For Becca and Ruth and Number Three.
I was twelve when the Troubles came. It’s as good an age as any to witness the total transformation of the world, I think.
I look back and see a quiet girl with her nose in a book, orbiting at the fringes of the social circle and far too clever for her own good.1 A girl who thought she knew a lot about the world (though she really didn’t), who thought sometimes that she was ugly and stupid and awful (though she most certainly wasn’t), who bristled at being treated like a child and yet craved that stability. Someone whose most pressing problems were pimples and feeling self-conscious about burn scars.
Thirty-four years later I find myself defending my own childhood against people who claim that it never existed, believe that the world has always been this way, and think that there is nothing better than to burn what remains down to the ground. Two generations have been born and one grown to adulthood since I was sitting in that classroom, having experienced neither the world that came before the Troubles nor the turmoil that brought us here. My own children are among them, and by no fault of their own the world of my childhood is as alien to them as the surface of Mars.2 My daughters are seven and five now, and with a third child on the way I feel the gap widening between my world and theirs. It can’t be closed with another history lesson, and heaven knows I have written enough of those books.
Anyway, the Troubles. Mine began some hours before the rest of the world - shortly after eleven o’clock in the morning, on Thursday April 23rd, 2026, in Mrs. Kieslowski’s sixth grade social studies class. I had finished the test early, and in the remaining twenty minutes before lunch I had decided to get myself a proper education by reading through David Macaulay’s Castle.3
I was distracted by the sound of footsteps, I looked up from my book to see the assistant secretary at the door, speaking with my teacher. After a brief exchange, Mrs. Kieslowski came over to my desk and told me that my father was here to pick me up. I had no idea what the cause of this would be, and was unsure whether I should be glad to be out of class, or worried that someone had found out what I had said to Sunny Menackis.4.
I went up to the office and found my father talking with the principal. Here I was informed that I was being taken out of school early because of a “family emergency.”
This was a bold-faced lie on my father’s part, and I knew it. We didn’t have any family besides each other. I didn’t say anything though, and let him spin his story about a beloved, and now deceased, great aunt in total earnestness. Even knowing better, I could almost believe him – my father could lie with the straightest face.
I put on my best act of being concerned and surprised. Not to say that I wasn’t concerned and surprised, but I was far more surprised by the fact that my father’s lie of choice was one that I could see through – he wasn’t trying to deceive me.
The story was enough for the principal.5 I was signed out, grabbed my backpack and books, and walked out to the parking lot with my father, still very curious and a little trepid about what all of this was about.
We got in the car. Before putting the keys in the ignition, my father stroked his beard and sighed. In that moment he looked terribly old. Though I saw him every day, I felt as if I was noticing the lines around his eyes and the grey in his hair for the first time, and it scared me.
I asked him what was going on. He sighed again and said “I don’t know. I wish I did.”
He started up the car and went on to explain that he had gotten a call from the Initiative. One of their mystics6 had begun having visions, and the others were following suit. Mystic visions are notoriously difficult to parse, and normally would not be very newsworthy, but in this case there were multiple consistent visions that had spread throughout all of the Initiative’s mystics. My father compared it to the tide coming in and going out, simultaneously.7 He didn’t know much more than that, and I don’t think anyone else did. All that anyone knew is that something very large would happen very soon, and that there wasn’t much of a way out of it. The future hung like a hurricane on the horizon, and my typical bravery (or pretended bravery) was impeded by my father’s obvious distress.
“I need you to be strong for this, Sweet Pea,” he told me as we drove towards home. “No matter what happens, you need to be as clever and as brave and as good as you can be. And never forget that I love you.”
Years later, he told me that he had been genuinely afraid that he would die in those early days of the Troubles and leave me stranded in the world.
When we got home, my father instructed me to gather up a few changes of clothing and other essentials. We were going to spend the night at the chapterhouse and see what happened, he said, but we had to be prepared in case we weren’t able to come back home immediately. This provided some measure of reassurance – I was going to be among friends, and thus reasonably safe – but the idea that we wouldn’t be able to return to our own home worried me greatly. I packed a few books along with me just in case, along with my mother’s old guitar. It looked like we were preparing for vacation, or perhaps a siege, with all the supplies we had stuffed in the car.
I recall feeling an intense bout of homesickness as we pulled out of the driveway, leaving the house I had grown up in. We wouldn’t return for ten months, only to find a house picked clean by looters.
It was a little over an hour’s drive to the chapterhouse. My father kept the radio on, flipping between stations constantly and scanning for any sort of news. I was on phone duty, answering texts and calls from his Initiative contacts. Mostly, everyone was confused and just trying to work out the rumors from the truth.
When we arrived at the chapterhouse, we were barely able to get our belongings in the door before my father was swept up in official business. The place was in chaos – everyone running about all trying to do everything all at once, luggage piled everywhere, people shouting over each other, and me in the middle.
The other kids my age had all been collected in one place, both out of the middle-school tendency to clump together and the adults’ desire to keep us out from underfoot. We weren’t young enough that we needed direct parental supervision, but we were too young to actually be of much help, so we found ourselves under the watchful eye of ‘Brickjaw’ Levit. One of the Wolves, though a more temperate man than his position would imply.
I sought out my friends among the group. Though we didn’t see each other particularly often, they were often better friends than most of my peers at school. It was far easier to talk to them, because we were all part of the same secret club. I could spin tall tales of my parents' misadventures (some of them were even true), and the others would accept me for it.
With nothing left to do but entertain ourselves, we turned our last night of normalcy into an adventure. We were a band of plucky kids ready to take on the world, running about, fighting monsters that would still be imaginary for a few hours more. Someone’s mom ordered us pizza. We made popcorn, watched some movies. One of the other girls had brought a make-up kit, which we used to torment Brickjaw.8 For one last glorious night, all the rest of the world and all its troubles were far away. The early reports of deaths and strange happenings didn’t reach our ears at all.
I didn’t see my father until shortly after midnight. He had been completely consumed by his meetings9 and barely had the energy to keep himself awake. This was just as the first videos were coming out of Berlin. Someone turned on CNN (muted, thankfully), and we watched twenty-five thousand dragons circling above the city in stunned silence. The world was over, the world was beginning, the world was changed forever, and I was changed with it.
The following days and weeks would be far less pleasant. The outside world felt the full force of the Troubles and tumbled towards collapse.
It was during this time that I found myself gainfully employed by a rather unexpected boss.