Short Story Erie
The plan was to seal themselves inside for as long as they needed to—until the world stopped burning, until it was safe.
As December wore on and the twentieth century prepared to melt into the twenty-first, Sam’s dad prepared for everything. He lined the shelves of the basement pantry with a stockpile of saltine crackers and tins of tuna. Like a tidy, methodical pirate, he arranged gold coins in old tackle boxes and buried them beneath the big maple in the yard, a safe distance from the sand dunes. He tested the batteries in all of the flashlights, and he wound the hand-cranked radio. He caulked the drafty basement windows to keep the heat in and the drizzle out. If shit went down the way he thought it would, the plan was to seal themselves inside for as long as they needed to—until the world stopped burning, until the radiation vanished, until it was safe to venture out and look for other survivors.
This is us , her father told her one afternoon in the basement. He had tacked up a map of their peninsula, which reached out into Lake Erie like a bony finger. On the map, he had scribbled little orange stars in the places where he had buried supplies. He spaced the caches out, in case someone came for the house and he and Sam needed to get on the road. Along the way, they’d be able to snatch the gasoline near the rotting pylons of the old pier, or collect the guns near the old post office, a log cabin long since boarded up. He rapped his own finger on the middle of the peninsula, the place where a knobby knuckle might be.
Even if they were hunkered down inside, even if the locks held fast, they could still be singed by sparks. That’s what Sam’s father told her as she stooped with him there in the pantry, counting the jugs of bottled water. Her palms started to sweat as she lifted one plastic container, then another. The sloshing water was heavy, but the story started to weigh on her, too. Behind rimless glasses, her father had yellow-green eyes with stony, black pupils. His mouth was set in a frown and he was balding, well on his way to a shiny scalp encircled by a strip of patchy brown fuzz. Even if they’d done it all right, he said—barricaded themselves dutifully in that house with an arsenal of shotguns and sleeve after sleeve of crackers—they could still be screwed by those fucking sparks. Every electrical outlet could shower them with fiery confetti, licking and scalding as it tumbled.
It had happened before, he told her, in 1859. Amateur astronomers spotted a fireball from observatories in England. Later, scientific instruments went haywire and telegraph machines broke into spontaneous blazes, shocking their operators. In North America, the night sky was lit with auroras so colorful that farmhands and miners headed outside, certain it was daybreak. As the colors churned and gurgled on the horizon, some people ran for cover, believing that their towns had burst into flame. Sam’s father worried that another solar flare would soon erupt, and screw with everything. There were so many more outlets now, Sam’s dad told her, so many more appliances. He gestured to the light switch, to the washer and the dryer, where they tossed wet, sand-crusted beach towels to wring them out, give them a fighting chance against the bloom of mildew. Sparks might spew from the telephone, the fridge, the light fixtures. They could scorch the carpet and the paisley couch and the pleated, sun-splotched curtains. Sam felt a nervous splashing in her stomach, like she was trying to outrun storm clouds swelling over the lake, sprinting to get home before the thunder clapped and lightning plunged toward the water. Think about how much worse, he said, how truly goddamn catastrophic, this could be.
Sam did think about it. She had a pink flip phone, which charged in a socket, and a clunky computer, which also did. She had a blow dryer and a lava lamp, which belched little blue globs when she plugged it in. It definitely sounded bad. Sam didn’t want to be scalded by the sparks—a sunburn was bad enough, and she always seemed to have one in the summer, blistering across her chest or beneath her eyes like angry crescent moons. She tugged on her braid, still tinted copper from months out in the sun.
Her dad stopped talking and focused on hauling the water, tallying it all up to make sure they would have enough to drink, plus a reserve for dousing fires. Sam hung back for a minute and smoothed her hands on her baggy T-shirt, which swallowed the waistband of her sweatpants. She watched her dad work. He seemed nervous, she thought, muttering to himself, sweating through his white polo shirt. It was still spattered with sunscreen that had never come out in the wash—he had clearly slathered it on, but his neck was so leathered that it looked like gooseflesh. His skin reminded Sam of the wild turkeys that sometimes strutted in front of their house. Her dad had had a plan to protect himself, it seemed, but it hadn’t quite worked out. He’d been sunburned, again and again, anyway.
They were safer out here, dozens of miles from town, than they would ever be in a city, he told her. There, the fruit heaped in grocery stores would spoil in days; soon, everything would be rancid and bloated, and flies would be drunk on the fermenting juices of long-browned grapes and plums. People would get hungry, panic, snatch whatever they could, even if that meant busting a few windows or jaws. They would arm themselves and turn on each other. In a few more weeks, dust would have settled on every surface, making it hard to tell exactly how long everything had been scrambled. Glass would go cloudy, then sprout spidery cracks. Plants would push up through narrow crevices in the foundations, claiming space for themselves in a world that had once told them where they could and couldn’t be.
