Samantha believed she was not the last person left alive in the world, but she hadn’t seen anyone else since she had to kill her brother Oliver over Christmas. Even the zombies seemed to have mostly disappeared, or decomposed, or disintegrated, and Samantha didn’t worry about them as she hiked over the mountain of cars and their desiccated, rusted parts on the way to the Costco. Gun at her side, she stopped to inspect an upside-down fishing boat next to the grocery cart return. She circled it once, tapping here and there at the fiberglass hull.
“There are lakes nearby, you know,” Oliver said.
“It’s too big. This is for game fish.” Sam’s stomach growled at the thought. Fried flounder. Shrimp. Crabcakes.
“Don’t talk about food.”
“You started it.”
Sam kicked the boat for luck and kept going. Finding a boat in a parking lot was strange, but on the whole, not the strangest thing she’d encountered in the past few years.
“You’re not the least bit curious?” Oliver asked.
“It’s a boat.”
“In the middle of a parking lot.”
“And you’re a voice. In the middle of the air.” If Sam squinted, she thought she could see him shimmering, there, just outside her field of vision. But really she knew that he was dead, and she was losing it.
Silence. She’d offended her non-corporeal spirit guide. Oops.
By the time she reached in the glass doors of the Costco, Sam figured that if there was anything there to hear her, she’d have seen it by now. At first glance, Costcos seemed like good shelters: large, lots of supplies. No windows, limited entrances. The problem was, too many people had thought of that.
Sam stepped in and glanced around. It was darker than the outside, but not by much. No power, no lights. She shouldn’t have been able to see anything.
“Look up,” Oliver whispered.
Over half of the original roof had been torn away, likely by a tornado. Sam could understand that. What she couldn’t comprehend was how, or why, it had been replaced with glass in the style of a museum atrium. The work was nearly seamless: as the glass got closer to the original roof, where the edges were ragged, the panes became smaller and smaller as if expertly tiled by a meticulous and exacting hand. The color of the steel beams perfectly matched the color of the Costco floors. Sam only had one word for it.
“Sure,” Oliver said. “A wizard with a taste for industrial renovation must live nearby. Maybe if we’re lucky, we can find him and get you that flying pony you always wanted.”
“Then you explain it.”
Sam crept further into the store. Someone had made the roof, and though it hadn’t attacked her yet, it was probably still hanging around. If it was infected, she would kill it. But if it had powers? Or… preternatural carpentry skills? She shook her head. She wouldn’t say it out loud, but aliens were starting to sound like the more logical answer.
Sam felt better when, after a few minutes of exploring, she found the store had already been picked clean to the bone. Tower upon tower of shelves had been knocked over, the giant cartons emptied. Even the blender and Portofino Resort Umbrella boxes lay gaping and abandoned on the floor. Light bulbs, gazebos, post-it notes. Vacuum cleaners and digital camcorders. All were missing or, in the case of one aisle carpeted with toothpaste tubes, emptied.
Oliver laughed. “The apocalypse is no reason to neglect your gums.”
In the back of her mind, Sam thought she remembered that toothpaste was toxic and wondered if whoever had eaten it had died vomiting and alone.
As Sam wound her way towards the back of the store, she finally found her alien wizard. Sam spotted her in the frozen food section, naked, washing her short-cropped hair in one of the freezers which had, much like the roof, been recently renovated. This time with running water.
“Mind handing me a towel?” the woman asked.
Sam pulled out her gun and aimed it at the woman’s chest.
“Name’s Erin. Pleased to meet you,” Erin said. She stepped out, wrapping herself in a plush terry cloth bathrobe. “I was hoping someone would show up. Wouldn’t waste a wish on it, just in case it got some funny ideas about what I meant.”
“Excuse me?” Sam knew she should shoot her, just in case she was a carrier, but killing a wet, naked, and unarmed woman felt unsporting.
“Are you hungry?” The woman reached into the robe’s pocket and pulled out a small, ornately decorated box. She flipped the lid and Sam could see small squares of chocolate: milk, dark, and white.
Sam wondered if they were caramel, praline, cherry cordial, or truffle. Coconut or hazelnut. Sweet or bitter. Only seven years of desperately honed mistrust and paranoia kept her from throwing herself on the woman’s arm and ravaging the box like a dog. She shook her head. “No thank you,” she whispered.
“They’re not poisonous if that’s what you’re thinking.” Erin took one and popped it in her mouth. “Now watch this,” she said as she closed the lid and then opened it up again. This time the box was filled to bursting with gold-foil-covered discs.
