Markie hated. He hated his stupid school and the losers with their dope and their attitudes. He hated his stupid fat loser Mom and was not going to quit dumping her beer down the sink no matter how mad she got. Most of all, though, Markie hated his old man. It was bad enough when he was here, but at least they had a man they knew around the place. Since he left there was no telling what that drunken bitch was going to bring into the apartment.
It’s not like it mattered when the old man had chased him off down at the shelter. Markie had more important things going on in his life than trying to make sure that fat, old fuck had food or anything. He left him that last time without one look back. There was that creepy, skinny guy who was always hanging around and Markie just gave him what he knew was his dangerous look and kept going. Directly ahead, in the direction he was moving, lay a siege engine of rotting factories and vast warehouses. He could feel a heaving power underfoot and took it for his own.
This had once been a fine suburb with lines of well-maintained brick houses and playgrounds and no sidewalks because no one walked. That had all begun to tank even before Markie’s old man was born. Being an older, inner ring suburb it was one of the first to go down as factories closed down and jobs got shipped overseas and to Mexico. White families with means pulled out and there went the tax base pretty much killing off basic services that the remaining families learned to live without. The neatly kept houses fell into disrepair and worse. When the economy flat lined everything got stripped of whatever could be sold by scrap metal dealers and vandals. Then the city, gathering its remaining resources, came in and demolished the shells that once rang with giggling children and shouting mothers.
The green returned and a nodding meadow spread, taking back what it had once surrendered to bulldozers and subdivisions. Scrubby little clumps of brush and trees took root. Deer returned and so did waves of rabbits. Coyotes and foxes followed. The river dumped into a widening pond that stocked itself with bottom feeding fish and water striders. It all trembled right on the verge of some kind of lesser Eden when tanks under the factories and warehouses began to rupture. In an echo of the earlier retreat of the green that surrendered to the influx of people the green again subsided as brown and gray spread.
Under the dying dirt there was a spreading pool of poison reaching up to sear the roots of anything living and eat away at the soles of unwary shoes. Markie tried to keep to hummocks of hard, scrappy, frozen grass. Unchecked, the rot sank deep into bedrock, seeking out crevices and ground water. The surface didn’t stop its expansion and so the poison rose into the air, choking everything in range. Markie and his crew came out here knowing they’d be left alone.
The many windows, broken and whole, that surrounded the brown were mute witnesses to the slow spreading death but the window frames themselves felt the vibration of another rippling process. It started out along where the final exurbs have exhausted themselves and was as mute, impersonal and inexorable as weather, as time, as gravity. As the spreading poison blindly, mutely and uncaringly snuffed out anything living in its path, this other force was also completely without agency or morals. It just was. To see the contents of the ruptured tanks as evil and this other driving, consuming, conferring process as good would be to do the old human shuck and jive, to slap simplistic traits onto another vast system that barely recognized the presence of these beings whose span was laughably brief. Markie almost didn’t exist in this rolling process.
There was surface and there was air. But then there was another entire universe that could be granular or dense or grit filled or luxuriously loamy. Footsteps of millennia of appearing and disappearing life forms were meaningless and even the gouges of a hundred thousand machines that drilled and gashed and dug were noted only in passing. Held like treasure were enormous chambers and veins and rivers of the concentrations of everything that made up this autonomous territory. The strata blended into each other in places and in others were starkly separated, but all melted into each other deeper down where the source, the roiling, restless, fluid heat held sway. A sunken sun that lit nothing and heated everything. The mother of the wind, this roaring furnace threw vast mountain ranges into the sky and swallowed pickup trucks, neighborhoods or whole glaciers.
Life was both peripheral to this universe and rooted here. Back in the forgettable former suburb the play of the poison was nothing. It could only spread so far and kill so much. Nothing it took out was of any importance ultimately. It was as meaningless and temporary as the rain.
And with the blindness of his species, Markie tramped across a surface he gave no thought to even as it shifted at deep levels and sending up vibrations that birds, if there had still been any around here, would heed. There were the guys. He sped up, happy to have scored a couple joints. And that new guy, Ben, had better just lay off with the cracks about Markie’s sister, Ashley. He joined the four other guys, produced the pot and soon enough harmony was the order of the day.
It was after dark when he got in, tracking in traces of the rot that the new puppy shoved his nose around in and then went off to jump on little Tracy. Markie rooted around in the kitchen, made a sandwich and went in to flop on the couch, shoving the puppy away.
Ashley came in a little while later with a couple of her little girlfriends and they all gabbled their way through the living room and on over to her room, never shutting up. The puppy followed them into the bedroom. Ashley nodded for Brittany to close the door and they all piled onto the bed. They were making plans to skip school and go out to the mall on the express bus the next day. Markie listened at the door awhile and then wandered off to his room to enjoy the lingering last bit of his buzz. No one knew where the old lady was and who cared anyway?
She wound up rolling in around ten that night, staggering a little and mad that no one had made anything to eat. Ashley’s friends were long gone. Markie didn’t come out of his room. Ashley didn’t want to but sure enough Mom was bumping down the hall to the room she shared with Tracy who was still asleep for the time being. Ashley grabbed her robe and headed her mother off in the hallway, steering her back to the kitchen and food. While she made something to eat, her mother moaned and complained about the awful life she had, the ungrateful brats, the ignorant men who didn’t care about her.
The puppy wasn’t too bright and came in to flop on the old lady’s feet. It didn’t seem to matter how many times she kicked that dumb dog he always came back for more. She kicked him and ate the food in front of her without thanking Ashley. It was food she had bought with her food stamps after all. The puppy came back, cautiously, and curled up by her chair, nuzzling her ankle and getting another kick.
