Photo of a helicopter extinguishing a forest fire
David McNew/Getty

Climate Change

A Full Life

A science-fiction story about America in the age of climate change.

Apr 24, 2019
Photo of a helicopter extinguishing a forest fire

By the time Rue reached 15 she had begun to measure her life by her many moves, the parchment of her life torn into fragments, each one reducing the integrity of the whole. Each small leaf then folded. Folded and shaped until it became surreal origami. Tear here. Fold there. This part became a house, burning down. Tear here, fold again. This shred became a rusty diesel truck, driving south. Tear again. Fold. This bit became an apartment building, without a roof.

Tear here. Tear again. Make a casket.

Keep tearing.

Rue’s first move came when she was eight, her mother and father selling the small-acreage farm they’d cultivated in a Colorado valley. They’d been part of a late-millennial wave of hipster farmers, fleeing the cities’ meaningless consumerism for something more natural. They’d grown organic microgreens for farm-to-table restaurants in nearby ski towns.

“We live like people are supposed to live,” her father said. “Slower. More connected. Focused on the land.”

Then the Maroon-Treasury Fire burned Aspen. When the smoke cleared, trees stood barestick black against hot blue sky and the air reeked of char. Ski slopes drifted with ash moguls, then slumped with mudslides.

In the aftermath, Rue collected trophies from amongst the blackened Anasazi-like ruins of billionaire mansions, picking her way through concrete foundation outlines. Aluminum puddled in silver castings, rivulets of melt. Glass globs sparkled, treasure gems, the remnants of picture windows.

At first, Rue’s mother and father had laughed, seeing people who had complained about dirt specks in their radish greens fleeing an inferno that cared not for their wealth. A certain schadenfreude was inevitable. But other mountain towns were dying as well, drought whittling away their picturesque scenery, thinning their snowpack, and choking their summer skies with smoke.

Rue’s parents might have held on, but failing snows meant inadequate irrigation water, and soon their domestic water failed too, the aquifer below their home unable to recharge. Old-timers laughed that they’d bought land with bad irrigation rights and a crummy well.

“My dad says you should have seen it coming,” Rue’s friend Hunter said. “Everyone knows how water rights work. ’Course your water got cut off.”

“It never happened before,” Rue retorted.

“My dad says you should have known.”

They stopped talking because of that. Soon after, Rue moved.

Later, Rue heard that Hunter’s family went dry too—a family that had ranched and farmed the same land for six generations. Rue wrote a text asking if Hunter’s dad should have seen it coming. But she deleted it before sending.

Rue was sad about that first move, leaving her small familiar town. She remembered the moving truck belching diesel smoke, reeking and clanking unlike the electric pickup they’d used for the farm. Her mother told her they couldn’t take her big clothes dresser with them.

“We can’t fit it in the Austin apartment, sweetheart.”

Her mother gave her a new phone, to console her. Rue couldn’t take big furniture, but she could have her first phone. That, at least, was portable.

On the drive south, Rue called her grandmother.

“Oh, sweetpea,” Nona consoled. “I know you’re sad. But there’s a silver lining to this. There’s a big world to learn about. Plus, you’ll get to see the bats.”

“The bats?” Despite herself, Rue was intrigued.

“There are bats in Austin. Lots of them.”

Seeing more of the world meant you were less ignorant than if you just lived in one small place all your life, and that was a good thing.

That’s what Nona said.

Nona never really approved of college kids being farmers, so she was glad they were moving.

That’s what Dad said.

In Austin, Rue’s mother played ukulele in a band and her father drove an electric delivery truck. Some nights they’d walk along the Colorado River, watching bats stream out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge to catch insects. The city skyline glowed in the sunset, the buildings newly covered with perovskite solar skins, all of them a little shiny because of it.

Some people said things weren’t the same as before. Some of the bats were invasive—bloodsuckers instead of insect eaters—but they were still bats, and Rue liked them.

Rue’s new school was big, with way more friends than just Hunter. Also, there was a ballet class, and a tae kwon do class. Plus an old lady with purple hair who taught rock drumming.

“You see?” Nona said. “Things work out.”

