By Kourtnie McKenzie
Americans are the consumers of Armageddon. We play out the death of humanity in our movies, books, and games—with zombies, aliens, and warfare—till the end of the world means nothing. A joke.
That’s why, when Lu says, “What if the rapture—,” I interrupt, “No. You’re kidding.”
We’re in high school, by the flagpoles, before our first class. It’s where we honor girls go to glower at one another: me with my prepackaged pastry, and Lu with her black hoodie. I lean against a gnarled tree and crinkle open my breakfast.
Lu whispers, “For realsies, Ash—I think we could be in Purgatory.”
She nods, says, “Right,” and I reply, “You’re watching those weird shows again.”
She huffs, and I trash my pastry wrapper. As I search my flannel backpack, she babbles about doomsday. I find a notebook—sit on a brick wall—start to scribble—
“Ashley,” she says. “Are you listening to me?”
“Of course,” I say.
So she keeps rambling. And I keep scribbling. When I hand my chicken-scratch to her, she takes it. Tilts it sideways. Then she scrunches her nose.
END OF THE WORLD RECIPE
- HEAT EARTH TO DISCOMFORT. THE COLDEST PART OF THE SUN IS TWO MILLION DEGREES CELSIUS–DO NOT HEAT THAT HOT.
- AFTER PREHEATING, KILL PEOPLE WITH ALIENS AND/OR WARFARE.
- INSERT PROBES OR NUCLEAR WEAPONS WHERE APPROPRIATE.
“You think this is funny?” she asks.
Since she’s angry, I don’t respond. Just smile smug as silver.
Had I known the apocalypse was a thing, I never would’ve made fun of it. But now that it’s gone and passed, I don’t have to elaborate on how everyone else died. All that matters is that I’m still alive.
And, after the dust settled, there was the blizzard. A blizzard that does not end.
I have crossed the cities, highways, and forests—figments now, hardened by the frost—trying to find the buzz of insects. Looking for the hum of machinations. Life is sparse, though. So is civilization. Most of the time, there’s just my breath, huffy-puffy, and occasionally, the wind howl. The horizon rises and falls in snowdrifts, gemstone-white in every direction.
Sometimes, I find a semblance of the old world. A broken building.
A traffic sign that reads, Merge Right.
Today, though, it’s empty, shell-white hills. High noon is already gone.
I push fast through the slosh, searching for shelter. Anywhere will do. When I think I spot a mound—something more than the snow—I walk close. Slide down an icy bank.
And I see a raven.
His first flap, he glides on wind chill. Second flap, speeds over white.
He is a little black thing against big clouds.
Perhaps, he’s headed towards the ocean. Or maybe, another body of water. He might fly somewhere far, where fish swim deep into blue-dark.
We braved the ocean once: half a dozen survivors, including Mom. We rode across the sea on a raft of hemp rope, barrels, and oars. As the weeks passed, someone would fall asleep. Then someone else. We’d wonder who would wake up, and who would fade away.
That’s all said and done now, though. I’m alone.
Mom, a professional makeup artist, never painted doomsday on the actors. Even though that was the craze, in the bright backstage, she kept to Hollywood’s vibrant palettes: glittery powders, blingy pencils, and pearly pink pigments.
“Make it look like metal,” she told the assistant. “Make it look like lasers.”
The last weekend I saw her working, the world had just started its end. No one recognized the pattern in the calamities yet. Mom especially. Instead, she flipped open her iPhone. Snapped a picture for her portfolio.
As I got close, I hitched a breath. I wanted her to photograph the two of us.
But she shook her phone, said, “It’s not working.”
“It’s just an old phone,” I told her. “Give it a moment.”
Her phone made the shick sound before the shutter. The ding, before the auto-save.
Mom was a prominent makeup artist—”legendary,” she called it—and that meant sixty hours a week. By the grace of her persistence, and her pristine reputation, she talked the studio manager into hiring me, too. So weekends, we worked together. Sometimes, I liked it. Most of the time, though, I just waited for her to explode; transfer her frustration onto me like a personal baggage claim.
“Here, you fix it,” she said. Shoved the phone at me.
I took the phone and sighed. Bright round bulbs blazed around us.
The rafters were wide wooden beams, iron-laden. The sets were old, charred brick. It wasn’t really my thing, the rustic backstage, but my honors program required an internship, and really, the more I did it, the more it felt like a lucky gig.
