Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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When Nan and her mother Dana arrived, the cabin smelled of garbage and animal urine and heat and the dead man’s body. The man was on the floor, bloated and stinking under a heavy blanket: beside him, an empty bottle of pills. Scrapes across his cheeks, claw marks at his throat.
“Another peaceful death,” Dana said.
She had begun, at times, to say the opposite of what was true. This made conversation with her confusing.
Almost nineteen, Nan actually had two mothers. Her mother Lindsay had been uninterested in living through the extinction of the human species, so she’d hung herself in their backyard in Syracuse, New York, using a simple noose made from Nan’s childhood rope swing.
Dana helped Nan bury the man outside the cabin. In the August sun they sweated, the skin of their arms and necks burning. They buried him wrapped in his heavy blanket — not a wise decision, as the cabin interior would become frigid in the coming months. Nan’s arm accidentally brushed against the man’s puffy wrist, and she felt sick. She threw up while Dana rubbed her back absently, telling her everything was going to be fine. They dug the hole beside some type of thorny shrub, taking turns using a shovel Dana had found in the closet.
“Let’s hope the dogs won’t get to him,” Dana said, wiping her hands on her jeans. If you wipe your dirty hands on your dirty jeans, your hands are not going to come clean. Nan knew this. Her mother should have known this, too. Nan continued piling rocks on top of the mound until her shoulders hurt. She did not want to see a wild dog trotting along with part of a man’s arm in its mouth. She had already seen sights like this in the city.
Dana and Lindsay had rented this same cabin together the summer before Nan’s birth. Nan asked what it had been like. Here in the hills, Dana said, away from the animal-extinction news feeds and the clocks ticking down, it hadn’t felt like the world was about to end. There had been butterflies — not rare ones but plain white butterflies with brown spots on their wings. There had been a pair of birds. “It felt like it was time to have you,” said Dana, who believed whatever was occurring now did not negate good things that had occurred in the past or might occur later.
Now Dana is gone as well. Nan has no idea where she is. Dana might be on an exit ship up in the atmosphere, drifting away from the planet. Or the exit ship could have exploded, and pieces of her may have fallen over an Earth that is growing more bestial and beautiful each day, despite occasional flaming debris raining from the sky. Or else Dana never got on a ship. Maybe she turned around and is coming back to Nan. Or she walked into a lake and drowned.
Instead of saying goodbye in person or recording a video, Dana typed her farewell letter on Nan’s screen. The end of the letter contains instructions. At first glance these instructions are not useful, though there’s the possibility that when Dana wrote, Witness the wildness! Witness the healing, the regrowth, the rainbows! she was telling her daughter not to be afraid.
Nan is still living in the dead man’s cabin, situated in a bucolic valley south of Syracuse, four miles east of the interstate. Below the cabin is a creek that threatens to overflow with each new storm. Nan likes the creek, its constant chattering, even if one day it may flood her current lodging. At night the wolves, or whatever they are, howl and hunt by the light of the stars. Nan no longer locks the cabin door.
Each afternoon she walks along the dirt road and takes notes about the land’s rewilding. This is her job. She is to do this job until she starves to death, or until a bear gobbles her up, or until she lies facedown in the creek and drowns. In her farewell letter Dana wrote, How can you be lonely when you are surrounded by so much life? When your future — or, should I say, lack of future — is a necessary gift to the Earth? Yesterday Nan discovered the remnants of a hiking trail vanishing into the underbrush. The day before that, she noted wild mustard rooting into the asphalt road.
The temperature today is mild, a brief transitional period between the sweltering heat of summer and the cooler fall. Near the pond where she often turns around, Nan comes across the gray remains of an animal that’s been gutted, skinned, and left in the ditch beside the road. She does not record the discovery — her notebook is reserved for positive observations only — but she does dig a hole with a stick in the soft soil beneath a pine tree and buries what’s left. It is illegal to put one’s own importance above that of any animal’s, though that word, illegal, is pointless. No one is left to enforce the laws. Still, she would rather starve than eat a living creature. She will starve. She will run out of protie powder and tater flakes while the government-issued seeds Dana planted in the cabin’s garden will not grow.
