* Six Hours Earlier *
I leaned against the Formica bar wiping sweat from my brow and trying to catch my breath. I’m a healthy athletic guy, but endless trips between the truck and third story of this house lugging groceries, coolers, chairs, suitcases and the myriad other items a vacation for twenty people requires will wear out the best of men. That’s my story at least. Being married and going on vacation is a special kind of martyrdom.
“Don’t worry about it honey. I’ll get the stuff upstairs,” I said. “Seriously, I got it. You just go enjoy yourself, ok? Try to relax and do whatever it is you want to do, but I’ll handle getting the gear up here.”
Why do we do that? I mean, sure, we mean the sentiment, but after the third trip carrying an unwieldy cooler up three flights of stairs, I always find myself thinking it would have been so much more efficient if I just had everyone make runs until things were unloaded. There has to be some middle ground between chivalry and stupidity. She knows me well though. One brief rub of my shoulder after everything is up on deck, a kiss on the cheek and an “Aww, thank you honey,” and it’s all worth it. We really are like dogs in a lot of ways, men, I mean. Pat us on the head and we’re good to go.
Speaking of dogs, I’m bummed mine aren’t here. I was really looking forward to having my service dog, Ghost, here with me this week. I could have really finalized a lot of her training and it would give me something to do for the next eight days while eight women and their associated twelve to fifteen children did whatever that many people crammed into one space do on vacation. I admit, it’s a mystery to me; one that will be revealed in the next week though. In lieu of having them here with me, my mother is house-sitting for the next week. I’ve got to remember to call her and check in on her; just to be sure the dogs aren’t running her into the ground. Ok, there’s more crap to carry up and it ain’t gonna get itself up here. Sighing, I head for the door and jog down to get the next load.
We decided to come down a day early. Most of the rest of my wife’s family will be coming down either later tonight or over the remainder of the weekend. Jess, in her infinite love of family, decided to sacrifice her traditional birthday week and turn it into a family reunion week. Being the first time they’ve done this since they were kids, we’re both a little nervous how it will go. For now though, there’s relative peace. It’s just me, Jess, our son Mason, and her cousin Michael and two of his kids; Matt and Ashley. I’ve known Michael and his family for a few years now. They’re good people. I’m glad they’re here, mainly because he’s the only other male in an otherwise gigantic ocean of estrogen this coming week and I was very much not liking the proposition of being that outnumbered by the female of the species, especially if, being related to her, they all shared my wife’s genetic independence and deep appreciation for sarcasm.
The gear is unloaded. I’m sitting on the porch overlooking the great Atlantic, thinking how glad I am to have moved away from the Outer Banks after high-school, but when I sit here like this and just appreciate the ocean, without all the tourist crap that accompanies it, I tend to get nostalgic for the sounds and smell of the ocean on the air. Salt gets in your blood. If you grew up with it, there’s no other kind of solace like it in the world.
I have a plan for the remainder of the day. It consists of sitting out here on the deck, ignoring my ever-growing inbox full of email and enjoying the relative quiet as long as I can before my wife’s relatives start arriving tomorrow. My laptop is open, sitting on the warped wooden picnic table across the deck from me, it’s cord draped through the sliding glass door to reach an inside outlet. No email though. No browsers open, no work applications running; only Spotify streaming music from my smart phone’s hotspot connection, quietly filling the air with some Sinatra. I can’t help but smile listening to “Fly me to the moon.” A lot of people performed that song over the years, but none like old blue eyes.
Jess is in the house putting various items in cupboards, other items in the refrigerator, and navigating between floors getting things ready. I helped by being sure the coffee pot was in perfect working order. These things are important. She’ll be glad to know it works fine and the cups only leak from the top.
The left door to the patio opens behind me, the sliding glass sound it makes standing out to me. I haven’t heard sliding glass doors in a long time, the bud-da-da-da-da-da-da rattle of sandy bearings not being what I’m used to at home. Most homes inland don’t have them. I wonder to myself idly if it’s just a beach thing.
“How’s it going man?” Mike asks, a vodka tonic firmly held in his right hand. I look up over my shoulder and acknowledge him, raising my right hand in the standard coffee-cup salute. I’m not omniscient, but I did see him pouring a few minutes ago as I came out the opposite door to perch out here in the breeze and I know vodka is his drink of choice.
“Good, bro. Just doing as little as I can for as long as I can,” I replied, sipping my coffee. I reached over tapped the space bar with my left hand, bringing Sinatra to a halt momentarily.
