Please Be Advised
From: The United States Department of Interior To: Our Loyal Citizens
To: Our Loyal Citizens
Please be advised that in light of recent events some minor, but urgent, additions have modified our nation’s Civil Defense Preparedness Plan. To prevent local chaos in the event of a foreign terror attack, the Civil Defense Cabinet is recommending each resident household to stockpile four weeks worth of food rations and four weeks worth of water supply for each member of the household. This is a precautionary move; please be assured there is no cause for concern. This is a precautionary move.
In God We Trust,
The Civil Defense Cabinet
The United States Department of Interior
The notice arrived in the usual mail – mid-morning, the dog barking incessantly at the mailman, just as I was sitting down with a fresh cup of coffee to begin the workday. The only unusual thing was the notice itself, printed on an obnoxious yellow postcard and stamped with IMPORTANT NOTICE in bright red letters. I read and reread carefully, trying to determine if this was a practical joke from those bastard kids down the block or if I should be concerned. I abandoned the makeshift office in the kitchen, leaving my coffee behind as I walked to the living room to check the news, still carrying the notice and trailed by the dog.
The channel four newscaster confirmed, in much too cherry a tone: the notices were released today, the East coast recipients assuming it was a joke until the rest of the nation slowly began checking their mail and realizing it wasn’t a hoax. One copy in every mailbox across the country. So many dead trees, I thought.
My phone rang. It was Barbara’s office. “Hello,” I answered, a little distracted by the television. The newscaster was interviewing people throughout the metroplex, who in turn were deciding whether or not they thought the notice should be taken seriously. As if some dimwit from twenty minutes outside McKinney was going to decide whether the entire nation should take something seriously.
“Did you check the mail yet?” Barbara asked. “Leslie is freaking out and saying the world is ending.”
I broke my trance with the television to roll my eyes. “Fuck Leslie. She likes making drama.” Leslie was the kind of coworker who sustained herself purely on the judgement of others; she refused to believe I was anything but a deadbeat husband – constantly, casually, suggesting to Barbara that the middle-aged dating scene wasn’t so bad.
“But is the world ending?” Barbara’s voice was a little strained, because of Leslie or the situation I couldn’t tell. “Everyone here is actually freaking out because a notice wasn’t delivered to office buildings. They’re asking to leave early, but Warren has his death grip on the timecards.” Warren was an obnoxious, twenty-six year old fresh out of business school who thought he was a boss worth respecting.
“I’m watching CNN right now. Literally nothing has happened.”
“But what’s the notice? What’s it say?”
I read her the notice.
“That sounds serious.”
“Babe, it literally ends with ‘there’s no cause for concern.’”
“The lady doth protest too much,” she quoted, distracted. I bet Leslie was crying; Leslie cried all the time. “The accounting team is trying to convince Warren to close the office early so we can get supplies. The word apocalypse is being thrown around.”
“Fucking mob mentality, that’s all it is, Barbara. I’m watching the news. The blond chick is saying that the Democratic party can’t be too concerned about the environment if they’re printing off so many notices over nothing.” The dog was whining, so I let him outside. I hadn’t realized Barbara would take this seriously. She made me wonder if I should be taking it seriously. I found the remote and began flipping through the channels, each addressing the same story, each fear mongering. “I bet it’s a stunt from the grocery stores to get us to buy more canned food,” I joked.
Barbara laughed softly. “Because, seriously, no one is buying survival bunker food. That shit is disgusting.” She paused. “I don’t want to sound insane, but it’s only been a few days since Russia made the announcement. Maybe we should take this seriously…” Her voice trailed off, like she was testing the waters with her suggestion.
I sighed. “Barbara, would you like me to go to the store and get some disgusting food and bottled water for you?” The news stations were transitioning towards the upcoming election, so I switched the television off. Whoever is elected into office is going to inherit a shit show.
“For us,” she corrected. “And Scooter.”
I let Scooter in from the backyard. “I really don’t think there’s anything serious to worry about. This just seems like media attention-grabbing.” I began gathering my keys and my wallet.
“But just in case?”
“Just in case,” I resigned, heading out the door. I hung up as she began to reassure Leslie.
It wasn’t even noon yet, but the roads were already crowded with honking cars and road-rage threats. Apparently, alarmist notices in the mail were the permission the neighborhood needed to go into a panic and start driving like maniacs. It took me twenty minutes just to drive up the road to the supermarket; I would have been better off walking.
The market itself was crowded as well – there were, for once, more than two cashiers ringing up bottles of water and baskets full of canned food, and there were two managers attempting to stay the crowds pushing in for the giant water jugs. I figured the bigger jugs of water would make the most economic sense, and briefly considered pushing in as well, but I hated crowds. This entire ordeal was my worst nightmare: massive amounts of people, all panicking, all lacking the common sense to just take a breath. There were no carts left, so I settled for a hand basket and went to the usual bottled drink aisle, searching for the single bottles of water. There wasn’t much left. I ended up grabbing the few single bottles of the off brand water, the cheap stuff that tasted like plastic that no one had thought to hoard yet, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I drug one of the remaining packs of water out from under the shelving fixture, but this presented another problem. The water came in packs of twenty-four, larger than the hand basket I was stuck with. I ended up hoisted the water onto my shoulder like it was a fallen platoon mate and I was the last survivor, scooting the basket along with my feet, making my way towards the canned food aisle.