Now Sam understood. The woman was a mirage. Her subconscious had finally upgraded to full visual hallucinations, only instead of drawing on her memories of her brother, it was creating strangers to torture her with sweets. Maybe it was pulling from fairy tales she’d read as a kid: the witch in the gingerbread Costco. Sam put the gun away. Imaginary people were rarely dangerous.
“I show you something inexplicable and now you trust me?” Erin’s face twisted in concern.
“You’re not real. Therefore, you’re not a threat.”
Erin laughed and tossed Sam the chocolate box. The discs fell out, hitting the floor with soft pat-a-tat-tats. Sam caught the box one-handed and was surprised at how heavy it was. She ran her thumb over the well-worn ridges on the cover. In bas-relief: a man atop a fjord, boats below him and a sky filled with gulls.
Sam didn’t know what else to do so she sat down. “So which is it?”
“What?” the woman asked.
“My brother thought it might be extra-terrestrials.”
“And where is he?” Erin glanced around, ducking her head a little in case (Sam supposed) Oliver showed up with yet another gun.
“He went out when he shouldn’t have, got infected, and died.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. And yet he… still talks to you?” For a woman with a freezer shower, a glass-roofed Costco, and a magical chocolate box, she sounded oddly incredulous.
“You know. Separation anxiety.”
Erin nodded. “Happens to the best of us.”
Erin led Sam to her tent: a large nylon monstrosity surrounded on three sides by metal shelves. It wasn’t very defendable in Sam’s eyes, but Erin was alive and Oliver wasn’t so who was she to argue? Erin lifted the flap and they both ducked inside.
Sam had expected to find a full kitchen, bunk beds, and perhaps an indoor pool. Instead the space was filled with standard camping supplies, well used as if they’d been around for decades.
“Disappointed?” Erin asked.
They sat on the floor and Erin handed her a small bottle of light-colored liquid. On the label danced a silvery fish wearing a top hat and carrying a cane. He closed one eye in a suggestive wink, and in his other hand — or fin — outstretched to the observer, sat a lumpy bar of soap.
Wishefiske! The delicious taste of Lutefisk
now distilled in a nutritious beverage.
Drink this, get a wish!*
*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA
Sam lifted the bottle to the light and noticed that parts of the liquid had congealed. She shook it and the clumps broke apart and formed again, moving with the consistency of a watery jelly. If it tasted even one bit as foul as it looked, she imagined it would be banned under a chemical weapons convention.
She turned the bottle over. “This Norwegian delicacy…” it began. She stopped when she reached “cod soaked with lye.”
“You have to drink the whole thing to get the wish,” Erin said. “That’s how they get you.”
“Magical fish mustard juice?”
Erin smiled. “Stranger things have happened.”
“What’s the catch?”
“I told you. You have to drink the whole thing. No sloshing or spilling or throwing it all back up afterward.”
“And it tastes. Fucking. Awful. You’d think you’d get used to it, but it’s grosser each time. I was here three weeks before I even dared try it. Sometimes I still wish I hadn’t. If so much of it was still here when everything else was gone… I couldn’t trust it.”
“Wasted half the supply before I found out the wish thing was real. You have to say it out loud, you see. And who randomly blurts out, ‘I wish I had a cheeseburger instead.’”
“I do,” Sam said. “I do all the time.”
“Yeah well… I’m not the type to talk to myself.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Sam said.
In the dream, Samantha’s brother is made entirely out of berries. Small, perfectly round, and shining. When Sam reaches out to grasp him, to hug him to her, his body shrinks and shrinks and suddenly he is barely a stick figure, oblong and purple. He becomes two dozen berries, one dozen, then five individual pieces of fruit. They are bruised and leaking, cold and raw. When she wakes, the last piece of him is smushed between her palms.
Sam sat up to find Erin had left her a bottle of water, a stale granola bar, and a small bottle of Wishefiske on the crate by her bed.
“Drink me,” the dancing cod seemed to say.
Samantha unscrewed the cap and sniffed. She screwed the cap back on.
“This is ridiculous,” she said.
“Try me if you don’t believe me,” the fish taunted.
Sam scratched at her palms, digging into the creases where she still thought she could feel her brother’s flesh. She’d tried to bury him, but she wasn’t prepared for the things the body would do in the warm sun.
Sam unscrewed the cap again. If it tasted really, really bad, she could always wash it down with the granola.
Gooey salty water with occasional lumps of meaty jello filled her mouth and there, at the back of her throat, the faintest aftertaste of mustard. Truthfully the taste wasn’t as bad as she’d feared… but the texture. She tried not to think of rotting fish corpses with swollen, roe-filled bellies.
