Monday, June 23, 2008

There's always something else

David slumped in front of the television, no longer taking in the images of weeping parents and grim-faced experts.

His ex-girlfriends had both called, five minutes apart, to confirm what he had known and not wanted to believe. His son was gone. His daughter was gone. It still didn't seem real: how could so many children just disappear like that?

A knock on the door dragged him out of his seat - perhaps it was news. Not much chance of that, maybe, but he had to keep believing.

Clare stood on the doorstep, her eyes red and puffy from crying. "Can I come in?"

David shrugged. "If you like."

"She's gone," Clare said. "The only thing I ever did right in my life. I didn't even know ... I was asleep."

"I know." She had called him so many times, crying over her failed relationships and her failed business and her epic credit card debts. It had become almost a ritual, that she would say she'd failed at everything she tried and he would reassure her that she had a happy, healthy daughter who loved her more than anyone else in the world. But now her daughter was gone. "How are you coping?"

"How are you coping? Did your boy...?"

According to the news, not quite all children had vanished. Most of the survivors were teenagers, but here and there a few as young as ten remained. He shook his head. "They're both gone."

She started crying again. He wanted to snap that she didn't even know his children: she'd seen his daughter maybe twice in her life, and never seen his son except in pictures. But he knew she was most likely crying for her daughter, or crying over the incomprehensible scale of the disaster.

Finally, she fished a soggy tissue out of her pocket and blew her nose noisily. "I'm sorry," she said. "I just ... I've lost Elspeth, and when I look at you I just see that same loss, and it's even harder to bear. I'm not making any sense."

"None of this makes any sense." He was used to having an answer when she cried, and he had nothing. He was dangerously close to tears himself.

"I was going to go up to the bridge," she said. "She was my only reason to go on living, and now ... But I remembered that thing about, 'There's always something else you can do.' Do you think that's still true?"

Was anything still true, in a world where your children could just disappear? "I don't know." He reached for her and pulled her close. "Maybe."

They held onto each other for a while. It didn't fill the gap his children had left, but it made the emptiness easier to bear. There was still someone in this cold, childless world that he could hold, that he could-

"Clare, what are you doing?"

"I can't live without her," she said, unfastening his belt. "You don't know what it was like before she was born, when I had nobody. I can't go back to that. I can't."

"No, but you can't ... this isn't the way to cope. This might only be temporary. You can't just ... replace her."

"I have to do something. Otherwise I might as well just jump off that bridge."

David thought about all the bits of his children's lives that he'd missed, one way and another. Didn't he want, deep down, to try again and get it right this time? Not to replace his children, no, but when they came back, he could tell them they had a new brother or sister. He could find a way, somehow, to take care of them all.

It was wrong, of course, but so was a world where your children vanished without so much as a warning. And she wanted it badly enough for both of them, so he let her have her way.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Weird Science

L.B. Weird Science, Left Behind pp. 6-8 and L.B. Peace in the Middle East, Left Behind, pp. 8-9.

Pete had been in Israel during the attack for an interview with Fyvush Goldstein, a chemist that had been chosen as the National View's Person of the Year after arduous conversation by the editorial staff. True, Pete hadn't technically been privy to that meeting but it was hard not to know what was going on when you could hear the managing editor screaming "But he's only a chemist!" from the newsroom.

Goldstein had sneaked into the spot for two reasons. First, no one could deny that he was an important chemist. He'd been responsible for the major biotech advances that Israel had been making in the last five years. Not personally, of course, but through his position as trusted science adviser to the Prime Minister.

For example, Israel's recent focus on hydroponics had spawned several large state sponsored agriculture projects in the previously desolate areas on the eastern edge of the country. They already grew more produce in a year than Brazil did, and just before Pete's trip they'd announced several more installations.

He'd also overseen the establishment of Israel's in vitro meat program, which had been established much more quickly and much more effectively than anyone had predicted. True, a few rabbis had declared that the non-animal meat wasn't kosher, but that was just a small segment of Israel; religious hardliners and the majority of Jews agreed that the new product was kosher as pickles.

The real reason that he'd been nominated was because of his surprisingly effective social efforts. Goldstein had hired and trained many Palestinians and used his connections to guarantee their passage into Israel proper. When his programs started to pay off to the tune of millions of dollars in grants and technology patents, not to mention the profits from the sales of the produce themselves, he hired even more Palestinians to work alongside their Israeli counterparts. When the conservatives had complained, Goldstein would point to his massive successes, and then call in his government support to back him up.

