“Unicorns,” said the ghost of Jill’s father — though she tried not to think of him as a ghost. The staff at Eternal Life encouraged the term “Post-Life Resident” instead, and the nameplate next to her father’s door simply read Saul Stiefel, in a tasteful sans-serif font.
But if he wasn’t a ghost, why did he look so …spectral? She shook her head, pushed the thought aside.
“Unicorns, yes. They’re all over Manhattan. The word is they’re Earth natives, but they left long ago to explore the universe. They basically live forever, so space travel is like no big deal, for them. And the reason we dimly remember them as magical is that they had, like, this blisteringly advanced technology –”
“Right. So out of nowhere, these unicorns land –”
“In a golden spaceship. It’s mind-blowing, Dad. You should watch the news.”
“Sure, I get it, let me finish.” Saul waved a shimmering hand, a dismissive gesture that brought back the living man Jill remembered; she had to shake her head again to clear it. “So they land on Long Island — I was married on Long Island, by the way –“
“I know that, Dad, I was there, remember?”
“Yes, so you were. But my point is that these outer-space unicorns invade Earth, with no warning. And within a week, Amir is in business with them?”
Here we go again. “Yep.” Jill blew strands of hair out of her face.
“You should marry that kid.” She laughed, but Saul leveled a shimmering index finger at her. “I’m serious.”
“We’re just friends, Dad.”
“Sure, but I bet he likes you. Why not ask him? It’s the twenty-first century, right? The worst he could do is say no.”
“Daddy. Just stop.”
“All right.” Saul shrugged. “You know what? You should get him to give you a job at this new unicorn venture, then.” He pronounced it ven-tchah, just as the living Saul would have.
Jill lifted her chin. “I did get a job there, as it happens. Nothing to do with Amir, thank you very much. I mean, he put in a word for me, but I had to go through a pretty rigorous interview process.”
Saul seemed to grow tense; whether such a thing was possible in his present form, or whether it was another skillful illusion conjured by the Eternal Life people, Jill couldn’t decide.
“What’s the job?”
“Composing. Scoring films. Unicorns, Inc. has a production arm.”
A look of inexpressible relief spread across Saul’s ghostly face. “Jill, that’s fantastic! That’s a perfectly legitimate job for a musician. Right?”
Jill bit her lip, forced a smile.
“So what are you working on?”
“Terrible Ted. It’s …an animated musical about the life of Ted Bundy.”
“Oh.” Saul’s ecstatic radiance dimmed. “Well, maybe your next project will be better.”
“If Terrible Ted does well…” Jill hesitated. She couldn’t remember the vague, conditional promises the Unicorns, Inc executives had made — at least not in sufficient detail to rehearse them for her Dad.
Saul squinted at her. “All right, all right. Moving on. Did you visit the old carcass?”
“Gross, Dad. You don’t say carcass. You say hallowed remains or something.”
“Well, did you visit the hallowed remains of my old carcass?”
She bit her lip again. “I left a donation at the shrine.”
“Oh, very generous, thank you. You didn’t stop and say hello? Not that I blame you, it gives me the shivers too, but why should it? It’s the way of all flesh, right?”
“Since when do you quote the Bible?” Jill picked at the seam of her left mitten, bought from a street vendor on a long-ago visit to Seattle, where her best friend Paz Jiménez had moved after college to live as a squatter: an experiment that hadn’t lasted long. The mittens had lasted, though, until today, when a sudden and rapid-onset plague of unraveling had arrived to trouble Jill’s sense of order and symmetry, magnifying her premonition that nothing she relied on could be trusted to endure.
“The Bible?” Saul furrowed his brow. “I thought I was quoting Shakespeare. But don’t change the subject when I’m making a point. Jill… it’s time to let go.”
She looked up sharply. “What?”
“You heard me. Now be honest, sweetheart. Are you going along with this Eternal Life crap just for your mother’s sake?”
Jill squirmed in her chair. “I’m not — it’s just…”
“Ellen is not as fragile as she pretends to be. Hell, she outlived me, and I was a tough old bastard.”
