November 14, 2013
I don’t feel much like writing today. This is the second time I’ve done this, and each word is like a stubborn blockage in my head. I have to squeeze them out like the last dab of toothpaste in the tube. Mom said that if I started a memoir--for the folks that are still around twenty years from now (if there any are left)-–it would be noble gig, a kind of public service. “You got that gift, Al,” she said too loud because her hearing was shot. “Use it, or lose it.” Instead, I lost her. A beam fell from the ceiling and crushed her skull where she stood, leaving me with the last chore I’ll ever have to do, and no parents to pronounce a job well done.
I missed her, so I finally took up a pen and did as she asked. Words fell like tears out of my head as I told about a day six months ago when the world just shattered, blown to pieces in front of my very eyes. Now I see pillars of twisted metal and crushed stone where the business district once stood. All the historic structures have been crushed to shit. The columns of Faneuil Hall rise up to meet nothing but empty air. The roof, along with the whole west side of the building, has been swept away like it never existed. A ragged piece of the east wall still stands though, and on sunny mornings you can watch the sun rise over the jigsaw brick. It shimmers through the lone arched window facing the bay; that’s about as close as we get to art in Boston now.
Thousands of our dead lay entombed at the bottom of the buildings, hardening like spilled jam as the November cold fingers its way through the rock. I filled an entire spiral notebook in less than two weeks, writing about all of it, and then left the damn thing on a shelf at Stamrick’s Gas & Go while I poked around the dry goods. The friggin place collapsed. I made it out alive, barely, but my notebook wasn’t so lucky.
So here we go again:
My name is Alan Chinlook. I’m twenty years old. My friends call me “Al the Pal,” or they did. Now I may as well be “Al the Scavenger.” I spend most of my time hunting for food and a sturdy shelter for me and my sister, Abby. She’s three years younger than me, and sassy as they come. She spends most of her time painting at the Common. She sets down a chair and a stretch wherever she can find some clear space, and puts oil to the canvas. Landscapes are her thing-–but instead of cute panoramic views of mountains and fields and streams, she paints dead, fallen skyscrapers. Charred, burned out piles of broken concrete roll into the picture like waves in mid-break. And there are bodies too. Ravens peck away at them every morning when the frost burns off. On canvas they look like giant black snowflakes.
Her paintings are gross, but at least she spared you one detail: the black dried gobs of blood in their ears. I look at those people and think, That would’ve been me, if it weren’t for Abby.
The first time it happened was the last week in June, five months ago. Our family was driving back from a vacation in Nantucket. I could still feel sand between my toes from our last outing at Sconset Beach, where I’d spent the morning hitting on a chick at the concession stand. Instead of her number, I left with a cardboard basket full of balled up napkins and a few stale fries the gulls couldn’t get at. That was okay, we had a great vacation. My dad and I had it out a couple of times-–he was divided over paying for his son’s education when all I’d managed to produce for him last semester was a 1.7-–but we spent the last day riding our bikes down the boardwalk, snickering at the frumpy middle aged men who thought the island wanted to see their bean tight Speedos. It’s funny. My last cherished memory is of my dad and me laughing at the grotesque, sparsely covered old nutsacks of Nantucket Sound.
We were halfway to Boston when my sister started complaining about a headache. It’s not like her to complain, so it really must’ve been a skull fucker. She was crying softly and staring out the window, wincing, like she expected one of the billboards to reach in and smack her as we passed. Our younger brother, Timmy, was snoring in the seat behind us. He was ten years old, with about an hour or so left to live.
“Ah what the damn,” my father grunted, slowing us to a stop. A highway paved with red taillights lay straight ahead. None of them were moving.
“What’s that sound?” my sister asked. Her face looked stricken, almost panicky. I was annoyed. “Can you shut up?” I said. I was still thinking about the girl at the beach, still staring at the box of stale fries, wondering why I was too much of a wimp to ask for her number. She lived in Needham in the off season, for God sakes. Twenty minutes from our driveway!
“What is it, sweetheart?” Mom asked her. “Your head still bothering you?” Abby gripped the sides of her head and bent over her lap, saying nothing. I crushed the cardboard box from the concession stand with my sneaker.
“I have to use the ladies room,” my mother announced as she fussed in her purse, looking for an aspirin for my sister.
My dad raked his fingers through his thick, wavy hair and put on his blinker, heading for the next exit. It was four-thirty. He was hoping to get home in time to fix the leaky showerhead in the downstairs bathroom before dinner. All about the schedule was my old pop. To him, life was more of a to-do list than a gift.
“What,” my sister asked again, this time into her lap, “is that sound?”
