“The Egyptians understood the rise of the sun each day was not guaranteed.”
“Please pause.” The house voice stopped. Dev missed the kind female persona almost instantly, but he needed focus. He owned a dozen books on ancient Egypt and wanted to donate some or all. He didn’t require any of them since he had digital copies. Physical books could be a deceptive comfort. Sometimes he forgot owning the knowledge was not the same as possessing it.
He’d planned to spend his retirement making a path through world history. That plan, like so many others, died with Emily. Ten years later, and he’d given no thought to history until the past few months, when the mountains began burning again.
Farnaby was barking. He’d just let him out, and there was plenty of shade, but he’d best get him soon. Outside on an August afternoon wasn’t a safe place for either small dogs or old men.
Tomorrow morning he’d take him for a ride into the foothills if the heat, smoke, and ash permitted. He didn’t know what dogs needed; Farnaby was his first since childhood. But Dev needed out of the house. He wanted to see if the city was still something like what he remembered.
“Please read the part about what I might find in an ancient Egyptian garbage dump.” He couldn’t help himself. Questions popped into his head, and if he didn’t ask them immediately, he was likely to forget.
The woman’s voice continued. “At Oxyrhynchus archaeologists found hundreds of thousands of bits of papyrus including unknown Sappho poems, plays, and the lost Gospel of Thomas. Other dump sites have provided bits of pottery, tools, religious artifacts, as well as thousands of limestone flakes bearing the practice writing of scribes, daily entries, love notes, complaints, and other texts of historical interest.”
“So, one’s man’s treasure,” Dev said. She didn’t answer.
His late friend Lyle should have had a dog. A dog might have saved him, but Dev hadn’t understood that five years ago. Lyle was a major reason Dev was reducing his footprint, leaving less for his daughter to sort out after he was gone.
He never went inside the house when he picked up Lyle, but he saw the curtains snug against the windows from the press of accumulation, the random junk sitting in the side yard, the trash spilling from under a garage door that wouldn’t close all the way. He knew very well what must have been going on inside Lyle’s home. The police found Lyle entombed in his bedroom wrapped in his belongings, in a house without power or running water.
Dev used the Egyptian books to fill one of the Donate boxes and emptied three shelves of fiction into several others. He stacked these into the corner along with several bags of clothing, sacks full of household items he would never use, and a crate of small electronics most of whose function now escaped him. There were still thousands of items in his home. He knew appropriate decisions on most of these would require some sort of breakthrough, a change in perspective that would turn their presence from comforting to annoying.
“The Egyptians spent significant time and resources preparing for their deaths, filling their tombs with items needed for the journey. The afterlife was their future, their science fiction, and every day it rubbed through into their now.”
There was more, but he gradually came to acknowledge the commotion erupting outside. Farnaby. He’d only let the Scottish Terrier out to relieve himself. “Please, what’s the current temperature?”
“One Hundred Thirty Degrees Fahrenheit.” Dev rushed to the door and slammed it open into a blast of heat, reached behind to close it and keep the cool air inside, and inadvertently grabbed the hot handle.
He may have screamed, he wasn’t sure. He bent over in agony, shaking his burnt fingers, sucking in the smoke-flavored air. Everything looked a smoldering yellow. Farnaby barked excitedly, both at Dev’s trembling fingers and the new thing clinging to the Maple tree.
The creature stuck to the tree was hard to distinguish from the bark, being little more than a subtle shift in the pattern. Some insect he had never seen before, three or four inches long, twig-like with a triangular head. Some sort of mantis perhaps. They’d lost the crickets for good. So, was this their replacement?
“Farnaby! Come!” He stumbled to the door and grabbed the handle with his shirttail, letting the dog precede him, and once inside struggled up the stairs and got his hand under a cool stream of water. He could hear the soft murmur of the Please voice downstairs. He hadn’t ordered it off, and it still prattled on to an empty room about dead Egyptians and their adventures in a highly anticipated afterlife.
“The first rulers of Egypt were ancient even to the Romans. Cleopatra lived closer to the invention of the self-driving automobile than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid.” At this distance she sounded like a whisper in his ear, but that small bit of perspective still impressed. “Please stop.” His voice was hoarse, but she obeyed.
