"Seven Small Apocalypses" by Lucy Corin is excerpted from "Sixteen Small Apocalypses," originally published in The Apocalypse Reader, edited by Justin Taylor. It appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.
Night and Day
I drive by a motel when I need anything from the other side of town. Town’s built like an hourglass, and there’s a big lit sun shining from the motel sign. They put all the houses down here and all the stuff up there, so if I’m going to get anything I have to go by it.
In this motel, pets are okay. There’s a parking lot around it, and a rising hill of grass around that, like the bank of a moat. Wait until it really starts raining!
An hourglass. Figures. Because of time.
So I drive by, and this time it’s day, with the sun over the sun. I see a woman’s head doing a swivel, like behind the bank she’s riding in a bumper car in a parking space. There’s a dog on a leash: I can’t see the dog, but I know it’s there behind the land. This is suspicious, or prophetic, seeing someone’s head but not whatever makes it do the things it does.
Then at night…I tell you…the sun at night. It’s not right. It’s a symptom. It cancels everything out. But if I want anything, it’s down that road.
Night, day. I think about getting by. I don’t know what to do. It’s hard to tell if I get any sleep. I feel pressure to do one thing or another. Sometimes I look up and say “Give me a sign!” but of course I’m kidding. It’s only a matter of time before something blows.
For years, a telephone pole leaned, a low fear at the back of the neighborhood. That evening he went home and poured several very even trays of ice cubes. I was dressed for the apocalypse. I carried a bundle of dust like a nest. My heart beat in its fleshy pocket. Worms had tried to make it across our porch over night and now they lay like something shredded, like shredded bark. My brother, looking ashen, kept waiting for the telephone. I missed out on all the gossip. An iris wilted into a claw. A rowboat rocked in our vast yard. New birds gathered like, I don’t know, a lack of entropy?
All the boys across the courtyard have girlfriends. This boy on the phone on the porch in springtime is letting his voice move, light as a leaf in a river. He’s saying, “It’s like I’m only me when I’m around you.” He’s twirling a piece of grass between his thumb and forefinger, watching its head spin. “You’re the only one who knows,” he’s saying. “I know you won’t tell anyone.”
Dim through the walls behind him his friends are playing their guitars without the amplifiers and laughing with daiquiris. He is secret from everyone, especially the girl on the phone. It’s obvious to anyone paying attention. When the earth shakes and the dust of the rest of the world rises from the lawn, when the posts that hold the roof above him snap, he feels no more misty and no less certain than he had the moment before. He still says, “I love you” into the phone, and believes it the same. The girl on the phone, who always felt afraid he might not love her, feels the earth turning to powder as he says the words, and thinks, “This must mean he really loves me,” and in the next instant thinks, “It doesn’t count!” and by the next moment the end of the world has already happened. The telephone and the amplifier dot hillsides on opposite ends of the universe. The boy’s eyelashes flutter and spin like a blown dandelion. The girl’s fingernails sparkle in shards.
We took a daytrip to San Francisco and I wanted dim sum which I’ve never gotten to eat but my uncle basically ordered only shrimp and one pork thing and the pork thing was so divine I just haven’t had anything like it—it was so cinnamony and had puffy white bun stuff around it. Like a cake you might make. But all the rest was one delicious-yet-almost-identical shrimp thing after another. My uncle sensed a bit of boredom with the shrimp from us girls. He said, “I just wanted to show you what I like.”
He’s a glassblower and he makes a lot of fish to sell. He also scuba dives and goes on fly-fishing trips and deep-sea fishing trips. He also collects fish figures, mostly realistic ones. One time when I was visiting he was swimming and got stung by a whole mass of jellyfish and came back to the house covered in whip marks, but he was so quiet, he just sat there while my aunt put meat tenderizer on him and I didn’t really see that he was in any pain. In Chinatown I liked the tea shops and candy shops, not to eat anything (my uncle enjoys the dried octopus snacks) so much as to wonder at. All those categories of things and I can’t remember any of the names just that there was a lot. My cousin bought a silk halter top, “for clubbing if he’ll let me out of the house” and I bought a cotton robe. She’s the blonde and I’m the brunette. Then we went to the aquarium.
“Sturgeon! Yum!” I have never been to an aquarium with someone who wanted to eat everything. Then on the way back to the cabin we picked up dungeness crab and clams and mussels and my uncle made that San Francisco style stew with sourdough for dinner. We ate outside. I hardly ever look at the sky, but my uncle looked up, crossing his legs and sipping his wine. My uncle was getting pretty drunk, which at first comes off like he’s a little pleased with himself, lightening up (he’s a big guy), but pretty soon his psychology starts rumbling. He went into his bags and got out a star chart. I don’t know anything about stars. He came back out and said, “Speaking of child abuse…” and my cousin got up from the table and went inside and came back with an extra shirt to put on. He said, “Remember how we used to look at the stars?” and my cousin said, “Dad, put the chart away,” and put the shirt on. He kept not letting up on the subject. I couldn’t tell what he wanted me to do, if it was a test involving whether or not I’d think the star chart was cool. I cleared some dishes and he followed me into the kitchen with the star chart. It was yellow, with two parts that revolved in relation to each other.
I could just see it, though, because he’s a lot like my own father, tottering after me, shaking me by the shoulders, saying, “Goddamn you girl why aren’t you following in my footsteps?” My cousin and I have talked about how I’m not going to have any kids for my reasons and she’s not going to have kids for her reasons. We look at each other and know we’re the end of the line.
Got there and the ground was covered in bodies. Lay down with everybody and looked at the sky, grinning and bracing for the explosions.
They could stay afloat for only so long. Before the deranged creatures picked them off. They were so thirsty or so hungry. They swirled in the raging wind, fire, and water. Their skin shriveled. Time had ended and yet passed. Parched, they watched the last particles of moisture rise and fade in the golden air above the orange earth. There have never been colors like this. They trudged on and on but the land was barren. Fungus rotted their limbs and bacteria new to the dying world cruised their organs. Germs, maggots, and death from virile viral microscopic life loomed in the near future. Buildings tumbled upon them. Flying debris severed them. Chasms opened wide and swallowed. They were crushed and strewn, and they exploded. Their brains burst from the noise. A spinning cow or lamp broke them. Their insides fell out. Their fingers crumbled. They were all half-dead anyway, until they died.
Two days since the apocalypse and freckles rise in the skin around my mouth. I am very close to my face, looking. Green funnels of what were pastures whirl and spit in the background. The last bits of cities are like comets and pass behind my head as if I am shooting myself repeatedly, as if I shoot myself and the fireballs go in one ear and out the other. It’s riveting. It’s hypnotic. My face contains more colors than are left in the universe. I watched Miranda’s teeth panic and run away. I watched Amber buckle. Now, in the mirror, there is no comparison. It’s me, and everything, and that’s all.