“What sound?” Dad asked. We exchanged a look in the rearview mirror and I shrugged. I couldn’t hear anything but the thump of tires over the dividers in the road.
We turned onto Route 18, and traffic eased up. My dad found a rest area near Randolph, still far enough from home that my mom couldn’t wait to pee, but close enough to see the city skyline. We got out and stretched. Mom and Dad went to the can. I placed my hands on my lower back and pushed, enjoying the meaty crunch of my spine correcting itself. A soft roll of thunder touched the sky, strange to hear on cloudless day like that one.
My sister was still in the car with her hands clamped over her ears. I rapped on the window. “Want a Coke?” I asked. I was feeling kind of bad now-–this was not my happy-go-lucky sister at all. She shook her head without looking up.
“Suitcherself,” I shrugged, and took a walk. The sun was out, skimming over a pond to the left of the visitor’s center. A bushy green and yellow willow groped its own reflection over the water. A family of ducks, gray with white ringed necks, bobbed in casual circles and nipped at each other’s backs. I fed a dollar into the Coke machine, a can banged out, and I took a big chug, enjoying the burn in my throat. I fired a hearty belch at the sunny sky, where the strange thunder again rippled away like rings in a pond. I started back for the car, and stopped halfway. Abby was on the sidewalk. She was staring at the sky, eyes growing wider and wider.
“Al,” she said in a dreamlike voice. “You need to get in the water.”
Something in that look on her face made me drop my drink.
November 18, 2013
My iPod died today. I was listening to Prison Riot a few minutes ago, got up to boil some water, and when I came back it was dead. Just like everything and everyone else-–one minute it works, the next it’s gone forever.
I cried. I don’t mind saying so. When you go days, sometimes weeks, without any human contact (except my sister), a portable mp3 player is a tough thing to let go of. To tell the truth, I miss home electronics more than people most of the time. I have nothing to look forward to, nothing to enjoy, and today has been especially hard because we did have a visitor. Not the kind you’d ever want.
He was in his mid-thirties, tall, blonde, and friendly with a soundproof helmet tucked under his arm (these days everyone carries one, if they expect to live). He tried to pass himself off as a wanderer, looking for a place to eat, but I could tell he was a pug. This is the nickname Abby and I gave to them, those Army fucks and our back stabbing neighbors who help them look for us.
He asked for food, but there was no hunger in this man except in his gaze. It said: I’m so curious about the girl everyone talks about. You know, the one who can hear the Scream coming? Where is she right now, exactly?
“Please,” he said and stepped forward. “May I come in?” I kicked him in the balls and ran, barely getting into the rubble tunnel before I heard shots from his service pistol. The bullets zipped off the rocks at my side, the closest one stinging my cheek with powder. It could’ve been an unlucky shot, for I knew they wanted me alive; they needed me to get to her. My sister was an unwilling legend in the new world, more precious than any metal, any treasure. She was off by herself, probably in the park, but if she wasn’t there I would leave a signal that it wasn’t safe to come home, which, for the last two weeks, had been a warehouse on Brighton. We are used to living on the run. Even before the pugs started sniffing around we were constantly relocating due to collapse. One house falls, another one stands, right? Soon we gave up on houses and sought out metallic structures instead, big buggers with steel girders and high ceilings. They are only a little better at staying on their feet after the Screams hit, but you’re less likely to get killed as they come apart. Wood structures are a kiss from the bony hooded man, if you take my meaning. We stopped using them all together after Mom died. We thought about leaving the city, of course. Get out and find a place where the forecast was mute, but it was hopeless. Drifters shuffled in and out of town every day and left a trail of despair wherever their shoes fell. They said the country, maybe even the world, was a catcher’s mitt now. So we stayed. Stayed and lived.
I found Abby in an alley. Her arm cradled a fine collection of skirts, jeans, and blouses, a perfectly normal teenage girl shopping for clothes in the smashed remains of the mall. Her dirty sandals picked their way around the broken rocks and glass.
“Stupid!” I shouted. “You trying to get yourself killed?”
That look of girlish contentment on her face vanished, in its place the same sullen despair I’d been staring at for months. “I need some new clothes,” she said.
“More than you need a ninety ton building in your lap?”
Her lips drew together in a defiant pout. “I was being careful. Don’t tell me what to do.”
I reached over and grabbed her arm. She squealed in surprise, which added some satisfaction to my rotten mood.
“I will,” I snarled, “I will tell you what to do. When Mom and Dad died, you became my responsibility, but I shouldn’t have to watch you like a damned three year old. You know these buildings are not safe, you’ve seen people die in them, and here you are, bopping along with another wagon load of crap that will just slow us down. We had another visitor today-–a pug almost nailed my ass. So guess what, kiddo? We have to move again. Put the clothes down and let’s go.”
