What it's like to be the Moonby Ryan Row (Volume 3)
0. Diana balances the moon on her tongue. The moon’s easy tonight, and it looks yellow in the summer haze. We’re on a lover’s lane overlooking town. The flat world goes on and on. I have a camera in my hand. I’m buzzed on red wine that tastes like sulfur. It’s her parent’s wine. They like me. They are glad Diana finally has a close “female friend.” I’m seventeen. I’m happy. This is year zero.
“Take the picture,” she says. She’s having trouble speaking with her tongue out like that. There’s something sexual about this part. I wonder what it feels like. She smells like history. Something floral with a hint of whiskey.
“I’m trying to get the right angle,” I say, crouching. It’s as if I’m kneeling at her feet. Really, I want her to stay like that. But, even in my memory, she won’t.
Behind her, our hometown sleeps. Anywhere America. The gauze bandage of Main Street is dark and broad. The water tower drapes the salve of its shadow over the courthouse. The streetlights are fat and white like pills. Our homes are dark.
“Just take it,” she says.
I’d like to. I’d like to stop time. Her hair is dark and smooth, and so is her skin. Later, I will watch it boil off her in big flakes of ash like tiny wings.
I’m dizzy at this part. I’m seeing bright lights. At first, I think it’s the wine, and it’s funny, but the spots don’t fade, they grow in the sky like cigarette burns in the world. It’s a soundless end and somehow that’s worse. The sky is on fire, and the moon is fading on Diana’s tongue as it is swallowed by new light. She turns her head as if she can sense the moon retreating.
My finger’s on the trigger, and I pull and pull. The shutter opens and snaps shut in a flurry. It sounds like a knife, chopping this moment to bits. The only thing it captures is her profile, turned away, and the sky being torn to pieces by a brand new light.
1. I’m lying in a concrete pit in Chicago, and it feels like a grave. I hear water running somewhere, a broken pipe. The Shimmerscape above is dazzling. Strips of sky that don’t quite fit together. Ragged holes of light. Blackness all around. A kind of broken twilight that never goes away. I’ve started to see it when I close my eyes. As if the sun has shattered, and all its pieces jangle hot and loose in the sky.
This is year two. The Shimmerscape is still terrifying and beautiful and inescapable. I listen to water chirp against stone. Watch the lights under my eyes. The sync rifle is heavy across my chest. If I listen very hard, I can hear an Angel. The sound of asphalt and concrete cracking under its soft steps a few blocks away. If I climbed out of my coffin, I might catch a glimpse of its chrome head bobbing over the ruins. Spitting flecks of rainbow like seeds, as light from the Shimmerscape reflects in the mirrored surface of its face.
I am trying to order my memories by least painful to most. Hot showers, then baths, then freshly cleaned sheets, then the sun, then the moon. The moon is a hole right through me.
The knocking sound of gunfire breaks the rhythm of my breathing. It’s close, and it’s a conventional weapon. I pull myself out of my coffin and move low through the ruins. The light is dim and slack all around me. I’m swimming in it. Pillars of concrete and empty windows cast twinkling shadows and black cats dart between drifts of debris with glowing eyes.
More gunfire. As I draw closer I can hear the bullets sing and disappear in the Angel’s wings. My teeth feel gritty, like I’ve been eating dirt or chewing glass. When I turn the next corner, I see it. This Angel is very tall and thin, armless. Chrome skin. The telltale orb of its perfectly round head spins and spins atop narrow shoulders. Its head is a moon the way all heads are moons. But its, specifically, makes me think of the past. Its very own shimmer, a folded wing, radiates out from its rotating head like a confused thought. Blotchy in the air around its body, like a rash. Silver and pink and gold, a transparent mirror of the sky wrapped around the Angel’s body. It’s in a defensive, low-output cone now, but that’ll change soon if I let it.
More gunfire, and a bloom of sparks in the shimmer. Someone is screaming. I imagine their skin turning red, and then to ash. A person floating away one piece at a time.
In a scope, everything is very close. The sync rifle is heavy and slick in my arms. I’m cradling it like a mother. We share a heartbeat, and a single dark eye.The first shot blows a hole through the Angel’s wing. The next, quick and easy, through its chest. The moon of its head stops spinning and slips off its body. There’s a crash as it falls and a cloud of dust rushes into the sky like the ugly radiation of an escaping soul. It comes apart in the air and disappears.
