THE CLOCK continued to tick down the hall.
It seemed to be the only sound left in the house… in the streets…throughout the town.
The last sound in the world.
She shook her head vigorously as if to dislodge that last thought.
No, no. Don’t think like that.
But although she tried to have hope in the fact that someone must still be alive, it dwindled. Often.
All electricity had officially been shut off. She feared the water would soon follow.
And then what?
She would have to leave her house.
She didn’t want to think of the logistics. Although she knew that she didn’t survive so that she would die from stupidity. She would have to be strategic. She never considered herself clever, now it seemed she would just have to become that way.
Resourceful. Tactical. Self-sufficient.
That was the real definition of what she was. Inescapably alone.
A month ago, the news shut off.
People, ordered inside for fear of the Gas, were entirely secluded from one another.
No mail, no trash collection, no steps taken outside into a barren world.
Then came the riots, the gang violence, the retaliation.
Eventually houses were broken into, stores looted, buildings caught on fire inexplicably and uncontrollably. Without fire companies in operation no one could be saved.
The hospitals jammed. People everywhere coughing.
That same yellow fog that the infamous Eliot had written of centuries ago, had not only rubbed its back on the window-panes and on the walls, but inside the lungs of people around the world. The Gas, it was called.
Scientists and doctors had perished in the early stages of exploration. Their observations cut short by the unrelenting speed of death. Soon the hazmat suits were outdated and defunct. The best solution wasn’t a solution at all.
CLOSE ALL WINDOWS. RETREAT TO BASEMENTS AND LOWER LEVELS. STAY INSIDE. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU IGNORE THESE GUIDELINES.
But they didn’t work. People still got sick. Even those who listened to the world’s leaders.
Others went crazy. Some took matters into their own hands, calling on the help of drugs or gods, whichever seemed to work best. Gangs emerged, terrorist groups, nonconformists.
Calling themselves ‘the Ubermensch.’
Not even philosophy could help them now.
A month ago, the news shut off.
A month later, the country was barren.
Food on shelves gone, hoarded in houses where dead men lay, frozen, motionless, gone.
What good was that?
She lit a candle. The clock ticking. She had lost herself in thoughts of the past. Again.
Staring at herself in a mirror, she wondered…
Why me? I did nothing right, nothing ‘super-human’. I had no plan.
And now I have nothing.
RUNNING. He had been running whenever he found it. Running, after all, was one way to keep his lungs in shape. Panting and sweating, he stopped. Through the dead vegetation and yellow leaves, he spotted it.
Not a large one, a rather small craft. But regardless, a plane.
Upon breaking-and-entering, he found it fueled up and in good shape. It was remarkably easy to hotwire. Made him actually grateful for his father showing him how to do it on the old car they had swiped from the street that one time. That one time. He meant, those many times.
He closed his eyes, wincing to remember those days. Even then, he thought, at least I wasn’t alone.
Now, still homeless, he was completely devoid of any resources or people. His village had always been small and secluded, left up on a mountain as if God had just dropped it there and forgotten about it. He thought they had a chance being so high above everyone else. Being so alone already. But as soon as the jungle animals began to get sick and die off, as soon as the trees began to droop and sag, he knew. People would die here too, just like they did in the cities, in the houses, the mansions, and plantations. Now nothing mattered.
Death has no favorites.
He surveyed the area, the plane’s engine rattling and roaring loudly in his temples.
The trees that surrounded the clearing had fallen with dead lumber blocking the runway halfway down. Everything was overgrown, the grass poking its head through the cracked and dusty cement. He could barely make anything out. Could he accelerate enough to get off the ground before he reached the trees?
I can’t do this at all. I don’t know how.
You started it, didn’t you?
The voice was familiar. He blinked hard, trying to keep his wits about him
There’s no one left who knows how to fly. There is no way, anyways, for you to learn.Unless you try.
Shaking his head and wiping his hands on his legs, he tried to focus.
The gruff and scratchy sounds of his dad’s breathing had left his mind.
“Unless you try,” echoed eerily.
Taking one last look around himself, he realized. This is it. The only way to truly know.
If I can get high enough, I can see for myself how bad the damage is. I’m sure there’s got to be people somewhere. I just have to find them. And then…
Then what? What would they do? Rebuild? With what?
He concentrated at the task at hand. He had seen pilots before, but strictly in old, black-and-white movies. Mostly movies where the plane crashed. He had driven many types of automobiles before, even motorcycles. What could be so different?
Without knowing anything he would have to give himself over to total trust. Unabridged, unrefined, unknown trust.
Letting his instincts run, he got the craft moving.
