(I already wrote 2500 words of articles this morning, so today I’m just posting a piece of fiction I wrote some years ago, 2006 I think. Enjoy it.)
It gets lonely these days, since the end of the world. It’s hard to remember the way these little towns used to be: children pitching tents in backyards, folks going to work and having barbeques, worried about paychecks and elections and getting laid. I go out in the very early mornings, when everything is still blue and misty, and sometimes I think I can hear people waking up. Sometimes I let myself forget.
There’s a sort of beauty to them, these white picket houses in white picket towns. I’ve been in hundreds of them now, but little things continue to surprise me—the colored glass on top of the breakfront, the Chia pets still growing in the basement. Sometimes there will be a delicate spiral staircase to the attic, or a chimney ripped out to put in a skylight: little things, things that make me wonder about the lives lived there. I know where to find the things I need—canned food in the pantry, batteries in flashlights, gasoline in lawnmowers and cars—but still I like to search it all, every corner. There’s a respect to it, I like to think, a reverence.
Most of all I love the gardens. Even now, years later, I still find pumpkins growing in backyards, overgrown rosebushes by the garage, and scattered patches of cherry tomatoes. Usually these little plots are run through with weeds, but occasionally something will have miraculously survived: the acorn squash or white radishes, the marigolds or sweet corn, and, once, three varieties of spinach still in perfect rows. I’d always wanted a garden, but never been able to have one in the city. It would be nice to work in the dirt again, to dig something more than graves.
When I go to these towns and these houses and backyards, I write down what I find: the quirks and nuances, the feeling of each hallway and each room, the mysteries and little secret things. As I walk through the house, I take these notes and tack them to the wall, in case someone else eventually comes by. Nothing too extensive; just lists of items and rooms, thoughts of what they might have meant to the people who here before. There are other things to notice too: the scratches on the tavern pool table, the books in the library drop box, the mayor’s desk at city hall. There’s a strange sort of logic to it, a sort of settled flavor unique to every town. I write it all down, every detail I can. I want there to be a history of these people, these towns, even if there’s no one left to remember.
Journal taught me to do this, to write something every day. Every new place we went, she’d head to the post office or the bank and start poking around. “Let’s see what this town was up to. Let’s find its secrets.” She’d scamper into every nook and crawlspace, scribbling away on a yellow legal pad. She always filled at least one in each town. I used to kid her about that, all the spiral notebooks and moleskine diaries she went through, writing pages every day. She’d just look at me crossly over her little, red-framed reading glasses and say, “My parents named me ‘Journal.’ What else can I do?”
Her parents didn’t actually name her Journal, of course. She just liked to say they did. I’d ask, occasionally, what her given name was, but she never told me. That didn’t stop me from guessing, though. In the mornings, if I woke up first, I would circle my finger lightly around her belly-button and whisper names in her ear—“Fiona. Margaret. Nancy-Sue.” She’d keep her eyes closed and try not to grin, making a face and shaking her head furiously if a name was too outrageous.
We met the year after the year the world ended. I was on my way back to New York when I found her, prying open a rest stop vending machine off Interstate 70. It looked so odd, seeing such a tiny person strain like that on a crowbar, but still she got it. I asked her why she didn’t just break the glass, and she told me she liked to leave things as they were; she didn’t want to disturb things she didn’t have to.
That afternoon we lay out in the long, uncut grass, sharing warm soda and stale Cheetos, and when we’d finished eating we fetched the three bodies from the rest stop and buried them by the picnic tables. I’d dug hundreds of graves by then, but this was the first time I’d done it with someone’s help. It was comforting, hearing someone else’s shovel crunch into the dirt next to mine, seeing the pile of loose soil grow faster than I was used to. At first I wondered if she would want to say words or sing hymns or something after—I didn’t know how others treated those they buried—but when we finished she just took my hand and led me away. We walked back to the lawn and talked some more, and after a while we stopped talking and had sex in the long, cool grass—not because we were in love just yet, but because it had been weeks since either of us had seen another human being, because the world was over and there wasn’t anyone left to stop us, or even care.