There were supporting actors around my age, chatting about everything. One of the job benefits: having these people immediately available. I sat in front of one of them, a ninety-pounder on a red swivel stool. She watched me thumb at my mother’s phone.
Then she asked me something, I don’t remember, and we got caught up in small-talk, in our could-be-friending, until she asked, “You in drama?”
“No.” I swiped at the tiny touchscreen. “My favorite class is integrated circuit technology.”
“I work with circuit boards.”
“Oh,” she replied. “So why you here?”
“Because my mom. But I want to build robots.”
“Like things that can help clean my bedroom.”
She laughed. When they called her name, she said, “Gotta go,” and she jumped onstage. In her strappy, shiny suit, she didn’t look like any of us.
She stared into the camera. Lips red.
Then the script had her crying. She was all gasps and heaves, leaning against her blue backdrop, playing her part in this scene. And she really got into the final act.
Sometimes I stare at the snowdrifts too long. Makes me ill. I used to look around, searching for someone to end the sick feeling. I don’t anymore, though. Haven’t seen another human in weeks. Now I lie on my side and wait until the vertigo subsides.
But it’s dangerous to stay still in the cold for too long. So I get up. Then I push.
I don’t see the shifty bank that gives way just before I stumble-fall into a ravine. This isn’t the first time I’ve fallen, though. I let my shoulder take the brunt of the blow. Need to save my ankles; my head. As I slide to a sprawled-out stop, I look up at the mouth of a cave.
Anything could’ve taken refuge in there.
I have a machete, though—something one of the old raft survivors gave me—so I’m not totally vulnerable. I could explore it.
As I crawl closer, I double-check the blade is still at my side.
The man-sized rocks at the cavern entrance are tall. I’ll have to stand. Climb. I’m all arms-and-legs, splayed everywhere.
Then I get to the other side of the rock-wall, and there’s nothing but darkness. In that black, light flickers on, a few clusters at a time: glowworms, clinging to the limestone. Some worms are just dots, but others are wriggly, stringy things. Finger- to yard-length.
The cave is also wet in some places with a subterranean brook. The stones are slick.
It’s a windless place to make fire. Has a few bats. I like the cave better than the ruined buildings, I think.
My friends were honors, junior year, tech studies.
We all had internships.
I thought we were fortunate. I thought, our lives were good. But sometime last spring, while we lunched in the quad, Lu complained about everything: like the sky was falling. I stared at the fluffy trees and our frumpy sandwiches. My boyfriend, Jeri, also stayed quiet. He helped me listen to my best friend whine.
“I mean, who wants to launch fireworks?” she asked.
One of the guys said, “You’ve got the best internship. You blow things up at Disneyland.”
“Yeah, but I’m not doing anything with it,” Lu said. “Ash, you know what I mean, right? You should be building robots. You should be launching the fireworks.”
After a semester of trash-talking, and snigger-laughing, I couldn’t handle Lu’s ingratitude. So I shoved the rest of my lunch into my paper bag, then said, “I’ve gotta go.”
Jeri didn’t bother to stop chip-crunching. “Whaffa madda?”
“Need to print something,” I lied. “Going to hit the library before the bell.”
“Soh’kay,” he said. “Oh!—coffee after school?”
I looked up. Met his gray gaze. “I guess.”
Some more intelligent life form will evolve from this massacre, dinosaurs-to-man-to-who-knows-what. So I’m going to build my base in the glowworm cave. Rough it out. I want to see if the next leaders will sprout from all this nothing; or if, after I’m dead, they’ll slowly evolve. Then they’ll dig me up, line my bones on a steel table—next to the dig site’s microchips, the broken utensils—and say, “Here’s the greatest mammal there ever was.” They’ll say this in whatever language they share, because they won’t build a Tower of Babel. Not yet. They’ll be too focused on their first moments to fret about architecture. And it’ll be awhile before there’s any prayer.
They won’t have time to think about heaven.
After that lunch with Lu, I waited for Jeri at “Another Coffee Place,” this purple shab-hole next to campus. The sun pierced the bamboo blinds, orange-hot. When Jeri got there, he looked directly at the light, squinty-eyed, probably blinding himself on purpose—”for inspiration,” he’d say—so there was no use telling him that it was bad; that he just fried part of his corneas.
