Bernie could see the storm on the horizon — a hundred-foot-tall camel-colored mass of dust billowing in the air. The undulating cloud of ether and matter was moving swiftly across the barren dirt field, scooping up anything and everything in its wake.
She was driving west from Albuquerque — or, rather, her car was driving. It was an electric blue Chevy Bolt from the early 2020s, and its automation was spotty to say the least. It knew how to get her from Interstate 25 to 500 to 45, but after that, the GPS didn’t know where to go. It kept trying to get her to turn around and head back toward civilization in its calm computer voice, but Bernie was determined.
She had the nav system set to “home,” although she hadn’t actually lived there in almost three years. The house was situated out past the old Pajarito Mesa, which had recently had its dirt roads paved and its haphazard grid of trailer homes replaced by sprawling developments.
The sky was a hazy, smoggy brown — evidence of the massive dust storm she was driving into. There seemed to be no one else on the road. It was just Bernie and fifteen miles of desert.
She looked back at the paper in her hands — a ten-page piece of garbage she’d handed in to her American Environmental Perspectives professor almost a month ago.
An enormous show-stopping letter D was scrawled across the top of the page, and the rest of the essay was annotated with evidence of Wahnburg’s professional frustration. The assignment had been to compare and contrast the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s to the sustainability movement of the 2010s and ’20s.
Bernie remembered the contents of her paper like a late-night drunken quest for waffle fries, but she noticed a lot of extra red around the paragraph where she’d called the tiny-house dwellers a bunch of self-righteous, sniveling boobs.
Wahnburg was lucky, really. Bernie hadn’t handed in anything since. She hated summer coursework, especially since she was only doing it to make up for the classes she’d dropped the previous semester.
Suddenly the car decelerated, and Bernie looked up. She was startled to see how bad visibility had become. It was pea soup out there, but instead of fog, she was driving through a gritty cloud of swirling gunk. The vehicle’s range finder wasn’t working as it should, and the little light on the dashboard was flashing to tell her to take over.
Bernie groaned and touched the gas. It always came back to the human. Even when the technology was supposed to be so good that it could eliminate the need for thought or action, it was still the human’s responsibility not to die.
Bernie squinted through the thick veil of dirt. She couldn’t tell whether she’d missed her turn or not. She couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of her. She glanced back down at her paper.
Wahnburg seemed to have given up around page five. He’d just written “Supporting evidence???”
She didn’t think she’d ever seen a PhD use the triple question mark. It must have really been that bad.
Part of Bernie still couldn’t believe she’d been so careless. She should have aced Wahnburg’s class. She lived for this stuff. She could talk about it for days, but she just didn’t give a shit. That was the problem.
On the final page, Wahnburg had written a lengthy summary of his disapproval in cramped, uneven handwriting. She hadn’t even turned in the last paper for his class. He probably thought she’d dropped it.
Just then, Bernie felt the automation kick back in, and she released the wheel.
Where did he get off judging her? Her shrink didn’t even think she should be in school. She’d suggested that Bernie take a semester off to “process,” as she’d put it, but Bernie wasn’t a complete nutcase. She could handle a few filler classes, just as she could handle cleaning out her mother’s house.
She didn’t need her asshole Aunt Stacey horning in on things. The last thing Bernie wanted was a never-ending string of invites to Stacey’s psycho fundi-Christian church while Stacy sighed and shook her head at her sister’s heathen ways and threw out all of her art.
Suddenly it felt as though someone had slammed on the brakes, and Bernie felt the edge of the seat belt slice into her neck. She looked up just in time to see a pair of brake lights disappearing around a bend before her instincts took over and she jerked the wheel hard to the right.
The car skidded off the pavement and onto the shoulder, and Bernie’s heart flew into her throat.
The green pickup in front of her hadn’t braked fast enough. It slammed head-on into an earlier-model Subaru with a marathon decal in the window. The sound was like nothing Bernie had ever heard before — a shuddering blast of metal on metal that neither driver had seen coming.
