How We Survived – Centralia (Nano 2016, chapter 9)

It was a half moon that began its slow climb into the sky that night. It rose from the east, first peering through the long dead trunks before hitting clear sky. The stars seemed to part to make space for their majestic king. The light in the darkness spread across the ground, illuminating the sparse vegetation that struggled against its ultimate fate. Nothing that couldn’t move lived on this patch of earth for very long. The bracken and lichen began in wisps and it strived so hard to reach into the light, to overtake this place. It drank weakly of the water, and tasted all it could of the air. But this was all for nothing. Soon it would grey and feel its roots contract, shrivel, and crawl out of an earth that seemed to reject its presence.

The moon climbed on, bringing more dim illumination into the shadowy places. The eternal stone showed its cracks to the world, wearing its battle scars proudly. It had survived ice ages, and the boots of soldiers, and every end of the world so far. Madmen raved, carpetbaggers wheeled and dealed, saints whispers, tyrants screamed, and the everyday people talked of things deep, or idle. There was no more of that here. There was only one woman there to witness it.

Celia had grown up here. She barely knew of a world before the choke. Her father had told her stories, he had shown her the places where the plants were thick and lustrous. He told her about the arm thick vines that dipped their roots into the bottoms of streams and provided homes for tiny river fish that darted through the water like shooting stars. Providing brilliance in each moment. The moon crept on.

She had been away for years. The town of Centralia had gotten increasingly sick, and panicked as the choke worsened. People turned on each other as the world seemed to lose its colour. The flowers were the first to go. Delicate petals would take to the breeze one by one, greyer and sicker every year until one February the daffodils came in strong. Yellow as the sun, full blooms, proud stems and strong roots. Within a week the town was a burst of colour in a wasteland, and then on the morning of the 29th the town awakened to streets lined with dead blooms. They had lost none of their brilliance, they had not gone gentle into the end. They played a crescendo, and laid a carpet through the town with their decay. Footfalls were almost silent as with the flowers went the last of the hope. Celia had been 6 at the time. It was her strongest memory.

She and her father, Rusty, stayed for as long as they could, and they were among the last ten in Centralia. The town had fallen into disrepair, as more of those people critical to keeping order filtered away. Some had just left to leave, others in search of a better world. Most heard about the domes, and made their choice. The outside world was failing them, so what better to do than build a sanctuary? The coal fire started not long after the daffodils died. People walked as if in a haze, not believing that the world could change this way. Standards and pride fell, and when no one was watching, the world started to burn beneath their feet. The blank patches in the snow were the first clue. Then the cracks began to appear, and from them wisps of grey smoke. Centralia dwindled, drained of its people and their hope. The ground cracked open once, near the stream, the very stream she sat above, if she was remembering it right. The weak ground diverted water, and gouts of steam started to reach into the sky. Childhood images of volcanoes in school mixed with the world showing her an inferno. She ran home, and brought her father to see. By the time they came back, tall flames had started to emerge from the crack, bringing with them black smoke, and falling soot. A dark snow started to lay atop the crisp blanket over the town.

Then was the time to leave. Rusty didn’t think his daughter was old enough to understand the last meeting they had in the town, but she understood all too well. Hell was reaching out of the earth, and trying to drag them down. She knew the world was without flowers, but to imagine demons crawling from the soil, from the fissures in the stone, terrified her. She thought of them sleeping in her bed after they left. Nobody left to protect their home, to stop evil things from eating their food, and listening to their radio.

Even if there were demons, they’d never appreciate this place like Celia did. She had abandoned her dome. She had lived in the New York dome after they left Centralia. It was the first great dome to be built, after some smaller experiments across the rest of the country. She had no interest in taking to the bunkers under the earth, and neither did her father. Ten people left centralia, carrying what they could as what cars remained were useless in the snow. They would have been a burden, more than a help. They followed highways, but the trek took months. Some days their meagre rations could only sustain them for a few miles of walking. They slept in tents, huddled together for warmth. The hope of the dome kept them going. The hope that anywhere had to be better than Centralia. Anything had to be better than being swallowed by the ground, and choked by the air, and crushed by the deadness of what was once home.

