wormwood, pt. 22

Shouts and shots followed them as they fled, but they had a head start before anyone noticed them and they knew the streets here. This was home. They ducked into an alley and hid there for a moment--the cops had already called in a search team, but at least they wouldn't have a very good idea where to start when they did.

Then a door in the alley opened and someone said, "In here, quick."

There wasn't really time to make a decision. Rosalind looked at Nicole, who nodded, and they ran into the open door. A woman led them up a few flights of stairs to a large cluttered room with a small section lit by candles--a few couches and a workbench, occupied by a handful of other people.

The woman said, "We saw you turn in here. Thought you could use a place to stay."

"You saw us?"

"Yeah, we were right in the window. No one ever looks up. We're keeping an eye out for survivors."

Nicole smirked. "Survivors. Fuck. I guess that's what we are now, isn't it? We don't live here anymore. Now we just survive."

Rosalind picked out a spot against the wall and sat down. "We can't stay for long, but if there's anything we can do to help, let us know. I don't know if you guys are trying to do anything here or if you're just--"

"Surviving?" The woman shook her head. "We're planning right now. I always said I wanted to do more than just survive. Unfortunately you can't do much with it this dark. We had to steal these candles, even. We'd just waste batteries otherwise."

"Well, let us know."

"I will, thank you. I don't know how long you girls are staying, but you're safe here as long as you do. Like I said. No one looks up."


just go

We spent the evening drinking bad drinks and talking about whatever came into our minds just then. We talked about why she hated driving and why I cared so much about music. We talked about bikes and stories and the drinks we were having. And she kept asking me to clarify when I'd talk--choosing the right words or the wrong words to paint every picture perfectly, carefully--and she'd ask "but what do you mean by this?" or "how do you define this?" or "but how do you do that?" and eventually I ran out of definitions and I'd just say "you just fucking do, man." There isn't a trick to it. You either have it or you don't. It's not something you wrap up with words. I don't have a word for everything. That's why there's things I don't talk about.

But that's the world she lives in. There's a trick to it. There's a definition there. She uses words because they're right, not because they're beautiful or poetic or descriptive. They define the world instead of describing it, for her.

After drinks we walked for a while, not quite drunk and not quite sober, and found a park that was mostly empty and a tree that looked climbable. I climbed up into it and sat on one of the branches, and she tried to climb it, and kept saying she was too drunk for this, she didn't know how to climb up, and couldn't I just tell her how to do it? And I just kept saying there wasn't a trick to it. You just fucking climb it. Like most things, it's all in your head.



When the world is sick, can't no one be well.

I started getting headaches when I was too young to remember. I asked my mother about them one time and that's what she told me, so I guess I've been popping pills since before I could get all my food into my mouth. They never really got worse, but they didn't get better either. I always tell people "you get used to it" but you don't, not really. It hurts just as much every time, and every time you think maybe this time you won't be able to take it, maybe this time you won't get to the pills in time, maybe this time you're going to die. It's always maybe this time until the time you're right, I guess.

I don't even know if it can actually kill me. I just know that the world stops screaming when I take the pills, that then I can lay down and wait for it to pass. Then it's at least bearable, even if I can't really do anything for a while after.

Actually, I lied about not getting used to it. Not the pain, exactly, but it puts a lot of things in perspective. You can put up with a lot of shit because, hey, it could be worse. You've been through worse. You're constantly going through worse. And you keep telling yourself that in the hopes that one day it'll work.

wormwood, pt. 21

And no one knew or no one cared.

It wasn't far to walk before they started hearing gunshots, and it wasn't much further that the sounds seemed to be coming from all around them. They hadn't heard any of them from earlier, but it sounded like they were dying down--just the occasional burst in the distance, like the police were just rounding up stragglers, or perhaps like those same stragglers were shooting back at the police. After that point, they moved a lot more slowly, but there was never anyone around the corner--at least not anyone still standing.

About ten blocks from where the car was parked, they passed one of the burning buildings, lit by the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Rosalind sat down against the opposite wall and looked up at the flames. "Makes you wish you had some marshmallows."

"Should call Winston. He's probably got some."

"I think he's out of town."

"Pity." Nicole walked to the corner to check around it and found herself face-to-face with a police officer with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

He stopped dead and stared at her. "What the fuck--"

She punched him in the face, and he dropped. She stood there for a moment just staring at him, then took the cigarette from his mouth and tucked it behind her ear. "Gonna need that later. Rose, time to run."


wormwood, pt. 20

lady i swear by all flowers.

The police blockades were abandoned as Rosalind and Nicole walked through the city. They had better things to be doing now. Emergency vehicles raced past as they walked hand in hand, heading to the skyline, to what must have been the heart of the fires. The storm was nowhere near sufficient to explain the damage to the cars and buildings here. Cars were on fire. Doors and windows were smashed in on houses. Bodies lay bloodied in the streets, little dark shapes only visible by the light of the burning skyline.

