The moons of Alpha 49C shone brightly through the hatch. All seven of them were in slightly different phases. Jenn thought this was perhaps the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The past few months had brought so much ugliness, so much pain, so much that she wanted to forget. Yet, here Jenn was, trying to remember. And halfheartedly at that. There was nothing else she really had to do. Nothing but this: to remember.
Jenn rolled the slip of FleuroPaper out of the antiquated machine. The sheet was light, almost weightless in her hands. Her broken skin had long healed. Her fingernails were strong, unblemished and clipped to a short, manageable length. No chewed cuticles. No sign of stress or worry. Yet still, a heaviness took residence in Jenn’s chest. The heaviness of recollection.
On the desk beside her, several other pages were scattered. She brushed them into a small stack and flipped to the first one. Then Jenn read what she had written. She immediately hated it.
Noah thought I should write this down. All of it. He said my story needed to be told. I’m not sure if it will do much good in the Aftermath but I am writing it anyway. Just to please him, if nothing else. To earn my keep, so to speak. After all, he is my savior, my…Noah. Thanks to him, I have lived to see the dove return with the olive branch in her mouth. On Earth, that used to be a sign of peace. A sign that the Prologue T Cry of Silence 12 suffering was over. But here on Alpha 49C, who knows? It’s too soon to tell. The wounds are still as raw as newly-skinned knees.
You will soon discover that I am not a real writer. At the very least, I am a fake one. But I did write a poem once, in the eleventh grade. It was called “Before the Gold Rush.” It was a response, of sorts, to Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” (Do you know who Neil Young is?
Was? In what seems like a hundred and forty-three years ago, my poem represented New Utrecht High School in a citywide contest. Do you even know what cities were?)
Well, in the hope that you do, the city I lived in was called New York City. In it, was in a borough called Brooklyn. And that’s where I was born. New York was very big as metropolises go. When I was coming up, there were more than ten million people squished into it. Most of them ill-tempered.
New York was a very famous city. Many songs were written about it and sung about it, mostly by Italian Americans, for some reason. (Italy was a country about five thousand miles away from the United States, the country where New York City had been located. On Planet Earth, where I’m from, countries were similar to PlotDivs here.) People like Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli and Tony Bennett sang these New York City songs that basically said New York was the best city in the world. Maybe it was.
I’m an Italian-American too. Or at least I was. I’m not sure what I am now. But anyhow…
After I won the high school poetry competition, there were small articles written about me in small hometown newspapers with names like The Spectator and The Courier. But those papers are gone now, just like the big city is gone. In The Spectator, there was even a fuzzy photograph with Principal Gearhart’s hairy arm wrapped around my shoulder. At the time, I was embarrassed, although I should have been proud. Everything embarrassed me when I was seventeen. I wasted so much time feeling embarrassed when I was a teenager. Even as an adult. But no more.
As it turned out, my family was very proud of the article, even though they misspelled my father’s name in both newspapers. They spelled “Francis” with an “e,” making my dad a woman with the careless stroke of a key. But never mind, my parents were still proud. Even though “Before the Gold Rush” was about greed and oblivion. Even though the poem ended up coming in thirty-seventh out of forty poems in the citywide contest.
But the judges gave me a five-dollar prize, nonetheless. (Dollars were what we bought things with on Earth, mostly things we didn’t need.) So, that technically made me a professional writer. Although I never wrote anything of worth since. Until now. Maybe. I suppose you will be the judge of that. Of this tome’s worth, if any. I only ask that you don’t judge me too harshly. I don’t think I could bear it. Not with all I’ve been through.
I’m afraid that my writing is as unpolished as my Grandma Rachel’s old silver. Slightly tarnished. But please try to understand that there is a shine somewhere underneath. There is always a shine underneath everything, Noah says. Sometimes you can’t see it but you can feel it if you try hard enough. So bear with me. I’m doing the best I can. And that’s the most any of us can do. That’s what Noah tells me, at least.
I will try not to dwell on the worst of it. On the running sores, the perfect ponytails coming out in clumps, on the stark agony or the gut-churning screams. But some of this cannot be avoided, so I apologize in advance. Ugliness is necessary to properly paint the picture.
Bottomless blacks, bland grays and sad purples are as vital to the portrait as smiling pinks and sunny yellows. You see, unpleasantness is as much a part of the story as I am. As hope is. Or Nik. Or Philip. Or the squirrels. Or Carpinteria.
I promise to be truthful and to tell things just as I remember them. Sometimes, I will have no choice but to upset you. For this, I am sorry. I still can’t decide whether it’s a gift or a curse: remembering everything. Having total recall. I remember every tear. Every sour breath. Every snaggle-toothed smile. From the tiniest details to the largest. Like how many pillows were on
Linda’s bed. To bigger things. Like the hull of the Queen Mary. Or the clams on Pismo Beach.
I remember it all; I just don’t want to write it down. To write it down is concrete.
Undeniable. To write it down makes it real, gives it substance.
I’m sorry if my memory fails me in certain places or if I mangle the names of highways, motels and truck stops. But I guess it doesn’t Cry of Silence 14 really matter because those places no longer exist. And who would really know if I made a mistake? Right?
Again, my apologies for upsetting you before I actually do. But whether you’re someone who’s survived the Aftermath like me or whether you watched it from a VeloScreen in Clocania, you know that in life, there is always sadness woven into happiness. It’s there somewhere, even in the joy. If you know where to look.
