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The Last Romantics

What men or gods are these?

By Lori LamothePublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 17 min read
The Last Romantics
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.

Night after night, the line ran through my dreams. Where had I seen it before? In one of the books that had lined Ina's shelves? That had to be it. Because Ina was the only person I knew who even had actual books anymore. What did it mean though? Night after night I found myself brushing a fingertip across my tablet, as if writing the words out would illuminate their significance.

I should have been making preparations, thinking about the future, mapping out a plan. Googling at the very least. When I told Carly she laughed it off but three days later I caught her searching “disaster preparedness kits” on her laptop. I caught a glimpse of a big, bold list that filled the screen. Flashlight, can opener, map. whistle, first aid kit, extra batteries. And so on. That's the stuff I needed, not random poetry. Not my stupid spoons.

The next Monday Carly let herself into the house, her arms filled with supplies. She crossed to our kitchen table and dropped the bags onto it with a reassuring thwomp. She pulled up a chair and set about organizing her stash. Canned goods to the left, dry food, matches and duct tape to the right. I stood with my back against the counter and watched her work. She was shockingly efficient for a writer.

After she'd gotten everything in its proper category, she disappeared into the basement and reappeared with a covered white storage bucket in each hand. She pulled a gargantuan bag of rice to her and began emptying it into the bucket. Normally she was low-key OCD but she must have been in too much of a hurry to worry about rinsing it out.

“It's not like there's anything to it,” I said. “At all.”

Carly opened her mouth, shut it. “How long have we been at war?”

“Forever.” What else could I say?

She gave me a curt nod. “And how long have you been saving the spoons?” She punched the word saving to make it clear what she thought about that.

“About two years.”

“And how many spoons were there in the beginning?”

Whenever Carly's anxiety kicked in, she went into full teacher mode. “I get it, okay. Do you not remember I was the one who told you? I'm not saying what Ina said isn't freaking terrifying—but she's also crazy. How do you not see that?”

Carly clamped a cover onto the rice bucket and shoved it to one side. “How many spoons?”

I shrugged, gave in. “Hundreds,” I said. “Thousands.” Until two years ago, nobody cared about old spoons. Nobody cared about old anything.

At first collecting them had been an accident, an odd little hobby that kept me from thinking about Zeke. If I was at some antique shop upstate then I wouldn't run into him at the local StarDust. Wouldn't see him and his fiancée together, sipping coffee and looking like they hadn't slept in days.

I still remember that first spoon. I don't know what made it any different from the others in the basket. It was deeply tarnished, its silver a dull gray. I picked it up and felt its weight. Laid it across my palm and studied the ornate curlicues on its tip. Back then I didn't know anything about imprints or patterns. I ran a fingertip around the edge of the spoon and thought about beauty, damage, permanence.

Carly was lugging the now-labeled rice buckets into the hallway. She yanked open the closet and pulled a backpack off the top shelf.

“You're . . .leaving?” A disaster kit—a whole disaster pantry—was one thing. But to actually take off?

“They're gonna drop nukes to end the war. Take out the entire Conglomerate. I'm not waiting around for Armageddon in a suburb. Not when the suburb happens to be located outside the major metropolitan area. It's been bad enough as it is. But now—“ Her voice rose on that last word.

She was right. If this was going to happen, Corpatia was not a good place to be. But was she really uprooting her life because of something a half-senile old woman had whispered to me before she disappeared?

Apparently. Unreal as it seemed. But Carly always had a flare for drama. “Where will you go?” I asked.

“Nate's got a place right on the border of Algo. Totally off grid. Just pine trees for as far as you can see. He's meeting me there.”

“What about work?”

“I can work anywhere.” She stuffed a tangle of charger cords into the backpack. “Anyway, does it matter? If this thing happens, nobody's going to be buying romance realities, not even steamy ones. Maybe I could write a space—” Her face lit up, she couldn't help it.

