Throwback, Abigail Jackson
The heatwave was announced the day before the solstice, the day after my brother and I arrived at our mother’s summer home.
We did what we thought we should do, based on a few vague Internet searches and a glance at local news warnings. We turned the window unit up as cold as we could stand it, the low, guttural noises providing background noise as we moved blankets and pillows downstairs to the living room, the draftiest room in the house with fewer windows and an open floor plan. We stocked the fridge with as much as our leftover refund money from college scholarships could afford: fruits just in season, bruised from the force of hands tossing them into bins at the farmers’ market; lemon-flavored mineral water that sizzled on my tongue; and the few basic staples we cared to remember, like white bread and cheese singles. We snacked on strawberries instead of cooking for lunch, the taste closer to expiration than either of us would have liked, and we spent the better part of those hours arguing about whether it was a crime to wear pants in 120-degree weather.
We didn’t think much of it at first. Each summer brought new record-breaking temperatures, the air heavy and humid, thick with the smell of sweat and the waves of heat radiating from cars left parked on the side of the road. Each summer, my brother and I made the trip from our separate colleges to our mother’s old vacation home, regardless of whether she joined us. It wasn’t like we needed supervision. It was a quiet place in a quiet area, not quite a beach house but close enough to the shore to call it one. We were adults now, and our mother had the money and the luxury of spending June through August in a colder climate. Last year, she sent me a postcard from Switzerland, enclosed with Polaroids of the Alps and Rhine Falls. They never showed her herself, just the nature she chose to surround herself with. This year, there wasn’t a Polaroid, just a postcard from Copenhagen signed “Love, Mom.” I was the only one who got them.
I didn’t blame her for not visiting more often. The place had been falling apart for years. My brother always said he wanted to fix it up – repaint the walls back to their old pristine dove-white color, repair the holes in the front porch and the water damage on the roof of the master bedroom. I coughed whenever I tried to open the windows in my old bedroom, the dust from the curtains getting all over my clothes. But he never got around to it.
“Do you feel like going out today?” he asked me. “It can’t be that bad.”
I was lying on the couch with my legs up on the armrest, the skin on the back of my calves sticking to the plastic covering still wrapped around it from the day we bought it. My mother refused to clean her couches or pay someone else to do it, so she left the protection on and expected us to leave them there. I was half-tempted to cut it off, but relented for now. I’d taken to going through her old bookshelves, packed with dollar-store romance novels with shirtless men and lace-clothed women in suggestive positions on the covers. It was ridiculous, but entertaining.
“I know you just got back from California,” I said, “but there is no way in hell I’m going out there. It probably feels like hell if you’re out long enough.”
He rolled his eyes, though I doubted he was annoyed with me. “Fine, but I’m going for a walk once the sun goes down. I hate being in here all day.”
“What, you didn’t miss me?”
“Not in the slightest.” I heard the creak of the staircase and went back to my book.
The clock kept going, but the sky never changed. It hit three p.m., then four, then five, but it stayed in the same position in the sky, staring down amidst a few drifting bits of cloud.
My brother started pacing, fiddling every few minutes with the window unit and muttering about weather anomalies. I checked the app on my phone, but nothing changed.
“Sunset is still set to come at eight,” I said.
He stopped pacing and switched to staring out the window, leaning on the sill. 7:34 p.m. “Think anything new will happen by then?”
“I don’t know.” I refreshed the app. Nothing changed. “Not unless the sun starts falling, which sounds like something out of a shitty apocalypse movie.”
He went quiet, tapping his fingers against the glass.
I stood up and stretched my legs, walking over to stand next to him. “Maybe our Internet connection is bad? Once it clears up, there’ll be some sort of update about what’s going on.”
“Maybe.” He was still staring out the window, toward where the ocean would be. “There better be.”
By ten o’clock, we gave up on waiting for the news. I was exhausted, but seeing the sun outside made sleep feel wrong. We grabbed the thickest blankets we could find from rummaging through upstairs closets and pinned them over the windows, making our own artificial nightfall. My brother seemed to relax at that, his shoulders less tense, no longer pacing. He fell asleep less than an hour later, his T-shirt sticking to his skin.
I couldn’t sleep. I tried to—for hours. But the window unit caused the blankets that weren’t pinned down well enough against the walls to flutter, releasing glimpses of the bright daylight outside. My eyes would close and I’d drift into a not-quite asleep or awake state where my limbs felt heavy and my breathing went slow, but I’d jolt out of it the moment the unit sputtered or my brother snored somewhere to my right. I kept checking my phone for messages or updates. No one was answering me. I napped more than I slept for a few more hours until I gave up close to five in the morning and went to get something to drink.
