I’m on day four of National Novel Writing Month. And it’s been a good but strange few days, because while I have a table of contents already and a relatively solid idea of what I’m writing about — the apocalypse, and, now that I’ve done some quick-and-dirty background research and settled some things in my head, I know what kind of apocalypse (cataclysmic double-meteor strike that in turn triggers mass earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic explosions), where it began (one in the Mediterranean and one on the Arabian Peninsula), and what region(s) I’m mostly writing about (mostly the Pacific Northwest, though I might set a story or two in Texas just out of habit).
What I don’t have is an outline, a definite chronology, or a specific set of characters. I’m just sort of making those up as I go. Which in some ways is wonderfully liberating, and in other ways is unsettlingly random. For example, I haven’t really finished the first story in the novel — and in fact that story is currently just a jumble of disjointed scenes — but I’ve already started writing scenes and snippets for some of the other stories.
So this year, I think I’ll post my weekly excerpts not according to the days I wrote but to the stories I’ve worked on during the week. Which is what you’ll see below: bits and pieces from some of the story/chapters I’ve been working on.
from “Lonely As a Weeping Trumpet”
By the time anyone thought to ask why the world was ending, it had already happened. So I can’t tell you exactly what caused it, which impact was first. And as far as anyone knows, it’s still going on, all this loss and confusion and undoing of things and reforming of things, all this dissipation and coming together, so I also can’t tell you when it ended because it hasn’t yet. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s still ending, it’s always ending. An end without end.
This morning I stepped outside without a heavy coat for the first time in months, which felt glorious despite the ashfall and the grayness of things. My footsteps made no sound, the ground like a months-old snow to look at but like a featherbed to walk upon. The air was cold on my face but wet and refreshing, as if I could just lean back and inhale the morning. But I’m not stupid. I’ve seen people die that way, bent over with one elbow on their knee, a hand on a porch post or a tree, blood in the ash.
Each morning when I walk the road to the base of the hill, I think about mail. How I ought to be checking, a rusty mailbox lid creaking on its hinge, the flag half up and half down, no telling what I might have. It’s not something I ever bothered with before, living in the city, my mailbox one of a row of boxes at the base of my apartment stairs. My email felt more important than all that printed junk. Tree killers, I called those things, wholly unaware of what was coming for the trees. This mail-at-the-end-of-the-lane thing, it’s something I picked up from movies as a kid, those quiet homes in the Midwest, out in the country somewhere between the farms and the suburbs, the dirt road, the split-rail fence, the mailbox on the post. Some kid maybe ten years old, maybe thirteen, strolling down the drive with an old stick in his hand, swiping at rocks and thwacking the fencepost as he rounded the turn to the mailbox.
It’s strange how the things we miss are the things we never had to begin with.
from “This Last March of the Human Animal”
When the world was nearing its end, we got all sorts of advice on the morning shows and in the radio broadcasts. Even when the Internet was up and running, you could find lists. Water, food, batteries, first aid. Which made sense. Moist towelettes and cell phone chargers. Which didn’t make any sense at all. Later, the lists became more practical, contained things like bivvy bags and waterproof matches, hatchets and lantern fuel. Alcohol and a handgun. But no one thought to tell us about the coffee.
I lived in a shitty little three-bedroom house I shared with two other guys, out in Banks, which I thought was remote enough. We were only 10 minutes out of Forest Grove, a half hour from Portland. This was when we were still driving cars, but even by bike we could be in Hillsboro in an hour. And on the other side of us, about the same distance, was the Tillamook State Forest, with all the wood and wildlife we could ever need. So when everything went to shit I figured we had it okay. But then the cities became unsafe. They always do.
We knew we were headed into the forest, where it’d be both easier to hide and easier to survive, even with the horror stories we were hearing about the weirdos holing up in the hills. But we weren’t sure where exactly until Greg started yammering on about the Tillamook Burn. He was a history major in college and he’d written some paper on how the state forest got started, all those forest fires back in the `40s. And I have a thing about ghost towns, so when he got started in on the forest and the fires and the logging, I remembered about Idiot Creek and the old abandoned logging camp up there. So we headed for Idiotville.
from “So Much Simply Lost”
We had bread. It was light, puffed up, full of tiny air pockets. Sometimes it contained seeds, sometimes raisins and spices, and sometimes it was a pale golden color we called “white bread.” It never contained soot or fine grains of pumice. We could bake it at home if we wanted to but not many of us did. When I had bread, I bought it from the store, where it came already sliced, stacked inside a plastic sleeve. I used it to make peanut butter sandwiches and ham and cheese sandwiches and grilled cheese sandwiches and patty melts and clubs and BLTs. That’s an acronym. It was delicious. I knew people who would cut a hole from the center and fry an egg inside the bread. I knew people who soaked it in syrup and coated it with sugar and made a thing called French toast. I never made it that way; instead, I made just plain toast, which I smeared with butter and jam. Jam was crushed up fruit that seemed to last forever. We could bake it dry and cut it into cubes to serve over salad, or we could half-burn it and crush it into crumbs to dust the top of our macaroni and cheese. There was once a time so decadent that we would take old bread we hadn’t bothered to eat in time and head down to the riverside where the ducks gathered in the shallows, and we would pinch off bits of bread and toss them, a piece at a time, into the water for the ducks to feed on. The ducks weren’t hungry — they didn’t need the bread. But we liked to watch them eat. And we had all the bread in the world.