Out on a Limb
Michael C. Keith
And all the air a solemn stillness holds. -- Thomas Gray
The house was in total darkness when Elvin Kells climbed from his bed to empty his bladder. The electric clock on his bureau did not display its luminous numbers and the streetlight outside failed to cast its usual glow inside to help him navigate his way to the bathroom.
Another power outage, thought Elvin, moving cautiously around the king size bed and past his wife's bulky wardrobe. His irascible prostate had recently forced him to sit while urinating since it was often a long, if not arduous, process. After several minutes, he returned to bed hoping the lights would be restored when he rose at 5 A.M. to ready himself for the long commute to work. He did not relish the idea of showering and dressing in the dark, and the thought of hitting the road without his morning cup of coffee was disagreeable in the extreme.
A loud thud awoke him with a start. For a moment he was disoriented, torn from a dream that had him scaling the side of a steep cliff, something he would never do in real life. He looked closely at the clock and just barely discerned the outline of the digits 3:27.
"Damn, still no power," he muttered, recalling his earlier trip to the bathroom in complete darkness.
Elvin pressed the light button on his watch and realized he had overslept.
"Crap!" he blurted, causing his wife, Cela, to stir and mumble something incomprehensible. "Go to sleep, honey," he whispered, patting her arm as he slipped from bed.
Elvin fumbled around in his closet with a flashlight and cobbled together an outfit for the day. He quickly dressed and decided against showering in the dark. He also decided to forego shaving as well. So I look a little grubby for once, he thought, as he scribbled a note for his sleeping wife: Power is out. Call utility company . . ., Love, E. xox
He was just a couple feet out of the front door when he noticed that several fallen tree limbs blocked the driveway. Another was pressed against the side of the house, prompting him to recall the loud noise that had startled him from sleep.
"Great, just what I need," he growled.
As he surveyed the situation, he saw wires snaking across the hood of his car and realized they were probably hot.
You touch it and you're fried, he thought, cringing at the image. The streetlamps were out, and he couldn't see nearby houses, so he could not tell if his neighbors were in a similar predicament. Elvin reached into his pocket for his cellphone. The screen lit up but showed there was no service.
"What the hell," he grumbled, discovering there was no Internet either.
His wife had heard him stumbling around the house and came down stairs to see what was going on.
"Where's the lights?" she asked groggily.
"They're out. Trees fell on the power lines, or at least their branches did. I can't get anything thing on my iPhone either," reported Elvin.
"Are you going to work?"
"The driveway's blocked, so I can 't get out," replied Elvin, still fiddling with his cellphone.
"Was there a storm last night? I didn't hear anything," offered Cela.
"You could sleep through a typhoon. I heard something hit the house, but that was after I noticed the power was out. It woke me up."
"What about Keri and Jim across the street? Do they have power?"
"I doubt it. I didn't see any lights in their house. Of course, they're probably not up yet, and I can't go over and check because there are live wires on the ground."
"Well, what are we going to do?"
"Let's listen to the battery radio to see what's going on," suggested Elvin.
To his surprise, the two stations he normally tuned in to were off the air.
"Jeez, that's weird," he murmured, as Cela looked on curiously.
Finally, a station known for its hip-hop music came in loud and clear, but instead of its usual hit rhythms it was full of urgent talk.
"It now appears that every part of the city is without power, and reports are coming in that surrounding areas are also experiencing a blackout . . .."
"How freaky is that?" muttered Elvin.
"What about mother? She's all alone, and I was supposed to take her to the doctor's today," commented Cela, apprehensively. "I better call her."
"There's no cell service," reminded Elvin.
"Oh, God. What are we going to do?"
"When it gets light, I'll go over to her house. "I'll take the bike. The cars are blocked by the fallen tree limbs."
A sudden knock on the door startled them.
"You guys in there?" called their next-door neighbor, Len Benoit.
"Yeah, come in. The door's open," replied Elvin.
The Kells were not close with the Benoits, despite the proximity of their houses. On a couple of occasions, Cela attempted to befriend Betsy Benoit, but she was unresponsive to her overtures. So their connection with their closest neighbors amounted to an occasional wave when they spied one another in their respective yards.
