Exhibit 1: A Good Impact Crater Is Hard To Find
A crater. Just a big, circular hole in the ground, right? Not so. It takes a trained eye to identify the high-pressure, high-temperature rock formations created by foreign impacts: the breccia lens, shatter cones, and shocked quartz. As you travel through our museum, look into the crater. What impact remains can be seen?
The day I went back, the museum was already unlocked. The door handle jiggled in my palm, the loose pebble that begins an avalanche. I played this moment in my head in the six months since Syl died, imagined the scent of earth and heat, the warmth of the displays, how my sister’s voice would not be arcing before me, over me. How the dust would swirl in the space behind me, settle where she was not.
I was grateful this was not the case.
The simulator was running, its light streaking, reflecting off the dismal, coffin-colored walls. As it shouted over cobwebs, echoed in the dove-grey morning, a foreboding looped itself in my stomach, cold and clammy and wrenching. Not quite a circle, the simulator was built to fit in the center of the museum, with two openings on opposite sides. Inside, each wall played, replayed the video, showing the impact that formed our crater, the decimation. Meteors painted around the outside, neon against the night sky background. The thing was enormous, dense. The announcer’s voice echoed.
A HUNDRED THOUSAND YEARS AGO, A METEOR GAVE BIRTH TO THIS CRATER—
I sprinted to shut it off, the extent of my repair knowledge. Because our family owned the crater, built the museum, Grandpa was in charge of maintenance. He trained my younger sister instead of me to tinker with the displays, cajole them into starting when they sank into disrepair. It was only through their combined efforts the museum stayed afloat. Now, I feared what awaited me.
Across the museum’s main room, Grandpa stood at Colossal Craters, jabbing the buttons. His fingertaps like clods of dirt striking the ground.
“Didn’t you give me your keys a few months ago? The first time I mentioned reopening?”
He shook his head. Eyes milked of color, greyish and damp. Slick like rocks under waterfalls, in caves. On the Colossal Crater display board he lit up the following words: Chicxulub: Surrounded by cenotes. Crater associated with the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs.
A scarlet light bled on the map in front of him, somewhere in South America.
“Can you just tell me, did you open that door?”
He coughed. “Told you. We shouldn’t reopen.” When he shifted, I caught a glimpse of the spare keys, hanging out of his pocket. A relief.
“Jesus. Is it bad? I knew we waited too long. I swear, if we have mice.”
He didn’t reply. Kept his eyes on the display.
We’d barely spoken over the past few months, me cleaning the house, packing Syl’s old room, telling myself tomorrow we’d start the reopening process, because what else was there to do? Until it had been weeks, months, until we moved glacially into near-bankruptcy. Until I could no longer stand the silence, the sense that, without the museum, Syl left nothing behind. When I brought it up to Grandpa, he whispered, “Just leave it.” Went back to his seat on the porch, across the parking lot from the museum, watching dust whip against the crater rim.
I asked Grandpa to help me, take me around, because he knew I was only familiar with the office, the computers and spreadsheets. He knew I needed to reopen, and, in order to do that, needed him.
I had no idea how so much dust accumulated since we closed. Crater dust, barren and greyed out with exhaustion, with time and exposure, carried heavier than regular dust. Seeped through our clothes when we were children, left shadows and patterns according to what we wore that day.
Grandpa waved me away. “Do whatever you want.”
The grime was everywhere. Tickled my lungs, coated the floor. Gave the museum an eerie stamp of decay as I slipped through the two large rooms and gift shop. Compared to the vastness of the crater before us—the museum perched on the rim, the observation deck thrust twenty feet over the edge—it was tiny, decrepit.
I found a crack edging through a window, dead cockroaches scattered over the floor, dead mice under The Torino Scale, and cobwebs. A bust of my great-grandfather had fallen over, and, when I turned on Impact Creator, a massive meteor struck the Earth repeatedly on screen. With every step, reopening looked more and more far-fetched.
In the office, I examined files, bills, budgets. I tried not to focus on erupting still-frames in my mind, with her hair and her laughing, how exhausting it was to be around someone who loved something I could not understand, loved it more than she loved me.
