Harold Cranston’s Final Trip

When the missiles are launched, who among us will know?

cranston-cover-180Harold Cranston whistled a  familiar old tune as he set the suitcases on the floor in the entry way of his home just outside Huntsville, Alabama. He stopped whistling for a moment and looked over his shoulder. “Helen, I’m going to put the suitcases in the car.”

“All right, dear. Did you remember our pillows?”

Pillows. She always insisted on taking their pillows. He could sleep with his head on a log if he needed to, but she had to have her pillow. And his along to match. He grinned. One of the things he loved about her.

“No, but I’ll get them in a minute.”

“All right. I shouldn’t be but a few more minutes. I suppose I can bring my overnight bag and my purse. Did you get the hanging bag? And then there’s that silly little duffel you always bring.”

“No. I’ll get the hanging bag when I get the pillows.” He paused for a moment, wondering whether it was packed. He didn’t remember seeing it on the bed when he grabbed the suitcases. “Is it packed? I didn’t see it on the bed.”

She always put his things, whether freshly folded clothing from the laundry or bags when they packed, on his side of the bed. Her things, likewise, she put on her side of the bed. And anything that wasn’t considered strictly his, like the hanging bag, was considered hers.

Five-foot three, petite Helen poked her head around the corner of the bedroom door and grinned at him down the hallway. “Well of course it’s packed, Harold. It’s hanging behind the door. It’s a hanging bag.” She withdrew her head and went back to what she was doing.

Quietly mimicking her, he said, “Of course it’s packed. It’s a hanging bag.” He smiled and shook his head, opened the door, and hefted the two suitcases.

He was long and lanky, at about five-feet nine, or maybe eight and a half, given the compaction of the spine with age, and around a hundred and sixty pounds. He was dressed in dark grey slacks, black shoes, a black belt and a white shirt with a maroon tie.

The tie was a bit loose, but looked more so because of the gap between his collar and his neck. Shirts weren’t made right anymore. His fedora was tipped back slightly on his head. The hat was an affectation to which he’d taken wholeheartedly when his silver hair finally began thinning on top and around his crown.

Dangling alongside him, the suitcases made his well-muscled arms look longer, thinner, like a door-to-door salesman with sample cases, nearing the end of a long day.

From the hallway came, “Did you say something, dear?”

Again he looked over his shoulder. “I’ll get my duffel last.”

“Oh. All right.”

He stepped out onto the wooden porch.

To his right was his chair, a straight ladder-back that he often leaned back against the front of the house, to Helen’s chagrin. Next to it was a small table for drinks. It also held an ashtray for his cigars. On the other side of that was Helen’s wooden rocker. More distant were two other long, low tables that held her plants, mostly geraniums in three shades and a couple she called mums.

He set one suitcase on his chair and closed the door, then retrieved the suitcase with a small grunt. Eschewing the two wooden steps that led from the center of the porch to the imbedded rock walk that dissected the lawn, he crossed the porch to the left and stepped off the side. No need to take a roundabout approach to get to the driveway and the car.

As he neared the new car—it was a Plymouth Crispus four-door sedan, almost a year old, but they’d gotten a great deal on it—he set the suitcases down again and reached into his left pocket for the keys.

He pulled them out and looked at them for a moment, then remembered the car didn’t have proper key locks. Helen had wanted the “smooth look,” she called it, parroting the dealer, of the keyless entry. He studied the small black device in his hand for a long moment, then pressed the tiny button beside the tiny icon of an open padlock.

The door locks clicked.

He frowned and looked down. Ah, there was also an icon of an open trunk. He pressed that one too and the trunk sprang open. He shook his head and slipped the keys back into his pocket, then hefted the suitcases again. “Too much new stuff. Why make it so difficult?”

At least the trunk had ample room for what they were taking. He’d never been a fan of loading things like suitcases into the passenger compartment of a luxury vehicle.

By his definition, anything that didn’t have a bed on the back was a luxury vehicle. As long as it wasn’t one of those silly little cars that looked as if it had been pre-shrunk at the factory. That or one of those little half-car things. “Silliness,” he said. “It’s all silliness.”

