It is dawn. In 1997, in Brigham City, Utah, Alexis Tromble is already awake. She gesticulates in the semidark in the center of her living room, the furniture all pushed to the walls, the arabesque rug rolled up and inert in a corner, the spandexed and lithe figures that live inside the One Hour Fitness Blast video tape cavorting on her TV screen. They’re such healthy specimens, each one of them. Alexis follows along. She has the volume set to zero because the kids are still asleep, and Reese too. He worked the graveyard shift last night at the mill and God knows needs his rest. She will see him tonight. Alexis doesn’t need the sound; she has seen the tape before, many times. She knows that now, forty minutes in, Mark, the session leader, will take a knee next to beautiful Sebastian with the green eyes and note the perfect slant of his calves. See now, Sebastian here is doing great, mouths Mark. His feet shoulder width apart, his back straight, his gaze ahead. Sebastian bends, activating his glutes. And up, and down, and up, and down. Good! Mark stands and jogs backward up the row of dazzling smiles.
Alexis has twenty more minutes. This is her time. The only sound in the room is the muffled stomp of her tennis shoes and the measured line of her breath. She is not unfit. She used to serve in the Air Force as a fighter mechanic. She prefers this method of exercise, screamed at by no one, shown up by no one.
The Tromble house was built in 1935. The construction company experienced issues with the foundation sinking that year due to, though they did not know this, an inopportune slope in the bedrock beneath the site, shaped by a small lake that had been there twelve million years ago. Mornings back then were humid beyond all belief. Jungle abutted the lake like a thicket of fur. In the still water of the shore, things festered. Everything was clogged with the wetness of night. All surfaces slick. The world dried out every morning and then submerged itself again, like breathing. By midmorning the buzz of gnats, much unchanged as a species for many millions of years, was so loud it would have woken Reese and the kids. Alexis would have crouched in her living room, thigh deep in the unchecked algae beds, palms clamped over her ears. Living in a place like that, the boys would be deaf by forty-five.
When her routine is finished, Alexis restores the living room and then sorts the laundry, listening to soft talk radio from an old handheld she has set on the sill of the open window. Outside, the sprinklers arc over the lawns of the houses on the odd-numbered side of the street. It is Sunday. The more industrious families are pulling into their driveways in their Buicks, coming back from church. Next door, the Derrys do just this. Sally Derry, who is fourteen, slumps out of the car last in a polo, her hair dyed the color of angry cotton candy, the lower parts of her legs encased in knee-high black boots—the one rebellious article, Alexis guesses, she has managed to sneak into her Sunday school ensemble. Alexis remembers being that age. She remembers those years as fast, not just in that they went by fast, but that everything set before her thrummed with an energy that ate it up. Food was gone in seconds. Music turned the air inside out. The heat of the days! She watches Sally stalk through the front door. Herbert Derry and his eight-year-old son wear matching sky-blue button-ups.
Alexis carries the laundry through the kitchen. The tile beneath her feet was once a strip of sand beach. She walks through clusters of plover nests, which were perfect circles. The yellow cream clings to the tread of her tennis shoes. The alarmed mothers, suddenly orphaned.
The laundry goes on the shelf of the breakfast nook. The boys will take it to their rooms. It was here, in 1950, that Steve Johnson, a previous resident of the house, lay upon receiving news that he had not passed the state bar exam. He lay at about this time of morning, with one wrist dangled across his eyes to shield against the furious new sun, imagining himself for some reason as the subject of an old Renaissance painting, a delicate nude.
The boys wake up for lunch. They take the laundry back to their rooms, making things more comfortable for Steve, and when they get back their sandwiches are waiting for them. Alexis sits with them at the table, though she does not eat. How’d you boys sleep? she asks. Elwood, the eldest at ten, doesn’t answer, but Dale, six, says, bad. Oh sweetie, Alexis says, why bad? Because of the air conditioner again, he says. A week ago, Reese had turned on the air conditioner for the summer. Every twenty minutes or so it hums the house cool, but it isn’t the noise that bothers Dale; it’s the smell. The dust the winter built up in the vents smells freezing, he says. That’s how he describes it.
