Brian J. Smith
My Uncle Jay and I were inside of his house when everyone went stiff.
It was a bright sunny day in July when my mother, Nina, and my father, Calvin, and I headed out to Uncle Jay and Aunt Linda’s place for a cookout we always had before I was dragged back to school for my freshman year. We never invited any of our other family members because we had to deal with their snotty stuck-up asses at the family reunion every once a year which was always a stretch. Although Dad and Uncle Jay never got along, it didn’t stop us from going.
Jay and Linda lived in one of those stucco bungalows with a red clay-tiled roof and a big backyard that was bigger than the front, crammed inside of a close-knit cluster of other houses just like it. Dogs barked and pools splashed from a distance I was comfortable with.
Uncle Jay was standing on the patio in front of his massive propane grill, flipping three different kinds of meat (not counting Aunt Linda’s veggie burgers, bleh) and flashing narrow-eyed glances at Dad every time he finished a beer and then plucked a fresh one from the case sitting under the picnic table between his feet. Mom and I were tossing a bright-yellow Frisbee around the front yard for a while until Aunt Linda finished cutting the trimmings for burgers and then took Mom’s place. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream spewed from the little boom box Mom bought Uncle Jay last Christmas.
When he slid the last hamburger onto the platter sitting next to the grill, Jay peered over Mom’s shoulder and said, “Hey, Mattie. Could you run in and get the condiments out of the fridge.”
“Sure,” I said, my voice strained from exhaustion.
Before I reached the porch, I glanced next door and saw a young middle-aged couple leading a little six-year-old boy with blond hair toward their back door. The boy carried a stack of action figure in his arms and sobbed as if he were about to carry them to the electric chair; dirt caked his fingernails, clung to his kneecaps, and streaked the front of his bright blue t-shirt.
I ignored them, tossed the Frisbee onto the front porch, and entered the house through a pair of sliding glass doors. I bobbed my head to the music spewing from Jay’s boombox loud enough to vibrate the kitchen windows and opened the fridge. I heard the patio doors slide open again, spewing a split second stream of music into the house and then slide shut again.
I caught a shadow out of the corner of my right eye and grew tense, my scalp and skin prickling with cold fear. I thought this had been Dad’s opening to sneak in behind Mom’s back and grope me as he’d done three months ago after my thirteenth birthday. I know I should’ve said something by now but we both knew who Mom was going to believe and it wasn’t her daughter; she would’ve ignored anything I said because Daddy’s money made her more submissive and unaware than I would ever become.
“Hey, honey,” a familiar, but chaffing voice said.
I slumped against the fridge, breathing a sigh of relief when the mixed stench of flop sweat and stale beer were replaced by the pleasing scent of Stetson that only Uncle Jay wore. I shook off the uneasiness and smiled at him while all six-foot-four of him moseyed over to the other side of the kitchen with a perturbed grin on his big doughy face.
“Your aunt sent me in here for her fucking multigrain bread,” he mumbled, then snorted. “She’d eat poison ivy if they made a loaf of bread with it.”
I chuckled and knelt in front of the open fridge to resume my search when the breeze picked up and swept over the house. It muffled the music spewing from Jay’s boombox, shook the treetops like newborns, and reminded me of the whispers my friends shared behind my back before homeroom. When the breeze dissipated, a low wheeze filled the kitchen, merging into a loud startling gasp.
I rose to my feet and cocked my head to where the sound was coming from.
Jay leaned across the sink, his thick-fingered hands gripping the edge of the countertop until his knuckles turned white; the loaf of bread had flown from his hands and rolled across the kitchen floor. He glanced out the window, his eyes and mouth wide from shock as the color began to drain from his face. I hadn’t seen him this scared since back in 2016 when Aunt Linda had her first of two miscarriages.
“What the fu–?”
The panicked wheeze in his voice lured me over to the window, my body racing with curiosity. I massaged my hands and peered through the white crop-top curtains draped across the kitchen window. I couldn’t believe what I saw, but it was as plain as the nose on my face.
