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.
“I wish I knew what day it was,” I say.
I am trying to draw Jatar out, get him to respond. Today he has been so very quiet.
“I always know what day it is,” he says.
“Somehow, I don’t think it’s the same as mine.”
“It is, and it isn’t.”
“Because if I knew what day it was, we could have a party.”
“What kind of party?”
“Well, that depends on the day. See? It’s important.”
His laugh filters through the speakers.
“It could even be my birthday.”
“Oh, dear girl, it certainly could. You deserve lots of birthday parties.”
“Would you get me a present?”
“As many as I could carry to you.”
“How about a mouse?”
“I would very much like a mouse. I would name it Jatar.”
A harrumph comes from the speakers, one so strong the radio seems to vibrate with it.
“I think,” Jatar says, his words slow, “that I should be offended.”
Before I can explain that having a mouse named after you is an honor, the floorboards shake beneath my feet. I give a little cry, no more than a yelp from the back of my throat, but Jatar hears.
“What is it?” he demands.
“I don’t know. The house is …”
I can’t find words to describe the tremors that run through it. It’s like my house has suddenly caught a fever and is shaking with chills. Then there’s an awful groan.
“Oh, dear girl,” Jatar says, and now his voice is low, but taut, as if it were nothing more than a rubber band stretched to its limits. “Stay by me—I mean, the radio. Stay by the radio. Do not open the door. Do not go outside. Stay as still and as quiet as you can.”
I retreat to the radio, grip the mouthpiece, although I don’t need to. Another groan sounds. It is like nothing I’ve heard, not even in the days when we fought to leave the city, and certainly my mountain has never made such noises.
“What is it?” I whisper, my lips only a breath away from the mouthpiece.
“I have heard this sound before.”
“Will it eat me?”
“No.” This word is not quite as tight as all his others. It almost sounds like he wants to laugh. “It won’t eat you, dear girl.”
The roar comes next, so loud it steals my breath. It reminds me of the few trains that still ran, back when we were walking, back before I was alone. We’d follow the tracks, and the roar would sneak up on you. Someone always kept watch.
Or did. Because, of course, the trains stopped running after a while. We still followed the tracks. They would lead us somewhere important, somewhere safe. I’m not sure how true that was, because they didn’t lead me here, to my mountain, where I’ve been safe.
The floorboards jump beneath my feet. The force knocks me into the wall and knocks embers from the fireplace. I claw my way across the floor. Before I can cup the glowing ember in my hands, I jerk back. I glance around, but the world shakes too hard, and my feet are too unsteady. Already smoke rises from the wood slats. I bite my lip and sacrifice the back of my left hand and shove the ember into the hearth.
I must scream. My throat aches as if I have. Jatar’s voice pours from the speaker in response. He must fight to be heard over the roar and rumble and chaos that have swallowed my house.
Then, everything is quiet. The world. Jatar. So quiet I can hear the fire sputter. My gaze goes there first. Build the fire back up, make it safe. My left hand is nearly useless. If pain could scream, it would fill this space, this mountain, this world. I worry that I have done more damage than I can repair.
First things first. The fire. I build it up. I don’t know if it’s the stoked fire or if my hand makes me feel as if I’m on fire, but the air is warm, warmer than before. I glance about, knowing I must dig out some first aid supplies, perhaps scoop up some snow or ice from outside.
“Jatar?” I say, hoping to hear his voice.
Panic seizes me before I remember: the battery. It’s an awkward thing, cranking the handle with my right hand, bracing the radio with my left elbow, but I manage it.
“Jatar?” I say, before I even have a full charge.
“Soshi? Dear girl, are you okay?”
“I burnt myself, but that’s better than the house burning down. I’m going to get the first aid kit.”
Actually, in the storeroom, I have many first aid kits, more than I could ever use.
“And maybe some snow,” I add, making my way across the room. My legs wobble, and I take unsteady and erratic steps.
Behind me, Jatar is saying something, but he sounds so very far away. Shock, I think. How do I cure myself of that? Hand first, then the shock. I open the door to the outside. All I want to do is grope around, grab a handful of that sharp, crystalized mix of icy snow, and cool the fire of my skin.
At first, I don’t understand what I see. I can only open the door partway. Something solid, cold, and white blocks its progress. The rope lifeline that leads to the woodshed is gone. That is no matter. Because my woodshed is also gone. Either that, or it’s buried beneath a mountain’s worth of snow.
Why the avalanche spared my little house, I do not know. But it has. And yet, it hardly feels benevolent. I do not feel grateful.
For a very long time, I do nothing but stare at the snow. Then I shut the door. I throw the deadbolt.
I will never open it again.
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.
Want the story to go? Download it over at BookFunnel.