Not a Drill

by Heidi Turner

Saturday morning, January 13, 2018. My phone, and my mother’s phone, are blaring alerts. BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

I stare at the white box on my screen as though staring will change the words around. They remain: this is not a drill. The breakfast I am cooking may no longer be important, but I turn off the burner and flip the two eggs onto a plate, step into the living room, and see my mom has interrupted her morning Bible reading. She and I don’t say anything, not yet. The bagel pops up in the toaster.

“Heid? Is this for real?”

Stock still. I search for the part of me that can accept this. My whole body wants to deny the possibility, but it is possible. It is likely. It is already happening. I don’t have time for denial, for rejection. This is not a drill.

I answer. “It looks like it is.” I see texts have started pouring into the various group chats I’m in: where are the sirens?? Is this real? Oh my God. oh my god. Are you seeing this? I pause, wait a moment. The light is starting to shine through the window above the couch, and soon it will be too hot to leave the curtain open. “I don’t know, Mom. But I think it is.”

One of the great and open secrets about living in Hawaii: it is entirely at the mercy of the elements. While the temperature rarely dips down to freezing, there are semi-regular earthquakes; hurricanes regularly float by, wildfires are commonplace, and tsunamis are enough of a threat to require a monthly test of the warning system. The volcanoes are the obvious threat, but they are either so active as to be a part of the weather (like Mauna Kea, which regularly drips lava down its sides) or so quiet as to be invisible (like the West Maui Mountains, which are really one volcano carved into pieces by rainfall). When you live on an island in the center of the ring of fire, you naturally learn how to deal with natural disasters—there is a tsunami warning at least once every two years, hurricane watches much more often than that. In those cases, in emergencies, we snap into action—while my mom was a firefighter in her younger years, I am the born first-responder, diffusing mini-situations as they come, tracking whether we’ve grabbed what really matters (both sentimental and practical).

However, a nuclear bomb is not, strictly speaking, an emergency. It is a sentence with a period. You survive, or you do not. You find shelter, or you do not. You are hit, or you are not. The Department of Defense estimates that a warhead would take around thirty minutes to reach Hawaii from a North Korean launch point; the alerts leave less than fifteen minutes. While there’s no weapon we know of that would actually destroy all the islands in a single blast, there’s very little comfort in that, and there’s a major strategic military point on most of the main islands. Later, when everyone was trading stories, we tried to speculate what the most likely target would have been: Pearl Harbor (again), one of the telescopes on the sacred mountains, a city, somewhere beautiful for the sole purpose of destroying the beauty. Another of the secrets: the most dangerous of the elements is the United States military. Its looming shadow drew the Japanese bombs in 1941, and whose telescopes and bases are watched by every foreign power. The threats are so ubiquitous as to be inconsequential; there’s nowhere to go and therefore no need to worry. Today’s today, tomorrow’s tomorrow.

I sit on the far side of the couch with my breakfast. I am out of bed early today because I have music practice in preparation for Sunday morning’s church service. In between bites of food, my mom and I try bargaining with the future and with the trajectory: we lived on the West Side of Maui; the only military target was on the East side, probably far enough away for it to be irrelevant to us. We try to answer friends far away, asking what was happening and friends nearby asking what to do. I respond to texts but resist the urge toward hoping that this really will be nothing. The digital space acted as a waiting room: our disembodied selves waiting for the disembodiment, asking where the sirens were, how much longer we had until the light burst. I wandered through the great digital hallway and looked at doors leading to old friends. I turned twenty-four two months ago. What is there to say? I type, over and over again, in different text threads, “Just so you know, I love you.” Send. Type. Send. Repeat. I try to remember anyone I have offended and not asked to forgive me; I search for the unfinished business, and I remember the dead: the pastor who had lost his wife and in-laws in the same year, the man who’d shot himself in the church office, the accidents, the cancer. I remember my mother tucking me in as a child. She would ask me, with all sincerity, if there was anything from the day that she had done to hurt my feelings. Most days there wasn’t, but if there was, she would apologize and I would forgive her. Now, from across the room, I look up from our brown carpet and ask the same thing to her. Her eyes sparkle—with pride? With grief? And she says no.

An outside observer to the timeline of the last three years of my life would not have understood why I was back in Maui. Sometimes I didn’t understand the why of it myself, and washing my dishes, I tried to find some regret in myself for the choices that led me to the only place in America currently under ballistic threat. There was none.

