Writing Catalog

Karma Abboud

Grade: 11

Laurel School

Instructor: Kate Webb

The World Ends Like a Song

Science Fiction & Fantasy

The World Ends Like a Song

Last night I slept in a stranger's bed.

The first time I saw him, he was leaning over a blue, sand-eaten bridge, looking at the river where the mourners threw their dead. His arms were crossed over each other on the railing. In his left hand, he held a box of sunflower seeds. He held nothing in the right. Somewhere, in this scene, I wandered past him: Numb and dizzy, the phantom remains of something that could be called a girl. It was not a particularly cold day—Late March, around here, was when the weather started warming up—but I was shaking. There was a blue, swollen cold coming from inside me. My lungs were full of winter.

He heard me passing by, and he turned to me and asked, "Do you need a jacket?"

I stopped. I wanted to say no, but the word laid, frozen, on my lips. It had been years since I felt another person's eyes on me, the frail intimacy in being spoken to and seen, of sharing the world—if only for a moment—with someone else. It startled me. He patted the railing, and with unsteady legs, I took the spot next to him.

He never asked for my name. I never asked for his. For the longest time, we just stood, us two mute vagrants, looking at the river. When I screwed my eyes up tight, I could pretend that the mounds and mounds of bodies were nothing but hills, hills of soft white sand; but the scent was harder to dream away. Crows flocked in scattered black clouds to the shore, eager for fresh pickings. They ate away at skin and sinew and picket-like bones, and they saved the hearts for last. The hearts were so shriveled that the birds mistook them for fruits, baked by the sun and dirty with neglect.

Eventually he turned to me—and I still didn't have a clue who he was—and he asked, "Have you been down to the river?"

"No," I said. "I have no one to mourn."

"Don't you have a family?" he asked. "A lover? A home?"

To all this, I said no.

He took a seed in between two fingers and tossed it into the sand. A scattering of old seeds sat, untouched, in between the dunes. By nighttime, the water would wash them away. He said, "I've been feeding the birds. Trying to, I mean—I think they prefer the people. But I'm doing what I can. You see her?" Here, he pointed to a girl, a lovely girl, a dead girl, with water crawling up the remains of her torn dress. "I'm trying to lure them away from her. I can't watch them pick her clean."

"Why not just burn her?" I asked.

"Because, here, there's something left to remember her by, all of them. A million and one people, and all their scattered parts. Not just smoke."

Soon, the sun set.

The stranger lingered for a long time, but the crows did not want to leave. I watched his face grow sadder by the hour, but by nightfall, he was calm and set. Somewhere in the hollows of him, there was an undying thing that the pestilence could not rip away. When he turned to leave, his pale shadow stretching along the pavement, it was like he knew from the start that this is how it would end up.

Wordless, I watched him go. The stench of death was everywhere; and there was the rot, the crowsong rising all around me like gospel through an empty cathedral. Corpses became corpses, and sand dunes were not white hills, but the flesh of a sick, dying city. My heart pounded in a way it hadn't since I was a kid. My eyes stung for how tight I shut them. He had given me his coat; I left it tied to the railing, and I followed him.

Hearing the scuffle of my boots behind him, he turned to me again. I expected him to be a crueler man, to shoo me away like the lost puppy I was, clinging to the heels of the first kind stranger to extend a handful of table scraps, but he only dug his hands in his pockets, and slowed so I could keep pace. I didn't know where he was going. I didn't care enough to ask. He could've slipped off the edge of the world, into whatever black and endless thing laid beneath us, and I would've followed.

But he didn't walk to the edge of the world; only to the suburbs. I used to watch this wasteland roll away through a car window each day, but I never stopped to really see it. The houses were small and spaced apart. No flowers bloomed here, save for weeds, tangled thorns snaking up the siding. He went inside, leaving the door open for me.

A thousand years ago, it seemed, I always forgot to shut the back door of my mother's lonely house. Seduced by the warmth, the scent of home, all the bugs and the vermin and the starving stray animals would crawl inside. And as my mother laid out the mice traps and poisoned the crumbs they ate, she lamented how like the strays I was. Uncertain, unloved. Hungry for what all the children I knew already had. I stood in silence as I took the abuse; and I learned always, always, to keep the back door shut. With this in mind, I stepped into the house.

He sat me down on his tattered sofa as he boiled tea. There were only two styrofoam cups in the pantry, each eaten away by the flies that haunted the cupboards. I watched him steep the tea with honey and pomegranate, and after he handed me a cup, he took the seat beside me.

"I lived in this same house all my life. It's a rathole of a place. The only things that ever stepped foot here were feral cats who stole themselves away to raise their young." Here, he turned to me, vague and watchful. "Where are you from?"

"Oh," I said, "nowhere."

He dusted off the dials of his radio and coasted through channels of static until, at last, he stumbled upon music. It was an old tune, older than any I had heard before. A woman sang in smoky tones of lost love. There was something about her voice that made me hear the tears falling from her eyes. He hummed along over his cup of tea. I wondered where he had heard this song before. The windows were left open like grimed mouths, tasting the soft omens of spring. Dust billowed like smoke through the air, stinging my eyes and my throat. I wanted to say more to him. My lips made no sound. I gazed deep into the drink between my folded hands, and said nothing.

