“The Big Heat”
by Tyler Coulson
‘It’s the damned heat’, the old woman wheezed and dobbed the washcloth against her crippled husband’s forehead. The two of them sat in the shade of the front porch of the 1880s farmhouse where they’d lived for forty years. ‘The HEAT!’ she wheezed. The man’s face was as still and mechanical as his wheelchair. ‘I just don’t know if this heat wave will ever break, Sweetheart.’ She rested the cool washcloth on the back of his neck. The woman looked up the road and squinted at the figure of a man walking toward her home.
‘All well, Mrs. Adams?’ the man called out from the road. He was Kent Garrison, the mayor of their rural town and Gina Adams’s nearest and only neighbor. The Adams house was technically outside the city limits. Garrison had bonded with Mrs. Adams a few years earlier when he’d made trips to her house to try to convince her to join her house to the city water and sewer systems. It wouldn’t have cost very much, but she couldn’t see the good in it. She and her husband were fine with their well water and septic system, and they didn’t see the need to subsidize the city system.
‘It’s too hot for you to be out on one of your jogs,’ she laughed. Kent stopped at the edge of the Adams driveway.
‘I’m checking on folks,’ he said. ‘You and Mr. Adams ok on ice?
‘Oh, fine fine,’ she answered. She was lying, but she was sure of herself because she’d been lying for some time, first to herself and then to friends and family. No one in town had any ice left. ‘When will the electric come back on?’ she asked. Kent shook his head and shrugged. Sweat ran down his face and darkened his blue shirt.
There had been no electricity in town for several days.
‘It’s the damndest heat wave,’ she wheezed and Kent coughed in agreement. Gina dabbed the washcloth against her husband’s forehead.
A lot of the day had gotten past and Gina pushed her husband’s wheelchair over to the east side of the porch where the shade had moved.
‘I just don’t know if this one will ever break,’ she said. Gina sounded normal when she spoke to her husband, not desperate or overly optimistic, and she seemed to be waiting for him to reply. ‘What do you think, Sweetheart? Do you think this heat wave will ever break?’ She re-wetted the rag from a red ice chest filled with water and put the cloth back on her husband’s neck to cool him.
The man had not spoken in over a year. ***
The heat had come a week earlier to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. It was a surprise, just like all heat waves are. This heat wave had hit so suddenly that, the rumor was, the shock of it had killed 3 elderly inmates of the nursing home on the east end of town, the nursing home to which Gina refused to consign her husband.
But that was just a rumor. It could have been that those three people were destined to die when they did.
Then the electricity had gone out. No one talked about why the electricity had gone out. On the first day without electricity or landline phones, some of the town leaders complained loudly about the ‘damned ‘lectric company not doing their damned job’. But the discussion ended soon. Without air conditioning, folks in town grew quickly embarrassed and exhausted. ‘They have to fix the ‘lectric tomorrow; maybe 2 days. They have to. Have to.’
In the early days without electricity, many of the people in town gathered in the shade of the oak trees on the square and talked about the weather. But most of the leaves had burnt to a crisp in the heat and fallen from the trees by then and there was not too much shade.
It had not rained in months.
‘Never in my life,’ Kent said to the assembled crowd. ‘Never in my life have I seen a drought or a heat wave like this.’
‘You said it, Mr. Mayor,’ one of the men said. ‘It’s the damndest drought.’ ***
The town stayed in touch with the outside world by cell phone for a while. After long enough without electricity, the cell phones started to die. A few of the teenagers in town cruised around in their cars to charge their phones, and that’s when they realized that
they could wait out this heat wave in the comfort of their air conditioned cars. As the day went on, the heat rose and rose, and it was the hottest day of the heat wave.
There was no cold beer left in town, but there was beer. So pretty soon everyone who had a car was out in it, cruising and drinking and socializing. Even the old folks in town hit the boulevard like they had when they were young in the 50s, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. And the town was all lit up that night with the light of headlights and with the sound of car stereos playing everyone’s favorites from the last 80 years. Grandparents stopped on the square and did the Charleston before jumping back into their cold, idling cars. Even in the grip of the heat wave, everyone had a great time and the town felt like a festival.
By morning the cars were running out of gas. They started a queue at the town’s single gas station, the “C-Store”, which wasn’t open because of the electricity outage, and the electric gas pumps wouldn’t work. But everyone queued up just the same and every car in town was out of gas and waiting in line by late in the afternoon.
