Rick was alone on the floor of his small apartment. He stared out of the picture window in his living room up at the sky. The clouds were rolling slowly. Pure white, they held more than a hint of mystery for him. He wondered if heaven had anything at all to do with clouds. He hoped so, they looked so fluffy and peaceful.
A gunshot from outside broke his reverie. He checked the clock to see how much time was left. One hour. One hour until the world ended. A news station had broke the story sometime last night, somehow obtaining secret information that the government was withholding. Rick didn’t think that the government would have ever said anything, they would have let everyone, everything, everywhere end, without so much as a warning. Or maybe those in charge just didn’t care, after all they were going too.
Panic had ensued. Rick had been in the city when the news had broke in the early morning hours. He had seen people do some things that he did not wish to dwell on now. The television had ceased all broadcasts about eight hours ago, the radio had turned to static five hours ago. Five hours seemed like an eternity now.
All that remained was an hour.
He recalled when he started working at the factory, they had put him on afternoon shift. He had hated it, nothing to do when he got off at eleven. Nothing to do when he woke up but watch the clock tick the hours away until he had to go back. Always there was the feeling of things left undone when he arrived at work, but never was there enough time to fit it all in. It had been impossible for him then to not watch the time slip away, always he was checking the clock. This was sort of how he felt now, except the mental pull to check the clock and the feeling of things left undone was magnified a thousand fold. It was the urge to resist this pull and to find some mental clarity that had made him lie down. It had worked… a little. But now there was only an hour left and it was time to get up.
The pictures fell from his stomach. Pictures of his dead wife. She had overdosed once on the heroin and lived, the second time had been closer. The third time had been the charm. He had left work and arrived at the hospital as quickly as he could, but the sheet had already been over her body. The first thought that had popped into his mind had been, “I wonder if this is because of him?” Him. The other guy, the one she snuck off with and used with when he was at work. The guy who had died the same way she had two months prior to her own fatal overdose. The guy she finally admitted to being in love with after he had died, the truth coming on a stormy day when the shadows fell over everything in the apartment. The day when he actually considered leaving her, only to stay and see her to the same end as the one she had loved.
It had been two years ago almost to the day. God, did he miss her.
He looked at the clock and was impressed to see that it had been eight whole minutes since the last time he had checked. Fifty two minutes left.
There had been a panel of scientists on the tv trying to explain what was going to destroy the world, but it hadn’t made much sense to Rick. What did it matter anyway? Even the scientists didn’t seem to care much. There was always some hero in the movies to fight against the end of the world, but the truth of this situation was that there was nothing to fight. Time had run down on this film and there was no budget left for a spectacular effects laden struggle. They were all going to die. In fifty one minutes.
Rick plucked a random picture from the floor. He and Julia had just been engaged in this one. They were smiling, holding hands. It was before her addiction had begun to take a toll on the both of them. He had still been working out then, tall and tan with big arms. That was before he started smoking again. Her smile brought forth a current that reached from the still frame of the past to his heart in the present.
He knew where he wanted to spend his last moments.
He took the 9mm from the lockbox in his bedroom and after checking to make sure the clip was loaded he tucked it into the waistband of his jeans. Before he shut the door to his apartment for the last time, he looked back. A thousand ghosts from a thousand different memories played to his eyes before fading in a slowly increasing transparency. They had been happy here, her and him. At least for a little while. He checked his watch. Forty-seven minutes.
When he stepped outside into the courtyard of the projects the first thing he saw was Mrs. Scott’s yappy little terrier. Someone had hung it with rope tied to one of the small balconies on the second floor. It’s limp body swung slowly back and forth, the creaking of the rope the only sounds in the trash-strewn courtyard.
Someone moved on one of the other balconies. Rick looked up and his eyes fell upon Lily. Lily who had been his neighbor for four and a half years, the beautiful woman he passed in the hall every morning on his way to work. Lily who had worn that white dress at the barbecue three summers ago. He had caught her staring at him that day and when he got past the initial astonishment that someone that beautiful was staring at a married man, (himself no less) he looked back. She had been sitting on a bench, her legs uncrossed. That dress fluttered up in the breeze just high enough on one side to show her tan leg all the way up. But a small piece of white fabric still fell over her lap and Rick had always dwelled on whether or not she had been wearing panties that day. She had followed his glance but made no effort to fix the dress, her blond hair blowing, her green eyes burning through him.
He looked up at her now, from the courtyard and tried to think of something to say. No words came, but he could see that her green eyes burned still. A second before he turned away she smiled at him and flashed a peace sign. Peace at the end of all things, he hoped that he could find that. He stepped carefully around the swinging body of the dog and moved on.
The factory he had worked at for so long sat a football field’s length behind the projects. An ugly building, it now reminded Rick of a sleeping giant whose insides would never come to life again. He thought of the lathe he had slaved over for so many years, thoughts of his wife with another man playing over and over in his head for eight hour shifts. Wondering if she’d be there when he got home. Sometimes she had been, more often than not she was absent. His watch, he needed to check his watch.
