“Got time for a drink?” Rekha asks as she takes her headphones off.
I check my watch. A quarter past four. “Sorry, I promised Kathy I’d cook her dinner tonight.”
“Oh. Raincheck, then?”
“Raincheck, sure.” I close my laptop and unplug it.
Rekha tries Kirsten. “How about you?”
“I dunno. I try not to drink on Sundays.”
“You two are turning into old maids, I swear.”
I hold up my hand and make a yapping motion. “Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.”
“And we can’t be old maids—we’re married.” Kirsten flashes her wedding ring.
“Unlike a certain someone,” I say.
“Don’t you turn into my mother,” Rekha says. “I’ll get married when I’m good and ready, and not a minute sooner. I can’t help it if the men in this city are severely deficient.”
“In what?” Jason asks. He’s still at his computer, starting the post-pro on the podcast. He’s going to be stuck here for at least an hour working on that. Oh well. Better him than me.
“Everything,” Rekha says.
“Ouch. You know that’s sexual harassment?” he says.
“Only because the law does not recognize the factual superiority of women in most every sphere of existence.”
“Keep talking. This is gonna make my lawsuit so much more lucrative,” Jason says. Then he turns to me. “So what’re you cooking?”
“I was going to do shrimp and pasta.” I slide my laptop into my satchel and then stuff the power cord into a side pouch. Zip, zip, snap, ready to go.
“Mmm, shrimp.” He does a Homer Simpson voice.
“Shrimp tastes good,” Rekha says. “You can boil it, broil it, sauté it.”
“Shrimp gumbo, shrimp creole, shrimp kabob,” Kirsten says.
“Deep fried shrimp, pan fried shrimp,” Jason says.
“Okay guys, I’m leaving.” I stand up, grab my bottle of water and check that I have everything. Yup. I shoulder my laptop bag and grab my purse. “See you guys tomorrow.”
“God willing and the creek don’t rise,” Jason says.
“And men with tiny hands don’t nuke us all to hell,” Rekha says.
“If we wake up in hell, I’ll meet you guys at the bar.”
“It’s a date,” Rekha says.
I step out of the studio. The door swings halfway closed, then stops and opens again.
Kirsten comes out. She stifles a yawn and stretches. “I tell you, working on weekends is a pain in the ass.”
“I know. A nuclear war would almost be a relief at this point.”
“Are you actually looking forward to atomic armageddon as a way to get out of work?”
“Always look on the bright side of life, that’s what I say.” I whistle a jaunty tune.
We stop at the elevator and I hit the call button.
We’ve been doing a podcast as part of our work at the McKinley Institute for going on four years now. For the first two and change, it had been a regular weekly session, every Friday afternoon with a trip to the Blackfinn for drinks afterwards. In that time, we’d done exactly one emergency podcast—when Russia invaded the Crimea. In the last two years, we’ve been doing at least one a week, and sometimes as many as three. And half of those have been on weekends because a certain orange shit-gibbon refuses to respect bankers’ hours when stirring up global crises.
I’m seriously annoyed with the guy. His policies are bad enough, but can’t he leave my weekends alone? Ugh.
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. We get on board.
“You drive in today?” Kirsten hits the button for the first floor.
“Nah, I decided to risk the Metro.” Normally a Sunday would be the one day when driving in DC isn’t an act of insanity, but normal Sundays don’t feature city-choking protests. I decided the risks of Metro outweighed sitting in traffic for an hour. Plus it gave me a chance to start the new Brad Thor novel.
“Yeah, same,” Kirsten says. She takes her phone out, switches the ringer back on. “Dare I check?”
“What’s the worst that could happen? He tweeted something that will completely invalidate our entire podcast?”
“I am not going back up there. I don’t care if he tweeted ‘The missiles are flying. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ I am done for the day.” Kirsten slips the phone back into her purse.
My self-restraint, on the other hand, has always been lacking. I take out my phone and open Twitter. “Drezner’s tweeting about baseball. Nothing too bad could’ve happened.”
“That’s a relief.”
My mentions are going crazy. That’s what I get for going on a Sunday morning talk show. Do I really want to look at them? Probably not, but the notification isn’t going to go away until I do. I flip over.
This Is My Pistol, This Is My Gun @jeromeburke
True American @GunToter
Lovely. Such … charming people.
“That bad?” Kirsten says.
“About the usual.”
I close out Twitter and hit my inbox. Nothing but a reminder from Kathy that we need toilet paper. Guess I’m stopping by Shoppers on my way home. Well, I needed to get pasta noodles anyway.
The elevator slows to a halt and the doors open. We walk through the lobby.
“Are you ready for this?” Kirsten asks as we near the entrance.
“Gotta be done.”
We take deep breaths and push through the doors. The moment we’re across the threshold, we’re hit by a solid wall of scorching air.
Forecasting the weather for DC in August is the easiest thing in the world. Every day is exactly the same—high in the mid-90s, 100% humidity, and an 80% chance of afternoon thundershowers. Judging by the sky, though, this is going to be one of those 20% days when the sun shines and shines and shines and never lets up.
“Oh God, it’s a barbecue out here,” Kirsten says. “Wanna split an Uber?”
The idea is more than tempting, but we’d be waiting longer than it takes to walk to the Metro. “Let’s just get it over with.”
“How do you know? Did Kathy snitch?”
“Ve have sources.”
We stop at the street corner, but traffic is nonexistent so we cross against the light.
“How’s the home front treating you?” I ask.
“September cannot get here fast enough.”
“You’re at work all day. What does it matter whether Ryan’s in school or daycare?”
“Matters to the bank account. We could’ve taken a two week Caribbean cruise for what we’re paying this summer.”
We hit the opposite side of the street. Kirsten needs to take the Blue Line, so it’d be fastest for her to peel off here and cut across Farragut Square, but she keeps with me down K Street instead.
“See, that’s why I will never have kids,” I say. “They’re nothing but a money suck.”
“They’re not all bad.”
“Please. I couldn’t stand kids even when I was one. They are nothing but vicious beasts that need to be tamed. I don’t have the patience for that. If I had a baby, I’d give up after three months and flush it down the toilet.”
Kirsten laughs like I’m joking. People are always doing that.
“Sometimes I wonder, were you born this cynical, or did it develop naturally?”
“Let’s put it this way, when I saw Star Wars for the first time, I wondered which had more people, the Death Star or Alderaan. I made my father do a population density analysis.”
“What was the result?”
“Luke Skywalker is a bigger mass murderer than Tarkin.” Even if the Death Star were smaller than Alderaan and 90% of the interior were given over to the main reactor, with the crew confined to the outermost crust, the habitable volume would easily dwarf an Earth-like planet.
“Nothing.” Kirsten shakes her head. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Oh. Yeah. See you then.”
I wave after Kirsten, then head to the next crosswalk. I catch the light green and go straight across.
The station entrance is recessed under the side of a building, and I pause in the shade to check my phone one last time—Metro still hasn’t rolled out cell service despite years of promises. I need something to listen to on my way home, so I open my podcatcher app and look for anything new. Filmsack is the only thing I listen to that normally releases on Sundays, but they’re on Mountain Time, so their episodes go up late by East Coast standards. Too bad. That would’ve been a nice way to take my mind off work. No, the newest podcast in my feed is Lawfare—looks like they’d come in on Sunday for an emergency recording, too. Lawyers. Yay.
I hit the download button and wait.
“…so you could trot me out and show me off to the people you hated in high school.” A family walks by, a man, a woman and a boy. The woman—she’s in that age range where she’s too old to be the guy’s daughter, but young enough that she shouldn’t be dating the guy—looks seriously pissed. “No sightseeing, no, none. I gotta see the Washington Monument through the window of our hotel room, that’s it.”
They stop at the corner.
“What di’ y’ espet? Huh?” The guy sounds stone drunk. He clenches his fist tight, but there are enough people around that he holds himself back. For now, anyways. Who knows what’ll happen when they’re alone.
The crossing light changes and they step into the street, still arguing.
I check my phone. The podcast is finished downloading. I step around to the escalator and dig my earbuds out of my laptop bag. I plug them in and start playing as I descend to the station. By the time the host finishes preambling, I’m through the fare gate and almost to the second set of escalators.
A burst of people coming up tells me a train has just arrived. I quicken my pace. As I near the edge of the mezzanine, I see there are trains on both tracks. I need to hurry or I’ll be waiting ten, fifteen minutes for the next one—and that’s assuming everything’s functioning properly, which is becoming an iffier proposition every day. Last time I rode Metro, I’d had to take a transfer bus because three stations had shut down for electrical issues.
The doors close on one of the trains and it pulls out of the station. I need a moment to orient myself and identify it as the one bound for Shady Grove. Good, not the one I need.
The other train has finished disgorging passengers, and now new riders are crowding to get on board. I double-time it down the escalator. People are still queuing at the doors when I get to the bottom. I jump in the nearest line.
Yes! The big Four-Oh might be looming at the end of the year, but I still have it!
Most of the people on board are protesters. In years past, they would’ve been college kids mostly, and any older faces you saw would’ve been with organized groups—most of them self-proclaimed anarchists, as though organized anarchy makes any damn sense—but this being 20**, today’s protesters are middle class suburbanites.
When I get on board, things aren’t too crowded—the train’s just entering the protest area, so it’s going to fill up with the next few stops, but for now I’m able to grab a seat, no problem.
A man sits down across from me with a hand-drawn sign that says, “Regime Change at Home First.” A woman standing at the door has one that says,
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
OUR PRESIDENT & KIM JONG UN?
NO, SERIOUSLY, I CAN’T TELL
She’s illustrated it by hand, clearly copying the drawing from the end of Animal Farm where the animals can no longer tell the difference between Napoleon and the humans, though modifying it ever-so slightly so Napoleon appears to be the Cheez Puff Menace. Cute. I approve.
Other people have signs that have been professionally printed from downloadable templates—lots of Star Wars themed ones featuring Leia, Jyn and Rey (though not Padme, which I suppose is understandable given her role in Palpatine’s rise—she is the Jill Stein of the Star Wars universe).
The doors close and the train lurches into motion. The acceleration pulls me to the left, and I have to grab the side of my seat so I don’t lean into the man next to me. The train reaches cruising speed and inertia releases my body.
The moment it does, the lights flicker.
And something else—the train’s shaking. It hadn’t been noticeable during the acceleration, but now--
The lights go out completely, and at the same moment I’m thrown to the right. The guy in the next seat crushes against me.
“Sorry,” he grunts.
The trains slows and stops.
“Oh, come on!” somebody groans.
People are peering out the windows, not that they can see much. There are a few lights still operating on emergency power, but all they’re illuminating is the tunnel wall and some conduits.
“Hello? Hello?” Somebody’s opened the emergency call box, but that’s not working either.
I lean back until my head butts against the window behind me. The cool glass presses against my skin where my hair parts.
Well, so much for getting home at a decent hour. But there’s no point in panicking. We’ll get out of here when the Metro gets us out of here and not a minute sooner. Trust in the Force, young Padawan, and let it guide your destiny.
Good thing I downloaded a podcast before getting on.
The Lawfare crew are discussing the White House’s contention that they don’t need Congressional authorization for action against North Korea. Their argument rests upon the fact that the Korean War never officially ended—we’re currently in a state of cease fire—which means the original 1950 UN authorization is still in effect, and the President doesn’t need Congressional approval to recommence hostilities. The consensus seems to be that there’s no legal precedent for such a claim, but with the Senate in its current spineless state, the point is moot as far as domestic politics go. The question is whether the argument will carry water on the international stage, particularly with our allies who aren’t overly eager to get involved in a land war in Asia. Which leads to the question—what can other countries do if the President decides to launch a unilateral attack?
The answer is, after all the caveats are stripped away, pretty much nothing.
Being a legal podcast, the hosts don’t talk much about the practical ramifications of the crisis, but those are my biggest worries. Given the dog’s breakfast the President has turned the State Department into, there’s no spokesperson who can make a plausible—to say nothing of persuasive—case for whatever action our Maximus Leader settles on (which will, in all probability, be the most extreme choice the Pentagon presents him with). If the US doesn’t at least make a pretense of caring about international law, other countries will do likewise, especially those who might be next on our shit-list.
Sad to say, but the best possible outcome right now is for the North to do something preemptive that would justify an American response. At least then we could pretend the International Order is intact.
In other words, the world is screwed.
I’d tried not to sound too gloomy on the podcast, or earlier when I’d done the rounds of the Sunday shows, but my assessment is bleak. If we make it to next Friday with less than a hundred thousand deaths on the Peninsula, I’ll count the world lucky. A few million deaths around the Pacific Rim is my moderate-case scenario. If I had to quote odds, I’d put the risk of global thermonuclear war around one chance in five.
Christ, what am I doing on this train? Who knows how much time we have. I can’t be wasting it here. I have to get home. I have to fix Kathy a nice dinner that we can eat while knocking out a few more episodes in our Babylon 5 rewatch, then retire to bed for a nice snuggly evening. After all, it could very well be our last.