When the last of it was down her throat, and before she could throw it all back up, she managed to choke out “I wish my brother were still alive.”
Immediately a shape began to shimmer in front of her. It grew in size and substance until Sam could just barely make out the line of his jaw, the stubble of a shaved head. She opened her mouth to say Hello, I missed you, please don’t die again… but shot him instead.
Her brother was alive, but not the alive she wanted.
His flesh fell off of him in gray, flaking chunks and a bit of his jaw shone through the angry red mass of his cheek.
Later, when Erin found her washing the blood off her hands, Samantha told her she’d need another bottle.
“Yeah. Sometimes it likes to play little tricks on you. Yesterday I asked for transportation out of here and it dumped a boat in the parking lot. I thought you might ask for your brother back, and to be honest, I doubted it would go well.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Sam said.
Erin shrugged. “It’d be nice to have a guy around, and if I had told you, you may not have tried.”
“Well, you don’t know me.”
The second time, Sam was more specific. “Alive, and healthy, and as if he’d never been infected.”
Sam watched anxiously as the shimmering shape focused, preparing to shoot her brother (again) the moment anything looked wrong. But he looked young, and strong, and perfect. He smiled at her and said what’d she’d dreamed for months he’d say.
“Hey there, worthless.”
He didn’t have a complete memory of the years they’d spent together, but he remembered enough that she didn’t have to waste time explaining the basics. He settled into life in the Costco with Sam and Erin like he’d never lived differently and Sam, for the first time in a long while, was happy.
As was Erin. “Well,” she said to Oliver one night, “If you really are the last man on Earth, and I’m…”
Sam removed herself to sleep in the garden, her arm hugging an empty bottle of Wishefiske into the curve of her body like a stuffed animal.
“Could you fix it all?” she whispered to the cod. “Could you put it all back the way it was?”
It wasn’t that she was jealous of Erin and Oliver and wanted someone of her own, but all the same Sam was beginning to feel a little dissatisfied with the way things were progressing at the Costco.
Sam couldn’t help but feel that they were somehow wasting the Wishefiske. Mostly they wished for food, or ways to produce it themselves, but occasionally, and with great trepidation, they also tested its limits.
First they wished for more or better-tasting Wishefiske but it never worked. (Oliver reminded them that stories never let you wish for more wishes, no matter how cleverly you tried it.) Erin asked for a way to communicate with other survivors and the Wishefiske produced a satellite phone which couldn’t get a signal. Sam asked for books and received a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas dated from 1982. Not knowing what to do with either, they put them in a spare freezer near the back of the store. Come winter, maybe the pages would be good for burning.
“I wonder what would happen if you wished for something really big,” Sam said.
“Nothing good,” Erin and Oliver said in unison. “Probably,” they added.
“Well it brought Oliver back,” Sam said.
“But not the first time…” Erin said.
“What?” Oliver asked.
“Nothing,” both girls said.
Sam traced the design of the chocolate box with her finger. The box was well worn at the edges, as if it had been made a long time ago and not whenever Erin had wished for it. “It just seems to me…” she began, but the thought was lost as she looked up to see Erin walking across the tent to join Oliver on his cot.
As Erin and Oliver grew closer: holding hands, gazing longingly at each other over budding rows of corn in the automotive repair aisle, Sam grew more and more irate. It wasn’t right that two people should be so happy, while the rest of the world lay dead and dying. It had been better when there was just a modicum of joy: sustaining themselves on the thrill of surviving each day. More and more Erin and Oliver snuck off to wish for other strange and useless things: a flying pony (a remote controlled toy — though the design, Sam admitted, was quite impressive), an indoor swimming pool (inflatable), a pump for the inflatable swimming pool (non-battery operated and by then, both were too nauseated to wish for electricity) all of which eventually ended up in storage with other non-perishables.
Sam hoarded the remaining bottles, still too scared to try anything on her own, but wanting to ensure that they didn’t waste their entire supply. She almost, almost, felt the thrill of justification when two months after her arrival, a storm came through and destroyed most of the store. Erin had the good sense to place her tent under the pre-existing roof and so she and Sam were sheltered from the shattering panes. If Oliver hadn’t foolishly run outside to try to secure their supplies, he probably wouldn’t have been killed either.
Together, Sam and Erin buried his body in the woods. Then they built brooms to help clear the Costco floor of debris and tree limbs, and were thankful there wasn’t nearly as much glass as they expected.
The next morning, they flipped a coin to see who would wish him back this time.
But since Erin couldn’t even unscrew the cap without starting to retch, in the end it was Sam, again, who wished him back and explained how everything worked.
