Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The Unit" by Mike Lynch








Little Billy came flying down the stairs. "Has it come on yet?" he asked, his animated demeanor equally matched by the hopeful tone in his voice.

         Still exhausted from another restless night of sleep, Sam rubbed his eyes before he threw a glance at the unit. "No, not yet...if it ever does."

         His nephew brushed back a clump of hair that had fallen over his eyes. "Oh, okay.” He shrugged his shoulders and trudged back up the stairs, darkness slowly encompassing him like a malevolent creature sliding its long, sinewy fingers around its prey.

      Billy's father pushed back from the kitchen table and threw down his napkin. "I don't know why you can't be more encouraging to the boy; you're his uncle for goodness sake. There isn't much for him to look forward to. You could at least offer him a little encouragement."

      Another argument with his brother was the last thing Sam wanted. "Look, Jake, you know I don't put much stock in rumors. Everybody I talk to says it's going to be soon, but what do they know? It's always a friend of a friend who knows when it's going to happen."

      "Wasn't losing his mother enough, or do you feel it's your duty to add to the boy's misery?" He picked up his crumpled napkin and set it again in his lap. "There’s still a little thing called hope you know."

      A small shaft of light slipped through a narrow gap between the curtains, giving the darkened room the barest of illumination.

      "Is it sunrise already?" Jake picked up his glass of water and downed it in one gulp. "I swear, morning is coming earlier each day."

      "Of course it is.  You know how the scientists have told us we're down to about four hours of darkness a day.  Even then it's more of a twilight glow."

      Billy's father let out a sigh. "Soon there won't be any night at all, if things keep going the way they are."

      "If only we were that lucky."

      “Yeah, if only,” Jake said under his breath. He picked up the last cracker from his plate, but stopped just before he took a bite. "A necktie? Not hot enough for you? You have to go around wearing something that makes you feel hotter." He grabbed his t-shirt and gave it a tug. "It's four in the morning and I'm already burning up."

      Sam knew all too well how things were, but that didn’t make the situation any easier. In fact, their relationship had deteriorated the last few weeks—just waiting around for the inevitable to happen. It made people squabble over the most inconsequential things. "I thought I might go into work today. You know me, I’m not much for sitting around the house. If I'm doing something productive, then I can at least get my mind off...you know."

      Jake let out a laugh of contempt. "Work? What's the point of that?"

      It was like trying to have a conversation with a brick wall. His brother had always been the impetuous one. Once his mind had been made up about something, no one or nothing could ever change it. And he was too tired to try. Sam picked up his briefcase and started for the door.

      "When are you going to stop blaming yourself for what happened?" his brother asked.

      Sam stopped dead in his tracks.

      "The doctors said there was nothing you could have done for Jenny. Can’t you get that through your thick head?"

      "Couldn't I?" Sam drew in a long, painful breath. "I could have tried harder to save her."

      A soft hand rested on Sam's shoulder. "The paramedics said the CPR you administered was nothing less than heroic, but when a person suffers a major heart attack—"

      Sam jerked away. Even though he only stood inches away from his brother, it felt more like a mile. "Don't you get it? You didn't see that look in her eyes. For one fleeting instant, Jenny was there, and then she was gone. How do you explain to a ten year-old boy that his mother...?" The rest of what he wanted to say became lodged in his throat. “Why does God always take the good ones?”

      "All this self-recrimination is doing nothing but killing you a little each day." He paused a moment. "I'm probably the last person who should be telling you this. After all, you and I have had our ups and downs over the years, but you need to forgive yourself. Believe me, I know what it's like carrying the things you wish you could change from the past strapped to your back. You can't change the past, but there is someone who can help you let it go."

      This time it was Sam who let out a laugh of contempt. "What's done is done, and as for change, all the things Jenny told me about sacrificial love and forgiveness—they all died with her."

      "You're wrong about that, and if you don't realize it soon, it could be too late."

      Sam grabbed his hat hanging on a hook by the door. "Tell Billy I’ll be home around one."

      A raging inferno met him the instant he stepped onto the porch. Sidewalks, cars, streets, anything and everything that lay exposed for any length of time faced the murderous fireball of light set high in the sky. He wondered just how long their house could last under the relentless pounding of the sun's rays day after day. No matter, he thought, and donned his wide-brimmed hat, setting it low over his eyes.

      Sam eyed car after car parked haphazardly on the street. Even though the office where he worked was only a mile away, the trip would be much more pleasant if he could have driven. He smiled at the thought. It had been months since he had seen a car going anywhere, let alone on his street. What he wouldn't give for bumper-to-bumper traffic right now.

