You find the end of the world entirely by accident.
Memories come in gasps: frantic flashing lights on your control panel, the howling spiral of wind as you fall, the impact of darkness shattering glass and bone and consciousness. Water is as hard as stone from that far up, or so they say. Either way, the last thing you see are the twin red circles on the amber wings of the pilot who shot you down a thousand feet above the Pacific.
When you open your eyes to drifting white light and the soft sound of windchimes, it’s a surprise. The light, you realize after a few moments, is sunlight through linen curtains. A few moments longer, and you manage to sit up, your head spinning. You’re in a small room with white walls. There’s a woman in the room, sitting in a chair by the window. In the sun, her features blur until she seems to be a statue made of shining. She turns toward you.
You try to speak, but your throat is still raw from screaming as you fell and the words crack and disappear. You swallow, try again: “Who are you?”
“The lighthouse keeper.” She stands, drifts across the room on silent feet, and helps you up. Her skin is warm, wisps of her hair caught in the breeze that floats through the room. In the sunlight, it’s hard to find more details to focus on.
“Where am I?” you ask.
Wordless, she takes your hand and leads you to the window.
Your throat twinges with pain when you suck in a sharp breath. Below you, far below you, the earth is lost in silver mist. You must be a mile above the clouds, at least, and below that — there’s no way of telling how far away the ground is. You’re a mile up, two miles up—
Instinctively, you reach up to snap on an oxygen mask that isn’t there. Your heartbeat thuds in your ears, uneven, stuttering.
“I don’t understand,” you say, voice strangled. “It should be freezing up here. I shouldn’t be able to breathe—”
There’s panic clawing at your chest now, needles of desperation, because you shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be alive at all, and now this strange woman is telling you that you’re breathlessly, dizzyingly high up in the air without even the thin metal shell of a plane to protect you, just your skin and its terrifying fragility.
It takes you a moment to feel her hands on your shoulders, but the air around you strengthens, pushing into your lungs, forcing you to inhale deeply.
“Come with me,” she whispers, and you let her lead you across the room, to a door set in the silver-white stone. She opens it, and you step out onto a wide platform ringed around by a tall fence.
Flowers crowd the space, white-glazed ceramic pots overflowing with blossoms in every color imaginable. In the center is a miniature cherry tree in full bloom, only as high as your waist, with drooping branches and petals the delicate color of your mother’s best Kyoto porcelain. A gentle breeze stirs the garden, bringing the mingled scents of lily and lavender to you. She leads you between the flowerpots and stops by the cherry tree, waiting for your breathing to slow. You focus on the flowers instead of the sensation of falling you get when you look at the nothingness beyond the fence.
“What’s your name?” she asks once you’ve calmed down enough to speak.
“Kyosuke Saitō,” you say. “Airman first class.”
“No,” she says, pulling a blush-pink flower free from the tree. “What’s your name?”
A year and a half in uniform prompts you to open your mouth in protest, no, I’m exactly what I look like, there’s nothing else here. Instead, what emerges is the truth. “Mizuki.”
“Mizuki,” she echoes, dropping the cherry blossom. It spirals away, over the fence and into the void. “Why did you choose it?”
This is all already so dream-like, you don’t even think to ask how she knows. “My father’s sister was named Mizuki. She died just before he came to America.”
She smiles for the first time, gentle as a feather caught in the wind. “Welcome to the end of the world, Mizuki.”
You tell her that you’re part of one of five American air-sea rescue squadrons on the Pacific front. More than that is risky — half of you is convinced this is some sort of afterlife, but the other half of you, the cautious half, keeps your mouth shut in case this is an elaborate enemy ploy to extract information on the war effort. Loose lips sink ships, and all that.
It’s hard to pinpoint where she’s from. Her hair is dark, glossy, catches the light like a spilled rainbow of oil. For the first day or so, you assume she’s speaking English, but it eventually dawns on you that you’re not actually sure what the two of you are speaking. Whatever it is, she has no noticeable accent, and understanding her is as thoughtless as breathing.
“How do you know English?” you ask her, three days into your time in the lighthouse. She tilts her head to one side, birdlike.
“What do you mean?”
You hesitate, then venture, “Are you speaking English? What language is this?”
“What language do you dream in?” she asks, and you don’t press the issue further.
You also don’t tell her that the flowers remind you of your father singing you the doll festival song with you every March, akari o tsukemasho, after you confessed to him that you were his daughter, not his son, and you wanted to be called a new name. For your girlhood we didn’t see, he explained, when you told him you were too old for hinamatsuri.
Then ten years later, when he wanted so badly to enlist and his bad leg wouldn’t let him, you cut your hair and dusted off a birth certificate with the wrong name on it and waited in line outside the recruitment office.
