There was a time, before the explosion, when I would lie out on the roof at night and stare up at the stars for hours. I would find my favorite constellations—Ursa Minor and Virgo, Hercules and Ara—and trace them with my index finger, painting pictures on the night sky. I watched in reverent silence as the gods gathered before Ara to swear allegiance to Jupiter and cheered each time Hercules removed the immortal head of the hydra.
It’s been almost three years since I last saw even a single star winking at me from space. I know they must still be out there, beyond the thick, murky clouds covering the sky, but I often wonder if the baby bear has wandered off after a shiny comet or if the virgin finally decided to find out what lay below Orion’s belt now that no one is looking. Just the thought of them keeps me from feeling so alone when the dull glow of the sun fades and everything goes black.
“Just a few more miles and we’ll stop and eat, Lex.”
Lex is my closest friend and travel companion, a ragged Beanie Baby octopus I found in an empty office while scavenging for supplies just after the bomb went off.
“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what I’ve got in store. I know how you like surprises.”
Lex has lost most of his beanie stuffing and hangs rather limply from the chest pocket of my oversized parka, his blank, plastic eyes staring up at me as I trudge across the frozen earth. I’m not crazy, yet. I know full well that Lex doesn’t have a digestive system or possess the cognitive ability to give a shit about surprises, but it helps to talk to someone.
Before I found Lex, I had only myself to talk to and very nearly talked myself right off the edge of a twenty story building when I came to terms with the fact that I’d been left behind. I managed to convince myself that there must be others that didn’t make it on a transport before the explosion, but determined very quickly that I needed to get out of my own head before I lost it.
So, on my way back through the building while digging through desk drawers and cabinets for anything useful, I spotted Lex’s fuzzy, purple, eight armed form lying alone on the bare surface of a black metal desk that appeared to have been stripped clean by it’s last occupant. “Left behind just like me,” I told him with a sad smile as I held him up and examined him. “You’re probably a collector’s item. Well, don’t worry, I’ll protect you from poachers,” I said as I draped his leggy form over my right shoulder.
I carried him like that for a while, turning my head to the side to talk to him throughout the day, but decided I needed to find a better riding place for him when my neck started cramping up. I wanted to be able to see him and the coat I was wearing at the time didn’t have chest pockets, so I found a safety pin in my first aid kit and pinned him to my sleeve, just below the crook of my elbow. After a few months, the safety pin wore through Lex’s soft, cloth tentacle and he fell off while I was walking. I didn’t notice for a good hundred yards as I was so involved in recounting the time my friend Tim and I had gotten caught taking pictures of naked barbie dolls in lewd positions in the high school photo lab.
“When they drug us to the office, I tried to explain to the principal that it was an artistic expression of a perfectly natural and beautiful human function, but Tim just sat in the corner doing a miserable job of stifling the giggles and as soon as we made eye contact I burst out laughing and we both ended up in in-school suspension for two weeks. You’d think— shit!” I exclaimed as I looked down at my sleeve to find a safety pin but no purple octopus hanging from it.
“Dammit, dammit dammit!” My heart began trying to beat it’s way out of my chest as I anxiously scanned the ground behind me. “It’s just a stuffed animal, Danny,” I tried telling myself, but knew it for a lie.
I began retracing my steps, combing every inch of the ground I had just covered. Fortunately, the thick layer of frost on the ground left a clear set of footprints to follow, but I had no idea when he had fallen off so this didn’t do much for my state of panic. After a few tense, silent minutes I spotted Lex lying on the frozen ground a few feet from my path, a scattering of tiny white beads around him.
“Oh, thank God, there you are. You very nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t ever, ever do that again.” As soon as I knelt down and saw his tiny face smiling up at me, my eyes welled up and a lump formed painfully in my throat. In that moment, my vision blurry and my hands trembling, I thought maybe I had finally lost it. Then I remembered standing on the edge of that building so many months before, alone and afraid and ready to jump and I knew I wasn’t crazy, just human.
