- Run -
In those first moments, when you came to learn the world was erupting in chaos, you couldn’t help but be stunned motionless. Nothing made sense, nothing seemed real. It was like watching a movie. Explosions, the Earth trembled from unseen forces. God was angry. You couldn’t help but watch it play out.
And then, people were running. Running and screaming.
For the better part of my adult life, I had always felt the inherit urgency to be prepared to run. It was nothing I could explain, beyond that. Just the knowledge that I had to be ready for something to come. That and that I was falling behind. Facts; they just simply were.
I don’t know what kind of source created such an intense base of knowing, but it was inaccurate. No amount of preparation could have conditioned myself, or anyone, for what was to come. That little voice in the back of my head was a little too optimistic; offering some semblance of hope. Had I known that it would have meant the difference between life and death, perhaps I would have taken it a little more seriously.
Like I said, though, nothing could have prepared you. Once the nightmare became a reality, the rest was tossed to the wind. It became a matter of luck.
And as everyone knows, Lady Luck can be a fickle bitch.
* * *
- Roughly 1 year After Armageddon (1 A.A.) -
Riggs pressed his back to the wall, aware of the others following behind him. Slowly he maneuvered to the corner of the building, at the mouth of the alley. Once reaching it, he put back an outstretched arm, hand open, signaling to stop. He looked to make sure they were complying, just as one member of the group stumbled, bumping into Connors. The large man quickly turned, grabbing the collar of the man who had walked into him. Riggs looked away, knowing nothing would come of the confrontation. The fuck up had an in.
Fucking rookie. The lead of the group turned back to inspect around the corner. Nothing but growing darkness and shadows. Evening was fast approaching. The streets glistened from a short rain shower late that afternoon. Even though the warehouse district offered many shelters from the rain, he pushed on. Riggs wanted to get back to everyone else, and make sure their encampment was secure. He was in charge of its safety.
The thought of babysitting a community wasn’t his idea of a good time, but it wasn’t his call. Neither was patrolling with the handful of riff raff behind him. Connors and Tj were alright; they had been with him for years now. The others, randomly selected civilians amongst the community deemed apt enough for subtle combat training.
Then there was the rookie. Most of his squad didn’t like the idea of him being part of the group. He didn’t belong to the community originally, but he also wasn’t military. He was just... there. Riggs doubted the man could even shoot a gun, and if he happened to manage that he surely would miss whatever the hell he was aiming at.
Despite the cooling temperature, and exposed to a soft breeze, sweat was running down his brow. Scanning the street, he wasn’t able to detect any sign of movement. No sound, no life, just silence. Something wasn’t right, though. There had been no returned communication after his repeated check-ins. He had Phillups on duty. If that son of a bitch fell asleep again, I’m going to kill him.
There was a light tap on his shoulder and he turned to find Tj greeting him with a concerned look. His thinning, dirty blonde hair was partially covered by a bandana — one replicating an American flag. His dull, blue eyes were wide, made comical by the mustache he was sporting; reminiscent of a seventies porn star.
“Everything okay, Riggs?” Tj asked, keeping his voice low.
“Still no contact from the outpost, but so far everything seems on the level,” he replied. He knew better than to think silence was an indicator of normality, though.
“Think Phillups is jerking it again?” his companion scoffed. “How long has he been rolling with us, man? That really kills my buzz, he should have his shit together.”
Riggs nodded slightly. “He takes long shifts, but you’re right, he needs to get his shit together. We’re in the thick of it.” Even some within his squad could be a pain in the ass. “We’ll trade off duties, get someone else on watch.”
“This limited communication is bullshit, man.” Riggs couldn’t disagree.
He glanced past Tj, to the others, and gave a quick signal for them to follow. He pointed to Connors and specified him to take the rear. He watched as the large man purposely shouldered and glared at the rookie as he passed, taking his position. The rookie shifted his gaze away, successfully intimidated. Riggs sighed and went about pushing forward, the group in tow.
Following along the building, he kept aware of their surroundings; seeking the slightest sign of movement. Around them, massive warehousing buildings stretched into the night. Glassless windows stared down at them like hollowed sockets of a skull, cold and black within. Each could hold a threat. The shadows hid new nightmares. The entire district was like a ghost town. Still and dead, as if it had suffered a nuclear fallout.
