Flo learns three things pretty quickly during the end of the world: first, insurance isn’t so important when everyone is pretty much gone; second, good humor only stretches so far despite all her best intentions; third and most remarkable, Mayhem isn’t really so bad. He’s actually sort of sweet, when he isn’t being a sarcastic and abrasive dickwad at all hours of the day. Sometimes she thinks that maybe he’s a little like the Han Solo to her Princess Leia, because she’s pretty sure he’d come back right when Luke needs someone to cover his ass. Also, Wisconsin is pretty much Hoth, only with less Tauntauns and so far no weird kisses in hallways, not that she wants them or anything.
OK, Flo learns four things during the end of the world, and the last is: the end of the world is sort of boring. And apparently not really in the mood to end, so much as be deeply unsettling and weird and empty, but otherwise exist as it usually did. It’s probably the most confusing apocalypse she’ll ever live through.
“Who the hell are you?”
She tries not to take offense, but he’s the one standing in her living room, being a jerk and also sort of a criminal while she’s in her pajamas and without make-up or her morning coffee. She takes one for the team though, and just says “My name is Flo. And you are?”
“That’s not actually a name.”
He looks deeply offended. “And what kind of name is Flo? How many period jokes did you get in middle school, huh?”
“Classy. I see you’re really a fan of the high-brow comedic turn.”
“Look, lady, I just want to know what’s going on.”
“Let’s see, I was asleep, you committed a little crime known as breaking and entering, I woke up, I hit you with a softball bat, and here we are.”
“Not that,” he says, poking gingerly at the lump right above his ear. She really did clock him. She should call her college coach and thank him for constantly drilling the mechanics of a solid swing.
“I could see you through your window. There’s no one else out there. I was out all night, making sure car keys were making their way into inebriated hands, and then it just happened. One minute, they were there, and the next they weren’t.”
She really needs to start pulling her shades shut at night, but she keeps forgetting. But if nutjobs like this guy are going to be peeping in her windows, it’s not going to be a problem remembering. “I’m sorry, what?”
“The people, everyone. It’s just you and me. We’re all that’s left.”
It’s a weird-ass way to start the end of the world.
It’s not that it’s an easy choice, ending up with him. But he has her back, even if they’re never actually in danger. And company is still company. She’s not sure what she’d be like if she was out here, alone. Maybe talking to herself, maybe going crazy. And if nothing else, at least they’re on motorcycles. Flo really, really likes motorcycles.
And he’s right, damn him. It’s just the two of them in an empty world, the Continuing Pointless Adventures of Flo and Mayhem. Or maybe: The Endless Bickering and Sometimes Grumpy Silences of Flo and Mayhem during an Otherwise Uneventful End Times.
She needs to be better at thinking up movie titles.
“Flo and the Red Tide.”
“Awful. No way.”
“Wings. You don’t even have to fight anyone over the copyright anymore.”
“You are a terrible human being.”
“You could really mix things up and cover Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
“Seriously. Are all of your jokes this bad? I don’t understand how you have ever managed to have sex. No girl has ever laughed at one of your jokes. I won’t believe it.”
“The Flostoppers.” Mayhem really starts to crack up. “Do you get it? Like The Showstoppers, only your name. You’d have to form a 60s-style Motown group, like Diana Ross.”
She clings to the potential topic change for all its worth. “Or the Vandellas. I always liked them.”
Mayhem nods. “It’s also a tampon joke,” he announces in his most matter-of-fact tone.
“Yeah, well, if you were in a band, it’d be called The Douchebags.” Oh god, she is really bad at this.
Mayhem looks at her. “You are really bad at this.”
“You don’t need to rub it in.”
“I almost forgot! When you start your band, make sure your albums are available for a limited period only! It will drive demand up, you know? And make sure you plug it,” he hesitates just long enough to make sure she’s noticing the wordplay, “on radio shows and whatever.”
