Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Short Story: Decisions Decisions

(Click here for a PDF for easier reading. Other short stories on My Writing page.)

Nick is catatonic. He rocks on his feet like an inflatable clown, hands twisting against his skull as if trying to squeeze the images out of his head. He does not notice Sarah talking to him, then yelling, then finally grabbing his wrist and ripping an arm away from his head.

“Jesus Christ, Nick. Are you listening to me? They set off another one.”

He spins, unfocused. What is she saying? Since the flash and burst of static, the abrupt blank screen, and the shocked news anchor struggling to produce a coherent sentence, he’s felt drugged, everything muddy and distant, staccato bursts of noise that resemble language but might as well be Esperanto. He realizes she’s glaring at him.
“Nick. We’ve got a situation. Here and now. For God’s sake, we’ve got kids in there.” And saying that, she faces the bedrooms—Jasper’s door covered with a slapdash collection of school artwork, Chloe’s neater with its single full size Elsa poster and a nameplate—and her hand covers her mouth.
He draws into focus, shakes his head and rubs his eyes. “What? Did you say something?”
“I’ve been screaming at you for a couple of minutes. We’ve got to figure out what to do. These guys aren’t fucking around. They mean business. There could be a bomb down the block. Should we start packing up staples, rice, cereal, filling the bathtub with water, coating the kids in aluminum foil? I mean, Jeez-us, what are we supposed to do?”
“This is what you’re asking me? Should we grab a sack of rice? After that?” He gestures at the TV. “After the end of the fucking world?”
“It’s not the end of the world. Just a few square miles of New Mexican desert, and a big chunk of South Florida.” He winces. “Jesus, your Mom. Nick, I’m sorry. I forgot. But she’s in North Florida. I’m sure she’s okay.” They’ve taken down the cellphone networks and internet to prevent the terrorists from communicating, but it’s left them, years removed from having a landline, unable to contact anyone: his mom in Florida, her parents off-the-grid in Oregon, siblings scattered hither and yon.
He dismisses her apology with a flick of his hand. “You didn’t mean it. I mean what are we supposed to say right now? Let’s just breathe, okay?” He takes his own advice literally, placing his hands on his hips, closing his eyes and pulling in measured, deep breaths, punctuated by trembling exhalations. His eyes blink open, a vacant, amnesiac look flittering across his features. “Imagine the conversations going on right now.”
He walks over to the kids’ bedrooms and looks in on Chloe, then Jasper. He turns back to Sarah. “I can’t believe they can sleep through this.” The New Mexico explosion triggered the first panicked exodus, hundreds of thousands creating instant gridlock north into Canada. They either made it out, or abandoned their cars and walked, and the noise faded. But with this second attack the holdouts are joining the mob. From the fifth floor with the windows closed, they have to raise their voices to hear themselves.
“So what are we going to do?”
“Do?”
“I mean should we stay or should we go?”
His eyebrows arch and his lip curls. He assumes a Guitar Hero pose and windmills his right arm: “Duh-duh da-dut-dut-dah. ‘This indecision’s bugging me.’” She glowers as he continues: “’If you don’t want me, set me free.’”
“Air guitar? You’re doing fucking air guitar? The fucking Clash? You’re unfuckingbelievable. You can’t make light of every single fucking thing.”
And just as quickly, the switch flips: “No shit. No fucking shit. But this is surreal. I can’t believe we’re discussing this. Having to make this kind of decision. Twelve hours ago, the toughest choice we faced was whether to send the kids to summer camp, and where do we want to go for dinner Friday night. Now parts of the country are wastelands, and an atomic bomb might go off down the goddamn block. How am I supposed to react? Get down on my knees, rend my garments, rub my face in ashes and pray to God or Jesus or Allah or Vishna – or whoever the fuck – that we don’t get incinerated? Run out on the balcony and scream like Peter Finch? Go into the bedroom and smother the kids with their damn Walt fucking Disney pillows?” He finishes abruptly, trembling. Sarah’s face is crumbling, defiance on the edge of fragility.
“Sorry … just … sorry.” He wraps his arms around her and feels her dissolve, their bodies flowing against each other like liquid, fragile, unstable. Worried they might topple over, he subtly widens his stance to brace up their structure, while she quakes, her sounds swallowed by the frenzy outside.
They face the television where they’re replaying the terrorist video.
“It feels like eons since they posted it,” Sarah says.
“I wonder how many hits it’s got. Jesus, they could pay for suicide bombings from the ad revenue alone.” He shakes his head. “I was so sure it was a bluff. I mean where did these guys get the uranium they’d need to make a bomb? To make at least two bombs?”
“Don’t beat yourself up. I know you enjoy being Mr. Logical Analytical Man, but please: who saw this coming? The President, the NSC, the CIA, the FBI, the M-O-U-S-E? They all came out and said there was nothing to worry about.”
“Well, that’s blown to hell along with everything else.”
“I don’t get New Mexico. I mean why not try to kill more people? And Truth or Consequences? What the hell kind of name is that?”
“I don’t know,” Nick replies. “It’s an answer to a goddamn trivia question.” He closes his eyes and violently rubs his face. Images, facts, voices, scenarios carom around his brain. It’s like trying to stream video on an overtaxed WiFi network: images sputter, freeze, start again, words truncated and garbled.
