If you believe the world is coming to an end, does it actually matter if the sky is falling?
The morning paper was covering part of his eggs. Banking scandal. Arms talks. Crumbling empires. The waitress was standing right behind him, reciting to the two men at the next table the same list of specials she had recited to him a minute ago, the same she had recited, recited, recited all morning long. Wilkie was nervous. Civil unrest here and there. Cold war over. A photo of four geese crossing a road. A gunman on the loose. He clenched his fist under the table. Unclenched. A child was under a nearby booth banging two spoons together. The men in the next table were arguing. A photo of a burning man falling from a burning building. Wilkie tipped his head to get a better listen.
"Who said I wanted to be happy?" one of the men said. "Who said happiness was the purpose? You haven't been around much have you?" He snapped his magazine, folded it back on itself, and held it up to his face. Wilkie picked up his doughnut. He stopped at the same cafe every afternoon, drank two cups of coffee, and took notes in his journal. He jotted descriptions of the weather, bits of dialogue overheard, and speculations about the characters who frequented the place.
The second man leaned forward, chewing hard on a piece of bacon. "You can't just give up like this. The only person who can defeat you is you. Don't you see?"
The first man put the magazine down, buttered his roll and shoved it, whole, into his mouth. "Thmph mphmm mffmth." Bread bulged from the man's mouth, and crumbs tinkered down his shirt. "Phmmth mphthmm!"
"You're pretty funny for a chronic depressive," the second man said.
The man gulped the wad of bread and turned to Wilkie. "Mind if I borrow your paper for a second?"
The headline on paper said Arms Agreement Bombs! The man tossed the paper at his companion. It landed on his scrambled eggs. The other man began to harangue and harangue. Wilkie looked out the window. A woman with a baby carriage strolled past. A kid on a bicycle passed her. The sun was bright. The waitress was reciting the specials again. The child was crying. The cook shouted "Order up!" The man at the next table began to crescendo. Someone somewhere broke a glass. Wilkie lifted his doughnut halfway to his mouth and paused. Something was unraveling, something he couldn't see was unraveling. Or about to explode.
Mr. President still had his dark glasses on, even though he'd made it to the underground shelter well before the blast. He bit his fingernails ferociously.
"I hope Number Two got to the launch sequencer in time," he said. "I hope everything from Beijing to Baghdad is smoking."
"Sea of flames, sir. I'm sure of it," said Wiggins. He felt compelled to be agreeable. He had made the mistake of stopping the limo as a light turned from yellow to red and as a result, Mr. President had not been able to make it to the Presidential Command Bunker, but had been forced to take cover in an auxiliary shelter originally designed for neighborhood bureaucrats.
Mr. President was known on Capitol Hill as The Veto King. He was secretly proud. During one session he vetoed fifty-seven percent of the measures enacted by Congress. All but five of his vetoes were overridden. He had VK stitched into his monogrammed towels.
The bunker had plenty of food and water in it, but no strategic command communications facilities, not so much as a walkie talkie. They'd been in the shelter for twenty minutes and the time had been spent in eerie, uncomfortable silence, punctuated only by Mr. President's occasional lament that he hadn't gotten to initiate the firing sequence. Finally, Mr. President changed the subject.
"Awfully quiet in here, don't you think, Wiggins?"
"Yessir." Wiggins was standing at attention. Mr. President was sitting on a cot.
"Don't you think it would have been noisier? I always thought it would be pretty noisy."
"The shelter is no doubt designed to keep the noise out, sir."
"Ah. You're probably right," Mr. President said. "Say, are you getting hungry? What have we got to eat here?"
Mr. President put Wiggins at ease and ordered him to find the inventory list. The list reported a six-month supply of canned ham, canned tomatoes, canned peaches, canned yams, canned asparagus, and soda crackers. Wiggins found cans of butter beans on the first shelf. On the second shelf he found cans of butter beans. He was reaching for a can on the third shelf when he suddenly realized that history, if it still existed, would hunt him down, bag him, and mount his name over the toilet. He had hesitated. He'd driven the leader of the free world to a second-rate bomb shelter. By the time his hand touched the can of buttered beans he knew that his only hope was that history had perished in the apocalypse.
Wilkie shook his head. A puff of dust surrounded him. He spit twice and looked around. He was standing in the middle of a blacktop road. Just in front of him was a small store. He had no idea where he was. A few seconds earlier he had been sitting in a Kansas City coffee shop. He was dunking a bagel in his coffee then he was dusting himself off in front of a country store, feeling a little dizzy. He hoped the place had a phone.
"Do you have a phone?" he asked the big woman behind the counter.
