perspective shifts / (sweet music)

I started a new job last week. It's taken a lot of mental work for me to be comfortable talking about it.

I felt like a failure when I moved home. I felt ungrateful. I felt lost. But mostly, I felt like a failure. I had graduated from a top university, landed a decent job, rented my own apartment alone, and gained independence in every sense of the word. And yet, I was miserable through the core of my being in a way I'd never been before. I couldn't even identify it at the time. It is only in retrospect, now, when I am aware of the happiness and gratitude I can feel on a daily basis, when I notice how much more easily smiling comes to me, that I am aware of the darkness of the past year.

I've been reading a lot. Books are what I gravitate towards when I am lost. I seek guidance from authors whose words have the power to embrace and heal me. JB MacKinnon's The Once and Future World provided a healthy dose of optimism and perspective-shift about the changing planet. In They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib's exploration in music and culture gave me a deep appreciation for Carly Rae Jepsen and the power of essays. Both he and Michelle Obama (Becoming) revealed the deep confusion and uncertainty they felt in their 20s, and I've held onto their words with great hope. They made my confusion feel normal, maybe even positive. Ken Liu has inspired me to write, although my struggle with fiction seems eternal, as my own true stories constantly push themselves through.

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I felt like a failure for moving home because I was afraid that it seemed like regression. More accurately, I felt like a failure because I thought of it as a regression. It took a few books, but I've finally realized that the decisions I've made in the last six months have led to more personal growth than I've experienced in years. I feel more open and vulnerable to the human experience, to questions of history, identity, and purpose. I feel compelled to learn about a variety of subjects, take on personal projects, write, exercise, and engage in my community. In the context of a logical career, perhaps I've regressed, but I've gained so much more.

I went from working at a design consultancy in Boston to working at as a film processing technician at a small photography lab in Irvine. The former required a degree from a top university, internship experience, and a significant amount of luck in timing. Landing that job was difficult, and for a few months, I felt spoiled and ungrateful for walking away. The job that I have now requires a high school diploma and a passion for film photography--both things that I had before I left for MIT more than five years ago. This fact alone makes it difficult for me to explain what I'm doing now to other people, particularly those who I don't believe will take the time to understand my decisions (or are unable to due to their own life experiences).

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For now, I've given up a nice salary, a sense of independence, a clear career trajectory, and the status of a steady corporate job. I've gained proximity to family and friends, knowledge about an aspect of photography that I'd otherwise never be exposed to, experience in a job that requires mostly physical capability, comfort of living at home, time to pursue my own hobbies and passions, and an increasing sense of clarity about what matters to me in the world. I've been able to spend time with friends, old and new, in ways that challenge my perceptions and intellect. I love being able to eat dinner with my mom on a daily basis, to see my grandma every weekend, and to hike in the mountains whenever I want to feel sunlight on my skin. Maybe it sounds like I'm running from real life. Maybe I am. But maybe I've just decided to choose a slightly different path than the one I thought I was meant to take, and maybe that's okay.

Mary Oliver wrote in Upstream: Selected Essays : "The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time." For the first time since high school (when I promptly squashed it), I feel the call to creative work, and for the first time in my life, I'm allowing myself to give it both power and time.

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concrete dreams

Second example of my struggling attempts at writing fiction. Don't judge me. 


“Everyone around here had two things: a job, and a name. My name was C4111, and I was Builder. We were all born something. Most of us became Builders and Cleaners but some became Fighters and Explorers. I’d always wanted to know what would happen if I wanted to do something else, something I wasn’t born as. Why could each of us only have one role? Nobody else cared to ask these questions.

Explorers were confident, brave, and knowledgeable. They knew about local plant species and how to handle the potential attackers that might strike our colony. They’ve all reported some major source of danger before, and many of them were younger than me. When Explorers made a discovery, it became part of their identity. They got a name. C5114 discovered that the sweet sap rolling down a tree about 4,000 body-lengths northward was extremely poisonous. She had observed four members of Colony E feasting on it before they began losing muscle function and dying from paralysis. Her name became Sap. Seven sun-downs ago, C4929 sensed a thunderstorm coming based on wind patterns and got the entire colony underground and plugged the entrances before the rain struck. She was called Storm.  We weren’t that creative, but having a name was the pinnacle of fame around here.

I’d spent all ninety-two of my sun-downs as a Builder. The highlight of my life was that I was a special Builder. As a Builder for the Explorers, I got to live among them. We lived in an underground annex 613 body-lengths away from the main compound, where all the other Builders, Cleaners, and Fighters lived. This annex was completed before I was born, so I spent most of my time fixing minor cave-ins in the tunnels and extending some rooms as the colony grew. Our compound was a complex network of tunnels in the dirt, kind of like tree roots. My job involved calculating the structural stability of this particular network of tunnels, and moving dirt around to make sure nothing collapsed. It sounds more exciting than it was.

