fifteen when the world ended, on schedule, as predicted, by a man no one
important took seriously. The world convulsed, the sky bled red, and hell came
to earth. It is the cycle, the demons tell us. Our time is past and they will
feast on the leavings.
I spend most of our days scavenging and talking to ghosts who forget the world
they knew no longer exists. They still wander the old community garden,
inquiring about the crops and complaining about the hole in the maintenance
shed that Brandon patched months ago.
situation is particularly bad. Plumbing no longer works and southern California
is naturally a desert. I have to barter with a crow spirit who guards the
nearest well, a magic one dug by no human hands. He is not hostile to humans so
long as they pay. He takes avocados, potatoes, carrots, and other produce from
the crow calls to me. "The cycle is moving."
I know. Our world is gone, and a new one will come. I set my bucket on the
ground and take out today's payment. The fruits and vegetables pile beside the
well where the crow can see them.
tells you this?" I ask.
really expect an answer. Demons only reply if it suits, and their words don't
always address what was asked.
light shines from the peak. Soon there will be
cocks his head to the southeast as though he can see something great in the
distance. I see only old buildings bathed in the light of the afternoon sun. Empty.
Bank Tower," says the crow. "It will be there. A human will have to
make a decision."
kind of a decision?"
important one." The crow pecks at his payment. "Take the
water," he says, before snapping a carrot in his beak and flying to his
I fill the
bucket and it is heavy. It's the big kind a person uses when mopping floors. Now
it carries clean water. The crow is not cheap, but his water is good. The rain
is acid when it comes. We try not to drink it and the stores have been looted
When I get
back to the house, I find the front door open and Brandon's backpack on the
patio. It is stuffed thicker than I've seen in months and his canteen hangs
from one side. His baseball bat sits beside it. Brandon emerges from inside the
house. He eyes the water.
can put it down," he says, and I do.
you going somewhere?" I ask, though the answer is obvious.
Angeles is miles from here. Before the world ended it was a half hour drive
through city traffic. On foot it would take several hours. I can't imagine why
he would go there. Then I remember the crow spoke of the US Bank Tower. It is
the tallest building in downtown.
He cuts me
off. "I don't feel like talking about it." His voice is surly as he
snatches the canteen from his pack and dunks it in the bucket. It fills quickly
as the air escapes. Glub. Glub.
When are you coming back? I want to ask, but
instead I say, "Can I come too?"
He eyes me. "If you hurry."
I sprint to
my bedroom in the back of the house. This wasn't my house originally, or
Brandon's, but our homes still sheltered the ghosts of our families. My mother
couldn't know that it was no longer 4 p.m. on a particular Wednesday of last
year, so she would always nag me: "Eun Hee, why aren't you at tutoring? Eun
Hee you need to study harder to get into a good university." She never
called me Joan like my American-born friends.
The house I
share with Brandon has no ghosts. Either no one had died here or the demons had
eaten them. Either way, it isn't as though the owners still needed it. Brandon
was the one who suggested we take it, and I had to agree it was a good
I grab my
backpack, check that I still have a change of clothes and my first aid kit
inside, then dash for the kitchen where we keep our
dried fruit and demon bread. The bread is not evil, at least not in any way we
can tell, but without flour we can only obtain bread through bartering with the
demons. Brandon always leaves that to me. He won't talk to them.
I put both
bread and fruit in my backpack and jog through the living room to the front
door. To my relief, Brandon is still waiting outside, though at the end of the
walk by the street.
I close the
door behind me. We don't have the key so I can't lock it, and I worry that we
will come back to a ransacked home, but Brandon does not seem concerned. He
looks to the southeast. It's the direction of downtown.
know how to get there?" I ask.
"Yeah." He has a faded
street map with him, something he found in a desk of one the homes we stayed
We set off
with him in the lead and me following close behind. Brandon carries his bat,
sometimes over his shoulder, sometimes by his side. Some demons are congenial,
even if they are not inclined to be friends. Some demons ignore us. But other
demons frown on humans and would leave us as so much blood smeared on the walls
and sidewalks in front of buildings. We find people like that sometimes, so
Brandon carries the bat. He knows demons can be killed. He's the only person I
know who's killed one. But still, some are better to hide from.
