Frost ate at the girl’s hair, the dirty strands of blonde escaping the scarf bundled around her face. She could have been fifteen, or thirty- the lines around her eyes spoke of aging that came from the passing of events, not years. She carried a large pack on her back, and her boots were sturdy and made for hiking.
The place she was in could only barely be called a forest. Copses of trees like matchsticks, their needles lying in dead brown drifts around them. Scattered among them were small dark objects. She thought they were pinecones, but when she got closer to one, she saw a beak, eyes squeezed forever shut. The tiny bodies of birds, slain so quickly by whatever had passed this way that they fell right out of the trees they’d been perched in.
She looked at the drifts again, and tried to feel sad.
Two years. Two years of looking. Two years, crawling over the mummified remains of the world, trying to convince herself she had purpose. Suicide chewed occasionally at the edges of her thoughts. She persisted in surviving for reasons she wouldn’t have been able to articulate even if there had been someone to explain to. Sometimes she would think about those who had already died, and wonder if they watched her with sympathy, or raged at the fact that she had lived when they hadn’t.
She no longer held hope of finding anyone else. Or if she did, it was in a place so far down that she had no sight of it. She just continued, like a wind-up toy, wondering when her cogs would finally tire down.
The trees only went on for a few acres. At their edge, a farmhouse, faded, peeling. perfect companion to the anemic sky above it. Outside, the dry, sprawled body of a horse, as untouched by rot as everything else. Even the microbes were dead.
It looked like rain. It looked like rain most of the time now.
She went in through the front door. Stealth was as useless a concept now as ownership. Everything was hers. At first, her newfound wealth was a source of joy. She tore through department stores trying on whatever caught her eye, whooping like a Mongol raider until her own echoes made her uncomfortable. She made campfires with piles of money and walked with millions of dollars in jewelry stuffing her pockets. For a while, the destruction of all that had abandoned her was a source of vitality. Now, though, such things were only reminders of that abandonment.
She was glad to see that wherever the owners had died, it had not been in the house. She could not sleep in the places where people still were. Too many houses had blanched white bodies tangled up in the bedsheets, faces still caught in beartrap grimaces. Or worse, sitting up on couches and in recliners, as if their rest were not eternal but something they’d just get up from in an hour or two.
She knew they were dead. Most of them would break apart if she touched them. The knowledge wasn’t enough to stop her imagining. She was afraid she would wake up in the night to find someone standing in the doorway, watching her with dusty, disapproving eyes.
This place had no such mummies lying in wait for her. Maybe the owners had died in the barn, out with their animals. Maybe they’d been in church- she’d been startled badly once before by an entire congregation, dead in the pews, many with brittle arms cracked off where they’d been holding the hands of those next to them. She’d avoided such places after that time.
There was some comfort to be had in this home, with its simple wrought-iron frame bed and checkerboard quilts. It was uncomplicated. It didn’t feel laden with memory like so many objects did. She set the small oil lantern up on the nightstand, although it was hours still until dusk, and she curled beneath the blankets and slept.
In the morning she sat in the kitchen and examined the rooster pot-holders and copper pans while she ate from a can of peas and carrots. Eating was a ritual now, done not out of desire but habit. The canned food had survived, sealed away from the killing waves that had grayed out everything else.
She debated staying for a while. The house was the closest thing to a pleasant place she’d been in for some time.
Then she looked out the window and saw the arm, hanging over the chicken-wire fence, chambray shirt rolled up to its elbow. She sighed, and started looking through the cupboards for anything worthwhile to take with her.
The girl sat along the concrete wall, watching the waves. She liked the ocean. The gray of sky and sand here were normal. The constant wash of the tide was a relief from the silence that pervaded everywhere else. There were few dead- the pound of the surf broke apart the brittle bodies of fish and gulls, leaving only bones that looked no different from shells and driftwood. She could sit, on railings and on piers, and feel, if only for a while, that nothing had changed.
Still, she knew she needed to leave the coast soon. She’d been up and down it a handful of times now, and no new hopeful signs had arisen. She had to go inland.
