If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I’m an optimist. Some might even call me naïve, and I’m ok with that. I know who I am, I don’t try to be anyone I’m not, and sometimes I’m rewarded for it.
About an hour after both our phones had gotten the “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND” text message and the sky had lit up with a few bright flashes, I returned home.
“Everyone’s saying it’s what we feared. The big one,” I shouted as I walked in the door. I found Carrie sitting at the kitchen table, right where I’d left her when I’d gone out there to figure out what the hell was going on. “Said it was Indy that got hit. There might have been as many as three of ‘em. They’re saying the Collins kid’s gone blind. She looked right at ‘em, poor thing.”
Carrie bolted up from her chair, so fast that its front two legs left the ground for a sec. In the time I’d been gone, tears had wreaked havoc on her makeup. Beyond that, even, her face had this haggard look to it, like nothing I’d ever seen in our five years together.
“Christ, Jason, thank goodness you’re all right,” she said. She threw her arms around me, one over the shoulder and one hugging my side, gripping me tight. Mine slowly closed around her, like I was accepting an unexpected gift. “You left your phone. I got worried when I realized. I kept thinking that something might’ve happened to you too.”
I checked my pockets. Sure enough, car keys and wallet were there, but no phone. Might’ve left it on the couch before I’d left. Typical me: if there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I’m forgetful.
With her head pressed into my chest, she kept speaking. “I haven’t been able to reach anyone in New York. I keep getting the ‘disconnected number’ message. On top of that, there’s no Internet. Wi-Fi’s out, and my mobile data’s all screwed up. I–I don’t know what to do.”
I briefly wondered who she’d been trying to reach but reminded myself that there was a time and a place for those sorts of questions. Instead, I said, “Yeah, everyone else at Peppers was saying the same. Nobody’s been able to put calls through to Indy, Chicago, or Cincy.”
She pulled back a bit to look me in the eyes. “You went to Peppers?” she asked, the corners of her mouth reaching down. By the time I realized my mistake, she was already smelling my breath, her right hand firm against my collarbone. “While I’m here, freaking out all by myself on the brink of nuclear winter, you were at Peppers?”
“Well, yeah,” I replied slowly. I felt myself slipping into one of those obstacle courses of things I can and can’t say. It wasn’t until I met Carrie that I realized that there are wrong answers that are true and there are right answers that are slightly less true. “Where else was I gonna do recon?”
Her hand tightened like a C-clamp on my shoulder. “I don’t know, Jason.” Her voice was low, intense–a far cry from her typical distant tone. “Town hall? Church? The fucking Super Target? Not the bar, for Christ’s sakes!”
I said nothing then. Because I knew I couldn’t say what I wanted to. And what I wanted to say was that if everything had been blown to smithereens, leaving us by our godforsaken lonesome, there was nothing we could do that would change a thing. So, a single recon beer hadn’t hurt anyone in the slightest, in the same way that an hour’s worth of futile phone calls hadn’t done one damn bit of good.
But as it turned out, silence was still the wrong answer. She released her hand and took a step back, eyes wide. “Unbelievable,” she said. “You’re smiling right now. My entire family might be dead, and you’re grinning like a grade-schooler caught in a lie. What’s so goddamn funny?”
“Nothing’s funny,” I replied, trying to wrestle the conversation back into safe territory. “I’m just trying to look on the bright side of things.”
“The bright side?” She started laughing, much too high-pitched for my taste. “Please inform me, Jason, where there’s a bright side in all this. I’d love to know.”
I thought through a lot of wrong answers before I responded. I thought about saying, “Well, I guess your brother doesn’t need that thousand dollars anymore.” I thought about mentioning how Carrie had always said she hated her parents and how they’d been pretty damn upfront about their distaste for me. And I thought about the most genuine answer: that wild optimistic idea that I’d been unable to shake since the bartender at Peppers had first whispered the word “apocalypse.”
But I said none of that. Because I know my place. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I’m not one of those assertive, direct men. I’m not the type to hulk in front of an open door and say, “I know what’s going on here.” Instead, I’ve resigned myself to the role of the slow-witted husband. Somewhere along the line, we decided that things work better when Carrie’s the smart one. And that results in situations where I don’t reveal the things I know, not only because it’s the wrong answer but also because it’s “out of character,” as Carrie’s old off-Broadway friends might have once said.
So, instead, I tried for something close. Something that was almost the truth–but sounded better. “I guess I was just thinking about how lucky we are, all things considered. If we hadn’t moved here, we’d be back east. If this happened next week, even, you’d be out there on a business trip. You know… with them.”
That’s when she lost it. Wrong answer, I thought. But I suppose I’d known all along that I’d been answering a trick question.
After she’d calmed down a bit, we went to go sit on the back porch, on the step where the stained birch planks met the lawn. I had my arm wrapped around her back while she cried into my chest. One of the Rodgers boys had come by a few minutes ago to give us an update. Using the patchwork system of remaining cell towers and landlines, some of the neighbors had managed to scrape together an idea of what had happened. The result? Confirmed bombings of Chicago, St. Louis, Cincy, and Cleveland–someone had gotten in touch with people who’d seen those flashes. Conflicting reports out west: nobody knew what the deal was there. Complete radio silence from the East Coast–NYC, Philly, D.C., Jersey, you name it–like it had up and vanished.
