The Afterworld

For my love-rant on Apocalypse, head here.

These are the stories from the Afterworld.

Introductions

In the Afterworld, you forgive people their peculiarities in return for forgiveness of your own.

The woman I see slinking down the sidewalk is completely naked, which is actually relatively common in the Afterworld. She’s also completely bald, which isn’t.

When she sees me, she freezes. I’m already frozen. One of my shoulder blades is pressed up against a tiny tree–some flimsy piece of landscaping. Things like landscaping, I think, are going to be among the first to be consumed by the Afterworld.

This statue imitation the woman and I are doing is pointless routine. It’s our bodies calling on old habits. There’s hardly a fight or flight option anymore. You’d think that there would be violent people left over too, but I think anyone who did have that kind of rage at the start of the Afterworld has probably lost it by now. All anyone has now is loneliness.

The woman unfreezes and walks toward me. The only sound is the soft slapping of the pads of her feet on the sidewalk. The only movement is her bare body. Her eyes are fixed on mine.

“Hello,” she says. I return the greeting. We don’t say anything else. There isn’t anything else to say anymore. When everyone left, they took most of the words with them. We only practice our hellos so that we both know the other can talk.

It’s morning, and the sun is falling on both of us. The woman squints a little too dramatically. She turns her head away from the sun a little too harshly. Her skin is pale and soft-looking. She’s all white except for the pink hue around her nipples and her labia. She travels during the night, if she travels at all. This isn’t uncommon in the Afterworld either. It’s like some people rejected the sun when the world turned into the Afterworld. Maybe they blame the sun for the abduction of their loved ones.

The woman turns away and walks past me. I follow her. While we’re walking, I notice that it’s not just her head that’s bald. She’s completely hairless from head to toe. I also notice a little patch of blonde hair on the back of her left calf–a spot she missed the last time she shaved.

She leads me to the house she’s been living in. Not a traveler, then. Some people in the Afterworld just want to hole up and wait out the rest of their lives in peace, and be as comfortable as they can in their misery. Others, like me, got restless legs shortly after the beginning of the Afterworld.

I move on because I have to. I don’t expect to find anything anymore–I’ve already given up on figuring out what happened to everyone else–but I keep moving on anyway. If I keep moving, keep myself in a new environment where I’m not comfortable, sometimes I can pretend I’m not myself. Sometimes I can convince my own mind that I chose this life. That I chose to live in the Afterworld instead of being chucked in here like the few of us who were.

The woman brings me a water bottle and opens one for herself. She could open the windows and preserve her lantern fuel and candle supply, but she keeps the heavy blinds shut to trap the night inside. I have a feeling that the blinds are why she chose this house in the first place. She keeps the place dim, only lit with a few tea lights. Part of my mind tries to reason that the dimness will overwork her eyes–that in the long run it could cause eye damage. I’m still not able to cut off these mental tirades until they’ve run their courses. Eventually I catch up with myself, though, and dismiss the thought.

In the Afterworld, there’s no such thing as “the long run.” There’s only now. After now, there will be nothing.

“My name is Alice,” she says. Her voice is cracked from lack of use. In this subtle light she looks even paler. She’s all white except for the pink of her nipples and the blue of her eyes.

I don’t tell her the name I had before the Afterworld. I can think it all I want, but if I say it or if—God forbid—she says it, I could come unglued. If the name of the man that I was is mentioned, he becomes a real figure in my past instead of an ephemeral memory that I’m working at forgetting. Instead I give Alice a fake name. It’s something quirky and lonely and dusty, so that it fits the kind of person who lives and thrives in the Afterworld.

The name is barely off my lips and Alice is squirming toward me. She might be crying, I’m not sure, because I close my eyes and reach out to her blindly, take her into my arms.

We grapple together in some twisted form of dusty love-making there on the floor. The distant living room walls ripple and jive under the pressure of the candlelight, and Alice and I become one for a few minutes. It’s nothing spectacular. Nothing is spectacular in the Afterworld. Our bodies are just something we can give to one another to fill a need. The movements are just painful polaroids of what we’ve lost. The climax is just the process of breasting another hill and finding the next town empty, and the next town, and the next town. Bringing ourselves together means rediscovering that we’re actually alone.

