Phantasmacore

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How We Left The Desert

March 11th, 2011

by R.J. Astruc

As we walked back to the main road, Brendan kept saying, ‘We’ve travelled back in time,’ and the longer we walked, the more we started to believe him. The distant skyscrapers of the city had vanished that morning—there was no explosion, no dust, nothing that would explain, if not the why, then the how. All visible, manmade landmarks—the towers in the east, and the slender radio mast and dam to the south—were also gone. At the beginning of our trip we had seen numerous light aircraft pass overhead; now there were none. Our radio had cut out completely, as had our phones. It seemed as if the entire human race had suddenly vacated the planet, and taken all traces of its civilisation with it.

Before this we had been camping in the desert, tracking a black hole with our university’s new telescope. It was Brendan and Jenna’s project; Keith had tagged along as Jenna’s boyfriend; I had tagged along as Jenna’s roommate. Brendan was the astronomer; Jenna said she just wanted the extra credit. Brendan had theories about time-travel and black holes, theories that wavered dangerously into crazy territory—but he was a nice guy. We had stayed in the desert for six days, taking readings, getting drunk, watching the stars. We’d planned on a full week, but after the skyscrapers vanished, Keith decided we should go back.

We walked in silence, saving for Brendan’s outbursts. Keith and Jenna, holding hands, had the solemn aspect of mourners at a funeral. Brendan was high and excited by the enormity of the tragedy; he bounced on his toes as if about to break into a run. When the sunlight began to fade, we found ourselves at the main road, or at least its remains. What had once been a four-lane bitumen freeway was now a winding dirt path that vanished into the scrub.

‘I think that’s it,’ said Keith eventually. ‘I think that’s really it.’

‘Christ,’ said Jenna. She pressed her face against Keith’s shoulder. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t know, honey.’

They embraced. Brendan looked to me, not for comfort, but suspiciously, and I remembered—too slowly—to appear downcast. Brendan was starting to dislike me, I knew. The others had wept, even Keith, when they realised the city was gone. Brendan alone had noticed that I did not cry. I suffer from a mental illness which means I find it difficult to express or even know my feelings. I have never had any trouble faking my way through the simpler emotions—a smile of welcome, a frown of disapproval—but this situation, the possible extinction of the human race, called for something larger, something grander. I am not an actor; I could not even begin to fake that, and hoped that my reticence would be mistaken for shock.

‘You’re right. It looks like we’ve gone back in time,’ I said, before Brendan could question me. ‘There’s no sign the freeway was removed, there’s no sign it was ever laid here.’

‘It’s a crazy idea,’ said Brendan coldly. ‘It’s a stupid idea. Time slips! You’d be stupid to think it was possible.’

‘Brendan,’ said Keith, a warning in his tone.

‘There’s still a road,’ I said. ‘We should follow it. A road means there’s some form of civilisation.’

No one challenged me, not even Brendan. So we walked down the road—east, to the place the city had been. Night came, but we had torches. Without speaking, we made a unanimous decision to keep going. Normally the desert is noisy at night—there are animals, the echoes of distant cars, the thrum of city-energy—but we heard nothing at all. Jenna was crying again. After several hours we came to the end of the road. It faded away slowly, first dirt, then gravel, then only sand. I knew then that we were all going to die, but I was not sad. Everyone dies in the end.


A day later, moving aimlessly through the sand, we found a village on an island of greenery. Forty or fifty stone huts, thatched with straw, jutted out from the undergrowth like blotchy grey teeth. Sixteenth century architecture, Jenna said; she’d done a semester of English history. Behind the huts was a rudimentary church, a flat square building with a tall clock tower overgrown with ivy. Inside we heard the voices of people chanting. We walked through the long grass to the church’s door, which hung loosely on a single hinge and creaked when Keith touched it.

