Science Fiction climate change apocalypse fatherhood survivalist


By James Van Pelt
Jul 14, 2021 · 3,400 words · 13 minutes

Photo by Filip Bunkens via Unsplash.

From the author: "The Far Side" cartoonist, Gary Larson, drew an image of a family fleeing a city while a mushroom cloud rises in the distance. Their panic is evident, except their dog has his head out the window, looking at a dog on the sidewalk. Larson says he drew it to illustrate different points of view will not see a situation the same way. I like stories like that. In "Housekeeping," the apocalyptic background isn't the prime concern in the main character's life. Sometimes you just have to be a good dad.

            Simon hated winter. He pedaled all the time, became incredibly fit, and the house still felt cold. He opened a college guide for parents on the reading stand, slipped his feet into the stirrups, and started the session. Last year he’d switched to a recumbent bike. Easier on his back. The pulleys whirred into motion: one connected to a generator and the other to the heater pump. A meter to his left said the batteries were at seventeen percent, not enough to get them through the night unless he pedaled another sixty minutes, and another one said the water in the solar collector lines on the roof had risen to eighty-one degrees, which was plenty warm to pump into the heat retaining wall and run through the radiators. At least the sun was out today, even if the wind blew snow off the trees sideways. The solar cells weren’t working, but the water would warm the house and he could take a tepid shower. The tough days were the overcast, cold ones where he had to pedal to keep his system from freezing up.

            Phillip stepped into the room. A slender, blond teenager with a broad smile and blue eyes that reminded Simon of the boy’s mother, he wore a thick coat and woolen cap. “I thought I’d go over to Trina’s house. We have a school project.” He tucked a muffler down the front of his coat. “I need another resource for my paper on the Louisiana Purchase. The stupid assignment wants a print source. Don’t they know our library burned down forever ago? Where am I going to find a book or journal? Trina says they have some old history books. Maybe we’ll find something.”

            Simon nodded. A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face. At least when he pedaled, he eventually warmed up. “You’ll have to invite her to dinner some night.”

            Phillip blushed. “She’s just a study partner.”

            “Yeah, and its not cold outside either.”

            “Speaking of cold, her dad and a couple others in the neighborhood are doing a wood scavenging expedition tomorrow. Can I join them?”

            Simon thought about it. His was the only house in the area that didn’t rely on burning wood for heat. It would look good for the neighbors if Phillip helped them out. “I don’t suppose Trina is a part of this expedition?”

            “Maybe. Can I go or not?”

            “Are they going to try the horse sled again to haul it?”

            “I think so, and everyone gets snowshoes this time.”

            Craig Woolroof, his neighbor on the other side of the street, entered as Phillip went out. Even through the airlock, the wind’s howl penetrated. Today might be sunny, but this was the worst winter Simon could remember.

            Craig wore only a windbreaker over a couple of sweaters. He clapped his upper arms, and his cheeks were red. “Howdy, Simon. Don’t know how you keep so warm in here. My house is freezing.”

            Simon checked the meter. It hadn’t stirred yet. If he biked for a couple hours, he should be able to get it over thirty percent. “My solar panels fritzed out on me. I’ll be plenty chilly if I can’t chase down the problem. I’m just not keen on working on the roof in this weather, and my skills as an electrician leave a lot to desire.”

            The ice on Craig’s eyebrows melted and ran down his cheeks. “Maybe we can finagle a trade. I wondered if you had a spare car battery? I have a bank on the back wall, but they’re too cold, and won’t hold a charge. I’m moving them to a warmer spot, but I need something to get through the night. If you help me out, maybe I could track down your panel problem.”

            Simon pedaled steadily, thinking it over. He did have a spare battery, several of them, but the chance there would be replacements in the spring looked slim, and he had to think about next winter too.

            Craig unzipped his jacket. “Look, we’re pretty desperate over there. I should have piled more dirt against the house during the summer, like you did, and insulated the roof better. The whole family huddles in the living room. If you’ve got a battery, it would sure help out.”          

            Simon sighed. “Yeah, no problem. Why don’t you go in the kitchen? I’ve got some hot water on the stove and coco in the cabinet. Something warm will do you good.”

