Note: Since I was a little late posting this week’s story, I thought I’d post a nvoella. Enjoy!
Ray Acuna was in luck. As he stood in line at the window of the post office, he glanced toward the counter past the two people in line ahead of him. A third, a balding man in a dark-grey pinstriped overcoat that probably matched his suit, straightened at the counter. He seemed to have almost concluded his business.
“Thanks, Ms. Miller,” the man said.
To the left, a few FBI wanted posters hung from thumbtacks on a cork bulletin board. They were only partially visible beyond a rotating rack of greeting cards on one side and a display of flattened Priority Mail boxes and envelopes on the left.
But at the counter, the post mistress herself, Louise Miller, was on duty. Sometimes the others would give him a hard time, reminding him they really weren’t supposed to pass mail out through the window.
It was a game they played. He would explain that the widow Miller had approved him for General Delivery due to his special circumstances.
They would miraculously remember, then mutter one version or another of, “Now we can’t keep doing this indefinitely.”
He would don a look that conveyed he was appropriately contrite.
Then they would smile as if they meant it and turn away to check for his mail.
The man in the pinstriped overcoat turned away from the window and moved toward the door. The left arm of his coat brushed the left arm of Ray’s blue-jean jacket as he focused on stuffing a few bills into his wallet.
He glanced up, his eyes wide. His pink jowls moved as if he was about to mutter, “Sorry.” But when he met Ray’s eyes he quickly looked away.
A moment later the glass-and-chrome door opened. A chilly gust of whipped in through the opening. It riffled the wanted posters on the bulletin board and played for a moment around the legs of Ray’s jeans and up across the back of his neck.
Ray shrugged deeper into his faux-wool lined blue-jean jacket.
Then the door closed and the man was gone.
The twenty-something woman in front of Ray shivered slightly as she shuffled ahead one step, a medium-sized package balanced on her left arm. Her dark brown hair bordered on black. It hung well past her shoulders and seemed almost superimposed over her deerskin-tan jacket. It smelled nice too. Lavender shampoo, maybe.
Ray was suddenly aware of his own scent and hung back a bit.
Beneath her jacket she wore shapely, light blue jeans. They were tucked into dark brown boots that came halfway up to her knees. Probably she was wearing a lavender blouse too, or maybe pink. Definitely not white. She looked the kind to dress in vibrant but complementary colors.
The man in front of her was a farmer, or dressed like it. Tall and thin, he looked up as if surprised he was next. Then he tipped his brown wool hat back slightly and took a step forward.
His coveralls wrinkled to the side of his left hip as he lifted his foot a little higher than normal. As he put that foot on the floor again and raised his right, he leaned heavily to the left with a pronounced limp.
Ray recognized him.
It was Hank Johnson. He graduated high school two years ahead of Ray. He was an all-state forward for all four years on the basketball team, and he was offered a full paid ride to three different universities during his senior year.
But three weeks after graduation his father’s tractor got away from him. He fell off the seat and splayed face-down on the ground. Before he could get out of the way, the massive right rear tire crushed his left thigh and hip. The doctors were amazed they’d even been able to save the leg. But his basketball career was out the window like a puff of smoke.
In the man’s left hand was a priority mail envelope. He nodded at the widow Miller as he stretched to lay it on the scale.
The widow looked up over the top of her small glasses and smiled. “Thanks, Hank. Be just a second.”
“No rush. Longer I’m gone, the less I have to work out in the cold today.” He laughed.
Outside, the morning was blustery with occasional flurries of light snow. The breeze came from every direction and seemed to gust unexpectedly around corners. But the post office was comfortably warm.
The widow Miller finished what she was doing and turned away for a moment to drop a slip of paper into a narrow slot. When she turned back, she repositioned Hank’s envelope on the scale and gazed at the small screen above it. After a moment, she looked up at Hank and quoted an amount.
The farmer shook his head as he reached back and took his billfold out of the broad hip pocket on the right side of his coveralls. “Reckon the postage rates are ever gonna stop goin’ up?” He took a ten out of his billfold and passed it through the window.
The widow took the ten and counted out two dollars and change, then handed it to him. “Goodness, I certainly hope not. We school marms have to eat too, you know.” She laughed.
“Aw, you get paid the same no matter.” The man’s ears twitched. Probably he was frowning. “Don’t you?”
She nodded. “Just a little levity, Hank. They should get your letter in three days.”
“Thanks, Ms. Miller.” He side stepped to the left as he slipped the change into his pocket. Then he worked on feeding the bills into his wallet.
The woman in front of Ray shuffled forward again. Her left wrist was bent up on the far side of the box she was carrying, her clutch purse in her left hand. When she craned her neck so she could see over the box, her hair parted. It revealed the back of her neck and the whitest skin Ray had ever seen.
Probably that’s what people meant when they talked about “alabaster skin.” Very smooth and pretty.
She twisted the top of her clutch open with her right hand and searched through it. Maybe looking for the right amount of postage. She must have weighed the package at home and looked up the rate on line.
As she continued to dig through her clutch, she glanced back apologetically at Ray. At first he thought she was going to say something. But fear flashed across her face before it was replaced with the ghost of a fake smile. Then she bowed her head and focused more closely on her clutch purse.
The farmer looked down at the woman, then nodded and moved his lips to say “Hi,” though no words came out. He smiled as he averted his gaze and slipped his billfold back into his pocket.
When he looked up again, he noticed Ray for the first time. Again he smiled, though this time it was more of a grin. Or maybe a sneer. “Well, as I live and breathe! If it isn’t Ray Acuna, the war hero.” Yes, definitely a sneer.
The young woman glanced at him again, then quickly averted her gaze.
“How’s the overpass these days, corporal? You were a corporal, right?”
Ray nodded. “Yeah. Fine I guess. I haven’t been out there in a while.”
“Yeah?” The man seemed to study him. Then the grin disappeared and his face grew serious. But his voice didn’t get any quieter. “Hey listen, Ray, all kidding aside, Martha and me, we’ve got plenty. You wanna come by for supper sometime or other?”
Martha Preston. Well, Martha Johnson now. She was Ray’s girlfriend all those years ago. His first true love. Hank probably thought it still bothered him that she’d ended up with Hank. It didn’t.
Martha could have done a lot better, but that was none of Ray’s business. “Sure,” he said. “That’d be nice.”
“Good, good,” Hank said, and a twinkle crept into his eyes. “Hey, can I get your home phone number? We’ll set it up and I’ll give you a call. Oh, wait.” Then the man guffawed.
The widow Miller leaned to her right to look past the woman at the window. “Hank, for goodness’ sakes, what are you doing?”
He glanced over his shoulder and held up one hand. “Sorry, Ms. Miller. Sorry. Me an’ ol’ Ray go back a ways. We’ve known each other for years. I’m just kiddin’ around with him.” He looked at Ray, a sneer on his face. “Ain’t that right, corporal? You know I’m only kiddin’, right?” Hank grabbed his shoulder and squeezed.
Ray met his gaze, tightened his shoulder and refused to move. “Sure, that’s right.”
Hank withdrew his hand. He maintained eye contact. “Nah, but hey, seriously, lemme know when you’d like to come over. I know Martha’d like to see you again if you can get out there. You do know where the place is, right?”
Ray nodded. “The place” was Hank’s father’s farm, and his father’s father’s before that. It was the largest farm in the tri-state area, and the house was around nine miles outside of town to the south. Out past the National Guard Armory. Even past the fairgrounds. And Ray didn’t have a car.
“Good, good. Hey, I’ll see you around.” He raised one hand as he moved toward the door. Then it opened and closed, and he was gone.
A moment later, having finished processing the woman’s package, the widow Miller trundled it onto a cart on her left side. She glanced up at the woman. “Thanks, Sadie. Shouldn’t take more than three or four days, bein’ it’s in-state an’ all.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Miller.” The woman turned.
Her jacket hung open. Her blouse was lavender.
Ray almost smiled.
She moved past him with only an apologetic glance. The furtive smile was still there, but the fear was gone. Pity had replaced it.
Ray preferred the fear.
The widow Miller put both hands on the counter and hunched her shoulders. “Well, now, how you doin’ today, Mr. Acuna? Hank Johnson aside.”
“Fine, Ms. Miller, thanks. Got anything for me today?”
“You know, it wouldn’t surprise me.” She turned away to go check.
The widow Miller remembered him from when he was a boy before he “wandered off into other people’s problems.” That’s the only way she could qualify his having joined the Marine Corps and shipped off to the Sino-Russian war.
When he returned, physically whole but wracked with guilt and confusion, his home had become the nearest underpass or, in winter, a warehouse the kindly Mr. Ferguson “accidentally” left unlocked at the end of each day.
Without being asked, Mrs. Miller had issued a special dispensation, allowing Ray to address his mail General Delivery. He checked it every week.
She returned a moment later with a narrow envelope in her hand and passed it through the window. “You do know Hank was only messing around, don’t you?”
Ray nodded. “Yes ma’am.” He shrugged. “Just bein’ Hank, I guess.”
