St. Mary – 50 km from Augusta city – Maine – Black family’s home – 12:00 a.m.
It’s lunch time. I’ve managed to calm my daughter down and now we’re all gathered round the dining table. We don’t know for how long we’ll have to remain shut at home, so we decided to ration that little bit of food left. Who would have ever thought such a thing could happen? We barely have two steaks in the freezer, two kg of pasta, two packs of water, two bottles of wines and just a few other things, if crisps and all kind of sweets can be considered food. We only bought a few things for the journey two days ago, at the shopping centre. We mainly bought some snacks and very few useful things. We could go on for five or six days at most with the supply of food we have in the kitchen. Maybe seven, if we ration it properly.
“Dad, I don’t want to eat meat!” Lily says, moving the plate in front of her.
Brenda has made a veal steak with some tomatoes today. I look at my baby, the love of my life, with a tired and grave expression.
“You have to eat, my love”
“I want to go to the lake…”
She starts snivelling again and at this point my wife throws the cutlery on the table and she scolds her. I try to stop her tightening her hand but she’s off now and there’s nothing I can do to calm her down.
“Listen Lily, how many times do we have to tell you we can’t leave? I know dad has promised you to go, but it doesn’t depend on us, can you understand it? Sheriff Coltrane said we have to wait a little bit longer”
“It’s not fair, mom. I’m sure the other children have already left…”
“This is not true, darling” I intervene “No one is allowed to go out, so neither are they. You’ll be the first person to go to the lake, how many times do I have to promise you that? Now, please finish eating your lunch”
She strangely seems to listen to me and she takes her fork back in her hand, even if she eats without too much enthusiasm. We finish off our portion and I stand up to make a coffee. My wife is staring into the void and she doesn’t look like paying any attention to us. I get closer to the table and I take the plates off: I rinse them under the running water and I put everything in the dishwasher that we haven’t finish paying, yet.
“Can I go playing in the garden?”
“Again? Lily I beg you!” my wife is starting to fly off the handle.
The baby snorts and she jumps off the stool. She rushes to the stairs and I follow her with my eyes until I’m sure she’s in her room. I can’t allow her to go out, at least for the moment. Brenda is leaned against the small window next to the table and she’s shaking. I get closer to her and I’m about to hug her when she aggressively turns to me and she almost pushes me away.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!”
“Love, have you gone crazy? What is wrong with you?” I open my arms, incredulous.
Since we’ve known each other we’ve fought maybe a couple of times, and I’m not even sure about one of them. Why is she treating me in this way? She must be so nervous that I can’t even imagine.
“I’m going crazy love, I can’t calm down. We haven’t even got the air conditioning. We can’t open the windows for fear that this damn invisible black cloud comes inside our house. How do you think I can feel?”
“Do you think I feel better than you? If I could, I would take you and Lily to White Lake even now. But I’m trying to calm down, at least for the baby’s sake”
“I…John…oh forgive me…”
I hold her tight and she starts to sob once again. This is the third day we’re living as prisoners and we’re starting to go crazy. I’ve always been an athletic kind of person and many sports I’ve practised kept me away from home for several hours during the day. I’m not keen on watching TV, I don’t like internet or reading and I don’t like those stupid videogames today’s kids usually play with, either. Being under ‘house arrest’ for all this time risks making my head explode. Brenda feels the same as me; I can clearly read it in her eyes.
“I think I’ve heard the telephone ringing” Brenda says.
I quickly reach the living room and I lift the receiver before it stops ringing for the third time. I immediately recognize the voice on the other side; it’s the old John calling me from the police station.
“John, can you hear me?” he asks me with a metallic voice.
There seems to be some interference on the line, but we luckily manage to talk anyway.
“Yes I hear you. Is there any news? Please give me some good news, the situation here is getting unbearable”
“I can’t give you any good news, unfortunately…..” I would like to shout all my anger out but it wouldn’t make any sense, so I keep on listening to him “Augusta’s rangers have arrived and the army will be here by tonight”
“The army? What the fuck is happening John? Why has the army arrived in our town? Just for a small factory burst into flames?”
“It seems that a few people have fallen ill after inhaling the chemical gases released in the air. They could be infected and we have to keep them in quarantine…”
“Jesus Christ! Are my family and I infected, too?”
