She’d kept it on the top shelf above her lab desk. A black suitcase with white polka dots and a red trim, purchased at a Goodwill on her way home from work one evening in late Spring, when she thought the nuclear weapons were going to arrive. She called it her nukes-case. If the bombs arrived while she was at work, she rationalized, she would be able to survive for quite a long time if she went to the rooms under the basement of her building. The basement had a basement. It sounded like the perfect nuclear bunker.
She was convinced the war would happen, and just as convinced that it would be triggered by a poorly-worded and inconveniently-timed Tweet, which was a concept she had not ever thought to conflate with the prospect of nuclear destruction until the recent past. But she was too cheap to buy her own bunker. She wasn’t about to dig a six-foot-deep hole in her yard. That house had been there since the 60’s. .
In any case, the basement of the basement was stocked with several boxes of bottled and bagged water for the lab mice that were housed there. There was enough for several weeks, even months . There were large buckets of mouse chow in every room. She had never tasted the mouse chow, unlike her childhood cat’s kibble. That, she had tasted. Then, she was 8 years old, and inquisitive about all the wrong things. There are many things that sound like a good idea to an eight would never do. So she had never tasted the mouse chow. But she was convinced it would be sufficient to keep her alive. If she ran out, she could eat the mice.
Or maybe not. God only knows what modifications the researchers had put in those mice. What would happen if a person ate a lab mouse that had been injected with a human tumor? Would that person get cancer? There was already radiation to deal with. Mutant human/mouse hybrid cancer was a risk more easily avoided. She would release the mice, perhaps after the radiation died down. That way, they could replace the wild mouse population that would inevitably be wiped out. Her mind returned to eating tumors. Would a person get cancer if they ate a human tumor anyway? One that had never been inside a mouse? What was the scientific consensus on tumor safety in food? How much tumor could be in bacon before it was declared unfit for consumption? How many times had she eaten cow tumors with her steak? Had anyone done a soft agar colony forming assay on cells from raw ground beef? That test that shows whether or not a cell can grow into a tumor. At least, she thought that’s what the test was. It had been a while since she’d read any papers on that topic.
She wondered momentarily how her brain had led her to these thoughts. Did everyone have similar thoughts on a regular basis? Thoughts that they simply decided were too weird to share and therefore didn’t, leaving everyone else to wonder if their own similar thoughts were somehow abnormal? She decided against looking up the answer to all of her questions. She liked steak and bacon too much to become a vegetarian. Even if they did have tumors. It was easier to not know the truth about the tumors .
The nukes-case was well-stocked. That, she had planned well, despite assembling it in a couple of hours that evening. For some reason, she had everything she needed lying around the house or in the garage already — everything but the suitcase itself. She only had one suitcase, and needed to keep that one free for travel purposes. Not that it would matter in the end, if there was no world left to travel through, but she might have needed to travel sooner, and once she had assembled the nukes-case, she knew it would have made her uncomfortable to take it apart for the sake of a trivial trip. There had been a time where she had owned more suitcases than she had space to store suitcases, resulting in a walk-in closet that looked like somewhat of a suitcase graveyard . None of them had been intentional purchases. Instead, they were the result of her inability to go abroad with one case and come back with the same amount of stuff that fit in a single suitcase. She could only recall one or two trips in recent years in which she had returned home with the same number of suitcases she had left with. On some of these trips, she had hardly bought anything, but for some reason her clothes had expanded anyway, necessitating a second one. The suitcases had all been full, of course, because what better a place to shove things when the house needed a quick clean before visitors arrived, or when she didn’t feel like looking at mess any more, than inside an unoccupied suitcase? It wasn’t hoarding. It was convenience. Twenty-one suitcases of convenience. When she had moved, the suitcases and the majority of their contents had ended up at the Goodwill. The same one where she purchased the nukes-case .
