You’re not supposed to see those during the day.
That was the thought that shocked me out of the ongoing argument about directions. The seven of us, between two cars, were trying to sort out how to get turned back the right way. We all stepped out of the vehicles, partially blocking the exit from the parking lot where we’d stopped to try to figure things out. Tempers were high, but it all seems so stupid now I can’t even remember why. Except that I let the wrong person (not me) drive my own car, and they got us into it by missing a lane and then panicking. I guess I do remember.
I shut my mouth when I saw the first shooting star. A tiny pinprick of light with a tiny contrail, it raced from the southern end of the sky to the north in a fraction of a second, peeking behind the wispy late-afternoon clouds but below the light haze high above. I was just looking the right way at the right time. But then came another, not even a second later, and then a third. All so small, so high. More followed. So many more.
A large ring of dust, or smoke, caught my attention just to the left. Where it rose up from the ground it must have been a few city blocks wide, as if an enormous cartoon coyote had plummeted to hilarious non-fatal injury there after catching fire. It was maybe a mile away. Somewhere within that ring I saw flame. But the ring grew, and ahead of it the air rippled in warning.
Someone shouted and we all took dove behind the trailer of a nearby truck. The shock wave was nearly deafening, but not so rough that it blew us away, or even our vehicles. The trailer shook a bit, but we were unhurt. Twigs and leaves and little bits of paper were blown everywhere. The lot had transformed from somewhat orderly to untidy and seemingly abandoned, in practically an instant.
I might have been able to see the ring of smoke again, if I had looked for it. But all I saw was the cloud. That terrible, glorious cloud I never thought I would see. And never so close. The black smoke that rose up and ballooned out high above was streaked with bright red at its base. Impossible red, like a four-year-old deity had scribbled on it in huge vertical streaks. The cloud blossomed.
No one felt like arguing anymore. We just watched the mushroom form its perfect, hideous crown, while more stars chased each other across what was left of the sky. The light of the sun dimmed.
A dark gray veil was spreading from the cloud now, big enough to cover our little piece of the world. Without many words we agreed: the others would head home in the minivan, to the bigger and better-stocked house, while I would get turned back the right way and go to my house to pick up a few necessities. We didn’t know what we were in for, but it looked like it was going to be a rough one.
Street lights still seemed to be working. I watched the minivan drive off and smelled the air. Smoke. Ash. But mostly the dead nothing of the calm before the storm. There was nothing to do but get back in my car and turn the lights on, and head south on the freeway till I could turn around.
The darkness got worse in a hurry. What was outside wasn’t the black of night, but a deep, overbearing charcoal. Nothing but cloud from horizon to horizon. I’d seen storms like this when I was young, but never one so thick. It was as though two storms had come in together, one on top of the other. Yet there was no rain. No lightning. They might come later. A lot of things might come later.
About the only light I saw was from a few opposing headlights, and the instruments in my own vehicle. Barely anyone else was on the road. When I reached my exit there were flares and flashing yellow lights in the road; they were closing the freeway. I didn’t want to imagine why. There were no police; they must have moved on.
Just then I was alone on the road. Not alone in the world, yet, but already I wondered if the others had made it back safely. Were they in traffic? Did they have power? Were they turning on the TV, hoping to find out what was going on? Did more of those things touch down? I needed to hurry it up, to join them, even if it was the end of the world.
I took the exit and tried to hope for the best. Hope was elusive. Tick tick, tick tick, and a painful blinking green light kept interrupting my train of thought. Try not to think about it. I pictured crop failures and early winter. Tick tick. I thought about engineers using massive electrical discharges to try and clear the air. They could do that, right? Maybe this was just an isolated strike, and the clouds would eventually blow over—tomorrow, maybe, or the next day. Tick tick, tick tick. It was just me and the blinker now.
I didn’t know if I would ever see daylight again.