“What about military satellites, the missile trackers?” Molly wondered. “What about spy satellites?”
“They’ll have been blinded, too,” Neil predicted.
On the TV, the anchorman asked Dr. Nguyen if a burst of cosmic radiation or perhaps unusually intense sunspot activity could have fried the circuitry in all those eyes in the sky.
“No,” Nguyen assured him. “That can’t be the explanation. Besides, it’s too coincidental. Neither cosmic radiation nor magnetic pulses could have precipitated the calamitous weather we’re seeing, and I’m sure that whatever blinded our satellites is the cause also of those waterspouts and these storms.”
Puckering his face into his most solemn of all expressions, the network anchorman said, “Dr. Nguyen, are we seeing at last the terrible consequences of global warming?”
Nguyen’s expression suggested contempt but also sudden bewilderment at the unanswerable question he must have been asking himself: What the hell am I doing here?
Molly said, “Why would only observation satellites be out of commission?” She gestured toward the TV. “Obviously, communications satellites are still functioning.”
“Probably they prefer we don’t see them,” Neil said, “but they want us to know what’s happening with the weather because fear debilitates. Maybe they want us frightened, cowering, and pliable.”
He didn’t reply.
She knew what he meant, and he knew that she understood. Yet both of them were reluctant to express the truth that they suspected, as if to name the enemy would be to unleash in themselves a terror that they could not tame.
Neil put down the remote control, turned from the TV, and headed out of the family room into the adjoining kitchen. “I’m going to make coffee.”
“Coffee?” she asked with a note of disbelief.
This domestic task seemed to be evidence of total psychological denial, a reaction unworthy of the unshakeable, eternally competent man whom she had married.
“We haven’t had a full night’s sleep,” he explained. “We might need to stay awake, keep our wits about us, for a long time. Coffee will help. I better make it while we still have electrical service.”
Molly glanced at the TV, at the lamps. She hadn’t thought the power might go off.
She was chilled by the prospect of having no light except the eerie luminosity of the unclean rain.
“I’ll gather all the flashlights,” she said, “and whatever spare batteries we have.”
Flashlights were distributed throughout the house, continually charging in wall outlets. They were to provide guidance in the event that an earthquake imposed darkness in rocked rooms filled with avalanched furniture.
He turned to her, paler than he’d been a moment ago. “No, Molly. From now on, neither of us goes anywhere alone. We’ll collect the flashlights later, together. Right now, let’s brew some coffee. And make sandwiches.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“We’ll eat anyway.”
“We don’t know what’s coming. We don’t know when we’ll have a chance to eat again…in peace.”
He held out a hand to her.
He was the most beautiful and appealing man whom she had ever known. The first time that she’d seen him, more than seven years ago, Neil had been standing in a complicated geometry of multicolored light, smiling warmly, his face so perfect and his eyes so kind that she briefly mistook him for Saint John the Divine.
She gripped his hand, shivering with fear and inexpressibly grateful that fate had combed her and him from the tangle of humanity, and that love had braided them together in marriage.
He drew her into his arms. She held fast to him.
One ear against his chest, she listened to his heart. The beat was strong, at first quickened by anxiety, but then growing calmer.
Molly’s heart slowed to match the pace of his.
Steel has a high melting point, but higher still when it is alloyed with tungsten. Cashmere is a strong fabric, as is silk; however, a cashmere-and-silk blend will be more durable and will provide more warmth to the wearer than will either fabric alone.
Alone, she had learned at a young age to carry all the weight the world piled on her. As long as she had Neil, she could endure not just the terrors of this world but also those that might come from beyond it.
ALTHOUGH THE KITCHEN AND FAMILY ROOM were redolent of the rich aroma of coffee, Molly thought that she could detect the faint but singular odor of the rain penetrating the walls from the saturated night.
She and Neil sat on the floor in front of the TV, the shotgun and pistol within easy reach, eating chicken sandwiches and potato chips.
Initially she had no appetite. On first bite, however, she discovered that she was ravenous.
No food had ever tasted as delicious as this. The chicken proved juicier, the mayonnaise creamier, the pickles more tart, and the chips crispier than any she had eaten before. Every flavor was exquisitely enhanced.