“I’ll bring the subject up again: what are we doing to do?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’d better get the hell outta Dodge. But Jesus…” He turns his head toward the window. “Where the hell are we going to go? And how the hell are we going to get anywhere in this gridlock.”
“North, right?,” she says. “The prevailing wind is from the west with the rotation of the earth and all that, so we’ll be safe as long as we’re north of any fallout?”
“I suppose, unless they decide to nuke Canada. But where are we going to stay? Everyone’s on the road. We’re behind the curve.”
“I have no idea. We’ve gotta get outta here and hope the Canadians can take us in. Wait: do we still have a tent? Didn’t you have a bunch of old camping equipment?”
“I think so. Gotta be musty as hell right now, but it’d be better than sleeping in the car. With the tent and the sleeping bags plus blankets and pillows for the kids at least we’d have a place to sleep, assuming every square inch of ground isn’t covered with fleeing New Englanders.”
“Even more important question: is there gas in the car?”
He nods. “Pure luck. I filled the tank yesterday when I got groceries. If we drive carefully, we could make 400 miles until we need more gas and by then we’d be in Canada.”
“If we can get through the traffic. The last TV report said people were running out of gas and having to walk. Did you see that video from the helicopter up in northern Maine? People trying to shove cars out of the way, snaking through the mess at five miles an hour, hundreds of people walking along the shoulder in the middle of nowhere, no food, no water, the gas stations all out of fuel. And even if they get to Canada, are they going to be let in?”
“I’m sure the Canadians will let us in. How can they not? This is unprecedented. I wish they hadn’t shut down the internet. I miss my traffic app.”
“What difference would it make? The whole country’s on the move. It’s gonna be a solid red line. Or a skull and crossbones.”
“We could take backroads, avoid the traffic, at least put a few hundred miles between us and any bomb in Boston.” He trails off. “Do we have any maps? Didn’t we used to have one of those big Rand McNally’s with maps of every state?”
“Yeah, but I haven’t seen that for years. You’re the Pack Rat.”
“You check the bookshelves. I’ll check the office and the car.”
After 10 minutes of digging, Nick discovers the map book crushed into the back of the filing cabinet. Western Massachusetts is missing and there’s a coffee stain obscuring part of Vermont/N.H., but there’s enough showing to allow them to hunch over the kitchen island and plot potential escape routes. Their fingers trace back roads familiar and unfamiliar, seeking connections and potential supply points. They’re reading palms, trying to divine their future. What does this line auger?
It takes them an hour, but they come up with a route, its provenance clear in the cryptic mess of yellow, blue and pink highlighter, as though a child has scribbled on the map. Nick shakes his head when Sarah holds it up. “Yeah, okay, so we’ve got an idea how to get out. But how are we going to live once we get there? And who’s to say we’ll be any safer in Canada?” He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair and over his face rapidly. He looks like an ape and she suddenly wants to tear his head off. Why is he being so indecisive? This isn’t their deal. She was not suited to the “do what you like, be whatever you want, we’re not going to impose our value system on you,” freeform, improvised parenting she was subjected to. It made her indecisive and uncertain. Nick’s clarity, his innate need for plan and structure, and his rapid decisiveness gave her the room she needed to find her place. He always seeks her input, but at times she just wants him to decide. This makes her feel guilty at times. But not now. Now she needs him to step up.
Nick takes several deep breaths, tongue pressed against his lower lip. Then holds his hands out in front of him, palms down. “Ok. Let’s be reasonable here. Let’s analyze this rationally.” This is more like it, she thinks. “They haven’t said there’s a bomb in Boston. They haven’t mentioned specific locations. They just said they have ‘some bombs’ and will set one off every 24 hours until we meet their crazy fucking demands. Of course they blew that promise already with the bomb in Florida, although I heard the FBI are speculating one of the terrorists set it off ‘cause they thought they were about to get caught so maybe that wasn’t part of their plan. All we really know is that they had at least two bombs. Which is, of course, two more than the government thought they had. What if that’s all they’ve got and what they really want to do is sow chaos, to totally fuck up our roads and our cities and our economy? Everyone talks about the thousands who died on 9-11 but the economic loss was appalling. Worse than the loss of life when you think about it, all the lives impacted, the jobs lost, all that.”
“So you’re saying they’ve blown their load already?”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s what I’m saying. We join the panic and we’re giving them exactly what they want. We leave and they win. It’s that simple.”
“So you’re suggesting we stay here?”
He nods, pursing his lips, arms crossed on his chest as if he’s deciding what wine to order with dinner. “I think so… Yes. That’s the most logical approach.”
“Jesus, Nick, that’s taking a huge risk, isn’t it? What if they set off a bomb in Boston? We’ll die a horrible death. Our children will die a horrible death.”
“Jesus Christ, I know. But fuck. What’s worse? Die or live like animals?”
“Why’d you think we’d end up living like animals? People will get organized. The government will help. We’ve got thousands of years of civilization to draw on. The whole system’s not going to fall apart.”
“You don’t know that. Look,” and he points at the TV in the background, “there’re already riots all over the place. People are smashing into stores to get food and supplies, they’re trying to get gas from stations that are closed. Some gas station blew up in Tennessee. Other deaths from fights over roads, over food, over a goddamn crate of bottled water somewhere in New Jersey. Listen.” He turns off the TV and opens a window. Sounds swell in the room. Car horns, sirens, trudging feet and low voices. Then, so coincidentally Nick could have planned it, there are three staccato cracks that could only be gunshots. A distinct scent of wood smoke slips in amongst the smell of car exhaust.
