One Second After

William R. Forstchen

Forge Books

Chapter One

BLACK MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINA, 2:30 EDT

John Matherson lifted the plastic bag off the counter.

"You sure I have the right ones?" he asked.

Nancy, the owner of the shop, Ivy Corner, smiled. "Don't worry, John; she already had them picked out weeks ago. Give her a big hug and kiss for me. Hard to believe she's twelve today."

John sighed and nodded, looking down at the bag, stuffed with a dozen Beanie Babies, one for each year of Jennifer's life, which started twelve years ago this day.

"Hope she still wants these at thirteen," he said. "God save me when that first boy shows up at the door wanting to take her out."

The two laughed, Nancy nodding in agreement. He was already enduring that with Elizabeth, his sixteen- year- old, and perhaps for that, and so many other reasons as well, he just wished that he could preserve, could drag out, just for a few more days, weeks, or months the precious time all fathers remember fondly, when they still had their "little girl."

It was a beautiful spring day, the cherry trees lining the street in full bloom, a light shower of pink petals drifting on the wind as he walked up the street, past Doc Kellor's office, the antique stores, the new, rather Gothic- looking art gallery that had opened last month, the usual curio shops, and even an old- style ice- cream parlor . . . at a dollar fifty a scoop. Next up the street was Benson's Used and Rare Books. John hesitated, wanted to go in just for a few minutes, then pulled out his cell phone to check the time.

Two thirty. Her bus would be rolling in at three, no time today to go in, have a cup of coffee, and talk about books and history. Walt Benson saw him, held up a cup, gesturing for John to join him. He shook his head, pointed to his wrist even though he never wore a watch, and continued to walk up to the corner to where his Talon SUV was parked in front of Taylor's Hardware and General Store.

John paused and looked back down the street for a moment.

I'm living in a damn Norman Rockwell painting, he thought yet again, for the thousandth time.

Winding up here . . . he never imagined it, never planned for it, or even wanted it. Eight years back he was at the Army War College, Carlisle, PA, teaching military history and lecturing on asymmetrical warfare, and waiting to jump the hoop and finally get his first star.

And then two things happened. His promotion came through, with assignment to Brussels as a liaison to NATO, a rather nice posting to most likely end out his career . . . and then Mary had returned from the doctor's several days after the promotion, her face pale, lips pressed tight, and said four words: "I have breast cancer."

The commandant at Carlisle, Bob Scales, an old friend who had stood as godfather for John's Jennifer, understood the request he then laid before him. John would take the promotion, but could it be to the Pentagon? It'd place them nearby to Johns Hopkins, and not too far from Mary's family.

It didn't work. Cutbacks were hitting as it was, oh, there was great sympathy from upstairs, but he had to take Brussels if he wanted the star and maybe a year later they'd find a slot for him stateside.

After talking to Mary's doctor . . . John resigned. He would take her back home to Black Mountain, North Carolina, which was what she wanted and the cancer treatment center at Chapel Hill would be nearby.

Bob's connections were good, remarkably good, when John first mentioned Black Mountain. A single phone call was made; the old- boy network, though disdained as politically incorrect, did exist and it did help at times when needed. The president of Montreat College, North Carolina, in Mary's hometown, did indeed "suddenly" need an assistant director of development. John hated development and admissions work but survived fit until finally a tenure- track professorship in history opened four years back and he was slotted in.

The fact that the president of the college, Dan Hunt, owed his life to Bob Scales, who had dragged him out of a minefield back in 1970, was a definite mark in John's favor that could not be ignored between friends. Dan had lost his leg, Bob got another of his Bronze Stars for saving him, and the two had been buddies ever since, each looking out, as well, for those whom the other cared for.

So Mary got to go home, after twenty years of following John from Benning, to Germany, to Okinawa, sweating out Desert Storm, from there to the Pentagon, then a year, a wonderful year, at West Point and then three more wonderful years teaching at Carlisle. At heart he was a history teacher, and maybe whichever bastard in the personnel office at the Pentagon had nixed John's request to stay stateside had done him a favor.

