With a flick William Sharpe struck the match against the phosphorus striking pad. Accompanied by the shearing sound of fire coming to life, yellow blossomed from the match head. It faded as quickly as it bloomed. William nurtured it, protecting the fragile flame by cupping his other hand near it while he touched it to a candle wick.
Hesitant at first, the wick took the flame, which grew as large as it was during that initial burst when the match first ignited. William flicked his wrist again, rapidly this time, depriving the flaming match of oxygen. Smoke streamed from the match head. He tossed it onto the base of the candle-holder, and picking up the holder itself, proceeded to use the new flame to light another candle, illuminating his kitchen.
William Sharpe was listening to the news reports of the Martian invasion when the power went out. There was no panic, his objectives were clear. First, gather his rifle, his pistol, a pack with a change of clothes. Second, head to Younquist’s Drug and General, load up on supplies. Third — get the hell out of Concrete.
By light of the candle he carried, William collected his rifle, his pistol, and two boxes of ammunition for each. The pistol was a Colt Nineteen Eleven. It tucked right in between his back and his belt. If he ran into any Martians, he’d see how they dealt with forty-five ACP.
He threw a pair of jeans in his duffel, two pairs of socks, two shirts, and another pair of boots. Hoisting the bag over his shoulder, he went back to the kitchen. He blew both candles out, grabbed his rifle, and left the house.
His Ford rumbled down the road to town, and Younquist’s. People stood in their front yards, slack-jawed, looking skyward. Yokels, William thought. Simple folk. Stay here and get gassed by Martians. He didn’t care. William was a survivor. From Haddington, Scotland, throughout Europe, to the Americas, East to West Coast, after sixty-eight years on this Earth, he ended up in Concrete, Washington. He didn’t figure he reached his age by indulging in sentiment. No, William Sharpe was a pragmatist, and his priority at all times was the health and safety of William Sharpe.
A flashing red light caught in his rear view mirror. Glancing up, he saw headlights closing swiftly. He slowed a bit, and the deputy sheriff’s Ford Model Seventy-Eight took the other lane, swerving past so rapidly the displaced air shook William’s thirty-four Ford Eighteen.
William grinned to himself. Shite was truly hitting the fan. Good. He’d been telling everyone for years. Family and those close enough to be called friends mocked him. It never stopped him from maintaining a quiet cabin up in the foothills of Mt. Baker. Everyone he knew, he told them this was coming. The end.
Another set of headlights appeared in the rearview, closing as quickly as the previous. This car passed too, again rocking the chassis of his Ford back and forth on its frame.
“Why is everyone in such a hurry?”
Red light flashing atop the roof of his car, Jimmy Lawson passed William Sharpe on the outskirts of town, slowing as he turned on to Main. It was the god-damndest thing in the dark of a rainy Sunday evening in October, but people were out in their yards — in the street. Power outages were common in this part of the world, at this time of year. High winds buffeted conifer limbs, saturated, heavy with rain. When the winds were strong the branches couldn’t take the weight. They broke. Three to four inches thick, more at times, the limbs fell across power lines, snapping them. Power outages in the Fall and Winter were a part of life in Western Washington, but people didn’t usually leave their houses to congregate in the street because of it. Especially in this rain. It wasn’t warm like a Los Angeles rain. It was a miserable forty degree Washington rain.
He figured people weren’t out and about exclusively because the power outage. That explosion had ’em all riled up. In the periphery of the windshield a woman ran toward the street. In a blue dress with a white apron, she waved for his attention. He recognized Evelene Bates as he closed the distance. He pulled off the street into the small parking lot at Mort’s Diner and leapt out of the car.
“Sheriff, we need help, it’s Mort!” Evelene rushed over to him, her face flushed red, hair dripping in the rain.
“I’m a deputy, Evelene. Sheriff McCarthy’s my boss. What’s the matter?” They walked toward the front entrance of the restaurant.
“Power went out after that explosion. Radio says it’s Martians. Mort grabs his rifle, yells at us to get out of his diner. Herds us out the front door, next thing I know he’s on his knees, holding his chest.”
“Radio said the Martian invasion killed thousands on the East Coast.”
“You call a doctor?”
“I tried, but the phone lines are down. It’s bad, isn’t it, Sheriff?”
“Deputy.” Jimmy corrected her.
Mort is on the ground in front of the diner. A handful of people are standing several paces distant around him. Jimmy recognized Evelene, Reuben Rickner and his wife Joy, and Morgan Dillard the accountant. Everyone except the little tramp, he’d never seen her before. Mort brandished an old lever action rifle, a grimace on his face.
“Keep your filthy got-dang Martian mitts off o’ me!” Mort’s face was redder than usual. Steam wafted from him as the cold rain drummed against his puffy flesh. His body went rigid. His eyes closed, he bared his teeth and gasped. A hand left the rifle to grasp at his chest, the other hand still wrapped around the lever of the rifle. “I swear…” Mort labored to breathe, “I swear, I’ll…”
Jimmy knelt next to Mort and wrested the rifle out of his hand. Mort’s now free hand went to his chest while he clenched his jaw.
“Mort, it’s Jimmy. What the hell’s going on here?”
Mort opened one eye and looked up at Jimmy, “Really you, Jimmy?”
“Yeah, Mort. It’s me. Listen, Mort, I need you to cough.”
“Cough?” Mort smiled through the pain, “You want to fondle my fuckin’ balls while you’re at it, you goddamn queer?” Mort’s laughter was cut short as pain gripped him.