“I killed the moon,” I say aloud. The sky is flat ahead. The city has been ground down like a tooth and so has the rest of the world. The Shimmerscape keeps shimmering and tearing apart all my dreams. There’s no one here to tell me I’m wrong.
I say it again. And this time, I’m howling.
“Aren’t those experimental?” the man says, gesturing to the sync rifle in my arms. He’s dressed in overalls and one shoulder is tied together with extension cord wire. He’s a pilgrim traveling nowhere, and in my head I name him that. Pilgrim. His feet are wrapped in disintegrating sneakers and duct tape. He warily met me in the street as I approached, as if meeting a tax collector or a ghost. From behind him, from a squat gray building, half collapsed and windowless, I hear moaning and, faintly, singing. Pigeons and owls coo from hollow spaces. There used to be so little negative space. Now everything’s empty. Behind me, the Angel’s body, huge and with a sewer cap sized hole in its chest, throws angles of light across the man’s square farmer’s face.
“They seem to work,” I say, hefting the rifle to my shoulder.
“And where’d you get one, little girl? You ain’t military.”
“Where do you think I got it?” I say. I’m there again, in my head, using the claw end of a hammer to pry a dead soldier’s hands from the rifle after using the blunt end to break his fingers.
Pilgrim looks away then, up toward the Shimmerscape. Light crawls over his face like a weird, flat insect. When I was a child, I used to close my eyes and look toward the sun as it set so I’d have a piece of it inside me when it was gone. Good lord, where has that piece gone now? The man’s eyes seem to trace the cracks in the sky, as if he, too, is looking for some missing piece.
“How many shells you got left?” he asks.
“Three,” I lie. Really I have a small trove of them at the bottom of my sack. Fifteen, and I expect to find more in the ruined police stations that dot the city like droplets of rain. Sync weapons, mostly rifles, and their shells are highly refined technology, but they were produced quick and distributed loose by the tatters of the government that survived the super storms of year zero.
When radiation rained in little drifts of light like yellow fireflies, and flocks of Angels screamed and cut the world to pieces with their outstretched wings. It takes a minimum of two sync shells to take down an Angel. One to break through its wings. One to break through its chest.
Us, though, we’re not so tough. The sick light of the Shimmerscape turns our skin to paper and our bones to dust. Radiation. Quantum decay. Might as well be magic. Fragile things we are, we can’t even bear this light.
Pilgrim nods and rubs his cheek with his palm, as if he can read my mind. The ruins open up all around us the like stone petals of a flower. Crooked and delicate.
“Can’t afford to pay you nothing. Bullets, I mean,” he says. “I got family to protect. You’re better off just walking on.”
“What family?” The moans from behind him are soft and almost rhythmic, like a chant or prayer.
“We’re all a family now. All of us under the same sky.” He takes a last look at the broken glass of the sky above, then back at me. “Come see if you want. I collect the broken ones, you might say.”
“I’m not broken,” I say, surprising myself, but his face doesn’t change.
“Who said you were?”
A man bleeds slow from one eye. Half his body is dark and shriveled, like jerky. He must have been caught in a Reckoning, a superstorm of radiation and lightning and corrosive, acid rain. But except for the metal wheezing of his breath, he’s silent. The moans come from a woman leaned up against a bare wall whose face is coming apart in layers of ash even as another man tries to wrap it with gauze. She’d been touched by the Angel’s wings. I look away, scan the rest of the room. It’s clean and mostly concrete with one collapsed wall open to the eternal half-light. It smells of fine dust and hints of rubbing oils. There are seven others in all, mostly sick in some way or old and impossibly frail. A man with a perfectly egg shaped skull and very thin wrists. A woman with one hand. A man with a dull, aluminum cane and a crooked ankle. They have a few hunting rifles and one that looks automatic spread out between them. I smell cooked meat and ashes off most of them. Urine and shit from the rest. The greasy, surviving edge of humanity.
Pilgrim wanders in behind me and takes over bandaging the ash faced woman. He speaks soft. Everything is very soft at the end. Even skin becomes softer.
