Not Hunkered Down

She opened the fridge again, peering into the cold and well lit cavern to find the bottle she was sure had been in there this morning. Her hands were shaking. She pretended they weren’t.

“Tiny! Get the fucking lead out, we’re going to miss it!”

“I can’t find the orange juice!” she called back over her shoulder.

There was some muffled talking from the direction of the front door.

“Ginny’s got it! Let’s gooooooo.”

Hunter was still pouring out an ooooooh sound as she got to the front door, slapping one hand with the back of the other for emphasis. Tiny flipped him off as she passed. She’d never admit she understood. Almost missing the celestial event of humanity for a three dollar plastic bottle of orange juice.

They’d poured what gas they had left into Lamar’s ratty Prius because it got the best gas mileage and could fit the five of them. Lamar got to drive, obviously, the Prius was half Tiny’s age and covered in dents and still Lamar was a mama bear. He had dumped two girlfriends on two entirely separate occasions for spilling something. The nail polish stains were still on the dash. He’d had the puke professionally cleaned.

Diamond got shotgun because she was a six foot tall body builder and took up half the backseat by herself. That left Tiny, Hunter, and Ginny squeezed in the back, knees almost up to their chests. Tiny opened the window to keep from getting claustrophobic.

Quick trip. It’s a quick trip.

That was a lie. Usually it was a quick trip. Tonight it would not be.

“No one on the road, anyway,” Lamar said as he pulled out of the driveway.

“Must be a big game I don’t know about?” Diamond said. They all laughed. Too hard.

The Prius, which had always felt like a boat to Tiny anyway, sailed down quiet streets at fifteen miles an hour. Headlights off, Lamar navigated by streetlamps, light off of houses, and moonlight. The curfew had started twelve hours before. Everyone was supposed to be hunkered down.

Hunkered down. Such a ridiculous phrase. All she could ever picture were groups of people hiding in basements, crouched down close to the floor, their chins resting on their knees and their hands over their heads. Faces scrunched up. Waiting for the hit.

Hits.

Earlier in the day they’d seen local cops and staties and even National Guard driving the streets, passing the house in either direction, looking for people who hadn’t hunkered down yet. What were they doing with these curfew breakers, she wondered? Were they taking them down to the station? Or were they simply going up to the closest house. Ringing the bell. Sorry to be a bother ma’am but this person has not correctly hunkered down yet. They must hunker down with you.

Maybe Tiny wasn’t so wrong. The houses they passed were mostly empty husks, their people having fled to shelters. Not everyone made it. Not everyone had been allowed in. Not everyone could go. Occasionally they would pass a house with lights still on in the basement. Once, she saw a face peering out at them from a small window. The expression had been unreadable.

Lamar drove without lights on, radio off, window down. All of them looking in every direction, waiting for some sort of authority to spot them, chase them, pull them over. But no one came. It was too close. The message was becoming clear.

If you’re not hunkered down by now, you’re on your own.

Exactly how they liked it.

After an agonizing fifteen minutes, Lamar finally found the edge of suburbia. A two lane road between a gas station and a bait and tackle. The streetlights fell off quick. The road started to wind through rocks. It started to climb. The five of them released a collective breath.

“What time is it?” Ginny asked from the other side of the back seat. Next to her, Hunter shifted uncomfortably. He’d never liked touching people, especially not girls.

“Quarter past midnight,” Diamond said, reading off the dashboard clock.

“T minus forty-two minutes,” Lamar mumbled, mostly to himself.

Hunter snorted. “They can know down to the minute when it will start, but they want us to believe they don’t know how bad it will be?”

The rest of them groaned.

“Not this shit again,” Ginny said.

Hunter sniffed. “This shit never stopped.”

“It’s not a conspiracy, man,” Lamar said.

“But they’re scientists,” Hunter said. “They stare into their little telescopes all fucking day. How can they look us in the face and tell us they don’t know how bad it’s going to be and expect us to believe us?”

Tiny tuned it all out. She didn’t need to hear it again. Ever since the announcement six or seven months back it had been a favorite topic of Hunter’s. The government’s grand conspiracy. It changed day to day, depending on how Hunter was feeling. Sometimes the government knew the world was going to end but was lying to keep the masses calm. Sometimes the government knew it was going to be fine but wanted everyone hidden away for a few hours so they could finish installing the new surveillance system. Never could Hunter articulate exactly which part of the government was doing all of this.

