The First Day
After dinner, we kissed Annah good night at the usual time, a bit before nine. The next morning was a regular school day and we didn't need to break any routines, not just now. When alone, inevitably Mary and I turned to my dismissal.
Mary knew the past months at work had been particularly tense. I had trouble masking my anger and frustrations. Moreover, Mary has always been a true life companion; I shared everything with her and she always did her best to help me manage my emotions. She understood the mixed disappointment and relief too. She was scared, though, and did not hide her feelings.
But it wasn’t the end of the world. My career had been irreproachable, with a strong curriculum and diversified expertise. I had developed a solid scientific and IT background, and significant experience in multinational environments. I would find something else in the next few months.
I started to plan my next steps: contact a professional development agency; head hunters; update my Linkedin account; use relationships and work-related contacts to create even further connections. More for myself than for Mary. The planning gave me the feeling I had control, and was still able to think clearly.
We went to bed early. Mary hugged me for a long time until she fell asleep. I could sense from her body and her breathing she was tense. I rested there, in the dark, cuddling my woman and comforting her, hoping the sky would not fall.
‘Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.’
During the night, we woke up to the noise of a strong windstorm. Powerful gusts of wind shook the trees, interrupted by brief moments of calm. Then again, mighty blows blasted against the roof and a roared with the strength of multiple airplanes landing all together, in one go, on a nearby tarmac. I peeked out the window; the sky was dark, maybe a full hour still to dawn.
Mother Nature showed off her might that night. Mary went downstairs to check on Annah. When she came back, she reassured me that our daughter was sound asleep. Her room on the middle floor was protected from the wind blowing strongly outside. We had a bit more than an hour before the alarm clock summoned us to our daily activities. Mary curled up close to me and we waited, without a word, listening to the roaring sounds around the house. The wind subsided all of a sudden, as if a gigantic fan had been switched off. Silence, a deep one, replaced the ravaging noises of an angry nature—the calm after the storm—penetrating and intense.
Dawn came with its twilight before sunrise, the brief moments the Roman deity Aurora ruled over, while the world awaited the rising sun, holding its breath. The buzz of the alarm broke off the magical silence. Mary stopped the noise with a searching hand, still half-asleep.
“Hummm. Take a shower, I’ll prepare breakfast. Will you pick Annah up at school?”
“Sure.” For some time, I would be the only master of my schedule. I grinned in the dark and still-sleepy atmosphere of our bedroom. Mary squeezed my hand. She felt more sympathy for me than I did myself.
I took a long shower, soothing some lingering internal, invisible bruises. During the day, I needed to get organized and launch the job hunt on many fronts. I had never been laid off before. While common wisdom says in such cases a few days of rest are a must, I wanted to get back into action. Why wait and for what? I needed to revise my resume, visit some head hunters, send emails and, hopefully, arrange for interviews soon.
I dressed casually—unusual for me during weekdays—but I didn’t think Annah would notice or raise questions which were as yet too hard to answer. My girls were waiting for me in the kitchen and Annah had just filled up three glasses with juice. Orange for Mary and me, apple for herself.
“Good morning, Dad.”
I hugged her and kissed my wife even more tenderly than usual. I set up to prepare coffee for the two of us and got a bottle of milk out of the fridge. Slices of bread were already in the toaster. I loved that smell coupled with the one of freshly-brewed coffee. The dawn sky was beautiful; the morning air, clean and crisp. From the kitchen window, we could catch a glimpse of the Alps and their perfect silhouette.
We were all seated, with jam and marmalade and Nutella ready for the crunchy slices of white bread. Annah started to tell us about the last hilarious video she saw on YouTube and how everyone in her class mentioned it to each other. Ah, and she would love to invite Jessie, her BFF—best friend forever—to stay overnight that weekend.
I shared a confirming glance with Mary. “Sure. Tell her later today at school.”
Mary was not talkative in the mornings so her silence was not a deviation from the norm, though a hint of a worried frown stamped her lovely face. For Annah’s benefit, I repeated what her mother and I had already agreed upon.
