She did the calculations in her mind, lying supine on the bus stop bench by the boardwalk. Nearly six hours would be needed to walk the distance between the seaside city of Perla, where she now lay, and the capital city of Matanzas, where she would replenish her stock of food and shower in a stranger’s bunker. To get there, she’d have to travel the dusty coastal road and then the broken ground of the freeways into the city. Speed equal to distance divided by time. Sweat pooled between her breasts underneath her frayed gray wifebeater.
The summer heat was an orange blur behind her closed eyelids. It was nearing noon but she had little interest in leaving her perch. She scratched at her face idly. After a few hours of communion with the salt of the surf and the bitter tang of her sweat, the skin over the bridge of her nose had begun peeling, flaking off in red ribbons like pencil shavings. Her hand dipped down, knuckles grazing the concrete flooring. Towers of clouds cast uneven, bulbous shadows over the planes of her face.
Motion reverberated through the road running parallel to her. She sat up, too quickly. Liquids in her stomach sloshed like waves on rocks. Squinting, her hand a visor over her eyes, she focused on the blurry horizon, where she thought she saw a wobbly dot in the distance, something that in her recent past would have surely resolved into the old municipal bus, its bright white paint flaking off en route, its chocolate-brown seats amiably peopled with sun-bathers from the dirty beach, their faces pressed wetly against the glass. The memory of it felt like a rare caress from a man not known for his tenderness.
She flinched, then sighed. She kept her eyes glued to the road for longer than reason allowed. Finally, she lowered her hand to her lap. No bus was forthcoming. What she had felt had been summoned not by reality, but by déjà vu and its disciples: Despair, hope, expectation, desire. Desire, desire. Starving emotions, lined up in a row, hands out. Each in turn felled by the harsh edge of a red-eyed sword.
She had taken the bus here as a girl. Or had she? She no longer knew which of her memories had been tainted by the agile, calloused hands of imagination. Had she fallen asleep against the window, drool on the edge of her mouth, her dreams edged in peach-colored light, full of white-winged birds in flight, lovingly painted in gray and cream against a baby blue sky, as though by the hand of God? Had she heard her mother’s voice waking her from sleep, drawing her out of the dream like a chain did an anchor?
She stood up and examined her things. A backpack with a cartoon dog printed in a repeating pattern. She had filled the zippered main pocket with four 1-liter water bottles and every remaining pocket with strawberry-flavored protein bars. She fished a half-empty bottle out and used its contents to rinse herself off, pulling at her shirt collar to pour tepid water down her chest. She adjusted her hat—a baseball cap from a ransacked burger joint in Matanzas, taken from a dusty coat rack—over her eyes and squared her shoulders.
She looked around at the altar of the ocean. The sand, sky and waves were nestled around it like devotees. It was a place that had managed to stay mysteriously, mystically clean, despite the damage done to other corners of the natural world, like a temple that escapes, without ready explanation, the ruination of its city. But the prevailing sentiment that filled her body when she looked upon it was neither love nor awe, but profound apathy. Her apathy was like a thick, opaque liquid filling a jug until fat and viscous drops pearled over the rim, leaving no space for air within. Its darkness was total and absolute.
She liked to think her apathy was the punishment she was choosing to level at the present circumstances. She could forgive the collapse of the world, but not the boredom of the apocalypse. It was nothing like the movies or the books, lacking heroic, bloody struggle, painful toil, the pathos of revelation, the desolation of an end. Even the thundering, passionate realization of meaninglessness was denied her. Nihilism wasn’t as glamorous in the apocalypse; now that it had been proven correct, its philosophical richness had evaporated. Yeah, she knew nothing mattered. This knowledge wasn’t the dramatic renunciation of the burning bush that she had expected. It was all just—boring.
Hair lifted by the wind, gaze on the broken tar, hands in threadbare pockets, she moved forward with no real interest, as though she were pacing her old bedroom, feet dragging with every step. The shattered freeways were pot-holed and moss-covered, spooling out like carpets of tarry velvet. During the magic hour, they shone like dark glass under the pinkish, reddish sunlight that belted the horizon. True beauty, though she knew better than to study the sky too closely.
