The world decayed faster than they said it would. First there was the warming air, the rising sea, the storms, the fires. Droughts, famines, floods. The earth, worn out and overused, rose up against its abusers, a death-rattle rebellion. Acid rain poured down from black skies. Hurricanes battered tired coastlines. Earthquakes toppled cities and swallowed them whole into the ground, returning steel and concrete and glass back into the depths from which they came. California burned. The Southeast became an ocean floor. The tallest buildings in New York City could be seen above the white caps that lapped at glassless windows fifty stories high.
Then came the wars. Not the kind of wars waged by empires, heroic and distant, but the kind waged by hungry dogs. We were fighting over the scraps of a dying earth, but men love war, and the suffering that we create for ourselves is somehow more palatable than the suffering over which we have no control. We dropped bombs. We burned what little was left of an earth we had already destroyed. And then we celebrated over the ruins, claiming victory. But for whom?
Disease dealt the final blow. Or was it the very thing that saved us? Some say the plague spread because of the rising temperatures, the poisoned water, the toxic air. I think it was deeper than that. Mother Nature is cruel, but she can also be fair. I think she sent disease through the world to stop the suffering, to save the planet, and leave the soil of the earth fallow for a while, so that new life could grow again. After the plague spread like wildfire, entire cities became mass graves. No one was spared.
Well, almost no one.
I was just a girl when the plague began. I didn’t get sick like the others did. Instead the plague passed over me as the world died around me. I suffered from a different kind of sickness, one that spared my life but killed me all the same. The sickness of despair took hold. I watched as everyone around me collapsed. It didn’t matter that I had begged for their deaths—anything to release me from the hell I had suffered at the hands of cruel and hungry men. But to watch them die after I willed it was a cruel kind of justice—freeing me from one torment and imprisoning me in another. My captors had been brutal, and they were all dead. Mouths agape, frozen in coughing fits. Eyes open, their faces pleading for the relief of death long after death had already found them. Skin sallow and cold. I don’t know where our souls go when we die, but our bodies stay here, frozen in our final moment, decaying monuments to the seconds we lived just before we died.
A week after people started getting sick, I was the only person left. I walked like a ghost among their bodies, piled all around me, these little monuments to death. I was fourteen at the time. I was free, and I was alone.
John watched the girl, eyes wide, through the sparse cover of dead trees and shrubs. He was motionless, a hunter stalking prey. The brown branches concealed him from view, and he could just make out the narrow frame of her body through the brush as she appeared from over a small foothill of the mountains in the distance.
The world was a sepia photograph, as if the only colors that existed were shades of brown and gray. The trees, the shrubs, the grass, the dusty earth. Even the sky was tinted with gray. The sun shone a dull, hazy yellow—a flashlight shining through an old piece of paper.
He heard her approach before he saw her. Feet crunching on dead leaves. Body pushing through branches. He expected a deer, a wild pig, maybe a dog. When she appeared, he shook his head a few times, wondering if what he saw was a ghost. John had seen more than one since the plague had swept through his mountain town all those months ago.
Earlier that morning, John had climbed a large tree near a trickling, shallow creek; the dead branch where he sat gave him a clear view of the water’s edge. At the time, he had wondered what animals, if any, might come by for a drink of water. Over the past few months, as he wandered over the gray, rocky terrain, John had spotted a few: a small black bird, a wild dog, a raccoon. The plague had avoided these creatures along with John, who now wandered through this dead world, wondering why his life had been spared.
This girl was not the kind of animal John had expected to see. She was young, wild-looking, skinny. Her skin was tanned from the hazy desert sun, and her long, dark, curly hair was tied with a piece of string at the base of her neck. Like everything around her, her clothes were gray and dirty and hung limply from her body. She dropped a worn-out backpack onto the ground and pulled out a large, clear bottle. Then she knelt at the edge of the creek, her bare feet submerged in the stream, and filled the bottle with water. The creek licked at her ankles as it flowed past, darkening the rolled hems of her pant legs.
John watched the girl, waiting for her image to fade, proof that she was nothing more than a cruel mirage in the desert of John’s lifeless world. He had been wandering the scrub alone since the plague. It had swept into his small town in the foothills and killed off every last person he knew. He didn’t know how many miles he had traveled since. All he knew was that he was heading south as fast as his exhaustion and his hunger would let him go. He had to outrun the sadness and loneliness and despair that plodded after him like slow-motion monsters in a nightmare.
John had spent most of his young life wandering through these dead woods, or what was left of them. Before he was born, the foothills had swarmed with refugees—people fleeing war, floods, famine. Eventually, they settled into makeshift towns and camps, impermanent homes that became permanent. John’s town was one such place. Once the plague hit, fleeing proved futile. Death was swift and certain.
