Robert closed his window on the storm outside, walking through his dark apartment without bothering to turn on the lights. The dwelling, like his life, was basic almost to the point of being stark; frilly things and “doodads” having been deemed unnecessary for a lone existence of forced bachelorhood. Solitude permitted him the freedom to growl as loudly as he cared to on his return journey back to bed, his rant focusing primarily on the ineptitude of weather forecasters. A long roll of thunder placed the final exclamation point for him, ending the quickly diminishing monologue. When his slumber was disturbed twice more, Robert concluded the pillow he held across his face was doing a very poor job, having failed to deaden both the incredibly bright flashes of lightning and the thunder coming immediately after. To his sleep-deprived and irritated brain, he had somehow become the personal victim of the most annoying weather system in history.
The struggle between man’s desire to sleep and storm’s insistent effort to prevent him from doing so finally ended with the previously deemed ineffective pillow paying heavily for its inadequacy. Robert cursed the lightning as he watched the offending cushion’s soft white form sail across the room in a series of staccato images, each frozen in time by the rapid flashing. When it finally occurred to him this wasn’t a normal thunderstorm, he found himself holding back window curtains, heart pounding, looking down at groups of people running crazily around the exposed first floor of the high rise apartments across the street. The building itself had been destroyed, along with its neighbors, exposing devastated lobbies and lower levels.
Rain splattered and ran across the glass making it difficult to see exactly what was happening as Robert stared out at the smears and blurs of the strobe-lit scene. He struggled to understand the violence raging in his normally uninteresting front window, his mental battle rudely interrupted by the insistent trembling of his own room and nerve-rending screams from outside.
Panic, fear, and anger set him into motion. The old shotgun he had hung over his bedroom door was snatched down, to be immediately followed by a box from the top drawer of his dresser. Falling, bouncing shells and ripped cardboard packaging marked a trail out the door as he sprinted barefoot and coatless into the wet pandemonium. He was resolute on finding a cause for the churning insanity, running heedlessly across the street and onto what was once a large, well apportioned lobby and reception area. Pouring rain splashed where the cleaning staff had just been working, every burst of bright light intensified by distorted reflections on polished granite floors and standing water. Sliding more than running on the wet tile, Robert’s brief, impulsive search ended as he stumbled upon the source of the flashing lights.
• • •
Johnny Franklin was one ticked-off truck driver. Eight hours of driving in the rain with a trailer load of beans had taken its toll on his patience.
“Beans!” he said into his phone. “Beans they give me, then send me into a typhoon. I bet the stinkin’ things’ll sprout before I get anywhere near town.”
The muffled snicker that came back told him he wasn’t getting any sympathy from his female listener. He was sure she was sitting in her warm bed, a smile on her face that said, “Honey, I know you’re upset but really…” He knew it and it didn’t help him a bit.
“Alright,” she finally said with an irritating lightness in her voice, “I’m going to sleep and I’ll see you in the morning. Be careful and don’t forget…”
The phone went dead.
“Don’t forget what?!” Johnny asked as he looked at the phone, “I’ll forget it alright. I don’t even remember it now. Hello?”
He pitched the phone into the console and lit a cigarette. The big Kenworth he called home most nights sat patiently idling as the rain splashed and bounced off the hood in the red glare of brake lights. It wasn’t the first time he had lost a call in a late night thunderstorm and she was probably already half asleep anyway. Three rapid flashes of lightning lit the cab as he looked down at the dashboard clock, settling into his seat to relax and smoke just as it changed over to 1:37. At 1:42 the car in front of him detonated into a ball of white light.
Johnny slid down in his seat and covered his face with his arms. “Good freakin’ night!” came out of his mouth as he jerked himself upright to see what had happened.
“That ain’t good at all.”
Old stories about ball lightning were going through his head as he jumped out of the cab to grab his fire extinguisher. He’d seen vehicles catch on fire before, but this was far worse, and there were people in that car. Two brief thoughts and a pair of steps were all he managed before dropping the extinguisher and hitting the wet pavement.
Whiteness exploded all over his world.
Johnny picked himself up off the asphalt, soaking wet and tingling all over. The burning car that had made him jump out of his truck was gone, and so were the four around it. He could see where they had been, and the blinding flashes going off in the line of stopped traffic, but he couldn’t make sense out of any of it. There were cars. And people in the cars. More lightning, then fewer cars.
