From the author: This was my first invited story—a huge thrill. The post-apocalyptic anthology Grants Pass was looking for stories about people’s responses—positive and negative—to the hope of a new start, in a safe place, after the world ended—Grants Pass, Oregon. The character of Elizabeth popped into my head, and the rest of the story just...unfolded. Grants Pass appeared in the summer of 2009 and won an Australian Shadows Award for best horror anthology.
Elizabeth Barnett stood on the veranda, lifting a wiry hand to shade her eyes as she watched Christos sail away. The sun gleaming off the Mediterranean assaulted her, but the light was beautiful all the same. Sometimes the loveliness here made it hard to remember how thoroughly everything had gone wrong.
Or maybe she was just being an old fool. Sunlight, kilometers of pale beaches thrust against bright blue water, hills covered with scrubby brush, khaki-colored rocks, and the occasional dark green cypress tree—it was not enough to hide the fact that she was very likely the last person left on the island. The last living person, anyway.
She snorted and turned away from the sea before Christos, in his little white sailboat, had moved out of sight. No point in watching him go. He wouldn’t be back. She’d seen to that—they’d fought for weeks like rabid dogs. Or plague-infested weasels, more like. In the end, she’d set her teeth and scratched his lovely face with her long fingernails until the blood touched his chin. And still he stood, pleading.
“Beth, come to Grants Pass, I know it’s real.”
“It’s a lie, and you’re never going to get there on that damn fool thing anyway.”
“This is our only chance.”
“We have no chance.”
He’d simply stood there, looking at her.
“I have no chance,” she’d finally added, her voice bitter and dry. “I’m seventy-eight years old, and you know my health. I’ll die out on the water.”
“You’ll die here.” He’d leaned forward, almost touching her, but holding back.
That was when she’d scratched him, digging in with every last shred of strength she had. It was either that or touch him in a different way, and she’d held on to at least that much dignity, through it all.
Now she would not watch him go. The world had died; what difference would one more person make?
“Kayley’s journal,” Beth said out loud as she heated a slab of halloumi over a wood fire she’d built in the stove. Bitter as it still was, at least her voice had lost its edge of testy near-panic, she thought. Three days Christos had been gone, and although she was growing accustomed to the terrible silence, she still felt the need to speak to the air from time to time.
She’d made this batch of the cheese herself, and she was proud of it, even if it didn’t have the tenacity of the stuff she’d been able to find at the market when she’d first bought this property, fifteen years ago. Or even the weaker but still salty-sweet cheese that Christos had come up with, using the thin milk they’d managed to glean from the last goat.
“Bunch of adolescent fantasies.”
She might as well talk aloud. There was no one to hear, no one to judge. No one to answer.
... No one to brush her thinning grey hair, to stroke her hard and ropy shoulder muscles, to clear the weeds from her front walk. No one to argue back to her. To bring her a drink when the sun went down. To glance up from his work in what passed for her garden, his dark eyes smoldering at her as he...
“Stop it, you stroppy old cow,” she muttered to herself. She finished toasting the cheese and then stood over the stove, eating it with callused fingers that hardly felt the heat of it.
Then she stood, staring unseeing out the window as she remembered.
Elizabeth Barnett, international best-selling author of The Caged Sword series of dark and twisted romantic fantasy novels. Elizabeth Barnett, the toast of London, New York, and Prague literary circles—at least, those circles civilized enough to consider the genre of romantic fantasy. Elizabeth Barnett, who shocked the world by retiring at the height of her fame and purchasing a three-million-pound estate in the hills outside Larnaka, Cyprus, with her third husband, James—seventeen years her junior and famous in his own right as the developer of those ridiculous computer games that children played, instead of reading decent fantasy novels.
“The writing was on the wall,” she said to the window. The sea shimmered far below her, and Christos was not coming back.
James had been one of the first to die. Maybe he had even brought the plague back with him, on his last trip to France... but if he hadn’t, someone else would have. The plane had been full of people, and there had been ten more flights after that, before all air traffic had stopped. Beth had sat with him in the Apollonion Hospital on the Greek side of Nicosia—even then, with the wall down, the city was still deeply divided between Turk and Greek—holding his hand as he coughed blood, sobbed, and finally choked out his last breath. The sad-eyed doctors had searched their stub of what remained of the Internet, pumped him full of expired antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and steroids, and mopped up the effluent that had poured from her beautiful husband. He had died all the same.
“You filthy bastards! You swine, you cowards, you Mediterranean cretins!” she had shrieked at them, wailing and beating at the chest of the infuriatingly calm chief resident. He’d stood and listened to her, blinking his large dark eyes, waiting for her to wind down.