“You are a tough old bastard,” Jill corrected him. But he shook his head.
“I can’t see how it appeals to you — all this mumbo-jumbo. It’s not the way I raised you. We Stiefels are atheists; we have been for generations.”
“My little rebel.” Saul smiled, and Jill felt a stab of pain in her throat. Whatever anyone says about the Eternal Life people, she thought, they totally nailed his smile.
She leaned forward, lowered her voice.
“Daddy. They say your attitude has a huge impact on the reanimation process. Once the technology is fully developed — and they’re saying it’s almost there — you could be out of here and walking around within a month.”
Saul rolled his eyes. “You actually believe in this voodoo?”
“Why does it matter what I believe, if it works? You could come see my band play. We could see Shakespeare in the Park –”
“We’d never get tickets.”
“We could go to a Knicks game. Daddy, you could vote again.”
Saul snorted. “Sure I miss voting, but if it means being reunited with that rotting bit of flesh…? You don’t understand because you’re young. Besides…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I think this whole thing is a scam, Jilly.”
Jill stiffened, sat up straighter. “That’s your personal opinion, and I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself.” She’d forgotten to whisper; she lowered her voice again. “What if they kick you out of here?”
“Let ‘em.” He sat back, folding his arms across his chest.
“What if they kick you out and the very next week they perfect the technology? I know you don’t care, but Dad, what about Mom? Okay, okay — then what about me? That would break my heart.”
Saul sighed and rubbed his blue translucent eyebrows. “All right, sweetheart. All right.” He lifted his head and met her gaze. “Give my love to Amir, okay? Tell him to come see me. I know he’s busy, but hey, I’m busy too.”
Jill rolled her eyes, partly to keep tears from spilling out. “I get it, Dad, he’s the son you never had.”
“Always with the sarcasm. So kill me, I want grandkids, is that wrong? But we’re getting off the subject again. I want you to think about what I said.”
“I mean it, Jill. Unicorns might live forever, but people do not.”
Jill said nothing. There was nothing to say to that.
Outside the Eternal Life Chapel, tugging her hat low and her scarf high against the January cold, Jill paused to watch a pair of silvery-white unicorns pass. On an impulse, she stepped out of the line for the crosstown bus; she’d walk back to the office through Central Park instead. Maybe she’d see more unicorns.
Once inside the park, looking around her, she slowed her pace and finally stopped altogether in front of a bank of flowers: jonquils, paperwhites, crocus and narcissus, blazing white and yellow and pink and purple, a riot of colors in full spring bloom. Except for the cold air, it might have been May. Even the cherry trees around the reservoir showed tiny pink buds. In January.
Shaking her head, Jill pulled her coat around her and walked on.
Amir’s chief co-executives were two majestic white unicorns named Fighty and Bitey. Fighty had a golden horn. Bitey’s was the warm, mellow, variegated ivory-color of antique carved bone. That was the only way Jill could tell them apart.
Fighty assigned Jill a smaller, less-imposing unicorn as her personal assistant. His name was Likey, and his hide was a dull silvery gray that reminded Jill of a pair of suede boots she’d left at a dimly-remembered drug party in the East Village back in the late nineties. She missed those boots.
She and Likey had one thing in common: they didn’t love the vibe in the offices of Unicorns, Inc. By tacit agreement they spent a lot of time walking in Central Park having impromptu “strategizing” sessions.
When she got back to the office, she decided now was a good time for such a session. The visit with her father’s spirit, the stress of the new job, the Park filled with unseasonal blossoms: all of it had left her uneasy, off-balance. She called Likey from the security desk and waited for him in the lobby.
They’d gone only a little way into the Park when Likey suddenly turned to Jill with a serious expression in his long-lashed eyes.
“I’m going to tell you something I shouldn’t,” he said.
“Why would you do that?” said Jill, instantly wary.
“Because I like you, Jill.”
“Gee, thanks. That means a lot coming from someone so prone to liking things that his actual name is Likey.”