The world didn’t end the way people expected. It wasn’t bright or loud: no atomic nightmares, boiling seas, or acid rains. There were no horsemen or heavenly hosts, no crashing meteors, no alien hordes. There was just a plague. People got sick, and a few days later everyone died. A few of us were immune; most people weren’t. And after? No zombies or mutants, no dystopic Mad Max battles on broken landscapes. Just quiet. Sometimes I don’t even notice it anymore. Out on the highway or in these tiny Midwestern towns, it’s easy to lose track of it, to forget that there ever were things like car horns and telephone rings. But eventually a bird will chirp or a bush will rustle, and I’ll remember the quiet, remember that I haven’t actually heard anything in a while.
The big cities are different. The silence there is so much louder, so much more profound. It grips you, at first, shakes you up. You want to run around, scream from rooftops, dance naked in the streets, and for a few moments you catch yourself thinking, “Why not just burn it to the fucking ground?” But then it lets go and dumps you like a sugar rush. You feel dirty and cold and very, very alone. There is something to it, though, the silence. No cell phone chirp or ambulance moan, no construction crash or river barge groan. The streets feel subtler and more precious in the silence, making every movement seem clandestine, like a secret just discovered.
Journal hated the cities. It’s the smell, she always said. They just didn’t feel right without the car exhaust, the food stall smoke, the steamy sewer fumes. And then there were the corpses. After the plague we tried to collect as many as we could, but there were so many—millions! We couldn’t help but miss a few. The stench sat heavy in the air, overpowering at first, and drove people out of the cities when it got too much. Eventually, though, the smell began to fade, or maybe we simply got used to it, just like we got used to everything else. After a year or two we could barely notice it anymore, but still the cities seemed off somehow. “They don’t feel like places anymore,” she told me once. “They’re objects. They’re these big hulking junk-art pieces that stretch for miles and don’t do anything. At least with the little ones you know what things are. ‘This is a house. This is a fence. This is a street.’ But the big ones are just jumbled too much. They’re all one thing.”
After that first day at the rest stop, we traveled together for a while. I’d been heading east originally, but it didn’t seem to matter after I met Journal. For the first couple weeks she kept talking about how we’d have to split up, about how she was going to have to leave soon and let me get back to New York, but she never did. “Just to the next town,” she’d say, but a few days later she would still be in the car, picking out our next destination. It’s not like we were busy or had somewhere else she had to be, not really. There were no deadlines anymore, no obligations. Those of us who survived, we had all the time in the world.
And life was good, in a way. You can’t compare the two, life before and now life after, but there’s a sort of peace to it. We ate what we could find and slept wherever we wanted to: governor’s mansions and kids’ tree houses, cheap motels and newlywed suites. There wasn’t any radio or internet or TV anymore, but we still had books—a lifetime’s worth in old used bookstores and tiny lending libraries. Sometimes we spent whole days just reading, sprawled out on the pews of little heartland churches, the light playing gently through sun-streamed stained glass. Some days though, we didn’t read at all. Some days we just found a nice bed, and Journal would curl up next to me, closing her eyes and stretching under the covers like a cat. She’d kiss my shoulder and hum tunelessly in my ear until one of us fell asleep, slipping off into the warm, lazy, afternoon dreams of stress-free Sundays and summer breaks.
We loved each other, in our way. I loved the streaks of color she put in her hair with costume shop dyes, and how she licked her finger before turning a page. I loved her tiny hands, so rough from digging graves. I love the way she smiled with her eyes. Every once in a while she would glance up from her notebook and wrinkle her nose at me, and for a second I would forget about my dead friends and dead family and the end of the world. For a second it would just be the two of us, smiling at each other.
Mostly, though, I think we just liked having someone else around. America is a big, lonely place without all the people in it, and the places we liked to travel were the loneliest. There were still folks out there, of course; even if the plague killed ninety-nine percent of us that still left a couple million people floating around the country. After it happened, none of us knew what to do. Some people tried to organize the survivors and rebuild. Others simply killed themselves. Most of us, however, just drifted apart, living off of what was left: the stuff in jars and cans, soaked with preservatives and sealed up tight. There wasn’t really any fighting afterwards. Why would there be? There was more than enough stuff for everyone—more than enough oil and land and gold. It was each other that people lacked.
