Fall by Marysa LaRowe
It started with the birds.
It was New Year’s Eve. We were sitting in the living room, watching the footage of fireworks in Australia, Tel Aviv, Berlin, London. Outside, people were setting off fireworks and bottle rockets of their own. You’d hear them whistle and pop every now and then, first far away, then close.
“If one of those lands on the roof, Jesus help me,” my mother said. She was sewing a tear in one of my shirts. Gwendolyn was on the floor, playing with the Strawberry Shortcake dolls she got for Christmas. The TV cut to a picture of the party in Times Square: a crush of bodies in heavy coats and glitter, thousands of upturned faces. I wanted to be outside, with my own bottle rockets Jimmy Delmonico and I had made, but my mother said it was too dangerous, and anyway, girls weren’t supposed to be interested in that kind of thing.
“One hour to go,” she said, more to herself than to me.
Just then something thumped on the roof.
My mother laid down her sewing. “Those kids—”
There was another thump. “That’s not a bottle rocket,” I said. I went to the window. Thumps were coming faster now, in twos and threes: thwunk. Thwunk-thwunk. Thwunk-thwunk-thwunk. I turned on the porch light. Dark shapes fell from the sky.
“What in—” my mother said.
I opened the door and ran out on the lawn. Something fell at my feet. It was a bird, its dark eye motionless, its beak open and its wings akimbo.
I looked up. Dozens of birds were falling from the sky, slamming into rooftops, catching on electrical wires, pounding against car roofs. On the street, a car veered off the road and hit a tree, its horn blaring. A bird struck me on the shoulder; another hit me on the head.
“Cassandra! Get in here right now!” my mother screeched. I ran for the front door. The air was thick with feathers. When I reached the porch, my mother wrapped her arm across my chest and pulled me inside. “It’s birds,” I said. Against the moon their dark shapes fell silently, like pieces of the sky.
The fish were next. They washed up on the south shore of the river, ten thousand of them: thin silver fish no thicker than your finger. You could smell the stink from a mile away. The Fish and Wildlife people said it must be some kind of virus, but Jimmy Delmonico said that was too easy. “I’ll bet the government put something in the water,” he said. Jimmy was always talking about the government. Everyone at school said Jimmy and his dad were both crazy, but I liked to play with him more than I liked to play with the girls in my sixth grade class, who mostly wanted to look at magazines of slack-faced fashion models and paste their mothers’ mascara on each other’s lashes.
Jimmy and I rode our bikes to the edge of the river, which was so packed with fish that it had turned from liquid muddy gray to solid shimmering silver. Their blank eyes stared upward. “Damn,” Jimmy whistled. “I bet we could walk across on their backs.” We tried to climb down the bank to get a closer look, but the flies were too thick, and the smell soon choked us. We sped our bikes back to town with our mouths open wide, trying to get rid of the way the air had tasted.
On the way, we passed Emma Stark’s house, out on the edge of town. My mother, who worked for the power company, said the lights got shut off at the Starks’ almost every other month because Mr. Stark didn’t pay the bill. People said Emma’s dad took it hard when Emma’s mom died, but my mother said that was no excuse. “It’s in God’s plan for us to lose people, Cassie,” she said. “You don’t see me crying and drinking all day when there’s babies to raise.” She said it was laziness that Mr. Stark didn’t try to get a full time job, that he used food stamps at the market and signed Emma up for the free school lunch. But I’d gotten the free lunch when I was little, before Gwendolyn was born. I’d seen Momma use the SNAP card at the market, before she got the power company job.
Emma was sitting by the road on the tire swing, her lovely arms raised to grip the chain, her long legs hanging down. Her right toe brushed the wing of a dead bird, one the clean-up crews had missed.
“Hi Emma,” I called. She raised her sad eyes to smile at me. She was so beautiful and so smart that she’d been adopted by the popular girls at school, even though she wore the same five outfits on rotation and her shoes were old and muddy. She was nice to everyone, even the eighth grade boys that hooted mean things about her dad. I could remember each time Emma Stark had ever smiled at me: in gym class, when our team scored a point in the volleyball game; in homeroom, when she dropped her pen and I picked it up off the floor; at lunch, when Ericka Hotchkiss made fun of the short haircut Jimmy had given me and that my mother had had to finish with her kitchen scissors. “Hush, Ericka,” Emma had murmured, and stick-banged, crooked-teeth Ericka had hushed.
Emma looked down at the bird. “They’re bigger than I thought,” she said. “I’ve never seen one so close.”
The bird stared back at us. The bright red and yellow flash on its wing blazed like a warning.
“Emma,” her dad called from the house.
We all turned to peer at the dark figure in the screen door.
“Morning, Mr. Stark,” Jimmy called.
He squinted at us. “Who the hell are you?” he said.