Afterward, we don’t lie together. Alice pushes herself away from me, and I’m glad. Her skin isn’t as soft as it looks, and I don’t like touching the stubble that I can feel growing on her arms and legs and back.

She lies down on the other side of the room and curls up. The frank way she falls asleep in the room with me is another depressing truth of the Afterworld. Either she knows I won’t do anything to her because of what the Afterworld has made me, or she doesn’t care because of what the Afterworld has made her.

It may be her night, but it’s still my morning. I roll around a little, but there’s no way I can fall asleep again so soon. Instead I pad around the house and look around a little.

The Afterworld really tells you how impermanent everything is. Without eight billion people breathing down its neck twenty-four, seven, the Earth has started to regress. Things are crumbling and the weather is having a more profound effect as the world loses its manners. It won’t be long, I think, before buildings start collapsing. It won’t be long before wolves and bears and lions realize that their main enemy has eloped in the night, either. That will be a milestone for the world, when the animals move into the cities and desecrate them further than nature can on its own.

The idea of humans making any sort of return is an idiot’s joke. At first, once you’ve realized that you’re not completely alone in the Afterworld—when you realize that you’re not the only one who was left behind—you think that maybe there will be enough of you to repopulate. Maybe there can be a new society built on the ruins of our old one, right?

But as you meet these Afterworlders, and you see how few and far between they are, you just start to accept the truth: humanity will never be able to recover. The people who are gone are gone for good, and those who are left behind are nothing but the discarded apple core of civilization.

Which begs that same question we’ve all asked—which all Afterworlders will always ask. Why us? Why were we left behind at all?

I’m not saying I’m traveling to find an answer to that question, but it would be nice if I ran into it at some point anyway.

My hand is on the doorknob when I look back at Alice’s sleeping figure on the dining room floor. She’s so pale, and so bald, and so skinny and shriveled. Maybe she’s trying to regress with the world, so that when it goes back to its screaming infancy with rampant animals and violent weather and no more remnants of civilization, she can just crawl back into its womb.

She won’t be upset that I’m leaving. Maybe she’ll be happy. Maybe she’s gotten everything she needed from me already, like I have from her. You’d think that when you find someone else, you want to stick together. But here, you can’t be near someone else too long because there isn’t that much to say about the present. Eventually, you start reminiscing. She tells you where her favorite restaurant used to be, and you tell her about the love of your life. Your brain turns into a stew of memories about the way the world was before. But who wants to spend all his time meditating on things that are so far gone, you’re not even sure they existed in the first place.

No, it’s always better to just move on and keep forgetting.

When I’m twenty-or-so paces outside the house, I hear the front door open behind me. Alice doesn’t say anything, though. She watches me go, but she’s silent, and I don’t turn around. Before too long, that whole town is behind me and the empty Afterworld is ahead of me again.

Direction

If you walk down Candor Street, you’ll see them. If you walk down Cadence Drive, they’re there too. It’s not just the most flattering pictures, either. It’s not just the ones with the most, what? Artistic value, I guess? I take every picture I can lay my hands on, and I plaster them all to the doors of the houses. That way, if everyone ever comes back from wherever they’ve gone, they can find themselves again.

I always use something from the house to hang them, too. Usually it’s Scotch tape because that’s the easiest thing to find. One house on Candor, though—I forget the number, but it was white with blue trim—had about six billion magnets on its fridge, so I used those. The front door had metal in it. It doesn’t matter that the elephant magnets and owl magnets cover up parts of the former tenant’s faces. It’s the fact that they’re there that counts.

The houses on Alpine Street—the street adjacent to Candor—don’t have pictures. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I don’t think I have time.

Cambridge Street, which is the next over from Alpine, has them.

