Maya

June 22nd, 2165

A lone sparrow chirped away at the waking sky as she perched on a scant tree, a gentle breeze plucking away more leaves. Below, a man in tweed strolled past, newspaper under one arm and a girl of about six in tow, taking three steps for every one of his. As they approached a dilapidated apartment building, he took the breadbasket from her and led her up the stairs. 

Through one of the many windows above them on the second floor, the trill of an alarm clock pierced through the morning hush. A disgruntled arm stretched out from underneath white sheets, trying— and failing several times— to quieten the disruption. 

It wasn’t until several minutes later that Ila emerged from her cocoon, groggy-eyed. She glanced over her shoulder and found indentations where her husband’s shoulder and hip had rested the previous night. As she sat up, she noticed a tiny sticky note on his pillow, wishing her a happy anniversary and promising to bring home the finest wine his translator’s salary could afford. Grinning widely, she shuffled over to the kitchen.

As she sipped from her glass of water, she surveyed the apartment with a critical eye: their anniversary meal that night warranted an ambience to match. She estimated that if she could tidy up in thirty minutes, it would still leave her with enough time to drop by the bakery before heading to work.  

So, she dusted the shelves, aired out the rugs, reorganised their bookshelf, put away the dishes and set out some candles. The last thing she did before hopping in the shower was set out the little black dress that Jai had bought her five years earlier, hoping against hope that she could still fit into it.

*

August 3rd, 2162

It was a particularly warm afternoon. The shade that the baobab tree offered did little to prevent beads of sweat from stinging Jai’s eyes as he scrutinised the skies for the helicopter. His associate Brian shuffled around restlessly, kicking up dirt with every step. 

‘Got a light?’ Brian mumbled, with a cigarette clenched between his teeth.

Jai rummaged around his pockets and pulled out a magnifying glass, much to Brian’s annoyance.

‘One of these days, there will be news of a certain palaeographer’s demise, all because he answered a question about the hour of day in military time.’ 

As if on cue, Jai glanced at his watch.

‘How reliable is this contact of yours?’

Brian had snatched the magnifier away in desperation, ‘If you want to fly across five European countries in less than a day, then he’s your best bet. He’s probably delivering life-saving drugs to a remote village in Serbia.’

He had just managed to align the magnifier’s focal point with the end of his cigarette when, in the distance, they heard the mechanical whirring of rotor blades. 

As the chopper grew larger and louder, Jai was able to discern the faintly disguised lettering across its sides: Polizei.

‘We’re promoting the illegal use of state property now?’ Jai enquired, shaking his head.

‘If the state no longer exists,’ Brian shrugged, ‘I don’t see why a good Samaritan should be reprimanded for putting his skills to good use. Now, quit complaining; he’s doing us a favour, and I’d appreciate not plummeting to my death over Switzerland.’

*

Ila squinted through her monocle at the minuscule writing in the voluminous hardback. She’d always loved transcribing ancient runes, but after having hit a roadblock early into her morning, she’d grown increasingly frustrated with the mundane accounts of farm animals and annual crop yields. When Lisa popped her head in at half past four with promises of birthday banana bread, she took it as a sign to call it a day.

‘Progress?’ Lisa enquired, pulling apart a piece of jerky with her teeth. 

‘Somewhat,’ Ila responded, rubbing her eyes. ‘Who would’ve thought that decades of world peace would be the bane of my existence. Whose birthday is it?’

‘Nigel, from Finance. Apparently, it’s the first time his birthday’s been celebrated since the Blitz,’ she lowered her voice. ‘His entire town was wiped out two years ago, and this is the first job he’s held since the Migration.’

‘Poor Nigel. After all of that, he doesn’t even get a chocolate cake.’

Lisa sighed and turned to greet a friend she’d spotted. Meanwhile, Ila offered Nigel her best wishes and found the two of them a table.  

‘So, what do you two have planned for this evening?’ Lisa asked, sitting across from her.

‘Well, for the most part I’m trying to cook him something from his mother’s recipe book. I stumbled upon it about a week ago amongst the piles of books that we haven’t sorted through yet.’

 ‘That’s so lovely, Ila! Have you narrowed down your choices?’

‘They aren’t so much choices as they are a list of least-painful-looking endeavours.’

‘I’m sure you’ll be fine.’

‘The woman cooked whole birds in her day! I can barely pull together a turkey sandwich.’

‘Be that as it may, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.’

‘I sure hope so.’

When they’d polished off their desserts, the two parted ways: Lisa headed back to finish up some paperwork, while Ila packed away her things and left. 

She was surprised at how high the sun was at this time of day, considering she’d never left work this early. It reminded her of afternoon tea and snacks with her mother as a child, nudging her towards the nearest coffee shop. When she’d retrieved her drink and could procrastinate no further, she made her way to the grocery store, one that she’d visited exactly four times in the past year, given her domestic inadequacies and Jai’s efficiency thereof.