I came back to Grandpa hours later. He hadn’t moved. When I asked if he wanted lunch, he shot me a look of exhaustion and magma and he looked so like Syl that I coughed, that my stomach burned, that I threw up twice in the dingy bathroom, where the toilet refused to flush and the soap dispenser fell into my hands.
Exhibit 2: An Extinction Begins
The fun starts in the atmosphere for our meteor, where friction burns away surface material. As the body strikes the ground, it’s compressed by sheer force. Better hope you’re not in the vicinity when this happens—you’ll be swept away by the widening span of destruction.
When Syl was eight and I was eleven she discovered cenotes, sinkholes etched in the brittle limestone at the edge of the Chicxulub crater, in a book Grandpa gave her. It was a year after our parents died, after we’d been sent to live at the museum, a situation Syl dove into, fascinated from the first moment by the gaping, almost perfectly circular, impact crater. When Grandpa told her our family owned it she was speechless, while I couldn’t even pretend I cared.
“The cenotes, they’re around a crater, just like ours,” she said, eyes wide and deep with hunger.
“Uh huh.” I couldn’t care less, had grown accustomed to their silent disinterest in my life, the two of them, Syl and Grandpa, how their mirrors of faces nodded at me over dinner, in the living room, anytime I tried to tell them about school or my friends. They sank into their grief like it was a cavern to explore together. Walked around the museum, spoke only of the exhibits, the infinite processes of the planet. I stopped following them, stopped pretending to be interested in the destructions they spoke of.
She continued. “The Mayans used them for sacrifices. Human sacrifices. Know why?”
“They thought the cenotes went to the underworld. Xibalba.” She shoved her book at me, the cover coarse and brown.
I couldn’t tell her it scared me, the darkness, the idea that deep spaces held the dead, their eyes angry and jealous and sad, waiting to pull me in.
I flipped the pages, handed it back.
“What if it’s true? What if we have them here? I bet Grandpa knows.”
She questioned Grandpa relentlessly about cenotes, about the crater, about our parents. What colors did they like, did they believe in God, did Mom like growing up at the museum? What did they expect to happen after they were gone and would she see them after she died?
Grandpa answered her slow and soft, took her on his lap, his wilting, wrinkled skin paled and canyoned, voice gentle as he told her of course they loved us.
He took me by the hand later, when I asked why this stuff was so important to her, to both of them.
“It’s a phase,” he said. “Just go along with it.” His eyes glittered. Gathered the light in their darkness, just like Syl’s.
I couldn’t dissuade her even if I wanted, because she thought if we went out into the crater at night, we could find an entrance, find the legendary underworld right there in Arizona desert.
I couldn’t hold her back, couldn’t avoid being swept up in her excitement, because there was something different about her, even in pictures, an essential knowledge, a core I was missing. Wordless experience sculpted into her by years I’d never known or even thought about, a force that carves canyons, shatters mountains, commands ice ages.
She’d lead me into the dark, smile, her teeth and her lips yawning extinctions.
I froze, mere yards from the crater rim, while she picked her way down the trail to the crater floor. Every time, I was unable to move, unable to submerge myself in extinction, in memory, the way she did.
I looked in Syl’s eyes after she came back and could no longer see myself.
They reflected only stars, the night, the earth under us.
Exhibit 3: The Torino Scale
There’s plenty of space debris out there, waiting to blast us into oblivion. This chart assesses those threats, posed to us by meteors, asteroids, and the like. Ranging from a 0 (no chance of collision) to 10 (catastrophe likely), this scale ensures foreknowledge of any disaster coming our way.
I fixed the shattered soap dispenser with duct tape and asked Grandpa if he’d throw the dead mice into the crater. He said no, and if it was so important, to do it myself.
I dumped them the next day, off the side of the observation deck, and they spiraled down the crater wall.
The air was thick in the museum, full and empty all at once without Syl’s voice.
All the while the simulator. THE EXTINCTION EVENT CAUSED BY THIS—
“Jesus, Grandpa, what did you do?”
“You never unplugged it yesterday. Was already on when I came in.”
