Caroline would never forget the sequence of events that morning. They would forever be embedded in her mind, like where you were when Kennedy was shot, or what you were doing the morning of September 11th. Whether you knew anyone who had been in New York, Chicago, or Seattle when bombs had gone off in seventeen buildings on June 24th, 2020.
That particular morning there had been the usual hurried kiss from Jeffrey and a promise to try and be home for dinner. The mild panic of getting Caitlin and Jenny off to school, although with Caitlin getting her driver’s license last month, that seemed to free up some time. Now Caroline’s mornings seemed positively leisurely, changing right into her walking shoes and heading out while a ghost moon sometimes hung in the early morning sky.
She had half-listened to the news on the little portable radio she carried around with her as she hurried through her morning chores, but it was just background noise – more problems in Afghanistan, a Congressman from Texas in some type of scandal. She had tugged the pillow shams on and smoothed down the duvet cover, dotted some sunscreen on her face, and headed out onto the packed dirt path that led into the ravine behind their small ranch house.
It was cool and quiet at the bottom of the ravine, but she had seen a coyote there twice in the past few weeks, so she quickened her pace. The coyote had stood there looking at her with a feral, unpredictable leer; its eyes pinning her, a lopsided grin that had seemed like a warning. She had asked Jeffrey if he thought a coyote would attack a person, and he had replied that it was probably more scared of her than she had been of it. But he hadn’t seen its eyes, its challenging stare. She now carried a medium-sized stone into the ravine and left it on the other side, and did the same on the way back.
Once she was up out of the ravine, she could see the Pacific, blue and beckoning, beyond scattered rows of red tile roofs and tall, leafy eucalyptus trees. The sight of it never failed to thrill her. Caroline had been brought up in the Midwest and had not seen the Pacific Ocean until the summer after she graduated from college. She had come out to California with a girlfriend and she had never left. Never once had she missed the harsh winters, the punishing winds, the humid buggy summers. Her friends and family, still in the Midwest, couldn’t understand this attachment of hers; this head-over-heels love she had for southern California. What about the crime, they asked, the earthquakes, the crowded freeways? And yet, she would think. And yet. What about the stately palm trees, the brilliant spills of magenta bougainvillea, the otherworldly birds of paradise, the astonishing green grass in January; the fiery, thrilling sunsets. In these very streets she walked along every morning, peacocks flew down from enormous oak trees and spread their jeweled, fanned tails, and screeched their woman’s screams.
It was on her way back that day that she noticed small groups of people talking animatedly outside their homes. This was something not normally seen – people came and went, mostly in their cars – usually you didn’t see people outside with their neighbors. In fact, Caroline would venture a guess that many people in Palos Verdes didn’t even really know their neighbors.
. . . . .
As Caroline came up out of the ravine into her own back yard, Barbara Berger from next door hurried over as though she had been waiting for her.
“You haven’t heard?” Barbara asked, without her usual preamble of complaints. Barbara’s husband had retired last year, and Barbara claimed she was going slowly mad. Most of her sentences now started with, “You wouldn’t believe…” And usually continued with some heinous transgression on Howard’s part – he didn’t rinse the dishes off before he put them in the dishwasher, he didn’t see the point of making the bed every day, he had unreasonable ideas about how much they should spend for their monthly budget. He wanted to see her grocery receipts, for God’s sake. She swore she was going to kill him.
She walked into Caroline’s kitchen and turned on the small television that Caroline liked to have on for company while she made dinner.
“Another bombing?” Caroline asked, thinking right away of Caitlin and Jenny.
“Worse.” Barbara clicked the remote to CNN. The news anchor, Caroline had read in a magazine, was a former Miss America.
“…warning the citizenry not to panic. The Department of Homeland Security has moved the threat level to the highest since the bombings two years ago that killed over two thousand in three American cities.”
“What is it?” Caroline asked Barbara, who seemed animated and alert with the news of impending tragedy.
“It’s some chemical thing. Or biological. Although I’m not sure what the difference is. People are going into hospitals with coughs; four hours later they can’t breathe. Then, gonzo. They don’t know what it is or if there’s a pattern.”
“Should we be worried? Is it contagious?” Caroline wondered if she should call Jeffrey at work. She knew he was swamped with a new case, another oil spill, and she hated to bother him. “What does Howard think?”
