Part I: The Chosen: Chapter 1
In the very first hour of that terrible first day, I was “Chosen.” It would be a long time before I had any idea why, or what it really meant. At first, I thought that I had been chosen at random, but I can’t honestly believe that anymore. A belief in truly random events is a kind of faith, and I, of all people, have no faith. Besides, by now I think I know better.
“Chosen” has become my title by some common assent, and for most people it amounts to my name as well. But I have a name: Graham Kristopolous. I’m either thirty-five or thirty-nine years old, more or less, depending on your point of view. In spite of everything, I still think of myself as a Substitute Teacher, which is another way of saying Unpublished Author/ Serial Career Switcher/ Seminary Dropout/ Gen-X Slacker, again depending on your point of view. I certainly never pictured myself as “Chosen,” with a capital C. There are people that envy me. Many millions hate me. Probably very few believe me when I say I would have declined if I could. “Chosen”? Truth is, I was drafted.
Most folks over a certain age remember asking each other, “Where were you when?...” JFK was assassinated. Or Bobby Kennedy, or Martin Luther King. When the Challenger exploded. Younger people, when they turned on the TV the morning of 9-11. But we don’t ask each other about this one, because most of us never get the chance—we see the same people we were with that day, every day. Except for me. The whole world knows who I am, but not where I was then. As it happens, I was at Disneyland. The Happiest Place on Earth.
Irony starts to lose its impact when the whole world is awash in it.
Like everybody else, the first I knew anything about it was with that first indescribable sound. Soon enough I’d realize that it was a worldwide event, but in the moment, like you, all I knew was pain. Yet somehow, even as my hands flew to my ears, as tears welled up in my eyes, as I felt the tang of blood trickling inside my nose, somehow I suppose I knew it for what it was: the Trumps of Doom.
The End of the World.
Because even as I felt that sickening reverberation in my bones, and the Trumps shifted through that bizarre harmonic scale, my mind involuntarily flashed to the book of Revelation:
…And seven thunders uttered their voices…
Then, as suddenly as it began, the sound stopped. The void was filled with a ringing in the ears that redefines the concept. Wherever you were, if you didn’t pass out, you felt it too. I don’t know about you, but I was stunned stupid. I only had a second or two to catch my breath, snuffle back the trickle of blood, and decide that just maybe I wasn’t going to die after all, when my ears cleared enough to hear the screams of the people around me. Several were collapsing to the ground, joining those who had already fallen. Almost all of the rest were still covering their ears, screaming or whimpering in pain.
I’m no hero—far from it, whatever tales you may have heard—but my first concern was for my kids. I was escorting a group of twelve high school seniors on a boondoggle up from Oceanside. It was some sort of payoff for selling the most band candy or something, I don’t know. I barely knew them—I had been subbing for their pregnant yearbook teacher for a couple of weeks, and got shanghaied into chaperoning the boys on this junket. When the Trumps sounded, I was in mid-flirt with Miss Jenkins—Heather—the vice principal who was supposedly looking after the girls.
We had just come out of the Diamond Horseshoe Revue, still squinting as our eyes adjusted to the light, wrangling the kids towards Main Street, planning to grab a hunk of curb for the next parade. Up ahead, overgrown chipmunks Chip and Dale were posing for snapshots with some little kids, and two of our bunch—Brianna and Kayla—were beginning to squeal with delight and recruit the rest of the girls to run over.
I remember feeling the rumble of a nearby rollercoaster. The smell of funnel-cakes not quite overcoming the underlying LA traffic exhaust fumes. Around a corner, a Dixieland band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The shadow of an unseen plane flickering across our path. And in an instant we were overwhelmed by sound.
I looked around now and saw that Heather had staggered a few feet away and collapsed. Turning full circle, I spotted most of the kids. About half of them were down. The general screaming was subsiding to sobs and whimpers. I knelt next to Heather. She was on her side, her arms and legs at awkward angles. Blood puddled beneath her right ear. Cradling her head, I turned her gently onto her back, nearly in my lap. Her eyes were closed, her lashes still glistening with tears. Bright red blood still trickled from her nose, staining her upper lip. Even before I felt her throat for a pulse, I knew she was dead.
