Ian lay on his back and allowed the sweat of his struggle with the Dream to evaporate. He opened his eyes. Daylight filtered through the camouflage screen. A dull throbbing in his wrists made Ian lift his arms to look at them and a sharp electric shock of pain stabbed through his entire nervous system.
Ian sat up quickly and stared unbelievingly at his hands. Streaked red and black with dried blood, his arms had been savagely slashed! The memory of the Dream flooded back. He recalled cutting his arms with a tin can and to his horror, the can lay where it had fallen during the Dream, stained the same dark reddish brown as his hands. He had slashed his arms in his sleep, and his sleeping body had acted out the dream!
He touched one of the cuts. It hurt terribly.
He crawled groggily across the cave floor, and pulled the iodine bottle from the first aid kit. He gingerly applied the antiseptic to his mutilated arms with cotton batten. The sting of the iodine burned into the wounds and the pain grounded him, focusing his thoughts on the gaping ragged cuts criss-crossing his arms. Ian bandaged both arms as tightly as he could. He wondered if he would be able to keep the wounds clean. The dust was bound to get into them.
A severe pain grew from the optic nerve behind his eyes and radiated swiftly and smoothly outward to his temples and through his skull into his teeth. He staggered from the severe pain and clutched at the rock wall to prevent himself from falling on his knees. He weaved toward the cave entrance into the light, curled up on the floor, and pressed his palms forcefully against his eyes, trying to squeeze out the pain.
The Dream is trying to kill me!
I have to find a way to take it apart and destroy it before it destroys me.
The silent stacks of boxes greeted him as he groggily sat up and opened his eyes. Ian looked around the cave. The row of tools by the mouth of the cave stood guard over the rest of his possessions: the portable radio, his knapsack, the truck battery...
The mental inventory of his supplies soothed him.
He was safe.
He noticed a box out of place.
Curious, Ian stood up and walked over to it. He opened it slowly, inexplicably afraid of what he might find inside. His apprehension turned to delight as he looked down. The box was crammed with fresh fruit! Apples, oranges and pears.
Eagerly, Ian grabbed a pear and bit into it. He reveled in the cool relief it brought to his parched throat. Until the second bite, Ian hadn't noticed the pear was strangely tasteless.
He heard a faint rustling by the mouth of the cave.
“Dog?” he called softly.
There was no answer.
The cave was silent except for the sound of his own breathing. There was something there!
Ian's hand wrapped around an empty glass bottle. He held it against his chest with both hands. Cold and hard, the solid glass bottle kept his growing fear at bay. He remembered the pear and looked down.
It was gone!
He saw a flash of movement through the corner of his eye, and with a cry of despair, he smashed the bottle against the cave wall and jammed the broken edge in to his arm.
There was no pain.
He jammed the broken piece of glass in to his arm a second time. And a third! He wanted to feel the pain that would tell him he was awake, but it never came...
He was dreaming.
Unpeeling like the layers of an onion, the Dream repeated itself in half-hour cycles. Ian awoke from the Dream and busied himself with minor chores around the cave: sweeping the floor; repairing the barrier, or just staring out through the plastic into the valley, until he found the flaw- a small detail out of place, something that didn't quite match the real world
Like the pear with no taste.
The moment he discovered the flaw, the Dream People appeared without warning to drag him deeper into the Dream. Now that the first stages of radiation sickness had weakened his defenses, he no longer had the energy to fight them off. He desperately wanted his suffering to end and the depression to lift.
He wanted to climb back into the truck and drive home to his apartment, pull a beer from the fridge, and sit in front of his television set and watch some inane situation comedy, never once giving a thought to the Dream or the nightmare which had triggered it. But he couldn't. Even though Ian missed the Otherlife terribly and wished he could go back, the Otherlife didn't exist anymore.
Blown about like a disabled raft adrift on the sea of his consciousness, Ian slid helplessly into the deep trough of the Dream, only to be carried swiftly and drowning, to the crest of a wave and the terrible pain of the radiation sickness. The dread of the next slide into the Dream filled the pit of his stomach, and all he could see was an endless storm-tossed ocean stretching off to the horizon with no safe harbor to run for. He drifted for days and with no idea of how long his ordeal had lasted, but he knew by the clouds that were still gathered around him, the storm wasn't over yet.
Ian suffered from dizzy spells that struck without warning and left him overcome by long periods of listlessness during which he lay and stared blankly at whatever was in front of him. He thought the nausea was a result of his diet, a lack of fresh vegetables and exercise. He tried to keep himself occupied, but his attention wandered from whatever task he set himself and he usually ended up standing or sitting at the mouth of the cave staring absently through the plastic screen. An indefinable itch beneath his skin reached through his flesh and penetrated to his bones, a feeling of being out of sorts, as if his body didn't quite fit him anymore.
He slept, but never awoke feeling rested or refreshed, only thankful the Dream was over. At times he fell asleep as soon as he awoke from the Dream, conscious for only for a few brief seconds, sometimes long enough to smoke a cigarette, but no matter how determined he was to stay awake, he always drifted back to sleep and into the Dream.
Worn down by the lack of sleep and the sickness, he lost all trace of optimism about his future. He no longer wanted to survive. He wanted to rest, and he could see only one solution to his dilemma...
Death was as peaceful and dark as cool black velvet, and Ian floated into it gently, drawn by the seductive promise of oblivion.
He let himself go.
The moment he floated free and relinquished the life he had clung to so desperately, the Dream People appeared, smiling grotesquely, welcoming but sinister, their arms stretched out to greet him, and Ian panicked. He fought his way to the surface through the suffocating inky darkness.
And he was awake, once again feeling the cruel grip of radiation sickness. He couldn't eat; he regurgitated any solid that entered his stomach, then suffered from the dry heaves until he began spitting up mouthfuls of blood. He was thirsty, but couldn't keep the water down after he drank it. The smell of bile permeated everything. Diarrhea racked his body, squeezing out his life fluids, and Ian could no longer control his bodily functions. The resulting odor only served to amplify his feeling of hopelessness.
His entire body was liquefying. Everything beneath his skin felt mushy, his bones butter soft, and his muscles rotting sacs of sludge. He felt he was melting and would end up as a putrid puddle of jellied meat on the floor of the cave. The only way to escape the sickness was to sleep, but in sleep, the Dream was always waiting for him. Ian couldn't summon the energy or the will to fight it anymore, and he was afraid he had become entangled within the webs the Dream had woven inside his mind, never to see the real world again.
That's how I feel...
All the little things that make the Otherlife worthwhile floated past me. Little things that are so terribly out of reach. Like laughing at the amazed look on Elizabeth's face when the scoop of ice cream I had bought her fell off the cone onto the ground. Picking her up. Giving her a hug. Carrying her back to the window of the ice cream parlor. Telling her to pick out whatever she wanted...
I see visions of people laughing, playing on the beach in the summer sun. I call to them, but they don't hear me and the image fades. I see myself washing the truck at the car wash and try to shout a warning of the things to come, but it's no use. I see Linda and I lying in bed on Sunday morning, lazily talking as sunlight filters gently through the venetian blinds hanging in the bedroom window. But I can't break through to the Otherlife. I call for help through the barrier of time, but no one can hear me.
But I have to try...
Ian pulled these pictures of the Otherlife from his memory and tried to make them real, to postpone the agony of returning to the pain of the War world, but despite his efforts, the images burned away like film caught in a projector and melted, revealing a new image of the same people still horribly burned and disfigured. The way that they really were. The way they'd become. Tears welled in his eyes, but he never cried. Ian was afraid that if he did, he would never stop. His hair had begun to fall out.
The Doctor told me that it might happen. Check your gums for ulcers, the Doctor said. Check your skin for spots. Check your hat and coat...
What's the use?
Nothing else is important anymore. I'm dying of Radiation Sickness. I can't escape it. I thought I could. I told myself I couldn't die.
I can't die.
I thought I'd survived. I'm okay really; only my body is sick.
And my mind.
And my world.
What else is there?
I know now I won't survive. The Dream People know I won't survive. We all know I won't. That's why they come for me night after night and day after day. They know that I'm going to join them, and so they keep coming back for me.