“Its ninety-three degrees out and you’re drinking coffee. I don’t know how you do it. You know that’s a diuretic, right?”
“Says the soldier drinking vodka from a red solo cup,” I murmured over my mug, loud enough to be clearly heard.
“Fair enough,” he says, smiling. “Gonna do some fishing? I’m gonna go out in a bit and pick up some rods.”
I made a wistful sound, not quite a laugh. “My wife sold my damned surf rods at a yard sale two months ago because I never use ‘em,” I grumbled. “To make matters worse, she sold ‘em for ten bucks a piece. Those things were worth two hundred each!”
“Yeah, you win some and you lose some,” I said. “I’d like to get some fishing time in this week if you’ve got a spare pole. That’d be nice. Croaker are all over the place according to the fishing report and Chuck said there was a chance to get some Pompano with the water getting warmed up so early this year.”
“As long as I get a line in the water, I don’t care how it goes.”
I nodded my agreement. We sat there for the next hour or so, talking about what happened in our lives since our two families has last spent time together. I talked of how my technology company was doing and he caught me up on his last deployment to Iraq. Micheal was a SF soldier out of Fort Bragg. Not being a member of the super friends, as I always referred to the Special Forces community, I’m not privy to what exactly he does. No one outside his command really is, but I do know he works in commo for the good guys and that’s enough for me. We talked about the latest accomplishments our kids had achieved, things our wives had been up to, and just passed the time relaxing. Eventually our conversation drifted off into comfortable silence broken only by the occasional sound of ice sloshing in a Dixie cup, my cigarette lighter igniting a Marlboro light, and the occasional hawing sound of a random laughing gull that swooped by to see if we were the kind of tourists they preferred; the ones that left food on the balcony they could swoop in and snatch.
I fumbled around in the refrigerator back inside the vacation house, a relic that must have been installed when the house was built in the early eighties. “You’d think a house that costs three grand a week and has six separate bedrooms and is specifically designed to be rented by massive groups of people would have two refrigerators!” I yelled to no one in particular as I tried to get to the chicken breasts I knew were in there somewhere. Jess had packed the ancient refrigerator to the ceiling; literally. There were three crates of eighteen eggs packed in the middle of the top shelf with three pounds of bacon and three pounds of sausage piled on top to the point it was pushing against the lightbulb cover in the top. It was so packed I found myself having to unpack half of it to get at anything.
She did know we were cooking chicken this afternoon. She could have put that at the front couldn’t she? This thought I kept to myself. After a few attempts at removing the chicken breasts while managing to catch the other things that fell out at me, I finally retrieved the much sought-after bird boobs, stood, and closed the door in triumph. Whomever opened that thing next was going to get assaulted by at least three different kinds of salad dressing but hey, that was their problem. My job is chicken. I’ve succeeded in that. Atta-boy for me.
I believe in small goals.
I could hear the kids running up and down the stairs between the floors as I went over to pour more coffee. “No running in the house,” I yelled. I expected absolutely no response and I was rewarded with being correct. I remember being that age and thinking to myself that if I was out of the room when the command was yelled I could feasibly pretend I didn’t hear it if I was scolded later. My older relatives always said that I’d be blessed with kids just like myself when I was that age. I need to send them a card; something quaint but appreciative. Maybe it could say “You were right. Thanks. You suck.” I’m pretty certain they’d know exactly what I meant.
The sound of feet thundering paused just long enough for the sliding glass door to open and then it returned to its former pace, this time on the salt treated deck outside. At least they’re outside and not in here I thought to myself.
I leaned with my back against the counter, taking a sip of coffee and saw the boys outside, stopped in their tracks by Michael. Ha, I thought. Didn’t get away with it after all did you?
I couldn’t hear Michael talking but I could see he had their attention. All of the sudden both boys looked over his head and pointed. The glass door between us prevented me from hearing his words but I could read his lips from where I stood. They were forming the word fireworks, his expression showing a quizzical look for a moment. Both boys grinned and continued to point over his shoulder to the north.
I looked down at my watch. It read just after three in the afternoon. What idiot would be shooting off fireworks at this hour? You couldn’t see anything at this time of…
Well, shit. I immediately noticed the relative silence in the house. There is a difference between silence when you’re alone and silence that is eerie and makes the hair on the back of your neck rise. This was the latter of the two. It wasn’t a breaker because everything was off. The hum of the refrigerator was gone. The electric sounds of the coffee pot making burble noises had ceased. Even the whir of the ceiling fan motors so commonplace you tune it out was noticeable when it was gone. When a breaker blows, isolated appliances are always on different circuits. The ceiling fans and refrigerator would never go off at the same time unless the power went out altogether.