He put the suitcases in the trunk, positioning them carefully side by side. He laid them flat, toward the front with the handles facing the rear, then raised one hand to grasp the lid. But he released it. “No, not yet. You have more to load yet, Harold.”

He turned back toward the house, consciously putting a smile on his face.

Despite everything, or anything, it was going to be a wonderful weekend. He and Helen would embark within the hour. He raised his left wrist and glanced at his father’s Bulova wristwatch. At least he hoped they would depart within the hour. They were driving to Littlemon, Colorado to visit their son for Harold’s eighty-seventh birthday on Saturday.

The boy had planned to come visit them—after all, it’s generally easier for the young to travel such distances—but he wasn’t able to take leave right now. Some silly base commander’s prerogative thing. Worried about Middle East tensions or terrorist threats or some such thing.

Anyway, the boy had only a weekend, so if he came to Alabama he’d spend a lot more time on the road than he would get to spend visiting.

Besides, Harold rather liked the idea of a final road trip—and this definitely would be his last—with his favorite girl.

Speaking of which, where in the world was she?

As he crossed the porch and reached for the door, it opened.

He looked up. “Helen, you look radiant as ever.”

She grinned. “Oh hush, you old scoundrel. Here, take these pillows. And put them in the back seat, please. I know how you are about cramming everything in the trunk.”

He smiled. “Yes dear. How’s about a little smooch?”

“After the car’s loaded. Maybe. Really, Harold, we’re never going to make your 4 p.m. departure deadline if we don’t get the car loaded.”

He turned away. “I’m loading, I’m loading.”

* * *

Behind him, Helen peered through the partially open door.

He looked so fragile moving across the lawn. Thin and fragile. And he almost shuffled. If he could hear her thoughts, he’d say he was “wiry and still strong as a bull.”

Between his aortic valve replacement almost thirty years earlier and his age—he would be eighty-seven in a few days, and she was almost fifteen years younger—this probably would be his last trip. But there had never been a moment during their fifty-two years of marriage when she hadn’t felt loved and doted after. She smiled wanly and closed the door.

She turned and walked back down the hallway into the bedroom. Only her purse, the hanging bag and his twenty-two inch duffel remained.

She shook her head. There was plenty of room in her second suitcase for his things. Men packed so lightly for trips. And he always insisted on packing his own clothing and other items in his own bag. And it had always been a duffel. She laughed. He called it his “go” bag. Though where and why he might “go” she had no idea.

* * *

He opened and closed the door so softly Helen didn’t hear it. He trod quietly down the hallway, and when he reached the open bedroom door he looked at her for a long moment before speaking. “So my go bag’s ready to go?”

Her back turned to the bedroom door as she searched the closet for a particular outfit, she started, then turned around and put her hand to her chest. “Harold, don’t do that!”

He grinned. “Do what?”

“I didn’t hear you come in.”

The grin still on his face, he wiggled both eyebrows in that charming way. “And yet here we both are, in our love nest.” He laughed lightly. “I still know how to sneak up on a pretty woman, don’t I?”

She wagged one hand at him. “Oh, now stop it. You’ve been shooting pool with a rope for almost ten years.”

The grin remained. “Maybe so, but I still have a few moves left.” Again he wiggled both eyebrows. “Besides, who wouldn’t be tempted when faced with a hot little model like you?”

A bit of pink climbed through her neck into her cheeks. “Harold, you’re going to make us late with all this silliness.”

“Doing my best,” he said.

She ignored the comment and pointed to the bed. “Now your go bag is right there.” She turned back to the closet. “And don’t forget the hanging bag behind the door.”

“Yes dear,” he said, still grinning. She was nothing if not persistent.

He walked around the corner of the queen-sized bed and picked up his bag, then set it back on the bed. “Guess I’ll get the hanging bag first.” He turned back to the door and closed it part way, then used both hands to retrieve the hanging bag. “Good lord, woman! What did you pack in this thing?”

She was still moving clothes aside in the closet. “Not much. Just a few dresses. And my wool coat. We’re going to Colorado, aren’t we?”

“Yes, but—”

“I’ve heard storms come up suddenly out there. And you never know when you might need a suit. I added your dark grey pinstripe and also the darker heavy wool navy in case of cold weather. And your good shoes are in the compartment in the bottom. That’s all.”

