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Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
—Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”
LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MISSOURI
DARREN Brooks fumbled as he tried to slap the alarm clock into silence, knocking it off the nightstand. The two little bells on top of the clock, with a tiny clapper between them, slamming back and forth, continued to ring, its tinny sound nerve-jarring.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Darren, turn that damn thing off,” Darla moaned from the other side of the bed.
He leaned over, groped around. It must have slid under the bed.
“Okay, okay, I got it,” he mumbled, pulling back the heavy wool blankets and cursing softly as his feet hit the cold floor.
Getting down on his hands and knees, he reached under the bed and grabbed the annoying antique, jamming a finger between the clapper and bells to silence the little annoying monstrosity at last.
The switch—where was the damn switch? He poked around the back, feeling for the lever, then his finger slipped off the clapper and, though muffled, the damn thing rang again.
A memory hit of all those old cartoons where Elmer, Daffy, whomever, tormented by an alarm clock, just threw it out the window. He found the switch and flicked it down, and the devilish machine fell silent.
He was still tempted to throw it against the wall, but wisely decided to just put it back on the nightstand. Now half-awake, he stumbled to the bathroom and out of force of habit flicked the switch.
And of course, no lights came on.
“Damn. Power is still off.” He sighed.
“It’s freezing in here,” Darla said. “I kind of figured it’s down again.”
There was no need for lights to just relieve himself. At least the water supply was gravity fed from the town’s storage tank—that was, as long as they pumped it full while they had power, which had been on for several hours the previous evening. He scurried across the freezing-cold floor and scrambled back under the covers, Darla muttering an affectionate curse as he pressed his cold feet up against the backs of her legs, but then she sighed as he snuggled in closer. She stood not much more than five foot two at a 110 pounds or so, and he was more than double her weight, six foot four, and bearlike. He wrapped his arms around her, the two nuzzling closer for a moment.
“Don’t fall back to sleep,” she whispered.
“Yeah, I know.”
Absolutely content with life at that moment, he held her tight, kissing her on the back of the neck.
“You need a shave.” She laughed softly as he rubbed his chin stubble against her upper back, a hint of a seductive note in her laughter.
“No, stop it,” she finally said. “You’ve got to go to work.”
“Later, then,” he whispered into her ear.
“Promises, promises,” was her sleepy reply as she pulled the heavy blankets back over her shoulder as he drew away, turned, and put his feet on the still-icy floor. He fumbled in the dark for his slippers, put them on, picked up his heavy bathrobe from the corner of the bed, and trekked out to the living room. The fire was still going. He opened the glass doors, fed in several more logs, closed the doors after opening the flue wider, then went into the kitchen, turning on the battery-powered lamp he had rigged up to the kitchen chandelier.
For southern Missouri in December, it was damn cold, well below freezing outside, frost glistening on the deck railings and on the cover of the hot tub, which they had shut down and drained three weeks earlier when the problems had started.
Always efficient and thinking ahead, Darla had set out the night before, a two-pound can of coffee and an old-fashioned percolator that had been stored in what they called their “prepper stash,” down in the basement. Filling up the pot with water, Darren now spooned coffee into the basket to be placed at the top of the percolator, put the lid on, and turned on the kitchen stove. At least that still worked because it was propane. They used to have a tank topped off with five hundred gallons of the stuff, but in the weeks after power had gone on the blink, they had been far too profligate in burning it up with their home generator to power and heat their four thousand–square-foot house, figuring the grid would be back up soon enough. Once things got back to normal, they’d just order up a propane truck to come out and fill them back up again. But things had not come back to normal, and they realized they might be in for a long haul with a cold winter, and the fifty gallons left should be hoarded only for cooking. The woodstove could provide sufficient heat for the living room and kitchen area, and at least they could cook indoors, unlike more than a few neighbors who on cold evenings stood shivering outside, cooking on their barbecues.
In the last few days, Darla had even passed out nine buckets of freeze-dried food from their emergency supply to neighbors who were coming up short, each bucket with enough food to keep a family of four going for a month. They had always factored in a thought regarding their neighbors and friends in a time of crisis—that was just part of their nature—but they could only give out a few more one-month buckets of food before having to think about their own long-term needs. Surely, though, they both hoped the damage to the power grid and overall infrastructure of the region from the solar storm of three weeks past would be repaired and life would soon return to some semblance of normalcy.
Neither of them wanted to think about the grim mathematics of what might happen to their emergency food supply if things still were not repaired a couple of months from now, especially given the reports, starting yesterday, that another solar event might be brewing.
The water in the coffeepot heated up, and there was the first hissing pop as it began percolating. Darren loved the sound of it. It reminded him of his grandmother’s home, a small farmstead, as if from another age, up in the back hills of the Ozarks. The soothing nostalgia-inducing sound from the coffeepot grew louder, the dark brew splashing up against the small clear glass globe atop the pot. When he spent weekends at his grandparents’ house, Darren always got the job of watching the pot until the coffee was jet-black, and they would then let him have a few warming sips, heavily laced with fresh cream from their cow tethered in the barn. The advent of the Mr. Coffee machines and then the little K-Cups had, in nearly all homes, resulted in relegating a percolator coffeepot to the basement or the trash pile. Buying one for use in an emergency had been one of many smart moves that were now paying off. And besides, he loved the sound of it, and somehow—maybe it was just psychosomatic—the coffee did seem to taste better.
