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Justin was my science partner. Till this day, I blame him for everything that has ever happened to me, most of them bad. I met him on my first day on campus, his nose in a book and my nose in a phone. We bumped into each other, naturally, and his hesitant motions afterwards amused me, compelling me to turn away from my engrossing text message and instead focus my attentions on my soon-to-be best friend.
We would talk for hours on end. How could we not? Justin was a year ahead of me, and he was smart, constantly tutoring me in subjects I had failed in high school, and showing me a new side to life. It wasn’t always about the parties and the drinking, though I had had my fair share of it. Justin was, I like to put it, cool. Until, that is, that he started blowing me off.
He wouldn’t tell me why, at first. This was about a month into our friendship. He avoided all my calls and ignored my gaze whenever we crossed paths, frightening me into saying any sort of greeting. So I turned away as well, seeing that, maybe, our perfect friendship was over.
I met Natalya in a lecture class. Oh, I’d seen her before, tall, athletic, naturally beautiful, but I had never spoken to her. She was the one who instigated the conversation, simply by saying hi.
To my surprise, we got along. We were both into sports, though she was the champion sort who joined competitions and got gold metals every time, while I looked to them as a sort of recreation, a way to relieve my stress. She was the kind of girl who wouldn’t care if she was popular in high school, and would always put her friends and family before herself. I respected her, and she changed me.
I stopped complaining, which was an awful trait of mine. I even started to think that it was because of this trait that Justin had begun to avoid me. Also, I became more ambitious. Never had I taken it upon myself to have a goal in life; I figured I would know what I wanted to do with my future when the time came. But Natalya showed me I couldn’t live unless I knew where I was heading. The destination could change, she told me, but I had to have a sort of inkling of where I wanted to go, lest I get lost.
By the end of that semester, I had discovered my calling. I liked debate. It was by chance that I found myself joining Natalya to try my hand in the debate team. She had asked me to come along, just because it was a Friday, and, really, I had no plans unless I wanted to get drunk that night.
So I did go along, and I read the material everyone was going over—skimmed over it, actually, since at the time, I really didn’t think I would be any good at this sort of thing. It wasn’t like I was a great speaker, and, normally, I’d blow off my presentations and do it on the fly without a prepared speech. It was just that I didn’t care for it.
That night, my team won, and Natalya praised my arguments, giving me inspiration to continue in the debate team, where I felt comfortable with myself for the first time.
In December, nearing final exams, I broke off all connections with any friends and locked myself in my single room, which I had requested at the beginning of the year. There, I had papers spread out all over the floor, with dates and names and equations and terms, and my eyes adjusted to the splashes of yellow and pink and blue and orange, all on account of my incessant highlighting and my rush to cram vital information into my head while I still had time.
After a few days of this routine, I let myself have a break and stepped outside. It was evening time, and the weather was cool, but not cold enough for snow. I went to a nearby stall that sold coffee and got myself a drink, warming myself as I took an empty outdoor seat and enjoyed the rising moon and stars for a while.
It was then that I noticed a fit looking boy, about my age, standing not too far away. In the moonlight, he caught my attention, and I sat staring at him for a little while. He had hair that was a cross between blonde and brown, and was dressed in a green flannel shirt and jeans, unaware of the biting wind that brought goose bumps to my flesh.
Finally, as I finished my coffee, I stood up and walked right up to him, curious as to why he was alone. He spotted me before I could say a word, and he chuckled while my steps slowed down, now hesitant to continue. He said, “So you finally got up the courage to talk to me.”
I was surprised at first. Had he known I was there all along? Why hadn’t he said a word? “Who are you?” I asked, because it seemed like the only thing I could say.
“My name is David. And you are?”
“Rose,” I said immediately.
David was a gentleman. I hadn’t met someone so thoughtful before, and Natalya squealed with delight when I told her about him. He was always asking questions, and I was always answering truthfully, because he made me unashamed of myself.
Our first date was a study session in my room, and just three days before the first exams took place. We had known each other only a week. David started by saying, “Do you actually believe you’ll fail your exams?”
“Truly and really,” I replied with complete conviction.
David laughed at me and looked over a page of my notes for art history, occasionally glancing at my questioning face with amusement. He finally dropped the sheet by releasing his hold on it and letting it flutter to the ground slowly. “Who gives a damn about art history?”
I was shocked. “I do. Now, come on—“
I reached for the now idle piece of paper, but David intercepted my hand and whirled me to him expertly, putting both his arms around me before, in a flash, his lips were on mine.
Even though I had been irritated with him just a second before, I surprised myself for possibly the hundredth time since entering college by kissing him back. When he let go, the world was a different place, happy, hopeful, and I longed for David to kiss me again.
I did very well on my exams.
I dropped out of a physics course I had been about to take the following semester, and instead enrolled in chemistry, knowing that, after all of Justin’s tutoring, I would be able to handle the work. Besides, of all science courses, it was the only one I had an interest in.
I didn’t count on Justin’s similar interest, and when I saw him, I nearly dropped my books in a start, reminded of our happy days as friends. He saw me and gave me a slight wave before bracing himself for a second and taking a seat next to me. It was this that made him my science partner for the rest of the semester.
Afraid, I didn’t say anything. This was Justin’s fault, for such a rift. Thoughts were racing frantically through my mind as I tried to figure out how I should react. Natalya would know if she were here. She had all the answers, without even trying.
The teacher gave an introduction before handing out worksheets and explaining that we were all to complete an experiment. Justin said to me, “How do you want to do this?”
The sound of his voice and the absurdity of his question sparked anger into me. “Really?” I said. “Is that all you have to say to me? After what you did? You— You ignored me, Justin. I thought we were friends and you just disappeared. How could you? And without an explanation! How could you?”
A group in front of us were clearly listening and struggling not to turn their heads. I could tell they were listening to every word, though.
Justin adjusted his glasses in the nervous way I remembered. “I don’t want to explain myself, Rose. You know me. Unpredictable, as you called me. I do things like that… and I don’t know why.” The ways his words slowed down as he ended his speech told me he had just made that up.
“I don’t believe this,” I said. “We’re not doing this experiment until you explain yourself.”
“Seriously? Right now?”
I looked at the clock, then turned back to him. “We have time.”
I crossed my arms, adamant.
Justin was trembling, either nervous or worried or afraid. I felt a sort of pity for him and almost changed my decision to let him tell me later, but he started anyway. “My father died,” He whispered.
It was like he had dropped a bomb on me. I covered my mouth with a hand. “No.” And then all our conversations together whizzed through my brain. Justin’s description of his father had revealed how much he worshipped the man and the ground he walked on. “Oh Justin, why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged, as if not sure himself. But he said, “You were the one person I wanted to tell. How could I, though? I hated to say the words because— because it was accepting that he was dead. And telling you made it official. You’re my best friend, you know?”
I gave him a hug, as any friend would do, and told him softly, “I would have comforted you. Oh, I should have said something earlier. I shouldn’t have been so stubborn when you needed me the most.”
And that was how Justin came into my small circle of friends, including Natalya and David as well. He didn’t seem jealous that I had found a new friend and a boyfriend during the break in our friendship. In fact, he seemed grateful to be back by my side, period.
We tried to get the best out of our college experience, and I actually suspected Natalya and Justin being secretly involved with each other, what with their too-casual eye contact and light conversation. No matter how much I pushed them, as much as I could without being too obvious, that is, they wouldn’t give in, so I finally stopped with my incessant prodding, knowing, eventually, they would come to their senses and tell me the truth.
David and I enjoyed every moment we had alone together. He even told me one day that he was actually a geek, though I had kind of guessed when he’d been helping me study for my exams. He had a photographic memory, so he never had to look over anything twice, and he simply had insight into every subject. He could excel in anything he wanted.
Naturally, he was into sports, but he chose theatre as his core subject. And, I admit, he was a very theatrical person who probably would have made it big in Hollywood. I like to imagine that, anyway.
One day I saw Natalya and Justin holding hands. I never got an explanation.
In chemistry class, a few minutes before the teacher would walk in, Justin said to me, “So I have this idea.”
These words had become so familiar to me, coming from his mouth, that I wanted to roll my eyes and dismiss him to finish my homework instead. But he simply slid over his own homework and showed me the worked out solutions. I paused a second, then shrugged and started to copy. “So what is it?” I asked.
“I want to try and detach a human’s aura from their body,” Justin stated.
I looked at him for several seconds, unblinking. No, not an ounce of sarcasm in that face. I tried to laugh, but laughter wouldn’t come. Justin’s face was pure seriousness. “Wait, really?”
“Yeah. Why would I joke about that?”
I fumbled for an answer, but realized he was right. “Right, you wouldn’t.”
Justin nodded vigorously. “With the technology these days, you know, the newly made metals that can supposedly harness a human’s energy if enough power is produced, and so forth. I want to use the technology of the metal by storing energy so that it can keep a human alive while the person is outside his or her body. You’d be asleep, but you would see what was going on around you. It would be perfect for spies.”
“We don’t need spies,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not. But if you’ve been keeping up with the current news, maybe America will need them soon. We’re on the brink of the second Cold War, and, this time, we may not have a Khrushchev who’ll think twice before launching missiles off the coast of Cuba.”
“How will this aura-leaving-body thing work, though?” I inquired. So Justin had invoked some interest in me. “I mean, why would we need people floating around like spirits? I get that they won’t be seen, but how do they share the information they receive? And don’t you think this is a little bit risky? A person could die.”
But Justin had it all figured out, he did. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I went through those very questions. Of course, they’ll need to be a sort of magnet or a line—like a fishing line, but invisible and not exactly solid—that will give you connection to your body. You’ll be able to return whenever you channel the right signal, or press the right button.”
“And how would this be tested? How could you know if it works?”
“We study a person’s brainwaves. Of course, it would be dangerous to make humans undergo the trials. It would be much better with animals, but they wouldn’t be able to give us any details of what they’ve seen.” He shook his head in frustration. “If only Japan would make that dog-to-man translator already.”
I laughed. “You’re speaking nonsense.”
“I’m not! Really, I’ve done extensive research. I’m not the first one to come up with the idea,” Justin started talking faster. “As soon as I thought of it, I immediately googled as much information as possible. There’s been a surprising amount of research done on this. Extracting a human’s soul, it’s normally called. I’ll show you the research to prove it.”
“I believe you,” I said. “I just don’t see how it could work. A human’s soul shouldn’t be able to leave its body.”
“Natalya was much more supporting that you’re being.”
Naturally, hearing him say her name made it hard to keep the smile off my face. “And? What were her thoughts?”
“She thinks if I can pull it off, I’ll be hired to work for the government in their technology department and I’ll be with the experts working to get a human soul into our enemy’s lair.”
“No doubt that will happen,” I said, “That is, if you’re able to get this thing to work.”
Justin said, “All I need is time.”
I only wish he’d needed more.
