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In 1983, my heart froze as I watched a movie about nuclear war while I sat in between my parents on a lumpy futon in our New Jersey apartment. Though I was only eight years old, my parents let me stay up to watch it because they thought I was old enough to learn about what was going on in the world. The mushroom clouds in the beginning didn’t scare me as I had seen plenty of explosions in my Saturday morning robot cartoons. But I felt a chill go through me as I watched a nice white family sit sequestered in the basement of their house, unable to go outside because of something they called radiation, which would seep through their skin and kill them slowly and quietly.
TV was both my babysitter and English tutor in those days, as we had immigrated from Korea a few years before and my parents spent most of their time running their deli in the city. American TV had taught me that with a bit of courage and technology, I could speed away from bad guys and destroy monsters, but radiation was something entirely different.
My mother put her hand on my arm, and said with alarm to my father, “He’s shaking.”
My father held me close in a bear hug and whispered in my ear, “Why are you scared? There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a silly movie.”
What he said didn’t make any sense to me. It wasn’t just a movie. Every day on the news, there was something about nuclear missiles, the Cold War and the arms race. A war with the Soviet Union could happen any day, and if it did, how could Mommy and Daddy stop radiation? We lived in an apartment, since we were too poor for a house. Unlike that white family, we didn’t even have a basement we could hide in to give ourselves a fighting chance for a few weeks.
I panicked, thinking there was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go, and no one who could help against radiation. I cried in halting sobs, though I tried to stop myself because my father had told me that I was getting too big for tears. My mother turned the movie off, and, for the last time in my life, my parents let me sleep in their bed that night. I kept them both up though, as I tossed around wondering if I would die before I got a chance to grow up.
I didn’t die. Thirty-seven years later, I was a law firm partner who lived in Napa with my wife Lisa and son Johnny. COVID had kept me home for months, but I had found ways to keep myself safe and sane. In the dry, windy hills far from any urban crowds, I drafted deal terms from my three-bedroom house, and spent the evenings playing video games with my son and watching old movies with Lisa. Lisa’s website design business boomed during shelter-in-place, and our son’s school managed to keep him busy a few hours a day with distance learning materials. Our lives weren’t exciting as we couldn’t travel or visit the wineries, but we were healthy and doing okay financially, so we considered ourselves lucky in a world that seemed to be heading toward the final chapter of Revelation.
Not knowing how long this pandemic could go, I surrounded myself with some security blankets that gave me comfort whenever I felt a tinge of uncertainty at night.
Guns. I kept an over-under shotgun in the closet of our master bedroom. I secured it in a padlocked metal case that I kept in a rack too high for my son to reach. Lisa, a lifelong Democrat, didn’t like that I had brought a gun into the house but grudgingly admitted that in 2020, one might be a necessary evil. Korean like me, she was shaken by the news about Asian people being attacked because of COVID-triggered racism or having their businesses burned down in protests about police shootings. She told me a shotgun was okay for now, as long as our son didn’t know about it.
There was also an AR-15 she didn’t know about in a closet behind some old appliances in the attic. I was ROTC before law school, so I knew how to use that rapid-fire killing machine. If some racist mob came for us, I didn’t think they would break in two at a time, which was all a shotgun could handle. After I moved here from New Jersey, I learned that Koreans in California had a reputation for being armed and trigger happy, willing to sit on the rooftops of their businesses and homes with guns aimed at all comers. I found the “rooftop Korean” stereotype to be funny, and I embraced it.
Dog. I could not be around my wife and son at all times, so two-months into the pandemic, I adopted a year-old German shepherd that I found online. Johnny named it Destro, after the bad ass in the GI Joe cartoons that I had introduced him to on YouTube. After a few weeks of training, we managed to make him a loyal member of the family. Destro would try to tear off the face of anyone who spoke harshly to Lisa or Johnny, and in another year, he would be full-grown and fearsome enough to scare off most threats by himself.
Money. I always kept $10,000 in cash in a duffel bag in a safe in the den. To make sure the bills didn’t rot, I spent the oldest cash I had in the bag at the market and replaced it with newer bills each time I went to the ATM.
Face protection. Doctors were suggesting we all wear masks outside, but on Reddit I saw that people in some Asian countries had taken things to another level. They wore n95 masks over their mouths and noses, and plexiglass shields over their entire faces for double protection. Johnny had asthma, which some doctors warned could be a comorbidity, so I hoarded boxes of shields and masks in our garage to get us through the pandemic without ever getting hit by a speck of COVID. I wasn’t going to take any chances with this new disease, even if I had to look like a freak out of a sci-fi movie each time I went to town.
Some people count sheep to fall asleep. I counted my security blankets: bills, shields, masks, and bullets. I slept fairly well for the most part, thinking I had made myself as safe as I reasonably could under the circumstances.
One night in August, about five months into the COVID pandemic, I awoke at 3 a.m. to the crackling sound of thunder ripping through my house. The earth-shaking peals were so frequent and felt so close that I knew this wasn’t a normal thunderstorm. It sounded like a war in the heavens. I looked out the window and saw an absolutely gorgeous phosphorescent light show dance across the hills. Destro barked incessantly, like he was warning of us of coming hellfire, while Lisa covered her head with pillows, futilely trying to drown out the fury. Soon, Johnny stormed into our room and hid under the blankets next to her.
