By Sarena Ulibarri
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Cassie went blind the day before the asteroid struck. There had been no warnings from NASA or the White House, just as Cassie's loss of sight had not been foreshadowed by blurriness or headaches. Once blind, though, Cassie warned our mountain town about the asteroid. No one believed her, of course.
"It's projection," my brother said at the dinner table. "Blindness is the worst thing that could happen to her, so she's coping by imagining the worst thing that could happen to the rest of us."
My brother and Cassie had dated in high school, until he left to study psychology at the state university. Now they worked together at the grocery store on Main Street. He'd been there when her sight disappeared.
"Right in the middle of a sale," he said. "She was handing Mrs. Ross her change and all of a sudden she dropped the money and started feeling around."
My father took a second helping of mashed potatoes.
"See now, if you'd stayed here and married her, that would be your problem. Probably have to bring up blind kids too. I always knew something wasn't right with that girl."
"Is she okay?" I asked.
"She's home now," my brother said. "Her parents don't want visitors. Especially after she started with all that crazy talk about the asteroid."
But we knew the next day it wasn't crazy talk after all.
In the morning the news gave vague reports of something disastrous happening to New York City. Then the satellite pictures arrived, revealing the whole Northeast as a smoking crater. Videos showed a giant wave of dust sweeping across the United States. One by one the cities east of us began to broadcast silence. Local estimates said the dust would reach Colorado in two or three days.
Behind the hardware store counter, Dad kept the TV on all day. I stayed in the back room, going over inventory, but even from there I could hear the voices of the newscasters. Pundits pointed fingers about why the asteroid hadn't been discovered until it was too late. They warned of acid rain and months without sunlight.
Dad and the customers compared notes about what they'd heard. Conspiracy theories abounded. At least half of them believed someone had known it was coming.
The mayor called a town meeting that night. We drove to the high school in Dad's pickup truck. I hadn't been there since I'd graduated nearly a year ago, and the meeting was in the same gymnasium where I had walked across the stage. There was no stage now, though, just a thin microphone stand and a few hundred folding chairs.
Cassie sat in the back with her parents. Her strawberry blonde hair was an unusual mess, the curls ratting in neglect. She'd gained weight since her days as Homecoming Queen, but she was still beautiful. She fought with her mother over a pair of sunglasses she didn't want to wear. Her unseeing eyes darted side to side.
I didn't pay much attention to the meeting until my father stood up and declared we should head south to Arizona, where he said the dust would be diluted. We had no underground bunkers in our mountain town, and the ones in Denver and Colorado Springs were already over capacity. South of us, the caves by Manitou Springs had been boarded up, and there was no room left there either.
Someone argued that my dad's hardware store had everything we needed to secure our own houses. Hunker down until it passed. Dad protested, but others drowned him out.
"Like preparing for a hurricane," someone said, though none of us in this mountain town had ever been through a hurricane.
My father sat down and whispered to us, "I don't
care what the rest of them decide. We're going to Arizona. Maybe even Mexico. We
can outrun this thing."
My brother nodded. My mother frowned. I turned to look at Cassie again.
She hunched forward and pulled at her hair, big clumps in each hand, tugging it into her face. Suddenly, she stood. The din of voices swallowed hers and it took a moment for anyone to realize she was speaking.
"The dust will come more quickly than you think."
She shouted it over and over. The room grew silent and all faces turned to her. She still pulled at her hair and her eyes twitched in a disturbing pattern. Her mother tried to pull her down to sit but Cassie pulled out of her grasp and stood on the chair.
"The dust will come more quickly than you think."
Her father picked her up and carried her out of the room over his shoulder. She screamed, a childish tantrum, the way I used to scream when my brother popped the limbs off my dolls.
"The news says we have two days. Maybe even three," the mayor said. His hand shook as he adjusted the microphone. "I'm sure we can find a solution by then."
On the ride home, Mom talked about how easy it would be to board up the windows and wait it out. She mentioned her grandparents, who had survived the dust bowl on Colorado's eastern plains. But once we got home, Dad found all the suitcases and duffle bags we owned, threw them on the living room floor and yelled at us until we started packing.