Everyone believes the world’s governments worked together to release the sterilization virus called only Z. Isn’t it likely the government sterilized the seeds as well? Who wants this disaster to drag out for decades? Whoever released the virus must have wanted to accelerate the inevitable end of humanity. The longer Nan, or anyone, lingers, the more they harm the Earth. Nan can’t help damaging the ground when she walks. Her footsteps will kill the ants; she will crush the clover.
They lived for many years, Lindsay, Dana, and Nan, near the university in a comfortable two-story house with rounded archways between the rooms, rugs in the halls, and antique glass knobs on the doors. They moved there after Lindsay landed her government job and when Nan was about to begin first grade. Lindsay planned to let Dana decorate the house, but Dana proved lazy in such matters, so Lindsay took over. She chose blood-orange paint with yellow accents for the kitchen, a dusty turquoise for the hallways, and muted blues and whites for Nan’s bedroom, which would have a glacier-remembrance theme, popular with young girls at the time. Alone in her room, in her iceberg bed, Nan played happily on her screen, games like God or Monster Killer. If either mother took away her screen, Nan climbed out her bedroom window and sat on the lower ledge of the roof, where she peered through binoculars into the rooms of other boys and girls.
Like most children, Nan had not grown up despairing, despite the alarming temperature graphs tacked to the elementary-school bulletin boards, and the invasive-species word searches, and the extinction-themed birthday parties, and the large-scale-catastrophe drills. The world was a picture book to her. If the animals disappeared on page 1 due to loss of habitat, she assumed they would, by page 12, triumphantly be restored to life by women scientists — even if, from then on, the animals would be ghost species, existing only in sterile laboratories.
Lindsay had tried to tell her daughter how being a scientist was no longer heroic like that. “It’s more like watching what you love disappear,” she explained when Nan visited the lab to peer at her mother’s dying blue butterflies. Before entering the lab, Nan had to be thoroughly disinfected and put on a white safety suit. Even in such a somber environment, she found it pleasurable to daydream about her own future. I will become a scientist like my mother! I will raise a child by myself! I will single-handedly prevent the disappearance of a species — or several species!
There was no need for scientists after the virus.
Every morning Nan wakes in the cabin as the light enters the single window in the loft. Lying on the mattress, which smells of pee (not hers), Nan disconnects her solar charger from her screen and plays a game like Feast or In Reverse, her body wrapped in the sleeping bag she brought from home. Mornings have felt cold lately. Leaves are changing or about to change. She keeps the sleeping bag around her shoulders when she climbs down the ladder. A hook on the window closest to the sink is where she hangs the solar charger for now. Measure two scoops of protie powder into a glass — purple-carrot flavor today — add water from the pitcher on the counter, stir, drink. Purple carrot is an awful flavor. Rinse the glass with water from the pitcher and leave the clean glass in the sink.
There is only one chair left in the cabin because Nan broke, then burned, the other. She sits. She stands up. She has not started a fire since she burned that other chair, but she will need to soon if the temperature continues to drop. Last night was the first frost of the fall. She counts the buckets of protie powder in the pantry, then the jars of tater flakes. This does not take long. Dana insisted there was enough to last her at least a year. Nan cannot imagine lasting a year. She is not sure she’ll survive the winter.
Nan was seventeen when Z. hit. After she became infected, her appearance changed, and Lindsay cried when she had to look at her daughter, at the altered bone structure of her face, the pustules and the crooked lips. “Stop staring,” Nan said in her new voice. Dana dealt with the changes by pretending Nan had always looked like this. They removed the mirrors in the house and replaced them with colorful pages ripped from vintage magazines left by some grandmother or great-grandmother: happy images of sailboats and women wearing broad hats and carrying beach umbrellas.
Dana and Lindsay were also infected, as was everyone in the world, but both women were already in menopause, so sterilization meant little to them. The virus only mildly affected the faces of older women, emerging as a permanent speckled rash across the forehead, cheeks, and neck.
