The Preparations

by Phebe McManamon
The Preparations

“The day the world ends is August 8. Our leader told us so. They stood on the balcony overlooking our town and called us to attention.”

ONE

The day the world ends is August 8. Our leader told us so. They stood on the balcony overlooking our town and called us to attention.

“We will all pass on the 8th of August, at 3:30. Our scientists have discovered that Earth will die from overheating, and our reinforcements will melt. The beams holding up our community will collapse, and we will drown.”

It’s kind of sad, I think, to have to accept death, but they say it is the only thing to do. We must go voluntarily. The celebrations will make up for it. My brother is only little, so he cried during the announcement. He hasn’t been taught yet that showing negative emotions in public is considered dangerous.

My friend taps me on the shoulder as our community applauds. She grins, her eyes shining.

“I can’t wait for the celebrations! We’ll get to wear colored clothing, and eat foods we’re not allowed to, and get to act like the people in the shiny books from school!”

“You mean the magazines? Harriet, those people didn’t eat. It would be unhealthy to look like them.” We break away from the crowd once the announcement ends, and head towards the South Tunnel.

Harriet shrugs, grabbing her shoes. “They look so…different. I like the ones that wear their hair down all the time. I wish we could do that.”

We pull on our shoes and walk down the South Tunnel, gazing up at the freshly painted mural. It shows our history, and how we corrected our flaws to become one of the last civilizations left.

After the scientists figured out that global warming would end the world, the builders elevated our communities. Some countries decided to build boats and submarines to live in forever, but they drowned. As far as anyone knows, America’s people are the only ones that survived the flooding. The communities are sparse, and there isn’t much contact with them.

“Johanna?” She’s not looking at me, just gazing at the paintings like I am. “Where did the others go?” She’s onto the last painting, where the ice caps are melting and people are drowning. “I mean, the other communities. Where are they?”

I pull her towards the other wall, where an old map of the world is hanging. Black lines are drawn across it to replace the faded borders.

“See the shape up top that looks like a dog? That used to be called Maine. Some people live in a community there.”

She nods and points to a small shape named Massachusetts. “And that’s us!”

As soon as she presses the shape, a small chime sounds throughout the South Tunnel. A nasally voice from the speakers states, “Community members are prohibited from touching the map. Number 107, should this be filed in your report as an accident which will not be repeated?

Harriet sighs and looks down at her feet. “Yes, the incident will not happen again.”

Thank you. We are pleased to hear that Number 107 will follow the rules.” There is a screech of mic feedback, and then the voice is gone.

Harriet is shaking, her eyes wide. “That was the third time I’ve been warned for correction this month. I’m going to have to be corrected if I slip up a fourth time.” I frown, thinking of the few times I’ve been warned of correction all my life. I know how important neatness and promptness are in our community. I hope Harriet won’t be corrected. They never are quite the same after.

“Come on! I don’t want to be late,” I whisper. We run to the exit and pull the huge door open.

 

TWO

 

The south end of our community is where all our homes are. We take off our shoes and sprint down the path towards a raised platform. I press the button for my home and a tunnel lights up. I start down the walkway after waving to Harriet.

I open the door to my home, looking for my little brother and my mom. “Owen?” I step into the living room and take off my jacket. There is no answer.

“Mom?”

My mom pokes her head out from the study door. “In here!”

I smile and hang up my jacket, then join them in the next room.

The study is tiny, just like our home, and it’s very plain. My mother is reading to Owen from one of the sites on the computer. I smile and take a place at my desk, digging out the flash drive from my pocket and fitting it into the slot in the desk.

The computer starts up, and it asks me one of the questions from my lesson today.

What is the procedure for apocalypse-related incidents?”

I grin, feeling proud. I know this one by heart.

“Walk to the raised platform in the south end of the community and press the 9 button twice. Then lie down and rest,” I repeat carefully. We’re supposed to sleep peacefully so that we won’t try to run when we die.

Very good. Proceed to internet use. Please use responsibly.”

My favorite site pops up on the screen, and I scroll down quickly. It’s a story site, with tales for kids that are written by government-approved writers. I was in the middle of a story about a girl that followed all the rules of her community and grew up to be a painter of the murals in the North Tunnel. I sigh, reading about the girl’s fantastic adventures.