There’s a young boy off to one side, maybe fourteen. He’s got an empty bottle in his hand, and he’s twisting it and watching as it throws scraps of blue light against the wall. He’s singing under his breath in a high voice that reminds me of old radio. Driving at night, listening to the Jazz station, chasing the moon as it fell below the long horizon.
“These ones can’t protect themselves, Sister,” Pilgrim says without looking up from the mostly bandaged woman. She passed out or died, and silence grows up around us like a weed. The rest of them watch me or don’t. One carefully loads bullets into a spare clip, another draws on a map with a disposable pen. Doodles it looks like, little pairs of winged pigs and mice. The boy turns the bottle in his hand like he’s winding up the whole tin toy of the universe.
“What’s your name?” I say.
He says nothing.
“That’s our Jonnie,” Pilgrim says.
“That your mother?” I say, nodding at the woman, who has woken just enough to spit up. Bile, yellow acid, and something surprisingly sweet in the air. Mint. I guess she’s been chewing the leaves.
“No,” Jonnie says without looking up.
“What’s the bottle for?”
I almost laugh, but I don’t. The glass is beautiful and thick. It’s curved like a soda bottle, and it makes me think of simple times and supermarkets and fluorescent light on my skin. Collecting liquor bottles and filling them with colorful sands from African beaches, mail ordered and delivered to my door. You could probably break a skull with that bottle. Maybe he has.
“Protect yourself from what?” I ask.
He turns the bottle again, still winding some invisible mechanism with all the care of an ancient watchmaker.
“Angels,” he says. “Sometimes people.”
I’m still cradling my sync rifle, and I realize we must look like skewed reflections of each other. The last two children in the world and our useless charms to ward off the nightmares that already live snugly inside our heads. I take one hand off my rifle and slip my spare .38 from the back of my belt. I move closer to Jonnie, but he still doesn’t look at me. He smells like rain water and mud, and it makes me almost dizzy. “Here,” I say, offering the .38. Once it belonged to Diana. “Take it.”
He reaches out slowly, as if expecting me to withdraw it. He’s got long fingers like a pianist’s or a sculptor’s. He takes the gun and turns it over in his hand. It’s a short, ugly thing with a rounded butt and an almost flat nose, but he scrutinizes it as if the secret to survival were written all across it in tiny, foreign letters. Maybe it is. Finally, he looks up at me. His eyes are empty blue, pale, and startlingly sharp.
“Do you feel safe now?” I ask.
“A little,” he says. His eyes are like nails right through me.
I turn and walk out, hiking over the debris, clumps of soft stone and blunt edges of glass and charred wood. The world is wide and empty. There are a million holes to crawl into and sleep and sleep and sleep. There are a million dreams to be had. More, now, than ever before.
I hear the clatter of debris behind me. I spin. Pilgrim scrambles over the rubble toward me. He’s clumsy and clouds of dust rise from his swaddled feet.
“Wait!” he shouts, wheezing. He hasn’t looked up from his feet to see that I already am.
P2. Pilgrim, whose lost name was Bill Westton, died hard spitting blood into a river in Mississippi just one year later. I held the sync rifle and pretended not to hear him hacking up his heart while I scanned the shifty twilight for Angels and Prophesies, the huge ships that sometimes descend out of the Shimmerscape to deliver more Angels and recover damaged ones. Dry river grass crackled in the wind, and he kept saying, “Oh my God. Oh my God,” as if he just realized something important. The burned woman died the night I met her. I never learned her name.
Crooked ankle disappeared one night without a word. The old bald man at least left a note before hanging himself with a length of rotted belt. It had belonged to his son.
The note began, “For Martha, whom I loved dearly, and never told. And my son, who never loved me. And also Judith, whose beautiful body...” And on like that. We buried the note with him.
Others died in scrapes with bandits or run ins with Angels whose wings had fully unraveled in glorious attack arrays. They’d rain beams of radiation like falling stars that shattered whole chunks of cities like houses of cards. Angel’s wings look tattered when spread, patterns of old lace. Now it is just Jonnie and I left. This is year five.
Sometimes we sleep together, curled around each other like layers of the same animal, fully clothed, in ditches beside highways or beneath the shabby canopy of disintegrating parasols abandoned along empty beaches. His heartbeat is wild, and stronger than mine. We talk for hours and fall asleep. I tell him about airplanes and sunburns and grocery stores and Diana. He tells me about his dreams. About his beautiful mother, who might still be alive, somewhere.