He stared out the window at the burning mountains, disappeared beneath a deep mustard-colored veil. Dev realized somewhere beneath all that accumulating ash lay his Emily’s ashes. He couldn’t decide if this should horrify or comfort him.
He tried to see through the smoke, looking for any bit of remembered detail. His view rapidly deteriorated.
Part of the reason he and Emily bought this place was because of the view, and the mature landscaping that came with it. Forty-two different flowering plants at that time, blossoms staggered through the seasons. He used to take photos of flower buds breaking into bloom, of insects crawling over petals and stems, jewels of dew suspended in early morning webs, a world often unnoticed, and delicate as a dream.
The growing seasons for a number of those plants had since shifted by months. Many died because he couldn’t water them enough, and some no longer survived in Colorado’s climate. Was this the future invading his now?
When his hand felt better, he dried it gingerly, applying lotion and a loose bandage. Farnaby gazed at his wrappings mournfully.
“So, I’m part mummy now, kiddo.”
He couldn’t find anything identical to the new bug on the web. The closest was a smaller Bark Mantis from Honduras. It was far north of its usual territory, but habitats and migration ranges had been evolving for years.
He resisted the impulse to ask the house to read to him some more. As comforting as it was to hear another voice, he had other things to think about. He seldom asked for the news. He had no need for daily updates on what fresh hell waited for him outside.
He picked up a book, The Next Hundred Years, thoroughly worn from reading. He’d owned it a good twenty years. There were few things more useless than an old book of predictions. It fell open to the chapter “Upload Yourself,” this exploration of a future world in which dying folk could upload their minds to a computer network to escape death, living out eternity in this oh-so-vivid ultra hi def afterlife modeled from their own specifications. But what right did anyone have to escape into an eternity where the sky was always blue and nature this sensuous intoxication when the world you left behind was in flames?
The doorbell rang and the living room screen lit up with an image of the grocery delivery man in his dazzling reflective suit. Farnaby raced to the door barking frantically. Dev watched the screen until the man left his porch. He opened the door and hollered “Thank you!” as he gathered up the bags. The man turned and waved and returned a “You’re welcome!” Such a banal exchange, but many weeks this was Dev’s only in-person human interaction.
With frequent price spikes and shortages Dev had to study the choices carefully to see what he could afford. Some months he spent nearly forty percent of his income on food, pre-World War One levels. It didn’t bother him Farnaby’s food cost more than his own, but it was something he couldn’t tell his daughter.
He always went to bed early. Electricity was available for certain hours of the day, and for most nights not at all without a permit.
“In the Victorian era mummy unwrapping was a social event. Mummies were in plentiful supply and you could buy one for your parlor if you so desired. Mummies were burned like coal on some rail lines, ground up and made into medicines or paint, their wrappings used to make paper.”
Early the next morning they got into the car and Dev told it where he wanted to go, and the approximate timing required for Farnaby’s bathroom breaks. He could request a change in route at any time during the trip, but the car wouldn’t permit him to go anywhere he wasn’t allowed, or which might put them in danger from fire, flood, or other hazards. It knew far more about the projected weather, road conditions, and traffic patterns than he did so he was content to let the car do its job. Not that he had much choice. Dev was no longer licensed to use the manual override.
Farnaby huddled in the seat against him, head up and mouth pulled back in a rictus grin. This wasn’t one of the newer SDEVs, but it featured full length transparent doors on both sides for optimal viewing, superior climate control, and enhanced air filtration. Owning such a vehicle for limited use was the only extravagance Dev permitted himself.
Within a few miles of his neighborhood they were surrounded by crumbling concrete ribbons of highway, abandoned buildings of rusting steel and coarse cement, and much more traffic than he’d anticipated. Half the lanes were devoted to large electric commuter buses spaced breathtakingly close. This was supposed to be safe, but Dev could barely stand to watch them. Farnaby had his muzzle pressed against the door, apparently fascinated by these vehicles he’d never seen before. Dev heard new work schedules started early because of the heat and ended after dark for a workweek of three days, but he hadn’t paid much attention to such concerns since retirement.
Traffic in the recreational lanes was relatively light, so they were making good progress until Farnaby suddenly made whimpering sounds and began bobbing his head. “Please, we need a bathroom break,” Dev announced.
