A Story by Mr. Whittier
For their last family vacation, Eve's dad herded them all into the car and said to get comfortable. This trip could take a couple hours, maybe more.
They had snacks, cheese popcorn and cans of soda and barbecue potato chips. Eve's brother, Larry, and she sat in the back seat with their Boston terrier, Risky. In the front seat, her dad turned the key to start the engine. He turned the ventilation to high and opened all the electric windows. Sitting next to him, Eve's future ex-stepmom, Tracee, said, "Hey, kids, listen to this . . ."
Tracee waved a government pamphlet calledIt's Great to Emigrate.She flipped it open, bending the spine backward to crack it, and started to read out loud. "Your blood uses hemoglobin," she read, "to carry oxygen molecules from your lungs to the cells in your heart and brain."
Maybe six months ago, everybody got this same pamphlet in the mail from the Surgeon General. Tracee slipped her feet out of her sandals and put her toes up on the dashboard. Still reading out loud, she said, "Hemoglobin actually prefers to bond with carbon monoxide." The way she talked, as if her tongue were too big, it was supposed to make her sound girly. Tracee read, "As you breathe car exhaust, more and more of your hemoglobin combines with carbon monoxide, becoming what's called carboxyhemoglobin."
Larry was feeding cheese popcorn to Risky, getting the bright-orange cheese powder all over the car seat between him and Eve.
Her dad switched on the radio, saying, "Who wants music?" He looked at Larry in the rearview mirror and said, "You're going to make that dog sick."
"Great," Larry said, and fed Ricky another piece of bright-orange popcorn. "The last thing I'll see is the inside of the garage door, and the last song I'll hear will be something by the Carpenters."
But there's nothing to hear. There's been nothing on the radio for a week.
Poor Larry, poor goth rocker Larry, with black makeup smeared around his white-powdered face, his fingernails painted black and his long stringy hair dyed black, compared to real people with their eyes pecked out by birds, real dead people with their lips peeling back from their big dead teeth, compared to real death, Larry could just be a really sad-faced clown.
Poor Larry, he'd stayed in his room for days after the final Newsweek cover story. The headline, big and bold, it said: "It's Hip to Be Dead!"
All those years of Larry and his band dressing like zombies or vampires in black velvet and dragging dirty shrouds, stomping around graveyards all night wrapped in rosary necklaces and capes, all that effort wasted. Now even soccer moms were emigrating. Old church ladies were emigrating. Lawyers wearing business suits were emigrating.
The last issue of Time magazine, the cover story said: "Death Is the New Life."
Now poor Larry, he's stuck with Eve and his dad and Tracee, the whole family emigrating together in a four-door Buick parked in a suburban split-level ranch-house garage. All of them breathing carbon monoxide and eating cheese popcorn with their dog.
Still reading, Tracee says, "As less hemoglobin is available to carry oxygen, your cells begin to suffocate and die."
There was still television on some channels, but all they played was the video sent back by the space mission to Venus.
It was the stupid space program that had started all this. The manned mission to explore the planet Venus. The crew sent back their video of the planet surface, the face of Venus as this garden paradise. After that, the accident wasn't because of chipped insulation panels or broken O-rings or pilot error. It wasn't an accident. The crew just chose not to deploy their landing parachutes. Fast as a meteor, the outer hull of their spacecraft burst into flame. Static and-The End.
The same way that World War II gave us the ballpoint pen, the space program had proved the human soul was immortal. What everybody called the Earth was just a processing station that all souls had to pass through. A step in some kind of refining process. Like the cracking tower used to turn crude oil into gasoline or kerosene. As soon as human souls had been refined on Earth, then we would all incarnate on the planet Venus.
In the big factory of perfecting human souls, the Earth was a kind of tumbler. The same as the kind people use to polish rocks. All souls come here to rub the sharp edges off each other. All of us, we're meant to be worn smooth by conflict and pain of every kind. To be polished. There was nothing bad about this. This wasn't suffering, it was erosion. It was just another, a basic, an important step in the refining process.
Sure, it sounded nuts, but there was the video sent back by the space mission that crashed itself on purpose.