I know where the Dream People come from. It's not a place. It's a time. I know who they are. I saw them the day after the Bomb dropped...
The hot breeze touched his face, filling his nostrils with a charnel house smell of burnt hair and bone, mingled with the deathbed odor of living bodies doomed to die and already beginning to rot.
A rag-tag procession of people shuffled past him. Most of them had been burned. Many of them were naked and dressed in rags. Numbed, he sat silently watching. A low murmur, the sound of hushed and humbled voices - more of an endless communal moan - vibrated the air around him.
The variety of injuries was incredible. Large pieces of skin burned by the thermal pulse of the Bomb and stripped away from flesh by the force of the shock wave hung from their blackened and swollen bodies like remnants of tattered clothing. The exposed muscle and fat had partially dried and cracked, allowing their vital fluids to drip away, and where the fluid was fresh, the wounds glistened. Burned faces without eyebrows or hair attached to bodies covered with unbelievably huge blisters, broken and dripping pus, moved slowly by in a collage of heat twisted flesh. Fused into hellish red and black patterns no longer resembling either skin or muscle, bloated meat covered bodies that no longer resembled human beings.
Ian was filled with a bottomless sadness that grated on every bone in his body. This endless broken line of injured, tattered beings had survived the same explosion Ian had seen from the roadside and he wondered how they had managed to walk as far and as long as they had. They had walked all through the night. The sheer volume of the mangled humanity trudging along the highway was numbing. There were thousands of them. The line stretched for as far as he could see in either direction.
The far side of the highway was empty. The procession, although bedraggled and unorganized, had stayed between the shoulder of the road and the center painted line.
A psychic field held the survivors in single file as if they were chained together. The magnitude of the loss that they had suffered together had drained the victims of their individuality. They interacted as cells of a single giant organism, but there was no hope in their bondage to each other. The people moved slowly and painfully, every step an ordeal to be silently suffered. Other than to leave the city as far behind them as humanly possible, there was no purpose to their movements. They just dully placed one foot in front of the other.
A few carried bundles with them, but most were so horribly burned and mutilated that to touch another object would have created more suffering than the salvage of a few possessions could possibly compensate for. Most held their arms away from their bodies so as not to chafe the skin and walked zombie-like along the road.
A woman carrying a small bundle of clothes staggered and fell. The bundle tumbled from her arms and the cloth unraveled, and a red and black object rolled away onto the shoulder of the highway. The woman crawled on her belly towards it, whimpering.
Ian climbed from the truck to help the woman retrieve the possession she had carried so far. He walked toward her, but stopped halfway when he recognized the object she was struggling toward.
It was, or had been, a tiny baby. Swollen, burnt black and red, its guts protruded from a split in the skin that ran from throat to crotch. The sight of the dead thing nauseated him, and he turned away, unable to watch or help. He knew he was going to be sick, and took deep breaths to prevent himself from vomiting. He was racked by the force of his heaving despite his effort.
After he recovered and gathered enough nerve to look back, the woman was dead, and lay only inches away from her dead child, her open eyes staring lifelessly to where her baby had come to rest.
His senses jarred by the woman's death, he suddenly noticed the innumerable corpses that lay scattered both on the road and beside it. He walked over to the nearest body, and standing on tiptoe as if to avoid contamination, peered at it.
As he looked curiously at the face that stared blankly upwards, the corpse's eyes turned to look at him. Ian yelled in surprise, almost losing his balance. The body remained motionless, but the eyes stared pleadingly at him. Ian was disgusted at the sight of the charred and butchered body with a human being still trapped within it, and turned away.
He decided that he would have to resist any sense of compassion if he were to survive. There were too many people who needed help. He thought that the moment the crowd sensed that there was someone that offered help, the line would grind to a halt to gather around and swamp any Good Samaritan with their demands for help. If he stopped to help one, he would have to help them all.
A girl passed him who didn't seem to be visibly injured, and he hurried after her. He grabbed her arm to get her attention. At the touch of his hand, she turned to look at him and screamed. The side of her face that had been hidden from his view had been horribly burned and the eye socket was empty and swollen. Screaming hysterically, she squirmed free of his grip and stumbled backwards, scrambling away from Ian in fear until she found a place in the line. She fell back into step with the other refugees, glancing back furtively to make sure that he wasn't following her.
Ian's hand was sticky with coagulated blood, and he stared down at it in amazement. When he looked up, he found he was standing in the path of the procession.
But it hadn't stopped. The refugees walked soundlessly around him as if he were merely a large boulder in their way. The people no longer had any sense of purpose, no reason for being. All their reasons had been wrapped up in their jobs and their homes, on the things around them, and their reasons for living had been swept away by the nuclear fire that he had escaped.
A refugee - he thought it was a man - glanced at him. Ian stared back, hoping to catch a glimmer of awareness in the man's eyes, but the man slowly turned his head forward. At least there's someone who knows I'm here, Ian thought and ran after the man shouting.
“Where are you going?”
The man slowly turned his head to look at Ian without changing expression or the pace of his walk.
“Where are you going?” Ian asked again, relieved to find one person in the line who reacted to his presence on his own initiative.
The man didn't answer the question at first, but the question had the refugee thinking about an answer.
“Where are you going?” Ian asked again.
“That way,” replied the man meekly, pointing down the highway in the direction that everyone was walking.
“Did you come from the city?”
The man didn't answer the question and turned his head forward again.
Ian grabbed the man's arm to stop him, but the skin pulled away from the flesh, and Ian let go. The man never faltered in his walk.
“Hey!” Ian yelled, “Wait!” and ran after him and pulled the man from the line. “Where the hell are you going?” Ian demanded, “What's the matter with you people?”
The burned face remained blank as the man stood staring in Ian's direction, but he wasn't looking directly at Ian. The man's eyes were focused on the horizon, back toward the city.
“The city is gone,” the man said without inflection or emotion. The refugee's voice and face, his entire body, had been drained of personality by the horror that he had witnessed.
“There is nothing left.”
Ian turned and looked back at the city. Illuminated from below by an orange glow and almost obscured by the heavy smog in the air, a vast column of black smoke rose where the city had once stood.
Ian turned to talk to the man again, but he had gone, melted back into the line. He swore and pushed his way through the line and strode back to the truck.
These people are like cattle, Ian thought, Their little squares of land had their fences blown away, and now they were wandering away to die in the wilderness. If this is the human race, they deserve to die, blown away by their own stupidity!
At that moment, Ian couldn't accept that these mindless beings were members of the same species that he was - most of them no longer resembled Humanity, either physically or mentally. They were grossly deformed hairless humanoids. Ian imagined the highway lead to a huge slaughterhouse, and all these people stepping mildly onto a conveyor belt, dropping mindlessly into a vast meat grinder, coming out at the other end in an endless line of rotten hamburger, but Ian realized they had already passed through the meat grinder. Defective, the grinder had mutilated them and, in a horrible twist, had failed to destroy them completely.
Where were they going? What were they looking for? Were they looking at all? Would they simply keep walking until, one by one, they fell exhausted and dying upon the highway?
He climbed into the truck, started it, and drove fiercely to the highway, hoping to scare the people in line into stopping so that he could drive through to the other side of the highway. Ian was forced to slide to a halt in a cloud of dust before he reached the slow-moving line of survivors. The dust cleared, but the line hadn't wavered an inch. Ian honked his horn to get them to leave a gap for him to drive through, but no one paid any attention. He yelled and cursed, but it had no effect. Ian inched the truck slowly into the line. The refugees paid no attention to him, and the line molded itself around the front of the truck. Finally the bulk of the truck broke the line which reformed noiselessly behind him.
Free of the people and in the outside lane, Ian turned in the only direction that offered any hope - away from the city. As he drove alongside the struggling line of people, he never once thought of offering a ride to anyone.
Many of the corpses littering the route along the highway had been squashed. Ian wondered about the people who had run them down. He was thankful that he had pulled off the highway when he had; he had missed most of the traffic the night before. Further into the city, it must have been a pedestrian's nightmare. He thought of the truck that had sideswiped him, leading to his decision to turn off the highway to wait until morning to continue his journey. He remembered the belligerency he had encountered every day during rush hour just coming home from work, and amplified that situation into a life and death struggle of mechanical madness that grated on his teeth and turned his stomach.