She shook her head. “Still, I don’t know why he has to be so much of a Hank sometimes.” She laughed uneasily.
He nodded. “We all have our battles to fight, I guess.” He held up the envelope. “Thanks, Ms. Miller. See you next week.”
“Take care of yourself, Ray.”
As he turned away, he nodded, then glanced down at the letter. It was from his sister in Kansas City. Probably another offer for him to come and live with them for a while. He’d have plenty of time to read it later.
He stuffed it, unopened, into the back left pocket of his jeans, tugged his jacket more closely around him, and opened the door.
He stopped, took a step back, and held the door open.
Belinda Presser smiled broadly. With a put-on southern accent, she said, “Why, thank you, Ray. You’re such a gentleman.” Her blue eyes sparkled beneath blond bangs cut perfectly above her dark brown eyebrows. Her cheeks had a permanent pink glow made deeper by the cold weather.
“Here,” she said, and grasped his left biceps lightly with her right hand as she turned sideways and made a show of edging past him. As she raked the front of her bulging light blue sweater seductively across the front of his jacket, she said quietly, “I always thought that about you, Ray, that you were a real gentleman. Even with, you know, your situation an’ all. I always thought we’d hook up.”
He pointedly kept his gaze on her face and nodded. “Thanks, Belinda.”
A shudder ran through him, but he tried not to let it show. According to her, not them, she’d been with most of the men in town. Except Ray. And nothing about that was going to change. Not even if she showed up at the underpass with a warmer blanket than his and a soft pillow.
Still smiling, she finally released him with pursed lips and a wink and approached the window.
Ray went out and pulled the door closed against a sudden gust.
He glanced across the street. Surprisingly, some light snow had started to stick to the asphalt.
Two twenty-something women were talking in front of Lane’s Dress Boutique. Each was wearing a dress and heels beneath a heavy but stylish winter coat, one faux-fur and the other a warm grey wool. Neither was wearing a hat or scarf. Both had stylish, shorter haircuts. One red, the other dark blond. They both seemed vibrant against the cold grey backdrop of the day.
Another woman, this one in jeans and an olive waistcoat with a fur-lined hood, glanced at them, smiled, and sidled past them into the dress shop. She had a young boy in tow. He looked to be about three, or maybe a small four.
The women shuffled leisurely to one side to clear the doorway as they continued to talk. The redhead glanced at the back of the boy as he passed with his mother, then said something to the other woman and shook her head. The gossip mill was running.
The young woman—Sadie, was it?—who had left the post office ahead of him had just made it across the street. She greeted the other two with one raised hand, then slipped into her car.
The door of the barbershop next door to the dress shop was propped open. The mayor was seated in the first chair through the door, a cape draped over him and pulled up to his chin. Barney Clifton stood behind him, leaning slightly forward, scissors in one hand and a comb in the other. He was smiling as if he’d just told a joke, or was about to.
As the door closed behind Ray, he turned left.
And almost ran into Hank Johnson, who grabbed him by the shoulders and limped heavily around him. “Hey Ray,” he said quietly, almost apologetically, in passing. No audience. “I, uh—forgot stamps.” Then he was opening the post office door again.
Ray nodded and started down the sidewalk.
On his right, the young woman who was in front of him in the post office—Sadie, he was sure of it—drove by in her car. She was looking straight ahead.
Hank’s pickup, a two-month old Ford F-350 in pearlized white, was parked alongside a meter. Behind the crescent-shaped glass, the red flag was up.
Ray reached into his front jeans pocket. If he had a dime, he’d reset the meter. He fished about for a moment, then pulled his cupped hand out and looked at it. Nothing but quarters and pennies. He shifted the coins in his hand and a silver edge flashed beneath the copper.
Ah, a dime.
One thin dime. He smiled, then stopped at the meter.
He inserted the dime into the slot and turned the handle.
The red flag chucked over a quarter-inch or so, then disappeared into the body of the meter.
The smile still in place, Ray continued past Hank’s truck—
And the world exploded.
Dust and glass shards blew past him in a cloud. Something slapped him on the back of the head and shoved hard against his back and legs and shoulders.
He found himself on his hands and knees in the empty parking space alongside the curb behind the Ford. A massive surge of nausea rushed through him. Then his elbows let go, and he folded face-down into the asphalt.
A long moment later, the cold asphalt against his right cheek and ear woke him up.
His left ear was ringing with a loud tone. Somewhere on the other side of it, people were screaming.
What? Why all the noise?
A wide, faded white line led away from his right eye. It narrowed toward the end. His art teacher in high school would call that perspective. He extended it out. It seemed to be pointing at the diamonds sparkling on the street.
Diamonds? Is it snowing more heavily? But the diamonds looked bigger than snow. More substantial. Or something. Where am I?
Wait. He came out of the post office. He was putting a dime in a parking meter. Hank’s parking meter, of all things.
Pay for his parking, Ray. That’ll teach him.
He tried to grin, but it wouldn’t come. A string of saliva leaked from the right corner of his mouth.
Did the meter explode? Am I hurt?
He ran a quick self-diagnostic. That’s what the gunny called it. A diagnostic. Be still. Let your mind check your body.
No. He was facing the meter, but it wasn’t embedded in his chest.
No, that wasn’t right. The meter was behind him when it blew.
Well, when something blew. The meter was a few feet behind him.
But nothing was imbedded in his back either. Not that he could tell.
Would shock keep him from feeling it?
But the back of his head was sore. And his face was cold. Like ice. So he was feeling it.
He reached back with his left hand and felt the back of his head. A good sized lump, but no blood.
And the explosion. Whatever blew up, it blew him into the street. So it came from the post office.
Hank. Hank went into the post office for stamps.
Sometimes in southern Russia sappers would sneak in with satchels full of explosives, then fling them. Blow the place to hell and back.
Funny how hard it was to hit them when they were running right at you.
He frowned. Was Hank carrying a satchel?
No. No, he wasn’t carrying anything. He grabbed Ray by the shoulders to avoid a collision. He was harmless. Harmless Hank, in deed if not in words. The All-American boy off to bask in basketball glory, flinging condescension as he went.
Ray put his palms on the asphalt.
Gritty. Grit on his palms. He hated grit.
Grit on the right side of his cheek and forehead too. He forced his body to roll left slightly, raised his head.
Across the street. There were women on the sidewalk across the street.
But they had disappeared, probably into the dress shop. He hoped they weren’t blown into the dress shop.
He looked to the right, then reached for the thick, chrome steel bumper of Hank’s truck. The chrome ball hitch wavered through the dust. He wrapped his right hand around it and pulled himself unsteadily to his feet.
Looked at the thin top of the tailgate. Chrome with crosstags on it.
In his left periphery, a young woman ran out of the dress shop.
He turned his head, tried to focus.
The woman with the boy. She opened a car door. A small blue car. She frantically lifted the boy by the arm and threw him into the car, then slammed the door. She raced around the front toward the driver’s side.
Where was she going? He hoped she had somewhere to go.
He focused again, tried to see her face. Did he know her? Would she help him?
But she was too quick.
A moment later, the car flashed by in the street, headed east.
He turned his head back to the right, put both hands on the tailgate and leaned heavily. The pressure was solid. It felt good across his upper chest.
He looked across the street again.
Two men were standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the open barbershop door. He could barely make them out through the dust, but they looked familiar.
The mayor. That’s right. He was in the chair. The cape was draped over his left shoulder like a toga. His mouth was hanging open.
And the barber, Barney Clifton. Barney was pointing toward the post office and saying something. He wasn’t grinning.
The mayor started away to the west. Probably to go see to his duties.
Barney yelled something in his direction.
The mayor stopped. He looked down, then up. His mouth formed, “Oh, sorry,” but the sound was lost in the noise all the others were making. He pulled the cape from his shoulder, then balled it up and tossed it back to Barney.
Before Barney caught it, the mayor had already turned away. He ran into a young woman but grabbed her, narrowly keeping her from falling. Then he released her and ran toward his pickup at the corner.
Farther to the west along the street, others, men and women both, were running, yelling, pointing, screaming. All were coated with dust.
When Ray looked for Barney again, he was gone. Probably inside.
Ray shook his head, then thought of Mrs. Miller. “Aw, damn it!” He had to check on her. And Hank. Hank went back in. He had to check on her and Hank.
He turned again to the right, using his left hand for balance as he stepped up onto the curb, then the sidewalk.
He was free of Hank’s truck and walking shakily past the parking meter when another blast went off. As the ground shook, he staggered hard to the right. The point of his right shoulder slammed into the wall of the post office. He crouched.
To the west, two blocks ahead of him and across the street, the Woolworth building and the one next to it—was it a dry cleaner?—had disappeared. Chunks of masonry blew out into the street in a cloud of dust, peppered with sparkling shards of glass and twists of chrome.
It looked like diamonds among the light snow.
Like the diamonds in the street behind Hank’s truck.
Glass and chrome diamonds. The chrome must be from the doors and the frames.
