Countdown by Steve Carr
Countdown by Steve Carr
I can’t stop Debra from crying. She just left another frantic message on our son Jason’s cellphone. He’s seventeen.
I think I might have broken my thumb, stupidly smashing it with a hammer while trying to nail a piece of plywood over the living room’s plate glass window. My entire thumb on my right hand is blue and swollen, especially around the knuckle, and I’m unable to bend it. As I walk through the house I try to avoid looking at the family photographs on the walls. Everything but the lamps, television and refrigerator has been unplugged, including the desktop computers. Most of the email and social networking sites were inundated and crashed already anyway and the news sites were running the same stories over and over. On the second floor the bedroom doors have been tightly closed and duct taped all around. In the hallway on the first floor, cases of bottled water, medical supplies and food are stacked and line the walls. The mattresses, bedding and clothes are on the floor.
Jake Ogleby, our elderly neighbor is sitting in his wheelchair in front of the television constantly switching from channel to channel. His face is even more ashen than usual and he has had the same unfinished cup of tea in his hands for the past two hours. On his lap is his family photo album. His dog, Boomer, an Irish Setter service animal, is lying by the wheelchair, occasionally whining to be taken out.
It is a little before 8 PM and when my cellphone rings, I’m hopeful it’s Jason, but it’s my sister Janice who lives in Pittsburgh.
“We couldn’t evacuate,” I tell her. “The highways and roads going out of the city are jammed and we don’t know where Jason is. He was supposed to be home yesterday from that school field trip to D.C. The school kept reassuring us he would be home, and today their line was busy all day and we can’t reach Jason. We left a message on his cellphone but he hasn’t called back yet. We couldn’t leave now even if we wanted to.”
She’s with her husband and two kids at a campground in a rural area sixty miles west of Pittsburgh. “It’s overcrowded and probably not far enough away from the city. Fights have been breaking out,” she tells me, pauses, and then says, “Pittsburgh is certain to be hit.”
“So are we,” I tell her. “We keep hoping the world will regain its sanity. Debra is beside herself with worry about Jason and her parents.”
The connection suddenly goes dead.
With Boomer on his leash, I walk along the well manicured lawns on the street where we live beneath a clear summer night sky. No vehicles have come or gone on the street. I know the Masons, Fords and Jacksons left the city and their homes are dark and driveways empty. At the corner, Dan McClosky is sitting on the steps to his front porch. He’s obese, and in the glow of the dim porch light he is a hulk-like shadow. The hot red tip of his cigarette burns brightly.
“Nice night, huh,” he says in a tone that makes it hard to know if it’s meant as a question or a statement.
“I thought you were leaving,” I say.
“I was going to,” he says, “but nowhere to go really. This will all blow over anyway.”
“You think so?” I ask, hungry for reassurance that the madness won’t last.
“Sure,” he says, standing and flicking the cigarette into the grass. “If you’re sticking around you and Debra should stop by tomorrow.”
“We’re waiting on Jason to get back from DC,” I say. “But we’ll look in on you.”
“DC?” he says ominously. “Everything is at a standstill that is trying to get out of there.” As if suddenly realizing what he has said, or seeing the distraught look on my face, he adds, “But things must be moving at this point.” He opens his front door and over his shoulder says, “Good night. Stop worrying.”
As he goes in I look up and see jets streaking eastward, leaving contrails like scratch marks across the sky.
Debra carefully places the last of the china and crystal in a box and seals the top with a strip
of tape. She places the box in the kitchen closet on top of the other boxes and shuts the door, and then leans against the door and looks around the kitchen. Every shelf and cupboard has been emptied and a piece of plywood is nailed over the window above the sink. Only the empty plastic jugs to be filled with water are still sitting out on top of the island.
“Is there anything I can do?” Jake asks wheeling into the kitchen.
“No, thank you Jake,” she says. “Anything that is breakable and could cause injury has been put away.” She runs her hands through her hair. “This all seems so useless.”
“I wish I could say it is,” he says.
