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We Are the 21st Century Gods
Flashforward – I’m seventy-two years old, sitting by a fire in a mid-sized home worth four-hundred-seventy-three-thousand dollars. I paid all my mortgages long ago. I gently stroke a fat gray tabby cat in my lap. He purrs.
My wife sits across from me in that stiff way old women do, reading a book, an unimportant book, probably one of the classics. When I look she doesn’t respond, pushes her glasses higher onto her nose, coughs gracefully behind a tiny hand. She hasn’t touched me my * in ten years, but she is still beautiful and I still love her. Pictures of all our grandchildren line our wall like trophies. Their smiles are our crescent moons and their eyes are our suns because we are old and the world has nothing left to offer us. We are happy.
I rub my thick stomach and yawn. When I stand I need to brace myself against the sturdy wooden arm pieces and involuntarily groan. The cat leaps from my lap as I stand, not at all disturbed to be so abruptly shaken from his slumber as he has long ago become comfortable with his master’s behaviors and actions.
I walk past my wife at a slow and tired shuffle, lips pursed and quiet. She hasn’t spoken to me in five years, but she is still beautiful and I still love her. The simple act of moving was painful. The bones in my knees are scarred from my youth, scraped dry from each jump and step I’ve ever taken. My feet are swollen and my ankles are thin. I’m prone to spontaneous shivers. I can’t hear out of my left ear. Most times I feel like I am made of paper mache.
But I am happy.
I am happy because I am old and I lived a full and satisfying life.
I am happy because I survived.
When I lie in bed this night I close my eyes and I do not worry whether or not they will open in the morning. I am old, and someday my heart will give out, or the cells in my body will turn against each other and wage war, or disease will shake my bones just a bit too hard. But not tonight. Tonight I will sleep and tomorrow I will wake up.
No, not tonight.
They moved in a pack of seven; huge, disfigured shapes marching stiff and worried across the ashen world. They held guns in their thick and rubber fingers, cocked and pressed firmly against their chests like children holding teddy bears. They breathed like monsters, heavy and labored, from toothless, round mouths. Each shape would take a step and every step of every shape left a large and heavy print of a man’s boot in the ash.
The world was ash.
It piled four inches high in some places, covered every surface, every object that still existed. The men came from the ashes, covered with blackened soot and debris that still lingered in the air. The sky was ash blocking out the sun, save for the dull light that rose every day and covered the earth in a sick and dying hue. Jostled by wind, the ash would pick up in the breeze, swirling into mini tornados and slipping across the flattened landscape. Nothing else moved. The men crunched through the ash, took heavy, monstrous breathes. Nothing else sounded.
The world was ash.
With their huge and empty bug eyes, the men swept empty landscapes, partially dreading and partially pleading for something to rise from the ashes. Two would always look ahead, one behind, two to the right, two to the left, a giant entity with fourteen different eyes. They looked out at the world like a god.
Sometimes, the men would stop. One would stoop down to touch the earth, take the soot between his thick and rubber fingers, allow it to slide between the cracks. Sometimes, larger chunks of debris would get lodged into the cracks and for a moment, all fourteen eyes would stare blankly at the small fraction of something that once was.
Most of the time, it was useless. The item, often only a piece of what-was-infrastructure, would be dropped back into the dirt. Other times, the item could be deemed of value, and one of the men would slip it carefully into a careful plastic bag, into his careful side pocket, and stand up on careful toes and nod to his men to move forward. And sometimes, the soot would fall away, leaving behind a small and shattered sliver of smooth and white material, and the man would fall back into the ash as if he were burned. He would suddenly feel sick, itchy, like he would never be clean again. The soot would become poison melting through his heavy second and third skins. He was dying.
It was these moments the man would be forced to realize that the ash that covered his body, the ash that managed to creep and crawl into his lungs, was not just the leftovers of what-was-infrastructure and trees and homes and flowers, but the resting place of a million collective men. He would return later to the base and blow his nose and he would blow hundreds of tiny particles of what-was-children and what-was-women and he would stand over his clean and sterile toilet and wretch and scream and cry. Without his other twelve eyes, man was just man, and man was weak.
