I witnessed the curling black mushroom cloud for the briefest of moments, it reached over the city on fire like outstretching wings. The flash and rumble had woken me up, I had been in a dreamless alcoholic sleep.
The tunnel engulfed the train just before the shockwave hit and I was plunged into darkness with half a dozen passengers in my carriage, protected by a lucky turn of fate, in the rock womb of a cliff.
I didn’t suffer hangovers anymore, which I was grateful for, but my innards always felt dirty, and clogged, especially after day drinking. Every now and again, as if momentarily trapped in a sunbeam, I felt compelled to attempt to abstain, guilting myself into chiselling the units off from 300 a week to 60 but it was exhausting being even half-sober, the opposite of freedom somehow. Real life was, well, too real.
Despite the impenetrable darkness, I could sense the brutal rush of wind and dust hurtle past the train outside, lifting it clean off the rails for a second before clanking back down with a metallic ‘thonk’ that shook my spine.
The brakes squealed and sparked in protest as someone pulled the emergency cord. I was thankful the train refused to derail, the winds around the carriages buffering them to keep them centred. After jolting forward, I rubbed my eyes with my stained thumbs and fumbled for my smartphone, to use the torch function. The others nearby me were doing the same. Spots of piercing white light would spring on one at a time, highlighting the taught features of fearful faces.
A young mother with a six-year-old girl was crying loudly, clutching her child like she was a life preserver in a raging river, her cries laced with that edge of hysterical world-end disbelief. In contrast, my pulse barely jumped. I did, however, feel a heavy weight grow in my chest, which led me to instinctively reach inside my suit jacket pocket for my chrome, wallet-sized whisky flask.
Alcoholics normally would only open up and admit to being alcoholics after they found a way to stop drinking. If I ever mentioned my addiction in passing, the person I had confided in would straight away, narrow their gaze as if I was a criminal, and quip: ‘you should give up’, to which I frowned. They simply didn’t understand, being an alcoholic means you can’t give up, or you don’t really want to give up, it’s the direct opposite of being able to give up, for fuck’s sake. Those who managed to discover sobriety were like angel messengers for the unclean to follow, treated with holy divinity for managing the impossible, each like a Jesus walking on water… Jesus, I thought, even he made water into wine. In the 12 steps programme, the template to achieve a life without alcohol, on the last step you needed to believe in a higher spiritual entity, and looking at the hot blast of blood-laced dust smearing the train window, I called bullshit. The only thing to do was take a swig as a million souls were vaporised on the other side of that cliff. Nothing mattered.
I pushed myself up to standing. Behind me, just three rows back, was a looming old man with a salt and pepper beard and black beanie hat. He looked lost when my phone’s torch beam caught his yellowed eyes, it was the kind of bewilderment I’d imagine time travellers to have.
“What do we do?” pleaded a voice from somewhere.
“I’m going to the buffet car, I need a drink. Anyone care to join me?”
“Are you serious?!” screamed the mother.
“Never been more serious,” I replied, unphased and uncaring, and I lurched off down the middle of the carriage, scheming for peanuts and red wine.
“I’ll join you,” said the frail voice of the old man behind me and I heard him shuffle after me, like an old dog following the stronger scent on the grass.
The temperature was noticeably higher than moments ago, the residual power of the blast seeping into the rail tunnel.
There had been a kind of universal nervousness that started a week ago. The news was unbelievable as if the East and West had locked horns so hard, blood was the only way forward. It was bad electricity, understood by everyone, everywhere. Saying that, no one really believed the missiles would launch, how could that happen? That was exactly the kind of reality I didn’t care to entertain.
I sat awkwardly at the unmanned carriage bar on a tiny fixed circular stool, reaching over to steal a small pack of dry roasted nuts behind the counter.
“What shall I get you?” asked the old man who had, to my surprise found his way into the small fridge behind the bar.
“I was thinking red… But, no, a cold white wine for me, thanks… It’s too hot…”
He stooped and fished out a miniature 25cl bottle of honey-coloured chardonnay, finding himself a Coors in the process and biting the top free, which made me pop a rare smile. Impressive. He sat next to me and we stared ahead into the gloom, sipping our Armageddon drinks of choice.
