This story won honorable mention in our Summer 2011 fiction contest.
I was more curious than shocked when I heard the first guttural rumble under my feet. Dawn was breaking in auburn and purple waves, but from my position by the fountain in Five Points, the ridge that comprised 24th through 21st Streets blocked my view of the sun itself. I was setting up my easel to do some sketches as I do most mornings, ignoring the transients that were always asking me for change and cigarettes. People right away were saying earthquake.
Well, you have to understand a little bit about how the town is laid out, if you aren’t from here, which most people aren’t. I mean what Birmingham looks like just isn’t famous like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles… Anyway… Dig. The main thing is there is that downtown is just north of Red Mountain, and on the other side are the suburbs. At the peak, there’s that statue of Vulcan, the Greek god of ironworks. You see, Red Mountain is full of iron ore, which is why it’s red.
As I said, it was nigh early, and there weren’t many people other than me on the street. Just a couple of joggers with earbuds, a garbage truck, a couple of street people who were still sleeping in the church doorway with blankets pulled up all the way over their heads. After the initial tremors, those men came out of their cocoons in a hurry.
Now, I ain’t no bumpkin, and I didn’t believe any of the nonsense that preacher had been saying about the end times coming on the twenty first of May. But after what happened, I don’t know. I had to think about it. There was an old boy that had been standing around the fountain the last few days with signs saying to repent before it was too late, marching in circles.
And I distinctly remember seeing him a few afternoons before and thinking about Maggie, and about what I’d done to her. Sure enough if I didn’t start to feel sorry in a way that I never felt before that moment. A deeper, more aching kind of sorry, that felt like a cracked rib.
After… the event… I called Maggie, of course. I called her a dozen times if I called her once. She ain’t answered. Matter of fact, nobody’s heard from her a’tall. Not her sister. Not her mother. I have to tell you, I’m worried as a warthog. We all are.
Sure, I’ll talk to you. Yeah, I was one of the first people on the scene in Homewood. That’s where most of the damage was. Well, no, I wasn’t an official first responder. I’m not a fireman or an EMT or a policeman. I’m a volunteer. I have this asbestos suit that I made and a gas mask and a particularly powerful fire extinguisher. I live nearby, and I figured I could help somehow. I parked my car on the corner of Valley and Greensprings and just started making my way down the road.
The swath of death and destruction was straight out of Hades. Cars were crushed and covered in rubble. Buildings leveled. There were isolated fires all along Valley Avenue, and all those businesses along the ridge were just gone. A thick cloud of dust still hovered over the area and would stay that way for weeks after.
Through the Plexiglas goggles of the gas mask, it felt like something between real and television, like one of those virtual reality games, not that I’ve ever seen one of those, but it seemed like maybe that’s what it would be like. Virtual tour of Hell.
Maggie, you came. Thank you. Do you have the… excellent. Thank you so much. You don’t know what this means, or maybe you do. But how did you get it? No, don’t tell me. It’s better if I don’t know. I’ll have everything ready by Saturday.
Yes, we’ll do it first thing in the morning on Saturday. What? No, I can’t be sure it will work, but it’s our only hope of getting out of here before… you know. I have been building it for more than a decade, and I’m reasonably confident in my work. You haven’t told anybody anything, right? Anyone at all? I suppose it would be difficult to explain even if you did. Your people wouldn’t understand, obviously. How could they?
Believe me, I wouldn’t have believed it possible myself if you’d asked me six months ago. I didn’t think I could have these feelings. Not for a… I hate to even say the word. It sounds so… A human. An Earthling.
The gas mask had a little scratch up the side of the right eye goggle. It compromised my view to some extent, but I knew I’d manage. I was also dialed into the emergency radio channel, and I was trying to keep up with the activity, but it was altogether too chaotic. I couldn’t keep up. So I was just feeling my way through that, as I said, underworld of flames and debris.
One of the neon palm trees that used to light up the parking lot outside of El Sol was lodged in a car windshield. Up ahead, I could see the red and blue lights. I figured I’d be most useful around the periphery, not getting in the way. So I started walking up the hill toward what had been Sammy’s, which was, you know, a gentlemen’s club. Something had smashed right through the western wall of the building.
I couldn’t resist taking out my phone and snapping a photo when I saw the flaming hot, still smoking, bare ass of Vulcan right there next to the stage. The stripper pole was still standing.
I missed the stupid things about her like the crap TV shows she watched every night and her terrible snorting laugh. She had this burn scar that cascaded from the lower part of her right jaw down to her shoulder, where some scalding water splashed on her as a kid, but it never made her any less beautiful to me. She also had a scar on her pelvis from some surgery she had a few years ago. I remember long nights, caressing it with my head rested on the inside of her thigh while she watched Dancing with the Stars or some other crap.
I made a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t nice a lot of the time. And she always wanted me to have more ambition. I drove her away. Drove her right into the arms of that damned weirdo epidemiologist from the research lab where she works.
You see, I knew. I knew something was going on up there. I couldn’t tell you what it was though.
About ten or twelve years ago, they took Vulcan down for renovations. It was down for a while. I guess that’s when it happened. In the 1940s, they replaced Vulcan’s spear this torch, and he held it up toward the sky, you know, just like the Statue of Liberty, in this sort of Superman-like pose. The torch used to light up either red or green. The story is that the city lit it up as red when there’s been a fatal accident on the highway. I have no idea if that’s true. Anyway, during the renovations, they removed the torch and put the spear back, for some reason.
But I’d forgotten all about that because damned if I didn’t see that spear light up just like a torch. I saw it light up, there in the breaking morning, bright fucking red, but then it wasn’t just the spear head; it was the whole fucking thing. The whole fucking statue lit up bright red, like a hot coal, and then the fucking thing began to elevate–the statue, the tower it stood upon, all of it–just shot up into the sky like a goddamn rocket. It went up I don’t know how high into the air, and then it tipped over toward the suburbs south of the mountain and fell again toward the ground.
And then a beam of bright fiery golden light streamed up from the ground into the sky as far as I could see.
Lucinda Dupree is a dental assistant from Warrior, Alabama. This is her first published short story.