My boot sinks into mucky sludge. I’m used to it. Anyone who’s survived Volo this long is used to it. Black puddles cover the streets and the sidewalks. Even the grassy fields.
Maybe those people tried to run into the woods. But there isn’t any point in running.
I lift scrap metal from the sludge and toss it in my shopping cart. Looking over my haul, I decide I’m ready to go to the house. Maybe I’ll grab gasoline on the way…
No hesitation now. It’s time. I’ve worked too hard to wimp out at the moment of truth.
The shopping cart sticks in the dark ooze where I left it, but it releases after a few sharp pushes. As I walk, I take notice of the sounds around me. The lack of sounds, really. It’s a windless day, so birds should be easy to hear, yet there isn’t a chirp. The world’s best scientists theorized Volo only takes people. I’ve survived longer than any of those scientists, and I don’t believe their theory. The number of puddles in the woods is increasing.
I hear fluttering wings in front of me and see a single bird. A red cardinal. It flies towards the gray sky as if trying to escape this world. It’s about to breach the clouds when I blink and see it’s replaced by black water falling back to Earth like rain.
I guess I was right.
Through the dark drizzle, I see my old college stadium looming. So, either I didn’t stray far from town in the first place or I spaced out far longer than I thought. I need to get back to the house, but maybe I should stop to look around for a while…before I go.
I leave the cart by the roadside and enter through one of the gates. The stadium is rundown, with cobwebs decorating every corner, dust covering the faded green turf, and yellow stumps where goal posts once stood. I’m responsible for that last one. Near the beginning of Volo, I began gathering scrap here. I took a saw to the bottom of the posts and prayed they wouldn’t fall on me as they went down. I look towards the stadium seats. Specifically, C3, C4, and C5, where Asher, Emily, and I once sat…
Graduation. I clapped and Emily cheered as Asher accepted his diploma. All sorts of feelings washed over me then. Excitement, joy, and hope. Hope most of all. I don’t know why I felt so much hope. Maybe because of all my plans to change the world.
Well, actually, our plans to change the world.
I didn’t make many friends in college—I’ve never been good with people—but I met Emily and Asher. That was enough. We sat together in statistics. Only Asher understood everything, so Emily and I begged him to tutor us. Tutoring turned into movie marathons and partying together. Emily and I had terrible roommates, so we practically moved into Asher’s house by the end of Freshman year.
Emily was the most studious of our trio. Wicked smart and with a sharp wit, but kind. She helped classmates with difficult subjects and once swerved her car into a tree to avoid hitting a squirrel. She studied biochemistry with a focus on virology because she wanted to save lives. She was an idealist, and she could grow cold when people failed to live up to her expectations.
Asher was Emily’s opposite in temperament. Relaxed, seemingly a little apathetic. But he was brilliant like she was. He never studied his books. He studied human nature instead, and he majored in psychology. When I ranted about a problem, usually something to do with other people, Asher helped me find ways to handle it. He became my best friend.
He was the first person I told when I fell in love with Emily.
I sat between them at graduation. After Asher and Emily received their degrees, the dean called my name. They knew I was nervous. I’d never been good in social situations. Emily held my hand and whispered, “Hey, don’t worry. Enjoy this. Graduating summa cum laude is special. Asher and I are so proud of you.”
I nodded and turned my face to hide my blushing. As I walked to the stage at the football field’s center, I didn’t know exactly where my life was headed, but I believed it had to be somewhere good.
Now I clutch my chest and take deep breaths as memories flood through me. Saying goodbye isn’t as easy as I expected. Calm. I need to be calm. If I can’t calm down here, there’s no way I’ll manage to go everywhere else.
I walk out to grab the cart, but thoughts of Asher and Emily keep creeping back into my mind. I’ve never been one to be emotional, and I can’t afford to be now. But there’s an uncomfortable feeling in my chest. Like someone’s digging a hole there.
I need to make it to the house.
I forgot my Walkman today, so I’m only accompanied by the sound of my boots in the sludge. I wonder how I haven’t gone crazy in this environment. I haven’t seen another person in months, although I swear, I hear footsteps that don’t belong to me every so often. I blame them on the deer, but I wonder…
I reach our local pub. It’s been a long time since I visited, and I can’t risk walking in there after my surge of emotion in the stadium. The discomfort in my chest is growing. I’m remembering the fight…I’m so sorry, Asher, Emily…
The pub’s door was locked that day, but I’d brought along a crowbar just in case. Asher and Emily hadn’t arrived, so I had time. After a few good pulls, the wood busted open with a crack. I checked the place for survivors, but found only a puddle of sludge and a note by the tap: “If you find this, take only what you need. That is my final wish.” I shoved the note into my back pocket. It would just upset Asher and Emily. I grabbed three pint-glasses and filled each to the brim. When I heard voices coming from the front steps, I placed two glasses on a nearby table and took a swig from my own.