When she was younger, Sam had seen a lonely, angry movie, flickering black and white and huge on the screen in a nearly empty theater at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Her dad drove them in for the day, to go to the museum and a baseball game, and they sat awhile in the chilled, light-washed darkness, half-watching a 1950s sci-fi movie. Sam’s dad hadn’t known anything about it— it was just what was playing when they happened to poke their heads in—but they stayed, glad for the cold air whistling through the pipes. The sun felt hotter in the city, glinting off buildings and pelting the asphalt. Walking in from the parking lot, Sam had wondered if the tarry ground would start to bubble beneath her feet.
The movie wasn’t gory, but it left Sam rattled. The buildings—all those New York City skyscrapers, armored with glass and steel—were sharp and jagged, and the main character was horribly, completely alone, except for the department-store mannequins who didn’t take him up on his invitation to chat. When the streets were empty, when there were no bodies around to absorb the sound, everything echoed. Harry Belafonte stood on the street and screamed, desperate for someone to answer. His shouts battered the buildings, and no one called back to him. Even wind could sound violent as it slapped the towers with cold, open palms. Sam couldn’t imagine that—no one, nothing. Even when she went all day without seeing another human, she never felt alone. Gulls left prints in the damp sand; deer shed antlers in the dune grass. She had all kinds of neighbors, everywhere.
If what her dad told her was true, the looters from the city would find them when the grid fizzled, when the bank systems failed, when people went feral, desperate to fend for themselves.
Ever since he’d heard the scenario mentioned on one of the vague, angry radio shows he listened to on nighttime drives to and from the bait shop two towns over, he couldn’t smudge it from his head. He could picture it, like a scene from a comic book: a shadowy huddle of stocky, faceless men smashing through the windows, grabbing, grunting, making demands. Static had crackled through the broadcast, muffling the callers’ voices—and that just turned up the intensity of her dad’s worry. How could he fully prepare for a risk that he couldn’t even clearly hear? He’d have to be even more thorough, he figured, in case he overlooked something that the static had hushed.
They had to stay far from everyone. But, Sam thought, the only way to make sure she wouldn’t get scalded would be to stay away from any outlets, too. It seemed obvious: She just needed to go outside. The opposite of the cruel, clanging city wasn’t a bunker. It was a beach. It was a shoreline. It was a forest.
The raw voices of the yelling, unwelcome men wouldn’t find her there—wouldn’t bounce around, wouldn’t echo. The sound, whatever came, would be rounded at the edges, dampened by sand dunes, or muted by the curtain of leaves it ran into at the edge of the forest. The other sounds, the routine ones, would be pleasantly predictable—owls at dusk, loons in the morning, hummingbird wings whirring in the afternoon. There would be birds and bugs and a sky full of clouds for company. If almost no one else survived, Sam figured, the beach seemed like a less scary place to be alone—because she wouldn’t be. Not really.
The opposite of the cruel, clanging city wasn’t a bunker. It was a beach. It was a shoreline. It was a forest.
I’ll just shrink , she thought. Little enough to see the world without anyone seeing me . It had worked for so many others, and for a long time, Sam hadn’t even noticed—she had tramped past them tons of times before they flagged her down. She would still be human, just smaller—small enough to fit inside a fish’s ribcage, or his milky eyeball.
Her dad hated to be wrong, and certainly wouldn’t like Sam telling him that she thought he had missed something. She figured she’d just try it out, see how it felt to be tiny. If it worked out—if she stayed safe—Sam could always go back for him and try to convince him to get little, too. Assuming he survived at all.
The neighbors had disappeared slowly. It had been summer then, but cars weren’t in driveways, and curtains were always pulled shut, even when the sun was winking on the lake, inviting people to come closer.
For the first week or so, it didn’t seem strange that no one was outside in the middle of the day. Sometimes the biting black flies got too bold or the sun beat down too hot, and itchy, splotchy people stayed inside to fiddle with a crossword or read the pee-wee baseball scores in the weekly paper. Or maybe they were out running errands. Sam wondered if they drove a few towns over for the better selection of soda (the only grocery store for miles was in a nearby campground, and they stocked the off-brand kinds that left a funny, furry taste on your tongue).
