It’s 1963. Frank Byrne is troubled. His anger, explosive and unpredictable, has landed him in the Nebraska State Reformatory. Then a government agent shows up with a compelling offer: Frank can serve out the remainder of his sentence at a secret experimental farm. If he cleans up his act, he walks early. But the agent neglects to mention one important detail: The experiment is overseen by the Office of Civil Defense, and the “farm” is a 6000-square-foot fallout shelter built to protect dairy cows from nuclear radiation.
Simultaneously, the facility’s owner, a dairy magnate, has arranged a brief test of the facility as a publicity stunt. Two University of Nebraska students will descend with 20 milk cows and report back on what it feels like to live beneath the earth. Frank and his fellow convicts—Victor and Jimmy—are smuggled into the shelter during this period. After two weeks, a few lies and a bare minimum of instruction, the college boys depart and the juvies are left there to rot or be redeemed.
The situation boils over quickly, and then continues to escalate. When Jimmy reaches the end of his sentence and no one opens the door, the inmates assume nuclear disaster has wiped out civilization. They continue, however, guessing that they might fulfill the shelter’s purpose and someday emerge victorious with North America’s only viable herd.
In 1969, after a series of escalating slights, Frank kills, butchers and preserves Jimmy for future consumption. Frank is resigned to his fate as a ‘horrible little bomb.’ His relationship with Victor suffers and reaches its nadir when he suspects Victor of secretly communicating with the outside world. The subsequent quarrel affords Frank great pain and a hard look at himself. After his recovery, he and Victor become very close indeed. Meanwhile their food situation—as well as the health of the inbred, grain-fed cattle—has grown dire.
In 1976, Victor, sensitive to animal death and unwilling to consume fresh meat, submits to scurvy. Frank, thinking things cannot not get worse, decompensates. Then the power goes out, and Frank is plunged into darkness. After struggling and failing to keep the shelter clean and oxygenated without the help of any light whatsoever, and at his lowest point physically and emotionally, he elects to kill himself. He botches the job. Returned to life and finding the power back on, he reevaluates his lot with newfound religious conviction—he thinks he is being tested—and vows to change.
In 1983, the door of the shelter is breached by 3 strangers. When Frank steps outside for the first time in 20 years, finding that he’s in the middle of a feedlot and there was never a war, all his steely resolve falls apart.
He is taken in by his rescuer: Carlos, an immigrant from Oaxaca and a foreman with Nebraska Beef. Frank tries to acclimate but, finding that the story of his internment was buried along with him, he flounders.
Now 37 but looking 67, Frank takes a job at the meatpacking plant with Carlos’ cousin, Letitia. When Letitia is assaulted by her supervisor, she fears reprisals and can say nothing. Frank, achieving his purpose at last, kills the man. Carlos brings Frank back to the shelter with renewed supplies and Frank descends in gratitude.
Miller received his MFA and MS from the University of Montana. He has published poetry and non-fiction, including an essay about the Berkeley Pit, an enormous toxic lake, in VQR (Virginia Quarterly Review), and received Associated Press awards in Colorado and New Mexico. In 2012, he was picked to participate in The Arctic Circle, an artist residency aboard a tall ship in Svalbard. He raises beef cattle, pigs and one human child on a farm in Vermont.
Nathaniel Miller has lived in 14 places, most in the Rocky Mountain West, and within them he has worked as a ranch hand, journalist, editor, m...
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