Likey blew through his nose.
“My name is not Likey and you know it,” he snorted. “We unicorns have long, complex, beautiful names. They’re just untranslatable. This “Likey” and “Helpy” crap is shorthand we came up with for the purpose of communicating with humans on your own diluted level.”
“Um, wow. You don’t have to get so insulting.”
“I’m just saying, we’re not the ones who have problems with complexity and — and layers of meaning.”
“I take it back, okay?” She must’ve hit a nerve: he was beginning to stutter, and his unicorn accent, usually faint, had become more pronounced.
“At least our names mean something.”
“I think Stiefel means boot in German,” said Jill helpfully.
“Let’s just drop it.” A sparrow fluttered past, and Likey stabbed at it with his brushed-silver horn. “I have something important to tell you.”
“Maybe you’d better not,” said Jill, alarmed.
“It could save your life.”
She hesitated: Likey’s grasp on what exactly “life” meant to a human was surely fraught with complications. Then again — she thought of her father — so, arguably, was Jill’s.
She took a deep breath. “Okay, shoot.”
He leveled one eye at her. “You’ve got to get off this planet.”
She let the breath out on a single short, plosive syllable. “P’huh! I thought you were serious. Come on, you crazy prankster, let’s go get a coffee. I’m freezing.”
His hooves churned puffs of glittering frost as he moved in front of her, his flank blocking her path. “I’m not kidding, Jill. Jill! Look at me.”
Reluctantly, she looked at him. He was trying to look her straight in the eyes, which, not having binocular vision, he had to cock his head back and forth slightly to do. His forelock swished from one side of his face to the other, weightless in the winter wind, making his velvety ears twitch. As annoyed as she was, she resisted a sudden urge to pet him. She’d always loved unicorns as a girl; she still couldn’t quite believe they were real.
“Jill,” he said irritably. “Are you listening now?”
“Ugh, fine. What?”
“Humans are out.”
“We’re out? What the hell does that mean? Like a trend, we’re over? No one wears us anymore?”
“Enough joking! Do you think this is a fucking, a what-d’you-call-it — a sitcom?” He was stuttering again. “What I’m saying is this: The final plan is coming into focus, and humans…”
“Humans what?” said Jill. The hair stood up on the back of her neck.
“Humans aren’t a part of it. That’s all there is to say. We looked at it from every angle. There wasn’t any way to make you fit.”
Jill stared hard at him through her misting breath. Her nose was running; she swiped at it with her mitten.
“There wasn’t any way to make us fit? We live here! We’re from here; you’re our guests. Earth is our home.”
He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
Her pulse throbbed in her throat. “If you’re serious,” she said slowly, “then there’s nothing we can do, is there? You’re so powerful… We’d be helpless to resist.”
Likey didn’t say anything. He just returned her stare.
“Well, I mean, what are my options, exactly?” It had been a long day; Jill found she was on the verge of tears.
“Basically relocation. That’s your option.”
“We have some other systems lined up. We did a lot of exploring before we returned to Earth.”
“Other systems? I’m not a fucking astronaut, Likey! I’m a professional musician! I was an art history major, for Christ’s sake,” she added, pretty sure he wouldn’t get the nuance — the extra layer of hopelessness of being an art history major stranded far from Earth. He probably didn’t know what “art history” meant, or what a “major” even was.
“It’s okay, Jill, just listen to me. There is hope for humanity. Yours is not the only sun.” His voice had changed, his tone now vast and soothing. Jill had a vague sense-memory of sitting in the Planetarium as a kid, listening to Neil DeGrasse Tyson describe the wonders of the universe. With some reluctance she shook off the spellbound feeling that wanted to steal over her.
“It’s the only sun that belongs to us.” She moved to push past him, but he stopped her.
“Please trust me, Jill. I’m going to get you out of here.” He blinked at her, seeming to struggle for words. “We… we feel really bad about all of this.”
