When he woke, it was the gravel stitching new designs into his skin that he felt first, before the pain, and the silence and the knowledge that he was dead. Well, not quite, not yet, but he was. In twenty minutes, or two hours, maybe even a whole goddamned day, although he doubted it. He had never been close to death before but now there was a knot of certainty in his chest, and he just KNEW. The threads of thought, galvanized by this knowledge, pulled together to deliver some more information; the world had ended. How, he couldn’t be sure, but there was nothing left.
He couldn’t remember his own name, and he couldn’t remember her name, but there had been a girl, he was sure of that. There was a sickly wriggle in his lung, and he coughed and hacked and tasted iron and dusty asphalt. There had been a time before when she had put a steady hand on his chest as he coughed. They had laughed at the futility of the gesture, an attempt to comfort in the knowledge that a cold was a cold, and he’d be fine in a few days.
“Come back with me”, he had said and, silently, she had stayed by his side, and held his shoulders as he coughed and coughed.
He began to come round. There was pain, and there was numb warmth in some places, and he couldn’t tell which scared him more. Shattered glass made itself known as he knitted his eyebrows with the effort of sitting up. His legs were broken. Things inside his chest felt jumbled, as if someone had rearranged his organs while he slept, and even in the silence he could tell that he was now deaf in one ear. Using energy he didn’t really have, he pulled himself to the nearest wall that was still standing. He could hear himself screaming and grunting in pain, in a distanced abstract way. The scrape of torn denim on gravel had been the loudest sound, and now the silence was broken only by his damp breath. The sun hit the other side of the street, and he closed his eyes.
“I’m kind of in a weird place right now” he had said, with a half smile and curl of the lip. There had been a lot of smiling between them then, and he knew what her different smiles meant. His favourite was the one she wore on the edge of drunkenness, appraising him in a way that others rarely did. There was depth and boldness to it, and the way it made him feel – more naked than when he had first removed all of his clothes – was thrilling.
“What gave it away?” She had asked him. He had laughed. There had been a lot of laughing then too.
“Dude, you’re not very subtle”
The west coast breeze irritated the dust around him, and eventually his lungs rebelled. Several minutes were spent coughing, spitting bloody clots of phlegm as far from himself as he still had strength to. The morning sun was indifferent. The place he sat and had lain for who-knows-how-long was in the shadow cast by the roots of nearby skyscrapers. Probably aged hotels by the look of them. Most of the buildings were laid out in the street now. How had he ended up here? There were no answers. The more he tried to grasp at the memory, the more it felt like his head was full of sand. Flies broke the silence.
“The sound of the garbage men outside…and the paper-sellers, they all gave me weird dreams.”
He was used to the noise, able to sleep through the high road’s morning routines even with the windows open in the height of summer, as it was now. He apologised on their behalf. There was plenty he could do to make it up to her.
The numbness must have been gradual, but he noticed it all at once. His legs were still there, but movement and feeling were gone. He mused that now he might finally be able to touch his toes, but then realised that he might not have the strength to get back up, and would die with his face pressed in to his own thighs, dust and sweat and blood suffocating him. The image though, amused him, and for some time his dry chuckle echoed up and down the street.
“I’m going to kiss you once more then I’m going to go” she had said, but they had kissed many more times, and she had not left. He was running late for other things. Her phone battery had died and she was off the grid. They had lain there. There was never much to say, and he wondered if she had dwelt on that as much as he did, but he could never tell.
A gust of dry wind brought the smell of the sea to him though the ruined city. At times he had felt himself slip away and barely had the chance to wonder if this was it before he was landed back in reality by some unexpected movement. A gust of wind, skittering stones, were all it took.
When he felt pain he tried to sink into his memories, but there was hardly any pain now anyway. He still couldn’t remember her name. He still couldn’t remember his own.
“I have to go.” she had said.
“But I don’t want to.”
He had smiled because he had known that already, even before they had been woken by the abrasive melody of building work below them. She had smiled back, feeling her way around the angle of his jaw with her hand, and they had smiled some more. He wondered if they had smiled too much, and said too little, but then she had gone and he had curled easily back in to sleep.
He did not know why he had held her hand as they walked home. She had gently pulled him into her and kissed him, and the warmth of it had made even the summer rain feel gentle and kind. The next morning she had said she might not see him for a while, and when he had tried to sound nonchalant his face had given him away.
“Just y’know, life stuff. Busy week. Things outside of us”
Outside of us had made him feel faintly ill. He had not said it, but he didn’t want there to BE an outside of us. But she couldn’t read his thoughts, and so she couldn’t tell him that she didn’t want there to be an outside of us either. So she had left and he had showered her kisses off his skin.
And somewhere between then and now, the world had ended.
When he looked up at the sky he could no longer tell whether the black specks he saw were flocks of birds, liberated from their city nests, or the blood slowly leaving his brain. It barely mattered. He knew there was blood still inside him because he could hear it pumping in his ears, but the dark sticky pool around him seemed awfully big now. More like a sea than a pool. As he thought of the sea, he tasted salt but realised that was probably more of the same stuff trying to escape his body however it could. He felt like he was falling and tried to push himself up the wall, but his hands were no longer co-operating and he flailed for a moment before his strength left him and his chin fell painfully into his collarbone. The gurgling murmur of his lungs surrounded him, and he had a moment of clarity. He drew all the breath he could through his clotted lungs, knowing it would likely be his last, and finding the cliché of it despicable. The last human sound the city heard was his voice, calling out the one name he had finally remembered. After her smile, and the feel of her lips on his skin.
The name was not his own. His own no longer mattered.