The first time I saw them, more than a decade ago now, they were standing in a circle behind the sun’s shadow. Even from a distance, I could tell they would tower over me, their chins several inches above my head, a mathematical difference in perspective. In their fists, beer, a baseball, throw darts, something crumbling. They noticed me, their glances sticky and hollow. I was a small, reducible object, held steadfast to Taurus’ ribs. Taurus—one of theirs.
“Heyh, heyh,” Taurus spoke in a way I’d never heard him speak before. He pulled me in, squashed my body under his armpit. Exaggerating affection was his way of protecting me. The introduction was so swift that I missed it, wondering if my name had been said at all. Taurus traced the circle with his finger, naming each of them, so familiar to him, so alien to me. Baskets, M.C, Parisian, C-town, Bossman, and Val.
“Val?” I asked.
“Just Val,” Val said. “No nickname ever stuck.”
I nodded to just Val, probably the only new name I would commit to memory. I’d heard stories of Baskets, snapshots that were, to me, evidence of his volatility, his jealousy, and hatred of all his friends’ girlfriends. He’d gotten into fights with them all, the girlfriends, ending in fuckyous and a smashed beer bottle inches from the women’s faces. The girlfriends had receded, and Baskets remained, soul-linked in the ever-tightening circle, as Taurus gently explained to me, “He’s just a boy. A thirty-six-year-old boy.”
Parisian was the one I suspected had slept with Taurus at some point. In other circumstances, I might have been wary of the fact, cautious of their lingering attraction for each other. She looked comfortable—army boots, leather jacket, a sharp, masculine jaw. Despite a deep plum-colored lipstick that hinted at another self, here she was: one of the aliens. She waved away the joint as it was passed around the circle. Whatever she could be elsewhere dissipated here.
Taurus and I lived a few hours south of the circle. The aliens referred to us as city folks even though there was hardly a civilization left after the pandemic. We’d watched buildings crumble, men succumb to fear and lust—stroking themselves on park benches in broad daylight—domesticated dogs feed on corpses of rats and pigeons. It seemed that even starlight had plummeted out of the sky. A few years before the pandemic, scientists were rewriting the Book of Life, sending into Holland genetically modified mosquitoes that could self-edit their reproductive systems until all the females became barren, until “mosquito” was no longer a word you needed to learn. Then at some point the whole earthly and planetary systems stopped functioning as they should, information exchanging too rapidly to be processed. It was no one’s fault alone that the path underneath our feet was paved with the carcasses of trees and above, a cloudless sky that continued to burn, and perhaps it was the ending we’d written ourselves.
On our drive upstate, toward Taurus’ childhood home, toward the aliens, I’d fantasized that my boyfriend’s birthplace had suffered a similar destruction. Maybe Baskets had caught the virus. Bossman could have finally decided to spend more time with his wife and daughters and forego the Sunday rituals inside the circle, a timeless zone of perpetual adolescence, of reminiscence, references to obscure idols, catchphrases that I never managed to repeat and use correctly. When we pulled into the driveway, they were already there, not a single one missing. I cursed the futility of the pandemic. They nodded in our direction. At least the half-hearted hugs were forfeited now, a leftover sanitation habit.
We took our spot around the fire. Taurus sighed. I sensed his relief, the pleasure of conformity.
“How was the drive?” someone asked.
“Y’know,” Taurus said. I didn’t speak.
“They’ve begun the clean-up,” he said. “We volunteered a few days last week, picking up garbage, or at least adding it to one growing pile.”
“Insistent till the very end, huh,” Val said.
Somebody else grunted. Parisian asked about my family, who lived in a highly infected zone.
“My sister—” I started.
“Want a beer?” A voice offered Taurus. I heard a disembodied laugh. I could not locate it or why it had happened. Had the conversation veered somewhere else? I closed my eyes, pretended to daze off from the fire’s heat.
“Have you heard? Terry kicked it in two hours ago.”
“To think we were all—”
“What?” I asked, reaching. Perhaps I should have said who, as in who was Terry and why were they talking about him, but the words had left my mouth, strung up like a puppet midair—more evidence of my failure. Parisian blinked at me, not unkindly. I had nothing in common with this tall, self-assured woman in any other circumstance but here she was: a lifeline.
“We can get down to the Creek after.”
“Holden will keep it open.”
“Creek is as good a final resting place as any.”