The days blurred after that. News articles came out reporting on how meteorologists and astronomists and other scientists were scrambling to figure out this new phenomenon. Organizations released safety notices on what precautions to take if we wanted to go outside: Wear sunscreen, a hat, anything possible to protect the skin, even inside. Don’t be out for more than thirty minutes. Be careful with the water, too. If someone starts to feel sick, they should seek help as soon as they can.
My college friends texted back and forth about the whole thing in the group chat. I lurked more than I replied, scrolling through texts about rescheduled vacations and failed attempts to still have a normal summer. A girl from my biology lab got a sunburn so bad she went to urgent care, the red across her back like a stain. Aloe vera hadn’t worked. Another girl, who I’d met at orientation last summer and kept in contact with, said she saw owls in broad daylight. Even the animals were confused as to what time it was, emerging in the middle of a summer afternoon when it was supposed to be a midnight lunch.
We tried to take it slow, at first. There was no separation of night and day, so we’d spend the “morning” taking down the blankets, then putting them back up at “night,” making our own cycle. It only lasted a few days before we grew tired of it and left the blankets up at all hours to block out some of the light. It was pointless. The heat forced its way into our homes, getting under our skin until it was bright red and blistering. When I managed to sleep, whenever I’d wake up, it felt like coming out of a fever dream, hazy and nauseating, the color splotches behind my eyes going in and out, the darkness still more familiar and comforting to me than anything else. I stayed that way as long as possible until I forced myself to get up and go through the motions of the day.
My own body began to change – little things that piled up over the long summer days. My skin tanned, not quite reddening at first, freckles emerging on my shoulders from the exposure. The rash came afterwards, leaving me picking at it until it peeled. Being in front of the windows made me dizzy. I’d lie down on the cold tile of the kitchen floor, making shapes out of the popcorn ceiling like I was tracing constellations in the night sky. Like camping. I searched through the house and found a few of my mother’s old things: her camera—not the one she used for photographs but a different one—a book on origami, and a crochet kit of all things. I tried to make a few things, out of boredom, but my attention drifted, and the house became littered with my projects. My brother spent over an hour in the shower each day, letting freezing water flow out until I banged on the bathroom door to remind him how we were supposed to be careful in case something got shut off. He grew quieter as time went on, giving the bare minimum of responses with “yes” and “no” and “maybe,” but not much else. His eyes were unfocused, lost in something I couldn’t see. We were more shadow than siblings.
We ate through most of our food supply. I knew one of us would have to do out at some point, but I wanted to wait just in case. More reports were coming in with speculation on when the sun might go down. Some said the end of summer, when the temperatures began to drop. Others questioned if it would stay like this forever. Cities were setting up “cooling centers.” Everything was changing fast. I just didn’t know if they were changing fast enough.
“Do you think things will go back to normal?” I asked one night. My brother was flipping through paint chips he’d found in one of my mother’s drawers. I’d caught him right as he was shutting it. “That this will ever end?”
“Can’t say.” He settled on a lighter shade of white. Cleaner. “Want to help me repaint the walls?”
I thought about what we had left to do. I’d read through every one of my mother’s novels, drank through most of the alcohol supply, and tried cleaning out some of the rooms. I gave up on all the hobbies I tried. The group chat was sporadic if anyone responded at all. I still wasn’t sleeping.
It wasn’t much, but there wasn’t much else to do. We had nothing else if not time to kill until it was over. If he wanted to play home decorator, I had nothing to say against him.
“Sure,” I replied. “Where do we start?”
About the Author
Chelsea Panameño · Christian Brothers University
Chelsea Panameño is a first-generation Salvadoran-American writer. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where she is studying English and creative writing. She enjoys writing about magic, mythology, queerness, and everything in between. Her short story “The Water Rebirths” won third place in the 2022 Southern Literary Festival, and her stories “Laurel in Full Bloom” and “We Have Nothing If Not Time” were originally published in Castings. Her first short story collection is forthcoming.
About the Artist
Abigail Jackson · Wheaton College
Abigail Jackson graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in Psychology with a double minor in Studio Art and English. “Throwback” first appeared in Rushlight. This piece was first featured in plain china in 2018.