“No one is going to be insane enough to start this thing are they?” she asks.
He hesitates, and then says “According to the news, India and Pakistan have already begun. The U.S. Military is on stage 2 worldwide alert.”
Debra slides down the door, squatting, her hands covering her face. “When did it become it was rational thinking to drop nuclear bombs on each other?”
“There’s nothing rational about it,” Jake says. He wheels over and gently places his hand on the top of Debra’s head.
Police car, ambulance, and fire engine sirens blare in the night.
I come into the house and am immediately struck how altered it has become, as if it had never been arranged and decorated to be as pleasing and comfortable as it was. The pictures on the walls are yet to be taken down, another step toward reducing the number of objects that could cause injury if sent flying. There is an absurdity to this precaution that I don’t say out loud to Debra.
I hear her and Jake in the kitchen and avoid going in. I let Boomer off of his leash and he runs into the kitchen. Jake has muted the sound on the television for some reason and I sit staring at the numerous talking heads, watching their lips moving, noticing the fear in their expressions. One of them is pointing to a world map. Circles have been drawn around several cities: Mumbai, New Delhi, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Tehran, Mashad, Damascus and several islands in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. You can see the news people trying to make sense of what is happening or why.
When there is a knock on the door it takes me a minute to recognize it as a real sound and not something I’m imagining. I jump from the chair, thinking it might be Jason who has lost his key, and fling the door open. It’s two police officers. One is holding up the other who is bleeding profusely from a wound in his forehead.
“I saw you going into your house,” the uninjured officer said. “Can we come in? My partner needs help and the routes to the hospital are jammed.”
“Certainly,” I say, standing back and letting them in and then closing the door.
As the wounded officer is helped by his partner to sit in my chair, I rush into the kitchen and get a towel and run it under water, catching the worried looks on Debra and Jake’s faces, then go back into the living room.
“What happened?” Debra asks coming out of kitchen, followed by Jake.
“A mob tried to drag us out of our car,” the uninjured cop says. “My partner was hit with a brick.”
Jason looks out the window from the back seat of the bus. For as far back as he can see I-295 is jammed with vehicles at a standstill. Getting out of the capitol was a nightmare. Every student on the crowded bus is glued to their cell phone talking to family members. He had left his in the hotel room in the rush of getting out of the hotel. He doesn’t want to borrow a friend’s cellphone and call his parents, afraid that his situation would only worry them.
“What a mess,” Nick says, turning in the seat and looking out the same window.
“How are your parents?” Jason asks.
Nick rests his forehead on the window. “They’re freaking out. They wanted to know if I knew what to do if a bomb is dropped on D.C.”
“What did you say?”
“Cancel plans for the senior trip to Bermuda,” he says.
Jason laughs involuntarily. “Man, we can’t get caught on this bus if the shit goes down.”
“It’s already down,” Nick says.
Jason presses his nose against the window and watches the woman in the car behind the bus. She is behind the wheel and rocking a baby in her arms.
In my den I look at the rows of books on the shelves, running my hand over some of the titles: Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Louvre, Monet, John Singer Sargent, The Hudson School. Teaching art history at a university has been a major part of my life for nearly twenty years. I worry about the safety of all the works of art in the museums around the world almost as much as I worry about Jason. If the worse happens, the cities with the major works and collections are certain to be targets: Paris, New York, London, St. Petersburg, Rome, Washington, D.C. The idea of the works of the impressionists being reduced to ashes makes my stomach hurt. I sit down, trying to turn my thoughts to something else and look at the lists of students in my classes spread across my desk. Did they make it home I wonder? I bend over and throw up in the waste basket.
The door opens and Debra comes in. Her face is pale. “The police officer is unconscious,” she says. “We can’t wake him up.”
I wipe the vomit from my lips with a tissue. “Isn’t Janet McClosky a nurse?”
“Yes, she is,” Debra says, “but she’s a geriatric nurse.”
I toss the tissue in the waste basket and stand up. “She would still know more about what to do than we do. I saw Dan sitting on his porch a couple hours ago. I’ll go see if Janet can come look at the officer. What’s his name?”
