We prepared for an apocalypse. Some prayed for one, they hoped for it because the aesthetics would be pleasantly homogeneous afterward. They worked at bringing one forth. It was easier than cohabitating with eclectic personalities, the inconvenient poor, the dissenters. They put their faith in God and forgot the words. They forgot how to trust, how to care, how to love. They pointed to the sins of others as justification for their self loathing. They didn’t understand the words even as they screamed them, even as we screamed. With all that screaming, who had the opportunity to listen?
They were sinners for the right reasons. They advertised their trespasses and claimed their worthiness with their confession. Worthy to judge, worthy to condemn, worthy because they had worth and wealth. This had value to them, it made their opinions valuable. They wanted to control. They called this right, they called us wrong. For the rest of us, our sins were our own, if they were sins at all. We hoped to keep them our own, to forgive ourselves, and continue living. We called this choice. We remember the words. They were written by Man. They were mostly contradictory to the divinity that inspired them. We prepared for the ending because the choices of others brought about a predictable conclusion. Predictable, yet not without surprises.
Our proto-apocalypse started with a plague, as all good apocalypses do. This was also predicted, albeit the manifestation was quite different. We were ready for undead hordes roaming the streets, low groaning corpses, festering bodies in burned out houses. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. The plans were for running, hiding, smashing heads like pumpkins, celebrating salvaged cases of Fat Tire. We prepared for less people. A core group of plucky survivors who evaded infection. They would put aside that which divide us. We would band together for survival. We would help each other learn to live again. Trust would return. Life making space for humanity. We got a different sort of plague. An easier, more survivable one. All we had to do was give each other space. All we had to do was extend care to those who needed it. All we had to do was trust others to be kind, unselfish. Somehow we found a way for violence and death. Perhaps it is already too late for humanity.
In the words of KVJ, “So it goes.”
My fictional (pronounced “therapy”) apocalypse took an eerily similar path to the reality of our 2020 pandemic. A pair of childless, middle-aged adults living just above the poverty line find a way to survive in a no-longer-united state. Their disaster plan included a five day waiting period before heading in the opposite direction of disaster. I wondered how long it would take for me to get from my job in downtown Portland to our apartment in Salmon Creek. The bridges would be the biggest hurdle, as they were during a regular commute.
This is where and when I first imagined my survival, stopped on bridges. Trapped in a mostly-plastic, sometimes metal, always glass vehicular belly. Going nowhere on your way to somewhere. Going to be late. To ease my anxiety, I imagined most of you were dead. Some more than others. Hey, we all have our happy places. Some matter more than others. Don’t hate the truth. I wasn’t wishing for your death. I was merely contemplating how most of you would die and how I would go about in the world directly after. Nothing personal.
Generally speaking, being stuck on a bridge is the worst. There’s a scale of suck-a-tude for the type of mechanical beast you can be stuck in. Personal vehicle, alone, is the least sucky. You’re in a secure space, safe from the elements. You can see what’s happening around you. You have only yourself to worry about and rely on. In my personal vehicle, I was prepared to wait things out. How long do you wait before crawling into the trunk to hide? Is death in the air? When do you run? When is it time to leave the false safety of your mostly metal, plastic, and glass? Is your emergency kit in a backpack? Is someone coming to help? Are you over the Willamette or the Columbia? Will you need to swim? Should I stay or should I go now? (If I stay there will be trouble. If I go there will be double.) I trusted myself to abandon the vehicle with enough time to make it home before the five day waiting period expired. Trouble is, I was only stuck on bridges in my personal vehicle once a week. Three days a week I was on a bus, with other people. The suckage is exponentially worse when you are trapped with other people. Other people will kill you. This is why I imagine most of you dead.
Next time you’re on a bus, stuck in traffic, look for your exit opportunities. If your commuter whales are like ours, there will be two doors, both on the right side. Most busses have windows that are designed to pop out in case of emergency so the injured can die on the road. There will be two on the left side of the bus and one, if you’re lucky, between the doors on the right. If someone panics (and they will) they’ll pop the window too soon, your chances of survival drop dramatically. (Other people suck, some offense.) The doors open inward by pushing out, which makes them next to impossible to secure again. Others are there. Many will not have prepared. You might be tempted to help those who are in need of leadership. Those who have not taken the time to steal themselves for the trauma of survival. You will have to convince them to let you out but not follow. You will have to chose to leave them behind. You may have to use force. So, that sucks. Other people will make you a killer.
In all the scenarios, being on a train is the highest level of suck. It is the least survivable for myself and usually leads to my first homicide of the apocalypse. (“My First Homicide” by Dr Hannibal Lecter, a picture book for the killer kindergarten set.) There is no going back after you pop your homicide cherry. Murder virginity aside, being on the train means there are more bridges ahead. Best to keep your shit together and get more information. What if it’s not an apocalypse? What if it’s just a real shitty night train. The night train can get apocalypse-y pretty quick. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine the collapse of civilization on the night train.