I stand up and go to the nearest door. Where’s the emergency exit control? Ah, here. I open the cover and pull the lever underneath.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” some guy asks.
“Self-evacuating. I can call a Lyft and be home before Metro gets us fixed and moving.”
“We aren’t allowed to do that, are we?”
“No.” I shrug. “But that’s what I’m doing.”
The lever doesn’t actually open the doors, but it releases the locking mechanism so I can pull them apart.
The people around me buzz, clearly wondering whether they should follow my lead, but in the end nobody does. I’m left alone in the tunnel.
I dig into my purse for the flashlight I keep in there. Let’s see, keys … gum … pocket book … is that—no, that’s my pepper spray. Where is it …? Ooh, flask! That’s handy. I uncap it and take a swig. Mmm, Cointreau. Okay, where was I … ah, there we go.
I take out the flashlight and flip it on. Its overall effect upon the tunnel is minimal—there’s too much dark in here, and it can only illuminate a tiny sliver—but at least I can see the walkway in the long gaps between the lights.
I still have to take each step carefully. The walls are less than smooth, with conduits and outcrops of equipment that force me to lean into the tunnel, sometimes precariously. I keep one hand on the wall in front of me, like a blind person feeling their way through an unknown house. Whatever maintenance Metro does down here, it doesn’t include power-washing the walls, and my hands quickly turn gritty with dirt. I’m sure the side of my suit must look horrible where it’s brushing against the wall—and this is my best one, too.
I didn’t think the train had gone too far from the station, but it takes me five minutes before I can see the mouth of the tunnel ahead. Of course part of that’s because the station’s on emergency power, too, which renders it a dark cathedral, with only dim, grey light reflecting off the waffled roof.
The platform’s deserted when I get there, but I don’t think much of it—after all, both trains had come through right before the quake, so there wouldn’t’ve been many people here to begin with, and most of those had probably cleared out rather than wait around for the power to come back.
The station has multiple exits, with escalators on either end of the platform leading up to two different mezzanines. I head towards the one I’d come through earlier. I don’t know why, force of habit. But at least there’s a Starbucks this way. Even if they don’t have power, at least it’s out of the sun. And I’m a regular customer, so they should let me use the bathroom to clean off.
As I climb the escalator, I hear voices up above, distant at first but becoming more distinct as I get nearer.
“…hell happened to him?”
“Looks burned up.”
“I’ve never seen burns like that. That’s ... I don’t know what that is.”
I’m about two-thirds of the way up when people come into view. They’re huddled together beyond the ticket gates. The gates block most of my view, but there’s someone lying on the floor, not moving.
As I get closer, I can see something’s wrong with his face. It’s … burned … or … no, more like melted. His whole body is puffed up like a blister. Blood and pus glisten in the low light. He’s breathing heavy and ragged, so loud I can hear him from several feet away.
“What’s going on?” I say.
They jump. None of them had noticed my approach.
“Jesus,” a woman says. I recognize her from Starbucks, one of the baristas. Don’t know her name though.
“Where’d you come from? I thought everyone was up here,” a guy in a Metro uniform says.
Besides him and the barista, there are three other people up here—well, four, the guy on the floor. One’s a guy in a camo MAGA hat, so that’s nice, and the other two are youngish men, one clean shaven and the other with a stylish short beard.
“I was on a train,” I explain. “Got tired of waiting, walked here. What’s going on?”
“There is something majorly wrong up there.” The barista waves towards the station entrance.
“Can you be more specific?”
“I dunno,” the Metro guy says. He looks like he’s in charge, the stationmaster I guess. “This guy, he was on the way down when the quake happened, and he started screaming and came tumbling down the escalator. I ran over to check him and he was like this.”
“Why haven’t you called an ambulance?” I’d sat on the train for about five minutes, and the walk here had taken another ten. Surely paramedics would be here by now if they’d called.
“Phones are out,” the stationmaster says.
“I tried calling on my cell,” the bearded guy says, “but I couldn’t even get one bar.”
“How about flagging down a car?” Even if we have to stuff this guy in the backseat, it’s better than nothing.
Everyone gets this look on their face, like a doctor about to tell you you have inoperable cancer.
“There aren’t any motorists around,” the bearded guy says.
“What do you mean, ‘there aren’t any’?”
“I mean … there aren’t any. None.”
“That’s crazy.” Even on a Sunday, there should be a couple cars moving around up there.
“He’s telling the truth,” the barista says. “I went up there, too. The city’s … dead.”
I want to ask more, but two more Metro employees appear, coming from a walkway that goes across to the other mezzanine. They both look spooked.
“Things are bad on the north side,” one of them says, an older African-American man with a goatee.
The second employee, a Hispanic man in his early twenties, says, “The building over the northeast entrance is collapsed.”
“The one over the northwest entrance is still standing, but it doesn’t look good,” the older guy says. “Could come tumbling down if somebody breathes on it hard.”
Had the earthquake been that bad. True, the city isn’t built to withstand quakes—the Eastern Seaboard is one of the most geologically inert places on Earth, after all—but we’ve had them before. There’d been a trembler just a few years ago, and it hadn’t knocked anything over. This would have to be much bigger than anything ever recorded in the area.
I suppose this could be some once-in-a-millennium quake, but …
I don’t want to consider the other possibility.
That this wasn’t a quake.
That something man-made had struck the city.
But given current events …
“I’m going to go take a look,” I say.
“I wouldn’t do that, lady,” the younger of the station employees says.
I head for the nearest escalator to the surface. At least Farragut North’s a shallow station, so the walk up is short. I’d hate to be someone stuck in Rosslyn or one of the other stations that’re a couple hundred feet down.
Near the top, the treads and handrails are coated with a fine plaster dust, and a few large bits of concrete have fallen off the ceiling. And there’s something else. There’s a patch of purplish … goo a couple steps from the top, with a pile of clothes on top of it. What the hell had happened here?
I step off the escalator and into the recess. There are more puddles of goo and clothing up here. Are these …? No. No way. That’d be crazy. Besides, if a nuke had gone off in the city, people would’ve turned to ash, not goo.
I step outside. The sun blasts my eyes and I have to hold a hand up so it doesn’t blot out my sight.
Farragut Square looks like a fire’s raged across it. The trees are burnt-out skeletons, and the grass is blackened. Only the statue of Admiral Farragut at the center is untouched. Odd. If there had been a fire, the stone plinth should be blackened, but it’s the same light grey color as always.
The buildings around the square are in a sorry state. One on the far side has gone over completely, spilling rubble across the street and into the square, but all of them have cracks in their facades, and their windows are blown out, the glass lying in a sparkling carpet on the sidewalks. God knows what sort of structural damage they’ve suffered.
I’m so taken by the sight of destruction that it takes me a moment to realize nobody’s moving on the street. It’s not just a lack of vehicles, though that’s striking in itself, but I can’t see a single pedestrian in any direction.
I pull out my phone. No signal. Dammit. I have to call Kathy, find out if she’s all right, let her know that I am. Does any place around here have a pay phone? Nothing comes to mind. Maybe a store would let me use theirs. Or I can go back to the office—it’s hard to tell from here, but it looks like the building’s still standing. I should check on Jason anyhow, and Rekha if she’s still around. Yeah, best I head that way.
I start off walking, but after a couple steps I break into a run. When I get to the intersection, I sprint straight across without checking for traffic—let somebody else take up the burdens of civilization.
When I get to the other side, though, I falter. I can hear something, a mechanical thrum. There—to the right of me, there’s a van. It’s rammed straight into a bike-share, it’s rear end jutting into the street.
I head over and look inside. It’s empty, but the front seat’s stained with the same purple sludge I’d seen on the escalator. I try the door, but it doesn’t open—it’s locked from the inside.
I suppose the driver may’ve been dazed and gotten out without shutting the engine off, then locked the keys inside. It’s an entirely reasonable assumption.
But that’s not what happened.
That puddle inside—that used to be the driver.
I have no evidence, but I’m sure of it.
I cup my hands around my eyes and peer inside. Yes. There are clothes on the floor. They’ve slid off the seat.
But what could’ve caused this?
It wasn’t a nuke, I’m sure of that. We’re close enough to the White House that even a “little” tactical nuke would’ve leveled everything in sight. A missile would’ve had to go seriously off course if there are still buildings standing here. I suppose the Norks might’ve fired something in the experimental stages, didn’t have the kinks worked out, but even then I should be able to see a mushroom cloud.
But what else could’ve happened?
Biological warfare? Doesn’t explain the damage to the buildings, or how I haven’t been affected. If this were a biological agent, it’s fast acting. I should be goopifying already.
I check the sky.
Well, I suppose the whys and wherefores are somebody else’s problem. My concerns are closer at hand.
I head back to the corner and then towards the office.
The front door’s been shattered, but there are enough jagged glass teeth left in the frame that I don’t want to step through. I have the damnedest time getting the door open, what with all the broken shards grinding underneath, but after a few tugs I finally manage it.
The lobby is in ruins. The outer facade may be intact, but the interior has suffered serious structural damage. One of the fancy marble pillars has a crack clear through it, and the upper half has slid nearly an inch from true.
I hesitate. The building’s like a giant Jenga tower after a dozen turns. It could all come tumbling down with the slightest provocation—or none at all.
But I need to see.
The elevator is out of the question, so I find a stairwell. There are windows on the landings, but they face into an alley, so I have to use my flashlight again.
I make it up three flights before I come across a giant chunk of staircase that’s fallen loose. There’s something sticky and red oozing from the rubble, but I don’t see any sign of a body.
I point my flashlight up and find there’s a five foot gap in the flight above me. Even if I get across this rubble, I’ll never make that jump. Shit.
I backtrack to the previous floor and cut across to a different stairwell. This one is intact, but there are enough cracks running through it that I’m afraid it’s going to collapse like a temple out of Indiana Jones if I try to walk across it. But I don’t suppose any of the other stairwells will be in much better shape, so I take the chance.
I make it to the fifth floor with no further problems.
The place is empty. “Hello?” I call. “Rekha? Jason?” No answer.
I go into my office and pick up my phone. I’m not expecting to hear anything, and I’m right.
I hate being right. One of the joys of being a cynic is being proven wrong. I really wanted to be wrong.
If the phones are dead, the only way I can get back to Kathy is by hiking across the city and through the suburbs. Christ, but that’s a long way to walk, especially in August. Be better if I could wait until night when it cools down, but without power the city is going to be darker than black. My flashlight’s not gonna cut it.
Maybe … maybe I can find some car keys. Who knows what the roads are like, but even if I have to creep along at ten miles an hour and backtrack around obstacles, it’s better than walking.
I head to the studio. It has a window in it—cracked but otherwise intact—so I can see inside without opening the door. Jason and Rekha aren’t here, though Rekha’s laptop is still open on the table—the battery isn’t even dead yet, and the power-light is blinking in standby mode.
I open the door and step in. There’s purple goo on the floor. Their clothes are in the seats.
I’m not surprised at this point, but my heart pounds hard for a second. I close my eyes and tell myself not to cry. I don’t have time for tears.
I step back into the hall and head for the big boss’s office. I know where he keeps his liquor—he breaks it out whenever we complete a big project—and I need it right now. I open his desk and search through his bottles until I find his Cointreau. It’s only a quarter full, but it’ll do. I take out my flask and top her up, then polish off what’s left in the bottle.
Mmm. I feel like I’m on fire now.
That’s what I needed.
I check the time on my phone. It’s past five now. I have about three hours of good light left. If I walk, I might get as far as Rock Creek tonight, but then I’d have to find some place to stay. If I grab a car, I could get further, but I don’t know how long that would take.
Perhaps its best if I head back to the station. I can bed down there tonight, and who knows, maybe rescue will show up at some point. I doubt it. But if I set off at first light tomorrow, I should have fourteen hours of daylight. Even with detours and pit stops, I should be able to make it home by early evening.
Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.
I make it downstairs and out of the building without any trouble, but I’ve gone all of three yards down the street when I hear a crash behind me. I spin around in time to see a building on the next block fall into the road. It breaks apart as it topples, the upper half snapping off and trying to fall straight down even as the lower part continues forward. The two halves pulverize each other in midair, and a cloud of dust billows out of the collision.
“Ho-lee fuck.” I flash back to 9/11, to sitting in the Student Union as the first street-level videos came in of the Towers collapsing—the dust rolling across the city as people scrambled to get indoors. Back then, we all felt like we were watching the end of the world. We were wrong, though. The world will never end. It’ll only change.
As the dust cloud envelops me, I wonder what it’s changing into this time.
To Be Continued ...
“Do you have a minute, General?”
Goddammit, can’t a man run to the pisser around here without being accosted by a goddamned reporter? “I can give you thirty-seven seconds, and that’s the max.”