I was mesmerised by the pulsating lightning for 20 minutes. When I finally went back to bed, I couldn’t sleep, because I kept listening for rain and heard none. I shuddered as a chill went through my chest, much like what I had felt when I was a kid watching a movie about nuclear war. Dry lightning during the summer could only mean wildfires. My security blankets could not help with that.
After a sleepless night, I saw reports of brush fires popping up all around the Bay Area. They were still miles away from our home but were slowly encroaching into the parched grasslands in our part of Napa. I didn’t know what to do if we were told to evacuate in the middle of COVID. Over the past few years, some of our friends in other parts of the county had been forced to live on canned goods for days in makeshift shelters in school gymnasiums crammed with displaced families. During a pandemic, those shelters would likely be where mass-spreading events began. Our nearest relatives were my parents who lived in New Jersey. Since I didn’t want us taking a plane to get to them, I would have to take my duffle bag full of cash and drive my family 3,000 miles through states that had extremely high infection rates due to maskless douches. We seemed better off at home praying for the fires to be contained or veer off course, until the flames were literally licking at our backs.
Every day, I checked websites for an order to evacuate, but it didn’t come. Though we had become accustomed to being stuck on our property all day and night, we could no longer even go outside to our lawn, because wildfire smoke had turned the air into a tactile danger. We closed all of our windows and kept air purifiers running constantly because of my son’s asthma, but he still had to use his inhalers multiple times a day. Even so, my son did not seem scared by world events. He had questions but optimistic ones like, “When is this going to be over?”
All we could do during the day was sweat, work, and play aimless games on our phones and tablets. I could tell Lisa was nearly unhinged, because she started turning to wine by 2 p.m. each day. Though barely a 100 pounds, she would drink at least an entire bottle on her own before collapsing into bed at night. Under any other circumstances, I might’ve said something to her about drinking that much around the kid, but we needed something to keep ourselves from thinking about where we were. After all, I had started downing edibles like I was a kid with a pile of gummy bears on Halloween night.
I awoke as Johnny stormed into the master bedroom clutching his inhaler in his right hand. I thought it was the middle of the night because it was still nearly pitch black, except for the digital clock which blared in red 7:30. Those numbers made no sense to my groggy mind. At this time of year, sunlight from the bedroom window usually woke me at 7 a.m. every day without need for an alarm. It was too dark for 7:30.
“Daddy, you didn’t tell me there was an eclipse coming,” he said, his voice an octave higher than normal.
“There isn’t an eclipse,” I replied getting out of bed. Lisa had gone way beyond one bottle the night before, so she still had not stirred.
“Then where is the sun hiding?” He had a point. I looked out the window, and I could barely see anything in our dim backyard.
I walked outside barefoot in my shorts and T-shirt, and saw that the sky wasn’t black as it would be at night but filled with murky orangish clouds that seemed to darken everything that should be bright. The entire world had been pulled into an old movie camera and transposed onto film negative.
My son followed me outside and pointed upward to those bizarrely burnt clouds. “You see? Where is the sun?”
I would’ve known about an eclipse, since I checked the internet religiously every 10 minutes for updates about COVID and the fires.
“The smoke must be blocking out the sun,” I told him.
“So it’s a smoke eclipse?” he asked, still holding his inhaler.
“Kinda like that,” I said. I tried to reassure him by adding, “But it’s from fires that are still far away. We don’t have anything to worry about.”
My son didn’t seem satisfied by my response, “Daddy, are we going to die?”
“Not today, and not for a long, long time,” I replied, though truthfully I didn’t know and I had less confidence that morning than I did the night before.
I walked him inside to his room, and I gave him his tablet. As soon as I heard the beeps of his favourite game, I turned on my laptop and checked the weather reports. I read that fires from near the Oregon border had flooded the atmosphere with so much smoke that we were experiencing, “…a glimpse of nuclear winter.” The words transported me back to my old futon, terrified of radiation, though my parents vainly tried to assure me that I was safe. We had already lost travel, restaurants, get-togethers, and the outdoors, and now we didn’t even have daylight to give us comfort.
Throughout that day, my wife drank plenty of Napa’s finest, so she fell dead asleep right after dinner. After I put our son to bed, I stayed up with my laptop in the living room, entering into online rabbit holes that tried to forecast the end of these strange times.
As I read through a thread about an Oxford vaccine, I heard little footsteps scrambling in the hallway. I got up and saw Johnny running aimlessly from one end of the hallway to the other. I grabbed him by the arm so he would stop wandering, and he looked up at me with unfocused, dazed eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked. He didn’t respond and seemed to look through me. I guessed he was sleepwalking, though he had never done that before.
As I picked him up and carried him to his room, I felt his pitter-pattering heart against me, frantically racing like he was scared for his life. He had sweat through his dinosaur pyjamas, and, as I lowered him into his bed, I could feel that his race car sheets and blankets were also wet.
I lay down next to him in his twin bed, and he looked directly into my eyes and cried, “Where are we going to go? What are we going to do?”
I held him tightly and whispered in his ear, “It’s okay to be scared. I’m scared too.”
Thomas Lee is a writer and technology lawyer who lives in Northern California with his wife and son. His short stories have been published in several literary journals including Ploughshares, The Sun Magazine, Chicago Quarterly Review, American Literary Review and Asia Literary Review. In 2011, he was the winner of the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writer's Award. He writes about people of Korean descent who struggle and thrive in America.