I can’t help thinking this is all my fault. It all went wrong the day I ran away.
Can an apocalypse be one person’s fault? I think so now.
I’m sitting here again, on the remains of what used to be my home, used to be my world. Surrounded by rubble mountains of what used to be my neighbours’ homes.
Sitting here because...what else is there to do?
Silence. Complete silence. No chortling magpies or cooing pigeons. No swallows searching for the perfect place under my eaves to build their nests. No birds at all, in the same way there are no eaves anymore.
No barking dogs, no traffic hum, no drone of planes overhead. No people talking or laughing or arguing. No televisions or lawnmowers.
But that’s not quite true. It’s not completely silent, is it? The ever-present wind hasn’t stopped for days. It pushes, whistling, through the broken buildings, winding through the skeletons of cars, across the damaged and broken fields. It thrums in my ears, musses my hair, caresses me with icy fingers, blows ash and grit into my eyes. I have twin dirty black trails running from my eyes to my chin and beyond. I can’t stop crying.
It’s been several days since I heard any other noise. I thought I’d be glad when the screaming stopped, but I’m not. I’m scared. I’m scared I’m all alone now; the only living thing left in the world. Ego trip, right? What makes me so important that I should live while everyone else died?
My sacrifice was going to save the world but instead my cowardice killed it.
I was to be the only one that died. Instead, I’m the only one that lived.
It feels like a lifetime ago since I volunteered to be a sacrifice to the gods. Every year one person stepped forward to take an offering up the mountain and take one for the team, so to speak.
My life in exchange for the life of the world. Peaceful times, fertile lands, clement weather, bountiful harvests. That’s what the gods promised and how could we refuse?
For the cheap price of one life every year, everyone else lives in safety and comfort. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Society didn’t think so.
Invisible for most of my life, I became an instant celebrity—just add water, right—when I volunteered. Before I experienced fame, I thought I wanted to die. I had nothing to live for. No one would miss me. No one would remember me.
I was always that kid chosen last for sports and games at school. No one ever thought of me. Always forgotten, always under the radar. I got left behind on a school camp once because the teachers didn’t remember me. Even my mother didn’t remember me at the end of her life.
So, I volunteered to give my life for theirs and they’d have to remember me. Right?
Believe me, I was as surprised as you when I was chosen. All those entries and the computer spat out my name.
Those three months were the best months of my life. Everyone knew who I was. I was a global superstar. People shook my hand, wrote me letters, sent me parcels, penned articles about me. Even if most of it wasn’t true, it made me sound like someone who mattered.
I was so sure when I set off that day, but about halfway up the mountain, the doubts started to creep in.
Are there even any gods? I wondered. As far as I knew, no one had ever not gone through with the sacrifice. There was no evidence this yearly tribute was anything but superstition, a hangover from society’s primitive days.
We have cars and phones and planes and science, I thought.
How can we believe the fate of the world lies in invisible beings? Why has nobody questioned this before? I wondered as I pushed my way through the undergrowth and scraped my hands climbing the rocks.
It turned out that I didn’t truly believe. I didn’t have the faith I thought I had.
At the last moment, I chickened out and ran. I wanted to live.
I thought the odds were on my side. Welp, I was wrong.
No one even knew I’d run. The self-sacrifice had to be performed alone by a willing devotee. As far as everyone knew, I’d done as promised.
Less than a day after my scheduled time of death came and went, the destruction began.
Seven days of mass devastation. Who could have seen that coming?
On Monday, massive earthquakes shook and rent the earth, destroying lands and people, swallowing towns and cities whole.
On Tuesday, titanic tsunamis flooded coastal areas, mashing bodies and structures together and washing them far from home.
On Wednesday, wicked tornadoes and hurricanes formed across the oceans, forcing their way inland, blowing away any remaining villages and crops and devastating huge swathes of land.
On Thursday, thunderous storms flooded rivers, forked lightning lit up the sky before turning its attention to the ground. Huge blazes swept through forests in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.
On Friday, furious landslides swamped civilisations, burying people and animals and plants beneath mud and debris.
On Saturday, stupendous volcanoes erupted, big and small, new ones sprouting where there were none before. Fiery boulders shot into the air, crashed down, and scarred the landscape like a bad case of acne. Blistering lava rolled down mountainsides, blanketing whole islands.
And on Sunday, savage meteors came in hot and fast, blasting huge craters, incinerating anything in their path, finishing the job.