All of us lost people in the plague, lost everyone we knew, really. I’d had a father and a brother and a couple of roommates I’d known since college. There’d been this cute girl at work that I’d gotten drinks with a couple times. She was the first one at the office to get sick, but one of the last to die. I visited her once, but her eyes were swollen shut and she didn’t seem to remember me. I visited a lot of people in those couple days; what else could I do? I went around to the hospitals and did what I could to help the doctors, even as they themselves were getting sick. After a week, though, there weren’t any doctors left or hospitals still running that I could to go to, so pretty soon I stopped visiting people and started burying them. I went from house to house, digging graves in parks and backyards and under compost heaps. What else could I do? Eventually, though, it got to be routine. I stopped looking for bodies and instead just buried them when I found them—whatever was left, anyways. I started traveling and reading, spending my days siphoning gas out of parked cars and my nights curled up in comfy library chairs, and life went on, in a way.
It’s funny, actually, the folks we miss the most. We all lost everyone, but we each have people who stand out. My mother had died the year before, but still I think about her more than the family I lost in the end of the world. It was the children that Journal missed. She had been a schoolteacher, she told me, before the plague. She’d taught English at a fifth-sixth center, she said, though she never told me where. Not many kids survived the plague, or the weeks of confusion and pestilence that followed. Once we found a school that had been converted into a plague hospital. In one classroom there were still children’s bodies, laid out on the desks, their homework from the week before scrawled on the chalkboard. We buried them together, with their nurses and teachers, in the soccer field behind the gym. Afterwards Journal just sat on the swings and cried. There wasn’t anything I could say, not really, so I just sat in the seat next to her, my shovel-worn hands gripping the creaky, rusted chain as I swung gently back and forth.
But again, life goes on. We’d been wandering for a couple months when Journal and I started following the festivals. Festivals were beautiful, unexpected things, the first glimpses of a new post-apocalyptic culture. The plague left everything intact: buildings, roads, power lines. All the infrastructure of civilization was still there; we just lacked the manpower to maintain it. Cities lay quiet and dead because there way no one left to run them.
Every so often, though, a bunch of folks would get things running again. They’d break into power plants, bring in shipments of food by hotwired train, leaflet the countryside from crop dusters, and bring people together to have a festival. It would last a week, maybe two, and then something would break at the power plant that they couldn’t fix or the trains of food would stop coming. People would drift apart again, alone or in small groups, back to their preferred form of solitude for a while.
Still, they’d always come back to the next one. It’s the most addictive thing to see a city turn on. It happens so quickly: first you feel something change in the air, and then suddenly the whispers of the wind through the streets are muffled by the hum of electricity. And then—light! Street-lamps, skyscrapers, shop fronts—all of them shine more brightly than any of us ever remembered. Standing in Times Square or atop the Sears Tower, even Journal couldn’t help but gasp. You can taste the difference, somehow—the smell of ozone, the vibration and the heat. People stay at festivals for all sorts of things—the people, the music, the food, the art—but they all come for the same reason: to be there in that moment when the city comes alive.
But it was never quite the same as the peace and silence of those little heartland towns, with their white-steepled churches and gardens growing wild. As much as Journal loved the festivals, the energy and light, she missed the places we used to go, the histories we used to leave. She’d find some tiny dot on the map and say, “Let’s go here, just for a while. Let’s skip the next festival and get back to writing.” But we never did. We just kept going, always being pulled away by new friends and new projects to rebuild and the next city turning on. She never seemed to mind, but then one day she was gone, disappeared into the blue and misty Canadian morning, the day after we lit up Toronto.
I never knew how much I’d miss her. It’s the little things that make me ache the most: the steady scratching of her pen, slimness of her waist, the faces she’d make when I’d ask a silly question. I miss guessing her name. I keep coming up with new ones to try on her—Ellen, Gwen, Isabella. Every morning, though, I wake up and roll over, and still she’s never there
I’ve been looking for her for months now, maybe years. I don’t know how many; I don’t like to count. At first I continued going to festivals, asking around. No one had seen her since Toronto, at least not using that name. Still, I kept hoping that one day she’d just be there next to me when the lights turned on, but of course she never was. Pretty soon, though, I started avoiding the big cities, going back instead to those little places in mid-America that we used to explore. I’d wander through the empty streets, looking for her yellow legal pads nailed to doors. I found them a couple times too, but she was already gone. I walk around one of those houses and imagine her peering under refrigerators and flipping through filing cabinets. I still write about the things I find in these towns, just like Journal taught me to. I suppose it’s just habit, really, but somehow I find it calming. Occasionally I wonder why I’m looking for her at all, but it keeps me going and gives me something to do. These days that’s all one can really ask for.
