Sunday Pages: "House of the Rising Sun"
An excerpt from the novel by Richard Cox
|Greg Olear||Jul 26, 2020||14||1|
Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.
Those five words—which until this week were likely never uttered in that order, and certainly never repeated so many times, in the history of human language—might be a new indie album, a story collection by Miranda July, an improv comedy series on some lesser streaming service, alternative lyrics to a Phish song, or…
I know that it’s existentially terrifying that the guy with said nuclear launch code spent half an hour on prime-time television patting himself on the back (with his freakishly small hands) for properly ID’ing an elephant. But after a certain point, we have to laugh at the absurdity. We need the release.
This week’s “Sunday Pages” is an excerpt from the new sci-fi-ish novel by my friend Richard Cox—who, I’m confident in declaring, is the best golfer among all novelists living or dead. He’s also a great guy and a damned good writer. For his new book—written, it must be said, pre-pandemic—Richard looked at the United States in the Age of Trump and thought, “How could this be even worse? I know! An electromagnetic pulse wipes out all modern technology! Ready, set, go!” (Although, in his defense, an EMP would also mean no more Trump tweets, Fox News, or coverage of Kanye West’s “presidential campaign,” so…silver lining.)
Here’s what Richard told me about House of the Rising Sun, which drops on Tuesday:
Thematically the story is an allegory of his election and the aftermath...a supernova wipes out all modern technology, leaving individual Americans to fend for themselves. Society quickly breaks down and divides itself into small groups, some of whom are hateful and racist. Trump is only mentioned by name a couple of times but the undercurrent of the novel is meant to feel a lot like the country feels amid his lack of leadership and general divisiveness.
In this excerpt, Thomas, a screenwriter and the main protagonist, has just picked up a famous actress (Skylar Stover) who is attached to his next project. The EMP happens while they're leaving the airport, and while Thomas is on the phone with a man (Seth) who is about to commit suicide…
When you read the excerpt, you will want to know what happens next…
“Dude,” Seth said in a weak voice, “I told you everything you need to know. Can’t you just let me be done with it?”
“Don’t do it!” shouted Thomas, surprised at the sudden empathy he felt for this man he’d never met. “I can help you. You don’t need to do this.”
“Help me with what?”
“With money! With whatever you need.”
“If this is about money,” Skylar offered loudly, “I’ll help, too.”
“Who is that?” grunted Seth. He sounded lethargic, like he’d woken from a deep sleep.
“We just want to help you. You don’t need insurance. You don’t—”
“It doesn’t matter. Even if you paid every last dime of my debt, I still have to live with what I’ve done. And I can’t. I won’t. It’s too late.”
“It’s never too late, Seth. Let me help you.”
“Just come here when it’s over. Please.”
“Promise me, man. Promise me you’ll come here and take care of my family. Please.”
Seth was crying. His voice was hoarse, and he coughed as if his lungs were failing him.
“Please, man. Promise me.”
“I promise, Seth. Just stop and I’ll do whatever you want.”
Now there was no answer.
Thomas pressed the phone to his ear, trying to dampen the sound of the wind, but it was no use. Eventually he looked at the display again and saw it was dark. He swiped and tapped the screen, but nothing happened.
“Thomas, look out!”
He glanced up and saw he was about to rear-end a white Ford sedan that was either slowing down or stopped. He quickly checked his mirrors and veered into an adjacent lane. Jammed his hand on the horn.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he yelled involuntarily. “This is a highway!”
He looked back at the road and saw they were rapidly gaining on a black pickup truck rolling on four enormous tires. Thomas changed lanes, sliding just past the truck and the noise of its monster tread.
“What the hell is going on?” he yelled.
“I don’t know, but something is weird. All the cars are slowing down. Look over there. It’s the same thing on both sides of the road.”
Skylar was right. Everyone was slowing down, but no one seemed to be using their brakes. Well, wait. In the far-right lane, about fifty yards ahead of them, a small car came to a screeching stop and Thomas heard the dull thunk of bumper-to-bumper contact.
“He totally hit that truck!” Sky yelled. “Why is everyone stopping?”
Thomas had slowed down and was switching lanes almost continuously as vehicles around him came to rest. When he looked briefly at Skylar, he saw something in the sky above her, something so odd and unexpected that he could hardly make sense of it.
People were beginning to climb out of their vehicles. Others stood in the road, gawking at the sky. Thomas moved toward the inner shoulder, trying to divine a clear path, but other drivers were having the same idea. Ahead, a woman stood beside a giant Lexus SUV and gestured to him.
“Skylar,” he said. “Look in the sky on your right.”
Thomas was rapidly approaching the woman on the shoulder. She was tall and thin, wearing a yellow sundress and flip flops. Maybe thirty-five years old.
“What is that?” Sky asked.
“Looks like a star, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah...except you don’t usually see stars during the day.”
They reached the woman in the sundress. She approached the driver’s side door. Her face was drained of color.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know what’s happened?”
“I’m not sure. But I would guess it had something to do with that.”
Thomas gestured toward the new point of light in the sky, which was twenty or so degrees above the horizon, brilliant and white. It was bigger and brighter than any nighttime star but much smaller than the sun, which was almost directly above it. In different circumstances, like if he had been on his back porch, looking at it over the lake, the new star might have been the most amazing thing Thomas had ever seen. Instead, Natalie’s husband was trying to kill himself and the airport freeway was a war zone and the whole world seemed to have lost its mind. No vehicle was operational except his and people were noticing. Especially because, aside from the rumble of his engine exhaust, the airport was quiet. Eerily quiet. Nothing else mechanical was running.