Kent Garrison knew there could be trouble, so he pulled five men from the line of queued cars. The men were the five starters on the 1989 high school basketball sectional championship team. As mayor, Kent deputized the men and together they cracked open the manhole cover to the underground gas tanks and turned it into a siphon-powered gas station.
Ralph Dempsey, who was a local man who had never given anyone any trouble to speak of, shouted the men down, saying that Kent had no authority to deputize men like that. And Kent could not point to the exact legislation that gave him that authority. So, to show everyone that they were legitimate, the 1989 sectional champs beat Ralph Dempsey mercilessly in front of the assembled townspeople.
‘I called people in the capitol,’ Kent shouted. ‘They are busy! I left voicemails! Everyone calm down!’
Kent put his former teammates in charge of the queue and he stood at the siphon keeping a ledger of everyone’s gas rations so that they could each pay the station later.
‘It’s not stealing,’ he said. ‘This way, it’s not stealing. And we’ll even it all out as soon as this damned heat wave passes.’
The men carried guns after that and Ralph Dempsey died 3 days later from the beating because no ambulance ever came.
Gina Adams lifted a cup of water to her husband’s lips on the west end of town. The two were quietly, calmly unaware of the ordeal at the gas station.
Blake Jennings and his two best friends hatched a plan when they reached the front of the queue. Blake was still a senior in high school, but he’d saved up money from working at the Wal-Mart in Cedarsville, 30 miles away, and his parents had given him his graduation money early so that he could buy a used Toyota Prius, all black with custom black rims. He said his Prius was ‘all murdered out’.
‘Three rations,’ he said. Kent marked the three boys’ rations in the ledger, and then handed the ledger off to Scott Dunham. Kent ran off to stop a fight brewing in the queue.
‘Can’t have three,’ Scott said.
‘One for each of us,’ Blake said.
‘Yeah,’ one of the other boys agreed and leaned out the window. ‘Kent already
marked it down, Scott. Pump it.’
‘I don’t care who your dad is,’ Scott said to the forceful young man. ‘You get out of
line with me and I’ll stomp a mudhole in your ass.’
‘Give us the three,’ Blake said. 'We’re getting out of here. To find help.’
‘Yeah. Big heroes,’ Scott laughed. ‘Can’t believe I’m filling this faggot car so that you
three can drive out to the lake and blow each other.’ But he did fill the car with three siphoned rations.
‘We’ll send back help,’ Blake said again.
‘Ha! Big heroes. Just get going out of line. ‘Lectric company’ll be in here tomorrow, anyway. Have everything back to normal.’
The three boys drove away from the siphon station and out of town and they were never heard from again.
Gina wheeled her husband into the privacy of their house, now stifling hot. She emptied his bag and changed his catheter.
‘This doesn’t look good, Sweetheart,’ she said. ‘Promise me you’ll drink more, huh? Yeah. Drink a little more and you’ll be right as rain.’ The man who was her husband did not react. She wheeled him back outside into the shade of the porch. ‘There we are. Isn’t it nice in this shade?’
The heat did not break and the town ran out of gasoline. People abandoned their cars wherever they stopped, usually just a block or two from their homes. For part of the day,
people argued whether it was finally a few degrees cooler, but by late afternoon it was hotter than it had yet been and everyone gave up arguing.
Then they turned to water to cool themselves off. The swimming pools in town were very hot, but the taps and the garden hoses still ran with cool water. For a while, there were block parties and back yard parties all across the town. The fire hydrants were opened and children and adults played and lay full on their backs in the cold, clear spray from the hydrants.
The Simpson family that lived up on what used to be called Diamond Hill had a mass of sprinklers in their back yard and they had a beautiful 14-year-old daughter named Katelin. So their yard hosted quite a party for the young and energetic people in the town. The back yard party of teenagers and youngsters raged until the afternoon of the 4th day since they’d lost contact with the outside world, but then Tony Rush violently raped Katelin behind the Episcopalian church.
The town was divided on what to do. Half of the town said Tony should be excused and shown clemency because he’d been driven mad by the heat. The other half thought that Katelin “deserved it because she tramped around in a bikini like a slut”.
‘She might not have been a slut,’ some woman would say. ‘But she dressed like one.’