The outdoor neighbors are already living in a post-apocalypse reality. That is your future. Everything you own, all you have, strapped and lashed together in piles mounted to a rolling device. No access to running water or modern conveniences. No safe place to rest. No one to trust. Living in a constant state of uncertainty and social isolation even in a crowd. How long would you last in a world like that? (Spoiler alert: 2020 proved Americans couldn’t hack it for more than a week. Further proof that my imaginings are accurate.) It is easy to forget you are imagining the collapse when a survivor is screaming in the seat across from you.
The first time I was stuck on a bridge, in a train, was terrifying. It changed me. I didn’t like how I felt. I didn’t like that I looked away. That I couldn’t face the horrors of this individual’s daily reality. I was ashamed at my weakness. I justified my weakness by telling myself there was nothing I could do to help them. I walked away. (My sins are my own.) I chose to leave and imagine it was an apocalypse I had no control over. At the park and ride, I cried in my car for thirty minutes. Hard, angry sobbing that would not stop. I was living in a hotel at the time. We were technically homeless. It was after 2am as I crawled into clean sheets that would never feel clean again. I had three and a half hours to rest before ‘today’ would begin. Jezebel took her place quickly under my chin. Her tiny body angrily vibrating. She was so thin now. She was surviving. Her life was reducing to numbers. There was nothing I could do for her either. (Truth is ugly and often sucks.) I couldn’t sleep. There was no one to trust, not even me. There was so little room for humanity even then, even within me.
One of the first tenants of surviving a zombie apocalypse is being able to run just faster than someone else. When you are actively running from zombies, you don’t have time to process the inhumanity of this choice. Making the choice to leave the slow behind in a non-zombie apocalypse…well, we all make choices. Our proto-apocalypse proved our leaders also prepared for a different apocalypse. They actively took steps to make it worse. They chose to leave the slow behind and convinced a good portion of our fellow citizens this was appropriate. They were upholding our values. They were protecting the value of their worth. The only value that matters. For those without, our space, our place, our value was reduced to our contribution to their worth. We were worth less. We were de-valued. They imagined us dead. It would be more cost effective if we were. The aesthetics would be pleasantly homogeneous afterward. We were reduced to the numbers. Humanity cost too much. It was left behind. We all make choices.
Margaret Atwood, patron saint of dystopian literature (blessed be the words, may they remain fiction), explained that she didn’t put any situation into The Handmaid’s Tale that had not already existed in history. Or was not in fact happening in someone’s reality when she wrote it in 1984. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government controls the information. The citizens have no voice. Aldous Huxley imagined the opposite, a world with too much information. Our reality is a dystopia of fictitious origins. We write it ourselves every day. There is a pattern to the fall of democracy. It begins with distraction, the loss of trust, and the loss of individual voices. By the time we realize our voices have been silenced, it is too late. The choice is no longer ours. We are no longer part of the process. We are non-essential.
We prepared for an apocalypse, we got a pandemic. Some people laid out a plan for all of us to survive. All we had to do was give each other space, extend care to those who needed it, be kind to others. It was too expensive, yet the cost remains the same. The plan fell apart because we couldn’t listen to the screaming, we had to look away. There was nothing we could do. Choices were made by others, they effected us all. The choices they made changed us. We didn’t chose this, yet we survive. In an early episode of Friends, Monica, Rachael, and Phoebe discuss their plans for the future. Rachael asks Phoebe if she has a plan. “I don’t even have a pl.” We don’t have a pl.
So it goes.
I never put much stock in plans anyway.
I’m no hero. It is enough to know who I am and that I survive. I can work with that, even if I cannot imagine a happy ending. I can’t imagine a future without my horde and our hoard. Right now I exist, we exist, without it. It is a heartbreaking existence, a slow gnawing void consuming us every minute of every hour of every day. A hoard-less horde of dragons trying to imagine existence without love. It is so anxiety inducing that I spend a good amount of time imagining all of you dead. My sins are my own. I own them and I hold myself accountable. I’m not a savior, I’m a survivor.
We are what we are. I am a Used Book Buyer, a dragon. I breathe used books. I feed on their stories, all their stories. The stories as they are written with words, in ink, on paper. The stories between the lines. The stories of the writer who chose the words. The stories written by readers, not with ink, but with touch. Tales left on spines and boards with fingers. Messages from the past pasted onto frontispieces. Bindings that roll smoothly to a specific page. Corners intentionally bent. Edges unintentionally chipped. Faded, sun-bleached boards hidden under pristine (like-new) dust jackets. The true-life legends, the reader’s leavings, tucked between cover pages and fly leaves. Dragons read these secret stories, these hidden stories. They are tattooed into our souls. We seek them out. We pass them on with hope. We are book-lovers, we are lovers of books. It is a subtle romance. Not everyone gets it.
What follows is my survival story. It is a love story. It is a tragedy. It is a comedy. It is annoyingly musical and defiantly fantastic. There are no heroes unless you bring them with you. It is your story now too. Though it is fictional, it may also be truthful. Nothing personal.
Next Week: The End at the Beginning.