The Upside of Down
Lightning tearing the boiling sky into irregular pieces heightened the presence of the purple and black forms that loomed above. The rain, savage blasts of wind clawing everything it touched. Trees no longer able to remain attached to the earth, their roots searching the darkness for security, lay exposed to the drenching rain. Storm drains clogged with debris, palm fronds damming the waters escape to the sea, roadways turning to rivers; impassable. Homes no longer accessible, most people having been forced to flee from the encroaching water, in many cases submerged houses. Some who refused to leave, stranded, with no hope of rescue, as those attempting to aid survivors, no longer able to do so, their own lives in peril. Bodies, pushed like debris to the backwater recesses, finding escape in biblical inferences.
Alvin sat in the molding hay in the loft of an old barn outside Morehead City. He thought of the days when the situation he found himself in would have been incredulous, if not laughable. He mused about the days when life was normal, as normal as he expected it to be, until that time when the storms increased in numbers and intensity. The sun a fading memory after weeks of dark skies. Hurricane after hurricane, storm after storm, two feet, three feet of rain at a time. The sea walls and manmade wetlands attempting to protect the fragile infrastructure of a previous time, no match for the surge propelled by the unrelenting eighty mile an hour winds, of days on end. New York’s subway system abandoned many months earlier, as had many of the costal highways, no longer passable as water and storm refuse smothered them, making their memory, impossible to comprehend.
Alvin made his way to North Carolina by way of Georgia, South Carolina; having abandoned Florida when the last of the decrees were issued. You were on your own; the last messages before the power grid collapsed, left little doubt. The police had disappeared, as had the few national guard members who dutifully remained, despite the retreat of some commissioned to protect coastal communities from looters. Food had become scarce, transportation all but extinct; gasoline and other commodities necessary to maintain a semblance of life succumbed to the inundating waters.
Alvin sat in the humidity; his pants and shirt soaked by driving rain hung from a rope he’d stretched between rafters. The old graying hay caused his skin to burn from the needle like pricks of the stems. The animals had long gone, and the house had been abandoned; now unlivable. The roof torn to pieces; the walls detached from their moorings, now leaning precariously. The mold, a mossy collection of colors; greens, yellows, purples, bloomed like cancer on the walls. The roof having abandoned its mission months before, and the rain proving a sufficient medium for the enveloping growth that now covered the walls, floors, ceilings; a million caterpillars descending on an abandoned edifice.
Alvin, acutely aware of his surroundings, listened intently for any deviance in the bird song or cricket chirp. He heard the crack of what resembled twigs breaking. He picked the rusted pitchfork from the wall; it hung from two nails driven into the rough sawn boards, their heads worn smooth from years of use. The only access to the loft was a small door in the floor. He listened as the sound of the wooden treads strained under the weight of whoever was attempting to climb to the loft. Alvin stood to the side of the door opening, pitchfork in hand, ready to defend himself against this unknown intrusion.
Alvin had made his way from Florida with the aid of an old atlas he’d found in an abandoned car. He followed the back roads in his attempt to go north, avoiding when possible, the marauding bands of people seeking a means to survival. He had no weapons. Many of the groups he observed, were armed with various firearms; some with military style weapons. He traveled at night, when light from the stars and moon enhanced his need to avoid travelers. The few encounters he had informed him of the roving bands of malcontents who took what they wanted, no concern for the welfare of those they confronted.
Elijah Martin slowly raised his head above the floor, his eyes scouring the loft for signs of Alvin. Elijah had befriended Alvin a few days earlier. Alvin had found himself the victim of what he believed, a snake bite, and no means to combat its poisonous effects. Elijah doused the wound with alcohol and wrapped it with gauze from an aid kit he’d found in the house. Elijah had worked for the Bennett’s, the farms owners, before they left for the north. Their son had a place in Illinois, and they were convinced they would be better off there where the effects of storms had been less destructive and the possibility of producing food remained an option. They left in their old truck, carrying as much gas as they could manage, hoping to make it most of the way, if not to their destination. Their son was to meet them in Indiana at an Aunts house, and they would go on together from there.
