2049, August 19th
Winnie’s father called at 4:14 PM. Her mother picked up after the first ring. With the newsfeed muted, and the house seeming to hold its breath, Winnie could hear her father on the other end perfectly. “Hye-jun?”
“Jun-Seo? Is that you?” Her mother spoke Korean, but her wavering words were hardly understandable.
“It’s me, Yeobeo.”
“I’ve been trying to reach you. Where are you?”
“I’m on the highway outside of Seattle. Traffic isn’t moving. People are getting out of their cars.”
“You have to get out of there. The news is saying—”
“I know, Hye-jun. I can’t.”
“Jun-Seo…” Winnie’s mother crumpled into a heap. Winnie watched. At ten years old, she knew what the news meant when it talked about missiles. She knew Seattle was listed as an evac zone. She knew that was where her father lived and worked during the week. But she hadn’t understood. The nuclear standoff had been something the other kids at school joked about. Teachers showed government-mandated videos that made a song and dance out of survival techniques. All she understood was that her mother was afraid—afraid and broken. Winnie was too terrified to do more than listen.
“Listen. Yeobeo. I don’t know how long I’ll be on the phone.” Her father paused. “I love you.”
“Please… You have to run.”
“It won’t help. I’m sorry I’m… I’m sorry.” Winnie could hear her father’s voice breaking. “I want to speak with our daughter.”
Her mother clutched the phone, reluctant to hand away these final moments of hearing her husbands voice, but finally, with a limp hand, she handed the phone to Winnie.
Holding it to her ear, Winnie heard car horns. Wind blew over her father’s end of the connection.
“Abeoji?” she asked.
“Eun-Yeong?” There was pain in her father’s voice. Between the newsfeed, the radio, and the police patrolling the streets, Winnie had known it was bad. She’d watched her mother make phone call after phone call, her crying worsening each time a recorded voice calmly explained that the call could not be completed.
But when she heard her father’s voice, it became too much. She cried.
“Appa, When will you be home?”
“I sorry, Eun-Yeong. I’m not coming home.”
“Why not? Where are you?”
“I’m on the highway, but the cars aren’t moving.”
The horns, the yelling, the wind. Winnie could see it in her head. She imagined her father leaning against his car as people sprinted past him, away from the city looming in the distance. Crowded cars stretched endlessly down the highway, all in a mass exodus from Seattle. Others had crashed the barrier dividing the inbound and outbound highways. Cars had poured into the opposite lanes, but already those lanes were a bottlenecked mess.
Her father had gotten out of his car to find better reception, hoping he might reach his family. He had yanked his tie off when it whipped in the wind. His jacket lay on the road; he would never touch it again.
“Listen, Eun-Yeong. I don’t know how long I’ll be on the phone, so listen. I love you. I love you very much. Never forget that.”
“Take care of your mother. She’s going to need you. Do you understand me? Look after her.”
“Okay.” Winnie looked at her mother. Hye-jun sat with her head buried between her knees.
“And do well in school. But I want you to be whatever you want to be. I know I’ve been hard on you about schoolwork, but don’t let your mother and me decide your future. Do you understand?”
There was a silence. Winnie could hear distant yelling.
“Oh God, Winnie. I wish I was there. I wish I could see you one last time. I’m going to miss you so much.”
The phone cut. The line went dead.
“Appa? Are you there?”
Winnie yelled for him until her mother took back the phone. With trembling hands, Hye-jun redialed, only to hear a loud tone and a calm robotic voice suggest she try again later. She clutched Winnie.
Her father was gone, except that Winnie imagined she could see him in her head. He was still on the highway. At the sound of the disconnect, he had fumbled with the phone just as desperately as his wife had two hundred miles away. Like her, all he heard was a calm voice explaining that the cell network was overloaded. All around him, millions of people were making calls so they might say goodbye.
He looked at his phone through blurred eyes and screamed in wordless rage. There was nothing more he could do. From the city behind him came sirens. Protocols had been established to deal with nuclear strikes. Planes and rockets had flown to intercept incoming warheads, and hundreds of payloads were destroyed in the far reaches of the atmosphere. But there were far too many missiles, and far too many targets.
The people around him pointed and yelled. Many stopped running and looked. Above Seattle was a trail of smoke. At its tip was a faint glimmer. As rapid as a shooting star, it drew a line to the heart of the city.
And then, light.