A Story About Survivors Impersonating the Dead

“The Great Disaster” by Alanna Schubach

AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS

Reading “The Great Disaster,” one senses the specter of climate change. A large flood has struck a valley town, bringing chaos and destruction and leaving behind dead bodies, mud, and mold. This is an American town, probably on the West Coast, where the Great Disaster might have been caused by an earthquake, maybe the Big One, maybe melting ice caps, or maybe something else entirely. But Schubach doesn’t offer an explanation; she is more concerned with granular evidence of grief — the sand left by a receding tide — than the origins of the flood.

But Schubach doesn’t offer an explanation; she is more concerned with granular evidence of grief — the sand left by a receding tide — than the origins of the flood.

The story unfolds through the eyes of a group of school children, the perfect narrators for an intimate reading of a global event. They are too young to grasp the political, economic, and geographic implications of the tragedy, and yet they are just young enough to understand, viscerally, it’s philosophical and spiritual consequences.

The only adult able to communicate on their level is their science teacher, who is existentially depressed enough to tell his students that it’s “unnatural to be aware [of death] from such a young age” and that they “will always be unnatural for it,” and later, to ask them questions like, “Have you ever resented your parents for thrusting existence upon you?” Brutal as his outlook may be, the science teacher does far more to comfort his students than the “beaming” school counselor, who, to his eternal condemnation, tells the students “nothing is something,” when they refuse to volunteer their feelings. “Nothing is nothing,” the children correct him, and rightly so. But it’s not the counselor’s fault he doesn’t know how to engage these children, who are bewildered and terrified, yet also seem bizarrely unscathed.

Even though there is nothing overtly political about this story, one can’t help but read a touch of allegory in the science teacher who carries forward the mantel of truth—apocalyptic as it may be—and the counselor who prioritizes a sanitized doctrine. Schubach writes with breathless urgency that betrays a moral imperative. And what a jolt comes from reading her sentences, fearless and full of lust for life, in the face of death and doom.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading

A Story About Survivors Impersonating the Dead

“The Great Disaster”

by Alanna Schubach

He had never really thought about it, our science teacher said, until shortly after he turned thirty. One night, over dinner, his wife had looked at him strangely. Then she reached out and plucked a hair from his head. She stretched it over the dark surface of the table and he saw it was wiry and gray: his first.

The Great Disaster (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 262)

Shortly after that, he tripped and fell up the stairs on the way into the school building. His arms absorbed most of the impact, but his head struck pavement. At first it yielded nothing more than a goose egg on his forehead, but the next morning he awoke with a terrific stiffness in his neck.

Around the same time he began to notice that his hangovers had worsened. Not only was there the nausea, but also now a metaphysical component to his next-day suffering, a fog of despair that hung over all hours until evening. It was then, our science teacher said, that he finally realized what was coming. Of course, it had always been coming, but he hadn’t truly understood until that point.

But you children are already well-aware, our science teacher said. It’s unnatural to be aware from such a young age. And you will always be unnatural for it. But that can be a strength.

No one spoke to us like this before the Great Disaster. Before, if the principal, passing in the hallway, had overheard such a conversation, our science teacher would have been reprimanded.

Our science teacher had probably wanted to give these kinds of lectures even then, we thought, but held himself back. He studied philosophy in college. H., his niece, told us that he had a room in his home in which the walls were lined completely, floor to ceiling, with bookshelves full of books. H.’s parents had never enjoyed his brand of conversation, and he would harrumph and roll his eyes when they tried to discuss mortgages or celebrities or the best methods of removing cat hair from furniture. Now the science teacher was nearly bald. What was coming was getting closer.

This is how it was with the Great Disaster: some people it shattered, and some people it made more themselves.

K. had been out of town when the Great Disaster struck, K. and his entire immediate family. They had traveled south for some kind of reunion, cousins at the beach plunging into the waves, the adults clumped together on shore drinking and casting eyes oceanward. He hadn’t lost anyone. When we all talked about it, he felt like someone pausing outside a theater and overhearing from within a sudden burst of applause.

All of us, including the science teacher, had come from the junior high in the valley where water had overtaken the first floor. We had been transferred, after, to the junior high on the hill, dropped into desks beside strangers. The other students complained about upset seating arrangements, about the ignorance of their new lab partners, about having to repeat lessons for the sake of the unlucky arrivals, as though we hadn’t all been following the same national curriculum. We got their point. We didn’t want to be there either. We suspected the adults were afraid of the water returning and the mold was just an excuse. A superstitious, infantile fear. One night we went back to the valley investigate, which is how the zombie game began.