Bernie fought to keep the car on the shoulder as she skidded to a halt. She jerked forward as the brakes brought the car to a stop, and Bernie gasped for air.
She couldn’t see anything. She and the truck had kicked up a fresh deluge of dust, blocking the glow of the vehicle’s taillights.
Bernie put the car in park, still trying to calm her racing heart. She opened the door a few inches and was instantly greeted by a spew of dirt and dust. She gasped and closed it again, pulling the neck of her T-shirt up and over her airways.
She took a deep breath and tried again. The wind was howling so hard that it was almost impossible to open her door wide enough to squeeze through. Her eyes stung from the dust, and she had the immediate urge to get back in the car. Instead, Bernie tucked her chin low and slammed the car door closed.
Coughing and choking, she hunched her shoulders against the wind and stumbled toward the other two cars. They were mostly obscured by the dust and smoke, but she could make out the white of an airbag pressed up against the Subaru’s windshield.
The front of the station wagon was completely bashed in. The truck had fared better than the Subaru, but its front bumper was hanging by a thread, and there was a grisly smear of blood across the windshield.
Just then, the driver’s side door banged open, and a man stumbled out. He was dressed in a pair of dusty Levi’s and a bright-orange T-shirt. He had a massive gash over his eyebrow, and blood was streaming down his face like a horror movie. He was probably in his late thirties.
“Are — Are you okay?” Bernie choked.
The man didn’t answer. He staggered toward the Subaru as if he was going to help the driver, but his legs seemed to be moving without consulting his brain. He put a hand to his bleeding head, stumbled over to the shoulder, and collapsed.
Bernie pushed her way through the wind toward the driver’s side of the station wagon. The glass was grimy and covered in dust, but behind the airbag, Bernie could see a woman slumped over the wheel. She was probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She had dark curly hair and olive skin, and her eyes were drooped and dazed.
Bernie tugged on the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Unlock the door!” Bernie yelled through the glass.
The woman turned to look at her in a daze. She blinked slowly and deliberately, but she couldn’t seem to lift her head
Blinking dust out of her eyes, Bernie sprinted around to the other side of the car and tried the passenger-side door. It was locked, too.
Bernie circled around to try the back, and then she saw something that made her stomach turn over. There was a toddler in the back seat — a little boy with blond hair, no more than three or four years old. His face was red and stretched in a cry, but Bernie couldn’t hear him over the howl of the wind.
“Help me!” she yelled at the man from the truck, who was still slumped in the ditch, clutching his head.
Bernie ran back to her car and touched her Eey, which was still clipped to the holster on her dashboard. The little green light on the front of the device lit up, and her home screen projected onto her windshield.
“Call nine-one-one,” said Bernie, glancing over at the Subaru.
The swirling icon appeared on-screen, and a moment later, a dispatcher’s face appeared. “Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
“I need help!” yelled Bernie. “There was a dust storm on Southwest Pajarito Road. There was an accident. People are hurt. I need an ambulance.”
The dispatcher started to ask Bernie something else, but when she glanced through her window, her heart leapt into her throat.
Noxious black smoke was billowing out from under the hood of the Subaru. The woman hadn’t moved an inch, and she and her son were still trapped inside.
“I gotta go,” Bernie yelled at the device, slamming the car door and sprinting back toward the vehicle.
The man from the truck was slowly getting to his feet, but he was too dazed and uncoordinated to be of any use. By now the woman inside seemed to have returned to her senses. She was fumbling with her seat belt, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Shit!” yelled Bernie, trying the door again before remembering that it was locked.
The woman’s hands were shaking, and her expression was growing more and more strained. Her son was still bawling in the back seat, and she was beginning to panic.
Looking around desperately, Bernie saw a large jagged rock lying along the side of the road. It was only a few yards away, and it looked heavy enough to break glass.
