The world ends in silence.
I’m sitting by my window. The east of the city is burning, crimson and yellow against the night sky. The silhouettes of buildings are like giants gathered to watch the conflagration. There is a hint of char in the air.
There’s no one on the streets below, or at least, I don’t think there is anyone. It’s hard to tell in the darkness. The streetlights are all long dead and it is as if my building rises from a black sea. In any case, it is silent. No sound of footsteps, no swish of cars, no susurrus of a thousand wandering voices. Nothing but the inaudible settling of feather-soft ash, drifting down from the sky as slowly as a body sinking to the bottom of the sea.
I don’t know who I’m writing this for.
I don’t remember how it started. I only remember when I noticed it, when Salim went missing. We gathered every Saturday as usual, a pack of foreigners basking in the glitter of the city. The dazzling storey-high kanji and the pineapple haircuts. To laugh and be laughed at. He had said he was coming but he was not there. We did not wait long, for he was prone to such disappearing acts, and none of us knew where he lived.
Then a week later, Preethi calls me.
“Hey, do you know where Salim lives?”
“No one’s seen him in a week.”
“No one’s seen him in a week. No one.”
“He hasn’t been into work?”
“No. They asked me today.”
He lives in a tiny building, pre-earthquake ordinance, three stops out of town. Where the countryside creeps up to the city as furtive as a fox. Old people squatting on their haunches and smoking in thick inhalations and watching us with eyes barely visible beneath rolls of velvet-soft skin. We clamber up the stairs linked by an inexplicable urgency, sweltering and assaulted by a cacophony of cicadas. We bang on his door a while, the thin metal shuddering under our palms.
“Where the Hell is he?”
“Should we call the police?”
Preethi chews on her nails.
“Let’s give it another day. You have his FB, right?”
“Let’s message his friends.”
I don’t remember much of what happens next, but I remember her getting off the train. The little dark patches under her armpits. The fluorescent light on her mahogany skin. That last glance she gives me as the train pulls away, over her shoulder, half-sad. As if she knows what’s coming.
When revelation came it came hard and fast and with no warning. A pilot disappearing on a plane, caught on camera. One moment he is there, the next moment he is gone. No body in his clothes. His sunglasses lying on the chair. The camera veers away and all you can hear is screams. Then thuds and jolts and someone crying. Then the newsreader, brow furrowed, a little white flower on his lapel. I don’t remember why he is wearing a flower. Some memorial day, maybe. Irrelevant now. There is no one left to remember but me.
I thought there would be anarchy. That’s the way it is in stories. Perhaps on some level we wish that this is the way the world would end, with one last chance for heroism. A world which brings out the best of us before it ends. But this is not how it happens. There is panic for a few days. Planes are grounded. Subways begin to flood. Looting, of course. Before the electricity goes out, when I still had the Internet, there were people ranting about aliens and conspiracies. People who swore that those who disappeared did so in flash of light to the sound of an angelic choir. People desperate to make a story out of what was happening.
But there is no story.
The first mass disappearance is a prison. No bodies; just rotting food and empty clothes. People scour the building for details, and they disappear too. Lovers wake up alone and women wail by empty cribs.
I watch it all and I think, I need some bourbon.
I get to my favourite bar, but it is closed. There is a porcelain dog outside, a waist-height St. Bernard, wide-muzzled and happy. It knows nothing of what is happening and it is happy and it is nice, I think, to see something smiling after so long. I pet it on the head and sit down. A warm rain descends and there is nothing refreshing or cleansing about it. A guy rushes past, still in his suit, dripping wet. He stops and stares at me for a moment and says, “Why are you sitting there?”
“Why are you running in the rain?”
He points down the street. “The supermarket down the road. It’s open. I want to grab some stuff before it all goes missing.” He peers at me. ‘Come with me.”
There is nothing else to do so I get up and we trot along the wet tarmac, our feet slap-slapping on the ground, moisture and fragments getting into my flip flops and between my toes. We finally make it to the supermarket and I am soaked in sweat-mingled rain and the front door is slightly ajar. It is dimly lit and inside is an old woman who freezes when she sees us and watches us with big eyes and clutches a little bag of tomatoes and radishes to her chest.
I turn to speak to the man, but he is gone.
