The Last Page
by J. E. Deegan
part 1 of 2
At 6.00 a.m. it happened again.
Terry Abbott silenced the alarm of his antiquated wind-up clock, rewound the alarm key, then shifted to a sitting position to watch the perpetually fascinating and reassuringly constant miracle taking place beyond the huge French windows.
The sun was rising, first peeking red-eyed and hesitant over the ragged line of hills to the east, then turning gold and confident in the brightening sky. He watched it with the same sense of wonder that captured him virtually every morning until the golden circle became too overpowering to look upon; until the familiar comforting feeling again washed over him: Everything is in order; all is right with the world.
An hour later — showered, shaved, dressed in jeans, UCLA sweatshirt and frayed deck shoes — he was mentally reviewing his work schedule for the day while on his way to the kitchen for coffee and toast. An architect specializing in private residences, he lived alone in the house that also served as his office on an isolated wedge of land jutting into the Pacific just north of Big Sur.
Finish the Garton sketches... look at the specs on the Wolford job, he told himself as he entered the living room with its oversized floor-to-ceiling window and stately French doors. One step into the room he froze, as though he had just walked into an invisible wall.
The world beyond the window was engulfed with flame, and the sudden shock of the inconceivable turned his heart into an acrobat.
When his senses gathered enough for movement, he rushed to the French doors and stumbled onto the balcony, where in an instant one dreaded fear gave way to another. The house appeared safe; his brief survey revealed no sign of fire in the acres of brush and scrawny trees that sloped steeply toward the shore. But the rush of relief he felt quickly vanished, replaced by a soundless swell of dread that began an uncontrollable tumble when his mind fully recorded the enormity of what his eyes were relaying.
The horizon, fronted by the rough, blue-skinned Pacific, was completely ablaze. North to south for as far as he could see was flame; an incredibly immense curtain of twisting, smokeless fire that stretched upward from the water’s surface for what must have been miles.
“Sweet holy Jesus! What the hell is that?!” The words fell from his mouth like boulders.
Panic took over, then. He felt his insides move one way, then another. His limbs, too, began moving; arms to left and right in senseless little circles; feet shuffling awkwardly in a drunken dance. His mind dashed around his skull like a fear-crazed animal in a burning cage. Then something over which he had no control began asking questions in a quivering, rapid-fire voice. A ship?... an explosion?... a nuclear warhead detonated... Good God!... has the world finally gone berserk?!
The answer, he somehow knew, was that nothing known to man could have produced this impossibly enormous inferno. What could, then?
That question had no answer, and he just stood there, his eyes so round they ached, his mind frozen by incredulity.
Minutes passed before his attention shifted to a swirling trail of dust working its way up the dirt road from the south. The sight settled him somewhat because he began to realize that he wasn’t alone and that there was a chance that he hadn’t gone mad.
A short time later, a deep blue Jeep Cherokee skidded to a stop beneath the balcony. Doug Green, Terry’s neighbor a half-mile to the south, flew from the Jeep and shouted up to him. “What the hell do you make of that, Terry?”
Doug didn’t wait for a reply. He raced toward the front door, then up the stairs to the second level and the balcony. “What is that?” he panted, as though he honestly expected Terry to know the answer.
Terry shook his head. “I don’t know. I saw it for the first time just a few minutes ago.”
“Well... I can tell you it wasn’t there a few hours ago,” said Doug. “I pulled in about two this morning and it wasn’t there then.” Doug’s voice tightened with worry as he explained that he had dropped his wife off at the airport. She had taken a late flight to San Antonio to visit her folks.
Terry looked at Doug and sought something that might ease his friend’s concern. “She’ll be all right. Whatever that is seems just... just there. Off to the west.”
Doug nodded lamely. “Yeah, I know. But I tried calling San Antonio as soon as I saw the damn thing and I couldn’t get through. The phone was dead. Have you tried yours?”
Terry scrambled back into the living room. “No. You try while I turn on the TV and the radio.”
“Don’t expect much,” said Doug, angling off toward the kitchen. “All I got from mine... even the car radio... was static.”
Terry got the same. His TV and radio mimicked each other with a grating racket of hissing noise. He snapped them off as a sward of clammy fear raced along his spine.
“Your phone’s out, too,” yelled Doug. “Dead as death.”
Silence followed. The two men stared at each other, each searching for an answer that didn’t exist.
“Hell and damn, Terry. What are we going to do?” Doug’s voice seemed made of gravel slowly tumbling in his throat.
“Leave... get the hell out of here. That’s what.”
Doug’s face creased. He shook his head. “I tried before I came here. The main road’s packed tight — bumper to bumper — a dead stop for as far as you can see. Hell, I’d have never believed that that many people lived around here.”
“Funny, isn’t it, how a monstrous wall of flame can bring all your neighbors out,” said Terry without humor.
Doug didn’t laugh.
A half-hour later, the two men sat in matching deck chairs on the balcony. Each had a mug of hot coffee gripped in a fist. Each had exhausted his ideas as to what could have caused the incredible curtain of flame.
“It’s odd,” said Doug. “It doesn’t seem to be moving. It’s just sitting there, burning like an opened door to hell.”
“Yeah,” sighed Terry, “but it makes you wonder what’s happening on the other side, doesn’t it?”
Doug turned to answer, then snapped his eyes past Terry. He pointed toward the north. “That looks like Tony and Laura.”
Terry recognized the slate-gray Chevy van weaving up the hill. It belonged to Tony and Laura Glenn, the other inhabitants of the small peninsula. The Chevy ground to a stop next to Doug’s Jeep and four people scurried out. Only the Glenns were familiar.
“Who’s with them?” asked Terry.
