words and images by mk swanson
Nuclear Summer

Nuclear Summer

DALL-E art prompt: “a highwaymen painting of florida beach with nuclear mushroom cloud in background”

The countdown clock dropped while I watched, sitting on top of my car next to the pedestrian overpass at midnight. I’d taken to doing this every night; if I could, I would see every midnight, every sunrise and every sunset between now and the last day.

“Three days until the end,” I said aloud to no one. “Three days of thunderstorms, rainbows, ospreys carrying fish to their young, alligators lounging on logs in the Ocklawaha, hibiscus flowers blooming and dying overnight, the smell of four o’clocks, the hum of bees, the smell of ozone after lightning.”

I started my car and pulled out without looking onto the two-lane highway. At first, the roads to the beach had been clogged with end-timers, desperate to eat, drink and be merry, but a few months in, they had returned to their homes, their families, and even their routines of walking the dog and taking out the trash. Even though the world would not go on, the world had to go on, at least the living and dying of it. Food had to be grown and shipped and bought and cooked and eaten and disposed of. So work continued. Trucks trundled around. A few planes crossed overhead each day, reminding us that this was not 9/11 or the Blitz.

At first, people committed suicide in large numbers, but now that was unusual. I had thought of it, until I realized that I didn’t want to miss one moment of the beauty that was being wiped out. I did not want to miss one breeze or raindrop.

So every day I got up before dawn and sat with my cats to watch the sunrise. Then I took a walk with my husband or my friends in the woods, or kayaked a river, or swam in the springs or the ocean. I made food out of whatever I could buy, and we ate it with new appreciation, foods I’d never tried, or sworn I hated. Even kale.

As sunset approached, I found a chair and my cats again, if I was home, or sat down anywhere I was. I didn’t slap the mosquitos. Why should I end them before their time? The bombs that took care of humans would be equally deadly for all life on earth, eventually.

The news was almost useless, and I’d stopped listening. The journalists had nothing new to tell us, and the stories about everyone living in harmony now that the end had come grated on my nerves. Why hadn’t we learned that lesson before this? Why did we wait until a madman planted a thousand nuclear bombs throughout the globe, giving us a belated mutually assured destruction?

I’d heard that the world’s space agencies were hurriedly putting together a memorial record of our civilization, a scrapbook to launch into space. As the heir of Voyager, released into the wild fifty years before, it would carry more irony than information, but I hoped it would reach someone before they destroyed themselves. Our pale blue dot, our tender earth, become an interstellar cautionary tale.

I drove home slowly, meditatively. My husband was likely there, watching every movie he’d ever loved, or reading books he’d not had the chance to enjoy while making a living—the same motivation as my obsessive nature-watching, but his own particular brand. He didn’t wait up for me, though. We’d learned a kind of laissez faire attitude toward one another’s schedules, meeting often but unexpectedly, joining each other with happiness but no commitments. We were in this together, but also, inescapably, alone.

Heat lightning filled the air. The humidity created a sensation of paddling warm water as I lay my hand out the window, spreading my fingers to catch and let go of the wind. I was alone on the road, except for the swoop of owls, encouraged by our absence, and the surprised leaps of armadillos and freeze of possums I swerved to avoid.

The next day, I found a gopher tortoise, wise in years and scars, sunning himself in the middle of the blacktop early in the morning. I lay down beside him for an hour, watching the sky. A car passed us without honking its horn, then another stopped and the driver gave me two bottles of water, saying, “For you and your friend.” I poured the first one over his shell while I drank half of the second one, savoring the taste of flat water and plastic, like the water from a yard hose you’re not supposed to drink, then poured the rest out for him in the hollow of my shoe. He bent his neck curiously and darted his head into the water.

“It doesn’t matter how many PCBs, BPAs and micro-plastics we ingest now,” I said to my tortoise friend. “It’s all the same to a nuclear bomb. Drink up.”

I leaned back, gripping the hot tar surface and savoring the sunburn I’d taken no precautions against. I half-closed my eyes to keep the edge of the sun’s rays in my view and said again, “Drink up.”