Attacks in Israel had slowly declined. Hamas had eventually renounced violence, especially since Palestinians were among those now being killed in the Tel Aviv bombings. With better security came looser travel restrictions and what could, in the next few years, become the implementation of a two state strategy for peace.

True, things weren't perfect. There were still problems with Zionist expansion on the West Bank, and there was still the occasional bombing but things were looking so much more positive now that Palestinians didn't have to resort to suicide bombings to feed their families. Goldstein himself had ironically become a popular figure among the younger Palestinians due to circulating rumors that he stood up to the Israeli government to make sure that Palestinian innovations resulted in patents held by Palestinian citizens.

There was also Nobel Peace Prize buzz in the air. As much as some of the editors railed for some actor or politician, at the end of the day it was Fyvush Goldsteing that got the profile.

Fyvush had met Pete in his house, a modest building not too far from the presumed border between Israel and Palestine. Two graduate students were hunched over a set of plans in his office, arguing loudly. One was Israeli, one was Palestinian, but they weren't consumed with political differences but rather differences of opinion on the design of a new air compressor for a new hydroponics installation.

"I hear you want to talk with me about my fascination with Romanian opera," Goldstein had said with sparkling eyes as they finally sat down.

Pete had been amazed at the Professor's self effacement. He called the hydroponics and in vitro meat programs "the result of scientists far more brilliant than I" and described his hiring practices as "the best effort of a single man." He completely discounted his role in the reduction of violence. "The current political situation is something that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been working toward for years. To say that I had more influence had more than all of the people that have come before me is beyond the realm of possibility, and dismissive to their hard work. I simply do what I can, and if I manage to influence a few people's perceptions, that will be enough for me."

Goldstein had gone on to win that Nobel prize, and hadn't touched a cent of the money. He'd set up scholarships with it instead, and used his speech to try to rally people to environmental and social causes that they believed in.

Pete's profile on Goldstein had been a high point in his career. Now on his way to London, he was hoping to see a few old friends on his way to do an interview with the British Education Secretary about the vocational programs that they were hoping to sell to failing American school systems. Not nearly so exciting, but at least the job gave him free reign to travel and talk to interesting people.

He checked his email, checked the East coast time on his watch, and tried to figure out how much longer this flight was going to be.

Pete sighed and sunk back in his chair. At least he was in business class.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Jeff Martin had never liked sleeping alone. It was, he supposed, one of the reasons it had taken him so long to walk away from the farce that had been his marriage. That, and the kids. The fear of hellfire hadn’t played much of a role in it all. He’d lost that fear long ago, around the time he’d actually picked up a Bible for himself and started comparing its contents to the good Pastor’s weekly “messages.” No, religion had played no real part in the messy decisions of his younger self, only a desire to be normal.

And what could be more normal, he thought now, than to miss your family when they’re away? Stan had flown out two nights ago for a big medical conference in London, and Brandi had the kids this week. The little townhouse was quiet, far too quiet for sleep. And so, he was sitting up at the kitchen table, leafing listlessly through a three-month-old People magazine when the phone rang.

“Jeff? Jeff, are you there?”

“I’m here.” Jeff didn’t bother asking whether Stan had any idea what time it was in Ontario. He sounded frantic. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“You need to turn on the news. Right now. And then you need to call Brandi.” When Jeff didn’t immediately respond, Stan shouted into the phone. “Jeff! Jeff? Do you hear me?”

“Yeah,” said Jeff, reaching for the TV remote. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Is this about the girls? I really don’t think Brandi . . .” His voice trailed off as the words of the CNN reporter registered. For several long moments, he just sat where he was, phone in hand, staring at the TV.


His throat felt like sandpaper. Slowly, thickly, he forced himself to swallow, and to take a breath. “Yeah.”

“Call Brandi. Go over there if you have to.”

“Is it true?” Stupid question. If it wasn’t true, would Stan have called him in the middle of the night? “How do I stop it?”

Stan’s voice was suddenly very quiet. “I don’t know,” he said. “Just get over there. Take your cell. You’ve got hours still. I’ll call you as soon as I find out anything else.”

“Right,” said Jeff. Then, he stood up. No time to sit here numbly. He had to get to Brandi’s place. Had to see the girls. “Right,” he said, more decisively this time. “I’ll grab my cell. Call me as soon as you can.”

“I will,” Stan promised. “God, that sounds lame, doesn’t it? But I will. I’ll call you every hour and tell you what I’ve found out.” A short pause. “Whatever happens, I love you.”

Jeff nodded silently, but couldn’t bring himself to say it back before he hung up the phone. Not now. God, what if those horrible pastors had been right all along? He grabbed his coat and his cell and ran for the door. “Hang on girls, I’m coming.”