So they came home to Black Mountain, North Carolina. He did not hesitate one second in granting her wish, resigning his commission and promotion and moving to this corner of the Carolina mountains.

He looked back down Main Street, frozen for a moment in time and memories. Mary would be gone four years next week, her last time out a slow, exhausting walk down this street, which as a girl she had run along.

It was indeed a Norman Rockwell town. That final walk down this street with her, everyone knew her, everyone knew what was happening, and everyone came out to say hi, to give her a hug, a kiss, all knowing it was farewell but not saying it. It was a gesture of love John would never forget.

He pushed the thought aside. It was still too close and Jennifer's bus would be pulling up in twenty minutes.

He got into his Talon, started it up, turned onto State Street, and headed east. He did love the view as State Street curved through town, past yet more shops, nearly all the buildings redbrick, dating back to the turn of the century.

The village had once been a thriving community, part of the tuberculosis sanitarium business. When the railroad had finally pierced the mountains of western North Carolina in the early 1880s some of the first to flood in were tuberculosis victims. They came by the thousands, to the sanitariums that sprang up on every sunlit mountain slope. By the early twenties there were a dozen such institutions surrounding Asheville, the big city situated a dozen miles to the west of Black Mountain.

And then came the Depression. Black Mountain remained frozen in time, and then came antibiotics right after the war and the sanitariums emptied out. And all those wonderful buildings, which in other towns would have given way to shopping plazas and strip malls, had remained intact, progress passing Black Mountain by.

Now there were conference centers for various churches and summer camps for kids where the sanitariums had been. His own college had been founded at such a site up in what everyone called the Cove. A small college, six hundred kids, most of them from small towns across the Carolinas and a few from Atlanta or Florida. Some of the kids were freaked out by the relative isolation, but most of them grudgingly admitted they loved it, a beautiful campus, a safe place, an old logging trail across the edge of the campus leading straight on up to Mount Mitchell, good white water nearby for kayaking, and plenty of woods to disappear into for partying for some of them, to get around the fairly strict campus rules.

The town itself finally revived, starting in the 1980s, but wonderfully, the charming turn- of- the- century look was maintained, and in the summer and fall the streets would be crammed with tourists and day- trippers coming up from Charlotte or Winston- Salem to escape the boiling heat of the lowlands, joined by hundreds of summer "cottagers" who lived in the Cove, many of the cottages darn near mansions for some of the older wealth of the South.

That had been Mary's family, Old South and wealth. Me-ma Jennie, Mary's mother and Jennifer's namesake, still hung on doggedly to their home up in the Cove, refusing to consider moving, even though "Papa" Tyler was now in a nearby nursing home, in the final stages of cancer.

John continued to drive east, the traffic on Interstate 40, coming up through the Swannanoa Gap, roaring by on his left. The old- timers in the town still expressed their hatred of that "darn road." Before it came in, Black Mountain was a sleepy southern mountain hamlet. With the road had come development, traffic, and the foods of tourists on weekends that the chamber of commerce loved and everyone else tried to tolerate.

Staying on the old highway that paralleled the interstate, John drove for less than a mile out of town, then turned right onto a dirt road that twisted up the side of a hill overlooking the town. The old mountain joke used to be "you know you're getting directions to a mountain home when they say, 'Turn onto the dirt road.' "

For a kid from New Jersey, John still got a bit of a kick out of the fact that he did indeed live in the South, on the side of a mountain, halfway up a dirt road, with a view worth a million bucks.

The home he and Mary had purchased was in one of the first new developments in the area. In a county where there was no zoning, the lower part of the hill had several trailers, an old shack where Connie Yarborough, a wonderful down- the- hill neighbor, still did not have electricity or town water, and next to her was an eccentric Volkswagen repair shop . . . the owner, Jim Bartlett, a true sixties throwback, his lot littered with dozens of rusting Beetles, vans, and even a few precious VW Buses and Karmann Ghias.

