Thirty-two pairs of eyes are fixed on the carnage before them.
Bone-white, the mushroom cloud races indiscriminately in all directions, consuming the sea. A red stalk of hellfire supports its fluffy cap and slowly, the white veil parts from the center, revealing a sick and blackened core. Birds swoop, just little white flashes, across the scene. Maybe they’re just flecks of light burned into the reel, but either way, I somehow feel guilty. The scene flashes, changes. A car’s paint job spontaneously erupts into dust. Trees tip like matches. Men in the foreground wear welding goggles and a look of horrifying ignorance, and I feel the guilt again. Another flash, this time to riots, then protests, then WWII, then back to nuclear blasts. A headline: “GREAT WAR FINALLY OVER” scrolls across the screen, illuminating the classroom in dread. My professor, a portly man with gentle eyes and hair more salted than peppered, stands at the front of the class, brightened by sepia-tinted horror, and lecturing:
“Within the Western paradigm, the most common understanding of change is both linear and teleological.” Dr. Hill, as usual, is lecturing on the end of the world. “In the Judeo-Christian perspective,” he continues, “we consider ourselves moving progressively toward some end point in history. In other words,” we all brace ourselves, “a confrontation with the apocalypse.”
Dr. Richard Hill, the kind, almost fatherly presence of our campus, has spent the past thirty years forming a literary theory he describes as “Apocalyptic.” Like any properly stuffed academic with over forty years of research under his belt, it doesn’t matter if the topic is politics, sex, history, pop culture, Hill will find a way to slip in his end of times theory—the magnum opus of his career. For Hill, the apocalypse is always in the context of rebirth, like a phoenix, “Reborn from the ashes.” He says facing the apocalypse is a part of growing up, a part of gaining wisdom. You have to destroy the old to make room for the new.
My husband, Walter, has the same affinity for total-destruction as Hill, the only difference being that, unlike the professor, Walt is neither a man of pretty words nor lofty philosophy. There’s no eschatological reasoning to my husband’s obsession, only a frenzied acceptance tinged with brutal cynicism.
Walt doesn’t just prep for the end of the world, he tempts it. He curses the sky for not splitting open and vomiting inferno down on us all. Our tiny apartment is swollen with cans of food, water, medical supplies, ammo. Our bookshelves are bloated with titles like Homemade Gunpowder, DIY Medical Care, and How to Survive a Chemical, Biological, or Nuclear Event. Walter doesn’t know when it’s coming, but he knows it’s coming, and he’ll be damned if he’s not prepared.
As for me, I try not to think about it.
But vincible blindness is fleeting in a world built on pocket-computers and the proliferation of facts (as well as their alternatives). On October 25th, 2016, only fourteen days after President Trump’s election, I woke up to a healthy dose of reality glaring back at me:
“RUSSIA IS PREPARING FOR NUCLEAR WAR.”
A few moments of confused silence followed as I squinted at the headline suspiciously. I weighed my options, carefully, deliberately, but ultimately realized no, I could not go back to bed and sleep through the entirety of a third World War. So I close the app and dialed:
“Hello?” A smoke-crusted, sleepy voice answered just before voicemail.
“Hey, Vick.” I pulled on my boots, examining the leaning tower of Survival Magazine stacked in the corner with newfound interest. “Yeah, I know it’s early. Yeah, I know, but hey, let’s go get drunk.”
An hour later, with unfitting punctuality, Vicky arrived at the bar before I did. I could see the halo of ginger hair from half a block away—a copper-colored beacon in a grey wash of city. Usually, Vicky was at least twenty minutes late to any affair, but humans, being simple animals in themselves, always behave unusually before disasters.
“First round’s on me,” she said and slid me a cider. “What’s going on?”
I tipped the drink back and downed half of it in two big gulps. Then, I set the glass on the table, wiped my face with the back of my hand, and broke the news:
“You hear Russia’s planning to nuke us?”
Strangely enough, if I do think about nuclear apocalypse, I often find my mind drifting, not to the atom bomb, but to the cruel and tragic fate of Hisashi Ouchi, a man whose own personal apocalypse was marked with scientific opportunism and a single flash of blue light.
Ouchi, in the late 90’s, was a technician at the Tokaimura Uranium Processing Plant in Japan. His job was to mix the uranium with other reactive chemicals in a large, metal tank. In September 1999, with Y2K looming like a hysterical fog across the ocean, Ouchi was leaning over the solution when he added a seventh bucket of aqueous uranyl nitrate to the precipitation tank. In an instant, the uranium became over-enriched, and the solution reached critical levels. Ouchi reported seeing an ephemeral flash of neon-blue light before he vomited in the tank and lost consciousness.