“No concrete blocks for good measure?”

“Oh, don’t be silly.” She turned around, a pantsuit still on the hanger she was holding. “What do you think of this one?” She held it up against herself.

He frowned. “For what?”

“Why for the trip, of course. I think I’ll change.” She tugged at the dress she was wearing. “This old thing is frumpy.”

“You look fine as you are, Helen.” He grinned and leered at her. “I thought we’d already covered that.”

She turned away to hang the pantsuit back in the closet. “Oh, all right. Well, get those things packed and I’ll be out in a minute.”

“All right. I’d like to be on the road in—”

“I know. By four p.m. We will be. Just get those things loaded. And please take care that the hanging bag lies flat. We don’t want to rumple the dresses and suits.”

He nodded, having anticipated her request. That’s why he’d put the suitcases in first and laid them flat.

He shifted the hanging bag to his left hand. It was the stronger, and in eighty-seven years he hadn’t figured out why. He was right handed, after all.

He moved back around the bed and retrieved his duffel with his right hand, then exited the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the front door.

When he got there, he stopped and looked at it for a moment. He couldn’t open it while holding both bags, so he bent and set his duffel on the floor. He was careful to keep his left hand elevated. If she looked down the hall and saw the hanging bag bent to the floor—well, it wouldn’t be pretty.

Finally he turned the door knob and opened the door, then picked up his duffel again and stepped out onto the porch.

It was a beautiful day. Almost every day of his life he’d witnessed both the sunrise and the sunset, the bookends required to make it a good day. And on this day, he would steer his car into the setting sun. Fitting for what would undoubtedly be the final journey—well, the final long journey—of his life.

He set the duffel down again on his chair, again with his left arm extended straight up to maintain the integrity of the hanging bag, then straightened and closed the door. Again he lifted the duffel.

But as he straightened and turned, a wave of something that resembled vertigo washed through him. The duffel felt heavy in his right hand. Without realizing it, he lowered his left hand. The bottom third of the hanging bag lay flatter and wide against the boards of the porch.

He wavered for a moment, then shook his head slightly to clear it. To make the scenery stop swimming, he blinked his eyes, twice. Three times.

There. That was better.

But a bit of nausea started in his stomach.

He grinned. What in the world did his head have to do with nausea?

Nausea, of all things. Well, nausea wasn’t going to mess up this day. When he got the bags safely in the car, he would lean into the front and get a couple of Tums out of the bottle he kept stashed in the console.

He started to turn to the left and the toe of his shoe contacted the scrunched-up bottom of the hanging bag. He frowned. When had that happened?

He lifted the bag high, then stopped. He thought about the light jarring that awaited him if he stepped off the side of the porch as usual. That wouldn’t help the nausea. Besides, Helen didn’t like him to do that and she’d be along any moment. He decided to use the steps instead. It was only a few more paces to the car to go that route, and if Helen came out she’d be pleased.

He turned back to the front and carefully put his left foot on the first step below level of the porch, taking care to raise the hanging bag. He moved his right foot down alongside it.

The vertigo came again, accompanied again by nausea.

A sharp, shooting pain fired across his back and his shoulders twitched hard. His left arm and hand went numb, and the hanging bag fell from his grip. The base of it accordioned against the bottom step. In slow motion, the rest of it crumpled, the hanger hooks leading away from him, and lay itself across the first two rocks in the walking path.

The pain subsided as he stared at the hanging bag. He frowned. “What in the world?”

Slowly, he turned away.

He would put the duffel on his chair, then get Helen. She would understand. She would know what needed to be done.

As he lifted his left foot to step up onto the porch, something hit him hard in the center of the chest. “Oh!” Again a wave of dizziness washed through his brain and his vision blurred and became wavy. “Oh,” he said, more quietly. “Oh no.”

He reached to set his duffel on the porch, but another shooting pain fired across his shoulder blades.

He dropped the duffel, looked at the front door and frowned. Quietly, he said, “Helen?”

He fell straight back onto the hanging bag and lay still.

