- HOLY SHIT THE SKY IS FALLING: In this scene, screenwriter Thomas Phillips has just picked up actress Skylar Stover at DFW International Airport. They’re on the phone, speaking with a man threatening to commit suicide, when the call mysteriously drops.
- CABIN FEVER: Seth and Natalie Black, along with their two sons, are now sheltering in place with Thomas and Skylar. They are growing sick of being shut in and getting on each other’s nerves. But Seth harbors a crush on Skylar and finally summons the nerve to talk to her.
- AIDEN BEGINS HIS DESCENT: The novel alternates between two groups of characters and Aiden Christopher tells his side of the story in first person. In this scene he’s been tasked to find volunteers to help take a Walmart warehouse by force. But he’s more interested in inflicting his will upon random strangers.
HOLY SHIT THE SKY IS FALLING
“Dude,” Seth said in a weak voice, “I told you everything you need to know. Can’t you just let me be done with it?”
“Don’t do it!” shouted Thomas, surprised at the sudden empathy he felt for this man he’d never met. “I can help you. You don’t need to do this.”
“Help me with what?”
“With money! With whatever you need.”
“If this is about money,” Skylar offered loudly, “I’ll help, too.”
“Who is that?” grunted Seth. He sounded lethargic, like he’d woken from a deep sleep.
“We just want to help you. You don’t need insurance. You don’t—”
“It doesn’t matter. Even if you paid every last dime of my debt, I still have to live with what I’ve done. And I can’t. I won’t. It’s too late.”
“It’s never too late, Seth. Let me help you.”
“Just come here when it’s over. Please.”
“Promise me, man. Promise me you’ll come here and take care of my family. Please.”
Seth was crying. His voice was hoarse, and he coughed as if his lungs were failing him.
“Please, man. Promise me.”
“I promise, Seth. Just stop and I’ll do whatever you want.”
Now there was no answer.
Thomas pressed the phone to his ear, trying to dampen the sound of the wind, but it was no use. Eventually he looked at the display again and saw it was dark. He swiped and tapped the screen, but nothing happened.
“Thomas, look out!”
He glanced up and saw he was about to rear-end a white Ford sedan that was either slowing down or stopped. He quickly checked his mirrors and veered into an adjacent lane. Jammed his hand on the horn.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he yelled involuntarily. “This is a highway!”
He looked back at the road and saw they were rapidly gaining on a black pickup truck rolling on four enormous tires. Thomas changed lanes, sliding just past the truck and the noise of its monster tread.
“What the hell is going on?” he yelled.
“I don’t know, but something is weird. All the cars are slowing down. Look over there. It’s the same thing on both sides of the road.”
Skylar was right. Everyone was slowing down, but no one seemed to be using their brakes. Well, wait. In the far-right lane, about fifty yards ahead of them, a small car came to a screeching stop and Thomas heard the dull thunk of bumper-to-bumper contact.
“He totally hit that truck!” Sky yelled. “Why is everyone stopping?”
Thomas had slowed down and was switching lanes almost continuously as vehicles around him came to rest. When he looked briefly at Skylar, he saw something in the sky above her, something so odd and unexpected that he could hardly make sense of it.
People were beginning to climb out of their vehicles. Others stood in the road, gawking at the sky. Thomas moved toward the inner shoulder, trying to divine a clear path, but other drivers were having the same idea. Ahead, a woman stood beside a giant Lexus SUV and gestured to him.
“Skylar,” he said. “Look in the sky on your right.”
Thomas was rapidly approaching the woman on the shoulder. She was tall and thin, wearing a yellow sundress and flip flops. Maybe thirty-five years old.
“What is that?” Sky asked.
“Looks like a star, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah…except you don’t usually see stars during the day.”
They reached the woman in the sundress. She approached the driver’s side door. Her face was drained of color.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know what’s happened?”
“I’m not sure. But I would guess it had something to do with that.”