The difference between NASA and NSA is only one letter, he would say as though he were a sage imparting delicate wisdom and not some burnout mooching off his parents from their basement.

He’s lived his whole life hunkered down. He’s used to it.

It didn’t make any sense and Tiny began to realize she might be cracking. Her hands were still shaking.

“Let’s put on the radio,” she said, cutting through Hunter’s ongoing lecture.

Diamond happily complied. While Lamar cut through the wooded road as fast as he dared in nothing but moonlight, Diamond searched the band and found nothing but the emergency broadcast system telling them to go hunker down.

“We could plug in someone’s phone.”

Tiny shifted in her seat, uncomfortable for many reasons now. It felt wrong, somehow, to listen to their own music while they drove. Like they were disconnecting. Hunkering down the mind. The others apparently agreed. No one pulled out their phone, and they made the rest of the aching slow drive listening to the dulcet tones WEHHH WEHH WEHH WHHHMMMMMMMMMMM.

They had picked Lookout Point because it was the correct combination of ‘high enough’ and ‘easy to get to.’ Going to the top of Mount Carlisle would have been a better view. Would have given them a three-sixty view. But going to the top of Mount Carlisle was a further hour’s drive (at least) and then at least a forty minute climb. In the dark. Not worth if it nothing ended up happening. And if something did happen, and they were stuck on the trails? They wouldn’t see shit.

“What if there’s a crowd of people already up there?” Ginny asked out of nowhere, barely a minute before they’d reach the parking lot.

“Doubt anyone else is this stupid,” Diamond muttered.

“Plenty of people are this stupid,” Hunter said. “Stupider, even.”

So in the last few seconds of the worst car ride of her life a new fear was unlocked. Their quiet little spot to watch what happens wouldn’t be so quiet after all.

The parking lot was empty.

“Shit, took us a lot longer to get up here than I thought,” Hunter said.

“Nothing but moonlight, man!”

“Why couldn’t you turn the headlights on again?”

“They’d see them in town. Didn’t want anyone coming after us.”

“Five minutes!”

They all scrambled out of the car, to the trunk, pulling out the coolers and bags they had brought. It was only as they were heading for the short trail to the lookout that Tiny realized Lamar hadn’t bothered with a parking spot. The Prius was pulled right up to the trailhead, front bumper inches away from the informational sign.

RXG243 is an interstellar object recently discovered by scientists at NASA. Nicknamed Lemming, the asteroid has apparently had a dicey past. It would appear that at some point in its recent  history (‘recent’ here expressed on an interstellar scale) it had a collision with something, perhaps another asteroid or rogue planet. This would explain how it was knocked into our solar system, and how more than half of the asteroid is actually broken pieces following the unbroken half for thousands of kilometers. This largest piece is estimated to be twenty kilometers long – twice the size of the asteroid said to kill the dinosaurs – but the good news is that this piece will miss Earth, although it will be close. Close enough that the trailing pieces will almost definitely enter Earth’s atmosphere. That is the bad news.

This was not the information on the board. The board simply told of elevations, scenery, local animals. All of which, Tiny realized, was about to be fucked up by thousands of trailing Lemming pieces.

Probably. Five minutes to go and still no one was sure.

They all had different reasons for coming. For not hunkering down. She could go through them, one by one, but ultimately they all boiled down to the same peculiar brand of exhausted nihilism that had soaked into the world like so much vinegar and piss. The world had given them nothing, only taken away the things they’d fought for.

“There!”

The first light streaked across the sky just as they made the lookout. Tiny almost missed it.

“Nothing more than a shooting star,” Hunter said, huffing a little. “Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

“Another!”

And another. And another.

And at first, Hunter was right. Nothing more than shooting stars. Thin, quick streaks.

Only the streaks got longer, not blink and you’ll miss it but cutting the whole sky into pieces.

And then they got bigger.

Bright.

Closer.

“Here we go!” Diamond shouted. Tiny heard it in her voice before she felt it in herself.

Exhilaration.

Giddiness.

Hysteria?

The first piece of broken space rock made contact with the earth’s crust somewhere far to the north, and for the first time all night Tiny’s hands had stopped shaking.


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