“There’s a rumor going around that the NSC meeting this afternoon is going to be in the emergency bunker under the East Wing, not the Situation Room. Any truth to that?”
Sonuvabitch! “Sorry, my business isn’t rumors. Now, why don’t you do something useful and find out who’s been leaving turds in the men’s toilet without flushing?”
“I’d start with Bast Kroga if I were you. Now good day, Maggie.”
I hold my anger in as I walk down the hall, wait for her to get out of sight before I smash my fist into the wall—hard enough to leave a dent in the plaster. That hurt! Good. The pain takes my mind off my rage. Some of it at least.
Fer Christ’s sake! If I ever find the asshole who leaked that, I’m gonna kick them between the legs so hard their balls will burst out their skull like Pallas Athena.
The bunker beneath the White House is an emergency precaution in case of a surprise attack where the President doesn’t have time to evacuate Washington. It had been built during World War II, and while the designers intended it to survive a nuclear strike, their expectations were based upon the Manhattan Project. There’ve been improvements since, but whether it can survive a direct hit by a modern thermonuclear device ... I’m not particularly keen to find out.
During the Cold War, the plan had been for the President to evacuate to an alternate site if a nuclear exchange seemed imminent, someplace deep in a mountain, hardened to withstand anything short of the Tsar Bomba. But that was predicated on the assumption that such an evacuation would occur in the midst of an international crisis where the US faced the possibility of an enemy first strike. An evacuation in those circumstances would seem a reasonable defensive precaution.
Nobody—except maybe Curtis LeMay and Doug MacArthur—had ever contemplated a President seeking shelter from retaliation against an unprovoked American first strike. But by God, that’s what’s happening today.
There’s a crisis, to be sure, and not one entirely of our making, though we’re surely at fault for letting it spin so far out of control. But it’s a crisis that does not rise to the level of a nuclear attack. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
But the President, in all of his God granted wisdom, thinks otherwise, and right now we’re finalizing plans for an attack on North Korea. The Norks don’t have the capability to hit Washington yet—the Pacific Coast, sure, maybe as far inland as Denver, though our technical estimates of their missiles give them a huge CEP at that range. A shot at San Diego could hit anywhere from Ensenada to San Clemente. They do have sub-launched ballistic missiles, but they’d have to get into the Atlantic to be a threat against Washington, and the Navy assures me they’ve got every Nork sub under watch with orders to sink ‘em if they so much as open a launch tube.
No, our worry right now is the Chinese. If we launch against North Korea, China will almost certainly retaliate—and they absolutely have missiles that can hit DC. If the President evacuated to Site R right now, it would be a sure signal of our intent. What the Chinese would do in that situation is an open question, but it would not be good.
Hence our decision to use the White House bunker instead.
But the whole damn point of that decision was to keep the President’s intention secret. If it shows up on the New York Times webpage—or God forbid, Maggie tweets it without waiting to write up a story—it defeats the whole fucking purpose.
I storm towards the Press Secretary’s office. Where is that goddamn sartorially challenged idiot? If I can manage to find that man’s balls, I’m gonna yank them off. But when I poke my head through the office door, the only person there is the Rhinoceros.
“Something wrong, General?” she says.
“Where in the seven hells is Spacey?”
“He went to see the Big Boss.”
“Any thing I can help you with?”
“You wouldn’t happen to know why a New York Times reporter was wandering around the West Wing, would you?”
“The President wanted to speak with her.”
Fucking Christ on a pogo stick! “He didn’t give an interview, did he?”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t in the room—that was Shane’s doing.”
My phone rings with the special chime I’d set to notify me of Presidential tweets. I’d never used Twitter before joining the White House, but once I did, it became obvious I needed to monitor what the President was saying online, otherwise I’d get blindsided by his latest change of national policy. He’s the only person I follow, and I’ve got the phone set to notify me the moment he posts something.
I dread what I’m going to find. Declaration of War, maybe? A public announcement that we’re planning to nuke Pyongyang at 5 PM? Or maybe he’s just attacking Joe Scarborough. Who knows. With him, every day is like Christmas. You never know what you’re going to find under the tree.
I open Twitter.
Lying Pocahontas calls me deranged! If she had her way we’d all be living under “communism”. SICK LADY! #MAGA
I have no idea what brought that on, nor do I wish to. Unfortunately, I suspect I’m going to find out.
But before I go, I issue a warning to the Rhino. “Make sure no more reporters come through that door. Do I make myself clear?”
“You’re not my boss, General.”
“No, I’m not. But if I see one more shit-weasel with a press badge back here, you’re gonna be moving back to Cornpone, Arkansas to live with that drooling redneck father of yours, okay Creampuff?”
“I don’t care if the President asks to see the entire press corps in his office, you do not let them back here, not even the ghost of Walter Cronkite.”
I turn to go, but I find the doorway blocked.
“I think she’s a bit young to know who Walter Cronkite is, Rob.”
“I know who he is.”
“Well Tom Brokaw isn’t dead yet,” I say. Then, “You just get in?”
“Yes,” the Secretary of Defense says. He’d gone back to the Pentagon after this morning’s NSC session. “I would’ve been here sooner, but I was being inundated by calls from our allies. None of them are getting answers from State, and the switchboard here isn’t letting anything through.”
“This is a helluva way to run a railroad. What did you tell them?”
“What the hell can I tell them?” He looks to the Rhino. All things considered, she has the most trustworthy ear of anyone in this White House—doesn’t matter what she knows, she’s just gonna deny or stonewall. If a reporter asked her if the sky was blue, she’d spend the next hour dissembling. But she doesn’t have clearance for what’s going on right now. And besides, we can’t be sure some reporter isn’t going to wander by and hear us. Instead, the SecDef changes subject. “Given any more thought to betting on the Preakness?”
“Quite a bit, Lew. Quite a bit. But I wanna see if the race is gonna be held or not. I’m not putting money down if it’s gonna get called off.”
“I understand,” the SecDef says. “But I’ve got everything ready to go, if you want in. Just waiting for post time.”
A door opens down the hall. The Oval Office. Secret Service agents come out first, then the Secretary of State. His face is pale. He’s never been up to the challenge of the job, and this last week has worn him down, but I’ve never seen him look so spooked. More of the President’s advisers come out after him—very few cabinet members, though. Mostly his buddies, and buddies of buddies. The people he has, for reasons beyond logic, put his trust into.
Like high school students, they naturally break into cliques. The largest of these, sadly, is the neo-Nazi—er, excuse me, “alt-right” alliance, consisting of “Doctor” Kroga, that leper Andrew Cannon, our new Secretary of Homeland Security, Jon Loback, and, of course, their acolytes, many of whom have been foisted on me in the National Security Council.
Then there are the GOPers—whittled down now to just Spacey, the VP and the living skeleton that is Marianne Conroy, the Attorney General being persona non grata nowadays, and Rance Prentiss having been sacked for not being enough of a suck-ass. They are, for all intents and purposes, powerless now, but they continue to hang on so the government has some semblance of being run by a political party and not a deranged cult of personality.
Next is the Manhattan Mafia, led by the President’s daughter, Eviana, and her husband, with a couple former Fox News “personalities” tagging along, along with that asshole Tony Scarlatti, who somehow manages to have access despite being fired months ago. Thankfully most of their group has no involvement with NatSec affairs, so we don’t have to deal with the full lot of them.
And then, finally, there’s the Coalition of the Not Totally Fucking Insane, consisting of myself, the Secretaries of Defense and State, and the Director of National Intelligence. Once we get down to the bunker, the Director of Central Intelligence should be calling in from Langley, which will bolster our numbers by one further. The fact that we’re including the SecState in our numbers tells you how desperate we are. But that’s why we aren’t the Coalition of the Competent.
We used to count the chief-of-staff, Kellerman, as well, but he’s been infected by the President’s madness and has been pushing for some damn crazy policies lately.
After a moment, the President emerges from the Oval Office. He’s accompanied by his two adult sons, Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum. Jesus, if it weren’t bad enough already…
The President adjusts his suit coat and runs his hands over his toupee. “Folks, we are going to make history this afternoon! This will be massive—the most massive history since Hiroshima! They’ll be saying no one has made history like this before!”
My stomach flops when I hear his words. The way he says it—nonchalant, without the least hint he understands the gravity of what he’s considering—I know he’s going to do it. He’s going to order a nuclear strike on North Korea.
His sons nod enthusiastically, and Scarlatti says, “Fucking-A, we’ll show those gooks who’s the boss.” A few of the hangers on smile, but most of the entourage remain sour faced.
My wife had warned me about this when I was offered the National Security Adviser position, told me, “Rob, you take that job, you’re going to go down in history as a war criminal, unparalleled even by Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann.” I’d agreed with her entirely, but I’d hoped, when the moment came, I’d be in a position to stop it. To talk the President around to a saner course of action.
I hadn’t reckoned with how fucked in the head the man is.
What option do I have now? I can resign. Walk out the door, go across the South Lawn to the Mall and join the protests. It’d be a pointless gesture, but at least I’d have my soul.
But I can’t abandon Lew.
We’d worked together in Afghanistan, trying to salvage that clusterfuck of a war. We’re brothers in arms. I have to stick with him.
And there’s still a possibility we can turn things around. An alliance with the GOP faction is pointless—they’d side with us, I have no doubt, but their place in the President’s esteem is so low that having them on our side would be counterproductive. But if we could get the Manhattan Mafia on our side, we could talk the President onto a saner path.
Only problem is, the Manhattan Mafia isn’t inclined to work with us. They treat all criticism of their ideas as personal insults, and their ideas are fucking stupid. If you try to explain that their third-grade understanding of America’s place in the world is somewhat less than accurate, you turn them into personal enemies, and those animosities trump the good of the nation. I’ve personally alienated the President’s son-in-law by pointing out his plan for Middle East peace would require the Palestinians to accept the worst deal since the Munich Agreement. The Secretary of State has pissed off Eviana for similar reasons, and Scarlatti told the New York Post that everyone in the Pentagon is compensating for small penises.
And that leaves the Preakness Option. If the alternative is a nuclear holocaust, that’s what I’ll go with, but please, God, let there be some other way. If there was ever a time for an obese septuagenarian to suffer a massive coronary, the next twenty minutes would be it. I’m not enamored with the Vice President, but he’s at least sane.
A Secret Service agent opens a hidden door, revealing a dark stairwell beyond. He goes in first and turns on a light, followed by the President. The rest of us gather around to await our turn.
“Excuse me, General?”
It’s the Rhino. She’s coming with us? Fucking Christ, this is turning into the worst party I’ve ever been to.
“What did Secretary Mathers mean when he asked you about the Preakness? I thought that was in May?”
“Indeed it is.” Thank God nobody here is a classic movie buff. “But it’s never too early to prepare.”
We file down the stairs and through the tunnel to the bunker. The President’s wife and son—the one who’s too young to be a shit-head yet—are waiting for us. I suppose it’s necessary. This may’ve been designed for continuity of government, but we can hardly ask the President to leave his family upstairs to be vaporized. Though I note my family doesn’t get the same courtesy. Obviously if everyone on the staff could bring their family down, we’d need a bunker the size of Mount Weather, but it rankles me to see a man who won’t lead by example. Maybe if his decision meant the death of his own family, he wouldn’t be so cavalier.
The bunker is large enough to contain the NSC and a skeleton staff for a month, though not necessarily a comfortable one, and I wonder if anyone thought to do a psych study on the likelihood of us strangling each other.
The main chamber is set up like a living room, and there’s a large screen TV on the wall with a DVD player—not Blu-Ray. A bookshelf has a nice collection of movies and TV shows, mainly light fare, comedies and classics. It strikes me as ironically appropriate that we might be stuck down here watching the complete run of M*A*S*H while the world burns.
To one side is a kitchen, and, more importantly, a large pantry. No cold storage, though. If worst comes to worst, we’ll be living off generators, and a walk in freezer would suck up too much energy. There are a couple coolers for beverages, and an ice maker, that’s it. We have a Navy steward who’ll take care of cooking, not that we’re going to be eating anything fancier than canned ravioli.
There’s a master bedroom for the President, a smaller one for his children, and then a handful of dormitories—more like barracks, really—for the rest of us. It’s been a while since I had to sleep on a metal-frame bunk. It’s going to be fun watching the President’s kids fight for the good room. I’m sure whichever little prince gets stuck in the bunk room is gonna love it. A stairwell leads down to an additional set of barracks for the Secret Service and military personnel—in addition to the cook, we have a handful of technicians for handling the bunker’s IT infrastructure and physical plant, plus a whole platoon of Marines for protection.
Apart from a bathroom—three toilets, but only a single shower that’s designed to run for two minutes max—that’s it for the living area.
The work space consists of a stripped down version of the situation room, a comm center, an armory for the Secret Service and Marines, and a single office for the President.
Once we’re all inside, a Marine guard seals the outer door behind us. He doesn’t look happy about it, nor do the Secret Service agents. None of them have been briefed on what we’re planning, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize we wouldn’t be down here if the shit weren’t about to hit the fan.
