Sitting on the edge of my bed, I yawned, stretched, put on my slippers and ambled down the hall to feed the cat, little did I know my few remaining seconds on earth were ticking away. I stood at my sliding glass door, staring out across the horizon to where the clear blue sky met the ocean. It was going to be a nice day. Maybe we’d go for a hike.
My half-awake body shambled over to the coffee table where I’d left my phone the night before to look at trail options. No sooner had I opened the app than my phone vibrated in my hand; once, twice, three times… Notifications coming in? I looked to the top left corner and saw the little Emergency Alert symbol; probably a Flash Flood warning, those come in with some regularity in Hawaii, but we live on a hill so usually nothing to worry about. But like I said, it was a bright, clear day. Curious I closed the trail app and took a look:
My heart sank, my stomach knotted. I did some quick mental math… Estimates released to the public say that a ballistic missile launched in North Korea could reach Hawaii in 20-30 minutes. It takes about five minutes to confirm a launch and report it to the public. Those minutes were gone. I’d spent them staring out the window and picking a wedgie.
I sat there, in my chair, quietly Googling: “Ballistic missile launch 1/13/18.” Nothing. “Ballistic missile launch hoax.” Nothing. A series of similar searches turned up similar answers. So, I tried social media. I scrolled through Facebook… no mentions one way or the other. I tried Twitter. Just the same old “The President is a dummy” stuff.
“Okay.” I thought, “This is good, maybe it’s just me. Maybe this is some sort of spam text from someone with an exceptionally dark sense of humor.” I got up and quietly made my way back into the bedroom. I opened the door quietly, my wife was still asleep, her phone lying face down on the nightstand beside her. This was good. Surely if this was real it would have awakened her.
I picked up her phone and looked at the screen. My rapidly beating heart sank again. My stomach tied a double knot. There on the screen was the same notification. She’d set the phone to silent the night before. I set it back down without waking her and left the room.
I paced the length of the apartment a few times, my cat underfoot, howling at me to pay attention to him. I finally sat in the hallway, my back against the wall, feet against the opposite wall. The cat crawled into my lap, purring furiously. I pet his face, absently while I looked for a way out of the situation.
“Maybe it’s a network-wide thing.” I thought, “Maybe something got hacked.” I tried to think of someone else on-island who had a different cell phone carrier. A co-worker? My boss? No, it’s still fairly early on a Saturday, surely this is a hoax and I don’t want to bother them about it. I heard noises coming from the apartment downstairs, should I go down and knock? No, I’ll call my in-laws; they’ll know what’s up. The phone rang, and rang, and rang, and voicemail. Shit.
Reality began to sink in. 8:17 AM. Five minutes left. I began to think about who I should call. Friends and family? I only had five minutes, no way I could get to everyone. Maybe a group text? No. Absolutely not that.
Were there any last words I needed to relay to anyone? Any lingering business I needed to attend to? I couldn’t think of any. One of the benefits of living honest and guilt free; in what I believed to be my final moments I felt no need to reconcile with anyone, about anything.
Any regrets? No.
Life flash before my eyes? Nope.
I realized, later, that I didn’t pray. I didn’t even consider it. There’s an old saying, “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” And yet it never even occurred to me to invoke the divine. So, there’s one question answered, I guess.
Instead I thought about my wife still lying in the other room, the woman I love more than anything, asleep, blissfully unaware of any of this. If I’d had the option, that’s how I’d have preferred it happen; at night, while I was asleep and unaware and maybe they’d find us in the wreckage, big spoon and little spoon. People would smile sadly and say, at least they were together…
I pushed the cat off me and stood up. Sliding my phone into the pocket of my pajamas, I moved from open window to open window closing them ever so quietly and drawing the curtains. I paused at the sliding glass door, stared out again to where the ocean met sky. I was going to have been a nice day. I took a deep breath of fresh air and slid the door closed, letting the curtain fall in place.
I crept back to the bedroom, opening the door just enough that I could get inside, making sure not to let the cat in; he would wake her up for sure. I took the phone from my pocket and glanced at it again. 8:21 AM. One minute left.
I laid the phone face own on the nightstand next to my wife’s and crawled under the blanket behind her, careful, ever so careful not to wa—
I woke her up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked immediately. She propped herself up on one elbow, groggy with sleep. She knew.
“Nothing.” I lied.
“What’s wrong?” She asked again. She was calm, but confused. Perhaps she could feel my racing hearth pounding against her spine, I don’t know, but something had put her on alert.
“There was…” I started, “I got an emergency notice on the phone. There was a missile launched at Hawaii.” I felt my throat begin to tighten, “About fifteen minutes ago.”
“Oh,” she said, processing. “Did you close the windows?”
I smiled, “Yeah.” And tried to pull her back down to the pillow. Maybe if she didn’t wake all the way up I could coax her back to sleep before it hit.
“Okay.” There was a pause, “Why aren’t the sirens going off?”
Wait. Why weren’t the sirens going off? Back in December, the state of Hawaii began testing the Ballistic Missile attack waning sirens at the same time as they tested the monthly tsunami sirens. In the event of an attack, they were supposed to sound. But outside all was quiet.
It hadn’t even occurred to me, but somehow in her half-asleep haze her brain had gone to the logical place mine had completely overlooked.
“Hand me my phone.” She said.
8:23 AM. Any second now.
I rolled over and scooped them both up, handing hers to her and logging once again onto social media. She began responding to a text from her sister while I started scrolling furiously though my Twitter feed. People had begun posting, people were scared and confused. I skimmed tweets as fast as I could. Sifting through mainland news and panicked posts from other islanders as I looked for something official from someone official until finally my eyes settled on a Tweet from Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard:
False alarm? False fucking alarm? I’d spent the last twenty minutes wrestling with my mortality because of a false alarm?
I nudged my wife with my elbow and showed her the tweet. She looked at for a second, squinting in the low light against the bright screen. “Oh,” she said finally, “that makes sense.” And returned to texting her sister, letting her know that all was clear.
I, too, began to sound the all clear to anyone who would listen, sharing and retweeting and ranting until finally my heartbeat began to normalize.
Still lying in bed, thirty-eight minutes after this whole thing had begun, my phone begins buzzing frantically a second time. The little exclamation-point in the upper left corner letting me know another Emergency message was waiting to be read. False alarm to the false alarm? I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind.
With trepidation I opened it up:
Finally. The official all clear. Nearly forty minutes after the initial notification. Keep in mind that, accounting for the five minutes of silence before the warning came out, that’s six minutes longer than the longest estimated flight time I’d ever seen published. If it hadn’t been a false alarm, we’d have already known it by then.
I didn’t even know how to react. It was too late to be relieved, it had just stirred me up again, my stomach was twisted and my head was starting to hurt. I needed to just walk away from all of it. I got out of bed and let the cat into the room.
I turned to my wife, “So… You wanna go get some breakfast?”