All These Apocalypses by Eliza Smith

For a week in the summer, I sell soda and melted trail mix to the bicyclists who limp over to my tent, their calf muscles spotted with dried mud, tailbones bruised like bullied peaches. These otherwise reasonable adults have gotten it into their heads that biking 240 miles across Missouri is something one should experience—something one might enjoy experiencing—during the hottest June on record.  

The cyclists are riding the Katy Trail, which follows the abandoned corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. It’s an idyllic route, twisting alongside the Missouri River, threading through miniature towns one would otherwise never think to visit. One stretch, the part the cyclists cover on the first day, intersects with the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. I’ve been hired to sell refreshments at each stopping point, usually a park that transforms into camping grounds overnight.

In the mornings I wake early and drive along the bike route to our next destination, trying to memorize each dip and turn, the borrowed and divine town names: Portland, Defiance, Providence. In a few weeks I’ll move out of state for the first time, and I want to remember all of it. Oftentimes the trail is only a dirt path, exposed to the road, and I recognize some of the riders. But then it disappears behind trees or bluffs, not resurfacing for miles. I am always relieved to see the cyclists emerge, to know the tunnels of flora have not swallowed them whole.

Some forty-eight days later, my friend A goes for a run by herself on the piece of Katy Trail that sweeps through the college town where we met. She’s just left work, and her partner is traveling, so she goes alone. Not far into her run, she sees a man who looks out of place. He’s wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and a backpack hangs from his shoulders. We will never know the contents of the bag, though the police will guess at an object like a rubber mallet.

***

For a time, A’s father called me “the prophet.” This had less to do with any psychic abilities on my part as it did with his blundering pronunciation of my name—what should have been Eliza pronounced as Elijah. The moniker became a running joke between A and me, one of the many gags in our two-person comedy troupe.

There were moments when I did seem to capture a clairvoyant thought. I might dream of someone I hadn’t spoken to in months, only to bump into them the next day. My mother phoned frequently, and over the years I developed a sixth sense about when she was calling with bad news. These were minor intuitions, but they played into our game, so we pinned more significance to them than was due.  

I didn’t bother telling A about the unsettling thoughts preoccupying me in the days after my move to Ohio. The house I’d rented sight unseen was massive, at least to my standards. Built nearly a century ago, the hardwoods creaked suggestively and lighting was sparse, so at night I locked the door of my attic bedroom and willed myself unconscious until morning.

When A asked how it was going, I said fine, just unpacking. My premonitions felt too paranoid to disclose: I was convinced something terrible was going to happen to me, something violent. For ten days, I contemplated what it might be.

My only comfort was the knowledge that most attacks on women are carried out by someone they know, and I was alone. Besides, I reminded myself, I was no prophet.

***

A found me six years ago through my Craigslist ad seeking a roommate. We met in the university library to discuss the three-bedroom house I’d already rented for the next school year. I’ll be the one in the obnoxious flowery shirt I’d texted. Our first conversation was awkward but amenable. We said goodbye and moved in together four months later. 

The story goes that we didn’t become friends until winter—not until the snowstorm that stranded us for five days straight, during which we paraded a plate of brownies around our house in a gratitude ceremony, visited A’s friend in the neighborhood who had a stash of weed and colorful collection of bongs, heard the refrigerator speak to us and decided to create our own house religion based on the first commandment, “No more tuna,” a thinly veiled jab at my weekly casseroles.  

We were roommates for two years and lingered in town for another four after graduation, living alone at first, then with partners. We worked the same shitty mortgage job, though I eventually quit for graduate school and she to work on a produce farm. In a college town the population is always on rotation; while the majority of our friends moved on, we held down the fort, feeling older every year, carving out our own spaces. 

Before I left for Ohio, A came over to replace all the mini-blinds in my house, which my cat had shredded out of cat-love. Afterward, we sat cross-legged on the floor of my empty living room while I presented her with parting gifts: one half-empty bottle of Bailey’s, several nineties cassette tapes, a flowerpot I’d used as a doorstop, a Bingo set made with catchphrases from our favorite TV shows. Also included was a card I’d picked up while traveling the Katy Trail, its message a perfect summation of our friendship: “I feel like if the zombie apocalypse happened and I got turned into a zombie and you didn’t, you’re the kind of friend that would lock me in the basement and feed me rats.”

“I would totally do that,” A said. She shoved a crumpled yellow bag toward me. Inside was a framed print of Missouri and a glass that looked familiar.

“Wait—did you steal this?” It was a pint glass from a local bar we loved. I’d attempted to swipe one months earlier as a keepsake, but nerves interceded and I lifted a generic version by mistake.

“Yep,” she said. “When my parents were visiting.”

