With all this talk about getting married twice in Mexico, I thought it a nice time to share my short story about the end of the world called Till Death Do Us Part.
I think this is my longest short story to date, yet it’s only six pages.
This piece will always mean a lot to me – I think it was the story that helped me transfer from novels to short stories.
And I think it’s about as descriptive as I ever get.
Till Death Do Us Part
Now the ships had the planet surrounded and the two of them boarded up the windows. Together they took the planks of wood from the pile behind the shed and drove them into the siding with long, thin nails, making sure to use every last one in the box.
He inspected each inch of the house and when he was satisfied that he had done all he could he found his way over to the liquor cabinet. I can’t see it making a big difference, he thought. Well, at least it does one thing. At least it makes her feel better.
He set the glasses on the counter and stacked them with ice and it stuck out from the top of the glass. Better use it now while we have it, he thought. And refill the tray right away. Any of these drinks could be the last cold one, he then thought.
All right, he thought, sure, have your thoughts, but don’t be dramatic around the girl. Don’t let your face show it.
He set the rum, vodka, whiskey, tequila and gin on the counter. The girl came over and positioned herself under his arm, and he pulled her in tight.
“Have a drink,” he told her, “There’s nothing else to do right now.”
The girl did not say anything.
“Go on,” he said, “Pick what you want.”
“Make me whatever you have,” she said quietly, and then went into the other room and sat on the floor next to the fireplace. It was approaching dusk and he could hardly see in the house anymore, the light from the day too dim now to enter through the gaps in the planks and brighten the house.
“Throw some wood in the fireplace,” he called out as he poured the vodka. Then he thought, I’ll save the whiskey for when the ice is gone. Vodka is one thing I can’t do neat.
Earlier, he had picked a lemon from the tree and now he cut it into small wedges. From the cabinet he removed the sugar bowl. Half full, he thought. That could last us a few weeks.
He squeezed the lemon into the vodka and mixed in the sugar, putting extra in the girl’s. She piled the wood in the fireplace, and he went over and lit the last Duraflame. He watched as the flames burnt away the paper and then as the logs began to catch, the small sticks crackling.
“Pick out a record,” he said. The girl did not smile but went over and selected one. He dropped down the needle, hearing the warmth of the scratches as the record spun.
When I think of heaven, deliver me in a black-winged bird.
Taking his place next to her on the floor, the fire now picking up, he could feel its warmth and stretched out on the blankets. She already had it rolled and held it out for him. Instead of taking it, he held up the lighter and she put the end in the flame, spinning it in her hand, pulling it back and puffing on the end until it glowed bright orange. That beautiful orange, he thought.
“I feel fine,” he told her.
“How can you say that? Did you forget about tomorrow?”
“We can’t change it,” he said, “Don’t miss what we do have.”
The girl rolled her lips and put her eyes to the sky, breathing in and raising her head back. He doesn’t get it, she thought, he doesn’t care either. It’s just another bullshit cliché of his.
Keeping it all inside, she said, “I’m trying my best.”
“Enjoy the smoke and I’ll put on something relaxing.”
He removed the record from its sleeve, replaced the first, and dropped the needle.
My garden is filled with papayas and mangos.
As she exhaled the smoke and passed it, he could see her trying to breathe out the stress and in that moment, sipping the drink and holding the joint, he noticed the fire and the music and the girl, and felt the softness of the blankets and saw the vivid, white-orange glow of the fire dancing on the walls. Seeing her face in the light he saw all the details, the very soft face and moist lips that seemed so defeated, the hair pulled back and her entire face soaking in the warmth of the fire. For all I’m losing, he thought, look at what I’ve gained.
“Close your eyes,” he told her, “Close them and slide closer.”
He placed his hand on the side of her face and gently took hold of her head, pulling her in and kissing her lips. The fire’s heat was on the right side of his face until she dropped her head and had her cheek on his neck, blocking most of the heat, and he could feel her warm breath and one of her hands running through the hair on the back of his head.
“Oh, baby, what I would give to erase this whole thing.”
“Forget it all and be here with me,” he said, “I won’t let you lose anything else.”
She said, leaning back now and taking his hand, “In your heart of hearts, what do you think they want?”
He looked at the girl. The last day the television worked, he had seen the images and heard the reports. Two-hundred ships, they said, days after it was only one ship hovering in the middle of the Pacific, disrupting communications and bringing planes down into the water, demanding attention. He looked over at the calendar, seeing where the girl had crossed off the days. On this, the seventh day, he had finally quit checking the television for a signal. He had stopped trying the phone. They could turn on the lights if they wanted, but he never bothered with it. He told her it was best to save the energy.
It seems to me they are sending more ships for a reason, he thought. Then he said, “I’m not sure.”
Her eyes watered and she rested her head on his shoulder. “Forget it, don’t tell me anything else,” she said.
“What can I do for you?”
“Tell me it will be all right.”
