Seems like we’re all a little culturally obsessed with impending apocalypse at the moment; a minor flurry of end-of-the-world tales a few years back has grown into an everyman’s meme, with the cinemas full of zombie hordes, desolate wastelands and rugged survivors. That ubiquity has been a bit off-putting, to be honest… I love me a good post-apocalyptic story, but I’ve become a bit bored of them, and didn’t think we’d be publishing one here at Futurismic any time soon.
But Sandra McDonald has managed to prove me wrong, by subverting the cliches and turning the end of the world on its head with some darkly post-modern humour; “Tupac Shakur and the End of the World” is a post-apocalypse yarn for people who are bored of post-apocalypse yarns. Enjoy!
Tupac Shakur and the End of the World
by Sandra McDonald
The worst part – well, one of the worst parts, disregarding the collapse of modern civilization – is that it was my own stupid choice to leave Florida in the first place, and here I am spending my last days trying to get back there. I don’t have the Creep yet but let’s not pretend I’m special or mysteriously immune. I’m not the plucky heroine of a summer blockbuster who will find true love (shaggy-haired Brendan Fraser would be nice, or Daniel Craig with his icy blue eyes) and then become matriarch of a community of ragtag survivors. I’m just me – Susan Donoghue, thirty-one, former textbook writer, currently hiking down I-95 in North Carolina armed with a .45 handgun, pepper spray, and a hunting knife. I won’t let anyone touch me.
Let’s not pretend, either, that I’m on anything but a fool’s errand. My sister Marie, her husband Mike, and my baby niece Monica are probably already dead. The best I’ll be able to do is bury them. Take their hardened, Creepified bodies and put them in the dirt, then drop down beside them.
With me on this southbound hike are Lazy Lamar, Crazy Chris, Tipsy Tina and Jumping Jack. The alliterative nicknames were Tina’s idea – some trick she used to do as an icebreaker when she used to teach equal opportunity seminars in Baltimore. The only one I really trust is Jumping Jack. He and I left Brooklyn eighteen days ago. He’s a lot like Brendan Fraser, except gay. He wants to die in Miami.
“Only eight hundred and thirty miles to South Beach,” he says as we pass signs for Rocky Mount. He’s got a map and a handheld GPS that only works sporadically. The weather is overcast and cold this October day, maybe fifty degrees. I really hope it doesn’t snow.
“How many to Savannah?” asks Lazy Lamar, who may be too lazy to do math but who does a lot of other hard work for our hardy group.
“Three hundred and fifty three,” Jack replies patiently.
Crazy Chris spits out some chewing tobacco. “I’m only going as far as Charleston.”
Ask me what I dislike most about Chris and I’d won’t have to think hard. The chaw is pretty high on the list, and the fact he stares at me when he thinks I’m sleeping, and when he pisses by the side of the road he likes to hold himself a lot longer than I think is necessary. He won’t say what his pre-apocalypse job was, though I have some guesses that may or may not include prison yards. On the plus side, he has a good sense of survival and no compunctions about rummaging through the stalled or crashed cars we pass on the highway.
Some traffic passes – a tow truck, a green Nissan, a Honda with its rear end crushed in – but no one stops for us. If you think interstates are boring at seventy miles an hour, try walking them mile after mile and discover the true meaning of tedium. Occasionally Jack and Lamar play word games, or Chris will tell bawdy jokes, or Tina will sneak a gulp of whiskey from her hip flask. She says she is going to Orlando to find her grandparents but she doesn’t actually know their address. I think she joined us only because she felt grateful to have people to talk to and a goal to pursue. Lamar is sweet on her. He always makes sure she eats and drinks before he does, and they lay side by side each night, close enough to whisper but not accidentally touch each other.
“Smoke,” Lamar says, gazing past a billboard toward the west.
I have a portable radio and extra batteries but it’s too depressing to listen to what’s left of local newscasts. It doesn’t matter, anymore, what burns or blows up or falls into the sea. What matters is finding a cure to the Creep. Which isn’t going to happen, unless somewhere there’s a top secret laboratory of doctors and scientists toiling away on generator power and Red Bull, bullied and motivated by an idiosyncratic scientist a lot like Ed Harris.