Doug shrugged. “Beats me.”
Tony Glenn waved weakly toward the balcony, his eyes wide and confused. He stared at Terry and Doug pleadingly, as though one or the other would say something to turn this preposterous nightmare into a harmless joke. Fear coated Laura Glen’s face as though painted there. Her mouth hung slackly open and her eyes reflected a terrible, ineluctable certainty. Tony put a hand to her shoulder, but she stepped away from him.
A “Hi there” drifted up to the balcony, and Terry’s eyes shifted to a woman he didn’t know. “You must be Terry,” she said, a wry smile curling the edges of her mouth.
Terry nodded, then caught himself staring at her. She was attractive. Slender but well proportioned. In profile the bulge of her breasts was obvious and her butt made a smooth, perfect arc beneath her white tennis shorts. Her blonde hair was short and curled in a controlled sort of chaos about her head, and her nose curved slightly upward with a pert, almost haughty slope. She turned to the balcony and Terry almost smiled at the “I CUSS!” emblazoned across her T-shirt.
“I’m Beth Bennington, Laura’s sister, visiting from Memphis. The gentleman you don’t know is my fiancé, Richard Temple.” She tossed her head toward him. “Forgive his rudeness, but he’s not what you’d call the talkative type. It interferes with his drinking.”
Terry glanced at the man, who, glass in hand, stood still as stone and stared curiously at the wall of flame.
“Some show you’re putting on here, Terry,” Beth continued. “But you didn’t have to go to all this trouble on our account.” She laughed, lightly and casually.
Laura Glenn spun abruptly on her heels. “For the love of God, Beth! Do you have to make a joke out of everything? Are you insane? Don’t you realize what’s happening out there?”
Beth gave a wearied sigh. “No, Laura, I don’t. And neither do you. So why get bent out of shape about it?”
“You are a fool, Beth!” Laura was shouting now and pointing a shaking finger toward the monstrous inferno. “Look out there! Can’t you see that the world is coming to an end?!”
Beth’s eyes rolled up in her head. “Honestly, Laura. You’re becoming a real bore with all that doom-and-gloom crap. It’s all you’ve said since we first saw that thing.”
Doug nudged Terry. “If they intend on staying, looks like we’re in for one hell of a day.”
Terry looked at the blazing horizon. “I’d say we are anyway.”
Tony moved between Beth and Laura and was about to speak when Beth’s head snapped suddenly upward. She pointed to about ten o’clock, her hand followed by every eye.
“Holy good God,” whispered Doug.
Two jets, military fighters by their sleek look, were speeding toward the curtain of flame. Seconds later, one of them broke off in a wide loop while the other raced steadily ahead, its wings rolling as if in signal to its partner. The six spectators watched the jet surge closer to the inferno, and for a moment Terry tried to gauge the distance to the immense firestorm by using a hastily formulated approximation of the plane’s speed and altitude.
It might have worked, but time ran out.
Whatever the pilot was trying to do didn’t work either. The jet suddenly began to tremble, and within seconds the trembling became a violent shaking.
“Pull out! Pull out, you bloody idiot!” Doug shouted, his face contorting to a stiff gruesome mask. “Oh, Jesus! He’s not going to make it. The air currents are too strong. He’s not going to make it!”
He tried. The nose of the troubled jet turned up for a second, but the grip of the turbulence near the furious wall of fire had it snared. An instant later the plane began cartwheeling downward, turning over and over in a series of twisting loops. It exploded in a raging fireball of red, orange and blue flame, and the earth shook with a sound like giant trees snapping.
Only Laura Glenn didn’t watch the burning remnants of the plane and pilot drift down like charred confetti. Her hands were glued to her face. She was screaming.
* * *
When the sky cleared of debris, a silent pall settled over everyone. No one seemed to know what to do or say. Doug Green slumped disconsolately into a chair on the balcony, his eyes locked on the monstrous wall of flame. Terry stood at the railing and looked blankly down upon the four people below. Laura was on her knees, staring at the ground like a praying Buddha. Tony and Beth stood next to her, their eyes frozen on the spot where fragments of the doomed jet had splashed into the Pacific.
Only Richard Temple moved. He hoisted his glass toward the fiery wall then lumbered toward the station wagon. There he struggled to remove a large cooler and lower it to the ground. He pulled a fresh bottle out then sat on the cooler and leaned back against the wagon, opened bottle on its way to his mouth.
Terry finally spoke. “Everybody come inside. We’ve got to talk about this.”
Tony shook his head and insisted that they check out the main road again. After convincing no one to accompany him, he set out on his own in the station wagon.
Richard Temple posed a different problem. He was perfectly content to just sit on the cooler and stare at the blazing panorama between swigs from his bottle. Beth finally grabbed his collar and pulled him to his feet. Richard shrugged his shoulders and lugged the cooler into the house.
They gathered in the living room. What there was to talk about, they talked about then. Doug, who had flown transports over Viet Nam, controlled the discussion and did most of the talking. He suggested that they “assess the situation,” and in true military fashion he organized the obvious facts. A half-hour later he decreed that the wisest thing to do was to stay put and not panic. He concluded with a grim postscript: “If that jet couldn’t get close to that mountain of flame, there’s nothing I know of that can.”
“Why don’t we talk about what might have caused it?” Beth suggested. “We could each take a turn and say what we think.”
Laura looked incredulously at her sister, then spoke slowly and deliberately, as though she were addressing a child. “Why, Beth? What possible good will that do?” Her calm delivery might have been caused by the gin she had been drinking, or it might have been an outgrowth of the hopeless finality she envisioned for the world.
Copyright © 2007 by J. E. Deegan