John could not stay forever in his town, floating like a ghost amongst the dead, so eventually he started moving. Movement helped him outrun the sadness and despair, but the loneliness was inescapable. It pressed in on the sides of his eyes, lay with him at night, greeted him in the morning. More than once, he hung a noose from a tree branch, slipped his head through, and let his body dangle from the loop as it cinched on his windpipe. Would he feel his neck break? Or would he hang there and suffocate instead?
Years ago, John had found his father this way, dangling from a tight loop in a long rope—but not too long—when he was just ten years old. After his mother died, before the plague hit. At the time, John had felt sad and angry and abandoned. To become an orphan by his father’s choice was a particularly painful kind of orphan to be. Now he was grateful that his parents had died long before something worse could kill them. They hadn’t had to watch as the whole world died. John was glad, at least, for that.
Sadness is an odd companion. It became comfortable after a while, even as it slipped its fingers around John’s neck. He had grown into the idea that he was the last man. He had settled into the solitude, as heavy as it might be. He had begun talking out loud to ghosts.
John felt closer to his father now, forgiving him for what he had done all those years ago even as he inched closer to the same fate. Sometimes you just don’t want to feel sad anymore. Sometimes you want to go to sleep forever, even if you don’t know what’s on the other side of dreaming.
As far as he knew, John was the only person left alive. That knowledge alone kept him going. One day, with a noose around his neck, he had decided that he would see it through to the end, this lonely, vacant life. Whatever end that might be. Was there a reason he was still alive? He didn’t know. But in that moment, he decided to believe that he was alive to preserve more than just the memory of misery.
John had pulled his neck from the noose and left the rope hanging in the tree. A reminder of the way out. It would always be there, waiting for him. But once he was out, there was no going back in. And so he headed south. His father had talked of the ocean when he was younger, though neither of them had never seen it. After pondering what might be left worth seeing in this world, John decided the ocean was as good a destination as any.
He navigated by the sun during the day, wandering through the sparse, dead wood of what had once been a rich, green forest. He was headed toward the Atlantic Ocean, the waters of which now lapped against the southeastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. He wasn’t sure what he would do when he got there. He figured by the time he arrived, he might know.
And now, just a few weeks later, here he was, the last man on the earth, crouched on a tree branch, watching a girl catch water from the river. John thought she was like the ocean, living and deep and full of mystery. The last girl. He watched her through the familiar fog of loneliness, which refused to lift despite the fact that he might not have to be alone any longer. Hope is dangerous in times like these. One must keep it at bay.
The girl was unrolling her pant legs now and stuffing the bottle back into her pack. She lifted it onto her shoulders, brushed errant curls out of her face, and disappeared over the foothill from where she came.
John watched through the scrub as the girl faded from view. Another ghost, he thought. Maybe she was just another ghost.
John was stiff and tired. For twenty-four hours he had sat in the tree, unmoving, frozen in place by the ghost of a young girl. He wanted to see her again, to call out to her, to see if she would hear him. She had seemed so real, with her black hair falling down her back, her wet pant legs, her dirty backpack.
She came for water, he thought. She’ll be back. If she’s real, she’ll be back.
John watched the sun rise up and fall down again, but no girl appeared from over the hills. No feet crunched on the dry earth. No body moved through the crackling brush. The only sound he heard was the trickle of the creek below. John was grateful for it, the light bubbling of water. It was better than the heavy silence that so often filled the air around him. John had decided long ago that silence wasn’t silent at all. It was the loudest sound in the world.
Ghosts don’t drink water, John reasoned.
He had spent three consecutive days perched above the creek in the tree branch. His conversations with himself had grown desperate. The part of him that believed the girl had been nothing more than a ghost was winning.
But what if she was on the move, like him? And now he had spent three days in the same spot, waiting for someone who would never come back. She could be miles away by now, lost forever.
Please come back, he thought. Please come back.
The sun set on another day. Still there was no sight of the last girl.
On the fourth day, John sat upright on the tree branch in the early morning, his body propped against the trunk, his legs dangling down. He kicked them back and forth like a child on a swing.
One more day, John thought. Tomorrow I will move on.
He listened to the creek bubbling below and strained his eyes for movement in the blue, hazy light of a desert dawn.
And then a voice called out to him. “How long you gonna sit in that tree for?”
John froze. The voice was raspy, cracked and dry like the dead earth. But the tone was bright and high-pitched. It belonged, without question, to a young girl.
Silence hung in the air. The creek bubbled. Finally the voice called out again. “I said, how long you gonna sit in that tree for?”
