Oct 05, 2021
78 mins read
After the end of the world she wakes in a strange place . . .
I was so sure I died.
But I wake, my body curled into itself, strands of hair falling over my face. My cheek’s resting on my arm and my arm has an ache in it from lying on a hard surface. These are the things I notice before remembering I’d died.
Then the rest of my consciousness barrels into me, and I come fully awake with a jerk.
Blinking. My breath making my hair move. I’m lying on a floor, which isn’t right. The floor is a light grey. I must be in a hospital.
Of course. There had been fire, burning embers. A wind that blasted my skin as I searched for my family . . .
But if I’m in a hospital, that means I’ve been saved. Relief and confusion are trying to work in tandem as I lift my head. The walls around me are the same grey as the floor. The corners are rounded and there are recesses along one wall. It doesn’t look like a hospital. It doesn’t look like any room I’ve seen before.
The only sound I can hear is a white-noise hum in the background.
I sit up, slowly and carefully, expecting to feel pain. To smell my own burning skin.
I’m aware I’m trying very hard not to look at my body.
But it glides upright, my muscles so smooth it’s like they’ve been rubbed in olive oil. Then my hair falls over my shoulder in a long veil and for a moment I stop breathing.
Okay, don’t think about that right now.
I stand on shaking legs, and everything begins to spin. I shut my eyes, sweat beading my forehead. I breathe, in and out. Press my hand to my breastbone.
Maybe I should be overcome with gratitude for my not-dead status, but I’m still playing catch-up, and when I open my eyes again I’m looking for a door, a sign, a person. I need to know what’s happening. I need someone to tell me what to do.
I can’t see any doors. There are no doors. I turn, fear already rising in me when I see it.
I won’t talk about that right now. I can’t. I’ll tell you about the end of the world instead.
It was the second day of spring when we learned that an asteroid named 2023QF5 had a significant chance of hitting Earth within the year.
It’s a strange word, significant. Slot it into place and suddenly everything becomes so much more … significant.
Apparently no-one had noticed the asteroid until late August, despite the fact it was thought to be between six and ten kilometres wide and there’s a bunch of people and organisations whose sole job is to monitor such things. I hope someone got sacked.
I’m not sure of the exact time the news broke around the world, but I found out in the middle of the day, at work.
I was doing a stint in a small accounting firm owned by a husband-and-wife team. Pam and David. Both tall and thin and somewhat morose. I was filling in for their assistant, Hannah. Hannah was on maternity leave. She’d left a family photo and a vase of flowers on her desk. She was warm and friendly with the clients and sometimes brought in homemade banana bread and made coffee for everyone on a regular basis and was always smiling apparently.
‘So different from you, Rachel!’ Pam would laugh.
Sitting at my desk that day, listening to my bosses whispering about something in the little tearoom, I looked to Hannah for guidance. She was laughing at the camera while hubby lifted a small and grubby boy onto his shoulder. Her hand rested on her little football-sized belly. She did look like someone who would bring homemade banana bread to work.
‘We can’t just leave! And she’s here!’ I heard Pam say.
I looked at Hannah again, brows raised, wondering if they were having a personal crisis. They had young kids. People with young kids were always on the edge of some emergency.
Hannah suggested I offer to close the office, and perhaps smile more.
I cleared my throat.
‘If something’s come up, I can close the office,’ I called out.
There was a moment of heavy silence in which I imagined glances being exchanged, silent agreements made.
Pam stepped out of the tearoom, and I remembered later how she briefly searched my face. She was so pale my dislike of her wavered. I wanted to ask what had happened. I thought one of their kids had been hurt or something.
I’m not sure how much they knew at that point, but you’d think they would have told me. (They would have told Hannah.) But no, that bitch grabbed her coat and bag and practically flung the keys onto my desk, instructing me to cancel the day’s appointments while David strode out without a backwards glance.
‘Sorry to do this to you, Rach,’ said Pam, as she followed. The door banged shut behind her, and they were gone.
So, back to the thing. The thing I don’t want to talk about. I don’t even want to look at it, but I can’t seem to stop.
It’s a window. Or rather, it’s what’s on the other side of the window. Which is nothing.
A black nothing.
The window takes up most of the wall. I think the glass must be very thick - it gives that impression - but I can see though it clearly. For one relatively stress-free moment I thought it was the night sky. Because that’s a normal thing to do, isn’t it? To wake up after dying, in an empty room with no doors, and a large picture window looking out into the night.
But the sky is never black like this. Not the cold, final black of space - a black that contains absolutely no other colour. Its horrifying.
There’s a scattering of stars that shine in hard points of light, but my sluggish brain is skipping over those and homing in on the upper right corner, where a perfect blue and white marble hovers in all that darkness.
It takes my mind awhile to put the puzzle together, and when it does I sink to the floor, still staring at a planet I’m never supposed to see like this.
I can’t look anymore. I can’t breathe. I curl up tight, my arms over my head as I start to shake. I can hear someone crying, making sounds like a wounded animal, but there’s no-one here besides me.
I discovered the announcement of our impending doom the same way most people did that day. Bloody Twitter.
I thought it was a joke. I scrolled and scrolled, looking for the hook, the catch. #2023QF5, #EndOfTheWorld and #Exinction were trending. I started to get angry, because it wasn’t funny, scaring people like that.
I had a brief reprieve when I saw #ExtinctionHoax also trending, but then I read the comments.
I went into our small meeting room and switched on the telly.
And heard the word significant.
I felt a moment of pure horror as it sunk in. Oh my god, it’s happening. It’s actually happening I’m going to die I don’t want to die what if I BURN TO DEATH what if it HURTS? I was on my knees because my legs had stopped working, feeling the scratchy carpet under my palms as I crouched there, wondering what I was supposed to do. I wanted to call someone. I had no-one to call.
My vision was speckling. Bloody Pam. Bloody David. I was going to kill them.
I don’t know how long I’ve been curled up on the floor like this.
The worst of the shaking has stopped. I thought someone would come, but they didn’t, and now I’m forced to my feet.
Because I have to pee.
