*This is a coda to a story called Afterlife.
For my money, living with loss – true, deep loss; loss of the sun; loss of the most important thing in your world – isn’t living at all. It’s walking death.
You want to be left alone. You don’t want to be alone.
You alternate between the dogged pursuit of oblivion and smacking right up against the pain, lunatic sobs that won't stop coming, coiling up tighter into yourself as if you want only to retreat into the womb and never have been born.
My nightmares were about broken clocks.
My reality was broken clocks.
I couldn’t navigate by sun. For me the sun was gone.
At some point after we arrived a crucial change took place among us: the strong and the weak switched roles. I have no illusions about which side I’m on.
At Udo and Kiki’s apartment we’d been surrounded with relics of normal life. There were pizza coupons stuck to the fridge with magnets, and even though the expiration dates had passed, we kept them up there. There were old newspapers and magazines and photos. We even kept dumb glossy ad inserts around; they too were windows for escapism into the past. (I remember Arthur pointing out that the dreamers of the 1950s wrote wistful sci-fi about a future of gleaming silver robots, and that whoever created “The Jetsons” would be downright suicidal right about now.)
There was nothing familiar to us at Donnie’s. We hadn’t brought enough of our own stuff. We had been too hasty to go someplace else. We had packed things like pajamas and toothbrushes in "weekend" tote bags as if we were only going to a slumber party.
We had piled into his truck, blindly confident in our captain because his vehicle was all-terrain and he had a gun. The plan had been to drive to the house of a friend he knew – or had known before – to stock up on more supplies, i.e., drugs, just like he’d done in the good old days.
Everything went wrong. We got lost and ran out of gas; we could no longer rely on GPS or 911. (I remember one night in the woods somebody pointed out that people had gone without these things for millennia and had never even had them at all in some parts of the world, but we were untrained to live anything but a modern life.)
We spent three sleepless nights in his truck, only slipping out to “use the bathroom” (a phrase whose suggestion of domesticity and civility we clung to even though now it just meant “piss or shit in the woods”). On the fourth day, Kiki said “Fuck this” and started to walk, and we followed her like a bunch of pack animals.
We found a main road and stuck to it. I remember walking past an empty elementary school and silent railroad tracks.
The street led us to what had once been a shopping plaza. There was a large crowd of people there, both distrustful and hungry to trust at the same time, like us. They were waiting in line for what was basically an armored-vehicle taxi service run by what was left of the military. Or what seemed to be the military, if there’s still a distinction.
They were charging nothing to take people where they needed to go, within a reasonable distance. Why were they doing this for free? Because no one had anything to even barter? Because they wanted to will the world to be good, lead by example? "Be the change you want to see in the world," like something you would hear at a school assembly?
Maybe the weirdest thing about it all was the lack of imminent threat. No death in sight, just rot.
When our turn came, the driver asked our captain “Where to?” Donnie just said “Home.” He gave the driver his address.
The rest of us thought maybe Donnie wanted to regroup, map out a route, strategize. He would have a plan – he always had a plan.
Back at the condo, bare of his supplies, there was the drama of Donnie’s withdrawal. It scared Kiki straight and Arthur along with her. After they saw what Donnie was like in the absence of oblivion, they vowed to avoid these substances like poison, even if they became available again.
Kiki started a little jailhouse-wall-style calendar of X's on the back of a manila envelope that someone's old insurance paperwork had been mailed in. It's not accurate but it lets us know how many 30-day segments have passed since the day she started it. According to Kiki's calendar, we’ve been here for seven months.
“We should go back for Udo. I bet the GI Joes would take us.”
Kiki was the one who was most fiercely loyal to her former roommate, the guy who had let her crash on his couch rent-free, no questions asked, just because they’d discovered on a video-game message board that they were simpatico.
I was the one who was most heartless.
“He had his chance.”
Whenever I said something like that, Kiki looked at me as if I had just fatally stabbed a litter of puppies. Arthur, the peacemaker, would tell her to go easy on me.
“She’s dealing with a loss.” He avoided mentioning my boyfriend outright.
Kiki would roll her eyes and say, “Aren’t we all.”
Was he being too stubborn? Had he finally taken his principles too far, made a fatal error in trying to prove a point?
He had long ago remade himself. It was a phoenix-ashes thing. He hated whom he had once been – a playground bully, a person capable of dark thoughts and actions. He had worked hard to confront and obliterate that darkness within him.
In addition, after that, he had been a person not living fully and honestly – a person who, back in college, had settled for a relationship with a girl who loved him, a girl who wanted to marry him, a girl whom he hadn’t loved.
He had promised himself he would never do that again, any of it.
When the others chose to leave, she had gone with them.
It was stupid to go; the two of them had agreed it was stupid. The smart thing to do was to stay put and hope that gradually the world would rebuild itself. A phoenix-ashes thing. They could be Adam and Eve.
“We’re mixing up our mythologies,” she had said, and as usual she had meant a couple of things at the same time.
“Stay with me. You will never see him again. I love you.” He had brought his face close to hers so she could look into his eyes. Without her contact lenses, without her modern aids, nothing was clear.
And she had just said “No.” No reason. Just the word.
He feared that she had made a fatal error in trying to prove a point.
You’d think she was the only one dealing with loss. OK, so her boyfriend went over there. So he probably isn’t coming back.
My mom has emphysema. My step-sister was five months pregnant last I heard.
Nobody can reach anybody. Nobody knows anything.
But I refuse to think of them in the past tense.
Somebody has to be in charge. Somebody has to not be moping around all the time.
I gave her my clothes. I gave her the last of my tampons! I gave her my vodka. I gave her what I could. Now she has to be strong.
As soon as I’m able to, I’m going to save them – all of them. I have to believe this.
I have loved her since we were kids.
It broke my heart when she came up here.
We had a good-bye party back in our hometown.
I will never forget how lovely she looked that night. Her pale skin gleamed like stone. She had always been too much for our small town. Too big, too bright, too alive.
My dark secret is that part of me is glad this all happened – it means that I’m here with her.
He stayed in his bed all day and clutched the Elmo toy that the cleaning lady had found in some neglected corner of the condo the week after his wife and son had left, long before everything else happened, in an end-of-the-world far worse for him than this one.
I don’t know whether any of this is true. It’s possible that none of it is. This is something I do to pass the time – try to enter their hearts and minds. I probably just imagine what I want to imagine.
The only one I can’t reach is my boyfriend. It’s like he’s just gone.
There was a knock on the door, and the usual tremor of apprehension, whispered conference, pulling of weapons both legitimate and makeshift from their niches. Donnie was in bed, and Arthur had the deepest voice of the three of us, so he was the one to ask: “Who’s there?”
And I just knew: He had come for me.
I imagine what I want to imagine. My reality is broken clocks.