Abstract and Modernist
By Hannah Kludy
She had never thought that they looked particularly like water lilies before, more like an aurora borealis or bacteria under a microscope. Now she thought differently. It was easier to see the painting, though only half of it was remaining.
She knew what had happened because it really wasn’t all that strange. Near the end, a lot of suicide bombers just ran into places like this and kaboom. She had a chance to talk to one once right before he exploded. That’s how she lost most of the fingers of her left hand. It had happened in a library.
“Ever wonder what would happen if I just stole like three books?” She had asked a man standing just next to her in the Downtown library. Her daughter had just died and she had been crying.
“What good will it do you?”
“Just something to pass the time.”
“Better pick a short book.”
Kelly had thought that was rather morbid, but in those times everyone was morbid. People had lost and lost and lost. What was left of them was a bit broken anyway. She had stayed and read through “Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies” for a while but decided that the satire didn’t hit quite right during the apocalypse. So she wandered back to the children’s section where Darlene used to spend all of her time.
She picked up “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which she had been halfway through reading. Again, the irony struck her and she felt like screaming she was so mad at herself for wanting to laugh. And then she saw the man again, looking through the history section. He picked up a book detailing ancient Roman history and collapsed into a fit of giggles. Kelly watched and felt a little better to hear laughter. Then, the man took of his coat and Kelly saw the bomb. She slid behind a metal bookshelf, which she had grabbed tight with her left hand, fingers curling around it, and the next thing she knew, she was in a hospital.
The Monet sort of reminded her of how she saw right after, first waking up. Part of her had thought she died and was in the afterlife and she was so happy and grateful because if she was there, so was Darlene and they could be together again. Now when she looked at it she thought the most interesting thing about it was the singe marks and how they melded with the paint at the tattered end. Like, would Monet have ever seen that coming? It was an oasis turned wasteland.
Kelly’s father would have scoffed at her appreciation. Art that is damaged is not art anymore. She could remember him taking her to see the Rembrandt collection that was on exhibit once. When she bought a coloring book replica, her father scoffed and refused to look at it, no matter how well she colored in the lines. Kelly wondered if he would have looked at this bomber the same way. Looked at the bomber who took her fingers the same way. Looked at her the same way now.
Kelly wandered around a little more, her shoes worn soft making little marks in the ash. She wondered if there was someone else in the museum looking around too. Not a hunter or a gatherer or anything, because everything in there would be absolutely worthless to steal. Couldn’t even be saved for a later date, since the world wasn’t going to piece itself back together. And even if it did, they would want tools and currency and food. Water. Egyptian vases and old English armor would not suffice. Well, maybe the English armor, if there was a particularly short person needing to do battle.
She read the plaques that still hung below and next to what used to be there and thumbed over them to clear away the grime. They were calming. She liked language more now than she had before. She liked the calming, informative and simple details of the plaques in the same way she liked menus from fine dining restaurants that had small descriptions of the food one could order at the bottom. Or the way she liked reading bus route maps, like the one by the old Forever 21 store a few blocks away. It was mostly pilfered in the riots, but sometimes she would go there after ripping something and find a jewel. Still with the tags on. She would put the money in the broken register just for kicks.
She thought about going there, but decided that she had better ways to spend her time. She was hungry. And smelly. Not that anyone else would notice, but Kelly found it oppressive to wake up to her own stench every day and it was only getting worse as the weather got colder. Less likely to want to shower when it’s frigid. So she wrapped her scarf around her face, put her hat low over her forehead and wandered out of the museum.
The landscaping was overgrown and obscured many of the outdoor sculptures. Sometimes people hid between them, back when there were many survivors, but Kelly had not seen anyone in a while. This made her both happy and worried. It made her happy because nobody was trying to knife her as she walked home, but it made her worried because she secretly wondered if she had become a hermit during the apocalypse. What if there was a refuge somewhere that everyone had migrated to and she just hadn’t heard? A brand new utopia where a man in billowy trousers or tight skinny jeans would welcome her. She missed sex.
