Content warning: suicide attempt, allusions to rape.
The world had become a wasteland. Until it happened, Tabitha hadn’t understood what that truly meant. When she had read it in novels, seen it pictured on screen in movies, she hadn’t fully appreciated what it meant. Now that she was living in it, she would do anything to not know anymore. All around her, the empty ground had been ruined. What had begun as a few potholes in the street had become gaping holes in the tarmac. Houses were no longer homes, only abandoned buildings with broken windows, gaping at her like the shocked mouths that had once surrounded her early in ‘all of this’. For the spring and the summer at least, she’d had trees and flowers, nature, to look up to. It had been a steady stream of hope that Tabitha could hold on to. As winter swept through though, that hope had slowly diminished, until that morning the last of it had flickered out entirely.
She made one last lap around her home-town, not that it felt anything like that now. Hints of the old life brought treasured memories to mind. Walking by the park, she remembered her dad teaching her how to ride her bike. The way that, when she looked back now at seventeen, she could remember the way he found it difficult to tell her to keep trying when she fell down. He’d always been the softer parent, ready with a wet wipe and to kiss it better if she got a scrape or a bump when she fell down. Had he given in to that instinct, she never would have learned to ride that little pink bicycle with the tassels on the ends of the handles. Thinking about it now brought tears to her eyes. Her dad would be so impressed with the way she’d handled herself these past few years.
“I really hope you’ll forgive me, Daddy,” she said, looking out over the overgrown grass and bare trees, “I hope that you’ll understand when I get there. I can’t wait to give you a hug. And Mom, obviously. And Sir McFluffkins.” She laughed, thinking of their dopey little dogs’ face. If there really was a heaven, and it was something she’d prayed for since the day she lost her family, then that little guy was guaranteed to be there.
From the park, Tabitha walked by the convenience store; the neon sign long-ago burned out, doors and their frame mowed down by a car months before, shelves cleared. Back in the last two years of middle school, when she had finally been allowed to walk to school alone, she walked by the store every morning and stopped to buy a candy bar with her allowance. Even when her mom pointed out that she could save a lot of money if she bought multi-packs of them instead, she hadn’t changed her habit. What mattered the most wasn’t the candy bar, but the freedom she had to go and buy herself one when she wanted to. It hurt her heart just as much to see the place ruined as the park did.
Soon she passed the middle school, not that she paused to admire the ruins. If anything, that was the only place she felt comfortable seeing that way. After all, that had been where she had first learned to be unhappy when at eleven she made the mistake of confessing all of her swirling, confusing feelings to her best friend, who quickly told everyone she knew that Tabitha was some kind of lesbian predator. A year of back and forth between her parents and the principal, getting nowhere extremely slowly, only ended with the transition to high school; one without any of the kids from her middle school.
“Good riddance to one of Earth’s greatest shit stains.”
Tabitha crossed the street and passed by the houses of some of her old friends, the one who had treated her right. The memories of hanging out in their bedrooms, listening to music, watching movies online, seemed like a dream to her now. They were lost before her parents, back when she thought that would be the worst pain she’d ever feel. Losing her mom and dad on the same day had shown her otherwise.
The final stop on her final walk was her old home. Just a sad-looking building after standing empty for months, looted and destroyed after she had to leave for her own safety. Back when Tabitha was first left alone in the house after losing her parents, people would check out the house, pull on the doors, knock at the windows, in an attempt to see if anyone was left in there, or if they could rob the place. Eventually, a particularly nasty trio of guys made it into the house, and her home wasn’t the only thing looted or destroyed. She hadn’t moved from the spot on the tiled kitchen floor where they’d left her, sobbing and numb, for days. When she finally dragged herself from it, Tabitha had cleaned herself up and left. As much as it broke her heart, and she felt she was breaking an unspoken promise to her parents, to leave the house behind, she didn’t feel she could stay there another day.
For weeks she’d tried to settle in different places. The top floor of a hotel, a tree-house in someone’s back yard, the backseat of a car she had no idea how to drive. In the end, the safest place she found was a shelter she built herself in the woods, next to the river. It wasn’t so much the shelter that gave her a feeling of security, as the gun and bag of bullets she kept on her at all times. She wasn’t sure why it had been sitting out in the hallway of a random house, where it looked like there’d be something of a scuffle, and she didn’t care. It was hers now.
