The world ends, and not metaphorically, which is the strangest thing and the part that takes Eve a little while to process.
She guesses – now, after months and cities and billions have all waned away – that’s just how it is, really. One day you’re playing cross-continental cat-and-mouse with that assassin who makes your blood boil, and the next day the sky falls down, it’s the planet that boils, and there’s only half a habitable continent left to hold the two of you anyway.
Eve’s survived so far, though she rather fails to see the point of it all.
“All’s well that end’s well,” is a phrase Villanelle is currently fond of; it’s one she rolls out whenever Eve’s complaints go on too long, or when her anger putrefies into something like melancholy. It’s also something that is, as Eve tends to snap back, easy for Villanelle to say. She’s the closest to getting what she wanted, even if it took the apocalypse to do it. Honestly, Eve’s surprised Villanelle didn’t just try that from the start.
That’s their problem, both of them. Never thinking the big picture – themselves, each other, that was more than enough. If Eve’s honest, she forgot the world was there at all until it wasn’t.
But as Eve said, she’s survived this long.
Current order of business is surviving her.
The beginning of the end was boring, and for the most part not worth discussing. Blame was a big theme back then – never been bigger, presidents throwing out names and dates like they mattered anymore. Your neighbour: it’s all them’s fault over the bins. ‘Them’ being anyone, or anyone else.
The worst part – the most boring – was the fallout. Because it was slow, a creeping sort of realisation. First, the buttons were pressed: many, many millions dead in an hour.
And then there were no presidents. Or neighbours, or bins. No one around to tell you not to drop your trash in the grass, anyway, and anyone who tried was a fool and a hypocrite. To think a bit of litter would destroy a world already gripped by a nuclear winter. To think the Earth could be saved with a little reduce, reuse, recycle.
Really, it was only a fool who thought that the Earth should be saved at all.
“You want pumpkin?”
No, she doesn’t want pumpkin. “Yes,” Eve says. “I do want pumpkin.”
Villanelle frowns over the can-opener. “Why are you talking so weird?”
“I’m not. I said I do want pumpkin.”
“You better. It’s all I have.” Here, Villanelle gives up on the rusty can-opener and starts attacking it with a knife. It’s hardly as skilled or graceful as her usual work with such a tool, but the knife is a steak knife, and her victim a can of soup, and Villanelle is months out of practice.
“It’s all we have,” Eve corrects, leaning on her elbows over the kitchen counter. She catches herself from knocking something off the island bench – a digital photo frame. It’s blank and dark. What a scam! They convince you to throw out your polaroids and invest in a glorified hunk of plastic, then they blow up the world so you can’t see your loved one’s faces when you need it most.
That’s all at a guess. Eve’s forgotten what her father looks like already, maybe her mother, too. Niko is a blur, though that’s more of an intentional thing. And she finds the faces of loved ones are more of a want than a need.
You gotta get by somehow, and – Eve can say from experience – that’s not really how.
Villanelle finally cracks open the can, crumpled aluminium teeth revealing a maw of orange soup. “That’s what I said,” she protests, and it takes Eve a second.
But she latches on. Any excuse to argue, any at all. “No, it isn’t.”
“Uh, yeah. It is. You said, I do want pumpkin, in that way that means you really don’t. And I said it’s all we have.”
“You said I. Not we.”
“And we had a deal. We’re in this…” Eve casts her gaze at the ceiling, holding back a sigh – “together.”
“What’s mine is ours?”
“Exactly. And you’d better remember that.”
“Ah, but Eve.” She taps her head meaningfully. “Psychopath, remember?”
“Whatever.” Their arguments usually spice up the day a little; tonight it’s just tiring. “Like the DSM matters anymore.”
“It’s not technically in the DSM – ”
“I know. Obviously. Can we eat?”
Fortunately, it’s a gas stove, so tonight’s dinner is served hot and just shy of bearable, Eve’s least favourite vegetable aside. One can each in the nice china bowls, with silver cutlery, because who cares, why not, we’re all dying anyway, et cetera. Maybe the two of them will even smash all the crockery before they leave. They had fun with that at the last house, and there are worse hobbies to have in an apocalypse.
