The Apocalypse or Whatever
One fine day in the present: future past tense
Thalia was woken from a dream where Suzie the property manager rapped relentlessly at the sliding courtyard door. There was a scale tucked under Suzie’s arm and spittle flying as she yelled, “One pet up to 35 pounds!! You signed the contract – UP TO 35 POUNDS!!”, while Chuckit stood up on the glass barking gleefully into her face in a grand display of his excessive largeness. She woke to the sound of someone rapping relentlessly on the sliding courtyard door and Chuckit barking next to her on the bed. “Dammit dammit dammit” she muttered, grabbing a sweatshirt from the floor to throw over her t-shirt as she rushed out, kneeing Chuckit’s writhing golden mass back to close him in the bedroom.
“I’m coming!” she yelled, jogging around the corner to the main space of her apartment, then stopping dead. The person tapping on the glass was not Suzie. The person tapping on the glass was a girl about her own age – early 20s – with short curly reddish black hair and light brown skin, very tall and painfully thin body in a silver body suit and bare feet.
“Hey, I’m sorry to bother you,” the girl shouted through the double-paned door. “I just need a little assistance! Just a moment of your time, please!”
Thalia approached cautiously. There was something immediately likable about this girl’s tentatively smiling face, but what the actual hell? Thalia gripped the door handle but then hesitated with her finger on the latch. “Um…. Can you tell me what this is about? Did you lock yourself out of your unit?” While what? Doing gymnastics in the courtyard? Whatever. “I can call the manager to let you back in.”
The girl’s brow furrowed. “No, I…. I, uh…”. She collected herself and stated with renewed confidence, “It’s rather complicated to explain, but I have funds and will gladly pay you generously”. She pulled back her left sleeve to show a string of numbers written on her forearm. “I have a VISA number and will pay you well for a few items of food and clothing and be on my way.”
Thalia hovered in confused indecision, finally saying, “Yeah, I’m really sorry, but…”.
The girl’s face fell. “No, I get it. I guess I can try another unit…”. She looked to her right.
“No, don’t go there! That guy is a total…. I mean, you really don’t want to…. Aw shit, fine.” Thalia slid the door open.
“Thank you so much!” the girl said, bouncing in. She was rubbing her arms and shivering a bit as she looked around the room. Books, sketchpads, stray clothing, and mail strewn about the couch and coffee table, dirty dishes, take-out containers, and damp towels on the kitchen counter. A dog towel as well as bits of cardboard boxes and Chuckit’s more official toys in various states of destruction strewn about the floor. Well, Thalia hadn’t been expecting company.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s chilly out there, isn’t it?” she said, tossing the girl a flannel shirt from the back of a chair at the small dining table.
“That’s OK, it feels so amazing to be cold!” the girl replied. And she did look absolutely delighted. “Oh, but I will gladly pay you for this excellent shirt!” she said, slipping into the flannel shirt and rubbing the collar against her cheek. “Ah, it’s sooooo soft! Is this cotton??”
“Yeah, I don’t know if I want to sell…” she began, but now the girl was staring enormously wide-eyed at the kitchen counter. “What? Not another damn mouse?”
“Is that… a banana?” the girl asked.
“What?” The girl was staring at the ceramic “fruit bowl” on Thalia’s counter. Although usually occupied by chip and pretzel bags in mockery of the brightly colored fruit glazed on its sides, it was indeed currently cradling a single browning banana. “Do you want it?”
“Oh my lord, yes! However much you want for it!” the girl said, pulling up her sleeve again.
“Yeah, I’ll pass on the stolen card number, thanks.”
“What? It’s not stolen! Look, I have a security number and expiration date.”
“Yeah, that’s sus as fuck, but help yourself to the banana.”
The girl snatched up the banana, holding it to her nose. “Oh, that smells heavenly!”
“Dole’s finest, I’m sure.” The girl had peeled off the sticker, admiring it closely before affixing it below her collarbone on the silver suit and returning attention to the fruit itself. It apparently required further smelling before consumption. “Yeah, so…. I’m Thalia” she offered.
