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Fiction

Helicopter

 

The helicopter was large, thick and brutal in a military way, with a curved brown window so dark the pilot could not be seen. It was veering, with its deep guttural sound, toward our apartment building. I thought the helicopter would fly over the building, it would move on to its various duties, but it was coming closer to my apartment, yes, closer—and then the helicopter was hovering right beside my window, here. 

There was nothing between me and the helicopter but a pane of glass, which seemed now extremely thin. Too thin, really. We were separated by nothing but tender restraint and breath. I waited for the helicopter to crash through the window, shattering everything, that would be a natural course of events; the helicopter had that hulking potential. 

My bedroom was not very clean, which perhaps said something about me. I was alone and I did not know where my wallet was, my ID. Where was my ID? It seemed important to have it. How could I board a helicopter without it? I was naked and unknown. The cats sat on the bed; one sweetly licked the other on the head. It could have been love or perhaps it was a trace of cat food; it was impossible to tell. How happy they were over nothing, their happiness innocent and extravagant, strewn like glossy pink petals on the bed. The helicopter glimmered, very still, as though parked on an invisible parking lot, and its blades whirred so fiercely they blurred; the vibrations they made, on the other side of the thin window, trembled within my body, through my neck. 

I did not know why the helicopter had picked this moment to stop by my window. I was naked; I did not want whoever was there to see that. Or perhaps I would give them a surprise. The previous night, I’d had an orgasm so strong, I felt now the stirrings of my period, or what was left of it these days. It was as though my uterus was yelling, a final yell. I could not hear it, but the sound it would make would be glorious. I pulled the sheets around me as though to show I was modest, but this was a lie. I did not want to be modest; it was only what I was told I should feel.

Perhaps the helicopter had made a mistake and was visiting the wrong floor. Perhaps someone on another floor had summoned it. Perhaps there was a service at our building that I had not known about before. But the helicopter merely remained in the air, suspended; it had stopped moving and it was floating on the other side of the window, beside me. 

Yesterday, the supermarket had been low on food. The trucks with supplies had not arrived and some of the shelves were bare. Everyone was throwing the cheaper foods into their carts, particularly the perishables.  

“Don’t push,” said the clerks, speaking with confidence; they were waiting for the trucks to arrive. “There will be more peaches! There will be more carrots, everyone! It’s all on its way.” There was plenty of canned soup, oddly, but no one was interested in that. Everyone wanted the peaches, the blueberries, the sweet fruits that were edible for a short time. There was no visible emergency, or none that we had been informed of; there was food, they said, coming in from somewhere else, there were trucks rolling down the highway. We had to be patient, the manager said. We just had to trust the trucks were coming. Who did they think we were? Nothing was coming from anywhere. We trusted only our ability to hoard. 

I heard a woman, older and sturdy-looking, tossing bell peppers into her cart, chatting with another. 

“We’re moving to Idaho,” she said. Another woman asked why there. “It’s the people,” she said. “Their friendliness. We went and visited. I felt so comfortable there. The beauty of the mountains. But really, we were there just for a week and I loved the people.” She took a deep breath as though envisioning a future there. I envied her hope, her love toward those who were really still strangers.  

I listened for the sound of sirens, but I heard none. The traffic flowed on the highways, in a sweet and naïve way. People were driving to their work, to appointments, and no one knew the food was about to end. I knew this. Longing hung in the air like wet cotton. I could not identify if it was theirs or mine, but I could feel its presence, pulsing. The scarcity of food in the stores made everyone nervous. 

Yesterday, it was my birthday, and I went early to make sure I could get ingredients to make a cake with strawberries in the frosting. The sweetness of birthday cake had clearly been created for a reason. You wanted that taste in your mouth as you looked toward what would come next. I found that cake and then, full of a brassy confidence, I had approached the last box of strawberries in the store. An older man, his hair a translucent white flame, his hands gripping his supermarket cart, had been shuffling toward the box and I swooped in and grabbed it. I wanted the strawberries more. That was what I told myself. First was first. I had stolen a pack of berries from the too slow grasp of an old man. I saw him turn away sadly and tried to feel unaffected by that. I imagined offering him some strawberries, but I was honestly afraid things would get out of hand. I wanted them. There was nothing complicated about this; I just did. My aging year was different from his aging year, not as dire, or perhaps more. Aging was about proof, and I wanted to prove that I could grab first. Now the box was hidden in the refrigerator behind some less appealing items—a bowl of old spaghetti, some celery sticks. I had grabbed those strawberries, and I made a small cake, and I had savored its sweetness, bite by bite.  

