To The Last of a Good Thing is a novel I’m working on. Below you’ll find a short video describing the book, a written synopsis, and the first chapter.
Videography: Daniel Sohn
Motion Graphics Animation: James Kwan
Armed with information that would kill millions but offers a glimmer of hope for humankind, a group of five must decide whether the value of a human life rests in its potential or in the small moments that make up its reality. The story begins with a group of five people heading across a desolate post-World War III United States in an attempt to reach Vancouver, where they hope to assist the search for a solution to an infertility epidemic that threatens to extinct humankind. They stumble across a prominent scientist who has a potential solution to the epidemic that would involve administering a strand of RNAi to people young enough to reproduce. The introduction of the RNAi would likely kill ninety seven percent of the people to whom it is administered and make the other three percent fertile, though a successful test on humans has yet to be completed. The scientist is forced to confront the question of whether the right thing to do is share the information, ensuring the premature death of ninety seven percent of the people young enough to reproduce but allowing for the possibility of the continuation of the human race, or destroy it, condemning humanity but allowing the people around now to live out their lives. The question overwhelms the scientist and he relinquishes the information to the main characters. They continue on foot towards Vancouver, now in possession of the scientist’s file and having taken on the responsibility of deciding what to do with it. On the way they meet several small groups of people, and their experiences with these groups help to shape the question of what makes a human life valuable.
The first chapter of the novel is below. Thanks for reading!
To The Last of a Good Thing
by Evan Senie
“The arc of humanity is long and it bends towards enlightenment.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
As it turns out, Dr. King never said this, and even if he had, we know now that he would have been wrong. The arc of humanity is short, and it bends towards extinction.
It is a tendency of the human mind, when reflecting upon past events, to imbue them with a sense of inevitability. Please, if you would, avoid this fallacy. There were important decisions made by people, by human hearts and human minds, which led us down this road. I entreat you to look upon each decision, big or small, beginning, middle, or end, as one that could have been made in the alternate. To view history in any other way is to rob the participants of their agency, to rob coincidence of its agony. It did not have to be this way. It is this way because a world of infinite possibility may have but one reality. It is this way because we made it so.
– Jonathan “Jack” Helmho
“I am he that liveth, and was dead, and behold, I will live forevermore. Amen.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Not the story, of course. I’m sure you’ve heard that. There are only so many narrative arcs. What is there still to learn? We’ve seen everything, been everywhere. Right? Why do we keep telling stories then? Why haven’t they died out, a tragicomic pile of wasted twists and exposition and climax and resolution?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
I have an answer. It’s simpler than you think. You can sum it all up in a word. We read stories, and we write them, and we tell them, because of truth. Truth. Truth. This story is true. Every story that’s worth anything is true. This story is about bone-rattling remorse, the kind of compunction that stays with you as a soft, persistent whine. It’s about atonement, about Camus’s brand of meaninglessness. It’s about getting on with each other, and saying goodbye to one another, and missing and being missed. It’s about taking an etch-a-sketch, and blowing it a kiss, and then shaking it all away. It’s about surveying a shop full of trinkets and picking one to cling to when the building burns to the ground. Most of all it’s about endings. If there’s no truth in the ending then there mightn’t have been any truth at all. Truth. This story is true.
Stop me if you’v…
The red-haired girl came in through the double doors second and I lost my train of thought. I remember now that I had been wondering about the likelihood of a thing that was purported to be painless in fact being full of pain. Painful, that is, in the way that can be felt but not expressed. Deceptive. I was wondering if the process of my expiation required more depth. Her walk was heartbreaking in the casual way of coincidence.
The third kid to walk through the door held a shotgun. I wasn’t afraid. The three of them inched forward, enthralled by the liquor bottles lining the back wall. They did not notice me, sitting in the corner, closing my notebook and going back to polishing a wine glass that hadn’t been used in six months. How apropos that these people, yet to reach their twenty-fifth birthday, might see only the parts of the world that are within their field of vision. What we know not now, we learn in time, I guess.
