This is the Way the Prayer Ends

by Barbara A. Barnett


The nighttime sky has been empty since the destruction began weeks before, and so Sarah plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, as if the music might summon the moon back from whatever void has consumed it. If the night ever comes again at all. For what feels like days, the sky has remained a shroud-like shade of gray, its dim light misting in through the partially collapsed wall of the conservatory’s recital hall.

Sarah tries not to glance at the empty water bottle sitting on the scuffed piano lid. The sight of it makes her hyperconscious of her cracked lips and bone-dry mouth. How long will she survive now that the water’s gone? Does her last scrap of food even matter? Her stomach is so shriveled with hunger that it can hardly rumble anymore. But signs of the earth’s rumbling lie all around the hall: the shards of glass that earlier rained down from the ceiling lights, the seats on house right buried beneath a pile of rubble, the impenetrable wreckage backstage barring her way to the rest of the building.

If not for the piano, this obsidian monolith standing amid the devastation, she’d probably still be huddled in a corner, shaking and crying.

Her head throbs in time with every slow, somber triplet she plays, yet her fingers move over the dust-coated keys with easy familiarity, even over the keys that stick or sound out of tune, even over the E that won’t sound at all. She has the destruction to thank for impairing her performance. She had been rehearsing with the lid raised, and so the first quake sent detritus streaming into the piano’s innards; the lid prop snapped during the second quake, bringing the lid down with a discordant crash. Yet even in the piano’s now ramshackle state, the notes between the cracks are preferable to what Sarah hears outside: distant rumbles, shattering glass, crunching metal, the occasional scream or gunshot.

Or, worst of all, the stretches of silence.

“You can’t play!” Chris snapped the first time she touched the piano keys, the day after everything had gone to hell. She still has bruises from when he dragged her off the piano bench, screaming at her, “Are you a fucking idiot? Someone out there will hear!”

Sarah never mustered the nerve to ask why he could yell yet she couldn’t play. His unhinged rants were far louder than any note this ravaged Steinway could produce.

Not that it matters now, she thinks. Chris isn’t here to chastise her anymore. A prickle of guilt accompanies that thought, but she banishes it with a shake of her head. Unlike Chris, she has no desire to die alone, and so she plays.

In the pause after the first movement’s final chord, an unexpected sound intrudes on the Beethoven. Tentative footsteps, like a tardy audience member sneaking to his seat after the concert has begun. Only instead of a whispered “excuse me” or the beam of an usher’s flashlight cutting through the dark, this entrance calls attention to itself with small chunks of concrete cascading down a pile of debris. Debris that had once been part of the wall.

Sarah jerks her hands away from the keys. The sneakers catch her eye first, two shocks of white amid the rubble. Above them, tattered pant legs. Above them, a neon yellow jacket smeared with blood. Not fresh, but rust-colored. Dry. Sarah notes the blood, then the man’s face. African American. Her heartbeat takes on an erratic tempo as she recalls Chris, injured and bleeding, raving about a black guy who attacked him. But this can’t be the same man, how can she even think that? They’re in the middle of the city, surrounded by thousands of brown and black and white faces—though how many still living? Suddenly she hates herself and her suspicion and Chris for making her think it.

You’re better than that, she imagines her parents chiding. You’re a good girl, Sarah.

Calmer, she studies the man. He’s older than her, but still young. Thirty, maybe? Or do the bags under his eyes and the scraggly beginnings of a beard make him look older? Does it even matter? He’s the first person she’s seen since Chris disappeared.

“I followed the music,” the man says, picking his way down the debris, toward the aisle between the stage and the first row of seats. Once his feet touch solid ground, he takes in the recital hall with wide eyes. “How long have you been here?”

“I…” Sarah swallows, trying to force moisture into her throat. How long has it been since she’s spoken aloud? “I don’t know.” She recoils at the sound of her voice. So hoarse, a dry rattle in every syllable. She touches her tangled, greasy hair; what does it even look like now? And her clothes—dust-caked jeans and a sullied V-neck shirt, more gray than white at this point. “I was in here when it all started. Practicing. I have a recital…” Reality hits her like a slap to the face. “I had a recital.”

The man strokes the red lining of a front row seat. “I was in…” He starts to sit, but stops himself. “Is this okay? If I sit here a while?”

Is it? It’s what she wanted, why she played, yet she tenses. The dried blood on his shirt—his, Chris’s, or someone else’s? She never considered whom her playing might draw. She never considered that, delusional ravings aside, Chris might have had a point. But if this man was dangerous, if he wanted something, wouldn’t he have rushed at her by now? He wouldn’t be asking for her permission to sit, right?

“Okay,” she says.

“Last place I found, they chased me off.” The man starts pacing, hands beating against his legs. “The guy had a gun. Started waving it around, shouting about looting and raping. Man, I wasn’t gonna steal nothing, wasn’t gonna hurt no one.”

His pacing is dizzying, more movement than she’s witnessed in days. “You can sit.”

He stops, shakes his head as if to clear it. “Right.”

He flashes her a smile, brushes off a chair, then sits with a contented sigh. Sarah tries to smile in return, but fails. She should say something, but what? Welcome to the Recital Hall at the End of the Universe? Would that be too weird, scare him off? Instead she stares at the piano keys and noodles at a tune, a Puccini aria she blanks on the title of. All those times she accompanied singers on it, yet the title is gone, like her sense of the days.

