The Last Two People on Earth – Amanda Anderson

        The last two people on earth—one Taller, one Shorter—set out on their daily walk that dry fall morning for the 39, 453rd time, marching through the forest in what was once northern California. The proud survivors and hard-working saplings of ancient Fir and Pine trees surrounded them, absorbed the sound of littered needles crunching underfoot, the gasps of the people’s exertion, their angry voices.
        “You never believe in anything meaningful,” Shorter said again.
        “No, I just don’t believe in every stupid thing you say,” Taller replied again.
        Arguing was their primary recreation. Besides the daily walk, there wasn’t much else to do—the benefit and drawback of being perpetual and self-sustaining. And this particular argument was their favorite, born one evening (four, nine, sixteen thousand walks ago?) just as Taller was drifting off to sleep.
        “What if there’s somebody up there watching us?” Shorter had asked, “Like we watch them?”
        Taller’s eyes snapped open, then squinted in irritation. “Watch who? We’re the only ones here.”
        “The bugs. We watch the bugs—think about it. The sky, the clouds. It really looks like some of our best milky glass.”
        Shorter and Taller sometimes trapped bugs under old glass to entertain themselves; a long and arduous process. There were weeks of arguing over the size, shape, and glass color, Shorter suggesting the same pieces of milk glass with designs and maker’s marks. Taller responding with practical rage over the stupidity of attempting to watch things through opaque glass. Eventually they always came to the same compromise: clear glass with some sign or symbol acting as a reminder that the glass was made by human hands. More days and weeks would pass as they argued over which bugs to trap and how to trap them. Once the dome and its inhabitants were finally brought into existence, Taller would storm off, appalled by the dome’s amateurish appearance. Shorter, smug in the peace that Taller’s storming off provided, would hover over the little world in close observation, then release the bug who seemed most likely to survive alone. “You can do it!” Shorter would whisper to the winning bug as it buzzed off, “One wing in front of the other.”
        That they were like those bugs had to be Shorter’s dumbest rumination—a superlative for which there was ample competition. Taller hopped out of bed, stomped across the grubby floor of the moonlit cabin they’d shared the past hundred years, and dropped into a tight crouch at Shorter’s bedside. Shorter was staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the ceiling, looking like a child playing dead. Taller, bony jaw clenched, raised a loose fist, flicked Shorter in the middle of the forehead and said: “I’m never speaking to you again.”
        But this declaration was short-lived—they were, after all, the last people on earth—and so, having been lured into their favorite argument that fall morning by the sight of the sky dappled with milk-colored clouds, when a commanding breeze whispered through the trees, the people didn’t hear it. Nor did they notice, as they arrived at the clearing, beyond the abandoned cairns and the dark scars of old campfires, The Stranger waiting to greet them there.
        Taller was the first to see the unlikely sight before them. The Stranger was, like they themselves, neither male nor female, could have been a blooming thing or a thousand years old. The legs, though, appeared unlike theirs, turning out at the ankle and rooted firmly to the ground. The round, malformed face appeared as a smiling fruit; squinting, uneven eyes perched above an apparently toothless mouth.
        When Shorter did see The Stranger, they refused to stop marching or talking, and instead looked up at the sky, searching for cracks, air bubbles, a glass maker’s mark. Shorter knew exactly what was going on here: the best bug was being chosen.
Taller, still standing at the edge of the clearing, watched with unblinking eyes as Shorter bounced methodically past the largest collapsing cairn, over and around the rocks that had been placed with care and dreams for the future by ancestral human hands, toward the Stranger’s smiling mouth. Taller would not allow Shorter, surely the dumbest human the earth had ever endured, to be the one who brought about their extinction.
        Taller ran after Shorter, who was now halfway through the clearing, screaming, “You’re right about the bugs!”
        Shorter, having just spotted a cloud that looked like an anchor in a shield—the identifying mark on a favorite milky shard—ignored Taller’s surrender cry. It was too late to claim to be a believer now.
        Taller, still screaming, feet feathered by adrenaline, finally passed Shorter, cut in front, cocked back an arm and slapped Shorter across the cheek. The sharp sound cut through the forest.
        A silence fell, and they saw each other, really saw each other: smelled each other’s sour breath, took in the seasons-old dirt smudged into the uneven shores of their rugged hairlines—the wrinkling of fear in one face, the puffed bottom lip of resentment in the other. As the silence disintegrated, Taller felt the presence of the smiling Stranger crawl up each vertebrae, scratching as it went. Shorter jabbed a finger at the sky, over and over, like a boring toy, eyes on the Stranger as the fury from the slap exploded out as a question: “Are you the one in charge?”
        Shorter jabbed a finger skyward twice, then again, while awaiting the answer.
        The Stranger’s smiling mouth slowly opened with an inhale, as though taking in a considering breath before responding. But the inhale went on, the sucking air rising—at first as eddies stirring like hungry minnows in the open air of the clearing, then into a bold breeze before bursting to life as a wild wind, bending the trees at the neck, then at the waist, toward the Stranger’s mouth.
Taller stumbled back, Shorter stumbled forward. They grabbed each other, came apart. Shorter was dragged, chin slamming along the ground before catching a hand on a half-buried rock. Taller’s fists clung to clumps of dried grass whose shallow roots were coming loose hair by hair. Taller looked away from Shorter, turning instead to watch the remaining rocks tumble from the once-largest cairn, and wondered if they, as humans, could have survived had they been able to live alone. Their bodies flapped like flags in the wind that was now a full-throated scream as the shorter and taller person, their earthly anchors coming undone, disappeared into the Stranger’s mouth, feet first, outstretched fingers last.
        The Stranger’s mouth closed, took the shrieking wind with it. The trees of the forest cracked in a single echo as they snapped back upright, their tops bobbing back and forth like springs before stilling again, then smoothed their hair in the long, contented silence that followed, grateful to finally be relieved of the endless whining and bickering of the last two people on earth.