Eve wonders what happened to the family who lived here. Did they travel to one of the cities for medicine they won’t find? Did they track south and find their way to one of the new, vague promised lands – South Africa, or Chile, or a Pacific Island? Did they take a boat and sail off into the unknown? Maybe they had just been on holiday. In the Bahamas. Or they were unlucky – in a blast radius somewhere. Then they really won’t care what happens to their good china.
Villanelle eats every meal like it’s her last. She’s finished slurping down her soup before Eve’s had more than a few spoonfuls and then she’s bouncing off the walls again, emptying cupboards, turning the place over for more supplies to add to their stash.
It’s the best kind of life, travelling. Never in one place for more than a few weeks, blisters worn into callouses on your heels. Okay, it doesn’t sound that great, but nothing does. Trust her: it’s the only option. The end of the world isn’t anarchy, but it isn’t bliss, either, and Eve’s heard stories about what can happen to those who get too settled.
Eve listens as Villanelle stomps about upstairs, banging doors, up-ending the place. She watches as Villanelle returns and spills her finds onto the kitchen table. The front door was bashed in when they found this place – raided already, probably more than once. But Villanelle has both a good eye and, Eve suspects, a bit of luck on her side: needle and thread, a winter coat (moth-eaten, but warm), two rolls of bandages, another can of soup (cream of pea).
“Ta da,” Villanelle says, like it’s all for Eve, a head on a platter. “I found breakfast, too,” she adds, and tosses some old muesli bars atop the tiny pile.
“Good.” Eve takes her last slurp of soup. She won’t lick the bowl like Villanelle does, but she’s still a little hungry. “You can redo my brace.”
Villanelle groans, slumping down into a chair. “There is never any gratitude in this house.”
“No. My house,” she says, oh so sweetly. Smiling in such a way that Eve knows she could cut herself on those bright teeth. She could cut herself on any inch of Villanelle, though somehow she hasn’t yet, at least not after Rome – and not for lack of trying.
Eve levels a stare at Villanelle, who doesn’t shrink but seems to puff up, expand somehow beneath it.
They move to the couch. Eve pulls her shirt over her head with her good arm and sits still while Villanelle unrolls the bandage and winds it from her upper arm over her left shoulder blade. This was odd the first few times – helpless under Villanelle’s eyes and hands, exposed from the waist up, that burning hole in her back. A floating-feeling, almost choking on the broken reality of something she’d only ever imagined in one perfect piece.
Now, Eve swears that Villanelle doesn’t even look.
There’s something poetic about it. Or cathartic, or both. Like, here’s proof Eve isn’t the most trigger-happy idiot to grace the Earth. She hasn’t even come close to the peak of possible destruction, and when the world finally ended she had naught to do with it.
Maybe that’s fucked up to think. But who is around, anymore, to judge her?
Eve says to Villanelle one evening – they’re in between towns, so it’s a sleeping bags in a barn kind of night, piles of hay insulating against the bitter cold – “Do you think much about before?”
She asks because that’s how most people think: before, after. Before the world ended, after the world ended. Eve has adopted that framing, too, though usually just for ease of communication.
But really – and she thinks this almost every night, because it feels like almost every night she doesn’t sleep, she thinks and thinks instead – the before time was before Villanelle, and the after is after Villanelle. Or during Villanelle, to be more accurate, because Villanelle is happening all at once, always; she never stops and Eve can’t either.
Villanelle takes a minute to respond. Eve guesses she’s fallen asleep until: “Yes.”
“What do you think about it?”
“How boring it was,” Villanelle says slowly. The day of walking has worn away at her, baring raw skin beneath: young, almost honest. “But back then, I didn’t think it was boring. I think…how there was nothing, and now there is everything, all the time.”
Eve considers this response, turning it over like an uncut gem. Then it strikes her.
A muffled mph from the other pile of straw.
“When you said before. Did you mean before the – before the world ended? Or before…”
“Well,” Eve grants. “Yeah. Which one did you mean?”
The only answer Eve gets is the rustle of hay – not Villanelle, perhaps she’s slipped into sleep, but the wind through the cracks in the walls. Nights aren’t as quiet as you might believe, after the apocalypse. There are so many birds.
