This year WKMS chose to institute a “genre” for its 2017 Short Story Contest, and that theme was a world in an apocalyptic state. (Editor’s Note: As a judge of the contest, this is NOT my favorite thematic material, but I’m open minded!) I have to admit winner Barbara Cobb took me on a journey that I found mesmerizing. Cobb teaches English at Murray State University and is also Coordinator of Academic Advising. “I am the consummate amateur writer and have been since I was a teenager,” says Cobb. “I have ben an avid reader all my life, and my experience as a reader, plus my vivid imagination, give me infinite material from which to draw when I write.”
Cobb laughs that she chose a teaching career so she could read for a living. “Ironically there have been times in my career when I haven’t had time to read and write except for work,” she adds. However, this fall Cobb found enough time amidst her academic load to imagine a world of inferno that left her smothered beneath a silver suit and not knowing what was “up.” Here is Not Up, the 2017 WKMS winning short story.
I didn't think it would happen so soon. You had forewarned me, but it seemed preposterous that anything would happen here in nowhere, a place that I couldn't imagine they would have wanted, or even knew existed. I had a lock box full of papers, and some cash on hand. I always kept the gas tank full, a habit that went all the way back to the 70s and the gas crisis and waiting in lines for an hour.
I didn’t think it would happen so fast. You called me a fool for thinking that what we had on hand would be sufficient, that we would have time to prepare for any natural disaster. “What about an unnatural one,” you said, and I laughed at you. I miss that. We fought a lot. I almost miss that too.
I didn’t think it would happen in my own back yard. It’s a pasture, with horses and a mule and an occasional coyote who used to stroll through the pasture as if nothing in the world could disturb its Sunday saunter. The coyote was wrong. You were wrong, too. You thought a gun would protect us from the coyote and from anything else that might be in the pasture. You miscalculated your weaponry. I would have called you a fool if you had brought home anything that might have helped. Nothing would have made any difference, really.
I didn’t think I’d live through it, the invasion, the inferno, you in that flameproof suit falling on top of me as the microbursts of fire torched everything. And you’re protecting me still, a huge shiny object on the ground amidst rubble, bricks, a half a chimney, burned out cars, which is all I can see when I do peek out.
I’m digging. I’m digging, and I’m talking to you because you are protecting me. You in that suit that I called ridiculous, so huge, like a walking silver tent. When you put it on the one time after you’d ordered it, I laughed. I laughed at everything in your so-called “survival kit.” I wish I had that kit. I wish it had worked. I’m not sure that this is survival. I’m not sure I will survive. I’m talking to you in case I don’t, or maybe in case I do.
I’m digging because down is the only direction I can go. Up is acrid, burnt air that glows a dull orangy-brown. Up is the unrelenting scream of those metal machines in the pasture that came out of nowhere and made that high-pitched screeching sound even before they were there. Up there are no voices, no sounds, that sound like my neighbors or the farmhands or my dog or the horses and mule. There is noise that I cannot see and do not understand.
On the first day – because there still is day and night, although I cannot see sun or moon or stars through the thick sky – on that first day, once I was awake again and once I knew you had saved me and once I knew you were gone, on that day I began to dig, making a hole in the warm earth under you because I could not get out from under you, in that suit that I had once called ridiculous. You are huge and the suit is huge and the combination felled me and knocked me out and saved me. And I don’t know if I’m thankful for that. I’d had a plastic cup in my hand at the moment of impact and it was still in my hand when I came to, crushed beneath you and that suit. I kept pushing dirt out from under me because down is the only direction I could go. And it worked. I made enough space, pushing out dirt with my hand, then with the cup, then, pushing myself up against you, scooping up with the cup to make more space in my cave.
Then you started to cave in, you and the suit started to cave into my cave. I had to shove some dirt back under you to stabilize you above me. So I stopped to think. I think it was just the second day, and I stopped for a long time, and by the time I had it in me to start again, it was dark, very dark, so I just stopped until it was light.
Since then, day and night have cycled through about four times. Rain has come and I reached my hand up and made a little pocket in your suit to catch some water, then pinched the edge to let it drain into my mouth. It tastes terrible, and I wonder if it will kill me rather than save me and I suddenly feel my bowels for the first time since I came to and hastily I use a piece of the plastic cup, now broken, to loosen some soil and I soil that soil. Poop smells better than the acrid air, I realize. And I realize that I have stopped talking to you because you are dead and a roof over my head, and I realize that I can’t live in this hole in the dirt under you and your suit. But I am so not up for up, whatever up is.