“Departure” by Richard Helmling

On the first day, the sky went out.

Davis had trouble remembering what they’d been doing when the noise started. Whatever it had been, they had carried on unperturbed.

When the lights, television, and air conditioning gave out with the power, though, they all rose and looked about. Hannah pried open the blinds with two fingertips coated in orange acrylic and said, “I can’t see anything.”

They could hear it, though. Without all the background noise of whirring motors and vibrating speakers, the rumbling sound of the wind seemed overpowering.

Davis went to the front door and pulled it open. He was struck by how suddenly the world simply was not there, the cracked cement walkway leading down to the street and the usual band of blue with wispy whitish accents replaced by a featureless brown howling.

“Some storm,” he said, forcing the door shut against the pressure of the wind. A fine dust had coated the entryway in the few seconds he’d left it open.

“Guess there’s no Olive Garden for lunch,” Marcy said.

“Why not?” Hannah whined.

“We’re not going out in that,” her mother told her. “Besides, their lights might have gone out, too.”

“I was looking forward to those breadsticks,” Davis said. “I’ll call them, see if they’re open.”

But there was no signal on the phone either.

“Huh,” he grunted. “The cell phone towers are out, too.” Hannah exhaled a noisy puff of disgust and went to her room. “Some storm,” he repeated.

For dinner, they ate cereal by candlelight, muttering their hopes that the power would come back soon so the rest of the milk wouldn’t spoil. With nothing but the wind and dark to occupy their senses, they turned in early. Marcy and Davis made love quietly and then lay still for two hours hoping to hear the hum of electricity returning to the house.

Hannah played games on her cell phone until the battery died.

In the morning, the brown haze had been replaced by gray. When Davis opened the door again, the wind snapped at him and soaked his shirt almost immediately. He still couldn’t see anything beyond the basic outline of their front porch as he pushed the door closed again.

Marcy brought him a towel.

He sat down in the living room, watching the sheets of water wash over the slits of window showing through the blinds.

At breakfast they went through the fridge, now nearing luke-warmth, and used up as many perishables as possible. They laughed about the combinations. Ketchup and eggs and cheese and yogurt and a glass of orange juice and milk for each of them. The sodas they left alone, but Davis joked that they had to use up the horse radish.

“At least we’ve still got the gas,” Marcy remarked while scrambling the eggs over the top burners.

For dinner Davis would figure out how to light the oven without the digital controls and they would use up a store-bought lasagna that was still unspoiled in the freezer. Throughout the day, the three of them sat around in the living room telling stories. Hannah reenacted everything she could remember from their vacation to Costa Rica when she was eleven. Though they remembered it as clearly as she did, her parents just smiled and nodded and laughed at all the right places.

Next, Davis told the story of setting up a picnic for Marcy just outside the university computer lab as a surprise for her while she’d been working late on her master’s thesis.

Marcy, though, got Hannah in stitches telling her about Davis’s brush with the swine flu–which turned out to be just low-level food poisoning. “He said, ‘Honey, if I don’t make it, don’t remarry until Hannah’s in high school, okay?’” Marcy chortled. Davis bobbed his head good-naturedly.

The next morning, nothing had cleared up. There was still no world outside.

“Should we try to drive to work?”

“We can’t see three feet,” Davis said, shaking his head.

“But we can’t call in either.”

“They’ll know. Half the city must be stranded.”

“I told you we should have kept a land-line. It would’ve still worked even without the power.”

“For thirty bucks a month? How often is something like this going to happen?”

She shook her head as he closed the blinds.

Davis dug out some books he’d had boxed up in the garage and pushed the couch closer to the window to get enough light to read. He looked up twenty pages later and caught Hannah sweeping the floor.

“What’re you doing?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’m bored.” She kept sweeping.

The leaks started that night. Every few minutes, one or all of them would leap up and chase the sound of a drip in the dark, damming it with tupperware and dirty towels.

By morning, most of the bulwarks had held, but Hannah was eager to mop up the areas where buckets had overflowed or towels had given up under the weight of super saturation. They kept rotating and dumping most of the day.

That night, Davis and Marcy curled together in bed. They told each other the storm would have to break. It couldn’t go on much longer. These whispers soothed them as they drifted off to sleep, only to wake at three in the morning (Davis checked the one wrist watch in the house) when they heard a crashing noise outside. After the sudden explosion of metal ripping into metal, a car alarm roared above the trembling sound of the wind beating against the side of the house.

Davis went downstairs, shirtless in flannel pants and opened the front door. He could hear the alarm more clearly and as the wind buffeted him with wet fists he thought he could make out a pulse of orange light behind the wall of gray outside the door. He shone his flashlight into the mist. No shapes emerged. He reached his foot to step beyond the threshold, but suddenly, as if in warning, the wind gusted and forced him back.

He closed the door on the sound of the car.

By morning the noise was gone.

They tended again to the intruding water, let the rotation of pots and pans structure their day. When the light gave out, they had a meal by candlelight. Hannah complained about the offerings: cans of corn and beans and some Ritz crackers.

The next morning they noticed that the water coming out of the faucets was growing more and more brown. By late afternoon, it was almost sludge. Davis cut the water to the toilets and they began using the rainwater to fill the bowls.

“We’ve got water,” he told them.

“You want us to drink what’s coming through the roof?”

“We’ve got water,” he said again.

That night, Hannah did not complain: more cans of corn and beans. The Ritz were gone, but they had a dessert of four Chips Ahoy cookies.

He misplaced the watch. The three of them looked around, overturning sopping towels and shuffling around picture frames and knick knacks to move their shadows. With the house so dark and the batteries on the flashlights failing, they abandoned the search.

He read to them the mornings after that. He picked a yellowed copy of Ender’s Game to begin.

“I loved this book when I was a kid,” he told them.

He was amazed when, sometime in what must have been the next afternoon, he closed the book on the last chapter.

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole book in two days before in my life.”

“And out loud, too,” Marcy said warmly.

“Can I go next?” Hannah asked.

They began sleeping in the living room, Marcy and Davis bundled together on the couch, Hannah’s feet dangling off the edge of the love seat. They tended to the water invading the house, following an unofficial but increasingly efficient routine, and they read and talked together in the den.

As the light began to fail after Marcy had gotten forty pages into Little Women, Davis took one of the remaining candles into the kitchen and swept its orange glow back and forth across the open cabinet doors. He sighed to himself and rejoined the others in the living room.

Once he heard Hannah’s breathing slip into long, steady sighs, he whispered to Marcy, “We’ll have to do something. There’s no food left.”

“We’ll ration what’s left.”

“We’ve been doing that,” he told her, gripping her upper arm firmly. “There’s nothing left.”

“There’s some.”

“Better now, before we’re weak with hunger.”

She wrapped her fingers around his and said nothing more.

In the morning, before Hannah stirred, he quietly fished out his winter coat from the hall closet and found his racquetball goggles in his duffle bag. Still wrapped in blankets on the couch, Marcy shook her head at him. He shrugged in reply and turned.

He walked to the front door and placed his hand on the knob.

It felt cold, colder than he’d expected.

The door came open easily, blown inward by the unrelenting wind. He pulled the goggles over his eyes and wiped the rain off his lips. He took two moon-landing steps into the gray outside and squinted, still unable to see anything.

He reached back and grasped the doorknob from the other side.

With a heave, he pulled it shut behind him.


Richard Helmling is a teacher and writer living and working in El Paso, Texas. His work has been featured in Corner Club Press, Black Heart Magazine, Arsenic Lobster, the Rio Grande Review, The Drabble, and Fiction Brigade. Visit him at www.helmling.com.

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

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