The spacecraft appeared like a heat lamp in the sky. It had a tangled, wiry shape to it and at first it was very dim and people thought it was a distant supernova.
I was at my girlfriend Hillary’s junior varsity soccer match in Pearce. I may have never seen that early glow were it not for the fact that her team was losing. I couldn’t watch the game or her anguished, intense face. A player on the other team lobbed the ball downfield and Hillary was forced into a foot race against number 71, who was wicked fast, and Hillary shoved the player, maybe scratched the girl’s side, but the girl blew past her and pounded the ball into the far corner of the net. Our goalie Cassandra was split-legged on the grass and Hillary pulled the ends of her curly hair, crying and cursing as number 71 ran back up the field jumping into her teammates’ arms. It was eighty minutes in and the score was 4-0; I’d stopped watching and was scanning the sky. Then I saw the glow and others did, too. By the end of the game the glowing had grown so orange and bright that the crowd was noiseless when the final whistle blew, and players stood on the field with heads craned back. It looked about as big as the moon in the sky.
Hillary’s emotions were torn between the game and the glow as I drove her home. She asked if I’d seen the ref miss that handball on the other player, the bitch who cleated her on the knee. I nodded vaguely while leaning over the steering wheel to watch the orange ball that looked like a clump of spaghetti, or the spiral of an electric stove’s heating element, or the innards of a toaster oven.
The spacecraft crashed in Texas. It was all over the news. The crash destroyed Austin, left a long crater there.
Everyone in Willcox was worried. They asked if something might crash in Arizona. Nothing did.
The spacecraft was full of aliens. They’re small, flexible creatures and they have torsos and things like heads but the number, size, and shape of limbs and appendages varies between individuals. Some look almost human, with four appendages. Most of them look more like centipedes, or like little spiky balls with a hundred arms.
The Department of Homefront or Homeland or whatever tried to communicate with them. The problem was that right after the crash, the aliens went exploring in every direction, walking aimlessly across the Texan deserts, and there was no way to contain them. They seemed to have no system of order or governance and no interest in talking. It took the president an entire day to release a statement: “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy, and we mourn for those who perished in Austin…We are enlisting the best minds in the world to assess the situation.” By then the aliens had reached San Antonio.
Based on all the videos I’ve seen, I imagine a general scenario like this: an alien goes into a diner on a busy street corner in San Antonio. It would crawl on the ceilings and under the tables and start touching and feeling people. Startled and disgusted, the people would back into a corner and one of the patrons would ty to shoo it away with a bag or a coat or a boot. The alien might get agitated and pound the tables rapidly. It would look like the alien was about to turn violent, and someone would pull out their revolver and shoot it several times. A group of aliens might be passing by at that moment and see their dead friend, and they might go inside the diner and kill the patrons by stabbing them or biting off limbs. Multiply that by a thousand and you have San Antonio in the early days of the invasion.
They’d walk in the streets and cause car accidents. They’d sit on peoples’ rooftops. They’d excrete a foul-smelling amber gel on peoples’ lawns. They’d eat children who were playing in the park. There were millions of them. People said we had to exterminate them. Mayors and governors didn’t know what action to prescribe, but the obvious safe thing to do was to “kill on site.”
The aliens reached Houston and Dallas within three days of the crash. They were greeted with bullets. The citizens held a firm line, and at first it was a prideful thing. The Texans raised American flags on their pickup trucks and they lined up around the city, and shot their shotguns and hunting rifles at the delicate crawling aliens. It was like we had something to believe in again, to fight for. People captured it on camcorders and cell phones, posting them everywhere online. The story told was one of brave resistance by the old Texans, and now weren’t we happy they were trigger-happy crazies? The news had gone vigilante and had no qualms depicting and praising violent resistance. They said, “The government has abandoned us. But we are not alone. If we stand together we will survive this threat.”
