The end of Frank’s world doesn’t go out with a bang or a whimper, but rather with the siren of the emergency broadcasting system and a smoky, pink smudge on the western horizon.
Frank Sommers sets up camp on the southeast edge of a high alpine lake—clear, turquoise, and cold. The wind sends ripples across the water as hummingbirds buzz around waist-high lupines and tiger lilies. Frank’s insides turn to stone at the thought of all this beauty being buried under ash and snow—megatons of potential, atoms torn apart, hydrogens fusing into helium. A piece of the sun on Earth.
He is half a day by trail and half a day’s drive from San Francisco. He plans to camp for two nights on Echo Lake before heading deeper into the Trinity Alp Wilderness. Real wilderness. No fees and no reservations for camp sites. This is no diluted nature like the national parks with their tidy little tent pads and endless garbage cans and pit toilets. In the federal wilderness Frank can camp anywhere he wants, shit anywhere he wants, and in the right season, he could even hunt, though Frank is no hunter.
Frank crawls into his tent and wriggles into his sleeping bag, the nylon cold and smooth against his skin. His thoughts blur out. His breathing slows. Then his mind clicks back.
Fucking bombs. Fucking bombs. Fucking bombs. The world is dust. I will never learn to swing dance with Rose. I will never be a father. I will never see another summer.
Buzzing with adrenaline, he unzips the tent and steps out wearing nothing. Chill mountain air prickles his skin. A dull pinkish glow still huddles along the western horizon and from the pulsing light a cloud mushrooms out, black and heavy, crawling eastward through the sky. It begins to extinguish the stars. Frank hears his mother’s voice. That one, Francis, is the Dog Star and that one, that little one that never moves, that’s the North Star. Frank wants to scream, but he is self-conscious even in the middle of nowhere.
Frank runs into the lake. He has never skinny dipped before. Orange moonlight casts long shadows. The water is cold and his legs ache and he loves the way sounds distort when his head is under the surface. When he steps out of the water, he looks at the perfect footprints and watches the water drip through his leg hairs. He dries off with a sweater and goes back into the tent.
Maybe he heard it wrong—just a prank like War of the Worlds. Someday NPR will do a piece about the fools who thought the joke was serious—that there really had been hundreds, thousands of explosions.
Frank shakes his head. He replays it all. His little burnt-orange two-door stick shift at the end of a long abandoned logging road. The car was baking under the sun and Frank kept turning the radio dial back and forth. But all the frequencies from 87.8 to 107.9 were either static or the shrill emergency broadcast alarm. AM the same. Major cities in ruins, the repeated announcement said, over and over again. Sweat ran off his face, leaving dark marks on his grey t-shirt. Maybe he was crying. Either the radio lied or it did not. There was no reason to go back.
The next morning fuzzy vapors obscure the pale, orange sun. Frank emerges from the tent and dresses. He prepares some breakfast. From the lakeshore, while washing out his coffee mug, Frank stares at the enfeebled disc. He pleads with God, desperately, that the fog above is just strange weather or forest fire smoke when something rustles in the brush. Loud as a bomb. Natural sounds have an irregular irregularity about them. Gusts of wind through tinder dry branches, bubbling water, and birdsong all retreat into sounds of nature. But a deliberate crack, a deliberate crunch—these are made by something. Or someone.
Frank, frozen, sees two men in camouflage emerge from the brush at the lake’s inlet. One is carrying a bow. The other steps up and whispers in the first man’s ear.
Frank moves his hand toward a fist-sized stone. With the other, he reaches into his pocket for the Leatherman tool. He tightens his hand on the stone until acid burns in all the muscles of his hand and forearm.
Do they know about the bombs?
One of the hunters, the one with the bow, glances in Frank’s direction. The hunter grabs the arm of his partner. Frank shivers at the sensation of his fingernails digging into the granite stone.
The hunters appear to discuss something. Then, lithe like panthers, they retreat into the brush. After a few minutes, Frank only hears the wind rattling some branches. The hunters are gone.
The red tinged mountains all around the lake are peppered with sharp stones and boulders. If not for the scraggly, stunted pines sticking out of the rock, it could be Mars. The sky is matte white and for all the crooked trees, broken outcrops, and jutting boulders, there are no shadows. Frank drops the stone and it thunks as it hits the reddish earth. Frank’s hand shakes and his body shudders. He wraps his arms around himself and the acrid stench of sweat fills his nostrils.
So this is how it ends. Men become animals.
Many miles up above, in the stratosphere, aerosolized cities blow around the world.
Frank pulls a flask from his pack and swallows a sip of scotch. It is hot on his throat. He thinks about the world as it was then, when that fourteen-year-old whisky first entered the barrel. He remembers his mother baking a rum cake for his Confirmation. St Cecilia is probably rubble, like all of San Francisco. He places the flask into his pack.
Frank unfolds the Leatherman tool blade and runs it over his thumb pad. A red line swells and the blood clots. Frank throws the knife into the powdery mountain dirt, ashamed of the bleak futures that cloud his mind. Frank does not know if he believes in God, but he knows that that is a sin.
Francis, did you say your Hail Marys? It makes you pure in body and spirit.
Ten dehydrated meals, fifteen packets of instant oatmeal, a quart bag of trail-mix, a water filter, and the rest of Frank’s gear fills the pack. There is enough to eat well for a week, poorly for two. A countdown clock of Mountain House dehydrated dinners.
He can’t stay here.
He strains as he hefts the pack to his back. He snaps together the two halves of the waist belt and jumps once to settle the weight on his body. Frank inhales the sweet, earthy, powdery scent. He has always loved the smell of the alpine country. So much beauty and Frank takes it all in—red spikes of Indian Paint Brush; yellow slipper-shaped monkey flowers along the stream.
What he would give now to smell bus exhaust or laundry detergent–the aromas of daily life, the odors of civilization.
The Leatherman tool is still on the ground, and he squats down, unbalanced under the weight of the pack, and picks it up. He does not know what waits for him. The trail is cluttered with stones and he struggles to pick his path. He glances at the cut on his thumb. He remembers his mother telling him the stories of the saints. Tribulation is a gift from God, Francis.
Maybe not, but it was all Frank had.