Packing the nukes-case began with a list. Most of her activities began with a list. If she didn’t write it down, it wouldn’t get done. Sometimes, even when she did write it down, it still didn’t get done. Or it was forgotten, as in the many occasions she had gone to the store with light bulbs at the top of her shopping list and had returned with everything but. So many times, in fact, that her neighbor had noticed that she walked through the house in pitch darkness every night and had left a box of light bulbs at her back door in response. Putting those in the sockets was on her list of things she would get around to eventually. That list was comprised entirely of tasks that would take less than five minutes to complete if only she didn’t need to think about doing them for at least a month beforehand before finding the energy to complete them . A list, any list, however, increased the chances of things all happening in the end. And she always felt more comfortable when she had a list around.
Screwdrivers were at the top of her nukes-case list, simply because she was looking at a screwdriver sitting on her dining room table as she began to write it and had realized that a screwdriver would be a useful thing to have . The tool kind, not the cocktail with orange juice, though a few bottles of Pinot Noir did make their way into her nukes-case once she realized she had space for them. Even tee-totalers would appreciate a glass of that while the apocalypse happened outside. As for the screwdrivers, the doors down there were linked to the access card system and would lock permanently once the power went out. She’d need to have tools to remove them when it was time to leave: screwdrivers, a hammer, wrenches of varying size, pliers, and one of those things you can use to pry things open . She had many of each. Not because she was particularly handy at anything that required tools. It was more that she required tools so infrequently that when she did, she could never remember where she had stored them last time, and it was faster to go to the store for new ones than it was to look for the ones she had. This was especially the case if the item was likely to be inside her Doom Closet, so-called because she never quite knew what would fall out of it when she opened it. A pillow, an umbrella, a saw… She recalled having friends over one evening and exclaiming a little too loudly “don’t open that!” when one of them mistook the Doom Closet for the bathroom. She wasn’t sure if she was more concerned about what might have fallen on him or that her friends would find out about the closet. For the rest of the evening, her friend had jokingly put his hand on the closet door handle, pretending he was about to open it. He thought it was funny. She put him on her list of people she would never invite back.
It was a good thing that she didn’t have her own bunker, because the Doom Closet would have ended up relocating itself there. At least with the nukes-case, she was forced to limit herself to the amount of items she could reasonably store in her lab space without the health and safety inspectors commenting on overfilled bench areas and boxes stored in too close proximity to the ceiling. The mouse rooms really were perfect, because in addition to water and (albeit questionable) food, they also contained vast quantities of things like trash bags, cleaning supplies, buckets, paper towels, toilet paper, and soap, fire extinguishers, protective items such as respirator masks and eyewear, pain medicine etc. Sure, that was mouse medicine, but in the event of a nuclear attack, There would be potassium iodide in the lab somewhere, and antiseptic solutions, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol wipes, eye wash solution, a full first-aid she could quickly grab. She put a large plastic bag for collecting these in her suitcase on her way out. Not having to consider those things left plenty of space in the case for less-traditionally useful items such as the aforementioned wine.
First, though, she collected the essentials. Blankets and a pillow. The floor in the dark room was comfortable enough for sleeping on if she placed a stack of the papers used to cover mouse cages during transport on the floor. She knew this from experience, after accidentally getting the eye-dilating drug, atropine, in her eye during an experiment. She was lucky that the only chemical she had ever managed to get into her eyes during her research was one that had been specifically designed for eyes, but having one very dilated pupil was a recipe for dizzying headaches in the harsh overhead lights of the lab, and the only thing she could do for the rest of the day was lie on the floor in the dark room. She had shoved a chair inside the revolving entry door with one of the legs sticking out so that nobody could come in and find her. It wouldn’t have been a problem if they had, but there were some things she preferred not to have to explain.
Explaining the nukes-case was one of those things, but after bringing it to work the day after she packed it, this had been unavoidable. She had been honest about its purpose as a nuclear survival kit and her plans, but every time she had said so, everyone had assumed she was being sarcastic. For a few trusted acquaintances, she had opened the case to show them. Others were left in their assumption that she was messing with them, and she wondered what they thought she really had in there. An endless supply of tampons? In actuality, she had packed a menstrual cup. She didn’t like the idea of using those, as environmentally-friendly as they (and she) were, but it took up less space, and she thought it would be more convenient in that situation..