“I’m glad you’re so deeply concerned about the success of my entirely hypothetical and poorly named band.”
“Oh, I’ve got one. Why shouldn’t a blonde skydive when she’s on the rag?”
“I don’t want to know. Please don’t tell me.”
“She’ll pull the wrong string.”
“How many times have you been punched in the face? I’m honestly curious.”
But somehow, when Flo is curled up in her sleeping bag, close to drifting off, she’ll still call it a good day.
Mayhem finds Christmas lights, god only knows where.
“It’s Christmas?” It’s Wisconsin. It feels like February in Antarctica every day.
“It’s Christmas tomorrow,” he tells her. “There’s no power, but I thought—Christmas was always a good day, up there with Thanksgiving. Sleepy people full of eggnog on crowded highways. Sometimes there was snow.”
“Stop while you’re still remotely charming,” she says, but she’s smiling all the same. “I wonder if there’s anything for decorations up in the attic.” It’s a tiny house they’re in tonight, but a cozy one. She had turned down a few photos of a young couple holding a fat baby on one of the side tables, carefully placed a few chaotic crayon scribbles on construction paper in a bare cupboard in the kitchen.
Mayhem looks at her with one of those looks, the ones she likes to call the Inscrutable Solo looks, where she’s not really sure if he is completely uninterested in what’s happening or if he’s just doing a really good job of hiding the fact that he actually is. It’s far more complicated than it should be. She grabs the flashlight off her pack and slides into her boots without bothering to lace them up. “See if there’s a hammer and nails around? Or some hooks, if we’re lucky.”
He grumbles, but thumbs on his flashlight and disappears into the kitchen. There’s a little shed out back, and he’s still all geared up. It won’t be too much trouble. Meanwhile, it’s time for her to rummage through the attic. She always hates doing this, hates feeling like she’s disrupting belongings and their particular places, even though she’s finally accepted no one’s ever coming back for them. But it still feels wrong, and after a lifetime of helping people protect those things, it always rubs her the wrong way to use them for herself, even if it isn’t really hurting anyone.
The attic’s got one of the pull-down step things, and once she’s up there she has to suffer through a solid two minute sneezing fit because of all the dust. But she finds the little box marked Xmas trimmings, and it jingles a little when she sets it on her hip. She hears the door slam shut downstairs, and he’s got a running commentary going on how he misses ice storms and balding tires and when things were simple and full of enjoyable destruction. He’s a special snowflake, that one, but somehow she really has gotten used to him.
That might be the weirdest part about the whole apocalypse thing after all. She tries not to think about it too much as she makes her way back downstairs. She’s got to preserve her sanity somehow.
There’s tinsel in the box, some ornaments, and three stockings. She leaves the tiny one at the bottom, and pulls out the two large ones. They’re handmade, knitted and unraveling slightly at the toes. She pulls at a piece of yarn, just a little, not enough to do any damage. The names on the stockings are Amy and Dale. She doesn’t want to know the name on the one still in the box.
Mayhem’s got two nails in the wall already, so she flips them over and hangs them. It’s a shame they don’t have anything to put in them, except the food and supplies they already have, but it’s almost enough to imagine them bursting with candy and gadgets and tiny gifts just for a moment.
“I don’t even know your real name. All this time, and you’ve never even brought it up.”
“It’s not important.”
She doesn’t need to look at him to know the look on his face and the set of his shoulders. For once, she stops while she’s ahead.
“We should sing. Do you know any carols?”
“No,” he says gruffly. “We should, under no circumstances, sing or hum or attempt to put words to any sort of music.”
She ignores him, as per usual. “I always did love O Come O Come Emmanuel. Did you know it’s actually an Advent song?”
“From the Latin, yes. I’m not completely uncultured. I can know things.”
“Never said you couldn’t.” She rearranges her pillow, and looks over at his profile. “It’s beautiful, even while it’s really sad. It’s hopeful, though, and we could use a little of that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t have to be so sincere all the time. It hurts my teeth.”
