By Daniel Miller
The Homes We Found
To my children,
First, I want to tell you that you don’t need to worry about me. I know I left unexpectedly that night, but your ol’ Mom is doing just fine. The next time you and the gang pass through Chicago, you must stop by my new shop. I’ve been working on a recipe for vegan sausage tarts that that I think you’ll really enjoy.
Second, Don’t eat people. I know a lot of folks have started doing it, but it’s really a bad habit and I raised you better than that. Hunger and peer pressure are powerful motivators, but once you start eating people, no one else is going to want to hire you. I know you think you’ve found a good group of raiders, and they are nice kids, but you never know when you’ll be headhunted by a larger organization. Remember, always stay true to yourselves and never give up on your dreams. I wish I had followed that advice when I was your age.
It’s hard for a momma to leave her babies behind, but there’s something about the end of the world that gives a person perspective. After all we’ve been through—the divorce, the move, the apocalypse—I simply couldn’t put my dreams on hold any longer. If I didn’t do this then, I feared I never would. I hope you understand.
When I was a young girl, I was obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. I saw her film, Sabrina, and I saw my own future. I couldn’t wait until I was eighteen and could fly away to culinary school in Paris. Then I would return to some glamorous big city, New York or Chicago or San Francisco, and open my own vegan bakery.
But after graduation, I met your father. We talked of our dreams, moving away, Paris, New York. But we got pregnant so quickly and then got married and then got a mortgage. We couldn’t afford a nanny or preschool, so I stayed home with both of you. Then your father wanted to go to law school. That’s when I got the second job at the grocery store.
Grocery stores, can you believe such places once existed? Fresh produce, already butchered meat, ready-made meals, toilet paper, all in one building! No scavenging through abandoned houses or setting snares or waiting months for fruit to ripen. And such waste! All the things we just threw away. What I wouldn’t give for a big refrigerator full of leftovers now.
Of course, all I thought about back then was a paycheck. And then child support, after your Dad ran away with that hussy from his office. I worked so hard to keep us in that house in the good neighborhood with the good schools. It makes me laugh now, how important those things seemed. I remember my first thought when the bombs fell: Wow, that’s going to tank their property value.
I’ll admit I was nervous when you suggested we join the raiders, though you probably already knew that. My daddy had taught me to shoot a gun, but I didn’t know the first thing about looting or pillaging. You two shined though. All those years I tried to get you to sign up for sports or marching band or anything to get you out of the house, to make friends that weren’t online. Then after we hit that caravan fleeing Kansas City, I knew you’d found your place. You took to smashing cars and terrorizing survivors like fish to water. You even scared me. But mostly I was proud to see my two children, my loves, come out of your shells like that, so full of life and purpose.
I think it was in Oklahoma when I realized I had to leave. We had just chased some folks through a little town and across a bridge when the structure collapsed. Floating down that radioactive river, trying to hold my rifle above the water when I could barely swim myself, I realized I had done it again. Fallen into my old pattern. The whole marauding and murdering gig had always been more your thing than mine. It was your father’s law school all over again.
So I packed my backpack, hot-wired the first intact car I could find, and headed for Chicago. I suppose if we had lived in a big city before, we would have been incinerated by a bomb or killed by that mutated bird flu that swept the country. Timing is everything. With most of Chicago either a crater or abandoned, the rent here is super affordable. My apartment is small, but the view is to die for.
I scavenged an abandoned flour factory and planted a garden in the lot behind my little bakery. I hope to have fresh raspberry puff pastries next summer. I’m working on some gluten-free options, too. I know some raiders are conscious about that sort of thing. Business is slow for now, but I figure that’s normal for a startup. I’ve got a good business model: quality product, low overhead, and a great location beside the water. I’ve left spray paint cans outside the building so customers can leave good reviews. In the coming weeks I hope to install a sidewalk to drum up more foot traffic. Can you believe it kids, your ol’ mom is finally doing it!
I can’t wait for you to see this place. And remember, your father may have called Thanksgiving, but I get you for Christmas! Love you to the apocalypse and back – Mom.
