Her skin is the tight, smooth glide of amaretto cream, under the ribbed sides of her red tank top and dark-wash skinny jeans.
They meet because they are tied to the garage wall side-by-side, while their alien overlord captors drink Pabst Blue Ribbon in the room next door and puke it back up, since wherever the aliens come from, they never learned from frat parties or the open bar at their awkward distaff cousin’s wedding reception.
In between the soft ticks of his watch and the dry heaving of aliens getting shitfaced on the bathroom floor, he knows she’s watching him. One fourth of the time, he looks back at her, so she can drown in the casual, insouciant gray of his lake-deep eyes. It strikes him as ironic how much looking is involved, when love is supposed to be blind.
But then again, this isn’t about love.
When they are both sick of listening to aliens puking into soap buckets, he raises his eyebrows at her, across the stiff, warm darkness that smells like nine-day-old roses in the backseat.
‘‘Where were you when they got you?’’
She lifts her chin as far as the alien seaweed cords around her neck will let her. ‘‘My twenty-first birthday party.’’
He pretends to be taken aback. ‘‘Seriously? People still celebrate birthdays?’’
She shakes her russet curls back from her forehead. ‘‘Shut up.’’
He smiles lightly and gives it a few minutes—lets the terror gel in, although she’s pretending to be brave.
He thinks about something his high school teacher once said: ‘‘People aren’t toys, so don’t play with their feelings.’’
But of course, Ms. McGuillan was the first one in Rawlins, Wyoming to have an alien stick its foot-long proboscis through her gut, and the whole town knew she’d died a forty-year-old virgin.
In the other room, there’s a loud clang that indicates another alien passing out. They’ve got a few hours until the aliens wake up, hung-over, and kill them both.
So yeah, it’s time.
He stretches his right arm down as far as the glowing seaweed cords binding him will allow, so that he can slip the razor out of the secret pocket he’s made in the side of his jeans. It takes a while to saw through the cords, but he knows that this action, coupled with the seaweed’s dull glow, makes the veins in his arms look that much more traceable—before the ropes finally hit the floor with a wet smack.
After he straightens his sleeves out, he tosses the knife in the air and catches it again.
She’s watching him, her chest rising up and down, a mix of terror and delight in her eyes.
‘‘Don’t move,’’ he tells her, when he climbs up behind her and cuts through the cords binding her arms.
She runs her fingers along her arms, as if she can’t believe her new freedom, and he can read the fantasy in her eyes. ‘‘Thanks,’’ she says after a while.
He salutes her with two fingers and turns to go, but of course she calls after him—
He pauses with his head tilted a little, because this is what he’s been waiting for. He knows he’s the type of guy who makes girls feel safe just by the way he runs his hand backwards through his hair. The way he’s set them up, they can’t help but wonder about him plus them vs. the world, Bonnie and Clyde style. After all, in a hellhole like this, what were the chances they’d meet someone like him in the first place?
Probability’s a bitch.
• • •
Later on, he fucks her under the moonlight, on some sand dunes.
The sex is always better when they both know the aliens might swoop in any minute and stab a foot-long sucker into their chests—that sweet, gutting sense of desperation and loss, when you are self-aware that every gasp of the cool, desert air is the last breath you might take.
It’s more addictive than space meth, which he’s already tried in a new-rocker fallout shelter in Jeffrey City where they stripped naked in a circle and passed a bong around on a skateboard because it was ‘‘rad.’’
In the middle of the night, he slips his arm out from underneath her. There’s a desert elk hiding behind a dune, antlers casting a long, fretted shadow.
Her eyeliner is smudged, but there’s something hopelessly romantic about her bare shoulders against the red sand and her tangled hair.
Maybe this is his how he copes, while others hide in fallout shelters counting down the days until the end of the world by cans of chili and protein bars.
The one thing he does know is that you can only experience the feverish, guttural high of the world ending with a particular person once. Anymore than that and it’s not an end anymore. The raw, euphoric defeatism of the whole act no longer matters.
He looks at her face one last time as he buttons up his shirt, the gentle curve of her cheek cradled in warm sand.
In the morning, after he’s crossed to the other side of the puddles of snowmelt in the red Wyoming desert, he realizes he never asked for her name.
Kylie is his little sister. She’s not a part of this whole thing, but when he sits in the dank, carpeted blackness of Basement Hideout #42 alone, using his teeth to tear into the end of an expired Slim Jim, she’s on his mind.
The last time he saw her was four months ago, when he hid her in Basement Hideout #13 and promised her he would come back with a box of fresh peaches, like the kind they used to steal from Mr. Owen’s garden when they lived in Rawlins. He can remember the bottomless depth of her wide, gray eyes, staring out of the darkness as he shut the trapdoor over her. Dreaming about peaches.
