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Drama Science Fiction

When the world as we know it stops, the time on the oven clock reads 4:37 before the spindly green numbers disappear with a loud warning beep, a tritone harmony of appliances announcing a power outage. My first guess is a fire, since it’s August and it’s hot, and the light out the window has taken on that familiar surreal yellow tint, the trees casting anemic lavender shadows across the lawn—a false dusk. 


“Where do you keep the lanterns?” Simon calls from his den. 


We have over three hours until sunset. I’m more concerned with the petulant cries from the living room: “The TV’s not working!” I’m going to need to redirect two bored kids. 


But a certain determination in my husband’s voice pulls me away. “Kitten, come help me find the flashlights!” His endearment is purely a matter of habit.


I know at this point that he’s over-reacting and this whole annoyance will be over in time for me to fix dinner, but I don’t feel like arguing, so I rummage through the “adventure box” in the hall closet and pull out two palm-sized flashlights and a 2,000-lumen lantern. 


“Got them,” I call out.


“Check the batteries,” he commands, and I bristle at the terse note of authority in his tone. 


I walk into the den, where his face is buried deep in his computer and he’s tapping furiously on his keyboard. He looks up. I shine the lights in his face and report, “Everything’s in working order.”


Then I’m drawn back to the other end of the house by a scream.


—-


I don’t like being wrong. I also don’t like not knowing the time, but the sky has already faded from yellow to pink to purple to gray, and the lights are still out, and so is the internet, and so apparently are the satellites because my phone is still frozen at 4:37, and we are camping: a yellow nylon dome tent, four sleeping bags, two army-green folding chairs and a blue-checkered picnic blanket on the back lawn. And a cardboard box where an injured parakeet convalesces in a nest of old t-shirts. And two palm-sized flashlights and a 2,000-lumen lantern. I’m glad I don’t have to eat the words I already swallowed in the hallway. It would be a lot to digest, on top of everything else.


We’re camping because it’s August and it’s hot, save for an ocean breeze that won't fill up the house in the absence of our air conditioning—another victim of the power outage. And because of the bird.


“There was a loud bang,” my daughter reported when I made my way back to the living room after finding the flashlights. She was bouncing on the sofa, her head rummaging through the curtains for a better look. “Against the window! Can we check on it?”


I opened the front door and she ran straight to the outside of the front window where, sure enough, there was something on the porch. She bent down and scooped up a bright green pile of feathers. 


Her Poor baby! drowned out my Honey, wait— as she cradled the fallen bird in the crook of her elbow like a newborn. That’s when it came to life with a dull squawk and flailing wings and landed in a heap at her feet. 


I recognized the parakeet—one of the wild flock, descended from escaped pets, that moves from one West LA neighborhood to another and often camps out in our neighbor’s towering palm tree. It’s like living next door to a minor celebrity. Only here was this tiny celebrity flailing on my patio, and my ten-year-old staring at it, brown eyes wide in her still face. Then she jumped into action. 


“You watch the bird,” she called before darting off to retrieve the box. I watched her pick up the bird, confident hands enveloping the panicked wings, and that bird went quiet. So carefully she put it down inside the box and folded over the cardboard flaps. “Don’t let it get away!” She was gone again, back seconds later with an armful of rags that she tucked in around the parakeet, her energy condensed around this task, compressed into an intense gentleness. 


I didn’t say no. I just said keep it outside, and she’s been by its side in the yard all evening, and the bird is alive, for now at least. She watches the rapid rise and fall of the green feathers that fluff from its chest. Inside, I want to ask “Alexa, how do you care for an injured parakeet?” or “Alexa, what are signs of shock for birds?” but my virtual assistant is blinking a halo of red light (out of the office!) and my daughter seems to have an instinct for this, so I move our dishes into the kitchen with the last gasp of the tight orange ball of a sun, smoldering in a gray-brown sky. “Alexa, what’s going on?” I say into the empty room.


Simon has pulled out the hand crank radio and is pacing the driveway flipping through the channels that still have content. KCRW, KFPK, KFI. Confused hosts without guests fill dark, empty space with their voices. They report power outages, dead phone lines, no internet. Some throw out ideas like electromagnetic pulse and solar flare and nuclear explosion in the stratosphere. Sometimes two hosts pair up in dark studios that they can’t leave because their cars won’t start, and just talk. They have more questions than answers. I imagine them, their fingers traveling familiar instruments guided only by touch and habit.


I bring out a mostly-full gallon of ice cream and four spoons. Because everything in the freezer is about to melt. Because in the absence of direction I’m also guided by habit, and because we’re still in the exciting part of whatever-this-is, where everything is fresh and novel and not really our lives yet. Just like it was at the start of the pandemic. I went to the grocery store, earlier than most but already many of the shelves were bare and the line wrapped through the aisles, and there was almost a festive feel to it—people with carts full of Sprite and Tostitos, as if it would be over in the space of a weekend binge. And we smiled at each other (we weren’t even wearing masks yet) and just kind of laughed at the lines because history was happening and it had its eye on us and yes, I was actually singing the Hamilton songs in my head because this was when it was fresh— “interesting times” as the Chinese proverb goes (or was it a curse?) where you don’t know if it’s going to be some zany story you tell bored grandchildren or a tidal wave that washes away everything you hold dear. You’re just curious, poised there on the brink of it all. That’s where we are now, again, August 4, 2026. More interesting times. Only this time I didn’t have time to go to the market, and even if I did, the refrigerator is out. So I use what I have: ice cream. Ice cream and a front row seat to history.