You Won’t Survive This
To my daughter,
You won’t survive this. I didn’t either, if that’s any comfort. If you’re reading this, it means you’ve lasted longer than me. Kudos, kid.
I’m not sure what will finally do me in. Radiation poisoning, starvation, infection? Of course, it could always be raiders. They strike as sudden and vicious as any mutated double headed rattle snake. I always expected there would be some raiders. They were a given in all pre-apocalypse novels or movies or online prepper message boards, so I stockpiled guns and ammo like I was supposed to. I just didn’t expect so many.
Do you remember that TV show where the rules were made up and the points didn’t matter? That’s what this world is.
I read all the signs, made all the right preparations. When the Gulf Coast began to flood regularly, I moved you and your mother inland. Maybe you remember that trip, the deadlocked highways. We parked our camper, custom painted to match our new military-surplus camo wardrobes, at the foothills of the Rockies. Protective mountains to the back of us and a wide-open view to the front. I installed some solar panels and squirreled away cases of MREs. I even took a class at the community college on CPR and general first aid. I was all set.
And it was fun at first. I feel bad saying that. Billions of people died. But they all died so far away. And my family was safe. And mass casualties were to be expected—that’s how an apocalypse works. And it really was fun, at least in my little part of the apocalypse. Hunting or fishing during the day, binging on disaster news streams and Netflix at night. Knowing I had no cubicle waiting for me at the end of the long weekend because the office park had been incinerated in the first wave of bombs. It was like early retirement, a dream life of leisure, or a back-to-nature spiritual awakening. The movies and blogs I consumed in preparation differed on that point, but they all agreed that this was how life was meant to be lived—stripped down, simple, free.
Do you remember how your mother and I used to argue about fake news? What I wouldn’t give for a little serotonin-inducing clickbait right now.
The death of the internet brought with it an unexpected claustrophobia. I first grew concerned when my reception bars fell from three to one. Then the selfie I took with my first successful batch of homebrew elderberry beer got stuck at 42 percent upload for over an hour. The network diagnostic circle never stopped spinning. Then everything went blank. My lengthy friends list, all the followers I had spent years cultivating, gone. All my albums and DIY videos, the testimonies to my survival, just more digital ash in this wasteland. Now I sit in the camper looking out the window only as far as my eye can see or I stare at a blue screen and daydream about two-day shipping.
I carried my homemade 5G tower higher up the mountain for a better signal. I snuck into town to scavenge for an ethernet cable. But none of my efforts mattered once the last of the big servers went down. It was likely destroyed or simply left unmanned as a result of that mutated flu virus that all my regular RSS feeds had warned about.
Our little rabbit ear TV picked up a couple channels for about a week after the Wi-Fi died. The crank radio lasted two weeks after that. In less than a month, all that was left of the information age was one lone radio station at the lower end of the FM band playing The Ramones’ Road to Ruin on repeat. Some sick solar power generated joke.
Do you remember video games with their mana and health bars? It was so easy to restore my character’s vitality in games. And something interesting usually happened by this point in all the movies.
I have enough free time now to realize that I’m really bad at hunting and I hate fishing. At least you enjoy digging for worms. Too bad we can’t eat those. Though once the MREs are gone, we may have to. You mother’s summer garden has grown dormant. Our family outings to pick berries and other edible plants produce less and less. We have nothing left to distract us from the realization that we all liked each other better when we weren’t the only people around.
I hope the food and water filter will last you until I return. If I return. These scavenging trips take longer and longer. I saw signs for a Walmart distribution center near Denver the last time I was out. Of course there may not be anything worth taking if I find it. It’s amazing how quickly things spoil—even gasoline.
I haven’t felt well for weeks now. My stomach is always upset. I’m lethargic. I have a weird rash and my gums bleed. Poison ivy? Scurvy? Depression? I tell my symptoms to my phone, but the voice assistant is no help. I don’t know why I keep the stupid thing charged.
Do you remember that old Alanis Morissette song, “Ironic?” I’ve got a new verse: You plan so hard to survive the apocalypse you never imagine you can’t endure surviving.