The only other vehicles he encountered on the highway were abandoned: doors, trunks, and hoods wide open. Most had bent and twisted fenders and bumpers, or doors pushed in, or some other evidence, which served to reinforce his imaginings of a desperate war on, wheels being fought along the highway.
Many of the stranded vehicles appeared to be usable, and he wondered what would have caused their owners to abandon them. One in particular, a long black limousine, stood out in his memory for some inexplicable reason. The rear end had been jacked up, and the driver's side rear wheel had been removed and lay on the ground beside the car. The spare rested against the rear bumper. The line of refugees passed by it, and it sat neglected.
Ian had to drive off the roadway several times to avoid abandoned vehicles and the dead and dying who had wandered away from the procession and into his lane. He couldn't understand why people would keep walking when they didn't even have enough energy in their bodies to combat the trauma of their injuries. How many people simply died of overexertion that might have lived had they rested instead?
Ian didn't have time to think about it.
Ahead of him, the highway was blocked by a chaotic mass of burned out vehicles. He drove to within a few feet of the obstacle. He couldn't see how far the tangled wreckage extended down the road because a semi trailer that had jackknifed and come to a stop sideways across the highway blocked his view. He shut off the truck, stuffed the keys into his pocket, and reached over and locked the passenger door. After he climbed from the cab and closed and locked the driver's side door, Ian walked toward the wreckage that blocked the highway. The line of survivors still maintained its unity and weaved through the vehicles, passing around the rear of the semi. He decided to follow their lead, and joined the line of refugees.
He followed two survivors as the line wove between the wrecked cars. Some of the vehicles still held the remains of their occupants who must have been killed outright by the collisions as machine after machine had piled into the twisted mass of metal. So many had fled a fiery death in a nuclear inferno, only to be killed in a traffic accident.
As he rounded the rear of the trailer, his heart sank. He was faced by a sea of wrecked cars and trucks. About a hundred feet ahead a bus stood empty and gutted. The line of survivors weaved off to the right and left the road altogether, skirting the obstacle and following a path that ran parallel to the highway. A few feet beyond the burned-out bus, the line curved back onto the highway. If he was to get past the barrier with the truck, Ian had to have to get a better idea of the extent of the pile-up. He stepped out of the line and lifted himself onto the hood of a small compact and climbed onto its roof. He stood up and stared down the highway.
Though he could see the end of the jumbled vehicles, he needed a higher vantage point to find a way around them. Ian looked at the semi. He figured he could reach the top of the trailer by climbing over the cab of the tractor unit.
Ian hopped from car to car to the truck, and jumped from the roof of a sedan onto the fender of the big diesel rig, scrambled onto its hood, and hoisted himself onto the roof. The cab of the truck had been pushed into the front of the trailer. Using the refrigerator unit on the trailer to hoist himself up, Ian climbed onto the roof of the trailer.
From his new vantagepoint, he could see the entire area. Both sides of the highway were impassable. The ditch to the left of the highway was blocked as well. To the right, a side road lead from the highway, and it appeared that he might be able to drive through the ditch to it. In order to get a better look, he began walking along the roof to the rear of the trailer.
Suddenly, with the groan of splintering wood and ripping metal, the section he was crossing collapsed beneath his weight. As he fell, he grabbed at a crossbar of the frame of the trailer. A jagged piece of metal ripped his side and he winced in pain, but managed to keep hold of the metal beam. He hung from the crossbar, his legs dangling uselessly in mid air. He tried to swing his legs up onto the bar, but the force of his movement was more than the stressed metal could bear, and with an agonizing slowness, his support slowly tore free of its mountings and he fell into the darkened interior of the trailer. Ian landed heavily on a carpet of broken wooden crates and the slimy contents of the containers.
Fish! He could tell by the smell alone. He'd fallen into a trailer full of fish! Ian lay stunned. Blood trickled from the wound in his side. He stared up at the hole in the roof that he had fallen through. Out of reach! Ian sighed and looked around him.
There were enough intact crates inside the trailer that Ian could pile up under the hole so that he could climb out, so he wasn't worried about getting out, but the whole episode could have been avoided if he had been more cautious. Ian shook his head and cursed his own stupidity.
He stood up painfully and slithered across the slimy floor, slipping on the fish that had scattered from the broken boxes. He picked his way to the rear of the trailer where most of the boxes were still unbroken and standing upright. He sat down on a box to gather his strength.
He was in no real hurry to get out, but the thought crossed his mind suddenly that Bill and Pete might have decided to return to the city, and that they wouldn't notice Ian's truck sitting on the highway, and pass right by.
I should have left a note in case they saw the truck and stopped to investigate, he thought. But then, he couldn't have told them that he was trapped inside the trailer because he hadn't known he was going to be in the trailer until after he had fallen into it. Worrying about Bill and Pete faded into the background as he realized someone might steal his truck.
It took Ian longer than he expected to stack the crates inside the trailer. After struggling to put the first crate in place, he realized that before continuing, he would have to clear a space on the floor where he could stack the undamaged cases, and clear a path from the front of the trailer to the spot under the hole in the roof.
Although the wound in his side wasn't serious, the strenuous lifting that the stacking of the hundred and forty pound wooden crates required aggravated the injury. Because he had difficulty lifting the boxes any more than four high, he stacked them in steps so that the pile resembled a quartered pyramid. When he could reach the top of the trailer wall by stretching his hands above his head, he found the pain in his side made it impossible to pull himself out. He continued stacking the boxes so that eventually, he stood head and shoulders above the roof of the trailer before he made an attempt to lift himself from the trailer.
Gingerly crawling on his hands and knees, Ian inched his way back to the front of the trailer. He climbed back down over the tractor and picked his way back to the truck through the mangled cars. He was thirsty and walked to the back of the truck and opened up the tailgate. He reached in for the canteen, but before his fingers touched it, he noticed the four cases of beer he had purchased before the Bomb detonated. What the hell, he thought, I'm not likely to get arrested for drinking and driving. He ripped open the nearest case, and pulled out a can of beer. He opened it and took a large gulp. The beer was warm, but tasted good and he drained half the can.
He sat down on the tailgate and sipped at his beer, watching the other survivors trudging wearily along the road. He felt no affinity or compassion for them and stared at them as if they were merely an interesting curiosity. Off to his left stood a silent line of parked and abandoned cars. He wouldn't be able to back down the highway and drive through the ditch to reach the side road he had seen from the roof of the trailer because a delivery van had left the highway and rolled over in the ditch. The overturned vehicle blocked his access to the side road. If he moved one of the first three cars in the line out of the way, he could drive through and bypass the overturned van.
Ian finished his beer and slid off the tailgate. Time to get to work, he thought, and wandered across the road to the first car in the line of parked vehicles. All the doors were locked, the windows wound shut, so he walked to the next car. It had been badly heat-damaged and all the windows had been blown out. He opened the driver's door and examined the interior. It had an automatic transmission and there were no keys in the ignition. He tried to force the gearshift out of `Park' but it wouldn't budge. He hadn't really expected it to, and looked at the next car in line.
It was still occupied, but as he approached it, it was obvious that the occupant was dead. The corpse sat slumped over the steering wheel, and had been badly burned although the vehicle itself seemed had no visible signs of damage. As he opened the door, he knew he was in luck: the car had a standard transmission.
He had to dispose of the corpse in the driver's seat first, but he was afraid to touch it. The thought of his flesh touching the dead man's charred sticky skin made him shiver. Remembering that he had an old pair of work gloves under the truck seat, he returned to his vehicle to retrieve them.
He had to thread his way through the struggling refugees. The beer had made him light-headed. He nodded as if he were at a social gathering to a passing couple who supported each other as they walked, and was surprised at the fleeting acknowledgment their eyes returned. He stopped and stared after them, amazed at their response, but the moment had passed and they had returned their attention to making their way down the road. He shook his head and walked to the truck.
