The husbands carried supplies: cereals, water jugs, buckets, books and batteries. We wives carried the children, and the children carried small pieces of comfort in their little hands, smelling of sleep.
It was not our first time in the shelter. Six times already we had trooped gamely across the street, initially with nothing in a hurry, then more slowly with all the things we could not live without. Some hadn't bothered to join us for the last few.
"They'll knock on the roof first," chattered a neighbor in the laundromat. It was in the quiet afternoon between the third and fourth round of sirens. "That'll give us more than enough time. I feel like a hamster, going back and forth and back and forth. Enough!"
My husband, folding diapers neatly, gave me a dour look. That look said she was wrong, and it was not a risk we would take. I nodded, tucking stacks of clean clothing in our hamper. When the sirens rang again, we took it with us to leave in the bunker, covered by a blanket to protect the purified linens from dusty air and nosy neighbors.
The seventh round was different. Our cell phones had wailed and shaken us from bed, setting us to scrambling and the children to screaming. Blinking away bleariness, we found a short, bleak warning waiting: Find shelter now. So for the first time we took the small safe with our wedding jewelry, too.
No one waited for the roof knock.
We tucked the children into a cot together. My husband pulled a book from a crate beneath, a thumbworn favorite about saying goodnight to a tidy life. I reached out to touch his wrist and shook my head: no games, no distractions, not this time. He rubbed his free hand over his face and sighed before returning the book below, kissing the children and wrapping them in blankets as their scared-owl faces relaxed into slumber again.
When he turned away I loosened the cloth around their bodies. I gave them room to breathe. I'd seen the videos from the hospitals, from the morgues, from the remains of other neighborhoods much like ours. I wanted nothing like a shroud around them.
A debate began in whispers by the door, thrumming into shouts and shoves. A pair of wives stretched their thin arms across the doorway, preventing a pair men from barring the entry. Not their husbands, I thought. Hard to tell from here.
"It's too soon," a woman whimpered. "Would you abandon your brother so quickly?"
"Just until we hear something," begged the other. "There should be some warning."
"Would you doom your child?" A man pushed at their shoulders, attempting to break their hold on the hinges, on one another. "If someone knocks we'll just open it again." Any placation was lost in his tone. A mother shushed them, hands over her sobbing child's ears.
I shifted in my husband's arms, twisting my legs to join the fracas. His hands tightened on my waist, holding me to him, staring into me darkly, with sorrow for what we knew was already lost. His face was a mirror to mine.
We closed our eyes, touching foreheads. I breathed in the soapy ghost of his shaving cream and we heard the rasp of bars being drawn up and locking into place, a shuddering pair of wails rising in the space behind.
If there was a knock we did not hear it, not by hand on the door or bomb on a roof. About the long minutes during which the room we hunched in shook; when the lightbulbs flickered and died; as the weight of our world collapsed and covered us all; I will say little. It happened. It ended.
In the last of the electricity, my husband's eyes were wild. The children screamed and I could not look to them, caught as I was in him. The promises we made in those seconds were endless, the memories were round as a snake almost finished eating its own tail. The cake I'd fed him from my fingers. The sweating grip of his hand during the birth of our first, somehow more real than the pain that ruled my core. The wry smiles, the sly jokes, the pinches under all the tables we'd ever sat at.
The lights went out and the children wormed between us, hot coals of fear, proof of the life we'd built above. I couldn't see him anymore, but his hands moved over me where I felt most delicate, squeezing my elbows and moving to my wrists, stroking my ears and cupping the nape of my neck. You are here, his gentle fingers said. And so am I.
Did it last forever? Or only seconds? Is it happening still? He left me to help squeal open the wrinkled metal of the doors, returned to clasp my hand and lead me stumbling through the door. The children stayed behind in the stale air, unsure of what awaited us.
It was still night. If there were stars, we could not see them for the smoke. Aerosolized buildings and the smoldering remnants of the world we knew drifted over the moon like a caul, hiding us from God.