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If the world ends we meet at the autumn house

If nothing is how it was supposed to be, can it still be beautiful?

By Alexandra HubbellPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
If the world ends we meet at the autumn house
Photo by Aude Lozano on Unsplash

I grew up safe and loved in a house that looked like autumn. It was a warm white, almost yellow, like the glow of a light you’d want to read by, with deep reddish-brown shutters and two French doors. The doors matched the shutters, and we swung them all open in the summer, which always started early and ended late.

It sat on top of a hill, guarded by cliffs on one side. On the other side was the ocean, and on a clear morning it seemed endless. We were closed and open, large and small, high and hidden all at once. Even once we grew up and moved away, my mother told us that if the world was ending, we’d come back to this house. We’d burrow together in the basement like mice in the winter. We’d hide from the snakes and the hawks, a family of little survivors, curled up under the earth. The world wouldn’t harm us. We’d be a part of it like the roots of the trees, the bones of the dead.

I think the world may be ending now. My boyfriend kicked me out when the pandemic started. My new apartment has flimsy locks, a steady, ruddy drip from the kitchen faucet, and a less than handy landlord. He told me not to knock unless it’s an emergency, and to wear a mask if I did. I hear him coughing through the floorboards. Everyone is getting sick now. We’ve been told to work from home, and I’m deeply alone.

So, I go back to the autumn house, like my mother said. I quarantine, then I rent a car. The man at the rental shop slides the keys under the door with gloved hands. The sedan smells like chemicals. The news on the radio is all bad.

My mother is on the front porch, watering the ferns. She turns when she hears my car in the driveway, and she stands straight, beaming and waving. Her straw hat topples from her head, catching on its ribbon around her neck.

“My darling girl,” she meets me at the end of the sidewalk. “My Beth.” She wraps her arms around me, and I release a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I close my eyes. She sways us back and forth, and she smells like the ocean. Maybe, for a moment, that’s where I am. I’m carried in a wave. I always imagined the sea as a mother, both tempest and calm--as mothers can be--and that’s how I envision my own mother now. I let her clumsily guide me to the front porch, her hands tangling around me, trying to keep me close to her even as we walk. I taste salt as tears fill my eyes. I hadn't been held in a while.

“She made it!” My father all but skips to the door, and a twinge of leftover adolescent embarrassment flushes my cheeks. I don’t know how to react to someone being so thrilled that I’m anywhere, and my eyes roll involuntarily. I ask him to settle down though I don’t mean it. I wish I hadn’t as I watch his enthusiasm dull.

He takes the excitement he has to temper with me and unleashes it on my mother, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, squeezing her too tightly for her aging frame. They both look at me longingly, like I’m not really here, like I couldn’t be. My father’s pointy chin rests lightly on my mother’s head, and the straw of her hat crackles between his chest and her back. My mother never cares about things like that, and she lets him love her.

“Well, we’re clearly just so excited you’re back,” my mother says, and she gently pats my father’s arm to release her. “I’ve made coffee.”

The kitchen is happy. The ivy patterned wallpaper crawls up to the ceiling and down to the floor. It smells familiar, like detergent through the whole house. It’s laundry day, and I see neatly folded piles of clothes stacked around the living room.

Dad hands me a cup. Their mugs always made everything taste better. They were family heirlooms, thick-rimmed and avocado-colored with D-shaped handles. They made hot cocoa taste better on snow-days and tea better when you had a sore throat. They made the coffee taste fresher on the mornings after high school parties Samantha and I snuck out to when she stayed over. Now, they make the coffee taste better when the world is ending. The jade ceramic feels rough against my tongue, and I run my lips along the edge of the glass before I take a sip. I let the drink burn the roof of my mouth before I swallow.

“So what’s on the agenda for today, Bethie?” my father asks, productive even when the world stops turning.

“Well, I have all my things in the car, if you wouldn’t mind helping me carry them in? And then I need to call my landlord, tell him I’m searching for someone to sublet, and that I’ve shut off everything in the apartment for now.”

“You didn’t tell him you were leaving?” my mother asks, but she isn’t accusatory.

“No,” I say. “No one really is telling anyone anything, they’re just going or staying. It's chaos. It took hours just to get to the rental place. It seems like the entire city is leaving this weekend.”

“Smart,” I’m startled by a deep voice behind me. My brother walks into the kitchen and wraps me into a hug. “Only a matter of time before they lock us down.”

I hug him back hard, and he smells like sweat and a juvenile, familiar body spray he must’ve found in his childhood bedroom.

“Mark, I didn’t know you would be here!” I say, my voice muffled against his chest. “They didn’t need you in Colorado? No one live close enough to each other out there to get sick?”