I don't know how long ago that was because time now means nothing.
How do I know all this? I see it all around me and I see it in my dreams. Vivid, lurid dreams of death and destruction. Are my dreams messages from the gods? Are they laughing at me or punishing me? I don’t know.
How did I survive? You tell me.
What I do know is that everyone’s gone. Everything’s gone. Except for me.
I thought I knew what loneliness was but I had no idea. What I wouldn’t give right now to see one other person, or a dog, or a bird. Anything slightly alive. At this point, I’d even take a wriggling earthworm. I’d give it a name and a home and make it my friend.
Ash contaminates the river. The orchards and fields are sodden and sad. I’ve survived by digging through wreckage to find tinned food and bottled water. I have a large cache at the supermarket down the road for now. Two days of digging but it was worth it. It’s the only place I can get out of the wind. When that food’s gone, I’ll go house to house.
Do I even want to live? I ask myself that every day but I still eat and drink and sleep and sit. My survival instinct is still stronger than my death wish.
I spend most days now, sitting here. I was alone here and now I’m lonely here.
I look wearily at the path that runs from my absent front door to my broken front gate. I miss my garden. Gardening took me out of my head, gave me purpose and peace. The year-round bloom of bright colours made me feel like I wasn’t just a waste of space.
Now the world has lost its colour. I look around and feel like I’m in an old black and white movie. No more blues or yellows or greens or whites. Just bruised and broken reds and purples and browns and greys. Even the water, now corralled back within its river banks, swirls grey with ash and silt. The trees are broken and dead, like the houses, like my mind.
Do I now believe in the gods? Did they do this because I ran away? I’m still not sure. It could have been a coincidence, couldn’t it?
Now that the floodwaters have receded, the smell is getting as loud in my nose as the wind in my ears. The smell assaults me but I put up with it because I deserve it. I deserve to remember what I did.
Am I destined to live alone forever? Is this my own Hell? Is this even real? Maybe the world is still alive and I’m the dead one.
I close my eyes and contemplate this for…I don’t know how long. What is time?
I force my eyes open again, lift my head, and stand up with a groan. It’s getting late and the nights are cold even though it’s summer. I need to get back to my cave and burrow in for the night.
I sigh and take a step, forcing one foot in front of the other. I wonder how long before I just stop moving and lay down forever.
Today, however, something catches my eye in this drab and dreary landscape. It’s so out of place my eyes are drawn to it, like when you drive past a car crash and can’t look away. I kneel and my trousers immediately suck up the moisture from the ground like a man lost in the desert.
I’m looking at a small green shoot, a brand-new plant, sticking its head up out of the ground. Something’s trying to grow in this godforsaken earth!
I think my laugh sounds crazy. It’s been so long I’ve forgotten what laughter is supposed to sound like.
Am I imagining this? With my nose almost on the ground, I reach out and touch it gently with the tip of my finger, half-afraid my death touch will kill it instantly in the same way I killed the world.
I quickly gather rocks and put them around this miracle to protect it. Protect it from what, I giggle. There’s only me. Exactly, I think. It needs protection from you.
I don’t want to go but I can’t stay out here all night. I’ll freeze or get sick.
I promise the plant I’ll be back tomorrow, and my voice sounds strange to my ears.
I’ve hurried back here every day for who knows how long? I’ve watched my friend fight for life. I sit for hours talking to it and I swear it grows, every second of every day, a little taller, a little wider, a little greener.
A marigold. Just the one that doesn’t care it’s the only one.
Today it’s given me a golden bloom. It’s more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen.
Some cultures believe marigolds symbolise death and despair, but others see them as life and hope. My marigold has moved me along the spectrum from death to life, despair to hope.
If one flower can grow from nothing, maybe I’m not alone. Have the gods forgiven me? Are there other survivors?
A surprising warmth tickles my neck. I look up and blink rapidly but can’t look away. The sun is breaking through the clouds and the heat on my face is unlike anything I remember.
The wind has dropped and I look around properly for the first time in a very long time.
I can hear the heartbeat of the world starting up again, see the colour returning to its cheeks. That brilliant blue sky, those white cotton wool clouds, the green carpet starting to coat the gardens and the fields.
Where once there was only brown and grey and death, there is now colour and vibrancy and life.
I look down and see another small shoot next to my marigold.
I know I would sacrifice my life for my marigold in the way that I didn’t for my world.