READ the opening of Matt’s next book
19 days before the end
monday, september 3
“So what did you say?” I ask Tommy.
He hands me another screw and I send it through the plywood with my cordless drill. “I said, ‘Mother: No, thank you.’”
“He said, ‘Not happening, Kelly,’” Brock calls behind us. He’s loafing in the shade of the giant maple tree in my backyard, murdering flies with his tree trunk arms. “And then she said, ‘Don’t call me by my first name, because I birthed you and therefore control your life.’”
“She’s making me try out.” Tommy sneezes three times in a row because of his massive allergies. “For soccer.”
I get my level out and make sure the plywood is lined up straight with the shed wall. “Hmm. Soccer is pretty much just running,” I say. “Probably ninety percent running.”
“I know,” Tommy says. His arm bumps into me when he says it. He’s always talking up in your personal space. “But she threatened to sell Pete.”
“She always does that. She won’t actually do it.”
“She posted him on Snake4Sale.com,” Brock says. “Tommy cried.”
“I didn’t cry.” Tommy heads to the shade and slumps on the ground next to Brock, which makes him look extra small. Me and Tommy both have brown hair and people used to say we could be brothers until I grew way bigger last summer. “It was, like, a moaning sound.”
“Sounded like crying,” Brock says.
I pull a screwdriver from my tool belt and start checking the tension on each screw. If they’re too tight, they could crack the plywood under the extra pressure from people banging on the outside to get in. “You should pretend to be sick for tryouts.”
“Kelly will know,” Tommy says. “She has, like, psychic mom powers.”
“Kelly knows all,” Brock says.
Tommy fishes out a Gatorade from the cooler. “But it’s fine, because I won’t, like, make the team. I’ll get cut on the first day of tryouts. And Pete will be saved.”
“Pete wants to eat you,” Brock says. “He tried once and he’s going to try again. Let her sell him.”
“That was a misunderstanding,” Tommy says. “Pete was confused. He thought my hand was a mouse.”
“I think to Pete, we’re all mice,” I say. “He’s a python.”
“No. You guys.” Tommy shakes his head. “Pete is cool.”
“There is a predator living in your house and he is coming for you,” Brock says.
The alarm on my watch goes off. It’s one of those big bulky ones with all the buttons you see Navy Seals wear on TV. The doomsday blog I follow, Apocalypse Soon!, gave it ten out of ten mushroom clouds.
“I will push the earth out of orbit,” I say, taking off my tool belt. “Witness me.”
I toss my watch to Brock and he counts down, “Three, two, one . . . destroy gravity.”
I drop to the grass and crank out thirty pushups before my arms start to burn. At forty, I slow down. Five more and my shoulders are screaming. I close my eyes and do smaller sets of two and three. My muscles are lead but I keep pushing. Blood pounds in my ears and the sun blazes on me like the fire that will spew out of the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park on September 21.
“Time,” Brocks says.
I collapse onto the spikey grass. “How many?”
“Sixty-five,” Tommy says. “New record.”
I jump up and beat my chest with dead arms. Six months ago I couldn’t do twenty pushups in a day, and now I’m closing in on seventy in two minutes.
I’m getting stronger. I will be ready.
Brock throws my watch back. “My mom wants me to play football,” he says. “I heard her talking to my dad about it. They think if I don’t exercise, I will become part of the couch.” He slow tracks a fly in the air but lets it go. Brock is deadly, but he can also show mercy.
“Wanna go out for soccer with me?” Tommy asks him. “We could get cut together.”
“I have Hall Monitor training after school.”
“They have training for that?” I ask.
“One of the many changes I suggested as Hall Monitor in Chief.”
“Dee.” Tommy comes over and gets real close again. He waits a few seconds and then says, “You wanna do it? It would be like when we did tee-ball but just ate sunflower seeds on the bench.”
I look at the shed and think of all the stuff I have to do still: Hang the rest of the plywood. Order the gas masks. Mainly it’s the rolling steel door I’m worried about. That thing was supposed to come two weeks ago, but there was a shipping mess-up.
“Can’t. You know—the apocalypse.”
He sneezes five times. “Yeah.”
We look two backyards over and see my neighbor Misty walking toward a tree with a paper target on it. She digs around in the grass and picks up a hatchet, then walks back to her spot. Throws again.
It bounces off the tree way above the target.
“What,” Brock says, “in the crap.”
