Waking in a new, clearer winter wonderland.
“Daddy! Daddy! Wake up! It’s snowing!”
He blinks open half asleep eyes, forces his head up, squints through the whiteout glare.
Astrid has her face pushed up against the floor to ceiling glass that lines the bedroom, her tiny frame a black smudge of a silhouette against the perfectly rendered white coated lawns. Through a hangover haze he focuses, impressed by the depth and scale, at the dusted, towering redwoods, the snow topped mountains rising even higher behind them, the sky heavy with frozen clouds.
“Daddy! It’s snowing!”
“Of course honey, it’s Christmas.”
“Can we go outside? Can we go out in the snow?”
“No honey, not now.” Guilt burns behind his eyes, flushes his cheeks red. “It’s too cold.”
“Maybe. We’ll see.” He stretches a hand out to his side, searching. Finds nothing but a distinct absence, and some residual heat left behind in the mattress. “Astrid, where’s mommy?”
She doesn’t break her gaze, her nose still pushed up against the cool glass. “In the gym, I think.”
“Okay. The gym.” He sighs to himself, swings his legs out of the bed, lands bare feet on precision heated wooden floorboards.
“Daddy, can’t we go out in the snow? Please?”
“Maybe later, sugar. Maybe this afternoon. But really, I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with going out in all that cold and wet when there’s presents to be opened?”
“PRESENTS!” And with that she’s gone, running out of the bedroom.
The gym is big and well equipped enough to support a football team, but he only ever sees her using the one machine, this treadmill she’s pounding right now. He sips hot coffee from a Y Combinator mug as he watches her. He says her name.
He says it again, louder.
He reaches out his left hand and clicks his fingers in the direction of an embedded control panel. Somewhere, something chimes. The walls of the gym dissolve to glass, the space filling with white glare, as the same winter wonderland reveals itself around them.
She glances back at him, managing to avoid direct eye contact, plucks one airpod from her ear.
“Astrid is opening her presents, I thought you might like to come join us.”
“In a bit.” Her breathing is heavy, sweat runs down the back of her neck. “I’m nearly done here.”
She glances back at him again. “Don’t drink it all.”
“The coffee. Don’t drink it all.”
“There’s plenty left. Don’t worry. It’ll last.”
She snorts, shakes her head in almost imperceptible anger. “Sure.”
As he turns to leave he sees her slip the airpod back in, and watches her swipe frustratedly at the air, flipping the glass back to solid wall, the daylight evaporating, the gym seeming to shrink and encase them.
Christmas lights refracted through a bourbon glass, red and gold emitting diodes straining through clouded amber.
He lowers his drink, watches Astrid happy on the floor, surrounded by 3D printed toys and 2D printed wrapping paper. Mariah Carey seeps from unseen Sonos speakers.
She sits opposite him, fresh and showered from the gym, her gaze still avoiding his, staring vacant out across snow-swept Californian forests.
“You want a drink?” he asks her.
Pause. “You don’t think it’s a bit early?”
“It’s Christmas. C’mon. Have a drink with me.”
“There’s some of that sparkling white left. And some juice. I could make mimosas.”
“I said I’m fine.”
“Daddy?” He’s becoming convinced Astrid is learning to intervene, knowing when to break tension.
“Can we go outside now? And play? Maybe we can go see Charlie and Erin?”
“Not now, sugar. Dinner is in the oven. It’ll be ready soon.”
“Then after dinner?”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
Astrid looks heartbroken, downtrodden. As if she knows already what the answer will be. And then she flips, to hopeful, in that way he thinks only children can. At least these days. “What about grandma and grandpa? Can we go see them?”
“Well, no… not really sugar…”
“What about calling them? Can we Skype them? We haven't seen them in forever. Daddy pleeeeeeeasse…”
He swallows back fear and guilt. “Later. Maybe. After dinner.” He stands up, leans over, plucks the VR headset from its charging cable. “Hey, why don’t you play with this for a while, huh?”
“I thought we’d agreed we were going to limit how much time she spent in that?” her mother says.
“It’s Christmas,” he says.
“Yeah Mommy, it’s Christmas!” Astrid takes the headset from him, slips it on, is instantly transported to somewhere not here, somewhere away from her family, somewhere with anthropomorphic raccoons and 4K ultra high-definition rainbows, while her mommy sobs quietly in the chair.
He steps over to her, kneels down beside the chair, places a hand on her arm. She shrugs it away. “Don’t touch me.”
“Look, baby, it’s going to be-“
“Stop. Just stop.”
He touches her arm again. She shrugs it away again. For the first time that morning, for the first time in what might be weeks, she matches his gaze. Looks at him. Her eyes are red and damp.
“Don’t you ever get tired of lying to her?”
Now he has to break eye contact, to gaze at the floor.
“Don’t you ever get tired of lying to me? To yourself?”
Silently he stands, downs what’s left of the bourbon. “I’d better check on dinner.”
A few minutes until the food will be ready. Some time to himself.
He’s drunk. Sits in the Tesla. In the hermetically sealed garage. Parked between the Hummer and that boat he bought to go fishing, that he’s still never used.
He powers the Tesla up. It’s silent. He tells it to run through a full diagnostic. The dashboard screen flares, checking off working systems in green text. The lights. The battery. The suspension. The cameras. The rear and front sensors. The auto-drive. The bioweapon grade air filtration systems. The only things that come back red are the navigation, the data links, the stuff that needs a network connection.
