Friday
Jan202017

An Excerpt from the Post-Comet Database, Volume 1: "David Newell's Supplemental Logs"

James Brubaker


 

P-C Day 187, 1437 Hours

Johnson and I are driving a flatbed with a helicopter strapped to it from Ohio to the impact site in Oklahoma. Neither of us have driven a semi before and learning the double clutch was tricky at first—release the throttle, step on the clutch and put it in neutral until the engine and gear RPMs align, then step on it again to shift—but with no traffic to complicate our learning, we worked through it on the road. Coming through Indiana and Southern Illinois we saw a few stray cars in transit, but just a few.

Now that we're in Missouri, there are no moving cars at all, probably because there are few survivors this close to Oklahoma. Neither of us say this out loud, but we're both thinking it. Or maybe not. The truth is, I have no idea what Johnson thinks and I'm not particularly interested in finding out. In the months since the comet hit, Johnson and I haven't spoken more than a handful of words to each other. Our cell of survivors doesn't have much to say to each other outside of work. No sporting events to talk about, or new films, or families. Family, in particular, is something our group avoids talking about, especially when I'm around. Of course, when I'm around nobody says much of anything. The only words spoken on this trip have been operational or observational, discussion about how to work the double clutch and unnecessary descriptions of what we see outside.

Just a few moments ago, for example, Johnson noted that visibility was low. I said, "It'll get worse the closer we get." Then Johnson said, "If it gets too much worse, we're not taking the chopper up." I told Johnson not to worry, that visibility wouldn't get that bad. "It better not," he said. "I'm not risking my ass for your research, Newell." Johnson's hostility didn't surprise me so much as how direct he was about it. I know that the rest of the crew at the bunker doesn't like me, but I'm not used to any of them expressing their distaste so overtly. Granted, I'm also not used to being in quarters quite this close with just one person. I reminded Johnson that this isn't my research at all—this research is for all of us. Then I said, "You'll fly if I tell you to." That is, after all, the reason Johnson is making this trip with me. He used to be in the Air Force and knows how to fly a helicopter. I'm here because I'm a geologist—graduated in the top three percent of my class from the University of Michigan. Together, we've been tasked by the group with scouting the impact site—take soil samples, measure the crater, and survey the site from the sky.

Though I don't let Johnson know, I am a bit worried about flight conditions. Most of the dirt and debris in the atmosphere should have dispersed by now, but what if our calculations are wrong? What if the comet was bigger than we thought, or moving faster, or the resulting fires lasted longer?

When I look up at the grey and brown sky, I ache to feel direct light from the sun. I keep my coat pulled tight. I hold my hands against the truck's heating vents.

 

P-C Day 187, 1610 Hours

About the comet's name: I don't know who named it or why. At one point, a few months before the comet's arrival, news networks and astronomers started referring to the comet as Ana, as if it were a tropical storm or hurricane. This seemed like a pointless exercise since the likelihood of humanity surviving long enough to name a second comet, a Brenda, or Barry, or Barbara, is slim to nil. Or maybe the name wasn't about labeling and organizing, but about achieving some level of intimacy with the object that was going to destroy us all. I don't know. As for the moment of impact, I'll share one image from my own version of the end of the world: safe in our cell's government bunker, we watched a satellite feed of the Earth, watched the atmosphere darken beneath the debris kicked up by the comet's impact, and watched a dull orange light grow beneath the dark clouds; watched as the glow briefly intensified, then was blotted out for good by the smoke, like dark paint splashed across the Earth's surface. It wasn't long before the atmosphere grew too dense with dust and soot for that satellite's transmissions to reach us and we lost the feed for good.

Some cried because they knew their families were dying. I had nothing to cry about.

 

P-C Day 187, 1830 Hours

We ran out of daylight and have stopped for the night. I took a turn driving shortly before we reached the Ozarks. The combination of the double clutch and the steep slant of the roads proved too much for me to manage efficiently. I drove less than thirty slow miles before Johnson popped a pill to help him stay awake, then told me to trade seats with him. Once we were moving again, Johnson asked me why, exactly, it was so important for us to see the crater from the sky that we had to lug this helicopter halfway across the country, wasting fuel in the process. I told him the idea, overly optimistic as it might be, was that our research would help us better understand the damage caused by the comet and reach a clearer understanding of how we might protect ourselves from future impacts. "You think there will be future impacts?" Johnson asked. I didn't answer his question. Johnson continued, "Comets hitting our planet isn't a normal thing. It's not going to start happening regularly or anything." I stayed quiet, hoping Johnson would talk himself out because I didn't know how to answer his questions in a way that wouldn't be upsetting. I don't have the best track record when it comes to explaining unpleasant truths to people. Johnson said, "And if more comets come, we'll figure out how to stop them. That's why we're here, right?" He continued, "To fix up the Earth and protect it the next time." I said, "Something like that." Johnson said, "Exactly like that."