Four weeks into May, and I was, once again, studying for exams with David. However, he was under a lot of stress. He would only tell me that his brother was sick, very, very sick, but it was all he would say, and I started to pray that his brother didn’t die from whatever illness it was he was suffering from.
David had his phone in his left hand the whole time, even while he took notes or did work. He was never into what he tried to teach me, and I heard him answer halfheartedly whenever I tested him orally. Constantly, whenever the phone buzzed or lit up, David would be staring at whatever message had been sent, and then, if it was okay, he would turn back to his work until the entire scene began again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I finally asked.
“I don’t know if I want to, Rose. Not until we know for sure.”
His voice was surprisingly steady.
David stayed next to me that night. I wouldn’t let him return to his room. He needed some form of company, especially in his distress. He needed to know the world wasn’t going to end any time soon.
In the middle of the night, I heard a sob, or what sounded like it, but when I called David’s name, I didn’t get a reply, and I was drifting off to sleep again in David’s arms.
“He’s dead,” He told me the following day.
“No,” I whispered in the same tone I had used when I’d learned of Justin’s father’s death. I had never met David’s brother, but the loss instilled tears within me and in the end, it was me who needed comforting and not David, who had just gone through the real loss. I wished death wasn’t so real. I wished it wasn’t right in front of me, staring me in the face.
David calmly told me to shush, like I was a little baby. “It’ll be okay,” He said, rubbing my hair. “I’m fine.”
I didn’t want it to be true.
I met David’s parents, who both came to pick him up so they could attend his brother’s funeral in Idaho. I kissed him goodbye, wishing him a safe flight, and assured him that I would be waiting impatiently for him to return.
His parents were sweet people, and I wish I could have known them better, the people who raised the perfect gentleman.
A week later, Justin ran to my room and banged on my door at five in the morning, his fist pounding so hard that it must have hurt, but he didn’t stop until I opened the door with irritation. “What do you want!” I shouted. I had my last exam that day. Didn’t Justin know I needed my sleep?
“You won’t believe it,” He said with excitement. “Actually, you better believe it. But you won’t. No you won’t, not till I show you.”
I frowned. “What?”
Already, I had an inkling of what he might be talking about, but I was hoping it wasn’t true. For some reason, his idea scared me; I’d had a dream or two of being away from my body, and the feeling was horrendous. The world would be so lonely in solitude.
“I’ve completed it, Rose.”
“What?” I said again.
“Aren’t you listening?”
I wiped the sleep from my eyes. “Say again?”
“I’ve done it! I know how to separate a soul from a body! Isn’t that fantastic? My life’s goal, found only in my sophomore year at college. This is unbelievable. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the help of some of the kids in the science club, but I figured it out! In the end, it was me!”
“Justin, can you not scream?”
“But this is a huge day. There’s only one more thing I have to do.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“Test it out, of course.”
I kept quiet, standing in pajamas with a hand on the door, trying to tell Justin silently that this was not a good idea. It just wasn’t right. For months he’d gone on about the place of the machine and how it would extract a person’s very being away from the physical particles that made us up. But we weren’t humans any more, once we left our body. We were only spirits. It was the dark magic of science that Justin was playing with so carelessly.
My silence said more than words could have.
Justin shook his head. “You’ve never once approved of my experimentation.”
I decided I could only be frank with him. “Yes.”
“You should be more like Natalya—“
“Oh, don’t give me that, Justin. If you wanted her support, you would have gone straight to her to tell the good news. Why did you come to me? Was it to just be annoying? Or did you have something else to say?”
“It’s my big day,” Justin said solemnly. “I wanted to know you were on my side. I was inviting you to the viewing of the test. That’s it.”
Before I could say anything, he was walking away in the direction of Natalya’s dorm. I wanted to call out to him, but I was afraid he’d snap at me. After I’d closed the door silently, I grabbed my phone and saw a blinking message from David. His picture smiled happily at me, and my heart swelled just looking at him. He’d written that his plane would take off in ten minutes. I couldn’t wait for his arrival.
After my exam was over, I had a quick bite to eat while reading a flyer promoting Justin’s invention. I overheard students talking about it, calling the soul extractor ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’.
Some girl even came up to me and said, “Is it true you’re the inventor’s best friend?”
“Well, I bet he’s going to ask you to volunteer yourself for the first test. Do you know what I’d give to be in your place?”
I tried to hide my frustration by biting my lip. “Actually, I think the inventor has already chosen the person eligible for the test. He did personally invite me to go see the test though.”
“The joys of being friends with a scientist,” the girl said.
At two o’clock, I walked to the exhibition center, where science experiments and the science fair and such took place. I was one of the first ones to arrive, and Justin was on stage preparing for his big break.
“Hey,” I said. Justin didn’t even look at me. I took a different approach than an all out accusation. “You know, your father would be so proud of you. I bet he’s watching you from the heavens right now, beaming ecstatically, jumping for joy. ‘Oh, my dear son!’ He would say. ‘He’s everything I wanted to be and more!’” I cheered silently, but sincerely.
Justin was staring at me now. His voice shook as he spoke. “You really think so?”
“I know so.”
“Thank you, Rose.”
I took a seat right in front of the stage. “Where’s Natalya?”
“She got called into a meeting with one of her teachers. I think she’s putting too much time into sports than academics. She’s failing.”
I was almost amused at our switch of places. “You’re okay with her not being here?”
“She apologized profusely last night.”
“And what were you up to last night?”
Justin shrugged and turned back to his invention, which I faced to get a good look at. It consisted of a smooth, silver bed-like table and a large attached board with a jagged rectangular disk about roughly the same size hovering above. Four circular points stood out on the edges of the table with a rounded bulb sticking up from each of them.
“It’s magnificent,” I said.
“I got lucky,” Justin explained. “I was straying very far away from the answer to my creation two weeks ago. And then, by accident, I found it.”
Catalyst… If only I could remember the chemistry term. “Whose your test subject, Justin?”
My friend paused in his movements, a wire lying motionless in his upturned palm. He pushed his glasses up his nose in that nervous way of his. “I was… I was kind of hoping you would be.”
My answer would have been immediate. The word was on the tip of my tongue, ready to explode ruthlessly in Justin’s face. But he looked so much like a puppy begging for my attention that I changed my answer in the last split second and said, “Sure, as long as I’m safe.”
“You will be,” Justin said. He pointed to a blinking red signal on the side of the table. “This here is your life line. It will keep your body and your aura connected as long as it’s still blinking. And believe me, with the amount of energy I’ve installed in this thing, it will be blinking for years.”
Students and teachers who were interested in this new invention seeped into the exhibition twenty minutes later, while Justin gave me some last minute instructions of what I should and shouldn’t do. Especially, he said, I shouldn’t wander too far, or else my connection to my body would be lost, and that could result in my death.
I said I would stay right by his side.
“How can we have spies if they can’t travel too far from their bodies?” I asked.
“That won’t come for years. This is simply the first stage of the invention.”
When murmurs had died down and the last set of people had finally glued their bottoms to their seats, Justin gave a brief introduction of his invention and ended by saying, “I’ll bring my subject back into her body with the click of this button, sucking her back to the real world.”
The way he spoke gave me a bad feeling, as if I wouldn’t make it back. Why was I doing this again? Right. For Justin, because he was a sensitive guy, and he needed my support. Where was David? He would be landing soon. I wanted to meet him at the airport, be one of those girls who would give him a great hug and a kiss as a welcome back. I nearly smiled on stage at the thought.
Justin strapped me to the table, and told me to relax and close my eyes. The audience wouldn’t scare me, because they didn’t even care who I was, not that it was a bad thing, but they’d only remember Justin’s experiment and his success.
The cold of the table made me want to shiver, and I clenched my fists tightly, hoping my nails digging into my skin would make me forget the cool metal beneath my fingertips. I breathed in the air-conditioned air carefully, and let Justin’s voice fade away while the whizzing sound of a moving machine came closer to me.
I felt pressure, and I was sure the large board above me had been lowered to just inches from my face. A surge of warmth made the cold sprint away in a blast, and I opened my eyes with shock, shouting out to Justin.
“Right now,” He was saying, “The subject is probably out of her body and watching us. You might think we’re doing some sort of magic trick. I assure you, it’s not.”
I tried to push the board above me away, but I slipped right through. I had no body, not even the outline of hands. I was dust in the wind. Feeling like I should be shaking uncontrollably, I took my place next to Justin and waited.
He said, “Rose, if you could do me a favor, simply watch while I silently get members from the audience to hold up a series of three numbers. I shall not tell them what numbers to use. Any volunteers?”
Quite a few hands shot up, so Justin picked three sitting near the front.
There must have been some sort of parade occurring outside because there were sudden gleeful shouts and loud bangs that startled people inside the exhibition.
The three numbers were nine, two, and seven.
Outside, the ruckus had grown louder, and the building shook violently for several seconds. Something crashed onto the roof and I turned and watched as the roof tore apart and a great orange and gold glow filled the exhibition. I would have shielded my eyes, but there was no need for it.
“What is that?” Several people were shouting, among cries of, “We’re being killed!” and “It’s a meteor shower!”
Justin was staring up at the roof with amazement. “This is…” Suddenly, he seemed to remember my body. “Rose!” He ran to the button he was meant to press, while I kept my eye on the blinking red light, which seemed to be flickering faintly for some reason.
I had to remember nine, two and seven.
There was another shake of the earth, and I thought it was an earthquake for a second—at least, it crossed my mind—but I dismissed it when wind started blowing past and all around me, in less than a second, people were disintegrating. I turned to Justin, willing him to press the button so I could hide, when suddenly, I caught notice of where the blinking red light was meant to be.
Only, it had stopped blinking.
And I felt myself falling as if into oblivion. Perhaps I was now being pulled back into my body. I wondered if all I had seen in the past minutes had been a side effect of being outside my body. Perhaps I was hallucinating.
Nine, three and seven—I wasn’t sure if it was a coincidence that the numbers spelled out war.
The television flickered and burned to life. The generator was finally kicking in following that dreadful power scare. I let my muscles loosen after a tough last day at school and attempted to ignore the resonating thunderstorm that plagued the outside world. Here in this room, among my family, I would be safe.
My parents were cuddled against one another and I couldn’t help smiling whenever I glanced to their chair. My mother, a town beauty with gorgeous long and brown locks, fit with bangs, had her eyes glued to the comedy on screen. As for my father, the kind-hearted man who had snagged the heart of every man’s golden girl with his shaggy, dirty blonde hair and vibrant blue eyes, stroked my mother’s hair with his fingers and a smile, as if remembering their greatest moments together.
Finally, my brother, Zach, rocked in the chair that had once belonged to a great aunt of mine, not related by blood. She had been the second wife to my great uncle, who had lost his first in a car accident. Nevertheless, this woman had practically raised me, what with her beyond-human math skills and her great insight into literature. If not for her, I would have failed more than two subjects in high school.
