A Kindle edition will be live by the end of the week. Circlet is having issues with their website’s shopping cart, but hopefully soon it’ll be there as well.
As to the story itself, it was a lot of fun to write, but it was also my first serious attempt at writing original post-apocalyptic fiction, which was an interesting experience. I drew some on The Road in terms of not making the cause or method of the cataclysm clear–it was the first time it occurred to me that it was actually okay to do that. The cataclysm itself isn’t the point. The point is the characters, what it means to find someone else at the end of the world you knew. It’s about connection–my main protagonist is a profoundly solitary man and has been for most of his life, and it’s only with the societal collapse and devastation that accompanies whatever It is that’s happened that he finally makes a real connection with someone else. Through that connection, he feels real in a way he hasn’t before. He is real because he matters to someone. The end of the world serves primarily to bring that into sharper relief.
The title comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale, which was used to great effect in the short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury. That remains one of my favorite short stories ever, the first short story to affect me so profoundly, and I drew heavily on both it and the theme of the poem itself–that we are incidental, transient, that the world does not need us. If we vanished suddenly, it might never notice that we were gone at all, and might in fact be better for it.
What we find lasting meaning in is each other, in love and compassion for people outside ourselves.
Or it’s just some gay porn. Whatever.
And yes, the city in the story is Philadelphia. Chris lives–or lived–in South Philly.
Excerpt under the cut.
They gathered scrap wood and newspapers and made a fire in the driveway as the sun slipped behind the trees, and they heated beans and corn and rice over the flames. The inside of the house was foul but outside the air was sweet and good. No cars rumbling through it, no power plants belching poison into the sky. Marlow wondered if the world was cleaning itself, shaking off the dirt of people like dust at the end of a long day. Pulling that good air into his lungs, it was hard to think of it as a bad thing.
“So where are you going?”
Marlow shrugged. When he had walked down his broken marble steps and away, he hadn’t known for sure. All he had known was that the city was dying, sinking, and he had to get away or be pulled down with it. “I dunno. Thought maybe I’d head south and east. Find the coast. It’s been a long time since I saw the ocean.”
Ben nodded and glanced back at the house, a hulk looming in the gathering dimness. “They were my neighbors,” he said, as if in answer to a question that hadn’t been asked. “I lived down the road. After… after it happened, I figured they wouldn’t be needing the shit in their pantry. Figured they wouldn’t mind. We were always friendly.” He sighed and for an instant his face almost crumpled. “I should’ve buried them. I couldn’t.”
“There’d be too many to bury,” Marlow said quietly. “Once you started, you’d have to go on. There’s not much left. We have to do more than be gravediggers.” He took another deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. Overhead, the stars were beginning to come out. “Leave ’em. They’ll be all right.”
“I guess.” Ben was silent for a short time, his bowl of rice and beans forgotten in his hands, and the firelight was brilliant in his eyes. Marlow caught himself staring, thought briefly, and decided that there was no reason to not go on staring. People miss company. People get strange. The simple presence of another becomes a wonder.
“I want to come with you,” Ben said finally. Marlow shrugged again and smiled over the lip of his bowl. People miss company, so they take it when it comes.
The next morning, they were walking again.
* * *
Away from the house, Ben had turned instinctively toward the road, but Marlow had touched his arm and stopped him. “Roads are bad. Jammed up, a lot of them, and full of bodies.” So they cut out across country, the sun still soft and mild and dappling the grass. There were no bodies, nothing burning, and it was easy to believe that nothing had happened at all.
Except that they found a hanged man swinging slow and gentle from a tree, his face black and swollen and flies landing on his lips. Marlow stood and stared up at him, and while he thought that perhaps he should be horrified, all he felt was sadness and a horrible kind of pity. For some people, seeing the end is worse than the end itself.
There was a retching sound behind him. Ben was bent over, palm covering his mouth, and Marlow turned back to him, laying a light hand between his shoulder blades until the heaving stopped. Ben straightened up, wiping his mouth. He wasn’t quite meeting Marlow’s eyes.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Should be used to that by now.”
Marlow shook his head. “No, you shouldn’t.”
Ben looked at him for a long moment, and as Marlow turned to walk, Ben touched his forearm and the touch lingered. Marlow froze, looked down at Ben’s hand, looked back up again. Ben’s face was flushed, his eyes damp, and for the first time since they had met there was a flash of true and aching loss. And perhaps something else besides.
“Thanks,” Ben murmured. “I just… yeah. Thanks.”
Marlow said nothing. He wasn’t sure what there was to say. They were together and there was a dead man over their heads. That seemed to be all the reason anyone should need.
They made miles that day. The ground unrolled under their feet. The sun rose high, got warm, and they stopped to rest in the shade of a copse of trees, cornfields all around them. No one to harvest the corn, Marlow thought as he laid his pack down. The fields would die, rot, lie fallow. Then new growth after the old and the dead. Nothing would ever truly end.
“Been a long time since I walked this far,” said Ben, pulling off his hiking boots and massaging his feet with a faint wince. “I used to hike… but like I said. It’s been a while.”
“No time like now.” Marlow took a seat beside him and pulled out his canteen, taking a swallow and handing it over. Ben took it, nodded. A freshening breeze rolled through the eastern field and played with the dark strands of Marlow’s hair, and he closed his eyes with pleasure. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
“To the ocean?”
“If you still want to go there.”
“I do.” Ben smiled. “Anywhere you go. It’s just good to be with someone again. For a while there I thought I might lose my fucking mind.” He paused, and Marlow could feel himself being looked over, and he let himself look. “Did you have anyone?”
“You know. Before it happened.”
“Oh.” Marlow shook his head slowly. “No. No one.” There had been people. No one long-term. So the first day, with the fire in the streets and the ground bright and glittering with broken glass, there had been no one to run to. No one to be afraid for. No reason to not close his door again and wait.
“That’s too bad.” Ben was looking down at his hands, picking dirt out from under his thumbnail. “I had someone. Gone, now.” He swallowed. “Ran out on me when the shit hit the fan. I don’t know what happened.”
“I’m sorry,” said Marlow and then he was quiet again. There wasn’t much else besides ‘I’m sorry.’ By this point, everyone had lost someone. Except, it seemed, him. But Ben only shrugged and looked up at him with a wan smile.
“It happens.” He paused, looking off over the fields, the cool waving green cutting across the horizon. “We should get moving.”
Marlow had no issue with that.