I walk towards the recesses that are set into the opposite wall; three shallow rectangles. One holds a bed, which is a thin mattress on a base that looks like its moulded right out of the wall. There’s a folded blanket on one end, and something about that makes me uneasy.
The second recess is narrow and only contains shelves, and the third one is a bathroom.
It looks surreal. I mean, I still rush in, sit down and pee, but even as I’m doing it the experience is so strange I feel like I’m having an out of body experience.
I’m peeing in space.
I wonder where it goes.
Mostly I’m just relieved about being able to pee.
We’re a basic species, aren’t we?
There’s a basin opposite me, and along the third wall is what I think is a shower. There’s a slight rise in the floor, a square panel in the ceiling over it.
When I finish I pace around the small space I’ve found myself in, searching desperately for a door I know isn’t there. Two of the walls are smooth and blank. I press my hands to them. The walls are warm, and have a strange smell.
‘Hello?’ my voice is so thin it’s like I’ve never spoken before, and I try again. ‘Hello? Can you hear me? Is someone there?’
When there’s no answer I thump my fist against the nearest wall. ‘You can’t keep me locked up like this! Hello!’ My fists are pounding now, my voice a scream. ‘I’m fucking in here!’
When I stop I press my ear to the wall, listening for the sounds of voices or footsteps or … anything. All I can hear is the constant, background hum that seems to be all around me.
But if I’m here, others must be as well. Amy and Dorothy, they’re here too they must be why is no one coming for me?
Tears of frustration and fear are pricking at my lids as I walk over to the bed. Why is there a bed? How long will I be here?
Who left that blanket, folded up so precisely?
I pick it up and wrap it around me, grateful because - and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet - I’m naked.
When I finally picked myself up from the meeting room floor I made myself a coffee I wouldn’t drink, sat down at my desk and stared at the opposite wall for a bit.
Part of me waited to wake up.
The phone rang a few times. There didn’t seem to be any point in answering, so I didn’t. I glanced up at the clock, because I very much wanted to go home, to close my door on the world and try to process what I’d just learned. Then I realised how ridiculous I was, sitting there and dumbly waiting for the little hand to reach the five. I jumped up and grabbed my bag.
The traffic was chaotic. Some people were screaming out of their car windows at one another, some people were just screaming. Others looked bewildered because they obviously hadn’t heard the news. I could see the questions on their faces; Why are all these people yelling what’s going on why does my phone keep ringing? We were all in flux. Was it a joke? Was it real? It was as if the whole city was caught in some crazy tableau, frozen in the moment between an old world and the new one.
A large sedan ran a red light and almost careened into me as sirens wailed over the noise. I was screaming as the car swerved away at the last moment.
It was a relief, to scream.
I got back to my flat in one piece and raced up the stairs. My neighbour’s door was open, her bag lying in the doorway, one strap falling outwards. I could hear her pleading; ‘Please call me back, please, please call me back …’
My door opened into the living room. I dropped my bag onto the couch, ran to the bathroom and made it in time to throw up.
The blanket’s thin, but warm. I tighten it around me as I study the shelves that are set into the wall.
The first three are lined with glass flasks, filled with water. I assume its water. The second three are stacked with rectangle packages that immediately remind me of Kraft cheese.
I hate Kraft cheese.
There’s nothing else. No towels, no clothes … no notes of explanation.
I’m thirsty, but I don’t want to drink the water in those flasks, not until someone comes in here and explains what’s going on. But looking at them, lined up so neatly, so pointedly, I start to feel very, very scared.
I’m shivering. I sit on the mattress that sinks slightly under my weight and hug my knees to my chest. I try to ignore the empty, black void that’s outside, but it’s impossible.
I couldn’t eat anything that night. I curled up in a corner of my couch and watched the news coverage. I listened to all the scientists who were being interviewed; some blinking and messy-haired, some dismissive and patronising. Most of them looked shell-shocked and spoke haltingly. Some stuttered. They didn’t want to be saying the words that were coming out of their mouths.
While they talked, I googled how to survive an asteroid strike. I researched cave networks in my area. I imagined living in the dark with my supplies and torches while the world burned. I went on Twitter to find people to talk to, to react with, and found a multitude. By midnight a group of us were swapping phone numbers. I asked if anyone wanted to share my cave with me and an argument broke out about whether being in a cave would help in any way. Then I spent hours talking to a very sweet man called Liam. We cried and told each other we loved one another. We were quite drunk.
At one point I could hear my neighbour, crying. I guess no-one called her back. I turned the volume up when she began to wail, and fell asleep around six in the morning. When I woke a few hours later it was to a humanity in the throes of panic.
But I’m going to hold out until I get some sort of explanation, or even an acknowledgment. I’d settle for that. Because someone has put me in here. Someone has built this little room. So I scream and bang my fists against the wall. I swear and beg for clothes, or a pillow.
‘Please, just tell me what’s going on!’ I shout, and then my voice becomes raspy and faint. I keep shouting anyway, until I sink down to the floor. My ears are pressed against the wall, desperate to hear anything but that constant hum.
I think I’m going to have to drink the water. I stare out the window-thing, at the Earth. I’m supposed to be down there with my family, doing our best to survive the approaching apocalypse. My last images of them are hazy. In fact, everything is hazy, as though my memory is an atrophied muscle. It’s an effort, to remember. But the more I do, the easier it becomes. It’s like trying to recall a book you read when you were a child. Perhaps you can see the illustrations in your mind’s eye, how the book felt in your hand, but the words are less clear.
If I’ve survived, they must have as well. We were together when it happened. I need to get out of here. I need to find them.
I’ve stopped shaking, and now the blanket is too warm. I stand and step out of it. My throat feels raw, my stubbornness fast being overtaken by need.
When I reach the shelves my hand hovers. What if it’s some kind of trap? It’s hard not to feel paranoid, to feel anything but fear. The flasks are round and ordinary looking. Clear glass and flat lids. Bottles of water lined up like soldiers. I pick the first one.
Drink me, I think, and take a nervous sip.
It tastes like water, and nothing terrible happens.