Katelin locked herself in her parents’ basement and cried for two days. And, just as she ran out of tears, the city water started to run dry. A few houses still had trickles of water from the tap, but there wasn’t much water pressure.
At the urging of the school superintendent, Andrea Daniels, Kent and his men broke the windows from the gas station and the grocery store so that everyone could claim their rations of soda pop and bottled water.
‘We should keep this,’ Kent said. ‘We should ration it out. Slowly.’
But everyone disagreed. They could manage their own rations of Gatorade and Dr. Pepper. Kent got serious about the idea until Andrea’s husband said he’d kill Kent if he didn’t go along with the plan.
‘Fun’s over,’ Daniels said. ‘And we need to drink.’
‘It won’t last,’ Kent tried to argue.
‘Shit!’ Daniels interrupted him. ‘There’s enough for everyone to drink like hogs for
two days! And the electric company will be here before that!’
Daniels was right. The Gatorade and Dr. Pepper lasted two days and then everyone
was thirsty again.
‘It’s ugly in this town,’ Kent shouted up to Gina Adams on her porch.
‘It’s this damned heat,’ she said, as if she was the only one who knew what was wrong and nobody would listen to her.
‘No ‘lectric. No water. People are getting angry.’
‘No water?’ she asked. Kent nodded, and remembered his own great personal failure, that he couldn’t get the Adams house hooked up to the city lines. He’d really wanted to talk her into joining the city water and sewer.
‘Have you gone out?’ he asked her.
‘Oh no!’ she answered, and laughed. ‘We are going to wait out this heat wave right here! We aren’t going anywhere, Sweetie. You go on and worry about your own family, and don’t you worry about us.’
The nights were darker than they had been in 150 years. The streetlights were out and the cars had all stopped. And the stars were all occluded behind the haze of rain that would not fall. When the moon was bright, a patch of the sky turned a soft yellow haze that swam along across the night sky. People hid from the darkness. They wondered, and then briefly asked aloud, why no one had come to save them. But they put their faith in the electric company to come and put it all right. But no electric company trucks came and then they only had faith in Jesus.
No one lit any candles.
The stench began on the 9th day. It was thickest on the east side of town, of course. But there were pockets of it all over town. The air was thick and humid and that tamped down a lot of the smell. Still, if someone had been out walking around, they could not have missed it.
No one was out walking around. No one wanted to know.
On the 12th day there were no more crying babies.
People who could retreat to their basements or cellars did. Those who had no basement or cellar went searching for friends or family whose homes had basements. By then the cellars were not cool, but were at least “less warm”. They grew warmer with each additional body. People began to see their friends and relatives as heat engines, consuming the one remaining resource, the “less warm”.
Kent walked like a zombie to the Adams house. Gina kept her husband cool in the shade. Kent could not see from the road whether the man was still alive.
‘Mrs. Adams...Can I use your car to get help?’
‘Oh, we don’t do that kind of thing. Sorry! But you know, neither a borrower nor a lender be!’
‘Mrs. Adams, I will pay you.’
‘Oh, we don’t need any money. We’re ok. I’m sorry, Kent, but we just can’t start that kind of thing.’
‘Someone will take your car when they find out about it,’ he warned her from the road.
‘I’d like to see them try!’ Gina laughed. 'Keep the keys on me. And, anyway, garage door won’t open. No electric.’
‘Mrs. Adams,’ he started to say, but didn’t have the energy to keep talking. ***
Tony Little was 32 when the heat wave started, but turned 33 on the 14th day since they’d lost contact. He lived in a trailer on the east side with two roommates.
‘Let’s go to Dave’s,’ he whispered. People only whispered by then. ‘He’s got a basement.’
‘It’s not a big basement,’ his roommate said. ‘And Dave’s got a wife. Two kids.’
‘We’re buddies,’ Tony said. ‘Drinking buddies for 10 years. I was there when he lost his virginity.’
‘To your sister!’
The three men trudged a half a mile in the 118 degree heat and knocked on Dave’s cellar door. Dave did not welcome them. They were insistent. Tony shot at Dave with his .357, but missed, and Dave killed the three men with a garden spade. The three bodies lay cooking and bloating in the Sun on the front lawn. Dave looked at the bodies from his garden level cellar window every 20 minutes or so, waiting for dogs and vultures to come claim the corpses.
But no dogs came and no vultures came and the bodies decayed and stank in the heat.
