In The Beginning There Was Us
by Ingrid Jonach
I WAKE TO the sound of sirens and a bedroom lit up, as if by fireworks on the Fourth of July.
I blink owlishly at the ceiling for a moment or two, before I throw back the covers and crawl across my bed to peer through my window at the blue and red flashing lights of a police car and a fire engine. They’re followed moments later by an ambulance and two more police cars.
The five vehicles careen around the corner, like clown cars off to throw confetti on a fake fire, and I realize that they’re headed in the direction of the Lab.
The American Laboratory for Particle Physics—as it’s officially called—is located on the outskirts of our small town and employs at least a third of the population, including my dad.
The Lab has also put our town on the map as the least visited town in the country, unless you count the protesters that camp on the outskirts of Albert Falls. No one else wants to be within a hundred mile radius of the largest particle accelerator in the United States.
I watch through my window as the surrounding houses light up one by one, like fireflies at dusk. It’s more like dawn though. I glance over at the digital clock that sits on my chest of drawers. Yep. 3.46am.
I open the sash and a warm breeze ruffles my curtains as I strain to hear the now distant sirens, which intermingle with the sound of screen doors slamming and neighbors yelling at barking dogs.
I’m suddenly blinded by the bedroom light above my head.
“Pack your bags, Abbey.”
“What?” I ask, turning and rubbing one of my eyes with the heel of my hand.
“Now,” my dad says. I hear his shoes clomp down the hallway and it registers that he’s already dressed.
I remember to place my right foot on the floorboards before my left as I climb out of bed. I may as well go back to bed and pull the covers over my head if I start the day on the wrong foot—so to speak.
It’s just one of many symptoms of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which my best friend Mali Kendrick had helpfully diagnosed via Google three years ago.
I have a couple of other rituals—including one for walking through doorways and another for putting on seatbelts.
There are others that I make up on the spot. For example, deciding that if I close my eyes for two minutes and thirty seconds I’ll pass an exam, or if I hold my breath through a television commercial my mom won’t need her medication anymore.
I rummage through my wardrobe for my overnight bag and start filling it, not knowing how many pairs of underwear to pack, or whether I need to take my swimsuit.
I shake my head as I stuff it back into my drawer. This isn’t a holiday. It’s an evacuation, I remind myself and the hairs on the back of my neck prickle at the realization.
We’ve been through the drill a thousand times at school. We’re supposed to pack clothes and toiletries only and then await further instruction from the authorities.
Like everyone else in town, we already have a container of food and water stored in the trunk of our station wagon. No one’s supposed to take valuables like jewelry, or non-essential items like photographs and pets. A few kids had cried when we were told about the policy on pets, but they’re not permitted at the shelter in Charleston. Yep. Charleston. They may as well evacuate us to the Lab.
My ears pick up the sound of a public announcement and I rush to my window again.
“—in your homes,” a recorded voice is saying through a megaphone mounted to the top of a black sedan emblazoned with the acronym A.L.P.P. “I repeat: stay in your homes. Albert Falls is currently in lockdown by order of the United States Government. You are ordered to stay in your homes. I repeat—”
“Hurry up, Abbey.”
I turn to see my dad standing in the doorway again. “I think we’re supposed to stay indoors,” I tell him, gesturing to the window.
“You have two minutes,” he says dismissively and I can only assume that the lockdown doesn’t apply to employees of the Lab.
“We have to get Mali and Elwin,” I say, as I realize that my best friend and her brother aren’t in that category.
My dad grimaces and shakes his head. “Sorry.”
My forehead creases. “What’s going on, Dad?”
He hesitates and I wonder whether I need to remind him that I’m not a kid anymore, even though I do occasionally sleep with a nightlight.
“There was an accident at the Lab,” he finally confirms.
My stomach flip-flops. It looks like the protestors will soon be saying I-told-you-so—if anyone actually lives to tell the tale.
The Lab’s been experimenting with the God Particle, despite a ban by the United Nations.
I know about the God Particle and its role in the European Apocalypse from Middle School. It’s part of the school curriculum, just like the three World Wars. It had wiped out Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and half of Italy, France, Germany and Austria—and now maybe Albert Falls.
I grab my cell from my side table. “I’ll just call Mali and—”
“No,” my dad says sternly, confiscating my cell.
My chin wobbles as I think about the news articles I’ve studied from the European Apocalypse: Two hundred million dead!; Half of Europe wiped-out!; and Worse than World War III!