I swallow a mouthful, then put the flask back. I take one of the blocks, turning it over in my hands. It almost looks like it’s wrapped in the same kind of material the rest of the cubicle is made from, but paper thin. It peels away from the block like banana skin. I blanche at the brown, grainy-looking square inside, but shrug to myself and bit off a tiny corner.
It tastes like … like …
Okay, imagine you have something that tastes completely and utterly like nothing, and then you add just a drop of something. I tell myself it tastes like a plain biscuit. An Arrowroot biscuit, perhaps. Its texture reminds me of the bottom layer of cheesecake. Perhaps my brain is trying to fill in the blank space where taste is supposed to be.
My hands begin to shake as I nibble at it, one tiny piece at a time. What if I’m eating space-soap? Space-deodorant? I can’t eat more than a few mouthfuls. I throw the rest across the floor, go back to my blanket and wrap myself up again. I stare at the tiny blue ball that is my planet.
Maybe I haven’t been saved after all.
Maybe I’m a prisoner.
That first week when we were told about 2023QF5 was the strangest of my life, and that’s saying something.
Everything looked odd and tilted. I constantly felt as if I was looking at something for the first time - a piece of toast, a tree, a leaf even. Cars and buildings looked strange. People’s faces weren’t quite right.
The prime minister immediately decided he needed to ‘spend more time with family and church,’ and scuttled away, clutching his fat pension. Most of his party promptly went on stress-leave. The deputy minister, to his credit, took over for three days, declaring the whole thing fake news and making vague references about the Russians before he too became spiritually motivated to leave.
Eventually a junior member started turning up at the pressers. She looked like she’d just slid out of a university, still damp and clutching a degree.
Her name was Bianca.
She told us to be mindful that the data on 2023QF5 was being updated constantly. A lot of speeches about working together and having hope. But we were too busy panic buying and yelling at each other in supermarket to listen. By day three it was so bad I got knocked to the floor by a large woman who wanted the can of corn I had my hand on. I got it back though.
A lot of countries got on with rioting, looting, and setting everything on fire without much preamble. Some people sidestepped panic and confusion altogether and just went crazy. All around the world cults I’d never heard of were committing mass suicides. A government was overthrown. The religions squabbled about whose god was being righteous and over what.
Survival shelters immediately became a huge thing. Buying them, stocking them and guarding them. The Americans proudly showed off theirs and taught others how to stockpile on YouTube, and no-one laughed at them. Well, not as many as before. And of course everyone quickly split into two groups - the #Extinction and the #ExtinctionHoax-ers. Twitter kept crashing under the weight of the arguments.
The routine of going to bed and sleeping until my alarm went off became a memory - a relic of the old world. To go to bed was to deliberately walk into the land of nightmares, of fire and choking smoke and noise and death. I learnt to drink myself to sleep on the couch, the television screen flickering against my closed lids, my obstinate resistance to alcohol erased.
That belonged to the old world as well.
At some point I slept.
I have the feeling I was asleep for a long time, as if I fell into a deep, dark unconsciousness. But it’s impossible to tell because day and night are meaningless in my little room. The light is constant, despite the fact I can’t see any fixtures, or switches or bulbs. I think its day two. That feels right.
I’ve decided to try the space-shower
I step onto the slight rise in the floor, look up at the square panel in the ceiling and look for something to turn, or push or, I don’t know, light up. As I move my foot feels something give, and I look down to see a panel shift slightly as I move back.
A wall shoots up out of the floor.
I panic, slamming into it in my effort to get out of that small space and shouting ‘No!’ as my body bounces off its surface. The water hits me so suddenly I scream.
It smells. Am I being poisoned? I’m trying to find the edge of that panel, my fingers scrabbling over the surface. They can’t find a gap, a purchase. I back away, into the far wall as the water falls over me. The smell is almost antiseptic, but that’s not quite right. It makes me cough, lungs jerking, body hunched. I’m trying to calm myself, but every sense in me has become prey animal, and I fold up in a corner, my eyes screwed up in fear. I’m still curled over when the water suddenly shuts off.
I hear it trickling away somewhere, unwilling to move or even open my eyes. For a moment I can almost believe I’m back in my flat, in my own bathroom, as I hear the familiar sound of water going down a drain.
Then warm air starts blasting over my skin.
I don’t know where it’s coming from. I’m still frozen, but part of me, deep within the fear, is growing a bubble of anger. And as my body dries I push myself up and stand, my legs wobbling like a new-born lamb’s. The air is quickly drying my hair, the soles of my feet. To alleviate some of my fear I start taunting my captures.
‘Would towels really be that hard?’ I shout. ‘Like, really?’
The shouting makes me feel better. I find myself pulling my hair away from my face, fingers running though it to smooth out the tangles.
‘You can build a spaceship, or whatever this is, and a fancy shower, but you can’t make a towel? Unbelievable.’
As if in answer, the air snaps off. I wait for the wall to slid back down but it’s still there. After a few moments of waiting, and a bit of ugly swearing, I press the panel in the floor with my foot.
The wall slides back down obediently, and I step out.
As strange as it might sound, many of us clung to a strange veneer of normalcy during that first week.
You could still eat your tea in front of the television and watch the live coverage with your plate balanced on your knees. There were still ad breaks about the specials at Coles that week.
And some of us still went to work.
Like the supermarket staff that kept restocking the stripped supermarket shelves, I kept going to the office. Because I had to. Just because there was a significant chance an asteroid was going to turn me into dust didn’t mean I wanted to be homeless and hungry when it did. I wanted to be safe in my little flat. It was a shelter from the storm around me, a place I could lock up tight and keep the noise at bay. I could curl up under a blanket on my couch and drink until I fell into drunken slumber or eat chocolate until I felt sick, since there probably wasn’t any reason to avoid sugar anymore.
Pam and David never showed up at the office. No-one rang or came to their scheduled appointments. I told myself I was holding down the fort until things became clearer, that I would be rewarded, but on Friday my pay failed to go in, and when I rang both Pam and David’s number I was told they were no longer available.
I drove out to their house in a blind fury.