He faces her. “The people who can’t leave are going to get more and more desperate, and the people who’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere are eventually going to end up the same way. We’re hanging by a thread here.”
“Jesus, Nick. Take a deep breath. Take a whole bunch of deep breaths. This is awful. Like the worst thing that’s ever happened, but civilization is going to survive.”
“I don’t know. I keep seeing us in a real-life version of The Road, sleeping in abandoned houses, constantly having to worry about where to get food, how to find clean water, having to fight off gangs of murderers and rapists.”
On The Road? I don’t remember all that stuff. Wasn’t that all jazz and boozing and fast cars?”
“Not On the Road. The Road. Cormac McCarthy’s book about a post-apocalyptic America. A father and son wander through a desolate landscape trying to survive cannibals and inbreds.”
“I don’t care for McCarthy. Too dark for my tastes.”
“Too dark? You read Scandinavian crime novels, for God’s sake. I couldn’t even get through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That rape scene.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Too much.”
“It’s fantasy violence,” she says. “And the good guys win in the end. McCarthy’s stuff is too ambiguous, too nihilistic.”
“Well, we’re not going to solve the great literature debate here and now.”
She exhales in response. “You said something earlier that keeps bouncing around my head.”
“What?”
“That we’re hanging by a thread. Remember back in the ‘80s when Reagan was ramping up all the military spending and there was all this talk about Evil Empires and nuclear war? The scientists had the Doomsday Clock close to midnight. I was in high school and I remember seriously worrying we were going to get nuked. People were building fallout shelters like we were living in the ‘50s. There was a TV movie called The Day After, but it was complete Hollywood gloss. Then we found this British movie called Threads. I don’t remember much except the end. They went way out into the future—20 or 30 years after the bombs went off, and by then, people were living in a pre-feudal state, the population’s down by 95%, women are kept in servitude, the few babies born are all twisted and deformed. It was awful. Stomach churning.”
They fall into a protracted silence, each calculating possibilities and probabilities, trying to envision the outcome. It’s hard to concentrate with the noise. It’s a living, breathing entity. Sound waves roll into the apartment and ripple off the walls, their coils flattening and expanding like Slinkies. It’s an infinite loop. Sound can’t escape, and each succeeding horn or shout or scream or siren or squealing tire or engine roar increases the volume and dissonance. It’s taking over the room. It’ll draw all the oxygen, and then asphyxiate us. The breathless edge of panic rises, magma oozing up Sarah’s throat, ready to obliterate everything and leave her nothing but a petrified form, a shape with no substance.
Nick is trying to talk, trying to form a coherent thought, but he loses the thread, eyes drawn to the hubbub, the suffocating, billowing grey dust of sound from the street. He starts again, gets a random word or two out, stops, tries again and then loses it. “Fuuuccckkk,” he screams as Sarah cringes. He strides to the front window in two long steps, and tries to haul the window open. But it’s an old wooden double-hung window that demands a light touch. Nick’s two-handed wrenching freezes it in its track. He’s so angry that he yanks fiercely, each time succeeding only in raising the window by millimeters. Finally he gives up, drops to his knees with a bang, bends his head down and up through the small slit he’s made. “Shut up. Shut the fuck up. You assholes. You motherfucking assholes. What do you think you’re accomplishing leaning on your goddamn horns? Nothing’s moving. Nothing’s moving anywhere. You think you’re gonna blow everyone out of your way with blasts of your fucking horn. Get a grip. Get a fucking life. Get the fuck out of here.”
Each word pushes Sarah farther into the couch. She hasn’t seen this temper in years. They’d been dating for five months, someone had cut him off on the Mass Pike, and she was terrified by his reaction, not just the spittle inducing rage but the insane driving as he rode up the tail of the other driver flashing his high beams and thrusting his middle finger out the window. She didn’t say anything that time but the next time she let him have it: “You get a handle on this or we’re through. I won’t tolerate this.” And he had, mostly, controlled it, although on occasions in Boston traffic she’d see his jaw tighten and imagined she could hear his teeth grating.
In silhouette, his shoulders heave as he hurls his anger into the ether. But he’s five stories up. No one in a car can hear him, and the people who are walking glance up once then ignore him. They’re too busy dragging suitcases along and trying to keep their kids in tow to care about some lunatic in an apartment.
He trickles to a halt, then his whole body slides back in liked a flattened Saturday morning cartoon character. He goes fetal against the wall.
Sarah doesn’t move. He seems so far away, like she would have to walk for hours to reach him. Only when she realizes his whole body is quaking does something snap in her and she goes to him, sitting next to him on the floor and placing a hand on his shoulder. They remain in this posture until he stops shaking and levers himself upright to sit back against the wall.
“You feel better now?,” she asks.
“Not really.”
“Where’d we leave things before you lost your fucking mind?”
“You were talking deformed babies, I recall. How awful the world could be out there.”
