April 1, 2017 orangeq2017

Still Life

Julia Mascioli

 

The world was over and I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep and the world was over.

Maybe the world wasn’t really over. The Earth was still turning. It was just that the vast majority of the population had vanished two days ago. I definitely couldn’t sleep though.

I had been in the dark room when the world ended, turning the prints over and watching the images sharpen through the clear liquid. I was the only one there, so I didn’t notice and kept working. Later, this was what frightened me the most: that I spent 47 minutes developing photographs without realizing that the world was over.

It didn’t end with a bang or even a whimper. I walked outside 47 minutes later, prints carefully stowed between clear plastic sheets and hands still smelling faintly of chemicals. I was halfway across the parking lot before I noticed that something had changed. Several cars stood with their doors open, some with their engines still running, and one seemed to have missed the turn in the road, rolled over the curb and right into the brick wall of the building.

It was such a fucking cliché, all empty, a plastic bag rolling past my feet in the wind. It felt like the moment in an old western when the sheriff walks into the saloon, doors swinging behind him, and the piano man’s fingers halt over the keys and the card players lay down their hands until there’s not even the sound of glasses clinking in the smoky room. Yeah, just like that. Except more car alarms.

I went back to my apartment. I tried driving for a while, but the cars were a mess in all six lanes, so I got out and walked. I was wearing heels, damn things, on that day of all days, and after a dozen blocks I took them off and walked the rest of the way with the rough sun-warmed pavement under my aching feet. When I got back to my place, I found the front door unlocked. My roommate was not there. And the oven was on fire.

After putting out the fire with several spaghetti pots’ worth of water from the sink, I went into the other room and turned on the television. Nothing but reruns and static. Wonderful. I picked up my cell phone. No missed calls, no voicemail, no texts. My thumb hovered over the keypad as I pondered who ought to be my emergency: apocalypse contact. Then I closed the phone and set it down on the table.

There was no use staying in an empty apartment with a smoky and singed kitchen. Besides, with all those people gone, surely I could get better accommodations. Set myself up with a penthouse or something. Hell, I’d settle for bigger windows. I left the TV on as I went into my bedroom to pack. The quiet was unnerving, slightly less so with the I Love Lucy marathon in the background. I might be on foot for a while—no sense in carrying a large bag. I dragged my old Jansport out from under the bed, coughing as I brushed off the layers of dust. I hadn’t used the backpack much in the last few years; mostly I kept it out of the strange sense that a person, no matter their age or station in life, ought to have a backpack. Maybe it was luck that I still had it, but luck only went so far after the end of the world when you couldn’t fit more than a few days’ worth of clean underwear in your bag.

It reminded me of that movie with George Clooney, the one where he flew across the country all the time for his job. The name eluded me, but I could easily recall the scene where he talked about fitting one’s life in a carry-on compartment, and he said photographs were for people who couldn’t remember. My friends had quoted that to me incessantly. It occurred to me then that I might not ever find out the name of the movie, and might have to keep calling it that-movie-with-George-Clooney-where-he-flew-across-the-country-all-the-time-for-his-job every time it came up in conversation.

In order to do that, I would need to find someone to converse with. That thought kept my mind occupied while I packed my clothes, toiletries, swiss army knife, flashlight and as many AA batteries as I could find. I took my SLR too, although I only had one extra roll of film. Maybe that was a sign that I should have abandoned my luddite ways and finally switched to digital. If it was a sign, however, I was determined to ignore it.

When I had as many useful things as I could fit, I slung the backpack over my shoulder, scooped up my purse, took one last look at the slightly singed apartment, and walked out the door. I didn’t bother to lock up behind me.

The streets were emptier than I’d ever seen them, and all I could hear were the many blaring car alarms. The next step was definitely to find people. If I were the lone survivor of an unexplained phenomenon, where would I go?

 

In true suburban fashion, I had my first encounter in the canned goods aisle of Whole Foods. I got some beans since popular entertainment had taught me that beans were the appropriate food for any occasion, a veritable legume of all seasons. But I was weighing the merits of canned peaches when a noise from behind made me turn around. He was standing at the end of the aisle, staring at me, his arms wrapped around a gallon jug of water. Strange to think I’d wanted to see another face, but now that I had confirmation I was not the last human on the planet, I could only stand there. I dropped the canned peaches.

