Before I could answer her, the jets circled back, their engines tearing open the sky, reminding everyone of the base only a few nautical miles across the bay. But, it reminded me of something else too. The first time that she asked me that question, just after we got the alert, six months ago.
JAN 13, 8:07 AM
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT
INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK
IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS
NOT A DRILL.
“Joseph, wake up,” Melanie shook me. “Now.” She pulled off the blankets. The dogs were circling the room, barking at her frenzy.
“What the hell?” I grabbed my glasses from the dresser then caught the dogs. The three of us must have been wondering the same thing. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Look at your phone.”
I went to the side table, leaving the dogs on the bed. I read the alert, my finger pressing against the screen. I looked up at her, waiting for an answer. If this were any other day, she would have reminded me that I hadn’t asked the question yet. I hadn’t said anything, a lecturer at a loss for words. As usual, I was expecting her to read my mind. “What do we do?” I finally got the question out.
“Nothing,” she said, walking past me. Anything is what she meant.
Then I remembered a news story I had read. “What about the windows?”
“Got it,” she was already locking the jalousies in place. She closed the balcony door then looked around. “There’s too much glass in here, that’s the problem.”
“That’s not helping.” She paced, calculating our survival by the layout of our apartment. “They always tell you to stay in the bathroom.”
“I’ll look it up.” I went to the couch and started searching on Facebook. “It’s probably just a mistake.”
“And if it’s not?”
“I don’t know.” I was honest.
Mel moved into the kitchen to fill water bottles and assess the lack of canned goods in the cupboard. “I told you we should have made an emergency kit.”
“I was going to.”
I wanted to be helpful, so I googled data on nuclear bombs and fallout. I started filling in blanks on NUKEMAP. After I hit “Detonate,” I relayed the data. “I think it’s going to be okay,” I said, not realizing how shaky my voice was.
“What about the bathroom?”
“Shit,” I fumbled. “I think we should fill up the tub. You know, in case we need water.”
“You didn’t look it up?”
“I got it,” I raised a finger, but she beat me to it.
“We should just close up everything and stay in here. There’s too many windows in the bathroom anyway and that one doesn’t even close.”
“How long do you think we have?”
“I dunno,” Mel replied, sitting next to me. One of the dogs came up and nuzzled her leg. She pet him like she wasn’t counting the minutes, but I knew her better than that.
Her phone rang, making us both jump. The dogs started barking again. “Can you take care of them, please?” It was her father. She asked him if he was okay and put him on speakerphone. “I’m just waiting for it,” he said.
“What d’you mean? You need to get inside, Dad, where’s Mom?”
“Sleeping,” he replied. She bit down. “There isn’t a chance,” he added like he had already seen the blast; and if anyone would know, it would be him—a Vietnam veteran, a survivor of the Cold War. He had seen friends splintered by bombs and bullets. He knew that shrinking under a desk wouldn’t save anyone.
So did Mel, but she disagreed anyway. Even a realist knows there’s always a chance. “Inside, Dad, just go inside.” She didn’t hang up until she was sure he had listened.
“What now?” she asked me.
I thought about the question, then the people we should’ve called and everything that we should have done to prepare. I thought about the gas tank that was close to empty, the clothes that needed to be washed, and the grocery list that was stuck between the stacks of paper on my desk. The semester had started for the both of us, but I was the only one behind. She took my right hand, and I noticed the edges of her bare fingers against mine.
I stared at the curtains that she had pulled closed and the light that was still visible through them. I waited for the air to blister, knowing too many minutes had passed.
JAN 13, 8:45 AM
There is no missile threat or danger to the
State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.
It had been six months since the error.
Some things had changed, like our level of anxiety and our awareness of every alert, but other things stayed the same. We talked more about the military convoys on the freeway, which were nothing new, and the plans that we knew we should make but didn’t. The news would sometimes shake us with its coverage of Trump and North Korea, but there was always yoga, Netflix, or an unexpected bill. NPR would quote Oppenheimer, I would switch stations, and all of it would disappear.
“What now?” Mel asked like she had that day when everything was about to end.
And at that moment, our life together was gone. Both of us were exhausted. Tired of fighting about my lack of communication, the money we weren’t saving, and the one time she forgot to pay the rent.
Then, the jets flew by.
I thought about the false missile alert. Then, I thought about the emergency kit in the trunk and the planner in my backpack. The ring I had on layaway, 20% down. And I laughed at another thought, realizing that the end of the world had been imminent and neither of us had bothered to say goodbye.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said, sure that we’d survive.
Donald Carreira Ching was born and raised in Kahalu?u, on the island of O?ahu, Hawai?i. His work has appeared in publications such as Rio Grande Review, Hawai?i Review, and Rockland. In 2015, his debut novel, Between Sky and Sea: a Family’s Struggle, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. In 2018, he received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Emerging Writer.