Image Description: Two women sit on a cliff in a red, desolate wasteland.
I sit cross-legged on the edge of a cliff merely hours before the world ends with trumpets in my ears and a severed index finger in my palm.
The song replays. Even as fire swallows the forests under my feet, the song I downloaded to this phone when I was fifteen survives. In the wake of billions of deaths, somehow, Phoebe Bridgers lives on. I would smile, but I’m not sure my cracked lips are capable of stretching anymore. They barely manage a twitch before falling back.
I rub my thumb over the nail of the slender pale finger. The nail is painted black (where did they get nail polish?), and as I lift it up to the blood red sunlight, it gleams. The contrast of the colors reminds me vaguely of Halloween, when I’d watch horror movies about apocalypses and laugh at their improbability. I set the finger next to mine and decide, hours before my death, to compare our lives.
The pad of the tip is calloused. Mine is as smooth as it’s ever been.
For a moment, I’m angry my finger isn’t blistered, angry that the death I’ve witnessed, the pain and grief I’ve encased in a clear glass heart so someone – anyone – will stop and stare at it, hasn’t carved a physical mark on my body. Then I blink and remember the gash on my mother’s face, a souvenir from when we were trampled under the crowds ransacking the only convenience store left in our area in the early days. She was left with a crimson slash across her left cheek and under her eye.
My mother carried the scar with grace, but we both knew what it was: a perpetual reminder of how tightly darkness can latch onto humanity’s hearts.
My mother’s dead now.
It’s barely been a month. She died on the same date my father did a year ago. If I had the energy or the strength, I’d assign some meaning to that, but an apocalypse tends to burn any notions of fate out of you relatively quickly.
The nail of the finger is long and healthy. Mine is raw and chewed up, the skin around it scabbed over.
Both of our fingers are coated in the ash that’s been raining from the sky for months.
Snap. A branch cracks under someone’s foot behind me.
I don’t turn around. If it’s someone who wants to kill me, maybe if I ask, they’ll make it quick. I doubt Mother Earth will be that accommodating, however much I beg.
They walk to the ledge next to me. I glance to my right and am greeted with worn-down army green cargo pants and dirty brown sneakers. A closer look reveals embroidered flowers on the side of the shoe. Must have been expensive, at least if they were acquired pre-apocalypse.
They collapse down a few feet away. She has shoulder-length curly mahogany hair. The burnt orange of the sun clings to her golden brown skin. Her almond eyes flicker to me, taking me in.
Why are we both here?
We are not here to jump — there are better places to do that. One of the only bridges left is about a mile away. Death by water is easier than death by fire, we’ve learned.
No, we are both here to feast our eyes on the landscape. From here, you can see the remains of the city across the bay and mountains that curve like sand dunes.
“What’s with the finger?” The girl interrupts the sounds of crackling fire below us.
Glancing down at the appendage in my left hand, I ponder my response.
I used to be an excellent liar. I’d spin stories in a matter of seconds, considered deceit a strength, considered it fun. I’m never alone, I’d confide in my mother on the phone when she asked if I had made any friends. Everyone here loves me.
“I found it washed up on shore,” I say. It’s the truth.
She hums. “I’m Aaliyah,” she says.
We curve away from each other now, back to back like we’re sharing a secret no one else can know we know.
I return to my inspection of the finger. I found it only a few days after my mom slipped away to the bridge at night and never came back.
Every day, I’d walk under the bridge to where the waves of the bay lapped at the soot that blanketed the sand. Every day, I’d lay down in an ocean of grey and roll her unlit cigarettes between my fingers. I’d follow the path of the twisting mass of fire in the distance with my eyes.
On the fourth day, I dug my hands into the sand and grasped something cylindrical and coarse.
I don’t know why I slipped the finger into the worn pocket of my jacket before I left that day, nor do I understand why I threw out the tube of skin cream I’d been rationing for a year to make space for it in my bag.
I like to pretend sometimes that the owner of the finger I’ve stolen is still alive. At least I still have my thumb, she says to her husband. He holds her hand between his and caresses each of the remaining fingers gently. Slides his fingers between hers and holds on tight. At least I still have you, he says.
I don’t know. It’s more fun than thinking about her limp body floating in the bay surrounded by everyone else tired of waiting for the world to kill them.
