The end of the world was surprisingly pleasant. Most people died off in quick, gentle ways. For that, Maisy was grateful; it made mourning feel frivolous. She moved through the emptiness of her home, unbothered by the way her footsteps echoed; she wasn’t planning on staying anyway. Everything she wanted from that place fit in the last backpack she ever bought, would ever buy. She wrenched her garage door open enough for her and her bike to slip out. Then she cycled, like she used to, to the Taco Bell she worked at before it all.
She didn’t pass a single person on the trip.
From the outside, the Taco Bell looked mostly intact. Only one front window was shattered, which was better than she hoped, and actually worked in her favor, as the doors were all locked. When she stepped inside, she immediately noticed the hole through the center of the roof, making the dining area an atrium. She passed by the rubble and into the kitchen, then to the break room. She set her bike and backpack down and pulled out a pen from her pocket and a taco wrapper from the ground, one of thousands lying around. Maisy moved around the store, taking inventory of everything she had. She counted 235 sauce packets, 12 lost-and-found jackets, 20 plastic wrapped mega-packs of hard taco shells, and so on.
As the day ended, the light slowly fading from the hole in the roof, she gathered all the coats and layered them, placing the sleeping bag and pillow she’d brought over them. She got comfortable, and in the pitch darkness of the break room she smiled, and said to herself, “It’s perfect.” The same way a bride or a house hunter might.
Years after the world ended, Yasmin travelled through a midwestern dot on the map. It was probably already looted to hell but it was a better bet than some of the bigger refugee centers. She moved carefully through the streets, sticking close to the edges of buildings. A negative of these kinds of places was the open space between empty fast food joints where anyone could see her. She tightened her grip on the baseball bat she’d long ago hammered a box of nails in and braved an open stretch. She would usually sprint as quietly as she could until she was confident she was safe, but this time she stopped in her tracks. There was a Taco Bell on this street covered in and surrounded with plants like a suburban garden of Eden.
Something about them drew her closer despite all the survival instincts she had to learn in this harsh new world. Snaking up the sides of the building and tied to posts made of large spoons shoved into the ground, were what looked like peas? No, she realized as her hand moved to cup a tender, green pod in her hand, these were beans. One pod was turning a husky yellow, she cracked it open and picked at the black beans resting in her palms. She looked to her feet to see heads of lettuce scattered around, still small, but promising. She circled the building and found evidence of potatoes, a thick crop of wheat nearing its maturity in the back, rows of tomatoes, and something green sticking out the top of the roof.
Yasmin spun around with her baseball bat ready to swing but stopped at the sight of a lady, with long golden hair, bleached to hell by the sun, wearing over her clothes what looked to be an apron made of Taco Bell wrappers, stitched together like a quilt. The apron was stained with dirt.
“Is all this yours?” Yasmin’s voice was rough even to her own ears.
The lady wiped a hand over her forehead. “It sure is. It took a while to get it this good, but what else is going on?” She laughed like that was funny. Yasmin frowned.
“Is there anybody else here?” Yasmin asked, suddenly unnerved by the smiling woman in front of her.
“Well, people pass through all the time, and I send them off with some seeds and a nice meal, but no one has settled in this town since it happened.” The woman looked at her with something in her face that made the area around Yasmin’s ribs ache.
Yasmin watched the lady’s eyes move to the bat Yasmin still held in battle posture. She lowered it automatically, but hesitated. “You mean.” She cleared her throat. “You’ve been here the whole time, like this?” She gestured to the plants with the tip of her bat.
“Yes.” The lady turned her back on Yasmin, a deadly mistake in Yasmin’s experience, and began pruning the beanstalks. “It really is lovely here,” she said in a far-away almost sigh.
“How can you say that?” Yasmin felt hot anger mix with whatever weird feeling the lady gave her in her gut. “Lady, have you looked around you? Everything is over. The world is ruined.”
The lady plucked a brown leaf and let it fall to the ground before turning back to Yasmin. “My name is Maisy. And yes, I know. Would you like to come inside?”
Maisy didn’t wait for an answer before moving to a wooden door built into where a window used to be and heading in, her back turned again.
Yasmin chased her inside about to continue the argument, forgetting all thoughts of this being some kind of trap. She gasped at what she saw: a tree growing in the center of the former restaurant, its tallest branches growing out a hole in the roof.
“It’s an apple tree,” Maisy said, touching the bark with just her fingertips. “When it’s Fall, I can make apple empanadas.”
Yasmin felt something rise and drown out her anger and she began to sob, her bat clattering to the ground.
Maisy put a hand on her shoulder and let her cry it out. As her sobs lessened, Maisy, in a soft, calm voice said, “You can have the first one come autumn, but how about I make you a burrito. I haven’t quite figured out cheese, meat, or sour cream, but what I do have, I’ve been told, is just like what they remember when this place was open.”
Yasmin nodded and followed Maisy to the kitchen. She would learn the ins and outs of the fire stove, the way wheat is harvested, and just how good Maisy’s empanadas are. That day, as she ate the tortilla wrapped beans, Maisy whispered just loud enough for her to hear, though it was probably directed to the spices growing in the front windows, “See, the world can be gentle.”
Elise Triplett is a writer from Dayton, Ohio. They have been published in Black Bough Poetry and Okay Donkey. They can be found on Twitter @TriplettElise and elsewhere, probably.