The box is a ways behind us now and out of sight, tucked away in the pitch-black.
We pass a sign with an arrow pointing left beside the words—
EXIT TO STREET
Turning a corner, we begin to climb the next ramp.
All along the right side, chunks have fallen out of the ceiling and crushed the windshields, hoods, and roofs of the vehicles. The farther we go, the worse it gets, until we’re scrambling over concrete boulders and weaving around knifelike projections of rusted rebar.
Halfway up the next level, we’re stopped in our tracks by an impassable wall of debris.
“Maybe we should just go back,” I say.
“Look…” She grabs the lantern and I follow her over to a stairwell entry.
The door is cracked open, and Amanda forces it back the rest of the way.
We ascend to the door at the top of the stairs.
It takes both of us to drag it open.
Wind blows through the lobby straight ahead.
There’s some semblance of ambient light coming through the empty steel frames of what used to be immense, two-story windows.
At first, I think it’s snow on the floor, but it isn’t cold.
I kneel, grasp a handful. It’s dry and a foot deep over the marble flooring. It slides through my fingers.
We trudge past a long reception desk with the name of a hotel still attached in artful block letters across the façade.
At the entrance, we pass between a pair of giant planters holding trees withered down to gnarled branches and brittle leaf shards twittering in the breeze.
Amanda turns off the lantern.
We step through the glassless revolving doors.
Even though it isn’t nearly cold enough, it looks like a raging snowstorm outside.
I walk out into the street and stare up between the dark buildings at a sky tinged with the faintest suggestion of red. It glows the way a city does when the clouds are low and all the lights from the buildings are reflecting off the moisture in the sky.
But there are no lights.
Not a single one as far as I can see.
Though they fall like snow, in torrent-like curtains, the particles that strike my face carry no sting.
“It’s ash,” Amanda says.
A blizzard of ash.
Out here in the street, it’s knee-deep, and the air smells like a cold fireplace the morning after, before the ashes have been carried off.
A dead, burnt stench.
The ash is falling hard enough to obscure the upper stories of the skyscrapers, and there’s no sound but the wind blowing between the buildings and through the buildings and the whoosh of the ash as it piles into gray drifts against long-abandoned cars and buses.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
That I’m actually standing in a world that isn’t mine.
We walk up the middle of the street, our backs to the wind.
I can’t shake the feeling that the blackness of the skyscrapers is all wrong. They’re skeletons, nothing but ominous profiles in the pouring ash. Closer to a range of improbable mountains than anything man-made. Some are leaning, and some have toppled, and in the hardest gusts, high above us, I can hear the groan of steel framework torquing past its tensile strength.
I note a sudden tightening in the space behind my eyes.
It comes and goes in less than a second, like something turning off.
Amanda asks, “Did you just feel that too?”
“That pressure behind your eyes?”
“I did. I bet it’s the drug wearing off.”
After several blocks, the buildings end. We arrive at a guardrail that runs along the top of a seawall. The lake yawns out for miles under the radioactive sky, and it doesn’t even resemble Lake Michigan anymore, but instead a vast gray desert, the ash accumulating on the surface of the water and undulating like a waterbed as black foam waves crash against the seawall.
The walk back is into the wind.
Ash streaming into our eyes and mouths.
Our tracks already covered.
When we’re a block from the hotel, a sound like sustained thunder begins in the near distance.
The ground trembles beneath our feet.
Another building falls to its knees.
The box is waiting where we left it, in a remote corner on the parking garage’s lowest level.
We’re both covered in ash, and we take a moment at the door to brush it off our clothes, out of our hair.
Back inside, the lock shoots home after us.
We’re in a simple, finite box again.
And two bewildered human beings.
Amanda sits hugging her knees into her chest.
“What do you think happened up there?” she asks.
“Supervolcano. Asteroid strike. Nuclear war. No telling.”
“Are we in the future?”
“No, the box would only connect us to alternate realities at the same point in space and time. But I suppose some worlds might seem like the future if they’ve made technological advancements that ours never figured out.”
“What if they’re all destroyed like this one?”
I say, “We should take the drug again. I don’t think we’re exactly safe under this crumbling skyscraper.”
Amanda pulls off her flats and shakes the ash out of them.
I say, “What you did for me back at the lab…You saved my life.”
She looks at me, her bottom lip threatening to quiver. “I used to dream about those first pilots who went into the box. Nightmares. I can’t believe this is happening.”
I unzip the backpack and start pulling out the contents to catalog them.
I find the leather bag containing the ampoules and injection kits.
Three notebooks sealed in plastic.
Box of pens.
A knife in a nylon sheath.
Two rolls of cash.
Two one-liter water bottles, both full.
“You packed all this?” I ask.
“No, I just grabbed it from the stockroom. It’s standard issue, what everyone takes into the box. We should be wearing space suits, but I didn’t have time to grab any.”
“No kidding. A world like that? Radiation levels could be off the charts, or the atmospheric makeup drastically altered. If the pressure is off—too low, for instance—our blood and all the liquids in our bodies will boil.”