She grunts. “What to do…”
“Let’s reduce the number of possibilities. If we leave, we don’t know how we’ll live, where we’ll be, if we’ll even have a place to stay. If we stay here, we’ve got our own place. We’ve got walls and a roof. We’ve got food, at least a week’s worth. If no more bombs go off, at least not around here, we’ll sure look smart staying in place instead of gallivanting around the goddamn countryside.”
“And if a bomb goes off here?”
He clenches his teeth. “Then hopefully it’s quick and we don’t suffer.”
“My mind can’t get around this.” She puts a hand to her chest, closes her eyes and for a moment looks as if she were meditating. “I think you’re right. I think I agree. We should stay. At least we can try to stop anyone from breaking in if the rioting gets worse. How I don’t know. Maybe we can barricade the door.”
Nick hesitates before speaking. “I’ve got a gun. Two actually.”
Sarah’s eyes narrow. “What? You told me you got rid of those guns years ago.”
“I know, I know. I sold most of them, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of all of them. It’s how I was raised. You’re supposed to defend yourself. I kept one handgun, and a shotgun in case I ever get a chance to go bird hunting with Mark again. They’re locked away in a safe in the basement storage area. They’ve never been accessible to anyone but me.”
She’s still glaring at him. She hates guns, has always hated them, and tolerated their presence in Nick’s life only until she got pregnant and gave him an ultimatum: the guns go before the baby’s born. “You lied to me.”
“Technically no. You told me you didn’t want guns around the kids. The guns aren’t around the kids. I never actually said I got rid of them. I told you they were gone.”
“Don’t lawyer me on this. You’re just digging a deeper hole.”
“I simply thought it useful to keep them. I know you don’t agree. I know you’ve never liked guns, especially with the hippy-dippy way you were raised…”
“Don’t drag my parents into this. They might have been fucked up, they might have floated around in the stratosphere half the time, my upbringing might have been whacked out, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong about guns. You know how I felt and decided your opinion was the only one that mattered. Your juvenile need to have your fucking toys for boys was more important than being honest with me.”
“Okay, okay. You’re right. I shouldn’t have lied. But now we need them. So who’s …” He catches himself just before he says, “Who’s right now?” Her glare becomes harsher. She’s guessed what he was going to say, but decides not to go there. “Anyway… Understand that the guns truly are locked away. I’m the only one who can access them. They’re in a safe that only works with my thumbprint.”
“That’s fine until someone cuts off your thumb.”
He almost grins. “That could happen if things get too crazy. The main point here is that we have a means of defending ourselves. I always agreed with you that the odds of getting robbed in Back Bay are minimal, but all bets are off now.”
She waits a few more beats before dropping her clenched arms from her chest and saying, “Well what the hell are you waiting for? Go get the damn things. But I don’t want the kids to see them. You’ve got to hide them—someplace they won’t find them.”
He nods and scurries off to the basement. She moves to the kids’ doors. She touches the dinosaur drawing Jasper did last week. It’s a T-Rex, his current favorite, although it’s comical rather than ferocious: big smile, lopsided teeth, and a beer belly. She carefully opens the door and a bar of light falls over her sleeping son, mouth agape and arms akimbo. She watches him until she feels a welling inside and has to close the door. She moves to the open window and sits on the sill. This is the essence of panic, she thinks. Car exhaust, smoke, burning oil, rubber, a suggestion of b.o., charcoal earth and loam swirling underneath. A single, rusted Accord weaves slowly through the maze of abandoned and parked vehicles. Several people trudge past with backpacks and suitcases, but there are nowhere near the teeming masses of earlier.
The door opens and closes and Nick walks in. She realizes she expected him to have the guns out, a rifle strapped across his chest and the handgun shoved in his pants like an action movie star. Instead, he holds what looks like an old-fashioned cash box in one hand, and a narrow black duffle hangs over one shoulder. He disappears without a word into their bedroom and she hears rustling and the sound of drawers opening and closing. He emerges without the box and goes back to the front door. He surveys the area and then places the duffel on the shelf that holds their coat hooks.
“There,” he says. “That’s out of the way of the kids but handy if we need it. The pistol is in my bed table.”
“Great. I feel safer already.” She pauses but he ignores the sarcasm. “We’re decided now, right? We’re staying put?”
He stares at the carpet, hand moving absently back and forth on his head. He slowly starts to nod. “Yes. We’ll stay. We’ll live and die in our home. We’ll not live in a camp somewhere, struggling for food and water like animals in some post-apocalyptic hell.”
“Jesus. Who wrote that bit of a dialogue?” He looks abashed. “I mean that was pretty dramatic, like something out of a movie.” She turns to a cupboard. “If we’re staying, I need a drink.” She pulls out a bottle of wine. “Of course the question is, ‘What’s the appropriate wine to serve with a looming nuclear catastrophe?’”
For the first time in hours, he laughs. Initially it’s a brief snort, the opening of a pressure valve. It’s followed by a second snort he tries to suppress, which only makes things worse. Then he’s doubled over, holding his stomach, tears and snot bubbling out. When he gains control and stands up, Sarah sets him off again, cocking her hip with a bottle of wine in one hand and a glass in the other: “I mean seriously: this pinot has a bouquet suggestive of corpse flowers and imminent death, whereas this cab is redolent of churned earth and charred flesh.” He knows he shouldn’t laugh, that they shouldn’t be joking about this, that it’s like laughing about rape, but they can’t stop.