Every house with pictures on the door is a failure. Every single one is another mistake, another waste of time. Every house with pictures on its door is a house that isn’t the one I’m looking for. I thought at first that I would just mark them off with chalk, if I even needed to mark them off at all. Every street I scope out, I do it in a straight line. It’s not like I’m going to accidentally get turned around and break into the same house twice. I figure I may as well do them a favor, though, and mark them in a way that means something. These houses, they’re shells of the hermit crabs that lived in them. They’re everyone’s bat-caves. They’re the secret lairs of the average Joes and Janes of the world that was. So they should be represented.

Echidna Street doesn’t have pictures. Dorian Way doesn’t have them. The houses on Chaplain Street all have pictures. Every house on Chaplain Street is a reject. Every single one is a failure.

Now I’m alone, but before whatever happened, happened, there were computers, and there was the Internet. Before she was gone—before she disappeared with everyone else—there was this girl. I wasn’t in love with her, I guess. I wasn’t obsessed with her. But whenever someone posted a picture of her on the Internet, I saved it. She was art, defined. I wasn’t a stalker, but I had something like three hundred pictures of her on my computer. I would sit for hours and go through them, and examine every square inch of her. I’ve never been religious, but in those moments I was pretty sure I’d found the closest thing to God I could achieve. I think maybe she was God. My God, at least. My Goddess. Now, of course, she’s gone. Like everyone.

It was the digital age, so photos were easy to come by. And now it’s this age. The emptiness age. The age of nothingness. It’s also the age of no electricity. My collection of photos are stuck in the digital age, on a hard drive that doesn’t run anymore.

But she was real, and that means that there must be real photos of her somewhere. I’d only met her a handful of times before she disappeared with everyone else—she was a friend of a friend of a friend.

I asked a mutual friend where she lived one time. I wasn’t going to stalk her or anything. I just wanted to look in her direction once in a while and know that I was going to be okay because she existed. It’s not as weird as it sounds.

If my memory of what our mutual friend said were printed, it would read like this:

“Oh, she lives in Ogden, over on C——– Street.”

I give him the fact that the “C” could be a “K”, and that the “Street” could be any street type.

It was a full day’s hike to Ogden from my house. I could have driven, but the crashes from when the vehicles all went unmanned are annoying and hard to avoid.

When I got here, I canvased the whole city, one end to the other. There are seventeen streets that start with the letter C. I’m not including Cedar, or any of the others that have a soft C sound. I’m ninety-nine per cent sure that it was a hard C sound. Add to that the six streets that start with the letter K. Twenty-three streets. I was going to count how many houses are on those twenty-three streets, but I don’t think I want to know.

All I know—all I want to know—is that she’s out there somewhere. One of these times, I’ll break into a house and look at the mantle, and it will be a family photo with her in it. I’ll go to the bedrooms, and there will be pictures of her and her friends on the walls. I’ll dig out the photo albums, and I’ll see her growing up, turning into the woman I can remember.

The woman I can almost remember.

I have a time limit, because I’m not sure how much longer I can keep the image of her in my mind. I have this recurring nightmare sometimes while I’m sleeping in my tent. I find the house, I see her picture, but it’s been so long that I don’t even recognize her. It’s been so long that I just brush her aside and move along.

I always wake up from those with my eyes squeezed shut, recounting everything I remember about her. Right now, I could still tell you if her freckles had been rearranged, or her hair dyed the slightest bit. But I wonder. How long can that last? How long before I really can’t tell her apart from any girl whose photo I see?

When that happens, I will really, truly be lost forever.

Oh, that and I’m going to die eventually, of course. Sometimes I don’t give that fact enough credit. Nowadays, it’s just me and me. If I fall and break something, I could be trapped and die of starvation or exposure. If I catch some disease or get a cut infected, the proper treatment isn’t a phone call or a drive away. It’s a strange fact to get used to, the idea that you’re not just alone, but you’re on your own.

But these houses, they keep my mind off of those things. I wake up and collapse my tent. I leave one of my cinderblocks on top of the tent so it doesn’t blow away during the day, and I take one with me to put through windows.