"You see what's out there?" said Len, breathlessly. "Looks like a tornado hit. Power wires all over the place too. One is on your car."
"Yeah, I know. Guess it's like this all around here and in the city, too. The radio says other places are like this, and they don't know what caused it."
"Betsy is still sleeping. I didn't want to wake her figuring the lights would come back on soon. Then I went outside to get the paper, but my driveway is like yours, all cluttered with branches. I looked down the street as far as I could, and it's the same everywhere."
"It's starting to get light," observed Elvin. "We'll be able to tell how bad it is soon."
Cela, who had been listening to the radio, interrupted them.
"Did you hear that? They say it's like this all over the country. Almost every place is without power because tree limbs have taken down all the electrical lines."
"Holy, shit! That's insane," blurted Len. "Sorry, excuse my language. I better go tell Betsy. This sounds like a major crisis."
"Sure seems that way," responded Elvin, walking Len out of the house.
The dim morning light made it possible for both men to get a fuller sense of the destruction in their immediate area. Fallen tree limbs had crashed into houses and struck cars with devastating effect. Yards and driveways were cluttered with severed boughs and sprigs. Utility poles leaned at tenuous angles as large branches pushed down on the cables that connected them.
"It looks like . . . " mumbled Len, unable to find the words to describe the scene of devastation.
"Like nature has declared war on us," offered Elvin.
* * *
By late morning, the batteries in the Kells' radio were spent, and he replaced them from the stash he kept in the hall pantry.
"Damn, we got tons of A, AA, and Cs, but these are the last of the Ds. I should have bought one of those Red Cross wind-up radios. I almost did, too," reported Elvin.
The news had become more upsetting with each passing hour. Nothing was functioning, according to the latest reports. Airports were closed and hospitals were running on emergency power. Looting was reported at stores that stocked generators and other energy supplies. Again, Elvin lamented his lack of foresight.
"I was going to buy a generator after the last storm, but of course I didn't."
"Stop beating yourself up, honey. No one could have imagined anything like this," counseled Cela.
"I'll go to your mother's now, okay? Don't keep the radio on. We'll have to spare the batteries. Maybe I'll find some at one of the stores I pass," said Elvin, heading out to the garage.
"Be careful. Watch the downed wires. Tell mama we'll check in on her everyday. I know she has plenty of food and medicine. She's such a pack rat. We'll probably end up borrowing things from her."
"Not likely. You're your mother's daughter," said Elvin, putting put on his helmet and mounting his bike. "I'll be fine. You stay put. I should be back in a couple of hours."
The collapsed tree limbs limited how much Elvin could ride his bicycle. The streets were mostly blocked and clearings were few and far between. A public works vehicle at the end of his street was attempting to remove a giant branch. It occurred to Elvin that at the rate they were progressing, it would take months before things would be back to normal. Once he got to the mostly treeless main thoroughfare, he was able to ride unimpeded for several blocks, but when he turned onto his mother-in-law's street, he had to abandon riding and clamber over several downed branches.
It took him a quarter-of-an-hour to reach Janet Furlong's house and he felt spent. The tree branches that had dropped onto the elderly women's street far outnumbered those on his. The once beautifully shaded lane reminded him of photos around Mount St. Helen's after it erupted. Thorough devastation, thought Elvin, surveying the destruction. Most of the modest homes on the street had been struck hard by the falling trees and not a single vehicle was spared. His mother in-law's house seemed the single exception. Since the only trees on the property were in back, it appeared unscathed.
He knocked on the front door several times but received no response. It was possible she had gone to a neighbor's, figured Elvin, but he quickly dismissed the idea since she was barely mobile and certainly could not maneuver past the obstacles on the street.
Elvin called her name several times and then fished her house key out of the planter on the porch. It had been placed there for the very reason he now used it. Janet had hidden the key there in the event she was not able to get to the door and was unresponsive to calls. Cela had told her not to put it in such an obvious place, but her mother ignored her advice, claiming the neighborhood was crime-free and perfectly safe.
"No place is perfectly safe, mother," Cela had objected, but to no avail.
At first Elvin could not turn the key in its lock, and he wondered if Janet had installed a new one and forgotten to replace the old key. She had become forgetful in the last year, so it seemed possible, if not likely.
