All of this will be gone soon, he thought, looking out his living room window at the quiet neighborhood. Ed Richards sipped his first coffee of the morning, admiring the poplar trees that lined both sides of the main road before it branched off into his cul de sac.
His house was on a higher elevation than most in this part of Poplar Cove, and that gave him an extra advantage when watching the sunrise peek just over the trees. He wondered about the people who planted them – did they have families too? They probably had never lived here, and likely never even visited the street again once their job was done. Could they have imagined the saplings they were putting into the ground would one day grow up to be such magnificent relics, standing guard over the families who breathed them in? Could they have imagined how the lives of these trees, of those families, were going to end?
He took another sip of coffee, not waiting for it to cool. It burned, and he held onto it until he could no longer feel its sweet black bitterness on his tongue, and then he let it continue its path down his throat.
The television had been unplugged since the weekend. He didn’t want to know any more about what was happening. Several evenings ago he’d watched the bombs take out a dozen cities on the east coast in just a few hours. Boston, New York, Charleston, Atlantic City, even as far south as Jacksonville. All gone. When they started hitting further inland, he just couldn’t watch more of the same. It was total destruction of every place that got hit, and they were hitting every place. Their country was helpless. The president hadn’t been seen for days. It was bad, and it sure as hell seemed like THE END. He didn’t want the kids to know about any of that. He wished he hadn’t known it himself.
His wife walked up behind him. He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed softly.
“I think I’m going to make some eggs, how do you want yours?”
He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from those trees. They seemed extra vibrant today and their solidarity felt comforting. “Thanks, hon. I don’t think I feel like eating anything. Not this morning.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Any idea how much longer?”
“No,” he sighed. “Just feels like today could be the day, you know?” He felt her head nod.
Ed couldn’t tell how much time had passed as he stood there holding Carrie, and he was fine with that. Time was something they had spent far too long paying attention to, and he was done with it. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and he was quite alright with that.
The poplars just stood there, looking back at him, and they hadn’t so much as swayed since he’d gotten out of bed. They were like the Royal Guard, standing at attention despite the world making a fool of itself right under their noses. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a bird in this area. He wondered where they’d all gone, and if his family could go there too.
The house was still. The boys were asleep and the only sound was the hum of the fridge (the air conditioner had not yet switched on due to the unusually cool summer weather). Earlier, Carrie had plugged in the coffee maker just long enough to make a single pot, and then she unplugged it again. Conserving electricity was the rule now. The President had addressed the nation briefly before the attacks, and with his signature game show smile he assured everybody that the United States would prevail, and that sourcing every working power generator in the country toward that one goal would somehow help. Not once did he ever refer to this thing as a WAR. Of course that was back when Manhattan was still an island.
Several days ago, a tall man with a white moustache on an otherwise clean face stopped by the house. A badge dangled from a blue lanyard around his neck. On it was a black-and-white picture of a clean-shaven version of himself, and the letters DOE spread across it in all caps. Ed knew that the letters stood for Department of Energy. He also found it odd that there was no name on the badge either. The Moustached Man announced that he was operating under Executive Orders and going door to door, checking electric meters and walking through homes, making sure people were complying with the Emergency Energy Conservation Act. Maximum kilowatt hours had been established nationally, with southern cities being allowed more kWh per month than the northern ones during the summer. The Moustached Man quickly made his sweep through the lower level of the house, like a trained dog in a canine unit, and then walked upstairs and did the same. After a few moments he briskly descended the stairs, and with a nod and a cowboy grin, he told them ALL CLEAR and thanked them kindly for their service and to have a fine day. The screen door whacked sharply against the doorframe as he left, like a rimshot at the end of a bad joke.
Ed had wondered why the Department of Energy wouldn’t just have the local government (or even the power company) do such a menial job. Couldn’t Southern Electric just send out their meter-readers and report anybody who was playing too much Xbox? He watched The Moustached Man walk across the street to knock on the Silverman’s door, and that was when Ed saw a large green truck that looked like something out of M.A.S.H. parked at the end of the street. The back of it was filled with men wearing camouflage and helmets, sitting along the siderails and holding M-16 rifles.
These are the good guys, right? he thought.
Ed took another sip of his coffee. It didn’t seem to be cooling off. Carrie leaned up and kissed his cheek and told him she was going to start some eggs anyway, and she’d make him a few over-easy just in case he changed his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ll unplug the stove as soon as I’m done.”
She walked off. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a low roll of thunder, and he thought about Moustache Man and the men holding M-16s, and he wasn’t sure if the presence of the soldiers was supposed to make them feel safe or threatened.
Last fall before any of this, Ed took the boys out to the lake up at Center Hill. He’d wanted them to start learning how to fish, and with Chris in the 2nd grade now (Luke wasn’t far behind him) they were old enough to start getting a feel for it.
They tied down their camping gear into the back of the pickup, and the small fishing boat stuck out past the tailgate. The campground was about a half-hour west, and when they arrived they paid nineteen bucks for an overnight pass. Then they found their campsite and Ed pitched the tent while the boys watched. Then Ed gave them each a paddle and a fishing rod and he hoisted the boat over his head, and they walked the trail down to the water.
Sometime later they still had not caught anything. He hadn’t really expected to, he just wanted the boys to experience sitting on the water, drifting in silence and without anywhere to be.
Then Chris asked him a question he wasn’t expecting:
“Dad, are bad guys real?”
Ed stumbled, not anticipating that type of question. He sure as hell didn’t want to answer it, either.
“Why are you asking that?”
“Miss Tanner told us they were real, and that they were the ones that made those buildings fall down.”
“Your teacher told you that, huh?”
“That’s right, they did.”
“So bad guys are real, right?”
“I wish I could say they’re not, but they are.”