I’m going to have to stop soon. It’s spring again, and the highways are starting to get overgrown. Houses are starting to fall down and rot away, whole neighborhoods becoming wastelands of long grass and cracked sidewalks. I never thought civilization would begin crumbling so quickly after we were gone. I’m having a harder time getting food; in some towns every house has been cleaned out, and the supermarkets have been left sad and barren warehouses with rows and rows of empty shelves. It’s harder to get gasoline, too. A few weeks ago I saw a tanker truck drive by, filled with siphoned fuel. There hasn’t been a festival in a while, not a real one. People are talking about lighting up a city and keeping it running for good. The whole world is moving on, and here I am, still chasing some girl across the country. I’m always hoping that I’ll walk into some empty house and just find her there, scribbling away like she’d never left.
I’ve kept writing since Journal disappeared. She started me on it, writing down the things we found and the places we went. I never took to it quite like she did, though. I just wrote for myself mostly; it helped me gather myself, keep things in perspective. I write stories and thoughts—even a few poems. I write a lot about Journal. I wonder where she is, what she’s writing. For Journal writing was something else: it was a mission—a mission with a time limit. “Nothing lasts forever,” she used to tell me. “All this will be gone pretty soon. Eventually someone will come along to build over it. The human race won’t stay dead forever. They’ll be back, and they’ll need land or wood or scrap metal. They’ll tear everything down to recreate civilization, just because they can. In another fifty years hardly anyone will remember all of this. Someone has to write this stuff down now, you know, before it’s all gone—torn down or overgrown or inhabited again. That way, in a hundred years, people won’t forget about the plague. Assuming we last that long, of course. Assuming we don’t get sick again. After all, nothing lasts forever, right?”
Some days I look in a mirror and wonder if the face I see is the same one I wore before the plague. Its expressions don’t seem to fit any feeling I ever had in those days, and the lips move so strangely—I can’t imagine them forming my jokes, my words, my voice. Some days I can barely remember my life before. In my mind I can see my old apartment, my street, the subway car I took to work every morning, but they all seem so distant, so unreal. Looking back now, even the time I spent with Journal feels just a bit like a dream. Everything I remember feels like it happened to someone else. Sometimes, lying alone in bed, I start to wonder whether any of us really survived the plague at all.
The other day I met a nice couple living just outside a town in Illinois. As I drove by they flagged me down, and I was surprised to see that the woman was pregnant. They had some fruit trees and fed me apple pie as we talked about their efforts to start a farm and become self-sufficient. “It’s harder than you’d think,” the man laughed. “She was a history major and I’m an IT guy, so it’s been rough going. It took us two years to get grain growing and figure out how to make flour, and once we got that going we realized that neither of us knew how to make actual bread—just cookies! We worked that out eventually though, and by fall of next year we’ll be making our own biodiesel for the generator I got downstairs. Then I’ll finally be able to play video games again!” They told me about how they’d met picking berries after the plague and made their home here, and suddenly I felt very, very lonely.
They had a garden, too. It was strange to see a real one, one that wasn’t overgrown and wild. It was all planted in rows with walkways of black plastic, and the vegetables seemed so much more colorful and filled with life than the weed-choked survivors I was used to seeing. Maybe I should settle down, find some place to start a garden. The last few people I’ve talked to mentioned a permanent settlement being set up in San Francisco. Maybe I’ll head out there and see if I can help. It gets lonely these days, since the end of the world, and I could use all the company I can find. I tell myself that Journal might be there, but deep down I know she won’t. Still, perhaps it’s time I stop drifting and get on with the business of civilization. And who knows? Maybe I will start a garden eventually. It’d be nice, I think, to work in the dirt for a while—to dig something else but graves.