But out in his world of ash, the man would stand and his other twelve eyes would follow. He would drop the slivers of people from his thick and rubber fingertips and motion to be followed.
The men marched on until they would disappear into the ground, back to the only place in the world that could still be deemed safe and there the men would shed their skins and blow their noses and disappear into their own respective halls and then, alone, the men would break. And after, the men would flush their clean and sterile toilets, wipe their mouths, and prepare for the day to come.
When the first bomb dropped twenty miles out into farmland, killing twenty-three men and women and an innumerable amount of cattle, the country fell into hysteria. The world is ending. We are all dead men.
But then a day passed and no more attacks came and men and women disentangled themselves from each other and climbed out of their holes. They grew angry and demanded immediate action. They screamed to gather troops and send them over seas, but when the men came to take their sons, mothers held to their babies and begged to let them stay.
“We were lucky”, people started to say, “They should have never attacked us. They have already run out of steam and the lunatics don’t even have the technology to control their missiles. They missed. Thank God for that.”
But my mother was not those people and she was not those mothers. When the bomb dropped twenty miles out into farmland she cried and wailed with every other man, child, and woman, but she cried neither out of fear, nor losing her kin. When I held her in my arms in the days that followed the first attack she held to me and whimpered quietly like a small and wounded animal.
“They didn’t miss, Max”, she whispered into my chest, “It was only a warning.”
My name is Max Stanton and I was never meant for war. If I had been smarter I could have been a poet and if I had been bigger I could have been an athlete. There are a lot of things I was never meant for, but war ranked exceptionally high on that list.
I was nineteen when things fell apart.
The news came to me while I was at work. I remember exactly. I was bagging a carton of whole milk to Miss Wednesday-two-o-clock-regular, who always bought whole milk and whom I personally thought would be better off drinking skim. Our tiny grocer didn’t have a television and a radio that played more static than music, but the news came to us rather quickly.
1:37 pm, the bomb dropped. I was still on a lunch break, eating a lukewarm tuna sandwich in the dark cave my boss called a break room. There was nothing unusual. There was no reverberation that shook the Earth and silenced the birds. My town was hundreds of miles away; we were worlds apart.
1:54 pm, the strike had hit national news. Perfectly prim and proper blonde women in pressed suits and makeup sat straight in their chairs with furrowed brows and concerned lips.
“There has been a terrible tragedy…” I sat in the dull light of the break room.
“Some kind of attack has struck down on our nation’s soil…” I stuff my trash back into the paper bag, push away from the round table.
“Still no casualty count, but we’ve had reports in could be in the hundreds…” I’m back in the blinding grocery store lights, back at my counter, smiling at uninteresting customers.
2:06 pm, I was bagging a carton of whole milk to Miss Wednesday-two-o-clock regular when he came tumbling through our double doors. Partially dressed and partially crazed, his eyes darted across the store before he hurdled himself into the canned food aisle. We all exchanged glances, not quite sure whether to panic or laugh.
I had seen him before. He was certainly no regular, but he had come in once or twice in the early evening, well dressed and usually on the phone talking about important things and paying no mind to us.
A minute or so passed and the man did not make a reappearance and with a collective exhale the grocery line began to move again. I smiled at Miss two-o-clock-regular which by this point in the day probably looked more like a constipated grimace and the beeps of cash registers picked up again.
2:11 pm, Miss Wednesday-two-o-clock regular, after several minutes of digging around her purse for that last seventeen cents, was finally wheeling her cart and large body out of my checkout lane. I watched her absent-mindedly waddle towards the exit when a clatter once again disrupted the mundane beeping of cash registers. It was that man again, arms full of canned foods, barking at one of the other employees to bring several cases of water up to the counter. He stumbled into my lane, knocking over the rack of magazines and dropping the contents in his arms onto the counter with a loud clatter.
Jackson, an earnest, but simple checkout boy stared numbly at the wild looking man, stunned and confused at his unusual loss of control. With bulging eyes the man bore down on Jackson, “Come on, boy”, he snapped, “Don’t be so slow. I have no time for this. We’re under attack, don’t you know? Don’t be so dumb”. (end of the world, add that)
Jackson blinked, stuttered something unintelligent before nodding his head and bleating out a small, “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Yes, sir”.
