Yesterday I saw Jamie Goodwin burst into flame.
He was just sitting on one of those cheap aluminum-back chairs we all have, eyes closed in the shade of Hester’s old RV, trying to get some relief from the heat, same as everyone else. I was checking the stock of coolers, seeing if any held even a bit of water left to siphon out, when Jamie let out a tiny gasp like he woke from a bad dream. If it was a bad dream he had, he woke to something worse, ’cause little glints of light popped and fizzed off him like the sparklers we used to wave around on Fourth of July. Smoke or steam or something else rose up, then Jamie’s eyes went cartoon-big and he turned into a fireball.
Jamie’s the fourth person to spontaneously combust this month. Two women burned last Wednesday, and old Tom Puddingpaw blazed the week prior. Before that, we averaged only one or two fireballs a month, but now it’s getting worse. And after Jamie burned, Ms. Crankshaw didn’t even cancel lessons like she normally did, as if coming to terms that folks fireballing was the new natural order of things.
“That’s another lesson in evolution. One day we’re apes, then we’re humans, now we’re fireballs.”
She didn’t really say that, but she might as well have.
At least Loud John and Rudy were there when Jamie burned, and they contained his cinders so it didn’t spread like when Quiet John caught flame. But I still saw the whole thing, and it still scared me, even if others pretend to somehow be getting used to it.
“I watched him die,” I tell my friends. “Jamie didn’t scream. I think he tried, since his mouth opened wide, but nothing came out except flames.”
“Why is this happening for no reason?” Ogre asks, though that question is rhetorical because he doesn’t expect an answer. His voice hitches and he overcompensates for it by yelling, “When’s it going to stop?”
That’s rhetorical too.
We’re not supposed to be outdoors because of the heat, but we’re wearing protection, and sometimes out in the desert is the only place we can talk without everyone else listening in.
“I told you we weren’t safe,” Liz says. “Ms. C.’s wrong or she’s lying to us. Anybody can fireball.”
“No one ever tells us the truth,” Tommy adds. “It’s stupid going to lessons if everyone shields us from what’s really happening. I mean, what’re we learning? Facts or make-believe?”
Me and Tommy and Liz and Ogre are shooting at sand lizards with a pair of slingshots. I oughta clarify we’d shoot at anything daring our range of rocks and marbles, but it was too hot for anything but lizards to come out under the sun.
“The adults don’t want us to know…” A red bandana covers half of Liz’s face, so her voice is muffled. “I think we’re all gonna die.”
She pulls the rubber cord of her slingshot taught with long brown fingers, then fires an amber marble missile. The marble’s color is so shimmery that while soaring through the air it appears a flaming comet, and I think again of Jamie.
Liz is stronger than me, and her marble outdistances my cloudy topaz by a dozen feet. She’s older, too, but I still feel scorned a girl is stronger than me, even if only by a little. We arm wrestled a few times before and she won all the matches, but something about the way her hand wrapped around my own made my breath stick in my throat while my heart doubled in size. I think that makes it even worse she’s stronger. Ogre and Tommy are stronger than me too, but I don’t care about that at all.
“I don’t understand why the council says fire would only take the old or sick anyway. Fire’s fire, it burns everything,” Tommy rekindles our old dispute.
“Supposedly it’s like sickness. You’re more vulnerable to catch pneumonia if you’re old or in bad health. People who are fit don’t die from being ill, unless it’s cancer or something.”
“That’s what Ms. C. says, but Jamie was only older than us by five years. And there was nothing wrong with him, he helped fix my dad’s car, lifted out the whole engine by himself,” Tommy says, wiping twin beads of sweat off each cheek.
Ogre sets a chunk of rock into his slingshot and fires it straight up in the air. The rock shrinks smaller and smaller and vanishes, then reappears like a lesson in magic, growing larger and larger, ’til thunking in the bleached dirt several yards away. “My dad says we gotta get the hell outta here. It’s stupid waiting any longer.”
“I want to leave now,” Liz says. “Stockton sucks, even worse than Tulare.”
“Where can we move that’s better than here?”
“North, of course. Anywhere it’s cooler. Maybe Seattle, where it’s supposed to still rain.”
“But it’s heating up everywhere, not just here,” I say. “What’s the point of migrating again?”
“Maybe people aren’t fireballing up there like down here, ’cause it’s wet.”
“That’s not true,” Tommy says. “I heard on the radio, people in the snow are burning up too, even Eskimos in Alaska.”
