Heather Bartos


The big red, white, and blue envelope that Chad pulls through the mail slot reads, “Do Not Bend.” He twists the package back and forth, making loud snapping and cracking sounds like he’s running over a frog on his dirt bike. 

Except we’ve never seen a real frog, so I’m not sure what sound it would make. 

“Stop that,” said our mother, not even looking up. She knew us well enough to know that it was Chad, not me, making that popping noise. 

“It’s not going to hurt anything,” grumbled Chad. 

“We need those to travel,” said our mother, her head still bent over her laptop. Mom works for the Archive. Her job is to preserve the best images possible of things that no longer exist. Right now, she’s peering at an image of a very small bird putting its beak into a mass of pink, bell-shaped blossoms. 

“What’s that one?” I ask. The bird shimmers on the screen, a red and violet band across its white throat. I’ve never seen a bird, any bird, in real life, only on screens. I keep waiting for it to—what’s the right word?—to flutter. 

“Anna’s hummingbird,” she says. 

“Did it used to flutter?” I ask. 

“No,” she said. “Those were butterflies. Birds flew. If there were any left, they would fly.” She taps my nose and smiles. “You are so good with vocabulary, sweetheart.” 

Chad makes a snorting sound. He’s not good at school. My parents aren’t too concerned about his future, though. If things continue to go the way they are going now, he won’t have one. 

That goes for them and for me, too. 

Like Mom, most people don’t work at an office anymore. Families are only given a certain number of transportation points per month. When those are gone, it’s up to them to figure it out. 

When you are out of points, all of your points, you are surrendered.

That may seem harsh. But Mr. Wagner, my teacher, told us to think about it. Why should some people take more resources than others? It used to be that people with more money took more than their share, and poor people suffered the most. They couldn’t evacuate during storms and fires. The rich people just moved somewhere else.

Until there was nowhere left to go.

He says suffering is much more democratic now. 

Chad is fifteen. He says the system is rigged. 

My father is forty-three. He says all fifteen-year-olds think the system is rigged, no matter what system it is. It’s only fair and right that what’s left is shared as equitably as possible, in a way that creates as little damage as possible. 

Dad works for the Ministry of Accountability and Inevitability. Because his job requires him to travel, he gets additional points. Only one parent per household can commute.  

Mom staggers out of her desk chair and groans.

“Maybe you need to think of your parents, Chad, before you go bending those travel passes back and forth,” she says. “We deserve a break.” 

For our family, Crush Week always falls in April, which means we get bonus points and can plan a vacation. If people don’t travel, they can trade the points for other things, like food, additional electricity, or purchases like new screens. The Ministry of Accountability and Inevitability tracks all of these things, for everyone. 

This year, Crush Week is a big, big deal. It’s the last year where people will be allowed any air travel, before the planes are grounded for good other than for medical use. Dad said even that will be limited, mostly for firefighters on the West Coast. 

I really, really want a new screen. Mine is blurry and has a huge crack in it from where Chad dropped it on the ground when it was his screen. I’d rather have that than another pathetic vacation. 

But nobody’s asking me. 

After my parents got married, they went to Maui on their honeymoon. The entire village they were staying at was destroyed in a fire and they spent days in emergency shelters before they could get home. Escaping death did nothing but make them want more vacations. Mom says it’s how they were raised, that you had fun, that you didn’t think about the other guy too much. 

They say they work hard, so they deserve it. Mr. Wagner would say that’s an entitled, extinctionist mindset, but I’m not going to be the one to point that out to them. 

They don’t want me to be like that. So, I have to give up the new screen in order to see them get what they want instead. 

This is supposed to teach me something. 

“Can’t I just stay home?” asks Chad. 

My mother pauses. Oh, please, please, please, I think in her direction. He’s old enough. He won’t burn the house down. 

At least not on purpose. 

“No,” she said. “I’ve heard too many horror stories about teenagers spending all their parents’ points when the parents went out of town. You’re coming with us, and that’s it.” 

Chad narrows his eyes. 

“Well, all righty then,” he says. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ll be on my best behavior.” 

Mom closes her laptop and sighs. 


Dinner is some type of lumpy pasta and cheese mixture. I don’t tell Mom it’s disgusting, because she’s stuck eating it too. The NFL—National Farmers League—took over all the football stadiums when I was in kindergarten and converted them to greenhouses, but there’s not much good soil, so the vegetables are hard and little. Five years later, they still aren’t able to produce much. 