I tucked the stolen gift in a basket of miscellany that hadn’t made it on the moving truck: a box cutter, refrigerator magnets, the palm-sized pot of succulents A gave me when I finished my master’s degree. As we stood to leave for my goodbye dinner, A broke the deck of Bingo cards in two, handed me half. 

“So we can play together,” she said. 

***

Would you believe me if I said it rained that night, and well into my moving day? Perhaps you’d find that heavy-handed, too convenient a foreshadowing technique. But it did. 

In the morning, the lawn sprinklers kicked on, and I carried the last of my things through the double downpour to my car. I snuck out of town, feeling neither liberated nor eager to resettle over five hundred miles away, just certain that I would miss something. The sudden death of an elderly relative, my niece’s first broken bone. I had spent my life waiting for the other shoe to drop, but at least I was always close enough to retrieve the shoe.  

Is that how this metaphor goes? 

***

On the evening A is attacked, I stay out past dark. I go to a reading downtown and send A a picture of the high-rises that line the street where I am attempting (and failing) to park. I meet a local woman my age who has a cute dog and is writing a young adult fantasy novel. I consider texting A to celebrate making a new friend but decide against it. The readers all read poems. I’ve never been a fan of poetry, but they surprise me and I enjoy myself. Afterward I meet up with a woman in my program and her husband. They take me to their neighborhood bar and I order fried macaroni and cheese and drink cider and we talk about our mutual love of foxes. They walk me to my car, and I call my mother on the way home because I’ve had a good night and also because I want to be on the phone with someone when I enter the house. I park on the street and speed-walk to the door, use the flashlight on my phone to find my way upstairs, fold into bed and sleep the best sleep I’ve slept in days. I don’t notice that A never responded.

***

Of the six years in our college town, I had only one unsafe encounter—and even then, the man was only after money. He wedged himself inside the car door before I could close it and asked for cash. I scrambled for my wallet, handed him a five.

“I know I saw a twenty in there,” he said.

A couple strolled out of the liquor store just then, absorbed in their conversation. The man stepped back and I closed my door and took off, blaming myself for stopping in this part of town, for being alone, for wearing a dress.

I developed my own safety code after that, the kind all women and girls develop. Walk in groups, or, if you’re alone, trail another group. Not so closely they’ll think you’re strange, but close enough to appear as if you might be with them. Carry your keys in your hand, the sharpest one protruding through your knuckles. Double-check that you’ve locked all your doors at night. Don’t use identifying details in your social media posts, or enable location-tracking features, or mention that your roommate’s out of town. Better yet, just don’t use the internet.

What I am trying to say is that it was a pretty safe college town. But pretty safe doesn’t mean we weren’t always looking over our shoulders. It just means we never considered rubber mallets.

***

The facts begin to appear on my phone, information so incongruous with my current position—leaning back on pillows, fully rested and still thinking about the night before—that the phrases make no sense. Attacked on the Katy Trail. White male. Some object. Focused on her head. Screamed for help. No internal bleeding or swelling of the brain. Recovery. Life changing.

Overall, she’s very lucky, her sister says.

Maybe my brain lingers on that word, lucky, and ignores what came before. Maybe I am so physically distant from where the violence took place that it takes a moment to catch up with me. Maybe I think I’m still sleeping.  

Then a sound emerges from my body, something guttural and desperate, something I don’t quite recognize. I let it take me over for a while. It moves from gut into limbs and leaves them heavy. It vibrates the space between my ears. When it is done with me, I slide off my bed and lie in the foot-wide gap between mattress and wall. The ceiling is at its lowest point in this part of the room; I can reach up and touch it if I want to.

Maybe I’ll stay here a while, I think. I don’t move for three hours.

                                                                            ***        

There are stories we like to perform from our college years, to a bemused audience or just ourselves. There’s the time I looked over my shoulder while leaving a sports bar to witness A lifting a six-foot area rug off the floor as effortlessly as plucking a penny from the ground, rolling it in her arms and marching toward me, muttering, “go go go.” I froze momentarily, then rushed out of the building with keys in hand, frantically pushing the unlock button until I heard my car chirp back. I burned rubber leaving the parking lot, the rush of all those bank robbery movies urging me forward. Neither of us knew why we did it, only that we were in it together.  

There’s senior year, when I called A from my bedroom in the middle of the night, the spasms riding up my back so painful I thought I must be dying. She drove me to the emergency room and perched on a stool near my bed while a nurse placed an IV in the crook of my arm. Later, embarrassed to discover it was only a UTI, I talked A into pulling out the needle while the nurse supervised. She was considering paramedic school and I could tell she wanted to do it, though her outward panic might have suggested otherwise. Finally, she pinched the tube between thumb and forefinger, shrieked, and pulled. Our eyes locked, waiting for the gush of blood that was sure to come. But there was none: I lived, I didn’t feel a thing. We left the hospital triumphant and treated ourselves to pancakes.