When the flashing stopped, Johnny blinked and looked around. He had been standing with his eyes shut hard against the light, gripping the familiar fender of his Kenworth, heart pounding in his chest. Now everything was quiet except the ringing in his ears. He could see people running, falling, stumbling away from their vehicles. He felt the rain on his face and the trickle of water running down his back. And, he knew he was supposed to remember something.
The lightning was blasting everything on the road with blinding rapidity, making the late night chaos seem unreal by freezing running people and raindrops moment to moment in a perverse strobe-light ballet. Headlights from oncoming traffic rearranged themselves in strange patterns, pointing wildly in all directions as cars slid and crashed, only to disappear in a blaze of white light. The usual line of headlamps in the west bound lane ended abruptly at the flaring, creating an expanding black void that moved back and away from Johnny as he stood witnessing the scene in slow motion horror.
Someone nearby screamed, breaking Johnny’s trance and appearing to cause all the panicking people to stand immobilized, neither moving nor making a sound. Johnny watched them slowly gather into the previously occupied space still illuminated in his truck’s lights, herded into a circle by what, to him, looked like purple squids.
• • •
As Robert pushed another shell into his shotgun, streaks of white fire blazed into a small group cowering against a broken tiled wall, their fate ending as a blackened ash, washing slowly away in the rain. He caught a glimpse of a large bulbous head and tangled set of tentacles that paused for a moment, turned, then repeated the action on a man in a suit. To the shocked but still running Robert, it looked like a bluish-purple octopus walking upright and throwing balls of light. If he’d had time to think about it, he would have doubted his own lucidity.
“You piece of...” was cut off by the concussion of the twelve gauge in Robert’s ears and against his shoulder. At twenty feet, his second shot hit the thing dead center, knocking it back. Closing in further and firing point blank, more because he couldn’t stop than out of bravery, Robert slid as his third shot nailed the octopus in what he assumed was its face. Yet, in spite of his fearlessly clumsy, if not insane efforts, his opponent did not go down or even appear hurt. Instead, each impact of the buckshot caused it to turn deeper shades of purple, the color rippling around its body as it was pushed backward.
He had been running down what was once a hallway located near the outer edge of the building. By the time he fired his third shot, he was sliding and stumbling along, just inside the outer wall. Trying to catch himself cost him his grip on the gun as his right foot smashed into blocks of charred concrete. He managed to look up in time to see a second octopus throw a ball of fire, feeling rather than seeing the blinding white light that enveloped his body, and failing to understand why a shiny black pile of wet garbage bags was coming up from the street to meet him.
For Robert, everything was thick ink, his arms and face burning furiously. Smells of old, wet garbage assaulted his nose and mixed with the overwhelming stink of burnt hair and hints of fried chicken. Invisible slimy plastic stuck to his skin, pressing heavily from all sides as if he had gone blind in some wet, smelly version of a nightmare trash compactor. Moving caused pain, as did breathing, but he was alive and presumably in his right mind, which was surprising enough everything considered. Now he needed to figure out where he was.
Squirming brought some relief from the pressing weight and encouraged him to keep pushing and shoving around in the dark. The effort was costly in both the suffering it inflicted and the amount of energy expended. Panting and gasping in the dank funk, restricted space and inability to see wore him down until he was angry, frustrated, and exhausted. A final blazingly painful outward thrust of his arm landed him flat on his stomach, swirling and falling bitterly into unconsciousness.
“Heat and humidity are killer this time of year,” Robert told his wife. “We really should wash the dog after I get these garbage cans cleaned out. The turkey’s done. Let’s get off the beach.” The quasi-hallucination ended when a small beam of sunlight flared into Robert’s dark world. Fortunately his last outburst had opened a gap in the plastic prison, bringing in light and giving him a direction to dig. As his head cleared, he worked to make the little opening larger, taking frequent breaks to rest and recover his strength, lapping up any water that dripped or trickled within reach. He now had his goal and no matter how weak he became from the effort, he was determined to sleep only after the hole was opened up enough to let in some fresh air.
When he woke, the low-hanging late afternoon sun was shining happily into his small, hard-won portal to the world above. Orange light glistened on thin plastic and across the blackened appendage Robert was sure was his arm. It wasn’t, however, the unusual carbon color of his skin that held his attention. A deep rumbling, broken intermittently by the scraping of rock and squeal of rending metal, had been getting louder and more pronounced since he awoke. He rested and listened to the noises that came into his dark cocoon, trying to stay quiet and hidden even as the garbage around him began to shake and rattle. He was convinced whatever had tore down the apartment building was still out there, which meant he was…in the garbage.
