How it all started…

 

We were cold as hell.

It hadn’t always been like this, but it was hard to remember when we took things like heat and running water for granted. Oh, to go back to the days of Walmart, red lights, and smart phones!

At this point, we haven’t been in a car for months. There aren’t any that are left that still run. Funny thing, when I was fixing my customers computers, I used to tell them that they should prepare for a time when the grid would melt down, which I guess did happen. It just didn’t happen like I thought it would.

It was worse.

 

 The Beginning

I woke around 6 am on a normal Sunday in March. Since I hurt my neck I quit sleeping much anyway. Our dog Annie, a big yellow lab, was sound asleep on the old carpet that covered the wood flooring. She stirred as I closed the bedroom door and stood to follow me downstairs. The old girl didn’t move as quickly as she used to, probably bad hips. Someone told us all labs eventually have bad hips.

I grabbed the coffee from the cupboard and put water on the stove. I used to be quite the coffee chemist. Heat the water, grind the beans, soak the ground coffee in cold water, take the water off the stove at exactly 180 degrees, pour it on the coffee, let it steep –dang, what a stupid, wasteful process! It was the sort of useless crap that modern people did to convince themselves they were doing something useful.

Annie nudged my leg, and I gave her a soft pat on the head. She was not the world’s most intelligent animal, but she was loyal and that meant a lot to me.

The old house was cold. We kept the furnace set at a barely tolerable 65 degrees during the winter. Propane cost too much, so we got used to wearing long underwear and having cold feet. I slipped into my Merrill hiking shoes and jacket and walked outside with Annie to get the Sunday papers from the box that was out by the road.

A stiff wind blew from the northwest. Piles of snow lined the driveway, half melted but still resisting the certain coming of spring.  Annie sniffed around, looking for a dry spot to do her business. Mornings were always my favorite time of day out here. I could hear an occasional car or truck out on the state highway that was just a mile away across the fields. We had a few neighbors, people we barely knew but probably would have liked just fine if we’d taken the time.

I remember looking up at the sky that day and thinking that it was going be a typical, blustery late winter day.

March in Michigan can be a real bitch. Everyone is sick of winter, but March just hangs around for 31 nasty, windy days. Oh, a few years ago we had a warm spell – all of the trees budded early and then everything froze again and we had no fruit that year.

As I grabbed the newspaper from the box, I was wondering what Trix and I would find to do to occupy ourselves for the day. When it is dry we enjoy hiking and bicycling, but today we’d have to find something else to do instead. Maybe we’d go catch a movie in the afternoon.

Annie rumbled over to me and I picked up a stick and threw it across the yard. She seemed to smile as she ran to retrieve it and bring it back to me. My eyeglasses seemed dirty so I pulled them off and cleaned the lenses with a handkerchief that I kept in my jacket pocket.  For some reason the lenses were smeared, but I forgot about it for a moment and walked back inside. Annie would stay in the yard – we had an invisible fence to keep her from running off.

Back in the house, I ran some hot water on my eyeglasses to clean them. They just got more smeared.

What the heck? It was like I’d spilled some solvent on the lenses.  I can see okay without the glasses, but out beyond ten or fifteen feet things get fuzzy. I set the glasses down on the kitchen counter, poured myself a cup of coffee, and went out to the living room to read the newspaper.

Trix came downstairs a little later and put on a pot of oatmeal for breakfast. She wasn’t a coffee drinker, but she did enjoy a hot cup of tea in the morning. The microwave oven beeped when her water was hot and she came out to the living room. I handed her the parts of the paper I’d already read or didn’t want to read (mostly the ads), and said “Good morning.”

After all of these years we were beyond having to say much to each other. We’d been married for over 30 years but we still liked each other fine. Trix was an easy person to live with. She worked hard at her job as a midwife, but she really was most happy when working in her flower garden or out hiking in the backcountry with me. We had a couple of kids who were grown and living lives of their own. Our daughter and son-in-law (a power utilities technician), a 3 year-old grandson and newborn granddaughter lived about 35 miles away. Graham, our youngest, had just graduated from college and was getting started in his career as a food scientist in South Dakota. He frequently sent us fresh beef jerky from the factory where he worked.

I told her that something was wrong with my glasses. They were smeared and I couldn’t clean them. She replied that the glasses were probably fine but that my eyes were probably screwed up. I ignored the comment and continued looking at the paper. There wasn’t much interesting going on, except that March Madness would be starting later that week. I looked over the tournament bracket and told Trix that MSU had a good chance at making the Final Four. She said she hoped so.

