Written By Phillip Morris
Raul woke up in his spartan one-bedroom apartment famous, but not rich. He’d have given his life to have it the other way around. That was impossible of course and the cause of his issues.
The US government provided Raul with a small stipend through the Department of Health and Human Services, and more recently a small security detail. It was enough to save face internationally, but getting more than the minimum was contingent on Raul committing to more “voluntary” studies. Journalists and talk show hosts were also surprisingly stingy. The latter couldn’t even be bothered to provide Raul an escort through the parking lot to his beat-up civic, and getting shot once was enough to make all flashy appearances unappealing.
Trying to find a regular job was an issue for most ex-cons, however only Raul could add to that general stigma simultaneously being a freak, the second coming of Jesus, the devil incarnate, and a reminder of the hiring manager’s mortality. It all depended on who you asked. If you asked Raul, he didn’t feel like any of those things.
According to a documentary they played before Raul’s interview with the BBC when the last Madagascan baobab tree was identified it only took thirty years for every other baobab tree on the island to die off from the Triple D threats of deforestation, drought, and disease. Drought proved to be the most thorough killer. The baobabs on protected nature reserves that had survived fungus and insect infestations, had their massive trunks dry to brittle paper after a decade of shorter wet seasons and longer dry seasons. Trees that had seen the turn of two centuries died off within a generation. All save one. The last baobab had its good and bad years, but it always survived. No wonder people were put on edge when the last human was identified.
Raul’s status colored every job application. Interviews were just a pretense to see him in person, as inevitably a few hours later a rejection email would come to his phone.
Dear Mister Johnson,
Thank you for your interest in the Salesperson role. We regret to inform you that we will not be moving forward with your application at this time. We wish you the best of luck in your search for employment.
He put his phone down and took several deep, slow breaths as Ash had shown him. Ash was Raul’s daytime security, he appeared in the hospital on Raul’s second day recuperating from being shot, and he was well-versed in stress management techniques. Raul learned a lot in the two months they’ve been together. Still, there were times when Raul got so upset the scars on his neck throbbed.
It helped that Raul had stopped approaching emails with the giddy excitement he had when he first got the phone. It was frustrating how they always left vague what exactly about his application led to the rejection. There was no mystery if the email came near instantaneously after he sent his application. If that happened, he was certain a machine rejected him for checking the Have You Ever Been Arrested? box.
Gone were the days when he could hit the pavement and talk directly to shop owners when he needed work. He had tried that the week of his release only to be told time and again to apply on the website.
At the family cookout for him that first weekend his cousin Shon, formerly Lil’ Shon, gave him an old smartphone so he could finally “Get online.” Shon left it in the hands of his eldest daughter Kamisha to actually get Raul set up. Kamisha couldn’t understand how he had never used social media, and Raul couldn’t understand how so many kids could afford to be on the beach all the time.
The rest of the conversations with the family were fairly typical: aunts and uncles commented on how he looked just like they remembered; siblings and cousins got philosophical about how everyone should get out of prison early now that weed was legal in Cali; Raul’s dad tried to pry details out of him about what it was like on the prison fire crew, while his mom tried to change the subject. Raul had a panic attack while taking carne asada off the barbeque and his dad stopped asking on his own.
Everyone avoided talking about him being the last human, so it was easy enough for Raul to chalk up any awkwardness to his being out of the world for nearly three decades.
Raul was getting ready for bed when he felt his phone buzz. It was an email from a company he’d applied to only a couple of hours earlier, one of his last applications of the day.
Dear Mr. Johnson,
Thank you for your interest in our company. We regret to inform you that blah blah blah.
Raul opened the email just to get confirmation before deleting it. His inbox was surprisingly clean, even for only being a few months old. Rejection email, deleted. Two-for-one pizza deal, deleted. A distant relative asking for money or answers he didn’t have, deleted. Of the twenty-four emails left twenty-one were from family or old friends, two were from his parole officer, and one was an invitation to meet with the Los Angeles Office of the International Conservation Authority.
