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#1092: Untangling the Knot

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A minimalist illustration of a large hand supported by a crowd of small, indistinct bystanders. The hand is covered with several red strings tied in knots. A sleeve with the Fragile Express logo covers part of the hand.

(illus: d0gteefs)

Prologue

Ira Glass: So a couple weeks ago I ordered some new clothes through a delivery service. Nothing outrageous, really, just a few button-down shirts and a pair of dress slacks from a tailor I like, out near South Knot City. This tailor makes some high-quality stuff, and since it’s almost springtime I figured hey, why not treat myself?

And my package arrived pretty quickly. Took maybe three or four days, reasonable enough. When the porter arrived I thanked her for her help, heaped on some Likes for good measure, and sent her on her way. But after she left and I opened my package, I noticed that the clothes were all soaking wet—I think the cargo container’s waterproof seal must have been damaged somewhere along the journey. And you know, I was not happy about this. Like, sheesh, I haven’t even gotten to wear this stuff yet, and it’s already waterlogged? I was worried that some of the fancier shirts were totally ruined.

Well, good news. My anger was unfounded—the shirts ended up being fine. One round in the wash and they were practically good as new. The slacks were tougher to fix, since they aren’t really supposed to get wet unless you hang them up immediately after, but I managed to smooth out most of the wrinkles... and I have to say, they do look pretty good on me. That tailor really knows her stuff. 

But all that time I spent washing and drying and ironing my new clothes gave me some time to meditate on the whole situation, which brought me to a realization: even if the shirts had been ruined completely, I had no right to complain. That porter traveled miles and miles to deliver those items, totally free of charge, and I’m sitting around doing what, making public radio? I don’t have a leg to stand on. My friend and colleague Sarah Koenig, who used to be a producer here on the show, had a similar experience:

Sarah Koenig: I can’t remember exactly what I ordered, but I do recall it was unusually large. Heavy, too. I think it might have been a crate full of books or something. 

Anyway, when I finally got my package, it was about a month later than the expected arrival date, so I was already annoyed by that. The cargo container was completely thrashed, too, just totally shredded and falling apart. My porter was exceptionally apologetic, promised me that the next shipment would arrive much faster and in better condition, but I was pretty peeved. So you know, I must have given him some empty thank-you and sent him on his way. But I was not happy about the whole thing.

Then I went to open my package and saw that the cargo container was splattered with rusty brown stains. I thought to myself oh my god, that’s probably his blood! And it hit me that this porter had literally risked his life to deliver this package. Anything less than total and unequivocal gratitude was a massive disservice to the work these people were doing.

Ira Glass: Sarah and I weren’t the only ones to feel this way. This American Life asked its listeners to call in and share their stories about porters, and this is what they said:

Caller 1: My mom used to make me a black forest cake for my birthday every year, but after the Death Stranding we ended up living in different cities. Well, this year she sent me a cake via porter, and lemme tell you, when it arrived it was absolutely pristine. Perfect condition. Not a cherry out of place. Tried to offer the porter a slice, but they politely declined—said they had another delivery to make. Gave ‘em so many Likes for that one that I thought my thumb was gonna fall clean off.

Caller 2: Porters have one of the hardest jobs in the world. Maybe the hardest job in the world. The same porter keeps showing up at my place to bring me packages, and she always looks so tired, like she’s carrying the weight of the society on her shoulders. I guess she is, in a way. Next time I see her I should try doing something nice to thank her. Maybe I’ll knit her a sweater.

Caller 3: I have to confess that I just love a man in uniform. Especially a handsome mailman... it's always been my weakness. So one day when this cute porter showed up with a delivery I was like damn, how can I get him to come back? That's when I hatched a plan: if I ordered a bunch of packages, eventually he'd have to show up again, right?

At first it worked, and the delivery company kept sending the same cute porter to bring me stuff, but then I started feeling bad, you know? He was always so polite, even though he was clearly working himself ragged. I let him know that there was a hot spring nearby he could visit for a little pick-me-up, and wouldn’t you know it, he invited me to come take a dip with him. [GIGGLES] I accepted the offer, obviously, but seeing him without his uniform sorta broke the spell. So after that I stopped making up excuses for deliveries. Next time I think I’ll just buy a sexy calendar instead...

Ira Glass: Okay, I just have to say, that last caller has a pretty unorthodox way of showing gratitude. Still, I think it’s clear that we’re all very appreciative of the work porters do. But let’s face it: how many of us know what really goes on behind the scenes? What’s the delivery process actually like for your average porter? 

Getting the mail was one of those things I always took for granted back in the day, just dropping something in a mailbox and knowing it would make its way to the right person, almost like magic. And now in a world full of BTs and MULEs and timefall, with hardly any roads and only a handful of dedicated porters to do the job... somehow this system still works. For every dramatic shift our world has undergone, it seems that society has remained stable in some other crucial way, like a cosmic force equalizing itself in the face of catastrophe. 

Well today on our program, we dive headfirst into this strange new world we’ve built and try to make sense of it all. We bring you stories of porters and patients and one very chatty Basset Hound, each doing their darndest to adapt to post-Stranding life. And we ask them: how have some things changed, and how have other things remained utterly, stubbornly, exactly the same? From WBEZ Lake Knot City, it’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Mailman, Mailman, Bring Me a Mail

Ira Glass: Act One, Mailman, Mailman, Bring Me a Mail. Okay, so, back to our discussion on porters. If you’re anything like me, then I’m sure you order a lot of items for delivery—maybe not as many as you used to order from Amazon or eBay, of course, back in the days of rampant consumerism—but mail-order services are still holding strong, even after the Death Stranding. It’s certainly easier to have something delivered to you than it is to venture out into the world and risk an encounter with BTs. And especially if you live by yourself, isolated from any major cities, delivery services might be your only lifeline to other human beings. 

But most of us have no clue how this system works. We can see it in action, sure, and we know that it does work, or else we wouldn’t be getting packages in the first place. And yet, for most people, it’s a total black box with no way of peering inside.

We wanted to give our listeners a glimpse into that black box. At first we tried to find a porter who’d be willing to come onto our show and speak with us, but it was hard to convince any of them to waste precious daylight doing an interview with us instead of making deliveries. Which, you know, is understandable. Eventually we followed the porters’ chain of command up, up, all the way to the very top, which is where we found Fragile, the current head of Fragile Express. 

Fragile used to be an active porter, on the ground making lots of deliveries, but these days she spends more time managing her delivery company—though at this point it’s more like a delivery empire. Fragile was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to sit down with us and answer some questions, and she’s sitting here with me right now.

Fragile: Thank you so much for having me on the show, Ira. 

Ira Glass: It’s my pleasure. Can I also just say, we don’t get a whole lot of guests who actually come into our recording studio anymore, so this is very exciting. Unless they’re already living in Lake Knot City, most of our guests prefer to simply join us by phone. But I guess most people don’t have the ability to make jumps through space like you do.