“What’s your name?” the man asks.

Now she remembers. It’s “Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca. But that’s not the name he’s asking for, and so she answers, “Sarah.”

“Sarah.” He draws out each syllable, like he’s trying out how they feel in his mouth. “Right good Bible name, my grandma would have said.”

He sinks back in his seat and drums his fingers against the armrests, staring up at the stage as she continues noodling. He clearly expects her to say something else, but what? It’s as if social norms have been buried along with most of the city.

“I’m Marcus,” he says.

She stops playing and cringes. His name, damn it. She should have asked him his name.

“I’ve been wandering for days,” Marcus says, “sleeping under whatever I could find. Whatever looked like it wasn’t gonna fall down on me. Found a can of soup at one place. Beer too, but that didn’t stay down. You don’t have any water, do you?”

Her stomach knots into a tight ball. Water? She stands with a shove of the bench and storms out from behind the piano. He has the gall to ask for water? She snatches the bottle from the piano lid and holds it upside down, shaking it to emphasize how empty it is. How empty it’s been since she woke to the chafing of a parched throat and drained the last few drops. How empty it’s going to remain. She tosses the bottle aside. It lands with a hollow plunk and rolls across the stage.

“Yeah, didn’t think so,” Marcus says, unfazed. “Nobody’s got water now. Except maybe that guy with the gun.” He stretches out his legs and glances around the recital hall. “Surprised this place is holding up so well. I used to walk past here all the time. Always heard folks singing and playing. Never been in here, though.”

Sarah laughs. It hurts her throat, yet she misses the sound as soon as it stops. She hasn’t laughed since the destruction began.

Marcus cocks his head. “That’s funny?”

“I’m sorry. It’s just… I practically live here. Well, I guess I kind of do live here now. But before, I mean. I was always in here.”

Marcus nods. “Right, you said you had a recital. You a student here?”

“Was.”

“That’s what I meant. Was. Everything’s was now. I was a parking attendant. That crappy little garage down on 13th and Pine. Me and my brother. You ever park there?”

Sarah shakes her head. “I don’t have a car.”

“Guess not then.”

Marcus leans forward in his chair, hands folded in his lap, like he’s about to tell a story to a child. He looks up at Sarah, and she squirms. She can’t talk to him like this, standing so exposed. She retreats to the piano bench.

“The garage is gone now,” Marcus says. “I was down the street, grabbing some sandwiches for me and my brother when the pavement just ripped on open. Sucked half the block down, the garage right along with it. And there I was, damn fool running toward it, still hanging onto those sandwiches, thinking I could…” A catch in his voice silences him, but only for a moment. “Don’t think I could eat another sandwich now. And I’m near starving.”

She wishes she could offer him a sympathetic touch on the shoulder, but traversing that gap between stage and seat, between performer and audience, feels too intimate to do for a stranger. “I’m sorry,” she says instead.

“About the sandwiches?” Marcus lets out a forced-sounding laugh. “Girl, you’ve got an overactive sense of empathy going on there.”

“No, I meant the garage. Was your brother—”

“Yeah, he won’t be eating no more sandwiches either.”

At least he knows. That’s her first thought, and she hates herself for thinking it. At least he knows his brother’s dead. She’d rather have seen her parents die than still have to wonder.

Be a good girl, Sarah. Their voices refuse to leave her head. The end of the world is no excuse not to practice.

Marcus stands and paces down the aisle. “You’ve been in here all this time?”

She tells him about hiding backstage, under the makeup counter in the dressing room. How she thought it was an ordinary earthquake at first, like they had on the west coast. How she didn’t come out until the screaming in the streets quieted, at least for a bit. How she hadn’t planned to stay here until she stepped outside and looked up at the night sky.

“There was supposed to be a full moon that night,” she says, shivering at the memory, “but there wasn’t. There wasn’t anything up there. Just darkness.”

Marcus leans against the stage, a thoughtful look on his face. “I never thought about that. The moon, the stars. But you’re right. Can’t see nothing up there anymore.” He pauses. “Sucks to be an astrologer.”

“You mean astronomer.”

“Them too. But no, astrology. Folks who tell you what’s in your future, what’s in your stars. We ain’t got neither right now.”

Sarah half laughs; that starless, jet-black sky is too fresh in her mind to muster more. She knows there’s a rational explanation for what’s happened to the world, a rhyme and a reason to the destruction, but she’s lost hope in ever understanding it. A musician and a parking attendant—what they need is a scientist.

“Do you believe in that stuff?” she asks. “Astrology?”

“Nah, I believe in God. What about you?”

“No God, no stars. Definitely not astrology.” She manages more of a laugh this time. Her voice, so rough when they started talking, sounds normal now. Or has she just gotten used to it? “You know how you’d go through the grocery store checkout and see all those tabloids with the nutjobs who were all like, ‘The world’s going to end at midnight on such-and-such a date.’ And I always thought, well, which time zone? Was the apocalypse going to be on Greenwich Mean Time, or was the world going to end in sections?”

Now Marcus laughs. “So: no God, no stars. What do you believe in?”