The aliens learned that big cities were dangerous, so they walked around them. They’d come quietly into the sleepy towns, the lonely highway stops, and sneak into bedrooms and kill. They’d crawl into crevices, through vents and doggy-doors, and wait for people to come home. Then when you’re on the toilet and you think you’re alone it appears from behind the shower curtain and uses one of its saw-bladed forearms to cut into your skull.
Then the message became one of “Get away. Flee. Don’t fight. For your childrens’ sake. For the sake of your loved ones.”
Some people left Willcox but my parents were stubborn. Hillary and her family took a plane to England because they had family there. I drove to her house before she left to say goodbye. She’d packed everything into a single suitcase and was hauling it into the back of their van when I got there.
I hugged her.
She said, “Text me. Call me if you can.”
I tried to think of something to say, something that would be representative of our relationship and what she meant to me. Eleven months together, almost done with junior year, sex in her mom’s minivan in the dark parking lot of East Willcox Synagogue on Monday nights, laughing about abysmal diarrhea whenever we’d go on a juice cleanse together, fighting over a bracelet she said I broke. There must be some nice words or phrases to sum it all up nicely, like a nice movie line or a deeply romantic kiss.
I said, “Talk to you later.”
She got into the van and closed the door, her smile a thin curl, like one of her hairs, and her greenish eyes seemed to possess their own atmospheres, their own timelines of limitless history, their own eons of life and death and species evolving and going extinct. She looked down and they drove away.
Dad went shopping for all the supplies he could get. He gave me a gun. It was a 9mm pistol, a silver SIG Sauer P226 with black on the handle. Much heavier than I expected. The only practice I got with it was shooting a full clip at some cans. Of the ten shots, one of them hit and one of them got so close it blew the can over just from the wind. He had also bought himself a gun, which was of the same caliber. He was not a gun-man and of his own ten practice shots two of them hit.
“I think the important thing,” he said, looking at the row of pristine Pepsi and Coors cans at a distance of twenty yards, “is that we don’t run out of bullets.” My eleven year old brother Dale knocked all the cans over with a stick. Then we went to the store together and bought four boxes of ammo. I liked carrying the gun around. It felt dangerous and scary, like everything around me was vulnerable and I was invincible. Snake in the yard? Bang! Pidgeon on the roof? Pop! Fly in the house? Boom! I didn’t really shoot anything, all I needed was the ability, the option, the threat of using it to feel powerful. I had the enormous tool of death in my hands and it felt good.
On the seventh day after the crash, I saw my first alien. They’d come to be known as Pedes. We had all our windows boarded up, with some strategically placed peep-holes in the plywood planks. I was looking out one of these holes and I saw a Pede on the lawn across the street. I called my brother Dale to look.
The Pede looked frightened or curious about something in the tree. This Pede was very short, maybe two or three feet tall. It stood on four fat appendages and had some six or eight needle arms. It had more of a waddling locomotion than the Pedes I’d seen videos of. It looked up at the tree and made a chirping sound.
Dale pointed out that there was a cat in the tree. It was on a branch hissing at the intruder. I decided I’d go out and kill the Pede, so I took up my SIG from the holster on my waist. Dale tried to stop me by tugging on my shirt. I slapped him away, went to the driveway, and crouched on the pavement because I thought it would steady my shot. I aimed at the center of the Pede’s body, where all his pointy arms intersected. I took the shot and bits of bark exploded off the tree, startling the Pede. I shot again and it hit my neighbor’s SUV, setting off the car alarm. The cat had jumped down from the tree and disappeared into someone’s backyard. The Pede sensed it was in danger and charged at me with surprising speed and I bolted back in the house and shut the door behind me. Dale was crying. The Pede was clawing at the door.
I heard the glass shatter and a loud crack against the door. It was quiet so I opened the door and saw our neighbor, wearing a striped sweater and sweatpants, holding a shotgun and inspecting the Pede.
“Step back,” he said. He stabbed the Pede with a big bowie knife and the legs twitched and stiffened.
