Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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The Twelfth of Never

by T. Richard Williams


It could have been a book dropping to the floor the way it does when you start dozing off and it slips from your hand: The feel of the textured dust jacket sliding through your fingers startles you awake, but not quick enough for you to catch the book as it makes its dreamlike descent to the carpet. (You’ve seen such things in slow-motion in a dozen movies and TV dramas. It’s always slow-motion. Clichéd, but the effect works.) The sound on a carpet is definitive, isn’t it? One easily recognized. Different from the muted ping made by something metal or the hollower sound of your Coke glass dropping from your arthritic grip or the toy drum clap of your baby girl’s plastic cup. No, a book hitting the rug upstairs is a thump or thud. Something with an "umph" sound and a "th" sound combined conclusively.

"Jesus, you’re losing it."

Theo shook himself.

But it did sound like a book falling upstairs.

"That’s it?" He almost wanted to laugh until he realized that the "thump" -- or was it a "thwap"? -- he heard was made minutes ago on the other side of the globe. The prognosticators had suggested a 100 mile probability zone near Central Asia, which made sense to Theo. After all, Asia’s the largest plot of land on Earth. The biggest bull’s-eye. If you’re going to hurl something, might as well aim for big ass Asia.

I know, I know. The Pacific’s the mother of all targets, but who knows what would happen when an asteroid barrels into millions of square miles of water, with its dense liquid cushion at least five to seven miles deep. Does the whole ocean just evaporate? Does all that energy get absorbed into mile high tsunamis? (Theo hadn’t kept up with the 30 or 40 prime theories -- though he tried -- besides, there’s just so much 24 hour news about the impending Apocalypse a guy can handle.)

Regardless -- he suddenly thought of his friend Neal saying "irregardless" no matter how many times Theo corrected him. He smiled, followed by that stab of loss. Neal might be dead any moment.

Regardless, if a space rock’s out to get you, it might as well slam into as much dirt and rock as it can. The Gobi, north of the Himalayas, fits the bill.

Of course, that’s anthropomorphizing, as if the asteroid not only purposefully chose Earth but decided to "thump," "thud," or "thwap" a place that would shower the entire planet with untold trillions of tons of debris. No, this was a mindless bump of billiard balls in space. (Although if you listened to the religious right, it was God playing Cy Young, and good ol’ Earth was the catcher’s mitt. Total intent. Last strike out.)

"Irregardless," Theo smiled again. Whether with or without intent -- the bullet or the knife -- dead is dead. Theo suddenly remembered something awful from his College days. Theo was in a production of Fiddler on the Roof and the lead -- his name was Charlie -- didn’t show up for rehearsal one day. Next day, the girl playing Hodel came rushing in, crying hysterically, telling everyone that Charlie had committed suicide the day before, had thrown himself in front of a subway. The director, mean-spirited as ever -- Theo’s friend called him Kurt Vile -- put on his bitchiest voice and asked: "Was it an express or a local?" One person laughed nervously; the rest of us just stood there stunned. What the fuck was the guy thinking? -- especially since the girl playing Hodel was Charlie’s fiancée.

"We all have weird ways of dealing -- or not dealing -- with disaster, I guess." Theo said aloud. "Bottom line: The train killed him." He walked over to the shelves and plucked a water bottle. "And a big rock’s gonna kill us." He snapped the cap open and took a chug. He looked. Enough water for at least four or five weeks.

He’d been stashing it in his basement for months along with batteries, flashlights, a hand-cranked radio, a battery-powered GPS, a magnetic compass (in case the GPS blinked), canned food, blankets, a cot, winter clothes (someone had spoken about an ice age) -- even fifteen tanks of oxygen pilfered carefully from hospitals in a hundred mile radius when he made his deliveries, barrels of chemicals to absorb excess carbon dioxide, surgical booties, latex gloves, plus a scuba outfit "borrowed" from the local marina -- all the stuff you might see in a cheesy late night disaster flick on the Sci-Fi Channel. He even stuck a small, well-insulated vent fan at the base of the stairs leading into the backyard where he hoped to emerge in one piece in a few weeks. The vent motor was powered by a handful of heavy duty batteries that he hoped could last, but like everything else, there were no guarantees. Bottom line, he wanted something that would suck out some of the chemical smells and privy odors every hour or so and would address the problem of pressure buildup that might occur since he was hoping against hope that the shelter was completely sealed. Keep the outside air in the backyard; keep the air in his fish tank of a shelter reasonably clean.