He called Brandi from the car, and before she could snarl at him for calling in the middle of the night, told her to turn on the news. “I’m on my way over,” he said, and hung up before she could say anything.

The drive to his ex-wife’s place normally took less than twenty minutes, but with every precious second counting down to the end of the world, he ignored the posted speed limits and made it there in exactly twelve. When he pulled up, Brandi was standing out on the street, loading up her shiny little two-door car. Maddie and Emily were already in the back seat, looking sleepy and confused. He called out to them as he flung open his car door, but Brandi ignored him. Maddie saw him and waved.

“You know what this is, Jeff,” said Brandi as he approached.

“I know what it might be,” he replied. “Where are you planning on going?” He himself had had some vague idea about driving west to buy some time, maybe keep the girls safe until someone could figure out for sure what was happening, and if it could be stopped.

Brandi planted herself between him and the car. Between him and his daughters. Hands on hips, she met his gaze squarely. “The Lord is calling his people home,” she said, “and we’re driving east to meet Him.” After a moment, her face softened. “You don’t have to stay behind, you know. There’s still time to get right with God.”

“You can’t know for sure it’s the Rapture!” Jeff said. She was going to take them. Going to take Maddie and Emily and drive them into the very danger they should be running from.

Brandi’s voice was calm and cool. “Are you willing to risk your soul on the possibility that it isn’t?”

“Are you willing to risk our daughters’ lives on the possibility that it is? Maddie was watching them. Seven years old, she had already seen her parents fighting more times than Jeff had ever liked to consider. She never liked to see it, but this time was worse. She would see the fear in his face, hear it in his voice.

“We’re going, Jeff.” Brandi had opened the driver’s door and was getting into the car now. Not believing what was happening, Jeff hesitated for one second too long before reacting.

“No!” he cried, flinging himself forward just as the door slammed shut. He grabbed at the handle, but Brandi had already locked the door. In the back seat, Maddie was crying, confusion and fright etched on her innocent face. He couldn’t see Emily at all, just the hump of her favourite yellow blanket, under which she often hid when she was scared.

“You can’t just take them!” he cried. “They’re my kids, too!”

Brandi rolled down her window just a crack. “You’ve still got time,” she said. “If you get right with God, you’ll see them again.” She smiled as she turned the key in the ignition, her expression as close to affectionate as he’d seen it since well before the divorce. “We’ll all see each other again soon. Goodbye, Jeff. And good luck.”

She turned around and murmured something soothing to the girls as she pulled out of the driveway, doing her best to distract them from the fact that their father was running alongside the car, banging on the windows and yelling. As she picked up speed, Jeff fell behind. The last thing he saw before they turned the corner was Maddie’s face, wide frightened eyes and tousled hair.

And then they were gone.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Going Underground

There was a burst of static, and the crackling cries of James and Fatima’s son, Michael, flooded out of the flashing baby monitor.

“Oh, God, what time is it?” muttered Fatima, reaching across the bedside table for her glasses with one hand and fishing around blindly for the alarm clock with the other. It was just gone half-five in the morning; she could hear the dustmen working the streets below.

James began to open his eyes and lazily turned to face Fatima. He let out an indistinct yawn/groan that Fatima took to mean “Can you feed him? I’ve got work in the morning”.

Fatima rolled her eyes and clambered out of bed. Now less drowsy, she wandered into Michael’s nursery – the air was thick with the pungent smell of full nappies. As he was lifted from his crib and carried him to the changing mat, Michael gurgled gleefully. Fatima smiled; his once indistinct noises were starting to sound like speech, and she was sure that he’d be talking within a few weeks. She tickled his nose, and he giggled appreciatively.

Once she’d slipped him into a clean nappy, Fatima headed into the combined dining room/living room and turned the TV on to BBC 2. She always had trouble getting back to sleep at this time, and had got into the habit of watching the early morning “Programmes for Schools” slot – there was something so relaxing and soporific about lying on the sofa, with warm blanket and a mug of hot chocolate, as a woman with a soothing regional accent recited times tables or explained the Haber process.

But something was different this time. The educational programmes had given way to urgent news flashes – children across Europe and Africa had been disappearing in their millions as the sun rose. Fatima sat bolt upright, splattering hot chocolate all over the beige sofa.

“As the sun rises across the Carpathian mountains behind me”, said a reporter, struggling to be heard over a grainy videophone connection, “millions of ordinary families are waking up to an awful truth: their children are gone. The deadly ‘wave’ that sweeps across the planet appears to be inescapable and unstoppable.

