By Anna Lipari 

Author’s note: As I was lying awake last night, head full of uneasy dreams about the uncertain future awaiting me after graduation, there came a knock at my door. I opened it to find not an overzealous union representative or an FM worker there to peer cryptically at my fire alarm, as I had expected. No, it was my own eyes that stared back at me from the doorway, and the face that bore them was my own too – there was my nose, my familiar pattern of freckles, that old scar on my lip from when my younger brother hurled a can of soup at my face as an infant. But the person in the doorway was far older than me, their skin creased and lined by many decades of unkind fate. Their hair was messily cropped, their clothes so patched the original cloth could barely be seen, and the deep circles under their eyes bespoke a lifetime of horrors. They thrust a bundle of papers into my hand, and I recognized yellowing newspaper. “Don’t let this happen,” they pleaded, and a chill ran down my spine as I recognized what my own voice might sound like fifty years from now, hoarse from dust or from screaming. 

I have reprinted the parts of the article that are legible here, in hopes of avoiding the grim future it describes. The article reads thus:

“…a selected research team braved the Grinnell Exclusion Zone in order to collect genetic samples from the populations of feral cats and turkey vultures that have taken up residence in the abandoned town. Nearby farmers and bone-pickers have even reported wolf sightings in the area, though the size of the population has been impossible to estimate until this point, due to the danger that even a few minutes’ exposure to the Grinnell area represents. Genetic information about these animals could help answer questions about their vulnerability to radiation, as well as assist scientists in preparing humans to deal with future fallout exposure.

Armed with Geiger counters and protective gear, the team encountered significant wildlife on the outskirts of town, where most buildings are still standing. The abandoned husk of a Walmart appears to have been colonized by stray dogs, several packs of which squabble for territory in the home goods aisle. The rate of single-nucleotide polymorphism was significantly higher in these animals than in typical canine populations, indicating effects of long-term radiation exposure. 

Closer to the blast site, unfamiliar carrion birds were observed roosting in the crumbling brickwork of what was once McNally’s grocery store and Solera wine bar– peeling storefronts still intact, though the back edges of the buildings have long since disintegrated into rubble. The streets of Grinnell are quiet and still, and grasses and sedges native to the Midwestern tallgrass prairie have begun to sprout through cracks in the asphalt, slowly reclaiming what remains of the town. Researchers spotted long-legged rabbits loping through the overgrown alleyway behind the collapsed shell of Chuong Garden, and were able to obtain blood and hair samples, though the increasing levels of radiation in the area prevented them from taking any of the animals back with them, as did the fact that the rabbits reportedly had “extra joints” and “eyes that looked like they knew too much.” 

Past the town center, asphalt gives way to scorched earth, and then to a thick layer of black glass where Grinnell College’s campus once stood. The only signs of life the researchers observed here were strange insects, pale and many-legged, squirming desperately over the irradiated earth; even the birds overhead seemed to give a wide berth to the site of the long ago tragedy. At this point, the scientists prepared to return to safety, when they noticed something odd: in the middle of the glassy circle, at the dead center of the blast zone, a single building still stood. 

Cross-referencing a Pre-Event map of the area to the witnesses’ descriptions – which become garbled and uncertain at this point in the tale – leads us to believe that the blocky cement building was once known as Norris Hall. While the outside of the building was stained in a thick layer of scorch marks, the researchers who approached it reported that it appeared entirely structurally sound, and that shapes moved behind the blackened windows. 

The doors to the building were locked, but when one of the researchers jiggled the handle, it opened from the inside, and the researchers describe a young woman, “about twenty years old and wearing crocs and a knee-length T-shirt” who gestured them inside. “Did you forget your Pcard?” she asked the befuddled scientists. “That happened to me once at two in the morning, and I had to call fucking campo to let me in. You’re lucky I was here though, I haven’t seen any of them around in ages. And did you hear that someone shat in the fucking sink AGAIN? I can’t believe they haven’t caught who it is yet and we all have to pay for it. I can’t wait to live off campus next year. Summer can’t come soon enough. Anyway, see you around.” She waved to the researchers. “I’m off to fill up my Brita pitcher at the water fountain. God, the tap water has been literal black sludge lately, and FM hasn’t been answering the phone for at least a week. Close the door, it smells like cow shit out there. I hate his dorm.” And she wandered away down the narrow corridor. 

This discovery presents many hard questions. What miracle of construction protected Norris Hall from the blast? What conditions prevented the residents from noticing the irradiated wasteland outside their windows? Weapons Development and Homeland Security teams are reportedly planning missions into the Grinnell Exclusion Zone, hoping that what happened there will help protect America from future nuclear threats…”

Here, the article becomes obscured by a large stain of oil or blood. I hope that knowing this future will help us to avoid it, at whatever cost. 

As this piece was written by a future version of myself, I will be crediting the hours to myself in Novatime.