St. Mary. 50km from Augusta City – Maine – Blake family’s home - 07:00 a.m.
I wake up early. I rested even more than I needed. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink last night but I felt too tired after a whole day of preparations. Lily wanted to sleep with us and she was very disappointed at not going to the lake. There’s no doubt we are going to leave today and no one, not even Sheriff Coltrane, will prevent us to go. I slowly get out of my bed, sneaking out of the blankets trying not to wake up either my wife or the baby. A quick look out of our bedroom’s window: it’s a wonderful summer day today and the sun is shining high in the sky. I stretch trying to drive the sleep away and I go downstairs towards the bathroom. I swiftly brush my teeth and I quickly wash my face. One moment is enough for me to look at myself in the mirror and notice right away that I have two almost-shining shadows under my eyes. I’m growing old and, although I try not to notice it, the first wisps of white hair are starting to pop out over my head.
“You’re no longer the rock you used to be once, John!” I say to myself after wiping my face, as if my reflected image in the mirror could answer me.
I go to the kitchen, I open the fridge and I pour some milk into a glass. If I’m not wrong, the last apple biscuits should be in the first drawer in the cupboard. I take the box, I put it on the table and I finish off that little bit left. The clock in the kitchen says 07:15 and all the neighbourhood will be certainly getting ready for summer holidays at this time. I’m wearing a clean white t-shirt and a pair of pyjama trousers and I go barefoot towards the living room. I pull back the curtains to look outside and there is no one in the street, absolutely no one. I have a look around hoping to see Ginger and Tom, our neighbours, or maybe the sheriff’s police car, but nothing at all.
“Where has everybody got to?”
I lift the phone receiver and I try to call Tom. He only answers after several rings, sleepy as usual. I realize I’ve called him a little too soon and I immediately apologize to him.
“Hey John, why are you calling me at this time?” he asks me, yawning.
“Look out of the window, Tom. Can’t you see there’s no one in the street?”
I hear him walking away from the receiver and after a few seconds, not even half a minute, he starts talking on the phone again.
“There’s really no one. Mr and Mrs Sullivan said they would have left around this time”
“Have you heard anything about the HH factory? The sheriff told me he would have called in and told us more about this toxic cloud”
“I haven’t seen anyone yet, John, I don’t know what to tell you”
“Is your family all right?”
“Ginger, Marla and Ted are still in their beds. Why are you asking me?”
“Nothing Tom, never mind. I’ve probably woken up in a bad mood this morning. Sorry if I bothered you”
I say goodbye to him and I hang up. I go back to the window and I can see no one, not even a cat crossing the street. Some steps behind me, the wooden boards of our stairs are creaking. My wife is still in her nightwear and her long black hair is all messed up. She comes towards me and she greets me with a warm hug, as she does every morning before I go to work.
“Is it everything ok, dear?” she asks me, looking straight into my eyes.
She’s obviously noticed I’m quite nervous. That woman knows me like the back of her hand and I have no secrets for her. I pretend to be calm and I try to cool down, but I can barely manage to do it.
“Yes, everything’s ok Brenda…”
“You call me by my name only when you’re nervous. What’s the matter?”
I blundered and I just wish I hadn’t done it. I never call her by her name; I’ve never had, not even a few days after we got engaged. I take her by her hand and I show her the street outside the window, as if it was the first time she saw it.
“Does this look normal to you? It’s 7:00 a.m. on the 16th of June. Our neighbours should already be in their gardens loading their cars”
She remains silent for a few long seconds and she keeps on looking outside.
“Have you tried to turn the TV or the radio on?” she asks me without even looking at me.
I actually didn’t think about it. I look for the remote control on the leather sofa and I eventually find it hidden between two pillows. I turn on the TV and I flick through all the news channels, but apart from the Houston Bull’s crushing defeat and the summer Texas fires they’re not talking about many other things. I keep on flicking channels but nothing at all. I decide to turn off the TV as soon as the umpteenth MacGyver’s episode is on.
“Well?” she asks me, keeping on looking outside.
“Nothing love, nothing at all”
“How could it be that the HH factory burst into flames and no one noticed a thing? I passed by around there with the baby just 5 hours before going to shopping yesterday and it didn’t look like anything strange had happened”
“What can I tell you? I’ll try to call John at the police station”
I lift the receiver again while my wife leaves me alone and goes to the bathroom.
I dial 911 and, once I’ve pressed the number to get in touch with St. Mary’s police station, I’m cut off. I try a second and a third time but all the lines seem to be totally blocked.
The situation is starting to get me on my nerves. I open the shoe cupboard and, without noticing, I wear my wife’s comfortable pink slippers. I’m about to open the front door when someone rings the door bell. I peep through the eye hole and I recognize that round and ugly-looking face: that’s Sam Greene’s, the mechanic. I open the door and I notice he has the same expression as me on his face. He almost looks frightened or at least shaken. That man has never been scared of anything, not even when two burglars threatened to kill him if he hadn’t given them the takings of that day. He disarmed the first one with a knife and bashed the other’s face in, until Sheriff Coltrane rushed to separate them.