Instead, I kept quiet. Watched him wriggle into the booth. He took up too much space for wearing a size small. I dug the way he swayed, though, like he was listening to some song in his head, something he didn’t know about; although, once in a while, he’d feel himself bobbing. Then he’d stop.
The barista walked up. I gave him time to order his drink.
Cherry frappe, he said. Then he added, “Put something weird in it. Treat me like a case study.” She left, and we stared at each other. The sunrays were like fire on the brass-brushed table, lighting up our arms.
As we waited, he fidgeted some more. Glanced sideways.
After the drink clunked-and-jangled, and the barista sashayed away, Jeri watched her—caught himself watching—and turned to me. Slurped. “So what’s wrong?” he asked.
“You were all hot and bothered during lunch,” he said.
“Is that why you wanted coffee?”
“Well, I didn’t want you brewing.”
Dammit, his puns were stupid—I told him so—and he smirked. When he slurped again, I said, “I don’t know, I just—why do we have to shit on everything?”
“The internships. All the complaining.”
His straw stuck to his lip. “There was some negative nancying going on, but who cares?”
“I just don’t get why we have to make all this out like its bad. Like everything is bad. I’m a make-up artist. And Lu’s an explosives technician. And you’re a…”
He waved a hand in the air, mocked me with, “An ‘uhhh…’ ”
“Shut up, I’m thinking.”
“You can’t remember?” he asked.
“No. I can. What did you call it, a museum analyst?”
“A curator,” he said.
“There. That’s it.”
He considered my response. Then he said, “You know what’s bad? Nachos. Double cheese. I’ll get us some.”
“I’m good,” I replied.
“You are good, which is why you need sin. Cheesy sin. Be right back.”
I opened my mouth, but he left the table. Left me alone.
I didn’t think death would take Jeri from me.
I still dream of him getting accepted to college. Moving away, staying safe. Then there are the nightmares: him with clowns, and a clunky camera, as he follows a robot-man across the world. He’s on a pilgrimage. Since I didn’t see him drown—just saw the foam and ocean spray—I can almost believe the nightmare is real.
People said that Jeri and I would get married one day. But neither of us believed in happily-ever-afters. “We’re just high schoolers,” I’d say, and Jeri would nod. Whether or not he actually agreed with me, the gesture itself felt sagely.
Then second semester, someone scrawled our names on the Great School Wall: Jeri Ash 4Eva. I found it after track, all over this behemoth of concrete. Like this was a thing.
Mom drove me to school every day. Hollywood to Fullerton: more than an hour each way. We chased rising and falling suns. So I couldn’t have this. I couldn’t have some troller with punky spray paint, ruining my good name. If I got kicked out of this school—
“Fuck,” I breathed. Cellphoned Jeri.
He was still in band practice. “Give me five minutes,” he said.
He set up something with his father; and his father set up something with Mom. I forgot they exchanged numbers for winter formal. Anyway, the plan was to drive me into Los Angeles after traffic hour. Till then, I was on his father’s watch.
The air got cold. I rubbed my arms while I stared at the wall.
When Jeri and his father showed up, ten minutes later, they brandished industrial-sized paint buckets. His father handed me an enormous brush, said, “Let’s start covering this—”
“No,” I interrupted. “What if faculty sees us?”
“It’ll be fine,” Jeri said.
“Well, if you’re worried,” his father started, “I’ll watch the gate.”
He knew how to leave, fast as his son.
Jeri, meanwhile, painted meticulously over the graffiti. He instructed me on the simpler parts: “Just fill this whole corner with that blue.”
I did as told.
In the dead of night, we created this mural: red river; pink clouds. Next came two robots, kind of humanlike, silhouettes, holding hands—peace signing with their squared fingers.
When we were done, Jeri said, “That looks so much better.”
And he turned to me, beaming joy.
Candy-cane-arched lamps donned him with a halo.
I’m tired. My abdomen feels like it snuck into a back alley, got shanked, and limped its way back. Exhaustion aside, though, I found a billboard. I’m trying to pry it free, but I’m tangled in the scraps of my fur coat. So I shrug some of my coat off.
When I get deep enough, elbows to slush, I see bright colors.
Then I palm, slowly now, at the last bits of snow.