On television, all they played was the video. As the mission's landing vehicle orbited lower and lower, dipping down inside the cloud layers covering the planet, the astronauts sent back this footage of people and animals living as friends, everyone smiling so hard their faces seemed to glow. In the video the astronauts sent back, everyone was young. The planet was a Garden of Eden. The landscape of forests and oceans, flower meadows and towering mountains, it was always springtime, the government said.
After that, the astronauts refused to deploy the parachutes. They drove straight down, pow, into the flowers and sweet lakes of Venus. All that was left was this grainy, hazy few minutes of video they sent back. What looked like fashion models wearing glittery tunics in a science-fiction future. Men and women with long legs and hair, sprawled, eating grapes on the steps of marble temples.
It was heaven, but with sex and booze and God's complete permission.
It was a world where the Ten Commandments were: Party. Party. Party.
"Beginning with headache and nausea," Tracee reads from her government pamphlet, "symptoms include a faster and faster pulse as your heart tries to get oxygen to your dying brain."
Eve's brother, Larry, he never really adjusted to the idea of eternal life.
Larry used to have this band, called Wholesale Death Factory. He had this one groupie slut called Jessika. They used to tattoo each other with a sewing needle dipped in black ink. They were so cutting-edge, Larry and Jessika, the very margin of the marginalized. Then death got to be so mainstream. Only it wasn't suicide anymore. Now it was called "emigration." People's dead, rotting bodies aren't corpses, not anymore. The stinking, bloated piles of them, heaped around the base of each tall building, or poisoned and sprawled on bus-stop benches, now these were called "luggage." Just left-behind luggage.
The way people had always looked at New Year's Eve as some kind of line drawn in the sand. Some kind of new beginning that didn't ever really happen. That's how people saw emigration, but only if everyone emigrated.
Here was actual proof of life after life. According to government estimates, as many as 1,760,042 human souls were already freed and living a party lifestyle on the planet Venus. The rest of humanity would have to live on through a long series of lifetimes, of suffering, before they were refined enough to emigrate.
Going around, eroding in the Big Rock Tumbler.
Then the government had its big brainstorm:
If all of humanity died at once, then there would be no wombs and no way to reincarnate souls here on Earth.
If humanity went extinct, then we'd all emigrate to Venus. Enlightened or not.
But . . . if only one breeding couple was left behind, the birth of a child could call back a soul. From just a handful of people, the whole process could start again.
Until a couple days ago, you could watch on television as the emigration movement dealt with people who were still noncompliant. You could watch the backward populations that weren't enrolled in the movement, you could see them being forced to emigrate by Emigration Assistance Squads, dressed all in white, carrying clean white machine guns. Whole screaming villages, carpet-bombed to relocate them to the next step in the process. Nobody was going to let a pack of Bible-waving hillbillies keep the rest of us here, here on dirty old planet Earth, the less-than-hip planet, not when we could all hurry on to the next great step in our spiritual evolution. So the hillbillies were poisoned to save them. The African savages were nerve-gassed. The Chinese hordes were nuked.
We'd pushed fluoride and literacy on them, we could push emigration.
If just one hillbilly couple stayed behind, you could become their filthy, ignorant baby. If just one rice-paddy band of Third World tribesmen didn't emigrate, your precious soul could be called back to live-swatting flies and eating spoiled mush studded with brown rat-turds under their sweating-hot Asian sun.
And, yes, sure, this was a gamble. Getting everyone to Venus, together. But now that death was dead, humanity really had nothing to lose.
That was the headline on the last issue of the New York Times:"Death Is Dead."
USA Today called it "The Death of Death."
Death had been debunked. Like Santa Claus. Or the Tooth Fairy.
Now life was the only option . . . but now it felt like an endless . . . eternal . . . perpetual . . . trap.
Larry and his rocker slut, Jessika, had been planning to run away. Hide out. Now that death had been co-opted by the mainstream, Larry and Jessika wanted to rebel by staying alive. They'd have a litter of kids. They'd fuck up the spiritual evolution of all humanity. But then Jessika's folks had spiked the milk in her breakfast cereal with ant poison. The End.
After that, Larry went downtown every day to hunt for painkillers in the abandoned pharmacies. Taking Vicodins and breaking windows, Larry said, that was enough enlightenment for him. All day, he'd be stealing cars and driving them through abandoned china shops, coming home stoned and dusted with the white talcum powder from exploded driver-side air bags.
Larry said he wanted to make sure this world was good and used up before he moved on to the next one.
