Original story by Carol Amen
If I sound calm as I begin this, I’m not. Numb would be more like it. Drained, nearly hopeless, I’m writing to try to hold on to my sanity. It’s something to do, a discipline of sorts. I will make every effort to tell what happened, no matter how painful the telling is. I want this record to be accurate, and in sequence.
Tonight as I fixed dinner and wrestled with self-pity because Tom had phoned saying he’d be staying late in San Francisco, the entire Eastern Seaboard was wiped out. I had the TV in the kitchen tuned to the evening news from New York. When the video went off there was a bright pop.
Then the screen went dark. I moved to jiggle the knobs, expecting the usual apology about “technical difficulties,” although now that I think of it, the sound was off, too. No static, no flickers - nothing. Suddenly he picture came back, with an excited San Francisco announcer shouting, “Listen! Listen! We’re being attacked!” The man’s voice rose and broke.“Radar sources confirm. Many Eastern cities have already been destroyed.”
“The East!” I thought, panic rising in my throat. “My brother’s Atlanta home!”
Mary Liz and Brad, our older children, stared with me at the television. If only Tom were here. Maybe he would tell us it was a stunt, some Orson Welles trick for audience reaction. But as I looked at the TV crew, I knew it was no prank. The announcer was hysterical. Over and over we could hear, “Massive retaliation.” Was my brother’s family really gone? Then came the same flash on the screen, only this time we could see it all around us. An eerie light coursed and flickered hideously.
“Tom,” I screamed. “Tom!”
“Was that San Francisco?”
Scottie, almost three, began wailing as Mary Liz, Brad, and I ran outside. Brad, who’s twelve and very logical, questioned whether we should look south toward the intense light. At fourteen, Mary Liz seems infinitely older than I. She didn’t move her gaze for a second. I thought it would be like a giant mushroom, but it was more of an inverted mountain. I stood transfixed as its funnel pulled life from the place my husband had been at three o’clock.
“Tom. Oh, Tom,” I whispered. Other explosions, more distant, erupted like visual echoes to the first. I think there were six or seven. Scottie whimpered and clung to my legs. Automatically I picked him up, just as the ground trembled beneath us.
“Earthquake! Oh God, not that, too!”
“Daddy will come to us.” I paused. “He will - if he can.” We went inside. I held Scottie close.
“Brad, get the transistor and turn it to the Civil Defense station. Somebody will tell us what’s happening."
All my life I’ve heard that “should there be an actual alert” we would be given emergency instructions. Back and forth we twisted the dials on the little radio, straining for the sound of authority, someone in charge. Nothing. I ached to talk to my mother. She used to console me when I had nightmares. I reached for the phone, but there was no dial tone. Our electricity was off also.
Brad spoke excitedly. “Mom, Mr. Halliday’s radio set! He’s got emergency power.”
In case Tom arrived, I left a note recording my intentions - to go over to Ab and Betty’s - and the date and time: March 23, 7:15 PM. The scene at Halliday’s was like something from a bad movie. As the minutes and hours dragged by, more and more people arrived.
Ab was at his set and Betty darted in and out carrying terse bulletins.“Seattle’s gone.” Or, “Just raised Yuba City. All safe.” The brotherhood of “hams” was on duty - those that were alive.
We drank coffee, spoke inanely to one another, and tried to comfort the children. Around eleven, Ab took a break and staggered out. Betty hurried to stand beside him. I felt his eyes bore into my very soul. He and Tom fished together.
“San Francisco’s gone,” Ab said hoarsely. “The entire Bay Area. I can’t raise anyone there. We’re on the fringe. I’ve found only one ham closer to San Francisco than us. Sacramento is silent - utterly silent, Southern California, too. A fellow in Twain Harte thinks they hit Yosemite. The sky is black with splinters - trees and rocks coming down like rain. It must’ve been a mistake. There’s nothing strategic there.” The room was deadly quiet.
“We’re the lucky ones, the survivors. Folks I reached in northern California and Oregon. Rural areas, small towns, not near industrial or military installations. We may be cut off, but we’re not crippled or dead. We’re lucky.”
I gathered the children and came home. I thought of stories I’ve read where a woman had lost a beloved husband. Those women shrieked, tore their clothes. I felt every bit as deranged as any story heroine I ever read about. My husband! Oh, Tom, the dearest human being in the world to me.