After retrieving his gloves from the truck, he walked back toward the car. As he approached it, he was struck by the feeling that he was about to disturb the peace of the dead, and hesitated when he reached the vehicle. He was a human vulture, desecrating the sanctity of the dead man he was about to remove from the automobile. He glanced nervously back at the line of survivors, half-afraid that they would feel that he had no right to move one of their own.
That's stupid, he thought, but he still couldn't touch the corpse. Strangely, Ian thought of the corpse as being one of the people in the exodus; the appearance of the survivors more closely resembled the corpse than he did, and he thought of the living beings that shuffled past him as being already dead.
Pushing his qualms as far back into his mind as he could, Ian hesitantly reached into the car and pulled the corpse back from the wheel by its shoulders, and it rolled backwards against the seat. The limp passiveness of the corpse sent shivers up his spine and he pulled his hands away quickly.
I can't do it, he thought, knowing at the same time that he had to. He stood trying to figure out how to remove the corpse as quickly as possible with a minimum of contact with it. The people shuffling past Ian stared at him and he felt like an intruder in their midst. The fact that he had been untouched by the War made him conspicuous. He was isolated amongst this misery and suffering. It was too painful for the survivors to maintain any communication between each other.
He returned to the problem of extricating the corpse from the car. Feet first, he decided, get the feet out of the car first, then pull it out by the shoulders.
He knelt down beside the car and reached in, taking hold of one of the corpse's legs. He had the feeling that it would jerk away from him in reflex, but it didn't. Relieved, he pulled at the leg. It caught between the dashboard and the door ledge. Memories of horror stories and superstition flooded his mind, and his efforts to pull the legs out became more frantic. He tried lifting both legs at the same time but they wedged between the dash and the floor.
The seat - move the seat back.
He found the lever and pulled on it, and the seat jumped forward suddenly, startling him. His heart thumped loudly against his ribs and he was sweating. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Calm down, he told himself, take it easy...
He began again. He struggled with the lifeless limbs and managed to swing them from the car, but as he pulled them free, the corpse toppled sideways and Ian looked up in horror as it fell toward him.
Its chest hit Ian full in the face, the charred flesh molding itself to his features, sticking to his skin as it touched. The corpse's arms fell on either side of him in a macabre parody of an embrace and Ian fell backwards.
He panicked, and as he opened his mouth to scream, Ian tasted the rotten meat that threatened to suffocate him. He pushed and kicked frantically at the body to get it off him and scrambled backwards to escape. Terrified, Ian blundered into a passing refugee's legs, and the hapless victim fell over him and he kicked at her/him/it in his efforts to escape.
Ian sat on the ground gasping for breath, and the realization that he had attacked someone in his panic brought him back to his senses, and he stared unbelievingly at the refugee he had knocked over.
A teenage girl lay in front of him her eyes wide, staring at him in fear. She groaned.
“Oh no,” he whispered, “Oh, God, no!”
He crawled over to her.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “Oh...I'm sorry...I didn't mean-” She stared back at him helplessly.
“Here,” Ian said, “here, I'll help you...” He lifted her up and she tried to help him. He cradled her in his arms, not knowing what to do. He looked back toward the truck.
Lowering her back to the ground, Ian told her he would be right back. She nodded her head groggily. He ran for the truck, and after fumbling with the keys to unlock the door, jumped in and started it up. He backed up quickly and pulled alongside the fallen girl. He jumped out and ran around the front of the truck to the girl.
“I'm going to put you in the truck,” Ian told her.
“No...” she whispered, but Ian ignored her protest and slid one arm under her neck and the other behind her knees and lifted her up.
He carried her to the passenger door and pulled at the handle. He had forgotten to unlock it. He took her around to the driver's side and set her gently behind the wheel.
“I'll be right back,” he told her as he reached in and pulled the keys from the ignition.
He walked to the back of the truck and pulled out his sleeping bag and carried it around to the passenger side door. He had trouble unlocking and opening the battered door, and it opened with a terrible screech of protest. He spread the sleeping bag on the seat. The girl watched him dispassionately.
He climbed into the cab.
“I'm going to move you over,” he told her, “Are you ready?”
She didn't answer.
He lifted her and as he pulled her across the seat, she gasped in pain as her legs banged against the gearshift.
“You okay?” he asked, concerned at causing her more pain.
“Yes,” she nodded.
The single word that she had uttered elated him. “Listen,” he said, climbing out of the truck, “I have to find a way around this mess. It won't take me long. Wait here, okay?”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Okay,” she said resignedly.
He smiled. “You'll be okay,” he said and closed the door. Ian walked back to the car, and carefully dragging the corpse out of the way, he climbed into the vehicle. The keys still dangled from the ignition, and Ian turned them in the lock. There was no response. He tried several times to start the car, but eventually gave up. He shifted the lever into neutral and released the hand brake, then cranked the steering wheel as far to the right as he could.
He stepped from the car and pushed it forward until it bumped against the car in front of it. He cranked the wheel back to the left with one hand and pushed it backwards until it touched the car behind. Working the car back and forth, he eventually got it to face toward the ditch. He straightened the wheels and the car began rolling off the road on its own. Grabbing the doorframe and the wheel, he pushed and it picked up speed rapidly and he jumped into the seat.
It bounced into the ditch and he steered it toward the overturned van in order to acquire adequate clearance for the truck. The car rolled to a halt before it reached the van and Ian looked behind him.
Not quite enough room, he thought. He climbed out, walked to the rear of the car and pushed against the rear bumper.
The car didn't move. The soil was too soft for him to roll it any further. Ian decided he could use the truck to push it out of the way when he was ready to go. He looked down the ditch toward the side road, and could see the line of survivors walking along the ridge above it. He would have to take the side road and try to find another route back to the highway. To his right, an overturned three-ton truck lay on its side diagonally across the ditch. It had toppled over beside a telephone pole, and from where he stood it looked as if there might be just enough room for him to squeeze past in the truck. He decided he'd take a closer look just to make sure. As he walked along the ditch, he worried whether the earth was hard enough to support the truck; it seemed a little spongy in places.
Only one way to find out, Ian decided. I'll just have to build up speed along here, and hope for the best.
The closer Ian got to the three ton, the more apparent it became that his truck wouldn't be able to fit between the overturned truck and the telephone pole. The slope on the far side of the telephone pole was too steep for the truck to negotiate.
The three-ton had a removable canvas top and Ian lifted the canvas flap at the back and peered inside. Two bodies lay in the far corner one on top of the other, but the rest of the load area was empty. He ignored the bodies and examined the sides of the truck. The truck had stake sides and the canvas top was wrapped over aluminum supports.
It didn't take him long to untie the tarpaulin and rip out the aluminum poles, and Ian was in a good mood by the time that he returned to the truck, but as he walked thought the gap he had cleared between the parked cars, his heart stopped.
The girl had disappeared!
He looked quickly down the line of refugees to see if she had rejoined the procession but she was no where to be seen. With mounting apprehension, he walked toward the truck, and when he reached it, he peered in through the side window. The girl lay unmoving on the seat.
He hesitated, then pulled the door open.
She's dead, he thought, “Oh God, please don't say she's dead.” He was afraid to touch her.
He climbed into the cab and gently shook her shoulder. To his relief, she lifted her head and stared at him quizzically.
“I thought you were-”
He didn't finish.
“We're ready to go,” he told her, and slid past her into the driver' seat. The girl sat up and looked around her and blinked.
“Are you okay?” Ian asked.
“Okay,” he said and reached over and closed the passenger door. She didn't look too well. “Are you okay?” he asked. I should get her something to drink, he thought.
“I'll be right back.” he said and opened his door. He walked to the back of the truck.
He had left the tailgate open. Lucky I came back, I could have driven off with the tailgate down. He reached in and picked up his empty canteen. He climbed into the truck to fill the canteen with water from the plastic container in the back. He filled the canteen, drank half of it, and topped it up again. Screwing the cap back on, he slung the strap over his shoulder and climbed out. He closed the tailgate and walked back to the cab. Before opening the door, he scanned the scene around him. The line of refugees had thinned considerably and now only consisted of scattered clumps of people. The last few stragglers. He opened the door and climbed in.
The girl stared at Ian suspiciously.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked, unslinging the canteen and offering it to her.
