I wish I could say, one day I went to bed and everything was normal, and when I woke up it was different. Like this. The air here is thin, the earth lifeless; even the clouds are dead. Everything is grey, starlight and sunlight and moonlight and my skin. The rubble is grey. The water is grey. The ground doesn’t feel right, even if I don’t know how it should feel. Water tastes wrong, even if I don’t know how it should taste. Sun doesn’t make the day bright, night doesn’t make it dark. There should be something that I call myself.
These things are all true, but I don’t know why. And I hate it.
There are objects, trash, detritus. There are broken things. Mostly they are no good for anything.
Every day is the same, drinking sour water and eating anything I can force down. Grass. Raw fish. Pigeons, when I can catch them. Sometimes I get sick – but even that does little to make me forget the loneliness.
Everything I want to remember, I’ve forgotten. The few things I remember, I want to forget.
Once, in the night, I see something. Something that moves. Too big to be a bird or even a rat. It scares me, but that feeling – fear – brings me back to life a little bit. It makes me think, I don’t really want to die.
I find a shovel the next day, and I carry it with me. I think, Shovels never run out of ammo. I must have heard this in my former life because the more I think about it the less I know what to make of it.
I begin to think I might be dead. But then I get hungry, or I throw up whatever I’ve managed to eat, and I feel alive again, and even as shitty as it is I don’t want to lose it.
The thing that I didn’t see follows me.
I name myself John Keats.
I start to remember things. Not things about myself, really, or what I’m doing here. Mostly words, all kinds of words. Sometimes even what they mean.
I ask myself one day, What happened? I look at broken buildings – skyscrapers, and apartments, and a holes in the ground that I don’t go in – and I know what they are, what they did, what they are meant to do. Sewers, and metros. They’re meant to move things. And I think, Post-apocalyptic. And I know what that means, too.
Shouldn’t there be other people out there? Shouldn’t they be trying to kill me? In a way, I’m kind of disappointed that no one does. Which is stupid, but my whole life has become stupid, grey, meaningless.
There are no bodies anywhere. No skeletons.
In a way, what little I do remember makes things worse. Because even though I know what things are, I don’t know this place at all.
Something is out there, though, and I think it might be a dog.
Five days after I first catch a glimpse of him, a big brown dog comes out so I can see him. Not all the way to me, but he comes and stands about ten yards away, and he doesn’t bark, and he doesn’t growl. He doesn’t hide. He just looks at me, eating one of the fish I caught earlier. I throw him my second fish, and he eats in one gulp. It’s like a magic act: Once there, gone in a flash.
I laugh at the thought, and the dog disappears almost as fast as the fish. Which makes me a little sad, because I think I like dogs.
For three days, we play this game. I see him, then I don’t see him. He is there, then gone. He never comes closer. But he doesn’t leave.
I eat a rat. I get so hungry that even the thought of going down into the metro doesn’t scare me, and when I do there are rats everywhere, with bright eyes and long teeth.
Killing a rat is much harder than killing a pigeon. Those teeth have something to do with it.
I make a fire. It takes me longer than it should, hours, but even as hungry as I am I refuse to eat the thing raw. The smell is awful, true, but it makes my mouth water. When I can’t stand to wait any longer I tear into it, even though it burns my mouth. It’s wonderful.
By nightfall I have retched out everything in my stomach and my body is still rebelling. Sweat drips down my face and arms, and everything that comes out of me stinks. I am going to die, I know the same way you know it’s day out; it just is. I have never been so sure of anything, and I’m so sick that I stop caring. In the end I lie there, shaking. My mouth tastes unspeakable. I hate everything and I am ready to die.
I can’t tell if I have a fever or a chill. It seems to change every time I half-wake. And then – I don’t know why, but I feel comfortable. Safe. Sick and putrid and inhuman, but still okay. Like I’m not alone. I think maybe there is a God and he has come to take me to a Better Place.
But instead, the dog is curled up against me, his wet nose pressed against the back of my fevered neck.
For a little while, I don’t move, because I’m afraid that if I do he’ll run away again. But he doesn’t.
I name him Brucey. Because I think we name dogs in the diminutive, and because his full name, Bruce Wayne, takes too long to say.