Double-checking the vent flaps, he kept asking himself "Will this work? Will this work?" His mantra. His fear. His hope.

He was obsessed with getting it right though he was nagged by the gut-deep fear that he'd forgotten something, some small detail that would make or break his effort. And it was that obsession that forced his wife and two kids -- a boy, 5, and a girl, 2 -- to scram to the mountains upstate. To get away from his "insanity" and to wait for the end in the hills. (Is dying in the hills better than dying in the suburbs? Or in the City for that matter? Will death hurt less on Whiteface Mountain -- or hurt more on Lexington Avenue? He thought of Charlie and the subway.)

They made their choice. He’d made his. It killed him to stay behind, but he had to. He wanted to see if he could do it. Succeed at survival, something that often seemed to elude him in the real world. The world of driving delivery trucks and endless hours in tri-state traffic. The world of mortgages. The world of credit card debt. The world of wives and children and diapers and arguments and make-up sex and loud neighbors. The world of idiot leaders and useless wars. The world.

He was alone in his basement. Sealed in since the morning. Talking to himself. Thinking about Midge, his kids, Neal, about Charlie jumping in front of the train, Charlie’s girlfriend -- about everything.

I’m not nearly as stoic and matter-of-fact as I like to present myself, am I? Fraud, he accused, winced, and said aloud: "Guess it’s true, you really do see your life flash in front of you." And smiled yet again.

Another one of those smiles: The I-see-through-all-this-bullshit smile; the intellectual’s ironic I-see-deeply-past-the surface-to the underlayers smile; the truck driver’s this-is-really-fuckin’-funny -- hahaha -- but I’m-scared-shitless smile. Of course, maybe the smiles were just resignation or that sense of totally letting go, a kind of detachment that accepted things as they were without judgment. They could also be about nostalgia, wistful memories. Who really knew such things, besides -- possibly -- a well-paid shrink? Yeah, right? (Another smile.)

He took the radio from his workbench and gave it a few cranks. It had worked this morning. Now there was only static.

He checked his watch. 12:34 P.M. The asteroid was supposed to hit about 12:15 East Coast time, so the impact "thump" took a little over fifteen minutes to feel and hear. Though it really did sound like Midge dropping a book in the living room. In the old days, he would have gone from his workbench where he loved to fiddle and tinker for hours on one of his projects -- a toy for his son Jeremy or an engine part for one of his remote control cars -- and shouted up the stairs, "You OK, honey?" And she would have shouted back, "It’s nothing, Scooter."

He would have smiled at that, too. Her nickname for him, describing how fast he could get his clothes off for sex when they first started dating. Not to mention how fast he’d get a hard-on. "Jesus, Scooter, give a girl a chance," she’d joke, but he’d already started to unzip her jeans or unbutton her blouse.

But Midge wasn’t upstairs and the "thump" had penetrated thousands of miles of bedrock and dirt to remind him that in a matter of another few minutes -- depending on which version of Doomsday you believed -- rocks and boulders would start falling back from the sky. Some thought the asteroid -- nearly a quarter mile wide -- would shatter the Earth’s crust, ejecting hundreds of miles of instantly molten material into space, only to rain back down on the planet within moments. Others thought the timetable was longer. Then there were the dire predictions about the atmosphere. Would it be blown right off the planet? Would it super heat? Would most of the breathable oxygen burn off, leaving a noxious mess for an atmosphere? And if the air became poisonous, how would plants survive? How would or could a human-friendly atmosphere replenish itself?

That’s how Theo got the idea for the oxygen tanks and the scuba outfit. He’d wait four weeks in his sealed basement shelter, letting out small puffs of oxygen from the tanks and laying out flat pans of soda lime, and then don his wet suit and scuba tank -- his own version of a space suit -- and venture outside to see what was left.

Of course, now that he’d heard the "thud," all the "what if" scenarios he hadn’t thought of before started to tumble through him. The biggest one involved the rain of fiery rocks. He was all cozy in his basement, for sure. But the living room floor above him was wood. One too many burning rocks -- or a pyroclastic blast of wind thousands of degrees hot -- would disintegrate the ceiling, exposing him to the elements.

No one knew.

"And to think we were once afraid of the North Pole melting." Another smile.

