A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds
- WB Yeats
Only one of the car's headlights worked, and it was unable to penetrate the oily depth of the constant rain that night, so I drove slowly, cursing the time lost. It fell like a solid curtain, the roar of its heavy drops against the car's metal drowning out the engine. The only illumination came from huge and distant fires that always lay on the other side of the horizon, just out of sight and lighting patches of the sky orange, hissing under a relentless rainfall that made the air thick with the smell of smoke. Surely they wouldn't last long in this downpour.
When there were no road signs I had to abandon the car and run to the roadside in the sudden shocking cold of the rain. I almost always found the missing signs lying haphazardly in the trees or ditches lining the motorway, or sometimes just lying face-down in defeat upon the tarmac, and I would struggle to heave and overturn them to read them hurriedly before running back to the car, shivering and breathless. Just a few minutes in the wild darkness left me soaked, and I kept steaming up the car with its heater on full blast just to pull the chill back out from my body.
I had still not seen another soul on my journey so far, and I shuddered as I imagined the military rounding up the population and herding them into camps like panicked cattle being siphoned into a meat market, all of them doomed to die one way or another.
Eventually I found my way back onto the M6, whose earlier clear path had been dammed with a seemingly endless gridlock of abandoned cars, forcing me to detour. From what little I saw from peering through the misted windscreen and the rainfall, the way now seemed clear enough to drive again. It was a jagged path between vehicles of all shapes and sizes that were scattered haphazardly across all three lanes, with some even mounting the grass verge at odd angles.
After several hours of careful but uneventful driving the heater's warmth began to lull me, and sleep tugged more insistently, the weight and promise of surrender pressing upon me. The hammering of the rain faded into a reassuring background, until my eyelids eventually began to close and I had to give in. I pulled the car over and pushed the seat back and immediately slept a deep and leaden sleep.
If there had been dreams, they were hidden so deeply that I remembered nothing when I finally began to lift out of them. The pain of stiffness and of reluctantly-healing cuts in my damp knees woke me, and I stirred slowly, suddenly feeling the brightness of sunlight on my eyelids and its warmth on my skin. When I tentatively opened my eyes every window was frosted with moisture, and I opened my door to clear it. Leaning out I saw the stretch of road ahead of me steaming gently as a whole night's worth of rain was lifted into the air, and I straightened my aching legs out the door and smelled the earthy mist evaporating.
It was warm, and I stepped out of the car and stood in the middle of three deserted lanes, slowly turning and looking all around me, a smile welling up from within and spreading across my lips. I remembered the monotony of driving and being trapped in traffic from years before, and now I felt as if I finally owned the roads that had once confined me.
I let out a gleeful laugh and ran, my creaking joints slowly letting loose all their rust until I was flying, eyes screwed shut against the blinding sunlight on the wet tarmac, the damp air playfully lifting my long and tangled hair as the sun dried me as gently as a newly-bathed child.
The car was a distant glint behind me by the time I stopped to gulp in my breath, feeling it ignite the rest of my body and stoke a burning hunger, and I walked back to it more ready than ever to face the wrecked cities and roads that lay ahead. As the blinding reflection resolved back into the familiar shape of the car, I once again wondered what had happened, what had shaken everything to pieces, and how far around the country and the earth it had spread.
I climbed into the driver's seat and tried the radio as I took a few mouthfuls of water from a plastic bottle, but there was nothing, so I closed the door, started the engine, and began to drive. There was not much wreckage out there, but between occasional abandoned cars or trucks lying capsized or jack-knifed, and the holes and cracks in the road's surface, there were enough obstacles to send the car drifting out of control across the still-wet motorway as I swerved at speed and wrestled it back to a straight line, both terrified and exhilarated as the tyres squealed loudly. Eventually I saw through the veil of mist up ahead what looked like another barricade that had been built all the way across the lanes, but as I neared I saw the sunlight dancing in the glass and realised it was a line of smashed vehicles, some piled on top of the others.
There were army and emergency vehicles left abandoned at angles next to crushed cars that were barely recognisable, huge trucks bent and twisted, and the grim sight of the torn and stained rags of clothing caught on metal and glass. They flapped limply in the breeze, flags left behind in remembrance of those wounded or worse.
There was no way around the carnage, and I stopped the car and stared out. Some of the wreckage was already starting to rust, the air's movement rattling pieces of it in warning, and I stopped to unfold and study the maps. With one of the marker pens I traced a thick red line in a loop several miles long that eventually made its way back to the motorway, but with no knowledge of the area, and no idea how blocked or damaged the roads would be, I hoped I had enough fuel to see me that far. The wreckage ahead of me looked too precarious to go searching for petrol tanks to siphon, and even if it weren't, it would somehow have felt like desecrating a grave.
After turning around and driving back to the nearest junction, I felt the churning cravings of my stomach overwhelm me, and I stopped at the top of the ramp, under the dead eyes of traffic lights without power. I opened the window to let in the air that smelled as if it had been cleansed by the night's rain, and rummaged in my backpack for a couple of morsels of cooked lamb and a packet of peanuts. The meat was dry and chewy, but still tasted good, and I switched the radio back on as I ate.