            Craig smiled in relief and pulled a bottle of bourbon from his jacket. “That sounds great. I brought this over to sweeten the deal.”

            “Pour two. I’ll be right back.”

            Simon opened the door to the hallway and the back of the house. The bedroom doors were closed with rolled up towels against the bottoms to cut down on drafts. He ignored them, reached the bookcase at the hallway’s end, double-checked to see that the door to the bike room was closed, then pulled the bookcase away from the wall. A narrow flight of cement stairs led down to his supply shelter. The light at the bottom revealed a deep and broad room with a dirt floor and low ceiling, Phillip’s secret project. Boxes crowded the shelves. Canned goods. Cereals. Bins of rice and wheat. Bottled water. Guns. Tools. Clothing. Bolts of canvas. A motorcycle (he had to take the handlebars off to get it down the stairs). Medicine. Liquor. Spare parts for everything he used. Twenty years of paranoia filled his shelter. Twenty years of reading survivalist literature. He stayed away from the survivalist chat boards on the Internet; someone surely would be monitoring who logged in there. He’d excavated the shelter over the course of a decade. Through Phillip’s birth. Through Jennifer’s death. Constantly adding on, and then supplying it. He didn’t tell the neighbors or his friends.

            It’s just a hobby, he’d told himself. Being prepared was just a way to fill the time. When Phillip was born, the hobby took on more urgency.

            Behind a stack of folded cots and blankets near the back were the spare batteries. He left those alone since he’d have to fill one and charge it. Instead, he disconnected a working one from his battery bank and wrapped it in a towel. Behind the row of interconnected car batteries was his pride and joy, a lithium-ion battery powerwall. State of the art energy storage, if only his solar panels were working. Pedaling power into the batteries was inefficient and time-consuming. Still, as well insulated as his house was, he wouldn’t need the electricity he was producing if it wasn’t for the farm. A second room, as big as the storage area, smelling moist and fertilizer-earthy, contained low, water-filled tables where he grew their food. Unlike and unknown to his neighbors, Simon didn’t depend on canned goods from the summer.

            The grow lights, dangling from the ceiling, really sucked up energy. Broccoli was ready for harvest. Tomatoes, cucumbers and peas looked good too. Celery was wilted and yellow, though. He’d have to check the nutrients level. When he’d started the project, the idea was to stock the water with trout. Their waste could feed the plants, and he could have fish for dinner, but balancing water chemistry and temperature proved too daunting. Still, as far as he knew, no one in the neighborhood had fresh produce.

            Craig took the battery gratefully. “Thanks, buddy. I’ll set this up and come right back. You probably just have an ice block somewhere that’s pulling on a connection.”

            “I’ll meet you on the roof. I have to sweep off the snow anyway.”

            Simon wore ski goggles, a heavy coat and good gloves as he walked up the snow-covered slope to the top of his house, which was mostly underground now. He’d sealed the siding with tar and layers of heavy plastic before he’d bulldozed the soil against it, but he still worried about seepage and termites. Wood frame houses were not designed to be buried. What he had wanted was a cement geodesic dome house that was built for dirt insulation, but he didn’t have the resources. Besides, the housing covenants would have never gone for it at the time.

            From the roof, he looked out on the neighborhood. Last week’s storm had dumped a couple feet and then cleared out, leaving high winds and sub-zero temperatures, turning the landscape into a uniform white of snow drifts. Streets and sidewalks were covered. Lumps with a fender sticking out or a part of a window visible showed where cars that no one drove anymore were parked. Three out of every four homes that had stood ten years ago were now gone, leveled for their wood when the families fled south, or whatever they did. Families disappeared over the course of the last few winters when delivery trucks quit supplying the stores regularly, before the stores closed permanently. The scene would be attractive as a Christmas card if it weren’t so cold.

            Craig came out of his house across the street, wearing a better coat. He carried a tool box in one hand and a shovel in the other. He trudged through the trail he’d made going back and forth earlier. The wind had nearly erased Phillip’s track toward Trina’s house.

            “Point me to where you lines go into the house, and I’ll start there,” said Craig through a yellow muffler he’d wrapped over the lower part of his face. He shielded his eyes against the reflected sunlight.

