Beached out of AgePosted: February 17, 2016
The trees on this seaside bluff arched like ribs, sheltering an old house that overlooked the North Atlantic. I drove through the rain and my tires slipped and spun through the mud. I eventually made it past the gate and up the long driveway to the house. It seemed much larger in the distance but from the front steps looked like a miniature victorian mansion. From the driveway I could see down the bluff and to the rocky beach below, stretching out into the rain in both directions. The long lines of rolling waves were interrupted only by a rock just below the house that stretched into the waves.
I stood still in the rain, looking down at the beach. The drive up to Dr. Nasrallah’s house, this small mansion, had been 4 hours. How a person could live this far away from life was a mystery to me. The drive itself had set my nerves on edge, each turn and tree came too quickly out of the darkness and through the rain. A deep breath and I worked my way up a slippery stone pathway to the front door.
Carved into the door of this house was a protozoic glyph; a crescent, and below it a long bar with what could have been branches or leaves coming off either side, below that a smaller crescent as if the design was an incomplete circle. The same design that had been pressed into wax on a letter in my jacket pocket. I traced its figure in wax and reached out to touch the carving on the door when it was opened by a young man. We looked at each other, unsure of what to do
He had a series of small scars all along his face. I’m embarrassed to say that I was so caught up in wondering how they had gotten there that I missed the first few times he asked his question, “Are you here to see Hala?”
“Yes.” He didn’t reply and simply motioned me into the house. I got the impression that they did not have many visitors, but my curiosity kept me from climbing back into my car and driving back to the city.
I had been led here by a letter. It was dropped into my university mailbox where it sat strange among overdue essays and corrected tests. Its not uncommon for me to receive solicitations from other researchers, but not usually in a wax-sealed envelope. Dr. Hala Nasrallah had implored me to make the drive out to the coast and see her research. It was curiosity that had carried me here, and curiosity that carried me inside.
I walked in and wiped the mud from my shoes and noticed that every wall was covered with specimens. Bugs and Flowers mounted in frames, a few stuffed birds and fish. There were pressing of leaves from trees I had only seen pictures of, prepared and perfectly preserved. I was led through this maze of dead curiosities to a small study in the back of the house.
Dr. Hala Nasrallah was sitting in an old wingback chair looking out over the ocean. She had a large folio open on a lectern in front of her. She was reading it by lantern, there were no other lights in the room, no electricity, just flame. The young man, my scarred escort, stopped at the door.
“Is she here, Ben?” She asked without looking up.
“I am” I answered. Dr. Nasrallah got up quickly, spry for someone her age.
“Ms. Amy Starling, Its a pleasure.” She smiled and came to shake my hand, and I couldn’t help but smile back. She was strong, her fingers rough and calloused. She turned to Ben, who still had not crossed into the study, “Get some tea ready. Leave it outside the door” and he disappeared without saying a word.
Hala Nasrallah turned her wingback 90 degrees so it was facing another chair by the window. She motioned me to sit and I did, her presence was commanding. When I had received this invitation 3 months ago I didn’t know who she was. After some research I found her the author of 3 books and countless articles on evolutionary biology, two of those books came close to earning her a nobel prize, the last had scuttled her career. I wasn’t ever able to find a copy of that last book, and was told that no respectable publishing house would put it to print. The only copies that exist are the ones she published on her own dime, and they sit in private collections, kept for their oddity.
“Well, Hala” I had to clear my throat before continuing, “Its not that I don’t appreciate the invitation-“
“You want to know why you’re here?” her voice was quiet, and it had a rasp like she once smoked a pack a day.
“Yes” Before Hala Nasrallah had a chance to start speaking there was a quiet knock at the door. It was Ben with the tea.
The doctor got up and walked over, taking the tray from him. “Ben,” she said quietly and almost out of my hearing, “Make sure that the team has started the fluid taps” Ben nods and walks quickly away, leaving her with the tray.
I got up to clear some space on a table and was confronted with a Coelacanth, mounted as if it was swimming in the study, a fitting fish for this antique aquarium.
“Do you like it?” She asked, setting the tray down in front of the preserved creature, a bright blue teapot flanked by two teacups on saucers.
“Yes,” It was an old specimen, dried instead of coated in epoxy, carefully touched up with pain and putty where the cracks had appeared. “How did you get it?”
