I have gotten used to the silence. At first it was nearly unbearable. It was the kind of silence that drives you crazy. It was the kind of silence that makes you sad. It was the kind of silence that makes you talk to yourself just so you can hear a voice. I hate my own voice. Once, there was a girl who told me I had the kind of voice that made people melt inside—the kind of voice that moves people to tears without ever saying anything at all. Now, there is no girl and I am the only one left to make judgment, and I hate my voice. Everyone is dead. I could sugarcoat it or be optimistic or lie—they’re all the same thing anyways—but I would rather just say it. To an empty room. I am saying it to an empty room. I hate my voice. I hate listening to it echo. The room is small, covered in dust. There are cockroaches on the floor, under the furniture. Of course there would be cockroaches. The wallpaper is peeling. Peeling and dusty but excellently preserved—all cream and bordered with flowers and some sorts of animals, staring at me, waiting for me to die. This is not new. This wallpaper has always been waiting for me to die, watching me, disgusted by me more than the dust, the cockroaches. I don’t know if I’m talking or thinking. Does it matter? No. Once, there was a girl who could tell me what I should do and what I was thinking without being told. I would ask her if I had said that out loud, or was she just psychic, and she would laugh at me and say that she was definitely psychic. If my voice could move people to tears her laugh could make men kill. I would not be surprised if her laugh did make men kill. Man has killed for less. Man has killed for so much less. My hands are on the table, fingers crossed, folded, spotless. The table is stained. The table is brown from the wood and every other color, too, from years of being used, around, part of lives. My hands are spotless.
Last week I went to the beach. I had been to California, I had been to Florida, I had seen the ocean and flown across it but I had never been to the beach. I like the beach. Once, there was a girl who loved the beach. She would tell me about it in the greatest detail—from the way the sand felt to each shell or crab or piece of a sand dollar she found—she said it all. She never found a whole sand dollar, she told me once. There was always part missing. She would pick up all the parts she found but they never fit together. They never came whole. I’ve discovered that, even when it is empty, I like the beach. There is trash and debris and I think I would like the sound of children laughing, or dogs barking, or families talking, but the beach is still beautiful. I like how the tide goes in and out. If I sit on the sand with my shoes off and my pants rolled up long enough, I can see the tide going in and out. Last week, I drove to the beach at noon and stayed until the sun set. I like the way the sand feels on your feet as it dries, in the sun. I like the way the sun turns the water yellow as it sets. I didn’t want to leave the beach. I left the beach.
When I was eleven my father died. He didn’t change, not even at the very end. He had cancer in all the parts of the body a guy could have cancer in and still he was saying he was fine, still telling people to go do something useful. He was on a bed in the hospital and I was sitting next to him and it was all quiet and he turned to me and asked, “You got a game tonight?” I hesitated then nodded, without looking at him. “Why aren’t you out there warming up then, Jack? Don’t you want to win?” His voice was all weak and broken but it still had some sort of power over me. “Mom said I should be here with you,” I told him, to which he scoffed. “Your mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m fine. Go do something you’ll enjoy. Go win a baseball game.” I didn’t move, right then, but he kept on saying it so I stood up and walked out of the room. Right before I closed the door, though, he stopped me. “Jack,” he called out as loud as he could, barely enough to get over the heart monitors. I turned around and watched him shift, wince a little, and look me straight in the eye. There was no escaping that look. He pursed his lips and unpursed them and finally said, “Keep your Goddamn glove down. No more balls going between your legs, you hear me?” Those were the last words my father ever said to me. I hated baseball. Ever since I started it. But I played until I was twenty two all the same.