I didn’t know Heather well, but I had spent the last couple of weeks nursing a pretty good crush on her. She had bright blue eyes, dimples for days, and blushed brightly at the slightest compliment. I had found myself choosing my daily wardrobe with her in mind, trimming my beard within an inch of its life, in short, behaving like a goofy kid. Now I felt a real jolt of grief; my throat tightened and tears welled up again. I slipped off my denim jacket and draped it across her head and shoulders, but that was all the attention I could spare her. I ran over to the nearest fallen student, a lanky, redheaded, smart-assed kid named Jake. As I got close, he started to sit up, and put his hand to his slightly bloody nose. He looked up at me, confused. “Mr. K? What the hell happened?”
What to tell him? “Sonic boom,” I said, the first easy lie that sprang to my mind. His face immediately turned skeptical. Good for him, but we didn’t have time to debate metaphysics. I said, “Never mind. If you’re okay, see if you can help some of the others.” That skepticism flashed across his eyes again; then he nodded almost imperceptibly and began to climb to his feet. I turned to the next fallen kid.
Jessica was face down, and I could see a small pool of blood under her head. A tough little Hispanic kid called PJ was still standing up, looking around wide-eyed. His buddy Geoff, a towering heavy-set black kid, was lying practically at his feet. As I knelt next to Jessica, I shouted at PJ to check on his friend. He blinked two or three times as if trying to shake off the nightmare, then knelt next to his fallen pal.
I turned my attention back to Jessica; she was still breathing, and beginning to moan. Good. She was a very pretty black girl who tended to keep her distance from the other kids; I think she was new to the school. I spoke her name softly and helped her to turn her onto her back. The blood was from a blow to her forehead when she hit the pavement. It was a nasty bit of road rash, but not serious. Her eyes fluttered open. I don’t think she recognized me. I told her she’d be okay, to lie still. I stood and scanned the path for the rest of my kids.
A whip smart, rail-thin Asian kid who called himself Pi was just sitting up. (His real name was David, but he had long since decided to embrace the Brainiac stereotype; he even signed his papers “π.” He wore round John Lennon glasses, white short-sleeved button-front shirts, and would have carried a slide-rule if he’d known what one was.) Football hero Taylor was helping him up. Mary Beth, a big girl with a wild mane of curly chestnut hair, was sitting up. A few yards away, Brianna and Kayla, the Chip and Dale fans, were collapsed in a heap. Then Brianna started screaming.
Even against the background noise of hysteria, Brianna’s shrieks went beyond shock and pain into full-blown terror. She had been partly pinned under the heavier Kayla, and was now struggling frantically to free herself as I ran towards them. Jake and Taylor were close behind. When I got closer, I saw the inspiration for Brianna’s freak-out: she was trapped under the dead body of her best friend.
I nodded to the boys to tend to Bri while I picked up Kayla and carried her body a few feet away. Kayla had been a vibrant, athletic girl, a big blonde Nordic type, and it seemed strange that the sounding of the Trumps had killed her outright while Danielle, for instance, a tiny Filipino-American girl that weighed maybe ninety pounds soaking wet, didn’t have so much as a nosebleed. I would later learn that this “random” pattern was apparently true worldwide: about fifteen percent of the entire human population—nearly a billion people—dropped stone dead while the Trumps still shattered the air.
I put Kayla on the path next to Heather. Kayla’s big blue-gray eyes stared off to infinity. Once again I felt tears in my own eyes, but this time more in anger than grief. I shook them off. I didn’t have time to deal with the scale my anger could reach if I gave in to it.
Geoff stepped up next to me; apart from a dollop of drying blood under his nose, he seemed fine. He took off his glasses and dabbed at his eyes. I put my hand on his shoulder, which was no mean feat. I’m a big guy, nearly six-foot-six, but I had to reach up to Geoff’s shoulder. Seventeen years old, the kid was a full six-nine, and weighed at least 350 pounds. Every coach who ever knew him must have begged him to play ball. But appearance aside, Geoff just wasn’t the type. In fact, he was a candidate for class valedictorian.
Now, without a word, he nodded at me, put his glasses back on, took off his hoodie jacket, and draped it gently over Kayla’s body from the knees up, covering her face with the hood. On the back of his sweatshirt was a faded silkscreen of SpongeBob SquarePants on a motorcycle, with the legend “Born to Be Weird.”