Thomas gestured toward the new point of light in the sky, which was twenty or so degrees above the horizon, brilliant and white. It was bigger and brighter than any nighttime star but much smaller than the sun, which was almost directly above it. In different circumstances, like if he had been on his back porch, looking at it over the lake, the new star might have been the most amazing thing Thomas had ever seen. Instead, Natalie’s husband was trying to kill himself and the airport freeway was a war zone and the whole world seemed to have lost its mind. No vehicle was operational except his and people were noticing. Especially because, aside from the rumble of his engine exhaust, the airport was quiet. Eerily quiet. Nothing else mechanical was running.
The woman’s face was slack, her mouth wide open. She seemed to be holding back tears. Next to him, Skylar whispered words he couldn’t hear.
Something was terribly wrong about the silence. It was never quiet on this road, ever, not even in the middle of the night, because D/FW was one of the busiest airports in the world. The sound of jet engines and traffic was so ubiquitous you never even noticed it.
Until it wasn’t there at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the woman. “We have to go.”
Thomas inched his car forward. The woman’s eyes widened.
“Wait! Can you help me? I’m stuck here.”
Thomas kept driving, watching the stalled cars carefully. He picked up speed. Changed lanes often.
“Don’t you think we should have helped that woman?” Sky asked.
“Help her do what?”
“I don’t know. Get home. Something.”
“We only have so much room. We can’t take them all.”
Thomas realized why his car worked and the others didn’t. Honestly, he’d known it all along.
In his new screenplay, the one Skylar was here to discuss, he’d written about an apocalyptic event known as an electromagnetic pulse. The eponymous pulse in his story was the byproduct of a massive solar flare and had rendered useless every electronic device on Earth. The way this happened was technical in nature, but easy enough to summarize: Transistors and microchips and power transformers were fried by intense electromagnetic radiation, and anything that relied on them was rendered useless. Like for instance the entire power grid and just about every vehicle built since the 1970s.
His acquisition of the vintage Mustang, therefore, was no accident. He loved to drive it, but the reason Thomas had even considered a classic vehicle was because research for The Pulse had frightened him. In a world without power, without daily deliveries of food into large cities, chaos would erupt almost immediately, and a working car could mean the difference between life and death.
He’d never expected such an event to occur, at least not of the magnitude he’d written about in The Pulse, and maybe this was not that. Maybe the new object in the sky had generated a temporary disruption that would soon be over. But if the event was not temporary and the effect was anything like what he feared, it was imperative to push them as far away from the airport as possible.
But it was already too late. Thomas had driven maybe a hundred more yards when he heard it, the whining roar of a plane in uncontrolled descent. He looked in the direction of the sound just in time to see a sprawling, bubbling cloud of orange and black. The impact was maybe a half mile away. The shock wave arrived a moment later, louder than anything Thomas had ever heard, the sound so deep it hummed in his bones. Heat swirled around the car, a searing wind choked with the heavy smell of fuel.
Sky was crying. Screaming. People were climbing back into their cars. They were running away from the blast. Thomas drove as fast as he safely could, watching the fireball recede into the distance, but he knew they weren’t safe yet. How many planes circled the airport at any one time, waiting to land? Five? Ten? Fifty?
“Oh my God, Thomas. Oh my God. Is this because your car is old? Is that why it’s still running?”
“Should we stop?” he asked her. “Pick up someone? I could fit a couple of people in the back seat.”
“I don’t know! Maybe? I don’t know!”
Thomas reached into her lap and used his free hand to grab hers.
“Skylar, I’ll get us out of here. It’ll be okay. Trust me. I’ll get us to a safe—”
Before he could finish, another plane hit, just as close, somewhere behind them. The reflection of the fireball covered the entire surface of his rearview mirror. The heat was a hand that pushed them roughly forward. The air itself seemed to be on fire, shimmering and bubbling in front of him. Thomas kept driving. He tried to keep his eyes on the road, ignore the fireball, but it was impossible not to look at it.