We called out, but no one answered. We went in. From the look of it the church had long been abandoned, for wild flowers grew up between cracks in the floor and those statues that remained had fallen from their plinths, headless and limbless. At the front of the church the altar had toppled over and lay like a still body on the earth. Brendan found a thick bible in a niche in the wall, its pages crisp and dry as ash.

‘It’s written in some sort of olden-days calligraphy,’ he said. ‘I can’t make out the words.’

‘Let me see,’ said Jenna, going to him.

‘Shame there isn’t a newspaper or something around, so we can find out the date,’ said Keith.

Neither Jenna nor Brendan reacted to this suggestion. It seemed as if, at some point between leaving the road and arriving at the church, they had all silently come to terms with Brendan’s time-travel hypothesis.

I left them to talk about the date and went to look out one of the church’s windows. When we arrived I had thought that the trees seemed to press too closely to the walls of the stone huts, as if the forest was threatening to swallow the village; but now I saw that I was mistaken—that the forest was not close at all and that we were in fact at the centre of a clearing. In the distance I could see the remains of a second settlement, this one almost burnt to the ground. Ash hung heavily in the air above it, a dark and portentous cloud.

‘Graves,’ I said, looking back at the others.

Brendan glared at me. ‘What?’

‘There should be a cemetery around here somewhere. There’ll be dates on the stones. You can come with me and look, if you like.’

I did not want another fight, so I walked away quickly. When I put my hand on the church door it seemed to move more freely than it had before. Outside the sun was warm and fresh on my skin.

‘Is it brighter out here?’ Jenna asked; she had followed me.

‘Maybe.’

Jenna scrunched up her nose. ‘I might be going mad, but I swear the trees have moved.’

We circled the church twice before we found the cemetery, its boundary a low rock wall obscured by bushes. Most of the graves were marked only by rocks. Together Jenna and I tore up the surrounding undergrowth and finally found some proper headstones, their engravings almost completely eroded. I closed my eyes and ran my finger along them, sensing rather than reading the numbers.

‘1621,’ I said.

‘It looks like it’s been lying here for at least a century,’ said Jenna.

‘1721, then. It’s 1721.’

Jenna took some deep breaths and I thought for a while she might begin to hyperventilate, but she didn’t.

‘Well, here we are,’ she said eventually. ‘We’ve slipped in time, like Brendan said.’

‘Yes.’

She fell silent again for a time; then she said: ‘I’m sorry about Brendan. He’s just upset about this. He thinks it’s his fault. He’s taking it out on you because you seem to be dealing with it better than he is.’ She took my hand. ‘How are you dealing with it?’ she asked. ‘I’m so amazed at how together you are.’

I could not tell her the truth: that I had been made for situations like this, that the inevitability of death and time were things I had already dealt with, that I felt no pain or fear when it came to something that was, in fact, a foregone conclusion. Instead I stood up and brushed my hands off on my jeans and feigned shyness.

‘I hope you’re not holding it all in,’ said Jenna. ‘It’s not healthy to—’

She didn’t finish. Brendan had started to scream.

We ran back to the church. Jenna was a step ahead of me. Inside we found Brendan hysterical; and Keith was dead. His tall, heavy body was crushed between one of the stone statues and the wall, his chest caved, his pelvis almost completely flattened. His head was turned away from us, but one of the statue’s elbows had clearly indented his skull. Blood pooled at his feet and the legs of his trousers were black with it.

Things became quite hurried and complex. Jenna started to scream; she ran to Keith’s side; Brendan ran after her, crying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’; Jenna tugged at Keith’s arm; Brendan pulled her away; Jenna began to fight with Brendan, slapping his face, his hands; they were both crying; they were both screaming; and I stood there uncertainly, caught between the emotions I should have been displaying and the very real curiosity I did feel.

It was obvious to me at once that the statues had moved. On our arrival I had observed that most had fallen from their plinths, their extremities shattered; now all were upright and in position, their heads intact, their surfaces unstained, their sightless stone eyes gazing solemnly down the central aisle. The altar, too, had righted itself and the missing glass from the broken windows had been repaired. Keith’s death, I realised, had been an unfortunate side-effect of the church’s restoration. He had been standing on a plinth, looking out a window, when the statue had returned to its original pose.

