Jan/Feb 2006  •   Fiction

Two Flashes

by Sam Kean

Exactly at 9:00 AM the city sirens rent the morning.

They warned of nothing, changed nothing, and would have prevented very little. Many of the city's residents glanced up, remembered the first of the month, and felt the world functioning as it should. For them the day was not blighted.

For the remainder, the sirens brought the very unease they were meant to purge.

The sirens' sudden trumpeting startled a somber man who had almost reached his building from his morning walk. The hysteresis of his mind, wired for alarm, would not let him relax. A hook wrenched him up by the back of his collar and suspended him for the rest of the day.

Across town, the call of the sirens wafted one young woman almost awake. It seemed as if something had come finally worth her dying for, and like a scent beyond her still-closed eyes, the bedroom filled with the funneled, dreamed-of smoke of bombs. Just as she awoke, it receded. The sirens quiet, she found instead what she most feared: herself, older, and another morning gone.

A small girl, bundled against threats, ran outside in defiance to announce, "No." The sirens ignored her and doubled their call. Her cousins snickered and explained, and with snowballs and snow forts and eating snow, the sirens soon slipped from the child's mind. But the fact the world had ignored her remained a source of unconscious unease, something she could never reconcile.

The call of the city sirens frightened an infant whose father laughed and soothed her at the same time. The call of the sirens of the city stunned a man at a stoplight, and an uncharitable woman behind him honked. The call of the city sirens made pet dogs do odd dances in their masters' bedrooms, and the call of the sirens of the city wove its way into an old man's head, where a moment before played a lost song of which he only remembered a fragment. He had almost extracted the title, and all that would have come with it, when the sirens rose up, and it was the last time the memory would ever come to him.


When Spring Came

It was the first clever thing her daughter had ever done. Wanting to oust the stuffy air, the girl had cracked open the window, cracking the seal of paint and sending paint chips scattering onto the floor. Then, gently, as if to coax a bird inside, she lay down on her bed. The ploy worked doubly well: while the outside air rushed in and cleared the room, the girl, fatigued from her efforts and desire, fell asleep on top of the covers.

The mother had reason for horror when she burst in. Minutes before, halted on the stairs by a scent she did not recognize, she had pressed her nose into the warm shirt topping the laundry in her arms. Her best guess proven wrong, she stood on two stairs, hesitating between up and down, digging her nostrils into the air. She tracked the odor from room to room, eliminating her bathroom soaps and her husband's cologne; even the cat's litter was prodded and crumbled and sniffed. Anything that might give off such a caustically real smell.

When she had eliminated every source, the unscented clothes spilled from her hands. She ran to her daughter's bedroom, cursing herself for not looking in there first, upon her child. She overlooked the scene, and when she grasped the source of the not unfamiliar scent, she knocked aside her daughter's chair from beneath the window and pushed the pane against and past the limits of wooden frame.

She had tracked through her house every chemical mimicking spring, so inured to them she had forgotten real spring had come—was in fact almost over. Already, some of the early, striving blooms had died below the girl's window, effusing their last perfumes to mask their death.

Feral instinct told her to kick open the screen and tear it from the frame. More and more air must be brought into the house, pumped and gulped if necessary. While her daughter slept undisturbed, her mother set about throwing open every window in the house, washing each room with it like the Aegean stables. She then sat in the cold breeze and broke down.

When the girl's father returned home, he found his daughter zealous with energy but his whites in the wrong drawer, unfolded. His papers were scattered all over the bedroom. And no matter how he inveigled his wife—sympathetically, then with growing anger—she refused to reveal why she had cancelled their dinner plans without asking him.