Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson

Candle-Ends: Reviews
A.R. Cook

Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson

Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson

Dystopian, dire and terrifying, Thirty Seconds by Heather MacPherson (Amazon, 2013) shows readers what the end of the world may look like, not with a bang but with “no noise at all.”

What would you do if one day, you were driving home from work, and in the blink of an eye all the electricity—as well as nearly all the world’s population—vanishes? Mae, thirty-year-old single mother of baby Holly, is thrust abruptly into a dark and depraved wasteland, finding herself stranded in a world where she, her twin sister Darlene, and a group of wayward strangers are on the run from a malicious gang of men with no refuge in sight. The only thing leading them forward is a mysterious blinding light in the distance, a light that none of them knows will be salvation or their destruction.

I don’t usually pick up a dystopian novel these days. I find myself tired of bleak, dismal futures in recent books, but I was intrigued by the premise of Thirty Seconds. The story begins from the first-person perspective of Mae, and we share with her the confusion, fear and fierce love for her daughter. I wish the novel had been written entirely from her perspective, or had the first-person narration trade off between characters throughout. However, the story constantly jumps between Mae’s first-person narration to third-person, sometimes even switching from first- to third-person in the middle of a chapter. I was confused with the shifting back and forth and didn’t see why it was necessary to do so.

The characters are crafted well, each with distinct personalities and backstories. Mae is independent, tough and relatable, using her intelligence (although more often, a strange supernatural ability that she develops) to get out of deadly predicaments. Darlene is sympathetic and likeable, a woman who has unwillingly been a sexual target for men all her life, and where she could have been easily portrayed as a two-dimensional pretty woman, she was well fleshed out and a strong person in her own right. There is also loving father Ash and his young son Michael, tenderhearted “Dolly Parton-esque” Olga, world-beaten Sarah, and sweet elderly couple Edward and Honey.

MacPherson did a superb job creating distinguishable histories for each of her characters, and in a way I wish these backstories had their own novel(s)—I actually wanted to find out even more about them. My main problem with these backstories, however, is where they were placed within the book. In the second half of the story, as the climax builds more and more, suddenly we get someone’s history smack dab in the middle of all the action, and it goes on for several pages. This disrupted a lot of the pacing leading up to the end and took me out of the action.

As much as I love the concept of normal people acquiring unusual powers, I am on the fence about the characters discovering their superhuman abilities over the course of their journey. They came across as little more than deus ex machina for the characters to escape from otherwise inescapable scenarios. When the characters really needed to save themselves, then “poof,” someone got a new power surprisingly convenient to that given situation. One character’s ability, which was so out of nowhere and only seemed to manifest so a bad guy could be trampled to death by an elephant, actually made me laugh. Given the serious nature of the plot, some of the superpowers came across as silly.

Maybe what was the trickiest part for me to handle with Thirty Seconds was the dichotomy of tones. On the one hand, you have good guys with superpowers, child characters with lively energy and endearing innocence, and the hints of what may or may not be extra-terrestrial involvement—this all would point to a sci-fi action adventure. On the other hand, there are major adult themes in this story—I have incredible difficulty reading about rape (to both women and children), gratuitous violence, and physical abuse to a baby, even in a fictional story. But what else would you expect if moral human society was wiped off the planet? Just be prepared for some uncomfortable, gritty moments, I warn any readers with gentle dispositions.

Thirty Seconds, while not without its flaws, did keep me reading at a brisk pace—one could read this novel in one sitting and be engrossed all the way through. It had enough twists to not be predictable, and while it may leave the reader with more questions at the end than at the beginning, I sense there will be more books that will continue this plotline to come. I would certainly like to see more of these characters and what else this author has in store for us.


Heather MacPherson was born and raised in Newport, RI. She has a B.A. in creative writing from Roger Williams University. She is a wife and a mother of one. Her days are spent working in the non-profit sector but her passion has always been writing. She started writing short stories and poetry in the fourth grade. Her writing has also appeared in Toasted Cheese. Thirty Seconds is MacPherson’s first novel.

pencilA.R. Cook resides in Gainesville, Georgia, and is the author of The Scholar and the Sphinx fantasy book series from Mithras Books, the young adult imprint of Knox Robinson Publishing. She has short stories published in the anthology The Kress Project from the Georgia Museum of Art, and the fairy-tale collection Willow Weep No More from Tenebris Books. Several of A.R.’s short stories and short plays have been awarded first place in various magazines, such as Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Writer’s Digest. From 2009-2013, A.R. was the book review columnist for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. You can contact her at scholarandsphinx[at] or through her website.

