Ma's tomato plants are wilting in the sun-scorched earth. Tied by old shoelaces to wood stakes to hold them up, the plants look as if they're being held in the garden against their will and being subjected to torture by the heat. The vines are limp; many of their leaves droop, with their tips and edges curled. They had been stripped that morning of the few tomatoes they had produced. Ma had put them in a birch basket on top of some scrawny carrots and undersized cucumbers.
Before carrying the basket into the house, she wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her gloved hand, looked up at the hazy white sky and said, “God save us.”
From the edge of the garden that is surrounded by mesh wire to keep out raccoons, rabbits, and deer, the flat earth beyond our property is carpeted in brown grass that stretches out to the horizon. Electric power lines stretch from one metal transmission tower to the next that stand a good distance apart on a broad path that bisects the prairie. There is something comforting in the almost inaudible humming coming from the wires.
The fan above the dining room table swirls slowly, making little difference in the stillness of the hot air. With each completed turn of the fan's blades, it makes a loud clicking noise, something Pa has said he would fix for as long as I can recall.
He's sitting at one end of the table and rubbing an ice cube across his stubbled cheeks. There are large sweat stains under his arms. His plate of food sits in front of him, untouched. Visible waves of heat rise up from the mound of mashed potatoes. Butter flows over them like bright yellow lava.
“Eat, Henry,” Ma says. “Your food is going to get cold.”
She stifles a gasp and repeats quietly the word “cold” as if uncertain of its meaning.
Pa dips his fingers into his iced tea and takes out another ice cube. He runs it across his lips and then puts it in his mouth. While making sucking sounds, he says, “The water in the stream that flows under Pony Bridge was warm, really warm, this afternoon. There were dead catfish and bass floating on the top.”
I push cooked carrots around on my plate, wishing I had grown to like them long before this.
Suddenly the fan stops rotating. The house has become silent, free of the subtle, persistent drone of electricity. Every appliance has stopped.
I grip the edge of the table. My knuckles are white.
Ma and Pa look at each other, searching for something indefinable in one another's eyes.
Then the blades of the fan begin to move.
The chain holding the swinging chair to the roof of the porch squeaks loudly with every swing backward. Night hasn't brought cooler weather and it feels like I'm breathing with a plastic bag over my head. It's too hot to sit with my arm around Jennifer's shoulders. She sits at the other end of the seat, her legs drawn up to her chest with her arms wrapped around them. Strands of her long brunette hair are glued by perspiration to her face.
“The grocery store was sold out of almost everything,” she says. “But there was a whole bunch of folks just standing in the aisles because of the air conditioning.”
She swats at a horsefly that was buzzing around her head.
A coyote's bark reverberates from the darkness of the prairie. A shooting star slices across the sky, disappearing as abruptly as it appeared.
“Are you sure you want to put off the wedding until October?” I say.
She combs back her hair with her fingers and runs her tongue across her lower lip. “No one wants to travel in this heat to a wedding.”
“It could just be our immediate families,” I say.
As if propelled off of the swing, she unfurls her legs and leaps off of the seat. In the glare of the light cast by the uncovered bulb in the socket above the door, the features of her face look flattened, as if her face had been ironed.
“Not now. Not in this heat,” she says breathlessly as if gulping for air. She slumps against the porch railing and softly cries.
The bulb flickers then goes out.
I stare at the dark bulb, bite into my index finger, and wait.
When the bulb comes back on a few minutes later I realize I've peed in my pants.
Jennifer has left the porch and is going to her car.
In my bedroom, the lamp on the stand by my bed is on. The hot breeze blowing in through the open window carries with it grit and flying insects. A hawk's screech comes from very near the house. Lying naked on the sheet, rivulets of sweat run down my chest and between my legs. My body feels restrained, weighed down on the bed, held in place by an imaginary boulder sitting on my chest. I try to not think about how difficult it is to take each breath.
Ringo is curled up on the end of the mattress. His heavy panting causes the bed to vibrate. Twice he's emptied his water bowl in the past few hours.
I hear my parents in the hallway outside my door.
“I don't want you going hunting tomorrow,” Ma says.
“A single deer would put enough venison in the freezer for a month,” Pa says.
“It's not hunting season,” Ma says. “You could get arrested, or in this heat, something worse . . .” Her voice trails off.
“I'll be okay,” Pa says. “I'll take along lots of water.”