With her shelter in place to sleep in, the river to wash in with scavenged soap, wild lettuce, acorns, and mushrooms to eat, Tabitha had lived a reasonable life while she hoped for another living person to show up. At first, she’d been certain of it. How could she, a distinctly average North American teenager, a normal suburban girl, have survived the disease that took out everyone else on Earth? That one question, and the certainty that it brought that there must be other people out there, had fueled that tiny spark of hope for a long time. Until now.
With her walk finished, Tabitha changed into a fresh set of clothes – a black silk and lace dress, and a pair of patent leather Mary-Jane's – all unworn but kept close since she left home. Once upon a time that seemed like forever ago, she would have insisted on wearing tights with the dress to cover up her pale legs, but nowadays she had a perpetual tan.
“And besides,” she mumbled to herself as she climbed the steep, unsteady steps to the top of the hill, “it’s not like anyone will see me, all that matters is that I’m wearing something I like, for eternity.”
At the top of the hill, close to the end, on the ledge she’d chosen some time in the past, something she barely remembered doing, Tabitha sat down. She looked out over the derelict town, which closely mirrored how she felt inside and psyched herself up. Though she had known for a while that it would likely come to this, and made her peace with it, she knew that wouldn’t exactly make it easy. Knowing that otherwise it would take until long after the sun went down, Tabitha set herself two minutes. Two minutes, and she could say goodbye to the whole mess.
When the two minutes were up, and a few extra seconds just in case, she stood up and moved closer to the edge. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Ah shit. You beat me to it.”
For a moment, so focused on the darkness behind her eyelids, Tabitha felt convinced that the voice had come from within her. Whether her mind playing tricks, or something deep in her heart that she hadn’t heard in a while, it had to have come from herself, didn’t it?
On the off chance that it hadn’t, with nothing else to lose, Tabitha opened one eye and turned her head slightly. What she saw convinced her that she was hallucinating.
“An angel?” Tabitha whispered to herself, opening both eyes and stepping back from the ledge. She’d read about these kinds of delusions, projected by the suicidal mind to prevent an attempt. This girl, standing at the top of the steps Tabitha hadn’t long climbed herself, in gray jeans, cowboy boots and a band tee, ringlets of blonde hair framing her face which glowed golden in the late afternoon sun, had to be an angel. Her brain could only be appealing to her heart to keep her alive, by manifesting the most beautiful girl that Tabitha could imagine.
The girl scoffed, then began to laugh, breaking through Tabitha’s thoughts. “An angel? Far from it.” She moved closer to Tabitha. “I came here to jump, is that what you’re doing?” she asked, all matter-of-fact.
Tabitha nodded. “That was the plan, but I guess it can wait.” She couldn’t believe it. All the time she’d been waiting for another person to appear and now she finally had, Tabitha felt frozen to the spot. It wasn’t exactly fear, just a strong uncertainty.
“Yeah, I guess I can hold off for a few minutes too.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here,” Tabitha said, more of a statement than a question. It had been a long time since she felt that curiosity about a fellow human.
“I’m not, I’ve traveled through three states to get here. Wherever here is, it seemed like as good a place as any to...stop.” Tabitha knew from her own thoughts what she meant by that. “I’m Ali, what’s your name?”
“Tabitha. You can call me Tabby, I guess.” No-one had before, but there was no-one else to point that out.
“Tabby, that’s cute.”
With the early pleasantries out of the way, Ali moved closer. “That’s a really pretty dress. Good choice,” she said with a harsh laugh.
“I don’t know, I think I like your way of on-trend style better.”
Tabitha found herself away from the ledge, only a few feet from Ali, who she could now see looked to be about her own age.
“Hey, we could be the last two people on Earth for all I know, we get to decide what’s on-trend, and I think we both are,” she explained, her voice sounded angelic to Tabitha’s ears, even if she insisted she wasn’t one.
“Can I just...poke you?” Tabitha asked.
“Excuse me?” Ali said, clutching a hand to her chest in faux-offense mode, “I expect you to at least take me to dinner before we get to that kind of talk. The world may have ended, but I have standards.”
Tabitha felt her cheeks flush before she could reply. “I just meant-well, I thought...”
“You still think there’s a chance I’m not real?” Ali asked. She shrugged her shoulders. “Honestly, I’m not convinced that you are either. What do you say to a hug instead though? It’s been a while.”
The last people to touch Tabitha had done so with no kindness and caused nothing but pain. Ali’s proposition sounded like a good one.
“OK, bring it in,” she said with a smile.
The moment they wrapped their arms around each other, first tentatively, and then with a more urgent need, the smiles faded, replaced by pained expressions. Tabitha heard Ali begin to cry right before she did herself. The hug soon became a crumpled mess of entangled limbs on the ground, both of them sobbing into each others’ shoulders.