Whatever they had seeded the clouds with to remove the gas had left behind a permanent mark right above the horizon. It was placed in the lower left-hand quadrant of the firmament. It looked roughly the size of the Big Dipper. Like painted eyes on canvas, the mark never changed its position, no matter how you approached it. It was a thick, blurry stripe of black during the pink dawns, the moody noons, the amethyst evenings. A coming cyclone, forever hovering there at the edge of her vision, carved there by human technocrats with space-age spray guns. Only at night was she spared of its presence. She hid during sudden rain, because she had never learned what substances the mark could leech into precipitation, and there wasn’t anyone left willing to get on the television news to explain to the survivors what dangers remained in their warped world. Television news. Now those were words she hadn’t thought of in a long time.
The day creased into a drowsy evening. The absence of light pollution and car exhaust had turned dusks in the apocalypse into visions of sulky, jewel-toned splendor, though they were admired by few now. She had made her way to the outskirts of a bedroom suburb of Matanzas. She’d covered four miles in as many hours. Standing at the opening of a tree-lined drive, she thought she smelled the sea: its fetidness, its sourness. It stuck in the back of her throat, like something rotting. It occurred to her that this smell might not be the sea at all. It occurred to her that these houses might hold bodies.
Moonrise generated enough light for her to see all the many gifts of lost suburbia. The emerald lawns, now turned to dust and mulch. The enameled doors like iron-wrought gates to a castle. Hand-glazed shingles and shutters in an array of pastel tones. Pale violet, summer peach, creamy ivory, eggshell blue. The windows were all shattered now. Broken doors hung on single hinges. She made camp in a front yard, sitting on ground that was more dirt than grass. She chewed on a protein bar methodically, joylessly. She bit her tongue by accident, the flavors of strawberry and blood comingling gruesomely in her mouth.
The night cloaked her in its encroaching shell of darkness. When the fireflies came out they spiraled in the air, a few drifting toward her. Tiny spits of light flickering in the misted blue. She tried to to imagine the workings of their segmented eyes as they took in drifts of color, changes in weather, shifts in cloud cover. The patchwork made by uneven squares of grass, clumps of dirt. The flags laid by fallen petals. She extended a hand, scattering them immediately though she’d meant it as a gesture of reassurance, of welcome. The fireflies distanced themselves quickly, disappearing into the cover of the trees. She tried, with limited success, not to take their rejection personally.
When she felt the rain against her skin, the bolt of fear that entered her was enough to temporarily solder her to the ground, as though a steel column had dropped out of the seeded sky and nailed her to the grass. Gasping, she began crawling toward the edge of the lawn, on hands and knees, searching for shelter. She found it under a trio of misshapen apricot trees, the overgrown patch of grass underneath thick with the remains of fallen fruit. Her breathing slowed as she pulled herself into a ball, her knees pressed to her chest. The fear abated, quickly replaced by apathy, and a twinge of embarrassment.
In the gap left between her abject terror and its defeat, she was stunned at herself, at how briskly she could swing between the pure softness of human feeling and pure hardness of its absence. Like waking from a powerful dream that immediately dissipated into abyssal nothing. Like acid dissolving chunks of matter. The rain fell in dense spurts, like a malfunctioning hose. Some got through the tree cover and dribbled on her. She let the droplets run down her face, where they left wet-looking stripes that lasted for days after.
Looking out from the thin comfort of the grove, onto the lawn looted by rain, soil eroding onto the empty road, the chill of the rain biting down, the scattered branches and their shadows took on a new shape. The wind ricocheted through the empty houses, and in its distorted sound she thought she heard the rumbling of a car. A silver Honda Civic, the family vehicle, rushing through wet leaves and gutter trash, with her inside. She remembered, briefly, how it had felt to be a child in the previous world, shepherded frictionlessly across miles of land, in a climate-controlled chamber of stamped steel, with the absolute certainty that the future was a promised and crystalline thing. Now darkness had subsumed it all and metabolized both her past and the future into a gruel of dust and flesh.
Tomorrow, she’d go into Matanzas and prowl its empty streets. She’d check one of the hundred bunkers abandoned by the city’s upper crust. Where they lived now, she didn’t know—though she’d heard once that, underground, they’d built hydroponic farms, honeycomb cities, and a geothermally-powered sun that shined forever onto an artificial beach with foam-tipped waves churned dutifully by machine. She’d take what was in the bunkers to replace the strawberry protein bars. Then she’d walk the road back to Perla again and kneel again in the waters of the ocean, which despite being unsoiled and peerless, had failed to purify anything.