The Cigarette Rebellion

Heather MacPherson

Part 1: “I can’t date a smoker.”

…in which boy meets girl

“I can’t date a smoker,” Mark says, turning his knit cap around and around in his hand. He doesn’t sound apologetic, simply matter-of-fact. We’re sitting on the front porch of my apartment, which is the first floor of a multi-family. I just pulled my pack of Marlboro Lights from my purse, lit one and took a drag. At that point, Mark made his feelings known.

I can imagine all the kids from the Truth commercials pausing in their earnest sketching of chalk outlines and jumping up and down in wild triumph. I hate those kids.

I look at the cigarette quickly with a smoker’s shame. As always, this shame quickly turns to anger. Can I put the cigarette out on the back of his neck and still make out with him afterward? I glance at the white skin of his neck protruding thickly from his white striped polo shirt, a polo shirt that stretches pleasingly across his broad back, which is now slightly stooped. His elbows and solid forearms rest on jean-clad thighs as he plays with the cap between his knees.

He’s just too good-looking to scar for life.

Instead: “Oh,” is my snappy retort. I can’t bring myself to apologize for smoking. I’ve been smoking far longer than I’ve known him. This is only our second (and apparently last) date—but I put the cigarette out in the crack between two peeling slats of the porch.

“I like you, Anna. But, I hate cigarettes. I hate the smell and taste. It’s also really bad for you. It’s a deal-breaker for me.”

I don’t know what to say so I say as much. I cross and uncross my legs. I run my hand through my hair repeatedly as the silence stretches well beyond awkwardness. Mark has the air of someone patiently waiting for something he expects to happen. I am more floundering in the silence like a flopping fish. That cigarette would be lovely right now.

“I can quit,” I hear myself say and am completely shocked by it. I can quit? What the hell makes me think I can quit after five previously unsuccessful attempts? I’ve been trying to quit since I was eighteen. That’s ten years of failure. But now I appear to be completely motivated by his green eyes, long lashes, full lips and taut, lean body. That’s right. I am in the fullness of lust. He is literally the best-looking man I have ever been on a date with. Frankly, I’m confused as to why he’s interested in me at all. But, hey, who am I to question the whims of the beautiful? We are all merely trying not to drown in their inconsistent waters. It’s their world.

“Good!” Mark slips his cap over his dark brown hair, claps his hands crisply (making me twitch in the process) and jumps athletically to his feet. I stagger to my feet as well, rather less athletically, and smile pathetically. Mark leans in quickly and kisses me soundly on the mouth. I stumble backward slightly. He smiles. “I can taste that cigarette. I’ll call you.” He disappears from the porch, into his reasonably-expensive-model car and down the road without a glance back.

I feel like I should be standing in a cloud of dust left in his wake.

Part 2: “Do you really need that cookie?”

…in which boy meets girl’s mother

Mark and I are holding hands. We hold hands a lot. I have no idea if I am uncontrollably grasping at his hand or if it is a more natural occurrence. Probably the former. We’ve been together six months. I am totally in love with him. What’s not to love? He’s a 30-year-old marine biologist. He’s strikingly muscular, dizzyingly masculine, intelligent, and well-read. He works out more than regularly and eats far better than I do. I have not fully expressed my ardor. A man this attractive has no doubt been showered with exclamations of love.

I did quit smoking when I met him (mostly). For all intents and purposes, I am now a non-smoker. I used the patch. It works surprisingly well, although I find myself so emotionally unstable that I am constantly hiding tears brought on by any and every possible thing. It’s quite intolerable, really, considering that I have never before been a particularly weepy woman. I sneak a cigarette now and then when I see my friend Amy.

For example: three months into our relationship, Mark made an innocent comment. I was wearing a tattered pair of jeans and hooded sweatshirt. Granted, when Mark and I met I was always dressed to the nines, but I just don’t have the kind of interest in personal grooming that other women have. However, Mark met me in my brief and inspiring period of effort.

That day we were going to the zoo. I’m not terribly interested in animals but Mark loves them and so we were going. Mark picked me up. I could tell he was less impressed with my appearance than usual. I figured it was safe to be sloppy at the zoo. Apparently not. Mark was dressed, as always, in his usual uniform of khakis and a polo shirt. His hair was neatly combed. He even had a jacket on, the kind with the patches on the elbow, ironically making him look like he should have a brown pipe clenched between his teeth.