All he knows is that when he called her name and collapsed onto his knees in the hot Wyoming summer, struggling to balance three boxes full of peaches in one arm, Basement Hideout #13 was empty.
Something changed in him that day—something warm and close to his heart, that lay down face first in the darkness twitching, and did not get up again.
He doesn’t know if he’ll see her again. He imagines her in one of those resistance armies that have sprung up across the American West, that wear white bandanas around their foreheads and march through the woodlands, children hand-in-hand with the elderly, convinced of their own nobleness. She might be in any one of the many underground feeding chambers where he once attempted his own one-man reconnaissance missions but now picks up girls instead—probably still dreaming about peaches and her older brother who didn’t come back in time.
More likely, she’s dead.
Sometimes, he thinks that if she was older, and here right now, she would hate him. That is the only time he wonders what his worth is as a human being, now that he’s nobody’s hero.
He tears another bite out of the Slim Jim.
Then again, he’s not sure any of it matters at all. New spaceships crash through the atmosphere like fallen comets every two weeks. Eventually, they’ll learn not to drink the Pabst Blue Ribbon. Eventually, they’ll realize how he slips his cords. Eventually, they’ll make an example out of him the same way they did with Ms. McGuillan.
In the end, when an alien has its foot-long proboscis up your pulmonary artery, drinking the blood out of your body while you lay wide-eyed and paralyzed on a cold metal table somewhere, it makes no difference if you spent the last few weeks of your life saving the world or getting laid.
So all he can do is ride this serial high, until they make him go down in mile-high flames.
He meets Rose because she burned down the Costco on Lansing Street—while he was elbow deep in the frozen breakfast aisle, looking for waffles. As he runs out of the fire with scorch marks on his t-shirt and his face, he catches her escaping across the empty parking lot.
Her hair is scrunched in a messy chignon, her sweatshirt too big for her thin, willowy limbs.
He catches up to her as she’s trying to scale a chain link fence. She pauses at the sound of his voice, the muscles in her neck tensing. He steps out into the middle of the street so that when she turns around, he in plain view of her—and the aliens in their scouting ships. Her lips part in shock.
‘‘Are you out of your mind?’’ Slowly, she lets go of the fence and drops back down, careful to keep low to the ground by the bushes.
He drops his backpack full of Kirkland Signature shit on the pavement. ‘‘I think I should be the one asking that question. You just torched the last place in town with non-expired bacon.’’
When she blinks, ash and white dust fall from her eyelashes. Her cheeks are glowing from the adrenaline rush of escape. She’s got a couple of scorch marks herself, across her collarbone. ‘‘They were building another feeding chamber underneath.’’
He throws his arms up, incredulous. ‘‘So? There was some good stuff there.’’
She shrugs and digs into her pack, to show him she’s saved something. It’s a box of Klondikes.
He grimaces. ‘‘Those things are going to melt.’’
She sets her hands on her hips, only moderately fazed by his fatalistic realism, but in the end, she goes home with him anyways. Like the others, she’s been alone for too long, with no one to trust.
Later, she lies naked in his arms and lays her cheek against his shoulder, in Basement Hideout #57. They eat melted Klondike bars in the fudgy light of morning seeping through the crack he’s left in the trapdoor, despite the 15% higher chance of capture. He can no longer stand the stifling madness of the basement, like being trapped in a diving bell on a strange, wave-less sea.
She asks him three questions.
‘‘What would you do for the world to go back to the way it was?’’
He tries to remember what the world was like before the aliens came. All he remembers is a blur of color and birds and tying a tie in front of a mirror.
What he wants to say is, this is better—this endless freedom and fuck-it attitude, even if he’s saying it just to sound cool. But he can’t.
‘‘It won’t go back.’’
And he realizes how bitter the words taste on his tongue.
She nestles her face deeper into his neck, and he rests his chin on top of her head.
‘‘What would you do for a Klondike Bar?’’
That makes him smile. A little. ‘‘This, apparently.’’
For a second, he feels a strange connection to this lost woman he has barely known for two hours.
When they fall together on the doubled coverlet he’s spread on the frayed carpet, his elbows on either side of her head, he thinks about the footprint he’ll leave behind on the world after an alien eventually sucks his insides out—if he’ll leave one at all.
After a while, she whispers, ‘‘What would you do for me?’’
He doesn’t answer that question.
He’s not falling in love. He’s just falling apart.
He closes his eyes because for some reason there’s a gaping emptiness in his chest that won’t be filled.
Later, when they lay gasping side-by-side in the dark, she asks him to light candles, but he tells her he isn’t sure there are any candles left in the world.
