Nobody warned me I’d be playing Scrabble at the end of the world. I thought we would have aliens with laser guns, or zombies at least, but no. The downfall of capitalism was a virus that just killed people, no reanimating involved.
The end of the world felt an awful lot like everyday life. Except without jobs and the 40-hour work week. Instead people took up skating, biking, hiking, kayaking, baking their own bread, and doing puzzles, and making all kinds of stupid art.
Now that I thought about it maybe this wasn’t the end of the world, just the end of the Middle Ages in America? Didn’t that end with a plague or something?
Was I living in the American Renaissance now? If I had known, I would have worked on getting canvas-ready so Andrew could paint me like one of his French girls.
Instead, I sat playing Scrabble, in the apartment that I had refused to leave. Because what would we do with all our stuff? All our memories? Just leave them for looters?
Andrew hammered up a new set of boards over our windows while I played Scrabble against our dog, Humble.
“Hum-Hum is beating me.” I spoke loudly so Andrew could hear over the hammering.
He laughed. “We both know he’s the smartest one of the three of us. I’m surprised you’re going up against him again.”
Humble sat with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, panting. He wore one of those giant German Shepard smiles. Spittle dangled from the tip of his tongue, threatening to drip on to the floor in front of him.
“You’re a good boy,” I said. “How did you get to be so good?”
His tail wagged, but his ears perked up; Andrew had stopped with the hammer.
I took Humble’s turn. He spelled out the word, “equalize,” and I sighed. I’d lost again. He got up and headed to the bedroom to check on Andrew. I put away the game; I could only lose to our dog so many times.
The two of them walked into the living room.
“Should we go wander around?” Andrew mouthed the word, “walk,” as if Humble didn’t understand him. Humble’s tail was already wagging. He barked softly.
I coughed. I’d gotten the new, mysterious virus, and somehow, I’d survived it. But surviving it didn’t mean I was lucky and out of the woods: apparently, it came with lingering symptoms. The cough was one of them. It reminded me of a smoker’s cough, and I resented the virus with every fit that left me exhausted.
Humble and Andrew eyed me with the same nervous look, and I shook my head before “are you okay” could leave Andrew’s mouth. Humble nuzzled his nose into my dangling hand. I grabbed the leash and checked my pocket for the new inhaler I now had to keep nearby, because of the damn coughing fits.
We left the apartment with masks securely on our faces and Humble leading the charge. We wandered around the mostly empty complex. Once shit hit the fan, a lot of people either abandoned their apartments, moved in with friends or family, or went to find empty homes left behind by the rich. Moving during normal circumstances was a hassle, so we weren’t thrilled to go house hunting when the world was falling apart. We’d stayed at our apartment mostly out of laziness.
“Do you think there’s anything worth doing today?” He yawned.
I shrugged; my eyes followed Humble’s path into the grass. “Same things as every other day, I guess.”
“We could try to get food.” I could tell he was smiling, because his face crinkled upward, but somehow, it didn’t fully meet his eyes.
“Maybe we should go house hunting. We probably need to start our own farm or something. The grocery stores will run out of stuff eventually, right?”
Humble was still sniffing around in the grass.
“Let’s not think about that just yet.” He fidgeted with one of the ear loops on his mask. His eyes slid from me to the dog. We watched him look for the perfect spot; we averted our gaze when he squatted.
“We have to eventually.” My eyes went wide. “Oh fuck, what do we do when we run out of dog food? Should we figure out what dogs eat?”
Andrew turned his attention back to me, his head swiveling to my direction quickly. “Fuck! Do dogs eat squirrels and birds and stuff like that?”
Laughing, I shook my head, eyes still wide. “Not our dog. He wouldn’t try even if we tried to teach him.”
Andrew frowned. “No, he probably would, right? If he was hungry enough?”
“Okay, how about this: we find a house with a big backyard. Some of it can be Humble’s hunting ground and some of it can be our baby-farm area?”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. His eyes were clouded again. He checked on Humble.
Humble was kicking grass up around his leavings.
Andrew kneeled down and scooped up the hot pile with the tiny trash bag. We headed over to the doggie bag drop box they had scattered across the complex’s grounds. Continuing our walk, we headed towards the dog park which was a fenced in area where dogs could run around off their leashes.
“Do you think he’d hunt in this area?” Andrew gestured to the open area of the dog park.
“I don’t know. He knows this spot as a play area, right? Would he hunt in a place where he has fun?” Once we were safely inside the dog park, we let Humble off the leash. He ran laps and we stood by as he started hurrying through all the strange dog obstacle course items.
“And what about our farming? Where do you think we’d be able to have a farm here in this apartment life?” I gestured to the giant fields of land that stretched out. “All of this is free for all. I’m not going to farm for other people without getting something in return.”