My parents had come down the stairs and Dale and I were looking at the dead alien on the doorstep. Its blood was bubbling and gray, its skin a pale green-yellow. Its head was like a potato and it didn’t have eyes but it had little holes, which I guess it used to sense pressure and vibrations. The creature looked even smaller when it was dead. The neighbor looked stoic with his shotgun, standing in the walkway.
Mom said, “Thank you,” putting an arm around Dale.
“Sure thing,” he said, and he walked to his yard saying, “John Adams, John Adams, here sweetie! Daddy has a treat!”
Dad closed the door and said, “I think it’s about time to get the heck out of Dodge.”
Word spread through Willcox that the Pedes had arrived, but by then most everyone who was going to leave had already done so. Some, like my neighbor, stayed behind.
There was nothing left in the supermarkets, so all we had were the canned foods Mom had bought on her latest coupon run. We packed our clothes and guns and as we drove out of Willcox we saw a lot more Pedes. They were in the streets and on houses and cars. They were multi-colored and muliti-appendaged, and some were trying to break through boarded windows and others were poking at mailboxes. Dad nearly ran one over when it jumped in front of our Subaru Forester. Mom shrieked. We clipped it with the corner of the bumper and there was a satisfying clunk. Dale and I looked out the back window.
“Road kill!” said Dale. “Ten points.”
We drove north through Utah. Dale would ask me where I thought the aliens had come from, and why their spacecraft had crashed, and whether I would like to go inside the spacecraft just to see what it was like. He’d always had an active imagination. I said if we could ever sit down and have a good talk with them we’d find out.
“Yeah right,” he said, “they’d eat you.”
“No they wouldn’t,” I said, “because they’d be full from eating you.”
“No! You’re fat so they’d eat you first.”
“You’re fat and slow so they’d catch you first.”
“Yeah right,” he said, “I’m the fastest in my class. And I’m skinny.” He looked like a twig, wearing one of my old shirts that was two sizes too big for him. We were somewhere in northern Utah on a mountain road and Dad pulled the car over so I could get out and puke. Dale snickered at me and the stupid shame burned more than the stomach acid, but I sat on gravel a few feet away from the puddle of half-digested Campbell’s soup and enjoyed the view of the evening sunlight on snowy mountain peaks and a valley far below. I wondered what Austin, Texas looked like, if it was still smoking. What English countryside could Hillary see? I knew it was the middle of the night in Britain, but still I imagined it was the same time of day, and she was thinking about me. I’m nobody special but she made me special. We weren’t in the same league: I was destined to work at Ross, maybe J.C. Penny if I worked hard enough, and she was bursting with talent. Good grades in school, lots of confidence and poise. Being a soccer player must be amazing for your back because they all have great posture. I have bad confidence and bad posture but I’m in OK shape; I used to skate a lot before I dislocated my knee on Fernando’s kitchen counter. Long story. All these thoughts and the breathtaking Utah scenery made me twitchy because I had five grams of Skunk in my back pocket and hadn’t lit up in days and I wasn’t going to be a bad example for Dale.
“There’s got to be all kinds of aliens out there,” he said. “I never thought about it before but there must be a million different kinds.”
When we were driving through Idaho Mom said we should stop for a while. Dad asked where we would stop and Mom said we should knock on peoples’ doors and ask if we could stay. Dad said we should go to Canada, as far as possible. Take a boat to another continent, since the airlines had been shut down. Mom was insistent, and a nice old couplein Blackfoot—the Martinezes—took us in. They had a cute house in one of those idyllic-type neighborhoods, with big front lawns and trees lining the street. The Martinezes said they’d lived there for thirty years. Their computer was a dusty, beige artifact and ran Windows 98 and dial-up internet.
I found this website called Finalstand.com, which was useful for tracking Pede sightings. You could see where videos were being posted from, and red dots on a map gave you an idea how frequent sightings were. There were dots as far north as Kansas, as far east as Mississippi, and as far south as Guadalajara, Mexico. Some cities were completely red.
