Sensing drama and seeing it, Martin looked out of the window: the wind, pregnant with street garbage, was rubbing its cold grey cheeks against the glass ominously vibrating under his tired gaze. It could happen tonight, he thought. Three hours ago, as he was walking home from work, he saw hundreds of fast cars flying at a speed that lacked any subtlety or style. It was all like a bad dream of an anxious child or a computer game stricken with a deadly virus. But then he saw more. He saw a stray cat passing a grounded crow with neither paying any attention. He saw a neighbourhood swing going up and down with no children or even a slight whiff coming from the sea or from elsewhere. It was that sort of day. The wind and the garbage made it all look like autumn. Which was strange, because it was autumn.
‘He’s a mad sadist’, said Linda, ‘so I’m happy we are all going to die’.
It’s okay, he thought, Linda wasn’t being sarcastic. She was being cynical. ‘Who’s a mad sadist?’ he asked, catching her reflection in the window and turning around. Was it in reference to something? Did she mean God? The hapless TV idiot trying to calm everyone down? Was he the mad sadist? Linda liked that, remembering or dreaming up something and then making bubbles out of thin air.
‘My dentist’, she said, explicitly tonguing the insides of her mouth . ‘It still hurts’.
Linda switched through a few other channels, put her feet up, ‘screw you all’ fashion, and said she would just sit there and observe her husband wasting his breath. The silly tantrum should have angered him, but for the moment Martin had other things on his mind. Besides, there’s so much anger you can deal with when you are running around your house on a Friday evening – drawing blinds, clicking the fridge door, checking if your son’s asleep, handling phone calls and making them.
Presently Martin was screaming ‘shut the freaking door!’ to his dad – the old bastard refused to believe his own eyes and said he would go out in a minute to look for Sandy. Sandy hadn’t returned home. ‘Forget it, stay in!’ Martin was angry because he was trying to do something and everyone was acting silly. But what kind of son was he anyway? Linda’s parents could not be helped: they were in a different part of the country altogether and were meant to look after themselves. But his own dad, alone and defenseless, was not five blocks away. The old man couldn’t hear well, and as he tried to imagine him now, Martin saw half-blind fingers clutching at walls, dusty books and framed pictures crashing on the floor, a spindly figure moving slowly towards the front door. Crying into the storm gathering at the porch: ‘Sandy! Come home, Sandy!” No, his dad wasn’t quite that bad, and being in a different house would hardly raise anyone’s chances, but that way Martin could at least prevent a suicide. As things stood, Sandy must have been lying in the backyard, skull smashed in and looted by ants. And yet his dad kept repeating that old line about how it all was just another sham, and before Martin had a chance to butt in and describe how last week one man had his ear sliced off by a flying trashcan, the phone clicked off. Silence. There was a sick feeling in Martin’s stomach, like he was a kid who’d just eaten a whole bowl of cashews.
So finally it did happen. The phone service was off, though the TV, jittery with noises and distortions, was still panting along like a sick pony.
‘He didn’t believe me’, hesaid, sitting down beside her, blankly looking at the armies of insects on the screen. ‘And now it’s Sandy. She’s gone.’
‘I’m sorry’ said Linda. ‘Well, he’s 72, right?’
‘Jesus, and I can’t even do anything’, he said, happy to feel Linda’s hand on his. ‘You know what he told me a few weeks ago? He said it’s you fucking people’.
‘Well, maybe he’s right. Those fucking people’, Linda nodded, meaning TV. ‘You noticed that they didn’t even bother with warnings this time? They don’t care, they just don’t. And in all these months – have they built one shelter? It’s good I had time to take Harry from school. And then Janet. You know she also wants to quit?’ Scared, she was talking quickly, skipping pauses and making little sense. ‘Well, today she told me everyone’s just obsessed’.
‘Janet? With what?’
Martin really didn’t want to hear it. About Janet and about everyone else. Janet in particular. Janet who used to be a future actress before she settled for the job as a librarian at a local University. Just like his own wife. She also wants to quit. Martin looked up at the clock and made a mental note. In a few seconds the cruel but idyllic world of the Animal Planet would get black and lose its blinking buzzing, and they would suddenly be reduced to listening to the whooshing noise outside their curtained windows. Seeing the dark shadows belonging to god knows who or what. Hearing various objects poking their crooked fingers at the glass. And indeed, soon the TV died down, and they looked at each other, though not yet in the dark: strangely, the lights were still on. But in the meantime, light was irrelevant; it was all about sounds. Martin and Linda happened to be in a giant aquarium or else they were in a cinema watching a movie where the main character was thrown underwater. The sound effects got muffled, unbearably graphic. Now they were inside that movie, and it was the 5D experience they didn’t pay for or need. Awfully familiar, too, and Martin fully expected his ears to begin bleeding again. In a gesture both mindless and maddening, Linda picked up a book and started to read. The Hunger Games. Martin knew she was afraid, so he pressed her closer to him. Feeling her shivering smallness beating against his arm, his chest, his breath.
