Off the Grid: Flash Fiction

My work boots crunch over the trail, navigating exposed roots and rocks and branches. The crickets and cicadas sing alternating choruses, joined by birdsong and the rush of the swollen creek and the everpresent background duet of chainsaws and helicopters. I hear that sound in my dreams, an earworm I can’t shake—whine, chop-chop; whine, chop-chop—as I eat my cold breakfasts and grimace at over-sweetened cups of instant coffee and sponge myself semi-clean with a rationed bit of water and a stiff, old washcloth. Chainsaws. Everywhere. Cutting apart the trees that toppled over in the last storm—blocking roads, ripping down power lines, crushing cars and roofs and whatever unfortunate things happened to be in their paths.

I fear my uncle might be one of those unfortunate things. I walk faster.

He knew this was coming. The crazy weather, the longer and longer stretches we’d have to go without electricity. “One day,” he said, pouring me warmed brandy while we sat in front of a fire on a frosty evening, when I was not old enough to legally drink. “One day all that”—he waved in the general direction of the nearest town and beyond it the city where I lived with my nuclear family—“will be gone. Collapsed under its own hubris, terrorist target, whatever. We’ll all be living like this, off the grid. No texting. No cell phones. No goddamn twenty-four-seven-everything-you-want. Someone’s gotta be the wise old fool that teaches you kids how to get on with it.”

Like he’d shown me—where to find clean water, how long to boil it if it isn’t, what plants you can eat and which can be used medicinally. The last time I saw him—over a weekend when I told my parents I’d be hiking with a girlfriend and her family—he took me hunting. He prefers a bow. It takes more skill, makes less noise, and won’t poison the groundwater with lead. He took down a small buck and showed me how to dress it. He made me promise not to tell my mother; certainly if she knew that I’d not only lied to her about where I was going but helped kill a deer, she would never permit me to leave the house again. At home, she pretends my uncle doesn’t exist. There is no talk of her younger brother; any mention of her childhood includes him only peripherally and with a quick change to another subject. Like he’s been committed to life in prison or did something equally mortifying.

I’ll never dare tell her of my visits. Or that he taught me how to shoot that bow and also how to skin a woodchuck. I can’t help a smile at the memory. He was proud of me for not being “all squeamish like a girly-girl.”

I walk faster. The chainsaws and helicopters whine-chop off into the distance.

To get to him on a normal weekend, I have to ride the subway to the end of the line, hop a bus, then hike three miles from the road up to his place. But the storm has rendered many of the roads impassable; the train tracks also have to be cleared of trees and debris, so it’s taking some effort and detours and waiting to even get to the foot of his driveway.

Now I’m half-drenched with sweat and feeling a little lightheaded despite the stale granola and two small bottles of water I swiped from the pantry.

I stop to listen. A chainsaw—the new state bird, my father joked—buzzed from the right. Not from his house.

I walk faster. I try to trick myself into believing he’s okay. That eventually I’ll smell woodsmoke and breakfast cooking. That he’ll greet me with his big easy tobacco-stained smile and hook one flannel-wrapped arm around my neck and ask about my folks and what lie I told them this time.

This time? I told them nothing. Dad was fiddling with the generator and Mom had gone out trolling for supplies.

I figured they’d never miss me, and if they did, I’d say I was helping the neighbors.

My heart pounds as I get close enough to see what happened. There is no woodsmoke. No breakfast cooking. All I can smell is pine. Fresh and sharp, like the tree—and his house—never saw it coming. I sprint the rest of the way, calling his name. No answer. Calling again. No answer. Then I hear it. A small, repetitive rasp that chews on my already tweaked nerves. And something like…whistling.

I nearly faint when I find him in the shed out back. Where we dressed the deer, the woodchuck. He is sitting at his workbench, sharpening the blade of his axe with a file. Whistling something that sounds like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” He squints up at me and grins.

“Had a look at that tree, did you?”

I can only nod.

“Well, stick around and we’ll show it what for.”

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