Walking earth’s beaten ground had once felt ethereal to Noah; she had loved the feeling of the sun on her neck as she wandered, often barefoot, through her town and around and around. Her neighbours would wave or stop her at the side of the footpath for a small chat, which she would enjoy thoroughly, and then send her back off on her merry way, wherever she was venturing this time.
Nowadays, it felt like hell had risen and boiled over the surface of the planet.
If Noah walked barefoot, she would certainly pierce her skin on shattered glass or crumbling debris, or even the odd throwaway knife; the sun had long disappeared behind a thick blanket of ash, smothering the world and bringing with it an eternal, grey night; neighbours dared not to talk to her now, not when trust was so flimsy, when the world had been knocked off of it’s rotation by several degrees.
Walking outside was only to be done when it was absolutely necessary—an eventual and inevitable expiry of her home’s food supply, or the monthly check in with the few survivors left, armed to the pits and standing six feet away from one another in fear.
Today was the least favoured of the options; the grocery run. Noah’s cousin, Tyler, had fallen ill to a migraine (they had been far more frequent nowadays, a side effect of the anxiety the apocalypse had birthed) and could not accompany her this time, so she stalked on her own, a long kitchen knife (sharpened) in her boot and a rifle (loaded) clenched in her trembling hands.
Remember, Tyler had told her, speaking to her with the voice he had once used to address his six-year-old daughter. Don’t speak to anyone you don’t know. Stay out of trouble. No eye contact, no sudden movements, no touching anything we don’t need. Just get the food and come home.
The nearest grocery store still operating, run by a few workaholic survivors, was over three miles from Noah and Tyler’s tiny home. Well, Tyler’s home, really—Noah had just been living there because she had run out of the funds for rent, and truly, it ended up being the best thing that happened to her. If she had still been living in Texas when the nukes hit, she would be flattened on the ground, another corpse to join the matted carpet of bodies.
Three miles away. What could happen, right? There hadn’t been a bomb for three months now, so Noah should have been fine. She would be able to just keep her head down, keep her mouth shut, keep her hands to herself and on that loaded gun—
Noah’s head snapped up so fast that the grey light around her blinked out for just a moment. She stood frozen outside of a small cottage, painted baby blue but streaked with dirt, the roof just beginning to cave in. On the other side of the broken-in white fence was a girl, six feet tall and glowing against the darkness, her long, white hair a beacon in this ashen world.
Noah said nothing. Tyler had told her to keep quiet, and so she would do so.
“I’m not gonna hurt you, you know.” The girl leaned over the fence, her elbows making the whole thing wobble. When she smiled, Noah had three consecutive thoughts:
1. She had a dimple in both cheeks, framed by star-like freckles.
2. She did not have the kind of a smile a traitor would possess.
3. It was the first kind smile Noah had seen in many, many months.
“I don’t know who you are.” Speaking felt rough on Noah’s throat; for what had felt like centuries, it had only been Tyler to talk to, and he wasn’t much for conversation. Noah had almost forgotten what it felt like to form words on her tongue, roll them around until they became something conceivable.
“Obviously. We’re just now meeting.” The girl lifted one hand, presumably to shake, but Noah pointed the barrel of her rifle directly at the spot where her brows pinched. “Woah, okay, calm it down. I just told you I won’t hurt you. Look, my name’s Niamh. You tell me yours, and that way, we’re no longer strangers.”
“I’m not sure it works that way.” Niamh’s smile was intoxicating. Noah hadn’t ever been one to get drunk, not even before the apocalypse, but she imagined this was how it felt; daunting, but exciting, a little sideways. “But… I’m Noah.”
“Noah and Niamh. Niamh and Noah. Say, Noah, are you off to the store?”
“You’ve got a buddy to go with, now.” Niamh finally shoved the fence down and climbed over, grabbing a large basket as she did so. Her eyes, Noah realised, were the colour of the sky; a dark and fearful grey, echoing summer storms and the ocean as it rained.
“Come on, off we hop.”
Off they hopped. Noah had been told not to speak, and that had worked thus far, but Niamh was a creature of seemingly ignorant chaos, and she had been drawn in without a say in the matter.
Niamh, so it happened, did not have a home.
The house she had been standing outside of was a prop, something to use so that Noah wouldn’t immediately go running. Because Niamh needed Noah to see her, give her a home, let her in.
“Noah!” Tyler scolded when the pair returned, arms full of cans and bottles and one miraculous box of chocolate cookies; a rarity among men. “I told you—”
“She needs a home,” Noah said. Her voice felt stronger now, louder from use. Niamh had a lot of questions, and thankfully, Noah had a lot of answers. “She’s alone, she lost her family.”
“She might be—”
“She had a niece. Six years old.”
Tyler converted the old study to a bedroom in record time.