I never sleep inside the houses. I tried once, but the houses are just a little too haunted at night. Not like everyone comes back at night, but like everyone was taken across the cosmos, and at night they shout all at once. They shout from the third moon of Saturn or whatever, and their voices are just loud enough to be heard. They’re just loud enough to wake you up.

That’s what sleeping in an empty house is like.

And even if it weren’t for the screaming voices, there’s the smell. When everyone left for Saturn—or, you know, whatever—they didn’t pack. And they most certainly didn’t clean out their refrigerators.

The power went out on day two. I know, because by that point I was in a race against the clock to get back to my house before my power went out. I wanted to recover my pictures of her by printing them out. I would have settled for just a last look, too. But I lost that race.

I read one time that if left unattended, the Hoover Dam would power itself and keep the lights on in Las Vegas for a few years, all through automated processes. Everywhere else, I guess, was a bit more fragile.

Now all the houses here reek of whatever’s rotting in the hot refrigerators, and the shit and piss of pets who were locked inside and starved to death.

The homes themselves are nice here in this suburb, though, and I always feel a pang of regret when I throw my cinderblock through the sliding glass door of a backyard, or through a bay window. I always make it up to the houses, though, by putting the photos on the doors when I leave.

The houses themselves aren’t in terrible condition, but I can see it all worsening by the week. Soon the weight of abandonment will sag the houses’ shoulders, and cripple them.

Other than that and the ever-intensifying smell of abandonment, the houses are as they once were. I never explore them during the night—I’m too afraid of missing some sign of finding her. That, and the daytime lends itself to natural light, since there’s no such thing as artificial light anymore. I carry a flashlight around with me, but batteries are the gold of my generation now, so it’s better to save the flashlight for when I really need it.

Today I drag my cinderblock up to a beige two story house. There’s a big window that looks in on the living room. I plunge the cinderblock through the window and I’m standing half-in, half-out when I realize there’s something especially strange about it. All the other houses have their blinds drawn, but this house is wide open. Everyone disappeared in the middle of the night—I know that much because I woke up to an empty world. And at night, every house had its blinds drawn. All except this one.

It could just be a coincidence, I guess. But it could be that someone was here afterward. It might be that someone else was left behind and has claimed this house as his own already. It could be that it was his house to begin with, although I’d be surprised. There’s no way I could have lived in my old house. Too many memories. Too much familiarity and strangeness at the same time. Maybe this guy is stronger than me, though.

I clear my throat loudly, then call out. Nobody answers.

So far, since everybody left, I haven’t seen a single other person. I know there’s at least one other person out there somewhere, because someone painted “WELCOME TO THE AFTERWORLD” on the billboard over on Mainline Road. Mainline runs parallel to Cable Street, and you can see the billboard over the roofs of the houses on Cable. One night the billboard had a warning ad against drunk driving. Next morning, the words were there.

Welcome to the Afterworld.

I thought briefly about looking for the soul who left that message. Maybe he knew something about what had happened to everyone. Maybe he at least had some idea about how it happened—how everyone just disappeared at the same time.

I had my priorities straight by then, though, and searching for him would have been a waste of time and energy. But at least I learned that I’m not the only one here still. That I’m not the only one who wasn’t fit to be taken.

So that’s why I call out when I’m standing in the living room. That’s why I ask, loudly, whether anyone’s home.

What I get in return is a growl. A guttural noise at best—at worst, the gurgling of a dying animal. The sound comes from what I imagine is the dining room.

There are a few appropriate responses to this situation, but none of them come to mind. My feet automatically start to move back toward the window, but then they stop on their own, too. It seems like I’ve just given up the reins altogether. Jesus take the wheel.

The growl sounds again—closer this time, I think. Or maybe that’s just my imagination.

My feet still don’t move, though. They’re locked to the ground by a familiar and more potent panic than the fear of being eaten by whatever beast lives here. It’s the panic of not finding her. Not of finding the wrong house, but of finding the right house and not knowing it. I’ve felt it a few times before, when I haven’t been able to find any evidence of the residents of some of the houses. I always found something, eventually. A driver’s license with a different last name from hers, or a photo album without her in it. But there’s always that period of panic when I can’t find something right away, and I wonder whether I’m standing in her living room and there just aren’t any pictures of her.

