Zero Visibility – by Mary Fox




Zero Visibility

by Mary H. Fox


On the day of the catastrophe, Samuel spent the entire morning looking for the house key. It was a black monster of a thing made of wrought iron, at least four or five inches long, not easily overlooked. He was still looking for it when his wife came in from outside, carrying the last of the apples and sweet potatoes from the root cellar.

It’s ironic, thought Samuel, how people’s minds work under physical threat. So many of our actions become primitive. Like locking the door. He didn’t believe for a second that a locked door would guard them against what was coming but told himself there was a sensible reason; he wanted his children to have the key for afterwards. Just in case the house was still fine and the door needed locking. In truth he was indulging his own compulsive nature.

“And my primitive side,” he mumbled as he realized that soon he would need to stop, key or no key.

“I guess it’s just gone,” he said, standing up and shoving his fingers through thick, wiry curls, now more gray than black. He looked up and saw Alice coming in to the porch.

“I’m afraid we have no house key.”

“Oh yes we do,” his wife said, taking off her muck shoes and setting them neatly in line next to the rest of the work boots by the door.

“In fact I think it’s right here in the kitchen.” She came close to him and watched as he kept thumbing through the drawer with its little rolls of string, folded envelopes, a book of outdated postage stamps.

Samuel had felt panic starting again and was trying to squelch it by giving himself safer, more practical thoughts.

“Ok. I’ll keep looking. Do you want me to clean out some of this while I’m in here?” he asked, holding up a wire bottle cap and knowing how ridiculous it sounded under the circumstances.

“Is that a joke?” she asked, cocking her head to the side in a way he still loved. Her pale blond hair was now graying too, just at the temples. It looked lovely on her and he was glad she hadn’t colored it. Amazingly, just the sight of her face calmed him. Her quizzical look had settled his stomach and the spell of anxiety had passed. He was grateful for her cool practicality, especially since he’d woken up this morning feeling out of focus. Even with time running out, she had let him work through it on his own. He would be fine now.

She turned from him and said over her shoulder, “I’m going to grab the duct tape and start sealing the door cracks in the hall then, if you think you have the whole key search thing covered.”

He closed the drawer. Enough, he decided. He grabbed a cardboard box and began to fill it with things they would need in their survival kit. Some peroxide. Kitchen twine, matches and permanent markers. Scissors and long-bladed knives.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Alice looking for her duct tape, which had dropped down amidst gloves, hats, magazines and God knows what all; the things that lived in perpetuity on the hall table. He knew that, unlike him, she would never wonder whether things did or didn’t belong there. To her, this was the normal clutter of active children and crazy-busy parents.

“Did we ever try to lock the kitchen door before? “she called in to him.

“I doubt it. Why would we?” he said, not as a question. It was a statement of cultural identity. Farm families don’t lock doors. If you wanted to go in another family’s house, you just did. The family might be out in the orchards harvesting cherries when a neighbor needed something like flour or matches. What if someone had to drop off a cake or the bag of clothes for your new baby? It’s not like anyone in the valley had cash, other than maybe a few dollar bills in a coffee tin. The TV sets and other electronics were all outdated. Not even richer farmers harbored anything of value; this was not a place where wealth or greed could get a hold. It was possible there could be malicious reasons for entering a home unbidden, but if so, no one in the valley had ever wanted to know what they were.

“For Pete’s sake!” Alice said, frowning. “I just realized … the key isn’t in the kitchen. I’ll get it. I’m sorry; I just remembered that the kids took it to their playhouse.” Her words came out unevenly as she bounced past him.

He was relieved. His mind was free and he could finish the real work— the outside of the house. He wrestled the ladder out the back door and up to the house siding along the first of the windows. He hammered the shutters tight against the house, one after the other, with two-pound nails. Probably over-kill. Or maybe not enough. But it felt right, the anchoring of each shutter in four places: tap WHACK, tap WHACK, two hits per nail. His daughter Crissy would hear the hammer inside the house and feel left out. She usually assisted him in securing boards, trying to learn from him how to hit each nail twice only and never miss a stroke. Normally he was so steady of hand that he could let her hold a nail to start it, with no fear that his hammer would slip and touch her hand; but today he didn’t trust himself. He’d always been the kind of Dad who knew how to care for his children without stifling them. Until today.

Until this new kind of storm had begun sweeping across the fields of the mid-west. It had started in Ohio, kept on through Kansas and then into Colorado, proving it wasn’t something that would blow itself out. It had gone over the Rockies in just two days and this was the news that had finally shaken them. The residents throughout the Yakima River Basin were surrounded by mountains on all sides and they had felt safe until then. But after the Rockies, the beats of panic sounded, starting at the fireman’s carnival, pulsing through the air that night, creeping home in the minds of first one person, spreading to another, and another, until fear completely filled the valley.  Some people still insisted that the storms would dissipate. Most residents were like Samuel, knowing that there was no place left that would be out of harm’s way.