“I’m Kelse.” The girl was trying to open the banana but succeeding only bending the top and squishing the fruit inside. Thalia took it and split it open with her thumbnail, handing it back and watching in fascination as Kelse blissfully savored a bite of bruised banana.
“Do you live near here?” Perhaps in some sort of institution? “Is there someone we could call to pick you up?”
Kelse laughed. “I kind of do! But no. That’s OK though – I just need a little help to get going. If I could just buy some clothes. Or even borrow some? I can return them tomorrow morning.”
“That’s… weird. But actually, I do have some skinny jeans that I’m realistically never going to wear again. Those pandemic pounds seem to have taken up permanent residence, ya know? I can give you those. Probably be capris on you…”. She continued blathering nervously while drifting back toward the bedroom. Chuckit surged out the moment the door cracked and ran past her. “It’s OK, he’s friendly! Typical golden!” she called as she rummaged for the Goodwill donation box.
When Thalia returned with the jeans plus a t-shirt and a button-up similar to the flannel shirt the girl was so enamored with, Kelse was back outside, holding the door shut while staring in horror at the golden retriever happily wagging at her. She had to be delicately coaxed back inside and slowly introduced to the restrained dog. She apologized, alluding to a childhood incident with feral dogs, but was soon gladly inducted into Chuckit's perpetually-expanding circle of best friends.
The clothes were indeed a bit loose and short on her, leaving silver showing at her wrists and ankles, but they would do. Shoes were more of an issue, as Kelse’s feet were larger than Thalia’s. But the checkered Vans in the hall closet fit her fine with thick socks. “Those may be my boyfriend’s – well, I guess ex’s - favorite shoes,” Thalia explained. “Fuck you, Trevor!” she laughed.
Kelse joined in cursing Trevor and thanked her profusely. “So now if I want to go to Safeway, the waterfront, and up to the nearest snow, I summon a ride share, right?”
Thalia laughed. “That would be a hell of an Über bill!” Kelse wasn’t laughing. “I mean, I could try to set one up with that card number, but…” But credit card fraud. Better to not get that involved. Who knew what proportion of this girl’s oddness was malicious vs…. well, neurodivergence. “How about I drive you to Safeway and you can work it out from there?”
Kelse scrutinized her carefully for a moment, then spoke with new resolve. “Thalia, you seem like a kind, intelligent person. I’d like to make a proposition: that you join me in what we can consider a game. I play the part of a traveler from the future on a 24-hour vacation, and you accompany me to make this the best day we can. You can believe as little or as much as you like, but I promise I have no ill intentions towards you.” Chuckit dropped a damp ball at her feet and wiggled expectantly. “Or your enormous sharp-toothed furry companion.”
Thalia started to laugh, but Kelse looked dead serious. The answer was obviously hell no. The day was planned: she would finally pack up the rest of Trevor’s things and take them by his place, delivering the scathing (but fair) speech that had been running on endless edit cycles in her brain all month and the break would be official.
Jesus, her stomach ached at the thought.
“OK, let’s do it” she said, to her own surprise.
Breakfast was ostensibly quick lattes and ham and egg sandwiches from the Safeway Starbucks. The essential element of speed being greatly compromised by Kelse’s debate over whether or not to try real milk and meat then bite-by-bite, sip-by-sip reactions. Verdict: ham was good, cow milk gross. They could finally move on.
The main attraction in Safeway turned out to be the produce section, explored at a crawl with wide-eyed wonder and far too much touching and smelling. Thalia avoided eye contact with a grocery stocker acting like he had never seen a customer tear up at the sight of stacked rows of underripe avocados. They left the store with a bunch of bananas, 2 oranges, 4 apples, a lemon, the sole ripe avocado, potato chips, beef jerky, M&Ms, a Nestle Crunch bar, a Theo bar (because if they were going with the premise that Kelse had never had chocolate, she should try something a little better than Nestle), a couple of small turkey subs, and dog treats for the Very Good Boy who had waited so patiently in the car.