"Jesus," Elvin grumbled in frustration, giving the key a hard push.
The door flew open suddenly, nearly causing Elvin to fall inside the dark foyer.
"Janet, are you there?" he called. "It's Elvin."
After a quick search of the first floor, he made his way upstairs. The doors to the various rooms were shut as they always were, and Elvin went directly to his mother-in-law's bedroom that faced the backyard.
"Janet, it's Elvin. Are you in there?" he called, and receiving no answer, he opened the door.
A frightening sight greeted him. A long tree limb had crashed through the window and landed on the old woman, crushing her body as she lay atop her bed. Two sprigs had perforated her eyes creating the illusion that they were growing from her head. The sight repulsed Elvin and he ran from the room and out of the house. He sat on the front steps until his queasiness faded. When he caught sight of a person emerging from the house across the street, he shouted for help.
"Sorry, I got my own problems here," replied the man, who quickly disappeared from view.
"Thanks, I'll do the same for you some day!" shouted Elvin, perturbed.
He scanned the surroundings for anyone else that might assist him but saw no one. He then returned to where he had left his bicycle. In the process he nearly stepped on a downed power line. The realization that he had nearly been electrocuted shook him. This can't be happening, he repeated to himself, as he more carefully scanned the path before him to make certain no other wires awaited a careless misstep.
He was relieved to see the bicycle was right where he had left it. He retraced his earlier route hoping to encounter a police car or ambulance to report his mother-in-law's death. A few minutes into his ride, he spotted a cop and was able to flag him down. The response he received to his report was more than mildly upsetting.
"There's dozens reported dead and injured around here. Give me her address, and I'll add it to the list, mister."
After the police cruiser drove slowly away, Elvin continued his homeward direction. He had made up his mind not to tell Cela about her mother's death. He'd say she wasn't home. That she was probably taken to a friend's house. He figured Cela would intuit the fact soon enough after hearing about the widespread toll on human life. The longer she didn't know the truth the better, he thought.
Although he believed finding batteries was at best a remote possibility, he decided to check the two convenience stores on his route home. The first one had already been boarded up, and when he approached the second, he noticed several people scurrying away from it with objects in their arms.
"They're looting the place," Elvin mumbled, as he pulled into its parking lot.
He hid his bicycle behind a dumpster and ventured inside as several more individuals dashed past him clutching items.
"Dammit," grumbled Elvin, finding the battery rack empty.
Nearly all the shelves in the store were bare, and Elvin left now feeling both discouraged and angry. His dark mood further deepened when he discovered his bike missing.
"Son of a bitch!" he shouted, giving the dumpster a hard kick, which he regretted because of the pain it caused him on his walk home.
* * *
Cela was standing in the doorway when he finally reached his house.
"What took you so long? I was worried."
"Someone stole my bike at the Store 24," replied Elvin, embracing his wife.
"What happened? Who . . .?"
"I tried to get batteries, but the place was full of looters and nothing was left. When I came out, it was gone. It's crazy out there. Like when Katrina hit New Orleans," explained Elvin.
"She wasn't at her house. I think she's probably at a friend's or neighbor's place."
"Maybe at Helen's or even Bev's. Did you check?"
"Sorry, no. It was hard going out there, and I wanted to try to get batteries. I'm sure she's fine, honey. I'll go check again when they've cleared some of the trees. It's practically impassible wherever you go and dangerous, too, with all the downed power lines. Almost stepped on one."
"I've been listening to the reports. Every place is affected. The whole country is closed down. The only places that have electricity are areas that had no trees. They're not sure why all the trees have suddenly lost their limbs. It's the strangest thing that ever happened and some experts believe that it's going to have an impact on oxygen levels pretty soon. Oh, Elvin, what's going to happen to us?" said Cela, panicking.
It was at that moment that Elvin was thankful they never had children, although there had been a time they wanted them very much. Now it was a responsibility he was glad to be spared.
"Things will be okay," responded Elvin, although wondering if they really would be.
By early afternoon, several of the street's residents had gathered at the Kells' and all seemed equally dazed by the crisis and fearful about its outcome. Two neighbors had generators and offered to provide hot water and cooked food to those who wanted them. Elvin was impressed by how people who hardly knew one another came together during disasters, at least early on. Of course, when things deteriorate, a siege mentality will take over, and then it will be every man for himself, he thought, recalling all the disaster movies he had ever seen.
