It’s the day when the last war is over, and skeletons of swallows are already starting to return. They don’t have beaks, and their white, hard-boiled eyes fly three inches ahead of their semi-transparent faces, or sometimes on their side.
Skeletons of babies start whimpering in the cradles, and a small skeleton of a doggy digs itself out of the ashes. It tries to find its collar, but fails and disintegrates melancholically into mush and bones. Then everything is quiet for a long time.
A man’s skeleton in an orange gas mask comes out onto the porch. He stares at the skeletons of chickens digging the radioactive ashes and listens to the pensive caving of crow skeletons on the lampposts. He stands, doing nothing because everything has already been done. He is just watching, just listening, just feeling for the last time.
In the house he has left, a girl’s skeleton gets up from her bed. She looks around. Nothing has changed much in the room. The windows are not broken; the wallpaper is not scorched by fire. The only sign of the war that has passed are skeletons of fish swimming in the fish tank. No bomb has fallen close enough to really destroy things, to turn people turn into something charred, flat, and flaky, to make them stick to walls like wet leaves, but the radiation has eaten up everything made of flesh. It is so quiet in the room. The air smells of something poisonous, like diesel smoke.
The skeleton of a girl picks up her phone, but it doesn’t work. She flips the light switch, but there is no power. She presses the power button of her laptop, and it hums, coming to life. She is surprised to see that the internet is still working. It works in patches as if it is not the real internet, but the skeleton of it. Probably it can live without people like a chunk of prickly pear cactus chopped off from its roots.
She almost jumps when she sees the message on the screen. Her bones rattle. A shoulder blade falls on the floor. But she doesn’t care about the shoulder blade. Anyway, there is not much time left for her. Minutes or hours, at most.
“hi,” someone writes.
“Hi!” the white, smeared in soot, bones of her fingers type. “Who you are?”
Her English is far from perfect. She lived and died in the country where no one speaks English. No one reads, writes, or hears English. There used to be a lot of signs written in English, though, like ‘Sex Shop’ or ‘Second Hand’ —sometimes it was ‘Cekond hend’, but the difference was too subtle to be noticed. Her life-long dream, her secret obsession was always to speak to someone who knew real English. It looks like her dream may come true now.
“hows it going?” a stranger writes to her, “r u alive? i am from us. no one is alive around here. i saw you are online and was curious. peace.”
Peace. What a strange word. For many years, the war had been warming up its engine, standing motionless on the rails, like a monstrous diesel locomotive, and that sound vibrated both in the air and in everyone’s heart. Then gazillions of bombs fell, gazillions of missiles were launched. Sprawling burdocks of nuclear explosions shot up, blinding the sun, making the sun beautiful but not really important, like a first lady among many presidents. And then peace came at last. An absolute peace that will last forever.
The bones of her fingers hit the keys.
“Hi! Not alive, no one alive anymore, and you? How are you doing? If you agree write with me, it will nice. peace.”
A new message appears on the screen.
“nice to hear from you. i’m doin good for a skeleton … still have 8 fingers that can type. we can practice some informal English if u want. Joe”
“Want I?” she types. “Practice English is my dream. Never had chance in my life.”
She’s been studying English since she was six, even though her schoolteacher could not tell “how” from “now”. After ten years of study, all her friends could say was, “My name is this and that.” But she’s always been more hard-working and persistent than the others.
She was ten when an American delegation visited her school. Being the best student in English, she had to say something to them. She was so proud then, so excited. She said, “Hello, my name is Lyn.” They smiled widely, and she went on about her hobbies, inspired, “I like read books. I like wash TV set.” She saw in their eyes that there was something wrong about it and had a sick feeling in her stomach. She corrected herself, hurriedly, “I like to saw a TV set.” “I’m ten,” she added. “I’m high. I have big green ears. Beautiful green ears.” She meant eyes, of course.
New lines pop up on the screen.
“i like biking,” the skeleton of a stranger writes, “and also music, sometimes i am djing at small parties. i love to travel. i also like to read and draw and of course just chill with some good people. i try to be adventurous when i can. i enjoy being outside and some partying. what do you do for fun? are you a calm or crazy girl? peace.”
When the skeleton of a girl was alive, she hardly ever traveled far from home, and she never went biking. She liked music, though.
