To interrupt the string of previously unpublished short stories, I actually published this one before. However, that publication was limited to my patrons and donors. No cover, no backmatter, just story. I hope you will enjoy it.
Silence Is Better
a short storyby Harvey Stanbrough
Richard Grayson stood just inside his living room and tentatively reached for the door knob. The lingering scent of Marion’s perfume was finally gone. The only smell now was of dust. His hand trembled as he touched the cold bit of hammered bronze.
Do I really even want to open it? Do I want to see what’s out there? What’s left?
It had taken him a little over two hours to get to this point.
Richard was in the middle of breakfast at the kitchen table when the alarms went off. It was an odd day for something like sirens, something like alarms or alarming news.
Early morning sunlight was slanting through the window over the kitchen sink to his right. On the wall in front of him, some of Marion’s favorite knick-knacks still nestled almost against each other on three slightly off-set shelves. Little birds, a curled-up cat or two—Marion called them “kittens”—and various other small green and blue and red and clear glass figurines.
As he had each morning, he’d glanced over at her chair, at the placemat and plate and empty coffee cup and napkin and silverware that had lain there for almost a year, untouched, and he imagined he smelled the slightest hint of her perfume. A sweet scent for a sweet woman.
So all in all, it looked to be a good day. A calm, normal day. Or as normal as any day had been since Marion had passed almost a year ago. And on the eve of their 35th wedding anniversary.
But “events” are no respectors of normalcy. Both the television in his living room and the clock radio in his bedroom had suddenly sparked to life. Both had automatically shot up to maximum volume, and an announcer with a somber voice calmly but tersely read from a script:
Ladies and gentlemen, pardon this intrusion. This is not a drill, not an exercise in readiness. In a moment, I will announce an actual impending event.
Events are no respectors of persons or of normalcy.
Please leave your device on and pay close attention.
That warning was repeated two more times at 15-second intervals to be sure everyone with automatic televisions or radios would have the opportunity to hear it.
Still in thought about Marion and what had been, Richard listened through the introduction the first time. The second time he listened to it, paid more attention, tried to discern whether the voice was mechanical or from an actual human being. Because machines can be wrong. Some mechanical or electronic malfunction might have erroneously cued the thing to turn on. The whole thing might be a mistake.
But it was difficult to tell, save for the complete lack of emotion in the voice. Still, it sounded more like a staid veteran reporter than a robot. He finally decided it was probably a human trying to mimic a mechanical voice. If so, that was bad news.
As pay close attention brought the second introduction to a close, he looked down at his plate.
The announcement started over. Ladies and gentlemen, pardon this intrusion.
He hurriedly slipped his fork under the remaining scrambled eggs, speared the remaining bite of hash browns and then the remaining bit of ham, and put the whole thing in his mouth. As he chewed, conscious of carefully bringing all 32 teeth into play—he had to cling to whatever normalcy was left—he laid his fork on his plate, pushed his chair back, and stood up. Also carefully. Under control. Panic not allowed.
He picked up the remaining triangle of wheat toast, then turned and padded into the living room in his sock feet. He stopped for a moment. Above his loafers, which set next to the front door from the time he got off work to the time he went back—above those and his pre-staged briefcase and the wooden valet that held his suit coat—three more shelves of Marion’s knick-knacks or whatnots. He smiled. These were slightly larger: a child that reminded him of Huckleberry Finn, with ragged, calf-length pants, a ragged shirt, a straw hat and a fishing pole over his right shoulder; two little Indian girls sitting on either side of a ceremonial drum; an old couple, the old woman in a flowing blue dress leaning down to whisper in her seated husband’s left ear. And several others.
It was his everyday routine: get up, shower, get dressed—today of all days in his favorite suit, the navy blue with the thin silver-grey pinstripes—then make and eat his breakfast. That always consisted of two eggs scrambled or three over-medium and sausage or ham. Always. He liked bacon too, but it was too messy to fix, so he stuck with sausage or ham. But sausage in patties, never the links. Those too closely resembled nasty things expelled from the south end of north-bound dogs.
Every day he also included one slice of unbuttered wheat toast with his eggs and meat, sliced corner to corner, though he often threw away the second triangle. He ate potatoes only once a week, a nod to avoiding carbs.
He frowned. Is it prophetic in some way that I chose today to eat hash browns?
After breakfast he would normally fill his to-go coffee cup, a 16-ounce mug with a wide top and a tapered bottom that would fit in his car’s cup holder, then slip on his loafers. Those resided next to the front door from the time he got home until he left again for work. Next to them was his briefcase, then the valet that held whatever suit coat he’d chosen for the day. So to-go mug in hand, he would pick up his briefcase, drape his suitcoat over his left arm, and leave.
It was his routine. It was efficient, and he liked it.
But according to the announcement, today there would be no routine. And he knew the drill. This morning he was on his way to the bathroom, the most interior room of the house. The one that put the greatest number of walls between him and the outside. If you don’t have a basement, go to the most interior room of your house. That’s what they always said sooner or later. And his house didn’t have a basement.
