When the power goes out, whole cities die. Your rebreather stops pulling oxygen and if it zeroes before you can charge it: suffocation. Heave into your lungs the useless air. Deep breath, nothing. And another and another. Aunt Beth died that way when Rochester went out. That was the fifteenth biggest one in the States—Rochester. Three years after the atmosphere turned sour. No real protocol for accidents yet. So a snowplow knocked into a transformer and killed twelve hundred people. C’est la mort!
I don’t remember any different than this. My mom did. She had cats and dogs and birds, rabbits, gerbils. Little animals that lived with her, slept with her, and she’d feed them, and they’d follow her and meow and bark and sing. Now I sleep with my rebreather. I go for walks with my rebreather. If I want to eat solid food or make out with somebody, I hold my breath. People die that way, too. Old people, usually. Drunk, usually. They forget.
On the news they say we’re the only animals left. Except last week I heard my husband’s coworker say there’s a pig in Omaha, in a sterile room they pump oxygen and dinitrogen into, no nitrifying microbes to turn it fast into nitrate. I haven’t stopped thinking about it, the pig. At night I stare at the ceiling and picture it. I want to see that pig more than anything. I’d die to see the pig. I’d kill to see the pig. As long as I get to see that pig, when the power goes out in Syracuse, I won’t care.
So I’m doing it. I’m here now, on the road, my three-year-old conked out on sleeping pills in the back seat and my husband’s credit card in my pocket. Giant corn country, now. Everywhere giant corn, sixty feet tall, cobs as big as me.
We pull over at a rest stop in Illinois, town called Mt. Vernon, because the kid’s rebreather is beeping long and low. The clouds look threatening, moving in dark purple coils in the sky, sparks between them. I park the car under a solar panel in case it hails. Between low rumbles there’s the comforting whir of back-up generators from somewhere out of sight. The power won’t go out unless lightning strikes them all. I unbuckle my seatbelt and peel open the side door of the van. Sammy’s heavy now. I toss her over my shoulder and head into the Paul Bunyan service center. A big blue cow statue stands watch in front of double glass doors, smiling with chipped teeth at the dark sky. Other families hurry between the cow’s legs, into the building.
We get inside just before the rain starts falling, those sort of big heavy warm drops before a thunderstorm. There’s no hills to stop the storms here, I know. I saw that on TV. When the storms start, they go for days, until the big corn bends over, ears on the ground, nitric acid pock-marking the leaves like rotten bananas.
It’s a nice rest stop, all things considered. Food court in the middle. Protein drinks you can sip while you breathe. Decorative chandeliers hang from a center atrium, a big skylight so you can see the bubbling atmosphere. Maybe it was clear glass back when people had cats, but now it’s striped with yellow crusts. Twenty or thirty people mill about as the sky darkens, sipping smoothies while their phones shine into their eyes. I make my way to the charging café in the corner, swipe my husband’s card and hook the kid’s rebreather up to a wire.
I hook myself up, too. Figure I’ll get more bang for my buck here than I will with the car charger. I sit myself down next to Sammy and watch big raindrops paint the skylight gold.
The inevitable–a man sits down next to me, gives me a shy sort of look like he wants to say something but he needs my permission first. I glare at him. That’s enough. “Couldn’t help but notice that Steeple hoodie, ma’am,” he says in a plain plains accent. “That’s my favorite video game.”
“It’s my husband’s sweatshirt,” I say.
His eyes crease with a smile. I watch for disappointment, angled eyebrows, the seeds of a coming tantrum, but his smile looks pleasant enough. “You waiting out the storm here?”
I inspect the man more closely. His head is block-shaped, blue eyes, buzzed hair, nose that might have been broken once or twice. I’ll bet his name is something like Sven Jorgensen, and I bet his parents come from Minnesota. I suppose I wouldn’t mind screwing him in the backseat of the van. The click click click of hail on the skylight. I point my chin at it, and that’s enough of an answer for Sven.
“Smart, yeah,” says Sven. “No driving in that. Cracked my whole windshield that way back in August. You know, the corn farmers prefer this sort of storm. The acid doesn’t come out of the hail till it hits the soil. Nothing a little liming can’t fix, there, right? The biggest crops don’t mind the hail as much.”
