The phone rang for the eighth time, distant and tinny. Jenny twisted the cord around her right index finger, trying to look casual, and didn't meet the mechanic's eye. Not that that was hard, since his gaze was definitely drifting southward. Come on, come on, come on, pick up, she thought, knowing it was no use. First Thursday of the month was league night, so Mom and Dad had probably left for Lucky Strike Lanes down in Anchorage.
Biting her lip, Jenny drew the phone away from her left ear and was halfway to handing it back across the auto-shop counter when she heard a faint 'Kershak residence' and jerked it back to her head, pressing it in tight.
"Ben?" she called in disbelief. Her brother was supposed to be on base! Well, obviously he was home, but how? Not that it mattered, because he was way better than reaching Mom or Dad. An explanation poured out of her, relief and guilt warring - with relief winning by a long shot.
"So it's the cylinder head gasket or something," Jenny finished, blinking back tears. She was not going to cry about this, not while Mr. Pervy Mechanic was leaning on his elbows, hot breath on her cheek. "I'm at Hartell's Full-Service Auto. Yeah, the one in Eagle River. Thanks; see ya."
She handed back the heavy old-fashioned handset to the mechanic, who hung it on the phone behind the counter. "My brother's picking me up," she said, to ward off any more attempts at getting acquainted. Sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair in the waiting area, she pretended to be interested in last September's Motor Trend magazine until the mechanic headed back to the garage part of the building. All the shiny new cars pictured had engines that didn't overheat; too bad nobody was gonna buy a sixteen-year-old (well, almost seventeen-year-old) a brand-new car.
The low rumble of Ben's truck outside alerted her to his arrival, and when he swung the door open, she felt like the no-longer-running Grand Am had been lifted off her chest. She ran to him and his strong arms cocooned her. "Let me guess, kiddo. You didn't have permission to take the Pontiac out."
"They were gonna be gone all night! They were staying at Timmy and Jeannette's. Staggering distance, and all that." As tears finally came, she laughed. "Can you go talk to the guy back there? He's been giving me the creeps."
"I'll deal with him," Ben promised. "Wait here."
Jenny was pretty sure this Hartell guy (or his duly authorized representative) would adjust his attitude when he saw Ben's BDUs. Her brother must have just arrived from Elmendorf when she called, because he usually stole some of Dad's street clothes the minute he got home on leave. Some sort of Air Force rule, or something.
Ben was back faster than she thought possible. "Okay, that's sorted out. Let's get you a milkshake, and I'll tell you about how I totaled Dad's pickup when I was your age. Well, your age tomorrow." He unlocked her side of the truck first.
"Did Mom and Dad know you were getting leave?" Jenny asked as they pulled away.
"Kiddo, I didn't even know until they approved it today," Ben said with a shrug. "Gotta have faith; you think I was gonna miss your birthday?"
They parked outside the drugstore which hadn't changed as long as Jenny could recall. Sure, candy went up from 30 cents to 35 cents, but the Eagle River drugstore had the long, glistening wooden counter and stools that made it look like something out of a 1950s movie, like time here stood still.
Jenny's milkshake of choice was vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and banana, while Ben winked at the girl behind the counter (Annie Oxendine, who'd graduated two years ago; used to date Ben, back in the day) and got himself a chocolate shake with malt powder (yuck) blended with just about every candy bar topping ever seen.
"Ladies love a man in uniform," he told Jenny once they were both trying and failing to get any milkshake through their straws, and then ducked as she flicked milkshake at him with the tip of her spoon.
It had been a few months since Ben had been off-base, and they didn't get to talk, really talk, when he'd call after Sunday night dinner. Words tumbled out, one colliding with another, as Jenny filled him in on life at Chugiak High and he told her all about 'detail', which sounded like an Air Force way to say 'chores'.
Ben yawned in the middle of a choice story about Mr. Merstrand's homeroom, and she patted his knee. "Who's a sleepy airman?"
"No rest for the wicked," he retorted. "Hey, start the truck up? I'll be right out."
He tossed her the keys, slurped the last of his milkshake, then slid off his stool and disappeared to the other side of the drugstore. Jenny gamely went and started the truck (though she couldn't reach the pedals, the way he kept the seat) and waited, fiddling with the radio until she found the pop music station. And waited. And waited. She was starting to wonder what the heck, since the drugstore should have closed five minutes ago at this point, but finally he came outside with the biggest bunch of red balloons she'd ever seen. "For the birthday girl," he said with a grin as she slid over and he took the wheel.