The southern hemisphere was lucky. They might even have some semblance of a government in Argentina, Chile, Australia. South Africa was doing okay, last Eve heard. But Eve hasn’t heard much since, not for a long while. Cut off. Something fell – a curtain of indifference, or incapacity. Eve can’t fault them. You don’t pull strangers from a burning wreck, you don’t try to save the dead half of the world before you can get the living half on ice. And you certainly don’t go into a firestorm just to warm your hands.
Well. About that last one.
Eve wants to kiss her. And? And she doesn’t.
She invents things – voices, personas – to keep herself in check. There’s no one else left to do it, and you’ve got to find some way to reign your brain in. People go crazy out here, in the world. That’s what they say. Eve’s not sure – people went crazy before, too. Maybe they just killed all the sane people.
Certainly – Niko is dead, her mother. Carolyn, Kenny, Elena. All her London friends – Jane, from university, Eve really meant to text her back. Most of the south of England was wiped out on the first day. Now it’s the place to go to fuck up your cells and die quickly; not to search for loved ones, or not-so-loved ones, or anyone who might speak to your conscience.
So, Eve makes it up. Imaginary Niko is usually angry, slapping walls that Eve wants to punch right through. Her mother is confused – what, a woman? Carolyn sighs a lot, and her silences are brutal.
The voices get a lot of time to weigh in when they’re travelling. Today is a trek to a small coastal town. Villanelle told her the name of it – it’s her turn with the map – but Eve forgot instantly. They all sound a bit the same after a while. Villanelle showed her a guide book, though, from when they passed through a hotel lobby – all cute terracotta rooves, white sand, mother-of-pearl sea in the evenings.
“Very romantic,” she said, pushing a glossy photo beneath Eve’s nose: a couple silhouetted against the sunset, leaning their heads together and tipping glasses of champagne.
“It’s the end of the world,” Eve replied, because it was, and is. “And you’re thinking about romance.”
Villanelle didn’t respond to that one. Maybe she smelled the hypocrisy? Eve can, radiating off her in waves – she wanted to kiss Villanelle this morning. No reason, really, just a bit of sleeplessness and frizzed-hair and the torture of forced closeness doing its work. Nothing to worry about.
Eve stuffs her cold hands in her pockets, watching Villanelle walk ahead. The road is a bad one but Villanelle hasn’t stumbled once on the gravel, she hasn’t looked back either. Not for hours.
Eve can’t remember who it was who suggested they go south, but north is a dirty word these days so they’ve been criss-crossing the map for the past two months or so: from Naples to Bari, down Sicily way and back again, always different roads, different little towns. They did go to Bologna first out of curiosity, but the stories…they turned back quick.
It’s busier than you might think, the apocalypse. At least it is here, far out of the way of the nuclear zones. That’s not to say a good per cent of the local population wasn’t wiped out when the hospitals were overrun, and then famine the real enemy – turns out, when you fuck up the world, nothing wants to grow on it anymore. Which, fair cop, why would you?
The world ends so slowly, though, that people around here think it might not end at all. It’s been seven months of walking the same old routes in the same old country – cars were too conspicuous at first, and the roads were blocked, then the gas started to expire. Villanelle wired up a motorcycle for a bit, but once the tank was out the dream was over. Eve enjoyed it while it lasted, arms wrapped around Villanelle’s waist, hair streaming like a movie.
She doesn’t just want to kiss her.
She has a lot of time to think about this, along with everything else. She knows exactly what she wants, that has never been the problem. The problem is everything else.
You’d think the end of the world would make things easier. People, responsibilities, perceptions and stresses and marriages – they all fall away, and it should by all rights be easier to go after the thing you know you want, that walks beside you in the day and breathes your air in the night.
Eve wants to take her by the wrist, the hip, the hair. In every house and barn they hole up in, by the side of the road as they walk and walk and walk, in every place that isn’t her head. Her head’s seen more than enough.
Villanelle doesn’t touch her like she did in Rome, and Eve misses it like a phantom pain. But the world has ended, and Eve doesn’t care about that as much as she should, and she has to chasten herself somehow. Someone has to bear it – punishment enough for the both of them.
For those wondering – here is how it really started:
Eve woke in a public hospital in Rome with a numb shoulder and a hazard on her lips, the echo of a dream. A television scrolled mutely in the corner – fire, ash, tears; all the kind of shit you’d expect. The image jumping from world map to world map. Names – cities, not people, for there were too many. Then after a week it was states, entire countries, for at that point the cities were also too many to name.