I stay in bed awhile, and I am miserable. I tell myself that this too will pass, but this is the problem with such truths: they are truths that too often feel like lies.
Sometimes I cry.
Eventually I make it out to the balcony with my binoculars. There used to be a few people left around. A woman who kept flowers on her balcony two or three buildings down. But her door has been open wide for two weeks now and the plants are beginning to wilt and there is paper flapping out of her room like escaping pigeons. There was also the man with the white flag, but I will tell you of him later. There is no one else these days.
After a while I go back inside and I eat something. Cold, from a can. Sometimes I find a box of dry pasta. On days like that I make the effort to take out the gas burner and sit on the balcony and enjoy the wet bite of the stuff between my teeth. I think of how much I hated it back before. Then I think of how my worries from back then were so trivial. Those times when loneliness was as heavy as the fog on me. When all I could foresee was myself growing old and more alone until I was decrepit and pitiful and all chance for love had had faded like the last shimmer of the a sun long sunk beyond the horizon.
I read for the rest of the day. Here is something you may not know – when the end of the world comes, no one will ransack the bookshops. At first that made me sad but now I have unlimited Dostoyevsky and Kafka and McCarthy and Asimov. On good days, when the temperature is just right and I have something to munch on, I am away for a few hours, until the sun begins to set and I have to light candles.
I lie in the dark for a long time. I feel sorry for myself a lot.
There is one other thing I do: I go downstairs to see Setsuko every other day. Her door is never locked. I think even before, when there were things to be afraid of – people – she never locked it. She is never surprised to see me, even on those occasions when she is asleep when I arrive and wakes to find me by her bed or emptying her chamber pot or depositing a couple of cans of whatever in her cupboard. She always picks up her conversation right where she left it off the last time.
“He wasn’t cruel to me,” she says this time.
I have to think for a moment to remember what she is talking about and she waits until I nod and pull up a stool and take her wrinkled old hand in mine.
“You never left him, though,” I venture.
“Oh I did. I was too good for that. I was beautiful. Men wanted me. I married someone else.”
She grins and her teeth are yellow rimmed with black. She wears lipstick all the time and pearls and when it is hot they are glossy with her aged sweat. She shakes her head and snuggles deeper into her bed and sighs.
“You still miss her,” she says.
I nod. “I do.”
“You’ll always miss her.”
“Until I disappear, anyway.”
“Maybe you’ll miss her after that, too.”
“Maybe I won’t be able to think or feel anything after that.”
She shakes her head, and doesn’t say anything.
It wasn’t long after the sixth wave of vanishings that I stumbled across the last desperate partiers who became my universe. Back then it was almost fun, having the run of the world. To be able to smash windows – after the power went out there were no more alarms – and take what you pleased. To transgress without consequence. Piss on police cars and feed stray dogs. By the time I find the bar I haven’t seen so many people in one place for weeks. I feel the tap-tap-tap of bass through the walls. It is packed with people and they turn and cheer. For a few moments I think I am hallucinating, but then I smell the sweat and the smoke and know it must be real.
“I’ve never seen you before!” says the man behind the bar. He is too large for the waistcoat he is wearing and he speaks in bursts like machine gun fire. He points the shelf behind him, still crammed with colourful bottles. “Take whatever you want.”
“I don’t have any cash right now.”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s the end of the world, man. No one uses cash anymore.”
There are others in those smoky depths, that world of shadow and neon. A man alone at a table. He smokes and stares at his ashtray and then at the tip of his cigarette. He is crying. In the next cubicle, a clutch of bros in hats, sweat glistening on their naked arms, their hair spiked and glossy.
In the cubicle beyond that is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
She is sitting with two men and another woman, laughing. Her head tilted back, hair the colour of golden syrup, hoop earrings and green lipstick. She looks as if she is meant to be there and is there absolutely. I cannot remember what the men look like or who they were. So diminished are they in her presence that in my memory they are as gauzy as ghosts and empty as silhouettes.
I do not remember when she comes up to me to talk, but she does. She sits next to me and looks at me as if we were old friends who had agreed to meet there and then and that we both knew what the other knew and there was no need to talk of anything else.
“What’s it like outside?” she asks.
“Outside? Shadows and dust and the end of the world.”
She smiles at this. “Nice.”
