My dad was a software engineer. My mom taught fourth grade. They were an easygoing pair. They laughed a lot. I rarely saw either of them get upset. They were content with our life. Not ambitious. Just content.

My brother and I didn’t give them a hard time growing up. To us, they seemed like typical grownups, typical parents, to be respected but also, in a lot of ways, to be ignored as we got on with our lives at school and with our friends. I guess you could say we loved and trusted our parents, but mostly we took them for granted.

This all changed on the morning after a nuclear device destroyed London and set off a multinational exchange of missiles that left most of the planet dead or poisoned.

The war, or whatever you’d call it – the chain reaction, maybe – only took a couple of hours in the night to end life as we knew it. I learned later that a sort of paralysis set in among most of the survivors around the world, paralysis and a fanatical craving for news, more news, the latest news about… well, about the situation we were all in.

That paralysis never affected our mom and dad. They didn’t seem to want or need to hear any more about the catastrophe. When my brother and I woke up that first morning, they sat us down and explained what had happened and what we were going to do about it. No anger or tears. They were matter-of-fact.

We had a quick breakfast and then drove down to the local supermarket. A mob was looting it.

“What do you want us to grab?” I said.

“We don’t want you to grab anything,” my dad said. “We’re all going in there and help those who need it.”

I wondered about the wisdom of this and thought to myself that I’d keep an eye out for things I could take home.

The store was in chaos. Folks from the neighborhood were grabbing anything they could get their hands on, wheeling out shopping carts loaded to overflowing. We went in. The lights were off and I heard shouts and shrieks. I saw folks sobbing as they ran around grabbing food.

An elderly couple stood in the pet-food aisle, putting cans into a basket they had brought from home. It looked too heavy for them. The man’s arms were shaking as he tried to hold it up. They were neatly dressed, unlike most in the store.

“Can I carry that basket for you?” I said.

They looked at me.

“I don’t have a dog myself,” I said.

“We would pay for this,” the woman said. “We’re not taking food for ourselves, but our Andy shouldn’t have to starve just because people can’t get along.”

I carried the basket out to their car and put it on the back seat. They thanked me, got in, and drove away.

Back inside, I saw my brother helping a man in a wheelchair. The man was pointing at something on a high shelf and Buddy was stretching up to reach it.

A young woman with a baby in her arms was using her free hand to stuff jars of baby food into a bag on the floor. It was a slow process. Tears ran down her cheeks. The baby was quiet, looking around at the clatter and racket. I felt like I was in a dream. It turned out that I was crying too. I went over to help the woman. I held her baby until she had gathered all she could carry.

Outside at her car, she tried to get hold of herself.

“I’m alone with my son,” she said, shaking her head.

“Write down your address,” I said. “I’ll tell my dad and we’ll make sure you aren’t alone.”

She lived right there in the neighborhood, a couple of blocks over from us.

By the end of the day, the store had been emptied, front and back. We went home and my mom made us a cold dinner. There was no electricity or gas and the water was off.

“Why didn’t we get food for ourselves?” my brother asked our dad.

“The food we brought home wouldn’t save us,” he said. “The neighborhood, and the town, must organize and work together. That will save us. When we finish dinner, Mom and Buddy will dig a latrine in the back yard. Tom, you and I will go out and knock on as many doors as possible this evening. We’ll introduce ourselves and ask for help down at the creek tomorrow. We need to put up some impoundment barriers, to create pools we can use as small reservoirs.”

“Are we going to dam the creek?”

“No, because the folks downstream will need its water as much as we do. We just need to create pools so we can take our share out every day more easily.

“Tomorrow, we also need to call a meeting and form a militia. We need to organize our weaponry, for hunting and protection, and put in place local laws as soon as possible.”

Buddy and I sat and stared at him. He wasn’t angry or frantic or worried. He was just as calm as ever, but serious.

“Boys,” he said. “I remember reading the autobiography of a prisoner at Andersonville. Andersonville was the worst Confederate prison during the Civil War. In his book, he explained how the men who survived imprisonment there were those who remained in good humor, who kept their heads and their hope, and who worked with each other to get along. I want you to get up each morning with the idea that you’ll work hard, but also smile at the sunshine. Things are going to seem rough for a while, but after that you’re going to inherit a new world.”

“We should start the gardens tomorrow, Honey,” my mom said to him.

Buddy and I exchanged a look. Our parents had somehow changed before our eyes into heroes, into warriors.