He awakes with his eyes closed.
He senses light all around him and is reluctant to expose his sight to the brightness. His head pulses with pain. He lies on his back, half-sunken in the earth. The back of his head feels crushed. It can be slowly leaking blood for all he knows, hot and thick like dark oil sinking into the sand.
Sand. This is sand, he thinks. He makes a fist with his right hand, idly plays with it. Warm and fine. Glue it to card stock and you get sandpaper. Fire it up and you get glass. Mix it with limestone and you can sculpt buildings and bridges out of it.
You can build a whole civilization.
His eyes slit open to a blinding sun. It takes a second for him to comprehend. There's a blue sky, a white sun in it. There's a concrete wall floating above him, enormous and massive and silent.
Wait. Not a wall. He grits his teeth, lifts his head an inch. The pain changes shape in that moment. His head drips with it. His eyes steady.
It's some kind of bridge. Concrete, bleached white in the sun, spanning a wide trench carved from the same colorless material. An inverted trapezoidal channel. River? Riverbed? Lying asleep in a bed, but a river?
Oh please let his head not be bleeding. He settles it back down again into its divot, as if sand can stop the flow.
He sweeps his right hand back and forth. Now with the left hand. This is called something. Except in snow. Snow angels? When he was little, he and a bunch of other kids had swept out angels in frosty winter mountains somewhere. He remembered he had to go super bad, but he was so fascinated by the snow that he'd held it, not like the others who tried to write their names in steaming yellow. It'd been a field trip for city children unfamiliar with cold weather. Junior high school, holy shit. What letter did the name of the school start with?
A? B? C? D?
And his name? This particular individual lying here in the sand. Maybe dying here in the sand.
He tests the dead batteries of his memory. He can remember a few fundamentals without much effort: These are called fingers, this is sand, this is his head. This is Earth, he is male, he lives in a place called California, USA, planet Earth, the Milky Way, the Universe, da dada dada. But anything beyond those basic facts remains out of view.
That's the sun up there.
There is the sky.
Here is a blank river of concrete a hundred meters wide.
Nothing else. Two
When he does stand, it's like hoisting a corpse with puppet strings.
First he props up his torso with his elbows. Then he pushes off the sand. That alone is an excruciating project. Next his legs, folding up, then his arms extending so that he can now sit upright. Another moment, eyes squeezed shut with pain, before rising to a full standing position.
His mind is a flickering television screen, a storm of digital static occasionally breaking to reveal things he can't see coming. He wishes he could turn it off. He touches the back of his head. Why am I touching the back of my head? he wonders. To find a power button?
No, to check for signs of trauma. Someone taught him this once, called it survival first aid
. Hit your head, run through the steps, find out if you are a survivor. First: is there blood?
With dread, he notices his hair feels wet.
He doesn't want to look at his hand.
So he observes his surroundings instead. Ob-zurvz. Sir-roundings. This is a good test, like a startup sequence. He tries recalling larger words, and more blip into existence. Embankment. Aqueduct. Desertification.
The concrete channel looks as if it's been scrubbed white by an epoch of sandstorms.
He brings his hand to his eyes finally. Sweat, not blood. This gives him a slight burst of energy, enough to move on to the next steps. He touches his eyes-neither bulging nor sunken-and prods his skull. Takes a big breath in through the nose, whistles it back out. Hinges his jaw open and shut.
He seems fine. That's a funny word for this situation, fine.
He turns his head ninety degrees left, then back right. Nothing snaps, his spinal cord doesn't twist itself apart. Fine.
So what is this?
The channel has a twenty-foot-wide groove carved into its center, about a foot deep, evenly filled with sand. It's in this sand he lay. Footsteps lead away from the indentation of his body and vanish where they reach the clean concrete. Probably belong to the people who killed him. Tried to kill him, anyway. Came goddamn close enough. Annihilation. Desolation. Apocalypse.
Only a few colors here, like the gods had to make do with just five crayons. The powdery blue of the sky. White everywhere. Rectangles and triangles of warm gray, and a thin burnt edge of hard scrub above. He'll have to go see what was up there at some point. But not now. Not now, no way. One thing at a time was hard enough.
He instead shuffles into the blue darkness under the bridge, and makes his way toward the inclined edge of the riverbank.
His hand cools as soon as it touches the shade, instantly turning his life's goal into getting the rest of his body within it. He reaches the edge and lies down again with his toes pointing downhill. Something about raising the head, to keep it above his beating heart. Elevation
His name is Aaron. Alan. No, none of those. Starts with an A. Amazon. Asshole?