Sarah opens her mouth, closes it. How to answer? “Nothing” seems inadequate. It’s what her father would have said—would still say, she hopes. And as if he’s there admonishing her to practice, her hands drift to the piano keys and play a few notes. Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore… “Music, I guess.”

Marcus nods, and keeps nodding, like a human bobblehead. “Music. I can get behind that. Hell, that’s why I’m here. I was crawling through a world of shit out there—some literal shit at times—and then I heard this sound. Like angels. Scary fucking angels, though. Because that sound—it just didn’t fit, you know? It didn’t belong out there. And I almost kept going past, but then it hit me: it’s the end of the damn world, and someone’s playing me some Mozart. You don’t ignore that.”

“It was Beethoven.”

“I can’t tell the difference.” Something in her look must have appeared dismissive, because Marcus holds up his hands, palms out, as if to ward off chastisement. “I mean, I know there is one and all. I’m not a total philistine. Is that how you say it? Philistine? Anyway, I know there’s a difference. But I can’t hear it, you know?”

“I don’t know, actually. I don’t know what’s it like to not hear the difference between Beethoven and Mozart. I don’t know what it’s like not to be practicing or performing or listening or…” She gestures at the piano. “This is all I know.”

Outside, a flurry of sounds comes and goes, short and fast: a shout, a scream, a shot, silence. Marcus straightens, eyes wide and alert. Sarah pulls her arms to her chest. She stares at the crumbled wall, her lower jaw trembling. But no one comes through.

She and Marcus exchange wary glances, and her trembling subsides. He’s a stranger, but not a stranger with a gun. She’s safer now, probably more so than with Chris. Marcus seems more stable.

“You don’t know that,” she imagines Chris saying. No, shouting. Chris would have insisted on searching Marcus. Probably would have tackled him as soon as he entered the hall.

Marcus could have a gun. Or a knife. Tucked into the waistband of his pants. Holstered to his ankle or calf. That was a thing, right? She shakes her head. No, he would have used it by now. Would have pulled it on her the second he spied the water bottle, before he knew it was empty. He would have demanded everything she had. Maybe more.

Sarah shudders. Everything she has is currently inside the piano. She wants to tell Marcus, but she can’t be sure about him yet, gun or not. Because there’s blood on his jacket, and she doesn’t know whose.

“I wouldn’t last a second out there on my own,” she says, staring again at the crumbled wall. “I’m only alive because someone left their lunch and a couple water bottles in the fridge backstage. I made it all last as long as I could, but now I only have…” She stops herself from glancing at the piano. “Nothing. I’m screwed.”

Marcus responds with that bobblehead nod of his. “You and me both, girl.”

“No, that’s the problem. Don’t you see?” How can he not, just looking at her? So scrawny that people are surprised she can lift the piano lid. “There is no ‘you and me both.’ There’s me, and there’s you, and we’re not the same.”

Marcus presses his lips tight. He nods again, but there’s a slow sharpness to the motion now. “Yeah, I see where this is going. Where it always goes with white folk. Move on, your kind’s not welcome here. Not even in the apocalypse.” He strides down the aisle, toward the crumbled wall, snapping over his shoulder, “At least you were nicer about it than the dick with the gun.”

“Wait!” Sarah is on her feet, face hot as she rushes to the edge of the stage. “That’s not what I meant!”

Marcus turns back, a skeptical quirk to his mouth.

“Stay, please.” Her voice sounds so small, the words so pathetic. And they are. Marcus is staring at her with such a steely gaze that she knows she’s ruined it. She worded things badly—always, even at the end of the world, she’s wording things badly—and now he thinks she’s a racist and he’s going to leave. Just like Chris did.

Instead, Marcus sits in the front row. “So what did you mean?”

For a moment, Sarah can’t speak. He’s staying. For now, at least, Marcus is staying. “I meant…” With her on stage and him below, she is struck with the image of him as a fish beneath the water, ready to swim off in a flash of color should she disturb the surface. She takes a deep breath and chooses her next words carefully. “I meant we’re different because you can survive out there. Because you have survived out there. But I wouldn’t make it. I wouldn’t have any clue where to go, what to do—”

“And you think I do?”

“What if someone attacked me? Pulled a gun on me? What the hell would I do?”

“Whatever you have to,” he says, voice breezy, as if anything’s that easy.

Sarah lets out a derisive laugh. “Seriously, look at me. What could I do to anyone?”

“You’d be surprised.”

Sarah sits on the lip of the stage, directly across from his chair, only the front aisle between them. This is the closest they’ve been. It feels safe, not like the eggshell-walking she had to do around Chris. But she needs to be sure about him. “So what did you have to do?” She nods toward the wall. “Out there.”

Marcus shrugs. “Ran a lot. Hid a lot. Begged a lot. You lived off someone’s leftovers? I get that. I lived off whatever I could find too. A soup can, some skunky beer. I found a bag of chips too, but…” He snorts. “Fucking salt and vinegar. That’s all I’ve found the last few days.” His face grows somber. “And I nearly killed a guy over those chips.”

