“It’s just the two of us,” David said, twirling a twig in his hand.
“Three,” I corrected with an empty heart, resigned to my wretched position.
“Don’t say that,” Natalya said. “You don’t know if there are other survivors. We just have to keep looking. That’s it. Just keep looking and we’ll find someone. We can’t possibly be the last people.” She said it with the brightest optimism that it was almost as if this whole thing was a prank and she knew it.
“You’re not,” I said. “Look at me. I’m alive.”
David nodded once and took a long breath, eyes prickling with fresh tears. He said, “You know, after my brother died, I thought it was the end of the world. I didn’t want to return to college. I didn’t want to talk to my parents. I didn’t want to face the world. Then the plane started hurling to earth, and I thought, for a second, that if anyone should die, I wanted to be the one. It just made sense. I would see my brother again.”
“And then I changed my mind, because it wasn’t only my parents counting on me. It was… it was Rose. I didn’t think the plane crash was caused by a… by a nuclear war!” He shouted out the words in anger, flinging his twig to knock against total destruction. Natalya had just explained their situation. For a while it was silent, while David breathed. “She was waiting for me, so I knew I had to live, even in bad shape, I had to survive, so that I could tell her I loved her.” He shook his head in distress. “I love her.”
I could feel myself crumble with his every word. “I love you too,” I said as loud as I could. “David, you need to listen closely. I love you, and you need to know that. I always did, from the moment you kissed me. I love you.” I said it again and again and again, my voice not tiring out because, really, I had no voice.
Natalya was shaking, her dark face red and wet with tears. “I’m so sorry, David,” She said. “You don’t deserve this. Rose should have lived. She should have lived and it’s all my fault. I should have been there when the exhibition building was blown…”
It hadn’t seemed that blown up, but the way Natalya said it made it seem like the whole building had been wiped out of the earth. Faint wisps of memory floated in and out of my mind, and I tried to catch them, only I was flailing hopelessly. I couldn’t remember what I had thought the moment before my soul became truly detached from my body.
Natalya, David and I were all perched atop rocks behind the school. It was the only place they had been able to find without having to stare at the ruins of the world.
David looked up at the darkening sky, smoke and clouds mixed so that I couldn’t tell if it was about to rain, or if it was just pollution giving the sky that bleak and dreary color.
“It’s getting dark,” David said.
Natalya’s voice was small. “I know.”
“We need to keep warm tonight if we’re going to live to see tomorrow.”
“It’s summer time…” Natalya started, but David was already getting up. Her eyes followed his moving figure. “Where are you going?”
David pointed to a clump of trees nearby. “You stay here and keep watch for survivors. I’m going to get some firewood. I was a boy scout, you know. This stuff isn’t hard for me.”
I’d never even had the chance to know that he’d been a boy scout.
“I was never a girl scout,” Natalya said.
“I was,” I told them.
David was off in a second. I was tempted to follow him, but Natalya looked so shaken that I didn’t think it would be right to leave her, even if she thought she was completely alone. I was still there, in spirit at least. It had to be enough until I found a way to tell my friends I was alive. There had to be some way.
The sun had gone beyond the horizon by the time David made his way back to the rocks with a pile of wood beneath an arm. He made a fire easily, as if he did it every day. I would have thought so too if I hadn’t spent so much time with him the past few months.
“I don’t understand how you’re here,” David said.
I perked up, eyes wide. “You can see me?”
Natalya pulled her thick hair over a shoulder. “You mean, you don’t understand how I survived. Honestly, it was pure luck I was in Mr. Abbott’s office at the time. He wanted to speak to me about applying for the national tennis team at the school. As a freshman, this came as a complete shock. I mean, I had never been recognized for my talents before. I’d kind of given up actually, where I’m from. My family… they never understood my affinity for sports.
“I accepted Mr. Abbott’s offer immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t? And then, from outside, we could hear panicked voices. I wanted to go outside and see what was going on, but Mr. Abbott wouldn’t let me. He told me to go under his desk and open the hidden bomb shelter underneath, as if he knew what was about to happen. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t for sure but wanted to be safe. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I did what he asked, and he was about to climb in, when suddenly his face glowed red and he slammed the door shut. I was left in the darkness and I stayed for, I don’t know, an hour before I felt ready to leave. Mr. Abbott was gone when I came out… as was the rest of the world.”