Inside our old school it was dark. Smashed glass, posters on the wall fluttering in the unexpected breeze. Once the posters had celebrated perseverance, condemned bullying, but now they didn’t say anything. It was damp, but not necessarily in a persistent way. It could have been from the rain that same afternoon. We had all made it; our parents were less attentive these days, less prone to nagging. We had been expecting a playland, the thrill of an institution once patrolled by adults, now liberated of them. We had imagined ourselves tearing through the maze-like corridors, upending the shoe lockers, kicking at the plum trees in the courtyard, spitting from the mezzanines down onto the lacquered surface of the gymnasium floor. But the school was dead, deader than before. It was filled with an oppressive grayness that drained us of energy.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor, which had been spared, we found that the things we had abandoned had become artifacts. We’d left behind our battered notebooks, our sweet-smelling erasers, our passed notes with their secrets folded within, sure they’d remain there for us, waiting. They lay still and preserved inside our desks, but they were no longer ours. We realized, when you touch a textbook or an orange, when you watch heavy curtains shoved away from windows with wind, dancing in air, when you fall asleep against your desk and dream it’s the deck of an old ship, shifting in the sea, you enliven these things, you transfer your energy to them, you give them meaning. The fantasy you had as a child that your toys came alive after you left them alone was wrong; it’s just the opposite.

The game began in the home ec. classroom, amid the dormant ranges, the spatulas and serving spoons asleep and rusting in their glass cabinets. The home ec. teacher still hadn’t been found; she’d stayed home that day to take care of her daughter, who had influenza. M. was rifling in the teacher’s private office, opening and closing drawers. At one point she leaned out into the classroom area and tossed a sheaf of papers in the air: recipes. Of all of us that first night in the school, M. seemed the least muted by the Great Disaster, the most defiant of the school’s hushed hallways. She’d been considered wild even before, and we’d always been too boring for her, but now that her two best girlfriends were dead, her options were limited. R. was staring at a recipe and idly reading aloud the ingredients for a custard when M. emerged, in the home ec. teacher’s apron.

Her mouth hung slack and her eyes were glazed. She shuffled forward, reaching unseeingly, her dangling hands knocking over a coffee mug from the home ec. teacher’s desk. She didn’t jump when it shattered. Instead, she crouched down stiffly, jabbed her fingers into the foul liquid that had spilled out, ancient coffee with curdled milk. She raised her fingers and stared at them, and fixed her face into an expression of dim disappointment.

“What is she doing?” H. whispered to R. She saw that it was a game, she understood that much. But she didn’t know the rules, and her cluelessness clawed at her.

M. had stuffed the bosom of the apron with something, we saw, to mimic the home ec. teacher’s unusually large breasts.

“Are you being Mrs. B.?” K asked.

M. groaned, stumbled toward him.

“Do you want us to make you this custard, Mrs. B.?” R. asked, holding the recipe aloft.

M. jerked her head toward him. Clarity seemed to swirl briefly in her eyes. Her lips parted. “Brrr,” she said. “Brains.”

Then we understood that she had brought the home ec. teacher back to us.

The hospital on the hill, near our new junior high, had served as an emergency shelter after the Great Disaster, and on one of the first nights when we were huddled, freezing and hungry, the chief physician told us that there had been warnings. If you broke down the components of the names for places in our region, they had meanings like Once Beneath Sea and Origin Of The Wave and Whirlpool’s Child. Our ancestors had named our towns, creeks, and beaches this way for a reason, but we had ignored them.

Most of the adults nodded quietly but R.’s father stood up. He circled the medicine-smelling waiting room, leaning in to the impassive faces of the crowd.

“My name means Pine Forest,” he said. “Does that mean I should have been a lumberjack?”

He turned to the physician. “Who is that speech supposed to help?”

The physician smiled a little, but her voice had no authority. “We all help each other,” she said.