“What are you thinking about?”

I turn to face my mom. It’s standard procedure to ask what another person is thinking, but I like to think people are just being polite.

“I’m thinking about being a government-approved writer when I grow up. I could create stories for people to read!”

My mom chuckles and closes her computer temporarily. “Johanna, you know that the genre of writing has to be chosen by the leader of the community. You can’t ask for realistic fiction writing in your job description.”

“I know, I know.” I scroll down farther to read another story about our community leader. “But what if I got a realistic fiction assignment from the government, and then…”

My brother starts crying when the computer talks about the Earth flooding. I pick him up and bring him into the living room after closing my computer.

“Johanna? Owen?”

“Dad!” I rush over to him. He grins at me after hanging up his jacket next to mine.

“Did you hear when the world is going to end? Did you?” I’m jumping up and down, barely being able to control myself.

“Yes, I did. August 8th, right?” He waves to my mom, who is now in the living room.

“Yeah! There’s going to be a huge celebration, and in only a few days!” I check the calendar in the kitchen: only one week until the three days of celebration.

“One week left! One week left!” I sing. My mom and dad chuckle, and Owen starts giggling. My mom walks into the dining room, shaking her head at our silly reactions. We all follow her, with my little brother in my dad’s arms.

I take my place at the dinner table and straighten my clothing. My parents do the same, and Owen reaches for his bib. With great difficulty, I manage to tie it around his neck.

“Can I press the button?” I look up at my dad timidly.

“Of course.”

I grin and reach for the circle in the middle of the table, hitting it with the tips of my fingers. The side of our house opens up, and our dining table moves down a treadmill.

The tables of each family move to the platform, with each table taking up a corner of the octagon shape. My dad stands up, and we all follow as the community leader emerges from the tunnel.

“Thank you, families of the community. As you all know, our scientists have found the answer to the question that has been on our minds for so long. The end of the world will be on August 8th.” A great cheer rises up from the families.

The community leader chuckles once the applause dies down. “This means that the three days of celebration are in just a week. I advise you to get some rest, spend time with your family, and be happy!  We only have a few more days to thank the Earth for what it has given us.”

I dig into my dinner and watch the laughing families around us. If this is a plain, basic, community with only the essentials, then I can’t wait for the luxury of the celebration.

 

THREE

 

-one week later-

 

“Harriet!”

“Johanna!”

“Oh my goodness!”

We run out of our houses and meet at the entrance to the tunnel, our faces red.

“This is going to be the best celebration ever!” I cry. My parents trail behind me in their special occasion outfits, and my brother toddles over to us. He learned how to walk the day after the announcement, and he’s been the main source of excitement in our community.

“Let’s go!”

We pull on our shoes and race down the tunnel, stopping at the huge metal door. My dad pushes it open, and the community gasps at the sight.

A huge train takes up the meeting place, and most of the government leaders sit inside. We slowly walk towards it and stop when a door slides open. The community leader steps outside and addresses us.

“Good morning, everyone,” she says. “I know you are frightened, but there is really no need to be.” We all relax instantly.

“This train is going to take us to another part of the world, where there are celebrations all the time. But you must know why we do not allow this. We will show a documentary on the train ride there, about how constant celebration is not at all what it seems.” She walks back into the train after motioning for us to come inside.

Harriet, always the bold one, runs onto the train and finds seats for the two of us. I scoop Owen up and step inside. The rest of the community filters in and sits down. As soon as everyone is seated, screens come down from the ceiling and stop in front of us. I don’t really want to watch the movie. I’d rather see the train start moving, but there are no windows. I guess they don’t want us to see the other, primitive villages that got flooded.

The movie starts playing, and I reluctantly turn my attention to the screen. Owen is already drooling like a faucet onto my shoulder, so I sit him between Harriet and me.

Long, long ago, there was a beautiful place called Earth,” the documentary announces. “People were happy, and they rejoiced when their crops grew and were ready to harvest. They did this every year, and it was called Thanksgiving.” There are scanned pictures and paintings on the screen, with many people eating with their community. I smiled. It seemed like a fun time of the year.

