Science Fiction

Nightmares of a Finer Life

By Al Onia
Sep 28, 2019 · 2,089 words · 8 minutes

From the author: How will you meet Judgement Day?


July, 1964

      The whine from the kitchen faucet sang higher as the water level reached the narrow neck of the glass jug. Rachel moved the next empty under the stream of water and capped the full one. She hummed Buddy Holly's newest song, "Hard Day's Night", which had been playing on the radio before it died. She checked her watch while the jug filled. It was ten to four. At least another hour before Glenn would be home. If he came.

      She called, "Sarah, there's another jug to go down, honey." Rachel listened to her daughter's footsteps grow louder as they reached the top of the basement steps.

      "Is Daddy home?" Sarah asked.

      Rachel looked out the window instead of at her daughter. The low, pale hills looked as peaceful as ever. "Not yet, sweetie."

      "I hope he comes soon."

      Rachel handed the girl the gallon jug. "Careful, it's heavy."

      "It's all right, Mommy. I'm strong. See." Sarah held the jug by its ring with a curled finger.

      Rachel grabbed at it. "Don't fool around Sarah, this is important."

      The sudden pout on her daughter's face stopped Rachel. She moved her hands to Sarah's shoulders and pulled her close. "It's okay, sweetie, I know you're strong and you're a big help to Mommy. Do me a big favor and carry the jugs with both hands. I don't want you to trip on the stairs."

      As Sarah disappeared through the basement doorway, Rachel turned her attention back to the sink. The jug was almost full. Only one more waited on the countertop. She could not keep her thoughts away from how long the supply would last. How much water would the three of them use in a day? How little would keep them alive? She did not turn the tap off between jugs because the flow seemed to be lessening and she was afraid the water would not come back on.

      A roaring outside made her jump. No, she thought, not yet. It's too soon. She looked at her watch for confirmation. Two minutes before four. The sound increased and she forced her eyes to look out. It was a blue truck, not Glenn's yellow Chevy. A blue truck. She forced her fearful visions of a blue truck out of her consciousness. Those were old dreams. Look away, she told herself. Dust billowed, stirred up by the wheels. The dry spring had left the countryside yellow and brown, except in their yard. She and Sarah watered the grass and flower beds every day. The truck disappeared from sight and mind. The dust cloud rolled toward the house, an insignificant version of what was to come.

      Sarah returned. "Only one more?"

      Rachel switched jugs for the last time. "None after this."

      The water was a mere trickle now. The ridge outside their window turned black for a moment. She blinked and while she waited on the slow stream to fill the container, she tried the portable radio again. Silence. The salesman had assured her that transistors warmed up instantly, much better than the obsolete tubes. Maybe one of its six batteries was dead. She turned the knob off. In the living room, the old cabinet radio was quiet too. She had been listening to her afternoon music program when it was interrupted. The disc jockey said to stand by for an important announcement. The music never returned and there had been no announcement.

      Rachel remembered showing the transistor set to Glenn in their yard at the old house. "I can listen while I hang up the laundry," she told him. Her explanation justified in her mind the luxury of a third radio. Her enthusiasm was short-lived. She remembered the first time the music stopped in mid-song, her throat constricted even now. The announcer had solemnly intoned, "We interrupt regular programming for the following news. President Kennedy revealed this morning that last night, November 28, 1963, American Navy destroyers and carrier planes bombarded Havana in retaliation for the assassination of Vice-President Johnson in Miami earlier this month. The President said conclusive evidence linking Cuba to the murder had been provided to the United Nations Security Council minutes after the military action began. We now return to our scheduled program."

      "Mom, the jug is overflowing."

      Rachel felt Sarah's tug and swung the tap over to the last container, a bucket from under the sink. "See if there are any more buckets in the garage, honey." Rachel capped the last jug and watched the stream of water slow to a dribble. She'd filled all of them. Glenn's instructions were simple. They had food and water. To what end? she wondered, not for the first time.

      The argument between her and Glenn had intensified along with world tension after the President's attack on Cuba. Her husband's voice was always tinged with reason, "Don't you see, Rachel? We'll be safer away from the city."

      "I don't see. Do the Russians care about one Canadian city with barely a quarter million people?" She kept her voice low, so Sarah would not awaken.

      Then the exasperation would creep into his voice. "The Russians have enough missiles to blast every town in North America to dust."

      Rachel countered with her usual position. "What about Sarah? I look forward to her coming home for lunch every day. She couldn't do that from a country school."

      Glenn took his hands from his knees and clasped them together, elbows resting on his thighs. His dark eyes pleaded with her. "Look at her city school. The kids practice running home to see which children have to stay behind when the air raid siren goes. I don't want some principal telling me my daughter can't be with you when..."

      "Sshh. Keep your voice down. Sarah's frightened enough as it is by those stupid drills." She rested her hands on his. "Besides, the last one was over a month ago. Kruschev backed down and the drills stopped." But Rachel knew he had won even as the words left her lips.

      Glenn said, "The drills stopped but her nightmares didn't, did they?"

      Nor mine, thought Rachel.

