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Author's note: This is a submission to the Cruel Fate writing contest. Stories are based on a randomly drawn tarot card, and this story's card is "the Hermit".

A good human is a human who does not neglect the food-bowl, reflected Poppy, and until quite recently, the old woman had been a quite good human indeed. In the previous months, however, she changed, and daily feedings became weekly feedings, which in turn became sporadic occasions with no rhyme or reason that the cat could decipher.

Today, fortunately, the old woman filled the bowl with old beef and rice, and Poppy purred and rubbed against her leg to show his contentment. Perhaps if she understood his appreciation, she would not wait so long until next time.

Poppy supposed he could survive without her help (any good cat possesses many ways to find food, of course), but since he had lived alone with the woman for so many years, he felt a sort of renewed companionship with every meal she periodically gave him. More importantly, he preferred fresh human food to the stale meat he scavenged on his own.

He watched the old woman putter around the table aimlessly and wondered what a human thought about all day.

-noticed a cup on the table. Rose frowned. About half-filled with water, the cup sat near the table’s corner, and she could not recall placing it there. Michael had doubtlessly left it out; he always forgot his things around the house. She picked up the cup and placed it in the sink.

She lifted the oil lamp to guide her way in the dark, and she slowly paced down the hallway. Her hip gave her a throbbing pain today, and she wished she could see a doctor about it. As she powered through her discomfort, she nearly stepped on the cat and shooed him away with the side of her foot. He scurried off into the shadows. Eventually, she found the pantry she sought out, and grabbed a can of beans from the upper shelf, one of the few cans remaining. Carrying the can in one hand and the lamp in the other, she returned to the kitchen.

Rose noticed some water on the table as she set the lamp down. With her sleeve, she wiped up the moisture, figuring it resulted from the moved cup’s condensation, but after she found a can-opener to open the beans, a droplet plopped down onto the table. The woman looked up, realizing the ceiling must have sprung a-

-left a cup on the table? Rose moved the mostly filled glass over to the sink; Michael must have forgotten about it at breakfast time. That was like Michael, to forget his drink out on the table.

The oil lamp dimmed in her grasp, so she hobbled over to the closet to search for some more fuel to fill the lamp. She missed the days when the bunker’s electric lights worked properly, but something must have happened to the generator. Rose would ask Michael to take a look at it later. Maybe he would be able to do something about the food supply too, as she began to grow concerned over the diminishing stocks. No use worrying about it, she told herself, and carefully poured fresh oil into the lamp, the sole source of light down beneath the ground.

One day, Clara and Rose had laid out in the sunshine, having a picnic out in the grass. Rose had made a pair of sandwiches. She had filled her own with tuna and Clara’s with turkey since the young girl had never liked tuna much, and they had brought along a bag of fresh strawberries from the farmers market. Clara set a strawberry in the dirt and watched the ants come to tear off morsels they could carry back to the colony. Rose missed feeling sun on her skin.

Down underground, she stepped away from the closet, passing a jagged corner of the metal wall, upon which she had duct-taped a blanket to soften the sharp edge.

Returning to the kitchen, she noticed water dripping onto the table. She looked up towards the ceiling, and not seeing anything, slowly climbed onto the table to claim a better view. Holding up the lamp and keeping her frail body balanced on the table, she examined the ceiling, not finding any crack or flaw the water could have escaped from. Frowning, she fetched the glass from the sink and set it below the drip to catch the water. Better than damaging the table, she thought, Michael can look at that too, next time he’s around, or maybe he would be-

-left a cup out. She picked the glass up, which looked mostly full of Cola. Michael probably left it out after lunchtime. That was like Michael, to forget his drink out on the table. She dumped the contents down the drain and left the glass face-down in the sink.

Poppy meowed.

Rose almost jumped, not expecting to see the skinny black cat watching her from the darkness. His eyes glowed golden in the lamplight, and he looked a bit like Maxine had. When Rose brought Maxine to the bunker so long ago, she had no idea of the litter of kittens that would soon follow. Cut-off from the outside world, Maxine’s descendants had grown inbred and sickly, and only Poppy remained. He meowed again.

“I fed you just this morning, don’t be pushy.”