“So, you want to start bartering, too?” He rubbed the creases on his forehead. “I can’t believe this is our life.”
I laughed. “We have to become farmers; he has to be a hunter. What the fuck is this?”
He shrugged and shut his eyes. “And this is after you were sick for an entire year and a half. And then the damn virus on top of your other sickness. I feel like I just got you back.”
He groaned and took his mask off. I could see the bags under his eyes better in the sunlight. He was tired, too. He’d been my caretaker for so long; I hadn’t thought about the toll of that. I’d been too busy fighting my body’s battle, and I spent so much time exhausted from being sick, I hadn’t had the capacity to see his fatigue.
I was about to apologize for being sick, to thank him for taking care of me, but he spoke first. “I guess let’s go get ourselves a house.”
I sank down on to the nearby bench. “Who knew we’d decide to be homeowners in the apocalypse?”
Humble ran up and sniffed my knees. He woofed and wagged his tail, nudging my hand with his head.
“He says, come play with me. We have so much play time now.” I said this in my Humble voice.
“Yeah, you two don’t have jobs anymore, it’s weird.” Andrew also said this in his Humble voice. “Oh well, let’s play.”
We followed Humble around the obstacle course, because who was going to stop two adults running a dog-stacle course while sirens sounded in the distance and everyone had their own business to mind?
After we were all tired out, we decided to wander into a nearby neighborhood with decent sized homes.
“Surely, someone in this area dipped out on their home and nobody else has found it yet.” Andrew muttered under his breath, but also under his mask, so I barely understood what he said.
“Let’s make sure it doesn’t flood.” I held on to Humble’s leash this time. He was sniffing the new path we were taking with vigor.
“I don’t think we’ll be keeping anything valuable in a basement.” He ran his hand through his hair; his eyes scanned the houses. “How can we tell if one is empty? It’s not like people put up for sale signs on anything before they left.”
“Maybe we peek into windows?” I saw cars in driveways, but that didn’t tell us much of anything. We had a row of cars parked in front of our apartment, but only two other people had stayed; of the ten cars out front, only four of them ever got used. Everyone else had gotten rides out of the complex. “The cars being there or not being there aren’t much help.”
“I know.” He sounded mildly agitated, but I knew he hated doing crimes. Even when things were different.
A small group of people rolled around in the street ahead of us; some on skateboards, some wearing quad skates. They weren’t wearing masks; Andrew and I glanced at each other.
The Actives, as we jokingly called them, were always hard to gauge when it came to pro-mask or anti-mask, so we prepared for the worst. I cleared my throat a few times, making sure I wouldn’t be having a coughing fit in front of them, just in case.
Having “The Cough” was equivalent to having a zombie bite in horror movies. You were marked for death, or at least, in this case, it made most people nervous.
The group of people turned out to be younger people, not older people. Young people had taken everything that had happened in more stride than the older groups had. The group waved as we passed, and they maintained the appropriate amount of space between us.
“Cute dog.” One of them shouted this as they skidded to a stop on their skates. “Can I pet—”
One of the others elbowed the shouting one. “Never mind, sorry.”
“It’s easy to forget things are weird now,” Andrew said, loudly, to accommodate for the mask and for the distance between us.
They nodded and continued skating. Humble hadn’t growled or gotten weird, so we figured they were fine. We kept walking. The more distance we put between us and them, the more my shoulders loosened up.
“I hate this. Is this really forever from now on?” I glanced over at Andrew.
He blinked several times and shook his head. “Somebody will fix this.”
“Who?” I laughed. “Who is left?”
“Other countries. They’ll—they’ll help us eventually.”
“The government has barricaded itself in the capital, and the other countries know we are riddled with the plague, they’re not going to touch us until that’s under control.”
Andrew sighed. “I don’t know, okay? It’s easier to pretend something will fix this. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“All right,” I said. “All right. I’m going to hope for aliens to come help us out.”
“You do that.” He walked a little ahead for a while.
“Shit. We’re supposed to be looking for a house to squat in.”
He laughed. “I know. I’m still looking. Did you stop?”
“Yes. I got tired of the end of the world, and Humble did something cute wagging with his tail. I thought we were just on a walk.”
“It was your idea. We need hunting ground and farming land.” He fell back into step with me. Humble led the way, sniffing everything on the grass and the pavement. A patch of loose sand and gravel crunched under our feet.
“I’ll look at houses on the left, and you look on the right.” I scanned the homes on the left I spoke. “How do we even approach the places to peek into the windows?”
“Should we go around back?”
“I don’t know.” I thought of Scooby-Doo and Dungeons and Dragons, and every horror movie ever made. “Splitting up seems wrong.”
“Right. That’s the worst decision we’re making here today.” He rolled his eyes.