"It's a good thing it's summer. At least, we won't freeze to death," offered Hank Gilbert, who lived a few houses down from the Kells'.
"Yeah, and there's plenty of firewood laying around when it does get cold," added Carla Gilbert, with a smirk.
As the day waned, the residents of Clearview Drive agreed to gather at the Kells' house the next morning to further commiserate and listen to the president's planned address on the disaster.
"Does anybody have a supply of D batteries?" asked Elvin, as his neighbors departed.
"I got a few," answered Hank.
"A few? He's mister survivalist. He has more batteries than Eveready," his wife snickered.
"Hey, not such a stupid thing now, right?" replied Hank.
"Not at all," responded Elvin. "We should all be like you."
* * *
What the president had to say put a quick dampener on what had almost been a party-like atmosphere as people gathered the next morning in the Kell's kitchen. Things were far worse than anyone imagined. An occasional "Oh my God!" from someone punctuated the Commander-in-Chief's dire statements.
The great Amazon and Boreal forests are decimated and as this satellite photo shows the rivers flowing through them have vanished, due to the incalculable number of fallen tree limbs now clogging them. Just what caused this unprecedented event is unknown. At this early stage in their investigation, experts indicate that the world's trees were not suffering from any known natural causes, such as Verticillium Wilt, Canker, Black Knot, or Fusiform rust. But, the fact is something has attacked the joints of the planet's conifers, deciduous, and palm trees, and the result of this historic phenomenon is far-reaching. Scientists speculate the cause may be the result of industrial pollution. Military reserves have been activated to aid in the clean up. Meanwhile, FEMA is making temporary housing available to those who have lost their homes . . .."This is a nightmare," whimpered Sara Cosley, who lived the farthest from the Kells but had become acquainted with Cela through their mutual participation in yoga at the local YMCA.
"He said it's the worst natural disaster since the Ice Age," added Betsy, her eyes widening.
"Sounds like we're in deep do-do," replied Hank.
"Up to our ass, I'd say," observed Ken Logan, a widower who lived in the house diagonally across from the Kells.
"I think what the president says is bull," declared Len. "How the hell do all the trees in the world die simultaneously? That's crap. Must be an act of God or some freaking extraterrestrials."
"But why would God do such a thing?" inquired Betsy.
"Well, it sure as hell wasn't nature. That's not the way it operates," snapped Len.
The president's address continued for another half-hour and concluded with a plea to all citizens to assist in whatever way they could to help those in need and to aid local authorities in the vast clean up effort.
"What say we clear the block ourselves," suggested Hank. "If we wait for the town to do it, we could be trapped here for weeks."
His idea was met with unanimous approval, and for the remainder of the day, the residents of Clearview Drive hacked away at the mounds of debris clearing driveways and the street. By the third day of their shared efforts, they had succeeded in removing the obstructions to Mayfield Avenue, one of the town's primary thoroughfares. Thankfully, most of what had clogged that street had been cleared by the town. The Kells and their neighbors now had access to several areas of commerce, although the overwhelming majority of the retailers in the local shopping centers remained closed.
"It's nice that we can drive somewhere, but there's no place to go," lamented Cela. "It's like a ghost town out there."
* * *
The Kells sat in the candlelight of their kitchen listening to the news on their portable radio. The reports centered on the president's several talks over the last few days in which the country was further informed of the gravity of the situation. Only a few regions of the country had electricity, and they were situated mostly in treeless places, such as the desert and plain states.
"Maybe we should go to Vegas. They say they still have power. It would be good to get away," offered Cela.
"We'd never get there. The airlines aren't operating and most of the roads between here and Nevada are still impassible. Besides, getting gas would be a problem, since stations are pretty much closed everywhere," replied Elvin, fiddling with the radio dial. "Damn, we're losing more signals. Only a couple stations still on the air."
"Is this it?' moaned Cela. "So we're prisoners here? The president says it's the same overseas and that there's really no timeline as to when things are going to get better. So many dead, and I'm worried about mother."
