Two days after you bury her, wake up in a field somewhere. Keep calm when this happens–even though you’re scared and can’t recall anything, even though there are many reasons why you should be dead, like the strain that killed most of the population is airborne and you are, at the moment, exposed, stay this way. You can’t afford to panic.
See the morning sky above you and feel the sudden urge to vomit. Roll over and commence doing so (you should begin smelling traces of whiskey, or at least tasting it again). Declare yourself hungover. When you’re finished, still hunched on the ground, check your skin. Sift slowly through your hair for any bald patches (remembering Dawna’s initial symptoms, this keeps you careful). Be thorough. Exhale when you find nothing wrong, even though you’d probably be better off with it–dying as a statistic would be easier than living against the odds.
Sit up. Look around. Notice you are actually in a public park; ironically, you think, without the public. Recognize it, and recall the night before. Blink. Turn your head, see the tree with the stridently carved initials J & D. Remember how you made that–her hand over yours, grating them into the bark with a hunting knife your father gave you when you were sixteen–and why. Behind that, see the old dugout you had kissed her in afterwards.
Walk back to your apartment a little later at the corner of Morgan and 14th. Survey the bareness of the streets as you go. Do not bother to be nostalgic or mushy about the memories of this familiar walk–be assured it will change nothing. Saunter around the things people left behind. See a baby stroller in a gutter, a car with the radio still playing. Imagine the scenarios. Rub your shoulders. Walk past an abandoned kiosk with newspapers headlining DOOMSDAY DISEASE with pictures of people running through fires or writhing in hospital beds or leaping off metropolitan precipices. Fight the urge to knock it over.
Ask yourself why you survived.
Take out your phone and notice 4 missed calls and a text message that reads WTF MAN??? from Trevor back at Sanctuary, the facility you’ve been staying in, the walls which still housed your girlfriend’s last breath, where you snuck out last night. Want with all your heart to call your best friend back and reassure him you are, in fact, not dead; just lonely, hungover, miraculously still uninfected.
When you reach your stairs, trace your finger along the ash on the railing as you ascend them. See scorch marks, fulfilled prophecies chiseled into the walls (a consistent favorite being THE END IS HERE!). Hear, somewhere in the back of your mind, her voice. Try and forget the sound of her bellowing your name over the wail of a siren the day of the Outbreak. Let that impression trigger no response but a quiet, physical ache in your stomach.
Open the door to your apartment. Once inside, walk to your couch. Sit down. Look fixedly at your reflection on the TV screen for a while. Let seconds pass. Pick up your phone to check the time (7:55). Rise. Walk slowly across your kitchen, down your hallways. (Your ears will ring at this point from the silence). Approach the entrance to Dawna’s studio. Half expect, when you open the door, to see her sitting upon the easel. See, instead, sunlight filling her space. Wish in that moment that you had died along with her, so you wouldn’t have held her hand when she cried, begged for morphine, became delirious. Grapple with the urge to apologize to the space she so often occupied. Resort to just standing there, still staring. Walk slowly towards the set-up. Sit upon the stool. Face the covered canvas. Raise your arm up and move your hand through the blinding wash of sunlight, shifting the shadow of it upon the frame.
Decide, after too much of this, to call Sanctuary. Hear them answer after the first ring. “Austin, Sanctuary Base 12450, this is Casey speaking.”
Pause a bit too long. Say softly, “I need to speak to someone.” And when there follows a gap of silence, add, “Trevor Linbrough.”
Close your eyes. Hear the digital clicks and whirs of you being transferred. Prepare. “Hello.”
Open your eyes to the sound of his voice. “It’s John.”
Hear a pause. Remind yourself that you didn’t expect high spirits from him–he is, after all, the one who held you when you cried after Dawna’s passing. Agree with yourself that you shouldn’t have called.
“What the hell man. Where are you?”
Appreciate to yourself the urgency of his concern. Run your hands through your hair and push out a breath. Keep your voice steady. “I’m at the apartment.”
Now, look directly forward and inspect the canvas. Holding the phone to your ear with one hand, take off the sheet with the other. Reveal the product. Stop breathing.
“You planning on coming back anytime soon?”
Do not answer. Let the portrait hold your gaze. Look at your girlfriend’s version of the sprawling city view at its finest. Recognize her presence and flair in every brushstroke. Marvel at the chaos in the color, the extremities of activity, the life only her love and talent could bestow. Be moved by the subtleties in emotional shade, be proud of its exquisiteness, its gusto, tenderness. Notice the title: This Is The Way Your World Ends. Recognize the brilliance of the contradiction. Begin to cry.
Force yourself to tear your eyes from the painting. Answer with a crack in your voice. “I think so.” Try to gather yourself. Wipe your eyes. Take your time while Trevor offers a deliberate silence–he knows you that well. Think that he may as well be in the room with you. Listen to him say, “I’m sorry.”
Respond, “Don’t apologize.”
Listen to him sigh. “Come back, man. You can’t do this to yourself.”
Don’t answer him for a while–sneak another look at the painting. Feel yourself relax.
Feel yourself say, “I’ll be okay.”
Watch as you hang up the phone. Sit for a while longer. Think. Think about a lot of things, speculate. Spend effortless time in that studio. Get up. Open the window shutters completely, welcome the blinding cascade of light. Adjust. See the city streets, the motionless hush, an emptiness nothing could ever fill again. See the dome of Sanctuary, a silhouette against a sun that seemed to rise, now, in pity. Know that you will see her again. Breathe slowly. Remind yourself you are still alive. And now, while you still can, embrace the tragedy of your circumstance, as much as it may hurt you. Smash your memories out of context. Smother your sorrow. Gaze again at the painting. Say the title aloud. Look out at the empty city. And when you finish, stand within the silence that’s infected the world–then listen for the one that has not yet come.
And pray it be swift once it does.