Monday, 7:01 pm [123 hours and 31 minutes post-event]
“Did you know her well?”
“I’m sorry what?” Matt turned to the landlady lingering at the apartment’s threshold.
“Ms. Peterson, did you know her well?” she asked. The light from the apartment hallway bounced off the green wallpaper and added a slightly sickly pallor to her otherwise warm face.
“Not personally, she went to my mother’s church. She wasn’t in touch with any of her relatives, so my mother volunteered us to help sort out…” He gestured vaguely to the living room. All of the cushioned furniture was piled with decorative pillows and crocheted shawls, but it was all stiff. Nothing was to be sat on. No amount of doilied pillows could cover the hard austerity on which it all perched.
“With everything going on, I’m surprised people noticed she was gone so soon.”
“Well, with everything going on, people have been checking in, doing head counts.” Matt moved into the breakfast nook, where a neat oak table stood empty, except for a bleach white table runner with a single squat candle at the center. Even from a few feet away, he could smell the unlit candle. It had the overwhelming reek of would-be roses designed by someone who must never have smelt the real thing. “I’m just here to check on everything. It will be a little while before her estate is settled.”
“Well, she’s paid through the month, so there’s no hurry.” The landlady moved into the living room herself. “It’s a bit stuffy.”
“We can always air it out.” Matt moved over to the apartment’s balcony door and yanked it open. A draft from the open front door swept through the space and lifted dust into the air, including where a large amount had congregated around one well-worn armchair, the only one not buried in pillows. They froze as it hung in the air for a moment before the draft pushed some of the dust over the balcony, and the wind took the rest.
Thursday, 12:45 pm [21 hours and 15 minutes post-event]
“Can you elaborate on what you saw?”
“There was so much dust, and it happened so quickly. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“It began suddenly?”
“Yes, everything was normal, and then suddenly…the dust…the man across the street… No one talks about the way men scream.”
“The dust appeared suddenly.”
“Y–yes, it was in the air, it was everywhere, and the wind, the wind took the rest.”
“What do you think caused––“
“––I’m sorry, I, I can’t.”
“Things remain unclear concerning the events of the last twenty-four hours, but we’ll keep you up-to-date as events unfold. We move now to our correspondent in Detroit, Jamal Hanks, with another eye-witness account. This is Matthew Jordan in Saint Paul with Channel Seven News.”
Sunday, 4:16 pm [96 hours and 46 minutes post-event]
“I just don’t know what I’m supposed to tell the kids.”
“No one is expecting you to have an answer,” Corrine responded over her shoulder as she wiped down one of the desks.
“The kids most definitely do, and they’re going to have more questions next week,” Connie replied as she gathered up the spent art supplies. “They understand something happened, and that it’s scaring people, including their parents. I mean we decorated condolence cards today; they want to know what people are being comforted for. Most of them don’t know anyone directly that…well, that it happened to.”
“Thank God for that. Whatever it was didn’t impact many.”
“With something like this, it doesn’t exactly need to be a lot of people for it to be terrifying.” Connie deposited the scraps–bits of paper, spent markers, a dried up glue stick–in the trash before grabbing a basket to gather up what they could use again. Corrine finished wiping down a table and stretched out her back, as she looked out across the parking lot that connected the annex to the church. The flower beds by the church steps still needed to be raked out before the gardening volunteers could plant for the warmer weather. She didn’t mean to be blasé about what happened, but until they knew more…the garden still needed planting.
Looking back into the room, she surveyed the little desks, the bookshelves with the row of bibles, and the children’s art pinned on the wall. On the wall behind, a mural of brightly colored animals made their way onto Noah’s ark and hanging by the door, a poster of Jesus with the words, “HE BELIEVES IN YOU.” The decorations had been added over the years, as donations or the church budget allowed. She turned to Connie, “What do you think happened?”
Connie paused in her gathering. “The news is calling it an act of god. I know they just mean it as a placeholder phrase, but I don’t know how else you can explain it. It happened everywhere. The reports coming in haven’t said any children yet, but otherwise, what did any of those people have in common? I think half the reason things aren’t worse is that people don’t even know how to be afraid of something like this. Do you lock your doors? Band together? Wait it out?”
