Columbia, MD, Six Months Later
Gayle Forsythe could remember all of it, unfortunately, all of it. She remembered sitting with Tony in his apartment on Thornhill Road, doing homework with him. Maybe later, when they were through working, they would go to Sligo Creek Park and feed the ducks, or have a quiet lunch outdoors in the spring air at some cafe. They had been holding hands and he was massaging her feet with his, but that was too distracting, so she put her shoes back on so that he would stop doing it.
There was a flash so bright, that, even though she wasn't looking at anything except the words on the page in front of her, it seemed like she could see right through the walls as though they were being x-rayed. Maybe the extraterrestrials had come? Her question was answered when the wall to the room flew at them, throwing them and the dining room table through the kitchen wall behind them over the back porch and into the small yard behind. Fortunately, she was buried under a pile of rubble, when the second shock wave hit just seconds later. Before that, she thought she heard Tony calling for her. The second shock wave filled the air with fire, hot dust, and embers, and it seemed that every piece of wood was on fire. The table had protected her while going through the back wall and she was now under it under the pile of what had been the house Tony rented.
"Tony! Tony! Are you there? I'm hurt! Are you there, Tony!" Gayle cried out. Tony didn't answer, but it seemed the whole neighborhood was screaming out for lost ones like him. It was almost unbearable to hear the moans and wails of so many. More ominously, there was the sound of burning buildings, explosions from gas mains, the hiss of steam in the air, and the choking dust--all signs of great danger. The air, now calm after the blast, was filled with acrid black smoke. It cut her eyes like knives. She had to get out or die
Gayle’s right arm felt broken when her shoulder hit the back wall. With her left arm, she managed to get the table and some large pieces of 2 x 4 out of the way so that she could crawl out. She was so glad that she had her shoes on, because as she stepped over the debris, there were many nails, broken pieces of glass, twisted metal, and burning embers that she could step on. She looked around for Tony and found him, his head bashed in, and his body twisted grotesquely from broken bones. He was face down. She turned his head to look, and his right eye fell out of its socket. There was a gurgling sound as his blood poured out of the hole that had been the side of his head. She vomited right on him. Staggering to get to her feet, she looked for a way out. The heat of the fires and the fireball were becoming unbearable.
The house behind Tony's had also been blown away. She climbed up over the foundation and kept going. The street was no better than the yards. Pieces of buildings were everywhere, and cars were burning--some exploding when the heat reached the vapor in their gas tanks. She avoided these burning relics as much as possible, fearing an explosion. Her right arm hung down so that she couldn't run. It made no sense to run anyway, she didn't want to trip and fall, and there was so much danger ahead. With her back to the heat she walked on, not thinking of her broken arm, her burns, her bruised and battered body, her thirst, or her loss. She only thought about surviving.
Others joined Gayle Forsythe like her. Some were so badly burned they were blind and couldn't see where they were going. Some so injured that they had to drag themselves along. Some were lucky and didn't appear injured at all. They sprinted by on their way to safety, uncaring. Some--relatives or friends--tried desperately to carry their badly injured or dead friends or relatives with them. The lucky had fashioned or found carts or wagons to help carry their belongings and injured. There were even some electric scooters and wheelchairs that had survived the blast but were having difficulty maneuvering through the obstacles in the streets. Their batteries would run out long before their owners would reach safety. Occasionally, a battered car would wend its way through the walkers. Gayle didn’t see anyone picked up
They all instinctively headed in the same direction, away from the fireball, and, somehow, were finding the main roads north. Their numbers grew, until the road was filled with the shuffling wounded. From time to time, one would fall back, and then, another time, one would fall out. Sometimes, they just fell dead. Their adrenaline and body fluids totally used up, they died of exhaustion, heat exhaustion, shock, or loss of blood. No one rushed to their aid. Gayle was witness to it all. She watched a silent, withering path of tenuous life moving slowly toward the light, dying, one by one.
