One Librarian Survives the Apocalypse
She wakes up to a clatter. She opens her eyes and sees a raccoon skate across her counter, knocking her frying pan and all the empty cans of beans across the floor. From her place on the soggy couch (which is less soggy than it was yesterday, or the day before), she looks at the raccoon and it looks back. Its eyes are oil-slick black and its paws surprisingly neat, like little hands. It takes those almost-hands and picks up the one can still on the table. It peers inside, like the can is a telescope. For a moment she wonders if the raccoon can see something she can’t, if maybe that can will open up the universe like a letter, as though the Milky Way, Orion and his belt, and the Little/Big Dipper will wink and say, Hello Shirley. Then the moment passes. But she still keeps watching the raccoon as it turns the can around with great attention. She’s disinclined to scare it away; she’s seen so few other living things since the day the wave came.
She was standing on the pier waiting in line at the fish market, watching the men in white aprons toss the fish glistening through the air. She wondered what would happen if you intercepted one. Would you get to keep it? Would it smell just like any other fish, or would it smell like the sea? She has a problem with being fanciful, strange notions intruding upon her everyday life. Perhaps that was why Brian broke up with her: perhaps that was why, over chai, he said, I need to concentrate on the things that really matter. At first, she didn’t understand, because she was too busy watching his lips move over his white teeth. She was thinking about kissing him. But he set the key to her apartment on the tiny round table with a soft click and left.
She’s disinclined to scare it away; she’s seen so few other living things since the day the wave came.
Afterwards she went to the fish market. While at the market watching the silvery arc of the fish and trying to decide if there was something wrong with the way she was—the wave came. She heard a roar like a fan or a jet or a lion the size of the world. She smelled the ocean, the salt and chill of it. Other people started screaming and as she turned toward the water she saw a vast swell of green. It was a hill made of water; the earth was liquefying, the land remaking itself over. She couldn’t move, and the hill swallowed her.
She remembers nothing after the hill closed over her, covering the fish, the people and the market all in one go. She only remembers waking up on this couch, in her apartment, a wet blanket draped over her. She hasn’t seen another human being; there is only the city, vast and empty, which smells like dead and rotting things. The only movement is the vast body of the ocean, lapping against the edges, gently, for now. She’s wandered everywhere, looking for whoever saved her, for whoever put her on the couch and covered her with a tattered red quilt. She doesn’t understand how the wave could take away all the people but her, and yet leave the city structures wet but unbroken. She feels like one of the books she used to shelve under science fiction in her library (the one she worked at that she privately thought of as hers alone) has spilled out all over the universe and rewritten the rules of water and matter.
She wondered, at first, if Brian was the one who’d put her on the couch, even though he’d given back her key; if maybe he’d found her by the quay and carried her home. Just like the time in college when he found her asleep in the library face-down on the table with the mark of a book-spine on her cheek. He’d picked her up, and she woke but pretended to still be asleep, because he was telling her a story. Once upon a time there was a little boy who grew up in a house without books. There were movies everywhere, but no books. The boy’s father said books were full of lies made to tempt the weak. He smoked all the time, and the boy thought maybe the real reason his father hated books was because they were paper, because ash might fall from the cigarette and end the world. But this was nonsense. Instead he spent lunch in the school library, running his fingers across the pages, imagining what the books might say, if only he could take one home and read it. Shirley thought this was the saddest story she’d ever heard, so she kept pretending to sleep and let him set her on her bed in her dorm room and leave.
He understood why she’d become a librarian, why books were worthwhile; that’s why she had reason to think it might have been he who took her home after the wave. She meandered the streets looking for him, or another person she could ask if they’d seen him. She went into the old downtown library guarded by two stone lions, but there were no people. She went to the grocery store and there were no people, just shelves knocked over, the cans all over the ground, cereal boxes disintegrating in the damp. She went to the park, but there were no people and no squirrels either. Just trees draped with kelp like aquatic Christmas tinsel. She went to Brian’s apartment complex and pushed open his unlocked door. His apartment was un-looted and undisturbed. It looked like a very damp movie set. The bed perfectly made, the books perfectly shelved, his piles of New York Times stacked tidily in bins. No empty food cans, nothing even hinting at a living presence disturbed the room, and she looked through all of his drawers as though she might find answers among his socks. She knocked on every door in his apartment building, opened those that were unlocked, and never found so much as a skittering insect. She went up and down every street she knew, going inside apartment buildings, surveying rows of houses. The closed doors seemed pregnant with possibility, swelling with potential people, but she never found anyone. Sometimes she wondered if everyone was hiding from her. Always she was afraid.
He understood why she’d become a librarian, why books were worthwhile; that’s why she had reason to think it might have been he who took her home after the wave.
After several weeks she gave up looking for humans and instead went back to her library. She took every book off the shelves, spread them on the floor though it hurt her heart to do so. She whispered nice things to them as she opened the covers, gently separating their pages so they would dry. There were people in these books, words written by some soul, by someone with a heart full of thoughts and words to write them. Sometimes she lay down on top of the books and imagined every book was a hand embracing her. Every day, after the library she stopped at the unmanned grocery store and got some more canned food, and then came home and slept on her damp, fish-smelling couch. Thank goodness her blanket had dried out. She hadn’t seen anything alive but mice and pigeons. Until the raccoon, that is.
