Sally didn’t see the nukes explode.
She’d been sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Portland, Maine. A short, doable stretch. Training. Preparation for something bigger. In her heart, she knew she wanted to do an around the world trip in the memory of her mother. Raise money for a breast cancer charity. Give 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 his wife was gone. But he wouldn’t stop her. And the proud smile he flashed people as they drove down to the coast filled her chest with love and joy. If she did something bigger, then wouldn’t that intensify the connection with her father? She hoped so.
She was sound asleep when the first airburst detonated over Washington, D.C., 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 and snoozed between. Her harsh alarm would go off and she’d get up, check the horizon and all her points, adjust all that needed adjustment, then return to bed.
Sally woke up 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. When her phone began to beep before the alarm, she knew something was up.
Eyes half-closed, mind fogged with sleep, stomach growling from hunger, Sally reached out for her phone.
‘PRESIDENTIAL ALERT’ said the headline. ‘THIS IS NOT A TEST OF THE NATIONAL WIRELESS EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM.’
Sally read the rest of the alert in a daze as the cloud of sleep dropped away. Her stomach rolled. Eight to twelve minutes? That’s no time at all.
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 worked fine several hours prior, so why would it send nothing out now? She called and screamed into her sender. She got no response in return, only the sound of a nation that had descended into chaos.
When the detonation occurred, she’d been busy 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 the bombs had vapourised over three million people in an instant, or that there were a further five million wounded. And she didn’t know that was 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 rocked to the side. The lurch knocked her to the ground and her head missed the desk by inches. Sally screamed and covered her crown with her hands as her yacht tilted to the side. And then… nothing.
She lay there and peeked through her hands as she took a few ragged breaths. The vessel righted itself and swayed side to side from the impact. Sally waited for another strike, a more violent strike, but it never came. She got to her feet and looked out across the waves. All looked normal, as far as she could tell, except the birds flew in droves and—
The mushroom cloud loomed on the horizon. It was huge. She couldn’t place its exact location, but it looked as if it rose from the nation’s capital.
“Oh my God,” she whispered as the cloud swelled. She climbed out onto the deck and walked to the nose of her yacht. She gripped the cold metal rail and stood there as she caught her breath.
She watched the thing expand and shift.
She arrived at Portland in the early hours. The sky was swollen and black. Blood-red cracks of light tried 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 as panic and fear swirled inside her chest.
Unbeknownst to her, a nuclear exchange had taken place. The major superpowers of the world participated; attacking and retaliating. Defence systems intercepted some of the missiles. Many were taken out. But not all. Oh no, not all.
She began to bring her yacht into the harbour and surveyed the scene. Not a single thing moved as she approached. Several vessels floated, listing to one side or the other, no captain aboard.
Although Sally couldn’t make out all the details, she could see cars strewn across the roads behind the marina. There might have also been a handful of corpses on the streets, but she averted her gaze. She didn’t need anything else to cloud her dreams. She had enough nightmares, these days — on the days she could sleep, anyway.
Without forethought, she guided herself away from the harbour. Sally pointed the nose of her yacht towards the greater ocean — away from Cape Elizabeth and the Gulf of Maine. She cut a wide angle and headed 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 and she followed where it led her. If humanity had collapsed, she wanted to see it for herself.
Storms came and went, and rocked her yacht with alarming irregularity. Some of the gales were normal, and although she knew how to cope with these, they still frightened her. As a solo yachtswoman, she knew all too well how merciless the seas could be.
Some of the storms were not normal, and these she dealt with as they arrived. Their timings could be strange, too — they were hard to predict. More than once, the sky erupted in a hailstorm. It was 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. So far, Sally had survived unscathed. Whether due to her quick wit or sheer blind luck, she still hadn’t decided.
She pressed on, undeterred by the out-of-control weather and ominous skies. Her diminishing food stores did trouble her a bit. Despite her strict rationing, the supplies grew thin. Sally pushed those worries to the back of her mind. Why worry? she told herself as she noted the depleted stocks. What’s there left to worry about?
As her yacht sliced through the choppy waves, her radio remained silent. The lack of signal and internet had long since reduced her phone to an expensive brick. 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 hadn’t managed to reach her father.
