After they shot off all their bombs and turned the sky to thick ash, things went surprisingly smoothly for the better half of the year. It wasn’t until winter that we started to see symptoms. First, it was simple soot. It came in from the East, and in the beginning, it wasn’t so bad. Just a fine-grained element of the air like something that may have been there, missed, all along. In the beginning, we experienced it like one would experience a sand storm or a light drizzle of rain. Plenty of people decided that their response was going to be to just consider it all a dream, so that’s what they did, they walked around with soot in their eyes, dreaming.
We looked up finally and it was December and that’s when the light drizzles started to feel slightly sinister. It started to fall as ugly brown sleet from ugly brown clouds making air smell like earth when it came down. During the strong advisories, it was recommended that we stayed inside with all orifices to the home sealed tightly and to not even take out the dog. Astroturf and disinfectants sold like hotcakes. It would come in eerily, like early-season snow. Slushy, new, almost-snow falling down like dirty rain. You’d catch a flake on your shoulder and you’d almost get excited thinking “there it is, there’s what they’ve all been talking about.” But then you’d remember, and you’d brush off your shoulder and things would be sad for a bit, and then you’d be sure to wash your hands.
And then it would come down hard. From the sky, falling down forever, little bits of existence, the rain that humans made themselves. You would just watch it from the window or you would look out at other windows, where everyone was doing the same thing as you, everyone was looking on to see what was happening and thinking, man, they really did it. Before long you couldn’t watch anymore, the window would become part of the wall, dark and solid like the rest of it, like a piece of the wall that was painted with the wrong shade of paint. Outside would be only cold, and falling matter.
It was best not to spend strong advisories alone. We usually went to Brett and Justine’s just before the wind came and would stay until the next morning’s all-clear. By the time the siren sounded that night we were already inside, cozy, listening to the wild cracks of a synthetic fire on the TV and trying to find Christmas music on one of the remaining channels. A decorated artificial tree cornered the room and all was merry and bright. It was a wonder why anyone would decorate anymore in a world where mercy no longer existed. There was no mercy left for anyone, anywhere. There was nothing but a then we could remember, and one day, we knew, even that would leave us behind. There was enough left in Justine to get us by though, enough to make us try and forget for a little while longer. We learned early not to watch the other channels because it was all news and it was always bad. What else would it be? We sat there on that cold winter night and talked about the bombs. It was important to just talk about them with your friends. We talked about how when the things exploded it was as though they had leveled a select few cities and leveled the future everywhere else. Not only that, but the world now seemed to have been shot back decades, to a time of our grandparents, where the only thing to do was to sit inside and wait out the cold; to play charades and toss cards around and talk about modern weaponry.
“It’s fucked up, isn’t it? The log?” Brett said that night.
“Well yeah,” I said, “it is.”
“And yet we watch it,” he said.
“It’s better than not having anything at all,” Justine said.
A piece of virtual timber cracked off the virtual log and floated to the virtual floor.
“Just the fact that they give it to us,” I said. “Why would they give that to us?”
“At least we have it,” said Justine.
“It reminds me of back when,” said Emma.
It was either the fire or the news. The news played only updates, and footage of the day all the world’s money left the planet.
“I just find myself thinking about the day they left,” said Emma from behind a beer and my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I said, “me too.”
“Just a video filmed in front of the shield of the President of the United States saying ‘we’ve been planning this the entire time, we’re fucking you, and we’re leaving this place,’ and that’s the only thing left on TV. That and a fake fire for the holidays.”
“The fire is at least nice to have,” said Justine.
She laid her hand on Brett’s thigh.
The squeak and the quit of the breaks had shut everything down and ushered in an age of observation. If one was interested, there was unending information available about the people one was around, all one had to do was pay attention. Couples, how they are to each other? Do they touch each other around other people? Do they sit together on couches and bean bags? Do they smile when they look at each other? Is one stern to the other when something goes wrong? Do they demean each other publicly? If so, who does the demeaning? When they sit together, do their legs touch? Do they hold hands ever? Does one look to the other constantly for cues on what to do and what to say? If taken in thoughtfully, there’s unending information to be discovered. Couples always communicate two things non-verbally: Can we trust the people we’re currently around? Are we gaining or losing points socially?
Justine told us that she had a plan. Justine told us “you three just all sit right there, on the couch.”
We three sat on the couch just so. Justine prepped for action. Justine stopped. Justine said, “wait!” Justine ran to the kitchen. We three watched with interest. Brett asked, “what’ya doin’ hun?” Justine said, “just a minute.” Brett looked to me like I might have the answer. Justine banged the microwave shut to pop popcorn. The popcorn popped against a silent room while outside the storm of matter fell. Justine giggled. We three adored her. Justine distributed bowls of popcorn. We three ate popcorn. Justine returned to the stage. Justine acted out a “comedic remix” of a bit of Hamlet in front of the virtual fire. We three howled. Brett got up and presented her with an imaginary award. We three clapped for Justine. Justine clapped for herself. The dog rolled over and moaned. Justine blew us kisses. We three threw fictional roses at her feet. The window was black and cold. We three clapped on, standing this time. We three bombed her with fictitious roses. Justine took a bow. We three returned to our seats. Emma said, “amazing.” Brett said, “fantastic.” I said, “incredible.” Brett began to say something else. “Wait!” Justine said, “I haven’t given my speech.”
We three smiled.
“Tonight,” she began, “I accept this award on behalf of my friends, whom the weight of this life would be unbearable without.”
“And on behalf of Alligator, the dog, who supplies such good humor.”
“And on behalf of my husband, who gave me this award tonight, you will never know how much it means to me.”
And then she sat down and we were all silent as the wind whipped the windows. And the synthetic fire shook from a synthetic wind on the screen, and the dog moaned and rolled over once more. And after just enough of it, Justine began to weep on Brett’s shoulder, and the only sounds worth knowing were her tears, and him telling her “I know.”