“The wave began only one hour ago, at the edge of the Mediterranean basin, but already a number of groups are positing explanations as to what may be causing these disappearances, with reasons ranging from spontaneous human combustion, to alien abduction, to the end of the world: a number of Islamic scholars have claimed that the disappearances herald the beginning of Qayaamah, the ‘Day of Gathering’, while some Christian sects in America are putting forward the idea that the wave is ‘The Rapture’, a time of…”

By now, Fatima could scarcely hear the reporter. Sunrise… children disappearing… she felt numb. She might only have a couple of hours left with her son – she had to make them count. But then, so did every other parent in London. Fatima suddenly pictured the playgroup she worked at abandoned and deserted Suddenly, she leapt to her feet and ran into the corridor. Just outside the door to their flat was a bright red fire alarm box. Fatima swung her elbow as hard as she could against the fragile glass pane. Instantly, sirens began wailing throughout the building. Muffled curses erupted from the surrounding flats as lights flickered on behind frosted glass windows.

The first people out were James and Fatima’s neighbours, Morgan and Jane Okereke and their children Olivia and William, all of whom were wearing their pyjamas and snug dressing gowns. William, their youngest, was clutching a teddy bear and staring wide-eyed at Fatima, who had just realised to her embarrassment she was standing in the corridor in just her nightie.

“You’ve got to turn on your television!” Fatima told them, “Just… turn on your television and watch the news. Children are disappearing. It’s… they disappear with the sunrise.”

Fatima realised that as she explained it to the sleepy parents who were now congregating in the corridor, it seemed to sound more and more ridiculous, and yet more and more terrifying at the same time.

By now, James had climbed out of bed and was now stood in the doorway, carrying Michael in his arms. Fatima rushed over and explained the situation.

“We need to get away from the sunrise. We… we just have to!” said Fatima, holding back the tears.

“But the sunrise moves at over 1,000 mph” – James was a physics teacher at the local secondary school – “there’s no way we can out run it.”

“We don’t need to. We just need to keep him away from the Sun. We could… we could board up all the windows, we could go underground.”

An idea flashed through Fatima’s mind.

“Of course, the Underground!” she yelled, “If we take our children to the Underground, we may be able to hide them until this all passes over!”

A murmur of approval travelled through the crowd of parents. As the fire alarm continued to wail, families darted back into their flats and began packing food, water, clothes and nappies.

Ten minutes later, still in their nightwear, Fatima and James joined the crowd of parents all clutching children as they ran down the stairwell: James was carrying Michael while Fatima clutched the travel bag she’d filled with water, sandwiches and the baby changing kit. Halfway down, the group met a pair of firemen, sent to investigate the alarm – Fatima tried to stay as nonchalant as possible (given the circumstances) until she was sure they’d gone past.

Bethnal Green was the nearest tube station to the block of flats where the families lived, and the fact that it had been used as an air-raid shelter in WWII made it the ideal hiding place. As they turned the corner onto Bethnal Green Road, though, Fatima noticed they had clearly not been the only families to come to this conclusion. Hundreds of families were filing down the steps, under the watchful eyes of swarms of police officers.

James tried to dial as many friends and family as possible, to warn them and tell them to seek cover, but he was always met by the same computerised “the network is currently unavailable” message. He switched on the phone’s built-in radio and tuned to the news. By now, the wave was deep into France, and would be crossing the Channel in a matter of minutes. The first, confused reports were coming in of adults being taken – a spokesman for the Vatican was claiming the Pope and a number of high-ranking cardinals had just vanished during early morning mass, leaving nothing but their robes and vestments.

Fatima and James began the long climb down to the ticket office, where they were met by sudden pandemonium. Hundreds of people were trying to squeeze through a handful of barriers. Some were scrambling over the sides, others trying to lift pushchairs and prams over the gates. Police officers were trying in vain to keep some calm, but for every 5 people who managed to get through the gates, 15 more were arriving from the street.

Once they had finally got through the gates, they found the stairwells down to the platforms just as packed, as people jostled to get as far from the Sun as possible. Fatima felt a sudden shove from behind – Morgan Okereke had fallen over in the scrum and, from the sickening crunch, it sounded like he’d broken his leg. Already, people were clambering over him to get down to the platform as quickly as they could. James passed Michael to Fatima and helped Morgan to his feet. With the help of Morgan’s wife, Jane, James supported Morgan as he limped slowly to the platform.