There was another holiday, which was modeled after the birth of their community leader. The people gave items to others wrapped in colorful paper, and they took trees inside their homes and decorated them.” Harriet and I stifled a giggle. In our lessons, we had learned that trees were ancient things that only grew outside. Why put a tree inside your house?

There were many other holidays like this, where people would eat rich food and receive material items. They started to think that objects were the only important things in life, and that a green slip of paper could be worth wars. The green paper was called money, and the people got greedy and fat.” The screen changed to a crude drawing of many people, with inflated bodies and little heads. Their eyes were cold and black, and they held wads of green paper in their chubby fists. Owen woke up and started crying at the sight of the inflated people.

Luckily, the community leader’s grandfather knew this had to change. He asked some of his friends to help him, and they got people back to their normal size. He was the greatest hero the world had ever seen.

Of course, some people didn’t want to change back. They liked being fat and evil and ugly.” The narrator spits out each insult onto our faces, scaring the little children and disgusting the adults.

The fat people attacked our community leader’s grandfather, and he fought back courageously. He saved us all from turning out like the inflated people.” I gasped and held Owen close to me. I couldn’t imagine being like the people in the drawings.

So we built our communities, and saved ourselves from the global warming that the fat people had caused. They tried to build boats to stay alive during the flooding, but they drowned.” Harriet turned and whispered in my ear. “How could they have caused the global warming?”

I frown, just noticing that they never said that. “I guess it was the making of the material items that they loved,” I whisper back.

The documentary ends with a click, and the doors slide open again. The community leader smiles and gestures outside. “Welcome,” she says. As we rush out the doors, she calls after us.

“Remember the documentary- we took this away for a reason.”

 

FOUR

 

The crowd of people are too noisy to stand in, so I drift away from them. The trees bend over the walkway and block the magnificent sunset.

“Hey.”

I jump, turning around and glaring at Harriet.

“Don’t do that! It freaked me out.”

Harriet grins. “Sorry. It was funny.”

I roll my eyes and keep walking towards the building in the distance. I’m pretty sure it’s our temporary dwelling spot for the next two nights.

She runs up to me and matches my stride.

“So…”

I look at her. “So, what?”

“So, are you going to the library, or…?”

I stop and peer into the darkness. “That’s a library?” We only had seen them in our lessons, but they sounded really fun. I’m sure they had lots of stories on the computers there.

“Yeah. So do you wanna go?”

“Uh, sure…”

Harriet grabs my arm and starts running, dragging me behind her. We run to the library and pull the door open.

The library is small, with wooden shelves and one dusty computer in the back. I slowly sit down on one of the armchairs.

Suddenly I notice dozens of artifacts on the shelves. I pick the nearest one up to examine it.

It’s small and cloth-bound, with little golden words carved into the outside. The words are too faded to read, so I open it instead. There are pages and pages of paper, with words on them written in ink.

“What is this?” I whisper, flipping through the story. This doesn’t exactly seem…government-approved.

“It’s a book.”

I closed the book, feeling trapped. That was definitely not Harriet’s voice.

That was a boy’s voice.

I slowly turn around. “Hi.” Darn it, I got caught!

“Harriet,” I whisper.

She walks over to us, already deep into another book. She looks up and almost drops the book she was holding.

“Uh- we thought we were allowed to be here! But we’re not! We’ll go now!” Harriet grabs my hand and pulls me towards the door.

“We can’t leave with the books!”

“She’s right, you can’t.” The boy holds his hand out, and Harriet drops her book into his hand without another word. I hand the boy my book too.

He looks at the first page. “You really want to read this?”

“It was the first book I picked up,” I say awkwardly. I kind of want it back now.

He puts the books down and gives me another book from the shelves. I can read the writing on the glossy cover. Something about a photography issue?

“Hey, that looks like the magazines we have in our community!” Harriet whispers, looking over my shoulder at the cover.

The boy looks at us curiously. “Are you two from the community in Massachusetts?”

Harriet and I look at each other. “It used to be called that.”

He nods. “I’m Hugh.”

“Johanna.”