“Hello, do you want to stay for dinner?” Her voice reverberates oddly about the room. The raccoon drops the can and runs out the window. It jumps to the nearby tree and skitters away. This disappoints her, so she goes to the window and looks out, trying to watch the creature for as long as possible. She peers around the tree to see the street, and gasps. A person, someone standing in the middle of the road, all in white. Shirley opens her mouth to shout and then stops. Visions of countless zombie apocalypse movies flash through her head. Not that she really thinks there are zombies (although since the wave, who knows?) But still, desperate humans do strange things. She needs to investigate, not show this stranger where she lives. She picks her frying pan off the floor and brandishes it. This will do, she says to herself. She wishes she still had her keys so she could lock her door. She leaves and walks as silently as possible down the dark apartment hall, all of the closed doors aching with possibility. What if there were people in those apartments, people just like her? People always behind her, avoiding her face, making sure she never saw them? What if Brian was in his apartment across town, hiding out, reading soggy back-issues of the New York Times over and over again? (She never could get him to throw them out.) What if he was there, invisible to her, not dead or gone but knocked into a separate dimension? She tells herself to calm down, to stop making up impossible things, but it’s so hard when the whole world has turned into one giant unlikely scenario.
Holding her pan tightly she pads across the road, staring at the figure just a few blocks away. As she gets closer she sees it is a woman wearing a leotard and a ragged white tutu. She wonders for a moment if she is imagining things, this woman—a ballerina stepping around stopped cars and dead lobsters rotting in the sun, because such things are crazy. But she can hear the woman’s steps, and see her thin chest rise and fall as she breathes. Finally, grasping her courage by the hand, Shirley steps out from behind a car. She clears her throat.
“Hello,” she says.
The ballerina stops and turns toward her. “What’s the pan for?”
Shirley lowers her pan. “I thought you might be a zombie,” she says. She’s embarrassed immediately after the words drift from her mouth.
The ballerina cocks her head. “Oh no, not at all,” she says.
Then she turns again and keeps walking. Shirley falls into step beside her.
“Where are you going?”
The ballerina keeps her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully around broken shells and glass. A dancer’s feet are precious, after all. After a moment she answers Shirley. “I’m going to the theater. I need to practice.”
Shirley thinks about this for a moment, trying to decide if the dancer has lost her mind. But the possibly mad dancer keeps talking.
“I’m the lead in Swan Lake. It’s my big break. Opening day was a week away, before everyone disappeared. I’ve been a dancer since I was a little girl. I still remember my first pointe shoes. They made my feet bleed as I danced, but I loved them so much, the satin, and the ribbons around my ankle. At first, after the water, I hid in my apartment and ate old crackers. I was so afraid. But now, I practice every day. What else is there to do?”
The ballerina shrugs and falls silent once more.
Somehow, the ballerina’s last statement seems like the most profound thing Shirley has ever heard, although she’s not sure why. She suddenly remembers the posters she’d seen tacked up in the library and at bus stops, advertising the new production of Swan Lake. The dancer in the picture was caught mid-leap, her muscular arms and legs tensed. It had to be a picture of this very woman.
“Can I watch?” Shirley asks.
The ballerina shrugs again. “If you like.”
They walk together, past kelp-draped trees, past shop windows, strangely pristine, the mannequins still poised, still hawking their expensive wares. Shirley realizes that she could go into those stores, take anything she wants. That Prada purse she could never afford on her librarian’s salary: hers. Yes, she could take whatever catches her fancy. But somehow she can’t bring herself to. She feels as though looting anything but necessities like food will make it certain that no one ever returns.
They walk together, past kelp-draped trees, past shop windows, strangely pristine, the mannequins still poised, still hawking their expensive wares.
They arrive at the theater—it’s hushed and black inside. Shirley takes a seat and watches as the ballerina, whose name she hadn’t thought to ask, props open a door to let in some light. She steps onto the stage, poses for a moment, arms upraised, head turned as though she listens to distant music. Then she begins to dance. Shirley watches the lights come on, a soft pink spot, hitting the wood of the stage. Then they all come back, the prop hands and the lights manager and the orchestra down in the pit, playing even though their violins and cellos are covered in barnacles. The chorus in pale-blue tutus sweeps their arms, even though seaweed hangs from their ears. There is an audience clad in velvet and diamonds, slightly moldy-smelling but there. They all come back. Brian sits down beside her, smart in a suit and smelling of Calvin Klein’s Euphoria for Men. He pecks her cheek.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says.
She rests her head on his shoulder as they watch the show.
“I love you,” she whispers, and remembers the time she caught him sleeping on the couch (the now very damp couch) his eyelids fluttering as he dreamed. I Love Lucy was on, he hadn’t shaved and his T-shirt had a hole in it. She wonders if she really loved him or only hated her own aloneness.
The ballerina leaps through the air just as she did in the poster and the music sweeps through on the sound of wings. She touches the ground. The audience stands and applauds—thundering, roaring, sounding just like the ocean the day it swallowed everyone in the whole wide world except for Shirley and the dancer. The music stops, the people fade, and there is just the ballerina standing there in her dirty tutu. Shirley runs out of the theater, because she just can’t stand the echo of the empty hall, or the way her own imagination tortures her. But even as she runs she knows she’ll go back tomorrow. Because Brian is gone, because he didn’t put her on the couch, because he didn’t love her any longer anyway, and because what else could she do, really?