But then came a summer night when the electric grid went down. A hundred and ten degrees at 3 a.m. Everyone already on water restrictions. Pitch-dark in the middle of a city. Everyone out on the streets, desperate to catch a breeze. Everyone complaining. Blaming environmentalists, battery companies, natural gas companies, Austin Energy, federal regulations, Texas’s love affair with low taxes. Rue’s dad said Texas hadn’t anticipated how record heat would stress their grid.

Rue got heatstroke; her parents decided to move. Rue’s mother already had a job working remotely for a Miami-based mortgage company. She could get a promotion if she moved in-house.

In Miami, Rue’s father drove a three-wheeled short-range electric hauler, delivering iced fish to restaurants. Rue swam sometimes in the ocean, when jellyfish and algae weren’t choking up the coast. It was okay.

During their weekly phone chats, Nona told her about cubanos.

“You see?” Nona said, when Rue tried one. “It’s better when the sugar brews into the coffee. I first tried one when I vacationed in Cuba. But Italian espresso is the best.”

“How do you know all these things?” Rue asked.

Nona laughed. “Well, I lived a full life. And it was much cheaper to fly back then. It’s harder now with all the aero-taxes.”

“I wish I could fly places.”

“Well, maybe we’ll save our money and go to Italy.”

Then Annaleen hit. The hurricane wasn’t serious by Florida standards but it seemed big to Rue: Cat 4 on the New Meteorological Scale.

“It’s nothing,” her father told her as rain lashed their apartment windows. “The new scale goes to 11.”

Her mother laughed and made an air-guitar motion. Rue didn’t get the reference, so they showed her Spinal Tap on YouTube.

Rue laughed with her parents—because they were laughing at the idiot guitarist and his amp—but the clip didn’t make her feel safe so much as make her wonder what a hurricane that went to 11 might feel like.

A month later, Carrie hit. Carrie accelerated from NMS Cat 3 to Cat 9 during two phenomenal days. The governor declared a state of emergency. Florida huddled down, unable to flee. Water boiled up out of storm drains and filled the streets long before the worst winds hit. Miami’s brand-new seawalls disappeared, swamped on both sides. The sheer volume of water overwhelmed the city’s new pumping stations. They shorted and shut down.

Scott Olson/Getty

Rue huddled with her parents and members of her mother’s new band in their apartment. The Blue Palms was the safest apartment complex in the neighborhood, built to endure the New Meteorological Scale.

“The Blue Palms are rock solid,” her father said. “When we moved here, I thought this through.”

Down on the street, the band’s van floated away. Literally floated.

Rue watched people float away, too.

Before Miami could recover from Carrie, Delia hit. Just bad luck, everyone said. But to Rue, it was starting to feel like God was bowling against them. There wasn’t enough time to recover, to breathe, to restock supplies. God just kept bowling. Delia ripped the roof off the Blue Palms. Popped it off like a can opener.

By the time sunny skies returned, their windows were gone and one wall had crumbled. Something big and heavy had blasted into the masonry and then flown away. A car? A tree? A bus? No one could say.

They used bedspreads and sheets to cover the windows, makeshift shelter while they waited for maintenance to fix things. Then word came down that the apartment company was abandoning the building. Its insurance company was going bankrupt from too many claims, so the apartment company was walking away too, leaving everyone squatting in the ruins.

“Well, on the bright side, at least we’re not paying rent,” Rue’s mother joked.

A dark bright side, because the mortgage company that employed Rue’s mother was going bankrupt too. With insurance failing, people were walking away from wrecked homes, leaving mortgages unpaid, sending ripples through the financial system. Why pay mortgage on a house that would never be fixed?

“Where’s FEMA?” her father complained as he pumped brown water through a handmade filter of charcoal and sand and paper towels. “There should be some kind of backup for this.” Sweating and dripping with the work. Shirtless. He was skinny, Rue realized. Not as big and strong as he’d seemed when she was younger. Just a scared skinny man, with new streaks of white in his bushy beard. “There were supposed to be emergency funds for this.”

“They’re doing what they can with what they’ve got,” Rue’s mother soothed. “There are other places that need help too. They’re overwhelmed.”

