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“WITH ANY LUCK, WE’LL BE gone by tomorrow,” Dad says.
I nod and keep stuffing the tent into its sack, looking forward to getting out of this ash bucket but not to the four-hundred-mile walk north. And not to cramming my six-foot frame into a small tent with my mom, dad, and sister.
We’ve been living in the cement basement of a burnt-out house for about a year now in the hills above what used to be Fairbanks, Alaska.
An expanse of gray runs to the horizon—ash from the fires that ravaged this place the past two summers. The first fires, which the government set intentionally after classifying Interior Alaska as a “Sacrifice Area,” burned Fairbanks and the two military bases east of town, but spared most of the houses in the hills. It used to be that only places the military had trashed were labeled as Sacrifice Areas, but now the government was using the term for places it couldn’t support anymore. And it was destroying those places so other countries couldn’t benefit from what was left behind.
But no one knows who started the fires the second summer. Those fires reburned the town, blazed through the hills, and scorched the land as far as the eye can see.
Trees are memories. Buildings are memories. We inferno survivors, however many or few, are all living in basements. Tiny ribbons of green, spindly stalks of fireweed pushing through the ash, spaced far and wide, are the only signs of plant life I can see from our place.
I wanted to leave three years ago, when most everyone else fled this wreck of a place, when the United States government said they could no longer support Alaska due to the scarcity of resources worldwide. They’d been pulling back for years now, ever since the oil ran dry up here. They couldn’t keep pumping energy into a faraway place that wasn’t giving any back. Never mind that they’d sucked every ounce of oil from the ground and shipped it south.
But they offered everyone an out three years ago when they withdrew statehood status: a bus ride north from Fairbanks to the Arctic Coast on the last road that was actually drivable with the last gas available. Then a journey in a ship east across the Arctic Ocean and then south to the Maine coast, where evacuees would be resettled.
Way back, it used to be that heading north meant heading into a wilderness where you’d bump up against an ocean that was frozen most of the year. But for years now, the Arctic Ocean has been ice-free in the summer.
But if you stayed, you were on your own.
“Travis,” Dad says, “how’s the cache coming?”
I pull the drawstring tight on the tent’s stuff sack. “I should have it finished today.”
Dad stops cleaning his shotgun, his three remaining slugs lined up on the floor. “Should have?” The edge to his voice makes my stomach go raw. “You better have it finished today.”
I want to tell him to finish it himself if he’s not happy with how long it’s taking me, but I know he’s under a lot of pressure. Pressure he could’ve avoided if he wasn’t so freaking stubborn. And it’s not like digging the cache is the only thing I’m doing. Every time I breathe he gives me something else to do. “It’s just taking a little longer than I thought,” I tell him.
“I’ll finish packing up in here,” he says. “Just go. Finish that cache. Christ.”
My head slumps. Whatever I do, and however fast I do it, it’s never enough.
The cache is just a big hole about a quarter mile from our basement. Six feet deep, six feet long, four feet wide. Coffin-sized. Our plan is to bury some of what we can’t take with us in case we have to come back. Food, clothing, tools, packs. But we’ll leave some stuff out in the open so when the looters come, hopefully they won’t look any farther. And if they do discover evidence of something buried, hopefully they’ll think it’s a grave and leave it alone.
Yeah, looting is standard practice. Whenever anyone leaves or dies, their stuff is up for grabs. Not that there’s much of anything left since the fires.
There was lots of food that first winter because all the people who’d abandoned their houses and taken the government up on getting the hell out of here left it behind. They left everything.
Now I don’t even know how many people are still in the area. Walking is the only way to get anywhere, and with miles of burnt land separating you from the next family living in the basement of a burnt-out house, you might not see anyone for days, and when you do see someone, you don’t know how dangerous they are, how desperate they are.
* * *
“Jess,” I say to my little sister, “hand me another jar.” I could do the job myself, but I want Jess with me at the cache. I want her to see where it is and what’s in it. Embed the location in her mind in case something happens to me or Mom or Dad—or all three of us. My mom has an endless amount of energy, which she’s poured into our survival, but somehow it hasn’t hardened her like it has my dad.
I take the quart jar of salmon from Jess and place it in the cache. We’re on the back side of a hill behind our basement in the remains of a stand of birch trees—charred, lifeless snags poking up from the ash and ready to be blown down by the next big wind.