“At least she’s hitting the tree now,” I say. “She’s been out there for a week.”
“I thought she was sick,” Tommy says. “She missed most of school last year.”
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
We watch Misty take off her Phillies hat and fix her ponytail. She goes through a bunch of weird stretches, really taking her time lining up the shot.
“She doesn’t look sick,” Brock says. “She looks ready to hatchet murder that tree.”
“I think it was cancer,” Tommy says.
“No,” I say. “It was something else. My sister knows her sister and she told me, but I forget.”
Misty lets it fly, and the hatchet sails through the air perfectly, like in a movie.
It sticks dead center in the target.
“Whoa,” Tommy says.
Misty shrieks and runs to the tree. She’s jumping around and celebrating. Now she sees us and shouts, “Did you see that? Please tell me you saw that!”
Brock gives her a thumbs-up. “Nice.”
“Ohmygosh!” Misty shouts, and it’s all joy and she’s got this smile like the sun. She screams again.
Her mom whips open the sliding glass door and runs out onto their deck yelling, “Mercedes! What’s wrong?”
“Look at this!” Misty points to the tree. “Can you believe this? Bull’s. Eye!”
Her mom looks at us. Tommy waves.
“Look at it!”
Brock stands up and says, “Mrs. Knoll: We will all testify to that bull’s-eye.”
Her mom makes a face like I am sort of embarrassed and also confusedand goes back inside.
“Yes!” Misty shrieks. She puts the hatchet and paper target in one of those red wagons little kids get hauled around in. She pulls it across her yard and points at us, shouting, “Amazing!”
“That girl is, like, off,” Tommy says.
She walks between her house and the Mitchells’, the people next to me. The wagon rolls pretty good on the grass, like it could carry something way heavier and not be a problem.
“Yeah, she’s weird,” I say.
“But she has hatchet skills,” Brock says. He claps his hands above his head and shows us the dragonfly he just executed. “That’s a good person to have around.”
My sister, Claudia, drops the laundry basket onto the family room floor to make sure I hear her. “For someone who’s so good at putting stuff together, you really stink at keeping your room from falling apart. Something literally died in there. You need to clean it before school starts tomorrow.”
“And seriously—take off your work boots when you’re in the house. I’ve said that like a million times.”
I’m at the kitchen island, inhaling Cheez-Its and scrolling through Amazon’s list of gas masks. Some guys on Apocalypse Soon! say the ACME Israeli mask is the best, but there’s another bunch of guys who say this other one is better.
“Okay,” I say.
“Dee, I’m serious.”
“Clean my room. Got it.”
“And work boots.”
Claudia lets out this big sigh and starts folding laundry on the couch. “I don’t ask you to do anything around here. All I’m asking is that you clean your stupid room. I’m the one sorting through trash and underwear so you have clothes to wear.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just clean your room.”
“Okay.” I click on the Israeli gas mask and read the reviews. All five stars. Some guy said he tested it by setting off a smoke bomb in his woodshed and the mask totally worked. “I need Dad’s credit card.”
Claudia gives me a face like Derrick, you are crazy.
“I have the cash to pay him from all the decks I fixed this summer,” I say. “I just need the card to buy it. He takes it out of my savings account.”
“Clean your room and I’ll give it to you,” she says.
“Give it to me and I’ll clean my room.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Are you sure?”
“Derrick.” Sounds like she’s clenching her teeth. “I’m not giving it to you until you clean your room.”
I shove some more Cheez-Its in my mouth. “I’ll just get it from him when he comes home.”
Last time we fought like this, she didn’t do my laundry for a month.
I take off my work boots and put them in the garage. I join her on the couch and we fold for a while. She keeps refolding the ones I’ve already done.
“Why are you doing that?” I ask.
“You didn’t do it right.” She holds up my T-shirt and starts folding it again. “This is how She did it.”
I give up and just sit there. I can see the shed through the family room window and picture which bin I’ll put the gas masks in when they get here. And what’s the deal with my steel door? What if it doesn’t get here in time? My hands start to do this buzzing thing, so I make really tight fists and then let go like Dr. Mike taught me.
“Dee,” Claudia finally says, “this is a big year, okay? I’ve got college applications due next month, AP classes, and all the stuff going on here. I can’t battle with you like this.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Plus all your boyfriends.”
“Did you just make a joke?”
“I can be funny. People say I’m hilarious.”
“You used to be,” she says, sort of quiet.