"Pay phone," she said, and pointed to a relic on the wall. "Cost you a nickel."
"Hey, buddy, you don't get something for nothing," she said. "By the way, your hair's smoking."
Wilkie had been to college. For a while. His second course had been The History of Technology. The professor was a personable fellow who smiled as he described medieval medical technology and its effectiveness in combating the plague. "Death got better reviews back then," he said. His motto was "Progress through technology," which he admitted he'd swiped from an Audi commercial. He laughed at the students who pointed out that technology was causing pollution and other world problems. "Luddites!" he said. "If you hate technology so much, why don't you turn off your air conditioners and sell your cars. Give the money to the poor! By God, old Ned Lud must be smiling now, wherever he is." It was the last history class Wilkie took. He left it with a healthy fear of the past.
Wilkie flinched and looked up. He didn't quite catch sight of his hair, but slender noose of smoke curled down around his nose. He batted his head. Masochistic slapstick. Slappity slap slap slap. The woman frowned. Slap.
"Here." She tossed a damp rag at him. He patted his hair with it until the smoke seemed to stop flirting at the edge of his vision when he moved. He was out.
"Want me to call an ambulance? They got a new one up in Platte City," she said. "They'd probably love to take it for a spin."
"No. I think I'm OK," Wilkie said. He walked out the door, stood on the porch for a moment and considered: he didn't know exactly where he was. He didn't have a car. He'd been through something, he didn't know what. He walked back into the store.
"I guess I do need a little help."
"Tell you what," the woman said. "I'll call the sheriff. He's new, too. Just elected him last month. He needs the practice."
Little girls in big girl poses. They looked uncomfortable, their smiles oddly frozen, their eyes directed off-camera. Were they looking at an adult, searching for the crinkle around the eyes, any sign of approval? or for permission to relax, for permission to get dressed, to go out and play? Mr. President leafed through the pictures twice. He couldn't think of anything to say at first.
Wiggins placed a small trash can next to the bed. Mr. President let the photos drop into the container.
"Aren't these shelters supposed to be secure?" Mr. President asked. "I think we've got a security problem here. Did you check that door?"
Wiggins assured him that the door was locked.
"What kind of scum would... Jesus," Mr. President said. "My brother had a daughter. If he saw those --"
Wiggins said nothing. He had two daughters, one of whom grew up and had two babies of her own, boys. Wiggins had once taken the boys fishing in Maine. One of them fell out of a tree and landed in the lake. The boy's brother had pulled him out. He was OK. He hadn't even stopped breathing. But their mother never let them go fishing with him again. She said no offense, Dad, but there's just too much of them in me.
Wiggins found peace through tomatoes. He grew them in plastic cat food buckets he got from his neighbor. He spent hours pruning the leafy growth on the theory that if the plant had fewer leaves to mind it could apply more of its energy to the fruit. His tomatoes turned out fine every year.
The sheriff's car reminded Wilkie of a hippopotamus, round and wallowy. Some guys could identify the make, model and year of every car built between 1940 and 1985 (after which they all started to look alike), but he wasn't one of them. This car wasn't like anything built in his driving lifetime. The sheriff flicked his cigarette out the window and pulled the car into a Standard station. He told the fat boy to pump her full. The gas pump rattled like an old clothes dryer. Wilkie asked the sheriff if he could use the restroom.
"It don't bother me any if you do."
The restroom door was at the back of the building. Wilkie rounded the corner and came upon a mountain of worn out tires, leaking batteries, rusted tailpipes, and bent chrome molding. A boy was peeing on the tires.
"Restroom out of order?" Wilkie said.
"Holy shit!" the boy said, and lurched backward, struggling with his zipper. "No sir, just go on in there, it's fine." The zipper wouldn't slide.
When Wilkie was nine he had been sent against his will to summer camp. He knew he would be bored, and he was. When he saw a copy of 1984 sitting on the counselors' table, he took it and spent the rest of camp hiding behind the john, reading. He went home without having learned to canoe or play volleyball, but he had a acquired a dread of the future.
"Can I ask you something?" Wilkie said. The boy looked to be about eight or nine. Probably still fairly honest, he figured. "What town is this?"
Weston was about 25 miles north of Kansas City. Being in the general vicinity of where he thought he should have been was comforting. He'd read about Weston once, a feature story about antebellum homes and quaint wineries and old tobacco barns and herds of tourists. It was a place that had for so long not bothered to change that it had become valuable. People came from all over to buy Korean knickknacks displayed in refurbished old buildings. People paid money to wander through 150-year-old homes that had been restored to their original condition and decor, only cleaner.
"Just curious. How old are you?"
