This week, I added my 500th book to my Goodreads “to-read” shelf. Which doesn’t count the several hundred books on my Kindle I haven’t read, or the stacks of physical books waiting on my real shelves, or even the handwritten to-read lists that wind up in my journal…
…all of which made me think of the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last,” my favorite, in which a mild-mannered bookworm finally has time to read… because he’s apparently the last one left alive on Earth.
So, to celebrate my nuclear-holocaust-worthy reading list, here’s a bit of fanfic I wrote a few years back, when I’d watched the episode yet again, could no longer bear to leave Henry Bemis standing helplessly amid those stacks of books, and so decided to imagine a more hopeful future for him. (And yeah, it’s kind of sentimental, so if you’re allergic to that sort of thing, you’ve been warned…)
“All the Time in the World”
by Renee Carter Hall
inspired by the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”
(teleplay by Rod Serling, based on a short story by Lynn Venable)
The problem, now, wasn’t what he couldn’t see. It was what he thought he saw, the wavering forms that washed around him as he made his way through what was left of the world. Every morning, the sun rose on a nightmare version of an Impressionist painting, a palette of grays and browns with occasional splashes of sparks arcing from power lines that had not, yet, gone dead.
The first three days, afterward, he spent searching for the gun. Or for another one–it didn’t matter. Anything that could fire a bullet would do. In those first anguished hours, if despair could have killed him, if one could truly die of a broken heart, that would have been his fate. But that merciful endless slumber passed him by, left him breathing and somehow sane — too sane, he reflected — and so he began the search, picking up anything that seemed to be the right size and shape, feeling for a barrel, feeling for a trigger, then dropping the piece of wood or twisted metal and moving on.
He resented his body for feeling hungry. Every day he vowed not to eat, to die in the only way easily available to him. And every evening the descending sun saw him sitting amid the wreckage of humanity, dutifully cranking open another can. Now that he could no longer read the labels, it became a demented kind of game to see if he could guess the can’s contents by the label’s color, or perhaps by a fuzzy image he could make out. He became best at guessing tomatoes, but different varieties of beans proved almost impossible to distinguish.
The fourth day, after he gave up on the gun, he threw the can opener as far as he could and heard it land, somewhere ahead of him, with a rattling clank.
The fifth day, weeping, he searched for the can opener until he found it.
Beyond that, every day was the same — wandering, lugging his stash of cans in an old pillowcase, calling out until his throat was raw even though no one ever answered.
“The only one alive,” he said — to himself, of course, always to himself. “The only one — why, that just can’t be. It can’t be. There are other banks, after all. Other vaults. There must be someone.”
Of all of it, all the gray watery loneliness, he decided the dreams were the worst. Because in them, he could still see.
He dreamed of being back at the bank again, counting out bills to Mrs. Chester — except her face was Helen’s, and the bills were leaves of a book he was tearing apart carefully, page by page. And then he was holding the book, black leather cover stamped with gold leaf, and the cover read simply HENRY BEMIS, and when he opened it, all the pages were marked out with angry cross-hatches. Then the pages slipped free, cascading to the floor with a dry, hollow rustling sound. He snatched at them, gathering them up in handfuls, but they crumbled to dust and sifted through his fingers.
He lost count of how many times he woke from that dream — and always, upon waking, feeling for glasses that were no longer there.
Fool, his mind said in Helen’s voice.
He decided not to walk today. What was there to go toward? It would just be another day spent stumbling through what used to be his hometown, what used to be his life.
It was a sad commentary on the state of affairs, he thought, when he, Henry Bemis, became the last representative of humanity. He could just see Helen’s face at the thought. A fool like him, left to carry the sputtering torch of mankind’s knowledge and achievements. He actually laughed a little, even though it sounded more like a cough.
And then the reality, the earnestness of it, struck him. If he truly was the only one left–
“I must remember,” he said aloud. “I have to, or it’s all lost.”
In his panic, he could remember nothing. Lines of poems, openings of novels, radio jingles — everything went flying from his mind, scattering like a flock of birds. At last he snatched something before it escaped.
“‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,'” he said. “Yes. Robert Frost.”
He did not ask himself who he was remembering these things for. It was enough, suddenly, to remember them for himself, to linger over each word like a bead in a rosary.
“Whose woods these are,” he began, softly, “I think I know.”
The rhythm gave him strength; the rhyme, comfort. He could see it all: the little horse, the shining bells on the harness, the snowflakes skirling in the darkening forest.
“But I have promises to keep,” he murmured, blinking back tears. “And miles to go before I sleep.”
“And miles to go,” a quiet voice echoed, “before I sleep.”
He jerked backward as if yanked by a string. He looked left and right, searching, and then a slight movement caught his eye. Someone was standing there, facing them, a little ways off, but there.