He glanced again at his suitcoat, considered grabbing it. But there might be residual soap in the bathtub, and there was no good reason to sully his suit coat if this whole thing turned out to be a silly mistake.
He turned into the hallway, then walked into the bathroom and closed the door carefully. Under control. He stepped into the tub, then listened for a moment.
… an actual impending event. Please leave your device on and pay close attention.
Yes. Between the television blaring in the living room and the clock radio blaring in the bedroom, he could still hear the announcement clearly. He would leave the shower curtain open. It wouldn’t help much at any rate.
He stepped out of the tub, retrieved two thick blankets and a few folded pillowcases from the linen closet, then got back in the tub and sat down. He put the stack of pillow cases at the foot of the tub, then lay down and rolled onto his right side, facing away from the front of the house, and pulled the folded blankets up to his chin. He could leave his head out for the time being. After all, he still needed to be able to hear the announcement.
It was the best he could do, come what may.
The announcement began. KGRN Seven has received notification of an impending disaster. According to the North American Air Defense system, sixty intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads have been launched from Russia.
Missiles? From Russia? So maybe this was only a drill after all. And the voice sounds so business like. So emotionless. But not really mechanical at all. So probably not automatically and maybe erroneously triggered by a flaw in the system.
Of those, twenty-eight are targeting our NATO allies in Europe.
The remaining thirty-two are on a trajectory toward military bases in the United States.
Four of those are apparently targeting our own Strategic Air Command Levi Air Force Base. Impact is expected in roughly a half-hour.
Oh damn. But at least the base is—
If you live in the northeast corner of the city, we recommend you get in your vehicle now and drive either south or west. South or west. But leave now. If you can’t do that, take shelter in your basement or in the most interior room of your home.
There it is. Well, thank God I’m in the southwest quadrant.
If you live elsewhere in the city, take shelter in your basement or in the most interior room of your home. Please keep your device on for further updates. This message will repeat at regular intervals.
The abrupt, ensuing silence was eerie, punctuated only by the sound of Richard’s own quiet breathing and his pulse throbbing against the pillow case just below his right ear. The tub smelled of old soap—he would need to clean it when this was all over—and it was cold through his thin trousers and shirt on his right thigh and upper arm and shoulder.
Maybe he should have grabbed his suit coat after all. An extra layer between him and the cold tub.
The cold radiated against his bald spot too, from the slope of the end of the tub. But there was nothing he could do about that.
He was only glad Marion wasn’t here for this “event,” as the announcer called it. He and she had come so close to being able to enjoy the rest of their lives together. Their only son was grown and gone—and ostensibly safe, climbing a mountain somewhere in Alaska, and making a good living at it, complete with big-name sponsors. How could a man make a profession of climbing mountains?
Still, it seemed to work for Rob. And Richard was proud of him and his dedication to doing what he loved.
Richard didn’t mind his job either, though. His career. He’d been with the same advertising agency since its inception twenty-eight years earlier. He would retire in two more years. With the income from his retirement account and the money he would get when he sold his half of the company to his partner, he and Marion had planned to live the rest of their lives in luxury in Costa Rica. That had been Marion’s dream.
He still might at least visit the country, but his heart was set on Ecuador. Practically any place but the United States, which had been experiencing socialist creep for the past few decades. He’d rather be an American expat anywhere in the world than to watch his once-great nation’s rapid downhill slide.
If only Marion were here with me. Right here in this tub. She would be lying along my right side, my left arm wrapped protectively over her. I would insist she remain covered head to toe even as I kept my head out so I could hear the announcements. I would protect her at all costs. I would protect you, Marion. I would calm your trembling.
This sort of situation wasn’t at all like cancer. In this sort of situation there were things you could do to at least try to protect yourself.
But cancer—even with all his physical strength, all his mental acuity, all his cleverness and ability to come up with slick advertising slogans and hooks and—
Repeating, KGRN Seven has received notification….
Oh Jesus. Damn. Will the bathtub be enough?
He took a deep breath, released it slowly. Regaining control.
Calm down. Be calm. The bathtub will be enough or it won’t. At best, this is all a mistake. At worst things will either work out or I’ll get to be with Marion sooner rather than later. Sweet, precious Marion.
Impact is now expected in approximately two minutes.
What? Have I been here a half-hour? It certainly doesn’t seem like it.
Even with all his strength, physical, mental and emotional, he hadn’t been able to do anything for Marion but keep her comfortable. Or less uncomfortable. Something any stranger could have done just as easily. Even with all his love for her, even for his personal investment in her, in them, he could do nothing to overcome the monster that was ravaging her body from the inside. She was a petite, beautiful woman, never over 120 pounds. When he buried her, she weighed around half that.
Quietly, still listening to the announcer over the sound of his own voice, he said, “I wish we could’ve seen Costa Rica together, Marion.”