            Simon swept snow from the solar cells and the long water line boxes that striped his roof. The water boxes were efficiently insulated on the sides, glassed in along the top for the sunlight to enter, and mirrored inside to focus the sun onto the black pipes. Most of his house’s heat came from the arrangement. The lines wove through rock heat retention walls he’d built. The rooms were smaller, of course, but even bitter days like this didn’t bother them much inside.

            Craig dug into the snow, revealing a metal box and electrical lines. “How’s your boy doing?”

            “Heading to college next summer, I think. He wants to go to UNM in Albuquerque. He’s got one of those ‘Northern Climes’ scholarships.”

            Craig grunted. “Remember your college years? Those were good times.” He cleared away more snow, and tested the main line for power. “Your break is farther up.”

            Simon thought about the University of Colorado. Boulder felt like a dim memory now, before things really started to get cold. He suspected no one lived there now. Too close to the mountains. Pretty in late July, when the ground cleared and plants had a chance to spring up, but the foothills’ glaciers would be glistening only a few miles away and hundreds of feet closer than they’d been the year before.

            “How about your oldest? She still with the Merchant Marine?”

            Craig dug a trench beneath the power cable, then shoveled away enough snow to get himself under it. “Here’s your problem I’ll bet. You’ve got ice built up on this juncture. Maybe a leak from your water lines. It’s putting pressure on the joint. Sweet Jesus, it’s cold up here.” He stabbed at the ice with a screwdriver until a big chunk broke free. “Vickie’s working with the costal civil engineers in the Gulf of Mexico. Too many critical infrastructures are in the tidal flood zones. It’s good work. Plenty of job security and a solid health plan.”

            Although the sky was clear, the wind picked up snow and blew it past them. Simon wiped at his goggles. The little bit of his face exposed to the elements stung.

            “It’s the coming industry they say. When’s the last time you saw her?” Simon finished the sweeping. The next storm wasn’t supposed to come in until the end of the week. He wouldn’t mind the break from clearing his system, and if Craig was right and he fixed the connection, a couple cloudless days would fully charge his batteries.

            “Travel’s been iffy. She came back the summer before last for a couple days. I heard they might close I-70 altogether. They do that and were stuck with what comes through the airport. We’ll have to clear out. Nothing I’ve read about housing down south makes me eager to head that way.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            Craig tested for power. “I think we solved it.” He levered himself from the snow and brushed himself off. “Have to take care of the family. If we can get to northern Africa, they seem to be doing well. Tunis is supposed to be welcoming, or Algiers or Oran. Well, at least as welcoming as any place is right now. The key is to go in on a work visa, not a refugee one.”

            “Tough to find room when seven billion people want to live there.”

            “It’s not seven billion any more,” said Craig.

            “Good point.”

            Despite the gloves, Simon’s fingers tingled, but the snow looked heavier than he liked. The roof could only take so much weight. “Help me clear this off, then we can sample that bottle you brought over again. You can keep the battery too. I should be fine.” He felt only a twinge of guilt at the lie.

            “Deal!” Craig shoveled enthusiastically, taking pounds off with each shovelful.

            When they went inside a half hour later, the gauges showed a steady rise. The men hung their snow-soaked coats, and within minutes, the rhythmic drip provided a pleasant backdrop. “How about Irish coffee this time?”

            “Spiked and hot is good for me. Don’t care what you call it.”

            Simon poured the drinks. He didn’t know Craig well. The man worked for the Bureau of Land Management and was often gone, touring the wastelands, Simon assumed. His wife was pleasant enough. He waved at her from across the street in the summer. Sometimes their kids played in the yard, a little girl who was eight and her ten-year old brother. “How’s schooling going at your house?”

            Craig took a long swig from the steaming mug. “I’m not much of a teacher. Between Eloise’s patience and the LearnTime program, they seem to be doing well. Does your boy use LearnTime?”

            The coffee tasted good with an alcoholic bite. “We did LearnTime early, then switched to CollegeStart. It’s stronger in math and science they say. Another six weeks and spring semester will be over.”

            Craig snorted. “Spring semester. We’ve got the shit end of climate change here.”

            “It could be worse. We survived the plagues.” He smoothed the placemat, a long ago wedding present. “Most of us.”

