It was the birds first. We woke to find them dotting our yards one morning at the end of winter, wings limp, dead, like phantom lawn ornaments strewn across the grass. A disease, we figured, rubbing the sleep from our eyes. Something biological; chemical, maybe. There were refineries everywhere; nuclear plants never quite far enough away. It was unnerving, yes, but still, it was only birds, and these things happened; we had places to go, lives to attend to.
But in our cars on the ride to work or between rigid seats on the school bus, as our feet beat the path to the local supermarket, stroller in front of us, we saw only bewildered faces surrounding us. When we turned on the television or opened our phones to track the news, we saw pictures of neighborhoods just like ours with dead birds coating their streets, loose feathers waltzing in the wind. We heard reports from cities where the falling animals had cracked windows in skyscrapers; we watched videos where the bodies of pigeons, bloated and sometimes oozing, were swept into piles and pushed out of the way of pedestrians making their way in and out of the buildings that kept the world running. All of the birds, everywhere, all at once. Something, certainly. We waited.
A month later, after the birds had been cleaned up and the memory of that morning had drifted towards the murk in the back of our minds, to that place where we discarded things that frightened us too much to ruminate on — the odd lumps in our abdomen that we prayed weren’t tumors, the strange names whispered by our spouses in their sleep — the trees changed. All winter they had been skeletons against the sky, and now, finally, they had bloomed back into clouds of green atop their trunks, and the bushes that separated our houses from our neighbors came full with leaves and flowers.
But just as soon as they looked fully alive, they began to reverse. The leaves started to lose color and wilt, as if it were autumn again. By mid-April we were out in the yard raking. The children, if they were young enough, ran and played in the piles, jumping into the mess, too small to be aware of the oddness of autumn leaves in April. The rest of us — the teenagers, sons and daughters in colleges in different cities, grown children that lived in our parents’ basements, our husbands and wives — were aware enough to be worried. Theories were whispered over dinner. We began to speak the worst-case scenarios aloud. Bio-terror. A tipping point for the climate. Perhaps something worse, something so sinister that it could not even be named or conceived of with the language we possessed.
At night, we watched the news together, leaning close together to feel each other’s bodies, always there to reassure us. Investigations were underway, the reporters said. The best minds in the world were hard at work. It was simply a problem to be solved, and after all, we were a species of problem solvers, weren’t we? We told ourselves, and each other, to relax. To stay calm and wait it out. Still, at night, in our beds, alone or next to our loved ones, hidden behind closed doors, we stayed awake. Wondering.
Every day became cloaked in a sense of the unreal as the warnings continued to mount.
The cats went next.
We threw parties and began to drink more than usual, more than we ever had before. Invited friends over, joked of the end of the world, because if we could laugh this hard about it, then surely it couldn’t be true. We tongued our neighbor’s spouses in hallways between trips to the refrigerator, just to catch a glimpse of what another life might have been. We fumbled in the backseats of cars with the boys from school long after our parents had gone to sleep because what was the point in waiting now? What was there to save ourselves for? We stole beer from our parents, pot from our older sisters and brothers, got trashed in the woods and threw up and didn’t bother to hide the stink when we crawled home and into bed. We let loose. We drugged it away.
Our dogs stopped venturing outside when the door was open; they stopping barking too. Instead, they tucked themselves into closets or hid in our unfinished basements. Soon they were dead too, and still we told ourselves that there was time, someone would do something, someone probably already was. This wasn’t how it would end. Surely not. When the end came it would be louder, more calamitous. Not like this. Not so quiet.
The gas masks were delivered in the dead of night so as not to cause unnecessary panic. A box outside each home when we woke; the number of masks inside corresponded to the most recent census data. At the bottom of each box was a set of instructions for use, a phone number to call if you needed extras or replacements, and a warning, in thick capital letters, to wear them at all times.
It was this that finally confirmed what we ourselves had been too afraid to say for so long now: the air was bad. Spoiled. Whatever it was, it would get us too, just as it had the birds and the trees and the dogs.