I were classmates in geometry, and until the world ended we'd barely said two
words to each other. But when the world heaved and most people became ghosts we
were the only two left in the school.
other people since; living ones. They're furtive, scurrying like we scurry. They
rarely talk to us, as if by banding together in a larger group we would draw
unwanted attention—and we would, the same way a single feral dog is a nuisance and
a pack must be put down.
We do not
reach the Bank Tower by sunset, having left too late in the day, so we spend
the night huddled in two layers of clothing on the eight lanes of the 101
freeway. There are still cars parked, bumper to bumper, frozen
in early rush hour traffic. Uneaten ghosts linger in them, usually in the
driver's seat, sometimes in the passenger's.
finds a gap between the cars where we're unlikely to be seen by hungry demons. I
can hear a ghost mutter, "I'm gonna miss the game. I'm gonna miss the
game." It stops now and then, but the words don't change.
downtown?" I ask, hoping he won't rebuff me a second time. We've just
eaten dinner and he's usually nicer after some food.
tower," he says, and though I'm sure he means the US Bank Tower, I can't
help but ask for confirmation.
The moon is
full tonight and I can see his face. He glares at me as though I'm stupid.
course the US Bank Tower," he mutters. "You'd have to be deaf not to
have heard all the demons ranting about the Decision. Everyone's going
human. It takes a human
soul. Haven't you been paying attention? You're always talking to demons. More
than you should."
because I don't know how to fight and I'm not good at hiding. If the demons
think I'm harmless, they might not hurt me and I won't be a blood smear on the
side of a building. I know talking won't always work, but if the demon is
willing to hear me, then it's at least worth a shot.
made my Decision," he says, with an air of finality. "If you haven't
made one, that's fine by me. It's probably better that you don't."
you at least tell me so I know whether I should?"
over and settles his head on his backpack. He intends to sleep. End
conversation. "Better that you don't," he says. "You'll thank me
I wake the
next morning and do not see him. His backpack is gone and when I look around
there are only empty cars and ghosts. Maybe he's scouting ahead, I tell myself,
and there's nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and walk down
the freeway. The downtown area is in sight.
rumbles, reminding me of breakfast, but I don't touch the bread in my backpack.
Eating will slow me down and I can't be a burden to Brandon. He's the only
other human being I have in the world. Even if we don't always get along, even
if he's abrasive, at least he's company.
world ended he was the one who figured out how to store food now that
refrigerators no longer had power. He was the one who could pick out the
quickest escape route when demons were near. He broke into homes, stores,
getting us food, shelter, and supplies. He might listen to a demon, but he
would never trust one.
At first he
seemed to like caring for me, and I tried to repay him by being a good
housekeeper, so I wouldn't have to rely on his charity, but there was no
denying that I needed him more than he needed me.
The US Bank
Tower rises above the rest of downtown. It is a distinctive building not only
for its height, but its cylindrical shape. I'd never been there before. Downtown
L.A. was always crowded and there was no reason to visit what was really an
There is an
off-ramp from the 110 to 4th Street, and while I have no idea if this is the
closest one, it looks close enough.
it hits me. Brandon really did leave me behind. I'm not going to catch up with
him. I don't even know if he went this way. I've spent all morning, walking as
fast as I can, but he's nowhere in sight and the demons didn't get him or I
would have been taken as well and we'd both be piles of bone and gore.
I stumble to
the bottom of the off-ramp and blunder into an SUV halted in the intersection. There's
no ghost in this one. I don't hear muttering, but I don't care anymore.
I curl up
and sob, because now I'm alone.
After a time
I become aware of the sound of wings beating above me. Something is circling. There
are no normal birds anymore so it can only be a demon. I am probably dead,
lying out in the open like this, and I find I almost don't care. Almost.
I raise my
head and through puffy eyes I see a winged serpent silhouetted against the
morning sun. The demon sails lower, sweeping to the ground.
you cry?" he asks. "There are no plants here for you to
He is a
splendid creature, with feathers like the rainbow and teeth like a shark. His
eyes are shiny and black, like obsidian. I call him Quetzalcoatl after the
Aztec god. Whether he is or not he puffs his chest with pride and I think he
won't eat me.
human's tears aren't enough to nourish a flower," I say.
He tilts his
head. "No? But they are enough to feed a new world."
Decision," I say. "What is it?"
birth, the coming.
