The End, The End, The End:
Three Very Short Stories About
the Very Long Night
Issue 4, October/November 2021
Excerpts from Mx. Powell’s Ledger of Post-Cataclysm Exchanges
Dex. Short, light brown, 3ILL raider tat, young teen
Traded: 20 ibuprofen
For: 2 cans black-eyed peas, 1 liter drinking water
Notes: Told them I don’t trade with raiders but they claim they “don’t fuck with the 3ILLs no more,” plus they promised to come back with more meds and these migraines are killing me
Jane. Tall, dark brown, piano fingers, 20s
Traded: 3 seed packets (2 squash, 1 tomato), 1 pillar candle
For: 2 cups rice, 2 lemons
Notes: Desperate eyes, gave discount
Miss B. Average height, dark brown, septum piercing, 40s
Traded: Unopened bag coffee beans, two polo shirts (size 20, clean)
For: Love, in Letters edited by Chaudhry (singed cover), King James Bible, Kindred by Butler
Notes: Almost never trade books but I’m weak for former English teachers, piercings, and coffee (SWEET FUCKING JESUS, the smell); told her I’d been a librarian, invited her to stay for a cup but she declined
Timothy. Has a beard now
Traded: Baggie of glow-in-the-dark stars, photo album (mostly cute kids and a cat), chocolate bar (melted but WHO CARES)
For: 2 liters drinking water
Notes: Gossiped for a bit, split the chocolate bar with him
Traded: 10 acetaminophen, 14 ibuprofen, errand*
For: 20-oz bottle purified water, 1 can pinto beans, 3 lemons
Notes: Asked where they get the drugs but they wouldn’t say
*had them run books from my personal supply to Miss B.
Miss B. again.
Notes: Tried to give me water and food for books I sent, cute when she’s flustered
Wouldn’t give name. Tall, light brown, bald, really white teeth, 40s
Traded: 1 jar olives, 4 liters washing water
For: Pocketknife (rusted)
Notes: Looked too hard at my supply, sketchy, no future trades
Jane again. Bruising around neck
For: 6 ibuprofen, two polo shirts (size 20, clean), cross necklace (broken clasp)
Notes: More desperate than last time, I refused to take her goods, gave her the location of a merchant caravan passing through, emphasized they travel way out of town
Dex. Big bandage over tat
Traded: 100 ct. bottle of acetaminophen, errand*
For: 4 cans corn, 2 cans pinto beans
Notes: Said they can’t get more painkillers but wouldn’t say why, they asked if I’d read them a story “like that lady with the nose ring,” said I would if they run regular errands for me
*sent them to Miss. B with a few more books
Hear more about Pipe Wrench.
The Sacred, the Sacrificial
You lead the boy to the copse of tainted fairwoods. It reeks of innocence spilled and soaked into the soil.
The boy is just nearing the eve of his adolescence, brown skin smooth and unblemished, save for the scrapes and bruises of rough play with peers. Your own brown skin has been corrugated by the decades and is ornamented beneath one ear with a tattoo of the sun.
He stares up at the trees. “They look no different than the rest.” It’s almost a question.
Another time, you will teach him the subtle signs that a tree is tainted. For now — finally understanding your own mentor’s brittle eyes at this moment — you press his palm to the bark.
A wren streaks skyward at his scream.
He struggles, but you clench your jaw. One breath. Two. Three.
You let go and squeeze him to your chest until the rhythm of his heart is not so frightening. It’s not in keeping with your oaths, but you tell him, as you have every day since he was placed under your tutelage, that he has a choice. You try to hand him the satchel of food and water — enough for four days. Neither of you is surprised when he shakes his head.
Sighing, you open the bag and hand him a jar of salve that will blunt the pain. He applies it generously to his palms, then kneels and grabs hold of one massive root.
