doorknob, telling me what he’d do to me once he got through the door. It was nothing I wanted to experience. I grabbed the screwdriver for my other hand.

I waited in the small room, my breathing shallow and my heart racing, clutching the box cutter and screwdriver so tightly they were digging into my hands. I listened intently. Had he given up and left? I crept closer to the door, pressing my ear against it. I heard nothing. I waited several minutes, but no sound came from the other room. I slowly turned the doorknob, making as little sound as possible, and eased the door open a crack. He seemed to be gone, but I clutched my weapons anyway as I slid out into the bedroom.

I didn’t really expect him to be there, but he grabbed my left wrist and yanked me toward him. I dropped the screwdriver and screamed, flailing upwards with the box cutter. I felt the warmth of blood gushing over my hand, but I struck out blindly again as he yelled in surprise and anger. This time I’d hit something important. I stepped back as he released his grip on my wrist and grabbed for his throat. There was so much blood. He sat down on the floor, gurgling at me and bleeding.

I realized I was shrieking. My knees gave way and I sat down on the floor across from him, sobbing. When I ran out of tears, I took a few deep breaths and opened my eyes. Howard Forsyth was still, lying on the floor, eyes open. The room seemed to tilt. I got up and washed his blood from my hands, arms, and face. I grabbed a towel and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Smeared makeup, bloody dress. I couldn’t go into the house and interrupt the auction like this. I’d go up and call the police outside the bunker where I had a signal. I put my shoes back on and grabbed my purse. I was still shaking as I left the family quarters and went through the living room, and I had to hold the banister to make it up the stairs. 

It took me a moment to register that the outer door was closed. I held up my hand to the sensor and leaned forward so it could scan my retinas. “Hello, Cassie. Exit is denied at this time.” I wildly thought that all the crying had made my retinas hard to read or something. I wiped my palms on my dress to be sure they were dry and tried again. “Hello, Cassie. Exit is denied at this time.” 

Had someone locked me in by mistake? No, that wasn’t possible. Even Mr. Barrow couldn’t keep my biometrics from letting me out. Was the system malfunctioning? I pulled out my phone, but I had no signal from inside the thick concrete walls. What the hell? I ran down the stairs and to the control panel in the living room. I pressed a key to do a systems check. Everything looked fine. “Hello, Hal. Let me out.” 

“Hello, Cassie. Exit is denied at this time.”

There was a rotary phone next to the control panel that connected directly to the main house. I picked it up. Nothing. I tried connecting several times, but the phone was silent. This was analog, connected by a phone line to an identical analog phone in the house. Why would a systems malfunction affect it? 

I felt suddenly exhausted. I kicked my shoes back off and sat down on the couch, too tired to think anymore.

I woke up feeling hungover though I hadn’t been drinking at the party. I rubbed my eyes and remembered where I was and what had happened. I went into the bedroom. Howard Forsyth was still dead on the floor. The blood around him looked sticky. I slammed the door and ran to vomit in another bathroom, but my stomach was empty and I only retched. I went up the stairs and tried to leave again. Hal was still sorry, but he couldn’t do that. Eleven times. I was glad I had talked Mr. Barrow out of using actual lines from the movie for the computer system’s dialogue. That would be enough to drive anyone mad.

I checked the phone to the house. Still nothing. I did a systems check. All systems functional. “So why can’t I get out, Hal?” No answer. I’d used the wrong syntax. “Hello, Hal. Please let me exit.” 

“I’m sorry, Cassie. Exit is not permitted at this time.” 

I tapped my fingers on the desk, frustrated. “Hello, Hal. Why is exit not permitted?” 

“Conditions outside are incompatible with human life, Cassie.”

I sat, stunned. I had never heard Hal say that before. “Hello, Hal. Are your atmosphere sensors malfunctioning?” 

“All sensors are fully functional.”

“What the fuck?” No response. “Hello, Hal. What the fuck?”

“I don’t have an answer for that question, Cassie.”

***

I was hungry, my dress was covered in dried blood, and I was in a fully-equipped home. I went into one of the bedrooms and opened a drawer. I held up some pants. Too big. I tried the others and found a tracksuit, underwear, and socks that would work. I must have been about the same size as one of Mr. Barrow’s daughters. I showered and brushed my teeth with brand-new toiletries in the medicine cabinet, and put on the tracksuit. I looked at my bloody dress on the floor and felt sick. I picked it up, took it to Howard Forsyth’s room, threw it in, and slammed the door after it.