“You feel bad? I don’t know where to start with you, I really don’t. Bunch of four-legged…” No insult seemed adequate to her fury; she let the sentence die, but then a question came to her, an avenue of inquiry that seemed to offer some hope. “Just tell me one thing.”
“Anything you ask. What is it?” He shifted his head. His eye — the one she could see — was large and liquid, grave and calm.
“You said you’re not supposed to tell me all this. So why did you?”
“Because you’re an attractive young female and your fertility tested out great: you’ve got a good solid decade of reproductive viability ahead of you — maybe two. And we — the ones who want humanity to survive in some form or other, elsewhere — we needed to form a breeding population.”
His words fell flat into a whistling, white silence. Jill clenched her fists. At least she didn’t feel like crying anymore.
Likey backed away, talking rapidly.
“Okay, I’m sensing that that wasn’t what you wanted to hear, Jill, but come on! It’s been a crazy week for me too, all right? Just tell me what you want me to say!”
He was lucky she hadn’t hit him, Jill thought. But you didn’t hit unicorns. That would be shitty. Aside from the fact that you’d just bruise your knuckles, that wasn’t who Jill was, who she wanted to be.
Instead she’d turned, and she’d run.
When she got tired of running she walked. When she got tired of walking, she pulled out her new company-issued iPhone and tried to dial her mother. Mittens and phone were fundamentally incompatible; she had to tug the right mitten off and work her fingers through the new hole in the left one. Then, hands freezing, she tugged her mitten back on, nearly dropping the phone in the process.
“I know what you’re calling about,” Ellen said, before Jill could get in a word.
“And honestly, I think we should just let him do it. Let him leave the program. Let him traditionally die.” Jill heard scare quotes around the phrase. “I’m tired of arguing with him.”
“Oh, Mom, wow. No, that’s not… Mom, I don’t think you really mean that, but that’s not why I’m calling. I was actually just wondering if you’d have a minute to get a coffee. There’s something I want to talk to you about, kind of… not on the phone.”
This earned a brief pause, and given her mother’s characteristically un-pause-able rapid-fire phone delivery, Jill felt a stab of guilt. Had it been that long since she’d met Ellen for coffee?
“You’re pregnant,” said Jill’s mother, pouncing.
“No? Are you sure?”
“Am I sure!” Jill repeated, with what she hoped was evident scorn.
“Mom! I’m not engaged.”
“What other news could you possibly have that you can’t tell me over the phone?”
“Can you just take my word for it, Mom, and meet me for two seconds? I’ll come to you.”
“I’d love to, honey, but I’m flying to L.A. tonight. I have that awards thing. I’m literally leaving for the airport in twenty minutes.” Pause. “And you’re not calling about Saul?”
“Not this time. Mom, can’t you skip the thing?”
“Skip the thing? I’m all packed… Honey, whatever it is, it’s not the end of the world.”
“It kind of is,” Jill muttered.
“Never mind. Where are you staying in LA? Can I call you when you get there?”
“I’ll call you the second I get back, honey, I promise. Be good, okay? Don’t let Saul’s existential stuff get to you. That’s just who he is.”
“I know that, Mom.”
“Who he was, I should say. Bye, sweetie.”
Jill squeezed her eyes shut. “Bye.”
Jill kept walking until, phone in hand, she had a sudden attack of esprit de l’escalier and dialed Likey’s office phone. She’d meant to leave a scalding voicemail, but he picked up. He must’ve galloped back to the office.
“Likey.” She made her voice crisp. “Per our earlier discussion, I just want to point out that human names do mean something. Like my friend Paz Jiménez — you met her — well, her name, her first name? It means peace in Spanish.“
There was a pause, during which Jill’s righteous fury ebbed, undermined by the slightness of her point.
Likey’s voice came through — muted, scratchy. “And your friend — she’s a peaceful person, I take it?”
Jill thought about Paz: hard-drinking, stage-diving, multi-tattooed Paz. Paz, whose current purpose in life was gaining possession — for the purpose of destroying it live on her Snapchat — of a black-lacquered 1967 Rickenbacker bass that her ex-boyfriend had stolen from her. Paz, whose guileless brow belied a tendency to lie, to shoplift, to get into fistfights.