I push the dreadlocks out of my face; peel the billboard’s papery edges. My fingertips are bloody and black. I can’t tell if that’s frostbite, or whatever else, but it doesn’t look right, and I don’t have medicine. I guess, that’s the risk I take: injury for answers.
I find a little, spirally logo, wrapping around “NZ,” within all the ice, sap, and grime.
Then I recognize the letters from world history. New Zealand.
I can’t believe I floated here, all the way from America.
I suppose, that’s not too outlandish, though; the natural disasters changed the map. There were tectonics, tsunamis: all those doom-and-gloomy, yet natural things. So the world could’ve folded in on itself. It could’ve gone flat. Or it could’ve returned to Pangaea.
The summer vacation before the world collapsed, Jeri and I met near the Great School Wall. Heat licked the horizon. At the time, we thought the world would burn. Not freeze.
So we hid in a puddle of shade, away from the light.
And we dozed.
I awoke to Jeri carrying me elsewhere. “The sun,” he said. “It’s too hot.”
We didn’t go far: just to the other side of the tree, where the shadows had fled. Jeri eased me down. There wasn’t enough shade left for him. So he pressed his face into my side. He felt snug against my shoulder. Fit there.
He was always meant to protect his eyes with my skin.
My skin is a freezing ticking time bomb of disease.
But outside the glowworm cave, there’s plenty of wood.
With sparse bits of fire, I thaw out my tiny digits. Toes and thumbs.
Once humanity realized the world was freezing, governments worked together to launch vacuum-weather generators: atmospheric satellites that do something weird to the clouds. So even though the blizzard roars on the horizon, there’s livable overcast in this place.
I stare into the flames. Into the sky.
I go on for many days this way.
Half a mile away, on the cusp of the skyline, there’s a garbage heap.
I’ve made snowshoes out of tennis rackets. It’s an hour each way.
The tennis rackets, I discovered the first time I visited the dump. That visit took half a day of pushing ankles, calves, and kneecaps through the slush.
I started integrated circuit technologies my freshman year. The first robot was a tiny thing. Easy to hide in my folded hands. I brought it to the abandoned biology room. Lu had her legs propped on an old desk, bathing in window-filtered sunlight. After I plopped next to her, I opened my hands, said, “Look. My Palm-Pom Cheerleader.”
She leaned forward. Stared into my cupped fingers. “What the hell.”
“It’s for a midterm,” I said. “Because she’s palm-sized—”
“I get it,” she interrupted. Then she picked up the silver-bolted cheerleader.
The robot wriggled tiny, metal arms.
“Weird,” she said.
I ignored her lack of enthusiasm. “It has voice recognition.”
“Tell it to dance,” I said.
“Okay,” she started. “Dance…?—whatthefuckitsdancing—”
“It’s amazing, right?”
I explained more commands; but she didn’t listen, and I honestly don’t remember anything else the robot could do; I just recall her interrupting: “It’s like a human, Ash. It has arms and legs.”
And then the room felt cold.
At the garbage heap, I collect three broken computers and eleven soda cans. I also find a Geek Weekly with a feature on androids. On the last page, they spell color like nobility: Colour.
My sophomore year, my mother and I were eating stroganoff when she tapped her knife on the dishware. I lifted my eyes. She said, “You should spend time with your father.”
As I prepared my response, she looked at me with her don’t fuck-with-me mask: dark eye shadow, black eyeliner, and thick mascara. More war paint than beauty.
“Don’t you think so?” she asked.
“I think,” I said, “I don’t want anything to do with my father.”
“Christ, Ash, he’s—”
“Bringing Christ into this isn’t helping.”
“Don’t you want to know him?”
“He left, Mom. For six years.” I forked my plate.
“He’s human,” she said. “You’re old enough now to know he’s just—”
I got up to leave.
I find a barrel, completely intact. It’s almost the best thing I’ve salvaged so far.
But the greatest treasure of the garbage heap: a blowtorch. Thanks to it, I weld the computer guts into the barrel’s innards.
Fuck if my arms don’t hurt.
Above me, the glowworms sway.
“Everyone should carry ibuprofen in their pockets,” my father said, “in case the world shits itself before making it home.” But I didn’t listen to that nonsense. And it was the last thing he said before the blizzard took him. He was in a bed, thin-looking, staring out a hospital window.