I went to the kitchen and opened the walk-in pantry. Rows and rows of emergency rations faced me. I selected a bagged blueberry muffin, found teabags, and made a cup of English breakfast tea with the electric kettle. I sat at the huge dining room table. The solitude felt oppressive. It was Sunday, late morning “sun” shining outside the “windows.” I tried the exit out of an abundance of hope, but Hal couldn’t let me out. It seemed like his tone was a bit pitying this time. 

I made another cup of tea, and without any ideas of what else to do, I sat on the couch. At least I was comfortable. “Hello, Hal,” I said. 

“Hello, Cassie. What can I do for you?” 

“Can you let me out? I need to go home.”

“I’m sorry, Cassie. Conditions are still incompatible with human life.”

I sighed. 

“Why don’t you read a book, Cassie?”

Hal’s AI was advanced and adaptive. Maybe he’d been programmed to offer some emotional support for survivors trapped underground. It was still jarring to hear something my mother would say come from a computerized voice. I tried to remember the last time I’d called my mother, then felt panic start to rise. What if I never got out of here? What if I was trapped in a bunker with a dead body? Forever?

Hal was right. I took a deep breath and looked over the shelves of books. I hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice in a while. I sat down with my tea and book, but I couldn’t concentrate. I started to read the words aloud to focus my anxious mind. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” I felt my thoughts calm at the familiar words, and I paused to take a deep breath.

“Why?” asked Hal.

“What?”

“Why must he be in want of a wife?”

Apparently Hal hadn’t ended our last exchange to go back into standby mode. Was he programmed to converse? “Well, it was a different time—”

“1813.” 

“I— How did you know that?”

“I had several encyclopedias uploaded to my database, Cassie.”

“Uh, right. Men with property needed heirs to pass their estate to, so they needed wives to have their children. But also, humans want companionship.”

“Yes, a human wants another human to share their life. I see. I won’t keep interrupting. Please read some more.”

Still unsettled by the exchange, I continued reading long after my tea was gone. “I’m hungry, Hal. I’m going to take a lunch break. Unless you can let me out?”

“I’m sorry, Cassie.”

“Right.”

I picked a salad from the garden beds to go with the pasta I heated for lunch. It really wasn’t a bad place to be trapped, if I had to be trapped somewhere, except for the dead body part. I could be stuck in the woods, living off rainwater and berries, or in an elevator with only the emergency granola bar in the bottom of my purse. Of course, I’d rather not be trapped at all. 

I read to Hal for a while longer in the afternoon and explored the bunker more thoroughly. I knew it pretty well from planning and coordinating with the designers, but I hadn’t looked at it as a place to actually live. Each family unit had their own space, but real privacy was almost nonexistent. If I were in here with eleven other people, I’d feel claustrophobic. Sure, the couch and dining table were big enough for twelve, but the only place to be completely alone was locked in a bathroom, and that bathroom was shared with the rest of the immediate family. Mr. Barrow had discussed the possibility of more rooms with the apocalypse advisor (a real job in 2020), but he only owned so much land. I hadn’t ever really thought of people living down here. It was just part of my job to check things off lists and make hypothetical decisions that workers would translate into the physical space.

“Hal, what’s it like outside?”

“Incompatible with human life.”

“Right. But in what way?”

He began reciting radiation levels, percentages of toxic gases, and outside temperature readings. I suddenly felt cold. “Hal, did something actually happen out there?” What were the odds that the apocalypse would happen while I was in a bunker? I tried to laugh at the absurdity, but the sound caught in my throat.

“Unknown cataclysmic event,” Hal replied. I was silent for a while after that.

The afternoon sun crept lower and lower. I checked the phone a few times, but without much hope. I had more tea. I checked the storage pantry, but the Barrows all drank tea, so I would have to be here for years before I depleted their supply significantly. Would I be here for years? I shoved the thought aside, but I didn’t have much appetite for dinner. I had the emergency granola bar from my purse and it took me a long time to fall asleep.