Sarah’s stomach sinks and twists. A bag of chips. Salt and vinegar. Nearly killed a guy. “But you didn’t, right?” She grasps the edge of the stage, digs her nails into the lacquered wood, fights to keep her breath from quickening. Too close, she’s sitting too close to this man, and damn Chris for not being here anymore. “You didn’t kill anyone?”

“Could have.”

Marcus hoists himself out of his seat, paces down the aisle. Sarah breaths easier the farther he goes, but her pulse is fast, too fast, and her hands ache from gripping the stage.

“Food’s the real commodity out there now,” Marcus says. “Food and water. After shit went down, people started stockpiling, you know? And most of them ain’t too keen on sharing. Just taking.” He glances around the recital hall. “But you’re pretty safe in here. I mean, sure, stay too long and you’re gonna end up starving to death, but for now… you’re pretty safe from people. Nobody’s gonna come looking for food in a piano.”

He smiles at her, and it seems so genuine, but she should be seeing something dangerous in it now, shouldn’t she? Something Chris would have seen. Sarah laughs, an unsteady titter, and glances at the piano. Shit, why did she look at it? Now he’ll know, see on her face that she’s hiding something, and all she can think to do is force a joke. “That’d be like the worse John Cage piece ever.”

Marcus quirks his mouth. “What?”

“John Cage,” she says, and babbles too quickly to stop herself. “He was a composer, and he wrote these avant-garde pieces for prepared piano—well, other people have too, but he’s the one who started it, the one who’s famous for it—where you put stuff between the piano strings. Screws and coins and forks and things.”

“Why the hell would you do that?”

“To alter the sound. To get a particular sound.”

Marcus scrutinizes her for a long moment. Her heartbeat quickens to a nausea-inducing pace. She wants to be behind the piano, on the bench, not sitting here exposed on the lip of the stage. Don’t fidget, she tells herself. Don’t tap, don’t twitch, don’t even move. No, move. Too stiff and she’ll look guilty. Too restless and she’ll look guilty. She’s not guilty, damn it. She doesn’t owe him anything he hasn’t asked for. But he’ll want it if he knows it’s there. Because he said it himself. Food is the new commodity, and he almost killed a man over a bag of chips.

She half glances toward the piano, some stupid damn impulse outpacing all sense. If anything was going to get her killed, of course it’d be the piano, a shackle as often as an escape.

Marcus narrows his eyes, looks from her to the piano and back again. He takes a few slow strides toward her; she scrambles to her feet, wipes her sweaty palms on her jeans. She’s above him, at least. She’s on the stage and he’s on the floor and whatever she has to do. Because that’s what you do outside, he said. Whatever you have to. But what about inside? Are the rules the same here in the recital hall?

Marcus points at the piano. “You’re not hiding food in there, are you? I mean, I would have heard it, right? When you were playing, I would have heard a wrapper crinkling or something. Some of that John Cage shit.”

“Only if you put it between the strings.” It’s a stupid thing to say, the nervous laugh that follows even worse. Her heart pounds out the seconds in double time as she waits for her awkwardness to give her away.

Marcus goes rigid, flexes his fingers. “Son of a…”

He leaps onto the stage and lunges toward the piano; she reaches it first, blocks his path. They stare at each other, breaths coming hard and fast, her the only thing between him and the piano. Her. Tiny little her. And now, standing on the same level with him, she feels even tinier. He’s taller, broader, most definitely stronger.

“Please.” Even her voice is tiny. “It’s all I have left.”

“You told me you had nothing, you damn liar!”

Something hardens within her at that, makes her draw up straighter. Liar? As if he’s any better. As if he hasn’t done far worse. “Gee, why would I lie? Maybe because you’d try to take it from me? Just like you tried to take it from Chris.”

Marcus spreads his arms wide. “Who the fuck is Chris?”

“‘I nearly killed a guy over those chips,’” she says, mocking his voice earlier. “‘Fucking salt and vinegar.’” And all at once she doesn’t care anymore. She can’t overpower him, she can’t survive on her own, so why even try? She lifts the piano lid, where everything she has left is tucked inside: a small, crinkled green bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. She grabs the bag, lets the lid slam shut, and throws the chips at Marcus. They’re so light the bag doesn’t reach him, just lands near his feet with a poof. She wants a crash, an impact to match her anger, but there’s nothing left to throw, and so she yells instead. “Chris went out looking for food, and he came back with those, and a big gash on his head, and a broken arm! He said a big black guy attacked him and tried to take the chips.”

Marcus stares at her, mouth agape. Then, in the subtle shifting of his expression, she sees realization settle in. He shakes his head and lets out an incredulous laugh. “Big? I’m barely five foot seven.”

The laugh cuts through her anger, leaves her feeling like an exposed nerve. Why doesn’t he take the chips and go? “You’re bigger than me.”

“And smaller than your boyfriend. Who, for the record, is the one who jumped me.” He jabs a finger toward the bag. “I’m the one who found those damn chips.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.” Her lips curl just saying that. The idea of being intimate with Chris makes her want to vomit, if only her stomach had any contents left to lurch up. “He’s just a guy I know from school. A guy I needed to survive. I don’t even like him that much.”

“Yet when it comes to the chips,” Marcus says, all but spitting the words, “obviously the black man is the aggressor.”

