I'm in an apocalyptic narrative class with Junot Diaz this semester, and I thought I'd share my first assignment, which is also the first fiction piece I've written since elementary school.
Soft flakes of snow fall from the obsidian sky, barely illuminated by the cold, unreliable glow of the nearly full moon. Shadows shift across the ground as crusty evergreens sway with the relentless wind. The snow piles high against the flaky exterior of the house—about three feet, from my estimation. I catch myself thinking it is kind of eerily beautiful before I snap myself back to the reality of the situation. It is summer.
I remember what I was looking for—anything sharp, anything that can be used as a weapon. The old aluminum baseball bat I have from my brief and failed stint as a Little League player back in the day comes to mind, and I open the creaky closet door, pulling harder than necessary because it always jams on the soft carpet. A cloud of dust bombards me, and I recoil instantly with my fists up. Calm down, I think. The dust settles slowly and I kneel down, digging through the heaps of disorganization Ma always got on my case about. The flashlight I’m holding isn’t as helpful as I wish it would be. The bright light hurts my eyes. Why did I ever think I would need this old textbook about solid-state chemistry ever again? I sigh, rub my eyes, and continue digging. I see the familiar green corner of an origami kit, and remember why this closet is so dusty in the first place.
A flash of light reflecting off the closet doorknob catches my attention, and I look down the hall. It’s Bryan, as somber as ever. His hair is jagged and flat against his head, and his feet seem too heavy for his thin legs. He drops himself down on the floor next to me, leaning against my bed, but doesn’t look at me. My little brother is sixteen now, but his cheeks make him look more like twelve. He still struggles with the incident. I reach out and squeeze his knee, but he begins to tremble, and his breath is labored. I glance at the plastic watch on my wrist, realizing Bryan was due for his medication. I pull a small purple pill from the Altoids container in my pocket and give it to him. He knows what to do at this point. I take a pill as well—the last one. It’s the only thing I’ve ingested today other than the quarter can of beans about six hours ago.
The Bryan next to me now is almost unrecognizable from the one I saw the last time I was home, before the incident I wasn’t here for. Bryan can’t let it go, and I don’t blame him. He still has nightmares about it; I can tell by the way he thrashes in his sleep. He’s a talented artist, so I asked him to draw me a picture of it. I had hoped it would relieve some of the pain, but it definitely didn’t. It had been my the start of my final quarter at UCLA – Materials Science, class of 2040 – but I never walked, although I guess no one did. I don’t know. I flew home the day of the incident, and Bryan handed me a picture of the front seats of our car. Ma and Pa sat next to each other, except Pa had multiple holes in his head and Ma had bits of brain splattered all over her. It was a pencil drawing, but I threw up just from that. I imagine the most eerie part was that the car just continued driving towards our house, undisturbed. I never got the full story out of Ma. She has bigger things to worry about.
Can you believe that? Bigger things to worry about than your husband getting his head blown to fleshy bits? Imagine that. I shut down all emotions after the incident. Pa and I got along well, but he had always been in lab, researching about chemicals and climate change. My eyes wander back to the origami kit—I did miss when he would show me how to fold paper seals and elephants. Missing was an understatement. Anyway, like Ma, I have bigger things to worry about.
Bryan’s breathing is normal again, and I get up, helping him onto his feet in the process. I lead him quietly back downstairs, through the empty vastness of the living room and into the kitchen, my flashlight guiding the way. We go to the pantry, and I remember with a jolt why I had been searching for the baseball bat in the first place.
“Goddamnit,” I hiss to myself, hating the effects of the air on my short-term memory, and hating the situation. I breathe in deeply, even though that won’t help the forgetting.
There are six containers in our pantry. Three cans of beans, one can of corn, half a box of graham crackers, and a bottle with five purple pills inside. Bryan stares with panicked eyes. He doesn’t usually come into the pantry with me—Ma had given me full food responsibility when everything went down. I was supposed to ration for us, and I did my best. We lasted twelve weeks. Even if we had more food, we still need more pills within two days. My heart is beating in my throat and my palms are slick, but I try to breathe. Panicking isn’t going to help anyone. And now Bryan knew.