“They sent us all home,” he says, pulling away but keeping his heavy hands on my shoulders. “I figured they’d ship us out to California to help, but the government is consistently inconsistent. They decided it'd be safer to send everyone home for a few weeks before we take action. See how things play out.”

Mark goes to the refrigerator. He picks through the contents, inspecting Tupperwares, sniffing at cheeses. He settles on a handful of baby carrots, and he offers me one. I crunch it between my teeth. When we were kids, Mark told me that it would be easier to chew through a human finger than to chew through a baby carrot, and I almost retch at the memory as I crush what could have been tendon and bone against my molars. One knuckle, two knuckles, right down to the palm.

“So, you got dumped?” Mark says indelicately.

“Mark,” my mother turns from the sink where she’s washing dishes. The window sill above the sink is cluttered with little figurines and handmade ceramic treasures made by our elementary school hands.

“It’s fine mom,” I say. “Yes. I got dumped. Right when they told us to hunker down with those closest to us. So now, I'm here.”

“Beth, will you go out and pick some more tomatoes for me?” Mom asks. I nod. I step onto porch and take a deep breath. The air is thick and humid, like after a storm. Everything is heightened at the end of summer, and I can smell the tomatoes. I can taste the dirt, the grass, the grapes swelling like tiny pregnant bellies on the vine. Even the ocean clings to the heavy breeze, its briny, sulfuric scent carried over the cliffs. There’s something metallic in the air too, unfamiliar. Like something on fire.

I step down to get the tomatoes, and I see a little rabbit quivering a few feet away. I pick a piece of lettuce and toss it in its direction. It waddles up to the lettuce and begins sniffing it in the suspicious, twitchy way that rabbits do. I hear a small ping, and the rabbit collapses. My own heart stops a moment, and my ears begin to buzz. No. My eyes fill with tears. I reach out to touch it, but a strong grip around my wrist stops me.

“Bethie, don’t!” Mark yells as he yanks me away. The rabbit’s fur is matting around a bloody dimple in its skin. I shove him away.

“Why would you do that?” I yell.

“Beth, you don’t understand--”

“You said killing animals like that was inhumane,” I scream. I lurch for the rabbit again, and he grabs my arm just above my elbow. He pulls me back. “You work with the EPA for Christ’s sake. He wasn’t going to get in the garden, there’s a fence--”

“It’s not the garden," he says. "It's more complicated than that, Beth.” The look on his face makes me soften. His eyes are filling too. “They didn’t send me home.”

My brother wouldn’t leave his job. He loves the adrenaline rush. He fights forest fires and raids drug farms. He builds homes and feeds children. I thought for sure they’d suit him up and have him out saving lives. But he’s here, isolated with just us.

“I came to help you guys,” he says. “To warn you.”

“Warn us?” I say.

“The news, the government--well they hide a lot. They aren’t telling the whole story. You don’t know everything. ”

“I never said I did--”

“Yeah, well, that rabbit could have killed you,” he says. It looks like a stuffed animal left in the grass by a toddler. He’s so serious. I laugh.

“What are you even saying?”

“Any mammals could be carriers,” he says. “Out west we’ve had to kill pets, livestock. And it spreads fast. That rabbit was dying one way or another.”

“You’re serious,” I say.

“Serious enough for a vegetarian to shoot a bunny,” he shrugs. “It’s going to be just us for a long time, Bethie. Nothing else. No one else. No one allowed in here, and we don't go out there. Just us and the autumn house.”

We’re quiet for a long time. The wind rustles the trees so hard that the brushing leaves sound like rain.

“He hasn’t called you know,” I whisper. “I thought he’d at least call.”

“He won’t,” he says. “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it?”

Another rabbit bounces through the grass. It spots us and stops short. I can see its body tremble as it tries to sink into its surroundings. I take the BB gun from my brother, and he doesn’t stop me. I shoot the rabbit just behind the right eye. It shrieks like a child, only for a moment, before falling like the last one. We don't cry this time.

“Or maybe just the beginning of one I never thought I’d be in,” I say. I clutch the locket around my neck and pull the delicate chain so hard it snaps.

“You and me both,” he agrees.

“You don’t have to kill the rabbits anymore,” I say. “I will.”

He nods and takes the locket. He digs a little hole and buries it.

I gather the tomatoes, handing a few to Mark. We hear more shots somewhere in the distance, over the cliffs, across the bay. Word will spread. More will come, I’m sure, along with other worse things. But through the window we see out parents are dancing in the kitchen, and for a moment nothing’s changed.

Short Story

About the Creator

Alexandra Hubbell

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Insta @alexandrahubbellart

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