Shortly after she rounded 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 billowed 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 once observed a house fire; the orange-red flames that had consumed the home looked nothing like this. She wondered what it was doing to her lungs… and then realised she didn’t care. The world was aflame. What would it matter if she got throat or lung cancer several years down the line?
Sally pointed her yacht away from the shore, to make some room between herself and the coast. With her back to the flames and an eye on the horizon, she realised her skin was sore — as if she’d spent the day in the sun without protective cream. Her face felt as if it glowed. As she navigated the waves, Sally did not doubt that if she looked in the mirror she’d see her skin was red and raw. 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 didn’t know that much about nuclear bombs. She guessed it had disseminated and spread its poison across the states — borders and state lines ignored. In her mind’s eye, she still saw it as it bloomed and flourished, colossal and silent.
Was there anyone alive out there? She didn’t know. She’d never know, she admitted to herself. It’d be best if they weren’t alive. Better to die in the blast. Those were the lucky ones. Were there politicians huddled up in an underground bunker somewhere? Safe against the blast and hidden from the aftermath whilst their citizens burned? Had they sought shelter before they alerted 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 image of old white men safe in a bunker as they argued among themselves, whilst the world above them crumbled and charred. It filled her with white-hot anger. Although she hated to admit it, Sally hoped they were dead.
She docked several miles off Ocean City for a few days, bobbing in the water. The sky above churned like lava and spat out tempests, on occasion.
There were no other boats in the water. At least, no manned boats. And nobody tried to contact her on the radio, either.
The place was dead.
As Sally watched the skyline burn, 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?
Her mind drifted to her father. She didn’t think of him much, these days. Not through a lack of love; the topic left her distraught. Was he alive? Did she even want him to be still there, to suffer through the chaos alone and afraid? His wife dead, his daughter at sea, the world around him charred and melted? Would it be better if the blast had vapourised him? An instantaneous death? Was it wrong to wish a fast demise for your dad? Her yacht dipped and nodded in the water, a response 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 voice was strange and alien in the muffled silence. It didn’t sound real. And it 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 lover of all things aquatic, and she’d passed the passion on to her only daughter. Sally’s mother often said that if she hadn’t become a nurse, she would 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 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 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 everyone was forever smiling, cheeks hurting, hearts overflowing.
Even if the world leaders hadn’t pressed their big red buttons, the death of her mum would have left a chasm in her life. Like a tooth wrenched from the gums without anaesthetic — a bloody, fleshy hole left to try and heal itself. Forty-nine was no age for a woman to die. Not in the twenty-first 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 as he tried to choke back the flood. She told her dad that she loved him and 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 waves rolled and crashed on top of each other, hushing the already silent world. And then they scattered her ashes and watched as the gentle breeze whipped the sullen grey dust out to sea.
Now that same wind spread radiation and sickness.
Sally sailed onwards. She followed the Eastern Seaboard, more or less. She kept her eye to the land on her right, for a break in the fires and smoke.
But, of course, there was none. Not this close to Washington, anyway. She’d have better luck back up towards Nova Scotia. Or down towards the Carolinas. Not for the first time, Sally also pondered about the West Coast — had the nukes struck there, too?
She pushed on. Through the changing weather and fluctuating seas. These days, fog and ash filled the skies and the sea was grey and choppy. Sometimes a terrific thunderstorm would crack the sky and the waves would roar. The rain left 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 had begun to fall out.
Sally didn’t fear for her life during the storms. After all, the worst had already happened. Any extra time this world gave her was a bonus. The woman drove through the storms when she could and bunkered down when she couldn’t. If there had been anyone to observe her, they would have remarked at her sheer grit and determination. And at the good time she made.
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. She’d go ashore somewhere near Virginia Beach or Kitty Hawk. If she could. Provided the place wasn’t aflame.
And if she couldn’t? Well, she guessed she’d sail on. Until she found a 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 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 days melted into one, Sally felt more and more as if her mum were with her when the wind whispered and the gales blew. Ssssaaalllllyyyy, sighed the breeze, as she passed Mockhorn Island. She couldn’t see the place, but she knew it was there; like reaching for the light switch on the wall in the dark of night.
Ahead of her was nought but haze and fog. Thick, bulbous clouds of nuclear ash hung low and hugged the waves.
Sally had begun 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.
4th November 2019
Shortlisted for the Reedsy prompt: “It kicks off on a yacht with the delivery of an important letter.”
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