NOTHING IN THE WORLD BUT YOU
Afterwards, he always pretended everything was normal. I’m just a guy getting dressed, he thought.
Then she materialized from behind him, wrapping her serpentine arms around his chest.
“There’s nothing in the world but you,” she whispered into his ear.
He finished the knot and wrenched himself from her embrace.
“I feel the same way about you, Brooke.”
“Don’t lie.” She reclined on the ruffled sheets. “I hate it when you lie.”
Jason sighed and finished dressing, her languid gaze imprinting his every movement.
“Will you stop by again tomorrow?”
“I can’t,” he said. “I’m leaving early for the airport.”
She peered through the bedroom window as if his destination lingered somewhere at the horizon. “Will you be gone long?”
“A week maybe.” He smiled. “I love you. You know that, right?”
“I do,” she said and closed her eyes. “That’s the one thing that’s not a lie. Though we’d both be better off if it was.”
After kissing her goodbye, Jason descended the apartment building’s circular staircase and slipped into the alley where he always hid his truck.
I’m just a guy driving home, he thought.
In a cul-de-sac two miles away, he throttled past dozens of identical two-story homes, all made from the same blueprint, each one springing up through the concrete like a drywall daisy chain. As if by chance, he picked one in the middle. The only things that set it apart from the others were his son running across the lawn and his wife waiting on the porch.
“Hey, dad,” the boy said. “You missed dinner.”
“Did I?” Jason slammed the truck door, and the brief breeze sent a whiff of Brooke’s perfume into the air. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“With the guys again?” Amy raised an eyebrow, the same way she always did when he was absent from the table.
“Phil said to tell you hi.” Jason stalked along the grass, his son tracking his every step. “He was hoping we could get together for a barbeque when the weather breaks.”
Amy nodded. “That sounds nice.”
Jason almost pitied her and how his stand-ins for the truth never seemed to bother her. How she still needed to believe in vows and white dresses and paper anniversaries. How she wasn’t like Brooke who had no such pretense. Brooke who had set her dark eyes on him and deciphered all his secrets as though she alone could untangle a lifetime of bruises and regret.
“Do you want me to reheat the leftovers?” Amy asked.
“No,” Jason said, “I’m just getting a shower and going to bed.”
He hated rinsing Brooke’s scent off him, but he was already three hours late. No reason to tempt his wife’s ire with floral top notes of infidelity.
Long after midnight, with Amy curled in bed next to him, Jason studied the designs in the ceiling tile.
I’m just a guy who can’t sleep, he thought. He wished Brooke was there to whisper in his ear.
His wife shifted and murmured something in her sleep.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but she turned away from him.
At five in the morning, Jason slipped from bed and absconding with his overnight bag and briefcase, started down the state highway toward the airport.
I’m just a guy driving to work, he thought, as visions of Brooke’s lithe form invaded the edges of his mind. I’m just a guy with a flight to catch.
But Jason only made it to the county line. That was where the road ended. Where everything ended.
At first, it was such an inexplicable sight he almost cruised right into the formless abyss, assuming his eyes would adjust once he was within it. Like it was fog and nothing more. Yet something about the border—straighter than a chalk line and creeping without remorse across the fields and concrete—stopped him.
As he pulled to the shoulder and gaped at the wall of gray, his gaze couldn’t quite focus on it. It was there but not there.
Other drivers soon joined him, and together, they stared into the nothingness.
“Think it’s a storm?” one asked.
Jason shook his head. “It doesn’t move. A storm would move.”
“My phone’s not working,” another said. “There’s no signal. I can always get a signal here.”
Though the highway usually bustled during the morning commute, no vehicles crossed from the other side. Engines and backfires and disgruntled drivers were lost somewhere between the here and there.
Displaced on the wrong side of the road, they were alone in a way Jason struggled to fathom.
“We can’t stand here forever,” one man said. “I’m driving through. I’ll honk all the way if anybody wants to follow.”
“Send help or something,” Jason said as if a simple hex or legion of tanks might dispel the gloom.
The intrepid sedan passed the bystanders, horn yelping as it approached the darkness.
The rest waited. The moment the car penetrated the barrier, the honking stopped. No screams. No crash. Just gone as though it were swallowed whole.
After several hours and dozens more sightseers joined the baffled throng, Jason returned home. By then, the whole town knew. Nothing in small towns was as contagious as gossip.
At the two-story home that claimed to be his, Amy stood at the sink, washing the same dish over and over again. Wrinkled and twisted in the water, her hands could have belonged to a hundred-year-old woman.