The balloons bobbed behind the truck as they headed home, floating in the summer sky.
Tourists never saw this part of the West Wing. Speechwriters started with cramped offices and made them more so, with reference books and stacks of paper and newsreels for review. Anthony Dolan and Sam Hernandez shared this one, and most days it was tolerable. Friday of what should be a long holiday weekend - Independence Day being tomorrow - Anthony thought it decidedly less so. Not that Anthony could hear himself think.
"Hey, Demolition!" called Sam. "Lunch?"
Anthony looked up from his legal pad, the yellow sheets covered with scrawled longhand. "No relation, and thanks, but I need to finish this piece," he called over the cacophony of the British speed metal that was Sam's flavor of the week. "Takeout?"
As soon as the door closed behind Sam, Anthony stopped the tape and switched the boombox to public radio.
Sam had returned from backpacking around Europe with a case of crabs and a demo tape of Atomkraft, a band whose lead singer was one Tony "Demolition" Dolan. Anthony wasn't sure which was more annoying to hear about. If he ever made it to that side of the pond, he'd be having words with that Dolan fellow; Anthony had a better claim to the name (and at thirty-something, his claim was probably longer-standing than some punk kid's). Not that he was likely to make it out of DC any time soon, with the current workload and international tensions. Someone had to try to make Bush sound less like the former spook that he was, and Anthony and Sam were just lucky enough to be the guys on that job.
Satisfied with his notes, Anthony fed some paper into his Underwood. None of these electric word processors Sam liked, thank you very much; this typewriter had served him well enough in the newsroom. Now to reinvent the message that had been so strong when delivered by Ronnie Raygun, with his cowboy image. (May he rest in peace, and all that.) "I cannot believe that a nutjob obsessed with Jodie Foster could have this much effect on my career," Anthony muttered. The calm voices of the NPR announcers were a counterpoint to the firm beat of history as the type hammers hit home.
Thirty minutes later, Sam got back with a couple of hoagies wrapped in waxed paper. "Here ya go," he said. "Okay, gimme what you've got so far."
Anthony reached for a sandwich and said, around a mouthful of bread and deli meat with just enough mustard, "How do you feel about the phrase 'ash heap of history'? Could George deliver it with the same aplomb as the sainted deceased?"
Taking a bite of his own sandwich, Sam grimaced. "Since the assassination, he's Bob Dylanned his way through three of our speeches, each flatter than the one before it. Quoting Trotsky might be a little too subtle. What do you think of... hmm. 'Evil empire'? Has a certain Star Wars je ne sais quoi to it."
Before Anthony could answer, one of the ubiquitous Secret Service agents (who might as well be wallpaper, for how much they usually had to say) opened their office door and said, "DEFCON 1. You have one minute to be on the South Lawn."
"This doesn't sound like a drill," Sam observed, tossing his bag over his shoulder (and his sandwich in the bag, Anthony noted as he zipped his Underwood into its case). Ah, the priorities of the young.
As they followed the agent out, the radio in their office crackled with breaking news, voices shouting over one another, sounding more like Sam's speed metal than public radio had any right to.
Annie's apartment in Eagle River was tiny but neat, at least in the parts Ben could see. The bedroom doors were closed; apparently she had a roommate who'd taken off early to spend the holiday weekend with family in Fairbanks.
They got cozy on the couch, beers in hand, and turned on her TV that looked like furniture. (Seriously, the only visible metal was the rabbit ears. Total relic.)
"Your folks know you got leave?" Jenny asked at the first commercial.
"Well, they paint Anchorage red with their bowling league once a month and stay overnight with friends. Dad might notice some of his clothes missing when they get home in the morning. I think they gave half my stuff to the Salvation Army when Mom turned my room into a polaroid-organizing/half-finished-puzzle-storage/sewing zone."
She curled up at his side and he moved his arm off the back of the couch onto her shoulders. On the TV, the Star Trek rerun had Kirk and Spock fighting in some kind of mating ritual over a pretty dark-haired Vulcan girl who looked like a 1960s model.
"So are you, like, Captain Kirk now?"
"Most definitely not. For one thing, I'm not in command of a starship; haven't even made Sergeant yet." Come to think of it, the Vulcan girl looked a lot like Annie (minus the pointy ears).