Zach turned his blue eyes to me when he caught me looking, giving me a death glare. I stared him back to show that his two senior years above me gave him no right to treat me like a little kid. Besides, I was off to college in three months. He needed to learn a lesson.
When our battle died down, with us ending in a tie, I felt the right side of my mouth twitch. Looking back on the insane five-second old staring match, I found it funny how childish I could still be. For a second, I thought that, maybe, I didn’t belong in college quite yet; then I remembered that my brother was doing fine where he was, so I had nothing to worry about.
Suddenly, a blue screen of death replaced the picture my family was watching, and white fizzy lines appeared horizontal across the screen.
“Another power outage?” My father exclaimed. He shook his head with disbelief. “Amazing.”
He started to stand when the screen changed yet again. An image of a newsman appeared, he seemed quite hysteric in his motions and twitching eyes. “A great battle is brewing,” He was saying, and I frowned, thinking of my brother and I with our staring battle, but the man went on. “As you know, the east and the west has always had their differences, but we fear that Antonio Barnett and Sergei Chzov are taking a step too far in their, shall we call it, game. They need to get their act together, differences aside, instead of spewing their anger in little skirmishes in the countries they are fighting to control. It seems like the Cold War, a devastating event for our ancestors so long ago, is raging again with no hint of an end. These superpowers are simply that—too powerful. We are all wondering the same question: are they too powerful to stop?”
The man paused to take a breath after his rant. Behind him, several figures were moving, but it was too dark to make them out. Perhaps he stood in front of a mirror for his emergency news. “You,” He said, “the people of America, must be warned. Be cautious. Step carefully. We’re afraid there might be the chances of a nuclear war. With the new massive nuclear weapons the countries have sought to make, the risk becomes higher. Us in the television emergency news cast apologize for any inconvenience caused, and we thank you for your time to listen. Good night.”
The television went blank. Zach reached forward and pressed the ON button. Outside, thunder and lightning, hand-in-hand, made a blinding light and a heart-quickening sound. Our television would not turn on.
Antonio Barnett, last president of the United States, and Sergei Chzov, last ruler of Russia—they were supposed to be the most promising of leaders, until the superpowers struck a disharmonic chord in their greed, fighting over the support of every country around them, for a time never thinking of others besides.
It shouldn’t have happened like this. If Antonio Barnett had simply ruled a few years later, or if Sergei Chzov had happened to get a seat in the government several years before… The simple choices, the mere chance of these two coming into power at the same time, both stubborn, both facing the same goals. They should have worked together, could have made the world a better place.
Maybe then I wouldn’t have woken up to find that every single person who had been inside the exhibition, watching an invention that may have made history, had turned to ashes.
Justin had disappeared, and I didn’t think it was because he had escaped from the wildfire of the nuclear explosion. No, his body had vanished like the audience, and only I had survived. Above me, on the board protecting my body, there was a flickering blue light, running in zigzags as it jumped around the large bulb. I tried to follow the light with my eyes.
Somehow, I managed to slip off the table. I shook off the pressurizing feeling of the soul extractor and swerved around the room, trying to find any sign of life.
Overhead, through the broken roof, I thought I saw a bird fly, tweeting happily among the chaos, but the creature’s figure disappeared before my eyes, so I thought I’d simply imagined its sight and sound.
I suddenly didn’t want to leave the exhibition. Behind me, the machine was in fragments, the four poles cracked and fallen. Struggling to grasp the disaster, I drifted out the nearly broken front door and stepped, slowly, out into the world.
I saw that it was no longer a world.
The grass was charred, the tables and chairs burned to crisps, the buildings shattered and fallen with black dirt and destruction spread vastly about. The college where my life had barely begun, completely wiped out of the face of the earth. Where was everyone? Had nobody survived?
“Help!” A trembling voice cried out. I weaved myself around in a full circle, searching for the source of the voice. It was so frightened-sounding, despairing and mourning as it echoed my shaking heart.
I called back, “I’m here! Where are you?”
The voice said again, “Please, somebody help me!”
“Come out from where you are!” I said. “Everything’s safe now.”
But nobody appeared, and the voice stopped calling. A sob wafted from somewhere, and I ran from torn building to torn building, peering beyond every corner, eyes wandering through fragments of what had just been who knew how long ago. How long had I been out? An hour? Two? Maybe a day?
I would have gone to my dorm room to grab the phone I had left, but the building was nowhere to be found, and I thought that maybe I was stuck in a maze until I remembered the blast of the explosion. Just as it destroyed my friend, it had destroyed my one source of communication.
Curse Barnett! Curse Chzov!
If they were dead, they deserved to be. They knew the implications of a nuclear war, especially after they tried to bomb China in 2071. Fortunately, the missile they had sent had somehow misfired and the bomb never went off. The Chinese government, then, almost declared war on the superpowers, it being a strong country in itself. And with their growing connections in Indonesia, a fourth world war may have occurred. I may never have been born.
“Hello!” I shouted as loud as I could. Within me, I felt a sort of emptiness as wind and air, hand-in-hand, ignored my calls. Nobody would answer.
“You’re over-packing, you know that, right?” Zach said. He flipped over some of my neatly folded shirts with a foot, which I knocked away with the back of my hand. “You’ll probably only wear half this stuff and end up buying another buck load of clothes.”
“Zach, if you’re only here to annoy me, then I would appreciate your leaving,” I said plainly.
“I’m not annoying you.”
I nearly laughed out loud. Shaking my head, I picked up the clothes my brother had unfolded and made them neat again, dropping them into my suitcase. “I get it,” I said. “You’re just going to miss your little sister too much. You can’t stand the thought of me in the real world. That’s sweet, Zach. I appreciate your concern. Spend as much time in my room as you want.”
Zach said nothing as I smirked, just stood there with his arms folded, tapping his foot while he tried to think of a good comeback.
“Kids!” My mother called to us. “Your father’s spaceship is about to take off. Come on!”
Zach and I immediately raced downstairs. My brother laughed. “She will never get over calling us kids.”
“No, she won’t,” I agreed.
The television was already turned on, and a news reporter explained to us about the new spaceship, ready for takeoff. It would reach Mars in just one month, where the crew, including my father, would be ready to explore and find the resources earth was starting to lack in numbers. They would be the third team traveling to Mars, but they would be the fastest.
“Is that it?” I asked, staring as, on screen, smoke spewed out from underneath a spacecraft that looked like a large pencil attached to a large pole. Orange flames licked the launcher, and I braced myself for takeoff. The news reporter had now gone quiet, and a mechanic voice took over.
“Yes, that’s it,” said my mother.
“Ten, nine,” The machine counted. I looked over the faces of my brother and mother with excitement, not caring that my father wouldn’t be here to say goodbye to me before I went off to college. “Eight, seven, six.” I wondered what my father was going through. It was his second time to space, first time to Mars. “Five, four, three, two.” He would get to levitate, float as if he had no weight. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Was he thinking of me?
Together with the machine, I whispered, “One.”
My father died about a week before I started school at college. Remembering his face brought tears. He hadn’t deserved that. Whoever ruled the world should not have taken him away. My mother had been devastated, wouldn’t leave her room for weeks. My brother had to take her place in bringing me here. I had to wonder if I had anymore family members left.
When the spacecraft took off, I’d had my complete faith in it reaching the skies, driving upwards until it was only a speck, and then, even further, it would entirely disappear. That didn’t happen. Like all things in this world, nothing ever went as planned. This was a disaster.
Coming to school, I had tried my best to forget the incident. I had tried my best to act as if my father was still alive, and he had made it to space. Either way, he wouldn’t be on earth. I thought sincerely that this plan would work. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Skyping my brother nearly every day was probably the only thing that kept me grounded.
That is, until I met Justin, that nerd of a boy. His awkwardness was what first drew me to him. I hadn’t thought anybody could be so engrossed in a book about science before him, and his stuttering amused me. He got the first smile out of me in weeks. Of course, he knew my father had died, but I always kept it to myself that his death was so recent.
It didn’t seem right to bring my old life into my new. I was in college, and I wasn’t going to be there forever. Slowly, but surely, I recovered from my shock. I was renewed for the better.
The debris in the air would have made me cough, but my mind wandered too far in happy memories for me to care too much about it. If I was the only person left in this world, even in my present state, I could make the best of it. Or maybe there would be a survivor or two, not in this school but far away. I would travel there then. I would find them and try to communicate, if it was possible. The world had so much technology. Surely they would discover my existence?
I started to count seconds, reaching a minute, then two, then ten, and I almost reached twenty when I broke down. No, I couldn’t. Twenty minutes alone and still I couldn’t stand it. I wanted my mother here to comfort me. I wanted to relive our debates and our arguments. I wanted to count up from my father’s death so that he wouldn’t be dead any longer.
Because, in actuality, I had counted down to his death.
And I was sure, somewhere far off, wherever the nuclear missiles had been launched from, those same numbers had been played by a machine, numbers that could have been halted, an incident that may never have occurred.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two.
I whispered to myself in the desolate world. “One.”
I like to remember my time with David. During the earlier part of our relationship, he took me out to dinner. We sat there in the Italian restaurant silently without looking at each other, our eyes scanning the menus a waiter had brought to us only a minute before.
I wasn’t sure if I should try the spaghetti, or maybe the Italian roast duck. Several times, I felt the urge to look up, to see if David was maybe staring at me, but I kept my eyes averted from him, not wanting to deal with his piercing glare, not because he scared me, but because I didn’t want him to see me flushed red, biting my lips and trying desperately to slow down my heartbeat.
In the corner of my eye, I saw black-clad feet enter my field of vision and a voice saying, “You two ready to order?”
I shook my head, looking at no particular spot on the menu. David said, seemingly far away, “We’ll wait for the lady to make up her mind. Thank you.”
Finally, after keeping a smile from my face, I turned to face my boyfriend. David was staring softly, just as I had suspected. His eyes, a tender yet foggy grey, rested lightly on mine. “I’ll have the, um, Italian roast duck,” I said.
“I was thinking the same.”
After we had ordered and the menus, for a moment my safety, were whisked away by an invisible hand, I turned my attention away from the crowd around me, knowing they weren’t watching, and that they didn’t care who I was or what I liked to do. All that mattered was David.
“You’re always red when I look at you,” David commented lightheartedly.
I felt my face get even redder. “You are too,” I said, but I wasn’t very convincing, even to myself.
“You can’t expect anything else, David. Did you not hear my name?”
David laughed, which made me laugh, and the ice between us was broken. He took my hand from across the table and told me, “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Rose.”
It was challenging, but I managed to eat somewhat neatly with one hand for three seconds, until David found that he couldn’t handle it, and he had to let my hand go. I hid my relief with an amused smile.
“I wished I’d met you earlier,” David said. “Why didn’t we ever run in the same circles? Our college is miniscule.”
“Nice vocabulary,” I told him. “Honestly, if you’d just taken, say, English literature or had come down to the sports department on Thursdays, we may have.”
