I stood in the clean empty basement, on a red-painted floor surrounded by bright white concrete walls. A freestanding metal ladder, anchored to the floor, ran up to a manhole in the ceiling. An oblong bundle of rags was tied to a high rung of the ladder. An industrial drum stood on a narrow ledge high up the wall, half buried in the concrete, above the bundle. The woman stood near me, of advancing years and nearly black skin. Her Cajun drawl almost distracted me from her words.
“Ah tied Quimby to de ladder when de flood come, ta keep her above de water. Den de drum cracked and leaked all over her. Couldn’t get her off a dere in time.”
She shook her head sadly. No anger, no horror, just resignation. I started to move toward the ladder when the flat crack of her voice stopped me cold.
“You don’ wanna see dat.”
As if on cue, a thin stream of ochre-tinted liquid dribbled from the base of the drum, directly onto the wrappings. They writhed and shuddered, swinging from their twine cradle. Not a sound issued from them.
“She’s still alive?!” I dashed toward the ladder, intent on rescuing what should have already been dead.
“Leave her! Dey need to see what dey done to her wit’ dere chemicals and trash.”
I could only bear the sight for a few seconds and grabbed the blue towel from the floor where it had conveniently appeared. I threw it over Quimby, who was inexplicably now on the floor as well, and dragged the whole thing toward me as it popped and sizzled.
I stepped away from the manhole under a brilliant October sky, the clean sprawl of the farm surrounding me in its wide river valley. I staggered back and forth through a patch of tall dry grass, hand gripped over my mouth in horror. I wandered numbly away down a dirt road near the farmhouse and, as it approached on my left, several young children ran screaming from it.
“There’s a war!”
“Is there gonna be a war?!”
“Are we gonna die?!”
They dashed across the road in front of me, pointing in the distance. I stopped, fully expecting to see white contrails rising into the air a la The Day After. Instead, I saw only a pair of huge columns, sprouting red and white radio antennae from their tips, surrounded at the top and middle with wide metal skirts, looking for all the world like alien mushrooms hundreds of feet tall. As I stood there, one of them seemed to tip slightly, then rose into the air, without sound, without fire. It slid into the sky as smoothly and swiftly as a maglev train and vanished from sight.
I dropped to my knees in terror and despair, murmuring to myself, “We failed. Civilization has failed. We were so close…so close…”
The alarm went off.