For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them—Proverbs 1:32
What will it be like, there?
Silas pondered the question, found no satisfaction anywhere it led, let his attention be drawn back to the street. Appomattox Lane was a magnet to his eyes, a cratered path to here, and to there. Along it, for more than a year now, even before the power grid had failed for the umpteenth time, the same three cars had been parked with their flat tires and leaf-freckled hoods.
He listened to the bird that fluttered between songs in the bush beneath the open window, noticed the hot breath of summer cool between the wet folds of his neck when he stretched it. With the curve of his thumb and index finger, he swiped at the smoothed-out skin, slid the hand dry along the thigh of his clingy pants. Still quiet, Appomattox Lane. Still a lonely, desolate place the six-hundred block was, a block that once had funneled the blare of too much traffic, had bridged the shouts and the laughter of kids at play in the yards that flanked it.
What will it be like when he gets there?
Again, between the branches, the songbird fluttered its wings, sang out its merry tune before falling silent. In time, the bone-ribbed cat that recently had taken up residence in the neighborhood walked out from the bush into the yard, sat on its haunches, licked away a pin feather, licked at its gray coat, hungry no longer, for now.
Where was this there exactly?
The rat-a-tat-tat of an automatic rifle cracked through the afternoon quiet, and Silas’s gaze returned to the crumbly street. Still empty, except for the three cars, but it wouldn’t be for long. The notice had read two p.m. About this, they were never late. He squinted in the direction of the sun, figured it was almost two now. Across the room, the clock read 6:47. Right twice a day every day, since the power grid had failed. Twice a day until one day it and the house met the blade of the bulldozer that would bury it beneath the parched yard. Like too many other houses on the six-hundred block of Appomattox Lane. An exploded minefield this block resembled now. Many blocks now, Silas was sure. Many streets. Everywhere. Yes, one day the blade would come, but about that, they were seldom on time.
What will it be like there, when two o’clock is passed?
The incessant quiet, another rat-a-tat-tat before the quiet won out. He shifted in the rocker, peered past the kitchen doorway to the calendar stuck with a magnet to the refrigerator that now stored canned food. Even with his glasses, he couldn’t make out the numbers, but he knew the date: July 4, 2043. Happy birthday, Silas, he said aloud, to break the silence as much as to hear his voice, any voice, the sarcasm. Ninety years ago he had been born to a world far different than this one. An independent baby born on Independence Day, his daddy had beamed, and his mother had laughed. Or at least that was the story they regularly shared on this day each year. A lifetime ago.
He looked into his mind’s eye, saw the smallish boy that he had been, his cap pulled down over a mop of brown hair. Yes, he had had hair once, he reminded himself. On that Fourth of July, he had played baseball with friends in the vacant lot across from the clapboard house he had grown up in, in a town not so far away. His eighth birthday was it? His seventh, his ninth? One of those. Yes, a lifetime ago, with hair.
Time did fly. Even in these times. Already, almost seven years had passed since Rhonda had turned eighty. Since they had come, had taken her away. Eight years since her first stroke, since the clock had started to tick on her, deliberately. Was she there waiting for him now? Does it really work that way?
Silas was one of the lucky ones; he had always been healthy. Ninety now. Happy birthday, Silas. No, not happy. Fairly healthy still. He searched the far end of the street, where it wiggled in the heat, like a writhing snake belly up.
More rifle fire pierced into the quiet. More resistance. Melvin probably. The sound had come from the far end of the neighborhood, from Gettysburg Street more than likely. Yes, the shots had come from that direction, were coming in bursts again. From Melvin, or maybe from Sammie. Sammie had an old AR-15 her grandfather had left her before he had been taken. Papa Sam, as Sammie had called him, had been the neighborhood watchman, the leader of this small band. One of the few who had hidden a rifle well enough to keep it. Twenty years ago that was, or so. Had it been that long ago, already? The Orange One, as the last President was now referred to, had been removed from office, taken away. And then here, over the course of the next year, Papa Sam had been taken, and others like him. Too vocal, they had been, too easy to target. Twenty years ago? Probably. At least.
What will it be like there? Will it be anything at all?
Silas’s eyes crawled back to the cat. Under the oak tree now, it was bathing still, watching between licks to end the song of another bird in the bush. Contented now. For the moment.