I don’t bother pointing out that nothing on the radio makes sense anymore. Used to be, the airwaves played real music, but now with the earth heating we don’t get any regular stations, but only those on CB, and all they want to do is talk and talk. One guy keys in music, but it’s only religious hymns that get old real quick. Everyone else just argues. Some broadcasters say solar flares are increasing static electricity, and that causes us to fireball. Some say it’s apocalypse and we’re being punished for sins. Some say there’s nothing wrong at all, and it’s just conspiracy to frighten everyone into war. Some say the world’s heating and we’re just popcorn kernels, exploding one-by-one.
“It doesn’t matter where we go,” Ogre says to each of us in turn. “We’re the strongest and we’ll carry on. It’s survival of the fittest. Maybe a couple young people might die that we thought were strong like Jamie, but that just proves they weren’t fit after all. He could’ve had a heart murmur or something, maybe was a pervert or sick in the mind and hid it all this time.”
“You don’t fireball from bein’ a pervert,” I say.
“You don’t know.”
“Ms. Crankshaw said survival of the fittest has to do with reproducing.”
“Like I said, the strongest are those who survive, and they’re the ones left to reproduce,” Ogre counters. “Duh.”
I don’t think that’s right, but I don’t entirely understand the theory of natural selection.
There aren’t many unclaimed girls in camp my age besides Liz. Only Pearl and Jennifer. Pearl’s in the upper kids’ class with us but she’s smaller and weaker than girls half her age, like if you cracked an egg against her, she’d be the one to shatter rather than the shell. If we married and had children, they’d be twigs. I want to have a ton of kids, I want to help repopulate the world, but I want them to be strong and brave, not afraid of all the things I’m afraid of. Then there’s Jennifer, who’s got a face like the grill of a pickup truck: hard and dented and covered in splatter as if she’d been driven down a long highway full of slow-moving bugs. I know that’s cruel to say, and I would never-ever say that out loud, but her personality matches her appearance too. Ronny Jake once told me it don’t matter what a person looks like under the covers when the lights are off. But you can’t hide an ugly personality, even if all the lights in the world get extinguished.
Liz is dark and strong and beautiful, and it hurts me sometimes that I can’t do more than talk with her or arm wrestle. I mean it really hurts in my stomach, this sense of my guts being wrung and empty. Even if I’ve eaten, there’s still a longing inside like I’m hungry, though I’m usually that also.
But Liz and Ogre like each other, and people say they’ll make good babies, and that hurts my stomach more, even if they’re both my friends and I know I should be happy for them, though I’d rather be happy for myself. I’d never admit I was jealous, and I never even confessed to her in the first place that I like her because I already know she likes Ogre, and I don’t want to feel any more rejected.
And Ogre’s just his nickname. He’s not dumb or ugly or anything. He’s just named that ’cause when we were young in the lower kids’ class, Mrs. Hubble read us a story about an ogre that was super-powerful and could smash anything. He (Ogre, my friend) said he wished he was an ogre and he’d smash away the sun.
Ogre said that every day for a year, like a wish that if you believed hard enough would come true. It didn’t, but the name stuck.
Sometimes Liz gets in my thoughts and I can’t sleep, and when I should be dreaming of water, I dream instead of Ogre being killed and then maybe I could have Liz all to myself. People die every day and no one would notice…
Dad says everyone’s thoughts are confusing in their teenage years, and it’s okay as long as you can differentiate which ones not to act upon. I do know which thoughts are wrong, and I’m ashamed of them, especially those where Ogre dies at my hand. I imagine that thought of Ogre getting killed and I turn it into a pane of glass, and then I imagine myself—a tiny speck version of myself, fully formed, but microscopic in size—fit inside my mind, laying that bad-thought-glass on the ground and then stomping on it, stomping over and over until the glass shatters into a billion pieces, and then I keep stomping on every fragment until those pieces are shattered into a billion more shards, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes, but that I keep imagining myself pulverizing the bad idea until my head is finally clear of it.
It’s just Dad and me living together. We don’t need much, so we stay in a motorhome. Some of the others moved into Stockton’s abandoned houses, but since Dad’s on the council he likes to keep near the center of camp. Plus being in a motorhome is easier to get away if there’s an emergency.
“How were lessons today?” Dad asks. “Learn how to save the world yet?”
“Ms. Crankshaw mostly talked about evolution and… something else… oh, adaptations.”
“Bet you can’t wait for us to evolve some fire-proof skin and independence from hydration-reliance.”
“I’m kidding, buddy.”
My dad is awesome, but what he thinks of as jokes go flat. He’s a lot smarter than most people and that’s why he’s on the council. It’s also why he’s constantly busy. Even now while he’s talking, he’s also writing in a log with jerky, harsh movements like he always does.
I try countering his ‘joke’ with one of my own. “Well, maybe I can mutate wings and fly to Antarctica.”