“But—” I start and then burst into tears.
My dad holds out his arms, like a ground controller guiding a taxiing airplane. “Come here, Abbey,” he says, his tone softening as he draws me into his chest.
He strokes my hair and suddenly I’m eight years old again instead of fifteen, curled up on the couch next to him as we watch back-to-back episodes of Star Trek. “This isn’t like the European Apocalypse,” he reassures me. “Your friends will be OK.”
I sniffle into his shirt. “Promise?”
“I swear on the Principia,” he says solemnly and I have to smile at his equivalent of the Bible. He squeezes my shoulders. “OK?”
“OK,” I confirm. I grab a tissue from the box beside my bed and wipe my nose.
“Honey?” My dad tilts his head towards my half-filled bag.
They may not be clothes or toiletries, but I shove my sketchbook and pencils into my bag anyway, before I zip it up and follow my dad into the hallway.
I deliberately turn sideways as I cross the threshold. It’s my ritual for walking through doorways, even though Mali says it makes me look like a crab.
My mom’s waiting in the station wagon. Her expression’s blank as I climb into the back seat and I know it’s thanks to a mixture of anti-depressants and sleeping pills.
I click my seatbelt into the clasp five times to ward off a car accident, but there’s no traffic at all as we drive down the street. Maybe we’re supposed to be in lockdown after all, I think, suddenly worried we’ll be arrested.
My dad had come close to being arrested two years ago for running a stop sign in Main Street. The police officer had told him he was lucky to be given a fine and traffic school, but my dad had complained that everyone else got off with a warning.
He knows he’s not everyone else though. My dad’s been in four minor accidents and one major accident that I can recall and has received countless traffic infringements—one for parking too close to a curb and another for not using a blinker. He says it’s just his luck.
I turn as I hear another siren, straining against my seatbelt to look through the rear window as—sure enough—we’re pulled over by a police car. The flashing lights fill the interior as my dad waits for the officer to approach his window.
I sit as still as a statue as the officer shines a flashlight into the station wagon, blinding each of us in turn. I catch a glimpse of red curly hair tied into a low ponytail and a strong jaw, but I don’t recognize the woman and guess that she’s been called in from Charleston.
“You were asked to stay in your homes,” she says sternly. “You’re currently committing a federal offense.”
I’m convinced she’s going to haul my dad out of his seat and put him in handcuffs, before she arrests my mom and I as well.
My dad lowers the hand that’s shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight. “My name’s Richard Baxter,” he says slowly, as if he’s announcing that he’s the President of the United States.
The officer hesitates. “I need to see your license and registration, Mr Baxter.”
My dad hands over the documents and the officer looks over them carefully. She tells us to wait in the station wagon while she contacts the station—the crackle of her radio cutting through the night.
I twiddle my thumbs as we wait, deciding that if I stop we’ll all end up in jail. The joints start to ache after a couple of minutes, but it’s worth it when we’re finally given the OK and escorted through Albert Falls.
I peer through my window as we pass a pick-up truck that’s been pulled over by another police officer. I recognize the driver as Bill Upton. He works at Albert Falls Coke & Co., which is the main employer in town.
I watch as he climbs out of his truck and points a finger at the officer. Uh-oh. The officer grabs his arm and twists it behind his back, pushing him face first against the hood as he puts him in handcuffs.
Mrs Upton’s shouting at the officer through the passenger window as their young son cries in the backseat. I think his name’s Jeremy.
“Dad…” I start, but I’m suddenly sidetracked by what looks like soldiers marching down the street. “Is that the National Guard?” I ask incredulously.
My dad slows down and I realize we’ve reached the checkpoint.
The Lab had established the checkpoint a couple of years ago after they erected a ten-foot hurricane fence around the town to keep out the protesters—at least, to keep out the protestors not already living in Albert Falls.
There’d been a petition from residents, who’d complained it was like living in a prison and thousands had marched through the streets waving placards, but the council had sided with the Lab.
I see that the usual security guards at the checkpoint have been replaced by soldiers with assault rifles and a tank tonight. Yep. A tank—painted in camouflage, as if we’re in the jungles of Borneo instead of West Virginia.
A car in front of us is being turned around, but we’re waved through after a conversation between the police officer and a soldier wearing a bulletproof vest.
My dad gives them a wave as we pass though the boomgate and within a couple of minutes, we’re on the interstate headed for Charleston.
At least, I think we’re headed for Charleston. I can scarcely believe it when I find out we’re actually going to New York.
