You’re running through the woods with a gun in your hand and you’re wondering how you got here. ‘How did it come to this?’ you wonder. What strange series of events occurred to place you where you’re at right now? You suppose it’s really no different from hunting and you remind yourself that that’s probably the best way to approach this. Like hunting. But this isn’t like hunting. This isn’t anything like hunting at all.
You knew this would come eventually. It’s nothing like how you thought it might happen, but you still saw it coming. They weren’t able to live peacefully with anyone else, why should they make an exception for you? For five years they left you alone. They descended from the heavens and wiped out every last human on the planet but for whatever reason, they left you alone. You think maybe they meant to observe you. Maybe they decided to keep you alive as some sort of experiment. Or maybe they just took pity on the old farmer with no one left but his dog.
It’s incredible the lengths a man might be willing to go to in order to secure the safety of his pet. You make that man the last living human being on Earth and that pet the only thing he’s got left and those lengths stretch a hell of a lot further. Even if it is the damn thing’s fault that you’re in this strange situation in the first place. If Tess hadn’t run off into the woods, you realize, you could still be at home, living in fear just like always. You could be drinking a glass of coppery tap water, pretending it was beer, and just go on hating whatever’s left to hate as usual.
Instead you’re creeping through the woods with an old hunting rifle you haven’t fired in years, hunting for something that you know you can’t kill. Hope is a funny thing that way. It’s like a form of insanity when you think about it. Believing that even though everyone else that has tried has failed miserably, you might have a shot. But you’ve been cynical for far too long. You could use some hope.
The further you continue into the woods bordering your farm the more you realize just how little you know about these things. You begin to wish you had paid more attention to what was happening when they first arrived. Instead you just sat back and tried to tell yourself that as long as they left you alone, it didn’t matter. You’ve spent half your life begging to have some time to yourself and now look where it got you. What an asshole you are.
A thick crunch as your foot snaps a twig in two and you wonder if they know you’re here. Did the twig alert them to your presence, or were they already aware? Are they mind readers? Do they know everything that’s going on in your head or is there still some mystery left? You should’ve waited, you think, you should’ve studied. You should’ve done just about anything other than charge straight at them with an archaic weapon in your hand. But who knows how long Tess has left? Waiting wasn’t really an option.
A sound. Swift, soft, and sudden, but a sound none-the-less. In a world that’s become so silent, you really begin to appreciate sound. Your attention has been grasped and your body goes stiff. Sure, it’s a forest, you realize, there are plenty of things scurrying about capable of making that kind of noise. The animals still roam free, they were never subject to the wrath that the humans were. It could be anything. A squirrel maybe, or a rabbit. But some part of you just knows: whatever that was, it wasn’t a fucking rabbit.
You’re squinting now, through your glasses. Your gun raised, you’re wondering if these things have a sense of humor, because you certainly look mighty ridiculous right now. An old and withered man, glasses barely hanging to his face, waving a gun around at nothing. You figure you probably look like the villain in a disney movie about woodland creatures. You hope they find this funny. You hope they get a good laugh out of it. At least then it’ll be for something.
He just barely catches your eye, but you see him and you know it’s time. ‘Him’, ‘her’, ‘it’, whatever it is, it just stands there. Like a living shadow, half hidden amongst the trees. Does he see you? Is he watching you? Does he have Tess?
You take aim. This is it. Now or never. Make your fucking move. You’re supposed to do something with your breath when you fire a gun, but you just can’t seem to remember. Too late for that kind of nonsense anyhow. Your veins feel frozen in place but you think of Tess and it sets fire to your blood. You steady your arm and you fire.
But you miss.
And now this strange being partially responsible for the end of most humanity is lumbering towards you.
Your mind becomes a circus of thoughts as you muster up more energy than you thought you were capable of and sprint deeper into the woods. Like you just came for your dog, why the hell did you have to shoot at it? and If you get Tess out of this, she better not shit on the carpet again. But mostly you just think about Eileen. And Daisy. And of course, now you’re wondering if maybe the reason it’s taking this thing so long to catch up is that he can’t help but laugh at how dumb you must look.
Your last thought is how anti-climactic this moment is about to be. The end of all humanity, at least as far as you know, is about to end with a cranky old man running out of breath in the middle of a mostly lifeless forest. You think about all the lives of all those people that were never worth a damn. It’s a shame, but all of a sudden you feel as if you owe them something. And with that thought, you feel something on the back of my head and the world goes dark.
Surprisingly, you wake up. There’s a hell of a scratch on the back of your scalp but other than that, you seem fine. Just tired. And filthy. Absolutely filthy. You spot the rifle lying at your feet. The damned thing must not have understood what it was. Or at least he didn’t care.
Your vision clears as you fully come to and you see that you’re still in the woods. You stand to get a better look. You can’t even see the house through the trees anymore. For a moment you begin to wonder if this is all that’s left for you now. You wonder if you’re doomed to spend the rest of your days wandering through the forest until your body gives in. But then you stop wondering because you see something. Something important. Something that changes everything.
Tess. A few feet away from you. She looks hurt. You realize that you’re crying. Then you’re running. Running to the only thing you’ve got left as she lays there wounded.
She manages a weakened whimper as you go to your knees. You’re cradling her in your lap and you’re begging whoever might be listening to save her life. ‘Please,’ you say, ‘you’ve taken so much from me already. Please don’t take my dog.’ And then you stop because you realize that no one is listening. No one’s left but you and your dog and the dog’s clock is ticking.