“There’s no more… Home…” he said, thinking aloud.
“You know something…” I whispered. “I just failed a job interview… Very badly… It was my last hope…I have… Run. Out. Of. Money.”
“Well, you know what? I’m on my way back from my wife’s funeral. We was together for forty years, no kids or nothing… It was just me, her and her cancer for as long as I can remember… And she’s finally gone. Nobody else there but me and the holy man. Ain’t that tragic?”
“Nice to meet you at the end of the world…” I said.
“Name’s John,” he said.
“Casey,” I replied and we clinked glass before swigging hard.
“You ready for what’s next?”
“Same…” he said, his time traveller’s gaze elsewhere, focusing on something a long, long way away in another dimension.
“All this is… This is just anaesthetic…”
He nodded slowly and respectfully in agreement and after that, we said nothing, just sat there without thinking, without caring, without love or a world worth living in.
After a few minutes, and two miniatures down, my phone began to vibrate with urgency on the bar, clattering sideways like it wanted to escape me. Curiosity got the better of me, and I half expected to see the soulless text rejection for the job interview, just to make it official. It was just a reminder notification, BUY LOTTERY TICKETS AND WHISKY in caps of course, like I was screaming it to myself.
“People are gonna come… Soon,” said John, wiping his forehead as if his brain was craving to be caressed, trapped in the vault of his skull.
“You sure about that?” I tutted, it seemed improbable.
“Yeah… Not rescue though, oh no, we are lucky sons of bitches, ya know – bein’ in this train in this rock? Chance in a million… We are the rescuers now. Just up the tunnel there, is a station platform, next stop was Franklin, busy town there, ya know. It would have been full of folks tryin’ to get home up the line, just mindin’ their own business… Some will have made it, and those folks would have heard the train comin’ up the tracks from the tunnel… So… They’ll come…You’ll see…”
“I can’t imagine anyone lived through that…” I frowned and with a sloth-like roll, I walked around the bar and tugged the upturned bourbon bottle off the optics line.
As if the old man was some kind of a prophet, I heard sounds. Outside, I could make out the shuffling and wincing of survivors seeking sanctuary in the tunnel. They meandered in winding lines outside the windows, banging on the side of the train to alert us to open the doors. Bloody handprints were slapped like child art on the glass panes.
“Help us…” came the groans. “Please, help us…”
After I was discharged from the army, I became a temp history teacher for second graders. It was the last job I really made a go at before living on scraps and social benefits, drinking myself half to death in dark shuttered rooms. When asked by a kid why we taught war history, I was supposed to say, ‘So we learn lessons and never repeat the mistakes,’ but even if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have been able to stomach that BS. My answer was real, ‘Because it’s your inevitable future, because war is what happens all the time. Because we are in tribes that want what each other have and hate each other to extinction.’ I was sick of being right. In truth, I was just sick.
I realised it could turn nasty quickly if I did nothing and part of me was still human. Part of me, deep down inside. I should help. I motioned to John and we opened one of the nearest doors. The first man to greet us had no skin, bar ribbons from his scalp and wing-like flaps that hung off his muscles. He was shuddering, caught up in a unique hell. I just looked him in the eye, unable to even touch him as I knew it would cause him more agony, if that were even possible.
“Is it that bad?” he said in disbelief, and a second later he collapsed, dead, in the black soot by the train door. Others came after him, all were burned, some choking or groaning loudly, their eyes red, their hands shaking, their clothes melted.
I took a step back to let them in one at a time and caught John’s gaze which had turned to a primal shock.
“What do we do?” he murmured, as if he expected no one else to hear him in the slim confines of the train. “There’s like one medical kit on the wall, and it’s the size of a purse. These are serious burns, man!”
I thought about it for a second, as a steady flow of ghostly outlines sauntered into the shelter of the carriage and slumped into chairs and corners, contorted with pain and discomfort.
I shook the half-full bottle of Jack from side to side and held it up high so they all had a clear view of it, like I was revealing the disappointing truth of a magic trick to my audience.
“Like I said… Anaesthetic,” I croaked, and I walked carefully toward them in turn, wiping the neck clean with my jacket sleeve, after each bloody swig.