Featured Review on this writing by C.J. Atoa

The CME

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Sometimes things happen over which we have no control. There's no apparent reason for them, and no practical way to prepare for them. Predicting their consequences would be comforting, but that's often impossible.

Submitted: July 22, 2019

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Submitted: July 22, 2019

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Yvonne Blaisley wasn’t keen taking the job at the Sunshine Beauty and Tanning Salon when she and Josh moved from Duluth to Nashville almost three years ago.  She thought the place looked like a “dump” when she first drove up to it in her dark blue Oldsmobile Cutlass.  Located in a strip mall, there was nothing inviting about it.  She hated flashing neon signs like the one that filled the tinted, plate-glass window of the SBTS.  

Hairdressing at the salon was the only employment she could find on short notice, and so she reluctantly grabbed it.  She and Josh needed a second income so they could cover the hefty monthly mortgage on their new home. They'd picked up and traveled halfway across the country, because he was directed to replace the regional manager who’d skipped town with a lot of company money, millions, in fact. What a shocker. The scandal was kept quiet, of course, but everyone talked about it.  No one knew why Mike had done it or where he’d gone. 

It took a while, about two years, but Yvonne finally made a lot of new friends and an equally loyal clientele at the 'Sunshine.'  Nineteen-eighty was going to be a particularly exciting year for her and Josh.  Their first baby was due in the second week of November, just three months away.  Will their kid have curly, blonde hair like her own, she wondered? They’d tried having a child for such a long time without any success and had all but given up.  Her mother had mercifully stopped asking as well.  The fertility doctors didn't know why she couldn't get pregnant.  One of them had even patted her shoulder and commented in a fatherly tone that, "You never know what the future may bring." He charged her five hundred dollars for that wisdom and then escorted her out of his office, but he'd been right.  Yvonne had friends back in Duluth who’d adopted an infant boy after eight childless years, and then, amazingly, Bethany gave birth to a baby girl the following summer.  Life was full of surprises.

She felt her baby kick.  Yvonne smiled to herself while she waited for Betty to show up for her 1:30 pm appointment. 

xxxxx

Astronomers first observed a small, active region on the sun, which they labeled 'AR6575' on Friday, June 27, 1980.  A sunspot suddenly appeared in it that grew quickly and haphazardly.  By mid-July, the spot was twice the size of Jupiter, which meant that more than 2,600 Earths could literally disappear into it.  A few weeks later, it was the biggest one ever recorded.  This scientific curiosity gained some publicity when news of it filled a column on the back page of Section A of the July 26 edition of the Saturday Times.  Walter Cronkite commented on it two days later on the CBS Evening News.  He interviewed a scientist named Professor Martin Stebbler about the spot and even beamed an image of it into the homes of millions of faithful viewers.  

Yvonne and Josh were enjoying their supper while listening to Cronkite interview Stebbler on AR6575, but they really weren’t that interested in “AR-whatever.” Their focus was on the 'real’ news.  The big stories they wanted to know more about were the more than sixty Americans held hostage in the United States Embassy in Tehran, and the movement of Soviet troops into Afghanistan.  When President Carter condemned the Soviet invasion as "the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War," people were more concerned with the threat of another war than with a giant sunspot. Yvonne bit her fingernails worrying about their unborn baby’s future. 

“Sunspots are common, and they occur in eleven-year cycles.  Sometimes they produce solar flares, which are intense bursts of radiation,” explained Stebbler.  According to him, another kind of Earth bombardment comes from Coronal Mass Ejections or CMEs that sometimes follow flares. “These monsters are giant gas bubbles that contain billions of tons of charged particles.” Josh laughed when he heard this and nudged Yvonne asking her if she knew that the sun burped?  She rolled her eyes. “The bubbles supercharge the planet's atmosphere when they hit it,” Stebbler continued. “The aurora borealis is one consequence of the contact.” Yvonne nodded at the television knowingly.  She had seen a few of them color the night skies back in Duluth. 

“There’s another consequence of a solar storm,” Stebbler exclaimed, looking directly into the camera. “A CME can wreak havoc on our vital communications networks.  Its fallout can shut down electrical grids, silence radios, and disrupt radar and other electrical systems.  The more electrical devices we have, the more far-reaching are the potential consequences of a solar storm.  We're living in 'The Electrical Age,' which might as well be called 'The Age of Solar Vulnerability' when it comes to defending ourselves against CMEs.”