Looking bitter, the cat prowled off, disappearing into one of the thin vents. Clara would play with the cats in the vents, squeezing through the narrow spaces, but the vents had a pretty bad smell now. When Clara came over next time, she probably wouldn’t like to play there, even if Poppy didn’t seem to mind the odor. Rose would ask Michael to take a look once he had time. Once, her car had smelled terrible, and Michael found a family of mice that had settled in the ventilation system with a secret supply of cat food they had stolen. He took care of it.

Generally, Michael could fix most anything, although he never got the bunker clock ticking again. In the early years of their marriage, he would hide out in the garage working on engines and small appliances for some extra money. He treated her poorly in those days, generally neglecting her and disappearing for days on end. Still young and clueless, Rose thought all husbands behaved that way, but his behavior eventually wore her down all the same. She called her sister one night, packed her things, and left for the bus station.

On the bus ride to school, Rose sat in the back seat with the other school children as the vehicle rattled down the dirt road. A girl named Paulina made fun of her, but Rose couldn’t remember what she looked like. Embarrassed, Rose tried to ignore the bully. She drew in her notebook, sketching a castle in wonderful colors.

Poppy meowed once more.

“I just fed you, don’t go trying to trick me like that.”

Returning to the kitchen, she noticed a thin pool of a dark liquid on the table, dripping down from the ceiling. Rose climbed up on the table and noticed a layer of mildew that leaked steadily. After digging around for a towel, she scaled the table again despite her aged hip, and-

-doing there? She moved the cup of cold coffee off the table. Rose frowned, vaguely remembering Michael telling her that they had run out of coffee years ago. He must have found some more. Silly man, leaving his drink out after breakfast.

As she moved the cup to the sink, she scrunched up her nose. What stank?

Rose went downstairs to the lower level of the bunker, stopping by the patch of soft dirt in the corner of the room. Originally, Michael had planned to dig out through that soft patch and had spent weeks tearing up the concrete floor with a metal length of pipe. He said he could have made short work of it with a sledgehammer. Rose wondered how he planned to dig his way out without a shovel, but that day never came anyways.

Michael rarely planned far ahead. When they had Wesley, he lost his job for missing work because he hadn’t thought to tell his employers at the garage he would be out for the day. Before Wesley could speak, he used to spend all day coloring and drawing, and Rose could hardly call herself surprised when he earned a spot in art school. He turned down the scholarship and became an architect instead, on Michael’s behest, although Rose always thought their boy would have lived happier as an artist. Wesley seemed pleased with his decision, however, and met a beautiful girl at university. They had a daughter of their own not too long after, Clara.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Rose and Michael watched Clara during the summer while her parents worked. What day was today? Rose hoped Clara would come by tomorrow.

The analog clock read a quarter past two, as it had for an unknowable stretch of time. With no way of discerning day from night, Rose simply slept when she grew tired and ate when hungry, and she had long since lost track of the calendar. Michael had initially scratched tallies down in a notebook somewhere, but eventually that grew more disheartening than helpful. They gave the pages to Clara so she could sketch to entertain herself.

Holding her lamp ahead, she strolled to the bathroom. She passed by the sharp corner of the wall that she had taped a blanket over to cushion. The pipes rattled when she flushed the toilet and the water had a rusty red tinge to it. Ignoring the sight, she washed her hands in the small sink, the sound of running water echoing through the spacious bunker.

Living like this for however many years came with an indescribable loneliness, but Rose rarely remembered she was alone anyways, so it didn’t matter much. A moment of clarity came to her then, and she stared into the dark emptiness of the bunker. The stale air stirred gently from the vents. She could hear the fans buzzing. That sounded wrong, so she would have to remind herself to ask Michael to take a look at the ventilation later. Generally, Michael could fix most anything.

She turned the lamp off and returned to the kitchen in the dark. Hearing the gentle tap of dripping water, she flicked the lamp back to life, spying a dark liquid settling into a pool on the table. Fearing damage to the wooden surface, Rose hurried to find a towel and wiped out a mess before setting out a cup to collect the leaking water. Looking at the towel, she found it stained a black, with the slightest tinge of red. She examined the ceiling to find it covered it black mold. The liquid dripped from the mass of fungus. How could she clean that up? Maybe some-

-there. It looked filled to the brim with ink. She dumped the cup out in the toilet, not wanting to stain the sink. Why would Michael have left a cup of ink out? Clara must have done some painting earlier and used the glass to clean her brushes. Unlike her to forget her art supplies out on the counter though, Wesley would have chided her for such forgetful behavior.