I am raw. My insides ripped out without anesthetic. For hours I sat in Tom’s chair by the window, trying to remember. I could almost see the flecks of amber in his eyes; feel the bristly little hairs that grew on the backs of his hands. Once I thought I caught his unique scent. But I couldn’t remember whether we had said, “I love you,” when he left at six that morning.
Parts of the day are blurred. We ate, washed dishes, contacted friends, and feared the weather. The sky is yellow and dark - almost like liquid instead of air. And hot, nothing like normal for a northern coastal town in March. I am afraid. I would like to erase Ab’s words, “We’re the lucky ones.” Brad and I decided that if by some miracle Tom is on his way home, we might need gas to drive to a safer place.
We went down to our regular station. A ripple of fear shot through me when I saw Slim perched on a stool by the pumps with a rifle across his knees, directing his son in filling the tank of a battered Chevy. For a minute I considered driving away, but Slim came over and spoke politely.
“Mornin’, missus... Your mister got home last night?” “He’d planned to stay late in the city."
We thought for awhile - I took a firmer grip on the wheel. “It looks like he didn’t get out.” I saw pain on the weathered face. Tom often took Teddy, Slim’s retarded son, along on his fishing trips. I used to begrudge, occasionally, that Tom spent precious time with this boy when his own children seldom saw him. Then I would feel guilty for my resentment.
“What are you charging?”
“It’s free to my regular customers,” Slim replied. “Don’t figure credit cards is much good now.”“But I can pay. This is your business, not a charity.” “I done some thinking’ last night, missus. Me and Teddy don’t need much. Food and a roof. When the gas is gone, we’ll plant a garden. Maybe go fishin’.”
Brad leaned across the seat as Slim’s son unscrewed our gas cap. “Then how come you’ve got that rifle, Mr. Sutton?”
“Just because I’m givin’ gas away don’t mean I’m a fool. There’s been people here wantin’ fill-ups, them that have never seen the inside of this station, nor didn’t have the time of day for Teddy.”
My face burned and I chose my words carefully. “I’ll accept the gas, Slim, if you’ll let me have you and Teddy over for a meal. I want to repay you somehow.”
“This gas’s been paid for, missus, that it has. More than once. I just hope you can use it.”
On the way home, we saw a crowd at the Catholic church, and went in. The mayor was huffing and puffing. Robbery of drugs from the pharmacy, gas a hundred dollars a gallon at some stations, they might have to invoke martial law. He also advised drinking only bottled water and eating canned food. I felt like laughing. A bomb that could level a city and shoot debris into the sky a hundred and fifty miles away probably wouldn’t have much trouble finding its way into my apricots.
I cannot write today.
I thought to find some relief for us. We packed lunch and pulled Scottie in his wagon. We intended to walk to the beach. But then we saw our tree. Several years ago, families contributed trees and shrubs for roadside beautification. Ours was a flowering plum and Tom had dug the hole himself. Proudly we watched it through seasons of bloom, purple leaf, and bare branch. Just a couple of weeks ago we photographed the little beauty under a corona of blossoms. What delicate color. Then, the other day, as we crested the hill, we saw it again. Apparently it had come to leaf since our photo, but this didn’t look like a plum tree inspiring. It was - it was -
Papery tatters hung like shrouds from its limbs.
Mary Liz and brad stared, uncomprehending at first. Then Brad murmured, “We’re going to die, too, aren’t we, Mom?” We huddled together, trying not to look at the ashy leaves. I thought of those ‘Exposure to Communicable Disease’ forms teachers sometimes send home when there’s an outbreak of mumps or measles. The paper lists various diseases and the incubation period of each, and the teacher checks the appropriate box so the parent can be prepared. We have seen a plum tree - Nature’s Exposure to Disease warning.
The first to go was the three-week-old infant of Cathy Pitkin, our former baby-sitter. At a town meeting and prayer service, someone said tiny Susie’s death was probably due to birth defects. I hurried over to see Cathy and her husband and found the young mother sobbing quietly.
“We thought we were so lucky,” John muttered.
“Didn’t seem like there’d be any more bombs. Then poor little Susie had to get sick and die. ‘Course I’ve tried to tell Cathy we’re young. We can have another baby.”
He said something about it being up to the survivors to continue, to repopulate the earth. I can’t remember exactly. I just stared at him, wanting to reach over and pull his eyelids down over the indecent innocence in his eyes. Not even Brad is as naïve as this boy.
“Don’t know why she won’t talk to you. She admires you. Had to nurse Susie just because you always nursed your babies.”