As hungry as I was, I stopped chewing as soon as I once more heard a human voice instead of the snowstorm of static I had come to expect.
“...not detected any more fragments. Thermonuclear explosives will be detonated at strategic locations across the globe in order to rebalance atmospheric disturbances and to correct the earth's orbit.”
I frowned. The earth's orbit? I felt an ominous dread at the image left by his words, my ravenous appetite fading into insignificance against its enormity. I saw apocalyptic visions of an armageddon of fire, a scorched earth littered with relentless mushroom clouds and a lost war being waged against the planet as it staggered into the sun.
Then the same voice that I had heard yesterday, still carrying the same words.
“Martial law is in effect,” it said. “It is imperative that all citizens follow military orders for their own protection.”
There was a brief silence before static roared back in to fill it, and I swallowed the dry meat hard as I looked out of the car's windows, half-expecting to be caught in a nuclear explosion at any second. I quickly ate the rest of the food I had rationed and washed it down with more water, then started the car and drove on toward the small roads of the detour I had marked out on the creased map next to me.
The roads were narrow and threw themselves around blind corners, and as I drove with instinctive caution in case of other traffic, I noticed that the green of the countryside looked faded, drained of colour. The sun still shone brightly, retreating further into the sky in readiness for the autumn, but although it spread its light over fields and through branches and over the tops of wild hedges, nothing seemed to draw life from it anymore.
In time the fading green was swallowed up by the greys and reds of concrete and brickwork. Nature slowly became contained as buildings sprouted from the ground instead of trees, and formed square walls around it. The winding lanes eventually straightened into main roads, farms became factories which then became houses, and all of them were cracked and damaged and empty. It was a ghost town, its streets scattered with roof tiles and broken glass, smashed furniture, tattered clothes, ornaments and every other thing the houses had contained before they were pulled inside-out by storms and earthquakes and panic.
I slowed the car down and drove carefully, the tyres crackling and popping over the debris, and I felt like an intruder amongst all the personal things laid out ahead and around me. I looked out for any shops that may still have supplies, but there were only gutted houses lining the road either side of me as it dipped down into a ford of floodwater up ahead. I peered at it in the distance, its surface stretching onward like a lake before the road climbed back out from beneath it and powered steeply upward like a paved mountain.
I drove to it, stopping the car near the water's shore, and climbed out, glad to stretch my legs on solid ground. I surveyed the blue surface as the air feathered its reflection into tiny waves, and I tried to gauge how deep it was and whether the car would make it through. I shielded my eyes against the bright sky and squinted to see beneath the surface, and the road's white lines were just about visible perhaps two or three feet below. It would be a risk, I decided, but one worth taking. I'd just have to keep the engine revving hard and take it slow.
As I turned back to the idling car the corner of my eye caught a shadow, a fleeting shape that I swore had moved, and I looked over at the cracked bedroom window of a house caught in the middle of the ford, its doorstep swallowed up by the water. Just like the ford's surface, the sky's reflection had painted itself across the windows too brightly to see inside, but as I stood perfectly still and stared, I saw it again, a shadow behind the clouds, and I felt a leap of adrenaline pound at my heart.
I heard muted thumps from inside and kept my eyes shielded as I stared at the house, its front door painted with a strange symbol that looked from here like a bright yellow gas mask and crossbones. Keeping the door in view I slowly retreated to the car and reached in to pull the heavy pistol from the glovebox and slip it into my inside pocket, the coat shifting uncomfortably.
The door slowly opened, creating new ripples in the water, and a face appeared. For a moment there were no words, just a strange and silent stand-off as we studied each other.
He was an older man of perhaps fifty, and he was clean-shaven despite the disintegration surrounding him. His face was furrowed by frowning as if it had been a lifelong habit, and his hair was retreating back from it in streaks of black and grey, revealing a large and round forehead.
“Hello friend!” I called.
He regarded me a little while longer before stepping out into the flood. He had a stocky frame, and looked as if he had been strong when he was younger. I saw that he was wearing wellington boots up to his knees, just high enough to wade through the ocean that his house and garden had become, and a thick dark-blue waterproof coat, and I wondered how long he had been here, surrounded by water. He carried a length of metal piping which he did not brandish threateningly, and as he came closer his frown deepened.
“You're not from the army are you?” he called over in a sharp voice with a slight West-Country edge.
Watching him stride in such slow motion against the pull of the water's inertia made me restless as I stood on its edge, and I felt as if I should walk to meet him, but I had no way of drying out, and reluctantly stood my ground.
“No,” I answered. “I take it they've evacuated this place?”
The man nodded as he ascended out of the depths and stood next to me. “Yep,” he said with a hint of bitterness as he looked back at his flooded house. “See that mark?” he asked me, pointing.
I looked again at the strange symbol on the door. “I noticed,” I said. “What is it?”
“That,” he spat, “is the army's way of leaving us for dead.”
“They didn't come to get you?”
