New York Apocalypse
I remember a lightning flash blinking in the sky after three days of darkness. After that things dropped over after something fell from the sky. There was a great noise and screams and then crumbling buildings but at the same time it was clean.
While I experienced only slightly more than a sunburn Julius suffered third degree burns and had to rob an abandoned drugstore for medication. Soon I joined him going into places. At first we ate ourselves silly in empty restaurants. Naturally there was a chance the food was contaminated, but we had to live. I won’t describe the horror that greeted us all around. In many ways, however, it wasn’t really horror. There were no tortured looks on the faces of the dead. People seemed to be sleeping. As we stepped over the bodies, I said to Julius, “I don’t feel anything. The lightning flash must have done something to me – taken away a part of my soul.”
Julius wept as he turned on the soda spout in a store where we’d gone to get supplies. The soda was cold, and I put my mouth to the spout and drank heavily, a part of me feeling like a rat because I wasn’t mourning the dead who were all around me on the floor.
In my apartment, we ate what we could from the things we brought back with us. We had to eat fast because there was no refrigeration and everything good would soon spoil. Then there’d be nothing except the canned goods and the cereals in the supermarkets, so we filled up on submarines, cold Swiss cheese and beer.
We looked out over the city. There was not much movement and we could see ruins everywhere. I told him how quiet everything was, and how we were lucky to have each other. “I wonder how many others are alive,” I said.
Julius said there had to be other survivors.
“We will find them in time,” I said. After all, while it seemed that the worst was over, I still felt scared, especially at night when we could hear strange sounds in the city. Perhaps some parked cars or a home gas range suddenly and for no apparent reason exploded. But more than anything, I feared a return of the lightning flash. I knew I was lucky to be alive, even if it appeared that only Julius and I had survived. We weren’t Adam and Eve, or even Adam and Steve, but at least we were company for each other. And who, after all, would want to bring children into a world such as this?
Often I went around to television appliance shops and searched to see if I could find a live signal. I never even got static. With all communication snuffed out, I felt the severity of the situation even more.
The entire country may be like this,” I told Julius. “Even the world….What are we going to do, live in New York until we die?”
One night Julius was weeping again into his pillow. I didn’t say anything but sat at the kitchen table and buried my own head in my arms. I said a prayer to Saint Mark – I had an icon of him on my desk. Looking at the icon now, in light of the setting sun, I could feel it trying to speak to me. But attempting to discern the message of the saint was confusing and unclear. It seemed only to communicate a general faith that things would be okay – different, but okay. Julius wanted to leave New York in order to find other survivors; he was convinced there were none here, otherwise someone would have answered our daily round of whistle blowing. Julius wanted to go into an Old Navy store, get two knapsacks, fill them up with necessities then take off to see the rest of the country. We argued about this every night. My arguments were the same. We are safe here, so why move out? God knows what awaited us out there. “Since the towers fell, I vowed I would never leave New York like a scared rabbit,” I told him. But Julius said he’d been having this recurring dream about another lightning flash.
“If there’s another one, I know we won’t be so lucky,” he said. I finally listened to him.
So Julius and I went into a store and found two knapsacks, sleeping bags, and other equipment we felt we might need. Then we found two bicycles. It wasn’t possible to take an automobile from the street. Something about the flash had rendered them inoperable. The bicycles seemed the best bet.
We rode back to the apartment through midtown Manhattan. We had to swerve our bicycles around the cadavers. We were both shocked when we saw the corpses of Anderson Cooper, Madonna and Lady Gaga all within a block of one another. Mayor Bloomberg was slumped down inside a NYPD patrol car. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was laying face down on the steps of Saint Patrick’s cathedral.
It was all I could do to keep pedaling. I no sooner thought “Who’s next?” when we saw all the employees of Goldman-Sachs melded together like a Jacques Lipchitz sculpture; something apparently had struck them in a such a way that their bodies joined and formed a twisted, discombobulated blob that seemed to reach for the stars.
Sometimes we got off our bikes and stooped down to examine their faces. A couple of times I had to fight a compulsion to touch them about the forehead and smooth their hair back with my hand. Julius had no such reservation, however. He would touch a cheek or stroke a chin and say, “Look at this beautiful person!”
It was truly sad and, on the night we packed, we didn’t say much to one another. I placed the icon of Saint Mark inside my knapsack. Tomorrow we would be off.
We rode across midtown Manhattan and then came to the freeway. I hadn’t expected to see a line of stopped automobiles and trucks stretching into the horizon. Most of the vehicles were on top of one another and many were scattered over embankments and whatnot as a result of the flash.
An overturned Greyhound bus really got to Julius. I thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t in a car when it happened. My hope is that everybody died instantly. It was difficult to steer a course through the sea of automobiles. In some areas they blocked the highway and Julius and I had to walk our bikes way around them.