“You and everybody else,” I interrupted, relishing the quick slump in her shoulders. I got why she was taking off but I wasn't happy about it. It also hadn't escaped me that she hadn't invited me to Nate's cabin. Not that I would have gone. I wasn't a survivor, I was a collector.

Or so I told myself.

Not that there was anything to collect anymore. Not only were the spoons gone, but so was everything else made of silver. Not to mention gold. Copper. Any metal, really. The old rings, necklaces, bracelets, watches. The trays and the teapots. None of it had been available online for a year but you couldn't find them in shops either anymore.

Which was a little weird. There were other strange happenings too. Other rumors. Still . . .

Two hours later, the beat-up SUV Carly inherited from her mom was packed to the gills. She hesitated in the doorway, her sleek coat expertly tied and her unruly hair pulled back into a perfect bun. “You know you can—”

“Don't worry about it—”

“There's something I need to tell you.” She ignored the buzz of the phone in her pocket. “Last night. I know somebody over at Cashland Security. We used to . . . hook up, occasionally. Anyway, he's pretty high up now, top clearance, yada, yada. I called him and told him what your little old lady told you and he didn't deny it. He knew what I was talking about. Before we hung up he said “Stay safe” in this creepy I-care-about-you voice. What I'm saying is—you and your crazy spoon lady—I think you might be right. That Inez or whatever her name is wasn't lying.”

Ina. I resisted the urge to correct her.

Behind her, pewter clouds hung low in the sky. Whether doomsday was going to begin on schedule was open to debate but it was definitely going to rain. The wind had picked up and the green flags that hung over every door flapped wildly. “Did he say when?”

“Soon.” She tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. She was restless, itching to go. I pictured her unpacking her supplies in a tiny cabin in an immense forest. Imagined her opening up her laptop to write her space novel, the hum of a generator the only sound for miles.

“Is he sure?” I called after her but she was already closing the car door.

A raindrop spattered onto the sidewalk, then another, and another. It wasn't noon but it was nearly pitch black. In the park across the street, moms grabbed their kids' hands and raced for cover. An old man feeding mechanical pigeons from a bench stood and covered his head with his jacket.

I pulled my sweater tighter around me and went back inside the Victorian throwback we rented. We were the only holdout on the street, maybe in the entire city. Everybody else had converted to smart homes. Mornings, you could always hear them calling after their owners in the same robotic voice, reminding them of dentist appointments and lunch dates, soccer games and stock market fluctuations. Not that our landlord didn't charge us the same for a dilapidated eyesore as everybody else paid for their oh-so-modern showplaces. I decided not to think about how I was going to manage Carly's half of the rent then decided it didn't matter.

The interior was dark enough that I needed to hit the lights. In the yellow glow, the kitchen looked cavernous. I thought about the spoons in the attic. I wanted to go up there and take them out of their hiding spot. Ever since “Ted Leblanc” had shown up at my door last month I'd kept everything in locked trunks pushed behind an enormous armoire and a bunch of other junk.

Even before he turned up because he “happened to be in the neighborhood,” I'd bumped into him too many times. He always wore a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead and he had a habit of appearing right when I was at the register with a new find. Once I'd spotted him coming out of a shop just as I pulled into the lot. Overstuffed shopping bags glinted as he walked toward a Tesla with darkened windows. I could guess what was inside. More of the same. Shady didn't begin to cover it.

Did Leblanc know how much silver I had? Enough that all I had to do was cash in one tenth of it and I'd be a rich woman, what with the way silver had skyrocketed recently. I didn’t get why precious metals would matter if Armageddon happened, but I’d never really understood rich people anyway.

There were others, too, besides Leblanc. Lately I'd felt them even while I was in the house. Robberies were a matter of course these days, but it seemed like there were more than ever.

It didn't feel safe to bring the spoons downstairs but I wanted to see them, to slide them out of their velvet casing and spread them across the table under the cracked, imitation Tiffany lamp. I spent hours polishing them, one by one, until the whole mismatched collection shone. My savings were shot to hell but, hey, I had my pick of stirrers.