Wow, it was cold. She walked down by Brush Creek, which was frozen over in the gully between two halves of the Plaza. It kept some of the wind out, but she hated being on lower ground. Easier to target. She smiled to herself because two years ago she would never have even thought of something like that. It would have been foreign to her, absolutely bonkers. But maybe if she had thought of things like that, Darlene would still be alive. She knew that was the beginning of her defeat, thinking about what might have been. Too distracting. Too tempting, here next to a frozen Creek. She could just make herself walk out over it, jump up in the air, fall down through the ice and never come up. She bet that it would be so cold it would feel like fire. Her hand tingled.
She reached a set of stairs that took her to most of the shops and began to climb. Her first stop was Bath & Body Works, which had been looted but maybe not as thoroughly as some of the other places. Who would want perfume during the end of the world? The answer was smelly people in winter, like the rich ladies and gentlemen of old courts who bathed only once or twice a month. Yet they still had sex. That would be disgusting. She might not pass it up though, if she were offered today.
The store didn’t smell like it used to, all teenager and sparkles. Now is smelled wet and musty. Kelly began shopping. She found some hand sanitizers at the bottom of a bin and shoved them into her backpack. Then she started going around the walls, sniffing the perfumes still displayed in similar spots as when the store was functional. She took her time, gave each some consideration.
Their last shipment must have come during summer because all the scents were beachy. That made her happy. She always hated the sickening candy apple and baked vanilla crap. She was just about to pack up the last of the Tiki Mango Mai Tai when she heard the door being pushed open and she threw herself down and crawled behind the counter. Underneath, there was an old bag of peanut M&Ms that one of the workers must have kept for a snack and Kelly’s mouth watered. She hoped the person would leave quickly so she could eat them. No, no chocolate on an empty stomach. She would pack them for later.
The person was humming and she thought she could recognize the tune but she wasn’t sure. It was bouncing back and forth in her brain but music was so odd anymore that the sound was too distracting for her to focus on naming the song. It was pleasant. It sounded female. This was comforting because males were much scarier to run into for all the obvious reasons. The woman, presumably, took her time the same way Kelly had. Then she went to the counter.
“Hello. Yes, found everything just fine. I’m doing great today, how are you?” She must have been lonely. She sounded wistful. Kelly wanted to talk to her. After all, what did she have left to lose? She thought about how long it had been since she had spoken to someone. Four months?
“Don’t shoot,” she whispered. Her voice sounded monstrous.
There was a sharp intake of breath. “Come out.”
Kelly rose slowly and saw that it was a younger girl, maybe in her early twenties. She was thin and had chopped most of her hair off, but still managed to look better than anyone Kelly had seen after the end. She even had lipstick on and her hat and gloves matched her coat, even if it was all a little dirty.
“What are you hiding from?” she asked.
“I heard you come in while I was shopping.”
She laughed. “Shopping, yeah. I’d just almost finished with mine. Terrible service at this store though, huh?”
Kelly laughed too and it hurt her throat. “Yeah, I suppose.”
“Have others with you?”
“Nope. Just me. What about you?”
Her face contorted into something ugly for a moment. “No.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I uh…” Kelly didn’t want to leave and she didn’t want the girl to leave, but she didn’t know what else to say. Her social skills had melted away in the fires.
“I, uh, was just going to Sephora. Want to come? The store is almost complete.”
Kelly smiled and so did she. Together they walked out of the store and crossed the street. Kelly grabbed the candy on the way out and stuffed it in her still open bag. She wasn’t sure she liked the girl enough to share. The street was clear but she still felt exposed. There could be people in the upstairs windows watching. She hurried after her companion.
“Ever feel like you’re being watched when you know you aren’t?” she asked.
Kelly nodded. “I feel like it every time I cross a street. So what’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you.”
They walked into the store and Kelly saw that what she had said about it was true. She supposed that near the end everyone had better things to worry about than makeup, so it would make sense. It was even more intact than Bath & Body Works.