Pam had invited me over for a barbecue when I first went to temp for them. It was a way for her to show off her noisy offspring and give me a little speech about how they were a family business, that they hoped they would be able to call on me on a casual basis when Heather and her banana bread returned.
Wrong move, Pam. I curved around two men fighting near their dented cars in a quiet, tree-lined street, took a wrong turn and finally pulled into their driveway.
They lived in neat, suburban luxury. Paved pathways, green lawn, double garage. I glimpsed a pool in the backyard, a plastic tricycle tipped over next to the flower bed. I banged on the door even as I noticed the silence, the dry leaves that had gathered on the doormat. From across the driveway a mop of salt and pepper curls appeared above the dividing fence, followed by a pair of bright eyes.
‘They’ve gone to their beach house!’ the neighbour shouted, louder than was necessary.
It took a while to sink in. For a moment I honestly thought they’d just gone away for the weekend, because who wouldn’t?
Then it sunk in. They’d done a runner. Because, who wouldn’t?
I screamed it. The word rang out across the street. I kicked at the door. Once, twice, three times.
‘Everyone’s gone. Everyone’s leaving. Where? I don’t know. Like rats jumping ship, right into the ocean. Plop, plop.’
I realised my new friend was slightly drunk. Then she suddenly dropped out of sight, and I heard a very small thump.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine, dear! Just fine and dandy! Come in for a drink!’
I left her to it and drove back towards the city, through roads full of chaotic traffic. I saw vehicles with belongings strapped to roof racks, kids’ faces peering out from stacks of boxes and suitcases piled into back seats, caravans and campervans and trailers. There was a mass exodus towards the centre of the country, rumours of inland sanctuaries. These nomads talked of tsunamis and violently rising sea levels, as if they just had to ride out some bad weather with bottled water and canned food.
I tried to tell myself that I was free now. I could do whatever I wanted. I could travel and see the country. I could go backpacking. I could follow the nomads. What did I have to lose?
I had a little over two hundred dollars in the bank.
Every time I stopped at a set of lights I broke down and cried, driving home through a veil of tears and snot.
I’ve drunk half a flask water and eaten half a block of food, with no side-effects. Apparently, my captures don’t want to poison me. Which is nice.
I’m cross-legged on the bed, staring out of that window at the far-away Earth. It’s in the same spot it’s been since I’ve woke up here, so at least I know we’re not moving, that I’m not being taken further from my home. That comforts me a little.
But I’m exhausted from fear. My throat is rubbed raw from the constant shouting. I put the flask and the rewrapped block of food aside, curl up and close my eyes.
You are flying towards the Earth, I tell myself. Your spirit has left this place. You are going home …
I’m winging my way through that cold expanse of space, towards the promise of Earth, barrelling my way through the atmosphere until I reach white, fluffy clouds. And then … my feet are landing on green grass. I’m surrounded by trees, and flowers, and the hum of bees. A nearby stream flows with clear water. I sit on the bank and let my feet drop into it, and hear the splash. The sky is a calm, light blue, filled with the sound of bird song, and a breeze sweeps over my skin.
I imagine this scenario over and over. I don’t get tired of it. I tell myself I will stay here until there was no more of me left to dream.
My landlords doubled the rent.
‘You can’t do that!’ I shouted. But I was shouting at an email. I rang the office. The response was the same you got from everyone then. Flat and cold. They could do whatever they hell they wanted, and they knew it.
I didn’t sign their new lease within the twenty-four hours they asked me to, so my current one was terminated. Just like that.
I didn’t pack because I had nowhere to go. I curled up on the couch, my arms wrapped around myself as I tried to hold it together.
My mum died when I was seven. The Family Court packed me off to a pair of abusive alcoholics, otherwise known as my aunt and uncle. I was out of there at sixteen, working part-time at McDonalds and living in a share house. I rented a loft bed in the front hallway. It was awesome. My share house buddies became my family and I lost touch with my school friends.
A year later some of us flew to a new city, and this time I got a full-time job at McDonalds and half a room. I was going up in the world.
It wasn’t until I turned twenty that I realised how shit my life was, how fast it was going nowhere. And my friends were less fun now, because by then they were all hopelessly drug addicted and unemployed, and I’d started to stick out a bit. I refused to give up my ‘rubbish job’ - their words - and stay up all night with them. Instead I’d scream at everyone in the early hours as they partied because ‘I have to go to work in the morning!’ Sometimes they stole from me. One of them stabbed me. It was with a fork, but still …
By then I’d gained enough status to occupy the tiny sleep-out at the back of the house. Only newbies slept in lofts. One night I lay awake listening to them, wondering what it was I was holding onto so tightly. I had a sense of floating in dark water, trying not to sink out of sight but having nothing to hold onto. I knew I had to get out of there, but I was scared to be on my own.
Somewhere in that sleepless night I wrote ‘If not now, when?’ in blue pen along my wrist. I told myself I was brave enough to make choices, even though I didn’t believe it because my self-esteem was in the toilet. But I kept telling myself that as I rolled onto my side and pulled the pillow over my head.
That week I signed up for a course in admin work. I pictured myself wearing skirts and having nice hair and working a nine to five job and having my own little flat, while I studied on my real career at night.
I was more maladjusted than I gave myself credit for though. I earned the Doesn’t Play Well tag early. But I tried, I really did. And I signed up with an employment agency, and I even got a really cool case worker who would take me out for coffee and tell me that I just had to trust my new life and go easy on myself and stay the fuck away from your old friends because real friends don’t stab you with forks, Rachel!
My first job was a temporary one, and that quickly became my thing; the ability to slot in quietly and not annoy people with questions about the photocopier. I got my little flat. I learnt to budget. I bought a few nice things that made it a home. I was becoming. I felt a new, fledgling life under my bones. I grew potted herbs on my kitchen windowsill and started to think about studying at night.
Now here I was, on the couch of the little flat I had worked so hard for, my arms wrapped around my ribs as I rocked, because I was losing it all, before the end of my very small life.