‘We’re still going backwards,’ I said aloud—but more to myself than Brendan and Jenna, who appeared quite beyond hearing. ‘Quite fast, I think.’

I left them to mourn Keith and returned to the sunshine outside. Alone I pitched two tents in the church’s courtyard, one for Jenna and I, the other for Brendan. As I secured the guy-ropes to nearby trees, I heard the chanting again—a church choir singing in a foreign language.


All evening we could hear people whispering in the darkness, but when we looked we saw no one. At times the shadows moved in a way that contradicted the moonlight, growing large or small or taking human form, only to vanish again.

‘Black holes,’ said Jenna, holding my hands against her chest. ‘Brendan talked about black holes. He said we could look through them in his telescope. Do you remember all his theories about parallel universes and time-travel? Well, maybe it’s not time travel. Maybe this is some kind of purgatory. Maybe this is hell.’

She could not look me in the eyes when she spoke. I knew she felt guilty. They had not buried Keith. She and Brendan had been unable to extricate his body from behind the statue.

‘Maybe we did something wrong, all four of us,’ she said, ‘and we’re being punished for it.’

‘Maybe something bad has happened to everyone else,’ I said, ‘and we were the only ones who survived.’ I put my hand on her forehead, which was wet and sweaty, although the air in the tent was cool. ‘You should sleep, Jenna.’

‘I know. I know.’

We rose early the next morning—at least, it was morning by our watches. The sky above us had turned a strange mixture of red-gold and black, the sun a bright smear that ran the length of the heavens from east to west. In the eight or so hours we had slept the clearing had retreated further and the church and huts appeared as new. The burnt-out settlement I had seen in the distance was no longer a ruin but stood proud on the hillside: a hundred-odd houses, two churches and what appeared to be a fortress.

We ate tinned food and discussed our situation. It was my opinion that we should continue on to the next settlement. Jenna agreed; but I felt this was not because she liked my suggestion but because she could not stand to be near the place Keith had died. Brendan, however, did not want to go. He was no longer excited by his time-travel theories and ideas; his face was paler than I had ever seen it before.

‘I’m not leaving, especially not with you,’ he said to me. ‘You cold stone bitch, you’re enjoying this.’

Jenna said: ‘Brendan.’

‘Look at her. She doesn’t care. She didn’t shed a tear over Keith.’

I said: ‘We should stay together.’

I packed up the tents and our things while Jenna and Brendan talked. I understood they needed their privacy; they needed each other’s comfort. At any rate I like to be practical; I prefer action to words and I enjoy the satisfaction of completing a physical task. I was rolling up our sleeping bags when Jenna came to tell me that Brendan had agreed to come with us.

‘He hates me,’ I said.

‘We should stay together,’ she reminded me, bending to scoop up her bag.

When the three of us were ready we began our hike to the second settlement. There was no proper path, but the forest was receding even as we moved forward, the trees parting in a way that made me think of old myths. Hours later we were walking through fields of wheat and yellow canola. The air smelt earthy and damp and strangely foreign.

At times I heard the rustle of something moving through the fields near us, not human but certainly not wind, the crackle of broken wheat-stalks and birdlike twitters and calls. I wanted to mention this to Jenna and Brendan, but neither of them seemed inclined to talk—their eyes were fixed straight ahead, their chins pushed forward as if to deflect even the suggestion of a conversation. They missed Keith. I would have liked to comfort them, but my comfort—an acknowledgement that the world was unjust, that time was unforgiving—would only have enraged Brendan and upset Jenna further.

I bit my tongue and concentrated instead on my feet and the fleeting imprints they made on the muddy earth.

It was late in the afternoon when Jenna stopped and said: ‘I think we’re here.’