“But Antarctica’s melted, so there’d be no place you could land.” Dad says it offhandedly, but at the same time it becomes an opening for a lesson. “And species do incur genetic mutations, but those are subtle and not related to the environment. The environment, however, dictates which of those mutations survive.”
Oh God, I really don’t care and want to go to my bunk and be alone, but since we’re on the subject, it reminds me of talking with Ogre. “Dad, are we the fittest to survive because we’re still alive?”
“Not quite,” he says, flicking the pen against his chapped lips before returning to scribbling. “That’s a misconception, though by reductive reasoning one could see it that way.”
“Can you translate from Dad-talk?”
He snorts when he laughs, which is more endearing than it sounds.
“Natural selection is not all-determining. The more fertile an organism is within a given environment, the fitter it is to pass its genes to the next generation.”
“Ms. Crankshaw says we have recessive genes for spontaneous combustion. That’s why some people fireball and not others, like a… a predisposition for certain defects.”
Dad snorts again. “Your teacher can make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.”
“So she’s wrong? What’s causing people to burn?”
“I’m not saying she’s wrong. I’m saying no one knows. She has a hypothesis. It’s unproven.”
When Dad talks to me, usually also he’s writing or calculating or ‘thinking’, and he can converse at the same time, but it’s like I’m speaking to only a part of him, some distracted apparition that just appears to clank chains and then vanishes without leaving any substantial impression. Tommy asked me once why I have to take lessons from Ms. Crankshaw when my dad is ten times smarter, and that’s the reason.
Frustration roils up in a sudden squall, and I want to yell at him, which I know is wrong, and I don’t know why this rage fills me because Dad already said no one knows the answer, so maybe my question is just rhetorical. I call forth that micro-version of me—my mind-me—and it shatters the bad-thought of my tantrum. I take a deep breath and simply ask, “But why’s it happening now?”
He stops writing and actually looks into my eyes. “I don’t know, son. That’s the reason you go to class, to learn new ideas.”
“But you’re smarter than Ms. C.,” I blurt. “What do you think?”
“Fifteen years ago global warming was a concern. Now it’s an exterminator. The environment is changing faster than it can keep up. There are side-effects.”
“Are we going to die?”
His response seems somehow rehearsed for this moment, this cue. “Eventually, yes, but not during any generation you’ll know. It’s estimated the human population is forty percent less than ten years ago. We’re on the decline but we’re resilient. Species adapt and survive, and we’ll turn things around. Ultimately, however, everything must end.”
I want to ask him: Then what’s the point? But I’m afraid of how he’ll respond. I’m as afraid of the truth as I am a lie or even one of his ‘jokes’. I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell the difference.
Three years ago—before people started fireballing—we migrated north to Stockton. The locals didn’t want us here, but there weren’t many left, and there was enough land for everyone, although we had to fight for water rights. I don’t mean we fought using guns, but that Dad and the council negotiated with the locals by bartering dried goods and gasoline. Like Ms. C. reminds us, this is still a democracy, still the state of California, and laws and policies remain in place, even if nobody’s left to enforce them.
“Eventually, things’ll turn around,” people say.
It’s a cycle, like tides that flow and ebb. If you throw a rock in the air, it’ll fall back down. That’s science: it’s observable and repeatable.
“The laws of science,” Ms. Crankshaw told us one day, “are controlling influences.”
“Like Liz Delgado’s boobs controlling your eyes,” Tommy whispered to me, leaning across his desk.
“Shut up!” I whispered back, fiercely. But it was too late; Tommy’s whispers could be my shouts, and everyone in class heard. If I thought it’d been hot before, the temperature in my face rose a thousand degrees.
“Thomas Tawny, would you like to teach this lesson?” Ms. C. asked.
“No, ma’am. You talked about ‘empirical evidence’ before, and I was just explaining to Kenny that it applies to him. You know, how experiments are repeatedly verified.”
The room laughed.
I imagined punching Tommy in the face, and this was not a bad-thought. No micro-version of me came forth to shatter that idea in my mind.
“Survival of the fittest,” Ms. C. said, thankfully changing topic, “is an observable and repeatable effect of nature...”
Dad says no matter what, education is the most critical matter, as everyone makes their own way in life, and schooling gives us a benchmark for survival. Ms. Crankshaw teaches all subjects to us upper kids, and I like it when we discuss reading and sometimes history, though more time is spent on science than all other subjects combined.
Science is most important, because that’s what’s going to save us.
It’s my shift to help gather, and we leave at dusk.
The pick-up roars eastbound on Highway 120 to Escalon, and I’m squashed between Tommy and John in its cab. Tommy peels dead skin off his hands, and John sings while he drives.