Eve hadn’t thought it was a dream. She swam in her drug haze and did her best not to wash up on shore. The nurses turned the sound up on the television occasionally, punctuated with sobs when they thought she was asleep. It should have been a nightmare – anyone else might have thought so, and understandably.
Not Eve. Eve listened the doctors talk about blood loss and shattered bone and hypovolemia in the same voices that she heard the newsreaders say a hundred million casualties one day, three hundred the next, then five hundred, six hundred, pushing a billion.
The world ended and she thought – well. Fair enough.
The thing about the apocalypse is, it’s not so bad.
Humanity is essentially neutral. Perhaps erring on the side of good, even, when it comes down to it. Maybe Eve should feel privileged to see that – the closest humanity can get to the state of nature.
People are lonely and traumatised in ways both general and specific, so they help each other, band together. They share, they make friends easily, desperately. They want to feel part of something, even if that something is just one of the few corners of the world that isn’t a radioactive wasteland.
The sky brings people together, too. People miss the sun; they look for the next closest thing. A smile, a laugh. Eve has learned this from observation, not participation. In her opinion (which is true), a smile can’t grow crops. A laugh won’t warm your skin.
She doesn’t think she can remember truly helping…anyone these past few months. Sure, she’s given directions, shared a fire or two. But giving something up, something she really needed, just so someone else could have it? Coming up blank on that one. Of course, Villanelle hasn’t done any particularly good deeds either, but that’s in her nature. What’s Eve’s excuse?
The end of the world gives you a lot of time for self-reflection, so much that certain truths are unavoidable. You might as well run from a tsunami, you might as well collect grains of sand, so you reflect. You process.
Eve does a lot of it – she’s doing it now, in fact, staring at the inside of her sleeping bag and listening to the way her breathing clashes with Villanelle’s, naturally arrhythmic.
Even when they come across one of the bigger houses, they sleep in the same room. They’ve never talked about why. Eve doesn’t really know. That’s something else she’ll have to reflect on, one of these days.
She gets up for water at whatever A.M. You still look for clocks, even when the time matters about as much as a fly on a windowsill on the other side of the world. But the only clocks in this house are digital.
When she returns Villanelle is awake, staring straight up at the ceiling. She sleeps on her back, all rigid with her arms folded over her chest. Like a corpse. Or a psychopath.
“Can’t sleep?” Eve asks.
“You can’t sleep?”
“I can,” Villanelle says. “But I’m not.”
“Oh. Well, that makes perfect sense.”
Eve deposits herself back into her sleeping bag – after months of enduring these night-time arrangements it’s a bit like stuffing a pillow case, or a garbage can. It’s from the corner of her eye that she sees Villanelle shift on the couch, rolling onto her side.
No, Eve thinks. No. She says, “Yeah?”
“You were talking to yourself.”
Shit. Fuck. “No, I wasn’t.”
“I think you thought I was asleep. You were saying – “
“You must have dreamt it,” Eve says quickly, and wonders why she sounds so panicked. “I don’t talk to myself.”
“You sounded like you were trying to talk yourself out of something. To stop yourself.”
“Can I just sleep?”
“I want to talk.” Villanelle sounds – vulnerable. In that way Eve usually lives for – or did, in the before times. Like she might give way beneath a press of Eve’s thumb.
Eve says, “I don’t.”
Villanelle’s hum is loud in the quiet – no traffic, no music, no blaring televisions. “You miss them.”
Eve clenches her fists in the sleeping bag and scrunches her eyes shut for good measure, until everything glows white.
“It’s okay to miss them,” Villanelle continues, and her voice is so stark in the dark like this. Rubbed raw, naked. “You are talking to them? That’s okay, too, I understand. But, Eve – ” and she shuffles, or must do, though Eve’s still staring at the back of her eyelids, the dizzying shapes there – “did you ever listen to them anyway?”
There was something Villanelle said, very early on. When they were still in Rome, in fact, trying to work out whether they would wake up dead tomorrow.