If you want to take a chance, you can trade some points for a box of vegetables once a week. The tomatoes are hard and juiceless. Chad says they taste like plastic. Personally, I wouldn’t know, but Chad might. 

Mom has shown me pictures of home vegetable gardens in the Archive. Her grandmother used to grow her own tomatoes. There would be so many they would give them away to neighbors. 

When Mom tasted the tomatoes in the NFL box, she cried. Dad just stood there with his arms around her, resting his chin on the top of her head, swaying back and forth, until she stopped. 

That was the last time we traded for vegetables. 

“Not bad,” Dad says. He used to work for the Ministry of Attitude and Behavior. You may not be able to change the facts on the ground, he says, but you can change how you react to them. 

“No, not bad,” Chad says. “Repulsive. Repugnant. Nasty.”

“Usually, Nathan’s the one with the high-powered vocabulary,” my dad says. “What’s gotten into you tonight?” 

“He’s mad because I told him he can’t stay home alone during Crush Week,” Mom says. 

“Of course, he can’t stay home alone,” says Dad. “Because he’d miss a once in a lifetime experience. Do you kids want to weigh in on where we’re going? Or do you want it to be a surprise?” 

“Is there a third option?” asks Chad. “Like, you rent a kennel for Nathan, and I go to Muskrat’s house?” 

Muskrat is Chad’s friend from school. He looks and smells just like his name.

“The last time I checked, there are no kennel options for fifth graders,” says Dad. “And as you also know, Crush Week is our last chance to fly. We’re not going to miss it. You boys get to do so many things I only dreamed about as a kid.” 

I push my food around on my plate. Focus on the positive, Dad says, and you’ll forget about the rest. 

“You used to ride a bike,” I say, not looking up. “You used to go swimming. You used to make snowmen.”

My dad doesn’t answer. He continues to chew and swallow the best he can. 

“You know why, Nathan,” my mom says. “No bike riding because of the smoke. No swimming because of the water rationing. No snow because of the drought.” 

“Then why are we going on another stupid vacation?” I scream. I stand up so fast my elbow hits the table, and my dinner hits the floor. “Why are you and Dad so stupid? It’s all leaving. It’s all gone.”


Nobody ate much after that, or said anything, either. Dad retreated to his chair in the living room. Mom switched on the news.

Flooding in Greece and in Spain and in Italy. Fires burning for weeks in Central America and British Columbia. The Hawaiian Islands are abandoned. 

It didn’t matter what or how many points we used, whether the NFL grew cucumber or tomatoes. It didn’t matter if all the planes stopped this minute, even before Crush Week.

If certain things didn’t matter, no matter how many people did them, then what did matter? 

Chad has an extra screen that sometimes, if I’m very, very nice to him, he’ll let me borrow. I bang on Chad’s door. He pulls it open so fast I fall forward onto his floor. 

“Nice job freaking out at dinner, dweeb,” he says. “Are you competing for my spot as chief irritant?” 

“Are you competing for mine?” I ask. “What’s the sudden interest in vocabulary?” 

“I’m not interested in vocabulary,” Chad mutters. “Using big words has nothing to do with knowing what you’re talking about, little bro.”

“Don’t call me that,” I say. “I hate that.” 

Chad smiles. 

“Okay, bro,” he says. “Why did you come in here, then? You know everything, so you must’ve known I was going to say it, right?” 

The best thing to do with Chad is to ignore him, my mom says. I scoot next to him on the bed, which stinks like corn chips, body odor, and some nasty old man cologne. 

“What are you watching?” I ask. 

“Nothing you could handle,” says Chad. 

“I could so handle it,” I say. “I could handle it better than you can.” 

Chad tilts his head.

“Okay,” he says, regarding me like a cat that has caught a very small mouse, wondering if it’s even worth the effort. “The world is ending soon. Right?” 

“Technically, it will go on,” I say, “but without life. We’re the ones that are ending.” 

“Sure, okay,” says Chad. “But unless your genius vocabulary brain comes up with a better solution, we’re going to fall by the wayside like the penguins and the birds and the snakes.” 

“True,” I say. “But our pictures will be in the archives. So if anyone wants to see what we were, and what we did, they’ll know.” 

Mom never explains who will be left to look. 

“Whatever,” says Chad. “I was thinking about the bedtime story”.

The bedtime story comes in two versions. There’s the official one from the Ministry of Calm Communications, the one that finishes with the words “Copyrighted in 2029 by the Ministry of Calm Communications.” 

