Church lathered the Marriott man’s cysts and sores with poultice using a tongue compressor, a ritual that took more and more time as the weeks wore into months. If the man was dying, he was in no hurry to do so.
Church tied a bandana over his mouth and nose and dumped the man’s bedpan into the tub of the hotel bathroom. The pan’s ecosystem had rubbed the porcelain raw and sent scaly growths climbing the lip of the tub, turning the curtains moth-brown.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” Church told the Marriott man. “Chapter seven tonight.” He ruffled the pages of a tattered Dickens paperback, the cover peeled off.
The man’s eyes fluttered under their lids.
He scrubbed the Marriott man’s dinner plate downstairs in what was once the restaurant kitchen. The Dastard Palms Hotel had a full pantry, even a year after the world had blacked out, enough yet for four months. Six, if the three of them stretched.
“How is he?” Marsh fished a warm beer from the fridge that hadn’t worked since February. Back then, she would have thrown on a T-shirt before entering the same room as him, but now she sweated through nothing but her workout tank and shorts, about to hit the shower.
“He’s conscious, I think. We need to move him into a new room soon. It’s spreading to the carpet.” Church dried the dinner plate and placed it in a cabinet labeled DAVY JONES in black Sharpie. He waited for Marsh to comment, but she never did. “I might need your help.”
Marsh pretended not to hear.
“Peloton says I’ve biked four hundred twenty-two miles.” She loosened and redid her wet ponytail. “I’d be all the way to South Carolina by now.”
“What’s in South Carolina?”
“Let’s say I was.”
“That’d be at least one reason to visit, then.” He moved past Marsh and fetched a water bottle. Neither of them trusted the tap. “Mr. Marriott might like the Carolinas. It can’t beat Disney World, but it’s not like the rides are working.”
“Let’s say it’s only us. Let’s say Mr. Marriott stays here.”
Church redonned his bandana mask and thumbed his page in the Dickens paperback. He knew Marsh’s routine by now, and she knew his. Both knew what the other wanted to hear.
“Let’s say I’ll think about it.”
Church kept the poolside patio lights on every night, even when he wasn’t outside straddling a sun lounger and listening to strays rummage garbage in the darkness. The Milky Way spilled overhead in a starry earth-halo now that light pollution was nil, the hollow expanse of which reminded Church just how small he was. The abandoned Hyatt and Four Seasons and other superstructures of Resort District Florida punctured the skyline like looted Egyptian tombs from a bygone glory.
A radio coughed white noise beside his lounger, the dial slippery from use. He didn’t know what he hoped to hear through the static. There was nothing out there. The world was dead and he refused to bury it. The sole exception was some guy hunkered south of town playing Billy Joel over the air, but that was the only blip amid the blackout. Most nights Church found ole Billy eerier than the static.
Marsh’s Peloton whirred from her second-floor room. Through the balcony window, she was pounding pedals and racking up miles she couldn’t cash in. Even if it wasn’t for the extra juice she was drip-feeding into their tiny backup generator, Church had no doubt she would be up there pedaling anyway. She had arrived eight months ago, shortly after the world had stopped broadcasting and even the looters had begun migrating north. She had run marathons and iron mans before. Had run in the Olympics, too.
“Always running,” Church said to no one.
Church wasn’t a runner. He was a drifter. Too young to call himself a snowbird, but that’s what he was. Ever since Rachel died, before the world had gone dark and its people unraveled, he had made his way south, riding his thumb partway, buses in the other parts, nodding off at motels far worse than the Palms. Rachel had wanted to retire in Florida. A faraway plan meant for the faraway future, but after months at her bedside across five hospitals and four experimental treatments and more doctors than he could keep straight, the future had turned a sour, hollow color, and Church knew nowhere better to spend it.