“Your turn of phrase. It’s very nice.”
I pour some more booze into a shot glass – tequila, or vodka maybe, it doesn’t matter, they’re all out of bourbon – and down it. She takes the bottle and chugs directly from it and hands it back to me. A little smear of lipstick on the rim. A little rivulet of the stuff trickling over her lip and onto her chin. I realise she is drunk.
“I’m not that drunk,” she says, and pats her face gently with a tissue. “It’s the end of the world, right?”
“So what’re you doing about it?”
She isn’t looking at me. She is looking everywhere in the room but at me. I do not know this then later I learn that that is how you knew she was listening: when she was looking at everything in the room but you.
She takes the bottle out of my hands and takes another solid chug and shudders. Then she smacks it down on the counter and the bartender looks up at her for a moment and a crystal spurt of the stuff splashes onto the wood and shatters into little glistening blobs. She reaches into her pocket and tosses some keys to the barkeep and says, “Lock up afterwards, I’m not coming back.” Then she launches herself off the barstool. The swish swish of her hair on her bomber jacket. She disappears into the back and for a moment the bar is completely silent. When she returns she comes straight to me holding a backpack and a pistol and hands the pistol to me.
“Can you shoot?”
“Come on, then.”
“Where’re we going?”
“To find reinforcements.”
She winks, and walks out. Of course, I follow. I still have the pistol. I keep it next to my bed. I have two bullets left.
Setsuko is up and about when I arrive and acknowledges my arrival with rickety bow. I bow back and step around her and start doing the dishes in her sink. She sits down at the table by the window and stares out over the city.
“Cigarette?” she says after a while.
I put one in her mouth and it fidgets like a twig in the breeze. I light it and put an empty can on the table in front of her and return to the dishes.
“You never got married, did you?” she says.
“I’m not sure.”
“You never wanted to?”
“I did. Very much.”
“So why didn’t you have a, whatsit, arranged marriage?”
I don’t know the answer to this, so I swipe a sudsy hand across the porcelain and listen to the squeaking and the patter of the water and say nothing. Nor does Setsuko. She has done this before, wait out my reticence with reptile patience. Eventually I am down to the last plate and say, “I think I always wanted to find someone who liked me back.”
“Liked you back?”
“Wanted to be with me the same way I wanted to be with them.”
“Yes, but if it was an arranged marriage, wouldn’t it have been the same to you both?”
“But what does that even mean? What’re we married for?”
“What’s anyone married for?”
She laughs at this and the laugh becomes a coughing fit. Then an aerosol spray of blood on the table. Her chest cracks with every heave. I give her a glass of water and wipe the table top and pluck the cigarette from her hand.
“You shouldn’t be smoking.”
She wheezes for a bit and grabs the rag off me and wipes the blood off the corner of her mouth.
“I suppose not. Don’t want to die before I disappear.”
“Of course not. What if I miss out?”
“Miss out on what?”
She waves one hand in the air. “On whatever’s afterwards. Heaven. Where everyone else went.”
“What if it’s not Heaven?’
She is very still for a while and keeps facing the window and I cannot tell if she has drifted off to sleep or maybe died. But I can still hear her clattering breath and after a few moments I realise she is crying.
“Heaven is other people,” she says after a while.
“I thought Hell was other people.”
“Other people are everything,” she says. And then, after a few moments: “I was married once.”
“Just once. He was a nice guy. A good friend.”
“I didn’t love him.”
“So why did you marry him?”
“Because he was a good man.”
“But you didn’t love him.”
“No. So I left.”
“If you didn’t love him, it was probably the best thing for both of you.”
“It wasn’t. For either of us. He hated me after that. Couldn’t even look me in the eye. And then he died. I think he killed himself but none of his family would speak to me. I always thought it was because I kept his grandmother’s jewellery but sometimes I think he killed himself and they blamed me.”
“I’m sorry, Setsuko.”
“No point in being sorry.”
“But if you didn’t love him.”
“It doesn’t matter if I didn’t love him. He was good for me. He made me happy. There’s no such thing as love, only evidence of love, and what better proof of love is there than a happy life together?”
“But could you have had one without loving him?”
“I did.” And then she sighs and wraps her arms around her shoulders and says, “Ah, me. To be left here after everyone’s gone with nothing but regrets.”