The floors were well swept, and the chairs sat upside down on the tables. A shaft of light from the window illuminated dust particles that had been kicked up off their shoes, an injection of life into the otherwise sterile environment. I held the wine glass and rag, rotating the glass in search of the merest imperfection. I cleared my throat.
My three visitors spun to face me in the corner of the bar. The tall kid’s shotgun had a rusting barrel. When he swung it in my direction the hinge came loose, releasing the break barrel and sending the two bullets skittering along the floor. The girl, with the red hair and the freckles and the eyes, thrust forward an antique sword, hands trembling. The ostensible leader, the one who had sauntered in first, struggled to extricate from his belt a rubber mallet, the handle of which appeared to be held together by duct tape. I picked up the bullets, which had come to rest by my feet. My shotgun-wielding adversary gave a forlorn sigh and glowered at the device in his hands. I approached, placed the bullets into their assigned capsules, properly hitched the barrel, and snapped it into place.
“Thank you,” said the young man. “I don’t know why that keeps happening.”
I nodded and returned to my corner stool. I slid the notebook down the bar a touch, further into the unused peripherals of the inattentive. I picked up the rag and wine glass and resumed my search for something to justify an existence that had grown stale, grown tired. After a short silence one of the young men took a hesitant step forward. He stopped and looked back at his compatriots. He holstered his mallet. Finally, satisfied that any immediate threat had been neutralized, he cleared his throat.
“Are you… um do you have… is it too late to get a drink?”
I motioned to the stools at the center of the bar.
The three unlikely customers shuffled forward and settled in at the bar. The one with the mallet, Sam, had unkempt, dirty blond hair and was wearing a sweatshirt that said Planet Granite Climbing Gym. He slouched down on his stool and stared at the bottles lining the wall. Next to him sat Sara. Those eyes. Greenish-blue and with depth, what a coincidence. On her t-shirt she had written in black sharpie:
“Living is like writing a novel, except that in life you get to decide how it ends.”’
Sam was the type of kid who would skip class to drink 99-cent Arizona Iced Teas and shoot pool in an attic. The kind that walks down the middle of a bridge at two a.m. in the pitch darkness, smoking cigarettes and speaking just to watch his words drift away into the night. Sara would be the one tagging along ten feet behind, a step closer to the sidewalk, in her hand a notebook full of scribbled ideas, ones too grandiose to speak aloud.
Then there was Taylor. He sat on his stool wearing a southern smile that could mean anything from ‘good morning’, to ‘I love you’, to ‘the world is coming to an end’. He would have made a fine preacher had circumstances so conspired. A fine preacher indeed. As it was, he found himself on a barstool, in a town that had been abandoned ever since people stopped having children, waiting for an old man to make him a drink. To that end I took down four rocks glasses and placed them on the counter. With the ease of one who has tended bar for many years, I poured from a bottle filled with amber liquid. Sam leaned forward.
“What is that?”
I spun the label towards him. “Lagavulin 16 year. Single malt, smoky, spicy finish. Hints of peat and oak.”
He cocked his head at me.
“It’s scotch. A damn fine scotch.”
My young acquaintances eyed their glasses as one might examine an intimidating stranger. Or perhaps as a college student might examine any respectable glass of liquor. I raised mine.
“To sharing the last of a good thing.”
Sam was the first to sip his drink. He did so with confidence but without attention, and his free hand fidgeted with a stack of coasters on the bar. The saloon-style doors at the front of the room swung open with a loud crack, and my guests jolted upright on their stools. In the doorway stood a pretty girl with sharp features. She had an angular face and small hands that held a civil war era pistol. She was thin but not delicate, and her presence commanded attention. The leader of the group had arrived. Her eyes scanned the room before settling on their mark. I followed her gaze to Sara, and realized that they bore a familial resemblance. The newcomer’s hair was brown, instead of her sister’s red, and she seemed to be a couple years older, but beyond that they could have been twins.