The Kells had traveled to Janet's street with the intention of looking for her. Due to Cela's recent knee surgery, she was unable to climb through the piles of tree limbs that blocked access to her mother's house. Elvin was thankful for that; the thought the death of Cela's mother would send her over the edge. While Cela waited in the car, he pretended to search for her mother. When he returned, he told her he had checked everywhere but had not found her. Uncertainty about her mother's welfare heightened Cela's anxiety, and for several hours she barely spoke.
* * *
The next morning as neighbors congregated at the Kells as planned to listen to the president's daily address on the crisis. Cela saw that the group was slowly shrinking.
"I saw Keri and Jim pull out of their driveway late last night before I turned in. Their car isn't there this morning," said Hank.
"Where's Sara?" asked his wife. "She wasn't here yesterday either. Maybe we should check on her."
"Good idea," replied Elvin. "I'll go over to her place later."
At nine o'clock the president began what had become a daily address. What he had to say was far more disturbing than his previous announcements.
Cela turned off the radio unable to listen any further.
"My God, we're all going to suffocate!" she blurted.
The Kells' neighbors stood in horrified silence.
"We don't know that," replied Elvin. "The president said they're not sure if the oxygen is going to be completely gone."
"I was wondering why I've been having more trouble breathing than usual with my asthma," remarked Len, who signaled to his wife to leave.
The rest of the group left the Kells' house saying little as the president's bombshell sunk in.
When they were alone, Cela and Elvin sat silently at the kitchen table for several minutes until Cela insisted they go looking for her mother again.
"She's not there, honey," replied Elvin, not wanting to go through the subterfuge again.
"Maybe she's back," insisted Cela.
"I'm sure she's safe somewhere. We have to conserve on gas, because God knows when we'll be able to get any. I'm going to check on your friend, Sara. Want to take a walk?"
"No, I want to find my mother," objected Cela.
"Maybe later," said Elvin, rising to leave. "I'll be back soon."
* * *
It looks like a forest of telephone poles, Elvin mused, as he headed toward Sara's house. The block where she lived had not been cleared of limbs, but a narrow path down the length of it had been created. An adorable yellow Cape with green shutters and flower boxes was how Cela had described Sara's house and he spotted it instantly. It stood in stark contrast to the uniformly bland houses surrounding it. Erin knocked several times but there was no reply. As he was about to leave, the door opened a crack.
"Is that you, Elvis," giggled a soft voice.
"Elvin. It's Elvin, Sara."
"I know. I'm just kidding," said Sara, opening the door fully. "Sorry, I'm still in my robe. No place to go, so why dress, right?"
Sara stood before him in a flimsy satin bathrobe.
"We were wondering if you were all right. You haven't shown up for a couple days," said Elvin, realizing Sara's robe was little more than a negligee.
"I'm okay," she said with a slur. "I'm better than okay, in fact."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that. Hope you can come by our place tomorrow to hear the president," said Elvin, backing away from the entrance.
"Wait, come in. I could use some company. It's so damn quiet around here."
"Well, I really . . .."
"Come on. Just for a little while. I'm not going to bite you . . . I don't think," chuckled Sara, extending her arm toward Elvin.
"Okay, for a few minutes. Then I got to get back home."
Sara took his arm and guided him into her living room.
"Sorry about the mess. Don't feel much like housekeeping since it's the end of the world and all," she chortled.
Several empty liquor bottles were strewn across the carpeted floor and dirty plates covered the coffee table and couch.
"Here, come sit down," said Sara, removing debris from a love seat.
Elvin took a seat as Sara suggested as she stood ogling him.
"You're pretty good looking, Elvis," she observed, and then she removed her robe, revealing a black thong and bra.
"Whoa, Sara!" bellowed Elvin, jumping to his feet. "I'm leaving. You're drunk."
"We're all gonna' die so we might as well have some fun while we can, right? The limbs are even falling off the fake cellphone trees," countered Sara, moving toward Elvin.
"Hold on, Sara," said Elvin, extending his arms to block her advance.
What's wrong with a little lovin' before it's all over? It's been so long, and I'm lonely," said Sara, her tone growing desperate.
"I'm sorry," replied Elvin, but I'm married. You know that."