“You’re telling me. I used to come here all the time with my girlfriend. When we found it still looking okay after we started coming out of hiding, we were thrilled.”
“Where is she, your girlfriend?”
Silence. Hard look. “She died. Some kind of illness, we aren’t sure what. Maybe pneumonia. She started coughing blood. Her name was Carly.”
“My daughter died, too. A while ago, though. A year or so maybe. Not sickness. I lost her to a mob.” Conversations like this wouldn’t have happened in polite company before the end, too much too soon, but now it all felt hurried like they couldn’t tell their stories fast enough. The words didn’t come out right anyway. Needed more time for the method.
“It was quick.” Kelly felt bile rising in her throat, and guilt and regret. She breathed in and out.
“Let me do your makeup,” Emma said. She walked over to one of the tables that the employees used to work at. She dug around the drawer and pulled out an unopened box of wipes. She used one to clean the grime from her face and hands. She gave one to Kelly and put the rest in her bag. She didn’t offer Kelly a second box of wipes, but Kelly resolved to grab one when she wasn’t looking.
Emma started walking around the store. Kelly followed her absently and watched as she looked from Kelly to a product, back and forth. Kelly was overly aware of how much scrutiny she was under and worried about her appearance. She had dark circles. Maybe some crow’s feet though she was barely thirty. She wondered how old Emma was. No more than twenty-five, upon closer inspection.
Emma had a handful of makeup and she walked back to the vanity. She dumped it on the counter top. “Sit,” she commanded.
Kelly sat on the uncomfortable white chair that felt slippery beneath her layers of clothes. Emma was unboxing new products and biting her lips a little. Once she had set up her station, she turned the chair around to face her, not the mirror, and began to work. She stood between Kelly’s legs and Kelly wondered how long it had been since someone was that close to her. Maybe over a year. The last person was probably the guy who attacked her in the grocery isle of CVS. She had barely managed to get away.
The brush she used was new too, and gave Kelly goosebumps. She felt her nipples get hard. They were both silent while she worked and she could feel Emma’s breath warm on her face. She tried to imagine what she was doing. Primer, concealer, foundation, blush, eye shadow. It brought back memories, which hit her like a torrent. She wished she was back in any one of them. She wished she didn’t exist in a world without them anymore. How had she ever taken getting ready in the morning for granted?
When Emma was done, she swiveled the chair back to the mirror, which was dusty, but Kelly could still see that she was more beautiful than she had been in ages. She herself had never been good at makeup, and hers had been more functional. Cover up this zit and such. She looked like a model. Her dark circles had disappeared. Her complexion smoothed. She wanted to touch her face to make sure it was real, but she didn’t want to smudge the perfection.
“You do mine.”
“I’m not good like you are,” Kelly said.
“That’s not the point. Go shopping.”
Kelly wandered the store looking for her supplies. She wondered if her father would see this as art or expression. She certainly felt like it was in these times. Maybe it was fruitless, but that was sort of the point of art. It only mattered to those whom it affected and served no practical use. If she applied her definition, what else could she consider art now? A blender. A toilet. Cars. Maybe the end of the world had turned everything to art.
She picked out a medley, including a bright purple lipstick. She set her stuff next to Emma’s. She was already sitting in the chair. Kelly began working, and her fingers were clumsy at first, but soon they fell into an old pattern. The repetition and method felt nice. She wondered how many days of her life she had performed this exact act upon herself. Too few, she thought. The last thing she applied was the lipstick. Then she turned the chair around.
“Not bad,” Emma said, nodding in approval and scrunching her lips. “I like this shade.”
“Thanks. I’m out of practice.”
“Out of practice wearing it, too. You’ve mashed your lips and spread the gloss out of line. Here.” Emma reached out and with the tip of her finger wiped. Kelly wanted to lean into her touch.
“I have an idea,” Emma said.
“Let’s go to Victoria’s Secret. Right across the street. We can try stuff on. I need a new bra and panties, anyway.”
