Excerpt from Untitled by Shya Scanlon


Day 1

The end was nigh, and I was getting bored. My brother had left, my wife had left, and Fred, the only neighbor left on the block, was packing. Even those who remained were tired of waiting. Soon, the few stores would close. The pharmacy. The grocery. Everything under a buck. What then?
     My mother clipped a bright orange flower from the new bloom in the back yard, and her long white hair fell loose around her shoulders, coating them with snow. It was hot. I held the clippers while she rearranged her bouquet and nodded, turning it slowly in her hands. A crow passed slowly overhead, a hole in the sky.
     “Zinnias are from Mexico,” said my mother, and then, “Keep an eye out for Zane, would you? He’s delivering some marijuana today.”
     I took the bouquet inside, threw out yesterday’s, and placed it in the center of the table. The emergency radio crackled like a dog eating bones, then fell silent. The whole house was silent. I stood in silence above the bouquet and stared out the window.
     Across the street, Fred was lifting a large metal sculpture into the back of his van. It looked like he had it, but at the last moment his grip failed and the complicated, fragile thing fell crashing to the street. He cursed loudly, and as though drawn to the noise, I joined him outside. Fred had never been a very good neighbor, but with everyone else gone our bond had deepened. Since the evacuation, his once intimidating body had grown bent with worry and, suddenly, with age. He leaned it against his van, and rubbed its lower back with a frown.
     “Damn thing,” he said.
     “What’s the story?”
     “It was given to me by a Korean Czar for a job I did in Alaska.”
     Now in pieces, the sculpture had been of a chicken with fire shooting out of its mouth. I turned over one of the small flames with my foot. It made the muffled clink of pocket change.
     “Why a chicken?”
     Fred quickly gathered the pieces and hoisted them into the van, his back audibly popping, his face tight.
     “Dragon,” he said.
     He closed the van door, then held out a massive, lumpy hand. “Well, I guess this is it. Give your mother my best.”
     We were both sweating, and in the three seconds our hands were clasped a slimy glaze slicked my palm.
     “I’ll tell her,” I said.
     Fred looked back at his house. He’d kept his property groomed, a polite rebuttal to the slow collapse around it. And as silly as it seemed to me in the abstract, his house had always been a comfort, something I looked forward to seeing each day.
     He walked up the short, trimmed path to his steps, up his steps to the porch, and locked his front door. He tried the handle and, satisfied, put the key back in his pocket and returned to the van, which he started, stopped, leaned out the window.
     “And please,” he said, “tell your mother to keep that gas tank secret. No telling who’d do what for it.”
     I watched him drive down the block, giving the abandoned cars and fallen branches a wide berth. He paused at the end of the street with his blinker on, then, with a small wave of his hand, he was gone.
     Out of respect, I decided to give it twenty-four hours before breaking in to see what I could find.
     Since my brother had taken his family east, my mother’s house had fallen into semi-disrepair. I did what I could to keep the trees back and maintain the drainage around the foundation like he’d shown me, but I wasn’t quite up to the task, and my mother made it easy to neglect the place.
     “It’ll outlive me,” she’d say with a shrug.
     A siren sounded from somewhere toward the water, releasing three long true wails before twisting into something more like a wounded cat.
     During the evacuation, Fred had stood watch over his home tirelessly, and by virtue of occupying his own porch had served as a kind of sentinel for the block. We were frequently woken up in the night by the sound of his warning shots, but after the first week or two these had become soothing rather than frightening, a sign of safety, of order.
     The looting had finally ceased to be much of an issue, but I couldn’t help feeling vaguely exposed.
     I went back inside.
     “Zane? Zane is that you?”
     “No, mom, it’s me,” I called through the house. “Mom?”
     I found my mother sitting on the back porch, in the sun, her eyes closed.
     “It’s me,” I said again. “Fred’s gone. He says goodbye.”
     “Goodbye Fred.”
     “He says to keep that gasoline safe.”
     She squinted up at me.
     “Tell him that if he has any other opinions about the gasoline he can tell me personally.”
     “I’m going to get his television. What do you think?”
     We’d gotten rid of our TV over a year ago to distance ourselves from the goings on of people whose actions, to quote my mother, “no longer concerned us.” I didn’t care. I’d never been a news watcher. So I was surprised that this had been my first response to Fred’s announcement, a week before, that he’d be leaving. It had been my first thought.
     “I think it’s a beautiful day,” my mother said, and closed her eyes.
     Cheated out of her retirement home in Arizona, it simply couldn’t get too hot for my mother. I watched a fat, dizzy bee meander musically across the deck and rise, willfully upward, making for an apple blossom.
     “I’m going to try and get some writing done,” I said.
     I had not been writing.
     The book I was working on when Seattle evacuated had been pure fantasia, a baroque love affair with sound and rhythm and scene. But compared to the surrealism around me, it had begun to seem indulgent and beside the point. I climbed the stairs to my writing room and looked out over lower Ballard, Freemont and the north side of Queen Anne hill. What followed had been a period of simply writing down things I saw, with no real coherent structure, let alone plot. I’d recorded the big events: the massive exodus, the rise of homesteaders.
     I’d then begun to record the weather.
     The Space Needle, long since decommissioned, hovered pointlessly in the distance. Closer, gulls circled over the Freemont canal. I liked this view in part because in it the city remained largely unchanged, pre-apocalyptic. If anything, more serene.