It was Ina who'd added the most to the collection, by a long shot. Her shop wasn't a shop at all, just an old barn on a nameless dirt road in the Adirondacks. She had sat on an old stool outside, shriveled but oddly childlike, her frizzy gray hair held by a polka-dot scrunchy. Her eyes were a startling blue. When I emerged from the barn into the summer sunlight with an entire basket of silver, her brows drew together.

I set down the basket, wishing I'd grabbed my sunglasses out of the car. “Do you take credit cards?”

“You're not one of them, are you?” She fastened those neon blue eyes on me. The blinding light didn't seem to faze her.

I felt as uncomfortable as if she'd caught me trying to steal the spoons, not hand over my life savings and destroy my debt-to-income ratio. “One of them?”

Her gaze traveled from my Pixie cut all the way down to my combat boots. “You don't look like them.”

“I'm not!” I protested. I wanted those spoons. “I swear to God. I don't even know what you're talking about.”

“They come in and buy up all the silver. The real stuff. Melt it down. Go from store to store, dealer to dealer, and by the end of the day their cars can't hold anymore. They don't care about the spoons. About any real thing. They just do what they're told.” Her voice was raspy without any trace of an accent. “Lackeys.”

I stared at her blankly.

She shook a cloth bag open and emptied the contents of the basket into it. The spoons clattered to the bottom. Without another word, she lifted the bag by the handle and held it out for me. “Take them. And come back next week.”

I never told her that I lived hundreds of miles away, that I took days off from my job to get there when she wanted me to. We played that game for three months. More spoons. Endless, gorgeous spoons. Sometimes there were other things too. A sterling punch bowl, complete with a set of curved little cups. Twin candelabras. A samovar. Eventually I ran out of space in the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom. The whole house was a mad house of mirrors. Occasionally Ina thought to charge me but most of the time she didn't. All this after silver had disappeared. It simply could. not. be. found.

Two weeks ago had been the biggest, most beautiful haul of all. Six full bags, ready and waiting in a room at the back of the barn. “I can't,” I told her. “It's too much.”

Ina pressed a veined hand over mine and squeezed. “But you must, my dear.”

She told me then. About the coming attack to finally end the war, the Conglomerate. About the underground bunkers, the high, secret vaults filled to the brim with silver bars, with gold, with everything they could ever want, ever need, to begin again. Afterward, over tea served in bone china cups, she told me about the nearly finished colony on the moon, the one that had been kept out of the press. The plans to return after Earth was habitable again.

A nuclear attack? Bunkers? Colonies?

“But who's planning it?” I asked. “And how do they even know—about the attack?”

“I can't get into details,” she said, all business. “Not now. Not with you.”

Details. Said an old woman from the Adirondacks who wore scrunchies and jeans with elasticized waistbands. I started to ask another question. Ina held up a hand.

She wanted to save what she could of the past, she told me, her voice raspier than usual.

“Okay,” I agreed doubtfully. If Ina had gone crazy there was no point in arguing. If she was right I didn't have the heart to tell her it wouldn't make any difference, not if the world was nothing but a smoking cinder.

When I went back the next weekend a padlock dangled from the heavy barn doors. The house was locked too, every shade pulled down. The ancient Ford pick-up was still in the driveway, just where it always was. But Ina was gone.


Where was Ina?

While I tried to come up with a plausible answer (was she on vacation? in the hospital? had she moved?) I half sleep-walked down the hallway and took the stairs to the second floor. I stood on tiptoe and grabbed the string to the attic door. If Carly's ex was right then Ted Leblanc and the rest were probably already safe in a bunker somewhere. Planning their new and improved civilization.

The overhead door creaked as I pulled it down and unfolded the attached ladder. When I got to the top I reached for the light and a sea of furniture emerged out of the darkness. On the other side of the attic, the churning sky darkened a round window. Rain pelted the glass as I edged through the clutter toward the hidden trunks. I could almost feel the cool metal in my hands.