“Well, aren’t you just a little ball of sunshine and holiday cheer. It wouldn’t kill you to try being a little nicer.”
“If you haven’t noticed, it’s the apocalypse. What’s the point of being polite?”
“I didn’t say polite. I said nicer. Even I’m willing to admit that polite is beyond your reach.”
“I brought you Christmas lights, can we just leave it at that?”
She sighs and settles down a little further into her sleeping bag. She wishes she had known it was Christmas Eve earlier. It would still be cold and dark and lonely, but maybe they could have managed to find a proper tree. Even with all they’ve done tonight, she still wishes for the smell of pine and the feel of her fingers sticking together with sap.
“I didn’t get you anything. I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t know. How can you get me something when you didn’t even know it was Christmas?”
She hums a little at that, and tries to leave it, just like he asked. She’s getting better at it, day by day.
She knows when he’s asleep, when he breathes deep and even and regular, and she counts them until she falls asleep herself.
Before she wakes up, he’s already gone out and managed to find a little generator. She wakes up to the twinkle of tiny Christmas lights, red and blue and yellow, and they both pretend to not notice the other crying.
It actually might be her favorite Christmas ever.
She keeps track of the days after Christmas, and she makes it a few weeks into January before she loses all sense of time again. But she’s pretty sure it’s still January when they accidentally find him.
Mayhem’s peeing behind a dumpster at a gas station, which is disgusting, but better than that time he just stopped his bike once and just went, right there on the pavement. After that, rules were a good and necessary thing, and she enforced them without mercy. They’re out of Wisconsin, heading straight south. She never wants to see a winter parka again. Maybe she’ll be ready to enjoy snow in another decade, but she’s not giving it much hope. They’re somewhere in the middle of Illinois, past Peoria. It’s still cold, but it’s not Wisconsin cold, and it’s a huge difference.
Thankfully, the encounter ends up a rather anticlimactic affair. One minute she’s trying to ignore the fact that she can still hear Mayhem, even though she’s a good ten yards away, the next minute she looks up and there’s a guy in front of her trying to look confident and mostly succeeding.
“Hey there,” he says.
“Why, hello!” she says, and tries not to panic, even though he looks perfectly friendly.
“What the fuck is going on? Who is that?” Mayhem shouts from behind the dumpster. “If you touch her, asshole, I’ll kill you.” She hears him zip, and then there’s a string of incredibly foul-mouthed curses.
That had to hurt. “He was peeing,” she tells new guy, and he flinches in sympathetic pain.
It’s not easy calming Mayhem down, but she’s pretty impressed with herself when she’s got everyone relatively civil in under five minutes, although everyone is still on a bit of a hair trigger. It’s just—seeing someone else. She never thought it would happen again.
“Do you know where they all went? We wonder a lot where all the people went.”
Mayhem’s got his face in his hands, and mutters “Down, girl,” while he rubs at his eyes.
“It can’t hurt to ask, sweetie.”
“Oh god, don’t start with the pet names. I will kill myself.”
The guy smirks, just a little at the corner of his mouth, like he’s rusted up but still remembers facial expressions. “I think it suits you, actually.”
“If everyone could please stop talking, it would probably prevent the incredible amount of damage I am increasingly likely to cause.”
“Let’s start with you then,” she retorts, and then turns back to the new guy. “Have you seen anyone else?”
New guy sits down next to Mayhem and idly starts dragging a stick through the sand that’s been caught up in little dunes against the sidewalk. “There was one time. I was in a grocery store down in New Orleans, trying to stock up on supplies. If nothing else, we’ve got food for the next couple of years, right?”
She nods. He is right. They’ve got enough canned and dried goods across the country to last a good four or five years, she thinks. At least the apocalypse could actually be worse.
