When they move to Providence, ten miles from the nuclear power plant, Shannon’s parents bring her to the clinic for potassium iodide pills. They wait in a line that snakes through the shelves of shampoo and condoms with other families who live in the emergency planning zone.
Shannon’s parents are adjunct classics professors. They both derive a fine pleasure from lecturing to audiences they think especially stupid, like their daughter. “There is no cause for concern,” her father says. “The plant may be twenty years past its intended lifetime, but it wasn’t built with an expiration date.”
“We only have to take the pills if an emergency has occurred,” her mother says. “The plant could last forever.”
Shannon is distracted. A group of middle schoolers are in front of her, glamorous older girls with baby oil on their skin and lemon juice in their hair. Like a hostage, Shannon makes desperate eye contact.
“You’re new,” they say to her. Shannon’s flippy haircut and goofy t-shirt give the girls an uneasy feeling they want to quash. No one moves to Providence. Of the three towns named Providence in the state, this town is the smallest. They beckon her close and pinch her arms hard enough to bruise.
All through June, the neighborhood girls invite Shannon to lay out and ride bikes. With shoplifted eyeliner, they work miracles on Shannon’s face.
“Do I look like you?” Shannon asks. “Can you teach me?”
Even though she does her best to like what other girls like and talk how they talk, Shannon has never had friends. In her hometown, she lived on a cul-de-sac with old people. Once she saw paramedics carting out a neighbor on a stretcher, and although Shannon had never been to church, she prayed he would die so a new little girl could move in. She got down on her knees, folded her hands, and the man died in the hospital. Shannon, thrilled and sobered by her own power, remembers his death as an act of murder.
One of the neighborhood girls has central air, so they sleep over at her house every Saturday. They teach Shannon how to play M.A.S.H. “It can tell your future,” the girls say, and write out categories: husband, wedding dress, wedding location, honeymoon location, number of kids, cause of death. They make up options for each category and the magic number, which is five. The girls cross out every fifth option, and Shannon’s future is the leftovers. “You will live in a mansion,” they prophesize. “You will marry Mason in a garbage dump. You will wear a clear wedding dress.” When they laugh, they cover their teeth with their hands.
After dark, the neighborhood girls sneak boys in through the sliding glass door. They point at one with hair gelled back in blades, whispering to Shannon: “This is Mason, your husband.” Shannon acts excited, but she is eleven and indifferent to boys.
They all watch MTV music videos with closed captions because they don’t want to wake the girl’s mother, who sometimes descends in her emerald housecoat and terribly slurs her words. They play Truth or Dare and, every turn, the boys dare a girl to flash them. The older girls bare their premature bony chests. Shannon demurs. “You’re shy,” the girls say, dismayed.
“I don’t think it’ll be very interesting,” Shannon says. She wears a training bra, but mainly for practice. Training bras make constriction familiar.
“Then it matters even less,” the girls say.
Shannon pulls her shirt over her eyes so she cannot see, as if no one can see her. After three seconds, Mason says, “Good enough.”
That night, the neighborhood girls confess they are going to sleepaway camp. They leave on Monday. “It’s only for thirty days,” they say, as if they are sorry to go.
“Is anyone else around?” Shannon asks.
“Ellis Barnes,” they say, “But she’s a freak. You’ll see.”
Shannon’s parents teach summer courses at two state and three community colleges between them; they take turns dropping each other off and recrossing the two-lane highway. Shannon tries to convince them that she needs a babysitter, not because she’s too young to be left alone, but because she might need a ride to a pool party or a sleepover.
“I’ll be so bored,” she says.
Her parents tell her that an intelligent person is never bored. After how difficult it was to conceive and birth Shannon, they are disappointed with her vapidity, how unlike them she is becoming. When they leave in the morning, they set out paper and a book on origami. They do not own a television.
Time travels slower for girls than women: the hours bubble and solidify like amber. Shannon was lonely in her hometown, but at least that loneliness was familiar. In Providence, she does not recognize the shadows in her closet or the clangor of the fan. Shannon folds misshapen paper cranes and writes letters to made-up former classmates, left out to make her parents feel guilty. Even playing with a freak would be better, Shannon decides. She goes out to look for Ellis.
Shannon walks up and down the street, but the dry yards are empty of children. Behind Shannon’s house is a copse that winds between backyards with aboveground pools and swing sets. Weary and thirsty, the pine trees probe with their roots at soda cans and Styrofoam cups. The copse extends east into a two-acre forest preserve that stops dead at the highway. On the other side of the road are the smooth towers of the power plant.
Shannon follows a path tramped through the ferns. As she goes deeper, the woods grow thicker and more unpredictable. When she finds Ellis Barnes, she thinks she has conjured her with the intensity of her want. Almost hidden in the undergrowth, skinny legs jackknifed around her, the girl is whittling a twig into a spear. Shavings flit out as she rams the knife down the branch.