I don’t know what to say to that so I put my hands on her shoulders and together we watch the city burn.
Her name was Althea, but I never called her that. And she never called me by my name. We always had something else to call each other. Stupid things, like Pistorella and Butthunter.
We wander the city, just the two of us. She is always overdressed and by the end of the day her clothes are usually destroyed. The bomber jacket scarred by the jagged edge of chain link fence and mud stains on her shoes. But the next day she always has something new. Sometimes I think it is her and her alone who has smashed the windows of every clothes shop I see. When I ask her she denies this and says “I just like clothes.”
Of course I fall in love with her. This one incandescent bud of life in a city haunted by lives unfinished. She does not seem to question what has happened or regret it at all. She sees opportunity where I see only the past. She is always armed and determined and I am dragged along in her wake and cannot stand to be elsewhere.
Actually, that is not true. She weeps when we see corpses. At first I think it is all bodies but it is always the bodies of women that set her going. She will not let me touch her when she is sobbing and walks away and crouches and spends some time wiping the tears from her eyes and looking up and down the facades of the buildings opposite. Then she pulls her makeup set out of her bag and does her face and her hair and finally she turns to me in a great reveal, grinning fondly as if it were all a test and I had failed but she was going to pass me nonetheless. We never talk about these moments and they never seem to last long. Always she thumps me on the shoulder afterwards, as if I were the one upset, and says “Come on, Loser, let’s go adventuring.”
One day we are in my flat, standing on the balcony, and I show her my binoculars. She chuckles and immediately begins to scan the surroundings.
“There’s so many people left!”
“What? I only ever see four or five.”
“That’s four or five people we don’t know.”
“Not that many, though.”
“That’s a lot of Unvanished.”
She turns to me and the sun is on the left of her face and twinkling between her hair and her cheek is a long earring like a windchime, a fantasy of lapis and gossamer metalwork whipped into insectoid poetry.
“Unvanished,” she says, and pokes me in the chest. “You.” She pokes herself. “And me.”
“I didn’t realise there was a word for it.”
“There’s a word for everything. People just haven’t found them all yet.”
I smoke and watch her scanning our surroundings and suddenly she turns to me and goes, “Somebody needs our help.”
I look through the binoculars and there is a man in a building four or five blocks away. He is standing on the balcony holding his stomach and waving a white flag. He knows we are looking at him, it seems, because he waves more furiously and then drops the flag and leans over his balcony and retches. The vomit and the flag spiral down to ground level in unison, and the instant they hit it they become one with the detritus now migrating in herds over the asphalt.
“Come on,” she says, and heads for the door.
She is wearing bright red canvas shoes and a little tennis outfit and a black cardigan and is faster than me. We find the building and ascend the stairs. There is someone dead at the bottom of the stairwell, in the basement. I catch a glimpse of black trousers and a congealed mass of blackening blood. Althea goes on ahead.
When I catch up with her she is already in the apartment and the man is lying on the floor clutching his stomach and sobbing. His hands are bloody. He is clutching her ankle and she is staring down at him and silhouetted against the vista of the city beyond, the pistol in her hands, a brief vision of true apocalypse.
“Oh, God,” says the man. ‘Thank God.”
“Let me see,” she says.
He takes his hands away and there is a horrific wound in his belly. The mess of glossy and tangled reds and blacks. It smells rotten and glistens and leaks. She sniffs and crouches down beside him and takes a good hard look and then looks at me. I do not want to but I get close too and feel the thick stench of it in my nostrils and I know that this man is going to die.
“That’s bad,” I say.
“No shit,” hisses the man.
“Dog.” He gasps and retches again. “Kill me.”
“Kill me. Kill me.”
She and I look at each other and in an instant I know she has decided that she will.
“Outside,” I say.
“Don’t leave, you bastards,” the man says.
“We’re coming back,” she says, closing the apartment door behind her.
In the stairwell it is pitch dark and I can hear her and smell her but she could just have been a voice in my head. And then suddenly I feel her hand on mine and she interlaces our fingers and her lips are so close to my ear that I can feel them brushing against my skin.
“We’ve got no choice,” she whispers.
“I know,” I say.
“We can’t leave him like that.”
“I’m not sure I can kill a man in cold blood.”