As his little sister, Eve, told him, Grow up. She told him Jessika wasn't the last slutty goth rocker chick in the world.
And Larry had just looked at her, stoned and blinking in slow motion, and he'd said, "Yeah, Eve. Jesse pretty much was . . ."
That's why, when their dad said to pile into the car, Larry only shrugged and climbed in. He got in the back seat, carrying Risky, their Boston terrier. He didn't bother to fasten his seat belt. They weren't going anywhere. Not anywhere physical.
Here was the New Age spiritual equivalent of any fix-all idea, from the metric system to the euro. To polio vaccinations . . . Christianity . . . reflexology . . . Esperanto . . .
And it couldn't have come at a better time in history. Pollution, overpopulation, disease, war, political corruption, sexual perversion, murder, and drug addiction . . . Maybe they weren't any worse than they'd been in the past, but now we had television carping about them. A constant reminder. A culture of complaint. Of bitch, bitch, bitch . . . Most people would never admit it, but they'd been bitching since they were born. As soon as their head popped out into that bright delivery-room light, nothing had been right. Nothing had been as comfortable or felt so good.
Just the effort it took to keep your stupid physical body alive, just the finding food and cooking it and dishwashing, the keeping warm and bathing and sleeping, the walking and bowel movements and ingrown hairs, it was all getting to be too much work.
Sitting in the car, as the vents blow smoke in her face, Tracee reads, "As your heart beats faster and faster, your eyes close. You lose consciousness and black out . . ."
Eve's dad and Tracee, they'd met at the gym and started doing couples bodybuilding. They won a contest, posing together, and got married to celebrate. The only reason we didn't emigrate months ago is, they were still at their contest peak. Never had they looked so good, felt so strong. It broke their hearts to find out that having a body-even a body of ripped, defined muscle with only 2 percent body fat-was like riding a mule while the rest of humanity was zipping around in Lear jets. It was smoke signals compared to cell phones.
Most days, Tracee would still be pedaling her stationary bicycle, alone in the gym's big empty aerobics room, pedaling to disco music while she yelled encouragement to a spinning class not there anymore. In the weight room, Eve's dad would be lifting weights, but limited to machines or lighter free weights, since no one was around to spot him. Worse than that, there was nobody around for Dad and Tracee to compete against. Nobody for them to pose for. Nobody for them to beat.
Eve's dad used to tell this joke:
How many bodybuilders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
It takes four. One bodybuilder to screw in the bulb, and three others to watch and say, "Really, dude, you look huge!"
With her dad and Tracee, it took hundreds of people applauding, watching them up on stage, pose and flex. Still, you couldn't deny it, no matter how perfected with vitamins and collagen and silicone, the human body was obsolete.
What's funny is, the other thing Eve's dad used to say was: "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?"
Experts advised this was the only point in history when we could make mass emigration happen. We'd needed the space program to give us proof of the next life. We needed the mass media to take this proof around the world. We needed our weapons of mass destruction to ensure full compliance.
If there were any future generations, they wouldn't know what we knew. They wouldn't have the tools we had to make this happen. They'd just live their horrible, miserable physical lives, eating rat turds, ignorant that we could all live in pleasure on Venus.
Of course, a lot of people pushed to just nuclear-blast the noncompliant, but vaporizing every little tribal island in the South Pacific, that left our missile silos empty. The radiation didn't migrate the way you would hope. A nuclear winter settled over Australia, only for a couple months. Rain fell, and there was a huge fish die-off, but the weather and the tides had a shitty way of cleaning up our poisoned mess. All this emigration potential wasted, since Australia was 100 percent compliant in the first six months.
All of our nerve gas and deadly viruses, all our nuclear and conventional bombs, they were all a disappointment. We weren't even close to erasing humanity. People hunkered in caves. People roamed on camels over vast, empty deserts. Any of these stupid, backward people could fuck. A sperm meets an egg, and your soul gets sucked back to live another tedious lifetime, eating, sleeping, getting sunburned. On Earth: Planet Hurt. Planet Conflict. Planet Pain.
For the Emigration Assistance Squads, with their clean white machine guns, the Top-A priority targets were noncompliant females between the ages of fourteen and thirty-five. All other females were Top-B priority targets for assistance. All noncompliant males were Top-C priority. If bullets were running out, a white-suited team might leave a whole village of men and old women alive to grow old and emigrate naturally.
