Pillar of Fire
"I was drunk in a bar. They threw me out 'in publi-k'" Moses muttered to himself as he limp-staggered out onto the sidewalk and narrowly avoided veering randomly into the street. He teetered, arms pinwheeling, barely managing to right himself. It was hard enough getting his natural leg to cooperate. The prosthetic was stubbornly resistant to his will, such as it was. Through a drunken haze, he became dimly aware that there were a lot more sirens blaring than normal, even for the south side of Chicago. Especially this late at night.
He wove his way to the nearest intersection, flailed, then managed to grab a lamp post to steady himself so he could look around.
"...the hell?" There were plumes of smoke rising from around the city. After a few moments’ wobbly, slack-jawed gaping, he fished from the murky depths of his mind the awareness that most of them were clustered in the general direction of O’Hare Airport. For a moment, the night became a blazing, dusty afternoon. Storefronts guarded by wrought-iron bars over windows and locked gates shielding doors turned into a tight-packed maze of sand-colored boxes with small windows, dominated by the occasional minarets-and-dome of a mosque. Rattling AK-47’s and the 3-round bursts from American Marines and soldiers. Columns of greasy smoke smearing into the sky. The whop-whop-whop of an Apache helicopter hanging in the air ready to unleash torrents of death like some fearsome alien insect-god...
...the whop-whop-whop of a police chopper, or maybe a news bird, less authoritative and definitely less lethal. Moses was breathing faster now, the fingers of his free hand trembling. A hiss from further down the street. Miniature geyser of steam, coming from a car that had plowed into a power pole. Moses started blundering toward it. It was a slick ride, a new black Infiniti.
"Y’all gonna be real happy t’ see a drunk black man, now ain’t ya," he mumbled, but kept going. Then he froze, his eyes locked to a bright yellow ribbon on the car’s back bumper. We Support Our Troops! the sticker proudly declared. “Oh, you muthafuckas. Muthafuckas! All gung ho for wars you ain’t gotta fight! Where were you when they was stop-lossin’ people and sendin’ us back for our fourth tours? You put a gun in the hands o’ your preppy white boy an’ sign ‘im up so’s a regular man could get a break? Where were you when we started comin’ back all maimed and fucked in the head?!” he said, stabbing at his temple with a sausage-sized index finger.
“Where were you when we needed armor for our Humvees and bulletproof fucking vests? Where the hell were you when Fuckabee was cutting the V.A. so he could afford another tax cut for alla you rich assholes? Huh? Where the fuck were you?! ‘Support the Troops' my black ass!” he shouted, flipping the car off. The ferocity of the gesture threatened his precarious balance, and he had to concentrate for a few seconds so he could avoid meeting the sidewalk up close and personal.
“Fuck, there might be kids in there…” he grumbled, and reluctantly put one foot in front of the other. “Awww, heyell no!” he snapped, feeling a new surge of anger. In Case of Rapture, This Vehicle Will Be Unoccupied. Suddenly, he burst into bitter laughter. “Well, I guess you ain’t gotta worry ‘bout that no more do ya, you smug cocksuckers!”
He tried to turn around. The world spun, then he was jogging toward an old minivan with golf-ball sized holes punched through its windshield and hood, his M14 DMR raised to his shoulder. The sun, the ever hateful sun. Terrible high-pitched shrieks coming from the van. Hand-signaling his platoon to cover him as he slid the side door open.
He never knew if the wide, dark eyes of the little girl with a gaping, bloody divot where her right shoulder was supposed to be had ever recognized him for what he was…the spotter who had called down the hail of armor-piercing DU rounds on the suspicious vehicle. But those eyes would always accuse him.
Moses tried to shut his eyes, but the vision was inside his head, and it wouldn’t go away until she wanted it to. Until she forced him to see the light fade from those eyes to a soundtrack of feeble whines and gasps of agony. Tears squeezed through his pinched-tight eyelids, trickling down his cheeks. Choking back sobs, he turned back to the car and stumbled toward it.
