Chapter 2


Irene and her husband Tom sat in bed. She wrote in her journal; he scrolled through messages on his smartphone.[1]  The news played on TV in the background. As she had every night for the last couple of weeks, Irene drank a nightcap of rum and coke. Tom glanced at her shaking hand but said nothing. He didn’t have to. She could almost hear him making yet another comment about how she used to be a teetotaler.

Irene finished her journal entry, which was the only suggestion the therapist had made that she found therapeutic. She took another swig of her drink and stared at the imagines of armed men exchanging gunfire on the TV. Tom picked up the remote and went to change the channel.

She raised a hand to stop him. “It’s okay. This isn’t the kind of stuff that bothers me.”

Tom looked at her skeptically but set the remote down. Soldiers battled among ruined buildings and broken bodies. Irene picked up the remote and turned up the volume to listen to the breaking news about an apparent failed coup in North Korea. Every once in a while the camera captured the image of a civilian, or an entire family, trying to flee out of harm’s way. Sometimes they made it. Sometimes, they didn’t. Neither side seemed to care.

“It all seems so distant on that little screen, doesn’t it? Way too distant to be real,” Irene remarked.

Tom looked up from his phone, puzzled by her comment. “Yeah, I guess.”

 “I mean. I feel sorry for those people. But …I don’t know…It just doesn’t have any kind of impact.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s anything we can do about it. And it was bound to happen sooner or later. My grandpa always said we left an unsustainable situation over there when we left the country split in two.”

“Your mom always said he was pretty traumatized by his time in Korea. But he never wanted to talk about …” Irene’s voice trailed off.

The image suddenly became all too real--all too familiar. The camera focused on an old Korean woman clutching the limp body of a boy in her arms as she rocked back and forth wailing.

 Irene let out an involuntary moan. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, sending shivers through her entire body. Here was the face of her nightmares. She half expected the age-engraved Asian woman to transform into her own mother.

The news correspondent estimated that the death toll was already in the hundreds, if not thousands as the purge continued. The brave soul who’d taken the video had to retreat under fire so the coverage cut back to the studio. The network anchor announced that the United Nations was convening in an emergency session to discuss the situation and its implications for South Korea’s safety.

 Irene knew there would be no peaceful resolution to this. Things would only escalate from here. The nightmares hadn’t been a product of her over-active imagination. They’d been a sign of things to come. There was no denying it now. The world was really about to end.

Tom scrolled through his smartphone checking the headlines. “North Korea’s threatening to invade South Korea. Their blaming the U.S. and them for this mess. They say they’ll launch a nuke at Seoul if we don’t withdraw and surrender the country to them.”

“Dang, this is going to get ugly,” Irene said, unsure how to bring up the subject of her apocalyptic nightmares.  He knew she’d been having bad dreams almost every night, but she’d allowed him to assume they were flashbacks from the shooting. “What if North Korea actually does it?” she blurted.

“Then we blow them all to hell. They have what? Maybe a handful of bombs and no way to get them all the way over here, yet. It’s probably better this happens now before they manage to make more reliable missiles.”

Irene felt irritated at his war mongering and ignorance. He was letting the testosterone do the talking again. However, she didn’t bother telling him the rogue nation had more than twenty nuclear bombs and they’d recently tested missiles that could in fact reach the U.S. She had another, more important, point to make; “I’m more worried about what happens if China gets involved.”

Tom eyes narrowed and expression darkened. “Good God Irene,” he said in exasperation. “Like we don’t have enough to worry about. Don’t go looking for--”

She flipped over so her back was to him and let out a loud angry huff.

He took a long breath of his own before continuing, “Let’s try to focus on the stuff we have to deal with, not stuff we can’t do anything about. Besides, if an all-out nuclear war does happen, we won’t be around long enough to worry about it. Not with Beale Air Force Base less than fifty miles away.”

She turned over to face him, shocked at his matter-of-fact proclamation of doom. With large, frightened doe eyes, she asked, “You really think that’d be it.”

“They don’t call it MAD for nothing. Mutually Assured Destruction.” He realized just how cold he sounded and softened his tone. “Look, let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that. That’s really all we can do.”