Sven wears a Clayrite brand rebreather. I watch its LED lights turn green when he inhales, red on the exhale, and ask him if he’s a farmer.
Sven shakes his head. “I’m a miner.”
I’m tired of making eye contact with Sven. The hail on the skylight has no eyes to meet, so I watch that. I ask Sven if there’s phosphate out here, but I doubt it. Since I left Syracuse, it’s all old shale gas lands, cracked and broken and filled in with chalky white soil to grow up massive stands of corn.
“I’m not from here,” says Sven. “Just passing through.”
“Where you headed?”
Sven watches the skylight, too. Before he answers, my phone rings loud in my pocket. I tell Sven excuse me, and pretend to answer it, but really when I see my husband’s name I press the red button. I say a lot of things like mhm and yeah and okay, honey and Mt. Vernon, Illinois, Paul Bunyan Service Center. The power flickers. I put into the phone a laugh that goes to no one. Wait a minute longer. Goodbye. I love you too.
I slip the phone in my pocket and turn to Sven. “I’m headed to Nebraska.”
“What’s in Nebraska?”
“Family,” I tell him, and I think of the real live pig in its pressurized room. I picture something sterile, white. Glass windows where scientists can look on. Sammy has a kid’s book with barnyard animals, a gift from my mother-in-law. The pig lives in the mud. And the farmer in his denim overalls can walk into the woods with a sleeping bag on a whim and never come back to his farm. He can find berries and small corn and turkeys to eat. The atmosphere didn’t turn sour all at once. It got bad enough that you had to gasp, my mom said. Then so many animals died that their rotting corpses sucked all the leftover oxygen and gasping wasn’t good enough anymore, and so many more animals died, and so on and so forth. At night, I imagine the pig feels soft under my hand. Silky-smooth and wet like mushroom flesh.
Sven’s Clayrite rebreather has an auto display that connects to his cell phone number. A blinking blue light tells him and me he has a text message. He doesn’t check it. Instead he looks at me very seriously, and he asks if I’m safe.
“Am I safe?”
One nod from Sven Jorgensen.
“Of course I’m safe. Why wouldn’t I be safe?”
“You look a little beat up, ma’am, and you’re talking about a husband, but you—” He pauses. Looks at the skylight again. “You look very young. I know there’s bad business that goes on in some circles with all this repopulation talk, so I’m just making sure that you’re—”
“I’m fine, Sven Jorgensen. Jesus Christ. Does nobody mind their own business anymore?”
“I’m glad to hear it,” says Sven Jorgensen. “But if you need any help at all, my wife and I are traveling in an RV. We could hook your car up to the back. Drop you off in Nebraska.”
I tell Sven my daughter is with me, and stick a thumb toward Sammy, conked out on the bench on her wire, looking peaceful below the white noise hail hitting the skylight, chhh. Sven says they have room for us both. I don’t think Sven has an RV, or a wife. I think he has rohypnols and human trafficking ties. Still, I imagine myself eating breakfast with his big blond wife, Helga, traversing the big corn lands on some great American tour. There’s a gun in the pocket of my dress. If this is all true, and Sven can afford an RV on a phosphate miner’s salary, I could wait until nightfall, pull the gun, say a few terse words and take the road yacht for myself. If it’s make-believe, I don’t have to wait until night.
I curdle my face into a smile and let my eyes get wet and tell Sven I would love that, thank you so much for your kindness, God bless you and your wife. The hail is falling harder now. I wait for cracks in the skylight, but it holds. It’s had twenty years of hail and winds and acid rain, and it and the roof and the great blue cow out front haven’t crumbled yet. Sven asks me my name, and I look to the brick wall on our left, and tell him, “Bricks.”
Sven’s smile doesn’t fall, and I’m ninety-five percent sure he wants to sell me to the sky worshippers in Texas, now. He says his name is something like Todd or Tadd or Chuck, but I don’t revise the picture of him in my mind. Sven Jorgensen. Minnesota.