Nina and Calvin and the hummingbird fluttering in front of the bird feeder above Dad’s head and Aunt Linda were frozen in place. Stiff and motionless, they looked like nothing more than wax figures in a museum: Mom was caught hovering above the bench seat across from Dad, her hands hugging the back of her dress and tucking it underneath her thighs as if she were about to sit down; Dad was crumpling an empty beer can in his hand and letting off an old fashioned burp through a lopsided grin in a non-comical display of manliness; and Aunt Linda was caught balancing herself on one foot with her head cocked toward the front of the house and both hands cupped around her mouth.
The grill kept going and so did Uncle Jay’s radio which switched from “Sunshine” to “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song” by Three Dog Night. Something glinted in the corner of my eye, but the procession of footsteps parading across the kitchen drew my attention instead.
I spun around in time to see Uncle Jay tearing ass toward the living room, mumbling Linda’s name over and over again.
He bounced his right leg off the corner of the coffee table, hissed through half-clenched teeth, and lost his balance. He teetered back and, arms pinwheeling out from his sides, slammed his massive bulk onto the living room couch. In the soft blue glow of the television, he stared up at me with a mingled expression of surprise and shock on his face.
“Jeez, Mattie,” he sighed. “Don’t just stand there and wait for me to bust my head open before you decide to help me. I need to get out there and see what the fuck happened.”
I shrugged and hurried over, my heart racing with panic. The light coming from the television shifted from a soft blue glow to plumbeous tint that made Uncle Jay sit up immediately. He brushed me off with a dismissive wave of his hand, snatched the cable remote from the coffee table, and thumbed up the volume.
“In case you’ve just joined us,” a middle-aged brunette in a bright-yellow blouse stated in a soft informative voice, “we’ve been following a breaking news story. There have been reports that a vast number of American citizens who have suddenly frozen in place. There have been numerous reports that the breeze had started from the northwest corner of The United States before sweeping down across the rest of the country, but we don’t have any real information to confirm it. We have live footage from all over the country and those of you watching at home parental discretion is advised.”
The first footage showed a cul-de-sac in Eugene, Oregon; the wind had swept through during a big block party leaving the streets dotted with wind-blown litter and rotund metal barbecue grills spewing tails of thick white smoke that dissipated in the breeze. The second piece of footage came from a monolithic water park in southern Texas; the stairways leading toward tall colorful water slides were streaked by stiff-legged swimmers while others floated lazily in the wave pool like a child’s ill-forgotten bath toy. The other pieces of footage took place in an amalgam of highways clogged with broken chains of mid-afternoon traffic, shopping malls with neon-gilded signs declaring false promises, and residential parks crowded with stiffs that reminded me of store-front mannequins.
“We will do what we can to bring you all of the informa–”
Uncle Jay muted the television, slid the remote back onto the coffee table and inched up to the edge of the couch. He raked his hands across his clean-shaven head, slid them down his face, clamped them across his mouth, and sighed.
I thought back to the footage at the block party and recalled the golden retriever wandering and whimpering at the motionless crowd, wagging its tail as it sniffed at their feet to get their attention.
I replayed that heart-wrenching image in my head until I felt my chest constrict and my cheeks flush. A river of hot tears brimmed in my eyes and slid down my cheeks, but before I could wipe them away Uncle Jay had leaped up from the couch and hugged me.
He buried my face in the front of his t-shirt and patted my back in a series of slow concentric circles that made me think of those late-nights when Daddy came up stairs to grope me before the whiskey put him down.
“It’s okay, honey,” he whispered. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
As much as I wanted to believe him, everyone was a skeptic, including me. If I were to shed tears for anyone outside of this house, it should’ve been Aunt Linda and the lost dog. My drunk horny father and my submissive mother on the other hand would receive as much sympathy as he would’ve had he gone to prison.
I broke the hug and hurried across the house toward the bathroom. I slumped over the sink, clamped my hands over my tear-soaked lips, and sobbed until it hurt. I snatched a hand towel from the shelf beside of the sink, tucked a strand of pineapple blonde hair behind my left ear, and swiped the rag gently across my face.
The cold touch from the rag cooled my flaming red cheeks, but failed to ease my fears. I was very familiar with the whole “end of times” spiel especially on the news during New Year’s Eve or in the midst of 2012, but I took it all with a grain of salt. I always thought that the apocalypse could happen due to anything between an airborne disease and a great massive flood.