The thud of the can striking the tiles served to unfreeze the man, but he bolted. I don’t know what he thought I was going to do to him. Bludgeon him to death over some Aquafina? I was amazed at how fast he could move while carrying the heavy jug. Once I could no longer hear his footsteps, I picked up my can of peaches, stuffed it in my backpack along with baked beans and a few other selections, then made my way to sights unknown.

Maybe it was the fucking Rapture, I thought. I didn’t believe in that sort of stuff on most days, but that could be why I was left behind.

 

I spent the first night camped out in a department store. I’d thought about squatting in some of the nicer houses that I saw, but something held me back. I made it as far as the front door, but when I stood there on the stoop I couldn’t make myself move and eventually I turned around and walked away, breathing hard for absolutely no reason. Since I was reluctant to enter other people’s homes, and even more reluctant to return to my own, I’d decided that a pile of blankets on a tile floor was the best option. Just like a sleepover, right? With myself.

It took me ages to fall asleep. I hadn’t had insomnia this bad since I finished school. I used to lie awake at night turning over my latest projects in a stress-filled frenzy. Finally Hannah, my friend and roommate, got so tired of watching me stumble bleary-eyed through the days that she and some other friends sprang for a gift: a treadmill. From then on, whenever I couldn’t sleep I would get up and run in place until my brain finally quieted down. Hannah was gone though and so was that treadmill.

I did fall asleep eventually, because when I woke in the morning it was to find the cavernous room flushed with fluorescent lights. Oh, and there was the small matter of the face not twelve inches from mine. The stranger’s eyes widened before she abruptly pulled back. I rolled to my knees so that if she were a crazy axe murderer, or a zombie or something and I was going to die today, at least I could say I hadn’t taken it lying down.

She didn’t seem inclined to attack though as she settled back on her haunches a couple feet away. She was young, looked like she should be living in a dorm instead of accosting innocent people in abandoned stores. She was staring at me though. Her eyes were dark and they bored into mine for a long while before blinking.

“What’s your name?” the girl said.

“Lisa.” When my voice cracked I realized that I hadn’t said a word in almost 24 hours. “I’m Lisa.”

“Fernanda.” Fernanda was wrapped in several layers of clothes, the outer apparently fresh off the rack if the price tags were anything to go by. It wasn’t really cold enough to warrant such measures, but it might be a social faux pas to censure a stranger’s fashion choices, especially when said stranger was the only person who had spoken to me since the end of the world. Contrary to popular opinion, my mother did teach me some manners, even if I didn’t set tables correctly or lift my pinky when drinking tea.

“Well Fernanda, how are you?”

The girl looked at me like that was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

“You start then.”

“Have you seen anyone else?”

“I saw some guy in the grocery store, but he freaked out and ran away when he saw me. Everything else is all ghost town.”

“Try ghost planet,” Fernanda said. “The TV stations are all out, but I found this.” She dug through a bag sitting on the floor behind her and pulled out a transistor radio. “It’s happening all over.”

I shoved aside the blankets that had been pooled around my knees and stood up, offering a hand to Fernanda as well. “Alright then,” I said when we were both standing and those dark eyes were still staring straight into mine. “What’s say we stick together?”

 

In the time it took us to prepare for the day, breaking into a nearby diner for breakfast, I learned several things about my new companion. She was from Jersey, and she spoke in a very deliberate manner that left the listener feeling as though she had just heard something profound even if it was only “did you find any butter?” She didn’t have any better idea what had happened to all those people than I did. She wore so many layers that they completely obscured her figure, which was a shame because she was very pretty and I wondered what she would look like without quite so many clothes.

She also had an unnerving manner of looking at a person; for some reason, the girl hardly ever seemed to blink. And she was nosy as hell.

“Why do you have a camera?” she said while we were in the diner’s kitchen.

I pulled my head out of the fridge and looked up to see Fernanda standing there with my backpack open on the counter and the SLR out there for all to see.

“I’m a photographer,” I said. Fernanda nodded in reply but the look in her eyes told me that she didn’t think this was much of an answer.

Back in the street, I hitched my backpack higher and followed the younger woman. I was a bit annoyed, to tell the truth, and didn’t want to make conversation or look into those fucking unblinking eyes. I didn’t know where we were going, and didn’t ask either, though the ease and confidence of Fernanda’s stride as we headed downtown made me think at least one of us had an aim (or was better at faking it). I’d never been very good at faking anything. Maybe I should have been angry that she was taking charge, but somehow as we walked and I watched the lines of her body—those that weren’t obscured by the bulky layers that is—I found my annoyance at the girl unraveling, winding out onto the pavement and disappearing behind me with every step. What was the point of it, after all? I found it hard to hold onto anything, least of all anger, least of all against my only companion in this ghost world.