When he finally gains control of himself, he puts his own two cents in: “The problem is that you’re thinking wine. I’m thinking nuclear terrorism requires something stronger. A cocktail, subtle yet sneaky.”
“A tequila sunrise.”
“A whiskey sour.”
“A black Russian.”
“A hurricane.”
“A sundowner.”
“How about a screwdriver since they’re really putting the screws to us.”
“Or a sex on the beach since we’re totally fucked.”
“Perhaps this requires a more classic choice—a nice single malt with earthy characteristics.”
“Or 151 rum. Shoot it back and get it over with. And it’s flammable to boot.”
“A Mickey Finn.”
“A Mickey Finn? Who are you? Humphrey Bogart?”
“Hear me out. It’s perfect: you think it’s a normal drink and suddenly you’re unconscious, like with that date rape drug.” She flinches and he cringes: he’s forgotten about that college incident that never left her. The silence becomes awkward before she says, “Unconsciousness wouldn’t necessarily be bad under the circumstances.” She opens the wine, carries the bottle and a glass to the living room, sets the goblet down and fills it to the rim. She hunches forward and takes a huge swig of the wine, wiping her hand over her lips to catch a dribble. Her hand trembles when she sets the glass back down, and the glass rocks on its base. He sits next to her and puts his hand on her neck. She takes another slug of wine, then looks at him sideways. “Sorry, I didn’t bring you a glass.”
“I’ll use yours.”
“Drink from the bottle. This isn’t our last one.” And with that, she finishes her first glass as if it were water after a long, hot run.
He wonders whether if getting blotto is the best approach. They could change their minds about leaving. The kids might wake up. They could discover the terrorists have planted the bomb in their building and he’ll need to swing into action like Jack Bauer. He imagines himself wrestling with a fanatic, clamping his hands around the terrorist’s to keep him from releasing the trigger mechanism, thrashing around violently while desperately trying to retain his grip. What would he do? Head butt him? Knee him in the groin? Anyone the terrorists would put in that position would be trained, would know how to fight, would already be willing to die. He puts a hand on his stomach, the flat abs of his twenties now pliable, oozing over his belt. He hasn’t thrown a punch since an ill-conceived attempt to protect a friend’s honor in college. You’re no superhero, he thinks. Might as well drink. He goes to the kitchen, opens the cupboard and pulls down the 25-year-old Bowmore his groomsmen gave him at his wedding. He was supposed to hold onto it until the last of their crew got married when they would share it at that final ceremony, but it was 11 years later, Deacon was mired in eternal bachelorhood, Terry was on divorce number two, and Evan had surprised them all by coming out two years ago. The final wedding could be a long way off. He feels a brief instance of guilt. Then thinks, Guys, I don’t know if I’ll see you again and I don’t want to go without tasting this Scotch. He pours a jigger neat, says “Cheers, boys!” and takes the first smoky sip.
As they drink, they’re mesmerized by the TV, the coverage more organized now, the reporters’ professionalism and ambition overriding their personal reactions and emotions. Still, it’s a catalog of calamity: cities emptying out, people trapped in cars with no gas, food or water, disorder and violence among those left behind, windows smashed, looting – not opportunistic, flat-screen TV in a shopping cart looting. Instead it’s focused on pure survival: water, food, fuel. A 62-year-old man is killed over a pallet of bottled water. There’s footage of three women fighting over a box of Doritos.
Fox News plays amateur video that captured the Florida bomb. A woman recording her husband and two kids goofing around in the surf on Daytona Beach. A flash overwhelms the cellphone camera, the screen flowering into a cold white corona. There’s a babble of “Oh my God’s.” The electronics rejigger, the beach slowly returns to view—and everyone is frozen in place, shading their eyes, a column of purple smoke rising in the south.
A news crew reaches the edge of the blast zone in south Florida. They capture cars covered with fine grit, windshields cracked, engines straining. People with hollow, desperate faces unloading victims from backseats and truck beds. The camera catches a woman carrying a dead child, skin hanging from its body like a freshly flayed deer, the network abruptly switches back to the newsroom where the anchor apologizes for the disturbing image.
Nick explodes: “Fucking radical Muslim assholes. Absolute fucking scumbags.” He’s shaking so much that liquor spills out of his glass and over his hand.
He’s trembling and she realizes he’s been holding that in for hours. “Fuck ‘em,” she suggests. “Not just the Muslims but every fundamentalist who thinks he’s got all the answers.”
“Yeah, fuck them, too. Fuck Islam and Christianity and Judaism.”
“In fact, fuck religion. Fuck all of them.”
“And fuck the politicians.”
“And the people who paid for them.”
“And the stupid fucks who voted for them.”
“Fuck all the stupid people.”
“Fuck jihad.”
“Fuck the Crusades.”
“Fuck colonialism.”
“Fuck communism.”
“Fuck vulture capitalism.”
“Fuck the military-industrial complex.”
“Fuck corporate rock.”
“Fuck top 40.”
“Fuck Autotune.”
“Fuck the price of bread.”
“Fuck processed food.”
“Yeah, but fuck these vegan, gluten-free, locavore snobs, too.”
“Fuck John Wayne.”
“Fuck him and the horse he rode in on.”
“Fuck Ronald Reagan.”
“And Dubya and Clinton and all the rest.”
“Fuck Putin.”
“Fuck the ayatollahs.”