He was chosen — as were the other children, as were you — for the same reason the fairwoods were propagated: a talent for drawing the malignance close. For seven hours, he sweats and, occasionally, whimpers, but never loses his grip or his focus. Afterward, you show him how to wield the axe and cut away the fouled portion of root, wide across as his splayed fingers but thin as a wrist. He places it in the satchel and the two of you head home in the hushed dark.
As long as the land remembers your people’s suffering under occupation — and it’s been less than a century since the empire was driven out — the trees will be needed to prevent the soil from poisoning the water and crops, and you gifted few will be needed to keep those hungry trees from growing too big, stretching their roots too far, suffocating everything.
Back at the guildhome, you prepare him a draught and he sleeps for two days. This will be one of the rare, final times he’s afforded such respite. In the early morning, he receives his tattoo; the ink is made from the ashes of the tainted root. You told him it should be something he loves, so he’s chosen a calf — a cherished pet from before his gift was discovered and he became your charge.
You’ll never again encourage him to spare himself. He’s made his choice.
After you two break your fasts, you follow him through the forest, back to the copse of tainted fairwoods. It reeks of innocence spilled and soaked into the soil.
In the Absence of an Epilogue
I wake up and remember the world is ending soon.
It’s like sudden, summer rain. Startling. All-consuming. Enchanting in its inescapability.
My roommate went east with his family yesterday. He wasn’t into conspiracy theories like his parents, but he figured if there were safe zones for the rich and powerful, it couldn’t hurt to be nearby. And, he said, I don’t want to die alone.
I wonder why dying with me counted as dying alone.
I leave the echo of the apartment, carrying only the essentials — clothes and some food. (And my mothers’ wedding bands.) (And a paperback copy of The Giver, pages wavy from water damage.) (And a half-bottle of blue liqueur.)
I find myself in an old boyfriend’s neighborhood. Standing in the cul-de-sac, listening to the buzzing of insects, I half-expect him to call down from his bedroom window. But the front yard tells me no one’s been home for a while. Using a key hidden in the flower garden, I let myself into the dim, muggy house. I strip to my boxers to keep from sweating, huddle on a dusty sofa, and have a little panic attack while the light fades.
The next day, I run into a group of college students who had nowhere to go when campus closed. They claim to be anarchists. They don’t require the services of an accountant, and I’m not a big guy so I can’t help with intimidation. I offer them the liqueur, though, and they let me tag along.
They — we — rob a man in the parking lot of a barter-only grocery store. He refuses to hand over his single brown bag and gets a bloody nose for his trouble. And for our trouble? Two boxes of cereal and a can of condensed milk. I can’t stop seeing the man’s defeated expression, feeling the student’s filthy t-shirt tear as I pull her off of him, imagining who that cereal was meant for… I sneak away when the group gets back to the dorms and head for the highway.
Hitchhiking with no particular destination, I luck out. The driver and I ride for a couple hours in amiable silence. She drops me off after I spot a dive with its lights magically on. The place is empty except for the graying owner, who doesn’t charge me, just goes shot-for-shot with me until the room’s hot and spinning.
He invites me to his studio above the bar.
I never much cared for sex — so damp and invasive — but he’s soft and smells like peppermint. Afterwards, he tucks me under his arm and his silver chest hair sounds like crumpled paper beneath my palm.
I say, I don’t know why I’m crying. He kisses the top of my head, which only makes me cry harder. Maybe he’s used to people passing through his bar on their way to the end and them coming to terms with it being kind of a letdown.
The studio shudders and we both startle. Then we laugh, embarrassed — me, through tears. Not yet, we know logically. Soon, though.
Kel Coleman is an author, editor, and stay-at-home mom. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and other fine publications. They are also an Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots. Kel is a Marylander at heart, but their new home is in the Philadelphia suburbs with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. Find them on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites
Your fill of end-times fiction with a read- and watch-list from disaster-and-dystopia expert Katie Goh:
“A Fictional Life Raft for Surviving Whatever Comes Next“
The real-life horrors of growing up in an abusive faith:
“Goodbye, End Times,” by Chrissy Stroop.