We must have talked for hours that night. Even after dinner, we stayed with each other under the stars, holding hands while we walked through gardens and hallways, finally ending up in front of my room. It was just the two of us. The dorms were vacant to us.
David kissed me softly goodnight. “I don’t know if I can go an hour without you,” He whispered with a smile.
I squeezed his hand with assurance. “You’ll survive.”
It was as I was trudging through the ruined tennis courts that I caught my first glimpse of movement. It wasn’t like that bird in the sky. This was real, and in front of me. Someone was behind the glass door of the P.E. director’s office. Trying to get a closer look, I quickly drifted over to the door and peered inside.
When I saw who it was, my heart welled.
Natalya. I knew her long, dark hair, always in a ponytail, though now it was scattered about her shoulders and frayed. Her dark face was made darker with streaks of dirt, and I saw that she had a cut on her chin. Beneath that hair, her brown eyes were frantic, and her chest heaved irregularly. I banged on the door, but it was so frail I slipped right through.
Her sobs entered my audible range. “Natalya! Oh, you’re alive!”
She didn’t say a word, just kept on crying and crying and crying.
“Natalya! Look at me,” I said. “You’re not alone. I know you’re in shock, but look! I’m alive. We’re both alive. Natalya, please…” And then I was crying, streaming tears onto the carpet. I lifted my hand to wipe my face, wondering if I had lost my voice, when I went rigid.
A dank, hollow feeling seeped throughout my entire being. I tried to remember what it felt like to have a hand, or feet for that matter. I couldn’t even feel the tears on my face. My face. I reached up, but I simply couldn’t. It was like my body had taken one form and I couldn’t move a single muscle. Yet I could go from place to place with ease.
I could see everything around me. So what was wrong? Why did I feel suddenly so empty? Why couldn’t I feel myself except for my emotions?
I remembered the mirror the P.E. director kept on the wall. I could see it, hanging above Natalya’s head. With reluctance, I stood before, expecting to see a dirt-streaked face and red-rimmed brown eyes.
Instead, I saw a narrow bookshelf, piled with books on fitness and health, as well as a few well-known bestselling books that I recognized. Next to that was the start of a wall of certificates, either for the director’s participation in a tournament or his winning one. I made the motion of a gulp in my mind, though I knew it didn’t actually happen.
Tensed now, I swerved to see the picture behind me. I wasn’t surprised when the same shelf with its books greeted me, and the same certificates stared back. I was a ghost, and Natalya, oh poor Natalya, the true survivor here, was alone.
She must have stayed on the floor crying for hours while I watched, dazed just as she was. It was all Justin’s fault.
When Natalya’s tears stopped, and she finally got herself under control, I followed her outside the room, talking to her the entire time. “I know you think I’m dead,” I said. “But, really, I’m not. You’ll see,” I told her. “You know Justin was performing his experiment. You’ll figure out that I’m not dead. I’m just… separated from my body. I need your help Natalya. You can put me back where I need to be.”
My friend kept on walking.
“Natalya, don’t tell me you can’t even sense me. You were always able to before. It was like you were born with six senses! It was the one thing I was always jealous of. Come on…”
Suddenly, she turned and looked at me. Not directly, because I couldn’t catch her eyes, but it was as if she knew there was another presence, and she was trying to search for its source. Her eyes peered beyond me, and I moved so she was staring at me.
“Natalya?” I said.
Her eyes filled with recognition. “Oh my God! David!”
The name startled me and I turned with haste. A bloodied figure made his way to us, and I cried out in happiness. “David!” I said. “Oh, you’re alive. I can’t believe you’re alive. I thought for sure… I mean I thought with you being on a plane and all. Oh, David.” I almost gave him a hug, but his entire attention wasn’t even on me. I hung back, unsure.
Natalya ran the last few steps too him. “You’re okay! Thank God you are! What…? I mean, how…?”
It was exactly what I wanted to ask. In this case, Natalya did know what I wanted.
David said, starting shakily at first, “The plane crashed. We were supposed to land in an hour and the plane crashed. Everything was all right. I was on a plane with my parents and it was all okay. We were talking. We were comforting each other after the death of my brother, and then… There was an announcement warning us that something wasn’t right. The plane tilted sharply and there was a loud bang. I looked out the window and everything was swirling past in a blur. I felt myself rise. I saw fire. An engine had blown, they announced, and I thought it was all over. There were cries, I think, but I couldn’t hear because mine was louder. I thought my heart would give out. I… I thought I would get… get a heart attack, even at this age.” He tried to smile, but failed. “But I lived. Everyone died, but I lived. My parents… they… My parents were right… right next to me and I tried… they shouldn’t have… They were—they… were…”
Natalya, in all her gracefulness, grabbed David and threw her arms around him in a tight embrace. They both had tears streaming down their faces. My boyfriend, who I had never seen cry, even at the news of the death of his brother, was now breaking down right in front of me. And I could do nothing, because no one could see or hear me.
I cursed Justin and his experiments, and I saw the hopelessness of the earth. In the end, there were three of us crying our hearts out, for we had lost everything, and the world had lost its people, except for three. How could we survive?
“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.”
Hands rummaged in toppled and singed garbage cans; eyes searched frantically for anything that could be called edible, but all in vain.
“There can’t be no food,” Natalya complained.
“We’re going about this wrongly. We need to scour the forest or something if we’re hoping for something to eat. I could find a couple of berries. We could eat insects.”
“Natalya, it’s our only option.” David’s grey eyes tried intently to convince her, and I saw her will crumbling. “Come on. It won’t be anything too disgusting. We used to do this in boy scouts all the time.”
I followed them slowly, lingering behind while David talked about some of his adventures. For some reason, I didn’t really want to hear. If he’d been talking to me, I would have been all over him, trying to remember every word he told me because I loved the sound of his voice.
But he wasn’t speaking to me.
The sound of Natalya’s laughter drifted towards me, and I was confused as to how they could even smile in their situation. But then again, they weren’t a soul without a body, longing to be seen again. I would reverse Justin’s experiment, no matter the consequences. If David knew I was alive, life wouldn’t be so bland anymore.
I finally let myself catch up to them.
“…never understood you and Justin,” David was saying.
Natalya blushed in the heat. “Right,” She whispered.
I reached out to her mentally, trying to express my concern. What could she be going through? I knew they had been close. What had Natalya been suffering as she had to listen to David complain about losing me? What could she be thinking, with Justin out of her life forever? They’d been close…
“You don’t have to say anything, if you don’t want to,” David said.
Natalya’s smile looked forced. “I don’t mind. Justin was… something of a mystery to me when I first met him. We were kind of forced to hang out at first, what with you and Rose always wanting to be alone. And then… I don’t know. It happened so gradually that I didn’t even realize I was falling for him.”
“How long?” David asked, mirroring my thoughts.
“Just a few weeks. We weren’t sure what was going on, but we had planned to tell you the night you got back… That is, before the world…” Natalya shrugged painfully. I couldn’t help the sorrow rising in my imagined chest, and the hurt I would feel in my throat if I had been in my body.
David nodded in understanding and brushed his hand against some plants. “I would have thought the plants would be more… destroyed, if you know what I mean.”
“They withstood the wrath of the human race,” Natalya said, a hint of melodrama in her voice.
David laughed and plucked a berry from a nearby tree, popping it in his mouth. “This is good. Try one.”
Natalya looked skeptical as she took a few, chewing slowly. “A little bit sour… But good enough. There’s not point in complaining.”
“Let’s go back to the school.”
“Back?” Natalya looked a bit frightened at the prospect.
She gulped visibly, and I wondered why she would balk at the idea, especially since she was so sure there were survivors. Natalya shrugged. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“Wait, I want to know why you don’t want to go.”
“It’s… I mean, think about it. I don’t want to face it. It’ll just remind me. Here, it’s so much more unrealistic. I know it’s stupid. Don’t judge me. I’m just not ready.”
David looked relieved, but he said softly, “We’re going to have to face it eventually.”
Natalya nodded. “Let’s just not make that day today.”
With their bellies somewhat filled, Natalya and David went back to perch atop their rocks. I longed for the day they would be ready to go back to the school. They would need to enter the exhibition, and they would need to understand that my body still lived.
Only then would I be satisfied.
I wanted to travel to the exhibition myself, as if I were living in the world of a computer game and I needed to turn back to reality, to my real self, my body. But I didn’t feel ready either. Besides, it wouldn’t do me any good.
So I stayed some more and let myself watch Natalya and David, the two people I cared the most about in this lost and lonely world.
“If anyone should have survived the blast, it should have been Rose,” Natalya said.
I always perked up at the sound of my name. It seemed to come up in every conversation. With a shake of my invisible head, I wished I could knock the backs of the two survivors’ heads. “I’m alive!” I said. “What do you think I’m doing here?”
Natalya went on, “It’s almost as if I can feel her, you know? And I can feel her judging me. She was my best friend. She knew me better than I did, and I just… I don’t want to disappoint her.”
“You’re not disappointing her,” David said. “Why do you even think that?”
The words caught in Natalya’s throat; I could tell by the way she seemed a bit flustered and had to clear her throat before continuing. She was right, though. I did know her well. “I feel like she knows my every thought. It’s just… scary to think about.”
David gave her a tight smile. “Don’t worry too much.”
Natalya giggled to herself and swung her hair over one side. “So much for our freshman year at college. How did you enjoy yours?”
“Um… I loved every moment of it.”
“So did I. It was much more different than I thought it would be.”
“In what way?”
Natalya gave David a look as if to say, really? I actually need to explain this to you? But she said anyway, “You watch all those old movies about people finally going off to college, and they get drunk and party and do stupid stuff. I guess I thought it would be like that for me. Only… it wasn’t.”
“I think I see what you mean.”
“Yeah. It was more of a wake up call,” Natalya said, her excitement growing. “My parents… Well, I love them, but they could be a bit much. They didn’t approve of my choices. They always told me to never choose sports over grades. But I did. It was my passion. When I was in high school, my parents had more control. They almost made me change my mind.”
“About choosing sports over grades?”
Natalya nodded. “Then I came here. Everyone has goals, you know? My love for sports only got challenged with the competition, but I got to love it even more because of that. I think I would have liked to join the Olympics one day.”
“That’s a pretty good goal,” David said. I wasn’t sure if it was out of kindness or because he was simply speaking the truth when he said, “You would have won first prize all the time.”
Natalya put her face in her arms and shook her head. “That’s why my parents were so annoyed.” She looked up again. “They knew that, for me, it was always about the glory of being the best. And I can’t just deny it. They’re completely right. But I just can’t help it.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed about. I mean, look at me. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. At least you had a goal. At least you had somewhere to go.”
“You don’t see it, do you?”
“See what?” David’s confusion almost astounded me, even.
