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This Is the Way the World Ends
By James Morrow
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 James Morrow
All rights reserved.
In Which Our Hero Is Introduced and Taught the True Facts Concerning Strategic Doctrine and Civil Defense
Until he saw the three children in white, George Paxton's life had gone just about perfectly.
Born in the middle of the twentieth century to generous and loving parents, people of New England stock so pure it was found only in northeast Vermont, he came to manhood in the tepid bosom of the Unitarian Church. It was an unadorned, New England sort of faith. Unitarians rejected miracles, worshiped reason, denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, and had serious doubts about the divinity of God. George grew up believing that this was the most plausible of all possible worlds.
By the time he was thirty-five he had been blessed with an adorable daughter, a wife who always looked as if she had just come from doing something dangerous and lewd, and a cozy cottage perched on stilts above a lake. He was in good health, and he knew how to prevent many life-threatening diseases through a diet predicated on trace metals. George took inordinate pleasure in ordinary things. Hot coffee gave him fits of rapture. If there was a good movie on television that night, he would spend the day whistling.
He had even outmaneuvered the philosophers. A seminal discovery of the twentieth century was that a man could live a life overflowing with advantages and still be obliquely unhappy. Despair, the philosophers called it. But the coin of George Paxton's life had happiness stamped on both sides—no despair for George. Individuals so fortunate were scarce in those days. You could have sold tickets to George Paxton.
Now it must be allowed that not everyone in his situation would have shared his contentment. Not everyone would have found fulfillment in putting words on cemetery monuments. For George, however, inscribing monuments was a calling, not simply a job. He was in the tomb profession. He kept a scrapbook of the great ones: the sarcophagus of Alexander, the shrine to Mausolus at Halicarnassus, the Medici tomb at San Lorenzo, the pyramid of Cheops. Don't you get depressed being around gravestones all day? people asked him. No, he replied. Gravestones, he knew, were educational media, teaching that life has limits: don't set your sights too high.
Occasionally his wife accused him of laziness. "I wish you would go out and get yourself some ambition," Justine would say. But George's world satisfied him—the pace, the simplicity, the muscles he acquired from lifting granite.
And then they came, the three children in white, jumping out of the back of John Frostig's panel truck and sprinting toward the sample stones that spread outward from the foundation of the Crippen Monument Works. The stones were closely spaced, as in a cemetery for dwarves. "Floor models," George's boss liked to call them. "Want to take one out for a spin?" the boss would quip.
Sitting near the smeared and sooty window of the front office, George watched as the white children leapfrogged over the stones. Their suits—trim, one-piece affairs cinched by utility belts and topped with globular helmets—afforded complete mobility. Each child wore a pistol. The leapfrogging boys looked ready for the bottom of the ocean, the inside of a volcano, a Martian sandstorm, a plague of bees, anything.
Briefcase in tow, John climbed out of the driver's seat. A painting of a white suit decorated the side of the truck, accompanied by the words PERPETUAL SECURITY SCOPAS SUITS ... JOHN FROSTIG, PRESIDENT ... WILDGROVE, MASSACHUSETTS ... 5557043. The president of Perpetual Security Scopas Suits marched toward the office exuding the sort of nervous energy and insatiable ambition that made George feel there are worse things in life than being satisfied with what you have.
Entering, John imposed his rump on a stool, balanced the briefcase on his knees.
"Has someone died?" George asked.
"Died? Nope, sorry, you won't sell me anything today, buddy-buddy." John's friendship with George had been primarily John's idea. "No tombs today."
George swiveled away from the window. A swivel chair, a rolltop desk, a naughty calendar, a patina of dust, the stool on which John sat—these formed the sum total of Arthur Crippen's office. Arthur was not there. He never appeared before noon, rarely before 2 P.M. Just then it was 3:30. Arthur was doubtless at the Lizard Lounge, a bar administering to the broken hopes and failed ambitions of the town's shopkeepers.
"Look out the window, buddy-buddy. What do you see?"
George pivoted. The children had begun a science fiction game, laser-zapping each other with their pistols, using the monuments for cover. "White children," he reported.
"Safe children. There's a war coming, George, a bad one. It's inevitable, what with both sides having so many land-based, first-strike ICBMs. Soon we'll all be living in scopas suits. That's S-C-O-P-A-S, as in Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival. Just five weeks I've had this franchise, and already I've sold two dozen units without once leaving the borders of our fair hamlet. The company tells us to operate under any name we like, so I'm Perpetual Security Scopas Suits. I thought that up myself—Perpetual Security Scopas Suits. Like it?"