As I begin to leave the room Debra grabs my arm. “Why hasn’t Jason called?”
“I have no idea,” I say. “But I’m sure he’s out of D.C.”
Her fingernails dig into my arm as she squeezes. “How do you know?” she asks, on the verge of hysteria.
I wrap my arms around her and hold her close.
Going to Dan’s house, the Mason’s elderly cat Sweety runs up to me and rubs its body against my legs and meows. I pick it up and rub its head and listen to its purring. It was always an indoor cat. I can’t imagine why they left it behind but I have the image of Patti Mason putting it outside just before they evacuated in hopes it would somehow have a better chance of surviving outdoors. There is a heart shaped identification tag that hangs from its collar. I place Sweety back on the ground and as I walk toward Dan and Janet’s, it follows me.
The beam of a search light slices through the night sky above the houses blocks away. I remember seeing one in the lot of a car dealership used to draw attention during special promotions. On this street it’s eerily quiet but I know from what Dick the policeman said, a few blocks away it’s pandemonium. Dick and Tim’s police car is parked beside a fire hydrant in front of the McClosky’s house.
As I go up the steps Sweety stops at the bottom and sits and licks its paws. I knock on the door and wait for several minutes and then knock harder. When the door opens, the chain is still in place. The barrel of a shotgun sticks out.
“Who is it?” Dan asks gruffly.
“I come in peace,” I say with a chuckle. I hear Dan unhooking the chain. When the door opens Dan keeps the shotgun aimed at me. “What are you doing here this time of night, Dan?”
“These are desperate times,” he says. He lowers the gun. “It’s late. What’s up?”
“We have an injured police officer at our house and thought maybe Janet could come have a look at him.”
“Janet’s in bed,” he says.
I explain the situation, trying to suppress my anger. “You obviously realize the world is falling apart,” I say at last. “We’ve been neighbors and friends for a long time. I’m coming to you as both to get help.”
Dan says in a near whisper “Janet took a few sleeping pills. I couldn’t wake her even if I wanted to. She’s knocked herself out. This whole . . . situation . . . is too much for her.”
“Are you okay?” I ask as I realize the amount of fear I hear in his voice.
“Our children and grandchildren are in a bomb shelter in San Diego,” he says. His voice is quivering. “Everyone is acting as if the end is near. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” He pauses, and then asks, “Has Jason gotten home yet.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
As I leave Dan’s house I notice Sweety is gone.
I try but am unable to reach my sister.
Debra stands in the doorway of Jason’s room stifling the urge to scream. Jason’s bed is unmade as always and his clothes are scattered all over the floor. On the walls, posters of bands and movies are tacked on at angles. His bicycle is on a stand in front of shelves lined with trophies and plaques for track and cycling events. His cycling helmet is perched sitting on top of his hamster’s cage. Frisco Pete, the hamster, is sitting in the wood chips, nibbling on a carrot.
“Debra!” Jake calls out from the bottom of the stairs.
“What is it?” she calls out reluctantly closing the door.
“You better get down here,” he says.
She presses the tape around Jason’s door back into place and from the top of the stairs sees a man standing beside Jake pointing a gun at Jake’s head.
“What are you doing?” Debra asks the man.
He shuffles nervously on both feet. “The keys to your car and whatever cash you have.”
“My car?” Debra says. “You won’t get very far in it. The main streets and highways are clogged.”
“Just give me the keys and the money lady or I shoot the old man,” he says.
Shots ring out from Dick’s pistol, the bullets knocking the man back through the open front door.
Debra runs down the stairs. “How did he get in?” she asks Jake.
“I heard the door knob being played with. I thought maybe it was Jason.”
Dick stands at the feet of the outstretched body of the man. “This sort of thing is probably happening all over the world.”
“Are you sure you won’t come with me?” Jason asks Nick.