Someone was sitting on the sidewalk up ahead--a boy somewhere in his late teens or early twenties, sitting and smoking a cigarette. He spoke as they passed: "Where are you going?"

"Home," said Nicole.

"You don't have a home anymore, lady. You look like you're going into town."

"Yeah, something like that."

"I heard they were shooting people in town now. Anyone they see out, they said. Figured anyone still on the streets were just there to cause trouble. No looters and no rioters."

"Where'd you hear that?"

"People that came from town. You don't want to go down there. You'll just get yourself shot."

"Well, thanks. I guess we'll keep our eyes open."

"Hey, don't blame me when you end up dead."

They kept walking. Once they were a few blocks away, Rosalind said, "Well, this should be fun."

"Yeah, I just hope the car's still there. They haven't invented a cop that can stop me."


wormwood, pt. 19

For a long time, they drove in silence. The streets were deserted and the sky was black, and Winston drove slowly with the lights off until they were out of town and on the abandoned country roads that led out of the little town and back to the city--and the coast. The dull red glow of the fires grew brighter the more he drove, but he kept going.

The man sat in the driver's seat, staring out the window. The woman slept in the back seat, as far as Winston could tell. Eventually the man said, "So what's your story?"

"I was just out camping when I felt the earthquake. I went back to town and call my friend Rose to see if she was all right."

"Was she?"

"Probably. She hung up on me."

Another minute of silence passed. Then, "We live in the city. It was supposed to be our honeymoon. Nothing fancy because I was supposed to be back on the boat in a couple days. The plan was for a buddy to pick me up on his way back to the coast."

"The boat?"

"Fishing boat. Captain got hold of us and said, you want to survive the apocalypse, you should come to the boat. I figure, not everyone'll come. And we'll need extra hands. You any good with your hands?"

"I--I'm more of a thinker, really--"

"You'll learn, kid. You'll learn."

"I hope so." Winston frowned. "What do you think? Do you think this is the--the--"

"The apocalypse?"

"Yeah, that."

"Don't matter what I think. I've got a boat waiting for me. And I promise, kid, ain't no safer place in the world."


wormwood, pt. 18

Can I get you some more wormwood or something?

The panic at the library never quite stopped, even with reassurances that now that the storm had died the firefighters could try to stop the spread of the fire. Some semblance of order returned when the police arrived and barked instructions--the citizens were to be evacuated and brought to one of FEMA's refugee camps.

Winston took the opportunity of the distraction to slip out what should have been an alarmed fire exit, and hurried to his car. The windshield was shattered and the entire body of the car was beat up, but after brushing the worst of the glass from the seat it started up just fine.

He would have fled the parking lot immediately, but a man and a woman stood in his way. "Going somewhere?"

Winston hesitated, then opted for honesty. "Don't know. Apparently the city's on fire too. I just don't want to rely on FEMA for my food and shelter."

"Yeah. I saw you make a pretty quick exit from that library, so we figured you might have a way out." The man smiled. "Tell you what. Let us ride with you and I'll take you somewhere I know won't be on fire."

"Where's that?"

"Middle of the ocean. Sound good?"

Winston glanced at the library. So far the police were still inside, but he didn't know how long that would last. Probably until they could gather up the library's emergency supplies. There wasn't time to make a proper decision, and this seemed like the best option available. "Yeah, all right."

"That's the spirit, kid. Let's drive."


souvenir shops

If it drags me down, what can I do but follow?

My girlfriend found this shop online that will sell you souvenirs of all your favorite memories. Like most souvenir shops, a lot of them are kind of tacky--we really don't need a snowglobe of our first kiss, although the attention to detail is pretty remarkable. When she was shopping it was mostly for her memories, and she was happy to tell me the stories. She really liked the recordings of those memories--available on any type of media you wanted, but she opted for digital downloads, since we don't own a TV and mostly just watch movies on the computer. She also got one or two audiobooks for going over on the way to work.

I didn't look at the shop for myself at first, but eventually we watched a few of her memories and she pressured me into it, so I finally opened it up.

Mostly they were memories of times where I'd fucked up somehow. In all of them, I'd lost something I had hoped to keep forever. Childhood injuries, being rejected by the girls I liked in high school. There were none from the current relationship, but there were entire sections of the shop dedicated to the endings of all my previous relationships--from the ones where it was an awkward and quiet realization that this wasn't working to the ones where there was screaming and cursing and breaking things. Each was represented as a glorious tableau of postcards, coffee mugs and t-shirts.

After my girlfriend left, assuming the store must not work for everyone, I bought the snowglobe of my most recent ex-girlfriend throwing a box of my things on the porch. It captures her mid-throw, looking furious--her mouth is closed because she had not said anything to me in a week at the time. I am standing outside. I don't look angry at all. Instead I look hurt, confused, even apologetic. The look in my eyes is the one that you give to someone who you love very much but who you are never going to see again.