The freeways were the easiest things to follow, clear lines drawn between places that had food and shelter. Along their edges, the exemplars of a bygone age smiled down from their signs, designer underwear and summer blockbusters faded nearly incomprehensible. Blackened patinas spread on the faces on traffic lawyers, the dust left behind by one bomb or another. Radiation was only a word to her, and even in places that still smoldered, she hadn’t vomited out her insides or grown extra arms, so she’d decided she must have been safe. It wasn’t as if she had any way to protect herself.
She picked her way among the silent hulks of cars, squeezing onto the shoulder when they were packed too densely. There were bodies among the cars. Some were still in their seats, black bones fused to the plastic, and some had gotten out, and were sprawled over the ground a few feet from their open car doors. The burnt forms weren’t anything to her anymore. They were just landscape. She realized then that the dead were only frightening because they contrasted the living. She was the contrast now. She was the wrong piece, the thing that didn’t fit.
The girl sat on the burnt remains of a car, on a hill overlooking the burnt remains of a town in the burnt remains of a valley. She kicked her feet, banging them against the headlights. She tried to tell herself- rats could live anywhere. If she was still alive, maybe a rat could be too. Or cockroaches. Mold. Something. There was no way the destruction could have been that total.
But she knew it wasn’t true. Two years, and nothing had ever been alive that whole time. The world was gray and brown now. Smallpox had crossed influenza had crossed manmade things without names, passing each other as they carved swathes of death across the world. Every paper had a different story when it started, every news program reported a different country’s guilt, even as their crews got sick and died. The only thing that was clear was that the job had been done. Very, very well. The animals, the plants, the people- all of them had died. There had been bombs, too, when countries started blaming each other, but they hadn’t mattered. Just the blackened period at the end of the sentence.
She no longer doubted the existence of a God. His reality was implicit in his absence. He’d turned his back from the world, and it was a cold place without his gaze on it.
She’d tried to restart it. She’d read books and planted packets of seeds from home and garden stores and waited for months for a sign of anything green coming up out of the ground. Nothing ever did.
She didn’t know why she was still alive, when nothing else was. Maybe she was supposed to bear witness. Maybe she was kept alive as a final, small focus for God’s wrath. Or maybe she was just a small thing God had missed when he’d walked away from the world.
She turned on a highway leading away from the torched valley. Maybe there’d been a military base down there. Something to make it a target. Whatever the reason, there was nothing for her down there.
The girl sat in front of a convenience store, legs crossed under her, a black day planner open in her lap. The sky was a slab of concrete, unending gray in each direction. She flipped through the filled-in pages until she reached the last check-mark. She tapped the days with her pen, counted her fingers. She tried to remember. She punched the sidewalk and tried to remember if it had been two days or three. She punched it again, and made a choking noise in her throat. Then she flung the notebook away and held her face in her hands and cried through her dirty fingers.
She slept in the store that night, too exhausted to do anything more than crawl inside against the wind. The doors stood open all night, and the wind blew in, effortlessly finding her hiding place behind the cash register.
She slept a lot. She worried that that it might be some kind of sickness, or malnutrition, but she did not feel sick.
She dreamt of sex. It was all that passed before her eyes while they were closed. Some of the dreams were wonderful, with beautiful men and women worshipping her body as if she were a goddess, bringing her to such heights that it wounded her to awaken. Some were strange and guiltily erotic, like the one where she was in a jungle, pushed face-down into the kudzu and hot flowers by a great black panther that ravaged her from behind, its claws sinking into her shoulders with a sensation that was far more pleasure than pain.
And some were terrifying, dreams of trees impaling her with their branches, of great reptilian beasts that raped her with organs nearly as large as she was, members that should have split her in half but instead just filled her, fuller and fuller, until the greatest horror in the dream was that she should have so much space within herself. Those dreams she awoke from covered in sweat, shaking, knees so weak it was minutes before she could stand.
Winter was beginning to turn. The rain still fell, but it no longer held the stinging edge it had while it was colder. The clouds actually had shapes some days, not simply featureless blankets overhead. Best of all, she could throw her blankets off in the morning without the cold overwhelming her and driving her back under them again.
The runs of houses broke ahead of her the next day. Civilization gave way to another place where the trees held sway. Even dead and leafless, they held a certain undeniable majesty. Their symmetry against the sky spoke of a creator who had once cared about the lines, the art of the world he, or she, or it, had made.
