Near to Impact
Todd Martin does, did, officially work at the White House, but at the same time, he is, was, officially no one of importance. Yet, he now sat at the President’s desk, dividing his time between looking out the window at the grounds, and across the empty room, trying to decide how exactly he should spend what he assumed were probably going to be the last seventeen minutes of his life.
He laughed to himself, in a passing sort of fashion, when he thought about the fact that had he not taken a break and headed off to the cafeteria, the White House Mess, he would not have known at all. It was there that he saw two of the White House Uniformed Division Support Personnel, the “cops” as Todd thought of them, stretched out in their chairs, looking more casual than usual. This was the trigger that jolted him out of his reverie, and caused him to stop for a moment and look around, and what he saw was that the room was empty.
“Where is everybody?” he wondered in their general direction. “It’s like everyone’s gone.”
The cops looked at one another and then at him. “They are,” they informed him.
“Gone?” Todd’s voice echoed through the empty room. “Gone where?” he asked, and then thought back to when he was in his office and at his desk, working on a position paper.
He remembered being focused, working to get what he wanted to say into the most comprehensive and articulate way possible, but, almost subconsciously, he was aware that something was going on beyond his office door out in the hall. There was an orderly, almost efficient, commotion occurring, building subtly, reaching a white noise sort of underlying crescendo until, finally, everything was eerily still. However, whatever it was never reached a threshold in his consciousness that would have had him put down what he was working on, get up, and go see.
“Yeah,” one of the cops said through a laugh, “except for us stiffs and people like you.”
Todd shook his head not wanting to accept what he had just been told.
“People like me?” he asked. “What does that mean?”
“Hey, buddy, no offense,” the other cop offered, “it’s just, you know, only senior staff and advisers went.”
“Come on, come on,” the two cops replied almost in harmony. “To Mount Weather, you know, down in Virginia.”
Todd was now both confused and bewildered.
“What for?” he quickly managed.
The two cops glanced at each other and proceeded to sit more upright in their chairs.
“The evacuation,” one of them said slowly, “you know, to save the sitting government.”
It was then that the older of the two cops put his coffee cup down on the table and stood up next to his chair.
“Didn’t they, ah,” he stammered as he tried to find the right words. “Didn’t they advise you, debrief you, on the situation?”
Todd let out an exasperated snort and said, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. And no, no one advised me or debriefed me on–” he let his voice trail off as he motioned to the standing cop in a way that asked him to finish off what he had started to say.
The second cop took the gesture as his cue to stand up and try to explain.
“The asteroid,” he simply said.
Todd stared at the cop while he considered whether he had heard him correctly.
“Come again?” he asked.
“They tried to alert everyone in the building,” the first cop began to explain in a tone, and with body language, which was equal parts regretful. “I guess that they somehow either missed you, or overlooked you. They were in, well, they were in an hurry. I mean, they said that–”
“No, no,” Todd interrupted, “what about the asteroid?”
“Oh, that,” the cop said, and then stopped himself as he looked from Todd to the other cop, and then around the room before he returned eye contact with Todd.
“It was from NASA. Well, at least we think that it was from them. Hell, it could have been from any number of places, FEMA, JPL, CIA, who knows or remembers anymore.”
Todd was impatient with incredulity as he broke the cop’s train of thought. “But how long ago could it have been?” he asked.
The cop snickered and nodded knowingly. “How long ago?” he repeated the question that was put to him. “Just a couple of hours.”
“That’s all?” Todd asked in complete disbelief.
“That’s enough!” the cop retorted.
Todd took a deep breath but he wasn’t thinking. No, he knew what question he wanted to ask, but was reluctant to do it.
The cops sensed his hesitation, and posed Todd’s own question to him. “You want to know when and how big, don’t you? Or maybe how big and when? Same thing.”
“Well,” the cop continued, almost matter-of-factly considering the gravity of the situation, “regardless of where it came from, this is the bottom line; there is an asteroid, and it’s going to hit. And, from what we were told, it’s going to impact sometime around three in the afternoon.”
Todd looked down at his watch. It read two fifteen.
“What the hell!” he shouted, “that’s only forty five minutes from now.”
The cops laughed. “Yeah, we know,” one of them said.
“Holy shit!” Todd thought to himself, which led him to perhaps the second most important question of the day.
“Where is it supposed to hit?” he asked. “Do you know, did they tell you?”
“They say just south of Harrisburg.”
Todd stood there and tried hard to accept what he had just heard. “I mean, that’s like just a little ways from here.”
“Did they say how big it was?” Todd had now asked the single most important question.
“I heard,” the cop to the left began while the other one was nodding his head in anticipation of the answer, “they said that it’s big, really big, something like more than three miles across.”
“Wow,” Todd uttered in amazement, “that’s pretty big.”
“Yeah, it is,” one cop said. “They say that the devastation is going to be incredible.”