A little later Trix went out to the kitchen to check on the oatmeal.

She yelled from the kitchen – “Greg! What did you do to your glasses?”

“Nothing! I think they were okay when I put them on this morning. I went outside with Annie and noticed they were all smeared.”

“They are worse than smeared. It’s like you spilled solvent on them. “

“I know. I’m not happy about it.”

She dug around in a junk drawer and pulled out my last pair of glasses. We never throw glasses away, because you never know when you might need a backup pair.

“Here. Try these.”

I put on the old pair of metal-framed eyeglasses and looked out the window and saw Annie walk across the back yard, sniffing the ground, probably smelling the scent of a rabbit or other local critter.

“That’s better. Thanks.”

We each got a big bowl of oatmeal. I turned on the TV and we sat down to watch the morning news. It had been a quiet night, with just the usual problems. The opposition wouldn’t work with the president, there was flooding in Missouri, and gas prices were expected to go up.  As we watched in silence, I remember thinking that we didn’t have it so bad. We had good jobs, our house was paid for, and we were both healthy and fit.

Trix and I were often considered eccentric by our coworkers and friends because we tried to live life on our own terms. Since I was a self-employed information technology consultant, I had a lot of freedom in my work schedule. Trix worked for a local OB/GYN, but as a midwife, her schedule wasn’t nearly as hectic as it would be if she were a doctor. She usually supervised 100 births each year, and the OB doc covered her if an emergency came up while we were out of town.

We went backpacking several times each year. Just last autumn we spent a week in California hiking a section of the John Muir Trail. We were quite happy being out in the wilderness together. We could cover about 15 miles daily, and we seemed to really need the time away from technology and the craziness of modern life. When we weren’t hiking, we were avid bicyclists. We had a custom tandem touring bike that we rode 5 or 6 times each week, riding 20 to 30 miles each trip. During the winter months, Trix walked on her treadmill and I cross-country skied. We were always active and we didn’t take being healthy for granted.

Neither of us had ever had any serious illnesses. A year ago I had a pinched nerve in my neck – and it hurt like crazy. Fortunately, I had access to good physical therapy and got it mostly fixed. It only hurt now when I slept on it wrong.

After breakfast we both went outside to pick up sticks that had blown onto our yard from the March winds. Even though it was currently about 40 degrees, it might get warm enough to go for a bike ride after lunch. Annie jumped up from the back porch and joined us as we walked around the yard and filled our arms with tree debris.

I told Trix that the road was pretty wet from the snow melting. Maybe the wind would dry it up.

She replied, “It’s still pretty chilly. We’d have to bundle up if we do go out.”

I watched her remove her eyeglasses and absent mindedly wipe them on her undershirt.

“Dang,” she said. “My glasses are smeared too.”
*****

A few minutes later we were standing in the kitchen laughing at how strange we both looked wearing our old, outdated eyeglasses.

I told her that it must have been some fluke. We both must have gotten into something that affected the polycarbonate lenses.

She laughed. “Polycarbonate? How did you know that word?”

I shrugged. “It’s just the sort of stuff I remember.”

“Did either of us remember getting sprayed or gassed with anything while we were both wearing our glasses?”

“No,” I replied. “But we do keep them on the bed stand at night. Maybe something leaked in from the attic?”

We had a back stairway that went from the kitchen to the attic. We didn’t use these stairs because there was another attic doorway in our son’s old bedroom. But we did store paint and paint thinner and other household chemicals on the stairway.

She took a big sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”

I scratched my head as I walked into my office. I turned on my computer to see if anyone else was reporting smeared glasses. The social media sites were quiet – nothing but photographs of other people’s breakfasts or comments about the weather.

I even checked Google, using the phrase “smeared eyeglass lenses,” but came up empty.

I walked back into the kitchen and told her that we must be the only people with the problem.
*****

We never did make it out for a bike ride that day; it was just too cold and windy. Instead we went into town to see a movie. We’d always been fans of good filmmaking, and there was a new Wes Anderson film playing at the multiplex. A couple of hours later, we left the theater and climbed back into the car.

“Good movie”, I said. “Wes Anderson has an amazing imagination.”

“I thought it was overly complicated,” she replied. “He always crams his film with so many characters! But I did enjoy Bill Murray.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s the best.”

As I drove out of town towards home, I noticed that my hands were slightly sticky. I brushed my hands together and wiped them on my jeans.