We both stopped dead in our tracks when we saw what looked to be Sarah Jessica Parker atop a flagpole. Perhaps Ms. Parker was thrown from one of the thousands of cars trying to leave the city. We then saw a just a face on an embankment with hair that looked like Donald Trump’s. We had gone only about a mile out of New York when Julius turned to me and said, “We’re going to die if we go on like this. I say we go back and forget the whole thing.”
Once I’m on the road going somewhere, I cannot turn back.
I said, “Julius, that wouldn’t be sensible. You said yourself another flash was imminent.”
I stood beside my bike and surveyed the landscape. Not far ahead of us was a family-style restaurant next to a farm. Behind it were fields that looked like they might house cattle or horses.
“Come on, Julius, we might be lucky and find a wagon and then we can hitch up a horse.”
Julius looked at me like I was mad. “Next you’ll be saying we’ll find saddlebags.”
We walked our bicycles over a field and, as we approached the restaurant, I said how amazing it was that a place like this was so close to the city. It was startling because you could still see the skyline and here we were in what looked like open country. By the time we walked on the property, we saw that there was one horse left alive, an old thing with pink spots, walking backwards over the trough. It looked kind of crazed. All the other horses were dead; there was no sign of people although they had probably died inside the buildings.
Julius studied the horse. “I think we should pull it!”
“I’ll just look in the shed to see if there’s a wagon or something, and you can lasso that horse for us.”
I found a flat wagon in the back of the shed, the kind farmers use to transport bales of hay. With a little work we could have fashioned it into a Conestoga wagon.
Julius was having trouble with the horse. It was kicking something fierce. The flash had driven it crazy. But he kept at it, shouting at it and using his arm to drive it toward the flat car. We finally got it hitched. “I don’t like this one bit. We don’t know where we’re going, and this horse is half dead,” Julius said.
All I could think of was the great covered wagon Mormon pioneer trek to Salt Lake City. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be a pioneer? There’s destruction all around so we really have no choice. It’s up to us to explore, settle, and pick up people, whatever. Life must go on at any cost.”
“Why? Life is futile and without meaning. The dead are the lucky ones.” Julius was very unhappy although I knew he really didn’t want to go back to New York. He was sick of Manhattan every bit as much as I was.
“You know,” I said, “it won’t be so bad. We have each other, and we have this horse. We don’t need other people. Everybody else is dead anyway. Our love is all we need. “
I really didn’t feel that exuberant. I was trying to sound more positive so Julius would get a move on. He was starting to bite his nails and take on that faraway look that meant he would soon hang his head and sink into a complete depression. If past behavior was an accurate barometer, he’d stop eating, keep insisting that life was futile and useless, and mention suicide as a possible out. Then he would suffer an anger streak that would inevitably draw us into ugly arguments.
Finally we were ready to see if the horse could pull the wagon. I was doing the driving. I moved the reins and shouted to the horse. It started moving, not very fast, but it did move. When we were a little way off from the farm, I asked Julius what he wanted to call the horse, and he said “The End.”
“Now that,” I said to him, “is a perfect example of your pessimism; why not The Beginning?”
We ended up calling the horse Flash.
That night, we were sitting around a campfire next to a housing development. Flash was tied to a telephone pole while we cooked some eggs. Julius was pretty upset because he had to step over this pretty girl lying nude on the floor in order to go into the kitchen. He was really depressed, thinking he had fallen in love with her and wishing he could bring her back to life.
When Julius was drinking his coffee, I went into the house to take a look at her. She looked like she was taking a nap. “I see what you mean,” I told him, “but she’s dead.”
Julius looked away. As much as we loved each other, he needed a woman.
When I got up in the middle of the night, I saw that Julius wasn’t in his sleeping bag. I called out his name, and then thought of that poor girl lying in the kitchen. I thought, oh no, not necrophilia!
(From the two novellas, Walking on Water & After All This, which will be published in paperback form in early 2013 by Starbooks Press, currently an e-book).
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based author/journalist, the author of nine published books, including: The Cliffs of Aries (1988), The Boy on the Bicycle (1991-1994), Manayunk (1997), Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia (2000), Tropic of Libra (2002), Out in History and Philadelphia Architecture (2005). In 1990, Mr. Nickels was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and a Hugo Award for his book, Two Novellas. He was awarded the Philadelphia AIA Lewis Mumford Architecture Journalism Award in 2005 for his book Philadelphia Architecture and his weekly architectural columns in Philadelphia Metro. He has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Bulletin, City Paper, The Broad Street Review and the Huff Post and The New Oxford Review. His travel essays have appeared in Passport Magazine. His column, Different Strokes in the Philadelphia Welcomat in the early 1980s, was one of the first out lgbt columns in a mainstream newspaper. He’s currently the City Beat Editor for ICON Magazine (New Hope, PA), a contributing editor at Philadelphia’s Weekly Press, and a weekly columnist for Philadelphia’s SPIRIT Community Newspapers. Mr. Nickels also writes for the Broad Street Review. His novel SPORE was published in July 2010. His novella Walking Water & After All This (1989)– is currently available on Amazon and will be published in paperback in early 2013. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, 2003-2012.