Over the next 83 days, Hisashi Ouchi was kept medically alive without consent. Although he had been exposed to nearly double the fatal dose of radiation, the result of which meant shattered, incomprehensible chromosomes and a white blood count of near-zero, the doctors saw his accident as an “invaluable learning experience.” They restarted his heart three times, subjecting him to hours of experimental transfusions, transplants, and treatments—all in an attempt to keep him alive and “invaluably” experimental. Only a week into this ordeal, Ouchi opened his eyes and pleaded with the doctors, “I can’t take it anymore…. I am not a guinea pig.”
We learned a lot about radiation poisoning from Mr. Hisashi Ouchi. The data we received from the close examination of his death has helped others suffering from radiation poisoning, and the nuclear accident at Tokaimura was so widely publicized that it raised concerns regarding safety in nuclear processing plants worldwide. It gets me thinking, maybe my professor is right. Maybe the apocalypse is about growing up and gaining wisdom.
Unfortunately for Ouchi though, after 83 days of nuclear suffering and bodily degrade, there weren’t really any ashes left to rise from.
“Wait, what? Who’s bombing who now?”
I explained the whole situation, or at least, what I knew of it. Russians, bomb drills, rumors of a bunker large enough to hold all of Moscow—the terrified predictions of another World War.
“World War Three?” Vicky flicked her cigarette. “I thought we already decided that whole ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ thing was a bad idea.”
“Those guys are dead. I guess the idea is in vogue again.”
“Well shit,” She set her arms on the table and narrowed her eyes at me, like it was my fault she had to plan her weekend around a nuclear apocalypse. “What are we even supposed to do if we get bombed? The old bomb-drill videos from the Cold War era always show kids hiding under desks and stuff.” She looked at me pointedly. “That seems grossly optimistic.”
“Grossly.” I nodded in agreement.
“So, if ‘duck and cover’ is just an optimistic scam, what are we really supposed to do?”
“Run?” I shrugged, and she snorted. “No, no, I’m serious! I read somewhere it takes fifteen minutes, or something like that, for a warhead to get from Russia to here. They say we’d be alerted within about four minutes.”
“So what’s that?” She tapped her fingers on the table, counting. “Eleven minutes? I can’t do anything in eleven minutes!” Vicky threw her hands in the air. “I can’t even do my makeup in eleven minutes… Besides, where would we even go?”
“Not far, I’ll tell you that. They say underground is best.”
“How would we get there? It’s not like we can drive. Traffic is gonna be terrible during the apocalypse. I mean,” she looked around at the busy intersection surrounding us, “it’s already awful.”
“And that’s without societal collapse.”
“They say you shouldn’t run, anyway. Nuclear attack isn’t exactly a running kind of scenario. It’s more of a hold-on-to-your-DNA-boys-it’s-gonna-be-a-bumpy-ride kinda scenario.” Vicky sighed.
I thought of Hisashi Ouchi, the grainy black and white photos, the distant, detached medical reports—shattered chromosomes and liquefied organs. I shuddered.
Silence settled in as we sipped our drinks in somber mourning, soaking up the rain and music of the city around us. Suddenly, the people, the cars, the industrial claustrophobia seemed to lean in closer. The sheer vulnerability of our situation sank in like a fatal wound.
“If we do get hit,” I finally broke the silence, my voice quieter than before, “and traffic is as bad as we think it is, I just hope I’m vaporized. Like, if I had a choice, I’d be one of the people who were just incinerated. BAM!” I threw my hands up for theatrical emphasis. “One second you’re there, the next you’re a spot on a step, a tourist attraction for people ‘mourning the 2016 bombing of Portland’.”
“You mean like one of those shadows from Hiroshima.”
“Yeah, those guys.”
Vicky tilted her head to the side and thought for a moment. “I guess the next best alternative would be to end up ‘just’ a cancer victim,” she put air quotes around the word. “If you were lucky, maybe you’d die from something else before the cancer really set in, like a bike accident or something normal.” She sighed. “It’s better than the blast zone, at any rate. They say the edge of the blast zone is the worst place to be. There, you’re not incinerated but you’re worse than sick. They have to deal with all the illness plus the burns,” she winced at the thought. “Have you seen the pictures of people from Hiroshima, the ones that were close to the blast but not close enough to die?”
I nodded. “I had a book when I was a kid that called the burn victims ‘mole people’. You know, because they had no faces.” I could still remember the pictures. Men and women with burnt-off noses, cracking, curled, lips, and skin like leather. Their eyes had turned a milky sky-blue, scarred from looking at the blast, branded by mushroom-cloud irons.
“You know they still have faces.”
“Yes, I know. It’s just what the book said. It said ‘The Faceless Mole People of Hiroshima’.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “Moles have faces too.”
“I didn’t write the book, Vicky.”
“But isn’t it kind of fucked up to call them ‘mole people’?”
“It’s kinda fucked up to call them ‘shadow people’ too.”
“The whole thing is fucked up.”
“At least we have each other.”
“But what if one of us becomes a mole person and the other doesn’t?”