The plane had landed on the highway in roughly the same spot where he’d spoken to the woman with the SUV. The woman who was dead now.
Skylar was still screaming.
“Don’t stop! I’m sorry but if we stop we might die!”
Thomas drove faster. People were fleeing on foot. They veered into the grassy median and were running north, away from the airport. They were children, mothers, teenagers in football jerseys. Thomas saw a man in an expensive-looking suit slip and fall headfirst, spilling the contents of his briefcase into the grass. Incredibly, the man stopped to gather scattering sheets of paper as people streamed around him. Thomas felt an instinctive need to pull over and help someone, like maybe the elderly couple that was struggling to make progress in the crowded median. But he couldn’t stop now. The car would be swarmed by helpless people trying to flee the airport. If he stopped here, they’d never get going again.
A few seconds later, another plane hit, farther away. Then another one, closer again, a massive explosion that dwarfed all previous impacts.
“Oh my God, Thomas! Oh my God!”
“I think that one hit the terminal. Imagine all the planes parked there, the fuel trucks…”
“Can we get to your house? Is that where you’re headed?”
“Yes. I think we can make it there. As long as the roads aren’t blocked.”
“Thomas,” Sky finally said. “This…this is just like your screenplay, isn’t it? Your car is still running because there aren’t any computers in it.”
He nodded. “The pulse must have come from that thing in the sky. I’m not sure but I think it might be a supernova. I read about them during my research, but they don’t happen very often. Everyone assumed if an EMP got us it would be a solar flare or a nuclear strike.”
“So that means everything is off? Power. Cars. Phones. The Internet.”
“Hopefully not. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think.”
Another plane hit then, this one to their southeast, a couple of miles away. Within seconds, a giant plume of smoke rose above the tree line, and now the entire southern sky behind them was apocalyptic. The horizon itself seemed consumed by fire.
“It looks pretty bad, Thomas.”
* * *
It was three days now since they’d come here, or the third day . . .Seth had never understood the proper way to increment time like this. Since they arrived early Saturday, and now it was Monday morning, did that mean it had been two days? One? Three?
The heat was unbearable and Seth was losing his patience. He had finally convinced Thomas to open the windows, and at first enjoyed the feeble breeze that followed. But now the house was flooded with humidity so dense and oppressive that Seth imagined he could see it gathering in corners and pooling against the ceiling.
If the heat wasn’t bad enough, Natalie’s silence was driving him nuts. After her meltdown yesterday morning, after sleeping away most of the afternoon, Seth was sure she would have come to him with an apology. But no. She wouldn’t leave the bedroom and wouldn’t speak when he stopped by to see her. She acted as if the pulse was his fault, something Seth had inflicted upon her personally. Worst of all, she wouldn’t even interact with the boys.
After dinner last night, after he downed two glasses of bourbon, Seth found Skylar standing at the back windows and summoned the nerve to approach her. By then the boys were in bed and Thomas was upstairs. Moonlight gleamed on the rippled surface of the lake and she didn’t seem to notice him.
“I’m sorry about Natalie,” he finally said. “Thanks for helping with the boys.”
“I can’t imagine how hard this must be on them,” Skylar answered. “When the world is turned upside down and even adults don’t know what to do, where does that leave a child?”
“I know what you mean. I feel so bad for them.”
Skylar stood there saying nothing. For a while all Seth could hear was wind whistling past the window.
“When I was a little girl,” she eventually whispered, “I thought grownups knew what they were doing. Not all of them, but I was sure a select group of smart people knew how things worked. It didn’t seem possible to live in a world with cars and planes and bridges and the Internet if there weren’t people, you know, in control of it all.”
Seth couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so he waited for Skylar to continue.