The book reminded Martin of his unfinished novel: under the circumstances – shouldn’t he be busting his gut writing it, connecting the dots so firmly patterned in his mind? Again, he thought not, because it was all just a matter of second chapter, page nineteen. And then all those endless revisions, still far away but already making his right hand heavy and stiff. He needed time, he wanted no more of these Fridays getting in the way of his writing and his state of mind.
They heard the first screams. Martin whispered he would go see if Harry was asleep, and stood up. Gently, not to disturb Linda’s intent reading.
It was their mutual, unspoken agreement: Linda drugged him, Martin checked up on him. Harry was asleep. Good. Today, during dinner he was especially fidgety, mentioning a few odd things he had seen during the day. At some point he even asked: ‘Will it be worse, dad? Will it really happen tonight?’ He said no. Of course he said no. Martin wished somebody would say that to him, not so weakly and unconvincingly as the politicians did in their slapdash speeches heartlessly sketched out in front of them. Harry was in fact snoring with some intensity, punctuating the silence and not realizing how happy he was. Martin looked around and felt enveloped by Harry’s room, which darkness rendered even more alien. Through the shadows a hundred observant, postered faces were studying him with sleepy hostility. He was unwelcome, and he had to leave.
The good thing was that the pills worked fine, though he still felt uncomfortable and doubted that they were doing the right thing. Some lies, it seemed, never turned white no matter what your intentions were or how hard you tried. After all, what if Harry found out that the Calcium so routinely placed near his plate once in a while (not just Fridays: they had to avoid suspicion) wasn’t really Calcium? That in fact it was the reason why he suddenly felt so tired and sleepy at the end of the day and had to abandon his homework, his video games and his parents?
‘How is he?’ asked Linda, immersed in the book that (he suspected) she had already read three or four times.
‘Okay’, he said. ‘Sleeping’.
‘That school’, she said, her left hand suddenly an oversized bookmark, her words again coming out of nowhere. ‘I think we should do something. Mrs. Fleene says it’s those older boys again’.
‘I can come’, he said. ‘Have you got the names? The numbers? We should see their parents’.
‘Mart, you know it’s not just that. There are other things…’
‘Darling’, he said. ‘I know. I know it’s tough, but... it’s tough here too’.
Money again, but then they got distracted. Outside, another object, apparently rather big, hit the window pane, which was as close to shattering the damned thing as it had gotten so far. And then the screams. Screams again. Sometimes Martin thought he could discern Jim, their neighbour, or one of his three sons…
‘It’s okay’, said Linda, who got back to reading. ‘Last time it was exactly like this’.
Last time? Linda seemed too impressionable of late, so Martin decided not to tell her about the cars. He wished she hadn’t said that about last time though. Her words made it sound like a routine thing, which was the one thing it was not. And it was certainly not like that the first day an odd group of talking heads appeared on television with their heavily orchestrated rumours and lies. They were scientists, economists, politicians. Then they appeared again. And again. And each time they assumed a more desperate line, one of more certainty and concern. Martin remembered the Thursday evening they appeared after a two-week absence, and said that tomorrow everyone had to be prepared for the worst. Martin didn’t quite realise how bad the worst was or even what he was supposed to fear, but then they started mentioning the things no one could miss or misinterpret: food, water, locked windows and doors. Later a red-haired scientist, who looked like everyone’s nasty uncle, began telling them about those powerful pills for children. Initially it freaked them out, but hours later it seemed inevitable, if not reasonable. The city went mad that night, and there was even some talk about building underground shelters. The shelters were fist mentioned by the president soon after they’d left their houses on Saturday morning, seeing the empty streets quiet with homeless dogs and motionless air.
That first Friday was the most difficult, though it was hardly any different from today. If anything, and if his memory was to be trusted, the garbage had been flying lower, the screams had been quieter and the wind had seemed no more than a severe storm. Yes, his ears bled, but that was as far as it went. Martin frowned: he resented that ‘last time’. Last time there were no fast cars going off in front of his eyes – making the silent city look like a karting club invaded by unwieldy school kids. No grounded crows or animated swings. So this time, he felt, it could well be it.
‘They did it’, he said, mimicking Linda’s way of starting a conversation. ‘Well, not yet, but Jamie said it could happen on Monday. They haven’t liked my recent reports and I screwed up my last business trip’.
But when Martin turned to Linda, her face, whatever feeling it expressed, got consumed by the darkness that was suddenly falling on them like a fading cinema screen after a movie you either hated or loved. Yes, finally: the plug had been pulled.
Martin kissed Linda, and they woke up. To another day, another morning peering at them with gracious disbelief. When Harry entered the kitchen and headed for his favourite cereals, Martin opened a newspaper and Linda switched on TV. They both felt ashamed and even slightly embarrassed, though it’s not like they had done anything wrong. As Martin half-listened to the latest news report, he thought about how clever the whole thing was: Friday evening. How perfect the timing. Nobody had to go to work on Saturdays. But take a moment and imagine if you did, after a night like that. So how clever, really.
And, his heart racing like one of those fast cars from a hundred yesterdays, Martin realised he was scared of just one thing. He was scared that next time they would really have to do it.