Fragile: [LAUGHS] It does come in handy from time to time.

Ira Glass: Also with us is Sarah Koenig, who we heard from earlier in the show. Sarah was instrumental in putting this story together, since she was the one who got us in touch with Fragile in the first place thanks to her unmatched sleuthing powers. Although, sadly, Sarah is not physically here in the studio today. But we're still thrilled to hear from her anyway. 

Sarah Koenig: Sorry, I’m one of the people who’s phoning it in.

Ira Glass: Considering the timefall storms we’ve been having lately, it’s probably for the best that you stayed put. I’m just glad to have you back on the show after so many years.

Sarah Koenig: It’s weird being back. But weird in a good way.

Ira Glass: You know, Fragile, this show wouldn’t even be possible without your help. When we first started up again, after the Stranding, your delivery service was how we were able to get all the equipment we needed to start broadcasting. Those porters brought us a ton of mixing equipment and soundproofing panels and microphones.

Fragile: I'm sure they were happy to help. Quite a few porters at Fragile Express are fans of This American Life, myself included. Your show helps pass the time during those really long trips.

Ira Glass: Well, then this episode is dedicated to all you porters out there. Whether you're up to your elbows in a river or traversing the sheer side of a cliff, thanks for tuning in.

Sarah Koenig: Critics always used to tell me that it would take nothing short of the apocalypse to save broadcast radio. I guess they were right, huh?

Fragile: Radio is timeless! With or without the Death Stranding, I’m sure you would have found a way.

Ira Glass: If we’re talking timelessness here, then you’d know better than anyone else, right? Building a massive delivery empire after a cataclysmic extinction event is no small feat. I don’t know if I should be more impressed with your ingenuity or the longevity of mail delivery as an institution. 

Sarah Koenig: My vote is on Fragile’s ingenuity. Mail doesn’t happen without the people who make it happen.

Ira Glass: Okay, good point. Then I also vote for Fragile.

Fragile: You flatter me too much! The porters at Fragile Express deserve your praise, not me. They’re the moving parts that keep our machinery running. And I can’t even take credit for founding the company—that was my father’s doing. I simply inherited the job from him.

Ira Glass: I don’t know what it’s gonna take for you to accept a compliment, Fragile, but we’ll get there eventually. Although that does bring me to the first question I had for you: how exactly did Fragile Express come to be? You said that your father was behind it all, but what compelled him to build a delivery company from the wreckage of society?

Sarah Koenig: Yeah, was your dad a mail carrier before the Stranding?

Fragile: Oh no, not in the slightest. My father was an office worker. He rarely spoke about his old job, though I believe it did have something to do with tracking goods and supplies, just from an accountant’s perspective. He was all numbers and no packages. 

But being a mailman, that had always been my father’s boyhood dream. When the world ended, I guess he saw an opportunity to fulfill that dream. I’m just not sure if he expected the whole thing to be so successful.

Ira Glass: So wait, let me get this straight: your father, a pencil pusher with no experience in mail delivery whatsoever, saw the gaping hole where the US Postal System used to be and thought to himself, “Yeah, I bet I could do that”?

Fragile: Well, when you put it that way... yep, that’s pretty much it.

Sarah Koenig: That’s incredible. And he decided to name this venture after his beloved daughter?

Fragile: The other way around, actually. He named his daughter after his beloved delivery venture. [LAUGHS] Some big shoes to fill right there.

Sarah Koenig: See, and here I was thinking that Fragile Express was named after its acting head. Like if Amazon had been named “Jeff.”

Ira Glass: I’m still hung up on the fact that your dad created Fragile Express out of nothing. Like, less than nothing. Early civilizations invented mail delivery thousands of years ago, and we’ve been continually perfecting the model ever since then, but he had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch! And with almost no resources available to him! 

It’s almost like, rather than human society coming together to build the mail system, Fragile Express instead used the mail to build another version of human society. Which seems totally impossible to me. 

Fragile: It’s funny you should say that, Ira, because I’ve always thought it was the other way around—that the mail makes the culture. Without the bonds forged by mail carriers, you’re too isolated to stand together as a society. At best you end up with several dozen isolated groups, each their own island of culture, communicating only through warfare. Something as simple as package delivery creates a tangible link and unites those people on common ground. 

Sarah Koenig: And without that common ground, you can’t form bonds. Or build bridges.

Fragile: Exactly.

Ira Glass: You know, I never thought about it that way before, that the mail system builds society and not vice versa. But it does make sense… our institutions exist to support us, not the other way around. 

But that still doesn’t diminish how impressive it is that you and your father created a robust mail system so quickly after a catastrophe that flattened civilization into a pile of rubble. You’ve both done some great work.

Fragile: Thank you, Ira. [SIGHS] I begrudgingly accept your compliment.

Sarah Koenig: Yes!

Ira Glass: [LAUGHS] Finally, we got her!

Sarah Koenig: Hearing about your father’s role in creating Fragile Express has been great, but I’d also love to hear more about your own journey. What was it like to get started running a delivery company?

Fragile: To tell you the truth, I had a pretty rocky start at the top. My father handed me the reins several years ago, shortly before he died, but I didn’t become the official head of Fragile Express until he was gone. And things were shaky at first—I was naive, desperate for guidance, and started running with the wrong crowd. Made some poor choices that almost cost us our reputation. Without help from a few generous souls at BRIDGES, I never would have been able to pull out of that nosedive.

But I’ve been involved in the company for much longer than that. For as long as I can remember, I was always working alongside my father: plotting delivery routes, recruiting new porters, even tagging along with him on trips. He had been hesitant to bring a child with him on the more dangerous treks, until we figured out that I had some… rather useful abilities.

Ira Glass: Now, when you say “abilities,” are you talking about having DOOMS? I hope that’s not rude of me to ask.

Fragile: It’s not rude at all. And I do mean DOOMS, but we didn’t have a name for it back then. We just thought it was an odd quirk that I’d always start tearing up whenever there were BTs nearby. Something between a coincidence and a sixth sense. It saved our hides more than once—like my father’s own little bridge baby!

But I wasn’t the only one who could sense BTs. I actually think most of our porters have DOOMS to some degree, even if they don’t know it. Something about the condition draws people to our line of work. Though I was the only one who could make jumps through space...

Sarah Koenig: Do you mean literally jumping from point A to B? Or is it more like teleporting?

Fragile: That’s kind of hard to explain. It might be easier to show you instead. Hold on for just a moment. 

[BOOMING NOISE]

[EQUIPMENT RATTLES]

Ira Glass: Hey, where’d you go?

Sarah Koenig: Oh my god, Fragile!

Fragile: [MUFFLED] I’m here in the studio with Sarah now. Hi, Sarah!

Ira Glass: Sarah, can you take a second and describe what just happened for our listeners?

Sarah Koenig: I-I’m not sure I can. Give me a moment to pick up my jaw off the floor. 

