Graham and Peggy Lee sat in a comfortable silence, taking in the calming effects of the planetarium. Graham went to a familiar place in his head, his childhood. He recalled sitting on the front porch and watching constellations traverse the great dark bowl above his family’s two-story farmhouse just outside tiny Chamberlain, South Dakota.
The farmhouse creaked when you walked up the stairs and moaned in the wind. It had felt like a relic to young Graham, something that archeologists had dug up just for his family. He imagined that they lived in the Wild West, his family homesteading on the prairie with no neighbors for miles. When he was nine, his parents got him a kitten to keep him company during those long winter weekends when the whole family was snowed-in. He named her “Ginger” after the movie star on Gilligan’s Island. His family always ate breakfast and dinner together. In that old farmhouse, Graham always knew he was loved.
During the summer, Graham helped his father tend the fields. When he turned eleven, he learned to drive the tractor. Around the same time, his father taught him how to fish the banks of the Missouri River. Graham spent many afternoons sitting in the shade of willow and cottonwood trees, pulling up catfish and daydreaming between strikes.
When he was sixteen, his father’s corn fields failed, along with the rest of the area’s crops. The rains in the mid-West had been steadily diminishing for years. Farmers managed with the little rain that did fall, mostly by increasing pumping from the groundwater reservoirs underlying their farms. Each year, aquifer levels dropped significantly; each year, farmers hoped for replenishing rains. But then, in 2067, the year of the Great Climate Collapse, no rain fell at all.
Throughout the Midwest, corn fields turned brown and bare. In late summer, prairie fires raged across the plains. Aquifers dried up and even the deepest wells were choked with dust. Near Graham’s house, the Missouri River receded to almost nothing. Wide mud flats punctuated by blanched fish skeletons replaced the lazy currents of the river.
And of course it was not just America. It was much worse elsewhere. Graham remembered watching the news every night with his mother and his father. The Collapse die-offs started in earnest in the fall of 2067. First, newscasters tried to make sense of the numbers coming out of Africa. Then, news from India took the headlines. Then South America. Then Central America and Mexico. Then, China. And then the stories circled back because the dying was unrelenting. San Francisco’s Summer of Death three years prior paled in comparison to this new, grim, world-wide reality.
Some nights, the news covered dying animals and disappearing ecosystems for a few minutes. Graham remembered one story about an enormous migration of Monarch butterflies that was blown off course. The butterflies ended up exhausted and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That night, Graham dreamt of an ocean covered with dead and dying butterflies, their orange and black wings undulating on the surface until they all slowly sank into the depths – never to be seen again.
The news anchors interviewed climate experts, seeking an explanation of what was happening to the world’s weather patterns. An abrupt and irreversible disruption of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation had occurred, the scientists responded. In other words, global ocean currents had gone haywire. The cooling effect of those critical currents had been all but eliminated. Would the world’s currents return to normal? The scientists had no answer.
Mostly, the news tried to cover the estimated scope of each day’s worldwide casualties, but the images on the T.V. could not accurately capture the truth. The number of dead was too enormous to fathom, the decimation incomprehensible, but every once in a while, Graham saw the true extent of the devastation in the faces of the on-location reporters. The shock, bewilderment, disbelief – and the fear, the base, animal fear – leapt from their eyes and directly into Graham’s family’s living room. The world’s population was plummeting right there on the screen, like a horror movie filled with confusion and unending bodies, a terrifying spectacle that was taking place closer and closer to home. “Coming to a theater near you,” Graham thought to himself in despair.
Graham knew his father had their life savings invested in farmland, equipment, and crops. He watched as the relentless sun sucked up all the moisture from his family’s fields. In 2068, his father took out loans to pay the bills and waited for the following spring. Alas, 2069 and 2070 were both bone-dry. Graham’s father, along with all of the other farmers in South Dakota, watched helplessly as their farms turned from rich loam to one giant Saharan plain. In three years, Graham’s father went from an optimistic, fun-loving guy to a dour and miserable shell. He grew distant and spent most of his time in the barn alone, even sleeping out there some nights, presumably unable to face his family.
At the outset of the third summer without rain, Graham graduated from high school and immediately enlisted in the military. He had planned to go to college to become a scientist and work on solving the climate problem. But, with the demise of the farm, his parents could not afford to send him anywhere. His grades had been good in math and science, but below average in the other classes; he could not get a scholarship. The army, on the other hand, was looking for every available set of hands to help contain the crisis. Graham figured if he enlisted, he would be able to send some money home every month.
Two years later, in the spring of 2071, Graham’s parents sold the family’s useless farmland and equipment for pennies on the dollar. The night before they were to move to Chicago to look for work, his father’s car slammed into a giant, dead oak tree five miles north of Chamberlain. The news accounts said that the dry oak burst into a million splinters upon impact. They called it an accident.
Graham’s mother moved to Southern California instead of Chicago and started a new life. She remarried and had another son. Things between Graham and his mother were never the same. She mentioned one time that he reminded her too much of those last, painful years in South Dakota. His father’s accident, or whatever is had been, had thus robbed Graham of both his parents.
He sometimes wondered what his life would have been like had rains continued. Would he visit his parents on their happy little farm often? Would he help his father mend fences? Would his mother sit on the porch, humming and knitting in the day’s dying light? Would they have a goose at Christmas like when he was young? But the answers were too painful. He barely kept in contact with his mother now, and he had never even met his half-brother. She preferred it that way.