     I opened my notebook and wrote, Hot again. I scanned the last few pages: all Hot. I found a Hot with showers three weeks back. The journal was a triumph. Still, the ritual was something I found comfort in, the being alone, pen in hand. The designated space of it. The view. There was some construction going on a few blocks away—an incongruous level of activity amid the largely pacific streets—and I again made a commitment to visit the site, as I had made a commitment to visit it days ago when it had begun.
     I heard a knock at the front door, then Zane called through the house, having let himself in.
     “Ma’am?” he said, always polite. “Mrs. Rose?”
     “Hey Zane,” I called down the stairs, “just leave it on the couch, okay? The tomatoes are by the door.”
     I held my breath to better hear him pad around. He went as far as the dining room looking for my mother, but turned back and paused at the couch, then again at the door, where he grunted softly while lifting the box. My mother had been trading vegetables for pot since the winter, when a crop of rutabagas had surprised us in early January. Before my brother had moved, she’d kept her drug use more or less hidden for the sake of Olivia, her granddaughter, but she’d since grown bolder.
     Zane’s head appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
     “How’s your mom?”
     Covered with tattoos, his face was nonetheless an honest one, with big blue eyes he put to work mostly, from what I’d seen, in the service of kindness and concern.
     “She’s fine,” I said. “She’s a trooper.”
     “Good,” he said, and smiled. “How’s the book coming?”
     I shrugged. “I need a plot.”
     “My boss says plots are for gravestones.”
     “He does, does he? I’ll keep that in mind.”
     “He says art is born of the individual’s unique response to his own existence.”
     “This is some boss you have.”
     Zane nodded, kind and concerned.
     When he left I returned to my desk and watched the construction for a while. Scaffolding had been erected around the house, and men were all over it doing something I couldn’t quite make out. Presently a whistle blew, and they descended below the green canopy. I stared at my mostly blank page.
     Long before leaving, Penelope had been worried this might happen. To her, my blank pages signified something more than the absence of writing; they signified my mood, my moping and irritability, my level of contribution, finally, to the relationship. I’d come upstairs on several occasions to find her standing at my desk, flipping sadly through my journal, gathering evidence. I hadn’t given her children—the least I could do was give her another book.
     Of course, she was coming back within the month—at least, she’d said so a year ago. She was coming back to check in, to take me with her. She was coming back to sign divorce papers. Coming to see what comes next. And when she did, I wanted to have something to show her.
     But nothing came.
     My mother was shuffling through the house, and I could hear her clear the coffee table. By the time I got down there she had the bag of weed at her feet, and the cigarette machine before her. She was struggling to get a paper in position—something increasingly difficult for her arthritic, gardener’s hands. I sat beside her, marked her stubborn concentration.
     “How are you feeling today, mom?”
     “I’ve been thinking about blood.”
     “Not because you saw any, I hope.”
     “Your father used to cut himself on the job. He’d come home at least once a month with some nasty gash, and I’d offer to dress it but he’d shrug me off and say, ‘Don’t worry about it, Rosie, I clot fast.’ He had a high platelet count. He was so damn proud of his clotting. He smoked too much, he drank too much, but he always said he’d die of natural causes.”
     I put my hand into a pocket of airborne dust frozen by sunlight.
     “Anyway, dear, how are you?”
     “Mom.”
     She got the paper right, turned to me. “What?”
     She always did this.
     “Nothing. I think I’m going to go take a look at that construction down on… it must be 59th or 58th street.”
     “I think that’s a great idea. There are always plenty of ways to get involved in your community.”
     “Well, right. I just want to know what they’re doing. It’s hard see what’s happening from my room.”
     She laughed. “I’ll let that statement go without comment.”
     She turned back to her machine, rolled the paper up to the gum line, and brought it to her face. She scrunched her mouth around to summon saliva, then licked.
     When she reached down for more pot I noticed a folded piece of paper, a letter, it looked to me. I picked it up and opened it. The text was strangely askew. It looked like a fax, or even the result of an ancient, hand cranked copy machine. Dry splotches of smeared ink interrupted and obscured some of the words, but it was largely legible. It was addressed to something called “The Guild of St. Cooper” and bore the title “On Marbles.”
     “What’s this?” I asked.
     My mother glanced at it quickly, but didn’t seem interested. “Zane must have dropped it.”
     A brief scan revealed that it was written in an odd, slightly archaic register, and that it described some children playing marbles, or rather, playing with marbles, just sending them careening into one another.
     Taking a break to rub her crooked hands, my mother glanced at me and, seeing my vaguely transported expression, asked whom the letter was from.
     I looked at the bottom of the page. “It just says The Editor.”
     The radio crackled again, and we looked at it expectantly.
     One day—no one could say exactly when—that radio would roar to life and announce the collapse of the Ross Ice Shelf, an event that would cause irreparable damage to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, trigger a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean, and raise sea levels as much as fifteen feet. The radio would then fall silent forever, having served its purpose, and Seattle would cease to exist.
     My mother brought another joint to her lips, stuck out her tongue. Everyone wanted to die of natural causes, of course. Some were just more impatient than others.

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Shya Scanlon’s first published book was a handbound edition of his novel Forecast, created by Drew Burk. shyascanlon.com