“Anybody in there? You alright?” he called out as he reached the car and leaned against it for support. No answer. He leaned down to peer through the rear passenger window. No one. He sidestepped to the driver’s side door. Locked. The window was full of the slowly-sagging marshmallow bulk of an airbag. “Hello? I jus’ wanna get you some help. C’mon, somebody talk to me…” He fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone. It took a moment to make the smearing, blurry, tiny little numbers on the buttons make some kind of sense, and even longer to dial the all-important three digit number.
“Hello?” He said the moment a woman’s voice came on. “There’s been a wreck, on--“ He started to look around, trying to find street signs when he realized the woman had ignored him.
“--circuits are busy. Please try again.” Moses gave the phone an accusing glare, and pulled his arm back to pitch the damn thing, then thought better of it. Slipping the phone back in his pocket, he lay down over the crumbled hood and started pushing and tearing at the torn sheets of safety glass that had once been a windshield. Finally pushing through, he fought with the airbag until it deflated enough for him to see the driver.
Who wasn’t there.
But his clothes were, still strapped snugly in place by the driver’s seat belt. Moses belly-crawled further into the car. The passenger…also missing. An elegant evening gown crumpled over the diagonal shoulder-belt as if bowing in supplication.
For long moments, Moses stared at the scene with incomprehension. Then he remembered. The bumper sticker.
A poorly-acted, cheesy, church-basement film David had tried to get him to watch and take seriously. Piles of abandoned clothes left on sidewalks, an abandoned lawnmower growling in front of its owner’s T-shirt, shorts and sandals. A disconsolate Labrador whining as it dragged a masterless leash. A voice-over earnestly describing global chaos, followed by a wooden actor trying to be the ultra-charismatic Secretary General of the United Nations who was destined to be Hitler and Stalin and Mao all rolled into one, even though his stilted speeches sounded like they’d been cribbed from Gandhi.
“Not funny…Not. Fucking. Funny!” Moses shouted as he scrambled back out of the car, tripped over his prosthetic leg and landed hard on his butt on the curb. He struggled to his feet between episodes of arm-pinwheeling and efforts to move his clumsy, obsolete prosthetic into a position where it could support him. “You can come out now! What show is this? David?” By now, a few other pedestrians had entered the adjacent blocks, but they all halted warily a safe distance away. “Okaaaay! Y’all got your big goddamn laugh! America’s Funniest Fucking Home Videos…?”
His voice echoed from the graffiti-covered storefronts. No cameramen emerged from the shadows. No smirking TV host or group of friends or family exploding with laughter. Only the whine of jet engines getting louder. And louder. “Oh, goddammit!” Moses snarled, bracing himself for whatever wartime memory was about to mount an assault.
Chicago didn’t disappear this time. Instead, the lurking pedestrians started looking skyward. Moses followed their gaze. An airliner was flying low…too low, wings canted at an odd angle. Instincts took over, and Moses dove for the deck. “GET DOWN! GET THE FUCK DOWN! NOW!” he bellowed, then tried to squeeze his muscular bulk under the car.
A deafening cacophony blinded his senses to all else. Screeching metal, shattering brick and concrete, screams and expletives from the passersby. Then, a roar and a world turned to an yellow-orange Hell. A blizzard of shattered shop-window glass, jagged rocky pieces, and chunks of hot, twisted metal. Chicago became Baghdad became Fallujah became Chicago became a half dozen Afghan villages became Chicago again. The storm of shrapnel subsided, but larger chunks of savaged aluminum continued to rattle to the ground.
Moses again fought his way to his feet, ignoring an array of scrapes, cuts, and minor burns. His namesake’s pillar of fire stood three blocks away, announcing the return of a wrathful God.
Moses didn’t know how many hours had passed by the time he was standing in front of Shauna’s door, shirtless. His memory held flashes of tearing cloth into strips for bandages, or maybe tourniquets. Training, running a body whose mind cowered in some internal basement. Lurching from person to person in clumsy, jerking movements that would have delighted George Romero. The blare of an approaching fire truck, come at last. Glimpses of a solitary walk through dark urban canyons that gradually turned into an apocalyptic landscape as people woke into the first night of the End of the World.
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