Through Many Fires
Walking toward the door with his co-workers, Caden Westmore sneaked a look at his watch. 8:55. Feeling a hand rest on his shoulder he turned.
The Chief-of-Staff thrust his free hand forward. “Well, how does it feel to be Chief Foreign Policy Advisor?”
“I’m sure you knew Stevens would promote me days ago,” Caden said as they shook hands, “but I only found out a few hours ago.” He shrugged. “I’ve hardly had time for it to sink in.”
They continued to talk as they stepped outside. The January wind tingled against Caden’s face and the icy air reached deep into his lungs. The winter sun had long since gone down; he could see his breath in the glow of the restaurant window.
Buttoning his suit jacket, he said goodbye. A gentle snow fell, tickling his exposed hands and face, as he ambled up the street towards his car. He glanced at his watch. Two minutes till nine. The dinner had ended at just the right time. Congress would be assembled and waiting on the president. He turned the corner and picked up his pace, eager to get to his car and listen to the address on the radio.
Caden smiled as a woman with flowing blond hair walked past. Images of Becky came to mind. He wished she was with him in D.C. I should call and tell her about my promotion. He retrieved his phone and tapped her name. At the sound of her soft southern accent he smiled. “Hello beautiful.”
The night flashed as bright as a desert noon. Light penetrated his suit and warmed his back like a hot summer day. He squinted then closed his eyes tight. Even with eyelids firmly shut, a blood red glow filled his vision. He flung his arm across his face. The phone squealed. He jerked it away. Then there was silence. Tentatively he opened his eyes as all the world seemed to wait—but for what?
“Becky? Becky?” He glanced down. The phone seemed to be off. He pushed the button, but it did not turn on. He dropped it into his pocket. What happened?
The crackling of a rifle shot ricocheted around him. But unlike a rifle shot the sound did not fade, it grew and echoed. He turned left and right trying to see where it came from when a boom like none he had ever heard reverberated through him. He stumbled, regained his footing and wiped his eyes only to have wind slap him several steps back. Dust hung in the air. Car alarms and people screamed. Caden’s eyes darted left and right. Dozens stood like him, confused statues. Never-ending rolling thunder filled the night as debris, carried by a strong wind, buffeted him.
Several feet away a woman screamed. Caden followed her terrified gaze. His heart pounded. As if the gates of hell had been thrown open, out from the very bowels a satanic belch of fire and light raced towards the heavens. Lightning crackled across the sky in a dozen directions as he watched in disbelief. A boiling mushroom cloud formed in the southern night sky.
A cacophony of horns sounded as the normally quiet suburban street filled with panicked people all going away from the cloud. Repeatedly jostled and shoved he wondered where the crowd came from.
Screams grabbed his attention. At the street corner the blond woman from moments ago was knocked to the ground by the frightened crowd. Others trampled her in a panic. He tried to help her, but the throng was like a riptide going in the wrong direction. Caden struggled to stay on his feet as he was shoved and spun around. The surge of the mob carried him away. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw only the growing torrent of people and cloud.
Caden thanked God the horde moved towards his car. As the flow of people brought him near, he pushed and shoved his way to the vehicle. He jumped into the driver’s seat, slammed his foot on the gas pedal and turned the key. The car sputtered and died. God, help me! He realized he still had the gas pedal to the floor. Calm down. Calm down. He took his foot off the gas and turned the key. The car coughed and shook, then started. Caden let out a sigh, pulled away from the curb and joined the fleeing masses.
Traffic was already heavy as a plan formed in his mind. He would go to his apartment and get everything he could. And then what? Just get away from the blast. But to where? Becky! He would go to Becky in Atlanta. Caden wondered if she was safe. Had Atlanta been attacked? Would it be attacked? He tried his phone again. It turned on, but when he tried Becky’s number nothing happened. What about Mom and Dad, Peter or Lisa? He was sure they were okay—for now. He speed dialed his parents, then his brother, then his sister, but there was only silence. Looking at the phone in frustration he noticed there was still no signal. He threw the phone on the seat beside him.
The roads were jammed. Every stoplight and streetlight was out. Escape from the firestorm was painstakingly slow. It was like some horrible nightmare where he tried to run, but couldn’t. He could walk faster than his car moved. Usually the drive from the restaurant to his apartment in Bethesda was a mere ten minutes, but tonight, it was the longest half-hour of his life. When he finally pulled up to his building he was relieved that, at least on this night, there was plenty of parking in front.