The farm had grown tobacco for generations, the demand faded with smoking secession. They attempted to raise cucumbers and strawberries for the large canneries in the north, but as the weather became more unpredictable, limiting access to the fields, the contracts dried up, they were unable to fill the demand. Elijah had sent his family, his wife and two daughters to stay with his brother outside of Janesville, where they had a small farm that raised vegetables for an organic market. He decided to remain, planning to salvage as much of their lives as possible, begin a fresh start. He had an old truck that he had recently resurrected. He’d spent the past month siphoning gas from abandoned vehicles into any sealable container he could find.
As Elijah turned to boost himself through the trap door, he saw the tines of the fork pointed at him. “Jeez,” Alvin’s words, shocking him back to the reality he now lived. Elijah was 29 years old, Alvin 20, the same age as his brother up north. Alvin, although in the same situation as many, as the land turned hostile, found themselves, lost in the transition from the routine they’d known, to the chaos of the present. Elijah had seen the evolving changes happening for the past decade but refused to believe he and his neighbors would not be able to adapt to the changes. He had not anticipated the severity of the storms, the constant disruption to the power grid and infrastructure necessary to maintain an economy. He found the simple fact of helping someone reassuring; all hope had not left with the migration in search of survival.
Alvin had spoken to few migrants, in hiding, watching, and listening, he managed to glean information from the travelers about where things stood, as far as possibilities of life in other areas; where they could seek refuge, be accepted by those in the area. He’d heard a couple from Texas, talking about the wall that separated Mexico from Texas, and how there was talk of walls, not as elaborate as southern border, but a fence to keep migrants from the devastated areas, from over running northern communities. He listened to people heading for Illinois, where the situation was similar. People were stopped at the borders and refused entry, if they had no means of support, or family to aid them.
Elijah had heard stories about a time, when people wanting to get into Canada, faced similar rejection. Alaska prevented migrants from entering. The similarity to those times appeared to be becoming a reality once again. Crime had risen in some areas, as people, who under normal circumstances would never have considered stealing to survive, now found it their only option. Although people were generous, they began to become concerned about their own welfare was being in jeopardy and began to revert to the protectionist mode that had enveloped the country’s attitude towards states in crisis. Many counties and communities were forced to abandon agricultural and industrial endeavors, as their ability to compete with more stable markets of the west and north, which had experienced lesser effects of the climatic changes affecting the coastal areas, where half the country’s population, now found themselves without a means to combat the devastation occurring in their states.
“Here,” Elijah handing Alvin a stained paper bag. Alvin opened the bag and looked inside at the two apples nestled together. “I found these near the house. The old tree won’t be around next year, too wet. How’s the leg?” he moved closer to see. “I don’t know much about snake bites but hope the alcohol will help with infection, if there is any. The apples are good. Nice to find somethings haven’t changed.” His words monotone, static, lacked hope or a suggestion of change for the better.
Alvin stared at the wrinkled apples. All the things you take for granted he thought, as he pulled one from the sack and bit into it. Sweet sensations of a past flowed through him. He remembered small things, like oranges, going for drives in the country, fishing, all things you never thought twice about. Grocery stores, where food was always on the shelves. Refrigeration, lights, washers, water heaters, a dry place to sleep, where you didn’t worry about being accosted during the night. It was the fear and hiding he found most objectionable. He refused to believe people had reverted to a place, where survival meant doing away with social norms, caring for others, helping when you could. The care you’d show a lost dog, and yet the abandonment of social equity had been evident for a decade as the numbers of homeless became more visible.
He watched a group of young men shoot an elderly man, attempting to cross the street. A large boy, with a baseball cap, the bill shading his neck, opened fire on the old man with an automatic weapon. Bullets ricocheting off the pavement, breaking windows in the houses that lined the avenue. The bursts, drumbeats exploding in the air. Alvin had watched from his hiding place in the attic of an abandoned house as the man fell to the pavement and began to crawl towards a house on the corner, perhaps his own home. Another of the young men walked over to the prone figure and fired a bullet from a pistol into his back. The figure remained motionless, blood seeping onto the pavement as he was rolled over, his pockets stripped. He would remember the laughter scratching for understanding in his dreams.
