Illustration by Divyakshi Kedia
Interesting Times is a diary-style creative nonfiction series that brings together the writer’s experiences of this bizarre new world. Featuring a forest fire evacuation, police hypocrisy, surprisingly friendly preppers and so, so many baby rabbits, it fuses naked vulnerability, impotent rage, and the strange, offbeat humor to be found in our newest normal.
First, there’s fire. It feels like the whole city will burn. Salem and Oregon City are both already empty of people; their loaded cars trail restlessly to the Portland evacuation camps. Not Multnomah County, though. “Stay put,” they tell us, while everywhere around us prepares to run from the fire on the desert winds. Day after day, we stare at constantly refreshing newsfeeds. Fire in Kern Park, fire in Lents. Each one a little closer.
Then comes smoke. The dull orange glow of soot so thick it blocks the sun. Ash so coarse it rasps on naked skin and turns unprotected airways to sandpaper. We watch the winds race to smother us with ever-solidifying ash. Tav’s respiratory condition worsens by the day; they’ve started getting nosebleeds. Even the rabbits—two adults, twelve babies—are clutching at their sore, watery faces. Their airways are bad at the best of times. Will we all survive this? Tav and I speak through red-rimmed eyes. The Air Quality Index is approaching two hundred, ten times its normal levels, and rising by the hour.
Fuck it. Let’s get ready. We need to go. I pack bags feverishly: food, clothes, possessions we can’t afford to lose. We drive til the air is clear, unload the car, and set up the rabbits for two nights in Motel Six, Pendleton.
We’re probably overreacting, I say as we settle in for the night, just after 2am. We’ll rest, and be home by Monday. Multnomah hasn’t even declared a Level One evacuation yet.
The next afternoon, we wake once more to the billowing of thick, dry air under an orange sky. Check the forecast; the dark red shadow that signifies off-the-charts thick smoke creeps over this town, beyond it. Smothers it. We leap into action with military speed, ignoring the groaning of our cripple bodies. We push them to the limit bussing rabbits up and down the stairs. Again, we stuff the car with three humans and fourteen rabbits, and drive.
It’s around midnight on Friday morning. We’ve been driving in circles in search of anywhere to sleep. My mind is stretched into a tight, vibrating line by the drive behind us; a taut thread woven from exhaustion, hope, disappointment, and constant, suffocating terror. Even now it lurks behind the horizon. We’ve been making survival humour, cracking jokes about the end of the world, but they petered out a while ago. The silence is laced with a cocktail of things we don’t want to think about.
Stay awake. Stop Tav from passing out at the wheel. I clutch the fabric-wrapped box on my lap as though lives depend on it. They do. The adrenaline fades. Exhaustion seeps back into my bones as the rhythms of the radio soothe me. My eyelids are the weight and colour of lead.
I’m jerked violently sideways as Tav swerves into the other lane. A small shape leaps away and skitters into the forest.
What was that?
A rabbit, Tav gasps, relieved at its escape. Colour of Dax, size of Worf. They motion at two of the carriers crammed on the back seat with Hermes.
Well done for not hitting it. I push away an abrupt thought. What if…? It resists as I try to shake it away.
Everything OK? Tav asks. I’m reluctant to lie. There’s a long silence.
I’m gonna listen to some music for a while says Hermes, behind me. I jump at his voice; I’d nearly forgotten he was there. The bassline leaks through his headphones, just in time.
I… that rabbit. It’s breeding season. They can’t all walk yet. Tears bubble in my throat. Even as an adult human wearing PPE in a car, the smoke still stings my eyes and clogs my throat. I stroke the box, and try not to imagine our babies facing that alone. Tav’s face is full of compassion and ash.
The one we saw was ahead of the cloud. They’re built to survive. It’s not a platitude, and that helps. We sit in silent grief, hands clasped together over the gearstick.
I put my other hand in the box and it fills with handfuls of fluff vying for attention. Good babies. Warm babies. When I peer under the flap, not all of them are moving. But it’s late at night; they’ll be asleep by now. I check them again. Still warm. Good.
I close the box quickly and let them sleep, though their silence fills me with panic. It’s past feeding time–what if their lethargy is starvation? Those bright new wild rabbits, trapped in the smoke, stumble across my mind again.
I take a puff on Tav’s vape; I’ve overused mine and it’s starting to burn my throat. It’s a beautiful shade of purple, and the smooth hit of nicotine brings me around some. I pass it back. They frown.