I had never been shy about my ambivalence toward life on the islands: they are a place where ambition goes to die, and no number of palm trees was enough to make up for the languid isolation. Visitors often note that everyone seems relaxed in Hawai’i; part of it is because of the aloha spirit, but another part is the near-impossibility of growth. Most people, if they are lucky, break even after working two jobs, and often at least one includes skilled labor. I had known (and everyone around me had known) that I would not stay in Hawai’i for college or return afterward.

And yet, as I finished a master’s degree in Southern California, I felt an inexplicable and gravitational pull back toward Hawai’i, toward Maui, toward Lahaina, where I had grown up. I prayed intently against the gravity and I had the distinct sense that God laughed at me—it would have been with me, but I was unamused. At church, I would wrestle with the thought of going back and being a part of that world again, but the knot in my stomach would not untie itself. Then, a job offer: a full-time position working at a school, with people I knew and loved. I begged for a way out and, time and time again, found myself re-reading the story of Moses and the burning bush: Moses is told to go back to Egypt, and he doesn’t want to. God (in the bush) reinforces his command with miracles and with a little bit of scolding, and finally Moses consents. It was in that re-reading that I finally gave in, and after graduation, returned home. Now, six months later, I remembered that Moses had seen the Angel of Death in Egypt too. The message on my phone had not repeated, but it didn’t need to. I want to believe that there is a mistake, but I don’t want my last moments to be spent wrestling denial. I do not have the luxury of ignoring whatever is coming.

Minutes pass without us saying anything worth remembering. The kitchen is much darker than the living room, and I notice the change in the air when I finish washing up and return to the couch. I am not going to die without saying that I am not angry, not scared, not sad. Those feelings defined my childhood, and my adolescence had been a series of suicidal ideations and self-harm incidents. I had re-converted to Christianity at age thirteen; had I not, I doubt I would have survived that year. Despite that confidence, there was no miracle, only the long and endless climb toward some better somewhere.   

I do the math. I had lived almost twice as long as I had been fated to in the beginning. I run through the digital hallway, scrolling to make sure that I had sent my last words to everyone that would need them—or, sent them to anyone who would survive if I died. I finish quickly—I am not going to spend my last minutes on earth texting acquaintances.

“Mom, Jesus knew I’d be here today. He told me to come back here. It’s not like he forgot a bomb would come.” I sound ridiculous, but I don’t feel ridiculous. There is a nuclear bomb coming. It is not time for poetry. 

She looks at me and smiles. “You’re absolutely right.”

All of my possible paths re-converge within me: in every version of my story, I would be here, waiting for the end to come, and waiting for my life to begin.  I go to my room and get dressed.

The news doesn’t change for over twenty minutes, but just before I leave, I see the tweet from Senator Schatz: there is no threat. We breathe out together—a long fifteen minutes is over. I am glad I see the tweet, but I’m also annoyed: I did not want to spend the last three minutes of my life on Twitter. I kiss my mom goodbye and drive to practice. As I pull into the church parking lot, another alert reaches me, this time in calm lowercase, with proper punctuation:

There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.

Later, I would learn that there was no pre-programmed false alarm message, that our senators had taken to Twitter because it was their only way to communicate the error. The new alert had to be authorized and written from scratch. We would learn that, in the event of a real missile, the sirens that normally warn of tsunamis would also sound, and that the instinct that they should be there was correct. The Governor would apologize (not thoroughly enough, to some tastes), and the man who had sent the false alert would be investigated, fired, and receive death threats—he did not know that he was wrong when he sent out the alert, believed that he was right to do it, that THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

I sit and wait; everyone is late to practice because of the threat. I try then to explain my calm, and even in the quiet of the church sanctuary, I struggle. And now I wonder if the calm of the ocean floor beneath the waves, the few texts sent and the press of lips against my mother’s forehead, the peace surpassing all understanding, can be imagined, can be practiced, or if it is only visible under fire, under the shadow of a too-bright sky.


Heidi Turner is a writer and musician from Maui, Hawai’i. Her work has been published in FORTH, The Other Journal, Abstract Magazine, and Barren Magazine, amongst others. She currently lives in New Hampshire, where she is pursuing an MFA in fiction and dabbling in photography.

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