by Joanne Rixon

Day 36

“There’s a light.”

Imogen couldn’t make sense of the words at first because she wasn’t asleep and she wasn’t awake either. The quiet of the night got inside her head no matter how tired she was and no matter how much she trusted Kendrec to stay vigilant, so she dozed, restless.

“Imogen.” Nina was awake too. She shook Imogen’s shoulder and Imogen blinked up at her, feeling the heat of Nina’s hand even through the fabric of her t-shirt. She couldn’t read Nina’s face, in shadow as it was: dark oval surrounded by dark headscarf. “Imogen, come on, Kendrec saw something.”

Imogen sat up, still coming fully awake, and leaned forward to look out the windshield of the Humvee. Kendrec leaned down from his post in the turret and said, “It was moving, like headlights. A car.”

“Where?” Imogen cleared her throat against the roughness caught in it and tried again. “You said, like a vehicle—not a flashlight?”

“Yeah, over there.” Kendrec gestured northeast, his hands flitting quick and weightless like bats. “It was fast. Just a dot of light and then it disappeared. I think it drove behind a hill.”

Imogen let out her breath and held herself motionless, listening. The absence of engine sounds and other human noises had kept her half-awake and now, still, there was nothing but the night insects creaking. There was no sound of an engine or anything else and she could feel Nina and Kendrec looking at her, waiting for a decision.

She breathed in, out, in, letting the racing thoughts circle in her skull as Nina pulled on her boots and wrapped the laces around the top and looked at her expectantly.

Imogen nodded, finally, and pulled her own boots on, and when they stepped outside onto the crunching gravel beside the road where the Humvee was parked their steps were so loud it was almost all she could think about. Kendrec strode ahead, his feet light even as tall and broad as he was, and having just woken up Imogen’s defenses were down. She felt something swell up in her throat at the sight of him, so young and optimistic in spite of everything.

They walked through the utterly still streets of Modesto in the direction Kendrec pointed out, past silent dark houses with weathered toys on their lawns casting angular shadows. Kendrec swung the beam of the Maglite methodically back and forth to signal to whoever might be out there that they were not alone and she felt a deep, painful pride at the persistence of Kendrec’s belief that there were other people remaining on the Earth.

There was no other light anywhere, or movement, or human sound. The power had gone out the day after the vanishings and Imogen knew it wasn’t coming back. Now the stars stretched boldly across the sky, shocking and pale as bioluminescent creatures in a black alien ocean. The hills looked strange without a glow behind them.

The road curved gently until the rows of identical houses obscured the Humvee and Imogen saw out of the corner of her eye that Nina was starting to limp.

“Imogen.” The strain in Nina’s voice made Imogen stop walking. “There’s no one here.”

Imogen turned toward her. “If you want to wait here,” she said, and stopped. Kendrec was fifty yards ahead of them already, the flashlight pointed forward and out so that the only thing she could see of him was a dark blot against the night landscape lit whitely. But of course Nina wouldn’t want to wait alone and Imogen didn’t want to leave her by herself in the dark. She was limping.

Nina shrugged one shoulder irritably. “No, but we can’t walk around aimlessly all night either.”

Imogen nodded. “Just a little farther.”

When they caught up to Kendrec at an intersection he held the flashlight pointed down at the ground, a tiny brilliant spot of pavement that made Imogen’s eyes burn. “Look, Kendrec,” Imogen said carefully.

“I know, I know, they’re long gone,” Kendrec said, which wasn’t what Imogen had been about to say at all. “They must’ve turned off onto another road before they saw us. Fuck!” He swung the heavy flashlight at the air in front of him like a bludgeon.

When they returned to the Humvee, Imogen waved Kendrec into the vehicle to sleep, taking careful note of the slump of his shoulders, the hand he passed over his face: the disappointment hung heavy on him. The light, if there was a light, was the first sign of other survivors they’d seen since she and Nina found him in San Diego, weeks ago.

She tossed her chin at Nina. “You get some sleep too. I’ll wake you up if I see anything.”