Natalya explained, “You didn’t have a huge goal to follow, one that you’d envisioned about every night to put yourself to sleep. I did. And now, that dream is shattered. It’s gone forever, because the world is over. There may be survivors, but until we find them, we’re stuck. Do you see what I mean?”
“My loss isn’t as great as yours,” David admitted reluctantly.
Natalya looked a little bit sheepish, as if she hadn’t meant to bring up any hurt, but I understood where she came from and even I had to say to myself quietly, “Perhaps my loss isn’t as great as yours either, Natalya.”
Natalya lifted her brown eyes to look at me. Or, rather, through me, and it was as if, in that split second, we came to an understanding. And then her puzzled eyes dropped to stare at the ground and our connection was lost.
Natalya swung her arm to the side and forward, her hands clenched in a fist. She sidestepped, put both hands in a line together, and swung them forward from the other side. She continued this routine for an hour or so, sweat coming out of every pore, hair matted against her cheeks and forehead.
I didn’t understand how she never got tired.
“Why are you practicing right now?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be mourning the deaths of everyone you know?” For some reason, I was in a foul mood that day. It was almost humorous to even think of my life having days. They all blended into one enormous blob of time.
Maybe it was from lack of sleep, because every time I tried to rest, my soul wouldn’t let me. “Don’t you have friends?” I snapped at her. “Don’t you have parents who loved you? Sometimes,” I told her, “I feel like I don’t know you.”
Natalya went for a final swing and stopped, breathing hard. She looked at the floor around her, searching, but she never bent to retrieve anything. I knew her habits enough to know what she wanted, but water was scarce in a world that had just been bombed.
“Rose, I… I’m sorry,” She said.
“You should be!” I shouted. “Just go back to the school! Go back to the exhibition center! You’ll see my body, and you’ll plug in the machine, and you’ll bring me back to David. If you really want to help me, just do that. Why can’t you do that?”
The sun glared brightly for a moment in the space separating Natalya and I. It was a shimmering spot, filling my entire vision for a moment. When it settled back, probably moved behind a cloud, I tried to clear my thoughts. Rage was streaming through me. I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t accept it. “It’s not fair!” I yelled into the wind, my voice lost.
“I wish it were,” Natalya said calmly. She wasn’t looking at me, or anyone in particular. David was still asleep behind her, so her words should have been nonsense. It probably would have been to any normal person. But I wasn’t normal. I didn’t have a body, and Natalya didn’t know I was here.
And if she could, why her? Why couldn’t David feel some unspeakable connection to me? Why couldn’t he have this gut instinct that I was still alive and just go to the school already? Why couldn’t he ignore his pains for a moment and save me from my misery?
David stirred in his sleep and turned over, lips slapping together gently as he mumbled wordlessly. “I thought I could trust you, David,” I told him. “I thought you had some brains. You didn’t even bother to look for me. You know, that’s what bothers me the most, that you couldn’t even look.”
Natalya started her tennis routine again, harder and fiercer this time. What was she thinking, that David would wake up, see her hot body, and immediately fall for her?
Stop, stop, stop!
I couldn’t even tell if I was speaking to myself any longer. It was getting to be too much, and I hated myself for such thoughts. How could I know what Natalya was thinking anyway? I was a lost soul, not a mind reader.
David woke up an hour later, said a small greeting, and joined Natalya in search for food and water. The forest nearby was full of nourishment, and I pondered on the thought that God had provided this for the survivors. When I was revived, I could share this food with my only friends in the world.
I felt ashamed at my behavior towards Natalya. She would never know how angry I was, but I still felt a need to apologize. She was trying her best. I tried to tell myself that she had lost a friend too. At least, she thought so.
“Did I ever tell you my brother was autistic?” David asked.
My throat caught at the words. I’d heard them before, in the dead of the night when David had been in the mood to talk. But he hated telling people that. He wasn’t ashamed—I knew that. But he hated the pity and the sorrow others always showed. That was shameful, in his eyes. I knew that.
Natalya didn’t wear that same pity I had so often felt. “I’m sure he was a good man.”
“He was.” David seemed a bit surprised. “He wasn’t really a man, not really. He was always the little brother. He was smart and special. People didn’t always see that, but everything he said was true, and everything he asked always had a meaning behind it.” He chuckled to himself. “He helped me find myself if I was lost. I miss him.”
“You know, your brother sounds even more awesome than you, no offense.”
David laughed. I scowled. Those weren’t the words I would have used, and I hated that it wasn’t. I hated that I knew exactly what I would have said in this situation, and I hated that Natalya was doing it the way I wouldn’t have, and it was working. David laughed.
He said, “He definitely was.”
“Natalya, stop being so perfect!” I complained. The complaints. It had only been a matter of time before they returned. “Don’t you dare steal my boyfriend. Don’t you dare flirt with him while I’m still here.”
“Why’d you bring your brother up?” Natalya ignored my commands.
David shrugged and leaned back. “I felt like feeling real again. I know he’s dead, but thinking about the autism is just so real. I lived with it all my life. It was a struggle for some people, but it was my life. I just wanted to get away from… all this.” He waved his hands around at the world.
“I wish I had something like that.” Natalya didn’t look at David as she talked, her voice smooth and a little bit sarcastic. “All I can think about is my arguments with my parents. They wanted one thing; I wanted something else. I couldn’t just give in to them, you know. It’s hard to find people who’ll agree with you all the time.”
“You don’t seem too sad about that.”
“It’s just the way it was,” Natalya said. “I couldn’t change it, so I learned to live with it. My parents know I love them.”
How could it be that easy? If people accepted change all the time, the world would be a very different place. I couldn’t grasp Natalya’s meaning and settled for bearing with this conversation.
David was at a loss for words too. His mouth bobbed open and closed like a fish for a few seconds. “Wow,” He said. “You just take it as it comes? Doesn’t it bother you?”
“I do what I can if I can,” Natalya told him. “But if I can’t, I can’t.”
“I couldn’t do that.”
“It takes time.” Natalya cleared her throat and smiled as a wind ruffled her hair. “We should go to the beach,” She said. “We should stay there for a few days and get away. You wanted something real, didn’t you? Let’s just try and forget.”
“Forget?” David was incredulous. “Just… forget?”
Natalya put her hands on her hips. I hated the face she was making, trying to persuade someone to forget all his troubles when there was no way it was even possible. What point was she trying to make? Was she just there to keep hurting him until he couldn’t take it anymore?
“Okay, if you don’t want to use those words,” Natalya said. “Let’s get away for a while. We don’t have to forget completely if you don’t want to.”
I couldn’t believe it when David agreed. I was trying so hard to go along with Natalya’s tactics, but I could barely pull myself together. My thoughts still churned sadly for everyone who had lost their lives, still cried for my brother and my mother, still sought for some explanation as to why this was happening now, why it was happening ever.
And they were happy. They were happy to skip off to the beach together, no thoughts for anyone but themselves. I had never known Natalya to be this selfish. I knew she loved to win, but I had never thought her fondness for winning extended beyond sports games. It was wrong in this situation. They needed to mourn.
I sullenly attached myself to the two moving figures while they walked south to the beach.
They stayed as far away from the school as possible, walking along empty roads, passing by burned down houses. I would have imagined the world more dead, but the roads, though cracked, still enabled travelers to walk, and the air, though polluted, still allowed travelers to breathe.
It surprised me so much that I often had to stop and take in what I was seeing, convincing myself that I had no reason to feel so free, that I had no reason to feel the slightest bit of joy.
“We should have gone down to the beach more often,” Natalya said. “I mean, during our college year. It’s so beautiful.”
“It really is,” David agreed.
Their voices were wafting towards me quietly. No noise around me, I could hear every little detail, even if I had fallen behind. If a raindrop fell a mile away, I thought, perhaps, I would hear that too.
I came up behind David and Natalya and stared as a wave of white and blue crashed onto the shore, got sucked back up, built, and began again. My eyes would have watered if I’d had them, so my soul wept instead. This was a moving creature, powerful and majestic.
And it was beautiful.
My first boyfriend’s name was Kyle. He had been two months younger than me, with burly muscles and a killer body. I still remembered the jealousy on my friends’ faces when I introduced him. He hadn’t attended our school, but we were in the same district.
“You’re so lucky, Rose. Only you could have gotten a guy like him,” A friend of mine commented. It had been the summer before freshman year. “He’s so big and he looks like he could crush you…” She laughed. “But he looks like a nice guy, like he takes care of you.”
And he did, to a certain extent. My taste in guys hadn’t wavered very far from the personality that was Kyle’s… That is, when I first met him. It turned out he hadn’t been very honest with me when we’d first met. He had already had a girlfriend, though he claimed they had been on a ‘break’.
A break that broke my heart.
But first heartaches are supposed to be hard, and they’re supposed to help anyone grow a thicker skin so that, no matter what happens, they’ll be able to withstand anything coming they’re way.
Kyle helped me in so many ways. Without him, I probably would have been ignorant to guys like him, and I may never have met David. I just wished it didn’t have to be this way… I just wished I could have had more time with the perfect guy… I just wished I had been prepared for this kind of heartbreak.
Along the road back to the school, after spending the night at the beach, the three of us entered a rundown house. It had probably already been empty before we went in. That was what Natalya claimed when David had opposed to the idea of going into any building.
“We’ll be fine,” Natalya said with vehemence. “We’re in a crisis, if you haven’t noticed, and I think a few handy tools will do us some good.”
“A few handy tools like what?” David nearly shouted.
I was almost surprised. What happened to the David who wanted to go to the school, and the David who agreed to spend a night on the beach, and the David I knew?
Natalya shrugged, oblivious to his tone. “Like a knife, or a flashlight, or… or I don’t know! But we need stuff! We need knew clothes and blankets and… just survival things! You’re the Boy Scout! I’m just trying to survive. We have to survive, you know? We’re here for a reason.”
“Just cut that crap, will you?”
I would have pursed my lips. They were arguing. I felt a bit frustrated at having to hear them, but a sense of hope was bubbling up in the center of my soul. It was a bit exhilarating. Something was coming. Something was going to happen. Maybe I still had a chance.
Natalya found a tattered bag under a few piles of wood. She hefted it over a shoulder and, with one glare at David, trotted into another room in search of her survival items. She really was determined to go through with this.
David growled in exasperation and hit the wall beside him with a fist. Pieces of debris sprinkled down on him playfully.
“Careful, David,” I said. “If this house falls down, you’ll never find my body. You have to go back to the school if you’re to do that, and you can’t if you kill yourself and Natalya.”
He banged his fist again, and I gave up. “I never knew you had anger problems,” I mentioned casually. Again, no answer. “I know it’s early in the morning, but seriously! Be sad instead. Anger won’t get you anywhere.”
I knew from experience. It was Kyle who had taught me that. Anger was like a disease, spreading to the person being faced with it, and on and on until it came back. The cycle was almost never ending.
“Natalya!” David called out. “Come one!” And he hit his fist again.
