On a Monday morning, around 10:30, my little Cape Cod-style redbrick in Silver Spring, Maryland went white inside, as if heaven had taken a flash photo of Earth.
A few moments later I felt the Metro Line run under my bed. The train is more than a mile away.
I am Jillian Garth. My little home is dark and surrounded by trees, a 15-minute Metro ride into the heart of Washington. There is a bay window in my bedroom covered by heavy drapes that I had specially made to keep the east-facing bedroom dark, allowing me to sleep during the summer months. I had taken the day off because of a sinus headache, and I was in bed with my new lover William when the shaking began. It arrived with the winds, a huge bending blow that came from the South. It was loud beyond audible. Terrifying. I felt X-rayed with noise.
After a moment, there was silence, as if silence could strike. Only raindrops disturbed the quiet.
I put on my frowzy red L.L. Bean robe and looked out the bay window to see black rain falling. The dark clouds overhead spawned legs that turned out to be spidery tornados. It was as if oil had spun out of the sky into inky tentacles. That was the worst, or so it seemed. I thought some terror had escaped my dreams.
It felt like it all had passed in 30 minutes, but time was lost. Oddly, I found the rumble, and the flash, and the black rain exciting. The sounds of sirens and police whoopers started coming from all directions. Something new and unexpected had happened that left me charged up, the way I always feel the morning after an unexpected snowfall.
Then, I discovered that the television wasn’t working. The phones were dead. I had no WiFi. But I still had electricity.
My neighbors had assembled on my lawn, which forms the high ground over Dale Drive, the nearest main road. Everyone was looking up and in the same direction. Carol was there, and Alan, who’d put on a lot of weight in the last year. It was as if they were watching fireworks on the 4th of July, but in slouched silence. That looked wrong.
I bunched my robe for warmth and stepped out the front door. It was chilly at first. William was right behind me, having pulled on a pair of slacks. His starchy white shirt hung open. That embarrassed me.
My head was pounding from the sinus infection. Anyway, I had a doctor’s appointment at 11:45. But it wasn’t like I was wasting time going out to chat up the neighbors. I still had time to shower. I had not thought to check for running water.
The cloud evoked instant recognition and apocalyptic fear. If this could happen, then anything was possible. It soared upward from the direction of the District, rising higher at a terrific speed. Its mass was easily visible over the trees, having already formed into its emblematic shape.
The mushroom cloud unexpectedly gave off a comforting warmth, but smelled of burning hair, a foreboding stink. The smoke rolled upwards in hues of violet and green, mostly along its stem. Bolts of lightning shot about its circumference. Beneath the wide, billowing cap auroras appeared — actual auroras this far south — glimmering and shifting like green curtains blown by a breeze. My excitement passed, and now I felt blunted.
I couldn’t keep my three-year-old daughter, Olive, in the house. She rushed outside in tears, instantly followed by Linda, our nanny. Linda instinctively knew that this was the end of the world. Guyanese, her accent was a heavily spiced West Indian trill. “Jillian, Jillian, oooooh myyy,” she keened over and over again. It was the end of the world, but I was taught to hide my fears.
The neighbors on the lawn, except for the children, understood that this was a nuclear explosion. Few of us realized that it was more than a dirty bomb. This was an actual bomb, William said. He knew what it was. As a lobbyist working for Lockheed Martin, the giant defense contractor, he knew about weapons systems.
Not one of us, however, doubted that this was a terrorist act.
The stay-at-home spouses were desperate to reach their working spouses who had jobs in the District. Surely they would be late for dinner, right? Cell phones still worked, and they were checked constantly for texts and to see if connections to the capital had been restored. It was possible to call anywhere in the world, but you couldn’t reach anyone in the District.
The word on Twitter, if it could be summed up, was that “This was it.” The Big One. The one we all quietly feared. We learned within hours from a logjam of rumors and pictures on the Web that the government had been decapitated. The president and his family were probably dead. Hundreds of Congressmen and women were said to have been lost. There was no word of survivors. That included the Supreme Court.
Martial law was declared almost instantly. The news was repeated constantly on all the media. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the five highest-ranking members of the five military services, took over the reins of government.
Someone, I think overweight Alan, had a battery-powered shortwave radio that was tuned to the Emergency Broadcast Network. He brought us to our senses. The authorities were saying that we were not to be out of doors. We were not to drive. We were to stay under shelter and await further instructions.
Back in the house, William and I watched CNN on our separate smartphones. The network had lost contact with its Washington Bureau, but it was trying to restore it. CNN speculated that the bureau had been cut off by the bomb’s electro-magnetic pulse. But they added the possibility that the bureau was “gone.” That was the word, “gone,” as if it had left that morning on the Metro Line.
Jim Bittermann, reporting from Paris, said the French media were calling the blast a “Black Swan Event,” a moment that changes the course of history.
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