Okay, so, the best I can explain is that there was a noise like a thunderclap, and then the air seemed to shimmer and rip itself half, and then Fragile was here in the studio with me. This all happened in less than a second. Not quite instantaneous, but almost. Really, she just sort of... appeared.

Ira Glass: From my end it was pretty much the same thing, only in reverse.

Fragile: [MUFFLED] I would jump back to you, Ira, but I need some time to recharge. These jumps take a lot out of me. 

Sarah Koenig: Oh, here—I’ll get you set up with a mic real quick. I wasn’t expecting visitors, but I’ve got plenty of stuff lying around my place. Give me just one second.

[RUSTLING]

Sarah Koenig: Okay, try that out. You should be good to go. 

Fragile: Testing, testing, one two three...

Ira Glass: That’s much better. I can hear you loud and clear.

Sarah Koenig: So, uh, Fragile... I think I see why that would come in handy as a porter. Your journey must be a lot safer when you can instantly jump to your delivery destination with a package in hand.

Fragile: Actually, I can’t bring much with me during a jump. Every now and then I can take something small, like a vial of medicine or a piece of jewelry, but large deliveries are out of the question. I normally have to concentrate to just bring the clothes on my back!

Ira Glass: Oh, no! I hope you didn't find that out the hard way.

Fragile: I did, of course. [LAUGHS] But I certainly learned my lesson.

Sarah Koenig: There have to be other ways it would be useful, right? Like, could you deliver an item on foot, and then just warp back home?

Fragile: Sometimes. I can jump to skip the return trip if I don’t have any deliveries on the way back—although with the way our routes are drawn up, it’s more efficient to make a two-way trip. And jumping is a useful last resort if I get ambushed by BTs, but I’ll lose any cargo in the process. 

I’m afraid the real answer is much less exciting: being able to jump has been vital for the administrative side of Fragile Express.

Ira Glass: Wait, you use your magical jumping powers for admin jobs? How does that even work?

Fragile: See, back before the chiral network was so widespread, the only reliable way to get in touch with our porters was to physically track them down. So we had a massive communication problem—I’d have to send one porter to chase down another porter, then send a third porter to chase after that porter, and so on. Took me way too long to realize that I could just relay those messages myself. Much faster when I jump to a delivery hub with an order slip and ask “Okay, any questions before you head out?” 

Thankfully the chiral network has made things much easier, but I still try to meet with all my porters as often as I can. It helps keep morale up.

Ira Glass: So you really are the glue that keeps Fragile Express together, huh?

Sarah Koenig: Like a human email server, only without the attachments.

Fragile: I’ve never thought of it that way... but I do like the comparison. 

Sarah Koenig: Speaking of admin work, that leads us right into my question: where do you find all of the resources to keep Fragile Express up and running? Do you ever face supply shortages? Or have trouble recruiting new porters?

Fragile: Surprisingly, not at all. Sometimes it can be difficult to track down specific items, given how scattered our world has become, but for the most part we haven’t run into any major issues. The UCA offers us plenty of assistance when we need it, and ordinary civilians have done just as much to help. You wouldn’t believe how many people will offer our porters a place to sleep or a hearty meal. Once I delivered a package to some prepper up in the mountains, way out in the middle of nowhere, and she was so pleased that she gave me a hand-knit sweater.

Ira Glass: Suddenly I feel like I’m not doing enough to thank my porters. I need to take it up a notch.

Fragile: Not at all, Ira. A heartfelt thank you and some Likes are more than enough.

And as for recruiting porters—that’s never been an issue in the slightest. We have people signing up left and right to make deliveries, especially with advancements in the chiral network. Word travels fast these days. If anything, the hardest part is getting my porters to stop making deliveries and take some time for themselves.

Sarah Koenig: What, do you force them to take vacation days?

Fragile: You joke, but I do! Porter syndrome is a real threat. Too many deliveries in a row and they start to get hooked on the thrill of a job well done. I’ve come dangerously close myself. So when our porters start looking a little shifty, I send them off to a hot spring for some mandatory R&R. No MULEs on my watch!

Sarah Koenig: [LAUGHS] Damn, I wish my boss was that nice...

Ira Glass: If that was a jab at me, Sarah, then I should remind you that I haven’t been your boss in years. But I do agree. We could all use a boss like Fragile.

Fragile: Really, I’m just doing the bare minimum!

Ira Glass: Come on, we all know that’s not true. Fragile Express has always gone above and beyond, whether you’re making deliveries or just taking care of your own people.

Fragile: Once again, you flatter me, Ira. But it’s not always picture perfect. Even with support from the UCA and advancements in the chiral network, we still have a wide margin of error for delivery rates. We do our best, but... not every package makes it to its destination. And when it does, it’s not always in one piece. Or on time.

Sarah Koenig: I mean, it’s totally understandable if a package gets lost or delayed. You guys go through hell to make deliveries and don’t even charge a dime.

Fragile: Of course. We’ve never asked for any kind of money or compensation.

Sarah Koenig: Now, just a quick note here for any listeners who are too young to remember: money is what we called those little pieces of paper we used to exchange for goods and services. You know, back before the Stranding.

Ira Glass: [GROANS] Well now I feel like a total dinosaur. To think kids these days might not even know what money is... the world really has changed, hasn’t it?

Sarah Koenig: If it makes you feel any better, Ira, then I’m just a slightly younger dinosaur. The meteor’s coming for us both.

Fragile: You two already survived a mass extinction. That makes you mammals, not dinosaurs!

Ira Glass: Like, money was absolutely everything. Money was the thing we always had to beg our listeners to donate whenever our federal funding got slashed, remember?

Sarah Koenig: Believe me, I remember. And I don’t miss it. That's one good thing to come out of the Death Stranding—no more pledge drives. The UCA gives us all the support we need nowadays.

Ira Glass: I just... it's crazy to think that we managed to reach that utopian ideal, actually creating a world without money, and all it took was the apocalypse. Talk about rising from the ashes.

Sarah Koenig: You’ve always been the optimist between us, Ira. But I think you might be right. Anyway, I’m sorry to take us so far off topic. Fragile doesn’t need to hear us bellyaching about our golden years.

Fragile: It's no trouble at all, Sarah. I always enjoy hearing stories of life before the Stranding. Makes me wish I’d been there to see it myself.

Ira Glass: [LAUGHS] That’s the most polite way anyone's ever called me “old” before. So thank you for that.

Fragile: I’m serious! I’d love to hear more from you and Sarah about the differences between pre- and post-Stranding life. Aside from the obvious things, of course.

Sarah Koenig: What, like BTs?

Fragile: Exactly. Or timefall.

Ira Glass: You know, that’s a great question, actually. But I don’t even know where to start.

Sarah Koenig: Well, let me pose a slightly different question: do you think your life got better or worse after the Death Stranding?

Ira Glass: Huh, you know... I've never actually thought about it.

Sarah Koenig: Really?