“Didn't even try,” he said, his glare stern and his jaw tight as he looked at me. “They sprayed that all over our door and said it's because my wife is too sick. They'll send a special medical team to get her, they said.”
“And they never came?” I ventured.
“They never came,” he sighed. “The proper meaning of that sign is to leave us here. They don't want all the bother of disabled or ill people when there's an emergency. Save the healthy ones and leave the rest.”
I suddenly realised why I too had been left behind, and I felt a sudden pang for the woman who had helped me escape, and who I now wished I had dragged with me.
“I have a car,” I offered. “I can take you both somewhere safe.”
He nodded. “Yes you do,” he said looking over at the car, and for the first time his frown softened into a smile as he extended his hand.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “My name's Luke. I didn't expect to see another soul around here till all of this blew over, never mind one so friendly.”
“Silas.” I took his hand and shook it firmly. “I don't know what happened,” I admitted, looking around me, “but I'll do anything I can to help.”
“You're dressed up awfully smart,” he frowned. “Where have you come from?”
I felt my face redden with embarrassment. “These are, ah...” I hesitated. “They're borrowed.”
He smiled. “Understood,” he said. “And the car?”
“Well, just so long as nobody got hurt, it doesn't matter to me where it came from.”
Just then we both looked up at the sky as large raindrops slapped the road and fell cold on our skin. Ragged dark clouds began to edge in and flick the water's surface with droplets.
“Oh great,” sighed Luke. “More water. Just what we need.”
I ducked back into the car and cleared the passenger seat, throwing my backpack and the maps into the back. We both quickly sat inside as the wind rolled noisily through the streets and the rain quickly began to hammer loudly on the car's metal drum-skin roof. Luke's voice was almost drowned by the ferocity of the sudden noise, and he sat with the metal pipe on his lap as if it were his child.
“Here's where we are, Silas,” he said, staring out the windscreen thoughtfully. “We only have what information the government see fit to feed us over the radio, but according to everything I've heard, something hit the earth, right on the pacific plate, and tore such a path through the atmosphere it screwed all of that up too. Most of our coasts are gone, they're underwater.”
Before my mind could gather what he had thrown at me he turned to face me.
“Now,” he said, “there's a river about a mile behind my house, and if there's any more rain like this it'll burst its banks again. We need to move fast, but to get anywhere safe we'll have to drive across this.” He gestured toward the expanse of water that had now turned black with the sky.
“There's no other way?” I asked him, glancing back at the maps I had thrown hastily onto the back seats.
“I've looked,” he said. “Without backtracking right into the path of the river, there are only two ways north – and unless you can lift a fallen hundred year-old oak tree out of the other road, the ford's the only way to go.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “Well, if you can get your wife here, I’ll get the car ready.”
“Thanks again, friend,” said Luke, and with that he shook my hand once more before leaping out of the car with his metal pipe.
He ran hunched against the downpour and began wading into the water to enter his house. The blue sky was now gone, saturated by clouds so dark that it started to look like dusk outside. I started up the car and drove slowly up to the water's edge, then hurriedly cleared everything off the back seats into the footwells.
I sat back and waited, the windscreen wipers overwhelmed by the rain. It seemed to take hours, and in my mind I saw the river slowly filling along miles of its length with the endless water being poured into it from the rolling clouds, and I felt the butterflies of nerves fluttering in my stomach.
Luke finally emerged from the house carrying a large and unmoving dark bulk in his arms. He waded carefully, his progress painfully slow to watch, and I leaped out of the car into the sudden harshness of freezing rain as he neared.
Looking soaked beyond what I had thought possible despite his waterproof coat, Luke finally approached the car, and I saw the blankets he had wrapped his wife in were just as soaked. I opened the back door and helped to lay her down, and we both hurried to free her from her clinging, soaking sheets like unwrapping a mummy.
A beautiful and pale face emerged, her blonde hair thinning with age but still tumbling full and wet in waves across the car seat beneath her. Her eyes were closed, and I began to wonder if she had died long ago and Luke was keeping her with him because he could not let her go, but I heard a murmur escape her cracked lips. Her eyes flickered open, coloured a pastel green that was as soft as her skin, then closed.
I shut the door and we both leaped into the front, and with an almost paralysing trepidation I revved the engine hard and slowly brought up the clutch, and the car began to move and dipped into the dark water. As we crept forward neither of us said a word, staring intently out of the windscreen between each beat of the wipers, neither of us blinking. My heart pounded so loud I was sure Luke would hear it, my breath held tight. I felt a smile begin tentatively to form as we drove out deeper, almost level with Luke's front door.
Just a little further on the car lurched as one of its wheels encountered something submerged that it could not roll over, and I did not react quickly enough before the engine's roar stuttered for a few moments and then stopped. It happened so fast that the rainfall against the roof rushed in with deafening swiftness to fill its place. I quickly tried to restart the car, but it was too late. The motor struggled in vain against the drowned engine, and I saw Luke in the corner of my eye, his head hanging with a sigh that was too quiet to hear.
