(In 1908, the last major Earth impact from an asteroid or comet occurred in the unpopulated expanse of eastern Siberia. 830 square miles of boreal forests were leveled. In this latest fictionalized history series, we travel back to 1908 to experience the "Tunguska Event." Prior series: X-ray Martyrs and Westinghoused.)
Just joining us? Go back to Part 1.
Another Dreadful Dinner Party
The Night After Impact, July 1, 1908
The bumbling man's elbow rapped Winston's hand, and a slosh of red swirled from his wine glass onto his silk lapel.
In his other hand, the Chardonnay swayed.
The man turned half around. "Pardon me. So sorry."
He shuffled away after spilling gravy on the buffet table.
A waiter poked a napkin at Winston and dabbed the teardrop stain.
"Fine. Fine. Really," Winston said.
"I'm afraid that might not come out, Sir."
Winston set the glasses down and reached for a plate. Pearls of caviar glistened in a chilled chaffing dish.
Looking down at his liver-spotted fingers, he reconsidered and set the plate aside for a second trip.
He found Mrs. Winston by the French doors.
"Would you like to sit on the patio?" she said.
"It would be quieter. This noise is making me ill."
"For me, it's the conversations."
Jewels on her bracelet flared as she opened the way. Outside, voices congregated at the railings and candlelit tables. A color in the western sky glowed like sunset.
"What time is it?" Winston said.
"The clock just chimed ten. I counted."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yes," she said. "I prayed for the eleventh so we could go."
"It's awfully bright out tonight."
"I don't believe the clock was wrong," she said, looking upward.
Very few stars poked through the curtain of light.
Nearby a banker perused the evening paper. He was an old acquaintance. They were laughing with him earlier.
"May we join you?" Winston said.
"Please." The stout old man motioned to empty chairs. "Curious evening, isn't it?"
The orange feathered to deep blue high overhead.
"Is it the weather?" Mrs. Winston said.
"I don't know. I never seen weather like this."
More people filtered onto the patio from other doors. Words broke through excited conversations, and fingers pointed at what should be night.
"So much for my escape," the banker said, motioning to them.
"We had the same plan," Winston said.
"Each time, I swear I'll never come to another of these events. Yet, here I am."
At the edges of the field stone patio, people gathered. Two people became three, became four. Eyes glittered with the mysterious color.
"It's not often you can read your paper at night," the banker said.
"Maybe when we finish our wine, we'll call an end to the evening," Winston said.
Mrs. Winston stared at the sky. She seemed to drift somewhere over the black forest.
"Darling?" he said. "Do you agree? We shouldn't stay out very late."
"I don't know," she said. The deep wrinkles around her eyes converged on something far away. "Maybe we could have another glass of wine."
The banker turned the page. "You two have a healthy bedtime. I don't sleep well anymore. Haven't for years."
Mrs. Winston sipped, leaving crimson on her lips.
Her body curved. She eased lower in the chair.
Winston's fingers felt fluttery.
"Are you alright?" he said. "Elizabeth?"
The banker peered over his paper.
Winston watched her. "Lizzie?"
Excitement was building around them like a tide claiming more shoreline with each rolling wave.
Lizzie seemed lost in the long expanse of shadowy lawn.
"Is something out there?" Winston said.
She already swallowed the last from her glass.
"I think I'd like some more," she said.
The banker rattled the paper. He was getting fidgety. "I believe I've just about had my fill of the evening," he said. "I don't think our hosts would be terribly offended if I took my leave now."
"No, I think not," Winston said. "Have a safe trip home."
"You do the same."
The banker shuffled off.
Lizzie's glass touched Winston's hand before he turned back to the table.
"Are you sure you're feeling alright?" he said.
Someone laughed nearby.
She drew in some of the night air. Her grey hair flickered red again in the odd light.
He remembered a long ago ocean with moonlight on the foam. Her willowy dress. The feel of cold sand pressing through his toes.
He remembered the feel of her hand.
"Talk with me a while," she said.
She leaned in, intense, and passionate, and young.
"Talk with me a while about anything."
He took a long drink and laughed a low, forgotten laugh.
And under that rarest of skies, he did.
(For two days after the Tunguska event, fine dust brightened the night sky as far away as London. The resulting diffusion of light was reportedly bright enough to read by.)
Back to Part 5.