This story was shortlisted for Reedsy’s writing contest #163 — The Plot Thickens. You can also find it on Reedsy’s site.
Sally didn’t see the nukes explode.
She’d been sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Portland, Maine. A short, doable stretch. Training. Preparing for something bigger. In her heart, she knew she wanted to do an around the world trip, in the memory of her mother; raise some money for breast cancer awareness whilst giving herself some much-needed thinking time. Win-win.
Oh, Sally knew if she did sail the world her father would worry about her, especially now that his wife was gone. But he wouldn’t stop her. And the proud smile he’d flashed people as he drove her down to the coast had filled her chest with love and joy. If she did something bigger, grander, then surely that feeling and connection with her father would only be intensified, right?
When the first airburst detonated over Washington, D.C., she was sound asleep in her cabin, her vessel a few miles short of Mount Desert Island. Sally, like several of her contemporaries, slept in catnaps. She set her alarm to go off at 20-minute intervals, snoozing in between. Her harsh, bleeping alarm bell would go off and she’d groggily get up, check the horizon and all of her points, ensure that anything that needed adjusting was adjusted, then return back to bed.
Sally had been awoken several minutes before her timer. After sleeping the night and most of the day in regular bursts, her body had gotten used to the rhythm. And so, when her phone went off four minutes and thirty-three seconds before the alarm, she instantly knew something was up.
Eyes half-closed, mind foggy with sleep and stomach growling a tad from hunger, Sally reached out for her phone.
PRESIDENTIAL ALERT read the headline. THIS IS NOT A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System.
Sally read the rest of the alert in a daze, the cloud of sleep rapidly dropping away. Her stomach rolled. Eight to twelve minutes? She thought, dully. That’s no time at all.
Feeling like a woman in a dream, Sally staggered to her comms equipment. Across the airwaves was the same message. It had to be a hoax, it had to be.
She tried every line of communication but got through to nobody. Her equipment had been working fine several hours prior, so why wasn’t it sending anything out now? She called and screamed into her sender, getting no response in return, hearing the sound of a nation descending into chaos.
When the detonation occurred, she’d been fiddling with the nobs and dials, trying to get through to someone, to anyone. Sally didn’t see it; she was too far away and hadn’t been looking for it. The aftershock from the bomb didn’t strike her, either. At least, not immediately.
She didn’t know that just over 3 million people had just been vaporised in an instant, or that almost 5 million were gravely wounded. And she certainly didn’t know that that was just the start of things.
Several minutes later, the wave hit. An alarm went off somewhere to her right, loud and red, and then her small vessel had been rocked violently to the side, knocking her to the ground. Her head missed the desk by inches.
Sally screamed and covered her head with her hands as her yacht tilted dangerously to the side. And then… nothing.
She lay there, peeking through her hands, breathing ragged, as her vessel righted itself, swaying side-to-side from the impact. Sally waited for another strike, a more violent strike, but it never came. Slowly, she got to her feet and looked out across the waves. All looked normal, as far as she could tell, except the birds were flying in droves and—
The mushroom cloud was lethargically rising on the horizon. It was huge. She couldn’t place the exact location, but it looked to be coming from the nation’s capital.
“Oh my God,” she whispered to herself as she watched it blooming. She climbed up out of the cabin and onto the deck, walking to the very nose of the yacht. Hands gripping the cold metal rail, she stood there, barely breathing, watching the thing expand and shift.
She arrived at Portland in the early hours. The sky was swollen and black, with blood-red cracks of light trying to peek through the ashen clouds. Even from her yacht, Sally could see no movement on the shoreline. Is the whole continent dead? she thought, panic and fear rising swirling together inside her chest.
Unbeknownst to her, a nuclear exchange had taken place. The major superpowers of the world participating; attacking and retaliating. Some missiles were intercepted. In fact, many were. But not all. Oh no, not all.
She began bringing her yacht into the harbour, surveying the scene. Not a single thing moved as she approached. Several vessels were floating freely, listing to one side or the other, no captain aboard.
Although she couldn’t make out the scene too clearly from her yacht, Sally thought she could see crashed cars strewn across the roads behind the marina. There might have also been a handful of corpses littering the streets, but she averted her gaze before she could properly tell, one way or another. She didn’t need anything else to cloud her dreams. She was having enough nightmares, these days. On the days that she could sleep, anyway.
Without realising she was going to do it, she steered herself away from the harbour, pointing the nose of her yacht towards the greater ocean – away from Cape Elizabeth and the Gulf of Maine. She cut a wide angle, heading straight out into the greater ocean.
After all, she had Yarmouth and the Cape Cod National Seashore to steer around.