It was some time after that all the cats went crazy. They roamed the street in packs, yowling and fighting with each other. Even the Parsons’ fat, good-natured tabby suddenly turned feral. The mayor came on TV, telling everyone not to go outside. Animal control crews from three counties came in and had to shoot some of the cats with tranquilizer darts.
“The animals know what’s coming,” my mother said. “Soon the Lord will come and we’ll all face the Judgment.”
At church that Sunday, the pastor said this would be the year the world finally got its reckoning for our tide of sins and impure thoughts. “The scourge of the godless lifestyle moves through our country like a plague,” he said, his face red and sweaty, his voice booming loud enough for a church ten times our size. “Even the Supreme Court of this great country is not immune to the devil’s arguments.”
On the pew beside me, my mother murmured her assent. She ran a hand over Gwendolyn’s smoothly braided hair. My mother said it was a sin for two boys or two girls to get married, because two boys or two girls couldn’t have babies, and marriage was about family. But Momma hadn’t been married when Gwendolyn was born. She said Gwendolyn’s dad hadn’t wanted to.
“Let us pray for those whose impure thoughts are given validation by the poor leadership of our nation,” the pastor boomed. “Let us speak the words the Father taught us through his Son.”
I bowed my head and spoke the creed with perfect clarity. I sometimes wondered if my mother or the pastor could tell that I sometimes had impure thoughts about Emma Stark. That when I rode past her house on my bike, my body went tingly with a nervous excitement. That I sometimes woke from dreams about her with a heat between my legs.
Certainly God must know, I thought, if He had the time to look inside my brain.
In the next town over, lightning struck a central electrical plant, and we were all in the dark for several days. Gwendolyn whimpered and clutched her dolls to her chest, and my mother served cold green bean casserole and melted ice cream for dinner. “We can’t be wasteful, even now,” she said. She made us pray before she’d give us the silverware.
A group of ladies from the church came through the darkened neighborhood knocking on doors, handing out Bibles, telling people to be ready.
“He’s coming,” they told my mother, and she nodded solemnly and handed them a dish of the bean casserole.
At school, Jimmy Delmonico leaned across the lunch table. “My dad says they want to keep us scared. If we’re scared, we’re easy to control.”
Emma Stark was sitting two tables away. I was watching the bob of her ponytail over Jimmy’s shoulder.
“I’ll bet it’s psychological warfare,” Jimmy said. “They’re testing it on us. Seeing how long we last. I’ll bet someone’s listening to our conversation right now.”
“Can the government make lightning?” I said. I was still watching Emma’s shoulders, the way they shook just a little when she laughed.
Just then, a cricket landed in Ericka Hotchkiss’s hair. She picked it out curiously, then flung it on the table and screeched. There was a fluttering from the air vent. Crickets bumped against the ceiling, dropped onto the tables among us. One landed on my shoulder. Another hopped across Jimmy’s peanut butter sandwich. Across the cafeteria, other girls were screaming. The teachers on cafeteria duty were striding toward the air vents, then jerking and twisting as the bugs landed on them. Soon everyone was shouting. Ericka Hotchkiss jumped on top of the table. Jimmy whooped and threw his chocolate milk carton at the wall, where it exploded with a dark splash. Mrs. Morganhoffer, the gym teacher, blew her shrill whistle, but nobody listened. I whirled around and saw Emma, standing calmly amid the chaos.
An open container of yogurt went spinning by our heads, showering us both in strawberry. I wiped a glob off my eye. Emma stared at me for a second, then burst out laughing.
“Come on!” I said, and when I grabbed her hand, she didn’t let go. We ran through the melee, kids screaming and jumping onto chairs, crickets crunching beneath our feet. We made it out of the cafeteria, where we passed Principal Fielding huffing down the hall, his face bright red. We collapsed against the lockers, smearing the strawberry yogurt against the warped metal.
“Locusts!” I said.
“Hide the first born sons!” Emma laughed. She pulled a glob of yogurt out of my hair.
Later, we would find out that the crickets weren’t a plague, that some eighth grade boys had bought out the local pet store and set them loose in the cafeteria vents as a prank. But right then, it felt like the world might be ending. Civilization as we knew it might be coming to an end. And the funny thing was, I didn’t even care. Because Emma Stark had taken my hand.
Spring came, and the weather warmed. But the spring flowers, which should have been starting to break through the earth in my mother’s garden, shriveled and disappeared as though the ground had been salted. A hundred miles away, in the University greenhouses, lilies closed and drooped, roses turned brown and shriveled, and the tomato vines twisted into knots and wouldn’t make fruit. The weather was cold, then hot, and then cold again. Storms left hail the size of golf balls on our lawns. In April, a tornado took out the Movie Emporium. In May, a fire nearly destroyed City Hall. Nobody, not even the arson expert from Memphis, could figure how it started.