She had packed two spare changes of clothes that could be layered. It wasn’t clear whether it would be very warm down there or very cold. It would depend on how well the rooms were insulated. The fires from the bombs could make it unbearably hot, or the rooms could be shielded, and freeze due to the loss of central heating. She planned for both. A pair of strong boots went in the case. Those would be needed for when she got out. Makeup. That was an essential. After a nuclear attack, nothing she had known would look the same anymore, so she needed to at least look like herself . At one point she had considered having her eyeliner tattooed on after seeing how natural it looked on one of her colleagues, but she knew that needles that close to the eye left her at risk of ending up with half a tattooed eye. She had gone to work with eyeliner only on one eye before, and it wasn’t a good look. Dry shampoo was also a necessity. Not necessarily for while sheltering, but afterwards. Any water she could carry would have to be saved for drinking, and nobody wants to wash their hair with radioactive water.
In the front pocket, she placed photocopies of all her important documents — passport, driver’s license, social security card, health insurance details, that kind of thing. She wondered if she should put the original documents in there so that she would remember where she’d left them this time, but knowing her luck, if she did that, someone would steal her suitcase.
The packages of light sticks — the kind that last for hours after you snap them — were next. Those had been left behind in her garage by her ex when he moved out, along with a baseball bat and a surprisingly small sense of regret. It was a good thing she rarely cleared out the garage. Flashlights and batteries would complement the light sticks, and she had several after deciding one afternoon while browsing the hardware store that it would be handy to have a couple of flashlights in a few drawers in each room of her house. At least, that was the justification she used. If she were more capable of being honest with herself, she may have recognized that she came up with that reason because the small, but effective, lights came in several colors and she was too indecisive to pick one, instead of having a genuine need for flashlights. Even with rooms full of flashlights, she had still wandered around in the dark when all her light bulbs needed to be replaced. It wasn’t because she enjoyed the dark. It was because she had forgotten she owned so many flashlights until she had started to make her list.
A battery-powered radio would be vital, along with power supplies — her wireless USB phone chargers lasted a long time, and for once, they were all charged up. She didn’t expect to have cell phone reception or functional internet, but she needed to be able to play music. The wireless speaker might not be loud enough to drown out the sounds of bombs, but it might serve as an adequate distraction, just like blasting overly-energetic classical crossover pieces from an old scratched CD in the first car she’d owned had distracted her nicely from the sound the car made from its cracked power steering rack every time she turned a corner. It was cheaper to put new power steering fluid in it every day than to have it repaired, and easier not to worry about noise when something more pleasant obscured it. She reminded herself of an old children’s book in which an elephant playing hide-and-seek stood with his hands (or would that be hooves? Feet? What do elephants have at the ends of their legs, officially?) o ver his eyes and assumed that meant nobody could see him. If she couldn’t hear it, it wasn’t happening.
Contact lenses, solution, and extra glasses were a must. She couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of her without them. Occasionally, she fell asleep with her contacts in, and when she woke up she wondered why the ceiling suddenly looked so detailed. She had many pairs of spare, but slightly broken, glasses — generally from standing on them while looking for them. After wearing contact lenses for 20 years she should have learned not to remove them without locating her glasses beforehand, but she was better at learning specific and often entirely useless trivia than she was at retaining practical knowledge. That’s why she had ended up in academia in the first place. Absent-mindedness was not an inaccurate stereotype. Walk into any university at the end of the day, and you’re guaranteed to find at least three people searching for their car keys, and at least one of them will be holding said keys already. Her former high school Chemistry professor could reel off the periodic table without giving it a second thought, though never could remember where he placed his beaker of hydrochloric acid.
Caffeine pills. She needed her caffeine fix, and lack of electricity would make it hard to boil water. Cold coffee would be nothing but a frustrating reminder that things would never be the same again. “It breaks your chromosomes, ” the Director of Cytogenetics had commented on overhearing her hallway conversation with a colleague about how the 240 mg of caffeine in her Monster energy drink wasn’t that much. She thought to herself that a bit of chromosome breakage might not be all that bad. Nuclear radiation was ionizing. That causes DNA to break across both strands. Her cells would need to repair those double-strand breaks for survival. Why not give them some practice via caffeine first and make them expert DNA-repairers for when it would be needed? That wasn’t how it worked. Or was it? She put that on her list of things to look up later.