The adults had all huddled in front of the news on TV, watching the winds move to one state, then another, across rivers, hills, and now mountain ranges. The children had been allowed to watch at first, awestruck by scenes of devastation. When they were no longer allowed to watch the storms, they traded rumors excitedly while their parents tried to conceive of ways to stop them. Fire walls?  Underground caves?

For a while, they had all talked of leaving, but then news had come from California: storms there too, sweeping across wine country, crashing their way through the canyons, scooping out the ‘food baskets’ of San Joaquin. Soon there would be no place left above-ground that could hide from the winds.

At yesterday’s town meeting in Hamilton, they had set up a short-wave radio system, necessary now that the television sets had all gone black. Each family would send a message out as the storm hit so that the others could know how much time was left for the last…the last chance to do as they had always done… use all their resources to preserve whatever mattered. Samuel and Alice would try to preserve a future for their children.

Crissy and Jake were playing ‘Go Fish’ in the living room when Samuel finished hammering. They jumped up and ran to him as soon as he came in and began looking around for a place to set the ladder down. He was wondering if it would be of any use to them upstairs; maybe for access to the roof. He hadn’t finish deciding when they swamped him so he laughed and set the thing down against the stairwell so he could swing them around.

They hadn’t come to him for a game, though. Ever since the TV had gone out, they had been hungry for details. As they tackled him, they began peppering him with half dozen questions before he could even get to the sofa. He looked around for his wife’s eyes, thinking maybe it was time to tell them the rest, but she was elsewhere and he would have to play it by ear. All he really knew anyway was that the storm would arrive tonight. He draped his tall frame over the sofa, taking himself down to their size.

“Bad storms are coming here too, it seems,” he finally said, hoping they wouldn’t press for too much more. He wondered if they were thinking of the time there’d been a tornado. The funnel cloud had come close enough to see and yet had left the farm completely unharmed. That time, he had let the children help latch the shutters because children need to feel useful too when trouble threatens. It might have been a mistake; he suspected  Crissy might still have dreams about it.

‘’Is it like the funnel one?” she asked now. He flinched as her last two words trembled slightly. The sound of fear in his children’s voices was more than he could bear. He put all his energy toward his own voice so that it would come out smooth and sure.

“Different. There are all kinds of storms.” He tried to read the emotions shifting across Crissy’s face.

“But worry won’t help,” their mom said, appearing from the kitchen. She must have been listening to them.

She kept on, “Remember how close that funnel cloud came, like you could touch it, but it didn’t come anywhere near us?”

“Yes.” Crissy’s face showed that of course she remembered, and more — that she was feeling babied and not much liking it.

“Why do you say not worry? Is it because it’s not coming here? Or because you feel bad if we’re worried?”

He could feel her eyes on him, burning his conscience with their plea for him to keep her safe. If only he could promise such a thing to his family. His head began to fill with unrelated threats from movies and newspapers; stories of gunmen, bombs, and then even worse, horror tales of families slain by strangers. He wished he had never read Capote’s damn book, the one about cold-blooded killers and their meaningless slaughter of a blameless family. These were the kind of ghosts that did no one any good.

The kids stopped their questions and began talking together in a loud whisper, their heads close together. He heard Jake say, “locusts.” He looked at Alice, and she was shaking her head, disapproving of something he had done…or not done. Jake was describing the scene in The Good Earth where locusts gobbled the family’s wheat crop while the workers tried to beat them off with shovels. You never knew which images would stay with a kid and haunt him later.

He wondered what his wife’s signal had meant. She was in the corner packing some games into a box, looking to him in that moment as small and fragile as Crissy and Jake.

He felt isolated. Was she expecting him to decide how much truth to tell his frightened children? For him to decide which is worse: slow-growing fear that nips away at your well-being bite by bite, or terrified panic a few seconds before disaster hits. Alice went back in the kitchen and he heard her hammering planks along the door jamb. He would wait before he told them the rest, just a bit longer. Until they were all together upstairs, sealed in.

He joined Alice and watched for a minute. She hit the nail three, no four times.  She wasn’t doing badly with that hammer. Still, he offered.

“Want me to do it?”

“No I’m actually enjoying the pounding. I can see why you like to do this.” She stood up, planting her hands along the small of her back, stretching out her shoulders and letting out a little moan.

“As you can tell,” he said with a half-smile, “it’s got its down side too.”

“No worse than hauling tubs of laundry upstairs or buckets of milk in from the barn.”

He looked into her eyes, usually bright with blue light but now dark and sorrowful while her mouth was bravely trying to hold the smile.

He said, “Something bothered you about how I answered them. Did I say it wrong?”

