Creative Writing, Print September 16, 2013

This is How the World Ends

by Willow Summers

You never really believe you’re going to wake up one morning and find that the world you knew is gone. Sometimes you wonder, “Is this it?” when you read about the latest natural disaster that is worse than any before recorded, another rogue nation and its uranium enrichment, or the latest plunge of an economy. But a passing thought is all the more attention you give it, because even in the darkest circumstances, the sun always rises the next morning and you always wake, even from the worst nightmares. You always tell yourself the things are going to keep spinning, but if they don’t it will be long after you’re gone. If anything, the fleeting thoughts you humor are the ones that tell you we’ll cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, never really run out of oil, and put a man on Mars.

No one was really watching when it started. The eyes of the world were elsewhere—on London and another wave of anarchy sweeping its streets. I noticed though. “Orange Goo Washing Ashore Near Remote Alaskan Village.” That’s what the headline said. It was almost laughable at first, too outlandish to be true, but sure enough it was. By three pm that day, versions and accounts of the story had spread. The buzz wasn’t enough to label it as any more than “strange news,” but no matter how bizarre there it was all the same. That was how it all began, with a newspaper headline about a town even most Alaskans had never heard of. After everything really started going to hell I tried to find everything I could—tried to piece it all back together. I still read over it all now. Mostly it kept my mind busy—keeps my mind busy, keeps me from thinking about what’s waiting outside—keeps me from thinking about the end.


From a local paper the day it began: April 12, 2012. A mysterious orange substance washed ashore along the Arctic coast of Kivalina, Alaska, and inundated the small Inupiat Eskimo village last night. Pictures taken by residents show an orange sheen across the harbor and on beaches in the village about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. Villagers have never seen anything like this before, and elders have never heard any stories passed down from earlier generations about an orange-colored substance coming from the sea…
…City personnel went to a pump house two miles away on the Wulik River, and found the material there, too. The village is also about 40 miles from the Red Dog zinc mine, but officials there assured the village the substance didn’t come from them.

…In areas where the sun dried the material, winds scattered it as a thin orange dust, giving the first impression that it was a type of pollen.

Found this one on Yahoo news before the Internet went down. April 13, 2012. …After the high tide yesterday evening washed away the “orange goo” last night in Kivalina, Alaska, the town learned that it might have also been toxic, as several minnows died during the event. When it rained the next day, residents found the orange matter floating on top of rain buckets they use to collect drinking water. It was also found on one roof, leading them to believe whatever it was, it was airborne, too.


The world may have been looking elsewhere as the story grew, but those of us working a gold mine called Shear Ridge talked all day. Even down in the deep and a long ways from Kivalina the right kind of news still sunk low enough. Maybe it was just in the mine, but nobody around there cared too much what the rest of the world was doing. All of it was far too far away to make a difference. Kivalina wasn’t. One thing all us knew was that no matter what it is, if it ends up in the water, everybody’s in trouble.
The whole gruesome truth was spelled out in those few paragraphs, even though nobody realized: The dead fish, the speed at which the goo was spreading, and the drinking water. If I knew then what I know now, maybe I would have tried to run. Maybe now it’s just because I’m holed up inside a gold mind on the ass-end of a mountain, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d have run if I could have been safe.
By that first day’s close it didn’t take too much to at least push the so-called orange goo to the back of our minds. We were still worried—mostly about the water, whatever was going on with the environment. All it took to convince us it wasn’t anything was a couple beers. The hangovers got fainter. The news didn’t.


An Anchorage paper. Same story, but the details kept growing. April 14, 2013: Stacy Edgrin’s husband saw it first, and she got on the marine radio to alert others in the remote Alaska village of Kivalina that a strange orange goo was sitting on top of the town’s harbor…the goo covered much of the harbor, and then began washing ashore Wednesday…

The next day it rained, and residents found the orange matter floating on top of the rain buckets they use to collect drinking water…The concern is if it’s somehow harmful. What will it do to the fish, which villagers will soon start catching to stock up for winter, or the caribou, currently being hunted, or the berries?

…When the material bunched up in the lagoon, it created 10 foot-by-100 foot swaths of glimmering orange…and Kivalnia wasn’t alone in reporting the strange substance…

Wendy Garmond said she was boating on the Buckland River about 150 miles southeast… “It was orange looking,” she said.


