Ella was in the middle of vacuuming the living room when the power quit. Frustrated, she clicked the on/off switch a few times before realizing it was not the appliance’s fault.
“Damn.” She frowned and stalked to the light switch on the wall. Clicked it up and down a few times. Nothing. She looked out into the yard where a narrow trail led to the snowy street. Eric had been in a hurry this morning, worried about icy roads and clogged streets, so he cleared the minimum amount of snow. Car tracks led from the garage to the street. Small spirals of snow drifted across the uncleared driveway.
Ella waved at her neighbour who was peering out of her own window. Judy waved back, then disappeared from view.
Now, what was she supposed to do? The house was already cooling off. Eric had the car so she couldn’t go to her mom’s and obviously the whole street was in the same boat. The baby would be waking up soon and without the electric stove, there would be no way to heat her milk. But surely this wouldn’t last long. In the meantime, Ella decided to gather blankets and candles. The days were short and at night it would really get cold. Thank goodness, she had insisted on a wood-burning fireplace when they bought the house.
An hour later she was surprised to see the school bus stopping in front of the house. It was barely noon. Jack bounced through the front door, coat wide open, backpack dangling from his arm.
“Where’s your hat?” she demanded as she divested him of his boots. “And why are you home so early?”
“I dunno. Can I watch TV?”
“You don’t know where your hat is, or you don’t know why you’re home?” she tousled his hair. You’d think the teacher would make sure the first-grade students were properly dressed before shooing them out the door.
“The lights went out.” He was already on his way to the living room, looking forward to an afternoon of cartoons.
“Really?” Ella frowned. The school was on the other side of the city. It was rare for a power outage to affect more than one neighbourhood at a time.
“There’s no TV!” her son wailed, thumbs busy on the remote control.
“No. The lights are out here too.” Ella hustled toward the nursery where Jenna was making her presence known. She bundled the baby into a quilt and carried her back to the living room where Jack was frantically pushing buttons and sobbing like his heart was broken.
“If the lights are out,” he cried, “why doesn’t the TV work?”
Ella tried not to laugh. How would a six-year-old know that one was connected to the other? She sat on the couch cuddling the baby close and pulled her son down beside her. She should venture outside for some wood but didn’t want to leave two upset children behind. Hopefully, Eric would get home early, and even better they would have lights and heat before his arrival.
“How long will this last?” The old man’s voice quivered. “We’re going to run out of food soon.”
Eric shrugged. “We don’t know, Mr. Miller. And without radio or TV there’s nobody to check with.”
“How can there be no radio?” Mrs. Miller was curled at her husband’s side on the couch. “It doesn’t make sense.”
The Millers had been sheltering with them for a week, and Eric was already fed up with their constant questioning. But they couldn’t leave the old couple to freeze in their tiny bungalow next door. Ella had dashed through the snow and convinced them to leave their house and join them by the fireplace.
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” Eric sighed. “If my car would start, I’d drive to the police station and see what they could tell us, but without being able to plug in the block heater, there’s no way I’m going anywhere until it warms up.” He sank to the floor, joining Ella and the kids where they sat, wrapped in blankets, staring at the fire.
“You should have gone right away,” Ella said quietly.
“I know. Don’t start on me about that.”
“I’m not starting anything,” she protested. “I’m just thinking out loud.”
Mercifully, the Millers were silent for once.
“I’m hungry,” Jack whined. His parents both flinched. Everything edible was either eaten or frozen.
“I’ll make you some hot chocolate.” Ella scrambled to her feet, laying the baby next to the Millers on the couch. Eric had devised a way to heat water by balancing an old camping kettle and one of the stove grates over the fire.
“I don’t want hot chocolate,” the boy stuck his bottom lip out. “I want grilled cheese.”
Ella gritted her teeth. “There’s no more bread,” she said. “You can’t have grilled cheese.”
There was no more milk either, or cheese, or much of anything else. She didn’t know how she was going to keep her children fed, especially the baby. How she wished she hadn’t let her mom talk her out of breastfeeding. And how she wished they hadn’t been so dependent on weekly or even daily trips to the grocery store.
“There’s bread at our house.” Mrs. Miller threw her quilt to one side. “I can go get it.”
Her husband grabbed her arm, preventing her from standing. “Don’t be silly, Martha. You can’t go traipsing through the snow. “I’ll go.”
“Neither one of you will go.” Eric climbed to his feet. “Just tell me where it is, and I’ll go.”
The old couple looked at each other, weighing the wisdom of letting someone into their home unsupervised.
“For heaven’s sake,” Eric held out his hand. “Just give me the key and I promise not to take anything except food. It’s either that or we sit here and starve.”
Mr. Miller reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring of keys. “It’s the blue one,” he muttered. “Thank you, Eric.”