We go back inside and the man sees us and he begins to cry again. She crouches down beside him and says, “What’s your name?”
“What does it matter?”
“Don’t you want anyone to remember you when you’re gone?”
“You’ll all be gone. Soon enough.”
“You sure? You don’t want to wait to vanish?”
“To hell with that. I’m not going to no Limbo. If I’m going to Hell I want to go and get it over with.”
“Well it isn’t Heaven, for sure. If it’s Heaven, how come all the bad people get to go to?”
She stands up and says, “Alright, but I’m not doing it here.”
We help him into bed and I offer him a cigarette and he smokes it and asks for another one. When he is done with that he leans back and closes his eyes and says “I’m ready.” A skinny man in a dirty bed. His face smeared with grime and sporadic stubble ringing his balding pate. He is shaking gently.
She looks at me and says, “You don’t have to be here.”
“I don’t mind.”
She stands up and points the gun straight at the man’s forehead. The muzzle matte-black and vicious. She releases the safety with a click and the man spasms and opens his eyes.
“My name’s Tatsuo,” says the man. “Nakajima Tatsuo.”
“Good luck, Nakajima Tatsuo.”
Afterwards we go back to her bar and it is locked. I am crying but she is not. She opens it and goes inside and takes a bottle of something down from the shelf and we both drink until we can no longer stand. We lie on the floor and she curls up in front of me and takes my arm and puts it around her. In the instant before I sleep all I want from her is for her to love me as she has never loved anyone before and it does not seem to be so much to ask.
Setsuko is dead.
This morning I wake up earlier than usual. Or maybe I just think so because of this pall in the sky. An undulating sheet of seething grey cloud rippling with wind – cutting wind, from high above. The fire across town has raged for a week now. It shows no sign of coming close, but blankets my neighbourhood instead in ash, dank and soft to the touch. Like snow somehow gone rotten.
I go down to see Setsuko. Perhaps I feel sorrier for her than usual, after our last conversation. No, this is not true. I am feeling sorrier for myself than usual. I dreamt of Althea last night. I dreamt of a moment that never was and a feeling that was never felt. I woke up and for a few moments I thought perhaps it was all real. But soon I realised it wasn’t and needed human company.
Setsuko is lying on the floor in the kitchen when I walk in. Her loose-skinned legs with their varicose veins, like rivers seen from space, akimbo.
I empty her flat out, bit by bit. I take anything of use, and then I carry her over to her bed. It is filthy, so I clean it out. I think of dressing her in something nice, but I do not want to take her clothes off. She is heavy in death and my back hurts. She still smells of herself, of lavender and tobacco and the sickly sweetness of age. I cover her up to her armpits in a duvet and put her hands on top and take her diary with its little metal clasp and its pictures of swallows chasing one another in creamy blue silhouettes on the cover. I put it on her chest and put her hands over it and take one last look at her face.
I don’t feel anything for her. My thoughts are ceaselessly of myself. Of the silence that I will now have to endure. Of how I am the last person I know. That is when I start crying and I do not stop for a long time. Not until the day has already begun to darken and I am forced back up to my room and into my bed, with nothing but the flickering light of the distant inferno on my ceiling for company.
I do not see Althea again for a long while. That is not true. When I do she is with someone else. Another man. The first time they are sitting on a wall and sharing a cigarette. The man in wearing cargo pants and has cropped hair and big black rings inserted in his earlobes. She touches his chest and laughs and she plays with her hair.
I go to the bar alone that night and there are only three people there. One of them is the woman with Althea that first night I met her. I go over and take a shot from the bottle of whiskey she is nursing.
‘So she dumped you, huh?’ she says.
‘Althea.’ She points at my cigarettes. ‘Can I have one?’
She lights and she inhales and coughs up a spray of smoke and spit that billows over the table and onto my face.
‘You don’t smoke.’
‘Good a time as any to start.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘No, not really.’
We get drunk and she comes back to my flat with me and inside casts her eyes around my living room as if she is not familiar with the kind of thing she is looking at. I go to the windows and draw the curtains. When I turn around her tights are lying on the floor next to her a bag and she is watching me.
‘Why did you do that?’ she asks.
‘People might see.’
I open the curtains again. Now she is in her underwear. Little sheer black panties. A corset top, wrinkled, one of the hooks bent out of shape.