“I'm sorry,” I said, feeling tears well up as the height of our optimism was so quickly toppled.
Luke turned to me and, just briefly, he squeezed my forearm. “You tried,” he said. “You're a good man.”
With that he opened his door, letting in a flood of water that rushed across the mats and carpets, and he waded out and opened the back door, leaning in to take his wife back out. I did the same, leaping into the water, feeling its cold soaking painfully through me, up to my knees. I realised that the level was already rising, and I opened the other back door and leaned in to help Luke to carry his wife again.
“What's her name?” I shouted across the noise of rainfall as he stood up with her in his arms.
“Kate,” he called back.
I felt my stomach fall through an abyss and nodded, the cold rain already soaking my hair and running down in channels. “Kate,” I repeated to myself, and just then a roar sprang into terrible life somewhere in the near distance. Luke still stood, unmoving, looking back at his house, and he began to carry Kate back, walking slowly.
“You need to move fast,” he shouted back at me. “You need to get out.”
I grabbed the wet maps from the footwell, stuffing them carelessly into the backpack before picking it up and slinging it onto my back, then I waded as quickly as I could around the car and caught up with him.
“Why?” I asked him.
“You hear that?” he said, calmly, and in the brief silence the roar was getting louder. “That's why.”
“We can still save her!” I shouted, frustration burning inside me as he trudged back to the defeat of his house.
“No!” he shouted back, with such authority I froze for a moment. “If you don’t hurry we’re all going to die. I know what's coming next, and you need to move fast, now!”
I lurched over and grabbed his arm, trying to hold him back, maybe even to take and carry Kate, but he shook free and headed back towards his house. His unexpected strength left me faltering as I tried not to fall over into the restless water, and I suddenly felt panic as I realised how quickly it was rising around my legs. I turned and began to wade as quickly as I could to the other side of the deepening ford and toward the intimidating upward slope.
I heard the roar approaching ever quicker behind me, and within seconds the flood was rising with impossible speed around me. I turned back and saw Luke standing unmoving, facing his front door with its strange military stencil, his frowning face cast downwards at Kate, and beyond them a raging roll of foaming water cascading down the road as if it were a riverbed, swallowing its houses. I stood, frozen in horror, and then adrenaline took control of my limbs and sent me running through the thick flood as it rose faster than I could move, past my thighs and waist until it took my breath away.
I heard crashing and the groan of metal as the wave hit the houses and the car behind me, and I screwed my eyes shut and tried to close off any thought of Luke and his wife. I knew he had been right, that if I had tried to help them then we all would have been caught, but I still felt the weight of sudden guilt press down inside me at the horrendous sounds playing out from where they had stood.
I finally felt the ground slope upward beneath my feet just enough to battle the agitated water and help me free. Once unleashed I again found myself running faster than I ever thought I could, this time up the steep road that seemed to stretch sheer for miles above and ahead of me, the rain almost drowning me as I gasped for air. I was waterlogged and heavy, my long coat now weighing me down far more than the weight of the gun inside it, but I had no time to throw it off. The floodwater was now rising fast behind me, like in the kinds of dreams where you can't get away fast enough, climbing and climbing while the tide chases you, relentless. I felt the claustrophobia of those dreams choking my sodden breath away as I slipped and slid my way up the slope, a silver torrent of storm-driven rain pouring down the smooth asphalt against me.
I finally reached the top of the hill, soaked to the bone, the wind whipping my heavy coat and freezing my wet clothes until I heard my teeth chattering. I lifted my eyes in time to see lightning flashes light up miles of flooded landscape all around me, each flash burning a bright image of distance against the backs of my eyes. I screwed my eyelids shut, still seeing the negative image of waterlogged scenery like a single frame of film, the rain stretching on forever.
I winced against the strength of the thunder that sounded close overhead, shaking the ground and vibrating through my chest. As I stood with my eyes closed, feeling the cold rain, there came another flash, this one so bright it almost blinded me with its sudden ache even through my eyelids. I shielded my eyes with one hand and instinctively hunched over, and I realised with shocked confusion that despite its violent intensity the light was behind me. I tentatively opened my eyes and saw the streets and their floods stretching on, the distance now lit up brighter than daylight and slowly fading. The light was a harsh and bright white with none of the warmth of the sun, and it gradually faded as I straightened up slowly, a sense of something sinking in my stomach as if I had turned a corner toward inevitable disaster.
I span around in wonder and saw there on the horizon the awe of a vast mushroom cloud lighting the sky red and purple, a tree with its top above the stormclouds. Its distance did nothing to reduce its impact, and I felt something give, tears forming in my eyes at the horror of its sheer size and the unreal beauty of its swirling colours. Miles and miles away, a piece of the country that I had driven through just hours before had been obliterated, everything it had ever contained now atomised, melted or burning. I prayed for anyone like me still left down there, that either they had escaped, or that their end was swift.