“You’re Ellis.” Shannon envies the easy way Ellis works the blade without looking. “What are you doing?”
“This is my camp.” Ellis sits in a circle of earth wide enough to lay across. Despite the burrs, she’s barefoot. “I come here to be alone.”
“I’m an extrovert. I like to be around people.” Shannon imagines the neighborhood girls swimming in a gilded lake, squealing when their feet brush weeds. “Why don’t you go to sleepaway camp?” Shannon asks. “All the other girls go.”
“I need to practice my survival skills. This is more important.”
“We’re too old for pretend,” Shannon says, unsure.
Ellis chews on a piece of hair. There are seven children in her family, and though she’s the oldest, she rarely gets to speak for long. As she explains the cracks in the power plant’s chambers, the radiation leaking into the groundwater, how in three minutes a nuclear blast could blanket their homes in fallout, her voice takes on a cadence she copies from her parents, who copied it from somewhere else. “We live in the shadow of a bomb factory,” Ellis pronounces.
She has deep-set eyes, and to Shannon, she looks oracular and serious. You poor girl, Shannon thinks tenderly, you must be lonelier than I am.
“Why are you building this, then?” Shannon asks. “If you want to escape.”
“I’m preparing to live off the grid. Just go, if you have better things to do.”
Shannon does not have things to do, but she storms off. She doesn’t need Ellis, after all. The neighborhood girls will be back in twenty days. Shannon practices the stories she will tell them. They won’t believe what Ellis said. They will clutch her wrist and gasp. Branches scold Shannon, switching her bare legs. Her mother refused to buy the short shorts the other girls wore, so Shannon cut her own from a pair of jeans.
At home, her parents do not ask about the burrs on her shoelaces or the letters to her classmates; they coo to each other in Latin over student essays. Shannon eats in the den, too nervous to turn on the light switch in case it sends nuclear energy arcing through the wires. In the half-dark, she stares at the white wall where a TV would be.
The next morning, Shannon gives in and returns to the camp in the woods. Ellis is building a scaffold of branches in a wedge around an oak tree. She piles leaves on top to form a shelter.
“Good morning,” Shannon calls. “What is that?”
Ellis looks over her shoulder at Shannon, then turns away to reassemble bits of plants and moss. Her t-shirt has a hole near the neck from her worrying the collar.
Shannon reminds herself that she is not shy; she already proved this to the neighborhood girls. “It looks great,” she says. “Can I help?”
Ellis takes a step back and adjusts a leaf. Inside the shelter, she nestled a baby doll she had stolen from her sister. The baby doll is agreeable and silent, unlike Shannon.
Shannon settles in the grass a few feet away. She knots flowers into bracelets, but the stems are fragile; when she tugs too hard, tiny white petals shed and cling to Shannon’s hands. She glances at Ellis, to see if she notices her carefree independence.
“I thought you were going to help,” Ellis says.
They venture out for thicker branches and build a new fence. When Shannon looks, her hands are bleeding from a dozen tiny scratches. “The fence is for effect,” Ellis says. “But it says to our enemies, this is not yours. If you come here, there will be consequences.”
They pin cloth diapers on the baby doll, because in the wilderness there are no disposable diapers; Ellis knows how. When Shannon gathers pine needles and moss, Ellis sorts through the pile and tosses the unusable scraps. “You did okay,” she says at last, and together they pack leaves onto her shelter. It is eighty-five degrees, and there is only one cloud in the sky. It glitters and winks with what could be nuclear fallout. Three miles separate their camp from the power plant, and even if they ran, they could not run fast enough to escape the blast.
Each day the girls play for hours until make-believe becomes drudgery. They wander back through the forest preserve to spy on Ellis’s father. He doesn’t do much. For a whole day he trims the bushes. He cuts too far, and the pale branches bleed with sap. “My dad used to work for the Stilgers’ dairy farm,” Ellis says to Shannon. “He knew the cows by name and could tell if they were sick by how hot their udders were.”
“Where does he work now?” Shannon asks.
“Nowhere. The Stilgers got a robot milker that can milk a thousand cows an hour. Have you ever seen a space movie? It’s like that.”
“Maybe my parents could help.”
“It’s better this way. Before they learned how to farm, everyone wandered around the world, because they knew it was better to keep moving. Now we can leave at any moment. One day you’ll come outside, and I’ll be gone.”