They’d commandeered a hotel room, just waltzed right in and negotiated a keycard from the stricken concierge. It was luxury: Villanelle lounged on one of the beds in a fluffy-looking robe, Eve couldn’t find it in herself to lounge but she took the other bed to stand next to, clutching her aching shoulder. The television droned in a sickeningly ordinary kind of way, and Eve was reminded how little she really watched the news, after Villanelle.
It had been a long while since she pretended to care about the world. She wondered whether this was a good time to start.
“Almost a billion dead.” Eve looked at Villanelle, Villanelle stared blankly back, and only then did Eve realise it was she who had spoken, echoing the newsreader.
“Should we get room service?” Villanelle asked.
Well. She was hungry. “If the kitchen’s open. Pizza?”
And then, because she felt a little guilty talking about food in the face of the climbing numbers on the television, Eve sat on the bed and tried to talk about it. “Is this the end of the world?”
“Mm.” Villanelle was scanning the menu, tapping at choices with a fingernail. “Probably.”
“Almost a billion,” Eve said again.
“It is a lot. They are saying more,” Villanelle echoed the tone of the pale-faced newsreader, almost hypnotic. “A few hundred million over the next few months. Another billion, even, by next year. The ash will block the sun and the world will freeze and the crops will die and in ten years maybe everybody will be dead.”
Eve felt sick. Or, she felt like she should feel sick, and felt sick about that.
Villanelle curled up on the bed, her hands folded sweetly beneath her cheek. Her smile was close to murder, her voice endlessly indulgent as she intoned, “So. If we’re the last two people on Earth…”
“No,” Eve said quickly.
“Not even then?”
Eve couldn’t tell if Villanelle was hurt, or faking it, or both. “Get me a Hawaiian.”
“Pineapple? Gross. I agree, I could never repopulate the Earth with you.”
Which comment did not deserve even the basest retort.
That’s not to say Eve hasn’t been thinking about the prospect in the time since. That’s the whole point – she has. Not the procreation. But, you get it.
Sometimes her mind throws back to those days in the hospital bed, high as a kite and twice as close to blowing away on a sharp gust of wind. Never has her grip on life been so tenuous, or so pointedly surreal.
There was something the newsreaders kept saying – when it was switched to an English channel, which it usually was, out of some twisted sort of courtesy. The stages, rings of a blast radius: Radiation. Fireball. Shockwave. Heat.
Eve can relate.
Villanelle showers with the door open, because “It’s the apocalypse!” of course. She clicks her fingers to the Beach Boys while they walk, so out-of-time. She has three different knives in her belt and she used one yesterday to threaten a guy out of his sleeping meds, which she then left out for Eve to spontaneously find.
Villanelle thought Eve wasn’t watching, but she was. She always is.
“Do you want to get out of here?”
Villanelle beams, sharp and flirtatious. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“I mean, out of Italy,” Eve clarifies. “I’m sick of the weather.”
“But, baby – “ and Villanelle just loves this, the pet names, something she picked up about six months after doomsday and it kills Eve because they’ve never even touched and yet. “The weather is like this everywhere. It’s the end of the world.”
Eve huffs and stands, kicking dirt over their campfire. They’ve started taking rudimentary tea breaks on their journeys – note to pre-apocalypse self: Villanelle takes hers black.
Villanelle stops her, though, with a hand on her arm like a brand. Eve stares at it. Villanelle says, “I do, though. Want to get out of here. Should we steal a boat?”
It’s Eve who suggests killing a man for a can of fuel. No qualms.
Petrol’s out these days, but diesel stays good for at least a year, or that’s what people say. So it’s in short supply. A boat is easy to get your hands on – most people are content to stay where they are, in this virtually utopian corner of the Earth. Anything can be paradise if you imagine a bad enough hell, and these hells are real. So people stay, and the big white sailboats owned by dead rich foreigners sit and idle at the docks along every coast and in every bay.
Humans are essentially neutral, but that’s an average, and it implies outliers. They heard talk of this guy on the road – a hoarder and a maniac, the travellers said. He’s got a shack at the cove, he’s got boat fuel, but he’s got a shotgun too.
They’re almost at the cove when Eve says, “We can take him.”
“You reckon?” Villanelle tilts her head, cracking a grin.
“Yeah. He won’t negotiate, why even try? You have your knives.”
“I do.” Villanelle runs a hand over the hilts stuck into her belt, then pulls one out. “You want one too?”