Nan’s mothers should have been prepared for a disaster like this. Even without the virus, humanity’s existence was becoming untenable. They had practiced apocalyptic drills at their workplaces every Thursday for years: Remain in an orderly line. Proceed home. Do not barricade your front door. Politely accept your government supplies. Do not panic. Accept change. Don’t cling to how things used to be. Embrace your new life.
The top shelf of the pantry holds the two boxes of kitchen matches they brought from the city. Nan opens a box and counts each match onto the table. Then she counts the other box. There are 410 matches left.
Put the matches away. Fold the sleeping bag. Shiver.
Nan gets her jacket and goes outside to hang the solar charger on a hook below the eaves, where it will receive better sunlight. She doesn’t know what the hook was meant for originally. She grabs an empty bucket from the stack of buckets on the porch and carries it to the creek behind the cabin. Frost clings to leaves that lie in the shade. She used to boil the water from the creek, but that was before Dana left.
Return to the cabin. Pour water from the bucket into the pitcher beside the sink. Nap. Wake. Select a tart apple from the collection of wild apples stored in the entry.
The apple is not fully ripe. She eats it anyway. This will cause her stomach to ache later. Time for her second protie drink: purple-carrot flavor again. Measure, add water, stir, drink, gag, swallow, pause. She forces herself to finish it. When the glass is empty, she fills it with water from the pitcher and gulps as much as she can stand, though there may be bacteria in it that will make her sick. The day is more than half over. It is time for her walk in the forest.
A consistent routine can be useful in avoiding panic.
It’s important to remember that it could have been worse. People had expected worse from the end-times of the human race: actual zombies, and women sex slaves in chains, and marauders roasting babies, and villains slaughtering the remaining animals. None of that happened. There was fear of it happening. Their neighbor Mrs. Adonis waved her gun at Dana when she stepped onto the Adonises’ lawn to see if the older couple was OK. “We are not OK!” Mrs. Adonis shouted, hoisting her gun into the air. “I am not OK!”
Other neighbors took to wearing gas masks, or they nailed wood across their windows, as if stuck in some apocalyptic cliché where everybody but you is a monster. The rioting erupted over such anxieties — over the potential for women sex slaves, roasted babies, and animal slaughterers. Rioters overturned cars and set them on fire; they shattered the windows of pharmacies and shot at stoplights. Downtown businesses were looted, including a sub shop and an exotic-pet store, the saltwater tanks upended, the weird, colorful fish crushed into the carpeting.
Not everyone panicked at first. A cooperative village popped up in a park outside of Rochester. Hopeful people stood in front of their fresh canvas tents and discussed what to do next. The village became overwhelmed with members. Its founders tried turning people away. There was violence.
In the forest Nan hears buzzing, calling, whirring, gurgling, screeching. Yellow leaves pile up in the ditch beside the road. Nan writes this down. Everything is changing. That is an exaggeration. Not everything. The leaves are lifting up off the branches before they fall. They fly upward for a second or two — the most important motion they will ever make.
The birds flitting through the trees have gray backs and white breasts. Lindsay could have identified them. A bird was worth more to her than a human being. Nan used to hold this against her mother.
“Which creature has the potential to destroy more: you or a bird?” Lindsay once asked Nan.
“I’m not destroying anything,” Nan said.
“Oh, now, wouldn’t that be nice,” Lindsay laughed.
At first, after Z., Nan’s mothers allowed her to do whatever. Nan sat in the dark, curtained living room watching news feeds until the feeds changed to old animal documentaries and reruns of cooking shows, after which she checked her favorite personal feeds and saw footage of empty bedrooms, stripped-down beds, closet doors. She reached out to girls she knew from school. Most never responded. One was about to leave the city. So crazy! Nan wrote. Yes! the girl wrote back. Nan played Look in Its Eye on her screen. She played Baps. She returned to watching the news feeds and learned how to make a layered vegetable torte, should they find any vegetables.