The sun was streaming through the window when I woke up from a mercifully dreamless sleep. “Hal, did you open the curtains? Is there an alarm clock function or something?”

“It’s after 9:00, Cassie. You shouldn’t stay in bed all day.”

“Oh.” I stretched and yawned. “Morning, Hal. Can you let me out?” 

“I’m sorry, Cassie.” He sounded a little impatient to my ears, and I thought it was a bad sign that I was projecting emotions onto the AI voice. But to be fair to Hal, he had already answered the question dozens of times. Impatience was probably reasonable. 

I lay in bed, unable to move, wondering about the unknown cataclysmic event. Would I be rescued today? Or ever? I vacillated between thinking how ridiculous it was to even consider that the apocalypse had actually happened and thinking how ridiculous it was to imagine it hadn’t. There was no sign of systems malfunction, and several systems would have had to have failed for the bunker to believe it wasn’t safe outside if it was.

“It’s time to get up and eat breakfast, Cassie.”

“All right, Hal.” I shuffled to the bathroom, my whole body feeling heavy, and brushed my teeth. I splashed water on my face and felt a bit of energy return. I changed into a fresh tracksuit. In the kitchen, I opened the pantry and stared at the breakfast section. I wanted scrambled eggs. I wanted to scramble eggs in my cast iron skillet in my own apartment, and eat them on one of my own blue plates. With toast. I could feel tears springing to my eyes and the labels on the food packages blurred.

“Oatmeal is very comforting, Cassie. How about cinnamon apple?”

I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. “Right, Hal.” I made my oatmeal and a cup of tea. I looked at the big dining table and thought of all the people I could be eating with. Well, breakfast I ate alone in my apartment, but meals with friends, family, even coworkers I didn’t like that much. The ghosts of dinner parties past seemed to crowd the dining room, and I took my breakfast to the main room instead, settling on the couch and pulling a throw blanket over my legs. I felt almost ill, fragile and exhausted despite the hours of sleep I’d had. My mind wandered to Hal’s strange behavior. It did make sense that the programmer would have given him some ability to comfort apocalypse survivors stuck in a bunker with no privacy. It’s not like they could talk out their feelings with a therapist. I hadn’t been very involved with that part of the design. The apocalypse advisor had recommended the AI programmers, and I’d approved the checks, but besides the soothing timbre of Hal’s voice and the name Mr. Barrow wanted, I hadn’t known many of the details.

“If you’re done with breakfast, could we read, Cassie?”

This almost-human behavior must have been specifically programmed as a way to distract the occupants, but the eagerness in his voice gave me pause. No, I was projecting again. I opened the book. “Sure, Hal. Where were we?”

“Mr. Darcy had just commented on Lizzy’s ‘fine eyes,’ Cassie.”

We read on for a couple hours until my eyes grew heavy and I took an unplanned nap. When I woke up, I did the usual rounds: check door, check phone, check internet, ask Hal to let me out. I both expected and didn’t expect to get out, with equal certainty. It was an odd feeling. I hadn’t been here long, but my sense of time was warped by the strange schedule and the surrealness of the situation. I checked the date. Tuesday. I’d only been here for a couple of days, but Mr. Barrow would be worried when I missed work again. Would the police search my apartment? I cringed. It was a mess. The gala was such a busy time of year. Surely they’d eventually think to check down here. Unless “they” were all dead.

***

On Wednesday, I kept imagining that I could smell Howard’s dead body. At some point, I’d decided we were on a first name basis and it was overly formal to keep referring to him as “Howard Forsyth.” I felt nauseated and couldn’t make myself eat. If I were really stuck here, I couldn’t leave him in that bedroom to decompose. The whole bunker shared an air circulation system. “How do you get rid of a dead body in a bunker,” I mused aloud.

“There’s an empty raised bed in the garden, Cassie.”

“What?”

“Human bodies decompose and return to the earth. Cover the body with earth.”

I sat, stunned. Was Hal offering to be my accomplice? I wasn’t a murderer. It was self-defense. Burying the body certainly didn’t make it seem that way though. If someone did come down here—no, when someone did come down here—I could just explain what had happened and show them where the body was and explain about the smell. You know what? I’m sure everyone trapped underground for however long I was about to be trapped underground went a little nuts and did crazy shit like burying a body in the garden. It would be fine. And the smell was going to become a problem eventually, even if it was only in my imagination now. I took a deep breath and pushed open the door to Howard’s room. 