I enter the conference room. Anyone coming in here expecting to find the War Room from Doctor Strangelove is going to be disappointed. The government never has the budget that Hollywood thinks we do. The room’s something you’d find on the middle floors of a corporate office building, and a far cry from the boardroom on the President’s old TV show. If we’re going to be stuck down here for the long haul, he’s undoubtedly going to complain about it.
But, it’ll serve its purpose.
There’s a technician already inside, trying to get the video conferencing up and running. “We should have the CIA and NSA online in a moment,” she tells me.
“Get me the news channels!” the President says.
“The news channels! Skip MSNBC! They’re garbage! Pure trash! Especially that Morning Joe! I’ve never seen a show so bad! Miserable! Bottom of the ratings, too! I told Joe, if he wants to win his time slot, he should join my team, but he wouldn’t listen! Pathetic! Now he’s wallowing in third place! Nobody watches MSNBC! Their ratings are worse than Megyn Kelly’s! But CNN and Fox! I’ve gotta know what they’re saying!”
Of course the room is set up to get cable. The news nets can be iffy at times, running ahead of a story and reporting any wild rumor they hear, but they also provide live feeds from around the world, and that can be useful in a crisis.
At least assuming the President can distinguish rumor and hyperbole from solid facts.
In present circumstances, I’d rather keep him away from cable, especially Fox. But there’s no gainsaying him.
He is the President.
So on goes the cable.
“So why’ve you come out to oppose the President today?” I recognize one of the local reporters for Fox5. She’s on the street, looks like over by the President’s hotel. She’s corralled a group of protesters—kids, mostly college aged, one or two might even be in high school.
She goes right for the youngest one, shoving the mic in the girl’s face.
“I thought it ... would be ... cool. Uh-huh,” the girl says.
“You know, war’s bad.”
“Even against a thuggish dictator like Kim Jong-un?”
“Did you know he had his uncle executed with an antiaircraft gun? Those fire bullets the size of soup cans?”
The girl’s cringing and can’t think of a reply, so the reporter shifts her attention to another one of the group—the girl’s sister, looks like.
“Look at that!” the President shouts. “Look at that! We let these people into our country, probably refugees with no money, they live on welfare—everyone in this room, we’re paying for them with our taxes—and this is how they repay us! They side with our enemies! Girls like that, they should go back to Cambodia or wherever they’re from, instead of stinking up our country!”
“It is a disgrace,” “Doctor” Kroga says. He’s got a black eye, I just noticed. Looks good on him. He should get another. “The mingling of non-Western cultures with our own is a slow poison, and this is the result.”
“Cultural suicide,” Cannon mutters. “Lenin said capitalists would sell him the rope by which he’d hang us. He was close. It’s the white race doing it.”
“Actually, the President won most counties in Virginia,” the reporter says, “including a large chunk of Northern Virginia. If your college is that ardently against the President, it’s an outlier. Do you think that has anything to do with your professors?”
“That’s right!” the President says. “I won Virginia by a huge margin—absolutely historic! Nobody has ever won Virginia by such margins! You can look it up—never! Unpresidented! Where are all the protesters coming from!? Is somebody paying them!? We should look into it! Congress should look into it instead of wasting time on a useless witch hunt! Fake news!” He reaches for his breast pocket where he keeps his phone, but the Living Skeleton grabs his wrist.
“We can deal with the fake protesters later,” she says. “There’s a crisis right now. Remember?”
I mute the television. I don’t know it’s going to do much good. The President’s chair faces the screens, so as long as they’re on, he’s going to be distracted by the flashing images. But without sound, he’s less likely to explode into a rant.
The SecDef takes a seat analogous to where he’d be in the Cabinet or Situation Rooms. He opens a leather portfolio in front of him and pulls out a sheet of paper. Everyone takes this as a cue to sit down.
The technician withdraws from the room. She can control the A/V equipment remotely from the comm center, and we have an intercom directly to her, if we need anything.
“Mr. President,” the Secretary begins, “our commanders in Korea report 100% readiness—‘readiness’ here meaning that all leaves have been canceled, troops have reported for duty, and units are provisioned for combat deployment. I want to stress, this does not mean we are actually ready to fight a war. Our troops in Korea are little more than a tripwire. If things go tits-up, hopefully they can slow the Norks down while we bring in reinforcements.”
The SecDef is painting a rosy picture. The distance between the DMZ and Seoul is only thirty-some miles. Thirty-some miles from DC and you’re still in the suburbs. Our forces and the South Korean military might be able to halt a Nork advance eventually, but not before it destroys Seoul. Even without nukes on the table, the devastation would be off the charts, like nothing the world has seen since World War II. The mid-range estimate says half a million dead in the first month.
And that would include most of our troops currently in-country.
“What about evacuations?” Kellerman asks.
“We’re pulling dependents from the entire Western Pac—Korea, Japan, as far away as Guam,” the SecDef says. Getting the children and spouses of service members out of harms way is a top priority. Americans are sensitive enough about military casualties. Morale would sink like the Titanic if the news started reporting on American children getting killed or military wives being held captive. “We’ve got Korea and the Japanese Home Islands clear, but Okinawa’s bottlenecked. It’ll be tomorrow before the civvies are out.”
Kellerman turns to the SecState.
The SecState doesn’t say anything.
“Well?” Kellerman says.
The SecState looks at him puzzled.
“Civilians. Evacuation. How’s it coming?”
“Come on, man.” Kellerman snaps his fingers. “Sitrep.”
“We issued a travel advisory,” the SecState manages.
“An advisory? Your guys should be dragging people to the airport.”
“Well, I figured it wouldn’t be necessary. People are smart enough to figure it out for themselves. All they’ve got to do is turn on the news.”
“Jesus titty-sucking Christ! We’re on the verge of war, and we’ve still got civilians in forward areas? Whose cock did you suck to get this job?”
The SecState cringes. “I’m sorry. I’m ... I can’t do this. My wife ... she told me I should take the position. I never wanted it.” Tears flood over the man’s eyelids. “I never had to make decisions like this before. I thought I’d be cutting deals, not ... oh Christ, we’re gonna get people killed.”
The President slams his hand down on the table. “I don’t want any pussies on my team! Do I make myself clear!? We are in this to win it! We’re going to have so much winning, they’re going to call us the United States of Winning! Anyone who isn’t ready to give what it takes to win—anyone who isn’t going to give me 110%—you can get the hell out! Out! Now!” He’s screaming now. The room’s too small for this kind of shouting, and the walls, under a thin wood veneer, are solid concrete that reflects his voice right back at us.
“Mr. President,” the SecDef says.
“If I wanted losers on my team, I’d’ve hired Li’l Marco! I hired you guys to win!”
“We’re working on it,” the SecDef says. “Right now, we need to decide on the options we discussed this morning.”
Since the Johnson Administration, the Pentagon’s used the Goldilocks approach for presenting the President with options. The first choice is always underwhelming, usually something along the lines of a harshly worded statement. The third choice is always some kind of costly military action, or even a nuclear response. Then the SecDef presents the Pentagon’s preferred option as the middle choice. It usually works. Obama had gone for the cold porridge a couple times, but even he usually went along with whatever his generals suggested.
But our current President ... the man owns a gold-plated condominium. He doesn’t know the meaning of “going overboard.” We’d had to talk him out of a full-fledged invasion of the Venezuela back in January, and thank God that never made the papers.
“We don’t have any choice!” the President says. “Kim Jong-un is a madman!”
The irony in the room is so thick you’d need a chainsaw to cut it.
This is exactly why I try to keep the President away from cable news. The idea of Kim as a deranged tyrant has a strong hold on the popular imagination, but if the President ever paid attention to his daily briefings, he’d know the truth. Every report I’ve ever sent the President on the DPKR has stressed this point—Kim is an entirely rational thug. His mode of behavior is one familiar throughout human history, at least as far back as the Greeks and Babylonians, and maybe all the way to the first Neanderthal chieftains.
Take that story everyone likes to trot out about Kim having his uncle’s family executed. Despots murdering relatives and high ranking courtiers is nothing new, nor is killing an entire family. I can think of half a dozen English monarchs who did the same thing without anyone accusing them of being mad—not even Richard III. Kim’s preferred method of execution is brutal, absolutely, but even that’s unoriginal. After the Sepoy Mutiny, the British had tied condemned prisoners to the mouths of cannons and blown them to smithereens. Nobody thought the Tommys were insane.
Calling Kim crazy is dangerous. It means our starting assumption is he can’t be negotiated with, and if he threatens the US, a military response becomes the only reasonable solution.
Cannon and his cabal are enamored with the idea of the “Thucydides Trap,” a theory that claims conflict between rising and established powers are inevitable—it’s Oswald Spengler in a new suit of clothes.
What they should be worried about is the Cassandra Trap—making an outcome inevitable by believing it’s inevitable. Kim almost certainly doesn’t want war with the US—he’s not Saddam Hussein; he’s not deluded enough to think the US is a paper tiger that can be easily dispatched. But if the President goes into a crisis assuming Kim is ready to trigger global armageddon, the inevitable logic is that we have to get in the first punch and hope that stops him.
It won’t, though. Even if Kim doesn’t get off a retaliatory strike, China will, and then it’s adiós muchachos for everyone.
As repugnant as I find the idea, we have to find a way to negotiate with Kim. Being a thuggish dictator doesn’t mean he doesn’t have legitimate issues we can discuss. The Cuban Missile Crisis had been sparked, in part, by the presence of US missiles in Turkey, as close to Soviet territory as Cuba is to Miami. Khrushchev had been willing to withdraw his missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy removing the American missiles. That wasn’t a sign of weakness on Kennedy’s part, nor an acknowledgment that Khrushchev was a good guy. It was simply a deal—the sort of deal the President claims he’s good at making, though I’ve yet to see any support for that claim.
The Chinese need North Korea as a buffer between themselves and our forces in the South—that’s why they’d intervened in the Korean War back in the ‘50s. However, North Korea isn’t necessarily synonymous with the Kim dynasty, and Jong-un knows that. If he’s too big of nuisance, the Chinese might decide they want somebody more ameliorable in place. That means that while the DPRK can count on China’s protection, the Kims need independent surety. Hence their long march towards becoming a nuclear power.
But the nature of the problem means there is room for negotiation. Or there would be if the President hadn’t spent the last month tweeting threats.
So here we are.
This morning, the SecDef and his team had presented three options to the President:
Frankly, they all suck. America’s policy towards North Korea has been incoherent since the end of the Cold War, changing direction every couple years depending upon the political climate, and now we’re paying the price for a quarter century of fuck-ups.
All things considered, though, I’d rather avoid a major war. We still haven’t extricated ourselves from the Middle East, and frankly the DPRK’s strategic importance is nil as long as Kim’s willing to behave himself. It sucks for the millions of people living under his rule, but I’m sure even they prefer that to being vaporized.
The SecDef and his staff are leaning towards option (2), though they recognize they’re playing with fire. If the President went with (1), I’m sure they’d breathe a sigh of relief.
But that’s not going to happen. We all know it.
“Okay, now before we make any decisions, I’ve asked Gerald, my brilliant son-in-law, to do a little research! He’s got a great mind, the best, he has the best thoughts, and I want to hear his idea-things before I decide anything! A little more information is never bad, that’s what I’ve always thought! I learned that lesson with my second wife! If I’d done a little research on her, I’d be a few million dollars richer today, I’ll tell you that! Worst mistake I ever made! Absolute worst! Even the daughter I got out of it, and I mean this as a loving father, but she’s a little bit not too good looking! I mean, you compare her to Eviana, there’s no comparison! Much smaller breasts! Much smaller! And her thighs are always flabby! I’ve offered to pay for her to have plastic surgery, but she told me no! I’m trying to be a good father here! It would help her career immensely—immensely—but she got mad when I suggested it! She’s no respect for me—that’s also her mother’s faul—”
“Mr. President,” Kellerman says.
“What!? Oh, yeah! Go ahead Gerald!”
I keep a stony face, but inside I’m groaning. Captain Nepotism is, not to put too fine a point on it, a complete fucking moron. The man couldn’t count his balls and get the same number twice.
“Well, D, what I’ve found out is this. North Korea has been ruled by the same family since 1950. They’re the Kims, just like our nanny, though she says they’re no relation.” He laughs.
Nobody else does.
“Yeah, so the first Kim, Kim Il-sung—the Koreans do their names backwards, by the way; confusing as hell, but it is what it is. Well, Kim Il-sung created this political philosophy called juche, and from what I can see, it’s not too crazy. The word means—” he consults his notes, “‘subject,’ but it’s more accurate to translate it as ‘self-reliance’.”
“Isn’t he brilliant!” the President says. “I told you all, he’s brilliant! So brilliant! The kids he’s producing with those smart little sperm of his and my daughter’s beautiful, precious eggs, they’re going to be so great! So great! You will not believe how smart they’re gonna turn out to be, and good looking too!”