      "Hey, wait up!" a voice called from behind.

      Sam turned and watched Billy run up to him, his backpack in tow.

      "You shouldn't be out here on your own," he scolded his nephew, then gave him a pat on the shoulder.

      "I know," Billy said between winded breaths, "but I didn't want to be late for school. Dad, well he's kinda busy right now."

      "Uh huh." Sam pulled Billy's hat over his ears. "So do they still have school?"

      "Sometimes. If enough kids show up."

      The two of them started up the street together.

      "I admire those teachers of yours. Despite all that's taken place, they're still in their classrooms in case students show up to learn."

      Billy lifted his head towards the sky. "Do you think they'll turn on the unit anytime soon?"

      Sam looked down at his nephew and considered how he could answer that all important of questions. Someone that young could only see the obvious benefit of what the unit going on meant, but did he truly understand what the significance of it really was? "No one really knows, but it will happen sooner or later. That's what the scientists tell us anyway...and the politicians."

      "I wish it were today. It's always so hot." He looked up at the sky a second time. "My dad said there used to be clouds up there, and rain. In the winter, we'd have snow. Have you ever seen snow?"

      Sam's thoughts flashed back to his youth, to those times when he and his brother had snowball fights, and duels with icicles that had formed on the eaves of their house.

      "Now it's daytime most of the time, and the sky is always red. It feels even hotter today than yesterday." Billy wiped a thin layer of sweat from his brow. "I wish the unit would go on. It sure would feel good. And right after that, I'll be with my mother again. Won't it be nice with all of us in heaven together, Uncle Sammy?"

      All of us, he wondered. Was that even possible? "I know your mother believed such things."

      The earnestness that rested on Billy's lips spread to the rest of his face. "It's not hard. All you have to do is believe."

      "This is your street," Sam said abruptly. He looked down the hill and observed several boys heading towards Cochrane Elementary School. "Looks like they'll be having class today. That should occupy your time for a while."

      "Okay, Uncle Sammy. I'll see you later." Billy waved goodbye and darted off to his friends.

      A little further on, Sam made his way past shops and mini-marts that had been shuttered for months. A waste of money, he thought. A soft laugh pushed out of him. What did it matter? If the owners wanted to protect their property against looters or the elements, that was their prerogative.

      He stopped and peered into The Blue Parrot. Even through dirty windows he could make out the juke box in the far corner and the dance floor next to it that witnessed every dance craze of the past fifty years. Today, it was a relic of the past, a silent sentinel of all the good times gone by.

      Sam caught himself. With the little time he had left he didn't want to squander it reminiscing about the past. He spun around and headed for the Bailey Brothers Insurance Company building across the street.  A pair of hinges offered muted creaks as he pushed the front door open. A quick slam generated a momentary displacement of air, but it dissipated just as quickly as it had been created.

      "That you, Sam?" a familiar voice called from the back. Standing 6’4” and a pair of broad shoulders to match, Chick Larsen came out with a washcloth draped over his head, a look of acceptance swathed across his cheeks. "Looks like you didn't stay home today either."

      Sam's eyebrows arched as he parked himself behind his desk. Throwing a long hard look out the window, both sets of springs squeaked loudly when he sat back in his chair. "Anyone been in today?"

      Letting out a forced sigh, Chick threw the washcloth onto his desk. "You already know the answer to that." He plopped himself into his chair and jerked the bottom drawer open. A bottle of Hennessy's rolled into the view, clanking loudly when it banged against the side of the drawer. "You want a slug?"

      "Naw, not at four-thirty in the morning. That's a little early for me."

      "Four-thirty, six-thirty, ten-thirty—what's the difference? In my book it's the middle of the day, and the one thing we need right now is a drink. We should enjoy what few pleasures we have left, for tomorrow we—"

      "Die," Sam finished for him.

      Chick poured himself a drink and downed it in one gulp. "Here's to dying," he said with a grin, and poured himself another.

      Sam rose from his seat and went over to the window. "In the beginning, when this whole thing started, dozens of people came here every day, making one kind of claim or another. Some we knew were lies, others were legit. In the end, we pretty much approved them all." He turned back and took in his friend’s distant gaze. There was a time when Chick never let the setbacks of life get him down. These days, he saw that same hopeless expression on his partner’s face with greater frequency.

      "Not many people are around much anymore.”

      "You know most of them have gone north,” Sam added after some thought. “Not as hot there, or so they say."

      "I'd give anything for a glass of ice-cold water right now."

      "If the politicians keep their promise, you may just get that glass of ice water." Sam caught sight of the unit in the corner of the office. He could almost imagine the cool liquid going down his throat one satisfying gulp at a time.