The other world, the world of my prison, is rudely intruding on the more peaceful one I’ve constructed for myself. A world where I sit with my feet swishing about in the slow-moving stream, hearing a rustle and turning to see Marshmallow, plump and furry, running towards me. There are figures behind him, laughing and calling my name. I want to jump up and run over to them …
But I’m hungry and I need to pee again.
I sit up and a wave of dizziness sweeps over me. I feel faintly sick.
I eat, and drink, and take a shower, stepping in and pressing the panel with my foot like I’ve been doing it my whole life. I only jump a little as the water hits me. I stand in that warm, stinking water and scrub myself with my hands, trying to bring myself back to life. I wash my hair. When the shower shuts off and drains away I stand here as the blowing air dries me and the walls, trying to breathe through the panic. I don’t know if I’ve lost my mind (maybe there was no asteroid maybe I’m in a mental health unit right now) or if I’m some weird government experiment. Perhaps I’m being watched right now, by a bank of evil scientists standing behind a two-way mirror.
Maybe there’s no-one here at all.
Somehow that thought is even more terrifying - the idea I’m out here, floating in space, by myself.
The food. The water. Left for me. A bed to sleep on.
Through my paranoia I let slip thoughts of hope. I’ve survived. And it’s not like I’m anyone special, which means others must be here as well. Maybe whoever is in charge of this place is just busy, with all the survivors …
I’m in dark water again, searching for something to hold onto.
As the panel snaps down I feel a fierce need to do … something. I won’t curl up on my bed again, feeling sorry for myself and trying to disappear. I go out into my small living space, and I start a yoga routine.
Naked space yoga, in front of a window’s view of the stars, is a hell of a thing.
I haven’t done yoga since the news of 2023QF5 - or Twenty-three, as we’d starting calling it that spring - had broken all our brains. And I’d only been doing it for a year or so before that. When I started it was because people who worked in offices and wore skirts and had nice hair did yoga classes, and I was invited by one of them while I was working in a larger office, before going to the accounting firm. I tried to make friends and got invited out to coffee with little groups of my co-workers. Small steps.
But now my body is stiff and groaning as I stretch. I feel myself begin to breathe harder. My breasts wobble as if they’re alarmed about this new ploy. My hamstrings feel like leather and my downward dog is so difficult I fall to my knees.
Its fucking brilliant.
I’ve found something to help take up my endless supply of time, something from my old life. And I’ve found something else, as well. I decide to tell you my story.
I know you’re not real. I make you up - my invisible audience, wondering at this nondescript person, this survivor who escaped not just the apocalypse but the planet, albeit not of her own doing. I’ll try to give you the most accurate account I can recall, one step at a time, because my memory seems to work better when I do that. And I’ll try to be brave, because …
There are a few things that are bothering me.
I mean, yes, I’m stuck in a strange kind of apartment in space, far away from my own planet, naked and terrified with no idea how long I’m going to be held here or even if I’ll ever escape …
But there’s more.
Because I refused to leave my flat the police eventually showed up. They felt sorry for me though. The tallest one drew me aside.
‘Look, we’ll tell them you’ve agreed to vacate within 24 hours, okay? But after that, we can’t help you. Put your stuff in storage and go stay with family.’
‘I don’t have any family …’
But there was no point in arguing with him. He was trying to be kind, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks.
When they left I curled up on the rental-grey carpet and cried for a solid hour. I’d been crying for days, but this was different. Because I was falling through the cracks, and I knew it. There was nowhere for me to go, no legal help or charity that could help me. Everyone out there was crying out for help. No-one was coming to rescue us.
I knew I had to leave, but before I did I had a long, hot shower. I scrubbed myself with the last of my coconut-scented body wash, dried myself and wrapped myself in a towel, which was just as well because when I stepped into my bedroom my neighbour was sitting on my bed, tears streaming down her freckled face.
I didn’t know my neighbour very well. And I wasn’t in the mood to be kind. I moved around her and stared getting dressed, out of her eyeline.
‘They’ve doubled my rent,’ she sniffled.
‘I know. Me too.’
‘They’ve doubled it!’
‘I know!’ I shouted. I yanked up the fly of my favourite jeans, pulled on my favourite t-shirt. When I finished getting dressed I looked at my shoes. What kind of shoes are best for being homeless in?
‘I uh, heard you before. After the police left …’
Oh, fuck these paper-thin walls.
‘And I haven’t had anyone to talk to. I thought …’
‘I’d offer to double up and split the rent,’ I said. ‘But I’ve lost my job.’
‘Me too. I have a rescue cat.’
‘A rescue cat. What’s going to happen to him?’
‘What about your boyfriend?’ I’d been seeing him coming and going for weeks now. Blonde. Tall. Big nose.
‘He dumped me the day it happened. Ghosted me.’
‘Oh. Wow. Sorry.’
‘You lost your job too?’
I sat on the bed and yanked on my boots as she wiped her nose. She had light red hair that hadn’t been washed in days. I didn’t know what her name was.
‘Don’t you have someone to stay with?’ I asked.
‘No.’ Despite her tears she answered with a bitterness I recognised. ‘I mean I have friends … workmates, mostly. I’ve rung all of them. They’ve all quit their jobs and gone home.’
‘You don’t have family?’
‘My grandparents. They’re both gone now.’
‘I’m on my own too,’ I volunteered, and it felt strange.
‘I have some relatives nearby. They’re moving into the family home together. They say it’s going to get bad, that it’s best to stick together, so I went to see them, but …’
‘There’s no room for you?’
‘They said I haven’t been in touch with them enough over the years. They don’t know me well enough.’
‘That’s just an excuse,’ I said.
‘I know.’ She sniffed. ‘I like your boots.’
On such small moments do friendships start.
We stayed up all night, drinking cheap wine and eating macaroni and cheese for dinner. In the morning we packed what we could carry. I had a backpack and a small suitcase. Amy - that was my new best friend’s name - had two suitcases and a cat carrier. Her cat’s name was Marshmallow, a big ball of white and smudged-grey floof. Marshmallow crouched unhappily in his carrier as we put him into my hatchback and drove to Pam and David’s house. We broke in through the laundry window, and moved in.
I’m feeling a little better about things.
