In Love in the Time of Global Warming, Francesca Lia Block does an off-kilter spin on Homer's Odyssey, set in a post-apocalyptic world. Pen, a 17-year-old girl, searches through the ruins of Los Angeles for her missing family. We've got an exclusive excerpt right here!
I drive as fast as I can away from the store from hell. I am stocked up with supplies I managed to dump into the back of the van before I tore away from the blinded Giant. Pain scorches when I move a certain way, and there is dried blood on my hands and on my thermal shirt. “We don’t need any more blood on our hands,” the man had said. I would rather be dead than part of a world like this. I keep thinking I’m going to throw up again, and my hands won’t stop shaking no matter how hard I grip the steering wheel; it’s like I have a violent fever that’s trying to burn away the sickness of what I’ve seen and what I will become. I blinded someone. Something. I stabbed him. It. I pull over and open the door and vomit precious nutrients into the street.
Parts of the streets around the hotel are flooded with murky, mucked- up water. Who knows what lies under there? It rushes past me, black and frenetic. In the distance random fires, the only uneasy light, burn among piles of garbage.
I stay on the higher parts of the road. It’s hard to know where I am because so much is gone. But I recognize the oddly shaped angular brick building standing like a Giant’s slice of cake above the mire. An orange butterfl y swoops past my windshield. I park and get out and limp after it toward the hotel.
My mom took us to the Culver Hotel to see the lobby with the milk-glass light fixtures and dark wood paneling, the velvet couches piled with brocade pillows. The actors who played the Munchkins stayed there when they filmed The Wizard of Oz. They swung from the chandeliers and fire escapes, my mom had said. Those crazy, drunken Munchkins. And we laughed. My mom loved this place. I can see her getting excited about an antique chair, a glass lampshade, as if she’d discovered some rare artifact. For her love of this place alone, I’ll go inside; I’ll brave whatever dangers. For what if she’s somewhere here?
I put the van key around my neck and approach slowly now, hobbling, bruised from my fall. There will be blood- black wildflowers on my skin soon. My muscles feel like flayed meat wrapping my bones. It’s dark. Candlelight reflects, flickering in the tall, curved leaded glass windows. Though I can no longer see the butterfly I walk toward this place. As if the orange wings have guided me here. As if I’ll somehow find my mom inside.
I walk through the door.
The first thing I think when I enter is that the people lying around on the couches in the candlelight have survived the Earth Shaker and do not have blood on their hands, at least as far as I can see. Me, that’s a different story; I need a thousand showers to get this nasty, crusting blood off of my skin and erase what I did.
The kids seem high, strewn out, half- naked, laughing. Some of them are crying, but in a luxuriant, dramatic way, as if from great happiness. No blood, but they are all filthy. Cold wind rushes through some fracked glass panes carrying the smell of mildew and mud, with something else— something sweet— woven in; the couches are soaked with rainwater. The tall bookshelves are empty. On one wall of the hotel is a huge painted mural of a half-naked young woman sitting cross-legged on a lotus flower. She is bright red, glowing ruby-ish, with large gray eyes. Gray like my mother’s, like my brother’s. I recognize her from my studies of mythology and religion as Tara, the Tibetan goddess of emptiness, action, and compassion. She was born of the tears of empathy from the eye of a bodhisattva. When she was a human princess the monks told her she could be reborn as a man but she chose the body of a woman as her vehicle of healing. The deity Tara comes in many colors but Red Tara is the magnetizer of all good things, though I’m not sure I believe that anything good exists.
“Hello, beautiful,” someone says.
I turn and see a young man in black clothing. He has a shock of black hair and smoky green eyes. His body is slim and small but his shoulders are broad. There’s a tattoo on his neck, inky writing I can’t make out. I don’t feel fear when I see him, only relief. He squints into my face.
“How’d you get here?”
“The Lotus Hotel,” he says. “See?” He points at something growing out of cracks in the marble floor. Large red flowers with layers of pointed petals sprouting like weeds everywhere. They’re the first growing thing I’ve seen since the Earth Shaker. “Won’t you have some, sparkle princess?”
He hands me a glass filled with red liquid.
I sniff. “What is it?”
“Punch!” He laughs. “I don’t know. Something strong. We need something fucking strong, don’t you think? The world actually ended. As in the apocalypse? We better have something strong.”
“What happened?” I say. “It wasn’t just an earthquake and a flood. Why is everyone gone?”
He shrugs. “Not everyone. Not us.”
Why not us? I wonder. Why did I survive and why did he?
“And not the really big ones,” he adds.
“What does that mean?” I think of the Giant with its poison white jellyfish eye.
“There are rumors about someone named Kronen who was doing this crazed top-secret genetic modification biowarfare in a ware house downtown and some of his creations got released. They cracked the plates of the earth or some shit like that. They ate almost everyone.”
“What?” I say, still seeing in my mind the gelatinous stuff oozing out of the Giant’s socket. “He made them? You don’t just make monsters.”
“Who knows? You ever heard of that sheep they cloned?”
I nod; I had. My scientist father had showed me a video once. They took a cell from the mammary glands of one sheep, removed the nucleus and replaced it with the nucleus from another animal’s cell, then implanted the hybrid cell in a third sheep that delivered it to term. Somatic cell nuclear transfer.
My father. I need to find him, I think, and almost say it out loud, but suddenly I’m so tired. And thirsty.
“What if someone cloned stem cells from a human who’d been genetically modified somehow?” The young man raises his glass to me and grins. “But don’t worry yourself about that now. We’re safe in here. Drink up.”
He sounds like a charming madman but “charming” is the operative word and how long has it been since I’ve felt charmed? Plus I’m so, so thirsty. I can tell him about my family later. So I touch my lips to the liquid, the first fresh thing I’ve had in sixty- eight days. It stings a little, tightens and numbs like pomegranate seeds or persimmons or too much spinach. Already the smacking pain in my bones seems to lessen. And then I think, This is all I want. All I want is to forget what just happened with the Giant, forget what happened before that, stay here. To stay here getting high until I die. Free lotus potion and cute boys and girls sprawled around. All of it so easy, just for the taking. So what if it’s a little cold; I have a thermal shirt and sweatpants. The dried blood on them doesn’t matter anymore.
“Come on.” He takes my hand— his is surprisingly small and I can feel the bones like twigs encased in flesh and we run through the lobby and up the staircase that swirls to hallways flanked by rows of rooms. The doors are all open and people are inside sleeping or hooking up, survivors like us. Broken bottles and clothing litter the hallways. A girl is crunched up into a ball, hugging her knees and whistling, pointing at the blank wall. Another is crushing red flowers so the juice drips into her mouth; some spills down her neck in rivulets. The young man takes me to a room with charred black curtains and a faint burned smell still in the air. The window overlooks the flooded streets below. It’s so dark; any stars are masked in smoke and cloud.
“I love you,” my new friend says. “What’s your name?”