“Thanks,” I said quietly. “Did you know Kayla well?” I was just babbling, making funereal conversation. I could have kicked myself for being such a clod. Three minutes ago none of these kids had had a real care in the world. “Never mind,” I said. “None of my business.”
Geoff looked at me for a moment. He had startling amber eyes, set in a face the color of burnt wood. “Since kindergarten,” he said finally. “When we were little we were buds. Used to eat lunch together every day. Last few years, though, we hardly ever spoke more than two words at a time to each other.” He gazed down at her. “‘Hey,’” he said in a low voice. “‘Good morning.’ ‘What’s up?’… Like that. Dumb, huh?”
I had no reply. What could I say? Besides, even if some words of wisdom came to mind, it wouldn’t be helping him to hear my voice break. I realized I was holding my breath. I let it out in a quiet sigh. I gave Geoff’s huge arm a squeeze, and turned to look for any stragglers. A quick survey accounted for everybody; there had been fourteen of us, counting Heather and me, and two were dead. Everyone else was now back on their feet, gathered in little sub-groups.
Jake, his face redder than ever as sunburn and his own simmering anger flared under his freckles, broke away from one of them, stepped up close to my side and spoke quietly: “Sonic boom, my ass.”
Over the next couple of minutes I gathered the kids together in the shaded queue back at the Diamond Horseshoe. It was now clear that the power was out all over the park. Of course, electrical power was out all over the world, but just then we had yet to comprehend the scale of current events. And at that moment, ignorance may not have been bliss, exactly, but at least it gave us a better chance of coping with our own little post-apocalyptic corner of the Magic Kingdom.
Everyone had pulled themselves together pretty well, if a little tentatively, with the exception of Brianna. I had thought of Bri as a sort of “mean girl,” fiercely popular, one of the school’s most talked-about princesses. She had carefully maintained, one hundred percent artificially achieved strawberry-blonde hair, perfectly orthodontured teeth, aquamarine contact lenses, a pert size two figure, the whole intimidating package. But at this moment, she was a zombie, in a kind of ambulatory state of shock. She was mumbling unintelligibly; Jake whispered to me that she was saying, “I’m so sorry” over and over again.
We had also acquired a few refugees. Cami, an edgy Hispanic girl who had suffered only a slight nosebleed, had somehow taken on a little black girl, only seven or eight years old, whose parents had both dropped dead while she posed for pictures with Chip and Dale. Her name was Moesha, and she was clinging to Cami for dear life. Dale had also succumbed, and Chip—AKA Rachel, a dark-eyed little teenager—had tagged along, hooking up with her friend Chad, who ran the register at a nearby shop. Rachel stood next to Chad, still wearing her costume, cradling her Chip head under her arm.
I held up my hands and everyone settled down. Even Brianna mumbled more quietly. “Okay, kids, you’re doing great,” I said. “Hang in there.” Some hands started going up. I waved them down. “No, I don’t know what’s going on,” I said, deliberately making eye contact with Jake. He was one of those guys that old yearbooks used to tag “Best All-Round Boy”; captain of the swim team, lead in the school plays, active in student government. I needed him on board if I was going to stand a chance of maintaining any kind of order in our little nascent tribe. “Whatever this is, it’s big. I have no idea what will happen next, or if we’re out of danger. So, the important thing right now is to stick together; look out for each other.” I took in the newcomers. “And as much as possible, lend a hand to whoever needs it.”
We had already discovered that our cell phones were dead. Nothing electrical worked at all. One of our group, Kimberly, a self-proclaimed “girl nerd” who was in fact adorable, had the only working watch, an old-school hand-wound pocket model. “We can’t phone home, or call the police, or anything like that. So listen up: we stick together. Do you hear me? I tell you three times: We. Stick. Together. Nobody wanders off. You gotta go potty, take a buddy with you. No exceptions. Got it?”
