BY WILL DEMANBEY
“Do you suppose there will be anyone left to remember us?” I asked the bartender as he quietly polished an empty glass. He looked up, the gears in his neck clicking to a halt as his eyes found me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, a rigid smile on his face. “Repeat your request, please.”
“Do you think anything will remember us, remember this world, once everybody is gone?”
The bartender blinked twice.
“I’m sorry, I am not designed for such a response. Perhaps an engineering or biochemical unit could assist you.”
“It’s not a fricken math problem.” I motioned to the crowded shelf of alcohol. The bartender nodded, and unscrewed a bottle of maple colored liquid. I looked around the vacant place, lights all on, tables clean and orderly, the jukebox flashing in the corner. Everything was waiting patiently for a crowd that would never arrive. They haven’t come for months.
“A bit slow tonight,” I said with a faint smile.
“I expect it’ll pick up around seven. It always does.”
“Not tonight, friend. Didn’t they tell you guys? The last ship is takes off in just a few hours. By the time seven o’clock rolls around, I’ll be the only customer left on Earth.”
I laughed, hoping to see some change in his frozen expression.
“Doesn’t sound too good for business, huh?”
The bartender blinked twice.
“I expect it’ll pick up around seven. It always does.”
“Right. You told me.”
I sat there a long time, staring at the counter, feeling around inside my head. I tried hard not to think about anything. I focused on the fan blades flickering in the mirror, counted the checkered tiles on the floor. I slowed my breathing, attempting to will myself into a trance. All I needed was a couple hours of nothing. But every rouge glint of light, every squeaking joint in my grinning companion shook me right back to time, to space, to thought, and an empty glass.
I was thinking about you again.
“Thanks,” I said, putting some money on the counter.
The bartender nodded, and I walked out the door with the bright neon sign. Outside, the sun was making its way toward the horizon, and up and down the street all sorts of metal men worked tirelessly. Each one performed the task it was born to do, moving perfectly in synch with millions of others across the globe. Farming, manufacture, import, export; everything runs like clockwork. Everything done for us, and with a smile. We made it so people didn’t have to worry about jobs, or about money; so they could enjoy themselves. And they did. And it was beautiful. And then it began to die.
It wasn’t pollution, or global warming, or anything else we could have hated ourselves for. It wasn’t explained, it wasn’t expected, but everything green and alive on the Earth just stopped. Little by little, patches of grey would pop up at random, growing larger and larger as the days passed, turning lush forests into barren valleys. But there was no alarm, there was no need for panic. Steps had been taken long before. We had found other places, other worlds ideal for starting fresh, and to a great many people it was little more than an inconvenience. Everything was so calm, so relaxed. The world was ending, but everyone went about their lives exactly as they had been. And so did I. And so did you.
I walked down the street, passing by two wind-up men who swiftly emptied trash cans into the back of a large truck. They didn’t notice the cans were already empty, and have been for the longest time. I guess people thought it’d be easier to just make more workers when they arrived at the new world, rather than try to ship the old ones there. I thought it would have been kinder to shut them off rather than leave them spinning about, maintaining a planet of dust. But if the tin cans didn’t mind, I suppose I really shouldn’t have either.
I stopped in front of the old swing set by the library. The chains were all rusted, and the seats squeaked when the wind blew, but it was still very much the same as it had been. That was the first place we met, remember? I was sitting on the swing when I spotted a pair of dirty feet up in a tree. You poked your head out from behind a branch and waved, and I waved back.
“Want to come up?”
“I…I don’t like heights.”
“It’ll be an adventure, then,” you said, as you offered me your hand.
But it wasn’t though, not really. I ended up falling, just as I thought, and you had to come down and do damage control.
“See?” you said, sitting down next to me as I whimpered over a scraped elbow. “You have your first battle scar. Now you can show everyone how brave you’ve been.” You nudged my shoulder and smiled. “Want to try again?”
We would find all sorts of games to play and trouble to get into as the seasons passed. But the warmer days, the afternoons meant for outside and sunlight, those I remember the clearest. We made our kingdom in the field behind my house, and the wall of trees that encircled it shielded us from the slowly greying horizon. You loved to run through the tall grass in bare feet, always describing a new grand structure that would one day be added to our realm. We would draw up plans and schematics, painstakingly plotting out the terrain. You were in charge of the drawing and design of the buildings, and I would come up with how tall they would be, and how wide, and anything else that had a number. You didn’t like numbers.
In the middle of the field, on top of a small hill, was an old twisted apple tree that towered into the sky. It was so black, and its bark so splintered that one would scarcely think it alive, but every spring it would blossom into a thousand white flowers without fail. When you’d see this giant shimmering in full bloom, you’d race up the hill and start to climb, gripping the trunk with your toes. I’d always try to follow you, reaching from limb to limb, but I never had the courage to climb as high as you did. So there I would sit, a branch or two below, and we’d talk. We’d laugh about the past, and sigh about the future. We’d talked about the adventures we were going to have and the dreams we were going to force into reality. You had such big plans, such grand ambitions. You were always thinking, and working out the details of the life you wanted.
Though we got older, made other friends, and liked different things, our tree remained the same. Our summers stayed sacred, and we always found ourselves back at that spot. I would watch you smile through the leaves at the field below, and I knew you were happy. And I was happy, too.
“This is our tree,” I remember you saying. “It’s the very first tree, and it needs us. We’re responsible for it now. And we’re responsible for each other.”