Just down the road was the outpost Phillups was stationed at; there were multiple throughout the district. It was a corner unit in a gutted building, which was centralized near the heart of the establishment. Their main housing was still blocks down. Riggs was thankful that those he lead were mindful to remain quiet. He stopped the group again and ran a head count, everyone was present. No stragglers, which happened from time to time with tagalongs. Connors, pacing behind the group, would have put an end to that. He wanted to get back to headquarters before it was too dark. It was already getting to that point.
Riggs lead the group to the specific warehouse and stood just outside the door, allowing Tj to take point. Tj pulled out his a tactical flashlight, the building being almost completely dark. They entered single file, Riggs appointing Connors to stay at the entrance. He followed behind the rookie, their footsteps echoing around them, and navigated the halls to where their comrade was posted on duty.
Everyone, except Tj, stopped and huddled outside the door to the room. He pushed his way through them, and came upon the scene of Tj kneeling next to a limp, bloodied Phillups sprawled on his back. Riggs flanked the opposite side, and the two of them shifted their friend into a sitting position against the wall.
“Someone get Connors!” he yelled to the group still standing in the hall. He thought he heard someone take off down the corridor.
“Fuck, Riggs, he’s ripped to shit” Tj was examining Phillups. A sharp inhalation of breath caused the both of them to startle. “Tyler, what happened?”
Tyler’s eyes fluttered, mouth opened and closed — resembling a fish on land — but was unable to speak. Riggs slapped his cheek, while Tj assessed the wounds. “Tyler, can you hear me? What happened?” No response. “Try to hang on, stay with us.” His attention shifted to Tj. “How’s it looking?”
“He’s losing his guts, man. His abdomen is completely torn up. There isn’t much I can do, but try and slow the bleeding.” his comrade’s voice was panicky. “It’s fresh, this just happened.”
Riggs shouted, “Rookie, get in here and help! Grab some of those towels,” he pointed to a small stash of supplies in the corner with his own flashlight drawn, “and apply pressure to his wounds. We have to try and stop the bleeding. Someone get on the radio and try to contact HQ.” The man he gave orders to did as told, but stopped halfway. He just stood there holding some towels, staring down at their comrade. “Hey, snap out of it!” His words weren’t cutting through their paralysis. Riggs began to stand to retrieve them himself.
Finally, Phillups was able to utter a harsh whisper. “Stalker...” Riggs stopped cold and turned back down to Tyler. “Fell... fell asleep again.” Blood was trailing out of the corner of his mouth. He was staring at his wounds. “I... I’m a... fucking mess...”
“Don’t talk.” Riggs gave a stern look to the rookie, who was still immobilized. “Get over here and help,” he ordered. “I won’t ask again.”
* * *
Jack’s head swirled in a fog. It was accompanied by ringing caused from the impact he took, and the truck’s blasting horn. When he woke, tears were streaming down his face. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious for, but as the scene before him came into focus, he knew it hadn’t been long. The vehicle that had crashed into the office had steam beginning to trail out from beneath the hood.
What the hell? He squeezed his eyes tight, trying to focus beyond the pain racking his body; exploding in his head. Explosions. He thought he recalled there being an explosion or earthquake. The most prominent thoughts were centered on his family, though. Images of his wife and children swimming in a sea of confusion. He knew they weren’t there. They were gone.
The memory of the nightmare flitted and began to fade. He was glad to see it go. If he was lucky, perhaps this was all a dream. A dream within a dream. Jack brought his hands up, cut and bleeding, inspecting them. He slowly pushed himself up, using the wall for support. He lifted his blood-stained shirt up, afraid of what he may find. His stomach was speckled with multiple cuts from glass, but most of it minor. Much like his hands, the fine cuts released an abundance of blood, but not causing much damage.
He leaned forward and reached for the pickup, using it to balance himself as he maneuvered over the litter spread across the office, ignoring the sharp pain coursing through him. He was still unable to think clearly. He was aware of the horn, building smoke, and not much else. When reaching the passenger side door of the truck, he looked inside the window.
