by Christopher Clagg
I am a writer; its what I do, write.
And as the world slides closer to the year 2000, the fears and concerns that surround something as small and simple as a misunderstood date field in a computer get greatly magnified.
My absolute disregard for the safety of my spreadsheet program becomes replaced with newspaper headlines saying governmental computers may not be able to issue social security checks properly and the ensuing chaotic regrouping could take weeks afterwards to correct, make me think of Mother and if she and Dad will be OK if the checks get hung up for a few weeks.
Radio broadcasts that portend missile misfires due to computer program failures of inaccurate data fields stir in me more than a little concern. I am starting to see this not as a crisis on the desktop computer that sits on my desk in the living room. But as something that is invading things that are larger than I can control, and things beyond which I have a voice to change.
On a spontaneous whim I called an Air Force base close to where I live and tell them I am researching a science fiction story about computer failures. The young man on the other end of the phone politely offers that computer stories are out of date and that the Air Force systems will not be affected. "They have redundancies on top of redundancies," he says.
I hang up and go to bed.
Bea and the boys are asleep and the house is quiet.
But I can't sleep.
I get up and walk out into the living room and sit on the couch and watch the computer. As if it might suddenly sit up and say something. Like this is all a joke really, that nothing will happen, that we are all being afraid for nothing.
But the computer doesn't say anything.
I go back to bed, but still can not sleep; an hour passes and eventually I get back up and go into the kitchen and dig a Coke out of the back of the refrigerator and sit at the kitchen table and try to deal with my uneasiness. I will write a story, I think.
I smile at the sudden thought of cleverly tricking my mind into a harmless distraction to play out the tension. So I sit down at the beast and turn it on, hear the chimes, and watch the screen come up bright in the dark room around me. I lay my fingers on the keyboard and when the desktop settles down, I click on the icon that opens the word processor .
And start to type.
An amusing thought crosses my mind then: "What if I sell it and make a million?" I smile and keep typing·.
Two men, two women crowd around the screen of a computer in the deep interior of a bomb shelter as the minutes click away·
>From 1999 toward the year 2000.
Their expressions are taut, or pained, or frightened, or concerned, or worried; eyes darting back and forth across the metal walls, where the outside sounds are hushed.
Fears well up.
People are afraid.
How will they deal with the changes. What is going to happen? What is "really" going to happen?
But they don't know.
And so their fears only simmer. Only churn in their stomachs as the hours slide by.
They are afraid and stay afraid.
Sitting at kitchen tables with their hands clenched into fists, trying to prepare for·
They don't know what they are trying to prepare for.
They have heard of course that banks may go under. Many financial institutions, fearing runs on their banks, have closed early in the week, feigning interest in assuring their systems will make the change-over without any glitches.
Some don't worry about the banks at all.
They are worried about missiles sitting in silos in the center of countries that they have no control over. They watch the skies and worry that they will see streaking white cylinders falling out of the blue or black with stars, to blossom into a brightness of a thousand, thousand suns.
Mama worries that Papa won't hear if the chip in his hearing aid fails. A mother in a hospital is worried that her infant in the incubator ward will not survive the night if the chip that controls the oxygen regulator for the tiny child stops.
In Chicago an old black woman worries that the pacemaker her husband wears is at risk. In New York a young investor is worried his life savings will vanish in electronic smoke.
In Miami, a daughter worries that the plane her mother is coming in on next week will have problems, somewhere during the flight, thirty thousand feet up...
A used-car salesman sits in a empty office that overlooks an empty lot. He bits his fingernails and smokes a cigarette and wonders how he will pawn off the newer cars sitting on the lot if the chips turn to melted plastic and ceramic and metal pins.
In churches people gather and they are simply afraid.
Afraid out of ignorance of something that they don't even understand.
Afraid it is the end of the world.
They sit in the pews under stained-glass windows and murmur prayers and cross themselves and listen to the priests and holy men speak soft, reassuring words.
They try to have courage, even though they are afraid.
Fathers will hold their children and hug their wives. And pray that there is a tomorrow. That there is nothing to be afraid of.
Sometimes children cry in the night and mothers will rock them.
Cover up the children against the cold. Wrap them in blankets and smooth their cheeks with the palms of trembling hands.
Rock them and rock them, until slowly perhaps they will fall asleep.
Only to wake afraid, cry in the night, and mothers will rock them.... fathers will rock them... hold them and whisper in their ears softly, sweet· "Its all right honey· its all right· its all right·." Whisper softly against their cheeks. Feel the soft brush of their hair against your lips.
People buy canned goods and water.
The man in the line in front of you has 25 gallon-sized jugs of water on the turnstile register. He carries a crowbar in one hand and glares at people, and the manager stands at the head of the register and watches the man, but he doesn't say a word. He lets the man pay and go on his way.
You want to say something.
That maybe "your" family needed some of that water.
But the manager is just trying to keep something volatile from erupting into open violence. To keep a possibility from crossing over into an actuality.
People buy guns.
I board up my windows. And keep the children indoors.
Pedro and Dahlila come over, and we talk at the kitchen table.
I keep a baseball bat at the door just in case we need it.
Bea is worried.
I don't say anything.
The world is moving into places where I don't know if what we can expect is too much or not enough.
If I am only overreacting.
Or if I am not doing enough.
We sit in the kitchen and have a coffee and I nervously watch the door.
And the seconds click away.
As time melts, the tension gets higher.
Down the street noises rise, and the sound of cars rushing up and down the streets gets louder.
Teenagers are yelling out the windows of cars as they rush down the road, revving the engines of their cars. Brash and openly defying the fear of the countdown.