Poppy sniffed at the oil lamp, cuddling up against its warmth. Rose missed the days she didn’t rely on the lamp, where she could just flip on the switch and expect the bulbs to light up the bunker. One day they stopped working and no matter how long Michael toyed with the generator, the electricity refused to flow. Light became another resource to conserve, and they spent the days in darkness unless absolutely necessary. Now, Rose realized the remaining fuel would likely out-live her, so she began to burn freely.

The light reminded her of the gas stove in the house, and she recalled making a turkey supper for Thanksgiving when Michael’s family came over. Rose had never baked a turkey before and dried it out to a crisp, so Michael’s mother had thrown her portion away. Not even making it to the pumpkin pie, Rose excused herself to cry in the bathroom.

The cat licked itself in the lamp’s flickering glow.

Throughout the day, she would clean up the cat’s feces and urine from wherever it decided to relieve itself. Rose had nothing to use as litter down in the bunker, so there didn’t seem much of an alternative. Since she couldn’t neuter the cat either, he sprayed, giving the fallout shelter its distinctly musty smell that had accumulated over the many years and the many cats who had lived in its concrete walls. The woman missed the fresh air and smell of their home on the surface.

Michael and Rose looked at the house only once before they made an offer. The widow who owned the place told them about her husband who had returned shell-shocked from the war and put together a fallout shelter beneath the hillside. They hadn’t grasped the amount of work the veteran had put into assembling the bunker, huge enough to house his entire family indefinitely in event of crisis, as long as needed. Rose remembered Michael checking out the bunker after they moved in and how he returned to her awestruck by the scale of the underground shelter.

Despite its size, the bunker began to feel small by the second day below ground. At times it became terrifyingly cramped, and with Rose, Michael, Clara, and Maxine all shut away, they constantly found themselves stepping on each other toes. The smell of human odor overtook the small space. Still, Clara smiled, and she retained her positivity right up until the end.

Rose shuddered to think when Clara’s cut festered and the infection grew. The girl contorted as the muscle spasms worsened. She would wail in pain, and neither Rose nor Michael could do anything for her. The veteran who built the bunker must have put antibiotics somewhere, and Rose and her husband scoured the place day and night. They found nothing. Clara’s fever overtook her, and Michael buried her in the soft patch of soil in the lowest level of the bunker. Wordlessly, they set a crucifix into the dirt, held each other tight, and sobbed.

The first time he held her had been in the dance hall where they met. Rose’s parents set her up with the date, and she refused to go until her dad bribed her with the new dress she wanted. With four years between them, Michael seemed a proper adult. He made Rose feel childish, but he clearly fancied her anyways. Nobody had ever paid attention to her before. She felt so safe when he wrapped his arm around her; Rose had known so little then.

When Christmas came to the fallout shelter, back when they still kept track of the days and couldn't have marked more than a few dozen, the family gathered around the table and ate the same rations as usual, but Rose encouraged them to sing a few carols. Her husband hated to sing, but Clara convinced him to join in.

Black liquid settled on the table besides the cat, who showed no recognition of it. Rose frowned at the leak and quickly set out a cup to collect the drip. How didn’t Poppy notice it? Observing how quickly the cup filled, she thought better of it and replaced the cup with a bowl. She would need to get her husband to look at that. She couldn’t seem to retrieve his name. Funny that it should-

-was that. A bowl of black slime sat out on the table, and Rose turned her nose up at it. Grease maybe? She scraped it out into the trash.

Where did Michael go? She hadn’t seen him for days now. He must have gone to visit his mother.

She placed the bowl back and it collected fluid that dripped from the ceiling. Worrying that the liquid might ruin the bowl, she replaced it with some cheap Tupperware. Rose noticed some greasy stains on the wood beneath the bowl and decided to move the whole table to avoid damaging it.