It was those Greek eyes that had prompted her to move here in the first place, when she could finally afford it. Not this doctor’s eyes per se, of course; but dark Greek eyes in general, remembered from some long-ago junket she’d taken with her editor and her agent. Three middle-aged British women on holiday, slumming in a sea of sweet Greek manflesh. Beth had always remembered that trip, long after she’d married reedy blond James. She’d always intended to end her life here.
Just not like this.
Beth shook her head, still standing at the window, the fire gone cold in the stove, the uneaten bits of halloumi sticking to her fingers, cloying. She felt sick to her stomach, and wondered for the thousandth time if the plague had finally found her as well.
“No, nothing can kill you, old loon,” she said aloud, half-affectionately. She turned away from the window, taking the greasy pan from the stove. She set it in the sink without rinsing it. There wasn’t much water left in the bucket anyway; she’d have to go to the stinking well for more.
Instead she went to the basement, or what passed for one. It was a low space half-dug into the rocky hillside, intended for a wine cellar. But Cypriot wine was harsh and sour, and her English palate had never adapted.
She stood blinking in the dim space, waiting for her old eyes to adjust, and pulled down a fresh bottle of Bombay gin. She stocked the large bottles—1.75 liters—even though they were hard to maneuver above her glass, especially as the evening progressed. Before leaving the cellar, Beth counted the bottles. There were eighteen, not including the one she had in her hand.
“That’s all you’ve got,” she said. “After that, it’s all over.” Her words were swallowed by the earthen walls.
Seven weeks after Christos sailed away, Elizabeth Barnett sat in a leather chair with one of her own books in her lap—book seven of The Caged Sword series, and her personal favorite: Man and His Weaknesses. She could hardly stand to read books written by anyone else. They were never written as she would have done; they were over too soon, or too late; the relationship between the hero and heroine never rang true; and the endings were always contrived, seemingly invented merely for the purpose of making a good story.
Well, of course they were, she knew that. But other people’s imaginations, to Beth, just seemed... inferior.
So she read her own work. And certainly there was plenty of it. When twilight fell, she lit a fire in the hearth and a small candle by her chair, refilled the glass of gin, and picked up the book again, chuckling to herself as Larion prepared to storm the Fair Castle Rhuligel and save Marleena. Naturally, Marleena would refuse to be saved; that was when the fireworks would start. “Oh, you minx, you little vixen,” she murmured.
That was when she heard the crash from the back yard.
Beth froze, holding the heavy hardcover on her lap. What was it? Definitely something large. Another goat?
She heard another noise, not a crash this time, more like a bump. It was closer to the house.
She slowly got to her feet, leaving the book on the chair. A goat would be good news: it would mean milk, or at least meat. She walked over to the doorway and peered down the hall, craning to see the back of the house, but it was too dark inside. A small window was set high on the back wall of the living room for cross-ventilation.
She sidled over to the window and stood on tiptoes, but could not reach to see out.
She could hear, though. She heard footsteps.
“Who’s there?” she called, making her voice strong, projecting to the rear of the audience as she had done for years.
The footsteps stopped.
A goat would have kept on, ignoring her in its desperate search for food. What other animal could it be? The dogs were all long dead, eaten mostly by one another, and then by the remaining people.
And the people were long dead as well. Most of them, anyway. If one in ten thousand humans had survived the plagues, that would have left Cyprus with a population of eighty. Not counting tourists, of course... but the tourist trade had slowed greatly before the final plagues. The last ten flights in had been matched by as many flights out before the planes were grounded for good.
Moving quietly, Beth left the living room and went into the hallway that led to the back door. It was darker here, and there was still a little light outside. She made her way to the window in the door, staying back a bit so as not to be seen.
A man stood in her back yard. He was staring at the house, the roof. The chimney. He must have smelled the smoke from her fire.
Ignoring the clutch of fear in her chest, Beth studied the man. He looked terrible; he was clearly starving, and filthy. But he didn’t seem plague-bit. He was about fifty, maybe, though it was hard to tell in his condition—no, she corrected herself. It was impossible to tell. He could be thirty or seventy, who knew?
Anyway, he appeared weak. Frail as Beth was, he was likely not a significant threat.
By the looks of him, he was not Greek or Turk or Armenian or any of the other more customary inhabitants of the island. He could be at least as English as she was.
What were the odds?
As she watched, the man suddenly became animated. She sucked in her breath and pulled back farther from the window. He took a step toward the house, then stumbled and pitched forward.
“Oh,” Beth said, as the man landed on his face on her cobblestones.
