Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Short Story: Decisions Decisions

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

“Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ. Another one. They set off another one. Fuck. First New Mexico. Now Florida. All those people. Oh my god. Everyone said they were bluffing. You said they were bluffing. But you were all wrong. Now we’re totally fucked.” Sarah is almost hyperventilating.

But Nick can’t respond. He can’t even hear. He rocks on his feet like an inflatable clown, dangerously close to tipping over. His hands are grinding against his skull as if he thinks he can squeezes the images out of his memory like toothpaste from a tube. But they’re inescapable, jittering across the TV screen as CNN tries to gain control over itself in the face of the second explosion, which, among greater calamities, vaporized a reporter and camera crew in the middle of a live shot.

“Nick, are you listening to me? We’ve got a situation to deal with. Here and now. For God’s sake, we’ve got kids in there.” And saying that, she faces the bedrooms, each door individualized as only a six- and nine-year-old could do, and her hand goes to her face.

He still doesn’t react and finally she wrenches one of his arms away from his head. He spins, unfocused, until he sees her glaring at him, then shakes his head and rubs his eyes. “Sorry. What did you say?”

“I’m saying we need to make a decision. These guys aren’t fucking around. They mean it. There could be a bomb down the street.”

“This is what you’re asking me? After that?” He gestures at the TV. “After the end of the fucking world?”

“It’s not the end of the world. Just some desert in New Mexico, and a big chunk of South Florida.” She stops abruptly as he flinches. “Jesus, your Mom. Nick, I’m sorry. I forgot she’s down there already. She’s in North Florida. I’m sure she’s okay.” They’ve taken the cellphone networks and the internet down 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 waves his hand dismissively. “You didn’t mean it. Neither of us knows what to say right now. Fuck. Just imagine the conversations going on right now.” He, too, glances toward the kids’ bedrooms, then walks over to look carefully in on Chloe, then Jasper. He turns back to Sarah. “They’re both still asleep. I can’t believe they can sleep through this.” The New Mexico explosion had triggered a first frantic wave of departures, hundreds of thousand now stuck in gridlock extending north to Canada, the city a cacophony of car horns, sirens and shouting. The sounds had started to fade as people either made it out, or abandoned their cars and either returned home or started to walk. Now they can hear the panic rapidly amplifying as a new group of refugees joins the pack. Even with all the windows closed on the fifth floor, they have to raise their voices to hear one another.

“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 as he assumed the pose, the switch flips. Now he’s borderline enraged: “No shit. No fucking shit. But this is completely bizarre. Surreal. I can’t believe we’re discussing this. Having to make a decision like this.” His arms sweep up and out like a man about to BASE jump. “Twelve hours ago, the toughest decision 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 New Mexico and Florida are wastelands, and a nuclear 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. He recognizes the look on Sarah’s face, defiance on the edge of fragility and crumbling.

“Sorry … just … sorry.” He wraps his arms around her and feels her dissolve into him, their knees collapsing, their bones aligned and fused. She quakes, but any sound is swallowed by the panic outside. Over her shoulder, he sees a replay of the video of the terrorists announcing their plan. They didn’t just post in on YouTube: they promoted it on Twitter and Facebook, like a new product or a goddamn app. Masked men with Kalashnikovs surround a strangely peaceful and scholarly man with thin, gold, wireframe glasses above a thick beard, so dark it looks dyed. He has a kaffiyeh wrapped around his head, one end loosely draped across his shoulder. He speaks in accented but clear English: “We have harnessed the fire of Allah and will rain it upon the infidels who defile our lands, torture our peoples and desecrate our Muslim faith. There are devices our Jihadist brothers have smuggled into certain U.S. cities. Now we have the power and we will destroy your cities one by one unless the government of the United States meets our demands.”

“They’re playing the video again.”

Sarah unhooks herself from Nick and turns around. “It seems like ages ago that we first saw it.”

“I wonder how many hits it’s got.” He shakes his head. “I was so sure it was a bluff. So certain. I mean where did these guys get all the uranium they need to make a bomb? To make at least two bombs?”

“Don’t beat yourself up. I know you like to be Mr. Logical Analytical Man, but please: no one saw this coming. The President, the National Security Council, the CIA, the FBI, the M-O-U-S-E. They all came out and said it was nothing to worry about.”

Nick wants to agree but keeps hearing his own voice talking to Sarah when the video first became news: “Everything will be alright. Trust me.”

“Well, that all blown to hell along with everything else.”