Ira Glass: I mean, not consciously at least. The obvious answer would be of course my life is worse! We pretty much lived through the apocalypse!

Sarah Koenig: If you put it like that, then sure. Seems like a negative.

Ira Glass: But I don't know... is my life actually worse now? I think my main takeaway is that I just miss stuff from the old days. You know what I mean?

Sarah Koenig: Of course. Like my cell phone. [LAUGHS] Or being able to order takeout whenever I wanted, or watching crummy reality TV.

Ira Glass: God, I do miss the crummy reality TV. We gotta bring that back. Maybe the Real Housewives of Capital Knot City.

Fragile: One of our delivery clients is a rather prolific filmmaker. Perhaps I can put you two in touch?

Ira Glass: If this radio thing doesn’t work out, I will definitely take you up on that.

Sarah Koenig: You didn’t answer my question, though. 

Ira Glass: You didn’t answer it either! Tell me, do you think your life is worse?

Sarah Koenig: I don’t, personally. A lot of things in my life are better now. Like you said: no money, no mortgage, no overbearing boss named Ira...

Ira Glass: Hey!

Sarah Koenig: No, but seriously. Things are still hard these days, obviously, but a lot of the misery and drudgery of our old lives just disappeared. I don’t miss the crowded streets or the bloated corporations or the unmitigated human suffering on every corner. 

Ira Glass: I get your point. But things weren’t all bad, right? We had plenty of good in the world back then, too.

Sarah Koenig: That’s true. If anything, I think the Stranding wiped out a lot of things that were bogging down the fundamental goodness of humanity. All we have now is each other, and we have to work together to survive. Maybe even thrive.

Ira Glass: And groups like Fragile Express have played a huge part in that—they embody everything positive about the human spirit, our resilience and our dedication to helping one another.

Fragile: It’s not just me. It’s all of us. We’re building this new world together.

Sarah Koenig: Then we’re in good company, aren’t we?

Ira Glass: Fragile, it’s been great having you on our show, but we’re almost out of time here. Just one last question to wrap things up: what’s the strangest thing delivery request you’ve ever received?

Fragile: Well, we get a lot of requests for things that I probably can’t discuss on the radio. But honestly, the strangest request we’ve ever gotten was one guy who ordered a pizza.

Ira Glass: Did you honor his request?

Fragile: Of course!

[MUSIC - “I’M GONNA BE (500 MILES)” BY THE PROCLAIMERS]

[SINGING] But I would walk five hundred miles, and I would walk five hundred more, just to be the man who walks a thousand miles to fall down at your door...

Ira Glass: Up next: making the most of a bad situation isn’t always easy. But to some sufferers of this rare and poorly-understood medical condition, they see their affliction as a superpower, not a burden—even when that superpower involves visions of shambling atrocities. That’s coming up, when our program continues.

Chapter Text

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Act Two: Hope In the Face of Certain DOOMS

Ira Glass: It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we select a theme, then bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's show: Untangling the Knot. Stories about some of the ways our world has transformed dramatically after the Death Stranding, and the other ways that, despite all odds, it has remained stubbornly the same. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two: Hope In the Face of Certain DOOMS.

Most of the time when people talk about DOOMS, we describe it like any other disease: something that ails you, a condition from which you suffer. But rather than saying that they suffer from DOOMS, many people with heightened chiralium sensitivities prefer to think of it as something advantageous, like a window into another world.

In our last segment we spoke with the head of Fragile Express, who described several ways that DOOMS has been a positive force in her life—and it turns out she’s far from alone. One of our producers, Sean Cole, brings us this story.

Sean Cole: When we asked our listeners to call in and share their stories of living with DOOMS, we didn't get many responses. At first we just assumed they were embarrassed, too ashamed to admit that they can sense the presence of tormented souls trapped between life and death. But actually, it was a lot simpler than that: most people don’t even realize they have DOOMS in the first place. With such a wide range of effects between different levels and so little understanding of the mechanisms that drive the condition, it’s no wonder. 

So instead we tried a different approach and just asked listeners to share their stories about BTs. It turns out that most people who have a run-in with a BT (and live to tell the tale) have some form of DOOMS. Because for a lot of people, DOOMS is almost like a superpower, this heightened sense of awareness that lets them survive encounters that would be fatal for normal people. They just don't always have a name for it.

Caller 1: We were taking a transport truck, uh, driving through an area with some spotty timefall, right? And I started to feel this awful tingling, like all up in my arms and legs, my neck, and it got worse when we started heading towards this one spot out in the wash. It wasn’t even a tingling feeling anymore, just this searing pain that got stronger the closer we got to this one spot, so bad I had tears squeezing out of my eyes. 

I kept begging and begging to take a different route, please, I knew I sounded crazy but I couldn’t take it any longer. So the driver gave in and took us off in a different direction, and wouldn’t you know it, I looked back and saw the ground in that area turning to black goo right behind us. We would’ve been toast if I hadn’t gotten the tingles.

Sean Cole: Narrowly surviving death seemed to be a common theme.

Caller 2: One time, back when we were kids, my twin brother and I were out sledding, down on some rolling hills just outside the city. [SNORTS] Stupid move on our part, but the winter had been mild and we were a pair of reckless little devils back then. We had a great time horsing around in the snow, of course, and then we were heading back home when I swear I saw these shadowy figures on the horizon. Not really humans, but human-shaped, almost drifting through the flurries. And I heard these whispers, like something scratching around inside of my head. 

I froze. My brother definitely didn’t see the figures, because he would have hauled ass at something like that, so he froze too. Twin instinct. And we just stood there for ages, felt like hours to a couple of kids, while I watched those things drift around blocking our path. Eventually the sky opened up and they all disappeared, and the voices stopped too, so I grabbed his hand and made a break for it. We got home just fine, but I had tears streaming down my face the whole time. Embarrassing as hell for a twelve-year-old.

Sean Cole: Crying was another frequent experience among callers. In fact, it seemed to be the only consistent thread between any of these anecdotes. Other symptoms were all over the board: while some people merely felt a bit clammy in the presence of a BT, others would black out instantly. Where one caller reported seeing a blinding halo of light, another described a dark cloud of gnat-like particles. 

But at least 95% of the stories we heard involved some amount of tears shed. Not like in a “crying because you’re afraid you’re gonna die” way, not even like a reflex, but something more hard-wired than that. Almost biological.

Dr. Braverman: In the same way that conventional allergies may provoke a variety of responses among sufferers, no two people with DOOMS will have identical symptoms—despite sharing an initial trigger.

Sean Cole: So I spoke with Dr. Lawrence Braverman, a chiral immunologist at Bridget Strand Memorial Hospital, to get some answers.

Dr. Braverman: It’s similar to how some people with hay fever just get a runny nose or slight cough, but other people might break out in hives. And some lucky ducks are completely unaffected by pollen. Everyone’s different.

Sean Cole: So then DOOMS is like an allergy?