She slept in the trees that night, bundling herself against the cold. She wanted to be away from the wreckage of people for a while. She mused for a while as she drifted to sleep under a turtle-shell of blanket and sleeping bag, thought on the way she had to justify everything, explain everything to herself, in the absence of anyone else to hold her accountable.
When she woke, there was a live thing next to her. She wasn’t sure what it was. As soon as she sat up, it ran off into the graying underbrush. It was small and brown, a squirrel, maybe, or a groundhog.
She stumbled to her feet, wakefulness coming in an instant, and dropped to her knees at the spot where she thought it had vanished. She dug through the rotted shards of undergrowth until her arms and knees were black, but she found no sign. She tore her hands raw on the branches, shouted and screamed in the hopes of scaring it out, but nothing emerged.
A dream, she decided. A little piece of her dream, carrying over into her first waking moments.
It was a long time that morning before she could bring herself to get up and move onward.
She did not know the name of the town she’d come to. She could have found a piece of mail to answer the question, but its anonymity appealed to her. It was prettier than most of the places she’d been in. The storefronts were quaint, old-fashioned. Mountains rose up in the background, and the sky was clear, staggeringly blue after the grey of winter. The bite in the air felt good, sharp against her face. Her head was clear and her limbs felt graceful. Maybe happiness was too strong a word, but there was some satisfaction in the morning.
The girl shifted, trying to find a place for her feet that was not covered in fragments of glass. The shattered sliding doors yawned in the silence, victims of violence perpetrated by some desperate hand in those last days.
The light only went as far as the registers. The beginnings of the aisles swam in shadow, and the back of the store was a yawning abyss.
The stillness only made it worse. Her eyes conjured things- narrow fingers closing around the edges of the shelves, hunched forms scurrying between patches of shadow. She couldn’t even make the certain claim that she was imagining the things she saw. There was no television to turn on, no crowded street to walk along. There were no ordinary moments left to expose her foolishness.
She squinted and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to read the signs in what small spent light managed to reach that far back. She knew what she was looking for. CANNED VEGETABLES. SOUPS. READY DINNERS. Any row where the food was safely sealed away.
She’d tried to find food outside of cans before, in other towns. Everywhere it was the same. The bread was the consistency of concrete. No mold marred its surface. The apples and pears in the produce aisle crumbled like chalk.
Those things in airtight containers had avoided destruction, and they did not rot on exposure to the air. Her guess was that the diseases had all burnt out in the absence of anything to feed on but themselves.
In the early days, she’d gorged herself giddy, trails of fruit juice bottles and bags of cereal in her aftermath. After a while, the juice became rancid, the cereal stale and flavorless. Now all she had left was soda, creamed corn and Chef Boyardee.
There. Swimming up from the dark, a black letterboard hung from the ceiling, the white letters spelling READY DINNERS.
She knew that she was rapidly approaching a threshold. If she didn’t make a move now, the fear would overtake her, and she would go hungry until she could find another store. She dropped her pack to the ground, tensed the muscles in her legs.
She sprinted for the aisle. A skid, a misstep, and she crashed to the floor. Her thigh slammed hard into the corner of a display, showering her in dust and boxes of fossilized pastries. She cried out, though she knew the noise would bring the beasts lurking in the pharmacy and the meat department.
She was up on her feet again in an instant, and she gasped breath as she scooped up an armful of cans from the shelf closest to her, not seeing or caring what they were. She dared not try to find something to drink, though her throat burned like cinders. The imagined things were after her, right on her heels, and she wouldn’t be safe until she was back in the light.
She collapsed on the bench out front, wiping the sweat beading on her face. She looked down to see what she had managed to escape with. The letters swam in her vision. The heaving in her heart followed in her stomach, and she vomited over the back of the bench.
It was hours before her stomach settled enough to let her eat. The gut-wound of color in the ravioli can did little to raise her appetite. It hurt her eyes. She picked a few disconsolate forkfuls before she left the can on the bench and re-shouldered her bag, taking some solace in its restored weight.
After a dozen steps, she turned back. She found she couldn’t leave it there. The color made her think of bones protruding from skin, of gashes infected with tetanus. It made her think of how there were no more doctors left, anywhere. She picked the can up, trying not to look inside, fighting the rise in her stomach, and threw it in the trash.
She walked into the treeline on the other side of the street, desperate to stay away from any place with the possibility of a darkened interior.