Irene took another sip of her drink while the woman co-anchor announced that the president was meeting with key members of his Cabinet. “Word from the White House Press Secretary is that they are considering all possible options, but that our first priority is to the U.S. citizens in South Korea as well as protecting our bases in Seoul. Some sources say that an evacuation of the U.S. Embassies as well as the consulate in Busan is already underway.”

Irene wanted to continue their conversation. Maybe even tell him about the dreams. But Tom went back to swiping his phone and responding to his latest texts.[2] He completely ignored her and the newswoman speaking with professional detachment. Pressure built up inside Irene’s mind. An irresistible urge to do something…anything. “Do you think we should go away?” she asked Tom, finally giving voice to her thoughts. “If this is going to turn into World War III, maybe we should go somewhere safer.”

Tom let out an exasperated sigh. Irene couldn’t tell if he was annoyed at her words or the fact that she was interrupting his phone time, which he seemed as dependent on as she was her rum and coke. Then he set down the phone and regarded her with that “are you nuts?” expression that always made her feel so stupid. She was glad she hadn’t told him about the nightmares. The last thing she needed was him thinking she’d finally gone completely insane.

He spoke in that slow, patronizing tone he used with Zack, or with her, when he was really annoyed. “And go where, Irene? There’s no safe place to go during a nuclear war.”

She concentrated on getting her thoughts out clearly and without the nervous stammer she’d developed after the shooting. “How ‘bout going to your family’s place in Washington? Or even just up to Foresthill and staying with your aunt and your brother? It’s bound to be safer than being so close to Beale or even a state capital, like Sacramento.”

He folded his arms and pretended to consider the idea, but his reply made proved it had just been for show.  “For how long? Say the worst is going to happen…When? Will it happen tomorrow or next year? Or the year after that. There’s no way to tell. And we can’t just put our lives on hold waiting to see if the shit’s really going to hit the fan. Either it’s going to happen or it’s not. There’s no point in worrying about it.”

As her expression became even more upset, he tried reasoning with her. His tone became almost pleading. “Look, it’s not like I really believe it’s going to happen. Everyone knows that no one wins in an all-out nuclear war. No one’s stupid enough, or crazy enough, to start one.”

“Not even Kim Jong-un?”

“Okay, that man might be bat-shit crazy. But even if he’s that deluded, the rest of his country isn’t. They won’t commit mass suicide by attacking the U.S. directly. They just want South Korea. Their economy is so messed up, they need the resources. That’s it. We’ll make some kind of deal with them. Probably pay them off, and that will be it.”

With that, he picked up his phone again and started typing away, obviously signaling the conversation was over. When she stared at him with an “oh no you didn’t” expression, he flopped over on his side so his back was now to her.

She wanted to grab that damn phone and chuck it out the window. But that wasn’t likely to make him more inclined to listen to her. And she couldn’t let this go. If it were only their lives at stake, she might not have cared so much. They could decide to let themselves die if the worst happened. However, they had a ten year old son to think about. For him, they needed to find some way of bettering their chances of survival. “Well, we at least need a plan.”

He didn’t even bother looking up from his phone. “We have one: say a prayer and go toward the light,” he muttered.

She ignored his flippant comment, a vestige from the dark humor they used to share when they both worked in emergency services. Instead, she let herself think out loud. “There are some pretty decent sized caves on the other side of the American River. We could reach them fairly fast.”

Tom rolled over, his “are you nuts” expression back. “Irene, what in God’s name are you saying? You want us to pack up Zack and go become survivalists or something?” When she didn’t deny it, he rolled his eyes and snorted in disgust. “Damn, you really have gone off the deep end, haven’t you?”    

Realizing that he might have just hit on the truth, his entire demeanor changed. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. But I do think you’d better call that shrink you’ve been seeing. Maybe call into work and tell them you’re not ready to go back just yet. They’ll understand. Hell, they’d probably be relieved. Maybe they’d even be willing to extend your paid leave. If not, we can afford to go without your income for a while.”

