You can also listen to a podcast performance of Reset by Stories Fables and Ghostly Tales.
There is nothing.
The nothing of being unseen in a crowded room.
Living in an endless daze of the trodden path.
The kind that asks no questions because what is there to ask of nothingness?
The bar is the worst I’d ever stepped foot in— all rotted beams, faded ads and cracked shot glasses. But the world is ending, and I need to drown my sorrows one more time.
I ask for three shots of whatever is cheapest, not batting an eye at the exorbitant amount. Instead, I throw each one back, each one like an inhale. I barely taste them, but I want to be drunk. Now.
The TV broadcast is only noise, the white text ‘Please Stand By’ stamped over a black bar; the last legacy of broadcast television in three little words. Soon enough that will be gone too.
I stare at it, hand still holding the chill glass from the last shot. It all seems a strange sort of unreal that feels like truth in my bones but my skin is still too warmed for it to have hit me. The end of the world. It felt like humanity had barely even started.
The bar has become rowdy by the time I’ve done staring a hole into the TV. Smoke from who knows what fills the air. My mind is foggy as I calculate how much cash I have left. Enough for another two shots, maybe? I debate if I’ll survive long enough to warrant saving the little cash I’d scavenged when things started going south. Maybe I should buy whatever supplies I can get my hands on? But that assumes cash even means anything come morning, so I let the thought go.
Someone bumps into me, hard. I stumble into the bar top. It knocks the breath out of me for a moment, bile rushing up my throat before I choke it down.
“The hell’d you do that for? You wanna start something?” The voice is close to my ear, it echoes in my ears, my jaw. I turn to yell back, but a strong hand pulls me through the crowd by my elbow. I try to pull back, but my limbs aren’t doing what I’m asking them to do, and for the first time I feel real, electric fear.
There are more bodies in the bar than I remember, it all blurs together until the cold air hits me. Everything is fuzzy, but a strong arm holds me up halfway against the building.
“You alright?” It’s the same voice from the bar. This time it’s gentle, soft.
I shake my head, then I’m falling before everything goes black.
It’s not black. Even blackness would be a wavelength the eye could perceive. It’s not like the spots that dance behind my eyes when they close after I’ve been lying in a dark room. I no longer have eyes to see them with.
I come to slowly, my mouth sticky like it’s been filled with paste. My lips cling together. My vision blurs for a few minutes before I’m able to focus on the foreign space around me.
I’m in a bedroom not my own. I’ve been changed into a faded tank top and flannel pants that aren’t mine. The windows are boarded up, slim strips of daylight shine onto the dust particles in the air. Every surface is packed with supplies—canned food, propane, water bottles.
I feel the panic catch in my throat. My eyes search for an exit. I spot a door, but footfalls are creeping towards it from what sounds like a creaky staircase. The doorknob turns before I even have a chance to move. A woman opens the door, holding a beige mug in either hand.
She sees I’m awake and smiles, all teeth. Some part of me recognizes it. “You’re awake,” she says in a soft murmur, slowly closing the door shut with barely a click. “I was getting worried.”
I ease up, careful not to force the change in position. “What happened?” it is the only thing I can think to say. I don’t believe the woman is here to hurt me, but I’m still cautious.
She sets down the mug of what turns out to be hot tea next to me. I reach for it immediately, thankful for the near-burning warmth on my hands. It shakes off the last bit of disorientation from me.
As I become more aware, I hear the hum of a generator, distant shouts outside, and intermittent bangs. I idly wonder if they’re gunshots but dismiss the thought. Surely it hasn’t gotten so bad so quickly?
She sits next to me on the bed, pats my leg under the blankets. “Drugged. Glad I caught you when I did, I recognized you from that fundraiser dinner a few months ago. I don’t want to push you, but as soon as you’re feeling okay we need to leave.”
I still feel light-headed. The words make no sense. Fear scratches like glass in my stomach. “Leave? What’s going on?”
She nods towards the boarded window. “Looting has started. Won’t be long before the violence gets worse. Better to not be in the city until it dies down.”
It hits me— those were gunshots. But this woman is risking her life for me.
“Why are you doing this?” It comes out as a whisper. My throat still burns from the bile, the drug, who knows. “We don’t even really know each other.”
Her eyes study me, calculating. I take the moment to really look at her— black close-cropped hair, dark brown skin, thin frown lines on her face.
“The only thing more terrifying than the end of the world is facing it alone.”
Her words —-
The nothingness sits between the end and a beginning. Limbo. Limitlessness and constriction all at once.
Long after the city becomes quiet—the echoes of screams and engines faded—the loneliness chokes us both. The bond between us is still fragile, and I tread on broken glass with my words. It leads us to search for anything to become a bumper between each others’ pain.
It takes us three months of chasing shadows to find the bunker and its small crew of survivors.
