The parties were always the same. The group would gather in a communal front yard. They’d start taking things. Pills that made them hallucinate. Pills that made them sink under water. Pills they’d crush up and snort up their noses. Combining them all together so that their thoughts became muted, and reality no longer mattered. They started in the afternoon, draped over the moldy couches in the front yard, downing powders in plastic cups full of beer that made the sky flicker, and the dust beneath their feet feel like butterfly kisses. They’d keep it going until the pleasure was gone, and the fear crept back, like a curtain at the end of an opera. Then, their heads aching, they’d wait out whatever stimulant was coursing through their systems, so that finally, long after the sun had risen, they could fall asleep.
She’d tried it a little bit at the beginning, when she’d first arrived. It was long after the fall; both of her parents were dead, and all of her siblings. So was Colum, she was pretty sure, and he had taken with him all of her dreams.
There was nothing to work towards. No ladders to climb. No industries. No media.
She should have kept moving, she supposed. But then Charlie took her to bed with him. The artificial escape he offered with those pills, after so much struggling, was easier.
Or it was at first, before it became mundane. Human beings adjust to anything quickly. She would wake up in the afternoon to stomach pains, a terrible feeling of sickness, and find her determination to live replaced by dread. Later, sitting there amongst them all, the young people who had been saved by the strange guests, and abandoned, without explanation, in this homestead purgatory, she began to feel disdainful. This disdain prevented her from truly detaching, no matter what sort of drug she took. She couldn’t obliterate herself. She didn’t want to be part of their artificial community.
At night, she began walking off by herself, to the edge of the dirt field around which their houses were grouped, where the charred stumps of trees that once grew in public parks remained. Lying down behind a fallen log, curled up, she would wish away the flickering so that she could finally fall asleep.
At first, Charlie had come to find her, high on whatever. Even though she didn’t want him there, he’d fold himself around her, staying even when his friends started calling their names, exhorting them to return to the party. When the drugs wore off, and her discomfort abated, they’d fall asleep. When they woke up, in the unforgiving sun, he’d squeeze her, and whisper that he really liked her. After a few weeks, he started calling it love. It was ridiculous, given the circumstances. But it gave her a simple excuse to stay there, in the rotted sleepaway camp, instead of pioneering out on her own, to find the next encampment, the next horror, the next mystery.
When she started refusing the drugs, at first, he had seemed understanding. “Don’t worry about it, baby,” he said. “I won’t take them either.”
He was a nice guy, Charlie. His cheeks sunk low, and some of his teeth were missing. His hair was falling out in patches. But at some point, he had been handsome. Sometimes, when he was high, he’d tell her about his history. His father had been a billionaire. One of those guys who, when the end seemed near, had built a vast underground compound with enough provisions to last him, his family, and their staff for hundreds of years. Even though the site was hidden, and the ground around it was laced with weapons, the strange guests had come. “I mean, of course they did, we were all so fucking stupid,” he said.
They had killed Charlie’s mother on the spot, right there in front of his eyes. “Don’t tell me,” she said when he began that particular story. Her mind was a library of atrocities. No good in adding another card to it.
So instead, he explained that the strange guests had agreed to keep him and his brother alive if their father would give away the locations of some of his friends. “I think he knew where the president was hiding,” Charlie said. “Back in their university days, they’d been roommates.”
The strange guests separated the two brothers, taking Charlie to the camp where he was now. When he arrived, he’d found fifty or so of the kids he knew from school, or had heard about because their families were also “important.” They were partying, quite literally, like the world was about to end. The site was on a cul de sac in one of those ancient suburban housing projects, the kind of rare but concentrated places that were ideal for the strange guests to herd their human captives. There were five houses in total; the rest had been burned or razed years ago, to make space for impossibly vertical housing units that the middle classes had been packed into after the sea level began to rise, drowning entire cities under water.
They were livable but crumbling apart, like the dilapidated—but luxuriously large—old shitholes the rich kids had rented for ridiculous sums when they were in college, where people fucked in the staircases during parties, and kids snorted amphetamines off ping pong tables in moldy basement storage rooms. The paint was crumbling on the walls. The floors sagged. But the mattresses were clean, and always, there was plenty of food, and shit that made them so fucked up that it was fucking crazy, dude. Or so Charlie explained, with his limited capacity for descriptive adjectives. Neither he, nor anyone else on the compound, knew where it came from.