In the far, far distance I saw, thrown into the air up above the horizon and lit up by the colours of its raw energy, the powdery crest of a black tsunami of earth and torn concrete as the shockwave still travelled outwards. I turned back to where I was headed and looked around at the strangely-lit street that had now levelled out before me, and saw a neat row of perhaps ten small houses with gated gardens lining one side before the road dipped back down the other side of the hill I had climbed. With an irrational fear that the distant wave would somehow come and sweep me up with it, I ran toward the nearest house and tripped along the uneven paving of its narrow front path, trying the handle on the old wooden door which did not move at all. I looked over at the front window, and realised it was already missing its glass, and was now just an eyeless socket into deep darkness. I climbed over the remnants of a low wooden fence and onto what was once a well-kept garden, but which now was a sodden square of dead overgrowth, and trudged over the splayed-out plant life to the window. Carefully clambering in through the jagged frame, I heard and felt the wincing crunch of glass cracking underfoot as I stepped inside.
I was glad for a respite from the rain, and heard the trickle of its water draining from my clothes and hitting the floor. I had for a few panicked moments forgotten just how cold I was, but it soon rushed back into my consciousness, quickly overwhelming me until I was shivering uncontrollably. There was a strong musty smell of damp and wetness left to go stagnant which almost hurt my nostrils to breathe, but I could see nothing in the dark. The ground began to rumble as I wandered further in across a soggy carpet that squelched quietly with each footstep, and I stood, looking all around me, my surroundings nothing more than a black velvet blanket as my still-reeling eyes refused to accustom themselves.
Just then another fork of lightning lashed across the sky outside the window where I had climbed in, and in that bright snap of light I saw a small, square front room, with cracks lining its patterned walls. I saw a sofa and two armchairs sitting at strange angles, and a small, square coffee table on its side in the middle. All across the floor were broken and strewn remains of ornaments and the kinds of mundane things that would have once marked a comfortable elderly life.
In that brief flash I had also seen a doorway just opposite where I stood, and I headed for it, my arms outstretched in the sudden darkness as the thunder rolled angrily overhead and vibrated everything. I thought I had seen the dim shadow of a stairway out there, and some childlike instinct drove me to it, feeling my way to hiding beneath it as the rumble underfoot rose further through the ground and began to shake everything in retort to the thunder.
I squeezed myself into the tight space, sitting and hugging my knees, and I closed my eyes and waited, my breaths heavy through the clacking of my shivering teeth. I felt the entire house begin to move side to side, listening to the sounds of grinding and rattling slowly becoming drowned by the rising rumble, and soon there were huge crashes, inside and outside the house. I felt myself shaking, not only with the ground and the cold air in my wet clothes, but with a genuine dread, a sense that someone had tried to take on the earth itself and now it was waging war on all of us, finally enacting a terrible judgement for generations of hubris. I had been so close when Luke and his wife were taken by its revenge, and for the first time I felt genuinely helpless. I was a child again, hiding under the stairs from the terrifying wrath of my father.
The noise and violence of the shaking rose to unbearable heights until I was sure the entire house was about to surrender and collapse completely, and then it suddenly ended in a silence that pressed painfully in on my ears, and I waited.
I was sure that nothing on earth dared to move for those few minutes; even the passage of time paused, until the concept of minutes became meaningless and I had been there forever. My breath was loud enough to be heard the world over, and when I finally moved, the rustle of my wet clothing was deafening.
I rose slowly and unsteadily to my feet in the darkness, fighting my clinging clothes, swaying and light-headed. My eyes now showed me shapes, softly lit, and I went back into the sodden living room through the same door I had rushed through earlier. The horrible smell was now replaced by one of clean, vibrant air, and everything was still, ghostly, and lit by a soft but bright light from the shattered front window.
I walked slowly over to the window and saw that everything had gone – there was no sign of the mushroom cloud's impossible colours, and the storm had retreated back like a tide over smooth and perfect sand to reveal the clearest sky filled with stars. The moon hung low and outshone them all, just days away from full, bathing everything in its cold and comforting light, and the armies had withdrawn for the night.
I drew a deep breath of freshly cleared air, still cool but no longer harsh with cold, and looked up at the moon, the mother who had calmed the rage of earlier. I climbed back out of the window and onto the soft earth of the drowned garden, and heard the quietly insistent surging of the nearby floodwater that had found a new home. Vaulting over the rotting fence, I ran back down the road toward the steep downward slope that I had climbed up, wanting to see if the houses below could have survived, if Luke and Kate could have found shelter after all, but before I even reached the top I saw stretching into the far distance a rushing black mirror of moonlight that covered everything. I walked on hesitantly, and soon stood on top of that long and sheer hill with the restless edges of the water now only a few feet below me. What had once been a knee-deep ford at the bottom had risen to engulf the whole road and all around it. There was no sign of anything beneath its swirls and wakes, and on its surface the flawless night sky was broken and strewn with debris and shapes that made no sense in the darkness.
The hole opened in my stomach by Kate's name now yawned so wide it was as endless and deep as the water, and I sighed and looked around me. The hill with its few houses was now just a small island in a sea of unearthly tranquillity, perfect moonlit water stretching out to the horizon all around. In the distance were the shadows of taller hills against the stars, but everything between them had been swallowed.