THE METEOR, AS LARGE AS A FOOTBALL FIELD, DECIMATED—
“You’ve been so helpful.”
“Why would I want the damn thing on? The whole place is falling apart.”
I unplugged the huge machine, shaking.
He stared at me. His hands were oily, grimy, and I should’ve asked him what he’d been doing, even though I already knew.
“I can’t do this myself.”
A gale battered the window. Something fell off the roof, clattered against the emergency exit. The air conditioning, unsurprisingly, was out.
Grandpa shrugged, turned back to the window. “You want to fix it, you can fix it.”
As I walked away I heard him, shivering breaths and some strangled noise and I wondered if Syl sounded like that when she died, or if the water rushed into her lungs too quickly for breath.
Exhibit 4: Colossal Craters
In the geologic sense, the most interesting stories are told by the biggest craters. These tales of destruction can be found all over the globe, from Siberia to Central America. Find some of the biggest, most catastrophic impacts the planet’s ever seen on the display board.
We used to walk the perimeter of the crater. Syl would rather do this than anything else, and she pulled me along with her. Even in high school she loved it: walking the inner and outer rim walls, whisking her feet along the rocks and sand and scrub, unwilling to disturb even the smallest pebble.
I was seventeen and she was fourteen. I was mad at her because her hair whipped into my face, the wind gusting and the sky swelling with clouds and the rain sleek against my skin.
“Syl, I swear to Christ, if your hair hits me in the eye one more time.”
“You’ll what?” She scampered ahead, flicked her mane back and forth.
The rain quickened, arrows unsheathed.
“I don’t understand why I have to babysit you. It won’t kill you to be out here alone.”
“Babysit?” She laughed at that, laughed an avalanche. “You’re the one he’s worried about. You still couldn’t name one thing about this crater.” She hopped, rock to rock. Each wobbled more than the last. She reached the one directly in front of me, raindrops streaking her face. She put her hands on my cheeks and shook my head. “You’d break your neck without me.”
When I slapped her away, she lurched, all uplift and lava flow.
There was nothing to grasp. I lost my footing, tumbled, not into the crater, but down the outside. Scree stuck to my jacket.
My sister didn’t turn until I shouted. Even then, she laughed.
Exhibit 5: When The Dust Settles….
At this point, one of two things will happen: The crater will collapse under its own gravity, coupling with debris slides to form a simple crater. Or it can become a complex crater, if the central region of the cavity uplifts and creates a massive impact basin.
The next day, the simulator was on again.
THE CRATER SERVES AS A MONUMENT.
I shut off the machine and thought, monument to what, monument to something nobody was around to see?
Grandpa watched. Disheveled, his hair rumpled.
“Have you been sleeping here?” I hadn’t heard him leave the house that morning; I hadn’t checked around the museum last night, the place shaped into caverns and underwater tombs in my gut.
My mind labored. “Look, if you get here before me, could you just lock the door behind you?”
“Who’s going to break in?”
I knelt next to the simulator. Meteor decals rustled against my hair. “You know I have no idea how to fix this, right? You know I’m probably going to electrocute myself.”
He shook his head. “Syl could do it fine.”
I chose to see this as encouragement and shrugged off my jacket. Next to the simulator it looked like an offering.
Dust peppered the air. Grandpa coughed. “Watch out for those wires. Some are frayed.”
“I’ve got it, thanks for checking.” I tried not to think of electric chairs and thrust my hand into the under workings of the machine. Tangles of wire and rust jumbled against my skin.
I struck something superheated. “Jesus.” I yanked my hand free, catching against something rough. Oil covered my arm.
Grandpa shook his head. Walked away as the simulator sparked.
Outside, the sun was vanishing under a blanket of cloud, and dust whipped over the crater walls.
Exhibit 6: Destroy The Planet
Need to blow off some steam? Use our meteor creator to wreak havoc in the solar system, and leave the Earth or any other heavenly body as wreckage. Bonus points if multiple planets are eliminated.
The last day I saw her, a storm approached over the desert.
“And they say it never rains,” she said, stiff and unaccustomed to goodbyes.
