He could remember the news report from the day before. The anchor man looking deeply, earnestly, gravely, into the camera. Saffron yellow dots on his cornflower-blue neck-tie. It really brought out his eyes, that tie. “Experts recommend,” he said, “that everyone make their way to an underground shelter.” As if they hadn’t stopped building bomb-shelters in the sixties. Some places never even started. “Even the basement of your house,” he said, “will provide some protection.” As if basement ceilings weren’t made of the same wood framing as the kitchen floor. “Whatever you do,” pause, “you must remain indoors while the event is taking place.”
He could remember his house not having a basement. Nobody’s house did. They were all built at the same time, the same design. Cheap wood and drywall and plastic model homes for Joe and Mandy Smith to play mammy and pappy in. Bedroom, den, kitchen, bathroom, the nursery for the baby. No basement. So he walked out into the street.
He could remember walking into the GO station, asking for a ticket. A girl behind the counter: dumpy, wearing a tired grey uniform with the top button undone, frayed red checked neckerchief poking through. “You want to go into town?” She asked. “Yes,” he said, “Why wouldn’t I” She looked at him. Slowly, “I guess it doesn’t matter really,” pause, “does it?”
He could remember waiting at the terminal, the sky beginning to glower. He looked down the end of the concrete island and saw a man. Cheap black suit, black tie, walking his way. Tall. Loping. High cheekbones. The man said nothing, nodded hello. The stood together, silent, watching the sky.
He could remember the bus pulling up, people getting off. So many people, carrying whatever they could hold in their arms. No time to pack. Frantic women, men, children bolting towards the station building as if it had already started. Some were not quite so frantic. Moving quickly, scared, but under-control. When the last woman stepped off the bus, the tall man stepped on. His head was bald, a big black spider tattooed on the scalp, right over the crown.
He could remember the ride downtown, the Spider Man sitting two rows behind, quietly humming “dancing Queen”. The thick, monotonous rumble of the engine, coming up soft from the floor. The gentle shake of forward motion over tarmac. Looking out the window, watching trees flash past, the flicker of the white lane markings. Passing under low bridges, the swoosh and the passing dark.
He could remember there being no traffic at all. Just three empty lanes all the way into the city. Other the other side, chaos. Cars parked, abandoned. People honking, jumping out, gathering their belongings from the trunks of their cars and beginning to run, arms full. Tripping, stumbling, falling.
He could remember passing piles of destruction, twisted metal and limbs and gasoline and fire. He was glad he couldn’t hear the screams. People climbing the mounds, digging, trying to find their friends, wives, children. Others giving up in vain, looks of horror on their faces. One man holding a severed arm.
He could remember the crowd waiting at the station downtown. Hundreds. Maybe a thousand. All pushing, jostling to get to the front of the throng. The driver took the turn short, the back wheel going up over the corner of the concrete island. He could hear, over the rumble of the engine, shouting, yelling, screaming. “You might want to get to the door,” the driver said, “before I open it.”
He could remember walking to the front of the bus, spider-man following behind. People pounded on the door. As soon as it opened, they began to fight their way through. Terrified people. So many people.
He could remember forcing his way through the crowd and looking back, the bus surrounded by bodies, encircled, the horn blaring, warning. He watched as the bus began to pull away, slowly. Trying not to crush anyone as it moved off. Over the engine and the din, a single scream. High and clear. The sound of death and the fear of death, meeting head on.
He could remember feeling hungry. Wandering the streets, looking for a grocery store. After an hour he found a Chinese restaurant, door wide, empty. Beef-broccoli, lemon chicken, sweet-and-sound pork, sitting in pans behind glass. Fried rice and lo-mein. Enough food for a month. He took a plate and piled it high.
He could remember turning on the TV in the corner, watching while he ate. The same anchor man, the same blue tie with yellow dots. Still reporting. The same impassive, professional look on his face. Just another day in Shittsville. Cutaways to telescope footage of their impending doom. Kicking over to more experts. When he was finished he turned the TV off and got up to leave. In the doorway he stopped, went back in, and came out again with a couple of styofoam containers in a white plastic bag. Apocalypse take-out.
He could remember silence, a soft breeze. Walking the desolation. No cars, no people, just empty concrete. Newspapers fluttered towards him. He picked one up. “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the headline proclaimed. To him it didn’t seem all that wicked, really, in the grand scheme of things.
He could remember rounding a corner, the sun baring down, a bright gold blinding and a million rays off a thousand windows. Light and fire. Eyes closed, face burning, he put his hand to his brow. From outside the blindness, a sound, an echo of an echo. Soft and indeterminate, carried on the breeze.