Barbara rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t. Think, that is.” She chuckled at her little joke. Caroline knew that dissing your own husband was part and parcel of wives’ conversations the world over, yet she couldn’t help feeling sorry for Howard. He was a quiet, steady, if humorless man, who had served in Vietnam and then worked in the aviation industry in El Segundo for forty years. He and Barbara had never been able to have children. Caroline knew the whole story, shared one morning over coffee and almond biscotti.
“You know how they are,” Barbara continued. “Clueless.”
Caroline knew a prompt when she heard it, and heard herself automatically agree, “Yes, clueless. Yesterday Jeffrey was using a garlic press to crack nuts,” she shared with her next door neighbor, her friend. “I just had to laugh.”
They both stared at the young newswoman for a few more minutes. She was doing her best to sound serious, yet not overly alarming, her sexy, pouty lips trying hard to frame the terrible words in a way that would alert the television viewing public, yet not drive them to mass suicide.
“Well, we’ve always known the shit would come down sooner or later,” Barbara offered. She turned abruptly and called over her shoulder as she exited the sliding patio door. “I guess I’ll go ask Mr. Clueless what he thinks about all this. Call if you need anything.”
Caroline stood warily before the television, which now had Breaking News in flashing red letters across the screen and some kind of generic disaster theme music. Lately it seemed that every story was Breaking News, and had a tagline too. Were there employees in the newsroom whose job it was to come up with theme music and a snazzy catch phrase for every disaster? After the June bombings the year before last (Seattle, even! That had shaken up the granola group), chaos had ensued – families unable to reach one another, food shortages, contaminated air, polluted water. Caroline, spurred to action, had gone on the web site for the Department of Homeland Security and printed off pages of checklists and recommendations. Part of her felt foolish doing it, but they lived so close to Los Angeles. If L. A. got hit with something, the fallout could reach them in the suburbs. She didn’t want their lives dependent on which way the wind blew.
Part of her wanted to stay where she was, watching the Breaking News on television, where it could remain a story that was happening to other people. She stepped out onto the patio, and everything was as it always was. Their orange tree had blossomed last week and the fragrance was intoxicating. Next door the Berger’s pug snuffled loudly and cocked its head and looked at her in his moist, quizzical way through the slatted gate that connected their two yards.
. . . . .
Caroline kept the news on in the background as she tried to work. She had an appointment that afternoon with a couple in Rolling Hills to look at their collection of prints by Mexican mural artists from the early 1900s. They wanted to insure it and needed an appraisal. But at noon Jeffrey called. “I’m on my way home. It’s hard to tell from the news, but people are kind of panicking.” Caroline felt disoriented. Had she been negligent, sitting with her cup of coffee, researching artists when her own family could be in danger? Wouldn’t the schools have called?
“What is it anyway? Barbara said it was some kind of chemical thing.”
Jeffrey snorted. “I wouldn’t count on her for my information. Although the news stations are probably blowing things way out of proportion, like they do.”
“Remember last time, I bought all that stuff and stored it in the garage,” Caroline said. “You know, water and canned food and toilet paper and a first aid kit.” Or had she taken the first aid kit on the last Girl Scout campout? And would the canned goods be past their expiration? She should have kept up on it better. Now the stores would be jammed with people, just like when the riots had threatened, or after the last earthquake.
“I stopped by the bank and withdrew five thousand dollars from our savings account,” said Jeffrey.
Again, the whole thing seemed preposterous. She had a mental image of Jeffrey, herself, and the girls sealed up in their house, subsisting on Vienna sausages and Saltines, their wad of cash at the ready. Duct tape – that’s what she should check on. To seal the doors and window frames. And water. How much water was enough? Was it one gallon per person per day or two? Two times four would be eight gallons a day, times fourteen (they recommended two weeks worth) would be one hundred and twelve gallons! Insanity! She had, at the most seven gallons. Maybe she should start filling up containers.
“Jeffrey,” she said. “Come home.”
. . . . .
The girls were let out of school early. The PTA moms used the emergency phone chain to let parents know. The news was worse. Seventy-eight people had been admitted to Los Angeles area hospitals in the past six hours with hard coughs and breathing problems. Some had died – the figures varied wildly. Some newscasters mentioned blood along with the cough. Caroline felt a cool tension in her body, a layer of something thrumming right under the surface of her skin that she hadn’t known was there.