He hadn’t applied for a position with the ICA, but it was only a matter of time before they reached out. The weeks spent walking around town, sitting in front of the library computer, and checking his phone for work were dulling the shine on his fuck the government badge of honor.
Besides, they weren’t directly tied to his government.
Tap, tap, tap.
A small black bird sat on the windowsill looking at Raul expectantly. Raul looked to Ash who was focused on scanning the people walking past the glass wall of the office.
Tap tap tap.
The crow cawed and flapped its wings. It certainly looked like it wanted to come in. Raul could appreciate wanting to trade the midday sun for an air-conditioned room. However, it was doubtful Dr. Mist would appreciate a wild animal occupying her office.
Raul opened the window and the crow hopped inside then took a short flight to the perch Raul had taken for a hat rack. It was at that moment Dr. Mist re-joined them.
“Sorry about that, the Director had some last-minute concerns and may be joining us later,” she said. “I see Kilakila is joining as well. He’s the last ‘Alala, must’ve felt a kindred spirit in my office.”
“You don’t keep him somewhere safe?” Raul asked.
“Forever would be a long time to keep him cooped up don’t you think? We planned to leave him on the reservation in Hawaii, but he followed the team out of the jungle and back to our hotel. He’s since become the star of our outreach program, which could be you moving forward.”
“I’m really not cut out for fame, Dr. Mist.”
“Please just call me Sarah. There are too many PhDs around here to bother calling everyone ‘doctor’. As for being famous, that cat is out of the bag. Now let’s get the formalities out of the way.”
“Do you need a copy of my resume?”
“No need, I have it on the computer. You can relax, this isn’t really a job interview despite… formalities.”
Raul dropped the folder of copies back into his backpack.
“You have a business degree?”
“I took all the classes, but I didn’t finish my thesis.” He paused only briefly before adding, “Because of my arrest.”
“Right, and your only work experience is in food prep?”
“I had a stint on cleaning before moving to the kitchen. And in college, I tutored high school kids.”
“That’s good to know. A lot of our outreach is with children. No one gets as excited to see Kilakila as elementary schools.”
“I haven’t worked with kids that young.” When he applied for a janitor position at a Jr. High School, they were very clear that his drug conviction would disqualify him from ever working in a school. “Actually, I don’t have any experience with young children at all. I was the youngest. My nieces and nephews were born and grown while I was away.”
“Don’t worry too much about it. They’re just like adults, only more honest and curious because they know they don’t know everything. When I talk to them my goal is to nurture those traits so that they last into adulthood.” She scrolled her mouse wheel up and down a bit before asking, “Weren’t you also with the prison firefighting team?”
“I was. That just seemed so far away from anything I’d be doing here.”
“True the only time an alarm goes off is when someone smokes inside but having first aid training is always a perk. Most of the executives and politicians we meet with are so old they could have a heart attack any minute.”
A solitary chuckle escaped from Ash.
“Now, I have to ask, why do you believe you’re the last human?”
“I was told I was likely to be when I was the only survivor of my fire crew. Then that it was even more certain after I survived getting shot.”
Raul noticed Sarah’s eyes dart down to the scar on his neck. It looked like a small flesh-colored spider was drinking from his jugular. That it also looked like it had had years to heal, instead of the two months it had actually been, gave further support to his claim. His would-be assassin sent a letter from jail apologizing for doubting him and asking to be blessed. Even if dispensing blessings were something he was capable of, it was far too soon to ask for forgiveness. At best Raul would support a plea of insanity.
“There isn’t a perfect formula for identifying the last member of a species.” Sarah was explaining. “For centuries it was obvious because they were the only ones left. After something killed the rest of their kind they kept on living. We’ve added to the list the ability to survive traumatic injuries, and seeming immunity to disease and infections, so symptoms are mild if they appear at all.”
“It would be great if you could figure it out without the trauma.”
“I wholeheartedly agree. Kilakila here,” the crow made noise upon hearing his name. “Yes, you. He has scars to suggest he was attacked by a ‘lo before he joined us. That’s a hawk which is also on the endangered list so we couldn’t exactly, you know, eliminate that threat even though we could see it coming. Had genetics been more advanced in the 90s, perhaps we could have identified him sooner and given him a bodyguard. Though honestly, we still don’t know the secret. Plenty of species fade away without leaving anyone behind, in rare cases there’s two or more, and now there’s you.”
