The sirens started blaring at around 2:30 a.m. It was high-pitched and piercing not unlike a fire alarm going off inside of a building. Denise cursed whoever decided a test of the emergency weather system was a wise decision so early in the morning. I agreed, still shaking off the grogginess of sleep, and went to look out the window to see what the commotion was all about.
Everything appeared normal. The branches and leaves of the trees in front our house were still. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky either. The crescent moon hung in the sky accompanied by some scattered stars. The neighborhood was as tranquil as always for this time of night. There wasn’t a single car moving up or down the road either. The only stir of activity was the lights of the other homes coming on as more people woke up.
“Everything okay out there?” Denise asked from underneath the covers.
“Yeah, seems fine,” I replied turning away from the window.
“Then why the fuck are they still blasting that God damned siren?” Denise shouted, turning over, and punching her pillow.
It was a good question. Our neck of the Pine Lands wasn’t known for extreme weather, aside from wildfires. Two years ago, 1500 acres had been lost in a massive forest fire. The smoke swirled across three counties and the smell of the burning trees reached all the way to Northern New Jersey. Supposedly, even in New York City too. We’d been forced to evacuate as we were directly in its path. However, they contained it before it reached our neighborhood.
I dismissed the idea right away. There was nothing left to burn near us and we would have smelled the smoke as soon as we woke up. The next thought was a tornado but those are rare. They barely even register as worrisome. They’re nothing like the monstrous tornados out in the Midwest, ripping up houses from their foundation and killing hundreds of people.
“No idea,” I answered, shaking my head. “It’ll probably stop soon,” I added while crawling back into bed. Denise groaned and rolled back over to her side of the bed. A minute or two later, the sirens stopped.
“Thank God!” Denise muttered and turned over. I followed her lead and adjusted myself too. It was then our cellphones began to screech with the sound of an emergency alert.
“The fuck!” Denise shouted. She tossed the blanket off and reached out to her cell phone on her dresser.
“It says to get to the nearest television, radio, or computer with internet connection, or wait for further text messages for instruction,” Denise read aloud. A chill overcame me. The thought of another wildfire came to mind. Was the rest of the forest on fire now too? I turned over to my dresser and grabbed the television remote. The dormant television came to life and flooded the room in a dim light. We both turned away a moment to allow our eyes to adjust to the brightness. A man’s calm voice spoke through the television speaker. We caught him at the end of his sentence.
“-se remain calm. Instructions will follow.” Beep. “This is the Emergency Action Notification System: Please stand by for directions. This is not a test. This is a national emergency. Please remain calm. Instructions will follow. Beep”
My heart skipped a beat as it jumped into my throat and then sank back into my stomach like an out of control elevator. The voice repeated the same message over and over again along with the stupid beep at the end. The message scrolled across the bottom of the screen too in white letters over a black bar. The sirens began wailing again in the distance and the emergency buzzing on the cell phones started again. Mine could be heard downstairs since I hadn’t shut off the ringer.
“My parents!” Denise shouted over the chorus of emergency.
“Shit,” I replied feeling stupid for not thinking about them sooner. Denise’s mother was confined to a wheel chair. Her father could narrowly manage them on normal days, let alone during a national emergency. She rolled across the bed and grabbed her cell phone. She silenced the infernal emergency buzz and dialed her parent’s house.
“Call couldn’t be completed,” Denise said. She called again and got the same message.
“The network is probably overloaded with calls,” I realized.
“Try yours,” Denise commanded. I scrambled out of bed and ran downstairs. My phone shrieked alone on the kitchen counter. I tried dialing her parents. Same result. I dialed my parent’s number instead and got the same automated message. Everyone was, understandably, trying to reach their loved ones. I could do nothing else but send a text message to them and hope it goes through at some point.
Running into our office, I tried going online and met a similar result. The internet connection slowed to an agonizing crawl. Websites wouldn’t load. Error messages displayed after the sites took minutes to load. It was useless.
My last resort was the old Boombox radio in the garage. I tried turning it on, forgetting the batteries in it had died decades ago. Bringing it inside the kitchen, I plugged it into the wall, and it crackled to life with static. Moving the dial from station to station, each of them repeated the same message the television had been playing. We had no other choice but to wait for the broadcast to change.
After a few more minutes of turning the dials, I turned it off, and went into the bedroom. Denise was dressed in jeans, a Phillies t-shirt, and a pair of sneakers. She’d laid out some clothes for me on the bed and was finishing up packing a bag for us.
“We need to get to my parents. They’re probably freaking out,” Denise cried while running into the bathroom and returning with our toothbrushes.