Dr. Braverman: DOOM isn’t just like an allergy—it is an allergy! Increased tear production is one of the most common reactions to any allergic trigger. Which is why it’s so common with DOOMS patients.

Sean Cole: That's a lot more mundane than I expected. I always thought DOOMS was like, some spooky supernatural phenomenon.

Dr. Braverman: Aw, I hate to burst your bubble. If it’s any consolation, though, there’s plenty of stuff we still don’t know about DOOMS. Which I think is pretty spooky. 

Sean Cole: Well, what exactly do we know about DOOMS?

Dr. Braverman: We know that it’s caused by a heightened sensitivity to chiralium. There’s chiralium everywhere around us, of course, ever since the Death Stranding, but you can find the highest concentration of chiralium in areas populated by BTs. That’s why chiralium sensitivities are most obvious when the person affected comes into contact with a BT, though there are other symptoms that can occur even without the presence of BTs: intense and disturbing dreams, emotional distress, increased aversion to timefall.

Sean Cole: That makes sense. And it’s the chiralium that’s responsible for all of this, for these symptoms?

Dr. Braverman: Sort of. But not exactly. Chiralium may start the chain of events, but your body’s own allergic response is what actually causes any somatic symptoms. Your immune system starts attacking its own cells in response to this perceived threat. The chiralium itself is mostly harmless.

Sean Cole: [LAUGHS WEAKLY] I think you lost me again.

Sean Cole: Here Dr. Braverman attempts to explain several aspects of autoimmune dysfunction, the difference between IgG and IgE antibodies, and how histamine is activated in mast cells. Some of the finer points were wasted on me. So to spare myself the embarrassment of that exchange, let’s just skip to the part where it all clicks.

Dr. Braverman: Think of it this way: remember those old Peanuts cartoons?

Sean Cole: Yeah, of course.

Dr. Braverman: Your immune system is like Charlie Brown. And the allergen—in this case, chiralium—is Lucy. 

Sean Cole: I’m with you so far.

Dr. Braverman: She’s holding a football. Now go on, try to kick it. 

Sean Cole: Ah, the inevitable betrayal. She pulls the football away.  

Dr. Braverman: And you come crashing down—all that momentum has to go somewhere. So your immune system gears itself up against this supposed threat, Lucy’s elusive football, but the response is too aggressive. You only end up hurting yourself in the process. That’s what puts the “auto” in “autoimmune.”

And this self-inflicted damage causes systemic inflammation throughout the body, which translates to a variety of different symptoms. That’s what you feel when you have an allergic reaction, whether it’s caused by a shellfish allergy or hay fever or DOOMS.

Sean Cole: Let me get this straight... you’re basically saying that people with DOOMS aren’t directly affected by BTs, but instead they’re having a reaction to the chiralium emitted by BTs? And it’s this reaction, which is really just their own body attacking itself, that causes DOOMS?

Dr. Braverman: In a nutshell.

Sean Cole: But like, some people with DOOMS can literally see BTs in front of them. How does chiral hay fever cause a symptom like that?

Dr. Braverman: [SIGHS] Well, that’s one of those spooky things I mentioned earlier. Even though we know a lot about autoimmune responses, we still don’t know much about chiralium. From a medical perspective, it’s a completely brand new concept, to speak nothing of the BTs themselves... we have very little data on any of these things.

Sean Cole: Right, not exactly easy to study something that could kill you and cause a voidout at any moment.

Dr. Braverman: [LAUGHS] Not particularly, no.

Sean Cole: Do we at least know why some people have DOOMS and others don’t? Or why the symptoms seem to vary so widely between patients?

Dr. Braverman: Well, yes and no. We know that certain people are just predisposed to heightened allergic responses in general, and chiral allergies are no exception. It may be something you’re born with, or something you grow into as your immune system shifts over time, or something you develop based on exposure to certain allergens. 

It’s less clear why chiral allergies have such wild and unpredictable symptoms. Some researchers think that the severity of a patient’s allergic response may correlate with their DOOMS level. Perhaps people with heightened sensitivities to chiralium have more pronounced symptoms and therefore stronger “abilities."

Sean Cole: Huh, that’s interesting. Maybe the symptoms are the superpower.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your findings, Dr. Braverman. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Dr. Braverman: Of course! I only wish I had more concrete answers for you—there are clearly more factors at work that we have yet to discover. Chiralium isn’t quick to part with its secrets!

Sean Cole: Talking to Dr. Braverman gave us more insight into what DOOMS is, or at least what causes it, but this still wasn’t the full story. We wanted to know what it’s like to actually live with DOOMS. 

So we tracked down some of the callers from the beginning of this segment—which proved to be difficult—and managed to coax a few of them into doing an interview. One of our producers, Miki Meek, went looking for answers. And what she found was rather surprising.

Miki Meek: You said you can smell BTs?

Interviewee 1: Yes, ma’am, that is correct. 

Sean Cole: Some found humor in their condition.

Miki Meek: What do BTs smell like, exactly? Burning flesh? The anguished souls of the damned?

Interviewee 1: Not quite. I imagine it’s different for everyone... but for me, BTs smell like peanut butter.

Miki Meek: You’re kidding. Peanut butter?

Interviewee 1: Dead serious. [CHUCKLES] Betcha weren’t expecting that one.

Miki Meek: No, I definitely wasn’t expecting that. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it: ordinary peanut butter? Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? 

Interviewee 1: No jelly, just peanut butter. But the resemblance is uncanny.

Miki Meek: So if you’re walking along and everything’s fine, but the scent of peanut butter hits your nostrils, then you know to get out of there?

Interviewee 1: Yes, ma’am. 

Miki Meek: And how does that affect your day-to-day life?

Interviewee 1: Not much, to tell you the truth. These days I rarely spend any time outside city limits, so I don’t need my nose to guide me. But it’s a fun story to tell when you’re out with your drinking buddies. 

Miki Meek: The first time you noticed the peanut butter smell, what tipped you off to danger? 

Interviewee 1: Oh no, the first time I noticed that smell, I ran straight away. Without hesitation.

Miki Meek: And what prompted that reaction? If I smelled peanut butter I’d probably start looking for lunch, not for a BT.

Interviewee 1: Well, that’s an easy one: I’m deathly allergic to peanuts. [LAUGHS UPROARIOUSLY]

Sean Cole: Others found a sense of hope, even wonder.

Interviewee 2: The connection I have with these wandering entities, these spirits, is forged entirely through dreams.

Miki Meek: You see BTs in your dreams?

Interviewee 2: Yes, I see them. Though they prefer to be thought of as the lost souls of the departed, seeking their way back to rightful ground.

Miki Meek: How do you know these dreams are actually connected to the lost souls, and aren’t just dreams about them?

Interviewee 2: They tell me things. About where they are going, where they have been. I have corroborated their testimony with my fellow spiritualists, those who also have the gift of sight, and have found the spirits always appear in their stated location.