I told Johnson that our job isn't to fix the world, and the probability of protecting it from future comet-strikes is minimal at best. I told him that no matter what anyone says, the Earth's surface will not be reclaimed in our lifetime, that the most our cell can do for civilization is to try to understand the damage caused by the comet's impact and devise plans that will, decades, if not centuries from now, rehabilitate the planet and, if we're lucky, protect it and its future inhabitants from subsequent comet strikes. I told Johnson that hope for the Earth's more immediate future rests in other bunkers farther away from the impact site, halfway around the world and not inhabited by scientists and mechanics, but by young fertile couples and a handful of botanists, agriculturists, and horticulturists who were installed to tend the hydroponics bays where representative samples of most of Earth's plant life are being stored for possible future revegetation. Johnson cut me off, said: "They have hydroponics bays?"

I told Johnson that, hydroponics bays or no, nobody's attempts to fix the planet will matter if we don't devise a plan to protect ourselves against future comet strikes. Here, Johnson circled back around to his original, hopeful thesis: "But comet strikes are freak occurrences—this was the first one in thousands of years." There was an edge to Johnson's voice, as if he was challenging me, as if the eventual doom of the human race was somehow my fault. Technically, Johnson was wrong, as a small piece of a comet landed in Serbia in the early twentieth century, but I didn't think my travel companion was interested in such details. Instead, I said, "It's hard to say." I said, "With Nemesis's shrinking orbit and its effects on the Oort Cloud, it's possible that we could start seeing more comets." I left my response at that, hoping Johnson would know enough about Nemesis and the Oort Cloud that simply mentioning them would be enough to get under his skin. After a few minutes of thick silence, I started to feel bad, so I lied and told Johnson that he was probably right, that it would probably be a few millennia, at least, before another comet hit Earth. Johnson said, "Don't patronize me," which I suppose means he knew enough about Nemesis and the Oort Cloud that my words sufficiently upset him. We didn't speak again until Johnson decided to stop for the night. He took the sleeper cab and I'm stuck on the bench up front.

 

P-C Day 187, 2257 Hours

I'm having trouble sleeping. The bench seat isn't particularly comfortable and I'm on edge from my interactions with Johnson. I understand why my colleagues might be uneasy around me, but I'm surprised more of them don't understand. I wonder if their dislike of me might be more rooted in their own regrets; after all, I did the unthinkable thing that they all should have done but didn't do. I killed my family. I don't regret killing my family. The others in our group know that I killed my family. They know because I told them when I was asked, point blank, during an icebreaker activity, "What is the most difficult thing you had to do in preparing to come live in the bunker?" The first four answers included, "Quitting smoking," "Acclimating my body to non-perishable food items," and "Saying goodbye to my pets." Then I said, "The hardest thing for me was killing my family." I assumed there would be others who had done something similar, but that was not the case. The rest of the group gasped, and, for a moment, the order of our bunker was threatened as the icebreaker circle erupted into a series of worried murmurs. Several members expressed disbelief, believing I was making a tasteless joke. I assured them I was not joking, I really did kill my family. I asked them, "None of you did?" I couldn't fathom anyone leaving their families alive to die agonizing deaths in the aftermath of the comet's impact. In the moments following my confession, one person suggested I be imprisoned, while another asked that I be banished from the bunker. When one of my colleagues, an astronomer from San Diego named Steve, asked me if I felt remorse for what I'd done, I told him I didn't, because I knew what Earth would look like after the impact, and so I did what needed to be done. "Why would I feel remorse?" I asked. The room grew deathly silent after that, and while I wasn't sent above ground or locked in a closet, I can't say anyone in the bunker has been particularly friendly to me since my confession. As I suspect our group's official historians and scribes have probably written about me—David Newell, the Man Wwho Killed Hhis Family—I want to explain my actions, on the off chance that these historical records are ever seen and evaluated by future humans, not that there will be future humans. I simply want to describe my practical rationale for killing my family to protect my reputation against what may exist in some of our cell's records.