Captain Nepotism smiles. “Thank you, D. I’m gonna do my best. Now, as I was saying, the central idea behind juche is self-reliance, both for individuals and the nation. ‘North Korea First,’ you could say.”
“That’s so true!” the President says. “You don’t hear about North Korean companies shipping jobs overseas, do you!? You don’t hear about immigrants taking jobs from Korean workers, do you!?”
He cannot be serious, can he?
“I think we’ve heard enough,” Kellerman says.
“I’ve got a whole lot more,” Captain Nepotism says.
“Yes, I’m sure the Wikipedia article is quite extensive.”
Captain Nepotism’s face colors. His wife puts a hand on his shoulder.
“That was uncalled for, General,” she says. “We work very hard for this country, and nobody appreciates it.”
The President nods. “Eviana, tell me what you think about this!”
“I’ve been talking to people at my company, and they say a nuclear war would be very bad for our product lines. A lot of the materials we use have to go through that area on their way to the US. Someone even said China might impose an embargo on us. That would be very bad for us.”
“Those chinky little bastards!” the President says. “They’ll do anything to hurt me, won’t they!?”
“There’s a more important consideration,” Cannon says. “Nothing is guaranteed to send your poll numbers up like a good war.”
“He’s right,” the Living Skeleton says. “Look at Bush—September Eleventh was the best thing to ever happen to him. Without that, he would’ve been a one-termer. His poll numbers were in the toilet, and then the Twin Towers fell, and the country came together to support him. His numbers started to fall again, but he invaded Iraq, they went right back up. Sure, in the long run, there were problems, yes. But that’s because the Pentagon screwed everything up.”
The SecDef’s bristling.
We were all there. We know the fuck-up was deciding to go into Iraq in the first place. And this bitch has the nerve to blame us while treating the deaths of three thousand civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers as a political ploy. If it weren’t for the Secret Service agents standing outside, I’m sure one of us would leap across the table and strangle her.
“Yeah, yeah,” the President says, “we went in there and we played nice! We didn’t take the oil! Instead we dicked around trying to build a nation for a bunch of savages! No more of that! Winning means crushing the enemy, not buying them lunch!”
“No nation building this time,” “Doctor” Kroga says. “We go in and we level the country. They can pick up the pieces themselves.”
The SecState should speak up to that. He should point out that such an action would make the United States a pariah in the international community. He should point out that we’d face sanctions, embargoes and boycotts. NATO would probably collapse. And if we use nukes, nobody in this room will be able to set foot outside the US without being arrested for war crimes.
The SecState doesn’t say anything. He’s staring at his hands, fiddling with his wedding ring.
“I’m sure some on the left will continue to oppose us,” Cannon says. “They’re much more radicalized than they were in 2003. But my website is prepared to launch an all-out assault on them. I’m sure our friends at Fox will be on board as well. Anyone who questions our actions will be branded a traitor. We’ll put pressure on CNN and MSNBC not to book guests who speak out against us. The radical left has been pushing advertisers to boycott us since you took office. It’s time we turn that tactic on them. If Rachel Maddow speaks out, you can call upon your Twitter army to demand that GE, Ford, Apple—whoever—pull their ads from her show. Same if they book Rick Wilson, Paul Krugman, hell, even Elizabeth Warren. And if that doesn’t work, we can take stronger actions. I know our friends on the Hill are sick and tired of being hounded by left-wing reporters at every step.”
That’s it. This has gone too far. “Mr. President, this is a National Security Council meeting. The subject is the security of the United States. Politics does not belong here. This discussion is both off-point and beyond our remit.” I can’t stop him from discussing the political ramifications of his decisions, but goddammit, I’m not going to be part of it.
“Agreed,” the SecDef says.
Kellerman remains notably silent.
“There is no difference between national security and politics,” “Doctor” Kroga says. “They are one and the same. The radical left is a threat to this country and this administration. We will never make America great as long as they’re pushing back on our every move. The sooner you understand that, the better.”
“Mister Kroga, you do not speak that way to me or my colleagues,” the SecDef says. “Especially not when those colleagues are war heroes like Rob.”
“Lew,” Kellerman says, “hold it in.”
“Goddammit, Mike, I am not holding it in for this Nazi piece of trash. Bad enough he’s leaving his slime trail all over the White House, but I will not have him sully the honor of the armed services by suggesting we need to abandon basic principles of American democracy.” The SecDef stands up so fast his chair nearly falls over.
“You’re getting emotional, General,” “Doctor” Kroga says.
“You’re damn right Nazis make me emotional.”
“You can shut up, Doctor,” Kellerman says. He puts a hand on the SecDef’s shoulder and presses him back to his chair. “Any political considerations should’ve been discussed before now. Right now, we’re considering the military and diplomatic options available to us, and nothing else. Isn’t that right, Mr. President?”
But the President isn’t paying attention. His eyes are glued to the TVs.
“I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like it!” the President says.
We look to the screens. CNN and Fox have different camera angles, but they’re showing the same thing. There’s a discoloration stretching across the sky above the Mall. At first I think it might be a cloud, but, no, it’s more like the sky itself is being bleached. The chyron on CNN says, “STRANGE PHENOMENON OVER WASHINGTON”. Fox has “NORTH KOREAN ATTACK IN PROGRESS?”
I grab a remote and hit the volume button, making sure to aim at the set that’s showing CNN, not Fox.
“—don’t know what we’re seeing, Jake. We first noticed it a couple minutes ago.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like a nuclear missile at least,” the anchor says.
The field reporter laughs nervously. “No, we’ve got that going for—hey, Praveen, what’s wrong with your cheek?”
There’s some commotion and the camera shakes. For a second the reporter’s face flashes across the screen. At least, I think it’s her face. Something is terribly wrong with it.
“Is that blood?” Spacey says.
That’s what it looked like. Like the reporter had blood coming out of her eyes.
Over on Fox, the camera operator is doing a better job staying in control. He—she?—has the camera trained on a correspondent, but ... dear God. What is wrong with the guy? He looks like a wax dummy that’s been put on a fire. His skin is sloughing off, revealing a bloody, runny sludge underneath.
Somebody screams outside. By the sound, it’s the President’s wife. They have a TV in the outer room, and she’s probably watching the same thing.
The Fox camera operator loses control. The shot swings wildly around, sweeping across the sea of protesters on the Mall. All of them—all of them—are melting like the reporters.
“It’s Korea,” Cannon says. “They’re attacking us.”
“Can’t be,” Kellerman says. “No way they have a weapon like this.”
Nobody has a weapon like this.
“Then who the hell is doing it?” Captain Nepotism says.
“We’ve gotta launch!” the President says. “Where’s the football?”
But before anyone can respond, the room begins shaking.
A nuclear blast?
No, that’d be one short, sharp punch. This doesn’t stop. It keeps going.
“Under the table,” Cannon says. Yeah, he’s Californian, he’d know what to do.
The President is first on his knees, and he crawls under with his huge ass sticking out. His pants aren’t used to the stress, and the ass-seam rips, revealing greyish cotton briefs.
Kroga, Cannon, and the Living Skeleton follow him underneath, Eviana and her husband, the NSC functionaries. Everyone but me, and Kellerman and the SecDef. I figure, if the room doesn’t survive, better to be crushed under a ton of concrete than get stuck with those assholes for God knows how many days before rescuers get here—assuming there are going to be any rescuers to get here.
But the bunker holds. After a minute, the shaking dies down.
We still have power, and the lights didn’t flicker once, though I don’t know if that means the power grid survived, or if we’ve been on the backup genny this entire time. Cable’s out, though. The TVs are all showing blue screens.
I hit the intercom. I don’t remember the technician’s name, so I address her simply as, “Sergeant.”
“What’s our comm stat?”
“I had connections established to Langley, Fort Meade and the Pentagon, but the quake knocked them all offline. Trying to reestablish now, sir.”
No sense in getting in her hair. “Let me know when you get something.”
“What’s going on!?” The President is sitting on the floor with his head poking over the table.
“Were we nuked!? I thought you said the Norks don’t have missiles that can hit us!”
There’s a knock on the door. “Pookie bear, what is going on?” the First Lady asks.
“Let her in!” the President says.
One of the NSC staffers unlocks the door.
“What happened?” the First Lady says.
Behind her, the Rhino and the President’s youngest son are trying to peer inside.
“Must be that damned chink!” the President says.
“Gook, sir,” Kellerman corrects. What the fuck is wrong with that man? He didn’t used to be this way.
“Whatever! Get me the football! We’re gonna launch! He is going to pay for this!”
The Air Force colonel who had the (mis)fortune to be on duty today shoulders past the Hippo and enters the room. “Sir?”
“We need to launch right away! I want a full-on assault! I don’t want nothing left standing in Korea!”
“We can’t do that, Mr. President,” the SecDef says.
“What do you mean, we can’t do that!?”
“Our comms are offline at the moment. We can’t order anything.”
“What sort of shitty engineering is this!? Who built this place!? Make sure they never get another government contract!”
“Yes, sir. Of course,” the SecDef says. “But until we get comms operational, there’s nothing you can do. Don’t worry, this is what the continuity of government plan is for. If DC is out of commission, the Pentagon—well, probably NORAD—will determine the next in line of succession.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Mike McGraw, the head of the Secret Service detail is at the door. “There’s something you need to see.”
“What is it!?” the President asks.
“You better see it for yourself.” The head of detail hits the intercom. “Sarge, can you patch through the CCTV feed.”
“Roger,” she says.
The TVs switch from blue screens to security cam footage.
“What the hell happened up there?” the Vice President says.
We’re looking at the South Lawn, or what’s left of it. The grass is burned black, and so are the trees. And ...
“What happened to the Washington Monument?” the Living Skeleton asks.
At first, I don’t see it at all, but then I notice it—or what’s left of it. Only the lower third remains standing—the rest of it’s fallen over.
To Be Continued ...
I wave my SmarTrip card over the machine and step through the fare gate. I cross my fingers as I head towards the escalators. Please don’t be crowded. Please.
The platform comes into view as I near the edge of the upper deck. Ehn. Not too bad, I suppose. The station’s busy for a Sunday, but it’s far short of a weekday rush hour. I’m glad Brad let me cut out early—another hour or so and the station will be swarming with protesters. The thought of being stuck on a train with people who’ve been in the August heat all day … that is the stench of Hell.
I descend the escalator and wander to the far end of the platform. I drop onto an unoccupied bench and stretch out my legs. Oh God, that feels good. I’d only been at work five hours today, but my feet are killing me, positively killing me. Guess it’s time for new shoes. I hate the thought of it. Even if I get cheapies from Ross or Wal-Mart, that’s gonna be thirty, forty bucks out of my budget. I can afford it, but it means I can’t afford anything else for the next two weeks—no books, no pizza, no music. Not even a night out—ha-ha, that’s a good one.
I slip my iPod from my pocket, a clunky old one with a little postage stamp screen. I plug the headphones into my ears and turn it on, crank the volume to drown out the noise of the platform. Jenny Lewis starts singing about dropping acid on her tongue. The battery’s down to less than half charge—it’d been full this morning and I’d only used it for an hour on the ride to work, but it keeps losing its charge even while turned off. Well, I’ve had it since I graduated high school. Shouldn’t expect it to last forever.
Be nice, though.
I lean my head back, find myself staring up at a poster telling me, “If you see something, say something.” I drape my arms over the back of the bench—or rather, the low barrier that keeps the station lights hidden away. My fingers brush against something, come away moist. Eww. Someone had stuffed a soft drink cup back there. I wipe my hand on my pants.
This is not my day.
I’d gotten the call to come into work at eight this morning—wasn’t even out of bed yet, but Brad didn’t care. Lori had called out, he needed someone to fill in. Knowing her, she’s probably out on the Mall protesting. She’s done it five times this summer—got arrested twice. She brags about it at work, like she’s actually accomplished anything. But Brad doesn’t care. She’s cute. She gets away with murder. I’m one he calls to clean it up.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the Natural History museum was hosting the premiere of some new documentary with Liam LaGrange Bassett this weekend, and the man himself was hanging around for a Q&A after each showing. Under other circumstances, the protests would’ve scared tourists away, but meeting LLGB was too good a chance to pass up. Every time the documentary finished screening, we were inundated with customers. Only after the last showing got out at three-thirty did everything die down, and Brad said I could leave early—he’d originally wanted me to work all the way till seven.
Dammit. Why had I even agreed to come in today? I could’ve told Brad I had plans, go beg someone else. There’s nothing he could do about it. But like a fool, I said, “Okay, give me a couple hours, I’ll be there.” I always do that, I don’t know why. I wanna say “No.” Wanna say, “Hey, did you ever think I might have plans for today?” even though the only thing I ever do on my day off is laundry and reading. I want to put my foot down and say, “This is the third time you’ve asked me to work my day off this month, and it’s not even the fifteenth.” But when the moment comes, I can’t do it. I just … roll over. I tell myself, “Next time. I’ll tell him no next time.”