The house (Mary and John actually named Rivendell, because of their mutual love of Tolkien) offered a broad sweeping view of the valley below; the skyline of Asheville was in the distance, framed by the Great Smoky Mountains beyond, facing due west so Mary could have her sunsets.

When trying to describe the view he'd just tell friends, "Check out Last of the Mohicans; it was filmed a half hour from where we live."

It was a fairly contemporary-looking type of home, high ceiling, the west wall, from bedroom across the living room to the dining area, all glass. The bed was still positioned to face the glass wall, as Mary wanted it so she could watch the outside world as her life drifted away.

He pulled up the drive. The two "idiots" Ginger and Zach, both golden retrievers, both beautiful- looking dogs—and both thicker than bricks when it came to brains—had been out sunning on the bedroom deck. They stood up and barked madly, as if he were an invader. Though if he were a real invader they'd have cowered in terror and stained the carpet as they .ed into Jennifer's room to hide.

The two idiots charged through the bedroom, then out through the entryway screen door . . . the lower half of the door a charade, as the screen was gone. Put a new one in, it'd last a few days and the idiots would charge right through it again. John had given up on that fight years ago.

As for actually closing the door . . . it never even crossed his mind anymore. This was Black Mountain. Strange as it seemed, folks rarely locked up, keys would be left in cars, kids did indeed play in the streets in the evening, there were parades for the Fourth of July, Christmas, and the ridiculous Pine cone Festival, complete to the crowning of a Miss Pinecone. Papa Tyler had absolutely humiliated his daughter, Mary, in front of John early on in their courtship when he proudly pulled out a photo of her, Miss Pine cone 1977. In Black Mountain there was still an ice- cream truck that made the rounds on summer nights. . . . It was all one helluva difference from his boyhood just outside of Newark, New Jersey.

There was a car parked at the top of the driveway. Mary's mother, Me-ma Jennie.

Me-ma Jennie was behind the wheel of her wonderful and highly eccentric 1959 Ford Edsel. Ford . . . that's where the family money had come from, ownership of a string of car dealerships across the Carolinas dating back to Henry Ford himself. There was even a photo framed in the house up in the Cove of Mary's great-granddad and Henry Ford at the opening of a dealership in Charlotte back before World War I.

Though it wasn't polite to be overtly "business" in their strata and Jennie preferred the role of genteel southern lady, in her day, John knew, she was one shrewd business person, as was her husband.

John pulled up alongside the Edsel. Jennie put down the book she was reading and got out.

"Hi, Jen."

She absolutely hated "Ma," "Mother," "Mom," or, mortal sin of all mortal sins, "Me-ma" or "Grandma" from her Yankee son- in- law, who was definitely not her first choice for her only daughter. But that had softened with time, especially towards the end, especially when he had brought the girls back home to Jen.

The two got out of their cars and she held up a cheek to be kissed, her height, at little more than five foot two, overshadowed by his six- foot- four bulk, and there was a light touch of her hand on his arm and an affectionate squeeze.

"Thought you'd never get here in time. She'll be home any minute."

Jen had yet to slip into the higher pitch or gravelly tone of an "old lady's" voice. He wondered if she practiced every night reciting before a mirror to keep that wonderful young woman-sounding southern lilt. It was an accent that still haunted him. The same as Mary's when they had first met at Duke, twenty- eight years ago. At times, if Jen was in the next room and called to the girls, it would still bring tears to his eyes.

"We got time. Why didn't you go inside to wait?"

"With those two mongrels? The way they jump, they'd ruin my nylons."

Ginger and Zach were all over John, jumping, barking, leaping about . . . and studiously avoiding Jen. Though dumb, goldens knew when someone didn't like them no matter how charming they might be.

John reached in, pulled out the bag of Beanies, and, walking over to the stone wall that bordered the path to the house, began to line them up, one at a time, setting them side by side.

"Now John, really, isn't she getting a bit old for that?"

"Not yet, not my little girl."