“I got into acting when I was young and did my first big picture when I was only fifteen. It was a rude awakening. The director was a big deal and I went into the shoot thinking he was one of those ‘in control’ guys. But he was a basket case. The whole project was an unorganized disaster, and I kept thinking there was no way all this megaphone yelling and standing around in the freezing cold could turn out to be a real picture. But then the movie won two Oscars, including Best Director. And that’s when I knew.”
“That grownups weren’t so different from children. That everyone was as lost as I felt. Until that point I had been a good little girl, totally not rebellious because I was afraid to disappoint my father. But the idea that the best and smartest people in the world were as flawed as I was made me wonder why I was bothering to be proper. Why not snort coke and fuck men twice my age and spend two drunk weeks in Copenhagen with a dude who could barely speak English and liked me to shove steel balls up his butt?”
Seth nearly laughed, but when Skylar looked at him there were tears in her eyes.
“I understand how Natalie feels,” she said. “The world is falling apart and no one is coming to fix it. No one is in charge. If the government was, you know, a bunch of thoughtful people with the country’s best interests in mind, this wouldn’t have happened. Someone would have made smart choices to keep us safe. But instead the government is burdened by small men with small minds whose only thoughts are for corporate donors.”
“Personally,” he said, “I’ve never trusted the government. It’s too bloated and wasteful with my tax dollars.”
“Come on, Seth. That’s just a talking point you’ve been trained to repeat. Do you honestly think anything happens in government without the consent of private money?”
To Seth, this was a typical argument made by the liberal elite, which was to blame the problems of society on someone else, either Republican congressmen or large corporations that did what they were designed to do—make a profit for stakeholders. Liberals never wanted to assign blame where it belonged, which was on people who wouldn’t lift a finger to help themselves, who lived on welfare and food stamps at the expense of taxpayers like him. Or they wanted to blame natural events on humanity’s failures. Whether the pulse had been divine intervention or a celestial accident, it definitely hadn’t been caused by humans.
He would have liked to explain all this to Skylar, to talk sense into her pretty liberal head, but he worried that arguments coming from him would sound poorly reasoned and unintelligent compared to her own. She was a beautiful and articulate actress and he was an average man who barely graduated from a mediocre college. Also, he was enamored with her.
Before he could decide what to say, Seth realized they weren’t alone. He turned around and saw Thomas looking at them from across the kitchen
“I’m going to bed,” Skylar said, and walked away. Now it was the middle of Monday morning, what normally would have been the beginning of a new work week, and Seth was on the living room floor with the boys playing Monopoly again. Natalie was still in bed, Skylar was at the kitchen table, and Thomas had disappeared into the garage.
Seth was struggling to focus on the game because he couldn’t stop sneaking glances into the kitchen.
“I don’t understand why we can’t go outside,” said Brandon.
“We just can’t.”
“Brandon, I already—”
“But Dad,” whined Ben. “It’s so hot in here.”
“I don’t care how hot it is. You are not going outside. We don’t know what’s going on out there, and I’m not sure it’s safe.”
“Yes, we do!” said Brandon. “I can see out the window. Let’s go swimming in the lake! That would feel so good.”
Seth looked into the kitchen again and found Skylar smiling back at him. A book was open in front of her and he wondered what she must think of him, playing board games and denying pleasures to the twins.
“Are we going to sit here and play Monopoly for the rest of our lives? I don’t even like this game, Dad.”
“Me, neither,” said Ben.
The problem for Seth was he agreed with his sons. It was miserable indoors and looked comfortable outdoors. They could be fishing off the dock or swimming near the shore or just sitting in the grass, enjoying the breeze. Who was to say this Larry guy would see them, and why would it matter if he did? If he came by later, starving and armed, he would be outnumbered and easily overpowered.
“Dad, pleeeaaaase,” said Ben.
