Randy rose from the table, bowed, and said, “I give you my blessing!”

“It isn’t funny.”

“Marriage is rarely funny.” “She won’t marry me.” “Then why did you shave off your beard?”

“Damn it, Randy, I love her. And she loves me. She admitted it. She wants to marry me. But she won’t. She thinks there’s a chance Mark’s still alive. She’s afraid that if we married then Mark would turn up alive and there’d be one of those awful messes we’ve all heard about or read about. Like when men were reported dead in the Philippines or Korea and they turned up after the war in an enemy prison camp. They came home and found their wives happily married to someone else. Sometimes there were children. It’s always a mess.”

“It’s happened,” Randy said, “but in this case I don’t think there’s a chance. Want me to talk to her?”

Dan rubbed his face where his beard had been. “I feel naked. No, Randy, thanks. I don’t think Helen would want it discussed. Not yet, anyway. She just has this feeling, and I’m afraid she’ll have to empty it herself.”

It was in this month that the first low-flying plane frightened and exhilarated them.

At irregular times planes had been reported before, but always jets, flying very high, usually no more than a silver splinter in the sky, or contrail, in day, and only sound at night.

But in the second week in November a big four-engined transport roared over Fort Repose at a thousand feet. It bore Air Force markings. In Marines Park everyone screamed and waved. It did not even waggle its wings, but went on, south. Dan Gunn, who was in town, saw it directly overhead. Randy heard and saw it from River Road. The Admiral, who was out on the river in his flagship, was able to observe it through binoculars.

That night Randy and Lib and Dan and Helen went to Sam Hazzard’s house to hear his opinion. “I noticed two cylinders slung under the wing,” he said. “Not extra gas tanks. I think they might be air traps. I think they might be taking radiation samples.”

A week later the same plane, or one like it, came over again. This time it circled Fort Repose, and a stream of what appeared to be confetti, at the distance, fell from its belly and drifted down on the river banks and in the town.

Randy was in Marines Park, at the time, discussing an alarm system with officers of his company. Church bells had been used in England during the second World War, and there were bells in the Catholic and Episcopal churches. It was possible to evolve a code by which his troopers could understand the type and location of the emergency. The plane came over and everyone yelled, as before, as if they could hear up there. Then the leaflets fluttered down. They read:


This leaflet comes from a United States Air Force plane conducting atmospheric surveys of the Contaminated Zones.

At a future date a more precise survey will be undertaken by helicopters.

Should a helicopter land in or near your community do not interfere with the activities of personnel aboard. Lend them your cooperation if requested.

This activity is an essential preliminary to bringing relief to the Contaminated Zones.

In a sense, it was disappointing. But it was something. It was something you could put your hands on, that you could feel, that had come from the outside. It was proof that the government of the United States still functioned. It was also useful as toilet paper. Next day, ten leaflets would buy an egg, and fifty a chicken. It was paper, and it was money.

In December the helicopter came. It made a fearful racket, wind milling over Fort Repose. At various open spaces, including

Marines Park, it hovered low and dropped a long wire from its belly, a small cylinder on the end of the wire actually touching the earth. It was like a gigantic bug dipping for honey.

It came up the Timucuan and circled the Bragg house.

The children were down at the dock; Helen and Lib were in the house; Randy was visiting with Sam Hazzard.

It circled four times. The two women ran up to the captain’s walk. They had the best view. They waved their arms and then Helen took off her pink apron and waved that.

Inside the helicopter they saw faces and the pilot opened a window and waved back. Then it went away, up the Timucuan. In five minutes Randy, the Admiral, and the children, all out of breath, were at the house.

Helen was weeping. “He waved!” she said. “He waved at us! Nobody else, us! I’m sure he came just to see us!”

“Now let’s not get too excited,” Randy said. “It may be that he was just looking for people-not anyone in particular-and saw the kids out on the dock and then circled the house to encourage us and give us heart.”

Helen wiped her face with her apron. She said, “Oh, I wish he’d come back. Please, God, send him back!”

At that moment, they heard it coming back.

The children ran up to the roof. Randy went outside and sat on the porch steps. He was still out of breath and he wasn’t going to run upstairs. If the damn helicopter wanted to see him it would have to come here. He couldn’t go to it. Sam Hazzard sat down beside him.

Randy watched for it. From the sound he knew it was circling again. It came low over the trees and hovered over the lawn. Everything else was overgrown and choked with weeds and sprouting saplings but this single stretch between house and road Randy kept in lawn. It was one of Ben Franklin’s chores to mow once a week, and it was a link between the house and the time before The Day, like shaving.

It hovered there and slowly lowered. Randy said, “It’s coming in!” He rose to receive it.

Its wheels touched the ground, its engines cut off, and its rotors drooped and slowed. Peyton ran down the steps and Randy grabbed her. “Don’t go out there until the rotors stop!” he ordered. “Cut your head off!”

Now that it was down, the helicopter looked ungainly and enormous. There were five men in it.

The rotors stopped.

They waited in stillness so complete that they heard the creak of hinges as the hatch opened. A metal ladder fell from its side and two men climbed down. Plastic helmets covered their heads and they were encased in silver, translucent plastic suits, oxygen tanks strapped to their backs. Like divers, Randy thought, or maybe spacemen. Peyton and Ben Franklin had run out on the lawn. Now they shrank back. One of the men, laughing silently inside his helmet, held up his hand in a gesture, “Wait!”

The two men carried machines that looked like miniature vacuum cleaners, a cylindrical nozzle in one hand, an oblong black box in the other. They allowed these nozzles to sniff at grass and earth. “Geiger counters,” Sam Hazzard said. “Maybe we’re hot.”

One of the men approached them, hesitated, and selected Randy. He bent over and allowed the nozzle to sniff Randy’s last pair of boat shoes, big toe protruding through the canvas, soles reinforced with possum hide. The nozzle investigated the tattered shorts, the belt, and finally Randy’s hair. At each point, the head in the helmet glanced at a dial in the box. It was very efficient.

The man swept off his helmet, slammed his hand on Randy’s shoulder as if in congratulations, and called back to the helicopter, “Okay, Colonel. The terrain’s clear and they’re clear. You can come down.”

His back toward them, a man climbed down. He wore a blue, zippered Air Force flight suit with the eagles of a full colonel on his shoulders.

When he turned and stepped forward, Randy did not immediately recognize him, he was so changed.

It was not until the man held out his hand, and spoke, that Randy saw it was Paul Hart, who had been a light colonel, sandy haired instead of gray, his face cheery and freckled instead of lined and aged, when he saw him last. Randy could think of nothing to say except, “Come on in, Paul, and bring your people. We’re just about to sit down for lunch.”

Lib cried, “The quail!” and dashed into the house, letting the screen door bang.

“My wife,” Randy said. “It’s her lunch day.”

“Your wife? Congratulations. My wife-I’ll save it for later.” Randy saw that the men with the Geiger counters had stripped off their plastic suits. “You’ll all have a drink before lunch?” he suggested, thinking that this had been the proper thing to say, long ago, and would still be proper and expected.

“Why, I’d be delighted!” Paul said. “I haven’t had a drink since-” he asked a question: “You people haven’t saved your liquor all this time, have you?”

“Oh, no. This stuff is new. Well, it’s aged a bit. In a charcoal keg. We think it’s very good.”

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