And then there’s the night shortly before graduation, when I drank and danced until I puked in the middle of the fraternity-heavy bar I’d so studiously avoided throughout college. A took me by the shoulders and guided me toward the bathroom, nudging me in front of her like a shopping cart. When we rounded a dark corner, a man grabbed for me. He was faceless and looming and I could only register how heavy my limbs felt, how slow they were to respond. And then he was against the wall, and it was A’s hand pinning him there, and I slipped behind her into the women’s bathroom, where we laughed and washed our hands and never said the word threat.  

This is a funny story when we tell it together because we focus on A’s superhuman strength, her Hulk-like protection skills. It’s less funny when I tell it on my own, when I place it inside this context. Maybe that’s the risk of constructing a story that isn’t only yours to tell.

***

I shouldn’t watch the videos, but I do. One network shows A from the neck down, her stretcher being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I can’t find the purpose in exposing her this way. Do they want to show the scraped skin on her knee? Was the producer disappointed in the lack of blood? I trained in journalism down the road from this crime scene, but my newsrooms were print—not broadcast—and words are allowed to be less sensational, if we write them that way. It is only the facts I want.

I tap the screen, zoom in on A’s tennis shoes. Pause, replay. For several minutes this is all I care about: are those her new Nikes, the ones she got around the same time I bought mine? She got a better deal on hers. They were bright blue and lime green, mine navy and pink. These look like they might be an older pair. I find a little relief in this, the knowledge that her new shoes aren’t ruined. 

The broadcasts appall me, one by one. Is it necessary to use the word bloodcurdling? Did we need to know she was crawling away, on her side, when the woman found her? This woman who biked toward A’s call for help, I am indebted to her but also resent the words coming out of her mouth: She was a very healthy looking person who looked like she would have been able to protect herself. Even she was not able to prevent what happened.

I would like her to point me to the person who could.

The next day, of course, they must talk to other Katy Trail users. Gauge their reactions. A blonde woman in a sky-colored tank top expresses surprise: This is definitely not one of the areas I feel unsafe. A white man who has lived in town for thirty years says simply, I’m obviously worried, but it probably won’t change my walking habits. I stare at the man, close the video.

How nice for you, I think.

***

I want to see A immediately, but I’m not sure if her jaw will have to be wired, if she’ll go home or to her parents’, if she wants to see anyone. I think I will never forgive myself for not being there. I think, maybe we would have been having book club that night. I think of the violent thoughts I couldn’t stop thinking about, the ones where it was me on the other end. I think this isn’t about you and get off the floor already and some prophet you are. I am certain this spot is the only place of safety.    

A’s family must know I need proof she’s alive, so they make her FaceTime me from the hospital that evening. I’ve forced myself to drive to the bookstore for a gift to send, something to while away the recovery time, and I awkwardly search for phrases that might be amusing while still eliciting information. Are they giving you enough morphine? I love morphine. Morphine makes her sick, she says, but she’ll have some bottled up for me. She doesn’t look as bad as I expect her to look, but of course I am looking at her face and not the back of her head. I don’t want to keep her long—the act of speaking looks painful—so we end the call and I move to a bench outside, watch couples pass by, safer in numbers.

I know what is coming next. I know I will write about this, and I already resent the impulse, flickering there in its womb: a useless urge perhaps, but there it is, and it won’t go away. I ignore it for as long as possible. 

                                                                            ***       

In another life, A came over every Sunday to watch The Walking Dead. Sometimes our partners joined and annoyed us by asking too many questions. I’ve never been one for horror, but this kind didn’t bother me. It’s one of few depictions of violence that I can point to and say, this? This will never happen.

A and I agreed on a meet-up point in case some sort of apocalypse ever did go down. We ignored the fact that the farm in question was within sight of a nuclear plant. During the off-season, we read books about other forms of apocalypses, talked strategy. I always knew I was the weaker link; I was more concerned with how to feed my cat. But we felt sure we could tolerate each other’s company, which is really the most important consideration.

Is this the part where I relate the attack to an apocalypse? The ending of our friendship as it was, perhaps, or the total reduction of A’s personality?

You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?

***

The semester starts and I still haven’t seen A. I’ve been distracting myself by dragging my body between campus and the house, checking out books that languish in my office, making small talk with new classmates who don’t want to hear about violence. 

My brain isn’t working as clearly as I want it to, and one day after class I realize I’ve forgotten my bus pass. It’s a long walk home down concrete and past storefronts, and it’s leaning toward ninety degrees, so I decide to take the trail I’ve heard so much about. At first it’s relaxing, nature I’ve forgotten exists here.

