At the end of the world, with civilization in ruin, Mad Marx’s cell phone rang again. The words “unknown caller” flashed across a screen that was cracked and scratched from an Armageddon that even an Otterbox couldn’t fully defend against. Despite the mystery, Mad Marx knew who it was–he only got one kind of call since the fall–and sent it to his already full voicemail with a press of his thumb.
A frown pulled down his dry, weathered lips at the thought of those chittering voices all stacked on top of each other in that condensed, faraway space–a pocket dimension accessible by holding the number one, a vast emptiness where once a million messages waited, conversations sealed in Ziploc bags never to be opened.
The light from the missed call indicator momentarily brightened the cave, and he could see his mother’s thin frame huddled against the stone wall. Her small body swam in his Princeton letterman jacket. They hadn’t had any warning about The Event, no time to grab blankets or bring food. They’d only been able to take the clothes on their backs. Only the Cave of Contemplation and his reserve of Mountain Dew had saved them.
Mad Marx’s parents had built it as a joke when he moved back in with them after college–converting their old wine cellar into a dank, crowded library furnished with the accumulated knowledge of his six long years as an undergraduate. But those thickly bound books with their dense texts had somehow blocked the radiation from the fallout, and the sturdy walls had protected him and his mother from the roving bands of the displaced proletariat that haunted the post-apocalyptic waste. As the world disintegrated around them, he and his mother and fifty-six of the world’s greatest minds had been preserved.
The glow of the iPhone dimmed. Mad Marx’s mother coughed–a wet, phlegmatic cough that repeated like the sputtering of a lawn mower–until she was finally able to hack up the mucus in her throat, which she deposited in a slimy puddle next to Fear and Trembling and Repetition by Søren Kierkegaard right before the illumination from the cell faded out completely. Then it was just darkness and the smell of books and Mad Marx’s mother’s old lady body odor, then the slight punch of the Altoid she slipped into her mouth when her coughing fit subsided. Mad Marx knew its curious strength would not be enough. Her COPD was flaring up again. She needed more Advair.
“Ma.” He shook her shoulder gently in the darkness. “I gotta make another run. We need ramen and meds. I’ll leave the phone here as a torch for you.”
He fished the dongle from the pocket of his jeans and plugged the phone into one of the many cell phone power banks he’d managed to acquire in the days after The Event. At the flood of juice, the phone perked up once more, a green bar flashing repeatedly across the battered screen.
His mother rolled to look at him, her eyes wild and hair unkempt and dirty. “Don’t be a fool, boy,” she said. “You’ll never make it. You’re just a philosophy major.”
Mad Marx patted her hand reassuringly and opened the door to their protective fortress. Before he left he told her, “Don’t let nobody in unless they know the password.”
“Anybody,” she replied weakly. “Jesus, $120,000 dollars in tuition. Anybody, boy.”
The world outside was a crumble of steel, a tortured zeitgeist left to scream over the bones of its half-remembered self. Mad Marx could hear the engines of the reavers’ cars.
He was a prime mover, and he picked his way across the barren landscape, sure only of his own solipsistic movements.
In some ways the world was perfect now for Mad Marx. It was a world of survival and thought, and the survival of thought, where the growl of hunger pangs chased the lament of ennui. He was a pure being, unfettered by modern trappings, an ontological argument in favor of his own usefulness. But perhaps his newfound usefulness lacked objectivity? Perhaps there was a distinction between the implication of existence in virtue of its very title, and it did not follow that the existence in question was anything actual in the real world?
He debated this with himself all the way to the burned-out husk of the pharmacy. While guns pumped and fires raged in the distance, he collected the Advair, more cough drops, some potato chips and instant noodles, and he debated. He debated on the way back to the Cave of Contemplation, while the radiation hummed around him.
When he got to the reinforced door to the cave he knocked.
“Is that you, Marx?” his mother called weakly.
“Ma, use the password like I taught you.”
“No,” she said. “I can tell it’s you.”
“Use it, Ma. It’s the only way to be safe.”
He heard her sigh loudly through the door. Finally she asked, “Who is and isn’t there?”
“Meow,” Mad Marx answered.
His mother opened the door and glared at him. Her expression softened when she saw his haul, but she stopped short of words of appreciation.
As soon as he came in and barred the door, he checked his phone, as much from habit as anything. He had three missed calls.
“Next time they ring, I’m answering,” his mother grumbled through a mouthful of chips. “This is harassment.”
As she spoke, the phone lit up again with an incoming call. His mother looked at him expectantly. He answered.
He could hear the chittering of the irradiated, sentient cockroaches on the other end of the line, the clicking of their mandibled mouths. “Hello, we’re calling to let you know your unsubsidized Stafford Loans are in default. Our records indicate that you haven’t made a payment in 346 days. Federal law requires you to make a payment of $32,326 today. We want you to know this is a serious matter.”
Barlow Adams is a freelance writer and the author of two novels. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies. When cornered he will prattle nervously about comics and basketball. Follow him on Twitter @BarlowAdams.
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