The trip was slow and demanding, but Sally didn’t stray from her course. There was a compass in her heart – she simply followed where it led her. If humanity were truly collapsing, she wanted to see it for herself.
Storms came and went, rocking her yacht with alarming irregularity. Some of the gales were normal, and although she knew how to cope with these, they were still frightening – even in spite of the horrors unfolding. As a solo yachtswoman, she knew all too well how merciless the seas could be.
Some of the storms were not normal, however, and these she was forced to deal with as they arrived. Their timings could be strange, too – they were hard to predict. More than once the sky had erupted in a hailstorm out of nowhere, as if someone had turned a tap on, somewhere up above the broiling clouds. The hail that fell was huge and discoloured, the hue of smoke-stained plaster. Fortunately, Sally had survived mostly unscathed. Whether that was due to her own quick wit or sheer blind luck, she still hadn’t decided.
She pressed on, undeterred by the spiralling-out-of-control weather and ominous skies. Her rapidly diminishing food stores did trouble her a bit. Despite her strict rationing, the supplies were growing pathetically thin. Sally pushed those worries to the back of her mind, however. Why worry? she told herself, whilst noting the nearly depleted stocks. What’s there left to worry about?
As her yacht sliced through the choppy waves, her radio remained silent. Her phone had long since been reduced to nothing more than an expensive brick – there was no signal or internet to be caught. Several days in, Sally stopped bothering to charge the thing altogether. Why cling to it? she thought after the battery died for the last time.
She’d been unsuccessful in reaching her father.
Shortly after rounding the point of Nantucket, her heart began to flutter.
There were fires on the horizon.
She had to steer away from the shore as she approached New Jersey. The flames were billowing high and wide, the thick plumes of black smoke spilling out onto the ocean. Sally could smell the wrongness in the air, even at a distance. The flames looked not quite right, too. She’d observed a house fire, once; the orange-red flames that had greedily consumed the home looked nothing like this. She briefly wondered what it was doing to her lungs… and then realised that she didn’t actually care. The world was burning. What would it matter if she got throat or lung cancer several years down the line?
Sally pointed her yacht away from the coast, to make some room between herself and the coast. With her back to the flames, eye on the horizon, she realised that her skin was sore, as if she’d spent the day in the sun without applying protective cream. Her face felt as if it was glowing. As she navigated the incoming waves, Sally had no doubt that if she looked in the mirror she’d see her skin red and raw. Perhaps a blister or two.
She shrugged it off and continued on her way.
Washington was close.
Atlantic City was an inferno. So was almost all of Delaware. The fires here, closer towards the nation’s capital, were humungous. They made the flames that swallowed New Jersey look like a barbecue. Bits of charred ash drifted towards her, floating on the sea breeze. It caught in her hair and collected in her eyelashes. And it stung when it got into her eyes, making them bloodshot and watery.
Sally couldn’t see the mushroom cloud over Washington anymore, and she wondered if it was still there. She admittedly didn’t know that much about nuclear bombs. She guessed that it had slowly disseminated, spreading its poison across the states, caring for neither borders nor state lines. But in her mind’s eye, she still saw it, blooming and flourishing, colossal and silent.
Was there anyone alive, out there? She didn’t know. She’d probably never know, she eventually admitted to herself. It’d probably be best if they weren’t alive. Better to die instantly in the blast. Those were the lucky ones, thought Sally, solemnly. Were there politicians, huddled up in an underground bunker somewhere? Safe against the blast and hiding from the aftermath whilst their citizens burned? Had they sought shelter before alerting the general population? Sally didn’t consider herself to be particularly cynical, but she thought the idea had a ring of truth to it. The mental image of old white men in suits, sitting in a bunker, arguing among themselves whilst the world above them crumbled, burned and charred filled her with white-hot anger. Although she hated to admit it, Sally found herself hoping that they hadn’t survived.
She docked several miles off Ocean City for a few days, bobbing lethargically in the water. The sky above twisted and churned like lava, occasionally spitting out a tempest.
There were no other boats in the water. At least, none that were manned. And nobody tried to contact her on the radio, either.
The place was dead.
As Sally watched the burning skyline, her thoughts returned to her mother. Thank God she hadn’t been around to see it end like this. Who’d want to be alive to witness such a thing?
Slowly and surely, her mind drifted to her father. She didn’t think of him much, these days. Not through a lack of love; the topic simply left her distraught. Was he still alive? Did she even want him to be still there, suffering through the chaos, alone and afraid? His wife dead, his daughter at sea, whilst the world about him charred and melted? Would it be better for him to have been vaporised? An instantaneous death? Was it wrong to wish a fast demise for your dad? She pondered all of this, as her yacht dipped and nodded in the water, seemingly responding to the questions that plagued her troubled mind.