            “I’ll be happy to make it through March. They’re predicting another big storm heading our way.”

            Last year Simon planted his early vegetables in late April. This year he might have to wait until May the way snow was piling up. Since first frost could hit in September, getting a whole crop in might be tough. With luck, Phillip would be away at school, and Simon would only be planting for one. He added another dollop of bourbon to Craig’s coffee.

            “That’s going to be mostly booze by the time I’m done. Thanks.”

            “It’s all about the children, isn’t it?”

            “As long as the Internet is up, we can keep schooling them.”

            “That and the wolves don’t come.”

            Craig chuckled. “Truer than you think, buddy.” He guzzled his drink. “I’d better get back home.”

            “You going to be alright?”

            “Yeah. We scavenged another solar panel system yesterday. Remember the Fredrickson’s, the old couple on Rose and 5th Street? He used to teach social studies at DU. Found them frozen to death in their bedroom, but they had new solar on the roof. I won the drawing for one of the panels. I’ll get it hooked up and take advantage of the sunny days. With better insulation around my battery bank and the new juice, we’ll have plenty of buffer.” He pulled his coat off the hook and put it on. “I really can’t get over how warm your house is. You’ve done a great job here.”

            After Craig left, Simon checked the gauges again. With the solar panels operating, the electric pump whirred on its own, pulling sun-warmed water off the roof and storing the heat in the stone walls. Batteries were charging. He wouldn’t have to pedal unless he decided to bank extra juice for the coming storm.

            In the meantime, he had an errand to run. Simon donned his coat, gloves, muffler and heavy hat with earmuffs. Cross-country skis waited in the airlock. His goggles went on before he pushed the outside door open against the wind. The glare blinded him at first, and the wind peppered sharp-sharded ice crystals that hissed and bounced off his coat and face.

           Unfortunately, the wind was to his back as he skied down the street. A following wind could tempt a man into believing the weather wasn’t as bad as it was. Every foot with the wind behind him would be a foot that was twice as hard with the wind fighting him on the return.

            He remembered when the neighborhood had been green, when houses stood next to houses and everyone played golf or tennis or belonged to the PTA at the elementary school. It seemed a long time ago. Many of the homes were gone. Some that remained were collapsed shells, the roofs long ago losing the battle to snow’s weight and inevitable destruction from leaks and ice.

            The road rose in front of him, a gentle white hill unmarked by tracks. Only his familiarity with the area kept him moving in the right direction. This used to be Pinewood Ave. He was coming up on the intersection with 1st Street. From the crest of the hill at 3rd, the town spread below him. Wind pushed ghostly shadows of snow across the fields. Simon pressed on, taking advantage of the slope down and the wind behind him. The effort felt good, and he generated heat from the exercise. At 5th, he turned right and went a block to Rose Street. Half of the Fredrickson’s house still stood, but the other side slumped beneath its collapsed roof. He didn’t bother with the front door, but went through a rift in the wall beside it. Sheltered now from the unrelenting wind’s whine, he moved from room to room until he found a long bookcase in their living room. The light was poor. He wished he’d brought a flashlight, but with his goggles off and some close up squinting, he could just make out the titles.

            Simon took three heavy textbooks from the shelves, wrapped them in plastic, and prepared to go outside again. He smiled. Fredrickson had been a social studies teacher. It was only natural that he would have U.S. history textbooks in the house.

            He was right about the wind in his face on the way home. It cut cruelly, made every move forward a struggle, but Simon was happy. Standing on the hill again at 3rd Street, he rested. A movement a block to his left caught his attention: five wolves in single file trotted through the snow going the other direction. They moved silently, nearly gliding. One looked his way, but they didn’t vary their course.

            Simon didn’t worry much. He hadn’t heard of wolves attacking a person yet with elk so plentiful. Besides, a few apex predators couldn’t take the bloom off his day. The solar panels were working, there’d be fresh vegetables on the table tonight, and surely one of the books under his arm would have information about the Louisiana Purchase. Phillip could complete his paper with a print resource.

            Taking care of his kid, that’s what mattered. Support him through school. Help him get a start on life. What dad would behave differently?

This story originally appeared in Enter the Apocalypse.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."