Sing The End
By Claire McNerney- 12 minutes read - 2329 words
The modern pop song structure goes as follows: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out.
— INTRO —
We were eighteen and full of ourselves when we decided to start a band. Phoebe could play the keyboard, Seb had a vintage drumset, and I had bought a shiny electric guitar with my graduation money. We met twice a week to practice together in Seb’s garage with the door open so that all the neighbors could hear, but I wrote more often than that in my bedroom, alone, with a headphone in one ear.
In the sunlit suburbs before the Deaths, things weren’t bad. But ‘bad’ is exactly how I made them out to be. I thought that niceness was stupid, that things had to be angsty to be good. So the smooth roads turned into cracked asphalt, the nice little houses into derelict prisons of our lives. I went so far as to curse the sun for its brightness.
When the Hot Topic at the mall shut down, I wrote about the end of the world. There was barely any metaphor beneath all that violence. Phoebe added some minor harmonies and suggested I add imagery inspired by the far away drought and war-torn countries.
— VERSE —
Phoebe’s dead now. And those far away countries probably don’t look too different from here. I wouldn’t know, TVs don’t work anymore so there’s no news from that far away. It’s bad here, I’ll tell you that much. It’s been bad since the first Death, the one that took Phoebe.
She died far from home. We said we were on tour, but really we had just driven three hours north to the only venue that would let us play. We pretended to be pissed that they weren’t even going to pay us, but really, we were ecstatic to perform. We set up the stage, squeaked out a mic check, and headed backstage to prepare. It was there, in the molding green room of a concert venue that was more bar than floor, that the first Death hit us.
It wasn’t a disease, though it killed the same. It was more like gas, like fog. Seb opened the door for a smoke and it came flooding in, too opaque to be air, too thin to be water. Phoebe choked and coughed on the gas for what felt like forever. Then she stopped, and I immediately wished she would start choking again. Then, at least, she’d be alive.
I didn’t dare open my mouth while Phoebe sputtered in the gas. After an agonizing hour, once Seb and I realized we could safely breathe in it, I wished I had. Maybe it would have been easier if I said goodbye.
The first Death lasted for eleven months. Almost a year. We learned to live without the sun I had once pretended to hate, and we pretended to know how to live without the people it had killed. Ten percent of the population, according to the papers (there were still papers back then, before the other Deaths, before those of us unlucky enough to survive started to tear each other apart). But if Phoebe was the only one who had died, it would have felt the same to me.
We brought her body back with us, but her parents had also died in that first Death, so Seb and I were the ones to bury her. At her funeral, I played one of the songs we once wrote together. Maybe it was tasteless, but I chose the one about that other end of the world. It had always been her favorite.
— CHORUS —
I still dye my hair with stockpiled drugstore bottles, even though they don’t work that well anymore. I’ve got a dozen in my backpack, all pulled out of their boxes to save space. I burn the instructions for tinder—I’ve got the procedure memorized. When I joined my current traveling group, dye was my go-to pick-up thing. Everyone has one, something to pick up at a big-box store or convenience store. Something light and easy to carry. My groupmates carry earrings and My Little Ponies and Kinder Eggs long-gone-stale. I chose dye.
It’s funny because I used to be so strict on only doing black, but I’ve done loads of colors now. I’ve been blonde and green and blue and five million shades of red. Today, though, I have black. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to a treat. Looking at my crunchy dyed hair reminds me of the life I used to live, with all those purposefully ripped jeans and monochrome outfits.
We’re between towns, stopped off the road in a gas station long since raided. Dinner is Kiki’s deer jerky, and a couple of late summer berries Peter found in the forest. They’re all ten years younger than me and far better survivors. I’m dead weight in this group, but they keep me around. I sing them songs, tell them stories about how things used to be when there was electricity, and describe old movies and TV. They give me food and protection. It’s not a fair trade, but hey! I’m not going to tell them that.
Tonight’s light chatter is guessing about the next Death. It shouldn’t be funny, with all those who’ve died, but it somehow is.
“A plague of kittens,” someone says.
“The roads turn into water.”
“All the trees come alive,” says Edna.
“The trees are already alive,” I reply.
“You know what I mean.”
I do. Between the seemingly dead trees, the stars shine brighter than they ever did. I pray to every tiny star that there is not a ‘next Death’, but it’s only a matter of time. It always was.
— VERSE —
Seb and I stuck together after Phoebe died, and we made it through a fair share of Deaths. Rabid animals, drought, locusts (believe it or not). There weren’t many people left. We had both lost our families, and nothing was keeping us in our falling-apart homes with their useless appliances. By the time we made our way out into the countryside, the suburbs were ablaze with violence. Somehow, we managed to escape it, with our cart full of raided groceries and the open road before us. We started, well, not dating, but the post-apocalyptic equivalent of it. We were all we had.
We found an abandoned farm. The house was in good shape, and it was nice to sleep on a mattress instead of just camping equipment. We cleared the fields out and planted some seeds from the barn. Somehow, they managed to sprout. It was spring, and the orchards were abloom in pink and white. At night, we drank cider from the farmhouse cellar. He played drums on turned-over pots around the fire as I strummed my old acoustic guitar. For the first time, I thought we could have a life again.
