Mom talks to us through a tape-recorder during the final summer before, which she believes, the world will end. I lie awake most mornings and wait for my sister to wake up so we can listen to it together. Sometimes it takes hours, but I like the way the sun feels in the morning; a soft warmth floating into our room before it gets harsh. I like the way the birds sing and I think that it’s such a shame that something so nice could end so soon.
When she wakes up, I grab her by the hand and lead her downstairs to where the tape recorder waits. There’s a sticky-note on it that reads play me. I press play and our mom’s voice is wrenched out of the old machine, partly because of the poor audio quality, but also because she talks in a robot voice that, if were written, would be thick, blocky letters.
Good morning John. Good morning Sarah. Breakfast is in the fridge. I hope you have a lovely day and remember that your mom loves you very much.
A brief moment of muffled static and the message ends. Sarah opens the fridge and groans at the waffles in there; strawberries that once floated atop whipping-cream mountains have slid off, leaving pink skid-marks. “Fucking mom,” she says, as she shovels it into her mouth. She looks at me with eyes that see past me and adds: “You know she’s fucking crazy, right?” You can’t really blame my sister; she thinks the world has already ended. That we’re living in the post-apocalypse. “Fucking crazy,” she repeats as she scrapes the rest of her breakfast into the trash.
The houses in our neighborhood are all the same: beige units with beautifully-manicured lawns. Condos sealed together with stucco. Military housing. It’s called Eagle Rock-a subdivision surrounded by desert, an oasis surrounded by red-rock cliffs. You can ride your bike all the way out, past the dead-end signs, to where the roads ends, replaced by endless dry earth. Super-charged sports cars line the streets; their gleaming exteriors impervious to the sun. Tricked-out, Sarah calls them. When the military pays for your housing, there’s little else to spend your money on out here. Cars and maybe high-definition TVs.
A convenience store and gas station guard the entrance of our refuge. In the center of everything, there’s a school and a park with a big grassy field. It must cost a fortune to keep everything so green. Eagle Rock would make a good utopia, the last human hold-out after the end of the world.
Most of the days, it’s too hot to go play in the park or even go outside. Sarah closes the blinds and we spend the days watching our dad’s action movies. Rows and rows of Segal, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Terminator, Predator, and Stallone, all rated R. Wonderful R. No one around to stop us. We watch whatever we want. We sit in the dark and let the action pummel us through with a blistering sound system. The exploding vibrations massage us into a stupor and we only turn it down when the neighbors bang on the wall. I like the blood and nudity, even though Sarah tells me to cover my eyes during those scenes. “Cover your eyes, John,” but she never makes me do it. I also like the way the laws in the future have to rhyme: Bust a deal and face the wheel.
Sarah likes the happy endings. Even in a post-apocalyptic world, she says, there can still be happy endings.
Good morning John. Good morning Sarah. Please take the trash out and maybe go play outside today. You should enjoy your time together while it lasts.
On the weekends, a lot of our neighbors like to wake up early to wash their cars. Young, muscular soldiers wash the red dust off their tricked-out chariots and young wives sit to watch with giant sunhats. The few who aren’t pregnant drink mimosas. Instead of bird songs, I wake up to the sound of competing boom-boxes, all playing heavy metal-a brutal symphony. Everyone’s car is spotless by noon. By then, the weather is so hot that the soapy rivers flowing down our gutters turn to steam before they can even reach the drainage.
Our mother plants herself on the driveway, nestled in a broken lawn chair. She has no young man to watch, so she leers at everyone else. The new neighbors, the ones who don’t know my mom, will come and talk to her, try to distract her from their husbands’ toned bodies. But then she’ll begin talking about next year.
“It’s been prophesized by those ancient people,” she says. “Every ancient people. All their calendars end this year. They’re never wrong, you know.”
The young women learn their lesson and will maybe tell their husbands to put on a shirt.
Sarah doesn’t wake up until well into the afternoon. Her eyes are puffy and red and she only speaks in mmms.
“Are you hungry sweetie?”