There’s never good range in the garage, he chuckles to himself.
And then, like Astrid in reverse, he slips from happy to sad. He wonders when he’ll get to drive it again, if ever.
His phone chimes softly in his pocket. Dinner is ready.
Christmas dinner is pretty good, considering. Despite the limitations he’s pulled out all the stops. Vat grown turkey meat, cranberry sauce from a can he found in the pantry. Potatoes and carrots he grew himself, in aquaponic tubes from a start-up founded by two ex-NASA guys. He’d put in money on their second round funding. Looks like it paid off, he laughs to himself.
He cracked that bottle of sparkling white, too. She even had a glass, she’s on her second right now. Smiling. Playing with Astrid. Singing her Christmas carols, but getting the words wrong on purpose, so Astrid is almost sobbing with laughter. We three kings of orient are, one in a taxi, one in a car. While shepherds washed their socks by night.
It’s Christmas, see. Just a normal Christmas.
the whole room
and theres a sound
like an explosion
“What the fuck was that”
spilt wine and clattering cutlery
yep definitely an explosion
and then again
this time louder
from the garage?
and the room shakes
and the Christmas tree slams into
perfect hardwood floor
“What the fuck-“
exploding into glass shards
and scattering artificial pines
and the world outside disappears
replaced by motion sickness-inducing
holographic static glitch
and all the lights go out
“What the fuck just happened?” she asks him as he makes them all get under the table.
“I don’t know” he lies.
“Was it an earthquake?” She’s holding Astrid to her chest in the darkness, muffling her sobs.
“I - I don’t think so”
“Then why are we hiding under the table?”
“What the fu-“
Silence. Then coughing, distant. Voices from the garage. Someone shouts. The smell of smoke, electrical fire.
A door opening.
All three of them, huddled together under the table, in silent terror.
He always knew this moment would come, it was inevitable.
For too long, nothing. Just black. Then two beams of light, scanning the room with handheld inaccuracy, picking out suspended motes of dust and shattered Christmas ornaments, dropped food and discarded wrapping paper.
And then a voice, female, slightly breathless but calm. “It’s okay. Do what we say and nobody gets hurt. Nobody needs to get hurt. We’re just here for the food, water, and the batteries.”
The raiders lock them in a closet for what feels like hours, but is probably just one, at most. Outside he can hear them working, stripping the place. They’re fast.
Astrid grips her mommy tight, the two sat on the floor, both gently sobbing. He, on the other hand, doesn’t feel too bad. Pretty good in fact. Relieved. Like the bullshit charade is over. Finally. He could kill for a drink though.
Eventually one of the raiders opens the door, lets them out. Some skinny brown skinned kid with matted hair, an assault rifle, and an eat the rich t-shirt.
“You can go,” he tells them.
To his surprise, the room looks largely untouched. The furniture, the gadgets, the electronics, all undisturbed. The dinner, on the other hand, has been destroyed, nothing but bones and crumbs left, like a flock of hungry carrion have descended on it.
“Go where? What are you going to do with us now?” She asks the kid, still holding Astrid close.
“Do with you?” The kid sneers at her. “We ain’t going to do nothing with you. You ain’t our responsibility.”
She looks around the room, peers into the shattered kitchen. “But..but you’ve taken all our food and water?”
“You can’t fucking leave us up here, without anything to fucking eat and drink! Without any power!”
“Yeah, well maybe you should have thought of that before. Maybe you should have learned to share in the first place.”
He finds himself drifting away from her and the raider. Numb. Their conversation fading away. He moves towards the garage. Astrid breaks away from mom, trails by his side.
“Are we going outside now, Daddy?”
“Yes honey.” He takes her tiny hand in his. “Yes we are.”
The garage is a fucking mess. It looks, quite literally, like a bomb has gone off. Everything is coated in a fine dust. The Hummer, The Tesla, and the boat have all been pried open like oysters, their valuable batteries ripped out. Everything smells like fire. It’s unbearably hot, sweat starts to prickle on his forehead. At first he thinks something must be burning, but then he realizes the garage door is open, punched through by explosives like a fist through wet paper.
And the heat is getting in.
“Daddy! Snow!” Astrid lets go of his hand, runs ahead.
“Honey no, wait!” he shouts, trying to keep up with her, following her outside.
The first thing he notices is that the mountains are burning.
It’s late afternoon, but the sky is black with smoke. It’s hot, hard to breathe. The forests have gone, all that’s left of the redwoods are blackened stumps, poking up through the fields of white powder.
There’s two trucks parked nearby, maybe half a dozen raiders stood watching him with disgust. Their leader, the woman, starts to walk over.
“Astrid!” He can’t see her at first, scanning the horizon in panic, his eyes stinging from smoke and tears. He glances back, the hole punched in the slope of the mountain the only visible sign that the bunker even exists. Then he finds her, her tiny frame a black smudge of a silhouette against the perfectly white lawns. She turns to face him, confused and innocent, white powder slipping through the fingers of her upturned palm.
“Daddy, why is this snow warm?”
He can’t speak, feels tears roll down his cheek. No more lies.
The woman stops by Astrid, takes a knee.
“Oh honey, that’s not snow,” she says, tenderly running a hand through the child’s hair. “That’s ash.”