We kissed momentarily, his lips softer than mine, strong aftershave wafting from his freshly shaved cheek. He smiled warmly at me. “You know, I love when you wear skirts,” he commented sweetly.

The observation sent the hot sensation of tears shooting to my eyes. Damn nicotine withdrawal, I thought. “Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.” I turned away almost unable to control the wobbling of my chin and lips, precursors of the coming storm. I reached the bathroom with tears streaming. The mirror reflected my reddened eyes and nose, even more pronounced against my pale Irish skin and red hair. “Get it together,” I murmured to myself. So, he likes me better in skirts. All guys like girls in skirts and makeup. What’s the problem? I thought.

I wiped my eyes, flushed the toilet, blew my nose and calmed down. I slipped into my adjoining bedroom quickly and changed into a white skirt and emerald blouse, donning flip-flops. “Ta-da!” I exclaimed, grasping the doorjamb and posing. Mark stood at the front door where I’d left him. He smiled beatifically.

“Good!” he cried and clapped his hands together resoundingly. This gesture, although it sounds mildly retarded in nature, was more a charming expression of pleasure. Luckily, it has never appeared in the bedroom, where Mark is adept, brooding and silent. My girlfriends call this intensity. In any case, I knew that I was clearly going insane from the loss of my cigarette crutches. So off we went to have a wonderful day in the sun, surrounded by the stink of animals.

Now I hold Mark’s hand on my mother’s front stoop, three months later. This will be their first meeting. I’m not concerned. My mom has always been impressed with credentials and Mark’s are impressive: never married, solvent, young, and well-spoken. He’s a shoe-in for my mother’s approval. She’s been counseling me to marry a rich man practically since I arrived squalling into the harsh hospital light.

I imagine she ripped me from the doctor’s hand, slapped my butt herself and whispered in my ear, “Marry up, Anna, marry up.” It was probably the same scene enacted by her own mother and great-grandmother before her on some dusty potato farm in Ireland. Tradition, that’s what the O’Learys are all about.

My mother, Christina, answers the door of her modest ranch-style dwelling with the most beneficent of smiles. She practically curtsies before us, holding a heaping plate of chocolate chip cookies. “Come in! Make yourself at home!” she exclaims, reminding me somewhat of Maureen O’Hara. Is that a faint Irish brogue I hear? My mother was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island and has never stepped one foot in Ireland. You know, I love her even more for her weirdness. I’m sure I’m supposed to be embarrassed.

“Hi, Mom,” I say following her voluminously skirted backside into the white-tiled kitchen. Mom hugs Mark enthusiastically and sits at the kitchen table, placing the cookies in the center.

My mother is a black-haired, green-eyed, rotund hurricane of lovability. How I came out so embittered and red-headed is a mystery to me. I never knew my father so no comparisons can be made there. In fact, there aren’t even any pictures surviving my mother’s fury when he departed a week after my birth. This I learned from my Aunt Helen because my mother has never spoken of it. She has also never re-married. She was “close” with a number of women though, which of course, she would never admit to.

“Sit, please,” she says sweetly. “I’ve heard only wonderful things about you, Mark.”

Mark and I sit at the table. “Well, Anna has only told me wonderful things about you as well, Ms. O’Leary.”

“Please, call me Christina,” Mom suggests pleasantly.

“Christina,” Mark echoes. He tells my mother about the trip we’re planning in February to Key West. As he’s talking, I reach for a particularly large and gooey-looking chocolate chip cookie at the center of the flowered plate.

“Do you really need that cookie?” Mark interrupts himself to ask. “I mean, go ahead if you want. But, you’ll just have to work twice as hard at the gym.”

I freeze, hand dangling in the air over the plate, glancing at my mother. What was once the sweetest smile shifts into something almost imperceptibly feral. Her eyes glow glassily. Luckily, Mark is looking at me. I can read my mother’s mind; images of dealing with me and my brush with bulimia in high school clicking through her head. Click — suspicious gagging noises — click — therapist — click — crying.

“No, no. You’re totally right.” I withdraw my hand and quickly change the subject. I can see my mother’s favor is possibly lost irrevocably. I end this visit prematurely and plan to convince her of his concern for my health at a later date.

Part 3: “I’m not dating her.”

…Viva la revolucion!