In my life before the comet, I had a wife, Sarah, a fourteen-year-old son, Alex, and an eleven-year-old daughter, Emma. Sarah and I had discussed the situation. She understood what life would look like after the comet hit: six months of night with only the food in the house. I suggested that, once Ana was closer and astronomers had a clearer projection of where it might strike, Sarah and the kids could drive toward the impact site. Sarah decided against this course of action, fearing they might not make it in time, meaning she and the children would die slow, excruciating deaths, stranded miles from home. Sarah also worried that, at some point in the trip, the children would come to understand where they were going, and know their mother was driving them to their deaths. After rejecting that plan, Sarah said, "I want you to kill us."

I told Sarah I wasn't comfortable with that, that we needed to find another way. "No," she said. "You need to do it." I asked her how I could possibly do such a thing. "Make it quick, and painless," she said. "And unexpected." We were silent for a moment. Then she added, "And kill us all at the same time. I don't want our children to see you killing me, and I don't want to see you killing them." Again, I refused. Sarah said, "It's the only way." In the end, as much as I didn't want to accept the truth of the situation, Sarah was right, and so I agreed to kill my wife and children.

 

P-C Day 188, 0900 Hours

We got a late start today. This close to the impact site, the sun's light doesn't penetrate the dusty atmosphere until late in the morning. Johnson hasn't said a word to me since he woke. I suspect he's still upset with me for mentioning the Oort Cloud and Nemesis, for hinting at just how dire a situation this is for humanity.

Here are the details I didn't tell Johnson, but of which I can assume, from his response, he is at least partially aware: Close to a light year away from the sun, there is a massive, spherical cloud of planetesimals called the Oort Cloud. Just beyond the Oort Cloud lies a brown dwarf called Nemesis. The star circles our solar system in a trans-Neptunian orbit that once ran so much wider than, and at a different angle than the other planet's orbits, that its existence wasn't confirmed until about a decade ago. The confirmation of Nemesis's existence was, at first, exciting for the scientific community, but soon became reason for concern when astronomer's realized that Nemesis's gravity was dislodging planetisimals from the Oort Cloud, effectively making them comets, and that these dislodged comets were being drawn into the heart of our solar system by the sun's gravity. The situation grew more troubling still when astronomers discovered that the brown dwarf's orbit was collapsing and its effects on the Oort Cloud were increasing. This all means that, not only does humanity have to reclaim, repopulate, and rebuild our planet, we also have to devise a planetary defense system to protect us from future comet impacts before the next one hits or we'll end up having to start all over again, assuming the limited infrastructure on which the survivor cells are depending withstands a second catastrophic event. Johnson snorts and clears his throat. He starts to roll down the window. I tell him not to and hand him a piece of paper torn out of my journal. He spits a wad of phlegm into it, crumples the paper up, and shoves it between his seat and the door. He said, "This fucking dust."

 

P-C Day 188, 1015 Hours

Somewhere in Missouri, maybe a little southwest of where Springfield used to be, I asked Johnson if he thinks the human race will make it through this apocalypse. He said, "of course we will." When I asked him to give me the odds, he said, "Eighty, eighty-five percent." He paused for a moment. Then, "Maybe seventy-five." Then finally, "Or sixty."

Everywhere around us, Missouri is covered with soot. When I look out the window, I see deep into the state's burnt, dead frame. Realistically, I told Johnson, I give humanity less than a five percent chance of survival.

He didn't answer. We haven't spoken since.

But I'm right, and the landscape reaffirms that I did right by my family. After agreeing to Sarah's plan, I decided to wait because we still had a month before I was set to report to the bunker and I wanted to spend as much time with Sarah and the kids as possible. This led to some tense moments, as Sarah, despite having asked for my assistance in ending her life, was suspicious of my every action. One night, about two weeks before Ana's arrival, sleepless and racked with paranoia, Sarah woke me and said, "I wish you'd just get it over with, already." Then she kissed me on the mouth, and we had sex.

