Every day we carry a creeping calamity on our shoulders. Every day the burden becomes harder to bear, more difficult to ignore, but we are well-versed in pretending. We choose not to look at the poisoned, swelling oceans, at the gathering clouds above, because these are problems for others.
When decline falls across our sunlit path, we squint and stumble, curse our tired feet and broken footing, lay blame everywhere else. Surely the wretched animals did this to us somehow—ungrateful! And the sun was always too hot. But now the beasts are gone, the trees are on fire, and the path invariably descends from here.
Down in the darkness it’s easier to pretend, isn’t it?
With our plastic bottles of water and phone flashlights we tell each other we’re ready for anything, but uncertainty creeps in at the margins, lurks at the edges of our vision, adds to the weight on our backs.
What can we do? We shrug, shift uncomfortably, watch the shadows flicker on the wall. The helplessness wraps round us like a blanket and keeps us warm. What can anybody do, really?
What we can do is look around proudly and say to ourselves: this is still normal. It is not normal, of course, to carry your own calamity on your shoulders as it grinds you down into dust, but we have always been good at pretending.
Teeth in the ground, phone batteries dead, surrounded by thousands of empty bottles: just totally normal people hanging out in a pitch-black cave. We barely notice the burden anymore.
My mouth is dry. I’m getting thirsty!
In the cold silence of the tomb, insidious doubt takes root.
Where is the peacefulness in letting go, the levity of carelessness, the freedom from responsibility promised by skeletal generations past? Didn’t they tell us what a spectacle it would be—everything crashing to an end in beautifully rendered slow-motion, right in front of our own eyes, on our watch?
But it’s so dark. Is our calamity near? Is it here?
Parched voices cry out for reassurance, echoing off the walls.
It is possible that our backs have been broken.
It is possible that mistakes have been made.
Okay, so: a plan.
Imagine rolling over, face up.
Imagine, far above, a tiny pinprick of blue light.
Imagine the distant sound of trickling water running down a stone surface. You can crawl there, if you really want to.
Imagine, over a long period of time, immeasurable spans of deep, ancient time, our spines becoming tools rather than backbones.
Imagine remaking ourselves for escape. Imagine our grubby, clawing fingers and bony arms becoming glorious, leathery wings, black wings curved for flight. Don’t imagine the aeronautical challenges involved in a blind vertical takeoff.
Some of us won’t, or can’t, leave calamity, and that’s fine: they can stay behind, lying with the dirt and the old bones and broken teeth.
Imagine this story living forever inside of them.
Laughter, laughter, precious laughter as we clumsily test our wings, spiraling upwards, bashing into walls, into each other, embracing, clinging together in the darkness, falling over and over again, gathering hope with each brave attempt.
Every day we get closer and closer to the hole in the ceiling. Every day our wings grow stronger.
Eventually we will reach the brilliant blue skies snatched from our past, the gentle warmth of nostalgic light. We will soar over endless vistas of freshly grown forest and taste the salty breezes of our oceans again, sharing life with a bold new perspective.
Imagine gliding slowly, lazily into an orange horizon, silhouettes ripping holes in the dying sun. Imagine gobbling up blood-plumped mosquitos by the dozen. Imagine sleeping upside down. Imagine learning from our mistakes, for once.
We will find a way back, returning without calamity on our shoulders. And why shouldn’t we?
After all, we have always been good at pretending.
Chris Clemens teaches courses about popular/digital culture in Toronto, where he lives with his wonderful family. His short fiction has previously been published in Apex Magazine.
“Pretending” was a finalist in our 2023 Blurred Genre Flash Contest, judged by Rachel Howard.