“For fun I did meny different things like reading books which are interesting for me, play different games. I’m not calm)) I can’t imeging me without adventurous too. And I also like musik,” she writes.
He answers immediately.
“what sort of music r u into? i listen to mostly hiphop and rock n roll … some old stuff too. u like to dance?”
The skeleton of a girl bites the bone of her index finger, like she used to bite the knuckle of it when she was alive, which always helped her concentrate, and ponders over the abstract question: what dances would she like if she were alive?
“I like hip-hop, house, electro house, minimal and many old songs and popular music,” she types. “I like dance very much, and what about you?”
He answers after a pause.
“cool and crazy. if the time and music (and perhaps the partner) is right, i really like to dance. but i am not always in the mood. sometimes i just want to chill when i am out at night. also, how old are you?”
She would turn seventeen in a month if she were alive. The perfect age. The best age to be.
Her dream to know English was inspired by her mom. Once, ten years ago, Mother had a chance to get a job in Canada and flee from her gloomy, dangerous homeland. During the interview, she was asked a question. “How many times have you been married?” But Mom didn’t catch what was said. In her elegant handwriting, she wrote on the blank page “eighteen,” because she thought the question had meant “how many years have you been married.” No Canada, sorry. Those guys didn’t need professors of chemistry married eighteen times.
The skeleton of a girl types the answer. “Am 17. I like spek to you.”
She settles comfortably in the chair, but she is too fragile now, and even this small motion makes a couple of her ribs fall out. They rattle down onto the floor.
“i am 22 and a leo,” the stranger writes. “leos i think are a bit crazy and very proud. but also dependable. always a bit in love. i dunno, cool. well i am certainly a leo. I even have the red hair something like a lion. you have a favorite sign?”
She doesn’t know the names of the zodiac signs in English and doesn’t know how to say about it.
“are you sexy?” the skeleton of the boy suddenly asks.
Another rib falls. Now it’s lying in the back of her pelvis, where she used to have her perfect behind. Can it be called sexy, even in the remotest sense of the word? she thinks. She feels shy of the word ‘sexy.’ She’s too young. She’s stripped of flesh, but not of shame yet. She already kissed and was kissed hundreds of times, and she already had her first sex experience, but that childish shame remains in her the way a snub-nosed piglet continues to exist in a link of sausage.
“Meny peoples seys that I look like a black panther,” she writes, avoiding the direct answer, and adds, “you are big dangerous!”
You are a bit dangerous, she means. She hopes he understands.
“yes a leo is big and dangerous,” he writes. “a black panther is a sexy animal in my opinion. a black panther is smart and fast and beautiful but also dangerous, all good things.”
The clock on the wall strikes six in the morning. It’s still so early. The last day in human history has just begun. She looks out through the wide window. At dawn, the city is black and white Guernica stretching to infinity and beyond, but the colorful Dali is already spreading in the sky. How can people do this? she thinks. Probably, no one can live without meaning in their lives, and political psychopaths suffering from nationalism and constipation try to find meaning in revenge, or territorial gain, in considering themselves better and nobler than other psychopaths suffering from constipation and nationalism.
The skeleton of a girl listens to the chime of the clock fading away, then hears footsteps in the kitchen. Her mom’s skeleton appears in the doorway.
She moves the screen so that her mom cannot see what is on it. Mom has never approved of talking about sex. She was a firm believer in conventional things like love and marriage.
The skeleton of a girl squints to read a short question that has just appeared on the screen.
“u think i am too old haha?”
The skeleton of her mom wants to say something, but she doesn’t have lips or tongue, so she just moves her lower jaw a couple of times. The jaw doesn’t hold and falls to the floor. The skeleton of Mom looks at it, shakes her skull, and leaves the room.
The skeleton of a girl listens to her retreating steps and types:
“Why you said this?”
She is waiting for an answer. Somehow she knows she’s just seen her mom for the last time. The clock on the wall counts away the sonorous seconds of loneliness. She feels a huge disconnection with the rest of the world. Perhaps this world doesn’t exist and has never existed, she thinks. Will it exist after I fall into bones and soot? Perhaps it will. Or maybe not.
What about all people on earth? Will the world exist when there’s no one to see it, to feel it, to think of it? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear its fall, did it fall at all? Will the rabid radioactive clouds eternally wander around, stretching downwards their cotton-wool fingers, hoping to find and kill the last survivors? Will the world be just switched off like a DVD player when there’s nothing interesting to see?