One week later, I tried to kill my family for the first time. I made dinner—stuffed a chicken with oranges and lemons, and roasted it in the oven. I sautéed green beans in butter and garlic, Sarah's favorite. For dessert there were brownies, Emma's favorite, vanilla ice cream, Alex's favorite, and hot fudge sauce, everyone's favorite. I stirred cyanide into the hot fudge Together, we enjoyed the dinner I had made. When the time came for dessert, I abstained, explaining that I'd been snacking while preparing the meal and so abstained from dessert. After serving the sundaes, I went to the kitchen to wash dishes because I couldn't watch my family die. I was scrubbing the roasting pan when I heard a commotion from the dining room: the sound of a chair falling to the floor followed by my wife, then my son, and finally my daughter, all retching. I turned on music and continued washing the dishes, hoping the noises would soon end, but they didn't. And then there was a smell. I returned to the dining room to a ghastly site—Sarah was standing doubled over behind Alex's chair, vomiting on the floor. Sarah would later tell me that she wasn't ready to die so, after taking a bite or two of her dessert, she stuck her finger down her own throat, and then the throats of her children. I couldn't tell if either of the children had eaten their desserts, but if they had, they would have undoubtedly purged, with their vomit, any cyanide they'd consumed. This is how my first attempt to kill my family failed.

 

P-C Day 188, 1215 Hours

According to Johnson, if the mileage counter on our truck is accurate, we crossed the border into Oklahoma fifteen minutes ago. I asked Johnson if that was right. "That doesn't seem right," I said. Johnson said, "Of course it's right." I told Johnson that it felt like we should have been in Oklahoma already, that we were behind schedule. Johnson called me a piece of shit and said something about how if I were fit to drive the truck maybe we wouldn't be behind schedule. I told Johnson I didn't see a sign announcing we'd entered Oklahoma. "Course you didn't," Johnson said. "If it didn't burn to the ground or melt in the fires, it's buried under dust and ash." I realized my error before Johnson corrected me, but I let him go ahead anyway. I was clearly getting on his nerves. Out the cabin window, I watched the piles of ash and soot grow with each passing mile, like we were driving into the negative image of a blizzard's aftermath. I suspect it won't be long before we begin to run into cars that were trying to get away—the ones that didn't make it. A few moments later, I asked Johnson if we were almost to the impact site. He told me we weren't. "We just crossed the state's Eastern border," he said. "Hardesty is in the Western part of the state, out in the panhandle." I asked how much longer the trip would take. Johnson started to tell me I was worse than his kids, then caught himself and shut up. So Johnson had kids. This is the first piece of personal information I've learned about my travel companion. I wonder if Johnson ever thinks about what happened to his children after the impact. They are almost certainly dead by now. I wonder what Johnson thinks about leaving them to die. Maybe he was thinking about that as he trailed off, mid-sentence.

After a few more moments of silence, Johnson decided to answer my question, told me we were about six hours from the crater. Then he qualified his prediction: "Give or take an hour or two depending on visibility and road conditions." Johnson started to say something else, but stopped himself again and just said, "Shit," and decelerated the truck to a crawl. I asked what was happening and Johnson pointed out the driver-side window of the cabin toward the highway's eastbound lanes. Through the dusty air I could make out a line of melted, broken cars, covered in soot. I'm not sure I would have even noticed them, they were so dirty, had Johnson not pointed them out. This highway, I-44, would have been a primary escape route for those trying to flee the comet. What a useless exercise. To what would these people have even been escaping? Whatever popular culture thought about the apocalypse was wrong. There is nothing to live for on the other side of a mass extinction event.

 

P-C Day 188, 1300 Hours

When we saw those cars in the eastbound lane, Johnson brought the truck to a complete stop. We stared at the halted line of traffic that had been driving away from the impact site. When I suggested to Johnson that we get moving, he ignored me. I told him I could drive. Johnson said, "That crater's not going anywhere." I told Johnson that the cars weren't going anywhere either. "Just trying to show some respect for the dead," Johnson said. "By looking at them?" I answered. Johnson called me a piece of shit, told me he wouldn't expect me to understand. He made the sign of the cross and put the truck in gear.

 

P-C Day 188, 1340 Hours

Respect for the dead seems like a luxury now. With the dead so drastically outnumbering the living, there isn't enough respect to go around. At present, we are stopped on the side of the road so Johnson can take a piss. He's standing in the middle of the interstate because, why not? In the silence, I think of my family—out of respect for the dead. Of course I respect my family. That is why I killed them. The second attempt was less dramatic, but had further reaching consequences as, afterwards, Sarah immediately knew what I had been trying to do. Two days after my first attempt, I told Sarah about the cyanide in the hot fudge. She said, "I'm not sure I want to hear this." I told her I'd stop trying to kill her if she wanted me to. She said, "No, that's not it. It's just a strange thing for a husband and a wife to talk about." She paused, then continued, "It's not normal." I told her that waiting for a comet to end the world wasn't normal either, then we laughed and had sex, even though Sarah still wasn't entirely recovered from her food poisoning.

