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Cataclysm Conjugated

As a child, James Cato ate a sweet potato that was actually sour, changing his outlook in a big way. His book, Litter of the Waste, was co-written with his oldest friend. He has previous or incoming publications in The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, JMWW, Atticus Review, and The Colored Lens, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction. Author comments: [Working in the environmental sector in a community full of abandoned coal mines, I hear about contaminated drinking water, predatory wealth extraction, and subsidence every day. This story was born out of that threat. The story's structure was meant to invert the perceived timeline of resource extraction.]

Questing for a toilet bowl, I will hike naked through a smoking crater. My small town will have fallen deeper than any canyon, coughing smog, wallowing gutturally. Main pipes will have warped and twisted and the reservoir will have splashed and evaporated in the pit like a burst water balloon. Everything I predicted will have come to pass, except for the rabies--I hadn't considered the rabies. Dogs and cats and skunks will waver drooling in the dim, rushing at human survivors, difficult to avoid. It'll seem ironic, that thirst drives half of us while hydrophobia rules the others. I will actually swear that the coagulated spit hanging from those rabid animals looks appetizing.
Up on the ridge, as expected, Joe's house will stand shattered and looted for potable water. I will have to shoot a hound in the kitchen. The problem with this cataclysm will be that it does not paint humankind as a terrible virus, only a foolish steward. I'll reckon, with a note of humility, that for every disaster someone will have prognosticated it, expected it. Will that locked bathroom door in the basement remain untouched--yes! I shall whip out my lucky key. Once inside, finally leaning over that delicious toilet water, I'll pause. Likely, Joe will be dead, mangled, having fallen five hundred feet through the floor of his labor union cubicle. It will have been years since I thought of him. But how comforting this bathroom will seem, this musty gloom, that sallow stain on the rim. I will dip my chin and drink gratefully.
Parties cause separation of mind and body. Sure, I'm dancing drunk and Joe has me around the hips, but I'm separated from all that. My hazy mind wends through new interstices of my long-standing paranoia about this town. How deep do the mines go? How many houses sit atop the concave roof of mineral exploitation? How many safeguards do we have against accidents like--oh, I don't know--a subterranean fire that catches coal, eroding the very foundations of the land beneath us?
Joe asks if I want to sneak into the bathroom, because he's hosting, and his basement bathroom remains locked at all times, accessible by only one key (as far as he knows; really there are two). Joe is not a villain nor is he a hero. He is my high school boyfriend and I consider him something of a pet. As we stumble through dancers, I realize that it would take weeks for rescue teams to sift through all the soot. As Joe fumbles with the key, I suspect that survivors of the initial collapse would die battling over water, or from black-lung, or....
Safely locked in the bathroom we struggle to undress in our damp seduction emporium. Joe's father works for the miner's labor union and so Joe's house stands proudly on the outskirts of town (safe from collapse, but not survivors scouring for water) with ostentatious fixtures. As Joe's body finds mine I notice the sink quivering, ripples forming from nowhere in the toilet bowl. He says something about my breasts while the whole room has a tremor. Here's a question: what will pets do when the city plummets and grit shrouds the sun? I decide right then and there to break up with Joe, before either of us get too attached.
"I hate this little guest of ours," Joe's dad whispered through the bathroom door.
See, eavesdropping came with risks. Like finding out that Joe's fancy miner union father did not like me playing with his son. He was speaking to his wife on the phone.
"Well, for one there's her ominous stare, like some hideous fate awaits me. She's too complicated for a child, like a grape with wrinkles; it's wrong, I can't explain it. Not happy, not sad... yes, I know Joseph needs friends. How did children get so freaky? Joseph's pica, this freak's staring... I'm half-hoping the friendship doesn't stick."
A hot paw of anger pushed against my chest. I knew freak was not a nice word, especially coming from a grownup referring to a six-year-old. My mama had set up the playdate so it seemed mean to her, too. Besides, Joe and I were having fun, though I'd left him upstairs. He had started watching horror videos on the tablet.
"...Oh, miss me with the environmental thing, honey. My job is to make people money. How could digging up coal cause our son to eat Hot Wheels? C'mon. Don't blame me. Besides, the therapy will work. Joseph will grow out of his eating disorder and ditch the weirdo."
With smoking ears, I pushed open the door. Joe's dad bobbled his phone, big knees crossed and pants puddled. "I'm in here!" he cried, stupidly. "It usually locks, but uh, we lost the key. Getting it replaced."
"Sorry," I hissed in my creepiest voice, before leaving.
Later, in the backyard, I told Joe that if the sun stopped shining, I would miss it terribly. He was not listening; he had doubled over, heaving, retching, clutching the grass in a silent scream as if the earth might yawn wide. After a moment I pounded his back as my Mama had done when I'd choked on a green bean--wham--and through his teeth clanged a slimy brass key. He sucked air before dashing away to tattle on me for 'punching him.' Thus concluded our first and only playdate until high school. I plucked up the intricate key, wiped bile off in the grass, and pocketed the thing. It might come in handy some day.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

Author Comments

Working in the environmental sector in a community full of abandoned coal mines, I hear about contaminated drinking water, predatory wealth extraction, and subsidence every day. This story was born out of that threat. The story's structure was meant to invert the perceived timeline of resource extraction.

- James C Cato
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