CITY ON THE EDGE OF NOWHERE
PART 3 × BLUE MOUNTAINS
In the mountains of Arkansas,
mere miles from the Gothic Quarantine Zone,
refugees debate whether to stay or go.

Blue Mountains Emergency Group Site (EGS) north of Shire, AR.
FEMA/Mark Wolfe.
A four-part series on the Gothic Disaster,
the Arkansans still living in its shadow,
and the wide impact we'll be witnessing for years to come.
FIONA VAN DAHL     PART 1 × PART 2 × PART 3 × PART 4     CONFUSED?
City on the Edge of Nowhere is a fictional longform article written by the real-life Fiona van Dahl. It summarizes (and spoils) the events of her scifi/horror novel, Eden Green.

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January is probably cold and miserable everywhere, but January in post-Disaster Arkansas is a special kind of wasteland. People across America are looking out at barren trees and frozen mud ruts, and they’re waiting for spring — but here, people huddle in white FEMA trailers and wait for the end of the world.

This is the Blue Mountains Emergency Group Site (EGS), a FEMA-run trailer park for refugees of the Gothic disaster. Once upon a time, this was a big pasture full of cattle and tall grass; now it’s long, straight dirt roads that divide up rows of trailers. The sky is dark grey; it’s early morning, and 20° F (-6.66° C), far too cold to be outside for long.

But it’s only for a few seconds that I have to stand outside my neighbors’ door before they let me in. Their trailer is even more full and cramped than mine, despite being the larger ‘family size’; where mine houses only a married couple, theirs also has three kids crowding the stove. The oldest is making mac and cheese.

Frank, their burly father, lets me in and takes my coat. Andrea, their delicate mother, is giving herself an insulin injection. No one jokes about needles having invaded the camp. No one wants to start that conversation. Instead, Andrea asks if I’ll be staying long; I stop thinking about razor-wire monsters and awkwardly tell her that I’m just dropping by.

We focus on last night’s news: They’ll be permanently rehomed soon, the last family with children to leave our EGS. There are already cardboard boxes scattered around, some filled with toys or clothes.

“It’ll be Oregon.” Frank looks exhausted, but tries to put on a hopeful face. “I always used to joke about people moving from Arkansas to Oregon, how they all wanted to open artisanal shops and play hipster. That’ll be us, now.”

Andrea shushes him as she puts away her diabetic kit. “We’ll bring all our traditions.”

The kids go into the bedroom to watch TV and eat their mac and cheese. I comment that they seem to be taking the news well.

“They cried when they found out,” Andrea whispers. “They wanted to know if all their friends from school would be moving to Oregon, too. Poppy asked if they’d let us bring her treehouse.”

Frank, meanwhile, has dropped the false hope act, and his dander begins to rise. “Some jackass in Shire last week told me that we’re abusing those kids by keeping them here, just because we want to go home.” He emphasizes words by grinding his index finger into his other palm. “Our house is paid off. That house is their future. Now that we’ve given up ever going back, we have to start over. That’s abuse?”

His wife looks like she’s given up. “There’s no use agonizing over it. Maybe someday, we’ll get some kind of insurance payout. We’re already going to be getting a check from FEMA to help us get started.”

“A FEMA check can’t buy our dogs back,” Frank snaps. “Or photos of the kids as babies, or their schools, or our jobs.” He looks like he wants to say more, but trails off suddenly, staring into the distance.

Frank and Andrea are honest, even raw, with me because we’ve been neighbors for five months. In the days after the disaster, while living in temporary tent shelters, my husband and I separately applied for FEMA assistance. So did they. The waiting lists for trailers were blessedly short; we were eventually homed next door to each other in one of the three EGSs set up outside the Gothic Quarantine Zone (GQZ). Our two families moved in on the same day — September 20, 2015.

The smallest site, Prairie Grove EGS, was recently closed, its few remaining residents transferred. Blue Mountains received a few, but most went to the largest, Mount Ward EGS, on the other side of Shire.