The other one is the homemade version.

“Which one?” I ask. 

“Mom’s version,” Chad says. 

Mom’s version is that the end will be different for each of us, that it will be a time where we get to choose. When I was little, I wanted as much candy as I could hold. I wanted a puppy, one that would turn into a huge dog, but not a scary one. I wanted to ride my bike for as long and as far as I wanted, and I wanted my friends to sleep over outside in a tent. 

Those things are all lame now that I know more. Even if I had a bike, and even if I could sleep outside, what about the low oxygen? What about the smoke? Where would we ever get enough points to feed a dog? 

“What are you thinking?” I ask. 

Chad flips his tablet towards me.

“Take a look,” he whispers. 

I’m watching a video of a large grassy area. There are huge men in shoulder pads running and throwing a football back and forth. There’s cheering and music. 

“That’s the real NFL,” Chad says. “But look at this.” 

He hits a button and the video skips forward. There are lots of women dancing, in matching skirts and tiny shirts, white and blue with silver stars on them. They are smiling and laughing.  They are waving—what’s the word for them?—these things with long streamers back and forth. The women are very bouncy. 

So much fun, those women are having, so far away and so beautiful, like angels but with less clothes.

Chad holds his breath, watching them.

“They’re cheerleaders,” he tells me. “Those are the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders right there, my man. This is the real NFL, what it’s supposed to be. There were games, and cheerleaders, and hot dogs, and beer and Cokes.” 

He snaps his tablet shut and looks at me. 

“I want cheerleaders,” he says, “at the end. I want a badass, bitchin’, ragin’, all nighter party. It’s going to be epic. Do you know what a kegger is, dweeb?” 

“Sure I do,” I say. I hope he doesn’t ask for a definition. 

“Well, I’m going to have one of those too,” says Chad. “And other stuff you don’t even know about. Adult stuff. Not for anyone under eighteen, normally, but I know a few guys who can make it happen.” 

“I want to go too!” I say. “You can’t have all those hot dogs and Cokes just for you!” 

“Sure I can!” Chad says. “You’d just have to pee every five minutes and miss the game anyway. And I don’t have time to find a bathroom for you with all those cheerleaders around.” 

“Maybe one of the cheerleaders knows where the bathroom is,” I say. One of them looked like my old first grade teacher if she wore less clothes. “And then I’d meet one and I can introduce you.” 

Chad looks interested, but just for a moment. Then he shakes his head. 

“Nah,” he says. “I’ve already got a plan. But tell you what. If I start talking them up, and one of them says they like to babysit, I’ll hook you up, okay?”

I don’t feel like asking Chad if I can borrow his screen after that. 


I go back into my own room because it doesn’t have Chad in it. 

“Mom?” I call downstairs, after I’ve tried to sleep for what feels like forever. 

“Yeah?” she shouts back. 

“Can you come tuck me in?” 

There’s a long pause. “I’m busy right now,” she says. 

“Can you come tell me the bedtime story?” I shout back. “Please, Mom?” 

There’s another pause. 

“Can you listen to the recording instead?” she asks. 

“No,” I say. “I want you, Mom.” 

Another pause. 

“All right,” she says. In a few seconds she opens my bedroom door, spilling a little light onto my bed. She sits on the edge and takes my hand. 

“Are you feeling okay?” she asks.

“I’m feeling too much,” I say. I creep closer and rest my head onto the pillow of her lap. She strokes my hair. 

“Can you tell me the story?” I ask.  “About the end?” 

Her face is a blur above mine. 

“Let’s talk about something else,” she says. “Let’s talk about when you’re a famous scientist, and you bring back the birds. Let’s talk about how we’re going to Antarctica soon and we’re going to see the last glacier before it’s gone, so you and Chad can say you were there.” 

I am quiet. Then I ask, “Who will we tell?” 

She doesn’t answer. The room is dark, almost too dark to see what you know is there. 

“Just tell the story, okay?” I ask. “I want to hear it from you.” 

So she does. She tells me her ending, with her mother and her grandmother, in the kitchen. Food is everywhere. They are making cookies, pies, cakes, and my grandmother’s Italian wedding soup, and there are tomatoes and peaches and grapes from the garden, grown right there. We are smiling and eating and only being nice to each other. And you can smell vanilla and cinnamon and chocolate chips, and my grandfather’s roses and lilacs are in a crystal vase on the table when we start our giant feast by candlelight. 