      Chick just sat there, the same solemn expression as before. After several moments, he pushed out of his chair and went over to the window. "Though there isn't much money left in the safe, it sure would be nice to help out a client. Don't know what he'd buy with it but the thought of giving someone a little help, even for a while, makes being here worthwhile."

       "Whatever hope I had about the future ran out a long time ago, long before we found out about the sun. No matter how hard you try, you can't go back and change what's been." Sam thought about the conversation he had with his brother. "It's kind of ironic. Doesn't matter where you go, it's nothing but dead ends. If only there was a way of undoing the past." He turned towards his partner. "Didn't see myself spending my twilight years living in a rotisserie oven."

      The sounds of hearty laughter erupted in the office.

      "It feels good to laugh like that. It's been too long."

      "Well, then. That calls for another drink." Chick scooted over to his desk and poured the amber-colored liquid into his glass, this time to the brim. Several sips later, he polished off the rest of his drink with a single tilt of the head. "Can't think of a better way to get through the day."

      Sam’s mood turned somber, and he checked the time. If his watch was right, it was four thirty-seven. Was this how he wanted to spend his day, watch his partner get drunk and complain about everything wrong with the world? That's not what got him out of the house. Though it may not have promised much, doing some office work at least offered him a respite from the drudgery that faced him at home. "I think I'll finish alphabetizing the files."

      "Suit yourself." Chick tipped his glass in Sam's direction and polished off the last little bit of cognac still clinging to the bottom.

      As night turned into morning, temperatures rose to the point of making the office unbearable. Even with the doors and windows open, barely a breeze could be felt. Sam ignored the sweat dripping down his face and organized last year's claims as he put them in their respective folders, every movement like a hot weight pressing on him.

      Once the organizational part of his day had been completed, he took out a dirty rag from the closet and went after a cluster of cobwebs in the window corners. It would have been an easier job if he had the benefit of water, but what little they had left was kept locked in the basement, too precious a commodity to waste on dirty windows.

      Chick, on the other hand, sat at his desk and watched him the entire time without a word said. Sam had tried guessing what might be going on behind those listless eyes; perhaps he hoped a customer would grace their modest establishment one last time, or that a miraculous gust of wind might bring a momentary relief from the heat. Whatever his thoughts, he kept them to himself.

      Without any warning, Chick rose to his feet and grabbed his briefcase. "I think I'm done for the day. Doesn't look like anyone will be coming in...now or ever."

      Sam wiped off a thick layer of sweat from his forehead. Though his partner's sudden announcement came as something of a surprise to him, he masked his reaction. "Come on, you can't go. A customer could still show up. It's only twelve."

      "Twelve o'clock." Chick shot a glance at his watch. "I didn't realize it was that late. That big red ball in the sky barely moves anymore. It just sits up there, burning everything away. I think we're all done."

      "Hopefully not overdone." Sam's weak attempt at humor didn’t have the impact he expected.

      "Nice try." Chick thrust out his hand. "It's been a pleasure knowing you. We've had some good times together."

      Sam took hold of his friend's hand and grabbed it tight. "Are you sure I can't change your mind?"

      Chick pressed both lips together and shook his head.

      "Well, if you ever need a loan for home improvement or maybe a little extra cash for a trip to the Bahamas, you know where to find me."

      A broad smile blossomed on Chick's face before he headed out the door like a man on a mission. "Man, it's hot," he said to no one in particular. "Hotter than I think it's ever been."

      The office suddenly felt empty. Too big for one person, that was for sure. Sam went over to the safe and pulled out every last bill. Cramming them into his pocket, he found his hat and slipped it on. This time, he didn't bother to lock up.

      A store sign appeared through a thick haze of smog a half a block from the office. The crimson hue gave his surroundings a maudlin feel. No more striking colors to grace the palette; long gone were the greens and blues that once encompassed his surroundings. How he missed them. No matter. He probably wouldn't have to put up with the deprivations of life much longer anyway.

      Sam crossed the street and hurried over to Ernie's, anything that would get him out from under the blistering sun a little quicker. He jerked open the front door and stepped into the shadowy remnants of what had once been a bustling grocery store. Today, most of the shelves lay barren, a thin layer of dust a testament of that fact. A pair of large black flies buzzed passed him as he made his way to the back of the store.

      Manning the post he had held for over twenty years, Ernie sat in his office beside the deli counter. Sam's attention drifted towards the display. A small hunk of ham was just what he needed, if only there was a piece to be had, or a slice of roast beef, or turkey for that matter. How he missed the satisfying taste of meat.