Frank’s story about the jackass in Shire sticks in my craw. This isn’t the first anti-refugee bigotry I’ve heard of. The residents of that small town — once a bedroom community for the city of Gothic — probably thought of themselves as proper Southern folk, hospitable Christians every one — until they had several thousand displaced city people living in their pastures and shopping at their grocery stores and crowding their tiny public schools.

From FEMA’s most recent report: 80,000 people were displaced by the disaster. Of them, 60,000 were permanently rehomed in surrounding cities and states within the first two months after.

My mother-in-law was relocated to California, where she has family. My parents, who lived far outside the city, decided to pack up their horses and move to Colorado, not wanting to stay so close to a quarantine zone. Our families begged my husband and I to join them in Colorado or California or move anywhere else but here — but we held out hope that the city would be re-opened.

And so, we and Frank and Andrea and 20,000 others (9,000 family units) were ‘temporarily re-homed’. The vast majority went to Fort Smith, Little Rock, and other nearby cities, but we were among the 20% placed in trailers. On a clear day, I can climb up onto the roof of our trailer and smoke a joint and watch the Gothic skyline.

×

My next stop this morning is with Don, who lives a row over. I don’t know Don except through texts; he’s so far the only respondent to my flier soliciting interviews about the EGS. He answers the door in clean sweatpants and t-shirt, his black beard and hair long but neatly trimmed. The inside of his trailer is a lot like his clothes: Determined to maintain the bare levels of decency, and treat anything more as a waste of energy. I instantly like him.

Every free surface is covered in piles of books; he sheepishly admits that he packed his car with them when the evacuation order went out. Most are about Jewish history; he himself is not Jewish — is, in fact, Asatru — but has long been fascinated with their study.

Don is in his mid-forties, relatively fit — I learn over fresh-brewed coffee that he goes jogging each morning, despite the cold — and professorial. Sure enough, he used to teach Jewish Studies at Gothic University, before it closed down in 2003 at the end of a long and complicated scandal. From then until the Disaster, he taught history and PE at Gothic High.

His master’s thesis was on Jewish diasporas, drawing connections and patterns across history, from Sargon to Hitler. He had never thought that he and many close friends would undergo an exile of their own.

But as we talk, his thoughts quickly turn to the fates of the students he taught at the high school. They were already at a disadvantage when he met them, their college prospects severely limited by the university’s collapse and Gothic’s subsequent recession. Now their lives have been disrupted, their homes fenced away inside a quarantine zone, their futures uncertain. (He carefully didn’t mention the many who must have died, and I didn’t bring it up.)

“How many brilliant minds are we wasting?” he entreated. “We’ve got the Shire schools stuffed to the rafters, and they were pathetic to begin with.” He works as a gym teacher’s assistant at the middle school, and the disgusted curl of his lip says a lot. “Even with all the families moving away, we’ve still got so many kids. They’re not getting what they need here, and they weren’t getting it in Gothic. They didn’t need sharps to ruin their lives; we were doing it for them.”

My ears prick up at the mention of the sharps. Most people don’t like to talk about them, because you never know who saw one in person, who might have PTSD flashbacks at the mention — or who might be one of the crazies who think they don’t exist. I believe in them — I collect photos and videos of them — but I’ve never seen one, and that’s one of my biggest regrets. My husband and I were helping out at my parents’ ranch when the disaster struck. We lost everything — an apartment full of belongings and memories and hard drives and cats — and we didn’t even get to see the cool monsters doing it.

Sharps. It stuck because it sounds like ‘sharks’, yet another monster of jagged teeth and rabid appetite. It stuck because sharps are made of needles.

Don notices the distracted look on my face and backpedals. “Sorry. I know some people don’t like talking about them.”

I tell him the truth — that I wish the GQZ would allow journalists and researchers inside to photograph and study the sharps. I don’t know why I’m the only one hungry to know more about them.

He stares down into his coffee for a minute, then shrugs. I get the sudden impression that he lived my sick dream — that he saw sharps in person, before he was evacuated.

“You ever wonder why people are scared of Casper?” he asks suddenly.

“The friendly ghost?”