And it’s beautiful. I have never seen so many stars as now, with the street lights out, and the neighbors’ porch lights and bedroom lights, and the spotlights announcing car dealerships, and the fluorescent office lights from tall windows in the distant Downtown. 


We’re sitting, bellies full, me with one warm kid under each arm, looking at the stars, when we all see it—a flash of bright green that shoots across the sky and evaporates like smoke. 


“My bird!” My daughter bolts upright and runs to the box, throwing open the cardboard flaps that shelter the parakeet. I have no idea where the panic is coming from until she closes the box more slowly and says, looking into my furrowed eyebrows, “I thought that maybe his soul was flying off. But he’s still breathing.”


I have goosebumps despite the warm August air.


Simon joins us in the backyard, trailed by the voice murmuring from his crank radio. “Did you guys see the aurora?” He sprawls easily on the blanket and hands the radio to my son. “They said that could happen. You take a shift. My hand is tired.”


I’m trying to take it all in. “Does this mean it’s an electromagnetic pulse, then?”


“It’s looking more and more likely,” he answers. “But no one knows if it’s an E1 or an E2, or if it’s a nuclear attack or a Carrington event, or if the grid will be back in days or years.”


While he’s already adapting to the jargon of our new world, I’m thinking about our freezer. How much meat have I stored? How quickly can we eat it? We have about three-quarters of a tank of propane on the grill. How long do Eggo waffles last once they’ve defrosted?


Simon’s head digs into my leg, its sharp heaviness dragging me back to our present and the voice on the radio. “The pineal gland...ten percent of a pigeon’s brain...they can see the magnetosphere....” It’s a familiar voice. One so reminiscent of late night drives across desert and farmland that I can feel the blast of the air conditioner on my cheeks. This is George Noory with Coast to Coast am. My husband passing the time with bizarre alien sightings and conspiracy theories. I used to tease him. It can’t be ten o’clock yet, but George Noory was born for this moment in history, a treasure trove of obscure knowledge for when the bizarre comes to pass. Schedules are irrelevant anyway. He drones on and I try to focus.


“NASA has been studying this for years. Migratory animals—whales, dolphins, turtles, birds—get their sense of direction from the magnetosphere. Scientists believe they have deposits of small magnetic minerals in their nervous systems that might act like microscopic compass needles. But when there’s a large electromagnetic event, that internal compass goes haywire. They just lose their way. Remember the 2008 magnetosphere breech when 40,000 lobsters washed up on the white cliffs of Dover?”


I do not, but I take his point. I watch my daughter’s arms tighten around the cardboard box in her lap and realize with sudden amazement that both kids have been quiet for ten consecutive minutes. “Do you think his brain got lost?” my son asks. 


“I think we’re all feeling a little lost right now,” I say. I take the crank radio from my son, whose revolutions have started to slow. “Let’s get in your sleeping bags. A good night’s sleep always helps when I’m feeling lost.”  


I kiss my son’s forehead and tuck the parakeet in its box close to my daughter’s sleeping bag. They both check one more time and note the flicker of a wing before I settle down between them and turn off the lantern and we all disappear into the darkness. Our legs rustle against the slippery sleeping bags; their busy fingers zip across the tent’s thin nylon. I listen to zip zip zip zip...zip zip...zip...zip...zzzz until the rustling disappears, too, and the night is a perfect blank canvas upon which my thoughts unfurl.


This is exciting, still, so I imagine our family off the grid, living off the land. I bring my left-over seeds from the summer’s garden—tomatoes, basil, bell pepper, zucchini. Maybe the corn would even fare better in our new settlement on the river somewhere, far away from the rioting hoards below. The kids train carrier pigeons or ravens who eventually let my parents know we’re ok. My husband catches trout with his bare hands, rainbow scales sliding through callous fingers. He’s grown a beard and somehow it feels like enough for him to hide behind, and he can face the world without the shielding aura of his phone. Maybe this is the fresh start we need, the fresh start I crave. I think of those shopping carts full of Sprite and Tostitos. That hasn’t been us for a long time. Now if our relationship were a shopping cart it would be full of... kale and... I don’t know...something else that’s responsible and boring but also the opposite of kale. Kale and potatoes? Interesting times take their toll on a marriage. So yes, the river, the seeds, and the beard all sound like a good plan, except that our electric car won’t start. Or maybe we wake up in the morning and everything is on its way back to normal.


Outside I hear George Noory approaching and see Simon’s shadow settle into one of the folding chairs. I poke my head out of the tent and see his clean-shaven face in the flashlight glow, staring at the sky. I take the seat next to his.


He looks at me—really looks at me, maybe for the first time tonight. “They’re asleep?”


“Yes.”


“And the bird?” He cracks a grin, but shakes his head. “I don’t know why you’re letting her watch that thing die.”