Emily entered first with Asher trailing behind her. She looked as though she hadn’t slept, but still beautiful. She said, “Scott! How are you?”
She kissed me and I kissed her back, but it felt off now that I hadn’t seen her for days. My scavenging missions kept getting longer. I said, “I’m not terrible. Metal’s getting harder to find. How are you two? Has your research on a cure turned up anything?”
Asher shrugged. “We’ve been better. The research is slow, and we both seem to be coming down with a bug right now. Let’s talk about something happier.” He smiled at Emily, then at me, and said, “It’s the one-year anniversary for you two, right?”
We talked for a while about the past. We drank and laughed. It was almost as if the world hadn’t ended after all until Asher said, “Did the owner of this place step out?”
I frowned. It was fairly obvious he hadn’t. The crowbar leaning against the wall. The split door jamb. And the part they hadn’t noticed yet—I stood in a dark puddle that must belong to the pub’s owner.
Emily’s eyes narrowed.
I said, “Come on. It’s the end of the world. There’s nothing wrong with a little breaking and entering. Supplies are for the living.”
She said, “It’s stealing. From the dead.”
“You guys live in a dream world,” I shot back. “You think we need a cure, that we can’t break into places, that we need to remain civil. More than half the world is dead, for God’s sake. Who are you going to cure? Us and Father John? Wait, I think I saw his puddle on the way over here.”
Emily sat stiff and straight in her chair. “You’re the one living in a dream world. While we’ve been working non-stop, you just walk around collecting scrap. You’re mechanically gifted, yet you’ve done nothing to contribute. Maybe billions are dead, but we could save the billions that remain. If you looked at the bigger picture, maybe you’d understand that.”
“I am working on something,” I began, but hesitated. I couldn’t share my project with them yet. They weren’t ready. They still had hope for this place. So, I said, “You should look at the bigger picture, Emily. The one outside the house. Food arrives on your doorstep. Where do you think it comes from? While you’re looking for a cure, I’m looting food for you both. Your survival relies on my ‘immoral’ actions. Must be easy to watch from the cheap seats, huh?”
In my anger, I forgot the sludge beneath me and my foot slipped. Emily looked over the bar, saw the desecration, and cried, “You’re standing in someone’s remains! That was someone with hopes and dreams, and you’re mucking about in his final resting place. You know what? We’re done. You’ve never been empathetic, Scott, but now you’ve lost all your humanity.”
She left Asher and I alone in the bar.
His voice was gentle but he couldn’t meet my eye when he said, “She’s just upset. You know she can’t even bear to look at those puddles since she saw her parents get…taken.” He sighed heavily. “But it might be for the best if you keep your distance for a while, Scott. You’ve just…changed so much.”
He told me to come back when I was the man they remembered. So, I never did.
Until last year.
Then I stood in front of the house with my hand ready to knock, but shaking with fear. What if Asher and Emily didn’t take me back? What if they screamed at me? What if they didn’t even live there anymore?
No. No more what ifs.
I knocked on the door. It swung open ever so slightly, and I let myself inside.
Nothing had changed in the living room…except for the dust. It covered the ratty, red couch where Asher and I had played games and the creaky table where Emily and I had studied.
No sign of Emily and Asher, though.
I figured maybe they kept to the bedrooms so I walked down the hall towards the back of the house. I saw my bedroom had been barren for a long time, too. Spaceship models littered both my desks. Asher and Emily had teased me for making models, but they still bought me a new kit each year on my birthday. The glue on some models had given up, and stray bits and pieces dotted the floor. I walked across the hall to Emily’s bedroom. Lab equipment covered the worn carpet and the table…even Emily’s bed. Yellow Post-it notes were stuck all over her walls. I found myself entranced by the scribbles that meant the world to Emily, but were so meaningless to me.
They didn’t give me a clue to Emily and Asher’s whereabouts.
So, I left the makeshift lab and slowly walked towards Asher’s bedroom. I was getting scared because maybe…but no, they couldn’t be. So, shut up.
His room was dusty, but less so. I felt a flicker of hope. But I turned around and saw two black puddles on Asher’s bed.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to crumple in the corner and cry. But I couldn’t.
I looked over to the nightstand and saw a note addressed to me in Emily’s handwriting:
If you’re reading this, you’ve outlived us. A few months after the virus arrived, Asher theorized that it destroys beings when they find their dearest wish—something they desire above all things. I laughed, but after all our research, I think he was right. It’s funny. In searching together for the cause, we found the thing that would infect us. We’re calling it Volo. Latin for wish. Please know Ash and I are sorry for that day in the bar. We’re sorry for lots of things. Most of all, we’re sorry that fulfilling our greatest wish took us away from you.
