A short story I wrote a long time ago, which wound up being published in a literary anthology in 2009. My style had changed a little over the years, and hopefully matured, but this story gets the odd bit of positive feedback and I’m posting it here as a reminder to myself to write more shorts.
Warning for a dystopian future, some gore and some swearing. Oh and cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches.
By Ceinwen Langley
I was married to a man I loved more than life. We had a daughter more beautiful than I care to remember.
I never heard her first words.
I opened my eyes.
They did not.
My eyes opened to a world of the dead. The sky was clear. Too clear; the sun shone bright upon the corpses as if it was playing some morbid joke.
I could not understand what had happened.
One minute, there was life. There was hope. I heard a sound and the world went dark.
I wish I had not opened my eyes. I wish my baby girl was not dead in the arms of the man I had hoped to spend the rest of my life with.
I saw no living creature that day. No birds, no animals. No insects. All were motionless, dead where they lay. Killed by some invisible force. The dead looked untouched, unharmed. It was almost as if they were all asleep.
I slept beside him in the eerie silence that night, my girl nestled in my arms. So cold, so still. My tears ran rivers, but no kiss would wake either of them. My sobs broke the silence of the night, but it didn’t matter. There were no living ears to be disturbed by them.
I saw my first roach that day, skittering across the face of my beloved. I screamed and crushed it beneath my heel, grinding it into the floor. I cradled the head of my love in my lap and wailed. My baby lay nearby, face down on the cold ground. My baby girl. What more could I do for her now?
I found a shovel, somewhere, and carried my girl out to a tree in the front yard, leaving her there to fetch her father. He was bigger than I, with the weight of the dead upon him. My baby was covered with cockroaches by the time I had dragged him from the house. I picked her up and shook her, throwing the tiny insects from her body. Her head snapped back with the violence of my shake, a noise that broke my heart. Even if she had been asleep, there would be no waking for her now.
I cried fresh tears as I dug the hole, sweating under the hot and unforgiving sun. The bodies of my loved ones began to spoil with decay, a smell so foul it brought new tears to my eyes, and then the old ones again.
I rolled their bodies in, a single kiss for each, though I lingered over the lips of my beloved. To have met my match so young was a blessing, I suppose. To lose him now was torture. Is torture. How could I survive like this?
My eyes were dry at last. I shoveled the dirt onto my family, ignoring the bloating body of my neighbour in her driveway.
I left my home and my loves in search of life. I couldn’t be the only one left.
I kicked the roaches from my path and wandered through empty streets. I passed cars wrapped around telephone poles, piled up against each other. I saw bodies of children and animals and old men. Black men beside white women.
Everyone looked the same in death.
The smell choked me.
My eyes did not stay dry for long.
For countless days I wandered through the city, passing by the bloating dead. The end of the world was not dignified; the human race now sweltered and decayed in the streets of their creation. The smell overwhelmed me.
I had seen no life.
Except for roaches.
I walked for miles. I walked for days. I tried to escape the decay but everywhere I ran there were signs of death. Birds, dogs, cows. People. The smell was on me like a disease and I could not wash it off me for all that I tried. I lay in the ruins at night and the roaches ran over my body. I no longer made any effort to swat them. It seemed they had inherited this world and I was the final reminder of their oppression. I was that last lonely dinosaur.
I wanted to die, but something inside me demanded that I live. Survival instinct, I suppose. Hope of rescue. Hope that it was only this one area, this one country that had been affected. That aid was coming. I would be a hero. A survivor. Talk shows would book me for years to come. They would make a film of my life.
A roach ran over my hand.
I knew it was all bullshit.
Days passed. Weeks. I survived on canned food stolen from shops and homes. It tasted horrible. Everything tasted like death. The bodies had all rotted now. I could see their bones, protruding through paper-thin skin and slimy meat.
I was glad that I buried my beloved. I had saved him from this, at least.
It started to rain.
Perhaps a month had gone by. Perhaps more. I saw his face at the end of a street and cried tears of joy I had not known since the birth of my baby girl. He ran toward me, his face as wet as my own and we embraced. A man I had never met, whose name I did not know and I clung to him as if he were my beloved returned to life. We did not speak.