But the afternoons wore on, one and then another, and neighbors still didn’t come out. In July, Sam noticed that no one set off Canada Day fireworks, which normally freckled the sky red. She saw fewer and fewer bonfires, even on nights when the wind was timid. That’s when she would have expected to see a smattering of orange-gold flickers all up and down the beach, proof of other families searing marshmallows, watching the embers dance, and staring up at the wide, wild sky, wondering what was coming.
The lake had been a good place to be twelve and to believe in magic. The water was separated from a gravel road by a fringe of forest—black oak, blue beech, tulip tree—and in the summers, Sam tore through it on a scuffed red bike, sweating under her helmet. She raced Andrew, the smirking redhead next door who always wore basketball jerseys with arm holes cut so low she glimpsed his pale nipples. That made her giggle.
When the sun skittered through the canopy, casting shadows and flinging yellow beams, Sam was sure there were fairies dancing at the fuzzy edges of her vision. When the evenings were breezy, she and Andrew collected the insects that had been flattened against car windshields or fallen, exhausted, from the sky. They cradled the bugs’ mangled, iridescent wings, orphaned from their bodies, shook off any water that had gathered, set them gingerly on bits of driftwood to dry. Sometimes the wings flew away, even when they were orphaned from their bodies, even when they were cleaved from their mirror twins. An outsider might say it was the wind carrying them off, but Sam knew better—they had a destination and a plan. She dreamed that one day the wings would grow to fit her and then flap to life, so that she could fly over the lake and join one of the honking triangles of geese heading south.
On an afternoon that July—the year neighbors started to go missing, the year Sam’s dad believed they were doomed—Sam had gotten good and sweaty, panting and straining to beat Andrew in a race. After her victory, after hurling her taunts, Sam tossed her bike sideways onto the lawn and headed toward the water to dunk herself cool. As she hit the dunes, she was walloped with the smell lifting up off the clumps of algae churning close to shore. Gross.
That year, the water level was high, and the waves kept gurgling ashore with mats of algae, greenish brown and smelly. Baking in the sun, the tangles were sour and fecal, and Sam’s dad told her to stay away from the heaps. The algae thrived because farmers washed the runoff from their fields and animal pens right into the water. The piles were toxic, he told her—fed by nitrogen and phosphorus and all the nasty shit that the pig farmers couldn’t be bothered to deal with. Touch the stinky mountains, and your hands would erupt in blisters. Breathe too deeply, and your lungs would seize up.
Sam crinkled her nose and watched the brown tendrils slosh. But she was so hot—and maybe, somewhere, there was a patch of clear water? She kicked off her sneakers and bounded for the waves, hopscotching one leg and then the other so that her feet didn’t lay flat on the sun-smacked sand.
Sam! The voice was small, squeaky, bird-like.
Sam stopped, craned her neck. She squinted off into the distance, down the beach, to see if someone was walking toward her and hollering from far away.
She squatted down. In the dune grass, she saw a little house—walls made from water-worn pebbles; a driftwood door; a tiny blue pickup truck parked outside. Her neighbor, Johnny, no bigger than her pinky finger, grinned and waved to her with one hand, as the other one held a teeny, stubby cigarette. He looked the same—the same grease-stained t-shirt, the same crows’ feet and mussed-up hair the color of wet wood, the same pot-belly that all the dads had from drinking too many beers around backyard fires.
She would still be human, just smaller—small enough to fit inside a fish’s ribcage, or his milky eyeball.
He looked happy as ever, plodding around as though nothing had changed, as though he was just going to grab an armful of kindling from the shed. Be careful down there , he squawked, in between drags, like he had sucked the helium from every balloon at a kid’s party. He jabbed a thumb toward the water.
Sam hopped onto the grass to stop the sand from burning her feet. Did he know he was so little?
What happened to you?
Your dad ever tell you to leave that water alone? You oughta listen to him.
Sam thought about that for a minute. Is that where everyone had gone, into homes hidden in the grass?
Are you the only person who is small? she asked him.
Johnny laughed, deep from the belly. It sounded more like chirping.
No! There are lots of us. Mike lives on the other side of the dune. He putters around in the boat whenever it rains. He launches it in puddles.
Sam didn’t see anyone else. But then again, she must have passed Johnny dozens of times before he had called out to her. He was just a clumsy footfall away from being squashed, but he wouldn’t be: No one barreled through the dunes. All the grownups, even the kids, treated them as sacred: The grass helped lock things in place, staving off erosion, preventing things from falling apart. It was comforting to think that she could live like Johnny—watching, hidden, ensconced. Swaddled by the sand and the wet, heavy sky.
What’s it like to be little?
Pretty much just like being big! He shrugged his tiny arms. You can go home and get anything you want. You just have to splash a little water on it.