On the bench, Sammy’s eyes start to open. She can’t hear, which I’ve always thought is a blessing. We can’t afford implants. I don’t know that we’d want to. No acid storm or screaming match can wake her. I leave Sven, walk to her side and sign, “Good morning.”
She stares up at me, then looks left to right and left again. Sammy only knows a few words in sign language, like hello, and pig. I’ve tried since she got the diagnosis last year. She doesn’t get it. The doctors say keep trying. It’ll click. And then they send me off with a pamphlet on how to learn and teach an entire new language. It’ll click!
Sammy’s rebreather blinks green. She’s past the age where she tries to rip it out, thank God. I unplug her, and she hops off the bench, wanders in a six-foot diameter around my feet. Her yellow dress is rumpled from sleeping in the booster seat. She points at the smoothie store. I shake my head. She gets that sort of thing, pointing, head shaking, head nodding. I think she lip reads at least a little bit, squinting through the foggy glass of my rebreather. No and yes and Sammy and things like that. Maybe that’s the start of the click.
“I can buy it for her,” says Sven, behind me like a ghost.
Sven smiles, nods. I knew he would. Before he sells me to the sky worshippers, I want to make full use of his artificial kindness. I tell him I have to pee and he says, “I can watch her, if you want.” And I laugh and shake my head—that’s very kind of you, but she’ll need to go too—because he’s selling us to the sky worshippers together or not at all.
I’m pregnant again. That’s half the reason the RV is so tempting, real or otherwise. An engine and a toilet on one set of wheels. None of my husband’s other wives warned me on the subtleties of being pregnant when it first happened. They told me I’d glow, and my hair would be so thick. Nothing on the constant pissing and the fact that I’ll never do jumping jacks again. I ate a bunch of coffee grounds and cigar ash to try and kill this one, but we’re past the twelve-week ultrasound now and everything looks good. It’s easy to run with one kid. Once you have two, you don’t have any free hands.
We pee and I wash Sammy’s hands and my hands and wipe them dry with paper towels. She looks at me with a head-tilt, and I tell her as best I can that we’re going to Nebraska to see the last living pig. When I was pregnant with Sammy, I always craved salt. I would huddle in the pantry and unhook my rebreather and dump spoons full of it on to my tongue.
Sven is waiting for us with smoothies, like I knew he would be. He helps hook Sammy’s up to her proboscis, and I do mine myself. “Where’s your wife now?” I ask him. I’m okay with poking holes in the story now that the free smoothie’s sliding down my throat.
“Out draining the RV,” he says. “Fueling up. All that maintenance business. They don’t tell you about that in the reviews. That you need to drain the pee out the back every few days or the whole thing stinks.”
“In the storm?”
Sven laughs. His laugh doesn’t fit him. It’s high-pitched. Geeky sounding. He should be at a convention center in Buffalo, dressed in a cape and laughing about Mr. Spock. “Service area’s all covered up. That’s why we stopped here. Missouri rest stops don’t have lids.”
I nod, and slurp my smoothie and watch Sammy to make sure she doesn’t choke. Her rebreather light goes off while she sips, on when she pauses, off when she sips. The rhythm of it soothes me a little.
“Is your eye all right?” Sven asks me.
The makeup on my cheekbone must have been sweat away. I figure he’s been waiting to ask that for a while now, concerned crinkles in the corners of his eyes.
I smile at Sven like how sad battered girls smile up at their rescuers in old movies written by horny men and I say I’m all right.
The storm stops, eventually. It doesn’t take days like I was afraid of and hopeful for. The clouds fizz and disperse and there’s the sun and the corn-colored sky. Sven leads Sammy and I out, and we latch my van to his RV. There’s no buzzing in my ears like I’ve been drugged, and I think I’m a little disappointed by that. Their RV has tires bigger than my daughter. According to the app on my phone, the screws on the axel are bigger than the thirteen-week-old naked mole rat burrowing in my guts.
