Chapter 1 - Mountaintop

 

The missiles are to hit just before emberset, and the people have come to watch.

Guy closes his eyes and shivers as the ember slips toward the horizon. His wife, Lisa, huddles against him, and they listen to the hushed voices of the others who’ve gathered on the mountaintop in the northernmost corner of South Carolina. They watch as the orange egg yolk that used to be the sun wobbles its way down the blue-black wall of the world.

“When?” Lisa says. She has both arms wrapped through the crook of Guy’s elbow.

“Soon.”

Guy watches his breath hang in the late-July air as the ember creeps lower. The warmth that bathed the planet before the sun began to die feels like an impossible dream. It could never have existed on this cold earth.

They said there wouldn’t be much to see when the missiles hit the ember. It might pulse, might shimmer momentarily before returning to normal. Guy wants to see it anyway. He wants some sign that the ember is growing stronger, that the slow slide into darkness is ending.

He’s not alone. A hundred people stand on the mountain.

They watch, even though Guy knows the scene will never match the one that started it all, when two-and-a-half years ago every nuclear missile in America soared into the sky at once. They burst like fiery worms from the silos in Wyoming and Nebraska, in Colorado and South Dakota. They came from everywhere they’d been expected, and nearly everywhere else too: they geisered up from hidden silos beneath the Everglades, roared from abandoned buildings in the heart of New York City, and streaked skyward from the foothills north of Guy’s home.

They cocooned the earth in tendrils of smoke. They blocked out the failing sun.

Guy had felt the futility of it all sit like a cold stone in his gut. He’d heard the critics, the scientists who balked at the plan, challenged the very physics of it. He watched the missiles take to the air anyway, and it was beautiful—god, it was beautiful to see, the flames disappearing into the sky, the hope of the world riding away into the vastness of space. They shuddered forth from every corner of the globe, seventeen thousand rockets all told, minus the one that malfunctioned over Bangladesh, flattening Dhaka and vaporizing fifteen million people in an instant.

They called their plan the Big Bang, and they said it would work. Go on with your lives. All will be well.

The missiles have been traveling for thirty months, and now they are there, straining impossibly against the ember’s gravity.

Guy and Lisa watch. The ember burns a faint red-orange and spreads its silken light across the Piedmont that spreads out before them. Around them is silence. The onlookers stand in clusters, and Guy imagines he can hear the moisture in their breath crystalizing and tinkling against the cold stone. He knows it’s not that cold, but the year-round persistence of the chill makes everything seem frigid. It’s midsummer in the Deep South and the evening temperature is in the thirties.

The ember touches the horizon. Nothing happens; the star shines on, dull and unwavering. Shadow sweeps over the mountaintop as it dips below the edge of the earth. A woman begins to cry.

The crowd disperses. No one speaks. Guy and Lisa stay on the mountaintop and watch as the sky fades from orange to purple and into black. The stars come out and shine cold and hard in the distance. Guy wonders if those stars are dying too. They are light years away, so he’s seeing them as they were thousands, millions of years ago. They may already be as lifeless and frozen as the rest of space.

They’re alone on the mountain. The dark is complete and a cold wind blows in from the north. The matchstick pines bend and their needles rustle against each other.

“It didn’t work,” Lisa whispers.

“We don’t know that.” The lie feels silly as it dangles in the air between them.

“Yes we do.”

He moves behind her, wraps his arms around her, pulls her to him. He speaks quietly, his mouth close to her ear. “You never thought it would anyway.”

“And you did?”

Guy looks into the sky, where the stars are bright, spilling from one horizon to another. He tries to pick out a constellation, but the stars seem foreign, nameless. “I hoped.”

“Lot of good it did you.”

Guy takes his wife by the hand and leads her back to the car. Inside, they turn the heater on full blast. Lisa warms her hands in front of the vents. “They’re going to reinstate the Twerps,” she says.

Guy nods. “Probably.”

“We should get more supplies.”

“We’ve got plenty, Lisa.” They already have a small stockpile of food and water and emergency supplies at home. It takes up most of the space in the office closet. Guy shakes his head. “We’re not Bunker Boys.”

“Did it ever occur to you that the Bunker Boys might be right?”

“We won’t be Bunker Boys.”

Lisa tucks her hands into her pockets and looks out the window. “I can’t take another winter.”

“Yes you can.”

“I can’t. No one can.” She’s looking at him now, piercing him with her gray-green eyes. “The bottom half of the planet is freezing over. It’s going to happen to us too. It’s going to be worse than last winter.”

Guy tries to think of something optimistic to say to her. He’s glass-half-full, and Lisa is glass-half-empty. She’s less than that. There’s never any water in her glass. Problem is, more often than not she’s right. She’s right about this too. Guy shrugs. “The scientists will think of something else.”

Lisa shakes her head.

She doesn’t need to talk. Guy knows what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, You can’t really believe that. She’s thinking, Don’t bullshit me. She’s thinking, We’re fucked.

Guy looks over at her as he puts the car into gear. Her cheeks are flushed pink. The tip of her nose is bright red. Still, she’s beautiful, perfect. He thinks to himself, Why isn’t she enough?