Alvin watched other instances, where the entrenched gun culture had changed from a protectionist agenda, to one of a militia-oriented business of confiscation. Alvin had heard stories about gangs that roamed the rural south during the civil war. The majority of men were fighting in distant places attempting to save a way of life, their sacrifice being co-opted by local thieves, in their absence. He thought about the similarities of a past catching up to a future, and replicating the evils of a time in a different set of circumstances. The inhumane acts of those that preyed on the weak had not changed in nature, but now the means of inflicting suffering was intensified by a technology developed for wars, now being used in the streets of America.
“How’s the leg,” Elijah pulling up Alvin’s pant leg to access his inadequate doctoring skills, showing themselves to be just that. The bite had become infected, the red circle around the gauze wept a clear liquid. Elijah removed the bandage, revealing puncture marks, those of a moccasin or rattler, he assumed was the culprit. He washed the wound once more and reapplied the bandage. He found some penicillin tablets in the medicine cabinet of a well to do landowner down the road, and coaxed Alvin, with aid of some home brew he’d been known to manufacture in his spare time, to swallow them. Alvin appreciated the good will but agonized over the fact he had become an invalid, unable to contribute to not only his own welfare, but that of Elijah as well.
Alvin had been slipping in and out of consciousness as the fever embalmed him in a state between sleep and delirium. His mind began to visit a past he knew he had never experienced, but the visions were so vivid they made his body react as though he were actually living the sequence of events that made him want to scream in protest. He found himself bathed in the colors of the confederacy, as his heart and mind searched his soul for the words of Lincoln, and the screams from the battlefields Gettysburg.
The act of rebellion of one’s body, gives a surprising insight into latent images from a hidden memory, where you had not looked; you had forgotten existed. As your brain becomes oppressed, it compensates in its own way, consoling itself by causing an awareness of events and people, you imagine around you. It was in the throes of his fever; he began to see Elijah in a different light. He, at first trusted no one, as he’d seen the disregard for people by those attempting to better their own plight, at the expense of others. Elijah asked for nothing. He gave him, not only encouragement, but food and shelter to help him navigate a new way of life, in a changing environment.
Elijah was a shy man. He’d spent his childhood being the boy who was never given credit for being dependable, thoughtful, helpful, protective; yet he was all those things. He was the child who sat in the rear of the room, looking on as the lives of others flowed past him. His parents were busy attempting to keep their family together. Finding and keeping a job was difficult, and when Elijah was injured in a farming accident, he was no longer capable of helping with the family finances. He believed himself a burden and found one more excuse to hide from the reality of living in a world, where the boastful squeaky wheel got the grease.
He did not mind, he found being alone comforting, he didn’t have to pretend. He didn’t want to be like everyone else. He could be himself, which he had come to realize was a person with a good heart. His school mate Gina, was his only friend. She did not judge but allowed everyone the opportunity to show who they were, by the way they lived their lives. Elijah worked for her father, doing what he could, helping harvest tobacco, readying fields, and attempting to be the son he never had. Elijah became not only a friend but the person responsible for Gina’s families survival after her father died, attempting to put out the fire of a neighbor’s home. He left the invisibility of his family, for the assurances he found in hers. Her mother and siblings moved north to be with a son who had moved out a few years earlier. Gina remained. She and Elijah worked the farm, until they realized there was no hope. With each passing season the crops failed because of the increasing rains, and alternating seasons of drought.
Gina, was asked by Elijah, to go stay with his family; he would follow. It was during the month after her departure that Alvin arrived. He had been found sleeping in the barn, his leg swollen, and his body and mind fighting the effects of the poison, that slowly worked itself through his system. Alvin realized he would have died if he’d not been found by Elijah and nursed towards health.
Elijah had never had a close relationship with anyone but Gina. He tolerated his parents, despite their disappointment in him. His male friends were associates, classmates, but never what he considered to be friends. He had attempted to befriend his peers but found they were interested in exploring activities for reasons, that did not motivate him to become involved. He did not enjoy talking, for the sake of talking. Elijah spent hours with Gina by the river or hiking through the foothills, never saying a word, not needing to, appreciating their surroundings, knowing his companion shared the inspiration of the nature they explored. Elijah missed Gina; she had been gone but a few months, too long. He found himself missing the solitude in being together. He began to doubt his being with her and the children, again.