He tried the radio again -- "Just for shits and giggles."

Nada.

####

It took till 2 P.M. Then he heard it: A fine tapping sound, like sleet on a windshield. It varied in intensity, but never got louder than gravel hitting something hard.

At 3 P.M., he checked the room temperature; he was right. It did seem warmer. It was. Big time. By about 20 degrees or so. Was the house burning? Wouldn’t that make it even hotter? Wouldn’t smoke seep through, though he had had the sense to fill most of the cracks he could find with calking. "A lot of good that’ll do. If the floor burns up, I’ll suffocate in smoke."

But the floor didn’t burn.

The "sleet" stopped by 4.

Still the temperature rose.

It capped off at 92 degrees Fahrenheit about 6 P.M. and stayed that way until the next morning when it dipped about ten degrees.

Where it stayed for almost a week.

Every couple of hours, he’d let off a whiff of oxygen from the tanks for maybe 60 seconds or so, and then twist the spigot shut. (He prayed none of the tanks would explode in the warmth of the basement -- you worry too much, Theo.) Then he'd give the soda lime pans a stir to expose fresh carbon dioxide absorbent chemicals, adding more from the carefully-sealed canisters if necessary. He had no idea how much oxygen he actually needed, but so far, his idea seemed to be working. And if the outside air were rotten, it hadn’t affected his self contained world yet. Not to say the basement air was pretty. It was close, and the smell of his urine and shit was creeping through the lids on the plastic buckets. Not pretty at all. It was too bad he couldn't spare some quicklime to deodorize the privy, but breathable air took precedence over fresh-smelling air.

But he did what he had to do. Ate three times a day. Let out oxygen and sopped up CO2. Pissed. Shit every other day or so. Read books -- he’d brought Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and a few other "classic" authors to replenish the local library if there still was such a thing -- and for a goof, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Slept for six or seven hours every night -- or, more accurately, turned off the lights to conserve the batteries. Most of those hours were spent staring up into the utter blackness, "listening" to the utter silence.

Utter.

He tried to maintain a regular routine. He kept a journal. Read his books out loud for company. Tried the radio from time to time. But as a week slipped into two, it was difficult to tell one hour from the next. There were no windows, no light, nothing to give the slightest suggestion of what lay beyond the sealed Bilco hatch that opened -- or used to open -- out into the backyard. A day was merely the artificial construction of his former life. Up at 8, breakfast, read or write, lunch, read, write, tinker at the workbench, supper, read, lights out.

Silence.

Darkness.

Utter.

By the second week, the temperature started to drift lower -- into the 70s. That meant he was sweating less, having to drink less (though he’d remember to stock up on salt pills) -- and was pissing less, which he took as a blessing because the smell seeping from the plastic tanks in the far corner of the 20 foot by 20 foot basement was now making a first class stench that was hard to get used to. Not to mention that he was running out of covered white buckets. Soon he’d have to resort to pissing or shitting in the sump pump drain, like shitting into a miniature outhouse hole. Then nothing could hold back the smell.

Utter, indeed.

####

It was finally day 30, a number he’d chosen from a few he remembered being thrown around by the pre-disaster spin doctors on CNN, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline -- even Fox News, when he broke down and dared its tide of biased tabloid trite.

Day 30. A Thursday. 9 A.M.

He chose Noon because it would be bright, the sun high in the sky.

So he hoped. The experts predicted nuclear winter (Fox), total darkness (CNN), roiling clouds of ash (MSNBC), or deep haze and smog (the blond weather guy on Good Morning America) -- the forecast varied from station to station. "Some things never change. They’ll never agree on the weather." He remembered last December, shoveling 18 inches of partly cloudy skies.

He went to one of the shelves he’d build along the outer wall -- from floor to ceiling and the entire 20 foot length of the room -- and pulled out the wet suit. Because of the initial heat, he no longer bothered with clothes, so it felt odd after four weeks trying to slip into the skin tight outfit. What he did notice, interestingly, was that the arthritis in his knuckles didn’t hurt as much. "Maybe the smell’s scared the shit out of my fingers."

He also got into it easier than he had when he first did a test run a few weeks before because he was at least twenty pounds lighter than he was back then -- or so he guessed. "Lean and mean for the brave new world!" He shouted as he shimmied into the torso of the suit. He had a flash of walking in on his Mom when he was little boy and seeing her struggling to put on her girdle. He remembered laughing at how funny she looked hopping up and down, trying to squeeze in like "pork into sausage casing"; Mom was none too amused with the analogy. Grounded for a week. (He should’ve just kept his mouth shut -- but that wasn’t like him, even back then.)

