The last thought that Edward Morrison had before the world ended was plastic. He was sitting on his kitchen floor, his girlfriend Ramya muttering and rocking back and forth next to him. He looked up at the ceiling, where the wooden beams had been covered with molded plastic that made it look like the ceiling was melting and dripping down.
They had been warned, of course. Tensions had skyrocketed over the last month and that day, with word of fighting breaking out all over the world, people had stayed home, cowering with loved ones and glued to their devices. The final message of the National Feed, minutes before, was frighteningly brief: Missiles inbound for all major cities. Seek shelter. Now Edward sat, looking up at his ceiling with an arm around Ramya, offering perfunctory comfort and waiting for the end.
“They say it’s nothing, just like flipping a switch,” Ramya said, rocking back and forth. “It’s quick, there’s no pain. They say.”
Edward knew this wasn’t the case. Maybe, if they were at the epicenter, but it was very unlikely that anyone in the Central Bloc had programmed a missile to land directly on Harlow. What was more likely was death by radiation, but he didn’t want to disabuse her of the hope. He looked up at the ceiling again. Why had he covered up the wooden beams? It was too shiny, too artificial, too plastic.
They heard a distant boom that grew louder and louder and continued to grow impossibly loud, as if a titanic lion was roaring to shake the stars. The house creaked and groaned and the windows shattered. Ramya screamed and threw herself against Edward. Even as he was covering her, stuffing his fingers ineffectually into his ears, all Edward could think was: It actually happened. My God, after years and decades of saber rattling and threats, it’s finally happened. This is the end. There was a slow cracking sound and the ceiling collapsed on them as outside, the fever-pitch scream of the apocalypse increased.
But then it stopped. Like a one-note hurricane that came, saw, and conquered, the roaring eventually died away into silence. Edward looked up, brushing plaster and shards of plastic off them both. The house was still standing, windowless and shaken, but sound. He looked up at the ceiling. The plastic molding had all fallen away, and the rough-hewn wooden beams stood out starkly. The original farmhouse kitchen ceiling. He almost smiled.
“Are we alive?” Ramya asked, raising her head from his chest. She reached up to her head, probing for wounds, and brushed plaster dust from her dark hair. “Is it over?”
“I don’t know if any more missiles are on the way,” he said, struggling to his feet, “but it’s not over.”
It was strange—it was almost as if he could see the clocks resetting—a long line of zeros. The first second ticked over, then the next. From now on, they lived in a new world, a world where England had been attacked with nuclear weapons. And not just England. America must have been hit as well, and France, and Germany, and Italy. And no one could attack unilaterally, so that meant that the Central Bloc was gone too, wiped clean by nuclear arsenals that men had probably been itching to fire off for over a hundred years.
“Stay here,” he said, “I’m going outside to look around.”
“Eddie, get back here!” Ramya said, grabbing his hand. “What if there are more? Don’t be an idiot.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said. He shook her off and went towards the door. She was right, of course. It wasn’t safe, but he had just survived a nuclear attack, dammit, and he thought he had earned the right to take a little risk.
The southern horizon was filled with roiling clouds and smoke and an ominous wind was blowing. Fallout, he thought, trying not to think about it. But still, above him the sky remained blue and clear. The world was a strange place sometimes.
He went back in and waited with Ramya in a silent, uncertain vigil. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. It was Rosie Dodd, who lived next door in Essex Cottage. She had her son Sean with her, bundled up in his winter coat, as if that could stop radiation.
“Thank God you’re alive, Eddie,” she said. She was sobbing but her wide doe eyes were dry, tapped out from grief. “Can you take care of Sean for a bit? I gotta go find Mason. He was in London last night, for work, you know, but—he had to have gotten out in time.”
“Where are you going to go?” Edward asked. “London is gone, Rosie, gone! Look south: everything on fire. You couldn’t get ten K before everything is blown to hell.” He saw the last tottering walls of her spirit crumbling and he kicked himself mentally. “Look, just stay here. I’m sure he got out. He’ll be back.”
Rosie nodded, but then kissed Sean on the head and propelled him towards Edward. “I gotta go, Eddie. I gotta find Mason. I know I can.”
“What are you doing? You can’t leave him here with me,” he called. She just shook her head and kept walking.
Ramya took Sean in—shooting Edward a sympathetic look over the kid’s head—and got him some food. Then the three of them sat in the living room and waited. Sean was nine and small for his age, with long hair tied back in a ponytail. He was not normally quiet, but now he barely said a word, only a nod or a grunt if a question was asked. Traumatized, Edward thought.
With nothing else to do, Edward pulled out his e-Device. It cycled for a moment, but then the page opened and Edward gave a small laugh. It was like a black joke: not even a nuclear holocaust could destroy the Internet.
The net was in chaos but Edward quickly learned that all the big cities had been hit. They were all gone, just like that: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds . . . the horrifying list went on and on. At least twelve confirmed nuclear hits. There were reports streaming in from all over the world of more strikes but Edward soon had to turn it off—the sheer amount of destruction sickened him.
“What should we do now?” Ramya asked.
“Just wait, I guess.”
“Until what?” she asked. He didn’t have an answer. All plans were put on hold until Rosie got back and took Sean off their hands. Then they could brush the dust off, assess the situation, plan for the future.
They waited all day and then the next. Edward went to a local store and brought back a trunk-full of groceries, the last there would be. (“Just take it,” the clerk had said. “Money’s no good now.”)
They waited five days. Ramya started throwing up. Sean got diarrhea and lost his appetite. He would lie on the couch for hours, staring off into space. Edward felt fine physically, but mentally he was getting frantic from waiting and worry about Ramya.
Rosie never came back.