“Leaving the highway.” The voice was off-key and grating. It had been that way for a while, but Dev didn’t consider it worth fixing.
As they exited onto a local street Dev saw a tattered scarecrow of a man standing on the corner holding a blank cardboard sign. He wore an older style reflective suit ripped in several places, the trousers coming apart at the seams and mended with tape and pieces of dirty canvas or cloth. The floppy, broad-brimmed hat pulled down around his head did not disguise his wide-eyed gaze. The portions of his arms peeking through the rips were burnt and raw looking.
As they made the turn the man jumped up and down and pointed at his sign. He shouted something, but Dev couldn’t make out any specific words.
Desperate, unhinged behavior was not uncommon in people living on the ragged edge. Dev wondered if the man had a shelter to go to as the day wore on and the temperature rose. Someday he wanted to talk to someone like this, find out what their life was like, but he was ashamed to admit he was too afraid.
He wasn’t alone in this. People feared each other. You could no longer trust the sky over your head or the ground beneath your feet.
The car pulled over by an empty lot amid shuttered and decaying buildings. A faded sign proclaimed Springs’ Reclamation Garden: Victory Over Climate Change. These had been popular twenty years ago, trucking in topsoil to cover ruined spaces and create something rich with green. Although there were pale vines and anemic flowers, scattered patches of weeds, most of the lot was barren.
A few crows explored the ground. Songbirds had almost disappeared, but crows were thriving. It wasn’t their fault, and there wasn’t enough time to grieve over every single thing the world had lost, but Dev still resented their presence.
The car doors began to open, then shut again as a sudden cloudburst washed that view away. Farnaby looked anxious but waited patiently. They seldom received an enduring rain, just these overly dramatic explosions of thunder, shadow, and downpour lasting a few minutes or less. Soon Dev was standing in the brown grass at the edge of the lot, watching the terrier nosing around the sad-looking piece of ground.
“Stay close,” he said, as if the dog understood him. But that’s what you did with dogs, wasn’t it? He wasn’t afraid of him running away, but maybe of someone snatching him—that would be awful. He didn’t want him getting into things, getting stung or tick infested. Ticks didn’t die in the winter anymore. They drove Farnaby crazy all year long.
Something shiny and red in the ground caught his eye. It was curved and protruded a half inch or so above the dirt alongside a flattened clump of vegetation. He glanced around and saw other red bits, blue bits, portions of drinking cups, paper and plastic trash, a long line of rusted metal. Trash was rising out of the earth after the hard rain.
He got Farnaby into the vehicle and they headed back toward the highway. He didn’t see the tattered man anywhere. Dev hoped he’d found a safe spot to shelter before the day heated up. But it was unlikely to be a place with air conditioning. AC had become the crucial dividing line between the haves and have nots. Many could not afford it, and that meant death for some. People could get a medical subsidy if they qualified, but those qualifications became stricter every year.
It wasn’t that people didn’t care, and most understood their responsibility, recycling everything possible, using clean energy and conserving water. Yet the oceans continued to rise due to the damage already done, the ice caps and glaciers continued to disappear. The arctic was ice-free year-round. The indigenous population had largely left, although some attempted to stay close to home, working for the big shipping operations and oil companies. Maybe it wasn’t the kind of work they should have been doing, but how could you blame them?
As the car climbed the foothills they passed through a bluish fog and then a yellow one, and then into a relatively clear band of air between the fog and the smoke across the mountains above. As the day heated up the fog would burn away and the smoke would drop lower to obscure everything, but they would be back home by then.
The car pulled off to the side. “This is the highest you may go. Waiting for further instructions.”
Dev was disappointed. He’d been sure they could go higher. “Open doors please.” They got out but Farnaby refused to leave his side. He kept staring at the distant br
sh, the shadows beneath the trees. Dev couldn’t see anything, but he knew animals were coming out of the mountains to escape the wildfires looking for food, water, and shelter. He had no intention of staying outside the car for long.
He couldn’t say the view had been worth the trip. The nearby trees were yellow and brittle even during summer. A few still had moss, but it was faded. Both further up the hillside and in the distance, he saw long stretches of dead trees like painted gray stripes in the canopy. He remembered a pond with waterfowl, blackbirds, the occasional fox. He wasn’t sure, but he could see a dark patch of ground with a few dead cat o’ nine tails which might once have been that beautiful sanctuary.