“Okay.” Kelly felt shy.
“It’s nice to have a girl’s day, huh?”
Crossing the street was a little less painful this time, maybe because Kelly was so distracted. And maybe hopeful for the first time in a long time. Inside Victoria’s Secret there was a dead body but it was thoroughly decomposed and Kelly just didn’t look at it. Seeing dead people wasn’t unusual and she didn’t want to waste her time.
This store had been pretty well sacked, but she figured that most people wouldn’t have gone into the stock room. They wandered in the main store, and Kelly thought about how it looked like an old-fashioned boudoir, especially in the pale light. They reached the store room and Emma pushed open the door and shone a flash light in. It looked mostly untouched, which made sense because in the chaos, most people had just grabbed and ran without thinking.
“What size are you?”
“Umm I was a medium, and a 34D. I bet that I’m different now.”
“Guess we’ll need to do some trial and error.”
Emma began to strip. She peeled off her winter-wear and Kelly saw that underneath she wore tight thermal leggings and an ugly Christmas sweater that looked amazing on her thin, willowy body. She looked like a girl who had always been skinny, not like Kelly who had once been curvy and had shrunk with the decline, was too skinny for her form. She felt self-conscious and tried to not look at Emma while she undressed herself. Once Kelly was naked, she started sifting through boxes. She was mildly afraid that someone might come in the store and ambush them while they were exposed, but she remembered that she had a knife, and nothing to lose, and that Emma did not seem to care.
They moved about the storage room and unpacked boxes, using their knives to slit through packing tape and plastic coverings. They tried on in silence. Across from the door was a mirror, and Emma examined herself often. She preferred lace, it seemed, red or purple or pink. It was small, insubstantial. Kelly could see she had a faint trail of hair below her belly button.
She hoped that Emma was not watching her as carefully. She picked more long-lasting attire. Lace could disintegrate. And it was bad for an area that hardly ever was washed. Kelly wanted to tell her that, but she figured that Emma knew and just did not care. And she didn’t want to seem motherly or bossy. Kelly stuck pairs of cotton underwear in her bag as well as some sports bras. She had gone down in size, and that made her sad. She hadn’t thought to ever care about her looks again.
She looked at herself in the mirror for the first time. She had a bruise across her ribs from where she fell down the stairs at the hotel when it was dark. She had scratched arms and her hand looked atrocious, disfigured, mutilated, sickening. She was thin. Her breasts were saggy. Her hair was knotted. She stood still with fury.
“You are still beautiful,” Emma said.
“I never appreciated it before.”
“It seems careless now. I still fall for the trick.” She reached out and pushed Kelly’s hair back from her face. She rummaged around a box and found a silk robe and a brush. She tenderly worked the brush through Kelly’s hair, cutting occasionally with her knife when she couldn’t force it through. She tied her hair up in a bun with the robe’s satin tie. When Kelly looked in the mirror, she felt weak. She turned to Emma, who kissed her hard on the mouth.
Then together they were sinking to the floor, kissing and running tongues over each other’s necks, nipples. Kelly had never been with a woman before, but she found it was easy. She grabbed Emma’s small breast and squeezed and Emma made a small, appreciative sound. It was just like pleasing herself. Kelly was relieved that she could still enjoy sex, that she could still help someone else enjoy it. When Emma climaxed, Kelly felt her heart throb and followed suit. They laid next to each other after and Emma held Kelly’s good hand.
When they had cooled off, Kelly reached into her bag and pulled out the M&Ms. They shared them in silence. Kelly wanted to make love again, but was worried that the moment, the chemistry had passed. She was feeling melancholy and lonely already. Would Emma want to make a life with her? Should she even ask? Her heart ached like she was being abandoned.
“What’s the worst thing you ever did?” Emma asked.
Kelly didn’t want to answer, but she did anyway. “I shot my daughter. When the mob had her. I didn’t want her to live through what they would do to her.”
Emma nodded. “I let my love live and didn’t shoot her, even when she begged. She did that a lot before the end.”