Waiting for Jeffrey she filled the bathtubs with water; filled every container in the house. Barbara had come over twice, once with Howard, whose seriousness now seemed like the most admirable trait in the world. He nodded approvingly at Caroline’s doings, and offered to bring over several rolls of duct tape. He had about thirty rolls of the stuff neatly stacked in his workshop, Barbara said, smiling at him.
When Jeffrey finally got home – it had taken him four hours to go the fifteen miles that he usually did in forty minutes – Caroline realized she had been holding her breath in, not exhaling normally, waiting for him. She had never gone to her afternoon appointment, and the people hadn’t called.
That evening they sat in front of the television picking at a taco salad Caroline had thrown together. Jenny drifted away from the television after dinner, but Caitlin, never one to be the slightest bit interested in current events, stayed glued to the news reports. When the air raid sirens went off and the television beeped its loud emergency notification, the four of them sat passively for a moment, as if they could freeze time and not go forward to the next minute. The television announcer told them to proceed to their nearest community shelter.
“Don’t you think we’d be better off here?” Caroline asked Jeffrey, as if he would really know the answer. “What about our supplies? We can’t lug all that stuff with us. What if we can’t get back for a few days?”
The phone rang, and it was Barbara. “We’re going over to the school now. Howard says you should bring a sleeping bag and a backpack with things you might need.”
Things! What things? Caroline felt her mind fight against the distinct possibility that everything in her world had just changed for good. She knew this was selfish and unreasonable in the light of world events, but still. Maybe human beings were just wired to believe that bad things wouldn’t happen to them. Maybe the only way to get up each day was not to think about death. Even though death was there every day – Breaking News! – not just on days like this. It’s other people’s kids who get hit by school buses, other families whose cars get smashed by a piece of concrete falling off a bridge, other people who get breast cancer and die at the age of thirty-five, leaving two young children.
At Gardner Elementary, seven blocks away, the parking lot was already full.
“We should have walked,” Caroline said. Jeffrey didn’t reply. He slid the Subaru wagon neatly against the curb two blocks away from the school and turned the car off. They all sat silent again. “Well,” Caroline said, trying to sound optimistic. “It’ll be like camping out; an adventure. I’m sure they’re overreacting, and tomorrow we’ll laugh at ourselves.” She smiled toward the back seat at her daughters.
Emergency workers had set up a check-in area at the gym’s entrance. The people who wrote down their names seemed to be the same ones you saw working at the voting booths on election days; a cheery, plump, capable contingent of white-haired folks who called everyone dear and clucked in dismay at the turn of events the world had taken. They had done the best they could, and turned things over to this generation. And look what had happened.
People were staking out areas for their families, spreading out on the gym floor like they were there on a picnic. Children were running around like dervishes, freed from bedtimes, homework, and nightly baths. Caroline spotted Howard and Barbara under one of the basketball nets and they headed toward them. Howard had his arms around Barbara and seemed to be consoling her. Barbara was not a woman who usually needed comforting.
“It’s Elvis,” Howard said to them as they drew near. “They wouldn’t let us bring him in.” He patted Barbara’s arm gently, as she looked about her wildly.
“Where is Elvis?” asked Caitlin, moving close to Barbara. Barbara tried to speak, but just waved her hand in the air. Howard spoke instead. “We took him back to the house. He’s got a supply of food and water. He’ll be okay for a couple of days Barbie.”
“We’ll just set up here with you guys for the night, if that’s okay,” said Jeffrey, ignoring Barbara’s tears. He’d always thought the pug was a fat annoyance, and had a running commentary with Caroline on its obvious worthlessness as a real dog.
“Mi casa es su casa,” said Howard, attempting levity with a gallant sweep of his arm toward the hard wood floor.
. . . . .
There was one television kept on in a corner of the school gym, always a small crowd around it, bathed in its zombie light. By now, after two nights in the gym, the restless energy of the kids had turned to bored fidgeting, aimless crankiness. The adults tried to be cheerful, or at least upbeat. The inner workings of some families, exposed as they were, had surfaced like a splinter working its way out of a wound. No one had left the gym. There was a “rule” (made by whom? Caroline wondered), that anyone who left the gym could not be allowed back in. It still was not clear what it was that had now caused over ten thousand deaths in Los Angeles. Chances could not be taken.