“I’ll pick up Annah.”
“Yes, please. I won’t be back home before five today. We have a PTA meeting after school hours.”
“All right. Annah, c’mon, get up and get ready. You know what happens if we’re stuck in traffic.”
“Yeah, Dad, I know. But don’t start reading emails or I will be the one waiting.” Annah gave me a gentle push to my shoulder and went to her room.
“We have to tell her soon. She will notice you’ve changed your schedule…and that you’re not wearing a suit.” Mary looked at me, and winked.
I gave her a crooked smile. If I had believed the sweater would go unnoticed, she proved me wrong. Women, you can never hide anything from them.
“Fine, we’ll find a moment tonight. Right now I’d better get going. Will you still be home when I get back? It shouldn’t take me more than forty minutes total.”
“I don’t know…” She shook her head. “I need to leave by 8:00. I won’t close the gate.”
As I passed Annah’s room she reminded me in her spritely voice, “Don’t be late, Dad.”
“No worries. I’ll wait for you downstairs in five.”
“Yeah, yeah…No emails, remember?”
I smiled and went upstairs.
In less than five minutes, I was ready to go; Mary was still in her nightgown. Annah rushed so she could be waiting at the door with a mischievous smile.
Mary loved to have our upstairs quarters all to herself in the morning. She said not having a man underfoot while she got ready in the morning cut out at least fifteen minutes in her routine. She was right, of course.
Annah and I both kissed and hugged Mary in turn. I opened the front door to the fresh and invigorating morning air. Outside, the first sun beams traced a placid sky after the night’s windstorm. The garden wasn’t badly damaged, though some plants had suffered a few broken branches and had lost leaves. A vase had been knocked down, luckily without breaking into pieces. All was silent and serene.
I went to open the gate while Annah waited for me in the car. When I got in, she had already tuned the radio to her favorite station and music filled the air.
We started to drive down toward the plain then turned right onto the straight road through the crop fields to reach the expressway. From that point, it was still a few miles to the Swiss border across which the CERN lab spanned. We encountered no other cars, not uncommon though somewhat rare.
After a rail crossing, the road climbed over a small hill then descended to a roundabout where a countryside Holiday Inn greeted businessmen from everywhere in the world. They claimed “Outstanding Service at the Doorsteps of Geneva” with an expressway directly linked to the airport.
In February, farmers started to fertilize the soil by spreading manure, as we could tell by its acrid smell. On the field to the right, just before the Holiday Inn, a green trailer towed behind a tractor featured a rotating mechanism to distribute the cows’ byproduct.
I noticed the tractor had its front wheels bogged down into an irrigation ditch, the manure accumulating from being spread over the same place for quite some time as I judged from the height of the dung. I slowed down. The farmer in the cabin was bent on the steering wheel.
My God, I thought.
Annah noticed my alarmed expression and followed my gaze.
“I don’t know; maybe a stroke. Let me call your mom.”
I kept driving, using the hands-free phone kit to dial home. The radio was silenced automatically and, after a few rings, Mary answered.
“Mary, it’s me. A man in the tractor near the hotel…call an ambulance. There is no one around and I believe I am the first one to…Jeez!”
As I drove into the roundabout and through the underpass toward the expressway, I nearly collided with a car. Its lights on, it half-blocked the way. I swerved. The driver had his head thrown back as if he was sleeping.
My heartbeat skyrocketed. “Mary! I almost slammed into a car on the shoulder.”
Annah turned around to look back at the scene.
“Hold on a sec, Annah. Mary, are you there!?”
“What’s going on?”
I reached the the expressway; the scene shocked me and I couldn't talk anymore. A couple of cars had crashed into each other, another slammed against the guardrail. Further down, a pickup had overturned and come to rest on the shoulder. Nothing moved. A truck had smashed through the barrier and plowed into the field below, smoke billowing from the wrecked engine.