He was worried about the girl. He would protect her physically when the time came, but for now he had nothing to do with his strength. I may never get the chance, he thought. As the ant in the hill we poison never sees us, it so too might be our fate. Oh, what a feeling, he thought. The problem is we refuse to see the beauty in it, the fact that we had it coming. The food chain and natural selection are much easier to accept when you find yourself at the top. We were so eager to explore before we even understood what we might find. At last, curiosity will kill the cat.
Well, that’s not entirely fair, he thought. He remembered the conversation from the first day, after the first plane went down, when she had asked, “Oh, Jake, why did we ever vote to make contact?”
“Because we needed to know the truth,” he had told the girl, believing fully in what he had said.
“And now look what we’ve done.”
“Yes, look at what we’ve done. We’ve broken through thousands of years of brainwashing.”
“Well, what a swell feeling we have here now, Jake.”
“Awfully swell,” he had said truthfully, but also in a way that mocked her.
But that was before, when the television still worked and the windows weren’t boarded up and he knew it was no longer appropriate to say such things to her. He knew that well now and always chose his words carefully. So long as she doesn’t turn on me, he thought, the whole world can turn to shit so long as she doesn’t turn on me.
As the girl sat with her head on his shoulder, waiting for him to comfort her, for him to tell her it would be all right, he felt a sense of panic, not for the ships or anything outside, but for the girl and how she would handle tomorrow. More importantly, he thought, the way she would spend the rest of the time. I don’t want to scare the girl, he thought. But here we are with what could be the last of the ice and we’re beginning to drain the bottles and we should be appreciating each sip, each minute of it. When they’re gone they might be, well, gone, he thought. For once, the word will take on its true meaning.
“It will be all right,” he told her. “I believe that fully.”
He took a long sip, tasting the cold lemon flavor of the vodka drink. He could see the bark on the wood begin to peel off the log, the flames coming between them. I hope the girl doesn’t think I’m lying, he thought. Truly, all the things in life that bother me are gone now. Survival is finally enough, he thought. There’s a sense of relief in that.
But the girl did not think this way. Wiping her eyes, she said, “You know, Jake, we would have been great together.”
“We are together.”
“You know what I mean.”
“But we are together now and we are not at the end.”
“Yet,” she said, putting the glass to her lips.
“Drink up,” he said, “It will make you feel all right.”
She took another drink. “This is what we’ve come to.”
Seems awfully nice to me, he thought. I’d really like to hear that song, though, the one I was thinking about earlier when I picked the lemon. Maybe it will cheer her up. He let her hold his drink and changed the record, then sat back down and brought her close.
“I love you, baby,” she said, hearing the song, both of them now singing along.
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
“Oh, how I love you,” she said, tears in her eyes again. “If only we could go back to when we first heard this song.”
“You remember that night in the mountains?”
“I remember it well.”
“I loved you the same then as I do now.”
“Oh, Jake, if only we had more time.”
He had the glass turned up and then he held it and shook the ice, confirming it was all gone. He took both of the glasses and began to stand up.
“Here, let me get us another.”
As if it took all she had to say it, she muttered, “Should we put some away in case it gets really bad?”
He heard the question as he entered the kitchen and set the glasses on the counter. That’s an interesting little thing right there, isn’t it, he thought, deciding what to do about rationing. As soon as the store is pillaged, they’ll come for it. They’ll come for it all eventually, he thought, and the boards won’t stop them. It’s either enjoy it now or protect it later. Well then, he thought, I guess that’s a pretty easy one after all.
He reached for the vodka bottle. There was a fourth of it remaining, and he held it up and then placed it off to the side. That’s her favorite, he thought, so maybe that’s something to hang on to for tomorrow.
Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow I’ll surprise the girl and carry on as we would have. I’ll have her put on the dress and I’ll light a fire and we’ll stand in front hand in hand, and I’ll be in my tux and we’ll take a picture together and we’ll look at it every night until the battery in the camera runs out.
We won’t be able to have the cake, he thought, but we can put on a record if we feel like dancing. I think I’ll step out early tomorrow before she wakes up and pick a few flowers. I think at this point it’s still all right to go outside. In a few days I’ll have to set up some sort of lookout, or at the very least a couple trip wires.
Oh, but it’s not so bad for now, he thought, at least the electricity still works. We can make the ice and keep the food fresh. That’s all I need, the fire and the girl and the booze with the ice. I’ll take that for now. Actually, it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Instead of writing thank you cards, we’ll be surviving together.
For all I’m losing, look at what I’ve gained, he thought.
Once again he stacked the glasses with ice and refilled the trays. He poured the rum over the ice. He took the last of the bread from the refrigerator and then all the jellies, strawberry and grape and raspberry. He loaded the bread and the jelly and the drinks onto a circular tray.
Then, entering the dim room with the tray in his hands, he said, “Yea, baby, I’ve put some aside for you.”