He used to live somewhere. Used to work at someplace, doing something.
Super not helpful.
Work is the thing people used to do for money. Money is the stuff you once needed to buy things like shoes. He likes the shoes on his feet, even if the right foot's a little tight. He can't remember buying them. It's like staring down at someone else's sneakers.
He touches his hair. Straight. He plucks a strand and sees it is black, a dark line in this pale new world. Be interesting to see what his face looks like.
In any case, he is undeniably alive, even if the world isn't anymore.
What caused the collapse again?
He can't recall any details. All he knows is that every last bit of it-societies and schools and money-has been done with. Wiped away, like his memory.
He imagines vandals roaming the silenced cities full of broken glass, car doors left hanging open. But no bodies. A very strange, very clean apocalypse. Only simple violence is left, scattered muggings and assault, a smaller version of the mass atrocities humanity used to commit.
Everyone's gone somewhere else now, to do something someplace.
He knows life is fragile and ends without ceremony. The gazelle watches her calf get torn apart by the lions as she flees with the rest of the herd. What thoughts run through her head at such a moment? Why, God, must you take my only son?
Maybe gazelles aren't that eloquent. Maybe they spend their days too perplexed to even make it beyond your basic What?
Maybe, at a certain level, What?
is as good as it gets for humans, too, especially these days. What? probably ranks as the number one most popular thought among all people left everywhere.
It's what he's thinking right now, anyway.
The mass vanishing of humanity must've been something else. Something spectacular, humankind's greatest and most lasting achievement.
He'd heard a theory once. As a last resort, humanity could've migrated en masse into space if the world got too polluted. Maybe that's what happened. He and a few other unfortunates had been left behind, unable to afford fare. The sudden vacuum left by a departing civilization turned money and authority into empty symbols, and then turned ordinary people into thieves.
Money, the stuff you bought shoes with. He'd never had enough of it.
He laughs a little at this, then sits amazed at himself for doing so.
He'll never really know what happened in the end. Why should he? Does the gazelle? His eyes close again. The throbbing in his head grows.
Shouldn't sleep exposed like this. Above him the incline meets the bottom edge of the bridge to form a crawl space flanked at regular intervals by supporting columns. A dark wedge. Dying there would be better. It'd be quiet. At least a little more dignified.
He rolls over and the pain rolls, too, lighting up his skull, then his shoulder blade, then his hip. He took some kind of hit. Hits. Did he at least put up a fight? He checks his eyes again, his jaw, his bones, nothing broken, no signs of-what's the word-con-cuss-shun. He can manage crawling on all fours, which he does with a decent cadence. The dark wedge grows closer.
The crawl space is larger than he expected, tall enough to sit upright in, and contains nothing. Just blankness. Support columns form two walls to either side, the featureless underside of the bridge above him, replacing the sky. A monolithic support wall before him. The slope leading down to the cool rivers of sand at the far bottom. Everything clean. A grayscale world.
He'll figure out what happened to the world in good time, if he lives long enough. He'll start with his pants pockets. Left pocket, nothing. Right pocket, candy.
He squints. Not candy-headache medicine, right there in his hands like a little gift. Welcome to your new home!
He laughs at this, too. Three
He tries unscrewing the lid of the tube, which is wrapped in plastic. for your protection
He finds the twin perforations running down its side, tears off a fluttering strip, and in his mind flashes the image of a bathroom sink somewhere.
He removes the plastic and turns the lid to no avail. Tic tic tic.
Right. There's a trick to this.
He pushes down with an open palm and twists again. Off pops the lid. Once again he sees the bathroom sink for a moment, just long enough to see its two faucets, one for hot, one for cold, both feeding one central tube pointed down toward a small drain set into the porcelain. He used to begin by unscrewing the cold dial. Knob. Then he would gradually introduce hot water to the right temperature by unscrewing the other tap.
That's the how of warm water. He recalls, without even trying to recall, that above the taps lived a family of cartoon animals stuck to the tile, each holding toothbrushes. One, two, three. Three toothbrushes. He knows they had names, but he doesn't care to think about that right now. What does it matter? For now, all he knows is he used to love this silly trio so much, especially the one that was littler than his or hers.
One, two, three.
Him, wife, child. Stop.
