A deafening silence surrounds me, echoing across the gritty air and settling in the dust that covers the ground. It spreads within me, or perhaps I am a part of it, for I do not feel anything at all. In the half-year that has passed since the ending first began, this town seems to have suffered at least a century of time’s slow decay. In front of me looms the skeletal frame of a formerly inhabited house, silhouetted against a sun-scorched sky. The garden is overgrown with weeds, spilling over the walls and crawling up the sides. The dark inside of what I once considered home is now open and vulnerable: ravaged by the vicious assault of time.
I remember my sister’s sightless eyes, her cold porcelain face, the dark rivulet of blood as it trickled from her mouth. She was the first to catch it, and the quickest to die. Before the unspeakable rape of civilization, my existence had been indistinguishable from that of countless other teenagers in my suburban life. Of course there was that one time, that one mistake…if you could call it that, I was hardly responsible—lace, flesh, a black cross behind dark tendrils of hair—not truly my fault—
When my eyes snap open, pulse elevated, fingers twitching from the intensity of the flashback, I notice the cold metal barrel of a gun pressed against the back of my head.
“One wrong move,” a voice growls in my ear. “That’s all it takes for you to die. Walk.”
I am forced through the front door, into the basement of my former home. Moonlight filters in dimly from the top of the staircase: I am aware of several pairs of eyes trained warily upon me.
“Where did you find him?”
“Is he contaminated?”
“Better make it quick, then,” the man holding the gun says.
Before I quite understand what is happening, I have been forced onto my knees. I open my mouth to speak, but the words catch in my throat. The blood is pounding in my ears—
“Don’t kill him.”
The voice that perforates the silence is as welcome as desert rain. Without thinking, I turn around. In the half-light allotted by the shadowed moon, I discern the dirt-streaked skin and tangled ebony hair of the first woman I have seen in over a year.
“He could be contaminated—“ the gunman begins.
“Don’t kill him,” she repeats. Turning to me, she asks, “Who are you?”
Her voice is calm, but insistent. I cannot find my voice.
“Contamination status?” she asks next.
“Nonexistent,” I manage. “I’m immune. I caught it, but… I don’t know how… look….”
I turn my palms upward, revealing the underside of my forearms: they are mottled with splotches from when I first contracted the disease. Without hesitating, she holds out her arm as well. It is ravaged by a cacophony of rancorous color identical to my own.
“We think the immunity might be more than a biological anomaly,” she says to me quietly, pulling down her sleeve as I stare.
“A husband and wife share it as well—it may be transmitted through bodily fluid.”
She stands back up, turns the full force of her gaze upon the man holding the gun against my head: the barrel drops, and relief washes over me. The girl turns quickly away, heading for the stairs. Before I can speak, she is gone.
I find her again that night, just outside of the garden, examining the ruined magnolias that used to grow here in abundance. They are torn and defiled now, but once they were white and beautiful. I echo the first words she had spoken to me.
“Who are you?”
She does not respond, or even look at me. I try again.
“And…thank you. For stopping them, I mean.”
Again, no response. She plucks a damaged white flower, turns it gently between her fingers. Just as I begin to turn away, I hear her say quietly— “Leda.”
She offers no surname, no elaboration. Just four simple letters in a voice like falling silver.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
She smiles faintly. Starlight drips from the night sky, tangles in her hair.
“It’s Greek,” she replies.
I do not see Leda again for a fortnight. From the others in her small band of survivors, I learn that she has been scouting the area, searching for contaminated human inhabitance: but she returns grim and disillusioned. When I find her on the outskirts of the ruined town that night, and feel the first of the droplets of rain shower my skin, I almost smile. I cannot count the multitude of nights I have wandered through vast expanses of darkness, tethered to reality by the solace of a rainstorm. I sit down carefully beside her.
“Why are you searching for them?” I ask, as the first low roll of thunder breaks the stillness.
“The last wave of the disease wasn’t like the others,” she replies shortly. “They could still be human, somewhere beneath it all. And I do not fear them.”
A vivid flashback hits me. First I see humans driven mad with disease, sunken eye sockets, decaying flesh—then it is the faceless girl, the curve of her body, her unresisting form —
“What do you fear?” I ask before I can stop myself, desperately trying to keep the images at bay.
There is a long silence, permeated only by the high, wild singing of the windswept rain.
“I fear that in this fight for survival, we will become like animals: primitive and cruel.”
It is a moment before I can register her words. When I do, my eyes glance hesitantly down Leda’s body, taking in her slender frame. I try to envision her fighting the bloodthirsty creatures with nothing but the knife she wears at her hip. My heart is racing as I consider doing something daring, something utterly stupid. She turns to me.
