We stopped at a church near Baker, Nevada. It stood in the back of a grassy, gravelly rectangle that used to be a parking lot. Two picket signs on the edge of the nearby highway: Jesus is King! and Souvenirs! 5 Miles! April pointed at the desecrated house of worship. It was quite old but still white, with a thin blue triangle roof and an unassuming door. Haunting, she said, as she snapped a photo on her film camera.
Admittedly I was a bit jealous of the apocalypse, its ability to hold attention. Only widespread fear and misery were potent enough to fill talk shows, betting markets, exurban cemeteries, galleries, and the ramblings of insomniacs. Let us return, then, as we do in times of grief, for the sake of pleasure but mostly for the need for relief, to art. Said the fictional cult leader.
Every year, April said, I look at the calendar and think, these numbers are too high. Or maybe too low. They’re just off, somehow. They belong in the prologue of a bad science fiction. That cell on a spreadsheet where your cursor accidentally scrolled. What did we expect, giving a year such a ridiculous name?
When I met April, it was blue hour and she was crouching on a beached tree stump, reading the waves like a foreign language. That was the third week of the disasters, or maybe the sixth. I wasn’t a local, that much was clear from my white sneakers. Although, my hotel had stopped turning the room.
The house was pyramidal. The ground formed the base, and four diagonals of wood-shingled roof met at a crisp vertex adorned with a gold lightning rod. The front façade, also wood-shingled, had no windows. She’d found it fully furnished, a few miles outside the city proper, right between the ocean and the highway, so that the brown, triangular house was the only manmade structure in a vast golden-green field, resplendent against sand cliffs and saltwater beyond. The décor was in period style: fashionably late capitalism. Herringbone, chevron, eggshell. It was comforting to have been in that house a million times before, conference rooms and airport lounges, holiday comedies and daytime whodunits, organic cafes and online banks. Through a back door identical to the front, we entered the yard, a thin peninsula jutting out into the water. It was the furthest extended landmass on the visible coastline. At the tip, a single, elderly redwood towered over a modest bench facing the ocean. We walked side-by-side on a narrow dirt path bisecting the peninsula. A light, wet wind blew, ruffling our t-shirts. I forgot that the cataclysm we’d always been promised was happening. I forgot my rule that relationships meant responsibilities, attachments, the burden of another mind, another set of fears and desires. At least, I think I did. That’s how I remember it, but you can’t know what you’re forgetting while you’re forgetting it.
Whatever seemed utterly impossible was, as a rule, actually happening. Like playing a card game and being dealt one joker after another, cards meant to be removed beforehand, set aside from the rest of the deck as a matter of procedure. We watched sports documentaries, histories of famous people’s forgotten relatives, adult cartoons. We dirtied things and then cleaned them.
Movement was our plan for salvation. We drove and drove. We found a pea-green SUV marooned in the middle of a downtown intersection, tank full of gas. Its owner must have stopped right there and walked away. We followed an instructional video on hotwiring. It was easier than expected. The internet leveled the playing field, in terms of survival skills. The servers would outlast the cockroaches.
April smoked nervously in the passenger seat and told me about her parents. Her mother had been a contented housewife until, just after her fortieth birthday, a stalker began following her as she drove around to her various appointments. The man’s face, which appeared in the rearview mirror, at the hair salon, and in the pickup line at April’s middle school, was rough like a topographical map. One day, the face appeared next to the bushes outside their living room window, but this time the body attached to it was holding a knife. Her mother called the police, testified for hours in a dark room at the police station, and sent him to prison.
Daddy suffered from a still undetermined neurological degeneration. Last she saw him, he was barely speaking but still able to understand, vaguely, what was happening around him. Near the onset of his disease, he had lost the bulk of their savings in a phishing scam. After that he put his computer in a drawer and locked it for good. In a certain way it was nice, she said, that his brain could no longer keep up with the pace of the world, because unlike most people who felt the same way, he had a concrete excuse.
When I think about death, my own, everyone’s, I feel detached even about my detachment. Like when your eyes cross and fall out of focus, but with the voice in my head, the record player falling out of the grooves. I still remember my first time. I was sitting in my father’s study, at our grand piano. It was this black, beautiful Yamaha on wheels. A baby grand. Elegant, maybe, or maybe just tacky. The fact that I would die suddenly hit me. I stopped playing – it was something memorized, mass-produced. Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell. I lost it, spiraled. I sat on the wobbly piano bench for a long time. Then I went back to playing my song, the muscles in my fingers working automatically, the foot-pedal keeping time.