Ella followed him to the back door. “Bring anything you can find,” she whispered. “We can thaw canned goods or meat. And can you bring in some more wood too?”
“Of course.” He bent down and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry I’m such a grouch.”
“Me too.” She pushed a strand of greasy hair off her forehead. “I just wish we knew how long this would go on.”
“You and me both.” He slipped through the door, opening it only enough to let him through. There was no sense letting in more cold air than necessary.
He was back within fifteen minutes, grim-faced. He set a small box on the counter before going back outside to gather an armful of wood.
When he returned, Ella was staring into the box. “There’s no bread,” she said.
“No, and not much of anything else either.” Eric wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “The kitchen door was broken. Someone beat us to it.”
Ella lowered her head so he couldn’t see the tears that welled up. “I guess everybody is desperate,” she whispered. “Why didn’t we bring all the food over when the Miller’s moved in?”
“There’s a can of soup in there.” He reached in and grabbed a frozen can. “At least the kids and the Millers can have something hot.”
“And tomorrow,” he continued, if the car doesn’t start, I’ll walk to the grocery store and see what they have.”
Eric surveyed his crowded living room. Bodies sprawled everywhere. On the couch, the old couple huddled together under a quilt. Ella and the children were one lump on the other end. The occasional whimper issued from the baby’s mouth, but otherwise, all was silent. Grouped around the fireplace five families, parents and children made their own blanket covered humps.
As the winter had worn on, he had opened the door to many tentative knocks. On the step would be two gaunt scarecrows, holding their children by the hand, or in their arms. The smoke issuing from the chimney had led them like a siren’s call. Where there was smoke, there was warmth. Eric wished he could offer them more.
All of them were dirty. The men’s beards hung below their chests. The children…oh the children, with their mournful eyes and their silent pleas. The babies were the worst. Babies should laugh and cry and chortle with glee. They shouldn’t hang on to their mother’s coat, silent and too weak to make their misery known.
Eric dropped his armload of wood onto the floor. A few of the men sat up, blinking in the sunlight. Dawn was coming earlier now, and Eric had opened the drapes to capture every iota of heat he could.
“That’s the last of the wood,” Eric said. “Luckily it's starting to warm up. Most of the snow has gone.”
“I’ll take my car today and see if I can find some food,” Jim from next door said. “Maybe there are farmers who have managed to save something.”
He nudged his wife. “C’mon, Hon. It’ll be warm in the car.”
“For how long?” she retorted. “Until we run out of gas?” But she struggled to her feet and pulled the blankets from where they covered her three children.
Ella watched bleakly from the couch. “Will you come back if you find anything?” she asked.
Jim shrugged and began herding his family towards the door. “I don’t know. It depends on how far we have to go.”
His wife stopped and came back to hug Ella. “Thanks for taking us in, Ella. You too Eric. At least we were miserable together. And if we find food, I’ll find a way to let you know.” She hurried after her husband.
Everybody was awake now. The five men stood in a group by the window, discussing their next move. The women and children snuggled closer to each other. Two of the babies started to cry, their voices a thin wail. Only the Millers didn’t stir. Ella reached to adjust the blanket over their emaciated forms, then hesitated.
“Eric.” She whispered.
He glanced her way, saw the hovering hand and the reason for her discomfort. The blankets were not moving. He stepped closer and gently lifted a corner of their cover. The two faces were grey but strangely peaceful looking. He replaced the blanket.
“Are they dead?” Ella asked. She tightened her hold on the baby. Jack looked up at his father with dull eyes.
“I’m afraid so.” Eric nodded toward the other men. “They went together, so we can take comfort in that. We’ll take them back to their house for now.”
“But then what?” one of the women shrilled. “We can’t leave them there for too long.”
Two of the men lifted the feather-light bodies and carried them out. Eric followed, not answering the woman. The ground was thawing, he thought, so if nothing changed, they would have to bury the old couple in the backyard. He glanced towards his own family. If they didn’t find food soon, there would be more bodies. And with the snow fast disappearing they would need another source of water too. Maybe Jim had the right idea. Get in the car and drive until they reached somewhere there was food, or the power was on.
In his heart, he knew that if the power outage was local, someone would have come to rescue the city. There had been no sound on the battery powered radio. No planes had flown over and no official had come to the door with an explanation.
They were on their own.
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Oh, I wanna know what really caused the blackout!
I'll have to figure that out myself in the next episode.
Terrifying scenario, Joanne! And so heartbreakingly realistic for the premise. You conveyed the desperation and hunger so well. Excellent entry for the prompt!
Thank you so much for your kind comment. It's not that far fetched is it?
Not at all! I've read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, and this is entirely believable... and like I said, realistic too!