Miki Meek: You mean other people will see BTs—I mean, spirits, in the areas you predict? That’s incredible.

Interviewee 2: Not a prediction, darling. Simply passing along firsthand information. But yes, they always appear as stated. I warn others to keep a wide breadth from these locations, as we all know the harm that ensues when the living interfere with the undead’s affairs.

Miki Meek: Definitely a useful tip. But how have these dreams affected you at all? Are they disturbing?

Interviewee 2: Quite the opposite. I find great comfort in knowing that something awaits us beyond this life, and great excitement in the unknowns that remain. We know death is not the end. One day I hope to join those extant souls, though I do not know when my time will be.

Sean Cole: But for most people who have it, DOOMS is a once-broken knee that aches whenever there's a thunderstorm brewing: a little painful, but useful enough to be worth all the hassle.

Interviewee 3: My symptoms are pretty mundane. Chills, goosebumps, tears. I can’t even see them with the naked eye. But in my line of work, being able to sense BTs at all gets you a lot of job offers.

Miki Meek: And what line of work is that?

Interviewee 3: Making deliveries, mostly. Typical porter stuff.

Miki Meek: Oh, you’re a porter! Do you find that having DOOMS impacts your life on the job?

Interviewee 3: Sorta. Delivery company already gives us bridge babies, so it’s not like I would be screwed without it. Mostly I just get headaches from the chiralium whenever I get caught in timefall. But I guess I do feel a little safer with DOOMS.

Miki Meek: Safer how? 

Interviewee 3: You know, like I can rely on my own instincts. Still gotta be careful, obviously, but I can keep a handle on the danger before it gets overwhelming. And my bridge baby helps too—when I have him equipped, I can actually see the BTs in front of me, somehow. It’s like he enhances my abilities.

Miki Meek: Wow, I didn’t know bridge babies could do that! You must make quite the pair.

Interviewee 3: Yeah... it’s just the two of us out there, tiptoeing past death. And whenever he cries, I cry too. Perfectly in sync. 

[MUSIC - “(NOTHING BUT) FLOWERS” BY TALKING HEADS]

[SINGING] From the age of the dinosaurs, cars have run on gasoline. Where, where have they gone? Now it’s nothing but flowers...

Chapter Text

Act Three: All Dogs Go to the Beach

Ira Glass: That brings us to the final segment of today’s program, Act Three: All Dogs Go to the Beach. So far all of our stories have been about humans, the ways we’ve adapted to this new post-Stranding world and attempted to rebuild our lives in the process, often with surprising familiarity. But we haven’t the only ones affected by this change: what about the animals in our lives? 

Now, our pets still can’t talk—at least not the last time I checked—or else this might be a very different kind of radio program. Luckily for us, we have writers who can imagine what it might be like for them to live through such an earth-shaking event. Peter Englert brings us one such story.

Peter Englert: At the ripe old age of fourteen, Droopy the Basset Hound was living out her golden years and enjoying every minute of it. Sure, her joints were old and tired, and her vision was beginning to dim around the edges, and her paw pads were worn as smooth as a cloudless sky. But none of this bothered Droopy—she was content meandering through life at a leisurely pace.

Droopy shared a bunker with her human companion, whom she referred to as Her Very Best Friend In The Whole Wide World, or simply Best Friend for short. Best Friend was strong and kind and a generous giver of belly rubs, but he was not terribly bright, as much as it pained Droopy to admit. Her frequent attempts to make conversation with Best Friend were met with blank smiles and the occasional pat on the head, a response she found both endearing and mildly irritating. She supposed Best Friend simply lacked the mental faculty to understand basic canine communication—despite her unmatched elocution—so she contented herself with the wordless gestures of love that Best Friend seemed to grasp: slippers fetched from another room, scraps of food passed beneath the dining table, and so on.

In her younger days they lived in a busy city full of other humans and other dogs and great big machines made of metal, but an awful commotion had driven them into the mountains where they now lived, alone but for each other. Droopy didn’t mind the move; there were fewer things to smell out here in the countryside, but the wide expanse of greenery on all sides more than made up for it. Best Friend, though, was having a tougher time adjusting to the change. He was always glancing over his shoulder, scanning the horizon with an apprehensive gaze, and sleeping in short, restless fits. Droopy stayed close and guarded Best Friend at all times, not sure what she was protecting him from but remaining vigilant all the same.

Old though she was, Droopy’s nose was still as keen as a newborn pup’s.

[DOG BARKING]

They went out for walks three or four times each day, weather permitting, which gave Best Friend the chance to stretch his legs and Droopy the chance to take care of private business. Their odds of being accidentally separated were nearly zero, but Best Friend still preferred to be led along on a leash—a request which Droopy obliged in good spirits. She tugged gently, steering Best Friend this way and that, taking care to lead them alongside the bubbling brooks and through the sloping ravines. They never encountered another soul, human or canine, though Droopy sometimes swore she could see groups of shadowy humans congregated in the distance. Best Friend appeared not to notice or perhaps just didn’t care. Droopy was happy to be the sole object of his affections, and so she let the matter be.

Best Friend would nervously pull on his leash whenever it grew cloudy, urging Droopy to follow him back to shelter. Sure, even back in their city days he had hated to go out in the muck, but this was entirely new—now he acted like a cornered squirrel whenever the sky threatened to open. Droopy sighed woefully at this behavior, but ultimately she found it harmless to indulge him: didn’t we all have irrational fears, deep down? So she padded along dutifully beside Best Friend during these episodes, noting quietly to herself that country rain did smell a little different. City rain had carried the stench of pollution, but out here its scent was much more subtle, a blend of wintergreen and asphalt and untamped soil that formed an oddly cloying mixture.

There were other alarming changes in Best Friend’s behavior besides this newfound paranoia: his footfalls were heavier and more labored, he spent whole afternoons languishing in bed, his coffee sat untouched for hours until it was undrinkably cold. And his scent, once familiar and reassuring, had also grown unfamiliar—where Droopy had formerly picked up hints of aftershave and roast beef sandwiches, she now found the musty tones of an old broom closet. She hated to appear clingy, but Droopy couldn’t bear to tear herself away from Best Friend’s side. 

On days when Best Friend seemed especially out of it, Droopy would fetch him a pair of thick woolen socks and say, through a series of affable tail wags: My Very Best Friend In The Whole Wide World, please stay here. Get some rest. I am perfectly capable of going out alone, should you only be so kind as to open the bunker door for me. I promise that I will return to your side at once.

But, as always, these exhortations were lost on Best Friend. He would haul himself to an upright position, mechanically put on his socks and boots and coat, and scratch Droopy behind the ear before removing the leash off its peg. She, in turn, would sigh and begrudgingly lead the pair outside, vowing to make their walk quick.

It was on one of these walks when Best Friend suddenly collapsed. It had taken him longer than usual to get out of bed that morning, moving in stiff bursts like a wan, empty-eyed ghost. He didn’t even make it five paces outside before crumpling to the ground in a heap.