“They’re holding a special sermon at the church,” she said as Jason slunk through the back door. “I’d like to go.”
He watched the faded floral dishrag draw its hypnotic circles. “I can drop you off.”
She looked at him, her weathered hands suddenly still. “You’re not coming with us?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
After abandoning his wife and son to prayer, Jason drove across town to Brooke’s East Side apartment building. As he tucked his truck in the usual alley, the brownstone loomed over him, as intoxicating and unforgiving as the gray partition at the county line.
Figures darted past windows, curtains shimmering in their wake.
“I expected there to be more mayhem,” an old man said to Jason as he entered the foyer.
“It’ll come,” Jason said and plodded up the creaking stairwell.
Since Brooke had long ago given him a key, he let himself in. The venetian blinds on all the windows concealed the waning daylight, but Jason could navigate every crevice of that apartment, even in the dark.
He found Brooke already in bed.
“I hoped you’d come,” she said and unbuttoned his shirt. “How did you get away?”
“Everyone’s at church,” he said. “Praying for someone to fix it.”
Brooke laughed and, with the grace of a ballet dancer, pulled off her rose-colored dress. For an instant, a pair of headlights pierced through the slats in the blinds, vivisecting her naked body.
“Everybody’s talking about end of days,” she said. “But it’s not so bad, is it?”
With none of her elegance, Jason sloughed off his clothes and climbed into bed. “And how is being cut off from everyone and everything not so bad?”
She shrugged and drew him toward her. “At least we’re together.”
The sermon recycled every hour, so Jason truncated their usual running time.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he sought his clothes on the floor.
“Maybe tomorrow we could go for a drive,” she said. “Remember how we used to do that?”
Jason hesitated, wishing he could drive far away with her. Drive away and never return.
“I doubt it’s safe.” He leaned over Brooke and kissed her forehead. “You didn’t see how everything dropped into nothing. I doubt it’ll ever be safe again.”
“Oh” was all Brooke said. At once miles away, she pulled the blanket to her face and turned toward the wall.
The next day, the rest of the county disappeared, leaving the town cut off from the world like a condemned island awaiting the rapture.
“What are we going to do?” Amy clung to Jason’s chest. He was still wearing the same shirt Brooke had unbuttoned the night before. He refused to discard it for the wash. Not yet. It still smelled like her.
“I don’t know,” he said.
With the world ceasing operations, Jason no longer went to work, so he had no excuse to check on Brooke. He tried to call her, but the phone lines were still down. There was no reason to think they might not be down, but his desperation to hear her voice was enough to possess him to madness.
“We need to do something,” Amy said again and again, pacing through rooms and beating her fist into walls.
“Please calm down,” Jason said. “Let’s turn on the radio. Find out what they’re saying.”
Only a local station remained, and static all but overtook the regular news bulletins.
“What’s wrong with Mom?” his son whispered.
“She’s just scared.”
The boy blinked up at him. “Does she need a doctor?”
“If we could find one.” Jason rifled through the medicine cabinet for anything that might placate her. He found some old sedatives, and Amy swallowed most of the bottle.
“Do you need anything else?” he asked.
“A whole different life,” she said and gulped down her tears.
After she was asleep, Jason returned to the radio where his son was perched, absorbing every word.
“Still no sign of anything beyond the town limits,” the report said. “And trouble on the East Side as looting and fires have overwhelmed the area.”
“Oh, no,” his son said. “That’s bad, right?”
Jason nodded, Brooke’s historic brownstone etched into his mind, a blaze superimposed over the windows and doors.
On instinct, he grabbed his keys. “I have to leave for a few minutes,” he said, kneeling before the boy. “I have a friend who might be in trouble.”
His son wrapped his arms around his father’s neck. “Please don’t go.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I promise it’ll be a quick trip.”
Next door at a carbon copy house, Jason knocked on the front door. With a drawn face and cheerless eyes, a woman who could have been Amy answered.
“I’m going across town,” he said. “You’ll watch my son, won’t you?”
The neighbor smiled and said in Amy’s voice, “Anything you need.”
Through burning barrels and wayward crowds, Jason maneuvered his truck to Brooke’s apartment.
“The mayhem’s here,” the old man said in the foyer, and Jason nodded at him.
Brooke waited in her living room, sprawled on the couch with a book.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said as she glided to meet him, her perfume as potent as ever.
“Everything’s collapsing out there.” Jason kissed her to steady himself. “How can you be so calm?”