The next day, Tracy was running a fever and Mom’s hangover was brutal. Ashley was instructed to stay home with the baby while their mother slumped out to the corner store for a medicinal six pack. Markie was long gone; back out to the broken plain of dead factories and not really trusted friends.
Tracy was at that age when she was now aware of things not being right around her. She adored her big sister and was kind of afraid of her brother and mother. She had no memory of her father, although as her temperature rose through the next night, she had fleeting sensations of someone big and male standing next to her crib, stroking her damp forehead. Wait, she wasn’t in a crib anymore. She wasn’t a baby. But she liked feeling him near until the shouting began.
There was shouting and then the bed began to buck and dance around with her in it. Ashley was close by, Tracy could tell, but she was yelling, too. Then she was in Ashley’s arms and they were running outdoors with everyone else. There was crashing and screams. Tracy squinched her eyes tight shut and held on. Her head hurt so bad. All around them stuff was falling apart; glass was breaking, giant pieces of walls and doorways were crashing to the ground. People were bloody and terrified, running in any direction just to get away. There was no away. Tracy and Ashley ran past a fallen wall and never saw their mother crushed under it, her six pack bleeding out into the street.
Out on the wide open, brown field, Markie was knocked off his feet. He stared in confusion as far off walls crumbled and fell down. The guys were over there by now. He tried running toward the collapsing factory walls but the ground kept heaving under his feet and then, horribly, with a massive grinding sound an enormous split appeared in the ground right beside him. He flung himself away from it, scrambling to grab at frozen ground. He had never felt such a surge of shining, bright terror as his feet dangled for a just a moment over the edge of the new abyss that kept getting wider.
People were swarming out of collapsing buildings all around the city. Screaming, running first one way and then another. Some were vainly trying to pull others out from under fallen debris. Ashley held Tracy tight and ran blindly away from anything that had walls. Someone grabbed at her ankle as she flew past. She kicked and kept going. Tracy hid her face and held on.
It all ceased as suddenly as it had begun and, without the crashing, grinding roar, the sobbing and crying out took over. Ashley and Tracy had reached the park at the end of the street along with countless others, covered in dust and blood. No one could talk. Ashley was shaking with adrenaline and cold, holding Tracy close for reassurance and warmth. No one around them seemed able to talk. Somewhere there was the newly welcome sound of sirens. Big men with coats arrived, moving through the crowd, asking questions and checking injuries.
Out in the brown field, Markie braced himself and then scrambled quickly away from the enormous split in the earth. Once he had gotten some distance, he fell onto the hard cold ground and just shook. He figured he needed to get home as quick as he could; who knows how bad it was back in the city, but somehow his legs were not working. He tried a couple of times, heard the sirens thin screech off in the distance, and fell down again. He propped himself up a bit and just stared at that huge open space, waiting for something. Fire? A monster? An answer?
Marissa moved among the shocked and frightened doing the quickest, dirtiest triage she could imagine. Most injuries here were relatively minor; these were the ones who could get away. Over in the streets was where the real agony was going on and that’s where all the men on the unit had gone. What fun was there to be had among a bunch of broken arms and crying kids? No heroes here in the park. The hospital had come down in the quake, so help had to be coming from someplace else, but even Marissa didn’t know where. Right now it had to be enough to calm people, get them water and coats, set broken bones, wrap and dress cuts and abrasions and assure everyone that it was over. That they would all be fine. There were also the runners to stop. Many people suddenly realized that their moms, sisters, kids, dogs even, weren’t here and there was a heaving wave of them were trying to get back into the wreckage.
Marissa had been on this EMT unit for about a year now. It was one of the better trained teams she had been a part of and now that training was paying off. She and three other EMTs were acting as nurses and border collies, tending to the hurt and herding the panicked and getting everyone settled. She noticed a kid, maybe 14, not hurt but definitely in shock, wandering in from the far end of the park. Marissa scooped him up and brought him over to where they had set up a small field operation with a tent, hot coffee and soup, water and blankets. Mute, compliant, he came along with her and accepted soup and a blanket.
Ashley saw Markie slopping soup down his front and thought she was standing up and moving towards him, but looked down and saw that she was still sitting with Tracy held tight. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. Then under her solidly planted feet, the ground did a sickening sideways lurch and the screaming arose all around her again.
Marissa fell down, scrambled up quickly and immediately began trying to calm those nearest her, reminding everyone that they were out in the open. The aftershock passed quickly, but the terror was not going to let go. Screaming was replaced by sobbing. A couple of the men rose, determined to head back into the wreckage and Marissa was glad that Jim and a couple of the other guys had stayed behind. She confronted the guy next to her and adrenaline won the day; he sat back down and pulled his surviving kid close.
Buses began arriving and the EMTs coordinated their panicked charges, getting them onto buses that would take everyone to safety. Several other aftershocks came and went. Markie found Ashley and Tracy just before they all got bundled onto a bus. Ashley whispered to him about not knowing where Mom was and after that they sat there silently and watched out the window as the bus pulled out to the main road.
Marissa was sitting behind them, this being the last bus out. In her heart of hearts she was glad not to be on the detail going through the city. Let the men have their heroics. She hadn’t signed up to pick up crushed body parts; she was an EMT to help the living. She checked her duffel bag and realized that in the panic she’d given it away. She’d given her precious, mysterious wonderful blanket away and, as bad as everything had been, it just got worse.
Far beneath the turning wheels of the bus, a vast pressure had been released. The far-flung, grinding expansion ceased. Between the new fissures, the old poison continued to trickle down, but a long quiet dormancy began and the ancient processes settled back into the beginning of the cycle. A crow flying above it all could see the piles of debris, the toppled factory walls, the stillness of those who hadn’t escaped.