The military was finally doing something. The Pedes had no chance against the tanks and helicopters, and the military set up fortifications along the Texan border. The Pedes just ran around them. Houston and Dallas had finally run out of bullets, and were overrun.
Where were they coming from? No one could figure out if or how they were reproducing. Did they lay eggs? Did they have creepy alien sex? Was there a queen? No one knew. They came by the millions from the downed spacecraft. I’ve seen the video. It was like an anthill with everything rushing out at once. And what did they eat? Some people said they were strictly carnivorous, others said they’d just bite people and didn’t swallow, or that they ate the bark of trees. Me, I know what I’ve seen, and I know for a fact that they will eat people. And chickens and plants as well. But they eat in an oddly curious, un-hungry way. As if it provides no sustenance and no pleasure. They attack because they feel threatened. They go where they want and get attacked and so they attack.
In the evening of day ten, Dale and I were on bed sheets on the floor in the living room of the Martinez house. Mom and Dad were sleeping in the guest room. Dale said, “You think we’re going home again someday?”
I told him I didn’t know. He asked me if I was scared.
“Don’t be scared,” I said. “We’re safe.”
“Bullshit,” he muttered. “We’re probably all gunna die. We run and they catch up. We run farther and they catch up again. Then there’s no place left to run to.”
“Don’t worry about it, Dale.” I said, “The military is going to fix it. They’re going to get the Pedes. They’ll kill ‘em.”
“Whatever,” said Dale, turning away. “You’re just scared.”
I didn’t say anything back. I closed my eyes and thought about how tough the Pedes must be to take down Texans and Mexicans. How was my pistol supposed to stop them?
During our stay in Blackfoot I got to read my emails. There was one from Hillary saying she’d arrived in England and was living with aunts and uncles near Peterborough. She was fine. I wrote a draft about how Willcox was swarmed and how I almost shot one of them, and I described what they actually looked like. I realized that was a bad idea so I told her everyone was well, and Arizona was in good shape but we had evacuated as a precaution. I didn’t want her to worry about me. I waited for a response but I never got one. I’m guessing her dad told her to stop talking to me, to erase me from her life before it hurt—that’s what I would’ve done if I were her dad. I sort of hope she forgot about me. She wasn’t my girl anymore; not really. I hoped she had a proper English boy to be with. I hoped she was so far from danger she didn’t think about it on a daily basis. I hoped her life was an island of pleasant conversations and worrying about school and playing soccer. I told myself I had to stop thinking about her and wanting her for myself, and I had to ignore the burning pain I felt in my lungs every time I thought of her. I told myself she wasn’t mine anymore.
I sat on the toilet blazing a joint with the window open. I felt like I was in a helicopter above the house, tethered to the ground by a five-hundred foot chain. What if everyone was in a helicopter, tethered to the ground? What if I could find a way to detach the chain so I could be free to fly wherever I wanted in my own personal Apache? What would the world look like if someone let all the helicopters loose? If money was worthless, religion was dust, borders didn’t exists, and language was optional.
I held the last puff in my lungs and dropped the roach in the toilet.
It was day twelve. Society still existed in Blackfoot, and I’d watch people trade weapons and food on front lawns. Dale and I would walk to the gas station and Fast-Mart to pick up supplies for the house. One day we wanted chocolate milk but the store clerk said they were all out, and that they were only getting shipments of beer and water and jerky and canned chili. I tapped my fingers on the counter.
“Can I get a beer, then?” I said.
He looked at me. I’m sixteen and I look it.
“Sure,” he said, “why not?” We paid for two gallons of water, six cans of chili, and a bottle of Bud. We sat on the curb and I offered Dale the first sip. He looked disgusted and swallowed hard.
“Good?” I said.
“It’s good,” he said, sipping more before handing it to me.