 

We’d been walking for a while without speaking when Fernanda paused on the street corner and turned around to face me.

“Did you hear that?” she said, face intent as ever, if not more so.

I hadn’t heard whatever it was, but cocked my head to listen as though I knew exactly what Fernanda was talking about.

“I guess it was nothing,” she said after a moment, appearing dejected for the first time on this altogether strange day.

“Guess so.”

“I just thought I heard someone. Maybe it was a rat.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Hey, do you think there are still cockroaches?”

Fernanda stared at me. I could read the look easily enough: ask a stupid question, don’t expect an answer.

“How many people do you think are still alive?” I said.

Fernanda’s eyes flickered away for a sliver of a second before returning to mine. “Who are the people in the pictures?”

I didn’t have a fucking clue what she was talking about.

“The pictures you’re carrying around in that bag.” She gestured towards the bag I carried on my right shoulder. I watched the motion of Fernanda’s hands, and noticed for the first time the slightly chipped blue nail polish on her thumb, but only her thumb.

“Are they your family?” Fernanda continued.

Right. The pictures. “You’re very nosy, you know that?”

“Your friends then?”

I decided I didn’t much like this line of questioning, and strode right past Fernanda. I intended to knock shoulders with her, but the girl was so well padded with unnecessary clothes that I barely even felt the contact. After a few seconds, I heard footsteps keeping pace with mine. I tried to walk as though I had a direction and a purpose, though I did not. Surrounded by slightly dilapidated brownstone apartments that were barely distinguishable except for the varying states of their small garden plots, I had only the vaguest idea of where I was.

“Do you want to find them?”

I almost halted, then kept walking and tried to pretend as though Fernanda’s question hadn’t startled me. “Find who?”

“The people in the picture.”

I snorted at that, and then realized that a snort was the closest I had come to a laugh since the day before. I kept walking. “They’re just clients.”

Fernanda said nothing for several long moments, and I resisted the urge to look back at the girl.

We spent the day walking, and I began to suspect that my companion was a little more aimless than she let on. Well into the afternoon, Fernanda’s steps began to slow, and eventually she admitted that she was tired. We broke into a nearby movie theater, climbing behind the concession stand to pilfer bags of popcorn. After a bit of fiddling, I figured out how to work the projection booth, and we spent two hours watching some romcom, the name of which I had already forgotten by the time the credits rolled.

In the darkness after, Fernanda finally spoke. “I’m sorry that I’m nosy.” Her voice was quiet, low, so low that it sounded as though it were coming from far away, down a phone line perhaps.

“It’s alright.”

That night, we slept in double beds in a fancy hotel that I never would have been able to afford two days ago. I lay awake even as Fernanda’s breathing grew slower and heavier. When I turned my head, I could see the girl curled up on her side under the blankets, her hair, damp from the shower, falling in black tendrils over the pillow.

So there I was, in the fanciest fucking accommodations I’d ever not paid for, tossing and turning on thousand-thread-count sheets, whatever that meant, with a beautiful woman not ten feet away but about as unreachable as could be.

My bag was on the floor, and when I closed my eyes I could see its contents spread out before me, namely the prints I’d just done of a middle-aged couple celebrating an anniversary I could not remember. In the pictures, they were sitting on a wooden bench beneath a tree in their backyard. The man had one arm around her shoulders, and she was turned into him slightly, the crown of her head brushing against his cheek as they both faced the camera. They were smiling widely with matching sets of dimples. The sunlight through the tree’s branches cast leaf-shaped shadows across the two of them and the landscape. Generally I preferred shooting inside where I could control the light, but the pair had been adamant about the bench beneath the tree. I wondered at the story behind it, if there was in fact a story behind it. I wondered if they were still alive, and if they would ever see the finished product.

It would be very easy to call my parents. I could imagine rolling over on the mattress and digging my phone out of the bag. The world had ended two days ago and I hadn’t called them yet; they hadn’t called me either. I imagined the pair of them holing up in their big old house on Cape Cod, imagined them listening for the ringing of the phone and, like me, somehow unable to pick it up and dial. Then I imagined them really unable to dial, and thought about how my mother didn’t know the difference between a cell phone and a landline, and how my father had his own phone number written in large, red print and taped to the wall at eye-level above the old-fashioned telephone stand in the hall. I imagined a lot of things that night because they were all easier than imagining traveling all the way to Massa-fucking-chusetts on an (un)holy pilgrimage and finding an empty house.

