Just Before the Fall || Lucas Franki

Jim Sullivan sat on the front porch of his cabin, watching the sun set over the rough, craggy spine of Old Rag Mountain one last time. It was a typical August evening in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, the air warm and heavy, with a few clouds scattered across an orange and red sky. Cows milled about in the pasture just beyond tiny little Popham Run, and cicadas buzzed to each other from the comfort of the pair of old white oak trees standing guard over the creek. Jim had watched those two massive trees withstand almost 70 years of weather, from bitter ice storms and blizzards to fierce thunderstorms, and the oaks had always remained, folk wisdom be damned. They wouldn’t survive this day though. Nothing would.

Jim held a cigar in one hand, its peaty smoke wafting past his craggy, bearded face, weather-worn and sun beaten after 45 years working long hours in the construction business. His other hand, gnarled and scarred across the top after an accident with a buzz saw, fingered a half-full glass of bourbon sitting on the arm of the cypress deck chair, which still maintained its vibrant yellow-brown color even after 30 years outside. Jim knew his wood, and he knew that no wood stood up to the heat and humidity of the South better than cypress.

A second old man walked out onto the porch and sat down, a bottle of beer in hand. Time had treated him much better; he was thinner and had no paunch on his belly, his hair was still thick and had not yet gone completely white, and his clean-shaven face housed far fewer wrinkles.

“I still can’t believe I’m back here, Jim,” he said. “I swore I’d never set foot in this house again.”

“I know.” Jim gave a grim smile as he spoke in the thick Appalachian accent his brother had worked years to erase. “What he done to you… Can’t rightly defend his actions, or mine. If I could change things, you know I would.”

Tommy took a sip from his beer. “I’m glad that you can see that now. Our father was a terrible man, and you idolized him. You thought he could do no wrong. Hell, you even look like him. You let these things happen to me, and you did nothing. But I believe you when you say you would change things. You learned from your mistakes. You’re not like our father. He was a hateful man, and I’m glad he’s gone.”

Jim wasn’t sure he’d go that far. Their father had been many things: stern, proud, God-fearing, but full of hate? A terrible man? Of course, Jim hadn’t lived the same life as his younger brother. So he said nothing. This wasn’t the time for an argument. “You don’t agree, do you?” Tommy asked. Jim’s shoulders sagged a little; Tommy had always been the smartest one in the room, razor-sharp. Time hadn’t changed that.

“I… it ain’t that simple, Tommy.” Jim watched the leaves in the big oaks swaying gently in the breeze, whispering to each other. “He was just like any other man born and raised on a farm in the South. Just a simple country boy. He never known any life but that. And you just said, I remind you of him. I ain’t known any other life either. You think I’m a hateful man?”

Tommy looked over his older brother, considering the evidence. “No,” he said after a moment. “A hateful man wouldn’t have done what you did, calling me and asking for a reconciliation. It takes courage to admit that you were wrong, and hateful people are all cowards. As for our father, he may have come from a conservative time and a conservative place, but there is no excuse for what he did to me. Other conservative fathers had gay children, and they managed not to abuse them. As a matter of fact, why don’t we get the opinion of the conservative father sitting right next to me. Did you manage to raise your kids without beating them?”

“No, I never laid a hand on ‘em. Though there were times they coulda used a good cuff on the ears,” Jim said with a short chuckle.

“Well, what parent doesn’t feel like that sometimes?” Tommy’s voice was lighter, less grave. Jim felt a sense of relief wash over him, but he tensed up again when he heard his brother’s next question. “But did you accept and understand them?”

Jim leaned back against the smooth, well-worn wood of the cypress chair, closing his eyes as he took a long drag from the cigar. He let the smoke out slowly, the cinnamon spice in his mouth warming his already sweaty face. “I’m gonna miss these,” he said. “Ain’t nothing like a good cigar.”

“You look like you’re enjoying it.”

“It’s a damn fine cigar.” Jim said, sighing. His brother deserved a straight answer. “I done my best, Tommy. I tried to understand some of it, but it was just… my youngest son, he was in, oh, the hell he call it, a poly something…”

“A polyamorous relationship?” Tommy sounded faintly amused.

“That’s it,” Jim said, gesturing at his brother. “There’s somehow four of ‘em, two men and two women, all somehow dating each other…”

Tommy nodded. “That’s a little complex, even for me. But even if you didn’t understand it, did you accept it?”

“Course.”

“Then he’ll thank you for it. And I thank you for it.”

The two men looked back up towards the mountains. A single point of light was lazily moving above the lush green fields and pastures in the red sky, visible now that the sun had disappeared behind the darkening silhouette of Old Rag’s rocky summit.

“Is that it?” Jim asked.

Tommy stared up, squinting. It could have almost been an airplane, it was moving almost as an airplane would, but they both knew what it really was. “I think so,” he said. “Right on schedule. We don’t have much time left.”

Jim glanced at his near depleted cigar and the glass, still holding a couple shots worth of bourbon. “We got enough time. Spent a goddamn hundred bucks on the bourbon and cigars, I’m damn well gonna finish ‘em.”

Tommy swirled his bottle around. “Glad to hear it. I don’t know about me, though, I may have been a little ambitious with this beer. You want a sip? It’s very good.”

Jim took the bottle. He gave it a sniff, the beer smelled strongly of spring flowers. This was all new to a man whose idea of splurging on beer was buying regular Budweiser over Bud Light. He took a doubtful sip. The beer danced on his tongue, tasting of fresh bread and honey.

“What the hell happened to beer?” Jim was stunned. “This is incredible!”