The voice was coming from behind him. John stood on the branch, his hands bracing the trunk for balance, and turned toward the voice. “You a ghost?” he called.
“No,” said the voice. “You?”
“Not yet,” he replied.
“You with anyone else?”
“No. Thought I was the only one, to be honest.”
“Yeah. Me too. Everyone you know die in that plague?”
John hesitated. “Yeah.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“How old are you?” John yelled.
“Same,” he lied. He was only thirteen.
“That’s weird,” she said.
“Yeah, it is.”
“You gonna come down from that tree now?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said John.
The girl seemed wary of him. John wondered if she was as grateful as he was to see another person. If so, she didn’t let on. She looked him up and down as he climbed down from the tree.
The sun had yet to rise above the horizon, and they surveyed one another in the dim morning light. The girl was taller than John, but John was broader. She was wearing the same gray, dusty clothes that she been wearing when he first saw her, and she was still barefoot.
“You live around here?” John asked.
She nodded. “You don’t,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“No, I don’t. I’ve been walking for a long time.”
“Since the plague, really. I don’t know how long that is.”
“It’s been eight months.”
“How do you know that?”
“I keep a calendar.”
“In my house.”
“Over there.” The girl nodded toward the hill over John’s shoulder.
There was a long pause between them.
“It’s pretty lonely out here, huh?” John said. “You think we’re the only people left?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. She shrugged. “I don’t mind it so much.”
“No. Maybe you knew nice people. I didn’t.”
“Oh.” John paused. “You seem nice,” he offered.
“I don’t know,” the girl said.
“Can I see your house?”
The girl eyed him, suspicious. “I’m not sure…” She trailed off.
“I’ve been walking alone for eight months,” said John. “Everyone I know is dead. I don’t want to hurt you. It’s nice not to be the last person on the whole planet.”
The girl paused, still eyeing John. He tried to read her face, but he couldn’t make out her features in the darkness of the morning.
“Okay,” she said at last. “You can see my house.” She brushed past John and started walking.
John followed her through the scrub. As the sun rose over the hills, he watched her long dark hair bounce against her back and her bare feet step over roots and rocks. She walked on tip-toe, as if at any moment she might lift off the ground.
About a mile from the creek, the girl emerged into a clearing. A small house stood before them, made of large concrete blocks, the seams between them still visible, and a roof of dead branches thatched together. There were small, glassless windows on each wall.
“That your house?” John asked.
“It is now,” said the girl. She kept walking.
“Who lived here before?”
The girl shrugged. “People, I guess.”
Inside the house, which was the size of a small shed or garage, there was just one large room. The girl had arranged it into four distinct spaces. In one corner was a kitchen, with a wood-burning stove, jars filled with water, and dry goods stacked on wooden shelves. A small counter next to the stove held a knife, matches, and a small bar of soap. On the floor sat two empty buckets.
In another corner a small mattress lay on the floor under one of the glassless windows. The blanket and pillow atop the mattress were dirty, but the bed had been made. A stack of books and a candle sat on the floor nearby.
In another corner a chair had been drawn up to another glassless window, and a small library of books, arranged in little stacks and rows, lined the floor. A few more candles rested on the windowsill, and a blanket lay folded across the back of the chair. On the wall next to the chair, the girl had scrawled a homemade calendar using charcoal from the stove.
A small table and a stool occupied the final corner of the room.
The girl stood in the middle of the room, turned toward John, looked around, and shrugged her shoulders. “This is my house,” she said.
“How long you live here for?” John asked.
“A few months.”
For the first time, John had a chance to look into the girl’s eyes. They were so dark they looked black. I can’t see where the eye ends and the soul begins, John thought. He wondered what kinds of things those eyes had seen.
“What’s your name, anyway?” he asked.
The girl shook her head. “We don’t need names anymore,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Names are for calling people. But there aren’t any more people for us to call.”
“Well, I’m John.”
“Nice to meet you, John. I’m the last girl. You can call me that if you like.”
After a few moments of silence, John explained to the last girl where he was going. “South, to the ocean. Maybe there are more people there. You should come with me.”
“Good luck,” she told him. “I don’t care about the ocean.”
“Because I have a nice house right here. There’s water just down the way, and an empty town filled with all the books I could ever read and all the food I could ever eat. I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
“You just gonna live here all alone till you die?”
The girl glared at him. “You just gonna wander in the scrub all alone till you die?”
The room fell silent as the pair stared at each other. After a few seconds, the girl flopped onto the bed, picked up a book, and began to read.
John pondered his dilemma. He had planned to see the ocean, but finding the girl changed everything. He didn’t want to leave her. More than that, he didn’t want to be alone.
