It is long-established family lore that I am “directionally challenged.” It’s true; I can get lost crossing a large lobby. And that’s not self-deprecating humor—it has actually happened to me, more than once. My brother Gareth on the other hand has an uncanny sense of direction, bordering on the supernatural. His frat brothers once liquored him up, blindfolded him, drove willy-nilly to a spot miles away, and dumped him in the middle of the night just to prove he could in fact “get lost.” He made it back to campus before they did. (Of course, they had stopped for beers and gotten lost themselves on the way back, but still they never lived it down.) That same semester, I was once sent to pick up Mom at LAX and got so lost on LA surface streets that I was over four hours late.
When we were kids, Gareth and I were often sent outside to play, just like every kid growing up in San Diego in those days before Amber alerts and GPS bracelets and Internet predators. We played in the streets and down in the canyons as often as the public parks and playgrounds. Gareth and I didn’t always play together, but somehow when it was time to go home he would find me and make sure we got there.
I found myself wishing he was with me now. I knew where I was all right, more or less, and I knew Papa Nick’s address. But how to get from A to B?
Then I remembered the map in my jacket pocket. I turned a corner, making sure I was out of sight of the Delta 978 community, and unfolded the map on the trunk of the nearest car. The block ahead of me was quiet; it was likely that very few of the locals had been home when the Trumps sounded. It was a harsh black irony that so many had been under the fallen plane. I glanced up at the intersection street signs, making note of their names, and searched the map for its close-up insert of Anaheim; finding it, I scrolled across, looking for these street names, but the map wasn’t detailed enough. Papa Nick lived on a little dead-end street called East Siva Avenue—leave it to Nick to live on a street named after the Hindu god of ultimate destruction. It wasn’t listed either. Then I saw a tiny icon indicating a cemetery, and I remembered that Nick’s house backed onto one, Holy Cross. It had been three or four years since I last dropped in on him, but I tried to recall my routine from driving up on the highway: west on Katella, right on Euclid, left on… Well, it was the third light, I think, then right on Siva. I could do this. I was already north of Katella, I was almost positive. West, then, to Euclid, hang a right, and I was on my way. I mangled the map in a mockery of refolding and stuffed it back in my baby blue pocket. Feeling altogether smug, I set back out.
Shadows were getting long. The air was hazy with smoke. There was no wind; columns of smoke from dozens of fires rose straight up for hundreds of feet, where upper-atmosphere winds tore them away in long gray wisps. It had an eerie beauty, like photos from a distant war. The quiet was unsettling; under any other previously imaginable circumstances that could produce so many fires, sirens would be sounding counterpoint from every direction; car horns would be blaring; helicopters would be hovering overhead. At this moment, it seemed possible that I was the last man on Earth.
I found myself walking down the middle of the street. Some blocks seemed almost normal, only the abandoned cars marking the day. On others, survivors gathered in carports or front yards and regarded me warily. I strode with apparent purpose, and no one called out to the apparition that was me. On one block, I saw no survivors, but one doublewide driveway had been designated a morgue—all of that street’s dead were laid out neatly, shrouded in sheets of various hues. The little ones, wrapped in Spider-Man or Tinker Bell designs, threatened to break my heart. But I walked on.
Euclid was a busier street, a north-south artery, and there were many more cars. Quite a few still had drivers slumped over at the wheel. At first I tried not to look, but then decided that maybe I should, that it was only right that someone should pay some final respects. I found myself muttering “Rest in peace” as I passed, offering that cliché over and over as sincerely as I knew how.
If this were a work of fiction, there would no doubt follow a chapter marking my adventures on the road to Papa Nick’s, fighting crazed survivors and lunatic looters, rescuing babies, and of course soothing the beautiful young widow in her sudden passionate bereavement… But the truth is the walk was uneventful. Which is only fair; there would be plenty of “events” in store when I got there.
I picked up the pace. The sun was setting; ordinarily, streetlights would be flickering on by now, living room windows aglow, headlights swinging down the street as commuters made their way home. But on this night, it would soon be very dark indeed. And the moon would be no help—its slender crescent was already low in the western sky. Within an hour it would be as dark as the inside of a can.
I took a moment to look back at the Angel-in-the-sky. Its head and shoulders and the upper reaches of its wings remained barely visible in the last glimmers of the setting sun, but it was disappearing too. I didn’t know if that was good, bad, or indifferent. The night side of the world had had glowing Angels looming over it; I had seen them on my whirlwind ricochet journey. Why would this one be fading in the dark? Had the whole point been to add a “supernatural” signature to the initial shock and awe of the sounding of the Trumps, and now its job was done? Maybe the night-side Angels would fade at sunrise. I had yet to learn what folly it was trying to fathom the logic of our new masters. They worked in mysterious ways.
As I approached Papa Nick’s neighborhood, I was surprised to feel nervous butterflies; something in the air was different somehow. I had not doubted all day that my grandfather was still alive, but now I felt an apprehension I couldn’t explain any other way. It was entirely possible, wasn’t it, that Nick had keeled over while the Trumps were still shattering the air. After all, he was at least ninety years old, maybe more; he’d always been cagey about his age. Yet I couldn’t quite imagine a world without Nick in it.