To You Who Didn’t Survive
To you who didn’t survive,
God you’re lucky. I know you planned and prepared and even looked forward to it. But did you really know what it would mean to live on the other side of the apocalypse? Could anyone? I suppose you didn’t anticipate your stay would be so short. How’d you manage that? I’ve been trying like crazy and only seem to lengthen mine.
I used to live in a little community east of Santa Fe, population 112. The CDC said that the mutated bird flu virus had a 98 percent mortality rate. By all accounts I should have had 1.24 friends left after it hit. But I drove away without even a dog. And that wasn’t the last time the experts got it wrong.
Did you hear the reports about that toxic yellow cloud that swept across the Texas Panhandle, killing thousands? Well I was there too. I stood outside with everybody else to watch the cloud roll through town. They all had on their government-issued gasmasks. My new neighbors said I was crazy to refuse. I said they were crazy to accept. “I refuse this world. Let it take me now before things get really bad,” I said. I took one last breath of fresh air, held it for as long as I could. The yellow haze surrounded me and I exhaled. The smell was awful. I gagged, doubled over. But I kept breathing. Everyone around me tore at their chests, fell to the ground, and never got back up. Seems there was a factory defect in the gasmask filters. They all inhaled a concentrated and deadly dose of asbestos, while the cloud from the feedlot east of town continued on its way west—yellow, smelly, and disappointingly nonradioactive.
In your letter you said the bombs hit first, then the virus. I can’t remember. How messed up is that? Not that it really matters which was first. They both did the trick for most people. Still, the apocalypse is something a person should remember.
But the bombs and virus, that’s not really how it stared. That’s how the world ended. The apocalypse started with a lot of little things. A pinch of famine here, a dash of drought there, add a sprinkling of extremism and genocide. Then bake with a little CO2 at over 400 parts per million and the world is sure to burn. The apocalypse was lot of little things that we got used to until we couldn’t anymore.
Like guns. You wouldn’t believe how many people just shot themselves or their neighbors during those first few weeks of hysteria. Or maybe you would.
Or like contaminated water. A little dirt or sewage leakage I could handle. I could filter it through a sock and, if I pinched my nose and swallowed quickly, I could hardly smell it. But the pesticide runoff, the fracking chemicals, the coal ash, those took hardcore filtration. And that was before the apocalypse. Now, without electricity or utility workers, forget about it. I’m so tired of spending hours every day boiling water. If I could stand the taste, I would just suck down a gallon raw and be done with it.
I recently met a nice family traveling across Oklahoma. They saw the smoke from my campfire. I traded a container of freshly boiled water for a gas station frozen burrito. It wasn’t exactly frozen anymore, but, hey, survivors can’t be choosers. We’ve traveled together for a few days now. Yesterday we passed through a small town that, minus the absence of people, looked as if the apocalypse has forgotten it. Sure, the homes and roads were rundown. But they were sluggish-rural-economy-dilapidated, not nuclear-winter-dilapidated. The football stadium by the high school was in pristine condition.
We were about to enter it, see if there was anything worth scavenging, when we heard the bull horn. Raiders. Of the cannibal type, too, by the bloody look of them. They chased us through downtown and then to a bridge. The children were exhausted but the raiders kept coming. When the family was safely across, I told them to keep going. I would stay there and try to slow down the raiders. It’s hard to chase people on a full stomach. Cramps and the added weight. I loaded my pistol and waited until they were so close, I knew I couldn’t miss. Like I said before—guns.
I felt the ground shake. I took a step back just as the bridge collapsed, sending the raiders on an impromptu trip down the radioactive river. Thank God that town had blown their budget on a new stadium rather than something boring like infrastructure maintenance.
I turned around to see the family just a few paces back with their own guns drawn. Even the children. I was surprised in that moment, not at their guns, but that I was actually grateful I hadn’t fallen in or been eaten. I had tried to escape this world for so long. All those little losses that I could never get used to. I thought to myself, Maybe escape isn’t the same as refusal. Maybe the best way to refuse this world is to engage it, to remake it before it unmakes me.
Then again, what do I know? Maybe they were aiming at me.
Daniel Miller is a Texas-based writer and teacher. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals such as Amarillo Bay, Cleaver, Entropy, Gulf Stream, and The Tishman Review. www.drdanielmiller.com
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.