When Kelly was small, he and Emily would show her what the city looked like from this higher, calmer perspective. Not only could he not see the city today, the air smelled like garbage.
Dev wouldn’t claim to be a great outdoorsman. He’d never enjoyed camping, preferring a comfortable bed in an air-conditioned hotel room. But he always knew how lucky they were to live in a state with such wonders. As Kelly grew older every summer he and Emily took her to some beautiful Colorado setting for an extended stay. Emily set up a scrapbook, and Kelly filled it with postcards and photos, pressed flowers, leaves, brochures, and her little notes about what she witnessed on these trips. He should have given the scrapbook to Kelly a long time ago, but he wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
He recalled Maroon Bells, with its two purple-and-white-striped peaks mirrored in an alpine lake. It was still there, he’d heard, but difficult to get to with the heat and the fires. The road was closed most years.
They’d spent two weeks at the Great Sand Dunes, where Medano Creek emerged every spring from the Sangre de Cristos behind the dunes to form an oasis, to disappear late August for another year. It was now dried up and apparently gone forever.
Hanging Lake, though, had been her favorite. They made three trips to see this magical body of water clinging to the edge of the mountain, multiple waterfalls cascading off moss-covered stone into the still pool below. She was grown when it was destroyed by a massive forest fire that consumed most of the mountain, the site disintegrating in the resulting landslide and erosion. She’d called him, sobbing, to tell him the news.
Dev had lost all desire to travel. It wasn’t just an issue of his age or his stamina. He was afraid there was no place he could go on this ailing planet and not see more signs of its demise. He felt powerless about many things, but especially in the face of climate, a system so vast it overlapped both thousands of miles of land and sea and generations of time. It was impossible for one person to engage a phenomenon so immense. But at least people should be encouraged to open their mouths and speak the truth of their grief.
When they got home the landline was flashing and a soft but persistent alarm emanated from his screen. He’d never seen this before and his first thought was there’d been an evacuation warning. “Please answer!” he cried, louder than intended, and sank into a chair. Farnaby crawled under the antique coffee table.
Kelly filled the frame, larger than life-size. He regretted getting one so big. Like everyone else in the world he’d watched the terrible final months of coastal Bangladesh as it disappeared into the ocean, the human tragedy playing out live and magnified in his living room.
“Dad, where were you? I’ve been checking the cameras for hours.” She was calling from the hospital, still in her mask and gown. She was a small woman, his precious child, and his first thought was she looked cute in her surgical gear, but of course he didn’t say that.
“I’m sorry. Farnaby and I drove into the foothills. I guess I should have let you know I was leaving.”
“No, no, I’m not your keeper. I just got really worried. This heat wave, and the air is so bad. I checked the cameras in every room, even the bathroom. Sorry. There are a few blind spots in the system. I was afraid you were lying dead in one of them.”
Dev hadn’t known there were blind spots. He made a mental note. They’d installed it two years ago; a camera system so emergency services and nervous adult children could check up on their elderly parents. There were tiny cameras with sensors in one corner of the ceiling of every room. He’d pretty much forgotten about them.
“Well, I’m okay. I see you’re at work.”
She pulled her mask down. “It’s been a busy day. Too many respiratory cases to keep up. Is your breathing okay?”
“I’m fine, honey. Really.”
“I saw all those boxes and bags. Are you getting rid of more stuff?”
“Trying to. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of things.”
“You know I worry when you do that. I’m always afraid you’re giving up.”
“Not giving up at all. Just focusing, creating space in my home, and by extension creating space in my head.”
Farnaby came out from under the table then, staring at the screen, head cocked to one side.
“Hi Farnaby!” He sat up, tail wagging. “You know I still can’t believe you got a dog. I told you to get one after Mom died but you were adamant you didn’t want one.”
“At that time, I couldn’t handle being responsible for another life. I didn’t even want plants in the house.”
“He’s so small and chipper! I figured you’d want a big old hound with a sad face and droopy ears.”
“I would never own a pet who looked like me.”
“He keeps me company. But some days I can’t get a word in edgewise.”
“But that name? It’s cute, but how’d you come up with that?”