“John…I hope I haven’t woken you up” he asks me with his friendly manners.
We’ve known each other for ages; we’ve been through a lot when we were boys. We were the neighbourhood’s bullies and the girls had eyes only for us.
“No Sam, of course not. Come inside!”
I lay my hand on his shoulder and I let him in. There’s still no one in the street. I close the door behind me and I invite him to take a seat on the sofa in the living room. He’s wearing his usual working clothes but today he’s less dirty than usual, I must say. I seriously start to think that man sleeps with his workshop uniform on.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“I’ll just have a drop of coffee if you don’t mind, I don’t want to bother you”
“Don’t worry Sam, we’ve been friends for ages, you and I”
I quickly pop to the kitchen and I tell my wife to make a coffee. When I go back to the living room I notice that my friend is getting more and more upset, he’s almost shaking. He’s even got his both hands held each other tight and he’s sweating. His behaviour is starting to worry me.
“What were you doing around here at this time? Your garage is open from nine if I remember rightly” I ask him, sitting down next to him.
“I…I don’t know John. I haven’t been able to sleep for the whole night and I’ve been awake waiting for the arrival of this black cloud. I called the sheriff twice last night and I almost managed to get him mad…” he waits a moment to calm down, then he turns to me and he looks straight into my face “I haven’t seen any toxic cloud, John, not a fucking thing!”
“How can it be?” Yesterday, at the mall, the old John” I’ve always called the sheriff in this way “assured us that soon this cloud would have reached us. Why are they shutting us inside our homes?”
“I don’t know but I went outside an hour ago and there was no one in the street, not even that old madwoman of Sandy Petrucci with her damn cats on a lead”
“I’m leaving for White Lake with my family today and, telling the truth, we’re already one day late. I wanted to come to your garage and show you my car, I think it needs a nice wheel alignment but there’s no time left by now. We’ll sort it out when I get back”
“Can I honestly tell you I’m shitting myself?”
I don’t answer him and I smile slightly, though it’s particularly hard for me in this moment. I’ve never been able to lie in all my life and I’m confirming it once again. I let him carry on talking without interrupting him.
“A few evenings ago a horror movie was shown on the county channel, ‘Toxic Death’, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. The main actor was that black man, I don’t remember his name. This situation seems absurd, as much as the story of that movie…maybe I’m just letting myself be influenced”
“That was just a movie, Sam, try to calm down. I’m as much worried as you, but I think there’s no need to be alarmed. Maybe our neighbours are still in their beds, summer holidays have started just a few days ago, after all”
“The old Mrs Petrucci has been taking her cats for a walk at this time for at least 12 years and she still does it everyday. Doesn’t it seem strange to you? All right, maybe I’m particularly hysteric today…”
“It is actually strange…”
I would like to find better words but it’s rather difficult right now. My wife arrives after a while holding two cups of coffee in her hands. She says hello to Sam and she gives one to him, before sitting down. He tries to smile at her and then he quickly swallows it.
“How are you Brenda?” he certainly asks her mainly out of politeness.
Sam and my wife haven’t got on well since he fixed our car’s broken drive-shaft and it broke again not even a week after. He wanted to be paid twice for that job and my wife has never been able to swallow it.
“Not too bad. What do we owe the honour of your visit, Sam?”
I can understand she’s woken up less than half an hour ago, but she could at least try to be more polite.
“I’ve been around the town and there was no one in the street. We have been friends for ages, John and I” he lays his heavy hand on my shoulder before carrying on “and I wanted to make sure everything was ok”
“I guess we’re fine and we’re ready to leave” Brenda replies, blowing on her coffee to cool it.
“I’d better leave now, I left the van engine on. Let me know if you have any news from the sheriff”
“It will be done” she answers.
He thanks us for the coffee and I show him out. That’s when I see the sheriff’s car slowly approaching. It looks like he saw us and he comes towards us, pulling over. I wave at him while Sam shyly stands off by the doorstep.
“Hey, good morning John. Is there any news?” I ask him while he gets closer to my house.
He struts around as usual, keeping his thumbs behind the belt he’s wearing round his waist. John Coltrane has always loved his badge, his uniform and his job and, although he’s a nice person he always looks a little too professional.
“Didn’t I order you to shut yourselves in your houses? Sam, what are you doing here?”
The tone he’s using is not friendly at all and I can see he’s got a grave expression on his face. His jaw is tightened and, knowing him since we were children, I can tell he’s quite nervous. What a lovely morning, we’re all quite fired up.
“I’ve just come to see how John, Brenda and the baby were”
“Disobeying a precise sheriff’s order?”
I come between them at this point and I try to calm things down.
“Come on, John, there’s no need to raise your voice”
“Mind your own fucking business, I’m talking to Sam Greene!”
“Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“I said M-I-N-D Y-O-U-R O-W-N F-U-C-K-I-N-G B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S” articulating every single word.