Once, during an argument, our science teacher said his wife had called him “little tyrant.” Of course, she meant “little” in the sense of his tyranny being relatively small, in the grand scheme of historical monsters, but he had interpreted it as a dig at his stature. He had always been sensitive about his height, he said, and anytime he tried to assert his authority he had to contend with comparisons to Napoleon. It was a sore spot, in other words, and though he’d said plenty worse to her over the course of their marriage, and though she’d clarified that she had not been mocking his size, nor ever would she do anything so base as to ridicule a person, her husband and soul mate especially, for something he couldn’t help, he remained stung. Perhaps it stung because he was monstrous, perhaps his fixation on his height hid deeper trepidations about his character. The fight had taken place not long before the Great Disaster, and the Great Disaster had seemed to wash it, like so much else, away, and yet here was the hurt again, resurfacing. He’d not been freed of it at all.

There was a challenge in knowing which characteristics should survive into the second life. The woman who owned the dry cleaners, for instance, had had a way of confirming with our mothers every time she spoke: “Two blouses, yes? Dreadful weather, yes?” She had a face soft with wrinkles, and brittle, arthritic bones — she could hardly stand up straight enough to sift through the racks of clothing, swinging in their plastic wrapping, let alone run up the hill. H. tried to be the dry cleaning lady, creaking forward, dribbling from the corner of her mouth a little, murmuring, “Brains… yes?” But we didn’t like the yes, we didn’t agree that a tic so endearing would be preserved in the crossing. When we voiced our objections, H. sat down right on the cold floor of the music room (empty saxophone cases, a dark cluster of stringless violins) where we’d been playing the zombie game. She refused to participate for the rest of our session, just sat plopped there in silence, rolling over and over in her mind the vanished yes.

We were called from the classroom one by one to meet with someone: a counselor. He was tan, with a thick head of hair; he pulsed with vitality. He asked us if there was anything on our minds. If we were struggling with negativity. If we had any stress. If we had dark fantasies. What we did to cope with them.

We all said nothing, and he said nothing was interesting, too.

“No,” M. told him. “Nothing is nothing.”

We were returned to the classroom and our escort, the school nurse, chided us lightly for our lack of cooperation. We were reminded that we were supposed to all be in this together.

We told the science teacher what we were asked, and he smirked.

“I’d like to administer,” he said, “my own questionnaire. And you don’t have to answer it anywhere but in your minds.

“How firm,” he said, “is your grasp on reality? How do you know?

“Have you ever resented your parents for thrusting existence upon you?

“Do you have thoughts that seem to come from outside yourself?

“Do you sometimes feel as though you are watching yourself perform the actions of life from a distance?

“Have you ever looked at someone you’ve known for years and felt as though you’d never seen them before?”

M. scribbled furiously in her notebook during the questioning. R. slid K. a note: Will this be on the test? H. blinked a lot to hold back tears.

The science teacher scanned the room, and smiled. “Would you like me to tell you that your answers indicate you’ll be fine?”

We all nodded.

He shrugged. “But how should I know?”

Once summer came it was easier to see the shadow the Great Disaster had cast. Little bloomed in the valley, its flora puckered by saltwater, but the hills above were mockingly verdant. Bees went on thrumming in the bushes, cicadas thwocked their fat bodies against windows. In the scorched grass around the old junior high school we found fish skeletons.

The postmaster left town. The high school vice principal left town. Several of our classmates warned us they would not be back in school when the summer holidays were over. (“Their parents don’t want to live amid the ruins,” the science teacher said. “They don’t see it for the privilege it is.”) R.’s father was spending most nights at First Dream, a bar where men paid women to pour their whiskeys and light their cigarettes and listen to them talk ever-widening circles around the Great Disaster. K.’s mother had thrown K. out of his bedroom and converted it to a photo lab, where she restored the pictures she found flapping along the shoreline. Their owners would eventually turn up to reclaim them, she said. Over where he’d once slept swooped blotched images of grinning infants, cigar-smoking grandfathers, cats bathing in pools of light, all suspended from clothesline. He now had to room with his younger brother, who’d long been potty-trained but had suddenly begun wetting the bed again, and K. had to strip the sodden mattress in the middle of the night. A woman who worked at First Dream slit her throat.

“Does your father know her?” H. asked R. We were sitting in the old junior high school’s mezzanine, legs dangling over the edge. Even though our days were free, we continued to reserve our game for evening hours. Dark was beginning to set in, submerging the basketball court below in a pool of inky black. H. had heard the news from her uncle, the science teacher. He hadn’t told her directly — he didn’t really speak to her outside class, as though he wanted her to be no more than a student, and she was too timid to approach him herself — but she’d overheard him telling her parents during dinner one evening. They’d been sitting on the back porch, and H. had pressed her face against the screen door, its windy, metallic smell harsh in her nostrils.