I shrugged. “Then I guess you can just visit my shadow.”
“Do you think our phones will work when it happens?” Vicky and I were still discussing doomsday plans as we walked back to my apartment, our knees and tongues loosened by booze.
“You mean the alarm?”
“No, no. I mean, for personal use. Do you think we’ll be able to call or text each other during the end of the world? Maybe our phones won’t work.”
I paused for a moment. “Well, if the government can text me about warheads, I’m sure we can text each other. Seems just as important to me.”
“That’d be nice. We’ll just text our way through the apocalypse. Nobody has to be alone that way.”
“We can Snapchat!”
Vicky laughed. “Snapchat the apocalypse!”
“Future historians will thank you.”
“In the American tradition, the apocalypse is often seen as an inevitable step towards growth. In this sense, the apocalypse is both an end and a beginning, a paradox of possibility for the American character.” Hill pauses, looking around the room for emphasis. “We have an understanding that beyond the void, beyond the nothingness of apocalypse, there is a new dawn, a potential for something better. Do you understand what I’m saying, class?”
I raise my hand. “Are you saying that there’s a potential for the world to be a better place after all of humanity is gone? That it’s not about us? That we’re insignificant? Our destruction may even be a benefit to the world at large.”
He smiles kindly. “No, not quite. I wouldn’t call that a ‘rediscovery of possibility’. If everything is destroyed, there’s no possibility for anything after that. When I talk about the apocalypse, I’m talking about events like Hiroshima or 9/11. Or, on a more personal level, divorces, puberty, death—events that are ‘apocalyptic’, but not necessarily the apocalypse itself.”
I tell that to Walt when I get home, and he shakes his head. “It’s always sad to see people lose hope in a better future.” He smiles and continues cleaning the guns.
By late afternoon, Vicky and I ended up back at my apartment, wrapped in every blanket I own, watching cartoons and eating junk. Vicky played around on her phone, her feet propped up against the wall.
“The world is ending and I’m googling how to remove nicotine stains from my fingernails,” she moaned, her eyes never leaving the screen.
“And watching Zootopia,” I pointed out, lazily gesturing at the television we weren’t watching.
“That’s the one bright side of the whole apocalypse thing. At least it gives us an excuse to act like children.”
“Like we ever needed an excuse.”
She wrapped a blanket around her tighter, sighed deeply, and leaned her head against my shoulder. “This is how all people should prep for the apocalypse. With blankets, and snacks, and friends.”
“It’s not like we’re really gonna be able to stop anything anyways.” I mumbled, glancing at the MRE’s we had stacked along the wall.
“Exactly! We might as well enjoy everything now! While we still have the chance. We have to enjoy the world, enjoy people, while it’s still her. That’s more important than collecting all these-” She read the label on a loose MRE, “-Menu Number 7, Brisket Entrée, gravy with seasoned beef… Ew, dude, that’s gross. There’s a lot of things more important than whatever that is.”
“I don’t know, man. Surviving would be pretty sweet too…”
“Stop all that negative thinking. We already agreed traffic will be too bad to survive.”
I laughed and pushed her. “That’s stupid.”
“Yeah, but so is everything else.”
A long silence followed before I replied. “Do you think there’s still hope for us?”
“You and me?”
“I mean in general. When the apocalypse comes, how do you think it’ll pan out? Do you think it’ll take out all of humanity, or all of civilization? Do you think we’ll just fuck ourselves out of existence, or do you think we’ll learn a valuable lesson and come out better than we were before?”
“Does it matter?” she laid her head on my lap and looked up at me. “Either way the world will never be the same, and you and I will never live long enough the see the recovery, even if it does happen.”
“It’ll be like all of humanity was for nothing.”
“As far as we’re concerned, all of humanity was for this moment, right here. So you and I could make a blanket nest and watch cartoons. That’s it. That’s the point of everything.”
I smiled. “We might as well just get comfy and hope we wake up as shadows then.”
We cracked open two more bottles of cider and settled deeper into our blanket nest. Outside the window, through only a thin sheet of glass, the end of the world persisted. The sky erupted in lavender-colored flames. The Earth opened up and swallowed whole cities in its quest for water. Mercury raced to the top of the thermometer. Garbage drowned the poor. The poor devoured the wealthy. Whole cities became empty ghost towns, whole states became blazing infernos. Children ran the streets with bellies full of lead.
And we, laughing prophets of the apocalypse, Children of the Atom Bomb, refugees of the Garden, can only wait and hope, in whatever way we can, while we still can.
But like I said, I try not to think about it.
Randilee Sequeira Larson is a graduate of Portland’s Concordia University, where she was awarded “Thesis with Distinction” for her personal memoir, Savages. Her work has appeared in Concordia’s The Promethean, ZPublishing’s Emerging Writers of Oregon Series, and is scheduled to appear in a future issue of the Ilanot Review.