“Why don’t we wait to find out what’s happening before we start moving?” I suggested, hoping to calm her frantic pace.
“I don’t care what’s happening. We need to get there,” Denise countered back.
The sirens stopped.
After getting accustomed to their constant blaring, the silence felt eerie. The television flickered. Writing scrolled across the screen and an electronic male voice began to read aloud again:
“Please stand by for an address by the President of the United States followed by pertinent information from your local authorizes. This is not a test. This is a real emergency. Please remain calm. Remain in your homes. Non-emergency personnel will be detained if found in the streets. Do not use cellular phones or landlines as emergency responders may not be able to communication vital information. The President of the United States will address the nation in 10 minutes. Please stand by…”
The voice repeated as a countdown on the side of the screen ticked down to zero. Denise stood frozen in place with tears in her eyes and a fingernail at the edge of her mouth. She watched the television with a thousand yard stare and trembled. Taking the toothbrushes from her hands and placing them into the bag, I wrapped my arms around my wife and squeezed. It brought her back to reality as she embraced me in return. She let out a sob and then a pained groan of agony. “Come on, honey, let’s go to them. Fuck what the television says. If anyone has a problem, we’ll tell them we’re heading to your parent’s. They need help from able bodied people. They’ll probably escort us to them,” I reassured her.
Denise gathered herself and kissed me before disappearing back into the closet. Not wanting to waste any time, I slid across the bed and unlocked our safe. Gathering our important documents like our birth certificates, titles, and insurances forms was secondary to the handgun and ammo inside. Whatever was happening, I wasn’t about to leave the house unarmed.
Placing our documents and the handgun into the bag, I went into the kitchen and gathered up food and water into a shopping bag. Once it was full, I grabbed my car keys and loaded the bag into the backseat of my Lancer.
Denise shouted out the bedroom window for me to come back inside.
Dashing back inside, I made a mental note to get more food and water from the basement refrigerator and the pantry. I charged upstairs to find the countdown clock was ticking down the final ten seconds. We watched together like it was a New Year’s countdown except when it reached zero, there would be no kissing or celebrating. Only grave news waited.
As the graphic ticked to zero, my heart was pounding. I let out my breath, not realizing I’d been holding it. The broadcast flickered on and off again and a voice spoke over the airwaves. It was the voice of a woman who seemed to be trying her best to maintain her composure.
A few sobs escaped her as she read:
“Residents of Monroe County, Salem County, and Crystal County, we are experiencing a national emergency. This is not a test. This is a real emergency. Please remain calm. Do not leave your homes. All vehicles and people found outside will be…shot on sight.”
“Please do not use telephone or cellular services at this time. Heavy volume will prevent emergency responders from helping those in need. Please relocate to the most interior room of your home. Stay away from windows and heavy objects. If you have a basement, please relocate there and await further instructions. Prepare yourself with as much food, water, and medication as you can gather in a limited time. We do not know how long the situation will last. Please stand by for an emergency press conference from the President of the United States.”
The woman stopped reading and the sound of her heavy breathing could be heard. Unintelligible voices spoke to each other in the background. The tone in the voices sounded authoritative and commanding like how police officers or drill instructors speak.
“Steven! Nicole! Mommy loves you!”
A scuffle broke out over the air. A sickening thud crackled over the speakers as the woman’s cry rang out. “Cut the mic”, an authoritative voice commanded. The struggle escalated as the woman screamed. “We don’t time for this shit,” the authoritative voice declared. “NO!” the woman cried. There was a click and a gunshot followed. The woman’s scream was cut short. Thumps and crackling static followed as if someone was touching the microphone.
“Cut the feed!” the voice commanded. Then feed cut moments later.
We sat dumbfounded staring at the screen. I hadn’t realized how hard I’d been holding Denise’s hand. My fingers cracked as I released her hand. The rest of Denise followed. She put her arms around me and cried onto my shoulder. There was absolutely nothing we could do for her parents. They were on their own.
I wasn’t in much better shape either. I simply couldn’t believe soldiers of the United States Armed Forces would have the tenacity to execute a citizen on live television. Even if the woman was doing something she wasn’t supposed to be doing, there was no reason for it. My anger at the situation was dwarfed by how confused and helpless I felt. But most of all, I was scared about what was happening. Despite the repeated warnings, we still didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Even as the woman was executed, we still had no idea what was happening.
Denise released me from her grasp and went to the window facing the neighborhood. Two cars raced down the street heading toward the main road out of the neighborhood. The rest of the neighborhood was scrambling back and forth packing vehicles as I’d been doing earlier. Perhaps, they had the right idea in trying to leave.
“Let’s get the stuff from the basement and pack up the car,” I suggested while grabbing the bag she had packed earlier.