At any rate, I pray you will decide to suffer through this with me. And suffer you might, from a literary standpoint. Noah refuses to change a single word of my pitiful scribble. Or to read it before it is set into LaserType and shot into cyberspace. He doesn’t want to disturb its “stark authenticity,” he said.
“This is your story,” Noah told me. “No one saw it the way you did. No one lived it but you. Who has the right to alter even a comma? Or unsplit an infinitive?” It was a rhetorical question, I guess, but a good one.
The only parts of this reflection that aren’t mine are the interpretations of well-known Alpharian artists who have become my friends. BK. Margaret. Claudio. Jo-Ann. My flimsy words don’t do their intaglio pencil markings justice. My paltry paragraphs don’t hold a candle to their three-dimensional brushstrokes.
Through some miracle, these artists have recreated the scenes and emotions I described with eerie exactness. Even though they have never seen or experienced what I have. But perhaps they’ve felt these things through my earnest but inadequate words. Yes, I think maybe they have.
I am told that accompanying the electronic version of this book will be holograms. So that when people read it in the virtual sphere, they will also see the images somewhere in the back of their minds. Somehow. Noah explained how but I didn’t quite grasp it. I just kept nodding and pretending. But I don’t think I fooled Noah, though. No one can fool Noah.
In the HoloBook, there will also be pop-up definitions for terms unfamiliar to Alpharians. Place names like Costa Mesa, concepts like vacations and items like water wings and nose clips will be explained and, if necessary, illustrated.
Of course, there will be no holograms or pop-ups in the print version of this book, however, there will be drawings. But no one reads book-books anymore, do they? Only oldsters. So, there will be a small number of FleuroBooks published for the Dearmars and Pop-Pops. For those who like the weight of a hardcopy in their hands, for those who crave the scent and texture of a tome. Although books aren’t made of real paper here. Because there are no trees on Planet Alpha 49C. Never were, I’m told.
Noah has great plans for my humble memoir. He intends to beam it to all fourteen planets in this vast galaxy as well as the three adjoining ones. (They each have unpronounceable names, so I won’t even try to spell them here.) Noah is in the process of finalizing intergalactic media coverage and promises to get me onto all the pre-eclipse talk shows. And so on. Not for the money, you understand. Or for the AlphaBucks, as Alpharians call them. But to save what is left of the universe. Imagine that.
In the short while I’ve been here, four planets, two satellites and one space station have been blown into memories. And that worries me. Noah, too. His ectoplasm is working at warp speed to devise other ways to get this book “out there.”
“Out where?” I asked him.
“Everywhere,” he said. “Even places you can’t even fathom.”
Perhaps you are reading this in a new age. In a peaceful age after many effinities have passed. In a different place than I am now. But then again, maybe this is too much to ask for: that green bits have sprouted on Earth again and that life there has started anew on some tiny fragment that was left of it. Perhaps even flowers like peonies have begun to grow, which were my favorite. Maybe that capsule we launched on Mursday actually reached some survivors before Earth self-destructed. But honestly, I don’t think anyone could have survived for this long. I wasn’t exactly thriving when I was found. Far from it. I don’t think anyone could still be there. Alive.
Who exactly am I talking to? Who is my audience? A mutant in Big Sur? Or a Cygnian, a Vegalian? A chartreuse-skinned, suction-cupped, six-fingered hermaphrodite from Outer Andromeda? Maybe you are an Alpharian who wishes to learn something about a place that no
longer exists, about a race of people you have studied extensively but still don’t understand. (Believe me, I don’t understand humans either. Or cats.)
But at the very least, I know you want to learn how not to destroy your own planet. Why else would you be reading this? Why else would you be subjecting yourself to these horrors?
So, I ask myself, do you care where I came from? Does it matter? Noah says that everything matters if it teaches someone something, anything. Then it matters a lot.
In any case, I hope you are not disappointed—but I have no answers for you.
No solutions. Only my story. The answer isn’t in me; it’s in each of you. There’s a line in a song that the band Aviation once sang. It went, “The key is me…” And it is.
Instead of crumpling the pages in her hand, Jenn shuffled them back into a neat pile and set them face down on the desk. She cranked another sheet of FleuroPaper into the outmoded, putty-colored machine and continued her story.
In the Beginning
It was the first vacation Jennifer and Nikolai Taverna had taken in five years.
Soon after they landed at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, they noticed the frightened headlines. The hysterical, red Times New Roman font silently screamed out from several newsstands. It seemed that the United States was on the verge of war. A nuclear war. Again.
Nik and Jenn had heard it so many times before that they ignored the Henny Penny “the sky is falling” headlines as they made their way to Baggage Claim. At first.
There had been threats of annihilation during the Albanian Missile Crisis when they were just toddlers. There had been fears of a Third World War hatching during the Ghana Hostage Crisis when there were teenagers. There had been dirty-bomb threats after the USS Warner incident when they were newly married. Nik and Jenn had heard apocalyptic portends so often that they were growing tired of hearing them. But still, what if this time, it was true?
“What if this is it?” Jenn echoed to Nik as he pulled her beat-up, blue rolling Samsonite from the thumping baggage carousel.
“It’s never it,” Nik insisted. “People aren’t that stupid.”