“I caught it” she looked with pride at her fish, “When I was a young woman. Amazing creature, isn’t it. So ancient” Both Fish and Fisher showed their age. I couldn’t help but picture Hala as a young woman, standing on a boat in the Indian Ocean pulling her prize from the depths.
Hala’s Coelacanth reminded me of the first time I had seen a Nautilus. I was 8, watching it float around a small glass aquarium. I had wondered at the impracticality of the creature and pulled at my mom’s sleeve, laughing at its stupidity. An old man came next to me, knelt, and pointed at it, “What is amazing” he had said, “Is that out of all of God’s creatures who have changed so much in millions of years, the Nautilus hasn’t.”
“Why did it stop evolving?” I asked out of my reverie. I probably would never get a better answer.
“It didn’t” She picked up a small tea pot and poured into the two cups, taking her time; her own slow ritual. Satisfied with her work she grabbed a saucer and sat in her chair, and motioned me to do the same. “Its not that they stopped evolving, they had just found an all-purpose solution. They’re difficult creatures to eat; Oily, tough- a shark would rather go after something tastier. They use very little energy to eat, they drift along with the currents, grazing on algae and seaweed. Life moves slowly under the ocean, they have had no need to find a new tactic”
“Like the Dodo? Or the Nautilus?” I asked
“The world is filled with living antiques. Relics from ancient epochs. The life that existed long before we were ever here isn’t gone, its just hiding on isolated islands, in the forgotten pockets of the world. Its sunk,” She sipped her tea noisily, “-beneath the waves. There aren’t any storms under the ocean”
She smiled at me and added a bit of cream to her tea. I carefully sipped mine, trying not to burn myself. It tasted earthy, like it was brewed out of sacred mud. Dr. Nasrallah watched me drink and wonder at the taste.
“At some point I will get to telling you why we’re here” I think she had savored this quiet moment with the tea and the rain clattering against the window. Her own still moment in the storm. “Life often goes to waste, but death rarely does.” The wind picked up briefly and rattled the windows. A draft or momentary change in pressure caused the lantern behind us to flicker, and for a second it looked as if the Coelacanth been swimming in its own shadow. “The minute life ends, it begins feeding other life. A host of bacteria and fungi start to break down the flesh while scavengers and lazy predators will pick the bones clean. Death provides its own ecosystem.
“Before the explosion of complex life- a mere 500 million years ago, there wasn’t life… after death,” She chuckled at her own joke, “Thats what it is, isn’t it? Our afterlife is the life we give to whatever comes next, our corpse a nursery for worms; Our civilization built on the life that came before us.” There was a hardness to the way she looked at me; a quiet intensity. I got the feeling that whatever she was starting to tell me was the reason her career had sunk from the Nobel Committee to this house on a bluff far from everything. She stood up suddenly and put her saucer down, tea unfinished. “Come with me”
She grabbed the kerosene lantern and walked quickly out of the room leaving me alone. “Where are we going?” I asked, but she didn’t seem to hear me. I followed the sound of her footsteps until I caught up to her.
She had kept talking as I jogged down the hall. The shadows from her lantern made the walls seem like they were alive with leaf pressings and bugs, their wings and legs pinned open. “There was life on earth for 3 billion years before it was even multicellular, and it took over a billion years for life to go from a simple to a complex cell.”
The house had looked small on the outside, but as Dr. Nasrallah led me down one hallway only to find another and yet another I had the feeling that the house was much larger than I thought; Small paths coiled tight in this house on a cliff.
“3 billion years to the first multicellular life, then only 650 million years until the first animals walked on land. 120 million years after that sauropods-“ She stopped at a door and got out a large key and gave it a hard turn until the locking mechanism clunked over. “Dinosaurs, I mean. Life went from dominating the sea, to covering the surface of this earth. And not long after that we are walking on the moon, out in the stars.”
She motioned me to the door and I saw a stairwell going down into a dimly lit basement. There was already a lantern casting a shadow across the basement’s far wall, and I carefully picked my way down the steps.