We finished and he threw the empty bottle on the ground. It didn’t break. He picked it up and threw it as far as he could down the quiet street and it landed in a bush. I ruffled his hair and he punched my arm and I shoved him on the ground, then helped him up and brushed dust off his pants. We stopped at the gas station but they were out of gas and we came home with an empty gas jug. Dad was upset.
“Shouldn’t have fucking stopped in Idaho,” he said.
The next day, Dale and I went to the Fast-Mart for another beer. The door was open and the lights were on but the clerk wasn’t there. I went to the refrigerator to take some beers, and Dale was walking up and down the aisle grabbing handfuls of chips and candy.
“Let’s get out of here before he comes back,” said Dale, a pile of junk food held against his chest. I jumped over the counter to get a grocery bag for him. Dale got nervous, saying there wasn’t enough time. The clerk would be back any second. I opened the bag and made him dump everything in. He took it and ran off somewhere and I got distracted. The cash register was locked, there weren’t any cigarettes or lighters, and no porn magazines. Super lame. I opened a can of beer and chugged half of it. I noticed I couldn’t hear Dale.
“Dale?” I said, wiping my lip. No answer. I went outside and saw him face down on the ground with a red colored Pede on his back, stabbing him with its legs. I had trouble getting the SIG out of the holster before I finally released three shots. One of them hit the asphalt, one of them hit the Pede, knocking it over, and one of them hit Dale on his side, making a puff of blood. Dale wasn’t moving. His candy was spread out on the ground. The Pede limped away, oozing grey bubbling blood, and I chased it down and stomped it with the heel of my sneaker, cracking its exoskeleton open. I ran back to Dale and turned him over and I thought he was dead. I leaned in and heard his breathing.
I picked him up off the ground and carried him home. He stank because he’d shit his pants, and I could feel his piss soaking my arms.
“Jesus, Dale,” I said.
On peoples’ lawns I saw piles of amber gel, the alien excrement. They were here now, hiding.
I told Dad what happened to Dale and left out the part where I shot him. We took off Dale’s clothes. There were punctures in his back but they weren’t deep. There was also an open hole through his side, which I knew was from the bullet.
Dale was naked in the bathtub and Dad and I were cleaning his wounds when he woke up with a jump. We eased him back telling him he was fine. He looked at me in horror.
“I saved you, Buddy,” I said. He sort of looked at me as if to say, ‘you left me!’ and I said, “Yep. You’re lucky Dale. Lucky I was there. To save you.”
He shut his mouth and groaned.
Dad said, “Quit your whining. We need to get you cleaned up. Then it’s time to hit the road.”
I went downstairs and Mom was composed, standing in the kitchen with a glass of something iced and golden. She had bags under her eyes.
“He’s fine,” I said. I opened the fridge and pretended to be looking for something to eat.
“Are you packed?” She said.
I closed the fridge and shrugged with my hands.
She said, “Go upstairs, pack up your clothes, thank the Martinezes, and get in the car.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said.
“I’m not accusing you. I’m not mad. Go upstairs and get ready before I get mad.” She put her glass down. I went upstairs and got ready.
We drove north again and ran out of gas somewhere south of Calgary. Mom had us put on as many clothes as we could wear and we left the car on the side of the road and marched the cold snowy march to a town called High River. It was day fifteen. We were accommodated by a family that had already accepted several families of refugees. They said more and more people had been coming into Canada. We were lucky it was spring, they said. If it was winter we would not have survived the march. We believed it because we had icicles hanging from our noses and eyebrows. They had internet but servers were going down across the continent. Finalstand.com was gone. Telephone communications were shoddy and basically pointless. Twenty of us would huddle around the fireplace and listen to the battery-powered radio.
“Conserve water,” said the voice on the radio. “Fresh water will be delivered to your community by lottery. This week, trucks will be delivering to Millarville, Drumheller, and Olds. Limit three gallons per family.”
Some exhaled. Some cursed. The rest of us just sat there listening. After the broadcast ended there was only static, and one of the Canadians said they couldn’t believe this was real.