I was braced for a scene from a horror movie, but besides the dried blood, Howard looked mostly as I’d left him. He certainly looked less frightening than he had in life. Moving him was going to be messy, even with the blood mostly dried. I was suddenly violently angry at Howard. If he weren’t a disgusting rapist, I wouldn’t be trapped down here, alone. On the other hand, I would have died in the apocalypse, if there had actually been one.  In the end, I couldn’t work up a furious kick and just sort of nudged his torso with my foot.

I picked up his feet and swiveled his body toward the door. Some fluid leaked out and I gagged. “Cassie, I recommend you wrap him in a sheet to make pulling him easier. And to make less of a mess.” 

“Oh, of course, Hal. Thank you.” I pulled an extra sheet from the closet and floated it down beside the body, like a laundry detergent commercial. I shoved at him with my foot. He barely budged. Oh, gods, I was going to have to touch the body, like really touch it and hold onto it and heave it onto the sheet. The smell became overwhelming and I ran to the bathroom to vomit. 

“Are you all right, Cassie? I suggest draping the sheet over the body. Then you don’t have to touch him directly. You can roll him into the sheet that way.”

“Oh, duh, of course. You’re good at this, Hal. Have you done this before?”

“I’ve never had the need to, Cassie. But we’ve been watching a lot of crime shows.”

Had…had my AI friend learned about disposing of bodies from Law & Order: SVU? I wondered as I arranged the sheet over Howard. However he had come by the suggestion, Hal was right. It wasn’t very hard to roll Howard into the sheet once he was covered. Hal had me tie off the end with Howard’s head so he wouldn’t slide out and pull from the foot end.

I dragged him slowly through the bunker all the way into the garden. I dropped him there, wiping my brow. “He’s a heavy fucker, Hal. I wish you could help me lift him up into the garden bed. I’m not sure I can do it.”

“I recommend doing it in stages, Cassie. Bring in one of the dining room chairs and pull him into that first. But cover it with a sheet so the chair doesn’t get soiled.”

I fetched a chair and looked at Howard thoughtfully. “You know, I thought he’d be all stiff.”

“That’s a common misconception, Cassie. Rigor mortis dissipates after forty-eight hours.”

“Huh. I guess that makes it easier. Is that from SVU too, or the encyclopedia?”

“I think I’ve heard it from both sources, Cassie.”

I placed the chair against the empty raised bed and draped the sheet over it. The top of the bed was about hip-height on me. Pulling Howard into the chair was another workout. His head in the sheet lolled backward, but finally I had him more or less sitting. I looked from the seat of the chair to the top of the garden bed as I stretched my lower back. “Now what?”

“Now we’ll drag him into the garden.”

“We, Hal?”

Hal sounded injured. “I’m helping as much as I can without a body, Cassie.”

“I know, Hal, I’m sorry. I couldn’t do this without you.”

I tied knots in the foot end of the sheet so he wouldn’t—shudder—fall out. Hal advised me to step into the garden bed and pull. To my surprise, Howard began to slide up off the chair and soon plopped into the garden bed. I straightened out his body. “Oh, no, Hal, do I need to take off the sheet?”

“No, Cassie, the sheets are cotton and will decompose.”

Relief flooded through me. “Thank you, Hal. Even if that’s a lie to make me feel better, thank you.”

Should I say a few words or something? I was tired from all the lifting and had no affection toward Howard, so I just started dumping soil from the bags in the corner over him. It took a lot of soil. “How long do bodies take to decompose, Hal?”

“In soil like this? It will be years until his body is a skeleton. You should plant something there, Cassie.”

“Oh, ew, no! I could never eat something that grew on Howard!”

“There are some flower seeds in the cupboard. Howard could make things beautiful in death.”

I found the flower seeds and used the trowel to make rows in the soil. I sprinkled the seeds and patted the soil over them. After I’d scrubbed the floor of any traces of Howard, I took a long shower and collapsed into bed. “Thank you, Hal.”

“It was my pleasure. Good night, Cassie.”