Tracee always worried about being a Top-A priority target, about getting machine-gunned on her way to the gym. But most of the squads were in the countryside or the mountains, places where backward baby-having people might hide.
The stupidest stupid people could completely sidetrack your spiritual evolution. It just wasn't fair.
Everybody else, millions of souls, they were already at the party. On the Venus video, you could catch the faces of famous people who'd suffered enough on Earth and didn't have to come back for another life. You'd see Grace Kelly and Jim Morrison. Jackie Kennedy and John Lennon. Kurt Cobain. Those were ones Eve could recognize. They were all at the party, looking young and happy, forever.
Among the dead celebrities roamed animals extinct on Earth: passenger pigeons, duck-billed platypuses, giant dodos.
On the television news, big-name celebrities were applauded the moment they emigrated. If these people, movie stars and rock bands, could emigrate for the greater good of all humanity, these people with money and talent and fame, with everything to keep them here, if they could emigrate, everyone could.
In the last issue of People magazine, the feature story was the "Celebrity Cruise to Nowhere." Thousands of the best-dressed, most beautiful people, fashion designers and supermodels, software moguls and professional athletes, they boarded the Queen Mary II and sailed off, drinking and dancing, racing north across the Atlantic Ocean, looking, full speed ahead, for an iceberg to ram.
Chartered jetliners slammed into mountaintops.
Tour buses careened off towering ocean cliffs.
Here in the United States, most people went to Wal-Mart or Rite Aid and bought the Going Away Kits. The first generation of kits were barbiturates packaged inside a head-sized plastic bag with a drawstring for around your neck. The next generation of kits were a cherry-flavored chewable cyanide pill. So many people were emigrating right there in the store aisle-emigrating without paying for their kits-that Wal-Mart put the kits behind the customer-service desk with the cigarettes and made you pay first before they'd hand one over. Every couple minutes, an announcement over the public-address speakers asked customers to be courteous and not to emigrate while on store property . . . Thank you.
Early on, some people pushed what they called the French Method. Their idea was just to sterilize everyone. First by surgery, but this took too long. Then by exposing people's genitals to focused radiation. Still, by that time all the doctors had emigrated. Doctors were among the first to jump ship. Doctors, true, yes, death was their enemy, but without it they were lost. Brokenhearted. Without doctors, it was janitors shooting folks with radiation. People got burns. The power grid failed. The End.
By then, all the beautiful, cool people had emigrated with cyanide in champagne at glamorous "Bon Voyage Parties." They'd held hands and jumped from skyscraper penthouse parties. People already a little world-weary, all the movie stars and super-athletes and rock bands. The supermodels and software billionaires, they were gone after that first week.
Every day, Eve's dad would come home saying who was gone from his office. Who in the neighborhood had emigrated. It was easy to tell. Their front lawn would get too tall. Their mail and newspapers would pile up on the doorstep. Their curtains were never open, their lights never came on, and you'd walk past and catch a whiff of something sweet, some kind of fruit or meat rotting inside the house. The air buzzed with black flies.
The house next door, the Frinks' house, was like that. So was the house across the street.
For the first few weeks, it was fun: Larry going downtown to pound his electric guitar alone on the stage of the Civic Theater auditorium. Eve getting to use the entire shopping mall as her own private closet. School was out, and it would never, ever start back up.
But their dad, you could tell he was already over Tracee. Their dad was never good at the part after the romantic start. Normal times, this was when he'd start to cheat. He'd find some new squeeze at his office. Instead, he was watching the Venus footage on television, paying close attention, his nose almost touching the parts where you could make out people, groups of those beautiful supermodel people, piled together naked or linked in a long daisy chain. Licking red wine off each other. Humping without reproduction or disease or God's damnation.
Tracee, she was making a list of celebrities she wanted to be best friends with once the family arrived. At the top of her list was Mother Teresa.
By now even harried moms were rounding up their kids, shrieking for everybody to hurry up and drink their poisoned milk and get their asses the hell to the next step of spiritual evolution. Now even life and death would be phases to rush through, the way teachers hurried kids from grade to grade to graduation-no matter how much they did or didn't learn. A big rat race to enlightenment.