You can’t do much but nod at that.
Our family shared a room with the Ediker family and Dale and Mom slept next to one another on the floor while Dad and I took turns guarding the food bag. The days were slow and boring. We ate as little as possible and saved energy by doing as little as possible.
Dale would say, “Sure wish I had some candy or chips right about now.”
I’d say, “Sure wish I had some bullets right now. Oh, wait. I do.”
I’d pat the leather holster after saying that.
One day we were playing in the backyard, tossing a pinecone with one of the kids. Her name was Leiana Gibson and she was nine. She had a pretty good arm because she was in a football league. Her parents called her inside and it was just me and Dale and he said, “I know you shot me.”
“No I didn’t,” I said.
“I have the scar to prove it,” he said.
“It doesn’t prove anything,” I said. He threw the pinecone at my head. I caught it and said, “I didn’t have to shoot at all.”
“I don’t care who knows,” he said, walking away, “I’m just telling you that I know.”
I pegged him in the back with the pinecone. He fell down dramatically.
“Come on,” I said. “Don’t be such a wimp.” He was crying.
“You fuck-head,” he said, pulling his shirt up. His back was covered in scabs and bruises and he had a bandage over his bullet wound. “I hate you!”
“Come on, Dale,” I said.
He said, “You were supposed to be next to me. You left me to die and you tried to kill me!” He shook a fist at me and said something that sounded like, “I’ll stab you in your sleep!” He went inside and slammed the door.
I picked up the pinecone. He’s just going through a phase, I told myself. Crazy hormones and shit. Someday he’ll realize I’m there for him. I’m a good brother to him. He’ll get over it. He knows you care. I set the pinecone down and stomped it to pieces, then hopped the fence and rolled a joint the size of a toothpick. The last of my stash. Sitting against the wall under a tree, pointing the SIG at myself to look into the burnt darkness of the barrel and breathing in tasteless puffs of smoke, I couldn’t feel anything.
We were low on food. We had a few cans of chili, a can of beans, a can of corn, a gallon of water, a bag of dried fruits, three slices of jerky, and a partially eaten chocolate bar. All packed in a backpack. Mom said the backpack felt heavy and she dug out four boxes of 9mm ammo. She stacked it on the floor next to the food.
“It’s so heavy,” she said, “I thought: there must be plenty food left. But there’s not. There’s just—” she held up a box, “This.” Dad and I blushed. We traded the boxes for a can of food each.
Nights were long, swapping guard duty with Dad. Six hour shifts, back and forth, holding the bag against your chest like it’s the last thing you’ve got. We knew the Gibsons had stolen food from the Edikers and the Caehns. I heard the families talking about getting rid of them. Mrs. Ediker said we should take the Gibsons into the woods and kill them, because letting them get away with stealing was the same as letting them kill us. The Caehns, who lived downstairs, were on board with the idea.
At night during my food-watch shift, I could hear Mr. and Mrs. Ediker ruminating. I couldn’t make out the words but the tone, the sound of whispering hate like talking in your sleep, like un-edited recitations channeling the maniac lunacy of all dreams, dissolved whatever trust in people I’d preserved.
And I was scared.
On day twenty, Mrs. Ediker said to Mr. Gibson, “What the hell did you do with my can of beans you son of a bitch?”
Mr. Gibson said, “Ain’t seen yo can, woman. Don’t want it, neither.” Mrs. Ediker tackled Mr. Gibson and punched him in the face, asking where the damn thing was, where he’d hidden it. I moved out of the room and went upstairs. Then I heard gunshots.
We buried three bodies and treated the wounds of two, and baby Gibson cried for her dead mother’s milk and nine year old Leiana Gibson didn’t shed a tear. Then our family made the march to Calgary, spending a night curled up in the cab of an abandoned pickup truck in De Winton. It was spring but it was early spring, and that was the coldest night in my life. Mom and Dad were curled up in the front bench, but the cold kept me and Dale awake so we sat there in the back seat not looking at each other.