I was prepared to go on in this vein for a while. In a few hours it would be dark, and a new wave of panic would set in. But then we heard shouts from out on the path, and saw several people pointing to the sky. Now what? I had been wracking my brain to sort out what I could expect with the advent of the End Times. I had always had a special fascination with Revelation in Seminary, but as thorough as my scholarship was, I had never cracked the code. When might we expect the armies of Heavenly Hosts? At the same time, my cynicism—one of the primary reasons I had been invited to leave Seminary—began to fuel doubts: was there some other explanation for all this?
I joined the kids out on the path, and we all followed the stares and looked up to the sky. A 747 was obviously out of control, winging over, moments from crashing maybe a mile away. As terrible as that sight was, it was suddenly and completely dwarfed by the impossible: filling the sky, billowing up out of the clouds, was a towering figure of an angel, arms outspread, wings unfolding, spanning incredible miles. Its eyes were like fiery stars, and behind its head was a radiant glow like a second sun. A beautiful multi-harmonic sound—a sweet, distant reflection of the earlier Trumps—was rising like an aural tide. It was altogether astonishing. Awesome, in the purest sense of the word. All around us people were falling to their knees in a sudden epiphanous fever. Among the kids, Mary Beth, PJ, Taylor, and one or two others knelt down as well. Even my knees felt a little weak.
A mighty angel, clothed with a cloud… And a rainbow was on his head…
Yet, even as that passage from Revelation came to me, I didn’t really believe it. Maybe because I was at Disneyland, I found myself looking around for the giant special-effects projector.
Then reality shifted again. In the same instant: the giant angel disappeared as a shimmering, translucent, golden barrier materialized all around us, sealing off the Magic Kingdom; the beautiful sound was replaced by a weird metallic hum; the air pressure dropped, punishing our already sensitive ears; and the 747, still visible through the glittering shield just above the horizon, froze in mid-air. I had an odd recollection of the White Queen telling Alice how to believe in impossible things: hold your breath and close your eyes. Just now, that bit of nonsense seemed like sage advice.
All the kids were talking at once. I caught Geoff’s eye, as his was a head higher than the rest, and nodded back in the direction of the Diamond Horseshoe. Before we could move, Brianna erupted in a new round of screaming. Her voice was raw and broken as she cried out “Kayla!” and threw herself on the ground where Kayla’s and Heather’s bodies had been. The jackets were still there covering the rest of their clothes, but the bodies were gone. As Brianna continued to shriek, “Kayla! What have they done to Kayla!?” I turned and looked up and down the path. All of the corpses were gone, leaving little piles of clothes behind.
Jessica and Danielle managed to calm Bri down and pull her to her feet. She was still desperately clutching Geoff’s SpongeBob hoodie. Pandemonium once again prevailed in the rest of the park, and I was determined to hold my little tribe together. Finally, with a little help from Jake and Geoff, we got everyone corralled in the Diamond Horseshoe queue again. We found that the lights were back on and tinny banjo music was rasping from overhead speakers. Two or three kids, thinking much faster than I could, immediately pulled out their cell phones, but they were still dead. I glanced at my watch. Ditto.
Taylor was aggressively thumbing his phone. Nothing ventured… I played along. “Anything?” I said.
“Nothin’. Dead as a doornail.”
Kimberly looked up from her phone. “Dead as disco.”
Pi chimed in with, “Dead as the Roman Empire.”
Jake shook his head, staring at Pi. “Dead as your chances of ever getting a date.”
Pi was not remotely insulted; he grinned and gave up a chuckle. Kimberly laughed out loud. Even Cami, now holding Moesha in her arms, giggled quietly. I may have smiled a bit myself. But the little cluster around Brianna hadn’t heard the exchange, and Danielle and Jessica glowered in our direction. It seemed to me a little gallows humor right about now was healthy, but I didn’t want any unnecessary tensions either; I opened my mouth to speak. Too late. Jessica spat out, “How can you assholes laugh? Kayla is dead! Miss Jenkins is dead!”
Jake cut her off. “Hey! Nobody was laughin’ at them! Back off!”
This was the last thing we needed. “Okay, okay!” I shouted them down. “That’s enough.” I glanced around. There was a little platform in the near corner of the queue. I walked toward it, still talking. “Everybody just—”
And mid-sentence, from one step to the next, the world lurched, and I was suddenly nowhere.
Like Alice down the rabbit hole.