The woman’s face was slack, her mouth wide open. She seemed to be holding back tears. Next to him, Skylar whispered words he couldn’t hear.
Something was terribly wrong about the silence. It was never quiet on this road, ever, not even in the middle of the night, because D/FW was one of the busiest airports in the world. The sound of jet engines and traffic was so ubiquitous you never even noticed it.
Until it wasn’t there at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the woman. “We have to go.”
Thomas inched his car forward. The woman’s eyes widened.
“Wait! Can you help me? I’m stuck here.”
Thomas kept driving, watching the stalled cars carefully. He picked up speed. Changed lanes often.
“Don’t you think we should have helped that woman?” Sky asked.
“Help her do what?”
“I don’t know. Get home. Something.”
“We only have so much room. We can’t take them all.”
Thomas realized why his car worked and the others didn’t. Honestly, he’d known it all along.
In his new screenplay, the one Skylar was here to discuss, he’d written about an apocalyptic event known as an electromagnetic pulse. The eponymous pulse in his story was the byproduct of a massive solar flare and had rendered useless every electronic device on Earth. The way this happened was technical in nature, but easy enough to summarize: Transistors and microchips and power transformers were fried by intense electromagnetic radiation, and anything that relied on them was rendered useless. Like for instance the entire power grid and just about every vehicle built since the 1970s.
His acquisition of the vintage Mustang, therefore, was no accident. He loved to drive it, but the reason Thomas had even considered a classic vehicle was because research for The Pulse had frightened him. In a world without power, without daily deliveries of food into large cities, chaos would erupt almost immediately, and a working car could mean the difference between life and death.
He’d never expected such an event to occur, at least not of the magnitude he’d written about in The Pulse, and maybe this was not that. Maybe the new object in the sky had generated a temporary disruption that would soon be over. But if the event was not temporary and the effect was anything like what he feared, it was imperative to push them as far away from the airport as possible.
But it was already too late. Thomas had driven maybe a hundred more yards when he heard it, the whining roar of a plane in uncontrolled descent. He looked in the direction of the sound just in time to see a sprawling, bubbling cloud of orange and black. The impact was maybe a half mile away. The shock wave arrived a moment later, louder than anything Thomas had ever heard, the sound so deep it hummed in his bones. Heat swirled around the car, a searing wind choked with the heavy smell of fuel.
Sky was crying. Screaming. People were climbing back into their cars. They were running away from the blast. Thomas drove as fast as he safely could, watching the fireball recede into the distance, but he knew they weren’t safe yet. How many planes circled the airport at any one time, waiting to land? Five? Ten? Fifty?
“Oh my God, Thomas. Oh my God. Is this because your car is old? Is that why it’s still running?”
“Should we stop?” he asked her. “Pick up someone? I could fit a couple of people in the back seat.”
“I don’t know! Maybe? I don’t know!”
Thomas reached into her lap and used his free hand to grab hers.
“Skylar, I’ll get us out of here. It’ll be okay. Trust me. I’ll get us to a safe—”
Before he could finish, another plane hit, just as close, somewhere behind them. The reflection of the fireball covered the entire surface of his rearview mirror. The heat was a hand that pushed them roughly forward. The air itself seemed to be on fire, shimmering and bubbling in front of him. Thomas kept driving. He tried to keep his eyes on the road, ignore the fireball, but it was impossible not to look at it.
The plane had landed on the highway in roughly the same spot where he’d spoken to the woman with the SUV. The woman who was dead now.
Skylar was still screaming.
“Don’t stop! I’m sorry but if we stop we might die!”
Thomas drove faster. People were fleeing on foot. They veered into the grassy median and were running north, away from the airport. They were children, mothers, teenagers in football jerseys. Thomas saw a man in an expensive-looking suit slip and fall headfirst, spilling the contents of his briefcase into the grass. Incredibly, the man stopped to gather scattering sheets of paper as people streamed around him. Thomas felt an instinctive need to pull over and help someone, like maybe the elderly couple that was struggling to make progress in the crowded median. But he couldn’t stop now. The car would be swarmed by helpless people trying to flee the airport. If he stopped here, they’d never get going again.
A few seconds later, another plane hit, farther away. Then another one, closer again, a massive explosion that dwarfed all previous impacts.
“Oh my God, Thomas! Oh my God!”
“I think that one hit the terminal. Imagine all the planes parked there, the fuel trucks...”
“Can we get to your house? Is that where you’re headed?”
“Yes. I think we can make it there. As long as the roads aren’t blocked.”
“Thomas,” Sky finally said. “This...this is just like your screenplay, isn’t it? Your car is still running because there aren’t any computers in it.”
He nodded. “The pulse must have come from that thing in the sky. I’m not sure but I think it might be a supernova. I read about them during my research, but they don’t happen very often. Everyone assumed if an EMP got us it would be a solar flare or a nuclear strike.”
“So that means everything is off? Power. Cars. Phones. The Internet.”
“Hopefully not. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think.”
Another plane hit then, this one to their southeast, a couple of miles away. Within seconds, a giant plume of smoke rose above the tree line, and now the entire southern sky behind them was apocalyptic. The horizon itself seemed consumed by fire.
“It looks pretty bad, Thomas.”
Richard Cox is the author of five novels. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his wife and two daughters. In his spare time he likes to hit bombs.