Nick looks to the front of the bus, at the rest of the students and teachers of the two classes, most who are asleep and leaning on each other. The bus driver is seated on the top step near the front door. He is bent over with his head resting on his crossed arms.
“How would we get home?” Nick asks.
“We can maybe find bikes. It’s better than just sitting here,” Jason says.
“Bikes aren’t just going to be lying around on the side of the highway,” Nick says.
“Then we’ll jog. If we keep a good pace we can get home by tomorrow night.”
“I’m not in that kind of shape,” Nick says.
“I’m going,” Jason says. “I have to.”
Nick grasps Jason’s hand and squeezes it tight. “Okay. I understand. I’ll see you back at school.”
“Definitely,” Jason says. He pushes down on the lever of the emergency exit door and leaps out.
As he runs past the bus the front door opens.
“Hey kid, get back here,” the bus driver yells.
I stand over the body of the would-be thief. Dick is standing at his other side. We have laid him in the grass in our front lawn. “I recognize him,” I say. “He worked at the convenience store a few blocks over.”
Jake has wheeled out onto the porch. Boomer is standing beside him. “Why did he pick this house?”
“Look around,” Dick says.
There are no lights shining in any other windows in any of the houses.
“Surely he must have known that getting out of town would be near impossible at this point,” I say.
“He was desperate,” Dick says. “You could hear it in his voice. He was dangerous.”
“Do we bury him or just wait?” I ask.
“We’ll just cover his body for now. The sun will be up in about an hour. It’s best we get indoors and stay there until the sun comes up,” Dick says. “Maybe things will calm down by then. That’s when I’m going to try to reach my own family.”
“Have you been able to reach them?” I ask.
“My wife and kids are at home. They’re frightened, but okay. We have a basement. They’ll be in it waiting for me.”
My thumb is throbbing with pain.
I still can’t reach my sister. She doesn’t answer her cellphone. I leave a message pleading for her to call me back.
As the first morning sunlight begins to shine through the bedroom window, Dan gets out of bed and looks out at his back yard and groans slightly thinking the grass needs to be cut again. This was his favorite time of the day, before the rest of the neighborhood was awake, even before Janet has awoken. He doesn’t like retirement. The boredom and monotony seems endless. His weight has ballooned. He always feels hungry, even after eating. Food has made the passing of time more tolerable, but made him more miserable physically. His doctor told him smoking would kill him some day if his obesity didn’t kill him first.
He turns from the window and looks at Janet still sound asleep, her face buried in her pillow. He has always wondered how she breathed that way, but that was how she had slept every night for the forty years of their marriage. He feels bad that he can’t console her more about what was going on in the world. That he awoke still unharmed reassures him that during the night the world must have stopped the insanity. Tip toeing out of the bedroom he goes down to the kitchen.
After frying two eggs and toasting and buttering two slices of bread he pours a tall glass of orange juice in his favorite glass, the one with World’s Best Dad printed on it, puts it all on a tray and goes into the living room. He puts the tray on the table next to his La-Z-Boy recliner and sits down and takes a cigarette from the pack on the arm of the chair and lights it, and then picks up the television remote and turns on the television.
An older male newscaster is seated with a map of the world behind him. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the newscaster says almost in a harsh whisper. “Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo, Japan have both been struck by nuclear weapons that NORAD confirms originated from North Korea. Nuclear launch sites, military installations, industrial complexes in North Korea as well as its capital, Pyongyang, have been obliterated by nuclear bombs launched by the United States.”
Dan feels a sharp pain in his left arm that travels to the middle of his chest.
“The United States is in imminent danger of direct strikes launched by Russia or China. We will remain on the air as long as possible, but if you live near a military installation or a large city it’s recommended you evacuate immediately or seek shelter.”
The newscaster puts his head on his arms crossed on the desk. His shoulders shake as he sobs.
Dan drops his cigarette and clutches his chest. As he frantically reaches out with his right hand he knocks the tray of food onto the floor. He lunges forward and falls onto the floor.
