Dark Trek
By: Shawn Klimek

Until they came, the missiles had never been a certainty. Now, Diana thanked God that she had taken her fiancé's advice and started up the mountains well before thousands of other evacuees had jammed the narrow roads. "I can't leave without you," she had protested. But Terence was the commander of the local guard unit and had gallantly volunteered to oversee the evacuation—at least until T–minus 48 hours. She couldn't bring herself yet to thank God for that.

"I'll catch up with you in three days," he had promised, looking tenderly into her eyes, and then added with a laugh, "I have access to a tank if need be. Meet your brother at the cabin, as we planned. Have him unload all our supplies into the root cellar—it's the least he can do to earn his keep. And then lock all the doors and keep the lights out until I get there."

They had shared a long kiss goodbye, and then he had sent her away in his truck loaded with supplies and survival gear.

The next morning, as she was detouring around a stalled big–rig, a gang of bandits had stopped Diana at gunpoint, pulled her out of the truck, then stolen it and all the supplies it contained. Frightened and shaking, she had just watched as it happened…until one of them made a grab for her engagement ring. Some feral impulse had awoken in her then, and before she could stop herself, she had struck out with her polished nails and clawed his face. Wild–eyed and enraged, the thug had pointed his gun at her, when both seemed to pause to process the same thought: was she suicidal? Diana braced herself for the bullet's impact. Instead, one of the mugger's friends, one who had been sifting through her groceries, turned swiftly at the commotion and clubbed her in the head with a can of spinach.

Diana awoke on her back, amazed, after consideration, to be still alive. Her shoulder was lodged against a broken tree stump jutting up from the edge of a precipice twenty feet or so below the highway railing. Apparently, she had been disposed of here. Her head and shoulder ached, and she could taste dried blood and tongue a loose tooth.

These miseries were temporarily put out of mind, however, by the hypnotic beauty of parallel supersonic contrails streaking across a sky of purest blue.

Steadying herself against the stump, Diana staggered to a sitting position, single–mindedly tracking the missiles with her eyes. Had they arrived early? Or had she really lain unconscious for half a week? Her aching muscles seemed to make the latter plausible. Like long white fuses, the contrails curved sharply downwards towards the powder keg of her doomed city, converging to ignite in a blinding globe of marbled fire. As the earthly–nova dimmed to merely brilliant, it was crowned by a roiling mushroom cloud that punched rings into the sky. A lump came to Diana's throat as she thought of Terence and considered that he might have evacuated too late. She prayed that she had not just watched him, and thousands of other people disintegrate. As if in slow motion, a shockwave of searing heat and obliterating force flattened everything in the valley below her in a giant, expanding circle, turning the river into steam before her eyes. When the thunderous, freight–train boom finally reached her ears, it was accompanied by an extended blast of hot, corrosive, air that lifted her off the ground, pitching her roughly back onto the highway.

Diana lay stunned there for several more minutes—or was it hours? By the time she could rise again, it was rapidly becoming dusk—or seemed to be. It might even have been noon, but the sun already nearly eclipsed by a thick, sooty blanket of clouds, and continuous snow of fine, black ash. Eventually, the clouds would disgorge an acid rain, she supposed—the flushed nuclear sewage of these hellish heavens—but, even though it would clean the air of soot, it would quench no thirst but a thirst for death. She hoped to be indoors before the rains came.

Diana coughed and vomited ash. Taking the silk scarf from around her neck, she tied it into a mask for her nose and mouth—only then discovering how truly swollen her face had become. Thus prepared, she made her way deeper into the forest, away from the main highway, further away from the sounds of moaning, shouting, shooting and honking, and—by her reckoning—in the general direction of Terence's cabin. She no longer had the map her fiancé had given her, but she didn't really need it. She had hiked these mountains with Terence during the best summer of her life, and he had proposed to her on a walk in these woods. Mercifully, the deadly black snow seemed to fall somewhat more sparsely under the trees.

Diana trudged through the surreal landscape as though in a dream. Despite the burning in her eyes and lungs, she somehow willed her legs to keep moving forward. In a way, the physical discomfort helped to insulate her from the emotional hammer–blow poised ever above her heart: the loss of Terence.