We ascend a three-step staircase and I’m in the Jorgensen’s home-on-wheels. It’s immaculate. There’s a bowl of lemons on the table in the kitchenette. Helga is real and tall and buff and Scandinavian like her husband. She could scoop me up and put me in her vintage EAT LOCAL tote bag as a snack for later. Sven talks something about making ourselves at home but Sven is old news. I want to look Helga in her eyes and touch her face and tell her I’m taking my daughter to Nebraska to put our hands on the mushroom flesh of the last living pig. Instead I say something stupid like my real name. Sven Googles me, I’m sure, and texts his wife all the information from my New York State ID page, and she responds with a big, gooey-eyed frowny face, maybe wonders if she should contact the police, naive and EAT LOCAL as if all legal roads don’t lead back to my husband.
While Sven adjusts himself into the driver’s seat at the front of the car, Helga helps Sammy onto the couch and offers her a cell phone game. Sammy isn’t allowed to look at screens at home. She loves it. I stand there dumb, hands in the pockets of my ugly dress.
Sammy and Sven otherwise engaged, Helga approaches me. She puts a hand on my shoulder and looks deeply into my eyes. She says, earnest as her goodie-two-shoes-ass-husband, “You’re both safe now.”
That snaps me out of it. I point my gun and shoot her in the head. I didn’t mean to do that. It was too easy, and now it’s done. I’m dangerous. I point my gun at Sven and shoot him, too. Sammy keeps playing her game. She doesn’t look up once while I move their bodies into the back bedroom and peel their expensive rebreathers off their faces. I won’t go back to Syracuse, and neither will my daughter. Lord willing, we’ll be in Omaha before the Jorgensens start to smell.
Driving an RV is different than driving a car, it turns out. My hands shake, gripped loose around the steering wheel. I scrape the cement divider on my way back to the highway with the big corn under the yellow sky. We accelerate up to a solid seventy miles per hour and I follow signs west. I clear my mind and think about cats most of the way. My mother-in-law has a faux fur coat that I could stroke for hours. I could say to Sven and Helga in the back of the RV in a patronizing voice, “You’re both safe now.”
My mom was forty-four and pregnant when the atmosphere turned sour. She had six cats and three dogs and no husband and she made a living rescuing abused donkeys and posting their donkey faces online. Then she had a sperm bank baby and a hypoxic brain injury and she only got to stay my guardian as long as she did because the foster care system was so flooded with nitrate orphans. Once when she was more lucid than usual she said that in the early days of the new age, when the doctors all were closed, my Aunt Beth tried to remove me from her uterus with an ice cream scoop and a needle. Eleven-year-old me thought that was funny as hell, but my husband thinks it’s what screwed me up in my head. He rescued me from ice cream scoops and hypoxia and nostalgia for donkey influencers. I was fifteen when we married.
I drive into the night. Sammy doesn’t make a peep in the back of the RV, a whole world opened up to her on the dead woman’s phone, lights and colors and shapes probably making more sense to her than anything I’ve ever tried. She falls asleep on the couch with it still in her little grip.
My GPS takes me to the address I heard my husband’s friend talking about. Omaha National Food Security Laboratory. A manila, two-story building sitting unguarded, surrounded by suburban homes and big corn. I haven’t seen a tree since I left New York. The landscaping here is giant corn and thick, waxy meadows. I park in a lot near the back of the lab and pack Sven and Helga’s rebreathers into her vintage tote.
Sammy doesn’t drop Helga’s phone even when I pick her up and tuck her against my chest. My arms hurt from steering the big steering wheel and shooting two people. She feels heavier than usual. I sit her down in the waxy grass while I break a first-floor window in with a rock, then I make her wake up. She wipes wetness from her eyes and looks at me, and I sign pig, hand under my chin. She knows that one. I pointed to the pig in her picture book and signed it enough times before this trip. She signs back, pig, and we climb through the broken window.
There’s no alarm going off. No security guard waiting with a night baton. I put my hand on the gun in the pocket of my dress anyway, hold Sammy’s hand with the other. Above us, motion-detection lights flicker on up and down the hallway. I expected white walls and warning signs, but this looks like a post office. The building is quiet except for our footsteps. I imagine the pig will be on the first floor, in the centermost room, to best protect it from tornadoes and the atmosphere. A cynical part of me wonders if the pig is here at all—if the pig is even real—if all of this was for nothing and I’ll find another empty office. There should be security guards. There should be alarms. This is the last living pig on earth, and it sits in its tomb alone.