Alvin roamed in out of lucidness. His temperature rising despite the continued cool compresses Elijah applied. His dreams were of a past he rebelled against. The indications of environmental aggression had been evident for years. The major cities along the coast had begun to develop building procedures to mitigate the oceans invasion, but Alvin saw the results of the latest storm, and the one before that. It was too late to repair the beliefs that held the necessary engagement of everyday people in the battle to combat an evident problem, that money and the dangling of jobs before people, encouraged ignoring the obvious.
When Alvin was a boy, he remembered few, but memorable trips to the ocean. They searched for shells and played in the waves. The last time he was at the beach it no longer consisted of sand, but crushed shells washed on shore by turbulent wave action. Undertows and the increase of shark activity had increased beech closings or restrictions, the majority of the time. Homes that had lined the ocean were no longer accessible, let alone livable. He had watched the evolution of an environment, from that of a skeptic at first. His family believed God would care for them and ignored the presence of human activity in changing their God’s mind. Alvin saw the changes occurring and listened to the debates that were generally dismissed, as news filler. As he grew older however and was exposed to the evidence, he began to consider the inevitability of a land in crisis.
The summers grew warmer, coming earlier, leaving later. The ocean activity brought curtains of water on shore flooding areas never infiltrated in the past. Roads were abandoned, alligators were found roaming the flooded streets in search of food, their habitat expanded into the neighborhoods where children once played. The talk about change had grown to one of survival, as leaders realized that no matter the measures, they took to repel the siege, it would not be enough. Residents did not wait for permission or to be required to leave areas but did so on their own. Like refugees of war, they abandoned their life’s work in hopes of finding a new world, or piece of one, where they could begin again. The projections were that half the population of the country would be permanently impacted by diverse weather conditions, forcing a migration to the North and West.
Alvin recalled a discussion with his parents. The discussion, more of a one-way sermon on God’s goodness and how he would not allow the earth He created, to become the means of destruction by those created in His likeness. He had other discussion in school about how the land use was changing. The predominant assumptions were the earth would self-correct as it had done in the past. Jobs were essential to the wellbeing of the community and the contributions of business to the decline of the environment was minimal, when looked at in the shadows of fire and hurricane prevalence. Alvin recognized the denial as a means of having to deal with a situation they did not accept but could not, from a scientific standpoint, understand.
He found talking about climate change similar to talking about billions of dollars in tax money invested in wars, that could not be won. Billions, was a concept not comprehendible by those making less than thirty thousand a year. The idea that they were unable to fight an invisible battle they believed not of their making, was impossible to understand. People were accepting of nature’s diversity, but also unwilling to accept their complicity in the changing weather patterns. Climate, was something beyond their understanding, and therefore, the reluctance to accept the blame.
Alvin, coming out of one of his bouts between reality and dreams, heard the sounds, drum like in his ears, interrupted by a noise from beyond his bed of straw, the crack, like that of whip, shattering the silence. Elijah tensed at the noise. He remained ridged, listening for a change in the sounds that nestled in the trees beyond the yard. Again, a loud crack, the sound seeping through the gaps in the unpainted boards of the loft and embedding themselves in the ears of the two survivors of the loft. Elijah made his way to the hay mow door and peered into the failing light. He thought he heard voices, but the sounds were entwined with the wind moving through the pines, prevalent in the evenings. The sound again, this time close. He could feel the hairs on his neck rise in the expectation of trouble.
Elijah peered through the knot hole of a board onto the trees of the orchard that lined the side yard of the house. He thought he saw several shadowy figures moving through the canopied trees in the direction of the barn. He felt his hip for the holstered pistol. He pulled it from hits nesting place and checked the revolvers cylinder for bullets. The six chambers were occupied. He felt in his pocket, finding several more bullets, his apprehension lessened as he fingered them for reassurance. Looking at Alvin, he saw a young man whose health was failing. He no longer believed the snake bite to be the cause of Alvin’s fever and hallucinatory demeanor. He watched as Alvin moaned softly, clutching his stomach, sweat forming on his forehead, as he attempted to sit up. Alvin too, had heard the gun fire. He’d heard the sound before, a rifle shot. He kept his fear hidden, not wanting to add to Elijah’s discomfort. “You alright?” Elijah’s words drifting at him through a haze of confusion as though he were hearing them from beneath the comfort of the water of the pond he frequented as a child.
