The man hobbled along the dreary underground corridor connecting the north and south train stations. Holding his wife’s hand, he tested his bone-weary legs with each step, aching for the comforts of home—his tea, his slippers, his futon. The man’s suitcase seemed heavier now, the treatments having rendered his body less capable.
A younger man wearing a dark suit and carrying a satchel with worn leather straps darted past and wove around dozens of other ordinary people. He moved like a hungry cheetah. Confident steps. A determined posture. Seemingly oblivious to the dank tunnel walls encapsulating the crowded space. An impossible sideshow of oppression.
The older man sucked in labored breaths as he and his wife approached the stairwell. “Etsuko, I need to rest,” he said. He sat on his suitcase and leaned against the water-stained concrete wall, allowing the dampness to cool his sweaty body. He surrendered to the heat and humidity of August, closed his eyes, and tried to imagine the world without him.
Just a few months, the doctor had said. But the doctor’s ambivalence softened his message. Some people live longer.
Etsuko’s trembling words—something about a light—had just reached his consciousness as the ground heaved with an explosive roar.
He tumbled off of his suitcase and onto the floor where his body felt more connected. Next to him, Etsuko’s body teetered, like when she held their sons as babies to comfort them. But instead of a calm sway, her movement was fevered, fitful.
She needs me. He forced himself off the ground and observed several dozen people paralyzed and wearing bewildered expressions. Screams echoed from above the stairs.
Etsuko backed against the concrete and her body slid to the filthy floor where thousands of dirty shoes had walked. There, she cowered with her arms wrapped around her legs. “A strange light flashed along the stairwell,” she said, her mouth trembling. “Did you see it, Akiro?”
No one spoke. Long seconds passed.
Soon, people started up the stairs.
Etsuko looked at him, her eyes radiating fear and a certain pleading.
He patted her hand. “It’s okay. We’ll wait here for a minute and see if they come back.”
The people never returned.
He inhaled and tried to focus on his breath, filling his lungs.
Just a few months, the doctor had said. What was scarier than that?
“Let’s go,” he said, offering a hand to Etsuko. During their thirty-three years of marriage, her eyes and complexion had kept their youthful luster and her body its vitality. Never had dark circles framed her eyes. Never had she looked incapable. Until now. He pulled Etsuko to her feet, her body no heavier than a meter of fine silk.
He led her up the concrete stairway. The summer heat seemed to intensify with every step, and sweat trickled down Akiro’s face. When they reached the top, the air smelled of soot and anguish. He stared at the landscape before him, unable to comprehend the devastation. His bustling city had transformed into a vast wasteland of rubble. People sprawled everywhere—wailing, injured, dying. Dead. Above them, a mysterious sky.
What kind of cloud resembles a blistering umbrella? He couldn’t imagine.
He tried to say something, but no words came.
Did his eyes lie? Could his entire city be gone? When the sun rose on this ordinary morning, the people who lay around him had no way of knowing they wouldn’t live to see it set. Would it have been better if they knew death was near? He still had time—a few months to prepare his farm for a future without his tending, his sons for adulthood, and his wife for independence.
How was it possible to destroy an entire city in one extraordinary moment? The past was now an eradicated wonder. The future a midnight compass.
Akiro’s friends often speculated about other-worldly life forms and wondered if they might someday invade the earth. He had scoffed at their nonsense, never believing life existed on other planets.
From behind, people continued to flow up the stairs and pushed them forward with their bodies and voices.
“What kami, what evil force of nature, did this?”
“Did a world-destroying yōkai unleash its demonic spirit?”
Spiraling in their conjecture, Akiro silently worried for his teenage sons. The factory where they made rifles wasn’t far away. An intense need to return to their hillside home that he prayed was still standing with his sons inside, steeled him for what lay ahead.
They must go.
He had much to do. And say.
But the suffering people. Should he help them? He couldn’t comprehend how he could.
Smoke-filled air drifted below the menacing cloud like a throng of ghosts. He took a breath, only to be overcome by coughing. Beside him, Etsuko’s body convulsed from crying and she gasped for air like a little girl recovering from a screaming tantrum. He took her arm. “Etsuko, let’s go. The boys are waiting for us at home.” His words had to prove true. The alternative unimaginable.
They joined the other living souls wearing mournful or vacant expressions and wended their way through the rubble, around the dying, and through jagged tree stumps stripped of foliage. Smoke pouring into the once-lush hills followed them from the fires raging in the distance. Would his house still be there? Would his sons be safe and waiting? Would his friends boast about being right? Or were they dead too?
Why, of all places, Hiroshima?
Somehow, he knew this tragedy had forever changed the world.
So many thoughts. So much to do. So little time.
Just a few months, the doctor had said.
Connie is an active literary citizen who embraced creative writing later in life. Inspired by Shakespeare’s “What’s Past is Prologue,” Connie writes stories and poetry intended to influence positive change in our world. Her debut novel, Of White Ashes, was acquired by Apprentice House Press for a May 2023 release.