“You heard what they said,” Denise protested.
“Your parents need us. Even if we run into anyone, maybe they won’t shoot on sight. They’re not all animals like the people on the television,” I replied.
She considered the suggestion before nodding and heading out the bedroom door. I grabbed the bag of clothes and headed downstairs again. Denise had packed two more shopping bags full of food. I took the other bags and placed them outside in the car again before heading inside once more. Staying proactive helped us snap out of the paralyzing fear gripping us. The television blared with the emergency broadcast alarm as we went up and down the stairs bringing down some last minute items we thought about. We shut the curtains, turned off the lights, and made sure our windows were locked before finishing up downstairs.
Denise was unloading the basement refrigerator while I went over to the couch and turned on the television. The emergency broadcast alarm still blared its terrifying alarm. I flicked through the channels hoping a news network or a local station was broadcasting more information. There was no such luck. All the channels had been hijacked by the emergency system.
“Monroe, Salem, and Crystal County. That’s weird, isn’t it?” Denise asked as she removed the last bottle of water from inside the fridge and shut the door.
“Maybe we’re getting our signal from somewhere else?” I replied.
“They said it was local,” Denise countered.
“Local for someone else maybe,” I responded unsure of anything anymore. Where the signal originated was the least of my worries. The emergency broadcast system stopped, leaving the buzzing sound still lingering in my ear like tinnitus. A live broadcast of a press conference came on. A podium with the Presidential Seal stood empty at the center of the screen.
“The President isn’t at the White House,” Denise said before I could.
A suited man approached the podium. He was a ghostly shade of white. I didn’t recognize him, but then again, I was never interested in politics. I could tell who the President and Vice President were, but otherwise every suited, fake smiling, politician looked the same to me. The man was sweating bullets. He looked uncomfortable as he set himself up at the podium. He cleared his throat and placed his attention on the camera. Seeming more at ease, he locked his eyes on it as if he found comfort in the camera’s sight. His eyes were pale blue and cut straight into your soul. A sullen look overtook his face as he spoke:
“Good morning, my fellow Americans. It is with the deepest sorrow and regret that one of the greatest fears of our times has been realized on this day, which shall never be forgotten in human history. Nuclear armaments have been launched against territories of the United States and are currently on route to major population centers across the nation. Our military intelligence has confirmed the missiles originated from the Unified Kingdom of England and its colonies. Rest assured this blatant and cowardly act against the United State shall not go unpunished. Our forces stationed across the world are retaliating tenfold against our enemies across all their colonies in Europe and Africa.”
“Military intelligence predicts the nuclear weapons will detonate in our greatest population centers making for certain that many lives will be lost today. For the moment, we must prepare ourselves for the coming future. The Vice President, Congress, and the Supreme Court have been relocated to underground bunkers for their protection. Rest assured after this crisis passes, there will still be a government running these United States and rebuilding a new future for this nation.”
“All citizens are encouraged to take the appropriate actions to survive this attack. Your local authorizes should be providing instructions after my announcement has concluded. If possible, try to have a battery operated radio so you can be up to date with information as it is given. Do not leave your shelters until the all clear signal has been given. Follow the instructions given by emergency management personnel. Stay calm. Assist your fellow man throughout this crisis. Do not lose hope. While this attack may cripple us, this does not mean we have been defeated. We will survive, we will endure, we will retaliate, and we will emerge victorious. God help us all. God bless these United States.”
The man stepped away from the podium, closed his eyes, and put together his hands together. He dropped to a knee and prayed aloud reciting “Our Father” and crossed himself when he finished. The President took a deep breath before giving one last glance at the camera. Those pale blue eyes were filled with guilt, sadness, and loss.
The camera panned back and revealed a blast door a few yards behind the podium. A Secret Service agent struggled to pull open the dense steel door. After the suited man stepped through, the Secret Service agent took one last glance behind him, and signaled someone behind the camera’s view.
A woman stepped up to the podium where the suited man had been speaking.
“President Alban has finished addressing the nation on the nuclear crisis. We hope and pray for the survival of our people and our country. We hope the planet can bear the weight of the mistakes humanity has made today. In a moment, we will be signing off. Once we have restored the feeds, we will be brining you live coverage from the President’s bunker. This is Dana Kwai. Good luck out there. May God have mercy on us.”
The cameraman stepped into view and met Dana Kwai at the podium. They looked at the camera with tears streaming down their faces.
“I’m sorry,” the camera man uttered before putting his head down. He seemed ashamed of himself. Dana took him by the hand and led him to the steel door. The guilt was written all over his face.