“Dashing through the snow…”
Jingle Bells is his favorite song, and he chants it in a dry, grim voice, though Christmas won’t be for eight more weeks. Couple months ago we called him, ‘Loud John,’ but since Quiet John died, he’s just ‘John’ now.
I drown him out by skimming the CB channels. People argue about fireballing, though different places call it blazing, burning men, cleansed, phoenix ash, or a dozen other terms. Names don’t matter, just facts, and those are hard to tell among the rumors and accusations. Only thing certain is it’s worsening.
Tommy muses, “Maybe we’ll find a hot chick, abandoned and desperate for rescue.”
I snicker at the thought, but for a different reason: In this temperature, any person we find is hot.
“Maybe we’ll find a walk-in freezer that’s running on solar-powered battery back-up,” I reply.
“A hot chick trapped in a walk-in freezer. Mmm,” he says.
Today, I’d rather just have ice cream. The afternoon high was up another degree, bringing the weekly average to one hundred-eighteen. It’s been nine years since I tasted ice cream.
Ogre, Ronny Jake, and Lorie Quinn follow in a second pick-up, each of our trucks towing an empty U-Haul trailer. The council says to depend on mobility and haste for protection. We have weapons, too, but rarely need them.
“Oh what fun it is to ride—” John sings, then cuts short. “There it is.”
We turn into the entrance of a planned housing development, cookie-cutter homes that spiral around each other for miles and miles: Amberhill Estates.
Most people from California migrated north to Canada, where the base temperature is cooler, and few still live down here. Dad says if we stay south of the population exodus, there’s less competition for resources. Dad’s smart, though his philosophy of survival hinges principally on scavenging. We want to be an agrarian society, but we’re reverting to hunting and gathering.
“Where’d we leave off?” John asks.
“Up Dwyer Street,” Tommy answers.
A big red ‘X’ is spray-painted on each home’s garage that we already scavenged on earlier trips. The ‘X’s pass by for three intersections.
We stop at the first unmarked house that looks empty. A good hint is the lump of caked fur and gnawed bones chained in the yard that might once have been a German Shepherd. Ronny Jake parks his truck across the street. They break into one home, and we break into another, entering by windows John smashes out with a hammer.
When the water dried up, most residents left in a hurry, the whole mob-mentality thing. Rumors flew about northern borders closing due to population overflow, so everyone raced each other for the safety of some fabled land that doesn’t exist anymore in the way it was once remembered.
Most thought to siphon the two gallons from their toilet tanks before joining the great exodus. They don’t think about their water heaters though, and when we search houses, we check the heater and there’s forty to sixty gallons waiting, which goes a long way when rationing, even for a camp of over two hundred. And that’s how it is here; John opens the valve, emptying the heater into portable coolers.
There’re are also a few negligible sources of groundwater left in the region, too—deep wells, some muddy creeks—but we’re of the mind to stockpile all we can now.
Tommy explores bedrooms and closets for clothes, camping gear, batteries, weapons, or anything else useful or tradable, while I search the pantry. Even indoors, in the evening, the bronze drawer handles could burn my fingers if I don’t wear leather gloves. I find boxes of stale crackers and Campbell’s soup cans and collect them into a knapsack. On the bottom shelf rests a case of Coca-Cola, which is the dearest type of treasure.
A framed portrait hangs on the wall above the dining table showing a smiling man, woman, boy, girl, and a German Shepherd. The traditional family… How many portraits inside houses I’ve ransacked have I gazed upon? I wonder, every time, what became of them. Did they get out? Did they die? Did they make a new life for themselves somewhere under green trees that soak up morning dew, or did they fireball?
Maybe they’re part of another camp, somewhere else, ransacking other deserted homes and staring at pictures of residents who once lived there. Certainly they just want to survive, same as me, same as everyone else. People used to say that if society collapsed, everyone would militarize and fight each other and then, truly, only the strongest would survive.
Fact is, people in dire circumstances tend to help each other. Survivors form camps like ours when times are tough. We share with each other, forage together, eat together, commune together.
“Done,” John shouts, and Tommy repeats it.
“Done,” I say, sparing a last look at the portrait, thinking they appear so happy, especially the man who is a husband and father.
Screams echo in camp on our return. Mrs. Rice just fireballed.
Kids and adults alike are mourning her since everyone liked Mrs. Rice, and not even us returning with food and water brings many smiles. People don’t seem as hungry or thirsty when the smell of cooked human flesh hangs in the air.
John leaves to report to Dad, while Tommy and I unload our U-Haul. Mutterings sound from people all around that it’s time to leave Stockton.