With the suit and gloves on, the balaclava in place over his head, and the face mask covering his eyes, he felt ready -- yes, there’d be some exposed skin around the face mask and mouth, but what could he do? -- I couldn’t heist a space suit, for Chrissake. With all of that on, he went back to the shelf and placed the air tank on his back.

"Jesus. H. Christ. That’s heavy." But he managed and placed the air piece into his mouth. He turned to face the hatch. It was at the top of a small stairwell with five steps; it was at a 45 degree angle to the floor and would open to the left, revealing the backyard.

"What if nothing’s wrong? What If I open the door and everything’s just fine? A Wizard of Oz moment -- everything all Technicolor. What if all the neighbors are there, watching me walk into the backyard with this stupid get-up?"

It’s a risk you take.

He stripped the calking away from the edges and pushed hard against the hatch. It seemed stuck for a moment, but then it gave and popped open about an inch with a whooshing sound. Some fine ash started to blow in.

Slowly -- there was some resistance -- he swung it open, letting it slam to a rest.

He peered out before he moved up the steps.

There it was: The backyard.

No Technicolor. No neighbors. No Munchkins.

He moved cautiously to the top step and did the 360 rotation to take it in. It looked to him like one of those disaster scenes from the Weather Channel. Ash covered rubble everywhere.

There was morning sun, but densely filtered through weirdly orange-yellow clouds. The air near the ground was smoggy, full of particles that looked something like milkweed fluff. "Ash?" He wondered and was glad to be breathing from his tank. Guess the blond weather guy wins the prize. Hope he gets to gloat a little.

It also seemed chilly for August. "40’s or 50’s?" He was guessing -- how accurate could he be covered in a wet suit? He was judging from the few inches of exposed skin on his face.

"So why was the basement so hot?" The charred mess of his house explained that. Somehow it hadn’t burned through the floor boards.

Who knew the real science of this anyway? He was a truck driver for God’s sake, not some expert. "Yeah, a truck driver with a degree in Literature." So much for the College brochure touting all the job opportunities available to English majors.

Anyway, how could it be so warm in his basement and so chilly out here? It had to be more than a fire -- and that was four weeks ago. He’d figure it out later. "Maybe the air’s doing something weird to the nerve endings on my face? Maybe it’s sulfuric acid or something and it’s eating through the skin by the mouthpiece. In five minutes I’ll be a puddle of chemicals." There’s always an explanation, isn’t there?

Of course, part of him was really serious about melting. "OK, stop thinking. Just take a look. You’re not dissolving." He shivered and finally emerged fully from the stairwell, taking a few hesitant steps into the yard, someone leaving the safety of the lifeboat -- into what? The Christmas Tsunami? Hurricane Katrina? The Pine Barrens Forest Fire? "That stupid movie, Twister?"

He looked down to see his grip booties covered in ash. In some places it was six inches deep. He walked gingerly -- he didn’t want glass or stones to cut in -- and stopped where the walk to the driveway had once been. He thought he could feel the flat concrete beneath, but that could be his imagination. "Why the fuck did I wear scuba booties, for Chrissake?" Sometimes his logic eluded even himself. He remembered one of his favorite expressions: "When Theo consults Theo about Theo, Theo can get into a lotta crap." Actually Midge had come up with that one.

Midge.

She was right. The memory stuck in his throat, a leaf snagged momentarily on a pebble in the stream. His eyes welled.

Another step into the yard.

"I wonder if anyone made it?" The starkest thought of the day. The knife. He shucked it off.

He could see about four or five hundred feet in any direction before the smoke and fog got too thick to penetrate. "No town here. No Sayville." Another few steps. "Wonder what’s happed to the Bay? To Fire Island?"

Then the question: "So where do I go?"

He’d saved himself, survived the hit. Now what? (The knife returned to twist a bit; it was harder to ignore.)

And what about Midge and Jeremy and Nala? What about them?

Suddenly he thought of Orpheus. Would there be a god to help him retrieve his Eurydice from hell? Plus their children, who made this version of the myth even more gut wrenching. He stared into the swirling sky.