As it was, as it has been, as it continues to be. Worlds and
then worlds in an endless cycle." He pauses, perhaps reflecting. "You
should make yours soon."
what am I deciding?"
else? Time in this timeless world is running out. Already the cycle draws to a
in a hurry to get to the US Bank Tower. He said everyone is going there. I look
to its peak and it shines with a blue light that comes from no lamp.
you nourish a new world?" asks the serpent.
will happen to this one?"
buildings downtown are worn and tired at the street level. Doors and windows
have been broken by scavengers and there are dull smears where the unfortunate
have died. I see no ghosts anywhere. The demons have eaten them all.
"It matters to you, doesn't it?"
spreads his wings and lies down before me. His torso is as wide as a small
horse. "I will carry you as high as I can," he says, "for you
are already very late."
I climb on
and cling tight to his neck, knees bent to keep from scraping the ground as he
takes off. Then we are flying, soaring upward on his beautiful feathered wings.
Other demons soar around the peak of the Bank Tower. Though I can see the
skyscraper's helipad through the wild throng, none of them approach it. A few
attempt, but are rebuffed by an unseen force. They are watching something. I
see small figures, humans, moving on the rooftop and I don't know why. Aren't
they afraid of the demons?
pay us no mind. Even below the peak, all eyes are looking in through the
windows. I catch a flutter of movement. Black feathers?
But the important thing is I see an open window. Shattered.
there!" I shout, and I point though I realize the serpent probably can't
He spots the
opening regardless and sails close.
the glass," says the serpent, as I dismount and watch where I step.
you," I tell him, and I bow once I'm safely inside.
nods and flies away.
I look up at
the ceiling as though I could somehow gauge how much higher I had to go. The
very structure is humming and I'm at least few floors down. I need to find the
signs in the hall are no longer lit, but they point the way regardless. The
stairs are on the other side of a heavy door which I push open as hard as I
can. There is resistance on the other side that suddenly gives way. The air of
the stairwell smells thickly of blood; sweet and full of iron.
I see the
source of the resistance, a man on his hands and knees. His white collared
shirt is splotched with dirt and blood. He's been shot, multiple times. In his
hand is a broken ruler—sharpened plastic. It's a poor weapon, but he clutches
it to him like a rosary. It's all that keeps him from death. Well, a quicker
can't make a Decision anymore," he breathes. "Please, just leave me
I nod, and
carefully step around him to go up the stairs.
you would, if you like my Decision..."
I look back
at him. It is taking so much for him to talk.
wanted a world where people had to respect each other, a world where everyone
was civil and cared about others..."
I nod again,
to show I've heard, but I don't think he sees me anymore.
more bodies and dying people as I climb the tower. Those still living plead
their cases for the new world.
world without sickness and death.
world with only one god.
world where no child is unwanted.
But I come
to realize that no one world can satisfy everyone, and what disturbs me the
most is that none of these people died to demons. The wounds are from guns,
from knives, or blunt trauma. There are no claws, no fire, no teeth, or unholy
have realized before me that there can be only one new world, and they'd fought
to ensure the one created was the one they wanted.
says a woman, "there can't be more than two or three ahead of me. I don't
want anything special—just the old world back. It wasn't so bad, was it?"
I step over
her and reach for a battered door, held shut only by its natural resting
position, and not by its busted latch. It's the door to the roof. Heart
pounding, I can only think of Brandon. He hasn't been among the bodies I
The roof is
bathed with the blue light I'd spotted while riding the serpent. Oddly it is
dimmer now, and seems to be coming from still higher above me. The helipad is
nearby, chain link surrounding its base should anyone fall. I find the steps
up. There is another corpse along the way. This one's skull has been beaten.
I draw eye
level with the helipad and the sight is horrible. The helipad's number 12,
painted in red, blends with the blood from the myriad bodies crowded around the
base of a clear obelisk. It is from the obelisk that the blue light shines. Even
as I approach, it continues to dim, and I can look at it without blinding
two figures still on their feet. No. Only one. Brandon.
The other man is being stood on his toes, his collar snug around his neck, as
Brandon holds him fast. Brandon has his baseball bat, stained a terrible red. The
other man is unarmed, but there is a gun by his feet.
He does not
take his eyes off the writhing man he holds. "Why are you here, Joan? Did
you actually make a Decision?"