Forty minutes left.
His wife’s grave was only a short distance, under the overpass that ran almost directly over the projects and then a quick walk up Fourth Avenue and he would be at the cemetery.
Yeah, the overpass. That shit still amazed him. Shortly after news of the end had broke somebody had decided to end it early and that driving off the side of the overpass would be the way to do it. It did sit over two hundred and fifty feet in the air, so Rick couldn’t question it’s effectiveness. But the first guy had started a trend, and now there were about two dozen mangled vehicles lying in the spot he was passing. He tried his best not to look at the bodies inside, especially when he spotted the minivan with the stroller against a cracked window. But he still noticed a license plate here and there. One of his favorites was the one that was on the back of a landscaping truck. It said “tree guy”. Rick wondered if the owner of this one was egotistical or just plain stupid. Probably both. The other one that caught his attention read: “the only Bush I trust is my own.”
Was it sick that he was trying to find humor in this? Not any sicker than the group of people who had gathered to watch in the projects when the suicides had started. SUV’s had been the favorites of the crowd, bigger vehicles meant a bigger crash.
Thirty-six minutes left.
Fourth Avenue was a maze of smoke and fire, of broken glass and scorched pavement. There had been a prayer group here the last time Rick had passed. He had thought about joining but then wondered why he should pray to a God that would allow this to happen.
He spotted movement through the rising smoke, saw a girl who could be no older than eighteen run into an alley. Saw a man with a knife chase after her, he knew that the alley was a dead end. Tried to ignore the pleas he heard from her when he passed. He wanted to walk by without looking, none of this was his concern, his business was elsewhere in these final minutes.
But he did look. Saw that the man had put the knife away, looked on as he pulled her shorts and panties down. He struggled to undo his zipper while trying to force her legs apart with his own. Still Rick was going to move on. Until the full picture hit his mind. He had her bent over an open dumpster, that wide-eyed face that was full of fear inches from the rotting garbage. His hand fingered the gun.
The guy somehow felt Rick approaching from behind. He turned and the knife was back in his hand, his eyes wild. He was high on something, Rick had seen it in his wife enough times to know the look. He hadn’t had the chance to pull the gun out yet.
The guy shook the knife in a wide circle and laughed like a lunatic who just realized he’s lost everything. And of course, he had. “C’mon man, he said to Rick, there’s plenty to go around. I mean, what the fuck’s it matter right? World’s endin and all that shit, might as well have a good time.”
Rick had not had sex in over two years, since his wife had died. He looked at the half-naked victim, fingers still gripping the gun. “Alright, he told the guy, you first.”
The guy smiled and turned back to the girl. Rick shot him in the side of the head, blood sprayed over everything. The now hysterical girl pulled her shorts back up and ran off, her wails of terror barely reaching Rick’s ears because of the gunshot. He wiped blood from his face and moved on after a quick look at the watch.
Twenty-nine minutes left.
He could have closed his eyes and still walked straight to her grave. But when he closed them all he could see was the blood from that guy’s head, followed by thoughts that turned to questions. He was going to die very soon and he had just murdered someone, would he go to hell? Did he believe in hell? Did it matter? He forced his mind to stop. He would know soon enough.
With one hand on her stone, he dropped to his knees.
“I’ll see you in a little bit”, he said aloud.
But would he? There were no guarantees. And what if she was with him over there? The one she loved. She had never told Rick that she loved him, not once. He had just assumed that she did. They had been married after all.
Oh God, what if they are together there? The world was going to fall apart in nineteen minutes but Rick’s had just collapsed completely. And he would have lost it there, fell to the ground and been unable to move for the last moments of the world, if he had not thought of Lily.
He pulled himself to his feet and ran. He raced against the end, he didn’t even know if she would still be there but he couldn’t worry about that now, he had to move.
Thirteen minutes remained when he passed the graveyard of twisted metal beneath the overpass.
Twelve when he saw the dog. And Lily wasn’t there, how could she not be there? The balcony was empty. A single tear ran down his cheek. For some unknown reason he untied the dog, it felt awful to the touch but he could not bear to leave it swinging.
“Hey, a voice called from above. You wanna have a smoke with me before the earth splits in half or whatever the fuck it’s supposed to do?”
It was Lily. She was smiling and her eyes were blazing. Six minutes left. The door to the apartment was caught on something and it took him three to force it open. Two more to run up the stairs because he tripped on a bicycle. But with one minute left he joined her on the balcony.
She flicked the cigarette over the side as he lost himself in her eyes. Their mouths moved together slowly, as if they had all the time in the world. Their lips met as the wind picked up and turned to a gale.
This is how the world ended. With a subtle, tentative kiss.
Everything went white. Just like the clouds.
WARNING- contains content that may be disturbing, do not read if you are easily offended.
My thanks to Niki, without her I would have never finished this.
And to everyone here who encourages and inspires me, thank you for waking an imagination that has been single-minded and barren for far too long…