It's not just up to scientists and activists to tell the world about climate change. It's up to storytellers. We can vividly imagine the future so we can change it. In my YA novel, The Drowning World, which is like The Hunger Games set in 2030, I imagine our East Coast as Flood Lands--a place where, like in Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, monster storms routinely batter and reshape our lands, our children's futures.
What used to be my Siesta Key beach is muddy and full of debris--shingles, rusted bicycles, mountains of bricks, and panel siding piled up everywhere. But I recognize this sand--it's cool and sugar-white.
"We're home!" I shout out loud, laughing.
"Are you sure, Lukas?" Marina asks. "It looks . . . different."
I glance up and down the beach. Nobody. Where are all the beachgoers? As we walk further inland, the sand is gritty and full of gravel. No familiar skyline of high-rise condominiums that used to dot Siesta Beach. Windows are blown out of nearby dilapidated cottages; parking lots are full of cars filled with mud. No lights.
We follow a rough path through the underbrush. Bushes and fallen trees on either side of us are so dense I wish I had a machete. Birds chatter overhead and I hear a menacing growl from a nearby tangle of wild vines. Florida panther? Impossible. Those big cats were declared officially extinct several years ago. Maybe a pack of wild dogs? I glance up through the thick canopy of green and see a huge black snake curled around a branch.
"Wild animals . . . here?" I say, my heart racing.
"You think people are . . . well, extinct?" Marina asks.
Maybe she can hear my pounding heartbeat. "Dunno," I admit, glancing around.
Now, I'm sure--we've somehow landed in the future.
Only then do I hear the shushing of fallen leaves and the snap of twigs. Other kids emerge from the trees looking like aborigines, their faces covered in dirt for camouflage. It's some kind of teenage gang. Six of them. These kids look pretty rough with their tattered shorts and T-shirts, their faces grimy. Some of them have tattoos all over their arms and legs. And piercings. They seem poised to leap on us. Fierce and feral.
"Hey, there," I call, trying to sound casual. I step in front of Marina protectively. "What's up?"
For a moment, the gang just gawks at us. I wonder if they even speak English. The gang stares in suspicious silence. They look like they've been on their own for a long time. Then I notice that they all have small machetes and knives. The leader is coffee-colored, like Marina. He's about sixteen. The other kids look a little younger, and they're all different ethnicities. I'm surprised to see a few girls in the gang, too. They look like wild cats with their matted hair and lean, angular bodies.
"So what happened here?" I ask. "Hurricane?"
The gang surrounds us in a close circle. They seem a little less menacing now. Maybe they're also hiding out from authorities. Is this gang homeless, without any family at all? I remember some kids in my high school were living in their cars because their parents lost their jobs and their homes. Is that what happened to these kids?
"We need your help," Marina says. "What's your name?"
"Jake," the leader spits out.
"Will you help us?" Marina asks. "We're lost here."
"Feds looking for you, too?" Jake asks. "Lots of pirates out there on the islands. "You pirates?"
"No!" Marina and I answer together.
"We don't want the feds to catch us, either," Jake relaxes a little. "Feds deported a lot of Environmental Refugees like you all after Hurricane Malachi hit Florida last year. Direct hit of the whole East Coast."
"All the East Coast?" I ask, shocked.
"Yeah, the Keys sank a long time ago, and half of New York City is a Flood Zone. Nothing left in Boston but the harbor."
"Now the Flood Lands are off-limits," a girl shrugs and says almost casually. "No electricity. Too much looting and squatting. After Hurricane Malachi, the feds gave people one week to salvage their homes and stores. Then they shut down Siesta Key."
Suddenly Jake glares up at the dark sky. "Take cover!" he yells. "Drones!"
His gang dives back into the underbrush again, scrambling on all fours across the mudflats. Marina and I drop to the ground and crawl after them. Glass and jagged metal slice my hands like shrapnel.
The gang is running in zig zag patterns across an open stretch of mud. They speed past collapsed mansions and upside down boats shipwrecked in what used to be front yards. We all scuttle inside the back door of a decrepit colonial style villa. Its three stories and sagging balconies are almost completely overgrown with kudzu and hanging moss. This whole estate is covered in mud. Grime is good camouflage.
Is this our future? Kids scavenging and running from military drones like we're living in an occupied third-world country? It's hard to believe that our conquering enemy is climate change--horrible hurricanes and rising seas. Enemies my world could have stopped, but chose not to.
The wind is whipping up what's left of the palm trees and overhead the sky is threatening. There's an ominous yellow and charcoal streak across the sun. Hard to tell what time of day it is. I guess it only matters that it's Hurricane Time.
Marina grabs my hand, her eyes strangely calm. "We'll get through this," she assures me. "Together."
Even though I'm scared, I also feel a hint of excitement. Anything is possible. It really is a new world. It may be ruined--but it's still mine. Maybe ours.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books, including the memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a "Great Read" by independent booksellers and YOUR LIFE IS A BOOK: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir. This story is excerpted from The Drowning World and Oxford University Press's ISLE issue on Global Warming.