Civilization exists by
geological consent, subject to
change without notice.
I was home alone on that Friday evening. Those who survived know exactly which Friday I mean. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, in the same way my parents remembered 9/11, but more so. Together we lost the old world, slipping from that cocoon of mechanized comfort into the hellish land we inhabit now. The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones, and refrigerators dissolved into this post-Friday world of ash, darkness, and hunger.
But that Friday was pretty normal at first. I argued with Mom again after school. That was normal, too; we fought constantly. The topics were legion: my poor study habits, my video games, my underwear on the bathroom floor—whatever. I remember a lot of those arguments. That Friday they only fueled my rage. Now they’re little jewels of memory I hoard, hard and sharp under my skin. Now I’d sell my right arm to a cannibal to argue with Mom again.
Our last argument was over Warren, Illinois. My uncle and his family lived there, on a tiny farm near Apple River Canyon State Park. Mom had decided we’d visit their farm that weekend. When she announced this malodorous plan, over dinner on Wednesday, my bratty little sister, Rebecca, almost bounced out of her chair in delight. Dad responded with his usual benign lack of interest, mumbling something like, “Sounds nice, honey.” I said I would not be going, sparking an argument that continued right up until they left without me on that Friday afternoon.
The last thing Mom said to me was, “Alex, why do you have to fight me on absolutely everything?” She looked worn and tired standing beside the minivan door, but then she smiled a little and held out her arms like she wanted a hug. If I’d known I might never get to argue with her again, maybe I would have replied. Maybe I would have hugged her instead of turning away.
Cedar Falls, Iowa, wasn’t much, but it might as well have been New York City compared to Warren. Besides, I had my computer, my bike, and my friends in Cedar Falls. My uncle’s farm just had goats. Stinky goats. The males smell as bad as anything short of a skunk, and I’ll take skunk at a distance over goat up close any day.
So I was happy to wave goodbye to Mom, Dad, and the brat, but a bit surprised I’d won the argument. I’d been home alone before—I was almost sixteen, after all. But a whole weekend, that was new. It was a little disappointing to be left without some kind of warning, an admonition against wild parties and booze. Mom knew my social life too well, I guess. A couple of geeks and a board game I might manage; a great party with hot girls and beer would have been beyond me, sadly.
After I watched my family drive off, I went upstairs. The afternoon sun blazed through my bedroom window, so I yanked the curtains shut. Aside from the bed and dresser, my bedroom held a huge maple bookcase and desk that my dad had built a few years ago. I didn’t have a television, which was another subject Mom and I fought about, but at least I had a good computer. The bookcase was filled with computer games, history books, and sci-fi novels in about equal proportions. Odd reading choices maybe, but I just thought of it as past and future history.
I’d decorated my floor with dirty clothes and my walls with posters, but only one thing in the room really mattered to me. In a wood-and-glass case above my desk, I displayed all my taekwondo belts: a rainbow of ten of them starting with white, yellow, and orange and ending in brown, red, and black. I’d been taking classes off and on since I was five. I didn’t work at it until sixth grade, which I remember as the year of the bully. I’m not sure if it was my growth spurt, which stopped at a depressingly average size, or finally getting serious about martial arts, but nobody hassles me anymore. I suppose by now those belts are burnt or buried in ash—most likely both.
Anyway, I turned on my computer and stared at the cover of my trigonometry textbook while I waited for the computer to boot up. I used to think that teachers who gave homework on weekends should be forced to grade papers for an eternity in hell. Now that I have a sense of what hell might be like, I don’t think grading papers forever would be that bad. As soon as Windows started, I pushed the trig book aside and loaded up World of Warcraft. I figured there’d be enough time to do my homework Sunday night.
None of my friends were online, so I flew my character to the Storm Peaks to work on daily quests and farm some gold. WoW used to hold my interest the way little else could. The daily quests were just challenging enough to keep my mind occupied, despite the fact that I’d done them dozens of times. Even gold farming, by far the most boring activity, brought the satisfaction of earning coin, making my character more powerful, achieving something. Every now and then I had to remind myself that it was all only ones and zeros in a computer in Los Angeles, or I might have gotten truly addicted. I wonder if anyone will ever play World of Warcraft again.
Three hours later and over 1,000 gold richer, I got the first hint that this would not be a normal Friday evening. There was a rumble, almost too low to hear, and the house shook a little. An earthquake, maybe, although we never have earthquakes in Iowa.
The power went out. I stood to open the curtains. I thought there might be enough light to read by, at least for a while.
Then it happened.
I heard a cracking noise, like the sound the hackberry tree in our backyard had made when Dad cut it down last year, but louder: a forest of hackberries, breaking together. The floor tilted, and I fell across the suddenly angled room, arms and legs flailing. I screamed but couldn’t hear myself over the noise: a boom and then a whistling sound—incoming artillery from a war movie, but played in reverse. My back hit the wall on the far side of the room, and the desk slid across the floor toward me. I wrapped myself into a ball, hands over the back of my neck, praying my desk wouldn’t crush me. It rolled, painfully clipped my right shoulder, and came to rest above me, forming a small triangular space between the floor and wall. I heard another crash, and everything shook violently for a second.