In front of Hank’s truck too, the street was littered with chrome and glass from the door of the post office. He glanced up at the exterior block wall alongside which he was crouched. It was bulging. He put a hand on it to verify, then leaned out and looked higher. The small windows were gone.
He frowned. What the hell’s going on?
He thought of the woman in the blue car with her son. She was heading east. At least she was going the right way.
His hearing began to clear, and on the other side of the screams were the rising, falling wails of sirens. Police probably. Maybe ambulances.
As if on cue, a police car, lights flashing red and blue, raced past. Then another one. Then a sheriff’s SUV.
Were the sirens on? He didn’t think so, but they were gone so fast.
Still, this close, they’d have been louder than the screams.
He shook his head hard, then looked up and watched as they went down the street.
Why aren’t they stopping here? Must be headed for the Woolworth building.
The long, low wail of more sirens sounded in the distance. It was a relaxed sound compared to the more frantic sirens earlier. Must be an ambulance. Or twelve. But he couldn’t identify the direction. Too many sounds, all mixed up.
He looked at the wall again, ran his hand over it. Definitely bulging.
Mrs. Miller. Dear Mrs. Miller. He should check on her. Her and Hank.
His right hand still on the bulging wall, he stood carefully, anticipating another explosion.
He looked toward the Woolworth building again, or where it had been. One cop car was there, the lights still flashing. Siren? No.
The door of the car opened, the officer extended one leg. He was getting out.
Where had the other cops gone? And why weren’t cops climbing all over the place right now? And EMTs? Where the hell was everybody?
People were still screaming, running, yelling, pointing. Where were they all coming from?
He already knew where they were going, though they didn’t.
They were searching for something, anything, that made sense. Anything normal.
They had no way of knowing nothing would ever be normal for them again. What they saw and heard and smelled and tasted today would be with them for the rest of their lives.
And again he was homeless. Sub-homeless?
He might have to find a new overpass, a new warehouse.
No way. No possible way this was happening. No way. Not here. Maybe he was having a flashback. Maybe it was all a bad dream.
That has to be it. All of it must be a bad dream.
The letter. If it wasn’t a nightmare, his sister’s letter was in his back pocket. He reached for it.
Then reality moaned through the gaping gash where the post office door had been.
And Hank stepped out.
He was wobbly. And his face was shredded.
His coveralls were hanging off his right shoulder. His left arm was gone from just above the elbow. And even through his flannel shirt, his torso was oddly misshapen with depressions where there shouldn’t have been depressions.
His entire body was trembling, jittering as he moved.
His mouth and his right eye were stretched wide.
His left eye lay just out of the socket on his cheekbone.
His forehead, cheeks and throat were coated with black-red blood, and he was covered with dust and bits of particleboard.
But he was cognizant.
He looked at Ray and frowned. With a hoarse, raspy breath he said, “Ray?” Then he raised his right hand a few inches above his hip.
Ray followed the movement, looking down along Hank’s arm to his hand.
Hank’s keyring dangled from one finger. He stared at Ray. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard, then tried again. “Ray, could you—” He tried to raise the keys again, then sighed.
His hand dropped as if it was just too heavy to hold up.
The keyring clattered to the sidewalk and slid toward the curb.
Hank looked down, sighed again. “Sorry” rushed out in a hushed breath.
His knees sagged and he twisted as he fell, his right ankle crossed over his left. His head made a sickening thwack as the back of it hit the sidewalk. His left eye lolled toward his ear.
“Hank?” Ray moved toward him and knelt on both knees. He bent over the man’s face. “Hank?” He felt at the side of his throat for a pulse, then shook his head. “Aw damn, Hank.”
Finally Ray leaned back away from him, his hands on his thighs.
Behind him, part of the exterior wall of the post office cracked loudly, then fell to the sidewalk in a cloud of new dust.
Ray reached over Hank’s body and picked up the keys. He looked at them.
Another explosion came from somewhere to the north.
One key was for the Ford. There were also two house keys and a few for brass padlocks. Probably for the barn and whatever else. He looked at the dead man’s face. “What am I supposed to do, Hank?”
After a moment, he stood. He stepped over Hank’s crossed ankles and gaped at the hole where the post office door used to be. Finally he grasped the rough edge of a block to steady himself and peered inside.
The air was still warm, but it was thick with dust.
Two long fluorescent light fixtures lay on the floor, tangled in acoustic ceiling tiles, wanted posters, flat-rate boxes and greeting cards.
Most of the counter lay near the front wall.
He released his grip on the block and took a step inside, peered more closely.
Beneath the counter, a hand extended, palm up, from an arm clad in a light blue sweater.
Nothing. Not even a twitch.
Again, he called, “Belinda?”
Nothing. And the counter was almost flush with the floor and the wall.
He looked toward the back of the post office. Light was filtering through the roof back there somewhere. It barely penetrated the dust.
Whatever it was must have gone off back there. Maybe even in the alley.
He called, “Mrs. Miller?”
Another explosion, and he hunched his shoulders, expecting to be hit. That one was behind him. Wasn’t it? To the south. Or maybe it sounded like it was to the south because of the gaping hole behind him.
Well, if he was going to be hit, he’d have been hit. He waited, anticipating another explosion, then released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
He called again, more loudly. “Mrs. Miller?” He waited. “Anyone?”
He waited for another long moment. With a low rumble, what was left of the roof in the back let go. As he quickly backed away, he banged his left shoulder on the block he’d grabbed a moment ago.
He adjusted and backed through the hole, almost tripping over Hank, just as the rest of the ceiling collapsed, pulling the west wall down with it.
The dust coated him and clogged his nose, and a headache seeped into his sinuses.
He turned his head, put a finger to one nostril and shot a spray of mucus into the street. Then he cleared the other side.
Down the street, people were still running and screaming.
On this side of the street there was only him and Hank.
And another sound. A more ominous sound, beneath the rumble of debris. A disembodied screaming he hadn’t noticed earlier. Missiles. It was the scorching, searing shrieks of incoming missiles.
He took another step back and looked up at the sky. It seemed filled with vapor trails. Of all incoming weapons delivery systems, only missiles left those.
There were three. No, four.
He counted an even dozen before one streaked unseen to earth behind him to the east. It leveled the courthouse and damaged most of the stores around the square at the center of town.
That was three blocks away, and still the shock wave almost knocked him down.
He thought again of the woman in the blue car, hoped she got away.
The town was under attack.
But no, that couldn’t be right. Who would attack a small town like Severn, Colorado? With missiles?
All along the street, people continued to appear as if from nowhere, running in every direction. Yelling directions, screaming.
Why don’t they get in their cars and leave? Why don’t they at least go home?
The mayor had left. The woman with her son had left. The women across the street from earlier, they and Barney, had disappeared. The original people. They’d all gone inside, as if that would help.
He hoped they had found a basement. A deep basement. But others were still running, still screaming.
Sit down. They needed to find a place that felt safe and sit down. He wouldn’t tell them there was no safe place.
Another explosion sounded some distance to the north, somewhere behind the post office. Then another. They seemed to be walking closer.
He turned away, meaning to take Hank’s truck.
Then another missile hit to the west, farther, maybe a mile past Woolworth’s. Then two more to the east. He hoped the woman and her son had escaped. Then three more hit in rapid succession to the south.
Had they been coming this quickly before? Had he just not heard them?
And what’s south? The armory? Would another nation know where the local National Guard Armory was located? And where the hell was the National Guard in all this?
But maybe they had to wait for the governor to tell them to move. That was right, wasn’t it?
Whatever. It definitely wasn’t a flashback.
And it wasn’t a bad dream.
It was an attack.
The nation was under attack. Unbelievable.
Where could he get a rifle? He had to be ready to fight back.
He glanced down at Hank, wished there was something he could do. But there wasn’t.
He turned, walked to the driver’s side door of Hank’s truck, opened it and got in.
He turned the key in the ignition and the truck started right up.
Hank’s words resonated in his mind.
You know where the place is, right?
And the laugh.
Yes, he knew where the place was. That’s where he should go. Probably he should go check on Martha. At least to let her know about Hank. And give her the pickup.
That must have been what Hank wanted.
It must have been.
* * *
Jack Ratliff hadn’t been gone from the house for ten minutes before Marge decided to surprise him. He wasn’t like most husbands. He always noticed when she did something new.
If he was true to his schedule, he was down at Barney’s getting his hair cut.
It was Monday. Barney would be the only one on duty.
If she hurried, she could be getting her hair styled at the same time Jack was getting his trim. It made her feel closer to him.
They’d be two blocks apart, but Jack wouldn’t know until that evening when he got home. He’d say how nice her hair looked, and she’d smile and thank him for noticing.
Then he’d flash that silly grin he had and say he was a lucky man. He would invite her to dinner out somewhere. Probably Pizza Hut, but that was okay. Jack wasn’t the biggest spender in the world, but his heart was in the right place.
She gathered her coat and purse, stopped at the table to down the last fourth of her tepid cup of coffee, and opened the kitchen door into the garage.
