The Last Birthday—Ryan J.M. Tan

The last man on Earth sits on a pew in a ruined church. His silhouette cast by a flickering flashlight. He is gaunt, malnourished, wrapped in rags. His face is permanently darkened by soot; wrinkles on that face add years to his true age. Any colour on him has been robbed by dust, any expression ground down by reality.

Suddenly, he stands. His posture is hunched. He hobbles forward, rucksack in hand while humming a familiar tune. It is Happy Birthday.

He approaches the broken altar and wipes dust off its surface. He drops his rucksack and rummages within, pulling out a bottle, lighter, and photograph. His shuffling is the only sound in the church.

He looks at the photograph. It is of himself with a woman and child. Their faces are smudged, as though he has spent every waking day stroking their faces until the ink rubbed off. A hundred times. A thousand. His grim face, for a moment, betrays a smile. 

He unscrews the bottle and bathes himself in its liquid. A baptism in oil. He ignites the lighter and sets himself aflame, raising both arms as though he were on a cross. 

A burning phoenix crucified. 

A dead city. A bleak sky. Ash falls from above like a winter’s snow that powders the ground like white cloth draped on a corpse. Clusters of dilapidated buildings and rusted vehicles litter the streets while dust mummifies the city, once alive, now tomblike. Silence is all that stirs here.

Above, stars twinkle in the black sky. Each, a glimmer of warmth within infinite dark, beacons of hope that, somewhere beyond, there may yet be life. They had never shone so brightly until the final days. It is as if the death of the world kindles their flames. 

But the stars twinkle uncaring, as silent as the divine, eyes innumerable watching the last man burn below.

In the far distance, a flickering light like a faint candle can be seen, its smoke dissolving quietly into the grey twilight. 

Faraway screams. The only sound that travels through the concrete valley. The final vesper of a dead world. 

Ryan is a Malaysian writer residing in Kuala Lumpur. He studied law but chose not to go down that path. During his free time, you can find him watching horror films (with eyes shut), playing the piano (to an audience of one beagle), and baking (usually edible) bread.

photo by v2osk (via unsplash)