And that goes on forever, just like that, with the people she loves best being happy and together. 

There are no cheerleaders.

“Copyright 2041 by the Ministry of Anna Brookman,” I say in a synthesized voice, just like the recording, and Mom laughs. 

“I don’t know what I want in my ending,” I say after she stops laughing. “I don’t think I want one at all.” 

She squeezes my hand. 

“Well,” she says, “you’re still young. Give it some time.” 


In the morning, we hear on the news that Hoover Dam has collapsed. It would be a problem if there was anything left of the Colorado River, Dad says. The cities that depended on it for water and electricity are all abandoned now. 

“No harm, no foul,” he says. He kisses Mom on the cheek and says, “I ordered our tickets last night. We’re good to go.” 

She gives him a look back that’s warmer than a hug or a kiss, that makes me shy and like I shouldn’t have seen it at all. I’m only here because my parents like each other best, and no matter how much they love me, they will always be each other’s first. 

This wouldn’t be an issue if I also got a new screen. 

Chad and I wait for the bus right inside the front door so we don’t breathe in the smoke until the very last minute. 

“Have a good day,” Mom says, on autopilot. “Chad, make sure you come straight home so we can check in with the doctor.” 

Chad groans. Mom thinks he needs his meds adjusted. He thinks she needs her meds adjusted. This has gone on as long as I can remember. 

Our school is only thirty years old. I should feel lucky. We have AC and water and lights. We have working screens and the desks are not too uncomfortable and there’s basketballs at recess in the gym. We’re told we need to learn things just in case we have a future after all. 

I hit the dispenser on the wall and swallow my pill. I feel my heart slow down as I find my seat and take out my screen. 

Maybe this will be a good day. Maybe I’ll only need one pill today.

“What happened to your tablet, Nathan?” asks Mr. Wagner. “How did it get cracked like that?”

“It’s been like that all year. It was Chad’s,” I say. Mr. Wagner had Chad in fourth grade, too. He just nods. 

“Well, maybe you’ll get a new one soon,” he says. 

“Nope,” I say. “Because my parents have an entitled extinctionist mindset. We have to go with them to Antarctica for Crush Week.” 

Mr. Wagner tries not to smile.

“You didn’t hear those words from me, Nathan. And you particularly didn’t hear them in relation to anyone’s parents, including yours.”

“Does your family go anywhere for Crush Week?” I ask.

“I don’t have kids,” Mr. Wagner says. “You students are my kids.” 

It costs more points to have kids. Not everyone can consider it. My mom says it was worth it.

I’m sure I was worth it. Not sure about Chad, though. 

“Can I ask you something?” 

“Sure,” says Mr. Wagner. “I might not know the answer, though.” 

I rip off the eraser from my pencil. I don’t like erasing things. 

“Why do people talk about the end of the world instead of the end of their own life?” I ask. 

Mr. Wagner isn’t like most teachers. He talks only if he has something to say.

“It’s easier that way,” he says, after a long moment. He taps my broken pencil. “You know how you hate erasing things? Think about it this way. One person is the top number of the fraction, the numerator. All of us together, even that person whose number is on the top, are the bottom number, the denominator. We are all part of the whole. But to be just the numerator is scary because you’re alone up there at the top, separated from everyone else. It’s less scary for a lot of people to erase the whole thing than just the top number and know that part of the bottom number will go on.”

“We watch the news,” I tell him. “So nature’s trying to reduce the fractions, both the top and the bottom numbers, as fast as it can, any way it can, right?” 

“It feels like that,” says Mr. Wagner. “Fires. Flooding. Storms.” 

“So the numerator tells itself a story so it’s not scared,” I say. 

“Yeah,” says Mr. Wagner. 

“But it’s better if there’s a bottom number left,” I say. “It’s better if not everyone goes.” 

I wonder if I got a bad pill this morning. I can’t stop thinking. 

“Nature is wicked pissed off,” I say. 

“True,” says Mr. Wagner. “If you poison the world long enough, it wants payback.” 

“Should I take another pill?” I ask. 

He looks a little bit sad. 

“Well, the school nurse wants you to be comfortable,” he says. “You’re certainly able to take another one.” 

“But do you think I should?” I ask. 

“I’m a teacher,” he says. “I don’t give medical advice. But thinking isn’t always comfortable, Nathan.”

“Why do I need to learn long division if the world is ending anyway?” I ask. 