That second time I tried to kill my family, I waited until Sarah and the kids were asleep—tucked them in tight, kissed them on their heads, told them I loved them—then I closed the bedroom windows and bunched towels up beneath their doors. I closed the air vents leading to the parts of the house where my family doesn't sleep, and ran a rubber hose from my blue Ford Taurus's tailpipe to the house's air conditioning intake vent. I started the car and, knowing that this process would take several hours, decided to walk to a gas station a mile away. There, I bought a cup of coffee and a pornographic magazine. I wasn't particularly in the mood to look at pornography, but I'd never purchased a pornographic magazine before—in fact, I'd never purchased any magazine before, most print publications, porn excepted, having moved entirely online years ago—and the magazines were just sitting there behind the register as I paid for my coffee, so I bought one. I was walking home, carrying my coffee and a brown bag containing the latest issue of Club International, when I saw a blue Ford Taurus that looked a lot like ours driving away from my house.

At the house, I found that our car was, indeed, gone. I checked the bedrooms. The kids were still asleep, but Sarah was not in our bed. I looked around the house before finding her in the garage pulling the rubber hose out of the air conditioning intake vent. Sarah said, "Carbon monoxide poisoning." I nodded. "You know it doesn't work like it used to," she said. "Not since catalytic converters. It will hurt now. We'll feel everything." I told Sarah I had no idea. She asked where the car went, told me she assumed I was out gassing up in preparation. I told her I'd started the car and went for a walk, that the car had been stolen. My wife said, "Shit." I said, "Shit," too. Then Sarah asked me what was in the bag. I blushed and told her nothing. She was supposed to be dead, after all.

 

P-C Day 188, 1440 Hours

We are stopped at a gas station just west of Tulsa. Johnson went inside to take a shit and look for supplies while I checked the diesel pumps to see if any of them were working and had fuel. We brought enough diesel to get us to Hardesty and back, but it never hurts to grab extra, just in case. This was one of the first gas stations we could see from the highway for a couple hundred miles, and we're close enough to the impact site that it will probably be the last. The stations in less populated areas went up with the fires, but a few, in areas surrounded more by concrete and asphalt than trees and rolling plains, managed to escape total destruction. We're also lucky that Tulsa is just far enough away from the impact site that, while it sustained heavy damage when the comet struck Earth, it is largely intact. If initial estimates of the comet being approximately a mile wide were correct, within a hundred miles of leaving Tulsa we will enter an area of nothingness in which all structures, including the road itself, will have been completely destroyed by the comet's impact.

Before we reached Tulsa, I pointed out a handful of broken, soot-coated cars, facing west on the side of the road. I told Johnson we'd see more of them as we get closer to the impact site, at least until we were inside the primary impact blast radius, at which point there won't be anything to see, period. "What of it?" Johnson asked after I pointed out the second car. I told him these cars were driving toward the impact site. "These were the smart ones," I said. I quickly clarified my statement, pointing out that these drivers, specifically, probably weren't the smartest because they waited too long to drive toward the comet and probably suffered more than they would have had they left earlier, but they had the right idea. "Is that what you told your family—that they had the right idea?" Johnson asked me.

I'm still not used to Johnson's bluntness, his willingness to confront me directly about my family. His continued willingness to broach the subject directly actually endears him to me a bit. In fact, it endears him to me so much that I don't immediately answer his question by asking him what he did for his family. I didn't ask him if he let them die slowly in the aftermath of the comet's collision with Earth, or if he made them take their own lives. Maybe he didn't even think about it. Maybe, on the last morning before he reported to the bunker, Johnson left his house as if going to work on any other day, and that was it. Wanting neither to overtly wound Johnson, nor let him entirely off the hook, I settled on a fair but pointed question—I asked Johnson how he said goodbye to his family. "Why would I tell you anything about my family?" Johnson said. I told him I was curious, was all—that he knew a little about my family, so it seemed only fair for him to tell me a little about his. Johnson said, "Fuck that." He said, "All I know about your family is that you killed them." Neither of us talked for several minutes after that.

