The Last Woman
by Martin James Hunter
The air in the old bar is acrid. You can taste it on your tongue when you leave your mouth open too long. That is why no one talks between drinks. They converse only with the barman when ordering the next one.
The front door has been boarded shut for as long as we can remember. No one can recall why. We just sit and wait, drinking polluted alcohol and hoping one day we can sleep. Because it has been a while. The smell of wet wood. That cloudy puddle that leaks in from under the door. Ever since the darkness came none of us can close our eyes and dream. We just float around tired and disorientated as though we are in one.
I do not remember the time before the darkness. Some say we once ventured outside. And slept regularly. And had things called families. Despite numerous attempts by the older men to explain what a family is, I can never picture it. That was back when we used to talk. The closest I have to memories are relics like my wallet and a book of matches.
I am the youngest here. The closest person to my age is a man with a yellowed top lip who always sits at the bar. He must be about ten years my senior. I do not know his name. No one knows each other’s names.
There is a clop from the room above and everyone flinches. A high heel against wood. Then another. We trace the path of the shoes as they make their way across the floor and begin to descend the old stairs. She is awake. She is the only one unaffected by the darkness. Not in the same way as the rest of us. She enjoys this dark time. Stroking her hair and parading around on her long legs. We watch the stairs as her footsteps grow closer. Some of the old men playing cards huddle closer together. Their game has been going on for weeks.
She comes into sight and a shudder runs up my body. Today she is wearing black suspenders and a small top over her yellowed skin. Her fingernails are long and milky. The nozzle of her gasmask hangs between her withered breasts. Behind the eyeholes she scans over us greedily. There are around thirty of us left. Thirty tired, depressed men. She makes her way slowly towards us, barely staying upright on her heels. She drags a finger across someone’s back seductively as she passes. He shudders and chokes on his filthy pint, sending foam down his chin and across the table. She lifts another’s beret from his eyes, a cracked forehead.
She stops in front of me like before. Like the time she inspected me for ten minutes before settling on someone else. I felt no sympathy for the man being led upstairs even though I knew he would not return. This is the routine we go through once a year.
Her hoarse breathing stutters as she inspects me again. My heart stops. My lungs refuse to inflate. I look up at her like a lost child. Or a puppy about to be trampled. Her breathing quickens. A rasp of delight from her throat.
How old are you now, boy?
When did you turn?
Three days ago.
Hm. Well, come on now.
She leads me by the hand. Her fingers are long and peeling dry skin. I reluctantly follow as she approaches the stairs. My heart is racing now, my lungs in overdrive. The cold liquid in my stomach splashes up the fleshy walls with every step. I feel like I am going to vomit as I ascend into the darkness. We make our way across a sticky corridor until we come to a single door which she opens and beckons me towards. I feel like running, but where would I go? I sag as I enter the room. The door closes behind me.
There must be thousands of candles around her bed. Towers of them, a lair of wax. She slinks over them onto her filthy mattress. A great pile of shoes against one of the furthest walls. On another is a great splintered wound the size and shape of a manhole. I cannot see far into its darkness.
She is already naked aside from her gasmask, the nozzle still hanging between her breasts like an obscure phallic toy. Her legs are spread and her vulva is pale and glaucous. I feel both nauseous and aroused. She is the first woman I have seen naked with my own eyes and she is offering herself to me. I go to her, my body on autopilot. That night I am able to sleep for a few hours, and I experience my first dream.
She uses me for weeks. It is fantastic at first but I feel as though I am not in control of my own body. The long hours are exhausting. She has the sex drive of an adolescent. The sex drive I should have and might have, had I a proper diet and if the air I breathed were clean. Every time I make love to her I feel she is trying to swallow me whole, and her eyes never leave mine as though monitoring me.
Soon the lust I have for her fades and the situation is less appealing. Her body reeks of mould and her breath of dead things. Her arms are insect-like and the undersides are bruised purple. Her breathing grows hoarse as she approaches orgasm like an asthmatic having a violent attack. Sometimes I wish she would have an attack and die so I can rest. It seems like I am attempting to satisfy her over ten times a day. She wakens me when I am trying to sleep and when I am ill. If I deny her she becomes increasingly violent until I concede.
This steadily takes its toll until my ribs protrude from my chest and my eyeballs almost hang from my skull. It is as though every time I ejaculate I am losing a part of me for good, as though I am being drained from the end of my penis. Cynthia’s sex drive seems to have died down. I hope this is not because of my appearance or that she longs for something else. Just now she gazes at the wall disinterested. We have not had sex all day. I paw at her leg for attention. My arm is frighteningly thin. She ignores my touch. I wonder if she even felt that. I am beginning to suspect a few more sexual encounters could cost my life. Everything seems to have changed.
It’s getting harder to even move now. Each breath I draw seems to take more effort, as though the flesh of my lungs tightens with every breath. I managed to convince Cynthia to let me make love to her earlier, but after five minutes I had to stop. I thought I was going to die. I could see the resentment through the eyeholes on her mask. It scared me more than anything before. That and seeing her glancing at the hole in the wall. I want her to help me. I want her to hold me and tell me everything is alright.
Do you still love me?
What? Hush, boy.
You don’t do you?
Of course I do. Now be quiet, it’s late.
I am unable to sleep again even though I am no longer being constantly bothered for sex. When I do manage to drift off it is rarely for longer than a minute. All I see when I close my eyes is dark shapes pulsing and throbbing and oozing juices. Bodies bent in postures that shouldn’t be possible. Frightening wails that I do not have the words to describe. For a moment when I wake I am always thankful to have escaped such horrors. Then I realise that I have woken from one nightmare only to find myself in another.
I try to nuzzle into Cynthia, to feel her embrace but she growls and kicks out with insect-like legs and I am left cold and lonely. Now when I ask if she loves me she does not even bother replying.
I awake during the night to find her staring at me with cold eyes and I know that it is now over. She hauls my pathetic body over her shoulder as though disposing of garbage. Weakly I try to fight, but my muscles are paper thin. After a moment I sigh quietly and give up, it is just easier. Slowly, I am taken to the hole in the wall. My arm is cut open as I am sent through but there isn’t much left to bleed out. I watch sadly as the room disappears and I tumble through the air into the darkness for what seems like an eternity. I feel nothing as I crumple hard into the floor through what feels like branches of wood, sending pieces clattering.
For a while I carry on living in the darkness, broken and paralysed and commiserable. The sound of dribbling water and the scrabbling of insects is all I have for company. My sense of smell has diminished, but there is still the vague essence of decay.
Eventually I hear it, the cries of passion from above, the unmistakable rhythm of sex, and I know a year must have passed since I was chosen. My love turns to jealousy, which warps into hate, and in turn becomes sadness. And then there is nothing.
Illustration by the talented bantha_fodder whose work can be found here.
Earlier draft was published in issue 15 of The April Reader and can be read here.