The driver was slumped forward, head pressed against the steering wheel. There was either no airbag, or it hadn’t deployed. At least they were buckled in. The windshield was completely webbed, the office light resting against it. There was no intermittent sparking, offering brief flashes of light. Jack opened the door, climbed halfway in, and leaned the driver back against the seat; finally relieving the office of the horn. It was replaced by sounding alarms and screaming from outside.
There was blood streaming down the driver’s face from a gash on his forehead. His nose was also bleeding, and he thought it was likely broken. The man didn’t appear to be older than his mid-twenties, sporting a kempt beard, and wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt. His blonde hair poked out from under a black beanie. A matching scarf was loosely wrapped around their neck.
“Hey, buddy,” Jack shook the man gently, “wake up.” The driver’s head lolled back and forth. If the individual were a hockey player, the broken nose would be fitting. Seemed to be the stereotypical non-conformist, conforming hipster, though. A broken nose would at least add some true character. Why the fuck is he driving a pickup? Hard times for everyone. Jack reached up, pulled down the scarf and felt for a pulse. Still alive and kicking, just unconscious.
As he backed out of the truck, he called out into the office. “Robert?” He wasn’t expecting an answer, and didn’t receive one. Where the fuck is everyone? It was hard to ignore the chaos outside. Perhaps Robert’s secretary and fellow employees were investigating that instead.
He made his way along the truck, still using it to transverse over the rubble. The truck had crashed square into the office desk, splintering most of it into pieces. Robert’s chair was flung back against the far wall, having flipped over a toppled bookshelf.
Robert laid motionless on his back, half his body hidden beneath the front of the truck. Chunks of wall and desk obscured his upper torso. Jack was surprised by the lack of gore. That was good, though. Too much and it would have been more than he could handle. Robert’s vacant, unseeing eyes stared up at the ceiling. Moving around the carnage, Jack knelt beside the body, trying to avoid the lifeless gaze.
“They really fucked you up, Robert.” For some reason that struck him as humorous, but he held back the chuckle. He had to keep it together, this was serious. He confirmed there was no pulse. Among the piles of rubble, next to his deceased interviewer, was an e-reader. It must have been tucked into one of the desk drawers. He suppressed the urge to call Robert a hypocrite out loud.
He forced himself to look down at the man’s blood-streaked face, and into his glazed eyes. Jack quickly turned away, and stood up; he was afraid he couldn’t stomach it. Fuck this, I need to call Lisa. His attention was instead drawn back to the ruckus outside again. The smoke from the truck was being drawn out of the gaping hole in the wall, but he needed to get out of there. Get into the fresh air.
He crossed to the other side of the truck, slowly making his way past the driver’s side. Part of him thought the driver inside would suddenly spring to life, slamming his hands and face against the window, scaring this shit out of him. No such event transpired, though, as he exited the office.
Jack raised his arm to shield his eyes from the sunlight that attempted to assault him. As his senses started to come back to him more fully, the stinging from his cuts intensified. He knew he would have to get them attended to soon. His eyes focused and he was greeted by a pile up of cars stretching along a glass littered street. A handful of vehicles were blocking the sidewalk; those that had swerved to avoid connecting with others.
Idly, his hand searched his pocket for his cell phone. He held it open with his free hand, in attempts to avoid the shooting pain it was causing. Jack continued to assess his surroundings, not fully comprehending what was going on. People were out of their cars, those involved in the accident seemed to stumble about in confusion; some shouting at one another. Others were exiting various shops, wearing panic-stricken faces, holding their hands over their ears to block out the symphony of alarms.
Panic began to seep into him, as well. Jesus, I hope Lisa and the kids are alright. At the time, he believed the kids would be at school and Lisa didn’t work in the cities. They should be safe, depending on the radius of the quake. He withdrew his cell phone and flipped it open; nothing fancy like the majority of the populace, with their smart phones, but old school.
He became aware of a man laying in the middle of the road, with another hovering over him. Jack assumed it was someone hit by a car during the madness. Perhaps the one tending to them was family, a friend, or even the culprit. The man in the road was unresponsive, the one helping was on their phone. He doubted the individual would get through to anyone. Not during the fiasco, all lines would be tied up.
As Jack clicked through his contacts, he could hear snippets the individual leaning over the body was wailing, before being drowned out again. The man was screaming for help and looking around for anyone who would answer his plea. No one complied. He found his wife on the list and was about to send the call when there was a sudden shriek behind him, from within the office. It seemed the secretary had finally checked on Robert.
