In the end, this story will be nothing. In the end, in a few years maybe, all of this will be forgotten. You there, sitting on the other side of this screen, you will reach your end as well. There will be nothing left.
This is just another story now.
* * *
I stepped on a rock. You might call it a mountain, but if we’re the best thing in the world (of which I’m still not convinced), then I’m telling you it’s a rock. The sea’s a half-full cup of water, and the wind is merely someone’s breath across the Atlantic.
Nothing is what it seems. Nothing ever is.
There I was, standing atop this rock, looking over a river into another world. The silver ships had already sailed into the west and the stars were falling with the night.
Mirage stood next to me, smiling in that sort of way you smile the moment all hope is lost and there’s not a chance for survival, so you’re left to smile since nothing else seems worthwhile anymore. So she smiled.
She put her hand on mine and pulled herself into my arms, into my side, pressed against my body as the wind blew. We looked skyward, waiting for the ships to return. Eventually we’d ride them into the west. Eventually everyone would.
* * *
“Red or blue?” he said to me.
We sat opposite each other at a metal table in a wooden room. Mirage had already come through here. She had already left. Now it was my turn to take the test. Now it was my turn to abandon the world and give it all away, or take a step back and try to gather the pieces left behind.
This isn’t a blue-pill/red-pill kind of test. Nothing will be swallowed. No mirrors will swallow me. That’s just another story. But this is the story.
“Red or blue?” he repeated, nudging the tray forward.
Imagine a rectangle divided into six equal regions, each of the six boxes outlined in two rows. Now imagine, at the vertices of the four squares on the left and at the vertices of the four squares on the right, set at the two intersections of these three lines, there are two small cylinders. At first they might look like metal. Neither is.
The one on the left is red. The one on the right is blue.
Both of them just sit there, waiting.
This is the test.
* * *
Silver ships sit in the sea as I lay here upside-down. Mirage is next to me, whispering prayers or something like them. In the darkness, the stars look like lights floating on the surface of a sea deeper than space.
There are metal ramps leading away from the ships to the shores, lines of men, women, and children held behind rope walkways as they wait to board them. Everyone’s going. It’s the only option as the world dies around us.
Some people say the virus was the flu. Either way, it killed everyone but the few who survived it. Some called the storm a hurricane, others a tornado that lasted seventeen days. Doesn’t matter what it was: It killed everyone but the few who survived it. There was a war, too, on the other side of the world, but it’s over now.
Now we go into the west.
“It’s raining,” Mirage said and I looked at her. It hadn’t rained in four months since the storm had passed. Some people called it a sign. I called it a drought.
And I didn’t believe her, either. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, just the stars; and further down the horizon, still looking at it all upside-down, the ships were beginning to set sail.
But Mirage was right. It was raining. We went inside.
* * *
I held my hand out between the two cylinders. I could feel a pulse of energy pulled back and forth between them. My hand over the red one, I could feel the rise and fall of a hum that shot throughout me as I brought my hand closer. Over the blue one there was nothing. It was the receiving end.
“Red,” I said and put my hand down on the cylinder.
The man across the table looked at me, then down at the cylinder, then up at me again. “That’s the blue one.”
“Red,” I said again, lifting the cylinder. It was heavy, heavier than metal was allowed to be, and as soon as it was up I could feel the other one pulling it back down. I swung it leftward and placed the blue cylinder right atop the red one. I expected the pulse to sound through me again, but instead there was a sudden hum that both of us could hear. The man looked up from my hands and stared at me, but he didn’t say anything. I don’t think he knew quite what he could say.
I slid the stacked cylinders to the right, knowing with the two of them together I’d not be able to lift them anymore, and I stopped sliding them when they reached the center of the tray. I glanced down the right side, down the left, imposed those imaginary lines again with two more bisecting the corners, made sure it was in the center.
Then I pressed down, and around the edges, the metal started to crumble. Imagine taking two cookies on a pan and pushing the edges into one another, how the hardened dough does nothing at first, but then there’s a crack. And then another. And then the cookies slowly start to break and the crumbs are pushed up from the sides as you push at them harder. Then it can’t take the strain and it all shatters between your fingers.
That’s what happened to me.
* * *
This is the story of a man I once loved. His name was Ricardo. He came from a small family in a country that stopped existing before the ships came. Maybe he failed the tests.
