Pollution People

C Pam Zhang

from BWR 44.1


An hour south of the border and Dad tips over with a whump that makes the forest explode like a cutscene. The ancient car rattles, Nim brakes into a gully, and shrapnel flings from the trees.

Nim waits for death. But there’s no concussive wave. No particle effects. No GAME OVER – RESPAWN? This is no Ordon. The shrapnel is fluttering back down in the form of disgruntled birds.

“Gotta be more careful,” Nim says, setting Dad upright. She flicks a speck of ash off him.

They’re driving to the Ohio River. On the map it’s kinked in a hundred places, ugly as scar tissue. Still beautiful in person, Dad claimed, spinning in his desk chair, face aglow from the computer screen. Mottled thighs poking from his saggy underwear. I should take you.

Geez, Nim said, shielding her eyes. Geez, Dad.

Though she never said, Get some pants on. Though he never said, How about July fifth? Thanksgiving? Though she never said the reason rivers were dying was coal companies like the one for which he did cybersecurity. Though he never said, How about tomorrow? Today? or that neither of them had real plans to interrupt, Ordon notwithstanding. Though she never said the person he wanted to take was Mom.


She goes wrong at some point, winds down a road where her GPS signal grows enfeebled, dies. The government has stopped maintaining roads, the margin of concrete gobbled by shrubbery that sprawls out and out, much like Nim herself in recent years. Her hands are shaking by the time she finds a rundown house among the sumac and shagbark. Visibility from car to house: poor. Visibility from house to car: good. Terrible scenes play through Nim’s head in high-def: pulsing sniper shots, a scream of rockets, everything incinerated to ash except for Dad himself. But the woman who emerges from the house is small and sweet, though shriveled like an ancient apple. She draws a map and warns Nim to keep her windows up.

“It’s the squirrels,” the woman explains, giving Nim’s hand a motherly squeeze. She pauses, frowning at the sheen of Nim’s sweat on her palm. “They said the rabies is gone, but I reckon there’s some new contagion. Prion, maybe.”

Nim waves goodbye, but the woman’s back is already turned. She’s bent over her apron, wiping her hands with fervor.


WELCOME TO KENTUCKY appears so suddenly it seems like a glitch in the trees. The border station is smaller and shabbier than government ads make it look—hardly big enough for one. Lichen lines its cracks.

“Afternoon, ma’am.” An officer approaches, badge flashing from his muscled arm. “Mind rolling down your window for me?”

Nim lowers it an inch, trying to breathe normally and remember if smiles should or should not contain teeth. She tries to remember how she must appear. Because she hasn’t owned a mirror in years, she thinks back to the last photo Mom took. At the edge of the frame Nim squints, hunched away from the sun despite Mom’s best efforts. Her posture already Dad’s. The satin bow Mom tied in Nim’s hair made her look younger than fourteen, the spread of her chest much older.

“Just a routine inspection, ma’am. We’re trying to contain a small situation below the border. If you could let me inside your car, please?”

Into a shiny yellow bag he confiscates Nim’s apples, a flower she plucked because it was the shape of the Ordon crest. He leaves socks, Doritos, loose cigarettes. Nim considers offering a smoke, passing a lit cigarette from her mouth to his. But he’s already examining her empty Megagulps of Diet Coke, cursing as they stick to his fingers.

“What’s that?” he asks, wiping his hands and nodding toward the passenger’s seat. The box is a shadow within a shadow.

“Oh! Geez.” Ordon’s forums are alive with speculation about Border Patrol. That they have laser scanners installed in their pupils. That their DNA has been spliced with that of dogs. Nim’s not a risk-taker. She decides on the truth. “That’s my dad.”

“Your dad?”

“He’s harmless.” The officer frowns. To reassure him and his soulful dog-brown eyes, Nim adds, “No bark and no bite either, ha ha. Teeth incinerate in the crematorium, though they’re one of the last parts to go. It takes three hours where it takes the rest of the body two. Did you know some spots charge by the hour? Teeth are really expensive.”

The officer’s staring like Nim’s Ordon friends do over video chat, right before they discover they have bad connections. Sometimes they tell Nim she must have a bad connection. They sign off too quick for Nim to explain how she has faster internet than any private citizen.

“He wanted to be part of the river. Isn’t it romantic?”

“Ma’am, you can’t spread ashes. There’s a cleanup effort going on.”

Nim laughs. The officer waits for her to finish, the way she waits for her cat to finish a hairball. She covers her chin, checking for spit.

“Isn’t the river already fucked?” she asks from behind her fingers. An obituary for the Ohio River, read one of the letters to Dad that made Mom go quiet. You fucked it until it died bleeding from every orifice. Nim, remembering to be friendly, adds, “Dude?”

The officer explains a plan to return the river to pre-Kyoto treaty conditions. He slips a pamphlet through the window. When his fingers brush Nim’s he jerks back, as if he feels the electricity too. She wipes her sweaty hands and reads about the repopulation of algae and frogs, the return of recreational fishing. Nim’s parents met fishing. Nim never asked what they caught, and now it’s too late to know.

“Can’t you make an exception this one time?” Nim bats her lashes, the way her wasp-waisted avatar does on Ordon’s loading screen. “Sir? Officer? My man? Please?”

He takes a step to the side, just out of range of Nim’s eyes. She has to twist in her seat to keep him in sight.

“Ma’am, you’re going to have to turn back around. If you want to proceed, I’ll have to confiscate that along with the rest of your…things.”

He holds the bag of Nim’s apples and rattles it.

