Last night, I dreamed of the mountains close to my home. It’s a jagged place, where the once mighty Appalachians recede to coasting hills and sweeping valleys. I spent my childhood days playing in these wooded hills, my shoes caked in red clay and my knees covered in scrapes and scratches. It was a good place to be a child.
It’s a place that I still see in my sleep. Nostalgia for childhood, I suppose. But it’s also where my mind ventures when it wants to be afraid.
In this dream, it was dark. My headlights danced on the back ends of a pair of white transfer trucks. I followed them as closely as I dared. There was an urgency in me, something deep and inborn. I wanted to get around those trucks and blast off into the night, into nothingness, but I couldn’t get around them.
I ground my teeth and followed, tires bumping over road reflectors and dried leaves scattering around me. I’d look in the rear view mirror, expecting to see a monsters, but seeing nothing.
After a time, I felt my body compressed by an unknown pressure. There was a flicker of terror in my heart. Dread, like my soul knew what had happened, but my mind had not yet caught up.
Something streaked across the night sky. Ahead of me, in a direction I instinctively recognized as northeast, there was a flash.
A wall of sound and force rushed into me headfirst. The trucks crashed. They tumbled into the forest, trees groaning and snapping beneath their bulk. My tires hissed across the sprinter-covered pavement. The flash turned to a low, pulsing light.
I turned to the sky. Through a filter of smoke cast off from the wrecks, I watched as that grimey light spread across the sky in a slithering halo, devouring the moon and the stars, and turning pristine night into a sickly, sallow day.
Through the abstractions of my dreaming mind, I recognized a nuclear weapons strike. Northeast of what my dream-self recognized as home. There could be only one target – Atlanta.
Atlanta was gone in the twitch of a finger. The urban hub of the south. Family and friends, relocated for better jobs or a more lively environment. The narrow, zig-zagging streets and the unassuming city diners, the Underground, the quirky shops at little five points, the CNN center, the olympic park, the aquarium, all of it gone.
Every memory of childhood visits, where I’d look up in wonder at the lights in Buckhead or where I’d cling closely to my mother as we walked between towering skyscrapers. No more Peachtree Street or Tabernacle, no Phillips Arena, no Turner Field. The place I’d first seen the twinkle of city lights, or witnessed the tragedy of urban poverty. The place where a poor country girl learned that the world was bigger. Erased. Completely erased.
There was a grotesque pause. It was too late for Atlanta. Too late, even, for the truck drivers tangled and motionless in the cabs of their rigs. But it wasn’t too late for me. A wall of radiation was tumbling towards me. That news organizations across the world were buzzing with the news. Phones were staring to ring.
The weight of the moment strangled me. Did I return home and save who I could, or did I point my vehicle west and save myself? If I did stop, who did I stop for? Did I take the time for two stops? One? A phone call?
My insides twisted. I felt a longing, even more bitter than nostalgia. A deep and terrible desire to roll time back a mere minute, to the last happy moments before impact. To revise this disaster and start anew. Couldn’t I just try again? Couldn’t things go back to the way they were before?
The moment right after a car accident, when you sit with your face in your hands and ask yourself why. When you look in the mirror to investigate a wound, only to wish you hadn’t. The moment when you realize something terrible has happened, and you can’t go back. The half-second where you curse the clock.
There is no mercy, no matter how we cry. That is what I felt most keenly as I woke, snapping back to consciousness, and vividly recalling my car’s engine howling as I sped off into the night, away from the wall, delivering myself to safety. But wishing so badly to relive my last minutes, to drive beneath an empty sky, and realize the disaster itself was the dream.