She nodded, and he unscrewed the cap and held it out to her. She took it hesitantly and held it, making no attempt to drink.
“Go ahead,” he urged her, “It's just water.”
She brought the canteen to her lips without taking her eyes off him and took an exploratory sip. Satisfied, she drank down several large gulps. After she had drunk from the canteen, she screwed the cap back on and handed it back to him.
“Keep it,” he told her.
“Thanks,” she said shyly.
Ian wanted to put her at her ease and introduced himself, trying to be as pleasant as possible.
“What's your name?” he asked her as he started the truck.
“Well, Janine, are you ready to go?”
She was still unsure of him, but Ian could sense her defenses weakening. He smiled at her and put the truck in gear. She seemed to notice she was naked for the first time, and glancing sideways at him, she discretely pulled the sleeping bag over her body.
Ian pretended not to notice and eased the truck forward.
He wheeled the truck around, and taking advantage of a break in the line of survivors, he nosed the truck through the gap between the parked cars.
“Better grab hold of something,” he told his passenger as the truck rolled into the ditch. Ian eased the front of the truck up to the bumper of the car in the ditch. He let the truck push the car forwards, then cranked the wheel to the left and the truck scraped along the car's rear bumper. The ditch was uneven and the truck bounced from side to side, and Janine gasped in pain at each jolt, but Ian didn't dare slow down in case he bogged down in the soft soil. He would have to drive partway onto the far slope of the ditch to drive past the three ton. As he steered onto the grade, the rear tires slipped as they dug into the softer dirt on the embankment.
Oh fuck! he thought, Go for it!
He pushed the accelerator down and the truck picked up speed, fish-tailing slightly, but Ian held it on course. He was afraid if the soil gave way as he passed through the gap between the overturned truck and the telephone pole, the truck would slide into the three ton.
He shifted into second.
A rush of exhilaration coursed through him as the front of the truck cleared the telephone pole by a fraction of an inch. The side mirror beside Janine hit the pole and smashed into the door. Janine she screamed at the impact. Ian glanced across at her and his movement caused his arms to turn the wheel slightly. The truck turned in response to his movement, and the side of the box banged against the pole, knocking the rear end sideways towards the three ton. The tires began to lose their traction, and he put his foot to the floor. The engine howled and the truck spun sideways. He hauled the wheel to the left and the truck careened wildly through the gap, smacking against the roof of the three-ton.
Ian kept his foot pressed to the floor, and the truck bounced through the ditch, and seconds later, plowed up the slope and onto the side road, sliding sideways to a halt in a cloud of dust and gravel.
“Alright!” he shouted excitedly, looking at Janine in triumph.
She sat clutching the armrest.
“Sorry,” he apologized soberly, “I didn't mean to scare you.”
Janine relaxed a little. “That's okay,” she said breathlessly. She turned to look at him. “I didn't mean to scream.” She smiled, and it was as if he were seeing her for the first time.
She had a pretty smile. Despite the scars of the War, she was still attractive. She had an ugly burn across her forehead and around her left eye, and across her cheek, and the flesh had swollen, but the rest of her face was untouched by heat. Her neck, left shoulder, and breast had been burned as well. She had a few nasty gashes and bruises on the rest of her body, and was covered with soot and ash, but none of her wounds could hide the beauty that lay beneath it.
Why didn't I notice before? Ian wondered.
She drew the sleeping bag around her.
“Please don't look at me like that,” she said.
“I must look pretty awful,” she said.
“No! No, you don't,” he protested.
“Yes I do. I could tell by the way that you were looking at me.”
“That's not true. I was-”
“Kiss me.” She looked at him stonily, her eyes defiant.
Ian didn't move.
“See,” she said petulantly, turning away from him to stare out the side window, her feelings hurt.
“Janine,” Ian said softly, “I...” He didn't know what to say to her. “Janine.” He reached over, but was afraid to touch her. His hand hovered indecisively in the air inches from her. He slid over and reached in front of her, taking her right hand and pulling her to face him.
She was crying, silent tears streaking the soot on her face. He sighed, “Janine, I-”
Her eyes stared at him in quiet challenge, but the defiance melted as their eyes locked in an exchange of souls, and they were drawn toward each other. Her lips parted and his jaw slackened. Their lips touched softly and fused into a long, slow embrace. She pushed hungrily at him, and they clung to each other, flesh against flesh, and the horror of the world around them faded; the War melted from their consciousness. They were united by more than mere passion, their need for contact with another human being pressing them together to share a moment of life in a world of death. The sleeping bag slipped away from her shoulders and his hand slid to her waist. She cried out in pain as he touched her, and she pulled away suddenly.
“I don't feel too good,” she said, turning away from him.
“What's the matter?” Ian asked, momentarily confused by the sudden change in mood.
“I feel sick,” Janine said weakly, her hand covering her mouth.
Ian pulled the door handle and quickly opened the door just as she vomited. She threw up on his forearm as she turned her head and leaned out of the door. Ian held her up so that she wouldn't fall from the truck.
The thought of making love to her had dissolved. He was upset at himself for allowing passion to take control of him, yet at the same time the seductive memory of their embrace made him want to do it again.
You're nuts, he told himself, Here you are escaping from a city that's been wiped out of existence, and all you can think of is sex...
She finished being sick and looked up at him apologetically.
“I'm sorry,” she said weakly.
Ian was embarrassed and wanted to apologize, but he knew that his words would fall far short of what he wanted to say to her and would only serve to destroy the link between them.
She shivered and he lifted the sleeping bag and draped it over her shoulders. She pulled it tightly around her, but her shivering continued.
“Thanks.” She smiled.
Ian pulled the door shut. “We'd better hit the road,” he said, sliding back behind the wheel. He shifted into first, and the truck moved forwards.
“I have to find a way around that traffic jam,” he explained.
“Take the left at the next road,” she said matter-of-factly.
“That's what I was going to do,” answered irritably.
“I used to live around here,” she said, “My grandparents have a farm about eight miles up the highway.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling chastened. “Sorry.”
She stared through the windshield, her elbow resting on the door, her head resting in her hand.
“Is that where you're going?” Ian asked.
She nodded and stared out the side window, her thumb pressed against her teeth.
He was embarrassed, and thought that she was angry with him for some reason. I shouldn't have kissed her, he thought.
They drove on in silence. Ian wanted to talk to her, but he didn't know how to start.
“You didn't have to kiss me you know.”
He looked at her. Janine was staring at him, the defensiveness back in her eyes.
“I know,” he said simply.
“Why did you?”
He smiled sheepishly and turned back to watching the road. Good question, he thought. He had been wondering why he had done it before she asked and hadn't thought of an answer.
Ian didn't answer or look at Janine. He could feel her staring at him, and knew he would have to say something.
“I felt like it,” he said finally.
“You think I'm pretty?”
“Yes.” He stared ahead at the road.
“Even like this?”
He turned to look at her.
“Yes,” he said firmly. Her questions were starting to irritate him but he didn't want to hurt Janine's feelings by letting his own feelings show. He focused on his driving.
“The turn's coming up,” she told him, “Turn left just past those trees.”
He geared down and signaled for the turn. They didn't say anything to each other until he had driven onto the turnoff.
“Would you have made love to me if I hadn't got sick?”
“I don't know,” Ian said, wishing she would stop asking him such ridiculous questions. It hadn't happened, so why talk about it?
“I think you would have,” she said.
“Yeah?” His reply was noncommittal.
“Yeah,” she answered. “How old do you think I am?”
He looked at her. It was a game, a game of words. He decided to play.
“Twenty-one?” Ian asked, knowing he had guessed too high.
“Sixteen,” she said proudly.
“No kidding?” he said with real surprise. He had guessed a little older. It was his turn to say something. “I would've figured you were at least twenty,” he lied.
“Sure,” she said sarcastically, pleased at Ian's reply, but seeing through the charade. “How old are you?”
For some reason he didn't want to tell her.
“Old enough to know better,” he said facetiously.
“Yeah? Well you sure don't act like it," she retorted. “You're a good kisser though.”
“Thanks.” He blushed.