The sudden silence on the line worried Mary. “Annah, Dan!”
Annah stared at the scene, her lower lip trembled and tears streamed down her face.
“Mary,” I hesitated. “Here…it is…it is full of cars…accidents. I’ll get through to the next exit and be home right away. Call the police. I’ll try, too.”
“Oh my god. Is the police there?”
Was she listening to me? I snapped. “I just told you to call them!”
I took a deep breath. Mary wasn’t at fault. Meaningless to pick on her. “Sorry. No one’s here, no one is alive! Stay home, wait for us!”
Mary’s voice raised to a piercing cry. “Wait! Don’t leave me!”
“Not going anywhere. Calm down. We’re fine.”
I turned my attention back to Annah “Look at me Annah. Look at me!” She was pale. “Honey, everything’s fine, we're going home now. Get down, just in case.” I did not want her to keep staring at the horrific scene.
At one specific moment in the commute morning traffic, everyone at the same time had lost control of their vehicles and crashed…wherever. People were dead, or badly hurt in the crashes.
I maneuvered in a sort of gymkhana to get through, around, or by wrecked cars. I managed not to indulge in rubbernecking either. In the distance, toward Geneva, a plume of black smoke I hadn’t noticed before filled the sky. I reached the exit. Shortly after, I stopped the car on the overpass and got out.
“Dad, don’t go! I'm scared!”
I jolted, bumped my knee against the car door, looked angrily at Annah and shouted “Jeez, Annah!”
I managed to regain composure after a few seconds. Annah trembled like a puppy on a cold night. Raising my voice had frightened her even more, of course. Suddenly a small and scared child took over the happy, budding young woman she was moments before. She sobbed and was shaking.
“I’m not leaving, sweetie.”
“Dan! Annah!” Mary shouted again on the phone.
From the bridge, a frightful and grisly scene spread out; cars and trucks crushed with everyone trapped inside. Maimed corpses, no one alive in sight. I counted not less than fifteen vehicles, maybe more. And the silence…the humming of the car engine sounded blasphemous while I grasped the full magnitude of what I was witnessing.
I got back in the car and reached to hug Annah, covering her with my body to comfort and protect her. “Let’s go home. And stay down, honey.” She felt so small and vulnerable in my arms. “Mary, don’t worry; try to reach someone now, please! I love you. Be there in a few.”
I interrupted the call and music filled the air again. No commentaries, no live anchor voice. We listened to the recorded program that usually goes on at night. I switched it off. Music sounded awfully out of place now. I forgot to call the police myself.
What started as a peaceful morning turned into a nightmare of unknown proportions. We passed other car accidents and the corpses of pedestrians, too, lying on the pavement at the bus stop. Some early commuters waiting for a bus that did not come and would not be coming either.
Annah moaned softly and I kept talking to her until we got back to the straight road through the crop fields.
“We’re almost there.”
Annah did not reply. She looked at me intensely as if she tried to absorb strength and composure from me. We met no one on the last miles before reaching our place.
Mary rushed out of the front door crying. “Where’s Annah? Where’s Annah!?”
“In the car! She’s in the car!”
Mary almost threw herself inside the vehicle. She grabbed and encircled Annah with her arms. They both burst out crying.
Getting to the passenger side, I opened the door and put my arms around both my women. “Let’s go inside now, don’t stay here. Let’s go.”
In the distance, the black smoke was now visible from the garden and expanded slowly. While taking them indoors, I became aware of the absence of planes coming into the Geneva airport...maybe all air traffic had been diverted?
Surrounding houses showed no sign of activity either. For the time being, I did not mention any of that to Mary. Once inside, I locked the door. Mary went to the kitchen with Annah and gave her a glass of water. Why do we all drink after some shock? I could not swallow anything after what I had seen and heard. Everything was so silent.
“Mary, did you call the police?”
“Yes, and I tried them all...15, 17, 18, and 112.” She peered out the window.
She had done well; those were the numbers for the ambulance, police, fire department and the European-wide emergency operator.