“I still don’t get why they chose New Mexico to start. I mean why not hit some place with more people? I never even knew there was a place called Truth or Consequences. What the hell is that all about?”

“I know,” Nick replies. “It’s a goddamn Trivial Pursuit answer. Maybe it’s got some deeper meaning in Arabic.” He closes his eyes and violently rubs his face. His mind can’t take it. Images, facts, voices, scenarios pile up in his head until it jags, shudders and freezes like streaming video from an overtaxed broadband network.

“I’ll bring it 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. “It’s got to be north. The prevailing wind is always from the west with the rotation of the earth and all that, so if something else goes off, we’ll be safe as long as we get north of it.”

“I suppose. But where are we going to stay? Everyone’s heading out and we’re behind the curve now.”

“I have no idea. This is a refugee scenario now. We’ve just gotta get outta here and hope the Canadians can take us in. Wait, we still have a tent, right? All that old camping equipment? Down in our storage locker somewhere? We didn’t get rid of it?”

“No. It’s still there. So we can throw the tent and the sleeping bags into the car. Maybe some blankets and pillows for the kids. So we’ll at least 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 coincidence but I filled it up yesterday when I ran out to get groceries. If we drive carefully, we could get maybe 500 miles before we need more gas and by then we could be in Canada.”

“If we can get through the traffic. The last TV report I saw said that people were running out of gas, abandoning their cars and proceeding on foot. Did you see that helicopter shot somewhere up in Maine? People trying to shove cars out of the way, snaking through the mess at like five miles an hour, hundreds of people walking along the shoulder in the middle of nowhere, no food, no water, the gas stations all closed or out of gas. And even if they get to Canada, are they going to get in?”

“I’m sure the Canadians will let us in. How can they not? This is an unprecedented situation. I wish they hadn’t shut down the internet. I miss my traffic app.”

“What difference would it make? It’s gonna be a solid red line. Or something beyond a solid red line. Black with skull and crossbones.”

“Everyone’s panicking. That’s to be expected. Maybe we can follow backroads and at least put some distance between us and any bomb in Boston. But then I keep thinking, ‘How are we going to live once we get there? And what happens if they bomb Canada?’” He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair so rapidly that it looks to her like a gesture from a Three Stooges movie. She’d find it funny under any other circumstances but now it sickens her. He looks like an ape and she suddenly wants to tear his head off. Why isn’t he coming up with a plan? Why is he so indecisive? It’s not like him. Then just as quickly, she catches herself: how can anyone know what to do right now?

Nick takes several deep breaths, tongue pressed against his lower lip. Then holds his hand out in front of him, palms down. “Ok. Let’s be reasonable here. Let’s rationally analyze this.” This is more like it, she thinks. “They haven’t said there’s a bomb in Boston. They haven’t listed any cities at all. They just said that 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 second bomb in Florida, although I think I heard the news speculating that the Florida bomb was set off by a terrorist when the police closed in 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. Maybe worse than the loss of life when you think about it, all the lives impacted, the jobs lost, all that.”

“So you’re saying maybe they’ve blown their load already?”

“Exactly. If we join the panic, we’re giving them exactly what they want. We leave and they win. It’s that simple.” He sits back with the smug look on his face that she either finds tremendously attractive or obnoxious, depending on whether or not she agrees with him.

“So you’re suggesting we just stay here?”

He nods, pursing his lips, arms crossed on his chest. He looks as though he were deciding on what wine to order with dinner, rather than making a life or death decision. “I think so. I think that makes most sense.”

“It’s taking a huge risk, isn’t it? What if they do have a bomb in Boston and set it off? We’ll die a horrible death. Our children will die a horrible death.”

“I know, but what’s worse? Die instantly or live like animals somewhere?”

“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 just going to fall apart.”

“We don’t know that. Look,” and he points at the TV in the background, “they’re already reporting riots in every major city and most small ones. People are desperate. They’re smashing into stores to get food and supplies, they’re trying to get gas from stations that are closed. There’s already been one explosion at a gas station in Tennessee. Gunshots everywhere. Listen.” He turns off the TV and opens a window allowing the sounds to swell in the room. It’s all car horns, sirens, trudging feet and low voices, but then they both hear several staccato cracks that could only be gunshots. A distinct scent of wood smoke slips in amongst the smell of car exhaust.

He turns back to face 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. I feel like we’re hanging by a thread here.”

“Jesus, Nick. Take a breath. Take several 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 some 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 it 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 wandering through a desolate landscape trying to survive. Cannibals. Inbreds.”

