“There had never been another choice. No choice at all. And long before they’d come close to a conclusion, long even before the question had a chance to divide them, the outside world had simply fallen silent.”
The storyteller could feel the fine sand underneath her feet and the evening breeze in her hair. The wind came up from the shore in leisurely gusts, each rattling the dry, thorny undergrowth. The early nightfall had turned the patch of sickly shrubbery separating the peninsulas inland from the beach into a prickly maze. But even though the overgrowth blocked out the stars above, even though neither the flickers from the hollow windows of the old housing blocks nor the pyres by the shore could be seen, her step was true.
She’d walked this path a thousand times. Perhaps she’d walked this path forever. What else was there? Here, at the end of the world. At the end of time. Her feet carried her out onto the beach. Where the wind grew bolder and the noise grew louder. She happily received them both. The cold, salty squall digging into her threadbare sweater was a welcome change, with the memory of the day’s humid heat still lingering beneath her skin. And the noise – well, the noise meant everything. Everything that gave her comfort in this crumbled world. Almost the entirety of their little community spent their evenings by the beach. Sat around fires of dried driftwood and bramble-branches. Roasting humble dinners. Chattering. Strumming their makeshift instruments. Someone, he’d been a singer in a different life, was rapping along
The music filled the small crowd with beauty and melancholia in equal measure. The storyteller sat down some distance from the group, where the dunes gave her back some badly needed rest. The lack of reliable electricity made their days short, and the peninsula, as idyllic as any place left on this earth, provided enough that they did not truly labor hard to feed themselves. But age was catching up with her now, and the aching bones were a small price for all the things she still remembered.
The music had picked up in rhythm now, and soon moving bodies joined the flames in their dance. A small, stubborn beacon of innocent joy against the endless black of the ocean at night. Once upon a time they had not dared to expose themselves like this. They’d tried to leave their shelters, the half-finished husks of what might have once become a series of hotels, as little as possible. But that had been many years ago, when they had just arrived here, and others fleeing the war joined them daily.
It had been close to a decade now, since anybody new had arrived. Back then there’d also been lights in the sky. Signs of airplanes overhead. Of ships passing them by in the far distance. And on some occasions, the fire and howl of missiles tearing up the sky. Back then they had also argued a lot. About reaching out. About trying to find out what was going on in the world. Some people had even argued that they’d made a mistake fleeing in the first place. Nonsense, of course. It had been wise to flee. They were scarcely a handful. They would never have made any difference, in the face of so much madness.
There had never been another choice. No choice at all. And long before they’d come close to a conclusion, long even before the question had a chance to divide them, the outside world had simply fallen silent. No new arrivals. No planes. No ships. No lights other than their own. The old world was gone. And perhaps there was no one else left out there at all.
Before she could trail off into the kind of thoughts that lurked in the vast shadows, before the anxiety could swallow her, the children noticed her arrival. The children. There were seven of them in their little community. The youngest two born after the world had turned silent, the oldest close to what would have once been called adulthood. She still felt a sting looking at them. Every time. The medicine and surgery of the old world had gone a long way to right the wrongs that she had been dealt by birth. But as much as the errors made when assigning her gender had been corrected, children remained a sore spot. Not that it really mattered nowadays.
The way the children in their group were raised, she was as much their mother as any of the other women. And she spent no small amount of time with them. She told them stories. Of the old world. It had been her craft once. And she’d honed it for a long time. She’d read and watched thousands of stories, back when these things were easily accessible. And even if she had not held a pen or touched a keyboard for a decade, her talents were now the only thing that these children had to feed their young imaginations in a time when the memories of the information age had begun to fade into obscurity.
She took pride in this duty. More than in any of the books she’d once published or the films they’d become. Even back when those things had any meaning, it had been a stressful and breathless dance, and an endless battle for purpose. Purpose, once ever so elusive, that she’d now found as the lore keeper of the old world. Purpose that became almost a tangible thing where she could see and feel how much her words and memories meant. Not just to the children. Everyone old enough to remember the old world missed it in some ways. Missed people. Missed its luxuries. Missed its brilliance and marvel. But that old world had always been doomed. Its beauty built on blood, its wealth wrung from oppression. Sure, for a brief moment, for a precious decade or two it had looked as though things were changing. As if they could change. As if there could be a better world. As if.
The backlash had been swift and brutal, and as hatred and bigotry had reasserted their slipping grasp, nations full of rediscovered false patriotism, ever harder to distinguish from the corporate machines beating in their chests, had inevitably found themselves at odds in their race to press the most out of those at their mercy. And the world had choked on its own bile. She left those things out of the stories that she told the children. The ugliness. The constant judgment and pressure. It all seemed insane with the benefit of hindsight. And after she’d fled from the fight against the inevitable in her old life, that was all the recourse left to her. To make sure that all those poisonous thoughts died along with those that had once desperately clung to them. Fought for them. Died for them.