“Do they want to hurt us?”
“Well…they do want to hurt some people, but not necessarily us.” His own use of the word “necessarily” made him cringe.
“Why do they want to be bad?”
“Well son, people have their reasons–”
“Do they even know they’re the bad guys?”
“I don’t know that for sure but I imagine they must.”
“Because we’re definitely the good guys, right dad?”
“I would never want to be a bad guy.”
“Of course not.”
“Because the good guys always win, right?”
“Right.” Ed knew better, but what was he supposed to say?
Chris sat in silence, looking out over the water with his fishing rod drooping near the water. Luke may have been listening, but he hadn’t said anything. Ed hadn’t noticed the clouds moving in until he heard thunder somewhere nearby.
“Better get back to shore, guys. We don’t want to get caught out here in the rain.”
They set down their poles in the boat and Ed picked up both paddles and handed one to Chris.
“The bad guys – they aren’t anywhere near us are they?”
The question echoed back at Ed in his living room. He couldn’t remember how he’d answered it, and it seemed like such a long time ago. He figured he’d said something about the bad guys being far away and that the Army men would surely stop them with their tanks before they got too close. And at the time he could have even believed that himself.
There was a knock at the door, and it startled him out of this trance. He hoped the knock didn’t wake the boys.
He looked through the peephole and saw the telltale gator-skinned cowboy hat perched atop his neighbor’s much-too-tan scalp. It was Joe and he was propping the screen door against his back, like he was waiting to get invited in. Ed opened the front door.
“Good morning Joe.”
“Mornin’, Buddy, hope I didn’t wake you. Hey, ya mind if I borrow your boat for the day? I had mine all loaded up when I saw this crack in the seam, and I don’t think it’s busted all the way through yet, but I don’t want to take the chance testing it out on the water. Know what I mean?”
“Sure, I guess. You know where it is, right?”
“You bet. Thanks Eddie-boy, I’ll try to bring her back in one piece!” Joe said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared off the front stoop and ran around back. Ed lunged and caught the screen door before it could wake the kids.
He walked into the kitchen and leaned over the island and looked at Carrie, who had two eggs on a plate and was frying two more. She’d unearthed the “special occasion” cast iron this morning. She asked him what all that was about at the door and he told her.
“He should have invited you to go with him! I’m sure you’d have loved to get on the water one more time.”
“It’s okay. Everybody wants to be on the water today, you know the lake’s got to be packed. Besides, why on Earth would I want to spend today with him when I could be right here with you?”
She smiled. The toast was ready. She pulled it and set it on the cutting board next to the butter, and then unplugged the toaster.
Carrie had a sweet voice and he wanted to hear more of it this morning. She wasn’t saying much, but she seemed content. She spread butter on the toast and cut it in half. Quiet wasn’t so bad either though. The morning silence had been peaceful, and he was grateful for it, for her, for them.
Something suddenly broke the silence behind them and they both jumped, and they saw Chris and Luke on the staircase, leaping off the third step from the bottom. Carrie laughed.
“Look who’s up,” she said. “It’s not even eight! Who’s hungry?”
Both boys raised their hands and ran over to the kitchen. Ed didn’t know why they were in such good moods, he was just thankful they were.
“You boys can fight over my eggs,” Ed said. “I’ll get in on the next round.” He stood up and gave both boys a quick hug, kissing them on top of their heads, then poured himself another cup. “Honey, what kind is this?”
“It’s some kind of summer blend. I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s good. You’ll have to get more, this isn’t going to last.”
“I’ll be sure to do that the next time I go to the store.” He knew she said that last part out of habit. It was hard to get over the thought of there being something called a “next time.”
He walked back over to the window and looked out over the scores of roofs that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. Their house had been the first one built in this section, and that’s how they’d lucked into being on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. And it also gave them a sense of security, tucked in the back where nothing could get to them that didn’t have to go through everybody else first.
That’s when he saw the mushroom clouds near the horizon. Not just one, but several. His blood froze, even with hot coffee running through his veins. This must be what happened out east, he thought. He’d expected something different, like explosions or some dramatic flash of light. He’d expected Hiroshima. But these mushrooms were silent and dark, appearing one-by-one across the sky like raindrops falling on a still lake. They seemed alive.
A part of him wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. During tornado-packed evenings the family would huddle in the downstairs bathroom, listening to the static-filled radio until the storms passed. But this time there was no safe place to go, and the radios had been nothing but static for some time.
From the kitchen poured beautiful sounds like he hadn’t heard in months, maybe even years. Carrie was making up silly songs and singing them loudly, making the boys crack up as they tried singing along. He had no intention of making that wonderful painting of a scene end a moment before it had to.
The sky over their street was cloud-free for the moment, but that was about to change. The poplars were still. They were ageless guardians, and Ed’s family was like a fragile figurine collection that the trees had sworn to protect.
But there was only so much the trees could do. Today they could only stare and watch as the clouds moved closer by the second, each one seeming to be larger and darker than the one before. In a few minutes, the clouds would cover their street and invade their homes and bring darkness to everything. But not yet. For now, for at least the next few moments, the sky over their street was still quite nice.
Ed sighed and finished the last of his coffee. He slowly pulled the curtain closed and walked away from the window. He crossed the living room toward his family, unaware and blissful. He placed his mug in the dishwasher.
“We can’t run that anymore, remember? Just set it in the sink instead and I’ll get it after breakfast.”
“Ha! You’re right, I forgot. Hey boys, your mom’s the greatest, isn’t she?”
They gave their thumbs up approval as they began stuffing their mouths with eggs and toast.
He smiled back.
Aaron Grayum is a writer and artist. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Michelle, who is also an artist, and his son Sebo, who is also a ninja.