I’ve had ‘lunch.’ And I did anther yoga routine. My muscles feel warm and fuzzy.
But there are still a lot of moments to fill, a lot of time I find myself staring into space (ha ha). The panic is never far away, or the questions that are crowding my mind, now that I’ve stopped screaming them at the walls.
I’ve been pacing and bouncing on the balls of my feet. Now I’m doing a handstand, my heels resting against the wall, blood rushing downwards as I stare at the Earth and its lovely patterns. I wish I had a book to read, my phone, an iPad. A piece of paper and a pen. Two rocks to bang together. Something. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to hold out for.
By the time spring warmed into summer Amy and I had adjusted to life in suburbia.
We spent hours lying on the pool loungers, pleasantly drunk and watching Marshmallow prowl around his new home. We started saying things like, ‘It might miss us,’ and ‘It will probably miss us. Space is so big, right?’
And it was true. The percentages on our survival seemed to change daily, depending on what news channel you watched, what scientist you listened to, which tweets you believed. But there was always a chance.
We had a daily routine; in the morning we’d drive to the supermarkets to scrounge up what we could. In the afternoon we chilled by the pool. In the evenings we locked up early and stayed indoors.
The electricity was still on. Pam and David had left behind a few bottles of wine. There was food in the pantry and freezer. And neither of us had ever had a pool before. It was glorious.
In the world beyond our temporary home we had what Amy called a shoestring government. It turned out Bianca was made of more stoic stuff than I’d given her credit for. She surrounded herself with an equally resolute and impossibly young-looking staff. They gave daily pressers. They reiterated that nothing was certain, that we had to ‘see this through, together.’
I would have voted for her if the world hadn’t ended.
Life was both terrifying and strangely wonderful. When you stop taking it for granted a lot of things cease to matter, and other things take its place. I would dive into the pool and marvel at the way the bubbles curled around my body. We ate weird meals, like packet rice and stale bagels, and enjoyed them because we knew things were slowly getting worse. We watched movies and read books and got happy-drunk, dancing around the pool to music I can’t quite remember. The neighbours left us alone on the unspoken proviso that we would share what we had when asked; half a loaf of bread here, some frozen or canned vegetables there.
At the same time the outside world was getting pretty scary. People would literally fight you for a packet of pasta in the supermarket, or try and rob you as you left. As soon as the sun started going down gangs of people would be out roaming, in cars or on foot. It was better in the ‘burbs, but even there I remember how everyone would chase their kids inside as the sun lowered, blinds drawn, doors locked, cars tucked into garages. There were no dog walkers or joggers after five, just an eerie silence, punctuated by the occasional bird call.
Life was just how it was. And we had each other to watch our backs.
Then Dorothy showed up.
Something just happened.
I was waking, with memories of chlorine, and the six-pack of vodka cruisers we’d found at the bottom of the pantry and how Marshmallow’s purrs felt against my chest, when my prison gave a slow, shuddering jerk.
My brain is screaming. I’m frozen.
All around me there’s a loud humming. My first thought is that I’m about to die. It’s a common thought. Perhaps I’m about to be jettisoned from whatever this room is attached to. The band of evil scientists or aliens are bored of me. I’ll drift out into space and starve to death.
Besides the hum I keep thinking I hear other noises, strange clicks and the sounds of machinery, but my heartbeat is so loud in my ears it’s hard to be sure. I’m just sitting here on my bed, as still as a rabbit caught in headlights. Then I notice that the Earth has moved.
I run over to the window, panicking for real now. That small blue and white world has sat in the top right corner for as long as I’ve been here, but now it’s in the centre, so high up I’m frightened it’s going to disappear altogether, and I press my body against the glass, my eyes wide, drinking it in as I pound the flat of my hand on the glass and shout, ‘No, no!’
I can’t have the Earth disappear.
I can’t my only view be of that cold blackness outside.
My breath catches in my throat. The Earth is moving. How is it moving?
I’m in idiot. The Earth isn’t moving.
That day when someone knocked on the front door Amy and I jumped, then stared at each other with too-large eyes.
It was early morning. We were eating the last of the toast. Marshmallow was on the counter, eating his half can of cat food, because he was on rations. And then the knock.
We’d had attempted break-ins, a cursory walk around by two police late one night (we hunkered down behind the sofa and eventually they went away) and the occasional visit from a neighbour. But rarely a polite knock, as if the world had returned to normal.
I tip-toed over to the peephole.
And recognised those salt and pepper curls immediately.
When I swung the door open she beamed at me; a small, birdlike woman with a pixie-face that didn’t fool me at all.
‘Hello!’ She held up a bottle of wine. A full bottle of wine.
‘They’ve cut the power off,’ she said, as if that was a perfectly ordinary way to start a conversation. Then she peered around me, into the hallway. ‘Power’s still on here,’ she said thoughtfully.
‘Listen, we don’t really …’
‘Perhaps I should call the police?’ she asked, smiling like she’d just offered me cookies.
‘For god’s sake, let her in!’ said Amy, brushing past me and opening the door as if she was our dear old grandma. Then she said, ‘Hi, I’m Amy.’ Very politely.
‘Hello Amy, I’m Dorothy. It’s nice to see some people still have manners in this godforsaken world.’
Dorothy swept in, having a good sticky beak as she made her way to the kitchen. ‘Do you want to get some glasses, or do I need to find them myself?’
The Earth is now framed in the centre of the window.
You have no idea how … miraculous it looks; that tiny, tiny world, hanging in the void. It doesn’t look natural. It hangs in space the same way a hammer doesn’t hang in the air. I press myself to the glass that I don’t think is glass - there’s something metallic about its texture - and long to be there, on the surface once again. My bones ache with it. It’s like being in love with someone you will never have, a drink of water always out of reach.
The loud humming that began when I felt the initial movement hasn’t subsided. It’s all around me, and I try to imagine what’s going on out there. Am I attached to some kind of satellite? An alien ship? Or am I simply hovering, a tiny lifeboat lost in all that blackness? What if the humming stops? Will I freefall through space? I wrap my blanket around me. I’m thirsty, but I can’t leave the window and the sight of my planet. If it disappeared while I was looking away, I’d never forgive myself.