Jen laughed softly.

"You can't keep time back forever."

"I can try, can't I?" he said with a grin.

She smiled sadly.

"How do you think Tyler and I felt about you, the day you came through our door?"

He reached out and gave her an affectionate touch on the cheek.

"You guys loved me."

"You a Yankee? Like hell. Tyler actually thought about driving you off with a shotgun. And that first night you stayed over . . ."

Even after all these years he found he still blushed a bit at that. Jen had caught Mary and him in a less than "proper" situation on the family room sofa at two in the morning. Though not fully improper, it was embarrassing nevertheless, and Jen had never let him live it down.

He set the Beanies out, stepped back, eyeballed them, like a sergeant examining a row of new recruits. The red, white, and blue "patriot" bear on the right should be in the middle of the ranks where a flag bearer might be.

He could hear the growl of the school bus as it shifted gears, turning off of old Route 70, coming up the hill.

"Here she comes," Jen announced excitedly.

Going back to the Edsel, she leaned in the open window and brought out a .at, elegantly wrapped box, tied off with a neat bow.

"Jewelry?" John asked.

"Of course; she's twelve now. A proper young lady should have a gold necklace at twelve. Her mother did."

"Yeah, I remember that necklace," he said with a grin. "She was wearing it that night you just mentioned. And she was twenty then."

"You cad," Jen said softly, and slapped him lightly on the shoulder, and he pretended that it was a painful blow.

Ginger and Zach had stopped jumping around John, both of them cocking their heads, taking in the sound of the approaching school bus, the squeal of the brakes as it stopped at the bottom of the driveway, its yellow barely visible now through the spring- blooming trees.

They were both off like lightning bolts, running full tilt down the driveway, barking up a storm, and seconds later he could hear the laughter of Jennifer; of Patricia, a year older and their neighbor; and of Seth, Pat's eleventh-grade brother.

The girls came running up the driveway, Seth threw a stick, the two dogs diverted by it for a moment but then turned together and charged up the hill behind the girls. Seth waved then crossed the street to his house.

John felt a hand slip into his . . . Jen's.

"Just like her mother," Jen whispered, voice choked.

Yes, he could see Mary in Jennifer, slender, actually skinny as a rail, shoulder-length blond hair tied back, still a lanky little girl. She slowed a bit, reaching out to put a hand on a tree as if to brace herself, Patricia turned and waited for her. John felt a momentary concern, wanted to go down to her, but knew better, Jen actually held him back.

"You are too protective," Jen whispered. "She must handle it on her own."

Young Jennifer caught her breath, looked up, a bit pale, saw them waiting, and a radiant smile lit her face.

"Me-ma! And you drove the Edsel today. Can we go for a ride?"

Jen let her hand slip, bent over slightly as Jennifer ran up to her grandmother, the two embracing.

"How's my birthday girl?"

They hugged and Grandma Jen showered Jennifer with kisses, twelve of them, counting each off. Pat looked over at the Beanies lined up, smiled, and looked up at John.

"Afternoon, Mr. Matherson."

"How are you, Pat?"

"I think she needs to be checked," Pat whispered.

"It can wait."

"Daddy!"

Jennifer was now in his arms. He lifted her up, hugged her with fierce intensity so that she laughed, then groaned, "You'll break my back!"

He let go of her, watching her eyes as she looked past him to the Beanie Babies lining the wall . . . and yes, there was still that childlike glow in them.

"Patriot Bear! And Ollie Ostrich!"

As she started to sweep them up, he looked over at Jen with a bit of a triumphant smile, as if to say, "See, she's still my little girl."

Jen, rising to the challenge, came up to Jennifer's side and held out the .at box.

"Happy Birthday, darling."

Jennifer tore the paper off. Ginger, thinking the paper was now a gift to her, half- swallowed it and ran off as Zach chased her.

When Jennifer opened the box her eyes widened.

"Oh, Me-ma."

"It's time my girl had a real gold necklace. Maybe your friend can help you put it on."