“Hey! Help!” Robert yelled out the opening as loud as he could manage, the excitement of believing he knew where he was pushing away fear and doubt. “I’m in the garbage! Is anybody out there?”
Several more unanswered cries for help drove him into another round of excruciating pushing, squirming, and seeking to gain a better position to see if he could get someone’s attention.
A clear but limited view was his reward for the self-appraised heroic feat of willpower. The barren scene of dirt, mud, and rocks that greeted his wide, staring eyes certainly wasn’t what he had expected. As the silhouette of a strange-looking truck passed in the distance, Robert pondered how he could have gone from the destroyed apartment of the previous night to what he assumed was a landfill.
“Must’ve gotten picked up by the garbage truck,” he told himself. “And I wouldn’t know if I’d been out here a day or a week.”
Except for his brief stint catching dripping rain water, thirst and hunger had been mostly ignored up to this point. His brain worked to figure out how much time had passed in an effort to get a better understanding of his situation, but in the end, all he could decide was that he didn’t care for the consequences if he couldn’t get help soon. He had to get out and find someone or he would be forced to eat whatever might be within reach in the garbage pile, and judging from the smell, that wouldn’t be pleasant. He looked around carefully and made plans as the orange and red light gave way to the purples and grays of the setting sun.
Pain, noise, and the now familiar ground-shaking conspired to once again wake the hungry, burnt, and exhausted man sleeping beneath heaps of garbage. Another unknown amount of time had passed and now cramps were making resting as difficult as moving. Dehydration and stress left his head pounding and his thoughts fuzzy. He could no longer yell for help and no matter how small, every motion seemed like a dream where you can’t move your arms and legs. Even though Robert knew he would normally have been able to easily shove the garbage bags out of his way and get out, he felt the battle to get free was actually progressing in spite of his poor condition.
The large piece of musty, damp cardboard he was working to push aside was immediately forgotten when he saw one of the trucks turn and head straight toward him. As it approached and Robert could make out more of its strange details, he realized he had completely underestimated its size and was presently very much in danger of being run over. The menacing appearance and enormity of the machine made him want to jump out of his hiding place and run, regardless of his physical condition. Even if he had been able to burst out, the speed of the truck soon put an end to thoughts of anything beyond burrowing back as far as possible and trying to keep control of his fear. It was huge and it was fast, and it was obvious he couldn’t hope to outrun it on his best day.
When the truck stopped, Robert’s heart almost stopped with it. It was so close and so large, there was nothing in sight except the thick edge of what he assumed was the bottom of its front loader bucket. Climbing back up to the opening to get a better view, he could plainly see display shelves, cans and packages of food, signs, floor tiles, a mangled dairy case dripping with thick white liquid, and bottles of soda and water. Fear was immediately supplanted by need as Robert’s body cruelly reminded him of his recent lack of nourishment. For reasons that made no difference to the famished man, here was food, yet he was helpless to get to it.
The truck paused for a moment, crept forward a few feet then stopped again. Robert listened as it powered up, groaning as the massive bucket began to rise out of his restricted view. Hope returned as he silently observed bottles, packages, and cans fall to the dirt and roll in front of his hole. Dumping its load as it backed away, the truck appeared almost hesitant, taking what seemed to the feverish mind of the watcher, an eternity to finish its work. Robert lay in the shadow of his small opening like a rabbit about to make a run, his mind repeatedly screaming in vain while the monstrous truck sat perfectly still, humming an annoyingly reverberating bass note interrupted only by an occasional muffled crunching or faint metallic squeal from somewhere deep in its massive bulk.
Cans of food and sparkling bottles of water lay in the sunshine among the wreckage just a few feet away. His growling, cramping stomach had now officially joined the dryness of his throat and aching brain in protesting his delay into the bliss of sustenance and hydration. There was, however, nothing for him to do but stay hidden and put his dire needs behind his newly acquired debilitating fear of the monstrous truck. Exposure would be worse than starving, and both would probably have the same outcome, so he remained concealed and pondered the consequences of having yelled for help earlier.