Holding her shirt over her mouth, she pushed through the wind, snatched it up, and ran over to the passenger side of the vehicle. Summoning all her strength, she raised the rock to shoulder height and hurled it into the window.
It bounced off with a thunk, and Bernie leapt out of the way to keep her foot from being crushed. She had started a crack in the window near the door frame and sliced her own palm, but the window remained mostly intact.
Bernie hissed and picked up the rock. She threw it at the vehicle with a desperate howl, and this time, the window shattered.
Bernie was so shocked that she didn’t immediately know what to do. She could hear the boy screaming from the back, and the woman was sobbing hysterically. A whiff of burnt plastic hit Bernie’s nostrils, and she could feel heat radiating from the dashboard.
Returning to her senses, Bernie thrust a hand inside the car to hit the unlock button on the door. The man from the truck appeared on the other side and yanked the driver’s side door wide open.
The howling of the wind seemed to intensify, and visibility went from bad to worse. The man pulled a knife out of his belt and began to saw at the woman’s seat belt while Bernie reached into the back seat to extricate her son.
The little boy was terrified. His face had turned beet red, and the dimple under his nose was shining with snot. When the stream of dust blew into the back seat, he howled even louder.
“Shh. It’s okay,” Bernie crooned, scrunching herself into the back to release his booster seat. “It’s okay. I gotcha.”
But Bernie didn’t have him. Dust was flying through the air and forcing its way down her throat. Her T-shirt had fallen down past her chin, so she no longer had any protection from the whirlwind of dirt and grit. It stung her eyes and lodged itself in her nostrils, making it difficult to see or even breathe.
The woman was screaming and fighting the man, who was lifting her bodily out of the vehicle. She kept calling for Noah, who Bernie guessed was her son, and trying to climb over the seat to get him.
“I’ve got him!” Bernie yelled. But her words were lost in the rush of the wind and the woman’s desperate screams.
Finally, the man gave a tug and wrenched the mother out of her vehicle. He tossed Bernie his knife, and she went to work blindingly sawing at the boy’s restraints.
It was harder than it looked. The seat belt was slick and smooth, and the blade skittered right over the edge. At one point Bernie sliced the edge of her own hand, but she just kept going until the belt began to fray.
With an almighty tug, she yanked the belt away from the boy and lifted him out of his booster seat. It was harder than she’d thought it would be. He was kicking and flailing as though he were having a fit, which made him seem twice as heavy.
Bernie grabbed a jacket off of the floorboard and tossed it over his snot-soaked face. At least that would keep some of the dust out of his airways. He screamed louder and aimed a kick at her thigh, but Bernie gritted her teeth and hoisted him onto her hip.
She bent her head against the wind and walked back toward her car with the boy in tow. The woman was still fighting tooth and nail to return to the vehicle, but the man had managed to subdue her behind Bernie’s car. It was blocking the wind and some of the dust, but it was still nearly impossible to see.
Bernie staggered over to them, and the woman reached out her shaking, bloody hands. Bernie scooted closer to hand over the boy, but then a deafening bang! shook the ground all around them.
A surge of heat erupted behind her, and Bernie threw herself to the ground, covering the boy with her torso. He let out a high-pitched scream, and Bernie realized that she was crushing him. Better crushed than dead, she thought.
Bernie could feel the heat radiating from the vehicle, and a second later, the woman broke into an even stronger fit of sobs.
The man held her as she lost her mind, and Bernie pried the car door open and set the boy inside. He was bawling and screaming for his mother, so Bernie tried to soothe him as she checked him over for injuries.
Apart from some scratches and the trauma of it all, he seemed okay. The storm was dying down a bit, and Bernie could see the woman’s car being engulfed by flames. They stuttered and blurred in the wind, and Bernie stopped her brief examination to stare out at the wreckage.
