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This Is Not a Drill



A SEASON OF SUDDEN ALARMS! Scarcely do you dare close your (exhausted) eyes, your cell phone erupts. High-pitched rapid buzzing like a maddened hornet. Already the thing is impatient, you haven’t rushed to answer.
       And even as you snatch up the vibrating device with a trembling hand, before you can answer a stern robot-voice emerges.
       This is not a drill.
       Repeat: this is not a drill.
       Prepare for an emergency:
       (Your phone—you are of an age to think sentimentally of the device, as if it has been created to benefit you.)
Each alarm is a singular surprise. No alarm seems aware of its precursor.
       Each alarm is issued by the state in which you reside, which happens to be the state of New Jersey. That there is a network of such states—indeed, a “federal government”—is not any longer acknowledged.
       Since precisely when, you can’t remember.
       It is very difficult to remember an omission. That which is missing is likely to be beyond the orbit of language precisely because it has ceased to exist.

Initially, in October, your phone erupts in a high-pitched buzzing to warn of an approaching rainstorm, gale-force winds, travelers’ advisory.
       Soon after, a warning comes of Hurricane Cassandra, power outages, ten p.m. to six a.m. curfew.
       Not long after, flash floods, tornado, nine p.m. to seven a.m. curfew.
       Local roads are washed out, the Turnpike is shut down, basements are flooded. Deaths are reported of individuals foolish enough to wade through waist-high water: drownings, heart attacks, electrocutions from fallen wires.
       Caution: remain indoors until further notice.
       In January, your phone buzzes with a new emergency: “early warning signs” of an “imminent health crisis.”
       Soon then, seven p.m. to nine a.m. curfew. Public places shut down until further notice. All schools, churches shut down. Masks required even if outdoors.
       Travelers’ advisory: avoid all roads.
       Each day in succession through the early rain-dripping spring the hours of curfew are reiterated. You notice how the precise hours of the curfew are altered daily, as if with the intention to confuse, discourage: now beginning at sunset, now at five p.m., now at three p.m.
       Eventually, twelve noon.
       Eventually, twenty-four-hour.
       Public health bulletins, mandates. Epidemiologists’ advisory: stay indoors!
       In the streets, random figures. Distant cries, gunfire. Barricades, police vehicles. Gunfire.
       Red-tinged skies, clouds like misshapen tumors. Frantic fleeing birds striking your windows, falling dead to the ground. So often your phone is buzzing with emergency alarms, you hide it beneath cushions. Still, the (muffled) buzzing can’t be ignored. By the time you reach it the robot-voice is warning of martial law, twenty-four-hour curfew, violators at risk of being shot on sight.
       This is not a drill.

Weeks, months pass. The emergency alarms vary but the curfew now remains constant: twenty-four-hour. No exceptions.
       Huddling in your cave, sobbing-grateful when power is restored, ravenously hungry when food is (finally) delivered. By state mandate retail stores are closed to individual customers, food and other supplies are delivered exclusively by licensed services, at exorbitant costs that only the privileged can afford.
       You are one of the privileged. You have escaped fires, floods, virus, starvation, rioting. At first, you communicate with other privileged in your circle of friends; but, as time passes, these other privileged have slowly vanished.
       Emails sent into the void are not received; or, if received, are not answered. Ever more frequently emails are returned as undeliverable.
       Cell phones, commandeered by authorities, are no longer used for private calls.
       TV news is recycled. Belatedly you realize you have been seeing the same videos, hearing the same weather/catastrophe reports for months.
       Online news is redacted, sites have been removed. Click on a familiar link and discover that it has vanished.
       Power outages are frequent. And last longer.
       Staring at the computer screen, which vanishes into a tiny white dot amid a great gaping black hole that surrounds it, and swallows it.
       Black screen, dead screen. The electronic device, overheated, begins rapidly to cool, to cold.

A haze of ennui palpable as woodsmoke has settled over the state. The Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, state highways, and smaller, local roads are deserted. Where floodwaters have receded, bodies of drowned animals and (occasional) human beings are discovered. Everywhere, skeletons of birds. Shopping malls are deserted, stores are darkened and shuttered. Roaming gangs of looters and vandals are a plague, the New Jersey National Guard has been mobilized to shoot on sight.
       Deaths from the virus, pandemic. Morgues overflowing, bodies stacked in freezing units in warehouses. Funeral pyres.
       Airborne ashes, romantically reimagined as “woodsmoke.”
       Your connection with the external world has become almost exclusively virtual. It is not entirely clear whether the external world exists or whether it is itself virtual.
       Months, a year. Eighteen months. You neglect to mark the calendar, you have lost track of days. For what is a day but the equivalent of its predecessor and its successor. Not a day, but rather the day.
       One morning you discover that the interior space in which you live has shrunken considerably. A corridor that once led to several rooms leads now to just two. A door that had opened into a room now opens into a closet. There are fewer windows. Less light is admitted. (Unless there is, out of the white sky, less light altogether.)
       Mail service has long since ceased. UPS, FedEx—you have seen delivery trucks abandoned in ditches.
       Municipal services like trash pickup, snow removal, road repair—scarcely a memory. Elections?—(what were elections?). You have no idea if there are still elected officials, or who these elected officials might be. Township, state, federal governments: Do these still exist?
       What precisely does the term mean: Exist?
       For to exist without knowledge, freedom of movement, power is scarcely to exist.
       Obscurely it is understood that those who succumb to floods, fires, virus, bullets must have done something to deserve their fate; even as you, who have managed to avoid these, deserve your (privileged) fate of not being afflicted.
       Ah!—you see in a mirror that you have become a “mountain man”—wild hair, whiskers sprouting from your chin, eyes glistening with a jocose sort of terror.
       You have forgotten your name—that is, the sweet diminutive that you’d been called by people who’d once known you. The state knows only your legal name, surname and first name and middle initial, which you are accustomed to seeing on printed materials the sight of which suffuses you with an obscure guilt.
       You live in terror of being summoned by the State. Even as you are uncertain that there still remains a State.
       You have forgotten how to walk upright, you’ve devised a clever way to sit in a desk chair with little wheels and drag yourself with your feet, along the hall, and back again, and along the hall and back again, merrily. Through many a storm-lashed day, night.
       Singing to yourself—I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.
       An old, sweet melody—You always hurt the one you love.

