May 25th Stories - Static Mayhem
In the post-apocalyptic novel Static Mayhem, nearly everyone in the world disappears on May 25th. These are some of the stories of what they experienced on that day.
May 25th Stories
"I was shopping. One minute, I'm in the mall looking at a shirt, the next I'm standing outside. In a bed of gravel that must have been two miles wide." Sarah paused, trying to collect her thoughts. "It didn't all happen at once, either. I mean, it was fast, but not, I don't know, instant. At first, I got dizzy, and it looked like all the color had gone out of everything, and then the roof dissolved. People were popping like soap bubbles, left and right, not even leaving a mark. I remember thinking I should scream, but by the time I got my mouth open, everything was gone.” She paused again and shrugged. “So I just started walking. My watch stopped, of course, so I have no idea how long I was on that gravel. Long enough to turn my feet into two huge blisters, I do know that. Eventually, I found a house. I stayed there until I heard Claudia the first time." She sniffed. "Then I started walking. It was quite a haul from Maryland. God, I haven't thought about that day in so long. What about you guys?"
She looked around invitingly. May 25 stories had become a cultural phenomenon as the New Chicago community grew. They were the one common frame of reference. For some, telling their stories repeatedly to everyone they met was cathartic. Others saved their stories and only offered them to their closest companions. In every case, the experience brought people together. Sharing a story was a personal initiation into each others' lives.
"I'll go," said Dorothy. She was sitting on one of the benches that had been built and earmarked for the first city park, scheduled to begin development in April. There were about thirty of them, all lined up on the lot in tidy rows, like pews. They were technically not for public use yet, but Harrison and Sarah had more latitude than most city-dwellers and frequently spent their off time there. This particular day was the first mild weather they had seen in months, and Harrison wanted the kids to get outside and get some fresh air. Sarah and her boyfriend, Warren, were already there, enjoying the thaw and the view. Harrison was glad to see them. Ever since he had been transferred to salvage, he had seen less of Sarah, and when he did see her, he relished the fact that it could be purely social. It had been difficult making friends, given his position, and Sarah and Warren were two of the very few people with whom he had grown close.
Dorothy began. "By the time it got here, we’d already seen it on the news. My mom kept telling us it wouldn't get this far, but she made us stay in the house. Me and Lorraine were pretty scared, but Fiona was way too young to really get how bad it was. Mom told us both not to talk about it, so we tried not to. I'm twelve, so ever since Dad's been gone, Mom counts on me to help take care of my little sisters. Anyway, all of a sudden Fiona just ran for it. For no reason at all. I think she was just bored. Mom didn't even see her until she was out the door, and then she started yelling, ‘Fiona! Get back here!’ So I said I'd go get her, and Mom just started yelling louder and told me to stay in the house and take care of Lorraine. Then she went outside."
Dorothy paused. Harrison could see her pain, but he said nothing. It seemed to him that she was struggling not to go on, as if by delaying the story she could keep her little sisters that much longer. He had heard this story before. He knew that the words and the timing were rehearsed. But the longing … that was always real. Harrison glanced over to Sarah, and saw she was biting her lip.
"Then,” Dorothy continued, “I heard a sound like a big drum beating, and Lorraine just disappeared. I didn't get what was happening at first, but then the house fell down, like it was made out of water, and then it was gone, too. All that was left was grass." She stopped. There was no discussion of what happened next, no tale of her journey to the Hallmark store or the home she had built for herself there, on her own. For her, the disappearance of her mother and sisters was the end of the story.
"Oh, honey," said Sarah. "Come here." She took the girl in her arms and rocked her. Warren looked unsure if he should say something and decided to let the woman handle it. Harrison had been there many, many times. This girl was a survivor, but he knew she would never, for the rest of her life, get enough hugs to smooth over that bump.
Sarah turned to Mitchell. "Do you have a story?" she asked.
Harrison stayed back, waiting to see how the boy would play this, ready to jump in if he needed saving. Mitchell usually got very quiet when people talked about May 25 around him.
He shrugged. "I was playing outside."
Sarah waited for more, cautious, nervous.
"He was alone," Harrison said. "He didn't really see anything happen. Right, Sport?" The full details of Mitchell's experience were still unknown to Harrison. Watching these kids play, he thought, it was sometimes easy to forget what they had all been through. There were hundreds of children in New Chicago, all of whom had stories to tell about how they had lost their parents. It was a miracle that they were able to function at all, and yet they had all come through and were adjusting any way they could. While Mitchell was an assertive and emotionally stable boy most of the time, he would sometimes slip out of character, and Harrison would see him as the poster child for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He wished he could be a real parent when those moments came. He did the best he could.
Apropos of nothing, Dorothy slapped Mitchell's arm, hard enough to be heard. It snapped him out of whatever catatonia he was sliding into, and he gave her a shocked look.
"You're it," she said deadpan, and bolted.