“Believe me, I have done no shortage of that.”
“And what do you pray?”
“God, help me to understand, and in the meantime,” she gestured to the classroom, “let me understand how I can help.”
Wednesday, 3:19 pm [T-minus eleven minutes to event]
“I’m not in the mood for whatever this is.”
“In our defense, you’re seldom in the mood for anything,” she replied from where she was perched on the arm of the couch, “though, for what’s it worth, that’s a problem that’s about to expire.”
“I just don’t appreciate someone barging into my home and demanding things of me,” Geneva retorted from the chair she’d peevishly seated herself in a moment before. “It’s hardly polite.”
The woman chuckled from across the room. “You’re not the first to charge us with rudeness. But, that’s a secondary concern at present.”
“I think I get to decide what’s a primary concern in my own house. You can’t just walk right in––”
“You most certainly di–” Geneva paused. She didn’t actually remember how the woman had entered. Her memory had a skip in it; until that moment she hadn’t bothered to wonder how the woman was there. She felt the floor of her mind tilt a bit.
“The normal concerns, I’m afraid, aren’t going to fit nicely into this exchange. We best just move to the heart of the matter. It’s just simpler that way. I don’t mean to rush us.” The woman gave an apologetic shrug with just enough sympathy around her eyes to turn what Geneva would have assumed was a mocking gesture into one of genuine regret.
“Are we pressed for time?” It was supposed to be a bit biting, but she heard unexpected concern color her own tone.
“Technically, we have all the time in the world. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to need it.”
Something about the woman’s tone angered Geneva. There was a rising mix of pity and assumed authority, something you would use to tell an unwilling patient of an impending amputation. “What do you want from me?”
“An answer to a rather imperative question.”
“Right, your god question. I’m not in the mood for such a childishly simplistic one.”
The woman sighed, like Geneva was a child. She rose from the arm of the couch and looked out the window onto Geneva’s lawn and neighborhood. She pressed a hand to the glass. No doubt smearing it, Geneva thought, like a child would.
“You’ve spent all this time dismissing worries about whether or not you believe in God, but you never spent a moment’s fear on the more important question.”
“Am I a good person?” This time Geneva managed some condescension.
The woman laughed. “That is an important question, but simple enough to be beyond you. No, we can move instead to a bigger, the biggest question, since that’s all you’re interested in.”
“And that’s not, ‘Is there a god?’”
“That’s just a big question for you. The answer only affects you, not the world.”
Geneva felt her irritation spike. Dismissing the question had been her response; she didn’t like the way the woman was now agreeing with her. “I would argue that the answer affects my world quite a bit.”
Sunlight struck the window with a fiery hue, and the woman’s eyes multiplied in the reflection of the glass briefly before she slowly wheeled around. “But it’s not really your world now is it?”
Geneva felt her stomach drop a bit, and her vision narrowed to just the woman. “What is the question?”
“You never ask it the other way ‘round. Do I believe in God? You never think to ask if the reverse is true, or better yet, what if it stops being true?”
Geneva’s spine pulled in on itself. She stood suddenly and felt a wash of vertigo. Attempting to gather herself into chilly composure, she told the woman, “I think it’s time for you to leave. I have an appointment I mustn’t be late for.”
The woman tilted her head sympathetically and gave a nod.
“Yes, you agree,” Geneva said. “It’s time you were gone.”
Geneva moved out of her living room toward the front door. She wanted the woman out of her house. As she started down the entry hall, she collided with the wall. Gripping it, she focused on the door and drew a breath. It scratched against her throat, and her exhale pushed its way out like a blade cutting cross-grain. She pushed herself further toward the door as a dry cough chased the coarse breath. As her knees buckled, she caught herself on the doorknob. She couldn’t tell if the woman had followed her. She meant to turn and see, but her vision tunneled. Air didn’t seem to want to stay in her lungs. She needed air. With a desperate pull, she yanked the door open and braced herself against it. The air met her skin and sliced through it.
“It’s time,” Geneva’s words scraped over her tongue, a whisper like dry reeds. She stumbled forward onto the stoop, as her knees gave out from under her. She fell forward but never struck the ground.
Dust rolled over the lawn. Some caught in the grass, some slid across the pavement, and the wind took the rest.