“We’re subtracting and dividing now,” Mr. Wagner says. “But sometime, we’ll go back to adding and multiplying. And we’ll need grown-ups who paid attention in fourth grade to help.”

“Are you going on vacation during your Crush Week?” I ask. Teachers don’t get a lot of points. They live at the school, so they get board and housing instead. 

“In a manner of speaking,” he says. 

“Can we have a vocabulary contest in class,” I ask, “and maybe I can win a new screen?” 

Mr. Wagner smiles and just shakes his head. 

“You ask a lot of questions,” he says. “I hope you keep asking them even if you don’t like the answers.” 


When I get home after school, Chad is upstairs asleep in his room. It sounds like my mother won and the doctor adjusted his medication. When that happens, he always sleeps a lot afterwards. 

Because it’s so quiet at dinner, I ask a new question. 

“What’s it mean to surrender?” 

My mom looks up from what is her latest attempt at dinner, something that is rubbery and chickeny that is not related to chicken. My dad is trying to disguise his under spoonfuls of some kind of sauce. 

“Well, you know the general meaning,” she says. “To give up, like a losing side does in a war.” 

“Yeah,” I say, “but how does it work when the government does it? Like, when we run out of points?” 

This is my dad’s department. He’s gotta know this, working for the Ministry of Accountability and Inevitability. 

That must be why my mom doesn’t answer. 

“It’s complicated,” my dad says. “There’s a lot of accounting that goes on throughout the life cycle. We look at how many resources are expended and how many were able to be renewed before deciding anything.”

“But we all get the same number of points to start, right?” I ask. “Like, from birth?” 

“Sort of,” says my father. 

“Everything takes resources,” Mom says. 

“Mr. Wagner doesn’t have kids. So he’s got more points, right?”

They don’t say anything. We all just chew and try to swallow. 


This is how our vacation went: 

We crammed onto a huge plane with lots of noisy, sweaty people and I couldn’t roll down a window. I spent nearly a whole day breathing through my mouth because Chad forgot to bring his deodorant and then we hit turbulence and he threw up on me, which he said was accidental, but I said wasn’t possible from where his seat was unless he really, really tried. 

And then we got to Antarctica and the hotel had no air conditioning, and the boat we were supposed to take was unable to float safely because the river was flooded. So we had to take a helicopter, which took extra points and Mom was upset about but that Chad thought was awesome, and we did a fly over. 

And the tour guide pointed to a tiny little spot far away below us, where a white tarp floated to try to protect the glacier from the rays of the sun. And a crew of workers pulled the tarp aside, where all I could see was tired-looking, trash-cluttered ocean, and the tour guide said, See that? There it is. 

Where? Where? everyone asked. 

The tour guide focused her binoculars and said, “Oh, how exciting! It just melted. You’re the first group to see where it was!”

Dad wanted his money and his points back, but the company says there’s no guarantee you’ll see anything on their tours.

“It’s the end of the world,” their sales guy told us. “What do you expect?” 

On the way back Chad shook up his bottle of soda and then told the flight attendant it was stuck and they opened it and got sprayed all over with foam. 


I want to tell Mr. Wagner. He’ll get it. He’ll understand the irony of going all the way there to Antarctica to see a puddle. He’ll be proud that I used the word “irony” correctly. 

But he’s got a sub today. And the next day, too, and the day after that. 

Mom asks me at dinner how my day went. 

“We watched another video,” I say, “unrelated to the curriculum.” 

Mom laughs. 

“Mr. Wagner’s been out now almost a week,” I say. 

“There was an announcement in the parent newsletter,” Dad says. “He won’t be coming back, son.” 

“What?” I ask. “Why? He lives there at school.” 

“Well, he used to,” says Dad. “He surrendered while we were out of town, apparently.” 

“Surrendered? He doesn’t have any kids. He doesn’t go anywhere.” I looked at my mom and then back at my dad. “How could he use up all his points like that?” 

Dad says it’s private information, when someone surrenders, and sometimes we never know, that only the Ministry of Accountability and Inevitability knows, and it’s classified so he can’t tell.  Mom says she’ll ask the school secretary in the morning. 

“He wasn’t out of points,” she says at dinner the next night. “His sister has cancer and was out of points. He gave up his points so she could continue with chemo.” 

“But that’s not fair,” I say. “He shouldn’t have to do that!” 

“There’s only so many points per family,” Dad says. “You know the policy. What he did was a stupid thing, though. Who knows if his sister will even make it?” He bangs on the side of the ketchup bottle. “Teachers make the rest of us look bad. You don’t see anyone from my department sacrificing their points. The accounting is a nightmare.”