She stumbled into the main room, a scowl on her face. “Alright, we’re going.” Her bag was irregularly shaped now. She gestured to the door. “Well? Come on. We should get out of here as fast as we can. You nearly brought the roof down.”
“I didn’t do anything!”
Natalya gaped. “The whole house was moving!”
“So? That wasn’t me.”
With a shake of her head, Natalya stomped out of the house, David following close behind. She said, “Who else could have been hitting the walls of the house over and over again if it wasn’t you? Are you telling me ghosts exist?”
I nearly laughed. Ghosts, souls… They were similar.
“I never said anything about ghosts. Maybe there was an earthquake.”
“Oh, please!” Natalya yelled. “What are you trying to prove?”
David shrugged, his eyes bugging wildly. “I don’t know! Why don’t you tell me? I mean, you don’t seem to even notice what’s happened to the world. No. Instead, you want to visit the beach, and you want to enter abandoned houses, and… It’s like you don’t care!”
“These are survival tools, David,” Natalya said sternly. “For our survival. I see what’s happening in the world and I’m trying to make sure we don’t go too. That’s all I’m saying. I do care, okay? I care a lot more than you know. But I can’t forget that we still have a life to live. We can’t forget that there still may be survivors, maybe across the ocean! We can’t live next to our school for the rest of our lives.”
“I don’t believe this,” David said.
“You better! You’re just going to get killed!”
The sun shone bright again, depriving me of any vision for a second. My soul tried to whisk away from the light. I couldn’t close my eyes. It died down after a moment. David was speaking.
“Well, maybe I want to die!”
That had me speechless, and Natalya looked stunned. Her bag hung loosely by a hand, just barely touching the ground. She gulped visibly and turned away, whispering something only I could hear, “You can’t.”
Before I knew it, David was on his way back to the rocks by the school, going back to the simple life he had gotten used to. I guessed what he was feeling, that going to the beach had been a bit too much, had been a bit too soon.
And he was struggling.
“See, Natalya?” I said softly. “He wasn’t ready. You shouldn’t have pushed him so hard.”
She breathed in deeply, her chest rising high. She told me, or herself, “I have to try.”
She moved more slowly, more unsure than she had been the night before. It was as if all personalities had been switched when the sun came up in the morning. I was no longer brooding, but David was coming to realize the disaster. I didn’t know how long the shock would last. Perhaps forever.
It was too long a time.
“Don’t let him die,” I pleaded silently.
Natalya’s face was a mask of determination. She didn’t say a word, but I knew what she was thinking, and I knew she would get around to David. She had a way with words in a different way than I did, and she was much more stubborn.
I was not in the least afraid of David being close to death. It wouldn’t be right.
The remains of the school came into view, which was when Natalya made a sharp turn around the side. Was she not ready either, to find out the truth?
David wasn’t dead. His foot was twitching up and down, drumming against the floor he sat on. He seemed to be pondering something. He kept on staring in the direction of the place where we had met. I wondered if he missed it, if he missed me. He hadn’t expressed his feelings in a while.
Natalya grabbed a piece of dry wood with contemplation. And then she took out a knife. She had nothing else to do.
After a time, I couldn’t even remember how long, David looked at her, working her muscles, making use of her time like he should have been doing. Once he was over the shock, he would be ready to go to the school to find me. That was all I could hold on to.
”What do you think happens when we die?” Natalya finally asked. The breeze, I thought, would have felt very nice. Only the ruffling leaves told me there even was a breeze.
David shrugged, his gaze wandering away from her. “Ask the people who died. I wouldn’t know.”
“Don’t be sore. You can’t just give up.”
“I want to give up. Life was perfect. And then my brother died. And then my parents died. And then my girlfriend died. And then the whole world disappeared, and it’s only you. There’s no once else but you, Natalya, and it’s lonely. Don’t you see how lonely it is?”
I couldn’t hide the disapproval rising in me at the ruthless way David was lashing out at Natalya. It wasn’t her fault she was alive! “And I am too,” I shouted at him. “Natalya’s right. You shouldn’t be sore.”
And then Natalya was irate. She stood up and threw down the knife she’d been using to carve patterns on her piece of wood. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t be so dark. Look up! The sun is out. And the air—it’s fresh for the first time in ages! Don’t think you’re in this alone. I lost my best friend. I lost the parents I hadn’t been on good terms with since before I left high school. I never told them I loved them. At least you shared their final moments with them. That’s something to count for, so please, don’t feel sorry for yourself.”
A strong breeze ruffled Natalya’s long hair, and the silence was unnerving. If only I could have filled it. “I’m not dead, you guys,” I kept wanting to correct. “My soul lives, even though I’m not in my body. You don’t even know that Justin perfected his invention.”
“What do you think?” David said finally, his scowl fading.
“About death. What happens to people when they die?”
Natalya thought for only a second before she opened her mouth. “I think they get judged by God, or whoever runs this world. That’s when they find out everything—if they were talked about behind their backs, if their close ones really loved them, if there was anyone who played a part in where they ended up. They find out the chances they missed and the choices that were right. They know everything. Then they’re sent to their place. If they’ve been doing all they thought was right, they go to heaven. If their soul is corrupt, they go to hell.”
“And those in between?”
“I don’t know. Purgatory. Or, even, remain on earth, but as a lost soul.”
“Do you really think that happens? Souls get lost?”
Natalya shrugged. “I won’t know till I die, I guess. But it would make sense. Maybe a soul just needs a sense of peace before he or she is judged by the… almighty one. You know, everything happens for a reason.”
The repeated statement made more sense now.
David kept quiet and closed his eyes. There were tears ready to escape the corners of his eyes. “I hope Rose knows then,” He said. “I hope she’s seen her whole life before her eyes, and I hope she was told that I love her, and I always will, and I look forward to the day when we’re reunited. I hope.”
“You’re not hopeless,” Natalya told him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
But I was.
For the first time, I faced the possibility that I was dead.
That night blended into the next day, which blended into another and another… Soon, we had reached a week.
For David and Natalya, it was a week to feel remorse, to feel grief. They were like robots trying to grasp more than one emotion, but after the incident at the beach, after coming to the realization that nobody but them was around this area, their efforts were fleeting.
For me, the week passed by painfully slowly. A few times, I tried to make myself merge with nature so that I wouldn’t have to think anymore, but it was futile. I had expected that. And then I would analyze David and Natalya closely, because this was the first time I could actually get a good look at them without appearing to be rude.
They both almost resembled each other, with unhappy mouths, eyebrows occasionally slanting downwards in a frown or a scowl, either confused or angry at the world.
I thought this was going to be the way it would be forever—David and Natalya brooding, me watching, speculating, coming to accept my possible death… I thought I would never get the chance to see Justin’s soul so that I could ask him why he did this to me… I thought I would never be reunited with my mother, father and brother ever again…
And then David said, “I’m ready.”
His tone was hushed, almost like he didn’t believe it himself, or he didn’t want anyone else to believe it, anyone else like Natalya.
“Ready?” She asked. She wasn’t puzzled. She knew what he meant, but she asked anyway.
I knew what he meant, and I inquired of him as well, “Ready?”
“Ready,” David repeated. “We have to go back.”
Natalya’s head whipped around in a circle. She was searching again, and I was sure it wasn’t a water bottle this time. It was as if an invisible force was calling to her, but I wouldn’t have known, couldn’t have even if I wanted to.
“What, are you afraid now?” David asked.
“No.” Natalya scratched her head and huffed in frustration. “I just… I’ve wanted to go back for ages now. I’m ready too. I was just…” Her face grew red. “I was kind of looking for permission.”
David’s face hardened, the callosity sending my soul backwards. “Rose.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring her up,” Natalya told him. She swatted a hand at the air. “Let’s just forget it.”
“Just go, Natalya,” I said. “You have my permission.”
I was both excited and fearful of what might happen. If, maybe, I wished hard enough, my body would still be there, lying on Justin’s invention, waiting for a soul to host it. But if my wishes went unanswered… Then nothing would change. Really, there was nothing to lose here.
“We can go.”
David grunted at Natalya’s words, and they both began their journey.
It was not a far walk to the school. The ruins looked much the same as the last time I had seen them, except, perhaps, for the small fires that had disappeared. The blackened remains around me were such a stark contrast to the rocks and the forest and the beach that I was almost astonished to lay eyes on reality again.
Even that house we had visited was nothing compared to this.
Nature puzzled me. While I stared at the ruins, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that every material that went into these buildings had come out of nature; even Justin’s invention had been produced the same way.
Why did we need punishment? Wouldn’t the buildings and the homes we all lived in be a part of nature? What was the point of being wiped off the planet for deeds that were, indeed, quite natural? In a sense, I felt like I was having a great insight, that whoever ran this planet was simply taking out excessive anger on us.
Did we really deserve such cruelty?
My father once told me he believed in karma: “what goes around comes around,” he would say. But who decided that? How could the universe be such a great being, surrounding us, almost suffocating, and deciding our fates? Shouldn’t we have some way to repent ourselves if we ever did wrong? Shouldn’t we have the chance to make things right before immediately deciding that we would have no more time?
Humans could have turned around again. Lives could have been saved. I… I wouldn’t be trapped.
“He gave us a gift,” Natalya said, looking at David. She tried to smile, but her eyes were somber. “He gave us a gift and we ruined it. We had so much time to fix it. But we didn’t. That’s why this happened.”
David said nothing, just kept walking.
Perhaps Natalya’s statement had not been for him.
We approached the exhibition building slowly. I was terrified of what we might find. But I had to be hopeful; at least, as hopeful as I could be. It was the only way I would step soul in through that broken doorway.
The school was a complete mess. I would not have called it a school if this had been my first time coming here. It was a different world. Today, especially, it felt more sullen, more solid and in place. Like a page out of history.
When the explosion had first hit… It hadn’t sunken in yet. It was all too unbelievable to accept so easily. How… How could this have happened? So many days since the incident and I still asked the question. There was simply no way. History was supposed to repeat itself now. That was the saying!
It was not supposed to make itself. Nobody had ever said that.
“David,” Natalya said. She put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “There’s a first time for everything. You can do this.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
They took the first step.
I cowered backwards instead. I was not ready, not at all. My life was over. That was what I had to think. If I told myself that, convinced myself of the fact, I would be saved from disappointment. The reality would not be so harsh.
They took the next step.
Maybe I was lying to myself. I did that a lot, when things never went my way. It… saved face, in a way. It gave me an escape from the looks of pity people were so prone to give whenever a situation was not the way it was intended to be.
They took the third step.
Then again, I was not making sense, for I gave myself every ounce of sympathy I had and left none for David and Natalya. If I didn’t want others to feel sorry for me, why pity myself? It was even worse and I had not realized it before.
Natalya’s foot was already on the other side of the doorway. She looked back and held out a hand for David for reassurance. He took it and held on tight, almost as if he meant to break Natalya’s hand.
They stepped in together.