“Hey! There are fresh footprints outside! Where are your weapons? There could be someone… “
Her eyes travelled upwards from her younger sister and landed on me. She made a few sputtering noises and then glared at Sam.
“What the hell’s going on? Who is that? ”
Sam shrugged at her. “We’re getting a drink.” He looked at me, as if to absolve himself of further responsibility in the matter.
I nodded at the new arrival and took down another rocks glass. “The name’s Jack. Will it be Lagavulin all around then?”
The young lady, Jenny as I later learned, marched over to her sister and admonished her.
“Sara Molly Palmer,” she said, ‘do not go waltzing into deserted places that could be dangerous. Just because Sam doesn’t care if he lives or dies doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.”
Sara nodded with the appropriate amount of remorse for one being rebuked by an older sibling, but it was clear that she was enjoying herself. I noticed that Jenny’s surprise entrance had caused Sara to overturn her glass, and a pool of whiskey threatened to spill over the edge of the countertop. I mopped it up with my rag, pulled the rocks glass to my side of the bar, and poured each of the sisters a fresh drink. Jenny scowled at me, and didn’t touch her glass. I laughed.
“I was just about to ask your friends what it is you’re doing here. You’re the first people I’ve seen in months.”
Jenny closed her eyes and took a sip of scotch. “We’re trying to find John P. Mentor.”
“Ah, the lost scientist.”
She tilted her head. “Do you know him?”
I shook my head. “I know of him, same as everyone else. Seemed like a strange man. Brilliant mind. Do you think he has the solution?”
Jenny shrugged. “No way to know. We have to search for him. Everyone is responsible for continuing the human race.”
“Even though people will just keep being shitty to one another, even if we do survive,” Sam offered.
Jenny glared at him. “You don’t know that. People can change. They’ve done it before.”
“Let’s not have this argument again.” Taylor said, tracing his finger along the lines of the varnished wood of the bar top. “This is what we’re doing and we’ve got to stick with it.”
He turned to me. “We’re looking out for Mr. Mentor but we’re on our way to Vancouver to meet up with the Hegelian Order for the Preservation of Earth.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“They’re a group that is trying to either find the scientist or come up with a cure on their own.” Taylor replied.
“I’ve never heard of them,” I said. “Why are they trying to find Mentor, anyway? If he had discovered the cure wouldn’t he have told people about it?”
Taylor shrugged. “I’ve been wondering that myself. The best we can come up with is that he might have feared for his life and gone into hiding.”
“Or maybe he’s dead,” Sam said, shrugging off Jenny’s glare. “It wouldn’t be much of a shock. Just another body on the pile.”
Sara, who up to this point had seemed lost in reverie, spoke up.
“What did Ernest Hemingway drink?”
I looked at the glass of scotch in front of her, still full.
“Pretty much everything he could get his hands on.”
She shook her head.
“But he must have had a drink that he preferred.”
I scooped ice into an aluminum shaker.
“Are you a bit of a writer yourself?“ I asked.
“I’d like to be. I haven’t had much chance to practice. I’m going to take writing classes in college if this trip ever ends.”
“What do you like to write about?” She shrugged.
“Everything, I guess. I think the best writers are the ones that teach you something about life, about what it means to be human. I’d like to do that.”
I nodded and poured the contents of the shaker into a martini glass. I put three olives on a skewer and slid the glass over to Sara.
“Here,” I said. “15 parts gin to one part Vermouth. Pure Hemingway.”
Jenny gave a shake of her head.
“My sister doesn’t drink.”
I began to make a second martini.
“Perhaps, just this once, we should allow her the classic writer’s vice. These are, after all, extenuating circumstances.”
Jenny sighed. Her whiskey was nearly gone, and she picked up the martini. Sara, on the other hand, still had whiskey to spare and seemed more taken by the idea of alcohol than by its consumption. I raised my glass.
“Another toast. In honor of the great Ernest Hemingway: “To the ends we journey towards, and to journeys that end.”