I’d seen those stupid movies where the hero gets tossed around like a rag doll and then springs up, unhurt and ready to fight off the bad guys. If I were the star in one of those, I suppose I would have jumped up, thrown the desk aside, and leapt to battle whatever malevolent god had struck my house. I hate to disappoint, but I just lay there, curled in a ball, shaking in pure terror. It was too dark under the desk to see anything beyond my quivering knees. Nor could I hear—the noise of those few violent seconds had left my ears ringing loudly enough to drown out a marching band if one had been passing by. Plaster dust choked the air, and I fought back a sneeze.
I lay in that triangular cave for a minute, maybe longer. My body mostly quit shaking, and the ringing in my ears began to fade. I poked my right shoulder gingerly; it felt swollen, and touching it hurt. I could move the arm a little, so I figured it wasn’t broken. I might have lain there longer checking my injuries, but I smelled something burning.
That whiff of smoke was enough to transform my sit-here-trembling terror into get-the-hell-out-of-here terror. There was enough room under the desk to unball myself, but I couldn’t stretch out. Ahead I felt a few hollow spaces amidst a pile of loose books. I’d landed wedged against my bookcase. I shoved it experimentally with my good arm—it wasn’t going anywhere.
The burning smell intensified. I slapped my left hand against the desk above me and pushed upward. I’d moved that heavy desk around by myself before, no problem. But now, when I really needed to move it, nothing . . . it wouldn’t shift even a fraction of an inch.
That left trying to escape in the direction my feet pointed. But I couldn’t straighten my legs—they bumped against something just past the edge of the desk. I planted my feet on the obstacle and pushed. It shifted a little. Encouraged, I stretched my good arm through the shelves, placing my hand against the back of the bookcase. And snatched it away in shock—the wall behind the bookcase was warm. Not hot enough to burn, but warm enough to give me an ugly mental picture of my fate if I couldn’t escape—and soon.
I hadn’t felt particularly claustrophobic at first. The violence of being thrown across the room left no time to feel anything but scared. Now, with the air heating up, terror rose from my gut. Trapped. Burned alive. Imagining my future got me hyperventilating. I inhaled a lungful of dust and choked, coughing.
Calm down, Alex, I told myself. I took two quick breaths in through my nose and puffed them out through my mouth—recovery breathing, like I’d use after a hard round of sparring in taekwondo. I could do this.
I slammed my hand back against the wall, locked my elbow, and shoved with my feet—hard. The obstacle shifted slightly. I bellowed and bore down on it, trying to snap my knees straight. There’s a reason martial artists yell when we break boards—it makes us stronger. Something gave then; I felt it shift and heard the loud thunk of wood striking wood. Debris fell on my ankles—maybe chunks of plaster and insulation from the ceiling. A little kicking freed my legs, stirring up more dry, itchy dust.
I forced my way backward into the new hole. There were twelve, maybe sixteen inches of space before I hit something solid again. The air was getting hotter. Sweat trickled sideways off my face. I couldn’t dislodge the blockage, so I bent at the waist, contorting my body around the desk into an L shape.
I kept shoving my body backward into the gap between a fallen ceiling joist and my desk, pushing myself upward along the tilted floor. A lurid orange light flickered down into the new space. When I’d wormed my way fully alongside the joist, I jammed my head and shoulders up through the broken ceiling into what used to be the unfinished attic above my room.
A wall of heat slammed into me, like opening the oven with my face too close. Long tendrils of flame licked into the attic above my sister’s collapsed bedroom, cat tongues washing the rafters and underside of the roof decking with fire. Smoke billowed up and pooled under the peak of the roof. The front part of the attic had collapsed, joists leaning downward at crazy angles. What little I could see of the back of the attic looked okay. An almost perfectly round hole had been punched in the roof above my sister’s bedroom. I glimpsed a coin of deep blue sky through the flames eating at the edges of the hole.
I dragged myself up the steeply angled joists, trying to reach the back of the attic. My palms were slippery with sweat, and my right shoulder screamed in pain. But I got it done, crawling upward with the heat at my back urging me on.
The rear of the attic looked normal—aside from the thick smoke and dust. I crawled across the joists, pushing through the loose insulation to reach the boxes of holiday decorations my mother had stored next to the pull-down staircase.
I struggled to open the staircase—it was meant to be pulled open with a cord from the hallway below. I crawled onto it to see if my weight would force it down. The springs resisted at first, but then the hatch picked up speed and popped open with a bang. It was all I could do to hold on and avoid tumbling into the hallway below. It bruised my knees pretty good, too. I flipped the folded segments of the stair open so I could step down to the second floor.
Keeping my head low to avoid the worst of the smoke, I scuttled down the hallway to the staircase. This part of the house seemed undamaged. When I reached the first floor, I heard banging and shouting from the backyard. I ran to the back door and glanced through the window. Our neighbor from across the street, Darren, was outside. I twisted the lock and threw the door open.
“Thank God,” Darren said. “Are you okay, Alex?”
I took a few steps into the yard and stood with my hands on my knees, gulping the fresh air. It tasted sweet after the smoke-drenched dust I’d been breathing.
“You look like three-day-old dog crap. You okay?” Darren repeated.
I looked down at myself. Three-day-old dog crap was way too kind. Sweat had drenched my T-shirt and jeans, mixing with plaster dust, insulation, and smoke to form a vile gray-white sludge that coated my body. Somewhere along the way, I’d cut my palm without even feeling it. A smear of blood stained the knee of my jeans where my hand had just rested.