Once they got down to the tracks, things seemed much more dignified. People knew there was nowhere further to go, and were just sitting on the platform. Fatima had seen this before – she’d been on the underground during the 7/7 bombings, and had been forced to wait for hours in a tunnel with dozens of other passengers. But this seemed different. On 7/7 everyone had been jovial, sharing water and joking amongst themselves – Blitz spirit, the newspapers had called it. But here, barely anyone was even talking – the few that did spoke in voices tinged with fear. During the bombing, everyone had known, deep down, that it had happened to someone else. Here, it wasn’t some isolated incident that would affect a handful. The disappearances sweeping the globe could affect anyone and everyone down here.

The Sun was due to rise any minute now. There was a banging noise from far above as the doors to the station were closed, just to be on the safe side. Fatima clutched Michael to her chest while James helped Morgan kneel down to hug his children. There was a rumbling and gust of warm air, accompanied by a flash of light from the one of the tunnels – there must be a train due, Fatima thought, but according to the destination board, all trains were cancelled. Puzzled, she was turning her head back to the tunnel when she felt the bundle in her arms suddenly collapse and slip through her fingers.

She began scrabbling frantically around the floor, hoping she hadn’t dropped Michael, when a thousand voices all screamed at the same time. Looking around, Fatima saw the station was littered with empty children’s clothes that billowed gently in the draught from the tunnel. Fatima sank to her knees and sobbed, her cries mingling with the thousands of others that filled the stale air.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The End of the World, Part 4

"I'm standing here on the eastern end of Long Island, Mike," the correspondent said from the radio. "The eastern horizon has been steadily brightening for the last half hour. The first rays of the sun should be striking us at any--" the monologue suddenly cut out, replaced by a rustling of clothing and a strange thump.

"John?" the host asked. "Hey, buddy, you there?" He paused for a moment. "Uh, folks, I have no idea what happened. My producer says we're still getting the feed. It's like John just disappeared or something. We're going to hit a commercial while we try to figure out what's going on."

Jack turned off the radio. "That was weird."

"Yeah," Emily nodded. "Think we're going to find out how things are going on the east coast?"

"Why don't you just look it up on the internet?"

She blinked a couple times. "I'm a moron," she said, pulling out her iPhone. She began tapping the screen. "I use this thing all the time except when I actually need it."

Jack shrugged. "I forgive you. Hey," he tapped her knee as a thought struck him, "I just had a thought. See if you can find out if Nate would be safe if we hid him underground. Maybe it's a matter of not letting the sun hit him."

She began tapping again. "Dazed Parisians emerge from entrance to underground tunnel," she read a caption. "'It offered no protection,' one man said, 'Our son was there one moment, then he was gone.'"

"That doesn't sound promising," Jack said.

She clicked the screen again. "Hundreds of Romans waited out the dawn in the city's tunnels and ancient catacombs," she read, "Only to find that they suffered the same fate as those who hadn't tried to flee." She clicked another link. "'We ran for the caves in the mountainside,' said one mother from the tiny Russian village, 'We threw rocks over the entrance and prayed for the mountains to protect us, to protect our children. It...It did nothing. My Vlad is gone. My Elena is gone.'"

"Well," Jack shook his head, "That just about kills that idea." He goosed the throttle, pushing the car nearly to 170 before deciding to back down to 160 again. They were nearly to Dixon, one of the larger towns along the I-88 corridor between Chicago and the Mississippi River. He turned the headlights off again, knowing that the southern part of Dixon nearly reached the highway and it was likely they'd be seen. As a concession to safety, he began easing down toward 120 or so. The moon was bright, but he could barely see. Forty miles per hour was way too fast for a night drive with no headlights, but he was desperate.

"Huh," Emily said, still reading off the iPhone, "This is odd. 'We were up before dawn, like always,' Zhou said, 'We were walking across the field to begin work when all of the sudden my brother was just gone. Later on I heard that children were disappearing, and wondered if it was the same thing. But my brother is nearly sixty years old. It cannot be the same thing.'"

"Maybe that's the same thing that happened to the guy on the radio," Jack ventured.

Emily nodded. "Could be. Maybe there's some sort of conspiracy going on, too."

"Hey," Jack pointed across the highway, "There's another one of those crazy buses. Cedar Rapids Evangelical Free Church."

"That's, like, the middle of Iowa," Emily scratched her head. "What are they doing here?"

"Maybe they're part of the conspiracy?"

"That's a pretty damn weird conspiracy."

"It's been a weird day."

A sudden noise from the back seat alerted them to the fact that Nate was waking up. Emily unbuckled her seatbelt and twisted around to get him out of his car seat. "How are you, bubby," she asked. He gurgled in reply.

"He reeks," Jack said.

"Yeah. I'm not entirely sure that this car was designed with an eye toward changing poopy diapers at a hundred miles per hour, though." She opened the diaper bag at her feet and began wrestling with the problem.