The World After

Sam Ferree

Sam Ferree lives in the Twin Cities where he works as a communications associate for a small nonprofit. Additionally, he reads a lot and spends too much time at coffee shops. He wears sports coats for the pockets and has a habit of ending his sentences with “so…” His work has appeared in Sybil’s Garage, Daily Science Fiction, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. To learn more about Sam, visit his website at http://samferree.com or follow him on twitter (@samferree).

Six days after his thirty-fourth birthday, Bobby comes home from the bookstore and his wife, Sparrow, says they should go to the field museum.  They live a short walk from the entrance.  She says they should celebrate.

“Why?  Celebrate what?” Bobby asks.  It was slow at work and he has somehow managed to go the entire day without tobacco or caffeine.  The cravings hit him at the threshold.

“Your birthday, old man,” Sparrow says.  She hands him the pack of American Spirits sitting on the counter next to the book Bobby is half-finished binding.  “Is the hereditary dementia catching up already?”

Bobby flinches and lights the cigarette.  “It’s just a little late.”

Sparrow shrugs.  “There’s a new exhibit.  It’s called ‘The World After Us.’  It’s supposed to show what the whole world would look like if everywhere became the Korean DMZ.  It’ll be a date.”

Bobby considers this and stubs out his cigarette.  He looks out the window at the darkening sky and says, “You’ve been thinking about my offer?”

“No,” Sparrow says, firmly.  She shivers even though the house is warm.  “I just think that we need to get out of the house.”

They wear jackets against the unusually cold, late August wind.  The sky is charcoal grey.  At the museum entrance they show their passes and buy coffee.  Every January, they buy twelve-month memberships.  As a child, Bobby wanted to explore the uncharted regions of Africa, Asia, and South American until an elementary school teacher told him there were none left.  Before she went into journalism, Sparrow wanted to be an anthropologist.  The museum is a common ground of nostalgia for their childhood aspirations.

The only other people in the main hall are a middle aged couple hunched over a museum map. A baby stroller stands between them.  The baby inside is so still in its sleep that it looks porcelain, Bobby thinks.  Tiny waves form across the surface of his coffee and it could be that he is shivering imperceptibly or he cannot hear distant thunder.  He’s too tired to decide.

“The place is dead,” Sparrow says.  “On a Friday afternoon.”

“It’s the weather,” Bobby says and sips his coffee.

Sparrow glances out the window behind them. She says, “Looks like the end of the world. A tornado went through the county just north of us.”

“You told me.”

“It destroyed every other building along a city block.  Isn’t it strange how natural disasters are so arbitrary?”

“Yeah, weird.”

They both reach for the other’s hand at the same time.  He holds her cold, thin fingers in his own.  When they met at a swing dance competition seven years ago, she told him her name was Sparrow.  He did not learn until a few months before they got engaged that her real name was Dana and that “Sparrow” was an old family nickname because of her frail physique.  When he thought about it later, Bobby wondered why he had ever thought that “Sparrow” could be anything other than a nickname, appropriate as it is.

They follow the fresh signs pointing to the new exhibit.  They cross the polished marble floor to a dim hallway that smells like powerful cleaning chemicals.  Bobby thinks that he can hear rain.

In the hallway, he says, “I have to work tomorrow.”

“I thought you had the weekend off.”

“Thomas and I fired Andrew.”

“What?  When?”

“We can’t afford it.”

She looks at him and he can hear the unsaid question: Who’s next?  The middle aged couple pushes by them, apparently in a rush to see the exhibit and get it over with.  Sparrow watches the baby stroller go by.

Two years after they got married, or three years ago, they began trying to have children.  This was after Bobby and Thomas had been running the bookstore for a few years and felt reasonably comfortable that it would survive.  Sparrow had just attained her second dream job of being a radio news anchor; she said she was building up experience at the local station in order to get a job with NPR.  A year went by and Sparrow spoke with her doctor who told her that there was nothing wrong, so Bobby made an appointment with his doctor.  On his way home from the second visit, he picked up flowers, a bottle of wine, and cigarettes.

“The condition is called azoospermia.  The doctor doesn’t know what caused it, yet,” Bobby told her after she got home from work.

“What does this mean?” Sparrow asked, sitting on the couch across from him, somehow perfectly serene.  She can speak about a grisly murder and a local high school winning the state championship all in one breath.

