This story is by Gina Screen and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I am the last woman on Earth.
I’m not sure how I know this.
It’s true though, I feel it inside me. It’s an itch.
Robert died days ago, twitching and clutching at me and bleeding from his ears.
Before that, Apollo left, suddenly, and I know he won’t be returning. I think he sensed the illness… the death, and could not bear to be near it. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but clearly, there are limits. I understand the feeling.
We lasted longer than most. As the outbreak spread and death tolls rose, Robert, me and Apollo packed up as many supplies as we could and came here. We hoped the isolation of my cabin in Alaska would minimize our infection risk, surviving until there was a cure or a vaccine.
Now, I know, there will be no cure. The doctors, researchers, and lab technicians died too quickly for that to happen. Later, we listened to the radio for updates until, one day the airwaves were all silent.
Still, we lasted a while longer, until Robert stumbled across a dying hunter while he was out setting small animal snares. He returned to the cabin empty handed and shaking, terrified.
He died. I wrapped him in a sheet, dragged him to the backyard, buried him, and now I am alone.
The last woman on Earth.
The fire is blazing cheerfully in front of me. Even in shock, I perform the necessities to stay alive. I wonder why I bother.
The knock on the door provides the answer.
For a few, brief moments, I weigh the wisdom of opening the door, before finally deciding to see what fate has in store for me. Dazed, I move toward the sturdy wooden door, and I almost laugh when I open it and realize who is standing there. Instead, I smile slightly, and step out of the way, gesturing to invite him in.
Michael’s hair is long, tangled and dirty. His eyes are sunken and dull. He’s weak, hungry, so I lead him to the bed and go to the kitchen, intent on making chicken noodle soup. I remember it is his favorite.
As I make his soup, I think: if I am the last woman on Earth, of course, my ex-husband would be the last man.
When I return with food, he is sitting exactly as I left him. I hold a spoonful to his mouth, and he eats, swallowing slowly. He takes a few mouthfuls and then pushes my hand away, but looks at my face. His voice is a harsh whisper, he grates out,
“Sharon.” He falls back onto the bed, and I rearrange him so he lies against me, warm.
He drinks some water, and then some more. Finally, he starts to speak, slowly, brokenly.
“I knew…somehow…you…would….be alive… and would…be here.”
I wait, sensing he has so much more left on his soul.
“You don’t know how bad it is out there. The stench of death hangs like a cloud over every city and town that I saw. It’s so bad, that I almost couldn’t bring myself to go into the cities for supplies,” he pauses to take another sip of water. “The smaller towns are almost as bad, with feral dogs gnawing on bloated and rotting corpses.”
“You know, it’s not supposed to be that quiet when you’re walking through a town of 10,000 people on a Wednesday afternoon. I thought I would go crazy from the silence. But I knew I had to keep going, even if it meant scavenging through empty houses, becoming a scavenger of the dead so that I stay alive long enough to find you.”
I hold him close, stroking his dirty hair, feeling the curls, soft despite days without shampoo. So different from Robert’s long, wiry dreadlocks.
After a while, he pauses to drink some water. I think perhaps he is done talking and would like to sleep, so I start to move away. He pulls me back in, close, and starts speaking again in a whisper.
“Now, here I… I need to tell you everything,” pausing to take a deep breath before continuing, “After our divorce, I just couldn’t face my family and our friends after you rejected me, so I became something of a recluse. I basically hid from the world, going totally off the grid. But I wasn’t alone, I met others living an underground existence, united by a cause.”
He pauses at this point, gathering his thoughts. I find myself frightened by what he will say next. Michael was always one for dramatics, but this seems excessive, even for him.
He continues after looking at me from under his eyelashes, “The people I found were radicals; they were obsessed with global overpopulation.” Michael took a deep, shuddering breath and continued, “You have to understand, they sheltered me, made sure I had food, water. They kept me alive when I felt too depressed to go on. I felt I owed them something. So, I helped their cause, using my medical expertise and organizing strategies and tactics.
I can’t breathe. I’m almost numb and breathless with horror at what he’s saying. I know Michael’s specialty; it’s biomedical research.
“It was supposed to be a controlled release of the virus, only targeting pockets of the greatest overpopulation for infection. Once the population was under control, the burden on the planet would be decreased. Earth would have a chance at survival.”
I look at him in complete and utter disbelief. It’s clear he doesn’t fully comprehend what he’s admitting; not only did their final solution wipe out mankind, it was designed to target areas of the world populated primarily with people of color.
“But, we didn’t account for the virulence; or that it would mutate and become airborne, and so quickly.”
“Almost immediately, we began working on a vaccine. I volunteered to be a test subject. But the researchers died before they could manufacture sufficient amounts for it to self-replicate. And, once that happened, I knew I had find you somehow.”
He’s shaking now, tears falling down his face. I hold him tighter, rocking slowly. I think about holding Robert like this, as he died. He shook too, but from cold. Liquid ran down his face, but it was tinged with blood.
I think about how his actions have, once again, upended my world. Only this time there was no going back; his actions had killed Robert.
I wipe his face for him, smoothing away the tears. He looks up at me, his face grateful and full of relief and hope. It contrasts with the last cognizant look Robert gave me, grateful for my presence, full of love, full of pain.
“Sharon, if you survived, maybe there are others with a natural immunity. Perhaps together, we can begin searching for others.” He sighed heavily before continuing, “Maybe… maybe I can begin to right the wrongs that I helped to create.”
I smile at him, thinking that he can never right the wrong of taking Robert from me, of forcing him to die in such a terrible manner.
I nod before he says, “I always wanted children, perhaps one day, when things are better. Just imagine how beautiful our children would be.”
I nod again. They would, indeed, be beautiful.
“I still love you, I’ll always love you, despite our divorce. And, now that we’re both alone again, perhaps, we can be together again.”
I think of Robert.
I lift him up slightly and turn him until he is facing me. I take his face in my hands and grin quickly. I know my teeth look sharp in the light of the fire. He looks at my mouth, and begins to grin back. Then he looks up at my eyes. I know what he sees there, hatred and hunger and anger. He tries to back away, but my hands tighten in his hair.
His journey has made him weak, physically and emotionally. He doesn’t have much fight in him. Or maybe it is guilt. I know that he should be violently struggling to get away at this point. Instead, he just tries to shrink back, and all the hope in his eyes, the hope I’ve let him build for himself, dies.
I grin wider: let him see that I’m glad of his pain, and then I move to grab the scissors I always keep in the night stand near the bed, plunging them into his slender and dirty neck before he has a chance to pull away.
His body falls to the bed, his hair obscuring his face.
My veins itch, and I want to believe it’s from the kill.
I remember Robert, days after he found the hunter, restlessly walking around the cabin complaining of the itch in his veins. By the next day, he was howling with pain, screaming that the itch had turned to knives.
It won’t be long now, Robert. I itch.