“Well, boy, it’s been great so far. Seventeen years, I seen all your life. You been in trouble most of it, but I still hate to leave you.” The old man put on his harness and leaned back in his seat. “I hate to leave because I owe your mother, dead as she be, some caring for you. But that’s done now. Truth told, never thought they’d take me, those people up there in that ship. Never thought I was worthy at all. But the decision’s been made, and now it’s time to go, son. Goodbye. Best luck to you. Maybe I see you again, but I doubt it.”
He touched a button and the hatch closed. A second later, there was a tremendous pop as the egg-shaped capsule took off from the sidewalk. A hiss of black steam later, the thing was in the air, heading up to the ship in the sky.
Tonu looked at the shops off the sidewalk. The glass was humming with the vibration of the capsule, but it was done now. He watched his father shoot into the sky, towards the ship.
He went into a grocery store and found Danny eating ice cream. She was taking bites from five different containers. The ice cream was melting on the floor tiles. “That’s bad for you,” said Tonu. “Give me some.”
She handed him a spoon. “You look shitty.”
The ice cream was delicious. In one spoonful, Tonu found a piece of chocolate as big as a tooth. It opened to spill caramel on his tongue. “Dad got his capsule just now. We were moving a TV upstairs, big sucker. Capsule showed up. Just like that, he was gone.”
“Him?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Him.”
When they were done, they walked outside and went to the roof of Tonu’s building. It was near evening. The sun was shining, except for that bit interrupted by the ship in the sky – and that bit made a shadow like an eclipse. Tonu had seen an eclipse when he’d been six. He’d used glasses from a magazine and watched the whole thing. Afterwards, he’d burned those glasses, because no one had told him that there would be another eclipse someday.
The city was quiet. But now and then, as he and Danny watched, there was a pop, loud as could be. Then a small, egg-shaped capsule jumped into the sky, leaving behind that trail of black steam. Straight as arrows they soared, like they had a mind their own, right at the big ship in the sky. When they got there, hatches in the underside of the ship opened, and the capsules were gone. Like they’d never been. And the person inside each one? Vanished same as dawn, as sunset and starry skies, there for a moment, gone the next.
“You and me, we should make a baby,” said Tonu, as he and Danny walked the streets. Dad was long gone, days ago. They were in the projects. Grass had overgrown the sidewalks. Cars were left in the middle of the street, and a delivery truck was on its side. It was the middle of the day, but one streetlight was on, until they hit it with enough rocks to smash it up.
There were fewer pops than a week ago, but now and then they heard one from some faraway part of the city.
“Why do we need a baby?” asked Danny.
“Might be we’re the only people left,” reasoned Tonu. “Everyone else is getting invited up there. Those ship people are taking them to a better world, right? But this planet, it’s just fine in my eyes.” He whipped a rock hard at a pick-up truck, putting a dent in the door. The next one shattered a window. “We might have to get humans up and going again.”
Danny twirled her braids. “Who says we humans need to get up and going again? Where’s it written we have to?”
An ambulance was moving down the street, weaving between the abandoned cars. Its beacon light was on, but no siren was going. When it got to them, the guy in the driver seat stared at them for a moment, then just drove on.
Anyway, Danny was pretty, thought Tonu. In school, she’d been one of the prettier girls in his class, but not his school. No, there’d been much prettier girls in the school. But now, she was the prettiest girl he knew. Maybe the prettiest girl in the world. “I like you a lot,” he told her. “We’d be a good fit.”
She shrugged. “We’ll see. Want a burger?”
They walked into a fast food place. There was garbage on the tables, lights blinking at the till. They jumped over the counter to the racks. There were rows of burgers there, all cold. Grease had soaked the buns, but at least the microwaves worked. The burgers came out hot, the buns collapsed, like they’d been balloons and the heat had popped them.
“Wish we had fries,” said Tonu. “Fresh fries so hot you can’t touch them. Packed with salt.”
“Go cook some,” said Danny. She was wearing a sports bra and shorts. When he finished his burger, he found her staring at him. “You miss your dad? Because it seems to me that you miss your dad. But I don’t know why you’d miss a guy like that. What’d he do for you? Didn’t you say he hit your mom? That he stole cars and spent his money on dope?”
Tonu wiped his mouth. “He never did anything for me, until this happened. Until that ship came. When it came, and everyone started popping into the sky, we had a time. Went to the liquor store and drank. Went to the electronics place and took whatever we wanted, hooked it all up and had a time of it. But before that, he was a fucking asshole. You’re right about that, Danny.”
“So what’s the problem, then?”
Tonu got up. The restaurant was one he’d come to many times. A friend of his, Melvin, had worked here, and sometimes Melvin had come to the back door and snuck him some French fries. Tonu had sat in the alley between two dumpsters, and eaten those fries. Melvin had his capsule weeks ago. He might have been one of the first to go, for all Tonu knew. He wasn’t surprised, because Melvin had always brought him fries for free, whenever he’d asked. Now, Tonu had the run of the restaurant, could take anything he wanted, even though the food was all cold. And the grease was thick in the buns.