“They’re not?” she gasped. Nik shook his head, convinced, confident. But Jenn wasn’t so sure. “People are idiots,” she tacked on in afterthought. He agreed; they were. But he didn’t think they were that idiotic.
To Nik, this was the war that cried wolf. To Jenn, it was a death knell. A sense of
dread stalked her as she and her husband made their way to Car Rentals, dragging their suitcases behind them.
As they zig-zagged through the corridors toward the Avis counter, Jenn recalled the sketchy details of the oxymoronic World “Peace” Summit that staggered forward amid Switzerland’s jagged but placid peaks. Since Day One, the press had made unfounded claims about punches that had almost been thrown and arms agreements that had been torn to shreds and flung into the tense air. “Do you think we should still go away?” Jenn had asked Nik as they finished packing back home on Day Two of the violent “Peace” Summit.
“Of course,” Nik had said. “Our tickets are nonrefundable.”
“But what if…” Jenn countered. She lived a life governed by “what ifs;” Nik was more an “if not now, when?” sort of fellow.
At a Sky Harbor kiosk, he attempted to overlook the fiery headlines that mocked them at yet another newsstand and bought Jenn a box of Raisinets. Nik held firm to the belief that sugar could mend anything, even impending doom. Chocolate-covered fruit had a magical way of making everything better, for his wife, anyway. We’re on vacation, Nik tried to convince himself. We’re supposed to have fun. We’re not supposed to think about war.
Instead of war, around the next corner, Nik and Jenn found Avis. It was still “Number Two” among car rental companies, meaning it still tried harder, like a second- best friend. Jenn and Nik liked the very idea of Avis. They admired its sense of honesty and its nonapologetic way of admitting that the company was second-rate but didn’t give a damn. They appreciated Avis’s sense of longing, its striving attitude. Besides,
Avis had a special that week: no drop-off charge. Jenn and Nik could drive from Arizona to the coast of California without penalty. Or so they thought.
Along the flat, dusty road to the Grand Canyon, the couple encountered many things that were starkly different than what they saw in Brooklyn. For example, the tall, cloudless sky that seemed to yawn into forever and cactus like big, twisted, arthritic,
old men. Jenn told Nik that the lazy, rolling tumbleweeds reminded her of a “Twilight Zone” episode.
“I think it was ‘The Outer Limits,’” he corrected in that gentle way he had. Nik possessed the knack of telling someone they were wrong without making them feel
dumb. This was one of the many things Jenn loved about him. “I think it was called ‘Cry of Silence,’ wasn’t it?” Nik added.
“You’re right,” Jenn admitted. She Googled it. Sure enough, “Cry of Silence” was Episode 6 of Season 2. In that “Outer Limits” segment, a husband and wife became stranded on a road not unlike the road Nik and Jenn traveled. The tumbleweeds ended up engulfing the couple, who were named Karen and Andy. At some point, an alien being without a body made an appearance. “I can’t remember how it ended,” Jenn told him.
“Me neither,” Nik said. “But I remember that it scared the tuna salad out of me when I was a kid. I could never sleep after I saw the reruns on WPIX.”
“Same here,” Jenn shivered. “But I couldn’t not watch it either.”
Besides tumbleweeds and sky, also on the gray strip of Interstate 17 was a scattering of Native Americans. They sat very still under umbrellas in the unforgiving sun, selling their crafts. Some didn’t even have tables, they just spread their wares on blankets in the parched dirt along the highway.
Nik insisted on stopping. Jenn didn’t want to; she hated acting like a tourist even when she was one. But they stopped anyway. “Just for a minute,” Nik promised.
Jenn immediately pitied the ancient, terracotta-skinned woman sitting cross- legged on the ground. Hand on the Cavalier’s door handle, she told Nik how she felt. “That woman doesn’t need your pity,” Nik told Jenn. “Pick out something nice. It will help feed her family.”
It was true. By selling pretty things she made with her parchment-paper fingers, the old woman managed to make a living. Probably a meagre one. “Okay,” Jenn agreed. She and Nik climbed out of the car.
The heat hit them like a concrete wall the minute they stepped out of the air- conditioned Chevy. Nik and Jenn treaded past a pink El Dorado with New Mexico vanity plates that read, “YEE-HAW.” They went to the other end of the old woman’s domain, as far away from the Yee-Haw couple as they could get.
The Native American lady nodded a wordless welcome to Jenn and Nik as they stood at the edge of her intricately-tattooed red, white and black blanket. She’d probably woven it herself, Jenn guessed. “Is it me or does that look like a swastika?” she whispered to Nik.
“It’s you,” he told her.
The indigenous woman continued patiently beading as the cowboy-hatted Yee- Haw Man drawled at her. He had the irritating sort of high-pitched voice that suggested undescended testicles. The old lady’s hands were the same color as the red- brown baked earth beneath their feet, Jenn noticed. Although the craftswoman’s fingers were long and graceful, they were no stranger to hard work. They didn’t look soft and cuddly, but instead, seemed purposeful. The woman’s bare toes fiddled with the dust as her elegant, nimble fingers guided tiny beads onto a length of fishing line.
In contrast, the white woman’s fingers were short, stubby and manicured, tipped with fuchsia daggers. They were weighed down with diamonds, gold and turquoise. “Look,” Yee-Haw Lady huffed impatiently. “For the last time, I’ll take twenty of these little thangs.” For emphasis, she dangled a necklace with a pair of miniature suede moccasins worked into it. The white woman swung it back and forth like a pendulum, as if trying to hypnotize the brown lady into agreement. “Ten of these and ten with those little Injun kids on them.”