“Here’s a thermal blanket for each of you, and a bag of rations.” Aidan says. He was tasked with leading us both through the steel-enforced concrete hallway, yellow incandescent bulbs flickering above.
We’re shown to a ten-foot square space to call our own in a small room with five families— if they could be called that. Most families now are a mixture of blood and necessity.
“Everyone does their part,” Aidan says. “Do either of you have any medical experience?”
When we’d agreed to come, we knew the risk. To be useless would mean death when things begin to go south.
She speaks for us both, the lie practiced but still sounding natural enough to the untrained ear. “I have some field knowledge. She knows her way around a wrench and a generator.”
Later that night, we hold each other close, foreheads touching, breath mixing. “Did we do the right thing?” she asks, and I don’t have an answer.
I spend my days fighting over-worked generators. When she loses her first patient I hold her tight and let her cry muffled into my shoulder.
But mostly, we wait.
I can feel a pressure where my heart once was.
I feel it without feeling. I’m caught in a strange sort of empathy where I care so much that I feel apathetic.
It threatens to choke me, but there is no oxygen to breathe. All at once I am both in a body filled with pain, and floating without any nerve endings to feel pain from.
“Would you do it?” Lying on the corrugated steel floor, my head is cushioned by my jacket. I almost don’t want to know her answer. I call myself selfish in my mind, I know it is. But there isn’t any part of her I’m willing to give up.
She blows smoke from her cigarette towards the ceiling. It moves towards the now deactivated fire alarm, then dissipates into the cold steel and concrete of the bunker. I want to tell her that the habit will kill her, but we both know we don’t have the time for it to make a difference.
She hasn’t answered my question. She leans to her other side, puts the cigarette out on the floor, then turns back towards me. We’re both huddled under whatever blankets we managed to scrounge from the near-bare supply closets. I let the need to conserve body warmth be the excuse for clasping my hands behind her back, our faces inches apart.
“Anyone who asked would be kidding themselves.” She tucks her head under my chin. “There’s not enough of us on the entire earth to even think about starting over. Better to live my life how I want to while I still can.”
I begin to lose what made me feel.
Was it oxygen, hydrogen, carbon? The words are a jumble. A puzzle.
I’m at the center now, and I feel the razor-thin wire that is the edge. Only it is vast and feels insurmountable when I’m actually able to touch it.
The bunker has become a prison. It’s not a hard decision to leave— we can see the eyes of cornered men watching us both. The electricity failed weeks ago, water supply depleted, bodies gone missing. Everyone knows, but won’t say. They know why they’ve gone missing.
“How far you think this goes?” Jon asks.
We had agreed to manage the escape out of the bunker before Jon and his family approached us with the same idea. He and his wife were just past retirement age, caring for their seven-year-old grandson. We debated the intelligence of leaving with a larger group, but they had stored up supplies. When we meet their grandchild I realize he is delayed developmentally, and I know we’ve made the right choice. We’re their only chance of escaping and we all know it.
My girlfriend—can she be called that? Is that what we are to each other?—has walked ahead, picking through bits of flotsam and debris here and there, scavenging for anything useful. She’s out of ear range, nearly a dot in the distance.
I point further down the coastline in the direction she’s heading, where the shore ends in what looks like a black mass. “I think that’s debris from a city down that way. Once we get some cover we should be able to rest. Harder to be found, and we can possibly scavenge for more supplies.”
His lips thin, and I wonder what he’s thinking. I turn to where the grandmother holds her grandsons’ hand as they explore what had been the shore. It’s a mass of decaying seaweed covered in chalky salt crystals, mostly dry due to the receded tide. I smile as he stomps one foot into an area of soggy sludge, squealing in delight at the splash it makes.
Then there’s a gun at my back. I feel the hard metal grind into my spine. I’ve been on the losing end of enough betrayals for my mind to put the pieces together.
“Tell them you’ve decided we should split up, that it’s safer that way,” Jon whispers between clenched teeth. “Give me the matches, the lighter, the water you’ve both stored. Tell them you’d rather we have it.”
The betrayal stings, but I can’t find it in my heart to be angry.
I’d do the same to save her.
There is something I have to do.
It hovers out of my reach, I grab at it without hands, and again, there is the razor-thin wire.
I was someone. I am someone?
I was something to someone, but I can’t remember who.
We found the lab purely by accident, but between that and the supplies we’ve scavenged I no longer fear the pain of thirst.
Once our basic needs are met, we fall back into research— knowledge that will never be passed on.
Our lives had touched, barely a sidelong brush, when we met at a fundraiser months— years?— ago. The pomp seems silly now, with the world collapsing soon after. But I remember now the conversation we shared about our experiments and theories; black hole containment, what would happen in a mass collision, what existed before the big bang, what it could mean if it could be controlled.