They walked back onto the street and up Porter Avenue to the park with the one old tree, plaques stuck in its bark like it was wearing jewelry or something. Its branches were getting close to the ground. Just past that, they reached uptown, where the condos started, the nice shops. Everything was empty. Everything was quiet.
“Even rich people get to go,” he muttered. “Thought they’d get what they deserved. But rich people, they go too. And poor people go. And now, even dad gets to go. He was worthless, until this happened. Spent a whole life being an asshole, but they sent a capsule for him…”
Danny took his hand, something she’d never done before. When she saw his surprise, she smiled. “This doesn’t mean we’re making a baby or anything. Speak your mind.”
Tonu took a breath. The stores about him were full of the stuff he imagined that he would buy one day, suits and watches, and trips on a ship to the faraway places he dreamed about. He squeezed Danny’s hand, gentle as he could. “Dad was a fuck, much worse than me. So when are they going to send a capsule my way?”
They stopped in a courtyard with a bunch of tables. On the other side was a coffee shop. A paper cup rolled on the ground, back and forth with the wind, like it was mustering up the courage to make a trip or something, but just couldn’t sort it out. Danny still held his hand. “You think you’ve done everything fine, that it?”
He stared at her. She was pretty. Really pretty. The prettiest person that he knew just now. In school, he’d paid her no mind, but now she came out of her building every morning and they found each other somehow, went around the city and did what they could as people popped into the sky. He looked at her, wanting to know what she thought of him: was he like his dad, a miserable fuck, or something else? He leaned closer to her. Squeezed her hand.
The Porsche raced along the streets. Tonu had eaten a frozen pizza for dinner, not even bothering to heat it up. Danny had told him that she was going to take a bath, didn’t want to hang out. So he’d gone to the liquor store and gotten whiskey. Then he’d gotten the Porsche, and now they were together on the freeway.
Lips on the bottle, he chugged. Whiskey dribbled down his chin, into his shirt. The cup holder could barely hold the bottle. He hadn’t known how to drive standard, but he’d taught himself. The car was fast, the freeway mostly clear of cars, so he could drive as quick as he wanted.
Now and then, the freeway swung towards the mountains. There were big houses up there, he thought. He could move into one. Danny could come with him, if she wanted. But he just stayed in the projects. Stayed in his little apartment, the one where dad had been. He gave the car more gas. Drank from the bottle.
Ahead, a shitty car was driving slow. It was rusty, belching smoke from its tailpipe. Tonu raced towards it, wondering why anyone would drive a car like that when they could choose from any car in the city. He reached it quick, slowed down. In the driver’s seat was an old woman, hands high on the steering wheel, staring forward. She was eighty at least, he thought. Now and then, she looked up through the windshield at the ship in the sky, like she was trying to figure out a way to drive to it.
“That what you think, lady?” he mouthed at her. “That you can drive to the ship? Take that rusty shitpile all the way to the next life? Maybe you should go to the mountains, find a high high place, and drive off. See if you can fly. Can you fly, lady?”
Tonu leaned on the horn, and she jumped for a second. Then she gave him the finger.
He sped away and found an off-ramp. What had a fucking old lady like that done in her life that the ship wasn’t going to give her a capsule, he wondered? What evil had she done?
He drank from the bottle and gave the Porsche more gas. He whipped around the streets in fourth gear. If he swiped another car, it didn’t matter. If he ran over a bicycle, it didn’t bother him.
Faster and drunker, he thought. There wasn’t a soul on the streets. Danny was up in her apartment, having a bath. The old lady was on the freeway, looking for a way to get on with her next life, but all she was going to do – all he thought she would find – was a road leading into the mountains, and then the desert beyond.
When he hit the person, the body shattered the windshield. He slammed the brakes and skidded to a stop. Behind him, a man was lying on the road, bleeding. His chest was moving, his hand was in the air.
“Are your lips moving?” asked Tonu, out the window. His head was in a fog, and somehow the sight of this guy lying on the ground seemed right to him. “Yeah, you’re breathing, right? I can see it.” He took a drink. “Listen, man, I don’t know where you came from. Thought there was pretty much no one left. There hasn’t been a pop in days. Me and Danny thought we were pretty much it. Well, that and the old lady. And now you.”
The man on the road didn’t say anything. His hand was in the air. His lips were moving. A shimmering began just above his chest, like his soul was coming out of him and looking up the street for a car to steal, a home to take. The shimmering left the body and walked west, towards the sea, like it had no place else to go.
“You fucked up my windshield, man,” said Tonu. He hit the gas. By the time the bottle was done, he couldn’t feel a thing in the evening light.