Cussing and swearing were not his usual habit, yet Robert struggled with his self-control as the accursed truck began backing away ever so slowly, creeping off to join its brethren. Even as it was retreating, it would stop every few feet to magnify the distress of the man in the hole. In Robert’s mind it was obviously some kind of plan to see if temptation could bring the tormented man-rabbit out of his burrow, but he was onto their game and would keep his head. Only after the truck was far off in the distance and moving away with the rest of its kind did the heavy, wet cardboard that had been obstructing Robert’s path finally get set aside.
Progressing as deliberately and cautiously as his needs would allow, Robert crawled through the debris, ever-watchful for anyone that could help or anything that might threaten him. The sun was starting to go down as he realized he was, in fact, quite alone in his new surroundings. Moving only in the long shadows of the evening, he engaged in collecting bottles of water and cans of food, which he felt safe enough to examine only after concealing himself between two dilapidated heaps of what had been grocery store shelving. The crimson sunset cast its last few rays that day on the blackened form of a man huddling in the dirt, obscured in the darkness of wreckage and rubble, sweating and shaking with exhaustion and exposure while trying desperately with burnt, sore hands to simply get the cap off a bottle of water.
Robert woke again to the sunlight streaming down into his hiding place. This time, however, he was neither hungry nor thirsty. The previous night had been filled with consuming small bits of food, sips of water, and short naps. By the early morning hours, some vestige of calm had been restored to his nervous mind and abused body. There was enough food and water to last a couple of weeks all squirreled away at the back of his black plastic burrow, he had a little of his strength back, and he had slept soundly for several hours. Collectively, it was enough to give him the courage to stand erect among the wreckage and survey his surroundings for the first time.
Even the slightest movement would have made him dive for cover, but nothing stirred. The center of his new world consisted of a very large and somewhat malodorous pile of black garbage bags in which he was currently the sole resident. He also had the dumped remains of what had been a grocery store. Otherwise, everything around him was just dirt and rocks. Beyond the large, stripped area where he stood, he could clearly see damaged office buildings, a half-destroyed freeway overpass, and a number of residential areas.
Opening a small can of fruit, Robert leaned wearily against a large block of concrete foundation, looking hard into the distance trying to figure out what was missing. His musings on the mystery were cut short by the familiar rumbling that denoted the arrival of the trucks. Their noise had been his constant companion each day, although now it seemed to be less intense. He observed their arrival from the darkness of his burrow; at the first sound he had immediately dropped his breakfast and sought the dubious comfort of what he had sarcastically dubbed his “fortress of refuse.”
As he lay in the opening watching the trucks come across the dirt plain, he began to make a mental inventory of his situation. Until now, survival had been his top priority and, he had to admit, still was. The fact that he was almost completely covered in a thin layer of something very black had certainly not escaped his notice. His hair was still intact but thoroughly singed. Any skin that was exposed felt like it had been scalded. The back of his hands and arms were starting to show pink where the black layer was beginning to crack and peel. It occurred to him that he was probably lucky his eyes weren’t burnt and that he could still see, even though he had thought he was blind when he first woke up in the garbage bags. The blast from the purple octopus seemed like it could have been much, much worst.
“All those people...” Robert mumbled to himself as he remembered the family that had been vaporized while he was running across the apartment lobby floor in the rain.
“That’s it!” he said somewhat loudly which caused him to pause and look around then whisper quietly: “What happened to everyone else?”
The earlier quietness of his surroundings struck him again. There was no traffic, or airplanes, or “city” noise of any kind. There was only the rumbling of the trucks. His thoughts brought a wave of nausea that swept through his weakened body as an overwhelming irrationality gripped his insides once again. Was it war? Invasion? What was it that shot him anyway? His mind conjured up one horrific scenario after another, all resulting in the end of the world. He was afraid. And alone.
“Be calm. It can’t be as bad as all that,” he said out loud as much to hear his own voice as to convince himself. “There has to be somebody running those trucks.”
The sobering image of a shimmering purple octopus throwing deadly balls of lightning came to mind. It occurred to him that the one thing he knew for sure was that he had no idea what had really happened or what to do next. The logical thing, he decided, would be to wait it out for the day and see what he could learn after the trucks left again. In the meantime he would rest, eat, and watch them carefully.
