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Sleeping Through the Apocalypse


by Gloria Harrison


You call it The Accident. You don't hear any of it, and you remember none of it later, as a woman. Never. It's a chasm so deep you'll never see the bottom. On one side of the void, you're a 17 year old girl on summer break before your senior year of high school, crawling into the middle seat of a powder blue, 1988 Dodge Caravan next to your foster sister. You've just bought pop from the convenience store the van is parked in front of. The convenience store is somewhere between Interstate 5 - in a nowhere section of California, south of Fresno, where you'd spent the previous day riding tubes down waterpark slides, but still north of Los Angeles - and Barstow, a fantasy destination two and a half hours to the east of I5, where you're supposed to meet your biological father. Where you'll put a face to the name Dad. A face that could overwrite the other monstrous images that claim the word.

On the other side of the chasm, darkness and suffering await - sometimes in tandem, but sometimes separate. The image of you with the soda crawling into the middle seat of the van will loop like a stuck film reel when you try to remember what happened before the world was cleaved in two. There's you in black shorts walking from a convenience store, pop in hand, on a 110 degree day toward a minivan full of non-family, but now-family. Then, the chasm, dark and deep. Then, there you are again - a non-self, now-self, suffering-self. You spend 20 years searching for the girl in the black shorts with a cold can of pop in her hand as if going through the steps of locating a lost wallet. You concentrate on where you were the last time you saw it until you lock onto the place you left it and can feel the relief of knowing it's retrievable. Only, in this case, you never find the wallet or any of the identification inside. Nothing is retrievable.

Where has your girl body gone? Where did you leave it? Oh. That's right. It's walking from a convenience store toward a minivan, carrying a pop, and thinking about a Dad.

You spend 20 years telling the story - the before the chasm and the after the chasm story. You never remember the details of the just-before clearly. You were with your foster family - six people in the middle of a nowhere desert, one of whom was hoping to fill a Dad-sized hole. They were there only for you and your Dad space. They had no other reason to be there. That's the last thing you know about the before; your last memory. Five people drove hours out of their way on the return trip of their family vacation you'd gone along on so that you could meet a Dad you'd only just found out about. A Dad who was supposed to meet you when you called to say you were in town, but who never answered the phone despite 20 minutes of plunging quarter after quarter into a payphone at a convenience store on the outskirts of Barstow, California. Finally, you bought a can of cola, told the five people who'd driven you all this way it was a bust, and crawled into the middle seat of a mini-van. The last and final moment of the irretrievable before.

Then, forevermore, there was only the after.

This is what you know: Soon After, Dad came to visit you in the hospital. For over 20 years, you try and try but never can recall his face as he sat next to your hospital bed with his bombastic wife. “Gary got thrown in the pokey! That's why he wasn't available that day!” the wife told you with a chuckle. But the Dad sat there quietly looking at you. You were absent, though. The you in the black shorts was dead on a highway 40 miles west of Barstow, a ghost wandering the tarmac with your dead foster mother and a dead stranger and a dead stranger's friend, both of whom were probably still drunk, even in their ghostly form, as they had been when they plowed into the powder blue, 1988 Dodge Caravan at 70 miles per hour.

The thing in the bed trying to see over the enormity of the loud and chuckling wife to the face of the Dad wasn't real. It wasn't You because You weren't alive. You were neither the woman you've finally, impossibly become, nor the dead girl on the highway. You were an empty machine recording fragments of information - disjointed vignettes that you would play over and over again for the next two decades, hoping for a linear scene. Hoping that someday, it would all come together and form its own cohesive whole and you'd finally remember where the hell it was you'd left that girl in the shorts with the pop that day.

 

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The Cousin calls it The Crash. He was in the far back of the minivan playing a slapping game with his cousin, your foster brother, on his way to New Mexico from Northern California for the rest of the summer. He didn't know why he was on the road to Barstow, something to do with you, his new friend, the foster kid, the one who was on vacation with his aunt and her family. They were at a convenience store, then they were on the highway again. Aunt Lisa said, “Oh my god” and then there was the sound of an apocalypse: crunching metal, screaming, a truck exploding, windows being blown inward. And the pain of his spine snapping. The van spinning and spinning like a fan blade set to high.

Then there was silence.

The cousin tried to move, but couldn't communicate with his body below his shoulders. His cousin next to him, the boy cousin, was crumpled over in his seat, breathing but unmovable, caught awkwardly in his seat belt. His young girl cousin, who was just in the middle seat moments before, was now on the floor on her side, convulsing. He couldn't see the foster kid, but he could hear you moaning and screaming somewhere on the floor in front of the middle seat. His uncle up in the passenger seat was awake and looking around with wide animal eyes. All he could see of his aunt in the driver's seat was her hair. The wind was blowing her hair and she wasn't moving. He watched her long blonde hair blow freely in the hot desert wind coming through the shattered drivers-side window and he knew she was dead. Aunt Lisa's hair blew like a dead person's. Before that, he didn't know there could be a difference between how a dead person's and an alive person's hair blew, but now he knew. He'd never be able to forget, in fact.

He doesn't know how long he waited. His uncle got out of the car to flag down help and he was left alone to endure the smell of fuel and burning, the smell and weight of the dry, oppressive heat, the terror of watching the truck that hit them and the people inside burn through his shattered window, and the nonstop wailing of the foster kid.

He called your name, “Gloria!” But you didn't answer.

He doesn't know how long he waited, but he does know that you screamed and moaned and he couldn't get to you. All he wanted was to get to you. To make your horrible noise end.

Eventually, people started coming to the van. Strangers. People who had been driving by. One man reached through The Cousin's disintegrated window, grabbed his hand, and gave him his last rites. Then, he went around and one by one gave everyone left in the van their last rite's, even the dead aunt. And all the while, The Cousin waited for your screaming to stop.

A year later, The Cousin and the foster kid would have sex. His first time. You wouldn't see each other again for twenty years, and he would go that entire time not having sex with anyone. He'd wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare of the foster kid screaming, dripping in sweat, and terrified that if he ever got close to anyone again, he'd never be able to save them. When you meet again 20 years later, you discover that The Cousin has built a hero's narrative around you. Not the woman you now, nor the girl in the black shorts foster kid of you before, but the you that lives somewhere down at the bottom of deep, dark chasm. The same place a part of him lives, too.

He calls it The Crash. You call it The Accident. His word for the apocalypse is active and specific, like his memories of that day. Yours is vague and passive. He still wants to save you when you meet again 20 years later. He needs you to stop screaming. He needs to be able to move his broken body in your direction and shut you the fuck up. He needs to save you so he can finally move on. He needs action. But 20 years gone, and you've finally left the highway in the middle of the desert 40 miles outside of Barstow. Your head got smashed open; you went into a coma; and you never remembered a single thing after walking out of the convenience store with a can of pop and getting into the middle seat of the mini-van. You've suffered for this — for the not knowing. The truth lying just below the edge of consciousness. But 20 years later, you reunite briefly with The Cousin, and you realize — there are no winners in this story. But for the first time, you're thankful to have slept through the apocalypse. 

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