Jenn winced at the word “Injun” and felt Nik stiffen beside her. The white woman’s husband corrected her. “Honey, I think they’re called papooses.”
“Whatever,” the pale lady snorted. “Just pay the gal.”
Yee-Haw Man snapped a crisp bill out of a gleaming money clip that was thick with cash. He put the Franklin on the old woman’s blanket and secured it under a terracotta ash tray so the money wouldn’t blow away in the arid breeze. For a brief moment, Jenn pictured someone in the earthen woman’s family fashioning and firing that ash tray in a kiln behind their falling-down shack on a nearby reservation.
Money in place before her, the old woman still did not take it. She continued to bead, slowly and steadily, without looking up. “The price is ten dollars each,” she told the cowboy couple. “So that comes to two-hundred dollars.”
The other woman teetered in her impractical heels. They carved indentations into the earth like miniature post-holers. “The squaw down the road sells them for five bucks a piece,” Yee-Haw Lady snapped.
“Then I suggest you go to the squaw down the road,” the old woman suggested flatly without a shimmer of emotion or annoyance in her voice.
“We’re taking twenty pieces. Two-zero,” the white witch said, a bit more strident now. Her voice had elevated several octaves in a handful of breaths.
“I can’t afford a volume discount,” the Native woman told her. She lifted her eyes slightly to glance at the cowboy’s shiny snakeskin boots. Then she looked back at her work. “Besides, Laughing Dawn makes hers on a machine. I make my necklaces by hand.” The old woman’s hands, Jenn noticed, were ashy and cracked in places but still graceful.
El Dorado Lady was unmoved. She stood her ground, her thin heels engraving even deeper into the dust. The Native American elder continued explaining in an even tone. “Each one takes me an hour to make, sometimes more. I am old. My fingers don’t work as quickly as they used to.” She flashed a small smile and met Jenn’s gaze, not
daring to look at the other white woman.
Jenn looked down, embarrassed at this whole exchange. Embarrassed at being white, mostly. She brushed her hand against Nik’s. He curled his pinkie around hers. To Nik, this was even better than an “Outer Limits” episode. This was real life. Neither
Nik nor Jenn were exactly sure how it would turn out but they both knew that it would not end well.
Cadillac Woman waved her purple fingertips in the air. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, miles away from civilization,” she pointed out. “What’s to stop us from taking all of your damn fool necklaces and driving off without paying you a red cent?”
Then, from the corner of her excessively-lacquered eyelids, she noticed Jenn and Nik at the other end of the blanket, looking at the bowls and vases. Undaunted, the white demon continued her rant like a human steamroller. “Huh? What’s to stop me?”
Nik caught El Dorado Lady’s eye. “Me,” he told her. “And me,” Jenn added.
Suddenly, the woman snatched up the hundred-dollar bill her husband had left. The ash tray that held it captive rolled into the dust but did not break. “They’re all the same! Greedy, ingrateful bastards…” Yee-Haw Woman spat.
Jenn wasn’t sure if the aging cowgirl was talking about Native people in general or her and Nik. But it didn’t matter because it wasn’t true.
Pink Caddy Lady stumbled through the desert on her treacherously-high spiked heels. The cowboy trailed her like a well-trained puppy. When she twisted her ankle just before she reached the car’s pink door, all three spectators smirked slightly.
Nik brushed off the ashtray and put it back on the blanket. The old woman dipped her head in thanks.
Jenn wanted to tell the Native woman that she and Nik were from New York and that they weren’t raised to feel the way cowboys did about Indians. But she couldn’t find words that wouldn’t sound trite and foolish in the broiling, dry, quiet air. So, instead, Jenn told the woman, “You do beautiful work.“
The elder nodded, a faint smile on her lips.
Now that the Cadillac couple were gone, Jenn stepped closer to where the necklaces and bracelets were carefully laid out. She didn’t want a leather papoose hanging from a beaded chain. Or the head of a smiling Indian maiden strung through a leather strap. Jenn left that kind of kitsch to those with fuchsia dagger fingernails to wear from their flabby necks like badges of dishonor.
To the right, Jenn noticed a handful of necklaces that were simpler than the others. They were fashioned from glass beads that alternated with shriveled brown seeds. “What are these?” Jenn asked.
“My people call them ghost berry beads,” the old woman said. “Your people?”
“The Navajo,” she explained. “They’re dried juniper berries.” “They’re nice,” Jenn told her.
“I think so too,” the woman agreed. She held out her right wrist and her left ankle. Both were ringed with rows and rows of ghost berry beads. “Some think they’re too plain,” she said. “They’re not shiny. They don’t sparkle.”
“Some things don’t need to sparkle,” Jenn told her.
The woman bobbed her head. “Some things sparkle on their own. From within.” This embarrassed Jenn because she though the woman might be referring to her.
“We’ll take this one,” Nik said, gesturing to a necklace lined with ghost berries and explosive blues. He knew turquoise was Jenn’s favorite shade of blue, though his tongue often stumbled across the word “turquoise.” “How much?” he asked the Native elder.
“For you, one dollar,” she said, and broke into a wide grin. She wouldn’t give the Cadillac couple that price but these two were different. These two appreciated her work. And each other, she guessed.