“I didn’t know!” Her skin flushes hot. Wording things badly again—still—and why the hell can’t she get it right? And what if Marcus isn’t wrong? Maybe she would have trusted the first white guy who walked through the door and that’s why she words things badly so why can’t Marcus just take the damn chips already? She clutches the piano lid, finally understanding why singers do that during recitals. The piano is solid, a thing to cling to when confidence wanes. “I still don’t know. I don’t know you, and I barely knew Chris. All I know is what he told me, and I didn’t have any reason to think he’d lie.”

“You have every reason to think he’d lie,” Marcus says, his voice softening. “You have every reason to think I’d lie. Nobody wants to admit to being the bad guy out there. But I’m gonna do this…”

He picks up the chips. Finally, he’s going to leave. But instead of relief, she trembles. Alone. She’s going to be alone again, and isn’t it better to keep wording things badly than to die alone? But he doesn’t leave. He steps toward the piano; she skitters aside. Marcus pauses, shakes his head. Stupid white girl, his pitying look seems to say, and she can’t say he’s wrong because he does the last thing she expects. He opens the piano lid, stuffs the chips back inside, and backs away. “They’re all yours.”

Her mouth falls open a little. His words register as words, yet for a moment they don’t make sense. Not until he jumps down from the stage and starts to leave.

“Wait!”

Marcus turns back, sighs like an impatient parent dealing with a child. She feels like a child, and her chest goes tight as she wonders for the thousandth time if her parents are still alive.

“Don’t leave me here alone,” she says. “Please.”

Marcus studies her a long while. “I don’t expect things are gonna go real well when your not-a-boyfriend comes back.”

“I don’t think he’s coming back.”

A queasy feeling in her stomach accompanies the words. She’s known Chris isn’t coming back, accepted it and at times even wanted it, yet saying so aloud makes her feel guilty for the latter. Because he could be dead now. Chris was annoying in his best moments—weren’t all trumpet players, ha ha ha, and there’s the guilt again—unhinged in his worst. But she didn’t want him dead.

“He’s been gone for a while now. Longer than usual.” She sits on the piano bench. From here, she’s always been able to say so much—the right things—without uttering a word. “He said he was going to find food and water, but he wasn’t making much sense when he left. He was rambling about making amends, and ‘unaffected resolutions’—whatever the hell that means—and beasts with eyes on both sides of their heads that could see thieves swimming in lakes of fire. Real crazy shit. And he had this look in his eyes, this scared, haunted look I hadn’t seen before. I told him not to go, because his arm was broken, but he… he just staggered on out there. He just left me.”

Marcus takes a few steps closer. “You don’t like being alone, do you?”

“It’s all I ever used to want.” She touches a piano key at random, but no sound comes. That damn E. “For people to just leave me alone, let me play in peace. Then the end of the world came and I got my goddamn wish.”

“World ain’t dead just yet.” Marcus hoists himself onto the stage and sits facing her. “How about you play something?”

“Like what?”

“Don’t matter to me.” He gives her a sad smile. “I’m the guy who can’t tell the difference between Beethoven and Mozart, remember?”

Sarah decides on Chopin. The slow, mournful tempo of the Marche funèbre seems appropriate, if a little cliché. Marcus listens in silence for the first few measures, then speaks as she plays—something about hollow men, stuffed men, rats’ feet and broken glass. Sarah stiffens, lingers on a chord longer than usual because none of his words make sense. Is he going to start ranting the way Chris did? But his voice remains calm, and soon she catches onto the cadence, the structured way the words fall: he’s reciting a poem.

She relaxes and continues playing. The meaning of the poem escapes her, but the mood of it feels in sync with the heavy, tolling chords in her left hand.

“For Thine is the Kingdom,” Marcus says, then pauses at the stanza’s end.

Sarah remembers hearing those words when her parents still went to church. A poem, or a prayer? Nothing in the words has seemed prayer-like until now.

“My little brother was big into poetry,” Marcus says, seeming to sense her unspoken question in the hesitation between chords. “Used to insist on reading me some. Shit he wrote, shit other people wrote. I never quite got it most of the time. But I listened to it, and I memorized a lot of it, because I wanted to get it. Because I knew it meant something.”

He resumes his recitation; she keeps playing. Then, in a moment of synchronicity that makes her heart ache, he finishes the poem as she plays the movement’s final notes. “Not with a bang,” he says, “but a whimper.”

The silence that follows is heavier than any chord or well-placed word could be.

“Do you really believe that?” Sarah asks. “That the world's going to end like that?”

“I’m trying not to believe that. I’m trying real hard.” Marcus hugs his knees to his chest, making him look smaller. Like her. “‘For Thine is the Kingdom.’ They keep saying that in the poem, but not the rest of the prayer. Because there’s more to it, you know? It’s like they can’t believe in God anymore, so they don’t finish the prayer. Because they don’t see the power and glory forever and all that jazz that comes after. They just see death.”

“They?”

“The hollow men,” he says. “That’s the name of the poem: ‘The Hollow Men.’ That’s who it’s about.”

“Did your brother write it?”

Marcus laughs so hard, so loud, that she flinches. The reflexes Chris’s reprimands instilled in her seem more durable than the world outside.

“In his dreams!” Marcus says. “That’s some T.S. Eliot I threw down on you, girl. You ain’t never heard that last bit before?”