Nina shrugged and climbed up onto the hood of the Humvee and leaned against the windshield, her injured leg stretched out straight in front of her. “You can see pretty well from up here. Sit with me.”

Imogen hesitated.

“Just for a little while. We’ll let Kendrec have the whole back seat for once.” Nina beckoned, her tangled rage at the universe turning into something sweeter with the quick dark slide of movement. “Come here.”

Imogen went. Nina leaned against her, seeking warmth because 2 AM was cold even in central California in the summer. Her breathing was loud in Imogen’s ears. It wasn’t a replacement for the city noises but it made the darkness a little less heavy. Imogen didn’t sleep, but the terrible tension in her back subsided and she settled into the familiar feeling of keeping watch for the dawn.

Her thoughts drifted to the days right after the vanishings, the hope she felt when she and Nina found each other outside a grocery store barely twenty-four hours after the flash that took everyone. They’d found Kendrec six days later by luck and by the roar of his appropriated Harley Davidson. He had swaggered more then, full of nineteen-year-old vigor and high school football bravado, but when he saw Nina and Imogen he’d dropped the motorcycle flat and joined them in the Humvee. None of them wanted to be alone.

Now here she was, propped against the windshield of a Humvee in a subdivision in Modesto. The metal smell of the engine and the silence of the night reminded her of Afghanistan. This was California and not Afghanistan but the night sounds, of insects and animals rustling in the leaves, were the same. It seemed strange to her that that could be true, after crossing an ocean and after the end of the world.

When the sun rose over the low green hills, she remembered the war and the unfathomable way the sun rose and painted the ruined world so it was something lovely. Lovely, and yet still ruined. The remembering felt like pressing on a bruise and she waited until the entire orb of the sun was above the horizon before shaking Nina awake to begin the brand new day.

Day 14

When they left San Diego going north Nina drove, picking her way slowly around the scarred-up blacktop, the evidence of how swift the vanishings were: drivers there one instant gone the next, leaving speeding tons of metal behind to continue in straight lines until impact. It was hot, and all the windows in the Humvee were open because the humid summer air was thick as mud.

It was much too quiet, the only sound the whisper of the wind in the open windows, a low white noise that wasn’t loud enough to blot out Imogen’s circling thoughts. She was thinking obsessively about their route, which took them up the state highway through the suburbs instead of up the interstate, because the interstate had been crowded and was now impassible. It was why she’d argued for going to Camp Pendleton for a Humvee in spite of the amount of fuel it devoured and the way they had to keep stopping to siphon gas out of ownerless cars: the Humvee could drive over almost anything. This was the route they’d agreed on also because there might be other people out there somewhere, quiet and lonely and alive, and searching each population center as they drove north was the core of their plan for finding them. Imogen thought and thought about who might be out there waiting for them and how they could be sure to find them in time. There was no reason to think of it that way, like something else was coming, but the weight of the search pressed down on her and her thoughts circled, looping through the sensations of hurrying, of arriving too late.

When Kendrec started singing it was a relief. She didn’t know the song, some old hymn maybe, something he’d learned in a pew when he was small and tender. The song was rich like wine, she thought, aged and deep: something about opening the door to heaven and hell and souls passing over. Not cheerful but something to think about that wasn’t the same thoughts over again.

“Could you be quiet?” Nina snapped out of nowhere. The vehicle jolted over a bump in the road with a crunch of glass and metal under the heavy tires. Out the window Imogen could see a wide scattering of twisted metal shapes, gray with old smoke. Ahead there were a dozen cars washed up against a semi-truck like a dam.

“I was only singing,” Kendrec said. “Ain’t like we can turn on the Top 40 Hottest Hits or anything—we’re stuck with songs I know the words to.”

“That song is morbid,” Nina said.

Kendrec shrugged. “Welcome to the apocalypse.”

Imogen looked at him, really looked like she hadn’t looked all day, and saw that he was souring in the heat like milk left unrefrigerated, clotted and poisonous. She banished that image immediately; he was a living being; he would be alright. “Kendrec,” she said. “What song is that anyway?”