"I can think of at least one thing you have in common with James T. Kirk," Annie said, looking at him from under her eyelashes in an exaggerated way that made them both laugh. It was hard to remember why they ever split up, and as they kissed, all the distance between them closed. One thing led to another led to her bedroom, where Ben soon stopped caring that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were staring at them from a poster over the bed.
Annie's phone rang at oh-dark-thirty (which by this point in the summer wasn't actually dark - fortunately, she had blackout blinds). Ben wasn't sure he should answer it, so he nudged her gently. Phone calls this early were work or family stuff, and some guy answering Annie's line wouldn't help anyone.
Bleary-eyed and voice gravelly on 'hullo?', Annie handed the phone to him without another word. Jenny's voice was frayed around the edges, like she'd been at this a while.
"Ben, thank God. Base called and needed you back right away. All leave cancelled, they said."
"Oh, you have to be fucking kidding me. 'Scuse my French, but they keep yanking our chains. If this is another drill--" The civil defense sirens came on at that moment, and this was most definitely not the one afternoon a month they tested them. "Shit. Not a drill." Ben felt cold all over and completely alert. "Jenny, listen to me carefully. Call Timmy and Jeannette's to tell Mom and Dad, and then go to the basement, okay? Hunker down with the radio on, just in case. Love you, kiddo."
Annie looked more awake at this point, so Ben said, "Leave it to Jenny to figure out where I got off to; she's a sharp kid. I gotta jet. Gotta go fly a jet, actually." He winked, and she threw a pillow at him.
"Since they turned the sirens on, you might wanna seek shelter," Ben said as he pulled his dad's jeans on.
"You're going back to base in that? Not stopping home for your cute camo outfit?"
"This isn't a drill; I'm gonna be wearing a flight suit." He kissed her, and headed for his truck, for Glenn Highway southbound, for duty.
"Since when do speechwriters get helicopter rides to Andrews?" Sam asked. The guy in Marine dress blues looked impassively calm (in a way Sam thought he, personally, would never be again).
Anthony answered instead, shouting over the noise of the blades. "Lucky us, we're on a decoy chopper. Marine One never takes off solo."
Transferring to Air Force One took less time than Sam thought possible. The uniforms still weren't talking, leaving the speechwriters to their own devices in a small cabin with blue curtains and an ornate presidential seal on the wall.
"I wasn't aware that we'd be on the bunker list," Sam said. "I'm freaked out, but flattered."
"Assuming they want us to craft a message right quick, they'll tell us something sooner rather than later," Anthony replied. "Let's pick up where we left off. Dollars to doughnuts the Ruskies are behind this."
"Sounds like ash heap might refer to the entire Eastern seaboard pretty soon," Sam deadpanned. "Maybe you want a different metaphor?"
"Don't suppose they're going to let me call my parents," Anthony said dolefully. "Hopefully the news is telling people to duck and cover."
"Shit, man," Sam sympathized. "My folks are in Texas. Maybe yours are far enough out? Some Virginia bedroom community, yeah?"
"If there's a mushroom cloud over the District, they're going to be too close. And nobody's bundling them off to an undisclosed location in flyover country."
"We gotta hope--" Sam was cut off by another blank-faced agent, who entered and said, "The President will see you now."
As a junior speechwriter Sam wasn't exactly the 'bring along on diplomatic junkets' type. Sheer dumb luck he'd been in the West Wing instead of already off on vacation like half the staff. When they entered what looked like a conference room, if a plane could be said to have such a thing, the president was on the phone.
Sam tried to calm himself enough to take some notes. War was big business, and war correspondents got famous if they didn't get dead. Be mighty nice to end up with a Pulitzer like Anthony's. That bastard still had the tools of his trade; the typewriter packed up better than Sam's up-to-the-minute word processor.
Sam chewed the end of his Bic, then flipped to a new page on the yellow legal pad. It's morning in America, and the war machine springs to life.
As her truck rattled around the corner, wheels whining at the speed, the high-pitched tone on the radio cut off, followed by "We interrupt this program. This is a national emergency..." Annie's apartment building had nothing she could pretend was a shelter, but her parents lived five minutes away. Ben's leave being cancelled plus the civil defense siren were enough to make Annie head for home.
Pulling up to her parents' place, she jumped out of her truck without bothering to close, let alone lock, the door. Her dad was in the driveway, clearly about to jump into his own pickup.
She ran to him, and he held her close. "I was just coming to get you, sweetheart. You weren't picking up."
"I've paid attention," she said. "Mom downstairs?"
