Lucky Sevens

By Leslie McIntyre

The first thing we noticed was the fallen TV.

James had come from his room into the den, crept onto the couch where I’d fallen asleep the night before and woken me up, told me with a grin that he was hungry as he eased himself down beside me and ran his hand over my body. I told him, without a grin, that I was sleepy and turned away and as I did I noticed the TV wedged between the wall and the shelf it normally sat on.

“The TV fell,” I said.

James followed my gaze. “Shit.” He rose and walked to the corner to investigate. I should mention that our TV is fairly large – nothing to brag about, but too heavy for one person to lift. For it to have fallen during the night without anyone noticing was noteworthy, to say the least.

“The screen’s cracked,” James announced, straightening up and turning to me. “Damn thing’s broken.”

“Were we… robbed?” It was the first thing my sleep-addled brain could reach for.

James smirked. “Burglars take shit, not break shit. Dumb-ass.” I glared at him and he glared at me and we were still glaring at each other when Dan, who is quite a bit older than me or James, walked into the room.

“The TV’s broken,” James told him as he walked past. Dan paused and gave us the most morose smile I have ever seen and then motioned toward the window. James got there first but I was close behind and I peered over his shoulder through the window to see the house next door reduced to a pile of wreckage.

James remained at the window as I fled the house, still dressed in just my sports bra and pajama bottoms, and ran out into the street. I didn’t make it as far as the lot next door when I noticed ruins across the street and then, further along, another home torn to pieces. The atmosphere was a dirty shade of orange, the morning sun trying to work its way through the haze of smoke and dust. As I stood there, I saw out of the corner of my eye a flash of light, a plume of smoke, heard the screaming of wood being torn apart as another house crumbled to its foundations, graceful as a mudslide.

I don’t know how the panic found me so fast, but I remember my knees buckling and James scooping me off the front lawn and carrying me back into the house.

* * *

“Terrorism,” James proclaimed later that day as the three of us sat at the kitchen table, staring into tepid mugs of coffee. It had taken James a while to calm me down after bringing me back into the house, in part because nothing he said was all that reassuring. Dan hadn’t said a word all day and he looked at least ten years older than he had the night before. I guess I didn’t look much better.

“How?” I shook my head. I would have hoped for something better from James, something more creative. “Terrorists blow up their shoes on airplanes. They couldn’t pull together something like this.”

“A terrorist in every home,” James grinned. He thinks he’s seen enough horror in his life that nothing can faze him.

“Not this one,” I said.

“I guess we’ll find out.”

Dan just stared down at the table, his jowls sagging loose around his face. I’d never noticed he had jowls before.

* * *

“Maybe we’ll have to repopulate the planet,” James said to me that evening, putting his arm around my shoulders as we stood on the back deck and watched a house behind us ignite like a star and collapse. Earlier I had suggested seeking shelter elsewhere, moving to higher ground, so to speak, but James had only taken a drag off of his cigarette and asked me why I thought it would be safer anywhere else. He said for all we knew, the earth was opening up and swallowing people whole. I couldn’t think of a good answer to that. So we stayed in the house and I spooked when someone closed a door or when the floorboards creaked as my roommates moved about the house. James laughed when he saw me freeze up and look around in a panic, searching the walls for signs of impending collapse.

“Not if you were the last man on earth,” I answered, even though I’ve slept with him a thousand times and will probably sleep with him nine-hundred and ninety-nine times more. He didn’t take his arm away.

“Do you think Dan’s our terrorist?” he asked.

“No, I think you are.”

“Then I guess you’d better keep a close eye on me.” He winked.

I looked away and didn’t answer. “There’s no sound,” I said after several minutes had passed.

“What?”

“When a house collapses, you can hear the structure break apart but there’s no explosion or detonation.”

“What makes you think it’s a bomb?” James asked.

“What else could it be?”

James shrugged. “Maybe they just go up in flames.”

I shook my head. “What made our TV fall down?”

“The impact of a house collapsing right next door would probably be enough.”

“Then why didn’t I wake up?”

James didn’t answer.

“They’re not on fire,” I told him.

James sighed, took his arm from around my shoulders and leaned his elbows against the railing, hunching his angular shoulders around his neck. “What do you want from me? What makes you think I have any more answers than you?”