There are pictures hanging from the walls. Most of them are broken or tilted but one of them is straight. It is a family photo from before I was photogenic. My mother is smiling like she always did, her arm around my father, who is trying to smile but failing, grimacing, no teeth, corners of the lips just barely turned up. Once, there was a girl who said I looked cute in this picture. She said it was sweet how I tilted my head and showed too much teeth, biting down on something nonexistent, jaw clenched. She said she liked how my hair was greased back all fancy and my arms were so straight by my sides. She almost made me stop hating that picture. I think about standing to look at it. I don’t, though. I would rather look from a distance. Distance is healthy. Distance from what you hate, from what you love, from what you fear, from what kills you. It started as a sickness. It was just a few dead animals and then some dead guy in Asia. I started to worry about it right then, a little. The trick to being the last man on Earth is being afraid. I was just scared enough to prepare for the worst. People told me I was crazy when more people started dying in Asia and I built myself a safe house. Driving through the desert I laughed aloud, thinking about how crazy they had thought I was, how dead they were. That was before I got used to the silence. The sounds in the room are louder than they ever were, when people walked around here, when people lived here. There is a fan, whirring above my head. It is unstable, rickety, threatening to fall on me, waiting for the moment it can fall on me. My toes tapping the tile floor are like drums, like a thousand feet marching in unison. I wish I could see feet marching just one more time. A marching band. An army. Anything. But I must settle for my own. My own are not enough. I want to be enough.
Four days ago I found a museum. Most of the museums were in big cities and most big cities are gone so I didn’t think I would see one again, but I was wrong. I was happy to be wrong. It was an art museum. I wasn’t sure where I was, had given up trying to know. But it was definitely an art museum—half gone, half there. I never understood art very well. Once, I knew a girl who taught art. She tried to teach me but I would have failed her class and both of us knew it. She laughed at me. Most of the time when I thought of painters and artists I thought of pretentious sorts of hippies who knew a lot about art and nothing else—nothing useful—but this girl was smart. She was smart and grounded and even though she could never teach me art she made me appreciate artists. Three days ago I appreciated art for the first time. It was more human than anything left on Earth, including myself. I appreciated how if you looked hard enough you could almost picture someone painting it, sculpting it, thinking about what it meant even though I would never understand. I, half-gone, appreciated art in a half-gone museum. Once, there was a girl. She would have been proud of me. I touched all of the art. I touched all of the paintings and the sculptures and laughed at the signs that told me not to. Not aloud, I think. But in my head. In my head I laughed. Once, I knew a girl. I met her in high school. She had a laugh that could make men kill. I thought I could kill for that girl, for that laugh, for a life with her. I could kill for nothing. I lost her after high school when she followed her dreams and I followed mine and I didn’t realize I regretted it until I saw her again, years later. Years meant nothing. We got married even though we had changed, even though I was somebody else, even though she was somebody else. It didn’t matter. I would have given up everything I had become and achieved in those years if she had asked me to. She should have asked me to.
The chair I am sitting in is not comfortable. It is small and stiff and the legs are uneven. My father built this chair. My mother sat in it. Every morning she would take her coffee and sit in this chair and drink and breathe. She didn’t read the paper. She was up early enough that she didn’t ever talk to us; we were still sleeping. She just sat at the table and looked out the window and breathed. One morning I woke up early and saw her there, all quiet, the fan whirring peacefully above her head. She looked happy. Sometimes, when I was younger, I wondered if my mother’s smile was just some façade, nothing real. She wasn’t always happy, but it was rare to see her cry and she never screamed at us, never got angry, never lost her temper. It seemed impossible. But when I saw her that morning, all alone, unaware of my presence, she was smiling. Not a big smile, no teeth, but a smile. That was when I knew it was real. What I never got was why. What made her so happy? Her life was plain. She had my father, in the beginning—and they did love each other, though it always seemed mismatched to me—and she had me, until the end. She had a medium-sized house and a simple job and she was, without a doubt, happy. Now I am sitting in her chair and staring out her window and breathing. But I will never understand.
We started bombing each other, killing each other like only people could. It was so predictable. I was safe in my safe house but I always knew what was happening because I was important enough to know. The trick to being the last man on Earth is being important, but not too important. Not target important. At first we were just bombing the places where everyone was sick, just to stop the spread, and then we were bombing places that were half-sick, and then we were just bombing places because we were confused and scared and mad at everyone. It was everyone else’s fault but it was never our own.