“It means I’m infertile.”

Sparrow nods and picks up the pack sitting between them on the cushion.  “Lucky Strikes?  We haven’t smoked since we decided to have kids.  It must be two years since we last smoked.  I haven’t even thought about it for months.”

She lights up and grimaces.  “I don’t even like smoking.  I never have.  When we quit, I was relieved,” she said.

She said, “Are we giving up?  Is this it?”

“No.  No,” Bobby said.  “We’re regrouping.  We’re taking a break.  The doctor says there’s hope.”

“Doctors and priests always say there’s hope.  That’s their job.”  She took a drag.  “All that money wasted on contraceptives.”

“Imagine what we could’ve done with all that.”

They laughed, but neither knew why.  Afterwards they had sex, but it was more of a chore or a ritual than a passionate act.  They were trying to physically reaffirm their affection.  After Sparrow had fallen asleep, Bobby went for a very long walk and found himself standing in front of a derelict, abandoned house.  He threw rocks and broke all the windows.

Later, Bobby learned that his condition was called Y Chromosome Microdeletion which meant that artificial insemination, without a donor, was impossible.  They have been trying to adopt ever since and have been disappointed three times.  Before they got married, they talked about having kids together, but Bobby was shocked how that desire gradually became an obsession and then an intractable, animal craving in them both.  Two weeks ago, Bobby offered her a divorce, but Sparrow ended the conversation before she gave an answer.

There is a roman arch entrance into the main exhibit over which hangs a simple sign that says, “The World After Us.”  Next to the door stands a plaque where the museum management usually explains the logic and purpose behind their rotating exhibits.  It is much shorter than usual, Bobby notes.  Sparrow leans over and begins reading in her newscaster voice.

“More than a decade after the turn of the century, in the wake of the millennium hysteria and in the shadow of speculation regarding 2012, we feel it is important to explore another viewpoint of apocalyptic scenarios and catastrophe.  This exhibit seeks not to present a morbid view about the end of human civilization. Instead, we want to create and explore a thought experiment, the premise of which is simple: What would the world look like if humanity were suddenly no more?  We invite you to meditate on the displays our staff has created with the help of many other facilities throughout the Midwest.”

They walk down a dark, marble tunnel to the first exhibit, still holding hands.  They come to a diorama of a broken cityscape that terminates at a painted backdrop creating the illusion that the road extends into infinity.  All the surrounding buildings’ windows are shattered.  Weeds and brilliant flowers split the pavement.  Taxidermied animals are set up in a resemblance of life.

Sparrow reads the sign enumerating the wildlife: rabbits, foxes, badgers, raccoons, mice, deer, and so on.  “There’s nothing on this list that doesn’t live in a city already,” Sparrow says.  Then she says, “And we never stop to consider that another world survives in the corners and cracks of ours.”

Bobby squints at the second plaque.  “Atlanta.”

“It looks like Detroit,” Sparrow says and leans on the railing.  “The whole downtown area looks like Chernobyl.”

“The world after us looks beautiful,” Bobby says and leans next to her.  He imagines the flowers in the pavement would smell sweet if they were not plastic.  For a moment, he thinks he can smell a lilac fragrance and realizes it is his wife’s perfume and he misses her even though she is standing right next to him.

“If you’re going to work this weekend I’ll tell Tammy and Ken that I can babysit for them.”

“That’s fair.”

She looks at the plaque next to her.  “If the entire human population were to suddenly disappear, this is what Atlanta would look like after just twenty years.  Humanity’s artificial environment, just like the natural, requires exceptional and perpetual maintenance.  You will notice that much of the wildlife coexists with humans in the cities of today.  As much as we tend to think of cities as a humans-only environment, they are actually their own natural world, which can and will adapt to the disappearance of particular elements.”

“Is that the lesson?”  Bobby asks.  “Nothing lasts?  What about the pyramids?”

“The pyramids are eroding,” Sparrow says and begins to walk down the hall toward the next diorama.  Bobby follows her.

Three years ago, shortly after the doctor’s appointment, Bobby got a tattoo of John Barth’s “shortest story” around his bicep: “Once upon a time there was a story that began…”  When Sparrow saw it she laughed.