“He has big, cute eyes, and he’s obviously friendly — why be scared? Why not talk to him, ask him what death is like, and why he can’t move on to the afterlife, and all these other important questions? But when people get close to death — corpses and skulls and mass graves — they don’t want to look right at it. Death is confronting them, even if it has big, cute eyes.”

It clicks then, what he means. No one talks about the sharps, or where they came from, or what they want — because it took such a big, uncaring universe to put them in our town. They aren’t just carnivorous and made of black needles — they’re small-ifying.

… and that is all we say on the matter. After an awkward silence, he returns to the topic of teaching. He applied for permanent re-homing several weeks ago, and will probably be set up with a teaching position at New Mexico State. Winters are mild there, Don hopes. He looks forward to the dune deserts of southern Colorado, thinks he could have some good adventures out in the golden sands.

Later, as I’m showing myself out and promising to email him when my article is done, I notice his little economy car parked just outside the door. The back seat and trunk are still full of books, mostly on Asatru and the myths of the Norse. It’s a needle in my heart, that he’s left the comforting tales of his faith out here in the freeze, and huddles inside with his patterns of diaspora.

×

I used to think it must suck to live down south, near Arkansas Nuclear One, the only reactor in the state. I wondered if people could feel it lurking in the background of their daily lives. I pictured them lying awake at night, listening for it, or searching the horizon for it as they stood in their backyards.

Gothic is like that. People used to stand around and chat. Now they stand around and watch the western treeline. We feel a big, glowing presence there at all times, just over the horizon.

All I’ve seen of my city for eight months is twelve-foot-high fences topped with razor wire. Planes and helicopters are forced to give it a wide berth, and camera drones are shot down with shocking precision. Cable news sometimes gets ahold of long-distance photographs or drone footage (and it goes straight into my collection), but no amount of visual exploration will give us what we really want.

We’re all stuck here, unmoving, watching the treeline. The air tastes imminent. That’s why we live in trailers out in the middle of nowhere, instead of getting on with our lives: The city is putting out so much psychic static that we can’t hear ourselves think. We can’t will ourselves forward.

Earlier this month, a man who lives in our row of trailers tried to commit suicide. The rumor — passed from the first responders to the administrator to security to the camp blabbermouth to me — is that he claimed he didn’t want to be alive to see the apocalypse.

We all stand a little closer to loved ones now, and food and shelter feel like luxuries with expiration dates.

Humanity — at least, the portion I’ve met in the past eight months — is a kicked dog. With a single, random, vicious strike, we have been reminded of how small we are, how helpless. We are too primitive to even understand what has happened. Every day, we fight the anxiety whining at us to run, to never stop running — and the creeping suspicion that there is nowhere to run to.

×

My last stop of the morning is with the EGS administrator, who has graciously agreed to talk to me and make a few official-sounding statements for my article. I meet him in his office in the community building; every surface overflows with paperwork. He’s thick and white, middle-aged, face pink from habitual stress. I catch him on his break, with his feet up on the desk.

I’ve been in a weird funk ever since I saw those books in that back seat. The admin is bored, maybe unsure what I want. That makes two of us.

Might as well stop wasting time and cut to the chase. I ask him what he thinks is going to happen with Gothic — if it’ll ever be reopened, or if whatever the CDC is trying to contain will break out and kill us all.

He stares at me for a minute, and his foot stops tapping the side of his laptop. Finally, he takes his feet down, sits up straight, and weaves his fingers together on the desk. He is now Being Serious.

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’?” he asks quietly.

My heart sinks. “Not good, then.”

“Young lady, do you know Jesus?”

I don’t say anything, but I make a mental note to figure out the answer.

He continues, “I suggest you get to know Jesus. What happened to Gothic was Hell visited upon the Earth. It was a Satanic attack. God will not allow it to go on much longer.”

To my surprise, I like that idea. It has a clear villain and an imminent hero. Everything to a purpose. Everything under control.