“I don’t like McCarthy. Too dark for my tastes.”

“Too dark for your tastes? 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 defensively. “And the good guys win in the end. McCarthy’s stuff is too ambiguous, too nihilistic for me.”

“\Well, we’re not going to solve the great literature debate now.”

“No, but you reminded me of something earlier.”

“What?”

“You said you feel like we’re hanging by a thread. I remember seeing this movie 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. He and Gorbachev tried to reach agreements. Scientists had the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than it had ever been. I was in high school and we were really worried there was going to be a war. People were building fallout shelters like it was the ‘50s or something. There was a TV movie called The Day After, but it was pretty Hollywood. Then we somehow found this British movie called Threads. I don’t remember much about it except for the end. They went way out into the future, like 20 or 30 years later, and by that time, people were reduced to living in a pre-feudal state, the population’s down by like 95%, women are kept like slaves, the few babies born are all twisted and deformed. It was awful. Stomach churning.”

They’re both silent for a moment, images coursing through their minds, tension and car smells permeating the room.

“I guess that’s what I’m trying to explain,” Nick finally says. “If we stay here, we’ve got our own place. We’ve got walls and a roof. We’ve got food for at least a few days, maybe a couple of weeks. If no more bombs go off, or at least if one doesn’t go off around here, we’ll sure look smart staying in place and not gallivanting around the countryside trying to find shelter and food. And when the crisis ends, things will get back to normal.”

“And if a bomb goes off here?”

“Then hopefully it’s quick and we don’t suffer.”

“My mind can’t even 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, although how I don’t know. I guess 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 posted ads for them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of all of them. It’s how I was raised. You’re supposed to be prepared to defend yourself, so I kept one handgun, and then a shotgun in case I ever get a chance to go bird hunting with Mark again.” 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 then laid down an ultimatum: the guns go before the baby comes.

“They’re locked away in a safe in the basement storage area. They’re never been accessible to anyone, especially the kids.”

“You lied to me.”

“Technically no. You told me you didn’t want the guns around the kids. So the guns aren’t around the kids. I never actually said I got rid of them. I just said they’re gone from the house.”

“Don’t lawyer me on this. You’re just digging a deeper hole.”

“I just thought it was 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 ex-hippies who took too much acid and floated around in the stratosphere half the time, and 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 telling the truth.”

“Okay, okay. You’re right. I shouldn’t have lied. But the guns truly are locked away. No one but me can get them. It’s a safe that only works with my thumbprint.”

“That’s fine until someone cuts off your thumb.”

He almost grins at that. “I suppose it could happen if things get too crazy. But the main point here is that we have a means of defending ourselves if someone tries to break in. I always agreed with you that the odds of someone robbing us in Back Bay was pretty minimal, but all bets are off now. Anyone could be a target.”

She’s still glaring at him, arms clenched hard across her chest. “Well then what the hell are you waiting for? Go get the damn things. But I don’t want the kids to see them or know they’re here. So you’ve got to hide them somewhere, somewhere they won’t get to.”

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 supposed to be a T-rex, his current favorite, but it looks comical: big smile, lopsided teeth, and a stomach that looks like the creature had spent its days drinking pitchers of beer. She carefully opens the door and a bar of light falls over her sleeping son, mouth agape and arms akimbo. She watches him for a few moments, then moves to the open window and sits on the sill. This is what panic smells like, she thinks. Car exhaust, smoke, burning oil, rubber, a suggestion of b.o. and something dark and loamy underneath it all. She sees just one car, a rusted Accord moving through the abandoned and parked vehicles slowly and deliberately as if it were a grandmother on a Sunday drive. Several people are walking with backpacks or suitcases but there are nowhere near the teeming masses of a couple of hours ago.

The door opens and closes and Nick walks in. She realizes she somehow expected him to have the guns out, a rifle strapped across his chest and the handgun shoved in his pants, like a movie hero. Instead, a narrow duffle like something a tennis player would carry hangs over one shoulder, and he holds what looks like an old-fashioned cash box. He disappears without a word into their bedroom and she hears rustling and the sound of drawers opening and closing. He comes out 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 satisfied. “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.” He doesn’t notice or chooses to ignore the sarcasm.

“So 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 or die in our home. We’ll not live in a camp somewhere, struggling for food and water like animals in some post-apocalyptic hell.”

“That was pretty dramatic. You sound like an actor in a disaster movie.” She turns to a cupboard. “If we’re staying, then I’m going to drink.” She pulls out a bottle of wine. “Of course the question is, ‘What’s the appropriate wine to serve with pending nuclear catastrophe?’”