* * *

James and I spent that night huddled together in the den, staring at the space where the TV used to sit. Neither of us wanted to admit that we were afraid to sleep, convinced that our vigilance was the only thing that kept the walls from caving in on us. Once, around three in the morning, we heard it, that tired creak like an old oak tree finally giving up the ghost and sliding to the ground with far less impact than anyone would have imagined. The sound was muted, so it must have been far away, but both of us heard it and James snapped his match in half when he tried to light his cigarette.

By the next morning, the explosions, or implosions, or whatever they were, had stopped and our house was still standing. Lots of houses were still standing – more than I’d expected. The three of us strolled down the street and inspected the ruins. It was Monday but none of us had even considered going to work. Dan was still mute.

“Every seven,” James muttered as we walked.

“What?” I turned to him.

“It’s every seventh house. See? There’s the one next door to us and then one, two, three, four, five, six, and the seventh one’s gone. It’s the same all over the street. I’ve been counting.” He was right. Any way you looked at it, every seventh house had been destroyed.

“Lucky sevens,” James said. His grin had become like a nervous tic.

I moved closer to him. “Where do you think it started?”

“How should I know?”

I looked around. The sky was still heavy with haze. “I wonder if it’s like this all over the country? If it only applies to houses or if it’s everything, churches, schools, office buildings, museums…”

“The White House?” A grin and a shrug. James had spent about half an hour that morning fiddling with the knobs on Dan’s emergency radio, getting nothing but static before he muttered an obscenity and gave up. For some reason the empty airwaves spooked me more than watching those houses collapse the day before, although I just stood there with my arms folded and watched James wrestle with the antenna and didn’t let on that I was scared. The newspaper didn’t come that morning.

I guess we were some of the first people to emerge from our home. Every now and then I noticed a pair of eyes peeping out at us from behind a window, but then they were gone, disappeared behind the curtain. The streets were empty and even the breezes seemed to have fled.

* * *

“What the hell is wrong with Dan?” James asked me that evening, sinking down onto the couch beside me. I put my book aside and looked at him.

“What do you mean, ‘what’s wrong with Dan’? What’s wrong with you?”

“Hey, I’ve seen heavy shit in my life but you don’t see me go all catatonic about it.”

“You saw a stranger get knifed in an alley. Once. You pissed yourself and ran like a little girl.” James looked like he wanted to hit me but I didn’t care. “Dan saw the Twin Towers fall.”

“So did I. So did everyone.”

“He was there.” He’d been teaching at a high school right next to Ground Zero when the planes hit. He saw bodies fall from the sky.

James shrugged. “Shit happens.” And this time I’m the one who wants to knee him in the balls. I turned back to my book.

“A person can only take so much tragedy.”

James shook his head, disgusted with my sentiment or my cliché or both, I couldn’t be sure.

* * *

By the next afternoon the survivors started to emerge from their fortresses and congregate in the streets, everyone eager to swap theories of what had happened. James and I stood on the fringes listening to the shrill chorus of human interaction while Dan remained indoors. “It was North Korea,” I overheard someone say, one of those neighbors whose name I never bothered to learn. “We never took them seriously and now look what’s happened.” Predictably, Mrs. Davis, the holy-roller of the neighborhood, attributed the phenomenon to God, said it was the new Flood, come to cleanse the earth, but then she saw that James and I were still kicking and walked off shaking her head. Mr. Peterson from down the road thought that the government did it and Tom Rappaport, who lives next door to us on the other side, said it was aliens. Tom always seemed like a level-headed guy, always happy to lend us a hand whenever we needed work done around the house. I guess his theory made just about as much sense as anyone else’s. I listened to see if anyone besides James had noticed the seventh-house pattern but nobody mentioned it.

For our part, we stopped expounding on our theories pretty quickly because it only made us crazy. “None of this makes any sense!” James shouted that morning, slamming his hand down on the kitchen table in a rare lapse of detachment. “What does seven have to do with anything?” He’d run out of cigarettes the night before and he was having a hard time keeping his hands steady. I had no answers for him, and if Dan did, he wasn’t sharing.

No one had been able to contact people from out of town. The cable was dead, phone lines were down and cell phones didn’t work. Amazingly, the whole block still had power and only a few people were having plumbing problems.