John looked down at the gift. My God, it must of cost a fortune, heavy, almost pencil thick. Jen looked at him out of the corner of her eye as if to meet any challenge.

"You're a young lady now," Jen announced as Pat helped to clasp the necklace on, and then Jen produced a small mirror from her purse and held it up.

"Oh, Grandma . . . it's lovely."

"A lovely gift for a lovely lady."

John stood silent for a moment, not sure what to say as his little girl gazed into the mirror, raising her head slightly, the way a woman would, to admire the gold.

"Sweetie, I think you better check your blood sugar; you seemed a bit winded coming up the hill," John finally said, and his words came out heavily, breaking the moment.

"Yes, Daddy."

Jennifer leaned against the wall, took off her backpack and pulled out the blood-sugar test monitor. It was one of the new digital readout models. No more finger pricking, just a quick jab to the arm. She absently fingered the necklace with her free hand while waiting for the readout.

One forty- two . . . a bit high.

"I think you better get some insulin into you," John said.

She nodded.

Jennifer had lived with it for ten years now. He knew that was a major part of his protectiveness of her. When she was in her terrible twos and threes, it tore his heart out every time he had to prick her finger, the sight of his or Mary's approach with the test kit set off howls of protest.

The doctors had all said that, as quickly as possible, Jennifer had to learn to monitor herself, that John and Mary needed to step back even when she was only seven and eight to let her know her own signs, test, and medicate. Mary had handled it far better than John had, perhaps because of her own illness towards the end. Jen with her strength had the same attitude.

Strange. Here I am, a soldier of twenty years. Saw some action, but the only casualties were the Iraqis, never my own men. I was trained to handle things, but when it came to my daugher's diabetes, a damn aggressive type 1, I was always on edge. Tough, damn good at what I did, well respected by my men, and yet complete jelly when it comes to my girls.

"There's a few more gifts inside," John said. "Why don't you girls go on in? Once your sister gets home and your friends show up we can have our party."

"Oh, Dad, didn't you get Elizabeth's message?"

"What message?"

"Here, silly."

She reached up and .shed the cell phone out of his breast pocket, tucked in behind a pack of cigarettes. She started to pull the cigarettes out, to stomp on them or tear them up, but a look from him warned her off.

"Someday, Daddy," she sighed, then taking the phone she punched a few keys and handed it back.

"Home late. Out with Ben," the screen read.

"She texted you and me during lunch."

"Texted?"

"Yes, Daddy, text message, all the kids are doing it now."

"What's wrong with a phone call?"

She looked at him as if he were from the antediluvian period and then headed inside.

"Texted?" Jen asked.

John held the phone so she could read the message.

Jen smiled.

"Better start keeping a sharper watch on Elizabeth," she said. "If that Ben Johnson has any of his grandfather's blood in him."

She chuckled as if remembering something from long ago.

"I don't need to hear this."

"No, you don't, Colonel."

"Actually, I kind of prefer 'Doctor,' or 'Professor.' "

"A doctor is someone who sticks things in you. A professor, well, they always struck me as a bit strange. Either rakes chasing the girls or boring, dusty types. Down here in the South, 'Colonel' sounds best. More masculine."

"Well, I am no longer in active ser vice. I am a professor, so let's just settle for 'John.' "

Jen gazed up at him for a moment, then came up to his side, stood on tiptoes, and kissed his cheek lightly.

"I can see why my own little girl once fell for you, John. You'll lose both of them soon enough to some pimply- faced boys, so do hang on to her as long as you can."

"Well, you sure as hell didn't help, draping that gold necklace on her. What did it cost, a thousand, fifteen hundred?"

"Roughly, but then again, no lady tells the truth when it comes to her buying jewelry."

"Until the bill comes in and the husband has to pay."

There was a pause. He knew he had misspoken. If he had said such a thing around Mary, she'd have lit into him about a woman being independent and the hell with a husband handling the bills . . . and in fact she did handle all the family finances right up till the last weeks of her life.