Other times, I make him sleep apart from me.
“Close your eyes,” Gast says. He’s fiddling with the radio in his lap, scanning for anything beside the Rocket Watch out of New Mexico. A single man holed up in a radio tower close to one of the jerry-rigged rocket pads. These platforms have popped up over the last few years at army bases or in industrial towns that built missiles before everything.
“No,” I say.
We’re sitting in a ceilingless church together. I’m in a front pew and Gast leans against the altar. Static sighs out of Gast’s radio and it sounds like someone breathing through their teeth. Gast has scars all over his hands and neck, and oily eyes like ball bearings floating in grease. We are the forward lookout for a small brigade of the UP, the United Peoples. Jonnie and I signed up just recently, thinking it might be a way to get more food. So far it’s starving portions of rice or oatmeal and rolls that turn to dust in our mouths twice a day. I am dizzy with hunger. The shards of stained glass on the floor seem to come alive just as I look away. Animals and saints and devils. Gast goes on as if I hadn’t spoken at all.
“And then tell me what you want more than anything else.” Gast has a thick French accent that I believe he is faking.
Jonnie is further out on scout patrol for Angels or the rolling mountains of cloud that indicate a Reckoning.
“I want to eat the moon,” I say, thinking again of all the things I’ll never have. My lips feel numb, like they belong to someone else. I need to piss. Images blow through my head like bits of paper. Diana on a bed, in her underwear, smoking. My father watching TV. A bus driver waving me on. The texture of a cherry stem in my mouth. A hairbrush with no missing teeth raking soft across my scalp. The moon in a puddle of rain. I am a treasure chest of lost things.
“I think I could arrange that,” Gast says. He eyes my sync rifle, leaned against the pew beside me, and licks the corner of his mouth.
I take a pistol out of its holster on my hip and rest it in my lap. Snap the safety off. It’s loud in the church, which has absorbed years of silence and secrets. There are scattered rows of skeletons behind me. Many kneeling in a scary kind of hollow prayer. Remnants of hope, grace, surrender. Quitters. Though, I suppose, some of them may have been posed this way after their deaths.
Working sync rifles are rare now. Mine is only one of four in our whole brigade, and I only have three shells left, a small irony, all currently loaded. But I’m tired of hunting Angels. I’ve started to suspect that they aren’t even alive, and shooting them is as pointless as trying to shoot holes in the sky.
“Okay,” Gast says, finally settling the radio back on the Rocket Watch. “Okay. I understand. Girl wants to be alone.”
He turns up the radio.
“This is the Rocket Man, no updates from platform 132, New Mexico. Everything is quiet here.” We listen for a while. The Rocket Man makes jokes about being turned away from the gates around platform 132 by boys throwing bricks and scrap metal from up on the walls. Similar gates surround most of the platforms. Little, desperate communities. Afraid of thieves and disease and storms and Angels.
“Updates have come in from platforms 98, 15, and 161, no change. Platform 7 all the way out in Hainan China managed to fight off a flock of Angels two weeks ago with only minimal structural damage, but platform 104 went dark after being hit by a Reckoning last week. Platforms 34, 61, and 66 have all gone dark for unknown reasons.”
“I need to piss,” I say. Really, thinking of the rockets makes me sick and weak in my bones.
There were rumors of different rocket groups gathering or hoarding sync material before all the refinery and lab equipment gave out, making it extremely hard to find outside of those communities today. But there is something in the idea of these rockets at their basic level that grinds against me. Something about wild abandon. It makes me think of all those praying skeletons kneeling behind me. To where could they possibly escape?
I stumble out of the church and into small town delirium. The sky is spinning, or my eyes are. I’ve got painful cramps and might be slowly starving to death. I lean against a dead lamppost and think of Pilgrim, collecting the damaged ones, the broken ones. The metal is cool against my cheek. My stomach contracts and a flower of pain blooms up through the little, bloody roads that lead all over my body. My muscles. My veins. What in me is damaged, is breaking? I tighten every muscle in my body. I feel like the shell of a hand grenade whose pin had been pulled years and years ago.