Best Friend lay face down against the earth, unmoving. The leash slipped from his grasp. 

For a moment, Droopy froze—canine and human locked together in a single horrific tableau. But she came to her senses at once and lunged into action, barking with all the strength afforded by her windy old lungs. She nudged Best Friend with her snout, attempting to roll him onto his back, but Droopy was not a particularly large Basset Hound and Best Friend was not a particularly small human. Her efforts, valiant though they were, were ultimately futile.

By this point her barking had dwindled to a low, deep whine. Droopy sent a probing nose into the hollow space between Best Friend’s face and the compacted dirt, looking for some telltale sign of airflow, but she found only an oppressive stillness.

Droopy thought of the old city dogs whose owners had suddenly fallen ill: how they were carted away in those boxy metal machines, how they sometimes returned and sometimes did not. But she couldn’t  imagine anyone was coming to help Best Friend, not all the way out here. Droopy threw her head back and mimicked the shrill cry of those machines, sending a piercing distress signal through the hollow wilds.

[DOG HOWLING]

She paced the length of Best Friend’s body for quite some time—minutes, hours, who could say?—before finally curling up at his feet, huddling against herself for warmth.. 

She awoke to find that the sun had moved halfway across the sky and Best Friend had not moved at all. Droopy noted, with the detached curiosity of the newly grieving, that his odd musty scent had grown much stronger. 

A light wind began to pick up. Droopy scanned the surrounding wilds, but she found that they were no less alone than before. Best Friend’s only hope rested squarely on her aching shoulders. She sighed as she rose to her feet, shook the cricks out of each leg one by one, and weighed her options. 

She considered the groups of blurry humans that often lurked in the distance and wondered, with a furrowed brow, whether she could petition them for assistance. You never really knew with strangers, especially human strangers, but at this point it seemed like a worthwhile gamble. Even Best Friend would have to agree—you couldn’t rough it alone.

Droopy squinted into the light, vaguely recalling all the times she'd spotted those distant humans but failing to remember where, exactly. She fixated on a faraway spot and decided that this was as good a direction as any. 

With only a moment’s hesitation to look back at Best Friend, Droopy took off running, leash whipping behind her like a dancer’s ribbon.

But this burst of energy was short-lived; the sun had hardly sunk behind the foothills before Droopy felt herself tiring, each year of her long and wisened life weighing heavily in her bones. She slowed to a trot and reconsidered: was this really such a valiant plan after all, or was she merely charging headlong into danger? And was she even going the right way? Surely she would have run into someone by now, or at least picked up their trail. But, she reasoned, humans were restless creatures. There was no way to zero in on their exact location without first sweeping a much larger area. Even a scent hound was only capable of so much. So she continued through the long night, trudging on beneath the crescent moon, only stopping at dawn to sleep fitfully for a few more hours. 

Her journey took her across a smattering of rivers and ponds from which she sipped generously. Each body of water was pristine, their taste and scent both unmarred by the trappings of civilization. She found her thirst abundantly quenched and her strength revitalized. Droopy’s hunger was also sated by the strange mounds of fungus dotting the landscape, which were host to swarms of small, plump creatures that sailed through the air. These tiny tidbits were roughly the size of kibble and about as crunchy, but their flavor was far more succulent—like dandelion stems and bone marrow.

She plodded along. Another night and day passed before Droopy finally caught wind of her target. Multiple targets, in fact: she identified at least half a dozen unique scents woven together in a single odorous strand. She followed the trail cautiously, keeping any enthusiasm at a low simmer lest her quarry turn out to be an ordinary herd of deer. But the scent grew more pronounced as she followed its course, reaching an olfactory crescendo of sweat and soap and freeze-dried meal packets, and Droopy kept her nose pressed steadily to the ground. Her tail wagged excitedly, despite herself. There was something comforting about a scent so distinctly human.

The odorous trail snaked its way up a rolling hill, which Droopy climbed in great, heaving strides. From the summit she had an impressive vantage point over the area below. She drank in the view with renewed excitement, despite her poor vision, and surveyed the valley before her. She could just make out a variety of blurry shapes: some large and immobile, others smaller and drifting about. These smaller shapes were roughly human in size and shape. If she had to wager a guess, then she’d found her target—they seemed different up close, not at all like the distant humans she remembered, but time and distance each had ways of playing tricks on the mind. This was certainly the place.

Droopy scrambled down the slope, gravity pulling her faster than her legs ever could. She became tangled in the leash about halfway down, somersaulting over herself in a dreadful display of ungainliness. She landed at the bottom with a thud that kicked up clouds of dirt on all sides. But as the dust settled, Droopy was delighted to find her intuition was correct: there were no fewer than ten humans right before her very eyes.

The larger shapes turned out to be a series of open-air tents spread out across the valley, about a dozen in total, all flanked by a series of tall metal beacons. Clearly some kind of settlement. Each human was dutifully carrying packages back and forth between the tents, stacking and unstacking their parcels in practiced, mechanical motions.

They reminded Droopy of the deliveryhumans who sometimes came by the bunker with packages for Best Friend, always equipped with a friendly grin and a treat or two. But Droopy couldn’t see these humans’ faces at all—they all wore masks and helmets that obscured their faces entirely. 

None of the humans seemed to notice Droopy’s ungainly entrance. Not one of them so much as glanced in her direction. Their task, whatever it was, must have been terribly engrossing.

Still, this was hardly the time to be shy. Droopy cleared her throat and launched into the speech she’d spent the last two days rehearsing:

Friends, humans, countrymen, she barked, lend me your ears. I come to you with the utmost urgency. My very dearest friend—a human, in fact, one of your own kind—has fallen ill. As a mere canine, she continued, punctuating each bark with a certain sort of doggy pathos, I am helpless to act alone. Please follow me at once. I fear our time may already be running out. 

Her barks echoed briefly across the valley before giving way to silence. No reaction. The deliveryhumans continuing shuttling packages back and forth as if nothing unusual had occurred. Droopy sighed at her predicament, once again cursing humans for their inability (or maybe unwillingness) to breach the language gap. Honestly, if she could understand so many inane commands without issue—”sit” and “stay” and “roll over and play dead with your tongue sticking out in a wholly embarrassing fashion”—couldn’t they at least put in a little effort? 

Droopy trotted over to the nearest box-stacking figure, hoping that actions would speak louder than words, and politely nudged the back of their leg. But the masked human continued to ignore her, instead picking up the hefty pile of containers and carrying it off in the opposite direction. Droopy scrambled out of the way, narrowly avoiding a boot to the head, which caused the human to stumble over her leash and drop a small parcel without noticing. Perhaps, she thought to herself, a good deed would curry favor with this mysterious bunch.

Several things occurred all at once: 

Droopy picked up the fallen package, gently curling her lips over her teeth so as not to puncture its plastic casing. 