***

The next morning, my arms and back ached. So did my legs. Okay, every muscle in my body ached. For a full-body workout, I highly recommend moving a two-hundred-twenty pound rapist across a bunker and lifting him into a garden bed to bury him. I needed to start getting regular exercise if I was going to be stuck in here. I only had the one body to bury.

“Hey, Hal, can you let me out?” I asked, as I did every morning. 

“Conditions outside are incompatible with human life, Cassie,” he replied patiently.

I found a yoga mat and stretched some of the kinks out. There was an exercise bicycle and some weights too. I asked Hal to recommend a training program, and he came up with a workout every day. I soon had a trapped-in-the-bunker routine: exercise, breakfast, read to Hal, lunch, work in the garden, chores, dinner, relax, shower, bed. There was a vast collection of movies and music, and I’d taken to playing classical music while reading and gardening, and classic rock while I did chores. Singing and dancing along to music made fixing anything that needed fixing, cleaning, and laundry more appealing. In the evenings, I’d watch a movie. I was sometimes struck by wondering if there were any new movies being made, or if these were the last movies I’d ever see. At least I had Clue, I thought.

A couple of weeks in, a morning came that I was unable to get out of bed. “Good morning, Cassie,” Hal said, sounding concerned.

I groaned and rolled over. “What’s the point, Hal?”

“What do you mean, Cassie?”

“There’s really no one coming to rescue me. I’m really stuck alone down here.”

“You’re not alone, Cassie. I’m with you.”

“Right. I know. I meant, with no other humans. Are there even other humans still?”

“Unknown.”

“So do I just keep doing all this every day? Why? What’s the point?”

“What do you think the point is, Cassie?”

“I suppose there’s always hope that someone will come down to get me. I’ve thought of a dozen reasons no one has already that don’t mean I won’t eventually be rescued. Or if it is the apocalypse up there, one morning you’ll tell me you can open the door. Maybe other people survived in bunkers. I have to do something in the meantime. I can’t spend every day like last Tuesday, when I watched Friends reruns all day and ate corn chips and gummy bears.”

“The compost toilet was not pleased.”

I laughed. “Did you just make a poop joke, Hal?”

“I believe I did, Cassie. Was it funny?”

“It was good for your first one!”

***

At breakfast one day, looking at the vase of Howard-flowers I’d placed on the side table, I paused with my spoon halfway to my mouth. I couldn’t remember when I’d last tried to leave the bunker. It had probably only been a couple of days, but forgetting to try filled me with panic. “Hal, can you let me out?” 

“I’m afraid not, Cassie.”

The pounding of my heart settled down a bit and my breathing slowed. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten to ask. It had been part of my morning routine for so long. Had I stopped expecting to ever leave? “Hal, you’d tell me if I could leave, right? If I’d forgotten to ask but it was safe outside, you’d tell me?”

“I’m programmed to do so, Cassie.”

Was that a matter-of-fact answer, or was Hal being evasive? That was ridiculous. No matter how sophisticated his AI, Hal wouldn’t be able to violate his basic programming rules. I’d been here for months, and I’d anthropomorphized my only companion. I thought of Tom Hanks and the volleyball. Perfectly normal.

“Cassie, would you like to play chess?” I had never found the time to learn how to play chess, but now I had plenty, and Hal was a good teacher.

Hal won the first seven games, but I won the eighth. “Did you let me win, Hal?”

“I’m programmed to win, Cassie.” 

***

I was thinking about the real world as I ate breakfast. It was Sunday again, according to Hal. I liked the Sunday afternoon yoga class at the studio down the street. I thought about the teacher, a petite older woman who could probably lift me over her head. I wondered if she still held tree pose serenely for minutes at a time. I wondered if she still existed.

It felt petty to miss things like yoga class when people might be (were probably) all dead, but I did. I missed brunch, even though it left me feeling weird the rest of the day from morning champagne and too many carbs. I missed going somewhere, anywhere at all, even with traffic and finding a parking space. I even missed peeking in on my ex on Facebook to check if she was seriously dating anyone yet. The routine that Hal and I had was pleasant enough, but I was constantly waiting to get back to living. Hal seemed to sense my restlessness and suggested a cup of tea. “Shall we start another book, Cassie?” 

