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It was a large, wind-swept house with cathedral ceilings and wide, luxurious doorways and cold marble countertops. It stood in clearing, surrounded by what had once been prosperous fields of cotton and tobacco. Grand poplars, once full and healthy, surrounded the shaded porches. But events half a world away had rendered them black and dead—rotting from the outside in.
They had determined that the safest place to reside was in the ground-floor kitchen. There they waited, Mrs. Helen Randolph and her husband, Phillip Randolph, eking out with meager rations of crackers and applesauce, waiting. Waiting. Always waiting.
“’Lectricity’s still off,” stammered Mrs. Randolph, her thin, bloodless lips moving ten times faster than what appeared to be humanly possible.
“Yeah, well, what’d you expect, Helen?” Mr. Randolph snapped. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “Relax, will ya? And stop that god-awful stuttering; you’re going to drive me crazy.”
Mrs. Randolph’s washed-out brown eyes filled with tears, and as her lower lip trembled, her husband relented. “Aw, Helen, I’m sorry. Just so much to worry about…”
“Two more s-strikes in the last three d-days, Phil. Thank G-God they h-haven’t reached, haven’t r-reached, r-reached here—”
“Only a matter of time, honey.”
Mrs. Randolph’s pale fingers twitched against the radio dials. “Nothing’s c-coming through.”
“Towers must be down.”
“D’you think…d’you think we—w-we—could take a l-look outside, outside? Just for a moment, please, Phil, I’m g-going mad down h-here…”
A horrific change crossed Mr. Randolph. His face seized with terror, and he flung himself at his wife. “No! Don’t even think about it! It’s too dangerous! God only knows what happened! We could be sitting on the edge of a three-mile wide crater, for all we know!”
From deep within the belly of the house, a telephone rang, jangling both the Randolph’s nerves. “The telephone,” whispered Mrs. Randolph, immediately forgetting her husband’s hands clutching her arms. “The telephone! Someone else is h-here!”
She sprinted for the phone and seized the receiver, throwing it at her ear. “Hello!”
Her expression changed suddenly. “Millie?—Oh, Mille! I’m so glad to hear your voice, too…we thought everyone else was gone…Oh, Millie, I’ve been so frightened. Are the radios down in Nevada, too? No? Oh, how wonderful…what?”
Any semblance of color left in her face drained from it. Her hand clenched the table before her. “Millie…no…it can’t be…” her voice grew fainter as she tried to protest. “All of it? All of it? Are you sure? Oh, Millie…Millie?...Millie! Millie, come back! Millie!”
The dial tone screamed in her ear as she clutched the receiver to her chest. “Millie,” she whispered into the air.
Mr. Randolph pried the receiver from her frozen hands. “Who was it?”
“Millie,” she choked, her stammering once more taking over her speech. “Line…went d-dead.”
“There musta been another strike,” mused Mr. Randolph. “Say, do we have any batteries? I want to try and get the radio working—”
“Don’t bother,” Mrs. Randolph whispered.
“Why? We don’t have batteries?”
“No…no east c-coast,” she choked, he numb white fingertips clutching desperately at her necklace. “All g-gone. New York, Cape Cod—all gone, Phil, it’s a-all gone, all gone, all the way down to Georgia, to Georgia—”
Mr. Randolph actually laughed. “Oh, Helen. How would you know?”
“Millie t-told me! Her brother is dead! What’s left of t-the g-government called her ‘cause she’s the l-last of the, l-last of the family—”
Something stirred the hairs on Mr. Randolph’s neck. “Did you feel that?”
“Yes…I did…a breeze…east coast….”
A wave of blistering heat swept through the room. “No!” screamed Mrs. Randolph, raking her nails down her face. “Another one!”
Mr. Randolph grabbed her hand and dragged her into the deep cellar, where the faint scent of grapes and the tang of grain and alcohol brought one’s thoughts to more pleasant days. But the Randolphs did not comprehend the scent; they slogged through old times and into a concrete room with walls four feet thick, lined with cans of beans and tomatoes and water. Mr. Randolph slammed and bolted the door.
First came the heat—the awful, terrible, scalding heat that penetrated the concrete and baked one’s throat and nose. Mrs. Randolph sat in the corner, tears running down her cheeks as she sobbed silently and tried to breathe at the same time.
Next, the sound: deep and rumbling at first, then ripping through, running a claw across the ear and tearing one’s brain right in two, like a fighter jet screaming two feet above your head. And even worse was the silence that followed.
“I can’t take it!” Mrs. Randolph screamed suddenly. “The sound! It’s still there! I can still hear it! Get it off, get it off, get it off!”
Mr. Randolph seized her arm and held her close, trying not to let her squirm away. “Calm down, the sound’s gone. It’s all over.”
The shaking suddenly stopped. “Yes,” Mrs. Randolph whispered, drawing back from her husband. “It’s all over.”
She lunged for something on one of the shelves.
“No, Helen! Helen!”
Then, with a sound almost as horrible as that of the bomb, she fell back.
One bullet, right between her eyes.
No emotion registered in Mr. Randolph’s mind.
He slowly turned around and opened the sealed door. Then, silently, he climbed the stairs, back to the kitchen.
He grabbed the telephone and dialed the first set of numbers that came to mind. The phone didn’t even ring. It cut straight to the dial tone. “Someone!” he screamed. The dial tone pounded through his eardrums, with a steady, penetrating hum. “Oh, so you’re out to get me too, aren’t you? You’d see me go mad! There’s gotta be someone else around here, and you’re not letting me get through! Let me through!”
He pounded the receiver against the table, then, with a mighty heave, threw the entire unit at the wall. He watched it fall, wires poking out of hairline cracks in the plastic.
Mr. Randolph sprinted out of the kitchen, into the foyer, out the main door and into the smoking front yard. Tear streamed down his face and his whole body shook as he descended the steps. He leaned against the dead black poplars and stared out at the once prosperous fields, now decimated and rotten and remaining only as a molten atomic wasteland. An arid breeze brushed his face.
And he fell down and cried.