Several times, in those initial weeks following Z.’s release, Dana reminded Nan to register for transitional employment. Her reminders were gentle, then irritated, then urgent. “The deadline is tomorrow,” Dana said. Then: “The deadline is now.” Nan needed to sign up, or their household would not receive enough food vouchers to last the summer. The available jobs dealt with shutting down, transitioning, or cleanup.
“I don’t want any of these jobs,” Nan said to her mother.
Dana grabbed the screen out of Nan’s hands as if to smash it. “If I have to, I will pick a job for you, and I will pick the job where you drag bodies into a truck,” Dana said.
That evening, with Dana hovering behind her, Nan applied for a witnessing position through the Department of Transition’s portal: name, address, last level of education completed. Her writing sample was an essay she had plagiarized for junior English on the intersections of food supply, soil salinization, and solar power in world stability. Nan was accepted. These people weren’t picky. Within the week a steel box of supplies appeared on their stoop, containing a ten-pack of narrow-ruled notebooks, a dozen pencils, a sharpener, and a set of instructions. The household’s transition vouchers would be uploaded to Nan’s screen soon, the instructions explained.
“Good girl,” said Dana.
Nan carried the box into her bedroom and shut the door. She opened each notebook, rubbed her fingertips against the smooth blank pages, closed it. Remember, the instructions read, your job has nothing to do with readers, nothing at all. If no one ever reads what you write, it doesn’t matter. You are our witness, ensuring the positive changes beginning to happen to the world will be seen by someone. That someone is you.
Neither of Nan’s mothers was required to assist with the transition due to their age. Lindsay continued to be an administrative scientist overseeing endangered species in the region, though her job felt silly now. Who did she think she was: someone the world actually needed? Dana hoped to continue her specialized gardening business, taming invasive plants into subdued ornamentals. But people didn’t plant decorative gardens anymore. What Dana mainly did was move around the daylilies in the yard and propagate the bamboo. A species of mayfly Lindsay had once attempted to save went extinct, as did several species of mussels.
There are elephants in these woods — five of them, Nan thinks. The elephants stay away from the clearing that surrounds the cabin, but occasionally she has caught a glimpse of gray in the distance. She’s found enormous piles of their shit beneath a tree. The elephants came from the city zoo, which Lindsay dutifully took Nan to every weekend when she was a child, zoos being the only place you could see any large mammal outside of the extinction feeds. Metal detectors framed the zoo’s front entry. Armed guards flanked the cages. A guard must have opened the cages after Z. was released. The presence of elephants means there are likely lions in the woods, and tigers, and red pandas, and three-toed sloths.
At the edge of the field an alpaca lowers its head to graze on the damp bushes. Nan writes this down. Her stomach hurts. Deeper into the woods the bark has been stripped from certain trees. Claw marks line the trunks of others. Follow the road back to the cabin. It is time to prepare the final protie drink of the day. Purple carrot again. She sips it this time.
Dana and Lindsay stayed up late arguing. Their voices carried through the darkened house, but not their words. Their tone alternated between anger and pleading. The argument worried Nan, as did her mothers’ lack of concern at their dwindling food supply. Despite the vouchers accumulating in Nan’s account, they were down to a final pantry shelf of wheat berries, rice, and tomato paste. The rice had bugs in it. They had to pick them out.
“When are the rations coming?” Nan asked.
“I don’t know,” said Dana.
“Aren’t you supposed to know?” Nan asked.
“Stop asking me questions,” said Dana.
Nan had always assumed, should any catastrophe befall the planet, that her family would be like the protagonists in those old survival games — the families who made it through the pandemic, or the nuclear fallout, or the cannibal militias. At the game’s end they’re laughing and hugging, safe on an overlook at dawn above a vast ocean. She thought this because she hadn’t seen other kinds of stories about an apocalypse.
“This is not a survival game,” Dana said.
One evening Lindsay took the shovel from the garden shed and began to dig the foundation for an emergency shelter in the yard. The following day she placed her name on three waiting lists for an excavator. They were ridiculously long lists. “Everybody is digging holes these days,” said the rental agent. Lindsay dug in the morning before she walked to the lab, and she dug in the evening when she came home. She assumed she had more time than she did. Her hands blistered. The blisters broke open.