“Well,” H. heard her mother say. “You have to wonder what kind of life brought her there, in the first place. It’s not a job for healthy people.”

“What’s a job for healthy people?” the science teacher asked.

“Yours, for one.”

The science teacher laughed at that.

R., reddening, said that his father had never mentioned the woman. But First Dream wasn’t such a terrible place, he added, no one there was bad, exactly. Just think of the name, he said, a reference to the custom of sharing with our families, at the breakfast table, our first dream of the New Year, the insights that the disclosures brought, the closeness. That’s what people were looking for.

“So she helped people,” M. said. The word sounded sharp, an arrow pointing toward hypocrisy. R. nodded, nervously. “So we should bring her back,” M. said.

We’d never resurrected someone we’d never seen before. The trick, we were learning, over the course of countless embodiments, was to highlight a particular trait of the dead, to let it glint here and there through the muddiness of all the zombie groaning and shuffling. We stood waiting in dread for M. to inhabit the fallen First Dream employee, to expose her, the men like R.’s father who visited her, as grotesques. There was something in her that was inexhaustible, a vessel that no matter how many times she overturned would be filled again.

But then H. stepped forward. She’d taken M.’s lipstick and drawn a red slash across her neck; she’d thrust her chest forward and made her bony body voluptuous. She made the familiar, moaning request for brains, but her voice had gone husky, infused with the dead woman’s yearning. What did we see? Not H. A stranger, whose flesh people had molded until she fit against them. She had a nature that she had kept hidden, and now no one would ever know about it but us. When H. returned, a little embarrassed, we all applauded.

There was something embarrassing about the zombie game, a bafflement that came with its conclusion, as we walked home reflecting on our disappearances. What were we doing? We still knew nothing about the people we had taken on. We hadn’t really disappeared.

When we returned from the summer holidays to our sparser classrooms, M. had a question for the science teacher.

“What did you mean,” she said, “when you said that it was a privilege to live in ruins?”

The science teacher paused. No one ever asked questions in his class. It was his realm, for his lectures, and it wasn’t clear, sometimes, how much he cared if we understood.

The pause extended into a silence so long that it stood on its own, just a silence, brought forth by nothing.“I want to know why the woman from First Dream cut her throat,” M. said.

It seemed he would ignore M.’s question, and we could feel another silence rolling out, but then he asked, “Do any of you have dreams about the Great Disaster?”

Everyone nodded.

The science teacher upturned his palms, inviting, to our surprise, a classroom discussion.

K. said he had dreamed of another surge of water, this time teeming with frog monsters, with concavities at the tops of their heads and mouthfuls of fangs for devouring the livers of children. H. had dreamed she was in a train car, shuttling through the farmland that bordered our town, only to reach a grove where each tree was strung with human hearts. R. dreamed that the phone rang in his house, and he heard his mother pick up and say, “Dead? Dead?” and he knew the news was about his father.

The science teacher nodded appreciatively. “Here’s mine,” he said, because that, of course, was what he had been waiting to tell us, what this whole exercise was for, but we didn’t mind, because we’d been waiting to hear.

He’d dreamed he was walking along a road in the dark, and at his feet was the dog he’d had as a child who had run off one day, through a back door left open. The dog’s vanishing had been a black mark on his youth, an inexplicable blot, because he had thought they’d had an understanding that they would grow up together. But now the dog had returned, and he looked just as the science teacher remembered, but in his travels he had learned how to talk.

The science teacher asked the dog if he had acquired great wisdom along his journey, and the dog said that depended.

The science teacher asked if he had seen terrible things, and the dog said who hadn’t.

The science teacher asked why terrible things happened, and the dog looked disappointed. He turned his head up and the science teacher could see the whites of his eyes gleaming in the dark, and he felt afraid.

The science teacher’s feet were starting to ache, and he asked the dog if he knew when they would reach the end of the road.

The dog said, surprised, End?

M. said, “How is that about the Great Disaster?”

The science teacher told her, “You can do better than that.”