But just when it looked like things were going to be okay, Seb died. He cut his leg trying to move the rusty old tractor out of the field. His leg started to swell, but all the medicine in the old farmhouse’s cabinets was expired. I didn’t want to leave him alone, but I risked riding a bike to the nearest drugstore, to try and find something—anything—that could save him, but there were no more antibiotics. We tried the expired stuff anyways. It didn’t work. Seb made it through so much, so many Deaths. But it didn’t matter how strong he was. A small cut in the leg was enough to kill him.
I buried him near the farmhouse with his drumsticks crossed over his chest. I tried to get on with my life, to tend to the farm, but every time I knelt by the newly sprouted plants, I was reminded of Seb. I was heartbroken. I let the weeds in.
Three weeks later, a new Death of wind tore the farm apart, and the house with it. Safe in the basement, I drank until the cider was gone, and then I left, too.
— CHORUS —
We’re camping out at a settlement for the week, a former Y camp Kiki went to as a kid. The wooden buildings remind me too much of the farmhouse, and I spend the afternoon anxiously gathering firewood. Addie, who was born after the Deaths started, tells me that she likes it here as we chop the dried logs. She wants to stay forever.
We never stay.
Still, around tonight’s campfire (roaring in a big stone fire pit), I try to play cheery songs very unlike my old sad ones. These kids don’t need to hear about teen angst they’ll never get to experience and drugs that aren’t around anymore. They get enough sorrow in their everyday lives, I don’t need to add to it.
Midway through the evening, I run out of camp songs to sing and have to switch back to oldies and pop-rock. I never learned very many camp songs. I was a girl scout in elementary school, but I stopped in middle school after I got my double piercings. The leader said I couldn’t wear them to camp, so I quit in protest. I was always protesting something, but never anything that mattered. I wish I would have taken my doubles out for that weekend if just so I could better remember the tunes of the songs.
Edna announced that she set up rabbit traps in the woods, which means we’re going to have to stay here a bit longer to clean and cook the meat. Usually, I would protest staying in one place for too long—it’s dangerous. But this far in the mountains, we’re decently safe. Maybe the wait won’t be so bad this time. There’s a blackberry bramble behind the cabin I’m sleeping in. Some of the berries will ripen while we’re here. That’s worth waiting for, I think.
— BRIDGE —
I won’t regret the songs I wrote, no matter how my memories of them make me feel. It’s like there’s a hole where my heart used to be and every time I sing one of my old songs, it grows a little wider.
That sounds so angsty. Twenty years ago I would have used a line like that to describe my anger at the student body’s general lack of thick eyeliner. I can hear myself whining about nobody liking me. That was never true.
But it isn’t nostalgia or embarrassment that makes it hard to listen to my old songs. It’s that my lines about the end of the world now feel like premonitions, or worse: like summoning spells. Like I sang all this misery into existence.
I know that’s ridiculously untrue. No one’s that powerful, and the Deaths aren’t anything like my song lyrics. But some days it still feels like it’s all my fault.
— CHORUS —
A fire burned down one of the cabins last night. We hauled buckets from the lake in the dark, the twelve of us working together better than we ever have. We put the fire out, though the sun was nearly up by the time the embers stopped smoldering. We got lucky. It wasn’t a Death. The fire didn’t hurt anything except for Pats’ bedroll. We’ll have to get her a spare next time we go through a town.
I let her stay in my cabin. I usually sleep alone, but Pats is eighteen and old enough to not be a nuisance to anyone but herself. Her bunkmates blamed her for starting the fire and refuse to let her into their new cabin. She was trying to smoke some pine needles. Stupid, yes, but not a crime. She’ll learn. And if they won’t forgive her, I won’t let them listen to me play guitar. It’s too harsh a world to hold a grudge.
Under the warm afternoon sun, I tie my old fishing line to a stick and try to fish in the lake. I only catch two, but that’s enough for a bit of a meal. As I clean them, I listen to Kiki and Dev talk about building a vegetable garden where the old cabin was. Something about the remains of fires being good fertilizer for crops. Peter says he found some seeds in one of the sheds. He doesn’t know if they’re any good, but he’s willing to try.
We voted at dinner, and nearly everyone agreed. We’re staying here, at least for a bit. I suppose Addie got her wish. And this place is nice. It’s so far from any dangerous towns, we don’t need to worry about people. Just nature, I suppose, and Deaths.
I mix some blackberries in with boiled water and call it wine. We deserve a celebration.
— OUT —
At sixty, I’m dying, hair naturally gray. It’s shockingly peaceful for a disease. The Deaths keep coming, but so do the lives. Every year, we have to build a new cabin for our growing town. We keep farming and manage to breed some livestock. People get married, and I play at their weddings. More people die, and I play at their funerals. I play until I can’t anymore, and then I teach the children how to play. Teenagers in this new world are faced with more hardships than I could have ever known at their age, but they find ways to create light. One girl, inspired, carves a wooden drumset. A boy figures out how to make guitar strings from entrails, the way they used to be made. They are filled with so much joy, playing together.
I have lived longer than anyone I know. I see so much pain that it becomes a part of me. But then there are moments of music, moments of light, moments that remind me not of the past but the future, and I am glad. They’ll play such beautiful music at my funeral.
© 2022 Claire McNerney
From: Issue 9
About the Author
Claire McNerney is an actor, student, and writer from California, where she currently attends UCSD. She enjoys, among other things, floral ice cream flavors. Follow her on Twitter @claire_mcnerney or Instagram @o.h.c.l.a.i.r.e to say hello and see what she does next!