As I stood, overwhelmed by how beautiful it looked and how horrific it had been, I felt stiffness and aches sinking into my joints, and I headed back to the house that had sheltered me. Once inside I went to the stairs and climbed slowly up, tugging at cold and soggy curtains as I went, letting in the light piece by piece.
I entered the first bedroom I came to. It was a small corner room, but the window opposite was large, and its glass was only freshly smashed. A pair of half-opened and almost-dry beige curtains gently moved in the night air, bearing the wet stains of raindrops. I looked around and saw that the violence of earlier had passed over the room nearly without incident. The light-brown walls bore some small cracks, but the bed that lay against the wall beneath the window was neatly made with clean white sheets, and had a small pile of clothes folded on top. All of it was covered in a thousand perfect pieces of broken glass that each reflected a fragment of the moonlight outside.
There was a dark wooden chest of drawers next to the head of the bed, jarred only slightly out of place, and lying on its side across the middle of the room was a tall matching wardrobe that had evidently once stood in the opposite corner by the door. The impact had thrown one of the wardrobe doors open, disgorging some of its clothes across the thin brown carpet, and I smiled as I remembered the hotel room from earlier that had been my saviour.
I went over to the wardrobe and stiffly bent in my wet jeans, picking it up and heaving it back upright, letting it rock back into place in the corner. When I looked inside it was full, a treasure trove, most of its clothes still hanging in a neat row and lined up into whatever strict order their owner had seen fit. I then went to the chest of drawers and found it harbouring yet more clothes, all of them dry and pristine, and with a smile toward the moon, as if all of this had been her gift to me, I slipped my backpack off and began to undress. My wet clothes clung to me and took all of my strength to pull away, until my tired muscles burned and I felt I was trapped inside one huge Chinese finger puzzle, and I thought of Luke and Kate, trapped beneath the black surface of the violent flood, and how they could have been here if only things had been just a little different.
My coat thumped against the floor with the gun still in its pocket, and the two sweaters came off in one shapeless, soggy mess, and dropped straight to the floor with a wet splat. I reluctantly dropped the shirt and waistcoat on top of them, having felt smart wearing them, and when I was finally undressed I shivered against the coldness of the air and let it dry my skin before finding as many layers as I could to wear. My hands were numb and sluggish with cold, frequently dropping everything I picked up, but they soon regained some painful feeling as I dressed. Donning two pairs of trousers, three plain white T-shirts, two sweaters and a light summer jacket that zipped up unwillingly over the bulging clothes beneath it, I decided that I would be warm enough to sleep the night. Then, carefully lifting the covers off the ready-made bed, I held them outside the window and sent the glass tinkling and glinting to the ground below.
Fascinated, I watched them fall, like a storm of ice, and saw them shatter into powder, then with a smile I climbed into the bed. I felt myself falling into a deep and exhausted sleep before I had even finished sinking into its cool softness.
My dreams were fragmented and uneasy, rushing in and out as I watched them, helpless. Luke's frowning face and Kate's pale skin floated by and drowned a hundred different ways. Then I dreamed of Lucy, beautiful and grown and already wiser than I had ever been, and I woke up in the morning with a trail of tears on each cheek. I still could not fathom how someone so perfect could have come from me. Years that had been hidden behind me now rushed up to hit me, memories of sitting with her as a tiny child on the flat roof outside her bedroom at night, pointing up at the stars and enchanting her with stories about the sky.
I wiped my eyes and sat up in the pale light, shivering as the cool air blew in through the gaping window. The sky outside was clear again, as if nothing had touched it last night, and the sun-warmed air was already rapidly losing its chill. My hands still felt cold, but once I had thrown off the covers and started moving they warmed along with the air and the rest of my body.
I cringed as I put my cold and soggy boots back on, then carefully made my way through the remnants of broken glass and out of the bedroom. I began searching through the other storm-beaten rooms, ransacked by earthquakes, looking for anything I could use as I trod across soft and treacherous floorboards. In one room I found a small personal radio and a fresh pack of batteries for it, which would replace the lost car's radio.
When I entered the bathroom I saw a small mirror, still intact on the cracked bright-yellow wall above the sink. Out of curiosity, I went over and leaned forwards to look, and saw how twisted and clumped my long hair now looked, spilling untidily in tangles over my shoulders. The growth of my facial hair was several days in, now covering up the faded scars that criss-crossed my skin, and I ran my fingers over them, feeling a sudden pang of loss. They somehow reminded me of long-gone days and things that would never come back.
Heaving a sigh I straightened up and left. I continued my search downstairs, finding some tinned food in the kitchen cupboards which I put in my rucksack along with a can opener. I still had several small bottles of water in there, and hoped they would see me through to the end.
The end of what, I still didn't know.
The maps were damp, despite the backpack supposedly being waterproof, and I knew I would need a fire to dry out everything that had been soaked by the relentless rain. With a sinking sense of waste I took all the dry clothing I could find in the house outside into the middle of the road, and took a lighter from the kitchen and set them all alight.