Downtown, Pike Place Market waged its usual assault on the senses but somehow the crowded shuffle over sticky tiles through the art and craft stalls, piles of produce, and fish market was very different today: how beams of light flicked through cloud gaps to fall across bright patchwork bags, photos of rainy Seattle streets gleaming at night, silver jewelry, and tiny succulents in glass bowls (“No- heel Chuckit!”); the sudden perfume from bundled flowers; intense distilled ocean odors from the salmon and crabs – everything was magnified through Kelse’s lens. Laughing, staring, halting to reverently touch something so ordinary as a leather wallet, a clam, a prawn, face abruptly falling then shaking it off to find the next thing to laugh in wonder over.
They made their way to the Waterfront Overlook Walk, Thalia taking her turn to enthuse over how beautifully this had turned out, with the high tree-lined plaza looking out over Elliott Bay and ferries plying across the Sound against the backdrop of white-dappled Olympic Mountains. Her hand flowed back and forth illustrating how the wide stairways and swooping ramps stepped down terraces all the way down to the waterfront. Chuckit happily greeted everyone passing within snoot reach. But Kelse had become pensive, staring down at the waterfront below.
She said she was afraid she was going to say too much. She said, “I think I’d like to go now”.
So they did, pausing just momentarily at a cart to grab her a scoop of vanilla chocolate chip ice cream in a sugar cone. Cow milk redeemed itself.
By the time they reached the monotonous eastern urban sprawl through Factoria, Kelse had first lost interest in the scenery, then in leaning over to look at the dash displays and peppering Thalia with absurdly basic questions about driving, and turned her focus on the groceries. She savored each item sequentially, then in odd combinations. Potato chip on Nestle crunch bar, beef jerky with a bite of apple. She ate loudly, even when her running verbal critiques were on pause.
Annoyance prickled under Thalia’s skin. It had gotten exhausting, trying to react appropriately to everything this girl did or said from two points of view: disbelief, suspended disbelief. Make it clear you’re in on the joke - no gullible moron, or sink into the premise enough to really have fun. She realized she had naturally shifted to coasting in one state then the other to conserve mental energy, and right now she was over it.
She tried to keep a light conversational tone as she ventured, “OK, there are some pretty obvious plot holes with the time traveler narrative. Like, if you’re from after the apocalypse or whatever, you would be sent back to prevent it, right? I mean, if the future is so fucked up, why aren’t you going to somebody powerful and warning them?”
Kelse held up a finger for a pause, munching a single M&M slowly, her eyes closed for full focus. “Damn, so good.” She reengaged, asking, “Do you know what climate change is?” Thalia nodded. “Ocean acidification? Extinction crisis? Pollinator decline?” Nods. “MFR fungi?” Thalia looked puzzled. “Whatever. The point is, you all know, you just don’t fucking do anything about it. Not enough anyway.”
Thalia glared ahead, processing. Now she didn’t know if she should be depressed or even more pissed off. Maybe this girl was just like Trevor. Maybe she was some kind of magnet for the sadistically manipulative.
Kelse sighed, “Look, I’m just a dumbass tourist. Tourist slash guinea pig. I worked my digits off to get into the lottery pool for this and got insanely lucky to win. I don’t want to ruin my trip thinking about what happens. I’ll get angry and start crying and screaming in broiling hatred at all of you and really, what’s the point?” She handed Thalia a banana. “Join me in celebrating all the delightful things still here before the ‘apocalypse or whatever’, my friend!”
Chuckit surged forward hopefully as the fruit was passed and settled for licking their faces and Thalia found herself laughing as Kelse pushed him back into his seat. The highway rounded a bend to flow through a forested valley with ghosts of fog creeping up among the thick firs. Kelse rolled down her window to feel the cool air and smell the forest and Thalia rolled the back window down so Chuckit could do the same and the side view mirror showed a giddy girl with golden retriever ears whipping around behind. Thalia ate the banana slowly. Yeah, it still didn’t taste like a freaking miracle, but it was pretty damn fine.