I need to get the heck out of here. “I’ll go clean my room.”
It takes me an hour of putting stuff away until I can see the floor. The thing that smelled like death was a cereal bowl with milk still in it. Claudia drops my laundry basket off and puts the credit card on top. Truce.
After I order the masks, I grab the super-thick Survival Guide Handbook: A Guide for When Help Is Not on the Way and head out to the shed. I lie on the cot and reread the section on basic medical supplies, checking it against the list that’s hanging on the wall near my med kit. My hands start buzzing again when I can’t find the fish amoxicillin I got off eBay, but then I see it in the corner of the bag, and it goes away. Dr. Mike, this professional head examiner I used to see, said stress can make your body do weird stuff, and that if I start to feel dizzy I should just relax and breathe through my nose. But that’s stupid because if I’m getting dizzy I’m gonna be totally freaking out and gulping air as fast as I can so that I don’t pass out from all the stress that’s making me dizzy.
I go out and move two cinder blocks to the other side of the shed. I drag a piece of plywood around and put it on the cinder blocks so the top lines up just under the roof. Once I check to make sure it’s straight, I put four screws on each edge. I do the same on the back side with my last piece of plywood, but the ground is tilted, so it takes me longer to get it level.
It’s just getting dark when my dad’s truck pulls in. His headlights swing across the yard and shine on me and the shed for a few seconds before he cuts the ignition. He’s on his phone because construction bosses are always on their phones. He waves to me on his way inside and I sort of wave back.
I put my tools inside the shed and do another inventory because double-checking = survival. The opposite wall is a year’s supply of MREs—meals ready to eat—which is basically dehydrated food that army guys eat when they’re at war. My water cases take up the corners nearest the door. If I have to ration them, I could probably last a year and a half in here. In another corner are some crates with my medical equipment, batteries, and backup flashlights, and four hazmat suits (plus another one inside the go bag in my bedroom). Just missing those gas masks.
And that rolling steel door.
My phone buzzes. It’s Tommy texting Hey Brock is here come over. I start typing and then delete it. He says U coming? and I stare at the screen until it goes dark, pretty much like the world is going to go dark. The End is coming and my friends don’t care.
I lie down on the cot and close my eyes. The movie in my head starts like somebody hit a giant play button.
I’m in a desert with mountains all around. It’s not hot, which is weird, because this is a desert, and the sky is blue. No clouds. I’m standing on a dirt road and now it’s rumbling under my feet, like an earthquake. Now lava is spewing out the mountaintops and running hard down the slopes and everything is on fire. The buzzing in my hands creeps up my arms to my face, like fire ants aiming for my brain. I grab the cot frame because the shed is spinning and try to breathe through my nose. Dr. Mike said I’m really good at tricking my body into thinking there’s an emergency by obsessing about The End and that if I stop doing that, I won’t have as many freak-outs.
But I won’t stop because it’s not a trick. There will be an emergency on September 21. Probably a million different emergencies all connected to The Big One.
I roll to the floor and push the earth. Instead of counting, I run through the basic first aid. The buzzing goes away, but my face feels so hot and there’s tons of sweat. I crank out another twenty pushups before collapsing.
I lie with my back against the floorboards. My head rolls to the side and I see this dark knot of wood sticking out from behind a food bin. I stare at it for a while and wonder why some idiot shed maker guy didn’t use a clean piece of wood. I look up at the hanging LED light until my eyes water, then I close the place down and walk outside.
Misty comes out of nowhere wearing a bike helmet. Everything smells like sunscreen.
“Hey,” I say.
“Sorry I scared you.”
“Do you have a bike pump?”
Misty mimes pumping up a tire with both arms. “Bike pump.”
“Can I borrow it?”
I walk around to the garage and open it. Is she going to the beach? Smells like it. I dig out the pump from behind a snow shovel and give it to her.
“Awesome,” she says.
“You shouldn’t ride bikes at night. You could get hit by a car.”
“Yeah.” She looks at me for a second. “You okay?”
“You’re all sweaty and breathing hard.”
I wipe my face with my sleeve. “I was doing pushups.”
She looks at the shed, then back at me. Messes with the bike pump a little. “You see that bull’s-eye?”
“Yeah,” I say, and she smiles. It takes up her whole face and I’m smiling too, and it’s not that awkward. There’s this weird feeling like we’ve done this before.
And then she walks back to her house.