Here she was telling him the end of the world was coming, and all he cared about was money. She shouldn’t be surprised, she told herself. Everything with Tom was either about money, things, or appearances. People came in a distant fourth. That was why she’d been contemplating a divorce before the shooting. Of course, she hadn’t been in any condition to make such a huge decision afterwards. She could barely decide what to make for dinner. And now with World War III looming, it was no time to be splitting the family up.

She suppressed a derisive snort of laughter as she thought about when they’d first met. She’d been so flattered that this gorgeous, blond haired, blue eyed firefighter was interested in her. She was an honor student, majoring in journalism, and working her way through college as an EMT. While she was by no means homely, her plain brown hair and eyes, along with her very average figure, never attracted much attention from the guys. To be honest, she’d never bothered putting much effort into her looks.

After just a few weeks of dating Tom, she’d bleached her hair and started wearing makeup every day and not just on special occasions. Much to her dismay, she let her whole world come to revolve around Tom and what he thought of her. She soon found, however, the more desperately she tried to please him, the more indifferent and critical he became toward her. Now, twelve years later, he still acted like she should be grateful that he put up with her at all.     

“Thanks for the concern. I’m fine.” She told herself that the situation was too important to get sidetracked by her hurt feelings. “And my mental state doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we’re facing World War III.” With all the hesitance of someone handling a venomous snake, she suggested, “I think you’re right. There’s no way to know when things might escalate and by the time they do it’ll be too late to go anywhere. So maybe we should build a bomb shelter. That way--”

“Shhh.” He raised a hand to silence her then looked over at his vibrating phone. He barely glanced at her before reaching for it.

“Tom,” she warned.

He hit the answer button and started talking to one of the guys from the fire department as if she weren’t even in the room.

The news cut to some military expert drawing her attention.  He started explaining that America’s defenses where such that even though North Korea did indeed have missiles that could carry a nuclear payload to the U.S. mainland the military could shoot them down before they left Korean airspace.

“No way,” Tom scoffed, then said into the phone, “Oh no not you. Just something stupid on the T.V.   His brows furrowed. With the deep creases on his forehead and across the bridge of his nose, he looked his 33 years instead of the 23 he was so often mistaken for. “Ah I got to go. See you tomorrow.”

As soon as he was off the phone, Irene asked, “So you agree with me: we couldn’t possibly shoot Korea’s bombs down that fast?”

 “Not unless we’re planning on hitting them before they even launch,” he said more to himself than to her.

“You mean a preemptive strike?” Irene asked.

He looked over at her. The crease in his brow deepening even further, a clear indication of his worry. “It makes sense. Hit them before they can get their missiles in the air. I’m sure we can tell when they’re about to launch.”

“Well, just in case, I really think we ought to build a bomb shelter.”

Tom put a hand to his forehead and said with a forlorn laugh that had nothing to do with humor, “Please tell me you’re kidding. That’s like the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. Try to be reasonable. With the lawsuit and everything, we’ve got freaking enough to deal with. I know you’re having a hard time. But don’t you think that maybe you’re overreacting? Maybe it’s your mind’s way of dealing with all the stress you’re under. Have you been taking your meds?”

“I am not insane,” Irene said in a slow angry snarl. “It doesn’t take a freaking genius to figure out that all it’d take is one country launching their bombs--in fact you said it yourself.  We’re facing a nuclear holocaust; I don’t think building a bomb shelter is such an unreasonable thing to ask.”

“What I said was if it did happen, we might as well just kiss our asses good-bye.”

Irene tried to come up with a response but failed. Even her average IQ didn’t stop her from becoming a hysterical, stuttering stereotypical female when it came to talking to her own husband. She often wondered what had happened to the woman who’d proudly graduated with a master’s degree near the top of the class.

She got up, dragging her favorite quilt behind her, and went to go sleep in the guest room.


# # #

From the Journal of Irene Wallace

Wednesday, December 11th  (62 hours before the blast)


I’m documenting my nightmares in as much detail as possible in case there’s some clues we can use. Plus maybe I can prove to myself they really are premonitions.

The dream changed last night. This time it started with hundreds of Asian men, women, and children rallying around two flags I don’t recognize. One had a red clover shape in the middle and a thick green stripe on each side. The other had a green leaf-like shape between the thick green stripes.