It’s horribly hot here, but so is it everywhere, and other places got it worse. We’ve migrated seven times, and I don’t want to pull stake and move again. We’ve drilled wells that still pull up marshy water, and though we never have an abundance of food, we don’t starve either. We haven’t tasted citrus in two years, but still grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and some squash in the shade.
Used to be, Central Valley was one of the most fertile farm lands in the world. Now people call it the Mojave Desert’s little sister. It’s been two years since the San Joaquin River dried up, but we survive.
Liz comes over, offering to help unload.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey,” Tommy and I reply.
She grabs a wad of sheets from the trailer, and when she pulls it out she makes a little squeal. “Is that Coca-Cola? Think I can take one?”
“They’re supposed to be rationed,” I reply, then slyly add, “But I’ll arm wrestle you for it.”
“Why?” she says, giving me a little knowing smile that could mean any of a dozen things. “You already know I’ll win.”
Tommy snickers, and I feel my face flush with embarrassment, like I just blurted a great secret.
“Never mind,” I say. “John will know it’s missing.”
“I would have shared with you, but guess I’ll wait for Billie instead.” Since Liz’s parents died, she’s lived with this old woman, Billie Gross, who’s in charge of inventory and rationing for the camp. That’s how Liz gets her choice of provisions.
I think Liz understands survival better than anyone else, in ways beyond scavenging, beyond reproducing. She best understands people. In that regard, she may be the fittest among us.
I sigh, and once she leaves I almost tell Tommy how unfair natural selection is. For in this environment, I’ve become the least likely to propagate. There’s a balanced number of boys and girls, and older people are always pressuring to pair us off young. Liz has Ogre, and Patrick and Susie have been together forever. Jersey was sorta odd-man-out for his age, but then Jamie died, so now he may end up with Robyn, and others are already sworn matches. That leaves Tommy and me and Pearl and Jennifer. But like I said before, if I have to marry somebody and make babies, I wouldn’t want to settle for either of them.
Ms. C. said now it’s an obligation to reproduce, but Dad says you still have to like someone to make a relationship work. I know he misses Mom, and I do too. Anyway, Pearl and Jennifer probably wouldn’t settle for me either. When they’re around, I see them both looking at Tommy instead of me.
Next morning I wake, and the land’s as cool as it ever gets. The thermometer reads a brisk ninety-one, even though it’s already 6:30 and the sun well-risen.
Dad’s up front in the motorhome, writing in another log with his jerky, harsh movements. I tell him, “Good morning.”
He’s pale and unshaven and miserable. I know news is bad.
“Kenny, sit down.”
“We had another case last night. Someone… your age. Your friend, Osmond, passed away. I’m sorry.”
I stare at him, my mind fuzzy, a million thoughts scrambling to make sense of that.
“Ogre,” Dad adds.
Then the pain hits, and I say only, “Why…?”
And I could’ve repeated that word a thousand times, but it’s only rhetorical, because I don’t want an explanation.
Dad mistook me as seeking answers, an opening for another lesson. “Spontaneous combustion has occurred throughout history, but the reason it’s worsening—”
“Stop!” I shout, “Just stop, I don’t care.”
He glances at me, then his eyes avert. “You should care, son.”
My mind-me shatters everything about the world, and I feel better.
Dad says, “Why don’t you take it easy today. I bet class will be cancelled.”
I nod. Not even Ms. Crankshaw would teach after one of her own students fireballed. I slump beside Dad while he works, and I stare out at the sun and wonder what happens to us once we burn away.
Later I go to Liz’s, three rows down the camp center.
She already heard the news from Billie Gross and had cried out the worst of her sorrow. But when she sees me, fresh tears run down her face and we embrace, though all I can wonder is how her body still produces that much water. Her tears are rivers of crystalline, clear as melted glass, shimmering as dreams, and I think what a waste for shedding it away. We sit and she puts her head on my shoulder, resting under my chin, and for the first time I feel stronger than her. When she moves, her soft cheek rubs on mine and I taste those tears at the corner of my lips, and they’re salty like how the San Joaquin last tasted, but still wondrously sweet.
“You’re a good friend,” she says.
I want to tell her I could be more than a friend, but the strength I just felt suddenly flees… it’s hard, so hard to voice words like those… my mouth gums up, my heart starts thumping too fast for my breath to keep up. That tiny speck version in my mind screams to say it, just tell her! He even tries to help, laying down glass panes of me being tongue-tied and shattering them.
My mouth sticks open while I wonder at how many different ways she might reject me.
Then Tommy appears out of nowhere, walking to us down the row of trailers, and my chance is gone.
“Missed you at class,” he says.
“There was still class… after Ogre?” Liz asks.
“Most of us didn’t know until Ms. C. broke the news. I’m sorry.”
Liz just shakes her head.