And the president rewarded your loyalty by sending your parents and little sister to a camp in the desert.
“I want to go back,” you say on the fifth day. “There’s still a war.”
“There’s always war.”
You don’t know how to respond to that, so you just repeat yourself. “I want to go back. Can I?”
You wake in your bed, the thin mattress not enough to keep the bedframe from digging into your back when you move. The noise of the carrier is familiar — machinery humming, footsteps on the metal deck above, the distant water-noise of the ocean. For a moment, you lie perfectly still, feeling the air move as you breathe. It could have been a dream. Crashing into the ocean, then five days in an impossible lighthouse — nothing like that could have actually happened. You know that.
It could have been a dream, except when you sit up, you find a blanket of cherry blossoms covering the floor, stirring in an imperceptible breeze.
A year blurs by, and the war ends. You pack your uniform and go home, move back in with your parents and your sister. They’re lucky; their house is still there, still empty for them. Your mother spends her days cleaning houses for richer people while your father smokes and clicks out words on his old typewriter. He insists that someday he’ll write something as good as that Hemingway man. You read over his manuscripts and correct his grammar. Your sister goes back to school. Life returns to normal, except you’re still spending most days in your bed, watching strips of light crawl between the curtains and creep their way across the ceiling.
There’s something about sleeping in your old room that feels like a dislocation — or a haunting. The blankets have a certain nostalgic smell to them that washing doesn’t drive away. You feel your emotions folding into familiar shapes, following the creases of old habits, and can’t tell if you’re eleven or seventeen or thirty, if any time has passed at all.
One change you notice is the birds. They flock to you, flutter through the branches overhead. First it’s the sparrows, dull brown feathers and quick, gleaming eyes that make you think of her. Then the pigeons, iridescence shivering at their throats like a handprint. Soon, their rarer cousins arrive — you spot a golden eagle circling overhead, a flamingo escapes from the local zoo and shows up in your backyard. You wake to the sounds of your father trying to shoo it away with the morning paper.
One morning, a gray-feathered bird with a cruelly curved beak perches on your windowsill.
“Are you from her?” you ask it.
It doesn’t reply. Not that you expected it to.
“Can you tell her—” You don’t know how to finish that. The bird seems to understand, anyway. It flutters away, leaving splintered claw marks in the soft wood of the window frame.
The next time, it’s a shipwreck. The war is three years dead; you’re on another ocean, traveling to Spain. You’re blown off course in the middle of the night and wake to the sound of stone grinding against metal, cold seawater flooding your cabin. Your training gets you up and out before you’re even aware of it.
She finds you floating in the wreckage, drifting in a life jacket on the winter currents, and pulls you up into her rowboat. It’s filled with pale leaves and purple flowers. You’re shaking with cold, teeth chattering and limbs numb, but you manage to smile at her through it.
“You again,” you say.
The lighthouse keeper holds up a lavender stem, looking thoughtful. “Me again.”
Her lighthouse stands at the edge of a cascade of water streaming down into nothing, all the ocean draining off the side of the world. It is built of a slate-gray stone that seems to swallow the light, and its beam is fixed, pointing outwards into the mist of falling water. She ties her boat to an outcropping of rock and leads you up the spiraling staircase until you’re dizzy and panting.
When you reach the top, you lean out the window and feel breathless vertigo at seeing the sea pouring out into the void. You haven’t been this high up since the war ended; heights remind you too much of falling. Here, though, you aren’t afraid. Far below is a garden, clinging to the cliff-edge.
“Where are we now?” you ask.
She takes your hand. “The end of the world.”
Instead of anything sensible, you blurt out, “How many of them are there?”
She doesn’t answer, but there’s a shark-tooth sharpness to her smile. You don’t remember her smiling like that before, but you can’t be sure it’s new.
What exists and what does not blur together in this place. This little corner of unbecoming is salt-scented and cold, her eyes the kind of dark that make you think of storm clouds on the horizon, of the edges of medieval maps marked only here there be dragons. What grows in her garden here is mostly shell and bone, surrounded by wave-washed and sun-bleached wood twisted into fences. Her hair is slippery as kelp, and when you look away, you swear you see her outline flickering like gale-blown waves.
She is different, you think. Like the lighthouse; like the garden. Hardly anything here blooms, and when it does, there are no soft colors — the bushes are stunted and woody, a few dark green leaves shivering in the wind.
In a sheltered corner of the garden, you find a lone lavender plant poking a single brave stem up into the frigid air.
“You shouldn’t stay long here,” she tells you, dark eyes meeting yours but looking through you, towards some point in the distance.