I watched with curiosity while I bagged the man’s items. He was struggling to find his wallet, seeming to check every pocket but the right one, “The end of the world? What do you mean by that?” I asked, Jackson too concerned with frantically swiping the man’s items to wonder over what exactly had made this man so insane.
His (frantic )throwing of five and ten dollar bills onto the counter stopped. He didn’t look at me for a moment and I was quite certain he had no intention of answering me.
The cash register beeped.
His gaze finally met mine, he had a face as if I had asked him what color the sky was, “Are you slow, boy? Haven’t you heard?”
I just stared.
“The bomb, son! The goddamn bomb! We’re under attack!”
Blank expression, the man was mad, clearly.
He grunted, exasperated, “Turn on the news, boys. I don’t have time for this s***”, he swiped the last bag from my hands, tucked the water jugs under his arm and half ran half tumbled out the door.
That was the first I had heard of any bombing, any attack on our soil. The cash registers had stopped beeping; everything was quite. We shut our doors and every man and woman working gathered around someone’s phone, nervously opening a news app.
A woman gasped. A man stumbled backwards.
That was the first I heard of the end of the world.
The title was still foreign to Hap, still got under his skin whenever someone called upon him. Success and responsibility brought on by the death of brothers left a bad taste in his mouth. He shut his eyes, paused for a moment, before turning around to meet his caller, “Yes, Lieutenant? At ease”, his voice sounded like a fifty-ton truck crawling up a mountain road; slow, heavy, strained.
The man that stood before him was just a boy, no more than sixteen. Hap would have grimaced a year ago to see that soft, acne-ridden face tucked into a uniform like a boy drowning in his daddy’s work clothes, but the state of the world had hardened everyone and he was no exception. It was the order of the world now, where babies wore bulletproof jackets and girls carried guns in their skirts. It was just the way of the world.
“It’s Lieutenant Watson, sir”, the Lieutenant hesitated, “He’s not well. I don’t think well enough to take his shift today, sir”, there was a boyish shyness that still lingered about the young man, even though his soft eyes and baby fat had been stripped from him long ago.
Hues pressed his lips together. A lot of his men had grown ill lately. Mostly just out of pure exhaustion. He tried his best to keep them rested, never made them march more than four hour shifts a day, but the effort was futile. He knew that just like him, his men spent most nights lying on stiff mattresses staring up at the metallic ceiling. Sleep did not come easily. It never did. In his presence they stood tall, saluted and stuck out their chins, but he knew. He saw the bags under their eyes, the way they stumbled through the hallways at night when they thought everyone else was in bed. He knew.
“Tell Watson that I’ll cover him. We leave at 0500, not a minute later. Be ready.”
The lieutenant saluted, “I will inform him, sir” and because Hap was watching, he jogged briskly away, shoulders pulled back proudly, but Hap was certain once the boy turned the corner he would drop back to a walk.
The title General no longer came with perks. He was a foot soldier just like all the other men that milled around him. He took his shifts just like the other boys and because he was responsible he often took other shifts, too. He was just like any other man. Titles remained to keep order, but the world no longer humored false perceptions of power.
Hues slipped into his room, shutting the cold steel door behind him. When the war began the barracks had been filled with men, stuffed full with fifteen or twenty, men would sleep shoulder to shoulder and at meal time squeeze to fit together on the aisle benches. The rooms were empty now. Silent and quiet. Many men bunked in their own privacy, a few shared with a mate or two.
When the war began every man would have jumped at any opportunity for just ten minutes of privacy but the emptiness now provided no comfort. Hap would spend much of his free time staring blankly at the nineteen empty beds, wondering how such a once cramped space could suddenly feel so vast. He slept on the last bed of the third row and turned to the wall every night so he wouldn’t be forced to stare at each and every empty piece of furniture.