There were two light knocks on the door before it was opened by a man in a dark suit who smelled like an ashtray.
“Don’t mind me,” he said, taking the chair next to Raul closer to the window.
“Raul, this is Director Cox. Director, we were just going through the criteria for identifying lasts. I was explaining how we hope to find genetic markers to speed up the process.”
“Oh yes, Health and Human Services shared some preliminary results from you and some of your relatives with us.” This was the first Raul heard of any of his family going in for study. “The most remarkable thing so far is that you’re wholly unremarkable. Putting us back to the classic tests for last status. Can I see your notes?”
Director Cox turned Sarah’s screen so he could read what had been written. He finished so quickly that either there wasn’t much there, or he only gave it a cursory glance.
“When was the last time you were sick?” he asked, turning the screen back to Sarah and his body towards Raul.
“I was in the hospital twice this year. First for smoke inhalation, then when I was shot.”
“Those are relevant for later, right now I want to know the last time you were sick with an infection. Like a cold or flu.”
“When I was released from the hospital this last time my family took me to an all-you-can-eat sushi place. I spent the rest of the day in bed, on the toilet, or over it.”
Director Cox admonished Sarah with his eyes.
“Did anyone else get sick?” Sarah asked.
“No, just me.”
“Did you eat the same things as everyone else?”
“Yeah, everyone tried all the dishes. I’d never had sushi before so everyone else took the lead on ordering. Even if I hadn’t gotten sick, raw fish wouldn’t be for me.”
Sarah cast her own look to the director who was ready to move on. It had seemed there were some more questions Sarah had skipped that bureaucratic tedium demanded answers to. Raul was left uncertain of the facts of his own life after just a few minutes so he knew Director Cox could have had a promising career as a police detective.
“The Equal Opportunity Act prevents us from asking when you were born,” he said. “But would you say you have lived beyond a typical human lifespan?”
Raul knew five schoolmates that died before they finished high school, two of his friends overdosed in college, and everyone on his fire crew was dead; most of them were many years his junior. When he got out of prison, he found there were a few more friends to miss thanks to cancer, diabetes, and a heart attack. He seemed to be doing better than average, but “typical” here was based on a white middle-class life so he answered in the negative.
“No immortality, no exceptional genes, and it’s questionable if you’re immune from disease. Survivability is the only marker left and we’ll need significantly more details than what we’ve got down so far.”
“I’ve already answered that question and most everything else came up in interviews I’ve given. Everyone else I meet seems to have seen them, so I’m sure you’ve seen them twice.”
“I watched your sit-down with Oprah three times now actually. You don’t have the job yet Mr. Johnson, and I’m the one giving final approval. The Chinese put up a candidate this month and are already ending over detailed reports. Russians are preparing a claim too.” Director Cox went to the still open window and lit a cigarette from the pack in his jacket before continuing. “Do you have any idea what it will mean for humanity if we officially designate the last human when there are eight billion of us left? I think this exercise is important enough that it deserves a bit more first-hand detail. Don’t you? You are not the first to claim to be the last, every month some loon calls us up or gets a spot on some conspiracy show. They waste everyone’s time because they don’t know what it means to be last.”
“I don’t know what it means either.” Raul blurted. He noticed the scars on his neck feeling sore. “I didn’t have a dog in this fight before I became the prize.”
“Except for it being your get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“Director Cox, that is highly inappropriate.” Sarah was red with second-hand embarrassment.
“I don’t think it’s inappropriate to examine Raul’s motivations for his claim. The same as we do everyone else’s.”
Ash spoke up from the back, “Director Cox, could you put out your cigarette?”
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Ashley Winters, Raul’s Secret Service detail.”
“Huh,” Director Cox replied, seeming unimpressed. “Is anyone else bothered?”
