“I bought a gun,” my brother told me.
“A what?” I said. The connection was super crackly, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“A gun,” he said. “Just to be safe. I have a family to protect, you know.”
“Oh, please,” I said. “To protect from what? You live on an army base. Are you expecting Genghis Khan and his hordes to show up?”
“Ha-ha,” he said. “You’re a laugh and a half.” Whenever we argued, it was as if we reverted right back to our middle school selves. “You think I’m overreacting,” he said. “I know. But you’ll see.”
Although my brother had been in the military for five years, he had never to my knowledge handled a weapon. He was a supply officer—a bookworm who’d joined the service to get out from under college debt. The idea of him waving around a Beretta, in a state of high agitation, possibly in the presence of his wife and my nephews, scared me far more than the reason he’d actually bought the thing.
“I also stocked up on food and medicine,” he told me. “Got bags of rice in the basement, and some canned stuff—beans, soup, tuna. There’s enough down there to last for months.”
“Well, that’s just great,” I said. “And don’t forget to stock up on tins of caviar and bottles of champagne. You’ll need something to cheer you up in those long months underground—or maybe to trade in the barter economy after all hell breaks loose.”
Usually, my brother got annoyed when I mocked him. This time, he responded with the cool assurance of a man who knows he’s correct.
“If you’re smart,” he said, “you’ll do exactly what I’m doing. I know you think I’m wrong about this, but what if I’m right? What if there’s even a 10 percent chance that I’m right? Or five percent? Isn’t it better to prepare than to be caught out?”
“Sure, bud,” I said. “And then, even if you’re wrong, you can just enjoy tuna casserole every night for the next year. Good times.”
He sighed. “You’ve got two weeks,” he said. “Think about it. I love you, man.” Before I could respond, he hung up.
I did think about it. Couldn’t stop thinking about it, in fact.
I hadn’t really considered the possibility before, but what if my brother was right? How much of an idiot would I be if he warned me repeatedly, I refused to listen, and then everything went down just as he predicted? My brother was the only person I knew who was prepping—our parents were dead, and my friends thought the whole thing was bunk—but I couldn’t get that last conversation out of my head. How many times had he been right, and lorded it over me, when we were kids? How many times had I heard the words, “I told you so, dummy”? Was I pushing back now out of habit, to protect the picked-on little brother I was all those years ago? Was it possible I was actually willing to die in hopes of proving my brother wrong?
I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. If I did decide to start prepping, I couldn’t tell anyone; I’d be too embarrassed to admit that I had fallen prey to my brother’s paranoia. When I’d told a few of my friends about what he was doing, about his gun and his medicine and his stockpiles of tuna, they had just sneered. They seemed so sure he was wrong. But my God, what if... what if…?
What I couldn’t get out of my head was the fact that he had ended the conversation by saying he loved me, something he’d never said before. He’d obviously done it to show me how serious he was. This wasn’t a joke to him. Didn’t I at least owe it to him—to myself—to seriously consider what he was saying, no matter how out-there it seemed?
And yet, wasn't this all goosed by religious fear-mongering? My brother and his wife went to a church that preached relentlessly about the “end times,” and the cable channels were full of evangelicals hyping the end of the world. These people fully expected that two weeks from now, a global catastrophe would destroy all the systems that humans had so painstakingly built: the electrical grid would fail, gas stations would run dry, banks would close, and governments and money would cease to have meaning. All the structures that govern human society would collapse; blood would flow in the streets, and anyone who hadn’t prepared for the chaos would be consumed by it.
This generation—my generation—would be the last to live in the world as we know it. This is what my brother believed, and he was not going to be caught unprepared.
A week went by, and with each day that passed, I got more scared. There was no one to turn to, no one with whom I could talk all of this through. My brother believed, and everyone else I knew did not. This was either going to happen, or it wasn’t. There was no in between, and I had to choose a side.
With two days to go, my brother called me.
“Do you want to come stay with us?” he asked. Of course, I had already considered it. But I wouldn’t—couldn’t—give him the satisfaction of telling him that.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m good. Gonna hang out with some friends that night.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “I wish you would take this seriously, but I guess your mind is made up?”
“Yep,” I said, with more bravado than I felt. “I’ll call you Friday, to check in.” Friday. D-day. The day.
Midnight was when the shit was supposed to go down. That was the moment when all the world’s computer clocks would, thanks to a long-ago coding shortcut called the Y2K bug, suddenly register the date not as January 1, 2000, but as January 1, 1900. This tiny glitch would, in theory, wipe out all of the world’s data, casting humanity into digital—followed immediately by physical—calamity.
I woke up that morning and made a pot of coffee, and a little after 10 a.m., I turned on CNN. There it was: Scenes from Sydney, Australia, where crowds of Aussies were whooping and hollering, drunkenly ringing in the new year. I let out a breath I didn’t even realize I’d been holding, and felt my limbs go rubbery with relief. Then I picked up the phone and dialed my brother.
“Hey, man,” he said. “You had a change of heart? You can still get here in time.”
“Nope,” I said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
“You don’t know that,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do. The lights are still on in Australia, and it’s January 1 there. Time zones, bro. I think we’re good.”
My brother was silent. And even though this was good news—the world wasn’t going to end! He wouldn’t have to protect his family from marauders! They wouldn’t have to live on tuna casserole!—I could feel his disappointment radiating through the phone. He had been wrong, and I was right. Making it worse, he hadn’t even realized he was wrong until I had called him to point it out. The difference in time zones had never even occurred to him.
I felt bad for him, I really did. In a strange way, he had wanted, maybe even needed, this catastrophe. And now it wasn’t going to happen. I knew I shouldn’t say the words my mouth was already forming, but I couldn’t help myself.
“I told you so, dummy,” I said.
Then, and I swear I’m not making this up, I was about to say, “But I love you too, man.” But before I could, my brother hung up. We haven’t spoken since.