“So this Erin girl and I… we’re in love?” he finally asked.
“Yes. And for fuck’s sake pretend like you remember her and pick up where you left off. I can’t go through the lovesick poetry stage a second time.”
And so Oliver did. And he and Erin did. And Sam wondered once again why they shouldn’t just go ahead and try to put everything back the way it should be.
“But do you think it’s safe?” Erin asked.
Sam shrugged. She knew Erin wouldn’t agree right away, but she thought she’d be more combative about it, seeing as how after repairing the roof, the plumbing, and a few more things over the past couple of months they only had one container of Wishefisk left. And considering how it had been Erin’s discovery in the first place, Sam had expected her to be more possessive about it. Losing Oliver for that one day seemed to have mellowed her.
“I mean, what are you going to say? What are you going to wish for precisely,” Erin continued.
Sam paused. She’d tried to puzzle it out for hours: the specifics, the accounting for variations and loopholes. In the end, she thought simplicity would be best. “I wish the plague had never happened.”
Erin nodded and glanced up at their new roof. “It never does the same thing twice, does it,” Erin said. The tin didn’t let any light in, but Sam wondered if the Wishefiske felt this roof would hold up better in a storm. In some ways, it seemed it wanted to help them succeed.
“And the chocolate box,” Sam echoed. “It’s a different kind of chocolate every time you open it.”
Erin smiled. “That is, when you can find it.”
Oliver blushed. “I already wished you back a replacement. And when I find the other one, we’ll have two.”
“More like three,” Erin said. “They’re damn easy things to lose; maybe they all go off and hide in the same spot. Like socks.”
“So we’re agreed?” Sam asked.
Erin nodded. Oliver nodded.
They would try.
The next morning, they rose early. They made their beds and cleaned the dishes. They loaded their shotguns and revolvers and even Sam’s tiny .22 which fit in the palm of her hand like a baby rabbit. If for some reason it didn’t work, if everything was worse than before, they wanted a clear shot to the trees.
“It will work,” Sam insisted.
“We trust you,” Erin said.
Sam unscrewed the top and began to drink. One last bottle, and everything would be okay again.
Another sip, another lump of fish.
Oliver scouted the parking lot, prepared to shout a warning if one was needed. “Where’s that boat you were telling me about?” he asked, and Erin shrugged.
“Probably blew off in the storm. It was pretty nasty,” she said.
Sam nodded her agreement between gulps but didn’t speak. Only she, Erin, and the supplies in the tent had survived unscathed.
“But all the cars are still here…” he said.
As Sam chugged, the lutefisk continued to change in flavor. She clenched her jaw and shut her eyes tight. She breathed through her teeth and pinched her nose. She tried to imagine backyard barbeques and summer picnics. Soon, soon, soon she thought.
“I wish…” she said.
Oliver squeezed her hand, crushing the bottle top against her palm, and Erin nodded her encouragement, too afraid to speak and ruin the wish for them.
“I wish the plague had never happened,” she said.
Instantly the earth began to shake and shift and reform. Shapes shimmered into their view like bubbles which would pop if you breathed the wrong way. Samantha could see mothers with small children unloading groceries, and a couple in the distance arguing over the merits of boxed wine. She heard barking and turned to see a tiny Chihuahua head snake out of someone’s purse.
In her hand, she felt the rough edges of the bottle top, and then, suddenly Oliver’s hand began to jerk. She turned to him and he was bent over as if sick. He started to shimmer and briefly she wondered if it was because she wished everything had happened differently. If they plague had never happened, then would the wish put them in different places? Where they should have been? Would they have different memories, different experiences? Had she overlooked something so simple and stupid?
Only… she didn’t move. She didn’t shimmer. And neither did Erin.
Oliver looked up at them, eyes slowly closing as if accepting something he’d only just realized.
“We had to try,” he said, right before he disappeared.
Sam and Erin screamed his name as the world continued to focus. Sam couldn’t say how long she stood staring into the empty space where her brother had been, or when she passed the threshold where the thing she’d wished for became solid enough to brush her aside with a grocery cart.
“Watch it lady,” a man said.
“He’s somewhere else now, right?” Erin said. “He’s somewhere else, because it’s as if none of this had ever happened. Oh god, will he have forgotten me?”
We had to try. Samantha began to shiver as slowly she turned the top over in her hands and squinted to read the small black writing inside.
About the Author
Helena Bell is a writer living in Raleigh, NC. She has MFAs in both Fiction and Poetry from NC State University and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale respectively. Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, the Indiana Review and other publications. You can contact her via her website helbell.com or her Twitter @HelBell.