The forest fades away and you’re back at the house. It’s Daisy’s eighth birthday and she doesn’t know it yet but she’s about to get the greatest birthday gift she’ll ever receive. You watch from the car as Eileen leads her out, using her hands to cover Daisy’s eyes. She flashes you the sweetest grin and you’re both so proud of yourselves. It’s a dream that you’re both terrified to wake up from.
You hop out of the car and open up the back seat and watch as the moment unfolds in the most glorious way. Before Eileen can even move her hands, Daisy is already giggling at the feeling of Tess’s tongue as it laps at her cheek. You smile and you never want to stop. You can’t let the world take it away from you, not ever. But you did. And it did. And now there’s nothing left but you and your dog and now it’s just you because your dog has just died in your arms.
Your face is salty and dry like tanned leather. The tears are gone now, your body is still. You need a moment to process what’s happening. It hits you then and you understand. This is the moment that changes everything. This is the catalyst.
And then you’re standing. And then the rifle is back in your hands. Suddenly you don’t feel so old and withered. The only thing you feel at the moment is anger. Maybe some regret too, but mostly anger. And you intend to do something about it.
You don’t exactly feel ready for it, but you feel about as close as you’re going to get. Perched ever-so-still in the branches above the thing’s lair, you start to think that maybe this isn’t so different from hunting after all.
You steady your gun on your shoulder, knowing this time you won’t miss. You’ve become more aware of the negative effects of aging on your body in a single day than you ever were before. Every single part of you aches as you wait in this tree but you’ve stopped caring. All you can think about are the faces of every single person you’ve ever lost. Suddenly the indifferent attitude you’ve adopted over the past few years begins to disappear. All that’s left is anger.
A sound. The same sound as the one before. It’s coming, you realize. It’s coming, but this time you’re ready for it. Your mind struggles to make sense of its form as it enters into view. Black, ever moving, yet undeniably sinister. Like a living void, the doom of all humanity. Almost.
You take aim at center mass. You’ve never claimed to be an intelligent man, but at this moment you’re feeling dumber than you ever have before. Wow, you think, shooting them with a gun! Surely no one’s ever tried that before. Idiot.
You swallow your fear or your discomfort or whatever the hell it is. Your finger tightens around the trigger. You take the last breath you may ever take and you fire. Again.
Direct hit. The Void moves, shifts its presence in your general direction. Without thinking, you fire again. Another direct hit, although you realize that doesn’t mean much. You cling to the tree, unmoving. At no point have you ever felt as small and insignificant as you do right now. Strange thoughts, you think, to be had by the last living man on Earth.
Branches snap and you struggle to maintain control over your body as you begin to slip from your perch. Then you’re reaching out for branches and footholds that aren’t there. You land on the cold, hard ground with a thump and for a brief moment, your world goes black once again. And then your eyes snap open and it’s standing there in front of you.
You pull yourself to your feet and attempt to meet its ‘gaze’. The Void seems to be looking right into you, yet you stand unmoving. The rifle slips from your grasp and you can barely hear it as it falls to the leaf covered dirt. You have nothing now but your weathered old fists. That, and the name of every person you’ve ever known rotating through your mind on repeat, plus that of one dog.
A noise bursts forth from The Void. A roar, it seems like, a battle cry. This morning you would’ve probably thought it was the most terrifying thing you had ever heard. Now, it barely registers. Your knuckles clench so tightly into a fist, you almost worry that they’ll get stuck that way. You open your mouth and hear a sound you haven’t heard in ages.
“Get the fuck off my farm,” you say in a voice far more gravelly than you remember. And with that, you swing your fist into The Void. The last man on Earth, undone by an act of ignorant aggression and a disobedient dog.
The roar erupts once more, this time more distorted. Your fist burns as ripples quake through the mass of The Void. Your eyes go wide as you watch The Void twist and turn in the empty forest, its shape dissipating with each movement. Your fist slowly falls back to your side. This is the most horrifying, exhilarating, and exciting moment of your life, possibly in the history of mankind. And then its over. And then you’re staring into an empty forest because The Void is gone. Because you killed it.
You suck a burst of air through your lungs, hoping to restore a sense of reality to the situation. At any moment, you think, it’s going to pop back up and rip your head from your neck and incinerate what’s left. But it doesn’t. You’d like to celebrate, but you can’t. You’ve got a dead dog you need to take care of.
The warmth of burning wood forces sweat to drip down your brow as you inhale the smokey air through your nose. You loved the smell once but now it just brings sadness.
You stretch your arms and take one last look at your once-home as it goes up in flames. There’s nothing left for you here, you’ve come to realize. All you’ve ever had is gone. And as you think about the last thing you ever loved being cremated in the fiery inferno of that old farm house, a smile comes to your face because now there’s hope. Because they can be killed.
You’re not sure where you’re going just yet, but you’re glad to be going there. Something has to be done, you’ve realized, and you have to be the one to do it. Even if armed with no more than a knapsack full of old clothes and a few old candy bars from the pantry. And the rifle of course, for old time’s sake.
As you make your way back into the woods, your smile evolves into an all-out grin. It’s been awhile since you’ve gone all the way through the trees and you’re excited to see the other side.
This is for you, Tess.