Seth heard a sound and looked up to find Skylar standing above him. She was wearing a pink tank top and cutoff shorts, and seeing her smooth, delicate thighs at eye level made the boys and their pleas seem distant, unconnected to this moment. What he wouldn’t give to reach for those thighs, to feel their silky texture against his fingertips. Natalie’s own legs had given up their slim sensuality in favor of a robust, industrial girth more suited to domestic labors than wrapping themselves around Seth’s midsection.
“Let’s take them outside,” said Skylar, who seemed oblivious to his longing.
“Are you serious?”
“But be quiet about it,” she said to the boys. “Can you do that?”
Ben and Brandon nodded ferociously. Seth tried not to notice how, from this angle, he could see two inches of leg above the ragged hem of Skylar’s shorts. Her underwear, if she was wearing any, could be only millimeters out of view.
“Then let’s go,” Skylar said.
When they reached the back door, the dead bolt was locked, but Seth knew Thomas kept a key on the molding above. He watched over his shoulder for someone to discover what they were doing, but no one else was around.
“All right,” he told the boys. “Let’s go. Quietly. I mean tiptoes.”
The difference between indoors and out was a revelation. On the porch it felt at least ten degrees cooler than the kitchen. Seth hadn’t realized how much he was sweating until wind pressed his shirt against his skin, which felt cool as ice.
“Dad,” said Brandon. “This is amazing!”
“Can we walk down to the water?” asked Ben. “Please?”
When the boys were out of earshot, Skylar said, “Ever wonder how it would feel to be a fictional character?”
Seth desperately wanted her to think he was intelligent and was careful with his reply.
“Isn’t that sort of your job?”
“I mean what if none of this is real? Thomas already wrote one film that basically came true. Maybe this is another.”
“How could something like that even happen?” asked Seth. “Isn’t a screenplay just words on a page?”
“Movies are just pixels on a screen, and they look real, don’t they?”
* * *
AIDEN BEGINS HIS DESCENT
I found my way out of the neighborhood by reversing our original route. The wind, which had been almost calm during our journey to Jimmy’s, was blowing steadily from the south. Also, the haze was thicker than before and carried a harsh, chemical odor that made me wish I was breathing through a surgical mask. On my right I saw a black tower of smoke rising into the sky, and I wondered for the first time if the whole city might burn to the ground.
As I neared the gated exit of Jimmy’s neighborhood, I heard gunshots. A quick and distant pop-pop-pop. My hands reached behind my back and felt the reassuring weight of my weapon. I stopped for a moment and looked at the map, memorized the next two navigation points, and put the paper back in my pocket.
On the main road I felt vulnerable the way a child might. It seemed like I was in another country. Another world. The stalled cars on the road might have been Hollywood set pieces, the haze generated by digital effects. The ambient silence was so profound, so unusual, that the whole city felt like it had been trapped under a giant dome. After a while I noticed the distant sounds of people talking, someone shouting, dogs barking. It made me think the city wasn’t so much silent as forsaken, as if it had been abandoned and left for dead.
For years I’d been convinced climate change was a hoax, that China and the liberal media had purposely stoked the fears of uninformed citizens to undermine American economic dominance. I came to be this way because, like my friends and family, I believed most of the news on TV was fake. No matter what the “scientists” said, there was simply no way humans could measurably affect Earth’s enormous atmosphere. But then thousands of commercial airliners had come down at once, and smoke from fiery impact sites had grown thick enough to make breathing uncomfortable, and I wondered if all this time I’d been wrong about the human impact on our planet.
The real problem, which I came to understand as I walked ghostly streets north of Dallas, was all the people. There were too many cars to drive us and too many planes to fly us and too many farting cows to feed our desperate little mouths. The only way to fix the problem was to cull the herd, and that’s exactly what the EMP was meant to do. It was like a modern version of the Great Flood, only this time God also wanted to get rid of nonstop news coverage and social media and working shit jobs for corporate overlords. Only the chosen few would survive.
If you’re wondering what makes me special, you should know I’m His perfect candidate. I’m happy to assist. I’m ready to kill.