Sarah shakes her head; the heat of a blush spreads across her cheeks. Marcus laughs again, and her face grows hotter, yet she smiles. It feels so strange to smile. It’s been so long that her cheek muscles twinge ever so slightly. A good twinge, like the one in her arms after hours rehearsing a challenging piece. Her smile broadens.

“Okay, you’re so smart…” She plays several measures of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, something he was likely to have heard in a movie or cartoon, back when the world was still the world. “Mozart or Beethoven?”

“Mozart.”

“Wrong! Liszt.”

“That’s cheating.”

They laugh, and the ache of it in her chest is so much like the way the world used to be that she laughs harder, wants to keep laughing at everything, funny or not. But a tremor, sudden and violent, rocks the hall. Her laughter turns into a stifled yelp. She clutches the piano bench, vibrations reverberating through her, from head to toe and toe to head. Small chunks of wall and ceiling drop to the floor, and the air fills with dust that irritates her too-dry nostrils. She should take cover, yet morbid fascination holds her in place. A quake is like a percussion section, all bangs and crashes and timpani rolls. The world is not what it used to be, the piece seems to say, and you were a fool to pretend otherwise, even for a moment.

The tremor subsides, but not the music it has set in motion. Somewhere outside, a building collapses. She recognizes the bomb-like sound, the avalanche of steel and concrete. The collapse sends a short, rough tremor of its own through the hall. Sarah grips the piano bench tighter. Too close.

Marcus remains on the edge of the stage, still hugging his knees to his chest. When he speaks, his voice is soft. Distracted. “How about you play us something else?”

She brushes her fingers over the keys. What if the next quake ruins the piano beyond playing? Or the quake after that? She was wrong, she realizes. The chips aren’t all she has left. She has the piano. A voice clearer than her own.

A creak sounds from above, the groan of something metallic giving way. Sarah opens her mouth, starts to voice a warning, but there is no time, only the split second in which everything happens. A large chunk of plaster plummeting from the ceiling, bringing one of the lighting fixtures down with it. A crash and a clatter against the stage. The edge of the stage. And Marcus…

Sarah darts toward the rubble, heart thudding so hard that she’d swear she can sense every tiny vein within her pulsing. Her next breath catches in her chest, refuses to release until she sees that Marcus has scrambled to his feet.

“Are you all right?” she asks. Christ, how could she have been worried about the piano when someone could have died right here in front of her? Not one of the disembodied cries in the world outside the hall, but someone with a name. A name she forgot to ask when they met, a moment that feels like another lifetime ago.

Marcus stares at the newly fallen debris. Plaster, glass, and twisted metal, only a finger’s breadth from where he had been sitting. His expression is dazed, his steps unsteady. Silent, yet otherwise too much like Chris in those moments before he staggered away.

“Hey,” Sarah says, “talk to me.”

Marcus crouches beside the debris and touches a hand to it. “We’re being punished.”

His voice is so soft and halting she can’t be sure she heard him correctly. “Punished?”

“I think that’s why we’re still here. Because we’re being punished.” He strokes his hand across a metal beam. “When the ground just opened up like it did. What if that was God taking all the righteous people? All the good people. People like my brother.”

All the good people?

Be a good girl and practice, Sarah. Her parents’ voices again, gone yet still there, always chiding. No excuses.

“All the good people.” The words come out sharp, knife-like. “But not people like me.”

“I didn’t—”

“Or else I wouldn’t still be here, right? Thanks for that resounding vote of confidence in my character, you asshole.” Sarah draws up straighter, teeth clenched. For once she feels taller. Taller than him, taller than Chris, taller than everyone. He barely knows her, yet here he is judging her unworthy of saving? By whose standards? “What if it’s not God, huh? What if it’s all just random chance? One big John Cage piece. Because punishment? For what? I don’t know what you’ve done that you think is so terrible, but me? I don’t deserve this. I’m not perfect, but I’ve never done anything to deserve this.”

She gestures to the wreck of a hall. To the wreck of a piano, dented and dusty. Practicing while the world ends around her, yet it’s still not enough. So many years trying to avoid her parents’ looks of disapproval, and for what? The irony of ending her days with a piano that can produce only the worst of sounds and a companion who can’t tell the difference between Beethoven and Mozart. A companion who has yet to tear his shell-shocked gaze away from the debris that could have killed him. If your God exists, she wants to tell him, then he’s an asshole too.

“All I’ve ever done is what I was supposed to do,” she says instead. “For my parents, for my teachers. ‘Practice your scales, Sarah. Oh, but keep your grades up too. Only a B+ on your math test? Study harder next time, Sarah. There’ll be no TV until you’ve mastered that Rachmaninoff. And no trips to the beach until you’ve mastered that Chopin. This audition is more important than your friends, Sarah. You have to know that good enough will never cut it.’ Christ, when did I have time to do anything to be punished for?”

She storms toward the piano and kicks one of its legs. The instrument, ever the unyielding taskmaster, doesn’t budge, even as she kicks it again and again. She pounds a fist on the lid, draws forth a rattle, but can’t make a dent. Even her broken, jagged fingernails can’t scratch the wood deep enough to rival the destruction the piano has already borne. She pounds the lid again, both fists, this time with a scream, scraping her dry throat even rawer. Why can’t she hurt this damn thing the way it’s hurt her?