As she took another step, Teacup, her tortoise-shell Siamese cat, rubbed against her left ankle, then leapt through the door ahead of her. There, she stopped, sat down and looked back as if to ask permission.
Marge looked down and smiled. “You want outside for awhile baby? Okay. Mama should be gone only about a half-hour. Just don’t get yourself in trouble, okay?”
The cat stepped up on the threshold and rubbed Marge’s leg again, then turned and scampered toward the garage door.
Marge laughed and went through the kitchen door and into the garage.
She looked at her car and smiled again. Just another example of what a good husband Jack was. His pickup was newer than her car by three years, but he insisted she use the garage, especially at this time of year. He most often parked in the driveway overnight, and along the curb if he was only home for lunch.
She opened the driver’s side door and got in, then activated the garage door opener Jack had attached to her rear view mirror. Twice before, she’d forgotten that detail. But she’d only bumped the door once, and not enough to do any damage.
Jack had laughed off and on for an hour after that. Such a silly man.
She carefully backed out of the garage, watching in her side view and rear view mirrors for Teacup. The cat was nowhere to be seen. Probably she should have kept her in the house.
Well, there was no time now. If she didn’t hurry, she’d miss her virtual rendezvous with her husband.
She backed into the street and drove away.
But she stopped at the corner.
Had she remembered to close the garage door?
She nipped her bottom lip lightly with her teeth. Cold as the day was, there wasn’t any heavy snow in the forecast. And if any of the light flurries blew into the garage it would be melted long before Jack got home.
It would be all right. She didn’t like going back. Always move forward was her motto.
Besides, when Teacup got tired of the cold, she could at least hide away inside the garage somewhere.
She turned left.
As she drove along Fourth toward Main, she hummed the tune to The Twelve Days of Christmas. Jack seldom caught the Christmas spirit until around Christmas Eve, bless his heart. And he found The Twelve Days of Christmas repetitive and boring. But she enjoyed it.
Maybe this year she could begin playing carols quietly as background music when he first got home from work. Maybe that would get him more in line with the season.
She laughed. “Fat chance.” If old Ebenezer Scrooge were reincarnated, he’d come back as Jack Ratliff.
At Main, she would turn right and park directly in front of the Salon. It was early enough in the day, maybe the meters wouldn’t be filled. If they were, she could park in the big lot in the alley behind Woolworth’s.
Sure enough, the parking places in front of Jay’s as well as Woolworth’s and Harriman’s Dry Cleaner were all full. She passed by and turned right on Second Avenue, then again into the alley that ran through the block. Finally she turned into the large Woolworth’s parking lot and quickly found a space near the back door.
No need to stay in the cold any longer than necessary. And the manager of Woolworth’s was well aware shoppers all along the downtown section of Main Street used the parking lot. He didn’t seem to mind.
She got out of the car and walked through the Woolworth’s back door. The rush of warm air was comforting. She proceeded toward the front, although she did stop and look at a few items along the way. She had plenty of time, and it would be rude not to at least consider buying a few things as she made her passage.
Manager Jim Corman himself was on the floor. “Morning, Ms. Mayor.” He grinned broadly. “Headed over to Jay’s?”
Color rose in her cheeks. “Am I that transparent?”
He shook his head and laughed lightly. “No ma’am, not at all. But it’s the first Monday of the month. Seems like you usually get your hair styled on the first Monday.”
“Oh. Well, yes, in fact I was. The parking spaces out front were all full. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Now you know better than that.” He smiled. “It’s good to see you, as always. Kind of classes up the place, you coming in here now and then.”
She laughed. “I’m sure. Have a good day, Mr. Corman.”
“Same to you, Ms. Ratliff. Say hi to Jack for me when you see him.”
“I’ll do that,” she said, and pushed the front door open. She turned left and began making her way along the sidewalk.
For all the cars parked along the street, there was hardly anyone on the sidewalk. And there was hardly any traffic on the way here. Even on Main Street.
She smiled as she thought again of Jim Corman. He always made her feel so good. And imagine him actually knowing her schedule. At least to the point of remembering she had her hair done the first Monday of every month. All men should be so attentive.
Then again, if they were that attentive, women wouldn’t try so hard. Then the reasons for being attentive in the first place would fall away. At least that’s how the men would see it. Silly, all of them.
Good rearing, that’s what it was with Jimmy Corman. When she first met him, her Danny had brought him home after school one day when he was in sixth grade. Jim and his parents had just moved into town from Denver.
His first day in the new school, Danny had taken to Jim immediately and invited him for supper. The two were inseparable from then through high school graduation. They played together on the basketball and football teams and double dated more often than not. Danny tried to talk Jim into joining the army with him, but Jim was set on a career managing something. He wasn’t sure what yet, but an MBA was in his immediate future.
When Danny returned from China in a coffin, Jim was devastated. He was also the only eventual pall bearer who called and asked specifically to be included in that honor.
Quite a young man.
She and Jack grew closer to Mavis and Ralph, Jim’s parents, too. For many years they had dined together once a month or so, and they still exchanged Christmas cards. But after Danny was killed, they lost touch. Understandably, she and Jack were absorbed with their grief.
She paused outside Jay’s and wiped a tear from her cheek. Her Danny had been gone almost six years now. Odd how some things never let go of a mother’s emotions.
But life does go on. Maybe after her hair appointment she would call Mavis and see whether she’d like to have lunch. It would be wonderful to see her again. Maybe they could even rekindle their friendship.
She tugged the door open and walked in.
On the left, four of the five hoods were in use. Marge glanced the women over, but she didn’t think she knew any of them. The town was really growing.
Along the right wall were five sinks and five styling chairs. Above them were five mirrors.
Currently, Jay Selman was busy dying a customer’s hair in the third chair.
Cindy Leclerk was just coming in from the back. “Hey, Ms. Ratliff. How you doin’ today? Want the usual?”
Jay looked up. “Hi Mrs. Ratliff.”
“Hi Jay,” she said, then self-consciously touched her hair.
Jay made no secret of the fact he was gay, but he was still awfully easy on the eyes. A little thin for her taste—artfully thin, Jay would say—but he had shoulders that wouldn’t quit. And his chest tapered into practically no hips. The man was an inverted pyramid.
His hair was blue-black, probably dyed, but she’d never seen him with a five o’clock shadow. In fact, his cheeks were so smooth she might easily wonder whether he shaved at all. Or needed to. Maybe some sort of hormone therapy.
She looked at Cindy. “Cindy, you like to experiment, right?”
Cindy grinned. “Right! You game for a brand new look?”
“Well, within reason. But I want to lose the length and the—thickness, I guess. Can you do something modern like that but so it will still look good on a woman my age?”
Cindy scoffed. “A woman your age! I hope I look as good as you do in ten years, Ms. R, and I’ll only be twenty-nine then. Again.” She laughed, then walked past Marge, gesturing her to follow. “C’mon. Chair one for you. How long do I get to play?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Marge shrugged. “A half-hour?”
Cindy nodded. “I can do that. But why the rush? Got a hot date with the hubby?”
As color rose in Marge’s cheeks, she glanced quickly toward Jay, then looked at Cindy again. “Something like that.”
“Well, let’s get to it then.” Cindy made a show of dusting off the chair, then patted it. “Sit.”
When Marge was seated, Cindy rocked her back and washed her hair, talking to her the whole time. She covered everything from a royal wedding in Tanzania she’d read about to national politics. Finally she leaned her forward again and retrieved her scissors and a comb.
Again she began talking, and she talked the whole time she was snipping, looking, and snipping again.
There was a large but muffled explosion somewhere down the street. Maybe to the east.
Cindy stopped snipping and looked around. “What in the world was that? Jay, you want me to—”
“Sounded like a water heater blew up or something. Finish with Mrs. Ratliff first. Then you can go look if you want.”
Cindy went back to snipping, looking, and snipping. After about another minute, during which Marge didn’t feel so much as a single tress of hair leave her head, Cindy said, “Voila!” She turned the chair around to face the mirror. “There y’go. How’s that?”
Marge put her left hand up to her mouth. “Oh goodness! It’s so short!” Then she beamed. “But it’s also beautiful! You’re getting a special tip today, Cindy.” She glanced over at Jay. “Be sure to hang onto this one, Jay. She’s a keeper.”
Jay grinned and nodded.
Cindy beamed at Marge. “I appreciate that. Thank you!” Then she turned toward the cash register. “Well, let’s get you out for that date. Then I’m gonna go see what made that big boo—”
The explosion came from the side.
If she’d had time to look, Marge would have seen the east wall bulge, then explode. But there was no time for anything.
The hair dryers, complete with the chairs beneath them and the customers in them, were blown across the room to merge in an instant with Jay, his customer, and the cabinet behind them.
At the sudden whump! behind her, Marge formed her lips into an unexpressed O, then blew through the cash register and Cindy and into the block wall.
Next door, Jim Corman and three customers were blown out into the street, their bodies shredded and broken and mixed with chrome and glass and the detritus of Woolworth’s shelves.
A few seconds later, Jack Ratliff climbed into his truck and headed east to his office.