She was leaving for Mexico, where she would be mapping the cenotes along the rim of the Chicxulub crater. When she told us she’d gotten the job, her shrieks echoed and she danced Grandpa around the observation deck, their bodies rattling and creaking the entire thing so hard I thought we were doomed to collapse.
The moments are evolution-slow. I told her to be safe and she stood behind her pile of mismatched suitcases. Some of them were mine.
Grandpa, hugging her. “You don’t do anything stupid. I’ll have to take care of the place myself.”
“Alex isn’t going with me, you know that, right?”
“Now you’re gone, she’ll hole herself up in that office day and night.”
She laughed. Hugged me soft and tight like the breathlessness that happens underwater and she said, “God. This is stupid. I’ll see you in a few months. I’ll Skype, I swear.”
But feeling her bones, granite against mine, knowing she wouldn’t call, because she’d see the sinkholes and forget there was anything like a desert existing in the world.
Exhibit 7: Great Balls of Fire (in the Sky)
Bolides are fireballs that streak across the sky, causing sonic booms and bursts of light. So take note: don’t let yourself fizzle out. Be a bolide!
The simulator got hoarser, lost focus.
Dust settled overnight no matter how I scrubbed during the day. I came in every morning to fallen posters, peeling decals, displays with pieces missing, wires rearranged. I tried to fix them as best I could. I killed the carpenter ants in the gift shop, put up the fallen shelves. Tried to stop the bolide on Great Balls of Fire blinking like a Christmas light, but without guidance or any knowledge whatsoever, I was lost. I tried a different tack with Grandpa, though his opposition to opening grew every day. I was pretty sure he was the one who destroyed the gift shop shelves and detached the display wiring.
“Think you could give me a hand today?” The coo of my voice rippled off the walls. Syl would have only raised hers, and Grandpa would have done what she asked.
He snorted. Stood at Colossal Craters. The scent of mold, of dusk, shrouded us.
“Dust this display? That’s all.”
He gripped the rag. Turned back to the board.
I thought, okay, this is progress.
Syl polished the displays each night after close, vacuumed the entire museum, and never had to ask for Grandpa’s help. From the office I’d hear them, talking about where she wanted to travel, what craters and extinctions and formations she wanted to study.
Behind me, a soft thump; I turned around and the rag was on the ground, already dusty from the fall.
Exhibit 8: What’s So Great About Devil’s Tooth?
The near-perfectly circular Devil’s Tooth Meteor Crater can be seen from satellites, from space. As you can see in the display above, or in any of our merchandise, we’re distinct. We’re proud to say this impact spawned an extinction event, helped give birth to the world we know today.
When Grandpa was in the office finishing the reports after close, Syl and I played hide and seek.
Syl always knew I’d nestle under Hubble’s bust, or in the broom closet behind Alien Impacts. She took forever to unearth me. Sometimes I’d get so frustrated I’d jump out and chase her down, find her wandering, her feet so slow and soft she didn’t even scuff the carpet.
She’d look at me with tectonic eyes and it was as though she had to form the words into being, create new matter to speak to me, as though she’d forgotten entirely about me in the face of the displays, the meteor remnants and photographs and endless geology.
When my turn came to seek her, it took me about ten seconds.
She’d be in the simulator. On the floor, curled up, the glare of destruction reflected over her.
Exhibit 9: Disaster Protocols
Even though our planet has seen its share of mass extinctions, the United Nations doesn’t have a response plan in place for such an event. experts believe the likelihood of a deadly impact is very small, at least on a grand scale. So don’t worry, fellow earthlings. It seems the worst is behind us.
The days swarmed in fogs over the crater, in apocalyptic storms bleeding out over the desert, in epochs and simulator shouts. THE METEOR BEGAN IN SPACE, the announcer reminded me.
I re-memorized the speech for tours of the rim, recited it as I cleaned with haphazard fury, but memories of Syl drifted in. I pictured myself leading the tourists, their cameras pointed across the gulf, slanted against the body blow of wind, their faces eroded into the background.