For the first time in hours, he laughs. It’s initially a snort of relief, the opening of a pressure valve, but the first snort is followed by a second that he tries to suppress, which only makes it worse. Then he’s doubled over, holding his stomach, tears and snot bubbling out. Just when he’s got it under control and stands up again, Sarah sets him off again, posing 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 with 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 somehow, but they’re sitting on hours of unrelieved tension.

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. Perhaps a cocktail, something subtle that sneaks up on you.”

“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 may be totally fucked.”

“Or maybe this requires something more classic, like a nice single malt with earthy characteristics.”

“Or 151 rum. Just 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 that date rape drug Bill Cosby used.” He’s gone too far. She’s flinched at that one, remembering a college incident that’s never left her. Just as the silence reaches awkward, she says, “Well, I guess unconsciousness would be good under the circumstances.” She turns and opens the wine, then carries the bottle and a glass to the living room, setting the goblet down and filling it to the rim. As he sits next to her, she hunches forward and takes a huge swig of the wine, wiping her hand over her lips to catch some dribbles. Her hand trembles as she sets the glass back down, and she almost knocks it over. He puts his hand on her neck as she settles back. She takes another slug of wine, then looks at him sideways. “Sorry, I didn’t bring you a glass.”

She starts to stand but he stops her. “I’ll use yours.”

“Or you could just drink from the bottle. This isn’t going to be our last one.” And with that, she finishes her first glass like she were gulping water after a long, hot run.

He wonders if getting blotto is the best approach. Maybe they’ll change their minds about leaving. Maybe the kids will wake up. Maybe they’ll discover the terrorists have planted the bomb in their building and they’ll need to swing into action like Jack Bauer. He imagines himself wrestling with some fanatic, clamping his hands around the terrorist’s to keep him from releasing the trigger. He sees himself thrown around but retaining his desperate 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, pushing over his belt. 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 their wedding. He was saving it for their 10th anniversary when he would meet up with the boys and they would down it together. 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, inspects it by the kitchen light, says “Cheers, boys!” and takes the first smoky sip.

As they drink, they fall into silence, mesmerized by the TV. The coverage seems more organized now, the reporters’ and anchors’ professionalism and ambition overriding their personal reactions and emotions, but it remains a catalog of calamity: cities emptying out, people trapped in cars with no gas, food or water, disorder and violence among those left behind unable to leave, windows smashed, looting – not the opportunistic, flat-screen TV in a shopping cart looting of the past, but a focus on pure survival: water, food, fuel. Someone is killed over a pallet of bottled water. There’s footage of three women fighting over a box of Doritos.

FoxNews plays an amateur video that captured the Florida bomb. A woman recording her husband and two kids goofing in the surf on Daytona Beach. A flash that overwhelms the cellphone camera, a corona that instantly turns everyone and everything into cold white haze. There’s a babble of Oh my God’s and Jesus Christ’s as the electronics rejigger the exposure and the beach slowly returns to view, everyone now frozen in place, shading their eyes as the column of purple smoke rises to the south.

Then a report from the first news crew to reach the edge of the blast zone in south Florida. Cars limping out covered with fine grit, windshields cracked. People with hollow, desperate faces unloading victims from backseats and truck beds. When the camera catches a woman carrying a dead child, skin hanging like winding sheets from its back and sides, the shot abruptly switches back to the newsroom. As the anchor starts to apologize 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.

She sees him trembling and realizes he’s been holding that in for hours. “Fuck ‘em,” she suggests. “Not just these Muslim radicals but all the fundamentalists who think they have 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 a few inches apart, close enough that Sarah catches a trace of Nick’s saliva when he says even more emphatically, “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 it’s like they’re stoned, giggling uncontrollably. Nick collapses against Sarah, burying his face in her shoulder while they both shake. “Shhh, the kids,” Sarah mutters, but that just makes them laugh harder. Nick stands up, grasping his stomach and move to hold onto a doorframe while he continues to quiver.

Then, “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, but Chloe looks very dubious. She’s certainly seen them laugh but not like this. There’s something desperate and frightening about it. The look on her face finally gives Nick the self-control to stop laughing. “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 bouncing off her shoulder as she holds it by the ear. “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 just a strange night, honey, nothing to worry about it.” She’s slurring words.

Chloe looks increasingly suspicious but lets 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 of their minds,” as he pushes her door open with his foot.