He finds himself standing before a colossal shelf of ice suspended off a cliff's edge, filled with faces and objects and moments all held frozen within. The slightest movement could start an avalanche.
He'd had a family. Something bad had happened in the world. To them, too?
Why else was he here, alone? Every single member of the surviving human race must have experienced similar loss, on a million personal levels adding up to a global horror. Now here he is, all the time in the world, hour upon hour to ruminate upon the unfair hand of the universe. The pain festering in his heart until it drives him to madness.
What if they aren't dead? What if his last words to them were I'll be right back with supplies?
and they're still somewhere waiting?
No way they survived. Why else would he be here and not with them?
Didn't he just ask that question already?
Best not to go down this path right now.
This path is a big circle leading to crazytown and back.
At some point, though, he'll eventually have to crawl up and out of this channel and see what there is to see.
And get sniped in the head, sure. His final dumb thought: What?
He shakes his head once, hard. He regards the tube of pills as if it's an evil talisman, a thing that could draw out memories by touch. extreme strength, reads the label, and right away he can see it on the shelf next to dozens of other medicines in a pharmacy bathed in fluorescent light. He looks away to shut out the awful familiar vision.
Don't despair. There's no point. They have to be dead. Hopefully just that and not something worse.
But he can always imagine something worse, can't he?
The pills are the color of new chalk, each stamped with p12 in tiny letters. These letters don't trigger any recollections, but they do provide a vague sense of legitimacy. So he swallows two pills dry, pours the rest of the pills into his pocket, and lets the tube roll down the bank where it-and all of its markings-falls out of his sight. His mind grows blank, and it's the blankness that provides him focus. The past only becomes the past when you turn your back and keep it turned. And that's what he knows he should do.
His head still throbs with pain, but pain he can respect. It at least keeps him distracted from remembering things-an unintended, if brutal, gift from the vandals. Maybe they'd even left the headache pills on purpose as a kind of troll move. So that he'll survive long enough to die an even slower death of starvation and struggle.
Sheer vanity right there, that kind of conspiracy thinking.
He remembers neutron bombs. In theory, they can destroy humans without damaging property. A white flash atomizing people into little puffs of oily mist. A simple wipe-down, and you're ready to resell. He chuckles again.
Whoever the hell I am, he thinks, I am one cynical motherhumper.
Humanity had to end at some point. It was inevitable given our natures, and given the way of nature in general. Certain motherhumpers even more cynical than him had probably even looked forward to it. Hoarders of gold bars and guns, preppers building underground bunkers full of canned food.
Humanity's just two groups now: predators and prey, with the weak being left to die out in the sun. Just like me! he thinks.
He laughs again, even though it hurts.
But I'm not dead, he thinks. I'm here. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
The attackers had left no clues about that.
Or about what happened with his family, or where they might be.
Stop with all that.
He used to know this dude. Someone important, a friend. Brian? Bacon? Waving a cigarette too close to his drink with a flapping manner. Liked to wear fatigues all day, everywhere, like he was about to go on patrol.
Get ready for when the big shit hits the great ceiling fan in the sky and everything comes raining stink-ass down, this friend would say. Hell with money, it’s barter and trade at that point. Like instant. That’s why you keep gold stashed in your undies at all times. The guy you used to be won’t matter for shit. Instant, like I said. You sure you don’t smoke anymore?
He understood his friend’s outrageous fantasy. Clean slate, no more bullshit, live off the land, trade goats for leather and blablabla. The past? What past? The future? Shut your face hole. Living in present tense, like when we were little kids—but now in adult bodies that could fight and screw and venture and look the world right in the eye.
A glass of water would be wonderful, he suddenly thinks. There’s my first real goal. A nice glass of water.
This all can’t have been from zombies. That is stupid. Same with traveling packs of warriors in improvised battle cars speeding across a salt flat.
Because that’s from an old movie
. Which one? He jogs his head, but his memory offers nothing now.
He struggles to work out the how
of apocalypse. Was it genocide, finally reaching the suburbs in a uniquely American take on ethnic cleansing? Cannibalism? Depends on how much time has passed between the collapse and the blow to the back of his head, and if people really tasted like pork like he’d read. How long, he wonders with growing amazement, has he been living on the run, foraging, scanning the horizon for threats, kicking dirt over his scat, squatting in abandoned houses, before today? Has he been unable to return to home? Is there a home left to return to?
With that, he now finds himself remembering the late night conversations.
Conversations with her
Copyright © 2022 by David Yoon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.