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The End of Her World

by J.M. McDermott


(A soldier stationed in Germany didn’t want to tell me about his time downrange. So, he told me about all the deep thoughts he had while he was stationed here. He heard I was a writer, and he wanted me to hear his story, to write it down, and to tell the world about him and his life on this earth before he went back downrange to die. He was drunk. He was hitting on me. Of course he was drunk, and hitting on me. He was a soldier stationed in Germany talking to a young, American writer about the end of the world.

He smoked, too. And he was ugly. He didn’t really know what to make of me because army guys don’t meet a lot of lesbians.)

He says, I don’t think the world will end with the weapons I’m guarding. I don’t think this empty stretch of damp concrete adumbrates the future of the cities when the war machines level the buildings and all the towers fall into a rubble of concertina wire and dying men in isolation suits and nuclear winter.

I’m in front of the dangerous weapons, watching storm clouds tumble all over each other like lovers wrapped in gray pillows frantically rolling into the moment of the rain.

I think that the end of the world will come when the people choose to leave the cities for the wild places.

Someday people will forget why soldiers and healthcare and schools matter. We’ll just walk away into the green hills like African Bushmen. It happens everyday somewhere, when men and women decide to walk away from homes and civilization and become bums or survivalists. It happens all the time in Africa, Arctic Canada, China, South America, and the Pacific Islands. People just collectively stand up, and walk into the wilderness with nothing but a knife and a vague sense of primitive purpose.

And some folks will try to hold on to civilization. We’ll be guarding these places like soldiers until no one knows why — not even us. And cults will form around these sacred spots. And radiation poisoning will claim any who defile the temple. And civilization will start over around these forbidden places.

I tell my fellow soldier on guard duty about how Bacchus made the pirates into dolphins, and they swam away, joyfully into the sea, with a freedom the children of Athena — like us — will never know.

He tells me I should read the Bible and give up all these false mythologies for the love of Jesus Christ. He tells me that he’d love to pray with me.

After duty, I got on a bus downtown, and thought about how the buses of Germany have signs prohibiting the wearing of roller skates, and the eating of ice cream, and how someone must have died of rollerskates, and ice cream. I got off, and I was thinking about death, and I was thinking about death, and I was thinking about all death.

• • •

Then, I see the dark woman.

I can tell she came from Russia, originally, because of the way she stands in darkness and the way she looks at the world in darkness and the wonderful Russian syrup in her accent. She smokes cigarettes in the Mainz marketplace beside a man with a llama’s bridle in one hand and a coin can in the other. She smokes with one hand and gracefully runs her other hand’s fingertips, with her long, red nails, across the llama’s long neck.

When she sees me looking at her, she puts the cigarette in her mouth. She grabs the lapels of my jacket. She says something wonderful in German. I have no idea what she says. Then she says something in Russian. I still don’t understand.

I drop a single Euro into the llama man’s can. I take her arm. She leads me into an alley between a clothing store and a travel agency. We take an elevator up to the top floor. She leads me to a single room apartment with one window. I lean out the window, and the bustling city moves with the anonymous kind of love that happens in any neighborhood — that general sense of well-being while people who recognize each other say hello.

She has an electric pot — no stove in sight — sitting on a table covered with bunched up clothes and receipts and a cereal bowl that had become an ash tray and bits of fruit loops and dried up milk slept beneath this loamy ash from foreign cigarettes and broken, lipstick-stained cigarette butts curled erotically around cigarette butts with no lipstick stains at all.

I sit down on the bed. It’s the only place to sit. I could reach out and touch her long, black hair. She stands near the table, waiting for the tea to boil, and she lights up a new cigarette.

The room stinks of cigarettes and something else I can’t place, but familiar.

The pot screams when it boils. Hot steam runs up the wall, and I notice how the wallpaper beside the teapot’s mouth has curdled and bubbled like a second-degree sunburn.

(That reminded me of when I rubbed lotion into her back in St. Louis in our puny motel room after we had spent all day walking around and she had forgotten that this one spot on her shoulders was exposed to the sun in this normal, t-shirt when that spot wasn’t exposed in her usual uniform. She had this little line, like a collar of bubbles on her shoulders. I had to be so careful when I put the lotion on her, and it was disgusting to feel all those fluids moving just under her skin.

