The dreaded moment was coming. I had planned for this. All I had to do was get to the underground bunker that would keep me safe. Even though I'd never entered it I knew how to get there, knew the door that opened to the descent toward its safety. I just had to get together the emergency supplies for the uncertain duration of my hideout.
Equipped, I descended that first flight of stairs to arrive at the small, heavy, wooden door that felt as secure as a submarine door and as old as a forgotten secret. The small landing was cast in the dim yellow light of a single, bare bulb. I had never been past this point before. But I knew it led to another flight of crude stairs, to long, narrow tunnels, and eventually to a dark, damp, tomb far from the exposure of any risk.
Facing that heavy door. Hesitation. Heart racing. I suddenly remembered the hand crank powered lantern I'd bought just for such an emergency. I couldn't do without it; couldn't bear the suffocating darkness of the bunker. Alone.
The fear of of this prospect sent me racing back up those stairs, into the big house in frantic search of it. In my panic I could not remember clearly where I had stored it. The thread of an incomplete memory of where it was would string me along through the house from place to place looking, futilely. It was here, somewhere, but run and look as hard as I could, I could not find it. It was as if the corridors of the house were twisting with my running to spill me out in the place I'd begun, always the kitchen, and sending me in crazy loops so that I could not find that one door behind which I knew my essential hand crank powered lantern lay.
Then, as if to give me a reprieve, I'd find myself back at that landing, facing that old door. But the memory of my essential lantern would prevent me from going through that door into the dark safety. Instead I'd race back up again, propelled by my panic. And on it would go, the rotation between the opportunity of safety and the panic of not being ready to seize it. Panic that freezes the mind as it frenzies the body. The one constant a feeling of being caught off-guard, of being ill-prepared at the crucial moment.
As I was standing, panting, in the kitchen a sudden and ominous quiet descended. The kind that makes hair follicles stand in alarm. The light of day, clearly visible through the large windows wrapping two of the kitchen walls, shifted to an eerie brightness. The collective fear in the air was as palpable as a cold steel rod. In the hollow pit of my turned stomach I knew this was it.
From the sky and the whole span of sky, shots of hot, white-yellow light fired down hard at a storm angle. Indiscriminately, mercilessly, relentlessly, with machine fire precision and coverage, sparing no one not already deep undercover.
Screams of terror began. The screams of those being struck down, pierced all over and through with these white hot burning shafts. The screams of those being engulfed in the flames of burning houses. The screams of terror of fleeing people caught in the open having lost their chance to hide. Buildings, homes, people incinerating in screaming flames. Total destruction of everything, everywhere.
The basement would have protected me - I could have hidden from all this in its dark, silent safety. But I could not find that hand crank powered lantern that would have made my hideout bearable. I had not been ready. It was not enough to have stocked the emergency supply list. I had failed to make it emergency accessible, to make it blind-panic proof. And so here I was, exposed, a witness to the painful, terrifying destruction about to befall me.
This was the long second, my feet bolted to the floor in my own terror, knowing I too could no longer hide or run. It was too late. The time had come.
copyright 2010 Maria Heng