We’re near the center of the building now. I try some doors, and Sammy helps. An office. An office. An office. A musky blue-toned room like an execution chamber viewing booth, big glass window and bright white door off to one side. Sammy and I step inside. The lights don’t turn on automatically like in the halls. I flick on my phone flashlight and search around for a light switch. On the wall, beside a sign: No lights between 8 PM and 8 AM. I turn on the lights anyway.
The room hums to life. Light blue walls, long benches with clipboards set down at the end of the day. It’s dark behind the glass. I can’t see in. Above the big window, scrawled in Sharpie on yellow graphing paper ripped haphazardly from a notebook: SOW #651. So there are six hundred and fifty one pigs in the world, maybe. So I’ve been lied to. I don’t have time to wallow in that because if I start to wallow I’ll wallow forever and instead I find a second light switch, and I hit it, and there it is.
One pig lying against a wall. A hundred times bigger than I imagined. It’s a tiny space just big enough that the sow can turn around if it presses itself against the wall and then folds in half. It’s not a sterile room. It’s brown like a dirty aquarium, and there’s a crack on the window and shit on the floor, and the pig has tubes down her throat and nostrils connected to an oxygen tank and a big barrel that says feed. Sammy looks at the pig, then at me. I sign pig, and she shakes her head. The one in her picture book was pink and round with mud on its hooves and a blue sky above it. This is tissue. Pile of cells. But its eyes are watching the door.
I decide I want to go home. My mom lives in a care facility now. I haven’t visited since I got married. One day she’s going to die and I’ll say I should’ve visited and I know that and I still don’t visit but I look at the pigs and I feel nostalgic for donkey influencers in a big green field and a farmer who could walk into the woods and stay forever.
There’s a gun in my pocket. I could use it on the pig and my daughter and the naked mole rat and me but I don’t. Maybe that’s what I came here to do. There’s no plan post-pig. There never was. I tell Sammy to stay put, and I slip into the pig’s room. The door feels like it’s never really been used, sits off its hinges in a way that I’m not sure I’ll be able to close it again when we leave. The pig’s eyes track me but her head doesn’t move. I worry if she knows how. But she flicks her tail so I test Sven’s rebreather against her snout. She recoils at the touch and pulls at the tubes stuck in her throat and nose but she can’t get any purchase so she settles back down again. I decide if this doesn’t work I’ll shoot her. I’ll tell her she’s safe now and sell her bacon on the black market for a trillion dollars. Then I extract the tubes from the pig’s mouth and nose one-by-one. She can’t breathe. I can see the look in her eyes when she realizes she can’t breathe. Her lungs are expanding and filling and expunging but nothing’s happening. I fix Sven’s expensive rebreather over her snout and secure the elastic behind her ears. The pig meets my eyes. Her chest settles. Oxygen flows over the bubbles in her lungs again. I exhale with her and tell myself I was never going to shoot her and my daughter and me. I have a post-pig plan.
The pig gets up, now. Turns around and chuffs and looks at me and the room she’s probably never left. She bolts past me toward the door, then shuffles about the viewing booth, squealing into Sven’s rebreather like a person with a stubbed toe. Sammy touches a pig. I touch a pig. Her skin is coarser than I expected, warm and wrinkled like a human palm and covered with long white hairs.
Sammy and I fashion a harness and leash out of duct tape and we exit the lab with her alongside us. We leave the Jorgensen’s RV behind to duck under the cover of a big corn forest, disappearing under the giant yellow leaves. The sky is purple-black and the stars glow greenish against it. The pig’s hooves turn white with sand and lime.
Deep in the corn forest, I open up Helga’s phone and find her social media accounts. I take a picture of the pig with its rebreather and its white feet under the stars.
Kay Vaindal lives in Maryland, and likes to think about swamps, ghosts, sagebrush, and the intersection of environmental and social issues, informed by her misadventures as a coastal ecologist. Her fiction has previously appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, Gaia Lit, and the anthology This World Belongs to Us.