I start to think of the day he came to me as Brucey’s Birthday, but I treat it like my own. I start to keep a careful count of days. I don’t write it down. Instead, I force myself to remember. When I wake up, the first thing I do is ask myself, What day is it? so that I don’t forget.
Maybe because I’m not alone anymore, I start to focus on finding what we need to live. I refuse to eat rats. I want food, real food, and it doesn’t have to be good but it does have to be safe. Water, too. I start to think about water all the time. Given how long Brucey survived on his own, and how sleek he is by comparison with me, he can probably take care of himself just fine. But I have a reason to live now, someone to live for, so I start to think about how I can keep both of us happy and safe.
I go into the apartments. Lots of them are empty, but others are cluttered with weathered, damaged things. I find toothpaste. I find a toothbrush. I find a duffel bag, and bottles that I fill with water, just in case. I start to carry things that I think I’ll need. I find canned food. It’s probably well beyond its expiration date, but how would I know? When I eat it, it tastes better than anything I can remember eating. Well, it isn’t great, but it’s better than rats anyway. Canned noodles, canned peaches, canned tuna, canned eggs. The eggs are slippery, but Brucey and I eat them in one sitting. I refuse to share the peaches.
In one of the apartments, I find a mirror. It’s broken, but it lets me see my own face. I look nothing like I thought I would. I mean, yeah, I’m skinny. Emaciated, almost. My hair is a tangled mess, and there is purple bruising around my eyes. But my body is surprisingly square and firm. I thought I’d look worse.
I don’t remember my face at all. It could be the face of a stranger.
On the fifteenth Day of Brucey, well after breakfast, we are sorting through an apartment. I want to find deodorant or something so that I stink less. I’m sick of how I smell. Even Brucey seems to be avoiding me.
I am bending over a vanity when I hear a noise. It isn’t a Brucey noise, and it isn’t a rat noise either. We look at each other, and his eyes are huge, his lips curled to reveal his canines. It’s the first time he’s ever looked scary.
I grab my shovel and head for the door. I have hardly made it out when someone says, “Stop.”
It’s a girl.
Her long hair is pulled up, a messy ponytail at the back of her head. Her eyes are hard. I’m scared, but also fascinated: There’s someone else out there. Alive.
She levels a handgun at me. I cannot tell what make it is, or caliber.
“I’ve got more range with this than you do with that shovel,” she warns me. Brucey looks up at me for guidance that I don’t have.
“You have a name?” the girl demands, as if I have done something to make her angry. I haven’t, as far as I know, but why shouldn’t she hate me? I, too, am alive. I am someone to blame.
“John Keats,” I tell her.
She wrinkles her nose. “Sounds familiar.”
I shrug. “I don’t remember what it was before. I’m calling myself that now, though, and nobody’s told me I can’t.” I pause. “I mean, Brucey doesn’t mind, and he’s the only one I’ve seen out here other than you.” It occurs to me that this sounds a little crazy – who is Brucey to argue with what I choose to call myself? – but the girl nods.
“You don’t remember either,” she says. This sounds as if it comes as a huge relief. I think about this. Am I relieved, too? Some, maybe. If this girl remembered, would that make me even lonelier?
Brucey reads this moment of quiet as friendship, and he bounds up toward the girl, his big stupid tongue flapping out of his mouth like a slobbery flag. She puts her gun down, laughing, and pats him on the head. He is in love already. When she scratches his ears he lets out a happy gurgle.
“You call him Brucey?” she asks as he gives her cheek huge sloppy dog kisses.
“It’s short for Bruce Wayne.” For some reason, saying this makes me feel unspeakably stupid.
She stands upright again, and Brucey looks at her longingly. She smiles at the look of slavish adoration on his face. “I guess it kind of suits him. I was afraid you were going to say it was… I don’t know, Lurcher. Mister Toots.”
It is my turn to make a face. “I don’t think those are dog names.”
“No?” Her tone is challenging, but her expression is one of curiosity. “What are dog names?”
I can’t think of any so I call her bluff by answering, “He seems to like Brucey, so I guess Brucey is a dog name.” I expect her to scowl at me (this stranger certainly likes Bruce Wayne better than John Keats) but instead she looks at me with a confused grin; she thinks I’m an idiot, maybe, but she doesn’t hate me. Gratified, I add, “It’s one hundred percent dog-approved. So what about you? Do you have a name?”