“You know what?” she says. “Right now I’d give anything to hear my parents saying all that shit to me. Because it would mean they’re alive. But I don’t know if they are. And I’m never going to know, because they were halfway across the country when all this happened, and the phones wouldn’t work, and…”

She slumps onto the piano bench. Marcus stares at her, and she wonders how long he’s been doing that, how long ago she became absorbed enough in her pain to forget about his.

“Your brother.” She swallows hard. “I’m sorry he’s gone, but at least you know. At least you have that.” She plays a few notes, a mechanical imitation of what Chopin intended, then slams her hands down on the keys. “What’s the point anymore?”

Marcus strokes a metal shard as if it’s fine silk. Sarah bites her lip. He’s not going to lose it, is he? Something haunted and wary lingers in his expression, but he backs away from the debris and sits on the stage, facing her and the piano. “You love playing, right? Even with all the pressure, you were in here playing because you chose to be. Right?”

“Because I needed to be.” Her own answer takes her by surprise. Where have all these words been until now? She can’t remember ever talking so much, especially about herself. “I broke my hand when I was fifteen. Stupid frickin’ gym class. It was so hard after, not being able to play piano for so many weeks. It was like part of me was missing. Hollow.”

Marcus nods. “You play like I pray. Like I used to pray. But I lost all that. Meaning. Faith. My brother. I found him in the rubble, after the garage collapsed. But it wasn’t really him. Just a body. This hollow, bloody, broken body that looked like my brother, but those eyes—there was nothing there. All that joy, all that hope he had was gone. All that life.” Marcus stares at the floor, though his gaze seems fixed on another time and place. “He should have died with some fancy professor job and a shelf full of awards, not busting his ass in a parking garage, trying to pay his way through school, keeping his dumb old big-mouthed brother in check.” He looks up at Sarah, an ashen cast to his brown skin, the watery look of held-back tears in his eyes. “I stopped believing then. I’ve been trying to believe, I’ve been saying I believe, but I haven’t been able to finish the prayer.”

“And that’s why you think we’re being punished?” Sarah asks. “Because you lost your faith and I never had any?”

“You’re wrong about that. About never having any. You do. I see that now. That’s what brought me here. I think you see God in the music. You just call Him something else.” He nods toward the piano. “And I think that’s why you should play us something again. Maybe from that recital of yours.”

Sarah strokes the piano keys the way Marcus did the scrap of metal. God in the music. It’s a lovely sentiment, but not one she can believe. There’s only this world, her gut tells her, and there’s nothing left for her in it. Not even music. “I’m not sure I can finish the prayer,” she says, drawing her hands back from the keys. “But…” She stands, opens the piano lid, and takes out the bag of chips. “We can finish these at least.”

She sits beside Marcus, opens the bag with a messy rip, and holds it out to him. They eat without talking, filling the hall with chewing, crunching, and the crumpling sounds of foil as they reach into the bag for more. The salty chips scratch on the way down—god, why couldn’t they have found water instead of chips?—but her stomach offers a greedy grumble of appreciation.

“I’d kill for something to wash these down with,” Marcus says. She shoots him a look, and he winces. “Sorry, bad choice of words.”

For once, she’s not the one wording things badly. Sarah wants to laugh at that, but she’s still not sure about Marcus. She doesn’t need to be anymore, but she wants to be. Because she still doesn’t know whose dried blood is on his jacket. “Have you killed anyone?”

Marcus shakes his head, avoids her gaze. “Girl, we’ve been through this already.”

“And I have every reason to think you’d lie. That’s what you told me earlier.” She should leave it alone. But it’s the end of the world, they’ve nearly finished the last of their food, and so she presses. “So have you?”

“Lied? Or killed someone?”

“Both.”

“Neither.” Marcus rubs the back of his neck, then meets her gaze. “That was a lie.”

Sarah waits for anger to boil up within her, or at the very least annoyance, but all she can muster is numbness.

“Your not-a-boyfriend,” Marcus says, “what was his name? Chris? I could have just ran. I got the chips back, he was down, I could have just ran. But I was so pissed off, I… I started wailing on him, you know? Didn’t stop till I heard bone crack. Then I ran. I dropped the chips and ran. And I kept running.” He hugs his knees close to his chest and rocks back and forth. “I may as well have killed him. Broken arm, ranting mad like you said, that gash on his head.” He fingers his jacket, looking as if he wants to tear it off. “He won’t last long out there like that.”

She imagines that: Chris cradling his arm, Marcus kicking him the way she kicked the piano leg. “The world’s ending,” she says softly. “None of us are going to last long.”

“True. But we can try, right?”

“Why bother?”

“Why bother?” Marcus lets go of his knees, turns toward her with open-mouthed incredulity. “When you were playing earlier, when I first came in here—what were you thinking about?”

She shrugs. “Phrasing, tempo, don’t screw up that chord this time.”

“I’m trying to be serious here, girl. You started playing Beethoven in the middle of the damn apocalypse. I don’t wanna hear you were thinking about wrong notes. I wanna know what was really going through your head.”