As the newscaster and the cameraman entered the bunker, the Secret Service agent put a finger to his ear and nodded.
The Secret Service agent was the last person to step through the blast door. With one last gaze, the agent gave a thumbs up, and disappeared behind the metal door as it closed. Mechanical machinery resounded through the television as the bunker locked down. The television station went back to the emergency broadcast.
“Who the hell is President Aldan?” I asked knowing Denise wouldn’t know the answer. Denise shook her head and wiped the tears from her face. I turned off the television, plunging us back into the silence.
The cable box clock displayed 2:55 a.m., and were on the couch in each other’s arms when we felt the earth rumble. There was a roar above us drowning out the muffled sirens. The quake knocked the television to the floor. Without hesitation, I yelled for Denise to help me drag the mattress from the extra bedroom in our basement into the bathroom.
We picked up the queen size mattress and carried it into the bathroom. It wasn’t easy with the ground shaking beneath us. Denise nearly dropped the mattress but regained her step as we navigated it into the bathtub.
“Get inside and lay flat,” I commanded. Denise did as I said and helped me place the mattress over the bathtub.
“Get the supplies,” shouted Denise as the rumbling intensified and the ground shook itself apart. I sprinted to the fridge and grabbed two of the bags without looking. Pieces of the ceiling began to fall. The house above us grumbled and creaked releasing plumes of dust and dirt into the air. My knees buckled and I fell to the floor just before the bathroom door. I crawled the rest of the way to the bathtub, dragging the bags on the floor behind me. Denise lifted the mattress allowing me to roll into the tub and squeeze in next to her. She dropped the mattress and we fell into darkness huddled together as closely as possible.
The roar was muffled underneath the mattress. We could feel the earth violently shaking beneath us. It felt like a train was running overhead. The sound of windows shattering, items crashing to the ground, the house itself groaning, was followed by a deafening boom as the house caved in. The mattress sank down with the weight of the debris which had fallen on it. Denise and I held each other tight. We whispered how much we loved each other. We kissed, hugged, and cried while the chaos happening on the other side of the mattress came to a crescendo.
After what felt like hours, the ground stopped shaking and the world seemed to quiet down. The roar was gone, the sirens stopped blaring, and the only sound we heard was our own breathing.
“Is it over?” I asked Denise knowing that she wouldn’t have any idea.
“I don’t know,” she replied. I tried to push the mattress off the tub and found it wouldn’t budge. Denise joined me in pushing with hands and feet as well but the debris was too heavy. Our safe haven had now become a tomb. With no success, we laid in the tub in silence contemplating a plan.
“Holy crap, it’s hot in here,” complained Denise. I would have assumed it was our body heat getting trapped underneath the mattress. It wasn’t the case. The heat was rising to an almost intolerable level. Before long, both of us were gasping for air, unable to get a full breath in us. Before I realized it, Denise had passed out. I followed seconds later.
Denise’s light breathing was the only sound in the darkness. My hands tingled with pain, asleep from its uncomfortable positioning under my side. I had a tough time adjusting my position and moving my arms from beneath me without disturbing Denise’s sleep. Our body heat was the only bothersome aspect of the temperature now. The overbearing heat from earlier was gone. As I shifted my weight, when I elbowed Denise. She let out a startled gasp and adjusted herself in the tub like we were sleeping in our own bed like normal.
“What do we do now?” she asked drowsily.
“I guess we have to wait until someone finds us in the rubble,” I said being honest with her. I tried to push the mattress off once again and we met with the same weight trapping us from earlier.
“I don’t know if I want anyone to find us, to be honest,” Denise replied.
“Why would you say that? You want to be trapped in here?” I asked not understanding her logic.
“Of course not. It’s just that once we are free, I don’t know what else to expect. Nothing about what happened earlier was right. None of it made sense. President Alban? Who the fuck is that? The Unified Kingdoms of England? African and European colonies? They’ve been an ally to the United States of hundreds of years now. Monroe is a town, not a county in New Jersey. Crystal County doesn’t exist in New Jersey. Salem is a county, which is actually okay, but those other ones certainly were wrong,” Denise explained.
“Yeah, that was weird. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, all considering,” I replied.
“I mean imagine us getting rescued from the rubble and then being questioned about something as simple as the address to our house and not giving them the correct answer. It would seem very suspicious to anyone, they might think we’re looters or we did something to the people that live here,” Denise continued.
“I’m not sure which is preferable, a bullet to the head or a slow and painful death in a tub,” I half-joked.
“As long as we’re together, I’m happy,” Denise replied and gave me a kiss. I didn’t say it but the thought of being trapped under a mattress with her terrified me. I don’t know if she thought about the consequences of dying together in this tub. One of us was going to bite the dust first and the other would be left in tight quarters with the other’s corpse.