It is now only several hours away.
Pedro and Dahlila leave to go home. I tell Pedro he should stay, but he smiles and goes anyway. They get into the car and pull out of the drive way and accelerate down to the end of the block and they turn a corner and are gone.
When we check the phones their is no dial tone. Just a message that says circuits are busy, circuits are busy, circuits are busy.
Someone is knocking on the outside wall.
Not the door.
But the wall.
Someone throws a rock against the window outside.
It smashes the glass and thuds against the wood of the paneling I have nailed up.
More rocks, smashing.
THUD! THUD !!
The wood splinters.
Outside there is no yelling or screaming or cursing.
Not a sound other than the rocks pounding against the windows and the panels.
Not another sound at all.
And that is what scares me most of all.
There is a crash in the garage as something heavy breaks through the side-door window into the garage, shatters frame and scatters pieces of broken door wood.
Something smacking into the floor of the garage, into the concrete floor.
A heavy thunk that settles in the air. But no other sound.
No screams or yelling.
I get Bea and the boys into the back bedroom and tell Bea to lock the door.
She wants to be brave and she says she will unlock it for me.
I tell her not to unlock it at all.
I give her a kitchen knife and she cries and it is all taking too long, too long, as the smashing in the garage goes on and on and the windows against the panels, and I want to scream and I wonder for a momentary, insanely clear moment why she has to argue.
Quickly and Finally, I yank the door shut between us. Slamming it closed and locking it, leaving me in the house between the garage and the locked bedroom.
For a moment the noises in the garage stop.
For a moment only silence.
I turn off the lights in the hallway and stand waiting in the dark with the baseball bat in my hand.
My heart is pounding and Bea is yelling through the door, and crying.
And I am afraid that she and the boys will get hurt because she is afraid. Because she doesn't realize that her voice is a target. Her crying only tells them where she is.
Then the inside door to the garage smashes inward.
And I'm not a hero.
My blood is pounding and I am scared, but I run anyway. I hold the bat in my tightening hand and run in the dark toward the sound.
And I want to scream and scream at the top of my lungs.
My legs and arms are shaking uncontrollably.
This is insane!
But all I can see in my mind is Bea and the boys. Bea and the boys, Bea and the boys Beaandtheboysbeaandtheboysbeaandtheboys!!!!!!!!!!!
I keep running and I open my mouth and scream at the top of my lungs and scream and scream as I go through the broken door and into the darkened garage!
I smack into a soft body and am stopped. There is a sound as the voice in the dark, the shape, loses air and collapses back and I fall, the voice becomes voices and falls back and collapse across the hard concrete floor where fists and boots kick out.
Something sharp goes completely through my arm, through my upper arm, and I scream and jerk my arm back and hit out with the bat. Strike something, hit out again and there is adrenaline and anger and fear and pain and screaming black and a touch of insanity.
I for a split second feel if this was all a million, million years ago, I would slit their throat and be done with it.
But It's not and I'm not.
And because of that, one of them gets a brick up against my head. It smacks into my jaw and I can feel and hear the bone snap. A dull flame spreads out across my cheek in a slow wave that I don't understand.
Why is it slow?
They hit me again and I hit back.
Hit back with the bat, hit back and hit back.
Again and again and again.
I am screaming and there is a salty blood taste in my mouth and I am screaming.
And hitting and hitting.
Until I can't remember when.
Someplace there is a morning.
Somewhere there is a morning with broken cheeks pressed into wet garage floors and broken doors and windows scattered across floors.
Bea and the boys are in the bathroom huddled into the tub when I find them. They are unhurt. None of them say a word. Only cry, and we hold onto one another and walk to the hospital emergency room.
There are hundreds of people here.
Bruised and battered faces.
Torn clothes and dried bloody marks against their skin, or in stains against their clothes.
I have a broken jaw and a concussion.
The doctors reset my jaw and wrap my face in bandages and then they send us home.
They tell Bea to watch me, and if things don't get better in the next few days to come back.
When we get home I sit on the porch and look at the sky. Look at the neighborhood that is partially smashed. But not all of it. And turn and look back through my broken window into the living room where the computer sits on the desk. Its screen is dark. I sit and sip at a cola through my swollen lips and watch the computer and remember the story that slips into my mind....
Of two families in a bunker hovering over a computer as the clock clicks over to the year 2000.
And the date slips from: December 31, 1999
January 1, 1900.
And instead of sirens there is only silence.
No screams or smashing sounds.
Only a rising music in the background.
The characters in the story move cautiously from the shelter, going to the heavy steel door and daring to crack it back, to slowly creep out into the house, to the windows at the front of the house, to stare into the streets and see with astonished eyes·
Horses and carriages trotting down the street.
With gaslights lit on the corners.
And men in bowlers and women in chiffon and silk dresses and hats with plumes and children in shorts with long-stocking socks pulled up to their knees.
Trees full of birds and blue wind.
And gazebo music and the milk wagon with the brass bell ringing. And dogs barking and children running and laughing.
A newspaper blows along the street in the wind and the headlines proclaim a new century, stepping into the modern world and the modern age,
I smile through swollen lips and think of it.
And it seems like a good story to write.
About the millennium.
An innocent story.
Whimsical maybe. A little nostalgic and silly. Fun.
But not very much like the real world.
Too syrupy and sweet maybe.
Not gritty enough.
It probably wouldn't sell, anyway.
Story/Poem copyright © 1999 by Christopher Clagg <email@example.com>
Artwork "Billenium" copyright © 1999 by Romeo Esparrago <firstname.lastname@example.org>