Tommy pauses, biting his lip, but what he has to say can’t be contained. “It was the best lesson ever today. Ms. C.’s finally cracked! Said she sees Jesus and wants to reproduce with him since he has God’s genes and all.”
“What the eff?” Liz says, while I just stare, my mouth agape.
“Oh yeah, and she started crying, really shrieking with hysterics and everything. She finally admitted we’re all going to die.”
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!” Liz yells.
“That’s bull,” I say, “My dad says it’s not true. Ms. Crankshaw’s out of her mind.”
“Your dad’s just one of the adults,” Liz counters. “He’s trying to shield us, trying to hide the truth like he knows what’s best!”
Any trace of Liz’s tears is gone, evaporated and dried like everything else. She doesn’t trust adults since her parents died. It happened in an accident during our first migration to Oxnard, and adults spirited Liz away, saying her mom and dad were okay. Later she was told the adults lied for her own good, to ‘protect her,’ so Liz wouldn’t see the mangled bodies. But false hope is the cruelest sort of lie, and all Liz wanted was the chance to have said good-bye to her parents in person.
Tommy says, “Ms. C. admitted that everyone knows we’re dying, the planet itself is combusting, just a lot slower than people.”
“I hate them,” Liz says, “It’s not fair...”
“It’s okay,” Tommy replies, “Things will turn around. They’ll get better.” He wraps firm arms around Liz and comforts her tight.
I should’ve realized Tommy also likes Liz, because what guy wouldn’t like her? Mind-me pounds his head in disgust, and I don’t know what else to do.
“Will they?” Liz repeats back to Tommy, “Things’ll get better?”
“We’ll make them better,” he replies, giving her the same-exact-false-hope they claim is shelled out by adults.Liz only listens—or pretends to listen—because it’s Tommy.
Tommy’s athletic and hard-working and funny, and everyone says he’s sharp and dependable. I’m sharp and dependable, too, but no one says it about me.
I think of Ogre shooting that chunk of rock into the sky with his slingshot, and I envision it as my heart. In such a moment, it went soaring high, high into the air, then suddenly turned and fell, thunking hard to the ground.
The next week, three more people died, though only one of those fireballed: a council member, Mr. Garcia. That shook my dad up a lot, someone who was smart and important being taken. Then Billie Gross died naturally from dehydration and heat stroke, and Ronny Jake ate a bullet.
But after the deaths, Melody Olson had a baby, so that equaled only net two from our camp population. Dad keeps a running tally in his log. He made a graph and extrapolated it, and I saw that in seventy-eight weeks our camp would be extinct. But that’d only be if we keep the same rate of mortality. Dad says we’ll turn it around.
The temperature rose another degree, bringing the weekly average to one hundred-nineteen. Used to be, late-November was a time to pull out those light sweaters from the back of the closet. Now every breath is a gasp, like choking under a blanket of dust. Your lungs burn, your eyes dry out, your head aches all day, you feel dizzy.
At least it's a dry heat, everyone’s fond of saying. We couldn't survive if it were humid.
And it’s my shift to help gather again. Once the monstrous sun begins melting beyond the horizon, I meet with the same group, except since Ogre and Ronny Jake died, Hester and Jersey took their places.
Liz stops by to wish us good luck, and she smiles at me, and it’s sincere. But I also see her sweet fingers trail along the inside of Tommy’s hand when she passes him, and I know what that means.
Wearily we pile into the pick-ups and return to Highway 120 that leads to Escalon, and John sings merrily in his dry, grim voice. “Have a holly jolly Christmas...”
I almost whisper to Tommy my grave doubts of that holiday sentiment coming true, but he’s adrift in dreams, probably of Liz. I fiddle instead with the CB radio.
Less people are talking on it, and more of what they say doesn’t make sense, and what does sounds violent. Everything’s regressing.
Maybe I’ll be the one to figure it all out in class, solve the riddle of survival. Dad still pushes education as being most important, even without Ms. Crankshaw. Mrs. Hubble took over teaching both lower and upper kids since Ms. C. wandered into the desert and never came back—
Suddenly everything changes when John stops singing.
“What in hell,” he says and slams the brakes, and Tommy and me pitch forward into the dash.
There’s a bus painted camouflage parked across the highway lanes.
Hester’s truck is ahead, and they jackknifed when they braked so abruptly.
John slows, stops, then starts to reverse, and soldiers with flashlights and machine guns are puked up from ravine gullets all around.
“Get out of the truck!” a man screams. He’s not wearing a helmet or even an officer’s beret, but rather a baseball cap with the San Diego Padres emblem across the front.
Somebody fires a shot in the air, a warning, and the bullet is a brilliant comet arching across the inky sky.
