During the Cold War, a man has built a bomb-shelter and stocked it with just enough supplies for his own small family - wife and kids. The whole neighborhood constantly ridicules him for being so paranoid. But then one day the bomb-sirens go off and the man starts to load his family into the shelter. Of course the entire neighborhood wants in and he tells them no -- no-one will survive if they all go in since there is not enough food/water. The whole story is about the interpersonal interactions and continuing discussion as the neighbors try to talk the man into letting them in and eventually trying to force their way in.

As this plays out, people are listening to the radio to get updates on the situation. The radio announcer is providing updates on how much longer until the bombs will arrive here --- as the story goes on the bombs are closer, closer. Then as they are almost out of time, the neighbors attack and the man shoots and kills a neighbor. They all back off except for one woman, begging the man to just let her 2 small children in --- she asks how much difference could they really make in the supply level. The announcer says only minutes left. The man suddenly jumps out of the shelter, grabs the 2 kids, throws them in with his wife and kids and then locks the door --- with himself outside guarding the door with his gun. He is devastated that he has killed a man and doesn’t know if he deserves to live. So he trades his own place for the lives of the two children.

The announcer says the bombs will arrive in less than 60 seconds ---- but maybe we can all take some small comfort in knowing that our bombs have successfully been launched against our evil enemy in retaliation for this unprovoked attack. Within the hour, our counter-strike bombs will make impact in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. THE END. Wait…what….where?

I read this story 30-40 years ago in school and it remains one of the most impactful stories/novels I have ever read. The lessons in assumptions and perspectives were profound to me. I would love to read it again, but I have never been able to find it again. I’m guessing this was written in the 60’s. I read it in the early 80’s. The big twist at the end is very reminiscent of O Henry…but clearly he can’t be the author – given the timing.

  • 1
    Unless there's a SciFi or Fantasy aspect I'm missing here, you wasn't too ask this at Literature SE.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Mar 9, 2019 at 22:43
  • 4
    This sounds similar to the "The Shelter," an episode of The Twilight Zone: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shelter_(The_Twilight_Zone)
    – Buzz
    Mar 10, 2019 at 1:27
  • 4
    @Fuzzyboots, Speculative Fiction is one of the terms clustered under S.F. even does not appear in the title of this stack exchange.
    – Jasen
    Mar 10, 2019 at 7:28
  • 3
    @FuzzyBoots If there is anything in the story that indicates the fictional date, and if that fictional date is now in the past, that story happens in an alternate universe and thus is a science fiction story. Furthermore, the situation described in the story is something which has never happened yet, let alone by the time the story was written. Any story about something which could not possibly have happened before the story is written, but which could possibly happen after the story is written, must be science fiction. Mar 10, 2019 at 17:51
  • 2
    The "comfort in knowing that our bombs have successfully been launched against our evil enemy" isn't fiction. The US SIOP policy called for "massive strike with the entire US arsenal of 3,200 warheads, totaling 7,847 megatons, against the USSR, China, and … targets being hit simultaneously" if the country were ever attacked by even a single nuclear weapon. One man, Arkhipov, prevented this reality in1962. Apr 7, 2020 at 13:55

2 Answers 2


I think this is "Who Shall Dwell", a short story by H.C Neal. It was originally published in Playboy in 1962, and later appeared in a few anthologies.

As noted, the plot initially is similar to the of "The Shelter", the episode of the Twilight Zone, but the conclusion is much more optimistic. Exactly as the OP recalled, a mob surrounds a family's nuclear shelter demanding entrance. A woman begs "Even if you don't let me in, please take my baby, my little girl." The mother of the family gets up quickly, and before anyone can stop her, dashes out of the shelter, and her place is taken by a three-year old girl. With just minutes to go, the father also goes outside so that two other children can take his place, and he stands next to his wife to hold her hand as they wait for the atom bombs to hit.

In a final twist, it is revealed that the town is actually in Russia, and the atom bombs are the USA's retaliation for a first-strike - no clues had been given to that point, so the reader might lazily assume the family was a typical American one. P.K. Dick regarded this short story as "one of the finest our field has produced" (The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick Volume One). The text of the story can be read at James Harris' blog (hopefully without breaking copyright).


This sounds like a Twilight Zone episode (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shelter_(The_Twilight_Zone)) but the details are somewhat different from what I recall (specifically, I don't remember the killing)

I know that Rod Serling did remake TZ episodes as short stories, so if you read it as a short story this might explain the discrepancies.

It's also possible that there's an unrelated story with a similar plot to the TZ episode, but if so I've never come across it

EDIT: reviewing the text of the short story version on Amazon, it looks unlikely that this is the same story. The version published in New Stories From the Twilight Zone follows the plot of the television episode, including the neighbors breaking down the door with a battering ram, and does not have a killing or the man guarding the shelter with a gun.

It's possible that the OP's memory has altered the plot over the last 30-40 years.

  • If you don't think this is the answer is there much point keeping it as one?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Mar 11, 2019 at 16:46
  • 1
    a) it might be the actual answer, as I noted the OP's memory might be faulty on the details b) if it isn't the answer, it's certainly the most likely suggestion so if it's not correct it's useful to track that fact. Mar 11, 2019 at 16:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.