That was the crux of the problem. God had gone bowling all across the South. Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Mobile, Alabama, all had been hit hard. Over in Texas, Houston had gone under again. Corpus Christi, too. And that was just the big cities—the places people could name. All the small towns? Maybe they were there. Maybe they were drowned and gone. Who could say? No one could get there to find out.

As for Miami, it was finally draining. The streets reeked of ancient motor oil and fish and shit and garbage that had boiled out of sewers and dumpsters and basements. Flies and mosquitoes and orphaned dogs swarmed over it. But at least the city was draining.

Some people said Miami had enough money to survive. Boosters were already imagining a future hurricane-hardened version of the city. Now that they’d drowned, they could visualize the armored Venice-like Miami they should have built the first time. They’d make their buildings float, goddamnit.

Money liked Miami, Rue’s mom said, so maybe the city really would make it.

New Orleans, on the other hand? New Orleans was a bathtub. And money didn’t give a damn about New Orleans.

Money was racist—that’s also what Rue’s mom said. 

Unlike money, mosquitoes didn’t discriminate. They loved all the cities on the coast equally, and all the people too. Mosquitoes snuck through the broken windows, the high whine of their wings always in Rue’s ears, the welts of their bites always on her skin. Screening was sold out. FEMA mosquito nets had been hoarded. Walmart kept saying delivery trucks would come soon, for sure. Everyone got covered with bites.

They all got fever from it.

Nona said it was a new malaria strain, something the CDC had warned about, but it hadn’t been faced because the damn Republicans kept cutting funding. Now here the disease was, just like epidemiologists had predicted. For some reason, kids and old people survived better. Middle-aged people often died.

That’s what Rue’s dad did.

Nona cried when Rue and her mother Skyped the news.

“Why was Dad so mad at Nona?” Rue asked later. “Why didn’t he want to live around her?”

Her mother made a reluctant face. Finally she said, “Nona was always complaining about problems, but she never lived like she needed to do anything about them. And she hated that we tried to farm. I think she felt like we were insulting her. Judging how she lived her own life.”

“But you were, right?”

“It bothered Dad a lot that Nona made certain choices. Especially after you were born.”

“Like flying in airplanes?”

“And cars. And eating meat.” She shook her head. “Anyway, that’s all a long time ago. Everybody did it, and they all made it worse for everyone. Not just Nona.”

Later, Rue asked Nona about it. “Mom says Dad was mad at you because he didn’t like how you lived.”

“Oh, sweetpea. This is the world we live in. We have to take at least a little joy in it.” Her eyes were wet. “Life’s short. We have to enjoy something. You should enjoy something too. I wish you had something you could enjoy.”

She sent Rue some money on her phone, to buy something nice, but Rue didn’t know what that would be. Their apartment was a wreck and they were about to move again. Rue didn’t want more things. Except maybe a mosquito net.

Rue wondered what it would have been like to fly to the far side of the world. To go to someplace like Italy to drink espresso. Or fly to Japan and see the temples of Kyoto, where Nona had once gone to meditate. Nona hadn’t sent enough money for either of those things.

Nona wanted them to join her in Boston, but Rue’s mom preferred New York. They went to live with her brother, Armando.

Uncle Armando said the people in Florida deserved what they got.

“Those lame-ass seawalls! Some political appointee just made up the standards! That’s why Manhattan used the European standards. Say what you want about the taxes here, at least we don’t fuck around with our science.” He shook his head at the stupidity of Miami as he cut into his steak. “Of course they were fucked,” he said, gesturing with his fork as he chewed. “They were fucked from the moment they used those shitty American standards.”

“Please don’t say it that way,” her mother said, rubbing her temples. She hadn’t touched the meat on her plate.

“Say what? Fucked?”

“You know I don’t like it.” “Five cities are underwater, and you’re worried about my fucking language?” He laughed in disbelief. “The language is what bothers you?” He shook his head, gestured at her plate.

“Try the steak,” he said. “It’s Kobe Rainforest.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Carbon-free? Cruelty-free? It’s right up your alley. You can’t even tell it’s vat meat. Zero methane, zero deforestation. Your husband would have loved this sh— this stuff. Give it a try.”

“Maybe later.”