The fire had originated somewhere under the hood, but it had already spread to the interior of the vehicle. The front of the car was charred and blackened by smoke. Flames were dancing in the wind a good four feet tall, and Bernie could see the glow of fire in the front wheel well and spilling out of the crumbling front bumper.
Within minutes, the entire vehicle was engulfed in a cloud of toxic smoke. It merged with the haze of dirt and debris howling across the road, the light of the fire bending and glowing around the dust particles as they whizzed through the air.
A moment later, Bernie’s other back door opened, and the woman launched herself at her son in a tidal wave of joy. She snatched him up in a mess of tears and smoke, and Bernie saw — rather than heard — the glow of sirens rushing through the storm.
The hour that followed was a complete daze. Once the woman, her son, and the man from the pickup had been loaded into an ambulance, the police turned their attention to Bernie.
She answered their questions with numb detachment, all the while watching the flames lap at the Subaru. She didn’t know whose fault the wreck was. The Subaru had come out of nowhere. No, she hadn’t seen the truck cross the double line, though maybe it had. Then again, maybe it had been the Subaru. She hadn’t seen it until the crash. They had been coming around a bend, and the dust had been thick.
The third time the officer asked her to describe the truck’s course as it rounded the corner, Bernie tore her eyes away from the fire. “Can I go?” she asked, glancing from the name embroidered on the front of his uniform to his twitchy upper lip.
He sighed. “I think we have everything we need. Will you be reachable at this number if I have any more questions?”
“Sure,” said Bernie. She hadn’t meant for her voice to come out so flat and uncaring, but she was exhausted. She hadn’t slept through the night in nearly six months, and lately things had gotten even worse. She’d been fending off a series of nightmares about her mother, and she doubted that she’d slept more than two hours the night before.
Climbing into her dusty front seat, Bernie bumped up onto the road and touched her foot to the accelerator. Even though it had saved her life, she didn’t trust the automation. She left her paper on the passenger-side floorboard but glanced up every so often to see the dying flames disappearing in her rearview mirror.
The dust storm had passed, leaving a dim bluish fog in its wake. She didn’t think she’d seen a pure blue sky out on the mesa in years. The arid conditions and unusually strong winds brought dust, which mixed with smog from the city and pollution from the oil refinery to create a near constant haze.
As she drew near the house, the tall black stacks appeared on the horizon like futuristic death soldiers spewing smoke and fire. The refinery hadn’t been there when Bernie’s mother had bought the house, but it had been a constant presence in their lives for nearly eight years.
The first thing she saw when she pulled up to the house was that the antique barrel by the mailbox was empty. Normally it was overflowing with flowers of every color — daffodils and tulips in the spring, and Indian paintbrush, sunflowers, and blackfoot daisies in the summer. Bernie hadn’t planted any flowers that year, and all that was left was a layer of bone-dry dirt.
Their property, which included the small adobe house, their collapsing garden shed, and her mother’s studio, was hemmed in by a tree-stick fence. The driveway was overgrown, crowded on both sides by an array of wildflowers that neither Bernie nor her mother had had any desire to control. Yarrow, thistle, Texas toadflax, and arnica burst out of the overgrown grass around the perimeter, stopping only in the shadow of the plum trees and the towering spruce beside the house.
The teal paint around the door was peeling, and the plastic lawn chairs were caked in dirt, but apart from that, the house hadn’t changed since Bernie was a teenager. Grabbing the heap of envelopes out of the mailbox, she jammed her key into the lock and jiggled the handle until the door opened.
Instantly, the familiar scent of lilac perfume, linseed oil, and lavender soap reached her nostrils. It hit her with such crushing comfort and familiarity that she nearly forgot that her mother wasn’t there. She half expected her to come waltzing in through the back door in her splotched denim shirt, wiping paint off her fingers with a dirty rag.
Sun was pouring in through the windows and soaking into the marigold walls, which instantly brightened Bernie’s spirit. The kitchen still had its original earthen floor, and the cupboards were a mishmash of the creaky custom cabinets her mother’s handyman boyfriend had installed and a more modern IKEA set that she had painted over in turquoise.