Sarah looked to Raul, and he knew Ash was also waiting for his reply. Prison killed Raul’s smoking habit and he was grateful for it. Without the years to heal, he’d never have qualified for the fire camp; and if he had, he’d probably have died with everyone else. Unless he really was what they said and even with withered tarred lungs he couldn’t die. He could’ve been roasted alive by the flames and he wouldn’t die. Just like how he was shot in the neck and didn’t die.
Raul shook his head “No, it’s fine.”
“Great, then tell us about the physical trauma you survived, and we’ll see if that pushes you over the threshold.”
Raul was not fine. The embers of the cigarette, the crackling of the flames during a long drag, and the smell of smoke got into Raul’s head so that, as he spoke, he was taken back to the town of Greenville with its roaring flames and stinging black air.
His crew was working as hard as any other to save the town. They cut and cleared anything that might become fuel for the fire, but still building after building was lost to the encroaching flames.
Heavy clouds of smoke made keeping visual contact with his team difficult. Seeing crews a block away was impossible.
When the command was given to abandon the town their radio channel was last on the list, so it came too late. Before they knew what was happening the wall of flames became a ring: they were trapped.
Their captain had them link arms and got them to a nearby parking lot to wait for a rescue that wouldn’t come before their oxygen ran out. Raul succumbed just like everyone else, coughing and gasping for air.
Everything went dark, silent, and calm.
When Raul came to, Ash had his hand on his shoulder and was walking him through a mantra. Raul’s muscles were relaxing and the excitement in his nerves was dissipating. He stopped his right hand, which was gently stroking Kilakila, who had moved to the desk. The bird nibbled Raul’s thumb to encourage continued petting. Sarah and Director Cox were no longer in the room.
“You alright now?” Ash asked, searching for the answer in his eyes. “You don’t have to keep going with that prick. He knows they need you here because you’re not lying and he wants an American for the last.”
Ash went directly to the truth of things when he chose to speak. Raul knew he was right, but he also knew that first impressions mattered. Things couldn’t be left with him looking like a traumatized idiot.
When Ash left to retrieve the others, Raul got Kilakila to hop onto his arm to be carried back to his perch.
“Thank you,” he said. He continued stroking the bird until Ash returned with Sarah who immediately apologized for what happened. “You couldn’t have known. Open flames have triggered spells before. Never happened with cigarettes though.”
Director Cox walked in with his coat replaced by several spritzes of cologne. His face lacked a notable amount of smugness. Raul was sure Sarah helped wipe that off.
Director Cox cleared his throat, then said, “If you’re ready, the only thing left to cover is the second incident.”
“The assassination attempt?”
“I’d appreciate more details. You stopped giving interviews after that, so this is the first time I’m seeing that scar. It doesn’t look so bad. It’s so small I’d think anyone would have a good chance of surviving that.”
Director Cox had obviously never been shot or known anyone who had been. Raul undid the top buttons of his shirt and pulled down the back of his collar so the director and Sarah could see the full extent of the exit wound. The bullet had nicked his spine and sent metal and bone shrapnel blasting through his flesh. His spine was left largely intact, but the doctors told him it was a miracle he survived and wasn’t paralyzed. It was also miraculous that he was fully healed in a couple of weeks instead of years.
The office was silent.
As he was redressing Raul said, “I’m not claiming to be the last human, I’ve been told I was. Just as I’ve been called a demon, an angel, and before that a criminal, and before that a degenerate stoner. I’ve never claimed to be anything and what my existence means for humanity is for people like you to figure out. I’m focused on little things like being able to split the bill when my family goes out for food.”
Raul took the following day off from sending applications. He spent the morning on his phone looking up simple and cheap pets. Tarantulas and snakes were in the lead because he found something calming in how they moved.
He was making a sandwich for lunch when his phone gave him a buzz. Unlike every other time, it felt like he had all the time in the world to check it. Raul left the phone in his pocket until he finished his meal, washed the dishes, and talked with Ash about the benefits of a tarantula over a dog.
Phillip Morris is a Californian living in Rotterdam. When he’s not writing dry instructions booklets, he’s likely writing colorful short fiction. When he tweets it’s @lephillipmorris.