“What did they say?”
Mary hesitated. “No one’s answering.” She turned to look at me. “What’s with that smoke?”
Unreal. That wasn’t possible.
“No idea. Are you sure the line’s working properly? An operator must be answering calls. They’re on 24/7.”
Mary stared at me and did not reply. I picked up the phone and the familiar tone greeted me. I dialed 112. ‘Pick it up…pick it up.’ The phone kept ringing on the other side. I tried another emergency number even though by then I did not expect a different result: no answer. Mary watched the whole scene, and had to sit. Annah was recovering slowly. An impossible scenario unfolded before us.
“Stay here. I’ll try the computer.”
Mary and Annah didn’t react. I rushed upstairs, climbing the stairs two at a time and almost falling at the last one. “Shit!” We had a reliable and fast Internet connection; I would have all the answers in a matter of seconds. I sat in front of the iMac and launched the browser on the local news website.
The familiar page fired up almost immediately. “Greece unrest continues unabated”, “Pakistan charges Bin Laden widows”, “Strong solar storm hitting Earth”, “‘Fresh massacre’ in Syria’s Homs”, “Powers urge serious Iran talks”, and other news. Nothing strikingly unusual, no mention of any massive incidents anywhere. All seemed normal; the usual killing, fighting, massacres, riots.
Then I noticed the date...it was yesterday’s. Since last night at 3:32, nothing—or rather, no one—had updated the page. Now it was past 8:30 in the morning and journalists are early birds. It wasn’t plausible that no reporter had cared to add anything to the pages yet.
I tried other sites. British, Italian, French news, and various newspapers online. The time seemed to have stopped sometime in the early hours of the day. Not one mentioned major catastrophic events, or any new recent event!
Email! I checked my account. Some automatic deliveries, the usual commercial crap, the latest ones. Twitter! I logged on. It worked! Last tweets, worldwide trends, not a tweet from the people I followed nor the organizations. Even news channels were silent. Nothing recent. I tweeted, “PLEASE SOMEONE REPLY TO THIS IMMEDIATELY. THERE ARE CORPSES ON THE STREETS. I AM IN GENEVA AREA. PLEASE ANSWER BACK.” I had fourteen more characters to use, but I hit send anyway.
My heart dropped a beat as I stared at the message on the screen: “Sorry! We did something wrong. Try sending your Tweet again in a minute.”
I tried again, and again.
In my chest, my heart pounded; my ears buzzed. I went quickly downstairs expecting the worst. Mary was standing in front of the kitchen door leading to the yard, staring out, and Annah tapped at the glass panes.
Mary pointed at something in the garden.
“The neighbor’s cat.”
The neighbors! Right! The neighbors.
“What’s their number?”
“It's in the phone’s memory.” Mary played with the commands for a few seconds. “There.”
She dialed. We waited. Mary’s expression grew more tense by the second. Her lips twisted tightly, then she started to bite them in anguish. I didn’t like that so I took the phone from her and put it down.
“Mary! Look at me!”
I turned her toward me, my hands on her shoulders.
“We are all together. We are safe.”
I pressed her body against mine, and gently pushed her head on my shoulder, caressing her hair, and held her tight. She began to cry.
Annah reached to hug us both. I opened one arm to embrace her, too. The enormity of what we were going to face started to emerge in our minds.
“Stay here. I don’t see any immediate danger. I’ll go see the neighbors.”
Mary straightened up. Her eyes implored me. “No! Please don’t go.”
They complained, but I needed to search for one thing which had just popped into my mind. “I’ll be back soon, don’t panic.”
I pointed at the beautiful morning out there. The sun was warm and everything calm outside, though eerily so. I managed to convince them it made sense to cover the short distance to our closest neighbor’s house and…check on them? I gave no other details. I kissed them. “Go upstairs so you can watch me going, make sure everything is okay.”
I led them toward the stairs. They were frightened and I could not blame them.