“What?” I said, turning back to her.
“I said no. I’m not done shopping.”
“Abby…” I said, clinging to patience. “It’s not safe.”
“Nothing is safe! Ever!” she screamed. “I’m not going back, and I’m not moving! Consider yourself free of your responsibilities. I’m done!”
I grabbed at her arm again. “Come with me. Now.”
Before I could stop myself I slapped her, hard, bringing her down to one knee. Horrified, I stooped over to see if she was okay. She gripped the sides of her head, moaning helplessly, the kind of moan that a slap in the face doesn’t bring on. I knew that sound. I looked up, noticing for the first time that we were standing in a narrow strip between two six story buildings. “Oh God!” I shouted. “Abby, RUN!”
I sprinted halfway to the open street, mindless of the rubble which could turn my ankle at any moment. In my mind I saw it happening, a sprain hobbling me just before the Scream came down and squashed my head like a rotten berry, then I heard her laughing behind me. It was a bitter, bitchy laugh, the sort of laughter girls only learn by tormenting each other in study hall.
I stared back at her, wondering what happened to my little sister, the one who loved Beanie Babies and drew huge hearts on construction paper when my birthday came around.
“Y-you faked it?” I asked. My hands were trembling. I think they might’ve gone for her throat if she were an arm’s length away. Her gloating smile beamed back at me.
“Fine,” I said. “Go through every one of these buildings until one of them falls on your stupid, empty head. And if that doesn’t happen, some strange guy will carry you off. You can spend the rest of your life in a cage, painting pictures of the lab they lock you up in.”
“I HATE YOU!” she shouted with a burst of anger that made me take a step back, then I was turning and walking away. I heard the jangle of plastic clothes hangers as she hefted her load and stomped off the other way.
Fucking dumb kid. That’s all she is.
Six hours later now, and the anger is gone. Now all I feel is sadness and worry. Dusk is falling, cold and deep like it does after the pumpkins have rotted to mush on the city stoops.
I set up camp at the T in Haymarket Square. I have to hand it to the homeless guys-–it’s not a bad place to sack out. The tunnel gets you out of the wind and rain, and tonight, I’ve even got a little fire going in a trash drum. I set it beside the yellow stripe that runs along the edge of the walkway, the one that reads: DANGER. DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE.
I took out a black Sharpie and wrote my own adage: DUDE, TRASH FIRES ARE COOL.
I replaced the cap and opened a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. I have pots and pans, but tonight I’ll eat it cold. I’m so worried about Abby. Tomorrow I’ll hunt her down and that’ll be it-–no more fighting. I’ll never hit her again as long as I live. Just keep her safe tonight. That one favor, God, it’s all I ask.
I realize how sweet and noble I must sound-–going on about how worried I am about my sister-–but there’s also a big stinking chunk of self interest sitting with me right now. Abby has saved my life again and again, and I’ve come to depend on her more than I’d like to admit. If another streaking asteroid of Scream was coming right now, I wouldn’t hear it until it was too late.
While I am thinking of it, let me tell you the rest of the story about Day One. The light is still good, my pen has plenty of ink, and I’ve got a cold can of beef stew to eat. Does life get any better?
“You need to get in the water,” she had said. Her eyes were wide, her voice hypnotic. I remember dropping my Coke can-–it splashed up on my bare leg, cold and fizzy-–and wondering what the hell was going on. The entire cityscape seemed flat, frozen in time, a painting of something that never existed. I felt like I could reach over and peel it off; behind it dinosaurs would be munching plants under a gloaming sky. I remember that most of all, the weird sense that nothing was real, except me, Abby, and that pond right next to us, with the family of little ducks quacking away and the ripples spreading around their fat little bellies.
Abby’s eyes shifted to the pond, then to me. Her hands were clamped knuckle white on her ears. Her face was twisted with agony. “AL, GET IN THE WATER!”
I started to run. My sneakers left the pavement and hit the softness of the lawn. It was freshly mowed, smelling of mushrooms. I squashed a pile of dogshit as I looked over my shoulder and saw Abby behind me, running with her hands on her head. My parents walked out of the visitor’s center. They stopped midway to the car, staring at the two of us.
I could hear it coming now, and I’ve never felt anything as painful before or since. Imagine standing at one end of a narrow pipe with your ear pressed against it; at the other end, a deafening roar like that of a jet engine comes tearing at you. It doesn’t feel like an engine, though; it’s more like an entire planet screaming in anger and terror, amplified to a volume that could fill the universe, and then hurling down from the sky like a sonic meteor. Just hearing it coming can drive you to madness. I’ve seen some people shoot themselves in the head at just the mere hint of a Scream coming--it is that powerful.