Alvin slumped back onto the straw; closing his eyes he felt a sudden warmth engulf him as he slipped back in his thoughts to the pond, where he first realized things were not the same. The warm summer evening brought out fireflies, accompanied by frog chorus and chirping beetles, a world where life and death played out daily as they performed their inherited duties. Alvin had noticed a decrease in the clarity of the water; now injected with a green algae that tinted the water in the evening light, to that of the artificial turf of the miniature golf course on the edge of town. The frogs were fewer in number, their croaking no longer drowning out the birds farewell to another day. Fish were found on shore, bloated, fly infested carcasses, that no longer resembled the sleek shadowy figures that slipped beneath the dock he frequented.
Alvin awoke to the shaking by Elijah. “Alvin, wake up. They are coming.” Elijah slipped away and took up his post behind the opening in the floor that led to the stalls below. They remained silent, listening, as the voices encroached on their fortified perch. Elijah now held the pistol in his hand, his back against the patinaed wood, his eyes trained on the small square in the floor. He listened intently, cocking his revolver as the recognizable squeaks came from the wooden ladder. An old felt hat peeked over the edge of the floor opening, a voice joined it. “Yeah, be right there.” The hat disappeared with the familiar sounds from the ladder. The voices headed towards the remnants of the old house. Elijah placed his finger to his lips, indicating quiet. Alvin, eyes closed, saw nothing, his last thoughts were of the cold clear water of his pond and the friends he shared it with.
Elijah waited for the voices to disappear before making his way to Alvin. Alvin’s face an ashen tint, his breathing undetectable. Elijah placed his hand on Alvin’s head and could feel the heat leaving him, like a rock of an extinguished campfire. He listened to his chest and heard nothing but silence. He realized Alvin was gone. Elijah, not being a religious man, didn’t know what to do. He had been around death but had never felt before now, a sense of responsibility. He had not known Alvin for long but liked him. He liked the simple decency that he saw in Alvin leaving. It was becoming a world of everyone for themselves. Survival of the fittest had begun to play out. These new tenants of his community were difficult to accept. The prevalence of churches, the profound emphasis on everything by religion shaping not only government, but people’s fight to decide the personal rights of others in determining how they lived their lives.
Elijah found an old sack hanging over one of the bracing members of the loft and placed it over the face of Alvin. He did not pray, he found no relevance between human requests and God’s benevolence, but he did say, “Goodbye,” placing his hand on Alvin’s head. Elijah made his way to the mow window where he scanned the grounds below the loft for activity. The wind had quieted and but for the sounds of a few crickets, everything remained solemnly quiet. Elijah knew the sounds of night and was convinced the silence of the yard was a response to a presence that did not belong. He cradled the pistol against his chest as he leaned against the barns boards and closed his eyes.
Elijah awoke to the familiar tinted red sky, now filled with the smoke of fires of those cooking over outdoor pits. He looked at the still body of his friend as he lowered himself through the hole in the floor onto the ladder, and stepped downward. He moved to a small room at the rear of the building, past the cow stalls, and unlocked a door. He pulled a gasoline can from the tangled mess of old harness and bailing twine. He emptied the contents of the can onto the floor and walls of the old barn.
Elijah stood outside in the pale fog of a new morning as he struck the first stick match and tossed it at the open door. The flames small, blue, yellow, dancing, jumped to the chaff that had fallen from the loft and spread quickly to the walls. The billowing black smoke rose into the air. He could feel the smokes irritation in his eyes and stepped back from the now emblazed structure. He watched as the roof exploded in a gasp of white smoke and consumed by flames jumping into the blank slate of sky. He made his way to the well house where he stored his food supplies and a few articles of clothing he would need for his trek north. He watched as the roof of the barn collapsed into the loft, the entire barn now a roaring blaze. The leaves of trees alongside the barn began to recoil from the heat as he threw the sack over his shoulder and walked towards the trees, not looking back. He passed the truck hidden by brush he’d used as camouflage. He would do better on foot. The roads would be too exposed to the problems he anticipated.