So the day went on. Robert kept vigil on the trucks as they systematically demolished the freeway overpass, what was left of the freeway, several of the office buildings he could see, and a number of houses. It was like watching a proverbial train wreck, which meant he just couldn’t not look. The huge trucks tore through whatever they came across, whether it was concrete, steel, or glass. A gigantic front bucket would tear half the foundation out from under a building, then they would just back up and let it fall, like a lumberjack cutting down a tree. Afterward, two or three would come up and slowly start collecting the debris in their buckets. When they finished digging out the foundations and lower levels, there was nothing left but a dirt patch.
It was disturbing, painful, and infuriating. Mostly because there wasn’t anything Robert could do about it except watch from a distance as these mechanical beasts ripped the world around him apart and carried it off to who knows where. It was fortunate for him they had overlooked his pile of garbage bags and, for whatever reason, had decided to drop a grocery store at his doorstep. He was still half-telling himself they were trying to lure him out with the food. Someone would have to stop them though. How to do it was the question. He was scorched, weak, and prone to having an anxiety attack at the slightest provocation, so it certainly wasn’t going to be him any time soon. Surely the police or the military were somewhere planning how to stop this madness.
As evening came, Robert began to notice the trucks slowing down. Periodically, one or two would start toward him, stop, then turn around and go back to wreaking havoc on what was left of the city. He watched and worried when they formed a semi-circle near his hiding place, sitting close together for nearly half an hour. As a group they began to advance in his direction, leisurely making their way across the dirt expanse, holding their formation so tightly they formed a solid moving wall.
Robert was once again fixated, hiding in the shadow of his burrow, waiting for the end. This time he was sure it was over. He had neither the strength nor the conviction to break out and run. Nor would he have been able to even attract enough attention to get whoever was driving the massive trucks to notice his presence in time to stop. His only recourse was to back down into his hole and anticipate being squashed or smashed as tons of metal rolled over his insignificant charred remains and precious but meager store of food and water.
As he watched, a gigantic truck once again filled his small plastic rimmed portal until there was nothing to see but strange finger-like protrusions distributed across the inside surface of the huge bucket. Robert had time to study each line and scratch of the massive implement progressing inch by inch toward his hiding spot. When the ground under him began to move, his fear went beyond reason; he was done for and he knew it.
The bucket had, in fact, dug down about eight feet under Robert and his place in the garbage pile. At this point, he could neither see nor guess the true intent of the truck. To him they were out for destruction since they had destroyed everything else they came into contact with that day. As the back of the great bucket got closer, Robert could see part of the debris from the store and a great deal of dirt. Along with his new home and everything around it, he was scooped up by the truck, to once again find himself trapped under the weight of the plastic garbage bags, thrashing around in anger and panic until he finally passed out.
Margaret Rosemeade sat uncomfortably against the hard block wall of the school gym watching armed soldiers point and give directions to shivering, huddled people as they slowly milled in through a single open door. The world had gone mad just as the weather turned cold and miserable, and now no one would even bother to look at or speak to her as they walked past.
Two days earlier, she had been cleaning closets and carrying out boxes of old clothes to be recycled. Now, because she had gone out to make the quick trip to the recycling center without a coat, she found herself wrapped in much of the clothing she was attempting to throw out. Her car sat dead on the freeway, out of gas and freezing exactly where she had been stopped by the police with bullhorns yelling at everyone to stay where they are until further notice. There she spent her first cold night, letting the car idle to keep warm.
By daylight the next morning, she was out of gas and therefore out of heat. Margaret had listened all night as the radio crackled out emergency warnings, stay-in-your-home messages, calls to remain calm, and nervous voices with theories of catastrophic mass destruction, nuclear war, and invasion. Coatless, hungry, and too afraid to go out into the cold, she pulled the old clothes out of their boxes and put on anything that might help her stay warm. When the National Guard came through knocking on frost-covered windows and giving directions to get out and follow, Margaret was a shapeless pile of mismatched gloves, scarves, shirts, and sweatpants, carrying an oversized tattered canvas bag stuffed with more of the same.
“Tell the bag lady to sit over there,” was her greeting as she walked into the shelter of the gym. A bottle of water and an MRE were pushed at her with a grunt and a finger pointing to “over there.” The water was more than welcome, but her first “Meal, Ready to Eat” turned out to be its own special challenge simply because no one would help her with it. There appeared to be no electricity or running water, so military rations were being handed out just to get something into starving people’s hands. “Nobody’s getting tipped for the service,” she mumbled cynically about their unwillingness to help as she sat down to stare at the brown wrapper with big block letters proudly announcing itself to be Apple Maple Oatmeal with Flameless Ration Heater.