I just didn't want to be left behind.
you can help me make mine."
is it? What is the world that you want?"
It occurs to
me that though Brandon and I have lived together for almost a year, we never
talked of any hopes or desires, unless they pertained to food, shelter, or
you'll like this one." He glares contemptuously at the man he holds and
shakes his captive when the other man tries to speak. "Even this guy would
you let him go?" I ask. "He doesn't have a gun anymore."
world," says Brandon, undeterred, "is one
where no one ever needs another person. You won't have to rely on anyone to
take care of you. I won't be obligated to help. Everyone would be
self-sufficient. Wouldn't you like that? To not need other
considered such a thing, and I can't quite believe such a world could exist. If
we didn't need each other for anything, not even companionship, would we all
takes my silence for acceptance. It has always been this way when we made
decisions that I didn't like.
this guy then, while I hold him. Pick up his gun."
not that hard to use. Just point and shoot."
babbles. He doesn't care about making a new world anymore. He just doesn't want
not that," I say. "Why do we need to kill him?"
person who dies in this tower weakens the barrier withholding the rebirth. Have
you notice they leave no ghosts?"
Now that he
mentions it, I haven't seen any, nor any demons who
would have eaten them.
spirits are filling the obelisk, and when there are enough the walls will be
weak enough to release the rebirth."
rebirth is powered by human souls?"
the kind of world I want...
"They're already dead. It'll get us and any remaining humans out of this
hellhole and into a new world where there won't be any demons."
man suddenly twists and kicks. Brandon swears, releasing him as he grabs his
baseball bat in both hands. Before I know what I'm doing, I throw myself at
Brandon, arms outstretched. I don't want him to kill someone.
and he stumbles mid-swing. He wasn't expecting me. I
feel myself falling and I try to correct myself, but my feet and legs aren't
responding. I spin to one side, trying to get an arm out, when I slam against
the concrete. It hurts and the wind is knocked from my lungs.
screaming. It takes me a while to recognize his voice. I've never heard him
scream like this before, so obviously in pain. Nothing ever hurts Brandon
enough for him to scream.
This is nothing he's expected.
I lift my
head, trying to see him.
I had pushed
him into the obelisk and it had broken like so much glass. I hadn't realized it
was so thin.
Beware the glass. I remember.
bury themselves in his body, digging in like maggots, and he is bleeding from
so many places his skin is slick and red. He flails, kicking, and I watch as he
grows weak, his movements less vigorous, less frantic. Not once does he look to
me. He has never wanted my help.
dimly shining, even after the destruction of the obelisk, goes out as Brandon
ceases to move.
much for the new world.
man stares in disbelief, then staggers away, back to the stairs. I see a
familiar crow flying overhead, weaving in and out among the other demons. They
are all watching.
I have never
liked Brandon, but at least he was company, and at times, in his own way, he'd
been kind. I remember our early days, when there had still been hope, and he
killed a demon to save me. I'd been a blubbering mess and he told me,
"Don't worry. I've got you."
is just one of many bodies lying by the remains of the obelisk.
time for the new world."
I look up
and through blurry eyes I see the crow, standing before me.
the obelisk was destroyed."
was meant to be, and the final soul that was needed was captured atop this
tower. Have you made your Decision?"
world where people don't need each other. It was a promising world, but I
realize I like needing and being needed. I would not exist in a world such as
There is a
touch at my shoulder, and I turn to see the feathered serpent I called
Quetzalcoatl. He says nothing, but licks beneath my eyes, taking away the
there have to be a new world?" I ask.
around me is covered with so much death. This tower is a mausoleum of worlds
that did not agree.
says the crow.
between people would not be erased with the creation of a new world. I had only
to lift my head to see the pain and destruction that the want of one had
caused. For a brief moment, I consider a world where I am never alone, where I
am appreciated, but I realize I could never force others to befriend me.
I place my
hand on the wing of the feathered serpent. His eyes glitter bright and a loud
thrum issues from his throat.
don't want a new world," I tell the crow. "Let this one remain."
voice thunders from atop the skyscraper and the demons wheel in the sky like
flocks of birds before scattering. I am not certain, but I think a few of them
bow to me before they leave.
feathered serpent extends himself before me, beckoning me to mount, and the
crow hops on to my shoulder. My life will be different now, but I find myself
unafraid. However strange my new companions are, I am not alone.