The last time we played the zombie game was the time we were most completely absorbed. Self-consciousness was leached away until our characterizations were pure. We peopled the hallways of the old junior high, bringing forth one lost face after another, the waiter at the coffee shop, the drugstore cashier, the pasty, chubby classmate we’d all ignored, for fear of being tainted, made an outcast, too, as though through airborne contagion, the man we’d all noticed and suspected was homeless, who walked everywhere, long-haired, carrying a guitar case, who may very well have stepped directly into the water. We flipped through personas without pausing for recognition. We knew; that was enough. R. did not think of lying awake until the patch of sunlight widened across his closet door, of waiting until he heard the shudder of his father’s car engine when he pulled into the driveway. H. did not think of her parents on the back porch, of her mother’s blandness, turned into a weapon poised against the town’s despair. K. did not think of his weak-hearted brother, retreating into the safe, clammy warmth of toddlerhood. M. did not think of her friend, who she had last seen on a sunny, early spring day, as they coasted their bikes down the hill past the hospital, who had told M. she knew how it would be when they grew up: she would stay here, in the town, settle down and have a family and a quiet job, as a florist maybe, and M. would take off, she’d hike mountains or traverse far-flung cities, learn foreign tongues, open her mouth to exotic tastes. And then she’d come back, every couple years or so, to visit her friend and tell her what she’d seen. M. didn’t think about who she would tell now.

We were stopped not by exhaustion, but by the sun coming up. As it undimmed the classrooms we saw the school for what it was, not the secret warren of dark resurrection but a defunct building, a hall of nothing. Its dank smells refilled our noses. We remembered there were living people who waited for us.

As we walked home, a pair of headlights emerged through the early morning fog, which hung over the road like a gauze. Driving the lights was R.’s father, not sallow and perspiring from a long night at First Dream but alert, looking for him.

R. didn’t want to get into the car.

“You’re not in trouble,” his father told him, and gestured from the front seat, his arm slicing a welcoming arc through the air. R. wasn’t afraid of trouble. He didn’t want to get into the car because he found his father traitorous, his self-pitying retreat into smut mortifying. He had words prepared for a moment just like this one. But his father lingering there, trying to coax R. like a wayward family pet, made it suddenly impossible for R. to voice his long-planned speech. It seemed, instead, as though his father was mistaken, that he was the lost animal, and it was up to R. to bring him back.

Inside the car, his father asked R. if he’d heard the news.

It was the same at all our houses. We returned to find our mothers and fathers poised on couches, stumbling over each other as they grasped for delicacy in expressing their sympathy and their understanding, to express what must have been for them the millionth instance their condolences, this time for the loss of the science teacher.

The memorial was held at H.’s house. Her family formed a circle around the science teacher’s wife in an attempt to hold and console her, though they knew very well they wouldn’t. H. heard her mother say that the science teacher’s wife had been the one to find the body. So he was no longer the science teacher but the body. We were baffled by this, his joining the ranks of the shadow disaster, his faithless relinquishing of the role he’d persuaded us he would hold as long as we were willing to live as his students. We’d been more than willing. Hadn’t he known?

We couldn’t meet at the old junior high. Our parents were keeping a closer eye on us, afraid we might try to emulate the dead man who had been our science teacher. In this period of languishing there was no chance to give voice to our perplexity that a life could end this way, not enclosed by the swift grasp of nature or by the logical running down of time but by the abrupt exchange of “science teacher” for nothing.

At last, we were granted our own grief. The Great Disaster hadn’t allowed for that — the Great Disaster belonged to the grownups. One morning, K. entered his old room and tore down from the clothesline all the photographs, shred them to ribbons, and cast them out the window, bits of the ex-images wafting to the burnt grass below — a slice of smile, an excised eye. In the midst of a math lesson, perhaps loosed by the inanity of graphing x’s and y’s, M. threw what must have looked to everyone else like a fit, thrashing her body down the aisles, spitting and moaning, yanking at classmates’ hair. Who she had zombified we couldn’t say, but after that she was sentenced to private weekly meetings with the grinning counselor.

R. and H. had their own meetings. Something had sprouted between them that they couldn’t name, because it seemed so perverse — like a plant that they watered with blood. They kissed quickly behind the cafeteria while the rest of us rushed to fill our lunch trays, which was itself perverse, our bodies’ dumb need for maintenance.

