The Crisis

I was fortunate enough to be invited to submit to Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward’s “Shadows Over Main Street” anthology, which merged Lovecraft inspired stories with small-town Americana. My contribution started with my interest in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the sense of pending apocalypse nested in my own safe conception of the past, and unspooled from there.

If you enjoy this blend of Mythos and Mayberry, then check out the rest of collection, featuring stories from Nick Mamatas, Gary Braunbeck, Lucy Snyder, Josh Malerman, and more. The second edition is available at Amazon, and many other booksellers.

 

Erica holds onto my hand as we sit on the couch and stare into the wide eye of her father’s color TV. Her sweaty palm pulses in time with her galloping heartbeat, and she sucks at the air in noisy hiccups. I have to press my lips together to keep from screaming at her to be quiet.

They’re showing the photographs again, the new ones. All week in school we’ve talked about missiles and blast radiuses and blockades, the approach of halloween all but forgotten. Our paper-mache masks, two grinning witches, sit half-finished in the corner, casualties of the Crisis. But it’s all changed again, and we can’t catch up.

“The purpose and function of the structure are still anyone’s guess, but by now it’s clear that the Soviets had another purpose on the island of Cuba entirely. We still don’t have a good explanation for how a sinkhole of that size appeared seemingly over night.”

The man on the television repeats what he can about the new photographs as sweat beads on his upper lip, vivid and crisp on the Dahlberg’s new screen. The man on the television doesn’t know how to describe them, keeps tripping over his words as he tries to make sense of the aerial photographs. No one can. I can hear Mr. Dahlberg screaming in the kitchen, loud and angry.

As of an hour ago, there’s been no more communication with the USSR, and the President’s demands for an explanation have gone unanswered.”

The man on the television pauses to drag his sleeve across his brow and his hands tremble around a stack of white papers. In the kitchen, Mr. Dahlberg drops his voice, but I can hear the hissing of his whisper over the television. Erica mumbles something about Jackie Gleason coming on soon, and I squeeze her hand tight as if to say: please shut up.

“They have a shelter, Gloria,” comes Mr. Dahlberg’s voice. “Sonofabitch knew the Russkies were moving, and he didn’t warn us. Those aren’t the sort of folk who deserve to survive.”

Erica turns to look at me, her expression blank. I drop her hand and shift on the couch. We both know what he’s talking about. I want to tell her it’s okay, that I understand that there’s nothing she can do, but my heart starts to stutter and skip into my throat. Mrs. Dahlberg hisses something below the range of hearing and the man on the television continues.

“We’re just hearing now that an American base in Turkey reported the sounds of explosions coming from the east shortly after we lost all communication with Moscow, but in the last ten or so minutes, Washington, indeed, anyone on the continent, has been unable-”

There’s a flurry of motion as glass shatters in the kitchen, a bright musical chord followed by the heavy thudding of footsteps as Mr. Dahlberg strides into the living room. I tense my legs, ready to surge into motion, as he lifts the stereo cabinet and puts the needle down on a record. Eddie Fisher lurches out of the speakers, duetting with Perry Como over the too-loud distortion.

“Rebecca, honey,” he begins, and circles around to the front of the couch. He’s not looking at me; he at least has the decency to look ashamed. “We have to talk.”

The man on the television stops speaking, his face a mask of shock. He’s looking to one side, past the camera, as if into the room at us, and what’s about to happen.

Then the lights go off.

Grab her,” Mr. Dahlberg hisses.

In the darkness, I can hear him lunge for me as I drop to the floor, grinding skin against the thick carpet. Erica contracts to a ball on the couch and wails. I kick up and take two lunging steps towards the front door and then smack the wall loudly with the flat of my hand, before reversing direction and bolting for the screen door on the back porch as quietly as I can. My brother’s old blindfold tag trick. I can hear the heavy bulk of Mr. Dahlberg’s accountant physique follow the sounds, away from me, growling with feral frustration.

I slam into the screen door with my shoulder, snapping the hook from the frame with a tinny plink, and I tumble onto the wooden porch. Inside, Mr. Dahlberg realizes my deception and roars. Mrs. Dahlberg is screaming at him to hurry, to be a man and do it already, and I get onto my feet and leap down into the yard. Behind me in the dark, my best friend howls in helpless terror, and there’s nothing more I can do.