All across the world, things were dying. We heard about dead snapper fish in New Zealand, waves of dead sardines in Brazil, a flock of dropped starlings in Louisiana, fallen jackdaws in Sweden. Hundreds of crabs washed ashore in England and turtle doves blanketed a town in Italy. My mother held weekly prayer vigils in the kitchen, the church ladies murmuring over the drone of the cable news.
After school, Emma and I walked home along Broad Street, past the high school football field and the baseball diamond. We talked about school, about the boys who had left a box of snakes in the art room, only to have the art teacher find them dead an hour later. Sometimes we didn’t talk about anything, just walked along through the dust, kicking at bits of gravel with our shoes, until Emma pointed to another dead tree and said, “look at that.” Sometimes, as we walked, our hands would touch, or our arms would brush against each others’, and a jolt of energy would pass through both of us. We’d giggle, move apart, embarrassed.
After two members of the high school football team were diagnosed with lymphoma within a week of each other, the school district suspended all extracurricular sports, just in case there was a problem with the fields. “It’s something in the water,” Jimmy Delmonico said, smacking his fist into the palm that should have held a baseball mitt. But it was clear something bigger was going on.
Emma and I climbed the bleachers at the high school football field, looking out over the empty ball diamonds and soccer fields where the older kids should’ve been practicing. The sun was hot, and the first wave of humidity had hit, our first hint of summer.
“Did you know there’s a bomb shelter under these bleachers?” I said. I didn’t actually know this, but I’d heard rumors.
Emma nodded solemnly. “I’ve seen it. My Dad has the keys.”
Emma’s father was a janitor for the high school. He had keys to every room and lock in the building.
“What’s it like?” I said.
Emma scraped her shoe against the bleachers. She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “I can show you,” she said.
We went back to her house. The keys were where she’d said they’d be—on the hook beside her back door. I heard snoring and saw Emma’s father asleep on the couch.
Emma slipped the keys in her pocket. “Come on.”
The entrance to the bomb shelter was underneath the bleachers, behind the brick concession stand that sat sagging near the south end zone. Emma moved aside some bushes to reveal an old decal of three yellow triangles in black circle. “Wow,” I said.
Emma glanced over her shoulder, then kicked at the dirt. I heard a clang. She rummaged through the bushes until she found an old padlock. She took the ring of keys from her pocket, shook through a few of them, then slipped one into the padlock. It fit. It turned. Emma tugged at the lock and the edge of a door appeared out of the dirt. She slipped her fingers under the edge, and nodded to me to do the same. “Okay,” she said. “Pull.”
The door opened with a heaving groan. Dust floated, glittering, in the light. Below it, a staircase descended into the dark. Emma looked at me. “Do you have the flashlight?”
I flicked it on, and we started down the stairs. They were sturdy and metal, though narrow. Our footsteps clanged through the dark. The air around us was cool and sweet-smelling, the way my mother’s garden smelled after a cold rain. When we reached the bottom, Emma felt along the wall and hit a switch, and the room filled with light.
“My dad did the wiring, back when they built it,” she said. “Every year he comes down here to check the bulbs and make sure everything still works.”
I looked at the shelter. Cots and blankets were stacked in the corner. Drums of water lined one wall. I opened a metal crate and found boxes of saltine crackers, cans of beans, tomatoes, tuna fish. “Wow,” I said. “You could survive for weeks down here.” I had an image of me and Emma when the end finally came: the two of us, curled up on the cot together, listening to the world go quiet over our heads.
Emma was fingering one of the blankets. She sat down on the lowest step. “What do you think is going to happen to us?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. I started to feel woozy. I sat down beside her and put the flashlight on the ground, the beam pointing up between us. My leg pressed against hers; I could feel her trembling. In the flashlight beam her face looked almost alien: harsh shadows below her eyes and cheekbones, shimmering light across her lips. I knew mine must look just as strange. I reached up and touched her cheek. Her eyes fluttered wide. She took a breath, quick, through her nose, and the nervous energy fluttered up through my chest and throat and burst inside my brain. I slipped my hand beneath her ponytail, and our eyes faces came closer. Then her eyes closed, and our lips parted, and we kissed.
I expected the skies to open. I expected the world to shudder on its axis, for the earth to tremble the way skin ripples against an electric shock. But the air didn’t move. The ground stayed still.
When we parted, Emma’s eyes opened wide. “Cassie,” she said. “What are you doing?”
My foot jerked, and the flashlight rolled along the floor of the bunker, illuminating jugs of water, a stack of magazines, a pile of old board games, a map of the world. Emma’s breath came quick, waiting for me to answer.
Outside, in the new summer sun, it silently began to snow.
Marysa LaRowe’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, The Southeast Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Matchbook, Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine, and others. She earned her BA in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MFA in Fiction from Vanderbilt University. She lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.