The smoke thickens and billows into the sky, reeking of burning plastic and overheated metal. We keep walking. We’re not the only pedestrians along the highway but singles and groups all give each other wide berth. At the next exit we overtake a Ford Taurus station wagon with the engine off, the windows rolled up, and an elderly Spanish woman in the driver’s seat. Chris sees plastic grocery sacks in the back seat and smashes in the windows. The car smells like urine and excrement but not the sour tang of death.
“Pineapple, beans, more pineapple.” Chris divvies up the canned goods, ignores the rest. Passes them to us carefully, doesn’t toss. He moves the driver outside – her joints don’t flex, which makes it difficult – and tries the ignition and gas. The tank has run dry.
“So we keep walking,” Jack says, ever the optimist. He rummages through the back and finds two flashlights. We always need flashlights.
Tina opens the glove compartment and pulls out the registration. “Lucita Gonzalez,” she says softly. “Thank you, Lucita.”
After the others trudge away, Chris takes Lucita’s hat from her tiny wrinkled head and holds it over her mouth and nose for a few minutes. She doesn’t buck or jerk or protest in any way. She can’t. When he’s sure she’s out of her misery, he pulls the gold cross from her neck and gives it to me. I jam it into my pocket. Later it will join a collection of other trinkets in my backpack. When we get to Jacksonville I’m going build a little monument next to the grave I dig for Marie and Mike and baby Monica. A memorial, or at least the only memorial I can provide, to all the victims of this plague.
It’s not stealing from the dead, technically. We’re all dead. Some of us just haven’t stopped moving yet. Get it? Moving? The Creep? Post-apocalyptic humor is very sardonic.
I said I wrote textbooks. Not exactly. Mostly I wrote junior-high-level biographies of famous people for a school publisher called Revere House. Maybe you read my insightful volumes about Angela Merkel or Pope Benedict. My last book was about the warrior-poet-mogul Tupac Shakur, tragically killed at the age of twenty-five. I learned a lot about hip hop and rap while writing that book.
One of the hardest projects I ever took on was co-writing a medical textbook. The primary author was by a doctor in Hawaii whose writing skills had been eroded by too many years baking on the beach. In a chapter about genetic disorders he wrote about FOD, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, which is when your body starts to respond to scrapes and bruises in a seriously bad way. Muscles, tendons and other things that hold you together start turning to bone. You get ossified. The process takes years, though. FOD starts at the top of your head and works down toward your feet: it’s the same way a fetus grows bones.
Mix FOD with the characteristics of a fast-moving virus and you’d get something like the Creep. At the beginning of the plague it took about a week from the triggering injury until a body locked up in stony paralysis. The condition spread like wildfire from wherever the initial scrape, bruise or bump occurred. Now the Creep only takes a day or two to freeze you up. If the Creep is a virus, though, it’s a bug that debuted simultaneously around the globe during the second week of March and can’t be identified in water supplies, in sealed air samples, in corpses. Astronauts on the space station got it. They’re still up there, orbiting, long dead. Military men on nuclear submarines got it, even the ones who deployed months ago. Those subs are now just floating tombs, adrift and unseen beneath the dark seas.
Jumping Jack brought along a paperback copy of Stephen King’s “The Stand” when we left Brooklyn. He says that at least with the Creep, you don’t get the snot and phlegm of King’s fictional superflu. After that he read “Lucifer’s Hammer,” about a giant comet or asteroid hitting the earth. The upside of the Creep is that it doesn’t obliterate large land masses. In a bookstore outside D.C. he picked up Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” but it was a big disappointment, disaster-wise, because McCarthy wimped out and doesn’t identify whatever cataclysm ruined the world. After a long conversation, Jack and Chris agree that their favorite disaster movie is that Dennis Quaid one about the sudden freezing of the globe. I think I have a copy somewhere in one of the unpacked moving boxes in my closet back in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn. Right. I forgot to say that writing books about German prime ministers and tragically murdered hip hop stars can be done from just about anywhere. I’d only wound up in Florida because I had finished my master’s degree at Cornell, wanted to live somewhere warm for a change, and Marie had a spare bedroom while she finished her internship at Riverside Hospital in Jacksonville. Our parents had moved from Ohio to Oregon; I think of them now as stone statues in Mom’s rose garden, holding each other’s hands. A few months after I moved in with Marie, she met Mike. Several months later they married. Then Mike’s sperm got frisky with one of her eggs (to be truthful, the friskiness occurred before the wedding, but Mom and Dad don’t know that) and I was going to be an aunt and anywhere in the Northeast started to look like a good option.