It kept spreading. A local paper. April 15, 2013: …Several residents who took boats out again on Thursday reported that most of the creeks still had an orange tinge to them…they did not take many berries as the orange goo was coating most of the vegetation near the streams…Kivalina residents live largely off the land, and many are worried about the effect on some wildlife and plants from the goo, which turned powdery once it dried—and probably went airborne. One resident claimed that when she and her family went berry picking over the weekend, and couldn’t tell if the goo was on the fruit, called salmonberries, which are the same color… The caribou are in the region now…

There were lots of theories amongst us. The whole thing had turned into a big enough joke with some of the guys they had a $300.00 pot for the one that got it right. Guesses went everywhere from chemical agents courtesy of terrorists to all kinds of crass jokes about someone’s mom or their previous evening.
I was running a drill that afternoon when the answer came over the radio, and nobody won the money. It wasn’t anything to laugh at either. At least I knew it wasn’t.

“Tests have been conducted on the substance on the surface of the water in Kivalina and we have determined that these are small invertebrate eggs, although we cannot tell which species.”

Another week passed. The orange goo disappeared from the water altogether. Then it disappeared from the news. The guys at the mine laughed about it some more, and made as many dirty jokes about invertebrates as they could before someone threatened to report them for sexual harassment. I didn’t think about the goo much more either. I slipped back into passing my days measuring the hours by the songs I listened to passing the daily grind.

It’s not so different now, but I hit the repeat button more. I lay and listen to music, unable to sleep, not wanting to do anything else. I sit and I listen as every word brings me one step closer to a choice I think I can keep avoiding. The generator should run at least another week before it will need more diesel. The Ipod should last a day after. It won’t get cold until two days after that, which means there’ll be plenty of time to decide if biting a bullet of going to the surface is a worse way to go. “All Along the Watchtower” can probably play a few hundred more times before then. “MK Ultra” a dozen or so less.


A local paper. April 19, 2012. “We now think these are some sort of small crustacean egg or embryo”…a lead scientist at the Juneau lab, said in a press release…Scientists also don’t know why the unidentified eggs suddenly emerged on the shores of Kivalina last week. Villagers say they’ve never seen anything like it before, and know of no instance in which such a phenomenon occurred.

The eggs were found on roofs and in buckets set over the village to collect rainwater. The substance has been described as gooey and slimy, exuding an unpleasant odor. It was spread in streaks along the Wulik River and the lagoon, which is a half-mile wide and six miles long. Orange goo in water was reported as far away as the village of Buckland, southeast of Kivalina by 150 miles.


After that nobody wrote anymore about it. The radio didn’t say anymore about it. One of the guys saw four Chinook helicopters flying north, but everyone said it was just coincidence. A few days later was when it really started—when I knew that T.S. Elliott had been right when he wrote “…not with a bang but with a whimper.” It crept in the stillness of the night, quietly snuffing out everything—emerging.


An Anchorage Paper. April 24th, 2013. Two hunters from Idaho, in the state to hunt grizzly reported what they called a disturbing kill fueling local Inuit legends of a were-wolf like creature called the Adlet… The find came when the two men stumbled upon what they at first believed to have been a bear kill. “We knew it was a caribou, but it didn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve been hunting since I was fifteen and I’ve never seen an animal do something like this to another.”
The caribou was found literally ripped into pieces. Parts of the carcass had been picked clean to the bone. No trace of whatever killed the animal could be found. Portions of the skeleton were missing. The department of wildlife has examined the carcass and announced that some of the wounds are consistent with a bear mauling. The carcass has been moved to Anchorage in order to determine if the bear is suffering from rabies or a similar neurodegenerative disease, in which case it will have to be hunted and euthanised.


I knew when I read that it wasn’t a bear or anything remotely like it, and I knew those hunters knew it wasn’t also. I almost thought about trying to find them-call them up. Then I realized there wouldn’t really be any point to it, what would I have asked them? I kept on with my job, mulling through the grind. Looking forward to having a beer and listening to wolves howl somewhere far off in the night while I sat next to a warm fire.

I wonder that a lot now. What if I had found them? They’d have said, “We don’t know what the hell that was.” I’d have told them about the eggs and maybe they’d have thought what I did—what I know now. It’s surreal that I was right. I knew when I first saw that story. I knew because all the articles I’d read and radio updates I’d heard, everyone kept crying out that the stuff was on the berries the caribou ate and in everyone’s drinking water. I still feel sick when I think about it. That was the only story like that I ever saw, but I know what happened to the caribou happened to everyone—anything, that drank water laced with the eggs.