“Suit yourself.” He cut another chunk for himself. “You like the steak, Rue?”

“Yeah. It’s good.”

“Damn right it is.” He forked another bite. Returned to his previous point, talking around the mouthful. “Some jackass lobbyist for some oil company wrote that shitty standard. Just like lobbyists did with mercury and methane and all the other crap. And then dumb-ass Miami just went ahead and used the sea-rise estimates. Fucked themselves, is what they did.”

“Armando,” Rue’s mother said. “There are real people involved. It’s not just one of your investment spreadsheets.”

“You know I shorted Miami, right?”

Her mother glared. Armando subsided. But the word lingered in Rue’s mind.

Fucked.

She was more than old enough to know the word. She knew how to say it in six different languages, thanks to the kids she’d met in her different moves. They used it all the time: who fucked who; how fucked-up the vocab test was; fuck you; fuck me; FUCK PRINCIPAL VASQUEZ—that was a Snapchat group. But the word had been casual, and they’d used it casually. They hadn’t felt it. They hadn’t understood it.

Miami was fucked, and now the word finally sounded right.

Fucked.

Hard and nasty and mean.

It described the world Rue experienced every day. The one the grownups in her life seemed bent on pretending didn’t exist. Like if they pretended really, really hard, they’d be okay. Like they’d pretended the Miami seawalls were big enough. Like Nona had pretended that flying on airplanes was fine. They’d closed their eyes and pretended.

And now everyone was fucked.

It was almost a relief to have Armando say it. To have that word squat on the dinner table with the organic kale and the arsenic-free brown rice. It gave shape to an unformed feeling that had been lurking in Rue’s mind for some time. Something she’d been unable to name or describe because all the grownups around her hadn’t been honest enough to speak it clearly.

It felt like a door being kicked open.

As soon as Armando said it, it felt blazingly obvious. And now that Rue could see it, she could see it everywhere. In the cost of bread and cheese and vegetables and chicken. In the kids begging on the streets. In the storm warnings as winter hurricanes made their way up the coast, dropping rain and jamming rivers with ice floes and slamming against Manhattan’s own seawall barriers.

Sean Rayford/Getty

Rue’s mom had promised New York would be good for them. It was where she’d grown up. But Old New York was different from Fucked New York. Armando was the only one with a job, and things were changing, even for him.

All over the country, people’s homes were being destroyed by sea-level rise, forest fires, droughts, storms, and floods. People were going reffee, and leaving behind ruined houses. And mountains of debt. So now, along with mortgage companies and insurance companies, banks started failing. Armando’s shorting of Miami—he’d explained to Rue that “shorting” meant “betting a place was going to get fucked”—only worked if there was a safe place to stash his winnings.

Six months after Rue and her mother moved to New York, the FDIC collapsed, and the dollar fell off a cliff. Bank after bank went down. Traders all over Manhattan went bankrupt. Whole hedge funds. Wall Street ground to a halt. Checking accounts froze. People lost their savings, lost 401(k)s, 529s, IRAs—

It was like all the money in the world evaporated.

Rue’s mom decided to send Rue to Boston.

“I don’t want to live with Nona. I want to live with you,” Rue begged as she hugged her mother goodbye at the bus station.

“As soon as I have a job, you’ll be back with me,” her mother said, wiping her eyes.

Another bit of pretend. The grownups were all playing pretend. Everyone except Armando, who hugged her and shoved a small sweaty wad of cash into her hand.

“Good luck, kiddo. Keep this for an emergency. Got it? An emergency.”

“I will. I’m sorry about your job.”

“Yeah, well, I knew I should have bought yuan.” He sucked his teeth, irritated. “I got into this work because I swore I was never going to dig ditches. Now I’m not even sure they’ll let me do seawall construction. Too many reffees competing for that shit.”

He looked completely different now that his investment company was gone.

The bus to Boston passed through three Mass Pike checkpoints. They scanned her FamilyPass bar code again and again. Kids with fake documents got pulled off the bus and sent back. Each time State Patrol scanned her pass, she expected it would be her.

“I wish you’d come here sooner,” Nona said as she hugged Rue in South Station. “I have room. I always had room for you.” She hugged Rue tighter, and for a minute, in the middle of the bustling terminal, Rue felt safe.