If you haven’t, please take shelter immediately in your basement or in the most interior room of your home. Then there was an odd sound, a mixture of the sound of words caught in a throat and a kind of snuffling cough.
And the announcer said, I’m so sorry, folks.
So his emotions are caught in his throat too.
So it’s a human announcer.
So it isn’t a mistake.
The missiles are really on their—
A massive explosion sounded in the distance. It was a huge, raucous sound, even at distance.
The announcer was back, all pretense of stoicism gone. Oh my god! Oh my god! The first missile has just—
Then a second explosion sounded. Then a third.
Still in the distance. I’m still safe.
A second missile! A second missile has hit— No, three! Three missiles have now hit Levi Air—
The house shook hard. It rattled. But seemingly in one direction.
There was the sound of glass shattering, picture frames and mirrors and Marion’s little shelves of knick-knacks falling to the floor, some thumping to carpet, some shattering. He could almost see them. He should have thought of that. He could have saved some of—
A fourth explosion sounded, both as loud and distant as the others.
A bad thing followed by a good thing. Loud and distant. Well, a good thing except for those at Levi. I wonder if they got planes in the air? I wonder where they’re going? What they’re carrying? It’s a SAC base, so— My god! My city is being destroyed because of a SAC base! I hope they got some planes in the air. I hope they got all of them in the air.
The knick-knacks—he could have saved some of them. The ones in the living room might be all right. Some of those on the wall above the table in the kitchen shattered on the cold tile floor. He could see them lying there in shards. A cabinet door—it sounded like a cabinet door—slammed, then slammed again. And Marion’s big jewelry box, still sitting on her dresser in the bedroom—he could see it—fell over, apparently forward. Because glass shattered. Her earrings and necklaces were probably all over the place.
I’m so sorry, Marion. I should have thought to—
The house shook again, hard. It didn’t rattle as much. There wasn’t as much left to rattle.
Then it shook hard the other way.
The first shock wave rebounding. The second one will be back too. So two more forward, three more back.
The second shock wave rebounded just as the third hit going outbound.
The house seemed to compress, then bulge, then compress again.
The third shock wave rebounded and the house seemed to sway. It seemed to lean toward town.
Jesus! How is it holding together? Are bricks being torn off the outsi—
The fourth shock wave hit.
Faster. Harder. Probably fewer structures left between me and Levi, so—
Two stories up, the roof groaned and peeled away. Was it standing on end? Would it drop again like a box top? It sounded like some of the second floor went with it.
It’s all right. It wasn’t a mistake, but things will work out. Things will work out. Or I’ll get to be with Marion sooner rather than—
The fourth shock wave rattled back through the house. The whole house seemed to tremble. Even the “safe” interior room. Basements all over town were probably filling up with debris.
God, keep them safe. God, keep them all safe. Oh god! Oh my god!
His left ear was tickling. The broadcast had stopped at some time or other. There was still some cracking somewhere in the house, but it was muted. And his ear was tickling.
He snaked his left arm out from under the blankets and gently felt his ear. Felt his way up from the lobe to the cavity with the pads of his middle and index finger, one walking past the other like skirmishers.
And his ear was full of—something. It was dry. He wetted his fingers at his lips, felt again, then looked at his fingertips. They were covered with a layer of white… plaster, maybe? drywall? Tiny bits and shards and mostly dust. He didn’t know about such things, plaster or drywall, but his fingertips were covered with what had been part of his house.
The radio and television were silent. No more announcements.
But there should be announcements. What’s everyone supposed to do now? Will Russian troops be landing?
But no. Why would they put boots on the ground when they could stand off and bombard innocent civilians? Why put themselves at damned risk? Bastards.
Everything had stopped.
Everything was still.
Everything was quiet, punctuated by—
No, nothing. His breathing was silent. There was no pulse beneath his ear. It was over. Nothing else was coming. If there were, the announcer would come back. Wouldn’t he?
There were probably fires. Probably heavy fires.
He pushed the blankets down carefully, under control, and rolled onto his back, then pushed against the flat end of the tub with his sock feet. Pushed himself up the slope at the end of the tub, listening, trying to hear beyond the silence. The white whatever it was, a lot of it, fell out of his left ear to his shoulder and powdered its way down his left chest.
He listened, and finally he stood, then gripped the window ledge to steady himself and stepped out of the bathtub.
His legs were uneasy. A little cramped and stiff, but not wobbly as he’d expected.
On his right, the potted plant Marion had hung next to the medicine chest was still swaying slightly, but it hadn’t come down. Marion had made him sink the hook-screw twice to be sure the threaded end had gone into a rafter. The plant hadn’t come down.
He smiled at the swaying pot, glad it wasn’t tapping the side of the medicine chest. Silence was better.
He should go out through the hallway and the living room. His house faced north. He would be able to see what had happened. Maybe all the way to the source. He hoped not, but it might all be cleared. He would have to go look. He would have to open the north-facing front door, look slightly northeast and see what was left.
He was glad it was so quiet, at least.
Silence is appropriate for mourning.
Silence is better for that.