“Do you know,” She continued her lecture, “What happens after an exponential increase in a system?”I reached the bottom of the stairs and saw a basement that was completely empty aside from a steel cage. Behind me, Dr. Nasrallah stepped slowly down the stairs, “Either the system has an exponential decline, or it reaches critical mass and it ceases to exist”
I turned around, “Can I ask where we’re going?” I was uneasy. I had no reason to be afraid, but my heart was pounding. She looked at me with an even stare and I tried not to betray my nerves
“Not,” She said to me, walking to the steel mesh box and opening one side of it, “Until you get in.” I didn’t move for a second and she chuckled deeply, “Its an elevator, Amy. This house was built on an old munitions bunker from the first World War, and I keep my lab down here.” I got in and she shut the door, using a hand crank to slowly lower the box into the shaft below.
“Now Amy,” she said, slowly turning the mechanism. We were soon completely enveloped. The only light coming through the mesh above our heads, “You study Prehistory? Thats a fascinating subject. Why?”
“Why is it a fascinating subject?” I quipped nervously, perhaps trying to lighten the mood or put on a brave face.
“Why are you studying it?” A smile in her eyes that didn’t touch the rest of her face. I had been asked this question by every relative that had wondered aloud what possible career could have come out of it. But when she asked me it sounded like a test.
“Because,” I was having flashbacks to defending my thesis, “Thought, as a concept, didn’t first appear when it was first written down. As a species, we didn’t become intelligent only after we learned to write”
The elevator had slowly sunk down to its destination. Dr. Nasrallah opened the doors and we were on one end of an office filled with old books and plastic tubs. At the other end of the storage space was a blast door, slightly open. I smelled the ocean. “Do you really have no idea why you’re here?”
“I am embarrassed to say that I don’t. Though being able to come here and talk with you has been a-” Dr. Nasrallah hadn’t left the elevator, and I was standing in this small office alone, “a pleasure”
She finds a tub and carefully pulls it from the shelf, setting it down on a large brushed steel table. She puts her hand reverently on the lid. “This is why we’re here,” But she doesn’t open it, “In the pre-cambrian the ecosystem became vastly complex, very quickly. The ecological balance that existed before the Cambrian meant that there was very little waste in the system. But once there was dead biomass sitting there, going to waste, organisms evolved that took advantage of all those wonderful unused organics.” She takes the lid off of the tub, “This is the first face of death” I recognize it immediately. Its a Trilobite, about 5 inches long with a broad head and thin chitinous legs or ribs. Its been impeccably cared for, and the detail on the fossil is clear enough that I could see the bumps and ripples on the carapace.
“What does this have to do with Trilobites?” I thought to the letter in my coat pocket and the carving in the door, and saw the same figure in the stone in front of me. I knew that the only answer to my question was: everything.
“They were one of the first organisms that evolved to eat the leftover dead.” She drew a line with her finger from the head of the trilobite to its blunt tail, “At one point, there would be so many of these small creatures that they would blanket the ocean floor, searching for something to… recycle. After this Class of Arthropod took hold an interesting thing started to happen. There was enough uniform biological material on the ocean floor for more complex ecosystems to take root. Because of our deathly little scavengers, we then had coral reefs and kelp jungles. Rich and diverse ecological systems capable of sustaining varied forms of complex life” She put the lid on the bin, “The next part will be easier to show you.”
She led me to the blast door and slowly pushed it open, revealing a large warehouse where a dozen scientists in white robes were working over two long tanks filled with dark water. I kept my eyes on them as we descended into that concrete tomb. My curiosity began to claw at me, and bits and pieces of our conversation began to crawl around in my mind, putting themselves together into a bigger picture. I wanted to understand and I was scared that I would.
We had reached the base of one of the long troughs and as I looked into it I saw something familiar. This time it wasn’t held by stone, but suspended in water. It scuttled away and I jumped, not expecting it to be anything other than a fossil.
Dr. Nasrallah looked into the tanks as if they were filled with her brood, “These are my Trilobites”
I could barely believe what I was seeing, and the mere impossibility of it astounded me as much as the implication, “How-“ I could barely muster the words, “How did you do this?”
“Don’t let Hala take all of the credit,” It was a young man behind us. He was dressed in a white clean suit with his surgical mask hanging off of one ear, it was lightly spattered with what looked like blue paint. He could have been in his mid 20s, and there was a small tattoo barely visible on his neck, a design I had seen carved into the door and imprinted in wax. A small trilobite.