He was a friend of Mirage’s and mine. He had black hair and brown skin, brown eyes that could smile if they were all you could see, lips loose and loving. His voice was that of cherubs on high, his footsteps the sound of destiny. He came fast and went faster.
Before the ships came, we were all at school. School by now was something past mandatory, something past compulsion; it was all voluntary now, and we all got the same class by chance. Sociology. How soon it’d be senseless studies.
Midterms came. We studied together. Mirage got an A. Ricardo and I got B’s. But we were happy. It was good.
We were outside in the spring air when a sound something like thunder crashed overhead and we all looked up. There was nothing straight above, but in the distance, there was a light like fire, like a comet, but the news had said there was none; rather, hadn’t said there was one.
But it wasn’t a comet. It was coming closer. It grew larger every moment; people took out their cell phones and started taking pictures or recording videos. There was swearing. Some people screamed.
It sailed over us, like a ball of fire. Trailing it was a plume of black smoke that just hung in the air. It was deafening for a few moments, then whatever it was passed.
A few days after that, the virus started. Mirage’s family, in upper New York, sent her a message saying the neighbors had fallen ill. After that, she didn’t hear from them again.
When school was cancelled when the teachers stopped coming, afraid of the epidemic, Mirage instead of going home came to live with my family. Ricardo saw on the news that the war had reached his home country. The next day he saw his home country was no more.
The ships came. They must’ve hit the news before anyone saw them in person, but as soon as their doors opened and offered us relief, people went.
The first ships sailed away and another star fell. Where it struck the sea the storm started and moved slowly across America and then through the Pacific. It died somewhere over Russia. China’s Great Wall wasn’t so great after that.
The second set of ships came. Ricardo said he wanted to go, Mirage and I pleaded for him to stay, and in the end he went. We couldn’t stop him. He’d lost his home. His family. His life. We let him go. If you love him, set him free and all that. It’s just a coping poem for what we all know is stupid, stupid, senseless selflessness. We should’ve held him tighter.
When the ships left, we never saw him again.
* * *
“Red or blue?” the man asked for the third time.
I bit my tongue, my hand still held over the red cylinder. None of us knew where they took you if you said red. None of us knew where they took you if you said blue. But we all knew they took you somewhere. It’s just what the ships do. Mirage and I had made a promise, though. We’d made a promise to stay together at all costs. We’d both choose red.
I took my hand back, crossed my arms. “Red,” I said.
The man nodded, making a mark on the notepad in front of him. “To the left then.”
I stood up and walked past him, through the wooden room into a corridor of white. The walls looked like plastic. They felt like plastic, too.
The plastic corridor took a few turns and then spit me out in a metal room filled from end to end with stretchers and people moving back and forth. On the far right side there was a wall of windows. It looked like night outside.
I saw Mirage sitting on a stretcher a few down and she waved at me smiling. This time her smile wasn’t one of hopelessness, but one of hope. It made me warm inside.
I sat down on the stretcher next to hers and a woman came up to me, said a few things I didn’t pay attention to, and then swabbed a spot on my right arm and stabbed me with a needle. It took a minute for the injection to end.
Mirage was taken away. When they brought her back, they took me.
* * *
The room was small and spherical, with a single stretcher in the center and a man standing beside it. There was only one light, too, shining right down from the center.
“Come, have a seat, lie down.” So I did.
He strapped my right arm into place and swabbed it down again, but this time I didn’t feel a thing. The injection had made my whole forearm go numb. I could see it fine, but it felt like my arm ended at my elbow and magically began again at my hand. It was strange, to say the least.
The man took a knife and a cloth from a table nearby and brought them to my arm. I watched him make the first cut and choked, had to turn away, saw that was why he’d strapped me down. I felt nothing, of course, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the white cloth turning red and I felt like throwing up.
After a few moments, he set the knife down and picked something else up. I looked back and saw a small mechanical ring too big for a finger, but maybe not too big for three or four. It was hinged on one side and opened on the other.
I didn’t want to look at my arm, but that’s where the bracelet went, through the open flesh and to my bone, where he fed it around and then, after wiping the blood from the ends, snapped it shut. I flinched again.
He sewed me up, set a bandage, let me go.
* * *
I walked back to the room where all the stretchers were and found Mirage standing by the windows. She put her arms around me and I gave her a kiss. We stood like that for a while, staring out the glass walls of the ship, staring through the night at our reflections and what lay beyond.
Two girls, and behind them, the earth fading as we sailed into the west.