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Melissa Perri Smith was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs and is currently based in the Washington, D.C. area. Melissa attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where she received her bachelor’s degree in international relations and religious studies. She has worked as a contractor for several government organizations, including USAID, the State Department, and the Coast Guard. When she’s not writing for the government, she works on her poetry, some of which is featured in Sky Island Journal, Channel Magazine, and iō Literary Journal, among others. Just Us is her first fiction book.
Smith writes with such command of lyric artistry, and Just Us is exemplary of that. The dialogue between the two protagonists Mei and Kai has such a lovelorn tone, amidst the turmoil they face in a post-apocalyptic world. The emotional tug of war could not be more tangible and Smith paints a picture for the reader that makes them feel as though the scenes are opening right before their eyes. A genuine treat to read. ~ L. R. Sterling
A beautiful exploration of ends that are just the start, and the roots of life that compose each moment. Melissa Perri Smith has crafted an unsettling and haunting story that is at once poetic and poignant. ~Gian Sardar, author of YOU WERE HERE and TAKE WHAT YOU CAN CARRY
Just Us transports the reader into a Twilight Zone of a post-apocalyptic world in which there is a sense of strangeness and disorientation—a questioning of whether this is reality or a dream. Smith brings humanity to the mixed race characters as they reflect on their survival and existence as they do a life review, remembering things from their lives after the world ended. ~Stephen Shigematsu
In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely. “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God. “Certainly,” said man. “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God. And He went away.
~Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
Three Days After
On the first day, the world was swallowed by darkness. On the first day, did God ask for light? Do the gods need to ask? The gods commanded the heavens to open, and we were trapped inside, convinced that everything had ended.
On the second day, we were resolved that perhaps not everything had ended. The outside was still enveloped in a sweltered sky, and we were trapped inside, but we had food, and we had each other.
Today is the third day. What happened on the third day? I’m not sure, and I rack my brain to remember. Maybe the world hasn’t ended after all.
You’re not sure either, but you’re asleep, and I nudge my toe against a splintered piece of wood on the window ledge. My breath flits out between my bared teeth, shaking from the creeping cold. Outside, the ground is coated in a layer of white, where, a lifetime ago, I would have jumped in our bed to wake you so we could spend the day playing in it. I wouldn’t have questioned why it wasn’t cold against my bare fingers. We would have thrown on thin jackets and wool beanies to lie on New York City concrete to make snow angels and drink in hot chocolate-coated afternoons, knowing we’d have a warm apartment to escape to. Not this. Anything but this.
You shift in your sleep and reach for me. Your skin, blacked with ink from your shoulders to your wrists, is brown in these late fall days, where sunlight is a rationed necessity. Your fingers brush against my makeshift cot next to yours, and you latch onto my hoodie, pulling it into your chest. I watch this interaction from the windowsill. It is amazing — the infiniteness of the spaces we occupy.
“Mei,” you say with your eyes still closed, and your voice is bumpy like the cave we were caught in when everything began ending. I shake my head. Not that. Not now. You smack your lips twice before licking the chapped-ness away, at least temporarily. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I say. The word falls against our ears in a minor key, but it is not a lie. There is numbness, more than anything. Your question is a requirement, an hourly routine at this point, and I understand why you feel you have to ask it.
I drum my fingers against the sill and watch as the sky clears for the first time in days. The numbness sits like a pit along the joints of my body, against all the parts of me that shift and twist and break, and I rub my elbows and my knees to keep them from drifting further. But maybe my body has always felt like a pit, like the drop that rips open your stomach when you miss a step on the stairs.
Your eyes peel open, heavy with an unsatisfying sleep, and you prop yourself up on an elbow. The cold of the hardwood bears bone into you, and you flinch with it. I turn away as you rub your eyes clean, but I can feel you watching me. There is a warmth in your gaze that reminds me that your company, your unending patience, is the only safety left in the world anymore.
I don’t look your way.
“Come here,” you say, and your voice lilts up and down in a sing-song way. It’s the voice you use when my chest is too tight to move, when I stay in bed and stare at ceilings all day.
I hop off the sill and sit on the floor next to you. You sit up completely and ruffle my curls. A reluctant smile peels at my lips, but the hollowed look in your eyes erases it. Black, like your hair, like the ink that curves across the sinews of your skin, and I swallow.
“Your hair’s a mess,” you say with your hands tangled in the nest of it.
“And you’re the epitome of beauty.”
You snort. You, with your shoulder-length hair that’s curlier than mine, with red marks streaking across your face from sleeping with your face pressed into a backpack-made-pillow, and for a second, we’re back at the place we were supposed to be. Visiting your sister on a weekend trip to D.C. Painfully in love, the kind of love that eradicates numbness, but three days feels like years ago, and I grab your hand.
I glance out the window, and sure enough, it’s true. “The ash has stopped,” I say, and you don’t respond immediately. Maybe we’ve lived too long in the flurrying whiteness already that it doesn’t register, but your grip slackens as I turn back to you.
You don’t wait for my response and go to look out the window. The visitor’s center building creaks around us, unfamiliar and far away from home, and I pull my knees in close to my chest. I can see your breath from here, its rapid pulsing fogging the window the way ice condensates water glasses in summer.
Without another word, you grab your backpack and fill it with items we had scavenged from the vending machines. Nuts and pretzels and water bottles. I watch as you set yours down, grab mine, and do the same. You put a few packets of peanut butter cups in the side pockets, and I smile. This is one of the ways I know you love me.
“We should move while we can,” you say as you pull out more bottles of water and put as much as we can hold in our packs. “We don’t know if it’ll start again. Maybe other people have been waiting for it to stop, too. And if our car still won’t start, someone could give us a ride to D.C., the police, or, fuck, anyone. I don’t care.”
I nod, but you don’t look my way. You’re attempting to zip the bursting bags, and I push myself up to help. Your fingers are shaking, and you’re cursing the zipper instead of everything else that’s led to this. I zip my bag, and you watch as I do. This has been bottled inside you since this started, I think. This panic. This edging to the end that I’ve ignored for the sake of my sanity, but there is a pulsing in your eyes, an electricity that bleeds its way into my bloodstream, as so much of you has.
You manage to get your bag zippered, and we sling them over our shoulders in unison. We chuckle at the synchronization, at the years we’ve spent memorizing each other, but, as has been exceedingly persistent the past few days, the smiles fade. The laughs to filtered sound waves, canned noise that hurts more as a memory than in the moment.
You pull a map off a corkboard, and we step outside for the first time in three days.
To read the rest of Just Us, order your copy today and have it delivered to your house when it is released in May/June 2022