A little further down the trail, I realize what I’ve done. The path has grown increasingly secluded and I’m not sure where the next exit is. I turn my head casually to see if anyone’s behind me, and there’s a man a few paces back. He’s wearing a backpack, so he’s probably like me, a student seeking shade on the walk home. But nothing feels good about this and I’m angry that I’ve trapped myself. I call someone on the phone, speak loudly, tell him where I am and what time I expect to be home. Occasionally a cyclist passes in the opposite direction and I wish I had thought to buy a bike, or signed up for that self-defense class I was talking about, or remembered my bus pass. But the other day a man followed me off the bus and watched as I unlocked my front door, so I’m not sure that’s any better.  

I try not to spiral down this thought-hole, what’s safe and what isn’t, where I am allowed to be a woman without fear of violence, random or otherwise. I don’t want to end up locked in my bedroom again, wedged in the space between bed and wall.  

***

Can we talk about how A’s medical bills were over fifty thousand dollars? Or that she had to first establish care with a primary physician who could confirm to the insurance company that, yes, she needed to have her stitches removed before she could have the sutures unsewn from her face.

We could talk about how it takes weeks before she can eat solid food again, how when she does, she accidentally eats expired noodles and makes herself sick. The nerve damage ruined her senses of taste and smell. The doctors say it might return in a year, or fifteen, or never.

Or maybe we should discuss how I felt the need to describe my closeness to A to justify why I was traumatized by her trauma. Because we hear about violence against women every day, and it’s perfectly ordinary to say what a shame, but she really shouldn’t have been walking on the trail alone. It only hurts when it happens to someone we know, and maybe that’s not because we lack empathy, but because we’ve normalized a world in which women are disposable and stories like this one don’t harm us at all.

If I tell you a therapist called it “secondary trauma,” that I crossed my arms and said I don’t feel comfortable appropriating A’s trauma, you’ll think that’s such a writer thing to say and I bet she never said that in real life.

Maybe you’re right about the crossed arms. Maybe I took a sip of water.

             ***

It’s late September and I’m counting the balloons in A’s living room. I didn’t know helium lasted this long, but it’s six weeks later and they’re still full. I’m supposed to be in Oklahoma for a wedding, but I rerouted my flight to spend a couple days lounging around A’s house. We both pretend that I am not here because she was attacked, that I am just homesick, which I am, and that it was an easy enough change to make, which it was.

At first I find my eyes wandering to the scar that stretches from the corner of her lip to her chin, this mark that is not supposed to be there but keeps on being there anyway. I try not to think about how it looked before the skin was tied back together, if she could feel the outside air filtering into her mouth.

We decide to go to lunch at our favorite cantina. We were regulars here during college, and it’s one of our old servers who takes our order. He asks A what happened just as I’ve bitten down on a chip. She glances at me, and I’m unsure if I should jump in and minimize, or jump in and tell the truth, or wait. She turns back to the server.

“I was attacked,” she says. “On the Katy Trail.”  

He mumbles something incomprehensible, the best we can hope for, and disappears to place our order. We ask for a second margarita, then a third. We talk about the gaps that weren’t in the news reports, like how she’s not sure why she was in the woods when the woman found her, was he dragging her in there? What was his plan? Is his the face the police sent to her, a sketch of a man who’s been attacking women on other trails, in other states? It feels like a relief that she fought back, screamed. In my dreams I am always frozen and mute.

A tells me about a journalist trying to get in touch with her for a story, the same woman who taught me about interviewing trauma survivors. I explain what an interview would look like, who in the newsroom might have access to A’s name. I offer to go with her to the meeting. We try to think of what point the story would serve and come up empty-handed. I confess that I am also writing about it, that I don’t know what point it will serve. She is gracious about it anyway.

“I know everyone else is hurting, too,” she says, and we order another round of margaritas.

At home, A cooks banana bread and I comment on how amazing it smells, and she says does it? and I say yes, like honey. This is a role her partner often plays. We go out to dinner and the three of us share artichoke dip and A says I think it’s rich, is it rich? And we say yes, it is very rich. She comes out of the bathroom and says the soap smells good, and we have never been more pleased at a sentence about soap.

A’s partner leaves for the night, and we turn on The Walking Dead instead of leaving the house. It’s gorier than I remembered but we are quick to accept it. We’ve reached the point in the series where there are few humans left, and the ones who are still around are starting to lose it.

“I think if I survived the initial culling of people, I’d make it,” A says. “But that would be the hardest part.”

I can’t think of a response, or maybe I am thinking of too many responses, so I concentrate on the man we’re following. He is walking through the woods alone, blood-covered spear as walking stick, camera lens distorting the edges of the screen to mimic his mental state. And then, a moment that catches us off guard. He stumbles into a field of flowers, tangled and wild and wholly unaffected by the apocalypse. Sunlight falls softly on each petal. We are both confused by the beauty.