I stared at the helicopter. I did not know its intent. Was it there to save or kill me? How sad that these were the only two choices I could imagine. Why couldn’t I believe it might just take me on a nice trip? Was that the problem with everything, the inability to figure out intent? The way the frail old man had glanced at the strawberries, the sound of shoes clattering across the produce section as people pushed forward and grabbed items for their carts. I had not thought I would be one of the grabby ones; perhaps I had not been. Perhaps the man had stepped away, interested in other food options, allowing me to lunge. But that was wrong, and I knew it. I knew what I had done. 

It was only a matter of time before the army filled the streets. There were a couple of soldiers by the supermarket, for an unspecified reason—they looked like they had recently been brought in. They had thick, beige bulletproof vests and long rifles that they held in their arms. They were young enough to be my sons. I was far away from my own children. We all stood and pretended to ignore each other, but I knew we were aware. Our attempts to ignore one another were pretentious and ridiculous. They stared at nothing, feet planted, cradling their guns. Their faces were young and dreamy as though inhabited by clouds.  

Now I inched forward, sheets clutched to my chest, eyeing the helicopter and whoever was in it. The cats stirred, their mouths opening like tiny caves that led to the center of the world. They began meowing, awake, sensing something. 

When would the war start? All I wanted was an answer. Hopefully the person in the helicopter would know, the one operating this thing, the one I could not see. I squinted, but the black dome was impenetrable. The pilot told me nothing. We all agreed on the fact that there would be a war. We all knew it was going to happen; it was just a matter of when. 

The helicopter trembled by the window. Was the helicopter, besides the pilot, empty, or was it carrying another person? Or more? And how was I supposed to get into it? It seemed either a mean sort of dare or an acknowledgment of skills I did not have. The pilot had to know that I couldn’t step through the glass. The helicopter would have to crash through, the window shattering, glass everywhere, the cats probably freaking out and leaping through the broken window, hurtling shrieking to their deaths. How terrible this would be. I loved the cats and did not want anything bad to happen to them. We gazed at each other and when the smaller one climbed on my chest, our hearts beat against one another, as though having a private conversation. How happy we both were then, at peace. It was the most unifying feeling in the world. I loved the clichéd aspects of it. I wanted to protect his furry, thrumming self. 

Be careful, I wanted to tell the pilot, sternly.  We will not tolerate harm. Finally, at this age, I could say this. Perhaps the helicopter would carry us to safety, to land on the top of a cloud, to the mirrored surface of a lake, its ramp unfolding gently into air. A location I did not know. I wanted to believe in the buoyant surface of clouds, in safety. The room suddenly felt claustrophobic and terribly hot; my cheeks were burning. I had to get out. 

The helicopter hovered, silent.

The helicopter, its pilot, were not being helpful. No one was telling me how to get to it. Panic flared in my chest. What was the helicopter going to do? There were already dozens dead somewhere in the city, all people who had done nothing wrong; I did not know where they were, but I knew.  There would be more, and I wanted to help them, but I did not know how to start. The old man was perhaps wandering by the strawberries and I wanted just then to know his name. Where was he, was he as hungry as I was, and did he feel the same trembling inside? Who else had found the strawberries, and what were people storing in their vegetable bins? What could we offer to anyone else? I wanted to rush again through the produce aisle, I wanted to toss free food into other people’s carts, I wanted to imagine myself as that sort of person, and I wanted to taste the strawberries, forever, in my mouth. 

The helicopter was turning, the air stirring in great clear sashes around it. Stop, I shouted. Wait. I wanted to fly it. Which was ridiculous because I had never flown a helicopter in my life. I believed I would be a good pilot. My hope was a great shroud of deceit, but necessary. The pilot could not hear me shouting through the glass window. Perhaps the pilot could see my mouth shouting, but that was easy to ignore. Wait, I shouted again; let me try. I put my hands on the glass. Please. Don’t leave yet. Let me try. The helicopter turned on a pale sheave of light, the propeller beating the air, and I imagined myself inside it, gripping the controls of the machine, guiding it with my hands, the helicopter rising and falling as I surveyed the glowing, broken city and wondered, among the wreckage, what it was to be victorious. 

Karen E. Bender is the author of four works of fiction. Her story collection "Refund" (Counterpoint) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and "The New Order" (Counterpoint) was longlisted for the Story Prize. Her novels are "Like Normal People" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and "A Town of Empty Rooms" (Counterpoint). A new collection of stories and a novel are under construction.

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