A shadow drags my mind back into the present. It’s amorphous at first, but by the time it clicks into sight on the hardwood floors, it’s obvious it’s a dog. It’s only so strange because I haven’t seen a living dog inside a house since this whole empty world charade began. I’ve seen dogs in the streets, and I’ve seen evidence of their escapes in some of the houses I’ve broken into, but by the time I found any inside the houses, they had long since perished at the hands of starvation.

I’m bad with breeds so I don’t know what it is exactly, but it looks big enough—and pissed enough—to take a sizable chunk out of me if I get in its way. On the other side of that coin, it isn’t only looking at me. Its eyes dart back and forth between me, the biped in the living room, and the freedom of the now-open window.

I can feel my own heartbeat in my neck. I think I read somewhere that dogs can sense your fear because they can hear your heart beating faster. I step sideways, slowly, and the dog forgets me and bolts for the window. It takes the frame in a bound, and the last thing I see is the fluff of its tail as it disappears across the front yard.

When the rest of my body has time to catch up with my racing heart, the stench of the place assaults my nose like a fist. This isn’t the regular rotting fruits and meat, either. I cover my mouth with my shirt and approach the doorway the dog came from. I’m ready to chalk the smell up to the fact that the dog, having lived in the house longer than any of the other animals I’ve seen so far, had far longer to stink it up.

Then I round the corner and meet the first human I’ve actually seen since the beginning of the Afterworld, and some things start to make sense. I wasn’t alone when I thought I couldn’t live in my house after everyone disappeared. This young man couldn’t, either. He also decided he couldn’t live outside the house, for that matter. It looks like his plan was simply to kill himself and let the dog die of starvation, so that they could elope to the land of the dead, I guess. The dog, it seems, wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. The body hanging from the ceiling is a quarter of a man at best now that there have been so many pieces ripped off of him. At least I know how the dog survived so long on its own.

All of these things crowd in on me one after another in syrupy layers until my mind is thick with them. I can feel darkness crowding in on me, and it’s only held at bay by the vomit that’s pushing up my throat. And all I can think is that I don’t want to pass out here. Just please, not here.

I stumble my way to the window with a trail of vomit by my side, and I flip over the sill without a sideways thought about the glass shards that are probably trying to dig into me from all angles.

I’m trying to stay conscious on the ground outside the window by staying focused on the cruelly bright disc of the sun, but I know when it seems to jump ahead in the sky that I’ve blacked out for at least a few minutes.

There’s a new layer of panic that goes along with everything you do, now that everyone is gone. In the back of your mind, you know that any small injury could be a fatal one. A small cut could get infected, and there would be nobody to help you through your fever-dreams. A broken leg could mean you get stuck somewhere and starve to death. The fact that I didn’t choke on my own vomit with nobody around to roll me over is a miracle in itself. The fact that I didn’t end up with twenty shards of glass embedded in my stomach from my roll over the window sill is another.

When I manage to make it to my feet, I consider leaving this one the way it is. But then there’s that old fear again; what if this is her house and I’m passing it by? That could be her brother in there, hanging from the dining room ceiling. That could have been her dog.

So I gather my courage and step back toward the house instead of running away from it like I want to.

The window sill really is peppered with jagged glass teeth on the bottom. In the interest of not testing my luck twice, I use my cinderblock to clean off the bottom edge. I think I’ll be okay now, but if I start to lose my stomach again, I don’t want to lose my stomach getting out. Or maybe next time I’ll have the foresight to just use the front door.

The stench is considerably less potent now that there’s been an open window for a little bit and the air has had a chance to circulate. I briefly consider trying to search the house without returning to the half-corpse in the dining room, but I can’t. There’s some semblance of a person left in me, I guess. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with the body, but I have to do something. After all, this guy is me, on another timeline, in another world. If it weren’t for my search—for my need to find her again—I don’t think I’d have lasted more than a week alone in this Afterworld. I don’t even have her anymore and she’s still my anchor. It makes me wonder what I’ll do when I find her again. If the search is all that’s keeping me going, what will I do when the search is over? Will I be content with what I find, or will I follow this guy’s example after all? Will I even find her at all, before I take that misstep that kills me?