His chest thrust forward in laugher. He had forgotten to breathe.
Breathe… and lift!
Pulling upward he shakily managed to climb into the sky.
His breath came out forced and broken, his hands twitching, sweat pouring down his face. All he could think about was telling himself to breathe. In minutes, his ears popped and the trees became far away shades of light green and yellow. They didn’t used to be that way. He missed the vibrant and dark greens of the forest. He missed listening to the birds. He missed his father. Veering above the world, he saw the remnants of towns just like his own. Destroyed. Cars strewn like shells on a beach. Buildings burnt, nothing left but their exoskeletons reaching toward the sky like praying hands.
As he flew, he began to cry. Crying like he never had before.
There’s nothing. No one. Absolutely no one.
The desperation that he had feared the couple of months he had been alone only built.
Now it was official. While in the forest he could hang onto a happy belief that he wasn’t alone, he just couldn’t see anyone. He was still stranded in the same mountain town he had always been in. There was room for hope.
But now, now he seemed to be seeing the full picture for the first time. He was alone. And that was one thing that he had absolutely no control over.
A WOMAN. His mouth fell to the ground at the sight of her.
Where had she come from? Was she safe? She’s alive.
The thought electrified him.
He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs. He wanted to run to her. He wanted to explode into millions of pieces. He wasn’t alone!
The words he had so long desired to say got stuck in his throat. He reminded himself to breathe. Her back was to him. He noticed her hair, how long it was, how perhaps it was highlighted before, a remembrance of the old days, how girls would highlight their hair any way they wanted, but now… now it looked wrong, unnatural and out of place. The rest of her body seemed to blend into the world. She was surveying the river he had just found. It was hot and she wore an oversized T-shirt that was a pale and faded mint color. He watched as she wrapped her hair above her and without any indication of doing so, fearlessly waded into the river. Thinking no one could see her, because no one was there, she screamed with the water’s chill.
Turning in his direction, he caught sight of her face. The shock and the surprise captured in her eyes. He began to tear up. The sight of this entirely human reaction made his heart throb. She started to laugh at herself. She let her hair down. And coaching and coaxing herself to do so, she plummeted under water the whole way. He couldn’t hold back now. Coming up for a breath, he raced toward her.
A MAN. He didn’t say a word.
He just stood there on the bank of the river, waving his arms, until she met his eyes.
She felt herself gasp for joy uncontrollably. At first, she had no words. She wanted to know everything about this stranger and yet… at that very moment she felt as if she already did. His eyes were blue. His face, unshaven and dirty. He looked as if he were from another country. His smile resembled her own. It was unrestrained, unembarrassed, and unrelenting. He offered his hand to her and she waded over to take it. Pulling her out of the water, she stood before him on the bank, unable to utter a single sound of gratitude. Then as if a rush of reality crashed upon them, he managed,
The first human voice she had heard in weeks.
Suddenly, remembering herself, she furiously ran her fingers through her sopping wet hair and tried to wring out her T-shirt.
“I’m… yes, I’m… I’m Marci.”
She offered her hand to him this time. He shook it, the sensation feeling strange.
What hand had he held last?
Sustaining the hand shake he said,
They remained like that, stricken by the mere presence each other. Their mouths felt lazy, as if they could not manage the act of speech. Their eyes, however, performed a litany of talking that seemed almost perfected in the sense of the new world they were living in.
Biting off the silence, Ignacio attempted English again.
“Have you food?”
Marci recognized that he had an accent and that English seemed difficult.
“Some, yes. Do you speak English?”
Finally, words had returned to her.
“Some, yes,” he laughed.
The first human laugh they had heard in months. Maybe even a year.
A FIRE cracked between them. Marci and Ignacio sat a distance apart, watching the movements of each other’s eyes, wrapped in a comfortable silence.
Bravely, he attempted,
Startled by the sound, she pointed to herself, as if to say, “me? You’re talking to me?” Who else would he be talking to?
He nodded, watching her all the while. She could not understand the great amount of comfort she found in that question, regardless of how it was phrased.
“Am I scared?”
She repeated it to feel the full force of what he wanted to know. He, a real living and breathing man desired to know whether or not she was afraid of the things that she had encountered in the last suffocating months. It was baffling. She had never given herself the time to think about her fear. It just wasn’t a question. She didn’t let it be one.
Now, letting all of those walls down, her insecurities thrown into the fire, she looked at the hands of the what probably would be the last man she’d ever see, and she was overcome with a strange emotion. She had always hoped, or maybe dreamed was the better word, that her husband would be the last man she ever saw, before she would pass away that is. And now, now it seemed as if everything had changed. But not so entirely. She was not alone. And she was not dead. Her life would continue, but how? She imagined this is what it was like between Adam and Eve. Here we are. Miles apart and yet…
“I scare,” he interrupted her thoughts.