A bat dives against the Shimmerscape. Silence is everywhere in the new world, but it seems to have its own pitch and frequency and amplitude. Its own cadence and rhythm, as if it were a language no one spoke. I can no longer remember the constant buzz of my first life, intelligible noise that was the language of time back when the world was alive. Cars and music and so, so many people. Maybe that’s it. It’s the world in me that’s broken. I don’t let go.
When I get back to the church, my sync rifle is gone and so is Gast, and the Rocket Man is going wild on the radio.
“Blast off!” he says, screaming like a child. “Blast off! Blast off! Blast off!”
I look upward and watch as two tiny rockets, points of light like diamonds, scream toward the scatter of the Shimmerscape.
“They’ve got sync cannons. They’ve blasted through,” someone says, headphones over one ear. We’re gathered around a television in the main barracks, an old community rec center. I ran back. I’m out of breath. One of the rockets is broadcasting live and the Shimmerscape is rushing toward the screen.
“What’s on the other side?” I ask, breathing hard. No one answers.
There’s no sound from the TV, but there’s a flash of light and a section of the Shimmerscape implodes in a cloud of luminous dust. The ship breaks through. Time is breaking down around me. I hear my own heartbeat in the tiny veins of my ears.
The screen clears on an army of Angels and an armada of huge Prophesy ships, all with wings outstretched in what are clearly attack arrays, hanging in space like weird, misshapen stars. Some have many arms, some have none. Some are long, some fat. Some have two heads and two sets of ragged, extended wings like I’ve never seen on earth. The image on the screen is wide enough to show the curve of their formation as it bends to match the curve of the earth.
They knew about the rocket projects, or else, they were always there. Just beyond the sky.
It doesn’t matter now.
There’s another flash of light as the rocket fires its sync cannon, and a dozen Angels, all different, elongated and mutated human shapes with spinning chrome heads, descend toward it. The cannon clips one and nearly rips it in half, but the others start firing back, comet tail tears in the universe, and the image starts shaking with all the violence of the end of the world.
But I’m more interested in the sliver of moon, just visible low in a corner of the screen. Its gray surface glitters with the neon yellow lights of an alien city. It’s a sprawl of light, with some logic behind it that I can’t quite detect. Small shadows flit back and forth across it. Ships? Angels? Alien creatures?
Men and women are cursing around me. A few young children are screaming. Their existence frightens me, and I don’t want to think about it. A few soldiers are openly sobbing as more rockets appear on screen, these apparently weaponless or armed only with the one sync shell needed to break through the Shimmerscape, and they are quickly devoured by Angels and by the inevitability of all endings. In the mad scope of the universe, I know, none of this matters.
Still, all I can see is the moon. They’ve even taken the moon. I can’t breathe. I elbow my way outside. I gag, but nothing comes up. My throat still burns and my eyes sting and water. Above, a few unarmed rockets explode against intact sections of the Shimmerscape in weak facsimiles of my heart. The swaths of starlight peeking through the Shimmerscape are already closing up, like wounds healing in compressed time. Whose wounds, I couldn’t say.
Jonnie is sitting on the church steps, waiting for me as I approach. The radio is beside him, silent. But I can tell from the way he’s sitting, as if he’s just been hit in the gut, that he’s been listening, and he knows. Jonnie has filled out in the last three years. He’s draped in ammo belts and packs. He is a tree decorated with guns and knives, but his eyes are those same boy’s eyes. Like panes of glass, brittle and bright. He’s looks me over and I see his jaw tighten.
“You let them take Diana,” he says.
My nerves twang under my skin. I’m high on the end of the world.
“Diana?” I say, still thick-tongued and dumb. Then it slides into place. That was the name I gave the sync rifle Gast stole. I’ve always called it that.
“It could have saved our lives one day,” Jonnie says.
“That thing couldn’t save us.” I stop in front of him. The twilight makes me sick. I take my pistol from my hip holster and let it drop to the ground with a metal clatter. I feel light and empty inside.
“Neither can these.”
“Do you even want to be alive?” he asks, His eyes start to moisten, but he wipes at them with thick fingers, fat and tough from living outside. From hard living.
“Do you?” I say. “Do you really?”
More bats spin in the air. Life is a system as careless as gravity. What are Angels? What are Gods? What are we being punished for? Life, itself, has always felt like a kind of sin, to me.