“I want to pretend to be in love.” Aaliyah’s low voice pulls me out of this particular fantasy.
For a moment, I don’t think I’ve heard her right. It’s been a long time since something surprised me.
“What?” I swivel to face her, but she’s still turned away. She’s hunched over, staring at her hands.
“When I was a kid, I used to think of who I’d like to have with me when the world was ending,” she says.
An involuntary sigh escapes me. Here we go.
“In the end, I settled on my brother. We’d promised to be there for each other till the end of time. To love each other to the moon and back. I figured if there was anyone who’d stick around to the end, it’d be him,” she continues. Lifts her head and meets my eyes.
I remain silent.
“He’s dead now, obviously. But over the years, I realized — I don’t know. I’ve never felt love like in the books, you know?” She searches my face, perhaps to find a kindred spirit in me. I keep my features impassive.
Aaliyah sits back, a little disappointed.
“There’s plenty we’ve missed because the world began to end,” I say. “Why this?”
She purses her lips and and bends her head back toward the sky. Exhales loudly as if I’m being deliberately obtuse. “Because I’m a teenage girl. Because I still want to believe a true love’s kiss will turn back the clock. Because from what little I’ve seen of you, I can tell your eyes are a beautiful hazel and your hair frames your face just right and you’re really fucking pretty. Because I haven’t seen something pretty in a very long time.”
I raise my eyebrows. She smiles, and my glass heart cracks just a little.
“Because I want it,” she finishes.
I shake my head. “You don’t even know my name,” I say. “I might not be gay.”
She lifts her head, then sits cross-legged facing me. “Aren’t you?” she challenges.
I stare her down long enough that some distant part of my mind notices the deep brown, the playful glint, the life in her eyes. I’m looking away from her when I relent. “Yeah.”
From the corner of my eye, I can see her smile again, wider this time. It’s only when I look down that I notice how tight my hand is curled around the finger. I unclench and the blood rushes back into my hand.
“What’s your name, then?” she asks.
“Mara,” I whisper hoarsely.
This time, I can’t resist looking at her. Aaliyah grins, her head tilted a little to the left. A curl falls in front of her eye. I can’t breathe.
“Hi, Mara,” she says, emphasizing the first ‘ah’ just a little more than the second. Her voice lilts on my name. “It’s lovely to meet you.”
My lips twitch a little. This time, when they try to lift up at the edges, they don’t fall back down right away.
I clear my throat and fix my gaze across the bay. “So, how does this work, then? We kiss a little, hold hands?”
She scoffed, affronted. “Absolutely not. If we’re doing this, we have to do it right. I want to know your favorite color, who your gay awakening was — mine was Morgana from ‘Merlin,’ did you ever watch that show? — why you’re clutching on to a severed finger like it’s a fucking life-raft, and then maybe we can kiss.” Her mouth twists into a smirk. “You seem eager to jump to that part of this relationship. Don’t you worry, Mara, we’ll get there. We have all the time in the world, after all.”
An odd sound escapes my mouth. A short exhale, a hiccuped pitch. Her smile grows wider and it takes me embarrassingly long to realize it was the closest I’ve gotten to laughing in a very long time.
“All the time in the world,” I repeat, memorizing the curve of her lips and the fold of her eyelids. My gaze catches on the dimple burrowed in her dark skin. I wonder what demons she hides behind the wide stretch of her mouth. I smile properly this time. “Yes, I’d like to think we do, Aaliyah.”
We sit in comfortable silence for a few minutes before I bring myself to speak. “Green.”
Aaliyah shifts her body to face me head-on and considers my choice. “Lush forests. Emerald. Ivy. Freshly cut grass.” She purses her lips, then nods at me approvingly. “Life.”
“I used to have a sage green silk slip dress. Every time I wore it, my Papa would tell me it made me glow,” I say simply.
“Love,” she acknowledges. The skin around her eyes creases.
Then, without a second of hesitation, “Purple.”
“Royalty,” I comment. “Fitting.” I refuse to acknowledge – to her or myself – why exactly I think it’s so fitting for her.
She narrows her eyes at me, but shakes her head. “Lilac,” she says. “Lavender. Sunset skies. Stained, sticky fingers coated in blackberry juice outside on a perfect summer day.”