But I never do…
There’s a light coming from the tunnel. A rumble fills the air, audible even over my music. People move towards the edge of the platform.
I glance over at the arrival sign. Yup, this is my ride.
I stagger to my feet.
The train shoots out the tunnel and brakes to a halt with a screech. There are a lot of tourists and out-of-town protesters here, so they hesitate for a moment, making sure this is the train they need. While they’re doing that, I slip through the crowd and get onto the first car.
It’s crowded inside, but not packed to bursting. It’s not even standing room only yet. I grab a rear-facing seat all to myself at the front, behind the driver’s cabin.
Facing me from the other side of the door are two girls, college age, very pretty—very hungover. One’s passed out on the shoulder of the other, who’s sitting with her arm propped against the window, staring vacantly at the far platform.
The passed out girl is a bottled blonde. Her mouth’s hanging open, and a metal stud glints on her tongue. She’s wearing a black mesh shirt over of a tie-dye bikini top, and she has some kind of Native American tattoo around her bellybutton.
The other girl is Asian, with her hair streaked purple and red. She has a tiny diamond stud on the side of her nose, and there’s a tattoo of a roaring lion peeking out from the shoulder of her halter-top. The halter has an oval cutout that exposes the inner slopes of her breasts, along with the lion’s tail and hind legs over her heart.
The driver makes an unintelligible announcement over the intercom, presumably telling us that the next stop is Federal Triangle. Ping-pong. The doors close. The train lurches ahead.
As we plunge into the next tunnel, the girl in the halter top looks away from the window. Shit. I shift my gaze to the far end of the train, pretend I’m zoning out to my music. Yeah, I totally wasn’t checking you out just now. I’m just sitting here minding my own business.
Is she buying it?
Our eyes meet. My cheeks flush—I can’t see them, but I feel the hot blood rushing through my face right now.
I look down at my iPod and pray she’ll look away, forget about me. I can’t be the first guy to check her out, not if she’s dressed like that. Hopefully I’ll fade into the sea of pervs she must deal with every time she goes out clubbing.
A Bright Eyes song ends and Camera Obscura starts singing that we should get outta the country. Yeah, I’m with you there.
Something whaps into my forehead, tumbles onto my lap. I catch it before it slides off my thigh, look at it puzzled. Where did a pencil eraser come from?
When I look up, the halter girl has a second eraser pinned against the divider rail, her finger ready to flick it at me. She stops and signs that I should take my earbuds out. I do.
“Whachoo listenin’ to?” she says.
“Oh yeah, they’re cool.”
Why is she talking to me? Is she trying to embarrass me for checking her out? I shift on my seat.
“What other bands you like?”
“Uh...” That’s a question from nowhere. My mind blanks. “REM.” First thing I can think of.
“They’re cool too.”
The train decelerates.
“You ever hear St. Vincent?” the girl says.
“Uh, yeah. Some of her stuff. She’s good.”
The girl starts to say something else, but she’s interrupted by the driver on the intercom. The train slows to a halt, the doors open. More tourists get on board, and a gaggle of protesters still sporting their placards.
NO BLOOD FOR KIMCHI!
KNEEL BEFORE ZOD
A WOMAN’S PLACE
IS IN THE
There are still seats available, but three of the protesters opt to stand next to the door, blocking my view of the girl. A fourth guy pops his head in.
“Hey guys,” he says, “Josh and Shreya are still upstairs, you know.”
They exchange glances, but before any of them--
“Please stand clear of the doors.”
—can respond, the driver signals that we’re ready to leave. The guy gets his head out of the way and the door shuts.
“Ah, crap,” a blonde girl says.
“What do we do?” a second girl says, this one Asian. “Get off at the next station and go back?”
“What if they take the next train and we miss ‘em?” a guy says. “Nah, let’s keep on till Dunn Loring, and they’ll have to catch up.”
I put my earphones back in. The Decembrists are singing “The Bagman’s Gambit.” Now why hadn’t I thought of them when the girl asked? Or Rilo Kiley? Regina Spector? God, the band names are flooding me now.
Well, not like it woulda done me any good. The girl’s way outta my league. I’m not even sure we’re playing the same sport. Mentioning Snow Patrol might’ve gotten us another thirty seconds of conversation, but she would’ve realized I’m a loser eventually and gone back to staring out the window.
I watch the progress bar on my iPod tick slowly upwards. 7:02. “The Bagman’s Gambit” ends as the train pulls into Metro Center. A handful of passengers debark, but twice as many come on board. The few remaining seats fill up—a woman in a Marriott uniform sits next to me. The protest kids fall back to the middle of the car, new arrivals taking positions at the doors.
After Metro Center, we’re out of the tourist area, and we get through the next few stops without the train getting any more crowded. But neither does it empty out. That’s not gonna happen until we get across the river.
Speaking of which, after Foggy Bottom the train makes its descent under the Potomac, plunging so deep into the Earth that my ears pop and I have to take my earbuds out for a minute. A woman standing in front of me takes out a pack of Wrigleys, pops a piece into her mouth, gives another to her son.
The lights flicker. At first I think it might be a bulb about to give out, but no, the whole train darkened for a second, like an inverse camera flash.
There—they did it again.
The train shudders. Or is that the tunnel? The lights outside are whipping by too fast to focus on, but they seem to be shaking on the--
The lights go out completely.
“You gotta be kidding me!”
“Well this is great.”
The train’s slowing down. Wheels screech. I’m pressed backwards by inertia. There are cries and thuds as standing passengers fall over. A kid starts screaming.
The train comes to a halt with a final lurch. For a moment the car is silent save for the crying kid, but then comes the babble of a hundred people speaking at once. Lights pop up as people pull out their cell phones, but those only provide enough light to mark the outlines of people.
“Everyone all right?” a guy calls out with an authoritative voice. Probably hoping to be the take-charge leader who gets interviewed on Channel 4 News.
Everybody ignores him.
“The tunnel lights are still on.”
“They’re on batteries, probably.”
“This happen a lot?” a tourist asks.
“It’s not the first time,” someone replies.
“Should we get off? What if another train comes and hits us?”
“That can’t happen. They’ve got safety systems.”
“This is Metro we’re talking about.”
That gets a laugh.
“Wish the driver would come out and tell us something.”
“Like I said, this is Metro.”
“The intercom’s not working.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Somebody knock on the door.”
“Get some answers.”
The woman next to me mutters something in Spanish.
The folks in the aisle nearest the door are tourists, and they look like little kids who’ve gotten lost in a warzone.
“C’mon, somebody knock.”
I stand and squeeze my way past the maid, stuffing my earbuds into my pocket as I go. “Excuse me.”
One of the tourists gives me a weird look as I step into the aisle, like, “What the hell are you doing? Sit down and wait for things to work themselves out.” Yeah, last time there was a Metro accident, people told themselves that, and somebody died while they were waiting.
I rap on the door, just a polite tap really. Wait.
I try again.
“Knock harder,” a woman shouts from way back in the car.
Harder it is, hard enough that the sound carries throughout the car.
Click. The door unlocks, swings inward. The emergency lights in the tunnel give just enough illumination for me to discern the short, tubby shape of the driver, his bald head lit up like a crescent moon. Sweat glistens on his scalp.
He steps out of the cabin and the light from someone’s cell phone falls across his face. He’s so pale I wonder if he’s having a heart attack. Thankfully only the people nearest the door can see him, otherwise I think the look on his face would be enough to start a stampede off the train.
“What’s going on?” somebody shouts.
“Um, I’m ...” the driver says. He looks out the window. “We should, ah ... we should....”
“C’mon, what’s the problem?”
“The power is ... ah, the power’s out.” The driver says this so softly that only those of us at the front of the car can hear him, but the incredulous groans at his comment more than make up for it.
“No shit the power’s out,” a man says behind me. “What do we do?”
“We’re, uh, we’re supposed to wait for, for Metro to come. That’s, uh, that’s standard. The standard procedure.”
“You call them?” The guy shoulders his way forward. He has on a blue button-down shirt and dress pants. He’s undone his tie and stuffed it in his pocket, but he has an ID hanging from a lanyard around his neck. By his voice, I’m pretty sure this is Mr. Take Charge.
“No. Radio’s out,” the driver says.
“So they don’t even know we’re stuck.”
“No, they’ll ... they’ll figure it out. They should.”
Mr. Take Charge and me exchange looks. He rolls his eyes in disbelief. “We should get off, walk back to the station. Or forward to Rosslyn—which is closer?”
“No, no, no, we can’t do that. It isn’t policy.”
Mr. Take Charge is about to say something back, and I don’t think it’s gonna be too nice, but just then somebody knocks on the outside door. We all turn and see a face peering in at us from the tunnel. At first I think it might be a Metro worker come to check things out, but there’s no way he could get out here that fast. Besides, the guy has on casual clothes, not exactly appropriate for tunnel work.
Through the other windows, I see more people, passengers from the rearmost cars. They’re pooling up behind the guy at the door, and they look anxious to get around him.
“Open the door,” somebody says.
A couple guys, tourists by the look of them, put their hands against the doors and try to slide them apart. When that fails, one of them grabs the door from the center and tries to pry it loose.
“There’s an emergency lever next to the door,” Mr. Take Charge says.
The tourists look and don’t see it.
“It’s right there to your left,” Mr. Take Charge says. He’s gone from sounding like a school teacher to an annoyed cop.
One of the tourists finds the lever and, after fumbling to get the cover off, manages to pull it down. The door shudders as the mechanism holding it in place relaxes. The guys have no trouble opening it now.
“Hey, is the driver here?” the guy outside says. He casts a glance over his shoulder.
One of the people behind him tells him to get outta the way and then jostles past him. He steps onto the train to avoid getting stampeded.
“Y-y-you can’t be leaving the train,” the driver says. “We need to—ah, we—ah, need to ... orderly. Yes, orderly. Need to.” Nobody pays him any mind.
“What’s the problem?” Mr. Take Charge says.
“There’s water leaking outta the tunnel roof,” the other guy says. “I mean, it’s not a lot, it’s not gonna kill us any time soon.” He leans back outta the car and looks down the tunnel. “But still, we don’t want to be taking any chances, you know.”
“Shit,” a protester says.
“Th-th-that’s not not not, that’s not,” the driver says.
The guy from the tunnel didn’t speak loudly enough for everyone to hear, but word of the leak makes its way to the back of the car. I don’t know how many permutations it goes through along the way, but by the time it gets to the rear, people are starting to panic. They move to open the other doors onto the emergency walkway, but the crowd outside is too thick for anyone to get out.
And then somebody realizes there are doors on both sides of the train. They open those as well, and people start pouring out—slowly, ketchup-like—onto the track bed.
“D-d-don’t do that,” the driver says, and for once Mr. Take Charge agrees.
“Hey, you can’t go out there,” he shouts, but by now there’s so much noise in the train that I doubt anyone but me and the driver can hear him. “Idiots. Don’t they know what a third rail is.”
“They probably figure power’s out, no danger,” I say. I see their point.
Mr. Take Charge glares at me. “Yeah, there’s no power here, but what about the rest of the tunnel? And even if the whole system’s dead, what if it comes on again?”
“So what do we do? Wait here until the crowd thins out?”
Mr. Take Charge doesn’t like that idea either. “No. Come on, I got an idea.”
He heads for the other end of the car. The driver, the hotel maid who’d been sitting next to me, and a handful of tourists follow.
I hesitate for a moment. Do I really wanna go after him? He acts like he knows what to do, but I’m getting an alpha-male vibe from him that I don’t like. He reminds me of that annoying guy on MSNBC, Chris Matthews, and how he always shouts over everyone who doesn’t agree with him, like he’s not there to discuss an issue but to cow his opponents into submission. At first you don’t mind, because you know he’s right about most things, but then you hear him say something wrong and still overpowering everyone, and you get a little wary. After awhile, listening to him becomes such a chore you’d almost rather be watching Fox News.
But, this is my life on the line. If I wait for the crowd to clear, God knows if I’ll ever get off this train—that ceiling could come crashing down at any minute. Do I really have a choice here?
So I start after him. But I’ve only gotten a couple steps when a girl calls, “Hey, you, can you give me an assist.”
It’s the halter-top girl from earlier. She’s managed to get her friend upright, but she’s not gonna stay that way without support. Getting her to move—ha! Good luck with that.
“Get her other arm and maybe we can, I dunno, drag her. Or something.”
I don’t like this. If we have to carry someone, we’re gonna get left behind. It’ll take forever to get out of here, and we don’t have forever. “I dunno,” I tell her and edge my way after Mr. Take Charge.
“C’mon. Don’t you wanna be a hero, get your face on the news?”
Not that badly. Not if it means drowning in a subway tunnel.
“C’mon, please. I can’t leave her here.”
