Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.
But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.
Read Part 1.
Jatar won’t talk to me until I’ve assured him that I’ve fed myself, tended to the fire, and the other chores. How he knows I need to do these things puzzles me. Of course, I did fling my words into the darkness before we found each other. So I ask him.
“Yes,” he says. “I did hear you. I have trouble on my end. Your radio is nothing like the device I use.”
“You still have trouble?”
“Had. I mean, I had trouble. But you can hear me now, yes?”
“Yes.” Sometimes I want to nod or smile, but I know he can’t see these things. We have nothing but voices to guide us—their tone, their thickness or thinness. How a smile makes the throat warm and disapproval has an edge.
“You are not on earth,” I say, “are you?”
The frequency carries his sigh to me, and the sound holds reluctance. “No, I am not.”
“You are lucky then.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know about that, either.” By the way he says this, I know he wants me to laugh.
I do, but I also want to know the answer. “Where are you?”
“I’m not certain where matters all that much, not anymore.”
“But you must be somewhere.”
“Must I, dear girl? Must I really?”
I don’t know how to answer that. I crank the handle to charge the battery, just so I don’t lose the connection. I hate that, every morning—or what I call morning—charging the battery, sprouting sweat, and praying that Jatar’s voice will come over the speaker and fill my little room with warmth.
“Maybe you are in my radio,” I say now.
This time, he laughs. “What I wouldn’t give to be there, living inside your radio.”
“You would have to be very small,” I say. “Smaller than a mouse.”
“You wouldn’t need to feed me very much.”
No, I wouldn’t. A thought seizes me. I think of small things, tiny things, mouse-sized things. I think of their absence.
“I killed them,” I say. The confession both lifts me up and weighs on me. I know its truth.
Our frequency is clear of buzz and static. So when there’s silence, it stretches long and empty.
“Who do you think you’ve killed,” Jatar says at last, his words quiet and low.
“The mice. When I first … found this place, there were droppings everywhere. The food is in metal containers and on metal shelves. But I stopped leaving crumbs. No more crumbs, no more mice.”
“And it’s you, not the lack of sun or heat that’s responsible.”
“I don’t need to eat every last crumb.”
A few nights ago, I left a bit of cracker on the floor, deliberately. I placed it well away from my sleeping pallet. My first nights in this space, I was consumed with the fear of mice, of rats, crawling over me in my sleep. I jerked awake so many times, breathing hard, cold sweat washing across my skin that I almost gave up on sleeping. But this time, when I woke, the crumb remained, untouched.
“Oh, dear girl, you did not kill the mice. They no doubt went elsewhere. They are resourceful creatures. Besides, they carry diseases. They could contaminate your food, your water…”
Jatar’s voice fades, either from the buzzing in my head or failing battery power. I remember standing over that crumb, then falling on my knees next to it. For how long I stared, I don’t know. Here’s what I do know:
I picked it up and ate it.
“I can’t talk now, Jatar,” I say into the mouthpiece.
“Soshi, please. Listen to me, you did not kill the mice.” Jatar’s voice fills the air. He does not stop talking, not even when I refuse to respond. “You’ll lose me soon if you don’t crank the handle.” He knows the life of the battery—or at least how to gauge it. “Crank the handle, at least. Tell me you’re still with me.”
But I don’t. I sit, curled by the fire, chin on my knees. I could’ve captured a mouse, tempted it with some crumbs, built a home for it, close enough to the fire so it would always be warm. We would dine together, morning and night. I could spare what it would need to survive. I would have given it a good mouse name.
But I don’t have a mouse. Something about that makes me clutch my legs to my chest. Salt from tears irritates my cheeks, but it’s only later, when the tracks have dried, that I scrub my face with my palms. I’ve forgotten to eat, and the fire is low, but it’s the radio that I reach for. My chest heaves as I crank the handle.
“Jatar,” I say when there’s enough power to carry my voice. “I want a mouse.”
“I know you do, dear girl. I know you do.”
He is there; he is always there. Maybe he does live in my radio. Maybe Jatar is my mouse.
“I know you do,” he says one last time. His sigh carries so much weight I’m surprised the air isn’t thick with the sound. “Your fire,” he prompts.
“I should stoke it.”
“Tend to your chores. I’ll be here when you’re done.”
“Where else would I go?”
* * *
I have found a rubber band, one that feels stretchy and fresh in my fingers. Its edges have not rotted away. It is strong, and when I wrap it around the mouthpiece, the button remains depressed. I love my radio, but now I am no longer tethered to it. I can use both hands while talking to Jatar.