Dana worried her wife was losing her mind.
“Instead of worrying about me, how about you help me dig?” asked Lindsay.
“I am not about to help you with this,” said Dana, holding up her hands.
Above them the clouds moved too fast, and the wind brought the smell of ashes.
It is evening. Sit on the cabin chair wrapped in the sleeping bag. Finish the protie drink. Watch a re-creation.
FEMA force-loaded this program onto everybody’s devices after Z. Nan skips over the part showing the beginning and middle of the transition, as she has already lived through that — is living through it — and instead begins watching the simulated aftereffects, when the roads leading out of the city look like peaceful trails of moss, and the satellites have transformed into shooting stars, and the humans have turned to bone. Wild cattle stampede through the ruins of the houses. Whales breach above the oceans, bats swarm into basements and caves, enormous flocks of birds fill the sky—
Nan’s screen powers down. She brings the charger inside and plugs her screen into the charger’s port. There is still some light outside, though it is fading. She reads at the table near the window that overlooks the bushes and the pile of stones. Dana allowed them each to bring a single book in their packs when they left the city. For Dana it was Watership Down. Nan brought Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She is at the beginning again. Alice is falling through the rabbit hole and doesn’t know where she’s going.
When Z. hit, Nan and her mothers were in the kitchen cooking dinner: a stew with potatoes, soy strips, and greens to garnish — what people used to eat. They were reading on their screens about an abandoned ship washed ashore on a Japanese beach, a toxic spill in Vietnam, and wildfires in Romania — what people used to read. Nan’s screen released a high-pitched alarm. Lindsay’s screen activated next, then Dana’s. There was no way to turn the alarm off. The noise continued until they scrolled through the alert, the first of many.
“They have to be kidding,” Dana said. “How do they think they’re going to pull this off?”
“Who are ‘they’? Who’s sending me this?” asked Nan. She was having difficulty breathing. Each breath came in an inadequate gulp. Dana opened the kitchen window to let in some air.
“What are you thinking?” Lindsay snapped, slamming the window shut and grabbing duct tape from the drawer beside the fridge. “Leave your screens here,” she ordered. “Do it!” She ushered Nan and Dana into the first-floor bathroom, sealed the door and window cracks with tape, then smoothed another layer of tape over the first. The bathroom window was frosted, showing only the shadows of things outside. “You better make yourselves comfortable,” said Lindsay. She sat cross-legged on the tile floor, occasionally reading aloud from the alerts on her screen. She did not share every one, just summarized the important points.
“The whole thing could be a joke,” said Nan.
“It’s not a joke,” said Lindsay.
“Do you know everything all of a sudden?” said Nan.
“I know way more than you do,” said Lindsay.
“What aren’t you telling me?” asked Nan.
It was dinnertime. Then it was after dinner. “Is anybody else hungry?” Nan asked. The room was dim. Dana turned on the lights. Lindsay turned off the lights.
There was scratching outside the window. Someone pounded on the back door, then went away. Lindsay stared at Nan’s face. Nan stared at the bathtub, the loose hairs at the bottom. They heard sirens outside, and what sounded like fireworks. New alerts arrived. The room grew warm. It smelled.
“Drink some water, you two,” Lindsay said.
“We don’t have cups,” said Dana.
“Stick your head under the faucet,” said Lindsay.
Nan leaned her head on the tile wall. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. She opened her eyes. Lindsay was staring at her face again. “What?” asked Nan.
Lindsay explained that for most people the symptoms would begin in the next week.
The dark outside the window looked the same as it always had, but there were sounds Nan had never heard before, low pitched and repetitive. It’s the same world, she told herself. It wasn’t as if a virus could turn people into monsters. She shifted to find a better position. She rested her head on her knees. Dana laid her hand carefully on Nan’s head. Nan pushed Dana’s hand away and stood up.
“Really, I don’t mind,” Nan told her mothers. She said this because she didn’t fully grasp the situation, and she wanted to get out of the bathroom. “Anyway, it’s already happened. This is what’s supposed to happen. Right?”