A man—no, a woman—comes near and slams our hood with the stock of her shotgun. “Get yer butts outta there!”
“Give us your food!” someone else yells, and more soldiers point guns at us
“We ain’t got any,” John shouts truthfully out the window, since the U-Hauls are empty. “We’re searching, same as you.”
“Out of the truck!” the man in the Padres cap screams again.
Another shot is fired, punching through Hester’s trailer. Sweat pops on my temples, and it’s not from heat. More men converge on the trucks, banging with rifle butts and even sticks for those who don’t hold guns.
These aren’t real soldiers, I think, then realize when society collapses, some survivors do militarize and fight each other...
The woman smashes her shotgun again on our hood. “Get out! Or I’ll shoot your butts!”
I fear what awaits outside the cab, and none of us move to exit. The truck’s parked, but the engine idles, a low grumbling warning.
Ahead, an arm sticks out of Hester’s truck holding a pistol and fires at a man in hunter’s clothes. The shot is a soft pop-pop, but the scream is loud. The arm moves and shoots another man who carries a crossbow, and he falls silently.
For a moment, everything’s frozen and, though it won’t happen, I imagine that arm just picking off all the bad guys, one-by-one, while they stand immobile, helpless.
But then they unfreeze, and the soldiers trigger their horrible weapons, and Hester’s truck blossoms in a cloud of smoke and burst metal and shells and blood. I scream, and Tommy screams, and the woman with the shotgun screams, “You’re dead!”, and she shoots the side of our truck, and some of the pellets smash through but damage only the floorboard.
A tall man in fatigues runs in front and levels a huge pistol at Tommy and fires. The windshield bursts, and Tommy coughs out a grunt, and half his head geysers blood.
John stomps on the gas, peeling backward, and twists the steering wheel. The rest of the windshield implodes, showering us with glass. The tall man points his pistol at me and, even as we retreat, I see his eyes are emotionless. He just wants to survive, and I’m competition, and my own life is about to end.
But the man gives a tiny gasp just like Jamie Goodwin did, and suddenly he starts emitting little glints of light and then bursts into a booming, shrieking fireball. The other soldiers run from him, terrified, as the man dances in a crazy circle before collapsing.
I can’t believe my luck, and John reverses us far enough down road to swing a wild backwards turn, and then we’re roaring forward.
The impact of small arms fire striking the truck causes it to buck and sway, or perhaps it’s from the road, filled with potholes and debris that as John races over at such speed, the attached U-Haul seems to lift in the air, sailing a foot or two upward like a terrible kite, pulling us side-to-side.
Leaning over Tommy’s awful corpse provides a departing view in the side-mirror of soldiers’ flashlights scurrying back and forth, and the smoldering body of the fireballed man, and then—finally, crushingly—the flicker of many headlamps turning on.
John drives like never before, barreling back to camp. The only songs he sings now are curses, though there’s a certain musical quality to their repetition.
And though I can’t stop shaking, and my heart feels like it’s going to break through my ribs, all I think about is Liz. Ogre’s dead, Tommy’s dead, her parents, even old Billie Gross is dead. Liz doesn’t have anyone to save her, to care for her...
There’s no one but me.
We’ll have to flee, the camp must evacuate and migrate somewhere safer, maybe even somewhere wetter. Once boys used to ask girls to a school dance. Now girls are asked which motorhome they’d like to run for their lives in. Will you be mine?
But what if someone asks her first... someone like Rudy, twenty years older, but who’s rugged, inventive, and good with a hunter’s rifle? He can protect her, and I heard he even writes poetry.
I tear myself up inside, and we smash into the middle of camp, and John leaps from the truck without even turning it off, running to sound the alarm. People are already panicked because they’re wide-eyed and scurrying, having earlier heard the faraway gunfire.
John’s screaming at everyone to pack and drive north, and there’s a giant church bell someone hung upon scaffolding a long time ago, and John rings it back and forth, over and over.
And then I see it true, just as I feared... In the distance, Rudy and Liz are leaving together for his van! A million jumbled feelings set upon me, and they must end up in the bottom of my stomach, because I feel my guts fall low with the weight of misery.
A horrible thought flashes in my mind, that I could kill him. I don’t know how, but I’ll kill him, I’ll murder him, smash in his head, and then I’d set him on fire and blame it all on the combustion...
The tiny version of me leaps into my head, ready to shatter to nothingness that bad-thought, but it pauses… ’cause maybe I’d prove I was the fittest by killing him, I’d be the final survivor, and then Liz would want me...
But I know that’s wrong, and I hate myself, and I’m lost. Tommy just stares at me with unblinking eyes as if to say he’d trade places with me in an instant, and I almost agree.