There were meetings of certain people (again, Caroline wondered, who decided who these people were?) who drew up rules for the group in their gym. There were apparently groups in school gyms and community centers and churches all over the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and down into Orange County. And apparently they all had this same rule: once you left you were on your own. News stories reported looting of unoccupied homes, but police were authorized to shoot looters on sight. Anyone still on the street was wearing those little white masks that house painters wore. As if that’s going to really help, Caitlin had commented to Barbara, who now just sat quietly. She of the ready joke and witty observation, reduced to grief by love of a stout, comical dog. Caitlin seemed to be the only one to get any reaction at all from Barbara.
When Jenny coughed the first cough, almost more of a bark, like when she had had the croup as a baby, it barely registered in Caroline’s mind. Jenny had always been susceptible to colds. Caroline had spent hours in the dead of night, with baby Jenny in the bathroom; the door closed and the shower running at its hottest temperature; the miraculous steam filling Jenny’s lungs, the hoarse, harsh bark mysteriously subsiding.
Now Caroline lay in her sleeping bag next to Jenny and willed her not to cough again. Please God she thought, even though she wasn’t sure if she believed in God. Could there really be someone orchestrating all this? How cruel could that God be? Or was all of this a test of some kind to see how they all measured up?
This time the coughing was more sustained, Jenny still sleeping through it. But then Caroline heard her say Mom. Was the whole gym as alert as she was, her nerve endings burning, listening to her child’s cough?
“I’m right here, honey.” Caroline rolled over in her sleeping bag, toward Jenny’s voice. Howard was up already, hovering over Jenny, handing her one of his white cotton handkerchiefs. Caroline wondered if any men under the age of seventy carried white cotton handkerchiefs. Jenny coughed into the handkerchief, and in the dim night light of the school gym, Caroline saw the red blossom like a rose on the pure white of the handkerchief. Mom.
. . . . .
Caroline couldn’t blame anyone, she guessed. Although she might feel differently later.
A small group had appeared, ghostly in their nightclothes, the same people who had checked them in. Looking very concerned and talking gravely among themselves. A meeting was called and the decision was swift. They would have to have left anyway. They had to get Jenny to a hospital.
They quickly assembled their things. There was a brief discussion about whether Caitlin should stay or go, whether Jeffrey should take Jenny out and Caroline stay at the gym with Caitlin. In the end, they decided to go out together.
On the way out, people looked away, a few offering comments like Good Luck, Our prayers are with you.
Impossibly, the world seemed unchanged. The scent of orange blossoms and sea air. The soft call of the owl they sometimes heard who-whooing at night. The palm fronds rustling in the balmy breeze. The moon, a luminescent disk in the pre-dawn haze.
When they reached the car, Caroline heard Barbara’s voice, calling out to them, the first time Barbara had spoken since they’d arrived at the school.
“Wait, wait, we’re coming with you!” She looked happy to be leaving the gym, thinking no doubt, about poor Elvis.
Howard hurried beside her, limping slightly; he had bad knees.
Jeffrey carried Jenny with no effort. She kept the handkerchief to her mouth now as she coughed, her arms so pale and tender. When they reached their car Jeffrey said to Caroline, “I’ll take her to the hospital. You and Caitlin go back home with the Bergers. Stay with them if you can.”
Caroline kissed Jeffrey and then pressed her cheek against Jenny’s hair. “I love you, bug. Daddy’s going to get you help.” Caitlin was crying quietly now, but Caroline wouldn’t let herself cry. Not now, not in front of Jenny.
“Come along, my ladies,” Howard said, bowing slightly in mock chivalry, taking Barbara’s hand gently in his and kissing it. His beaked face and solid weight could be counted on. He had seen horrors before and lived. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Chicago Tribune,Tishman Review, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, South Boston Literary Gazette, and many other publications and online blogs. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives just north of Chicago, except during January and February, when she goes just about anywhere warm. She blogs at https://kathystevenson.com/ and may be read on Twitter @k_stevenson01