I don't know what led to Johnson changing his mind—maybe it was the sight of all the bombed out cars, facing west, maybe he grew weary of the silence, or maybe he'd been secretly aching to talk about his family—but after a few minutes, he started talking. He told me he had a wife, Marsha, and two kids whose names he didn't mention, but that he and his wife separated two years before anyone even knew the comet was coming. He said they probably would have divorced but it didn't seem worth the hassle after they learned about the comet. He said, "Why bother shaming our family in the eyes of God when the end was coming anyway." Once word of Ana's imminent arrival was confirmed and Johnson was recruited to live in the bunker, he gave his wife all of the money he had—"God knows I wouldn't have needed it anymore," he said—and told her to take the kids and leave. "When we heard the comet would land somewhere in Oklahoma, I told Marsha to fly to the exact opposite side of the world from Oklahoma," Johnson said. "That would be in the middle of the Indian Ocean," I tried not to say, but said anyway. Before Johnson had a chance to answer, and in response to my own thoughtlessness, I told Johnson that his family's best destinations, as far as populated land masses went, would have been the Southern tip of Africa, or the Southwestern part of Australia, though, to be honest, The French Southern and Antarctic Lands would have been closer to "the exact opposite side of the world from Oklahoma," but they are untamed territories, largely unpopulated with the exception of military and science installations. As I was explaining this, Johnson cut me off: "You know what I mean," he said.

I asked Johnson if they went. He said he didn't know. He gave them the money and hoped for the best. A few miles down the road, in an attempt to make him feel better, I tried to tell Johnson that, whether they went or not, Marsha and his kids probably didn't make it, that nothing he did could have saved them. "That's why the drivers of these cars," I said, "were the smart ones." Johnson said, "Is that supposed to make me feel better?" I said, "I guess not." Then, "That's not what I meant." Johnson was silent for a moment, then said, "At least I didn't kill my family." This time, though, Johnson's words lacked the conviction of his previous attempts to hurt me. A few minutes later, we were through Tulsa, exiting the highway, and pulling into this gas station.

 

P-C Day 188, 1520 Hours

Forty miles west of Tulsa and we are starting to see more cars that had been driving towards the impact site. Johnson is smoking with his window cracked. He tried to roll it down all the way, but there was too much dust outside. Back at the gas station, Johnson returned to the truck with an armload of cigarette cartons and asked me to help him retrieve more. I told him that I didn't know he was a smoker. He said, "I quit two weeks before the comet hit." He explained that he'd thought about buying a case of those electric cigarettes with the blue tips to take down into the bunker with him, but he knew he'd be surrounded by scientists and doctors. "I didn't want you assholes judging me," he said.

I asked Johnson why he decided to take up the habit again, now, when we were so close to the impact site and the air was heavier with dust and ash than it was in Ohio. Johnson didn't answer my question directly. Instead: "You said something about the Oort Cloud and Nemesis before," he said. "I saw a show about them on Nova a couple of years ago." He said, "More comets will come, won't they?" I told Johnson there was no way anyone could know that for sure. He said, "But if you had to guess." I said, "Yes. I suspect more comets will come." Then Johnson said, "Seems like a good enough reason to take up smoking, again, don't you think?"

Not long after, Johnson stopped the truck. I asked what he was doing. "Look," was all he said. In front of our truck, about a quarter mile up the road, both lanes of the highway were blocked by cars that had been driving toward the impact site. Johnson said, "That seems like another good reason." After a beat, he added, "The smart ones."

 

P-C Day 188, 1725 Hours

We're moving slowly, mostly on the shoulder and median, past the rows of cars that had been trying to get closer to the beginning of the end of the world. For these people, death would have been quick, merciful. Maybe they saw the comet as a line of white heat drawn down towards the Earth, followed by a bright flash, and then they were dead. If only Sarah and the kids could have made it to this spot, things would have been easier. My third attempt to end their lives came the night after our car was stolen. This try was ill-conceived and poorly executed. I was set to report to the bunker in six days, so I opted for simplicity: I covered my wife's face with a pillow while she slept. In retrospect, this attempt was more rooted in desperation than simplicity. The attempt failed spectacularly. Sarah woke up and knocked a water glass and lamp off the bedside table. When I removed the pillow from Sarah's face, she yelled at me, said, "This is the best you could come up with?" She said, "This is how you're going to kill us?" She said, "This isn't peaceful."

Before I could respond, Alex, standing in the doorway, said, "Is Dad trying to kill us?" Followed closely by Emma saying, "Who is trying to kill us?" I panicked and couldn't find words for a response. Sarah said, "Your father isn't trying to kill anyone." So Alex asked, "Then who is trying to kill us?" I told him no one was trying to kill anyone. Then Emma said, "But Mom said." Sarah tried to explain that it was all a joke, that we were just kidding around. Alex said, "That's not very funny." Then: "Why is dad holding that pillow?" I said we were having a pillow fight, then threw the pillow at my children. Sarah, playing along, grabbed the pillow she'd been sleeping on a moment prior and hit me, hard, across my face.