One time, when we were kids, we watched the movie Aliens when Mom and Dad weren’t home. It was night so we were totally freaked out, and we were like holding hands and screaming the whole time. We turned on all the lights in the house and still thought aliens would pop out of the cupboards or the walls and we sat in the middle of the floor with helmets on, armed with a plastic golf club and my nice Z-Flex skateboard.
“Dale,” I said. He ignored me so I repeated and he mouthed, “What?”
I said, “Remember the scene in Aliens where they’re locked in a room with those facehugger thingies?”
“Yeah,” he mouthed.
“I hate that scene. It still gives me nightmares.”
Dale crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
I said, “Remember when—”
Dale shushed me.
I paused and said in a lowered voice, “Goddamn aliens.” They could’ve hit the moon and died. They could’ve landed in the ocean. They could’ve missed the earth, or the solar system, but they landed here, by complete accident, and all these people scrambling like their hair was on fire. And why? It’s a cosmic whoopsie-daisy. It’s two bodies flying through the universe, going different directions at different speeds, and their paths intersect at the perfect moment, and bloop: they collide.
Dale leaned his head against the freezing window.
We walked to Calgary in the morning and it was overpopulated by refugees. We couldn’t find a house that would take us, so we squeezed into an elementary school that had become the home of hundreds. I learned what it’s like to be a rat. No water to clean yourself, no privacy to poop. Surrounded by sick people coughing and sneezing, and it’s so cold your pee turns to snowflakes before it hits the ground. Mom and Dad got sick. I saw Dale crying a couple times. Did I cry ever? I don’t think I did. I’m not a crazy, emotionless person I just tend to not cry much. Maybe because I’m the oldest. Seeing people crying makes me feel awkward; it makes me think the person needs space, and I need to leave them alone. So that’s what I usually do.
More refugees came every week. At the twenty-second day there was no room to lie down. And I opened our pack and the half-eaten chocolate bar was the only thing left. We each took a bite.
Dad said, “Looks like we’re gunna have to resort to eating these people.” It wasn’t a funny joke. Mom was too tired to chastise him.
Dale said, “We can eat this instead,” and he drew a can of beans from his bag.
Dad pulled Dale up to him and said, “You rascal!”
I was pretty shocked and when we opened the can of blood beans I hesitated for only a moment before eating my portion. He had two more where that came from.
We didn’t have to resort to cannibalism because the Canadian Red Cross came in and gave us emergency food supplies, but there wasn’t much organization in how it was distributed. We waited in line and would get less than other people, somehow. My dad yelled at the relief workers and it didn’t change anything.
On day twenty-four we got word that Texas had been nuked to hell. The military was finally doing something again: they were atomizing all the cities that had been overrun. Everyone else was instructed to stay indoors, but an unofficial broadcast on the radio said, “Don’t listen to the government. Do not wait inside your homes. Get outside, gather as many people as you can, and engage the enemy. Their numbers are thinning and you can fight them and eradicate the suckers. There is no rescue force. Your survival is up to you. If you do not retake your city, the government will destroy it. Have courage. Have faith. God speed.”
I heard Chicago and Manhattan were putting up a fight, and the battle was nearly won in Seattle and Boston. I heard that from a bearded dude who lives in the cafeteria. He wears camo pants and a Raiders jacket.
Dad got sicker and Mom got better. Mom had me ask for medicine and I was given ten pills of ibuprofen. She had me get his food. They wouldn’t let me take two portions so really what was happening was that I was giving him most of mine.
“We’ll get through this,” Mom would say, “He’s strong. You’re strong.”
You can’t do much but nod at that.
It’s been fifty-one days now. The Pedes never made it to Calgary. A month of nuking seems to have done the trick, but now America isn’t much more than a cloud of gamma rays. The U.S. government had to move its base to Montreal. Whenever there’s a southern wind the sky turns yellow.