Even this form of posthumous resistance held its challenges of course. Once she’d written of war, and the pity of it. Of abuse, frequently the kind that women like her had so often faced in the dead world. And the stories and images she’d soaked up were clouded in a similar darkness. In the first years she’d outright struggled to find tales to tell, that spoke of the old world without making it sound like a grim and perilous place.
Of course that had been years ago. Of course she’d managed. In a way the children and their relentless innocent curiosity had done a larger part than her own creativity, guiding her hindsight to the cracks. To the slivers of good, of hope, of humanity that had existed, that had never truly been stamped out before the implosion. She liked to think of this little community as such a crack. As proof that there was such a thing as ‘good’. In the end, the very end of the world no less, they’d won, hadn’t they? They were still here, when no one else was. Good triumphed in the end. She still wondered from time to time, if this way of looking at it and her sharpened eye for the innocence lost, if they made the melancholia easier to bear. Or worse.
The wind had grown colder, and the fires had burned down to a glow when she finished this night’s story, one in a long series about an owl, a zebra and a bear exploring the world together. The gathering was slowly dissolving towards a well earned nights rest. By the time she’d hugged each of the children a good night, the singer had come to stand next to her. Waited patiently until she was done and then helped her back to her feet. The man was a few years her junior, and one of the few here as tall as she was. He’d been some sort of bodybuilder at one point, and much of his stature had survived the changes in diet.
He was the one she usually shared the bed with. On this night, as on many others before, they walked back to the houses hand in hand. Sometimes silent, sometimes not so much. This time, like many times before, she could feel his unease before he even started talking. There was a gentle soul underneath the muscles, the faded tattoos and the marks that an impoverished youth had left in his face. And ever so often the anxiety gripped his heart, and he needed to talk. And just as she was happy to lean on him for many of the practical things in life, she was also happy to offer her shoulder in his moments of doubt. To reassure him that things could have never turned out differently. That they had done the right thing, running. That there had never been a choice. No choice. No choice at all.
“Alright. Thirty seconds on your mark.” The storyteller felt an almost physical whiplash when she came back. Back from the bizarre, oh so vivid daydream that had taken hold of her in the least opportune moment. She fell back into the real world. Back into her old body. The wrong body. One that had not been fixed yet. That filled her with vicious disgust whenever she so much as glanced at a mirror. Back into a world that terrified her to the core, every day of her existence. A world full of leering eyes and hateful minds, full of abuse and fear.
Or maybe the anxiety wave running down her spine was simply owed to the place. She was sitting on a couch, in a brightly lit waiting room. About to be called on stage any second now. A real stage. A television stage. National television, the whole deal, glamour and all. That was big. Her big break. The literature market of the twenty-first century was a lottery at best. And even though it was the least favorite of her books that had afforded her this chance – to even get one was far more luck than she had any right to. Now was the time to seize it. They’d all told her in the days leading up to this. Her publicist. Her father. Her fiancee. That now more than ever was the time to play the right cards. To be quiet and presentable and to make the most of it. Under some amount of protest she’d even gotten a haircut. But the preparation had been the hard part, hadn’t it? What came now was easy. What came now she’d practiced a million times before. Daydreaming of this moment.
Daydreaming. What a dream that anxiety had cooked up inside her. Her daydreams were frequently vivid. And frequently visions of things she craved, one way or the other. The dream that she had just now seen… it’d been peaceful. Simple. Easy. Fair enough. Right now, she would really have liked ‘simple’. And yet… “Alright, you’re up. Showtime.” The words of the assistant seemed to come from very, very far away. And she followed. Her body very much moving by itself, her mind still trying to process the recent vision. “You know him as the author of…” The words of the talk-show host did not truly reach her mind.
As she made her way up the steps. As the heat of the spotlights began burning her skin. And behind the studio-lights, an audience. Shadows with eyes. Watching her. Staring at her. And she understood. She’d raised her arm to greet the crowd. And now that she had regained conscious control over her body, she raised it further. Straightened her back. Formed her fingers into a raised fist. She sat down. And she spoke. Plainly and clearly. Under her true name. Because not enough people did. Because things needed saying. Because she had seen a future. And no matter what she craved, no matter how much she yearned for ease or simplicity… no comfort was worth that price. And what little she had to give, she had to fight. There was no choice. No choice at all.