"I can't see why the Russians would want to bomb Wildgrove," said George the Unitarian. He was what his church had made him, a naive skeptic.
"You don't know jackshit about strategic doctrine, do you? Ever hear of a counterforce strike? The enemy wants to wipe out America's war-waging capability. Well, Wildgrove is part of that war-waging capability. We've got food, clothing, gasoline, trucks, people— many things of military value. All the apples we grow here could prove decisive during the intra-war period."
"Well, if they ever do drop their bombs, I imagine we'll all die before we know what hit us."
"That's pretty pessimistic of you, buddy-buddy, and furthermore it's not true. Put on a scopas suit, and you won't be able to avoid surviving."
John opened his briefcase, took out a crisply printed form headed ESCHATOLOGICAL ENTERPRISES—WE DO CIVIL DEFENSE RIGHT. George knew about sales contracts; you could not acquire a stone from the Crippen Monument Works without signing one.
"Eschatological—doesn't sound very Japanese, does it?" said John. "Don't worry. Right now all the units might come from Osaka, but next month there'll be a plant in Detroit and another in Palo Alto. Hell, talk about being in the right place with the right product at the right time. Greatest thing since the rubber. A smart bunch of bastards, those Eschatological people, a bunch of shrewd—"
"This isn't my kind of thing."
"The price wouldn't shock you."
"Begin simple—that's what I tell everybody. One or two units, expand later. Do the kids first. The smaller the suit, the lower the cost. Your daughter—"
"Holly is four."
"Wise decision, truly wise. I must tell you, it puts a lump right smack in the middle of my throat. Now, the way I figure it, the warheads won't arrive for two years. Yeah, I know, the world's going to hell in a slant-eyed Honda, but smart money still says two years. So you'll need something that will fit Holly when she's six, right? Normally we'd be talking over seven thousand pictures of George Washington, but for you, buddy-buddy, let's make it sixty-five ninety-five plus tax."
"That's more than I take home in ... I don't know, four months. Five. I'll have to say no to this."
The suit salesman hammered the contract with his extended index finger. "You think we're talking cash on the barrelhead? We're talking installments on the barrelhead, teeny tiny installments." The finger skated across a pocket calculator. "Figuring a five percent sales tax and an annual interest rate of eighteen percent or one-point-five per month, we can amortize the loan through a constant monthly payment of three hundred and forty-five dollars and seventy-one cents, so in two years you'll own little Holly's unit free and clear. You probably spend that much on beer."
George took the contract, attempted to read it, but the words refused to resolve into clear meanings. Holly liked to draw. She produced an average of four crayon sketches a day. Their refrigerator displayed one that looked exactly like George—exactly.
On the other hand, if a war occurred of the sort John was predicting, it wouldn't matter how much art schools cost.
"Do you happen to have the kind for a six-year-old with you? I mean ... I'm just wondering what they look like."
John's nod was smug. "When you work for Perpetual Security, George, you're prepared for anything."
They left the office and wove through the tiny cemetery. Most of the stones embodied a macabre optimism; there was nothing inscribed on them. First came the Protestant district, then the Catholic section, finally the Jewish neighborhood. John opened the back of his truck and hoisted himself into the dark cavity, where several dozen scopas suits of varying sizes hung like commuters packed into a subway. George noticed one suit intended for a dog, another for a baby.
To the casual observer it might have suggested a nineteenth-century body-snatching scene, two men hauling a limp and pallid shape through a graveyard. First George—short, muscular, with rough-hewn features attempting to reclaim themselves from a scrub-brush beard and a jungle of hair. Then John—tall, clean-shaven, aggressively handsome, self-consciously suave. The white children followed them into the office. John and George arranged the little scopas suit on the swivel chair. George struggled to recall the names of the Frostig boys. The youngest was in the same nursery school as Holly and had once murdered the hamsters. Rickie—was that his name? Nathan?
"Mr. Paxton wants to see your units," John announced grandly, lining up his sons like army recruits. "Gary, show him your cranial gear."
The fifteen-year-old removed his dinosaur-egg helmet. He had inherited his father's disconcerting good looks. "Upon sensing the detonation," Gary recited, "the phones shut down—hence, no ruptured eardrums from blast overpressures. As for the fireball, the wraparound Lexan screen guards against flashblindness and retinal scorching."
"Thank you, sir."
John went to his second son. "Lance, Mr. Paxton wants to know about the fabric."