The vents will clear out soon, baby, Alexis tells him, but Dale, weary, pushes a carrot around on his plate. Alexis gets one of those deep pangs of worry that she gets. He’s growing up, she thinks, he doesn’t trust me anymore. At this point, Elwood has finished his lunch. He gulps the last of his milk, scrapes the seat back, and sprints out to the backyard where he has a standing play date with his best friend, Robbie, who lives down the street and comes in through the side gate. They play ronin samurais with wooden swords behind the garden, where in 1863 Joseph Gamble was hanged for murder in the woods outside of town, then a mostly new colony for members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. It had been raining all day but stopped just before they read the rites, which Joseph Gamble heard through the stuff of the sack he kept breathing into his mouth.
Two weeks from now, Elwood will slip in his socks running for the backyard and go partially through the sliding glass door. His right arm up to the armpit and the cap of his knee. He will not scream, knocked unconscious, and Alexis will follow the crash to the sight of her first-born son suspended on what will appear to her to be very narrow spires of his own frozen blood. He will make a full recovery, but Alexis, afraid, will stop him from running track in high school.
Alexis gives Dale permission to watch TV because Sundays are the days Elwood and Robbie get to play alone. She sits down in the kitchen with her notebook and pens and works on her novel, which is more than halfway done. It is about a family very much like hers, in a house like this one.
In three years a wildfire turned suburban will very nearly raze the house to the ground. The call to evacuate will come just as Alexis gets the boys home from school, and they will drive for half an hour through greasy brown smoke before getting clear to Reese’s grandmother’s on the west side of Salt Lake City. The fire will come so close to the house that the rubber hose looped by the eastern wall will melt into a flat green disc.
As she works, Alexis looks every so often out the window at Robbie and Elwood to see if they’re all right. They’re just fine, as always, recreating a duel, or the seppuku that comes after, under the huge pine tree in the back that had been a Christmas decoration in their living room twelve years ago. It will be by the spindly skeleton of this tree that Sally Derry, fifty-seven in the year 2040, will orient the axis of her F-35 on a routine evening patrol of the dead zone, which will be dry as dust from the fallout and will have been for twenty years. That’s how you know how bad things have become, by how old the fighter pilots will be in 2040. Sally will not realize that she’s banking left over a neighborhood of her youth because at precisely 1900 hours her helmet’s holographic display will flash red at the launch of a SAM missile hundreds of feet below. A klaxon will sound in her ear. In standard evasive procedure she will roll right and pitch up hard, then down, then roll back even, snaking through the sky while she screams fuck over and over again into her oxygen filter. The eco-terrorists will not, according to official briefs, be in possession of artillery like this.
The missile will strike the starboard horizontal stabilizer. Sally will only panic for a moment. She has done this long enough, has been in this situation once before. Both hands on the stick, she will guide her F-35 into a sloped descent that slams her craft belly-down on the charred remains of what was once her street and up the Trombles’ old drive with a horrid scraping sound so loud it would have sent Reese leaping out of his bed. At 1907 hours, right about the time the Trombles usually sit down to dinner, the nose of her jet will explode through the front door, the entryway, all the way into the living room.
Alexis, had their dinner been forty-three years in the future, would have gasped at the figure of Sally, so old now, emerging from her cockpit with her back aflame. Dale and Elwood, like good citizens, working in tandem, would have rushed for towels to bat out the fire, and, when that was done, begged Sally to join them for dinner. She would have said yes, but let me breathe a minute. She would have borrowed a dress from Alexis, whose taste would be a little too slinky for Sally at fifty-seven. Reese would have cleared the debris enough to get at the cockpit and tune the radio system to a nice jazz station for dinner listening.
At dinner, they would have talked about the weather, so hot already. Alexis, having such a grand time with such an old friend, would have let slip that she was writing a novel, and Sally, remembering Alexis primarily as a stocky woman in a bandana hanging the laundry, would have asked to read it. Alexis would have let her, both of them sitting on the F-35’s starboard wing, now firmly lodged in the guest half bath. Reese would have been in the boys’ room putting them to sleep, coaching Dale to ignore the air conditioner. Dale would have been unbothered by the slow pulse of the navigation light at the tip of the jet’s port wing, now under his bed.
Sally would have liked the novel, or at least the part she read. What she would have liked most about it was how it was about nothing at all really, how nothing really changed over the course of it. It was just the story of people in a place. She would have liked the quiet of it. She would have set the notebook down, leaned back, and told Alexis just that. How quiet it was, that was what she liked.