I let him cry silently into his hand. He’s still a boy, somewhere in there. The last holes in the Shimmerscape close up above us like air holes stuffed with gauze. I smell flowers on a wind, lavender, wild grass. Jonnie always smells like rain and mud. Rain used to be my favorite kind of weather. The beauty of light spearing through the clouds. The grace of raindrops singing against asphalt or glass windows. The smell of the world washing away.
Once Diana placed her hands over my eyes in the rain and told me to imagine a place where we could be safe and happy and together. And I could think of nothing but the feeling of her palms against my eyelids and the trickles of rain snaking through my collar and down my bare back.
“Right here,” I said, tasting drops of rain on my lips.
Diana laughed, and took her hands away. This was before the beginning of time.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “Nobody’s happy here.”
Jonnie takes his hand away, and his eyes are dry, and the cracks in them reflect the cracks in the sky as he looks up at me from the steps. His face is a young blank, but his eyes are breaking glass.
“I love you,” he says.
I cover one eye with my hand, but that is all I will allow myself.
“I don’t love you,” I say. “Not the way you do.”
His pale eyes are two planets ending, clouding over and freezing solid. His face doesn’t move. The fractal shimmer in his eye makes me think of wolves and dead things hanging limp in their jaws.
“I know,” he says.
3. Light bounces off a yellow plate and looks almost like sunlight. I can still smell peaches from the can Jonnie opened last night. The stranger waves his gun but doesn’t point it at either of us in particular, almost as if he is embarrassed to be robbing us.
This is year eight, and all my dreams, even when I dream of childhood, take place under a broken sky.
We’re in a highway diner that, miraculously, still has all its big, optimistic windows and seats. Jonnie slept in one booth, and I slept in another. We don’t sleep together anymore. When we sleep on beaches now, we each dig holes in the sand to sleep in. We hardly meet anyone on roads now or in the towns, barricaded against fate, but empty nonetheless. We run from Angels. We run from Reckonings. We sleep at least twelve feet apart, and are careful not to accidentally touch.
We woke up this morning to find the stranger and his gun. He’s mostly naked except for his duct tape shoes and the blue plastic tarp wrapped around his shoulders, and he has a huge revolver that he swings carelessly as he speaks.
“Look, I don’t want to kill you, but I will. I will. And then what? Huh? So just pour out your bags and we’ll all be gone before you know it, huh?”
I glance at Jonnie. He’s watching the gun with a deep frown on his face. He’s noticed too. The stranger swings it almost as if it’s too light to be real, and there’s rust on the hammer and the cylinder, enough for me to spot from twelve feet away.
I decide it’s not loaded, or it’s too rusted to work. Jonnie glances at me, and I nod just slightly, but he shakes his head.
He looks back to the stranger. “Stay calm. No one is going to hurt you.”
I feel the lie of that in my teeth.
“I’m calm,” the stranger says, jabbing the gun at Jonnie. “You calm, huh?”
In a practiced blur, in a motion that lives in my arm, I draw my hip pistol and point it at the stranger. He looks momentarily shocked, my pistol appearing from nowhere, and his gun arm drops to his side.
“Get out,” I say. The big windows let in as much light as they can, and I gesture toward them. There’s a kind of dirty peace out there, on the road. Even now. “Go.”
“Eve,” Jonnie says to me, lowering his hands.
“Go where, huh?” the stranger asks, cracking half a smile.
“Nah. Nah. I’m going nowhere. That gun’s not loaded,” the stranger says. He tightens his grip on his own rusted hunk of revolver. He is wild the way birds are wild. There is a thoughtless freedom in every twitch of his body. “Mine is, little girl.”
“Don’t make me do this,” I say.
“Eve,” Jonnie says again, harder. “Look at his gun. He’s harmless.”
The stranger spits. Lifts his gun in a jerk. And then, pauses. As if waiting for me. A moment is shaved off the world like a layer of skin. He doesn’t fire. I fire.
The bullet goes through his abdomen and shatters one of the huge, happy windows behind him. One of the last whole pieces of anything anywhere the world. There is broken glass. There is oblivion like sunlight.
Eve is not my name. But when I met Jonnie, I told him that it was. Beside the dead Angel, whose chrome skin was already corroding and glowing soft in the air, under the floating pieces of our electric sky, Jonnie told me I looked like a killer. There was awe and reverence in his voice. The air was sharp and dirty. The world was on fire. It had been raining, invisibly, for years. I felt like the first woman alive. I felt like a myth.
