A Dreamscapes Story
by Alicia VanNoy Call
The end of the world always comes when the White House gets blown up, or Lady Liberty’s head goes bouncing down the street. People stampede to get away as cars tumble through the air like leaves, or fall to their knees in the face of a roaring ball of fire, their sudden-faith prayers just a murmur under the scream of sirens. At least that’s how it happens in the movies.
But this isn’t the movies.
Penny and I, we used to talk about how we would know. When we’re at the end.
That's the thing. You don't always know.
We ran out of candles last month.
At first, the total darkness was disorienting. We stumbled over each other. Collided in the blackness. It wasn't as if we didn't know every inch of the shelter. It was just – when you can see, you take things for granted. I remember how we stared at that last little light, watching the wick in it's tiny puddle of wax. The rest of it had melted across the table. The flame jumped once and we held our breaths. Then it went out.
Having your eyes open in complete darkness is so strange. At the beginning I kept them closed. It felt more natural that way. Penny cried that night. It was the first time in a long time she cried.
Now we move in sync, feeling the air around each other. I think it's really true, what they say, about how your other senses make up for it.
We don't have the same schedule we used to. When there was light, we divided the day in half. Now we have fallen into this pattern of awake for a few hours, asleep for a few hours. We share a bunk now. It was Penny's idea. It was too unnerving to be separated for sleep, when the pitch midnight of the shelter is so thick it's like a wall of black cutting you off from everything.
Penny sleeps curled against me, my arm around her. Sometimes I wake and just listen for her breath – convinced she's dead, she sleeps so quiet. She'll move a little, or moan in the middle of a dream and I'll relax. Not the end, I think. Not yet.
I lay awake sometimes for hours, listening for Penny to sigh, or shudder. I think a lot about when we were kids.
When we played army men by the creek. We dug trenches and forts, scooping the earth bare-handed, built up battlements with twigs. Lined the soldiers up on rocks and shot them off again with BB guns. We had hundreds of those army men. Their cheaply-molded plastic limbs twisted and drippy. I can remember the cool smell of earth, the dirt under our fingernails. I remember building rafts for the action figures. We'd send amputees downstream for Viking funerals. We'd tinder pyres with dried moss and dead leaves and light them with matches stolen from my mother's kitchen.
I remember the pie we stole from the windowsill. Strawberry rhubarb. We ate it with our fingers in the tree house. Penny smiling, her face smeared red. Laughing, mother swatted us later with a wooden spoon and called us hobos. I remember how she wiped her hands on her apron and put a lock of hair behind her ear. My mother had black hair. She told me after we'd started high school that she baked the pie and left it there, old-timey style on the windowsill for us to find. She always loved that we'd leave our devices charging in their docks and go play outside like when she was a kid.
Penny used to talk about our parents a lot. Now she'll only talk about us. Our dogs. School. The tree house.
We wake in silence, remembering how to be who we were. Sometimes she'll ask me what I'm thinking. I tell her about the army men, or the pie, or the time we skipped school to go fishing and the principal came looking for us. I say it into her hair; her smell has faded.
Penny gets up. She uses the toilet, then I do. We don't change our clothes anymore.
I set out supplies for meals and Penny reconstitutes them. We eat in silence. I can hear her chew. I imagine I can see her freckled cheeks, the blue eyes that met mine through the backyard fence the day we moved in.
It’s always been Penny and me. Even now, here in the dark. We're near the end I think. But like I said, it's hard to know.
After dinner, we sit back to back and Penny reminds me about the time we spent the night in the tree house. We told each other ghost stories and put more things in our time capsule. An army man. A rabbit's foot from the rear-view mirror of her dad's pickup. A ticket stub from that sci-fi movie we can't remember. A photo she printed from our fourth-grade Halloween when we dressed as Red Shirts.
She leans her head against mine. Her thinning hair brushes the back of my neck. I can feel her shoulder blades through my shirt, the knobs of her vertebrae. We’ll run out of food in sixty-three more days. Then, Penny says, we’ll know.
Not like in the movies. But we’ll know.