Perhaps any prisoner on death row, savoring his last meal before being given a lethal injection, experienced the flavors and textures of food this intensely.
On television, silvery-blue snow fell in the French Alps, in the mountains of Colorado, on the streets of Moscow. Each scene appeared to have been dusted with Christmas-card glitter.
The domes and minarets of the Kremlin had never before looked so magical. Every glimmering shadow in those twinkling boulevards and sparkling plazas seemed to harbor elves, pixies, and other fairy folk who might momentarily spring into sight, dancing and performing aerial acrobatics in exuberant celebration.
The ethereal beauty of the sequined blue snow suggested that whatever might be happening could not be entirely without a positive aspect.
In Denver, although dawn had not yet broken, children were frolicking in the streets, tossing snowballs, drawn from their homes by the novelty of a blue, luminous blizzard.
Their delight and their musical laughter inspired a hopeful yet uncertain smile from the on-scene network reporter. He said, “And another remarkable detail about this extraordinary phenomenon—the snow smells sort of like vanilla.”
Molly wondered if the newsman had a sufficiently sensitive nose to be able to detect a far less appealing underlying scent if one existed.
“Vanilla laced with the fragrance of oranges,” he continued.
Perhaps here in the San Bernardino Mountains, the rain no longer smelled as it had when Molly stepped onto the porch with the coyotes. Maybe, as in Colorado, the night now offered the olfactory delights of a confectioner’s kitchen.
Turning, encouraging the cameraman to pan with him, the reporter indicated the wintry panorama: the mantled street, the evergreen boughs laden with fluffy masses of sapphire flocking, the warm amber lights of houses huddled cozily in the blue impossible.
“It’s indescribably beautiful,” he said, “like a scene out of Dr. Seuss, a street in Whoville, the glitter without the Grinch.”
The hundred-eighty-degree sweep of the camera came to a stop, zooming in on a group of children who were bundled for winter play.
A girl of perhaps seven held a snowball in her gloved hands.
Instead of throwing it at anyone, she licked it, as if it were one of those treats made with shaved ice and flavored syrup, sold at carnivals and amusement parks. She grinned at the camera with blue-tinted lips.
An older boy, inspired by her example, took a bite from his snowball. The taste seemed to please him.
This image disturbed Molly so much that if she had not already consumed her sandwich, she would have put it aside, unfinished.
She remembered the unclean feel of the rain. She would never have turned her face to the sky and opened her mouth to imbibe this storm.
Evidently, the sight of the children eating snow dismayed Neil no less than it did Molly. He picked up the remote, surfed for news.
UNABLE TO PRESS FROM HER MIND THE IMAGE of the children feeding on the tainted snow, Molly paced and drank too much coffee.
Neil remained seated on the floor, using the TV remote.
Up and down the broadcast ladder, more channels than before were too poorly received to be watchable. And more than previously were out of service altogether.
Twice they encountered signals that manifested on the screen as coruscating patterns in vibrant colors. Although reminiscent of the symmetrical displays that dazzled at the bottom of a kaleidoscope, these designs had no sharp edges; they were all curves and sinuous forms, apparently infinite in variety, yet suggestive of meaning.
Accompanying the patterns were the oscillating electronic tones that Molly had heard on the telephone: shrieks followed by low pulses of sound, followed by piercing whistles…
Government officials were suddenly all over the tube, sounding authoritative—but looking at best disquieted and confused, at worst frightened. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, various officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency…
Weather-related crises were springing up by the dozens every hour, all because of the unprecedented volume of rain, now estimated at seven inches an hour in many locations. With frightening rapidity, rivers overflowed their banks. Dams filled faster than floodgates could relieve the growing pressure; already, in Oregon, only a few hours after the rains had begun, a dam had burst, and several small towns had been washed away.
Incredibly, when the entire world might be at risk, Molly worried about the stability of their one piece of real estate. “What about mud slides?”
“We’re safe,” Neil assured her. “We’re on bedrock.”
“I don’t feel safe.”
“We’re so high…two thousand feet above any possible flood plain.”