And anyway, I thought, maybe this was my chance to become somebody else.
We leave the man’s body right where it fell. He coughed and spit a little, then went still. It’s nothing new.
We walk for hours. We walk and walk and the sky shifts and cries above but never really changes. We walk into a forest of sycamore, perpetually soft and brown from the weak radiations of the Shimmerscape. The shadows split and multiply beneath our feet. I can’t even pick my own shape out of it all. Everything has lost meaning.
That night, distinguished only by the action of unpacking our bedrolls, Jonnie leaves me.
I pretend to sleep. I am turned away from him, watching the leaves fall. I hear the coo of a hunting owl, and it reminds me of the night we first met. I listen to him packing. The shuffling of his clothes against his body. He makes only enough effort to remain silent so that we can both pretend I am asleep.
I hear him lift his pack and swing it onto his shoulders. They’re broad now and hard. I remember him as a boy, and I decide that is how I will continue to remember him from now until the end.
He’s still. Is he waiting for something? I feel him watching me. Finally, after moments of soft wind in which a leaf lands on my cheek like the delicate and meaningless caress of the world, he speaks.
“I don’t love you anymore.” If I listen very hard, I can hear an Angel’s footsteps. Far, far away. It must be monstrous. It shakes the earth under my cheek. I wonder what it must be like, to see the world that way. Through the eyes of a perfect monster. The last monster. “I’m going to do what you couldn’t,” Jonnie continues. “I’m going to forget you.”
I say nothing. Watch the play of shattered twilight through the sycamore trees.
After a while, I hear Jonnie’s footsteps scraping away through the fallen leaves.
In the morning, I find that Jonnie left the stranger’s rusted gun on my pack.
I pick it up. It smells like gunpowder. It’s lighter than it looks, must have been expensive at one time. I lift it straight up into the air and fire over and over into the sky until all six shots are spent, and my ears ring and ring.
4. I reach both hands into the river up to my elbows and grab the net I’ve suspended between two rocks. I pull it up, careful not to tear or twist it. The river is cold with spring runoff and my arms go numb untying the net. It’s empty anyway. No matter. I’ve still got a cache of dried deer and nuts, and there’s a patch of wild strawberries I’ve encased in chicken wire that should be ripe soon.
The river sings in twilight. Mountain birds scream. Coyotes howl in the meadows.
This is year ten, the empty year.
Mostly I stick to the woods. Hunting, gathering. I am a nomadic tribe in my own head. I am the beginning and end of the human race.
Otherwise, I climb trees with a telescope and scan the far off highways. Sometimes I catch pilgrims in my lens, sometimes Angels. I move up and down the Sierra mountain range. The Reckonings have calmed down, and are more rare. So are people. I haven’t spoken to anyone in months.
Sometimes, at night, meaning before sleep, I’ll think about Diana and touch myself. Then I’ll cry, and feel a shaking, static sensation all over my body, like trapped electricity. But so what? Crying feels good. And I’m still alive. I’m alive. I’m alive, so.
5. I haven’t seen a soul in almost two years. Human or Angel. Perhaps this means there are no souls left in the world.
This is year thirteen.
I leave the mountains for the first time in years. The highways are empty and so are the towns. Only the sky is alive. Shaking with light. It’s subtle, but I’m certain when I study the sky carefully, that it has changed. Become even more fractal, and closer. As if it’s slowly falling, and falling apart.
I see lights across the Mojave desert. They are neon yellow, like the ones I saw on the moon, except brighter and close. This is more light than I’ve seen since I was a child. I make my way toward it.
The desert has bloomed. Flowering cacti and bright green trees that cast squat shadows everywhere. It smells like a flower shop and a Mexican beach. I feel as if I’m on an alien planet.
As if I’m somehow invading my own home. I chop the limbs from cacti and drink their juice. It’s opaque and slightly sour, but very refreshing. I roast blue bellied lizards lethargic in the half-light. The trip is cool and easy.
The yellow city, moon yellow, is made out of a thick, opaque glass somehow lit from within. It’s rough to the touch. The city is, really, only a collection of glass cylinders, tall as skyscrapers and much broader, dropped right on top of a small desert town. I consider trying to shoot through one, but dismiss the idea.