He could remember searching, straining to hear. Walking with soft feet so as not to miss the next ricochet, the next whisper. A bit closer, a bit clearer. He walked softer still. A voice. A voice speaking. He felt… disappointed. He had wanted to watch alone – to be the only breathing body in this sea of dry, bare, concrete – and yet, he felt glad he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to.
He could remember seeing the crowd. The man at its head, close trimmed grey beard, navy-blue pinstripe suite. White shirt, shining silver tie. The group, the same, Sunday best. He approached slowly, trying to hear. As he got closer he could hear the words. “… and the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound,” the old man said, “the first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood.”
He could remember getting closer, seeing the faces, rapt, believing. “… and the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp,” the preacher said, voice booming, arms flailing, “and the name of the star is called Wormwood, and the third part of the waters became Wormwood.” A bead of sweat ran from the old man’s temple to the tip of his chin.
He could remember the rumble. Somewhere overhead. Beginning. A dark patch in the sky to the left. He looked up, following the wrinkled finger, jabbed towards the sky, “…and the fifth angel sounded and I saw a star fall from heaven,” finger flung towards the ground, “unto the earth!” Pacing wildly, “And to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.” The dark spot in the sky getting bigger. “And he opened the bottomless pit …” Bigger. “… and there arose a smoke out of the pit …” flame in the centre of the spot, “… as the smoke of the great furnace …” now a burning ball with a tail of dark smoke, “… and the sound and the air …” closer, a gasp from the crowd, yelling now, screaming over the noise, “…were darkened by reason of the smoke from the pit of Hell!”
He could remember a ball of fire flashing by overhead, strangely small, unimpressive, disappearing between buildings. An explosion of flaming ice and concrete and glass somewhere not too distant. Then the sonic-boom. The entire congregation knocked off their feet. Screams of fear. A voice from the ground, finger pointing up, to the sky, the nail, cherry red, “Look!”
He could remember running, wanting away, looking for a building tall enough. Back the way he had come. The street of blazing golden sun. Into the lobby. Find an elevator. Don’t want to miss it.
He could remember the painfully slow rise. A soft voice announcing, “…7th floor … 29th floor … 61st floor … 97th floor.” doors open, ding. Moving quickly out of the elevator, to the stairs. Up 2 flights to the roof door, heavy and creaking. He pulled off a shoe and jammed it in the door, just in case.
He could remember the gravel under his feet. Sharp, soft, sharp. Sock, shoe, sock. Moving quickly, staring around. There, to the right. The spot, big. Burning. Growing quickly. The fire brighter, the smoke darker, the air filling with sound. Like a fighter jet, but lower, deeper, body-shaking.
He could remember it passing by in an instant. Blink. Gone. So close he could feel the heat. Then the sonic boom. Thrown through the air to the other edge of the roof. The world going black mid-flight.
He could remember coming to. Minutes? Hours later. Awoken by the building shaking beneath him. He looked up at a sky filled with streaks of burning smoke. Heaven’s precision strike, smart-bombs from space. He looked at the ground next to him, the white plastic takeout bag empty, the container, its guts spread over the deep grey gravel.
He could remember two buildings over, a whoosh, a streak, and a bang. A tail of black smoke dispersing slowly. Two seconds. Another, same building, five floors down. Seven seconds, another, fifteen stories higher up, taking the entire top clean off, a dandelion’s head in a child’s hand. Falling, slow as snow. An almighty crash of steel and glass and concrete and insulation and wiring and … a small stone, the size of his thumb, flung 98 stories high, landed at his feet.
He could remember standing in the lobby, looking out. Seeing what had once been, lying in ruins. Walking forwards, the automatic doors, glass broken, trying to open, shards squealing under the pull of the runners.
He could remember, out in the street moving slowly, climbing over rubble. Struggling to the top of one pile. Concrete sliding away beneath him. A 21st century landslide. Halfway up, slipping falling forwards on his hands. In the space between huge slabs of man-made stone, a face. Dusty, but no blood. Eyes closed, expressionless.
He could remember alighting the top of the mound. Rising up and looking out. The streets invisible, an ocean of rubble, a sea of shattered hubris. The buildings were somehow more impressive now that they’d fallen, the mess more impressive than the order that had been before.
He could remember the sky. Blue with black streaks. The whips of descended fire beginning to dissipate, fade. Carried by the wind, curling around the buildings still standing. One building still burning, the same black death-smoke expanding outwards, pressed on by the fire beneath.
He could remember walking the streets. Looking, for someone, anyone at all. He found no one. Coming back to the pavillion where he had met the Faithful. Rubble everywhere. Detritus thrown off the sides of the surrounding buildings. Pebbles and boulders, each as deadly as the other when thrown from 85 stories high.
He could remember the statue, still standing, and the old preacher with the silver tie, splayed out its base. The tie thrown back over his shoulder, a gentle spread of deep red blood around a small hole in his left breast. The delicate fabric perfectly clean but for the bullseye over his chest. Glass eyes. The shepherd has done well by his flock, gone to meet his maker.