Because Dorothy’s power had been shut off, we made sure to empty her pantry and fridge and cart everything next door.
When I say we, I mean Amy and I. Dorothy was on a pool lounger, claiming to have a bad back and brushing Marshmallow.
‘She’s old,’ said Amy, determined to adopt her as we packed tinned soup and frozen bread and bottles of vodka into plastic shopping bags
‘She’s a drunk, and she’s mean. She tried to kick me.’
‘Because you were shouting at her!’
‘She tried to pinch my toast.’
‘She’s an alcoholic who lives on her own. Have you seen how skinny she is? Just be nice.’
Back at the house we packed everything away carefully, freezing what we could because there was the beginnings of a food shortage. Sometimes the shelves at the supermarket stayed empty for days. And sometimes the supermarkets stayed shut because there wasn’t anyone to run the checkouts.
Worse than the empty shelves and the locked doors was the fear they’d close down and be liquidated, like so many other businesses had.
That summer a new god had risen. A saviour that could rescue you from the Big Scary Rock from Space. And its name was money.
Money would buy you a survival shelter. One of those fancy ones with all the bells and whistles, made for today’s survivalist. One you could fit all your family and friends in, and stock for a whole year.
Of course, to know how to stock it correctly you could go to one of the many seminars that were set up, where, for a price, you could learn all sorts of tips and tricks those sheep out there would never know, to keep you and your loved ones alive through the apocalypse. Live out your dream of being the alpha male in your very own tribe! Keep your children alive! Inherit the Earth! Here, buy this really big gun with things attached to it.
Of course if you were really serious, and really fucking rich, you could buy a ticket to the Ark Fleet.
The Ark Fleet was a bunch of specialty-built ships hidden off the coast of Norway, or Greenland, or wherever. The story often changed. There were enough places for one million people, the humans that would inherit the new age, a civilisation birthed from billionaires. The conspiracy was that the ships had been built years ago, because the rich and powerful had known about 2023QF5 from the beginning, while the rest of us were only told about Twenty-three before it became visible to the naked eye and couldn’t be kept a secret anymore.
Money was the new saviour, and that meant people lost their jobs, their homes and their cars so someone could have a bit more of it. When the first bank folded and took everyone’s life savings with them people started withdrawing everything they had and paying cash. So robbery and home invasions became constant. Amy and I were robbed twice during the day, while out roaming the city for food. They took our money and whatever we’d found. Once when someone attacked at cashier at Woolworths I snatched the money out of the till before anyone else could, grabbed Amy’s hand and ran.
‘We just have to ride it out,’ said Dorothy that evening, and reached across the island bench to pat Amy’s hand as she pan-fried steak. Only weeks before we would have had a barbecue out in the backyard - we hardly ever had meat in those days - but by then we’d become worried about the smell. About who we’d attract. Lately it seemed there was always some car driving slowly down the street at night, always a shadowing figure darting around.
‘Ride out what?’ said Amy, still shaken. ‘It’s never going to end, is it? Until it does. And we didn’t get anything today. Half the places are shut …’
‘If it hits we all go to hell. If it misses everything goes back to normal,’ broke in Dorothy. ‘Either way, this won’t last, and tonight we have steak.’
She was right, of course. We just had to make it through the year, and see how our fate played out.
This is a good place to tell you I have exactly three tattoos.
You won’t know why I’m telling you this right now. It’s not important. It will become clear later.
The first one says, ‘If not now, when?’ Right where I wrote it in biro all those years ago, when I realised I had to get away from my stoner friends and make a new life for myself.
The second one’s kind of cringey. It’s the word ‘Survivor’ on my left shoulder blade, in loopy writing.
You should never get a statement tattoo in your twenties. It should be law. Have you ever met a twenty-something who knows anything about life?
The third one is a feather, curled around my upper right bicep. No particular reason. I just liked the design.
Before the end of the world I contemplated getting more. There was a strange sense of pride in belonging to the last group of humans. And it wasn’t like I had to worry about being older and embarrassed about it. But I never got around to it. I spent most of my time being joyously happy to be alive and full of hope that Twenty-three would dart past us like a bullet, or getting drunk and trying to put it out of my mind.
Three tattoos. Remember that.
Money wasn’t the only deity to rise into power after the discovery of Twenty-three, of course. There was also science and religion, and the subjects of these three gods spent their last days screaming at each other.
But for those of us who had neither cash nor patience for the mythical idols of long-ago, something wonderful happened just as Summer began to wind down into a glorious, mellow autumn.
I was sweeping a few leaves out of the pool when Amy started shouting.
I dropped the rake and ran into the house. I thought the police had turned up. But I found her in front of the television, saying ‘Look! Look at what they’re saying!’ as Dorothy wandered out from the kitchen, morning vodka in her hand.
A balding man was being interviewed on the morning news. The news readers looked positively childlike, their eyes wide, lips parted as they unconsciously leant forward.
The back of my neck prickled.
‘What . . ?’
‘Shhh!’ Amy jabbed me in the ribs as she turned up the sound, and I heard one of them start to talk.
‘So let’s make this clear, you’re saying this deviation has meant …’
The balding man was obviously the kind that hated to be interrupted. He waved his hand in that self-important way some people do, and said, ‘Again, the latest data tells us the asteroid now has a thirty-five percent chance of missing Earth entirely …’
I heard myself gasp, my body suddenly weak. My head swum.
‘ … because its deviated somewhat from its former trajectory. This isn’t unheard of, and though it’s still travelling towards us …’
I felt myself dropping onto the couch as a childlike joy rose in me, swallowing his words with the blind trust of the devout. Of course I did. Amy was smiling and hugging herself. Then she hugged me, and Dorothy, who was crying and murmuring, ‘He said that. He really said that, didn’t he?’
People were always predicting that the fuel was going to run out, but that day we didn’t care. We jumped into the hatchback and drove to the beach.