The sound of the wind between the trunks was hollow, melancholy without the rustle of leaves to accompany it. Without their sound, another soon became clear to her. She followed it without thinking at first, then began to chase it, breaking into a run, until she stood at the top of a small rise. Beneath it was a stream, rolling fast with spring runoff. Its banks were smooth and inviting, pebbled with colored rocks.
She peeled off her jackets, her shirts, the layers of pants and leggings, until she stood naked on the bank. There were black and brown layers on her hands, on her feet, and the rest of her was dappled with dirt. How long since she’d taken a bath, or stood in a shower? The water had stopped working soon after the electricity had.
She set her jaw as she looked down at herself, and splashed forward into the stream.
The water was a miracle, clean and cold, nearly strong enough to knock her over. She threw herself under its surface, attacking her hair and face with clawed hands until all the remainders of her long road were washed off. She kept scrubbing, carving at the layers of grime with her fingernails, laughing and dancing in the cold. The current carried the dirt downstream, into the distance.
She stepped from the water, shaking her limbs. She looked down at herself, and smiled. Malnutrition had not claimed her. Her breasts were full, her hips curving. The years of walking had given her legs she would never have imagined having in her old life. Her skin was pink and clear beneath the dirt. Maybe her hands were rough, her feet callused, but she found she was proud of these marks.
She only examined her clothes for a moment before throwing them into the nearby branches. She would find new, clean things to wear. She laced herself back into her boots and hoisted her pack again, liking the way the shoulder straps rubbed against her bare skin.
She was no longer able to sleep indoors. Being inside of walls when the sun set brought her to inexplicable bouts of panic that didn’t recede until she was out beneath the stars once more, trailing her blankets behind her like a child.
The weather was more than accepting of her neurosis. Each day, it grew warmer, each evening requiring fewer covers. Eventually, a single blanket over the soft scatter of leaves was enough.
She didn’t know why things had turned, or why this place was inviting her like it did. She wasn’t about to refuse it, though. She couldn’t bear to walk away from the first thing she’d encountered in two years that had meaning.
So she slept out in the trees, and swam in the river, and felt something like peace.
The girl woke from a dream of an old boyfriend. She couldn’t remember his name, but her body remembered his. She slipped a hand between her legs, luxuriating in the space between sleep and wakefulness, avoiding the broken world for as long as she could.
A painful cramp brought her out of the reverie, and she sighed as she realized the wetness was more prevalent than it ought to be. She ought to mark the passage of months by her own cycle, she thought idly as she reached for a distant corner of blanket to wipe her hand off.
She froze halfway towards the blanket, looking at her hand with a quick thrill of terror. Her fingers were slick with color, not red, but a thin green.
She raised the hand, trembling, to her face. The liquid smelled like crushed leaves, or tree bark. Only later would she think back to her dreams, connect them to here. At the moment, her thoughts were only on disease. The sicknesses had surely completed their loop around the globe, and finally come back to finish the job.
But she didn’t feel sick. She poked and prodded at her body with frightened hands, but nothing hurt anywhere she touched. She examined the symptoms further, but whatever the sap-like substance was, there was little left of it after she washed herself in the river again.
She wandered nervously, circling her camp, waiting for some further sign of her body’s distress, but nothing came.
For the rest of the day, she sat in camp, waiting for more symptoms, but still there was nothing. The cramps had receded, and there was no trace of the strange liquid.
She lay under the bare branches in a tank-top and underwear, book hoisted above her head, like the whole forest was her bedroom. She couldn’t remember why she’d chosen the title, but it was a comfort, like having someone to talk to, even secondhand.
The afternoon passed with no further sign of distress. Fear muted to nervousness, and then, eventually, to sleep.
She hiked the woods a lot over the next few weeks. She reasoned that civilization hadn’t netted her any sign of meaning or hope, so maybe nature would. She had no idea how readily her hope would bear fruit.
She was stopped in front of a tree like any other. At first, she wasn’t sure why her feet wouldn’t let her move on. Her eyes couldn’t register the color. It had been so long since the trees had been anything other than dead and gray that her eyes simply did not take it in. But after a moment, memory forced its way up from the lightless places it had been sleeping, and she saw the side of the tree was green. A tiny patch, barely a foot across, but green.