"Ten." The boy was still fiddling with the zipper. He picked up a piece of wire and was using it to prod the mechanism.
"When were you born?"
"That makes you four months old," Wilkie said, winking.
The boy looked at Wilkie and frowned. He dropped the wire and counted off five fingers, silently reciting.
"Five months," he said. "That makes me five months old. Except I'm ten, really."
The kid not only lacked a sense of humor, Wilkie though, but he apparently didn't know the difference between May and June. "What year were you born?"
"Shit," the boy said, and dodged quickly through the junk and around the corner of the building. Wilkie turned around. The sheriff was standing, legs spread, hands on hips, cigarette hanging from mouth, eyes squinting.
"You done with your business yet?"
The restroom no cleaner than any other he'd ever been in. The blue paint was peeling from the cinder block walls. The toilet was choked with paper and cigarette butts. Someone had emptied an ashtray. There was a spare roll of toilet paper in the urinal, soaked. Wilkie found this reassuring. He thought it went a long way toward supporting his theory that nostalgia was essentially dangerous and wrong. He knew he wasn't where or when he was supposed to be by a few miles and a few years. It was good to know that gas station restrooms were dirty, nevertheless. What was most unsettling was the missing month.
Mr. President and Wiggins sat on opposite sides of the shelter. Wiggins had dragged one of the cots over near the door and was looking for a pillow when the lights went out. Both men felt their stomachs clutch and each turned, eyes as wide as they could go, toward the other, unable to see anything but the shapeless night. But only Mr. President said anything.
Mr. President drank too much at his inaugural celebration. He looked like he was going to tip over at one point, so his aides suggested that he take a break to freshen up. He said sure why the hell not and walked into the women's restroom. He tried to retreat, but a bottleneck of Secret Service agents had formed at the door. News photographers swarmed, jaws snapping their gum.
Mr. President and Wiggins remained quiet, barely breathing the dark air, for some time, waiting for the emergency generator to come on and return the light. Finally, Mr. President observed that if the lights were out, the ventilators were not working.
Another extended silence ensued. Both men watched the dark air for signs of thickening. Soon both were convinced that the air was becoming soupy. They labored for breath. They panted.
Wiggins felt the panic of the end in the sluggish air. He wanted to get past the panic and die peacefully. He wanted to feel the liberation of no return. Wiggins had driven for Mr. President for eight years. One night, when Mr. President had only been Mr. Governor, he inadvertently signaled right and turned left. He never forgot the terror he felt when the limousine came to a stop, wounded and rocking gently, and he never forgot Mr. President's kindness and understanding. "Could have happened to anyone, old boy," he'd said and patted Wiggins on the shoulder. Now Wiggins would be glad when nothing could be done and nothing would matter, when Mr. President would be nothing more than his twin, a pile of bone and flesh not distinguishable in any important way from his own.
Mr. President seriously considered making a run for it. Panic scared him more than death. The thought of twisting on this concrete floor, clawing for oxygen was more horrible than any violence. If the blast had not been too close and if there wasn't a firestorm outside and if the car hadn't been incinerated or vandalized, they might be able to make it to another shelter without exposing themselves to much radiation. If they held their breath. If they made good time.
"I'm not going to just sit here and choke on your breath, Wiggins," Mr. President said. "I think we should head for the Command Bunker, where we should have been in the first place."
Wiggins considered for a moment. The outside death or the inside death. "With all due respect, sir," he said. "Go to heck."
Mr. President was too shocked to move.
The sheriff drove through town, past the police station, past the bank on the corner, past the Hotel Weston, which was still a hotel, and past Rumpel's Hardware. Weston used to be a river town. It was just about to blossom with prosperity, like all the other river towns did in the mid-nineteenth century, when along came the flood of '51 and the Missouri River, the spastic snake, lurched three-quarters of a mile west. Weston was too stunned to grow. Mr. Rumpel was sitting on the front porch. He was already old, which was somewhat reassuring to Wilkie, who had wandered into his store during his one visit to Weston. Mr. Rumpel was ancient then, his eyes watery and clouded. Mr. Rumpel waved as the sheriff's car went past. The sheriff drove around the block and cruised through town again.
"Where are we going?" Wilkie asked. "I thought the county court house was in Platte City."
"I got some business to attend to here. You aren't in any rush are you? Don't got any appointment to get to, do you?" He laughed and flicked another cigarette.
"Nice car," Wilkie said. "New?"
"Nope. Had it two years," the sheriff said. "Guy who was before me paid too much for it, which is one of the reasons he ain't sheriff anymore. I'm thinking about trading it. Forty-nine Fords don't last. Friend of mine had one that shucked a trannie at 10,000 miles."