Someone was there.
“Hello?” He threw the word out like a stone into a still pond.
“I’m here.” The voice was musical, feminine. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He heard a shaky laugh. “I’m afraid this is a social situation the etiquette books don’t exactly cover.”
“You’re… real?” It was an absurd thing to say, but he had to say it anyway.
“Of course. Here. We’ll be properly introduced.” She paused.
He waited. “Yes?” he said at last. He squinted into the jagged landscape. “You’re — you’re still there — aren’t you? Please don’t leave.”
“I’m still here. I… Forgive me, I didn’t realize you… You can’t see, can you?”
“Not very much,” he said ruefully. “I had perfect vision with my glasses — perfect vision — but they’re broken. Were broken. And now…”
“Here, then.” He felt her slim hand slip into his. “Margaret Wilkins.”
“Henry Bemis. It’s — well, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, Miss Wilkins.”
“I would think it’d be a pleasure to meet anyone.” She spoke lightly enough, but there was a roughness to her voice that made him wonder — though he could never, would never ask — if she had not, perhaps, found a pistol in the rubble as well.
“But you must call me Margaret,” she said. “I know it’s awfully forward of me, but I insist that as the last two people on earth, we call each other by our first names.”
“Do you really think we’re the last?” How sweet it was, to be able to ask someone what they thought, and to wait knowing an answer would come, even if it might be an answer he dreaded to hear.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen.” Another pause. “The first live person, anyway.”
“It’s been dreadful, hasn’t it.” He reached out and felt her hands clasp his again. She gave a low, strangled cry.
“Yes,” she said, and even in the single word he heard her voice shaking.
He was reeling with questions but knew better than to ask the first ones that came to mind. “The poem,” he said at last. “You… like poetry?”
“Of course. Frost is one of my favorites. I suppose he’s gone now, too.”
He couldn’t deny that. “But we both know the poem. So there’s a little — well, a little of him left then, isn’t there, since we remember?”
“Yes,” and this time it was clearer, stronger, “yes, I suppose so. I suppose that’s how it’ll have to be.”
“We’ll remember,” Henry said, and despite all the strangeness and awkward sorrow, it felt perfectly right to hold her in his arms — one scrap of human warmth and memory clinging to another. “We’ll help each other remember.”
* * *
The first meal they shared together was a tin of sardines and a box of crackers that had survived the blast without being crushed. Once they were seated companionably on a chunk of concrete, he finally dared to ask the question.
“Where were you, when it happened?”
And though he could not see her expression change, he felt the sudden weight to the air, as if his words still hung there, pressing down on them.
“In the rare books room, at the library. I was getting a book for someone doing research on the town. He might have been a reporter. I don’t remember for sure.”
“You worked at the library?” And even now, even with everything in ruins around them, even with the blurry shadows mocking him everywhere he looked, he felt his heart lighten at the thought of the place.
“Yes. I was there for almost four years.”
“Marvelous,” he breathed. “How marvelous — to work surrounded by books. By people who love books, who want to take care of them, to share them…” He shook his head, unable to find any more words.
“Where did you work?”
“Oh, at the bank. Surrounded by people who loved money. I was in the vault, you see. On my lunch hour, reading.”
“What were you reading?”
He felt his face pull into a smile, even though there were tears, suddenly, welling in his eyes. “David Copperfield. I didn’t know it would be the last book I would ever read. But I suppose Dickens is as good as any to end on.”
“Why, you silly man,” she said, tenderly, and his world wavered again. “I can see just fine. I’ll read you whatever you like — it’s not the same, of course, but — if you’d like–”
“I…” He swallowed and tried to smile again. “Yes, yes, I’d like that very much. Very much.” He sighed. “I’m afraid I’m nothing but a sentimental old fool, to care so much about people who never lived…”
She moved closer, and he felt her hand brush his cheek, her palm warm and soft against his skin, her voice warm and soft in the silence. “You mustn’t say that. Neither part of it. They did live — they do live. And caring doesn’t make anyone a fool.”
She moved back then, and he heard pages rustling. “I happen to have something with me you might like. Did you ever read Great Expectations?”
“No.” Then, smiling, “Not yet.”
“Chapter One,” she read. “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip…”
* * *
They went back to the library, together. Margaret said she hadn’t been brave enough before, but she went now, and they filled scavenged knapsacks with all the books they could carry.
They found the house together. Thank goodness it seemed no one had been home when the bomb fell. That was how he thought of it — that it had fallen, not been dropped, no person or purpose behind it, just a phenomenon like a meteor or hailstones.