He hummed a few bars. Then he sang, “When Death and all his angels find you, will you call out? When Death and all his angels catch you, will you cry out? At the end of the line—oh Death, where is your sting? Oh Death, where is your sting?” He hummed a bit and then said, “It’s a folk song or whatever. My uncle used to sing it, back when I was a kid and we lived in Sacramento. He played the guitar some, and we would sit on these rickety folding chairs in his garage, with the garage door open and just the bug zapper light on, and my cousins and I would play cards for M&Ms.”

Kendrec’s face cascaded through a series of emotions, not all of which Imogen recognized: fear, sorrow, something else. Nina was still focusing on the road and couldn’t see it and she opened her mouth to say, “Your uncle—”

Imogen leaned forward between them and asked, too abrupt, “Do you know anything by the Roots?”

Nina frowned but closed her mouth, then took them off the road onto a part of the highway median where no debris blocked their way. There were only wildflowers: sweet pea and daisies and bright red flowers like bells that Imogen didn’t know the name of. When Nina drove slowly over them, crushing them, they smelled warm and sweet as a memory of a time when the world was full of people who saw beauty and by seeing made it beautiful instead of only a cacophony of shapes empty of meaning.

Day 37

Nina was the one who next saw the light. Somehow she seemed to know that Imogen hadn’t slept in two days and when Imogen stood up from the campfire where they’d heated up scavenged cans of ravioli and chili, Nina steered her over to the open door of the vehicle and said, “It’s my turn.”

Imogen protested: they had a system; it really wasn’t Nina’s turn to keep watch. But Nina gripped Imogen’s shoulder and said, “Imogen. Settle down and get some sleep or you’re going to kill us all when it’s your turn to drive tomorrow.”

To her own surprise, Imogen settled. Somewhere very far away a howl echoed—a coyote or a wolf, or a dog that was returning to those earlier forms now that wildness ruled the world again. She shivered and turned over and then she slept for almost three hours until Nina hissed down at her from the turret, “There’s a light!”

It took Imogen a minute to shake the heavy sleep from her brain and then by the time she stuck her head and shoulders up into the turret with Nina, pressing them closely together belly and breast and shoulder, there was nothing to see but the bright, frightening stars.


Imogen thought privately that there was a good chance both Kendrec and Nina had hallucinated the light, or, more kindly, saw it because they hoped for it. She hoped for it too. The hoping was like a giant sucking hole inside her even though she didn’t really believe that there was any chance of the vanishings being undone in any way. No one who was gone was coming back but she hoped still that there was something else coming, a future, that she and her little tribe were more than a small error in the accounting of the end of the world.

They talked about it sometimes, when they took a break to stretch their legs by investigating buildings—stores, always, never houses anymore because they knew what they would find in houses, the empty spaces. In stores there were never the sorrowful bodies of household pets trapped behind latched windows, only things that had never belonged to anyone, shelves of Coke and Oreos and Doritos. Sometimes when they were done gathering these things they sat together in the shade of the Humvee and wondered out loud.

Aliens, maybe. A top-secret superweapon developed by the Chinese, the Israelis—or the Americans. CERN, meddling with the fabric of the universe and unravelling it all at once, without warning.

The small child that Imogen kept smothered deep in her chest knew that the preacher from the Church of the Fire of the Lord who spoke about the End Times in Tagalog on her mother’s radio had finally been proven right. It was the Rapture and the proof was the empty houses, the empty roads, the space where her mother’s wrinkled brown hands used to be and now weren’t.

It was tempting to believe it because if it were true it would mean that, though she herself was damned, the people who had vanished weren’t dead, just gone—just somewhere else, absent but still happy. It was sweet to think of them that way, but she wasn’t a child anymore and as easy as it would be to believe that the vanishings were the hand of God, she had been to war and she knew that the great tragedies of the world are inexplicable—unknowable.