Then I heard it: a chorus of voices, singing off-key. It sounded like “Kumbaya.” I rounded one last turn and saw the source: a bonfire in the middle of the street, surrounded by a circle of folks holding hands and singing. I had a sudden flash of all the Whos down in Whoville celebrating Christmas. This improbable scene was directly in front of my grandfather’s house. That nagging sense of something-not-right tugged harder at my hindbrain. I took a moment to try and shake it off, then started toward the crowd.
After two steps, an intense low voice barked “Hold it right there” from behind my right shoulder, punctuated by the harsh click of a shotgun cocking. From over my left shoulder another unfriendly voice ordered me to keep my hands where they could see them. Somewhere along the way I seemed to have wandered into some weird Gunsmoke-cum-Twilight Zone episode. I knew well enough what happened to strangers on Gunsmoke who didn’t raise their hands. The forlorn hope that a wooden-stake-wielding Marshall Dillon type might avenge me was no comfort—I raised them good and high.
Cold metal poked me in the ribs from both rear quarters. Cowboy Number One told me to move ahead, “nice and slow.” I laced my fingers behind my head and marched toward the bonfire. Now I could hear the words the crowd was singing. It was “Kumbaya” all right, but the lyrics weren’t exactly what I remembered:
Send your Angels now, kumbaya…
Test our worthiness, kumbaya…
Flames of righteousness, kumbaya…
Purge our sinfulness, kumbaya…
Each new phrase was shouted out ahead of the chorus by a robed leader who circled behind the singers, squeezing shoulders and patting backs. Except for his rainbow-colored robe, he looked a nerd right out of Central Casting; he had greasy hair in a bad haircut, heavy Clark Kent black-framed glasses, and wore white socks with his black work-shoes. He seemed quite young, certainly less than forty.
My escorts had held me back a few paces, obviously reluctant to interrupt the song. Cowboy Number Two had even been quietly singing along. I was debating joining in myself when the leader called out, “Everybody!” and led them in a final half-tempo “KUUUM…BAAA…YAAA.” Then he strolled over to us. The crowd continued to stand in the circle holding hands… as if this whole tableau wasn’t already creepy enough.
When the leader came closer, I saw that he was even younger than I’d thought, probably not out of his twenties. He was soaked in sweat, obviously very pumped up in the moment. Where his choir-robe collar fell open, I could still see his nametag; his name was Steve, and until this morning he had been the manager of an Office Outlet. Right now he appeared to be the absolute master of all he surveyed. He looked me up and down; I was no doubt the only person he’d seen all day whose outfit was wilder than his own. I thought, Please don’t say ‘Well, what have we here?’; I can’t afford to blow another first impression today by laughing out loud. Mercifully, he said, “I won’t say ‘welcome.’ You may not be. You can drop your hands.” I did. It’s amazing how tiring it is, keeping your hands up behind your head. He went on: “I am the Prime Ladderkeeper here…” What? “Are you a Free Alphan seeking Reconsolidation?”
I tried to think. This gibberish sounded just remotely familiar to me, like a barely remembered fragment of a dream… Just by hesitating, I was loudly projecting my ignorance. I decided on an honest approach. “No. I’m just trying to find my grandfather, make sure he’s okay.”
“Fair enough.” He glanced at my escorts and tilted his head. I felt the guns drop away from my ribs. “I know everyone in this c—” He blinked, then said, “Uh, this neighborhood.” Heads all around the circle nodded. Some were smiling. What word had he not said? Commune? Coven? Cult? Another little memory tickled at me, but I didn’t have time to deal with it, because now Steve Prime Ladderkeeper was asking me who my grandfather was.
“Nick Underhill.” I raised my arm to point at his house. “He lives—”
And in an instant, everything changed. Steve took a step back. The guns came back up, this time both to the back of my neck. The crowd broke ranks; several of the men suddenly sported firearms, all pointed at me. By some miracle I held my bladder in check, but it was a near thing. Steve held up his hands, taking control. After a moment, he said quietly, “Grandson of Nick Underhill, what is your name.” He spoke it like a bit of ritual. I suppose it was.
Now he intoned loudly: “Graham Kristopolous, do you hereby sever all ties and revoke all kinship to the Heretic known by this Culture in this Consolidation as Nick Underhill? Renounce the Heretic and we will bid you welcome as a Friendly Stranger and Novice Free Alphan. WHAT SAY YOU?”
Maybe if he hadn’t been such a pompous little shit I’d have tried negotiating an exit. After all, Nick was probably already dead (that would explain the bonfire), so there was no dishonor in that. Instead I said, “KISS MY ASS, STEVE! AND THE REST OF YOU KOOL-AID TESTERS CAN GET IN LINE!” Okay, so I might not have said the second part of that out loud. But I did indeed tell Steve to kiss my ass. Gareth would have been proud of me. Then I closed my eyes and waited for my head to be blown off.