Niamh had slotted herself into their safe space so easily, like it really was possible to trust somebody in this broken and stuttering world. At first, Noah had paid her no mind, simply seeing her as a refugee who would eat their food and sleep in their home but interact minimally with the other inhabitants; but as time stretched yet further forward, Noah found herself waking up with Niamh’s name on her tongue.
She would make two cups of shitty, watered-down coffee instead of one (Tyler mostly drank Jack Daniels these days. What else was there to do at the end of the world?), sit at the opposite end of Niamh’s couch (bed, supposedly), exchange small words with her.
Small words began as: “Do you have a last name?”
“I don’t remember it.”
Small words grew into: “Who were you before the nukes?”
“A student at Duke. Yourself?”
“Oh, nothing, just—I never made it into my dream school, so I just worked, living with Tyler when I couldn’t get a job that paid rent, you know. Classic.”
“Oh, for sure. Living the goddamn life, Noah.”
Small words eventually became: “Niamh.”
“Do you find lumps in this couch?”
“Jesus, all the time. Oh my god, I shouldn’t complain, because it’s so much better than nothing, but I—”
“You can, um. You can sleep with—in my bed! You can sleep in my bed, if you’d like. It’s a Queen.”
The study became a study again, human presence disappearing to sleep instead beside Noah. Noah and Niamh. Niamh and Noah. The world turned and turned, off-kilter, nukes dropped all over the place from aircraft humans had not invented, and Tyler would one day go out for groceries and not return home, but no matter what, it was always Noah and Niamh, Niamh and Noah.
Noah would brew their coffee of a morning before Niamh woke, their halfway-dead TV playing the same warning sign on repeat for hours just as background noise, and when night settled in, Niamh was the one to lock all of the doors twice, just to make sure, while Noah readied herself for bed.
They walked, sometimes, but it was a rare occasion. Glass still littered the ground, corpses still made a carpet on the road, and the sight and stench of it all made their stomachs turn. Inside was just better.
There was less room, and more them, when they were inside.
“Do you think Tyler died? Or do you think he found someplace else?”
Niamh looked up from her coffee, her eyes still half-asleep, and blinked slowly at Noah. Her every movement seemed to send electric pulses through Noah’s bloodstream, jolting her, reminding her of her posture and her face and what she was doing with her hands.
“There’s no way he survived,” Niamh said after a thoughtful pause, then pushed her coffee away. “I think it’s just us two, now.”
“Just us two,” Noah repeated, her voice soft and dying on her lips. Noah and Niamh, Niamh and Noah; the inseparable, independent, lonely pair of girls, the bank of sand on which to stand when sharks waited for you to dip off the edge and into the water.
Noah didn’t know what else to do, so she leant forward and pressed her lips to the tip of Niamh’s nose, her face warming as she went.
“Noah,” Niamh warned. “You missed.”
Niamh’s mouth tasted like bitter and watery coffee, and it felt like heaven had finally descended.
Noah and Niamh, Niamh and Noah. Two years progressed from their meeting, and they remained unshakeable, taking the necessary walks to the grocery store and attending the monthly survivor’s meeting. Though supplies at the store began to dwindle, and certain faces at the survivor’s meetings began to disappear, Noah decided that she and Niamh were untouchable; immortal; the creatures of legend.
If they had survived this long, they could certainly survive longer, and they would do it with each other by their side. Guns in one hand, fingers intertwined on the other.
The store would stop supplying boxes, first; then bread; then bottles; tins were on their way out. The survivor’s meetings fell and suddenly nobody attended after only five turned up one day. Still, Noah thought, she and Niamh were going to make it out of this. They would see the sun again, the moon, the stars, a world without ash and debris, a world far better than this one.
Even if they were to be the only ones who would remain at the final day, standing hand in hand at the tip of the earth, watching their new kingdom come to life, they would still survive.
Noah’s logic had disappeared with Tyler. Besides; when the world was just dust and nuclear waste, what good was anything but love and misguided hope?
Four years after their meeting, perhaps down to the exact date (Noah wouldn’t know, as she hadn’t been counting days since the third bomb hit New York), Noah woke up. She noticed three things consecutively:
1. The clock on her wall had stopped ticking.
2. The air smelled like sulphur.
3. Niamh was gone, leaving only a mess of bedsheets and a girl behind.
On the nightstand next to the bed, Noah discovered a note, scrawled on in scratchy blue ink.
I’m sorry I let you believe we would make it that far. We were never meant for greatness; none of us were. The end of the world does not make way for new beginnings, only death and heartache and grief. And extinction. Nobody will make it out.
Noah did not have time to process the words.
The first nuclear bomb to hit California struck just over three miles away, and not even Noah and Niamh, Niamh and Noah, could survive.