I weld liquid aluminum with red-coated wire.
A couple of chips work better in other places. So I move them next.
Tiny metal barbs pierce my fingertips.
Lu and Jeri were visiting a few months ago—helping me prepare for the PSAT—when the doorbell rang. And I just thought, “There’s our pizza.” So I bounded to the entrance.
I didn’t bother to check the peephole.
“Dad,” I breathed.
Then I slammed the door in his face.
Jeri walked up behind me, a question mark in his brow. Next I yelled, “What’s your deal,” and I bawled. I made balls with my fists. Then I used Jeri’s chest as a fist-board.
Several minutes went by before Lu walked into the room.
After the two of them convinced me to open the door, I found my father still there.
His face: shell-white blank.
I leave the barrel behind, go outside, and stare at the midday blue.
I just want my father out of my head.
I wish my mother were still alive.
There’s a way the sky looks when it hits the snow. It’s the softest color. Pure.
The brook is the same color. Blue-clear-something. Its water is half-frozen, yet half-babbling—fighting. Some places, the brook is losing. It is ice-laden and dying. So I kneel at the water’s edge, and say a prayer for the brook’s survival. I’m at that perilous precipice, where the water dips from the outside and into the cave.
The brook sure makes a heap of noise.
Perhaps it’s desperate; wants to reach the ocean.
The brook wants to join the sea before it can’t move anymore.
But the brook’s safer in the glowworm cave. I tell it this. I follow it beyond the rocky entrance, into the cavernous dark, until there’s nothing but glowworms lighting the way.
And I glance at the pile of trash: the barrel, the blowtorch. Other random tools.
There’s an incline where the brook dips even further into the cavern darkness; then it falls, bottomless, filling tunnels; and that’s when I can’t wander any deeper into the underground. The brook can hide out there forever, though. It’ll make it till the day the world is alive again.
“Stay here, brook.” I cup hands over my mouth. “Just hide out here.”
It’s muddy deep in the cave.
So I return to the collected trash. Pick up an old rod and hook. And I go back outside, to the brook’s wider pools. Cast the hook.
Time is a relative thing.
Then I catch a bugger-eyed fish. Oh, does it look delicious!
The fucking thing has fish-teeth, though.
It’d eat me if I let it.
So I stab it first.
Devour it raw.
I saw Lu’s face just before the window sliced through her waist.
It was pure horror.
But this is why I say there’s no reason to go into details about the apocalypse; really, how many movies cut the last humans down the middle?—how many magicians put people in boxes, sword them up, then say “tada”—like it’s all okay?
Maybe the sheet of glass was what cut the image into me.
The way it popped out of the hospital’s third floor, during one of many earthquakes.
The window was shatterproof. Eco-friendly. Guillotine-ready.
Lu was just visiting after the doctor told me about my father.
Blue body bags are the same color as the blue backdrops on movie sets.
The brook-fish have long, sharp tendrils that scientists might’ve called whiskers. But now, without laboratories—and without people in lab coats—I’m the expert here, the figurehead. I can look at these fish’s appendages however I want. Even name them.
In the abandoned science room, we used to pretend-name species.
I did the name-game for shits and giggles, but for Lu, this was acting out a dream. She wanted to find a new animal; become a biological wizard. And I knew what it took for her to share this dream. This was not the age of astronauts and presidents. We were told to keep our hopes to ourselves. Try to grow out of them.
I climb to the top of the garbage heap, robot parts jingling from my tool belt.
I try to shout, “I want to name something before it’s extinct”—and, it’s my hope, that every breathing thing hears me—hears it like a peal of thunder—but I haven’t spoken in a while, so my voice crashes, burns, something tiny and feeble.
I can’t get tired yet.
And I’ve watched the brook-fish swim around, if for no other reason, than to peg the purpose of its tendrils. I’m convinced, if the fish grows large enough, it can stab the wet earth with its face.
So, in light of the tendril-discovery, I have decided—no, I think, Lu would’ve named these perilous monsters:
When I’m too exhausted to tinker on this robot, I collect all the books and magazines I can. There’s a stack of them from the dump trips. Growing. They read differently now. The commentary’s always on what was, what has been. A library gone passive.
I spread them out, try to make sense of how to explain them. But it’s impossible to explain language without language. Like a living thing, it needs itself to replicate. It is mortal.
