One thing was for sure: Elise couldn't be Robert's void wife. On the day the void was scheduled to hit San Francisco, she hid from him in the ruin of the Sutro Baths. She gazed out at the Pacific while behind her, the void consumed Oakland.
The void had appeared six months ago in a slender belt around the globe near the 90th meridian, slicing through Detroit and New Orleans, Bangkok and the Kirov Islands of Russia. Since then it had expanded in both directions on both sides of the planet at the rate of seventy miles a day, like two immense pairs of lids drawing over the eye of the earth.
In Chicago, Elise and her boyfriend, Todd, had watched groups of people holding hands as they flung themselves against the veil. Their akimbo silhouettes remained outlined for a few seconds before fading to black. Everyone believed that the void was a portal to an unspoiled earth. Everyone believed also that one would exist for eternity with the people one was touching at the moment of absorption. Elise held out against this idiocy. Death was just death, same as always.
Now Elise wished she'd voided herself with Todd when she had the chance. At four p.m. the cruise ship Robert had commandeered would set sail. The ship's passengers would enjoy a few additional months of existence at sea until the margins of void closed around them. Elise knew she should crawl into the caves and wait for the void to take her alone. If there was an eternity, she couldn't risk being stuck there with Robert.
But Elise was a coward. Elise loved existence. She ran back to camp, where Robert was packing the Prius.
"Cutting it close!" he said, kissing both her cheeks. He was still somehow wearing cologne.
After their Chicago apartment was absorbed by the void, Elise and Todd had driven west to collect their parents. The first stop was Oklahoma, where Elise's mother and father lived in a replica of the ranch house she had grown up in. Tornadoes had leveled the house once when she was twelve and again when she was in college. Her parents rebuilt each time, with slightly less care than before. Elise stood in the living room, her gaze roaming judgmentally around the canted ceiling, the rough margins of carpet, the unpainted drywall.
"We've stayed put through worse storms," Elise's mom said.
"It's not a tornado, Mom. It's a curtain of absence that negates everything it touches."
"Might as well be negated in our own house, then."
"You kids can come with us, if you want," Elise's dad said. Her parents were sitting on the couch, her mom's calves draped over her dad's thighs. They were ready.
The wall behind the couch began to bruise. Elise grabbed her mom's bony wrists and tried to wrench her from the couch, but her mom shook her off and slapped her face.
"Get on, then, if you're so keen on existing," her mom said.
Elise and Todd stood on the sidewalk and watched the house eaten away in pixels of void. They got back in the car only when it was certain that her parents no longer existed and would not change their minds and come along, even with perhaps a voided-out smeary stump where an arm or leg had been. Elise cried quietly, staring into the side mirror at the satiny black wall.
"It's okay," Todd said. "They have each other in eternity."
"You believe in that crap now?"
Todd shrugged. "I don't not believe in it."
"I thought you were an atheist."
Todd said that God had nothing to do with it.
The next day they rolled into Colorado Springs, where Todd's dad lived in a large condominium complex. They sat with him by the pool, which was clotted with children. School had been called off in light of the encroaching void. It was 11:00 a.m. and already hot. Drops of sweat fell from Todd's dad's chin into the joint he was rolling.
Todd begged his dad to come with them.
"Sometimes you just gotta cash in your chips," Todd's dad said. A woman in her fifties, wearing heavy makeup and a tall lacquered hairdo that evoked challah, brought over a crystal bowl of fruit salad. She put her hand on the meaty shoulder of Todd's dad and glared at them.
"Fruit salad," the woman said. It did not seem like an offer. Elise guessed that Todd's dad had taken this woman as his void wife, and she didn't want children from his first marriage joining them in eternity.
Todd cried as he hugged his dad goodbye.
His dad shrugged. "Why're you crying? You know that void's a straight chute to heaven."
In the car, Todd said he was kind of glad his dad refused to come, because that meant his mom would be more likely to join them.
"I know it's terrible, but if I had to lose one parent to the void it would definitely be my dad."
"Do you think he really believes the void is a chute to heaven?"