As the fire built up I looked around me at the flooded scenery that had been shown to me last night by the moonlight. With the sun just behind me the reflection from its surface was blinding, and I had to shield my eyes as I looked. It seemed that some of the land was now reappearing in patches as the water drained away, and the distant sounds of trickling and gurgling carried on the fresh air as the floods found new places to settle. I turned to look out along the road I was on. It dipped gently back down beyond the small row of houses, but thankfully remained above the water for as far as I could see, curving around to the right and disappearing behind a low, squat hill.
The fire took off quicker than I thought, roaring loudly and raging so hot that the road around it began to steam and I could not stand to be near it. I went back into the house and found two wooden dining chairs, and rushed back out to throw them onto the flames. I did the same with the small coffee table, then brought out a dark grey blanket from one of the bedrooms and placed it on the drying road at a comfortable distance. Bringing out all of my things one by one, I placed them on the blanket to dry, opening out the damp maps and taking off my boots. Still inside the cold and wet pocket of my soaked overcoat was the gun, now permeated with damp, and I wondered if it would work as I lay it down on the blanket next to the coat.
By the roadside were a few deep puddles of rainwater that looked almost clear, and I soaked the flannel from the hotel, muddying its pure white. Standing close enough to the fire to dry, I took my clothes off layer by layer and quickly washed myself with soap and rain, feeling the flames drying me. My cuts stung, but less painfully than before, and I inspected them, red and jagged, to make sure no infection had worked its way in. They were tender and slightly swollen about the edges, but did not seem deep enough to worry about.
When I was finished I dressed more lightly than last night and, with everything in place, I sat enjoying the warmth and the crackle of the wood on the roaring flames while everything dried. I took out some more of the food, balancing two of the damp pieces of bread on a broken chair leg and toasting them in the heat, and I watched the black smoke rush angrily upward into the sky, swallowed by the expanse of blue. I felt peaceful, as cleansed as the air, as if the water had covered over and dissolved the horror of the night.
I smiled and ate the burned toast, and its odd taste, mixed as it was with rainwater and the scent of burning varnish, was more than outweighed by the satisfaction of the warm fire.
Once my boots and coat were dry I removed the uncomfortable summer jacket I had slept in and put them on, infused with the smell of smoke, and I walked back over to the edge of the steep hill. Since the water had receded it had left behind all of its floating debris, but all that remained of the houses below was a line of roofs with gaps in their tiles, cracked and uneven bricks where there were once chimneys, and nothing at all remained of Luke or Kate. Perhaps they were trapped under their own roof, or perhaps they had been battered and swept far away.
A sudden smile rose through me as I spotted the car. It was in a tree, halfway up the hill and just above the waterline, as if it had tried to follow me. It looked ludicrous, perched awkwardly and upside-down in the twisted branches, and under the wild pink and purple of the sky it looked oddly poetic.
I went back to the fire and examined the dried-out maps, slightly faded in places and now creased and warped like old wood, with a rough texture to match, but I could not pin-point my exact location. I knew I hadn't gone as far north as Manchester, and it seemed I was somewhere near Warrington, a place I knew nothing of, but I couldn't be sure.
I folded the maps awkwardly until they were as close to flat as I could make them, then gathered everything else together. Before putting it all back into the backpack I paused to pull out a pen and write down Luke and Kate's name on a blank page from the back of a large A3-sized map book I had brought, then I ripped it out and tossed it into the flames. I felt like they should have a pyre, and rise up with the smoke instead of being trapped in drowned houses until they sank forever.
As the paper’s wide edges folded and blackened, I picked up the gun, the thick metal now warmed by the fire, and looked it over slowly before raising it to the sky in both hands. Squinting my eyes and pointing it directly at the rising sun, I squeezed gently on the trigger until it clicked, and I felt the sudden jarring recoil hit my bones, and winced against the ear-splitting blast. With their names burning and a bullet speeding out into the sun, I felt as if I had set them free.
Slipping the gun into the backpack, I heaved it onto my back, leaving the blanket and the fire behind, and walked onward along the road. Its weight surprised me, but even with the tinned food and the gun in there it was nothing next to carrying my soaked clothing last night.
The sun's reflection all around me was so bright that I found myself squinting or even closing my eyes altogether as I walked, but the fresh, earthy smell drifting across the water reminded me of the clear air back home in Alvermere, and I smiled as I went.
Just at that moment I heard a sharp and deafening roar overhead, and instinctively ducked as I looked up. Two fighter jets were streaking the sky at inhuman speeds, flying low and leaving the violent sound of their engines in their wake. They were tiny and distant in no time, glinting in the morning sun. I hoped they hadn't spotted the dwindling fire, and a brief spike of panic hit me that they might be planning to drop another nuclear bomb here.
I pulled the radio from my pocket and held it to my ear, fine-tuning the small plastic wheel with one thumb, but there was nothing.
I hurried onwards. The road curved ponderously around, gradually heading north according to the sun's position, and after two or three miles it hugged the base of the grassy hill that I had seen earlier. As I rounded it I saw buildings up ahead lining both sides of the road for some distance. They could have been more houses or a small town, but my eyes were still struggling to see through the blinding sun bouncing off the water that had settled in huge pools between them.