As he ran into the lobby the darkness slowed him.
“Mr. Westmore, what happened?” The woman shined a flashlight in his direction. “The explosion. The power is out.”
The voice came out of a fog, familiar but distant and detached. Yes, of course, the power is out. He continued across the lobby.
She grabbed him by the arms. Even with such feeble light he saw the terror that filled her eyes. “What happened?”
He recognized her—the building manager. “Nuclear explosion. Get away from here.” He raced across the lobby and felt his way down the hall and up the stairs.
In his apartment, he snatched a flashlight, grabbed the camping gear from the closet and threw it next to the door. Dragging a duffle bag from his army days behind him, he hurried to the bedroom. There he yanked open drawers and poured the contents into the sack. Anything that landed on the floor stayed there. He pulled the drawer from the nightstand and spilled it on the bed. Then he grabbed the cash, ten old silver dollars and the .38. Both were gifts from his father when he moved to the big city. Thanks Dad, I might need the gun. His dad had always said keep a Bug Out Bag prepared and handy, but Caden thought it was unnecessary and a bit paranoid, so he never did. Now he was throwing one together with a mushroom cloud growing in the distance.
He flung open the cabinet doors in the kitchen and shook his head. What a miserable collection of food. He dropped a jar of cheese dip, a box of cereal, a can of olives and several similar items into the bag.
The faucet only gurgled as Caden twisted the knob to fill a canteen. He cursed. In the refrigerator, he found a pitcher with water. He poured it into a thermos. He emptied a liter soda bottle into the sink, then hurried to the bathroom. He took the lid off the back of the toilet, dropped it to the ground with a thud, and plunged the canteen and then the soda bottle into the water tank. Becky would be horror-struck to see this, but the water is clean. Becky! Twisting the caps on his water supply, he trotted to the living room and grabbed the phone. No dial tone. He tapped the receiver. Silence.
Clutching the duffle bag, Caden headed for the door. Can opener. He ran into the kitchen and grabbed it and a random assortment of flatware.
Lugging his belongings, he abandoned the apartment, thrust everything into his car and joined the slow exodus.
Traffic was worse than rush hour. Honks sounded and brakes screeched in a continuous assault on the ears. Caden didn’t merge onto the beltway—he pushed; his car acquiring dents and scrapes in the process. When finally in the stream of traffic he saw several cars headed towards the blast. Who would be so foolish? Who would head into the city? He bit his lip. People with family downtown. He sighed. God help them.
A motorcycle cut in front of him. Caden pressed his horn, but the rider, slicing between cars, was already yards ahead. Another cyclist roared past so close that he could have reached out and grabbed him. He checked his speedometer, five miles per hour. At least the bikers are getting away. Glancing at his gas gauge he sighed with relief. Three quarters full.
Caden looked left into the storm. Flames licked the sky in a swirling, spinning, demonic dance. Every cloud glowed with the reflected light of hell. Even if the firemen can get to the inferno the water mains are shattered, the pumps have no power. The city will burn for days. Maybe weeks. He turned on the radio. Mellow jazz filled the car from the satellite receiver.
“Music?” Where’s this broadcast from? He shook his head. Not Washington D.C.
Cars swerved in front of him. Ahead, a sign barely readable in the dark, announced the exit for highway 267. Accompanied by soft jazz he maneuvered to the exit.
Glancing in the review mirror, Caden saw fire consuming the dying city.
Dying! How much radiation have I been exposed to? Snow dotted his windshield. Could it be fallout? He wondered if his escape was short lived. Would he soon die anyway? The blast seemed close but he had been in Silver Springs. Surely the explosion must have been over downtown, the Whitehouse or Congress. Congress! Like a punch to his stomach he realized Senator Stevens, his boss, was in the Capitol for the State of the Union Address. Oh my God, if I’m right they’re all dead, the president, every senator and every representative. Memories of the people he worked with flashed through his mind. Dead. Everyone was at the Capitol, the justices of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All dead. Scott and Rachel had stayed behind at the office. Dead.
Caden weaved his car from one side of the road to the other like a drunk as he avoided wrecks. One moment he sped up, the next he slammed on his brakes. Are we at war? Who did this to us? A driver cut in front of him. Have other cities been hit? Brakes squealed. The car in front fishtailed. Caden swerved. Behind him cars piled into one another.
