Volume 28, Number 4

Climate Change

Jessica Van Devanter

The radio is reporting on an interview with Stephen Hawking, where he said if we don't change, the ice caps will melt and the ocean floor will release massive amounts of CO2, slowly raising the planet’s temperature until we all burn up.

I hear the last of the compressed gas in my hair spray sputter and spit out.

At least if we all burn I won't have to worry about my hair anymore. The empty canister makes a hollow tinny sound as it lands in the motel trash bin.

I put on my new black dress, bought just for this occasion—as if anyone will care what I’m wearing. It is a silk sheath. Simple and somber. I think you would have liked it.


In some Hindu cultures when people die, they lay the bodies on a large platform, and the whole village gathers to burn their loved ones on a great funeral pyre.


“Let the world burn,” you said once.

You were tearing the Seattle Times into strips and lighting them on fire. You ripped through images of screaming rioters. You ripped through the words “Protesters: WTO Police.” You ripped through “use teargas.” I lit my cigarette on the burning headlines and inhaled the smoke into my mouth.

“You're not doing it right,” you said. “You're supposed to pull the smoke all the way down. You have to breathe it into your lungs.”


I take my seat in the last row of pews. The church does not smell musty like I thought it would. Instead it smells like flowers and wax and a hundred lungs exhaling at once.

Your mother is sitting in the front row. I haven’t seen her in years, but I know it’s her because her hair is still shaped like a bell. She has probably done it that way since the beginning of time.

She is crying. At least, I think she is crying. I can only see her from behind. The hair bell holds still and strong, dignified as always. Her face is turned toward her lap, and her shoulders shake in that way that is so often seen at these sorts of events.

The room is shuffling as people file in and negotiate their seats. At the front, a white pall covers your casket. To its left is a wooden pulpit, and a pastor who is waiting for the group to settle. When everyone is finally seated, the pastor asks us again to stand and join in a hymn.


In ancient Mayan culture, they believed in a special Goddess, Ixtab, whose job it was to guide to Paradise the souls of people who killed themselves by hanging.


I look up into the high ceiling. Huge wooden beams, terminally damp, water spots where the Northwest rain has crept in. Is that how it happened? Did you take matters into your own hands? I imagine you hanging, a rope or belt around your thin white neck. The singing ends, and the pastor asks the group to sit again. We sit.

Your brother takes the pulpit now. As he speaks I see a woman to his left is gesturing silently. Someone in the audience is deaf. I watch his words carved into the air by her hands. The motions say more than any words I have ever heard.

The audience is chuckling at something he said. It’s that heavy chuckle that has a cinderblock tied to it so when it’s released it sinks like lead. I watch the woman’s hands and hear phrases like “lost herself” and “too soon” and “always remember her smile.”

Your brother goes back to his seat and puts his arm around your mother. She leans into him, and I think she is crying again. Rendered childlike in her grief.

The pastor reads from the Bible and says things meant to soothe, like “with God” and “His Kingdom” and “eternal life.” Voices all around me join in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Quiet falls, then lifts as people stand and file out. Some walk to your casket where they put flowers or their hands on it, marring the pristine white of the pall.


The Aborigines of Australia are forbidden from speaking the name of the deceased, for fear of calling them back from the afterlife.

If I could bring you back, I would scream your name until my voice shattered like glass.


The sky outside is pink with evening. I stand on the lawn in front of the church—your church to me now—and examine the clouds. A hand is on my shoulder, and your brother’s voice is in my ear. I turn. He is taller than me now. A decade has changed him from a wiry boy to a man.

“I’m so glad you came,” he says.

“I need to get out of here,” he says.


In the diner, we are seated in a booth, your brother and me. It smells like pancakes. He orders coffee. I order a slice of cherry pie and think about how much you hated cherries.

We cover the standard topics: my job at the museum, his job at the investment firm, both of us single, both childless.

“It was a very nice service,” I say.

“Yeah,” his eyes glisten as they search the table for purchase.

“She would have hated it,” I say.

He looks at me for a moment and a smirk lifts his cheek.

“She would have hated every second,” he says.

He laughs. A genuine gut laugh. He leans back in his seat and puts a hand on his belly and laughs. I laugh too. And now he is crying. And now we are both laughing and crying together.

I consider kissing him. Consider escaping our grief in each other. But when I look at him I see too much of you in his face, so instead we look at our cups, and he waves to the waitress for a refill. Decaf this time.

“Sometimes it just feels good to drink something terrible,” he says, still smiling and cheeks still wet, as he looks down into his newly filled mug.

I push my empty plate to the table’s corner and sip my water. It tastes like plastic.

He holds his cup in both hands like it might try to fly away. I put my hands around my cup in solidarity.

When I look up again his eyes are on me. His eyes are your eyes, set in a man’s face and held in with smudged glasses. There are pink veins mapping their white landscapes.

I finally ask: “How did it happen?”

“You don’t know?”

I shake my head. I tell him about the Facebook posts. Tributes and open letters to you popping up in my news feed. Searching Google only to find a vague obituary listed on the West Seattle Herald website.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I should have thought to call you.”

I rest my hand on top of his for just a second. My hand tells him everything. And I put it back around my cup.