This was the greatest tragedy she had ever seen and the least knowable and that didn’t surprise her. It was too big to comprehend so she didn’t try, didn’t engage with Nina’s anger at foolhardy governments or hubristic scientists. She didn’t have space in her head for Kendrec’s youthful optimism either. Instead she held onto the steering wheel and onto the tenuous dream of more survivors, and thought only about practical things that were small enough to think about.

The night after Nina saw the light, Imogen was thinking about the possibility of acquiring a generator and some fuel and hooking up the hot water in the motel where they’d stopped for the night so Nina and Kendrec and she herself could have showers. She was up in the turret holding a rifle, and when she saw the light she tightened her grip until the hard edges bruised her fingers.

The light shone behind the stand of trees across the road, a single spot of distant brightness like an angel, like a messenger from beyond the edges of the visible world. And then it winked out and she could barely believe she’d seen it at all.

Day 27

Starting the day the world ended, it rained every night for more than a week. Then the week after, the sun shone down on California and everything green flourished. Now Imogen steered carefully down the deserted main street of a speck of a town north of Fresno and Kendrec stuck his head out the window, loose-limbed and grinning.

“Will ya look at that?” he said, astounded. “Will ya look at that?”

Imogen looked and all she could see was devastation. All the places where humans had exerted dominion over the earth had broken open and now plants grew everywhere, out of every crack and cranny, sprouting raucous and ungoverned. It was painful to see them, the way formerly manicured trees stretched shaggy limbs over sidewalks, the way flowers spilled out of planters and lawns were filled with tall weedy grasses gone to seed. The rain had been unseasonal; usually summer here was dry, and she was suspicious of any change in the rhythm of life. It made her feel like the world was spinning off its axis, and of course it had.

Nina seemed to catch some of Kendrec’s glee as well. “Here. Stop here.” She waved at a small general store with a parking lot covered thickly with dandelions sprouting through cracked concrete. Imogen couldn’t believe how quickly things were falling apart. Surely the concrete must have been cracked even before.

She pulled the Humvee into the lot and Kendrec bounced out as soon as they’d rolled to a stop, six feet of crackling energy, dark skin glowing in the heat.

“Whatta ya think?” he asked. “You think this is how it always woulda been? This summer, I mean, and everything all gorgeous and colorful—” he stumbled to a stop, not saying that the vanishings had caused this flourishing. Not knowing how to admit such a terrible thing.

Imogen smiled and it hurt but in a good way, like bearing a necessary weight, and she said, “Why don’t you see if this place has something other than Ho Hos and those disgusting energy drinks? Maybe beef jerky or something.”

He grinned and so did Nina, and Imogen forced her shoulders down from around her ears. After Afghanistan, she knew the value of putting her hand to small tasks in a world made formless by absence of faith. So she made herself smile even though it didn’t reach her eyes and she made herself take a drink from her water bottle instead of restlessly watching Nina and Kendrec walk toward the store. She even got out of the Humvee and pulled one arm up and behind her head, stretching in the sunlight. The air smelled gold and green, and she’d wandered more than five meters away from the vehicle when she heard the snarl.

Imogen turned too slow and saw the dog coming around the corner, a big brown German Shepherd. And behind it another dog, even bigger. Behind the building, more barking. And her guns were in the Humvee.

She sprinted, reflexes buzzing at her like electric shocks through her muscles, and by the time she snatched the pistol through the window of the driver side door and ran forward to a decent vantage and aimed the pistol with both hands carefully, Nina had shouted low and thin. The dog’s jaw was clamped on her calf and her headscarf was torn and trailing behind her and the gun was shaking and Imogen couldn’t fire it because Kendrec was right there trying to pull the dog away and—the other dogs—she could hear them but not see them because she couldn’t move her eyes away from those long white teeth and the blood on them.

Nina pulled her utility knife out of the pocket of her loose summery pants and unfolded it and put it right into the dog’s eye. It let go and then they were all staggering back to the Humvee.