Bernie jabbed the radio out of habit, and immediately the house was filled with the familiar liberal chatter of the university station.
“. . . The disastrous drought has pushed the state’s almond farmers to the brink of extinction. California commissioner of agriculture says almonds won’t be the only crops that face a dire shortage this year. Walnuts, avocados, tomatoes, rice, and alfalfa yields have hit record lows for the past five years, and Governor Katelyn Richards says federal subsidies that encourage farmers to plant the most water-intensive crops are partially to blame.”
Bernie was hungry. She dropped the stack of mail onto the counter and numbly rifled through it. Bills, bills, and more bills. Most of them were overdue, so Bernie divided them into three piles: medical bills, house bills, and credit-card bills. She’d pay the house bills and put off everything else.
“. . . The Bernalillo County Commission granted approval for the controversial Deptford development, a mammoth fifty-thousand-person community, which would jeopardize the region’s already depleted water supply. Investors say —”
One of the medical groups and a credit-card company were trying to collect from her mother’s estate, but Bernie needed her mother’s teacher retirement to pay the mortgage. She’d already sold the old Volkswagen Golf, but that had only brought in enough to cover the property taxes and the payments that were already overdue.
“. . . Congress is discussing new measures for managing the already depleted Colorado River, an issue that has been pushed to the back burner for the past several months as the Senate prepares to vote on its version of the economic stimulus package . . .”
Eventually, she’d have to sell the house. There was no other way around it. She had student-loan debt of her own, and her pathetic job in the dining hall barely made a dent in the house payments. She could get another job, but that would mean taking fewer hours the following semester and dragging out the amount of time it would take for her to graduate and begin earning real money.
Frustrated, Bernie rummaged around in the cupboard and came out with a dented can of chicken soup. It was ninety degrees outside, but there wasn’t much left. She grabbed the copper pot hanging over the stove and dumped the contents of the can inside.
“ . . . Chairman and CEO Brian Bodetski says that Adobe Petro has commissioned an independent study to investigate allegations of toxic wastewater dumping. Bodetski says the company is committed to the health and sustainability of the community . . .”
Bernie gripped the counter so hard that her knuckles turned white. She could see the oil stacks from the kitchen window, mocking her from afar. They belonged to Adobe Petro, the same oil company that had killed her mother.
For years, environmental groups had been accusing Adobe Petro of gross violations of the Clean Water Act. The previous year, the EPA had fined the company sixteen million dollars for injecting toxic wastewater into deep underground wells, which had contaminated the aquifer that supplied their drinking water.
The company was facing multiple class-action lawsuits, but it wasn’t enough. Bernie was convinced that Adobe Petro had been at it for years. They were the reason her mother had gotten sick. They were the reason she was dead, and no amount of PR, independent studies, or settlements could bring her back.
A moment later, the soup began to simmer. She could feel the damp heat of steam against her hand and smell . . . something that wasn’t soup.
She sniffed again. Something was burning. She looked down, and her heart skipped a beat. The chili-pepper dish towel sitting beside the stove was starting to smolder. The edge had caught fire, and the flames were quickly spreading up the cheerful pattern of red and green chilies.
Bernie yanked the towel out from under the burner and tossed it into the sink. She flipped on the tap and watched the water pour out to douse the flames. She breathed a sigh of relief and turned down the heat, staring at the black patch of singed fabric.
The dish towel was ruined — no doubt about it. A few more minutes, and the entire kitchen might have gone up in flames. Twice that day, she’d flirted with death. Fire had it out for her, and she was starting to think she might be better off avoiding it altogether.
Bernie leaned back against the counter, watching the blue flame lap at the bottom of the pot. There was so much destructive power in that little blue flame. No car, no house, no person was any match for it. It destroyed anything in its path.
It was simple. It was deadly. It was beautiful.