The lines she sees on the screen make her even lonelier. She brushes aside this momentary feeling.
“i am almost 2m. like 183. 182 now without my scalp and skin on my feet. i like that you have all these dark features … like the panther. panthers have a wonderful body. i was just joking. but some girls like their guys older. u?”
She does not like the word body. She prefers boys who look into your eyes before looking down at your bare knees. Perhaps such boys exist only in her imagination. No, she’s not a panther. She’s rather a kitten inside. Her idea of happiness is to cling to someone who loves you back and purr.
He writes to her again.
“i’m only teasing. i found you because i just joined kontakte and i was looking for another lynn, a girl who i was supposed to be working with when i teach english. but i found you instead, and i thought that maybe you would know some english so i messaged you. tell me some more about yourself though … u have a favorite thing to do if your whole day is free?”
The skeleton of a girl liked getting messages from her friends when she was alive. But she does not remember how to spell the word ‘message’. ‘A’ or ‘E’? She decides that does not matter much.
“If my day will be free I will go first to a library, than exchange massage with my friends. You?”
She hopes she wrote the word ‘message’ correctly. But the skeleton of a boy does not answer for a whole minute. Then he writes with pauses after every sentence, as if thinking about something.
“i would sleep late … cozy in bed. then i would get a huge delicious lunch. then go bmx biking at a skatepark in the late afternoon. then swimming to cool off. then out to party and enjoy some nightlife. then finally late to bed with a girl i like. then the massage. massage is a great thing … then sleep.”
Very typical, she thinks. All they need is sex, bikes, and huge lunches. Five years ago, when she was only twelve, she spoke to a real, genuine English-speaking European. He had a beer belly, a motorbike, and the oily eyes of a cat in the season. That European sat in a café in the marketplace every morning. He pawed waitresses but gave good tips to them. She had always wanted to test her English, and that day she had her chance. She had been preparing for three days and was very nervous, but at last, she came to a real foreigner (to her, he seemed something like a white elephant—a rare thing and not a human being), introduced herself, and spoke about her attempts to master the language. He laughed and planted a playful kiss on her forehead, so she went away pleased with herself. The next day a waitress told her that after she had left, the foreigner scratched his balding head and asked: “Who the hell was that? I haven’t asked for an underage whore.”
“Cool, i like you day,” she types.
The skeleton of a boy writes again.
“well i borrowed a bit from your day. i wouldnt have thought to get a massage in bed if you hadnt inspired me. it was your idea.”
She imagines them in bed: naked, with their phones, exchanging messages. Hmm.
“I think instead massage you want some another thing with girl would you like in you bed, and you decided not to say it,” she writes.
She reads the answer on the screen.
“maybe ….. maybe you are right and you caught me … or maybe a girl does all those other wonderful things first and then the night ends with a massage. or two massages. one for each person.”
Perhaps he’s different, she thinks. It may be romantic to talk on the phone to a girl you love, even if she’s in the same bed with you and has already done all the wonderful things she could. To use a telephone to tell her about your love. So touching.
“I never thought about it, but it is interesting,” she answers.
He answers very quickly.
“exactly. especially with you by my side. we would be some scary fucking massagers.”
It has become too personal for her taste. She likes unfashionable things, like dating, talking, thinking, proposing. Everything that makes the relationships sounder. Anyway, she does not want to discuss sex with a stranger any longer. Even with a skeleton of a stranger.
“My father is a military engineer,” she writes. “He makes weapons. Good bombs that kill only people and leave things safe.”
Weapons intended to kill millions of civilians. One day Lyn heard, out of the blue, that a girl from her school had died in a railway accident. They had never been friends. She did not even remember that girl’s name. But days after hearing about her death, she felt as if some tender part of her nature, the skin of her soul, was bruised, which lent her a painful clarity of perception. She noticed that the world without one person had changed dramatically. The reality became thinner, like the air as you ascend the mountains. The days become clearer, more transparent. Every small thing lost its solidity, and some otherworldly sense showed through. She looked at the kids playing in a sandbox, at a man holding a smiling baby in his hands, at an old woman crossing the street and thought, if one death changes the world so much, what if millions die? Everyone dies? Will all things explode and turn into vacuum?