“The sea is unkind.”
You frown. “What does that mean?”
She shakes her head, offers no further explanation. “You don’t want to stay, anyway.”
You don’t, but you can’t understand how she knows that.
You go back. A year of drifting aimlessly, sleeping in cheap motels or on people’s couches, then you find an apartment in London — they call them flats, here — and a job serving tables in a small restaurant. You see so many people, more every day, that it’s hard to remember details like names or faces. You’re starting to forget what anyone looks like, even yourself—it startles you, sometimes, to catch fragments of your own body in the reflections of shop windows or puddles.
Voices are still familiar. You call your father the first night in this new city and he tells you that your sister was accepted to some high-ranked university, between his descriptions of their new refrigerator. He always has his priorities straight.
“Are you happy, Mizuki?” he asks at the end of the call.
“Yes,” you say automatically.
“You’re so far away,” he says, and there’s unvoiced worry behind his words.
“I’ll visit,” you promise. “And call. I just needed somewhere new to start over.” As though any of this waking dream is new. You’re a ghost in your own life, going through the motions of living with no destination in sight, no lighthouse to guide you to shore.
“Are you happy?” he repeats, and hopelessness is a cloud of silk thread in your mouth, suffocating.
He makes a satisfied noise. “Then that’s all that matters.”
You have a dream that she puts the sun in an envelope and mails it to you. You write her back long letters in the golden ink that drips from the star floating in the corner of your room. All that light streaming over your body, hot and weighted like stones. Someone calls the police about the glow shining through your windows, and word of the sun in your bedroom leaks out like the light. They come to take your picture, to see the nuclear furnace hovering between your closet and your desk.
When you wake, you taste the silver-sulfur flare of a photographer’s flash bulb in the dark.
You keep finding flowers in strange places — tropical things, tangled in the pipes under the sink and under the laundry you haven’t folded. Your memory becomes moth-eaten, long gaps of it missing. You’ll leave in the morning and return in the evening and realize you do not remember anything of the day. This does not bother you as much as it should. You sit on the floor in the dark with a handful of the flowers you’ve gathered, red and yellow and wilting in the unfamiliar London cold, and wonder why nothing else feels real.
When your mother calls you, you know something is wrong. She doesn’t speak to you unless it’s of dire necessity. Your father says that when you enlisted, she hoped you would realize that being a woman was a mistake. She was the one to find you in her closet at twelve years old, wearing her heels and wrapped in one of her dresses, the one to drag you out, screaming.
“Kyosuke,” she says, and you flinch at the name you shed the day you burned your military ID. “Your father has had a stroke. The doctors couldn’t save him. You need to come home.”
Your father is cremated on a bright July morning, three days after you spend the night with your hands over your ears to block out the gun-roar of fireworks. The funeral is a short one, sparsely attended — your father spent too much time at his typewriter to have made many friends in the later years of his life. Your sister is a pale sapling in her black dress, your mother’s knuckles white where she grips your sister’s hands hard enough that you expect to see bruises.
As the elder, it’s your responsibility to organize the funeral. Your parents attended a Lutheran church after the war, more of an assimilation tactic than an expression of faith, and the pastor agrees to preside over the interment of the urn. You wear a suit that doesn’t fit and pull your hair back into something resembling a topknot so you can spend the service blinking sun out of your eyes, sweat dripping down the back of your neck.
“Stay here,” your mother says afterwards, eyes steel-hard but rimmed with red that betrays her sleepless weeping.
“I can’t,” you say through numb lips, though you don’t know where else you’re supposed to be.
“Kyosuke,” she snaps.
“Don’t call me that.”
A few yards away, the pastor is examining the grave marker, visibly trying to look as though he is not eavesdropping. Your mother glares, then switches to Japanese, words coming fast and sharp. “Enough of this. Your father humored your fantasies, but it’s time to stop pretending.” Her gaze rakes over your body. “You’ll never be my daughter.”
“Mother, please,” your sister says, voice fracturing.
“No,” you say. You meet your mother’s eyes, flint-dark holes you could fall into and never emerge from, and think instead of a lighthouse beam, shining across an ocean. “You’re right. I won’t be.”
You turn and walk away.
The old man in the flat below you smokes endlessly: several packs of cigarettes a day, always one right before bed. It’s nearly improbable — is improbable, when you think too much about it. None of your neighbors feel real, and you’re halfway convinced that when you aren’t looking at them, they disappear.
In the laundromat, you check inside all your socks, emptying the flowers out onto the floor before putting them in the washer. When you get home, your neighbor’s cigarette smoke doesn’t smell acrid, but sweet like the incense sticks your parents would light sometimes in memory of the dead.