I consider my options, trying to be as objective as possible. I can tell Ma about the situation, but will it make a difference? If she stops me from going out there, we all die. If I die…we all die anyway. But if I make it back, we might live. Ma might find a cure. I might find other normal people out there.
Bryan tugs on my sleeve, staring up at me—how he ended up so much shorter, I don’t really understand. I don’t want to look at him, but he keeps tugging. I glance at him, his face gaunt and hollow under the harsh white beam of his flashlight, and I make up my mind. I’m going tonight. But he has other plans.
“I’m going with you,” he whispered, more forcefully than anything he’s ever said to me, although I hear the tremor in his voice. It’s a flash of the Bryan I used to know, the one who once forced a schoolyard bully 30 pounds heavier than him to apologize for pushing his friend off the swing. That Bryan had left when Pa got shot, but maybe he’s on the way back.
“No,” I respond flatly. That is absurd.
“More eyes are better. I will die either way.”
Why does he have to be so logical? I grit my teeth, and then jerk my head slightly. I tell him we’re going to visit Ma, but he isn’t allowed to speak. He was never good at keeping secrets.
We open the door to the basement, the glow of light at the bottom of the stairs welcoming us. We creep down the first few steps, shutting the door quietly behind us.
“Ma?” I whisper.
We continue down the stairs, eyes gradually blinded by the fluorescent lights of the basement. We didn’t keep the lights on upstairs to avoid attention. A few weeks ago, we saw a man lying right outside our back door, his head bloody from trying to bash through our walls. The snow around him was stained red, but he was buried eventually. It must’ve happened while we were down here. It’s the one room that hasn’t been affected by all of this. I’m surprised the electricity is still working, but who knows how much longer it’ll last. We have a backup generator when that day comes. The bookshelves come into view, and then the large rectangular table littered with books, research papers, and empty bean cans. Ma is bent over the table, brows furrowed, her gray hair untamed. The concrete floor is so cold I can feel it through my shoes as we walk over to her. She doesn’t acknowledge us, but pulls us in for a quick hug when we get near. She feels thinner than ever.
“Any luck?” I ask, startled by the volume of my own voice. The basement is soundproof, testament to my middle school drummer phase when nobody in the house could handle my racket. After I decided drumming wasn’t my thing, Pa turned the basement into a library, and eventually, a small laboratory.
“It’s curable,” she mutters, her sunken eyes darting around a complex diagram on the table. She sleeps about an hour a day, and does nothing else but pore over these papers and eating the inadequate amount of food I can bring her.
Pa had worked at the National Laboratory of Global Climate Change, the NLGCC, near the University of Washington. He started bringing experiments home a few years ago, when he realized the security of the labs was being compromised. People were mad. With all the technical advances of our age, why was global warming so difficult to fix? They insulted the scientists while everyone scorched in the 120 degree Seattle winter. Some smart people took it upon themselves to find out what was going on inside NLGCC—they managed to hack into the system and found out about a possible chemical that could turn it all around. They blamed scientists for keeping it under wraps, and a startup began recreating the chemical in their own lab. Pa had been the primary critic of the chemical—it could work in theory, but some tests with animals hadn’t gone smoothly. Representing the government, he revealed these potential problems. People didn’t listen. They were tired of government-funded labs. They wanted the flashy startups; they wanted the young entrepreneurs who could make a difference now, not these old guys who were far too careful. Over the course of two years, they manufactured 60 billion tons of this stuff to counter the CO2 in the air. The plan? All at once. All or nothing. Project Holocene, they called it. So, more than three months ago, Pa was shot, and this mysterious chemical was released into the air, right in the Puget Sound. There were fancy parties throughout the city and people were absolutely ecstatic. Humans could conquer nature, they believed.
I had come home to grieve for my Pa while the rest of the city rejoiced as temperatures fell day by day. Ma and Bryan struggled hard after the shooting. They started taking this OTC anti-anxiety pill that Ma had developed at Overlake Hospital Research. It was meant to suppress the nightmares and panic attacks that they both started having. Ma knew why Pa was shot though—he had been onto something that people didn’t want to be true. She grieved quickly, and then raced to figure out the implications Project Holocene would have as temperatures continued dropping. I dealt with the pain my own way, or rather, the Seattle way. Special brownies here, a joint there. I was high for weeks.