“No!” A familiar voice bellowed from inside the kitchen. “Oh, God no!”
I flinched, my body rigid with fear. I bolted out of the bathroom and stopped halfway to the living room; a lone tear slid down my right cheek.
His face sagging under a mix of panic and terror, he leaned against the sink and gazed out the kitchen windows once more. He mumbled something under his breath because it might’ve been something I wasn’t allowed to hear.
I followed his gaze and felt my eyes widen with fear. Mom’s left arm jerked, giving a loud brittle snap that was obviously drowned out by the roar of Rush singing “Fly by Night” coming from Jay’s boombox. It slid out from underneath her chest, dragging her thin-fingered hand toward the edge of the tabletop and slid off at the shoulder.
We watched in horror as Mom’s arm slid down her left hip, bounced off the edge of the bench, and plopped onto the ground like a fish out of water. Blood pumped at the air, soaking the grass, and sliding down her left hip. She toppled back, her right arm jutting out from her hip, and struck the front of the house; the same bone-jarring thud that shook the windows also rattled my bones.
I pivoted, pressed my hand against my chest and sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor. I clamped my right hand across my mouth and hunched over to keep my body from shuddering; nausea churned the pit of my stomach and stung the back of my throat.
“No, no,” Jay pleaded, lips trembling. “No, no oh, dear God, no Linda not her he–”
The panic-stricken tone to his voice coiled around my spine, rooted me to the floor, and prickled my skin. His gaze never wavered from the front lawn as streaks of sunlight underscored the big red splotches flaring across his cheeks; his lips trembled.
I glanced up at him and, opening my mouth to mutter the first incoherent word from my lips, when something flashed in the corner of my left eye. I cocked my head around, scooted across the kitchen floor and peered through the triple-paned patio doors. I gazed across the driveway passed Uncle Jay’s Chevy and Mom’s Honda, at the rear of a two-story white clapboard house next door.
It had a wheelchair ramp that led up to the back door and a strand of white clothesline struck up between two oak trees rooted diagonally along the far right side of the yard. I scanned the house and caught it on the third try. A flickering orb of bright orange light whipped across the second story window on the far-left corner, snatching at the shadows filling the house.
“Look, Uncle Jay,” I gasped, rising to my feet. “Who lives there?”
“A young couple,” he stammered. “Why does it matter?”
When he joined me by the window, he perched his left hand on my right shoulder. He cupped his hands around his eyes, pressed his face to the glass and scanned the property as if he were looking for Waldo.
“We need to help them. That little boy could be hurt.”
“No, we don’t. What we need to do is keep our asses inside of this house until The National Guard comes.”
“Those people could be hurt,” I pleaded. “They could use some medical attention or maybe some food.”
“And if they need it.” He pointed toward the floor. “They’ll call for it, but for right now I think we need to stay in here until we get all of the information we need.”
“It looks like they’re trying to signal for help.”
“I know you want to help them,” he said, bracing my shoulders, “and that’s very brave of you, but we just can’t risk it. What are we going to do if we go out there and the next current comes through?”
I cursed under my breath, slapped his hands away, and spun toward the patio doors. I wasn’t mad at Uncle Jay because he wouldn’t help, but I was angry at the fact that everyone who I still cared about were dead. My world was shattered and yet here I was about to help a group of complete strangers with or without his help.
Before I could wrap my hand around the knob, the pleasing scent of Stetson hit me square in the face. Uncle Jay wrenched his hand around my wrist, clutched the back of my shirt with the other, and flung me back like a rag doll. I spun around on drunken wobbly legs and grasped the edge of the stove to keep myself from hitting the edge of the countertop.
Jay flipped the lock into place, leaned against the door and laced his arms across his chest. His mouth shrunk into a tight angry grin.
“We’re not leaving this house,” he declared. “In the past ten minutes I’ve lost my wife and my little sister. I’m not going to lose you, too.”
Something shattered from inside the house. We froze and perked our ears to hear where it might’ve came from. Two seconds later, a loud squawking sound burst across the house, but we didn’t know exactly where.
