The warning of incoming nuclear annihilation arrived while Maggie was still in the shower. Her phone vibrated three times on the bathroom counter, with the same nonchalant buzz that signaled a text message or an email. She couldn’t hear it though. The buzzing was lost under the sound of the water and all the noise her thoughts made. By the time she’d pulled back the shower curtain and wrapped herself in a towel, she’d burned five precious minutes without knowing it.
“BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND,” the message screamed up at her when she picked up her phone. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
An explosion rocked through her, running the length of arms and legs with an electric pulse. Once she’d remembered to breathe, this explosion rewound itself, but the damage was done. Every one of her nerves prickled to attention. She knew she’d remember all this — every sight and sound and sensation. Assuming, of course, there was remembering on the other side of whatever was about to happen.
She hung the towel on the back of the door and pulled on her clothes, first the jeans she’d left folded on the toilet seat, then the shirt set out on the counter. Her mind conjured memories of a play she’d been in once, a middle school adaptation of a fairy tale. She didn’t remember much about the play itself — or even what part she played — but she could recall how it felt to pull on the thrift store costume pieces. How the stage light exposed every ripple in the fabric, every ill-fitted seam and crack in the artifice. Looking in the mirror, here and now, she felt just as silly, as though the shirt and jeans she wore were artifacts chosen to tell a story no one would remember.
Ryan was seated at the kitchen counter when Maggie emerged from the bedroom. His elbows propped up his hunched frame. His face had a sunken look to it, like his eyes were preparing to hibernate in his skull for the winter. His lips sagged and his cheeks drooped. Here was a man ravaged by truth.
Maggie didn’t touch him when she approached. She was too far away, both within and without. Her thoughts pulled her inward, a desperate escape attempt, but her body kept her tethered to everything around her. She was both fighting and flying at once, a highwire act that kept her teetering between the past and the future, but somehow still not quite in the present.
Ryan lifted the remote and fired once at the TV. The news anchor managed to offer one final warning — ten minutes to impact — before the TV snapped into darkness. Silence broke out across the room.
She pulled out the stool beside his and sat. He turned toward her. Their eyes met. Without a word, they both knew there could be no more pretending.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he replied.
He offered her his hand and she took it. She led him to the couch and he followed. He sat on the center cushion and she draped a blanket over their laps. She tangled her fingers into his and he planted a kiss on her forehead.
And then they waited.
Maggie was still almost someplace else. The couch cushions beneath her, the blanket across her lap, her husband’s trembling fingers in the spaces between her own — none of these things were enough to keep her here. Her mind spun too fast with a thudding ache. She kept repeating to herself, again and again, “This is it. It’s over.” Only the tick, tick, tick noises from the clock in the hall kept her from retreating into a nostalgic cloud.
She thought of all the things she hadn’t said. “I love you” and “I’m sorry” and “Thank you so much for everything.” The weight of all these unspoken things stacked so high on her shoulders, her bones nearly buckled. There was a whole lot of living she wished she’d done.
She’d never taken a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. She’d never dined at a rundown café in the back alleys of Paris. She’d never caught a fish off the end of Venice Pier. She’d never waded into the Adriatic tide. She’d never leapt from the canyon’s edge at Red River Gorge. So many places she hadn’t seen, wouldn’t see.
She’d never fucked a stranger in an airport hotel. She’d never gotten drunk enough to claim the karaoke mic as her own. She’d never strayed beyond the casual swaying of hips and shuffling of feet that only just counts as dancing. She’d learned to paint or cook or play the ukulele like she’d always promised herself she would. She’d never been in a fight. She’d never fought for anything, come to think of it. That was all she wanted. To fight for her life while she still had it, even if only for another —
Ryan’s voice snatched her from the dreams, the delusions — from all the what ifs.
“Isn’t it amazing?” he said.
She looked around the room — at the sunbeams tickling the carpet, the tree branches whippling on the other side of the sliding glass door, the sky squinting a joyous blue, so rich and deep, she couldn’t have summoned it from her deepest dream.
Another explosion rushed through her, but this time, one of serenity. Her limbs settled like the supports of an old house. All those alternate histories and casual regrets peeled away, leaving only this moment, a shape and space in time she could have never imagined or anticipated, but was oh so grateful for. This here and this now, holding Ryan’s hand in the morning sun and loving him so fiercely, silence was the only way to express it.
Breath washed through her again. Her reply rode an exhale.
The clock in the hall kept ticking and kept ticking and kept ticking.
Five minutes dragged by.
After an hour, Ryan released her hand and fumbled with the remote. The TV lit up and the news anchor spoke with a renewed calm, using phrases like, “false alarm,” and “everything is alright.”
Maggie and Ryan watched without saying anything. The blood and the oxygen gushed back through them like helium filling a balloon.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“Breakfast would be nice,” he replied.
They turned off the TV and went to the kitchen. He scrambled eggs and pan-fried bacon.
She buttered toast with cinnamon and brewed fresh coffee.
There was little to say. Instead, she thought of all those things she’d never done, but could now. All the things to do and places to see and people to be. She wouldn’t, but she might. Not that any of it mattered that much.
What mattered was the eggs were more delicious than anything she’d eaten in her life. The coffee warmed her all the way through and the bacon broke into pieces between her teeth with a satisfying crunch. Her eyes met Ryan’s and then the words between them flowed freely and they spoke without having to say much. And then, she suddenly discovered she was laughing and so was he. She’s stopped thinking about bullet trains and fishing on the end of Venice Pier and fucking strangers and painting and cooking and playing the ukulele. She didn’t need to.
Here and now was enough.