I can’t say that I picked New York City because of Tupac, but I did think it would be helpful to visit some of the places where he and his mother lived when he was a kid: Greenwich Village and the East Bronx. Got to one, not the other. Time ran out, the book was due, the usual excuses. Sorry, Pac.
Anyway, Jack carries around his post-apocalyptic novels and is on constant look out for rape gangs, drunken marauders, escaped lunatics, and other dangers at the end of the world. To be truthful, most people are already dead or are hunkered down somewhere, trying their best not to get scraped, bruised or bumped. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading survival guides. “The Worse Case Survival Handbook,” while dryly amusing, has not proven to be helpful yet. We haven’t had to jump onto moving vehicles or escape from unexpected patches of quicksand. “The SAS Survival Guide,” pocket version, has a section on knots and I practice them in my mind at night when I can’t sleep: triple bowline, bowline-on-the-bight, manharness hitch. Some day we might need to pitch a tent and everyone will be impressed with my handy skills.
There are sections in both books about moving the injured, but not about burying the dead. Marie and I are the same height. Mike’s maybe four inches taller. Baby Monica is almost a year old, but I don’t know her height or weight. Marie and I didn’t talk much after I moved, and not at all since Christmas. I had a new life to lead; she had a new life to birth, and feed and burp and love, and she had Mike.
Ten miles outside of Selma, North Carolina, Tipsy Tina trips and goes down hard on one knee. Maybe it’s the whiskey. Maybe just a pothole, or a twisted piece of tire rubber, or something thrown in her path by the fickle finger of fate. Lazy Lamar tells her it’ll be fine. By dinner, though, there’s an angry red knot on her kneecap. By morning her foot, knee and hip are locked into place. Tina’s crying when she asks us to shoot her.
“We’re not shooting anyone,” Lamar replies, but that’s the deal we all made in an abandoned Starbucks in Baltimore: no questions asked, no false hope, just a bullet between the eyes once paralysis kicks in.
Jack and Chris are standing nearby awkwardly, hands in their pockets, while Lamar and Tina talk in low whispers. I’m already a dozen feet away. Distant. Distanced. I’m thinking of Tupac, blissfully ignorant of his impending death. He was sitting in a car in Las Vegas when someone pulled up and fired a dozen bullets through the window. The cops never caught his killer. You could say that Tina at least has the comfort of knowing her killer, if that’s really a comfort. Whoever pulls the trigger, the real villain is her own body gone haywire. Mutating beyond control because of a virus, or a some secret weapon from space aliens, or Mother Nature finally giving up on the human race.
Lamar and Tina kiss. Then he asks Chris to do the dirty deed.
Chris’s gun hand doesn’t waver.
It starts to rain. Lamar has a portable shovel he’s been carrying since New Jersey and we dig Tina a shallow grave. Her short dark hair is a mess as she goes into the muddy ground. I comb it out before the dirt gets filled back in. Afterward, in true apocalyptic fashion, we divvy up the contents of her backpack. At the bottom, wrapped in a blue dishtowel, is a wedding photo. Tina and her husband. He looks a little like my brother-in-law, Mike. I peel the picture out of the frame and add it to my souvenir collection.
“How do you feel?” Jack asks me later, and that’s a crazy question. Who feels anything these days?
Besides, he knows I probably won’t answer. Since Brooklyn, I haven’t had the urge to speak much. My nickname is Silent Susan.
Jumping Jack is one of the first people I met when I moved north. His apartment was downstairs from mine. He was our building’s Welcome Wagon, always ready to share advice on the best pizza places, where to go for fresh produce, how to get the most out of our cranky old thermostats. Winter was one of Marie’s arguments before I left.
“You’ll hate the cold,” she predicted.
“I lived in Ithaca,” I told her. New York’s Finger Lakes region in winter is not exactly balmy.