"So go back to your little lady, for chrissakes," snapped Sara, flopping onto the couch causing dirty dishes to fall to the floor.
"Come by tomorrow, okay?" offered Elvin, moving swiftly to the door.
As he departed Sara's house, he could hear her crying and it compounded his own sense of sadness. When he arrived home, he saw that his car was not in the driveway and knew what that meant. Cela had gone to look for her mother.
Several hours later she reappeared weeping inconsolably. Despite her bad knee, she had made her way to her mother's house and up its stairs to the elder woman's bedroom.
"I saw her. I knew as soon as I opened the door that she was dead. I couldn't bear to look at her face because I could tell a limb had struck it, so I just sat outside in the hall and cried. When I went for help, no one would answer the door. One person threatened to shoot me if I didn't leave his property. I couldn't do anything for mother. Why didn't you tell me she was dead?"
"There was nothing we could do, honey. I reported it to the police, but they are so overwhelmed, I guess they didn't get to her."
"I can't stand all this. I really can't. My poor mother . . ." gulped Cela.
"She had a good life, honey. Almost ninety-two. Doubt she felt a thing. Just went in her sleep. When things get cleared up, we'll take care of her. Everything will be okay," reassured Elvin, not believing his own words.
* * *
No one appeared the next morning to hear the President's address, and the absence of the usual suspects disturbed the Kells.
"I don't want to listen either. Who does?" declared Cela. "We know that it's over. The news already said everything we need to know. The air is disappearing and we're going to die. End of story."
"They always exaggerate the situation," replied Elvin, searching the radio dial. "It's off the air. The station we usually listen to is not there."
He finally located a distant outlet with a weak signal and heard the voice of the President.
In the Boreal Forest region of Saskatchewan it has been reported that new tree growth has been discovered. A half a dozen Spruce saplings have been found by . . .
The radio signal faded out and despite Elvin's desperate effort it could not be retrieved.
"Did you hear that, Cela? New trees are growing up north. That could change everything, honey. Restore the oxygen," said Elvin, attempting to cheer his wife.
"But that will take years. Won't it? The news said we don't have much time. Those things take a hundred years to grow," replied Cela.
Although the Kells' food supply was diminishing, Elvin calculated they could last for weeks on what remained. Cela had always kept the cupboards stocked to capacity
"Please eat something, honey," implored Elvin.
His wife had all but stopped eating.
"We have to keep our strength up."
"For what?" answered Cela, leaving her husband alone in the kitchen.
"For one another," replied Elvin.
The radio station signal drifted back for a brief time during which Elvin caught a few more words from the president's latest address.
Every attempt is being made to create oxygen centers, but unfortunately at this time . . . .
"Damn it!" growled Elvin, as the station faded again.
Again he scanned the radio dials for other broadcasts but without success. He wondered if the air was becoming too thin to carry radio waves but then recalled hearing somewhere that they did not rely on air to travel. For several minutes he stared out of the window down the empty street. It was as still as an early Sunday morning, he thought. Some of his neighbors had obviously abandoned their houses perhaps to be with relatives. Those that remained were clearly keeping to themselves.
Suddenly Elvin caught sight of a figure at the far end of the block moving in his direction. It took a couple minutes for him to realize it was Sara Crosley and that she was naked. As he followed her progress, he noticed she was clutching a large knife. When she reached the front of his house, she stopped.
"Jesus," Elvin mumbled, scrambling to the side door to make sure it was locked.
Sara turned her head toward the house and it was then that Elvin noticed blood on her hands. He was filled with the urge to go to her aid, but the glimmering cutlass in her hand disabused him of that humane notion. Several minutes passed as Sara stood motionless and Elvin peered at her from behind the kitchen window curtain. Her face was expressionless and her eyes appeared unseeing.
"What are you looking at?" inquired his wife, coming up from behind him and causing him to jump.
"Stay still. It's Sara and she's gone nuts. She's naked and has a big knife in her hand."
"What are you talking about?" replied Cela, looking out of the window. "Oh my God. The poor thing. We have to help her."
"She's crazy. Look, she has blood all over her hands. Probably killed somebody," said Elvin, as Cela moved to the door. "Wait. Don't go out there," he shouted, grabbing his wife and holding her in place.