I exit the truck and shuffle home.
For once, Dad’s not writing, and his face is in mortal despair, paling before me as the alarm keeps clanging. He actually lightens shade-by-shade from red-brown to baby pink.
“There’s no point,” he says quietly, and his attention is entirely on me. “I’m sorry, son, sorry for lying to you all this time. But we are going to die... soon.”
I stare at him, I can’t believe it.
“All I’ve done, all I’ve built, all for naught,” he murmurs. “I only wanted to protect you as long as I could. But there’s no turning back from where we’re headed.”
Dad expects I’ll scream at him, blaspheme deities, cry, hit things, but I don’t.
Instead I unexpectedly feel calm. I feel acceptance.
I’m going to die. We’re all going to die.
“That doesn’t matter,” I tell him.
For that moment I realize I’d struggled against extinction all this time while still worrying that if I didn’t do what people expected, I’d disappoint them or I’d disappoint myself. In the fight for survival I worried how others might judge me, and I judged them in turn, because I felt inadequate. I let little insecurities overwhelm me, the doubts, the fears, the meaningless trivialities of existence.
And it’s all for naught, because we’re going to die.
We only live one time, and why-oh-why did I fear adversity and failure, when that doesn’t matter at all?
I imagine my fears all as panes of glass, piles and piles of glass, and then mind-me comes forth, and he is mightier than ever, and he shatters all those bad-thoughts of self-defeat into nothingness until I feel reborn, and I decide I’m going to live life for myself…
“Dad, pick yourself up. We’re not dead yet.”
He nods, dazed, but color returns to his face.
“Get the RV ready and wait,” I add. “I’ll be back.”
I head to Rudy’s van.
I never connected with Liz before except as ‘friends’. And it’s my fault... she’s not just a trophy to be won or some superior vessel to wed genes. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, even me, even Dad. Dad admitted no one knows why we’re fireballing or what’s going to happen to the world, and in the absence of proven theories, people hypothesize, but that doesn’t make it fact. Someday the planet will self-implode, but that day has not yet come.
Education’s not the most critical matter at all, though Dad was right when he said everyone makes their own way in life.
I find Liz carrying a water cooler to Rudy’s van.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” she says back.
“Can I help?”
She looks at me with another of those little knowing smiles that could mean any of a dozen things, and small-arms gunfire erupts at the outskirts of camp.
“Are you leaving with Rudy?” I ask.
“He’s the first who offered.”
“Would you like to come with me instead?”
She shrugs noncommittally.
“Wait, that’s not what I really wanted to say,” I correct. “I like you, more than a friend.”
There, something so small is said, and a tremendous weight lifts from my conscience. I continue, “You shouldn’t settle for the first person who asks. You should go where you want, where you’ll be happiest.”
She shrugs again, but this time it feels meant for me, an opening, though she pulls back with, “Rudy’s cool.”
Bullets ping and echo, drawing nearer. People peel out in trucks and campers, dragging clotheslines across the dirt like the tails of slithering wardrobe serpents.
I change my earlier question to a declaration. “Liz, I’d like you to come with me.”
“Kenny, you’re too...”
Too young? Too weak? Too dumb? Too troubled?
I almost falter under the resurgence of doubts, but I shatter them away myself, without mind-me, and it’s easier than I ever thought it could be.
I tell her, “I’m going to make my own way in this world.”
She nods. “Okay.”
“And I’d like you to be with me. I don’t want to spend another day wondering if something could happen between us. I’d like to take a chance and find out before it’s too late. I may never see you again.”
She pauses, contemplating, perhaps weighing her options, and I consider again that Liz understands survival better than anyone else.
“Will you tell me things are going to turn around?” she asks.
I think of Tommy saying those words, and of Ogre believing we were stronger than the world, and of all the adults, everyone blind to the truth, or lying to us, or now dead.
“No,” I admit. “They’re not. I don’t know how much time we have left, but I want to spend that remaining time with you.”
Someone nearby shrieks, erupting in a fireball, and the sound is mortifying. Liz isn’t distracted, but searches my eyes, perhaps for traits she herself most desires.
“All right,” she finally says. “I’d like that, Kenny.”
She slides one hand to me, and her long brown fingers entwine with mine. We leave the water cooler for Rudy, and amidst the screams and rattling machine gun fire and people bursting to flame, we go to my motorhome where Dad’s waiting to spirit us off to new lands.
Whatever awaits, I’ll face it on my own terms, knowing in some way I’ve already survived. And I wonder: Did natural selection predispose me to love, or do I love because I evolved?
Though, in the end, that question is rhetorical.
Original illustration for A Case Study in Natural Selection and How It Applies to Love by Jim Burns, © 2015