He was face-to-face with the knife, the real thing stabbing at his gut: Was he a selfish prick for staying behind? Were they better off in the Adirondacks, assuming they’d gotten there? Should he have put his foot down and made them stay? How would the kids have reacted to the basement stench? Would there have been enough food and oxygen to handle four people rather than one? Would Nala’s small body have coped with the 90 degree heat day in and out? (She was so prone to heat rash.)

He could have stood there indefinitely but a muffled noise yanked him into his new reality -- the ash heap reality of his once flowering neighborhood. Elm street, treeless and void.

Utter.

It was hard to tell where the sound was coming from, but it was definitely there.

Other survivors? "You mean I wasn’t the only idiot to build a shelter?" Hoping against the odds.

"Hello?" He said loudly.

Was it breathing? Or panting?

"Hey!" He shouted. "Over here."

The sound stopped.

The air barely moved. Just dense smog. Ash. A misty sun in the lemon tangerine sky.

It started up again. "It’s definitely panting?" Someone out of breath? "No, it’s smaller; not a person." There was a scuffling sound, too, like footsteps -- but again, not human. The sudden barking confirmed that.

And then growling.

Theo swung round to look through what would have been his living room towards what once was Elm Street. In the world of his once-was neighbor’s front yard stood three -- four -- five -- "holy shit, six fucking dogs."

He turned to face them fully.

They growled, showing teeth.

He managed a quick "I’m fucked" under his breath before the head of the pack, a bloodied gray German Shepherd barked, and on cue, all six charged towards him, bounding over splinters of timber and the shards of cinder blocks and bricks strewn everywhere.

Theo made for the hatch, dashing down the five stairs and reaching for the chain that helped him close it with a heavy slam. No sooner had the reverberation of the crash settled than he could hear the dogs barking and scraping, one or two of them throwing themselves down on the door, full weight. Howling, growling, barking, angry.

Desperate.

He turned the deadbolt "just in case" the dogs of the "new order" knew how to open basement storm hatches.

"Fuck." He sank to the bottom step.

If I’m Orpheus, then those are the fuckin’ Furies. He was about to take out his mouthpiece when another thought occurred. "Idiot. You left the hatch open. You let out the good air. Maybe all the poison got in." Assuming it was poison. "Hey, nothing that color could be healthy."

He kept cursing under his breath and went over to one of the oxygen tanks -- number seven of fifteen -- and opened it up. For about five minutes. He had no idea what that would do. One little tank for a whole room. Five minutes.

All the while, the dogs kept up their attack on the door and he almost felt sorry for them. "How’d they survive this long? They must be starving." His dark humor kicked in: "I musta look like all-you-can eat Chinese Buffet." It was the first big laugh he’d had that day.

When five minutes were up, he said "Fuck it" -- and pulled out the mouthpiece. As he removed it, he realized he’d have to figure out a way to replenish the scuba tank in case he ventured out again. When I venture out. He knew it was inevitable. He couldn’t stay inside the rest of his life.

After a moment’s pause and a "here goes nothing," he inhaled and exhaled slowly at first -- small, shallow breaths. Then deeply. "Hell, might as well go for the gusto." He took in a huge lungful and let it out.

There was a slight burning sensation, but nothing else really. Not even a cough. Actually, the basement still stank pretty bad, so probably not that much air had escaped -- or gotten in.

Safe for a while.

####

It was nearly half an hour before the dogs stopped their yelping and scratching. A very long half hour. "Determined little bastards, weren’t they?"

He went and got some water and a protein bar. "Well. I can’t stay in here forever. Maybe I’ll have to kill the dogs if they come back, but I gotta get outta here. Pure and simple." He was surprised by how many clichés he now said. It was worth a smile.

"Irregardless."

He wondered about Neal.

Then Midge and the kids.

"I can’t stay."

He stuffed his backpack with as many supplies as he could -- a flashlight (in case he stayed out past dark), a few D Cell batteries, some bottled water and enough protein bars for a few days (in case he found something worth exploring -- or another person -- or whatever might keep him away for more than a few hours.) He even brought the radio. You never knew.

Then felt really stupid. "Hey, dumb ass. If the dogs can breathe the air, so can you." So when he went and opened the hatch again -- fully expecting to see six sets of smiling fangs staring down the well -- he didn’t bother with the air tank, though he kept on the wet suit. Nothing there. Before he went out, he went back for a moment to take off the thin booties and don his work boots. "Fuck, I might as well do this right." Whatever right is.