We held hands constantly, finding in each other the human contact we had craved for so long. We ran down dead streets and laughed with our eyes. We did not open our mouths save to eat, and the food did not nourish us as it should. We were desperate, but we were desperate together and that was enough.
We found several cans of spray paint behind a locked door in a department store. We stole the key from a rancid neck, and I no longer felt any remorse at doing so. The dead were no longer people, but blistering mounds of flesh. The last pollutant of an extinct race.
We wrote our names on a city wall. David. The man I had come to rely on was named David, written in sticky red paint and dribbling slowly down the wall like fluorescent blood. He smiled when he read my name, shining in silver glitter. He took my hand once more as our graffiti oozed slowly into each other.
We began to paint all over the city, learning facts about each other. Leaving our mark. He had been a computer technician but his passion had been his art. I told him of my beloved and he held me tight. He began to paint wonderful scenes for me, and when the paint ran dry he scratched them into the dust.
He kept my sanity intact in the horrible place that was now our world. He held me close at night, stroking my hair until I slept. Perhaps I loved him. Perhaps I simply cherished the contact. It didn’t matter which. I never had the chance to find out.
They approached us early one morning as we were huddled together. A woman and two men, running toward us and shouting joyfully. I looked at David, barely daring to hope. Were they real? Was there hope for us yet? I flicked a roach from my hair as David pulled me to my feet, squeezing my hand in comfort. We allowed ourselves to smile as we met them, the woman embracing me tightly. I looked at David, tears of happiness in my eyes. I saw one of the men knock him unconscious. Then there was a flash of pain, and the world went dark.
My hands were bound.
I opened my eyes.
David did not.
My vision cleared. God. The smell of death was on me once more, paired with the awful scent of burning.
No, not burning. Cooking. It smelled like meat. My stomach growled in betrayal at the smell. My eyes, still loyal to me, began to tear as they fell upon David. My sweet David. His eyes were closed, as if he were merely sleeping. If his head hadn’t been lying alone in the dust I could have fooled myself that it was so. His hands and feet lay near his head, discarded. Offal.
I saw them feast upon my savior. I opened my mouth to howl my despair and the taste of him was on my tongue in moments. I closed my mouth, but too late.
The beasts had become cannibals. Killing and eating what few of us were left. My hands were bound, and my lips were sealed. I sobbed silently for days until they finally came to me.
It was the woman. The one who’d embraced me. Traitor. She was eating us. For days I had stared at their demonic campsite. David had not been their first meal. Somehow they had found and massacred other survivors. I hated her. I hated her for what she had brought us to.
I hated her for thinking of it first.
She began to check me, looking for the choice meat she would soon chew on. I tried to struggle, but it was no use. My diet had weakened me. She was bigger, stronger. Nourished by the souls of God knows how many. I opened my chapped lips and spoke. My voice was weak, a mere croak. She did not answer me, and I tried again. Some would ask her why, I suppose, but I already knew the answer. I could have yelled at her for what she did to David. Screamed. But I didn’t. I asked for her name. She smacked me across the face, told me not to speak. Almost pleaded. It was then that I saw it. That one, tiny glimpse of humanity. Nobody wants to know that their food could feel. Nobody wants to kill someone with a family. It was a small window, but it was worth a shot.
I told her of my family, of my daughter. The tears sprang to my eyes unintentionally. I cried so often these days. It was a wonder I had any tears left to cry. She slapped me. I nodded to David’s discarded remains and told her his name. I told her that he was an artist. She slapped me again. I told her about my baby girl. Another. I told her my age. Another. Harder, this time. A cockroach scuttled over my leg. I told her how much I hated cockroaches. I prepared for another slap, but she was quiet, staring at the roach.
“Don’t we all?” she mused softly, kicking it away. She looked me in the eye for the first time. Her eyes were a stunning shade of blue, and she might have been called beautiful, back when it mattered. She walked away, angrily kicking my saviors head. It bounced toward me, landing a foot from my face. I vomited.