* * *
In the first guest chair just inside and behind the door of Clifton’s Barbershop, Mayor Ratliff was comfortable, save for the cold finger of wind that whipped through the open door now and again and played around the bottom of his trousers.
Probably Marge was right. Probably he should have switched to his chocolate brown wool suit for today. But he’d chosen to wear his favorite, the thinner light brown cotton-polyester suit with the narrow gold pinstripes. It made him look thinner. Wool always added weight he didn’t have, and this was an election year.
The mayor would rather the door was closed. But Barney Clifton owned the place and he preferred to have it open. He’d rather have cool air that was fresh than warm air that wasn’t. In the meantime, the wall furnaces were working overtime.
As Harmon LeGrange walked away from the cash register ten dollars lighter, Barney glanced across at the mayor. “Jack, you’re up.”
The mayor folded his newspaper and settled into the first barber chair. He would have preferred the second or third chair since they were farther from the door, but Barney preferred the first chair. It was an ego thing, the mayor was sure. After all, it was Barney’s place. The first chair there was like First Violin in an orchestra.
There were three barbershops in town. Jay’s Hair Salon was just down the street, just the other side of Woolworth’s. But the mayor couldn’t bring himself to get his hair cut in a “salon.” Marge did, and that said enough about Jay’s.
Hinkle’s Barbershop was way up at the other end of Main, out past the Weeblue Inn and the Havastomp Lounge and just shy of the new shopping mall. Ol’ Web was a pretty good guy, but that was too far out of the way for the mayor to travel. It was practically outside the city limits.
Besides, Clifton’s maintained the old-timey look that Ratliff liked. Barney had a yellow pine barber pole out front, and he had it painted every year. He’d talked a few times about having a coat of shellac put on it to save having to paint it so often, but that would detract from the old-timey look. It did a man’s heart good to see red and white paint fading faster than he was.
The place also had a big square window next to the barber’s chair, complete with Clifton’s and Barbershop painted in two red, arched lines of letters across it. It looked really nice. Finally, somewhere or other Barney had acquired an actual oak Indian chief. It was only slightly less than life size, and it stood just outside the door for as long as the mayor could remember.
Of course, it was a natural oak color, except for some faded and chipped paint in black and white on the headdress to make it look like real eagle feathers. That and the band across the Chief’s forehead was painted to look like leather. For a time, Barney thought about stapling a real leather strip over it, but he figured then he’d have to find some real feathers to stick in behind it. That would be a maintenance nightmare.
And to top it all off, Barney’s was right down town, only a few doors down from the Rexall Drugstore on the corner of Main and First. It was also just over a mile from his house and only a few blocks from his office in the Courthouse. Back in the day, a man could have lunch at the Rexall, then stop by for a haircut if he needed to. Convenient, that’s what it was in a nutshell.
There were only three chairs in the place, and currently only two barbers. Joe McGinty had the day off. According to Barney, he should be on his way back from Denver later today. He’d used the weekend plus today for a trip to visit his wife’s folks. Sunday—yesterday—was her mother’s seventy-eighth birthday and her father’s eighty-second.
Barney situated the cape around him, then added a neck strip and fastened the cape. “What’ll it be today, Mr. Mayor? Want me to stop fooling around and take it all off?”
The mayor laughed. “I’m about the only customer you have nowadays, Barney. I wouldn’t want to cheat you out of your ten bucks a week. Let’s just make it a trim like usual.”
“Well, all right. I guess I can do that. I was hopin’ to leave early today though. This is gonna take awhile. There must be ten, twelve hairs here.” He laughed as he turned on his clippers. Then he leaned forward slightly, looked at his friend’s face in the mirror across the room and smiled. “Hey, did I tell you the one about—”
And a massive explosion rattled the window. A blast of cold air rushed in through the door
The major started. He gripped the arm rests of the chair and looked to his left. “What the hell was that?”
Barney was looking too. “I don’t know! Glad it didn’t blow the window out. Hey, there’s a guy in the street behind that pickup. Isn’t that Hank Johnson’s truck?”
The mayor got up and they both moved out through the door. “Looks like it. Who’s that behind it?”
Barney shook his head. “Can’t tell. I hope he’s all right.” He pointed toward the post office. “Looks like the post office blew up.”
“Nah, it was behind it. Or maybe in the back. The walls are still standing. Maybe their heater blew.” He started down the street. He’d parked in front of the drugstore. “I’d better get to my office. We’ll finish this another time.”
Barney yelled after him. “Hey, Jack, can I have my cape?”
The mayor stopped and looked down. “Oh.” He removed the cape and the neck strip, balled the latter inside the former and tossed them back to Barney. “See you later.”
Barney just nodded, then turned and walked back into the shop to call 911.
As the mayor turned away, a woman appeared out of nowhere. She struck him solidly, almost bowling them both over.
The mayor grabbed her arms and steadied her, then said, “Excuse me.” He released her and ran up the street toward his pickup.
A woman came out of the dress shop one door to the east just as Barney disappeared inside. She was dragging a young boy with her. She practically threw him into the passenger side of her car, then ran around it and got in on the driver’s side. A moment later she was driving east along Main.
The mayor was just opening the door of his pickup.
The man across the street was standing, sort of. He’d turned and was stepping up onto the sidewalk, so he must be all right.
As he pulled away from the curb and drove east along the street, he glanced through the driver’s side window. Now the man was crouched in front of the post office. It looked like that vagrant. Some war hero or something. He’d be all right, and if he wasn’t, he probably wasn’t a voter anyway. They can’t vote if they don’t have a regular address, can they?
As he was crossing Second Avenue at the end of the block, another explosion sounded somewhere behind him.
In the rear view mirror it looked like it was about three blocks distant. The Woolworth’s Five and Dime maybe? Or maybe Ray’s Hair Salon. Well, there you go. He hoped Marge wouldn’t be too disappointed. She could always get her hair styled at that fancy new place out in the mall.
But what in the world was going on? One heater he could understand, but two?
Then again, that second one seemed like something bigger than a heater exploding. Still, to be on the safe side he would call in the head of Municipal Gas and have a talk with the man. Maybe get him to systematically check all the furnaces in town. It would be good to do something pro-active. This definitely wasn’t good in an election year.
A minute or two later he pulled into his marked parking space at the Courthouse and hurried along the sidewalk and up the steps. Just before he got to the door he wondered whether he’d locked his pickup.
He stopped and fished for his keys for a moment, then turned around and aimed the small black remote device at his truck. He pressed the lock button. The horn sounded and the lights flashed twice.
Better safe than sorry.
He opened the right door of the heavy double doors and went inside.
The explosion blew him back through the doors.
As he lay on his back at the base of the steps, he frowned. Weird. He felt fine, other than a lump on the back of his head. Marge would have a fit over that.
He took a breath.
But something didn’t feel right. Like he was breathing through water. Or like his breath was dragging a bag of water behind it.
What’s going on? And three explosions? Terrorists maybe?
He took another breath, then closed his eyes. Opened them. Looked at the sky.
It was filled with contrails.
What are those streaks? Jets?
Maybe they’re going after the terrorists.
Somewhere past his feet, another explosion sounded. A distant explosion. Distant. That’s good.
Someone yelled, “Hey!”
And someone was running down the steps. Footfalls on the steps. That funny thwacking sound of leather soles on concrete.
“Out here! It’s the mayor! The mayor’s hurt! Oh damn. The mayor’s….”
The voice faded, became a roaring in his ears.
He took another breath.
Who was that voice? Chief? Was that Bill Martin? The chief of police? The chief would get him up.
The chief’s face came into focus. Huge. Peering at him. Then it withdrew.
The mayor’s head shifted a bit, side to side. His head wavered, like he had no control.
Wavered? Was that the right word?
Yes. Like it was balanced and a breeze caused it to teeter. Like something was tugging at it.
No, like something was tugging at something that was attached to it. How would that work?
Maybe the chief was getting him up.
He took another breath.
Another explosion filtered through the roaring in his ears. Then another. And another.
Damn. What direction? Behind him? Above his head?
South. That should be south. Or east. Maybe farther east.
The mall? Terrorists like to hit malls.
Sorry, Margie. If they took out the mall—
He took another breath.
Oh… but it doesn’t matter.
Still, what the hell? It can’t all be heaters. Can it?
Must be terrorists.
But the contrails.
He pulled another breath up from some depth.
He closed his eyes. Opened them.
The sky. It was fading too. He blinked hard, tried to focus.
Contrails? Jets? But why jets?
And why so many?
He dragged up another breath.
And why today?
He forcefully dragged up another breath.
He hoped he hadn’t torn his suit.
If he’d torn his suit—It wasn’t even a year old—
If he’d torn it up— What would Margie say if— What would Margie—
And a final sigh rushed out of him.
* * *
It was going to be a wonderful day. At least that’s what Marlene Cranston thought as she cracked the eggs to make a spinach, mushroom and cheese omelet for herself and her husband Mark.
Her sister was getting married in five short days, and her fitting for her bridesmaid’s dress was tomorrow. After that, all she had to do was attend.