Two days ago, I saw the Grand Canyon. I was driving down the road and it was all desolate and nothing and then suddenly there it was, still there. I will die someday but this will still be here. Someday there will be nothing but this, and the mountains, and maybe the cockroaches. I will die and this will still be here and I am so okay with that. I am okay with being outlived by the Grand Canyon. I never expected not to. And it is so beautiful. Beautiful and big. So big. I yelled everything into it. I yelled everything I knew, everything about people and what they were and I thought about art and so I yelled about what they would always be, too. I yelled everything I ever did right and everything I ever did wrong and listened to it echo. I hate my voice. I do. So I yelled into the Grand Canyon until I lost it. I gave the Grand Canyon my voice. Once, I knew a girl who would have thought that was a good gift. She would have laughed and said she envied the Grand Canyon. I would have told her it envied her and realized it was a silly thing to say but said it anyways. She liked it when I said things like that. I liked it when she liked things. I liked it when she was happy. She died like everyone else. She should not have died like everyone else. I forgot how human she was.
I am cold. I don’t know if it’s winter or not, but I am cold. Maybe it’s because of the fan above me. Maybe the world is just colder now. I’m not sure if that’s how it works, but it makes sense to me. The wallpaper is staring at me. When I was a kid, it scared me. When I was a teenager, it scared me. When I was an adult, I scared it, but it scared me too, still. My father hated it. He asked my mother why we didn’t just paint over it but she told him she thought it was charming and he let it stay. Once, I knew a girl who wanted to live here. My mother passed and left me the house, and when we stopped by the girl told me she wanted us to live here. To her this house was sweet and comfortable. To me it was stained floors and tables and wallpaper staring me down. She wanted us to make a family here. I sold it. I did not regret it. I do now. I regret it. I regret. My plan was for us to stay together, safe, far away from everything that could kill us. She did not like my plan, but she went along with it for a while. And then her mother got sick. And her father. And then it was her little brother and she told me she had to go back home. I tried to stop her, tried to tell her the truth, told her she would only die. She told me she would rather die with the people she loved than live alone and sickeningly safe. I told her she wouldn’t be alone. She walked away. Once, I knew a girl, who turned into a woman, who walked away. The trick to being the last man on Earth is letting her walk away.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go to Hell. I don’t want to disappear. I want someone to miss me. I want someone to cry for me. I want a funeral. I want a grave next to a girl’s that someone puts flowers on. I want a speech read at my funeral interspersed with tears. I want someone to talk about who I was. I want someone to write a book about me. I want someone to remember me.
Last week, when I went to the beach, I found a sand dollar. It was whole. Not a crack marred its surface. No missing pieces. No mistakes. I found a perfect sand dollar, put it in my pocket, held it tight, never let it go. I carried it across the country. I would carry it across the world. I would carry it across the universe. I reach into my pocket and pull it out, hold it in my hands, turn it over in my fingers. It is smooth. It is smooth as my spotless hands, white and untouched, unscathed. I wonder why there are so few like this. I wonder why, of all the sand dollars on all the beaches she ever saw, none were whole. All were broken. All were broken.
Once, I knew a girl. I knew a girl who could have told me what to do. This girl, she could have told me where to go from here. I went to the beach. I went to the museum. I went to the Grand Canyon. I went here. I am here. I checked off everything on my list. I want to start on hers. I want to check everything off her list. She could have told where to go from here. She could have told me where here was. Once, I knew a girl who was so smart. She could have told me all the names of all the paintings in the world and she could have taught me calculus, too—could have had the patience to teach me everything I would ever need to know. I should have asked her to. She would have laughed. She would have loved it.
She cannot tell me what to do. She cannot tell me what to do, so I sit in the house she wanted and hold her sand dollar and listen to the fan and feel the wallpaper, staring me down, waiting, waiting for me to die like everyone else. I wait with it.
-- Amanda Schmidt
Amanda Schmidt is a student at Edwardsville High School. She loves to write, travel, and play softball. This is her first published story. She is currently finishing up her first novel..