It was packed with families; parents and little kids splashing around in the shallows. It was obvious that everyone there had heard, and on that sunny, perfect-weather day we had left the safety of our homes to feel the sun on our skins, and perhaps to look at one another again, from a safe distance.
We put Marshmallow in his little harness and took turns carrying him, because he’d decided he was terrified of the sand and the water. We never left him in the house alone, always aware Pam and David could return at any moment, or that the police could turn up and throw us out. We walked along the shoreline and kicked our feet through the incoming waves and found seashells. A little boy ran over, wanting to pat Marshmallow, who was incredibly gracious about it.
The shops were all shut, but for some reason a woman in a sarong was handing out apples from a string bag, saying, ‘These are from my tree, share and enjoy,’ to everyone in a singsong voice. We took our apples, sat in the sand and soaked up the communal hope.
Dorothy told us a little about her life. She’d been a hairdresser in her twenties, before marrying. She was widowed now, and her son had died when he was twenty-one, during his first year as a probationary constable. That’s when she’d started drinking. She drank from sunrise to sundown, just to maintain her equilibrium. Amy and I hugged her, and we cried together as the late afternoon light began to fade.
That autumn #thiryfive and #wewillsurvive trended hard. People started saying this was a wake-up call for humanity. A new age. A bohemian vibe began to overtake the media. Good news stories about people sticking together were jammed in wherever possible. We heard that people were returning to their jobs, that family businesses were opening again, after cleaning away the broken glass and graffiti. People flocked to them and urged others on social media to support the small business, to bring back the good ol’ days, now that the big supermarkets had let us down so badly.
Anyone who said the initial scientist was wrong was shouted down and ignored, rumours about their personal lives quickly circulated. We just didn’t want to hear it.
The weather was amazing - warm afternoons and evenings with golden-edged hues. I laughed and wore cute little dresses and sandals, (thanks Pam, you’re the best) and let Dorothy cut my hair. We made meals together and played poker at the outdoor table near the pool, orphans who had found a family to see out the apocalypse with.
The people behind the counters - and there were a few more of them that autumn - would smile and look you in the eye, and you did the same. ‘Have a nice day,’ took on a new weight. The supermarkets weren’t shut so often. People were stacking shelves again.
Suddenly we had real, tangible hope.
For a very short period, Twenty-three no longer trended as much.
We all just wanted to stop, to take a breath. So we did.
I’m sure of it now; the Earth is getting bigger.
Whatever strange craft I’m in is drawing closer to the Earth. But if I really am moving towards it, does this mean I’m going back? That I really will be able to feel my feet on the ground once again?
I sit and watch and ignore my thirst and my hunger. And because I’m just sitting here and trying not to keep myself busy, and distracted, I can’t help thinking about the things I’ve been furiously pushing down in my mind, in order to hold onto my sanity.
It would seem that I am not entirely myself.
It’s funny, what hope can do. It can block out all else until it leaves you blind. I think hope must be like love; an eager falling that drops you into a world warmer and kinder than the one you just left.
That autumn we all had hope.
Even the former Prime Minister tried to return; slinking out from whatever luxury rock he’d crawled under. But his plans were leaked by the journalists who were suddenly back in force, and Bianca wasn’t having it.
During that day’s presser she announced she’d instructed security to stop him from entering parliament house, and a day later security did just that. We all got to see the very satisfying vision of him being shuffled back into his car, red faced and eyes bulging in disbelief as the protesters howled like wolves.
We were in a new world, and we loved it. Many became political again, strident in their opinions on how this country should be run as our acting PM announced she’d be completing the full term until the next election.
We didn’t know what was coming, what the scientists were planning.
I was in the supermarket when it happened. I’d found a packet of noodles that had been kicked under the shelves and was on my hands and knees, trying to snag it when I saw Amy’s worn shoes suddenly appear.
‘Rachel, everyone’s on their phones …’
And then someone started screaming.
I jumped to my feet, but not until I got those noodles. We skipped the checkout and made straight for the doors as something ugly began building in the air. People were grouped together, heads bowed over their screens. The keening wails were coming from a woman who had dropped to the floor, a handful of groceries scattered around her and quickly being snatched up as she wrapped her arms around a confused-looking toddler and rocked.
‘Not my baby! Not my baby!’ she cried, and my mind seemed to fill with a thick, oily fear.
Driving home I had to swerve around cars that had come to a stop in the streets. We saw people wandering around in the traffic, faces slack, and I was suddenly whisked back to the that very first day, trying to get home as the sound of sirens pierced the air.
‘I don’t want to look at my phone,’ Amy was saying. ‘I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know …’
‘Breathe,’ I said, because she was starting to hyperventilate. When we reached our street it was empty apart from one man who was just … standing there, right in the middle of it. He was wearing gardening gloves, a pair of secateurs in one hand. He turned his head as we pulled into the driveway and took one shambling step towards us.
It was so much like being in a fucking zombie movie I got the creeping horrors. We ran to the front door like spooked kids.
Dorothy was tucked into a corner of the couch, Marshmallow curled up in her lap. The television screen filled with news readers talking and gesturing, but the sound was muted. She was staring down at her iPad, a glass in her hand. Her face was pale as she looked up.
‘The scientists have gone rogue,’ she said mildly, and sipped her drink.
We crowded around her screen and watched as a digital fire spread across the world. The scientists were live. They’d been communicating in secret - I don’t know for how long - and they’d decided to tell the world the truth. One wept at her desk, framed photographs of her kids on the wall behind her.
‘I have been ordered not to say anything,’ she was saying. ‘I have been threatened by my own government. Many of us have. So many. But we have come together. They cannot silence us any longer.’
At that point we heard a man moaning and crying in the background, the questioning voice of a child.
‘The chances of the asteroid missing Earth are minute. It has not deviated. And the Americans are lying — there is no weapon being built to drive it off course. Such a thing isn’t possible. We must find peace in truth. God help us.’
It was the same message being spoken by all of them. Stories of governments threating the lives of their families if they didn’t say what they were told to - sprinklings of facts salted with lies to keep people from panicking when they learned there was no hope for us. The balding scientist, we learned, had committed suicide a week ago, hi