Written by Cassidy Bull
Art by ArtTower
Sometimes, when I go outside in the one-hundred-degree October heat, I let myself believe that one day I’ll live where it’s true autumn in autumn. Where leaves grow red and fall into a crisp swirling breeze, then settle on pavement that doesn’t melt rubber soles. Where seasons are seasons and snow drizzles calm heat waves. I’d love to live somewhere with trees.
My grandmother tells me of long-ago winters, back when the cold still came. She says she used to wear jackets outside. I long to be where sweaters are in style, where they don’t make you sweat in seconds. Those places barely exist, spread few and far between, condensed to pinpoints near the poles—destinations only the rich get to be.
I see them on my phone: the kids of the exploiters, posting insensitive photos and captioning them with ignorance. Last week, the son of the big tech mogul posed with the only polar bear still breathing. A too-wide smile and a peace sign. As if peace were something we all would know. It’s not their fault they were born into the one percent of humanity who’d come out of this sixth mass extinction alive. But they choose to not know better.
Once the planet’s tipping points were passed—they came and went, about as uneventful as Earth Day—an acceptance of hopelessness settled over the world like a dense fog. (Not to be confused with the literal smog coating the planet’s surface. That was already there.) It was funny, really, how quickly we all gave up. Though, I suppose, we did that a long time ago. It was nothing like the movies, the epic action-packed ones where aliens invade, or an asteroid is on its way to obliterate us, and every country puts aside their differences to come together as one and save the world. Maybe global heroism doesn’t apply to disasters of our own making.
When I’m in the mood to be really depressed, I’ll read news articles written a couple decades ago from the online archives. When it was reported that salmon were being boiled alive in their rivers, entire states went up in flames, and the ocean caught on fire. And people just… didn’t do anything about it? I mean, can you imagine?
I used to believe that if the people back then caught a glimpse of my daily routine, they would’ve done something to prevent it. But some did predict this future. I’ve found long-ago-published books, buried deep in the dust-riddled shelves of the nearby abandoned library, prophesying the very existence I have now. It was hard to read them, both because the pages were brittle and falling apart from the heat they’d been sitting in, and because it was chapter after chapter of cautionary warnings and cries for planetary help that I knew went ignored.
While sipping my dirty water ration, I let myself think about the ancient pictures I’ve seen of serene springs, of clear blue sea, of non-acidic rain, and I imagine that the grimy liquid running down my throat is fresh and pure instead. It helps to get it down. The water might be slowly killing me, but I drink it to stay alive.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from existing sometime between a mid- and post-apocalypse, it’s that dystopias are only fun in books. Reading about someone starving is a whole different experience than actually starving. Tyrannical governments are only exciting when the protagonist burns them to the ground. In reality, we do not rise up, and the ground’s been scorched since before I was born.
Sometimes, when I think about how teenagers used to worry about summer jobs and first kisses, I let myself imagine a life where I’d be living and not just surviving. Where I’d look forward to each day, instead of dreading them. Where I’d breathe in the beauty of the world, instead of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Where I’d look out over the valley and see birds and buffalo and bees surrounded by green, instead of their bones crumbling atop the long-barren wasteland.
I never let it get too far—the daydreaming. I’ll never know a world that isn’t grey and gutted, burned and battered, decrepit and dying. If I stop accepting that, I might start to hope. Hope that the God my grandmother sometimes prays to hasn’t actually abandoned us. Hope that I’ll win one of the six lottery tickets for the upcoming launch to Mars that would likely kill me anyway. Hope that it’s not too late. Hope that we can save ourselves.
But hope is useless. Just take a look around. We’ve never been safe from ourselves.