Authors: Vardan Partamyan
Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and fate
I was 'round when Jesus Christ
Had his moments of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game.
”Sympathy for the Devil” The Rolling Stones
Copyright © 201
3 by Vardan Partamyan
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A look at the watch – eight twenty nine, one minute to go - now was the time, no, now IS the time … I am ready…
…I remember I was five when the first bomb was dropped. The childhood memories are strange - there is no real continuity to your recollections; instead you tend to remember separate scenes and situations in great detail.
I was in the elementary school and we were about to have lunch at the cafeteria. It was just like any other morning. It was early spring and I remember I was glad to be rid of the heavy winter clothes which I detested deeply. The kids around me seemed to share my mood with big, sometimes partially toothless smiles all around. The school staff was also there - they were not smiling. All the adults had gathered by the TV on the wall. Usually, during lunchtime, they would turn on a cartoon channel - not recently. Recently, it was all about angry looking people in suits and military uniforms saying something very important. The text at the bottom of the screen was filled with complicated words and phrases which didn’t tell me much but scared the grownups badly – “impending doom”, “breaking news”, “nuclear apocalypse”, “breaking news”, “full retaliation to the aggressor”, “breaking news” “direct negotiation failure”, “breaking news”, “full alert”, “breaking news”, “nuclear shelter preparation”, “breaking news”… I was reading these phrases with a kind of fascination - they sounded so cool, so serious, so… adult. I remember reading them on TV back home, then going to the mirror and repeating them with the same concentrated grave expression as the people on TV. At first it made my parents laugh but lately, they did not find it all that amusing. My mother even yelled at me and sent me off to my room the last time I looked at her seriously and said – “nuclear solution appears unavoidable”…
…The walls of the school cafeteria were painted light green with drawings by the students hanging here and there. I looked at the drawing I made - a smiling little guy crouched under the table giving a big thumbs-up. I also drew a nuclear explosion mushroom in the window behind him. I made that drawing during our 3B class – Be prepared! Be safe! Be happy! The teacher really liked it, squeezed my cheek and said: “That’s the spirit, little citizen!” I was so proud of myself…
…The dishes were stacked up on the cafeteria tables and the kids were queuing for their slice of pizza (woo-hoo!) and the mandatory apple juice (not so cool at all). Finally, it was my turn. As I was preparing to take my dish I was stopped by the sound of the siren. It was coming from everywhere and nowhere, it was so loud that it shook you from the inside. I tried to cover my ears but my hands wouldn’t move. Around me, I could see the children running and screaming. The adults looked pale and scared. Still gathered by the TV, they were looking, hypnotized, at the red dot moving across the map – the words at the bottom of the screen read – “nuclear launch detected”. The siren whined on as I stood motionless near the plates and in that whine I started to recognize an old song my father really liked. It was called “Sympathy for the Devil” and was by an ancient band called the Rolling Stones. I smiled remembering how my father would take out the worn out disk with the song and play it in his study. Suddenly, there was a new sound – an abrupt thud. The plates started to shake - the floor under my feet was moving (it sort of felt nice, like sailing on a ship, like sailing on the Orpheus). The adults finally snapped out of their hypnosis and I saw Ms. Kendall running towards me and I could hear the children crying and the sound of the siren was everywhere and nowhere and my father’s favorite song was playing joyfully inside it (please allow me to introduce myself) and the windows of the cafeteria started to fly out (the broken glass looked so captivating with the morning sun reflected in the tiny pieces as if frozen in mid air) and through the windows I could see a cloud - it looked just like the mushroom in my drawing - slowly growing on the horizon. It was so beautiful - I was mesmerized. All of a sudden I was grabbed and lifted from the ground. I looked up and saw Ms. Kendall’s green eyes (I was secretly in love with her just as all the boys in my class). She was crying. That made me sad and I started to cry too. She was saying something but I couldn’t hear her – only the song playing in my head (I’m a man of wealth and taste) - I did not like it all that much anymore… In a second we were out of the cafeteria and in the corridor. Looking back from Ms. Kendall’s shoulder I could see people running (stole many man’s soul and fate) in the same direction as we were – downstairs.
The last thing I remember from that morning and my last day on the surface was the big door (pleased to meet you) with a yellow and black radiation sign on it (I recognized it from the 3B class and was instantly very proud of myself). The door slowly opened and Ms. Kendall carried me in. Inside, there was only darkness (hope you guessed my name). I wanted to go back for one last look at the nice mushroom shaped cloud.
But as the door closed shut behind us, I knew, I could not go back…
Looking deep inside my mind, I still cannot put together a clear picture of the hours and days that followed. Even now, twenty two years later, everything that happened then seems and looks like a protracted dream turned into a nightmare turned into a reality no one wanted to accept but still had to live with. Most of the teachers and students had made it into the nuclear shelter in time to evade the worst of whatever was going on outside. What exactly was going on no one knew – all we knew was that something unfixable was happening.
Along with the rest of the children, I was taken to the bottom level of the shelter. Crouched there in the corner of a huge, brightly lit room with double decked beds lined in two rows, none of us spoke a word. And it wasn’t that we were scared although we were terrified; it wasn’t that we wanted to see our parents although we were painfully homesick; it wasn’t that all of us somehow knew that there would never again be pizzas for lunch although we knew that the school above us was gone along with the rest of the city; it was simply that there was nothing to say. And when someone from our group of about sixty children suddenly cried, everyone would look at them with a kind of surprised incomprehension – you could cry out of pain or because you lost something or someone dear to you, you could cry if you felt that whatever was happening was not fair to you or you could cry when you did not get what you wanted. But how do you react to the end of the world? Does crying really reflect the simple fact that everything is no more?
