by Avery Elizabeth Hurt
Alex rubbed his face, almost gouging his eyes with his fingers, then moved his hands around and started working on his neck. He tried to organize his thoughts. He could get this straightened out, he knew, if he could just organize his thoughts. If he could just find his thoughts.
Many of them thought it would be the food that would finish them off. All that processed non-food everyone ate for so many years. Excessive amounts of sodium and hydrogenated fat and corn syrup. Heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia, and cancer. Cancer. They always worried more about cancer than anything else. Cancer was killing them, of course, and the food, too. Some of them, sometimes, a few here, a few there, all strung out over the course of a lifespan that started getting a little shorter with each generation after the end of the 20th century. Many of them died before their time, and many suffered miserable illnesses on the way. But not all of them. Not everybody. No, it took more than a bad diet and a carcinogenic lifestyle to finish them off en masse, to take down the whole civilization.
They worried (not that worrying caused them to do anything about it, but still they worried) that walking around with radio receivers in their ears off and on all day, most of them more on than off, would give them cancer. It didn’t. But they were totally blindsided by what it did do to them. Of course, they wouldn’t have been able to see it coming, would they? That was both the cause and the effect. They opened themselves to everything, and everything came in. They were abysmally unprepared.
Monica just sat there and stared, occasionally mumbling something more or less coherent or quoting a snatch of a song, repeating bits of a conversation some people in Toronto had in 2016, perhaps an advertising slogan from the late twentieth century. Once in a while, she came out with a snatch of an old TED lecture, making her seem momentarily intelligent, if you didn’t listen too closely and if you didn’t pay attention to the confusion in her eyes.
Alex had better control. He had a system. When the junk got too much for him to ignore, he started counting. One, two, three, four …. But he never managed to keep it up for long. He rarely made it past fifty; there was just too much garbage in there. Sooner or later he lost the thread—fifty-seven Welcome, ladies and gentlemen twelve We have a caller on line two ninety-four It’ll put spring in your step! It’s all fake news! What prizes do we have today, Lauren?—and went back to rubbing his face and massaging his neck and trying to not listen. But at least it was something.
There was probably some justice in it, if you were the sort to look at things that way. Those in the developed world, as they liked to call it, were on top for a long time, gobbling up way more than their share of the world’s resources. So now the only people on the planet who were remotely functional were the ones who hadn’t been able to afford radio receivers for every ear. Now they were running the world, or trying to. Trying to pick up the pieces is more like it, while the rest of humanity slumped against walls, staring into space, listening to the scraps of dead civilizations crackling in their heads.
Alex tried to get Monica’s attention. “Is it live or is it Memorex?” she said. He looked out the window at the empty street.” One, two, three . . . If this were a real emergency….
In addition to writing speculative fiction, Avery Elizabeth Hurt writes science and history books for children and science journalism for adults and children. The research she does for her nonfiction writing often sparks ideas for her fiction.