But the body — why did the science teacher elect to become that, when he’d had such an attentive audience? We imagined that his wife had found, beneath the creaking his weight made, his unthinking dangling feet, a single shoe that had slipped off. It was one of the science teacher’s scuffed brown oxfords, and the inside of it was still warm.

And then there was another memorial, for the first anniversary of the Great Disaster. Why mark one year, we wondered, as though it were a discrete, solid thing, like a suitcase? Hadn’t the science teacher ever lectured on the nature of time? We tried to remember. He would have said it was slippery, surely. Think of how he spoke about aging, the sudden awareness of what was coming for him, though it had always been coming. Think of the hurt swooping back, the sting of his wife calling him a tyrant even after the intervening months, filled with far greater injuries as they were.

In the ceremony hall, the elementary school’s choir sang a song of remembrance, penned by their music teacher. It was meant to be somber, but their voices, high-pitched and earnest, hurled it upward into the realm of the saccharine. The chief physician made a speech, recalling the frantic crowds in the hallways of her hospital, imploring us to reflect on how far we’d come since then: on the restoration, both physical and emotional, that was well under way. The adults nodded and clapped, tears standing in their eyes. They looked mesmerized. Under their bovine gaze we four, from our respective corners of the hall, shared a realization: we could slip away.

We met in the lobby and silently filed out into the day, which was bright and cold; deep winter. The ground was doubly pummeled, first by saltwater, now by snow, and it crunched and squeaked beneath our feet. As we rounded the hill that sloped down toward the old junior high we caught view of the ocean beyond it.

Inside, with the sunlight streaming in through the school’s windows, it seemed unbelievable that this had ever been the staging area for a conjuring. The building’s abandonment remained clear — the dates on the calendars pinned to bulletin boards, the sheen of dust we could see coating the microphone into which the principal used to make his announcements — but the brightness had rendered it stubbornly municipal.

“We thought we should do something for the science teacher,” R. said. H. nodded.

“Like what?” K. said.

They shrugged — that was as far as they’d gotten.

M. said, “Can’t do anything now.”

It was as though she had erected a blockade, right there. With a withering remark, a roll of her eyes, M. could decide when we stopped and when we started. There was no going around — we had to think of something else.

“Should we play, then?” H. said. “One last time?”

It was against the rules, being the middle of the day. But it was that or face the great yawning inside ourselves, the understanding that this was how it was going to be: the inane memorials, the senseless groping of the townspeople as they tried to raise us amid ruins, the beaming counselors who told us nothing was something, all this unfurling before us interminably, and without the voice of the science teacher, who had told the truth.

Before M. could protest, we leapt into our characters, writhing against the mildewed walls, moaning. It was, admittedly, half-hearted. We were out of practice, self-conscious in the sunlight; none of us even looked particularly hungry for brains. M. watched, arms crossed, and we thought this was the final disappointment, all along we’d been barely keeping up with her and now she would finally be unable to ignore it, she’d be forced to find another group of friends.

But then M. shifted. She hunched her shoulders a little, as if on the defensive. Her nose, too, she pointed upward; she stroked her chin pensively.

“What we have here,” she began.

Of course, we recognized the voice.

“What we have here is a mockery of death,” she said. “But why shouldn’t we mock death? What else is more worth mocking, really?”

She gazed down at us. “Life is the Great Disaster,” she said. “You know that, right?” She had assumed his imperious air, but nevertheless she was M., a barely-teenage girl who still had her baby fat. So it had been with the science teacher, we could see now, his high-mindedness had been stretched painfully taut over something quivering and jellylike.

We all — insofar as we could, without betraying our characters — nodded.

“Still,” she said. “You want me to release you to your lives, don’t you?”

“Yes,” H. croaked, another violation — zombies have but one word in their vocabularies — but M. seemed unperturbed, and so we all joined in. “Yes,” we said.

M. shrugged, as though a bit disappointed. She leaned down and touched each of us on the crowns of our heads. One by one, we went limp. M. slid down to the floor with us, and we rolled onto our backs. We lay like that for a while, sprawled in the abandoned junior high school’s hallway, staring at the ceiling. It was spiderwebbed with cracks and looked like it might give way at any moment.

When we left it was still sunny. We hiked up the hill, which was crusted with snow. Beneath it was the destroyed grass, and beneath that, probably, were bodies lodged deep in the earth, the people who had lived in this town going back and back and back, and who from that day on would all stay dead.

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