The blood was bright and plentiful and that helped because Imogen had seen blood like that before and knew what to do with it. Kendrec drove and she laid Nina down on the floor of the Humvee, just like she’d been hit by shrapnel, and cut away the leg of her pants until she could see that the wound was bloody but not immediately dangerous. The dog had punctured and torn the back and side of her calf, the meat of it. Imogen washed it out with a half-liter of saline, and then washed it out again with another bottle of saline, and refused to let her hands shake because Nina was watching her with wide eyes and hands balled into tense, painful fists.

Then she told herself, wherever Kendrec is driving there isn’t going to be a hospital there, so she rummaged around and came up with some lidocaine and the suture kit and put in a few clumsy stitches to hold the wound together. It was messy but the bleeding slowed, almost stopped, so she covered the whole thing with gauze and bandages. The prickling hair sprouting out of Nina’s leg was so like her own, dark and very fine against skin a shade paler than the skin of her hands and face. Imogen stared at the white bandages crossing Nina’s leg and took a deep breath and said, “You’re going to be OK.”

Later, when Kendrec stopped in another town, crowding the Humvee right up to the door of a pharmacy, Imogen told him, “Percocet, and amoxicillin, cephalexin, or erythromycin.” She didn’t know which antibiotics Nina needed or how much but some was probably better than none. She waited in the turret, breathing and listening and watching the shadows. Not thinking about Nina resting painfully in the back seat below her, in danger because Imogen hadn’t paid close enough attention.

Day 39

The morning after Imogen saw the light, she woke up bleary-eyed. Nina sat by the breakfast campfire, healing leg stretched out awkwardly. She poked at the coals with a stick in an effort to get the water for coffee to boil faster, and Kendrec sat in the Humvee’s open door, lacing up his boots and rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Kendrec,” Imogen said. “That light you thought you saw—” Nina interrupted her with a sharp look and she corrected herself. Kendrec wasn’t fragile but he was somehow still young and they both wanted to keep him that way. “That light you saw, you thought it was pretty far off?”

Nina looked back at the fire like nothing had even happened but Imogen knew she approved.

Kendrec showed no sign of being aware that there was anything going on under the surface. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Did you see it?” Nina asked.

“Mm. It was hard to gauge distance without knowing what it was,” Imogen said. “Could have been a flashlight fairly close or a vehicle or something farther away.”

“It’s a person either way,” Kendrec said. “Are we going to look for them today?”

“If we’ve seen their lights three nights in a row they can’t be that far off,” Nina said.

“Yeah,” Imogen said. “We’ll find them.”


They spent all that day looking for the person who was shining the light, working their way carefully. The roads were often cluttered to impassibility. Still, they moved northeast in the direction of the light and made it far enough that if there was any sign of life they should have seen it, and there was nothing.

That night Kendrec pulled the Humvee to a halt in a wide intersection and leaned on the horn for two solid minutes, announcing to the twilight their existence and location. Imogen’s ears rang bitterly once the noise stopped, and the campfire that night was the biggest they’d ever built, a beacon in the empty summer night.

Nina sat next to her as the flames took their time burning down, and scratched her nose and said, “Three of us just in southern California—there’s probably dozens of people left.”

“Maybe.” Imogen couldn’t help but follow that thought through: the distance between cities, the easiness of overlooking one single small person in the remnants of millions of lives. All the empty roads they’d seen, wandering between empty houses.

“You don’t think so?”

Imogen shook her head, not saying no, just, “We don’t know what caused…”

It wasn’t a sentence she had to finish. Nina nodded sharply and in her face Imogen could see all twenty-three children in her second grade classroom, gone in a blinding flash and Nina left there, struck silent mid-sentence, stack of brightly-colored paper in her hand and no one to pass it out to.

Day 1

On the morning of the day of the vanishings, Imogen walked from the apartment she shared with her best friend Sarah and Sarah’s cat toward the glossy tall buildings that housed her first graduate seminar. She was going to be a psychologist, a healer; she was done with war. It was the beginning of summer session in Los Angeles, a city of summer and new beginnings and palm trees sprouting out of concrete. It was noisy and hot, and Imogen was breathless and clutching at a backpack with sweating fingers in a way that made her feel young like she had not felt young in a very long time.