“It’s in the goddamn basement,” Jay said through tightly clenched teeth.
We made a mad dash across the house, our feet pounding quick but softly across the floor, matching the rhythm of our heartbeats. We ran across Uncle Jay’s office (which once served as a carport after the house was built), ignored the stacks of paper cluttering his desktop, and ran toward a flat wooden door on the far right corner of the room. Jay grasped the curved metal handle jutting up from the wooden door, his sweaty panic-stricken face scrunched together, and yanked it with all his might.
When he flung the door open, my skin prickled. I stepped back, my hands curled into tiny white-knuckled fists, and peered down a flight of solid stone steps. Shafts of sunlight spread abnormal shadows across the rough concrete floor and grasped at the scarred brick walls; the diverse smells of mildew and paint wafted upward, spun around my head, and made me wince.
I glanced down for a second to see what might’ve caused the noise. A dead bird, maybe a sparrow or a robin, was lying spread eagled in the center of the floor next to Uncle Jay’s work table. Its beady black eyes glistened like wet stones; its fat brown-feathery head was twisted too far to one side; and two jagged shards of glass were strewn across the floor beside of it, glinting amongst a second bed of broken glass.
Before I could investigate any more, Uncle Jay screamed, “Fuck, fuck!”
He leaped back from the open door just as the wind sighed through the treetops and whistled through the crack in the window. He cradled his left hand in his right fist, sat down hard enough to jostle his teeth and scowled in pain. His face and eyes flaring from a mix of panic and shock, he pressed his fists tightly against his chest and bit down on his bottom lip.
“Shut the door, Mattie,” he said through trembling lips. “Shut the goddamn door.”
I stretched myself across the open doorway to avoid the gust of wind spewing through the broken window, pressed my fingertips against the edge of the door, and pulled it toward me. The door’s rusted metal hinges shrieked as it struck the floor like a judge’s gavel before an unjust sentence. I took a few deep breaths to calm the fire in my nerves and, my chest rising and falling, hurried over to Uncle Jay.
“Don’t touch it, honey,” he sighed, waving me off. “I don’t even want you to see it.”
He rolled over, pressing his injured arm against his chest and used his other hand to hoist himself up.
I inched over, braced his hips in both hands, and walked him back into the living room.
He stretched out onto the couch, tore the brown and orange braided afghan from the back, and wrapped it around his hand so I wouldn’t see it; through the blanket’s honey-cob pattern I saw tiny gray dots spread across the back of his palm like a case of tombstone freckles, but I knew that if I said anything he would be angry.
I sat down beside of him and held his good hand while we both cried. Outside, the wind died down; the treetops bowed. We wiped our tears away and tried to gather our thoughts—whatever the hell they might be.
A thick gray cloud rolled over the sky, drenching the house in a soft somber glow that edged the living room curtains. He cried himself to sleep five minutes later and although I wanted to wake him I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I got hungry instead.
I thought about bundling myself up in a ton of jackets and ski gear and see if I could go outside to get the food that Uncle Jay had cooked earlier, but I didn’t want him to wake up and lose his shit when he couldn’t find me. Instead, I took advantage of the fact that we still had electricity and made a pan of macaroni and cheese. I locked the doors then the curtains and drew the blinds shut when I saw that Dad’s right leg had come off at the knee; his head disappeared two seconds later.
I turned on the television in time to see more reports coming in about everyone’s limbs falling off and chuckled at their timing. All across America, everyone was losing something and soon Uncle Jay would lose his hand if not his mind by the end of the week.
It’s true what they say.
There’s no news like bad news.
Brian J. Smith has been featured in numerous anthologies, e-zines and magazines in both the mystery and horror genres. His books Dark Avenues, The Tuckers, and Three O’Clock are still available on Amazon for Kindle. He recently completed a short story collaboration with fellow author Lenore Sagaskie. He lives in southeastern Ohio with his brother and four dogs where he eats more than enough spicy food that no human being should ever consume, already has too many books and buys more and doesn’t drink enough coffee to suite his palate and cheers on The Ohio State Buckeyes.
Copyright © Brian J. Smith 2019