It arrived this morning, while my girlfriend was out. I've spent most of the day just shaking it and watching the little flecks of fake snow fall around the scene. Tonight I'll put it on top of the fridge and forget about it, but for now I've got nowhere better to be. Maybe it's not the store that was broken.



You look like death.

We had the perfect date a few weeks ago, and I've been avoiding her ever since then. I could see our lives unfold from that moment. We'd be so cute together, complementing one another. We had a real shot at happiness. And not just happiness, perfect happiness. The kind that nobody ever gets. The kind where nothing will ever go wrong for either of us ever again.

She's called and texted few times. She's trying not to seem worried or confused or upset but I know she is. Everything is so precisely worded, like she's planned this a lot, she's making sure she's not saying the wrong thing. And she isn't, I guess, it's just there's no right thing to say. It's not that I don't want to see her, even. Of course I do. What kind of a fucking madman gives up a shot at perfect happiness?

But I had to. That life scares me. Perfection is an end. There's no what happens when you arrive, because you've already got there. No screaming arguments. No days or weeks where you just can't stand the thought of each other, only to run into them later and try to say something nasty but instead you just say "hey" and act like it never happened, and all that pent up anger and hatred just flows away like it was never there in the first place.

Perfection! You don't change when you're perfect already. You can't go on a months-long journey and come home a different man, hopping from seedy couch to seedy couch, living dangerously, alone and confused in a strange city with nothing holding you back. You could be anything you wanted here--unless you already have perfection waiting for you at home.

And I can't tell her that. Because she'd argue and she'd convince me that she's right. We'd give it a shot. I'd be happy. I'd be happy and I wouldn't need to know anything else in the world. And that fucking terrifies me.


once just to start a fire

There will be more wormwood after these commercial messages.

It's been a few years but she was still in town and we meet for coffee, and it's exactly like old times, and that feels wrong, because surely we're different by now. But her smile is the same, and her laugh, and the way she tentatively brushes my hand is the exact same, and I still feel like I'm so lucky that she's spending time with me--not in that stupid "she's so beautiful and she has time for me" sort of way, but in the "I will never again meet someone whose company I enjoy quite this much" sense. The sense that I already know that I lost a long time ago.

Except this isn't nostalgic. It's the same as it had always been. Like she'd never left. Like all of the distance between us is gone because of that thing her hair always did no matter how hard she tried.

Coffee turns into drinks, which turns into going back to her place and talking for hours, which turns into kissing on the floor. There are no questions--no "why did we grow so far apart?" or anything like that. Just more promises of eternity, and just like the old days I even believe her. She probably believes me, too, but I've worked too hard on this to let it turn into something it's not. I've already started over, moved on, left this a beautiful memory, something perfect. And nothing is ever perfect, not really.

Part of having freedom, of having power, is actually making the choices you have. Otherwise are you really free?

Just like old times, I can't sleep with her next to me. As soon as I'm sober I jump on my bike and just ride as hard and as far as I can. I lock up to a fencepost and sleep in a park miles north of town. She calls me in the morning and it wakes me up and I just smile and ignore the call.


wormwood, pt. 17

All the nightmares came today, and it looks as though they're here to stay.

Rosalind woke first, sore from the shop floor. She listened for a moment, then woke Nicole. "Rain's stopped. Looks like it's still dark, too." Nicole stretched and walked to the chained-off storefront, and stood there motionless for a long time. Eventually Rose said, "You all right?"

"Rose, you might want to come look at this."

The skyline was entirely on fire now. Some of the buildings were gone, and others were engulfed in flames. The sky was black with smoke or clouds, glowing a dull red in the light of the flames. Some of the buildings were barely burning anymore, but they weren't shaped right. There were bits missing, or twisted parts, creaking and listing ominously. As they watched, one of them crumbled with a dull roar they could barely hear.

Rosalind took Nicole by the hand. "I wish I knew what to--"

Nicole pulled her close and kissed her for a long time. Then she said, "We need to get the fuck out of here. Back to my car. I will personally beat the shit out of anyone who tries to keep us from leaving this city."

"What about--"

"And I will fucking kill you if you try to run off without me again."

Rosalind smiled and squeezed her hand. "I'm here."

"You'd better be. We're going now." Nicole stuffed her still slightly-wet clothes into her bag and slung it across her back.

Rosalind stood at the entrance for a few moments longer. She could hear sirens now, a distant wailing in all directions. A police car raced past as she watched, headed south along the street. Eventually she turned away. "Finally some sirens, at least."

"It's a bit late for that."

"I guess so." Rosalind smirked and sent Winston a text message: "City is also on fire. See you in hell?"


wormwood, pt. 16

I open up my wallet, and it's full of blood.