“Like the dinosaurs,” Todd said in a manner that was revelatory in its own way.
At that the two cops became more than a bit uneasy.
“Well,” one of them said in a very slightly corrective tone, “they didn’t say that.”
“I know, I know,” Todd said in an half-apologetic and half-backtracking sort of way.
Todd turned from the cops and made his way over to get himself a cup of coffee, grabbed a tray, put a couple of bagels on it, and then walked back to the table where the cops were sitting. There he put the tray down, picked up his cup, and took a sip.
“So, how come you guys didn’t, haven’t, headed out, gone home?” Todd asked.
Both cops, in their own unique and singular and distinctive way, shook their heads and sat back down.
“Too far,” one said.
“Wouldn’t make it time,” said the other.
They both shot looks at each other, waiting, implicitly deciding, how blunt, and frank, they should be. Finally, the cop on the right blurted it out. “What with the traffic and all, we’d probably just be sitting there in our cars when it was all over. Nobody should go out that way.”
“You going to try and make it home?” the other cop asked Todd.
Todd fell silent as he calculated the time and distance, and then said, “No. Too far and, like you said, too much traffic; bridges and–” he then trailed off.
The two cops sat there and waited for Todd to continue, but realized that he wasn’t ready. So they waited until the wait began to impinge on the time that remained.
“And what?” one of the cops finally asked.
Todd shuffled his feet where he stood, then paced a bit, came back, put his coffee down on the table, and then paced a little bit more before heading back toward the table.
Meanwhile, the cops exchanged surreptitious acknowledgements with each other, but said nothing and waited.
“And what?” Todd repeated the cops’ question as he came to a complete stop across the table from both of them.
“Yeah,” one of them repeated for the second time, “and what? What were you going to say after the ‘and?’”
Todd knew exactly what it was that he was going to say, but he wasn’t sure that saying it, and at this particular time, was in the least way appropriate. Yet he also knew that this impending impact had wiped clean the slate of “correctness.”
“And,” Todd resumed after a prolonged and total exhale, “and, I suppose that if this is the end, if in forty minutes, or so, I’m going to die, or at least start the downward spiral, I should give it some thought as to where I’m going to spend those last moments; out there in my car, in traffic, or in here.”
Both cops shifted nervously in their seats. Each of them wanted to say something, but both, in their individual ways, realized that there was probably nothing more to say.
“So, you’re staying?” one of the cops asked.
“Well,” Todd started, and then stopped to take a bite out of his bagel, chew it, and then wash it down with a sip of coffee before he continued, “I guess so. I mean, if I didn’t head out for home, where would, where could, I go?”
One cop got up and walked over to the coffee dispenser to refill his cup while the other cop stayed put. It was the cop who stayed put who then said, “I suppose nowhere. Welcome to the club.”
Todd laughed and repeated in part, “Yeah, welcome to the club.”
“You going to stay down here?” the other cop asked as he returned with his refill.
“No,” Todd answered, “maybe I’ll just wander around for a bit, if that’s all right?”
“Absolutely no problem,” one cop said, “it’s all yours.”
“Maybe I’ll see you guys later,” Todd said as he picked up his coffee and bagels and prepared to exit the cafeteria.
“Yeah, maybe,” one of the cops replied as Todd made his way to the door, “maybe.”
Todd made his way back to his office, put his coffee and bagels down on his desk, and returned to the hall where he made a right, and proceeded to take a slow walk. He thought that he would have been alone, have the entire place to himself, but here and there, every now and then, some “staff-member-looking-sort-of-person” would turn a corner and pass him, or emerge from behind a closed door and scurry down the hall in one direction or the other.
Not one of them looked at him, or even gave off the slightest indication that he was a real-time, living and still breathing human being. Though he knew why they were in a rush. Why everything seemed so urgent.
Todd continued to wander until he passed the entrance to the Oval Office, the doors wide open. This made him stop, step back, and try to catch a glimpse, which led him to turn full-body, and consider walking in and checking it out.
He proceeded, almost as if he were in a dream, until he was standing right there in front of the President’s desk. Then, with cautious scrutiny, he started to look around and half-expected someone to appear and question, or challenge, or demand, to know by what right he had the authority, if not the clearance, to be right there in front of, in the same room, breathing the same air, where the President would normally be on any given day. But no one was there to ask or inquire anything at all. It was just Todd in the Oval Office and, although he was looking at the most powerful chair in the world, he knew that the office of the President was completely powerless to stop what was going to take place in just slightly under thirty minutes from now. So he took a seat, the President’s seat, behind the President’s desk, and, for a moment, closed his eyes and his mind to the world.
When he opened his eyes, he had no doubt that the world was still right on schedule. He checked his watch and he saw, as well as knew, that life, and the reality that he had known since he was old enough to remember, was fleeting and especially finite.