"Maybe it is, Elise," Todd said, irritated. "Wouldn't you rather believe that your parents are in heaven right now?"
Elise's tears resurged upon mention of her voided parents. Todd muttered an apology and handed her a Taco Bell napkin from the sheaf in his door pocket.
Todd's mom lived in the mountains with her boyfriend, Stuart, a geologist. The back of their cabin jutted over a chasm. The four of them sat in Adirondack chairs on the deck and looked at the mountains. Behind them, the sun was setting, bloodying the snow-capped peaks.
"We can't wait to watch the mountains get voided," Todd's mom said.
"I've spent my whole career studying those mountains," Stuart said. "It's going to be a relief."
Todd drew Elise into the kitchen.
"Maybe we should stay here with my mom and Stuart," Todd said. "Stuart seems like an interesting guy to spend eternity with."
"You really do believe in that void fairy tale," Elise said.
"Well, what if it's true?" Todd said. "You really want it to be just you and me, forever?"
Elise's heart broke a little. It was clear their relationship had no long-term viability. Where was the romance? Todd wouldn't even submit to eternity with her unless his mom and Stuart came along.
They stopped for the night at a motel in Utah. In the morning Todd and his Corolla were gone. On the TV screen Elise found a neon green post-it note with a heart penciled on it. She hitched her way west until she hit ocean.
On her first night in camp, she'd met Robert. He'd come to the bonfire with a basket of groceries looted from Safeway. He watched as she warmed a piece of Wonderbread near the flame. All the good bread had already been looted.
"You're the last babe on the West Coast," he whispered into her ear. She wanted to protest that this couldn't possibly be true. Robert was just terrified of facing the void alone.
Robert had lied about the ship. He wasn't the captain, just another passenger with a cheap interior room. Still, he had saved her. Tickets were scarce, and as they entered the bay Elise gazed at the shore, from which throngs of people begged to be allowed on. Robert put his arm around her shoulders and coaxed her into their cramped quarters. Elise's first instinct was to shove him away, but she took a deep breath and endured. She planned to lull Robert into complacency so she could escape him at the final moment.
Later that night, the void hit the ocean, which really fucked with the waves. The ship pitched and rolled. Elise allowed Robert to put his tongue in her mouth. The ship heaved and her jaw closed on the tip of his tongue.
"Ow, Elise," Robert said. "What the fuck?" His tongue was bleeding. She brought him ice chips from the hall.
"Sorry," she said. When he asked if she wanted to hear him play a few new songs on his guitar, she felt she couldn't say no. Robert stared into her eyes as he strummed the guitar and sang in the style of Bob Dylan. She was sure it was a joke, but then he played several more songs and she realized it wasn't. Just a few more months of this, she told herself, and you'll be free.
The last months of existence were terrifying, the ship tossed like a toy as billions of gallons of seawater gushed into the void. In January the western wall of the void loomed before them, trapping them between the two black margins. It was light for an hour a day, then half an hour, less, as the void closed the sky. The captain steered south, traversing the narrowing channel of sea.
Robert had grafted himself to Elise's side. In the final minutes Elise remarked that they should probably use the bathroom before being voided, just in case it was a long trip.
"Good idea," Robert said. "You stay right here." The bathroom door slid shut behind him and Elise ran out of the room, down two flights of stairs to the spa, where she climbed into a hot tub with three women who were wearing blindfolds and earplugs and pressing their fingernails into each other's forearms. Suddenly the ship was still, cradled by the walls of the void. Blackness pressed in from both directions. Robert's voice called Elise's name from across the deck. She dipped her head underwater, hoping her air would last long enough. But the void was too slow. She came gasping to the surface, and Robert spotted her. "Elise!" he said. "Thank God!" He jumped into the tub and placed his hands on her knees. The void had begun eating her right and left sides in perfect symmetry and she could no longer move. In her last moments of corporeal existence, just before she was transported to an infinite white plain upon which it was impossible to hide from the orb of bluish light representing Robert, she took small pleasure in watching his face disappear.