“I’ve learned not to expect too much of the apocalypse”
3 January 2012: The Present
Lilly Earlyon is standing in the elevator, pretending to dust something nowhere close to the buttons so that she doesn’t accidentally hit one. Her excitement is not about finding out what’s actually in the secret basement, which is a revelation she had just recently. The existence of the secret basement itself is something that she hasn’t thought past. If it’s empty, she’ll be happy. Though it’s probably not empty. If it’s full, she’ll be even happier.
This thrill of figuring something out was often mistook in her for preternatural intelligence. Which is not to say that she’s dumb, but it was easy for her parents to focus on her excitement at solving puzzles and forget that the puzzles were never anything but perfectly age-appropriate. Her love of having found out the answer was mistook for a desire to put in lots of effort towards answer-finding, and so in school she was both heavily pushed and a disappointment.
“But you love to learn,” her parents would say, and she had to take their word for it. What she loved was to have learned. More accurately, this was what she liked. What she loved were RPG-style videogames, which are both an excellent way to solve puzzles of increasing difficulty and be able to look up how, and to sit in exactly one spot for extended periods of time.
Which makes this elevator – a puzzle solved by staying in one sport for an extended period of time – kind of the holy grail for Lilly.
She was able to attend a seriously prestigious liberal arts college, mostly because of her father’s connections to the dean, and she didn’t stay long enough to achieve a nickname.
She’d been walking out of the library, looking straight down at a gameboy that she was playing a re-release of Final Fantasy II on, and she’d looked up for a second to see two large parties of what she’d begrudgingly had to accept as her peers yelling at each other from across a sidewalk. On one side was a rally to raise awareness for the public desire to free a rapper from federal prison, who had not only funded an underground dog-fighting ring and dabbled in child pornography, but it had been found out that he had almost single-handedly headed an East Coast drug empire. On the other side, a collective of students who had, until the rap began, been attempting to sleep in cardboard boxes, to raise awareness for people who actually had to sleep in cardboard boxes, or something.Their first attempt, the night before, had been rained out.
From the rap side came a cavalcade of sarcastic apologies, from one girl in particular, screaming “oh, I’m so sorry, oh I’m so sorry,” the sarcasm evident in the inflections of the “oh” and the “so.” Another girl was moving her butt in unnatural-looking ways, and also apologizing.
From the box side, there were vague accusations about the disparity in the legitimacy of the two sides’ causes, as well as an accusation that the rap protestors had at some point actually lost their souls. Unconsciously, as there was no physical divider beyond the road, itself built specifically for travel, no one crossed the road or even made a step onto the road, so Lilly was able to pass, somehow invisible, between the two sides, and felt the spit and smelled the drugs.
Her dorm door had come equipped with a small whiteboard, and on it her roommate had written some asinine dreck about never regretting something that made you smile once, or some such, and Lilly packed all of her things into boxes and tried to forget about those human beings and the country they inhabited.
And so exactly the kind of emotional and monetary rift that you’d expect to form formed, which led to Lilly taking a job in a national park near Anchorage, AK, which company also sent janitors to Antarctica, which is where she is now.
She’s squatting in the elevator, for some reason, somehow reasoning that if she makes herself as small as she can, she is less likely to get caught, which is ridiculous and untrue, in an elevator, but is one of those irrational things that can comfort a person. She is in the elevator for three minutes and thirty-three seconds before it shudders and descends, and her breath quickens. She is now squatting, having finished pretending to dust at around the two minute mark.
She is squatting and breathing with difficulty, comforted by her squatting, kind of stressed by her breathing, which is fogging even in the relative heat of January.
The elevator descending slowly, but to what feels to Lilly like a freakish depth. It occurs to her that maybe the depths of the station might be a place of punishment, that the reason she doesn’t see the scientists who descend for extended periods of time is because they are being brutally tortured for incompetence of some kind, for actions that adversely affect the station and therefore the States, and therefore the whole free world.
She felt this kind of dread once before, when auditioning for a part as an extra in a horror movie that was being filmed in her childhood hometown. She was in line with what seemed like millions and millions of kids exactly her age and socio-economic status, and as she got closer to the front of the line, she began to hear screaming. The auditions were in the local public school’s gymnasium, and kids would go in one at a time and then there’d be this bloodcurdling scream and then silence, and then the next kid’d go in, and scream exactly once, and then the next kid, and so on and so on. She was terrified, but she also couldn’t bring herself to leave the line, and neither could any of the other kids. She didn’t know whether or not they were scared as well, but how couldn’t they be? But how could she break line, and be the only one? She’d be the coward. And so she endured the screaming for about an hour and a half, until it was just her in there, and she fully expected to be rent asunder or bitten or zapped with some kind of electric, but what happened was a smarmy-looking guy asked her to do her best scared scream, and she did, and the part went to some other girl who would go on to become one of the town’s all time greatest sluts.
Lilly was frightened by the fact that complete unknown-ness and not even the luxury of expecting to scream awaited her at the bottom of this supernaturally long descent.
She quickly develops the theory that it just travels all the way through the earth, and she’ll end up at the north pole, cold and upside-down, then have to ride it all the way back.