I suppose I should mention the dead. There were many, although we didn’t see them. They were trapped beneath the buildings that caved in on them. Nobody had the heart to attempt any kind of rescue missions; the task was too overwhelming and nobody wanted to get close to the rubble. There were displaced too, those who happened to be away when their homes collapsed, those lucky enough to have escaped the condemned buildings. Logically, it was clear that many of our friends and family had probably been obliterated, but without any kind of confirmation no one attempted to grieve, so instead we ignored the holes in our neighborhood and lived as though there was never anyone besides those within walking distance.

In the midst of it all, James and I were fucking one, two, three, sometimes four times a night as though it were the last chance we’d ever get, though during the day his advances seemed ugly and vulgar and I repelled him.

* * *

About a week after the destruction, people began forming groups and walking for miles to see what was left. James went because the food situation was beginning to look grim and we’d been using tissues as toilet paper for a few days now. When he returned he reported that it was like this everywhere.

“Every seventh house,” he said.

“Only houses?” I asked.

“No. Everything.” The hospital was still standing but it was understaffed and running low on supplies. The grocery store had been looted clean. All three high schools had survived, though two of the middle schools had been wiped out. The music store where James worked was a pile of timber and drywall. They didn’t make it as far as the night-club I bar tended at and James hadn’t brought any food back with him, but he said he hadn’t really looked that hard either, that he’d sort of forgotten about it. They’d only made it a few miles before they decided to turn back. I asked why they didn’t just drive. James gave me a strange look and I couldn’t tell whether I’d said something profound or obscene.

“I don’t know,” he said finally. The answer seemed to trouble him. I changed the subject.

“How big does something have to be to count?”

James shrugged. “Bigger than a car. Bigger than a shed.”

“So statistically,” I mused, “one in every seven grocery stores is gone. One in every seven military bases is gone.”

James tilted his chair back. “Statistics have nothing to do with it,” he said. “It all depends on how everything is spaced. It’s like a grid.” A thin layer of gray stubble covered his face, which had also taken on a grayish tinge, as though his skin weren’t so thick as he would have us believe. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him; statistics might still have something to do with it. “I don’t know what’s more remarkable,” he continued, “how well the world can function when one seventh of it is missing or how much of a difference one seventh can make.”

I thought about our empty refrigerator and wondered what he meant by the world functioning well. “Maybe it’s not the whole world,” I mumbled. “Maybe it’s only North America. Or the United States.”

James swallowed. “We’re like a team of ants,” he said, resting his elbows against the table and holding his chin in his hands, “whose supply lines have been chopped up, but eventually we’ll figure out how to circumvent it, to bridge the gaps.”

“How optimistic.”

“It’s not optimism. It’s just the way things are.”

* * *

That night I lay in bed and waited for James to slip into my room as he’d done every night since the houses fell, sneaking beneath the covers without a word, his soldier already at attention. I waited for over an hour before I got impatient and decided to go find him. As I stepped into the hallway I heard a faint hissing sound that grew louder as I followed it to the kitchen where I found James crouched half-naked on the floor clutching Dan’s hand-cranked emergency radio. I watched him for several minutes without speaking as he cranked the handle and fiddled with the knobs and added layers of aluminum foil to the antenna, twisting it into strange shapes and making it longer in his dance to capture the elusive signal. He didn’t look up or utter a sound until I gave myself away by saying his name. His whole body jumped at the sound of my voice and when he turned to face me I half expected him to hiss at me and his eyes narrow into reptilian slits.

“What do you want?” His voice sounded normal, more impatient than anything else, as he turned back to the radio.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to get the radio to work,” he said, as though the answer were obvious. The static hadn’t changed once since I’d entered the room, not even a ripple of communication had passed through the empty airways.

“James,” I said quietly, “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

“You know in the early days they couldn’t stop people making broadcasts from homemade radios? The networks wanted to, they tried to drive them out, but they couldn’t do it. There’s gotta be someone out there, even if the suits have called it quits there’s always some ham screwing around in his garage.”

“James…” I took a small step closer. “Maybe you should go to bed.”

“Maybe if I tried using some coat hangers…”

“James!” I lunged at the floor and snatched the radio out of his grasp. “Get a grip on yourself! You’re acting schizophrenic!”

“Well excuse me for trying!” James retorted, getting to his feet. “Am I the only one who thinks there’s still something left out there?”

“You’re trying and it’s not working! So give up! You’re not acting like a hero, you’re just acting crazy!”

James made a grab for the radio, but I held it away from him. “You’re the one who sat on your lazy ass all day instead of coming out with the rest of us,” he said.

I turned away. “I’m going to bed.”

