Fern
Pink and orange flowers on a blue background

Ellen

A guilt-ridden millennial artist receives an ultimatum

Between working three different jobs, writing cold emails, applying for fellowships, and trying to actually create art, Ellen feels like every day passes in a busy, exhausted haze. And in between it all, they can’t turn off the news: the rising seas, the storms and fires, all the suffering. They want to do something. They know the planet needs all the help it can get—but they can’t find the time.

And now there’s something else beneath the haze, something thick and dark: guilt. It becomes all they can talk about, like if they can spread the guilt to others, it won’t be quite so painful. When their roommate watches nature documentaries, they make a big deal of not being able to be in the room with the triggering images of beautiful, doomed animals. When they pass by playgrounds, they loudly remark that parents should stop pretending it’s all going to be okay, that they are failing their children by not preparing them for a future of horror, pain, and destruction. At their best friend’s bachelorette party, Ellen has two drinks and talks loudly about how getting married and having children is the most irresponsible thing a person could do these days—then they order a third drink and promise to Venmo for it, which they never do.

Their friends stop inviting them out. One of their many freelance clients ghosts them after Ellen adds pictures of burnt forests and extinct animals to a totally unrelated project. Ellen feels like they’re the only one who cares about any of this, and the burden is too heavy to bear; sometimes they have trouble even getting out of bed. They text their friends and family, but most eventually stop replying to the endless stream of doom news articles they share.

Finally, one friend—the newlywed whose bachelorette party they bombed—gives Ellen an ultimatum: she will only hang out with them if it’s at a volunteer event. “I can’t talk to you again until you’re willing to actually do something rather than just freak out about it,” their friend says. “I just can’t watch you make yourself miserable anymore.”

Ellen agrees to go with their friend to a weekly volunteer meetup that installs solar panels for low-income housing. It’s not much—it won’t save the world—but when they’re done for the day, Ellen realizes that they actually created something that wasn’t there before. They have the capacity to help, one tiny piece at a time. At next week’s event, they meet another artist, who tells them about a multimedia protest they’re working on with their collective. They could use someone like Ellen. And it seems like Ellen could really use them.

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A portrait of Karen and Barbara, two middle-aged Black women wearing scrubs. In the background is an image of a hospital hallway, in the foreground is an image of an ambulance and two nurses talking.
Character Profile

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