The more things change...
I'd been walking for the better part of the last five hours trying to get home to Paterson. My flight had been far longer than I'd anticipated due to late flights, missed connections and a small uprising in Nairobi. Later still, due to the snow, but I'd gotten my bag and made it just north of East Orange, New Jersey when the cab died. I knew I had no choice but to start walking. This part of New Jersey wasn't the best place in the world to be walking alone in the middle of the night. Paterson was unfriendly in the daytime, let alone in the dark. And it had been dark. No street lamps, no signal lights, no lights at all except for flashlight beams dancing, signaling the need for being invisible.
There hadn't been an explosion. No flash, no sputter, just lights then unrelenting dark. No one knew why. Cars stopped, blocking streets. The veil of civility shredded in mere moments as the inner beasts came out to play. I watched as several miles away a jet fell from the sky.
Here, in our normally more refined area of town, it was obvious that folks had all been tucked in for the night. Our one-way street was lined with two columns of cars that would be there for God only knew how long. The light fall of snow thus far just the beginning of the expected foot and a half that would have normally brought the boroughs to a standstill. Normally. I huffed out a breath of cold-fogged air. There was no normal. A new normal had dawned with the rising sun. The last day of the year. Who knew what tomorrow might bring, but one thing I knew was that the new normal would be anything but.
My cell was dead. Had to have been an EMP. Korea? Russia? Who knew? But that didn't really matter now. Moot. The why dwarfed in the ramifications of the now whats? The silence was shattered by cardinal song. Just a few abbreviated notes, but it had been years since I'd heard bird song, it usually being drowned out by the city sounds of horn, siren and ever tromping feet.
I stood there, just looking down my street as it grew light enough to see. Snow clung to every branch: delicate, lacy. pristine. A two-track was barely visible as the last cars to pass had clearly been Before. Even in my mind, I capitalized the 'Before.' It felt surreal. I could not remember a time, ever, when I had looked down my street and seen no movement, no people, no nothing. Here, as opposed to the several miles uptown where mayhem reigned, it was graveyard quiet. That thought, startled me out of my stop, dead in the middle of the street, and I ran the last few houses down to our three-story brownstone to my left. No footprints marred the snow. No one had walked their dog or come out to retrieve the morning paper that had never been delivered. In the days of the internet, this street clung to the coffee and the paper routine I'd grown up with.
The front door was locked, of course, and I fumbled for the correct key. I hadn't used it in at least three years. I'd been on the road and one assignment or another had kept me a world away from home. And yet, through face-timed phone calls, it hadn't really seemed that long. Being home eclipsed the past few hours and I dashed up the two flights of stairs to their apartment. I knocked, expecting them to be up by their hour, but there was no answer. Fumbling yet again for the key, I entered into a darkened space that was exactly as I remembered it.
Odd, not to smell the coffee brewing or to hear WOR on the radio. "Mom? Dad?' Nothing. Concerned now, I headed down the hall to their bedrooms. They'd slept in separate rooms for years. While each had proclaimed they did not snore, it kept the peace and walls helped lower the sounds of the non-snoring. A family joke. Familiar, warm in the cold apartment. Mom's door was open and I could see her in bed. It was quiet, too quiet. The realization her oxygen machine wasn't running brought a had to her head and I knew. Her features were relaxed, and it seemed she had gone without any realization of her passing. I turned to my father's room, but I already knew what I'd find. He'd had a pacemaker installed several years back. He looked small in the double bed.
I sat at the edge of the bed, elbows on my knees as I ran both hands through my dark brown hair. Shaggy, too long over my collar. I could hear, in my mind's ear, my dad saying I needed a haircut. Dad had always been larger than life. He could fill a room with his laughter or quiet words. The sheer emptiness of their apartment was daunting. I didn't know how to say goodbye. I couldn't. I knew I should draw the blanket up over his face, but I couldn't do that either. There was nothing I could do for them, or me, for that matter. Perhaps, in time, I'd think that, for them, it was for the best, but in the now, I knew I needed them as I'd never needed them before. Sighing, I headed back to the living room.
Their small Christmas tree, with the same angel on top that had always been there, was in the front window. Scattered beneath it were a slew presents awaiting my delayed homecoming. My bag held presents they and my sister and her daughter would have loved from far-flung places across the globe that they'd never get to see. Pointless now. In retrospect, what good were shiny baubles that didn't feed or warm? I thought of the 1st edition Great Expectations I'd gotten Dad. I'd been so thrilled when I'd found it in that dusty used bookstore down the side alleyway in Berwick-on Tweed in England. How he would have caressed the fine leather cover, read bits and pieces of it aloud to mom, how he'd have cherished it. I looked around the living room, at the bookshelves living every inch of wall space. He might have squinted at the tiny print in most of the books, his reading glasses balanced precariously on the tip of his long, narrow nose, but he relished the printed word and decried the age of E-books with a passion he reserved for little else. My eyes scanned titles of books I'd grown up with. Where would they fit into this new world dawning? I shook my head. I didn't know.