"Aaargh!" He leapt off the bench, fell down on the wet grass, and pulled himself up to run after her. Dorothy had a sizable head start, and she made it into a copse of trees well before he could catch her.
"She'll be dodging him in there for a good fifteen minutes before she lets him catch her," Harrison observed to the other adults. "He would've had a fighting chance on open ground, but she's a real squirrel when she gets into the trees."
"She's amazing," Sarah said.
Harrison shook his head. "They both are. Mitchell came here with me on foot the whole way from Milwaukee. Dorothy joined us not much farther south than that. Both of them had been living on their own for months when I found them. It's incredible to me that they can go back to being kids.”
"They’re lucky you found them," she said. Her expression looked confused, and he thought she was mocking him, but then he looked a little closer and realized that she was giving him a look. It was not one he recognized. It was respect.
He tried to shrug it off. "We were all lucky, I think." He thought of some other things he could say, to diminish the importance of what he had done for the children, but decided to let it go. He could take the occasional compliment, if not gracefully, at least gratefully.
"So,” Sarah changed the subject, “where's Glimmer? I thought she was your sidekick."
Harrison laughed. "I'm hers, more like. She had a …" He twirled his hand in a gesture of vagueness. "A thing. Down at The Department of Esoteric Studies. They needed her input on something I can't even pronounce."
"How's her hand?" Warren asked. He thought he was making small talk, but the question touched a nerve. Glimmer had been Harrison’s first traveling companion on the way to New Chicago, and for a while, his only one. Given that she was a pixie, roughly the size of a pigeon, with purple butterfly wings and a host of magical abilities he barely understood, it had taken him several weeks in her company to determine if he even believed she existed. The world had changed a great deal more than anyone yet fully comprehended.
"Beats me," said Harrison. "I've given up asking her about it. She still wears a mitten, that much I can tell you."
Sarah was giving Warren a look now, and Harrison took it to mean that he should get a move on. He started to get up, about to make a polite excuse, when Warren nodded and Sarah said, "Harrison, we have something we want to tell you."
He froze. That wasn't what he thought she was going to say, but he had a pretty good idea where she was going with it. He sat down again. "Yes?" he said smiling. It was drawn way out, inviting.
She was blushing. "We're going to have a baby."
His face lit up. "Oh, my God! This is huge! When?"
She exhaled heavily. "September." She looked at him plaintively. "You're not upset?"
The question surprised him. "Why would I be upset?" For a moment, he thought she might have believed that he had feelings for her, that he would be jealous, but that made no sense. She had been a big sister to him. He had eagerly allowed her to slip into that role. She could never replace Lisa, his actual big sister, but she had been a welcome surrogate.
"It's just that you're the first person we've told. We just …" She tried to find the words.
Warren finished her sentence. "We're afraid of how people are going to react. We're bringing a new person into this world. Not everyone is going to think it's a good idea."
"Was this planned?" asked Harrison. The question seemed crass, but these were his friends. They wanted his opinion.
"Absolutely," Sarah said over Warren's nod and attempt to say yes.
"Then screw everyone else," said Harrison. "This is the best news I've ever heard."
Warren turned to Sarah and said, "Please don't screw everyone else." They laughed.
"Cody, you're needed back at the office," Claudia said. All three of them jumped, and then they looked around.
"There she is," said Harrison, pointing to a building about 200 yards away. He waved, a huge sweeping motion over his head.
"Yes,” she said, “obviously, I see you.”
"Can she hear us?" Warren asked quietly.
"No," Harrison and Sarah said simultaneously. Harrison knew that Sarah didn't like to talk shop at home, and he expected that Warren knew very little about the limits of their abilities.
"Well then," said Warren. "God damn it! I hate it when she does that."
"It's not that much different from what I do," said Sarah dryly. "Or Harrison."
"Yes, it is," said Warren. He sounded bitter, petulant. "She does it on purpose."
Harrison raised both arms over his head in what he hoped would be readable at Claudia's distance as a shrug.
"What are you doing?" Sarah asked him.
"I'm spending the very first warm day of March at the park with my children, and if she wants me to drop that and go do something all boring and work related, she can come over here and get me," he replied. "I'm letting her know that I didn't quite hear her. At this range, she'll probably believe me."
"That's so mean!"
"No," said Harrison, still shrugging as big as he could. "Just Machiavellian."
Claudia began walking toward them. "You are such an asshole," she said.
"Don't react," said Harrison to Sarah and Warren. They didn't.
It took Claudia a couple of minutes to reach them. She did not seem to be in any particular hurry, which Harrison felt vindicated his behavior. She also did not try to speak to him again at any point along the way, which tipped him that she probably knew he was faking it.
Like Harrison and Sarah, Claudia had discovered shortly after May 25 that whatever had changed the world had changed her as well. A small number of survivors had acquired unique, unexplainable, hyper-specific telekinetic abilities. For Harrison, it was the ability to open any lock by touching it. Sarah had been granted the unfortunate talent of causing any clock she looked upon to stop. In both cases, the effects were completely beyond their control.