The autumn air bites at my cheeks and the tip of my nose, and I shiver involuntarily. My brother’s woolen jacket lies somewhere in the Dahlberg’s hall closet and I try to forget what it feels like, how safe and warm it smells. It’s dark outside, darker than night has any right to be. Power is out, everywhere. I try not to follow that thread to its meaning, and focus only on the lumbering shape that bursts from the dark bulk of the house onto the porch.

My eyes aren’t adjusted yet when I hit the backyard fence, jumping up to wrap my fingers around the unfinished wood. Splinters bite into my fingertips, but I grip tighter and pull myself up and over, landing hard in a narrow alleyway lined with trash cans.

To the north, across the Platte, the glow of Omaha is absent. The sudden lack of the familiar light feels like a physical blow, and I fight to keep my breath. I hear him coming through the backyard, just on the other side of the fence.

Then I hear another sound, a muffled thud, almost too low to be heard. It rattles my skull as it rolls across the lightless river valley. There’s another thud, a distant, massive tremor. Then silence.

It’s begun. I look for the flashes like my father told me, eyes down to the ground and shaded by my hand, but there’s no illumination beyond the watery moonlight. There’s another rolling thud, and Mr. Dahlberg unlatches the back gate, a few feet away from me. He’s heard the bombs too, and he’s keening, a thin animal sound of panic and rage.

But he’s too late. My brother’s bike is right where I left it, one torn red streamer from the Fourth of July parade still clinging from the handlebars. I swing into the Phantom’s leather saddle, and press off. Chrome flashes in the moonlight, and once I have the momentum to stay upright, I flick at the light switches. A wide pool of yellow splashes across the gravel of the alleyway and I stand up in the pedals, scattering rocks behind me as the Schwinn accelerates.

Behind, Mr. Dahlberg spits a curse that shocks me, even now, and turns to run back into his house. The brief elation of freedom is drowned by the understanding that he’s heading for his car. The Phantom is fast, but I know my limits.

I hit the end of the alley, the Phantom’s tires gripping the macadam road and surging forward as I press my whole weight into each pedal and turn east, toward home.

People are trickling outside, clutching flashlights close like childhood blankets. Widow van Gundy grips an old rifle and stands on her porch, her wet eyes fixed out on the horizon for any sign of the Russians.

Some of the people look at at me like Mr. Dahlberg did. They know. My father wasn’t quiet about the shelter, or the ones he helped a dozen other families dig. I lean over the handlebars, press faster and avoid eye contact.

Mr. Dahlberg’s old Ford Fairlane barks a cough as it rounds the corner onto Seventh Street. I can see his wide, wet smile behind the headlight glow, and the car coughs as he presses it into gear. I cut through the alleyway between the Cooper’s and the Wallace’s houses. Both families watch me in mute confusion from their front yards, the Phantom’s tires hurling a plume of loose gravel into the air.

I’m halfway through to Sixth Street when Mr. Dahlberg’s Fairlane screeches to a halt with a blast of the horn. The alleyway is too narrow, and I look back to see a map of veins bursting forward on his sweaty brow. He’s screaming now, to anyone who will listen, wildly pointing at me.

“Someone stop her! Her parents are with them!”

On any other day, this might have sparked laughter. My parents have lived in Plattsmouth since they were children, my Dad has worked across the river at Offut Base since the end of the war. He’s the secretary for the Odd Fellows Lodge and volunteers with the fire department on weekends.

But tonight, in the impossible dark with the rumbling promise of the end on the horizon, it doesn’t seem so out of place. At the mouth of the alley, heads swivel toward me, blank, scared eyes appraising. I push faster, exit the alley onto Sixth Street, hook left and then right again, towards the looming expanse of Garfield Park. I can hear the Fairlane a block behind, an angry song of rubber and road.

I slow the Phantom as I enter the dark hollow of the park. Without the street lamps, the trees become hazy clouds of shadow, and I feel momentary solace in the dry whistling of the oak leaves. The silver slash of the moon provides just enough light to pick out the outlines of the swing sets and the gazebo.