We spent the rest of our waking moments scuffling around attempting to stay comfortable and making plans on what to do after we were rescued. Denise wanted to visit the Caribbean Islands, if they were still viable places to visit. Nuclear fallout or post-apocalyptic societal collapses might make vacationing there difficult. It seemed strange to be discussing places in terms of existing or not.
Not only were we afraid these places being craters, but who knew if these places existed in the forms we knew. Denise got hungry and we both enjoyed the cookies and crackers she packed away in the bags. We had a gulp or two of water from our bottles, rationing our supply without even discussing it. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long.
Denise and I were both asleep when we heard the muffled voices above us. I didn’t need look her in the face to know she was staring at me wide eyed and with a huge smile across her face. We both shook the mattress and shouted as loud as we could to get the attention of the people above us. There were crashes and deafening machinery drowning out our voices as we continued to make the mattress move and show signs of life. It felt like we kicked and pushed for hours until a voice called out saying they saw our mattress moving. Denise whooped and cheered at our luck.
A moment later, the bathtub around us was rumbling and the machinery was right above us. The springs inside the mattress popped and it sank in the middle almost crushing the both of us and then we were bathed in blinding light. Denise and I covered our sensitive eyes from the glare.
“Are you guys okay? Are either of you injured?” a gruff man’s voice asked standing above us.
“We’re fine,” Denise replied with a smile and sat up.
“Thank God!” the rescue worker praised while helping pull the rest of the mattress off us. The man with the gruff voice jumped out of the excavator and came running over with a med kit in hand, although we didn’t need it. Stretching our legs and standing felt incredible. My house was in shambles all around me. Denise gasped and pointed across the street to all the houses still standing untouched.
“Who is the President of the United States?” Denise asked the rescue worker who stared at her as if she was insane.
“Um, Barrack Obama, miss. Are you sure you are okay?” the rescue worker replied. Denise and I smiled at each other knowing things were back to normal. The man with the medical kit came over to us and did a quick examination. Denise and I were okay except for the sore muscles. That was nothing compared to what our fate could have been. Our neighbors were out on the street watching us with big bright smiles. They began walking over into our disaster area ignoring the yellow caution tape sealing off the property.
“What happened?” I asked both of the men hoping they could provide some answers to our warped situation. The man in the excavator shrugged and the rescue worker replied:
“I was hoping you could shed some light on that, sir. A few hours ago, folks from the neighborhood called emergency services and reported hearing a massive explosion coming from your house. They said the house was completely leveled. When the police, fire department, and ambulances arrived, there was absolutely nothing left standing of your house. We saw there was a car buried in the garage and a car in the driveway and assumed you were still inside the house when it happened. We’ve been working around the clock to clear out the rubble and here we are now. We were hoping that you could tell us what happened,” the rescue worker explained
“We were in the basement and suddenly the ground began to shake beneath us like it was the end of the world,” Denise began explaining and then gave me a look indicating she didn’t know where to go from there.
“The house was groaning and shaking so hard that I didn’t think we’d have time to escape so I grabbed the mattress and tossed it over us. Luckily, Denise was able to grab a couple bottles of water and a box of crackers before we hid away,” I finished the story hoping they wouldn’t pursue it any further. Both men shook their heads in agreement.
“Yeah, the neighbors reported feeling the ground trembling before your house crumbled on top of you. You guys were really lucky!” the excavator commented. Just as he finished his sentence, a few of the neighbors reached us and we were swept up in the commotion. There was lots of well-wishes and people asking us if we were okay. After a half an hour, Denise and I excused ourselves telling everyone we needed to head over to Denise’s parent’s house since we didn’t have a place to stay. We thanked everyone and the emergency worker gave us a lift.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Denise’s parents welcomed us into their home and gave us a guest room for the night. We didn’t have a chance to discuss everything which happened until we were in bed. Despite our exhaustion, our conversation energized us well into the early morning. We vowed never to tell anyone what happened, for fear of them thinking we were crazy.
Denise and I rarely ever speak about it anymore. I think she wants to forget it happened and I don’t blame her. It was a traumatic experience and thinking about it only leads to questions we’ll never have answers to.
Personally, I think the nuclear blast may have caused some sort of distortion in the time and space continuum bringing us into a parallel dimension. I’ve been reading up on theories of multiple dimensions, String Theory, and parallel world’s trying to figure out how it all happened. The specifics don’t make sense to me at all yet I feel at peace with it. I’ll never truly know what happened and I’ve come to terms with the experience. I’ll never know if I’ll experience it again and I hope to God I don’t.