“J, I’m tired,” says Bryan matter-of-factly. God, he is a terrible actor.
We say goodnight to Ma, squeezing in two more quick hugs while we can. We creep back upstairs, and I grab the aluminum bat I was looking for earlier. I shuffle through my old drawers, sorting through old photos and letters I didn’t want to look at. I manage to find a small pocketknife and a facemask. Bryan comes back with his old BB gun, but tosses it on my bed lightly. He can’t handle guns anymore. I hand him the baseball bat. He grips it, arms trembling. I step over to him and wrap my arms around his thin shoulders. When I step back, his jaw is clenched and his eyes are closed.
“We have to go now,” I whisper.
Factoria Mall is less than a mile away, just down Newport Way. We have been there hundreds of times—family dinners at Old Country Buffet and late night froyo runs. Factoria Mall has everything, including a supermarket and a Target pharmacy. We have no idea what awaits us outside, or if there’s even any food or medicine left. We haven’t been outside since the day Project Holocene went awry. That was the day everyone wished they had listened to Pa.
Holocene is a spectacular hallucinogen, comparable to phencyclidine but airborne, more powerful and more unpredictable. It’s pure luck that all three of us survived. It turned out that Ma’s anti-anxiety drug, and presumably other sedatives, countered the effects of the mysterious Holocene. Bryan and Ma had been on the anxiety meds, and I had been high for days. Ma initially believed that I had a natural immunity, but I had to tell her. I never thought a mother would be so happy to learn that her kid was a stoner, but I eventually ran out of herbs. After a few days, the initial tsunami of fear passed and the thought of supplies occurred to us. The snow had already covered the roads and the car became useless. As long as we were alive, Ma had better things to worry about.
Bryan and I open a window in the living room, since snow blocks the front door. Frigid air drifts in, and we shudder. I remove a few of the jank wooden planks I had placed over some of the ground floor windows as a safety measure, and climb through. I hear nothing except the whispers of the trees, crying out ominously. I help Bryan through the window and he lands softly in the snow. I grab the bag and hand Bryan the bat. I pull out the knife and BB gun, gripping both with such force that my knuckles feel like they’re going to pop out of my skin. I clip the flashlight to my belt.
We tread slowly down the familiar gravel road, no sign of life in any of our distant neighbors’ shadowy homes. We can barely see them through the snowfall. Parts of the snow are eerily disturbed. I see something that reminds me of a mutilated body, but it’s too dark to be certain.
The first step in Holocene poisoning is the loss of memory. We learned this from Ma in the days following the breakdown, which she had learned from Pa’s research. I stop suddenly to pull out the facemask, and quickly slip it over Bryan’s nose and mouth. I have already started this step. From the research, it doesn’t seem to be reversible. Bryan has to be protected in any way, however minuscule. I can’t let anything happen to him, not while I’m still here. After Project Holocene, our neighbors slowly forgot where they lived. We didn’t notice initially, too caught up in our own distress. Before we realized it, our street was empty, and the snow covered most signs of life. The next steps of Holocene poisoning were paranoia, then murderous aggression, and then death. The murderous aggression stage could last for years. I assume the man we saw behind our house had been in that stage.
We continue down the road, away from the body-like figure in the distance, leaving our footprints in the fresh layers of snow. We stop and listen. Movement in the corner of my eye sends me whirling. I register a crazed coyote, or some dog-like creature, bounding over the snow at us, snarling and snapping. In the beam of my flashlight, its eyes are bulging and bloodshot, and one of them has already been ejected from its socket, dangling by the nerve. Before I can pull the trigger on the BB gun, Bryan swings at it with the bat. He connects with the creature’s head with a sickening snap, and it falls limp, emitting a horrific screech in the process. I look at Bryan, who is trembling violently, but we don’t say anything. This is just the beginning.