As for Tyler, though, he no longer even knew what a bill was, and that hurt, no matter how self-reliant Jen tried to appear to be.

"I best be going," Jen said.

"Sorry, I didn't mean it that way."

"It's all right, John. Let me go up to the nursing home to spend some time with Tyler and I'll be back for the party."

"Jennifer was expecting a ride in that monstrous car of yours."

"The Edsel, my dear young man, was a generation ahead of its time."

"And the biggest .op in the history of Ford Motors. My God, look at that grille; it's ugly as sin."

She lightened up a bit with the banter. There were half a dozen cars in her huge garage, several newer ones but also an actual Model A, up on blocks, and, beauty of beauties, a powder blue 1965 Mustang convertible. A lot of bad memories, though, were tied to that Mustang. When John and Mary were dating, they had conned her parents into letting them borrow the car for a cruise up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Mount Mitchell and John, driving it, had rear- ended an elderly couple's Winnebago.

No one was hurt, but the car was totaled and Tyler had poured thousands into getting it restored . . . and swore that no one other than him or Jen would ever drive it again. And Jen still lived by that ruling.

"This Edsel will run forever, my dear, and just check on eBay to see how much it's worth. I bet a heck of a lot more than that SUV thing you've got."

He settled back against the stone wall as Jen maneuvered "the monster" around and cruised down the driveway at breakneck speed. The wall was warm from the afternoon sun. The Beanies were still there, and oh, that did hurt a bit; at least she could have carried Patriot Bear or the ostrich in.

Inside he could hear Jennifer and Pat chatting away about the necklace until the stereo kicked on. Some strange female wailing sounds. Britney Spears? No, she was old stuff now, thank God. What it was he couldn't tell, other than the fact that he didn't like it. Pink Floyd, some of the old stuff his parents listened to like Sinatra or Glenn Miller, or, better yet, the Chieftains were more his speed. He picked up one of the Beanies, Patriot Bear.

"Well, my friend, guess we'll soon be left behind," he said.

Leaning against the wall, he soaked in the view, the tranquility of the moment, broken only by the distant rumble of traffic on I-40 and the noise inside the house.

Ginger and Zach came back from their romp in the field behind the house and flopped down at his feet, panting hard.

The scent of lilacs was heavy on the air; if anyone wanted to truly see spring, they should live in these mountains. Down in the valley below, the cherry trees were in full bloom, just several hundred feet higher here at his home they were just beginning to blossom, but the lilacs were already blooming. To his right, ten miles away, the top of Mount Mitchell was actually crowned with a touch of snow, winter was still up there.

"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed . . ."

The scent always triggered in his mind Whitman's lament for Lincoln. It reminded John that to night, the second Tuesday of the month, was Civil War Roundtable night in the basement of the Methodist church. It'd be another fun round of the usual raucous debate, the other members all needling him as their one and only Yankee, whom they could pick on.

And then the phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, expecting it to be Elizabeth. There was going to be hell to pay if it was. How she could stand up her kid sister on her birthday to sneak off with that pimple- faced, horny, fast- handed Johnson kid . . .

But the area code was 703 . . . and John recognized the next three numbers . . . the Pentagon.

He opened the phone and clicked it on.

"Hey, Bob."

"John, how you doing? Where's my goddaughter?" He said it doing a halfway decent imitation of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone.

Bob Scales, now three stars, John's former boss at Carlisle and a damn good friend, had stood as Jennifer's godfather, and though Irish Catholic rather than Italian, he took the job seriously. He and his wife, Barbara, usually came down three or four times a year. When Mary died they had taken a couple of weeks off and stayed to help. They never had children and thus they considered Jennifer and Elizabeth to be their surrogates.

"Growing up," John said sadly. "Her grandmother gave her a gold necklace that must of cost a grand or more, which counted a helluva lot more than the Beanies, and the stack of Pokemon cards still waiting inside. I even got tickets to Disney World for once school lets out that I'll give her at dinner, but I wonder now if it will be the same."

