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The Last Liars

Brenda Peynado's stories have been selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories 2015 and won prizes from the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award, Writers at Work, and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, and others. She received her MFA from Florida State University and is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.

We broadcasted the radio and TV programs, our messages of welcome we thought would show humanity's kind depths, our documentaries of triumph, the math that was our most complicated, and pointed them towards the stars. But Lucha Libre leaked out and so did MTV. The stories we thought showed our dignity only showed how much we were willing to sweep under the rug to mythologize our humanity. So the Sloths came--to put us out of our misery.
We call them Sloths because it looks like they're barely moving, just giant blobs of flesh, but the truth is they're moving so fast we can't see it--a million legs all over their bodies so quick the human eye can't catch them, mouths so nimble they spout entire treatises before we've even registered a hum. In the first days, someone caught the Sloths on camera, put it on Youtube in slo-mo so we could see how wrong our name for the creatures was, names the news stations themselves had given us. Then the stations were wiped out. Then we lost access to the web.
My group, we're the last humans left as far as we know, hiding in an old corn silo with a hidden bunker. We stumbled on it when all the billions of the earth began running--into the schools, into the basements, out of the basements, into the woods, into the rivers. By the time we figured out that running was useless--our legs churning their slow, useless panic--we kept running all the same.
The Sloths drifted above us in their utter calm, glowing like ghosts, barely touching a person before the body was taken apart into its component atoms, disintegrating into air. I saw it happen to my daughter and son, their atoms settling like dew on the trees.
Now we huddle over our heat source, the last five humans left alive, and we tell our slow lies.
"It's because we're the smartest," says Maria, "that's why we're the ones left."
We force smiles that look like grimaces, and we nod. It's cold; the Sloths touched down in November. We try not to breathe too hard because we can see our breath in the air, like fog, like mist, and the only metaphors we can provide are never the ones we want. Above us, once we were brave enough to look, the corn stalks were covered in white ash, the smallest beginnings of corn silk sprouting out of season like white ghosts. We thought at first it had snowed. We didn't see any Sloths, but there was a hum all around, like we could finally hear all the treatises of life, all the stories of the world.
"Or something," Juan added when we talked about it that night. We know our coherence is a lie.
Mercedes says, "Maybe they couldn't catch up because we found each other and moved as a group."
"Si," we say, "si."
"It's because we didn't hesitate," says Esteban.
We clutch our tools, whatever was the first thing we could grab when we launched ourselves from our houses, three of us propelled from dinner tables, armed only with spoons.
I say, "It's because we're the most like the Sloths, moving around in this little silo but not really moving anywhere at all. Just like before."
We pass around the can of beans, the last one we have left. Tomorrow we'll have to emerge into the cornfields and gather food.
"We're just the last buffoons," says Juan, swallowing the last beans from the can, "and there's no glory or reason in that."
This is the version closest to the truth, and we laugh in terror. Then we tell him to be quiet. For the rest of the night he is silent, but he's like the Sloths. We can tell underneath the silence of his shut mouth are a million voices, humming like radio static. We try to goad him, saying "Cabron, don't take it so hard." We only see his breath dissipate in the air, and we shiver.
A few of us kick him in the night, wanting to make him cry out at least, at least an "Oye!" the singular sound defining his pain breaking the spell. Because my story made people the most uncomfortable besides his, I am also the most cruel in my kicking, wanting him to name the difference between us, between truth and grief.
At night, I dream of the last moment I saw my kids. I told them to lock the doors, and that everything would be okay if they just stayed put. The stations had gone off air, and I was trying to help a neighbor clarify the static into some kind of sense. I twisted tin foil strips into thin coils, stringing them together into an antenna. It was a stupid idea. Another neighbor was trying to get the Internet on his satellite dish. We were so focused on getting the story, as if more broadcasts could tell us what to do, I didn't even hear my kids scream. And then the neighbor messing with the satellite on the roof started yelling, and I came out. There were my kids, staring out the window wide-eyed as a group of Sloths emerged from the field behind the house. "Run!" I yelled. But they were terrified, and I had told them all they had to do was stay put, and they had believed me. They only got as far as the front porch before a Sloth touched them delicately. They drifted apart into a fog of atoms. My neighbor pushed me into the trees as we watched the Sloths hover down the road. I shook. I still had tin foil in my hands. Then we ran.
This morning in the silo, I make Juan be the one to scout for food. He doesn't come back.
A faint mist comes in through the air ducts, fingers of accusation slipping through the slats. Or that's what we tell ourselves.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Author Comments

As a Dominican-American, I often struggle with representing hispanic worlds in science fiction, especially in the short form, because I have to establish both worlds at once--the world of the premise and the world of the culture--something I wouldn't have to do if I weren't writing towards a primarily white American audience. In a piece of flash fiction, those challenges are pressurized, as most of the set-up is done through hint and implication. Another challenge in this particular story: I didn't want the humans to look like the good guys. I wanted to give the characters a revelation more in tune with what humanity often really is, capable of cruelty and lies as much as any other species.

- Brenda Peynado
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