But while we were sitting out back, watching the pines that marked the edge of our yard–they rustled in the breeze–it was easy to forget about all that. It seemed like time had stopped, leaving the two of us alone in that picturesque scene. It was easy to forget that the same breeze we were watching was guiding the fallout away from us. Another stroke of luck, I thought, but didn’t say.
Instead, we were playing this game I’d made up, where we were naming all the negative parts of society we’d be happy to see go.
“Your student loan debt,” I said to start one round.
“Gone,” Carrie answered into the tear-soaked spot on my shirt, just above the left breast pocket. It felt like the old times: before the move, before the silent glares, back when she still loved me for my “unpretentious” attitude, as she called it.
“Yup. Bank headquarters are probably toast. What about those embarrassing videos of you with braces singing boy band songs, the ones you could never delete because you couldn’t remember your old YouTube password?”
“Sure are. Those servers are fried.”
I got a laugh out of her for that one. At first, she’d said she didn’t want to play, but I’d managed to make her chuckle a few times through her sobs. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I can lighten the mood when the time calls for it.
I had to think a bit before I went again. “Those rom-coms with multiple storylines that don’t even connect that well to each other.”
She lifted her face from my chest that time. Her dark, disheveled hair almost covered her reddened eyes. “Oh, come on. I liked those movies.”
“Ok, ok, I’m sorry. I’ll think of something else.” I squeezed her a bit tighter.
As the game stretched on, I found myself glancing at her phone, which lay on the porch next to her. I considered starting a round by saying, “Your airline ticket for next week.” But then, she would’ve looked at me with wide eyes. Then she would’ve known just how much I understood about the nature of our relationship, and my one advantage in it would’ve gone out the window.
So instead, I said nothing. And sure enough, when she excused herself to go to the bathroom (“Good idea to use it now, while we’ve still got running water,” I’d said), she left her phone sitting there, still a few feet away. All I had to do was reach over and punch in her lock screen passcode: her brother’s birthday, I’d cracked it months ago. Some might call me distrustful for doing what I do, but if there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I’m a realist. And as a realist, I figure I can trust people just fine, so long as I know more than I allow myself to blindly believe.
Once in her phone, I checked out her call log and saw that among the flurry of failed calls to her family there were no less than eight made out to her ex. With trembling fingers, I tapped the bastard’s name and navigated to her text thread with him. As always, I felt the color drain from my vision as I read the last few messages:
Her (five hours ago): Hey just making sure you’ve made enough space in your closet for my little “trip” next week haha. Wont have too much. Just one small suitcase. Literally CANT WAIT baby!
Him (five hours ago): ofc cleared out 1 side 4 u. We can go shopping to make sure you’ve got enough to get by. Until we get the rest of your stuff back at least
Her (five hours ago): Perfect you’re the best!
Her (two hours ago): Trying this to see if I can reach you. If you get this please respond. I need to know you’re alright (undelivered)
Her (two hours ago): PLEASE text me ASAP if any of these get through. Worried sick. Love you (undelivered)
Her (two hours ago): pleasepleaseplease baby don’t leave me I don’t know what to do without you (undelivered)
I realized then that I was stuck in that underwater feeling again, where all you can hear is the blood rushing in your head, and you keep on reading the words, over and over, because maybe you missed something that makes you realize it’s not as bad as it could be, or maybe you’re just not interpreting it the right way, but no, it’s awful any way you look at it, like always, so that sickening feeling never goes away, just shrinking over time if you neglect it, if you keep it buried in the right place for long enough, suffocating it. But this time was different, I told myself, at least this time I could kill it by trying to access her email app and confirming that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t access it, no, couldn’t access the message that held the details about her one-way ticket the following week, the proof that everything would come to an end.
Because it was gone.
I reminded myself of that with a held breath. The computers and hard drives that had issued and stored her flight confirmation? Gone. The departure and arrival airports? Both gone. The life she’d thought she’d had waiting for her back east? Gone.
My head vibrated as I exited out of everything and repositioned the phone exactly as I’d found it. To calm myself, I focused on the trees at the edge of the yard. The wind blowing through them. The fallout it steered away from us. Within a minute, I was once again ready to play my typical role in this relationship, that of an emotionless, optimistic idiot.
I tried to keep the game going when Carrie returned, but she just shook her head, wordless. She stared down at her hands for what seemed like ages. Finally, she said, “I don’t know what to do, Jason.”
I thought for a while. There were lots of wrong answers to the implied question, I knew. But that time, the response that struck me as right also struck me as true. “I figure, as long as we’ve got each other, everything’ll turn out just fine.”
She said nothing in reply, just kind of crumpled into me. I wrapped my arms around her once again, gentle but unsure, so that my shirt could resume its duties absorbing her tears. And as we sat out in that crisp autumn night, it often seemed that the one thing keeping me from shivering was the warmth of her sobbing embrace.
BIO: Kevin J. Binder is the assistant fiction editor of phoebe literary journal. His work has been published here as well as McSweeney’s, Defenestration, Slackjaw, and SPANK the CARP’s 2020 Anthology. He occasionally leaves Twitter long enough to jot down a couple words of that novel he claims to be working on.