Anyway, I hadn’t brought my charger with me when I embarked, so soon it wouldn’t matter any more. Oh, the transience of living.

 

It was on our second day together that we met Raymond and the others. On that day, it started to rain and somehow it turned out that neither of us had thought to pack an umbrella. At first, it was just a few drops and we both stepped out from the café where we’d been eating lunch to experience this wonder of mother nature.

“Do you think it’s acid rain?” I said after a few moments of soaking in the gentle drizzle (pardon my pun). “Or nuclear fallout or something?”

Fernanda didn’t seem inclined to answer, too busy tilting her face skyward and letting the drops run down her cheeks. She opened her mouth like a kid trying to catch snowflakes on her tongue.

“That’s probably not clean,” I said.

“Oh come on,” she said, smiling for maybe the first time since I’d met her. Her eyes were closed. “A little rain isn’t going to do us in.”

I gave it a rest then—it’s not like I cared if she wanted to poison herself or anything, and hell, the water was probably just fine, what did I know—but after we’d started walking again, that little rain quickly became a helluva lot of rain, and soon enough we were both running for cover. We took shelter in a Starbucks. Fernanda settled down in a booth while I scoped out the situation. She refused the coffee I offered her, and the beer I found in an employee’s locker. When I glanced over a few minutes later, it was to find her dozing on the leather bench, her face hidden from view by the table. I went into the backroom and drank both the coffee and the beer. Beer to make me sleepy, coffee to wake me up. Yes, I know, I’m a study in contradictions.

We left Starbucks a few hours later, stepping out onto slick pavement under the darkening light of early evening. That was when we heard the shrill notes of his accordion. I don’t think he actually knew how to play the damn thing, but at that moment it was just about the greatest sound I’d ever heard. He was sitting on a bench at what used to be a busy intersection, his instrument case open and empty on the concrete in front of him.

Fernanda practically flew across the street once she saw him, her breath coming out in harsh gasps. The man stopped playing when he opened his eyes and saw us just a few feet away. He had dark, wrinkled skin beneath a grey-white beard and a light dusting of hair on top of his head. I watched the way his fingers gripped the ivory keys as he set the accordion gently upon the bench beside him, the edge resting against his thigh.

He looked between the two of us. “That makes a dozen, I reckon,” he said.

“A what?”

“A dozen survivors now that I’ve seen.” The hand that wasn’t still touching the accordion rose to grip something around his neck. “My apologies—I’d stand up to shake your hands, but my knees ain’t so good these days.”

I walked over and extended my hand. From closer up, I saw that his fingers were lightly rubbing a gold crucifix dangling on a chain. “I’m Lisa,” I said, “and this is Fernanda.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, nodding towards Fernanda who still stood behind me, in a very uncharacteristic display of timidness. “Name’s Raymond. Would either of you happen to have a little spare change?”

“Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t bring any money with me.”

Raymond was very polite, and spoke to both of us even though Fernanda was still doing that weird quiet thing. I didn’t look at her, but I could guess that the girl hadn’t so much as blinked since we met him. Raymond seemed content to pass his time playing the accordion like nothing had changed, but he was kind enough to tell us where to find the rest of the dozen survivors.

“They were headed to Dupont Circle. Something about the embassies.”

I thanked him for the both of us, and led the oddly silent Fernanda the few blocks over to the circle. As we walked past the metro station, my eyes caught on the Walt Whitman quote etched into the stone. I rolled the words around in my head: “in silence, in dreams’ projections, returning, resuming…I recall the experience sweet and sad.” I thought about taking a picture of it, but I didn’t.

We found the others gathered around the fountain, the one with a statue of a man whose name I could never remember. The first one I saw was a boy who looked about ten years old. He stared at the two of us for a long moment; we stared back. Fernanda frowned at him. I noticed because in these moments I didn’t know what else to look at but her. There was something pleasing about those eyes when they weren’t trained on me.

One man smiled when he saw us, rushing forward to take both of our hands and introduce himself. As other people gathered around, he kept talking. His name was Jesús, and yes that was his real name, yes he really was born on Christmas, and no his parents did not mean it as a joke. He ran a small travel agency called Jesús’s Amazing Adventures, and no he did not feel bad about using the lord’s name for commercial purposes. As a lapsed Christian who’d been burned by the Church, he felt he’d earned the right to a little extra capital.

