copyright Abigail E. Swire 2019
Nothing left but us villains now.
In the distance lightning cracks. A tree bursts into flame. Thunder rolls like the whipped tongue of earth through the valley and opens a gaping mouth in the asphalt. That mouth swallows and swallows, dry as powdered bone.
Come get me. I’m ready.
“Drop it Lady.”
Lady. Who says those things?
He looked so indescribably funny and sad at the same time, standing there at the edge of forever with his skinny body and faded black shirt, those eyes of a trapped animal, the knife shaking in his hand. He was just a kid.
“Everything. Just drop it all. The bag. Jacket. And… then your pants.”
His voice grew deeper, steady, as if he was just tasting evil for the first time.
“Sure, sure…hold on. Please.”
The knife made my heart tremble out of its usual rhythm, so it wasn’t fake when my voice choked up. I slid the straps off my shoulders, slowly, and let the pack drop. I held up my hands, and moved them down to loosen the jacket tied around my waist. It slid and coiled around my ankles. I waited, arms raised. He licked his chafed lips. His eyes darted. He didn’t really want to be here.
What was this? Someone was watching — must be an initiation.
“N-now the jeans.” He pointed and made a few swipes with the blade. “Nothing else, except your…you know.”
I couldn’t hold it anymore. I burst out laughing in his face, which was still a good four feet from me. He looked over his shoulder at the woods, confused. That’s all it took for my boot toe to connect with his knuckles, a knee to the balls. The knife went flying and stuck in the dirt.
“Aaargh! Fuckin bitch…” He was down, gasping. I grabbed the pack and jacket.
There wasn’t time to be coy. They were coming. I could feel them move behind the leaves, and I wasn’t any good at running.
I hit the treeline at full speed, crossed my arms, and rolled down the embankment into the sludge at the bottom. Camouflaged in black gunk, I doubled back east towards the city. What did they think, every female from the world before hadn’t already lived through that scenario once? The world stops, and the wicked keep going.
Come get me. I’m ready.
I nibble bitter herbs, branches, sip pine needle tea. I’m just waiting for my elbows and knees to pop through the skin so my insides will show. The hunger scrapes, raw and red. I never thought I would crave meat like this — something dead and juicy, dripping blood over a spit. What I wouldn’t give for a piece of cow.
In the bunker, faces flash on the concrete like an old home movie.
Outside, the world is mine.
This place is secluded. A few birds flutter in the brush. I drink from a stream that flows over colored stones. If the water is compromised, it doesn’t matter much. I wait for the tips of the leaves to turn black and curl into ash. But it is possible the wildlife could survive, even thrive. It happened at Chernobyl. With all the people gone, the animals went at it like bunnies. Maybe the radiation was a catalyst for evolution. Elk, badger, wild horses. Everything was much better off without us.
A house wren hangs about, turning its eyeball on me as if it knows. I am in the way. Sometimes it hops around while I try to gather wood; I should be gone. The wood is all soaked and black from the steady rain. Slimy creatures cling.
Tomorrow I move into the hangar. Underground was never my thing. The bunker is a 12’ by 12’ space accessed by a ladder, four concrete walls. “Fuck off” and “Trish Gives Head” is smeared in pink paint. Not anymore, she doesn’t.
The hideout is part of an abandoned military installation near the coast, built during World War II. The bunkers are sturdy with steel doors that seal. One hangar is nothing but a black skeleton, destroyed by fire years ago. The other is a full training and classroom building, 1940s code still scrawled in chalk on the blackboard. The hangar portion is just space. Light seeps in, bright beams split by the rafters, dust mote portals to the next world.
I talk to the house wren, the bunnies that avoid my squalid traps, shy garter snakes that flick pointed tongues and vanish in the detritus. I talk to myself, the drenched black firewood, the stubborn doors. More and more, words stay trapped between my lips, but the world understands me anyway. In the slim chance that I run into someone again, the words will dribble out like stones, heavy, with no more meaning than a pile of rocks.
There was this old music box that was mine when I was a kid. It had a picture of a boy and girl in country-looking clothes kissing, although some of the paper peeled off. Inside it was lined with yellow satin, and a ballerina that twirled on a spring. I wound it up and the baby laughed at the music. I guess it only had the one dance left in it, because when I tried again, the spring was tight and dead. I abused it too much when I was little, I guess. I remember thinking, how sad, you wind that joy up once and it never plays again.
That’s what we did to the world, wound it too tight, busted out the coils and springs. I never wanted a kid in the first place. So my milk was poisoned after all. It didn’t seem like it at the time. It dribbled out of my insubstantial tit like any other. I would take him to bed with me when he woke hungry at night, feed him until we both dozed off. Of the one who snored beside me, I felt nothing. Each time his beery breath rattled the walls I prayed for an end to it.
As Levi got older it leaked out of me, the weight I promised never to put on his shoulders; he was what kept me going, and when this day came he had to survive or I would give up the ghost.
Maybe, just maybe, my son listened and stayed alive. He said he wouldn’t want to live in the world I described. The sun also rises. The world also ended.
Project Medusa was abandoned a decade ago for lack of proof positive.
“That? Oh, that’s just a rumor. It didn’t start up again.” I laughed, over cocktails and fine cheese with basil leaves, under strings of party bulbs. I laughed and laughed. It was the first time I could afford decent food, haircuts for the boy, shoes.
In the lab, porpoises swam in happy circles. We mapped their intelligent brains, so much more diverse and evolved than ours. I never understood why they chose humans as their totem animal, zipping alongside the runners and jumping waves, nosing up under drowning people. In the lab, we blasted sonar at them until their ears bled, mapped the brains again. Some just sunk, paralyzed, to the bottom of the tanks until someone hauled them up and tried to resuscitate them so the trials could resume. Other specimens swam in chaotic circles. The first couple times, I went home and puked until my eyes burned. After that, I just charted the results, line by line. We deserved whatever we got.
When people started really going crazy, watching their kids starve, looting, rioting, killing — we set our mutant porpoises free to swim, askew and damaged, into the deep ocean.
We dragged the special laser into the yard and did what my colleagues had dreamed but never consummated — tested it on humans. We aimed 40 million Watts/cm2 at the fence and pulled the trigger. Some of the people stood passive at the foot of the chain link, asking for help. Others were climbing all over those and making their way to the top, where they sliced themselves on the razor wire. 120 decibels froze them in their tracks. Those at the top fell, taking out some of the bodies lower in the pyramid. The ones with fingers clinging to the bottom link stared with blind eyes before they toppled, bent bodies turned to dead weight, fingers still holding on to that one last hope.
Crowd control: mission success.