The whine of Mr. Dahlberg’s Fairlane in the distance, another drumbeat of distant roars, and I shake off the familiar comfort. Only a few more blocks. Mom, Dad, the shelter, safety. On the far end of the park, I stop the Phantom and lean it down in the wet grass, lying beside it. My skin ripples with gooseflesh and I let myself shiver with cold dread.

The Fairlane rounds the corner onto Fifth, prowling like a lion. Mr. Dahlberg’s head and arm hang out the window as he scans the dark houses. Halfway up the block, Mr. and Mrs. Talbot sign frantically to one another as they pack a half dozen lumpy duffel bags into the back of his truck. Their fingers dance in a private argument, arms swirling as if to approximate shouting. No one else is in sight, no one else who might have seen me.

Mr. Dahlberg passes my hiding place, screaming to himself, a noise like a kicked pig. He drives his foot into the accelerator, and the Fairlane leaps ahead, circling the park again. I stand the Phantom up, and run beside it towards the road. I jump onto the saddle, slamming my bony thigh hard enough to bring tears, and pinwheel my feet in search of the pedals. He still hasn’t seen me, and I lean forward to accelerate.

I’m hooking around the corner, so close to the shelter, when the bells in the County Courthouse begin to ring. It’s a frantic irregular rhythm, and I turn to look, slowing the Phantom without thinking.

There’s a new light on the horizon, a bright shining star that for a moment gives me hope that the power has returned. But it’s rising. Beneath it rises a column of billowing smoke, lit by the crackling glow. An unfurling flower, stretching up to touch the black sky. Another blossoms beside it, then another. To the west, I see another cluster of arcing lights on the horizon. My heart frosts over, and I watch the searing lines split the night. I’m not moving any longer, one foot on the macadam. I can’t stop shaking, and wish again for my brothers jacket.

He honks the horn just before the impact. I turn to the sound and throw one hand to block out the headlights and the Fairlane strikes the back of the Phantom. The bike frame bends and shears in two with an almost musical screech. My head hits the concrete just it time to watch the Phantom’s back wheel and gears slide beneath fat white-walled tires. My thigh is crushed beneath the frame of the bike, the pain a bright flare of white, but as soon as the car is free of the Phantom’s wreckage, I drag myself out and kick off the ground with my good leg.

So close.

The Fairlane screeches to a halt as I begin to hop-skip away, and I hear the car door grind open. My heart thrashes in my chest, fighting with my lungs and I’m sure I’m going to be sick.

Less than a block until home. Just fifty more yards, and then Dad will be there, and then all of this will make sense.

But I can’t run and none of this will ever make sense. I let the tears go now, and they burst forth as if held under pressure. My nose leaks down onto my upper lip as I shuffle forward on my bent leg, letting the heaving sobs drive my irregular gait.

“Rebecca! Honey, oh God! Stop! I’m so fucking sorry, I never-” Mr. Dahlberg’s voice warbles as he begs. The heavy flat slapping of his footsteps are almost behind me.

There’s a figure in the dark, coming out of the Geller’s house. Head covered in a cowl, a black shape on a black background. It glides towards Mr. Dahlberg, a silent motion like the release of a spring, and I see the figure pull a long object from his coat. The sliver of the moon glints off gunmetal.

“Becca, sweetheart, you can- without you- Erica and her mom and me-”

His words blur together as he starts to cry along with me, his hands up in a gesture of peace. I see he’s shaking, every bit as terrified as me. His heavy lips quiver as he struggles to speak, and then the shotgun barks a plume of fire from a few feet away. Mr. Dahlberg curls inward as his hips and torso erupt into a wet ruin. He collapses in the center of the street without a uttering another word.

The man with the shotgun turns to me, and in the hollow of his hood I see the warm wrinkles of our neighbor, Mr. Meyers, his smile absent. His face looks wrong without it, and my head swims in the uncanny confusion. I turn around to see another hooded figure, almost beside me, arms reaching out for me. I try to shrug away, but I’m falling, my leg giving way at last.

My father catches me in his arms. His face beneath the hood is grim, too, but his eyes still twinkle. He nods to Mr. Meyers who slides another shell into the open breach.

“Iä,” Mr. Meyer says to us, “I enjoyed that,” and then strides away from us into the gloom. Dad looks down at me.

“Hi Beck, I was hoping you’d make. This might be a rough night for you, honey.”