While her mothers watched, Nan peeled away the layers of tape and opened the door.
It has grown too dark to read. Drag the sleeping bag and the screen and the charger upstairs and fall into bed. Nan isn’t ready for sleep. There is nothing else to do unless she sits on the porch outside. She used to sit on the porch and stare up at the stars, until the night she felt herself disintegrating into multiple bright pieces and scattering. The pieces were the color of an animal’s eye. The pieces were the shapes of animals.
The world didn’t look at her, but, at the same time, it didn’t look away from her.
Z. was uncomfortable but not painful. This, too, could have been worse. No one died from it directly. No one had blood leaking out of their rectum. Four days after she and her mothers emerged from the bathroom, Nan felt as if she had come down with a mild flu: an ache in her bones, a low-grade fever, nausea. The disfiguration occurred days later.
In June the regional transition team declared Syracuse an evacuation zone. Too much maintenance was required, and fires were becoming inevitable. Plus there were jokes about urban cannibals. (Were they jokes?) Better, it was suggested, to live the remainder of one’s life on the outskirts, in a rural community or isolated cabin where one could gaze upon — but not touch! — the natural world. Closure signs appeared roped to the defunct lampposts, declaring the city off-limits after the first of the month.
“What day is the first?” Lindsay asked. They had stopped keeping track.
Not everybody left. Nan and her mothers stayed past the evacuation date, not bothering to board up their windows — “We are not extras in some shitty zombie movie!” declared Dana — until someone threw rocks through the glass. Then Lindsay nailed wood across the windows, leaving cracks between the boards for little slashes of sunlight.
“Remind me, why are we staying here?” asked Dana.
“I’m not staying,” Lindsay said.
“Nan,” Dana said, “you are so brave. I know what you’re giving up. You are giving up a lot.”
“Tell me everything I’m giving up,” said Nan.
“OK. You gave up the life you thought you’d have. You gave up becoming a mother.”
“I didn’t want to be a mother.”
“I didn’t like to go to school.”
“You gave up your old face.”
“I didn’t like my old face!”
“In return — are you listening? — in return, you’re getting a new life. You may—”
“Actually I don’t want to talk about this with you.”
They were in the blood-orange kitchen. Light slipped between the boards over the windows. Lindsay was dead. Dana reached to touch the strange shape of her daughter’s cheek. The air in the house was stagnant. Nan felt trapped. It was difficult in such a situation not to feel trapped. Dana asked, “Who are you going to talk to about it, then?” Nan wanted to get away, but Dana was blocking her. “Oh, you can talk about it with your missing friends. Or how about our departed neighbors? Or, I know, how about you talk about it with your dead mother?”
That night Dana continued to dig the underground shelter in the yard that Lindsay had begun in the weeks after Z.’s release. Nan helped Dana dig. There was no point to it, but they dug anyway. Dana used the shovel; Nan attacked the dirt with a garden spade.
“It’s OK not to make it,” Dana said in a quiet voice. “Returning to a simpler life is not a step backward, though it might feel like it.” This may have been an apology.
“Nobody’s survival is mandatory,” she said.
They left within a week of Lindsay’s death, after Dana found a woman crouched behind the furnace in the basement. The woman was missing teeth and would not respond to Dana’s questions. The billboards along the interstate leading south had been painted over. Near Cortland, beside a tent compound, workers entombed the highway under shovelfuls of dirt. There was no more news.
Nan and Dana arrived at the cabin on foot, buried the dead man, and unloaded their packs. Nan claimed the top two shelves in the closet. She had nothing to place on the second shelf. They inventoried the cabinets, found the pantry stocked with buckets of protie powder, and flipped the useless light switches. They opened and quickly shut the tiny fridge. Multiple times Dana washed the floor, then the walls and the other surfaces, with water from the creek. Seeing Nan safe (or safe enough) in a place that was clean (or clean enough), she started up her screen and did what she had always meant to do once Nan was settled: she entered the lottery for a seat on an exit ship. Rumor was the ships had been prepared to save some portion of humanity from a dying planet. Though there was no saving anyone anymore, they were still leaving. Dana entered her name while Nan was down by the creek collecting water. The lottery results were instant: her screen showed her images of party streamers. Nan came back with the bucket and saw her mother’s screen.