The three of them laughed together. The sound was empty and small in the wide desert. Louder than the cry of silence, but still, a quiet sound.
Jenn bowed her head as the woman slipped the necklace over it. The lady noticed the softness of Jenn’s hair, so like the lambswool she sometimes wove into her blankets. “Ghost berry beads bring peace, harmony and safety,” she explained to Jenn. “This necklace will protect you.”
“From what?” Jenn wondered.
“From everything,” the elder said. Briefly, the newspaper headlines flashed through Jenn’s mind but she blinked away those thoughts.
Nik slipped twenty dollars into the woman’s hand. When she saw how much it was, she protested, but he gently closed her fist around the money. Squeezed it. Light brown skin against red-brown.
The woman patted Jenn’s cheek and said something in her native tongue.
“Nizhónígo ch’aanidíínaał,” she sang in Navajo. “What does that mean?” Jenn asked.
“It means, ‘have a pleasant journey,’” the old woman told her.
“Thank you,” Jenn said before she and Nik turned to head back to the air- conditioned comfort of their rented Chevy.
Jenn and Nik didn’t pass the Native American woman on the way back from the Grand Canyon because they only drove as far south as Flagstaff. There was no sign of the pink “Yee-Haw” Cadillac either.
Predictable comfort awaited them beneath Howard Johnson’s vivid orange roof.
Nik and Jenn’s room was on the third floor of a five-story complex. It was appointed with the usual second sink outside the bathroom—a nice touch so one person could poop while the other prepped. There was also the expected ultraviolet light in the bathroom to dry bathing suits quicker. HoJo’s was the picture of certainty, coziness and affordability.
As Jenn did in every HoJo’s she visited since childhood, she jumped from double bed to double bed like a hyperactive pony. But Nik wasn’t inclined to join her as her brother Brian had always done. Instead, Jenn’s husband just popped a Coors and watched her frolic, a slight grin skimming his lips. “Long day,” he sighed.
“But a good one,” she added.
“With you they’re all good ones,” Nik said, “even when they’re bad.” “Thanks…I think,” Jenn told him.
To save time and water in the perennially-parched Southwest, they took a shower together. Jenn soaped Nik into a thick, happy tree branch. They made love quickly and urgently, the water pulsing against their slick skin. Accomplishing standing-up-sex was always quite a feat because the couple was almost the same height. Jenn had to stand on her tippy-toes, which usually brought on a leg cramp. So, they were fast, passionate and efficient before charley horse attacked, each stroke deliberate and purposeful.
Despite the swiftness of their encounter, Jenn was plagued with guilt about having an aquatic meetup in drought-plagued Arizona. What first seemed like a good idea now seemed selfish. What if the entire population did this? Simultaneously? The result could be disastrous and drain Lake Powell in an instant. It could undam the Hoover Dam. It could…
Reading her hive mind, Nik nibbled on Jenn’s ear and whispered, “Stop worrying about the water supply and just enjoy it.” They’d had this water conservation conversation many times before—the waste, the greediness—yet still, Jenn was drawn to the allure of shower sex.
“Shush,” she said, reaching between her thighs to coax them both to the finish line. Jenn watched their future babies slip down the drain as they scrubbed each other clean, trading a bar of palm-sized Sweet♥Heart hotel soap back and forth between them.
Friday happened to be Fried Clam Day at Howard Johnson’s. Just their luck, this particular Friday fell in the middle of Blueberry Month (July). Nik and Jenn thought themselves extremely fortunate as they enjoyed a post-coital pig-out, gorging themselves on tender, deep-fried-to-a-delicate-golden-brown bivalve mollusks then ordered blueberry ice cream slathered with blueberry sauce for dessert. It was a cheap slice of heaven.
As Jenn and Nik strolled back to the adjoining motel after supper, a family played joyfully in HoJo’s swimming pool. The girl wore water wings and the boy, a nose clip. The mother was decked out in a bathing cap topped with fake blonde hair.
The father’s big belly drooped over the top of his Speedos. The water was obviously ice- cube cold because the kids’ lips were tinged with purple. Mom’s pencil-eraser nipples poked out through her tankini top. Dad’s jewels were shrunken walnuts. Nik and Jenn tried not to stare but they were drawn to the chilly nips and nuts like rubberneckers to a roadside accident.
As the couple approached, all four family members said, “Howdy” in unison.
The Easterners replied, “Howdy” back because, after all, they were in “Howdy” country.
Climbing the outdoor stairs to their room, Nik laughed. “I’ve never said ‘Howdy’ in my entire life.”
“Me neither,” Jenn admitted. “But it felt good.”
Safely sealed inside Room 313, Nik and Jenn carefully spread AAA maps of
Arizona, Nevada and California across one of the full-sized mattresses. On the striped HoJo bedspread, each state bordered the other, just like they did in real life. Nik traced his finger along the blue and red veins of highways, revisiting their proposed journey over the next three weeks. Organ Pike Cactus National Monument was too far away, they decided. “Next time,” Jenn promised Nik.
The following day, they planned to begin their trek by trailing along 40 West to Kingman, then take 93 North to a short stretch of Interstate 95 which led to Las Vegas. Maybe they would even stop to see Hoover Dam. “Before global warming dries it up,” Nik tagged on.
After Vegas, a crooked line of highways ran like a crack in a pane of glass from Nevada to California.
