Both Ian and the truck were full of beer from Benny's. A pleasant numbness insulated Ian from the rest of the world as he slid behind the wheel and started the motor.
“Off to the Lake!” he commanded the truck as he slipped into gear.
The truck stalled.
“Oh fuck!” he mumbled, realizing he had mistakenly put the truck into third. He started the truck again and carefully slid the gearshift into the correct position.
“There!” he announced proudly, “C'mon you hosses, giddyup!” He popped the clutch and the truck spun in a wild, squealing U-turn in the warehouse parking lot and weaved out onto the street.
Except for the warm welcoming patch of light in front of Benny's Place, the industrial park was deserted and dark, illuminated only by the eerie cold blue and orange glow of a few scattered mercury vapor lamps. Ian changed to second gear and pressed the accelerator to the floor, and the truck howled down the wide four-lane street. Ian focused on the distant traffic light ahead of him. It had just turned green, and he wanted to reach it before it changed to red again. He pushed his foot harder against the accelerator and with a powerful sense of satisfaction, watched the speedometer needle climb along the dial. The light changed to yellow as he approached the intersection, and he slapped the gearshift into third.
“Freedom!” he shouted as the truck roared through the crossroads a fraction of a second before the light turned red. He laughed and slapped the wheel, and released the pressure on the accelerator. He turned the truck radio on, cranking up the volume, and the truck filled with loud hard-driving rock music and disappeared into the darkness beyond the city lights.
“Alright!” he exclaimed, drumming his hands against the wheel in time to the beat of the music. He reached for a cigarette from the pack sitting open on the dashboard, stuck it in his mouth, and reached into his jacket breast pocket for his lighter. The truck veered slightly and Ian thought he felt a slight pull to the left after he straightened the truck, but ignored it, shrugging it off as the vagaries of an inebriated mind, but the pull developed into a wobble and the wobble soon became the familiar flap of a flat tire.
Ian pulled the truck over to the side of the road, and climbed out to take a look. The left front tire was flat.
“Shit!” Ian kicked the side of the truck in frustration.
He pulled the tire wrench from behind the seat, and walked to the back of the truck. The spare tire was slung under the truck behind the rear axle, and removing it was a pain in the ass. As there was a huge puddle of water under the rear bumper and Ian didn't want to drive the truck forward or get wet, he crawled sideways under the truck from just in front of the rear wheel and wormed his way along the rear axle to reach the spare.
After he had unfastened the tire rack, he accidentally dropped the bolt that held the rack in place, and it rolled further under the truck. Cursing, he pulled himself under the axle and began feeling for the bolt with his fingers.
He never did find it.
The flash stopped him.
The brilliant white light hurt his eyes, even under the shade of the truck. At the same instant, the hairs on his body stood on end and his skin tingled unpleasantly with a sudden charge of static electricity.
He knew what had happened instantly.
The whole world slipped sideways. The Earth and everything in it poured through a hole in space and gelled, subtly changed, in another universe. Ian's world would never again be the gentle place he had known.
It was The Bomb.
The air became oppressively hot and Ian gasped for breath. The grass on the edge of the highway spewed thick black smoke; then every blade popped into flame like a thousand small gas pilot lights all turned on at once. He heard a car skid and a crump as it hit something.
Then the wind came.
The truck bucked violently as the shock wave slammed against it, and Ian was pelted with small stones and dust, first from behind, then a split second later from the opposite direction. The grass crackled. He heard an explosion that was buried by an ominous deep rumbling that built to an ear-splitting roar in the span of a single heartbeat, like a monstrous freight train passing at high speed over a huge wooden trestle. The ground beneath him trembled and bits of dirt fell from the undercarriage of the truck. The ground and Ian's ribcage resonated briefly at the same low frequency as the rumbling, then stood still.
He lay motionless, his mind numbed.
It's happened, he thought incredulously. It's finally happened...
The paralysis that had gripped him from the first instant of the flash slowly ebbed, and he crawled out from under the truck. The asphalt was hot, and it stuck to his hands and belly as he pulled himself along. Ian was amazed that he was alive and that he could still move. The beating of his heart and the breathing of his lungs seemed miraculous and he marveled at the delicate balances that gave him the power of movement and the gift of Life. Preoccupied with himself, fascinated by the intricacy of his own body, the interplay of bone and muscle, and the miracle of their very existence, he slowly brushed away the bits of hot tar that had stuck to him as he stood up and looked toward the city...