Hunger rumbled. It had been yesterday when I'd last eaten. The excitement of coming home had filled me. Rummaging around in the old Frigidaire, I saw the makings for one of Mom's holiday dinners. I grabbed a packet of spiced ham she'd gotten just for me, some mayo and a loaf of bread and made a sandwich. Sitting at the kitchen table, If only. If only everything had gone according to plan, I'd have been home. If only. Ah, but 'if onlys' served me no purpose. I knew I needed to get out of the city and go ---where? No clue. This neighborhood was quiet now, but it wouldn't be that way for long. I wondered if dad still had the old '58 MGB back in the garage. Wouldn't be the greatest escape vehicle, especially in snow, but it would run, I was sure, knowing my dad. I also knew he had an old revolver locked in his bedroom closet. The new normal was rearing its ugly head as I planned what to take and where to go.
Rummaging through his desk drawers I found they still had that cabin up near Watkins Glen upstate. I remember his muttering to mom that they should sell it years ago and Mom muttering right back that they should hang on to it. Guess she won that argument. I smiled. Mom did, usually, win.
A banging at the door preceded it being flung open and my ten-year-old niece tumbling into the living room. "Uncle Rob? You're here!"
She flung her arms around me as if the last time she'd seen me hadn't been when she was just starting kindergarten. "Where's Grand and PopPop?"
"Hey, Punkin. How'd you get here? Where's your mom?"
"I don't know. She was away on a trip for work in California and was supposed to be getting in hours ago. My babysitter woke me up this morning and said she had to go and just left me. I knew how to get here, so I left Mom a note and came here. The lights don't work. The TV neither. My tablet is dead. Do you know what's going on, Uncle Rob?"
My heart stopped at the thought of my sister being on a plane when the power stopped. I forcibly dragged my brain away from that. What to tell her?
"Where's Grand and PopPop?" She looked at me, all wide green eyes and hair that was sleep-snarled and the palest shade of blond chopped short. She wore her Christmas-new winter coat, jammies, and snow-covered blue 'Frozen' slippers.
"Punk, they, they," I took a deep breath. "They died last night."
"Without telling me? They wouldn't do that, Uncle Rob. They wouldn't."
"They didn't want to, Sweetie. But when the power went out Grand's oxygen machine stopped working. And you know PopPop had a pacemaker. The same thing that made the power go out, made them die."
Her face drained of color. "Is that power thing like the Eembee thing from the movies? Then mom's plane ..." Her voice dropped off. She just stared at me.
I nodded, not knowing what else to say, what I could say. There simply were no words.
"PopPop said something like this could happen. He was talking about it just before Christmas, but Grand shushed him. He was saying something about a cabin up north."
"I think PopPop would have wanted us to go to the cabin. What do you think? It'll be an adventure, Punkin."
Brow furrowed, eyes free of tears, she nodded. "We need warm clothes and food. And we can take stuff from here and home. PopPop got me a tent and stuff for Christmas. He said we'd go camping next summer but that he'd keep the stuff here in the meantime. I guess summer came early!"
"Now if only the snow would think that," I grinned.
"That's okay, Uncle Rob. I've got new boots too!"
"Might be better than frozen slippers."
"And, Uncle Rob? I'm too big to be called Punkin anymore. Can't you just call me Samantha?"
Thinking for a moment, I answered her. "I know. I'll call you Sam. How 'bout that?"
She nodded as she finished my sandwich.
Plans forming, thoughts of the what was faded into a 'think about later' bag as we filled easily squishable trashbags full of necessary things into dad's MGB. I'd found two additional guns in Dad's gun case and numerous boxes of ammunition. There was a note to me inside the gun case telling me stuff in the small garage to take. He'd thought ahead, had my dad. I found medicines, water bottles, and more already tucked into his car. We'd made a fast trip to her house a couple of blocks over for the new boots, clothes and a ratty stuffed bear she flat out refused to leave behind.
Less than six hours after I arrived, we were driving through the still quiet neighborhood and aimed north. At the corner, I stopped and looked back at the snow-covered branches of the trees on Van Houten Street. They looked so clean and innocent. I heard the sounds of gunfire and floored it.