I started writing this while on holiday in the Summer of 2010, but didn’t finish and couldn’t get back into it once I was back at home. I think I was probably 90% though what I wanted to write.
I found her sheltering in a nightclub bathroom on the day dawn came early and the whole world went to shit. Plaster tangled in her hair and her face stained with tears, she said nothing to me, just stared. Then, when I gave up talking to her and moved on, she followed me anyway.
Out on the street, the ash was still raining down. I didn’t know how long it would last – I supposed that scientists had computers to work that out, but then the scientists were dead by now anyway. Hours? Days? Years? Nothing as violent as this had happened before, probably in the whole history of humanity, so maybe even the computers couldn’t tell.
I found a scrap of cloth and tied it over her mouth, just like mine. They weren’t very effective, but it’s not as if there was a handy gas mask store down the street.
“Breathe through this,” I said, and mimed doing it myself.
She nodded. Communication, of a sort. It was a start.
I supposed it was early evening, but the sky had been black all day and the only lights we had to guide us were the fires where homes and stores once stood.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Thirsty?”
All I got was another empty stare, but I noticed that she had at least stopped crying.
“Come to terms with it at last?” I asked, and immediately felt guilty for doing so. Our city, our country, probably the world was dying, and the fact that I’d accepted it so easily and she hadn’t was probably a weird feature of my brain rather than hers.
She shook her head.
“But at least you’re not crying anymore! That’s good, right?”
“How can stopping crying be bad?”
She pointed to her throat, staring at me again.
“Shit.” I should probably have drunk something today too, but it had been hard to find time. Just keeping us alive in a place like this took all the brain power I had.
We found a reasonably intact café down the street, and I kicked the door in while she looked on with blank eyes. Maybe she was scowling under the face mask, disapproving of my vandalism. Maybe she was smiling, happy that I was helping her. But I doubted it. I guessed she bore the same blank expression as we’d first met, her mind too far gone to deal with emotion anymore.
The tap above the café’s sink ran clear for a few seconds before the water turned brown, then spluttered and died. I hadn’t expected any better, and with a moment’s more thought it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to drink the water anyway. Who knew what toxic junk that thing was spewing into the water supply?
We found some bottled drinks in the fridge, which she’d looked blankly at until I’d taken her mask off and opened the bottle. Then, at last, some kind of survival instinct kicked in and she downed about three litres of the stuff almost without pausing for breath.
I laughed. “Good, huh?”
“Yes,” she whispered. And at that moment, despite the rain of ash outside and the knowledge that death swiftly followed it, I was the happiest I think I have ever been.
“Hey, do you have a name?” I asked.
She nodded, and then went back to her usual blank stare.
“Well, one step at a time,” I said with a sigh. “I’m Jim. Jim Hughes. I’m – I was – an electrician. And a father. Dear God, I hope I’m still a father.” I paused, my situation sinking in a bit more than it had so far. She was looking at me intently, and I wondered if she’d say something about that, or even volunteer her name after all, but she didn’t make a sound.
“Come on then,” I said at last, “let’s get moving.” I tied her mask again, crammed a spare bottle of soda into the already bulging pockets of my cargo pants, and we headed back out into the street.
Block after block we trudged on, peering into stores and office blocks and cars as we went to see if any of them held some key to our escape or some information that would help us. Mostly we found locked doors, abandoned cars and bodies already buried under inches of fallen ash. The girl regarded them with the same soulless eyes as she regarded everything else, sometimes even standing on them as if they were just bumps in the road.
Once, somewhere downtown, she seemed dead-set on going inside a tall office building. I held her back – I’d seen too many skyscrapers reduced to rubble that day already from rock fall or from the aftershocks that still rocked the city – but as I did she started crying again. Maybe it was where she worked, or something. She looked so desperate to get inside, like if she just went in there and sat down at a desk and made a cup of coffee the world would put itself right again. I felt like crying too, as I grabbed her hand tightly and pulled her onwards.
Not long after, we found our holy grail: four-by-four, diesel, keys left in the ignition and still mostly in one piece. I pushed the ash away from the radiator grille and the exhaust, coughing and choking all the time as the vile stuff clogged up my throat and chest. A mouthful of soda, and I spat black slime onto the sidewalk.
We jumped up into the car as quickly as possible, fired it up, and waited until the air con chilled us to the bone. I spat tar into the foot well a couple of times too, but anything was better than having it inside you. And besides, it wasn’t as if the car’s owner would be coming to collect it.
Half past seven, according to the dashboard clock. Somewhere above us, night was falling. Twenty-four hours ago, office workers pulling a late shift would have been leaving work while the bars and restaurants of the city started to pick up the first of the evening customers. Now I sat in a Jeep with a woman who couldn’t talk, and together we watched Los Angeles burn and choke to death.
Sleep must finally have claimed me, then, as the next thing I remembered was the clock flicking to 11:37 and the girl’s insistent tapping on my shoulder.
“Shortwave,” she whispered.
“Huh? Shortwave… radio? There’s an emergency shortwave radio channel?”
I glanced at the radio. FM, AM, CD, iPod dock.
“This doesn’t do shortwave. I’m not sure car radios ever did.”
“Right, right, I suppose I am. But jeez,” I said, “this is a bit different to wiring a house, you know? I don’t think I can make one with a modern car radio. It’s all microchips. I’ll need other components, and a soldering iron. And a book. Like, a kid’s ‘50 Fun Circuits to Build’ kind of book. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah. Yeah, good point,” I said, and started the engine.
We moved slowly, hitting all kinds of bumps hidden under the ash. It was better not to think about what some of them must have been. The headlights were useless, so we drove in near-darkness towards the malls and retail parks at the edge of the city. In some places we inched forward, fearing a ravine or a fallen building that could lurk ahead of us, but despite it all, I couldn’t help feeling good. We could die any second, but at least we were going somewhere, we had something we had to do. Anything was better than scrabbling around in the downtown ash, waiting to die.
We found one after a while, half still standing while the other half of the building had collapsed into a crater where embers flickered. I shone the headlamps through the big glass front doors, and turned to my passenger.
“Come on then, let’s– oh.” She’d fallen asleep.
“I guess you deserve it,” I whispered, without really knowing why. “Sorry things aren’t going to be any better when you wake up.”
Inside the store, the headlamps illuminated nothing but six feet of floor and vague flickers across the shelves as the ash drifted past outside. First job would be to find a torch, then.
That took what seemed like hours of scrabbling around, hands grasping for neatly shrink-wrapped packets on shelves. Then once I’d finally found one, scissors to open the packet and batteries to put in the thing. Why did they never make things easy? But once I’d got that far, the rest was trivial. Shelves were overturned in places, their wares strewn about the floor, but everything was somewhere like where the signs said it should be.
The girl woke up to the smell of solder fumes and the crackle and pop of