Alfred and Eva’s charming summer cottage in Washington State burnt down one day, a small casualty among a wave of destruction as forest fires purged the western United States, leaving vast swaths of wasteland. The childless couple had flown from their Indianapolis suburb to the cottage several times a year—even in winter—to escape the drudgery of middle management, of time nibbled away by the petty demands of insensitive executives, endless meetings and reports, the need to handhold new employees, and interdepartmental squabbles. A visit to the deep wilderness, with bountiful hikes, cool swims, dappled glades, and chats with a neighbor who had led a scientific expedition to the Arctic, had been just the cure—at least until the much-too-quick return to work when everything snapped instantly back to normality, like a low-level toothache. Still, the thought of the cottage and the wilderness kept the couple working hard.

Now their idyllic escape was obliterated, along with hundreds of thousands of acres of pines and grasses and woodland creatures. Eva had spoken often of kind spirits dwelling in the forest that surrounded their cottage. For Alfred, the glimpse of a bobcat or red fox was more wonderful than any spirit, and even the frequent sighting of an elk or a raccoon filled him with awe. About three years ago, he had seen a dying red kit fox abandoned at the base of a cliff, the last glimmer of playfulness fading from its eyes—whether sick or injured he never knew. Would it have been possible to stop and save the kit? The thought of thousands or millions such deaths tormented him. Alfred imagined their howling spirits in the scraps of putrid haze the wind brought thousands of miles east, visible against the red sun from the couple’s front porch during the worst of the wildfires.

Alfred and Eva had assiduously tucked away money for retirement, but now Alfred realized that he was planning for a future that would never come. Nature was broken, the coronavirus would mutate endlessly, the timeline of history was shattered and would not shift magically back to normal. It’s easy to say that things will never be the same—as Alfred often did these days—but a normal retirement in a normal future always seemed somehow possible. Humans can’t really conceive of vast change. But this wave of wildfires was just a glimpse at a much worse future, thought Alfred. Yet we behave as the economy will go back to a pattern of growth, weather will stabilize at a manageable level, the violence that is intensifying around the globe is a temporary phenomenon. We save and plan and project for a future that will never come.

Alfred remembered one thing from the sole creative writing class he’d taken in college. Anton Chekhov said that a gun fired in the last act of a play should be introduced in the first act. The audience may have temporarily forgotten the gun, but its reintroduction brings a horrid completion. Similarly, Alfred thought that following the end of the Cold War, humanity largely forgot our enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons, which is now growing once again. Meanwhile, wars, the strangling of democracy, floods, hurricanes, droughts, forest fires and waves of climate refugees intensify, all building toward the tragic last act.

Alfred decided that humanity would be extinct within fifty years, perhaps much sooner. He had spent his whole life consuming news media voraciously yet never doing a thing beyond donating a little money and voting. He had ogled world events like a strip-tease show, hypothesized in his mind what he would do if he were in charge, deriving a strange pleasure out of witnessing, from a great distance, the suffering of others, along with the occasional triumphs. It all seemed distant from his own life.

He had been waiting for a charismatic individual or two, along with a movement, to save humanity, a great spiritual quest that fused different religions and secular humanism into one great crusade to save the planet.

Nobody and nothing came. Alfred decided that he would have to do it himself.

“You’re thinking too small,” he told Rhea, the leader of a local organization dedicated to stopping climate change. “Humanity today is like a person with multiple diseases all at once, with synergies so that one illness makes the others worse. We need a great spiritual awakening.”

“Calm down,” said Rhea. “I know all this. Everybody who’s really aware knows all this. It’s overwhelming. But we can’t just snap our fingers and call up a great spiritual awakening. We have to take it step by step.”

“There’s no time. We need massive change now.”

“And who or what is going to cause that?”

“I volunteer to try,” said Alfred. “I’ll do what I can to be a leader. Only because nobody else is. I realized I’ve wasted my life, clinging to my job and doing basically nothing to improve the world. I’m willing to call it quits and do whatever it takes to be the change we need.”

“What have you ever done? You haven’t attended even one of our meetings. Plus, you’re a nice guy, but you’re an introvert. There’s no way you’ll ever be a charismatic leader.”

“Who else is? If not now when?”

“Here’s an idea,” said Rhea. “Why don’t you volunteer for our program to encourage energy audits? We need people willing to go on the ground, to e-mail, to frequent social media, to go door to door. Energy efficiency is one of the most important ways of dealing with climate change.”

“It’s too slow. We need global action now.”

“We can only try to save the world one issue at a time.”




Ethan Goffman

Ethan Goffman’s first volume of poetry, Words for Things Left Unsaid, was published by Kelsay Books in March of 2020.  His poems and flash fiction have appeared in Alien Buddha, Ariel Chart, BlazeVox, Bradlaugh’s Finger, Burgeon, EarthTalk, The Loch Raven Review, Mad Swirl, Madness Muse, Ramingo’s Blog, The Raw Art Review, Setu, Verse Virtual and elsewhere.  Ethan is co-founder of It Takes a Community, a Montgomery College initiative bringing poetry to students and local residents.  He is also founder and producer of the Poetry & Planet podcast on


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, November 3, 2022 - 22:23