She walked up to it, reached out. Fear and hesitation had no place in her mind. There was only the need to touch the moss that grew soft and somnolent against the trunk. She laid her hand against it. Tears rushed to her eyes. Not tears of joy at the sign of life, but tears of bewilderment at her complete inability to know what it meant.
She returned to the patch, again and again in the next few days. It took on a near-totemic significance, filled her with emotions too great to fully comprehend.
It was a sign, she was sure of that. She had no room left in her for the idea of coincidence. But what it meant, what she was supposed to glean from it, she had no idea.
The hunger was crippling. It sank claws into her abdomen and wrenched her from sleep. She sprawled over her backpack, pawing for the can opener, swearing as she fumbled open a can of fruit cocktail. She shoveled the contents with a scooped hand, uncaring of the sharp edges. She tipped the can back, gulping at the juice that ran into her mouth, overflowing down her neck, her shirt.
She tore open another can, feral in her hunger. Dinosaur-shaped pasta cascaded down her front, leaving red spatters. She paid the mess no attention.
She ate everything in her pack- four cans, a crumbling candy bar, a stale box of frosted wheat cereal. She drank an entire two-liter bottle of soda without pausing for breath.
The impossible hunger only became worse as the days went on. She went through a dozen cans a day. Things she’d never liked before- kidney beans, tuna fish, stewed tomatoes- were delicious to her now. She brazenly marched into the supermarket, her need stronger than any imagined monstrosity.
There was a word for what she was feeling, an explanation for her impossible appetite, but she did not speak it to herself. The implications were overwhelming, nonsensical.
Spring turned to summer. She slept naked now, curled catlike in the center of the grove she thought of as hers. Her skin grew golden and taut. She did not swell, only grew in the feeling of weight. There was a gravity to her now, a heaviness that hadn’t existed before.
She cleaned the shelves of every store in town, and many of the houses, of every item that was still edible. She slept more and more, waiting for explanation, for whatever was to come next.
Her dream was an explosion of light and color, like someone trying to paint the Big Bang. The rending cacophony built, not outside her, but within her, until, with a single, shattering pulse, she was thrown back into wakefulness. A raucous volley of sound assaulted her ears. The colors were still there, pinwheeling across her eyes, and she tried to shake her mind clear. Then, abruptly, she could see again.
She could not stand, could do no more than gape, paralyzed, at the life that surrounded her.
There were animals. All around her, animals. They filled the clearing in impossible numbers. Squirrels raced tamarind monkeys and lemurs through the trees. Dogs and wolves snapped playfully at branches. A thousand birds tried to out-sing each other. The air was thick with a buzzing profusion of iridescent insects. At the edges of the clearing, somber and quiet, a bear watched her. The clearing was a riot of life that should not, could not have existed in one place. There was a whole world’s profusion of animalkind here.
And the trees…
They were alive. They bloomed with leaves and blossoms and vines hung thick between them. The air was wet with their fragrances. The place that had been firewood the night before was now a rainforest.
She could not understand it, but she couldn’t disbelieve it. The smells flooded her nostrils. The feel of it, the life of it, was a thrumming thing that had been absent the long years past. It flowed in her skin.
The animals, one by one, noticed that she had awoken. The dogs rolled onto their backs, baring their throats to her. The monkeys covered their eyes as if they were not worthy to see. The great bear tipped its nose to the ground.
Clarity came with sadness, with the realization that she felt empty, hollowed out. As the tendrils and shoots began to weed their way up out of the ground and wrap themselves around her, she understood. The dreams had been so much more than nighttime wanderings. She wasn’t kept as a joke, or an object of vengeance. She’d been a container, a literal vessel. As the loam turned to receive her, to pull her back into itself, she understood. She’d been protected, kept safe from the radiation and the diseases and her own clumsiness.
God might have been the one who passed judgment, the one from whom the proclamations were issued.
But life…life came from mothers.
At the center of the clearing, a small hand grasped ineffectually at the blankets, its owner murmuring her complaint at the lack of attention. The infant was utterly helpless. Any one of the animals present could have made it a meal, but none did. They understood the sacrosanct better than any human could.
Garden might have been a better descriptor than jungle, but it made no difference to the animals as they spread out across its surface, resuming the scatter of life and death like it had never been interrupted.