      "You're a little early today," Ernie said in his distinctive New York accent. He teased the edges of his handlebar mustache between his index finger and thumb. "It's not even half past twelve."

      "Yeah. Thought I'd call it a day." Sam brushed past an empty magazine rack. "It's been days since a client came into the office. I don't think there's anyone left to come in."

      Sam caught a sparkle in the old man's eyes, something he hadn't seen in a long time.

      "I thought you showed up because you heard about today’s delivery."

      "I know, it's Tuesday. Canned vegetables day." He scanned the office behind Ernie. "So what do you have for me this time? Kidney or lima beans?"

      The edges of Ernie's mouth pushed upward, forming something of a smile. "Not today," he said.

      Sam pulled out a few bills, stared at them, and then shoved them back into his pocket. "I guess it was a wasted trip then. We all knew the government warehouse would run out of emergency supplies sooner or later."

      "You couldn't be more right and wrong at the same time if you tried."

      The heat must have finally got to the old man. "Look, Ernie. Maybe you should close up, lie down for a while."

      He bounded to his feet and threw his arm around Sam's shoulder. "We'll all be going out feet first soon enough, but between now and then we should at least enjoy ourselves."

      "What are you talking about? Enjoy what?"

      "This!" He jerked his oversized chair out of the way and pointed at a brown, rectangular-shaped box. Stamped on one side, four red letters said as succinctly as possible: BEEF.

      Sam swallowed hard. "Beef?" Their eyes met. "Where did you get that?"

      "Came in about an hour ago," Ernie said, his voice brimming with pride, "with the other deliveries."

      "You mean there's more?" Sam thought long and hard, but he couldn't imagine anything better than beef.

      "Uh huh. Vegetables. Not the kind you find in a can, but real vegetables, like freshly grown corn. And fruit. Bananas, mangos, nectarines. Even a loaf of bread."

      Fruit? He was wrong. That topped beef. "But how is this possible? Unless you know something different, every farm in five counties went bust when the lakes and reservoirs dried up. Then there's the tractors for harvesting. Engines need gasoline, and all the oil reserves were used up in a wasted effort to keep the air conditioners running." Sam pointed at the unit wedged into a makeshift window frame.

      "Seems as though everyone's assessment of the situation wasn't as dire as first believed."

      "I know, but all this?" Sam scrutinized the box of beef, and then turned towards the unit. "Or something else is going on."  Without a moment's hesitation, he hurried over to the air conditioner and grabbed the "on" switch, but suddenly found himself paralyzed. If what he feared happened did happen, the life of every single person on the face of the earth had just taken a terrible turn. Drawing in a deep breath, he closed his eyes and finally flipped the switch.

      After several tense moments, a gentle hum rose up from the long dormant motor, followed by a steady stream of cold air blowing through slatted vents.

      Both men looked at each other, and then back at the unit.

      "If there's power for this that must mean..." Sam reached into his pocket and pulled out the clump of bills. "How much for everything in today's delivery?"

      A look of acceptance settled into the old man's features. "We're having a special—all fruits and vegetables are half off. Let's say $5000 for the whole lot."

      Sam spread out the bills in his hand. "Looks like I'm a little short. I only have $4400."

      "You can owe me the rest," he said, followed by a broad grin.

      "You've been a good friend, Ernie." There was more Sam wanted to say, things he should have said years ago, but they became relegated to the realm of the unspoken the moment that air conditioner snapped on. The one and only thought on his mind was getting home to his family before it was too late.

      Ernie threw everything into a box and handed it over with a smile. "I hope this is the best meal you've ever had."

      Sam nodded and then hurried out of the store.

      Darting onto his porch faster than he anticipated, he crashed through the front door, the box of food nestled close to his chest. Inside, a blast of cool air wrapped tight around his face and arms. He basked in the sensation before catching sight of Billy standing in front of the air conditioner.

      "I knew the unit would come on today," he said, his eyes beaming. "I just knew it."

      Sam set the box on the kitchen table. "Looks like you were right."

      "You know what this means, don't you?"

      The answer could not have been more obvious, but Sam couldn't bring himself to say it.

      "It's all gonna be over soon. The heat, everybody going away. We're going to be in heaven, where bad things won't ever happen again."

      Sam studied Billy's face. His mother had taught him about God and the Bible, saying the two of them would meet in heaven one day, and he clung to that hope like his life depended on it. It was so easy for a child to believe, at least it seemed that way to Sam. For those who witnessed the innocent get victimized again and again...or watched good people die, believing came much harder.

      "I guess you know what's coming," a voice said from behind.

      Sam turned back and acknowledged his brother standing in the doorway. "How long?"

