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 use the last of the dying embers to light a cheap candle. The flame throws little light and even less heat. A couple of them on the hearth chase away the worst of the dark—if not the cold. Jatar is speaking to me now, urging me forward. Before the cold can steal all my rational thoughts, I scrawl Crank the handle on any surface I might chance to look at—the floor, the walls, the plastic tub that once held the blankets and clothes I stumble around in.
My fingers are black from the burnt bit of wood that was my makeshift pen. I use as little water as possible to wash, although this is from habit. I will run out before the water does.
“The storeroom,” Jatar says. “You can navigate in the dark. I’ll help you. Don’t take a candle.”
“All right.” I push to standing.
“Go straight back and then to your left.”
“My left.” I don’t say it as a question, but that’s what it is.
“That’s the hand with the burn.” He never scolds, even when my words come out stupid.
“On the shelf, above your head, there will be another bin of blankets and things to keep you warm.”
Halfway inside the storeroom, my mind blanks. Everything is dark, but Jatar’s voice echoes behind me.
“A few more steps, dear girl. Just a few.”
How he knows what I need to do, I can’t say. Perhaps, before the avalanche, I spoke of these things. Yes. I nod to myself. I did. I told him where everything was and now he’s telling me. I lug the bin from the shelf and emerge into the dim light of the main room.
My movement causes one of my candles to sputter. It gutters and dies. Maybe it’s the cheap wax, but it sounds like someone drowning.
“Soshi? Are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“One of my candles,” I say. “The flame went out.”
“It sounded horrific.”
“It sounded like someone’s throat being slit.”
Jatar’s voice fills the speakers, but I don’t understand him. His voice has a musical quality to it, as if he uses notes rather than words. But I recognize the tone.
He is scolding me.
At last he comes to himself, the notes fading into lyrics I understand.
He doesn’t call me dear girl, and I think that hurts more than anything else. That makes me rush to explain before the cold steals this piece of me as well.
“I said that because I know what it sounds like. I’ve heard it before. It’s why I left the group. They weren’t collecting children because they were kind. They were collecting children because they were hungry.”
Jatar is silent.
“I ran away,” I continue. “I’d rather die alone than be someone’s dinner. I left the group, stopped following the train tracks, and found my mountain.”
“I had no idea, dear girl, no idea. You’ve never … I mean, I didn’t know.”
“I don’t like to think about it.”
“Then we won’t speak of it ever again. Go on, open the bin. There are warm things inside.”
I pull the items out, one by one. They are heavy in my hands, thick wool coats that might weigh more than I do at this point. There are light things as well, down-filled jackets and sleeping bags that sprout tiny feathers when I squeeze them. At the very bottom, there is something furry and soft. I don’t recognize it, and it isn’t something you wear. It almost looks like…
“Jatar! I have a mouse!”
“Do you now?” He sounds amused.
“Yes! Did you … did you find a way to send me a mouse?”
“I did, dear girl, I did.”
“Is it my birthday?”
“I think it might be.”
“I should have a can of peaches then.”
“You should have two.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I could eat two whole cans.” I am not as hungry as I used to be. Sometimes Jatar must bully me into eating.
“Try,” he says now. “Pretend I’m there, and the second can is for me.”
In the end, I manage to eat one and a half cans. This gives me energy to make tea. The drink heats my throat, my stomach, and for a few moments, I can pretend I feel warm.
“You know what you should do, now that you have a mouse?” he asks.
“What?” I am amazed that there’s something I can do, so he has my full attention.
“Build a nest, one you can share with it. You can keep each other warm.”
I do as he says, piling the heavy coats along the floor and against the wall near the hearth. I move the radio within arm’s reach. I can keep the candles lit from here. I curl into the blankets and pull the mouse to me.
“Would you mind,” I ask, “if I called him Jatar?”
“I would be honored.”
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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