And into the face of God.
He knew suddenly he had always known that one day he would witness the awesome spectacle of the pillar of fire that rose far above his head. As hot and bright as the sun on a summer's day, the fireball glowed a hot conch shell pink through the smoke, and changed hue, becoming a golden amber, then electric blue. Rising deliberately from the ground like a monstrous bird of myth, fire and smoke, the huge cloud expanded upward until it pushed against an invisible ceiling and spread its wings outward and beyond the reaches of his peripheral vision.
Overwhelmed by the terrible majesty and incredible power of the cloud, Ian knew the huge cloud had been destined to blossom. No longer a silent ignored dream deep within the back of his mind, his deepest fear boiled violently from the depths of the Earth and towered triumphantly thousands of feet above his head. From the moment he had been born, he had known that this moment would exist, had always existed, and that he had been at this time and place before. Every object around him emanated a surreal sense of being, and his senses, amplified beyond his comprehension, reached to the edge of his universe, joining him as one with the cloud.
A station wagon, with all its windows blown out, roared out of the smoke and honked loudly as it passed. He had no idea of how long he had been standing staring up at the gigantic cloud. The expanding mass had filled his senses for an eternity, but now, slowly, as if waking from a faraway dream, Ian became aware of his immediate surroundings. He looked for the station wagon that had brought him to his senses, but it had disappeared into the haze of the dust and smoke behind him.
He turned slowly in a full circle.
Fires of all sizes burned everywhere. An orange glow radiated from a burning sports car wrapped around a toppled and burning telephone pole and the grass crackled as it burned beside the highway.
The paint on the surfaces of his truck which faced towards the still-expanding cloud had blistered and oxidized, and the exposed metal had turned a dull red-brown. Some of the plastic pieces on the truck cap had melted and warped out of shape and his red taillight lenses had cracked and turned black.
The huge expanding cloud above his head now shut out the entire sky and turned his world darker than he had ever seen it.
It's over, he thought simply. He didn't feel sadness or regret, only acceptance.
The lake... I'll go to the lake. It'll be safe there, he thought. Ian knew he needed Bill and Pete. They were both more practical than he was, and they'd know what to do.
Mechanically, he climbed back into the truck, and was about to turn the key in the ignition when he remembered he still had a flat tire. He took a deep breath, trying to bring some order to his flow of thought. Think, Ian told himself. His mind had shattered. Disjointed thoughts raced through in a rapid stream which passed so quickly his conscious mind had no chance to grasp them. He knew he had to get to the lake as quickly as possible.
To get to the lake, I'll have to fix the flat. To fix the flat, I'll have to get the spare tire... He sat thinking out the order of the tasks he would have to perform in order to reach the lake. Just when he thought he knew exactly what he had to do, the plan would dissolve, and he would have to start rethinking the entire process and formulate the same arrangement all over again.
A double flash lit up the cab, and Ian instinctively dived for the floor, jamming the gearshift lever into his ribs. He gasped in pain and curled up, his arms held over his head.
It hadn't occurred to him that his city wouldn't be the only target in the War. His conception of nuclear war was colored by the legacy of Hiroshima, and he had thought of atomic warfare in terms of only one city and one bomb, not entire nations involved in a devastating continent-wide nuclear barrage. Until that moment, his vision of nuclear war consisted only of a single city being obliterated; that the survivors would flee to the countryside where they would be safe. He suddenly realized the bombs were falling everywhere and there was nowhere he could hide.
He screamed, knowing that the next bomb would explode directly above him. He was exposed and defenseless, and his screams echoed his mind-crippling powerlessness. He felt he was the only target the bombs were seeking and wished he could crawl deep underground, horrified by the thought he would never be able to go deep enough into the Earth to escape destruction.
The shock wave from the second bomb jolted the truck, and the rear end jumped sideways. Ian's head smacked against the bottom of the dashboard and his ears popped from the momentary change in air pressure.
He stopped screaming, but fear prickled his skin and raised goosebumps despite the overwhelming heat.
I gotta get out of here, he thought. As far away as I can. To the lake... to the lake first and pick up Bill and Pete...Then - then get the hell as far away as I -
Not as bright... must be farther away... Fix the flat... The jack, I'll need the jack.