He lay on a narrow bed in the guest room, still unconscious. Beth cleaned and bandaged his bloody forehead, and had brought in some more halloumi—the last she had, it would be canned food after this unless she found more milk—in case he woke up. He was breathing, but unsteadily; his temperature seemed high, but she was no doctor. Beth had never been a mother either, had never wiped a fevered brow as people did in her novels. Maybe he was plague-bit. But no, there were no buboes, there was no swelling. And the only blood was from his cut.
She sat in a hard chair beside him, biting her lip. It had taken much of her strength to drag him here, and lift him up onto the bed. She wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if he hadn’t been so emaciated.
The man’s eyelids flickered and he gave a small moan.
Beth leaned forward, peering into his face. “Are you awake?”
“Ah...” One eye fluttered open, then shut. He gave a long, sour exhale.
Beth touched his shoulder, giving him a light shake, and touched his forehead again, next to the bandage. “Wake up.”
He was silent a moment, then both eyes opened. “Wh... mou... uh...”
“Do you speak English?” she asked.
Now his eyes opened wider. “Yes.”
“That’s good.” Beth stared into his face before looking away. “But then of course you do, everyone does.”
The man blinked, staring at her. He asked, “Where... where is everyone?” His accent was flat, broad—American, perhaps.
“What do you mean?”
He swallowed and glanced around the room. His face filled with fear. Terror, even. “Nobody’s here, are they?”
“I’m here.” Was the man a fool? Quite likely. Most people were fools, and if they hadn’t been before the world fell apart, they certainly were now. Or, rather, they were dead now, the vast majority of them. And the fools like Christos had sailed off to follow a dream, a computer hoax, a cruel fantasy someone had written, about a place called Grants Pass, where society would begin again. As if there was any chance of that.
“You...” The man struggled to sit up, and Beth didn’t stop him. He leaned against the pillows and shivered in the heat. “Who are you?”
“Elizabeth Barnett.” She watched his eyes as she said her name, but he gave no flicker of recognition. “Who are you?”
“Tyler.” He blinked and swallowed, and she stared at his throat, but saw no swelling. “Tyler Anderson.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Tyler Anderson,” Beth said, slipping into the tone she would use when greeting over-eager fans.
Tyler closed his eyes, leaned against the headboard, then opened them again. He had already smeared the white coverlet with his filthy, stained hands. But without water, she’d have no way of washing them. Everything was just going to get dirtier and dirtier from here on out, until everything was the color of the sun-baked earth. Including herself.
“Is it true that California...?” His eyes appealed to her as he broke off, then started again. “Is San Diego really ruined?”
Now Beth stared at him. “That was two years ago.”
She was not a nurse, she told herself that she didn’t care if he lived or died, but for some reason she fed him and cleaned him up a bit, and changed the bandage on his forehead. The bleeding slowed and stopped, and seemed like it would heal.
Once he was cleaner, she saw that he was even younger than she’d realized. Probably in his twenties, though he’d lived a hard life during those few years. Well, who hadn’t, lately?
He slept a lot, and ate the halloumi she brought, and the canned foods. Beth began to wonder if she’d need to make another raid on the neighboring houses, or even—god forbid—venture down into Larnaka again. Christos had packed the small cellar full before he’d left, even as he’d continued to beg her to change her mind. But an old woman didn’t eat nearly as much as a young man.
Within a week, Tyler was able to walk around a little, and a day or two later, he washed himself, using most of a bucket of brackish water. Beth brought him pants and a cotton shirt that had belonged to James, handing it to him without comment.
Tyler dressed himself, then came and found Beth in the living room.
“Drink?” she asked, indicating the bottle of Bombay on the sideboard.
“Oh my god,” he said, his blue eyes glittering with a touch of madness. Or at least that’s how she would have written it, as she thought about it later. In the moment, she only thought, Now, there’s a healthy young man who appreciates quality gin.
He poured himself a full three fingers of the stuff, his arms shaking as he lifted the heavy bottle with both hands. Sitting in the second leather chair, he raised the glass and smiled at her.
She lifted her half-empty glass, and they clinked.
He took a generous swallow of the gin, closing his eyes as it went down, and turned to face Beth, grinning. “Oh, man. That’s incredible.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “I take it it’s been a while?”
“Ha!” It wasn’t a laugh; more like an ironic bark, and a bit too loud. “Yes, it has. I’d say two years, at least.”
Beth leaned forward, holding him with her eyes. “So, Tyler, tell me: what do you know of what has gone on in our world these last few years?”
He took another drink, not quite as gulpish as his last, but she still noted it. If he drinks like that, eighteen bottles won’t be near enough, she thought. “Not a whole hell of a lot, to tell you the truth.”