We packed as much as we could that night, and in the morning I rode with my dad to a lookout where we could see through the valley and out to the plains. I don't know why he brought me instead of my brother. It was no father-daughter bonding trip. He drove too fast, the tailgate slamming with every bump. He spit sunflower seeds out the window and I picked bits of old nail polish off my thumb.
At the lookout we got out of the truck. It might have been just a hazy day, but the color was all wrong. A deep orange, like the sky had rusted over.
"Hell," was all Dad said.
If he could have, I suspect my dad would have driven straight down to Arizona from that lookout. Maybe that's why he brought me, to make sure he went home.
Back in town we drove with the windows down, telling everyone we passed that the dust was coming faster than we thought. We went home and packed some more, then my brother and I sat outside in the yard while mom and dad fought about whether to leave or not. It felt like we were kids again. We were grown, though not out of the house, and I thought maybe we should have a say in this debate. I said so to my brother and he threw a pebble that hit me in the forehead.
"Whose side would you be on anyway?" he asked.
I didn't have an answer so I threw a pebble back at him. I started picking grass blades out of the yard and wondered what Cassie's family would decide.
Their compromise was that we'd stay at least until morning. We ate a tense, silent dinner and then climbed in the truck and drove to the high school for the next town meeting.
There was no meeting, though. The thing was that some radio station had said the dust was starting to roll into Denver, or at least that was the rumor that spread through the gymnasium before the mayor even got up to speak. The crowd erupted into chaos when the wind slammed the propped gymnasium door.
Some looted what little of value they could from high school classrooms. Computers, chairs, books. I passed a guy running off with a stack of lunch trays.
I got separated from my family and ended up by the school library. The books were all still in order, but there were two empty spaces on the wall above the circulation desk where there should have been paintings of Tiresius and Ceres, mythical people whose stories I didn't know, but whose names the librarian had forced us to memorize. It was those blank spaces more than the wind or rumors that fed the panic in the center of my chest.
The parking lot was my single goal. Cassie groped her way along the lockers, going the wrong direction. The hallway had nearly cleared out. Arms outstretched, she came close to me. She looked like she needed help, but I stepped out of her way and ran for the parking lot.
When she screamed again, that childish shriek, I looked back to find her on her knees in the middle of the hallway. Everyone else was gone. I ran back and grabbed her arm. She fought against me, nearly falling over.
"You can come with us," I said, though I didn't know if we had room. She could sit on my brother's lap the way they used to when they were in love, when it was curfew and not survival they were worried about.
I pulled one more time at her arm and she resisted, so I left her in a crumpled pile on the hallway floor.
Dad had the truck running. He waved his arm out the window as soon as he saw me. I jumped off the staircase railing.
That's when the rust-colored clouds rolled over the treetops.
Those of us still outside stopped running and watched our fate descend from heaven, tumbling over the town in a great poisonous wave. My parents yelled at me to get in the truck, but I stood frozen. Dad rolled up his window. My brother yanked the truck door shut at the last second. Wind pushed me backward. I'd never heard anything so loud.
The air tasted metallic, like blood. My first breath of the dust felt like glass shards ripping through my lungs. Coals burned in my chest. The ground hit my back.
The wind calmed and dust fell like red snow. Through the haze I saw my father's truck pull out of the lot. He had seen me fall and assumed I was past saving. I couldn't blame him. I closed my eyes, wheezed, and decided to die.
Slumped against the school's brick wall, each breath was painful. More car engines started up. I could hear a roar in the distance. The next wave of the cloud, maybe.
Cassie walked out of the school and stood on the steps, leaning against that railing I'd jumped so easily a few minutes before. Her black dress was the only thing that wasn't orange. She stood there as if the dust didn't bother her, a completely different creature than the girl I'd left collapsed on the hallway floor.
"They won't make it," she said, her blind eyes roving across the changed world.
But I had to believe she was wrong.