“Is this your way of telling me you’ve decided to get the midlife crisis out of the way early?”

“I like it,” Bobby said while putting on a long sleeved shirt.

“You’re a fucking hipster.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“You’ll never grow up at this rate.”

“Do you want me to?” he asked.

Over the next few years he added new tattoos and took up the art of bookmaking.  He took classes on book binding, paper making, and calligraphy.  After that he started keeping journals.

“Because they’ll last,” Bobby told her one evening as he wrote.  “There are no others like them.  If they don’t burn, they should last for centuries.”

“If someone takes care of them,” Sparrow said from where she lay on the bed, reading.

“I’ll will them to someone.”

She set her book down.  “Do you think we maybe should see a councilor?”

“And by ‘we’ you mean me.”

“We could do it together.”

“There are worse ways I could cope, Sparrow.”  He lay down next to her.

“Are you afraid of dying?” she asked and gently tore the page of her cheap, mass market copy of Winesburg, Ohio.

“No.  I’m afraid of being forgotten.”

“I am.”

Then they had sex, like they did every night with absolute regularity.

The next display they come to is a football stadium completely overgrown with tall grass.  The sound of birds singing is piped in through speakers overhead.  A buffalo and two calves graze close to the Plexiglass window separating the world from the diorama.

Neither says a word for a long moment.  Finally, Sparrow turns to him and says, “Maybe we need a change of scene.  Why don’t we move to Europe.  I could relearn French and you… could learn it.  It’s not that hard.  I’ll coach you.”

“Why not South America?  My Spanish is better than your French.”

“Or how about China?”

“Or Terabithia.  Wonderland.  Never Never Land.”

Sparrow glares at him.  “I was being serious.”

“I’m sorry.  Well, it wouldn’t be all that hard.  Between the two of us we don’t own much so it would be easy enough to move.  Thomas might be willing to buy my share of the bookstore…”

“I don’t like the winters here, anyway.  Let’s go someplace warm.  And take all our friends with us.”

“They all have dead-end jobs, too.  Once they realize the wisdom in our disillusionment it’ll be easy enough to get them to come.”

Sparrow turns away from him.  “I really wish you wouldn’t break my fantasies with good reason.”  She looks through the Plexiglass and says, “I’ve never seen a Buffalo before.”

“They’re coming back after near-annihilation.”

There are five more exhibits and they pass each one without comment.  Munich is overrun by wolves.  Ho Chi Minh City has begun reverting back to rain forest.  Las Vegas is a desert.  Kyoto is a pristine mountain forest.

The last exhibit is the remains of an old apartment.  There is no glass separating them from the set.  It is a carefully constructed model of a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom with a tiny walkway to allow visitors to pass through to the exit.  One wall of the living room is collapsed allowing for a view of a sunny field that could be anywhere.  There are books, dust-covered and moldy, strewn across the floor.  Desiccated plants sit in forgotten pots and the furniture is shredded and flayed.  It does not smell of decay as Bobby would have expected.  Instead, a fresh breeze seems to emit from the field through the hole in the wall.

A plaque is affixed to the crumbling, plaster wall at the entrance.  Sparrow reads, “According to the IUCN in their most recent assessment of 47,677 known species, 17,291 are in danger of extinction.  Over the past five hundred years, the IUCN has recorded 875 extinctions.  This mass extinction, which appears to be the result of human activity, is now often called the Holocene Extinction, referring to the current epoch that began in 10,000 BC.  Western thought has perceived humanity to be the dominant species on this planet for centuries and it is because of our ability to change and manipulate our environment that the human population has skyrocketed to seven billion.  If humanity were to suddenly go extinct, this carefully constructed world would eventually fade and fall away.  What would replace us, though?  Would there arise another ‘dominant species’?  Or is the ‘dominant species’ simply an anomaly?”

The sign next to this, where the list of animals should have been, is only marked with, “???”  Bobby taps the sign and mutters, “Well, that’s ominous and uninformative.”

“And admirably subtle,” Sparrow added.

As they pass through into the dimness of the bedroom, Sparrow says, “This looks like my old apartment.”

“You didn’t take nearly so good of care of it,” Bobby said.

“Bastard.”