James followed me as I walked back to my bedroom. It unnerved me a bit because he seemed to be stalking me the way a predator stalks its prey but I decided it was best to ignore him. He didn’t speak until I reached the door to my room when his hand shot out and grabbed my wrist.

“I want you to come with me,” he said, staring me in the face. “Tomorrow, I want you to come, I want you to see.” I didn’t answer right away, so he pressed on. “You have to!” The words came out like a sob or a bark and I agreed, not so much to comfort him but because I wanted to see what it was that had finally broken through that glassy demeanor and caught up with him as he lay in bed and tried to sleep. Once I’d nodded my assent, he walked into my room without a word and curled up at the far end of my bed. I sat down beside him and watched him for some time before finally covering him with the blankets and kissing his temple and it was the first time I’d touched him without a trace of carnality in a long time.

The next day it rained, so we didn’t go out. It surprised me because I’d forgotten about the weather. I’d forgotten that it was fall and the leaves were dropping off the trees and that winter was coming and it would be cold and probably snow just like it did every winter. It seemed that in the wake of so much change someone would have thought to put the weather on hold for awhile and leave us with nothing more distracting than clear blue skies and the occasional cumulous cloud.

I found James in the den with his feet kicked up on the coffee table, staring out the window. The ashtray to his left was full of cigarette filters. Lately he’d taken to splitting open old cigarette butts and freeing the remaining tobacco until he could get enough together to roll a new cigarette. I sat down beside him and we stayed there for most of the day, reading or staring out the window at the rain, not talking very much. The food supply had dwindled down to a few vegetables and the heels from a loaf of bread but neither of us wanted to think about it. Every now and then James would lay his head in my lap. Dan would periodically emerge and mill about the house before returning to his room.

I awoke the next morning with James at my shoulder, telling me to get up, they were leaving in an hour. He was already dressed and looked like a soldier in his khakis and boots and I wondered whether I should wear anything special. When it was time to meet the others, we wandered out into the street and Dan, who had been hanging around the house for the past several days in a manner that can only be described as ‘puttering,’ surprised us both by following, though neither of us commented on it. He hadn’t shaved since the day the buildings collapsed and his beard was becoming scruffy around his new jowls.

Tom Rappaport led the group. Handy-Man Tom turned Alien Theorist Tom but he still had a cool head on his shoulders. He was the first one of our block to attempt a return to work. His hardware store was still standing but after a day without customers he gave up. Government Conspiracy Theorist Mr. Peterson came along with us that day, as did Mr. North Korea, although Holy-Roller Mrs. Davis stayed at home. Our collective walked with impunity down the middle of the street and the faces around me ranged from hard and grim to spooked and wild-eyed. The streets were quiet as the sun continued its ascent and it was only about ten o’clock and the day was gearing up to be beautiful. As we walked down the street we were part expedition, part funeral procession and part guided walking tour in the tradition of Lest We Forget.

Looking around me, I thought maybe I understood what James meant when he said the world still functioned with one seventh of it missing. Everything looked more or less the same, same manicured lawns and garden gnomes, same old suburbia until you reached house number seven, disaster zones nestled within a neighborhood that had grown fat and complacent. It took only a matter of seconds to pass before reaching the next house, so little time that one could almost ignore it, one could get into a rhythm of one, two, three, four, five, six, look away, repeat.

We’d only walked three or four blocks when Dan detached himself from the group. Dianna Mitchell, the single mother from down the street was the first to notice him wandering away. The rest of us only noticed when we heard her calling after him. We followed Dan to the edge of a lot where the ruins of a destroyed house rested and watched from the sidewalk as he crossed onto the lawn and began wading through the wreckage. We’d all been giving the destroyed properties a wide girth as though they were contaminated or sacred or as though we expected mutants to emerge if we disturbed the crumpled masonry. We watched as Dan ambled through the shingles and charred brick, kicking up clouds of dust with every step. He regarded the mess at his feet with benign curiosity, the way one might look at a model train set. I wondered who was watching Dianna’s kids with her gone.

As Dan made his way further into the debris, he bent down to pick something up and I could feel a collective intake of breath as we waited to see what he was holding. I was expecting a child’s toy or a shoe or something equally poignant and I guess it was in a way, but in a different way, and I swear I’ll never understand how it managed to survive unscathed, but I guess it was in the right place at the right time, just like the rest of us. He walked back to the group of us huddled at the curb and I saw that it was one of those pear-shaped wooden Russian dolls, the kind that you unscrew at the center and pull apart and inside there’s another, smaller one and there are eight or so of them, one inside the other. Dan handed it to me as he shuffled past with his hands in his pockets and his face tilted toward the sky.