It’s not that I didn’t like building; I just wanted to do more. I wanted to talk to people, I wanted to be somebody. I wanted a name.  I wonder if my best friend would’ve had a name if she had made it out alive.

C4123. We had been friends since day one on the job. We had started our careers on the same day, and we were the only new members that warm and sunny morning. Although she was an Explorer, she was too intimated to talk to anyone else in the thirty-two-member crew, so we talked only to each other. C4123 had a spectacular sense of smell—one of the best of our generation. She could smell the good ripe fruit from the bad ones without even tasting them. She was humble about it too, and that’s how we became friends. The other Explorers weren’t as friendly.  I don’t think they liked that I kept asking them if I could tag along whenever they went outside. They didn’t understand why I would ever want to do something I wasn’t born for. C4123 let me tag along with her on the most basic missions sometimes. I liked to believe that she saw some innate skills in me that no one else did. I was chosen to be the Builder for the Explorers for a reason, right? Actually, I’m pretty sure I was just the first Builder born after the previous specialized Builder died. But that’s not the point.

I tried to stop thinking about C4123 so much, but the way she died was so…unusual. We had gone scavenging in the Concrete Expanse south of the main compound. I say “we”, but it was really her exploring the concrete, and me hiding in the grass nearby. I didn’t dare walk out there. There was nothing to hide under. I must have been psychic or something, because these clear metallic saucers appeared in the sky soon after we arrived. No one had ever spoke of anything like those before, but there they were. Underneath them, bright spots of light appeared, and the ground got alarmingly warm. I tried to warn her, but she was too far away and too engrossed in her senses. Suddenly, the saucer moved directly over her, and the bright light centered right over her body. I was blinded. The light was gone within seconds, but when I crawled over to her, she was dead. The bright light had charred her and her limbs were shriveled. She lay there, curled in her own soot. I didn’t need her sense of smell to know that she had been burnt all the way through.”

That’s the story I would tell about my life up to this point. Everything in there is the truth, but it’s not the complete truth. Things started going awry before C4123 and I went anywhere near the Concrete Expanse. Where would I put the part about the fruit trees completely disappearing overnight, with nothing left to show for but unnaturally clean-cut stumps?  How about when two-thirds of the colony was eradicated without a trace when part of the compound was scooped up, including the majority of the Fighters? Not a single trace! No creature we know of eats dirt. How about when the day after, when a sapling fell from the sky into the crater where part of our home once was? What was that all about?

The story I have right now makes sense. I sound cool, collected, and determined…maybe even brave, with a touch of self-deprecation.  There’s no need to include that I’m scared to death of my nameless future and the future of my colony. Maybe I’m just scared that I’ll never become someone that avenges her best friend. But really, I just tell myself stories to make sense of it all, and convince myself that one day, I’ll become someone whose stories are worth listening to, if there’s anyone left to listen. 

The distant sound of familiar footsteps tells me that the Explorers are making their way back now. I had taken the day off from building to mourn my friend, but being attached to each other is frowned upon around here—especially after everything that has happened.  Mourning is a waste of time when the future of our colony is in danger. I scramble onto my feet and shove a few pieces of dirt around as the Explorers single file into our main meeting chamber.

C4000, also known as Cinnamon or Lead Explorer, looks grim as she addresses her crew. Her head hangs with exhaustion. “We have a serious problem. Yes, another one. Are you all familiar with the massive fellow that lives near the bush 3,200 body-lengths westward?”

Everyone nods. We all know who he is. We don’t see him often, but he drags his gargantuan slimy body around occasionally and leaves sticky trails that are difficult to navigate around. It is inconvenient, but not really worth doing anything about. He isn’t threatening, even though he smells slightly rancid.

“We found him today,” she continues. “He was dead on the Concrete Expanse. Shriveled.”

Someone else voiced my internal question. “Burnt?”

“No. Dehydrated, it seems. He was covered in a white, foul-tasting substance. Not a hint of slime left. Completely crusted. He doesn’t even go to the Concrete Expanse... something moved him there.”

My head began spinning. Dried up? Moved? This definitely wasn’t anything I’ve heard of before. How could he just dry up? What was happening out on the Concrete Expanse? Is it related to the abduction of our colony?

Cinnamon quickly doles out exploration assignments for sun-up. Apparently she had deemed it too dangerous to return to the Concrete Expanse, although we had always had good luck with food out there. Fruits and sugary substances were found often. Without the fruit trees, the Concrete Expanse is one of our only options. Instead, Cinnamon focuses on looking for dead bodies we can eat. That’s how I know things are real desperate.

It suddenly occurs to me that this is my chance. I had never had any sort of advantage over the Explorers before, when it came to exploring. They are bigger, faster, and have significantly keener senses than me. I won’t call this situation well suited for me by any means, but at least we are all on the same playing field now. They are just as clueless and frightened about the situation as I am. This is my chance to do something real.