David stared at her for several seconds, processing what she’d said. I found the look he gave her something of an annoyance. “You were brave, extremely brave, to be able to watch that.”
Only then did I realize that Natalya’s eyes were full of water.
David didn’t hesitate. He dropped the last branch he had in the fire and grabbed Natalya in a hug. “Don’t cry,” He said. “It’ll all be okay. Besides, you’re right. There has to be survivors. The world doesn’t just end. If we’re alive, then there must be others. We just got hit pretty close to the bomb,” He ended stonily.
“Why do you think that is?” Natalya asked, sniffing as she settled back onto her rock once David had let her go.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“It’s just, I’m thinking about all the other times an atomic bomb has been dropped, and they’ve been in pretty significant cities: Hiroshima, Nagasaki… Why here, in such a small town as well? It’s not like we hold the headquarters of the government or anything.”
I wondered about that too. My brain, for a second, twitched towards the nasty idea that it might have something to do with Justin’s experiment, but I hung back from it. Justin’s experiment had nothing to do with nuclear activity.
“I don’t know.”
Natalya stared at the licking flames near her feet. “It’ll be a mystery for us then, one we could solve. I… I don’t really want to talk about it anymore though.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
I went up to David’s face. “Why don’t you hear me? Why can’t you open your eyes for one second?” I asked in desperation. No response.
When my brother and I were young, we used to be the best of friends. I remember clearly as we rode up and down on the elevators at our apartment, staring at the never-ending reflections in the mirrors on either side. “Why are there so many of me?” I would ask.
My brother would look at my reflection with bug eyes. He would point at the mirror with a finger as if it were obvious. “It means you’re many people.” When I frowned, he would add, “As in, on the inside. You’re many people, and you get to choose who you are and what you do and what happens.”
“But I look the same.”
“Aren’t you listening, Rosy?” My brother’s voice would be frustrated here. “Inside. All those people are a little bit different inside.”
I thought about it for a second before questioning him again, “So when I choose which one I want to be, I’ll only see one of me?”
My brother put a hand to his forehead and refused to explain anymore.
Laughing to myself at this experience, I thought about the meaningful words of that six-year-old boy. I understood what he had meant now. Never would I stop choosing who I was, because something, an event, a thought, a realization, they could all alter me, even in the slightest sense.
I hated this change.
If there was one thing I loathed the most, it was not being heard. I didn’t mind being invisible, I didn’t mind the world having exploded. But the fact that nobody could hear me made me irate.
In discussions in high school, people heard my propositions, but nobody ever listened. I may have been what others called ‘popular’, but I was never known as the girl who had any thoughts.
It had all been going so well.
College was the place for me, I had decided. Natalya, Justin, and David. They were enough. They were everything I needed to make an improvement to my attitude. And debate? It was perfect. It represented everything I wanted and more. To be listened.
David was speaking, and I tuned my ear back to the world.
“I’ve known you for almost a year,” He said, “Yet I don’t know where you’re from.”
Natalya smiled, and I felt myself want to smile at how strange the question seemed. She said, “I’ve lived in the United States my entire life. I’ve never left it. But I’m also from everywhere. I know I’m part African, and part Native American, as well as part European, and even part Indian. My family is quite diverse, I should say.”
“You’re not the only one.” Here, I learned that David seemed to be from everywhere as well, since his ancestors migrated from Scandinavia to China with a missionary party and integrated there before migrating back to the West, and then down into Egypt, then to England, and finally joining in the voyage to the New World, when people felt like immigrating was the best chance of success.
“I’m from perhaps two places,” I said to their unspoken question. “My mother is Mexican, and she moved to California when she fell in love with my father, who came from the East, in New York. I don’t know much about my heritage, actually, not like the two of you do, anyway.”
They were from anywhere and everywhere. I found myself envying them.