They’re facing each other now, only inches apart, close enough that Sarah catches a trace of Nick’s saliva when he barks, “Fuck oil and gas.”
“Fuck all of us for driving.”
“Fuck Boston drivers.”
“Fucking Massholes.”
“But fuck the dumb rednecks, too.”
As their faces get closer and closer to one another, smiles start to crease their mouths.
“Fuck one-way streets.”
“Fuck Dunkin’ Donuts.”
“And those Starbucks, latte-guzzling snobs, too.”
“Wait, that’s us.” And then they’re giggling uncontrollably. Nick collapses against Sarah, burying his face in her shoulder while they both shake. “Shhh, the kids,” Sarah mutters, and they laugh more loudly. Nick stands up, grasping his stomach and move to hold onto a doorframe while he continues to quiver.
“Daddy? Mommy? What are you doing?” It’s Chloe, standing in the entrance to the living room looking puzzled. “It’s okay, honey, we’re just laughing. We made a joke,” says Sarah. Chloe looks dubious. She’s seen them laugh but never in this desperate manner. Nick finally gains his self-control when he sees the look on her face. “Yeah, that’s all, sweetheart. Just having fun.” He moves over to her, kneels down and puts his arms on either side of her. “I’m sorry we woke you up.”
She rubs her eyes, her favorite stuffed rabbit hanging by an ear from one hand and bouncing off her shoulder. “It’s weird around here. What’s going on?” Nick hears Sarah behind him singing more loudly than she realizes, “Mother mother, there’s no need to escalate it. War is not the answer…” He faces her fiercely: “Sssh.” Sarah looks guilty, then speaks from the couch. “It’s a strange night, honey, nothing to worry about it.” She’s slurring words.
Chloe looks increasingly suspicious but allows Nick pick her up and carry her back to her room. “Something smells,” she says, pushing her rabbit against her nose. “What is it?”
“Just people, honey, that’s all. Lotsa people with lots on their minds.” He pushes her door open with his foot.
“Those people need a bath,” she says as he lays her down on her bed. That’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future, Nick thinks.

**********
He wakes disoriented, a headache pulsing above his forehead. Amorphous shadows. A lambent trapezoid on the floor. And silence. Eerie silence. Is it over?
But, no, he’s very much alive. His leg is wet and for a disgusting second he thinks he’s peed himself. He’s even more disgusted to realize it’s Scotch. He’s fallen asleep on the couch with a tumbler of Scotch in his hand and now he has $25 worth of prime Islay single-malt  soaking the fabric of his jeans. He picks the glass up carefully to avoid disturbing Sarah, who’s curled on her side with her head on his leg and her arm around Jasper, who spoons against her snoring gently. The boy must have woken while he was passed out.
Sarah isn’t asleep. When he leans over to set the glass down, she speaks, so quietly he can barely hear: “Will it hurt?” She doesn’t move and he can’t see her expression.
His hand hovers above her head, fingers indecisive. He contemplates an innocent approach – “Will what hurt?” – but they’ve always promised one another brutal honesty, and he can’t pretend he doesn’t know what she means. He pictures the gutted dome in Hiroshima. A roiling blast wave taking houses apart like cardboard craft projects. Desolate eyes from a concave-chested man with his skin half melted away. Tumors. Mutations. The towns near the Chernobyl plant overgrown, vines breaking through brick, childrens’ toys rusting on the sidewalk, animals roaming the streets. The little Vietnamese girl running naked. That was napalm, he recalls, but it is the most fitting image: panic and terror, embarrassment—and a complete absence of dignity.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. “If it’s close by, I’m sure we wouldn’t feel a thing. If it’s farther away…”
“That’d be the worst. Close enough to kill us, but not instantly. I don’t want to linger. I don’t want you and the kids to suffer. I can’t stand thinking of watching them die. Their skin burnt, their hair falling out…” and the rest of her thoughts are swallowed in a spasm of sobs.
“Shhh… Don’t go there. It’s won’t do any good. Besides, I really don’t think one’s going to go off here. They’re going to want to hit the big cities – D.C., New York, Chicago – to sow maximum fear, and other than that I think they’d want to set the bombs off to the west so more areas get hit by the fallout.”
“Why Florida though? Stuck way out into the water like a thumbs down sign.”
“Target of opportunity? I don’t know. I’m no national security expert. I’m an IP attorney. And I can’t believe I’m using words like ‘target of opportunity.’ When did these expressions become part of our everyday vocabulary? Radicalized. Soft target. Collateral damage. Terrorist threat level.”
“If it happens, it happens, I suppose. And if we don’t die right away—”
He cuts her off: “No, it’s not going to come to that.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know. But I do know that I couldn’t shoot the kids or you under any circumstances. Could you shoot Jasper or Chloe. Or me? You wouldn’t even know which end of the gun to point. And besides, I’ve still got a bunch of Percocet from when I tore the ligaments in my ankle, and you’ve got your Ambien. I’m sure we could make a nice drug cocktail and wash the mix down with alcohol to seal the deal.”
“You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?”
“Haven’t you? I can’t stop my mind from working.”
“I wish we had the internet. I’d like to know exactly how much we’d need to take to guarantee … that we won’t wake up.”