I started to walk towards the porch, my coffee still in hand. I noticed Mike had turned around and was looking where the boys had been pointing. The look on his face didn’t portray celebration. It didn’t portray entertainment.
As I cleared the living room my pace increased. I opened the sliding glass door, and walked quickly over to the left side of the deck to get a look at the sky that was unobscured by the gable end of the house, not bothering to shut the door behind me.
“What the hell?” I heard Jess say from down stairs on the second floor. The sound of her feet on the steps didn’t register with me. I didn’t know she was there until she said it a second time as she came out on the deck to join us, an irked expression on her face. “What the hell? Did we just lose power?”
“Dad!” Ashley yelled from somewhere in the house. “Can I borrow your phone? My tablet just turned off. I was chatting with Amanda and the computer just turned off.”
“What are you guys looking at?” she asked as she joined us on the deck a few seconds later. “Hello?”
“That doesn’t look like fireworks,” Mason said as he idly stroked a spot his on face where a bug landed on him. It buzzed away, only to circle back and attempt again.
“Shit,” I said quietly, the reality of what we were seeing dawning on me.
The ball of light in the sky was already dissipating. Replacing it was an orangish-brown coronal mass of fire slowly being veiled in deep grey smoke. It was high. Whatever it was, it was very very high in the sky. From this extreme distance we were only seeing the top of it, like glimpsing the top of one very tall tree amidst a forest canopy.
A mushroom cloud would have been bad. It would have been terrible, horrible enough because of what it represented. This was worse.
I leaned backward a little, using my left hand to nudge Jess a little bit to the left so I could see the screen of my laptop. Blank.
Snapping out of his reverie, Micheal raised his eyes to the sky, his hand shading his eyes from the glare of the bright July sun. He slowly panned up, his head following his gaze, scanning left and right. His face was intense; his eyes sharpening and relaxing focus as he searched for something.
“Damn,” he said finally. His searching had stopped and was focused on an area of sky almost directly overhead.
I turned my own gaze to the sky, glancing at him to see where it appeared to be looking. It took me a minute to see what caused his comment.
Barely perceptible in the sky were four tiny greyish-white lines. They were contrails – the mists of vapor that condense behind aircraft engines when they fly through moisture-filled atmosphere. Not quite. Contrails are usually whitish in color. The lines were small but they were long. Contrails of aircraft tend to get wider the further from the source due to the air disappating and slowly returning to normal. These were thin and very straight and they hung in the atmosphere behind their source. Jet liners tend to form split contrails because of the massive fuelage between them. Sometimes you can see four individual lines; one generated by each engine of a 747 or similar aircraft. Jet liners also don’t make greyish color marks in the sky. But there is something that does.
A flashback to my childhood, sitting in the classroom at school in science class in seventh grade, entered my mind. I remember sitting in Mr. Gray’s classroom enjoying that week of class immensely. We were studying space and talking about what mankind might one day accomplish in the skies. I remember the ooh and aah sounds we made when we watched shuttle footage of liftoffs from previous years at Cape Canaveral. He showed us footage of boosters, rockets, satellite launches mankind had accomplished and he explained the science behind it. It was amazing and partly responsible for my thereafter love of all things airborne; planes, jets, rockets, shuttles, and satellites.
Other images flashed through my mind as well. My mind was trying to process all the possibilities, comparing it to the digital footage in my memory of things I’d seen in order to try to build a frame of reference. North Korea and their rocket tests, China and their space probe that finally made it possible for them to become a nuclear power, missiles fired from the wings of F-18 fighter jets, the SCUD missiles that caused such concern for our troops during the first desert war. They flashed in rapid succession in my head like someone playing a slideshow at incredibly high speed.
The images stopped flashing. One picture was stuck on the screen of my mental projector, its image flashing like a confirmation. I’m surprised I didn’t hear a dinging sound signifying we had a winner.
My eyes dropped to the people in front of me; my wife, my son. “Tell me that’s not what I think it is, man,” I said hoarsely after a moment. My throat was dry as if I’d had my mouth open the whole time I’d been starting at the sky and there was no moisture left in it. I worked my jaws, smacking my lips together and trying to get back to where I could speak clearly.
I cleared my throat. “Hey man. Tell me that’s…”
“Rockets,” he said. “They’re rockets.”