Carrying Tim, Dick and I slowly go down the steps. Blood has seeped through the gauze pads Debra has taped over Tim’s wound. Dick has moved the police car to the curb in front of our house and has the front passenger door open. As we assist Tim into the front seat he wakes up momentarily then passes out again, his head slumping down on his chest. Dick buckles him in and closes the door.
“Is there any way you can get assistance from other police?” I ask.
“I talked to dispatch. She said all units were out and that they had lost contact with a few of them. Looting and rioting is out of control in several areas of the city,” he says. “I advised her of Tim’s condition. Hospitals are swamped and patients are being triaged.”
“What does all that mean?” I ask.
“I will try to get Tim home to his wife then I’m going home to my family,” he says.
“Are you sure you can get there?” I say.
He shakes my hand. “Thanks for taking us in.”
“You’re welcome,” I say. “You may have saved our lives.”
We both glance at the body of the would-be thief lying on the lawn that we have covered with a tarp.
“That was the first man I ever killed,” he says. “I hope it’s the last.”
“Good luck,” we say in unison as he gets into the car.
As the car pulls away I turn and see Debra standing on the porch holding her cell phone. The expression on her face is a mixture of relief and fear. “Jason got off the bus,” she says as I come up the steps.
“He called?” I ask.
“No, the father of his friend Nick called me and related what he knew. The bus is stuck in traffic on the highway. Jason got off the bus a few hours ago and is going to try to get here on foot or find a bicycle.” She looks up and down the street as if expecting to see him. “Do you think he can do it?” she asks.
“God only knows,” I say.
Jason jogs along the side of the highway, the gravel crunching beneath his shoes. Some people are standing alongside their vehicles or sitting on the hood, but many are still sitting inside with the windows down, their radios on. Suitcases and boxes are tied on the top of many of the cars. Other than the sound of news reports blaring on the radios, there is little other noise from the traffic jammed on the highway. Whatever impatience was felt about being unable to move that was expressed by blowing horns and shouting at each other has become silenced. Small groups of people are walking the same direction he is, south.
Jason avoids the stares of the few who watch him jog by. He wasn’t a long distance or marathon runner, but several years of running track has built up his legs and lungs. His steps are steady and even, and other than trash here and there that he easily steps over, there are no obstacles. He feels focused and keeps repeating a simple mantra, “ Home, home, home.”
Peripherally he scans what the vehicles carry, on the lookout for a bicycle. He hasn’t figured out what he would do when he sees one. He would deal with that when and and if the opportunity presents itself.
Of a more pressing matter is that he’s growing thirstier with every step.
I didn’t tell Debra that I had to see what the shopping district a few blocks from where we live looks like. I carry a baseball bat for protection, uncertain if I will be able to use it if I have to. Leaving the quiet, tree lined streets of our neighborhood I immediately step into a nightmare. Looking up and down the street the windows of every store and restaurant are broken. Glass, trash and discarded merchandise litter the street and sidewalks. The burnt out hull of a city bus sits diagonally in the middle of the street. Cars with broken windows are stalled on both sides of the bus. There are several bodies lying amidst the debris.
Hundreds of people are milling about, some carrying items looted from the stores, but most look dazed. A young woman walks by me and glances at me warily. There is dried blood in her short blonde hair. The chaos that took place has been replaced with an almost palpable feeling of resignation. I turn to go home.
“Hand over the bat,” the man wearing a torn light blue security guard shirt and sunglasses with one lens cracked says as he steps in front of me. He’s holding a butcher knife.
“I’m going home,” I say as calmly as possible. “You should do the same.”
“We’re all going to be turned to ashes,” he says, then wobbles. He’s drunk.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” I say. “Either way, being home is a better place to be.”
“No one wants to die out here,” I say sweeping my hand around toward the destruction.
He leans toward me and then collapses on his knees. “I don’t want to die.”
I walk around him and head home and look back and see him still on his knees.
Debra leans against the living room wall holding the cellphone pressed against her ear. She is saying nothing.
Jake comes out of the kitchen. “Debra, are you okay?” He wheels up to her.
Without looking at him she says, “My father is dead.”