“Shut up.” I laughed. “We only didn’t dip out because moving took too much energy.”
“Should we try to move to Canada?”
“They have the virus under control. Their situation is still normal, right? They wouldn’t accept us.”
“Unless they’ve started accepting refugees.” He raised his eyebrows. “Worth a shot?”
“But you didn’t want to move away from your family.”
“Neither did you.” His brow furrowed. “But they’re all back home now anyway. It doesn’t seem like we’ll get to visit any time soon.”
“All right, fuck it, let’s move to Canada then.” I ran my hand through my hair. “Let’s pack our shit up though, because I don’t want my stuff looted.”
Humble stopped outside of a green brick house and let out a small bark. We looked at him. He stared at the house, his tail twitched a little, but it was no longer wagging.
“Are we taking the car?” Andrew said.
I held my hand up. “What’s wrong, Hummy Buns?”
“He’s a dog, he’s probably just seeing a squirrel.” He looked around. “Oh hey, if he’s seeing a squirrel should we practice hunting now?”
I pulled on the leash, trying to get Humble to regroup. “No, and maybe we can take the car. I don’t know how the roads are. We haven’t had to go out in months.”
I thought of our fully stocked kitchen, all the nonperishables we’d acquired at the beginning of the madness. Andrew’s eyes landed on something in the overgrown front lawn of the green brick house, and he squinted. I turned to look but saw nothing.
Humble was still glued to the spot he’d stopped in.
“Guys, come on, let’s go back to the apartment.” My stomach knotted, but my eyes followed Andrew’s steps. He and Humble were at attention. “Is there something happening that only dudes can hear or what?”
Andrew waved at me, trying to signal I should be quiet. Humble stepped closer to me, keeping himself in front of me. I frowned.
“If someone is hiding in the bushes, I need you to fuck off.” I spoke loudly, hoping that would at least get the grass to rustle or give anything away that I could see.
Andrew waded into the grass.
“What are you doing?” This time I didn’t yell it.
Humble tugged at the leash, wanting to join Andrew in the grass. He flitted back and forth, wanting to be near me and wanting to be on the frontlines.
I let go of the leash; Andrew could not die and leave me here in this apocalyptic hell alone. Not after I fought off the damn virus to stay with him! Humble flew forward, almost knocking him down as he ran past him.
“HEY!” An unfamiliar voice cried out.
“Shit!” Andrew jumped back. Humble barked, but it was his fake threatening bark, not his real booming one.
A head popped up; the guy stared at us, bewildered. “What the hell are you doing?”
“We should ask you the same thing.” Andrew’s hands were balled into fists, but they were still at his sides.
The grass was about shoulder-height on Andrew and the stranger. Humble’s path to and from them was marked by a shaking of tall grass. Humble appeared next to me on the pavement; I grabbed his leash.
He pointed down the street at the skating squad. “You see them down there? We have prank wars. I was trying to get them back for a prank they pulled on me yesterday.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry to disturb you, we’ll be going now.”
Andrew backed out of the grass and stood slightly in front of me the way Humble did, and he stared at the weirdo.
“C’mon,” I said, tugging Andrew’s hand. “Let’s go.”
“Do you guys live around here?” He eyed the three of us. “Are you new?”
“No. We’re moving to Canada.” I pulled on his hand once more. “Let’s go pack.”
Andrew followed me and Humble.
We hurried back past the skaters and jogged the short distance to our apartment complex. Once we were back in the familiar parking lot with speeds, we slowed down.
“What the fuck was that dude?” I laughed. “He looked crazy. Do you think they were really having a prank war?”
“I don’t know. But now I need to get in on that. We have to find a house in that area.”
“What? No! He gave me the creeps.” I motioned to my eyes. “His eyes were wild. Did you see the way he was surprised to see us?”
“To be fair, we’re all surprised to see other people these days.” Andrew’s gears were shifting. “I have so many pranks we could pull on them and the skater gang.”
“You’re out of your mind,” I said, laughing. “Humble Jumble, we gotta de-program your daddy.”
“Look what else are we doing with all this downtime? Somebody will come rescue the country, surely, right? I don’t want to move. Maybe we can do pranks from here.”
I sighed. “You’re losing it.”
“I’m bored. And I’m scared, too, you know?” He looked at me, the tiredness in his face apparent again. “Let’s just have fun. We haven’t had real fun since you got sick a year and a half ago. You survived the killer virus, and now we just sit around and talk to our dog and have conversations with ourselves as if we are the dog; we play Scrabble over and over again. You’re always talking about how something’ll kill us. And we’re both so over this damn apocalypse. Some people have taken up skating or making art, let’s take up this prank war.”
Humble took a moment to sniff grass and lift his leg.
He had a point. “Whose team will Humble be on?”