“It’s different when you get old.”
For my thirty-first birthday, Jack took me to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The crowd sang and danced but I felt curiously listless, even during the toilet paper scene. Later Jack told me I needed a boyfriend. If I wanted a boyfriend, I replied, I could have stayed in Jacksonville.
Well, to be fair, nothing happened between Mike and me after Marie got pregnant.
And it wasn’t as if they were dating exclusively before that. Marie was busy all the time with her internship. I was home all the time, working on Angela Merkel. One night Mike came over for Scrabble night, Marie got stuck working late, and Mike kissed me after I landed seven letters on a triple word score.
A week ago, in a minivan back in Virginia (three kids in the back seat, all of them very dead), Crazy Chris found a travel Scrabble set. Tina was a good player but got so drunk she passed out over her tiles. Lamar tried his best, but he can’t spell. Jack gave up halfway through so he could crawl into his sleeping bag with Stephen King. I won, but against an alcoholic and a dyslexic, it was sort of an empty triumph. A lot of post-apocalyptic victories are.
As everyone knows, one of the best things about disaster movies is watching the various characters meet their tragic fates. Tornadoes suck office workers out of buildings in Dennis Quaid’s movie. Jack and I laughed at that one night on HBO. A ferry of frightened evacuees tips over in Tom Cruise’s movie, and that was a lot of fun, too. Will Smith’s New York movie was mostly dull but the other one, where he and Jeff Goldblum save humanity by uploading a computer virus to the alien spaceship? There’s a great scene where all of these people are gathered on the top of a building and the aliens blow it up. Awesome special effects.
If there’s a hip-hop movie being filmed in the afterlife I can easily see Tupac leading the heroic survivors after an alien invasion or volcano eruption or whatever, and the Notorious B.I.G. will be there too, and the soundtrack would be something I’d never listen to, but which will make a lot of money if, you know, they have a post-existence iTunes store.
Watching a disaster movie is, unfortunately, much better than living one. After Tina’s fall we are all very careful not to become the next expendable character. We don’t touch anything unless it’s absolutely necessary. We walk slower. We never run. North Carolina goes on forever and forever and I realize this is my purgatory; walking back to a place I should never have left. But finally we find an abandoned black Ford Escape by the side of the road, the keys still dangling from the ignition. Crazy Chris drives.
It’s soothing, being in a car after so many days on foot. The leather seats smell new and there’s plenty of room for all four of us. The iPod attached to the radio contains a great collection of country music, which I have to admit I grew to like down in Florida. I’m dozing to the sounds of Kenny Chesney when Chris says, “Roadblock.”
As far as roadblocks go, it’s not much – a few parked patrol cars, some sand barrels, and a bunch of traffic cones stretching across the southbound lanes. There’s only one state trooper on duty. He’s sitting on the ground with his back against a barrel and a rifle in his lap. From a distance he looks like Robert Downey Jr. in his younger years. From the unnatural way he’s sitting, I’m sure he has the Creep.
“You can run right over those cones,” Lamar says from the back seat.
“I wouldn’t,” Jack says. “They might be full of grenades or spikes.”
I don’t know what crazy book he’s been reading lately that he thinks someone would stuff grenades in traffic cones, but Chris stops the SUV.
“Be careful,” he says. “Susan and Lamar, you move the cones. Jack, come with me.”
The cones are not booby-trapped, and I’m glad. As Lamar and I move them, I hear part of the conversation with Trooper Robert Downey.
. . . orders from the governor,” the trooper insists.
“The governor’s probably dead,” Jack says, with some compassion. “You’ve got to know that.”
“…no . . . evacuated,” the trooper forces out. It’s pretty obvious he can’t lift his arms or hands. “Government lab. Stone Mountain.”
Stone Mountain sounds familiar to me, though I’m not sure why.
“He’s delirious.” Chris spits out some tobacco, gets to his feet. “Sorry, buddy.”
The trooper gasps out, “Stop,”
“Maybe we should — ” Jack says, then shrugs. “You know. Help him.”
