What World We Build after All That’s Burned Away
Fiction by Justin Lawrence Daugherty
My husband had started to believe his left arm was a lie. We’d gone to the redwood forest where we’d first conceived, to bury the memory of the child we never shared. It had been months since the loss, so long since some part of me was gone that I’d forgotten how beautiful dying leaves were in the fall. We lay in bed in a hotel room, Bryce’s ear to my stomach. He did this often: listened, cooed, and awaited some sound from the deep of me.
“It’s not supposed to be there,” Bryce said. He held out his arm, commented on its ugliness, its deformity. “I was born wrong.”
“Everything’s where it’s supposed to be,” I said. I laid my left arm across his, ran my nails down his skin. I asked if he felt the heat in my fingers, the chill from the slightest touch. “That’s how you know,” I said.
Our child was never much larger than a lime, the fingers and toes barely losing their webbing. I wanted to feel more like Bryce did, but I’d felt the miscarriage as a subtraction, almost as a ghost or spirit leaving me, finally free.
There was a man in Atlanta who managed a doomsday vault. He filled this chamber up with seeds of all kinds from around the world. He awaited disaster daily. If bombs fell and blacked out the sun, his doomsday vault held all of the seed copies necessary for the eventual rebuilding. I met him at the airport, on his way to give a talk in Chicago about his project. I was on one of the many trips I’d taken that year to get away from all the things I had to run from.
He showed me the seeds of a rare pepper. I asked him if he was certain the world was going to end sometime soon.
“It’s not the world ending,” he said. “The world will be fine. It will move on tumbling through space. It’s us we’re worried about.”
“But what if all of us are lost?” I asked.
He put his seed pouch back in his bag. “It’s pretty narcissistic, I suppose, to believe some of us will be left to start over.”
He got up to head to his terminal. He gave me his card and said he’d be happy to talk some other time. Before he left, I asked if he thought we’d survive.
He said, “Eventually, even the universe is going to freeze, all the heat of it lost to the cold.”
I called Bryce when I touched down in Seattle. He said he had contacted a surgeon about taking his arm. He had found a group of people on the Internet who talked about their unneeded limbs, their vulgar hands and toes. I told him no surgeon would take his arm from him, that it went against their oaths to first do no harm.
“I want to be rid of this,” he said.
I ran my hand over my belly, searching for the scar.
“I need someone to come and cut this away from me,” he said. “I need to feel like I’m rid of the thing that was never supposed to be there.”
Bryce had found me crying in the bathtub after it happened. He’d come home from work, and I was curled up there, unmoving. He said we needed to go to the hospital. On the way, I was almost delirious, not myself. He’d tell me later that I had asked him where the baby was, if it was a boy or a girl, if it was safe and sleeping or hungry and in need.
I met the man from the doomsday vault when I returned from Seattle. He spoke of doomsday preppers he met at the conference, how they misunderstood. He wasn’t in the business of hysteria, he said. Seed storage was about insurance against loss.
I asked if he was married, if he had ever had children. He took out a flask and poured liquor into his coffee. He drank deep and long, ignoring the heat. He shook his head, said he’d had someone once. He drank again. I watched all the people coming and going past the patio where we sat. I wondered where they headed, what worlds they couldn’t return to.
“We lost a child,” I said. This man felt like the only person I wanted to tell about the miscarriage. I hadn’t talked to Bryce about it in months. I’d awakened in the middle of the night twice to Bryce whispering to my midsection in the dark. “My husband’s not dealing with it well. It’s been so long, and I don’t know what to do, where to turn. He’s falling apart. But what I’m afraid of is that I’m not feeling anything.”
He asked why I would tell him any of this. He asked what made me want to tell him these things. I said I had no one to talk to, that all I wanted was somewhere to put all the words I had forgotten I needed to say.
He reached in his bag and produced boxes of seeds for peppers, tubers, medicinal plants. He said he often looked at the world and thought not much of us was worth preserving. He wondered why he did what he did, sometimes. “But, it’s not about preservation or continuing,” he said. “It’s about what comes after, what world we build after all that’s burned away.”
I found Bryce in the kitchen one afternoon with all our knives on the counter. An ax from the shed leaned against a cupboard. There was a handsaw on the table. There were small, still-bleeding cuts on his arm.
“If no one’s going to do it for me, I’m going to have to do it myself,” Bryce said.
If I hadn’t shown up then, would he have started sawing? How far would he have cut, ignoring the pain until either he could go no further or until his body shut down from the shock?
I started gathering the knives, took up the ax. He asked what I was doing, and I told him he’d lost it. I went to the table and he did, too, and he tried to get to a butcher knife before I took it away. He yelled for me to stop, but I walked out the door with the knives and the ax and the saw. He tried to follow, but I drove quickly. I thought then to take these things far; then I thought to go to the vault, to bury these things that could do such harm. I drove toward the vault, thinking of locking myself and Bryce and those we loved in it. I wanted to find ourselves inside, waiting out the ruin, waiting on a chance to emerge into the newly-made world.
The 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this story as the Third Place winner for The 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta and is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press.