Irrationally, she felt that they might somehow ride out even the end of the world as they knew it if only their home remained intact, as if the Sloan residence were a bubble universe sufficient unto itself.
While they had eaten sandwiches and watched the world falling into tumult on TV, Neil had moved the family-room telephone from the end table beside the sofa, where it usually stood, to the floor at his side. From time to time, he had tried to call his brother, Paul, in Hawaii.
Sometimes he got a dial tone; Paul’s cell phone rang out there on Maui, but no one answered. At other times, when he picked up the handset, he got the oscillating electronic tones that accompanied the colorful patterns on TV.
On the seventh or eighth attempt, a connection was made. Paul answered.
The sound of his brother’s voice clearly lifted Neil’s spirits. “Paulie. Thank God. Thought you might be just crazy enough to catch some waves in this.”
Paul surfed. The ocean was his second passion.
Molly grabbed the remote control, muted the TV.
Into the phone, Neil said, “What?” He listened. “Yeah, we’re okay. Here at the house. It’s raining so hard maybe we need gopher wood and plans for an ark.”
Molly knelt in front of her husband, reached to the phone, and pressed the button labeled SPEAKER.
From the north shore of Maui, Paul said, “—seen a lot of tropical rains, but nothing like this.”
“TV says seven inches an hour.”
“Worse than that here,” Paul said. “Much worse. Rain so thick, you can almost drown on your feet. If you gasp for breath, you get more water than air. The rain—it’s a heavy weight, wants to drive you to your knees. We’ve gathered in the courthouse. Almost four hundred of us.”
“The courthouse?” Puzzlement furrowed Neil’s brow. “Not the church? The church is on higher ground.”
“The courthouse has fewer and smaller windows,” Paul explained. “It’s more easily fortified and defended.”
Molly glanced at the pistol, the shotgun.
On the muted television, spectacular video from some far city showed buildings burning in spite of quenching masses of falling rain.
On the phone, Paul said, “First Peter, chapter four, verse seven. Does it feel that way to you, little brother?”
“Truth? It feels like Close Encounters to me,” Neil admitted, at last putting into words the thought that neither he nor Molly had been willing to express. “But where it’s ultimately going—who knows?”
“I know,” Paul said, his voice firm and calm. “I’ve accepted with good will all the anguish, pain, and sorrow that might come.”
Molly recognized his stilted words as a paraphrasing of Acceptance of Death, one of the Church’s evening prayers.
She said, “It’s not going to be like that, Paulie. There’s something…I don’t know…something positive about this, too.”
“Molly, I love your sweet voice,” Paul said. “Always the one to see a rainbow in a hurricane.”
“Well…life’s taught me to be optimistic.”
“You’re right. Death is nothing to fear, is it? Just a new beginning.”
“No, I don’t mean that.” She told him about the coyotes on the porch. “I walked among them. They were so docile. It was miraculous, Paul, exhilarating.”
“I love you, Molly. You’ve been a godsend to Neil, made him happy, healed his soul. That first year, I said hurtful things—”
“Never,” she disagreed.
Neil took her hand, squeezed it gently.
On the TV, in yet another city, no buildings were afire, but looters smashed store windows. The cascades of shattered glass glittered no more brightly than the spangled rain.
To Molly, Paul said, “This is no time for lies, kiddo. Not even the polite kind meant to spare feelings.”
Initially Paul had not approved of their marriage. Over the years, however, he adjusted to it, eventually embraced it. He and Molly had become fast friends, and until now they had never spoken about his early antagonism.
She smiled. “All right, Father Paul, I confess. There were times you really pissed me off.”
Paul laughed softly. “I’m sure God felt the same way. I asked His forgiveness long ago—and now I’m asking yours.”
Her voice thickened. She wanted to hang up. She despaired over the inescapable implications of this conversation. They were saying good-bye. “Paulie…you’re my brother, too. You can’t know…how I treasure you.”
“Oh, but I know. I do. And listen, kiddo, your last book would have made your mother proud.”
“Sweet melody, good rhythm,” she said, “but in the service of shallow observations.”
“No. Stop beating yourself up. It rang with the same wisdom as Thalia’s best work.”
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