“Don’t let Mr. Nguyen try to convince you he has a graduate degree,” Hala quipped back, then leaned in for a quick hug. She turned to me, “This is Seong, he is one of my technicians”
Seong Nguyen turned to me, “I cut DNA.” He stuck his hand out, realized he was wearing a glove, and offered an elbow instead. It took me a second to realize I was meant to raise my elbow to touch his, “Its called a clean-room shake if you were wondering. Are you here to observe?”
“Observe what?” I asked, and he looked surprised for a second as if he expected me to know.
Seong looked from me to Hala and received some sort of private message from her, “And if you’ll forgive me, I have some work to get to.” He walked quickly back to the other end of the troughs, where the other scientists and technicians were working near a large set of bay doors.
“You asked how we did it?” She had turned to me, “Would you like to see?”
I very much did.
“This,” she walked me over to a small tank that had been built in a corner. It looked like a miniature tide pool, complete with a few barnacles and an urchin. In the center of this pool was a single horseshoe crab. “This is the closest living relative to the trilobite. We named her Jane. We took Jane’s DNA and decoded it, regressed some of its features, rooted around and eventually we made a Trilobite.”
“Then they aren’t actually Trilobites, without a basis of comparison how would you know?”
“There is an extraordinary amount of genetic memory hiding in her DNA. What we found is that as we resurrected the old features, the cosmetic behaviors came with it. They swarm now, spreading out to search for food, then leading each other to it in lines.”
“What are you going to do with all of them,” I took a moment to look at the long troughs, filled with the impossible bugs, “Not that this isn’t an amazing accomplishment-“
“This is a creature that is very effective at doing one thing: Taking dead things, and turning them into a blank slate.”
“…You want to release them?” Dr. Nasrallah walked away from my question, tracing the outside of the hanger to the large doors, I walked behind her, “Do you know the damage that could do to the ecosystem?”
“The damage?” She turned around, raising her voice to fill the room, “Don’t you understand, we’ve done all the damage we can do. All of this-” She gestures wide. The scientists have stopped working, turned to her in their white scrubs and latex gloves. Each of them splattered with blue. “This isn’t going to fix anything; There’s nothing we can fix. This is for whatever comes next” And with that she opened a small door at the far end of the warehouse. From where I was standing I couldn’t see what was beyond it, only hear the wind and rain. The door shut behind her.
I was left standing to the side of this hidden laboratory, feeling suddenly very small. I walked to the edge of a trough and looked in and I saw them slowly crawling in small circles. There was a layer of something grey and black on the bottom of the white tank. I reached into the water to touch it, but my arm was grabbed carefully by a pair of latex gloves-
“Thats not a good idea,” It was Seong, behind his surgical mask, “They’re hungry”
“What-… I’m sorry” I pulled my arm out of his, my stomach roiling and my heart beating fast, “I don’t understand”
“I’m sorry, Hala can get that way. She cares about this” He unhooked his mask, looking at me with concern. He knew what I felt, he understood.
“What’s-” I was exasperated, a panicked madness ate away at me, “…THIS. What’s going on here?”
He leaned over the tank and pointed, “That sludge at the bottom is fertilizer. Naturally derived nitrates, Phosphorous and Potassium, a host of micronutrients. Thats what they leave behind, our sacred mud” I looked at my arm, it had some kind of viscous blue liquid on it where Seong had grabbed me. “Sorry” He stripped off of his gloves in a quick motion, then held his hand out in front of him. There were small scars up his arms, fading away a few inches above his wrists, “They bite.” I had seen those scars before.
“The young man in the house-“ I struggled to remember his name.
“Ben.” Seong wriggled his fingers in the open air, “Ben-… He fell into one of the vats when we were working. Now we have troughs, harder to get stuck in when getting a sample.” He started to walk away, but I stopped him.
“Why am I here.” It felt like I had seen something I wasn’t supposed to see, and now that I had it felt like I was going to be locked in a room and questioned.
“This is the last release.” I tried to ask another question, but he stopped me, “Please, I have more work to do. Hala can answer your questions, you’ll find her outside” He walked quickly over to a well-marked wash station and started scrubbing up, “My rain coat is by the door, use it.” Whatever was happening, it was going to happen soon.
I walked to the door. One of the coats was labeled S.N, I grabbed it and braced for the storm. The rain came down hard. I managed to stay dry enough as I walked down the beach, searching for the old doctor in the rain. I found her near a rotting whale. From the bluff I had assumed it was a rock, but now that I was through the rain I could see where seagulls had already eaten small craters out of it. I found Nasrallah standing in the rain, already soaked.