Sam gets closer to him, flexing his arm muscles, but the sheriff doesn’t let himself be intimidated by him. He brings his face closer to his until their noses can almost touch each other. I can see they’re staring at each other for a few seconds and I manage to find a gap where to slip in to separate them.
“Hey guys, have you both gone crazy?”
“Go back immediately to your houses. Sam, you take your vehicle and you go back to where you’re coming from. I don’t want to tell you twice”
“Can you tell us what the fuck is happening, sheriff?” he asks him raising a little too much the tone of his voice.
Out of the corner of my eyes I can see my wife standing on the threshold, with the cup of coffee shaking in her hands. She’s looking at us as if we were three madmen in the street.
“Augusta’s rangers are coming. They will be here in less than two hours so I will be able to give you more information later. It seems that the cloud has got over us but there could still be some highly toxic residues in the air. You’ll receive a call from my deputy, don’t worry. Now, please, go back to your houses” he tries to control himself but I can see he’s on a war footing, ready to explode.
I retreat a few steps up to the door and Sam goes towards his vehicle parked not so far away. The sheriff comes back to his car and opens the door.
“Next time I see you outside your house I’ll throw you in jail, I promise”
“Come on, John, I have to leave for White Lake with my family today. You know well I’ve been promising the baby for a year”
“You will wait for my order, is that clear?” This time he raises up his voice so much that, for the first time since we’ve known each other, it looks like he wants to fight with me “Next time I see you putting your nose outside your house I’ll throw you in jail. The next lake you’ll see will be the piss pond in my police station loo. Is that clear?”
He gets into his car and he sets off slowly as if he wanted to make sure we’re really going back to our house. I watch him going away and I invite my wife to come inside. We sit down in the living room once again and that’s when we notice we’re both shaking like leaves. What the hell is happening to our peaceful small town?
“I’m scared John” she tells me, clinging herself to me.
I take the cup off her hands and I put it on the marble table in front of us. I hold her tight and I try to calm her down caressing her, trying my best.
“I’m scared too, love. I’ve never seen Sheriff Coltrane so pissed off”
“There’s no toxic cloud, otherwise all the news would have talked about it. Why are they keeping us shut in our houses like prisoners?”
Our little one has just woken up and she’s coming downstairs. I stand up to go towards her and I pick her up smiling at her. She’s still got her eyes swollen with sleep and she’s yawning. I take her to the kitchen and with my wife next to me I pour some milk into her big breakfast cup where she tips a shower of corn flakes. She’s peacefully eating, without asking too many questions. Blissful children, in their innocence.
“I can’t wait to go to the lake with the other children”
Here we go again. What should I tell her at this point? Lily has always been a good girl, but she can’t accept when you don’t keep a promise. I have to quickly make up a small lie to tell her.
“Start packing all your things, darling. We’re going to leave after lunch”
“After lunch? Chucky and the other children are all going this morning. I don’t want them to arrive before us”
“Don’t worry, the swans are all there waiting only for you. The same is doing the little teddy bear with the ranger hat”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course love!”
She finishes eating her breakfast and she rushes to the bathroom to brush her teeth. I remain seated at the table with my wife and we look at each other in silence. I see a tear running down from her eyes and I immediately get closer to her to comfort her. She clings to me one more time and she starts shaking once again. I don’t want our baby to see us in that state.
“I’m scared John”
“I’m scared too Brenda”
We absolutely need to do something to calm down, but there seems to be no solutions at the moment…
St. Mary – 50km from Augusta city – Maine – Blake family’s home – 6:00 p.m.
It’s six p.m. No one has come to inform us, yet, and I haven’t received any calls from the sheriff’s office. My wife is seriously starting to get nervous and my daughter is now an unrestrained fury. I can barely keep her calm. She’s shut herself in her room for two hours now and she’s crying. She wants to go to the lake and I have to do all my best to keep my promise. I’m sitting in the living room with my wife and we’re both watching the TV without any particular interest. No news is mentioning what’s happening in our town.
“This situation is starting to get on my nerves” I tell my wife channel hopping with the remote control “what are they planning to do in case we went out of our house? Are they going to shoot at us, perhaps?”
She holds my hand tight into hers without ever taking her eyes off the TV, even if I know very well she’s not watching it with real attention.
“We’ve been living here since we were young and no one has ever shut ourselves into our houses…”
“Have you tried to call your parents?” I ask her looking into her eyes.
“Yes, just a half an hour ago and they’re all right. They’re scared darling, just like us”
“What are we going to tell Lily?”
“What could we possibly tell her? They’ve ordered us to stay at home and that’s what we’re going to do. It didn’t look like sheriff Coltrane was in the mood for many complaints”
“I go upstairs to her room to see how she is. Please don’t forget to call me immediately if the phone rings”
I go upstairs to my daughter’s room and I find her sitting on the bed with her soft toys. She looks at me in the same way you would look at a despicable traitor, a man who doesn’t keep his promises. I sit next to her and she pulls herself back from me, almost annoyed. I don’t know what to do…