The government shutdown may finally have ended—for now. But we’re facing a future where such shutdowns may only grow longer and more frequent until, well, today’s barbed and surreal Terraform story examines one potential fallout. Enjoy. -the ed.
Jolene pierced a translucent container with her picker, and a lone almond tumbled out as she shoved the package into a trash bag. She winced and flexed her hands, the flesh cracking, flakes of dead skin fluttering back like the millions of fiery orange poppy petals blowing it the wind. The strong gusts blasted pollen from anthers and whipped used napkins, straws and snack wrappers across the landscape.
The bloom was in full glory in the Antelope Valley, painting the fields in hues of orange and yellow. The poppies brought thousands of tourists, many of whom trampled the flowers to get that perfect pic to share, dropping their trash along the way. Some forgot they were backing into an active road while hunting for that trophy pic and were nearly squashed like the insects they were. Jolene was surprised there weren’t tourists’ carcasses splattered against windshields across the valley.
Jolene stared into the sun, eyes unblinking, brown freckled face relaxed, irises affixed on the blazing corona. A horrible burning paired with blinding black spots forced her to look away, the veins in her eyes throbbed and reddened. She rubbed her eyes, flabbergasted, that was the third time this month she had spaced out staring at the sun. She had definitely damaged her eyes last time.
Jolene’s thick legs and worn hiking boots trotted along the path, energetically dragging the rest of her muscular yet lumpy form up the hill. Jolene cursed as she rubbed her free hand along her soft waist and muffin top. She found the state of her body entirely unfair just like the state of her planet. She hiked and biked, was active all day, but maintained a substantial fatty layer atop her toned muscles, like a seal, always prepared for winter. It was her nature to be prepared, probably why she was surviving the shutdown better than most.
Jolene lurched, her stomach contracting as a violent cramp forced her to her knees. After several dry heaves, she raced to the bathroom fumbling for her keys. The restrooms of the poppy reserve were closed to the public day 12 of the state park closures so now Jolene discovered surprise piles in the poppies left by the more diehard visitor.
Jolene hugged the metallic toilet, knees on the cool cement floor. She’d started vomiting months ago. She took a pregnancy test even though she hadn’t had sex for almost eight months prior and was on birth control. She was not about to bring children into this world. She would rather be dying than be pregnant, not that she could afford a doctor for either.
Jolene scowled at the floating red glob in the toilet, veins reaching out from its center, resembling a pulpy root ball. She tore off some toilet paper and wiped her lips.
In the first months of the shutdown, Jolene worked for no pay, cleaning the reserve. As the shutdown developed into a national crisis, she worked odd jobs to survive. Month three, the local businesses, dependent on the tourists attracted by the poppies, scrounged together enough to pay her part-time to keep the reserve pristine. On a less windy day, she’d probably stay a few extra hours but on top of the nausea, her face was chapped, her cracked hands ached, and her eyes stung from the sun. Jolene locked the bathroom and trekked to the parking lot.
Jolene pulled on a ratty black shirt showcasing the faded name of a band she loved a million years ago. She flung off the towel turban on her head, releasing her wet brown hair. She fought her way into a tattered pair of blue jeans – tug, wiggle, tug, wiggle, squeeze and stretch, zip and button. Breath. Jolene grabbed two rental movies off her friend’s gray couch.
Jolene gave up her apartment 186 days into the shutdown and now payed to sleep on that couch. She gave up happy hours and matinees and now drank boxed wine while watching movies from the library. She practiced intermittent fasting to save money and to hopefully get back into her old jeans; she couldn’t afford to replace the larger ones. She actually gained weight even though she continued to eat less and less. She was now hardly eating, hadn’t been hungry in weeks.
Jolene parked her green sedan in front of the library. The 12-year-old clunker was Jolene’s first car. Someone had knocked the side mirror off and someone else had driven over it, crushing it to bits. There were at least three things wrong with it, none of which she could afford to fix. Jolene, movies in hand, left her car and thoughts of its demise behind as she approached the library.
Jolene rattled the double doors. They were locked. She put her hands on the glass, staring at the paper taped to the door.
Large black letters read, “New Library Hours: Saturdays, 10 A.M.-2 P.M. Bathrooms no longer available.”
Jolene read the sign over and over, her shoulders sagging lower with each pass. She spent afternoons at the library, reading, playing computer games and practicing Italian. She used to dream of traveling to Rome. She no longer dreamt that dream but continued learning the language.
She was tired of giving things up, doing more with less. Scrimping. Sacrificing. Institutions crumbled with ease during the shutdown. The states panicked and froze funding for their non-essential programs and made things even worse. The hawks dismantled entitlement programs, ceased federal contributions to education, cut public radio and now, the libraries. Jolene slid down to the ground, leaned against the window and knocked her head against it.
She lifted up her pant leg to rub a nasty scar running from her ankle up her mid-calf to her knee. It was soft, tender and still ached and itched. On day 100 of the shutdown, almost everyone, it seemed, took to the streets and demanded the government reopen. Jolene’s eyes watered. She had been hurt that day, thought she was going to die. As her leg healed, the inside part of her that had shattered slowly patched back together, but Jolene struggled to find her old self, the her before that day; she feared that person was gone forever.
The poppy reserve’s lot was empty, extreme wind advisories had been issued hours ago. Jolene leaned against her car door, her hair whipped against her face, the door wobbled against the powerful gusts. Orange petals ripped from their stems joining the debris torpedoing through the field. Jolene slammed her door, pulled up her green hoodie and trudged up the hill. She loved her poppies, always giving to the bees, the butterflies, to the people who gazed at them, the soil when they died. They never took anything from her.
Jolene tiptoed around each precious plant until she arrived at a large rock jutting out of a private circle of grass surrounded by flowers. Jolene leaned against her rock in her sacred spot gazing over the poppy fields in the only place she didn’t feel desperate, didn’t feel human.
Jolene bowed into child’s pose, wrapping her arms around her head and shoulders. The wind blasted her back as it heaved. Tears and snot dripped from her nose, lips and chin, her body swaying as she succumbed to her hysteria. She screamed into the grass. There was no going back to normal. This was normal until normal got worse, and she didn’t want to adjust anymore, alter her view so that she could survive. The temperature around her was gradually rising, and she burned inside, cooking a little more each day. She felt deeply that she was nearly done.
The ground rumbled as the dirt shifted. Her body jerked downward and Jolene choked on a sob. Her arms wouldn’t budge, her head wouldn’t rise, and her legs wouldn’t stretch out. She was stuck in her pose, looking more and more like a giant seed. Her body tightened closer together, tighter than Jolene thought she could bend inward. The dirt crumbled around her and opened up. Jolene yelped as she sunk further into the soil. Her breath became ragged and dirt fell into her mouth. She spit and spit, but the dirt kept pushing its way in as she sunk deeper into the soil. She was unable to look up, the light was disappearing, and the blanket of soil grew heavier and heavier, until it felt… exactly right. Jolene’s heart stopped racing.
She held her breath and couldn’t move her body. She would run out of air in moments. She should be panicking but she felt extremely calm. The blackness became darker, and the silence changed like she was on the verge of hearing it differently. Jolene knew she must be dying, but it didn’t feel the way she had imagined, it felt like going dormant, shutting down until the time for life was right again. Her desire to open her mouth and breath became intense, impossible to ignore but even the imperative to breath felt different, desperate in a new way. Jolene opened her mouth and inhaled. The soil came pouring in, filling her throat and lungs. She breathed out. And in again. And out. And in. She breathed as a world beneath the earth opened up to her and let her in.