Natalya said softly, “Do you think God chose the two of us to survive for a reason? Do you think that, maybe, He wanted the human race to carry on, but didn’t want to lose its diversity?”
“Stop,” David said, scowling. He rubbed his forehead. “Please, just stop.”
I looked at his grave face, knowing his mind was frantic with confusion.
Natalya started. “Oh, no, David, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything. I was just thinking out loud. I do that a lot. I really do. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”
David just nodded.
“I’m sorry,” Natalya told him once more.
It was dark by now, the sun gone. Natalya shivered and folded her arms about herself in an attempt to keep warm.
David said, “I’m just going for a short walk. Keep the fire going. I’ll find you. I’ll be back.” His tone was slightly harsh, but another emotion managed to find a way through. I caught the mourning feeling he couldn’t rid himself from and quickly drifted after him.
He walked with his hands in his pockets. I noticed he was limping slightly, probably from an injury he had suffered on the plane. My first instinct was to ask if he was okay, but I kept my thoughts to myself. Why try to speak if I knew there was no chance of David ever answering back? It would be like talking to a wall.
“Natalya didn’t mean it,” David whispered.
I sidled up to his head, peering at every sad line on his face, the watery eyes, the downturned mouth, the unshaven chin. “I know,” I said. “David, don’t worry about it too much. I’ll find a way back to you. Just wait and see.”
His voice seeped into the wilderness. “Why do I always feel like you’re watching my every move? Why do I feel like you’re judging me, each step I take, each word I…” He began to cry.
I tried to wrap myself around him, and imagined that he felt my presence, even though his body didn’t stop shaking. I wasn’t even completely sure he was talking to me, but I took it in as if he were. “You know I’m here,” I said, hopeful. “You can sense me, can’t you?”
After several minutes, David got his act together. I watched him do it too. He acted like himself, as anyone does when they’re on their own, and I was pleased to see that he didn’t seem much different. Only much… sadder, which was unavoidable, and I wished with all my heart that I could mend him, at least a little bit, so that he wouldn’t have to feel so much like a vacant cave.
We rejoined Natalya, who was having a bit of trouble keeping the fire lit; it had tumbled down to a few embers, and she backed away embarrassed when David took over. Memories of being a girl scout, such an old tradition of mankind, wafted through my thoughts jovially.
“You know those Truth or Dare games?” David asked.
“Of course,” Natalya said.
David chuckled while he poked the slowly growing fire. “I just remember always being asked questions about the end of the world, and what I would do if I were the last person left.”
“The thing is, you never know until it happens.”
“David, I don’t believe it’s the end of the world.”
David gave Natalya a strange look. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t,” Natalya claimed firmly. “We’re alive. That’s something. And we’ve got a live, breathing fire. Look at that.”
They both laughed, lightening the mood for the moment. The branches were igniting now, spitting small spots of fire into the dark night. I watched patiently.
“So what was the point to Truth or Dare?” Natalya asked. “You’re not asking to play are you? Because I’m really not in the mood. Unless you beg. Begging might get me to play.”
David smiled. “No, I wasn’t saying that. I was just remembering a question my brother asked me when I was younger. He asked: ‘What would you feel if the world ended right now and you were the only person alive?’”
“What did you answer?”
“My answer was immediate. I told him: ‘I would feel sad, but there’s nothing I can do about it.’”
Natalya had the beginnings of a smile on her face, the corner of her lip twitching. “Well,” She said, “I think your younger self was very wise. It’s all about resignation, isn’t it? Simply… accepting our fate.”
“To a certain degree.”
I tried to calm my nerves, the building jealousy, the unending solitude.
Natalya laughed. “Yes, to a certain degree.” I heard her stomach grumble, the noise such a thing of the past that I almost thought the world hadn’t ended and that I was simply dreaming it. “Is there any chance of me getting any food tonight? Because I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and I’m starving.”
“Funny thing,” David said. “The last food I had was airplane food. But it was really good, for once. I didn’t see that coming.” He flipped over a branch with the stick he held. “But everything around us answers your question, Natalya.” He waved his stick in a circle horizontal to the ground. “There is no way in hell I’m going to look for food in this darkness.”