He pulled himself from the floor, opened the door, and crawled from the cab headfirst. He picked himself up and leaned into the cab. He moved the seat forward and unhooked the jack from its cradle behind the seat.
Then he remembered the spare tire. He would have to crawl under the truck. He walked back to the rear of the truck, and the third shock wave knocked him to the ground. As he lay momentarily stunned, the air cleared and he caught a glimpse of two columns of smoke and fire rising off to the east.
He staggered to his feet and leaned against the truck. The metal was warm, almost hot. Ian's heart pounded heavily and he was short of breath. Resolutely, he turned back to his task. The water from the puddle had evaporated, so he crawled quickly under the rear bumper. The asphalt was hot and pulled away from the road, sticking to him as he slid under the truck. The spare tire was loose, but at a strange angle. He struggled with it, and finally pulled it free. He pushed the wheel out onto the road and crawled out after it. Standing up, he leaned the tire against the side of the truck, trying to catch his breath. He held his hands out in front of him. They were trembling badly.
The more he tried to stop them shaking, the worse his hands shook. His heart thumped heavily against his ribs, and his whole body quaked from uncontrollable spasms.
Shock, he thought, Calm down. Take a breath.
Ian walked unsteadily to the cab, and reached in for his cigarettes. He dropped them. Hands trembling, he stooped down to pick them off the road and steadied himself with one hand on the truck. Finally, after fumbling with the package, Ian managed to put a cigarette in his mouth, but couldn't find his lighter. He frantically searched his pockets, as panic rose within him and shattered the framework of his thoughts. Just when he thought he couldn't keep himself together anymore, his fingers curled around the lighter.
Turning his back to the wind blowing strongly toward the city and cupping the lighter in his hands, he was able to get the cigarette going. After several short puffs to ensure that it wouldn't go out, he drew deeply on the cigarette, letting the smoke fill his lungs.
A calmness spread from his lungs to the rest of his body as the nicotine was assimilated into his bloodstream. Grateful for the tranquilizing effect, Ian inhaled the smoke, his mind becoming clearer with each breath. By the time he threw the butt away, he was sufficiently fortified and focused to continue changing tires.
He knelt down by the front wheel well. Then he realized that he didn't have the tire wrench. He'd left it under the truck. As he passed the open door on his way to the back of the truck, he remembered the jack. He reached in behind the seat and pulled the jack loose from its holder and carried it to the front of the truck, setting it under the front bumper. As he maneuvered the jack into position, he realized he would need the tire wrench to pump the jack up.
It's going to take one hell of a long time to change this tire if you don't get your fucking act together, Ian chided himself. He looked at his watch.
It had become too dark to read the time, so he pushed the button for the night light on the watch. Nothing happened. He pushed it again. Still nothing. He walked to the truck cab and turned on the interior light. The readout on the face of the watch was blank. Battery must be burned out, he thought, I only had it replaced a few days ago. I'll have to take it back to the jeweller who fixed it...
But there was no jeweler and no jewelry store. The street on which the jewelry store had stood had been vaporized. Everything that he had known had been destroyed. The jeweler, the store, his apartment-
His world no longer existed.
He looked down at his watch. It had been a birthday present from Linda. He loosened the clasp on the watch and slid it off his wrist, remembering the night she'd given it to him. She'd taken him out for dinner at one of the more expensive restaurants in town. When the bill came, Ian offered to pay for his half of the meal, but she wouldn't let him.
“My treat,” she said smiling sweetly.
He smiled back, his love for her amplified by the quiet darkness of the restaurant and the contented afterglow of rich food and good wine. She was beautiful and the soft light of flickering candle in the center of the table made her even more so.
Ian pulled out a cigarette and offered her one. She took it and and with a mock sophisticated flair, Ian lit it for her.
“An excellent dinner, my dear,” he declared aristocratically, “What say we trip the light fantastic down at Maxim's and do the tango at the disco?”
They were both a little drunk.
“Of course,” she smiled. She had such a beautiful smile. It was the first thing that had attracted him to her.
“But first-” She reached down for her handbag and set it on her lap. “I bought you a present,” she said shyly, opening her purse. “I hope you like it.”
“Linda, you didn't have to-” he stopped his protest in mid-sentence as she brought out a white envelope and a small box wrapped in blue tissue paper and bound by a delicate silver-laced white ribbon. She held them out to him.