She touched the blackened finger where her ring had been and put it to her lips. Like so many things, her beloved's last kiss was a memory buried under dust, soot, and blood. By the accident of her prolonged filth, she cherished a poetic notion that his loving touch yet lingered there, allowing her to kiss him goodbye one last time.

Torturous hours passed. Diana speculated that if she hadn't felt compelled to stop and hunker down every time she heard a twig snap, she might have reached the cabin already. She needed water and shelter desperately, and probably several other things as well: rest, calories, medical attention. Not far down the list, she ached for a friendly face. If Kyle was there—her lazy brother—she knew she would forgive him everything. They would patch things up on the spot; she would cry in his arms and he would console her about losing Terence.

For the last mile, as the sun fell, Diana made her way by touch, keeping her right hand on the wooden fence that outlined the private acres which included Terence's place. It was pitch–black night by the time she reached the driveway to the cabin. On her hands and knees, she felt her way to the wooden porch steps and ascended. At the door, she raised her fist to knock but then hesitated—forcing herself to think it through. What if there were more bandits inside? Or, just as fatal, what if her brother, greeting her disfigured visage, failed to recognize her and refused to let her in? Not only was it utterly dark, she considered, but even with a flashlight shining in her face, she might well be totally unrecognizable given how swollen, scraped and scorched she was, red–eyed, and coated in soot—not to mention that her clothes were black rags. If she were not recognized, would Kyle take pity on such a pathetic stranger?

There was little value in hesitating, she realized. Outside the door, her doom was certain. If it opened, she might yet be saved. Her hands found the cold stone which served as a doorstop, and she mustered the strength to hoist it with both hands. Pounding the door with this hefty stone would be heard by someone down in the cellar, she hoped. She knocked three times, loudly. There was no answer. Taking a breath, she pounded again and again and again, before dropping the stone in exhaustion. Finally, a man's voice, muffled, could be heard from beyond the door.

"Who is there? I'm armed!"

It must be Kyle, she thought. She needed but to say her name for him to open the door. But then when she tried to speak, nothing came from her throat but a gurgling hiss.

She heard him unbarring and unlatching the door and then, as a beam of light hit her face, she heard her brother gasp. "I have a gun," he repeated, nervously, apparently startled by what he saw.

Behind her, an engine rumbled and then two distant headlights turned a corner to pierce the forest and the black snowfall, shining up the driveway and alighting on the front doorway, illuminating her brother's frightened face. She saw now that Kyle had a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other, and that his boot was half–raised as if he had been poised to kick her back out the door.

Remembering the mask she wore, Diana pulled down the scarf and tried once more to speak—but still could only rasp incoherently. Nonetheless, it was enough.

"Diana!" he exclaimed. "It's really you!" Lowering his boot and putting down the gun, he took her by the arm and pulled her inside. "Good lord, what has happened to you? I almost didn't recognize you," he said.

His sister sagged to the floor, whimpering. Tears, somehow held back until now, wet her cheeks.

"You poor thing," Kyle said. "I'll take good care of you. But first, I've got to barricade this door." He turned to reach for the two–by–four leaning against the wall and then stopped. "I don't believe it," he exclaimed, staring under the shadow of his hand. "It's Terence! That's Terence's truck," Dropping the two–by–four and then stepping full into the headlights, he waved an encouraging welcome at the truck's driver, gesture for him to hurry indoors as quickly as possible. "And I think he brought some other guardsmen with him."

Diana's brain was fogged with fatigue, but the sound of her fiancé's name jolted her to awareness. Terence's truck? But hijackers had taken that truck! Oh no, she thought. It's not Terence! Frantically, she began yanking at Kyle's pant leg and vigorously shaking her head. She tried to scream at her brother but succeeded only in hacking up more black sputum. Kyle looked down at her with concern and pity and then bent to take her dark shape in his arms.

"Shhh. It's alright now, Diana!" He insisted, hugging her sobbing form. As heavy bootsteps landed on the porch, he repeated, "Everything's going to be alright now."



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