The T was sardine-packed, even at noon. Despite the migration controls, refugees swamped Boston. “Everyone’s trying to get in,” Nona said as they sweated up the line. “I’ve been renting my spare rooms on Airbnb. Rents are crazy. It helps with the food prices, though. I don’t know how other people are affording food with all the droughts.”

Nona cleared out a whole family from Alabama to give Rue a room.

“I have to get back to the hospital,” Nona said as she changed the bedsheets. “If you go out, watch out for muggers. There’s not enough work for people.”

Nona was a psychiatrist who specialized in trauma. The state paid her to prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds to refugees. “Benzos are cheap,” she joked. “Hospital beds are expensive. And the heat makes everyone crazy.”

Nona also said not to get too comfortable. Her single-family house was being torn down for a density project. She was moving to a high-rise. “They’ve got plans for this old place.”

Boston definitely seemed to have plans. Billboards called Greater Boston a “City of the Future.” They’d banned cars from Alewife all the way to the ocean. Only electric trams and occasional emergency vehicles used the narrowed main roads. Remaining streets were being converted into e-bike paths and gardens. Climbing vines shaded walking paths for summer. Enclosed skyways leapt from high-rise to high-rise for the winter. Not a drop of gasoline anywhere.

Rue could see how pleasant the city was supposed to be, but it was groaning under the weight of reffees from all the places that hadn’t planned. The school Rue was supposed to attend—which Nona said was excellent—was overflowing. Kids were being given disposable tablets and asked to do Khan Academy instead of assignments from living teachers. They sat cheek by jowl, crosslegged on the floors, with security proctors watching over them.

Rue started ditching, killing time down by the Charles River with some other reffee kids. Jiyu—a girl from coastal North Carolina—and Josh, a kid from Iowa who’d never lived in a city before but who Rue had taken under her wing when she found him making origami out of trashed McDonald’s wrappers.

Most days, they’d perch atop the new Charles River levees and skip rocks across warm algae-choked waters, occasionally trading hits on Josh’s asthma inhaler. Up in Canada, whole beetle-killed forests were burning, and the smoke kept blowing south. Burnt Canadians, they called it. They rated the Boston weather by how thick the Canadians were, and how many asthma hits they needed.

A pair of joggers wearing fluorescent athletic gear and Nike particulate masks pounded past, giving them dirty looks.

“How do they know we’re not from here?” Josh asked, taking another inhaler hit. “What do they see?”

Rue had wondered about that too. She’d been chased by local Boston kids multiple times, gangs of them intent on schooling the newcomers. She wondered if maybe she and her friends held their bodies differently. Like dogs that had been kicked too many times. Instinctually cowering.

“Kinda makes you hope one of these levees breaks,” Josh said.

Rue could imagine it happening. Could imagine Boston—despite its attempts to harden and adapt—drowning just like all the other places she’d been. She wondered if it would happen, or if Boston would somehow manage to do better, not play pretend, maybe do something right.

On Rue’s way home, a crew of Boston kids jumped her, bursting out of a humid alley. She curled in a ball on the pavement as they beat and kicked her. They left her bruised and crying with final gobs of spit and warnings to go back where she’d come from.

By the time she finally limped home, it was dark. Inside, she found Nona peacefully asleep in her easy chair, the TV streaming Netflix.

Rue stood in the flickering darkness, tasting the blood in her mouth and clutching her bruised ribs. Her grandmother shifted in her sleep. The air conditioner droned, fighting the October heat. Even with the doors and windows closed, Rue could smell the Canadians burning. The world that had existed before, for thousands of years, going up in smoke.

Rue tried to remember a time when something in her life hadn’t been on fire, or underwater, or falling apart, and realized she couldn’t. She tried to remember a time when she had slept as peacefully as Nona.

Nona said she loved Rue, but all Rue felt was empty distance between them—the shredded gap between the life her grandmother had enjoyed and the tatters that Rue had inherited. Her grandmother had drunk espresso in Italy and meditated in the temples of Kyoto. She’d lived a full life.

Rue imagined strangling her.