The circle shook with laughter. I joined in a little more effectively this time, my mouth agape with feigned hilarity. Taurus pulled me tighter to his side—had I messed up? He only ever did so whenever something made me vulnerable. I’d definitely missed something. What Baskets or C-Town said must have been a private joke, impossible for any outsider to understand. My laughter had only exposed me, my eagerness to please. Wasn’t people-pleasing a sign that one was inauthentic. Weak? Baskets squinted his eyes in my direction. Predators could always locate their prey.
I shrunk into Taurus’ shadow, thankful he was large, encompassing. I looked down at my toes, best for the aliens to forget I was there. This wasn’t a difficult task. I thought of my mother and sisters on another continent, where trees had fallen—bamboos, cherries, palms, teaks, crisscrossing atop roofs, and above them all, the sky a burnt scarlet—the blood-clotted clouds no longer mistaken for strange sunsets, but a sign of grade E contamination. Even at night, it glows, my mother said.
I was of course the lucky one, the only one my mother could afford to send to study abroad. I wasn’t the smartest, (Egret was), nor the kindest (Loon was), nor the prettiest (definitely Heron). I was the firstborn and now, too, the only one whose lungs would be without holes. Last year, when the contamination was at its peak, I’d received a Ziploc bag of unlabeled fuchsia-colored pills. On the phone later that same day, my mother explained she’d gone to the manufacturing plants herself to acquire the medicine, rumored to be the only cure, but not yet approved where I lived. I counted fifteen pills—the only ones she’d managed to wrestle from her ex-boss. I started to sweat profusely, panicked at the thought of possessing life when around me people were quietly dying in their apartments, hospitals being too full to accommodate, and in this case, too useless.
Why. Why did you send me this?
You need it. Two doses for you and Taurus in case—
What about you? And my sisters?
You are the oldest. You need to ensure our family’s bloodline.
I deserved a chance simply because I was in a relationship. My mother wasn’t the only one who thought this way. Billboards of cars and home insurance had been replaced by pictures of smiling pregnant women accompanied by messages about prioritizing family and ensuring humanity’s future. I gripped Taurus’ elbow—the urge to break something. The cleanness, wholeness of the circle, the intact bodies and their linked history, Taurus’ cheeks rosy from fire, the aliens’ slurred speech, incomplete sentences as they could all predict one another’s thoughts, all of it screamed at me. The screeching of incoherent Morse code. I unhooked my body from under Taurus’ massive arm and walked away.
I sensed my boyfriend’s confusion, already feeling betrayed by an abrupt expression of my individuality, something he’d helped bury just as long as we were near the aliens. He wouldn’t follow me. I walked further toward the trees, and beyond, the horizon a violent grey-violet. Among wisps of clouds, a dark concentric shadow. I imagined my little sister Heron on the other side of the globe tracing a Ouija board in mud. She would ask our many dead ancestors if she too would soon join them, while Loon pushed the coin toward No. Since I wasn’t there, Egret would be acting as the oldest, amused and skeptical. The truth was Heron would likely die as more than eighty percent of my mother’s country’s population had, vanishing under thickets of fallen branches, death a mute song at the end. I would not be able to do anything for my sisters. I was insultingly safe. Behind me, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot.
Baskets handed me a warm beer. I cleared my throat in acknowledgment. I’d never been this close to him and felt my insides tighten. I’d had two abortions as a teen, lost my father to storms, and I had been an effective lawyer pre-pandemic, societal rules only the outline of a game, the courtroom an amoral arena for linguistic somersaults, yet I was tongue-tied before this man, tumbling over my words. Naturally, he sensed it. Could I blame him for regarding me the same way I regarded my weaker opponent?
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’m sorry—sometimes we’re just a little too enamored with our history,” Baskets said. “The whole world is on the brink of collapse, and here, everything remains unchanged. Looks that way anyway. Maybe we indulge a little in the illusion.”
I looked down at my toes, flushed. These were probably the longest sentences coming from Baskets. I felt as though I could fall in love with him out of sheer gratefulness.
“We wanted to know you better,” he said.
I laughed. So, he admitted it was too late.
“Really,” he continued. “You’ve been with Taurus for almost a decade and—”
“What makes you think you know him?” I said. “Maybe that’s who you should get to know.”
It was Baskets’ turn to laugh, “Come on. We basically shared a cradle.”