“It washed up here 2 weeks ago. An old one, already half-dead when it came. It wasn’t killed by anything, just tired and beached out of age. We all watched it die.” She sounded cold, but not from the weather. She wasn’t shivering in the rain. I didn’t even know if she noticed it was there.
“You can’t do this. You don’t know what they could do”
“No worse than us.” She kneeled down next to the ocean’s giant, laying a hand on it, “I think a part of us remembers them, the trilobites. I see the imagery everywhere now. The first image of death wasn’t a skull, it was the roiling black deep, the roving horde. It wasn’t a hunter, it wouldn’t kill you, it would just be there when you die. Uncaring and constant.”
She stood up, and though she was a full foot shorter than me she somehow stood me down, “Do you think” that furious fire burning in her eyes, “That our DNA would let us forget that? The scarab to the Egyptians was their symbol of death. Odysseus was carried into Hades by a black river, the Styx would shred you to bone and steal your years. The earliest ceremonial burials, the earliest cave drawings, all found below us. All connected, in some way, to the deep and the dark. Do you think we were the first species to have a concept of death? The first ones to put a face to oblivion?”
I could barely summon the words as she bore down on me, “This isn’t science” I said. I could almost recognize the fervor in her, the need to understand had turned into a zeal for the unknown, “This is mysticism, its Theology. You’re talking about Myth, not Method”
“Science hasn’t always been so cold, so separate from our beliefs. In every culture, those that sought to understand the world around them were connected to their religion or system of belief; Priests, Shamans, Hermits, Oracles.” She stops for a second as a new thought hits her, “Do you think Science does not have its own questions of ‘cosmic importance’? Do you think the Big Bang and the Heat Death of the Universe have nothing to do with Creation and Apocalypse? The key difference between Science and Religion is that Science seeks to answer the questions we ask. Do you think we’re going to like all the answers?”
I knew we wouldn’t. I was starting to understand the ‘Why’ of it all. “You think there’s nothing we can do.”
“Over the next 100 years, temperatures will rise up to 20 degrees, and its not the rising sea that we’ll be worrying about, the seas will be dead. Fields will dry and the dust will rise. Everything will collapse.” She looked sad, weighed down by her apocalypse.
“We don’t know that”
“Amy, my dear. There are a great many things we don’t know. But so many species have disappeared in the last 100 years that we are in the largest mass extinction since the Cretaceous-Paleogene: the reason there are no longer dinosaurs” I heard a commotion from the cliff face. A small crack of light stretched wide as the two bay doors of the old munitions bunker opened slowly. All the scientists but one were wearing yellow rain gear, seeming small beside the doors. “We’re starting. Come with me”
She walked quickly to the open hangar and my curiosity carried me after her. We came quickly to the foot of the cliff where the two troughs had been carefully rolled to the edge of the hanger. Two of the technicians were tying the other end of the troughs to winches hung from the ceiling. I saw Ben at the back of the warehouse sitting in a chair, being fussed over by another one of the white coats. They had him connected to an IV, pumping a clear liquid into his veins.
Hala had forgotten about me and rushed to check on the troughs with their crawling cargo. She first dipped her hands deep into the water, bringing out a handful of small crawling trilobites. If they were biting her she showed no pain, and they made their circles around her arms until she brushed them off like water. She went to a set of steel tables against the opposite wall of the hanger and talked with the two scientists there. On that table there was a line of horseshoe crabs on stands, surgical tubing connecting their spines to small jars filled with a blue liquid. The blood of horseshoe crabs.
I found Seong, working in the rain without a coat. I took his coat from my shoulders and tossed it to him. “Why do you need the blood?” I asked. If I couldn’t stop what was happening here then I didn’t want to be an ignorant witness. I didn’t want for this to go silently and pass into the darkness. I wanted to understand
“Horseshoe Crab blood is remarkable. It uses copper to vector oxygen instead of Iron; Hemocyanin, not Hemoglobin” He shook out his jacket and started to put it on, but decided against it. “No use now that I’m already wet… pity” He tossed it back to me. “Watch from inside. Don’t cross over to the beach, Don’t get caught between them and where they’re going.”
“What’s going to happen next?”