**********
This time it’s Sarah who wakes on the couch, abruptly pulled from an inchoate dream. While she tries to find her bearings, she hears a sharp crack outside. Gunshot? Firecracker? Jasper is still asleep against her, all hot breath and kid sweat. Where’s Nick? She lifts her head and sees a sliver of light from the kitchen door. She carefully disentangles herself from her boy and stands unsteadily.
In the kitchen she finds Nick standing over the butcher block. He’s got a gun disassembled and he’s staring down the tube of the barrel before lowering it to drive a brush in and out. Amidst the pieces of gun and cleaning supplies is a bowl of Fruit Loops and a glass of Scotch. Breakfast of champions, she thinks. He looks at her and smiles grimly.
“What time is it?,” she asks.
“Quarter to five.”
“How long have you been up?”
He shrugs. “Half an hour” Something outside woke me and I couldn’t fall back to sleep.”
“’Something’?”
He weighs his answer. “I heard gunshots and a scream.”
“Right outside?”
“No, but close enough.”
She nods and leans against the butcher block opposite him. “I think a gunshot woke me up. I’m telling myself it’s a firecracker.” She watches his precise motions. “So this is how you clean a gun.”
“Yep.”
“I guess I’ll make coffee. No use trying to sleep now.” She begins to open cupboards, finding glasses, plates, Tupperware, but no coffee. She’s forgotten how their kitchen is organized. Where is that damn coffee?
“So what are we going to do today?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean simply that: what are we going to do? I’m assuming there’ll be no school, and I sure as hell can’t imagine that either of our offices will be open. I mean who’s left? And I don’t think we should be outside even in the daylight until things settle down.”
“I don’t know, Nick. I don’t think we can do anything but hunker down here and wait for news. What is the news, by the way? Anything changed?”
“No more explosions. But they haven’t caught anyone and they haven’t found any bombs. At least not that they’re saying publicly. I’m guessing if they did find one, they wouldn’t want to let us know in case the terrorists decide to set everything off and go out in a blaze of glory. And if they captured one of them, I suspect they’ve got him in a very dark place going all Dick Cheney on him. They’ve called out the National Guard. Trying to restore order and protect people. Canada and Mexico have both thrown their doors open. They’re just letting people stream over the border. People are setting up camp in parking lots. From the air, it’s a big music festival, Woodstock for the 21st century, except instead of three days of peace and music, it’s three days of bottled water and ‘Please don’t kill us’. Must be awful.”
“The waiting is killing me.”
“I hear you.” He looks up from his task. “I was thinking: Is this is how people feel when they’re facing their execution? I can’t begin to grasp the horror of that. Knowing that your life is going to end. Especially in a country like Saudi Arabia where you’re going to get your head chopped off. Or think of those poor bastards in the orange jumpsuits in Syria.” He shudders.
“The difference is they know what’s coming. We don’t have a solitary clue. We could disappear in the middle this conversation, or be around for another 50 years. We just don’t know.”
The kitchen lights flicker and Sarah’s skin prickles. “Ignore that,” Nick says. “It’s happened twice since I woke up. Doesn’t really make sense since you’d figure with everyone having fled, there’d be less power being used. Then again, who the hell’s left to actually run things?” He imagines some poor bastard alone in front of an enormous console, buttons and levers and switches, massive video screens with bright lines angling across a map, neurons connecting, warnings flashing. “How do you feel?,” he asks. “That was a lot of wine.”
She turns to face him, bag of coffee hanging from one hand, scoop in the other. “I can’t tell if I’m still drunk or my hangover is just getting ramped up. I keep thinking of the word ‘disconnected.’ My components aren’t communicating. My stomach is this growly churning thing here. My legs are these trembly weak things at the bottom. My head is floating on top of it, like those pedestrian crossing signs where the figure has no neck so it appears the head is floating above the body. It’s this orb full of gauzy clouds but there’s electricity sparking at the edges, the circuits are trying to reconnect. I get a spark now and then, a flicker of static electricity. If it’s a hangover, it’s a totally new type of hangover.”
“You’ve got a fear hangover. Your system’s overloaded.”
“What’s the cure?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know. The government catching the terrorists, ending this and letting us get back to normal life.”
“If you think life is ever going to be normal again after this, you’re dreaming.”
“People said that when 9/11 happened and next thing you knew we were stressing about jobs and mortgages and orthodontist’s bills, and going on vacation, and buying shit we didn’t need.”
“9/11 killed three thousand people and destroyed what, a few dozen acres? There’s a shiny new tower there. Now we’ve got at least two parts of this country that are uninhabitable for decades. We’ve got hundreds of thousands dead. Even if nothing else happens, how can you think things will ever be normal again? And do you really think our government isn’t going to blow the shit out of half the Middle East? People will demand it. And then where will we be?”
“I suppose this is the new normal.”
“There’s no cure then. I’m going to feel this way forever.”
He ponders that. “The only cure is the passage of time without annihilation. It’s like we’ve been poisoned and each new rising of the sun is the antidote.” He watches her closely. It’s like observing a face in a movie theater, light and shadow flickering over her features. Then she turns back to the counter and continues to make coffee.
The coffeemaker finishes as Nick snaps the pieces of the gun back together. When he comes back out to the kitchen, Sarah hands him a cup, then moves through the kitchen door. “I’m going up to the roof deck.”
“Why?”
She faces him: “To see if the sun is going to rise. To take my antidote for the day.”