So imagine her surprise when the doors to the freight elevator open up and she comes face to face with her very own favorite daddy, with a perfectly stereotypical physics prof beard, and the first thing he tells her is that it’s about damn time, and it’s more grumbled than actually spoken though.
9 February 1989: The Present
A. Atom Severe is wondering how books get published, all of a sudden. More specifically, he is wondering how post-apocalyptic re-imaginings of beloved Broadway plays about Jewish identity and whether it’s right to go against tradition get published, when they’re set in Scotland and have nothing to do with either Jewish identity or tradition.
He is also wondering about copyright infringement and whether “Fiddler” is public domain.
He is spending a considerably smaller amount of his mental bandwidth on one of two things in his life that are actually interesting: the overdue book. Which is objectively more interesting than his book and the business of publishing. He has not filed it back in with the rest of the literature, instead hanging onto it for some reason.
Perhaps, unconsciously, he knows that it’s the most interesting thing that’s every happened to him, but he certainly isn’t thinking of it in that way now. He is busy thinking of what he is under the impression is daring, avant-garde sci-fi, but which is in reality absolute and irredeemable nonsense.
He has actually sent a chapter disguised as a short story to several reputable literary reviews (a chapter in which Moira’s ability to discern, process, and produce music is attributed to a disease that may result in her death, an potentially interesting idea that is nevertheless never fully fleshed out, in that it is mentioned precisely zero more times in that chapter or outside of it), one of which broke their usual rejection policy of simply not responding to send a carefully worded letter back explaining that not only should this A.A. Severe (Atom’s publishing name) not submit anything to this particular journal every again (which journal’s name rhymes with “dew dorker”) but that he also shouldn’t submit anything to anywhere, and that if he were to hire someone to live full time with him whose only job was to slap any writing implements out of his hands, they’d not only happily foot the bill but they’d try to see if they could write it off, tax-wise, as they’d be providing a service to mankind.
This response was lost in the mail, and A.A. Severe remains hopeful that the short story he’ll use to promote his novel is waiting to be discovered in the slush pile at the offices of the mag that rhymes with dew dorker.
All of this is to say that Atom is wasting a lot of mental energy on pretty unproductive (and possibly detrimental to society, if you believe some editors, who actually toned down their response) things, rather than an exciting mystery.
So when he gets a knock at the door, he is upset at being jolted out of exactly the wrong thought process.
The apartment complex that Atom lives in is called “Paradise Lofts,” which is an unintentional pun that all the tenants but him appreciate, and even if he were to suddenly have a fridge logic epiphany on the subject, the irony that a book jockey would miss that pun for so many years would also whiz right on over the top of his noggin.
Although maybe a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that no one reads the classics anymore.
And he opens the door, and he can say without any reservation, and as a heterosexual male, that the guy standing there is the handsomest man he’s ever seen. (Although maybe a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that he works at a library).
“Listen. I want this to be fair,” says the man.
“Okay? Just okay? You’re just right there ready to go along with what this stranger at your door whom you know nothing about is proposing?”
“I guess so.”
“Then that’s exactly why I’m here. Did you know that Julius Caesar met with Spartacus high on a rock the night before the former quelled the latter’s rebellion? Though of course he wasn’t a Caesar then.”
“I did not.”
“This is kind of like that.”
“In what way?”
“You and I are about to be enemies. We are also about to have been enemies. And I want to win, but I want it to be at least a little bit fair. So you and I are going to have a competition, a bit of friendly gamesmanship, to decide whether or not I will reward you with a fraction of my intelligence. If you win, you will become incredibly intelligent by your standards, and if I win I will either have to just deal with the fact that our future battle will be spectacularly one-sided, or query the powers that be to engineer another to replace-“
“Ro-Sham-Bo!” shouts Atom, throwing a rock on “bo.”
The handsome man, caught off guard, reacting instinctively, throws scissors unthinkingly and is both surprised and annoyed.
“If you’re telling the truth, I get smarter, and if you’re lying, I get to kick a lunatic off my porch. Even a dummy like me can spot a win-win.”
A quick aside: there is a lot that he doesn’t know about, and he’d admit to it, but Aleph Atom Severe knows one hell of a whole lot about rock-paper-scissors variations. He knows that if you think, more often than not, you lose. He knows you get exactly one trump-all fire throw per lifetime (trump-all except for water, which is itself risky as it only beats fire). He also knows that if he throws his fire here, probably no one will find out. He is dishonest with the small stuff.
“Ro-Sham-Bo!” The handsome man wins the throw, rock to scissors.
“Ro-Sham-BO!” Atom throws his one and only fire (except for if he lies about it), and the handsome man loses, and smiles, and walks away, and as soon as he’s out of Atom’s sight, it’s like a shadow hangs over his face, and people seem to unconsciously look away from him.
Atom is then aware that his novel is pure tripe, but has some ideas for tweaks.
 Himself a professor of physics at a much, much more prestigious university.
 But whose jams, even Lilly had to admit, approached a level of dopeness ‘pert near staggering.
 They were unclear.
 The other being the murder that he and a handful of people witnessed yesterday.