It was a mad notion, but she had become excited, joyful even. All her years of research, of what could be and what might have been culminating with the end of human civilization into maybe there is something we can do.
“Not for us,” she says. “We’re all damned to hell, but maybe life would begin again. Maybe humanity could have a second chance. Maybe even a third, fourth chance, who knows if this has happened before?”
I’m skeptical, but her eyes are less haunted, her face less gaunt, and that means something.
I remember the mountains of salt, bitter oceans like swamps, decaying cities.
All we had left was a chance to reset.
“Do you miss them?” She says it so casually, I wonder if I’ve become too distracted and missed the context.
I set the torn, water-spotted photo back on the desk once I realize who she is talking about. “Yes, and no.” I say it with no inflection. There isn’t much emotion left in me these days.
She jumps onto my table, making it rock a few inches. I glare at her, but she sends me a toothy grin. “I’ll share mine if you share yours,” she says. “The answer is no, and no. Once they knew I was a dyke, I never saw them again.”
I try to get a hair out of my face with my forearm, not wanting to take off my gloves. She smiles, pulls the hair back behind my ears. “I bet your family misses you. I know I would.”
“Your family is missing out,” I say. There wasn’t much point in dreaming. They were all dead.
She smiles, sadly this time. She hops off the bench, her arm circles my waist. “Maybe in another life,” she whispers. “Maybe next time.”
Black holes appeared like growing pockmarks through the galaxy, then the universe, and at once a mass collision.
A reset of all that had evolved from that one momentous bang, all to begin anew.
One last act of selfishness for a species that only knew how to take.
Now there is only the nothingness.
There is something I have to do.
“This is impossible.” My voice is filled with awe, even when a part of me shivers with terror. “You actually did it.”
She’s watching the glass and metal cube, concentrating. She shakes her head, frowning. “No, I didn’t.”
She sets down her clipboard, leaning closer to the cube, changing angles. “It’s not quite right. I can contain it, but can I use it?” She sighs, runs her fingers through her hair, trying to comb out the mats.
I can’t understand her frustration— behind the once-clear glass, there is … blackness. The cube vibrates with the strain. I thought I would be able to see the gravitational pull, waves of something if she was actually able to contain a black hole, even a small one. But it’s a dark, never-ending pit that doesn’t even reflect the light from the ceiling.
She slumps into the rickety metal chair beside the table, drops her head into her hands. I can see the tremors in her fingers, lingering undernourishment and insomnia taking its toll.
I move to the other side, stand next to her crumpled form. “Let’s get you to bed,” I say. “Resetting the universe can wait until morning.”
The black holes, they remind me of black coffee on a Tuesday morning, when the days were categorized and fit perfectly in little boxes.
My black cat with the tuxedo-white chest, the black spot on half of its nose.
They’re the swirling of the dish-water down the drain—
there is something I have to do, but it all runs together in my head,
the words ’I can’t do this without you’ echo,
her touching my face, a soft kiss on my cheek before she too disappeared,
even though we’d promised each other forever.
“I can’t promise that. What if it doesn’t work?” I say. Tears are running down my cheeks but I shake my head, because how can she ask me to do this?
She flings the papers down onto her desk— they scatter, some of them floating to the floor. “Then what was all this for, huh? Just playing around like this is a goddamn cosmic sandbox that means nothing?”
“I just think we should be careful. This is more than you and me, we can’t just decide to destroy everything. What gives us the right?”
She throws up her hands, her anger setting off more tremors. I can see her shoulders quake with them. “What are you afraid of? Being the villain? I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I can set the switch, I can stop everything, but I need you to start it again.”
She leans against the table, rubs her eyes, continues. “Please. Please, I know this is scary, but what’s left here for us? For anyone? Humanity tried, we failed, we have a chance to start again!”
I shake my head, eyes catching the sheets of calculations and theories. I feel uncertainty like sand in my veins, burning.
She moves towards me, grabs my upper arms. She pushes her head against the side of my cheek until our tears and sweat mingle and I can feel her tremors have only gotten worse. What if she’s wrong?
“You listen to me,” I start to protest but she squeezes my arms tight and I start sobbing again, “There’s nothing left anymore. There’s you, and me, and nothing. Is that really enough for you? Is that enough for your parents, your brothers, my friends, everyone, is that enough for the whole goddamn human race to go gently into that good night?”
I choke on my tears, pull her face forward until our eyes are inches apart. “Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t just us be enough?”
She closes her eyes, and I know.
There is something I have to do for her, and even though I don’t remember her face I can feel her heart pounding in my rib cage along with my own, and everything comes back all at once.
There is something I have to do.
with everything I have,
everything I’ve been given,
everything I could have been.
I can feel the stitches of what holds me together split, but I made her a promise.
In a moment everything contracts,