**********

He wakes on the couch, disoriented in the dark, a low headache pulsing in the front of his skull. His leg is wet and he realizes its Scotch. That’s $25 of Scotch in my jeans and the couch, he thinks. He picks the glass up carefully, trying to avoid disturbing Sarah, who’s curled on her side with her head on his left leg and her arm around Jasper, who spoons against her snoring gently. The boy must have woken while he was passed out.

But 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 remains with her head on his leg facing the coffee table so he can’t see her expression, not that he could see much in the darkened room.

He places his hand gently on her head and strokes her hair. He almost goes the innocent route – “Will what hurt?” – but they’ve always promised brutal honesty. He can’t pretend he doesn’t know what she means. A jumble of images pours from his memory: the gutted dome in Hiroshima. A roiling blast wave taking houses apart like cardboard craft projects. Desolate eyes from someone 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 from the napalm attack. Although nothing to do with an atomic bomb, this seems the most appropriate image. Panic and terror combined with embarrassment and lack of dignity.

“I don’t know,” he finally says. “If it’s close by, then 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 close enough to kill us instantly. I don’t want to linger. I don’t want you or the kids to suffer. I can’t stand thinking of watching them die. Seeing their skin burnt, their hair falling out…” and she has to stop as sobs wrack her body.

“Shhh… Don’t go there. It’s not going to do any good. 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 the bombs west of the East Coast so that more areas get hit by the fallout.”

“Why Florida then? Stuck way out into the water like a thumb.”

“Target of opportunity? I don’t know. Jesus, I’m not a fucking national security expert. I’m a fucking IP attorney. And I can’t believe I’m using words like ‘target of opportunity.’ When did these become part of our everyday vocabulary? Radicalized. Soft target. Collateral damage. Terrorist threat level.”

“If it happens, it happens, I guess. And we’ve got the guns.” She doesn’t finish the thought.

“It’s not going to come to that.”

“How do you know?”

“I mean we don’t need to use a gun. I’ve still got a bunch of Percocet from when I tore the ligaments in my ankle, and you’ve got a bunch of Ambien. I’m sure we could make a nice drug cocktail from that and wash it down with some booze.”

“You’ve thought about this a lot, 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 some inchoate grey dream so she feels discombobulated. As she tries to find her bearings, she hears a sharp crack outside the window. It could be a gunshot or a firecracker, she’s not certain. Jasper is still spooned against her asleep, all hot breath and kid sweat. Where’s Nick? She lifts her head and sees light from under the kitchen door. She carefully disentangles herself from her boy and stands unsteadily, unsure if she’s still drunk or hung-over.

In the kitchen she finds Nick standing over the butcher block. He’s got a gun disassembled and he’s cleaning it, holding the barrel with one hand while he slides a tool in and out of it. Amidst the pieces of gun and cleaning kit is a bowl of Fruit Loops and a glass of Scotch. Breakfast of champions, she thinks. He looks at her and smiles grimly but doesn’t speak.

“What time is it?,” she asks.

“Quarter to five.”

“How long have you been up?”

“Maybe half an hour. Something woke me outside and I couldn’t fall back to sleep.”

“’Something’?”

He weighs his answer. “If you really want to know, I’m pretty sure I heard gunshots and someone screaming.”

“Right here?”

“No but close enough.”

She nods and leans against the butcher block opposite him. “So this is how you clean a gun.”

“Yep.” She watches silently for a few moments then turns toward the counter. “I guess I’ll make some coffee. No use trying to sleep now.” She begins to open cupboards, forgetting how their kitchen is organized. Where is that damn coffee?

“What are we going to do today?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean just 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 even 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 bombs have gone off. But they haven’t caught anyone nor have they found any bombs. At least not that they’re saying publicly. I’m guessing that if they did find one, they wouldn’t want to announce it 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 not stopping people at all, just letting ‘em stream over the border. People are setting up camp in parking lots. From the air it looks like a big music festival, Woodstock for the 21st century. Can’t imagine what it’s like on the ground.”

“The waiting is killing me.”

“I hear you.” He looks up from his task. “I wonder if this is what people feel like when they’re about to be executed. I just can’t even begin to grasp the horror of that. Knowing that your life is going to end. Especially if it’s a place 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 that they know what’s coming. We don’t have a fucking clue. We could disappear in the middle this sentence, or still be around in 50 years. We just don’t know.”