For a moment, she considered packing some cash, but instead chose to put in a few packages of protein bars. Not for eating while sheltering, but for future currency. Cash would be useless after a nuclear war, and mouse food was a poor offering to fellow survivors. With some actual food, she might be able to trade for other resources, or at least make some friends. Someone might stab her and steal the food, but there are risks in everything. Plus, she was also going to pack a sharp knife or two, and some mace. Just in case. She had a can of mace. Although she had been in situations in which would have come in handy, she had never discharged it, so didn’t know what it smelled like. Unlike her colleague. He hadn’t been attacked. Instead, he had purchased a can and sprayed it into his trash can to see what it looked like, rendering the kitchen unusable for days. His wife had not been pleased.
The stage of packing that took the longest was selecting reading material. She had a seemingly endless supply of books she loved and books she had never read, and she wanted to have a balance between the two, for comfort and escape from boredom. George Orwell’s “1984” went in first. It was her second copy of the book. The first one had fallen apart while she read it for the 50th time. “Is the current government aware that this wasn’t supposed to be an instruction manual?” she said to herself out loud as she put it in. “Wuthering Heights”, “Turn of the Screw” , and a selection of Ian Banks and Tom Sharpe books made the cut — an appropriate balance of darkness, weirdness, and humor. She threw in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in a moment of optimism. Waiting out a nuclear war was the only level of desperation she could imagine that could make finishing “Ulysses” seem exciting. Along with the books, she included several of the blank notebooks she had accumulated over the years. You can never have too many Moleskines. She wondered how her writing would change while she was down there. Would she write about the past and how she wished it could have been different? Would she leave behind an account of her escape, or attempt to escape, for the future history books? Would she focus on a new future? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she would need something to write on, and something to write with. Her ideas always came out better with a blue fountain pen, so she packed two that she could live without for now, and two large packages of ink cartridges.
The ink cartridges were a representation of her ability to consider quantity when placing orders. She had wanted ten cartridges. Having never used that particular brand of ink before, she wanted to give it a good test before committing to more. It seemed very expensive, but the ink was the rich dark blue that she liked, and they were designed to fit her favorite type of pen, which was something she had found difficult to reliably locate. It wasn’t until they arrived in the mail that she realized that they seemed so expensive because she had ordered ten packages of ten cartridges instead of ten individual cartridges. It wasn’t the first time she had made such an error, but it was the first time she had appreciated having a lot more of what she ordered than intended. They were at least small enough to store easily, unlike the boxes of 100 bottles of phosphate buffered saline her lab had had to make room for when she misread the “10X” designation on the university’s ordering system as concentration, not quantity.
Quantity was also a thing she had to consider when packing the things that others may consider to be a waste of valuable space. She wanted to quit smoking, and she had, many times, but it was a powerful addiction, and if there was one thing she knew about herself more than anything, it was that stress made her want to smoke. As much as she needed to find another option in everyday life, the arrival of nukes did not in any way resemble everyday life. She would need to have cigarettes, and she would enjoy them. Who gives a fuck about lung cancer when the air is radioactive anyway? It wouldn’t do any good to chain-smoke, so she resisted the temptation to buy a whole separate suitcase for cigarettes, and resigned herself to the fact that continuing on her current schedule of the morning, lunchtime, and bedtime cigarette was the best option. A package of 100 would last the month, give or take. She usually bought the cheapest “lights” available, but for the nukes-case, she packed the Marlboro full-strength option. The ones her dad smoked. The ones she had sneaked from his stash when she first started smoking. It would give her some comfort to have a reminder, a piece of him in there with her . They lived miles apart — him in a safe zone, in a different country, away from any direct targets. He would be waiting for her. He would look for her. Knowing he would be waiting for her, and that he would find her, would give her the strength to maintain her survival mode. She hadn’t told him any of her plans, but she knew that he knew that she wouldn’t be one of the ones who drove to the likely nuclear epicenter after it became clear that the bombs would be arriving. They had always had the same brain. She had inherited not only his likeness, but his thought processes too. Those had helped her become a scientist, a writer, and a survivor.