Lack of water made the personal facilities nearly unbearable, but once that necessity was overcome, there was nothing to do but wait and wonder how bad it really was. So Margaret sat, her drooping eyes peeking out of the slit formed by the hideous red-orange scarf covering her face and the three knitted hats she had pulled down over her head and ears. In spite of her appearance, she was relatively comfortable, and tired enough to drift off into a deep sleep.
In her dreams, the sun shone brightly while warm air rushed around her face and blowing hair. Kids and adults alike screamed and laughed as the roller coaster shook its way through the last loop before coming to a loud grinding stop. The lights on the rides flashed brightly and the noisy crowd jostled and pressed to get to the next ride. A man in a heavy overcoat stopped to tell her to move in a very unfriendly way. She wondered how he could be so unkind when she was having such a good time.
• • •
Dr. Josiah Pierce grabbed the incoherent bag lady and shook her again. “Come on you, we have to go now!” He was practically screaming in the hope she could hear him over the screeching and crashing of the rapidly disintegrating gymnasium. In contrast to Margaret, the doctor had received a cordial welcome with his MRE after being herded into the makeshift shelter with the other stranded motorists. His brief quest for refuge away from the milling, huddled humanity streaming though the doors had concluded itself next to a small pile of women‘s clothing, presumably containing a person of that gender. There was little to do but wait patiently for news, and it was a relief to stand against the wall and watch from the small open space next to her.
The shelter was much quieter than the doctor would have expected under the circumstances. There were no injured to care for or crying babies to break the heavy feeling of the air; just sluggish, exhausted bodies standing, sitting, or wandering around, all talking in subdued, hushed tones. Even the too-often repeated instructions being given to each new arrival had been reduced to a droning noise, blending with the other sounds into a constant murmur and shuffling of feet. Many years later, he would remember that scene as the calm that lulls you sleep only to explode in your face.
The explosion came when the back wall of the gym was ripped away by the massive hand of an unseen giant, large sections of concrete blocks falling inward and upon the stunned occupants. The action was swift and unexpected, every face turning in frozen bewilderment to watch the wreckage descend upon them. As the tumbling rubble found its first victims, the formerly calm mass transformed itself into a mob of shouting, running terror, each person scrambling to get out the nearest exit. From the opposite wall, the doctor had a clear view of the destruction, the subsequent pandemonium, and the huge machine working to complete the devastation by indiscriminately scraping up both people and debris.
“Blast you woman, come now or stay here and see if they really mean to crush us all!”
He grabbed her by the collar and yanked her to her feet. The action was unnecessary since Margaret was already awake and quite aware of the danger he had been rigorously trying to point out. She looked at the coming destruction, gripped her canvas bag tightly, and took off toward the nearest door at a full run. The doctor paused for a second, surprised that he finally had an effect, then chased after her with all the speed he could muster.
Most of the crowd was fighting their way to the side exits, but Margaret had chosen to run along the wall directly opposite the demolition. In spite of the initial rapidity of the removal of the gym’s side, the gigantic machine was progressing slowly across the floor, obliterating each side door as it went, pushing the crowd toward the doors the good doctor was now trying desperately to open.
“They’re stuck!” he yelled back at Margaret, pushing and kicking the door handle. A loud “Move!” came from two men running up from behind with just enough time to duck out of the way of the heavy table they carried. The resulting impact was enough to wedge one of the doors open a couple of inches.
“Do it again!” the man nearest Margaret yelled, communicating more effectively with the motion of his hand than the words coming out of his mouth.
The second collision opened a gap in the doorway with just enough room for the small group that had collected to hurriedly exit single file, each being pushed through by those behind. But instead of bursting outside to freedom as expected, the refugees found themselves in a dark room half filled with junk, stumbling and tripping on vibrating protrusions sticking up from the floor. The throng of potential escapees inside the gym made it impossible to go back, yet there was nowhere to go on this side of the door. The room was large with a thin strip of dim light glowing around three sides like it had separated itself from the gym. The crack was made more visible by bright flashes of what they assumed was lightning, coming fast enough for the occupants to sporadically glimpse each other and make out some of their surroundings.