“I’m Harriet, and we need to go. Bye!” We run out of the library with the magazine.

She turn to me and clutch it tight. “Where am I going to put this? If anyone finds out we took this, we’ll get in huge trouble!”

I think for a minute, then walk into the building. Almost everyone’s outside, so no one sees us.

Once I get to my room, I place the magazine between the sheets and the mattress. I pull Harriet into the hallway and talk to her quickly.

“You can’t tell anyone about this, okay? No one. If they find out, we could both be corrected, and our lives would be ruined! We need to go to bed soon, so I’ll stay in my room. You go to your room and pretend like nothing happened.”

Harriet runs back to her room and closes the door carefully. I close the door to my room quickly. I’m too nervous to sleep, so I’ll just read the magazine.

I take it out from under the sheets and burrow under the covers. Flipping the pages, I gasp at the colors and people they have managed to capture. There are crowds of people with many different skin and hair colors. I think back to the boy in the library, named Hugh. He looked…different from us, now that I think about it. I wonder how many people are still alive with the bright blue eyes that he had. I flip through more of the pages and stop at one that looks like him. There is a baby with tan skin and bright blue eyes. I read the caption at the bottom:

Only around 10 people have this combination of skin color and eye color in the world.”

This is too old to be true anymore, so the number of people that look like him must be even smaller now. I put the magazine back under the sheet and try to go to sleep, turning off the light and staring up at the ceiling.

Hugh must be different from other people in the world. I remember when I used to be proud of my thin blond hair and dark brown eyes, grateful to blend in with so many other people in our community. I used to pity Harriet for standing out with her bright red hair.

I want to be different, too.

I decide to run up to the library next morning and ask Hugh for paper and a pen. Maybe, if I can’t look different, I could write a story of my own and be different.

 

FIVE

 

-August 8th, 3:17 pm-

 

The community leader’s voice rings out from the speakers for the last time.

Please follow the apocalypse-related incident procedure. This is not a drill.

I snap my head up from my desk, finishing the last bits of my story. The paper is soft from two day’s worth of writing and crossing out many words. Hugh taught me how to copy the letters on my computer and write them on the page. I spent the whole two days in the library with him, just writing letters over and over and over again.

I stuff the paper into my pocket, reading through the story in my head.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Jo.”

My brother starts crying, so I lift him up and whisper the story to him.

“She lived in a community where the people thought they had everything.”

He stops crying and listens, tears still rolling down his cheeks.

“But they didn’t. They were missing out on so many good things.”

I run through the tunnel and put on my shoes.

“Like colors, and inspiration, and stories of their own.”

I have to set Owen down to lace them up, and he starts whimpering again.

“So she stole something from someone.”

He hugs my leg tightly. I carry him onto the platform.

“It was the right thing to do.”

No one else is there, but I still whisper. There could be cameras watching us.

“She tore up the book and scattered the pages all over.”

I can see one of the pictures from the magazine that I hid around the community.

“She wanted the people to find the photos and remember the past.”

I press the 9 button twice.

“Maybe someday they will understand.”

Owen and I lie down and try to sleep.

“Until then…

She will wait.”

More people come and lie down with us. I whisper the words over and over again until we both fall asleep. I hope other communities know what they’re missing, and how they can fix it. I close my eyes and wait, just thinking about nothing.

 

I hear Owen crying, far away from me. I reach out to him, but feel nothing. Someone’s head is pressing into my stomach.

I open my eyes and look down. It’s dark, but I can make out a few shapes. Owen is whimpering into my shirt, and we’re still on the platform. Everyone’s still sleeping, waiting to die. I wonder what the community leader’s doing. Is she sleeping too?

Wait a minute.

I sit up and pull Owen close to me again. I check my watch.

4:25 pm.

What?

I reach out to Harriet and tap her on the shoulder.

“Harriet, wake up.”

She doesn’t move. I lay Owen down and shake her until she wakes up.

“Johanna? What’s going on?”

I pull Owen into my lap again.

“Harriet, it’s 4:25. The apocalypse didn’t happen.”

“What?”

I look around quickly and whisper in Harriet’s ear.

They were wrong.”

 

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