I held the thing in my hand and stared hard at it. “‘Russia is a riddle,’” I murmured, shaking it a little and listening to the others wobble inside its hollow body, “‘wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’”

James stood beside me, confused. “You think Russia did this?”

“Of course not,” I answered, without taking my eyes away from the hand-painted surface. “How could they?” At that moment it seemed absurd that a place called Russia had ever existed, that someone had gone there and brought one of these things back with them, that people ever cared about knick-knacks and decorating their homes, that at one point two countries were ready to destroy the world over differing ideologies and that I could still remember some Winston Churchill quote I’d learned in high school. It struck me as so absurd, in fact, that I started to laugh, a private giggle or two building up to giant swells of laughter until big fat tears were rolling over my face.

The rest of the group had begun to move off again, but James and I stayed where we were. James’ face became red as he watched me dissolve into laughter. “What the fuck is so funny?” he spat finally. When I didn’t answer he became even more agitated and I actually saw him bristle just before he swatted the doll out of my hand in a quick, catlike gesture. It hit the sidewalk and split open and the one inside rolled out. It made me laugh even harder, so hard I had to sit down, and I picked the two of them up, fastened the bigger one together again and offered the smaller one to James, wiping my arm across my eyes as I reached up to hand it to him. He took it and stared at it as my laughter petered out.

“Stand up,” he told me. I did and he took the larger doll from me without speaking, looking cool and collected as he opened it up and replaced the smaller one inside of it before handing it back to me. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and pressed his face close to mine. The action was so unexpected and his expression was so intense that I clutched the little doll closer to my chest.

“Why are they walking?” he demanded, pointing at the group that was receding into the distance and would soon be out of sight behind a hill or a house.

“To see what’s left,” I stammered.

“But why walk? You can only get so far on foot. Why not drive?”

“But…” I’m not sure what I was planning to say, but it didn’t matter because James plowed ahead anyway.

“Fuck them!” he said, pointing his finger in the direction of the group without taking his eyes away from my face. “What are we thinking? What is everyone thinking? Wandering around like a pack of gypsies, this is no way to make the world work again! Come on.” He grabbed my arm and started walking back toward our house. “You and I are going on a road trip. We’re going to get in the car and drive until we find something worth stopping for or we run out of gas.”

“But…”

“But what?”

I dug my heels into the asphalt and yanked my arm out of James’ grip. He stopped walking and turned to look at me. There were red marks on my arm where his hand had been and I rubbed my hand over the welts as I stared at him and chewed on my lip.

“What about Dan?” I asked finally. We both turned and looked in the direction the group had gone. There were still a few stragglers in sight and among them we could make out Dan’s hefty form trotting along. James shook his head.

“Dan stays. He wouldn’t want to come with us.” I folded my arms and nodded because I knew he was right.

We dashed back to the house and stuffed our clothes into a garbage bag, slung our bags over our shoulders and threw them into the trunk of James’ car. James took the driver’s seat and I sat beside him, still holding the little wooden doll, and watched as he stuck the key in the ignition. When the motor began to purr, we exchanged a glance and an uneasy smile spilled across James’ face. “So far, so good,” he said, shifting gears and looking over his shoulder as we backed out of the driveway. I watched the house until it faded from view, unsure if I would ever see it again or what shape it would be in if and when we returned. Within seconds we were passing the neighborhood expedition and I can still remember their faces as they turned to stare at us, shocked to the point of being offended as though we had violated some sacred agreement or committed blasphemy, all except Dan, who just smiled at us like an approving father, and I could still see him smiling serenely in the rearview mirror as we drove into the morning oblivion.

___________

Leslie McIntyre graduated from Emerson College with a BA in Writing, Literature and Publishing in 2009. A native of Northern Virginia, she currently lives in Massachusetts. “Lucky Sevens” is her first published work of fiction.


One Response to “Lucky Sevens”

  1. lapia says:

    You story starts a little slow but their was enough mystery to keep me reading. Since the page turner didn’t start till the last paragraph I’m thinking it is destined to be a longer story? Keep writing. I want to know how far they get and what they find.