There is no rebuilding going on. That won’t happen for a long, long time. Right now all we’re trying to do is dig around and say, ‘Hey I found something, and it’s all dinged up, but let’s keep it anyways.’ We’re trying to find what parts of us we’re going to carry on and what parts we’re going to leave behind. Dad survived. We made enough space on the ground for him to lie down and we have him wrapped in our extra coats. He’s getting better but he still shivers a lot. Mom and I have been volunteering for the Canadian Red Cross. I’ve been digging septic pits on the front grounds of the school and she’s been taking medicine around to those who really need it. All she has are painkillers and cough syrup and a limited supply of antibiotics. It doesn’t save anyone but it makes them more comfortable.
Every evening we help the relief workers go around the school to pick up the dead. Some of the dead have families who tell us that this person—their grandfather or their wife or their child—was motionless this morning, and freezing to the touch. We tell the family how sorry we are, and that it’s not their fault. Some of the dead are just lonely bodies in the corner that refugees are trying to ignore. We carry the dead to a mass grave we have going at the lacrosse field. Whatever pit the workers had dug has long since overflowed. My mom and I carried a man who looked to be about Dad’s age. He had a cold blank stare and we closed his eyes. His coat and shoes had been removed by his family, a wife and three kids huddling together crying. I held him by his pale, hard ankles. The refugees parted as we carried him down the hall and out to the back grounds of the school. We placed him as nicely as we could on the grave.
Mom went back to look for more and I stayed to take a moment for myself there. I looked at this body and how it fit into the pile of all the other bodies, and became unrecognizable, part of a big single thing. And I thought about Dale, how he’s going to have to grow up in this place. So am I. This is home now. I feel bad for shooting him. I’m sorry I didn’t watch him more closely. I feel like an idiot but I’m glad he’s here and every time I think about that red Pede on his back, trying to kill him, I get angry. I never wanted to kill something so bad. I was scared I was going to lose my little brother. I’ll kill anything that tries to hurt him. It doesn’t matter who or what it is. I hope he’d do the same for me. The sun was down but there was light enough to make out these sickly shapes. With the rising temperatures the pile of frozen bodies would soon melt and stink and rot. I took out my SIG and felt its weight for the last time, and I tossed it onto the giant pile. I undid the holster and threw it up there, too.
There’s a girl my age who lives in the east hallway with her mom. She has dark hair and a smooth, dirt-caked face. She caught me looking at her and we just stared tiredly at one another. It felt like I stood there for ten minutes, looking her in the eye and feeling no embarrassment, with no intention of introducing myself. She smiled and I walked away, and I think about what she looks like under her down parka. Is her hair clumpy like mine? Is her body skeletal like mine? Sometimes I fantasize about her realistically, and sometimes I picture her full bodied and clean, like a Victoria’s Secret model. I wonder where she’s from and how far she’s travelled. I wonder if she thinks about me.
Dale has been doing his best to take care of Dad. He brings water and food and has snatched him a blanket; we don’t ask where he snatched it from. He tells Dad popsicle stick jokes like, “What kind of band plays snappy music?”
Dad says, “I don’t know.”
“A rubber band,” says Dale.
Dad will start coughing and smile.
At night we sleep in the north hallway, second floor of the school. All the refugees are quiet and shivering. People make small fires from sticks and magazines in their buckets or ceramic tubs, which provide some heat and light. Dale, Mom, and I sit with our legs tucked against our bodies with our backs against the wall and Dad at our feet. Dad and Dale are usually fast asleep, and Mom and I will listen to the radio echoing in the hall. The Canadian government broadcasts updates on American cities laid waste, and tells wanderers to gather in the remaining cities to seek shelter.
Mom has always been a quiet person, but she seems to talk less now. Even though Dad is getting better she worries about him. I’m sure she worries about other things, too. So I put my arm around her, rub her shoulder, and tell her what she wants to hear.
“The worst has passed,” I tell her. “We can rest now.”