It’s now that Eve realises they’ve stopped walking. The knife is the smallest they’ve found, and the sharpest. A hunting knife engraved with the initials of someone who might be dead or might be alive but – when have the two of them ever cared about something like that, the line in between?
When Eve meets Villanelle’s eyes, there’s nothing in them. She takes comfort in that. She takes the knife.
The man with the diesel stash matches all the reports. A hoarder, check. A maniac, check. And he’s got a shotgun, check that too, it’s levelled right at Eve’s chest.
She’s never felt so calm. She doesn’t think of Raymond – she’ll only draw the comparison after, when it’s done. “We’re here in good faith,” she implores. It sounds genuine.
The man sneers, gesturing with the business-end of the gun. “You’re American.”
Eve goes to latch her teeth onto the side of her cheek – a nervous habit she’s picked up – then stops herself, instead shoving her hand deeper inside her pocket. Her fingers brush the grip of the knife stuffed in the lining of her jacket. Cold, solid.
“You’re one of them,” he says again. “It was your lot that started it.”
Eve shrugs. “Does it matter?”
He clears his throat and spits soundly into the dust between his boots. “’Course it fucking does.”
Eve finds herself thinking – who cares? It’s not just a question of who pushed who on the playground, but who called who a bad name first, who has a grudge, who pushed the first button. She hasn’t the time for geopolitics. Not when she’s itching – aching with the knife just slightly cutting into the meat of her thumb.
Anyway, it’s moot. The people who started it – and the ones who didn’t – are dead.
“Thanks,” Eve says. “It’s kind of easier when you’re an asshole.”
“What – “
Villanelle has his gun on the ground and his neck in a chokehold before he can finish the sentence. He splutters, seems to bulge out of his own skin. Like a bubble waiting to be popped.
Eve pops the bubble. It’s harder than it looks – she stops mid-way and starts again, putting another jolt of force behind the thrust. He cracks open like a bag of meat and bones, which is what he is.
And she looks at Villanelle – Eve, her hand in this man’s chest, and Villanelle holding him upright, close enough to kiss. Which they don’t, and Eve feels pretty close to nothing, but they have fuel and a boat and they’re away. They’re gone.
Villanelle has no boating experience – Eve doesn’t know what she expected. Do assassins need nautical knowledge? Apparently not. They get the thing up and running anyway.
The sea is grey, not like the pictures, and it’s around sunset – if there was any sun to set. The sky is the worst thing, sometimes. Like some god closed his great hand over the world. Eve’s just waiting for that fist to squeeze, to be crushed beneath it.
But she looks over to Villanelle at the prow – smiling, eyes closed against the wind and the sea spray. The sight tickles, just a little bit. Just a little warm.
Eve sidles up next to her. The warmth is illusory. “I’m cold,” she comments lamely.
Villanelle tosses her arm around her – so casually. “Ah, Eve. There’s a reason they call it a nuclear winter. What’s wrong with your coat?”
“My coat is made for a regular fucking winter,” Eve grumbles, and takes Villanelle by the collar, and kisses her.
Villanelle mumbles something into her lips, always one to have the last word but Eve can vouch – when there’s a hand in her hair, Villanelle shuts up real quick.
You might say, finally, but you’d be wrong. It took all of this and more, and it’s just the right time.
It’s funny, really. That Villanelle came back for the end of the world.
They’ve never talked about it – you might wonder if they talk about anything at all, but they do, even occasionally things that matter. But not that.
Eve still remembers it – even if she’s forgotten all those faces in the photo frames, reportedly burned to a crisp back in London, she remembers this. They were weaning her off the more heavy-duty pain meds, so she knew for sure that it wasn’t a waking dream.
“Eve.” Villanelle. Villanelle.
Hands beneath her head, taking her arms – sure and cool and awfully gentle. She couldn’t stand alone, not quite, and God, the ache.
“I’m going to kill you,” she recalls saying, swaying into Villanelle’s side. She smelled not of perfume, but smoke.
“No worries,” Villanelle said. “But you have to watch the world end with me, first.”
And Eve was furious, mad as hell, really. Back from the dead and all the worse for it, and Villanelle her murderer.
But she thought, of course. Of course, Eve would, that only made sense: the world was burning. And so, they would watch.