“She died in a car accident,” he says. His fingernails are bitten.

“She was drunk,” he says.

I am lost in this revelation. I say nothing.

“They don’t think she felt anything. She was unconscious when the car caught fire.”

“Caught fire?” I say.

He nods.

Then comes a question, and as I say it I am afraid of the answer.

“Was anyone else hurt?” I say.

He is still, and I think he looks like porcelain, and I don’t want to move in case he breaks.

“There was a boy.”

The pie in my stomach curdles. He looks at me, and I know the answer to my next question.

The boy was riding home on his bike, he explains. It was dark. You went off the road and into the trees. You probably didn’t even see him.

His shoulders are slumped with the weight this. I wonder if he will ever be able to stand straight again or if his spine will be forever curved in a way that almost spells your name.

He chews his lip, and I remember you in front of me chewing your lip as you wedged a chunk of wine cork into my right nostril.

It had a warm, earthy scent. In your other hand you had an ice cube pressed to the side of my nose. A drop of cold water ran over my lip and into my mouth.

“What if...” I had said into the water drop “what if I changed my mind.”

You had looked into my eye, the one that wasn’t blocked by the ice in your hand. You looked at me in that way you had, like you were preparing the air around us for the significance of what you were about to say.

“What if,” you said, “this is your last day on Earth.”

You leaned down to level my one eye with your two. Your hair, bleached white blond, reminded me of the silken threads that grow on corn. The ice cube shifted in your grip, and your gaze shifted just long enough to correct it.

“What if tomorrow an asteroid hits the Earth or North Korea nukes us or the stupid mermaid nightlight I know you still have shorts out and burns your house to the ground with you inside?”

“We have smoke detectors,” I said.

“Tomorrow is not guaranteed,” you said.

Your hand had an almost imperceptible tremor as you sterilized the needle in your lighter’s flame.


I rub the tiny crater on the side of my nose.

“What ever happened to you two? You were so close” your brother asks.

“College came, and I saw my chance. I was drowning here. I ran for the desert,” I say.

You stayed here, playing with fire to keep the dampness at bay.

“Once I was gone, we drifted,” I say. You and I, we drifted like ice caps. Too slow to see, but with enough time the distance became infinite.

I think of it now and see every moment where I could have stopped it, but as with so many things, by the time you see it it’s too late.

A gentle silence falls between us like dust.

“What happened to her,” he says, “it’s not your fault,” he is speaking into his cup.

“I wanted someone to blame at first. Part of me blamed you. I thought that maybe if you had stayed she wouldn’t have fallen down that rabbit hole.” He sets down his cup again and looks into me with intent.

“But I think now, that if you had stayed, and even if you could have kept her out of it for a while, it would have just delayed the inevitable. Or you would have burned up with her.”

He puts worn bills on the counter, stopping my hand from adding my own.

“My treat,” he says.

In the car, I think about the boy. Did he see you coming? Did he know to be afraid? Does anyone?


Your brother pulls over to the curb and says he has to let me out here. We are two blocks from your church where my rental car is waiting in the parking lot, and he doesn't want to risk being seen by anyone still hanging around.

He’s had enough of the social customs for today.

“Thank you” he says. He means it.


After I told you I was leaving for college, you didn’t speak to me for a week. That week stretched on like months. I wrote you letters that I never gave you. Letters of apology, letters of anger. When you finally sat next to me at lunch again, all you said was “Beach after class?” and all I said was “Yeah.”

In the waning light, we collected driftwood and newspaper, piling them into a concrete fire pit, black with scars from past use. I watched bits of newspaper carried glowing into the sky by embers.

“They want to be stars,” I said, and I watched as they burned out and fell back to Earth. As the flames licked our marshmallows and teased our cheeks red, we talked. We talked about everything that meant nothing—classes, boys, music—but neither of us mentioned the one thing that meant everything.

In bed that night I wrote you another letter. “Come with me” it said. “Don’t let this place swallow you up.” It was in my pocket at graduation, but I never gave it to you.


On the plane, I hand my boarding pass to the attendant, and she gives me a practiced smile. I offer my fragile one in exchange and squeeze past her. The aisle to my seat, a runway of its own, eyes of idle passengers assess the new arrivals as they struggle past. I watch the seat numbers so I don’t have to see the eyes watching me.

I heft my duffel into the overhead bin. It is the same one I filled to bursting and took away with me so many years ago now. Its black canvas is greyed with the dust that coats the Southwest, as am I, I suppose.

Out my window I see the men in reflective jackets who are in charge of fueling the jet.


I think of the Pygmies in New Guinea. I wonder, do they feel the waters warming?

Do the natives in the far North understand why their reindeer are falling through the ice? Do they see it coming?


The raindrops on the window blur into streaks. There is that surreal feeling of disconnecting with the runway during takeoff.


Stephen Hawking says the only hope for the survival of humanity is to leave Earth and find another planet to colonize.

I am thinking of this as I watch the city lights turn to fairy dust. I feel the hum of the universe all around me. There is a chime as the seatbelt sign goes dark.

“Can I get you anything to drink, miss?”

Her hair is blond like corn silk.

“Water please. With ice.”