“This was not our deal!” Nan shouted.
There wasn’t room for everybody on those ships. Younger people with transition jobs were not allowed to enter the lottery. They were to stay and finish their work.
“I never made a deal with you,” said Dana. She was no longer a mother in the traditional sense, someone who might be bothered by the emotions of her child. Or she was a mother to all of it: to the skunkweed, the wild ginger, the salamanders, the sumac, the sedge, the crows. It all meant as much to her as Nan did. It meant a lot. It meant everything.
“I’ll keep loving you from wherever I go,” Dana promised.
“I will rope you to the bed,” Nan threatened.
Dana prepared Nan as best she could in the weeks that followed. She took Nan into the woods to forage, but Nan could not keep the mushrooms straight, couldn’t tell a chanterelle from a jack-o’-lantern. “Forget about the mushrooms. Let’s focus on edible plants instead,” Dana said. In a notebook she had found in a kitchen drawer, she sketched pictures of burdock and garlic mustard.
“How do you even know all this?” Nan asked.
“I went to school for it,” Dana said, “a long time ago.” Chickweed. Hopniss. Honewort. Asiatic dayflower. She showed Nan how to split wood without cutting off a finger, and she reviewed, again, the rationing of protie powder. When Dana had nothing left to teach her daughter — nothing practical, at least — they rested on the porch of the cabin in the rocking chairs. Nan’s arms ached. She had blisters. She had a headache. “You are helping save the world,” Dana reminded Nan, reaching for her daughter’s blistered hand.
“I don’t want to save the world,” Nan said.
“Well, anyway, you are,” Dana said. She held on to her daughter’s hand, her palm pressing against Nan’s broken skin. They sat there for a while. The grass grew. A bird pecked at the insects in a log. Insects whirled on the tips of the wild grass. The grass crept forward.
The night before the exit ship’s launch, Nan dissolved sleeping pills in her mother’s broth, ensuring Dana would miss her scheduled departure in the morning.
The second time Dana attempted to leave, she drugged Nan, packed the compass and road map, kissed her daughter’s deformed cheek, and left.
The skin on Nan’s right thumb is inflamed and red from a cut she received while cleaning up broken glass. She’d thrown a drinking glass against the wall. Her first-aid kit consists of a tube of Neosporin and four circular band-aids. We are not survivalists, Dana wrote before she left, as if this needed saying. The lotteries have officially closed; the last of the exit ships are gone.
Mom, Nan writes, I hear coyotes at night. Some of the animals have stopped considering me human.
She sends the message through the Department of Transition portal. If Dana is dead, or if she never got on a ship, the message will be sent to someone else on a ship with a similar name. If everyone on that particular ship is dead, Nan’s message will be carried along on the empty ship as a string of data until the ship explodes, or does whatever ships do when they drift through the galaxy without navigation. If the ship is already destroyed, Nan’s message will spread throughout space until it grows so faint it’s indistinguishable from the cosmic noise of the universe.
I understand and respect that “You Are Our Witness” was not the type of story Will Fudeman wanted to read. With the characters of Nan, Dana, and Lindsay, I was interested in examining mothers who leave their children — not because they don’t love their kids but because they are in too much pain, or the world is too much to bear. Where Fudeman finds my story hopeless, I find hope in the fact that, should humans vanish from the planet, the world will go on without us.
I’ve appreciated Debbie Urbanski’s writing until her bleak, lonely, hopeless story “You Are Our Witness” [April 2019], in which Dana and Lindsay abandon their daughter, Nan, because the slow extinction of humanity is too overwhelming for them.
Whatever climate disasters and other dystopian changes come our way, I want stories with more heart. And I seem to recall that Urbanski has a sense of humor, too. I hope she can find those qualities of heart and humor in our world — and in her writing — in the days ahead.