Might be? I want to ask, but as he holds me shaking body aloft, I see the wild arcing of missiles across the sky and I can’t speak. He walks, holding me as if I were still five years old, towards our house. I can see a faint glow from the back. The shelter. Safety. I made it.

From behind I hear a brief scream, then the roar of Mr. Meyers’ shotgun, then silence.

“Nothing makes sense,” I whimper into the collar of Dad’s strange jacket. The cloth is rough and faintly musky, buy beneath it are his familiar warm scents.

“It never did, honey. And it never would have. This was for the best. Come on, I think I can help you understand.”

We pass through the side yard of the house, back towards the glow of the shelter. But there is no shelter. Only a perfect sinkhole, the sides lined with slick black rock where other channels split away into a twisting network. From deep within the central shaft, a hazy glow washes out in waves. The light seems to have both substance and weight as it curls into foggy tendrils of indescribable shades, coiling upward toward the yawning sky.

“The shelter…” I murmur.

“It was never going to be a shelter,” he says with a wave. “Not once Mr. Meyers and I found the old echoes buried there. Lot of digging these days, lots of people hearing it. All over the world. We got to talking. Organizing. You’ll see.”

We keep going, past our property, up to the gentle rise where we used to eat suppers on a picnic blanket on warm evenings. Down the other side, the Missouri flows like oil in the night, only visible in the flickering glow of the missiles and moonlight over head. Dad sits me down in the grass and if I shut my eyes and hold perfectly still, I can almost believe everything is normal. He ruffles my hair.

“I love you, dad,” I mumble, pressing up against him.

“I know. And I feel like I love you, Beck, but that’s just the cruelty of chemicals. It’s just the lie that keeps the whole thing going. But not anymore. We don’t have to lie to each other anymore.”

Across the broad plain to the east, there’s a flash and I instinctively look away. Another light flares, and I see the red blood of my eyelids. As the spheres of light dim, I open my eyes and catch the hint of movement at the horizon. Above, missiles arc downward. American missiles tilting down to strike American soil. It takes a long moment for me to accept what I see.

“The old ones can set us free. So we cleansed the world for their coming.”

More bright blossoms of fire paint the night in flashlight strobes, and I try to look away but my eyes still sear. The world heaves in its death throes as the ground begins the shift.

There. Again. Something moving. Something vast.

I try to put it together in pieces, in my mind, but it keeps leaping apart. Impossible to conceive, even as It strides across the world.

It rises from beyond the curve of the Earth. It stretches far above the thin clouds, and across half the width of the horizon. Numberless legs like iron spikes the width of cities rise and fall, matching the rumbling rhythms of the night. Somehow they join into a nexus, a central torso, but when I try to look directly at it, my eyes slide away.

Somewhere, swimming in the night above, there are eyes. There are eyes like black stars, and they see me.

At last, I understand.

Another blast paints the sky white. I raise one hand to cover it and the phantom images of finger-bones shine through. The dry autumn grasses whisper as Mom strides up the hill to sit with us, her hooded robe reeking of blood and a seeping wound in her gut.

“Duck… and cover,” she sings beneath the rising roar, in her sweet and warbling voice.

We sit in silence, letting our eyes burn and fade as It approaches. One of the unthinkable legs strikes the ground at the horizon, and the earth cracks. Fire and liquid stone leap into the sky as miles of Iowa farmland vanish beneath each step. Tornadoes scour the plains behind it, conjured into being as It tears through the air.

“We wanted to tell you, Beck, but you were too young.” My father lays one hand on my shoulder, like a cold slab of meat. ”Your brother made us promise before he left that we’d keep you innocent of all of this, even if we knew you’d see our way in the end.”

I want to think about Jacob, the hole of his absence and the fond warmth of his memory. But what fills my mind instead is disgust at the useless hulk of my clumsy, broken body, bathing in nuclear radiation. How good it will feel to slough it off, to be free of the clanking chains of flesh. To let all thought and being evaporate before the sweeping gaze of the eyes like dead stars.

“He wanted to be here with you at the end, but… the stars were right. It had to happen.”

I understand. Of course I do. Mold has no claim on the apple. This was never our world.

“Iä!” I gasp as I let go of it all, the old word bubbling deep from within, and then we are silent.

We sit on the hilltop to wait for oblivion, and watch as the world is reborn.

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