Help him by killing him now. I bend down next to the trooper. He can’t move anything but his eyes. I make the mistake of looking at them, blue-green and small. They look tired after so many endless hours focused on the empty road. There’s a gold badge on his left chest and I slowly unpin it from his sweaty shirt to add to my souvenirs.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him.
His eyes narrow. His right hand twitches.
The rifle discharges. In the split second it takes to strike its target, I’m thankful that the barrel isn’t aimed at any of us. But the bullet hits one of the roadblock cars in a way that isn’t accidental or bad luck – the trooper planned this, following orders to the end and his rifle is strategically aimed at a car full of jugs of gasoline.
The blast wave from the fiery explosion throws us all to the ground. Metal and glass shrapnel drive into flesh, asphalt, the SUV. Thick black smoke curls out of dark red flames. A friend of mine who worked at the Kennedy Space Center said that once, while she was pregnant, she was in her building when the space shuttle launched: the enormous sound wave made her unborn daughter start kicking and flailing. That’s what I feel like now – that the sound is reverberating through all my muscle and bones, that I’m twisting helplessly in a dark prison, even though I can still feel the sun on my face.
And that’s it. No judicious or well-paced killing off of minor characters until only the principals remain for the final climax. End of my story.
Except it’s not.
When I come back to my senses, Chris is dead. Lamar’s not dead, but he’s got a broken right arm and that’s not going to end well. I’ve got cuts, scrapes and bruises on the back of my head, my right hip, the back of my left ankle. Of us all, Jumping Jack is the only one who isn’t hurt. He’s ashen and shell-shocked, but not hurt.
“I don’t want to die,” Lamar says, breathing shallow, eyes wide with panic.
“You’re not going to die,” Jack says. Empty promise. False hope. I turn over on the debris-strew asphalt, try to wrestle the rifle from the deputy.
“Susan, no!” Jack snatches the rifle away. “Stone Mountain. He said there’s a lab.”
I sag to the ground, head pillowed on my arms. I’m trying not to choke on the smoke or grief. We are three hundred miles from Jacksonville. Chris is splayed on the pavement, blood underneath him, hands and face relaxed. One side of his head is charred and there’s a piece of torn steel embedded in the back of his neck. The trooper’s eyes are open, but he’s not moving either.
“How far to Stone Mountain?” Lamar asks.
Jack fetches his GPS, fiddles with it. Slaps the side of it, squints. “It’s outside Atlanta. Two hundred and eighty.”
“No,” I croak out. “Jacksonville.”
They overrule me.
To hell with them both. I grab my backpack (it’s too early to feel the ossification, but my body does seem slower already, beginning to mutate) and limp past the burning barricade. Half a mile down the road there’s another blockade, and this one’s no joke: rows of National Guard tanks, all of them empty in the bright sun, and behind the tanks are hundreds if not thousands of cars in both lanes that had tried to flee from points south. Locked inside are stone bodies baking in the sun. Moms and dads and kids and little babies in carseats, some more dead than others.
Jack and Lamar are waiting for me when I return.
“Atlanta,” Jack says, and helps me into the still-serviceable SUV. “You can hold out.”
I wipe my face dry and fasten my seatbelt.
Interstate 20 leads from Florence to Atlanta on a straight shot west. It’s more crowded than 95 was, however – abandoned cars, car accidents, tow trucks left standing with the driver’s doors still open. Bodies in driver’s seats, bodies on the road. Statues. There are dogs, too – hungry panting mutts, domestic animals going wild. Back in North Carolina, Chris and Lamar had taken turns scaring them off with the guns. Now Jack focuses on the driving, and we keep the windows rolled up. It’s not a fast trip.
Dark comes on. Curled up in the driver’s seat, I flex my legs and arms, try to stay limber. Surely I can stave off the symptoms through exercise. But near midnight I realize I can’t turn my head anymore, and I think I cry out.
Jack’s hand fumbles for mine. “It’s okay,” he says. “We’re getting closer.”
“Shoot me,” I beg. “Jack, please.”
His face is grim. “No.”
Lamar, in the back seat, falls silent.
Jack stops to siphon gas; later he stops to sleep a little, because he’s nodding off with fatigue. I stare out the windshield at the stars. Dawn comes with perfect pink skies and the world is silent except for our breathing and the occasional yelp of dogs. My right arm is frozen at the elbow, my left leg numb and immobile. Lamar has frozen into place in the back seat, able to flex only his knees and elbows a little.