The TV placed on the wall of the student quarters kept transmitting for a while. Through the almost constant static I remember seeing most of the phrases I so liked to repeat. They were all in the past tense now. The angry gentlemen in suits and military uniforms were back, except they no longer looked as confident and determined but just as lost as everyone else. No one really expected what was happening. For some reason, in the hundred years since the invention of the atom bomb, there had been a lot of threats, psychotic rhetoric and near calls but no one ever had the guts and madness to go all the way and actually pull the trigger. No one until now… And as we watched on through the ever worsening broadcast, we could see how one by one the cities that we had heard of and once dreamed to visit were disappearing from the map. We were also shown our own nuclear missiles being launched into the night sky – to avenge, to answer with desolation to desolation, to kill life and hope wherever it was sheltered, to make sure they got it just as bad as we did and with any luck - even worse. The nightmare broadcasts were occasionally juiced up with nuclear shelter promos (as if anyone really needed an advertisement for that!) and educational cartoons on how to evade the destructive force of radiation. A happy looking character that bore resemblance to the guy I drew during the 3B class was showing us just what it is that we need to do when the big mushroom comes around. I think the cartoon character was based on an old post apocalyptic computer game in a strange irony of fiction imitating life and life imitating fiction. The nuclear shelter promos showed facilities that looked just like ours and played a lot like a special, limited time offer of a holiday retreat. The little utopia of underground bunker life was presented with such rabid enthusiasm that you could only wonder why people did not go to live there even before the nuclear war broke out. Every promo wrapped with the usual - Be prepared! Be safe! Be happy! tagline.
Soon enough, the TV channels started to die off one by one, swallowed by what my mind saw as this giant carnivorous mushroom – eating and growing, eating and growing, eating and growing until there was no more to eat and nowhere else to grow. Then it would just stop and smile a big, ugly, toothless, satisfied smile and its job would be complete and the ever happy cartoon character would stand in its colossal shadow and a give big thumbs-up to the apocalypse…
After the TV died, I lost every possible track of time. I don’t know how long we sat crouched in the corner of our room. I don’t know if we ate or drank. I don’t know who was next to me – the end of the world made us all the same. There were no children and there were no adults – just us – humans, survivors, outcasts, orphans, whatever else you may call us. We were together but each of us was alone - a breathing cell of the world that was no more.
When I awoke I wasn’t sure how much time had passed (did it really matter?).
I wasn’t even sure if I had slept at all. Usually, I would have these vivid, crazy dreams - the kind where you see an entire story unwrap before your eyes. You dive into this imaginary world and it embraces you and you relish it and if you wake up before the story ends you try to go to sleep again to just see the ending and sometimes, if you are really lucky you do and you fly and you see things that you know are not real but it is OK, because it is a dream and dreams don’t have to be real to be wonderful… There were no dreams this time - only darkness. Maybe the bomb killed the dream world along with everything else?
I was still surrounded by my classmates – all of them were in the same sort of semiconscious sleep. For a second, in the ruthless, cold light of the electric lamps they all looked dead to me (maybe everyone is dead, maybe the bomb killed them too, maybe the bomb killed you too and you too are dead and you are just too stupid to realize it?). I almost screamed. Then, looking closer, I noticed some movement, heard muffled sobs and someone’s runny nose making the peculiar sound. I felt a kind of heaviness settle inside me as if a jagged rock was placed on my chest crushing me slowly under its weight… I had to get up. At first my muscles would not obey (you are dead boy, just stay dead, just like all the other good boys and girls outside) but something finally gave and I was on my feet. Just getting up on that first day since the world ended was the single hardest thing I had ever done.
Being up on my feet somehow made me feel better - it made me feel alive. Slowly, so as not to disturb my sleeping friends, I made my way to the door of the quarters and walked out into a long corridor covered with shiny steel panels. Seeing my reflection in their smooth surface, I froze. At first I thought it was a trick of vision. Looking closer I realized it was not – there was a narrow streak of white hair running through the right side of my head. I thought only old people had white hair. Did this mean I too was old now? The feeling of unreality swept over me and I realized that the only way I could keep it away was by moving. I remembered a tag line from one of my father’s favorite old movies – it read: “If you stop - you die”. So I decided not to stop and started exploring the strange place that would become my new home. I walked around for hours – never stopping but always moving in the same slow, even pace.
Occasionally, I would see one of the adults sitting or lying or walking or muttering something unintelligible. They did not seem to notice me and, while I registered their presence, they did not interest me - at least not yet. What interested me was the surreal place I was in. During my journey, I discovered a big room lined with futuristic looking computer terminals, a cafeteria, a storage area with canned goods placed on endless rows of shelves, a room marked armory, a library and even a church complete with Bibles (conveniently opened on the Apocalypse chapter) carefully placed on mahogany benches. While all of this surprised me, it was my next discovery that truly astounded me (do not stop – if you stop - you die). That feeling of unreality tried to get hold of me again and I had to shake my head to make sure that I was still awake (alive). Behind a generic looking hydraulic door there was a massive garden with fruit trees, orchards and various plants, all growing in the glow of the powerful electric lights. Running through all this vegetation, I saw the first living being I was truly happy to see – our school cat Mr. Z. The cat was also happy to see me as he immediately abandoned whatever he was doing (looking for mice in the miniature corn field?) and joined me on my exploration trip.
As I walked through the three levels of the nuclear shelter, a subtle thought started to surface in my mind. At first, it was like a whisper but as I walked on it grew increasingly louder and louder until it became a scream so loud I wanted to close my ears and it did not help and the scream grew only louder and the scream repeated the same two words, the same two words I did not want to believe but knew were true – they knew! They knew! THEY KNEW!