“There was this guy standing in the produce section. Shorts, Hawaiian shirt. Does anyone actually wear Hawaiian shirts?”
She catches Mayhem looking insulted out of the corner of her eye, and has to stifle a smile. She sits down next to new guy and nudges her shoulder against his, and tries not to focus on the fact that while her and Mayhem smell like week-old dirty feet, and this guy smells oddly fantastic.
“He turns around, and I swear I’ve seen him before: kinda big, older, definitely not his real hair. He couldn’t get a full sentence out without doing this weird hesitation thing. All I had asked him for was his name.” The guy’s voice catches a little, but she pretends not to notice. She’s already figured that since it’s only him, the story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. “I mean, he’s standing in the produce section. You know what they’re like. They stink. Everything’s rotten, absolutely everything. The guy’s gotta be unhinged. I don’t want to get too close, but you know, maybe he’s seen something. I don’t know. He could be alright, but I have to look out for myself too.”
“Like we did with you. It’s how it is now. We understand.” She catches Mayhem’s attention with a little wave of her hand, and he rolls his eyes, but he grunts in agreement.
“But you don’t carry a 45 around with you. And neither do I. Never seemed like I would need it. But this guy had one tucked into his pants, safety off. He finally looks at me, and it’s like - he sees me, but he’s looking through me. Not really seeing me at all, I guess. I could have been anyone. He starts asking if I want to make a deal, than he can help me make a deal.”
The guy stops, and Mayhem is about to open his big fat inappropriate mouth, but she manages to shut it down with a look.
“Anyway. It didn’t end well. I tried to talk him down as best I could, but it wasn’t work. He had the gun out, and he’d point it at me, then at himself, then back at me. He said his name was the Negotiator, but that was the most I could get out of him that made sense. I waited for the next time he pointed the damn thing at himself, then I ran.”
It’s like the question pops out of her before she can stop herself, and even Mayhem looks a little shocked that she asks it. “Did you hear it go off?”
The guy kind of shrugs, but it’s enough.
They spend ninety-eight days with Guy. She only knows because he has a little notebook that he carries with him. He tracks the days, what he’s eaten, what they’ve seen, probably the number of times Mayhem’s pissed him off. But after he joins them, she always knows the date every morning when she wakes up. It’s nice knowing that it’s Wednesday or Sunday and how many days it is until her birthday in May. Having him around makes the routine a little easier, at least on her. Mayhem turns a little more sullen, and he picks a little more than he used to at sore subjects, but other than that not a lot changes.
Guy ends up being legitimately charming and sort of dashing, to the point where she is convinced he might secretly be a Disney prince or maybe a billionaire playboy. She’s grateful to have found one other person who means it when he smiles, even if the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes sometimes. She guesses he’s still in the supermarket down in New Orleans, smelling rotting produce. If it was her, she doesn’t think she’d ever be able to smell anything else.
But Guy does get better, the longer he’s with them. Mayhem loosens up a bit too, although the two of them have an uneasy sort of peace between them. She’s the glue, and while some days it’s hard with them, and all she wants to do is set off for the horizon until she hits ocean and never look back, she can’t leave her boys. Even if she does want to bang their heads together until they get along, or, on the really bad days, maybe hogtie them together and leave them for a few hours until all the ego’s been beaten out of them both.
She calls them the three amigos one evening over cold rice and beans and gets groans from both of them. It’s one of the few times when she thinks that everything might end well after all.
“My theory,” Guy tells her on her last morning with him over instant coffee, “my theory’s that this is some kind of alternate universe, or something. If it was the apocalypse, there would still be more people. There would be bodies. But they’re just all gone.”
“Maybe we made them up,” she says softly.
Guy scratches at his beard and shrugs. “Maybe they made us up.”
“I wish they could have made up some hot water and electricity to go along with us.”