"They used to write about each death in the papers," he said, "before too many people died and there wasn't enough ink for all of them. But I remember the first story I read; the dead woman lived on this same street. She was in an accident when she was very young. It took her legs and scarred her face forever. Her father was always trying to marry her off. I think she wanted to be loved, too, but every man who saw her turned her away. In just the right light, though, her eyes shone right out of her twisted face, and she had eyes like a doe's. She was sad and so full of wanting. But, you know, there was something about her, when you saw her in the sun, that was beautiful." He took a slow sip and stared hard into the plaster wall. His eyes were painting her out of the air, pulling together tufts of dust and pockets of space to make the shape of her. I could almost see her too, solid, standing in front of him with her hands clasped behind her back. "I wish someone had seen her on a gold summer day."

The music on the radio stuttered. For one brief moment, we were left in the aftermath, the spectral absence of song, together. I heard the crickets nesting in the weeds outside, the drum of his fingers against an end table, the squelch of styrofoam as my nails sank into my cup. I thought the song might never start again; but, with a roar of static, the singer found her place, and resumed.

He got up and said, "I think I'll go to bed."

The music ended. I left my cup sitting on the windowsill, beneath the fading sunlight, collecting dust like the hearts scattered round the river where we met. Again, I followed him, and I made it before the door swung shut.

He was undressing by the light of a bare lightbulb, whose lampshade had since been broken off or sold. His boots were caked with dried mud, the soles tearing away from the rubber shoe. His shirt was stiff with sweat, lying on the bedroom floor. His skin was cracked from the savage cold, and his bones jutted out from beneath wasted skin. I wanted to ask, how long have you lived in those clothes? Instead, I hugged my arms close to my chest.

He crawled into what was almost a bed, a dingy mattress on the floor with no bedframe and no sheets and only a threadbare blanket for warmth. He said, "I think I know what's killing them."

I knew he wasn't lying, but I didn't want to hear. I knelt to untie my shoelaces, and I laid myself next to him, shivering in all my clothes like some cold, helpless creature. He faced the window; I faced the wall, watching my hands paint dark shadows over the starched plaster. I thought the radio might still be on, but I realized I was only hearing the quiet anguish of a world, weeping.

His pulse sounded through every fiber of the mattress, real and faint and precious. All at once, the ruins of the city collapsed on us. The wind, the crows, the curious tap of a yew tree's black branch against the windowpane—each sound faded out like the last few notes of a hymn, one by one, until there was nothing but a naked humming left.

I reached over and took his hand, only ghosting my fingertips over his knuckles, afraid the skin of another person might scald me. I waited for him to tear himself away, to stiffen or betray any sign that I had ventured too far, but none ever came. My heart sank to the space in my ribs where I thought it always should've been. Where had I been every night before this? Locked away in some secret, sleepless place. Like the bloated cats beneath the porch, the mice that made a home for themselves between snares in the cupboards, I had craved this all my life—the warmth, the solace. I laughed a little and said, "Isn't it sort of peaceful?"

"What is?" he asked.

"The stillness."

He knitted his brows together, mystified by me. "What's peaceful about the end of the world?"

I watched my breath mist the back of his neck, and for one brief, maddening moment I thought we would make love. I could hear the drum of my heartbeat in my ears for the first time. In the dim light, I almost mistook the brushstroke of his thumb against the palm of my hand for a kiss, and I was so dizzy and high that if he turned to look at me now, he'd think I had more to drink than just a cup of tea.

And then he pried his hand away.

It all faded back into a flat, gray haze. The space between our backs on the tattered mattress, his guarded hands torn from mine, stretched to infinity. I felt cold again, frigid cold. He reached over and turned the light off, and even after the room went blue, I stayed awake for hours, waiting.


In the morning, he was gone. I ambled through the house, frying up eggs on the stovetop, drawing open the blinds, half-hoping he would step through the front door, shaking off the debris of apocalypse, and that he would put on one of his songs and look at me in that way that softened me like butter. I waited for hours; and for hours, I was without him.

I kept my head bowed the whole walk to the river. The bitter cold sang through the black trees, embracing me with hands like my mother's. The crushing of rocks beneath my boots was the only sound in the whole city. When I came to the bridge, it looked the same as it always did; blue, sand-eaten wood now fading to gray. The lone bench that always used to be occupied with young couples and wanderers stopping, for a second, to sleep, was now empty. I stood in the same spot he did yesterday, arms crossed over the railings, resting my chin on the back of my hand. Even the river was quiet now. The waves didn't roar; they called mutely to no one, and no one called back.

I saw the girl he loved lying on the shore, inches from the water. There wasn't much left of her. She was all bones; everything else—her skin, her blood, her heart—had been picked apart and eaten.

He was lying beside her.

And as he laid with the girl he loved, the world ended like a song; with tears and static, and then silence. For a moment, the record had skipped. The snow stopped blowing in and the music stopped. I thought—had hoped, madly, childishly—that that would be all. Static. A song that never began again would never end. I thought that would be all. We would live forever in the reprieve, eyeing the rubble through the kitchen window. But all at once, the music found me again. He had left me.

His jacket was still tied to the railing, where I left it. I took it and wrapped it around myself like a second skin. It didn't smell like him anymore. The scents of death had infected it, wound themselves through every thread.

I walked down to the shore—what else was there to do? I walked down to the shore and I threw the jacket into the river and I watched it sail away. I saw myself in the water, blue, with bags under my eyes that had never been there before, my hair mucked up with dirt. I looked into it for hours or days or maybe for eternity. To look into the eyes of something in the middle of apocalypse—I don't think there was ever anything more beautiful. I sat down in the sand, humming a song, and I waited for the crows to come feast.