People in the vertical housing projects were still alive when Charlie arrived, and he was still relatively straightedge. A few wild nights in college. Some experimentation afterwards, but not too much, because he was being groomed as the heir apparent to his father’s empire, and he took his destiny seriously.
On his first few nights at the compound, still believing that someone would come save him, he started out slow. A beer or two. Maybe some pill to lessen his anxiety. But then, the cries from the housing projects would fill the air like the soundtrack of a horror film in surround sound, and he’d take whatever he could get his hands on, until he was so deep under the influence that the screams started sounding like dubstep. He was ashamed to admit it, he said, but sometimes it sounded so good that he got up and danced to it.
Of course, all the heirs-apparent marooned at the camp got addicted. So addicted that even when they were awake, they couldn’t summon the energy to move beyond their cul de sac. And when they started popping things, they lost interest in what was going on in the world around them, even when the screaming abated, even when it disappeared completely.
She had come upon them from a great distance, and she knew that their camp was an oasis in the middle of a wasteland; the dead center of an explosion. They were the resilient life forms that still flourished, the worms, the cockroaches, the bacteria. If you could even call what these hallowed out half-adults were doing, flourishing.
Three months in their company, and she was itching with boredom. Honestly, if this was what she’d be fighting to stay alive for, she’d rather be incinerated. So she asked Charlie—whose doting she had grown somewhat used to—if he’d like to move on with her, to whatever else lay out there, even if that something else was death. He said yes, of course, my love, and she told him that to make it, he’d need to get clean.
He tried for two nights. She had to believe that he really did. But on the third night, when she lay sleeping, he snuck out, and joined the party. When she woke up alone, she went out to find him. When she did, his guilt manifested itself in hostility.
“Fuck off,” he told her, his eyes unfocussed, his pupils so dilated that this eyes appeared black.
“You fucking loser,” she whispered.
Still, she stayed, because really, what was the point of leaving? There was food in the camp, and there was shelter from the sweltering daytime heat. There were women who were kind to her. A socialite who now looked like a strange guest, in a weird way, with her looping gait, and her long, starved out limbs. The daughter of a famously cruel dictator, who in the long, heavy nights, was all touchy-feely and sweet. A formerly porky princess. The acne scarred daughter of the vice president. They were almost comically similar, grouped together like this, not a single one extraordinary.
Sometimes at night, the girls would come find her on the roof where she’d dragged a mattress—a vantage point, just in case—to talk about their fears. “Do you think they’ll come for us soon?” they asked.
And even though she knew the answer, she’d say, “No, of course not, they want you to live, or else why would they be feeding you?”
Hazy and numb, the women allowed themselves to believe her. But she knew that the strange guests weren’t keeping them alive for no reason. Maybe they were collateral, in the unlikely event that the humans were still staging a resistance. Or maybe they had plans to use them as fools in their courts, once their brains were sufficiently mushy. More likely, the strange guests just hadn’t gotten around to dealing with them yet, these addled children. One night, she suspected, a group of hunters would come upon the camp. Bloodthirsty—as they always were, at least in her experience—they’d wreck horrors, torturing the addicts. If they were hungry, they’d eat them. She hoped that her companions were high as kites when it happened. At least then they wouldn’t be able to tell if it was their own legs being torn off, or the legs of the person beside them.
It didn’t take long for her to she stop trying to convince Charlie to leave. In those first months, he had been grateful to love someone; but when she had asked him to rise to the occasion, and venture into the unknown, he found that for all of his former bravado, he possessed not an ounce of courage. By forcing him to confront that, she became a mirror for his weaknesses. “Fucking cunt,” he would say, shrugging her off when she tried to talk to him. “Get the fuck away from me.”
“How could all of those good people I know have died, and the strange guests have saved these awful human beings?” she thought to herself as she watched Charlie and the rest of them from the roof, sometimes fucking each other sloppily, sometimes on the brink of violence, and sometimes just lying there, in drooling stupors.
This was how they were when one night, in the half-light of dusk, she saw the strange guests’ elongated shapes darting around the edges of the burned trees. The hunters were measuring their prey, and their arrival, for the pathetic group of survivors she was leaving behind, meant the apocalypse.
She grabbed her pack, scrambled down the impossibly long flights of stairs that connected the roof to the ground floor of the house, and ran across the wide dirt expanse, as fast as she could, her eyes closed, her heart beating.