Oh, my dark woman.)

The Russian girl gets my attention with a snap of her fingers. She hands me a cup of peppery tea.

She, apparently, speaks a little bit of English. She says “Drink” with the throaty femme fatale way that has warmed a thousand cinema screens. She points at body parts. She lists escalating amounts of money.

I give her everything in my pockets, and it’s almost enough for everything I want from her.

The tea on the table cools while we warm to each other’s touch. When we pretend to strip naked we keep the pleasure masks of our commerce between us, so we do not open up our faces, really, in intimacy. When we pretend to scrape at each other’s skins ravenously, she speaks one small word that could have been German for ‘there’, or Russian for ‘yes’.

Da… Da… Da… Da… Da…

And maybe it’s English, too, and I push that out of my head because I don’t want to think about what her father would think about this thing we’re doing.

I just want one thing from her. I get it.

Afterwards, she lets me rest in her bed while she smokes another cigarette and watches a reality television show dubbed from Dutch to Deutsch about a whole neighborhood block that has become a walled city and all the people inside lose contact with the outside world, lose all their privacy, and do not know exactly what will keep them in the city or get them voted out.

The show simulates the outbreak of a dangerous plague, and not enough medicine exists to keep the population alive.

It’s the end of the world.

• • •

Each week fans watched the show and in between shows, fans surfed the many dedicated websites with all these life stories that don’t fit into the one-hour time slot. Fans voted to give their favorite people the weekly medicine or to let them be carted off.

Each week these people inside the show watched the men in yellow isolation suits appear, take half of the survivors by the arm, and lead them away to who knows where off-screen. The rest got a bottle of pills for the week — placebos, I assumed.

With the language barrier and the horrible quality of the picture in the hidden cameras, I couldn’t tell if these people knew this was only a television show. I couldn’t tell if it wasn’t real, either.

One night a crowded city block had gone to bed. The next morning concertina wire separated them from the civilized world. Men in terrifying isolation suits handed out placebos and cut off all communication with the outside, blaming the plague. Each week, half their number got no medicine and they were led away to their imminent doom in a hospital bed.

Placebos went every week to the ones that had gotten enough votes to survive. They could do whatever they wanted with the pills. If they didn’t take all of them they were led away as if they had been voted off. They could give them away if they wanted, or sell them.

A certain Russian prostitute never seemed to die, though everyone seemed to hate her on the show. I watched how she kept finding someone to give her a placebo in exchange for one, long night that European television showed in sensual, stylish blips that — the advertisements assured us — had extended into various adult websites available for subscription.

The woman in the bed with me pointed at the woman on the screen. “Schwester,” she said, “Sister, ja?”

I nodded, sadly. I saw the resemblance in a flash. I rubbed her shoulders.

She pushed me away. She looked at me like she was disgusted that I had touched her.

I put my clothes back on.

Just like a real epidemic, the very old and very young died fast. By the time I had my foot out the door, there were only beautiful young women, and men with quick tongues and chiseled abs. They fell in and out of love recklessly, tears streaming down their faces as their friends and families disappeared to die.

In the real world, I left the dark woman there, while she pulled for her sister. The door opened and closed without a good-bye. I left behind a pack of cigarettes, like a placebo, but mine were deadly.

Halfway down the hall, I heard her scream in agony. I knew it was her sister. Her sister had been led away by the men in isolation suits and had left television and had returned to the marketplace and to smoke cigarettes and live the kind of life where people don’t look at her. When the icy fingers of death really did spread across her face she would only be a smell of perfume and smoke, like burning gardens. When the men like me smelled her, we would — alas — remember nothing.

(I finished my cold absinthe in the bar with the soldier. I carried this soldier’s story across continents. Now, I’ve given all the soldier’s words to you.)



J.M. McDermott is the author of two novels. Last Dragon, his first, was #6 on Amazon.com’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008, and was shortlisted for a Crawford Prize for first fantasy. The second novel, Maze, will be out in Spring 2011 from Apex Books. Watch for news at www.jmmcdermott.com.


May 2010