The deliveryhuman turned around to search for the missing item and noticed that a dog had wandered into their camp—a dog who appeared to be stealing a piece of cargo.

Another nearby human pointed at Droopy in an act of wordless accusation, then let out an impossibly high shriek.

The beacons dotting the camp’s perimeter sent out a sonar ping to triangulate Droopy’s location.

And the rest of the masked deliveryhumans began to close in around her.

Droopy stood still at first, tail wagging idly, just happy to have drawn attention to herself at last. But as the group converged upon her, she spotted some of the humans brandishing weapons that crackled with electricity. It quickly became clear that this was not the kind of attention she wanted.

She bolted and wove through the crowd, skidding for purchase across the dirt and grass. Deliveryhumans lunged with their arms outstretched as they attempted to stop her, but Droopy was too quick—she wove right through their legs, sending them tumbling through the air. 

Two more humans piloting sleek machines converged on her flank. The leftmost rider drove out in front of Droopy, making an obvious pass to cut her off, but she simply turned on her heels and took off in the opposite direction. She was pleased to discover even an old hound could outmaneuver a bunch of clumsy bipeds, and outmaneuver them she did on her four old legs.

Droopy bounded across the landscape with all the power and adrenaline she could muster. She didn’t think to drop the package until she was nearly past the edge of camp. The item was of no interest to Droopy, but it clearly meant a great deal to her attackers—they could keep it if they wanted it so badly.

She continued on and on, not daring to stop or look back until her legs gave out from beneath her. Droopy lay on her side, panting and wheezing and cursing her rotten luck. At least, she noted with bitter consolation, nobody was following her anymore.

Droopy groaned. She really blew it. Her one chance to get help, and she blew it big time. It was unclear if she had acted out of line or if these humans were just particularly hostile, but it hardly mattered when the end result was the same: Best Friend was still alone, defenseless, and very far away. Droopy wasn’t even sure which direction would lead her back to Best Friend, let alone how much distance separated them. 

And just to kick her when she was already down, storm clouds were now gathering rapidly on the horizon, their bellies dark with the threat of rain. Droopy trained a wary eye towards the scene. Even out here all alone she could feel the phantom tug on the leash, so ingrained was Best Friend’s nervous mission to steer them out of harm’s way. But where Droopy had once found this behavior laughable, perhaps even a tad pathetic, she now found herself agreeing with his judgment—maybe it was time to seek shelter.

Maybe Best Friend was smarter than she’d realized.

She rose to her feet and began walking again, walking more than she had ever walked in her entire life, searching for any kind of refuge from the imminent storm. She was lucky enough to encounter a small outcropping about half a mile away, a stony shelf nestled against a hill with just enough overhang to accommodate a medium-sized Basset hound. Droopy settled into the niche and made herself as comfortable as she could among the rocks.

Best Friend’s old leash spilled out into the open air. Droopy leered at the filthy piece of cloth, both amused and annoyed that it had clung to her for so long, though by now it was hanging on by a mere thread. She should have chewed the damn thing off days ago. Without Best Friend holding the other end, it was worse than useless.

It wasn’t long before the rain let loose, its drops falling just inches from Droopy’s face. She realized, with sad amusement, that this was the first time she’d been caught out in a downpour since her city days.

The rain’s scent was even stronger up close: a sticky mix of asphalt, wintergreen, and freshly-plowed soil. The soil smell, at least, finally had a traceable source—this bizarre countryside rain seemed to kick up the earth, teasing and taming new sprouts in quick succession, fast-forwarding through an endless cycle of rebirth. She’d never seen anything like it.

Droopy sat like this for some time, watching the rain idly. There was nothing scary about it up close. Curiosity prodded her to walk out into the storm, to invite the sensation of rain upon her skin after such a long dry spell, but exhaustion kept her rooted firmly in place.

She thought her imagination was playing tricks on her when she spotted blurry human figures on the horizon. They were reminiscent of the figures she sometimes saw on her walks with Best Friend, but much closer than ever before. 

Droopy squinted through the haze. The humans were approaching her.

The dark silhouettes eventually came into focus against the backdrop of Droopy’s aging vision. Upon closer inspection, their bodies were made of something far more nebulous and ill-defined than ordinary flesh. The figures were indeed human-shaped, but each body was made up of a thousand smaller particles that moved in unison like a dense cloud of gnats, floating aimlessly above the earth. They were bound by tethers that disappeared up into the clouds, which, Droopy noted, looked an awful lot like leashes.

One of these bodies was strangely familiar.

It wasn’t its shape or height that Droopy found recogniziable—no, she swore she could smell something different about this floating figure. A certain brand of aftershave. Roast beef sandwiches with too much onion.

Best Friend.

He looked nothing like himself: faceless, ethereal, drifting in the wind. But she recognized his posture, the size of his frame, and the comforting scent of home. Nothing else could ever come close.

Droopy stared at this strange new version of Her Very Best Friend In The Whole Wide World. Even now she wanted nothing more than to stand by his side, to bring him his slippers, to be pulled along on a too-short leash. She stood up and stepped into the rain—hesitantly at first, then bounding forward in huge steps. 

The rain was cool but not cold, and it bore down on all sides like a tight embrace. Droopy felt herself growing stiff, her wrinkles deepening, her ears dragging even lower along the ground, but she continued running with all her might. Best Friend’s shape turned to look at her and held out its arms in welcome. She closed the remaining distance with a final joint-rending push off the ground, propelling herself through the rain in slow motion. 

Droopy’s heart leapt as she sailed towards him—her human, her Best Friend, with whom she had been reunited at long last.

[MUSIC - “IT’S RAINING AGAIN” BY SUPERTRAMP]

[SINGING] Oh, it’s raining again... oh no, my love’s at an end... oh no, it’s raining again... too bad I’m losing a friend...

Ira Glass: That was Peter Englert, reading a piece of short fiction from his latest book: Voidout Johnny (and Other Bedtime Stories), available from a delivery service near you.

[SINGING] C’mon, you little fighter! No need to get uptighter! C’mon you little fighter, and get back up again...

Credits

Ira Glass: Our program was produced today by Danna Chivvis and Nadia Reiman.  Our staff includes Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Kimberly Henderson, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, B.A. Parker, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editor is Diane Wu, and our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Sarah Koenig, who used to be one of our producers on the show. Sarah, we miss you! Be sure to check out her podcast, Serial—season seven is out now, and it follows the story of a bridge baby gone missing, taking us down some very unexpected rabbit holes in the process. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Whether you’re a porter out on the road or a prepper in the confines of your own home, you can stream our entire archive of episodes, for free, on thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our program’s co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he was telling me about the time his mom tried to take him to a Cher concert as a kid, but by the time they arrived all the tickets were sold out:

Caller 2: We got home just fine, but I had tears streaming down my face the whole time. Embarrassing as hell for a twelve-year-old.

Ira Glass: I’m Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.