He opened the envelope first. The card inside had a picture of two cute furry white rabbits nuzzling each other in a clump of flowers. Somebunny loves you, it read. He opened it. She had written For my nubby bunny, Love Linda. It was her pet name for him when they were being silly and sentimental. He looked up at her and smiled.
She sniffed the red rose he had bought for her from the flower girl outside the lobby of the restaurant. She blushed as their eyes met. Ian reached across the table and gently squeezed her hand.
“Thanks,” he said softly.
“You didn't open your present yet,” she whispered
He didn't want to let go of her.
“I hope you like it.” She slid her hand from his.
“Of course I'll like it,” he said gallantly, picking up the tiny package, amazed at the care and the love she had put into wrapping it.
“Well, open it,” she urged.
He pulled off the ribbon, carefully untying the bow so as not to damage it and pulled away the tissue paper from a small plastic case, and he knew from the company logo embossed on the lid that the box contained a watch.
They had stopped at a jeweler's window a few days earlier while they had been shopping downtown and Ian had pointed out a digital watch to her and said that if ever he had the money, he would buy one just like that.
He opened the case. Inside was the same watch, twenty-one functions and all.
“You said you wanted one,” said Linda and he looked up at her. “I couldn't think of anything else to buy...”
“It's perfect,” he said gratefully.
He pulled the watch from the case and pushed the alarm button. The watch chirped out the first few bars of Yesterday by the Beatles.
“Linda-” he started to say something, but the words had slipped away from him and he was overwhelmed by the force of all that he felt for her.
“Linda, I love you.”
“Put the watch on,” she said sweetly. Her eyes crinkled at the corners and she squeezed his hand.
“I had an inscription put on the back especially for you,” she said.
He turned the watch over in his hands and read the inscription on the back:
Our love will last till the end of time. Linda.
But it hadn't.
They had broken up during an argument and she'd walked out. Ian never saw her again. He knew she was in the city somewhere. Bill said he had seen her at his bank and that she had asked about Ian.
Ian wondered where she was and whether she was still alive. If she were alive, he would know; he would feel it...
He threw the watch into the darkness.
The tire wrench!
He reached behind the seat, but the wrench was gone! He searched under the seat for it but couldn't find it, then remembered he'd left it under the truck by the rear axle.
He walked to the back of the truck, staring at the column of smoke over the city. It glowed fiercely from the light of the sea of flames beneath it. Huge streams of smoke flowed towards the inferno, sucked along the ground and into the center of the column boiling upwards into the dark canopy that filled the sky.
He shook his head to clear it of the image and the jumbled thoughts that accompanied it. Crouching down and peering under the truck, he could see the wrench lying on the asphalt. He reached under the truck and pulled it out.
He carried it to the front of the truck.
As he worked at jacking the truck and switching the tires, Ian stopped several times in order to calm himself down and had difficulty in remembering what he was doing. He was shaking again.
“Come on, keep a hold of yourself,” he whispered to himself. “You're alive. You're okay. You survived. You're okay...”
But he couldn't think straight. In the middle of undoing a wheel nut he forgot which way to turn it. He stopped to light a cigarette, smoking it to the filter before he returned to changing the tire.
Cars passed sporadically, some honking as they raced by, but Ian wasn't aware of them until they had already disappeared into the smoke. He stared after each vehicle, unsure of whether he had imagined it's passing. After puzzling over it for a while, he would undo another bolt. Or screw one back on. Or light a cigarette, stub it out and light another. He would decide to do something, then stop halfway through and do something else.
Finally Ian finished. As he was letting the jack down, he felt a sting on his cheek. His hand went up to his face and before he had a chance to wonder what had caused it, a rain of small pebbles fell from the sky. Debris lifted into the air by the explosion over the city rattled down around him.
He covered his head with his arms, dashed for the cab and jumped in, pulling the door closed behind him. The pebbles hammered on the roof and the hood in an incessant manic drum roll. He stared unbelievingly through the windshield at the rocks bouncing madly on the hood and the growing profusion of small dents on the surface of the metal. Small pockmarks popped randomly into existence in the glass of his windshield.