It startled him, but he didn’t turn to check. Instead, he hit the send button and brought the phone to his ear. Even though he wouldn’t be able to hold a long conversation over the phone, he would be able to determine his wife and kids were safe. The first ring sounded. It was a circus; people engaged in shouting matches with one another, sirens of incoming emergency vehicles, storefront alarms.
Second ring. As if on cue, the ground began to shake again. Jack braced himself as best he could, keeping the phone to his ear. Then the tremor abruptly ceased. Another round of explosions went off. Before he could catch the reactions of everyone else around him, his attention was pulled southward; deeper into the city.
He watched in horror as a large building began to collapse. Another began to tilt, as if an uprooted tree. The leaning building stretched across the street, ripping through power lines in a shower of flashes and sparks, and connected with another. On impact the building seemed to split and crumble as gravity forced it downward, taking gouges from the structure it collided with. All of it plummeting to the traffic-filled streets below.
More explosions sounded, and a third building began to collapse into itself. Then another. It appeared to be a series of demolitions. Jack stared on as the street began to fill with a massive cloud of dust and debris; people, vehicles, and buildings being consumed by its mass. The dust cloud mushroomed outwards, racing down the road, overtaking anything in its path. It’s height increased as it bellowed forth. Despite the distance, and unable to determine its speed, he was almost certain it would reach him.
The sirens behind him were louder. The sharp crack of metal on metal snapped Jack back to his surroundings. He jumped and spun, just in time to see a fire truck barreling forward in a blur of white and red, lights strobing; shrugging aside one of the cars it struck. With no visible sign of slowing down, the fire truck connected with the individual that had been calling out for help, and the one he was tending to in the road.
The driver didn’t stop or waver from his course; treating the pedestrians as nothing more than a minor speed bump. Jack assumed, or rather hoped, it was shock from the events unfolding. The body of the second man hadn’t gone flying as he imagined it would. Rather it was displaced about ten feet from where he had just been. He thought of the man’s blood splayed across the front of the fire engine. Red on red.
The remaining emergency vehicles stopped at the accident site. Jack couldn’t focus enough to count how many there were, his eyes wandered to the two dead and back on the incoming cloud. It was reminiscent of the dust storms he had seen in pictures from Arizona; blotches of black and grey in a bubbling sea of brown.
He watched the fire truck slam into another car and veer sharply to the right. It slammed into a hydrant as it cut across the sidewalk, now attempting to avoid bystanders, before coming to a halt. Water gushed skyward and rained down over the truck and those closeby. Within moments they were overtaken, complete hidden from sight, lost in the advancing wave of debris.
Jack felt somehow connected to his wife. The awareness reminded him about his call to her and he brought the cell back up to his ear.
“...ck? Jack, what’s going on, are you there?” he heard his distressed wife. He wanted to comfort her, but couldn’t talk.
A new sound began to drown out everything else. It took a moment to place it, but when he did it sent a chill slicing through him. It was the chorus of people screaming in unison. A crescendo of shrieks and wails laced with panic, fear, and despair. He watched as everyone in the path of the ominous dust cloud attempted to escape it. Some of the faster ones even broke free from the torrent of destruction, only to be swallowed by it again.
“..are you?”... "...the news...”... "...attacks...” He only heard snippets of his wife’s panicked conversation, in between her calling out for him; trying to get some indication he was there.
People ran by screaming, some stumbling, others completely stampeding over those in their way. No one stopped to help one another. It had turned into pandemonium. Every man for themselves.
The urge to run began to overtake him. He had no idea what his wife was saying, and he spoke over her. “Lisa, are the kids with you? Are they okay?” There was a loud blast sounding from above, high in the atmosphere. My god, what the hell is going on? “Can you hear me Lisa?” he was shouting into the cell. “Lisa?” Silence.
She must have hung up, and at that moment he couldn’t have cared less. He closed the phone and placed it back in his pocket. Run his mind pleaded. Instincts told him to listen, join the masses. Flee and survive the growing darkness enveloping the city. The crowds were rushing by him, and his legs were no longer under his control.
And then he was running. He knew it was only a matter of time before he too would be consumed by the incoming carnage.