Ethan pulled his car into his driveway, shifted into ‘park,’ pulled up the emergency brake, and promptly slumped his forehead onto the top of the steering wheel. It had been a long day at the office. He had awoken with the sun and left his house that morning before 7:00 a.m. After several client meetings and too many hours staring at his computer screens, he had finished editing two video projects and secured another three contracts. The sun had already set when he locked up the office and retreated home that evening.
A self-proclaimed hermit, Ethan enjoyed working alone in his one-room studio-office across town. He had started his own video-marketing company four years ago, and enjoyed the personal fulfillment that came with having individual control over all parts of the projects. Of course, being a one-person company didn’t always provide the best financial income, but as long as Ethan kept up the client meetings and steady editing processes, he could easily pay the bills for his modest lifestyle.
He walked up the wooden steps to his apartment. He lived in the top level of a duplex in a suburb just outside of Boston. An elderly woman named Myrna occupied the first-floor apartment, and had lived there long before Ethan moved in three years ago. She was a widow with a couple of kids who didn’t visit often. Ethan checked on her when needed — during snowstorms or power outages — and they exchanged pleasantries at the mailbox a few times a month. They otherwise had no cause for interaction; they both happily led quiet, solitary lives.
Ethan turned the key in the lock and leaned into the door, practically falling into the kitchen. He closed the door without bothering to lock it behind him and tossed his messenger bag onto the kitchen table. Flipping on the light switch, he looked around and sighed. The kitchen was a mess — dirty dishes filled the sink, weeks of mail piled up on the table and the counters, and two bags of trash sat next to the trash barrel in the corner.
Suddenly, Ethan was aware of something moving by his ankles. Looking down, he smiled. His life wasn’t completely solitary, after all. Franklin — a stray tabby cat — had forced his way into Ethan’s life a few months ago. He first started appearing in the yard and the driveway about a year ago. Myrna left out bowls of milk for the cat, but for some reason, Franklin took to Ethan. He would return day after day for the milk, but upon licking the bowl clean, he would meander up the steps to the small porch landing outside of Ethan’s door. Ethan would watch him from the kitchen window on weekend mornings, and became used to the cat’s routine. Appreciative of the cat’s fondness, Ethan would talk to the cat and occasionally scratch him behind the ears on the walk to and from the car. Then one cold day in December, when Ethan opened up the door to let himself into the apartment, Franklin ran right in ahead of him and curled up on an area rug by the stove. Not having the heart to throw the cat back out into the cold, Ethan let Franklin stay. Since then, the cat hadn’t left.
“I’ve got some cleaning to do here, huh, Franklin?” Ethan said as he stooped down to scratch the cat’s head. “How’d we let the apartment get so bad?”
Ethan stood and walked to the cabinet for the box of cat food. After pouring some into Franklin’s bowl and returning the box to the cupboard, Ethan reached into the freezer for some dinner of his own. He found the last of the seven Hungry Man dinners that he had purchased last weekend. Tomorrow was Saturday, and he would go to the supermarket and buy another seven. He opened the box, retrieved the frozen container from inside, and tossed it into the microwave. It buzzed to life, and the noise filled the room. Ethan pushed up the sleeves of his thermal shirt and started doing moving dishes from the sink to the dishwasher.
Ten minutes later, with the sink now free of dishes and the counters almost clear of clutter, Ethan brought his dinner to the table. Pushing aside junk mail and catalogs, he made some room for his meal and a can of Diet Coke. He leaned over to the far end of the table and switched on the police scanner.
It was an old scanner that he had found in the apartment when he moved in. Most evenings, he would listen to the scanner while eating dinner or doing other tasks about the apartment. It provided more realistic entertainment than the television, and he sometimes got some good information on his neighbors. For instance, the 17-year-old down the street was busted last month for growing 12 marijuana plants in his parents’ basement.
This evening, the scanner was active. At first, Ethan paid little attention. It was a Friday night; even in his sleepy town, weekends were always busier for the first responders with house parties, reckless drivers, and the like. Ethan took bites of his Salisbury steak and listened to a dispatcher call for an ambulance to a nearby address for a report of an elderly, ill resident. A few minutes later, a police officer reported a seemingly abandoned vehicle on the side of a major route through town. Ethan took a big gulp from his soda can before continuing into his mashed potatoes. He noticed the chatter on the scanner was picking up in frequency, and maybe he imagined it, but the intensity of the voices on the scanner was seeming to pick up too:
Squad 9 408 Code 2 to Cottage Street and Evergreen. There’s a person in the middle of the street here. Code 2 408.
Code 3 Ladder 4 to 117 High Street. Reporting flames from the upstairs north side windows. Prepare to evacuation 115 and 119.