“I bet you think I'm a virgin,” she said, watching for a reaction. She could sense his discomfort and was going in for the kill.
Ian didn't say anything.
“Does it bother you to talk about sex?” she asked.
Why don't you shut up for a while, he thought.
“I'll bet it does.”
Janine was right, but Ian wasn't about to admit it. He didn't want to play the game anymore, and he was angry at having lost control to a precocious teenager. He concentrated on his driving, purposely ignoring her. Janine must have picked up on his mood, because she didn't talk to him for quite a while. He was thankful that she hadn't pressed her advantage.
Ian glanced at her. She was asleep. He smiled and turned back to the road.
Ian could see a crossroad in the distance and he turned to ask Janine if he should turn there.
“Janine,” he said softly, but she didn't wake up. He pulled the truck over as he reached the intersection and Ian reached over to touch her arm.
Her arm slipped limply from her lap.
“Janine!” He shook her shoulder but she didn't wake up. Alarmed, Ian slipped his hand behind her neck and pulled her head around to face him.
He opened her eyelid with his thumb. Her eye stared back at him, empty, and when he removed his thumb, the lid only closed half way. Ian put two fingers under the corner of her jaw and felt for a pulse.
There wasn't one.
She was dead.
No. he thought, She can't be! He put his ear to her chest. There was no heartbeat.
“Janine!” Ian shouted, and shook her violently. Her head lolled lifelessly. She can't be dead! There was nothing wrong with her! How could she be...
“Janine, wake up!” he shouted frantically at her.
“Janine, don't die,” he whispered, pulling the lifeless girl into his arms. “Please don't die!”
Ian rocked the body back and forth as if she were a small child, as if the motion would bring her back to life.
“Please don't die!”
It hurts to think about her. I feel guilty. I feel responsible for her death. I know I didn't kill her. She would have died anyway. But I can't stop myself from feeling guilty. Part of the reason is because I didn't take her body to her grandparents. I could have tried to find them, but I didn't-
I threw her away like an empty cigarette package. I knew it was wrong. The thought of her grandparents haunted me as I dragged her body from the car and left it in the ditch. I could feel the pain of their not knowing if they would ever see her again and the agony of the waiting, but I didn't have the courage to face them.
I can still feel it. Even now.
She was so young. So full of life!
She never had a chance.
Never had a chance to live.
To laugh or dance...
It's no use, I can't-
“Where were you?”
“Out,” he said belligerently.
He was drunk.
She was angry.
And it was four o'clock in the morning.
The bedroom was dark, but Ian could see Linda lying in bed facing the wall, her back toward him.
The cold shoulder, Ian thought, Well, fuck you! You don't own me. Why should I feel guilty just because I had a few drinks?
He stripped off his clothes clumsily, leaving them on the floor, and climbed into bed. He snuggled up to Linda, his anger forgotten, and wrapped his arm around her. She moved away from him, lifting his arm from her body.
“Leave me alone,” she said sullenly.
“What's the matter with you?” Ian asked, knowing full well what was bothering her.
“Where were you?”
“I told you,” he said, “Out.”
“Oh fuck!” he said exasperated, “I was out with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.” He mentally kicked himself for his sarcasm.
“I phoned Pete,” she said pointedly.
Oh boy, here we go! Ian thought. Now he knew why she was angry. He had phoned her from work to tell her he had arranged to meet Pete at Benny's and that he would be a couple of hours late getting home, but when he got there Pete hadn't shown up yet. Ian had sat down and drunk two or three bottles of beer before Pete phoned to say that he couldn't make it. But by that time, most of the regulars had wandered in, and Ian had stayed for a couple more...
“So?” he asked.
“So why didn't you come home until four in the morning?”
“I got talking to some of the guys,” he said.
“Just some of the guys.”
“Where'd you go after Benny's closed?”
“I drove around for a while.”
“Nobody. Just me.” Ian reached over and touched her. “Linda-”
“Leave me alone,” she whispered fiercely.
“Fine.” He said angrily. Ian threw the covers off him and grabbed his pillow. He climbed out of the bed and Linda turned over to face him.
“Where are you going?”
He sighed and turned around.
“To sleep on the couch,” he said. “If you can't trust me by now, why should I bust my ass to make up for it? I went out for a few drinks and had a bite to eat, and you jump all over me with the third degree like I was out all night screwing somebody else-”
“No,” he said softly. He sat down on the bed beside her. “You know I wouldn't do anything like that...”
Ian leaned toward her and lifted her chin so that she would look into his eyes. “I love you. I love you very much, but I need a little time to myself every once in a while. So I go out and sit alone in the bar. It gives me time to think, time to forget about bills, and forget about my job-”
“And forget about me?” she added.
“No.” he said softly, “I never forget about you.”
“Cross my heart,” he said and she smiled.
He was forgiven...
He woke up the next morning with a hell of a headache and felt ill. He lay with his eyes closed, wishing he could go back to sleep to escape the agony of the hangover. He reached over to pull himself towards Linda, to sink into the warm softness of her body and drift back to sleep, but she was gone.
Ian opened his eyes.
He was back in the cave!
Oh no! he thought, Please... He wanted to go back to sleep, to forget the horror of the War, but the threatening presence of the Dream, frightened him. He knew he couldn't let himself drift back and dream of Linda again. The Dream was using her to lure him back to the Otherlife. He was afraid that he might never wake up if he returned, and as tempting as the illusion was, he couldn't accept it. He was afraid of going insane.
He was as close to the edge as he dared to go.
I can't let go.
I have to...I have to...what do I have to
Do I have to?
I can't think...
I keep...I keep thinking of Linda, and all I see is Janine. I can't remember what Linda looked like until I think about the day I met Janine...
And I keep seeing Janine in the ditch where I left her and she has Linda's face...
Ian stared into the side mirror as he drove away, watching the junction fade into the distance. He had to fight the urge to go back and pick up the body. After several anxious minutes of wondering if he had taken the right road to return to the highway, Ian caught sight of the thin line of wreckage that marked the highway. Relieved, he pushed the accelerator down, eager to continue his journey.
He pulled up to the stop sign and stared unbelievingly at a lone cyclist weaving his way between the dead bodies and the ambulatory survivors. The cyclist, seemingly untouched by the war, was dressed in a tee shirt and shorts, knee-high socks and track shoes. His bicycle, a ten-speed mountain bike, was decked out with loaded saddlebags hanging on either side of the rear wheel, and a sleeping bag tied to the handlebars. The cyclist waved jauntily as he passed in front of the truck.
Ian waved back reflexively, his mouth open.
He eased the truck out onto the highway. His progress was hampered by the countless bodies strewn over the road, and before too long, the cyclist had ridden out of sight. Because of the difficulty in negotiating the mechanical and human debris that littered the road, it took Ian well over an hour to reach the cloverleaf that would take him onto the road to the lake.
Normally, the drive would have only taken a few minutes. He could see the line of refugees continued well beyond the intersection. Ian wondered if the procession would eventually meet another, similar group of survivors fleeing the ruins of the next targeted city along the highway.
It seemed, however, that for the majority of the survivors, the vast bulk of the cloverleaf, and the presence of diverging routes, had presented a decision to be made, and had started the refugees thinking again. The procession had broken up and scattered in all directions from the junction. Perhaps too weary or weak to continue, or perhaps incapable of making any decision, most had simply ended up sitting or lying on and around the banks of the cloverleaf, huddling in scattered groups from two to a hundred.
By far the largest group had gathered on the overpass spanning the highway. As he approached the cloverleaf, Ian knew what had drawn the crowd to the bridge. A single soldier stood leaning on the railing of the bridge, staring toward the city and the long line of its inhabitants winding its way toward him. An army jeep was parked on the roadway behind the soldier. The crowd had formed a semi-circle around the man and his vehicle, and every once in a while, the soldier would turn his head to look at the people that surrounded him, and the entire crowd would respectfully, or perhaps fearfully, step backwards.
Ian decided that the soldier would have some idea of what was happening to the rest of the country. The truck pushed slowly through the congested human traffic around the overpass, a battered steel boat floating on a sea of human heads and shoulders. People shuffled out of his way, but finally he had to stop about halfway up the exit ramp leading to the overpass. Refugees lying and sitting on the roadway made it impossible to drive up onto the bridge. Ian climbed from the truck, locked it, and pocketed the keys.
