Ben Halder struggled to turn the wheel on the submarine-style hatch overhead. It just wouldn't go. He grunted and muttered, "Goldangbrackfrakkinwhimwham!"
From below him on the ladder, a voice like a kiddie cartoon character piped up with, "Daddy, that's not a for-real bad word. I know that's just a made-up one like frizzlefrazzle."
Kylie. She didn't miss much. Hell, she didn't miss anything. That was #17 on Ben's list of Things That Get On Your Nerves During Lockdown In A Pandemic. He loved the little bugger, but goddamn, he couldn't even get some alone time crammed up a vertical tube, trying to open the portal back to the world.
"You're not supposed to be up here, kiddo. I thought you were napping," he said, looking down between his feet planted firmly on a ladder rung and seeing a tousle of tawny-colored hair and the sweet smile that always hit him right in the feels and made him give her whatever she wanted.
"Not when shit is happening, Daddy," she replied, with an enormous dollop of fake innocence and sincerity.
"Whassa matter? That's what mommy just said. Well, sort of. She said, 'Omagod, shit is gettin' real now.' Mommy's not bad, right Daddy?"
Ben sighed a deep and very familiar sigh. His dad was right. Never try to win a war of words with a five-year-old who's smarter than you are.
"Do you have your mask?" he asked her.
"All right, then. But don't come all the way up until I tell you to."
"Roger that, Cap'n."
Ben smiled and shook his head. Kylie drove him crazy at times, but she kept life...lively. Even twenty feet below the surface, in this bunker that cost most of their savings and, from the inside, looked like a giant aluminum can lying on its side.
Now here he was, in a narrower, vertical version of that metal tube, preparing to find out what may have happened long term, after a worldwide sickness nicknamed Beezy brought society to a screeching halt.
From the beginning of their confinement, with phones down, TV and internet non-existent, Grandpa Harden's old ham radio had kept them connected. But the voices out there eventually became unhinged (babbling, sobbing, occasionally laughing hysterically), the conspiracy theories more and more insane, and as time went on, turned less and less frequent until finally only static remained.
"Come on, dude, we gotta know," Ben muttered to himself as he gripped the wheel and put all of his strength into it. At last there was a rusty hinge-like screech and the metal wheel spun all the way. He shoved upward with his forearm as he stepped up onto the next rung, and finally the hatch tilted over, disappearing from view.
Above him was a circle of beautiful azure sky, so bright it made him squint. Ben couldn't take his eyes off of it. It couldn't have looked more perfect, more enticing after a year and a half of confinement. Yet he hesitated to raise his head through the opening, to see more. His wife Mara was right. It was suddenly all so real.
"Daddy, Daddy, I want to see! Your butt's in the way." There was a snicker, then a whispered, "Your big bubble butt." More snickering.
"Kiley, I told you to wait," Ben said. "And my butt's half the size it used to be, wiseguy."
Outright giggling now.
But his little daughter had broken the spell of stress and dread. Ben climbed three more rungs and stuck his head out of the opening.
The look in his slate-grey eyes was one of disbelief. His heart hammered in his chest, his mouth suddenly went dry, his mind couldn't form a cohesive sentence. He eased back down and rested his plexi-glass face shield against a ladder rung. Before ascending, he hadn't allowed himself to think about what he might feel at this moment. Utter confusion probably wouldn't have even been on that list.
The sound of Kylie's humming found its way into his consciousness. He listened for a moment, then thought, Right. It's not about me.
He went all the way up the ladder this time, and climbed out of the opening.
They were pink. Oh-so-pink.
From the brilliance of fuscia to the softness of ballet slipper pink, and all shades in between. They stretched on for miles, in all directions. There wasn't the tiniest space between them; flowers growing upon flowers, layered upon more flowers. Here and there, large rectangular shapes covered by thousands of brightly colored petals were, of course, buildings. Behind Ben, completely covered, was his family's one-story home.
"Mara," he whispered. She'd love the beauty of this, but she was stretched to the breaking point, as were their two preteen boys who were so much like her. Tentative and hopeful early on; despondent and withdrawn now. They all needed some level of normalcy.
This was not that.
Ben forced himself to stop staring and get on with things.
"Kiley...come on out," he said, leaning over the opening.
Tiny, delicate fingers with purple glitter nail polish and a unicorn bandage on one little pinky appeared along the edge of the hatch, and Ben reached down and helped his daughter the rest of the way.
Once standing on a blanket of soft petals, she said, "There's flowers, Daddy."
"Yes," he said. "Yes, there are, baby."
Flowers. Kylie's favorite thing in the world. In every direction. And pink, pink, pink, her favorite color.
Ben pulled at his mask's straps, sliding the uncomfortable contraption over his head. He took a deep breath, and tears filled his eyes.
"Sweet ambrosia," he said, softly.
"I want some," Kylie replied, with a dimpled grin. She quickly slipped out of her mask and tossed it aside. She leaned down and held two handfuls of flowers to her nose. "Mmmmmmm." She wanted even more sensations. Standing straight, she stretched out her arms and twirled 'round and 'round. When she stopped, her legs wobbled, and she hid a laugh behind those glittery fingers.
After so much time spent in their subterranean safe space, the brightness of the sun was wonderful yet overwhelming, and she closed her eyes, savoring its warmth on her cheeks and her outstretched palms. I love you, Mrs. Sun. I can't wait to meet Mr. Moon, she thought. In her short life, she'd never felt such contentment.
Opening her eyes, she pointed at the flowery lines that ran up the telephone poles and out along the wires.
"Flowers in the air," she said, delighted, "In the air."
She was three and a half when the family went down below; barely five years old now. She had no memory of where the few buildings near their property might be, but guessed they were probably those big, big squares, completely overgrown.
Her father ignored his own property. He was staring off into the distance, at the skyline of the city where he'd worked before all this began. He pulled small binoculars from his belt, and focused on the urban world that had been such an integral part of his life.
Pink. That's all he saw. Blocks wide. A hundred stories tall. Pink.
"The flowers, Daddy," Kylie whispered, then bellowed, "They're everywhere!"
"Yes, sweetie," Ben said, squatting down to finger the silky petals, drinking in the scent.