 

P-C Day 188, 1818 Hours

We are close to the impact site. The two ordered lanes of dead cars have given way to chaos: upside down cars, sideways cars, piles of cars, melted cars, smashed cars. The end of the cars wasn't entirely abrupt: the massive piles gave way to a few smaller piles, which gave way to fewer, then fewer still until, finally, there were no cars at all. Now, we are driving into a homogenous gray expanse, the way deserts look in black and white movies. By my estimation, we are approximately 150 miles away from the impact site.

When we drove past the last car and saw the dead, scorched earth in front of us, Johnson said "Shit." Then I said, "Shit." Then I said, "Drive carefully. We will run out of road soon, and bridges and overpasses will all be gone." Johnson asked what we would do if the earth was muddy. I explained that, after months of fires followed by the absence of the sun, the ground would be scorched and frozen.

 

P-C Day 188, 1927 Hours

When we entered the outer-radius of the impact site, an uncanny silence fell over Johnson and I. We weren't exactly talkative before, mind you, but for ten miles or so, the truck's cabin was so still I'd have thought we were both holding our breath. After those ten miles, Johnson asked me what I'd been writing. I told him I was recording the trip for posterity. Johnson asked why bother when nobody would be around to read it. It was odd to hear him sound so defeated. I told Johnson he was probably right, but I didn't have anything better to do, so why not? He asked what kinds of things I'd been writing. I said, "Descriptions of the things we're seeing. Summaries of our conversations. Observations about the atmosphere and the ground. Things that might be useful." Johnson asked, "Do you write about the cars?" I asked him which cars, and he said the cars that, six months ago, would have been driving on the road we are on now, or stopped in traffic jams, watching the mechanism of their own destruction drop out of the sky. I told Johnson I had written about the cars. Then Johnson asked: "Have you written about your family?" I said, "They have nothing to do with this trip." Johnson asked me if I'd written about his family. "We talked about them, earlier," he said. I told Johnson I mentioned them. Then he said, "I wish I knew what happened to them." I said, "No you don't." He said, "I want to know it wasn't bad." I started to say that it was probably bad, but caught myself and instead asked Johnson if his ex-wife was a smart woman. He nodded. I said, "Then I'm sure she did what needed to be done." Johnson said, "Like you." I didn't say anything.

For now, we are stopped for the night. We'd been driving in the dark for over an hour and, while any obstacles that might have once existed here would have been obliterated by the comet, the atmosphere was dusty enough that we couldn't see the ground in front of us, so Johnson decided to stop. "One more day won't kill us," he said. Then he asked, "Mind if I take the sleeper cab?" I told him that was fine. Before he made his way back to the sleeper, Johnson asked me how I killed my family. He fumbled for his words but eventually found them. I told Johnson I didn't want to talk about it. "You should write about it," Johnson said. I told him I wasn't going to write about it, either. I don't know why I lied. Maybe I'll tear out and destroy all those parts of the journal. Maybe I don't really want anyone to know about the way I killed my family. When I started writing about my family here, I told myself I was doing it to set the record straight, but now, I'm not so sure. How history views me is unimportant, and how the other people in our bunker view me is less important. Still, maybe what I'm writing is sacred, just for my family and I. Or more probable, it's just for me.

 

P-C Day 188, 2337 Hours

Once the sun is completely set, I can't see anything without my light-kit. Thanks to so much unsettled dust, the cab's windows look like they are covered with black paper. I tried to sleep for two hours but the silence and total darkness made it difficult to distract myself from the memory of what it felt like to kill my family. To be honest, that isn't something I've spent much time thinking about. I've thought plenty, obsessively even, about the reasons I needed to kill my family, but I've avoided thinking about the act itself. It was two days after my failed attempt to smother Sarah with a pillow. I had only a few days left before I was set to report to the bunker, so I borrowed a gun and suppressor from Jeff, our neighbor two doors down. He was a retired cop, a hunter and collector of weapons. I'd seen his collection once or twice during the course of regular, neighborly visits. It was impressive, but I've never been much interested in firearms, so it was mostly out of politeness that I sat through his proud presentations of the rarest, most lethal pieces in his collection. Jeff was happy to help when I told him I needed a gun. As he walked me back to his display room, he asked me why I needed a weapon. Something about Jeff told me I could be honest with him, and I figured I owed him that much since I'd be doing the abhorrent act with his gun. If he didn't approve, I could figure out something else. When I told him, Jeff said he'd do the same thing if he had a family.