‘Here-where?’ Brendan said, looking around. We were standing in a grassy clearing on the lip of a hill. ‘There’s nothing here.’

‘I know. But this is where we’re meant to be. This is the hill we saw from the church, I’m sure of it. Do you see the settlement anywhere?’

I squinted against the light. The land ahead of us was a mix of forest and dirt, with no sign of human life. Confused, I looked back the way we had come and saw nothing there either, not even the stone tower of the old church. All was silent now save the echoes of our voices and Brendan’s heavy breathing. ‘Did we get lost along the way?’ I asked. ‘I know I saw the settlement here. I mean I thought I did… I mean I thought this was the hill.’

‘You said before that we’re moving backwards in time,’ said Jenna, shrugging. ‘I think we’ve gone back so far that the settlement stopped existing.’

‘That’s bullshit,’ said Brendan, kicking at the dirt.

‘It was your theory originally,’ said Jenna.

‘Well now I have a new theory,’ said Brendan, glaring at me.

‘I’m going to check out the area,’ said Jenna. She dropped her bag onto the dust and rolled her shoulders. ‘You two wait here for me, okay?’

She jogged away, heading toward the next ridge. Brendan put his bags down and I followed his lead, making a show of rubbing my wrists and flexing my arms. I was overplaying it but I felt trapped with Brendan’s eyes on me. I knew he doubted me; that he could sense my mental illness like a shark smells blood in the water. Without Jenna as a buffer I was left exposed to him, an easy target of his fear and despair.

‘You want to know my theory?’ Brendan asked.

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘All this time I thought it was me,’ he said. ‘I thought it was my telescope, my astronomy, the black-holes and my theories of subjective temporality. That in some way I was asking for this to happen, that I had wished this reality into being. But it’s not me, it never was me. I know now that it’s you, it came from you. Because you’re a very special kind of fucked up, aren’t you?’

‘I have trouble with emotions,’ I said, stepping back. ‘I have trouble with time.’

‘Trouble with time. Is that what you call it?’ Brendan sneered and poked his finger hard into the side of my head. ‘I know my Nietzsche. He’s right: when you look into the abyss, the abyss does look back into you. I get what happened now, it’s so clear to me. You stared down that telescope and what was out there, the darkness, the evil, it saw you, it saw into you, into your cold dead heart. You made this happen. You told it what to do. This backwards world is a product of your mind.’

I said: ‘I think you’re upset.’

‘Of course I’m upset. Because the world is gone and Keith is dead and we’re lost and because it’s normal to be upset in this situation, you’d have to be a bloody alien to not to feel the slightest twinge of emotion. An alien.’ He slapped my face with an open hand. ‘Did you feel that?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

Brendan put his hands around my throat. I knew that this was a test of some kind but I was not sure what he wanted from me. Should I struggle? Should I cry? Should I fight back? I was torn and confused and I wished that Jenna would come back and explain things to him, that I was not alien or terrible but simply found it difficult to parse my own emotions. I held still and closed my eyes and waited.

‘I think this is a dream,’ said Brendan, and squeezed. ‘I think you’re the key to wake us out of it.’

I could not breathe. My body twitched. My whole self was in vice of Brendan’s big hands; my pulse bounced against his thumb. Involuntarily I vomited a little bile into my mouth and felt it spill over my chin. I had long been curious about the nature of death and this experience suggested that it was less dignified than I had been led to believe.

Then Brendan’s hands fell away; he made a small soft noise of surprise; he fell down and I was still standing, Jenna at my side.

Jenna said, ‘Shit. Shit.’

She was holding a rock in her hands, one side of it red and bloody. She put it down on the ground gently, carefully, as if it was a precious thing. She said: ‘What happened?’

Brendan lay very still. He was a big man and looked very awkward crumpled up on the hard earth. I put my foot against his shoulder and shook him, but he did not respond and his tongue came out between his teeth a little.