Katelin Simpson’s father died on Diamond Hill and she was lonely. To ease her loneliness (and to help dispose of her father’s body) she opened her cellar to her friends. Fifteen youths, all tolled, moved into the cellar, including even Tony Rush. She was a forgiving young woman, or a confused young woman, and was all alone. But she did not like feeling vulnerable.
The fifteen of them huddled in the less warm cellar for three days until Katelin whispered to Tony Rush: ‘I am strong in Christ.’
‘I am sorry for what I done,’ Tony said.
‘Are you strong in Christ?’ she asked. Tony said that he was.
Soon, the two had convinced the other 13 that they, too, were strong in Christ and
would be delivered. They only had to make it to the river.
‘We are being punished,’ Tony whispered to them all. ‘We are being punished.’
‘The River,’ Katelin added. ‘At the River, we can wash this all away!’
They all set out the next night, when the temperature dropped to 106 or 107 degrees.
No one ever heard from them again or knew how they all perished. The River was only six miles from town.
The days were silent. The mad ones clamored out at night from their cellars, but even the mad ones rarely made it beyond their front yards. The heat of the night was so much and there was fear in the darkness. It was an old fear, the kind of fear that children have, of mystery and darkness.
Strong men and strong women grew up in a few days and then grew weak, lay on the dead brown grass and tried to cry. But no one had been able to cry for days.
By that time Gina Adams was the only person in town who could have cried. But she wasn’t the type to cry and she didn’t like weakness.
The living were barely living. They prayed for rain, and when rain did not come they prayed for death. Their mouths were dry and their lips were cracked and no one could hear their words. The death prayers had a greater success rate than the prayers for rain, the prayers for clemency.
Gina Adams woke on the morning of the 17th day and her eyes hurt. Her eyes had grown dry, even with her well water. The world came into focus for her and she saw a crumpled body on the edge of her porch. She did not recognize the body at first, but as she woke up she realized it was Kent, the Mayor, collapsed on his side as if he’d crawled up to the porch in supplication.
Gina dipped a washcloth into her ice chest of water and she carried it to the body. She knelt and placed the cloth to his cracked and burnt lips. Instinctually, the mayor’s lips closed around the rag and he sucked the sweet water from it.
She left the cloth there and returned to her corner of shade.
‘Not too much, Sweetheart,’ she said. ‘Take your time.’
She changed the cloth again and again over a few hours, and then she took three
quarters of an inch of water in a cup to him. She propped him up and gently helped him to drink.
‘Don’t try to speak,’ she said. ‘Rest, and I’ll bring you more.’
The mayor slept off-and-on for over a day, waking only to drink. He slept and drank and early the next morning he urinated without waking.
When the Mayor woke and could both sit up and speak, he said:
‘We have to leave, Mrs. Adams.’
‘Oh no,’ she answered. ‘Just rest. I’ll take care of you until the electric company
comes or until you can get back to your family.’
‘We have to leave.’
‘My husband and I were born here,’ she said, and she smiled broadly. ‘Yes. Yes. We
love it here, Kent.’
‘Then I’ll need your keys.’
‘Now, I told you that we don’t do that, Kent,’ she said.
‘Mrs. Adams, everyone is dead,’ Kent said. ‘My family is dead.’
‘You’ve always been such a dramatic boy,’ Mrs. Adams said and shook her head. ‘Give me your keys,’ he said.
‘Well! Is that gratitude?’
‘We have to leave.’
‘We are not going anywhere,’ she said. She was angry and she motioned at her
‘He is dead, Mrs. Adams,’ he said.
‘He’s been dead for days, Mrs. Adams.’
‘You’ll not talk to me like that in my own house!'
‘He’s dead. Everyone’s dead, for all I know. It is just me and you, Mrs. Adams. We have to leave. You and I.’
‘I have to take care of....’
‘Damnit, Gina!’ he shouted. ‘We have to leave!’ He stood up. ‘It is this heat,’ she said. ‘You are just talking crazy.’
Kent unbuckled his belt and pulled it free from his waist. ‘Give me your keys, Gina.’
The garage door crumpled like paper under the weight of the Cadillac Escalade. The big tank of a car screamed through the deserted town and then beside the stressed cornfields with the limped stalks burnt brown and crisp in the heat and he sped toward the interstate. An ice chest filled with water sloshed back and forth in the Escalade’s back seat.
The Mayor was too scared to turn on the radio.
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