She was gaining on an old man walking ahead of her who appeared to be hobbling on a twisted or broken ankle. He was struggling so that she feared that he would trip and fall down. When she caught up to him, she gently said, "May I give you a hand?"
He shuddered, as if to shake off some evil that had beset him, and said, "Yes, young lady. I've just about given out and there seems so far to go. I've got to get there. I've got to live!"
Gayle pulled his right arm up over her shoulder and grabbed him by the ribs with her still strong left arm. She pulled him to her, and they began to walk in unison, her strong left leg keeping the weight off his weak right. They moved like this for a while in silence. The strain on Gayle was much greater now. The pain in her right arm intensified as she struggled to lift him up with her left. He wheezed on off and coughed like a man near death. Still, she carried him. It was only the right thing to do.
Finally, he spoke: "I'm Dr. Jonathan Chambers. I teach at Georgetown. Looks like that's all gone now. I'm a sociologist. I've got to live to write about this!" His voice was weak and raspy, but she recognized the power in it. He had but little left to say. "Young lady, who are you?"
"I'm Gayle Forsythe, a student at Georgetown. I was in your Sociology of Nation States class last year! I should have recognized you!" Tears started to flow as she struggled on.
"Now, now, child. With your help, we're both going to make it.” He patted her left shoulder with this free left hand, and concentrated on what he had to do.
The parade of living dead marched on. As the miles dropped away, so did the destruction, debris, and devastation. Now, there were people coming the other way, running. Calling out some loved one's name. Oblivious to the danger they were running into. Their startling cries amid the quiet of the march forward seemed out of place. Gayle saw no one being discovered or rescued. She saw more and more falling by the side from exhaustion or dehydration. If she could just keep going, surely someone with water would be waiting up ahead to quench the fires burning inside her. Surely, before too long, they would make it.
Finally, after what seemed like about 5 miles in two hours. Dr. Chambers could walk no more. "Gayle, I think from here we can be rescued. I want you to put me down and cover me. And go on to find someone who can help us. You tell them where I'm at. I think that we are on Colesville Road and I see the Beltway ahead--is that right?"
Gayle looked up and saw that they were about to walk under the overpass at 495. She had seen it in the distance and used it as a marker for how far they'd come. Now she saw it as a savior. She took the access road to the left and brought Professor Chambers to the cool green grass slope on the north side. There, the heavy berm holding the freeway up would shield him from radiation and heat from the fireball. Across the access road, she found a small gas station and convenience store. It was all smashed in, but she walked through one of the large broken windows and worked her way to the back where the bottled drinks were. They were on the floor everywhere. Gatorade, soda, designer water--all in plastic bottles that had survived the shock waves. Her hands shaking, she opened a bottle of Gatorade with her left hand and teeth and poured it down her raw, parched throat. The salty liquid seared like liquid fire. She struggled with a bottle of water to put the fire out. That was much better. She drank from both until she could drink no more without getting sick. And then, she grabbed a travel bag from one of the displays and filled it with Gatorade and water. It was heavy on her left shoulder but she was glad to lift the weight. She looked for something to cover the old man. All she found was a large piece of paper from a display. It was hard to carry with the bag, but she dragged it with her through the window anyway.
With new strength, she crossed the access road to where old Professor Chambers was lying. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be barely breathing. She knelt over him and touched his lips with a little water. It startled him. "Oh, oh... I must have been dreaming. Is it you, my dear angel? I can't seem to see anymore?"
"It's me. Please drink this water. I'm going to give you some more bottles. Please drink them slowly. Don't let anyone see them or take them away from you. I'll put them here on your side so that they will be easy to reach. Here, I brought this paper to cover you. It will be cold soon and you must keep warm." Dr. Chambers sipped the water, cherishing every drop. He smiled.
"Don't worry, sweetie. I'm a tough old goat. If it weren't for this ankle, I'd be walking with you. Don't worry. I'll be okay." Gayle kissed him on the forehead, made sure that the paper covered him completely, and turned to leave. She didn't look back. She had to go forward and tell someone to come back and get him.