They laugh for a moment until Bobby catches his breath.  He sees something moving in the gloom of the dusty closet.  Adrenaline surges through his veins and for a strange moment he is intensely aware of his body’s “fight of flight” response.  Finally, he adjusts to see what it is.  His own reflection stares back at him through the grimy mirror, a cadaverous, scruffy, pale man whose shaggy hair has already begun its retreat.  The clothes are warn.  As soon as he sees himself, the doppelganger once again becomes just another piece of the exhibit.

Sparrow looks at him dubiously and then turns to follow his gaze.  “Christ, they’re probably going to be handing out razor blades at the exit.”  She pushes her arm through the crook of his elbow.  “This looks exactly like my old apartment.  The bed is in the wrong corner and there should be a lot more CDs in the living room, but it’s… uncanny.  It’s a typical design, I suppose.  Lazy architecture.  Eventually you’ll stumble upon these barely-inspired homes that all resemble each other and find yourself reminiscing.  It’s a wonder everybody doesn’t walk around, stuck in a permanent state of déjà vu.  This apartment was part of my life before I met you.  So strange to think of it that–”

“Sparrow,” Bobby says, “why are you still talking?”

She pushes away from him, looks around the room slowly and shakes her head.  She says, “I talk, Bobby.  That’s how I think.  That’s how I get by.  It’s not permanent.  It’s ephemeral.  I speak and then it’s gone.  Words don’t leave scars and they don’t cut into stone.  It’s a very forgiving way of coping, I think.”

Eventually, they leave the exhibit.  They walk into the painful fluorescence of the main hall and immediately go outside, check to see if there are any employees nearby and light up.  The rain has subsided to a light, frigid drizzle.

“They say,” Sparrow says, her syllables coming out as puffs of smoke, “that for every one of these you lose five minutes of your life.”

“Too bad I never kept a tally,” Bobby mutters.

“You have to hand it to the tobacco companies.   Doing their part to control the population problem.”

The sky grumbles and lightning flashes.  Bobby feels that another storm is coming.  “We should go home,” he says.

In high school, Bobby’s biology teacher gave a demonstration on time.  He took a length of yarn and stretched it across the room.  “This,” he said, “represents all the time on earth since the world was classified as a planet.  Four-and-a-half billion years, or sixty feet…”

He took a pair of shiny scissors and cut off a section a third of the way down.  “The earliest universal common ancestor of all life on earth.  That’s three-and-a-half billion years ago.”

He walked a few feet down and cut the remainder again.  “The first multi-cellular life evolved.  Two billion years ago.  We’re near the halfway mark.”

At the end of the string he made another cut.  “Three feet.  When the first dinosaurs appeared.

“And this,” Bobby’s teacher cut off the very end, a piece barely big enough to see.  “Point-zero-one-three feet.  One million years.  This is us.  And you know what…”

The teacher held the bit of fuzz in the air and blew gently—as if to snuff out a candle— and the fuzz disappeared.

Bobby still sometimes has nightmares about this.  He imagines being blown away and losing himself in uncertain currents and turbulence.  These are all meticulously recorded in his journals.

As they walk back home it begins to rain and blow.  By the time they make it back to the apartment they are both drenched and shivering.  Sparrow walks to the stove.

“I’ll make tea,” she says.  “It always makes me think of weathering storms.  Tea.  Even when it’s beautiful outside.  Tea is what you drink to calm the nerves and get by with a level head.  Very British.”

They drink their tea, smoke a cigarette, and make jokes and laugh about the end of the world.  Sparrow smiles and drags him off to the bedroom while the building shakes from thunder.  They strip fast and then fuck hard in the dark.  Sparrow tries the lights but the power is knocked out.  Bobby cannot see her, but traces the contours of her body with his fingers.

“We need a change,” Bobby hears her say.

“Yes, we do,” Bobby agrees.

She holds his hand and stares at it.  “I’m thirty.  That’s still young, but I’m…  I don’t have all the time in the world.”

Their voices, Bobby realizes, have fallen to whispers and he clears his throat just to hear it.  There is no thunder, no sound of rain on the roof anymore.  All that’s left is the scent of sex and dust.

Bobby says slowly.  “So, what do we do?”

“I don’t know,” she says.  “Get by?  Survive?”

“We can do that.”

“Yes, we can.”

“See you in the morning…”

“Wait, let’s talk.  Don’t go to sleep yet.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

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