I pry myself away from the slippery slope of those thoughts by turning the corner and bringing myself face-to-face with the hanged man again. The fact that he barely resembles a person anymore is actually a benefit. It lets me take myself a little further away from him—lets me dispel those feelings of similarity between him and myself more easily.

It’s not difficult to remove him from the ceiling—the belt around his neck isn’t going to give in any time soon, but the hook in the ceiling is about ready to tear. I’ve seen the setup that he used—it’s a two-by-four and a metal ring rig. They support a ton of weight. You use them to hang punching bags. My cousin had one. I fight a fleeting and insane urge to punch the guy hanging from the punching-bag rig. Then I take a few seconds to be horrified at the idea.

The dining room isn’t exactly a premium location for a punching bag, though, so I figure the guy hooked it up after everyone disappeared, specifically for this purpose. I’m not sure whether that makes it better or worse, that his suicide was so deeply premeditated that he took the time to set up the hook. It reminds me of a story I heard once about the Old West, in a newly founded town. The town was so new that it didn’t even have a gallows by the time someone was convicted of murder. The town made the convicts build the gallows by hand before they were hanged.

Sometimes I don’t wish for everyone to come back.

I deck myself out in rubber gloves from the kitchen and then return to the guy. I try to reach up and loosen the belt, but the ceiling gives up before I get anything done and me and him fall to the floor in a cloud of plaster dust and rotten flesh.

Good thing I already threw up everything my stomach had to offer, because the stench quadruples when the guy falls. There’s a liquidy feeling about him now, too, and I think some something on him must have burst open during the fall. I crawl away with my eyes shut and smash my face into a cabinet. Something on it falls and breaks. I regain my feet and hit the front door at a run, then flop down next to my tent in the front yard. So it’s corpse 2, me 0. That’s fine. I’d rather not play best out of five.

New rule: if there’s a dead person, I’ll temporarily skip and come back if I haven’t found her. No need to mark the houses—they’re marked because they’re unmarked. They’ll be the only ones without photos.

I call it a day and lie around for the afternoon. I’ll start again tomorrow, with the brown place across the street.

At one point in the afternoon, the dog comes back. I got a good enough look at it to know it’s the same one. I try to call it over—I even try to lure it with some of my food stash—but it won’t come any closer than fifty feet or so. When I go to sleep, I leave a can of tuna a little way away from my tent. I don’t think it will ever trust people again, but at least I can offer it a little comfort in this Afterworld.

Maybe it’s good karma. Maybe tomorrow will be the day. Maybe the brown house across the street is her house. My cinderblock thinks so.

Her Eyes

Miranda doesn’t know this, but Mallory is my second daughter. I had another daughter on the way before all this happened. I couldn’t tell you why now, but for whatever reason, when I first met Miranda, I told her I’d always been alone. That’s all I said, and she didn’t ask for more. She’s not very inquisitive about me.

My other daughter’s name would have been Sarah if she’d had a chance to be born, if she hadn’t been lifted by the hand of God before her first breath of air. She was lifted inside my wife, just like my wife was lifted, just like almost everyone else on the planet was lifted. God has big hands.

And the rest of us? The ones who were left behind? Maybe we were left for a reason, but maybe we just slipped through His fingers.

Her name was going to be Sarah because it was simple, but elegant. That’s what Gina, my wife, and I were hoping for. That her life be simple and elegant. But then they were, you know, lifted.

I didn’t know the actual meaning behind the name Sarah until after I met Miranda. It was on our pilgrimage to this place, Miranda’s childhood dream-home on eleven acres in Chelsea, Alabama. We were somewhere near the border of Arkansas and Mississippi. Miranda was already four months pregnant with Mallory. I tried to slip her an idea for the baby’s name.