In the car now, her voice getting deep and rough from breathing the smoke, Tracee reads, "As the cells of your heart valves begin to die, the two halves, called ventricles, get sloppy, pumping less and less blood through your body . . ."
She coughs and reads, "Without blood, your brain stops functioning. Within minutes you'll emigrate." And Tracee shuts the pamphlet. The End.
Eve's dad says, "Good-bye, planet Earth."
And the Boston terrier, Risky, barfs up cheese popcorn all over the back seat.
The smell of dog barf, and the sound of Risky gobbling it up, are even worse than the carbon monoxide.
Larry looks at his sister, the black makeup smeared around his eyes, his eyes blinking in slow motion, he says, "Eve, take your dog outside to puke."
In case the family's gone when she gets back, her dad says there's a Going Away Kit on the counter in the kitchen. He tells Eve not to hang around too long. They'll be waiting for her at the big party.
Eve's future ex-stepmom says, "Don't hold the door open and let out any smoke." Tracee says, "I want to emigrate, not just be brain-damaged."
"Too late," Eve says, and tugs the dog outside to the backyard. There, the sun is still shining. Birds build nests, too dumb to know this planet is out of fashion. Bees crawl around inside the open roses, not knowing their whole reality is obsolete.
In the kitchen, on the counter next to the sink, is a Going Away Kit, the plastic blister card of cyanide pills. It was a new flavor, lemon. A family pack. Printed on the cardboard backing is a little cartoon. It shows an empty stomach. A clock face counts off three minutes. And then your cartoon soul would wake up in a world of pleasure and comfort. The next planet. Evolved.
Eve punches one out, a bright-yellow pill printed with a smiling happy-face in red. It didn't matter if they'd used that toxic kind of red dye. Eve punches out all the pills. All eight, she takes into the bathroom and flushes down the toilet.
The car's still running inside the garage. Through a window, standing on a lawn chair, Eve can see the heads slumped inside. Her dad. Her future ex-stepmom. Her brother.
In the backyard, Risky is nosing at the crack under the garage door, sniffing the fumes from inside. Eve tells him, No. She calls him back away from the house, back into the sunshine. There, with the neighborhood quiet except for the birds, the buzz of the bees, the backyard already looks messy and needs mowing. With no roar of lawn mowers and airplanes and motorcycles, the birds singing sound as loud as traffic used to.
After she lays down in the grass, Eve pulls up the bottom of her shirt and lets the sun warm her stomach. She closes her eyes and rubs the fingertips of one hand in slow circles around her bellybutton.
Risky barks, once, twice.
And a voice says, "Hey."
A face sticks over the fence from the backyard next door. Blond hair and pink pimples, a kid named Adam from school. From before all the schools shut down. Adam's fingers grip the top edge of the wood fence, and he pulls himself up until both elbows rest along the top. His chin hooked on his two hands, Adam says, "Did you hear about your brother's girlfriend?"
Eve shuts her eyes and says, "This sounds weird, but I really miss death . . ."
Adam kicks a leg sideways to hook his foot over the fence. He says, "Your folks emigrate yet?"
In the garage, the car's engine coughs and misses a beat on one cylinder. A ventricle getting sloppy. Inside the window glass, the garage air is shifting gray clouds of smoke. The engine misses again and goes quiet. Nothing inside moves. Eve's family, now they're just their own left-behind luggage.
And, spread out in the sunshine, feeling her skin turn tight and red, Eve says, "Poor Larry." Still rubbing circles around her bellybutton.
Risky goes to stand next to the fence, looking up, as Adam hauls one leg, then the other over the top, then jumps down into the yard. Adam stoops to pet the dog. Scratching under the dog's chin, Adam says, "Did you tell them we're pregnant?"
And Eve, she doesn't say anything. She doesn't open her eyes.
Adam says, "If we get the whole human race started again, our folks will be so pissed . . ."
The sun is almost straight overhead. What sounds like cars is just wind blowing through the empty neighborhood.
Material possessions are obsolete. Money is useless. Status is pointless.
It would be summer for another three months, and there was a whole world of canned food to eat. That's if the Emigration Assistance Squad didn't machine-gun her for noncompliance. Top-A priority target that she is. The End.
Eve opens her eyes and looks at the white dot near the blue horizon. The Morning Star. Venus. "If I have this baby," Eve says, "I hope it's going to be . . . Tracee."