Ellis’s father tromps inside. When they hear his truck start up and pull out, Ellis takes her inside to see their pantry. Her house has the same layout as Shannon’s house but backwards; all the doors are in the wrong place. Her pantry is stocked with drums of water, venison jerky, and freeze-dried vegetables. Bug-out bags bulge with survival gear. Outside the door, her siblings gather and wait for her, boys and girls that are nesting-doll versions of Ellis.
“Where have you been?” they ask.
“They never leave me alone,” she tells Shannon. “All night they want to tell me about their nightmares and their dreams.”
“What do they dream about?” Shannon asks.
“Who cares. I don’t listen. I put a pillow over my head.”
“I need to tie my shoes,” says one of the brothers. “I need to tie them, and I can’t.”
A sister holds a fat, sagging baby on her hip. “What’s for dinner, Ellis?”
Ellis accepts the baby, allows the older ones to squeeze her hand, and turns away from Shannon without a goodbye.
In her hometown, Shannon had prayed to be less lonely, and her mother got pregnant three times. Each time her mother miscarried. Maybe this is for the best, her father concluded: this way we won’t subdivide our love for you. Watching the children follow Ellis up the long dark stairs, Shannon wonders what she wrought with her prayers: the conceptions or their losses. She retreats out the back door. In the thicket, it takes her a moment to reorient herself.
Ellis gets them lost and feeds them berries that make them gag, but she knows enough about the woods to satisfy Shannon. Wilderness thrums in the slim suburban trees. From her bedroom, Shannon never hears birds, but here robins chatter and pine for each other. The girls are off the grid, quiet creatures in a tingling ecosystem. They gather firewood and try to light it with two sticks, then flint, then a lighter. Shannon brings a jar of peanuts, so they can pretend to forage for them in the ferns. She gathers the courage to unveil them and explain her idea.
“This isn’t pretend,” Ellis says. “You’re just hungry.”
“I’m not,” Shannon says, although her stomach feels suckered to her spine.
“We can treat it as practice,” Ellis decides. She mimes feeding the nuts to the baby doll and throws them into the thorns. “Off the grid, we’ll have to go hungry to care for her,” Ellis says. We, Shannon thinks. Later, Shannon catches Ellis shoveling nuts into her mouth, and she pummels Ellis with the flats of her hands. For the first time, she learns how to fight. Ellis twists her arm; Shannon pulls her hair; they grapple and claw but never cry out, and quickly they forgive each other.
Shannon and Ellis see fireflies and fawns and, once, a silver fox. Its tail flickers and it says to Shannon, beware. The girls dig moats and fill them with sharpened sticks, for in all of Ellis’s doomsday scenarios, they are beset by enemies, parched and desperate for supplies.
“What about the neighborhood girls,” Shannon says. “Won’t they need saving?”
“You can’t trust anyone,” Ellis says. “When the world collapses, it’ll strip away all their false friendship and fake acting. They’ll all be unprepared, and sorry.” With a trowel, Ellis turns over the old cracked dirt. Shannon imagines the older girls knotting friendship bracelets with five colors of thread. She won’t tell them about the booby traps, or Ellis, at all.
When it drizzles, they funnel a shirt over a bucket to collect rainwater and then crawl into the shelter. Rain seeks out gaps in the roof and trickles down their arms.
“If you live to be an old woman, you’ll remember every second of this,” Ellis says. “You’ll be wrinkly in a filthy old city, praying you were safe in the woods, with me.”
“Maybe I’ll be with my husband,” Shannon says.
“No. You’ll be thinking about me, right now.”
“I want to come with you, when you go.”
Ellis rests her head on Shannon’s shoulder. “You can’t. You’d slow us down.”
Each time it rains, Shannon tries to recreate that inviting posture, but Ellis curls away.
At dinner, Shannon reports the bad news of the fissures in the power plant, the contaminated groundwater, how they aren’t the tiniest bit prepared for the coming free-for-all. Her parents exchange a look.
Shannon’s father says, “The problem, when people don’t read, is that you believe whatever you hear.”
Shannon’s mother says, “You’re susceptible. You can’t replace a book for common sense.” She pilots a forkful of rice into Shannon’s father’s mouth.
Sipping her water, Shannon feels radiation vibrate in her teeth. When the end of the world comes, she thinks, she won’t be able to save her parents. They will have to fend for themselves.
Three days before the neighborhood girls return, Shannon convinces Ellis to camp overnight. She fakes a sore throat in order to go to bed early. Her parents spoon together on the couch, reading from the same book page by page. When Shannon slips out the door, they don’t look up.
The darkness morphs and settles. In the center of their clearing, Shannon helps Ellis arrange branches into a tepee. Shannon stuffs it with kindling and lint she collected from the laundromat, and Ellis ignites it with her father’s cigarette lighter. The fire catches quickly. They spear hot dogs and roast them until they peel open.