It isn’t really a surprise when you wake to the taste of grief-smoke weighing down your tongue and the alarm screeching. You stumble out of your bedroom into the smell of burning plastic as your carpet becomes an inferno. Distantly, you recall that smoke rises and you should get closer to the ground, but the ground is on fire, a field of flame between you and the door.
The window beside you explodes outwards in a shower of glass. Your head feels light, like you’ve taken your oxygen mask off mid-flight. You’re six stories up from hard concrete, no escape visible. The flames have reached your feet, scorching your bare skin.
You turn and throw yourself from the window, trailing sparks and smoke as you fall.
This world-end is a burning desert. You wake with sand in your mouth, skin afire with sunheat. Her lighthouse towers over you, a glassy black that reflects your hand when you reach out to touch it. Volcano-glass, you think, obsidian sheen cooled so quickly it never had time to form crystals.
You climb the stairs and find her at the top, throwing wood into a bonfire in a room full of mirrors.
“What are you guiding out here?” you ask through the crackling roar of the fire. “Surely there aren’t many ships.”
She approaches and touches your cheek, leaving a smear of ash on your skin. Brushes your hair out of your face. Her fingers are live coals, leaving searing marks that fade as she pulls away.
“There’s you,” she says.
A meal waits on the table, spice wafting up with the rising steam. It’s the first time you recall eating with her, though that realization is strange. The meat is rich, the broth hot. The table is scattered with red and yellow flowers.
After, she stands at the sink, washing dishes, and the endless sun streaming through the window is a shimmering halo of heat around her. You come up behind her and reach out, hesitate with your fingers hovering over her shoulder. Irrationally, you fear that if you touch her, she will melt away into smoke.
“I should’ve died so many times by now,” you tell her.
She pauses, soap suds scenting the air with her garden-grown lemongrass, then turns to you. “Are you certain you haven’t?”
This time, you don’t ask to go home, but you wake in your own bed regardless. Not in your flat — your childhood bed, under the sloped white ceiling of the attic. The room feels smaller than you remember, and colder, its comfort another fatality of childhood. When you descend the stairs, calling for your family, no one answers. Every room is empty.
Without looking outside, you’re struck by the certainty that not only is your house empty, but the house next door is too, and the entire street, and the town, and everything. All of the world an abandoned house, and you the only ghost haunting it.
No. Not the only one.
You find her kneeling in your backyard. She’s torn up the ragged grass that you’ve never taken care of, revealing rich, dark dirt that looks nothing like the dry dust you used to kick up every time you crossed the yard. She doesn’t look at you as you come closer. There are green seedlings set in a neat row that cuts through the overturned earth. She smells like ginger and damp soil.
“Am I dead?” you ask.
There’s a smile curving its way across her face as she looks up at you. “Mizuki,” she says.
You kneel beside her. She takes your hand and guides it to cradle one of the seedlings. Together, you lower it into the earth and spread the dirt flat around it. She hums a melody; you recognize it as the doll festival song, and you don’t wonder how she knows it.
“I am dead,” you say, tasting the truth of the words as they emerge. “So who are you?”
“I’m you,” she says, and when you look at her, you can’t understand why you haven’t seen before how her eyes are yours, her smile is yours, everything about her a reflection. She stands, dirt a dark signature on her skin, and looks at you with your eyes. There’s a scar on her chin where you fell out of a tree when you were seven.
“Why?” you ask, but it’s the wrong question — you don’t know how to ask the right one.
She brushes the soil from her palms. “If I forced you to come home, it wouldn’t have been home anymore.”
You know she understands, but you still struggle to explain, trying to make sense of what you’re already certain of. “I wanted to go back, but it was never quite right. It was duty. It was never what I wanted it to be. Nothing changed.”
“You couldn’t have changed anything,” she says softly. “Not after the ending.”
“None of it felt real,” you confess. “I wanted it to be, but nothing was more than a dream. Except for you.”
You glance back at the house, then down at the green leaves blading out of the soil near your knees. “So what happens now? Do you guide me further, to whatever comes after death?”
“What makes you think there is anything beyond this?” She tilts her head. “I told you. This is the end of the world.”
You run your fingers through the soil, feel it grit against your skin. Your hands look younger, uncalloused and unmarked by time. She watches you, patient, framed against the brilliant sky.
Eventually, you ask, “Could I go back, if I wanted? You let me go before.”
“Do you want to return?”
“No,” you say, truthful. “Not anymore.”
“Then come home.” She extends her hand. The light of her is blinding, but you can still see her eyes through the luminance, calling you to harbor.
You take her hand, and she pulls you to your feet.