In the early days, he and Marsh had made supply runs once or twice a week, gleaning whatever the looters had overlooked. The department stores and retail giants were out of the question. The fancy hotels and gated resorts fared worse; looters had sucked the ground-level rooms and pantries dry, stripped them clean to bone and plaster, but most folks hadn’t bothered hauling mattresses and mini-fridges all the way from the rooftop suites.
That’s where Church and Marsh found the expensive booze. Many a morning they would wake to find themselves sprawled in their underwear in a room they could never have afforded in the previous life, content not to ask each other if anything had happened the night prior. Because nothing ever happened.
Nothing until the Marriott man.
They had discovered him curled beetle-like and bleeding in the shower room of the Marriott northside of Disney, naked save for a towel. Marsh still had sympathy then.
Church had returned periodically those first few weeks, curious if anyone would come looking for Mr. Marriott. A wife. A son. A dog even. Someone to claim him. But no one came, and Church stopped expecting them.
Church didn’t expect much of anything now, but that all things would persist, that Mr. Marriott would take his time recovering, that the man would continue in stasis, tethered to this life by ambiguous, precarious strings. Church had expected Marsh always to be around to keep him sane, the inevitability of otherwise—of South Carolina—never once blipping onto his radar. He wouldn’t leave a dying man behind, but wouldn’t was a far cry from shouldn’t.
It was providence, them finding each other. The Marriott man wouldn’t find greater care from anyone else. It gave a flavor of meaning to it all, more than the poolside vigils and the drinking and the not-dying. It had given meaning to both Church and Marsh, or so Church had assumed.
He threw his beer into the pool and watched the water ripple. The bottle bobbed stubbornly, refusing to sink. When Billy Joel melted into static, Church dialed the radio off and thought about jumping in. Thought about bobbing. About sinking.
A crash and a sputter of barks echoed from far away, scattering all thought, but Church didn’t stir. Nothing ever disturbed the Dastard Palms. Strays and crocs didn’t sneak in anymore to dip in the pool, which was more bog than chlorine these days, though on occasion black fins flippered along the swampy surface, the same dark mysteries that swam in the Marriott man’s bedpan.
“It might be infected, but it’s not Davy Jones,” Church said.
“Would you lie if it was?”
Church didn’t answer.
Marsh sat on the kitchen counter with her back to Church and her shirt pulled over her shoulder blade. Her Cthulhu tattoo snarled at him while he inspected the rough patch of discolored skin bridging her bony spine.
“It’s not Davy Jones,” he repeated.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll borrow some of your poultice.”
The poultice had done little for Mr. Marriott, but Church didn’t argue.
“Do you think Davy Jones is it? This is what ended the world?” Marsh rolled her shirt down and pivoted on the counter.
“Has it ended? We’re still here.”
“I don’t think it’s contagious, so no.” He bared his arms and wrists. “I would have sprouted by now if it was.”
Marsh swung her legs back and forth, pedaling air.
“He’s not getting better, you know,” Marsh said. “One day you’ll go up and find a fish in his bed, not a man.”
Church folded his arms and gave her an indulgent, academic nod.
“I used to change his sheets,” she said. “His body… There are appendages I couldn’t explain.”
If the Marriott man was mutating into some unholy crustacean, would Church wheel him to the coast one day to let him scuttle out to sea to be with his own kind? Church supposed he would. He couldn’t go on reading Dickens novels to a dead fish night after night, or maybe he would, if only to foster the illusion that nothing had changed. But the Marriott man was changing. The unspoken horror was what neither of them dared speculate; what if this wasn’t a man turning into an unthinkable, but something unthinkable turning into a man?
“You’re not paying some sort of penance by keeping him. He’s not Rachel. Even if he was—” Marsh reached out to take his hand, then must have thought better of it. “Sometimes it’s okay to accept what’s happening to a person.”
“You never knew Rachel.”
“No, but you did.” Marsh nudged him with her foot. “I wouldn’t think differently of you. If we left him, I mean.”
“You must think pretty low of me now, then.” Church grabbed her an unsolicited beer from the fridge. One for himself as well. Neither took a sip.