They hurried down the creaky steps, and when they reached the empty basement she turned to see her dad's somber face. "Honey, she went down to Anchorage this morning."
The basement had garden-level windows, which had gratings at ground level and collected snow or leaves depending on the time of year. Their wooden shutters were painted with a 1960s idealized bear and eagle scene. Annie had never paid much attention to the half-moon cutouts meant for opening and closing them; basements didn't need to be completely dark, for ordinary purposes.
When the flash came, she instinctively reached out to open the shutters, to see what was so bright, and then realized, and buried her face in her dad's work shirt. She wasn't the only one crying.
"Fallout's still a concern," Annie's dad mused. "But we're going to need to resupply." Two days in, and while they had some water jugs and canned food, he wanted potassium iodide and greater nutrient variety.
The TV cut out and stayed out; the major media outlets on the coasts didn't hold up well in a nuclear exchange. Radio held on a little better, but the commercial frequencies had no real information. Some canned message from the president, who must have gone to ground somewhere, about how America would hold fast against the enemies of freedom, blah blah evil empire, days of infamy, and so forth.
"Evil empire?" her dad repeated incredulously. "Notice they don't mention who started this. Wouldn't put it past the veep-in-chief." Shaking his head, he switched to the ham radio, and that's when the real intel started coming in. Anchorage itself probably wasn't the target, said the hams. Military-industrial complex being what it was, though, the base was right in town, and it was a key part of the Pacific air support. Emphasis on the was. Elmendorf was vapor, and there were fighter jets down over Nunivak and Nome, and a whole squadron lost over the Bering Strait.
When they donned long-sleeved clothing, hats, and scarves, then headed to the drugstore, she wasn't surprised to find the windows broken (probably by the shockwave, just like everywhere else including at their house) and the shelves ransacked; there were other residents with the same idea, though nobody she recognized. The walk-in coolers still had some items, but since the power had failed nothing was usable. The owner had been in Anchorage on Friday, and clearly hadn't made it back. He wasn't the only one.
She filled a duffle bag with cleaning supplies - they'd need to scrub down anything they wanted to use - then looked around for her dad before ducking into the aisle with condoms and tampons. She scanned the shelves until she found the pregnancy tests, then grabbed one of each brand. Ben's visit had been so out of the blue, and they hadn't used protection. Hopefully she wouldn't need these, but...
As she stuffed them into her coat pockets, another scavenger came around the endcap, but it wasn't her dad.
"Jenny, right?" she asked. Ben's little sister nodded, hands in the pockets of the oversized camo jacket her brother must have left at the house that night, shoulders curling as if to hide in plain sight.
"Did Ben go right from your place to the base?" Jenny asked. "He sounded worried on the phone, and then... Well. You know." She looked lost, adding, "Our parents were in Anchorage Thursday night."
Struck by a sudden thought, Annie said, "Wasn't it your birthday Friday?"
Jenny shrugged. "Yeah, but who cares now?" She sniffled.
"Who are you staying with?" Annie asked. On Jenny's wince, she said, "You have to come home with us. My dad has the basement in good shape for us to stay in, and my mom," she swallowed and continued, "was in Anchorage, so it's just me and Dad now."
"Okay," Jenny said, face numb and eyes wide with unshed tears. "That works. What are you guys here getting?"
"You want to grab more of the canned stuff. Take this bag and fill it, then find my dad in hardware. I'll be right back."
The helium tanks weren't affected by the broken glass, but it took Annie a few tries to find any balloons that weren't lacerated. She managed to inflate one of the same red ones Ben had bought his sister, and tied a shiny ribbon around the knotted end. This wasn't - strictly speaking - a necessity, but it might do more good than anything else they salvaged today.
Her dad raised an eyebrow as Annie joined him and Jenny at the front of the drugstore. Annie handed Jenny the balloon, and they shared a look, as Jenny's tears finally welled up and streaked her cheeks.
Fighter jets down over the Bering Strait. Annie turned that piece of information over and over, worrying it with her mind like there was some other answer, some way she could make it not about Ben, wondering what to tell Jenny, knowing she already knew. Thinking about him meant she wasn't thinking about Mom. Not hearing from either of them meant the worst. She'd seen the images - who hadn't? - of silhouettes against walls, melted slag heaps, cities turned to dust.
Jenny wiped at her eyes as they stepped outside together. She released the balloon, and as it climbed, a splash of red against the concrete sky, Annie took her hand.