The armoire loomed ahead of me, huge and immovable. I sucked in my breath and squeezed behind it, forcing down the sense of panic small spaces made me feel. When I reached the end of the wooden back, I slipped out into the opening I'd created and switched on my flashlight. A row of trunks ran along the wall, the only dust-free things in the place.

I hurried to the first one and knelt before it, gently lifting the lid.

The stale smell of mothballs wafted upward. I peered inside.

The trunk was empty.

Had I moved the spoons and forgotten about it? The rest of the silver?

No. Not possible. I hadn't even been up there since Ina vanished. On my knees, I edged a few inches to the right and stopped before the second trunk. My hands hovered just above it. I was afraid to lift the lid, afraid to see what might not be there.

The second trunk was empty too.

The third.

The fourth.

Every trunk in the row had been cleaned out. Not even so much as a caddy spoon had been left behind.

Had someone broken in? When had it happened? Had it been Ted Leblanc? When he'd shown up on my doorstep, the silver had been everywhere. I'd been happy that day, elated at my good luck. How could I have been so careless?

I let go of the final lid and it slammed shut with a bang. The sound echoed across the darkness, louder than the rain overhead. Which is why I almost didn't hear the more distant boom. It could have been a falling tree, a peal of thunder from far off.

The second explosion was louder, closer, impossible to ignore. The entire house shook. The round window rattled. It had started.

The missing silver didn't matter. I knew that. Just like the cracked tablet that lay on the attic floor didn't matter. I reached for it and pressed the power button. The screen flickered on.

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.

One of Carly's new romance realities. Girl meets hot AI guy and they live happily ever after. She must have dropped it when she was stealing my entire life's purpose. When had she done it? Last night? Had someone helped her? Ted Leblanc? Someone else? I'd slept sounder than usual, deeper. Had she drugged me?

Another explosion. I didn't have any idea of the mechanics of an attack, only unformed impressions of what would happen based on disaster movies. I heard distant sirens, a sound that could have been someone screaming. More sirens. I felt for my phone but remembered I'd left it downstairs. Would there even be a signal? Who would I call? Who would call me?

I allowed myself the fantasy of sending Carly's calls to voicemail, deleting her texts, blocking her number. Then in the same moment I hoped she'd made it far enough away from the city before the attack started. That she'd trade my silver for safe passage to the moon.

Maybe she already had. Maybe her story about the cabin in the woods had always been just that. Her hook-up at Cashland Security probably knew exactly who she needed to get in touch with.

The house shook right down to its foundation, tilted slightly to one side. A song of breaking glass accompanied the unrelenting rain. I braced myself against the wall as the armoire slid to one side and toppled forward. The air filled with radiant dancing dust.

“I thought I'd find you here,” said a voice from the other side of the armoire.

Ted Leblanc leapt onto it and landed before me. A wild, sad smile spread across his face.

“You're too late,” I shouted, backing away as fast as I could. “There's nothing left. It's all gone.”

He laughed. It wasn't an altogether unpleasant laugh.

Something niggled at my brain. Why wasn't he in the bunker with the other survivors? And what good would more silver do them now? Because surely they were already safe in their shelters, deep underground. Surely they already had enough.

Sirens. Rain. Screams. Below us, brakes screeched, voices crested to a roar. Ted's smile wavered but didn't fade completely.

“Well, you're in luck.” He stepped over a mess of broken Christmas ornaments that had scattered across the floor. Like a magician at a birthday party, he reached deep into his coat pocket and produced a handful of spoons. He held them before me like a bouquet of flowers, each circle a shiny perfect moon. “Because these are for you.”

Short Story

About the Creator

Lori Lamothe

Poet, Writer, Mom. Owner of two rescue huskies. Former baker who writes on books, true crime, culture and fiction.

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