There is a moment of silence, and then Ma says, “It got up to 120 degrees in Washington, DC today. People are dying on the streets.”
“I know,” Pa says.
When I hear the door to their bedroom open and close, I turn off the lamp. The four nightlights plugged into the outlets along the floorboards glow like lighthouse beacons.
I close my eyes, listening for the sounds of electricity.
Jess is tightly gripping the steering wheel of his old Ford pickup truck. A muscle in his cheek pulsates as he chews on the end of a blade of dead prairie grass. The wheels of his speeding truck spit up clouds of dirt that are quickly blown away by the constant wind. He suddenly slams on the brakes, causing my seatbelt to dig into my chest and abdomen.
“Damn, Jess, what are you doing?” I say.
He quickly unbuckles his seat-belt and throws open his door. “You have to see this,” he says as he leaps out of the truck.
I undo my seat-belt and get out of the truck.
We're at the beginning of a usually dry, narrow river bed that leads to a swimming pool sized pond that we've swam in since we were young boys. He runs along the edge, his boots knocking off large chunks of dirt that fall into the riverbed.
“C'mon slowpoke,” he yells, his voice almost bordering on hysteria.
Even running a few yards, my lungs are taxed from breathing in the scorching heat. He has been standing near the bank of the pond for a few minutes when I come up beside him.
The water is gone. A large, oval-shaped, shallow bowl of dried, cracked mud, remains. An old, rusted bicycle, a car tire and the skeleton of a cow stick out of the dirt.
“Where did it go?” I say.
“I came out here yesterday and this is how I found it.” He takes off his Stetson and runs his hand through his sweat-soaked hair. “Did you notice how quiet it is?” he says. “Where have the birds gone to?”
I scan the prairie, and then the sky. There isn't a bird, or cloud, in sight. Far off I see the power lines and imagine I can hear their hum.
Ringo is lying on the floor in the corner of the living room. He doesn't move as I enter the room and looks at me indifferently. I bend down and hold a dog biscuit in front of his nose. He turns his head away. I lay the dog biscuit on the floor in front of him. He rests his head listlessly on his front paw.
“He's stopped eating and he's gotten lethargic,” I say as I stand.
“It's this weather,” Ma says. She's sitting in Pa's Barcalounger. The box fan is on the floor and aimed at her, bathing her in hot air. She's sewing a button on one of Pa's shirts. Her sewing basket is on the stand next to the chair.
“It's almost dark. I thought Pa would be home from hunting by now,” I say.
She bites into her lower lip and pulls the thread through a buttonhole. “Me too.”
The television is on, but the sound is off. News coverage of massive wildfires in California and Oregon is playing.
“I should have gone with him,” I say.
“He wanted you here in case,” she says.
“In case of what?”
Ma inserts the needle into a buttonhole and pulls the thread through.
I go to the front screen door and watch as small dust devils dance across the driveway. The twilight sky is streaked with rays of dark purple and blood red. Pa's pickup is coming down the road toward our house.
“Pa's home,” I say.
Ma throws aside Pa's shirt and accidentally knocks the sewing basket from the stand as she jumps up. Spools of thread, needles, a pin cushion, thimbles and pieces of ribbon scatter across the floor. She pushes past me and rushes out the door. She reaches the truck just as Pa pulls to a stop. He opens his door and Ma throws her arms around him as he gets out of the truck.
Pa's face is sunburned.
Both Ma and Pa are crying as they cling to each other.
“Everything out there is dying,” he says.
“It's only until all this is over,” Jennifer says.
“The same thing is going on in Canada. And Mexico. And France. And India. Everywhere.”
She is silent for a moment. “I have to go with my family,” she says.
I switch my phone to my other ear. “At least here we still have electricity,” I say. “As long as we have that, then we'll be okay.”
“I love you,” she says, then hangs up.
The night is quiet. Too quiet. On my bed, I stare at the light cast on the ceiling by the lamp.
Ringo stayed in the living room, curled up in a corner, and whining.
The bulb in the lamp and the nightlights flicker, then go out.
Steve Carr is a native of Cincinnati but has traveled extensively in the united states and abroad. He began his writing career as a military journalist. He spent three years in the Army and four years in the Navy. He has had over 220 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He has three collections of short stories published: Sand, and, Rain, both published by Clarendon House Publications, and Heat, published by Czykmate Productions. His plays have been staged in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Editor: L. Naisula
Cover art: Shompole, N.L.