Her hip hurt, but she managed to push the table out of the way anyways. She placed the Tupperware on the floor to collect-

-the table gone? Rose noticed the table pushed to the other side of the kitchen and frowned. Why would Michael have moved the table? She almost tripped on the Tupperware container in the center of the floor, and she set down the lamp to see its pitch-black contents.

The television announced the crisis. Michael, Rose, and Clara all stared at the emergency announcement that had interrupted their show. Clara began to cry, and Michael said they needed to grab essentials. Civil alert sirens blared in the distance as Clara collected the toys and clothes she deemed vital, Michael raided the pantry for fresh food, and Rose herded Maxine into a box and grabbed his cat food. They raced down the hill to the bunker while Rose looked upwards, half-expecting to see the sky crashing down.

“Don’t complain, Maxine,” Rose said to Poppy as he meowed at her, and she glanced at the thin black cat, but it looked very different now. For the last few days the cat would moan at the vents, like it wanted to alert Rose to something there. It stopped without reason.

After they entered the bunker, the ground shook, and the door refused to open.

Rose sat at the bus station, prepared to leave her marriage for good, but a car came roaring up. She didn’t know what to say when Michael tumbled out from the driver’s seat, entirely out of breath, and he knelt before he and begged for forgiveness. Many times before, he had apologized and promised to change. Rose told him she had to go, told him that she hadn’t understood what marrying him meant, and she boarded the bus. She stayed with her sister, and every day Michael called. Her sister kept telling her to ignore him because nobody ever really changed, but after four months of waiting by the phone for their daily chat, she finally returned. He doted on her. He listened to her. He defended her from his mother when she snipped. Rose had never been happier.

Clara ran into the sharp edge a few months after they moved into the bunker. The cut didn’t look so bad, and Michael and Rose washed it out and wrapped the whole area in gauze. It didn’t seem like a big deal. Just to be safe, Rose duct-taped a blanket over the sharp edge to prevent another accident.

Rose looked at the ceiling and saw black fluid pouring down from a lump. The concrete bulged and warped as though under incredible pressure. It drooped down, soaked black. Ready to burst-

-around the bunker. Rose hadn’t realized where the oil on the floor had come from. The food had run out that morning.

“Wesley?”

She found a mop and tried to clean. Grime seemed to pour from the walls, dripping down from above. Rose wanted to turn on the lamp to assess the damage, but Michael says they need to conserve oil since they might be down in the shelter for a while.

The sound of the dripping came from the kitchen, where she supposed Clara hadn’t fully shut off the faucet. Rose knew better than to waste water, so she followed the noise. A stench nearly knocked her off her feet. She quickly grabbed the lamp but couldn’t find a match until she had dug through every shelf of the closet. When she actually found one, her shaky fingers struggled to hold it, but she managed to clutch the match tight enough to ignite by gripping it between her middle and pointer finger. Finally lit, the lamp cast off a dim glow. Rose held the light-source before her and lumbered back to the kitchen. Her hip began to hurt.

A vaguely humanoid shape hung upside-down from above, stretching from the concrete ceiling and dripping sludge to the floor. Rose could barely see it in the sparse light, and she noticed Poppy sitting in the corner of the kitchen. The cat showed no reaction to the thing. Poppy couldn’t see it at all.

Not surprising, since the figure had come for her.

Rose came closer, and the growth shifted towards her. It wore someone’s face. She knew the face belonged to someone important, but she couldn’t recognize it at all. A limb extended from the mass and it caressed her. Leaning close, she could feel its wet breath against her features, and everything came apart at th-

Poppy licked water from a pipe in the corner of the lowest level. He had spotted a mouse once many weeks back, but he hadn’t seen any vermin for some time. Worse yet, the rest of his food had spoiled beyond usage.

As hunger gnawed at the cat, Poppy visited the human. He stopped by occasionally to check up on her, but she just sat in the corner of the kitchen, entirely immobile. He rubbed up against her leg, but she refused to acknowledge him. Typical. Hopping up on her lap, he pressed into her, missing the days she would make light.

He tried biting her, but she still wouldn’t react. Poppy wondered what had happened to the good human who used to feed him so diligently. The cat licked itself. No matter, he could still find use for her.

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