When Lance removed his helmet, George recognized the ten-year-old he had once caught spraying WALTERS BITES THE BIG ONE on a headstone Toby Walters had ordered for his dead mother. Lance looked middle-childy—casual, unassuming. He tugged on his front zipper, making a V-shaped part and revealing a sweat shirt emblazoned with the logo of a rock group called Sperm. "Alternating layers of Winco Synthefill VII, Celanese Fortrel Arcticguard Polyester, and activated charcoal," he chanted, folding back one flap to display the lining. "In terms of initial ionizing radiation and subsequent fallout, the protection factor is a big one thousand, shielding you from a cumulative dose of up to two hundred thousand rads. As for ... as for ..." The boy twitched and turned red.
"Thermal radiation, son."
"As for thermal radiation, a scopas suit can deflect over five thousand degrees Fahrenheit. You can be one hundred yards from the hypocenter, and all you'll get is a sunburn."
Again John consulted his first son. "Gary, let's hear about blast-wave effects on the human body."
"Because the material is interlayered with fibrosteel mesh," said Gary, "it can withstand dynamic pressures of up to sixty-five pounds per square inch, such as you might experience one mile from ground zero. Flying slivers of glass—a significant hazard in any thermonuclear exchange—cannot penetrate. Finally, even though the overpressures could catch you in a cyclonic wind and hurl you nearly three hundred feet, the padding in your nuke suit guarantees that you'll walk away without a bruise."
"They aren't 'nuke suits,' lad," the salesman corrected cheerfully. "What are they?"
"They're Perpetual Security scopas suits, sir."
"You probably think the Eschatological people forgot about Mother Nature," said John, rapping on George's shoulder with his index finger. "No way. Each unit gives you a built-in commode—the Leonardo Porta-Potty."
Now it was the little one's turn. "Nickie, show Mr. Paxton your utilities."
Nickie—ah, yes, that was his name—unbuckled his sashlike belt, removed his helmet. His hamster-killer's face was swarthy and firm. "Let's see ... here I have an indiv—, indiv—"
"Individual radiation ... doze ... er, doze-matter."
"Dosimeter, Nickie. Say dosimeter."
"Dosimeter. Then I've got a Swiss Army knife, a canteen, vitamins, and my"—joy flooded through the child—"my Colt Mark IV forty-five caliber automatic pistol!"
"Way to go, Nick!"
With a clumsy flourish the boy flipped the gun out of its holster. George pulled his hands in front of his face and said Jesus' name.
"Note your Pachmayr grips," said the suit salesman, "your King-Tappan fixed combat sights, your—"
"Is that real?" George asked.
"She's not loaded. Safety first."
"We have target practice in the basement," Nickie explained, waving the pistol around in a manner that made George say not loaded to himself several times. "We shoot paper Communists."
John strutted behind the line of boys, patting them on their sleek, narrow backpacks. "Last but not least, you have your survival gear. The bottom compartment is an oxygen tank— those warheads could touch off a conflagration or two, and that means smoke and toxic gases. You also get a primus stove, a portable water purifier, and a vacuum-packed can of vegetable seeds, including soybeans, barley, and other species resistant to ultraviolet light. In the medical kit you'll find penicillin-G tablets, tetanus toxoid, hydrocortisone, and a bottle of nitrous oxide for anesthesia. And, of course, each pack includes an item from your basic assortment of survival guns. Gary is carrying a disassembled Armalite AR-180 light assault rifle. She fires—tell the man, Gary."
"The standard U.S. military five-point-five-six-millimeter round. Effective range—four hundred and fifty yards."
"Right you are. Now Lance here is toting all the parts for a Remington 870 twelve-gauge shotgun. Most useful of all"—John caressed Nickie's pack—"is the Heckler and Koch HK 91 heavy assault rifle with collapsible stock. That's the piece you'll get with Holly's suit. Effective range—one thousand yards."
George had to admit that thermonuclear exchange worries crossed his mind occasionally, and that he did not know where to seek reassurance. It would be wonderful to lose this anxiety, which erupted at odd moments. Assuming they could squeeze another hundred dollars a month from Justine's paycheck, there was every reason to put this thing under the Christmas tree.
"If I give you the first installment today, can I take it home?"
An elaborate smile appeared on John's face. "Sure, you can take it home. Hell, next you'll order a suit for your pretty wife, then one for yourself, and then you'll both sleep a lot better. Any more kids in the works?"
"We've been talking about it. Yeah."
"Go for it."
George took out his checkbook. John fondled the contract.
Excerpted from This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow. Copyright © 1986 James Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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