"Let me go! Someone has to help her. Everybody is so heartless now, and you're just like the rest of them," wailed Cela.
"Quiet, she'll hear you. For god's sake, don't get us killed," growled Elvin, continuing to restrain his irate wife.
"Let me go, or I'll never talk to you again," threatened Cela, squirming for freedom.
"Okay, get yourself killed," said Elvin, releasing her.
Cela opened the door and ran outside with Elvin at her heels.
"Where is she?" asked Cela, looking up and down the empty street. "She's gone. Where could she be? Sara!"
"Let's get back in the house," said Elvin, taking Cela by the hand and leading her back to safety.
"She was crazy, honey. Ran off. We're lucky she did. Who knows what she would have done to us."
"She needed help and now who knows what will happen to her?" replied Cela, forlornly.
"We could all use some help," muttered Elvin, locking the door behind them.
* * *
Over the next week, Elvin ventured out in his car twice to gauge the situation in his community. The streets were empty except for litter and trash and the markets and hardware stores had all been ransacked. An occasional vehicle would pass and he would search its interior. Desperation invariably filled the expressions of the occupants. As he reached the town's limits, his windshield was pierced with what he assumed was a bullet. He spun his car around and sped down the deserted main street in the direction of home. When he arrived, he found Cela sitting on the front steps.
"Where were you?" she inquired.
"Just driving around. Looking to see if any stores were open. What are you doing out here? It's dangerous."
"I thought maybe Sara would come back."
"Well, it's a good thing she didn't. Let's go inside."
As Cela stood, she lost her footing. Elvin caught her before she hit the ground.
"Are you okay?"
"I've been feeling a little light headed," she replied, holding onto Elvin. "They said that would happen because of the low oxygen. Don't you feel a little dizzy?"
"No," replied Elvin, not admitting that he too had experienced bouts of dizziness and some difficulty breathing.
"Did you notice the dead birds? Things are dropping out of the sky," asked Cela, as they slowly moved inside.
"You need to eat something. Lack of nourishment makes you woozy," remarked Elvin, ignoring her comment.
In fact, he had taken notice of many dead animals during his drive around town, and at one point he saw a man collecting animal carcasses. It's what's for dinner, he had mused, as he watched the man scamper away with his prized bounty.
"I just want to lay down. I'll eat something later," replied Cela.
Fatigue had become a by-product of the oxygen depletion, and Elvin also felt the need to rest. When he woke a few hours later, it was dark. Cela continued to sleep as he rose from the bed and went to the kitchen, checking the door locks on his way. He took a seat at the kitchen table and turned on the radio. The only thing he could pick up was an emergency-alert tone emanating from what he assumed was the distant station he had lost earlier.
His breathing was even more forced than it had been before he napped. And suddenly he feared that Cela might have stopped breathing. He dashed to their bedroom and when he arrived he found his wife sitting on the edge of their bed hyperventilating.
"Breath slowly," he urged, putting his arm around her shoulders. "You'll catch your breath if you just relax."
"I want to go," Cela gasped.
"Where, honey? It's late."
"To the forest."
"Up north. The one with the saplings . . . the baby trees."
"Why?" asked Elvin.
"I want to see what hope looks like," replied Cela, in a whisper.
For the remainder of the night, the Kells lay arm and arm, and at first light gathered food and bottled water and placed the supplies in the trunk of their car.
"You sure you want to do this?" asked Elvin.
"Yes, I'm sure," replied Cela, whose words were barely discernable.
On their way to the highway that would take them north into Canada, Elvin kept a watchful eye out for the shooter that had fired off a round at him on the outskirts of town. It was a five-mile trek to Route 29, and they made it without incident. When they drove onto the interstate, they saw a couple cars moving in the far distance. Several vehicles stood motionless on the road's shoulders and others sat in different lanes, requiring Elvin to drive around them.
"There's people in the cars. They're all . . .," uttered Cela.
"Don't look, honey," said Elvin, breathing deeply but finding it nearly impossible to draw in air.
The Kells continued their pilgrimage for several more miles until their car gradually rolled to a stop. Elvin slowly slumped against his wife, whose frozen gaze took in the dying world.
Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir and three story collections.