“Kill me,” I tell Jack when he wakes. “You promised.”
“No. Listen. Do you hear that?”
It’s a single-engine plane. The first plane I’ve heard in two weeks. Jack leaps outside and tries to flag it down. He’s probably thinking like I am – plane, radio, lab, doctors. Ed Harris. The antidote.
The plane flies by us, no circling or dipping of its wings.
“I’m sure he saw us,” Jack says. He’s scruffy and bloodshot, clothes all wrinkled, but his chin is high. Hope has built him up. “We’re on the right path.”
He starts driving. Lamar is silent now. My own paralysis is exhausting me. Elbows and knees and ankles, rapidly growing useless. Neck and shoulders won’t move. My fingers flex, but just barely.
“Jack,” I beg, the word unclear. So this is what it’s like to feel again: the hot red sting of humiliation, the bottomless dropping sensation of helplessness and despair. I have never wanted anything more in my life than to die.
“We’re almost there,” he says.
And then, miraculously, we really are there. Stone Mountain, Georgia. The town is named after the giant hunk of granite that rises out of the countryside like a secret fortress. My vision is slowly going, but I can see traffic signs for a state park, a skylift, a visitor’s center. Some residents or local tourists are sitting outside, frozen into place on benches or blankets. Others lay in unmoving heaps on the stairs of a church. One elderly woman in a gray skirt and white pearls is leaning, like an askew statue, against a bus stop.
The town is quiet as Jack rolls down the windows and idles the engine.
“Nothing here,” I mumble. Lifting my tongue is hard. The tissue underneath is turning to bone, calcifying to my jaw.
“He said so,” Jack whispers “There has to be.”
He honks the horn several times in an SOS pattern. He steps out into the road and shouts for help. I want to close my eyes, but my lids won’t move anymore. On my side of the SUV is another sign for a tourist attraction and I blink at it several times. I’m sure I’m hallucinating. When Jack comes back, I try to get him to look at it. He mistakes my agitation for worry about the mysterious lab and miraculous cure.
“We’ll find someone, I promise,” he says.
“Tupac,” I say, and that’s pretty much the last word I ever speak.
Jack sees the sign. After a long moment with his hands clenched to the wheel, he starts driving again.
And now I’m here with you, Pac. I wrote about it but didn’t remember the name. The Tupac Shakur Foundation headquarters in Stone Mountain, replete with an arts center and a peace garden. It’s pretty far from where you died and not at all where I wanted to end up, but here in post-apocalypse world we take what we can get. Jack has put me here in the shade by your bronze statue. He’s sitting right beside me, crying.
Here’s the truth: I don’t like hip hop. Never did. I don’t even like you. The Malcolm X stuff, the partying and guns, the charges of sexual assault – there’s not a lot we have in common. But your book paid the rent for a few months in Brooklyn. I sent a copy of it to Marie for Christmas, just as a joke, since she hates your music. She sent it back. Inside the cover she wrote, “I don’t want this in the same house as my daughter,” and I got so mad I didn’t call her until the Creep started. The phone rang and rang, but no one answered.
Life is short, Pac. I should have known that. Should have learned that from you.
“Susan,” Jumping Jack says now, his voice soft. His eyes are still watery but his face is calm as he raises the pistol. “I guess I have to do this now.”
Just then, a white government van whips into the driveway and stops with a squeal of brakes. Men in hazmat suits jump out. Rescuers! Their leader looks just like Ed Harris. He is talking quickly, words that I barely catch – you got her here just in time, we’ll help you, we have a cure – and then I’m in a military infirmary, voices and blurred images swirling around me, the heart monitor beeping like a hip-hop song, and then one of the white-garbed doctors turns out to be Marie, with Mike and happy baby Monica at her side, and we laugh and laugh at our good fortune while mourning the rest of the world, and then Jack fires his gun, and the screen goes dark.
Sandra McDonald is the author of three novels, several short stories, and the upcoming collection Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories. Her previous short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and many other magazines and anthologies. By day she teaches college composition in Florida, and she hates semi-colons.