God she’s cute, and she’s looking at me with pleading eyes. I shouldn’t do this, but… “Okay.” I pull the passed out girl’s arm around my neck and try to shoulder her weight. Oof! She’s not that big, but she’s dead weight, and even with two of us taking up the burden, she’s heavy as hell.
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask as we start to drag the girl forward.
“Y’know. She partied a little too hard last night.”
“It’s after four o’clock.” I can’t check my watch, but it’s probably closer to five.
“Yeah, well, we didn’t get to sleep until almost ten this morning.”
“Oh. That musta been some night.”
“Well, I’m not gonna ask for my money back.” But then, after thinking for a moment, she adds, “Well, except for my Metro fare.”
We’re almost to the back of the car now. People are still crowding around the side doors, waiting their turn to disembark, but the rear door—the one leading to the next car—is open and I can see Mr. Take Charge and the others on the far side.
Halter Top and I manage to get her friend through the crowd, but maneuvering her through the inter-car door proves more challenging. We end up having to go sideways, me in the lead, and it takes some effort to get the girl’s feet over the thresholds, but we manage in the end.
The next car is more crowded than ours—I guess the passengers didn’t receive the news they had to evacuate like we did, so they sat waiting until they noticed people on the emergency walkway.
“What’s going on?” a guy asks me as we come through.
“I dunno,” I say with all honesty and push on.
“Where are all you guys going?” a woman asks.
I ignore her and concentrate on dragging the passed out girl.
By the time we get to the third car, we’ve almost caught up with Mr. Take Charge, and we close the gap when he stops to open the next set of inter-car doors. Looks like his group’s grown by a bit, though most people are still opting for the side exits. I don’t have time to count, but I’d say there are about three dozen people with Mr. Take Charge now, myself and the girls included.
“You need help?” a tourist asks, a middle aged guy with a backpack so overstuffed you’d think he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has his family with him, his wife, two sons and a daughter. He shrugs his backpack off and hands it to the younger son, then he and his eldest take the girl from me and Halter Top.
“Thank you,” Halter tells him and leans against a pole. She rotates her shoulder and the joint pops.
“Yeah,” I agree. Just getting the girl half the train length had been an ordeal. Dragging her all the way to the next station ... no way, man. No way.
Mr. Take Charge has gotten the next door open and we pour through to the fourth car, which turns out to be mostly empty apart from a handful of stragglers waiting for their chance to get out.
“And thank you,” Halter tells me as we come through the door.
“Sure. No problem.”
“I’m Kenzie, by the way,” she says. “And my friend there is Dallas.”
I get that a lot. “Yeah. Named after my mom’s favorite actor.”
She looks at me quizzically.
“Phoenix. River Phoenix.”
“Oh, him. He’s awesome in that new Gus van Sant movie.”
“No, that’s Joaquin. His younger brother.”
“He has a brother?”
“Had. Guy ODed on drugs when I was, like, seven.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So what movies did this guy do?”
“He played the young Indiana Jones.”
“I thought that was Shia LaDouche?”
“No, no, he was Indy’s son. River Phoenix played Indy in a flashback in the third movie.”
“Oh. Haven’t seen that one. Anything else?”
“He was in Stand By Me.”
“Is that the one about the high school in the slums? With Commander Adama as the teacher? We had to watch that in social studies, like ninth, tenth grade I think.”
We stop for Mr. Take Charge to open the next door.
“No. I don’t know what that one is. Stand By Me is about a bunch of kids who go looking for a dead body.”
“Oh. I know that one. It has the geeky Star Trek kid, right?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Mr. Take Charge gets the door unlatched and pulls it aside. Our group starts filing though.
“‘Suck my fat one,’” Kenzie says. “I love that movie.”
“Could you guys hush it,” a man in front of us says. I can’t see his face clearly in the dark, but I get the impression he’s on the old side. Not Wal-Mart greeter age, but he probably gets discounts at restaurants.
“Sorry,” I say.
Kenzie contorts her face into a grotesque expression behind his back.
We step into the next car. This one is truly deserted, but it’s noisier than any of the ones we’ve come through so far, filled with the sound of water drumming on the roof. It’s a heavy sound, but centered to one spot in the middle of the train. Water’s cascading down the windows, causing the tunnel lights to shimmer and waver.
“Goddamn, that sounds bad,” somebody says.
“Can you please stop cursing,” the old guy says.
“What could cause that?”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Take Charge says. “The biggest quake this area’s ever seen wouldn’t even make the news in California.”
“Then what the hell happened?”
“There are children present, please.”
Mr. Take Charge thinks for a moment then shrugs. “No idea. But we’re not going to find out if we stay here. Come on.”
Even though the car’s empty, the crowd on the side hasn’t dissipated yet. They’re moving forward at a bare crawl.
Mr. Take Charge opens the door to the last car. As everyone presses to get through, a shrill child’s cry comes from the other side.
“Oh thank God,” a woman says. “You’ve gotta help me.”
At first there are too many people in front of me to tell what’s going on, but once we all get into the car and spread out, I see there’s a woman here with a bunch of kids. The oldest, a boy, looks middle school age, and he has a sister a couple years younger than that, but the youngest is strapped into a stroller that’s almost as big as a grocery cart. The woman’s sitting with a girl, just north of toddler-hood, on her lap.
“I wanna go home,” the girl screams. “I don’t like it here.”
“Please help me,” the woman repeats. “Everybody’s left, and I can’t handle them all by myself.”
“Of course,” a woman says—I think she’s the wife of the guy who took Dallas. She swoops forward and takes the girl. “It’s gonna be all right, honey. We’ll get you out of here.”
“Thank you,” the mother says. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I thought we was gonna be stuck here and nobody was gonna come.”
“It’s okay now,” the other woman tells her.
The mother slips off her seat and checks on the baby in the carriage. He—she? It? Whatever. The baby is zonked out, thank god. I don’t know how long it’ll stay that way, but the longer the better. If it can stay asleep until we reach the next station and doesn’t crap its pants or anything, life will be good.
The mother flips the brake switch on the wheels and starts to push the stroller towards the door.
“We can’t take that with us,” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Whadya mean?” the mom asks.
“It’ll never fit on the walkway.”
“Well what am I supposed to do with it?”
“You’ll have to leave it here.”
“That cost money.”
“Look, I’m sure the Metro will get it back to you, or they’ll pay for a replacement. But that’s an issue for later. Right now we want to get out of here as quickly as we can.”
“How far we gotta go?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Take Charge says. “A mile, maybe two.”
“I can’t be carrying my baby that far. And I got a diaper bag, too. That’s heavy.”
Before the mother can lose all sympathy with us, the woman who took the younger daughter intervenes. “Sarah, get her diaper bag from the stroller.”
A teenage girl steps up. The mom helps her dislodge the diaper bag from underneath the carriage. No wonder she didn’t want to carry it—it’s big enough to be suitcase. The mom gathers a few other essentials from the carriage, tosses them into her purse and hands it to Sarah. Sarah doesn’t look too happy at being treated like a bellhop, but she holds her tongue.
“Okay, everything settled?” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Just a second.” The mom unbuckles her baby from the carriage and lifts it out. Of course doing so wakes it up and it starts screaming. She boosts the kid onto her shoulder and gestures for Dallas to open the diaper bag. She rummages inside and comes out with a bottle, but the kid refuses to take it and keeps crying.
“So what is the plan?” That’s the old man, the one who shushed me and Kenzie. “Why’d you drag us all the way back here?”
Mr. Take Charge looks at him like he’s an idiot. “We get off.”
“We coulda done that from the front of the train. And we wouldn’t be stuck at the end of the line.”
“We aren’t going to be stuck at the end of the line. We aren’t going with the rest of the crowd. We’re heading back to Foggy Bottom.”
“Why would we do that?”
“I-I’m not—I-I think, uh, we’re, uh, closer to the Virginia side,” the driver says.
“If we go with the main group, we’ll be forever in getting to the next station,” Mr. Take Charge says. “We split off, we can move faster. But there’s only one way we can split.”
Silence. A lot of people aren’t convinced by his logic. I’m not convinced.
“Look, you don’t like my idea, you’re free to do what you want, but I’m headed to Foggy Bottom.” And with that he steps out to the emergency walkway.
“Who the hell cares about him?” the old guy says, and this earns some nods around the car, but the agreement isn’t universal.
“I’m going with him,” the man who took Dallas says. He looks to Kenzie. “You want us to leave your friend here?”
She doesn’t answer at first. The pause is so long I wonder if she heard the question, but then she says, “No, let’s ... let’s go with that guy.”
She looks to me.
“Um. Yeah. Okay.” The words are out before I’ve have time to think them over. Wait. Why did I agree to that? I don’t wanna go back to DC. If the whole Metro system’s shut down, I’ll need to call my parents for a ride. Easier if I’m on the Virginia side of the river.
But it’s too late now. I can’t bring myself to contradict what I’ve just said.
“Okay then.” The man and his son lower Dallas to the floor. The emergency walkway outside isn’t nearly wide enough for them to drag her between them, so they’re going to have to come up with another arrangement. The man looks at her thoughtfully for a moment before saying, “Okay, I guess we’ll have to do it this way. He crouches down with his back to Dallas. “Get her up onto my back.”
We help his son move her. The man wraps his arms under her thighs to hold her in place, but that’s only good for her lower half.
“You’re going to have to hang onto me, honey,” he says. “Can you do that for me?”
“Wha? Yeah, hmm. Sure.”
Not very reassuring. But she slips her arms around his neck.
“Not too tight,” the man says.
The man hoists himself up. He walks with a stoop, not so much from Dallas’s weight, but to keep her from sliding off him if she loses her grip. She looks like she’ll stay in place, but he tells his son, “Stay behind me and catch her if she starts to fall.”
The boy nods.
By now we’re the last ones on the train. We step out onto the escape platform.
As soon as we’re through the door, we’re hit by stagnant, muggy air. You’d think being underground, it’d be cool, what with heat rising and all, but no, it’s not much more than a couple degrees cooler than the surface, and it’d been over ninety when I got off work. There’s not even a hint of airflow down here.
Our group—what’s left of it, anyway, a little more than half I’d say—is already moving off towards DC. The rest have joined the line that’s making its way towards Virginia. Well, supposedly making their way towards. I don’t see any sign of movement. Maybe Mr. Take Charge is right.
The man and his son let me and Kenzie go ahead and we hurry to catch up with the rest of the group.
The walkway’s about as wide as a suburban sidewalk, but with a ledge on one side and a curving wall on the other, it’s not made for two to walk abreast. We have to move single file, and once we catch up to the group, our pace slows to that of the slowest walker—the woman with all the kids.
There are lights every ten yards or so, but only a quarter of them are hooked up to backup power. Even if they were all operational, they wouldn’t provide as much illumination as you get in a movie theater before the show, but right now they’re little better than nightlights. Most people have their phones out. Unfortunately mine’s an old flipper, doesn’t have any sort of flashlight feature, so I have to go off the reflected glow of Kenzie’s and the guy behind me.
The walls aren’t entirely smooth, either. There are conduits running along the tunnel, and occasionally we have to squeeze around a junction box or other obtrusion.
And then there are the cracks. Most are tiny, probably superficial, but we pass a couple that look like serious structural damage. No more leaks, though. That’s good. By the looks of the water coming in, it’ll take hours, maybe days for the tunnel to flood. We should be good getting out of here.
Assuming the leak doesn’t get worse. If the roof should crumble completely, the whole Potomac’s gonna come rushing in. It’ll fill the tunnels until it reaches the level of the river. How high is that, though? Enough to flood the entire Metro system? The trains run underground, sure, but the ground rises up beyond the Potomac, so maybe the stations aren’t as deep as the river. Maybe. I don’t know.
Whatever the case, we should get out of here as quick as we can.
But without any landmarks, there’s nothing to judge our progress by. I try counting the tunnel lights, but I get the numbers fouled in my head after ... a quarter mile? Something like that.
Does me no good, anyway, since I have no idea how far we have to travel. The trip between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom usually takes three or four minutes, so it can’t be more than a couple miles, and we’re only going half that far. If we were walking down a city sidewalk, it wouldn’t be more than twenty minutes, twenty-five if the lights were against us. But our actual pace seems slower than that. Might be an hour before we get outta here.
Well, it would be if we could keep walking nonstop
—the sound of the baby crying hits me about two seconds before the stench.
The woman with the baby stops abruptly, causing the rear of the line to stumble to a halt. I nearly plow into Kenzie and have to brace myself on the wall to keep my balance.
The front of the line keeps moving, oblivious, until somebody calls out, “Hey, wait up.”
Mr. Take Charge holds up his hand—I can see it because he has his cell phone in it—and waves for a halt.
“What’re we stopping for?” That’s the voice of the annoying old guy. Damn, I was hoping he ditched us for the group heading towards Rosslyn. The way he was talking, you’d think he would’ve, but I guess the sight of the crowd deterred him.