As she joined the flow of those on Colesville Road, Gayle noticed that others had seen her at the store and had followed her there. Most of the slow-moving mass going north was now converging on that store. It was already mobbed. She worried about the safety of those struggling to get something to drink. She was glad she wasn't in that mess and rejoined the few still walking north. She was moving much faster now and passing many. The drinks had given her strength. Occasionally, she would give a drink to someone who had fallen or was about to. She wanted to use everything she had up. But she needed to conserve too so that she could make it. She began to feel pain. Except for the uncomfortableness of trying to carry Professor Chambers with a broken arm, the shock and concentration of it all had blocked out her pain. Now it was coming back to haunt her. She gradually developed a headache. It was a real barrier to her moving forward. She just had to clinch her teeth and bear it. It was easier said than done. She struggled with herself and forced each step forward toward her ultimate distant destination.
In a half-hour, she seemed to have gone a mile. The destruction was much less, but everything was covered with a light gray dust. She was wading through it like new snow. More and more people were passing her now. Some were on ATV's, motorbikes, and even motorcycles. The noise was deafening, and Gale worried that they would run into someone and hurt them.
Finally, when the sun was low in the sky to the left, and the moonscape had become a mindscape in its waning red rays, she heard them coming--Sirens. At first there was one. A long way off it wailed, until it came to a stop somewhere ahead. It turned and the wailing decreased. Then again, she heard a siren. Another ambulance was coming. She heard it stop. She heard it start its siren up again and leave. And then she heard another. And another. There were helicopters in the sky. Rescue was close.
She was moving faster now, but some were running and passing her. Up ahead, she saw many army trucks, buses and ambulances, their lights on, coming down the highway. A man came up to her in a yellow spacesuit and said, "Are you all right? Can you ride in a bus?" In a hoarse voice, Gayle answered both with yes. "Okay, take my hand and follow me." He gently ushered her to the left side of the road where a number of other people were already standing.
They looked like a row of the living dead from one of those movies she had seen. They stood quietly, silently, all waiting their fate after their long ordeal. A large army bus pulled up. Two women on board, also in yellow suits, gently helped everyone to their seats. Within five minutes, the bus was full and all the people who had been standing by the road were onboard. The bus gently moved to the next divider, made a U-turn left, got on the right side of US 29 and headed northeast, dust swirling up in its wake. After about 10 miles in 10 minutes, the dust was considerably lighter. Gayle watched the view gradually change. They turned right and into what appeared to be a parking garage. On the intercom, the driver announced that they were at a decontamination station. They could not reenter the bus after leaving because it was going back to pick up more people. "Please take any valuables or personal items with you."
Everyone stumbled off the bus and followed two men waiting in yellow suit across to the other side of the garage where a tent had been set up. Water was rushing from under the tent and down a slight slope to a large drain on the floor. One of the men explained that they would have to leave all personal items with the attendants, and they would be returned as soon as the decontamination process was over. The only personal item that Gayle had to offer was the bag she had stolen. It was so dirty she asked them to throw it away.
Gayle stepped into an improvised room of sheets with a table. A woman attendant in a spacesuit asked her to remove all of her clothes. Because of her broken arm and burns, she did this with some difficulty. To add to her concern, she started to develop a throbbing headache. She wasn't upset with taking her clothes off; maybe it was just the elevated blood pressure from finally being in a safe place. Soon, she was naked before the woman who now directed her through sheets where water was running freely underfoot on the concrete floor of the garage. The shower was tepid, not hot or cold. After the initial shock of having the water strike her burns, she luxuriated in the feel of it flowing over her safe in the thought that she soon would be able to lie down and rest
As the water beat upon her head, the throbbing turned to a scream as her vision turned from blurred to red to black. She spun in place and fell hard to the concrete, her arms and legs convulsing in a grand mal seizure. The woman attendant saw her on the concrete from under the sheet.
"We got a woman down here! I needed EMT stat! I need help, please!"