My mother clapped her hands over her ears. Her purse landed on its side. Lipstick, tissues, and a pack of gum spilled out. My father drove two long fingers straight into his ears.
I called out to them, and Abby gave me a hard shove from behind. Ducks scattered in a blizzard of gray, orange, and black, and then we were in the water.
November 22, 2013
It’s a beautiful day. If you can lift your eyes over the horizon, where all the craggy pieces of a bygone age lay in unstable piles, it actually feels like you are in a place of beauty, where the mid-morning sun lifts the frozen grass and geese arrow through the sky. Business as usual up there, I smiled. Good for them.
We left Boston on foot last Sunday, and had the incredible fortune of finding some unbroken road near Foxboro. I jacked a car-–totally amazed to find one that still works-–and put my swollen feet to the accelerator for the first time in six months. Abby was so excited she jumped up and down, clapping her hands like a wind-up monkey. It made me laugh out loud, seeing her so happy-–it was like catching a whiff of the family we once were, when happy moments were as plentiful as solid pavement, easy and fun and readily available around every corner. We cruised the interstate for as long as we could with the radio turned up. It blared only static but we didn’t care. We laughed and rocked our heads to a beat we could not hear. It made me miss my iPod a little, but even that seemed funny. Losing that stupid gadget was like losing a pet, or so it seemed last week. I flicked it out the window, and went on just feeling good.
I had found Abby a couple days after our fight, and even though we didn’t talk much, she came with me without a fuss. I apologized for hitting her, and she shrugged. Something else was on her mind. Later that night, as we hunkered down on top of a train box car, toasting our feet by a fire and watching our breath steam the stars, we talked. I had just served us both a plate of pinto beans and brown rice. The retreating sun shimmered on the steel piled in the rail yard. I was studying the eyeholes of my boots, chewing in silence when she spoke up.
“I’m tired of running,” she said. I swallowed and said, “Okay.”
“You’re a good brother, Al. You take good care of me. I just don’t want to do this anymore. We keep running away from people and buildings and we never have a place to run to, you know what I mean?”
I nodded. I knew exactly what she meant.
She put her plate down and pulled her winter cap down over her ears, her precious ears that, for no reason at all, know when another sonic tsunami is on its way down to bowl over more buildings, more trees, more life. “Maybe the pugs are meant to find me,” she said. “Maybe they can find out why I’m different. There must be something wrong with me.”
I put my plate down and laced my fingers behind my head. “The way I figure, God wants you to live. I can’t see what’s wrong about that.”
“I’m the only one who can hear it, Al. Why me?”
“Why should any of this have happened at all?” I said, then quickly added, “I’m not being a jerk, Abbs. All I’m saying is that there’s no use in looking for sense in this. This is life now, and we have to find our own answers. Just accept that it’ll never be enough.”
We sat in silence for a while, then she said, “I want to go to them.”
She didn’t answer.
“The pugs?? Abby,” I said, calmly, “why would you want to do that?”
“Because we won’t last the winter like this. You know it too. The Screams are coming, sometimes twice a week now. Soon there’s going to be nothing left of the city. You’ve seen the signs and flyers around town. They are the only ones who have a plan for civilization.”
I had seen them. They were impossible to miss -– big red, white, and blue diamond shaped signs, bolted all over town to anything that would hold them. In red text, they shouted: ATTENTION SURVIVORS. THE U.S. ARMY HAS PROVIDED A SOUND-PROOF CITY-STATION IN CHEPACHET, RHODE ISLAND. STABLE SHELTER, FOOD, A NEW CHANCE AT LIFE. ALL ARE WELCOME. FOLLOW RT. 2, SOUTH OF WOONSOCKET.
“Civilized? Abby, they shoot at me whenever they see me.”
“And they will get you, eventually.” She sat up. Orange flames from the fire licked at her shadow streaked face. “They’re scared, just like we are. I just think we should try something different for a while. See where it leads.”
I cursed under my breath, fogging the cold air with slow profanity. She reached over and touched my boot with her mittened hand. Even through the wool and leather, I could feel the heat riding her skin. My sister, a defiant little coal sitting in a world full of dead embers. “Do this with me,” she said. “Please.”
I sighed. She smiled. We left the next day.