The effect of this dropped city is eerie. Like a disco built on a graveyard. Spanish style homes chopped in half and streets leading to shear walls of yellow glass. I wander down the street. A tourist on earth. My reflection is just visible in the glass.
“What do you think of all this?” I say.
“I like it,” Diana says in my head. “It’s, like, kind of retro-future?”
“What’s that?” I say.
“It’s like, the future of the past?”
But the past has no future. The past is a headless monster groping at nothing. Impotent. Irrelevant. The past is a pair of stone shoes, and the present is a strange ocean.
I can no longer picture Diana’s face. Her face has become the face of the moon. Soft, yellow. Mysterious. Beautiful. Distant. I think I am the last person. And I think I would prefer it this way. I pretend the invaders are from the moon. There’s no one here to tell me I’m wrong.
A glassy screeching rises from around the corner of an ancient stone courthouse in the middle of town. It’s coming from one of the cylinders. I swing my hunting rifle off my shoulder and crouch down. Move low and quick toward the sound. I hear a stray dog barking, but then it’s cut off. This yellow light is intoxicating. I feel as if I’m surrounded by cool moonlight.
I hit a corner and peek.
Between two shockingly short, human-shaped Angels, two creatures crawl out of an open archway in one of the cylinders and onto the human street. I’m breathing heavy now, and I’m worried I might pass out. It’s not crawling, exactly, what these creatures are doing, more like waves of movement, the way a worm moves. But the creatures, Moon Men I’ll say and Diana nods her moon head in agreement, are more formless than worms. They are about twice as long as a human but almost as tall as one, and the soft gray flesh on the surface of their bodies, otherwise uniform, expands and contracts in surprising and complex ways that I have trouble tracking. Perhaps this is a language. Or perhaps it is a sickness.
I snap the safety on my hunting rifle off. Both creatures halt, though the surface of their flesh ungulates and twists wildly. Do they sense me somehow? I wonder if I could kill one. I crouch down, still hidden behind the corner, and take aim at the nearer of the two. I have no sync weapons. There are no distractions to hide behind. These angels somehow seem more evolved, advanced, than the other models I’ve seen. Once I announce myself, these Angels will burn me to nothing in an instant, gather me up in their deadly wings like I am their child, and scatter my ashes over the streets their new city like confetti. This is alright. I watch the creature’s flesh bouncing, suddenly close in the scope. I feel I can almost touch it. There’s nothing I know in this creature. Nothing I feel a kinship with. Maybe these are just more machines, like the Angels, or maybe these are the Gods.
My finger’s on the trigger. I remember learning to shoot with Diana along all the anonymous highways in America while the whole of the world fell apart and burned around us. Year zero. Year one. She thought the firefly ash that rained constantly in those first years was so beautiful. We stood in it together, soft light drifting all around us.
“Do you love me?” I said, my shoulder heavy with the unfamiliar sync rifle. “Or are you just stuck with me?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She was so light by then, like a bird. And her skin was criminally soft and so dark. Radiation sickness. The Angel that would take her in its wings was only hours away. She would be caught by the very edge of its wingbeat right before I managed to take its head off with my brand new sync rifle. And then, for the next several years I would have to watch her drift away one little wing of ashy memory at a time.
“But you’ll be alright,” she said. “You’re strong. You’re so strong.”
“Do you love me?” I said again.
“Yeah, ‘course,” she said. “Who else is there?”
Light fell all around us like snow. Her words. Like knives in me.
“I am strong,” I said. “I’m stone. I’m the moon.”
“Empty headed?” she said, laughing a little.
This made her laugh harder until she was coughing, and I smiled too, a hard little smile, and the sky kept on falling above us, and everybody was dying, and this wasn’t really so different from before. But why did it feel so much worse?
Do I love her? Or am I just stuck with her? I feel this question could be turned inside out in a way that, even now, I shy away from.
My finger’s on the trigger, just as it always is. My eye is in the scope, searching for an angle.
Some fresh horror in my eye. The little Angels shaped like humans, and the Moon Men shaped like unformed dreams. The desert is cool. The light is soft. There’s some beauty in it all. Some desperate beauty. And I wish, not for the first time, that this moment would just last. Or otherwise, that I could, at least, let it go.
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