      "An hour, maybe a little longer. When the air conditioner came on, I tried the radio. It was hard hearing the announcer through all the static, but he said a number of observatories have recorded a steady increase in solar activity for the past two weeks, which has accounted for the recent rise in temperatures. But…" His gaze slipped downward.

      "But what, Jake?"

      "Their instruments detected a class ten eruption on the surface of the sun about twenty minutes ago."

      Sam slowly exhaled. "Well, that's it then. A flare up of that magnitude will fry everything.” He placed his hand on the box of groceries. “A fitting end to the human race, don't you think? The victims of a once nurturing sun now transformed into a lethal red giant."

      A sullen expression edged into Jake’s features, and his face lost some of its fight. “Maybe now would be a good time to bury the hatchet.”

      The long-running feud between him and his brother had defined them for so long, Sam couldn't remember the last time they had spent time together as brothers. Perhaps now was as good a time as any he did something about that. “Agreed. With the end practically at our doorstep—”

      "But this doesn't have to be the end for us, Uncle Sammy," Billy interrupted. "Like my mother said, if you believe what the Bible says, how Jesus made all the bad things we've done go away, we can go to heaven when we die. Don't you believe that?"

      Sam turned and set his gaze on the unit. He wanted to believe, but he couldn't bring himself to accept all the mistakes of the past could be washed away by a simple profession of faith. "We may not have long, but at least we'll go out comfortable. We have a nice cool house and a wonderful meal that awaits us, compliments of our government."

      Billy’s father picked up the box and held it in front of him. "I'll fire up the barbeque and throw those pieces of meat on the grill. Why don't you two take care of the rest?"

       Sam took out the crystal and china, compliments of Billy's mother. Without exception, Jenny enjoyed having dinner parties whenever possible, and made sure her guests were served with the very best. He remembered how she always looked after the needs of others, something she said was an extension of her faith. Seldom had he come across a person who truly loved others just for who they were, and he respected her for that. After all that had happened was it possible he could have the same thing in his life?

      The smell of cooked beef wafted in from outside, creating a heavenly aroma in the dining room. Moments later, Jake brought in a sizzling plate of tri-tip in one hand, a bottle of wine he had been saving in the other.

      "Lunch is served." He cut three equal-sized portions and placed them on the plates before three pairs of hungry eyes. Billy's father spun around and went outside again, this time returning with a plate of steaming corn. "And to compliment the meal."

      When he took his place at the table, all three of them looked at one another in stony silence, as though no one could bring himself to spoil the moment. Billy's impatience finally got the better of him and he planted his fork into the meat on his plate and cut off a small piece. A broad grin blossomed on his face after he slipped the tasty morsel into his mouth.

      At that the other two dug into the feast before them. First went the tri-tip, then the loaf of bread, followed by the corn, bananas, and nectarines, all of them disappearing in short order.

      Jake downed the last of the wine in his glass. "I think this was the best meal I've ever had," he said after letting out a belch. "A fitting way to say goodbye."

      A lengthy pause followed before Billy pushed back on his chair and ran outside.

      "Billy, wait!" Sam called out, and then hurried after him.

      "I think I see it," he said, pointing up.

      Sam held up his hand and did his best to block out the red sun covering half the sky. A short distance from the edges, a circular ring of white pushed outwards into space. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the potent eruption of charged particles slammed into the earth.

      "Isn't it beautiful," Billy declared. "It's like Mommy sent it to bring me home to her."

      Jake knelt down next to his son and placed his arm on his shoulder. "Yes, we'll both be seeing her soon."

      Sam kept his gaze fixed on the growing circle of white.

      "Uncle Sammy, God can forgive you like he did me and dad. All you have to do is ask."

      "I...I." The words lodged in his throat. All he had done in his life came crashing into his thoughts. Image after image burned in his mind, convicting him, like how he turned his back on the church as a boy, or how he had neglected his family over the years in the empty pursuit of making money...Billy's mother. Could God forgive someone who had rejected Him and lived a selfish life? Jenny said that was what God had done for her, but...

      Sam felt a gentle tug on his hand.

      "God knows," Billy said in a way that conveyed He truly did know, "and it's okay."

      Getting down on one knee, Sam stared deep into Billy's eyes. The hope and assurance he had embraced for his ten short years pierced Sam’s heart. Then, as though someone had opened his mind, a verse his mother often quoted when she tucked him into bed pushed into the forefront of his thoughts.

      "Permit the children to come to Me...for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

      Sam looked up and said in a whisper. "I believe."

      All at once, the circle of white enveloped him.

      "Enter into the joy of the Savior."

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