“What’s an American boy doing in Cyprus anyway, now, knowing nothing? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve been in prison.”
Now he did laugh, though it was as bitter as before. “Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I was in prison.” He finished the glass of gin, setting it quite deliberately on the table beside his chair, next to the cut-glass coaster.
It turned out to be the usual story—young tourist arrested for drugs in a country with little patience for such things, thrown into prison to teach him a lesson. It would have had the usual outcome—his parents sending money or coming to retrieve him, a whole lot of nuisance and no lasting ill effects—except for the unfortunate timing of the apocalypse.
Tyler spoke no Greek, no Turkish, nothing but English. His parents had presumably died in the initial earthquake, but he didn’t know for sure, as communications went down almost immediately thereafter. The plagues had come then, sweeping across the world. He had known almost nothing of this as he languished in prison, waiting for rescue, for anything. His guards changed weekly, then daily, with no explanation. Then one died right in front of him, and he finally, belatedly, understood.
“How did you get out of the locked cell?” Beth asked him, swirling her drink.
He shrugged, looking down. “Reached out, took the keys from him. I thought for sure I’d get the plague then, but I guess not.” His words were casual, but his face was bleak. There was more to the story. If he wanted to tell her, he would.
He was vague on the timing—how long he had been out of the prison, surviving on the rough countryside. But that was because he didn’t know, Beth felt, not because he was trying to deceive. It had obviously been a while. He must have wandered the entire island before finding her. Christos had come to her in the first few weeks after the initial devastation, when the few survivors were banding together. And Christos had stayed with her when the others had left the island. Until he, too, could no longer resist the empty promise of a dream.
Tyler’s strength grew, and soon enough he was poking around the place, exploring neighboring houses, trying to figure out ways to improve their lot. Just like Christos had done. Beth was pleased enough to have the help, although she’d been doing perfectly well on her own, thank you very much. Tyler began talking more, yammering on to her in the evenings about everything and nothing—his boyhood in California, girls he’d liked, his world travels on a shoestring. She took to retiring early, going to her room with a book and a candle where she could read in peace until she felt like sleeping.
“What’s this?” he asked one day. Beth was in the kitchen, trying to decide whether to light a fire to heat up the canned lakerda or just eat it cold. She turned around at the sound of his voice. He was holding a sheaf of papers.
Beth recognized them at once. “Where did you get that?”
Tyler shrugged. “I was cleaning up, I found them. Is it true?”
“Give me those.” Beth reached out for the papers, but Tyler held them away from her. “I asked you where you got that.”
He stared at her, his eyes wide and needful. “We could find other people. We could go; we don’t have to stay here!”
“Put that down. You’re a goddamned fool, do you know that?”
He started to say something else, but she interrupted. “I said, put that down, and don’t speak of it to me again.”
He paled and set the papers on the counter, backing out of the kitchen.
Beth took the Grants Pass email hoax, intending to put it back in her bedroom, where Tyler had had no business snooping in the first place. She had made it perfectly clear that her room was off limits, yet where else had he gotten it? It was the only copy.
She stopped at the doorway, thinking for a moment, and then went back into the kitchen to light the fire.
But once he’d read it, he wouldn’t let it go. He was worse than Christos. “We can be saved!”
“You go ahead if you like,” she said. “I’m fine here.”
“I can’t leave you here. You’re, um, you’ll die.” He was shaking his head, stubborn, desperate. “Please!”
She laughed in his face. “You were going to tell me I’m old. I know I’m old, and I know I’m going to die. And therefore, I’m not going anywhere.”
“We can take a boat—there’s plenty of boats left in the harbor.”
“And petrol?” She sneered at his naiveté. “Do you know how many people already left the island? You don’t think they left a lot of petrol lying around? That’s why Christos sailed, you idiot American. And now he sleeps with the sharks.”
He bristled. “You don’t know that for sure. And yes, I am American—what of it? Why shouldn’t I want to go home?”
She waved at the harbor. “I am not stopping you.”
That night, she heard him sobbing in his bedroom, long after she’d gone to her own. “Mom... oh, Mom...”
So that was it: he missed his mommy. And he’d fixated on Beth, in some sort of perverse mother-complex way. She snorted to herself. “More like a grandmother.”
But the next morning he was at her again. She had to shout at him again to get him to stop. He stormed out without eating breakfast, and spent the day somewhere else. Down at the water, if she was any judge.
He returned at twilight, calm, not mentioning where he’d been. She offered him a glass of gin, and they sat on the veranda, drinking together.
After two drinks, he said, “I found a boat. I think it could make it across the ocean. And it’s got a full tank of gas. So I know I could find more.”