He sat on the floor, legs crossed. After a while, he looked up at the girl. “What are you reading?” he asked.
“The Bible. Old Testament.”
“I never read it before. You ever hear of Adam and Eve?”
John looked at the floor, shaking his head. He had never had any education, religious or otherwise. In fact, he couldn’t read or write at all. The girl didn’t need to know that, though. He stayed quiet.
“According to the Bible,” the girl said, “Adam and Eve were the first two people on the planet.”
“Kinda like us,” said John.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Except they were the first. We’re the last.”
“Maybe Adam and Eve were the last too.” John looked at the girl hopefully, but her face remained buried in the book.
After a few moments, John spoke again. “Eve is a nice name. Can I call you Eve?”
The girl looked up. To his surprise, she was smiling. It was slight, but it was a smile all the same. How long had it been since John had seen a girl smile? Not since his mother had died.
The girl’s dark eyes fixed on him. “Sure,” she said. “You can call me Eve.”
John did not head farther south. He stayed instead with the girl, folding into her days, her routines. They rose with the sun each morning and walked to the creek for water.
“Why barefoot?” John asked the girl.
“I can listen to the earth that way,” she told him.
“What does she say to you?”
“Nothing yet. She’s sleeping.”
Every day, the girl boiled water on the stove and left it to cool before storing it in jars on her kitchen shelves. “I drink one jar a day,” she told John. “It’s why I’m so strong.” She showed him a muscle. “Did you know our bodies are made up mostly of water?”
John shook his head. He didn’t know.
They ate two small meals a day, canned foods and dry goods that they scavenged from the nearest vacant town. They gathered sticks and logs for firewood. They lay in the sun on the front steps of the little house. At night, when the girl couldn’t sleep, John drew her pictures in the stars with the his fingertips.
They wandered through the deserted hills near the little house, looking for whatever they could find. They made up games to play and new names for the trees and scrub and grasses. They collected stones and twigs. John whittled branches into little figures—people and dogs and birds—and collected smooth stones from the river. The girl tied pieces of hair into knotted jewelry.
Mostly, however, the girl read. She read in the daytime. She read at night, by candlelight. One day John sat and stared at her as she leafed through the Old Testament on her bed.
“Why don’t you read something?” she asked, nodding to the stacks of books in the corner of the room.
“Aren’t you bored?”
“You don’t know how,” she said. It was not a question.
John shook his head.
“Well, why didn’t you say something?”
From then on, the last girl always read aloud.
Humans are destroying the planet. And yet the most powerful countries in the world distract themselves with petty political arguments, capitalist greed, and continued waste and abuse. The pessimistic part of my brain does not see a way out of this decline. Instead I envision a rapid and painful decay. This novel is my unfettered indulgence of that pessimism. Nevertheless, in some part of my mind, optimism prevails. Is there the possibility of hope at the end of the world?
What if our planet destroyed us back?
In the novel New World Edges, I envision a future world in which a plague has swept across a globe already wrecked by climate change and conflict. The plague kills the majority of the world’s surviving population, with the exception of a small group of people, none of them over the age of fifteen.
The novel follows two main characters: John, who represents history and science, and the last girl, who represents religion and spirituality. These two characters meet as children. They fall in love, have a child, and fall apart. Through the tension that exists between them, we come to see how the tension between science and religion plays out in this world, with humanity itself on the brink of extinction. Together, and often in conflict, these characters map the new edges of the world and fight for the survival of the human race.
In the novel I address the themes of religion and science and the natural tension that exists between the two. I explore answers to these questions: how are factual histories and scientific events recast in a way that allows societies to turn stories into morals, and morals into dogma? What would the world look like if it were run by a small group of women, led by an unwavering leader who sees herself as personally responsible for the survival of the human species? How would these characters use the history and science of the world to create a religion, govern a society, and enforce rules that they see as necessary in order for humans to survive? Would a society run by women be more just than a society run by men, or simply a different kind of unjust?
The novel contains two parts that unfold simultaneously. One part is a historical and scientific account of the world, as seen through the eyes of the main character, John. The other part is a religious text, a moralized retelling of this history. Through this juxtaposition, the reader is able to see the contrasts between the historical account and the religious text, showing how, for better or worse, societies mythologize and moralize, telling stories to teach lessons, inspire faith, and justify rules.
Steph Shuff is a writer based in Jupiter, Florida. She writes fiction, narrative non-fiction, and poetry. Her stories explore power, politics, sexuality, love, justice, and feminism. Her writing is intimate and confessional, showcasing the power we hold in being vulnerable and the importance of human connection. She is inspired by writers from Joan Didion to Stephen King. You can find more of her work on her website at stephshuff.com.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020