Not that he can see my hands. But I can stoke the fire, feed myself, and crank the handle. I can fall silent, and he will not worry—too much. He can hear the rustle of my boots against the floor, the whisper of the broom, the crack and sizzle when I stoke the fire.
“Have you gathered wood recently?” he asks now.
“Last night … yesterday. It’s stacked high. I don’t dare bring any more in for a while.”
The air is too dry; sparks from the fire have too great a range. The thing that keeps me alive can also kill me. At least then I’d be warm, I tell myself. I don’t speak these words to Jatar, but my laugh gives me away.
“That sounds morbid.”
“It is,” I admit. “I was thinking about the fire, how it might kill me before the cold does.”
“I wish you wouldn’t—”
“It’s like that poem about the world ending in fire and ice. And I think it could be both, couldn’t it?”
“I suppose it could, and suppose we change the subject?”
I agree, but don’t know what to say at first. Jatar does not talk much about himself, although I wish he would. That doesn’t stop me from trying.
“Can you see the stars where you are?” I ask.
“On occasion, yes, I can.”
“Ours left. Actually, that’s not right. I’m guessing they’re still in the sky.”
“Your guess would be correct.”
“We blotted them out, all the stars, our sun, and now we have nothing. You know, when I first found this place, you could still see the stars from here. I thought: oh, I am so lucky. There used to be a stream. It even had fish, although they swam funny, so I never ate them.”
“That seems like a wise decision.”
His words have a teasing quality that makes me want to talk more so I can hear the humor and approval in his tone.
“It must have been a beautiful spot, with the mountains and the woods. I wonder why no one else ever came up after I did. Was it just too late?”
“Perhaps they weren’t as smart as you.”
“I don’t think that’s it. I think something happened, but I just don’t know what that something is.”
“Hm.” Jatar sounds as if he’s giving this much thought. “It’s possible that the only thing to happen was self-inflicted, especially with the cities, as crowded as they were. Disease, fighting. It’s hard to say.”
“The cities were crowded. It’s why we left.” I nod before stopping myself, since Jatar can’t see me. I may be the only witness to these things, and yet, I might as well be blind for all I’ve seen. Self-inflicted. The phrase makes me think of something else I found along the stream, something else I witnessed, and yet didn’t.
“I’m wearing a dead woman’s boots,” I say.
I must shock Jatar with this confession. Silence greets me, and I wonder if I need to crank the handle again. At long last, he coughs.
“Dear girl, Soshi … I don’t know what you mean by that.”
“When there was still some sunlight, when I could walk along the stream, I found a body, a skeleton, really. Small, like me, so I’m guessing it was a woman. She was mostly bones, but the gun was still in her hand, and for some reason, nothing had chewed away the boots on her feet. Thick leather. They’re heavy, but they are very good boots.”
“The boots on her feet.” Jatar says these words slowly. “Your boots?”
“I had to shake her bones from them, but yes. I took her boots.”
“Did you leave her gun?”
“By that time, there was nothing left to shoot. I didn’t see the point, even though I was still scared. I didn’t think anyone would climb up this high in the mountains, not if they hadn’t already.”
“So you left the gun.” Jatar’s voice is tight as if this is something he absolutely must know.
“I left the gun,” I say. “What would I shoot at? The wind? What would that do? Maybe cause an avalanche?”
“Yes, I suppose it could.” He clears his throat. “I don’t like this subject either.”
“Then you tell me something about you.”
“I am not that interesting.”
“Are you a scientist?”
Jatar is intelligent; I can tell he holds back in saying things, perhaps so I don’t feel bad for not being all that smart myself.
“A scientist?” he says. “Is that what you think I am?”
“You are very smart.”
“I don’t know about that, but you could call me a scientist, in a manner of speaking.”
I sigh. The radio carries the sound to wherever Jatar is, and he laughs.
“What do you study? Planets? Stars? Solar systems?”
“Yes, you could say that. I … take the temperature of things. Some of those things include stars and planets.”
There’s the slightest hitch in our frequency, the slightest bit of hesitation in his voice. “No, actually, Earth wasn’t something I monitored.”
“But you are now?”
“On my own time.”
“You must have a lot of time.”
Here, he laughs, the sound so clear and hearty, I can’t help but laugh as well.
“Oh, yes, I do,” he says. “I have time to spare.”
In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.
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