Alvin found himself outside during the hot part of the day yet again, pushing that stroller he cobbled together after his wife jumped on yet another Facebook marketplace special. The aftermarket front wheel wobbled courtesy of the hand drilling Alvin did to make it fit on the axle, but a cotter pin ensured it wasn’t going anywhere. Besides, the baby didn’t care. She was happy with the bumps and the weaves that accompanied the daily walk.
This wasn’t the daily walk, only a diversion during lunch break. Texas summer sucked, but there was something invigorating about spending 45 minutes out in the near-triple digit heat after nearly an entire week spent in conditioned air. It didn’t take much of an excuse to get outside today. Wife had taken the 4 year old to an enrichment activity at a kids center a couple suburbs over, and the baby was being clingy.
Good enough for me, Alvin quipped internally, exhaling a small chuckle.
As he passed tract house after tract house, his mind wandered to his desires for the future for himself and his family. A small farm, maybe with a handful of livestock. Days on the tractor, tending to the crops. Evenings on the back deck dipping toes in the pool. His wife shared some of the desires. Get out of Dallas, find a slower pace of life, befriend likeminded people and form a true community. However, the details were going to be a fight, and Alvin cringed every time he thought about it.
What will our future together actually end up looking like, he wondered, absent-mindedly stepping into a crosswalk, will we be able to iron out all our differences?
The baby began babbling as a jolt from the curb woke her from her stupor. Differences or not, Alvin knew he wasn’t going to let that torpedo the family. He had seen enough mayhem wrought by broken families and it wasn’t an option for his kids.
They deserve better than that.
Alvin wiped his hand across his sweaty brow and unthinkingly swiped the hand across his shirt. When his hand came off wetter than before, a wave of embarrassment overtook him. Out of shape and sweaty, he chided himself for not having the discipline to even keep up the level of fitness required to avoid sweating through his shirt after five minutes of walking. His mind hurled invectives at his job, as if being a desk jockey precluded workouts. It didn’t, but he wasn’t going to let go of the convenient scapegoat.
Rounding a corner, Alvin pulled his sunglasses over his eyes and checked that the stroller hood was extended over the baby as they transitioned from the shade into a sunny area. A bright flash caught his attention a moment after his eyes had adjusted to the sun.
That was weird. What did I catch a glint from?
He swiveled his head around slowly, looking for a car mirror or yard sign that could’ve caused such a glare. As he was ready to give up, bright motion lit up his peripheral vision. In the southern sky, a large column of fire billowed upward, a furiously roiling jet of destruction. Rings of condensation formed almost lazily around the still blossoming mushroom, outlining the quickly advancing shockwave.
“… the fuck?”, Alvin whispered, almost mesmerized by the fantastical scene. Snapping out of his momentary shock, an instinctual panic set in. He whipped the stroller around and started running towards home.
Alvin flung his head left and right looking for something… anything that could save him from the approaching death. No storm shelters were visible, no magical doors miraculously opened to another realm. This was happening and he was going to die.
The least bad option presented itself in one of those two story arches that were all too common in the architecture of the neighborhood. It made for an ugly house, but there was a lot of brickwork stacked up between Alvin and the flaming ball of destruction, and Alvin wasn’t in a position to be picky.
Wedging the stroller into a corner of the front patio, Alvin ducked his head under the canopy and clamped his hands over the ears of the oblivious baby, positioning his body over her in a way that he hoped would at least spare her life if he was destined to end here.
Would it be a small mercy to let her die now? his mind flitted, maybe it would be better to blink out in an instant than to suffer what’s to come.
The baby wriggled under the uncomfortable hands, fussing at the restraint. Without thinking, Alvin soothed her. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. Lord, please tell me that it’s going to be okay.
Moments passed as if they were hours, the dread accumulating in Alvin’s chest.
Please don’t let it hurt too much. Please make it go quickly.
With a crash, the moment came. The tempest assailed from all directions, shattering glass, blasting everything with grit, and kicking off a cacophony of snaps, groans, and rumbles that signaled the dismantling of the neighborhood he had been mindlessly trekking through just a minute before. The roar was deafening as echo compounded on top of echo. The sound pierced his ears, but he suppressed the intense urge to remove his hands from the baby.
They were far enough away from the blast that the neighborhood wasn’t flattened, and the brickwork had done its job. The roof was gone, as was most of the south-facing wall of the house, and there was debris and dirt everywhere, but they were alive. Alvin’s legs stung where the sand embedded itself in his skin, but for just having weathered a nuclear explosion, he was in pretty good shape. The baby, despite screaming inconsolably at the affront to her senses, seemed unharmed by the ordeal. Alvin made a mental note to check her for injuries when time availed itself.
Lottie and Benet, his heart ached as his mind shifted to his wife and firstborn daughter, both likely dead. The tense weight of dread from moments before had instantly transformed into a burning pit of grief.
In a moment of greedy desperation, Alvin pulled out his phone and looked at the ongoing text conversation with Lottie.
Even though his hopes were confirmed, he physically shook in surprise when he saw the three bars of service indicating a working cell tower. How long would that last? Probably only seconds, if it was actually working in the first place. He punched out a quick message.
“Batesville. Don’t stop. Love you”
He shoved the phone into the cupholder of the stroller and turned towards home. He didn’t have time to worry about whether the message went through. The clock had started, and the roads would be so jammed as to be impassible within 15 minutes.
With a pathetic huff, he ambled down the road in his best attempt at a sprint, the dust in the air burning his lungs. The fully developed mushroom cloud towered over the area like an angry giant, and black columns of smoke dotted the landscape. Total destruction. He dodged around split timbers, likely rafters, and piles of twisted metal that vaguely resembled cars. Obstacles were scattered aimlessly, without pattern. Some trees were uprooted, some stripped of all leaves, some splintered and tossed through nearby homes.
It was too bad he didn’t have a go bag; he’d have to scramble to put the provisions together. Advancing wheezingly towards home, he peeked at the phone again. No service.