Claudia's gift was the ability to cast her voice over great distances by telekinetically pushing the sound waves, or, as she discovered shortly after she reached Chicago, by pushing radio waves. She knew, of course, that 200 yards was well within her functional range, but there were some variables that interfered with her talent. Light was one of them. It decimated her radio range, which is why her broadcasts were, to most of her audience, audible only at night. Once she and Dr. Tucker had figured that out, she had started working the night shift to take advantage of her extended range. Light was less of an obstacle to what she did with pure sound, but the fact that it was high noon on a sunny day gave Harrison a slight edge in plausible deniability.
"What's up?" he asked once she was in range of his voice. Sarah and Warren were conspicuously silent.
"Alec needs you.” Claudia's tone was professional and cold. “He has some questions about your last salvage run."
"Did you remind him that this is my day off?" Harrison asked her.
"No, but he did preemptively ask me to remind you that you are on call 24-7." Having delivered this message, she warmed up a degree. "Hi, Sarah. Long time, no see."
"Hi, Claudia.” Sarah smiled. "How have you been?"
"Busy. But good. What's new with you?"
Warren shifted uncomfortably, but Sarah expertly dodged the question. "We were just talking about where we were on May the twenty-fifth. Warren slept through the whole thing." She nudged him in the ribs, and he rolled his eyes.
"I woke up on a putting green," he said. "No golf course, just one hole, with the flag still in it. I'm still disoriented."
"We still haven't heard Harrison's story," said Sarah. "Can he stay long enough to tell us?" Claudia opened her mouth, but Harrison cut her off before she could speak.
"I was on my way to work one day," he began. "There wasn't much traffic because it was a Sunday morning, so I was making pretty good time. I remember feeling good about that. I wasn’t the most punctual person, and I was going to be early for once. I worked at the mall, and I was supposed to be there by eleven o'clock. I stopped at a traffic light, and that's when it hit. For about a second, I felt like I was upside down. Then I saw all the cars waiting at the light in front of me, going up like smoke. Just dissolving into thin air. In a sort of wispy, swirly way. The ones further ahead were going up before the closer ones did, and I had just enough time to realize that my car was coming up real soon. I imagined getting out of it, but there was no time. Suddenly I was on the ground, no car, and I turned around to watch all the cars behind me go up like the ones in front had. The road was gone. The stoplights, the buildings, all gone. The ground was just bare dirt. Then the trees came up. I heard the roar before I saw them. They just tore straight up out of the ground in a huge wave. The tree line came right up to me in seconds. It moved past me without slowing down. I was sure I was going to be killed, but the exact spot where I was sitting didn't get a tree. Then it was over, and I was in a really, really big forest. I walked for a few hours, until I found a Laundromat. It was standing out there, all by itself, in the middle of the woods. It was shelter, and it had a bunch of full snack machines, so I lived there for a while." He let the story hang there. Claudia looked at her watch.
"Claudia,” he said, stretching the delay just a mite further, “what about you? What did you see that day?" He was goading her, but as he said it, he realized he had never heard her story. Yet another reminder that they were not close. It took a tiny fraction out of the joy of teasing her.
For a few moments, it looked like she would refuse to say anything, but then, to Harrison's surprise, she sat down.
"The May 25 event originated in New York City at approximately ten a.m. and spread in a circular fashion, expanding at over half the speed of sound. Do you know how fast sound travels, Harrison?" It was still difficult, sometimes, for Harrison to reconcile Claudia's age with her intellectual maturity. She was only fourteen, but she spoke of the event in clinical, scientific terms, to a degree that no one else he had met here was comfortable doing.
"About 740 miles an hour," he said. "Give or take."
Claudia nodded. "The wave was moving at almost 400 miles per hour. While I'm sure that seemed pretty fucking fast to you at the time, it took over eight hours to reach California. I was in San Francisco. Way before it got there, everyone on the west coast knew it was coming. We had already seen TV coverage of a wall of destruction. The clips were all very short. They all ended abruptly. We saw aerial footage from helicopters, just as the pilots were learning that they wouldn't be able to fly fast enough or high enough to escape. West coast news stations were keeping a running tally of cities that had gone silent." She paused long enough for Harrison to regret asking the question. "What did I see? I saw millions of people panicking. I saw riots, pointless looting, streets filled with people climbing over cars, swarming to get out when there was nowhere to go. I saw the end of the world, Harrison. And then it all vanished." She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at the ground. "Two days later, Louise found me. We rode to Chicago on a Harley." She stood up. "Are we done playing now?"
No one spoke. Finally, Harrison stood up. "Sarah.” It came out as a whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Sarah, would you mind taking the kids back to the hotel?"
She made eye contact with him, nodded, and looked away.