Do you like it? Are you scared? Sam watched a beetle amble past. To Johnny, she thought, it probably looked like a pony.
Nothing much to be scared about , he said. The sky looks even bigger. You just gotta watch out for birds.
When they were done lugging water that evening in December, Sam stole off to her room, where her father had already drawn the curtains closed against the outside world. In the murky, lingering light, she leafed through her bookshelf, looking for Island of the Blue Dolphins . She read it often down at the beach—so much that little bits of sand spilled out when she flipped the pages, warped by the humid air. She sat down on her narrow bed, on the comforter spangled with constellations that glowed in the dark. She put the book down on top of the Little Dipper and tenderly turned the pages, like an alchemist consulting a book of spells.
The book was based on the true story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas. In the mid-1800s, a Native Nicoleño was stranded for years on an island off the coast of California. The novelist called the girl Karana. She stitched dresses by threading seals’ tendons through cormorant feathers, and she lived in a whale carcass. She curled her body against its rib bones, bleached by the sun. Karana was twelve, like Sam, and Sam was impressed with her, awestruck, a little jealous. That life sounded good. There were no whales in the Great Lakes, of course—but that was just another reason that shrinking was the way to go. The humble freshwater fish would feel roomy, even cavernous.
If she waited until after dinner, she’d lose the light; it vanished early in the winter. Sam figured she might as well hurry up—she just wasn’t sure what to bring with her. Would a book shrink so much that the words would be too small to read, even with her tiny eyes? Worth trying, she thought—she could always just burn the paper for heat, watching the little pages crumple and char. She packed two pairs of fleece-lined socks and her flannel mittens. Into her nylon backpack, jangly with plastic keychains, she dumped her Discman and her favorite mix CD and as many batteries as she thought she could get away with before her dad noticed. She slipped out through the front door, leaving it just slightly ajar so that he wouldn’t hear it slam.
She ran past the waist-high beach grass, past the burnt remains of the previous day’s fire, toward the edge of the inky water. The bats would be out soon, making their nightly rounds. Schools of smelt ran in spring and washed up in clusters. Dead, they were crunchy as sun-baked seaweed and sparkly as surf-slicked glass. It wasn’t the season for them. But after a storm, carp would wind up in the creek, battered and bandied about by the waves. Disoriented, half-drowned, they’d swim toward the washed-out bridge. Eventually, they’d heave, bloated, in the waves until the turkey vultures found them and dragged them to the shore. Blood would pelt the sand like rain, leaving divots holding little pools of red.
That’s where she found one: Not too old, not too smelly, not yet picked clean. It looked warm enough and safe enough to spend a few days in, as long as the cold air kept it from reeking.
It was comforting to think that she could live like Johnny—watching, hidden, ensconced. Swaddled by the sand and the wet, heavy sky.
Sam reached into her pocket for the plastic bag full of algae. She had skimmed it from the surface of the water back at the height of the summer bloom, while Johnny shouted precautions from his little homestead. She kept it in the fridge in the garage, where her dad stored the venison they hadn’t gotten around to eating. She had stashed it in a brown paper bag, and scribbled “nightcrawlers” in shaky block letters. It was totally normal to store worms, minnows, and other bait in the fridge; Sam hadn’t worried that her dad would peek inside the bag to confirm the contents.
She spread the cold, slimy algae on her hands and arms, wriggling her fingers up the sleeves of her puffy coat. Her skin didn’t burn or blister; she just felt tingly. She squeezed her eyes closed, and she waited. When she pried them open, she was surrounded by pink flesh, pleated like the underside of a mushroom. She bedded down in the gills, draping one across her legs like a blanket. (A blanket, right! She’d forgotten that.) She sloughed off some scales and mounded them into a pillow. When she talked to herself to give a quick rundown of her inventory, she squawked, like Johnny had—but even more high-pitched and flimsy.
The night was cold and inky black, but she could see the sky, pricked with zillions of stars far fainter and more thrilling than the constellation in her bedroom. The wind nibbled her cheeks like a puppy, playful and sharp-toothed. The sky and the sand and the doleful sounds—all were comforts that she wrapped around her like thick wool.
She tried not to dwell on her dad back in the house, counting the cans of beans, checking the locks, muttering and worrying so close to all those outlets. She listened for the loons and tried to banish the thought of him sitting all alone, maybe missing her, maybe thinking she’d been kidnapped by some marauders who got a head start. He would be listening to the second hand tick toward midnight on the wall-mounted bird clock, which marked the hours with avian calls. A house finch’s warble, an owl’s trill—sweet, eerie sounds every sixty minutes as he waited for disaster.