Then, as if they were acting out the barricade scene from Les Misérables,[3] they all start dying in slow motion.

Next the dream jumped to my mom. She’s weeping over Zack’s dead body. Me and Tom and a huge group of our friends and family surround her. Then we’re all suddenly at the local park having a party. Zack’s running around with his friends and the neighbor’s kid.  

A blinding flash of light hits and we all began melting. At first, horrific screams come from the figures as their flesh falls away. Then there’s nothing but silence as a mushroom cloud fills the background.

As if to make sure I get the point, Alex and the three innocent students who died appear. Their ghostly faces are like after images burned into my retinas. Finally Billy and Todd come with their guns. They stroll into the park shooting silhouetted figures as they try to flee.  

I don’t know how else to interpret this except something, or someone, is telling me I need to do something more this time. Since I’m not sure I can believe in a God who let’s this kind of thing happen, maybe it’s all my subconscious putting the pieces together.

# # #

Irene woke needing to vomit. She didn’t bother trying to go back to sleep after that. She logged her dream in her journal, and then called an old friend from college who now worked as an investigative reporter out of CNN’s New York Office. The three hour time difference would make it 9:00 AM on the east coast. She just prayed he still had the same cell phone number. She practiced what to say in her head a few times before calling.

Ryan picked up the line, sounding like he’d had a few too many cups of coffee. “Irene! Hi! Long time no see! How’s domestic life? How’s the baby?”

“That ‘baby’ is ten years old now.”

“It’s been that long? Damn. How are you holding up?”

He’d sent her flowers when she’d been in the hospital recovering from the gun shot. She’d been so grateful that he’d respected their friendship enough not to use it to get an exclusive. She was pretty sure, even though he was alluding to it now, it was out of genuine concern, not as a reporter. And part of her wanted to tell him all about the hell she’d been through--was still going through.

He’d been her “safe, protective, gay guy friend,” during their college days. She’d shared everything with him back then, and he’d always listened so patiently to her throughout her tumultuous courtship with Tom. While she regretted that they’d drifted apart, she decided now wasn’t the time for catching up. She needed to get right to the point. “I’m fine. Uh, hey Ryan, actually the reason I called is: I need a favor.”

“What’s that?”

“I need you to tell me if the reports about Korea are as watered down as I think they are.”

“Only if you think they’re as watered down as those cheap drinks we used to get at Mick’s Bar,” he answered.  “And it’s getting worse. The networks are getting some heavy pressure from Washington to ‘stop spreading panic.’”

Though they’d been the best of buddies back in college, his frankness caught Irene off guard. She jumped down her list of questions to the bottom-line. “So what’s your guess? Are we heading for war? And will North Korea hit the main land with nuclear bombs if we do?”

“Oh, North Korea has more of a nuclear arsenal than anyone wants to admit. They could definitely do some damage. And who knows where they’ll strike. Will they limit themselves to South Korea and Japan or try to give us the worst bloody nose they can before we totally annihilate them? There’s just no way to tell until they launch. It’d be suicide, and they know it. But I’m not sure their leaders care.”

He paused to let his words sink in before going on and Irene knew to wait. She heard him take a deep breath before plunging on. “What we’re not supposed to tell anyone is just how involved China has become.”

“I kind of guessed China would be involved. That’s not exactly a secret.”

“Let me rephrase. How much of a threat China’s become. North Korea’s claiming both the U.S. and South Korea were behind the coup. They say they have proof that it was all a plot to overthrow their government. Apparently, a U.S. operative had the misfortune of getting caught during the assassination attempt. We still don’t have proof one way or the other as to whether it was successful. So we don’t know Kin Jun Un is alive or dead.”

“Which do you think is more likely to trigger a war? Him dead, or Kim Jung Un having survived an assassination attempt?” She started scribbling on her notepad, since there wasn’t anything to actually write down yet.      

“Damned if I know. Either way we’re pretty much screwed. China is reviewing the so-called proof. They’re royally pissed at the mere idea that we interfered with a sovereign nation, not to mention a neighboring country and ally to them. No matter how belligerent and how much provocation Un gave the U.S. China isn’t going to look the other way.”