She and Mark enjoyed a leisurely breakfast as Jeffrey, their three year old, slept in the nursery. It was about the only waking time they shared alone.
After they finished their omelets, they cleared the table together. Then she went into her office to check for updates from her sister. And she learned the fitting had been moved up to today. She had to be at Lane’s at 9 a.m.
She thought about going into Mark’s office to let him know, but he was probably busy, and really, he wouldn’t care anyway. All he had to do for the wedding was pick a suit, get dressed and accompany her. As for today, he wouldn’t mind watching Jeffrey for an hour or two. He was as good a dad as he was a husband.
So she opted to get a quick shower.
After she dried off, she grinned, wrapped a towel around her body and tiptoed into his office to give him the news. And whatever else he might have time for. After all, the baby was still asleep.
But Mark wasn’t there.
Then she heard Jeffrey laughing in the back of the house.
She crossed the living room, turned down the hallway—
And Mark was stepping away from the closet with a suitcase in his hand.
She frowned. “Are you going somewhere? And is Jeffrey up? I thought I heard him.”
He looked up and grinned. “Yep. I woke him up to say goodbye. You remember. I fly out of Denver for my conference in—” He looked at his watch. “Three hours. I’ve gotta get a move on. I’ll just toss a few things in the bag and—”
“Denver? Conference? What conference?”
“The one in Chicago. I told you about it a week or so ago, Marly. Remember?”
“Oh.” Yes. She did remember. He had told her about it. “Do you have to go, Mark? This is the worst possible day. I found out this morning Sis moved the fitting up. I have to go downtown to Lane’s to be fitted for my bridesmaid’s dress this morning.”
“Oh. Well, I’m really sorry.” Then he grinned again. “But I did tell you. And I do have to go. You know the deal. I only do three of these a year. No conference, no business. No business, no food.”
And the day collapsed on her like a ton of—well, like a ton of something.
Still smiling, he said, “Maybe you can get a sitter for a couple hours.”
“Can’t you just watch him for an hour? One hour. It shouldn’t take long and—”
But Mark shook his head. “Sorry, baby. I’ll miss my flight. I’m pressed for time as it is.”
So she got dressed, kissed Mark goodbye, and got Jeffrey dressed and put him in the car. Then she drove downtown to Lane’s. At least there was a space open out front.
She carefully parked her blue Toyota Prius, then got out and walked around the front of the car to feed the parking meter. A quarter. That would give her a half-hour. She hoped that would be enough time. If not, maybe the parking-meter gods would smile on her. Someone needed to.
On second thought, she inserted another quarter.
The whole thing was still annoying. How was she supposed to keep his stupid conferences straight?
She opened the passenger side of her car and unbuckled Jeffrey from his car seat. She was going to carry him into the store, but he was wearing his little tennis shoes and he wanted to walk.
She set him down on the sidewalk. “All right, but hold onto Mama’s hand, okay?”
As she led him across the sidewalk, she was enjoying the feel of his tiny hand in hers. She looked up just in time to avoid running into Nancy Ferguson and Dolly Perkins. They were standing just outside the entrance to the shop.
“Excuse me,” she said.
Both women glanced at her and nodded. Still, she had to turn sideways to get past them.
After she passed, they moved their conversation to one side of the door.
Inside, Abigail Lane was standing with her arms crossed over her chest, a smile on her face. As always, she was dressed impeccably. “Ah, Marlene! And right on time.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, only a few minutes late. Shall we get started?”
“Yes, ma’am, and I’m sorry I’m a little late but—”
Then Abigail noticed Jeffrey. “Oh, and who’s this? Is this your son?”
“Yes ma’am. I was going to leave him at home but his father—”
“Yes, yes. We all have our little battles to fight. Right this way, please.” And she turned away. “Perhaps he’ll be a good little boy and watch as we get Mommy fitted for a pretty dress.” A few steps farther, just short of a low platform, she pointed to her left at a chair. “You may put him there.”
Marlene deposited Jeffrey, then knelt in front of him. “Sit right here, okay? Just watch. This lady’s gonna help Mommy get a new dress, okay?”
Amazingly, Jeffrey nodded and resettled himself in the chair. He even stretched his little arms out to the sides in an attempt to put both hands on the arm rests.
“There you are,” Abigail said. Then she pointed. “In the first changing room. Please put the dress on and then take the stage.”
Marlene wasn’t sure about leaving Jeffrey in the chair, but he was still there when she came out a long moment later. To save time, she left her jeans on and just took off her jacket and her blouse.
Abigail noticed. “Hmm. Well, it’ll have to do. I have another fitting shortly.” And she went to work.
The dress was among the ugliest Marlene had ever seen. It was taffeta in purple and orange diagonal stripes swirling from bottom to top around it. Each color merged into the other. That was something, at least. Maybe.
Abigail preferred to work from the bottom up. She finished hemming the skirt and was halfway around the waist when something outside exploded. The windows on the front of the shop rattled hard.
Abigail started, straightened and looked around. “Goodness! What in the world was that?”
But a panic born of experience rushed through Marlene. What was it? It was something bad.
She had heard that sound before, or one very similar, when she was in basic training for the Colorado National Guard. Her unit had traveled to a bombing range in southwest Arizona to witness the impact of five-hundred pound bombs. And those explosions were small compared to the one that had rattled Lane’s windows seconds ago.
Jeffrey picked that second to pile out of his chair and make a beeline for the door.
Marlene, her eyes wide, came off the platform and very nearly knocked Abigail over. “Jeffrey!”
He hesitated at the shrill sound of his mother’s voice and she caught him by the shoulder just short of the cash register. She quickly picked him up and carried him back toward the platform.
Abigail said, “Yes, just put him back in the chair and we’ll—”
“I’m sorry,” Marlene said as she skirted the platform and headed for the fitting room. “We’ll have to do this another time.”
“Another time? But my dear, we—”
Marlene was already out of the dress when she shoved the curtain aside. “Damn it, another time! Jeffrey and I have to go home!” She turned around, pulled her blouse over her head and grabbed her jacket.
As she was putting it on, Jeffrey escaped again. “Boom!” he said as he flashed past Abigail on the way to the front door. “Boom! Boom!”
Again Marlene raced to catch him, this time going over the platform. And she did catch him, again just short of the cash register. She grabbed his arm, then turned to look at Abigail. “I’m really sorry, but I can’t do this today. Something’s not right— I have to get back to the house.”
“Well certainly, but—”
But Marlene and Jeffrey had already left the building.
Outside, Marlene ran to the car with Jeffrey in tow and barely able to keep his feet. She threw open the passenger door, then picked him up by one arm and set him in his car seat. Then she raced around the front of the car and got in. A moment later, she pulled away from the curb, headed east on Main.
In her left periphery, she thought she saw a man in the street behind a pickup. He’d have to fend for himself. She and Jeffrey would be safe at home. She had to get home. Maybe she could call Mark. He wouldn’t be halfway to Denver yet.
She picked up her purse and set it on the console, then reached in and felt about for her cell phone.
And she saw it. Where she left it. Sitting on the cabinet next to the toaster. “Damn it!”
Well, she’d just have to wait until she got home. But Mark would come back. Nothing was more important than protecting his family. He would come back.
Just after she passed the courthouse, she realized she was going the wrong way. She took the next left. Which avenue was this? Well, it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it would take her down a mile—two miles?—to Granger, a major road that ran diagonally from the northeast side of town to the southwest. It passed within a few blocks of her house. It would be the quickest way.
Another explosion came from behind her. It sounded close, no more than a few blocks. The courthouse?
Well, God rest them, but at least she wasn’t in the middle of it anymore. She pressed the accelerator harder.
A mile. She must have come a mile. Where was Granger?
Another explosion sounded behind her. And another one. And another.
At least they were behind her. And each one seemed farther away. Had they hit the Armory? Whoever “they” were. But it was all behind her. It was all south. Well, except the one outside Lane’s and wherever the one hit west of there.
But all of it was south from Main. All of it was south. And she was well to the north.
Her home was in the far northeast corner, too, not far off Granger. So she’d skirt whatever was going on.
Finally she began to relax.
She reached to turn on the radio. KOSI FM for some light rock. That would help soothe her nerves.
Static. She frowned. That wasn’t right. She turned the dial slightly to the left, then back to the right.
The static continued.
Well, Granger was coming up. Through the overpass, a quick left turn, a few blocks along Granger and she was home free.
As she drove through the underpass, she moved into the left turn lane. But she was blocked by a semi-tractor. And he was just sitting there.
“I don’t believe this!” she yelled and laid on the horn.
Jeffrey said, “Mommy?” and started crying.
Then she remembered there was a stop light. The guy wasn’t stalled. He was waiting for the light to change. As calmly as she could, she said, “I’m sorry, Jeff baby. It’s all right. We’re all right.”
The trailer lurched and began to move forward as a plume of black smoke belched from the stacks.
“Finally!” she said, but he wasn’t moving very fast. And then there was the ramp. She was certain she could get around him.