Ladder 2 we have a 951-953 at the bottom of Deerfield Road. We’ve had six or seven calls from residents, Code 3.
10-4 from Cottage and Evergreen. There’s a crowd forming, Squad 1, are you available? Requesting backup.
There was a brief pause before another response: “What is it, a full moon tonight? It’s getting a little weird out here.”
Ethan furrowed his eyebrows a little. He’d never heard so much activity at one time on the scanner. He scraped the last bits of steak, potatoes, and green beans from the plastic dish with his fork, finishing off the meal. He placed the chocolate brownie on a piece of paper towel next to his almost-empty Diet Coke can, and stood up to toss his empty dish in the trash. The chatter continued at a fervent pace on the scanner, and between the urgent tones and static, it was almost overwhelming. Ethan decided to turn down the volume on the scanner.
Suddenly, he heard a series of loud bangs coming from outside. It sounded like someone was hitting metal on metal in his driveway. Franklin jumped off his kitchen chair and ran into the dark hallway. Ethan pulled apart the blinds and peered out the window. The driveway was empty and nothing looked out of place on his quiet side street. The banging continued.
Just then, Ethan’s cellphone started to vibrate somewhere under the mess on the kitchen table. He was, for some reason, unnerved, and he noticed his hands trembling slightly as he frantically searched through the papers, postcards, and envelopes on his table. Underneath a supermarket circular, he finally found his phone.
The screen displayed the picture of a young woman, smiling brightly, her long brown hair blowing almost sideways, with wavy tendrils across her forehead. Her eyes were squinted in the sunshine and she stood in some type of boat, a beautiful lake was in the photo background. One of her hands held an enormous 3-foot long fish from its gaping mouth, and the other hand gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to the camera.
Ethan breathed a surprising sigh of relief as he answered the call. “Hi, Mae.”
Mae owned the gift shop just below Ethan’s office. He had met her about a year ago, when she opened her shop, and since he saw her most week days, he considered her a co-worker of sorts. He was grateful for the gift shop, especially around Mother’s Day or the winter holidays; Mae always helped Ethan pick out funny and thoughtful greeting cards and gifts that he mailed to his mom and family members back home in San Francisco. Being about the same age, in their late twenties, Mae and Ethan had become good friends, and they took coffee breaks together and sometimes even got together for cocktails or an activity on the weekend. The picture of Mae on his phone screen was from a fishing adventure that Mae had begged Ethan join her for; Ethan was not very outdoorsy, but Mae had grown up as a tomboy in Northern Maine.
“Ethan, are you OK?!” Mae sounded panicked.
“Um, yeah.” Ethan’s relief was short-lived. His hands began to tremble again. “Why?”
“Jesus, Ethan! I knew you didn’t watch TV, but you must’ve gotten a news alert on your phone or something.” Mae was almost shouting now.
“What are you talking about?” Ethan asked, glancing, again, outside through the blinds. He could still hear the metal banging coming from somewhere out there.
“There’s, like, mass hysteria happening in pockets all over the place. Riots, looting, people are acting crazy!” She paused and Ethan could hear rustling on her end of the line. He imagined she was holding the phone against her ear with her shoulder as she moved around, always doing a million things at once — he’d seen her do this at the gift shop often. “We’re thinking that we have to get the hell out of the city before it gets any worse. What’s it like there? Has it gotten to the suburbs yet? We were just going to crash at the gift shop until this all blows over.”
Ethan looked over at the police scanner, and though he couldn’t make out what the dispatchers and officers were saying, he could hear the same frequent static and intense tones that he heard before.
“Ummm, I mean, I think it’s okay here. There’s this banging noise, but nothing that I can see outside…”
“Well, you live on the most boring street in America, Ethan. Of course there’s nothing happening outside there—wait, would it be OK if we came to your apartment instead of the gift shop? It’s probably safer than being in the downtown area.”
Ethan looked around at his messy apartment. “Um, yeah, I mean, I wasn’t really expecting company… Wait, why are you saying ‘we’? Who is with you?”
“It’s me and Jared,” Mae replied, sounding exasperated.
It took Ethan a minute, but then he remembered that Jared was Mae’s roommate. Ethan had never met him, as he had moved in somewhat recently, but Mae always talked highly of him, saying he was fun and tidy, which was apparently an important quality in a roommate. Ethan wondered what Jared would think of the state of Ethan’s apartment…
“Ethan, are you there?? We’re about to leave, I’m walking to my car now. It looks bad here in the city, Ethan…” he could hear a lot of yelling in the background, which was weird because Ethan knew she lived in a sophisticated and quiet part of Boston’s South End neighborhood. “Can we come to your place or what?”