Leaving no stone unturned, the Tavernas also preordered a AAA TripTik Planner for the voyage. A TripTik Planner was a personalized, wire-bound, flip-topped
booklet which broke their voyage into small, digestible chunks. Each page zoomed in on about a hundred miles of their pilgrimage, the details blown up and easy to read.
“Look,” Jenn gasped. Following Nik’s finger, she noticed an unsettling amount of nuclear power plants, military bases and naval weapons centers both in the desert and dotting the California coast.
“Nothing of concern,” he told her. “You sure about that?” Jenn worried.
He nodded. “Look at this,” Nik pointed out, circling his finger along the map’s unfolded folds. “Look at all this useless beauty. Try to focus on that.”
Before the potential radioactive minefield and possible recipe for disaster, Nik showed Jenn that their voyage would take them to a series of scenic natural wonders. After Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, they would wind through the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree, yet another national preserve and national park, respectively. “More nerd- book stamps,” Jenn sighed, then smiled.
Entrenched in Flagstaff’s HoJo, the pair indeed fancied themselves free spirits. There were no hotel reservations besides this one and they had no deadline—besides getting to San Francisco for their flight back to JFK three weeks hence. The plan was to stay in mom-and-pops along the way. But plans, like anything else, were made to be changed.
The idea was to stop wherever and whenever they liked in that lovely, almost- empty land: roadside markets, cozy diners, fruit stands, local attractions. Maybe they would even take a detour to see Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. If they so desired, they might even stand on a corner, waiting for a girl (my Lord) in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at them. Just like in the Eagles song, they would take it easy.
Then Nik and Jenn would wind their way to San Diego. After a few days of basking on Mission Bay Beach and exploring the Cabrillo National Monument (for which there was also a nerd stamp), they would slowly plod up the California coast, stopping in Van Nuys to see their friends Jimmy and Alice, and eventually ending up in Berkeley, outside of San Francisco. There, they would spend a few days with their
buddies Howie and Jeremy, and maybe even pop in on Ken and Susan in Sausalito before flying home. Three weeks was a good amount to spend traveling, Nik and Jenn initially thought. But time would prove to be relative and fleetingly fluid as well.
It was a lot of driving, that was true, but the California coast was stunning and therefore, drive-worthy. Jenn and Nik had saved up their measly vacation days and had amassed a small pile of cash for their current travels. With unlimited mileage from Avis and the aforementioned no drop-off charge, they were free and breezy, at least for twenty-one days.
After they folded away the brochures and maps, Jenn turned down the covers on the bed closest to the TV. Then she slipped a quarter into the Magic Fingers contraption that turned the mattress into a huge vibrator. Nik headed to the vending machines in the garishly-carpeted corridor to stock up for tomorrow’s drive. He loved the way the snacks jumped down from their shelves like little kamikazes. Jenn fingered her ghost berry bead necklace and channel surfed while Nik was on his errand.
Under the stiff, white bedsheets, they ate Cheez-Its, drank Orange Crush and watched On the Beach on HBO. Almost halfway through, the movie was interrupted by a special bulletin. At first, Jenn and Nik thought it was a joke, like an on-air gag Svengoolie might pull. Especially since On the Beach was about the aftermath of World War III. But this wasn’t a joke or a vintage movie starring Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck. This was real.
The Emergency Broadcast System’s warning bleeped so long that it hurt their ears. Jenn covered hers with her hands. At Subaru, Nik was used to loud noises, since he worked with whirring impact wrenches and air compressors all day in the shop, so he toughed it out. Loud noises, he knew, eventually ended. Soon enough, the sound sifted into silence.
The TV screen rainbowed into a series of vertical stripes. The fuchsia was not unlike the shade of Pink Caddy Woman’s fingernails, Jenn noted. Then a newscaster flashed onto the screen. Neither Jenn nor Nik recognized her because Leigh James was a local news celebrity, a household name in Flagstaff but not in Flatbush. Leigh sported a puffy, canary-yellow bouffant favored by ex-rodeo queens. Her makeup was streaked and her runny mascara looked hastily repaired. But Ms. James wasn’t recovering from a bender; it was obvious she’d been crying, and crying hard.
Leigh’s hands shook as she tried to tame the papers on her desk into a manageable stack. One sheet escaped and wafted lazily into the air and out of camera range. There was the melody of soft weeping in the background. Leigh began speaking in a tightly-wound drawl. “Due to a culmination of unprecedented events, the World Peace Summit in Geneva, Switzerland came to an abrupt halt today,” her voice faltered. “Angered at suspected US involvement in the bloodshed at the Palestinian border last week, an unidentified Chechens warship opened fire on the USS Declaration in the Persian Gulf, killing twelve.”
Leigh took a breath and continued, “In an effort to receive more aid, Contra rebels have been killing American hostages at the rate of one per hour since sundown, Iranian time. Tension continues to mount between France and the United Kingdom over the most recent Channel deaths. The People’s Revolution still rages throughout Japan. The number of casualties was still unknown at press time.”
Again, Leigh stopped. She shook her head, swiped her nose with the back of her hand and sighed. “Because of these instances and several others, emotions ran high at the Geneva Summit. One thing led to another.” She paused, inhaled, exhaled, then held her breath.
A large tear leaked down Leigh’s powdered cheek and plunked onto the desk.