“This isn’t high school,” I surprised myself. “We don’t all need to be best buds with our friends’ partners.” I looked at Baskets, his face too youthful, too lineless for being in his late thirties. Two years ago, when Taurus announced our engagement, Baskets had responded with a sarcastic, Congrats! Can’t wait to get to know her. When Taurus told me, not without apology and embarrassment on his friend’s behalf, I’d laughed bitterly, not because I was surprised at the unkind sentiment, but because it had come from Baskets. He was the one among the aliens I’d spoken to the most, the only person I’d thought within the group to be somewhat fond of me.
“Guess I shouldn’t have tried.” Baskets said, more gently than I anticipated.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I said. “Do you think I care—my youngest sister is going to die, the pandemic will sink my country, and I don’t give a fuck what any of you think about me.” Then I added, “Anymore.”
It was difficult to gauge how invasive the virus was and where its tentacles had reached. It seemed to have rewritten my narrative as I no longer recognized my own thoughts, the flood of words. Did I really care so much about my mother? My sisters? Weren’t they only shapes moving on wet terrains, amidst weathers I no longer recognized? Was it possible to love someone whose eye color you couldn’t recall, whose laughter you could not conjure in your mind? I might have traveled, might have visited, but every holiday I’d resisted, chosen instead to follow Taurus here to this landscape fixed in time’s shadow. Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and weekends had been a routine of fleeing from our small apartment in the city to stand outside this circle of devotion.
From the field, I looked back at them—it was hard to deny the beauty of coherence, Taurus’ auburn hair the same shade as the leaves on the maple tree behind him, his total ease amongst the aliens, who were in appearance almost indistinguishable from him, their athletic bodies, their opaque expressions, their blank smiles. They were all barefoot, their heels having grown with the land beneath, each pebble and rock a dent on their skin. My own, now clad in shoes too bulky for my ankles, had been made to tread through red mud, the soft earth pliant with every step, and from above, a sizzling rain, the kind as dense as fog amidst a mountaintop, silky as organza. Rain of the tropics could wash away even the most stubborn of memories. A place made for forgetting—a place that couldn’t remember itself.
There were parts of him that Taurus had had to deny to remain within the circle, a narrative that had begun more than thirty years ago. Over the years, I would occasionally catch him sighing deeply after a night out with the aliens, his weariness of the same conversations, the words recycled and rehashed, always back to the start. “My friends—they don’t really know me.” He complained that they had no interest in his life beyond the adolescent years, as though the conclusion to his story had already happened. Everything new was a threat, new loves, new loyalties.
“I know,” I’d said, leaning my head on his shoulder. I was grateful for these moments, hopeful he’d understand that I, too, was part of the after, a story beyond the conclusion. A footnote.
Still, Taurus’ loneliness, a side effect of childhood friendships lasting too long, only ended up pulling him back inside the circle, the anesthesia of familiarity. He had decided that it was better to be misunderstood than to be excluded.
That night, Taurus leaned on his bedroom wall, drowsy with contentment.
“I’m happy you’re here. You’re the only person I want to be with at the end of the world.”
The pandemic had changed the language of love too—hyperboles no longer something I took lightly.
“Why couldn’t we stay in the city then?” I said. “If all you need is me.”
“People,” Taurus said, reverting to the circle’s monosyllabic manner of speech.
“I want to be with everyone we love at the end.”
“What do you mean the end?” I said. “What’s happening?”
Taurus’ face was wet with tears. Instinctively, I shut my eyes.
“What, Taurus? What?” I trembled.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” He swallowed. “I wanted you to have peace until the very end. Enjoy the rest of the time we have.”
“Peace? Taurus?” I was starting to sound like the aliens.
“Asteroid Violet-78,” Taurus said while folding and stacking blankets. “Will hit Earth tonight.”
“Is that a joke?”
“We’re all going to be out in the field. It’s the best way to face humanity’s end—head on and together.”
“Why wouldn’t you tell me?” I screamed. “This is a fucking joke.”
I manically searched Asteroid Violet-78 on my phone, scanned every publication. For weeks, I’d stopped reading the news. The virus seemed to have plateaued. That was enough for me.
The front page of every news outlet had changed—nobody even bothered with scientific facts anymore—all that left was a Thank you & Goodbye letter from the editor-in-chief, and a photograph of smiling journalists. When did journalists ever smile, if they were truly doing their job?
I stared at their resigned expressions. In reality, I knew cities, towns, wilderness had been ravaged, and I’d shut my eyes. Endings were on our minds, but they stopped at specific faces, unlucky others. We hadn’t let ourselves consider those close to us, let alone the planet as a whole. A blue, invincible globe.
I ran outside, as if to see for myself, as if I could.