The nukes-case brought her comfort. She looked at it watching over her as she worked at her desk, feeling safe in the knowledge that she had A Plan, and the means to carry out that plan. In the process of conceiving her plan, she had brought her best friend on board, a fellow scientist with a similar fear of impending apocalyptic doom, and together they had solidified their plans for making it through to the other side. If nothing else good would come out of the events that had led up to her obsessing about nuclear war as a real possibility, at least she had her friend. They had connected deeply over political insanity and pulled each other through as things began to seem ridiculous. “Good move on his part” her friend had said after the president’s press secretary quit. “But his replacement is a smoother liar without a soul. And the new communications director is the Joker”. The subject was changed to avoid unnecessary frustration, and her friend suggested watching “Rear Window”. It was a good choice.
They figured they would have 30 minutes after the first bombs hit the country, because they didn’t live in one of the immediate target zones. In that time, her friend could make it across campus to her building and meet her in the atrium. She would have to take her friend to the sub-basement rooms, because she had a mouse protocol that gave her access, and her friend did not. They discussed the possibility of bringing others along. She was friends with her colleague who shared her lab space, she and wouldn’t have been able to refuse him entry to the rooms if he had been around when the nuclear notification came in. His humor would make it more bearable anyway. Her friend had a daughter who worked in her building. They agreed on four people. As much as they would have wanted to take anyone they encountered along the way, they knew that the more people they had, the fewer days their resources would last, and there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be sharing them with any number of others already. Of all the people who had access to that area of campus, they couldn’t have been the only ones who had considered its potential as a shelter.
Her friend was somewhat more pragmatic than she was, and had brought up the prospect of what they would do if things went wrong. She was the kind of person who handled the Things Going Wrong when they happened, aside from, of course, planning for nuclear war itself. It would be more accurate to say that she was the kind of person who planned for Things Going Wrong With Attractive Solutions. Like survival. Her friend was willing to consider the alternatives. What if they were trapped, and fires started to consume the rooms? She imagined herself aiming a fire extinguisher at an expansive nuclear flame and realized its insufficiency. Or what about flooding? If the main water supply was damaged, radioactive water could quickly flood the levels below. They both agreed that they wanted to neither burn alive nor drown, and that if it became clear that they would meet their end in the shelter area, they wanted that to be as peaceful and painless as possible. She knew how to euthanize animals with isoflurane. The equipment and solutions for doing so were down there. If it came to it, they decided, that would be their easy way out.
Despite those morbid conversations, the nukes-case and her prospect of survival continued to give her strength and rationality as she repeatedly scrolled through Tweets and news articles detailing impending nuclear destruction and what to expect afterwards. There was a lot of fake news around, but this wasn’t fake news, she told herself. This was a reasonable thing to be afraid of, and a reasonable thing to plan for. Her friend was a highly reasonable person. If her plans had been insane, as her plans often were, her friend would have told her so. Her friend was not the kind of person who would validate her irrationality and allow her to continue it. That was one of the reasons they were so close. That a person with those characteristics could misread a situation and panic unnecessarily to the same extent as she had was not a thing she thought to consider at that point in time. It was only after her friend died in a tragic and entirely unpredictable accident that she wondered if all the planning she had done had been a waste of time. If all the worrying had a cause. After all, if a person can plan for surviving nuclear war in a way that would have been conducive to actual survival, and then die after falling on a piece of broken glass in her own home, what does that really say about planning for survival? She wondered if she had miscalculated threats. Was she so focused on nukes, a relative impossibility, that she ignored the fact that it was more important to focus on the here and now? Focus on the people in her life now rather than what could happen in future, because it was impossible to know when a day would be the last? Was following every moment of happenings in the world making her overestimate unlikely threats to the extent that she was avoiding living her life to its potential? She wasn’t sure. But she stopped reading the news.
One day, her colleague walked into the lab and noticed that the suitcase was gone.
“Where’s the nukes-case?” he asked.
“I don’t need it any more” she said.
Brooke Boveri is a Vata-Pitta in permanent imbalance and an aspiring vegetarian who is constantly sidetracked by the smell of bacon. She is particularly adept at breaking things without touching them and accidentally offending people, occasionally simultaneously, which is somewhat inconvenient. She has been published in Defenestration Magazine and rejected from several others.