If the men had been braver, they would have moved their things. Packed their bags and huddled together into six or seven rooms and let the other one-hundred-and-forty-three or four rot away entirely. But the men were afraid and Hap couldn’t blame them. Those beds that were empty were to remain empty and the things tucked underneath them would stay tucked away and safe. No one wanted to sleep in the place of a dead man.
Hues glanced up at the digital clock on the top of the left wall, dropping onto the metal cot. He found the concept of time amusing now. There was little distinction between night and day, the world generally a dark and somber place. There were no longer planes to catch or meetings to attend. All that was left was survival. For the sake of sanity though, the clocks ticked on, dripping out every moment of every day. Hues could understand that.
Forty minutes till his shift, it was just about time to suit up. He picked his heavy body up off the scratchy blanket and stepped towards the door. With pressed lips he looked back at the nineteen untouched beds, shut off the dimmed lights, and marched down the cold halls like a man with everything under control.
I loved her. It was easy, really. She was beautiful, and sweet, and kind, and everything a girl should be. But there were many girls who were all those things that never caught my attention the way Dani did. I loved her because she was a simple and gentle tragedy. Danielle Anderson was the kind of girl who had been force-fed every bad and ugly truth about the world and still the kind of girl who closed her gates to no one.
She was never the brightest. She struggled through simple high school classes. She was prone to saying silly and unintelligent things in times of long silences.
I took her on a picnic once.
We sat out on a blanket in a neighborhood park drinking sodas and eating sandwiches. I stared up at the sky while she stared down at the ground, her slender legs swinging lazily in the summer breeze. She held an ant in her hand, watching intently as it crawled down her fingers and into her palm where she would then nudge it onto the fingers of her other hand and the cycle would repeat.
“Do you think, Maxie,” she asked with an earnest seriousness, “if there were people as small as ants would we be more gentle with where we stepped?”
I laughed. I told her not to be dumb and not to ask such dumb questions. It was ridiculous to think of a society of people shrunk to be so small. And to humor her I told her of course we would watch where we step.
But honestly, Dani, what could you expect? Those tiny people would have to be careful. Normal sized people couldn’t walk with their noses to the ground wherever they went just to avoid harming something the size of an ant.
When I looked at Danielle, an amused smile pressed onto my lips, I was shocked to see the cold stare that was returned, “Careful,” she wouldn’t even look me in the eyes, she stared firmly over my left shoulder, “For all you know, we could be the ants.”
She looked back down at the tiny bug in her hand, returning it with gentle care back into the grass.
July 23, Hues
Nothing new to report today. The men were tired so we only marched out five or so kilometers. Didn’t see anything unusual, the same ash and destruction as always. No new hotspots to report, thank God for that. We haven’t lost a man in over a month and a half.
I told the men today as we headed back towards base an hour early that they were lucky. I told them not to lie to me and that I appreciated their discipline, but that I knew. I knew how tired and worn they were and that today, yes, just today, we’d march back early.
That was true. Mostly. The men were tired, no doubt about that. But what I didn’t tell them is that I didn’t want them wasting what little energy they had left on chasing ghosts. Sometimes I think, and I hate myself for it, that we could be the only ones left.
The world didn’t end in fire and it didn’t end in ice. It ended in both.
The cold came after the bombs dropped.
No one really gave a s*** at first. I guess because no one really noticed. It came quietly, crept into the atmosphere like a cancer and no one cares about cancer when you’re cut open and bleeding out.
There was no mini ice age. The ocean didn’t freeze over and we weren’t buried in ice. Temperatures dropped two degrees, rain went down by twenty percent. No one noticed.
We gathered survivors and built up troops. Dropped our own bombs and made our own enemies. We sutured our wounds with clumsy and inexperienced hands, but at least the blood had stopped.
I take back what I said about the cold being the cancer. The cold was gangrene. It was a disease that came just as we thought we were out of the rough, it ate away our skin slowly, ripped us of what we had left. We hardly had a chance to hope.
Our crops stopped growing, animals became sick. There was no food to give to civilians, much less support an army. In desperation, the people rose up. They created rebellions and demanded to be fed. Fathers held gun to other fathers’ heads because they had a family to feed and I’m so, so sorry but today my children are worth more than yours.
I know now, that we sealed our graves in more than one way.