They were not alone in the forest. The smoke draws the boys to their camp. Shannon hears voices first, beyond the circle of firelight. The girls abandoned the moats of sharpened sticks after they dug the east side, but the boy comes from the west. It is Mason.
“I remember you. My wife.” Mason hitches at his hand-me-down jeans. “What’re you doing out here with Ellis?”
Ellis drops her hotdog stick into the fire. She stands and crosses her arms. “We’re busy.”
“I thought everyone was at sleepaway camp,” Mason says.
“I went to sleepaway camp when I was younger,” Shannon lies. “But now I have more important things to do.”
Mason looks at their shelter, the baby doll sprawled where they left her. “Is this a dollhouse for your dolls?”
Shannon stands. The camp seems much smaller with a person outside for scale, close enough to reach over and touch them. Their fence comes up to his shin.
“Why don’t you hang out with us,” Mason says. “We’re going to camp tonight. We have plenty of room.”
“Who’s us?” Shannon asks. The lindens rattle in dry warning.
“A couple friends,” Mason says. “We’ve got nice warm sleeping bags and some whiskey, which is really very good. We’ve got everything you need.” From the woods, the boys whistle through their teeth. Mason claps a hand on Shannon’s shoulder and leaves it there. Shannon tugs down the hems of her short shorts and wills a hard prayer into being: we’ll be safe, we’ll be alone.
Ellis says, “You can leave now.” With her knife, she fishes dirt from her fingernails.
“The fire looks so cozy.” Mason slides his thumb into Shannon’s shirt collar, under the strap of her training bra. He snaps it.
Ellis shoves him in the chest, and he releases Shannon’s shoulder and raises his hands before him.
“You can’t come in here,” Ellis says.
“Relax, Ellis. I just want to come inside for a moment.”
Hands up, Mason tries to step over the fence. Ellis plunges her knife through the air and into his hand. The blade punctures the web of skin between his thumb and index finger. The point flashes through to the other side before she pulls it out again. Mason shrieks. He swipes at Shannon’s shoulder for balance. Blood bubbles from the wound.
“Are you okay?” Shannon asks, lightheaded and confused. In the weird firelight, the blood looks black.
“Get away from me,” Mason says.
“She didn’t mean to.” Shannon reaches for his hand.
“Don’t,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to touch you in a million years.” In the shadows, his friends are muttering to each other. Mason kicks at the fence and it collapses, branches rolling free. “You both are freaks.”
Ellis has the knife raised before her. She strokes her thumb over the blade and smears the blood across her cheeks like a football player. “She’s going to get you,” one of the boys calls.
“I’m going to make you wish you never moved here,” Mason says. “I’ll make you pray you didn’t exist.”
He stalks into the forest and Shannon lets him go. She could stab him, too, she could pray whatever she wants, but when the neighborhood girls return, Mason will stand outside the sliding door, his sweaty hand on the glass, and the girls will let him inside, and they will play truth or dare and he will say “flash me,” every time.
The trees are mutinously silent.
“Is he going to die?” she asks. The knife is filthy, and Shannon knows about infections.
“Don’t be a baby.” Ellis pushes back the long mean snarl of her hair. “I said he can’t come in. I warned him.”
“Why’d he call you his wife,” Ellis asks. “Do you have a crush on him?”
“I do not,” Shannon says. Ellis’s glare is more annoying than usual: her stupid chin, the dumb streaks below her eyes. “You look ridiculous,” says Shannon.
“Who cares.” But Ellis rubs savagely at her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I’m going home,” she says. “It’s cold. It’s going to get darker.”
“I don’t want to go home,” Shannon says. She wants Ellis to squeeze her hand and promise that she will not leave. She feels a vast, terrifying love she cannot voice, so she slugs Ellis in the shoulder.
“We’ve already started the fire,” Shannon says.
“So put it out. I don’t have time to babysit you.” Ellis leaves her blanket behind and steps out over the ruins of the fence. “You won’t last a minute without me,” she says.
For a long time, Shannon cannot get the fire to go out. She and Ellis did not bring any water. When Shannon tries to kick dirt over the embers, the smoke blows in her eyes and sparks skitter away into the leaves. Shannon has to stomp on the litter to make sure that nothing will catch.
Quietly, the coldness creeps up around her. Shannon wraps her exposed legs in the blanket. Her shirt is dirty with Mason’s blood. Shannon had thought that the darkness would be total and blank, like sleep, but the orange haze of the neighborhood still trickles through the trees. She can hear cars on the highway and what could be someone’s sneakers in the brush.
Maybe someone is coming to get me, Shannon thinks. If she listens hard enough, she can hear the inevitable fizz of the power plant as particles split and split again, according to the laws of science.
Photo courtesy of -ocean; view more of their work on Flickr.