“How?” Jake asks.
“They were in a car accident trying to get out of Chicago.” She pulls the phone away from her ear. “That was my mom. She’s at a rest stop south of the city.”
“Is anyone with her?” Jake says.
“No one she knows. She walked to it from the scene of the accident. She said the highway was at a standstill and there were hundreds and hundreds of people where she is. My God, Jake, she’s seventy-one and she’s alone on foot at a rest stop.”
Boomer nuzzles his nose under Jake’s hand.
“I don’t know what to say,” Jake says.
“I didn’t either,” Debra says. “I hung up not knowing what to say other than that I loved her.”
Not believing his good luck, Jason removes the bungee cords holding the bicycle on the back of the abandoned car. As he sits the bicycle on the pavement he pulls on the water bottle attached to the handlebars and hears water sloshing. Undoing the Velcro strap holding the bottle to the bar, he lifts the bottle to his lips, undoes the cap and pours the water into his mouth. It’s warm and tastes stale, but it soothes his thirst. He tosses the bottle aside and climbs onto the seat of the bicycle.
He looks at his watch. It’s a little after 11 A.M.
As he puts his feet on the pedals he feels his legs ache from the miles of almost non-stop jogging. Most cars have been abandoned, stuck in the snarled traffic. As he pedals to the side of the road he sees the countless people on foot a short distance from him headed south. As he begins to pedal, the gravel along the highway slows his pace, but it’s faster and easier than jogging.
He’s uncertain how many miles he has left to go, but it doesn’t matter to him. He didn’t train as a cyclist just to feel as if he couldn’t get where he was going, no matter how long it took.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.”
“I’m not to blame for what’s going on with the world,” Dick says.
“Come on Luke,” the pregnant woman says from the passenger seat of the police car. “We got the car. Let’s go while we can.”
Luke presses the barrel of the pistol to Dick’s temple. “You’re to blame. All you guys in uniform. Every one of you caused all this. You and politicians.”
Dick surreptitiously struggles to free his hands from the rope tied around his wrists. Tim is lying on the street beside the car. Dick looks at the woman, angry at his own stupidity for stopping to help when the couple waved them down. The woman seems sane but Luke is borderline insane.
“I just want to get my partner to his family and get home,” Dick says. He’s against a stop sign with his arms around the pole. He’s nearly hoarse from pleading his case.
“It’s different when the common man has taken away your power, isn’t it mister police man?” Luke says, pushing the gun barrel against Dick’s head.
“I never had any power,” Dick says. “I just kept the law.”
“The law!” Luke nearly shrieked. “Does your law include dropping bombs on each other, killing us all?”
“That’s not a law,” Dick says. “It’s insanity. I have nothing to do with it.”
“Luke, we have a good car, lets get out of here,” the woman says.
Dick can feel his hand coming free from the rope.
“You could have told them no guns, no bombs,” Luke says. “Instead you wear that uniform and don’t care who you hurt.”
“You’re confused,” Dick says as he frees his hand. “I’m just a cop. No one would have listened to what I had to say about bombs.”
Luke pulls the trigger sending a bullet into Dick’s head. The police officer falls to the ground.
Debra carefully takes the family photographs from the living room wall and places them in a box. As she takes each one down she stares at it for a few minutes reliving the time the photo was taken: her wedding, her parents anniversary party, Jason’s birth, family vacation at Disney Land. Even if it wasn’t the life she had imagined for herself, it had been a happy and satisfying one. She gave up her dream of becoming a doctor when she discovered she was pregnant. That was okay.
Being a social worker providing services for the homeless had been immensely rewarding. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep her concern for the homeless she had taken care of from intruding into her thoughts. Would they find shelter? Most of them were estranged from their families. Some had severe mental health issues and wouldn’t know just how dire the situation was. But her nagging thoughts about them didn’t diminish her concern about her son.
“Where is Jason?” the maternal voice in her head kept shouting.
