the greatest author at the end of the world

/ Ploy Techawatanasuk

Fiction13 min reading time

At the end of the world, there is a nine year old girl called Mina “Mei-an” Wang who thinks she will grow up to be the greatest author to ever exist. No, she knows she will grow up to be the greatest author to ever exist. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t read the classics, or the American canons, nor the Victorian poetics or European literature. It doesn’t matter that she will never have enough time on the dying earth to read all the books she will want to, much less write like she is meant to.

All that remains when gravity folds into its own bones is Wang Mei-an, who cringes every time you don’t call her Mina, tucked into a twin-size that she shares with her mother in their cramped but cozy apartment, Mina under her quilts in the early twilight, pushing bedtime, scribbling the next great Pulitzer-winning novel into her spiral-bound Hello Kitty notebook, from the first sentences– “Lucy woke up to her alarm ringing. Her blonde hair was pretty and curly and she brushed it carefully as she got ready for her first day of third grade”– to her favorite scene that she couldn’t show her mom without blushing because Lucy definitely wasn’t Mina and “Dylan” definitely wasn’t Max, the boy in class she definitely didn’t have a crush on.

It just so happens that the end of the world comes on a Wednesday, and Mina’s mom works overtime on Wednesdays, leaving Mina alone to microwave her leftover pizza in the kitchen for dinner. The buzzing of the microwave always reminds Mina of the new year, when her mom let her stay up until midnight and the green squarish numbers on the microwave clock would blink at them, her mom’s timer going off as they counted down and poured out cans of Coke. Mina hums along now, her voice still high-pitched the way children’s voices often were, thinking about Lucy and her third grade adventures as she waits for her pizza to get warm and melty.

Maybe Lucy will bring home a class pet and it will be a fuzzy bunny with wide eyes and a pink nose instead of Burton, the slimy swampish toad that Mina’s classmates had started calling Burp-ton. That would be perfect because Lucy is the luckiest girl in the world, and Mina knows it too but still pretends she isn’t jealous. She pulls out her notebook and a pencil and sets to writing her story. It’s decided, Lucy will leave her first day of third grade with Sprinkles, the sweet wide-eyed pink-nosed cottontail bunny cradled in the crook of her arm, both of them picked up in a star-white limousine, no, wait!, even better a pumpkin carriage made of rose petals with glittering gold wheels, pulled by beautiful snowy ponies called Starlight and Shooting Star.

The microwave dings loudly and Mina stands to attention, the smell of greasy cheese and smooth tomato sauce floating from the little metal box. Carefully, Mina reaches inside with a rag and pulls the plate out onto the counter the way her mom had taught her. She blows puffs of air onto the steaming slice despite her watering mouth, because the last time she forgot to blow on hot food, she burned her tongue so badly she couldn’t taste her favorite ice cream for a week. With eager fingers, Mina picks up the steaming pizza tentatively and takes a small cheesy bite, warmth and satisfaction thrumming inside her at the familiar taste. It’s still a little too hot, so she goes haf-sha-fsha with open-mouthed chews to cool it down. She can’t help but wonder what her mom is eating tonight.

Even though Mina knows her mom is at work, she’s still only nine and three-quarters so she doesn’t really understand adult language like “a raise” or “overtime”. What she does know is that her mom is at work, doing something that makes her come home tired and rumpled like their laundry pile, sighing deeply and rubbing at her temples when she thinks Mina is asleep. On Mina’s favorite days, her mom comes home early enough to cook her famous stir-fried mee sua that Mina loves but won’t admit, and it’s warm on the stove as they share it forkful by forkful straight from the wok and Mina gets to show her all the stories that she wrote, especially the ones about Lucy.

Today, Mina knows her mom will come home even later because it’s started to rain terribly outside so her mom will have to wait for the waterlogged buses as they trudge along slippery asphalt. But what Mina doesn’t know is that it will rain so hard that the streets four stories down will start to flood and it will look less like a surging river and more like a wave of sewage, the sludge of the city rising thickly with the water as it picks up litter and grime. Mina doesn’t know that it will wash the entire city into Lake Michigan, sweeping the buildings onto their sides like toppling trees, and the people will fall like shooting stars, a million comets burning through the brown muddy water before their sizzling silences. And all over the Earth, whole continents will tip into the seas like a flipped Monopoly board and the night will swallow all the flickering lights into its darkness because the rain will not know how to stop until everything is drowning.

The world will end in a couple hours later that night, but all that Mina knows is that it’s loud enough to make Mina cram her pizza into her mouth as fast as she can so she can quickly wash the plate and run to hide in the bedroom with her notebook held close to her chest, ducking under the soft square blanket so the fabric muffles the thundering noise. She pulls out the flashlight hidden under her pillow and holds it between her teeth as she bends over her notebook. Pencil in hand, she gives Lucy the prettiest, frilliest dress to change into after school.

Next, Lucy will go visit her mom at work, because Lucky Lucy gets all the nice things in the world. Mina taps the eraser tip of her pencil against her cheek, the pink rubber soft as she frowns in concentration. What could Lucy’s mom do?

Maybe she’s a super spy! Maybe that’s what she did for “overtime”, going on secret missions for the FBI in a skintight leather catsuit, clutching a handgun and armed to the teeth with mysterious multicolor potion vials. Lucy’s mom would take down bad guys and lock handcuffs around their thick wrists with a resounding, final click before throwing them into jail, she would search and save and serve the city, like Supergirl with her long blonde hair and flowing red cape. Lucy’s mom would be blonde, because Lucy is blonde, because Lucy gets all the nice things in the world so she gets to look like Barbie, who is blonde and golden and the prettiest girl Mina has ever seen.