She does not want to answer me, I can tell from the way her face pinches up, but she knows that fair is fair. “It’s Emily,” she says, adding defiantly, “Dickinson. Did you know your hair looks awful?”
I grin like an idiot, like Brucey, for some reason unknown even to myself. “Does it?” Brucey warbles his opinion. I don’t speak dog, but I would assume it is a Yes. Is this because even a dog can tell I look stupid, or because he has already sold his soul to Emily?
I think I am happy.
Emily doesn’t say a thing when I follow her. Not, “Come on,” but not “Piss off,” either.
She’s sleeping in one of the empty apartments, but it isn’t empty anymore. It’s heaven. Tin cans. Buckets full of water; she’s smarter than me, she’s been collecting the grey rain. Toothpaste. Books. Shampoo. Clothing. Furniture. Deodorant.
“Help yourself,” she says. Then she sits down and watches me. It feels like a test, and I try to take only what I need, but there’s so much to choose from that I can’t decide all at once. I don’t want to look greedy.
I take deodorant. I take one bar of soap. I don’t look at the food. Don’t even glance at it. Emily watches me and doesn’t say a word.
“Thanks,” I say, when I’ve taken when I need.
“Are you going?” she asks. Her voice is flat: not happy, not sad.
“I don’t know. Do you want me to?” I ask. Brucey makes a little noise of protest.
Emily looks at him, then back at me. Like she’s measuring how much she likes Brucey against how much she doesn’t trust me. Trying to decide if it’s worth it.
“You could stay,” she says. “If you want to.”
She’s terribly lonely. I’m not, not exactly. But I don’t want to go.
These are the rules:
Don’t touch the gun.
I think I remember Emily.
We don’t say much. I go out to wash with some of the soap and my bottled water; then I go back to place where I’ve been sleeping and gather up my water, my blankets, my unopened cans. Leaving doesn’t matter, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t feel like anything.
When I get back to the apartment, Brucey is curled up beside Emily with his head in her lap. She’s smiling.
When she sees me, she stops.
Brucey jumps up on me right away, licking me and wagging his tail; Emily doesn’t say anything. While she’s watching, I open my bag, adding everything I have to her piles. I know I could keep these things separate, but I mix them in with hers. So the piles become ours.
“We were waiting for you,” says Emily. “We didn’t eat. We should have. I’m starving. Give me a can.”
“What do you want?” I ask.
Her lips quiver, the ghost of a smile. “Surprise me.”
I find a can of peaches and hand them to her.
After we eat – in awkward silence, except for Brucey’s slurping and burping – I get ready to go outside.
“I’ll sleep next door,” I say.
“You…” She looks away. “You don’t have to.”
She snaps her head around and glares at me. “It’s not an invitation. I said you could sleep here. I’m not offering you anything.”
“I didn’t think you were,” I say. Not that I don’t wish she would.
“Okay,” she says.
“Okay,” I say.
We lie down on the floor, using rolled up blankets as pillows. I lie stiff, staring at the ceiling, my arms at my sides. So she knows I won’t try anything.
I wish Brucey would sleep between us, but he lies by the door. He snores so loudly I can’t sleep. He never used to do that before we came here.
Or maybe he did and I just slept through it. So why can’t I sleep now?
After a while, I begin to hear another noise. A whimper, soft and mournful. I know that sound, because it was a sound I made those first nights. Maybe, in my sleep, I still do.
For a while I try to ignore it. What am I supposed to do about it, anyway? What can I possibly say to her? I think that whispering to people when they’re asleep is something you do to make them feel better. Things like, It will be okay. Hush, now, you’re all right. But I’m not a liar, so I don’t know what to say.
I don’t say anything. I go to her.
I move up behind her gently and put one hand on her shoulder. She’s shaking, trembling. Maybe in her dreams, she can remember how things got to be this way. If she can, it must be horrible. Everything here is so – dead. So over. The journey here, from our old living world, whatever that was like, must be a nightmare, and I think she’s having it. I feel a sudden, overwhelming sense of pity. For both of us.
When she doesn’t stop, I move closer, until I’m pressed against her, and I stroke her hair. Her whole body goes still, which is unnerving, but it’s better than when she’s crying. When her breathing settles, I move away. Still, I’m close enough to feel her heat. It’s better than the night Brucey first visited me. For the first time, I don’t feel lonely.