Fear, she thinks, and the thought is so honest that it chips through the numbness. Her chest aches, claws at her words as she speaks. “I was wishing it would just end already, so I didn’t have to keep wondering about how and when it was finally going to happen. So I didn’t have to keep wondering about my parents, or my friends, or my teachers, or even Chris. But I was alone, and I didn’t want to die alone, so I played.” She swipes at her eyes, but her hand comes back dry. “Everything but hope. That’s what was going through my head.”

Marcus nods. The human bobblehead again. Despite herself, Sarah smiles.

“I was thinking I needed a miracle,” Marcus says. “To believe again. But talking to you just now…” He digs the last chip out of the bag and offers it to her. “I think I needed this. Some chips, some company, some Mozart. A little bit of meaning again.”

She breaks the proffered chip in half. It seems only right to split it. “I still haven’t played any Mozart, you know. Since you came in here.”

“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “And I’m okay with that.”

Together, they eat their respective halves of the chip, like some sort of absurd, minimart-fueled last supper.

Outside, a rumble sounds. Another quake or aftershock, perhaps, or another collapsing building. Maybe both. But the ground remains steady beneath them. The rumble sounds again, overhead, rolling like a drum. Thunder.

Marcus skitters to his knees, neck long as he stares up at the ceiling, like a small creature listening for a predator’s approach. Sarah stands and lets the empty chip bag flutter to the floor. Thunder. How long has it been since she’s heard thunder? And if there’s thunder…

Heavy pelts hit the roof, few and scattered at first. Then, all at once, the precise strikes blend into a sound like static. Sarah listens, transfixed by how unfamiliar the music of a storm has become to her ears. Then a counterpoint begins—individual drops, plinks against metal, crescendoing into a steady, splashing stream. Rain trickles down from the ceiling, onto the fallen debris that opened its path inside.

Marcus whoops and jumps to his feet. He thrusts his head beneath the cascade, mouth open, letting the water pour down his throat and over his face. Sarah’s throat prickles, a dryness like rough cotton. The bottle, where the hell did she throw the bottle?

She scrambles around the stage until she finds where it landed. With trembling hands, she holds it beneath the trickle. Water, she’s going to have water, and if she has water she can survive. But the mouth of the bottle is too small, missing too much, sending it sloshing over the sides.

Outside, the rain slows, then stops altogether. No, no, no. Sarah tries to steady her hands. More, she needs more if she’s going to make it. If they’re going to make it. But the trickle dwindles to drops too small to catch. Then, with one final, feeble plink, the last drop falls.

Sarah whimpers, but then looks at the bottle and laughs. Half full. She shouldn’t be amused by ridiculous clichés at the world’s end, yet she laughs again. Her glass is half full. She takes a gulp, then another. She swirls a mouthful around before swallowing. Cold and gritty and tasteless, she declares rainwater to be the finest thing she’s ever drunk.

Marcus lets out another whoop and presses his wet hands to his mouth. “Go ahead, girl. Tell me that was just random chance. Tell me that wasn’t God.”

“That was just random chance,” she says, though looking at Marcus, she understands why he believes otherwise. Bright-eyed and buoyant, with a smile near as wide as his head—there’s joy in his faith, and she wishes she could feel it too. But her joy rests elsewhere. She takes another gulp of water. “This particular bit of random chance gives me hope, at least. I didn’t have that before you showed up.”

Another rumble sounds, a noise louder and deeper than the thunder. A primal groan that rises from the earth’s ill-tempered depths, yet doesn’t shake the ground. A harsh, unnaturally white light pushes its way through the gaps in the hall’s half-collapsed wall.

“What is that?” Sarah asks.

The light intensifies, and Marcus steps toward it. “The end,” he says, leaping down from the stage. “I think this is the end.”

Sarah’s head fills with images of the sun pulsing and brightening until it explodes. But Marcus will keep walking toward the light. She knows that without asking. Moth to flame. Usually such a dismissive metaphor, but what if the moth sees beauty in the flame, finds meaning in it, and dies with joy? That’s a belief worth envying.

Marcus turns back to her, hand outstretched. “You don’t have to be alone. You could come with me.”

She stares at his hand, expecting indecision, yet feeling none. Earlier she would have taken it, even without knowing who he was. But now…

“Thank you,” she says. “But I have a recital to play. A prayer to finish.”

She sits at the piano, touches her fingers to the keys, and starts to play: Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 11. Marcus listens for a moment, eyes closed, head swaying in time. His mouth spreads into a grin. “It’s nice finally hearing some Mozart.”

Sarah smiles, fingers still traversing the keys as Marcus climbs up the pile of debris and strides into the light.

“For Thine is the Kingdom,” he declares, his dark silhouette fading as it melds with the white glow, “and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen!”

Alone yet joyful, Sarah plays until the end.



Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Fantasy Magazine, Cast of Wonders, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her lurking about the Philadelphia area or online at www.babarnett.com. She would like to dedicate “This Is the Way the Prayer Ends” to the late Gerald Warfield, a fellow writer, musician, and Odfellow whose feedback on and cheerleading for this story were invaluable, and whose insight, wit, adventurous spirit, and friendship are deeply missed.

“This Is the Way the Prayer Ends” by Barbara A. Barnett. Copyright © 2020 by Barbara A. Barnett.
 
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