The house wasn’t much more than a few walls and most of the roof, but it was shelter. The air felt heavy, and the sky was darkening. There was one room without windows, where the door still hung on its hinges and still shut tight. They lit candles inside and opened a can of beef noodle soup.
“There must be others,” she said. “If we survived, so close to it, then there must be more people farther away. Don’t you think?”
He allowed himself to imagine it. “Well, I… I suppose, yes. That seems reasonable enough.”
She laughed, and though he didn’t think he’d said anything funny, he was still glad to hear the sound.
“Listen to you, Henry! Anyone would think you didn’t want to find anyone else.”
“Of course I do,” he said at once. “Why, that’s silly — of course I do.”
For a moment, he imagined all of it back: electric lights, buses and trains on schedule, corner coffee shops with fresh peach pie, customers’ heels clicking briskly on the polished floor of the bank. The world they’d always known.
The world where Henry Bemis was a simple bank clerk, a little man ordered about by everyone. Where a woman like Margaret would only laugh at him, if she paid him any attention at all.
He realized he didn’t want that world back. The thought made him giddy and terrified at once.
Thunder crashed overhead. Beside him, Margaret yelped, a startled, animal sound, and when he reached for her, she was trembling.
“It was so loud,” she whispered, and he knew she wasn’t talking about the thunder.
“Yes. It was.” He held her. This, then, was how it felt to be strong. To comfort someone when you were still afraid yourself. “But this is only thunder. There, now, the rain’s starting. Hear it?”
She rested her head against his chest. “I always used to think that the rain sounded lonely. But now it’s… so ordinary and safe. It’s nice.” He felt her relax. “I’m so glad I found you.”
He swallowed. Helen had never been the sort of woman one courted with fancy words, but now he wished he’d had the practice.
“I’m glad, too,” he said at last. Perhaps if she could hear how much he meant them, the simple words would be enough.
* * *
He woke. “Mm?” It took a moment, as it always did, to remember where he was and why. But every day that moment got shorter.
“I’m back.” Margaret’s voice was light, cheerful, almost childlike. “I brought a surprise for you.”
They were still in the house — or the room, anyway. With the door closed it was hard to tell what time of day it was, but it had looked like late afternoon when he’d gone outside earlier. She’d been gone a day and a half, then, searching the rubble for food and other necessities. He always worried about her, out there alone. Or worse, not alone.
“Surprise? What is it?”
“Close your eyes.”
And he felt the cool touch of metal hooked over his ears, the familiar weight at the bridge of his nose–
“All right. Open them.”
He did. And saw…
The glasses weren’t perfect, not like his old pair was, but they were enough to sharpen the blurred edges, to bring cans and blankets and piles of books into focus.
“How are they?”
And her. Dark, gently curled hair, smooth skin, a smudge of soot across her cheek, brown eyes wide and bright and brimming with eager joy.
“You’re… beautiful,” he breathed. “I mean — I mean, they’re wonderful.”
“If those aren’t good enough, I have more. I brought a whole bagful.” Her voice was light enough, but now he could see she was blushing.
“Oh, no, these — these will do just fine.” A sudden, horrible thought struck him. “Margaret, where did you… You didn’t take them from…?”
“I remembered an optometrist’s,” she said soothingly. “I didn’t want to tell you before, because I thought they might all be broken. And I couldn’t bear to disappoint you if they were. Are they really all right?”
“Hand me the book.” She did, and he opened it where they had left off.
“It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig–” His voice broke, and he closed the book.
“Yes. Yes, they’re just fine.” He laid the book gently pack on the pile. “Margaret, what I said before… I didn’t mean to… That is, what I meant–”
“I know what you meant,” she said softly. She tipped her face up to his, just the slightest motion, and he lowered his without even thinking, without even thinking of anything, so that the kiss, so sweet and long and lingering, seemed to happen all by itself.
“There’s more,” she said at last.
“I found something else outside. There was a sign in the street downtown, and arrows, spray-painted in the street. We’re not the only ones.”
So there would be a world again, at least a little like the one they knew. But maybe better, he realized now. Already — even now, even as bad as things were — already it was better.
“Think of it,” she said. “We can find them. We can build again. We could have a library, and we could keep all of it alive, all of the stories and history. We could help everyone remember.”
Henry Bemis, carrying the torch of humanity. All at once, it didn’t seem such a foolish notion after all.
“We’ll leave in the morning, then.” He touched her cheek, trailing his fingers along her jaw. “I must say, though,” he added, laughing a little, really laughing again, “I’d grown kind of accustomed to being the only two people in the world.”
She took his hand, twining her fingers with his. “We can pretend.”
It was settled, then. In the morning, they would set out with as much as they could carry — food and clothes and water, books and memories and hope. It would take time to find the others, time to rebuild, time to remember.
But they had all the time in the world.