‘Brendan had a new theory,’ I explained. ‘He thought I was responsible for bringing us here.’

‘Are you?’

I touched my neck. I still felt the burn of his fingers on my skin. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I am.’

Jenna said, ‘I killed him. Keith died and now I killed Brendan.’

I looked at the sky and the red line of the sun, as thin now as the equator on a globe. I said: ‘We should keep walking.’


We walked, Jenna and I, for a long time. There was no way for us to differentiate nights from days, but when we grew tired we pitched our tents and slept. We ate the food we had brought with us on the trip, rationing out little parcels of noodles and dry biscuits. At first we often heard voices, soft human speech and sometimes singing and laughter; but as time wore on the voices came less and less, and eventually ceased. All that remained was the howls of invisible beasts and the occasional whip of wings overhead.

As we walked we saw the land unmake and remake itself; we saw mountains rear up on the horizon and valleys suddenly fill with water. Once a fire ripped through the stretch of forest we were passing through; we felt only a brief flush of heat and then all around us was crisp and dead and black. At that moment I experienced a strange sense of power, of immutability and understood then what gods must feel like.

‘What will happen to us when the world ends?’ Jenna asked me.

‘The world’s four and a half billion years old. I doubt we’d be around for that.’

‘I want to see how it starts,’ said Jenna. ‘I’ve always wanted to see how we began.’

After what felt like many weeks we came to a sparkling lake fringed by rock. I took off my clothes and dove in. Jenna sat on the banks and took a notepad out of her backpack. I swam back and rested my arms on the stones at her feet.

‘What are you writing?’ I asked. ‘Is it a diary?’

‘Sort of. I don’t know what’s going on, not really, but I think we should keep a record of our observations. It’s awful that we’re trapped here, wherever we are, but I’ve got to start thinking about this as an opportunity. I’ve got to treat it like a new scientific discovery that I have to research.’ She smiled ruefully, the rubber nub of her pencil stroking her cheek. ‘It’ll give me purpose. Otherwise I might go mad.’

‘If it helps,’ I said, shrugging.

‘You want to know what’s funny? I’ve always wanted something like this to happen, ever since I was a kid. I guess that’s the secret dream of every astronomer. I always wanted to travel to a new world. Or get picked up by aliens. Or step through a wormhole and go back in time, although obviously not quite like this. I just wanted to be the first person to experience something truly fantastic. And now I’m here and I’m experiencing it, I feel like I should be happy for the chance, even if Keith’s gone. Even if no one will ever know what we’ve been through.’

She shook her head as if to ward off a bad thought and went back to her notebook. But I lingered at her side a while longer, my feet scissoring in the cool water. It occurred to me that the darkness Brendan had spoken of, the abyss on the other end of the telescope, might not have looked into me but into Jenna. And perhaps—perhaps she had wanted that, too. I remembered with a suddenness that Jenna had been the one to gather us together originally; and tracking the black hole was her project as much as it was Brendan’s…

My head spun. It was all Jenna, everything was Jenna; she had brought us here to her private abyss and was slowly killing us off. We were as lab rats in an experiment; doomed to be victims of the world she’d created or to die by her hand. Even if she had no understanding of what she was doing, Jenna remained the key Brendan had sought (and failed to find) in me.

I moved in the water like a snake. I have always lived by a strong moral code and yet I found that the thing I planned to do did not war with my ethics.

I said, ‘Jenna, do you want to swim with me?’


When Jenna was dead, I came out of the lake and sat on the shore. My wrists were sore and my fingers felt heavy and strained. I rubbed them as I waited for something to happen. For a time I imagined I saw shapes on a hill in the distance, but when I looked closer there was nothing. The sky remained red-and gold, striped by the sun, freckled with stars; below the land continued its inexorable slide into the past.

Time slipped.

I reorganised my backpack and started for the next hill.

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One Response to “How We Left The Desert”

  1. Cate Gardner says:

    Interesting premise. Really enjoyed the story.

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