“My ancestor, Ernest, was led here by Native Americans and thought this was a volcano—did you know when my sister was hungover she ate fried mushrooms and scrambled eggs—and he tried to make it erupt. Set dynamite charges just over there. You can still see the scars. He waited and waited. He built his house here. Raised cattle and all the while kept watching—I think about how the last thing she saw must’ve been her hands, all pale and starred in the sediment—and finally, a hundred years later, a team identified this as not a volcanic crater, but an impact crater.”
I spent nights in the office, where I said I’d be going over spreadsheets. I woke up in the dark, neck cricked, to Syl diving into the mouth of a miles deep cavern over and over.
Grandpa stalked the museum. Stayed until after it was dark, until I locked the doors. Sometimes I repeated the speech to him, or counted down the days, but all he said was, “Okay,” in a voice that was almost a ghost. I took away his keys when I found him unscrewing a display case and removing the meteor fragments inside. He told me I should let the place wither.
Useless knowledge, a grainy mass of debris, built up, lodged in dust particles in my pores. It shifted when I touched anything or moved against a memory, harsh and swift and slippery to the touch.
She drank red wine because it colored her tongue bloody. She loved her first boyfriend because he was a planet she could impact in melted touches, because his eyes were the colors of deep earthen places. She named our dog Valhalla after the crater on Jupiter’s moon. When we were in high school I couldn’t find my contacts case, and she gave me her glasses and went an entire day without seeing clearly so I could take a trig test and hang out with a boy whose name I’ve forgotten. I aced the exam and the boy kissed me for hours, slid his hands over my body with the ease of a strike-slip fault.
She went to the Yucatan peninsula to study the crater that killed the dinosaurs and went diving even though she wasn’t good at it and that’s it, that’s all.
I thought, there should be a way to destroy these things, burn them off against the atmosphere.
Exhibit 10: Alien Impacts
You might find yourself asking, why are craters on other planetary bodies so much easier to see? Take the moon: its lack of atmosphere allows impact craters to form and linger for eons after their creation. We earthlings don’t have this luxury of time.
I asked Syl once, “Why craters?”
It was after her college graduation, and we sat on the exit stairwell of the museum that led into the crater, champagne bottle skidding across the metal walkway as we passed it back and forth. The night cool. She hadn’t wanted to go out, like we had after my graduation a few years before, when we’d gotten drunk at a bar and walked home through scrubby cow pastures, me tripping over every hole in the ground and Syl laughing the whole time, unscathed.
When I asked her why it was craters she loved, she twisted her pinky in her mouth. “It’s like being inside a fingerprint. Like you’re part of something’s genes.”
My head throbbing with booze and wind and eerie whistling dark. I giggled. “Jesus H. Christ, what does that even mean? Are you talking about Mom and Dad?”
Her eyes dark, Xibalba dark, she laughed and said, “Like, being inside something besides yourself, something that’s better and so old.”
I shivered. “And it doesn’t scare you at all, the fact that it’s, I don’t know, deep?” I had majored in accounting because it was not empty and scarred, it was not crushing or destructive. What I had learned from the crater, from my sister and my grandfather, was that destruction could not be fully quantified, that extinction could not be fully measured, except in the shock of empty air and shattered stones the color of loss and the sense that right there, right on your shoulder where someone touched you, once, or where you hugged them the last time, is a perpetual vacancy, a dark massed point, a hollow that never erodes.
I didn’t tell Syl this. I never would, because I knew it was just another thing my sister would never understand: That destruction has never been beautiful or fascinating.
“Who’s not making sense now?” she asked.
“I mean, it’s bigger than you and ancient and how can you want to understand it?”
What I wanted to say was, how can you look for answers you’ll never find? How can you search an emptiness that will always be empty?
She laughed and laughed. Until I laughed, too. Until the night wasn’t so deep, so cavernous.
Exhibit 11: Potentially Hazardous Objects
A PHO is a body with an orbit relatively close to earth that could cause significant regional damage if it struck. These objects, though they sound threatening, are too far away to be of concern, as you can see by NASA’s tracker.
A week into my efforts, I found the door smashed in, glass glittering across the threshold under the ticket booth. The simulator spouted screeched lines, completely jumbled.