“I’ll join you.”
“What about the kids?”
“We’d better bring them. If they wake up while we’re gone, they’ll be terrified.”
“I can carry Jasper. You grab Chloe. Bring a blanket. It’ll be cool up there.”
Chloe groans and mutters when Nick lifts her, but she doesn’t wake and her left arm flops out awkwardly and bobs while he follows Sarah into the hallway and up the stairs.
Pushing open the door to the roof, they’re washed in the electric blue of city dawn, the eastern sky already light enough to drown the stars. They arrange the children on deck chairs, cover them, and move to lean against the parapet.
The Pru and Hancock blotch the sky above them, light paling a surprising number of windows. The scattered rows, columns and dots hint at patterns, hieroglyphics, computer punch cards. Is there a hidden message?, Nick thinks. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die? More likely it’s meaningless 0’s and 1’s. Random error detected. System shutting down. Reboot, reboot.
Behind them the Citgo sign glows, the neon long since replaced by LEDs. There is a scattering of lights inside the surrounding apartments and condos, but most windows are black. Farther south columns of smoke rise unhurriedly as though from a campfire. Another spiral of smoke shows above Cambridge, this one oily and black, the ugly oozing of a burning oil well. They taste a faint acridness at the back of their throats. Aside from this, the air is remarkably clear. With no vehicles moving, the earlier haze of exhaust, overtaxed engine oil and rubber is gone, blown out to sea.
The rumble of a diesel engine floats from the corner and a Humvee grinds past. There is no other sign of life, no sirens, no yelling, no car horns. Looking straight down, they see only abandoned vehicles, empty water bottles dancing in the breeze, a suitcase left open and the remaining clothes half blown up against the iron fence behind it, a pair of jeans caught on the point of the fence trying futilely to rise into the wind.
Everyone’s gone who could get out. Who remains?, they wonder. How many people comprise our community now?
They are startled by a low cough. They turn toward the sound but everything is caught in shadows. “Hello?,” Sarah calls.
“Hello, neighbors. It’s Mrs. Cuthbert from 5C.”
“You startled us,” Sarah laughs in relief. “We didn’t know anyone else was up here.”
“We figured everyone had left,” Nick adds.
“There may be one other on the second floor. I was wandering through the building earlier and thought I heard movement in 2B. Heard you folks, too.” Oh boy, they think, what drunken idiocy did she hear? “Could you not leave?”
“We could have left but … well it didn’t really seem worth it, you know? Chaos and gridlock everywhere and we kept asking ourselves, ‘How will we live?’ I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but we figured if a bomb goes off here, it’ll all be over quickly and if it doesn’t, we’re better off closer to home.” Sarah cuts herself off abruptly. Why did I say all that? She feels irresponsible. I’m a bad parent. We should have left. She’s glad she can’t see Mrs. Cuthbert’s face closely. She can imagine the judgmental look she’s seen several times when the older lady has observed the children, a pursing of the lips and subtle elevation of the nose. “Children these days,” that look said.
She’s surprised instead by the response: “Makes sense to me. With what the world’s come to, I don’t know as I care to remain in it anyway. But I’m an old lady. My perspective may be is distorted. Either way, how can one say there’s a right or a wrong decision one can make in this … unprecedented … unheard of … ” She’s struggling to retrieve the right word, then gives up.
“I think ‘mess’ covers it,” Sarah says.
“Indeed.”
“Is that why you decided to stay?,” Nick asks.
“I wish I’d thought it through to that extent. That me being here is the result of a rationally thought out decision. No, I filled in the blanks with that philosophy when I realized I couldn’t get out of town short of walking. I can’t reach my son, I don’t have a car, and by the time I thought to ask one of the neighbors for a ride, everyone had already left. Then I started to think things through and decided that this is where I’ve lived for 52 years and this is where I’m going to stay, stubborn old biddy that I am. Not that I’m capable of walking far on these legs.” She pauses a moment before continuing. “I do hope that we’ve seen all we’re going to see from these terrorists, that perhaps they’ve accomplished what they set out to do and will leave Boston alone. And I find myself thinking terrible thoughts. ‘Let it be Los Angeles.’ ‘Let it be Dallas.’ ‘Let it be anywhere but here or Seattle where my daughter lives.’ Then I ask the Lord to forgive me for being so uncharitable and selfish. And I pray that those people who have been afflicted already may find peace, and those who are left don’t suffer.”
Neither feels the discomfort they would normally experience from talk of praying and faith and God. Nick realizes he’s been praying all along, perhaps not to God as this old woman would recognize Him, but to the forces and powers and unknown entities spread across the universe, asking them to make this end, one way or another.
“Listen, dear, would you mind helping me to my feet? I’m afraid I can’t stand up that well when it’s cool and damp. I’d like a better view, to see the sunrise. This may be the final time, after all.” Nick offers an arm and feels her dry skin against his as she rocks herself to her feet. “Thank you. It’s Nicholas, correct?”
“Yes. That’s right.” She holds his arm and they move back to the edge of the roof facing the orange glow now spreading and climbing in the eastern sky, beginning to cede to purples and reds reflecting off low clouds against the horizon.
A slender yellow sparks from the center and races left and right along the edge of the world.

“Look: the sun.” And they all turn and shade their eyes as the brightness cuts low into their faces.

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