The cloud over the city spread from horizon to horizon, and the light from the fires turned blood red, diffused by the smoke and the dust into a deep scarlet mist. The wind had become erratic, gusting in every direction and countless sparks spun wildly through the growing darkness. Whirlwinds kicked up soil and pieces of burning plants from the fields and whirled them about, then died out and began again somewhere else.
A low almost imperceptible moan rose above the roaring of the wind, and the ground itself seemed to writhe in pain, shrinking away from the edges of the atomic cloud. The hair on Ian's body stood on end as he stared at the creeping earth and realized the earth wasn't moving. Thousands of people crawled and staggered from the ruined city, appearing as a huge mass, tendrils of human flesh creeping away from the boiling fire. The firestorm billowed hundreds of feet into the air and the wind rushing to feed it peeled the edges of the fleeing swarm away from the ground and rolled small pieces backward into the raging flames. Ian knew those tiny pieces being sucked into the inferno were live, screaming, human beings, and he shuddered.
All the fears and superstitions ingrained within his psyche and within the collective memory of his race boiled to the surface. Some medieval nightmare, centuries old, had broken open and spilled out into his world. Ian was witnessing the Armageddon that had been prophesied in the Bible, the opening of the Seventh Seal.
Fire and brimstone.
How else could a prophet from the distant past describe the world around him? He wouldn't have words like mushroom cloud, atomic bomb, or nuclear holocaust. Only a mystical being could cause that kind of devastation, a being of superhuman power and possessing an evil malignant mind.
The huge pillar of fire reared from the depths of the Earth as if it were Lucifer himself breaking free from the bondage of his underground domain, finally free to claim the Earth as his. After a struggling for millennia, Satan had finally become Master of the Earth, and in minutes and seconds, had molded the world into the image of Hell. The day the Human Race had feared for eons had finally arrived as if we had known instinctively that one day all this would come to pass.
Whirlwinds spun across the burning fields tracing the whirling mad dance of invisible demons. The Devil and his diabolical servants seemed to have no interest in the fate of individual mortals for the moment. The Earth was theirs, and they had all Eternity to hunt down those who were still alive after their cataclysmic entry into the world.
Ian realized that the God before him would have no mercy on his soul, would have no pity for his suffering, not a shred of remorse for the decimation of the planet. Its existence was the antithesis of life itself...
It was a day of rejoicing for the servants of Evil.
No! No, that's all bullshit!
Now I sound like some tribesman in New Guinea bowing down to some rumbling volcano. If I keep up that way of thinking, I'll be throwing fruit into a radioactive crater somewhere, asking the Great God of Nuclear Energy not to kill me as long as I keep feeding him sacrificial mutated pomegranates.
I guess I'm just looking for a reason for it all.
Why did it happen?
How did it happen?
One minute I'm in one world, and BANG!... I find myself in another. With no way to get back to where I was.
Or is it when I was?
He put down the pen and stared blankly through the plastic at the ground outside the cave. Scattered weeds stretched their limbs up from amongst the rocks, as if they were calling Ian for help, for sanctuary from the creeping effects of the fallout. The plants were losing their green color. The leaves were turning a dull reddish-brown and small brown-black splotches grew wherever the clay shell of the dust and the rain had stuck to them. The burden of the caked dust weighed down the leaves, and some of the smaller plants were slowly suffocating beneath the thin film of gray-brown dust that clung to them.
The dust hung so thickly in the air Ian could barely see the lake. He tried to stop the dust from getting into his nose and throat, but his throat was continually dry. Before he ate or drank, he always flushed the dust from his nose and mouth with water.
He didn't know whether it would help to stop him from ingesting the dust, or whether the water itself was contaminated, but he thought he would be safer cleaning out before he ate or drank. With the amount of dust in the air, he felt ridiculous gargling to keep the fallout out of his system.
Every little bit counts though, minus or positive. The Doctor told me it would add up over time. One large dose, or a thousand little ones.
I can't write anymore; my headache's getting worse and I feel like I'm going to puke.
I hope to God it's only a touch of the flu.
I started to take the antibiotics that the Doctor gave me. I'm supposed to take them as soon as I start to feel ill.
And I feel ill.
Something is terribly wrong inside me.
The Doctor said to take the antibiotics but I don't know which are the best.
I can't remember.
The Doctor said the radiation breaks down the body's resistance to disease. It lowers the cell count. White blood cells, I think.
The antibiotics will help me fight off the bacteria. Or at least they're supposed to...