“Of course not, John, the gas has been embanked and the cloud has got over us many hours ago by now. We just need to understand the real extent of the damage and the troops will help us doing that”
“When will we be allowed to go outside?”
“I hope soon, my friend. I have to go now; I’ll keep you up to date with any news”
I’m cut off. I slam the receiver down with anger and I start going all around the room as if I wanted to pull its walls down. The sheriff’s voice was nervous, as much as mine. He only called me because we’re good friends and because he had promised me. He doesn’t know a fucking thing about this situation. A quick look outside the window proves there’s no one in the street. I see some movement inside our neighbours’ houses and at least I’m cheered up they’re fine as well. Brenda comes towards me with our baby held by her hand. I advise my wife to leave her in the living room with the TV on and I ask her to move to the corridor.
“What did he told you? Was it Coltrane?” she asks me hoping for some good news.
I shake my head and I take a minute to calm down. Brenda looks at me without batting an eyelid.
“He says the toxic cloud has got over us and that the danger has almost been avoided. A few people have been infected by the toxic gases released from the HH factory and the army is coming to keep the situation under control.
“The army?” she asks, opening her eyes so wide they seem to pop out of her head.
“None of us has ever seen a soldier in St. Mary. Why should the Government of the United States send troops just for a factory burst into flames?”
“Maybe the problem isn’t as simple as we think. The old John seems not to know shit about it…”
“Lower your voice down and don’t swear, the baby could hear us!”
“Forgive me, I’m so nervous…”
“What are we going to do? The supplies we’ve got will barely last for a few days”
I think about it just for a second but the answer seems extremely obvious to me.
“We’re going to wait, there’s nothing else we can do”
Our discussion goes on for a few other minutes until we both move to the living room. Brenda hugs our daughter and they start watching cartoons sitting together on the sofa. I quietly go to the kitchen. I take a piece of paper and a pen and I write down all the food supplies we’ve got in our house, barring all those that have been ate during the last meal. I write down every single thing, counting every fruit and the cartons of milk that have almost ran out. This list will be useful in case our forced permanence at home lasted for longer.
“I’ll pop a moment to my bedroom” I say just before going upstairs but none of the two women pays any attention to me.
I shut the door behind me and I sit on the bed which is still unmade. I pick up the cordless and I dial Sam Greene’s garage number, hoping to find him. The telephone rings in vain without any answers. I’m about to get up from the bed and going out of the room when my mechanic friend himself calls me back.
“John, have you looked for me?” he asks, panting: I must have interrupted him during some vehicle repairing.
“Have you heard any news? Sheriff Coltrane called me a short time ago”
“He came to see me with his deputy this morning. I’ve seen him shaken, but at least it was kind of him to apologize for attacking us. He would like to do something, but he doesn’t know much more than us about all this mess”
“How can they think to keep the county sheriff in the dark about this? That man doesn’t know a thing; it seems he’s giving us half-answers as if he was hiding something…”
“I don’t think he’s hiding something John, he doesn’t know shit and that’s it. You said it right…”
“Have you seen those rangers from Augusta?”
“I’ve seen one of their cars passing by a few hours ago. They were packed 4 to just one car and I’m sure others will pass by, too.”
“How’s Carol?” I ask about his sister.
Sam has never had a wife and his family passed away when we were attending high school. The only person he really cares about is his sister Carol, mother of two wonderful children attending the same class as Lily.
“Everything’s ok, she’s at home and I think she’s sleeping with the children. This heat will end up cooking us all. On the news they said this will be the muggiest summer in the history of Maine and I guarantee you that I believe them, John… There should be about 22 degrees outside, but there are at least 10 more.”
“I actually don’t remember any summer as hot as this, what the fuck is happening to everything?? ... I’d better go now, Sam. If you hear of anything new, please let me know”
“It will be done, John, have a nice day”
I lay the cordless on the bedside table and once and for all I decide to tidy up the bed. I’m about to open the window, just to air the room a little bit, when I realize I’m about to make a serious mistake. I can’t allow my family to be infected. I must be seriously absent-minded to do such a stupid thing.