I entered the main room, found Grandpa struggling with the simulator, control panel thrown open. Tearing, gasping, the sounds of some cataclysmic struggle. The machine jerked, spasmed, under his fury.
I ran. Shouted. He was trying to destroy it, trying to damage it so irreparably that even he could never fix it.
I tore at him but I was shoving at something as obstinate as the earth itself, the walls of the crater, my sister and her undying belief that the earth held her answers in its veins.
The simulator wailed. Whispered. Screeched again.
He finally pulled back, oily up to the elbows.
“What the hell? I can’t fix this.” I stood above him, panting. I shoved him and he tipped, turtle-like, onto his hip.
Grandpa whispered something that sounded like, “Yes.”
The air rumbled.
Exhibit 12: Extinction Coming From Afar
The Chicxulub impact in the Yucatan, Central America, according to most scientists, killed the dinosaurs. On the display, piece together the results of this catastrophe—what species survived?
When she called from the cenotes, the last time I spoke to her, she said, “I’m so tired, Alex. I’m exhausted.”
We hadn’t spoken in weeks.
So I said, hoarse, “Living the dream.”
“You wouldn’t believe it here. It’s so humid. My hair’s a disaster.” The jungle came through the phone, an enemy creeping in. “We’ve got about a million cenotes to map.”
I tried to reassure her, heard the fault lines in her voice. “You’ll feel better after you’ve looked at them. Haven’t you been doing that, though?”
Her voice cracked. “Yeah. I’m diving tomorrow.”
“They didn’t train you for that.”
“They’re telling me I shouldn’t. But these things. No wonder they thought this was the underworld. They just never end. It’s like a trail of memory, where you start thinking and can’t stop and the finish has to be down there somewhere, but how do you know if you don’t see it for yourself?”
I said nothing for a beat. Two beats. Enough beats for thunder to roll outside. Thunder that became the sound of Syl’s feet, pounding against the crater floor as she left me behind, as she searched for something the earth clasped to itself.
“So do it.”
“I was never not going to.”
I told her goodbye. I handed the phone to Grandpa. Heard him say, as I walked away, that she should do it, of course she should. Heard their two voices fitting together, the first moment of a meteor strike, the first millisecond of impact, when a body is cupped to the earth.
Exhibit 13: Experience the Extinction
With this simulated wave of destruction, stand in the midst of the Devil’s Tooth impact as it happened in prehistoric Arizona. Feel the blast and see the flame—go extinct!
I have no idea how long I sat, display lights stirring my shoulders. The air heavy and cluttered. My breath was clotted and I felt like I was drowning.
CRATER, the simulator boomed. Shuddering my shoulders with its force.
Grandpa’s hands trembled. His hair a moth wing against the dark.
I told him, the dim scent of Lysol and dirt arcing between us, “You could’ve done that six months ago.”
I turned so I could see inside the machine I was so afraid of in childhood. I used to see my sister in the dark, in the crater outside or even in the simulator and I couldn’t follow her. It was something about the heaviness of the black, about the way it overpowered the sound, the noise, the way she was so small against the violence of extinction.
“We used to play hide-and-seek. Did you know?”
Nod. Like he was remembering, too. Like he heard the palimpsests of her voice around corners. Like he could feel it, our cemented, limestoned version of her, crumbling and corroding into gaps and festering cavities.
The light shifted in the simulator, splayed across our faces, the meteor curving hot and sharp and knifing toward the earth. It had been replaying this way, repeating the strike. When I was little it was real, scorching, and I wanted to warn my sister that it was coming, that it was the end, her hair painted with firestorms.
“She was terrible at it,” I said. “So bad. At both. Hiding or seeking.”
Grandpa’s skin curved like the earth when I pressed my fingers into his palm, gripped his hand, cool and dry. He squeezed, soft.
I wondered what it was about the emptiness under the earth that she loved so. Why she wanted so desperately to excise its wounds like they were her own, to make its loss hers.
A smash circled us, grasped us.
A cataclysm, the air vibrating. In the panels, across the glass cases, the swarm of colors perforating the dark and in the tremors Syl, her imprint a shatter cone, a remnant, a brokenness that inhabited the innermost hollows of the earth.