People walked along the sidewalk with her, dressed in colorful summer clothes like streams of poppies, and more drove on the roads in glittering cars. She could smell the ocean under the waves of car exhaust and she thought: it’s going to be a beautiful day.

Then the world flashed bright white for an instant, and when Imogen could see again the woman with the baby strapped to her back walking ahead of her was gone. When she turned wildly she saw that the businessman who had passed her going the other way was also gone, his briefcase tipped over on the sidewalk. The cars on the road began to drift to a stop, or collide together in intersections or run into the medians and storefronts and sign posts along the road. They crunched together and then were silent and the city stretching out around her—everywhere she turned, spinning, dizzy—settled into stillness and silence.

For as far as Imogen could see the only heart left beating was in her own chest, and even from that very first moment she knew she would never understand how this could be the world and her in it. But that was a lesson she had begun to learn already, in the high desert, and so she started immediately the work of surviving: water, food, transportation.

Day 40

The light came again that night after it had been dark a long time, long enough that Imogen was thinking about waking Kendrec for the last watch. Nina stirred when Imogen crawled down from the turret. She carefully stretched her injured leg, then wrapped her scarf around her hair while Imogen shook Kendrec awake.

Together they quietly stepped away from the road, leaving it behind in the silent dark. Once Imogen stepped beyond the edge of their camp, the only things left in the universe were the light up ahead and the sounds of Nina limping along at her right hand. Kendrec walked on the other side of Nina, not speaking. Imogen kept her eyes on the light, the way it waited behind the trees, and it blinded her so that she stumbled on the rough ground.

Nina reached through the dark and brushed her hand along Imogen’s hand and Imogen turned her palm up and clasped their hands together. She looked at the light and she hoped with each uneven breath that it was something instead of more nothing, more absence, more hollow aching quiet.

The light was far ahead of them but it was steady. There was motion but she thought it was only tree branches in front of the light. The trees were on the far side of the field and behind them that white glow. She wanted to ask Nina who she thought was shining the light but the silent darkness pressed down on her and stopped up the words in her throat.

They got closer to the trees and Imogen began to see that the formless light was moving directly toward them. Or at least it was getting brighter. There was no way of telling how long it had been moving, maybe this whole time. It was difficult to determine anything else about it because it didn’t bob up and down like it would have if it were a flashlight or lantern carried by a human being, or the headlights of a vehicle driving over unpaved terrain.

It was steadier than the earth itself and that’s how she knew, finally, that it wasn’t a person waiting to be found, it was something else entirely.

Black shadow-trees limned in brightness loomed in front of her, and Imogen realized she had stopped walking. Nina had stopped, too, and when Imogen looked over at her she saw shadows turning Nina’s soft mouth into something hard and unreadable. Beyond her, Kendrec was a distant shadow holding onto Nina’s other hand and Imogen felt alone even with Nina’s hand in hers.

She looked away, back at the branches that were tossing wildly as though there were a harsh wind even though there was no wind. As the light got closer the shadows got sharper, so sharp they could cut, and instead of illuminating the field everything was washed of color and alien as the surface of the moon.

The light kept coming up on them and Imogen held Nina’s hand so tightly her own hand hurt, but she didn’t turn away. “What is it,” Kendrec said quietly and Nina said, “I don’t know, I don’t know,” and Imogen swallowed and clutched Nina’s hand and said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Joanne Rixon is an organizer with the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup. Her poetry has appeared in GlitterShip, her book reviews in the Seattle Times and the Cascadia Subduction Zone Literary Quarterly, and her short fiction in venues including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Reckoning 2, and Liminal Stories. She is represented by Jennifer Goloboy of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and you can find her yelling about poetry and politics on Twitter @JoanneRixon.

Copyright © 2019 by Joanne Rixon.

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