Walking up the ramp, Ian was aware of the whispering sound of hundreds of hushed voices, but was unable to distinguish any individual words. Eerily, as he passed by groups of people talking, they immediately fell silent, and stared at him as if he were an unwelcome intruder, and after he had walked away from them, began talking again.
As his ears became tuned to the hushed whispers, Ian could hear an almost inaudible moaning that vibrated in his bones. The sound made him shiver, and he stopped and turned to look behind him. A wave of shock passed through him. There were thousands of people scattered around the cloverleaf. Up until that moment, Ian had blocked out the sheer size of the catastrophe, and his senses were suddenly overwhelmed by scene of suffering surrounding him.
He became aware of the individual suffering in each and every person in the crowd. As he looked into face after face, the misery he saw piled upon the misery he had seen, and his mind started to collapse from the weight of their suffering. The smell of dead meat, ruptured bowels, stale vomit, and urine immobilized his breathing, and his sense of balance left him. He staggered and his hands covered his face.
Gasping for air, he turned his back on the scene below him, and the sound of walls dropping into place inside his brain reverberated within his mind. The walls muffled the sounds and smells of the crowd, covering the screams and moans, and filtering out the smell of death. The after images of hopeless faces were blanked out one by one by a string of consecutive numbers. The value of the numbers rapidly grew to proportions that had no meaning to his brain, and were beyond his ability to comprehend. His emotions that had so suddenly run rampant were cut off and sealed behind a barrier where they could do no harm.
Ian opened his eyes and looked around him. His gaze was met with the same suspicious looks sheep would give an approaching wolf before it dawned on them the wolf was a threat. Ian's presence told the others he wasn't one of them. He wasn't a part of their world. He was a normal, healthy, human being in the Otherlife sense of the word, but in the involuted world that the war had created, he was a freak. Faces in the crowd stared at Ian, regarding him with suspicion tinged with jealousy. Most of the people turned away when he stared back at them; he was a reminder of what they had once held and lost, and it was too painful for them to face the image of what they had once been.
Ian stepped over a body at his feet, continuing his way toward the soldier on the overpass. He could see hope in the eyes of some of the refugees as they saw him approach, but the light faded into despair as he ignored them and walked past.
A young woman, her eyes wide, almost maniacal, approached him. She clutched a green and black book tightly in her mutilated hands. The hair on top of her head had been seared away by fire, her blouse was in shreds, and her dark skirt had melted into the skin on one leg and the rest of the material hung loosely from her waist.
“Are you a Christian?” she asked hopefully. Her book held Ian's attention. It had been badly burned; she must have been holding it when the bomb had gone off as on the front of it was a green patch in the shape of a hand, and he could see the gold embossed title. It was, or had been, a Bible, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
“No,” he answered truthfully.
“You have accepted Jesus as the King?” Her voice sounded almost desperate.
“No, I'm sorry,” he said. He wanted to get away from her and talk to the soldier, but she grasped his arm, and he could feel the tension vibrating within her.
“It's not supposed to be like this!” she whispered.
Ian looked back at her blankly.
“Armageddon,” she explained, “It's not supposed to be like this!” Ian peeled her hand from his arm and walked away. He didn't have time to discuss Armageddon with a bewildered Jehovah's Witness. She would have to reconcile her beliefs on her own.
He walked up the rest of the ramp without incident. He reached the top of the overpass and pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered around the soldier. He accidentally stepped on the hand of a woman sitting on the asphalt and apologized. She looked up at him blankly with no idea of why he had spoken to her. He covered his mouth, shook his head and walked on.
As Ian stepped out into the open space around the soldier and the jeep, the soldier was still staring off toward the city. Ian could see why the soldier had attracted so many of the refugees. In his full dress uniform, the soldier was the image of authoritarian normalcy in the midst of chaos. His badges and buttons were brightly polished, and his uniform, although the tie was loosened, was immaculate. The soldier presented a welcome contrast to the filthy condition of the survivors that surrounded him.
As he approached the soldier, Ian almost succumbed to the urge to walk quietly on his tiptoes, but the submachine gun slung carelessly across the man's back warned him it wouldn't be a good idea. His heart beating, Ian stepped onto the ledge beside the soldier. The soldier turned, sliding the machine gun from his shoulder. Ian stepped back instinctively as the gun pointed at his stomach.
The soldier smiled at him. Ian thought he was about to die. “What can I do for you?” asked the soldier pleasantly.
“Uh... What's going on?” Ian asked. It was the only question Ian could think of.
“Beats the hell outa me,” replied the soldier wearily, sliding his gun back onto his shoulder. The man sighed and looked around him, as though the answer was somewhere in the crowd.
“Can't you radio your headquarters and find out?”
“Nope.” The soldier shrugged. “I haven't heard a thing from them since the war started. They finally dropped The Bomb, and that's all I know.”
Ian was relieved the soldier knew nothing. He didn't want to know the extent of the war. I know too much already, he thought.
“At first, I thought I was going crazy,” said the soldier conversationally. “Now, I figure I'm normal, and it's them that's crazy..” He gestured toward the crowd. “I might as well be surrounded by a flock of sheep than this bunch. Can't get a word of sense out of anyone here. Shell-shocked every last one of them.” The soldier's face brightened. “It's nice to see someone normal.”
“I know what you mean,” admitted Ian, “I was feeling the same thing.”
The soldier held out his hand. “The name's Gus,” he announced, and they shook hands. Ian thought he heard a murmur ripple through the crowd, and glanced quickly over his shoulder.
“Spooky, ain't it?” the soldier was smiling at him. “They're waiting for me to tell them what to do. Every time I scratch my ass, they expect something to happen. Like I'm the High Priest of the Nuclear Age.”
“It's the uniform,” said Ian, “I guess they expect a soldier to know about war.”
Gus laughed. "That's a good one! All I know about war is how to clean my gun!” Gus slapped Ian on the back. “I have some hot tea in my thermos. Care for a cup?”
“Yeah.” Ian nodded.
Gus walked over to his jeep, and reached behind the seat, pulling out a large chrome-plated thermos. Ian had followed him, and sat on the front fender of the jeep as Gus filled a plastic cup from the thermos. Gus handed Ian the cup.
“So, where're you from?” Gus asked.
Ian told him.
“Wow, no kidding? I was born there! Lived in the West End 'til I joined the Forces.”
They chatted about which schools they had been to, and where they'd lived. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, and even though they had never met before, they knew some of the same people. They carried on a normal, everyday conversation that insulated them temporarily from the horror surrounding them. Ian was put at ease by Gus's genuinely friendly manner, and as long as he didn't look at the faces in the crowd, he relaxed.
“Hear that?” Gus said suddenly.
“The radio. You hear it?”
“No,” Ian admitted.
“Haven't heard a peep from that thing since last night. Nothing. Not even a ten-four, roger, or up your ass, Charlie. The transmit light comes on when I push the button down, but nothing ever comes from dispatch.” Gus gestured at the people around them. “They think I can help them. What the hell, I'm only a private, right?”
“I'm only a private!” screamed Gus.
The soldier's outburst startled Ian, and he splashed his tea down the front of his shirt.
Gus moved away from the jeep, fiercely facing the silent sea of faces that had inched closer while Ian and Gus had been talking. The submachine gun was in the soldier's hands, the muzzle swinging in a threatening arc that pushed the people back.
There was no fear in the eyes of the crowd, only a silent respect. No, not respect thought Ian, Expectancy. For a brief moment, Ian thought the crowd was willing Gus to shoot.
“Get the fuck away from me!” Gus screamed at Ian. “I'm only a private! A goddammed private! What the hell do you want me to do? Huh? What?”
Gus paused in his verbal attack on Ian, his eyes aggressively searching the crowd for an answer, but the faces stared back with the beseeching look of a puppy that had broken house-training and didn't understand why it was being shouted at.
“You dumb, fucking bastards!” Gus shouted in disgust at the crowd, “I'm only a private! I ain't God! I can't do fuck all for you!”