There was no sound, not the chirps of a cricket, not the rustle of the wind, not the gasp of people.
The stage inside had to be too far away for them to even see the truth. When entering the exhibition building… Well, I remembered seeing Justin as he tweaked his invention to perfection, or as much as he could make it at the time. I remembered only taking several steps down, talking to him, praising him…
My cheeks had to be burning from the memory. Would be.
I was angrier with myself than with Justin. I really was.
Hesitantly, I made my way inside the exhibition building. If it really was my fault in the end, I couldn’t run away anymore. Justin had suffered a death as well.
All this time, I had been feeling so much weakness radiating from David. I had felt what he felt because we were both lost without each other. Yet I knew he was alive. And then Natalya… She hadn’t even cried over Justin, not in the way David had over me.
How could I be so heartless, not to give her some kind of comfort? She must have been heartbroken to have to come here and help David at once.
I had never realized her strength.
“Rose!” David choked.
I was almost hopeful, but my haste brought me the answer much more suddenly than I would have cared for.
There I was.
A perfect universe would have showed me my body lying gently on the table of Justin’s invention. A perfect universe would have showed my chest moving slowly in an upward and downward motion. Yet a perfect universe could never have been so… real.
Because when I saw the body, when I saw death honoring me this dreadful sight, I had no choice but to surrender to the truth and accept the fact that there was no way, even by the greatest miracle, that I was ever to live again.
My body was destroyed beyond recognition. It was almost as if there was nothing there at all, simply ashes. The strange grey dust was strewn across this whole exhibition area, and that fact should have been persuasive enough to me. But still my stubbornness had kept me hopeful.
And now I felt… nothing.
David was staring at where I was supposed to be, as was Natalya. They both had never seen the invention before that day, so I tried to imagine that they were admiring the genius of Justin’s mind, even though such a thing would have been preposterous.
“This is… This is good for us,” Natalya managed. Her voice was too soft. She knelt on the floor next to the invention and tentatively stroked the metal.
I turned my attention to David. He was all I could think of. “So my body’s gone,” I said to him. “That… That shouldn’t determine everything! Why am I here otherwise? There is always a reason for everything, isn’t there?”
David’s voice turned sour. “You wonder why I miss her so much,” He said, sniffing, obviously fighting back tears. “The thing is, we could talk. She would listen to me, always. She was this… delicate person I couldn’t live without. Her personality does her name justice. She was someone you always knew would never leave. At least, I had always thought…”
Natalya must have said something, but I wasn’t listening. Only David filled my deepest thoughts and desires. Whenever I needed him most, I couldn’t have him. And now he was suffering, so badly, and I couldn’t even comfort him. I would have, I really would have, had I been alive.
And? A sneering thought asked me in my most vulnerable state. If you were alive, would David even need your comfort? Aren’t you all he needs to feel whole again?
My soul literally shuddered.
David wasn’t hiding it anymore. Streams ran down his cheeks. What was I supposed to feel? Sorry for him? Or for myself? I couldn’t decide. We were both suffering the same loss, yet watching David made my loss seem unreal. Because I wasn’t really real.
“Natalya, I can’t do this,” He said.
He couldn’t do it.
The words astounded me. David was the strongest person I knew, and he couldn’t do it anymore. Where was the world if the man who was supposed to make everything right again was admitting that he simply couldn’t go on?
Natalya wiped the tears that had been on the brink of dropping off her eyelids. Tears, I supposed, she had been about to shed for the loss of Justin. A Rolex watch she was clutching went into her pocket and my heart tightened. She placed her slender hands on David’s shoulders and shook him softly until he lifted his eyes to hers.
I watched with a heavy heart as David breathed a raggedy breath.
“David,” Natalya said. “Just look at me. See? You see.” She put her arms around him. “I’m here.”
An image of David and I sitting on the school swings while talking made itself present in the forefront of my mind. It was the moment I had revealed to him how my father passed away, a very touchy subject. I hated bringing it up, and I hated my eyes tearing up, and I hated having to be babied—yet I enjoyed it at the same time. David’s arms were around me when I stopped talking, and he gently kissed the top of my head, saying, “I’m here,” over and over again.
My soul whipped out of the building at an amazing speed. If I stayed a second longer, I would die, in a sense where I would just forget everything around me, just forget that I was a soul and blend into the ground, or the trees, or the stars. The stars… I’d always wondered what the earth looked like from above.
Before I knew it, the landscape was spread out below me in such an entrancing way that I almost forgot my problems. If this wasn’t heaven, heaven must be majestically beautiful.
My thoughts slowly turned back to David, and to Natalya’s easy manner in providing all that I couldn’t. Was it because she was better than me? All along, had it always been her David was meant to fall in love with?
I could see it happening in front of me, but I didn’t want to believe it.
A bright light hovered at the edge of the horizon, pulsing, and I longed to reach out to the close star in an attempt for some sort of peace. Perhaps I could make a wish.
Without really trying, jumbled up words pulled themselves together to form one coherent sentence: “I truly and really wish I can be with David,” I choked out.
The fading light winked at me blankly. I hadn’t thought there’d been any significance to my pointless wishing.
In my despair, I let my soul spread across the sky.
Japan surrendered. I wished they’d seen it coming, the drop of the atomic bombs, the ruthlessness of what such nuclear power could do to such fragile, vulnerable creatures.
Humans shouldn’t have had the skill to build such a frightening weapon.
And yet the world continued to make the same mistakes, drawing on the earth’s resources only to betray it with nasty pollutants. And though they saw destruction, saw nature crumbling in bits and pieces before their very eyes, humans would never surrender to it. They built up their weapons and, instead of using the vast elements of the world to preserve what little of the natural there was left, they struck again and again and again until nature had no more time to breathe. Nature would have been forced to succumb had humans not been so emotional. After all their efforts to fend off a nuclear war, the inevitable occurred because of humans’ weakness. It ended the world forever, and I would be stuck to watch the dead world for all eternity.
If only it could have been normal. Justin was the one who should have been here. He should have had to live as a lost soul. He deserved it! It was his fault! That stupid, stupid boy. I had warned him that such a creation could never be a good thing, but he had gone ahead and made it anyway.
And the timing! Who could forget the timing? Was it really a coincidence that it would have been finished the day of the explosion? Was it a coincidence that a bomb fell perhaps a mile away from where I was when my soul was detached from my body? Was it a coincidence that Natalya should have been in the P.E. director’s office, a place where a bomb shelter had just happened to have been installed? Was it a coincidence that David was the only survivor of a blighted plain crash while the people around him had breathed their last breath?
Was there even the slightest possibility that it could have been? I didn’t see it, if it was a coincidence. It looked as though the hand of destiny was working to make my life miserable. If it wanted Natalya and David together, why let me watch? Why the hell did I have to watch it happen? Couldn’t it let me die for real?
I wondered where the two were now. I couldn’t remember how long I’d been in the sky. However, they didn’t need the protection of a spirit when all I could do was observe. I didn’t want to help them, anyhow. Help them, and my chances with David would be forever lost in the wind. Who would I be to him but a past girlfriend, one who could so easily be forgotten?
In my questioning, I detached myself from the sky and huddled in a small area, floating somewhere. I didn’t take notice of my surroundings.
The catalyst was on a constant roll in my mind. I remembered what it was now, a sort of trigger, as it had often been described in chemistry class. And of course Justin would need one! If he were to have the energy to pull my soul away from my body, there wasn’t a doubt about it.
But what could it have been? Why had, during those last minutes of seeing the world as a soul but not a being, why had Justin’s face looked horrified? Without stop, his expression ran through my mind as fast as Natalya would in a track competition. But she wouldn’t stop. And she wouldn’t tire. It kept going in circles, on some unseen cycle that lived to haunt me to the end of my days.
His face, distorted in such a horrendous way that my soul was scarred forever. Eyebrows furrowed together, eyes like an owl, mouth on the brink of yelling, or perhaps to say profound words that would be famous forever in the history of the world.
But it was too late.
I wanted to curse Barnett and Chzov again, but for some reason, it didn’t seem right to blame them for my death.
To draw my soul out from my body, Justin would need to trigger some sort of connection, create a sort of pull. Perhaps that had been the easy part. From his explanations while testing his experiment, I’d gotten the feeling that he had found more trouble in getting the magnet to do its job. So what was strong enough to trigger such a reaction?
What could the catalyst be?
My frustration put me in jeopardy of being overwhelmed. Just think hard enough, I told myself, and you’ll eventually find the answer.
Why did I even care so much? A simple obsession? A yearn for the truth? A faint hope for my recovery?
If I’d had a body, my heart would nearly be beating out of my chest. Nevertheless, I imagined the heavy sound of heartbeats, as one would hear when coming to such a realization as I.
I’d known it all along. I’d hoped for the chances since the beginning. Seeing Natalya and David hurt too much. It hurt and I wanted to be the one in their shoes. If the soul extractor had never been made, could it have been me? Would I have survived? If I hadn’t felt such a strong, almost magnetic, pull to help Justin, could I have discouraged him in time?
It was the magnet!
A wave of comprehension hit me hard. That was it. The soul extractor had been made with a magnet. I knew that. But a conversation of Natalya and David I had listened in on spurred abruptly in my mind.
This town, so small in the giant United States of America. Yet it had been attacked, almost as if it had been targeted. Could it be these magnets that had created such an attracting pull that the nuclear missiles had missed their real target? Could it be that Justin’s famous catalyst had involved a mild nuclear reaction, bumping my soul away from my body?
Could it be that he had been so immersed in his project that he barely had time for thought or care of someone’s life?
I found myself feeling anger towards him, but it faded quickly in my epiphany. Did Justin care? If Natalya was right about death, I would find out when I truly died. How would that ever happen in my state? Weakly, I tried to gather thoughts that were slipping away in my sadness.
Should I blame Justin? Sure, he’d created the darn machine, but he hadn’t meant any harm. None at all. His kindness had always overpowered his lust for fame, in a way. And he always asked permission for a favor, never tried to turn anyone his way with dire needs.
And then I said yes.
The thought hit me like that nuclear bomb had hit the world. Staggering. Oh, I had never thought myself stupid before, but in that moment, I was suddenly guilty of stupidity.
What if I hadn’t said yes to Justin’s experiment? Who would he have chosen instead? He was a science geek, but he was shy as well. It would have taken him at least an extra fifteen minutes to find another person to help him. An extra few minutes would have been all the town needed to survive.
“Justin, I’m so sorry,” I said, my voice cracking in my mind. “You must think I’m horrible, if Natalya’s theory is correct. I’ve just been so… adamant, you know? I didn’t want to think that I… I mean, I just wanted your approval of me. I can’t stand it when people are angry with me. You know that. I just need that acceptance to, you know, feel comforted. I just need comfort.” My rambles did nothing for the hollow shell growing upon my soul.