“What about Sarah?” I said. For the past several weeks, I’d been debating with myself the idea of whether naming my new child the same thing as my lifted daughter was an insult or an honor. After all those weeks, I’d finally worked up the nerve to present the idea, and then Miranda shot down the idea even while the name was nothing but vibrating air between us on the highway.

“I don’t think it has the right meaning,” Miranda said. I feigned nonchalance and didn’t pursue the subject because, like I said, she didn’t know I had a daughter on the way before. But while we were in the next town I stopped off at a book store and hunted down a book on baby name meanings. Sarah, I guess, means “princess.” I don’t know how that’s a bad meaning at all for what is possibly going to be the last human born on this Earth. If we don’t find more people somewhere, she will be the last. And what would that make her if not the princess of this world?

If I had known what Miranda was planning to name our daughter, I would have looked up the name Mallory as well. I didn’t, though. She didn’t tell me our new daughter’s name until the little thing was already screaming and screaming in the bedroom of the ranch house in Chelsea. Maybe Mallory means “queen,” I don’t know.

I have Mallory’s eyes. I used to talk to Gina about Sarah, asking if she thought little Sarah would have my eyes, or my nose, or my smile. I’ve had a lot of time to think about that idea now. The Afterworld lends itself to a lot of thinking time. It’s different with Mallory. I don’t hope she’ll grow up seeing the world the way I see it. She can’t anyway. The Afterworld is different from the world I knew. So I have her eyes, not the other way around. Maybe, with time, I’ll learn to see the world she does.

I didn’t think about it before—I never had the time!—but our world was so rooted in its people. Laws can’t exist without people to enforce them or be governed by them. Street signs are just hieroglyphics without road rules—without people to know what they mean. The world I’m giving to my daughter is a crippled one, full of useless old relics that she’ll never understand, or never appreciate.

What kind of a person would give birth in a world like that, to a girl who would be so isolated? Miranda is that kind of person. Me? I just don’t want to be alone.

So I’ve been taking walks lately and trying to clear my mind of all cultural references. I stare at the dirt and the trees and the leaves, and I forget everything I know about being in a crowd. Mallory will never know that feeling.

I think of speed limits and I try to forget them. I think about movies and TV shows and erase them. What’s the point of holding on?

I was the hesitant one when Miranda told me she was pregnant, when she told me she was keeping the baby. It’s not like we had an abortionist on hand or anything anyway, but I was the one who asked if that was a good idea.

I’ve always been the hesitant one. Miranda had to coax me into bed in the first place. That was after we met here in the Afterworld, long after I’d given up hope that all my lifted people would be returned to me. Miranda doesn’t want to talk about the people we’ve lost, about the old world. She seems to have her eyes on some sort of future for the human race, although she hasn’t let me in on it at all. I guess that’s why she wanted to have Mallory. The future.

Maybe I’m the only one who’s thinking straight, though. Isn’t Mallory going to be so alone? Isn’t she going to suffer? That’s why I want to take her eyes, and see the world like it’s brand new, and forget the old world entirely. If I’m not weighed down by the way it all used to be, maybe I can be like her, and she won’t be so alone. This way I can forget the knowledge I have of how to be a country’s citizen, and how to hold a steady job, and how to focus in school. This way I can horde knowledge that I can pass along, that might do some good in Mallory’s life.

Miranda doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I try to explain this to her. Or she doesn’t care. I’ve stopped trying.

I went to her one time, when her stomach was in full bloom and she was laid out on a recliner in the reading room of the ranch house. Mallory’s arrival in this world was about three days out. I asked Miranda the point of reproducing now. I’d never been so blunt until that point, so I just set it down in front of her. I asked her, what’s the point of having a baby in this world?

She said, “What was the point before this world? Was there some great reason for having children before that I missed? I’m giving birth to this child because that’s what humans do.”

And since then I’ve treated Miranda like a dangerous animal. I can’t tell who’s the wise one and who’s the fool.

Instead I’ve turned my attention to Mallory. She’s small and loud and ferocious right now, but she’ll need me to help her in this world.

So I go for walks and I forget, forget, forget.

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