‘Gimme a dollar,’ she says.
She just stands there, diminutive and wide-eyed, naked feet pale against the wood of my floor. It is not cold but she wraps her arms around herself. I reach for my wallet.
‘Why do you do this?’ I ask.
I don’t have a dollar but I have ten. I give it to her and she flicks it onto the floor by her bag.
‘What else is there to do?’ she asks.
Her movements are gentle and methodical and her skinny legs smooth and cool against mine. When we are near finished she leans in sighs and grazes my nipple with her lips. It is only afterwards that I notice the scar on her belly. I want to reach out and touch it, to say I’m sorry, but I don’t. I lie there and have a cigarette and listen to the listless wind meandering through the streets.
Afterwards we stand in the living room, staring at each other. She looks as if she is about to say something but she doesn’t. When I walk her to the door she looks at me and says, ‘So, if you wanted to again, later…’
When I close the door she is still standing there, those mournful eyes in that overthin face, clutching her bag as if it were a baby.
I never see her again.
I finally meet Althea’s new man a few days later. He eyes me with disinterest and pumps my hand twice, viciously, when I offer to shake his. His other arm is around Althea’s waist and she is pressed close to him. The curve of her breasts against his chest. Her hair spilling over his shoulder like luxurious fabric.
“Bet you wish you’d done something else now, right, Professor?” he says to me.
“Philosophy. What the fuck good is it now, right?”
I shrug. “Helps me cope.”
She laughs at this and thumps him on the chest and says, “See? I told you he was funny.”
They head off without telling me where they are going. I wander the streets a while. Two little dogs follow me, yapping and whining, and I smash the window of a shop and grab two cans of dog food and start smacking them with a concrete block. I smack them for a long time and so hard that the stewy meat splatters against the paving stones and over my trousers like roadkill.
Late in the evening, in the glimmering infernal night, Althea bangs on my door. I open it and cannot see what she looks like, but she rushes past me wordlessly and out onto the balcony and stays there smoking. I light a few candles and step outside and she is crying. I reach out to wrap my arms around her and then I hesitate and stand there beside her instead, watching her spent butts spiralling down to the darkened street like glowing orange buds falling off a tree.
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” I ask.
“No.” Her face is wet with tears. “I’d’ve ripped his balls off.”
I wait a moment, but before I can ask, she says, “I didn’t kill him.”
“Do you want something to eat?”
She nods. I go inside and use the gas burner to warm up some soup and put it steaming into a mug and take it out to her. She leans against the railings and watches the city as she sips.
“Do you think there’s anyone else out there?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where the fuck did they all go?”
“I don’t know.”
“At least you’re here. Don’t know how I’d cope without you.”
When she has finished she comes over to me and hugs me and rests her head against my shoulder and we stand like that a while watching the empty city and the hollow buildings and the wind harassing shreds of cloth and paper and ash over the rooftops. The fire seems to be burning itself out slowly but it is still spectacular. I realise that between us and it and obscured by the flames is the river, and that as long as it does not jump, my part of town will be safe.
She kisses me gently on the cheek and says, “I love you.”
I kiss her back, on the corner of her mouth, and she sighs. I kiss her on the lips and she wraps her arms around me and works her fingers into my hair and pushes against me as if she were trying to melt into me and make us the last person on earth together. I can taste the soup and booze and tobacco in her mouth but it does not matter because it is her and she could taste of anything and still be wondrous to me. We stumble in through the door and clumsy and fervid we collapse into the bed and it is only then we slow down enough to look at each other, long enough for me to say “I love you too” and kiss her again.
That is not how it happened. I’m lying again.
This is how it happened.
She kisses me gently on the cheek and wraps her arms around me sideways and says “I love you. You’re like the brother I never had.”
I hug her back and swallow and I say, “I love you too.” But I do not mean it the way she does. After a few moments she moves away from me and shakes her head and opens her mouth to say something. The next instant she is gone. Her clothes tumbling empty to the ground, her mug shattering.
I am alone on the balcony with my own half-finished cup of soup and the starless sky.
Like I said. The world ends in silence.
BIO: Born in the UK, and raised there and in the former Soviet Union, Subodhana Wijeyeratne is currently a graduate student working on the history of rocketry in Japan.