“John?” my wife is calling me from downstairs.
I close the door of the room and I go to her. I tell her about my phone call to Sam and my wife listens to me hoping to hear some new details. A quick look at the baby and I see her having fun watching cartoons and I would like to be as her, light hearted and without too many fears.
“Do you think we should tell the baby?” I ask my wife.
“Are you nuts? What do you think we can tell her? ‘Sorry love but we can’t go outside because there’s a toxic cloud infecting people’?”
“You know well we can’t keep on lying to her for more. Think if one of these days she opens the front door and she goes outside without we notice that”
“I’ve already locked all the doors and hidden all the keys!”
“Prepared as usual”
At that point there’s no other thing left for me to do except sitting on the sofa and letting the time goes by. My wife goes to the kitchen and she makes a quick meal for the dinner. My daughter introduce me all her cartoons heroes but I don’t like any of them. There are some motorcyclist mice with some strange cybernetic clutches and I have to admit that the idea it’s not too bad. When I was a kid we had He-Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, stuff that at least taught something to children.
“Can I watch the sport channel just for a second?”
“NO!” she answers me brusquely without allowing any objections.
I should have spent that little money to buy another TV; I’ve always acted like a miser to save money on superfluous things. Now I find myself shut in my house, not being able to go outside and with the TV monopolized by my daughter. I’m seriously ruined. I fall asleep without even noticing it, and I sleep I don’t know for how many hours.
St. Mary – 50 km from Augusta city – Maine – Blake family’s home – 09:00 p.m.
Only when the sun has already set a question grips my mind. I go to the living room and I call the police station. This time Wayne Collins, the deputy aged only 25, answers the phone.
“St. Mary police station, Deputy Collins is speaking”
“Wayne, it’s me, John Blake…”
“Tell me John. I have to be quick, we have a lot of work to do, the rangers are here”
“Just one question about the toxic cloud. How could Sheriff Coltrane wander through the streets for three whole days, without even a protection mask on his face?”
“What? What kind of questions are these, John?”
“I just want you to answer me. Please, you owe that to me…”
“I can’t now; I’ll call you back later!”
He hangs up and at that point, after three whole days of outward calm, I fly off the handle. I start screaming like a fool and I kick one of the chairs next to the table, nearly smashing it into pieces. My wife runs immediately and she tries to calm me down, but I can’t. I hold her tight, a little too tight, since a moan of pain escapes her lips.
“You’re hurting me, John!”
I loosen my hold and I would like to cry, but tears just can’t come out. I’ve never been capable of expressing most of my feelings, but I wish I could now, also to reduce the pressure. Some tears of relief would be good for me. Lily comes towards us and she throws herself in the middle of our hug, shedding those tears I wish I had cried myself. We remain hugged for a handful of minutes but our embrace is interrupted by a sudden light dazzling our living room. I run towards the window and I pull back the curtains to look outside. An armoured vehicle is followed in a column by two jeeps and a big truck allocated for the troops transport. I look at that parade in the street until the march stops at the crossing not too far from our house.
“Citizens of St. Mary, remain inside your houses. None of you must go outside until a new order is given. We’ll send some troops to bring you food and supplies tomorrow morning, don’t be afraid. This is the colonel Desmon Harlan speaking and the United States army is here to serve you and protect you. I repeat: remain inside your houses!”
That man is speaking through a megaphone and I see other people looking outside their windows just like us. Finally the army has arrived, even if I can’t understand why their presence is needed. Such a troop’s detachment almost makes our county looks like it is at war.
“Dad, have you seen how beautiful the tank is?” Lily says, getting closer to the window to see well.
“That is not a tan…” I start answering her but I’m so astonished by the sight that I prefer to remain silent.
We huddle together and, just like a good family, we remain silent waiting to be given new orders. I would like to call Coltrane but I know well I would drive him furious.
It’s almost 10 p.m. and it’s better if we go to sleep. I don’t feel sleepy at all and both my wife and my daughter don’t look like being sleepy, either. I take them to their rooms and I leave them alone in their beds. I just feel like having a drop of whisky and maybe get drunk too, so I won’t think about anything. The army vehicles are carrying on their parade and I look at them while I fill up a glass of whisky, hot as fire.