In a moment of frustration, she swung the steering wheel to the right and floored the accelerator. She passed the midpoint of the trailer, then the drive wheels of the tractor.
She squeezed the steering wheel and pushed harder on the accelerator. As she passed the big flat chrome bumper, she turned hard to the left and zipped past the semi. She touched the window control on the arm rest. The least she could do was wave to say thank you to whoever was driving the truck. After all, it wasn’t his fault and—
Something streaked through her right periphery.
The missile hit off the right front fender of the car. The explosion lifted what had been the Prius, Marlene and Jeffrey up and back through the cab of the semi.
* * *
As Ray turned into the driveway, the white-framed screen door flew open. Caught in the wind, it slapped back against the side of the clapboard house.
Martha Johnson came out onto the porch a second later. The uprights seemed to frame her.
She was dressed in a mustard colored dress and a dark green cardigan. She’d probably hastily pulled the sweater on when she heard the truck in the driveway. On her feet were low-cut white woven-leather moccasins. Again, probably something she’d slipped into on her way to the door.
He hadn’t seen her for almost seven years, but she was as beautiful as he remembered. Her skin was so light it was nearly translucent, but there wasn’t a freckle in sight. Her deep-brown eyes sparkled when she laughed, as he recalled, and smoldered when she was angry.
Her hazel hair was parted in the middle and flowed over her shoulders to the center of her breasts. There it was trapped beneath her arms, which were crossed over her chest. Her long, trim fingers were white as she gripped the sweater just beneath her shoulders on either side.
The wind, whipping across the porch from the north, tugged at the bottom of her dress. She said something in the direction of the pickup, but Ray couldn’t make it out.
When the door of the truck was even with the porch, he stopped and turned off the engine. As he opened the door, her voice came through. “Hank, did you see all that mess in town?” She put her left hand over her eyes as if to shade them and looked toward town. “All that smoke! What in the world’s goin’ on over there?”
Then the door was fully open and Ray stepped out around it. He closed it behind him.
Still shading her eyes, she turned her attention back to the truck. “Hank, did you hear me? I said—”
Beneath her hand, she squinted. “Ray? Ray Acuna?” She beamed. “It’s so good to see you!” Then she frowned. “But what in the world are you doing here?” Then she looked past him toward the truck. A bit more quietly, she said, “Hank isn’t with you, is he?”
Ray started across the yard.
She smiled again as her gaze shifted from him to the truck and back. “It’s really great to see you, Ray.” She took a step forward to the edge of the porch and put her left hand over her eye brows again. Again she looked past him at the truck. “But why isn’t Hank driving? That’s Hank’s truck, isn’t it?”
“Oh. Yeah, Martha, it’s Hank’s truck. Could we go inside, please?”
“What? Oh. Sure. Of course. But where’s Hank, Ray? Did he stay in town for some reason? He was supposed to get the mail and—”
Ray had started up the steps. He gestured toward the door. “Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you everything.”
“Tell me everything? Like what?”
He opened the screen door and held it for her. He gestured with his right hand. Suddenly tired, he said, “Please.”
She went inside, but looked over her shoulder at him as she crossed the threshold. “Ray, what’s wrong? Is something wrong?”
Ray stepped in behind her and closed the door. The house was comfortably warm.
The living room was well furnished.
A tan suede-cloth couch lay against the west wall opposite the front door. Above the couch hung several framed photos, including one of Martha’s parents and one of Hank’s. Oddly, there were no pictures of Hank and Martha.
An oak end table sat to either side of the couch. Each table held a crystal lamp with brass fittings and a white shade.
To the right of the couch, with its back to the dining area, was a brown suede-cloth recliner—probably Hank’s—and a small matching rocking chair. Between them was another oak side table. Behind the table, a suitcase was standing on edge. Next to it was a smaller bag.
To the left of the couch in the corner, a humidifier hummed quietly.
Along the south wall was a window. In the southeast corner, a large flat-screen television was balanced on a long, narrow oak table.
Along the wall to the side of the front door was an overstuffed chair, again in tan suede-cloth, and another oak end table. On the other side of it was a false fireplace.
It was all very normal. Very peaceful. A sanctuary that was about to be ravaged with some very bad news.
Ray swayed slightly and steadied himself with the fingers of his left hand on the back of the overstuffed chair. “I’m sorry. Would you mind if I sit down?”
Her eyes grew wide. “Why no, of course not. Please do.” She raised her hands as if to reach for him, then returned them to her sides. “Are you hurt? Can I get you a glass of water or something?”
He stepped around the side of the chair, then dropped into it more heavily than he meant to. He raised his right hand. “No, I’m all right.” He gestured toward the rocking chair. “Would you sit too, please, Martha? I have some bad news.”
She put her right hand to her mouth as she backed toward the rocking chair. “Oh. Okay. God! What in the world has Hank done now? He isn’t in jail, is he? Because I told him if he ever went to jail again—”
Ray held up his right hand again. “No, Martha. No, he isn’t in jail.”
“Well, at least that’s something.” She sat down, then frowned. She leaned forward in the rocking chair and clasped her hands on her knees. “What’s goin’ on, Ray?” She paused. Quietly, she said, “Is he with one of his special friends?” She used her fingers to make air quotes.
Ray looked at her. What was the best way to do this? He’d always heard it was best to just come out with it, but that seemed so cold, so matter of fact.
As Martha looked at him, a realization seemed to dawn. Her eyes grew wide again. She gripped the arms of the rocker and slid back in the chair, then clasped her hands in her lap. The fingers of each hand busily worked in between the fingers of the other. When she spoke again, her voice was thin, almost a whisper, as if a ghost were talking. “Ray. Is it—is it something bad?”
He leaned forward in the chair. “I’m really sorry, Martha. There were missiles and—”
“Missiles? Is that what caused all the smoke in town? And the explosions? I thought I heard explosions.”
He nodded. “I don’t know why or where they came from, but I saw them.” He paused. More quietly, he said, “I’d seen them before. Or smaller ones like them.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Look, I don’t know what’s happening—you know, I mean, with the missiles and the whole thing. And I won’t speculate, but….” He let the sentence die, then said, “Anyway, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“Sorry? For what?” She leaned forward in the chair again. Again her voice was thin, and she frowned. “Is Hank in the hospital or something?”
Again he shook his head. “I’m sorry. He’s dead, Martha.”
She started to get up, but sat again, heavily. “He’s—” Her voice caught in her throat, and tears sprang to her eyes. She trembled as she tried to hold in her emotions. “He’s dead?” She shook her head. As if speaking in a dream, she said, “I was leaving him, Ray. But I didn’t want him dead.”
Leaving him? But Ray only nodded. “He went back into the post office. Said he forgot stamps. Then a missile—”
Her eyes grew wide again, and the hint of a sarcastic smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. “Stamps? He went back for stamps?”
Ray frowned. “I think that’s what he said.”
“Who else was in the post office, Ray?”
“We didn’t need stamps. We have plenty of damn stamps. Who else was in the post office?”
“Oh. Well, Mrs. Miller was working the window. There was a woman ahead of me, but I don’t know her. She was only nineteen, maybe twenty. But Hank was in front of her. And when he turned around to leave he didn’t seem to know her.”
“Nobody was in line behind you?”
He shook his head. “No. Why?”
Quickly she said, “That Belinda Presser wasn’t there?” Again she trembled. Almost angrily, she wiped the tears off her cheeks. “She was the final straw for me. The town whore.”
Quietly, he said, “No, she wasn’t there.” She wasn’t there when he was in line.
“And she didn’t come in after you left?”
“After I left? Martha, I wouldn’t have any way of knowing who came in after I left.”
She bit her lower lip as she looked at him. “Well, that’s true I suppose.”
Quickly he said, “But he left before I did, and nobody was with him when I saw him outside a minute or two later.”
She paused and looked at the floor for a moment, then looked at him again. Quietly, she said, “He was seeing her, you know. That Presser woman. And not like the others. I mean, he always had a woman stashed away somewhere.” She sighed. “But he was seeing her regularly. A couple times a week if my guess is right. Made me the laughing stock of the town.”
“Well—” Ray nodded. But he hadn’t heard anything about Hank and Belinda. Poor Martha. She deserved a lot better. “I’m sorry to hear that, Martha. Belinda Presser—she, uh—she couldn’t hold a candle to you. If you don’t mind me sayin’.”
“Thank you, Ray.” Color rose in her cheeks. “We were good together, weren’t we?” The color brightened. Then she moved her hands to the arms of her chair as if to get up. “Listen, are you sure I can’t get you some water or—”
“No, I’m fine. Really.” He stood up. “But, ah, I guess I’d better be going. Though I can’t say I’m sure where. I’m already this far out, maybe I’ll just keep going south.” He forced a slight grin, then fished in his pocket for a moment. He pulled out the keys to Hank’s truck and offered them to her. “Anyway, here are the keys to the truck.”
He expected her to get up too, but she settled back in her chair. “No. Please. I mean, please stay if you can. Just a few more minutes? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.”
“Sure,” he said, then settled into the chair again. He laid the keys on the side table. Probably she needed some time to absorb what he’d told her.