I sleep. When I wake up, Emily is lying against me with her head on my shoulder. I don’t wake her.
It’s raining. Storming. A warm summer rain, but it’s a deluge, and I don’t want to catch a cold. There’s no way we’re going out today.
I’m prepared for long, gloomy hours of semi-hostile silence, but Emily seems to have become a different person overnight. She still doesn’t talk, but I think it’s for lack of things to say.
While we’re eating, I try to think of conversations we could have. All I can come up with is, “Why Emily?”
She looks up, eyebrows raised.
“Emily Dickinson. Was that your name – before?”
She shrugs, like, How should I know? and then looks at me again. “I read it.”
I point over at her pile of books. “In one of those?”
She nods. “I stole it. But who’s gonna stop me?”
“Who was she?”
Emily puts down her food and looks very serious. “‘I can wade grief, whole pools of it – I’m used to that.'”
“She wrote it. And I thought, I can too. So I’m Emily now.”
I smile. She begins to eat again, but she is smiling too.
The rain is torrential. It’s never come this hard, not in the Days of Brucey, not since I can remember.
“Want to go out in it?” Emily asks. When I gape at her, she laughs – it’s a beautiful sound, and it makes my spine itch. “We can take a shower. Come on, Brucey will love it.”
“We’ll get wet,” I say, stupidly.
In answer, she stands up and pulls her shirt off. Unbuttons her pants. Then, in nothing but her underwear – and I can’t help but notice how sensible it is – she runs out into the rain. Brucey follows, howling.
I do, too.
Emily dances. It’s primitive; it comes from nothing. It’s the way a child would have danced, back when there were children. I watch her, her hair wet and wild, her limbs gleaming with rain, and I forget to try to remember.
There is nothing grey in the world.
I dance with her.
We go together after that, to look for things. Brucey tags along, sniffing and wriggling. He’s as happy as he could possibly be. That the world is over doesn’t matter to him. It stops mattering to me, too.
On the sixty-fifth Day of Brucey, we find another house that I don’t know. Another place that doesn’t look familiar. But things have survived here, more books, more furniture.
“It’s awful,” says Emily, pointing at the ugliest couch I’ve ever seen. It’s in great condition, compared to everything else, but we decide to leave it because it makes us seasick to look at it too long.
“I’ll check the kitchen,” she says. “You look in the back rooms.”
One of the bedroom walls is knocked in, and half the roof is gone. The bed is ruined, but there’s a bedside table that has survived. I go through the drawers, hoping to find scissors or something.
Instead, the top drawer holds only a small square of metal and felt. When I turn it over, I realize that it’s a photograph. It’s faded and water-damaged, but I can still make out the two people in it.
The boy is tall and dark skinned, muscular but a little soft-looking. He has his arm around a girl, with dirty-blond hair and bright green eyes. They’re leaning towards each other; I think they’re in love. They look happy. Stunningly happy.
I can’t imagine what life was like then. I can’t imagine ever being that carefree.
And it’s me.
I look at for a long time, trying to find something in my memory that matches this event. It happened. I know it happened, I’m holding proof of it in my hand.
I don’t remember anything.
Should I show this to Emily? I wonder. Maybe she’ll recognize it. Maybe she’ll say, Oh! That was the time – But I can’t even imagine a scenario with which to fill in this blank. I am poised to leap to my feet and run into the kitchen, brandishing this photograph, proof of a world before.
But I don’t.
Here’s why I don’t tell her: I want her to love me.
If she does – even if I am the last man in the world – I don’t want it to be because she used to, in her other life. I want her to love me because she does. Now. And maybe, later, I’ll bring her back here and show her this, and we can try to remember when this picture was taken. What it was like when we lived in this unfamiliar house. What we were thinking when we picked that couch.
I can’t bring myself to destroy it, this happy picture of foreigners in an alien world, but I put it back where I found it. And I leave.
Outside, the sun shows its face for the first time since we were born.
K. C. Norton
K. C. Norton’s work has appeared in Writers of the Future, Crossed Genres Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction, and her short story “Canth” is forthcoming in Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue. She shares her apartment with a small dog who is not named after a superhero.