The crowd shuffled back en masse to give Gus more room.
“Get out of here!” screamed Gus, “Leave me alone!” Gus's shoulders sagged, his head tilted back, and his eyes closed.
“Gus.” Ian put his hand on Gus's shoulder. Gus seemed to have forgotten about Ian for a moment, and his face showed a deep unending sadness that threatened to engulf Ian as well.
“Hold the bridge,” murmured Gus.
“Hold the bridge,” said Gus more firmly. “They told me to hold the bridge.”
Ian was as silent as the crowd around them.
“I have to hold the bridge.”
Determination glowed from within Gus. “I have to hold the bridge.” The soldier's grip tightened on his weapon, and Ian became uneasy. He had been toying with the idea of asking Gus to come to the lake, but the sudden outburst had made Ian change his mind. His wisest move would be to leave.
“I'd better get going,” Ian said to Gus as coolly and normally as he could.
Gus's face returned to its normal, friendly demeanor, and the soldier smiled.
“Yeah,” Gus said smiling, “Well, have a nice trip.”
“Thanks.” Ian smiled back at Gus, and they shook hands. Ian turned away from Gus slowly, and hesitantly began to walk away. Ian wanted to get away before he did something inadvertently that would antagonize Gus. Before Ian reached the safety of the crowd, Gus yelled after him.
For a moment, Ian wished he had brought the revolver with him. He turned to face Gus. The soldier was standing, feet apart, facing him. A knot formed in Ian's stomach as he saw the submachine gun leveled at him. Their eyes locked.
“Be careful out there.” Gus grinned.
Relieved, Ian grinned back, then turned and waded back through the crowd. As he pressed through the sticky mass of the survivors, Ian felt claustrophobic. The people around him seemed to be pushing into him on purpose, as if they were trying to stop him reaching the truck. A hand touched his shoulder, and Ian shivered in disgust, shook the hand from his shoulder without looking back and pushed through the crowd aggressively. He wanted desperately to be back in the truck, to get away from the crowd. He felt the other survivors were going to turn on him; that, at any moment, they would turn into an insane mass intent on stoning him and rip him apart.
He managed to maneuver through the crowd to his vehicle. As he was climbing into the truck, a small child, about four or five years old, knelt beside a bloated corpse. The child was badly blistered and scarred, all the hair from its head had been burned away. It held a small tin cup full of brown ditch water to the corpse's lifeless lips and the water dribbled from the corner of the open mouth.
“Mama?” a little girl's voice asked, “Mama? Drink this, Mama. I got you some water. Please, Mama...”
Ian stifled a scream. He fumbled with the truck keys, panicking, and started the truck. I'm not going to make it! he thought to himself, I can't stand this anymore! He put the truck in gear, barely able to think what he was doing, fighting panic, suppressing the horror and trying to push the image and the voice of the little girl from his mind.
Craning his neck to look back at Gus, Ian saw the soldier standing, hands on his hips, watching him.
Ian waved weakly back, and Gus turned and leaned on the railing. The soldier was staring past the last few struggling survivors wandering along the highway at the column of smoke and ashes still rising above the devastated city.
In any other situation, Ian would have thought Gus was insane, but instinctively, Ian knew Gus wasn't crazy; the world itself had gone mad. The Bomb had not simply destroyed the physical fabric of the world; it had ripped apart the psyche of Humankind. What had been held as normal in the Otherlife was abnormal in the Warworld, and the abnormalities of the Otherlife now seemed rational.
It wasn't just Gus.
We all must have been insane!
How else could so many people ignore the reality of the War we knew we had to face?
It can't happen...
That's what everyone had told themselves. It can't happen.
But it did happen.
I didn't want it to happen more than anyone else did. We were all hoping we could live out our lives and die peacefully before the nuclear nightmare was unleashed upon the Earth. It wasn't stupidity which brought us to this time and place, it was sheer insanity.
We used each other as mirrors, reassured by the images we saw in the reflections, little realizing that the reflections were only flat projections of what others wanted us to see. We lied to each other, comforted by the distorted house of mirrors we had built for each other, and we all accepted the lie.
I believed in a world of cornflakes, soap powder and politicians. I believed in a world reflected through the distorted mirrors of magazine advertisements, and softened into a hazy romantic haze by the electronic filter of our television sets. I convinced myself the media mirror was the way life really was.
We all did.
And as a consequence, the Otherlife had degenerated into an illusion - a fantasy world created by our hopes, and finally destroyed by our fears.
Now the illusion lies shattered, leaving only the reality, the only reality that mattered:
The world of nuclear annihilation.
And the end of the Human Race.
We refused to look into the face of the Evil we had created, and we must suffer for it.
But are we truly evil?
As a race, are we really motivated by malice?
Do we deserve such a horrible retribution?
At times, I think we do.
I am so depressed by the hopelessness of life, I sometimes wish I could die.
But deep down inside I don't.
I don't want to die...
Not like this...
Ian sat perched on a fallen log, a paper plate balanced on his knees, chewing roasted chunks of the fish Bill and Pete had caught the day before. Pete's four-by-four was loaded and ready to leave, and the three of them ate a final meal together. The Last Supper, Bill had called it. Loaves and fishes. They had laughed about it, but somehow the joke had fallen flat.
They talked about the war. Although none of them had any idea of what had started the War, both Bill and Pete argued over the cause. There had been minor conflicts in the world, but none seemed to have been crucial enough to single out as being the crisis that would trigger global warfare. Bill decided that with the advent of cruise missiles and pinpoint accuracy, one side or the other had opted for a pre-emptive strike. But who? And why? Things seemed to be going so well in the world. Perhaps some airliner had violated territorial boundaries and failed to respond to challenges. Its radio wasn't working. The computer had decided there was a threat to national security and recommended instant response. An accident, Pete said. The fail-safe system had broken down. Ian sat eating, listening to his friends, knowing that their rhetoric was pointless.
As he listened, Ian saw neither of his friends had an appetite for the theory of a premeditated, carefully planned attack. Fate had decided the outcome of the War. No one was to blame for fate. Not the politicians. Not the generals. Not the people of the world. It's not our fault. It's beyond our control. They were abdicating responsibility for the holocaust, and both Bill and Pete were looking for a scapegoat, someone, something to blame.
Ian couldn't listen anymore and stood up and walked away. It's our fault, he thought to himself. Someone, somewhere decided to use the system we all condoned. He knew if he heard the reason for the War from the people who had finally pulled the trigger, he wouldn't understand it. No one could convince him after what he had been through that the War was either necessary or unavoidable.
How could anyone in their right mind ever consider detonating nuclear weapons on this planet? What was more important than Life on Earth? What moral principle has so great a value that men are willing to destroy the planet in order to uphold it?
It can't be the future we are struggling towards. It's not that the War itself is pointless so much as once it happens, everything the Human race has accomplished becomes pointless.
Why the bother to worry about all the minuscule problems which come up in millions of lifetimes, when the whole planet was going to be blown apart anyway? It just doesn't make sense!
Nothing makes sense!
It's too late to ask dumb philosophical questions. There's no one here to answer them. There's no one left to give the answers to.
Bill and Pete are gone. They won't be back. Once they enter the city, the radiation will kill them. Lethal doses.
That's what the Doctor called them.
Jeez, what's the use?
Am I writing this for myself, or is it in the hope someone else will find this book and read it? Who? Who will read it?
It's too late. The War is over. The Otherlife no longer exists. Who will read the words I have written? An alien race from another planet? Civilizations from other worlds? Will I slip back through time somehow with my little notebook under my arm, a prophet from the future without a future? It's as if I have to write so there will be some proof that I was once alive.
And that I could think.
And hope. And pray..
Kilroy was here.
But he blew himself away...
This is stupid! I feel so helpless knowing I can't change what's happened. But I wish I could!
I wish I could!
He tried to change the world.
He tried to concentrate and will the world back, but he couldn't do it. It was too late to change the world to the way it should have been.
Once the bombs dropped, it was far too late.
Far, far, too late.
Ian's thoughts were confused, and he couldn't write anymore. He had to go for a walk. The fresh air would do him good.
He wanted to make sure the Earth was still there...