We lived then on the Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota, in a house with two basements. Finn said the sub-basement was a fallout shelter for a nuclear war that could happen at any time.
“If they bomb us,” he said, “we’ll bomb them right back.” He called it mortally ushered destruction.
Our town, Hibbing, was sure to get hit because it was home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine.
“Iron makes steel,” Finn said. “Steel makes bombs.”
“And Ferris wheels,” I said.
A stout lady from Minneapolis who claimed to be our aunt said the shelter would make a nice wine cellar, but she only stayed with us once and didn’t seem to know Father never drank alcohol, except for the shallow chalice of communion wine he swallowed the first Sunday of each month.
“If she’s our aunt,” Finn said, “how come we never seen her before?”
She said we were too skinny and made a big pot of spaghetti with pepperoni that fed us for days after she was gone.
The door to the shelter was in the basement, under the stairs—solid, with five horizontal sunken panels, the white paint flaking away to bare wood. Father warned us never to go down there—it was off-limits—but Finn said the symbol on the door meant safety: a black circle set against a yellow background, with three yellow triangles pointing down. When he turned the tarnished copper knob, the door swung open, hinges creaking, onto a small landing. The light switch flipped on with a heavy click. Together, we descended the steep, rickety staircase, painted scarlet and lined with rubber slip- resistant treads so old they’d all but crumbled to dust. Finn had to duck because he was as tall as Father now, but a hundred pounds lighter, and with a backside so bruised he could barely sit down.
Maybe that’s why that lady left, because of what I told her. First, you had to drag a heavy ladder-back kitchen chair across the floor. Then you climbed up to get the wooden paddle Father kept in the cupboard above the fridge. You handed it to him and pulled down your pants. Grabbed your ankles. Waited. Father took his time removing his wristwatch and setting it on the table. He’d drilled holes into the paddle to make it hurt more.
This was what you got for tracking snow into the house or leaving your backpack on the kitchen table or forgetting your ice skates in the warming house and being late for dinner because you had to run back to the rink to get them.
“His daddy did the same thing to him,” that lady said, handing me a creased, black- and-white picture of a scrawny teenager I would’ve sworn was Finn.
Finn never cried when he was getting it. He looked me straight in the eyes and didn’t make a sound, and in that way he was stronger. But watching Father hurt him unleashed something wicked inside me. I saw myself tearing the paddle from his hand and cracking it against his skull until I drew blood.
Three years older, Finn took the brunt of what Father had to give and only broke when it was my turn.
“I won’t ever let him touch you again,” he said after the last one, his gaze fixed on the floor between us.
The dank, earthy air cooled as we dropped down into the shelter. The windowless pit at the bottom of the steps had been blasted out of the bedrock beneath our house. What drew us here—what had called to us in our sleep on a school night in late November—was the hole in the floor at the far end of the room, a ragged circle painted scarlet around the edges, like the bloody mouth of a beast. Where it led was anyone’s guess. The beam of our flashlight was too weak to penetrate the inky darkness, but listen carefully and we could hear something down there, the sound of a place that had never known light.
“Watch this,” Finn said, showing me a taconite pellet Father had brought home from the mine. He dropped it into the hole, and we held our breath as we waited for it to hit bottom—a plunk, or a splash—but the pellet just vanished.
Like that lady. One morning we woke up and she was gone. She left the picture of Father behind, but I’d hoped she might take us with her to Minneapolis.
Finn dropped another pellet into the hole. Nothing.
We heard Father before we saw him standing at the top of the stairs, a brawny figure with anvil arms.
“Get the paddle,” he said.
We had no choice but to obey—or so I thought until I showed Finn another way out.
Dale Gregory Anderson’s short stories have appeared in Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. He has received several awards for his work, including the Jack Dyer Fiction Prize from Crab Orchard Review, grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and Jerome Foundation, and a Mentor Series award from the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he lives and works as a copywriter. His website is dalegregoryanderson.com.