“You’ve done more than most men would, and not just for him.” She patted the countertop beside her, but Church didn’t take the invitation.
“I’m gonna run a bath for you,” he said. “You should soak that rough patch.”
Marsh was watching him, still pedaling, when Church turned away.
Church carried the Tupperware and blanket down to the shore, close enough to cool their toes in the sand but not close enough to soak their shorts. Marsh passed the gasoline jug between her hands, trotting ahead of him, humming a tune he never could name.
He set the picnic while Marsh scrounged their old firewood stash, higher up along the beach. Both remembered where. They used to motorbike to the ocean every week to watch the sun drown, summon a fire, drink a little, dance a lot, and invent backstories for the boats and debris that washed ashore.
They didn’t talk about the Marriott man. They ate stale granola bars and rice and waved to the buoys blinking lonely blinks out at sea. A cruise ship lumbered by at a great distance more than once, stalking the shore, as dark and uninviting as water, ambiguously manned. They mooned over ships, not in the sense they wanted rescue, but out of curiosity; could it be that people lived on them, after all this time, that they had known better than to dock?
“You’d get claustrophobic on a cruise,” Church said.
Marsh smiled. They both knew this was true, but it wasn’t the point. Church withheld a joke about her growing her sea legs, opting to smile back instead.
They broke out the wine and mused about aliens and zombies and other cinematic clichés which may or may not have ended the world. Marsh’s theories, primarily. Church suspected the culprit was far more mundane. A glitch in the banks. An electromagnetic pulse. Nothing inherently apocalyptic. Just enough to galvanize worldwide unease, and the rest would have snowballed.
But after a little wine, gaslighted by those stars that made him small, he might have believed aliens. He might have believed the strangest of things. None stranger than Davy Jones. Maybe Davy Jones could have infected and eradicated humanity, but if so, it had arrived a few months too late.
Church teetered between dreamless sleep and the waking world, but before he could cross over, Marsh draped the blanket over him and slid the bottle from his hands. She lifted his head and mounded him a pillow of sand too. Church didn’t resist, but he never fully winked out. He lay beside the fire, eyes half-open, watching Marsh airplane her arms and tiptoe the shoreline, like she was a kid seeking balance.
While Church feigned sleep, Marsh chose her steps up and down the beach, the bottle ever in hand, but she never drank any. Church couldn’t remember if she had taken a sip all night. Not like before. The early days. The booze runs and the hotel-hopping that had led them to Mr. Marriott. Those days were gone. Could see it in the way she moved. The way she looked at him, then back at the sea. He might have believed she was a mercreature longing for home.
And who was he to prevent her?
For all he knew, the Marriott man also yearned. Again, Church considered bringing him to this very spot, only, unlike Marsh, who had no real interest in the water, the Marriott man would crab-crawl into and under the waves like a newly hatched tortoise. Church could then leave with Marsh and they could tackle the new world together, like the old days. This, for what it was worth, was how Church imagined it would go.
But tonight’s oceanside fire would be their last. A celebratory sendoff for Marsh before she departed. She didn’t need his permission, but she clearly wanted his blessing. Church wouldn’t withhold it, but he would selfishly savor these final moments. Like a child who wasn’t a child anymore, Marsh had outgrown the Palms. The Marriott man had yet to do so; he needed Church, or, maybe, Church needed him. A symbiosis. They had a place here, together, but Marsh no longer did.
When the day came for Marsh to hike north, Church joined her as far as the overpass. They stopped to rest on the hood of an abandoned Jeep and threw crumbs to the birds flocking on the exit ramp. They shared a sandwich and a warm Coke.
“Find me once you’re done here,” she said.
“South Carolina it is.”
They embraced. He pecked her on the cheek, and she kissed him on the mouth. It wasn’t exactly a romantic gesture, but it felt right.
“I know you won’t want me to worry about you, so I won’t.” Marsh looped her arms through both straps of her bag and was already backing away.