“I’ll think about it,” I tell him, and start to get up. Appealing eschatology or not, talking about religion with strangers gives me the heebies. Our interview has lasted only two minutes, but I doubt I would get much more—

His phone vibrates on the desktop, and despite myself, I stop to admire it. It’s one of the next generation of smartphones, a see-through glass device, like a hologram floating just above his desk’s surface. The effect is mesmerizingly pretty.

He must recognize the number, because he snatches it up and holds it to his ear. “Blue Mountains, this is Ken.” It’s kind of goofy, how it looks like he’s holding an invisible phone. Nonetheless, I linger in the doorway, hoping to find out where he got it, how much it—

His face goes pale. “Are you sure?”

My stomach is suddenly hot, and the back of my throat burns. A million possibilities flash across my mind, each more horrible than the last.

At last, he nods. “Should I keep it under my hat?” Pause. “Thanks. I’ll spread the word.” He sets the phone down, stares at it.

Then he beckons me back over to the desk. “You’re the first to know, I guess. They’re closing us down, moving the absolute-must-stays to Mount Ward, and rehoming the rest.”

Something invisible hits me in the stomach. “Permanently?” I manage, in a strained whisper.

He says nothing, just stares at his invisible phone.

×

That afternoon, my husband and I pack a picnic lunch and drive to the outer fence.

There’s a road that leads west from Shire, curving through green hills and past subdivisions. But right at the point where you expect to start seeing the gas stations and warehouses of outer Gothic, a twelve-foot fence smashes across the horizon — appearing in the north, blocking the road, and continuing south as far as the eye can see. It’s beige and opaque; you can’t see through it unless you’re standing right next to it, and even then, all that exists beyond is empty pastures and an abandoned gas station.

An abandoned gas station photographed through the GQZ outer fence — one of the few available photos of post-Disaster Gothic. Unsplash/Polina Flegontovna.

An abandoned gas station photographed through the GQZ outer fence — one of the few available photos of post-Disaster Gothic. Unsplash/Polina Flegontovna.

Half a dozen soldiers man the tall, wide gate (which is situated just off the road, to further discourage traffic), and military vehicles pass every few minutes in a constant patrol.

We know by now how to behave when near the fence. It’s not illegal to be there — they understand homesickness — but they don’t like people hanging around without explanation. So we drive up slowly, stop next to the first soldier we see, and show him our picnic. He’s polite but short, waving us over onto a side road where we can park in an abandoned lot.

We sit in the front seat with our sandwiches and a bottle of soda to share, and we watch the fence as we eat.

This is our pilgrimage, made once a week, rain or shine. We usually talk about things we miss — the cats, the house, our computers and gaming systems, our diplomas and awards, my job, his job, our social circle, the idea of having kids someday, the hope of paying off his student loans—

“There’s a buffer zone, right?” he asks, staring at the fence.

“Yeah, like half a mile. And the inner fence is like twenty feet tall and covered in sensors and traps and things.”

“Then why have one out here?”

I shrug. “Just in case something gets through.”

“If something can get through the big scary first fence, what makes them think they’d stop it with this one?”

The sandwich is rotting in my hand. I put it back in its bag and neatly seal it up and put it away. “The article is coming along.”

“Maybe Part Four can be about wherever we move.”

“Nah, no one cares about that. We’re just insignificant sidebars in The Big Question. Part Four is going to be about possible answers.”

He grunts unhappily. “What about ‘where are we going to live’? Doesn’t that deserve an answer?”

Even if it does, I don’t have one. He’s used to looking to me for the big picture, but this time…

Well, there’s something I can tell him. I move closer on the seat and put my head on his shoulder, and together we watch a soldier on an ATV roll by.

“I’ll still be me, and you’ll still be you. We’ll be together. We’ll just be somewhere else.”

Thus we say good-bye to Gothic.

×

But just because your humble author is shortly moving away does not mean Gothic ceases to exist. As you read this, the fences may still be up, the monsters still pouring in like the tide, the soldiers still fighting to hold them back.

There may still be questions left unanswered. My sincere hope is that you stumble upon this article in an enlightened future, when my gathered insights seem naïve and outdated. But in the meantime, gather them I must.

Next time, we cover #gothictruth — the Internet weighs in on the Disaster.

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