The doctor and Margaret worked their way to one of the corners, huddling against the left wall and holding on to one another as people came squirming through the bent door. Motion and movement appeared to jerk in the irregularly strobing light, new arrivals falling more than walking in the junk-filled room. They could hear the machine coming, shaking the ground as it approached. Margaret was convinced it was over when the gym wall shook like it had been hit with a huge hammer. In the flashing light, she could make out the determined face of an overweight man struggling hard to get through the narrow door opening, his eyes widening when the sound changed from a resonating bumping to metal scraping up the other side of the wall. An apologetic expression was the only warning he gave before being forcibly yanked back through the door.
Margaret buried herself in the doctor’s overcoat, the torn image of the man’s body burned into her mind, only to look up with a similar expression on her own face when the “room” itself started to move. The motion began with a vibration like the building of power followed by a rapid upward movement and change in direction. Gravity shifted instantly from below their feet to the back of the room, causing the inhabitants to lose their footing and topple as a group into the piled up refuse. By the time Margaret got herself upright all she could see was dark sky overhead and four very high walls. The multiple layers of clothing she wore protected her from all but the worst of the fall, but the others, including the now unconscious doctor, hadn’t been so lucky.
• • •
Margaret had always been a realist, as she termed it. Practical and pragmatic almost to a fault, she tried to take things as they appeared without creating solutions for non-existent problems. From this point of view, her current situation came down to simple survival. She was in a container, standing on a pile of wreckage, and apparently moving at a rapid rate of speed as the tops of passing buildings had evidenced when the trip started. They had been bounced and jostled for hours by the roughness of the ride, but the doctor was still breathing and no one seemed to be in any immediate danger. The other passengers were either nursing their own wounds, trying to help each other, or staring blankly at their surroundings with little visible comprehension.
She tried several times to climb the wall and possibly get out or just get a look over the edge, but each attempt ended with more ripped clothing and a new cut or bruise added to the growing collection inflicted upon her by the loose pile of ever-moving garbage. Now, she sat taking in her limited prospect, looking up and trying to combine what she could to the events of the last few days. Glancing down at the stranger she thought of as “the doctor,” for no other reason than he had a white lab jacket under his overcoat, Margaret laughed softly at the absurdity of it all.
She was in trouble.
“Talk about pointing out the obvious,” she said to the unresponsive doctor, “trouble doesn’t scratch the surface.”
Since there was no acknowledgment from her new companion and nothing but sky overhead, she began to scrutinize the mess they were sitting on. Cardboard boxes, wooden pallets, metal shelving, and miscellaneous papers made up most of the pile, some of which rose up and partially blocked them from the view of the container’s other occupants. She grabbed and yanked at the torn cardboard edge of the nearest box.
“Let’s see what we have…”
Her effort was rewarded with plastic bags of trail mix sliding out onto her lap followed by a momentary period of disbelief.
The long, hungry, cold hours finally took their effect, stripping away both civility and thought for anything but her immediate need. Clothes were hastily emptied from the old canvas bag she was clutching, to be replaced with bags of dried fruit and nuts, dry beans, boxes of protein bars, and cans of tuna.
“Nothing heavy, nothing heavy,” she repeated over and over under her breath.
Slightly unhinged and fierce in determination, she snatched packages and bags from each box she uncovered, looking every few seconds to see if anyone noticed what she was doing. When the canvas bag was packed, a portion of the old clothes was replaced and shoved tightly on top to conceal the contents. That done, every pocket on every piece of clothing Margaret wore was stuffed until she could hardly move. She then turned to the unconscious doctor and filled his coat and pockets.
When the packing was completed, she faced the wall to hide herself, ripped open one of the packages and began stuffing food into her mouth. It was selfish and greedy, but she felt only relief as she rapidly chewed and swallowed. Her attitude made one final, small shift as she remembered the grudgingly surrendered breakfast and how no one except the doctor had so much as bothered to acknowledge her in the last three days. She was starved, exhausted, and strained beyond endurance. “Let them find their own food,” was the ultimately bitter thought that formed in her overstressed mind while her unsteady hands worked to open a can of soda.
A few minutes later, the small opening she had dug into the pile of junk and boxes was carefully concealed. The doctor now rested on a wad of worn blouses for a pillow with his guardian “bag lady” at his side securely clutching her canvas tote and drifting off to sleep. She had no idea how long or how far they traveled, which direction, or even when the doctor got up, but when she awoke he was once again trying to get her upright.
“We’re here, God help us. Get up before it dumps all this junk on your head.”