My face would be pouring with tears of guilt if I’d had eyes to release them. My chest would be shaking with the hiccups of regret if I’d had the organs to react. And my heart… My heart would be so overwhelmed with a blanket of shame that I would suffocate because of a lack of air.
Life is a series of ‘what ifs’, I remembered someone once telling me. I thought maybe it had been Natalya, brought up in a conversation.
She was always full of answers.
That girl would have been a genius if she hadn’t been so into sports. She could be anything she wanted to be.
I faintly remembered thinking the same thing about David. Oh, my sweet David. He was mine. He would always be mine. I still had that longing, that passion and love I felt every time I looked at him.
It was a love any Kyle wouldn’t have been able to give, because I knew, with complete conviction, that David was meant for me. Which was why it was all the while harder. If I had died… Really died… It would have been so much easier.
David wasn’t everything. He was my true love, yes, but he wasn’t everything. I knew, even though it made me want to gag to think it, I would never have a chance with him again, not until he died and we both went off to live in our afterlife, wherever that was.
If Natalya was right, we would find out everything, maybe go to Heaven or something of the sort.
In a way, I was looking forward to it.
Because in a world away from here, I could achieve peace.
There was no more point in hiding from the growing fondness in both David’s and Natalya’s eyes. They were so smitten for each other that I wanted to snap at them to admit it. If I weren’t the observer, I would have done so already.
They were already an hour out of our small town when I found them. It didn’t take very long. The movements of a spirit and a body were quite different, and maneuvering as a ghost was definitely quicker in every way. I never worried about growing tired, or being hungry. There was no fear of getting a blister or tripping over a branch.
“Natalya, David,” I said to them. “I understand it now. And I really don’t mind. I’ve gone over it in my mind, and I know I should be completely horrified. But I’m not. So go ahead. Kiss each other. Really, do it. I’m never coming back.”
The two looked at each other as if they’d heard every word I’d just said. Then they turned away in guilt. Natalya sighed. “Sometimes, I feel like Rose would have handled this so much better than us.”
“She had everything figured out, didn’t she?”
“Yeah, that she did.” Natalya twirled her hair with a finger. “I know she didn’t have the happiest life to begin with, but in the end, it was alright. She was a role model to me. She spread herself out, and she was always on good terms with everyone.”
David was nodding. “I never understood how she did it.”
“Maybe…” Natalya shrugged. “I guess she just led a good life.”
Oh, because I hadn’t even thought about my life, not completely. I’d been so caught up in finding a way to live again that I’d never once brought it up. But I saw that Natalya was right. Despite my father’s death, and despite my attitude in high school, in the end I had led a good life, as good as it was ever going to be.
I wondered what I would have done if I hadn’t met Justin, the science geek who so effectively drew me to him. He would always be my best friend, the one who taught me to be who I was, and not what everyone else wanted. Even if he was a bit eccentric. Even if he was to blame for so many of my recent sufferings.
He went too far, and a great being saw that. A soul extractor? Not a good thing at all. It may have seemed like the greatest and most creative invention of all time, but I should have stopped it the moment I heard of its usage. Being a close friend of the inventor, I could have stopped it.
Justin wasn’t all to blame. He was simply the epitome of all the technology that was wrong in the world. His invention may have been just one of the many that weaved its way into the nature of mankind and polluted thoughts unknowingly. It was all about being the best, having the greatest things to show off something that, again, was a creation of mankind—money.
Blowing up the world seemed to take things a bit too drastically, however. As I thought about it, and stared at the softened soil on the ground that I so wished I could feel, and seeing the beautiful blooming roses an inch away that I so wished I could smell, a thought occurred.
The fragile beauty that anyone would notice right away still existed, and now in vastness compared to before the explosion. How wonderful it was, to be able to caress the sweet existence of a mere butterfly. How magnificent and enormous the world seemed without us humans tramping across the swaying greenery and summoning concrete buildings upon the pillars of nature.
If I were alive, I would cherish what little the world had left, and I wouldn’t even try. I would do exactly what I thought necessary to keep nature alive. I would give it my eyes and ears and time, and I would rise it from its dwindling state so that, once again, it wouldn’t be about the material and the products that humans pride on making.
It would be about the land we live on in all its elegance.
“Justin,” I said to myself, “I am both angry and grateful to you at the same time. Curse you, my friend. I love you.”
That night, I made a decision. It was the first decision that I was solely taking on to help someone else. It felt almost magical as I went through the problems and the solutions in my mind.
There was no actual way to do it. I simply had to be there, and she simply had to be listening.
That would be the hard part—getting her to listen.
What were they doing?
My mind was in an escalating panic. It seemed like they were getting ready to split up. When had this decision been made? Gone for a day and it was as if I didn’t exist. I was almost ready to will myself into one of their bodies so that I could lend them a bit of sense.
“This is the right thing, isn’t it?” Natalya asked. Her eyes sparkled with new tears, but, amazingly, she held them back.
David nodded. “Yeah… I think it is.” His chest was heaving slowly. “We’ll find one another again.”
“You guys can’t split up!” I interrupted. “What happened? Have you been taken over by some extraterrestrial being? This is ridiculous! Just… Ridiculous! Think about it for a moment. You’re going to die without each other.”
They were both quiet, more quiet than usual.
Had I been heard?
I waited expectantly, darting from David’s blank stare to Natalya’s resigned one. They were each waiting for the other to speak, each waiting for the other to object.
But each was as stubborn as the other.
Without a word, Natalya turned away, heading in her designated direction like I had the day Justin and I met. Funny, how our roles had been switched. Except in this case, the situation was much more fragile, and I knew she would never come back.
I bounded after Natalya, David’s still figure retreating further and further away. It hurt me, just to go after her, my best friend. It hurt because I knew what I had to do, and I didn’t want to do it. It just… it hurt.
“Don’t go,” I said. “Please, please don’t go.”
She stopped in her tracks abruptly, shoes scraping the rough, barren ground. Her entire face had turned red, but I couldn’t tell if it was the weather or her inner feelings doing that.
She looked about to break down.
“Please forgive me.” Her voice was compressed tightly, barely a squeak through her throat. She sobbed. “Please forgive me, Rose, for such feelings. I’m trying to stop them. I’m trying to turn them away. I can’t. I tried. I tried really hard.”
I stared at my friend for a few silent moments, contemplating her words for a moment. Then I said, “I would forgive you, but there’s nothing to forgive. The thing is, David needs you. If he holds on to the idea of me, he’ll never be happy. But with you, he can be happy. You take care of him. He needs that sort of comfort, and I would never, even if I tried, be able to give it to him.”
Natalya was crying. “I… I can’t go forward. I thought I was strong…”
“You are strong!” I told her. “But you’re weak by trying to leave.” I wavered in front of her eyes. I knew she could hear me. I didn’t stop to wonder how. I just knew. “You brought David back,” I said. “Out of all the people in the world, only you had the ability to do that. And he loves you. He loves me, but he loves you too, and you are all he has now. So go.”
“Rose, why did this happen?”
I felt like I was speaking to a little child. “Have you ever been in one of those elevators that had mirrors on both sides?” I asked her.
“And you look at all those people, all those people who look like you. There are countless numbers of you there, and each and every one lives a slightly different life. Each alternate version of you has a slightly different personality. And you decide which personality you want to take. Which one you have to take. You choose where you want your life to be.”
Natalya shook her head in frustration. “I don’t… I don’t understand.”
I felt like my brother now. “Natalya, you’ve been doing it already! Me, I never did what I thought was right. I needed to be pushed in that direction. I have a hard time accepting the truth, accepting what’s right in front of me. And now that I have, I just want to tell you that you have taken everything perfectly, and you can’t stop now. David needs you.”
And something in Natalya’s eyes clicked. “He needs me,” She whispered.
“Yes,” I told her excitedly. “You’re here. I’m not. No amount of crying will change that. You can’t forget. You can’t feel guilty. Stick to the way you’ve always done it. Be the fixer you always were.”
“Fix it, you mean.”
It wasn’t that it was a rule or anything, or the fact that everyone had phones with touch screens, or phones with mini keyboards on them, or phones that recorded your messages in written word.
I used to like to tell myself that it was my fixation with numbers that had led me to memorize the ‘code’ on an ancient handheld phone, where the number one contained the various means of punctuation, the number two started the first three letters of the alphabet, the number three had the next three, and the others continued as such.
The habit had grabbed hold of me as a young child, and it had never let me go since then. Fortunately, numbers were a part of a language that was universal, in this life and the real one. And I knew them all by heart. I could rattle on for days if I let myself.
And as Natalya and I seemed to have some sort of strange connection, I knew she would understand.
Along a path I knew she would end up crossing, I left a message on a broken phone: 5483—live. Forever, until they found where they needed to go, they had to keep moving, and they had to keep living.
Natalya ran, faster than I had ever seen her run before. She had probably broken a dozen records.
I was proud, so proud.
David had stayed right where we had left him. So he hadn’t been able to go on, hadn’t been able to take those few steps away from someone I knew he was starting to love.
Before I knew it, the two were hugging each other, with Natalya patting David’s hair as if he were her son, or a lost boy who had just found his way home. They stayed like that for hours, and even though I still had the lingering wish of being the one in Natalya’s place, the world didn’t seem so dark and dank any longer.
Before my soul was whisked away, I gave my two greatest friends a final demand: “Be good to each other,” I said. “There will be others who’ll come in the way, but be good to each other.”
I lost control then. A white spot filled the horizon. The scene of reality dropped from my eyes and I was in another place, somewhere light and warm. I was moving on the wind, being brought to wherever I was meant to go after death. Like Natalya had said, I would find everything out once I got there.
I could be reunited with my mother, my brother, with Justin, my father, who all watched and waited. My acceptance was complete.
No longer was I wishing for something that could not be. No longer was I longing for love that I could not have. No longer was I cursing everyone I felt had played a role in my predicament.
No longer did I feel lost, lost as a wandering soul.
I was free.
The highest mountain lay somewhere to the east, tall, proud and mighty. It would withstand even the mightiest explosion that mankind sought to produce, whether it be pollution, malnutrition, deforestation, or a nuclear war.
David and Natalya, the only two known survivors, headed somewhere east. Even in their lone island, they had a sort of hope that they both contributed to the invisible pot between them. They meant to share their food for survival with any other they found alive.
They both knew, deep inside, that the same catalyst that had so nearly destroyed their lives had also nearly destroyed their chances at survival, what with the complications of a beautiful rose. When nature was pushed too far to the brink of extinction, an all-out nuclear war had manifested to knock a bit of sense into people, the inhabitants of nature who so blatantly destroyed it.
Technology, a common product of mankind, had been too much for the world to handle, so a higher being decided to give a second chance, with fit and knowledgeable characters, to be able to unite every island with a common thread: an affinity for nature.
This time, mankind knew better. They would not push so ruthlessly against the wind while at sea, and instead let it guide them through an adventure to a world that could then be envisioned, truly and really, as home.