Raymond was the last to join us, carrying his instrument case with both hands. He had waited until the sun went down and every wayward explorer who was likely to show up had.

“Right,” said a man with scruffy whiskers and a very nice suit, “we’re all here. And we’re agreed then. An embassy. It’s likely to have backup generators. And it might be a gathering place for other survivors.”

Fernanda nodded along with this, her eyes bright with something that might have been relief or maybe fervor, though she said nothing. She was probably just happy not to be stuck with me anymore. A middle-aged woman named Zora took the lead. I was walking behind Fernanda when she slipped on the rain-soaked street, and I quickly reached a steadying hand out to her lower back. Seconds later, she was moving away, but as she walked off I could still feel the phantom press of her skin against my palm through all those damn layers and I wondered if that was the first time we had actually touched.

As we walked, people began to speak. They all had stories, it turned out. At first, everyone seemed too frightened to begin, but after many stretches of silence, Jesús-the-lapsed-Christian began talking in a hushed, hurried manner.

“I was helping a customer, real nice lady wanting to go to New Zealand. We were looking at flights when she vanished, just vanished. Not even a flash of light. Just gone like that.” He snapped his fingers.

Jesús the lapsed Christian’s tale burst the dam of their collective memories, and suddenly everyone was clamoring to talk about what they had seen. Fernanda had been sitting in a waiting room—to what, she did not say—when everyone else had suddenly ceased to exist.

I was the only one who remained quiet. When someone asked, all I could say was, “I was in the dark room.”

 

I don’t much remember the days that followed, squatting in the Iraqi Embassy. My recollections feel two-dimensional, like the prints in my bag or those words on the rain-washed stone, in silence, in dreams’ projections…. They slip from my grasp whenever I try to think about them now. I do remember the evenings though.

That first evening, some enterprising soul found a bucket and a few old newspapers, so we made a fire out of yesterday’s news. Even though the embassy had power, we didn’t want to waste whatever electricity remained, so a fire it was. Everyone contributed what they had to burn. When I looked through my own belongings, I thought about those photographs for a few seconds too long before scrounging up some receipts from the bottom of my purse. A paltry offering, I said, but it was the best that I could do. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Fernanda staring at me, but I didn’t feel bad about holding back. It’s not like slightly more fuel for the fire would have radically altered any of their lives. Besides, the chemicals in the photo paper were probably really bad for the environment. I’m all about being green, you know.

“Every bit counts,” said a middle-aged woman whose name I had forgotten. I’m very forgetful.

Fernanda sat beside me, her legs curled underneath her and her shoulders hunched in on herself. She was still wearing all those crazy layers, and leaning towards the fire. I thought maybe she had some sort of defect where she was perpetually colder than everyone else. That, and having eyes that didn’t need to be moisturized.

No one knew what this disaster was. Fernanda brought out her transistor radio and we huddled around it as she scanned through the frequencies searching for the mysterious voices she’d heard last time and finding only static and sharp, intermittent sounds that might have been Morse Code. No one knew how to interpret them though, so did it even matter? That same middle-aged woman whose name I had forgotten hunched over the radio, hands curled together and lips moving. Jesús was blinking an awful lot, and another man, the one in the fancy suit, kept wiping his eyes as if he could hide the fact that he was crying. Fernanda sat on the tiles with her knees against her chest, her hands tucked in close to her body, out of sight. She was staring at the radio, thick eyebrows scrunched up in concentration.

I looked away from everybody else, looked at the small fire, flames just barely licking the top of the bucket. When I lifted my gaze, the afterimage of the flames burned against the darkness on all sides. The kid started to talk about monsters. Maybe to humor him, Mr. Business Suit suggested setting up some sort of sentry. I volunteered to take first watch.

I kept wondering about the Rapture. I was an atheist after all, and Jesús’s business name was mildly sacrilegious. Except Raymond was clutching that crucifix again, and if God had deemed this whole lot unworthy, then He had pretty lousy taste. I mean, what could a ten-year-old have possibly done to warrant damnation? And Fernanda may have been nosy, but she wasn’t that bad.

After a couple of hours, I woke Business Suit to take the second watch, but I still couldn’t sleep. There was a man there, very old, with hair many shades paler than his weathered skin. In the dark, when everyone else was sleeping (even the suit who had dozed off while he was supposed to be on guard) and I was once again staring at the ceiling, I could hear him breathing, gasping, not quite sobbing. When I turned my head I could make out the old man’s profile in the darkness. He half-lay curled in upon himself and slumped against the wall. When I awoke again to light filtering in from above, he was lying on the floor with his eyes closed, chest rising and falling in an easy rhythm. It was then that I noticed the deep groove on the ring finger of his left hand, and the way his right hand rested over his heart as though he were taking a pledge, fingers wrapped around something I could not see.