In the darkness, he stares at the back of his hands, and traces the veins running through them, wondering what the meaning of being alive even is anymore.
He no longer knows what he’s addicted to. The fucking, the desperation, the company, the loneliness…
Sometimes he thinks it’s none of them, but a new emotion he’s managed to create out of fifty-seven underground hideouts and the burning memory of that first spaceship that fell out of the sky and changed everything.
He thinks about falling in love, and having to fend for someone else, and relearning what it means to trust.
More likely, he’ll go home to Basement Hideout #58 and make a frozen Kirkland pizza, while she dreams about him in the cellar he left her, and eat it alone.
Three more alien ships crash into the Wyoming night—the last one right on top of Basement Hideout #84, and when morning comes, he decides to get out of Wyoming.
He meets Inoue because she’s sitting on the freeway roadside with her arms around her knees, white lace dress paired with bright red Converse.
She stares straight through him, even though he’s standing only a few feet in front of her.
He almost wonders if she’s dead, when she blinks.
‘‘You okay?’’ he asks, but he might as well be talking to the air.
He takes a seat on the hot, sunbaked concrete beside her and uncaps his water bottle, which he offers to her.
Her big, hollow eyes stare at him, and then through him, and she looks away.
He tries again. ‘‘You know, your shoelaces are untied.’’
There’s something tragic about the stubborn way she refuses to acknowledge his presence. For some reason, she reminds him of his little sister, Kylie.
He knows he should leave her here. She’s not the type he’s after anyways.
He takes three big gulps of water and plants the water bottle down beside her, because her pack’s lying a few feet away and it looks empty.
They both stare into the sun for a while, before he gives up and continues on his blind journey.
After a while, he thinks he catches a flash of red in his peripheral vision. He pauses, and behind him, he can hear her draw to a stop as well.
‘‘You can come walk next to me if you want,’’ he says, without turning around.
There’s no answer. Like he thought.
So he keeps walking, but slower.
Later on though, she catches up and hands him his water bottle, and they walk together on the edge of nothing, through asphalt road, and then dirt road, and then more asphalt road.
At night, he leads her by the hand to a small clearing off the road, where he lights a fire. There are no alien ships in the sky tonight, although that could change any second. They are both tired though, and still too far from civilization to establish Basement Hideout #85.
She smiles at him out of the soft darkness, and after a while, he kisses her too.
She clings to him, and he pulls out the bow at the back of her dress. When the straps fall from her shoulders, he lets her go.
There’s a large red welt under her left breast, wrapped under an old t-shirt soaked through with blood.
Gently, he presses his fingers against her red, swollen flesh. ‘‘What happened?’’
She lays her hand over his, so that they are both touching her heart. ‘‘It was two weeks ago. They were feeding on me, but I got away. Their saliva…I think it’s poisonous.’’
He tries to take his hand away, but she won’t let go. Her chest rises and falls, trembling from the pain she’s holding back. When he glances at her face, he expects to see tears in her eyes, but instead he sees himself, reflected deep in her sad, brown eyes.
‘‘I think I’m going to die.’’
She says it with no emotion at all.
And then she buries her head into his chest. He catches her and wraps his arms around her shoulders, holding her against him.
He knows from her fevered skin that she’s not going to last until morning, but he still holds her there, feeling her breaths slow down one by one.
‘‘Thank you for staying with me.’’
The last thing she whispers is his name, before her head rolls back against the crook of his arm. He brushes his fingers over her eyes and presses his lips once to her cool forehead.
What feels like days later but is probably closer to half an hour, he carries her to a place where the sunlight breaks through the trees and lays her down in the tanbark. He covers her with autumn leaves, which fall in her hair like fire and cling to the white lace of her dress.
After that he sits cross-legged in the soil and leans his head back against a leafless maple tree. In the course of the next day, he tries several times to get up and leave, but it doesn’t work that way and he ends up stuffing his knuckles into his mouth instead so he doesn’t cry.
He opens her pack and digs through it.
It’s empty except for an ugly, pink, stuffed bunny missing one eye.
He holds it up to the sunlight. Its stomach was once ripped open, but since then someone’s stitched it back together.
It lies against his hand, small, defeated, and useless.
He feels a sudden burst of anger. Towards nothing.
He grabs the bunny and hurls it as hard as he can across the freeway. It bounces twice and skids into the dead leaves on the other side.
He fights the urge to yell as he hitches his backpack higher on his shoulder and forces himself to continue on.
But two miles later, he walks all the way back and scoops up the bunny.
Juliet’s running, like him.
By the time he gets to the next town, and finds it empty, he realizes they are much closer to the end than he thought.
He hadn’t noticed.