“I’m not leaving,” she said, without turning her head. The sun glimmered red on the water as it sank. “I hate America. And I forbade you to speak of this.” She set her glass down, got up, and went inside.
She walked all the way to her bedroom, then through it into her small private bath. Of course she didn’t use it as a bathroom any more—the septic tank was overfull, and there was nobody to call to come clean it out—but it had other uses. She opened the medicine cabinet, first looking, then rummaging, then yanking everything out. But they weren’t there.
He’d not only stolen the email from her bedroom. He’d also raided her stash of narcotics, carefully hoarded from James’s final illness.
Beth stood before the ransacked medicine cabinet, shaking with anger. She had to make him leave. He was not like Christos—he was worse, far worse. Bad enough that he would harangue her, try to control her. But that he should steal from her—that he should steal drugs from her—a man who had already gone to prison for drugs—oh, this was not good. A man whose life she’d saved.
“Not good,” she whispered.
She felt a prickle on the back of her neck and wheeled around. He was standing in the doorway of the small bathroom. She hadn’t even heard him come in.
He was pale, and shaking. Now that she knew, she recognized the signs easily. He must have taken several pills, and then two—at least two—glasses of gin on top of that. “Beth,” he started, taking a step towards her. The name was a bit slurred, the consonants softer than they should be.
“Get out of here,” she said.
He took another step, and now he was right in front of her. He reached up and took her shoulders in his hands, hard, and shook her. It hurt. She pushed back against his chest, trying to twist out of his grip, but he was decades younger than she, and very strong. “We... have... to... go,” he said, staring at her even as he rattled her thin bones. His eyes were too liquid, too glossy. “I’ll make you go.”
She pushed harder, and he abruptly let go, staggering back and bumping into the wall behind him. He didn’t seem to notice. “You’re drunk,” she said. “Go and lie down. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
He looked at her, wary. “You mean it? We’ll talk about it?”
She shrugged, resisting the urge to rub her throbbing shoulders. “You are in no condition to talk now.”
He kept staring at her, then turned and went to his own bedroom. She stood in the bathroom a long time, shaking, listening as he fell onto his bed. He was snoring within a few minutes. Only then did she pull her shirt open and examine the bruises, peering into the mirror. He’d crushed her shoulders so hard she could almost see the imprint of his fingerprints.
Beth re-buttoned her shirt and left the bathroom. She knew what she had to do.
She stood over his bed as he snored. He looked so helpless and frail, lying there. Almost innocent. Though she’d never had children, sometimes she could understand the appeal. Having someone to love, someone to take care of... Of course, she’d had James for that.
Tyler was somebody’s son. His mother and father had loved him and raised him, and had let him go, had watched as he had flown the nest. He’d flown far—all the way across the world, where he’d gotten in trouble and caught up in the terrible things that humanity had done to itself. Maybe he’d deserved better. Maybe not. Who knew anymore?
But it was too late now. There was no better to be had, and if he was going to refuse to understand that, there was nothing she could do about it.
She raised the knife, leaning over him to reach the far side of his neck. In book 8 of The Caged Sword series, A Clutch of Posies, Marleena finds she must murder the Lord of Terror, using only a dull kitchen knife. In her fear and hesitation, she botches the job at first, and he awakens and threatens her, but in a stroke of luck, as he is leaping onto her, the knife nicks his jugular and he dies. Then all the Sisters are freed, and the land rejoices.
Tyler’s white, exposed neck was surprisingly tough at first, despite Beth’s knife being as sharp as it could be. She remembered slaughtering the goats, and pushed harder. When she thought of it as butchering meat, it came easily. She even knew to step back so as not to get soaked with his blood.
The covers, of course—that was another story. Tyler’s blood spurted at first, another rush with every beat of his heart. Impossible to believe there could be so much; but the goats had been even worse. Soon it ebbed out more slowly, flowing down his body as he twitched, gurgled, and stilled. It spread across the white cotton coverlet, pooling and sinking in, threading fanlike out along the folds of the fabric. Beth watched it for a long time, unmoving, and finally turned to go.
She shut the door of the guest bedroom behind her, turning the latch that would keep it fast. The corpse would smell at first, but she knew that in this hot, dry climate, it would soon desiccate, even mummify. In any event, she could put a towel under the door if she had to. She wouldn’t need that room any time soon.
She walked down the hall to the kitchen, washed the knife, and laid it on the counter to dry. Then, she went to her bookshelf and pulled down the final book in her series: Alone at Heart.
Night fell as Elizabeth Barnett sat on the veranda with a tumbler of warm gin, the book unopened beside her, and waited for her world to finish ending.
This story originally appeared in Eastlick and Other Stories.