Only eight of them survived the trip. Eustace had been too old. Even if he hadn’t been that old, his spirit was too worn to make the journey. He didn’t even die while hiking through hip deep snow, he didn’t have a heart attack while stumbling into a crevasse, he didn’t freeze to death, or die of exposure. He died in his sleep, in his tent. His body barely turning cold as they work in the morning to begin again. Somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania, miles from home and miles from anywhere, there may still stand an ignominious grave. A canvas mausoleum for one, tucked tight to a tree trunk, where the leave may once have shaded there is a monument to giving up. Eustace’s daughter Melanie was the other death. Her thin skin stretched over sparrow like bones hadn’t been warm in three months. She wasted away as they all did, but Melanie was destined for failure, being so ill all the time, even when times were close to good. She was 15. They buried her, because despite her weakness, she fought.

They saw it first between the peaks of New Jersey. Most wept with joy as they saw at last the object of their dreams. It rose, mostly completed, above the city beneath. It didn’t include the skyscrapers then, that came later. When they got there it covered Queens, Brooklyn, and it dipped it roots into the Hudson. It was painted bright, and its glass sent glitters into the evening, shining out as a beacon. It was to be home, it was to be salvation, it was to be safety. Celia thought it looked like a birdcage. Some shiny bubble designed to contain, not to save.

They waited weeks in the ramshackle camps outside the dome, held across the river. It was enormous up close. It seemed to rise vertically when you were near it, and it just kept going. The men of the city came one time, one man dressed in a suit, all the others in flat caps and long duster coats. Clearly they were the men of work, and the man in the suit was one of numbers. Maybe he was a doctor. Celia honestly couldn’t remember the man, just the impression of it. Like the impression of the dome, and the impression of the duster coats. These weren’t things in her memory that she could touch, like the daffodils, only things she could glance.

The duster coat men had asked for volunteers, strong men with skills that could work. Men with no fear of heights or danger. Rusty remembered the danger that he had known. The danger that he had clawed his daughter away from as the earth sank away into hell. He volunteered. He had been a mechanic all his life, and no machine or metal eluded him. He could smith shoes, he could weld steel, he could braze copper, and he could Goddamn sure save his daughter from this hell of starvation, and the unknown, and the cold. He held her tighter every night, not because he loved her more, but because they had both grown so thin, that they came closer. He would build the damn dome himself if he had to, pounding rivets, and manning a crane, and breaking his back so that she could have just one day without the pain she was in, the pain that this choke had brought. He volunteered five times in a month before they took him in. They gave them a medical inside the city, they gave them food, they got them into a bunkhouse. After Rusty fattened himself on all he could eat, he worked like a man chased by the devil. Within a month he was a coordinator. Within another he was a gangboss, then a foreman. Nobody wanted for anything when they worked for Rusty, and nobody died on his site.

His funeral was enormous. He was a hero to south Queens, who took in more volunteers than he was supposed to every day, not every week. Men and women with children were hired first. He hired the old, he hired the sick, he put a job in the hands of those struggling, and then he made sure they kept up. Hundreds of children in south Queens called him Papa Rusty, but none knew him like Celia. Her life had been blasted apart when he died. There were weeks and months of people coming over and filling her icebox with food. She shook hands with more people than she could understand. All she wanted was her father back once he was gone. But he wasn’t here anymore, not under this dome. He was at home, back where the ground burned, and the daffodils died, and the people fled in fear of their lives. She knew nothing of Centralia still stood before she left. She knew it as she rode the trains west, and as she walked south in the cool of the summer evenings. She knew it as she sat here, leaning against this warm rock, overlooking the place that had threatened to drag them all down to the core of the earth. She felt the fire shimmer under the ground, and she watched the plants twitch and strive and try. They tried so hard.

The moon reached it peak, and started its slow walk west, to fall into the sea and end the light for another night. He was in Centralia. And so was she.

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