It has been an awful day at work. I have been repeatedly harangued by my manager, Justin, for a mistake I made earlier in the week. I mean, Justin? Seriously, who is even named Justin besides Mickey Mouse Club members and pederasts?

Justin has been flapping his abnormally large and protruding gums at me for a half an hour, sprinkling his diatribe with phrases like “career goals” and “team player.” I am paralyzed by my inability to support myself without this job. Otherwise, Justin would have long ago had my size nine broken off in his ass.

Please, baby Jesus, help me not to interrupt his stuttering with a well-placed uppercut. Give me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can… wait a minute. That’s the A.A. prayer! I’m obviously losing my mind. Where is a cigarette when I need it? I blot his voice and hateful visage out with the over-powering thought of withdrawing a slim, white Marlboro Light from its comfortable dry home, sliding its papery softness between two fingers, bringing the lighter up (how mesmerizing is that flame?) and inhaling deeply of mildly painful, rage-allaying smoke.

I can’t smoke though, can I? I’m not allowed, I think bitterly. In other, more rational moments I am actually glad to have quit smoking. I no longer constantly smell like smoke. I’ve felt healthier and presently much less likely to immediately drop dead from the cow farts and bleach I’ve been told repeatedly by commercials are in cigarettes.

Justin finishes his sermon for now and dismisses me to my cubicle. I see my co-worker and work-friend Amy’s bleach-blond head creeping from her cubicle and toward the back door. She has to sneak quietly from view to have her cigarette. If Justin sees her he will quickly try to give her something “highly important” to do to prevent it. Although smoking is not expressly verboten at this company, Justin has appointed himself the cigarette Nazi. I imagine that he’s probably a secret member of Truth. He probably stays hunched over his keyboard at night, beating off to the stories of other triumphant members who managed to cajole, threaten and in other words, harass and shame smokers into quitting. I’m going to follow her. I look up and down the gray-carpeted aisle of cubicles. No sign of the cigarette Nazi. Rising quietly, I shuffle off behind Amy.

Outside in the humid August air, with the sun beating down, Amy is nowhere to be found. I let the door close behind me and round the building. She’s on the side of the building, facing away from me. “Hey,” I say and she jumps sharply.

“Oh, hey,” Amy says, smiling. “You know, I have to hide on the windowless side of the building. Justin is too lazy to walk around the building. God help me if the smoke drifts in someone’s window. There’ll be hell to pay.” Amy laughs her irritatingly loud gunshot laugh and takes a drag of her cigarette.

“Can I bum one?” I ask, and Amy complies. We’re basically friends, Amy and I. I’m just not going to hang out with her after work. During work, though, we’ve exchanged intimacies that would indicate to her that we are life-long friends. This is not the case, but there’s no reason to tell her that.

“How’s Mark?” she asks.

I lean back against the rough stucco of the building and light the cigarette, the relief of smoke filling my lungs perhaps worth premature death.

“He’s fine,” I say. I’m clearly not talkative now and for once she respects that as we lean and smoke in the sizzling sun (perhaps getting skin cancer as we speak, oh my).

Mark and I have been together for a year now. We’ve been discussing moving in together a lot recently. Actually, I’ve been discussing it a lot and Mark has been assuring me repeatedly that he does want to move in together but that now is not really the time. He’s up for a promotion. He needs to focus on work. But he gave me a key to his apartment a few months ago. I suppose he expected my need for cohabitation to be sated by that. It hasn’t been. I’m almost thirty years old. I would like to have some brats torturing me for the rest of my life, sooner rather than later. He’s really pissing me off, to be frank. But, I’ve never been good at ultimatums. They tend to fizzle and die before they’re out of my mouth. I’ve always tried so hard not to push. I want Mark to want to live with me. I’ve been biting my tongue for weeks. I see him when he wants, cook him dinner, listen to his endlessly boring marine biologist stories; I always wear dresses and skirts; I work out five times a week; I do my goddamn makeup on a daily basis; I even quit smoking for him. Yet, he’s not ready to move in with me? What more can I do for him?

The dirty, bitter taste of smoke in my mouth tastes like a tiny rebellion. Rebellion tastes good.

I resolve to quit my job in this moment, as my feverish sucking has reduced the cigarette down to the filter. I’ve hated this job since the day I got it. This soulless office job with its ego-crushing lectures has been ruining my life. We all get so attached to the sameness of our routines, don’t we? I’m so determined to be a bill-paying respectable citizen that it’s as if I am incapable of leaving this job. This job is my prison.