With traffic stopped, he leaned on the steering wheel, catching his breath. He looked down at the radio. Maybe, just maybe I can get something on it now. He switched his receiver over to the AM band and pressed search. After several moments it locked on a station.
A voice struggling to sound calm filled the car. “…fighters from D.C. and surrounding cities are attempting to get control of the firestorm as survivors flee the metro area…” The signal faded.
Ahead he heard metal crunch and scrape and looked up from where he had rested his head on the wheel. A tow truck pulled the wreck to the side of the road. He wondered how the truck had gotten to the scene. As soon as there was space, cars began squeezing past. He followed.
“…fallout spreading downwind towards…”
He cursed the radio as it fluctuated between static and inaudible. He considered trying to find a more reliable station, but was afraid he might lose his only source of news.
“…blast centered over the capital mall…”
His stomach churned. Cold sweat ran down his forehead. “So it is true they’re all dead.” Bile rose in his throat and he wondered if the churning, sweating and nausea was radiation sickness. No, not this soon. The symptoms were most likely shock.
“…fires raging…loss of power throughout the metro…”
Even if this radio station was fading in and out there was hope of a good signal later.
“…life is in imminent danger do not use the telephone or call 911…”
That thought brought him back to his cell phone. He grabbed it and the display showed one bar. Yes! He had a signal. But no dial tone. Despite a momentary feeling of guilt, he phoned anyway. Nothing happened. He tried again and again. Looking at the car ahead he could see the driver with a phone to his ear and realized that perhaps a million people were doing exactly what he was doing. The whole system had been destroyed, damaged or was hopelessly overloaded.
He thought of Mom and Dad, back in Washington state. They must be worried sick about him. He tried their number anyway and heard only silence.
He dropped the phone on the passenger seat as a familiar sound cut through the static of the radio. He had often heard the sine wave attention signal as he grew up, but it had always been a test. This was no test. The Emergency Alert System had been activated.
“The Secretary of the Army, Benjamin Oates, has ordered the activation of the Emergency Alert System to advise citizens in the nuclear disaster zone…”
“Secretary of the Army….” The announcer continued but Caden did not hear. It took a presidential order to activate the EAS. If the secretary of the Army did it… His mind recoiled from the truth. All of them—The whole cabinet…they’re dead.
Caden drove on into the night.
In the early morning darkness, he passed a sign welcoming him to West Virginia and, only as he went by, realized it was lit. Electricity! He looked at his gas gauge. It danced on the “E”. Please God, an open gas station.
A mile ahead, sitting at nothing more than a wide spot in the road, was an all night gas station and market. Six of the eight pumps were busy even at this early hour. Caden pulled into an empty spot and was pleasantly surprised that his debit card worked. While the tank filled he retrieved the five-gallon can from his trunk. He smiled remembering all the times Dad had told him to always have jumper cables, basic tools and a gas can in the car. After filling them both with every drop of gas they could hold, he pulled up to the store to buy other supplies.
As he entered, the clerk looked at him with a wary eye then, apparently deciding he was okay, returned to watching the television.
Caden desperately wanted to join the clerk, but first he had to get provisions.
“…was detonated at ground level and was small by modern standards, estimated at less than 20 kilotons. These factors also limited the electromagnetic pulse to the immediate vicinity.”
Seeing cases of bottled water on the shelf, he picked up a couple of bottles. Water is more critical than food. The words from his army training hung in his mind. He grabbed a case.
“FEMA has set up a command center at Andrews Air Force Base. Other relief and medical centers are being established outside of the red zone.”
Sandwiches caught his eye. Three would do.
“No reliable estimate of casualties is available but all area hospitals have been inundated. The most severely injured are being moved to hospitals up and down the coast from Boston to Richmond and Atlanta.”
At the mention of Becky’s hometown, Caden glanced at the television.
“Now we turn to Steve in the weather center.”
He was surprised that they would give a weather report at such a time. Who would want to know about the temperature now? Within moments his eyes were fixed on the screen with intense interest. They were showing wind direction from the blast and fallout patterns. The breeze last night had been blowing off shore, taking the radiation out to sea, almost directly away from where he had been in Silver Springs and Bethesda. Caden felt a huge burden lift from him. He would live.
The weatherman was still on camera, but he just stood staring ahead. As Caden watched a look of horror spread across his face. The image shifted to a man sitting behind a desk, his face strangely tight.
“We are receiving reports that there has been an attack on Los Angeles. I repeat. We have unconfirmed reports of a nuclear blast, just moments ago, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.”