“It’s the main character from Aldous Huxley’s final novel Island. It’s about a utopia.”
“Do you believe in that stuff? Utopias?”
“Not really. The problem with utopians is every time you turn around, they’re trying to kill people.”
“It was a modest afterlife for the common folk, marginally better than their lives before, but dead pharaohs might dwell among the stars at the end of their journey. The royals, the wealthy and educated could afford a tomb or coffin decorated with inscriptions providing food and magic spells to foil the demons and fiery lakes encountered. As final insurance, your family could arrange for a scarab placed within the mummy wrappings above your heart, inscribed with a spell which magically hid all your wrongdoing from final judgement.”
If you had enough wealth and knowledge, you could get away with almost anything. Some things hadn’t changed in 2,500 years.
Dev spent part of every day wrapped in expensive filtered and conditioned air, peeking through his front windows at his local neighborhood, a narrow view between heavy curtains. He understood how lucky he was, how privileged, with guaranteed retirement income and a daughter devoted to his well-being. He wasn’t a rich man, but his imagined needs had never been too large for his revenue. As far as that wild man he saw yesterday was concerned, Dev indeed dwelled among the stars.
If he didn’t see a neighbor for an extended period he wondered if they’d died or moved to a location more bearable. You rarely saw someone die. One day you noticed they were gone. It was like what happened to the missing plants and bugs, the songbirds, the coral reefs.
The suicide rate was quite high. Very few of those happened in public. Sometimes it seemed a miracle to be able to live at all. Dev didn’t fear dying, but he lived every day anticipating an end: of some species, some comforting ritual, some cherished location.
He hadn’t told Kelly this, but many days he felt too tired to get out of bed, or to climb out of a chair, or to choose. Did the cameras see his fatigue? Each day he waited for the exhaustion to pass, knowing someday it would not.
He saw the men walking up to his porch with their wagon. They were dressed similarly to the fellow from yesterday, with bits of reflective suit, wide floppy hats, dirty surgical masks, and pieces of homemade patchwork consisting of netting, disintegrating padding, cardboard, metal, and reflective tape. This ragged outfit had become a kind of uniform for those who wandered or attempted to live outside. His neighborhood, being so close to major routes, had frequent wanderers.
He waited as the older one walked onto the porch and rang the bell. On the screen his face around the mask looked stiff and leathery, shriveled, and expressionless. The younger man remained at the bottom of the steps guarding the wagon. Dev checked the other camera views. There was no one else in sight. On the second ring Dev spoke. “Can I help you?”
The older man paused for a moment, then turned his dark eyes toward the camera over the door. “Anything, please?” The young man said something, and the old man said something back. “Anything you can spare?”
Dev thought the accent was different from the Mexican Spanish he was used to. When the two men talked their speech was full of slang. He didn’t understand a word. Honduran, maybe? Like the newly arrived Mantis in his backyard. Like much of Central America, Honduras was burning down. When your house was burning down, you left it.
“Wait just a second. Oh, do you like books?”
The old man blinked. His eyes looked enormous above the mask. “I like to read.”
Dev went downstairs and retrieved one of the books on Egypt, and at the last second snagged a volume of Neruda off a shelf. He brought them upstairs and opened the hall closet. Stacked inside were boxes full of food, medicine, odd items like gloves, flashlight, batteries, a little cash. He slipped the books into the box on top and carried it to the door. “I’m terribly sorry, but please step off the porch and wait.” He was embarrassed every one of the many times he’d said this, but he was a cautious man.
Dev watched the screen as the man went back down the steps and joined his partner. Then he stepped out onto the porch into the fuggy air and set the box down. He smiled at them apologetically. “Please take these. I hope they help you on your journey.” He wanted to say more. He wanted to ask the elderly man what it was like to be old where he came from, to be old and wandering now through this darkening and unforgiving place. But he did not, could not, and went back inside.
He watched them on the screen as they loaded the box into their wagon and left, then switched cameras to follow their slow progress down the street, to the next house, and the one after.
The air became grainier as additional smoke settled in. More shambling figures joined them, some with wagons, some with dogs.
Whatever future there might be was manifesting here, right now, rubbing its way into the present. Dev turned away and went around checking windows, securing doors, closing himself in for the night.