That memory is so clear because it was the last time our tree bloomed, and it was the last summer our kingdom was anything more than a yellowed clump of grass. I expect, above everything else, that’s why you decided to leave. You needed the trees, and the grass, and the flowers, and the smell of the wind as it blew through them all. You needed that as much as air, which was itself slowly growing thinner every season.
As the years passed, the bright pamphlets crowded our mailboxes with exotic animals, huge trees, and colorful flowers. We buckled down as people left in the millions. We went about our lives amidst an ever greying landscape, and stood strong even as friends and family took off for something better, something alive.
You called me up one day, shortly after the last bit of green had finally vanished. I hadn’t heard from you in a few months. We talked maybe five minutes. You probably don’t remember. You laughed, and I smiled. Then you told me you were leaving, and I wasn’t smiling anymore. You asked if I was going. I said no, and I made a joke about our tree. There was no laughter this time, only a pause, and humming silence. That conversation played back in my head many times after that, and I realize that pause was where “Please don’t go” or “Come with me” would have gone, if either of us had chosen to say them. But I understood why you couldn’t stay, a lot more than I understood why I couldn’t go. All I knew was that I had a responsibility.
I kicked an empty can on the side of the street, and realized I had been walking a long while, almost unconsciously. And without knowing where I was, I spun around and noticed I was on my old street again. I looked a ways down the road and saw a rusty red mailbox with a bright yellow flag. It’d been a few years since my family took the trip, and I hadn’t been back to the place since. The yellow flag was up, and I thought for a moment to look inside, to whimsically check and see if they’d sent me a postcard. But as I reached for the mailbox door, I looked down at my watch: it was almost seven o’clock.
You would have boarded by now.
Something inside urged me to move, and I ran before I could question it. Past the rusty mailbox, past the backyard with the overgrown sandbox, and through the thicket of grey trees that were once an impenetrable wall. I kicked off my shoes as I sprinted across the flattened yellow grass, up the hill where our tree stood silently against the sky. I wasn’t sure why I had to make it there so quickly. I only knew I didn’t want to be alone.
My lungs ached from the thin air as I approached the ancient giant. Twisting up with its flaky black branches, it was still as inspiring as it had always been. In that moment, it really was the first tree, and our field was The Garden. I wondered if I might just spy a snake coiled on a high branch, come to greet the last man as he had the first, and whisper the answers to all my questions. But there were no more snakes. They had gone as everyone else had, and left me with the thoughts that continued to claw their way around my head. When this world is abandoned, when hundreds of years pass and everyone who ever lived here has long since died, will anything remember? Will all of the love, hardship, and sacrifice throughout countless lives cease to matter? Will the stars or the emptiness of space keep any fragment of this green place alive, or will it have only ever been grey?
I knelt down beside the tangling roots, and my fingers traced an old scar by the tree’s base, where I had carved our initials that first summer. I had hoped maybe this timeless guardian might soak them in, let us become one with the history of its rings, and keep us safe forever. But our tree had died, and that’s why I couldn’t leave. If I left, I knew I would forget. And someone had to remember. Remember that we were young once. That we were happy. That we weren’t always old and separate and spinning in place as we repeated each day like the tinker toys who ran this empty world, but were together and content to dream. Wasn’t it owed to us? Wasn’t there someone to be held accountable?! Was it really my responsibility?!
I clawed at the trunk feverishly, tearing off strips of bark, trying to erase the meaningless scratches etched there. Thick clouds were starting to gather in the orange sky when I heard a faint pop in the distance, followed by a low crackle. I stopped, and suddenly wondered if maybe I could see your ship from where I was standing. I spun around, but the horizon was blocked by the ring of grey trees that encircled the field. Desperately, I grabbed onto the lowest branch of the tree and pulled myself up. I dug my feet into the trunk as I clambered higher, frantically reaching for something that had long since escaped. I looked up and saw your branch: the one you would always sit on. It was just high enough to see above the tree line. I slowly stood up on my branch and leaned over, stretching out as far as I could. I had to make it there, just once. I had to prove I wasn’t afraid anymore.
I sprang forward, my chest slamming into the branch as my arms wrapped tightly around it. I panted as I pulled myself up, kicking in the air for something to push off of. But our tree was dead, and my old friend could no longer support me. As I swung my leg over the top, I heard a hollow cracking, and the branch gave way beneath me. I twisted in space and landed flat on my back, the large branch crashing down beside me at the base of the tree.
I lied there defeated, aching, and tired. It was as if in that moment of falling, all the fears I held inside were affirmed. I felt shattered, and began to sink as a raindrop landed on my cheek. I opened my eyes, and above our tree I saw the tiniest point of light rising higher and higher into the sky.
“Sorry,” I whispered, as the rain came down harder. “I don’t think I’m cut out for adventures.”
I nudged myself against the base of our tree, and sat beneath a large overhanging branch that shielded me from the rain. I watched you go until your light mingled with the stars as they emerged from behind the clouds. Hundreds of tiny white points, shimmering like blossoms in the sunlight.
I fell asleep gazing at the sky, holding tight to the memories I had struggled to protect. I dreamt of green fields, and the warm summer breezes that blew over them. I heard your voice, and we made grand plans for the future. I saw once more your contented smile as you looked out from behind the leaves. And you were happy. And I was happy.
I want you to remember that.