It had been so hot for so long that “heat” was losing its place in the lexicon. Stifling humidity had enveloped the town so completely that there was no longer any use for a comparative or qualitative descriptor of the yawning, prickly fuzziness that seated itself upon anyone unlucky enough to find himself outside. Heat had flattened everything.
The town was bounded to the east by the large, sheer cliff of a plateau, which had a sizable dam built into it. The hill cast a shadow, but it was barely any comfort, and only lasted until midday or so at best. In the hydroelectric plant atop the cliff, the water had been evaporating before it could turn all of the turbines, which threatened the grid and precipitated much civic hand-wringing.
In the first few days of the heat, people observed lawns heaving and cracking and giving birth to bricks of earthworms, fused together and squirming orgiastically. Birds dropped dead mid-flight and floated lazily to the ground in the swollen breeze. Hands darted out of houses through mail slots and deposited eggs and other griddle-friendly comestibles upon their own doorsteps, just to see what the heat would do to them. All of this may still be happening, but nobody notices because nobody opens their blinds.
Young Dave looked down at Dave and was pleased to see that he had fallen asleep. The flat heat, and the endless circadian limbo that the closed blinds fostered, made it rare for Dave to get more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep. Worse yet, the baby had been rationed a single can of formula a day for the past week. He was a peaceful baby—he hardly ever screamed—but the hunger pangs were starting to keep him awake and whimpering.
Thank god for the formula, though, thought Young Dave. If his father, Dave, hadn’t pushed so hard about being prepared, they never would have had that stockpile full of cans. Young Dave remembered the day he gave in to Dave’s insisting and drove the Bronco to the store—this was months before the weather changed and the Bronco’s hood bubbled and evanesced right up into the air—and bought all those pallets of franks-and-beans and baby formula and corn and greenbeans. Dave had said why don’t you get the store brand but Young Dave had to hold the line somewhere, so they ended up getting half name-brand and half store-brand because if there’s no difference dad you can eat the generic and I’ll pay you the difference when we get home. Good that they got those cans, for certain, although Young Dave was a little upset because the other day he noticed Dave eating some of the Bush’s chili instead of the white-label C-H-I-L-I cans. He couldn’t be too mad, though, because if it hadn’t been for Dave they wouldn’t have had the cans in the first place.
Since Dave was finally asleep, Young Dave and Dave agreed it was time to open one of the condensed milks for Sunday Treat. They hadn’t ever been a particularly religious family, but two generations of spousal abandonment had opened a gap that faith wormed its way into, and the flat, hot darkness of the past few weeks had made it even more important to set aside Sunday as a special day, if only to keep the days from running together too much.
While Dave and Young Dave were taking turns sipping Sunday Treat, they heard a scratching at their door. Before the weather turned, such spookiness would have been grounds for retrieving Dave’s oldpump-action shotgun from the basement. Now, laden with weeks of torpor, Dave and Young Dave simply nodded their chins towards the door and continued to take turns pouring the condensed milk down their throats. The scratching continued, and a whimpering noise was audible. The thick air conducted the sound so well that Dave and Young Dave felt it like it came from inside their own ears.
Dave started to cry. Dave, surprised and frustrated at his grandson’s unusual misbehavior, set the condensed milk down and watched his son tend to the howling infant. The scratching and whimpering continued outside. Dave opened his mouth—mostly dry except for some thick, sweet saliva coating the front of his throat—and exhaled heavily. It was a weary sigh, even though it had been provoked by indulgence.
The scratching grew steadily more urgent. Dave screamed louder and Young Dave buried the child’s face in his shoulder and swayed back and forth with an annoyed, matronly expression. The ceiling fan beat away at the stale air, and its motion made the whimpering and scratching and infant screams pulsate nauseatingly. Young Dave, Dave nestled near his armpit, made eye contact with Dave from across the room. They gave each other the same expression of irritated comprehension.
Dave began to get up from his chair. Young Dave sat down and fed the baby a few spoonfuls of formula. Dave stood above the table with his hands on the back of his chair. He looked at the doorknob and noticed that the metal foil covering it was peeling. He turned and brought the empty condensed milk can to the sink. As he rinsed it out, he watched small, sugary trails of the sticky liquid circling down the drain.
The living room looked different. It was darker than usual. Young Dave looked around, disoriented by the slight change, until he noticed that the crack between the front door and the floor, which usually let in a sliver of light, was partially blocked. Young Dave padded up to the door and crouched to inspect the obstruction. It was a worn-out looking piece of paper, and it had been folded into a thick, uneven square. Young Dave hooked his fingers around a corner of it and pulled it out of the crack.
He unfolded the paper. There was a message written in the center: “Help. Nofood.” The note had another set of creases on it apart from the right angles that made it into a square; Young Dave retraced these and ended up with a paper airplane. He set the plane on the kitchen table, walked over to the pantry, and returned with one of the last cans of brand-name chili.
Young Dave sat at the table and ate the chili. The airplane leaned on its left wing. Young Dave contemplated the now-aeronautical missive as he stirred a piece of gristle around the can. He flipped the can over and began reading the nutrition facts. He lost focus, because the light had begun to flicker. This was normal. Then the lights went out entirely.
The power had been off for what Young Dave could only guess to be half an hour when Dave shuffled into the kitchen. Young Dave pointed at the airplane on the table, and his father picked it up. He unfolded it and stared at the message for some amount of time, and then retrieved a can of name-brand chili for himself. The two men prodded their stews—Young Dave prodding more resentfully than his father—and watched the baby sleep in his crib across the room.
There was no more hot, and now that the power had given out, there was no more time. The sun went up and down dozens of times. Dave, Young Dave, and Dave remained dispassionately suspended in their torrid living room.
On the plateau that overlooked the town, a group of people had assembled near the newly-defunct hydroelectric plant. They stood near the railing of the dam and looked down the buildings in town; one or two pairs of eyes surely passed over the house where Dave and Young Dave and Dave lay in the doldrums. Thegroup of people had fumbled their way up to the top of the cliff in darkness, and the sun was beginning to rise behind them. A sweaty man who stood with a woman close to the edge of the cliff looked behind him and nodded at another sweaty man. The second sweaty man shuffled into a small shack perched above the dam. The plateau was still again, except for a collective shrugging of shoulders that pushed up against the morning languor each time the group drew a breath.
The group exhaled, and the plateau was no longer still. A tremendous, grinding creak resonated over the entire town, and the people atop the cliff stepped back and held one another as the ground moved beneath them. Then the water began to move.
The water poured over the lowering lip of the dam and onto the asphalt of the town’s main street. For a full twenty seconds, the torrent hissed into vapor when it hit the street, and one of the men closest to the water shrieked and turned to face his cohort with red, scalded hands covering his eyes. Water continued to pour out of the dam faster and faster, and it began to run down the street. Mailboxes, dead birds, bricks of earthworms, and fried eggs were caught up in the deluge and washed down the thoroughfare.
In the bedroom, Dave woke to a knocking at the window above his head. It was different from the scratching he had heard while he and his son had enjoyed Sunday Treat—more of an insistent thump. The thumping strengthened. It felt like the entire house was moving.
On the couch in the living room, Young Dave sat up slowly, and then got to his feet very quickly. He ran to the crib and pulled Dave out of it just before the kitchen wall gave in and the water started to come through. Dave, held tight in his father’s arms, began to scream and cry—the second time he had done so during the entire heatwave. Young Dave felt the water pulling at his ankles, then his thighs, then his chest, and he wondered why it had taken him so long to realize that infants often have an uncanny understanding of the gravity of events.