Taking a deep breath, she retrieved the tiny notebook from her backpack, and carefully turned to the first of three pages that she’d bookmarked. The first recipe called out instructions for a fig salad, the second a lasagne, and the third for a chocolate mousse. Given her sheer inexperience with the layout of the store, Ila spent nearly forty-five minutes rushing back and forth between aisles quizzing clerks and gathering ingredients. When she finally approached the cash register, harrowed and frustrated, she realised that she didn’t have enough money for her entire purchase; the fig salad had to go.

As she hastily stuffed her grocery bags, the notebook slipped from under her arm, landing on its meticulously arranged pages. An agonised whimper escaped her, as she realised that she may have done irreparable damage. Carefully, she lifted the book up by its spine, dusting off the hardbound cover.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a tiny Polaroid lying where the notebook had landed.

As she picked it up and turned it over, she locked stares with a pair of large, green eyes.

*

Jai gritted his teeth as they encountered yet another rough patch in the sky. Brian had long since shoved his head into his backpack and had most likely passed out. To Chase, their extremely competent pilot, this was clearly an everyday encounter, and he seemed indifferent at best. 

‘How much further?’ Jai enquired, reminded of the times when he and his brother would similarly nag their parents on road trips.

‘We’re about fifteen minutes away from the designated landing zone.’

Jai nodded, shutting his eyes and pretended not to hold on for dear life.

Soon enough however, he began to feel a steady drop in altitude. When he opened his eyes, they were descending toward the land beneath them, mimicking the sun as it rushed for the horizon. 

They touched down as gently as a propelled device could and Jai found himself undoing his seatbelt before Chase could offer to help him. Relief flooded his muscles as his feet touched the ground, and Jai was silently thankful to be using ground transportation for the remainder of their trip. 

When he was done stretching his limbs, he turned around to find Chase comforting a violently ill Brian behind the chopper.

‘Never again,’ Brain mumbled weakly.

‘But I thought we were having so much fun,’ Chase teased, offering him a bottle of water.

Jai disappeared to retrieve their luggage and reach out to their hosts. Cellular reception was patchy, and he got no response over the airwaves.

‘You alright back there?’ Brian hollered, several minutes later.

‘All okay,’ Jai called back, grabbing their bags and exiting the helicopter. ‘Just sent Mia a text.’

‘I don’t see the Jeep she promised us.’

‘Well,’ Chase began, ‘if you have trouble getting a ride, one of my buddies lives a couple of miles away and can take care of you two.’

‘Is he another lover of open skies and lively speeds?’

‘Is the grass green?’

What colour had returned to Brian’s cheeks turned blotchy at the very thought of air travel.

‘I think we’ll be alright,’ Jai assured him, pointing toward a distant pair of headlights.

‘Oh, thank the empty heavens.’

‘Are you sure you don’t want to join us, Chase?’ Jai offered, holding out a handshake. ‘I’m sure my sister-in-law has an extra room for the night.’

‘I appreciate that, but I’ve got an early morning in Helsinki and I really should be on my way.’

They exchanged goodbyes, just as the Jeep pulled to a stop.

‘I’m here for a Jai Sen?’ the driver announced, taking off his sunglasses.

‘That’s me.’

They produced their IDs before loading their belongings into the back of the vehicle and settling into their seats, Brian riding shotgun. Chase took off soon after they’d turned around, kicking up a tornado of dust in his wake.

They were on dirt roads for the most part, catching sight of the occasional farmhouse with its porch light on, but no people or animals in the vicinity. Every so often, Jai recognised a hometown landmark, but made no mention of it to Brian, considering it was now merely a ghost lacking its original splendour. If he had been dreading returning home, he hadn’t realised it until this very moment, as he became increasingly aware of a once thriving farmland marred by craters in every direction. 

‘I could use a hot meal right about now,’ Brian yelled, over the roar of the engine.

‘There’s that unfailing appetite. Luck for you, Mia’s a fantastic cook.’

‘Oh, I remember.’

‘Don’t forget the important bit,’ he warned, jabbing Brian in the shoulder. ‘Let me warm Kal up to the idea before you start hammering him with questions.’

‘Hey man, whatever works. So long as I have a revered philanthropist on film by the end of this trip, your wish is my command.’

‘I will hold you to that.’

‘This interview is going to be awesome.’

‘That, it will be,’ Jai agreed, silently brimming with pride over his brother’s achievements. 

They were nearing the suburbs, where the roads seemed to be in better shape and were sometimes lit by street lamps. Jai recognised his high school in the distance, the disused community pool to his right, and up ahead, the street corner where he had scraped his knee many a time from turning too quickly on two-wheeled modes of transport. Jai felt a rise of emotion in his throat. 

‘We’re here,’ the driver announced, turning into a narrow street. Nostalgia hit him with the power of a thousand primroses, blooming fiercely in yards all around.

The driver slowed to a stop outside 421 Jackson Drive. Almost immediately, a figure came bursting through the front door. 

‘Mia!’ Jai called, recognising her in the half-light.

He’d barely alighted from the vehicle before she’d thrown her arms around him.

‘What—’ he began, catching sight of more people spilling out from the house. He couldn’t see their expressions, but the grimness was palpable from where he stood. 

‘Mia,’ panic etched into Jai’s voice, ‘what’s wrong?’