I close my eyes, try to envision it in my head. Under the shade of an oak tree in the park with a tupperware filled to the brim with blueberries and strawberries, blackberries and cherries we’d packed haphazardly in the morning. Raya, the love of my brief life, digging deep to find the last raspberry left in the bin. Her eyes dance and her slippery hands cup my face as she leans in close to kiss me.
Then: her violet hair fluttering in the wind before a man who I’d later see shivering under the same shelter my mother and I had found, plunges a pocket knife into her stomach and scours her body for food.
Life and love, I think. And lack thereof.
I jolt back to awareness when I feel Aaliyah’s shoulder brush mine. She shuffles in place to get comfortable next to me, then reaches out to touch my hand.
My mother used to treasure her garden. She’d lead me by hand, whisper the names of every plant in my ear when she’d planted a new one. This one’s called the sleepy plant — Mimosa Pudica, she murmured softly as if she didn’t want to wake the delicately leafed plant we had stopped at. It’s sensitive, Mar-Mar, see? My mother stroked the leaf gently, and it curled inward, closing on itself like the world outside was too much for it to bear.
I am a Mimosa Pudica plant now, trembling as Aaliyah’s fingers brush my open palm. My hand closes into a fist immediately, body taut. I am a leaf and I am glass, my lips pressed together to keep in the gasp that threatens to reveal just how easily I shatter.
Aaliyah’s fingers hover above my clenched hand. I broach a quick glance to her face. She meets my eyes, her eyes curious. I keep my gaze on her as she cradles my fist with one hand and hesitantly pries my fingers open.
She slips her fingers between mine, settles within the crooks of my palm with all the ease of a childhood friend.
Or a lover.
I can tell from the way she looks at me – knowing, gentle – that any attempts to school my face have failed.
Slowly curling my fingers toward the back of her palm, I clutch her with a desperation I didn’t know I was still able to feel.
I take a shaky breath. “I had a pretty late gay awakening, I’d say. My – um, there was a girl called Raya and she asked me out and that was – yeah. That was it.”
She furrows her brows in disbelief. I am all too aware of the steady pressure of her hand on mine. “That’s it? Some girl asks you out and you say yes? Did you guys date after?”
“It happened only a couple months before the first flood. I went home, panicked a little, reevaluated everything I thought I knew about myself, and ended up saying yes to her a week after. It wasn’t as big of a revelation for me as it was for other people, I think. We -” My voice catches. I clear my throat. “We were together for as long as we could be,” I say with a tone of finality.
Aaliyah doesn’t ask what happened to Raya.
“Did you love her?” she asks instead.
“I could have,” I say. “If we had a little more time.”
“Time,” she muses. “How much time do you think we’ll have?”
The fire crackles low. A soft breeze wafts up the familiar scent of burning. Aaliyah’s curls swirl around her face, but she makes no effort to tuck them away.
Since the first flood, I’ve made my way across the country with the persistent feeling that I was running out of time. I surfaced to consciousness, swam and swam and swam and screamed myself hoarse for my parents, but even after I found them, I knew, deep in my tired bones, that it was too late.
I made it through hurricanes and fires. I escaped vicious men looking to fuck their weakness into any unsuspecting body. I survived the death of everyone around me, and yet time has been kinder to me than perhaps others who deserved her leniency more. How much of herself will time give me to love a girl I can tell, even within an hour of knowing her, deserves better?
I want years so I can map Aaliyah’s body, so I can press close and learn her every habit and thought, learn how she has kept herself sane, how she smiles like she isn’t as alone as I am.
I want hours. I don’t want to lose her when time inevitably extracts her price.
“I don’t know,” I answer instead.
I caress the back of her hand with my thumb absently. Aaliyah’s eyes are distant, like she’s reliving moments too painful to speak about.
Then suddenly her hand squeezes mine tight. My fingers are white, but I squeeze back just as hard.
“What about you?” I ask.
She chuckles a little and I marvel at the ease from which it slips from her dark red lips.
“I fucked a lot of guys for a while,” she says. “Had already come out, but thought that because I didn’t wanna fuck every girl I saw, I wasn’t bisexual. Then met a girl I didn’t just wanna fuck and the rest was history.”
I hum noncommittally.