Another came. Then another. She didn’t wipe them away. Her nose started to drip. She didn’t dab it. Instead, she ahemed and went on, snot and tears and Great Lash mascara bleeding down her once-pretty, now mottled, face. “An atomic missile was fired from an undisclosed location. Its origin is unknown but weapons experts suspect it came from…”
Leigh sucked in more air and screwed up her mouth, trying not to weep. “Well, it doesn’t really matter where it came from, does it, y’all? At approximately 11 pm
Eastern Standard Time, that missile reached its target. I’m sorry to report, ladies and gentlemen, that New York City is virtually destroyed.”
Leigh James looked directly into the camera, her expression blank, her cheeks smeared. “My brother lives…lived in New York,” she said, her voice cracking. Leigh valiantly tried to seal up the fissure in her veneer, but to no avail. She rallied to snap back into character but there was no rally left in her.
As Miss Rodeo America in Prescott, Leigh had once fallen from her mount but got up and continued parading the ring on foot, bloody, dirty, her sash torn, but still waving and smiling widely. However, Leigh couldn’t drill up a reassuring smile on this occasion. “Communication has been lost with all states on the Eastern Seaboard,” she sighed. “But the loss is assumed to be catastrophic.”
Leigh took a practiced, yogic breath, then laughed at the absurdity of it all. “But wait, there’s more,” she said. “The United States retaliated, striking both Grozny and an unknown target in the Middle East. A government spokesman for the billion-dollar Hades Missile Program said they were aiming for Tehran but couldn’t be exactly sure where contact was made. Possibly Yemen or Greenland. ‘We’re keeping our fingers crossed,’ a Hades spokesman said.”
Ms. James shook her head. “Really, ya’ll? A billion-dollar program and you ‘can’t be sure’ and are ‘keeping your fingers crossed.’ Gosh-darn! Damn it to hell!” Once more, Leigh snapped back into her Three – Emergency 37 reporter persona. “Additional missiles were launched to return US fire. It is impossible to predict how many projectiles will be exchanged but US officials have reason to believe that an unidentified location in the Midwest or the Southwest will be the next target. Your guess is as good as mine, folks.”
Leigh paused to light a cigarette. “Fudge it!” she yelled. Leigh had been fiddling with a red pack of Winstons on her lap and out of camera range and decided to just go for it. Her nerves were frazzled electrical wires and besides, what did she have to lose? Her job? The world was ending! “I just don’t give a hoot anymore,” Leigh said in her own defense. “Write all the dang letters you want. Cheese and rice!” A woman of principles, Leigh might smoke on the air but she refused to blaspheme the good Lord’s name. Even on the eve of destruction.
When Leigh took a deep drag on the Winston, her eyes rolled back in her head in pleasure. She blew out a long stream of smoke then continued, “The government is warning citizens not to panic but there are already reports of looting and general mayhem in several states,” she said, flicking ashes onto the desk. Leigh picked a shred of tobacco from her tongue. “Until roughly an hour ago, the President was unreachable for comment. But at approximately 6 pm Geneva time, the President and the First Lady were found unresponsive in their suite at the Four Seasons. At 7 pm, they were pronounced dead. Both suicide and foul play is suspected. There was a note, written Guerlain Rouge G Satin lipstick, which read, ‘My fellow Americans, all hope is lost…’”
Nik and Jenn sat silent, in shock, Crazy Glued to the TV screen throughout Leigh’s entire broadcast. It was Nik who finally spoke. “Is this a joke,” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Jenn told him.
As if in response to Nik query, the television went blank. Then the screeching sound of the Emergency Broadcast System returned, followed by a series of obnoxious bleats. Growing up, Nik and Jenn had heard these bleats often, usually between commercials when they watched The Price is Right or Bugs Bunny. A voice always come on that said, “This is only a test…If this had been a real emergency…”
But this time, the comforting yet commanding man’s voice didn’t come. Because this time, it wasn’t a test. This time, it was real. The screen was black. Blacker than black. Jenn and Nik stared at it, expecting something to happen but nothing did. There was only the noise. The never-ending din.
When Nik stood to shut the television, the Emergency Broadcast System notification was still wailing in grief.
He joined Jenn in bed among the Cheez-Its and soda cans. The couple was shellshocked. “What the fuck just happened?” Nik asked.
Jenn shrugged and made unintelligible noises that tried to be words. Then she squeezed out, “I don’t know.”
They sat bolt upright on the striped “Desert Dream” bedspread, their bodies straitjacket stiff. Unsure of what to do next, they stared at the dark mirror of the TV screen much the way Illinois farmers stared up at the Empire State Building when they saw it for the first time. Except now, odds were that there was no Empire State Building anymore. No Manhattan. Everything and everyone in Nik and Jenn’s hometown had probably ceased to exist.
Nik held Jenn suddenly, urgently. His grip was so tight she could barely breathe. Or was it the monstrous news that was making her short of breath? Jenn felt as though she were drowning, gulping in air that wasn’t air at all but some thick, slimy substance. No. It was definitely the hug that took Jenn’s breath away. Nik’s hug was strangling her; it hurt.
But Jenn didn’t complain because in an odd way, Nik’s iron embrace was a comfort of sorts. At least his urgent presence made her feel something, something besides numb shock. Jenn returned Nik’s sumo wrestler hug. They said nothing, just held onto each other like bobbing logs in a raging river. They’d just heard something there were no words for and needed to stay afloat.