She saves him this time, when he’s got some form or another of the flu and collapses by an abandoned post office, riled by hallucinations of aliens and peaches rolling down the edge of a sand dune.
As she feeds him ibuprofen and chicken soup (made from a pigeon she caught, but close enough), she tells him about a battle that will take place in Houston, Texas, where the mother lode of alien ships has crashed into the Gulf.
He knows she’s a fighter because she wears a white bandana around her forehead, and carries an assault rifle.
‘‘There’s a Greyhound leaving from the truck stop south of Cheyenne. It’ll take us to the rebel encampment.’’
He coughs as she props him up against the crumbling brick of the post office. ‘‘I’m not trying to find the rebel encampment.’’
She looks at him like she can’t believe him. ‘‘Where are you going then?’’
He exhales. ‘‘I don’t know.’’
She stands up, her shadow dwarfing him.
‘‘You’re young, you’ve stayed alive this long, and you have the build of a fighter. We could use you.’’
He drags his hand through the dust. ‘‘No.’’ But then gaze falls on the empty ibuprofen bottle rolling in the dust. He remembers finding the pigeon’s red claws in the soup and picking them out before she noticed. He feels bad. ‘‘But I’ll go with you to the truck stop.’’
Between Basement Hideouts #85 through #132, he’s forgotten what it’s like to have a companion.
They are somewhere in the southern half of Wyoming, stomping their way through wheat fields that ripple in the breeze and jagged rivers with stepping stones. She keeps a flask of whiskey in her backpack, which they choke over together on the sandbar at midnight.
‘‘Someone once told me a joke in high school,’’ she tells him one night, after they roasted trout over a fire and competed to see who could spit the bones further. ‘‘It was about two aliens who came to Earth and mistook gas pumps for Earthlings.’’
He leans back against a moss-slicked rock, and decides to humor her. ‘‘What was the joke?’’
‘‘I don’t remember, but I think in the end, they blew up.’’
He smiles a little at that, and thinks that it’s not so bad to have her here after all.
Under the stars, they talk about guns and little sisters and their favorite baseball teams. It’s the first real conversation he’s had in a year, but the feeling he gets in his chest is the same one he used to get from resurfacing in a swimming pool after holding his breath.
She asks him about the stuffed bunny, but he never wants to talk about it.
As the days go on, they accumulate dirt on their faces and tears in their clothing, and sometimes she shoots at aliens who spring out of the wild grass. When she runs out of ammo, they arm themselves with kitchen knives from an abandoned Denny’s on the way.
Before he knows it, he is laughing. Aliens ships still fall out of the sky. She tries and fails to make him pancakes out of a Denny’s mix she stole. But all of that matters a little less now, when he sees her smile.
In the middle of the night, as they sleep beside each other in dry grass, he lies awake sometimes and listens to the pattern of her breathing over his.
Finally they get to the truck stop in Cheyenne, which is nested under a tall, Saturn-shaped sign advertising milkshakes. He faces her under the red, plastic overhang, suddenly unfamiliar with the idea of letting her go.
That’s when she whispers it against his cheek.
‘‘I love you.’’
She leans in to kiss him, and at the exact moment where he realizes he wants to catch her in his arms and never let her go, an overwhelming montage of red dunes and dark basements flash through his vision—and he turns his head away. A long silence fills the space between them, before her hand slips from his arm.
He drinks in the sting of rejection in her blue eyes, which drowns him in ways the countless rivers they crossed together never could.
He begins to walk away.
She calls his name, but he doesn’t answer. He gathers his stuff without speaking.
There are tears shining in her eyes now. ‘‘Please. Don’t go.’’
He knows deep down that he’ll regret not going with her, like he knows the red dunes in the horizon of his eyes and the weighted darkness of a basement hideout in his chest. He knows it only takes one word to believe again.
But he won’t look at her now, because the reality is he’s afraid of himself and what he’s not—even now, when this is the last shot he’ll ever get at happiness. He wonders if that makes him a coward, but he doesn’t wonder about the answer.
When he has walked a hundred steps out of the truck stop, he turns around and watches the bus roll out of the station, wheels kicking up storms of dust until he isn’t sure what he’s looking at.
When he’s all alone again, he hitches his backpack higher on his shoulders. He doesn’t know when will be the next time he meets another human being, or if he’ll die before that—die alone. The sky looks purple through the dust and clouds. As he begins to walk, one step at a time, he tucks the thumb of his left hand in his pocket, beside one damaged, pink ear that rests in the warm shadow of his hand.
Jessica May Lin studies Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her fiction has also appeared in Nature and Daily Science Fiction. When not writing, she is an acrobatic pole dancer. Her website is jessicamaylin.com.