It occurred to me as I wandered the store weighed down by water bottles that I hadn’t the slightest clue was sort of food counted as nonperishables for a rations stockpile. I set the water at my feet and stacked the hand basket on top, pulling out my phone to Google apocalyptic supply bunkers. As I scrolled through the flood of movie suggestions, online shows, zombie survival guides, and conspiracy theories, an older man stopped next to me and very obviously examined the water at my feet. I ignored him. He bent down and began taking the single water bottles from the basket.
“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting his pathetic attempt at theft. “Those are mine.”
“But you’re just standing there on your damn phone. I need these.” I couldn’t remember if I’d ever heard a senior citizen swear before, but it was funny to me.
“Well, I need them, too. And my wife needs them. And we have a dog, so there’s a lot of water-needing happening at my place.”
He muttered something under his breath and walked off with two my bottles. I let him go.
I found a webpage that recommended canned goods, dry cereals, and potatoes. Potatoes seemed dangerous – I’d read a story about a family in Ireland that were poisoned by rotting potatoes in their basement, and who knew how long this food would be sitting in our pantry. I decided some canned goods and cereals would be good enough. I hoisted the water back on my shoulder and began scooting along again.
The canned food aisle was ransacked. Half the options were sold out, and the remaining options mostly sounded made up. What the hell is spam actually made of? I read the ingredients and immediately ruled it out. I glanced hopelessly down the rest of the aisle and considered giving up and going home.
A young women rounded the far end of the aisle and began throwing random cans into her own hand basket without even paying attention to what she was grabbing. She look like she’d rolled out of bed a few seconds ago, disheveled and clearly panicked. She reminded me of Barbara when I’d first met her back in college.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled, brushing passed me to grab more and more cans. The basket looked like it weighed more than her as she filled it to the brim. She began limping under its weight as she headed back towards the registers.
As I surveyed the remainder of the aisle it occurred to me that the girl, and a sizable portion of my city, and supposedly the rest of the country, were taking this precautionary recommendation seriously. Up until this point, I’d been operating under the mission of making Barbara more comfortable, not even giving this potential threat any real thought. It had been a few days since Russia had publicly announced they’d built some sort of missiles, what their president was proudly calling their weapons of mass destruction. But no one in the States had taken this to mean anything; our relationship with Russia had been cordial for the past few years. The rest of the world was busy stressing and panicking, but we had all but forgotten until this morning. I glanced down at the basket of water at my feet, thinking about Barbara. She had taken this seriously ever since I read it to her, and she had been almost embarrassed to ask me to go to the store and stock up. If she wanted me to get supplies, I could get supplies. The likelihood of us actually needed this food still seemed slim to me, but you never know. So I made my way down the aisle, water hoisted on my shoulder, picking the least disgusting sounding cans of foods and placing them in the basket between my feet. I scooted down the entire aisle slowly loading up on beans and vegetables and weird gravies. I rounded the corner of the aisle and made my way to the cereals, reading the back of the boxes for the ones with the furthest out expiration dates, which happened to be the ones with the tiny marshmallows in them. Barbara was going to think I made that up jut to get the kiddie cereals.
I took the long way back to the cashiers, stopping to chose some pasta (a fancy kind I’d never heard of before, but that had a nice shape) and some sauce (that came in a glass jar, not plastic) and a bag of salad mix. Barbara was bound to be having an awful day – Leslie was an ugly crier, and her boss was a jackass, especially when it came to people’s emotions, so I thought making her dinner would be nice. One of the endocarp displays in the pharmacy on the way to the registers had condoms. I added a pack to my basket, hopeful.
The line for the cashiers were each at least twenty people deep. Their conversations ranged from angry at the length of the line to angry that the store was so crowded, to angry that the government had put us in this predicament in the first place. I consciously tried to look not angry. The poor cashiers were so young, probably still in high school, and they all looked like they were going to pass out.
When it was finally my turn, I place my basket of cans and water on the conveyer belt alongside my pack of water and grabbed a Snickers from the rank of candy bars and placed it next to the condoms. Barbara loved Snickers.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked as I unloaded the contents of the basket.
“Take a fucking look around, how do you think it’s going?” the cashier spat back. She started frantically scanning all the cans, her hands shaky. She dropped the first two and cursed at them each time.
“It’s pretty crazy in here,” I agreed, glancing around. “Apocalypse scares are good for business, I guess.”
“You sound like my goddamn manager. But guess what? I get paid the same regardless of how many fucking losers I ring up.” She was still scanning away. “You people are just making my fucking job harder. The world isn’t going to fucking end. The world won’t end with a ridiculous amount of beans and fucking water bottles.”
I assumed ‘fuck’ was the only swear word she knew yet. “Sorry about that,” I mumbled, avoiding any chance of eye contact and preoccupying myself with finding my wallet.