On the third trip around the block he looked up and down the street quickly and pulled into the driveway of an old white house. He drove the car into the back yard and parked it behind a shaggy lilac clump.
A woman who looked very tired and very sane answered the back door. She was leaning toward the sheriff as if to kiss him but stopped short when she saw Wilkie.
"Just some guy who wandered into Martha's store with singed hair, lost," the sheriff said. "Don't worry. He'll stay in the kitchen." He turned to Wilkie. "You just stay put. Don't forget, I can arrest you if I want."
"Arrest me for what?"
"Vagrancy. And don't think I won't."
"Good Lord, Ray. Being burnt and lost doesn't make a man a vagrant," the woman said. "Did you even ask him where he lives? He's new at this, mister. Don't take it personal. Besides, honey, the boys are still here. Their Aunt Donna woke up with cramps."
"Christ, Ruth Mary, when am I going to get a break? Life's a crap game and I just rolled snake-eyes."
"Oh, don't be a cry-baby. What's your name, young man? Come in and I'll get us some cokes. Don't have any ice, I'm afraid, but it'll help some. Wet your whistle. Supposed to hit 90 today, I hear."
Ruth Mary sometimes hid from Ray and the boys in the storm cellar behind the house. It was a comfortable place, stocked with canned goods and candles and cases of Coke in case a really big storm or some other disaster came along. She also had hidden there, behind the shelves, books. A Tolstoy, two Henry James, and Gone with the Wind. She thought Ray might marry her someday and she wanted to get her reading done.
Mr. President stood at the top of the shelter stairs, the last bolt in the last door in his hand. He was trying not to breath, trying to pick up any hint of what was beyond the door. What would the devastation look like? Would there be bodies all around, broken and ghastly, or did the fire consume them? Would the ash of human remains be in the air, coat his throat, choke him? He almost returned to the shelter. He couldn't hear anything. That could be good, could be bad, he thought. I might be about to die. He pushed the door open.
The sun was shining. The limousine was where they'd left it, sans hub caps. Mr. President was glad, for a moment, to be alive. He called to Wiggins and told him everything was OK. Then he realized that the worst possible thing had happened. It had been a false alarm.
He was going to look like an ass on CNN.
He passed Wiggins, who was grinning giddily at the sun, on his way back down the steps.
"Have someone send me something that goes well with butter beans," he said.
"But, sir. But, sir, everything is fine," Wiggins said. "Oh, I see, sir." He climbed into the limousine turned on the radio. Nothing. The battery was either dead, or missing.
"Are you sure you've never been in an asylum?" Ruth Mary said. "You sound like you came right out of one of those science fiction comics my boys read."
Ray's hand was resting on his gun. He was squinting through the smoke from his cigarette. He hadn't said much, but he'd muttered a little while Wilkie told his story.
"I think it's odd that you were in May there and you ended up in June here," Ruth Mary said. "Don't you think that's odd?"
Wilkie agreed. That was the oddest thing from his perspective, too. Ray stabbed out one cigarette and lit another. "He's a fruit- cake, Ruth Mary. How am I going to explain something like this? I'll be impeached."
Two boys came running through the room. One of them was chasing the other with a six-shooter aimed at the back of his brother's head.
Ruth Mary's eyes narrowed. "You're not going to wake up all of a sudden and realize that this was just a dream, are you? That's been done, you know."
"Yeah, and where would it leave us?" Ray said.
Wilkie said he didn't think waking up was the answer.
"I don't know if there is an answer. I've either stumbled back through time, or I'm nuts, or I'm dreaming. There's no way to tell which it is, near as I can tell."
The boys came charging back through the room. This time they saw Wilkie and stopped.
The one with the six- shooter carefully aimed it right at Wilkie's nose.
"This is an atomic ray gun," he said.
"Stop it, boys."
"ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZam!" the boy said. "You're fried."
Mr. President and Wiggins sat on the same cot in the shelter. Light from the doorway above fell on rows and rows of butter bean cans. The two men were so completely unable to choose between joy and despair that they had given up trying to decide, opting for silent reflection instead.
Finally, Wiggins cleared his throat.
"We could go get some chili dogs and beer."
Mr. President considered for a moment.
"Yes, I think that would be the best thing to do."
Eric Crump (LCERIC@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu) helps run the writing center at the University of Missouri, where he moonlights as a graduate student in English. He continues to write short fiction -- even though people discourage this sort of behavior -- and his wife and daughter love him anyway. (Bio last updated in 1993.)
InterText stories written by Eric Crump: "The Fine Hammered Steel of Woe" (v2n3), "Post-Nuclear Horrifics" (v3n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Eric Crump.