See, I’ve been angry for longer than I can remember. Angry that a company would fire me instead of more deserving losers. Angry that my sister had exiled me over a stupid mistake. Angry that the promise of America turned out to be a lie. Every generation in my family was more affluent than the one before, at least until I came along, even though I’m the smartest person my family has ever produced. It’s almost as if the entire enterprise was a big joke. As if, on television, the Hollywood elite made America look shiny and full of promise, but down here in the trenches, where real folks lived, the place smelled like shit.
But finally there were no elites to steal my dignity and no government to fuck me over and no police presence I could detect. God had put power back where it belonged: into the hands of the people. Into the hands of His chosen.
My brain whistled and screeched and I smiled a pleasant smile.
At the first major intersection, on the other side of the road, five or six men were clustered in front of a nursery. One of the men was talking to the others, gesturing wildly. I turned south and kept walking. The animated man banged loudly on the nursery door. He yelled at someone to let him in. Eventually there was a gunshot, and the men broke open the door. One after the other they disappeared inside.
I began to see more people, almost all of them men. Some were in pairs, some on their own. I came upon a shopping center, a folksy collection of shops and restaurants built to look like log cabins, all of which appeared deserted. At the south end of the center stood a Subway restaurant, where a woman emerged from the doorway looking panic-stricken. She was maybe thirty, dressed in a stretchy T-shirt and high-waisted jeans. She looked like the kind of woman who was always trying to lose ten pounds.
“Sir!” she yelled. “I need your help!”
Her brown hair was long and had been thrown together in an unruly formation on top of her head.
“I don’t have anything to eat.”
“I’m not looking for food,” she said, as if she hadn’t just stepped out of a Subway. “I need insulin. My daughter is sick and I’m completely out.”
“Of course she’s diabetic! She seemed fine yesterday, but today she didn’t wake up from her nap!”
“You don’t keep extra insulin for emergencies?”
Her eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets. I thought she was going to rear back and hit me.
“I could always drive a block to Walgreen’s and get it. But I walked down there today and it’s like a bomb went off.”
I hadn’t thought of this before, but it made sense. If Jimmy hadn’t been around to fix her up, Keri would have tried to steal pills. That’s how desperate she was.
“Please!” the woman said and put her hand on my arm. “I need help!”
“Let go of me.”
“Please, sir. My Hailey is going to die if I don’t get insulin.”
“What do you expect me to do? I don’t know where to find any.”
In the distance I heard that terrible high whistle again, the sound of anger and insanity, the voice of God. I reached behind my back and felt the reassuring steel of my gun. The pistol was hard and smooth and carefully designed, whereas this woman was a mess.
“Please!” she cried.
“Get out of my sight,” I said, and pushed past her.
“You bastard! Fuck you!”
The gun was hidden under my shirt. Blood pounded between my temples as I turned toward the woman again. The whistle screamed in my ears. Was this my first test?
I gripped the weapon and pulled it free of my pants. Slowly, deliberately, I pointed it at her head.
“Oh my God!” she screamed and threw her hands in the air. “Please don’t shoot me!”
My finger slithered over the trigger. There was no one to stop me. America was a big, fat blob of ignorance and debt, and the bill had finally come due.
“Please,” said the woman. “My poor baby. She’s got no one but me.”
“That’s too bad, because you are a shitty parent.”
Rivers of mascara-stained tears poured out of her eyes. Her sobs were choked by congestion.
I closed one eye and mimed a gunshot. All at once the screeching in my head disappeared.
While the woman screamed, I placed the gun, safety still on, back in my pants.
Then I turned south again and smiled a Jimmy Jameson smile. For years, liberal snowflakes and social justice warriors had thwarted the American merit system. Their socialist agenda had weakened the country, exposed a soft underbelly, and it was time to make things right again.
I wouldn’t be so merciful next time.