Irene thought back to her dream. She had looked up the flag from the Les Misérables scene; it belonged to the movement calling for an independent Taiwan, free from China’s control. She tapped her pen trying to decide which of her questions to ask next. “So that the heck’s up with Taiwan?” she asked trying to sound casual as she went back to doodling.

“Funny you should ask,” he said with a wry smile in his voice. “There’s a group of Taiwanese people demonstrating and trying to declare their country’s independence. That’s nothing new,” he said giving voice to Irene’s reaction. “What is new is China is linking these protests to what happened in North Korea and is blaming us for inspiring a revolt. It looks like their preparing to crack down pretty hard on them in response. Taiwan’s begging us for help before this turns into another Tiananmen Square[4] or worse.”

Irene glanced down at her notepad not sure what to write. On the yellow sheet of lined paper was a casket, an outline of China and a mushroom cloud. She’d somehow sketched them without realizing what she was doing.

She felt her empty stomach start to heave. She swallowed back bile and took a sip of water. Her hand shook so bad, she spilt most of it down the front of her shirt. Precognitive nightmares were bad enough. This new ability might just push her over the edge--psychologically or even literally.

Then near the bottom of her list of things to ask she saw, “What to do?” From what she’d read, China had over 200 nukes. If this argument between the U.S. and China went nuclear, it could very well lead to the apocalypse of her nightmares.

Irene fought to keep her voice steady as she asked, “So what are you going to do?”

“Me? My job. Someone’s got to get the information out to the public. But I’ll tell you what: I’m getting my family the hell out of Dodge. I’m sending Bill and the kids up to his parent’s place in Indiana.”

For just a moment she set aside the impending of the end world. “Oh yeah. Thanks for the picture you sent with the flowers. I’m so glad you and Bill were finally able to adopt.”

“Thanks,” his voice was flat. “But right now, I almost wish we hadn’t. As I said, I’m sending them away to someplace that might be safer, but’s not like there’s anyplace that won’t be affected by this.”

“Indiana, huh? You’re that worried?”

“Yeah, and I’ll tell you what else: my folks are installing a bomb shelter. The plan is if the U.S. does get blasted to hell, they can wait out the initial radiation in and then high tail it up to Canada.” He sounded only mildly frightened as he spoke, but his words shattered Irene’s hope that she’d been over reacting to the news because of her dreams. Ryan was a level-headed guy who had a talent for remaining calm under pressure.

As if he thought she might need further persuasion to act, he added, “A lot of people in the know--whether they’re in the media, military or high up government offices--are doing the same. They’re sending their families to safer locations and/or installing bomb shelters. Are you still living near Sacramento?”

It took her a second to realize he’d asked her a question. Her mind was still trying to adjust to this new reality. “Sac? Oh yeah,” she stammered. “We’re living an hour outside of Sac now, in Auburn.”

“Do you have anyone you can stay with? I’m not sure that’s far enough from anything to be safe.”

Irene rubbed her tired eyes, trying not to break down. She cleared her throat and said, “Yeah, we’ve got family up in the middle of nowhere, Washington. From what I could google[5]  they’re plenty far enough from any silos, or military bases.” Then it occurred to her to ask, “Are you going to get in trouble for telling me all this?”

“Are you kidding? Of course. But like I give a shit. A bunch of us are telling anyone who’ll listen. We may be limited on what we’re allowed to say on air, but they can’t stop us from speaking out on our own. In fact, we put together a website detailing what’s going on. It paints a pretty clear picture, so hopefully people will wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late. Maybe if enough people get upset, we can prevent World War III. Otherwise, Irene, I swear we could be heading for Mad Max.[6]

He gave her the web address and they promised to stay in touch even though in her heart Irene knew this would be the last time they ever spoke.

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[1] Hand-held devices that were more like miniature computers than telephones.

[2] E-mail for the smartphones

[3] A popular play about the French revolution.

[4] In 1989 Chinese troops killed roughly a thousand people pro-democratic protesters

[5] A search engine for computers when they were all connected by the internet.

[6] A popular, very violent post-apocalyptic movie.

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