Paz, who’d cried herself to sleep in Jill’s arms the night she got the news that her mother, Mrs. Jiménez, had died in Colombia. Paz hadn’t spoken to her mother in years. As a former cocaine user, Mrs. Jiménez wouldn’t have been eligible for the Eternal Life program, even if Paz had the money…
“I don’t know,” said Jill, loudly because the connection seemed to be breaking up. She thought of Likey’s short list of Earth refugees and wondered how Paz’s fertility would stack up after two abortions and a miscarriage. “But listen, Likey — hello?“
She took the phone from her ear and looked at it. Call Failed.
Jill reached the Unicorns, Inc offices, then walked right past them, staring at her phone. Who could she call — on a Unicorns, Inc company phone — to discuss the unicorns’ plot to exile humanity from Earth? Realistically: no one. So, just to talk about whatever, just to talk — till she felt calmer — ?
She pulled up Amir’s number first. But how could she make small talk with Amir if he knew about the unicorns’ plans? She felt equally unprepared for the possibility that he didn’t know: should Jill tell him? Would that ruin Likey’s secret human-rescue plan? Not that she cared about getting Likey in trouble at this point — but what if Likey was humanity’s only hope?
She scrolled through her contacts to Paz’s name. As she moved her finger to press Call, her phone rang.
She barely glanced to see who was calling. The screen showed: Saul Stiefel.
“Wh-What? Hello? Dad?” She jerked the phone to her ear. Her right hand, still mittened, slipped on the phone’s hard surface and the phone dropped — clattering, skittering — to the sidewalk.
Scrambling to pick it up, she bumped head-first into something hard and unyielding and… furry.
“Jill?” said a disapproving unicorn voice.
Shit. She knew before she looked up. The voice belonged to her supervisor, a tall, blue-ish female named Frowny.
She straightened up. “Frowny! Hi! Likey and I were just taking one of our strategy-session-slash-walks and –“ Her voice trailed off; where was she going with this?
Frowny, perhaps unsurprisingly, frowned at Jill. “Likey? He’s back in the office, Jill. Working hard. Did you finish those dubs yet?”
Jill swallowed. “By tomorrow lunch, I swear.”
Frowny snorted and cantered off uptown. Jill watched her go before bending over to locate her phone.
It had fallen in the gutter, which was mercifully dry: it hadn’t rained in weeks. An ugly crack marred the screen, but she could still make out the alert. Missed Call: Saul Stiefel. Jill turned back toward the office, stabbing at the screen with useless mittened hands.
In the lobby she hit Call Back.
“Hello, you’ve reached Saul Stiefel. I must be away from my phone. Please leave me a message and I’ll get back to you the minute I can.”
She dialed Eternal Life.
“Hello, Eternal Life, this is Cindy, how may I help?”
“Hi, I just have a question –“
“Are you a current client?”
“Yes — well no. My father, Saul Stiefel? He’s in the Post-Life program with an active Revival Option, and I just got a phone call from him.”
Long pause. “You got a call from a Post-Life Resident in our program? From this number?”
“No, from his cell.”
“Can you hold please?” The receptionist quit the line and a moment later, Jill found herself speaking to the Director of the Eternal Life program, an elegant gray-haired lady named Dr. Chandler Goodman, whom Jill had met only once, during the enrollment ceremony.
“What you’re describing simply couldn’t have occurred,” Dr. Goodman informed Jill. ”Our Residents don’t have access to their cell phones, and even if they did, they aren’t permitted to make outgoing calls. During visiting hours they’re available, but aside from those times, they’re undergoing preparation for Revival.”
“That’s what I thought, but–“
“Forgive me for being blunt, but I think someone might have been playing a prank on you.”
Jill started to protest. If she could just explain what had happened in detail, she could make this woman understand. Then, recalling Dr. Goodman’s impenetrable smile, she thought better of it.
“Okay. I see. Thank you.” Jill hung up.