“my fathers a lawyer,” the stranger answers, “i like cars. i used to drive a bmw. but now i have no car. u have a car?”
“No, but I like Lexus,” she writes.
“yes i do like it,” he writes. “those cars are expensive tho … so it is a fantasy for me own one. if i did own one i would certainly take you for a drive with me. would u like that?”
She smiles, against her will, against the chasm separating them, against all those billions of deaths, logically possible, militarily justified, politically necessary, but impossible in some greater moral sense. She thinks she likes this guy, although she does not understand some of the words he writes.
“Yes, I would)))”
“id trade you a massage for a car ride if you had the lexus,” he writes and adds after a pause, “only if you thought it was a fair trade of course.”
This time she is sincerely surprised. There’s something psychotic in it. Or is this just her imagination?
“Massage?” she asks.
He pauses, then writes slowly.
“it was a joke. i was saying that if you had a lexus i would love for you to take me for a ride as well. i would even give you a massage if u let me come in your lexus, if u thought it was a fair trade.”
She thinks she cannot understand the point of this joke, if it was a joke. She opens a dictionary. “Trade: the act or an instance of buying and selling goods and services.” It doesn’t clear the matter up one bit. Why does anyone have to send a message to a person in the same car? Is this boy right in the head?
“)))I wasnt anderstend what do you mean))) For what do massages in the car when we are close?”
But the answer she gets is even more puzzling.
“if just plain sex is everything you want”
Suddenly something idiotic interrupts his words.
“Hi, please help me win Hyundai Accent ))
please send SMS with text 51_ 41З5 to number1171. Price: $1. I need your help! As soon as I win I promise to send back $500.”
“what does all this mean?” he asks.
She feels ashamed, though it is not her fault. She types as quickly as she can.
“Nothing, virus sent this massage.”
She waits. He does not answer for a long while. Everything is so calm. The dead world is crumbling to pieces so slowly, so quietly. In cold polar seas, skeletons of whales try to sing their last songs to the skeletons of their wives with skeletons of their unborn babies inside, but no sound is heard. Skeletons of sloths fall from the branches like overripe plums. Skeletons of lions follow with the gaping stare of their bony eye sockets stumbling skeletons of zebras, still graceful in their disintegration. Skeletons of people burn slowly like sparklers, throwing the last sparks of their souls into the darkness around, trying to find the last word that will make the world resonate like a guitar body, but never finding it. It’s ten minutes after six, still so very early. The next message unpleasantly surprises her.
“ok we can chat on there later. my computer is a bit fucked up right now anyways so i have to wait too. in the near future i hope though”
The bones of her fingers hit the keys.
“Don’t leave. There is no future!”
He doesn’t answer for a couple of minutes. Then,
“maybe it is too hard to explain here. anyways i have to go and say goodbye for the night. its night here in us. im glad i got in touch with you though. it has been a pleasure. anyways, hopefully you don’t think i’m a creep or something.”
The screen is empty. Oh my god, it’s all over, she thinks.
The skeleton of a girl comes out onto the porch. She’s flaking like a plane tree. Her bones are off-white, the color of a full moon in a clear night sky. There’s a nasal cavity, rather large, at the place where she used to have a small, freckled nose with a turned-up tip. She doesn’t have her left hand now, and most of her rib cage is already gone. The landscape is steaming like a hot bath. She feels naked without her ribs.
She sees a heap of bones and the orange gas mask: all that is left from the skeleton of her father, the military engineer and creator of good bombs, who stood there some half an hour ago, looking at the skeletons of chickens digging the radioactive ashes. All that is left from his strong arms that used to toss his little daughter in the air and always catch her. All that is left from his shoulders she used to sit on when he was giving her piggyback rides in the central park.
She has never noticed before that his skull is so oblong and his eyeholes are so close together.
Her right leg falls off, and for some time, its toe bones jerk, neurotically. She keeps standing on her left leg, like an empty wineglass on its elegant stem. She does not find it difficult to keep her balance, probably because she is as light as a feather now.
When she hears a soft remote honking, she looks up at the sky, startled. But in the sky, there aren’t any bombers anymore, and only skeletons of cranes are flying so high above the land, so smoothly, so strangely, that the skeleton of a girl smiles and understands that everything scary is already over, that everything is going to be good from now on.