* * *

In the bedroom, still facing the closet, Helen shifted another hanger to one side and looked over the outfit behind it. Then another. Then another. Harold was so insistent on leaving at a particular time. Silly. What difference would it make if they left at 4:15 or 4:30 instead of by 4 p.m.?

Still, maybe he was right.

One hand still in the closet on the sleeve of yet another blouse, she glanced down at her dress. “I do look good in this dress.” At least Harold seemed to really like it. And after all, it was only for the trip itself. Soon after they arrived she would shower and change clothes anyway. And the outfit she put on would be the one that really mattered. It was a special occasion.

Harold’s birthday.

She tugged on the blouse in the closet, straightening it a bit on the hanger. Harold had bought her that blouse. Said it looked “sexy” on her.

“I’d look sexy to that old man in a gunny sack,” she said, then laughed lightly and released the blouse. She folded the closet doors closed. “Still, it’s nice to be appreciated.”

She turned and pushed the bedroom door toward the jamb so she could take advantage of the full-length mirror that hung on the back.

As she smoothed her hands down over her hips, she grinned at the mirror and shook her head. Harold never thought he’d see forty, then fifty, and then sixty. He hadn’t even bothered making a doomsday prediction about seventy or eighty, and lo and behold, tomorrow he would be eighty-seven.

Again she grinned at her reflection, checking her lipstick. “You know he’ll probably outlive us all, don’t you?”

She frowned. Was that a light spot beneath her left eye?

She turned her head slightly.

No, it was the light.

She tilted her head back slightly, then forward.

If only she could keep him on his heart medication. If she could do that, he probably really would outlive them all. She frowned again, and her reflection frowned back at her. “At least I hope so.”

After another moment, she grasped the edge of the door, stepped back, and pulled it open.

He got the hanging bag, and he took that bothersome duffel. And the pillows. And the suitcases before that.

She glanced around the room a final time, and her gaze raked across the bed.

Harold’s heart medication—a bottle of carvedilol—lay on the comforter next to where his duffel had been. Probably he’d dropped it into that silly open net-looking thing at the end. She didn’t know why he would put anything important in there. He never remembered to tighten the drawstring.

She shook her head, then reached for the bottle and picked it up. She glanced around the room again, then turned and walked down the hall.

She opened the front door and looked up. “Harold, you forgot your—”

Her eyes grew wide, and her eyebrows arched. “Harold!”

As if running in mud, she tried hard to get across the porch. By the time she got there he would sit up and grin. He’d yell, “Got you! How’s about that smooch now?”

And she would sit on his lap, laughing, and put her arms around his neck and kiss him until he begged her to stop.

She reached the edge of the porch, stretched her foot toward the first step down.

He’d wait until he heard her footsteps on the porch. But he would sit up, that silly grin on that tired face. He’d yell, “Got you!” He’d point at her probably, and laugh. God she loved that silly old laugh.

And by all that was holy, she’d run to him like a new bride and plop herself down on his lap. She’d drape her arms around his neck, grab her own wrists so he couldn’t dislodge her. And probably he’d stand with her clinging to him, lifting her along with himself, laughing the whole time.

She stepped on the first step, reached with her other foot for the next one.

Laughing the whole time, and she’d yell at him for fooling her like this. Yell at him for scaring the bejeezus out of her. And he’d laugh even harder because when she said “bejeezus” it always sounded so foreign. Like he’d laughed at her that time she yelled, “Damn it!” at a mouse that scurried under the cabinet out of the way of her broom. She was far too cute to use such words to any effect, he said. So he laughed at her.

She stepped on the bottom step, reached with her other foot for the lawn, the soft, soft grass he was going to wait to mow until they got back so it would go to seed and replenish a few bare spots near the rock path. The soft, tall grass that disappeared beneath her flattened hanging bag full of dresses and suits, all the air gone out of it.

He’ll stir now. He heard my shoes on the porch, on the steps. I’m close enough now he knows he can really get me. He’ll sit up and grin. He will. He’ll sit up and grin and I’ll plop myself into his lap and—

But he didn’t.

He was actually in trouble. He’d fallen. The one time he used the stupid steps and he’d fallen.

She knelt next to him, leaned forward, reached for his shoulders. “Harold?”