She didn’t respond. Instead, she began sobbing into his shoulder.

*

Exhausted, Ila plopped down on the sofa and kicked off her shoes. Her keys clattered as they dropped to the floor, and ingredients tumbled out of the bags she had abandoned at her feet. A regular day would’ve seen Ila reach for the TV remote to turn on the evening news, allowing her subconscious to absorb reports of triumph and failure around the world, while she tackled one half of the domestic drudgery before Jai’s return. Tonight, however, Ila seemed perfectly content in the silence.

Against her better judgement, she reached for her backpack, extracting the notebook from within. About three-quarters of the way through lists of ingredients, instructions, and faded food illustrations, she came upon the photograph she’d found earlier in the day. She regarded its subject with the same intensity she afforded ancient religious texts, before turning it over and staring at the handwritten note, yet again: Maya – April 19th, 2163. Underneath was another untidy scrawl: She has your eyes. The envelope that had contained it called out a return address for Jai’s former home in the Netherlands.

Aside from the ramifications of the photograph, Ila had trouble wrapping her head around the timeline of events, considering Jai hadn’t visited home since his brother had passed away from radiation poisoning. As a former commercial pilot, Kal’s skills had found him plenty of work extracting refugees out of damage zones left behind by the Blitz. His doctors had warned him about the consequences of excessive exposure, but he wouldn’t be deterred from his purpose: to help decelerate the extinction of humanity. He was survived by his young widow, Mia, who had grown up in the same neighbourhood as the boys and ran the local veterinary clinic.

Ila and Jai had met, mere weeks after, knee-deep in North American ruins. If they weren’t scavenging through data centres destroyed by air raids, they were reconstructing tattered remains of government archives at university labs. Within the confines of this bleak landscape, they’d been driven closer by their shared passion for uncovering lost civilisations and appreciation for literature. If this baby were indeed his, it would mean that she had been conceived on his final trip home, when he had attended his brother’s funeral—

With a jolt, she realised that there was someone who could confirm this theory. She rummaged around her backpack and pulled out her phone.

It rang a couple of times before a familiar voice greeted her over the clacking of a keyboard.

‘Hello, gorgeous. Do you still fit into the dress?’ Brian’s voice teased.

‘Did you know about Maya?’ Ila demanded, ignoring his question. 

‘Who’s—oh.’ 

In the silence that followed, Ila could hear her heart thumping wildly against her chest.

‘Ila—’

‘You’re my best friend, Brian,’ she sighed, her voice surprisingly steady. ‘How could you keep this from me?’

‘Ila I’m so sorry, but I need to find a quieter spot.’ 

The line went mute. The clock on the wall stared back at her, reminding her that Jai would be home soon. 

When the line crackled back to life, Brian didn’t waste any time on courtesies.

‘I didn’t know how to break it to you, Ila. I only found out because I happened to be around when he received Mia’s letter. I had no idea they were— there was no way for me to have known—’

No words presented themselves to her as she struggled to process this confirmation of Jai’s secrecy. 

‘I warned him, Ila. I warned him not to keep it from you. He promised to tell you when the time was right.’

‘Clearly it never was. For either of you.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Brian’s voice cracked, ‘but I didn’t think it was my place, or my secret to divulge.’

‘I have to go,’ she mumbled, realising there wasn’t much left to discuss. 

‘I hope you can forgive me, Ila. I’m truly sorry—’ 

She tossed the phone across the coffee table. Her plan to bring one of Jai’s meticulously documented family recipes to fruition now seemed implausible. That didn’t leave much to do, aside from wait for his return.

After much ado to find a corkscrew, Ila found herself standing in the middle of her living room with a glass of red in hand, and a profound sense of dread in her gut. She surveyed the ceiling-high wall of books. How would they split custody of the dozens of volumes that they had found, bound, and proclaimed for themselves over the years? Perhaps, they could start with the Indian epics—  they had been her childhood favourites after all. An almost comical thought crossed her mind: even as the world as she’d known it had ended, her marriage was being tested, not by the separation of death, but by the pitfalls of earthly desires. 

She’d just settled back into the couch, when she heard keys rattling in the front door. Jai walked in, bleary-eyed and spent. 

‘Hey,’ he greeted, before noticing the open bottle. ‘Did I walk in on a party for one?’

‘It’s been a long day,’ Ila croaked.

He smiled at her wearily and pulled out a second bottle from his bag before disappearing to wash up. Ila downed the rest of her glass and poured herself a generous second. 

When he was done, Jai brought out a glass from the kitchen and emptied out rest of the wine. His kind features were cast in a rusted spotlight pouring through the window and she found herself admiring the wrinkles around his eyes and the fading hair; they were almost as integral to his character as his wit and charm. 

Within moments however, the light faded, leaving long shadows in its wake, reminding Ila of the uncharted territory they were heading toward.

‘Alright,’ he sighed, settling on the couch beside her and clinking his glass to hers, ‘you first. How was your day?’

Ila watched him silently as he froze, mid-sip, his eyes having found the photograph lying face up on the coffee table.

‘Happy Anniversary, Jai.’

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