She nodded, then looked at him for a moment. Finally, she said quietly, “Did you see it, Ray?”
He frowned. “I’m sorry?”
She clasped her hands in her lap again, her fingers working nervously. “When he—when he died.” A tear leaked from her right eye and she hastily brushed it away, then returned her hands to her lap. “Did you see it?”
“Oh. Yes, I saw it.”
“Would you tell me, please?”
“Martha, are you sure?”
She nodded quickly. “I—I think so. I need to understand what happened.”
Ray said, “Oh. All right.” He took a breath. “Well, when everything started, I was mostly out of it I guess.”
She leaned forward. “So you were hurt!”
He raised one hand. “No. Not bad. Anyway, I had just left the post office. I was watching people across the street, so I wasn’t watching where I was going. I turned to head up the street and almost ran into Hank. That’s when he was going back into the post office—”
“For stamps?” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Ray nodded. “I think that’s what he said.
“Anyway, he grabbed me to keep us from colliding. Then he stepped past me and went in. I heard the door open behind me.
“I only got a few more steps. In fact, I guess I was just past his pickup when everything blew up.”
“It was parked in front of the post office?”
Ray nodded. “At a meter. The flag was up.” He almost grinned, thinking of Hank’s penchant for thriftiness, but he held it. “Anyway, about the time I got past the truck, the blast knocked me into the street. That’s the one that hit the post office. Or maybe just behind it. Far as I know, it was the first one.
“Anyway, that’s when I was almost out of it for a little while. When I finally got my senses back, I got up and headed back toward the post office. I was gonna check on Mrs. Miller and Hank.
“Then another missile hit down the street. Looked like it took out Woolworth’s or the dry cleaners. Then the ground was shaking, and more of the post office was collapsing and—” He was racing. He paused to collect himself. “Anyway, a minute or so later, that’s when Hank came walking through the door. Well, where the door used to be.”
Ray paused. “He was pretty badly torn up, Martha. Frankly, I don’t know how he was still walking. But he recognized me. He, uh—he said my name. And then he seemed to be handing me the keys to his truck. I suspect he knew it was—well, you know. I figure he wanted me to bring the truck back to you.
Ray sighed. “Anyway, then he just kind’a went down.” He paused, watching her. “I don’t think he suffered much.”
She nodded quickly, then shivered as if cold. “That’s terrible.”
Ray was uncertain what else to say. “I mean, he knew what happened ‘cause he walked out of the post office. But the thing is, he was probably in shock. That happens.” He paused again. “What I mean, he probably didn’t feel a lot of what was wrong with him. You know, because of the shock, so—”
Martha held up one hand. Barely above a whisper, she said, “It’s all right.” A tear escaped her right eye and rolled down her cheek. “Like I said, I was leaving him anyway.” She wiped away the tear, then clenched her hands hard in her lap. Finally, she leaned forward in the chair, put her face in her hands and sobbed.
In the corner past the couch, the humidifier continued to quietly hum.
Ray stood. He looked at her for a moment, then walked past her into the kitchen. He took a glass from the third cabinet he opened and filled it with tap water, then returned to the living room. He knelt alongside her chair.
“You, uh—you want some water?”
Her face still in her hands, she nodded.
A long moment later, her sobs subsided and she looked up. She took the glass and sipped at it, then set it on a coaster on the table and turned back to him. Quietly, she said, “He always thought I married him for the farm. But all I ever wanted was a good husband.”
She took a deep breath and sighed it out. “I was going to shower and change. Then I was going to write him a note. Figured I’d beat him to the punch. Figured I’d pack up and get out of here before he picked one of his bimbos and left me first. Or threw me out.”
She paused, then sighed. She glanced at the recliner. “Anyway, no need for that now I guess.” She paused again, then looked up at Ray. “Thanks, Ray. And thank you for coming out. Letting me know what’s going on. I’ve often thought we—” She stopped and shook her head, left the sentence hanging. “You really are a good guy, you know.”
“Well, thanks. I appreciate that.” He straightened, then cleared his throat. “Anyway, I guess I’d better be going.” He gestured toward the table beside the easy chair. “The keys for the truck are on the table over—”
“No. You take it, please.”
“Oh, now Martha, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’ll bet Hank wanted you to have it.”
Yeah. That and a heart attack. But he said, “Now why on Earth would he do that?” He didn’t like the tone in his own voice. “What I mean, Hank was a good guy and all that but—”
“No he wasn’t, Ray. He was an ass, especially toward you, and we both know it. He—” She paused. “He was only like that because he envied your courage. Going off to war. Living on your own terms even after you got back.”
Ray’s face was starting to feel warm. “Well, all that aside, I’m sure he meant for me to bring the truck back to you.”
“No, I can promise you he didn’t. I never liked that truck and he knew it. What farm truck has a pearlized finish?” A slight smile curled one corner of her mouth. “No, it was just another toy for Hank. Maybe he gave it to you so you wouldn’t tell me he went back into the post office after one woman or another.”
Ray frowned. “Now Martha, like I said—”
She held up one hand. “It’s okay. But I know he did. I saw it in your face. Poor Hank. He didn’t realized you’d never tell me because that’s the kind of guy you are.” She shook her head sadly. “Or maybe he did it to rub it in your face. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
She paused. “Tell you what. Let’s say he wanted you to have it to make up to you for all the mean things he said. Let’s go with that. Okay?”
She nodded. “I’m sure. You take it. I don’t need it anyway.” She looked around for a moment, as if seeing the place for the first time. “I don’t need any of this, actually.”
“Well… if you’re sure—”
“Give me just a minute and I’ll get the title for you. I can sign it over. It’s in both our names. That’s the one thing I insisted on. Then you’ll be legal.”
“All right. I guess.”
“Great. Hold on. I’ll be right back.”
She left the room and Ray walked to the front door. It was paneled with small panes, and a pair of thin curtains stretched from a narrow rod above the panes to another rod beneath them. He parted the curtains in the middle and looked through the window. At an angle off to the north, it looked as if the entire town was on fire.
In the sky were more contrails. All were moving east to west. How many had already fallen east of here? They even hit Severn, Colorado. What chance did larger towns and cities have to avoid disaster? This was not good.
Mexico, maybe. Maybe he should head to Mexico. Maybe Mexico would be safe.
A long moment later, Martha came back into the room. “Pretty bad out there?”
Ray nodded without turning around. He continued to peer through the window. “Worse than it was. Looks like the whole town’s gone up. And the air is filled with contrails.” He released the curtains. “Martha, look, there’s really no reason for me to take the truck.” As he turned around, he said, “You could sell it and—”
She’d changed clothes. Jeans, a blouse and a sweater had replaced the dress. On her head was a heavy knit cap. On her feet were a pair of Nike running shoes. In her left hand was the title. In her right was a heavy waist-length jacket.
She dropped the jacket on the back of the rocking chair and offered him the title. “Here you go. I signed it. You can date it later. Give you time to get new plates and all that.”
He accepted the title, folded it without looking at it and slipped it into the inside pocket of his jean jacket. “Okay, thanks. You’re sure you don’t want to sell it?”
She nodded quickly. “I’m sure.” Then she looked at him for a moment. “So where will you go?”
“I don’t know for sure. If I was walking, I’d head south since I’m already this far out of—”
“But now you’re not walking.”
“Well, that’s true.” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess south is as good as any other direction. I was thinking maybe Mexico. I’m definitely not going back to town.”
She nodded. Quietly, she said, “Seems neither of us have any reason to go north.” She paused, then looked at him pointedly. “Ray, could I ask you a favor?”
“Oh. Well, sure. You know that. Name it.”
“You don’t have any idea what’s going on out there, right? I mean, the reason for it?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“But there was a missile strike? I mean, actual missiles?”
He nodded. “Yes.” There was, and it was ongoing.
“And you have some idea what that means. What’s coming. I can see it on your face.” She paused. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you scared.”
Ray took a deep breath, then nodded again. “Unless I miss my guess, this is the prelude to an invasion. Here. In our country.”
She bit her lower lip and nodded slightly, then hesitated. Finally, she said, “Ray, take me with you.”
“Please. Please, Ray. I don’t want to go through this alone.” She paused. “And if I know you at all, you don’t want me to go through it alone either. If you drive away from here and I’m not in the truck with you, it’ll weigh on your mind.”
She took a deep breath, then crossed her arms. “Now,” she said, then hesitated. “If you tell me that isn’t true I won’t say another word about it.”
He studied her. There was no deceit in her eyes. No fear, and no pity or loathing.
She was right. Something was coming. Something bad. And he didn’t want to think of her here alone.
Even before the invasion, there would be rogue civilians. Facing an imminent end could turn even the most docile civilians feral. Especially the men.
Finally, barely above a whisper, he said, “You’re sure?”
“Well, all right. We can—”
Her eyes wide, she lunged forward, laughing, and flung her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Ray! Thank you!”
Good. That was good.
It would be a rough new world, and he didn’t want to go through it alone either.
* * * * * * *