The speckled white world looked like it hadn’t once been capable of more. More textures, more variegations on leaves, glass walls that grew over two thousand feet, taller than the tallest redwood tree, engineered to withstand the most violent of storms; more flying insects, most invisible to the eye, but their presence, their life would have been felt; more children waiting to grow up, not understanding that their getting older was concurrent with their parents’ aging, their mother’s death. It was hard to know what humanity’s goal could have been, or perhaps there was never any true aim, only the momentum to move forward, lift an arm, bat an eyelid, anything to distract from stillness.
I returned to the bedroom. Taurus was staring into his palms, looking defeated. I saw that he feared losing me even in these final moments—the last ninety-three minutes. His love for me was unambiguous, even naive, and it had been enough.
“You should have told me,” I said.
“I know, I know, I should have. I just thought it might be—cruel? And for what. Nothing would have changed, right?” He looked at me, still questioning my feelings for him.
“What about my family? My family.” Screaming and teeth-gritting were becoming regular in the last hour of life.
“You never—you didn’t speak of them in the best of terms. I just thought—I thought maybe you—”
“Maybe I what? Maybe I hated them? Even so.”
It was perhaps this that bared his naivety, his wish, and insistence on everyone getting along. I pulled my backpack off the shelf, began stuffing everything that fit into it, items that didn’t belong to me, a piece of gum, a soy candle, an empty beer can. Even then, it was necessary to follow through with all the gestures of leaving.
Two years ago, briefly after our engagement, he’d suggested a visit. By then we’d been together for eight years.
“It would, y’know, be nice to meet them,” he’d said in his usual understated way, but I sensed his confusion—was I trying to hide him from my family, or my family from him?
“They’re not an easy bunch to be around,” I’d said.
“Even so—” Taurus’ back was to me, so I could only imagine his expression—perhaps sorrow, perhaps disappointment. Recognition of the missing pieces. Who were we, really, to each other, and to ourselves. I couldn’t explain to him, someone who, daily, wore the landscape of his childhood, the memories of his first of everything as though they were woven into the fabric of his being, I couldn’t explain what going there would do to me, that even the climate would reject me, a foreign substance, one contaminated with multiplicity. Taurus’ love was simple because he’d been loved simply.
“Alright.” I came up to his back, pressed my nose against his spine. “Maybe we can, someday.”
A possibility, once acknowledged, was easy to put off. Taurus was placated enough to know I wasn’t actively resisting the idea, and then, came the pandemic.
We were two bodies, orbiting one another, remaining in the same course from sheer force of gravity. Taurus covered his face and breathed into his palm. “I thought you would rather be with me and people who are actually nice to you.”
Asteroid Violet-78, what a name for earth’s death sentence. Was the number signaling hope, as though there would be a 79th someday, a continuation of the void? I smiled, unable to resist the human optimism programmed in me despite knowing better, despite everything that said otherwise.
“Where are you going?” Taurus said, more like a plea than a question.
“Home. To my mother and sisters.”
“They’re thousands of miles away.” He was right behind me, towering over my shoulders, trying to predict my movement. “Please, please, please. I’m sorry.”
I put down my bag and wrapped my arms around his waist. Taurus breathed a sigh of relief, “You are surrounded here. Everyone, everyone, as you said.”
He stared, seeing for the first time, “Was it wrong of me to want to belong?”
“No—it was wrong of me.” I picked my bag back up and closed my boyfriend’s childhood’s bedroom door behind me.
Wind hissed between bare branches. Snowflakes perched on the bridge of my nose, my forehead. Or were they ash? The scorched remains of bees—Earth’s final season. The concentric shadow in the horizon hovered, silent. Magnifying in dimension and depth. The luminescence of denouement—its beastly, phantasmic beauty. I entered the coordinates of my mother’s country into my phone. I had forty minutes left. Heron, Loon, Egret, I chanted their names as I moved, for the first time toward love, distant and resolute: an epilogue. I walked away from the sky. I walked to keep on walking.
Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve. Her debut novel, IF I HAD TWO LIVES, has been hailed as “a tale of staggering artistry” by the Los Angeles Review of Books and “a lyrical, exquisitely written novel” by the New York Journal of Books. Her short fiction and essays can be found/is forthcoming at Electric Lit, The Southampton Review, The Brooklyn Review, Columbia Journal, The Adroit Journal, DiaCritics, The Adirondack Review, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Find her on FB and Instagram @abbigailrosewood
Sam Prickett lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where he works as a journalist and makes collages. His art can be found on Instagram @selected_sambient_works.