When I picked Lex up, a thin stream of beads came pouring from one tentacle. I quickly turned him over and very deliberately tucked him into my coat pocket, then got down on my knees to gather up his insides. Once I was satisfied that I had found every last bead, I proceeded to stuff them back into his damaged tentacle one at a time, then I used the safety pin to close it up.
For the next few days, I carried him securely in my right hand where he couldn’t unexpectedly work himself free. Since then, he’s hung from my hat, ridden in a fanny pack and even dangled from a contraption that suspended him right in front of my face. Over the last two years he’s lost a lot of weight and faded to a pale lavender color, but his bright, plastic eyes and goofy perma-smile are as good as new.
When I’m not conversing with Lex, I’m usually praying. You might think I’d have given up on God by now, but I figure he’s the only reason I’m still alive. Yeah, I’m cold and alone, but I always seem to stumble on a food store when I need it and the bomb sterilized everything, so I haven’t been sick since I came out of stasis. For all I know, everyone else died in an asteroid storm or got attacked by some angry, territorial alien race as soon as they left the solar system.
“Can you imagine being cooped up in a space transport for three years with twenty million people, Lex? All that recycled air and astronaut food. It looked awfully cramped in the vids. If the aliens don’t get ‘em, they’ll probably end up killing each other.”
I often wonder how my family’s doing out there. I try to picture what my baby sister Sara looks like. I never got to see her after she was born. I just hope growing up on a spaceship doesn’t make her retarded or something. It can’t be good to spend the first years of your life without sunlight and birds and rainstorms. I’m sure they planned for that sort of thing, though.
“God, please watch over mom and Robby and little Sara. Let them make it to New Earth safely and let everything work out like the government promised. And please let them postpone the final phase of the cleansing until they’ve sent a probe back to find me. Thanks for providing food and water and warmth for me all this time. Also, please let that house up ahead be full of sex starved supermodels. And ripe grapefruit. Amen.”
“Everything is going according to schedule, President Liston. The last transport is docking at Bravo Station as we speak and everyone is accounted for.”
“Were there any survivors back on the planet?”
“I’m still awaiting the final report, but the first sweep showed no signs, sir.”
“Alright, Colonel, as soon as you’ve confirmed, you can begin the procedures for the final stage. We can’t afford to wait any longer. “
Colonel Brixton turned from the vidcom screen as soon as the president’s face winked out and reached for a bottle of bourbon. He filled a highball glass to the rim and picked it up, spilling some on the table. In his other hand he picked up a sheaf of papers labeled “Final Probe Results”. It had been delivered to him several minutes before the president’s call and he hadn’t had time to digest the contents.
“One survivor, human, located thirty four degrees North, a hundred and four degrees West,” Brixton read aloud for the third time. “Sonuvabitch. Thirteen more months at least before we can extract him. By then the whole place will be crawling with bugs. He probably won’t survive the first wave anyway.” The colonel stared at the page for several minutes before downing the rest of his whisky. “I need another drink.”
“Mommy, mommy! Look, look! A flawa!” exclaimed a little girl carrying a small, purple flower, running barefoot across the grass toward a woman and a young man sitting on a blanket. She stopped in front of the woman. “Look, it has one, two, fwee, fo, five, six, seven, eight—eight popple petals,” she said with a huge smile.
“It’s beautiful, Sara. Here, let me put it in your hair,” the mother said quietly, taking the flower from the girl and weaving it into her braids. “Perfect,” she smiled, sitting back to admire her work. Behind her smile, a glint of sadness entered her eyes. “Your brother Danny would love it. Purple is his favorite color.”
“When is Danny going to come, mom?” asked the boy sitting next to her on the blanket.
“Soon, Robby. The last transport just docked this morning.”
“Can we throw him a welcome home party? We could have a cake and balloons and everything!”