“I need you to cough, Mort.” Jimmy smiled at his friend, “I’ll grab you by the fucking balls if it gets you to cough, you ornery son of a bitch!”
Mort laughed through the pain. He grabbed Jimmy’s shoulder with one hand, “Help me stand up. Give me my gun, there’s Martians!”
“Forget Martians, Mort! Sit your ass down and cough!” Jimmy shouted.
“Okay! Fuckin’ fine, I’ll do it.” Mort forced a cough.
“Again!” Jimmy yelled at him, “Keep coughing!”
“Seen this before.” Natalie sidled up close to Evelene, “His ticker’s done tocked out.”
“Don’t say that.” Though her tears were invisible in the constant rain running down her face, Evelene couldn’t help wiping them away.
Natalie put an arm around Evelene, drawing her close, “Sorry. It’s hard to watch.” Evelene stiffened at the contact. She liked Natalie, but wasn’t comfortable with this level of contact. Unsure how to respond in this awkward moment, she gave in to it.
Headlights illuminated the scene. Another car pulled into the lot.
“Leave your lights on!” Jimmy shouted at the driver, then continued telling Mort to cough. Mort was coughing in a sort of rhythm now, prompted by Jimmy’s shouts.
Leaving the headlights on, Harrison Treadwell stepped out of the car and put on a hat. He pulled a long coat off of the bench seat and threw it on. After putting a cigarette in his mouth, he stuffed the pack into one of his coat pockets. Head tilted forward, he used the brim of his hat to shield the cigarette in his mouth from the rain. He approached Natalie and Evelene while fumbling through a pocket for his lighter.
Looking up, he saw Mort on the ground, Jimmy leaning over, rifle in hand. There was a flash of lightning. A few seconds later thunder shook the sky behind him, and the parking lot was gone. The cars were gone. The diner didn’t exist anymore. Another explosion ruptured the air behind him. Harrison crouched, back against the muddy wall of a trench in Verdun, France. A few feet away another soldier tended a wounded man whose chest was riddled with shrapnel from a mortar round that fell in the trench. The injured soldier screamed horrific, a wet sound that gurgled in his throat. The soldier trying to aid him shouted for help. Others shouted. Everyone was shouting, or cowering in silence like Harrison. The trench itself was narrow, lined by wooden beams. The floor was mud stained red as rivulets of blood mixed with the rain pooled in the impressions made by boots. Harrison’s socks were saturated, his feet cold. His ears rang from the constant shelling. His body rocked in time with his thundering heart.
“Need a light?” A woman’s voice pierced the haze, and a single flame in the center of his vision burned away the memory.
The young vagrant girl was holding a lit IMCO trench-lighter in front of Harrison. Shielding the flame from the rain with her other hand, she smiled, “Spare one of those butts, mister?”
Harrison grounded himself against the flame. A hobo. A pretty young waiter. Jimmy Lawson, Mort’s Diner. Concrete, Washington. Nineteen thirty-eight.
He leaned in, touched his cigarette to the flame and puffed until it was lit. He took a deep pull and released the tension of the flashback from his body. Pulling out his pack of cigarettes, he offered one to the hobo girl, “Thank you.”
“No sweat.” She lit the cigarette and stowed the lighter in a pocket, “Name’s Natalie.” She held out a dirty hand clad in a frayed fingerless glove.
He shook her hand, “Harrison.”
“We need a goddamn doctor, here!” Jimmy commanded, “Harrison, that you?”
“Yeah, Jimmy, it’s me.” Harrison approached Jimmy and Mort.
“You were in the war, you gotta know something can help Mort.”
“Sure, Jimmy. Let’s get him inside, out of the rain. Anyone here call a doctor?”
“Phones are down, Mr. Treadwell.” It was Evelene Bates. She was ten years older than the last time he’d seen her, when she was a child, but he still recognized the daughter of his schoolmates Warren and Kathryn Bates.
“Evelene. Good to see you all grown up.”
“You too, Mr. Treadwell.” Harrison smiled at her, “Not ‘all grown up,’ I mean…”
“Evelene, we need a doctor. Roy Gordon still live next block over?” He inclined his head Westward.
“Last I knew. Want I should fetch him?”
“Please. Tell him it’s urgent. Meantime, we’ll be here at the diner doing what we can for Mort.”
Evelene took off running. “Wait! I’m coming with you!” Natalie tossed her cigarette in a puddle and lit out after Evelene.
As steeled as William Sharpe was determined to keep his nerves, the pure thrill of excitement crept in. The Martian invasion. The flight to Younquist’s. The police car, and then the other whipping by him. The plan. His plan. Adrenaline crept in, flushed through him, and he didn’t even realize it, but his grip on the steering wheel tightened. His foot on the gas pedal depressed just a bit more. The engine revved higher. His eyes on the wet road before him, illuminated by his headlights only. The needle gauge of the speedometer crept up a notch at a time. William was well past speeding when he drove into the town of Concrete.
Two figures. A woman in a blue dress with a white apron. Another woman in a dark coat and tattered pants. His headlights illuminated them, running across the street. In an instant, he unconsciously calculated his rate of speed against theirs, and the likelihood that he would hit them, their bodies smashed beneath the weight and mass of his speeding car. An instinctive reaction, he cranked the wheel and jammed the brakes.
Tires screeched. The sound of metal impacting metal ripped through the night. A horn sounded. Red light flashing against the side of Mort’s Diner went crazy.
Harrison and Jimmy looked up in time to see Jimmy’s car roll toward them end-over-end through the diner parking lot.