That’s yours. I double take; it’s bright red. I take another puff and choke on burnt cotton.
We’re through the last few straggling groups of rural houses. The road winds spaghettilike across the mountains, and the air pressure keeps popping our ears. To one side a sheer cliff climbs to the sky. To the other, a solid wall of smoke masks our altitude. I try hard not to imagine how far we would fall should the smoke get so bad we couldn’t see. I wonder if ignorance is a blessing or a curse.
This is your captain speaking, says Tav. We’re cruising at an altitude of 1400 metres, on track for a destination to be determined, at a time to be determined. Please enjoy your complimentary in-flight meal of cereal bars and leftover coffee. In-flight entertainment will be: nothing. Please refrain from leaving your seats at all, ever.
In the case of an emergency, exits are: everywhere, I say.
Please refrain from blazing it up until we arrive at our destination, Hermes adds. A dense patch of smoke rushes toward us; the air in the car is pungent with the smell of it. Tav squints at the road, concerned.
Jesus, this cloud is thick.
That’s just me, blazin’ it up in the back.
C’mon, Hermes. There was an announcement.
My instinct is always to run. Movement is safety; never become trapped. Always, always be ready to go, even—especially—if they tell you you’re overreacting. A tac-bag filled with survival supplies waits in our car at all times. I was in my twenties before I learned not everyone thinks that way.
So, when the ash no longer stings my sweat-drenched skin, when my eyes unclog their acrid layer of grit, I’m not sure how to understand what I see. Rows of ghost-towns line the road, so many empty beads on a string. Not even the glow of residential houses gives life to them. I clutch my hoodie closer. No cars anywhere. Everyone’s gone.
It feels like the end of the world, I say, wide-eyed at whole towns emptied of people. They, too, took to the road ahead of the destruction. Cold dread drops into my chest.
Something terrible is going to happen, it tells me. They knew it, too. I remember the air quality forecast map; the blood-dark shadow that engulfs all of Eastern Oregon.
Portland still hasn’t evacuated yet, Hermes pipes up from the back. People are furious. They’re saying they can’t breathe in their own homes. Fires are breaking out in their backyards. I don’t know why they haven’t done anything yet.
They’re trapped, I say dully. Portland’s huge. There’s nowhere to put them all, short of bussing everyone to Idaho. My gaze is fixed on the road, and suddenly all there is is this little car filled with humans, rabbits and our tools for survival. I want to run, run to the edge of the world and hide from the fire, disease, and ash.
Something terrible’s going to happen, the thought like frozen terror tells me. They’re trapped. The people here knew it, too. They ran before they could choke.
Around 3am, we reach Burns; the irony is so obvious no one bothers to say anything. The forecast says it’s a safe place to rest if we move early tomorrow. From there we can easily make it to Ontario, on Oregon’s eastern border. Then we can jump ship to Idaho if we need to, though I hope we don’t. The city’s almost as dark and empty as the towns behind us. We pass a few motels.
Sorry, they say in flowing red neon. To me, it reads like pity. No Vacancy… No Vacancy.
Tav… I don’t suppose you booked a hotel, did you? I ask with growing concern. They pull over.
Oh, no. Their head is in their hands and there’s apology in their every syllable. We were panicking… getting out of Pendleton. I’m sorry, everyone. I should have remembered.
You got us this far, I say firmly, my arm wrapped around their shoulders. So we’ll be even further away. We’ll be even safer.
The next hotel’s in Baker City. It’s expensive for half a night’s sleep, but better than nothing. The smoke is behind us now, but mobile data coverage is patchy. When we realise we missed our turn, it’s 4am and we’re most of the way to Ontario, anyway. My head swims, but I force my eyes to stay open. Stay awake—keep Tav awake. The Sun is a dull red-orange disc behind the murky clouds. Hopefully we can beg a motel for an early room.
The hands on my lap aren’t mine. Their sensation is muted, distant. My consciousness drifts so far inside my mind that my physical body is thinking and acting independently of it. I take a deep breath and pick up a baby rabbit; its velvety warmth soothes someone else’s fingers. My mind cuts to an image of it dying like the wild rabbits in the forests, and a violent terror seizes me. I look at their sleeping forms in the box, touch each one. They stir drowsily, annoyed at the interruption.