Mom doesn’t put up much of a fight. Sarah takes a bag of chips out of the cabinet and retreats to her room. This is how our weekends go.
Eddie Jabrow is a new to Eagle Rock. He and his wife Mindy move into the house kitty-corner from ours. I point to it from Sarah’s bedroom window, closing one of my eyes to keep my finger aimed: “that one.”
Jabrow isn’t like any of the other men here. For one thing, he’s damaged. He wears an eye-patch like Snake Pliskin and does nothing to conceal the scar that runs from his clavicle down the length of his bicep. It barely conceals the dark muscles underneath his skin. “Shrapnel,” he says when he sees me eyeing him. It’s the first word Eddie Jabrow says to me me: shrapnel. The second two are introducing himself as Eddie Jabrow. “But my friends call me Jabrow.” His voice is soft but his hands are rough when he takes mine in his. “Pleased to meet you.” Even without the scar, the scruff on his face and the premature grey in his hair speak of the shit he’s seen and the grit he’s lived through. He motions back to his pick-up, dull black from primer and raised about four feet off the ground, to the woman jumping down from it. She’s ropey and toned, not for beauty but for survival. Her face is taut and wide across the cheekbones, which makes her look serpentine. Together, they look feral. Jabrow introduces her as his wife and I’m fairly certain that both of them come from the future. I tell Sarah this, still pointing to their house kitty-corner from ours, and she puts her fashion magazine down to look. The sun highlights the strands of her hair that have been static-electrified from too much sleeping.
“Well,” she says, smiling. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen her smile. “He’s a tall glass of something, isn’t he?”
Everybody knows that our dad’s death was suicide, everybody except our mom, who refuses to make the connections.
An officer in the military, but a pacifist at heart, our father swore that his time overseas was over-it was that promise that produced my sister and I and our little sister, Ashley. He was a veteran of two Middle East wars but never warmed up to the military or Eagle Rock, only tolerated them as a means to raise and house a family. He said it was going to pay for our college, our futures. Dad was always talking about the future.
In the movies, there’s an unstoppable cyborg sent from the future to change events, to alter history. In real life, it’s not quite as dramatic.
Our dad didn’t begin to suffer from post-traumatic stress until after Ashley died. At nights he would wake up screaming from fighting rebels in his sleep: hungry-eyed souls deteriorated by desert sands. Tribal clans with no uniforms except our country’s throwaway clothes and crude weapons stripped of technological bells because it took away from the sole purpose of killing. Our dad would wake up exhausted from the all-night pursuit across smoking wastelands. He stopped watching Mad Max movies. He became addicted to 24-hour news channels, poring over The Situation Over There. Wild notions of duty and country littered his speech until it broke our mom down and she told him to go.
Now all we have left of him is a stack of violent movies, which we watch in our darkened living room, breathing each other’s sweat while, outside, the sun scorches the earth a thousand times over, preventing any escape. Sarah will never forgive our mom for letting him go. “Duty and country my ass,” she says. “It’s Ashley’s fault. We should have named her Apocalypse.”
I don’t tell my sister that, if you take away all the devastating images, all the blackened skeletons and burning cities, I think Apocalypse would be a really beautiful name. The way it just rolls off the tongue.
Eddie Jabrow flinches at sounds louder than a talking voice.
He studies everything in our house with careful reverence, like he’s in an antique store. I follow him and try to gauge his appreciation for everything he handles. He picks up a decorative plate and I’ll begin, “Oh that used to be my grandma’s.”
“It’s very beautiful,” he says and carefully replaces it.
I’ve never noticed it before, but yes-the plate is beautiful. He moves on to look at something else and I nudge the plate further back on the shelf, away from the ledge. It would be a shame to lose such a beautiful heirloom.
He reaches out to touch a portrait of our father, the one of him standing proud in his officer’s uniform, when my mom barrels through the door, all gums and teeth. Three glasses of lemonade rest on a platter she holds above her head. I want to tell her to stop doing that, that Jabrow isn’t impressed, right Jabrow? Jabrow flinches and jumps away from the portrait.
