Sunlight filtered down through the green stained glass canopy of a forest in late summer. Motes hung in the air like much sea-life. Time followed suit and slowed pace to a viscous crawl. A young man walked and made note of the soft, satisfying crunch of his footfalls. He furrowed his brow. Something buzzed at the edges of perception and interrupted his languorous work—a distant noise.
Leaves peeled off trees and swarmed away in a noisome cloud. The trunks themselves were uprooted, boiled and snaked away like paint swirling in water before being drawn up into sky. The noise grew louder and louder. And then came a perfect vision of the Apocalypse—red, black, and angry.
The ruined husks of buildings lay like broken teeth in the scorched and dead maw of the earth. Explosions set off with stultifying thumps. The air was sucked out of the man’s lungs, and he gasped for breath but could draw none. It didn’t matter. He had to run. More than any physical sensation or emotion, the man felt a dread sense of being pursued that overrode all thought. The inescapable weight of it crushed his insides as if in vacuum. His stomach heaved in revolt.
The young man ran into a building with another group of eternal fugitives and willed himself into obscurity and nothingness. He could feel himself becoming immaterial and slipping away, but it was too late. Heavy boots crunched on bone meal gravel. There were screams, silent yet piercing. Rough, black hands clawed at the man and broke his flesh. The sound of sirens keened and wailed, drowning out all his other senses.
Dale Semotan woke up with a start, the images of his dream snapping off into oblivion, never to be remembered again. Sirens continued to blare right outside his window. Was it just a car alarm? No, there was too much other noise. What the hell was going on outside?
Disoriented from the world bleeding into his dreams, Dale rolled out of bed and onto his knees. He slipped clumsy fingers between the blinds and looked through. It took several ponderous moments before anything made sense. Entire families piled into their cars and lashed overflowing suitcases on top of roof racks. Children still in their pajamas clutched onto blankets or stuffed animals and were herded like silent, bleary-eyed animals. Police and emergency response vehicles lined the streets with officers scrambling from home to home. The sky beyond burned a brilliant undulating orange tinged with black. Houses were bathed in alternating red and blue in dizzying orbits.
Several more moments passed before the Dale could discern the wall of noises and make connections with what his eyes relayed. Still nothing much made sense. He turned to look at his alarm clock and squinted; it read 3:47 AM. Terrorists? Maybe, Dale thought. There was a military base nearby, but it hardly seemed big enough to make a fuss over.
Dale crawled back over to his bed and picked up a remote. Emergency broadcasts were already being aired on the local stations. Residents of Lakewood Valley were advised to evacuate and avoid using the major interstates. How did that make sense? There were no breaking news bulletins or any footage, just text and images flashed on screen. Dale wondered what happened that could have caused the Emergency Broadcasting System to go into effect. Several long moments passed before Dale snapped out of his morbid daze and shuddered. He turned the TV off. Maybe he could get some answers from the cops outside.
The rest of the house was empty. The doors leading to the other bedrooms on the second floor were closed. Dale’s roommates were seldom around. Andrew was gone for most of the week on business, and Tim usually slept at his girlfriend’s place. Dale shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door. A wall of noise, smoke, and heat assaulted and overwhelmed him. How did all this escape his notice before?
People were screaming as they ran in and out of their homes, clutching armloads of belongings. Overloaded cars peeled off only to collide with other overburdened vehicles parked on sidewalks and lawns. Police officers shouted orders in vain to maintain order. Paramedics and emergency workers stood stunned as new accidents diverted their attention to and fro. It was almost comical to see emergency crews rush to one accident scene only to run back to a fresh casualty a few yards away. Without realizing it, Dale was on his hands and knees.
An exhausted officer leaning against his police cruiser noticed Dale and walked over. “Hey, you alright?” He helped Dale up to his feet and looked at his face to make sure he wasn’t in shock.
“What…what’s going on here?”
“Don’t know, but all hell broke loose ‘bout an hour ago. Explosions knocked the shit out of people all over the city. Now they’re clogging up the highways trying to get the hell out, like rats trying to get off a burning boat.” The police officer took a step back and surveyed the scene around him. “Fuckin’ A’.”
A strange popping sound punctuated the din of sirens and screams. Dale and the police officer were both taken aback and looked around, trying to pinpoint the source. It seemed so bizarre and out of place. Others stopped in place to take a look, too, and some toppled over in a wordless heap. “Jesus! Get down!” The police officer ran over and shoved Dale to the ground and drew his pistol. Dale rose up to his knees and wiped the dirt and grass from his face and chest. He looked around for the new source of disruption and realized someone was shooting. The fear ignited with a slow and steady burn, pulling Dale back down to his hands and knees.
Dead grass and dirt swirled up from the ground in a vicious circle. Blinding floodlights overhead and a sudden whipping wind brought stinging tears to Dale’s eyes. He brought up his arms to shield his face. Large, black helicopters hovered overhead, darkened figures tethered and poised to leap out. Military trucks pulled up on the street, ramming into incapacitated vehicles. Soldiers filed out of the rear of the vehicles and quickly dispersed into the sprawl.
People are rounded up and loaded into the trucks. At first, little objection was raised. The cavalry had arrived in the nick of time, but as families were separated, tempers flared and violence quickly followed. First, angry shouts fill the air, and then something more lethal—rocks, bricks, and other makeshift projectiles. The soldiers maintained their composure and took cover behind vehicles. Police officers stepped into assist. There was no banter over jurisdiction or chain of command. The police were completely ignored and pushed aside, their faces all communicating the same look of disbelief.
The forced evacuations continued, but here and there a rifle butt connected with a jaw or an arm was wrenched out of socket. Filled with a desire to preserve his life, Dale rose into a half-crouch and started to run back to his house. A piece of retaining wall from a flower garden glanced off the side of his head. If the chunk of rock glanced less gently, Dale’s brains would have been liberated from his skull. Dale staggered and toppled forward as blood flowed down in warm, soothing rivers down the side of his head. His head spun furiously and his vision blacked out at the edges.
A shrill, unearthly scream halted Dale’s descent into shock. His eyes widened as he looked up, curious and yet hoping he wouldn’t see what made that scream. The pain in the side of his head that throbbed with each heartbeat became only a minor annoyance. Soldiers and civilians alike stopped dead in their tracks and looked off into the distance. Another numbing scream fills the air. Dale winced and sunk lower to the ground. He wanted to just dig a hole and hide. People started to run as fast and as far away as possible. Human waves tumbled over and around the maze of vehicles that filled the street. Recovering from the initial shock, soldiers took up positions and began firing off into the distance.
Some inner voice told Dale that if he didn’t get inside right now, he would die and die in a very bad way. He clawed at the dry grass and kicked with his feet for purchase. The pain that seemed so distant just a few minutes ago became agonizing. He just wanted to lie down. Someone would come pick him up and take him to safety. The thought was negated as soon as it passed through his mind. No, he would surely die if he didn’t get his ass off the front lawn. The sound of the chaos was deafening: automatic weapons, sirens, car horns, and the screams—some of them human, some not. Dale shut the door behind him and slumped to the ground. His last thought before falling unconscious, “…the lock.”