Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Catastrophe Theory: Chapter One (Joseph A. Turkot)

            For the second time in the long dead night, the flicker came and went. Wide and bright and so quick that Eve almost didn’t have time to grab Jared so that he would see it. So that he would believe her this time. Because she was convinced he was ignoring it on purpose—that he’d seen it each time through the window and was pretending he hadn’t. Buying time for something. Stalling for hope. Hope that everything would just fix itself.
            When he saw the light, just the last bit of it—and he knew she’d seen him see it—he drew up tightly against her. Everything looked so far away. Even the sidewalk and the street and the dead cars right below them, and the black windows in every house surrounding theirs. With a nervous jerk, he nodded and pulled her down from the slope of the roof. Down to where the incline wasn’t so steep, where no eyes could watch them anymore—or whatever was looking out from dark windows, or the hill that rose to the east, a ridge of pine so high it touched the first strand of space dust.
    “We’ve got to go…” she said as he tugged her back to the window. “It’s a signal. Somebody that can help us.” But Jared just kept pulling her to get inside, all the way down to the edge of the roof until they reached the window. He kneeled down and grunted and it opened. Together they slipped into a dark room. They stood there by the only light they had—a candle dancing on the bureau and the mass of stars burning billions of miles away.
“How do you think we’re going to get her there? She can’t walk,” Jared said, his voice cinching up with anxiety again. There’d been too many gunshots over the past two days. But the nights...they had been worse. He had to stall for time.
He pushed the thought of leaving out of his head. Rejected his wife’s idea again before she could even speak it. Decided it was his decision. They’d stay. Cassie would get better like she always did, even without a doctor this time. And Eve would listen because he was the man of the house. And they would have to trust him. Listen to him on this one. It wasn’t safe to go out there. Not until the power came back on. Until the phones started working again. But he didn’t say a single word, and Eve looked at him so hard that he had to look away. Her eyes had bled their last patience and he knew it. The only thing hanging in them now was cold desperation, the last force she would use to move her husband to act before going out alone without him. She knew she had to get him to forget about their safety now. Because Cassie would die. If they didn’t move her, toward someone—anyone for help—she would die. And they both knew it.  
“I don’t know how, but we will,” she finally answered him, watching carefully his reaction. Each line of his cheek stretched with quick darts of his eyes—out to the window and then back, searching for the sign of the flash again. As if it would prove to him they really should go. An echo of the proof he already had—that he’d just seen. That there really was power out there somewhere. Someone had power. Someone was alive and could help them. Finally, when he wouldn’t respond, and her stare did nothing more to move him, Eve grabbed his neck and twisted it so that he had to see her eyes. She glared at him as she spoke. It scared him the way she did it—as if he was a stranger to her.  
“She’s not going to get better. Not if we stay here.” Eve tried to conceal the quaver in her voice as she waited for him to look away, dared him to. Anything to anger her further, so that she could take control without guilt. Her instincts had grown too sharp now. Too bold. But she didn’t have to wait for him to make a decision. The noise from downstairs was enough to do it for him.
Both of their faces twisted toward the door and into the hall, the direction of their shivering and sweat-drenched child. Her moaning came again, and the noise of her tossing  in the bed and burning up. Some kind of sickness that shouldn’t be happening at the same time as the power outage. An impossible nightmare.
“Okay,” Jared said. But his voice was so weak that Eve knew she’d have to do it on her own. And it wasn’t until she started out, grabbing the candle and moving into the hall, that Jared began with another excuse. The same line he’d used last night.
“Maybe the car will start,” he said. He followed quickly after her, arranging his plan in his head so that she would agree to stay put another night, but the ideas fell out of his gut when they stepped into the room. Battling against the bed, Cassie suddenly froze and looked up at them. She had heard them fighting again. It had gotten so much worse since yesterday. And all she wanted to do was get better so they’d stop. She knew it was her they were arguing about. Her mother wore the same look of calm she always had. Her hand came and went gently over her head and her arm and her forehead. And then, through the painful knock in her head, she noticed something new in her father’s face. An expression more anxious than she’d ever seen. Her gaze fixed on him, so long that she knew what it was. He was finally caving in to her—to her mother’s idea of leaving the house. To stop waiting things out—whatever they were—to see if everything fixed itself. It had only been a few days, but it had been enough for her. And now, for both of them.
“It’s okay, Daddy. I’m not scared to go. I can walk by myself.”
And with that, Eve knew there was enough now. Jared didn’t have a choice. It didn’t matter that the neighbors were dead. That there had only been the sounds of gunshots and screams and yelling and desperation out on the streets, and that they’d been lucky enough to hole up inside the house without anyone knocking or cracking a window. With each passing hour, and his insistence that the news would come back on, that the phones would start working again, that the car would start up, hope had waned down to nothing. First in her, but now in all of them. There was no information coming. No power. No help. They’d have to do it themselves.
“How did they die?” Cassie asked, trying to sit up. Eve bent down and pushed her back against the bed. From the nightstand she took a wet towel and put it on her forehead. She didn’t even bother to take her temperature again. It had been too high for too long. And she knew it—even if Jared wouldn’t admit it. Cassie had been sick before the power. But they’d neglected to take her to the doctor. To the hospital. To anywhere. They’d both decided to wait it out. Let’s see how she’s doing tomorrow, they’d said. She usually got better on her own. And now they were left with nothing. No way to get medicine. Antibiotics. Anything to help her. But there was power—someone out there had power. A generator or something. The long flash breaking through the black night, a lighthouse of hope, for two days in a row. Somewhere near the edge of town. Somewhere near where the pines rise up from the last roads of town.
Cassie gave up her questioning and let her mother try to cool her forehead. She couldn’t talk any more. Not enough to get her father to tell her. She would go and look through the neighbors’ windows for herself if she could, if it were any other day of the year. Because she never got sick, and it wasn’t fair. None of what was happening was fair. The moan came again, long and hard from her gut, the sound of the slow and rolling stomach pain. And the splinters cut through her head, slicing up all of her nerves, so that she had to fight to look at her father. His eyes twisted around the room, searching for whatever they could take with them onto the streets. How to arm himself to protect his family. “The neighbor, how did he die?” Cassie managed to get out one more time. She’d overheard enough to know that it was true. And even as she waited, trying to retain consciousness long enough for his reply, she knew right away he wasn’t going to tell her anything. And instead of answering her, he told her to close her eyes and relax because they were going for help now. But in his mind the images came anyway. The same ones he’d seen for the past two days. The reality check he’d forced himself to view over and over again through the window during the daytime, like torture. Sprawled on the kitchen floor, Doug’s dead body. The neighborly smile gone forever, and in its place a mashed nose and a single open eye. The cheek pale and fat and bulging underneath. Deciding that he couldn’t tell his daughter anything because it would only scare her more, he bent down and lifted her up without a word from the soaking bed. Her head fell back against his arm, soggy clumps of hair clinging against his arm. And then, numbing himself, as is wife had already done, to the idea of self-preservation, he nodded. It was all for her now.

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