“You weren’t wrong. I’m sorry for making the faces. I was upset because there isn’t any right thing to say. It might not even matter in the final outcome whether we say this thing or that thing, you know? And yet it feels so very, very important to watch every word we say, to guard every second we have with them.”

“I know. I feel it too.”

“There should be some way to get it right, shouldn’t there? Or is this the same way people feel when tsunami waters are pouring into their houses…when earthquakes start bringing the walls down around them?”

“No.” He answered with a level of confidence that seemed to surprise her. “Those people are thinking about getting out. They’re thinking they have a place to go to if they only have enough time.”

They hugged quickly, Alice standing on her toes to reach him. He thought of all the years they had spent working too hard, side by side, neither of them complaining, at least not more than a grumble now and then about a pulled muscle or a bumped toe. They had planted and nurtured every one of their fruit trees from seedlings, had fought off coddling moths and drought and unkind temperatures. They had forged rich harvests of pears, apples, cherries and grapes, had reluctantly added onions and decided to let the carrots taper off. They had added figs and worried if they were too temperamental for their soil. In the end they had produced a bountiful farm that functioned at maximum production, a gift to pass on to their two healthy, good-hearted children. Children who deserved to grow up and inherit their land and the time coming to them to work it. Would they? Would there be anything left?

He circled around the bottom floor of the house, checking for vulnerabilities. No use wasting the fast-dwindling minutes by doing things that wouldn’t make a difference. And then it was time. He took Alice’s hand and they started upstairs to join the children who had already settled themselves in. He caught a glimpse of a window and could see the sun was starting to slip behind the orchards. He shivered; according to the last reliable newscast, these Upper Western States could expect to get hit right after sunset.

Alice had stopped outside the bedroom door. It was their last chance to strategize out of the kids’ hearing. Alice whispered, “At what point do we tell them… well, what they should do if…”

“I think we wait to see if it by some miracle it loses force when it hits all these mountains. We see if it relents any, as it hits the hills or the orchards. If it does, we all walk out together and get in the truck and drive around to help neighbors who weren’t so lucky.”

“And if it doesn’t lose force?”

“We’ll hear it coming and we’ll tell our children what we’ve been holding back. We won’t mince words. We tell them how to stay alive.”

“I think they already know that. I pray they do.”

“You’re right. They do. But they’re still pretending now. It’s still a game. I think what they were really asking us is not what the storms can do but why the grown-ups in their world have let this happen.”

Alice sighed and asked, “Does the ‘why’ matter now? Will it make any difference if they understand it or not?”

He didn’t answer. They had talked to the kids so many times about pollution and global warming already. Maybe she was right. What good was more philosophy, more blame? All that was left for anyone to do at this point were the practical things, one thing and then another…as long as they could. First, seal themselves inside the best possible place they could. They had picked the master bedroom. Only the two small Victorian windows, now completely barricaded. There was an attached and windowless bathroom, its tub now filled to the top with clean water.

Samuel hammered the last planks across the bedroom door frame while Alice checked the duct tape seals around the ceiling moldings. The kids were supposed to be checking along the floor moldings but they had stopped in the corner, huddling over what looked like a moving blanket.

It was a moving blanket! Damn! They had sneaked the dog in.

“No,” he said in a voice that started out firm but ended up shaky and unsure.

“Please, Dad,” Jake begged. “He can have part of my food. We’ll take care of him.”

He groaned at this familiar, empty promise and then sought his wife’s eyes. She shrugged back at him, as if to say why not? But it’s up to you.

“Ok,” he said, relenting so quickly that they all stared at him in disbelief, even Alice.

“You’re right,” he added. “He won’t eat much.”

He had realized how irrelevant his costs-benefits logic had become, but he would let them think they had softened him up. The real reason he’d keep it to himself — that the kids would be at an advantage with a good, strong dog if they survived to defend whatever was left. None of the adults they knew, not even Alice who was always a fine visionary, had been able to imagine how much their lives were about to change.

They all settled along the couch. Without looking at his watch, he figured the sun would have set completely by now. They heard nothing, no hint of a storm. But his bones could always feel a falling barometer, his elbows and knees tightening, becoming stiff. He saw that Alice was watching how he bent his arms and so he kept his movements smooth as he pulled her closer and kissed her forehead. They had done all they could. The only thing they had left to give their children was to stay calm and help their minds stay busy. That and enjoy each other’s company for as long as they could.

He felt one hand touch him, then three. His family had reached over and around and under each other until they all were touching, even the dog, in position to wait for the storm… a storm so huge that it would fill the rivers with dirt, would strip the crops to the ground. It would take the breath from the cattle and the trees and then it would devour the air itself.

Mary H. Fox, PhD
Ellicott City, MD

Leave a comment