Likey wasn’t at his desk; Frowny wasn’t either. It was too early to go home; what if Frowny came back and found Jill gone for the second time that day? Jill slunk back to her workstation, feeling conspicuous. She fiddled with her current projects, deleted some random files.
Her email alert chimed. It was from the Eternal Life Central Office, and the subject line read:
“Effective Immediately: All Accounts Terminated.”
“Terminated?” said Jill, aloud. She clicked on the email, but the text wouldn’t load. Reading the subject line over and over, she grabbed her phone and dialed the main Eternal Life number.
“We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected.”
“Disconnected? I was just there! Everything was fine!” Fine: what did that even mean?
She tried opening another window in her browser, but this time she got: This program is not responding. Do you want to send a diagnostic report?
Fuming, she grabbed her bag, pulled on her coat, and headed for the stairwell.
It was twenty degrees warmer outside, and it seemed to grow hotter as Jill walked. “It’s January! This is crazy!” she cried, to no one in particular; but an elderly couple walking past her on the sidewalk widened their eyes and mimed identical gestures of emphatic agreement.
Feeling obscurely comforted by this brief connection, she pulled off her mittens, hat and scarf and shoved them in her bag. The Columbus Avenue bus wasn’t running, and after walking a few blocks she saw why. At Eighty-Sixth Street, the asphalt vanished under a wide swath of meadow grasses, studded with blooming spring flowers. Passersby stared as a family of deer meandered past, tails flicking nervously.
“I think it’s pretty,” one woman said. She clutched a bulky black winter coat in her arms, balancing it awkwardly, wiping sweat from her forehead with her wrists.
“But look at that,” said another woman, pointing. Jill looked, too: Three unicorns aimed white laser-like rays from their horns at a traffic light, which disintegrated, followed by the wires that led to it, and then the poles that held it. A small crowd gathered to watch as the unicorns did the same to a magazine kiosk, a fireplug, and two parked cars.
A guy in a Mets T-shirt and jeans stood staring; began to hyperventilate; lost consciousness and fell to the sidewalk. People tried to call 911 on their cell phones, but no one had service. The Mets T-shirt guy woke up and began to cry. The busy unicorns politely ignored them.
Jill shuddered and walked on.
She stopped at Hampton Chutney for takeout, trying her email on her iPhone while she waited for her order. No connection.
“This sucks,” she told the man at the counter. He glanced from side to side, then leaned forward, a wary look in his eye.
“Could be worse,” he said.
Amir was waiting on the stoop of her building, his jacket and tie crumpled beside him, his shirt open at the collar. Not for the first time, Jill admired him: his dark eyes, the dense stubble darkening the angle of his jaw, the strong, masculine line of his brow. She pushed it all aside: Yes, he was beautiful, but it would never work out. They came from different backgrounds. His family didn’t like Jill (no matter how much hers liked him). He was smarter, more successful, more attractive.
Besides, now the world was ending; all of humanity would suffer death by unicorn. No relationship could survive that.
He glanced up as she approached; he looked tired and angry, possibly hungover. “Jill,” he said, getting to his feet. “Have I got a story for you. These fucking unicorns — what’s wrong?“
Jill covered her face with her hand, then uncovered it and smiled at him. “Look… I’ve got dosas and chutney, okay? Can it wait till we get inside?”
“I’ve got Lambrusco,” Amir said. His tone was wary, like the man’s at Hampton Chutney had been, but he held up the bottle, which looked enticingly cool.
“Random,” said Jill, raising an eyebrow.
“They were out of everything else. At least it’s chilled.”
Sweating, they trooped up the stairs to Jill’s tiny-fifth floor walkup. The miniature kitchen was designed for one person; they could do nothing without brushing against each other. Amir put the sweating bottle of Lambrusco on the counter, and Jill popped the cork, knowing he wouldn’t: he hated loud, sudden noises. She fought a sudden wave of anxious sadness for the comfortable rituals of their friendship that would soon be behind her: Other systems. Humans are out.