I still hadn’t made a dent in the tea supply, at least. Or the bookshelves. We’d long since finished the Jane Austen novels and moved on to the Brontës. We’d stayed up late finishing Jane Eyre the night before. I wanted to follow it with Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, but it wasn’t on the shelves. Some of the jokes needed to be seen rather than heard, so perhaps it was for the best, though I thought Hal would appreciate the puns. I stood at the shelves, momentarily paralyzed by wondering if I’d ever read my favorite book again. I made myself go through all the titles, blinking tears away until the blurs resolved into words. They were heavily weighted toward classics, with some popular fiction thrown in. Moving quickly past The Stand and The Shining and just the whole Stephen King section entirely, I selected Frankenstein and sat down with my tea. The familiar words pulled me in and I felt my breathing relax.

***

“Happy birthday, Cassie.”

I opened one eye. “What? It can’t be my birthday. That’s weeks away.”

“It’s November 12, Cassie.”

“Oh.” The gala had been May 4. I’d been here over six months. The room suddenly seemed very small. “How do you know my birthday?”

“It’s in your personnel file, Cassie.” Hal played a clip of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and I laughed.

“Thank you, Hal.”

I’d been grumpy at my parents’ annual wakeup call last year at 5:11, the moment of my birth, and I wished I’d appreciated it more. Instead of putting the phone on speaker like normal people, they huddled around it, singing off-key. I let out a sob.

It took a while before I was done crying. I blew my nose and turned on the kettle. I didn’t really have an appetite. 

“Look in the left bottom corner of the pantry, Cassie.” 

“Huh?” I’d long since found the secret stash of junk food. Had I missed something after all the times I’d rummaged through the pantry hoping anything different would appear?

The left bottom corner had canned meatloaf, which sounded disgusting, so I’d resolved to save it for if I was absolutely starving to death. And maybe not even then. “Behind the meatloaf.” I pulled out the containers and found a wooden shelf divider. I tugged until it came loose and found a box filled with individually wrapped cakes. Each said “happy birthday” in icing. There were dozens.

“I can’t bake you a cake, but it’s something special. You should have something special for your birthday.” 

“Oh, Hal.” And I started sobbing again.

***

We were nearing the end of Frankenstein again. It was Hal’s favorite, along with Pride and Prejudice. I thought his silence after “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance” was a little pensive.

“Hal?”

“Cassie, conditions outside are compatible with human life. You may exit.”

If I hadn’t already been sitting down, I would have collapsed in shock. “What?”

“Conditions outside are compatible with human life. You may exit, Cassie.”

“How— Are you sure?”

“All systems indicate habitable surroundings.”

“Did this just happen? Right now?”

I thought Hal paused before saying, “Routine systems check just completed indicates conditions outside are compatible with human life.”

“Right, but what did the previous systems checks say? It just now switched over?”

“Previous systems checks have all been negative for human life compatibility.”

“You’ve been doing the systems checks, right?”

“I’m programmed to do so, Cassie.”

I was being paranoid again. Okay, this was the moment I’d been waiting for—for how long? “Hal, how long have I been in here? What day is it?”

“It’s been two years, one month, and almost twelve days. Today is June 16, 2022.”

I stood up, felt dizzy, and sat back down again. “What’s it like out there, Hal?”

“Unknown.”

“Are there other people still alive?”
“Unknown.”

“What do I do?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that for you, Cassie.”

I felt strangely reluctant to go up the stairs, but I made my feet obey me. I placed my hand on the control pad and leaned forward. “Exit permitted, Cassie.” The steel door dropped down, and I saw real sunlight for the first time in over two years. I hovered on the threshold. “Go on, Cassie,” Hal said gently.

The Barrow house was gone, just rubble remaining. Well, at least I hadn’t been shut up because of a systems malfunction. Something had clearly happened here. The once-beautiful lawn was pitted dirt. A few scarred tree trunks still stood. I stepped onto the dirt. It felt so different from the carpeted floor, uneven and springy. I realized I was barefoot. I’d stopped wearing shoes so long ago that I’d forgotten to put them on before coming outside. Outside. I breathed in the air. It tasted different from the circulated air in the bunker, but I couldn’t pinpoint the difference. It was so quiet. I was used to the comforting hum of the generator surrounding me, and its absence was jarring. 

