The can of spaghetti loops had expired over twenty years ago. I hefted it in my hand, considering. The weight seemed on point, and I didn’t hear any rattling.
“Looks like we’ll be eating tonight,” I told Rhonda, displaying the tin can with an understated jazz hand. “Spaghetti loops.”
Across the bunker, kneeling with her head ducked inside a long wooden trunk, Rhonda twirled a whoop-de-doo with her finger. Her stomach groaned a more earnest reply.
I slipped our evening rations under the flap of my canvas bag and continued to sweep my flashlight beam across the wall of moldering shelves. I found no further untapped reserves among the typical assortment of depleted cans and jars.
I turned to face the underground chamber at large. A shaft of pallid light filtered in from the hatch through the door beside me, illuminating steel-girded concrete walls that colored the apartmented space in shades of rust and dust. A square folding table and two plastic chairs filled the middle, while the skeletal remains of two metal-framed cots lay entwined in one corner. Stretching out to my right was another wall of shelves – all empty – and a scattering of large plastic jugs, also empty.
At the back of the room, the bunker’s most anomalous feature, a casket-shaped wood trunk seemed to be in the process of eating my partner Rhonda. As I cornered the square table between us, the spikey scent of cedar incensed the air that otherwise smelled stale and dusty.
“You find anything?” I asked, mentally crossing my fingers for a usable razor. My last shave had been eight months ago.
Rhonda’s brunette ponytail flailed as it tried to keep up with her shaking head. She straightened and sat on her heels with a beleaguered sigh.
“A few useful sundries – bed sheets and blankets, mostly – but the rest is just a load of sentimental garbage. It’s amazing what people cared about back in the day.”
I craned over her. “Like what?”
Rhonda scooched aside, rolling her eyes as I dove to rifle through the chest’s contents. I spread my plunder on the floor: a stack of framed photographs and scrapbooks, a small heap of cheap jewelry, and a scattering of random tchotchkes. Certain mementos defied classification, literal junk without the context of the owner’s memories.
I held up a palm-sized hunk of polished stone, flat everywhere but for its broken edge.
“What do you think? A remnant from some sacred altar?”
“Probably a chunk of someone’s kitchen counter,” Rhonda sneered.
I turned it over in my hands, absently contemplating the swirling grains of pink and green. Sacred altar or kitchen counter: time had rendered them the same in more ways than one.
Rhonda rose and aggressively slapped the knees of her black pants which were nearly chalk-colored from wear. Dust settled over my trinkets.
“Why would anyone bring all this useless stuff in a survival bunk?” she asked. “These people were the last remnants of civilization. They holed up here to survive the apocalypse, and they thought to bring this cheesy trinket.” She plucked a heart-shaped locket from the mound of jewelry. “What good is a locket except to make you look back?”
With her perky ponytail and slight figure, Rhonda still appeared youthful. Yet an emptiness in her eyes marked her years. A raggedness encompassed that void, sharp and haunted like the open cans on the shelves.
I shrugged. “Maybe they wanted to look back. To remember the way things were. To make themselves feel good.”
“I hate looking back.” Rhonda fumbled with the clasp, her gloved fingers giving her difficulty with the tiny catch. “There’s nothing you can do with what’s behind you. The only logical way to look is forward. Ahead.”
“Some people find the past hopeful.” I rubbed my finger along the stone slab’s jagged edge.
“What’s hopeful about the past?” Rhonda scoffed. “Hope only applies to things that haven’t happened yet.”
“It makes them feel stronger, then.” Setting the granite remnant aside, I stood. “Looking to the past reminds people of what they have accomplished, what they’ve survived, and even what could be possible in the future. Forward is so uncertain, but back is unchanging.” Rhonda, now obsessively trying to pry open the locket, didn’t look up at me. “Back is stable,” I told her.
“Back is obsolete,” she argued. “It’s over and gone. People stare back into the past out of weakness. These people were weak.” The rusted heart continued to resist her efforts. “That locket was trite and cliché even before the apocalypse.” With a frustrated jerk of her head that made her ponytail kick, she flung the necklace in the dust at my feet. “As expired as that can of spaghetti loops.”
I scooped the locket from the floor. The tin can clunked out of my bag, rolling across the bunker to knock at Rhonda’s boots.
“You’ll devour those spaghetti loops once we get them open,” I pointed out as she bent to snatch it up. “You’re starving for those spaghetti loops.”
Rhonda stared at the tin can. She sighed. “That’s because there’s nothing else to eat,” she said, sweeping her gaze around the abandoned bunker.
“Exactly.” I turned the heart-shaped locket in my fingers. “This necklace used to represent love, and connection. Are those things expired? Could the things we found trite and cheesy and cliché back in the day be the things that were quietly holding us together? Maybe so few survived the apocalypse because we hadn’t stockpiled enough of those silly things.”
My thumb found the correct pressure point on the latch and the locket popped open. I fell silent.
Rhonda’s boots made a scuffing sound. “Whose picture is inside it? Someone from the portraits?”
“No picture. A poem. Here.”
I extended the locket to Rhonda. In a curiously soft tone, she read the words inscribed within:
“The past is the vine on which we grow. The vine is not the fruit, which we may never know. It is up to us to be the flower, to bloom here in the now.”