There was a noise in the distance, faint above the breeze and the running water, but soon taking shape. I looked up at the sky with panic as I identified the sound of an approaching helicopter, and with a burst of adrenaline I looked around for somewhere to hide.
The buildings ahead of me held the only hope of shelter, and I ran toward them, tripping as I kept my eyes on the sky, locating the noise. There were two small specks against the perfect blue overhead, rapidly growing into the ominous shadow of military helicopters as they flew closer, and I prayed they hadn't spotted me as I pounded along the road, breathless. The floodwaters now crept up from the fields and lay out a shallow surface that reflected the sky so perfectly it could have been just as deep.
My footsteps splashed loudly and sent ripples out toward the flooded buildings, rows of what I could now see were the hollow ruins of small shops and a large supermarket. The heavy sensation of cold spread back into my boots and the bottoms of my trouser legs, and I felt like I did when I was first escaping, running across the wet grass to freedom.
Upon reaching the shattered fronts I slowed, breathing hard, my heart thumping as loud as the blades of the incoming helicopter. I hugged the shadows of the walls and looked up, the heavy drone of engines settling overhead and growing steadily louder. From the other end of the town I heard and then saw vehicles rounding a bend in the road and driving toward me. It was a small convoy of army Land Rovers and trucks, their thick tyres throwing up a spray of water as they went.
I froze outside the darkness of the gutted and flooded supermarket, my chest aching as I forced burning air in past my pounding heart, and without a second thought I crunched over the broken glass and went inside.
My eyes adjusted quickly, grateful to be free of the glare of the outside. It was unrecognisable inside, the floor covered in filthy water and the shelves sitting crooked with their sparse contents tipped into the shallows. Some of them had been thrown over and lay face-down as if they had drowned. Debris I couldn't identify lay strewn everywhere, dangerous pieces of metal and broken glass that had fallen from the ceiling and the walls, and it looked as if most of the stock that hadn't been crushed had been looted.
I span around and crouched down, peering back outside. As the helicopters loomed overhead, their rotors creating a tiny tide in the floodwaters, I saw the soldiers systematically leaping from the crawling truck up ahead, entering the buildings and yelling something indecipherable, then leaping back onto the truck.
I retreated further back into the darkness, between rows of high white shelves, trying to move through the water without making a sound. I felt things underfoot as I trod, oddly-shaped and hiding under the surface, and the further I went in the stronger I smelled the rancid air of stagnant water and of things rotting. It made me shudder, but I knew I could not be captured now.
I soon reached the back wall lined with more empty shelves, and this far inside even the bright daylight could barely reach. I crouched behind one of the high shelves as I heard the sounds outside growing closer. Screwing my eyes shut and holding my breath, I still jumped when I heard the harsh throb of engines and the swish of tyres, now so close that it could have been right inside, just the other side of the shelf. Footsteps splashed and crunched and a deep, powerful voice barked loudly and echoed off the walls.
“Is anyone in here? The area is within an unsafe nuclear blast radius and is being evacuated!”
I heard a tiredness in the voice, words rehearsed and used so often they had lost all meaning. The footsteps splashed further for a few seconds then paused, and I heard others enter. It was impossible to tell how many.
My eyes still closed, I tensed as the footsteps were now so close that I felt like a hiding child being found. I slowly opened them and looked up at the two uniformed soldiers who stood, one either side of me, their faces hidden in the shadows of their camouflaged caps. A third joined them, and I recognised his voice as being the one who had first called out.
“Come with us, sir,” he said, his voice still deep but now soft.
It was too dark to get a good look at them, but I decided it was best not to argue, and I rose to my feet and let them lead me back out among the shelving and toward the blinding white of the outside.
“Don't worry, we're here to take you to a safe camp,” said the same voice from behind me. “We saw the fire, was that yours?”
I nodded without saying a word and silently cursed myself. I had got myself captured for the sake of an hour with dry boots.
I was led firmly by the two soldiers either side of me toward a Land Rover that sat waiting outside, and was bundled roughly into the front passenger seat while my backpack was taken from me. My eyes watered with the pain of the sunlight, and I had to squint through my tears just to see the two soldiers briefly searching my things. They immediately took my gun, but the third soldier who had spoken to me said something to them too quietly for me to hear, and they stopped their search and handed me my backpack, which I wedged firmly between my feet, then they closed my door and sat in the back.
The third soldier leaped into the driving seat and started the engine, and we immediately pulled away with a roar, churning the water into a high mist. Turning around, we sped off to catch up with the rest of the convoy that had already turned and started back, the hiss of so many thick tyres on the flooded road almost deafening.
With the air full of water and the helicopters lifting back into the sky, we passed a broken church with its roof caved in and its spire crashed to the ground in front, debris spread amongst the gravestones. It floated like a painting on the sunlit water, a tiny island that reminded me just for a moment of the snow, with Kate and the blood-red sun.