Another week passed with everything pretty much remaining normal. That Friday was when things really went to hell. There wasn’t any horrific reveal, no blasts, or aircraft falling out of the sky like you see in the movies. It was quiet, slow, and inevitable. The power in the mining camp was the first thing to go, then the people. It wasn’t everyone at once, not even in numbers that would have stood out right away. No one really noticed until everyone got back into the bunkhouse or their own cabin if they had a family. That first night five people were missing. Search parties looked everywhere, but nobody found any sign of anyone.

I was terrified that first night, the same way I get now when I’m lying on my back eyes gaping, unable to sleep. There’s lots of lights down here in the mine—down where it’s deep enough I don’t think they can get to me. It doesn’t make any difference though—I still can’t sleep.

It got worse after that first night. Emergency generators put the power back online, but more people vanished. We actually heard something on the third night. Everyone knew something was going on. Nobody was going anywhere alone. The real skeptics, die-hards, and guys with nothing to lose still were going to the bar. A lot of us saw two of them walking and then heard screaming just when they passed out of sight.
Some of the water pipes in the camp got clogged later that night. When we looked in the pump house the orange goo was everywhere. Not just in the water—it was on the walls, the ceiling, the floor, and everything else. I ran. I didn’t wait on anybody else. I kept thinking about what those hunters had seen and I ran. I told everyone I could to stop drinking the water—knowing full well it was probably too late.
Thirty more people were gone by the end of that week. All I could think about was wondering how long it would take. If someone drank water and the, I hated to think it, eggs had been inside. Some of us were already making plans to get into the mine. We knew there weren’t any natural tunnels, and there were just two ways in and out.

I still feel guilty for what we did. I still haven’t said more than a few words to the others down here. Sure there’s a few women and children. That should make me feel better, right? That has to count for something. We saved everyone we could. There are not really any heroes in times like this—those guys always go down first. And nobody would have done any differently than we did if they have seen what we saw.

One of the mining engineers got the first look—the only real look. We were inside garage, siphoning gas out of the vehicles to move down to the mine. It wasn’t dark, but just dark enough that everything was muddled and blurry. The mining engineer and a few guys were over tinkering with the bigger machines, while the rest of us were draining the trucks.

All of us heard the noise: A clunky chittering that buzzed for just a second and then was silent. Nobody moved. Each of us looked at each other’s wide eyes hoping someone would say it was nothing. The mining engineer shot toward the door and nobody followed him. We heard the sound again and in the dim light I just barely made out what was coming for us. It was low to the ground, but long and wide. If it wasn’t black it was almost, and had a dull sheen just enough that in that split second I knew I was looking at a shell. I didn’t see any eyes, but I knew I saw long lance-like spikes jutting out from what was a wide mouth.

When we made it out of the garage, there was no more preparing. The guys grabbed whomever they could and hollered for anyone who could hear and we booked it for the mine. I’m not sure how many of us made it. The elevator going down can hold thirty people at once. There were more supplies on it than there were people. An argument broke out once we were on the lowest level. It ended with a gunshot and the decision to seal both the entrances.

The first few days were a blur. I kept busy any way I could—mostly that meant drilling like I was at work. Got the drill a good distance deeper in. Kept trying to convince myself everything was fine, that everyone up on the surface was fine. I tried to laugh and told myself they were going to owe me overtime when all this was done. Then I came to.

Everything is not fine. We are alive now, but soon we won’t be. We’re not safe. We’re trapped at the bottom of a pit while everything we knew and loved is being destroyed. If anyone is coming to help they aren’t coming here. If somewhere in the world they’re fighting for survival, their battle won’t bring them here. If it’s not the creatures it will be exposure. If it’s not exposure it will be starvation and dehydration. If it’s not that eventually those of us trapped down here will turn on each other.
I still can’t decide. Maybe it would be faster that way. Maybe if I go to the surface and try to run or to get food or gas and I fail, maybe it’s just the blink of an eye. If I stay down here I know exactly how long I’ll wait. I can count the minutes, then the hours, and the days. There won’t be many left, but when you measure the days by the lyrics of a song, it’s still an eternity. I hit repeat as the intro plays again and wondering what end four minutes and thirty-two seconds will bring me closer to.

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