He could remember turning at a sound behind him. A voice. A woman, waving. The other side of the open space. Calling out. “Is it over!?” Fear in her eyes, “Can we come out?” he tried to rush over, tripping and sliding on the shattered concrete. “I don’t know,” he said, “It could be.” Her shoulders sagged, she sighed, “Oh thank god,” she said. “Have you been up here the whole time?” He said yes. She slipped as she moved towards him. Dark jeans tucked into boots with buckles.
He could remember helping her up, her standing before him, a dark mole on the jawline, “We went underground,” she said, “as soon as it started, into the subway.” She looked, pause, “they were built like bomb shelters,” pause “how did you survive?” “I don’t know,” he said, “you’re not one of those…?”
He could remember following her gaze up to the sky. Another dark spot, growing, inexorable. And all in a moment, staring up at the awesome rock baring down, he could feel the stone beneath his feet, through the soles of his shoes. The breeze on his face, the warmth of the sun, the sweat under his arms, the itchy, dry scalp on the top of his head, his own weight holding him to the ground. He could feel the space between himself and the rest of the world. His parents, dead, his friends, moved away, probably dead.
He could remember following her down the stairs. The white and yellow tiles still gleaming softly through the dust. Along a tunnel, lights still on, miraculously. Quickly, round a corner, over the turnstiles and down the still-running escalator, steps slightly too tall, stumbling, grabbing the rubber rail that moved slightly faster than the stairs.
He could remember stepping onto the platform, heart beating fast. Ugly pillars painted hospital green, modernist subway maps, red benches and birth-control ads. At the end of the platform she said, “Hurry.” They went down onto the tracks and fell into darkness.
He could remember his eyes adjusting slowly, tripping over something soft, and then a gap in the wall. A squeal and a rumble, close behind, a train. Into the gap. Turn and look. Headlights baring down. Driver’s window smashed, conductor leaning back, limp. Fall to the ground and huddle up.
He could remember how the world shook. The ceiling, the walls the floor. Shaking, shaking, heavy, thunder. An explosion without fire. Something falling. Everything falling. Coming down. Invisible death. Screams, fear. Blackness.
He could remember waking up, opening his eyes. Nothing, black, blind. He felt pain, a slow throb at the back of his head. Sitting up, the throb spreading, inside and out.
He could remember standing up, slowly. Body stiff. Silence all around. Darkness and silence, heavy, oppressive. Thick air, rich with dust. Hard to breathe. Walking, stumbling, staggering with arms out in front. Somewhere close the light tick-tick-tack of a pebble trickling down a pile of stone. He stumbled again, hands hitting flat metal. Rounded bolts and a rounded corner. A door. It’s rubber maw open just far enough to let fingers through.
He could remember pulling, straining, grunt and moan. A sudden, half inch give. Again, pull push pull. Another half inch. The doors squealing reticence. Another half inch. Exertion, nausea. A note swelling up in his ears, his head full of cotton, his eardrums turned inside out. Body spasm and burning throat. Bile and chow-mein forcing its way out.
He could remember wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. The burning of his lips. Chapped. Tired and dizzy and blind. Shaky and weak. Back to the door. Hands straining pulling against the rubber lining. Screaming desperation. About to give up, fall to the ground and sit crying in a pool of his own vomit. Another half inch.
He could remember it being wide enough. Head, shoulders, torso, legs, feet, through. Lying on the filthy floor. Exhaustion overwhelming. Afraid to fall asleep. Forcing himself up. Body too tired to move. Slow shaky steps along the aisle of the subway car. Reaching up to steady himself, the ceiling dented down, the roof above almost, but not quite, too heavy when it fell.
He could remember the double elation of soft light, far off down the train, the realisation: he could see. Barely even a point of light, forcing its way through a tiny hole. Not even enough to light up anything around it.
He could remember struggling his way through the interstitial doors. Their sliders sticking heavily, squealing through the dusty silence. Walking slowly along the car. Half from pain, half from fear of tripping over something, or someone.
He could remember the spot getting nearer, but not larger. Anxiety greater than the anticipation. There would be no way through. Stuck starving, dying.
He could remember putting an eye to the hole, his pupil contracting, burning brightness after so much dark. Looking again, slower. Letting his eye adjust. A blur of light and grey. Impossible to make anything out.
He could remember scrabbling at the stone, fear and panic and desperation. Heavy stones tumbling all around, missing him by inches. Climbing and pulling. A single stone, as big as his head, falling away, down past, the soft brush of moving air, the subtle weight of midday sunlight on his face.
He couldn’t remember every being so happy to see the sky.
- Toronto 2011, Hannover 2015, Toronto 2020