“I gotta change diapers,” the mother shouts, way too loud for the enclosed space.
“C’mon, we can keep going. They can wait for her and catch up, or go around or whatever.”
“No, it’s best we stick as a group,” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Who’s got my diaper bag,” the woman says.
“Here.” The girl—Sarah, I think her name was—is about five places behind the woman in line, has to squeeze around people, which isn’t easy with her load.
The woman sits down on the ledge and sets to removing her kid’s diaper. Sarah drops the bag next to the woman and crosses her arms and waits.
While we’re stopped, Kenzie leans against the wall and starts digging through her purse. She pauses over a vape pen, decides against using it down here. Probably for the best. I’m sure someone would pitch a fit. Instead she comes out with a pack of gum.
“Sure.” I take a strawberry scented cube from the pack and unwrap it, pop it in my mouth. I stick the empty wrapper in my pocket, but Kenzie drops hers on the track, which gets a dirty look from the next woman in line, Sarah’s mom.
Kenzie doesn’t even notice. “Anyone else?” She offers the woman a piece.
“No, thank you.”
Kenzie extends the pack down past me to Sarah’s dad. He shakes his head, but his son says, “I’ll have one, thanks.”
I take the pack and pass it down to him.
“I could really do with some lunch,” Kenzie says as she chews.
Sarah’s mom switches the toddler to her right hand and checks her watch. “Closer to dinner time by now.”
“Slept late,” Kenzie says. “All I had for breakfast was a Pop-Tart.”
I nod. I hadn’t even had breakfast this morning, and just grabbed a bag of chips from a vending machine for lunch. I wonder if there’s anything good in Foggy Bottom? And more importantly, cheap. I know that’s State Department territory, George Washington University, too, so hopefully there’ll be some little bistro or deli where I can grab a sandwich while I wait for a ride.
The tunnel is silent except for the wailing kid. I don’t know if I’d call it eerie per se, but I feel like we’re in a bomb shelter during the Blitz. Certainly not pleasant.
Somebody needs to break the silence.
But it doesn’t seem that anyone’s in the mood to talk right now, not even the people who know each other. Come on, a little idle chit-chat, anything for a semblance of normalcy.
I can’t stand it any longer. I look to Kenzie. “You have any way to get home?” I speak softly, don’t want the whole tunnel to hear, but I guess I overdo it because she looks at me like she didn’t catch my question.
“You guys, uh—” I point towards Dallas, who’s still clinging to the guy’s back “—you got a way to get back home. Or wherever you’re going.”
She sighs, shakes her head. “Gonna hafta call around, see if we can get anyone to come get us. Either that or splurge on an Uber. Don’t even wanna think what that’ll cost.”
“Where you gotta—”
I was going to ask where she lives, maybe offer her a ride with my parents—super lame, I know—but I’ve barely started talking when Sarah’s mom plows in with, “Isn’t there another way to get to Virginia on the subway? I thought there was on the map.”
Kenzie looks blank, so I answer.
“You’d have to go the long way around, but yeah, there’s another crossing over by National Airport. But that’s assuming the problem’s local. For all we know, the Yellow Line’s down as well. Could be the whole system.”
“Maybe they’ll have buses we can use,” Kenzie says. “Don’t they do that sometimes?”
“Yeah, they might set up a transfer to the next working station.”
Down the line, the woman with the baby finishes changing diapers. She holds the dirty one at arm’s length, not sure what to do with it. The stench is something terrible, so it’s not like she can bring it along with us. So she tosses it across the track.
“Hey,” the driver says, “that’s not where you, um, you’re not supposed to… that’s not a trash can.”
“Yeah?” the woman says. “Why’oncha go pick it up.”
The driver doesn’t respond.
“Okay,” Mr. Take Charge calls. “If everyone’s ready, let’s get a move on.”
He starts forward again. Several people have sat down on the ledge or taken off backpacks, and it takes several moments for the entire column to get rolling.
We only have to go a little ways before we reach the upslope, which signals that we’re out from under the Potomac. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re clear of danger, but it’s a welcome turn.
That’s what I think at least, but once we start upwards, I quickly change my mind.
I’d spent enough time sitting down on the train that my feet haven’t been doing too bad, but now the soreness returns. I have on the comfiest shoes that fit my job’s dresscode, but they’re still not intended for walking across anything but a level surfaces. And that’s when they were new. The soles have worn so thin that the air cushions are exposed in spots and make a tssst-tsst noise when I walk.
As we climb higher, the backs of my shoes start rubbing against my heels. Even with socks on, I’m gonna have a blister. But not like I have a lot of options here. I’m sure not gonna walk barefoot. Besides, we can’t have much farther to go. Once we reach the top of the climb, it’ll be a straight shot to Foggy Bottom and I can take a seat and rest.
Well, that’s how things should go. But I should’ve realized already, today’s not a day when things are gonna go to plan.
Up ahead I can see the bend in the slope where the track levels out again. People are disappearing over the lip. Not much farther.
But then the line stops dead.
“Hey, what’s the hold up?” somebody calls.
“Can anyone see?” Sarah’s mom asks.
The people highest on the slope should be able to get a glimpse, but they’re not communicating back to us.
“You think the roof collapsed?” Kenzie says.
“If it did, we’d just turn around and go the other way,” Sarah’s dad says.
“Maybe they think they can clear the rubble?” his son suggests.
“Too dangerous. We’d be better off turning around.”
“What about another train,” I say. The Blue and Silver Lines use this tunnel, too.
“Hmm, could be. Can’t be in working order, though, otherwise we’d see the headlamp beam.”
Before we can speculate further, Mr. Take Charge appears at the top of the slope. But he’s not on the walkway; he’s down on the tracks. “Okay, folks, we’ve got a bit of an issue, but nothing to worry about. We’re gonna hafta get off the walkway for a bit and proceed down the track. Careful of the rails, you don’t wanna get electrocuted.”
“What’s the problem?” somebody calls.
“You’ll see when you get up here. But it’s nothing too big.”
We all look at each other. What the hell does that mean?
“Well, nothing to it but to do as the man says,” Sarah’s dad says. He leans back and sets Dallas on her feet. “Hey, honey, you’re going to have to stand on your own, you think you can do that?”
Her feet touch the walkway and her legs don’t buckle. That’s a good sign. Her arms unwrap from the man’s neck. “We there?” She sounds drunk. Or maybe stoned. I’m guessing stoned.
“Not yet.” He gestures for his son to hold her upright, make sure she doesn’t totter over.
Kenzie and I sit down on the ledge and lower ourselves to the trackbed. Once we’re down, we help Sarah’s mom get the other woman’s toddler down. The kid’s been behaving herself pretty well, but balks at having to get off the walkway.
“It’s okay hon,” Sarah’s mom tells the girl and ruffles her hair. “If you’re a good girl, I’ll get you a piece of candy.” She pulls a pack of Mentos from her pocket.
The little girl smiles and let’s us get her down without any trouble.
Down the line, Sarah jumps off the ledge, earning a rebuke from her mother. The moment her mom turns away, Sarah sticks out her tongue.
“Here,” the woman with the baby calls down. She lowers the kid to Sarah, then sets about helping her oldest daughter down. The girl takes one look over the ledge and says, “Uh-uh, I ain’t goin’. That’s too far.”
“Shut it,” her brother says and cuffs her upside the head. His mom yells something at him, but he doesn’t listen. Instead he leans back against the wall and pushes himself off. There’s not any room to get up to speed, but he manages a nice leap, landing nearly on the other side of the tracks. He smiles over at Sarah thinking he’s hot shit.
Meanwhile Sarah’s dad has clambered down and his son is helping Dallas. I go over and give them a hand.
Once her feet touch the ground, she glances around groggily. “What happen’d the train?” Her eyes latch onto me. “You’re not ...” her words trail into a mumble.
“C’mon.” Kenzie puts an arm around her. “Only got a little ways to go.”
Kenzie leads her friend up the slope.
Sarah’s dad takes a pack of tissues from his pants pocket and pulls one out, dabs at his forehead.
“Don’t overexert yourself,” his wife says.
“I’m fine. Feel better down here than while we were schlepping around the city.”
“Tourists?” I ask.
“Yeah.” He nods. “Out from Chicago—well, Shermer, if you want to be exact. I’m Dan, by the way. Dan Schorr. This is my wife Susie, my son Sam, my other son—where’d Zac go?”
Mrs. Schorr looks down the track, “Isaac, get over here. Sarah, you too.”
The younger son is over with Sarah and Mr. Show Off. The two Schorr kids snap to attention and trot over to their parents.
“Yeah mom?” Isaac says with the fake smile of a kid who knows he can pull one over on his parents with very little effort.
“Don’t go wandering off. Stick tight to us. You too, Sarah. I know you’re helping that woman, but don’t get yourself separated.”
“Yeah, mom.” She gives me a please don’t judge me by my parents look.
“Here.” Mr. Schorr steps behind Isaac and digs into the heavy backpack he’d foisted on his son. He comes out with a giant water bottle, about one third full. “Not very cold, but it’ll do the trick,” he says after taking a swig. He wipes the top and hands it to me.
“Thanks.” I push my gum to the side of my mouth and take a quick drink. It’s more than a little warm, but he’s right—it’s good to have. I wipe it down and offer it around.
“I’m good,” Mrs. Schorr says.
Sarah waves it off, the two sons shake their heads.
“Let your girlfriend have some,” Mr. Schorr says.
“My girl—no, I met her about thirty seconds before I met you.”
“Oh. Sorry. Well, you know what they say about assumptions?”
I’ve never seen three people roll their eyes in unison before, but his kids manage.
“When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” Mr. Schorr not only feels he has to finish the statement, but he actually laughs. Realizing nobody else finds the line funny, he turns serious. “Well, you know when a guy helps out a pretty girl in a situation like this ...”
Mrs. Schorr elbows him. She shines a smile on me. “Why don’t you see if anyone needs water?”
I head to the woman with the baby first, figuring if anyone could use water, it’d be her, but she has her hands full with the sprog. “Fantasia,” she calls over to her eldest daughter. “Take some water.”
“Not thirsty.” The girl’s probably ten, eleven, right on the divide between elementary and middle school. Her hair’s done up in short, tight braids that are capped by those ties that have the colored balls on the end. Her hair clacks when she shakes her head.
“Girl, you best be drinkin’ now, cuz I don’t know when we be gettin’ home.”
Fantasia accepts the bottle and pretends to drink, but I don’t think any gets in her mouth. I offer some to her brother; he takes a long pull.
“Don’t be guzzlin’,” his mom warns. “Other people gotta drink that.”
“We ain’t gonna be down here that long.”
“Don’t you go sassin’ me, boy.”
The boy shoves the bottle back at me and walks away.
I move up the slope. Maybe half the people accept a drink. Some have their own water stashed in bags and offer to add it to my bottle, but I decline. Bad enough we’re all sharing one bottle, but at least the Schorrs seem like okay people. Some of the other passengers, though ... like this one guy, looks like his clothes are patched together from stuff Good Will threw out. His cheeks are crusted with dirt, and you can’t help but notice the stench of ass when you get within ten feet of him. When I offer him water, he tells me he only drinks natural “heaven water” that he purifies with the power of Christ. He shows me a bottle that looks like it has sea monkeys floating inside and offers to share it with the rest of us.
I move on.
Once I get to the top of the slope, I find out what the problem is—the tunnel really did collapse.
“Collapse” is the wrong word. It implies the roof came down under its own weight. If that were the case, we’d’ve just turned around and headed for Rosslyn.
This is different. It looks like a bulldozer crashed through the tunnel wall. From the outside. There’s rubble strewn halfway across the tracks. Dirt, too, and rocks. The tunnel isn’t completely blocked—the emergency walkway is covered in chunks of concrete and stone, but the trackbed itself only requires a vigilant eye to navigate.
Still, everyone’s gathered around the hole, rubbernecking.
“Hey,” I say to Kenzie. “What’s going on?”
I offer her the bottle, but she declines.
I squint at the hole, trying to see into its depths, but there’s too much darkness in there. It might only go back a few yards, or it could go on forever. But I know this much—no earthquake made this. This is something that was dug.
“I don’t like this,” Kenzie says. “I wanna get outta here.”
“Yeah.” I look around. “Where’s your friend?”
Kenzie nods over to the other side of the tunnel. Dallas is leaning against the far wall, puffing on an e-cig. The tip lights up briefly as she inhales. When she exhales, the vapor passes in front of a tunnel light and glows a sulfurous orange.
We go over and I offer her some water. “Thanks.” She takes a long drink and wipes her mouth. “That’s good.”
“You think you can walk?” Kenzie says.
“I’m not that hungover.”
I could point out that she had to be carried off the train, but I don’t see any point in arguing. “Well, I don’t see any harm in going ahead of the others. Not like we can get lost or anything, right?”
“Dude, don’t jinx us,” Dallas says.
To Be Continued...