Without Mary and Annah knowing, I wanted to grab the sturdy butcher knife we had in the kitchen as a precaution. Maybe paranoid, but was I really? Yet only the paranoid survive, I thought.
Checking on the neighbors was not the only thing I planned to do. Joe had been in the army in the sixties, and he once showed me his gun and bullets with pride. He kept everything in pristine condition. If I found him and his wife dead, as I feared, his pistol would be better off in my hands now.
Joe was proud of that pistol. “Dan, let me show you something,” he once said. We shared a beer on his patio one warm weekend, the year before, while the wives were away shopping. He went inside and came back with a bulky object wrapped in a cloth. He unfolded the rag and put a wooden box on the table. He held his hand on the cover for a moment, then opened the lock with a small key.
“This is my MAC-50. Did I tell you I served as petty officer?” Yeah, he’d told me a few times.
He took out a black pistol—automatic, I thought—and turned the gun over in his hands as you would do with a piece of art. His eyes widened with some untold memories.
“The Manufacturer d’Armes de Châtellerault originally made this baby. Then they changed the name to MAS when the operations moved to St. Etienne. This gun works perfectly, you know?” He paused.
“9-rounds detachable bullet magazine with 19mm Parabellum. Look here, I still have plenty.” He showed me several boxes.
He nodded. “I probably did wrong but, when I left the army, I managed to keep everything. The box is safe and locked in the cabinet with all my documents. But be careful, Dan.” He grabbed my hand. “Beth doesn't know about me shooting with it so... don’t tell Mary.”
I did not tell Mary.
I don’t know why, but I was sure Joe and his wife were dead, so why weren't we? That question did not need any immediate answer, of course. The answer would come to us, whether we wanted it or not, and it might not be one we would like either. I took the butcher knife in the kitchen, hid it under my sweater, and headed for the door.
I walked out onto the front terrace, took a few steps, then turned around. Mary and Annah were at the first floor window, in our family room, anxiously watching. I waved, and Mary threw me a silent kiss; I nodded and resumed walking.
I intended to reach our neighbors place by crossing properties, climbing over the low garden wall, and entering their house from the backyard, unseen by anyone in the neighborhood. Not that I expected to have any witnesses.
Their property showed signs of the previous night's strong winds, too. A couple lawn chairs were overturned as well as some of the vases Beth cared so much about. Plants had broken twigs and the enriched soil she prepared meticulously for all her flowers was now spread on the patio floor in a kind of sad, dark bleeding.
The back door showed no signs of break-in. Apart from the shattered vases everything seemed normal. Without much hope, I called out. “Joe! Beth?!”
I waited a few seconds before knocking hard on the door, and called out to Joe again. No replies, nor any sound came from inside the house. A rustling noise startled me. Cats! Could they ever provide some warnings about their presence? What was her name again? Peluche, I recalled. Our neighbors’ cat welcomed me into her fiefdom, graciously reassuring me I had been accepted.
I tried the door handle, locked from the inside. We lived in a safe neighborhood so no houses had reinforced doors or anything more than a standard lock. I’m a fairly big guy, and I was sure I could break through that door. As a precaution, I gave a solid kick first before throwing my shoulder into it. The wood around the lock cracked and Peluche ran away hissing. I guessed I would be a less-welcomed guest next time.
Encouraged by the first one, I kicked a second time and, with a loud crack, the door slammed open. No alarmed voices, no hurried steps or Joe yelling “What the fuck!”
I walked inside and took out my knife. Dan the Butcher! I had the feeling I'd stepped into some horror movie and I played the bad guy. “Joe!?”
I reached the dining room, then peeked into the kitchen and noticed the breakfast set on the table, ready and unused. Beth must have prepared everything the night before as we were used to doing ourselves. But no one had any breakfast that morning. Without further hesitation, I went upstairs toward their bedroom.
Daylight flooded the room as they slept without pulling the window shades, or using any blinds.