Soon Kelse was pointing excitedly at scattered patches of snow flashing by in ditches and in the shadows of trees and by Snoqualmie Pass there were short dirty walls along the highway and parking lot and wet but cleaner snow on the ski slopes. The season was over, lifts hanging stationary, but a few families played on the lower slopes. Thalia and Kelse ran and slid and fell around like 4-year-olds on a hot chocolate high and threw snowballs for Chuckit to chase, laughing hysterically when he would leap up to plunge his face deep into softer snow like a pouncing fox. They found a cracked plastic saucer sled and Kelse slid down a stretch of bunny slope over and over, until her feet were wet and freezing in now-dirty and snow-packed Vans.
“Fuck you, Trevor!!!” they yelled as they trudged back to load up and slowly thaw from cold and soggy to warm and soggy on the way toward the now-sinking sun. Thalia turned off at North Bend, and they strained to look up at the steep rocky slopes of Mount Si looking gorgeous in evening light while cruising quickly past the outlet malls to where the landscape abruptly shifted to farms and ranches. “Cows cows cows, boy, cows!!” Kelse shouted to Chuckit, who was not nearly as impressed as she seemed to think he should be. “Can’t you smell that, boy? It smells amazing! So disgusting and amazing!”
Fields gave way to houses as they came into the town of Snoqualmie (“Do you think one family lives in each of these?” Kelse asked as they passed one simple white box of a house after another, each in their own tidy patch of fenced yard). They entered the low brick storefronts of the old downtown section and parked by the Railway Museum. Thalia fed Chuckit while Kelse explored the sleek silver passenger trains and gorgeous old depot, then loaded him in the car to nap while they grabbed a quick dinner of warm minestrone and bread with mugs of hot chocolate in a little family restaurant across the street. Thalia found herself sliding into venting about Trevor and incidents that were painful yet cathartic to speak aloud – in confession gaining distance from the girl who tried so hard to like and say all the right things for him, just increasing his disdain with every transparent effort. Kelse periodically signaled sympathy but little active interest. They were watching the last of the pink drain from the darkening skies when Kelse suddenly turned a panic-stricken face at Thalia.
“Frogs!!” she yelled. “I forgot – I want to hear frogs! Is it too late?”
Thalia searched Google Maps while waiting for the check to come back for signature. “OK, there’s a natural area along the river 5 minutes from here! Looks like there are some sloughs – old oxbows off of the river that are ponds now. Those should be frog heaven!”
Frantic minutes later, their feet crunched loudly on the gravel of the parking lot as they piled out. They froze to listen. The evening air pulsed with the distant calls of what sounded like hundreds of frogs. Kelse’s smile glowed in the dusk. They ran up the path, keeping left at a fork to bear towards the loudest calls, straining to see reflected sky on water through maddeningly thick shrubs.
Chuckit was the one to find a tiny side trail cutting downslope to end abruptly in sedges and willows along the water’s edge. They listened, trying to pick out individual voices among many. Thalia swept her camera’s flashlight around and they saw pinpoints of light and soft splashes as frogs dove, the nearby calls falling silent. She turned it back off and they stood quietly until one by one the frogs around them began calling again.
Kelse gasped and pointed. Not 6 feet away ripples on the water’s surface gave away the location of one of the singing boys. There was still enough light on the open pond to see his throat beating like a tiny translucent heart as he called from his thin patch of sedges. Tiny wavelets radiated out with each pulse. Chuckit surged forward on the taught leash with a whine and the show was over with a wet plop.
She and Kelse were laughing then suddenly Thalia was crying. Crazy, ugly crying.
She cried for the death of frogs, and snow, of assurance that every year just marched on like the last. Then, with renewed intensity, for Chuckit, who would someday die and leave her alone in all of that, and the death of the life she once believed she would have with Trevor, for the children she would never have with him or anyone else, because why bring kids into a world without bananas or chocolate or ham or frogs? Each grief flowing from the last and drawing in the next with its own dark logic.
Kelse was stroking her shoulder saying calm down, everything was going to be OK, saying something about lying.
“I am so, so sorry, Thalia,” she said, a little unsteadiness in her own voice. “I didn’t mean to mess you up. I’m just working on a movie, you know, writing a movie?”