Guy’s hand twitches, just a little, but enough for her to catch it. When he starts talking, he stares at the bottom of his coffee mug, and watches the dregs swirl around. “You know, before, I could just make things happen. Like stream-of-consciousness, only better. It seemed impossible, but it just happened, and I never really thought about it. I tried, the other day, and it was like I could feel it in my fingertips. I just couldn’t quite make it happen.”
“Make what happen?”
“Anything, really. Turn canned green beans into a bacon cheeseburger. Go from riding my bike to riding a horse.”
“It sounds like magic.”
“Maybe it was,” he says, and then stares at his hands for an awkward amount of time. It’s not that she really believes him, but he’s obviously cut up about it.
“I worked in insurance,” she offers.
“That’s gotta be a tough gig right now.”
“Not really. No claims. No competition either, really. Mayhem doesn’t really count anymore. He hasn’t done anything in months.”
Guy raises an eyebrow at that, but doesn’t reply.
“I might have helped him crash a Chevy van through a plate glass window a few months back. But since then, his record’s been flawless.”
“Chevy van, huh. Any reason?”
“Not really. But I think it was good for us both, actually. Helped it get it out of his system, and it made me realize that things wouldn’t go back.”
“No more consequences,” Guy says.
“We’re still here. There will always be consequences. Maybe just not in the way they used to work.”
Mayhem bangs his way into the kitchen from the porch, tracking mud in on his boots. “Oh great, I’ve arrived just in time for the big philosophical discussion about why we’re still here and what’s it all mean. Face it, kiddos, this is it. Don’t overthink it, or you’ll just hurt yourselves.”
Guy smiles, and Flo thinks it’s the saddest thing she’s ever seen. He heads out to the stairs, and there’s silence as his footsteps track across the ceiling to the bedroom he’d picked out earlier.
Mayhem’s quieter when he tells her, “Look, it’s just—we’re it.”
“That’s what you told me when you first found me. Then we found him. There might be others, there might be someplace where it’s normal. Why does it hurt to look? Why are you so personally offended by the two of us having hope?”
Mayhem’s mouth twists a little. “Him, I don’t care about so much. He can take care of himself. You—”
She interrupts before he can get whatever stupid thing he was going to say out of his mouth. “I can take care of myself. I don’t need you to protect me.”
He’s got his hands up in surrender. “Not what I was going to say, but I know. I know you don’t.”
She can’t even look at him. It’s her turn to retreat from the kitchen, and she stews in her borrowed bedroom for hours. It’s short on books that aren’t about vampires or similar sparkly-covered teen fare, so she ends up staring out the window most of the morning, willing someone to be walking by, like nothing ever happened.
She doesn’t even notice him sliding the note under the door. She finds it right before she’s finally given up on being angry (or, more accurately: her hunger has finally forced her hand) and goes to open the door. His handwriting is atrocious, but legible.
I don’t want to do this without you.
Mayhem’s nowhere to be seen downstairs, but he’s left her a peanut butter sandwich and a mostly cold can of root beer.
All right, you bastard, she thinks. You’re stuck with me.
The next morning, she wakes up and Guy’s gone. He’s left his pack, his sleeping bag, everything he had except the clothes on his back and his little notebook. There’s not even a footprint in the muddy yard when she checks out the front door to see if his bike is still in the driveway. It is.
She’s not surprised.
Mayhem doesn’t say anything, but he’s gotten a lot better at reading her emotional cues and things between them are still raw from the day before. He puts his hand on her shoulder, so briefly she almost thinks she’s imagining it, and then goes to get cleaned up.
She stands out on the back porch and watches the sun come up over the trees. It’s another day. She can’t help the laugh that bubbles up out of her, and she can hear Mayhem call her name in that tone that questions her sanity.
“I’m fine,” she calls out, and she is. She is.
We’re all that’s left, she thinks. We’re it.
She’s got some fight in her still, and there’s a day’s worth of highway to ride. It’s only a matter of time until they figure it all out. It’s only a matter of time.