Joe and Beth lay in bed; no visible commotion, as if death had occurred within a few seconds. I expected that, but my hands started to shake and I had to lean against the door frame, covered in a sudden cold sweat. My hand rose to wipe tears of anger and sorrow. I took a deep breath and put the knife away. These were not anonymous corpses; there was Beth, and Joe, and I could hear their voices in my mind.
They both had bloodshot eyes and some blood seeping from the ears. Joe’s mouth was open and he looked as if he had been gasping before dying. Beth was more self-composed than Joe as she had been in life. She seemed to have passed away quietly even though she too showed sign of a rather stressful death. I guessed she'd died faster than her husband.
Joe had been a character. Always ready to share a beer and always busy with gardening chores. He loved gardening but he never missed the chance to tell me how it was Beth who made him dig that area, plant a new young tree, kill weeds, or do laps with his small lawn mower. No task was so urgent, though, that he wouldn’t stop for a beer each time he saw me in our garden. “Dan, time for a beer? You see, I’m not allowed to stop. I have Beth breathing down my neck, but she can’t stop me from sharing a beer with friends.” Of course, Beth never pushed him to do anything; she simply pointed at stuff and Joe would jump at the chance to get himself occupied.
Beth never failed to make a remark on our Italian origins when she served coffee on their patio. “It has nothing to do with your strong Italian coffee but, oh my, I couldn’t drink that. My heart would jump out of my chest.”
They were always smiling and sometimes it was really funny to eavesdrop on their joyful quarrel about where to plant this or that flower in their garden. Joe, especially, mastered the art of bringing to the table the most absurd reasons to support his views. I sighed, fighting to chase away the horde of memories that assailed me. I closed their eyes, and covered them with the bed sheets. What else could I do?
My mind went back to the main reason for this visit: the pistol. Joe said he safely tucked away his gun together with his documents. So it had to be in his home office. The cabinet, he’d said. In the office, there were a couple wooden cabinets, all locked, and a desk.
The desk drawers were open. Inside the right drawer, I found the usual stationery, and unpaid bills. In the left one, more documents and papers, a bible, and keys! I tried all of them on both cabinets. None worked, some did not even fit.
Well, the door hadn’t provided much resistance, so neither would a couple cabinets. I was sure I wouldn’t have a police officer in front of my door the next morning. In any case, I had a pretty good story.
I used the knife as a lever to force the middle doors open. I did not go for the additional drawers of the cabinets as I remembered the size of the box where Joe kept the gun. The pistol case wouldn’t have fit in those.
The doors opened with a cracking sound, though much quieter than the patio door before. Inside, some folders labeled “Taxes”, other loose documents and there, what I was looking for!
Poor Joe, he had no reason to hide his gun any better, especially as he liked to clean and regularly use his ‘baby’, as he used to say. Moreover, both being retired, their kids had their own lives and no youngsters lived with them anymore. A nice old couple, good people they were.
I took the case and examined the small lock. The keys…
As a first guess, I tried the smallest one which fit and worked. Inside, wrapped with an immaculate white cloth, I found the MAC-50—or MAS-50, whatever the brand now—two full magazines and plenty of additional 19mm bullet boxes... parabellum. I put everything back in place and closed the cabinet. I had no reason to do that, except maybe out of respect for Joe. I headed toward the patio.
With the door cracked open, soon the house would become shelter to all sort of pests. Seeing Peluche alive and well made me think that other animals must be okay, too. However, Peluche was nowhere to be seen. Yet I believed she would survive. I closed the entry door as best I could and went home.
Mary and Annah were still looking through the window, waiting for my return. They got excited as they saw me climbing over the garden wall. They frantically waved at me but Mary frowned when she noticed what I carried with me. I raised my free hand to signal everything was alright.
With Joe and Beth lying dead in bed, I still actually signaled all was fine.
As I approached the house, Mary and Annah came down the stairs, and opened the door. “Dad!” said Annah as she ran toward me. She was getting stronger, her hug squeezed me. Mary waited at the doorway.