Tommy smiled as Jim handed the bottle back. “It’s from a little brewery about ten miles down the road from my house. I’m glad I thought to bring a cooler with me when I came here, I wouldn’t want the last thing I ever drank to be warm beer. God meant for beer to be drunk cold.”

Jim laughed. “I’ll drink to that.” The two men toasted each other. The bourbon was smooth on Jim’s tongue, and tasted of caramel and vanilla, a sensation far more mellow than the cinnamon heat of the cigar. The brothers sat in silence for a moment, watching the white star in the sky grow bigger and brighter in the fading evening light, hovering now just above the taller of the two old oaks. No one could mistake it for an airplane now. “You think our kids are gonna make it?”

Tommy sighed. “I don’t know. There are 5 billion people huddled together in the high places on the other side of the world, hoping the firestorm won’t reach them, and that the damage won’t be too bad. They can’t all stay there. There’s some food, but not enough. Some of them will die. But some will survive. All we can do is hope our children are among the survivors.”

“Wasn’t convinced this was gonna happen ‘til now,” Jim said as he took one last drag from the depleted cigar. For a moment, he thought about throwing the butt into the yard rather than the rough-hewn ashtray his oldest son had made for him in middle school shop class, but he’d spent so much time meticulously maintaining his lawn to the very end, he couldn’t bear to litter in it now. “Thought it was just a bunch of scientists blowin’ smoke out their asses.”

“Thought it was the biased liberal media?”

Another pointed question. Jim didn’t bother denying it this time. Thought it was the biased liberal media. But that’s it right there, ain’t it?”

“That’s it.”

“Never thought that’d be how I’d go out. Killed by a rock.”

“It’s a pretty big goddamn rock, Jim. It’d kill us even if we weren’t sitting right underneath it.”

Jim took another sip from his bourbon, savoring the taste before throwing it down. Just one sip left. “You think they’ll be waiting for us? My wife and your, uh, husband? Partner?”

“Partner.” The sorrow in Tommy’s voice was palpable. “I should count myself lucky that we were at least able to adopt. It would have been nice to get married, but I’m glad we were able to have kids.”

“Kids were the best thing Loretta and I ever done,” Jim said. “Even after the cops called to tell us that our youngest son got arrested for trespassin’ and vandalizin’.”

“The same son who’s in the polyamorous relationship?” Tommy asked. Jim nodded. “I wish I’d gotten to meet him. All I’ve heard about are his exploits, and I’m already proud to be his uncle.”

“Boy was trouble, right from the start,” Jim said. “Lucky for him he’s the funniest goddamn person I ever met. Know what got him arrested? You know the grocery store down the road, right?”

“The Little Country Store? Of course, it’s been there since we were kids.”

“Well, his friends and him made some improvements to the sign, if you know what I mean,” Jim said, bursting into an excited smile as he launched into his story. “When I went down to the station, the officer said to the both of us, ‘On the record, I hope you learned a lesson, young man. Off the record, that’s the funniest goddamn thing I seen in a long time. You should punish your son, Jim, but you should also be proud of him.’ And I was. Don’t know where he got it from, not from me, and god bless her soul, he certainly didn’t get it from Loretta. He was working for one of them late night talk-show comedians before the evacuations started. I hope there’s a place for comedians after this. Hate for his talents to go to waste.”

Tommy sighed. “We could talk about our children for hours, couldn’t we?”

“I wish, but we don’t got hours, do we?” Jim said. Instead of a point, there was now a streak, a band of fire that stretched for miles across the sky. The light from the rock itself had grown larger and brighter than the moon could ever be as it slammed into the upper atmosphere, searing the air around it into a frenzy. “You got any pictures of your family? Wouldn’t mind one last fond memory before the rock hits.”

“Of course, and may I seem some of yours?” Jim and Tommy handed each other their phones, and for a moment, they scrolled through images of memories gone by. Jim was glad to see his brother so happy, so content with his partner and his two adopted children. He may not have been able to forget the past completely, but he’d grown past it. That was a little bit of comfort. “Five kids,” Tommy said. “You and Loretta look so proud of them.”

“They were a blessin’,” Jim said. “It was hard sometimes, but they were a goddamn blessin’, every one of ‘em.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Tommy said. “We may not be able to erase what our father did, but we can make damn sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It was a minute before Jim spoke again. “You think God will forgive me?” he asked, raising his voice over the burgeoning breeze the rock was kicking up as it drew closer and closer to its final resting place. “For being a coward?”

Tommy looked over, a warm smile on his face. “I have,” he said. “I guess you just have to hope God isn’t a hardass.”

Jim laughed, then picked up the almost empty glass and drained the last sip of bourbon. The branches in the oaks were letting out low moans and groans in the wind, and the white blaze was growing larger and larger, dominating the sky, bathing the rolling country landscape in unnatural light. “You ready for this?” Jim asked, leaning over and picking up one of the rifles sitting between the two men.

“As I’ll ever be. Tommy shook his head ruefully, taking a huge gulp and throwing the empty bottle away. The wind was growing louder, and Tommy was nearly at a full yell. “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this, I haven’t used a gun in more than 50 years!”

“Well, you gotta at least indulge in one Southern tradition while you’re here!” Jim shouted as the brothers walked out in front of the house, shouldering their guns and aiming at the inferno plummeting from above. The wind was howling now as oak leaves shorn from their branches swirled around them. It was a struggle to even stand.

“You mean shooting at trespassers?” Jim could barely hear Tommy now.

“Exactly! Now git off my property!” The two brothers fired into the sky, roaring defiance as the meteor, four miles of stone and iron, fell to Earth.

 

Lucas Franki lives in Maryland and works as an associate editor for a medical news organization. He is an Eagle Scout and loves golf.

Originally published in the FALL 2018 edition of The Helix.