-E (and A)
I no longer wanted to cry. But I did anyway.
I reach the house again, and the sight takes me out of my memories.
I wipe away a tear as I open the backyard gate. Seeing my rocket still fills me with awe. Asher and Emily thought I was just collecting scrap, but scrap can be the beginning of something greater for an aerospace engineer. At least Volo has given me this opportunity. I don’t have the supplies to live more than a few months, but I’ll die exploring the cosmos. I always wanted to visit the stars.
I keep Emily and Asher’s final note in my pocket because it’s my last gift from them, but I find something unsettling in its message. If Volo feeds on a person’s greatest wish, why hasn’t it taken me yet? I desire to build this rocket. I want to leave this planet. That is my wish. Volo should be destroying me as I stand here.
None of it makes sense to me.
I weld the last sheet of metal into place and run a final systems-check. Then I look at my completed ship. I should be jumping up and down. I should be showered with honors for building this marvel single-handedly. But there’s no one left to give me a prize. I cast a last look towards the house and realize I’m missing something. So, I go back to the bedrooms and retrieve two mementos. My favorite spaceship model and a framed photograph of Asher, Emily, and me all together, smiling.
I scale the rocket’s side and crawl through the window. I take the middle seat, just as I did on graduation day. I put the framed picture to my right and the spaceship model to my left. In front of me is a button that reads: Lift off.
I slam it.
The ship shudders as the main engines ignite, then the rocket boosters kick in with a fresh jolt. For a few minutes, I can only focus on trying to hold my body together in the quaking ship. There’s a bang and flash of light as the boosters peel off. Then I’m above the atmosphere and the shaking stops. When I finally look out the porthole, I see our green and blue planet dotted black with Volo’s corruption. But soon the world disappears from my view entirely, and I watch the infinite universe unfold. It’s a wondrous sight…but the pit in my chest remains.
Why isn’t it gone? I did it. I chased my dream and got what I always wanted. The Volo didn’t take me. Here I am, among the stars, with no more sludge.
I notice the spaceship model and the framed photo fell from their seats during take-off. I pick up the model and see what Asher wrote on its base: Happy Birthday best buddy! The pit in my chest aches, making it harder to breath. I tell myself to stay calm. It’s just a note from a dead person. Nothing important.
The glass in the picture frame, above our smiling faces, has shattered. I scoop up the remains and hold them tight. I look down at the photograph and see Emily’s handwriting on the back: “The Day I Fell in Love with Scott, 2019”
Suddenly, the hole in my chest fills, and I start sobbing. I don’t even see the stars anymore.
I wish Asher and Emily were here.
Memories of them consume my thoughts. The day we all met in statistics class. The weekend when Emily and I officially moved into Asher’s house. The moment in the car when she swerved to avoid a squirrel and I knew I loved her. The day we graduated from college with all our dreams intact.
Emily moved to Germany to work with their Public Health Institute on infectious diseases. Asher and I roomed together in graduate school. While studying in the library one day, he struck up conversation with a pretty librarian in horn-rim glasses who turned out to be the love of his life. Emily helped prevent a disease her team would later name “Volo.”
Wait. That isn’t right. I feel something cold creeping up my legs. No. No. No.
Then…Emily returned from Germany, and I greeted her at the airport with a kiss and a ring. I asked her to marry me. She said yes. I earned my PhD in aerospace engineering and took a job at NASA. Asher joined the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. He married Jennifer, the librarian, while I stood beside him as best man and winked at Emily seated in the front row.
No! That isn’t how any of this happened. I never got my PhD. Who’s Jennifer? The cold feeling spreads through my body as I “remember” more.
Asher became a senator and lead an initiative for mental health care reform. I designed a rocket ship that could send a person to Mars in less than a month. Emily continued her work curing the diseases that threatened humanity.
Now I’m freezing…but it’s okay. I find I don’t want to fight it anymore.
Asher became President, and he nominated me to head NASA. Emily received the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Our families grew old together, vacationing at a lakeside property we jointly owned.
In my final thought, I’m sitting on our porch with Emily and Asher, watching a sunset over the lake’s calm, clear blue water. Emily’s much older, but just as beautiful as the day I met her. She takes my hand and says, “It’s everything you wished for, isn’t it?”
And I say, “It is.”
Bio: Hello there! My name is Wyatt Ingle. I am a [TBD] for AYAU. In my writing career, I’ve received gold and silver keys from the Scholastic Art & Writing Competition and I was published in the Library of Congress in 2016. I am obsessed with the mediums of flash fiction and short stories, as I believe it’s special challenge to write a whole story with so little word count. When I’m not writing, I’m probably playing video games or finding other ways to be unproductive.