He peered up and over the rim. Nothing. Not in front, behind, or either side. "Coast clear."

He took in a deep breath.

"Jesus. Rotten eggs." Actually he was thinking of his son Jeremy’s outrageously smelly diapers. Who the hell knew what was in this air? "Probably no worse than the crap I breathe in on the Expressway."

He snuck back down with another idea and re-emerged with a crow bar. If he had to crack a few skulls he would, though the thought of killing one of the dogs revolted him.

"What if I find a person who’s gone a little bonkers? Would I bash him, too? Or her?" The thought of beating up a woman to survive was the worst of all and he thought of someone attacking Midge on the mountain side, leaving the two kids screaming for their mother. Lost and starving.

The knife.

"Jesus, stop it Theo."

No dogs. They’d gone somewhere else. "Where?"

Another smile.

"Who cares? They’re gone."

The moment of decision. What to do? Walk around? This moonscape world he’d come upon was the new order. "It won’t get any better than this." To which another voice deep inside screamed: "Who says, asshole?"

"You’re right. Maybe if I walk, I’ll find something up on Main Street. What’s left of Stop and Shop, a few restaurants, Starbucks. Maybe something. Some food maybe. Some clothing."

He knew unless it was canned, nothing edible would’ve lasted this long.

But he could look. He could hope, right?

"Maybe I’ll just keep walking, scavenge for food and clothes, head upstate -- assuming any bridges off the Island are left. Find Midge and the kids all hunkered down in some cave. We could be a family again."

It was the first really happy fantasy of the day.

"I shouldn’t’ve let them go. I should’ve put my foot down."

No, Midge was too stubborn for that. "When she makes up her mind . . ."

So he began walking. I’ll just go to the Highway. See what cooks there. Maybe I’ll come back, get some rest, and then do something longer tomorrow. He knew he probably wouldn’t make it to upstate -- especially with no long-term provisions -- he couldn’t carry all of that. Get real, Theo.

Then a dog. It just appeared from around a clump of debris.

"Fuck."

Not the Hounds of the Baskervilles six pack like before. No this one was alone and much smaller.

It came closer. Its hair -- once reddish brown? -- was singed and one ear appeared cut. A spaniel of some sort -- Theo wasn’t up on his breeds.

The dog approached cautiously and growled.

"Whoa, Cujo." Theo half joked, wondering whether the little guy could bite through his wet suit. But after a couple moments, the spaniel -- he decided that’s what it was, whether it was or not -- approached more cautiously, breathing hard.

"Hey, fella." He crouched down. The dog came right over. Theo let it nuzzle into his legs.

"Well, you alone, too?"

The dog panted vigorously -- and coughed, or what he thought was a cough. Dogs cough? Guess so.

"Guess this isn’t the best air, is it?" Theo got up and continued walking in what he believed was a northerly direction, towards Sunrise Highway, the major east-west route along the south shore of the Island.

His new pal -- he checked; it was a guy -- followed a few steps away. Then he thought to look for a tag. Matted to the fur was a frayed collar, nearly the same color as the dog -- no wonder I didn’t see it -- and found a dented piece of tin. "Joey." Property of Sam Johnson, 48 Handsome Avenue. Just around the corner.

As they walked, it was abundantly plain: There were no corners any more.

Joey stayed close, navigating the ash, rocks, cinders, the obstacles of disaster.

Isn’t this the point when I wake up with a jolt, covered in sweat, Midge at my side, startled by my scream -- "Honey, what’s wrong?" -- or the scene cuts to a media control room like the kind in that movie Truman and we see I’m just the object of a controlled and wicked experiment.

Walking, Joey panting, Theo hearing the wheeze in his own breath.

I so wanted all of this to make sense, for me to be smart enough to figure it out, to be able to control my destiny. "Instead, I can’t figure anything out. None of it makes any fuckin’ sense."

They were getting close to the Highway. He knew because he saw the remains of what was the old Stop ’n Shop. They walked towards it. Theo searched the rubble and found some fruit and Spam.

Joey ate the Spam and spit out the fruit. So did Theo.

"Spam for Chrissake. In a whole store, the only thing left is fuckin’ Spam?" That was worth a laugh.

They moved on until Theo was totally exhausted. He found the cinderblock corner of what had been a strip mall, and slid down, sitting upright, the crowbar retrieved from his bag for protection.

