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The end of the world

The end of the world looks like a girl, maybe seventeen, maybe nineteen, maybe he shouldn’t ask. Her lips make him think of Eartha Kitt.

“Is your name Eartha?” he asks.

“No,” she says.

He flips papers, a little confused. “Okay,” he says, “you came with a monologue prepared, right?”

“From Eliot,” she says, and puts her hands behind her:

“Verdigris, peyote dreams,
India and rhyme
Carry claret honey trees
Paralytic sighs;

Close your eyes and swallow sand–”

“That’s not Eliot,” he interrupts.

“It isn’t,” says the end of the world, “is it,” and now it’s her turn to look confused.

The end of the world

The end of the world stops and tilts her head, and a moment later he hears it too: soft white noise, rising, as loud as a jet. It’s gone.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Everyone breathing,” she says, “together.”

“Did you want to finish your monologue?” he asks.

“We should go look outside,” she says dreamily.

She descends the steps from the apron of the stage, then walks up the aisle. He looks down to find he’s been writing his notes in white ink. He shrugs and follows her. It’s not hard: the end of the world leaves footprints of dust.

The end of the world

It’s snowing in Mexico, each flake a crystal skull. The end of the world sticks out her tongue and tastes sugar.

He stumbles out behind her, onto the tired road and its oily freckles. “Is this nuclear winter?” he asks, shielding his eyes. “Why is the sun so bright?”

“Humanity,” she says, “toyed with forces beyond its control,” and traces in the air: a dot, the center of three ellipses.

“With the atom?” he asks.

“No. The symbol.”

He opens his hand to catch a snowskull. There’s a name on its forehead, but it melts before he can make it out.

The end of the world

They’ve come to a beach. The end of the world crouches on her heels.

“Draw a man,” she says.

“I can’t draw,” he says.

“All humans can draw.”

He shivers at her implication and limns a stick figure in the wet sand with his shoe. Sputtering aurorae trace it, green and purple; that startles him, despite everything, and he jumps back.

The end of the world spreads her hand and erases it. “What did that look like?”

“Another dimension,” he says sarcastically, trying to cover.

“Yes,” she murmurs. “Every abstract, every approach to the ideal, is a place where realities overlap.”

the end of the world

Waves soften the smeared-out traces of his figure.

“There’s only one place safe from it,” says the end of the world, stepping out onto a wave. “Where nothing can really be inscribed.”

“That’s absurd!” he snaps, trying to follow. He doesn’t have the trick of it: he splashes where she skates. “There are plenty of symbols in the sea. White whales, albatrosses–for heaven’s sake, look what you’re doing–”

“Not the water,” she says, “although it’s better than the sand.” The sea floor drops out beneath him; he treads.

“Then where?” he gasps.

Rising, the great beast swallows them both.

the end of the world

“I never understood this part,” he says, in darkness. “Shouldn’t we be suffocating in stomach acid now?”

“I told you,” she says, impatient for once, “realities overlap.” Lamplight flickers behind them and he sees that they’re not in a whale’s belly after all: the wall is stone.

He raises his hand. On the wall, it shadows a wolf.

“This place illustrates the trap of sapience: the inability to perceive reality by any other means than the senses.”

“But we’re not chained here,” he says.

“Like the best traps,” says the end of the world, “it lets you believe you are free.”

The end of the world

His lupine shadow-puppet flares violet; he drops his hand quickly, afraid of what it might become.

“Why won’t you tell me who you are?” he asks the end of the world.

“I just wanted to save one of you,” she says, with obscure pain, and drops the lamp. When he picks it up she’s gone.

He’s alone in the inky dark on a floating platform, waiting for a train that will not come. There’s a bench. There’s a sign that says 12. There’s a door to a house.

He straightens, and crushes a moth’s cocoon to dust beneath his foot.

The end of the world

By the time he steps inside he’s forgotten the number on the sign.

There’s light in the house but he can’t seem to cast a shadow. It’s almost a relief, to stop worrying when your hand will accidentally loose a monster. He ambles without purpose, taking pleasure in exploration: one room floored in knotty pine, another in oak, their walls shaded blue or celadon or tea rose pink. Multiplicity makes his greed for novelty easy. They never cease to provide.

In one of the rooms, he thought he saw stars through a window; but he has already forgotten where that was.

The end of the world

His hand catches in limine, and he hesitates, turning to pull his finger free and examine it. There’s a splinter, long and dark, just under the dim translucence of his outermost skin.

He tries to pry it out and succeeds in snapping off the end. Tension mounts his lower back, draws his shoulders together. He sits down to worry at it; each attempt makes the wound a little more raw.

It’s driving him like a trapped animal. He gnaws at his finger, casts about for a needle, whimpers and curses and kicks the wall and why can’t he remember his name

The end of the world

With shaking hands he finds his cheap ballpoint and field-strips it, fumbling the spring from its barrel and prying it straight as pain until he’s got a sharp point to dig with. The splinter comes free, and blood, as always, follows.

He stares at it for a moment, mind as clumsy as his hands, then sucks it from his fingertip.

He will come to regret the waste.

When he reassembles the pen again it doesn’t work anymore. No matter. He drops it and, unnoticed, a slip of paper from his pocket tumbles down after it to nest between the floorboards.

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