We pulled our masks on, fastened them tight, the visors tinting the world into orange so that the dead grass in our yards looked like it was on fire with life. We didn’t go out much anymore, unless we had to. The parties stopped. When we hugged, the silicone of the masks clinked against one another, got stuck together.
Rationing protocol was announced. Queued up in the shopping marts, we looked like ghosts of old soldiers, pushing carts full of metal tins and powdered milk.
We hoped the water would stay on.
We did a lot of praying, but it wasn’t until people started dying that we began to taper off. Some held on longer than others. By then, maybe there wasn’t anyone listening anyway. Where were the signs of wonders in the sky? Where were the wars, the rumors of wars, the nations rising against each other? The judgment? We would have taken damnation if only to know that we weren’t alone.
Life moved in slow motion now. One day a neighbor would wave to us from their window, the closest we came to any human contact outside of our homes, the next day they were face down at the kitchen table, mask still on. The ambulances stopped removing the bodies. There were too many, it was too risky, all that exposure, and besides, there were no funerals anymore.
We taped over the cracks that outlined our door frames and windows. Barricaded our fireplaces so no air could sneak in. We ate fast to limit time without our masks on. We lived in shadow, watching television until the stations stopped broadcasting, and then we lived without knowledge. Mostly we held each other.
In our final prayers, if we had any, we turned to fury. If compassion could not rouse the almighty, perhaps anger could. We blasphemed, cursed, and damned all that was out there, all that had led us to believe we had been crafted for any sort of purpose. Because it this was really how it ended, then what had any of it meant? All those dead throughout history, all the noble and the cruel and the innocent, all to count for nothing in the end. All of the time spent striving for goodness, aiding our fellow human and denying our basest impulses, and still we would not be saved. We were as insignificant as we had feared. The universe was unconcerned with us. We knew then that we were praying to nothing. God was a night light, a torch held close to guard against the blackness of death. But the flame had burned out.
Some of us packed and left. Drove anywhere but where we were. Set course for the mountains, or the flatlands, rolling yellow hills of dry grass. Some of us packed all we had, collected as much clean water as we could in old milk and soda cartons. Some took nothing at all. Some stayed, and we broke into abandoned stores and stole all the things we had never been able to afford. If there wasn’t much time left at least we would be entertained, live the life that had been denied us. None of it mattered. This thing would find us all, in due time. A small pinch at the back of the throat, a nerve tingling up the side of the face, towards the eyes. And then dark, and the faint murmur of being erased, a sound which may not have even been a real sound, though in each of our last thoughts we swore we heard it.
In the end there was so little. As the neighbors left and the cities grew quiet, as the number of cars dwindled and bodies lay in the street, no animals to pick at them, we began to take the burden up ourselves. At least then we would be in control.
We drew straws to see who would keep watch to ensure that everything worked, leaving them to take the final turn alone. We rigged belts to pipes and wooden beams. Took all the pills we had and chased them with whatever booze was left. Used sharp objects if we really wanted to feel it.
Our children looked at us, not knowing what they were swallowing, and we smiled at them and told them to lie down once they began to feel drowsy. Our husbands kissed and held us before bed and told us that they’d see us in the morning, there was always a chance tomorrow would be better, never letting on that when we woke we would find them stiff and cold. When the sun rose, we woke and walked the halls to our parents’ rooms, still in our pajamas, and wondered why they did not rise when we shook them.
Who would take care of us now?
Maybe those of us that were left who couldn’t turn our hands against ourselves were simply weak. It didn’t matter. In those last days we drove to the sea, if we were near enough. We sat on towels and watched the waves, one after another, endlessly moving back into the mass of water, a single moment of individuality receding back into the communal mass of water. Here and gone, but still there, formless.
We watched our children build in the wet sand, the slushy green and white foam of the water. We watched them toss the dead fish that had washed onto the shore at one another like some nightmare of dodge ball, and they laughed and we did too. Laughter, at least, was still ours. The fine grains of sand scratched at our skin, got between our toes. We held hands as we slipped the masks off our heads so that we could kiss again, remembering the feeling, so hard to describe in its beauty and so simple to describe in its action, of feeling another’s cheek against our own, the sun warming skin that had been shielded for too long. The ocean moved, out and in, out and in. We waited.