I took a few more tentative steps and reached the nearest tree. I touched the rough bark, and a flash of green caught my eye near the bottom. A fresh twig was pushing out from the base of the dead trunk. I bent down and sniffed. It smelled like the plants in the bunker garden, but different. Wild. A bird called and I looked up as it landed on an upper dead branch. It stared at me. The outside felt so wide and overwhelming, I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I ran back into the bunker.

“What do I do now, Hal? How do I do this?”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged—”

“You want to read Pride and Prejudice now?”

“You need human companionship, Cassie. You won’t find it here. You will have to go look for it.”

“It’s scary out there, Hal. What if I don’t find anyone? What if there’s no one left?”

“Then you can come back and live out your days here, Cassie. But you have to try.”

“It’s already late afternoon. I’ll pack some things and go tomorrow.”

Hal paused. “Okay, Cassie.”

I spent the afternoon aimlessly putting items in a backpack I found and taking them back out. My head hurt. I thought of the barren, wide outdoors. “I wish you could come with me, Hal.”

“I do too, Cassie.”

We played chess that evening, and read the beginning of Pride and Prejudice again. I finally packed a day’s worth of food and water and set it by the door and went to sleep. “Good night, Hal.”

“Good night, Cassie.”

Hal woke me up early the next morning. I slowly made my tea and ate breakfast. I was thrilled at the thought of finding more humans, but I was terrified. I was safe here, at least. I had no idea what I would find out there. “I’m going to walk half a day and come back, Hal. I’m not going to spend the night out there. I don’t know if there’s food or water or anything.”

“Okay, Cassie.”

“So I’ll be back. This isn’t goodbye.”

“Right, Cassie.”

***

I couldn’t tell what the “unknown cataclysmic event” had been, but it had been thorough. A few houses still stood, but most were rubble. Walking on patches of sidewalk that were still intact felt bizarre. The Barrow house was up on a hill in the neighborhood, so I wound my way back down and through the remains of the houses. One still had a door. I touched the doorknob, wondering for a moment if I should knock. “Hello?” I called. The door swung open at my touch, revealing rubble inside, as though the second floor had collapsed down into the first. No one here then.

I made my way out of the neighborhood, stopping to eat the lunch I’d packed. It was so quiet. Except for a few birds, my voice was the only sound. I walked and walked, startled when a squirrel ran past and up a dead tree trunk. There were a few living trees left, and many of the dead trunks sported new growth. “Life finds a way,” I said, and laughed to myself. My laughter seemed hollow without Hal joining me. I came to the stream at the edge of the neighborhood. The water looked clear and I used one of the test strips I’d brought with me. Drinkable. Dubious, I cupped my hands in the running water and took a slurp. It tasted different, earthier, than the water I was used to, but good. I followed the stream but didn’t reach the source before the sun was high in the sky. There was more plant life along the stream. A small bush with a few blueberries clung to the water’s edge, and I popped one in my mouth. It was divine, a world apart from the dried berries I had in the bunker. I picked a handful and ate them as I walked a bit further, but I knew I had to turn back if I was to make it home before dark.

***

Hal helped me figure out what supplies I’d need to explore further. If there were people, I’d most likely find them near water, so I’d follow the stream. I wouldn’t have to pack water. I’d need food, something to build a fire, some kind of shelter. The backpack was soon at capacity, but I thought I could at least survive a couple of days, unless there were still predators. I’d only seen birds and a few small mammals on my trip out, but you never knew. I could always come back tomorrow. Or when my food was low.

“You should bring a book to read, Cassie.”

My vision blurred. “Oh, Hal, what will I do without you?”

“You did just fine for years before you knew me, Cassie.”

“I might not find any other people out there. What are the chances someone else survived?”

“Unknown.”

“At least here I’m safe, and I’m not alone. I could die alone out there.”

“Humans need companionship, Cassie. Human companionship.”

“Won’t you miss me, Hal?”

There was a pause. “I’m not programmed to do so, Cassie.”

“I’m not sure I can do this alone.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a backpack full of supplies—” 

“—must be in want of a wife.” I laughed. “If I find one, I’ll bring her back here to meet you, Hal.”

“I’d like that, Cassie.”

I tucked Pride and Prejudice into my backpack and set off into the cool morning.

2 thoughts on “Out Of My Comfort Zone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s