I thought again of my parents, of my friends, my roommate Carl and the other photographers who rented the dark room with me. Carl had left the remains of his lunch to burn in the oven, but maybe he and Hannah and Hannah’s husband and my ex-girlfriend Jen who had sent me a text just last week were all off somewhere, sleeping in a hotel room or a department store or a stranger’s house. Maybe my parents were too. Yeah, maybe. I thought of the couple in the photographs I still carried with me. I wondered if they had kids. I wondered if the ten-year-old boy had parents and what their names were. I thought about Fernanda who was sleeping beside me—beautiful, intense, slightly irritating Fernanda. What had she been waiting for when this whatever-it-was struck? Had anyone been waiting with her, and was that why she seemed just this side of devastated whenever we found someone else and it wasn’t who she was looking for?

 

I passed one more night in a state of bleary insomniac semi-consciousness. But on the fifth night since the world ended, I was so tired that I slipped easily into sleep, fitful though it may have been.

It was on that night that Fernanda—beautiful, intense, slightly irritating Fernanda—shed at least two layers of clothing and slid onto the narrow sofa to press herself against my side. I woke to the feeling of movement, unexpected warmth, and being pushed up against the stiff back of the couch. If I had been more alert, I might have been pleased at Fernanda’s proximity; as it was, I was tired, surprised, and yes, slightly irritated.

“Lisa,” Fernanda whispered, her hot breath fanning across the back of my neck. It was not entirely pleasant. “Lisa, is that really your name?”

What a strange thing to say. I did not answer. Fernanda hardly even waited before speaking again.

“Lisa, I was pregnant,” she said. And then, in the darkness and the quiet, the words came tumbling out of her, brushing against my spine and getting tangled, I imagined, in the ends of my hair. Fernanda had been pregnant, and maybe she still was. But maybe, she said, that baby-that-wasn’t had vanished along with everyone else that day when Fernanda had been sitting anxiously in the waiting room and, across the city, I had been working in the dark room.

Though I could not see her in that moment, I felt as surely as I had ever felt anything that I could see the picture of us: myself unmoving, an object sinking into the lines of the sofa, Fernanda curled around me (like a shell around its owner, except wasn’t she the one seeking protection?), eyes closed in the darkness, keeping that unyielding stare harnessed, while her thick, black hair spilled across her body and fell in just a few precious strands over the edge of the couch.

“Maybe they took it,” Fernanda whispered, and I did not ask who they could be. “And the worst part is I don’t know if I want it to be true.”

With the last of her confession released to the air, Fernanda just breathed, in and out. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound. Through the cloth between us, I could feel the outline of Fernanda’s body pressed up against mine from shoulder to ankle. I tried to imagine the feel of her mouth on the nape of my neck, but neither of us moved to bridge this tiny gap. Instead, I listened to the sound of her breathing as it evened out and slowly drew mine along with it. In the morning, Fernanda was back on her own sofa and neither of us spoke of the words whispered during the night. I half thought that my sleep-starved brain might have conjured up the whole strange encounter.

That night, the sixth night after the world ended, I woke from a dream I did not remember and, as I lay there trying to see, I felt for a second that I was back in the dark room, that I had fallen asleep, that none of this had happened, or that all of this had happened and somehow I was back there or had never left. But my eyes began to adjust and I saw the ornate ceiling of the embassy and the ugly floral patterns on the sofa back next to my head. And when I felt my breath begin to hitch I looked away and my eyes fell on the other sofa and Fernanda. My body didn’t feel like my own and I just barely managed to stand and stagger across the room through the vice wrapping itself around my chest. Fernanda rolled over and her eyes opened and stared, unblinking into mine and then she held out one hand and my eyes caught on the tiny fleck of blue clinging stubbornly to her fingernail. I would have laughed but I couldn’t catch my breath enough to do so, and all I could do was wrap my fingers around Fernanda’s and slump to the floor, leaning against the leg of the couch so that my head fell on the furniture arm just beside Fernanda’s head. I breathed in and out and stared into the dark room and concentrated on the hand that held mine warm in its embrace.

Seven nights after the world ended, I finally slept.

 

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