She should bring it up: but when? How?
She poured without spilling a drop, then turned to him, glasses in hand.
“Ready for my unicorn story?” he said. She’d forgotten that he’d said he had a story; she nodded, and he shoved a sheaf of papers at her. “Take a look at this.”
Jill took a sip, set down her glass, and picked up the papers.
“Evacuation Plan,” she read aloud, and flipped the page. “Breeding Pairs.” She looked up at him, eyes wide. “Where’d you get this?”
“Likey.” He unwrapped the dosas, pried the lids off the chutneys. “He went home early — sick as a dog. Found it on his desk. Jill…” He paused until she looked at him again. “The unicorns… I think they might be evil.”
“What makes you say that?”
“A million things. I mean, for starters, look who they paired me with. The two Persian girls in the office!”
Jill blinked at him. “That’s –”
“Kind of reductive, isn’t it? I don’t want to say racist, that’s such a loaded word. And look who you got.”
Frowning, Jill scanned until she found her name. “Kurt Muller? Ugh!”
“I guess they think you’re German or something? I mean, no offense if you are.”
Jill waved her hand vaguely. “Somewhere in there, but –”
“They went by the names. Like, fuck nuance, right? Fuck complexity. Even setting aside the whole rid-Earth-of-humans scheme, the unicorns fucking suck. Notice every guy gets two girls? Not only are they racist and simplistic and annoying, they’re sexist pigs!”
Amir was a total feminist; it was one of the things she’d always liked about him. Jill laughed: then the first half of his sentence hit her.
“So wait a second. You knew. The rid-Earth-of-humans scheme…you knew.”
He nodded, and his brows lowered: dark, elegant brows, like the wings of a moth. Jill sighed, and crossed close to him to pick up her glass. She wanted to kiss him, but instead for no reason at all she started laughing. Hard.
“Don’t laugh,” he said. He took a long sip of wine, then swallowed, his face set and stern. “You saw what it’s like out there. How long till they vaporize this building?”
“I can laugh if I want to.” Gasping for breath between laughs, Jill reached around him for the bottle, refilled his glass, took a big sip from hers, and hiccupped. Don’t start crying, she told herself. “The world is ending.”
“We don’t know that,” he said. “Besides, we’re not as dumb as they think we are.”
She looked up into his dark eyes. Just kiss him, she thought. It’s the end of everything, so what does it matter? Then the buzzer for the downstairs door sounded, and they both jumped. A heartbeat passed before Amir crossed to it.
“Hello? Hello? You should get this thing fixed,” he said to Jill, stabbing at the buttons.
“It works a lot better if you don’t press the ‘listen’ button when you talk and the ‘talk’ button when you want to listen, which is what you always do.” She crossed to it and pressed the right button, and they waited for the sound of footsteps. Soon there came a soft knock and a voice outside the door.
Jill and Amir stared at each other, eyes wide.
“It couldn’t be!” said Jill. She fumbled her empty wineglass down onto the counter and yanked open the door.
In the musty, carpeted hall stood Saul Stiefel, looking considerably less ghostly than the last time she’d seen him.
“I tried to call you, sweetheart, but your phone’s not working–“ He broke off as Jill threw her arms around his neck, nearly knocking him down. “I think Amir is about to faint.”
Turning, Jill saw that this assessment was accurate. “Oh shit!” Together they guided Amir to the big brown leather armchair.
“Get him a glass of water,” said Saul. Jill did.
“Mr. Stiefel?” sputtered Amir, regaining consciousness. “You look fantastic.” He got to his feet and came closer, staring at Saul. Jill stared too.
It was true: Saul Stiefel looked fantastic. He wasn’t just alive: he was young.
Jill touched his shoulder. He’s real, she thought.
“What the hell happened to you, Dad?”
Saul shook his head. “Honey, I have no idea. I’d still swear that place is a scam–“
“How can you say that? Look at you!” She shoved him over to the full-length mirror on the closet door.
Saul looked. He ran his hands through his hair, patted his pockets, half-turned as if to check the fit of his jacket.