She returned that night, a knife in her hands. I said nothing. I wondered briefly if David had said anything before he died. I wondered what his voice sounded like.
She cut my bonds. Wrists, then feet. And then she stood and turned her back. I sat still, rubbing my raw wrists in confusion. She turned back in exasperation and told me to go. I stood slowly, regaining feeling in my legs. It hurt.
I began to back away, wobbling a little as I did. The woman watched me as I moved. I turned, my feet finally steady and began to jog away.
“I wont free you a second time,” she said, loud enough for me to hear. I didn’t look back. I ran back into the labyrinth of dead city streets and disappeared.
I was alone.
Weeks. Months. I stumbled like one of the living dead. Eating what I could find to stay alive. My eyes were glazed, but I had no more tears. I thought no more thoughts. I merely survived. The roaches were my only companions now, running freely over my body, crunching beneath my feet.
The wind howled. The rain fell. It was winter, and I was alone.
I had stopped counting the days, but a long time after the woman freed me I found another. He was tall, dark haired. He had turned a corner and we had crashed into each other, falling to the ground in a mess of flailing limbs. We stared at each other for a long time, a smile beginning on his lips. I scrambled to my feet and ran, dashing away as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I ignored his confused call. I would not make the same mistake twice. The human race was doomed to extinction and I no longer cared. I didn’t want company anymore. I craved salvation. I wanted to be free.
I ran for a long time.
The rain began to spatter lightly against my face as I came upon an abandoned construction site. My eyes followed the lines of the forgotten architecture, leading upwards toward a giant yellow crane. It was almost majestic, towering over the dead planet. I found it to be beautiful, though I couldn’t explain why. All I know is that I longed to be on that crane, high above the rotting earth.
My feet carried me to the foundation of the giant structure. The yellow metal was cold and wet, fresh upon my clammy hand. I took a deep breath and pulled myself up the slippery ladder. My fingers slid as I climbed upwards, but I was not afraid. I was twenty feet up before I bothered to look down, and when I did I felt only relief. I was getting away, escaping from the death that had plagued me for so long.
A lone cockroach climbed slowly with me, inching itself up the side of the crane. I did not brush it aside. It was almost as if it wanted to escape just as I did, and who was I to deny it?
My body began to tremble as I neared the top. I felt dizzy now as I looked down, and I began to shudder. Perhaps it was simply a reaction, as my mind felt completely clear. I forced my arms to pull me up on top of the crane, crawling my way along the arm. I could see the ground far below. I felt the arm swinging unsteadily in the wind. And I felt peace.
I reached a bar very close to the end of the arm and sat upon it, my feet dangling freely into the void. The cockroach followed me, continuing until it was beside me. It too paused, and I smiled.
The air was clear. For the first time in months I opened my mouth and filled my lungs with fresh air, enjoying the feel of rain upon my skin. It cooled me and the wind surrounded me, whipping my hair and causing my eyes to water.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. I wished the moment could last forever. At last, I felt free. I felt at peace. I raised my arms to the sky and let out a long cry. It was a cry of pain, of sorrow and of joy, all mixed into one. Perhaps it was also a cry of defeat. The universe had won. Humanity had died. Maybe it was a cry of acceptance. This world was for the roaches now. Our time had passed.
I stood slowly, shakily, and moved to the end of the arm. My balance wavered, but I made it. I stood perched on the final rung of the cranes arm and looked out at the world. The thunder rumbled again and the rain began to fall heavily. No more tears. I would not cry again. I looked up at the heavy clouds and regretted that the stars were hidden behind them.
I breathed in deeply, savouring the air and bade farewell to the cockroach. I turned and raised my arms, drifting slowly outward until my feet left the crane.
For a moment, it seemed as if I were floating. My life did not flash before my eyes, nor did the faces of my loved ones. There was simply a moment of weightlessness; of freedom.
Then a crunch. And darkness.
I had found my salvation, stretched and mangled over the dying earth.
I did not open my eyes.