As Cinnamon dismisses us for rest, I become increasingly distressed. Builders aren’t allowed to leave the compound unaccompanied. Only Explorers have the sense of direction required to wander around alone outside—that’s why they’re Explorers. I could get lost out there. I could die. And I doubt anyone would even notice until the tunnels in the annex start caving in too much. I tuck myself between two soft pieces of dirt and try to settle my thoughts. I imagine counting the seeds of a strawberry to calm myself. Thankfully, sleep comes quickly.

I awake at the same time I always do—before the Explorers— and think about what to do. I think about what C4123 would’ve suggested. She was blunt, and she didn’t care much for our rigid social structure, even though she followed it. She probably would’ve said, “Hey, you’re one in 4,000 and you’ll probably die soon anyway. Go for it.”

I would’ve asked her if she would miss me, and she would’ve told me that she wouldn’t, and I had nothing to lose.

Ouch.

Well now, she would be right. What did I have to lose, really? The Explorers couldn’t risk themselves. Without them, the remaining members of the colony wouldn’t last, especially since most of the Fighters were gone already. The responsibility of the Explorer is too great, and their numbers too few. Me? I could either live to solve the greatest mystery of my time, or die from starvation, abduction, or whatever our fate may be.  I might as well make myself useful while I can—C4123 would’ve done it. The version of myself in my story would do it. Before I have time to let more logical fears consume me, I crawl through the narrow, dark, earthy exit tunnel and make my way towards the bright morning light.

I head southward from the camouflaged entrance of the Explorer annex, clamoring over rocks, leaves, and squishy dirt towards the Concrete Expanse just over the horizon. The sun casts its golden glow through the orangey trees from the left. The shadows unnerve me—the Eight Legs could be anywhere. I scuttle forward, trying not to think about it. I miss the protection of C4123. The landscape looks different, and I can’t quite decide why. I realize with a sinking stomach that I’m standing in a giant oblong footprint. The footprints are everywhere. Plants were trampled in the wrath of this creature, and these prints are unlike anything I’ve ever seen here. This thing wasn’t a local. I shiver with fear, but move forward robotically. It is now or never. I recount my story in my head to calm myself.

Halfway there and already winded, I stop to formulate some semblance of a plan.  Observation seems like the best option—I can hide in the grass as I did when C4123 was attacked. That will give me a good vantage point if the metallic saucers appear. I can also burrow into the ground if needed. Low risk. Moving forward, I cross the shifting landscape and begin maneuvering around the tall and sharp blades of grass. The sun continues to rise in the azure sky, and after what seems like a lifetime of endless climbing, the grass finally clears. I am at the edge of the enormous Concrete Expanse. It’s empty, and leaves rustle across the unforgiving surface. I sit there and wait, uneasy.

When the sun is nearly directly overhead, a spectacular vibration begins out of nowhere. I hold onto the grass for dear life, disoriented and terrified.  The vibrations end as suddenly as they began, but I quake as I register another soul-chilling sound. Things are moving towards me. Very large things. Massive shadows fall over me, but their movement is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. They are smaller than trees, maybe the size of saplings, but thick. Warm blooded, by the look of them. They walk on their two back limbs, flailing off-balance awkwardly. There are three of them.

I freeze. The shadow over me has stopped moving. I turn, look up, and see a giant, hideous, white and pink face. Blue eyeballs the size of pinecones reveal themselves. This thing is disgustingly bald, and I’m overwhelmed with panic. I need to get out of here. The red, gaping hole in its face cracks open, and I see glimmers of sharp marble-like rocks. I am dead. I know it. With a flash, I’m flung into the air, higher than I have ever been, the wind whipping around me. I’m still holding onto to the blade of grass I was perched on, but it wasn’t attached to the ground anymore. I hold on with all six limbs and my mouth until I realize the sense of vertigo had passed. I hate making sudden movements because it draws attention to myself, but I don’t know what else to do.

I dart downwards, not knowing where to go except trying to reach the familiar safety of the ground.  I realize with horror than I am standing atop of this creature’s warm and fleshy skin. I half expect myself to disintegrate on the spot, but I keep scrambling downwards. The fleshy limb I’m scrambling over begins shaking violently. I bite down with full force, and my antennae overload from the intensity of high-pitch vibrations. Dizzy and deaf, I let go, accepting my fate. I tumble in free-fall for an eternity, it seems, and I brace myself for my body’s inevitable splattering on the Concrete Expanse. I hope it doesn’t hurt. At least I’ll die where my best friend died.

I am met with a surprisingly soft landing on the large grass patch where I had started my adventure.  As I pick myself up gingerly, I sense some vibrations that sound like… “Stoo-pit-ante.” I know this won’t be the last time this monster terrorized my kind, but for right now, I don’t care. I am alive, and I have something to report. I have my next chapter.

holocene

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.

He nods.

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.