Silas turned his good ear to the window, listened. Still no vehicle to interrupt the quiet, no more rat-a-tat-tat either. Maybe Melvin had been located, taken away, Sammie too. They both might be there now. Already.
What is it like? How much longer now before they come?
Then, barely perceptible at first, the sound of tires rolled distinctly, wetly across melting tar, the squeak of a chassis over potholes, the sporadic cough of a combustible engine in need of repair, and then the squeal of brakes as a glinty, green van turned the corner into the wiggly air up the street. They were coming now; they were almost here, to take him there.
What would it be like, there?
Silas glanced toward the couch across the room. Under it lay the 30-30 rifle that had been in his family for more than a hundred fifty years. His great grandfather’s, or maybe his great-great grandfather’s. He had lost track. No matter. He had told Sammie where he hid it, that he had no more ammo for it but that she should take it once he was gone. Maybe someone else had ammo but not the rifle. Take it, Sammie, he had told her. Don’t leave it for the bulldozer.
The van bounced once more, squeaked, and then coasted to a stop at the curb in front of the house. The bony cat scampered away when the door slid open. Silas watched the soldiers of the state, in their khaki uniforms, stride up the sidewalk. Routinely now, as if this was just another day, which for them it was. But in the beginning, had it been? Had it been so easy then? So easy to think about getting home to their families, to their homes with electricity enough to cool every day and every night, to refrigerate food, freeze it for another day? Routine, yes, now. The complacency of fools.
Silas worked himself from the rocker. A groan escaped him before he made his way to the front door, opened it, saw that the van was riddled with bullet holes. Melvin or Sammie, probably both, had tried to stop it from getting here, as they had said they would. He had begged them not to interfere, told them their time would come soon enough. But the firing had stopped, and the van was here. Melvin and Sammie, not to be slaughtered by turning away. No complacency in those two. No fools, them.
Silas took one last look behind him, at the house that would soon be vacant. Saw the broom in a corner of the kitchen, thought of Rhonda, how he had promised to take care of her house. There would be no one to stop the mice and the rats now. The house was theirs, now. Until the bulldozer came.
For a moment, he regarded the Bible that lay on the end table by the couch, the thick layer of dust that had accumulated since Rhonda had turned eighty in poor health. Thought about the oily smudges of fingers on the dog-eared pages that had not been turned since. Rhonda’s. She had read aloud from it nightly so that he might hear, so that he might know the good news. Read it when I’m gone, she had said, but there it lay under a layer of his neglect. Still, he had heard much.
What is it like there? Will it be different for him than it is for Rhonda? Did it matter that she had been a better person, had lived a better life, that she had believed, truly believed? What will it be like there? Will it be a different there? A bad there?
The soldiers of the state were on the porch now, their rifles pointed at him the way soldiers point rifles at an enemy who is no threat. He shook off the need for restraint, assured them there would be no resistance. This was his birthday, the ninetieth one, he told them, as if they didn’t know that. Why else were they here?
What is it like, there?
A plump woman with a fleshy face gestured toward the van with her rifle. Silas looked her over. She was not so healthy for someone so young. Did she not think of herself turning eighty one day? That day would come before she knew it. But she worked for the state. Maybe concessions were made for those who worked for the state. She might not make eighty; she was overweight, breathed noticeably as she nudged him with the rifle. Maybe she was not yet old enough to see the consequence, saw the illusion of youth when she stared into a mirror, heard the promises, believed them. Only those with droopy skin and ribbed chests seemed able to see, able to hear. Men go, men come, but the earth abides. That’s what Rhonda would quote. For now, the plump woman was content, like the cat. The complacency of fools, yes.
Silas flinched against the prod of the steel barrel at his back as she steered him to the rear of the van. Two burly men stood waiting to force him inside. Powerful hands these were that lifted his frail body, pushed it onto the gurney, strapped in first his chest, his arms, and then finally, with legs pressed together, his ankles. The fleshy face trickled sweat as the plump woman tightened a rubber strap around his upper arm below the sleeve, whispered perfunctorily that this would not hurt, that he would simply fall asleep.
Silas watched the syringe suck poison from a vial, the fleshy face smile woodenly when the needle stabbed painlessly into his arm. He closed his eyes to the burn, opened them to the darkness, in the distance heard the van cough its way along the cratered Appomattox.
The time had come; he was there.