"You mean when you took her there when she was six and Elizabeth ten? Hell, yeah, it will be different, but you'll still see the little girl come out down there, even with Elizabeth. How's Elizabeth doing, by the way?"

"I'm thinking of shooting her boyfriend later today."

Bob roared with laughter.

"Maybe it's best I didn't have daughters," Bob finally replied. "Sons, yeah . . ."

His voice trailed off for a moment.

"Hey, let me speak to Jennifer, OK?"

"Sure."

John walked into the house, shouting for Jennifer, who came dashing out of her bedroom, still wearing that damn necklace, and grabbed the phone.

"Hi, Uncle Bob!"

John tapped her on the shoulder.

"You take your insulin?" he asked.

She nodded her head; then chattering away, she walked around the house. John looked out the window across the valley to the mountains beyond. It was a beautiful, pristine spring day. And his mood began to lighten. Several of Jennifer's friends would be over soon for a small party. He'd cook up some burgers on the grill out on the side deck; the kids would then retreat to Jennifer's room. He had just opened the pool in the backyard over the weekend, and though the water was a chilly sixty-eight, a couple of the kids might jump in.

He'd flush them out around dark, go to his Roundtable meeting, and maybe later this eve ning he'd dig back into that article he was committed to for the Civil War Journal about Lee versus Grant as a strategic commander . . . a no- brainer but still an extra five hundred bucks when done and another vita builder for tenure review next year. He could stay up late; his first lecture wasn't until eleven in the morning tomorrow.

"Dad, Uncle Bob wants you!"

Jennifer came out of her bedroom, holding up the phone. John took it, gave her a quick peck on the top of her head and a playful swat as she ran back off. Seconds later the damn stereo in her room doubled in sound.

"Yeah, Bob?"

"John, I gotta run."

He could sense some tension in Bob's voice. He could hear some voices in the background . . . shouting. It was hard to tell, though; Jennifer's stereo was blaring.

"Sure, Bob. Will you be down next month?"

"Look, John, something's up. Got a problem here. I gotta—"

The phone went dead.

At that same instant, the ceiling fan began to slowly wind down, the stereo in Jennifer's room shut down, and looking over to his side alcove office he saw the computer screen saver disappear, the green light of the on button on the nineteen- inch monitor disappearing. There was a chirping beep, the signal that the home security and .re alarm system was off- line; then that went silent as well.

"Bob?"

Silence on the other end. John snapped the phone shut.

Damn, power failure.

"Dad?"

It was Jennifer.

"My CD player died."

"Yeah, honey." Thank God, he thought silently. "Power failure."

She looked at him, a bit crestfallen, as if he were somehow responsible or could snap his finger to make the CD player come back on. Actually, if he could permanently arrange for that damn player to die, he would be tempted to do it.

"What about my party? Pat just gave me a CD and I wanted to play it."

"No worry, sweetie. Let me call the power company. Most likely a blown transformer."

He picked up the landline phone . . . silence, no dial tone.

Last time that happened some drunk had rammed into a telephone pole down at the bottom of the hill and wiped everything out. The drunk of course had walked away from it.

Cell phone. John opened it back up, started to punch numbers . . . nothing.

Damn.

Cell phone was dead. He put it down on the kitchen table.

Puzzling. The battery in his phone must have gone out just as Bob clicked off. Hell, without electricity John couldn't charge it back up to call the power company.

He looked over at Jennifer, who stared at him expectantly, as if he would now resolve things.

"No problem at all, kid. They'll be on it, and besides, it's a beautiful day; you don't need to be listening to that garbage anyhow. Why can't you like Mozart or Debussy the way Pat here does?"

Pat looked at him uncomfortably and he realized he had committed one of the mortal sins of parenting; never compare your daughter to one of her buddies.

"Go on outside; give the dogs a run. They'll have the power back by dinnertime."

Excerpted from ONE SECOND AFTER by William R. Forstchen

Copyright © 2009 by William R. Forstchen

Published in March 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.