I look over at Chad for agreement. He’s right. The system is wrong, and I want him to know I know it. I want him to know I know he’s right. 

But ever since he got his last medication adjustment, Chad has been quiet. 


I get home from school early the next afternoon because the sub for Mr. Wagner needs plan time. I don’t know why he needs plan time when all we watch are old videos from twenty years ago, but hey, at least I’m home. 

My mom and Chad aren’t here. Dad is still at work. I’m building a world on my screen, avoiding the cracked part, when I hear the front door open. 

My mom walks inside. She doesn’t say anything. Not hello, not how are you. 

“Hey,” I say, because she’s making me uncomfortable. “The sub sent us home early.” 

She doesn’t respond. I pull my eyes away from my screen and look up. And it’s like she’s a million miles away, like looking at the stars, where there’s no way you can touch them. Somewhere where it’s cold and dark, where you can’t reach them. She’s her own nighttime. 

“Mom?” I say. I touch her arm, but she doesn’t react. 

Right then Dad rushes over to her and tries to hug her, but she doesn’t bend. She doesn’t move to meet him at all. 

“Dad?” They are freaking me out. I wish I had a pill. I try to remember the last time I took one at school. “What’s going on?” 

Dad clears his throat.

“There’s been a mistake,” he says. “It’s a horrible mistake that happens sometimes.” 

“What mistake? It can be fixed, right?” 

Neither of them says anything. I stand up, feeling a scream swelling in my chest. 

“Where’s Chad?” I ask. “He’s not home yet.” 

“Chad was surrendered today,” Dad says. “It’s a mistake, of course. We’ve been careful with our points. I showed them all of our spreadsheets and receipts.” 

“But you work there!” I shouted. “How can this happen? What do you mean, he’s surrendered? Go and get him!” 

My mom’s face cracks, like an earthquake is happening. She trembles and makes this horrible wailing, grinding sound.

“I was in a meeting,” Dad says. “My boss thinks this might be political, that someone’s trying to get back at me.” 

“Where is he?” I scream. “Don’t just sit there! Go!” 

Mom makes another moaning, shuddering sound. She’s dissolving into a million little slivers, sliced wide open by the noises she doesn’t seem to know she’s made. 

“I can’t,” says Dad. “He’s not there anymore. That’s what it means to surrender.” 

“Oh,” I whisper. And as it goes in, deeper and deeper, I feel like I can’t breathe, can’t catch my own breath. I start to rock, back and forth, like my dad did when he held my mom and she cried about those tomatoes. 

“He wasn’t happy,” says Dad. “Chad wasn’t a happy kid, Nathan. He couldn’t stop thinking about the end, no matter how many times we tried changing his medication. It happens sometimes. Some kids can’t handle thinking there might not be a future, no matter how many times you tell them to look on the bright side, to keep their chins up.” He turned away from Mom, frozen there next to the couch. 

“We don’t have to worry about this happening to you,” Dad says. “You were born smiling, Nathan. No matter what happens, I want you to keep smiling. You hear me?” 

All I can do is stare at him, see right through to the back and the bottom of him. 

“We have his recording,” Dad says. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to listen to it just now, but they let him make one, so he can tell his ending story for us. Did you know that, Nathan? Everyone gets to record their ending story, just the way Mom taught you, for the Archive. So part of them lives on. Some of us who are a little more organized even record ours just in case. Never hurts to plan ahead.” 

He winks at me. I continue to stare at him like I’m not sure who he is, like how did this guy get into my house and become my father. 

He takes my mom’s hand, gently, and the earthquake stops, and she begins to flood, sobbing, a hurricane and a tornado. There would never be enough pills to fight them all, to fix so much hurt. 

They are for each other, my parents, first and always. 

I go outside. I sit on the back step, look out where grass should be and where no tomatoes grow. The ash falls from a birdless sky, feathers from the birds that surrendered a long time ago. I know it’s bad to breathe this air, that it’s full of chemicals that can sear my lungs in just a few minutes, but I won’t be out here for more than a few minutes. Just for as long as it takes. 

They won’t even know I’m gone.

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Heather Bartos writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Fatal Flaw, McNeese Review, HerStry, LitroUSA, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction and short stories have appeared in Baltimore Review, Ponder Review, Orca, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith, and elsewhere. She lives with her family near Portland, Oregon.