“What would you have me do?” she asked. “Panic? I bet your wife’s already done her fair share of that.”
“Leave her out of it.” He shook his head. “If you’re relaxed enough to catch up on your reading, then you don’t need me.”
“I always need you.”
Screams echoed from the streets.
Jason closed his eyes. “I should go.”
“But you just got here.” Brooke wove her arm around his.
“Don’t go back out in that chaos. Stay here with me.”
“This isn’t some leisurely visit,” he said. “I can’t just stay.”
“Because I have to go home and take care of my son.”
Brooke scoffed. “Why start now?”
“Why start now?” Jason stared at her. “Because the world’s ending and his mother’s sedated and he’s alone except for some neighbor watching from a window.”
“But you still left him there, so you could see me,” she said. “Why?”
“Because I was worried about you,” he said. “I thought you might be worried about me too.”
“Don’t start that,” she said, her jaw set. “You know there’s nothing in the world but—”
“Well, there’s something in my world besides you.” Jason jerked away from her. “My son. My wife. My family. Those are the things in my world besides you.”
Brooke dropped back onto the couch. “Then maybe you should be with them instead.”
“Maybe I should.”
Past dozens of roving tenants in the hallway, Jason carved a careful path down the stairs. In the foyer, there were even more people flocked to the windows around the entrance, all pushing to get their chance to look outside. Most were sobbing. But none of them opened the door.
Even without taking his turn, Jason knew what they saw. Trembling, he picked his way back up the stairs and retreated into Brooke’s apartment.
“Back already?” she asked, still cradling her book.
“I had no choice,” he murmured. “Everything’s gone.”
He wrenched the blinds to reveal a curtain of gray cloaking the building.
“There’s nothing left.” He sucked in air to stymie a sob. “No town. No family. Just this building.”
“How?” Her gait unsteady, Brooke joined him at the window.
“You did this,” Jason said slowly, the accusation forming only as he spoke it aloud. “It’s you.”
Her face contorted, she turned to him. “What are you talking about?”
But he didn’t reply. Head in his hands, Jason settled on the couch as footsteps raced up and down the hall, and desperate tenants catcalled each other, crying and screaming and cajoling.
Brooke glowered into the darkness outside as if to deconstruct it.
“I’m sorry about your family,” she said.
Jason exhaled a single shrill laugh. “Why? You don’t think I even cared about them.”
“But I didn’t want them to get hurt,” she said, “even though I hurt them a thousand times before now.”
“Never quite like this,” he said. “How do you do it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Can you fix it?”
“I didn’t do anything in the first place!” Body shaking, Brooke clenched her fists. “I don’t know why or how this happened. But I didn’t ask for it.”
“Of course, you did.” Jason gazed at the patterns on the ceiling.
I’m just a guy sitting in a room, he thought.
The lights beneath the apartment door suddenly faded as did the voices in the hallway.
Holding his breath, Jason crossed to the peephole and peered out.
Brooke edged toward him. “What’s going on out there?”
“Nothing,” he said. “There’s nothing out there.”
They sat in silence for hours, a silence so bottomless it had absorbed the whole world.
“I’m tired,” Brooke said at last. “Maybe this is all a nightmare, and if we go to bed now, we’ll wake up sooner.”
Like a hypnotized fool, Jason followed her to the bedroom, and she closed the door behind them. After a moment, he glanced at the floor. The glow from the living room was gone too.
Brooke turned back. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s nothing there anymore,” he said. “There’s no apartment at all, is there?”
“I don’t know.” She shivered. “Why don’t you look?”
But neither of them moved. They didn’t have to.
“Come to bed,” she said and climbed onto the mattress.
“Let me get undressed first.”
Removing his tie, Jason took it in both hands and tugged the silk taut. Then he let it go slack and pulled it taut again. Slack. Taut. Slack. Taut.
A light sigh drifting through the air, Brooke fidgeted. “It’ll probably come to that.”
“To what?” Jason asked, the tie drooping in his grasp.
“What you were thinking of doing with your tie.”
“Don’t lie,” she said. “I hate it when you lie.”
“I didn’t mean to think it. I just—”
“We can talk about it tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s sleep now.”
Crawling beneath the familiar sheets, he rested next to her in the bed.
The only bed. Uw
Gwendolyn Kiste is a horror and fantasy writer based in Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies including Strangely Funny II and Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear as well as online at Sirens Call Publications, Danse Macabre, and Sanitarium Magazine among others. You can find her at www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter @GwendolynKiste