We called it Extinction because we loved the idea of the spectacle—a terrible monster named for the most terrible thing. Nobody knew where Extinction came from or what exactly it was. All we knew was that it would appear once every several decades with a week’s warning from the shoreline of our city, an island-size mass that eluded any means of capture. Videos and photos of the monster came back with images of a shadow, large and the color of faded paintings. If anybody had tried to study Extinction up-close, none of us could recall them returning.
We told ourselves we’d be ready. This time would be different. We were armed with levity, endless parties and jokes. We could hardly walk a mile without being offered some dubious cocktail named in some way to spite the beast. We sat upon thrones of cached soup and bottled water, ready to return to work as soon as it had passed. We made bets about when we’d be back to normal. Maybe we’d work right through it, tapping away on our spreadsheets while it hauled its leviathan-girth past. We told ourselves it wasn’t the event that we dreaded, but the waiting.
On the morning of its arrival, our pulse climbed. Gently, at first, so that we were not sure if was the monster’s approach or anticipation. There was a dread that silenced celebration, stilled the arm and leg from doing work. We told ourselves this was fine. The least we could do was go easy on ourselves with Extinction closing in.
Hours passed, though they felt like days. We started to hear sounds, saw shadows in the broken light that flickered through treetops. Still, for a long time, we were able to tell ourselves that it wasn’t real, to ignore the flicker of scales and songs of birds long gone. We called it Extinction because it cloaked itself in the faces of the dead.
Many of us waited inside as Extinction came, clinging to the safety of the familiar as the visions built. We laid in our bed, shut our eyes as sea minks danced around our ceiling fans, fell back into chairs just as a Tasmanian tiger leapt forward, jaws bared. But some of us stumbled out into the street, gazed out onto the ever present shore with bodies braced. We would not be beat, even as a burning spread over our skin, an invisible knife trying to pull our pelt from our bones. Outside, we watched it come close, drifting on legs of Stellar’s sea cows. A breeze ruffled its wings, the same dark gray as the dusky seaside sparrow. Extinction wailed through its needle-like deepwater cisco teeth, filling the streets with the smell of rot. We blinked to shake away the feeling of claustrophobia, the world collapsing around us, to find the beast had changed—dressed itself in warrah fur, Lonesome George’s shell.
We called it Extinction because of its eyes. Too many eyes rolling in circles over every inch of its body. The eyes of the baiji, the golden toad, the auk, and the po’ouli draped across its carapace. All the unnamed insect eyes hung upon its hooked antlers. We prayed that Extinction would close all those restless eyelids, slip away at the last moment. But as they had always done, the eyes fell upon us, filling us with all the last moments of their owners. We couldn’t even make a sound as our bodies felt the gunshots, harpoons, fires, and poison of those who had passed. Time sputtered, our hearts bursting countless times until, finally, it stopped. The visions, the pain, all vanished as if they had never been there in the first place.
Extinction left soon after that. It didn’t linger, spending less than a day at our shoreline before sinking back down into the depths it must come from. It never touched us. We knew, though, as we shivered and mumbled our way back into the movement of world, that we’d been cut open, our guts carved with all the stolen years. When we closed our eyes, the outlines of all the named and unnamed dead cut their shape into the dark of our eyelids. Some of us cried for justice, a shield for the still living creatures fading from the Earth. Some of us fell into ourselves, into some depth like the one that held Extinction. The world never understood why we didn’t flee. They never understood the thing we always had to learn each time Extinction came.
We called it Extinction because we knew it. Extinction was our cousin, blood of our bloody hands, the natural conclusion. The monster had built a nest in our hearts, a cage for us to sing our last, lonely song.
Ashely Adams is a swamp-adjacent writer whose work has appeared in Paper Darts, Fourth River, Permafrost, Apex Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue and other places.She is the nonfiction editor for Lammergeier.