Tabitha had no idea how much time passed. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried, but it felt incredible to let it all out with someone else doing the same. The comfort that Ali’s sobs provided felt twisted yet wonderfully cathartic.
“If anyone could see us now,” Ali eventually said, her voice sticky with tears and snot.
“Good thing no-one will, huh?” Their cries dissolved into laughter.
When the laughs and the tears had passed, they pulled apart a little and sat on the grass, still close enough together that their arms, hips, and legs still touched.
“So I’m the first person you’ve seen?” Tabitha asked.
“Yeah, for months. I really thought there was no-one else left.”
“Me too. No family or anything?” She decided there was no use in skirting around the difficult stuff.
“Nope. It was only me and my mom, and she was one of the first to go. I just kept moving after that,” Ali explained, her eyes darkening as she spoke about her mom. “I know it’s a cliché, but she was my best friend, you know? I don’t know how I came this far without her.”
“I’m sorry, I know what you mean. I lost my parents early on, and everything went to hell after that.”
“It’s OK. The whole world went to hell. I just hope the right people are in heaven.”
“I still haven’t decided my stance on all that,” Ali said, waving her arm to indicate heaven, hell, everything in between, “but I hope so too.”
“I was planning to find out today, but hey, what do you say to giving it one more day?” Tabitha asked. Maybe she wasn’t an angel, but there was a light inside Ali, whether she knew it or not, that had somehow re-ignited the time ray of hope inside her.
“Sure, why not? Heaven can wait, right?”
“That’s what I hear.”
Tabitha stood and wiped off her dress, before reaching a hand out to help Ali up. Their hands remained inter-locked as the two girls descended the steps they had climbed alone, never anticipating that they would return to lower ground alive.
“So how have you been traveling?” Tabitha asked. “I haven’t ventured far out of town while I’ve been alone. Not easy on foot.”
“Bicycle,” Ali told her with a sigh, “I skipped a lot of drivers’ ed’. Skipped a lot of classes actually. And then the petrol shortage came around and I didn’t get the chance to learn. So bicycle it was. I’ve been exhausted for months.”
“Yikes,” Tabitha said with a laugh. “I’m glad I stayed now.”
“Where have you been staying?”
“I can show you if you like?”
Once Ali agreed, Tabitha lead the way to the edge of town, pointing out personal landmarks along the way. By the time they reached the woods, she’d almost forgotten the tragic situation they were in, feeling more like a tour guide than a lost girl. One thing she knew for sure, she felt much less lost than she had before she Ali.
“This is sweet!” Ali cried when she saw the shelter. “It’s awesome! You built this yourself?”
Tabitha surveyed the weaved willow branches with new eyes. “Yeah, I did. Some Girl Scout knowledge stuck I guess.”
“You were a Girl Scout? Me too!”
“Really? What badges did you get?” As she spoke, Tabitha found herself taking off her shoes and sitting on the river bank to rinse her feet in the water. There had been a time when she would have been too self-conscious to show her bare feet, particularly in front of such a hot girl, but being with Ali just had a sense of ‘rightness’. Especially when Ali sat down beside her and did the same. Their hands touched as she made herself comfortable, sending a bolt of electricity through Tabitha’s skin as they chatted and laughed about childhood Scout memories.
After a while, when their toes were beginning to shrivel from so much time in the water, she heard Ali’s stomach rumble.
“Do you have any food? Because I have plenty stored up in there if you want something?”
“You’d share with me?” Ali asked, a smile playing on her lips.
“Of course,” she said with a shrug, trying to play it cool, and failing miserably.
“Thanks, that’s really sweet.”
“Come on.” She stood and shook the water from her feet. “Allow me to welcome you to my shelter.” She giggled as she grabbed Ali’s hand once more, a wave of confidence washing over her.
“Ooo it’s nice in here!” Ali said, settling down on the thick layer of blankets Tabitha had carefully been switching and washing since she built it.
“Thanks, I tried to make it as homely as I could,” she joked.
They feasted on acorns and mushrooms as they got to know each other, both happy with someone else to listen to as much as talk to. That night, when there was only pitch black outside, and they could just make out the stars above between the cracks in the weave, the two girls fell asleep arm in arm. Neither knew what the future might hold, what tomorrow could bring, or how long they could make it in this new world. There was one thing Tabitha knew for sure – love hadn’t died with the rest of the world, and neither had life now she had found someone to share it with.