So I burn some of the books.
I cry salt into the brook’s pure-water.
Then I thaw myself a while longer.
The morning sun scalds the edge of the world with its orange-red-blue. It’s my cue to head for the brook: the pool: my fishing spot. I slip on ice this time.
After I stumble to the water, I cast a hook in. I have a bobber this time, too. It plunks into the rabble-babble-brook. And I lean onto my left foot. That’s the foot I keep in a sneaker. The other foot lives in a boot.
I think about nothing. Stare at snow.
It will blind me. For inspiration.
What if I evolved into something that doesn’t need eyes? But, if that happened, I couldn’t see the wispy clouds, thinning in the atmospheric hole; just swirling; and where’s the benefit in that?—where’s the purpose in missing the trails attached to the storm, shaping into this nine-tailed fox: this sacred cloud-beast that, maybe, just got lost, somewhere on its way to heaven.
I heard this myth about a gorgeous man. He stares into a magic pool for far too long, and his body becomes a flower, and they name the flower after him; so, I’ve collected every flower I can find, and I’ve pressed them dry in these old, old Bibles, knowing I’m the only one to concern myself with my soul, and I’m hoping one of these flowers will say something, but since it’s a full moon, and that’s special—yet I can’t hear anything; everything is still—I think the myth is wrong. It’s all wrong—
And I think about how puppies and kittens are born with their eyes and ears closed.
The robot’s body is the barrel. Its brain, computer guts. Then there’s the car battery, the duct tape. Soda cans, to separate things. Ear buds, to transfer sound. A network card, although I’m not sure if I swabbed enough gunk for it to get power. And last—since a barrel doesn’t give the robot much character—I’ve added bladed tendrils, made from scrap metal.
Thought the robot would like that.
I flip a sewing needle from vertical to horizontal. It tugs a wire. Should turn it on.
The operating system makes a faint ding through the ear buds.
Inside the cave, wisps of light twist along the ceiling. These are the pockets of glowworms that just woke up. They’re like stars everywhere. Green, blue, gray. I don’t think they’re all that important anymore—other than the dim light source, that’s good-and-well—but now, as my robot points its bladed tendrils up, up, up, I really see the star-glow.
Then I hear the robot beeping.
So I scramble, get the ear buds shoved in as fast as possible.
“Beep—click—beep,” the robot says.
Binary. It’s talking in binary. Of course.
I try to match the beeps to zeroes, the clicks to ones.
After I name it Beeper, I record the beeps for many sunrises. Many sunfalls.
Sometimes I have to clap my hands, make noise, to get the glowworms to illuminate. I used to think it was the vibrations, but it’s more than that. When I pelt out my last curdle-scream—breathe like a dragon—I make emotion. And that’s when the glowworms are blinding. They are an underground sky for a buried world.
Beeper stops behind me, monotones, “Beep—click—beeeeeeeep.”
Beep click beep click beep click-click-click. Beep click-click beep-beep click beep click. Beep click-click beep click-click beep-beep.
That translates to: “Hello World—”
Everything has come to this. I am worn. I am weary.
But I have written beeps and clicks to the moon.
I wrap my arms around Beeper, and though the barrel’s chilling, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with just leaning into this object. Because, I know, someone will find my bones. Someone will line me on a steel table; pick up Beeper’s chips with diamond tweezers.
I sit next to the brook. The Bladefish.
Looks like the brook is freezing further than its edges.
Even in the cave, I can walk along the water side. If I could walk.
I feel Beeper’s bladed tendrils beneath me. Then I awake to the sun—I know it, even though my eyes don’t open—and the beep-beep-click:
THE CAVE. TOO COLD FOR SURVIVAL.
It is, I try to say. My voice doesn’t work, though.
Beeper and I don’t get far. Just to the other side of the cave, where the brook flees, half-frozen, to the sea. Beeper carries me, clicks something like magic.
YOU ARE NOT THE LAST HUMAN.
That’s good, I try to say. That’s good.
I press my face into Beeper’s side. I think—it’s getting colder now.
Kourtnie McKenzie is attending the MFA program at Fresno State in Central Valley, California. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s working for her school’s literary magazine, The Normal School, or is hunting for tea, coffee, and fresh fruit. She is also published at Barely South Review.