“She’s fine, at least as far as I know,” Aaliyah adds. “We broke up a while ago. She wanted to stay with the only family she had left and I had nothing to stay for.”
“I thought you said you hadn’t felt love like that before.”
“I haven’t.” She grimaces. “I don’t think what we had was anything close to love. For me, it was more a desperation to prove I was queer, and for her, an obsession she could use to distract from all the other shit in her life.”
“Ah,” I say mildly. “So I’m a replacement for an obsessive ex. Good to know.”
A smile tugs at her lips and I’m unreasonably happy to be the one who put it there. “You’ve known me for a couple of hours now. Are you saying you’re not obsessed with me yet, Mara?”
I don’t know how to tell her I think I already am. I smile and say nothing. It feels better to be a liar again.
We are pressed against each other now, shoulder to shoulder, hands intertwined. A chilly breeze sends shivers through both of us and she huddles closer to me, her face buried in my hair.
I ache, from the tip of my nose down to the tips of my toes. Nobody has touched me in a very long time, but now Aaliyah’s warm hands envelope mine, long pianist fingers pressed to the back of my hand. The kinks in her coarse hair brush my cheek and the length of her body outlines mine and I am hyper aware of every spot where we meet. I want to crawl closer to her, to reach inside her skin and huddle in her soul for safety.
She’s a stranger and yet she feels as familiar to me as my own family did.
Maybe time is lending her generosity to us one last time. One last connection before the channel shuts off for good.
I feel her lips press against my cheek. Aaliyah waits for me. Turning my cheek so her mouth hovers directly over mine, I breathe shallowly. Her eyes are hooded and her cheeks are hot under my palms as I cup her face and crash her lips against mine.
She moans instantly, hands on my waist pulling me closer and closer until we are wrapped around each other and this. This feels more right than anything else in our demolished world. Her mouth is warm and pliant on mine, calloused hands gripping my shoulders, and just as I am about to slip my hand down to her chest, she pulls away. Lips swollen, heaving breaths, dark eyes. She is beautiful.
I reach forward to kiss her again, but she keeps me at arms length. Aaliyah seems to catalogue my face, down my neck and my ratty t-shirt, my dusty boots and torn jeans. Her hand slides down under my armpit and caresses the side of my breast with a careful thumb. She smiles and –
For a moment.
For just a single fleeting moment.
The sun is a bright shining golden once more. The air is clear, the sky a magnificent blue. I am nineteen the way I should be in a future that should be mine – standing in a crowded courtyard surrounded by bustling students, but smiling shyly at Aaliyah like no one else exists. She’s holding me gently and I’m biting my lip and I’m not alone, for once, I’m not alone I’m not alone I’m not –
The ground shakes.
The fire roars.
The sky cracks open.
Aaliyah’s face collapses. We quiver in silence before she exhales deeply. She knows the end just as well as I do. Time has run out.
This is the moment the world ends.
And not just for us — we feel the presence of every last human on earth and we know that in a few seconds, there will be no one left to feel.
Rocks tumble and cracks widen and Aaliyah smiles again. I felt it, she mouths, pressing her hand to her heart. In the face of imminent death, the life in her eyes shines brighter than ever.
“What?” I scream back, pulling her back from the edge as the earth opens her mouth to swallow us whole. She struggles a little against me.
I felt loved. Aaliyah grins and pushes me away to step backward. Thank you, she says, then jumps into the fire.
I am alone.
The severed finger is still in my hands — somehow, I remembered to pick it up. My phone still lies a few feet away from me, the headphones unplugged. Phoebe Bridgers screams viciously into the void.
Trembling from head to toe, I stumble backward as the cliff continues to crumble. Clench my fists. Squeeze my eyes shut. Breathe.
I don’t want to go alone.
My eyes sting and not just from the curling, thick smoke that surrounds me. I let out a breath, coughing at the last second. I don’t have much time.
I think of my mother’s strong hold, my father’s gentle voice, Raya’s stained fingers. Green and purple. A husband clutching his nine-fingered wife to his chest as the wind whips around them. I think of life and love.
Aaliyah’s blinding smile.
And in my last seconds on Earth, I allow myself to feel loved in a way I haven’t since it all began.
Time carries me gently into the abyss.