An answering rattle sounds from the trees. The leaves explode again, this time expelling a brown chunk of forest that lands on the bag. Claws, mangy fur, buckteeth bared and shining: a squirrel. The officer yelps and flings the bag away. HAZARDOUS, it declares as it arcs yellow through the air. The squirrel is thrown against Nim’s windshield, its bulging eye a target: pupil, iris, ring of panicked white. Very calmly Nim cocks her fingers and takes aim through the glass.

For a moment the squirrel freezes. The officer gapes open-mouthed. Then the creature scrabbles madly, fur flying in clumps. Tiny crescent clawmarks ping the glass. This is no Ordon. Nim’s unarmed out here in the real world, wearing just her skin. The squirrel gibbers a moment longer, eying the sliver of open window. Then it turns to bound after the fleeing officer.

Nim could help him, maybe. Make a sidequest to save him, earning reputation points, perhaps triggering a romance subplot. Instead, Nim keeps one hand on Dad and the other on the wheel. She steps on the gas.


After Mom left, leaving Nim and Dad in a house piled high with Diet Coke cans and takeout containers of kung pao chicken that wept grease, much as Mom might have wept if she’d seen the stains left on on her polished furniture, if she’d looked back even once after walking out—after Nim and Dad bought 64-inch flatscreen monitors and got corporate internet speeds through the coal company—after Mom left but before a fourteen-year-old Nim found the service that delivered toilet paper and frozen chicken nuggets straight to their door—she and Dad made their last grocery run.

She was big for her age, Dad stooped and prematurely short. They looked pretty much the same in their oversized hoodies. They smelled pretty much the same, too, as informed by a woman who yelled across the parking lot.

You stink! Dad kept shuffling. Nim sniffed her cuff and had to agree. You monsters! the woman shrieked. Fair enough: the warped glass doors made their reflections grotesque. Earth-killers! Enemies of Gaia! The woman’s clothes were even dirtier than theirs, both the ones on her back and the ones piled in her shopping cart. Maybe that’s why the woman lunged for Dad’s sweatshirt, clamping her arms around him like a Telenovela lover; maybe she wanted something cleaner. Dad didn’t resist, just spun and spun as the woman pulled, until his sweatshirt ripped straight across the words CARLSON COAL. You dirtbags, you pigs! the woman howled, running off holding a scrap of fabric aloft like a flag. Nim never saw the woman properly but she likes to think it could have been Mom, checking up on them, who yelled, You pollution people!


The river looks the way Nim imagined the Heart of Ordon would look. A torpid grey sludge. Lost souls fluttering in the water.

No, wait—plastic bags.

“This is really it?”

Dad says nothing. He hasn’t said anything for the two years he’s sat perched on the shelf between gaming magazines and spare towels.

The water is gross enough that Nim considers turning around. But then again, people said it was gross to mix ketchup with walnut shrimp and drink Megagulps and keep the curtains drawn all day. A wind tugs at Nim’s hair, stirs the river’s film of plastic. This is her first trip outside in years. She’d almost forgotten about wind, how it could create the sensation of movement even as you stood still. She takes a cautious breath, then a deeper one. Feels the flutter expand her chest.

Nim releases into the empty woods a piercing battle cry. The origins of the Ordon call to war, the loading screen says slyly, are rumored to be in a curse so filthy it’s now lost to time. Because fuck what everyone said, the two of them were happy. Nim and Dad were happy. She plants a kiss on Dad, ash dusting her lips. Then she upends the box into the Ohio River.

Nim sits and waits. For the forest to explode once more, for some final cutscene. Maybe an army of squirrels. Maybe the border officer, come bristling with weapons to handcuff Nim for criminal environmental recklessness. Maybe the border officer, shirt ripped by his battles, looking for solace. Maybe even Mom. There is a low moan of wind through the leaves of the quaking aspen, a moan almost like the mournful wah-waaah that plays when your character dies, when the screen flashes, urging you into action: RESPAWN? RESPAWN? The scene blurs as if the visuals are coming through a bad connection. Nim blinks wetness off her lashes, stands. Something is happening in the river.

A whirlpool froths the water. There’s a shadow at its center, growing larger by the second: Dad. Around him the waters are clearing. Darkness flees the river’s edges, sucked into Dad’s swirling heart. And Nim can see—pebbles at the river’s bottom. A flash that might be a fish. She never asked what fish her parents caught but maybe she won’t have to. Dad, who ate crap all his life, who the crematorium director called more chemical than person, is acting on the pollution as a magnet acts on iron filings. He is drawing the poison to himself and he is cleaning the river.

Nim steps into the water’s edge. The river doesn’t burn like the acid rain: it’s cool. Foliage explodes again and again around her, like the noisy sigh of some great beast: pafpafpaf! Mice, voles, and possums creep toward the water. Crows flutter by Nim, hopping one-footed or dragging a third wing. Even a timid dappled creature that might be a deer.

An impatient scratch arrives at Nim’s ankle. She looks down to see the squirrel. Its mouth hangs open, its strained breath on her foot like tiny cotton balls. This time she sees that where its fur is falling out, scales gleam underneath. She sees the webbing between its toes, the nascent gills. It is another creature stepping out of the world it was born into, and as Nim watches, a flake of ash detaches from her lip, anointing its trembling head.

C Pam Zhang‘s debut novel HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in the US, Virago Press in the UK, and other countries. Her short fiction can be found in places such as McSweeney’s Quarterly, Kenyon Review, and The Missouri Review. She’s received scholarship and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Tin House, Aspen Words, the Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere. She lives in city #13 but is still looking for home.

Follow her on Twitter @cpamzhang