“You have been out there too. What are you most afraid of?”
Instead of answering, I kiss her.
I not know what compels me to do it—only that I want to do it more than I have wanted anything in my entire life. At first she stiffens in surprise, but as our mouths meet I feel her hand slide up the back of my neck, her fingers running through my hair. In this moment of raw desire and insuppressible passion, she is the only thing that matters in the world.
For the briefest instant a bolt of lightening sunders the storm-darkened sky, casting a radiant light upon us—the only two lovers left on Earth, our bodies becoming one in the rain-washed night.
In the eighteen days of love-induced ecstasy that follow, my nights of solitude and days of aimless wandering are replaced by her lips, skin, and amber eyes. The night before I am planning to leave the ruined town, Leda and I lie beside one another, miles from whatever remains of my home and history, bathed in the light of the setting sun.
“What do you see?” I ask her.
“Unparalleled radiance,” she replies, smiling slightly. “The complexity of nature, blazing before our eyes. Even now, this world is beautiful.”
“We could see it all together,” I say. She turns to me, confused. “Come with me,” I whisper.
She looks at me, hesitates for a moment. A complicated range of emotions sweeps subtly across her face. Then she smiles. “Yes,” she says. “I’ll go. But I want you to tell me something.”
“That night, in the rain, you asked me what I was most afraid of in the world.”
“So I did.”
“When I asked the same question, you never—well, you never really replied.”
She is staring out into the distance, her face bathed in blood-red light, and I want to tell her. I want her to understand this secret that I have never told anybody: I want her to know that the source of my nightmares began long before the source of hers. I find that I cannot stop myself. Without prelude, the words tumble from my mouth.
“It was maybe half a year before the disease spread. I was in my senior year of high school—back when there was still high school. I was at a house party. There was this… girl, and she was…”
The flashback hits abruptly. I can see her legs hanging loosely over the edges of the cushions, the black hem of her dress riding up her thighs. For the briefest instant, I am terrified that Leda somehow saw it as well.
“… Drunk,” I finally finish. “Very drunk. She had passed out on a couch in one of the guest rooms. I found her there.” “What did you do?”
“I had sex with her.”
Silence. When she finally speaks, I feel my fists clench. But her voice is soft. Gentle.
“Did you really?”
“Did she want to?”
“No—I mean—I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“Did you ever see her again?”
“No. Or if I did, I never recognized her. She isn’t a person to me,” I insist. “Not a name, not even a face. I don’t remember anything about her. I was too drunk.”
It is true that I cannot remember, even vaguely, a single feature of her face.
She looks directly at me: a long, searching stare. “Nothing?” she whispers. Her voice is hesitant and soft.
“Well, one thing. There is only one detail I was ever able to clearly recall—she had a tattoo. On her neck, just below her ear.”
“What did it look like?
For a moment, I think I detect a something strange in her voice. But it is gone in an instant—I am sure I imagined it.
“A cross of some sort—a small, black crucifix.”
There is a heavy pause.
“So, what are you afraid of?”
I force myself to meet the perforation of Leda’s amber gaze.
“I am afraid of ever having to look into her eyes.”
It is the most cathartic sensation, admitting the true source of my guilt. The relief, as it washes slowly over me, is so potent that I feel almost giddy. It is not until I lie back and shift my gaze to the sunset again that I notice the nature of the silence that surrounds us. I open my mouth—to speak, perhaps, though I have nothing in particular to say—
It is then that I feel the excruciating rush of cold steel splitting my skin.
Blood was running hot and wet down the edge of the blade when Leda wrenched the knife back out of her lover’s throat. She stood slowly, throwing the blade aside, and looked down at where his body lay in the crimson-soaked dirt. She ran bloody fingers through her dark hair. Her shoulders trembled violently as she began to speak.
“It was right, wasn’t it?” she demanded of the sky. “It was right, what I did.” Tears began trickling down her face when the charred twilight offered no response. Her voice faded to a whisper. “Please, tell me I wasn’t wrong.”
She glanced down at the body again. His lips were parted slightly, as though he had not even had time to register the pain as the blade tore his life out through his throat. His green eyes, sightless and glassy now, gleamed in the last ray of sunlight. Even in grisly death, he was beautiful to her.
“…the immunity might be more than just a biological anomaly…may be transmitted through bodily fluid….”
“The nobility of man” Leda said bitterly, “did not die with civilization. It died a long time ago.”
The tears were coming hard and fast now, as her eyes scanned the desecrated earth. For the first time in her life, she felt a kinship with it, a familiarity. As she turned to depart, the wind lifted her hair off of the back of her neck, exposing a marked patch of skin just below the ear.
The small black crucifix glinted in the fading light.