“Oh. Him,” says mom. Her face remains stretched, but it’s no longer a smile. “He was John’s father.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.” Jabrow cups his hands close to his mouth and blows, as if they’re burnt. His voice is soft and raspy; it sounds deliberate, like he’s used to barking but has to tailor it for the modern niceties of our house. “A true hero, no doubt.”
My mom sets the platter down and hands Jabrow his lemonade. He inspects it at eye-level, as if he doesn’t know what it is. “It’s ancient history now,” she says. A layer of condensation has already formed on the glass; the drops create a pointillist yellow and then slide around his dirty fingertips.
He waits until each of us holds a cold, slippery glass. “Cheers. To your old man.” He winks at me. I try to drink the lemonade as fast as I can because maybe a feat like that would impress Jabrow. I slam the empty glass on the table and let out an exaggerated ah. I think that expressing my satisfaction will make me look like a grown-up with distinguished tastes, even though the lemonade has too much sugar and leaves a rough, sandy coating on the inside of my mouth.
Jabrow sits his glass down after a sip and asks, “So which table are we going to move?”
“The one right over-” she begins. Upstairs, a door opens and my sister appears at the top of the stairs. She’s not wearing her pajamas, but cut-off jean shorts and a bright yellow, low-cut tank-top. Her hair is brushed and her eyes lay inside rings of mascara that she never wears anymore. She sits on the top stair and leans forward, way forward.
“What are you guys doing?”
“Jabrow’s helping us move this table,” I say. Mom looks stunned.
“Do you need any help?” My sister bites her lower lip.
“I think we got this covered.”
Sarah sits straight and pulls her hair back into a ponytail. The way she wings her elbows out forces her body against the thin fabric of her tank-top. “Let me know if you need anything, mom.” Her eyes are set on Jabrow. “It was nice to meet you.”
After Sarah disappears, mom and Jabrow move the table three feet to the left, then six feet to the right before deciding that it’s good. When Jabrow leaves, my mom moves it back to its original position.
Good morning, John. Your mom had the craziest dream last night. In her dream, there was a great wall of fire that was making its way across the earth. Just this huge, burning horizon. It was incredibly slow and moved at a pace that you could easily run away from it. And that’s what some people did-they lived their entire lives running from the wall of fire. They circled the globe until they got to where they began and saw what the wall had left in its wake: the smoldering landscape. Their homes had become wastelands; everything they loved was dead. It hadn’t been worth it, the running. They had spent their remaining moments trying to prolong the inevitable.
John, your mother hopes you know she loves you.
It’s the weekend and the opening notes of the metal symphony wake me up. A wailing guitar solos over a chuck-chucka-chuck rhythm, like an engine that never gets started.
Sarah’s bed is bed empty. I call out for mom but remember she’s probably outside, sitting in her own little place in the sun, waiting for men to wash their cars.
I find Sarah out there, in our mom’s place, soaking in rays. She wears a red polka-dot bikini that looks like the color of blood next to her pale skin. There’s a large glass of ice-water on her chest, which she holds with both hands and sips through a bendy, pin-striped straw. Her eyes hide behind large aviator sunglasses-they used to be our dad’s.
“What do you want?” she asks. The straw doesn’t leave her lips when she talks, and it’s then that I notice the lipstick that holds the straw there. A red smear coats the end that she drinks from.
“Why are you up so early? You never get up so early,” I say.
“I do now.”
An ignition coughs, finds its footing. I spin around and Sarah sits straight. Jabrow’s black truck, his war machine, creeps out of the driveway and up our way. He stops in front of our house and leans over his wife Mindy, who’s sitting in the passenger seat. They both wear bandanas and reflecting sunglasses; we look so small in their lenses.
A curt nod: “Hello John.” And softer: “Hello Sarah.”
“Hi!” I say, too enthusiastically.
“What are you guys up to today?”
“Oh, you know.” As if this explains anything.
“What are you two doing today?” Sarah asks.
Mindy’s head moves to look at us. Pivots, really. Like how Terminator’s body works: slow, independent of the other moving parts. “We’re going out to the desert to shoot guns,” she says.