He was so handsome. The scent of his aftershave wafted lightly up to her. Even freshly shaven, he was so handsome. Why didn’t the skin on men sag when they lay on their backs?

She leaned back a bit, then forward and shook him again, a little harder. More loudly she said, “Harold?”

She leaned back, stared at his clean-shaven cheeks and chin, those grouchy turned-down lips. She leaned forward again, hesitated, both hands hovered over him with indecision. She turned her right hand into a spear point and slipped that wrist under his neck. She scooted closer, pushed harder, her forearm under his neck, then the elbow. She tugged, tried to lift him.

He’d carried it too far. This was too far, and anger boiled up inside her. “Harold!” She shook him again, moving her entire body to do so. “Oh Harold, stop this now!” She shoved against him with her right knee, careful not to shove too hard. “Harold, damn it, get up!”

He was going to sit up now. And he’d laugh at her over that “Damn it.” And he was right. It did sound foreign and fake coming from her.

A kiss. He wanted a kiss. That’s what this whole silliness was all about.

She leaned down and kissed his lips, almost frantically, then leaned back again and looked at him.

There was no difference in his expression.

Panic began to rise through her. “Harold!” The panic rose and caused her shoulders to tremble. She let it flow into him, shook him hard. “Harold, get up now!” She shook him again, harder. “Harold, this isn’t funny! Do you hear me?”

But the skin on the back of his neck was lifeless on her wrist. “Harold, do you?” And it was already cooling to the touch. “Harold, do you hear me? Please say you hear me.”

She leaned back again, slightly, and for the first time she realized his eyes were open.

Had they been open the whole time?

No! She would have noticed that. Wouldn’t she?

But he was lying on his back. When she came out of the house he was lying on his back. So of course his eyes would be closed. How could he pretend if his eyes weren’t closed? How could he pretend if—

She jerked her arm from beneath his neck and leaned over him.

He was staring past her.

Her eyes grew even wider. She put her hands to her mouth, shuffled on her knees. She screeched, “Harold! Harold, get up!” She began to cry, then stopped. She slapped at her eyes, dragged the heels of her hands over her cheeks. Sat back.

Her voice fell off flat.

He would get up. He would get up. He would get up, and he would laugh at her.

When she spoke again, she was under control, her voice quiet. “Baby, please get up.” She leaned slightly forward, hovered a hand over his left shoulder, shook him lightly. The way she woke him each morning. “Baby? Harold, please get up.”

She sat for a moment, her hand on his shoulder, then leaned farther forward.

She looked hard into his eyes. “Baby, please?”

Finally she bent over him, shifted her knees back, and lay her head on his chest.

He would wrap one arm around her, tell her he was sorry for frightening her.

But he didn’t.

The panic trembled up through her again. She shivered as if cold, screamed quietly and sobbed. And this time the trembling remained within her.



Some time or other, someone came by on the sidewalk in front of the Cranston house.

They looked, frowned, and stepped off the sidewalk. They walked across the grass, something Harold would never allow.

There were two sets of steps, close enough to hear but far away, as if in some other world.

Helen opened her eyes. Her right cheek was cool against her husband’s shirt.

The sun was still up. Or maybe it was up again. Was it Harold’s birthday? Already?

No. No, the day was still warm. Besides the heat came from low in the wrong part of the sky for it to be morning.

Voices joined the footsteps, overrode them. Still, the voices were hushed, as if whispered behind hands or in a vacuum.

A woman said, “Oh my god. Is that Harold? Is that Helen?”

A man said, “Go to the house, call someone. Oh, call the ambulance. Call the 911.”

Helen wanted to lift her head, say no, there was no need for an ambulance. But she lay still. Listening for a heartbeat, maybe. Listening for a resumption. Without a heartbeat, what other sounds mattered?

Neither was there any need to add to the noise. No need to say anything. The quiet was good.

It was almost like lying in bed, listening to him breath softly after he’d awakened her with his snoring.  The quiet was good. Peaceful.

Had they come into her bedroom?

But beneath her cheek was fabric. His shirt. And it was cool.

She remembered where she was.

The shirt wasn’t cool. It was cold. And the cold didn’t come from the shirt. It came through the shirt.