I crush the cigarette beneath my high-heeled boot and then look at the boot as if it has betrayed me. This boot hurts like hell! The toes are pointy. My toes are not used to this kind of restriction. Before this year I never even wore high heels. I reach down and unzip my boots, take them off, and pitch them into the nearby woods.

“What are you doing?” Amy asks, seemingly highly disturbed by my impetuousness.

I reach under my knee-length pencil skirt and yank my pantyhose down. We are well hidden between the building and the woods. Mosquitoes are buzzing by curiously, shying away from the insane woman’s blood. Now Amy is blushing furiously and averting her eyes.

“I’m quitting this job, Amy. Have a nice life.”

I stalk back toward the office, rocks digging into my bare white feet. No sooner am I through the back door then it seems I am at Justin’s office door. I practically kick it open but then calmly close it behind me. Justin has the phone pressed to his block head and he is frozen with his rheumy chocolate eyes wide. Anger flashes in his eyes and he leaps to his feet. “How dare you?” he says, his inner southern diva coming out.

“You’re a prick,” I say sweetly, smiling. I feel so wonderfully calm. I know I may regret this in the morning. But, for tonight, the food is good, the sex is great, and I’ll get tested next week. “I quit.”

Justin sputters and gasps, clearly shocked beyond measure. I turn and walk from his office as he continues to eject half-formed thoughts. I laugh as I collect my few belongings from my desk. A week ago I cleared my desk out—just for a fresh start, I told myself. Now I think I must have known this day was coming. As I flip open my cell phone with one hand, I wave to my ex-co-workers with the other and they wave back. I definitely detect some envy and some judgment. I pass Amy in the hall.

“I’ll call you,” Amy cries as I fly by.

“Sounds great!” I exclaim. Mark’s cell phone goes directly to voice mail. I know he won’t be thrilled at this development. I’m sure he’ll be really unhappy, in fact. But, he’s the first person I can think to tell. He’s my boyfriend, after all, the man I assume I’m going to marry. Why is his cell phone off anyway? I try his office and his secretary tells me he’s out to lunch. I glance at the cell to determine the time. It’s a little late in the afternoon for lunch. I’ll just go to his house.

I drive down the street humming and feeling free. I can feel reason and depression tickling the edge of my consciousness but I firmly ignore it. His car is parked in the driveway when I arrive. I’ve never used my key before. Why not now? Slipping the key into the front door of his townhouse, it seems as though the clicking of the lock resounds in his front hallway.

Time stops for a moment. In the front hall is a bra, lying in the middle of the hardwood floor. The smile drops from my face. That son of a bitch. There is, in fact, a trail of clothes leading through the hallway, up the stairs and to the bedroom. I know because I pick these slatternly clothes up as I go, following the trail. The bedroom door stands open.

There on the bed is, as expected, Mark on his back positively beaming with lustful happiness as a naked blonde straddles him. I walk into the room unnoticed (for there is an excessive amount of shrill screaming going on and both participants have their eyes clenched shut). I see the woman’s purse partly spilled on the floor and protruding from it is a pack of Marlboro Lights.

I drop the woman’s clothes on the floor and walk straight over to her purse. I am absolutely dazed by the fact that this woman has cigarettes in her purse. Mark doesn’t date smokers. I’m also amazed that Mark hasn’t opened his eyes yet and that I feel completely numb to this situation. Watching these two have sex is like watching a porno wherein I am unfamiliar with the players. I pluck the cigarettes and lighter from the floor and hoist myself noiselessly onto the low brown bureau, crossing my legs.

The scratch of the lighter igniting finally makes Mark open his eyes. He lets out a bark of surprise and flings the woman from him. The woman rolls off the side of the bed hitting the hardwood floor with a loud thud and a sharp scream.

“Don’t stop on my account,” I say taking a drag of the cigarette and blowing it in his general direction. “I thought you didn’t date smokers,” I comment idly.

“I’m not dating her,” Mark says, pulling the covers up around his waist.

The blonde pops up from beside the bed, disheveled and looking frightened. “What?” she angrily asks him.

Mark flushes.

I walk over and calmly, quickly, burn several small holes in his $150 sheets, all very near his crotch. He howls and protects his manhood, rolling off the bed on top of his bedmate.

“I quit,” I say and leave.

“I was born and raised in Newport, RI but currently reside in East Providence. I have a BA in creative writing from Roger Williams University. I am currently a real estate appraiser and writer.” E-mail: foots[at]