The shop Rosalind and Nicole had taken shelter in was a used clothing store. There was no cash left in the till, but they managed to find clothes that looked decent enough by the light of their flashlights, anyway. Neither of them spoke much for a while as they waited for the storm to let up and their clothes to dry. They kept their lights mostly turned off to conserve batteries. Nicole paced restlessly, and Rosalind sat quietly by the entrance, watching the storm.

Eventually, Rosalind said, "You know, I don't think I'd ever even seen a hailstone before today."

"I had. When I was a kid. My brother and I ran outside to play in it. It was like snow, all light and fluffy and tiny."

"Was it fun?"

"Dunno. There was a big crash of thunder overhead, scared the shit out of us. We ran inside. It was gone in like twenty minutes." Nicole stopped pacing and sat down against the counter. "We were gonna be storm chasers. Take pictures and write about storms like this, I guess."

"I don't think there's ever been a storm like this."

"Maybe not. I like it when it's sunny now."

"Yeah, next time it's sunny out we should go for a walk." Rosalind smiled. "The hail's stopped. Maybe we won't be stuck here forever." Her phone beeped, and she glanced at it. "Oh, and the forest is on fire. Winston is trying to flee."

"Well, so long as we're not getting uniquely fucked, I guess."

"Your irrepressible optimism inspires me. Shall we pack up now and brave the weather?"

"I'm still fucking cold. It's not like anyone's going anywhere, what with the world ending and all."

"Then I guess we wait." Rosalind sat down next to Nicole and put an arm around her shoulder. They fell asleep waiting for the rain to stop.


wormwood, pt. 15

Winston closed his laptop and slipped into the stacks while the crowd at the library panicked--some were bolting for the exits and others were clamoring for light, looking for employees. It was a mess. He never carried a flashlight--Rosalind always insisted that he always have at least that on him, but he always said he was fine. He hoped that one day she would shut up about it. He was navigating by the light of his cell phone now, and starting to regret not taking her advice.

Someone shouted for everyone to calm down. The uproar didn't die down. Then there was a crash--a table being upturned--and silence settled over the library. After some further shuffling, some lights were set up--a few flashlights and a handful of candles.

"We need you to please be calm," said a very frazzled-sounding young man. "We've got emergency supplies to last and I'm sure the storm will pass soon. We'll be alerted by radio as soon as we know when the power will be back. In the meantime, if anyone has any flashlights or anything else that could be helpful, please help us out."

The man kept talking for a while, but Winston tuned him out. Everything he took with him for camping was in his car, which was currently being buffeted by hailstones which, according to a woman at the window, were the size of her head.

There was some more commotion at the window. He looked over to see a red glow on the horizon. Then the radio crackled at about the same time as someone shouted that the forest was on fire.


wormwood, pt. 14

Kiss me, you're beautiful. These are truly the last days.

The storm had started letting up when Nicole finally moved again, reaching into her bag to grab a cigarette with shaking hands. She clenched it between her lips and fumbled for a lighter.


Nicole lit her cigarette and opened her eyes then, staring at the darkened skyline as the lightning flashed against it.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah." She sighed and slumped back against their storefront. "Just needed a smoke, is all. You know me." Her words were completely flat.

"Yeah, that's you." Rosalind tried a smile, her tone more desperate than anything. "Cold and wet and bruised and bleeding with the world ending and you're fine. It might get to other people, but not you. You're strong. Don't need anyone or anything."

Nicole's answering smile was wry, and she spared Rosalind a glance. "You're right, you don't." She shook her head and stared straight ahead again. There was a long silence. Then, "There's bodies in the street."


"There's bodies in the street, Rose. Just over there. And you know what else? Not a single siren all night. Is it even night? It's still fucking daylight in the real world, isn't it? But no, it's quiet. No sirens, just the wind screaming and the thunder crashing. Bodies in the fucking street and not a single siren."

They looked over at the burning building. It was still burning. Most of its former inhabitants had taken cover elsewhere by now, or were out of sight, but there were two shapes laying in the street, motionless. Were it not for the firelight reflecting on their pale skin they would have been almost invisible.

"The whole city's shut down. And it's not like you could drive an emergency vehicle in this weather, you know?" Rosalind shivered. "I shoulda brought a jacket or something."

"Wouldn't of helped." Nicole flung her cigarette into the street. The rain doused it almost immediately. "I think it's worse actually. It's all clinging to my arms and it won't dry off. Fuck. Maybe we can dry off by that burning building. It's been a while since we had a real fire."

"It'll have to be a while longer. But tell you what. Let's break into this shop. It'll be warm and dry and maybe there's something in here worth keeping."

This time Nicole's smile was sincere. "You're beautiful."

Within a few minutes they were inside, the chains safely locked behind them, their clothes draped on the counter to dry.