He went back into the living room, taking in the vista offered by the two-story-high glass windows of their home. Their house, a log cabin of contemporary design, was situated atop a high ridge rising nearly two hundred feet above the Lake of the Ozarks. It faced southeast and at this time of year provided a perfect viewing point for the sunrise, which was beginning to unfold, the deeper indigos giving way to scarlet and brilliant shades of pink.
Darla shuffled out, bundled up in her oversized, rather funny-looking camouflage-pattern bathrobe with matching slippers—a Christmas present from him last year—went into the kitchen, pulled down two cups from the cabinet, and poured out their hot coffee, plain black, fresh cream no longer available.
She then shuffled into the living room, handed him one of the cups, and put her arm around his waist.
“Love you, Bear.”
Bear, her affectionate nickname for him, pronounced on their first date when at her door he asked permission to kiss her good night, and she of course agreed. He effortlessly lifted her a foot off the ground, wrapped in his massive embrace, and gave her a good-night kiss that convinced her on the spot that though still gun-shy from her divorce, she would not let this one get away.
“Wish you’d quit that damn job,” she announced. “We don’t need the money anymore now that we’ve sold our business, and you know it. Perfect morning to watch the sunrise, throw some more wood on the fire, and then back to bed.”
The way she said “back to bed” had a suggestive tone in it that made him hug her in closer.
She had been saying it nearly every morning of late, especially when what everyone was now calling “the Big Storm” had hit several weeks earlier. It had become a demarcation point, a dividing line between “before” and “after.” The before time was one of ease and luxury. After had been a wake-up call as to just how dependent all were upon limitless electricity, always available at the flick of a switch, a world with a global connection to friends, family, entertainment carried in the palm of a hand. All of that now limited at best in the southern tier of states, and according to the occasional news reports they could monitor, still entirely off-line farther north, where the impact of the solar storm had been more intense. The refrain punctuating most conversations now: “Once things are back to normal, we’ll…” But after three weeks that increasingly seemed like a fabled promised land that surely must return soon. Surely the ever-mentioned “they” had to get things back in order by the end of the year.
He sipped his coffee and looked down at her snuggled in by his side.
“Oh, come on. I was getting bored not doing anything. And, sweetheart, I’d drive you crazy within a month just hanging around here, and you know it. Besides, the benefits package is good—free medical insurance; you can’t sniff at that—and it keeps me out of your hair.”
“Still, given how things are now, especially over the next few days if that next storm hits, at least think about it. Okay? If things get worse, I want you here.”
He didn’t reply. It was ironic in a way to hear her concern. There was a touch of role reversal in their marriage. The military, police work, or security had been part of his life since high school. But Darla? Beyond her very feminine, petite exterior was someone with indeed a unique background. Definitely a tomboy raised by a single father who owned a gun-customizing business, she had taken it over in her early twenties after his passing and turned it into a thriving enterprise of providing customized weapons for the nation’s elite military units. So her appeal was not one of a nervous at-home wife feeling a need for her bear of a husband to be a protector. If anything, she was the one providing protection around this house and was deadly efficient with a multitude of weapons that her family business had manufactured until the sale of that firm a year ago. He found it amusing to say that if ever there were a situation that hit the fan, he’d be the backup for Darla.
Quitting his job, especially now, struck him as an act of cowardice, which was never part of his playbook. He had a job that he could not just walk away from now.
The sun was just breaking the horizon, usually a favorite moment for him of watching the long shadows interspersed with red and golden streaks of light spread across the lake.
At times, though, this moment still made him think of how different it was from sunrise out on the ugly flatland deserts of Iraq. That glaring orb rising and within minutes the temperature soaring from a comfortable chill to another day of hundred-degree heat.
He squinted, staring straight at the sun as it climbed above the pine trees rimming the ridge on the far side of the lake.
It didn’t look any different. Some people claimed that right at sunrise you could stare at it for a moment and see the spots, the building eruptions. He couldn’t, and he finally turned away, blinking, spots dancing in his vision from having stared at the sun too long.
“Drink your coffee and get out of here,” Darla chided him. “Bad example the head of security being late.”
He drained his cup, handed it back to her, and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead.
He glanced at the sun again, squinting, but it still didn’t look any different. But it was different. Just before going to bed shortly after midnight, they had listened to a BBC broadcast on a battery-powered shortwave radio and heard that another CME had exploded from the sun’s surface, perhaps more powerful than the December 1 incident, and would strike Earth in less than three days.
Something was indeed going wrong, and holding Darla close, he felt a vague fear of what was to come.
Copyright © 2018 by William R. Forstchen