Putting the last photograph in the box she carries it into the kitchen and puts it in the closet with the others. With the house stripped clean of anything that could become a deadly projectile she turns the key in the closet lock.
Turning to the empty water jugs on the island, she begins filling them, and then carries them to the downstairs hallway and stacks them with the others.
I deserved Debra’s outburst of anger for going to see what the shopping district looked like. It was a dangerously stupid thing to do. I didn’t tell her how bad it was and she didn’t ask.
The only positive thing is that the news is still being broadcast on most of the stations and the emergency alert system hasn’t kicked in, although there is no doubt what is happening is an emergency, or about to be. Sitting comfortably in my chair with Jake and Boomer nearby it would be easy to forget that it wasn’t just another Sunday morning with the news shows and that in parts of the world millions of people were dying horrific deaths.
“There’s not been one official declaration of war,” Jake says after a long silence. “No one has even said which country is declaring war on any other.”
“The bombs are declaration enough,” I say.
Jake is feeding Boomer treats. The dog is happily wagging its tail. “Have you noticed how little mention there is of what any of the nation’s armies are doing?” he says.
“It’s a war of planes and bombs and missiles,” I say.
When there is a sound of a large boom and the house shakes I am immediately on my feet and go to the door.
“Was that a bomb?” Debra asks coming out of the kitchen.
“I don’t think so,” I say and slowly open the door. The glow of fire in the direction of the shipyards lights the sky. I close the door.
I return to the chair and Debra sits on the arm rest, placing her arm around my shoulders. “I could make some sandwiches if anyone feels like eating.”
I can’t recall the last time I ate anything. “No thanks,” I say.
“Me neither,” Jake says.
I leave another message on my sister’s phone. I tell her I love her.
In the heat of late afternoon the croaking of the cicada in the trees is magnified. Other than occasional emergency responder vehicle sirens heard in the distance, there is only the sound of the insects as we walk toward Dan and Janet’s. We haven’t seen or heard any of the neighbors who have remained. Years of neighborhood cookouts and our children playing together in the street has been selectively forgotten. I hold Debra’s hand and we say nothing, unable to find any more words to comfort one another. Passing the Malone’s house, I see Sweety on the porch sitting on the welcome mat in front of their front door.
I knock on the McClosky’s door expecting Dan to respond quickly. After a minute I knock again, only harder. Debra frees her hand from mine and goes to their plate glass window and peers in.
“Oh God,” Debra says with a gasp.
I go to the window and look in. Dan is lying on the floor. Janet is lying across him. A pill bottle is on the floor a few inches from her outstretched hand.
Their television is on.
With Boomer sitting at his side, Jake sits on the front porch holding onto a glass of ice water. He sits the glass on a stand beside the porch swing and slowly uses the arms of his wheelchair to push himself to a standing position. Only in physical therapy does he attempt to walk without a walker or being assisted by someone and his heart is beating hard. Boomer stands and whines nervously as he presses his body against Jake’s legs. Taking one baby step after another, Jake reaches the porch railing and grips onto it. He inhales deeply, allowing the aroma’s of grass, earth and garden flowers fill his nostrils.
He never doubted that this street where he has lived for so many years would be where he died if he wasn’t in a hospital.
It never occurred to him even once that his life would possibly end the way it looked it might.
Lying on a mattress with my arms wrapped around Debra I listen to her steady breathing. She has fallen asleep, the first sleep she has had in nearly twenty-three hours.
The swelling in my thumb has gone down.
Standing, with Debra by my side and Jake in his wheelchair, we watch the news.
“It has been confirmed that a large megaton nuclear bomb has hit the island of Guam, location of the U.S. Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base,” the newscaster says. “It has also been confirmed that the NATO Allied Command Operations in Belgium has also been hit.”
The news station goes off the air replaced by the high pitched emergency warning put out by the emergency alert system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. Find shelter immediately.”
-The Final Hour-
As the outdoor warning sirens blare we start to go into the hallway and turn when Jason opens the door. He is silhouetted for a brief moment by a blinding light.
Copyright Steve Carr 2020