“A… a screenplay?” Thalia said, wiping her eyes on a sleeve.
“Yeah, yeah, a screenplay. I’m just trying to make it as real as I possibly can, you know? Trying to inhabit the character and really feel how amazing all this would feel to her. And how someone in this – in our time might authentically respond.”
“You did all of this, used me ALL DAY, for a… a writing exercise?”
“I really am sorry. I’ve been so glad to find someone who was willing to go along enough to share this day with me. It’s been such an amazing day, right?”
Thalia turned and marched up the trail as fast as she could in the darkness, Chuckit pulling her up the narrow tread back up to the main path. Kelse followed in silence. When they reached the car, Thalia broke the silence with, “So where do I drop you off?”
Kelse said, “I really don’t have anywhere to stay tonight… I swear.” Now it sounded like Kelse might be crying.
“OK,” she said, softening, “you can crash on my couch tonight. I take it you have a plan for getting back home after that?” It was really more of a statement than a question. She didn’t want to untangle a detailed answer.
“Yes, thank you thank you thank you, Thalia!”
They drove through the dark in uncomfortable silence. Once in a while Chuckit would stick his head up between them, and Kelse would nuzzle and coo over him a little more vocally than warranted, obviously trying to crack a side door to a truce.
“So…” Thalia ventured. Kelse froze in flopping Chuckit’s ears. “So, do you figure the time traveler can’t carry anything with her?”
“Yeah… just the silver suit, I’m thinking.”
“That’s cool. Naked is super awkward.”
“SUPER awkward.” Thalia could hear a smile. “What do you think? What should she do? Or see?”
“Oh man. Maybe she’d want to take a flight somewhere. Like, the emissions from flying are so atrocious, that’s gotta be one of the first things to go, right?”
“Yeah, you’d think” Kelse said, rustling around in the grocery bag at her feet. “Kind of hard to pull off with no identification, though.”
“Oh yeah.” Kelse had the avocado and was working chunks of peel off with her fingernails. “Maybe you shouldn’t have her actually say anything about being a time traveler, though, you know? Keep the audience guessing if she’s an alien or con artist or what?”
They kept up a stream of this banter back through the Seattle suburbs and into the city. Kelse’s clumsy bare-handed attack on the soft fruit left her hands and chin a disgusting mess. The still substantial-sounding avocado was tossed into the bag with a wet thump and napkins were fished out and put to good use. They split the Theo bar between downtown and Ravenna.
Back home, Thalia got Kelse set up with a blanket and pillow on the couch.
“Thank you so, so much again, Thalia.”
“Yeah, well… we’ll see you in the morning.”
As she tugged a reluctant Chuckit through the bedroom door, Kelse called out, “Hey, Thalia!”
“Don’t twist yourself around for Trevors. They aren't worth it.”
Thalia chuckled. “OK. Good night!”
Chuckit was barking again. Thalia staggered up with a distinct sense of déjà vu, throwing on a sweatshirt and padding out. In the living room, the blanket and clothes she had loaned Kelse formed a neatly folded pile on the couch. A flash of light blinked across Chuckit, barking urgently at the sliding glass door. Thalia ran to look, but the courtyard was empty.
She slid the door open with a stab of annoyance at finding it unlocked. Chuckit ran over the cement walkway and into the grass. Thalia followed the indentations of striding footprints. Where Chuckit now stood whining the footprints ended, side by side. She crouched down in the dewy grass to look more carefully, but there were no more prints ahead, just some little piece of trash. She picked it up. It was a Dole sticker, discolored in the middle. Scorched, and slightly warm to the touch.
Thalia stood leaning against the kitchen counter, feeling tiles under damp feet, the press of the warm dog against her leg, smelling hints of avocado and orange peel from the crumpled paper bag by her elbow. She pressed the Dole sticker onto the side of the refrigerator and stared at it a moment, ruffling the soft fur on Chuckit’s head.
She would start some coffee, feed the dog, take a shower, and then start a list. There was so much she wanted to see and do, and she needed to get them all down on paper. It was already shaping up to be a very long list.