Then he said, "Of course, wouldn't mind taking a shot at the ex-wife even if there wasn't a comet on its way." I didn't laugh. I said, "That's not funny, Jeff." Jeff apologized and showed me how to turn the safety off, how to secure the suppressor, how to load the gun. "This is complicated," I said. "I'll load it before you go," Jeff told me. "Just leave the safety on and don't handle the gun until you're ready to use it." I asked Jeff if the suppressor would work like they do in movies. He said there would be some noise, more than in the movies, but not nearly as much as if I went without. I asked him if the noise could wake someone up. Jeff said, "Close the doors before shooting, and be fast. Put the tip of the silencer here, or here." He pointed to the middle of his forehead then the base of his skull.  

That night, I tucked my children in for sleep and kissed their heads. I kissed Sarah and told her I would be in the garage packing. She told me she loved me. She thanked me. She told me it would be okay. I waited an hour then entered Alex's room, closed the door behind me. He was sleeping on his stomach so I put the gun against the back of his neck, reminded myself of all I was protecting him from, and squeezed the trigger. I was surprised at the ease with which I murdered my son. I did the same for Emma. When I went to Sarah, her bedside lamp was on, and a book was face down on the table. I wondered if she was really sleeping or just pretending so this could finally happen. I kissed Sarah on the forehead—I wonder, still, if she felt that kiss, felt what came next, and then it was done.

 

P-C Day 189, 1907 Hours

Nothing that I knew—neither about fires or earthquakes in the months following the comet's arrival, nor about the slow settling of ash that followed—sufficiently prepared me for the full, white stillness of the impact site. There was enough debris in the air that we had to wear masks and goggles while outside. The dust and ash were so bad, the massive hole in the ground so haunting that, rather than stay the night right next to the crater, after finishing our work, we drove thirty miles back east in the dark.

At the site, Johnson had hung back by the truck alternating between smoking in the cab and preparing the helicopter for flight while I surveyed the ground and gathered soil samples, labeling the distance and depth of each. I'd never seen soil so devoid of life. There were no worms, no pill bugs, nothing. While collecting one sample, I dug deeper than necessary, hoping to find even a single insect. Six inches in, I dropped my trowel and dug with my hands. I pushed dirt out of the way while more tumbled down into the space I'd already cleared. I thought about shooting my family in their beds then walking out of our house forever, leaving the bodies to rot. I dug, and I kept digging. I took off my gloves to dig deeper. I felt the dirt between my fingers. I didn't want to stop digging until I found something alive, even though I knew I wouldn't find anything alive. The truth: I wasn't digging for the living.

I don't know for how long I'd dug before I looked up and saw Johnson standing over me. He asked me why I was digging.

I looked at my arms, covered past my elbows in soil, then I looked down into the hole. I said, "I'm fine."

He looked away. "If you want to go up in the helicopter, we'll need to go before the sun starts to set."

When we got to the helicopter, my journal was sitting in the passenger seat. I said, "I didn't want you to read that." Johnson didn't answer. I started to tell him I was going to tear out the pages about my family, or black them out the way the government used to do in top secret documents, but I didn't even really believe that either of those options were worth the effort. There would be as much point destroying what I'd written as there was to writing it in the first place. After I finished trying to explain myself to Johnson, he asked me why I wrote about my family.

I didn't have an answer. I don't know why I've written any of this. I don't know why I've been living in an underground bunker for six months, or why I spent two days driving halfway across the country with someone I barely know to look at a ruined patch of land, or why Johnson and me flew up in that helicopter and circled around the perimeter of the impact site so I could chart its shape and record the cracks it made in the Earth, or why, as I looked down into the massive hole gashed in our planet's surface, I didn't feel frightened, or sad, or relieved to be alive, or angry, or awestruck but tired, and maybe a little bit bored. I don't know why, after our flight around the crater, Johnson asked me to kill him, and I don't know why I said, "No, Johnson, I won't kill you." And when he asked me why not, I don't know why I said, "Because I can't work the double clutch through the Ozarks," even though I'm sure I could have figured it out, and I'm pretty sure that wasn't really the reason I said no anyway. I don't know why any of us are here, or what any of us are doing, or that any of this work of survival or whatever we're calling it will accomplish anything. I think the only thing any of us know for sure is what we've lost and how little we have left to lose.