Jess is ten years old. Seven years younger than me, and only seven herself when the government decided it could no longer support Alaska at all. They’d pulled their support from the western and northern parts of the state a few years before that, which brought a wave of people into Fairbanks. And the southern coast had been wracked by a couple of big earthquakes with no help to rebuild. Rumor was that a lot of people had starved on the coast after the quakes, and Anchorage had been pretty much leveled, but we didn’t know for sure what went on down there.
Most people up here got on the buses headed north, and we never heard from them again.
Others walked south, attempting to cross the mountains and then the endless forest to the coast, looking to start a new life down there despite the destruction from the quakes.
My girlfriend, Stacy, and her family walked south. I don’t know if they made it or died along the way, but they never came back.
I cried and cried the day they left. No phones. No email. No regular mail. Stacy was as gone as gone could be, and so were all my other friends, too.
Used to be you could drive south from Fairbanks to Anchorage, and to the small town of Valdez, too. But even way back, before the oil ran out, the shifting ground and melting permafrost kept destroying sections of road. Then the glaciers in the Alaska Range, that’s the mountain range south of here, went on a melting rampage and that caused the rivers they fed to spill their banks and cut new channels, and the routes the roads took pretty much became memories.
But we’d stayed, obviously. My dad was already paranoid about the government. He loved Alaska because he felt like Uncle Sam wasn’t looking over his shoulder all the time, telling him what to do.
Now Uncle Sam’s a memory.
Jess hands me another jar. “Trav, I’m hungry.”
“Sorry, but you’re gonna have to wait until dinner. You know the rules.”
“But look at all this salmon.” Jess sighs. “We should at least be able to have a jar. We’re doing all the work and we’ll probably never see this food again.” She smiles at me, and her rosy cheeks, spotted with ashy fingerprints and framed by her blond hair, make me smile, too. My sister is beautiful.
Then she sucks her cheeks in and pretends she’s a fish and says, “Feed me. Feed me.” I let out a laugh. Right now the only thing I want is to protect her and make her happy.
And she has a point: We probably won’t see this food again. But if word gets back to Mom and Dad that I broke into the supplies, they’ll be pissed. I want them to be able to count on me, even though it’s their fault we’re still here.
Really, it’s mostly Dad’s fault. He wanted to stay, Mom wanted to go. Maybe if she’d threatened to leave without him, he would’ve caved and we all would’ve left on the buses. I still would’ve been separated from Stacy, but at least we wouldn’t be trapped here on the brink of starvation.
But I want Jess to be able to count on me as well. I don’t want to be the one to tell her “no.” She’s hungry. She isn’t faking it. I mean, she’s not asking for a candy bar. Not that there are any candy bars, except in our memories. She’s begging for nasty, spawned-out salmon that my mom boiled until it turned even more mushy than it was when we caught it. Lucky for us, we fished and fished a couple years ago, because last summer the salmon didn’t return, and so far this summer our nets have turned up nothing. Not one fish. Our one reliable source of protein—gone. And there’s no way to know if it’ll ever be back. That’s why we’re finally leaving.
* * *
“You see that?” Dad points.
Me and my mom both look. She takes a step closer to me so we are standing shoulder to shoulder. I hear her take a deep breath and exhale.
Down in the flat land below our place, about a mile away, ash is puffing up from the ground.
“You think they’re coming this way?” I ask. Luckily, I’ve just finished the cache and brushed out the footprints leading to it. My mom puts her arm around me, but says nothing.
When goods started getting scarce after that first winter, some people banded together while my dad took us farther from town, isolating us. Then, after surviving the second summer of fires, we found this basement of a small house that had burned and moved in. Our place sits on top of a hill, and since the trees are all gone we can see for miles across the valley.
When we first got here, we roamed the area, looking for abandoned houses. Places where goods may have survived in a basement or a crawl space.
If we came upon a place that was occupied, sometimes the people would just tell us to move on. Or sometimes they’d wave hello and we’d talk from a distance. And they’d say, You won’t find anything around here.
“Just keep an eye on them,” Dad says, nodding at the rising ash. “If they start coming up our hill…” Dad pauses. “Damn, I think they just turned our way.” He turns to my mom. “Time for you and Jess to hide.”
My mom says softly, “I know.” Then walks to the doorway and disappears down the stairs.
When she’s gone, my dad turns to me and says, “If only you’d finished that cache on schedule, we could’ve left yesterday.”
I want to tell him that it takes more time than he thinks to dig a grave-sized hole and then fill it back in and make it look like the ground hasn’t been disturbed. I want to tell him that just because he thinks something should be a certain way or take a certain amount of time that doesn’t mean it will. But there’s no time to argue right now. Someone is coming and we need to be ready.
Copyright © 2019 by Paul Greci