In today’s chapter, maybe Lucy’s super spy mom uncovers an evil mastermind’s plot to blow up Chicago. The scene unfolds in Mina’s mind: the night is dark in the city and Lucy’s mom swings through the window of a warehouse where the bad guy has chained a bomb to the city’s pipes. She creeps along the shadows, climbing the walls like a spider, until she finds it guarded and aha! She takes down the conspirators with her expert karate moves, a sweep of her leg and bam! Everyone’s down! Lucy’s mom decodes the bomb easily and saves the day again, while the people cheer in the streets and the city is safe now, safe enough for Mina to walk to the playground alone when her mom couldn’t take her. The city is safe now because of Lucy’s mom.

But just outside Mina’s sweet imagination, Lucy’s mom wasn’t going to save Chicago this time. The city was drowning like an island being dragged back into the depths from which it materialized, like the Earth was reclaiming the concrete and bricks and sanded glass. A few miles away, there was a loud sound like the tearing of a quicksand pit opening, squelching and groaning, and with a sickening rip like velcro, the asphalt of the road split right down the middle, turning buildings into oversized dominoes, tipping into each other slowly so there is time for dread, like watching it crumble in slow-motion. Mouths that widened to scream were plugged with water before they could make sound. The crashing water rumbled, sending out deep reverberations like echolocation, rippling until they found her, little Mina, sitting on her bed and still dreaming.

Oh! Maybe Lucy’s mom could be a teacher, an English elementary school teacher, so she could help her daughter with her English homework. She’d be patient and articulate, able to read all of her daughter’s writing, and be just as proud of them as her. She wouldn’t have to wait for a half-formed translation in stammered Chinese that never sounded the way it did on paper.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, in a spot she doesn’t even recognize, Mina knows Lucy’s mom could be anything at all, even a waitress like Mina’s mom, but Lucy’s mom would come home every night in time for dinner, smiling and cracking enough jokes to make up for a dad that left before she could remember him. Lucy’s mom would tuck her in at night, in an apartment she could pay for because she wouldn’t have to send money back to China every month, even though Mina’s mom always said it was the right thing to do. Lucy’s mom would be there, and everything would be okay.

In the dimness of her makeshift tent, Mina’s small nine year old hands flipped pencil-marked pages with a vigor only fantasy inspires. If she’d poked her head out from under the blanket for the shortest second, Mina would’ve seen through the window that what used to be her everyday view of the neighboring redbrick apartment’s fire escape had become a wall of solid brown, and in the body of sepia slush she would’ve seen the floating remains of what used to be Chicago as the flood swelled like a deep inhale and rushed down Fair Avenue.

The employees of the downtown Thai restaurant off the corner of Fair Avenue and Salt Quarter huddle together in the darkness of the walk-in fridge, the chefs in their stiff starched stained aprons and thin t-shirt, and the floor staff who still held notepads and cold wet rags. Mina’s mother, Wang Li-wen, fiddles with the name tag that read ‘Lily’ pinned over her chest to keep from biting her nails while her coworkers who had always yelled at her for serving the wrong table, and begged her to cover for their Friday closing shift, and whispered about her behind her back in Thai that she couldn’t understand, now hang their heads between their knees and squeeze their eyes tight. They pick up their phones in vain, punch in the same numbers over and over with shaking fingers as if the signal towers weren’t drowning like the rest of them.

Li-wen listens for the rush of the flood as it washes through the restaurant just outside the thick metal door of the walk-in, but even the sound of the water is quiet compared to the prayers muttered into the skin of palms. Sounds like a church, she thinks, in the dingy cold against the hard tiled floor. She knows, with dreadful sinking certainty, that everyone in this fridge would ultimately end up like the food that surrounded them on all four walls: rotting into expiration.

Knowing, however, doesn’t stop fear from climbing into her bones and squeezing like a tourniquet, faster and faster, tighter and tighter until she’s gasping uncontrollably, her mind racing. Li-wen’s loudest thoughts morph into the shape of her daughter, Mei-an, who is alone in their small apartment crowded with hoarded plastic bags and scattered incense sticks, who is probably bored with nothing to do and why? Why did Li-wen never buy her more things, more toys, more books, anything she wanted? Li-wen’s regrets are flimsy in the face of her fear for Mei-an, only nine– nine!– years old and probably still hungry because pizza isn’t real food, scared out of her mind and waiting for her mother, waiting for the flood to stop in the morning because everything will get better the way it always does by the morning. But Li-wen will never make it home to her Mei-an, her baby who she knows would’ve grown up to become the greatest author to ever live, because even though Li-wen cannot read her stories, Mei-an’s writing is like the flood at the end of the world: it does not know how to stop.

And in the quiet of her submerged room, Mina finishes the last paragraph of the chapter. This is her masterpiece, she decides. She reads it through just one more time. Lucy goes to school on her first day of third grade to get Sprinkles the class bunny, and rides her pumpkin carriage pulled by Starlight and Shooting Star to the downtown Thai restaurant where her mom works as a waitress, and the first thing she does is run into her arms. The bunny and the carriage and the ponies disappear but there is warmth in the press of her mom, the kind of warmth like shared mee sua in the late night, the kind of warmth that stays.

This is her masterpiece, and she isn’t even done yet. Tomorrow, she decides, tomorrow Lucy will have another chapter to become anything she wants. Mina plucks the flashlight from between her teeth and turns it off, the ridges on the switch leaving little indents in her skin that will be gone by morning. When her mom gets home, she will wake up and show her the story, bit by translated bit. Her mom will smile proudly, no longer tired or rumpled. Mina lays down and closes her eyes tightly. At the end of the world, she can’t wait for tomorrow.