The kitchen lights flicker and Sarah feels prickly sweat on her skin. “Just ignore that,” Nick says. “It’s happened two or three times since I woke. Doesn’t really make sense since you’d figure with everyone having fled, there’d be a lot less power being used than normal, but then who the hell’s left to actually run things.” He sees some poor bastard all alone in front of an enormous console, buttons and levers and switches, massive video screens with bright lines angling across a map, connecting like neurons, 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 starting my hangover. I keep thinking of the word ‘disconnected.’ Like all my component parts aren’t communicating. My stomach is this growly churning thing here. My legs are these trembly weak things at the bottom. My head is kind of floating on top of it, like those pedestrian crossing signs on the street, you know where the figure’s head is floating above its body because there’s no neck. It’s this orb full of gauzy clouds but then it’s like electricity is sparking at the edges, trying to reconnect a circuit. I get a spark now and then, like a smoke detector or an old alarm clock. 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’m not sure. The government catching the terrorists and ending this siege. 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 after 9/11, too, but then next thing you knew we were stressing about jobs and mortgages and orthodontist’s bills, and going on vacation, and buying shit we don’t need.”

“9/11 killed a few 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 now? People will demand it. And then where will we be?”

“Then maybe that will be the new normal.”

“So then there is no cure. I’m going to feel like this forever.”

He ponders that. “The only cure is the passage of time without annihilation. We’ve been poisoned and each new rising of the sun is the antidote. It gives us another day.” He watches her closely and it’s looking at someone’s 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 just as Nick snaps the pieces of the gun back together. When he comes back out to the kitchen after storing it away, Sarah hands him a cup and then moves through the kitchen door. “I’m going up to the roof deck.”

“Why?”

She turns to face him: “I need to take the 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 if you can grab Chloe. Bring a blanket. It’ll be cool up there.”

Chloe groans slightly and mutters as Nick lifts her, but she doesn’t wake and her left arm flops out awkwardly and bobs as he follows Sarah into the hallway and up the stairs.

Pushing open the door onto the roof, they are bathed in the electric blue of city dawn. The western sky is lightly dappled with the few stars bright enough to cut through the light pollution, but there are no stars to be seen as the gradient lightens toward the east. They arrange the children on deck chairs, cover them with the blankets, and then 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 or computer punch cards. Is there some hidden message contained therein?, Nick thinks. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die? More likely it’s just meaningless 0’s and 1’s. Random error detected. System shutting down. Reboot, reboot.

Behind them the Citgo sign still glows, the neon long since replaced by LEDs. There are few other lights, just a flash here and there from the surrounding apartments and condos. Farther south a couple of columns of smoke rise casually as though from a campfire and not from the destruction of someone’s livelihood. Another spiral of smoke shows across the river toward Cambridge, but this is oily and black, an ugly oozing like an oilwell fire. They smell it now, a faint acridness at the back of their throats, but aside from this, the air seems remarkably clear. With almost 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 the intersection. Other than that, there is no movement, no sign of life at all. No sirens, no yelling, no car horns. Looking straight down, they see only abandoned vehicles, empty water bottles dancing against 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 like a flag.

Everyone’s left who could leave. Who remains?, they wonder. How many people comprise our city now?

They are startled by a low cough. They turn toward the sound but have trouble seeing. 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 but us had left,” Nick adds.

“There may be one other on the second floor. I was wandering through the building earlier and thought I heard some 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 then we want to be close to home.” Saying this out loud to a stranger makes her feel vaguely irresponsible. I’m a bad parent. We should have left. She’s glad she can’t see Mrs. Cuthbert’s face closely, but she can imagine the judgmental look: she’s seen it 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.

So her response comes as a surprise: “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 so my perspective may be skewed. Either way, how can one say there’s a right or wrong decision to be made in this … unprecedented … unheard of … ” She’s struggling for the right word, but gives up.

“I think ‘mess’ covers it,” Sarah chimes in.

“Indeed,” Mrs. Cuthbert agrees.

“Is that why you decided to stay?,” Nick asks.

“I wish I could claim I 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 shortly after 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, almost 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 could walk that far anyway on these legs.” She pauses a moment, then continues: “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. Then 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 even realizes that 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 like this. I’d like to get a better view, see the sunrise. It may be the final time, after all.” Nick offers an arm and feels her dry hand against his skin as she rocks herself to her feet. “Thank you. It’s Nicholas, correct?”

“Yes. That’s right.” She holds his arm as they move back to the edge of the roof facing the orange glow now spreading in the eastern sky. It expands and begins to climb, purples and reds reflecting off low clouds against the horizon, and a thin yellow line radiating 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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