“There must have been something sticky on the arms of my theater chair.”

She was quiet for a moment, then asked, “How well can you see out of your glasses?”

“Now that you mention it, not too great. This pair is smeared again.”

“Mine are too,” she replied.

It’s only a brief drive home. As I pulled the car into the garage, I saw that the plastic trim on the steering wheel was sticky. The wheel itself was also sticky. I stopped the car and sat there for a moment, thinking.

“Look,” I said. “The trim – it looks like it’s… dissolving?”

I rubbed my finger across it and some dark gray residue clung to my skin.

Trixie rubbed her hand across the dashboard and held her hand up to the light. It was also gray. There was a slight smear left where her hand had been.

I asked, “Is your hand sticky?”

“Uh-huh. Sort of.”

The faux-chrome shiny trim in the car interior was fine. But the softer interior plastic looked like it was beginning to melt. It was subtle – unless you ran your finger across the surface, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong.

After getting out of the car, I walked around it for a moment and looked at all of the exterior plastic. There was a lot of plastic on this car. The bumpers, front and rear fascia, and door trim were all molded plastic. I poked the rear bumper with my index finger and was amazed at how far it sunk into the material. It was as if the plastic was melting, yet it wasn’t hot at all.

“Trix,” I said. “This is not good.”

She watched as I poked another hole into the bumper.

“You ought to check your car too.”

Her car, which was parked next to mine in the garage, also had plastic bumpers. She easily pushed her finger right through and made a hole.

“Dang! My car’s messed up too!”

I muttered under my breath, “What the heck is going on?”

Trix had a worried look on her face. “Look at your jacket – it’s falling apart!”

I looked down – the fabric was beginning to shred, as if it was just disintegrating into the air. I pulled gently on the fabric and it just fell apart. The threads that connected the insulation baffles were simply gone. The insulation inside the remaining fabric was also disintegrating or evaporating or whatever the hell you want to call it.

I looked at Trix’s jacket, which was essentially the same as mine – a North Face that we purchased in Yosemite when the weather turned colder than we’d expected during a week of hiking in the park.

“Yours is failing also!”

I looked at her other clothes. She had on blue jeans, and they seemed all right. I suddenly needed to sit down and think for a minute. I needed to figure out what was happening.

I backed up against the wall and sat down on a bench we keep by the back door. I looked down at my shoes and noticed that the laces were nearly gone.  The shoe fabric, which was a durable synthetic material, was also beginning to fall apart. The soles looked fine though.

Trix and I walked inside. We walked into the living room and turned on the TV. It was late afternoon, and all of the major networks were broadcasting sports. We sat down and Trix watched as I channel surfed, looking for any news that might be related to the strangeness that was happening around us. After about 15 minutes of finding out nothing at all, I pulled my cell phone out of my polar fleece sweater. Neither the phone nor sweater had any visible deterioration. At least we had that much going for us.

I called my brother, Jeff.  He lived just 10 miles away and we frequently relied upon one another for help when we really needed it.

He picked up on the third ring. “Hey Jeff,” I asked, “Have you noticed anything weird today around your place?”

“What do you mean?”

“The plastic on our cars is…” I paused “… melting?“

“What?” He almost laughed. I can imagine how stupid I sounded to him at that moment.

“No, really,” I said. “You can push your finger right through the bumpers. Also, our jackets and shoes are falling apart!”

He paused for a moment. “That’s messed up!”

I walked around the house with my phone pressed to my ear. “It looks like everything inside is okay. Have you been outdoors today?”

“No,” he said. “I’ve been playing around on the computer and watching TV all day. “

“Did you see anything on the news about this? Was there a chemical spill or something?”

“No, not that I know of. “

“Okay. I’ll call you later if I figure this out.”  I disconnected the call and put the phone back into my pocket.

I went into my office and opened the Internet browser to look at the social media feeds. None of the 250 or so people on my social media feed had anything important or interesting to report.

I walked back into the living room, where Trix was sitting, watching the TV.  She said, “Still nothing on the news.”

We sat in silence. I could tell she was worried. “There’s got to be a simple reason for what’s happening, I’m sure everything will be okay.”

A moment later Trix’s phone rang. It was our daughter, Emily.

“Really?” Trix said. “Your car is melting? What? Try to make it home!!”

Just then Trix looked up at me. “The phone just went dead.”

Then the power went out.

 

Copyright 2017 D. Cornell