“Oh, yeah. Susie hadn’t had so much as a spoonful of cereal or canned baby food yet. Cathy was so proud of having plenty of milk. We gave her water, but we boiled it. You don’t suppose the water was contaminated?”
“I think everything’s contaminated, John. Try to comfort Cathy. Tell herSusie’s better off. In a few weeks, I think she’ll understand.”
Mary Liz is sure she heard a robin today. I wonder.
Twenty-some have died, and many more are sick. The symptoms vary. High fevers, itching, dry skin, some nausea. I thought hair would fall out, but perhaps they went too quickly for that. At the time of the baby’s death, I suspected it was an omen, just the beginning. When the others were stricken, though, I tried to pretend, to clutch at coincidence. It took a walk on the beach to convince me of what I knew all along. I didn’t tell the children what I saw, nor will I recount it here.
Scottie is feverish. Repeatedly he asks for the story of Peter Pan. Mary Liz sings, “I can fly, I can fly, I can fly.” I cannot bear to listen. But I cannot bear to be far from him.
By turns, Mary Liz and I bathe Scottie. Still the fever won’t come down. My baby. My baby. Many in town are dead. Most businesses are closed, as is the school. The newspaper comes out weekly now, only a single sheet with survival information. Garbage pickup continues irregularly, due to the gas shortage. Other services dependent on gas or electricity have been discontinued. Two supermarkets and three tiny groceries are operational.
The proprietors inventoried canned goods and are rationing them out fairly. They tell us that after everything returns to normal we can pay them back. There is a theory that only the young and old will die. A few feel they are somehow strong, invulnerable. Ab Halliday came over. The Hallidays have lost two of their four children, but Ab is far from giving up.
He is at the radio at least eighteen hours a day. By relay he has found people alive as far east as Nebraska. Ab has discovered that deaths are occurring everywhere, even in remote areas, yet he is determined all is not lost. I envy him his fiction.
Scott died yesterday at 1:30 PM. The three of us dug a deep hole in the backyard near the browning rose bushes. The cemetery is unspeakable. Mr. Jansen came and prayed with us. Mostly, he and the Catholic priest are conducting mass burials, about seven hundred so far. Ironically, I think Mr. Jansen took as much comfort from us as we did from him. We became close when Tom’s parents were killed in the car crash, and then again during my depression before Scottie was born. He is a good man.
At least thirteen hundred gone, that’s more than half our population. Beale’s Contracting picks up the bodies in one of their large dump trucks and bulldozes communal graves on the east edge of town. That’s since the cemetery can’t handle it any more. Brad and Mary Liz fall into petty bickering at times and I want to scream: “We are dying. Can’t you love each other a few minutes for God's sake?”
Then without a word on my part, they make up and we sit together quietly, at peace. After Scottie died, Brad kept proposing projects, games, brainteasers. But it didn’t work. Nor can I find comfort in my garden. My plants are dead, and the only fragrance in the air is a stench - the smell of death from San Francisco, from Canada, from China for all I know.
Then Brad had another idea. It happened after Larry’s parents died and he moved in with us. Maybe to keep his friend busy, Brad suggested we organize a work detail for our street. He proposed that the four of us - he and Larry, Mary Liz and I - working by teams, make a morning check at each house in the neighborhood. When we first called on a woman I’d quarreled with years ago, I thought I couldn’t go through with it. She and I had fought over a supposedly stolen ball - claimed by each family of youngsters. We’d not spoken in ten years. Larry and I carried a jar of soup to her porch, waited down her hostile stare, then followed her inside.
She led me back to a bedroom where her daughter, once Mary Liz’s playmate, lay in a stupor. For a terrible, timeless moment we forgot the past, in which we had been stupid, and the future, when we would be dead. It was the present. Two mothers helpless in front of a stricken child. Our arms groped for each other, and we clung together a long time, crying and inhaling the girl’s cloying breath. I asked Larry to finish rounds without me. At the end of our road, I fell to the dry grass of a vacant lot. I tore the earth, retching, screaming. I have no idea the length of time. I was demented. But I knew enough not to let the children see me.
We three need to be near, and Larry’s presence doesn’t intrude. Sometimes when we’re resting one will tell a family story, recall a trip, something funny.
