A Voice down the Hall
By C.B. Calsing
Maggie’s silent affirmations kept her from going completely insane. He’s not dead, he’s not dead, he’s not dead, he’s not—
“Mrs. Swartz? Mrs. Swartz?”
She glanced up at the Red Cross volunteer, her face blank. Maggie’s gray hair was still damp from the anti-contamination rinse they’d forced her through before allowing her into the shelter. She clutched at the rough, army surplus blanket around her shoulders.
“Mrs. Swartz?” the volunteer asked again. He tilted his head to one side. “Hey, I’m Jacob. Would you like some coffee or a Danish? I have raspberry and cream cheese.”
Maggie shook her head.
“Mrs. Swartz, you should eat something. How about a Cup-a-Noodles?”
Maggie snorted through her nose and glared at the floor again. He’s not dead, he’s not dead, he’s not dead…
“Maggie Swartz? Maggie Swartz?” a voice called through the room. “It’s your turn, Mrs. Swartz.”
Maggie lifted a heavy hand, indicating her location, and stood. Her blanket slipped from her shoulders, and she glanced down at the clean, unfamiliar sweat-suit she wore. Her own clothes had been covered in a fine layer of contaminated dust when the shock wave had passed over her. Maggie walked toward the voice.
“Have a seat.”
She sat down on the plastic folding chair and raised her eyes to watch the volunteer across the card table.
“He’s not dead,” Maggie told the volunteer.
“Okay.” The volunteer scrawled a note on her clipboard. “I’m Rachel. I’m going to do your aid interview, okay? Are you comfortable here?”
“Where’s Moses? He’s not dead, but he’s not here. Where’s Moses?”
“My husband, Moses. Where is he?”
“He didn’t arrive with you?”
“No. I think he was still in the house when the…when the tree fell.”
Rachel made another note on her clipboard. “Do you have some family, out of the area, we can contact?”
“My daughter, Silvia, in Chicago.” Maggie automatically gave her number.
“Are you feeling okay, Mrs. Swartz? Any nausea or anything?”
Maggie shook her head.
“You’re badge still says you’re clean”—the volunteer pointed her ballpoint pen at the radiation detector pinned to Maggie’s sweater—”but we’re waiting on some doctors to come check everyone out, just in case.”
Maggie nodded. “What about Moses?”
“Some people were moved to hospitals if they were injured. We’re trying to contact them, but the blast has taken out most of the communication networks, cellular and landline. The shelters and hospitals are combining lists, which will be run around by courier when these interviews are done. We’re hoping some families will be reunited. We’ll be able to arrange transportation to Chicago for you in a couple of days, so you can be with your family.”
“He’s not dead,” Maggie said, convinced.
“Yes, I’m sure he’s fine. We’ll let you know if we hear something. Why don’t you head back to your cot and have a rest?”
He must have been in the house. He’d screamed at her, “Get out! Maggie, for Christ’s sake, get out!”
She’d glanced up from her cup of coffee. The morning air was strangely heavy. Why would he scream at her like that? Where was Moses, anyway? Had it been months since she’d seen him last? He’d been more like a voice down the hall than anything else. He was probably working on a project in the garage, for the grandkids. She never went into the garage. But, wherever he was, he probably wouldn’t be yelling at her if it wasn’t important. She stood, went out the back door and walked down the side yard into the driveway. She still had some late-blooming roses on the bushes bordering the driveway. She glanced at them, reminding herself to spray for rust later in the afternoon.
Maggie looked down the street, toward the city skyline. A bright bloom of light, like an old film clip from one of those PBS or History Channel documentaries about what the United States did to those poor Japanese people at the end of World War II, blossomed toward the sky. The ground beneath her feet began to vibrate; it bucked, tossing her to her ass. That’s going to break a hip. A loud crack pounded through the air, and she watched the huge elm in her backyard fall over onto the roof of her cottage, crushing it completely. My Christmas ornaments were in there. It’s going to take me forever to replace them.
Moses was still inside.
Maggie opened her eyes. Had that only been this morning? Two people talked nearby.
“I finally got through, radioed someone who had a working phone. Her daughter said Moses died a few months ago.” Jacob’s voice.
“What?” Rachel this time.
“He was already dead before the attack. Heart failure.”
Maggie closed her eyes. On her narrow cot, she raised her knees up to her chest and clutched at them with her pale, liver-spotted arms. The fabric of the donated tracksuit was slick, and she had to scrabble at it a few times before she got a grip on the legs. Everyone seemed to be voices.
He’s not dead, he’s not dead, he’s not…