He stopped, and it was just the two of us standing still as the other scientists swarmed. “We don’t know.” He then turned and entered the swarm of scientists, preparing the tanks and collecting the blue blood into two flasks. Ben stumbled out of his chair at the back of the warehouse, he stumbled slowly between the two troughs, trailing his hands through them as he went.
Hala Nasrallah sees him and yells to the hanger, “Start winching the tanks up!” Behind her, a group of the technicians and scientists had ditched their white coats, and their arms were blue past their elbows. I could only wonder for a second why they had covered themselves in horseshoe crab blood when Ben, stripped to the waist, had made his way to the foot of the tanks.
As the winches in the back cranked away, water started spilling out of the troughs and onto the beach. Ben, with his scars stretching down his face and covering half of his torso, had sunk his hands completely into the water. Outside, I could see Hala standing between him and the dead whale, 40 feet down the beach.
Ben, this poor soul, began shuffling through the wet sand towards Dr. Nasrallah. As his arms left the tank I noticed that he carried with him black growths, small Trilobites that had latched onto him, not letting go, dragging with them more of the bug-like creatures. He trailed a swarm that spread out behind him. Blue-armed scientists followed the swarm out, gently nudging lines of Trilobites on a path to the dead whale.
I wanted to scream, I wanted to stop what was happening. But the sight of that dark swarm took something out of me. Ben had reached Dr. Nasrallah, and he stopped briefly as Hala held him close and whispered quiet words. I saw Ben nod slowly, not in pain even as I could see more of the Trilobites crawling up his legs, gnawing their way up his arms. He walked by Dr. Nasrallah, who was unaffected by the swarm. They crawled uninterested over her feet. She watched Ben lead them on as the last of the trilobites made their way out of the troughs. The swarm spread over the beach and it no longer looked like a thousand trilobites, instead I could have taken the beach for the ocean. It all seemed to move in waves, cresting where one thin swarm would meet another, falling and crawling over each other in their search
As the last of the arthropods left the hangar, the scientists followed. I tried to catch up to Seong, but they all seemed to be intent on watching the swarm, following it down to the beach. I had no choice but to join them.
We came to see the dead whale just as Ben had led the swarm to it. They began to climb his legs, covering him and then the whale. I could see the sand below him start to turn red as the rain washed the blood from him. I screamed when he didn’t. I ran forward, my legs finally working of their own accord, but Hala came quickly to hold me back and I fought desperately to tear her hands from my arm.
“He chose this. He fell into one of the vats and something in him changed. He saw something,” I tore at her wrists, certain that I had drawn blood. She didn’t move and I watched as Ben was engulfed. “Its not our place to stop this” she said as he fell to his knees and was quickly swallowed.
Then, from the sea, a black tide began to swell around the whale. There were more of them, and these two swarms joined together and began to devour. We watched in silence as they did their work, hearing nothing but the rain and and the crawling mass.
The scientists all seemed to relax, and a few exchanged somber handshakes. Dr. Nasrallah released me, letting me fall gently to the sand. She knelt down, “Amy, I know this isn’t easy to watch. We need to make sure that life can recover after our mistakes. We need to lay the groundwork for the end of our epoch.” Behind her and beyond the rain I noticed the sea rising. Along the beach, as far as I could see through the sheets of rain, the sea turned black and crawled up the beach.
Hala Nasrallah turned around to find that the rest of the swarm had only just arrived. The screams started, scientists who noticed too late had already been caught, the Trilobites covering them in seconds. Hala pulled me up and pushed me to the hangar, “Run” she said the only words I needed to hear.
I scrambled up the beach, the sand giving me too little purchase. I felt one or two trilobites crunch under my feet as I got up and ran. I took a last look back and saw Dr. Hala Nasrallah, once a Nobel Laureate, and now finally seeing her life’s work. She held her hands out as if welcoming the storm and the swarm. One of her arms was bleeding where I had scratched her and it dripped blue blood down to where it was lost in the roiling mass up to her knees.
I could barely stop myself as I reached the elevator. I didn’t look back as I cranked it slowly up to the basement of the small house on the bluff. I ran through the halls searching desperately for the front door, trying not to think about anyone I may have left behind. Eventually I found the door and left it open.
I drove away, my heart pounding in my ears all the way back to the city, and even beyond when I kept driving. Past my home and everything I’d built. I drove far into the darkness and only stopped when my car shuddered to a halt a hundred miles from any ocean, its tank dry, the sky finally clear.