“You wrong. Dead wrong, O’Bob. The slowpo didn’t do this.” Mikal nodded absently around him at the decay, the gloom, the malaise, the rotting bones of the city they scavenged everyday. “You did.”
“You mean we all did. All of us.” Old Bob sighed. His heavily lined face working through the many years, the tricky emotions of grief, loss and guilt. He lifted his shoulders again and tried to be the history professor he’d been, and what he was now, the only teacher for those like Mikal who had no understanding of what it was like before the slowpocalypse.
“It’s not that we didn’t see the breakdown coming,” he continued. “It just unfolded so slowly. Not the fall off the cliff that prophets for ages had warned of. Just a slow, bumpy slide to the bottom. Maybe a cataclysmic meteor or nuclear war or plague would’ve been easier to stomach.”
Mikal didn’t say anything. His young grey eyes unreadable, so Old Bob went on.
“I guess we didn’t want to acknowledge what it meant. I mean, when you look at past collapses, no native was hankering to cut down the last tree on Easter Island, and no Mayan wanted to believe their slash-and-burn approach to developing farmland would bite them in the butt. That’s just how it plays out. At a certain point, a civilization’s poor choices catch up with it. The signs were there for us, too. We felt the first and secondary effects. Ocean warming, unpredictable weather, lingering droughts, more intense storms. Plant and animal die offs. Economic and political turmoil. More and more migrants and asylum seekers looking for someplace safe. Someplace to escape from the next domino falling on them. And still most of us went on like nothing was happening. Like denying that chest pain, nausea and fatigue aren’t the signs of a heart attack. I guess that’s human nature. Denial until things get too dire. We seem to love the adrenalin of a crisis. As a species, we were either overly optimistic or oblivious: take your pick.”
Mikal continued to stare at Old Bob in silence while he fidgeted in his bulky jacket that was really three disintegrating jackets grafted and bound together by fraying twine. Finally, he worked a worn, grimy hand out of his bundled sleeve and jammed a stubby finger into Old Bob’s thin chest.
“You ain’t listening. Ain’t understanding. It was you. Just you that trashed this place. For me and mine.”
Old Bob was used to backtalk, accusations. All teachers were. “I hear you, Mikal. I claim personal responsibility where I can. But,” he gestured at the buckling buildings, the pitted streets, the rusting husks of cars and trucks around them. “ I didn’t create this wasteland by myself.”
“You did, O’Bob. You damn well did!” Mikal took his finger off Old Bob’s chest and stuck it to his own temple. “Me and mine never knew no better. This wasn’t a wasteland until you told us about the slowpo. Till you told how good it was before. I wouldn’t have known none of that. This the home I was born to. My clean slate, my world, and you muddied it. You mucked it up good. Teaching us all that history, telling how good it was before: clean, hot and cold running water, AC, central heating, cars, supermarkets, computers, television, Internet. All the stuff you miss. But me and mine didn’t miss it! We never had it. Never wanted it. Not till you told us.”
Old Bob stood stone silent, like one of the dozens of defaced statues in the ruined city.
“You done this. Just you. This slowpo is only a disaster to you. A come down to you and yours. Me and mine coulda just started our own way, but you laid your regrets and guilt in here.” Mikal tapped his temple hard. “Filled me and mine with your mistakes and your sadness. Your damn damn memories. That’s the real disaster. You and your kind. You the slowpo. Let me and mine make our own go. Then we only got to handle today, not your yesterday or your sad dream of tomorrow. You got that, O’Bob? Let it go. Let us go.”
And Mikal stormed off, leaving Old Bob to stare after him. The long stare of a parent watching his child choose.
This is a sharp inversion of our world’s self-importance. Clever and insightful.
Very elegant. As I was reading I was thinking of the John Dos Passos comment about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it. This story shows the flip side of that coin. And the last line adds to a science-based speculative story an everyday context – a hard lesson experienced by every parent.