“Seems only right that I was at sea as it all ends,” she told the waves. Sally startled herself by speaking aloud. She hadn’t talked in God knows how long. The sound of her own voice was strange and alien in the muffled silence. It didn’t sound real. And it certainly didn’t sound like her.
But the words she said rang true. It did seem right. As right as the end of days could be, at any rate. Her mother was a through and through lover of all things aquatic, and she’d passed that passion on to her only daughter. Sally’s mother often said that if she hadn’t become a nurse, she’d have loved to sail the oceans. But helping others had been a smidge more important, in her eyes.
Sally had fond memories of summer days on sandy beaches. Building sandcastles. Catching crabs in a bucket then setting them free again, squealing happily about their pinchers. Learning to swim, her dad holding her up in the water, the brine stinging her eyes and cooling her skin. Letting the sun warm her, sitting in the sand in between her parents. Flying a kite on the days when it got windy and the coast was clear of fair-weather tourists. And laughing. Always laughing. In her mind, it seemed that everyone was forever smiling and amused, cheeks hurting, hearts overflowing.
Even if the world leaders hadn’t pressed their big red buttons, the death of Sally’s mum would have left a gaping chasm in her life. Like a tooth wrenched from the gums without anaesthetic, leaving a bloody, fleshy hole to try and heal itself. 49 was no age for a woman to die. Not in the 21st century.
After she was gone, Sally and her father had gone to her mother’s favourite stretch of sand. It was late September, and the place was all but deserted. Her father had hugged her then, unable to hold back the tears. “This is where she belongs,” he’d said, trying to choke back the flood. She had said almost nothing, other than, “I love you, Dad,” as she buried her face into his chest – the way she had done when she was a little girl. It had been an overcast day, the sky and the ocean each shaded the same hue of grey. White, rolling waves crashed on top of each other, seemingly hushing the already silent world. And then they scattered her ashes, watching as the gentle breeze whipped the sullen grey dust out to sea.
Now that same wind was scattering radiation and sickness.
Sally kept sailing. Following the Eastern Seaboard, more or less. She kept her eye to the land on her right, searching for a break in the fires and smoke.
But, of course, there was none. Not this close to Washington, anyway. Perhaps she’d have better luck back up towards Nova Scotia. Or maybe down towards the Carolinas. Not for the first time, Sally also pondered about the West Coast – had that been hit as well?
She kept going. Through the changing weather and fluctuating seas. These days, the skies were filled with fog and ash, and the sea grey and choppy. Occasionally, a terrific thunderstorm would crack the sky and the waves would roar. The rain that lashed down upon during these tumults left permanent dimples on the surface of the yacht, almost like pebbledash. The precipitation that fell from the sky didn’t burn her skin, as she feared it might, but it did leave a rash. And her hair was beginning to fall out.
Sally didn’t fear for her life during the storms. After all, the worst had already happened. Any extra time she was given now was simply a bonus. The woman drove through them when she could, and bunkered down when she couldn’t. Had there been anyone left to observe her, they would have remarked at her sheer grit and determination. And at the good time she was making.
It was only when she was roughly parallel to Cape Charles that she realised what she was doing. The urge in her heart to sail the world had taken over, in the absence of… well, everything.
She didn’t know how far she’d go. She didn’t know how far she could go, after all, she had very little food left. Perhaps she’d go ashore somewhere near Virginia Beach or Kitty Hawk. If she could, that was. Provided the place wasn’t aflame.
And if she couldn’t… Well, she guessed she’d keep on sailing. Sailing until she found land that wasn’t a literal hell on earth. Or until she starved to death. Who knew, perhaps she could make it to the Bermuda Triangle and see what all the fuss was about? It wouldn’t really matter if she died in the process, and Sally had always wanted to know.
If she died out at sea, she’d die with her mother. As the blurred passing of days gradually melted into one, Sally felt more and more as if her mum were with her, on the whispering wind when the gales blew strong. Ssssaaalllllyyyy, sighed the breeze, as she passed Mockhorn Island. She couldn’t actually see the place, but she knew it was there; like reaching for the light switch on the wall when it’s the middle of the night.
Ahead of her was naught but haze and fog. The thick, bulbous clouds of nuclear ash hung low, hugging the waves. Sally was beginning to develop a harsh, barking cough. She doubted that she’d have enough time to circumnavigate the world, but she’d give it a good go, nonetheless.
“For Mum,” she said, as she adjusted her mainsail. “And for Dad. I love you both. See you soon.”
Sally pressed on, towards her destination.
6th November 2019
Shortlisted for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest #163 — The Plot Thickens