It didn’t matter now.

She moved her left hand from his side up to his shoulder. That would show them she was alive if it mattered.

She squeezed lightly, followed it with a caress, a pat. His shoulders were so strong. Even at eighty-seven minus one, his shoulders were so strong.

Where had he gone? And without saying goodbye? Why so suddenly? Why without the kiss he always gave her before he left?

Was this why he wanted a kiss earlier? Did he know?

No. No, that was silly. If he knew, he’d have called out to her. He’d have said something. He’d have moved his lips and said something.

And he always started with her name. To get her attention, he said. It was a proven fact, he said, science. If you said the name of the person you were talking to before you said anything else they would hear you more plainly.

She patted his shoulder again. He was a good man. A good husband.

It was science. If he’d known he would have called out. He would have said her name.

An interminable time passed in seconds.

Then sirens began. They came on, distant, then nearer.

No need for all the noise. Couldn’t they tell? Couldn’t they tell there was no need?

The man said to call for an ambulance. Probably that was the sirens. Probably for an unnecessary ambulance.

Harold should have had his last big trip. It shouldn’t be a short trip in an ambulance for no reason. He would call that wasteful.

His son. Their son. He should have seen his son. He should have spent his birthday with his son.

Oh. His son! Their son!

Oh god! She would have to call their son. She would have to let him know. He would have to come home after all.

The sirens were closer, louder. She would have to get up. They would make her get up.

But it was all right. It was time, maybe. It was all right.

She should be up when they arrive.

Helen lifted her head, turned it to look at Harold.

He was still looking past her, somewhere above the top of her head.

She moved to make eye contact. Quietly, privately, she said, “Are you all right, Harold? Are you finally all right?”

In the gentlest breeze she’d ever felt, the eyelash on his right eyelid fluttered. Just the tiniest bit.

“Okay, baby. I— I have phone calls to make now, Harold. I guess you know the trip’s off. I have to make phone calls. But I’ll wait. Some men are coming to— They’re going to take you to the hospital. For your heart, you know. I have to make some phone calls, but I’ll see you again soon.”

She gently stroked his head, and realized his hat was not there.

It lay a few feet away, above his right shoulder. There were shoes beyond it, spindly white legs above them. George Mastroani from two houses down. Harold often joked about those sparrow legs.

Words filtered in. A man’s uncertain words. George. George Mastroani. “Helen?” Quietly, as if invading a privacy. Something he had to do. It was in the tone.

“Helen? Uh, Marcie called some people, so— They, uh— They’re on their way. You know.” He paused as if casting about for better words. Failure to find the right words came out as a sigh. Defeat seeped through. “I’m, uh— I’m awful sorry, Helen. You know.”

It was a heavy New York accent.

She looked up, past the skinny legs, the tan Bermuda shorts, the blue-barber shirt-clad torso.

Ah, it was George.

She often thought maybe George was mafia. He had that look, and Mastroani was definitely Italian or Sicilian or something, wasn’t it?

Maybe witness protection or something. But didn’t they usually go to the desert? She’d always meant to talk with Harold about it, get his take. But Harold’s take was usually based on face value. He would shake his head, say there would be a lot fewer problems in the world if people took other people at face value. After all, he would ask, how much did any of the neighbors know about each other? Better not to spread gossip, he would say.

He was a good man, her Harold.

She patted his shoulder again, lightly, then nodded at George and pointed. “Could you get his hat, please? He wouldn’t want them to see him without his hat.”

Too quickly, he said, “Sure. Sure,” and retrieved the hat. He held it, hesitated, then finally stepped closer and stooped. “Uh, here you go.” Another hesitation. “You want I should close his eyes?”

She looked at Harold for a moment. He wouldn’t want the back brim flattened.

She laid the hat on his chest, then lifted his left hand and placed it on the brim. She drew her knees up under her, and for the first time realized the grass was cool and damp. It would stain the bottom of her peach dress where her knees pressed her weight against it. The hip was already probably stained. She leaned forward and move his right hand to the other side of his hat. “There.”

Then she heard George’s nervous question about closing Harold’s eyes. Still looking at Harold, she nodded quickly and breathed, “Would you, please? Close them for me?”