There were voices in the hall beyond the Oval Office, and he expected to see someone, but no one looked in, no one came in. He was all by himself for what just might be, as far as he was concerned, the last minutes of his life.
He reached into his pocket, brought his cell-phone out, placed it on the desk, then turned in the chair and looked out the window in the direction of the South Lawn.
“No more ‘Easter egg hunts,’” he told himself in a tone somewhere between wistfulness and sarcasm.“No,” he continued, “no more kids, or press cameras; no more anything.”
Todd spun back around and looked at his cell phone. It was still there, all alone, just like him.
He considered calling his wife, his mother, his brother, but he hesitated.
“I wonder if they’ve heard?” he asked himself.
“Probably not,” he answered, “or else they would have called me.”
Yet Todd knew that he was evading the bigger question that was rapidly evolving from being a question to an issue, and on into being a matter of ultimate “last-cause” responsibility. “…if they don’t know, should I tell them? Especially since there’s so little time left?” he asked almost in a whisper.
One more time, he brought himself back around to look out over the grounds. As tranquil as the scene beyond the window appeared, within himself, Todd was uneasy with his reasoning, justifying a course of action by way of an unanswered question.
This made him uncomfortable, and as a result, he understood and realized that he had to go back and re-examine his thought processes.
“All right, all right,” he told himself, “do I have a duty to tell them? Do I have the right to keep the knowledge of what is about to happen just to myself?”
Todd reflected on this last question, and weighed the staggering significance of what he was thinking; of what he was trying to decide.
“So,” he continued, “if I don’t tell them, am I playing God with them? Am I thinking and acting like I know better? That I know what’s best for them? Besides, what is best for them? Right now, at what just might be the final few minutes of their lives, what should I do? Tell them and put them into a state of fear? Is that best for them? Or is it best just to let it be? The end will be the end. Just let it happen, and hopefully it will be swift and painless.”
Todd looked down at his cell phone, but this time felt less of a need to reach for it and call.
“What would be the point of telling them? Especially if I wasn’t there at, well, when the end occurs?”
Having reached this point in the development of his thought, he pushed off from the desk and the floor simultaneously, so as to propel the chair around and around. Then, after a number of rotations, he abruptly stopped himself.
“No, no, it’s better this way,” he reasoned.“Maybe if the end result is not that disastrously bad, maybe, I’ll try to make it home. To what? Would they be alive? And what if they were there, but were hurt, maybe even suffering? If I called them, would that give them enough time to find someplace safe? Or would it have the opposite effect? Would they panic and try and get away, possibly putting them in an even more dangerous situation?”
Again, as much as he thought that he had put what he now identified as a micro version of the “God-Complex” behind him, it was still there, front and center in his mind, right in the path of what would soon be subsequent thoughts.
It was not just an issue, not just a dilemma, not just guilt compounded by responsibility further compounded by knowledge. He knew that there was more, much more, but was averse to continuing.
Once more, he checked the time.
“Seventeen minutes to go,” he advised himself.
“Yeah, only seventeen more minutes to play ‘God’ before it’s all over.”
Throughout his life, Todd was a religious person. He had always felt close to what he imagined and understood to be God. In fact, he even tried to live his life in a sort of “God-Like” kind of way. Ever since he was a young child, he accepted the belief that God knew everything all the time. It wasn’t as if Todd was God at this moment, but he did know some very seriously important and potentially cataclysmic things.
Instantaneously, he felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over him, and this wore on him, and taxed him, and made him appreciate and more fully understand Genesis 2:2.
With that, Todd glanced at his watch, “…fifteen minutes left…” he told himself, after which he folded his arms on the desk, rested his head on them, and sighed. Now, with his eyes shielded from the light, he resigned himself to wait and see. And then, maybe, if he was still alive, try and figure out just what, if anything exactly, he should do next.
John Richmond has wandered parts of North America for a good portion of his life. These wanderings have taken him from a city on the Great Lakes to a small fishing village (population 400) and then on to a bigger city on the Great Lakes – Chicago – then, eventually, New York City. Since then, John Richmond has made his way to a small upstate New York town and has sequestered himself in his office where he divides his time between writing and discussing the state of the world with his coonhound buddy, Roma.
Recently, he has appeared in the Fuck Fiction, The Greensilk Journal, The Corner Club Press, The Tower Journal, Stone Path Review, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Rogue Particles Magazine, From the Depths, Flash Frontier (N. Z.), The Birmingham Arts Journal, riverbabble (2), The Writing Disorder, Lalitamba, Poetic Diversity, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Embodied Effigies, ken*again (2), Black & White, SNReview, The Round, The Potomac, Syndic Literary Journal, Ygdrasil (Canada), Slow Trains, Forge Journal, and is forthcoming in the Indiana Voice Journal, and Lavender Wolves.
Image: flickr / Stephen Melkisethian