“Yeah,” says Jabrow. “If you ever want to go.”
I tell him that that would be awesome!
Mindy looks straight ahead and her jaw jumps from clenching teeth.
Jabrow speeds away before our mom comes out, carrying her lawn chair. “What’s with all the noise?” She begins but then stops when she sees my sister. She stares.
Our mom turns around and goes back inside.
At the end of Mad Max, Max catches one of the men responsible for his wife’s death, handcuffs him to a car, and gives the thug a hacksaw. Meanwhile, there’s a slow-burning fuse set to ignite the fuel leaking out of the car. Max tells the guy that it will take about ten minutes to cut through the handcuffs, hardly enough time to escape the impending explosion, but it will take less time to cut through his arm.
I look over to Sarah, who’s captivated by the impending doom. “That right there,” she says, “what Max does, that’s really badass.”
Mom takes me to get ice cream from the convenience store near the entrance of Eagle Rock. She walks alongside while I perform the constant balancing act of riding my bike at her pace. There are a lot of jerky handlebar movements. Lines of heat distort the horizon, makes the surrounding plateaus dance and wiggle. Mom tries to start a lot of conversations, but mostly answers her own questions.
“It’s hot, right? Yeah, it’s hot. You think Sarah will come down today? I don’t think she will. That Sarah.” She rings the sweat from her palms and sighs a lot. A tricked-out Dodge rushes past so fast that we nearly miss the music coming from its sound-system; throat-ripping vocals trail behind as if they’re pulled along by a string. I whistle in awe at the monstrous chariot and fantasize of the day when I can drive one and if by then they’ll be equipped with flux capacitors.
Lou’s is the type of place that only looks attractive to refugees, night-time travelers without a sense of time or how long it’s going to be until the find civilization again. They’re happy to pay for the dusty and overpriced everything: gas, jerky, trucker hats and cassettes so old they may as well be antiques hoarded from another time. I’ve never met anyone named Lou who works there, just a withered couple who don’t even try to hide a shotgun behind the counter. The man tends the ice-cream freezer and scrapes two large scoops onto cones – a rainbow, bubble-gum laced one for me, a vanilla one for my mom. The muscles in his forearm bulge and wash under faded tattoos of girls and Latin phrases. He smiles when he hands us the cones and pink, fleshy bits of tongue poke out where he has no teeth. If he and Jabrow have anything in common, it’s the toll that surviving has taken out on their faces.
As if my thoughts had the power of materialization, Jabrow’s truck slides into the parking lot, leaving black marks on the sizzling asphalt. He and Mindy jump from the enormous machine and march through the doors of Lou’s, their steps synchronized and brimming with purpose. The old man’s smile disappears and his old lady’s face becomes more puckered. Mindy walks straight to the rotating display of sunglasses and Jabrow steps over me. He slams a hundred dollar bill on the counter. The force dispels the desert dust off his hand-a tiny puff of red.
“Fill up on pump five,” he says. “And whatever the lady wants.”
“Um. Hi Jabrow,” I say.
He looks down, notices me for the first time. “John.” He raises his dark glasses, his one eye is bloodshot, abused from the sun. He looks at my mom and at the ice cream in both our hands. “What a nice surprise.”
“You can’t come in here like that,” says the old lady behind the counter. “You can’t come in here with that.” She points to the chrome handgun tucked into the front of her pants.
“Eddie, I want these ones,” Mindy says, ignoring the old lady. She’s found a pair of aviators that don’t look too much different from the ones she came in with.
“The guns,” says the old woman. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Those look nice on you,” says Jabrow, but he doesn’t even look at Mindy. He stares at my mom.
The old lady backs toward the shotgun. “If you don’t leave-”
Mindy whips the gun out, points it at the lady. Her quickness is reptilic. Only the dying ice-cream freezer speaks.
“I heard what you fucking said.” She cocks her head slightly and shows her teeth. With her other hand, she cradles the handle and unleashes the magazine into it. She displays both pieces in front of her, “Happy now?”
My mom squeezes my shoulder. “Actually, we’re running late. We should get going.”