George hesitated again, wanting to be sure she meant him. Finally he took another step, knelt and moved his right hand slowly, his thumb and forefinger spread—with practiced ease, she thought—toward Harold’s forehead.

Helen didn’t say anything. She just continued looking at her husband.

George used his thumb and forefinger to close Harold’s eyes. Quietly he said, “Only if they ask, they were already closed, those eyes. I don’t know if they—well, you know.”

She nodded again, still looking down at Harold, that handsome face. Finally she patted her husband’s left hand. Quietly, she said, “Safe journey, my love.” She drew her hand back and stood. She smoothed her dress, then glanced at George. “Will you wait with him for a moment, please? I have calls to make.”

He forgot to nod until Helen had already turned away.

She went up the steps, crossed the porch, and went inside. She left the front door standing open and went to sit at the desk in the corner of the living room. Harold had insisted on keeping a regular telephone. It was on the desk.

As she sat and then looked down to adjust the chair, she saw that she was right. On the front of her dress just above the hem were two green and brown splotches, damp, with some peach showing through. She adjusted the chair and reached for the phone.

The sirens grew closer, then closer still. The ambulance bumped over the sloped curb and stopped in the yard with a light squeal of the brakes. Oddly, more sirens blared in the distance. The police maybe? But they seemed louder than that. And more distant, maybe. They were more distant but louder, like a storm warning.

She twisted in the chair and glanced out the window.

The doors of the ambulance burst open and two EMTs quickly walked up.

As they brushed past George, one on either side, one of them knelt next to Harold and put his fingers to the side of the man’s throat. He shook his head.

The other EMT glanced up at George. “Hey, pal. You know what happened?”

Helen lay the phone receiver on the desk. She’d get back to her calls in a moment.

She walked through the living room, then turned toward the open front door. The sirens were so loud. From the entry hall, she could see George’s lips moving as he responded to the EMT, but she barely made out “heart attack maybe” and “trip” before she got through the door.

George shrugged at the EMT, then turned to look at Helen as she stepped out onto the porch.

Strange. Even with the ambulance in the yard, the sirens were still wailing. From force of habit, she  put one hand above her brow and looked east toward Huntsville.

Long, thin, white clouds appeared in the sky. Dozens of them. In the late afternoon twilight, they practically glowed against the dark blue sky.

She frowned. How odd that so many planes were up at once. And all going in the same direction.

The EMTs had stood, and they and George were looking too. George frowned. “What the hell?”

But the planes were of little concern to Helen. She cleared her throat to be heard over the sirens. “Gentlemen?”

They looked around.

She gestured through the sirens with her right hand, it barely leaving her side, toward the figure on the ground. “That is my husband, Harold Cranston. He, uh—he’s had a heart problem for some years.” She cleared her throat. “He was packing the car. We were going to see our son in Colorado. Tomorrow is Harold’s birthday. Please be gentle with him.”

One EMT, looking contrite, said, “Uh, yes ma’am. Do you know—”

The sirens continued. Her attention was drawn to the sky again. Something was wrong. And the long white clouds were thicker.

As she watched, three of the clouds bent south, grew thicker still.

The sirens wailed as if trying to escape. From inside the house, an odd, three-note tone piggybacked on them, contrasted by a friendly, disembodied voice: Please hang up and try your call again.

The sirens. The phone. It was all a warning of some kind.

Helen frowned at the EMTs, then back at the sky. “I— I have some calls. I have to make some calls.”

She turned to cross the porch.

As she reached for the door jamb, the first two missiles slammed into Redstone Arsenal, a few miles to the east. She started and looked around.

The third missile veered as if Harold himself had called to it. The roaring was incredibly loud. It drowned out even the sirens. Even the phone.

Ahead of the cloud, something long and white. The fingernail of an angry god.

She paled. Her eyebrows arched. Her mouth formed an O.

As in slow motion, the long white thing bent again, its cloud following, and nosed toward the street. She clenched her fists hard, screamed, “Harold!”

The flash seared silhouettes of the ambulance, the EMTs, George and Helen into the white clapboards above the porch.

The explosion blew them through the silhouettes.

* * * * * * *