Thirty minutes into our road trip, I realize that I’m trembling like an aspen leaf.
I lower the window and breath in the summer air, scented by the wildflowers and pine trees that cover the steep mountains of West Virginia. When I continue to shiver, despite the warmth, I realize I’m not cold. I’m in shock.
I pull my cell from my overnight bag and dial my best friend with shaking fingers. It goes to voicemail. I dial three more times with no luck.
My stomach starts to somersault and I decide to dial one last time. Then there’ll be five missed calls on her cell instead of four—and five’s my lucky number.
I leave a voicemail this time, asking if she’s OK and letting her know that we’re on our way to New York.
When I ask, my dad tells me that what’s happening in Albert Falls is “classified under the National Security Act.”
The 1947 Act had been updated after the European Apocalypse. It’s the reason my dad’s never participated in Take your Kids to Work Day or been able to talk to my class for Show and Tell. It basically overrules anything and everything—including the Constitution.
I give up asking for details about the accident at the Lab somewhere between the Wyoming Valley and the Endless Mountains.
It’s close to noon by the time we reach New York.
I turn on the television as soon as we get to the hotel and flick through the channels until I see footage of Albert Falls—or at least, of the hurricane fence surrounding Albert Falls.
I lower the volume in case my dad hears from the neighboring room.
It looks like the Secretary of Homeland Security had held a press conference in Washington DC a couple of hours ago on what he called “the situation in West Virginia.”
I watch as he explains on the pre-recorded footage that there’s been an accident involving the particle accelerator in Albert Falls and that the Government’s initiated the National Response Framework, which means the situation’s being managed on the ground by the Lab with assistance from the National Guard.
He’s not able to say what the situation is though, because it’s “classified under the National Security Act.” Ugh.
The Secretary then introduces the CEO of the Lab, Edward Rooney. I watch him adjust his black tie as he steps up to the podium and recall that the last time I’d seen him he had ketchup down the front of his polo shirt from a hot dog.
It’s been a few years since my parents have hosted a cook out though and I notice his sideburns have turned silver in the meantime. He’s wearing a crumpled dress shirt that makes his skin look sallow and his eyes are bloodshot with dark circles underneath—most likely the result of his early morning wake-up call, courtesy of the Lab.
Rooney tells the media that the situation’s been contained to Albert Falls. “The town’s currently in lockdown,” he says, “which means no one will go in or out until we establish that there’s no risk to the rest of America.”
I wonder whether they’ll be told that the lockdown doesn’t apply to employees of the Lab.
“Are we talking about another European Apocalypse?” a reporter calls out.
“Technically, it would be an American Apocalypse,” Rooney says and then coughs when he realizes that his joke’s fallen flat. “That’s classified under the National Security Act,” he says formally.
He repeats the same response to the next three questions, but I breathe a sigh of relief when he at least confirms that there have been no fatalities in Albert Falls.
The press conference finally fizzles out after another five questions succumb to the National Security Act.
I remain glued to the television over the next twenty-four hours. The news coverage focuses mainly on the heavy-handed tactics utilized by the National Guard, which have included tear gas and rubber bullets.
CNN keeps showing cell footage of a riot at the checkpoint, which ends when the soldiers roll out the tank. I spot a couple of familiar faces in the grainy footage, but thankfully not my best friend or Elwin.
There’s no criticism of the lockdown itself by the media though. Not even CNN wants to risk another European Apocalypse.
“They jammed all of the phone towers,” Mali explains when I finally get through to her three days later. “The internet’s been down and they closed the checkpoint out of Albert Falls. They also banned gatherings of more than three people because they thought we were going to riot again. Talk about boring with a capital B.”
“But are you OK?” I ask anxiously.
“Fine,” she says. “Just be thankful you’re in New York.”
“I guess Albert Falls is like a ghost town without the employees of the Lab.”
I repeat myself.
“Everyone’s in lockdown, Abbey,” Mali says slowly, as if I’ve been asleep for the past four days. “Your family’s the only one they let out of Albert Falls.”
“What?” It’s my turn to sound surprised. “Why?”
I imagine her shrugging on the other end of the call. “Apparently your dad’s a big shot at the Lab.”
“Really?” I ask, remembering him announcing his name to the police officer, as if it meant something. “Then why would they let him come to New York? You’d think they’d need him at the Lab.”
“They probably want him to survive the Albert Falls Apocalypse,” Mali says dryly.