One morning, the sky is moistly red as the interior of a lung, there’s a (romantic) smell of woodsmoke in the air, a wild caprice comes to you, you will venture outdoors . . .
       First time outdoors in—how long? Two years? Three?
       Or, has time collapsed? Has time, dense indoors as if vacuumpacked, ceased to pass at all?
       Behind the sprouting whiskers you seem to have grown no older. Yet clearly you’ve lost your youth. Your skin, once ruddy, has become pale and thin as onionskin and smells like camphor.
       Eyes, once clear and hopeful, threaded with broken capillaries. Old, outdated prescriptions. Chunky white pills that crumble to dust in the hand. Yet, you would be reckless to taste such crumbs with your tongue, which darts like a curious eel, seeking sensation.
       Can’t bear it!—you think.
       Not an hour longer.
       As dusk approaches, slip from the rear door of your residence. Your legs ache with the strain, your back aches, you are not accustomed to standing upright.
       The sky, pebble-colored, glowering with a smoldering sort of light, is oppressively large overhead, like an umbrella that does not cease opening.

Beneath the smell of woodsmoke, a smell of moist grass, earth. In the road a rumbling sound—a tank passing, laborious as a giant tortoise. The roads are potholed from heavy tanks. Out here, you’ve been warned, there is a risk of suicide bombers. Arson, earthquakes. Martial law: shoot on sight.
       Mass cremations, hundreds of thousands of bodies burning across the continent. It is rumored that the county landfill a few miles away on Athill Road has been converted into an open-air crematorium.
       Ashes clogging your nostrils, eyelashes. Acrid on the tongue.
       How many days since you have touched anyone?—since anyone has touched you?
       Looked at you, urgent in intimacy, up close?
       You’d been a teacher? High school, public? Or had that been something you’d seen on TV, or in a dream?
       Vaguely you recall large classes: five rows of desks, six students in each row. Thirty students? Staring eyes. What was the subject?
       So long ago, chalk in your hand. A green board, stark white chalk.
       Mister ___. (What had they called you? Had they laughed at your jokes?)
       Mister ___—something beginning with H.
       Actually, you’d been happy there, in that classroom. And the kids—the kids!—before the armed guards in the corridor, and the checkpoints—had seemed to like you.
       Mister H__ . . .
       In the wet cold ashy air you wander open-mouthed. Breathing deeply. Willing to be humbled, humiliated. Will no one ever touch you again? Will you never touch anyone again?
       Any risk for a touch, you think. Your knees wobble like a drunk’s. Your heart is a fluttering little chickadee.
       There’s a sound of booted feet, pavement. A young uniformed soldier has sighted you. In his camouflage fatigues, boots. Rapidly he approaches with a bayonet, his face is hidden by a dark mask that covers forehead, nose, mouth, leaving only his raw young eyes exposed.
       You are heedless, daring. You will have only this singular chance.
       Lifting your hand, yearning to be touched?—or in self-defense, to ward off the glinting blade?
       Lifting your eyes, yearning to be seen.
       The young soldier has paused, staring at you. He tugs at the mask, exposing his mouth.
       “Mr. Holleran! Jesus! Is that you?”
       One of your students. Shocked by the sight of you.
       Quickly, with the bayonet Josh motions for you to get away. Run!
       Embarrassed as any adolescent confounded by the behavior of an adult who should know better.
       Blindly you reach out, Josh swipes at you with the bayonet.
       “Mr. Holleran!—no.
       He’s serious, you see. Yet—
       You would stand your ground, you would shut your eyes, surrender. Yet—
       “Don’t make me do this, Mr. Holleran, O.K.?”
       “But I—I can’t—”
       “Go. Go away.”
       Those eyes, fixed upon you. O.K.! You will limp back home. Broken, humbled. Relieved not to have been bayonetted. Ashes sifting into your eyes, wept in rivulets down your cheeks. Scarcely aware of the rumbling of tanks. Vibrating earth, which threatens to open beneath your feet. Panting, cowering.
       Cower: coward.
       For it is the way of the coward to limp back to the safety of the cave, to shut and lock the door behind you. To exist.
       Still, that look in Josh’s face: love.
       And even if not, enough.

© 2023 The Ontario Review, Inc.

This electronic version of “This Is Not a Drill” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in Zero-Sum by Joyce Carol Oates, published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2023.

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