The collapse was evident, but not overwhelming. Biochemical abnormalities, crypto-nuclear attacks, loose pathogens, sociohistorical cycles, storms with Christian names. Reaping, sowing. Nevertheless, people took convincing. There was chaos out there, but it hadn’t shown up on their doorsteps and rapped its knuckles. Certain personalities were more adaptable than others. Those with drastic, conspiratorial tendencies were among the first to go. All paddle, no creek. The survivors had dispositions suited to the situation. Above all, a taste for loneliness.
In school, I studied philosophy. Descartes, Hume, Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell. I admired their irrational confidence. I knew, already, how different I was from two, four, six years before. Still, I couldn’t imagine morphing into a different version of myself down the road. Now I find those dead solipsists awfully embarrassing. My new drug is speculative fiction. Sentences poignantly nagging, as if their authors had peeled back my scalp and scribbled notes on the underside. Since the world is ending // why not let the children touch the paintings?
Sleep came in enormous, indulgent quantities, or else not at all. I’d been relegated to a passive observer, able only to comment on the days’ formal features. Nonlinear narrative, temporal drift, an overarching dreamlike tonality. In bed, her skin was icy and refreshing. That feels good, we kept saying, and we yearned to feel good, to keep feeling it. I dreamt of a large pond in the middle of an enormous field. The grass caught fire in a ring around the edges, advancing inward. I saw the circle close, long-legged animals run and jump in the water, blades of wheat char and vaporize. When the flames reached the pond, I was eager to know which would consume the other, but in the end the water turned black and the fire disappeared, and I woke up.
The apocalyptic genre is obsessed with images of emptiness: vacant shopping malls, abandoned roadways, decaying airport terminals. The critic in me thinks it’s a cheap conceit, a trapdoor to uncertainty. Without people to fill them, spaces acquire a liminal tendency. In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
My favorite authors seemed to believe that the downfall of civilization would be dominated, thematically, by melancholy. But now that it was really happening, the feeling was different. Malaise was too basic, too obviously negative. I felt good, then bad for feeling good, then good for feeling bad for feeling good, then plain bad, then bad for feeling bad when I really felt good, then all of it at once.
One morning, out of the blue, April produced a plastic sheath from a hidden drawer in her bedside table, delicately removed the tabs and placed them on the bed. There were four squares, each displaying an anthropomorphized bear dancing on a lavender background. The edges were checkered and kaleidoscopic. Aren’t they pretty? she said. Are you sure this is a good idea? I said.
Before the drugs kicked in, I brushed my teeth. Looking in the mirror, I felt like my brain had painlessly dissolved without having much effect on my body. We put on sunglasses and went outside, feeling it now. The sun was a blanket against the wind. The earth was still dying, which was sad, but far less immediate than the cardinals knifing through the sky, soaring out to the horizon, oblivious. April crouched and felt the grass, giggling, then opened her arms up to the sky. We walked down to the shore and wandered the beach, passing large, majestic dogs. Strays, yelping like mad, wildly itching their matted fur, dragging putrid leashes. I had a sudden desire to help someone. I resented my fortune, my indulgence. What’s the matter? April asked, reaching for my arm. Her expression seemed to say that we were trapped with each other until the end, and it was all my fault. A bad trip, I think that’s what they call it.
The last pane of glass between us had broken. We were so near to each other, so far from everything else. April would shift irritably on the couch, sneaking furtive glances, before announcing she was leaving. I became increasingly anxious that she too could detect a certain staleness in our interactions, like we’d worn through our performed personalities and were only left with the stuff that couldn’t be stripped away. I’m so sorry, I would say, if I spilled coffee on the rug. Don’t say sorry, she’d say, I want you here. With each apology we got more scared that we’d made some big mistake. But given my position, I felt like I owed an apology to the whole world, every morning when I woke up, like a psalm.
Some people find comfort in it, I said, staring at the church. Familiarity. It’s only eerie because of what we think it stands for. I think even an alien would find everything about this place creepy, she said. And a little sad.
I suppose there was a deeper disagreement, about the sorry state of the world as merely something of interest rather than some visceral misfortune. The church was depressing, but in an interesting way, like a novelistic detail, and for me, this made it at least neutral. Later, April developed the picture herself using some old chemicals and placed it on the breakfast nook where she knew I would see it. She was right.
Micah Cash lives in New York City, where he’s worked as a bartender and researcher. He has published fiction in The Drunken Canal and journalism in The Village Voice. He is from Tulsa, Oklahoma.