"Is that what the Carrington Event was all about," asked Cronkite? "Yes, exactly," says Professor Stebbler. "The biggest storm ever recorded was reported by Richard Carrington in 1859. The 'Carrington Event' as it became known, was strong enough to disable telegraph communication throughout Europe and North America for several days.  The New York Times carried a first-hand account of an operator who received severe electrical burns when he touched his telegraph key.  But the Event also seemed to have affected people in other ways, too.  Lots of newspapers ran stories about people acting funny during and after the CME hit.  For example, The New Orleans Daily Picayune ran a story on September 7, 1859, about residents falling asleep in gutters actually believing they were in their own beds!" Stebbler closed by observing that massive CMEs were incredibly rare events. 

xxxxx

On August 12, 1980, at 11:00 pm EST, AR6575 unexpectedly belched a CME of unimagined proportions, hundreds of times larger than the Carrington Event.  It slammed into the Earth fifteen hours later after it was first observed and reported leaving the sun by Professor Stephen Oglethorpe.  A storm like the 'Oglethorpe Event' probably hadn't occurred on Earth in more than a million years.

xxxxx

Betty Fuller arrived at the Sunshine to have her hair curled, and annoying gray roots recolored so that she could look the same way Butch remembered her twenty years ago. Betty’s middle-aged, fun to chat with about anything, especially men.

Most importantly, she’s a great tipper.  Betty and Butch grew up around these parts; her accent gives her away, Yvonne thinks. Betty's always trying to lose weight, which has included a never-ending parade of new diets that just don’t seem to work well with her metabolism.  She's actually gained a few pounds rather than lost them with the new Scarsdale Diet craze.

"My you're getting big," Betty observes looking Yvonne over from head to toe. 

Yvonne smiles and rubs her belly.  "Three months to go," she says.  "I'm tired of standing on my feet all day," she remarks.

“What’s new?” Yvonne asks as Betty settles into her chair and she wraps a shiny, plastic-coated floral-printed bib around her, tying it in the back.  She doesn’t want to spill anything on the pretty yellow blouse that Betty’s wearing. Yvonne’s dressed in the same tired-blue uniform that she wears to work every day.  She’s let the seam out in it twice, but the outfit still feels tight today.  Mr. Charles Miller, the owner of the Sunshine, decided last year that uniforms would add a touch of class and professionalism to the staff. Yvonne disagreed, but when it comes to Mr. Miller, she keeps her thoughts to herself.  He doesn’t like anyone’s opinion but his own.

“Not much,” says Betty. "We got a call from Butch, Jr. last night and he's doing well.”  Butch’s working long hours again.  The postman’s looking better each day,” she laughs.  Yvonne chuckles with her, but wonders whether Betty’s really joking.

A few minutes later, Debbie Smith comes sauntering into the salon.  A red blouse; a short, tight black skirt; and stiletto heels complete her ensemble.  Yvonne thinks that she looks more like a hooker than a university professor, but what does she know?  Everyone in the Sunshine knows that Debbie's a professor.  Just ask her.  Actually, you don't need to, she'll be the first to tell you who she is and how important is her research. 

“Hi, ladies,” Debbie says, fluttering her left hand in the air and strutting past them toward tanning booth number four.  Yvonne and Betty just smile and nod. 

Yvonne can hear Betty mutter, “What a rig,” under her breath, and then both women giggle.

Debbie comes to the Sunshine because of its proximity to the University and also because she likes the way Doris Phillips cuts her hair. She's been through a dozen hairstylists over the years, including Yvonne, and none of them has ever trimmed her hair properly, except Doris.

Lately, the professor’s been coming in to tan.  Steven, who also teaches political science like her, invited Debbie on a Caribbean cruise with him before the start of the new academic year. She'd readily agreed to go.  Both were previously married, and know what the other's looking for.  She's all about free vacations, even if it means being fondled and groped a bit.  Actually, Steven's okay looking, and she knows how to handle him.

Spending most of the summer indoors means Debbie’s white as a lily.  These tanning beds, which were only installed a couple of months ago, promise a dark summer tan in just a matter of a couple weeks.  She decided to give one a try, and besides, she wanted an all-over tan!  She already sees the difference in her skin tone and is really pleased with the results. "Steven will be impressed," she thinks while grinning wryly to herself.  She's such a tease.

Booth four is her favorite because its walls are painted hot pink.  After locking the door behind her, she carefully hangs her clothing on pegs that are positioned behind it.  Removing her shoes, she neatly places them under the tanning bed.  Then she takes a small tube of tanning accelerator gel from her purse and methodologically rubs it all over herself in the places she can reach.  Last, she sets the bed timer for eight minutes, adjusts her tanning goggles, lifts the lid to the bed and climbs in, pulling it down on top of her.  Sometimes, she's even able to dream up a new idea to argue about with her colleagues in the brief time that she bathes in the warmth and solitude of the bed.