She saw him then, maybe for the first time. She saw everything. His hurt, his loneliness. He needn’t say another word, it breathed like a heavy cologne.
Majestically, she stood in front of the fire as he watched her. Moving gently to face him, she counted the lines in his face, smiling at the curls of his hair that rolled helplessly above his forehead, and traced his jawline with her finger. His lips parted with the surprise of her touch. Wordlessly, she answered his question.
I was afraid. Until I met you.
LANGUAGE is merely a tool.
It is a beauty yes, but in the case that Marci and Ignacio found themselves, it became strictly a tool. It did not separate or complicate their relationship. In fact, they relied so heavily on emotion and intuition that silence was a welcomed ghost. What words could express the situation they were in, really? Not English, not Spanish, not anything. It was a time that deserved a quiet reverence for all those voices never to be heard again.
Over the next week, the couple explored the land they now considered to be their own with a ravenous hunger. Perhaps, the first logical tactic would have been to set up a shelter, a safe place to gather water, a hunting reserve. But the two agreed almost instantly about movement. They could not explain why they had been spared, nor why they were not getting sick. For that very reason, they decided the first thing they should do is live.
In the mornings, Ignacio would sing. Marci thought he sounded very pretty. Regardless of the language he sang in, she could tell his songs were mostly sad. In the evenings, he had long sustaining moments of grief, as he sat on a rock or in a tree or by the water’s edge.
Marci knew, almost instantly that this man did not have many people in his life, but whoever he had lost must have meant the world to him.
One evening, she asked him, trying to speak in Spanish.
“Tuvieras una esposa?”
Looking at her as if a confused puppy, he smiled and answered,
“No. Good Spanish, Marci.”
She smiled and wracked her brain for the next phrase. Her first question alone took an entire day for her to piece together from her minimal Spanish classes in high school.
Ignacio was pleasantly confused. He was thrilled to hear his language being spoken to him. Even more thrilling was the aspect that Marci wanted to learn something about him.
“Quién?” he repeated.
“Triste,” she finally came up with the word for sad. “Tú triste.”
She couldn’t think of the word for songs, so she began to mimic him, pointing at him and attempting to sing. He laughed at her impersonation. Again, she repeated,
He nodded then, finally understanding.
The question hit him. He quickly looked down to avoid her beautiful, searching eyes. He knew his strength wavered when he saw them.
“My… dad,” he muttered. “I see him die.”
She gasped empathetically.
Then suddenly as if a dam broke lose, he began to speak in Spanish as fast as he possibly could. It was unrelenting. He had to let all the words out that he had stored inside for so long. He told her everything, even the things he had wished he had never said. Never known. Never seen. He did not begin at the end though. His tears and his words gushed forth as he explained his mother dying whenever he was born and his father was 16, how his village was small but even then, the poverty was smaller. His family were outcasts, frowned upon, believed to have been punished by God for a terrible sin that was his very existence.
He revealed the secrets of his heart that he had never told anyone. His embarrassment. His envy. His deep sadness. He could not read. He had stolen from many. He learned quickly how to fight. He had broken many noses, twisted many arms, even dislocated a shoulder.
He never trusted anyone. No one but his father. And even then, they did not have the relationship he had longed for. It was a bond forged by survival.
It would not be like this. No, what he had with Marci was much much more already.
When he said this, he stopped speaking.
He looked up at her breathlessly.
Breathe and lift.
She smiled warmly at him. Again, she offered her hand on his cheek as a gesture of understanding. This time he took it in his own and stared at it for a while.
“My grandmother died in my arms,” she whimpered. She longed to say more but the tears choked any possibility of that. Ignacio could not stand it any longer, he embraced her.
Gently, he felt her chest give way, her body curling inward towards him as she sobbed. Her soul was cracking in his hands. He held on even tighter. Gasping for air between cries, she could feel herself letting go. All of it, all the people, all the places, all the solutions, all the plans, all the dreams she had had for herself, she let everything go. Nothing, no nothing, would be the same. Not her grandmother’s warm house that had been in her family’s history for decades. Not the sound of the grandfather clock ticking. Not the long walks home from school, nor the racing of bicycles down the street, nor the smell of fresh pie baking in the oven.
Lifting from his shoulder, she collected herself. Everything inside of her had been emptied. And oddly, she felt okay about that. Looking at Ignacio made her realize how lucky she really was.
She was alive and she was not alone.
Did anything else matter?