“Eternal life,” he murmured. “I don’t know, Jill. I have a bad feeling about this.”
Jill frowned. “Maybe you’re right. Even if they did just resurrect everybody, there was a whole plan.”
“What do you mean, a plan?”
She shrugged, spread her hands. “It’s in the brochure. They’re supposed to contact family members and release you to our care — not just close the place down and turn you all out into the street.”
“Maybe they contacted your mother?”
“She’s on a flight to LA,” said Jill, and then grabbed her father’s arm in sudden panic. “Oh my God. Do you think she’s okay? It’s like Random Fairy Wonderland out there. I’m not sure taxicabs and airports even exist anymore!”
“They’re dismantling the infrastructure,” said Amir, and exhaled a long, shaky breath. “This is how it starts. Jill, you were right. The world is ending.”
Jill patted his shoulder, then steered him back to the brown leather armchair and put his wineglass in his hand.
Just then the buzzer rang again. Jill stalked over to it. “YES?” she said loudly; then, to Amir: “See? You just press TALK, and then you talk, and then you press LISTEN–“
“It’s me,” said a voice. “Jill? It’s Likey. Can I come up?”
For the second time that afternoon, Jill and Amir stared at each other. “Oh, why the fuck not!” Jill muttered, and buzzed Likey in.
There was nowhere for him to sit, so Likey knelt in the middle of Jill’s thrift-store Persian carpet, looking like something out of a Flemish tapestry. Jill knelt beside him, stroking his neck, as she’d often longed to do. It was hard to tell, but she thought his face looked sad.
“We’re leaving,” he said, “and I don’t have much time. I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Superbugs, you call them. Bacteria, viruses — a million times more virulent than what was here before. We’re all sick. Everything’s blooming so early — global warming. All unicorns have a pollen allergy, not a big problem typically, but the combination of bacteria and pollutants in the atmosphere and our own autoimmune response… we just aren’t adapted for this. This climate has become inhospitable.” He looked at her sadly. “Your planet is no longer suitable for unicorns.”
Jill’s mouth fell open. “But — all your plans. Everything you built. All the changes you made — what will happen?”
Likey lowered his head and coughed into the crook of his foreleg. “Anything we destroyed stays gone. Everything we built disappears. That’s the way it always works. Now I’ve got to go.”
He got to his feet and staggered to the door, then turned. “And Jill? The simulation of your Dad — I’m sorry about that. When they dismantled that Eternal Life place, I made that for you, using their data. I thought it would bring you comfort in exile, but… that’s all over now.”
He turned away. The door slammed behind him, and he was gone. With a start, Jill realized that Saul was gone too.
Amir was watching her; he got up out of the armchair and guided Jill into it in his stead.
“You okay?” he said, his voice gentle, a deep furrow of concern between his beautiful brows. Dazed, Jill nodded.
“I will be,” she said.
Amir sipped his wine. “What did I tell you? Evil.”
“So evil,” she murmured. “Kiss me,” she added, leaning up toward him, and he did.
BIO: A versatile and prolific writer, Lara Kristin Herndon has written about art, architecture, and design for various publications since 1995. Her byline has appeared in Reader’s Digest, O the Oprah Magazine, Entrepreneur, Wired, Metropolis, Think, Stop Smiling, Paste, Art Papers, Architecture Boston, and many other publications. She is a frequent contributor to the album-cover blog Cover Our Tracks, and her writing has been featured on BuzzFeed, The Little Blue Marble, and Common Edge Collaborative. Her essay “Personal Growth” was featured in O’s Little Book of Happiness, alongside such notable contributors as Elizabeth Gilbert, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brené Brown, Jane Smiley, and Roxane Gay.
Ms. Herndon has a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from Emory University. She studied fiction writing at The New School and graphic design and illustration at the School of Visual Arts, and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise program for writers of speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Silver Blade magazine, on The WiFiles, and in the anthology Abandoned Places, published by Shohola Press. She is represented by the Emma Sweeney Agency.