Back out in the hair salon, and without any warning, the ceiling lights suddenly explode, sending tiny glass shards spraying through the air.  In the same moment, an incredibly bright light comes from inside of the hair dryer that’s pulled down over Betty’s head.  It looks as though Betty’s being crowned with a halo.  Betty doesn’t look peaceful, however.  Her eyes roll up, and for a brief moment, her body twitches and trembles like she’s having a seizure. Then her body goes absolutely rigid and slumps down in the chair, revealing her charred head.  There are odd little clumps of short, smoking, blackened hair sticking out randomly all over it.  The smell is horrible. 

During this time, which probably doesn’t last more than a few seconds, Yvonne just stands there, mouth open, but silent.  Her eyes and nose are receiving visual and olfactory signals, but they aren’t registering in her brain yet.  Finally, a connection is made among all of them. Yvonne’s eyes widen, her hands jerk up to her face, and she stands there helpless and motionless, screaming.

Back in booth four, Debbie's been tanning for about five minutes when the timer explodes out of the bed's lid.  It bounces off the nearest wall and falls to the floor, rolling to a stop near the door.  She doesn't know anything about that or the screams coming from the other room.  She's already dead.  Her last thoughts were about going shopping for a bikini, and whether the United States should get militarily involved in Afghanistan with ground troops.  Fortunately, the heatwave that fried her and the thousands of small, glass slivers that sliced her body into ribbons were so intense and quick that Debbie never experienced any pain.

Turning away from the grotesque remains of Betty and regaining a fragile semblance of composure Yvonne whispers hoarsely to herself, “Is Debbie okay?”  She runs to booth four in the dimly-lit salon.  Knocking vigorously on its door, she asks loudly, “Are you alright in there?”  There’s no answer, so she asks again.  She tries the door.  It’s locked.  In fear and frustration, she slams her weight against it.  The fragile frame splinters and the door violently swings inward.  The floor is covered with broken glass.  The tanning bed is still closed.  There’s a gut-wrenching smoke forming a curtain at the seam where the bed opens and closes.  Yvonne has her answer, Debbie’s definitely not okay.  She bolts from the room and runs for the salon exit averting her eyes from Betty’s still-smoldering corpse. 

Outside the sun is shining.  The air is fresh, but the scene that greets her is chaotic and surreal.  The parking lot’s a jumble of vehicles.  Some sit motionless in designated areas.  Others are scattered about in the roadway or half in and out of spaces.  A few drivers sit behind steering wheels looking perplexed, repeatedly trying to start their cars without success.  Others stand around their vehicles, some with open doors, scratching their heads in confusion. 

The lot is silent except for people talking, arguing, or screaming.  An older woman, fashionably dressed in a white blouse and blue skirt, stands rigid about twenty-five feet from Yvonne.  She has a small, black purse dangling from one arm.  Her hands pull at her hair, and she moans like she's in terrible pain.  Another woman, skinny and plain, stands rocking in place looking skyward.  She screams hysterically.  Yvonne realizes that she's actually hollering words, "It's Armageddon, it's Armageddon, the world is ending," she repeats.  A tall man dressed in a smart, gray suit walks purposefully over to her and slaps her face several times, not really hard but sufficient to catch her attention.  It works.  She looks at him, becomes silent, and then faints into his arms.

Filled with inexplicable confusion at what she's witnessing, Yvonne averts her eyes from her immediate surroundings and looks west toward downtown.  Black smoke rises vertically from many locations along the skyline.  In the distance, an airplane spirals downward.  The sight of it makes her cringe.  She hates to fly.  What a horrible way to die, she thinks.

Yvonne slumps to the sidewalk curb.  She no longer feels like she has the energy to keep upright.  Someone sits beside her and lightly taps her shoulder to draw her attention.  It's Pete from the smoke shop. Ironically, Pete doesn't smoke.

Hey, Yvonne, are you okay?" 

"No!"  "There are two dead customers in the salon," she says. 

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," she whispers as more tears roll down her cheeks.

"Christ, what the hell's going on?"

 He points to the woman slumped against the tall man.  "Maybe she's right."

Yvonne's baby kicks hard.  She involuntarily lurches forward, clutching her stomach.

Pete looks concerned and asks again, "Are you sure you're alright."

"Yes, I think so.  It's just the baby kicking."

"Where's your husband?"

"I'm assuming he's at work.  It's about fifteen miles from here."

"Hey, listen, I need to get going and make sure that Mary and the boys are okay.  If I leave now, I can probably jog there in a couple of  hours."

"Please don't go."

His eyes plead with her.  She nods, finally agreeing with him.  "Be careful. You take care."

Pete reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of keys.  "These are to my shop.  There's an office in the back with a locked door and a small bathroom.  Use them if you want.  I know you won't need it, but there's a loaded handgun in the top drawer of the filing cabinet in my office." 

They stand.  Pete hugs her and rushes off.

 


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