I’ve killed them, I think. I was in charge of looking after them. They depended on me, and I killed them. In the corner of my eye, Tav stares at me dead-on. When I look up their eyes are on the road, but their head hasn’t moved.
I close the box quickly, my heart skittering away. The new colours in the dawning landscape are intense; the shadows are hard and sharp. The ever-rational part of me stands coolly to one side, observing my train of thought. We’re losing hold of reality a little bit, it says. If we don’t do something, it will get worse. I take a deep breath.
I don’t want to worry you, I say, carefully calm, but I might be hallucinating a very little bit.
OK. Do you want a break? Their tone is equally calm. It helps.
That sounds like a good idea. I’m not sure if it does, but I trust their judgement.
I’m going to find somewhere to pull over. Let’s have a cigarette.
OK, I say.
We stretch our legs on a deserted road just off the highway, surrounded by foliage that stretches into the hazy distance. Tav hands me a cigarette and wraps my shoulders in a towel. I take a breath; the jolt of fresh dew is a balm to my red-raw airways. I realise with wonder that the fog that wreathes the mountains isn’t smoke; it’s mist. Normal mist. The taste of it on my tongue, in my lungs, sweeps the ashy funk of the last week out of my senses.
Hermes steps out of the car to join us. He was asleep for the last little while, but I think he’s noticed something’s wrong. I feel the beginnings of a question form, and rush to pre-empt it.
Tav will fill you in. The words erupt all at once into the space dead ahead of me. I realise that for the last twelve hours he’s been little more than a voice behind my head. Something in me repels breaking that perception. Tav opens my door and bends over the box.
They’ve been having some mild hallucinations, they explains casually, turning to me with a tiny rabbit cupped in their palms. Arsha, come look. The babies are fine! All of them!
My vision blurs with relief that leaves wet trails on my cheeks.
Hello, I say, stroking the tiny ears. Its dark eyes bright and curious at this new adventure. You’re OK. You’re all OK. I hold it to my face and kiss it lightly before Tav drops it back among its siblings.
The moisture in the air is dizzying. I light the cigarette and exhale slowly, watching the white curls billow into the sky. The irony isn’t lost on me, but the nicotine smooths the frazzled edges of my mind. The sun is hidden behind the mountains, now, and the waning crescent moon opposite is just rising. A bright point of light hovers below, as though leading it home to the gently glowing horizon. It shines through the bleariness of my mind.
A star, I say. Do you see it? Is it a star?
Yeah, says Tav, looking up at it. You know… I think it is. Hermes checks something on his phone.
Venus! It’s Venus!
Venus, I repeat. The word penetrates my addled mind. The others saw it. Better yet, they told me something I hadn’t known. Therefore, it must be there. I consider it for a long, long second. A single point of certainty in the unreality of my world. I let the rest of existence re-ravel around it.
Tav clutches their own elbows, teeth clattering in the cold.
You can go inside, I murmur. I’ll stay a while. They kiss me quickly on the head before shivering back into the car.
Hermes stays where he is. I sense his eyes on me, wide with concern, in my peripheral vision.
You can go, too. I’ll be OK. I sound dreamy, barely awake. I still can’t look directly at him.
I begin to return to my body. The chill of the grass—green grass—seeps up from the ground into my shoes, and the damp air caresses my skin. I close my eyes to let myself feel them. When I open them, I’m a person awake inside their own body, wrapped in a towel, standing in a field and staring at the iron-blue dawn sky. This new reality is concrete; as is the certainty that there is more to it than I know. I taste it in the bitterness of my tongue and in the ache of my lower back.
The frigid air raises the hairs on my awakened skin, and I remember Tav and Hermes are waiting in the car. I cast a last glance at Venus, and wonder at how much is still hidden in that single, sharp point of brightness that leads the Moon gently home.
That evening, Hermes knocks on our motel room door, flustered with excitement.
Arsha, he says. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but look! He shows me his phone. On the screen glows two bold lines of text.
Life on Venus?
Hints of life in toxic atmosphere of Earth’s closest neighbour
Arsha Adarsh is a chronically ill, Desi poet and writer from the UK who’s fallen in love with The Oregon sky. They find healing in the weird and the unexpected. Their work’s been published by Ang(st), Ayaskala, The Daily Drunk, Ghost Heart, Analogies & Allegories, and others. They’re a BOTN 2020 nominee. Find out more at https://aadarsh.ink, or follow them on Twitter @arsha_writes or Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org. They’d love to hear from you!