“No need. All the trouble’s gone north. Nothing left here.” He smiled, but she didn’t smile back.
He waved her off until her silhouette shrank with distance and eclipsed the horizon. His gut urged him to go with her, to run after her and see where the End of Days led them, but he didn’t. He hoped to see her again, but hope wasn’t worth much.
The hotel district dug long shadows by the time he returned to the Palms. He sweated from the trek but postponed showering until after fixing the Marriott man dinner. He wasn’t hungry himself.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” Church told him. “Last chapter tonight.”
The man’s eyes marbled under their lids.
Church dumped the bedpan.
The kitchen felt emptier that night. With Marsh gone, the pantry would hold out an extra three months. Church jotted this on the calendar. By the time the food ran out, he would need a new calendar, but he doubted he would care enough to hunt one down. He kept one from the year Rachel had died. Maybe he could reuse it.
He grabbed his radio and a beer and went outside to watch the pool. It was quiet: no Peloton whirring from the second-story balcony. Without Marsh’s pedals trickling juice into their backup generator, Church thought it best to conserve and leave the patio lights off.
He sat in darkness.
When there was no word from Billy Joel above the static, Church flicked the radio off and listened to wind whistling through the dead buildings. He wondered if future archeologists would have better luck than him in deciphering what had happened.
He was about to head inside to finish the Dickens book when movement at the edge of the pool made him go rigid. Silhouettes loomed. They weren’t strays or crocs. He hadn’t seen those in some time. These were tall, man-shaped shadows. These he had only theorized, maybe heard their distant sleuthing at night time and again, but never laid eyes upon. They now huddled at the hotel property fence, laying eyes upon him.
Church wished he had kept the lights on.
They weren’t crustaceans, nor were they a fiction conjured by a drunken fever dream. They moved like elk—skittish and too quick for their size—and carried a salty, sea-carrion stench. Vestigial flesh dangled and twitched like tentacles from their inner thighs and armpits.
The Marriott men didn’t regard him any more than they might a stray. They scaled the fence with inhuman swiftness and waited while two of their number entered the Palms, slipping through the front doors, as traceless as a breeze. Church anticipated the fitful clatter of overturned furniture and ransacked cabinets, but it never came. The Palms idled in silence, unaware of its penetration. Church sank deeper into his lounger, every moment where nothing happened cinching his heart tighter and tighter. The Marriott men’s icy stillness was enough to drive him mad, and yet their body language suggested no threat. No violence. No concern. Like they weren’t trespassing. Like they were meant to be here and Church was a fly on the wall.
The two man-things returned after a small eternity with Mr. Marriott cradled in their arms, bouncing him like a baby. He slept like a baby. The one bearing him was tall, the alpha of the group, perhaps. His tentacles quivered over Mr. Marriott’s body, latching like thick veins to unnourished flesh. The others gawked. Had Church not known better, he would have guessed their alpha was about to breastfeed Mr. Marriott, but Church didn’t know better and there were no breasts, only amphibious ink-blue skin stretched over a flat chest, patches of Mr. Marriott’s cheeks already turning the same oily hue.
The alpha made unholy cooing noises, which stirred Mr. Marriott from his sleep, but rather than tremble or scream or act in any way surprised to wake to someone other than Church, he grinned and puckered little mewling sounds. He proved cooperative as the tribe of Marriott men embraced him and began gnawing his clothes off with their blunt, omnivorous teeth, revealing similar tentacles and anatomical taboos Church had spent months vying to cure.
Church waited for them to advance on his lounger and eat, dismember, or otherwise end him, but they didn’t. Their pupilless, moon-red eyes never blinked or lingered long on him. They took Mr. Marriott and disappeared over the fence, the Palms having fulfilled its purpose. To them, Church was as dead as the gutted hotels entombing him, unworthy of notice. He was but a relic from another time, another world, a world which had moved on, even if he hadn’t.