All around them were the sounds of people giving up. Shouts. Cracks. The dull thump of a body hitting concrete from five stories. Metal hitting metal. Metal hitting brick. Gunshots, lots of gunshots. Arizona was a gun-happy, “open carry” state, meaning it was absolutely legal to have a gun without a permit just so long as you were at least twenty-one years of age. Maybe state legislators were regretting passing that law right about now. But then again, maybe not.
A tear hung onto Jenn’s eyelashes. Finally, it fell. “What should we do, Niky?” she whispered. “Our family. Our friends… Is there anything left?”
Nik didn’t answer. He only held Jenn closer, which she didn’t think was possible.
But it was and he did. Nik was always surprising Jenn with things she didn’t think possible. Jenn’s right arm grew numb. She was so weary that she closed her eyes, just for a minute. Or so she thought.
When Jenn next opened her eyes, she was tucked beneath the sheets and it was morning. Only the sky wasn’t bright. It was a dull, battleship gray, which was not typical for Flagstaff, where the sun was almost always shining. A thick dust seemed to coat the very air of the motel room. The space was almost foggy, like the woods in a black-and-white Wolf Man movie. The digital alarm clock on the nightstand blinked 12:00 AM PM over and over again. There must have been a power surge, an explosion somewhere close by.
Jenn’s vintage Timex wind-up travel alarm clock still tisked away on the night table, though. She glanced at her cell phone’s screen; it was blank. Even before this, Jenn trusted her Timex more than she trusted the clock app on her cell phone. She never left home without her palm-sized leatherette travel clock. The Timex had never let Jenn
down. It took a licking and kept on ticking, even in a nuclear holocaust. This would have made a great television commercial, Jenn thought. But would there even be TV, much less commercials, anymore?
The Timex showed that the big hand was on the nine and the little hand was almost scraping the six. Yes, the alarm clock was still there beside Jenn but her husband was not. She felt a momentary clench of panic that Nik had joined the others and was a splat on the pavement. But he never was one to give up.
With a pang of relief, Jenn spotted Nik, in the green easy chair that was upholstered with an offensive cactus pattern. He was perched there like a guardian, a sentinel. Nik stared blankly through the balcony’s closed sliding doors. The floor-length curtains, also cactus-patterned, were flung wide. “Thanks for tucking me in,” Jenn said, trying to sound cheerful.
Nik turned toward Jenn when he heard her voice. She had never seen his eyes look so grave and hopeless before. It took her breath away for a moment. The left side of Nik’s face had a horrible sunburn. It hadn’t looked like that the night before. Jenn wondered what had happened between then and now.
As if reading his wife’s mind, Nik explained, “I was sitting here staring at the wall, thinking. Then there was a big flash, and the lights went out. They popped back on a few seconds later. Oh, and there were screams.” His voice was expressionless.
“More screams than the first one?” Jenn asked.
He nodded. “But you slept through it. You slept like a kitten. You even purred.” “Meow,” she said.
“Jenn, we have to get out of here,” Nik told her. “And go where?”
“To California,” he said emphatically.
“But it could be even worse there. All of those military bases…”
“I want to see California again before I die,” Nik added quite plainly.
“Niky, we’re not dying,” her response a kneejerk reaction. Nik only stared at her, challenging her with a hard glance.
It made no sense at all yet it made perfect sense. They had been very happy during their last trip to California so it might be nice to say goodbye one last time.
Plus, California was the Promised Land for Nik. For a car mechanic, it was Mecca. All of those classic vehicles. Lambos, Jags, Ferraris, Porsches, DeLoreans. All of those sexy convertibles. The Pacific Coast Highway hugging the rugged shoreline like an asphalt streamer. Yes, California was an auto mechanic’s wet dream. Nik loved to work on vehicles like these, take them apart, see what made them tick then put them back together. It was similar to what he did with Jenn over and over again.
She could picture Nik fishing in a Salinas Valley river like a John Steinbeck character (perhaps George but not Lenny), observing the neat v’s of sparrows in flight while waiting for a golden trout to bite. “People don’t act like that in California,” Nik was known to say when somebody cut the line in a supermarket or a driver gave him the finger on the Gowanus Expressway. Now there was no Gowanus, no finger-flashing drivers.
“They might be a little messed up in LA,” Nik would add, “but at least the sun is shining most of the time and people smile when they stab you in the back.”
What was the source of Nik’s sunny fantasy? Maybe he and Jenn had seen too many Romcoms set on the West Coast. Maybe they had read too much Steinbeck to each other, nestled in their warm, plaid flannel sheets atop their safe, wooden Captain’s bed in Sheepshead Bay.
Travels with Charley was one of their favorite books. How Jenn longed for the
simple peace of drifting to sleep to the gentle racket of her husband’s voice as he slowly read Of Mice and Men aloud to her. She would slip into dreams of plush green woods and fluffy rabbits on the weightless pillow of Nik’s words.
“All right,” Jenn said to her husband from their firm HoJo’s bed. “We’ll try to make it to California. We’ll take it one day at a time, see what happens.” She stood up, approached the prickly, green, cactus chair and kissed Nik’s sweaty forehead on the non-sunburned side. It was hot and airless in the room. The AC seemed to have given up too. “Maybe we’ll find Lenny,” Jenn tagged on, trying to make her husband smile.
“Lenny is dead,” Nik told her.
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