Joey curled to the ground, too.

Just the sounds of their breathing and wheezing.

Tired beyond words.

Finally he dozed off.

Only to be woken again, slowly from a dense, soupy sleep.

The gentle thwopping sound got closer and closer, louder and louder till it roared overhead and then flew past, a beacon of flood light penetrating the smog, scouring over the rubble, missing them completely. It was darker than before. "Shit, we gotta get back before sunset."

Then it hit him. "A helicopter, for Chrissake!"

Theo jumped up; Joey barked.

"A helicopter?"

But how?

Joey licked his glove. Reflexively he pet its nuzzle. "What’s that, fella?"

But the copter was gone.

He knelt down and Joey came in to sniff and nudge against him. He whimpered.

"I know. I know. Don’t worry, they’ll come back. They’ll come back." Was he lying?

And if not tonight, maybe tomorrow. Really?

He kept kneeling. Joey was a comfort.

How could there still be a helicopter? How could they fly through this muck? Question after question. Was the asteroid smaller at impact than they thought? Was Mother Earth tougher -- more resilient -- than anyone imagined? Maybe they stored away trucks and aircraft in some secret underground facility like Cheyenne Mountain in the Stargate TV show.

But there’s no mountain range on Long Island -- unless you believe that overcooked movie Pearl Harbor that shows training craft landing at an Island airstrip with towering mountains in the background. Or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest that has some North Shore road hugging what looks like the Cliffs of Dover or Big Sur. Hollywood hyperbole.

"So what’s next, bud?"

They walked -- listening for the chopper -- and reached the six-lane highway with its wide service road. The outlines were still there. Something familiar. A comfort.

"Where to?" More like So what the fuck have we proven? And what about the damn helicopter?

They weren’t alone. It hadn’t been a hallucination. It was real, wasn't it? By that point Theo wasn’t sure about anything. I know shit.

Do they go back to his shelter? Stay by the road in case the chopper flies back -- like the gods descending to rescue the hero in an old epic?

"Well, if we really saw it, then there’s hope, Joey." He knelt down and let himself be licked. "Right?" He felt like crying.

They were both breathing with difficulty. The acrid smell was beginning to burn Theo’s nose and throat.

"Midge," he said -- then remembered "their song," the one from their wedding, the one his pal Hank made fun of, the one his Mom thought was sweet, the one Midge thought was the most beautiful song in the world, the one Theo wanted to be their reality, the one he’d first heard with Midge at Madison Square Garden on their first date. He tried to sing, scooping in shallow breaths between words.

All your dreams will come true miles away.
Our voices will ring together until the twelfth of never.
We all will love together as one...

Then he remembered holding her, that first dance at the reception, dancing to that song, the mirror globe spinning diamonds across the floor, the seven piece band Midge’s Dad had gotten for his little girl and Theo -- what a hellova great guy; you’re lucky, Midge -- the tenor soloist’s voice soaring, everyone watching and clicking their cameras -- all the stuff he’d once thought embarrassing or dumb suddenly so great, so perfect.

The memory could have been maudlin -- or cruel. Devastating.

Instead, he smiled.

And they waited at the side of the Highway for the gods to arrive.

THE END


© 2008 T. Richard Williams

Bio: T. Richard Williams is the pen name for Bill Thierfelder, Professor of English at Dowling College, a liberal arts college on Long Island, New York. Mr. Williams has been writing stories and verse for over two decades. His recent work includes two volumes of poetry—How the Dinosaurs Devoured the Humans and The Letter S; a collection of science fiction and narrative fiction called Ten; and a memoir of his 115-mile bike ride across Long Island during August of 2005 called Deliberate Living. He has also published short fiction in Wild Violet, an online literary magazine. He lectures regularly on poetry and other literary topics in the Northeast and is a popular professor who teaches a wide range of topics, from world literature to science fiction. He is also the founder of The Diversity Project, an organization sponsored by Dowling College that presents regular town hall meetings on current issues of diversity, prejudice, and bias. He has been involved in various social causes for many years, including volunteer and activist work for the Momentum AIDS Project (New York City), GMHC, LIAAC, and LIGALY. He is currently a regular contributor to Outlook Long Island Magazine. He resides in Oakdale, NY and is an avid cyclist, gardener, and hiker.

E-mail: T. Richard Williams

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