Danny was in a dress, black and tight. The restaurant was fine, tablecloths and candles everywhere. They tasted wine for the first time, and hated it, but then Tonu threw a frozen chicken into the big oven in the kitchen and made a meal of it.
It had been three weeks since the last pop. They hadn’t seen a person in days.
Up above, the big ship just hung there, interrupting the sun, fucking up the moon. It didn’t do anything.
“Let’s make a baby,” said Tonu. “Figure we got to.”
She was drinking vodka from the bottle. “This again? If you were the last guy on Earth, I might do it. But I don’t know that to be true.”
“It’s true enough!”
She took another slug, then her face got serious. She moved her braids to the side and leaned forward. In the dim light of the restaurant, she looked older. Stranger. Like someone Tonu had seen before, when he was a kid and used to play by a big concrete pond, and sometimes fancied he’d seen faces in the water, flowing with the garbage.
“Tonu,” she said, “you not wonder why I’m still here? What I did to deserve to stay in this shithole?”
“You?” he replied. “You didn’t do anything, just like me. It’s a mistake. It’s all a mistake.”
Her face grew darker, like she was going to turn into whatever it was that owned that ship up there. She shook her head, real gently. “No mistake,” she whispered. “Whatever’s up there, whoever came here in that ship, they’re smart. They know. When I’m sleeping, I feel like someone’s in my head, slipping in and out of my dreams. They see it all. They see me. And Tonu,” she said, “they know what I done, and they made a decision that I should stay. They did. And Tonu. They know what you done, too.”
He jumped out of his chair. Kicked a baby stroller out of his way as he went to the door. “Fuck off, Danny. Last guy on Earth, best guy on Earth, whatever. You don’t know fuck all.”
She followed him out. The streetlights were on. Above, the ship was lit with purple and orange, and where those colors came together, made a burnt old brown. He spat, “I should just learn to fly and take a plane up there. Force them to open up, to take me. Make my place. Do what I need.”
In response, Danny just laughed. It was the only sound in the city.
Then, with a whir of air, a capsule landed next to them. Black steam hissed for moment and then it was quiet. A panel on the outside glowed, waiting for a hand to touch it.
“Stand back,” said Tonu. But Danny didn’t move anyway. “Just stand back, okay? Don’t you come near!” He went to the capsule. It really did look like an egg. Inside, he could see the single seat and the big harness. He took a breath and touched the lit-up panel.
“That’s bullshit,” he said, falling back. “It’s a mistake. Has to be.”
Above, the big ship was lighting up really bright, something it had never done before. A rumble echoed through the night. The ship began to rotate, like it was ready to go someplace.
Danny went to the panel and touched her hand to it. The hatch opened. She sat on the seat, there in her tight black dress, with her braids. She’d never looked prettier, thought Tonu.
She put on her harness.
“Ship’s moving. They’re leaving,” he whispered. “Where to, you think?”
“I don’t know,” she said, staring at him. “I just want to get off this fucking planet.”
“Think they’ll send a capsule for me too? Think it’s on its way?”
She blinked. “I don’t think so, Tonu.”
He was crying, much as he wanted to stop. “What’s so bad about me, Danny? What’s the thing I done that’s so much worse than whatever anyone else’s done?”
“Only you know that.”
He was on his knees. “I’m going to be the last one.”
She didn’t say anything. The ship up there was spinning. More lights were coming on, like it was morning almost, but a purple-orange morning on some other world where the people weren’t all fucked up and the land wasn’t all ripped to shit. “This place is fine!” he cried. “We didn’t do so bad here! We don’t need to leave!” He held out a hand to Danny. “You don’t have to leave.”
More quiet. Tonu put his head to the asphalt and huffed for breath, until he felt a hand in his hair. “Get up,” Danny told him. “Come on.”
She led him to the capsule and took the chair. Then she drew him inside and sat him on her lap. “Tuck in close, Tonu,” she told him. “It’s a bad fit, me and you, but we’ll make it work.” He snuggled against her, held in her arms like he was really small all of a sudden, something that she could protect if she just squeezed him tight enough.
Danny pressed a button and the hatch closed, grazing Tonu as it clicked into place. He didn’t see the black steam, but he could feel the vibration in the capsule. They shot into the air, like they were in a rocket. It took his breath away, that feeling of moving so fast, so much faster than anything he’d ever done. He was crying, there in Danny’s lap, like he was a stupid bitch, some desperate kid from the projects without a fucking clue about anything.
He looked through the window. Below, everything was bathed in purple and orange light. Wherever it came together, that burnt brown sizzled like it was a mix between the ocean flooding in and the mountains slumping over. In that strange light, the world looked like it was a fucking mess. His eyes widened and he held his breath as he watched the light creeping over the shit they’d left behind. It wasn’t fine, he thought. It wasn’t. Everywhere he looked, there were scars in the earth, a million zig-zags of damage that spoke a language all their own, to anyone who might happen to come by this world and look down to see it.