November 24, 2013
We were in the water. I had no sense of actually being in it-–no sensation of water on skin, no green-black murkiness in my eyes-–nothing except a disorienting feeling of weightlessness and that awful sound erupting in my head. Even under the water with my hands clamped on my ears, I could hear the Scream coming like I was riding it all the way down. I started to scream myself, a bubbly voiceless squeak, as I tried to fight the agony tearing my head in half. That’s when it hit.
I was weightless again, only this time I was in the air. The impact lifted the pond on its side, like a bowl standing on its rim, elevating me to a fantastic view of the wanton destruction that followed.
In two seconds of hanging in the air, I saw it all.
The tops of the skyscrapers exploded, leaving atomic gray clouds to droop over them like a hazy memory. The entire city buckled and shook itself to pieces. A bridge folded in half and the road we drove in on cracked like alligator skin. A wide and snarling gash shot through the center lane, snaking up to our car just as a giant invisible fist flattened the roof, crushing my brother Timmy inside. The last thing I saw, just before gravity pulled me down to the bank, was my parents flying backwards through the air; that, and the contents of my mother’s purse scattering across the yard.
I laid there for a long while, half conscious and fighting to regain my breath. It came back, little sips at first, then enough to allow me to sit up. My head rang painlessly-–pain was for later-–at that moment it was just merciful shock, and it stoned me pretty good. I staggered drunkenly over to the grove. The birches were a holocaust of jagged stumps and smashed timber, landscaping like I’d seen in pictures of the Ardennes in WII Belgium. Abby was on her back, staring at the sky with unblinking eyes. Slowly, she removed her hands from her ears.
I stood her up and looked around. The city was obscured by a curtain of white dust, rising up and up, reaching out and out. The sun reached through in bright spokes, turning everything a hazy dimensionless white. It was like standing in a cloud.
Abby’s lips moved, but I could not hear her through the ringing in my ears. “Is this heaven?”
Several minutes later, the dust fog broke around a doglike figure crawling toward us.
“Mom?” Abby said.
November 28, 2013. Thanksgiving Day.
“It looks nice,” Abby said hopefully. “Don’t you think so?”
We stood on top of a hill, looking down at the valley where acres of dry grass drew itself around a massive fenced in complex. White dome shaped buildings rose up like bubbles from the inside. All around them tiny vehicles, driven by men and women with sound proof helmets, moved in slow, purposeful determination. A large courtyard ran across the eastern wing, where a game of touch football consumed the residents. Muted laughter and clapping came up the hill, and Abby smiled. It wasn’t like curling up on the couch to watch the NFL while the smell of turkey and stuffing wraps around you, but it was something anyway.
Beside us a red, white, and blue star shaped sign read: WELCOME TO FORT CHEPACHET, A SAFE AND FREE INSTALLATION FOR CIVILIANS AND ARMED SERVICES PERSONNEL. PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT. COME VISIT!
“It’s something,” I said, not liking the fenced in look of it. If it was a free city, why did they need bales of barbed wire curling around the perimeter? “It looks like a friggin detention camp.”
She touched my arm, warming me with a smile. “We’ll be okay, Al, even if they’re…you know…not nice.”
“How?” I asked.
She pointed at the dome shaped buildings. “At some point, they’re going to depend on me to warn them when the Screams are coming. Maybe, if things get sketchy, I’ll just not tell them. Maybe, it’ll be time for us all to…move on. Together.”
I thought this over for a minute. “You think you can do that? Can you keep the pain inside long enough?”
“You do it, every day.”
I felt the touch of her hand on mine, and I closed my eyes. Then her arms were around me and I bawled like a baby on her shoulder. Everything came out of me-–Mom, Dad, Timmy, our house, my iPod-–I choked it all up, soaking her flannel vest with my tears. She just held my head and let me cry, until finally I pulled myself together.
“What are the odds they’ll have mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce tonight?” I asked, sniffing and wiping my nose on my sleeve.
She reached into her inside pocket and handed me a tissue. She eyes were bright blue jewels in the afternoon sun. “If not, there’s always canned stew.”
I feigned a barfing fit, and we laughed. “Give me one last minute, okay?”
She nodded and I walked off to a nook on the hill, looking for a nice place to sit and write this last bit. I shook off my pack and took out a square metal box and a garden trowel, the two things I’ve carried around for this very moment, my friend, the day I bury my thoughts for you to find. We’re about to head down to meet those helmeted thugs. I have a feeling that we won’t last long, but that doesn’t worry me. Looking over at my sister’s face, I can tell it doesn’t worry her either. We are together, now and forever. In a moment we’ll join hands, walk down that hill, and tell them who we are. What happens next will be up to them.
I just heard a distant rumble worm its way across the sky. Maybe a twitch of thunder caught in a confused split between the seasons. Maybe.
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