“Remember the quilt in Grandma’s guest room?”“
We’re all getting slower now, and wondered about the rounds. Mary Liz pointed out, “Their eyes light up so when we go in.” We voted to continue. Because of the deaths we have fewer houses to call at but it takes us longer. We have brought two young children to Scottie’s old room. They will not be with us long, I’m afraid.
This used to be Income Tax Day. Now it marks Beale’s switch from bulldozing to burning. It takes less strength to torch the bodies than it does to drive the big cat that opened the graves.
Larry died suddenly a day or two ago. He had gone in the morning on rounds and that afternoon crawled into his bunk and died. I regret not noticing how quiet he had become. His mother was my friend and our boys have been close for years. I wish I had told her I’d take care of Larry, but she died too soon. We pulled the body of that sweet, uncomplaining boy over to the corner for pickup and I remembered some lines of Millay’s.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave. Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, and the kind; Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Odd how close I feel to all poets, craftspeople, and workers who have ever tried to make a statement. Will anyone survive to gaze at Michelangelo’s creations, a Navajo rug, or my own scribblings?
Mary Liz collapsed today. As I sit beside her and write, I suspect that with her, the battle will be brief also. She calls out for reassurance I cannot muster. I was strong with Scottie. But I cannot seem to steel myself for this. I long for those days when I could afford depression, tantrums, counseling and comfort in Tom’s arms. This is my firstborn, my beautiful daughter. She brushes hot fingers against the sheet. Who will comfort me when she is gone?
She asks for a drink, something I can give. She asks for her Daddy, something I can’t. From his rounds alone today Brad brought home a man.
This sick creature is a pitiful shell. Occasionally he staggers from his bed to the kitchen to grab food and hoard it in his room. Why can’t he trust us to care for him? I have no pity to spare. Brad says it’s better to have him here than go a block and a half to check him several times a day. Later, after resting, Brad walked clear over to Halliday’s for news. There is no one left to drive Beale’s truck. Dear Betty Halliday and all their children are gone. Ab sent word with Brad we should move over there. He dares not leave his radio, the fool. Nearly all his hams are silent now. But he thinks some miracle may save us yet.
Is Mary Liz still alive? She is so still."Oh, Tom!" I scream in my soul. Tom, you are the lucky one not to have to watch our children die. I am sick myself. It is so hard to concentrate. Perhaps I don’t make sense. Sometimes I read back over what I have written and the words swim. What was my point? Why do I not save my strength? I keep arguing that the journal is important. It’s my link to sanity, to civilization.
Probably May 3.
Mary Liz is gone. I made a winding sheet and Brad and I dragged her to the backyard, to the raw dirt on top of Scottie’s grave. We sat beside her, staring, waiting for some ease to the pain. After forever, Brad began, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” It took us a long time to say it. We kept forgetting and had to start again and again. I am getting sicker, but Brad shows no signs of weakening. I will try to hold on a while longer. I think I can manage.
Brad tries so hard to be a man. No, he is a man. He’s so like you, Tom. He went out again yesterday, right after Mary Liz - I cannot say the word that means the end of our daughter. But Brad went out. He says Mr. Jansen died several days ago. He found the priest staggering. He and Jansen had promised each other they would call at every home and pray with the sick. Brad helped him for a while. They found three people alive.
May 5, I think.
Today Brad brought home Teddy from the gas station. He reminds me of Scottie in his confusion. Slim must have died days ago. Brad said their house was in an awful state.
Yesterday, in Brad’s walk, he found Ab like a zombie at the radio set. He had to slap him to get a response. The man hadn’t left his radio for four days or nights. In all that time - silence. It finished him, Tom. His hope lasted longer than anybody’s. Brad says Ab asked to come over here. He started up out of his chair. Then fell to the floor. No pulse. Brad walked home. He told me about Ab and admitted he is sick now, too. Our time surely must be short. I thought to end it for us three together, in the garage. Slim had hoped we could use the gas.
And that way no one would be left alone at the end. I went out to check the car. The battery is still alive. How ironic that the inanimate objects fare so much better. It took such effort to start the car, each movement is laborious. Then I went back to get Teddy and Brad. Teddy had found Tom’s favorite fishing rod. Held it clutched to his cheek like a security blanket. Brad sitting nearby, eyes closed. I thought there could be no surprises left. But I find I cannot do it. What right have I? We will go soon enough. I pray God will help me stay awake, take them first.
If any survivors come here, I want them to know something. We didn’t act like animals. Most people were good. They helped. They tried. If only we could have lived as well as we have died. I wish-