She finished scanning. “You’re total is $68.56.”
“Man, the word not-ending is expensive,” I joked.
She didn’t laugh.
I swiped my card. The moments the machine spent authorizing my card we spent in silence. I left the hand basket at the front entrance, carrying the water pack on my shoulder again and all the bags of cans in one hand. The apocalypse was heavy. I had to set everything down on the ground to unlock the trunk.
“Need any help there?” The voice came from behind and startled me.
I turned to see the older woman who runs the flower shop in the parking lot standing a few feet away from my car.
“No, I’m alright, thanks. Just gotta get everything loaded up.” I open the trunk and began loading the bags.
She remained quiet, but stayed there, watching me.
“How’re you doing today?” I asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“I’m alright, I suppose, dear,” she said, taking our conversation as a cue to move closer. “Not a lot of business today. I suppose the end of the world isn’t the opportune time to buy flowers.”
I finished loading everything up. Her voice was so grandmotherly that I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. “You think the world is going end?” I asked, closing the trunk and leaning against the car.
“Why else would everyone be panicking?” She gestured to the packed parking lot, not a spot empty, not a cart in sight, cars full of children off school early and waiting for their parents to stock up inside the grocery store.
I nodded. “Maybe everyone just want to feel safe,” I suggested, thinking again about Barbara.
“Yes, but safe from what?” she argued. “If there wasn’t something for people to feel unsafe from, they wouldn’t be panicking, dear.”
I nodded, more slowly, not completely agreeing with her. People are frequently afraid of things without reason. I decided to change the subject because I was starting to get a weird feeling, almost nervous. It was the same feeling I got when I was fifteen and told my parents I didn’t believe in God. My mother had given me a scornful look and told me I was going to seriously regret that decision whenever I died and found out I was wrong. I tried to shrug the feeling off. “Have any daisies today?” I asked, nodding my head toward the tent where her flower shop was set up.
“I do!” Her face lit up and she began walking towards the tent.
I followed her.
“What color daisies do you want, dear?” she asked as she began to survey her stock. “White works.” I never understood why people feel the need to dye flowers.
“Nice and classic.” She picked a dozen and wrapped them with a yellow bow. She told me how to care for them (vase, then the water, then the powder, then the flowers), and I paid with a twenty dollar bill, telling her to keep the change as an end of the world present.
She giggled. “My entire life the government has been telling me there’s nothing to worry about. And every time, something terrible happens.” She waved goodbye. I got that nervous feeling in my gut again.
It took me twenty minutes to drive home, just up the road. The entrance to the grocery store parking lot was jammed, and the streets were even more packed, cars honking constantly. Scooter greeted me eagerly at the store, jumping up onto my legs and almost tripping me. I struggled my way to the dry basement, huffing as I let the water slip from my shoulders and onto the grimy old couch; when it landed, a cloud of dust puffed into the air. This place is disgusting. I arranged the cans of food along the counter next to the couch, in descending order of least disgusting to most disgusting. I stacked the boxes of cereal into a pyramid shape and put the single bottles of water into the mini fridge. I surveyed my work and glanced around. All we had down here was the old couch, the sagging counter tops, an old television that had a built-in VCR player, some board games, and boxes of storage. I thought briefly that we were lucky we weren’t in a position that required us to use the dry basement often, then felt the twinge of anxiety and dread in my stomach as I reminded myself of the old woman’s words: the government always says don’t worry, then something bad happens.
My phone buzzed, startling me. It was a text from Barbara; Warren had decided to let them go home early and she was on her way.
I tried to shake off the nervous feeling and went upstairs to begin making an early dinner for Barbara.
The sauce was simmering, the pasta was boiling, and the bag of salad was mixed when Barbara arrived home. I had set up the flowers and the Snickers on the coffee table for her to see when she walked in.
“I’m home!” she called, and I heard the thud of her bag as it hit the floor. “Oh my god, did you buy me a Snickers?”
I heard the ruffle of the wrapper and grinned. “I totally did.”
She rounded the corner to the kitchen already chewing on the Snickers. “Oh!” she explained through the mouthful of candy. She swallowed. “You cooked me dinner?”
I kissed her, and she tasted like chocolate. “I totally did.”
“Are you trying to make up for Leslie’s ugly crying?” She took another bite of Snickers. “I definitely am,” I smirked. “Did she cry a lot?”
“She couldn’t stop crying all day!” Barbara slipped her shoes off and kicked them out of the kitchen. “I’m convinced her crying was the only reason Warren actually agreed to let us go. He’d do practically anything to not be around her crying.”
“I think any sane human would feel the same.” I began plating the food while Barbara hummed excitedly. She loved food.
As we sat down to eat, both our phones began buzzing violently.
“Just ignore it,” she groaned, tossing hers across the room to land on the couch. She sat down and began twirling pasta on her fork.
I pulled mine out of my pocket to silence whatever alarm was going off.
It wasn’t an alarm.
It was a public safety announcement.
“Babe?” she asked.
“Russia launched the missiles,” I read.