Jabrow breathes through his nose, slams another twenty on the counter and says, “We were just leaving too. Sorry.” He grabs Mindy by the elbow and yanks her out of the store. He slams her in the truck and we wait until they’ve finished refueling and gone until we leave the store. By then, there’s a layer of blue, red and yellow dripping over my hand.
Night settles in Eagle Rock and the heat lifts long enough to let the landscape sing. Not crickets, but a meandering wind flows through the valleys; its song lulls the hardened soldiers to sleep. It’s the same wind that cuts the arches and balancing landmarks into the stone. I lie awake and hope that, if our mom’s right, the end is like that wind: soft and merciless at the same time. It’s a peace that I only feel on those windy nights, when my heart slows and thoughts of desert warriors, our dad and violent shootings, stabbings, decapitations, disembowelments, pulverizations, vivisections and bodily dismemberment leave my head. The desert wind, it takes me away, makes it difficult to hear the sobbing coming through the wall.
Good morning, John. Iâ€¦ I just don’t know what to say today. Be safe.
Jabrow promises to have us home before our mom gets home. Says she won’t even know. I look up at Sarah, dangerously high in the passenger seat of Jabrow’s truck. She says it’s okay and reaches down to pull me up. I sit in the tiny space behind the front seats with my knees pushing against the worn leather covering the back of Sarah’s seat, feeling every movement she makes. She fidgets a lot.
The way Jabrow handles his truck through the rounded streets in Eagle Rock is strict, disciplined-like walking a tiger in crowded city streets. The engine revs and shakes with excitement, tortured by the slow pace Jabrow keeps it at, but once we leave the confines of our outpost, he yells kill! The war-machine pounces. Underneath me, I feel the engine chase, and under that, the road runs; I feel them both in my balls. A never-ending pursuit.
Sarah screams and laughs and throws her head out the window to let that rock-cutting wind into her hair.
“You think that’s something.” Jabrow downshifts and the mph jumps to 90. He’s laughing too. He’s actually screaming, screaming his laughter to make it real and defiant against the nothing out here. To prove we exist, I scream too.
His truck straddles the yellow lines running down the road. A shiny sports car has to swerve into the shoulder to avoid a head-on with the truck, a battle it would surely lose. The dirt-cloud and blaring horn fall in the distance.
“Here it is,” says Jabrow and jerks the wheel so hard that my seatbelt locks. The truck leaves the road and flies across the red earth, finally free from the asphalt and paint that confine it. We plow through delicate microbiotic soil and crush the skulls of animals with the misfortune of an exposed death bed. Every ridge vaults the truck closer to the sun. Sarah reaches out and her hand brushes Jabrow’s and for a moment both of their hands rest on the stick shift.
“Whoops,” she says. They both smile.
Jabrow yells over the wind. “Hey John, I have a surprise for you.” He wrenches the steering wheel and the truck spins a full rotation and a half before coming to a stop. Behind us, tire marks cut into the earth and dust clouds linger-scars from our pillaging.
Jabrow stretches and puts his arm around the shoulders of Sarah’s seat. He turns to look back at me. “Fun, huh?” says Jabrow.
“Totally,” I say. “Badass.”
“Like a rollercoaster, right?”
He looks to my sister, who just shrugs. “Never mind.” He puts his head down and combs his fingers through his hair, brushes some red sand out. My sister fixes her posture, straight and reverent. “Now, you both gotta promise me not to tell your mom.”
“Of course not,” says Sarah.
Jabrow looks to me and I shake my head. “No sir.”
He leans way over Sarah and opens the glove compartment. His gun matches the truck: dull, black and dangerous. Not at all pretty like Mindy’s. “You know how to use one of these?” he asks me.
He unleashes the clip into his hand, and thumbs the little copper bee resting on top. He slides the clip back into the grip and tilts it so I can see the top. He slides the top back and the metal bee jumps into the chamber. “It’s loaded. Nine rounds,” he says. “I want you to walk out fifteen paces and once you get there, hit this.” The safety-I know from the movies. “Hit this and just don’t aim anywhere near us.” He thrusts the gun into my hands. It’s much heavier than I thought it’d be. “It’s all yours.”