“We’ll see. Why don’t you take your sister back to the house and wash up for dinner.”
As the children ran toward the house, the woman took her phone from her purse and replayed a news vid she had received less than an hour before.
“Breaking news. Colonel Allen Brixton announced at a press conference just minutes ago that the final probe revealed no survivors on Earth. Proceedings have officially begun to initialize the final phase that will…” She let the phone fall onto the blanket, burying her head in her hands as tears streamed down her face.
Today was my eighteenth birthday. I treated myself to a cigarette and some tequila. I’ve been saving both for a few weeks. I figure you can smoke in the states at eighteen and you can drink in Europe at eighteen and since there aren’t really any boundaries any more, I might as well combine the two. I’ve never smoked or drank before, but I figure today’s as good an occasion as any to start. Lex and I dined on Hormel chili, creamed corn and Moon Pies for dinner. I’ve been saving those for a while, too. I miss my family something awful. My mom used to make a themed cake for my birthday every year. The last one looked like a soccer field, with nets and players and crowded stands, even. That was my fifteenth birthday, three months before I went into stasis to prepare for the trip to New Earth. I can still taste that cake.
he puts the pen to the paper
and he scribbles a line
wondering what it would be like
if he weren't still doin' time
up in the penitentiary
with all the thugs and the freaks
and people put away for slingin'
dope and guns on the streets
Tommy only pulled the trigger
in an act of defense
the simple fact that he's still locked up
doesn't make any sense
he was a model citizen,
he always kept to himself
he never bothered anybody,
operated in stealth
he had a couple hundred dollars
in the bank but his wealth
wasn't contained inside a vault,
no it was in how he felt
about the only person he could ever
claimed to have loved
her name was Kat and she was sent to him
from God up above
he paid a visit to her condo
on a cold day in march
never suspecting that the weather
was about to turn harsh
he knocked a couple times before
he put his hand on the knob
thats when he heard from deep inside
the house the sound of a sob
he kicked the door off of it's hinges
without giving a thought
and like a bolt of lightning
vaulted up the stairs to the loft
what he found there haunts him to
this very day makes him cold
drives all the warmth out of his body,
knocks the wind from his soul
but though he knows there wasn't anything
that he could have done
he lays the blame upon himself
thinking that if he had run
instead of strolling through the park
and flippin' shit with his boys
he might have made it there in time
to save his Helen of Troy
reality’s troops have invaded my dreams
taking fantasy captive and damming up streams
of consciousness flowing with water of life
bringing famine and war to a land free of strife
he sits on a branch in a tree way up high
looking out at the birds as they play in the sky
and he’s hoping that someday he’ll learn how to fly
twenty years later he sits on a plane
looking out at the birds as they play in the rain
realizing with sadness, it’s just not the same
have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? i haven’t. nor have i ever been awakened by a crowing cock at the crack of dawn or listened quietly to the wind whispering through the willows.
i have, on the other hand, been subjected to four letter words flung angrily from passing cars, woken to the crack of gunshots at 2 a.m. and listened impatiently to the clamoring of the L train rolling through my neighborhood.
the unceasing sounds of the city serve as ever present reminders of the inexhaustible force of life coursing through every street, skyscraper and subway tunnel. these same sounds, over time, have become meaningless white noise that i tune out, thereby ceasing to acknowledge the humanity that surrounds me. i plug my ears with headphones to block out the din and have in turn come to ignore the quiet cries for help all around me.
the homeless man on the corner is just a soundless simulacrum on the sidewalk, the bag lady in the park the star of a silent film. the raffish middle schoolers smoking cigarettes behind the school no longer elicit even a shake of my head, but instead have become an accepted aspect of the moving scenery.
i long to escape this cacophonous conurbation, not with permanence, but simply for a time, to find proper perspective and ultimately to regain an amplified awareness of each note in the city’s ceaseless song.
(i original wrote this last year for the NW Pocket Muse Project that unfortunately never went anywhere.)