“Or maybe she’s saving its life,” I protest. He hadn’t seen the way she picked it up, the way it relaxed in her hands. I have the urge to go in the tent and look in the box, and the sudden feeling that my fate and Simon’s depend on the rise and fall of that fluffed green chest.


Another aura flashes and churns through the sky. Its vaporous light lingers and hovers above us. 


I thought that maybe his soul was flying off... 


I dread what I would see in the box and savor the time between expecting and knowing.


“Schrödinger’s bird.” Simon chuckles.


And that’s it, exactly! Schrödinger’s parakeet, both dead and alive, and as long as we don’t know, anything is possible. I smile and put my empty hand into the warmth of his.


Even George Noory has run out of steam. He has surrendered his show to poetry—Sarah Teasdale via Ray Bradbury, he announces:


Robins will wear their feathery fire, 

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire; 

And not one will know of the war, not one 

Will care at last when it is done. 

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly…


But tonight our bird might be alive, and we certainly are. We sit in the dark and watch the auroras dance across the sky.


September 11, 2020 00:07

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11 comments

Fjc Montenegro
00:45 Feb 17, 2021

I love the approach you took here. You went for a more internal, maybe even introspective point of view, of a family trying to figure out what's going on out there while dealing with family situations, instead of the panicky omg-the-world-is-ending reaction apocalyptic stories bring to mind. As you've said, it's so interesting to see how other person approaches the same idea. And also the fact that, inspired by different prompts, we went for a similar and rarely-used apocalypse scenario, instead of going for the good old zombie/nuclear-war...

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Fjc Montenegro
00:51 Feb 17, 2021

Oh, by the way, I love the voice in your stories. It's full of confidence. It's the voice of a narrator who knows what they're doing. I wouldn't be able to pinpoint why I feel this way, I just do. And I wish I really could pinpoint because then I would be able to do it myself. lol Hopefully, I'll get there someday, but there's still a ways to go. :P

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A.Dot Ram
01:30 Feb 17, 2021

Haha. Good point. The radio is based an a camping radio/flashlight we have powered by solar panels and a hand crank. It's very off the grid...I think. I really did anguish over this. Possibly more grievous is the ability to broadcast radio at all. I think I tried to look up whether radio waves could travel without electricity. I also researched birds and the magnetosphere. At first I was thinking nuclear disaster, but found it too old school. Then my scientist sister made me aware of the EMP alternative and everything clicked into place. A...

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Fjc Montenegro
01:58 Feb 17, 2021

Yeah, I was thinking about the broadcasting itself. "The hosts are in dark studios, their fingers traveling familiar instruments." Like, maybe they could make things work with a generator or something, but then they would also have light. Anywho... (back to the corner, brain!) I'd consider having a scientist sister cheating when it comes to dipping your toes on sci-fi, but I can't because I've studied computer science so I'm also kind of a scientist...? I guess?? Now I'm the one who's cheating. About the voice, I think it comes with time a...

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A.Dot Ram
05:13 Feb 17, 2021

I understand the insecurity (it may never go away), but you've certainly got a handle on the basics and then some! Probably a third of my stories have some sci-fi element to them, but it's usually downplayed and incidental. I guess I have a casual interest in science, and nature provides some of the best metaphors.

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Chris Wagner
04:41 Dec 24, 2020

I wanted to hate this story because of the style, but something in the writing made me keep reading. Can't really think of anything bad to say about it. In fact, I was impressed at the reference to George noorey and the hint at an apocalyptic theme. Guess that's why you're in the top ten

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A.Dot Ram
06:40 Dec 24, 2020

Thanks for this comment. No offense taken, but i'm curious what about the style was offputting to you? I wrote it in a style vaguely inspired by the book "Ducks Newberryport", which was polarizing. I only read a sampling of it, but was intrigued. The longest sentence in this piece is 181 words I think. Anyway, i'm glad you ultimately sort of enjoyed it. I wrote it during the big fire week here in California, so the atmosphere felt a little apocalyptic.

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Chris Wagner
18:19 Dec 25, 2020

I listen to npr a lot, and there are some ladies that read essays or do editorials that kind of grate on my nerves. I can't pinpoint what in a fiction piece reminds me of that. Anyways, it's just a personal preference, really, it doesn't mean the writing is bad. Not everyone likes every genre

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Jill Davies
21:37 Sep 12, 2020

On the nose, but in a good way. The way you talk about the pandemic made it seem like the two incidents were right on top of each other. I think I would have liked that better. Also, this is your first piece to really end on a melancholy note. I liked that too

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A.Dot Ram
01:12 Sep 13, 2020

The date I picked was a little arbitrary, but also significant in an apocalyptic sense (the date on which "There Will Come Soft Rains" begins, describing a family vaporized as they play in their yard--the image from which this story eventually evolved). Anyway, the chronological approachable-ness of that date made it enticing to me. I debated including it or not, because the feel is more important than the time frame. Yes, I suppose the pandemic does feel fresh since it's from the vantage point of me/now. If it makes you like the story bette...

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Jill Davies
02:36 Sep 13, 2020

You achieved a lot here!

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