Sarah helps me down from the truck, “Be safe, John.”
“You don’t want to come too?”
“I’ll watch from here,” she says.
I begin to count the paces. Oneâ€¦ twoâ€¦ Laughter behind me. How could anyone spin this on their finger? It’s too heavy. I have to hold it with both hands just to walk straight. Fourteenâ€¦ fifteen. I put in two more paces, just to make it safe. I hear Jabrow call out. “That’s good. Let her rip. Just don’t shoot your foot off.” I unleash the safety like he showed me and aim at the horizon.
The sound is not the thunder from the movies, but more of a pop. The sound of wood breaking against human skin. An ugly sound. I hold tight to keep the weapon from jumping out of my hand.
My sister hoots. “Nice, John!”
I begin to cry, hoping Sarah and Jabrow don’t notice. The pops, the ugly explosions: such futile things to hear before you die. I squeeze off another one. It sounds like the way doctors slap babies in the old movies, right after they’re born.
There is no laughter behind me anymore, no more hollering, just the sour silence anticipating death – if not from the gun but from the world folding in on itself. The flaming horizon, the silent, charred skeletons.
I glance behind me and see Jabrow and Sarah kissing. His chewed, ravaged fingers touch the youthful skin of her cheek.
It sounds like in the movies. It sounds like Max. It sounds like sawing through bone. It sounds badass. It sounds fucking crazy. It sounds like crib death. Poppoppopclick
Click click click
The tapes play nothing but static. It seems as though either some impending rolling disturbance in the earth’s atmosphere has signaled some self-destruction in Eagle Rock’s lesser machines, or the robot that leaves the messages has become self aware and moved on to better things.
Sarah tip-toes into my room and shuts the door with no sound. I’ve been up, watching the moon and dreaming about war and hoping for violence. Desert wind brings the promise of revolution. Tonight: when humans take a stand. When we fight back. It feels electric and makes my skin tickle. Sarah’s lip trembles and her eyes leak.
Something pounds on the front door.
I know now why you cry, but it’s something I could never do.
The pounding continues. Through the wall, mom rustles awake. The pounding rhythm shakes the house. Sarah is terrified. I am terrified.
Our mother’s sleepy footsteps walk toward the doom outside. The house creaks under her, the way it always does. Sarah clutches my hand and shakes her head. I nod but it doesn’t mean anything-I leave anyway. I climb out of bed and run downstairs as my mom reaches for the door.
“What are you doing up?” she says.
I ignore the question and pull the door open. Mindy stands there with a black eye and blood running down her face. She fumes; her breath smells caustic.
“Where is she?” says Mindy.
Mom looks to me and then back at the drone on our porch. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.” An empty bottle hangs from her hand. A tan hide full of wiry veins. She lets the bottle fall and it bounces against the porch without breaking. She falters, has to steady herself on my mom. “You know what I’m talking about. You know what she’s done.”
Mom backs up, lets Mindy slump over like an unpiloted marionette before righting herself. “You just wait here,” mom says. She looks at me, her brow furrowed. She runs up the stairs and calls for Sarah, her voice full of shrill, hysterical knowing.
Mindy sits down on the porch. I bend over to pick up the bottle she’s dropped. I lift it high and throw it down-the breaking glass sounds like Duty and Country. It sounds fucking crazy.
I sit down next to Mindy and watch as living tissue over powerful, metal endoskeleton trembles. Sarah’s wailing seeps through the ceiling, muffled. The desert wind is hot and stark. It doesn’t carry the sound of birds but the sound of tricked out war-machines instead-a tribe of sandblown mercenaries crashing through the desert and each other to raid our hold-out. To rape and pillage us and make us saw off our own arms. “It going to be fast,” I say. “Which is better than prolonging the inevitable.”
During the final moments, before Eagle Rock is scraped from the Earth’s soil by war, by waves, by meteors, by nuclear missiles, by heat waves, by ice ages, by famine and corporate greed; I tell Mindy about our Apocalypse.