      Glenn continued, "I just want a safer place for her to grow up. And for us to live. You'll have time to drive to her new school, if you have to. Maybe we'll get a second car."

      Rachel stood and stared out into the night. Across the street the neighbor's patio lanterns gave the illusion of warmth to the chill December air. She said, "I want to spend Christmas in this house, near our friends. You can start looking for an acreage in the New Year."

      She felt his hands on her hips and his breath on her neck.

      "Thank you, Rachel. We'll be safer, not afraid, you'll see. Sarah will love it, too. I wonder how she'd like a pony?"

      Rachel leaned back into him. She rested her head against his shoulder but the chill would not leave her.

      Rachel's nightmares ceased and they moved in late March. To the west of their farmnouse, she could see the mountains. To the east, a low ridge blocked any view of Calgary, but she knew the city was there. During spring break, she and Sarah often packed a picnic lunch and hiked to the top of the outcrop. If it wasn't too hazy from the dust, they could see the top of the two-hundred foot office tower where Glenn worked. One late afternoon, a rare thunderstorm boomed down the river valley from the mountains. That night, Rachel's nightmares returned. She dreamed she was standing in the farmyard, lightning flashing over her. A brilliant streak blazed from zenith to the horizon. The sky was brighter than day for a moment, then blackened. One strand of light the shape of an arrow remained overhead. The white spear shot over the ridge toward the city. Moments later, a dome of light rose from where the city was. Rachel would awaken and her terror was greater because it hadn't happened. Yet.

      Sarah returned for the bucket.

      Rachel said, "Did you find any more, sweetie?" The water dribbled from the tap deliberately.

      "Here," Sarah's hands reached up to the counter lifting an old paint can. "I'll take the full one and come back for this."

      "Take your time. This will take a while to fill. Be careful." Rachel turned back to the sink, watching the final drops of water. She heard a crash and felt the floor shake.     Rachel whirled around as Sarah screamed, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." The wire handle was hanging from the girl's hand. The anchor had torn loose, spilling the bucket and the water to the floor.

      "Are you all right, Sarah?" Rachel stepped in the water and clutched the girl. "It's okay, the bucket broke, it wasn't your fault."

      Sarah looked at the handle in her fist. "But now we won't have enough. What will Daddy say?"

      Rachel stood up and turned off the tap, even though the water had ceased. "We'll have enough, Sarah." We'll have enough.

      Sarah sniffed and wiped her sleeve across her nose. "Daddy'll be mad, won't he?"

      Rachel closed her eyes and thought of the missile she thought she had seen, not in her dreams, but minutes ago. Had her mind created the vapor trail and then the intense flash of light beyond the ridge? Her nightmares were coming true. All of them.

      "No, he won't be mad, honey. You remembered your jobs well. I'll tell him what a huge help you were. Now, run and get a towel to dry your feet." Not much time left, she thought.

      Sarah tiptoed around the spill and went into the bathroom. Rachel automatically started to clean the floor, then stopped. Why bother? What's the point of any of it? Then she heard Sarah's voice singing in the bathroom. Because of her, that's the point.

      Rachel dried her hands on her dress and looked out the window for Glenn's car. The blue truck was retracing its path. She closed her eyes, wishing it away. She repeated Glenn's calculations from the point of impact in Calgary to the farm. After the light flash, there was only a space of ninety seconds before the ground roll shook the land, then the rumbling sound wave two minutes later, followed by the heat cloud clawing its way along the surface of the earth. Last of all, the fallout would rain slowly down on the cauterized landscape, trapping survivors in their shelters for who knew how long.

      Sarah's singing was close. She carried an armful of towels into the kitchen.

      Rachel thought again, had there been a flash? If so, the ground wave should have reached them by now.

      "Let's go, Mommy." Sarah pulled her hand.

      "Just a second, honey." Rachel looked out the window again. It seemed brighter than before. The blue truck was gone. Had it caused the tremor she had felt when the bucket dropped? She had been shaking from the sight of the truck. Those old dreams. Nightmarish visions of the men in the truck. And Sarah.

      She quickly grabbed Sarah's hand and led her toward the stairs. Rachel hesitated a moment at the top. She took a deep breath then down they went. At the bottom, beyond the steel door, sat the patiently waiting jugs, the old kitchen radio, the olive green ration tins and the cots. Rachel stopped and stared at it all.

      "Is Daddy coming?"

      "Yes." Rachel felt the ceiling pressing down upon her. She heard sound booming from all around them. Sarah buried her head in Rachel's dress. Rachel backed out of the room, pulling Sarah with her. "Let's wait for Daddy on the porch. Outside."

      "All right." Sarah's hand squeezed hers as they ascended into the light.

      They sat on the porch. "Close your eyes, sweetie. Daddy will come." Forgive me, Glenn. This is my decision, not yours, not some President's. I choose from love, not fear.

      Rachel closed her own eyes and sat with Sarah resting between her legs. She imagined the burgeoning cloud on the other side of the ridge. She held Sarah very close as she waited for the terminal wind.

the end


This story originally appeared in On Spec #17.

Al Onia

Al Onia concentrates on Science Fiction, mostly from the hard to the hard-boiled.